"Lyrics for the Run-Off Hiss"

Just a poem for today. 
 

LYRICS FOR THE RUN-OFF HISS

The birds were singing in your letter: figments
of your drunkenness, perhaps; or else the night
had finally succumbed to morning — Morning
seems unreal in this real-life dream.


In your half-lit last rite, even I can see
that rising sun, whose sudden rays burst chaos
through your sprawling penmanship, through shaken words
that faltered, in both form and sense,

but never faltered in their lust for dawn. Now
the night you thought would never end is over.
And the sun that rises, as it always will,
cannot care what fate it brought you

as your hand—intoxicated with the dreams
an endless night could endlessly embellish —
put a period to your sleeplessness.
In the absurd light of new dawn,
 
these words you penned, but could not live, replace you.
Yes, the sun still shines; and I suppose the birds
kept singing: a mantra for unresolved sleep.
One day we will wake in your dream.



[From To Kiss the Sun and Mean It (2000)]

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Where do poems come from? Part one: Boring, everyday life.

Here’s a bit of juvenelia:

 
SOUVENIR
 
The flowers you gave me
are wilting;
they fade,
they shrivel,
disintegrate,
and blow away like white ashes.
 
When I was in college, potpourri burners were in fashion. I loved the smell of roses, and it was easy to find a good rose potpourri. One afternoon, I decided to light the votive inside my potpourri burner, but I didn’t have a good match – just a lighter. Rather than mess with lighting the candle and then placing it inside its little niche, I rolled up a piece of paper and used it like a lighting stick to reach the candle in the burner. You guessed it: when the paper burned to ash there on my desk, it resembled a flower petal.
 
How mundane. 
 
The truth is, I have no idea where poems come from. Or, rather, I’m certain they come from many different places. Sometimes they come from the most everyday sources, and that’s what this post is about. I’ve mentioned here before how my poem, “New Year’s Eve,” originated with a sun that looked exactly as I’ve described it there. That’s not enough to explain the whole; the rest was a condensation of mood and scenes from my own treasury of imagery absorbed over the years from the culture, from experiences, from anywhere, really.
 
Not very satisfying, is it?
 
Shouldn’t there be some deep meaning? But perhaps there is. I’m of the opinion that meaning resides in the work, but in the work as a sign that relates author and audience and their shared experiences and cultural milieu. Is that inchoate enough?
 
Here’s another example:
 
 
APPARITION

All day, the sun dropped its
hooks of ultraviolet and
ensnared this house, a
small white prisoner of
summer heat, a

Petri dish for sleepless thoughts.
The slow hours settle,
crimson dust on the window sill.
The moon, behind a filter of clouds, soaks up
the day’s excess of sunlight,
leaving only this
unreal warmth,

the lingering sensation
of a touch out of vacuous air,
an echo
emerging from the persistence of silence,
the haunting familiarity
of a dream that has not yet been dreamt.
 
 
One thing I can’t get used to while living out here in Northern California is that when the sun goes down, so does the temperature. Back home in Michigan, that is certainly not the case. Hot, muggy summer days make for hot, muggy summer nights. Sometimes you come home and have no energy to do anything but lie around trying to keep cool. Sometimes you write a poem about it. Then it can become a metaphor…for what? Well, that’s part of the point of poetry (and all art, really): if you could say it plainly, you wouldn’t write the poem. 
 
But sometimes a metaphor strikes you or, in the case of the following example, catches your attention in a gutter in a street in Ann Arbor while you’re there, walking alone at night, as you do. And then you press it into service.
 
 
PORTRAIT FOR THE WALL OF A PRIVATE DRESSING ROOM

The mirror won’t reflect me anymore.

It shows me pictures of this
woman with no smile-muscles
and no soul.
Her skin, a worn-through garment,
clings and sags, betrays
the twisted bones and knotted fibers
of a crumpled-and-
discarded-empty-
candy-wrapper body.

 

Her eyes are wild, confused,
and go their separate ways,
chasing chimeras.
No voice
escapes her fluttering lips.


She presses her face to the
glass that confines her.
By the awkward light
of her incommunicative gape I
cake on more make-up: decorate
each blemish, map out
the growing shadows underneath
My eyes.
 
 
Sometimes poems come from very mundane things: a burned piece of paper; the temperature indoors on a summer night; litter in the street. Sometimes they are more directly about an experience. Sometimes they are thinly-disguised memoirs. Sometimes they are responses to other literary works—I tend to write poems after reading biographies, and I’ve written in response to poems too. In future posts, I’ll give more examples. For now, I leave you with hum-drum detritus.
 
The above poems are found in When Midnight Comes Around (1998), Deciphering Scars (1997), and When Midnight Comes Around (1998), respectively.

"Detroit Ghost City" (The last line is important.)

DETROIT GHOST CITY

In what has become characteristic fashion, the reporter’s irony is founded on the still more ironic (if unself-conscious) assumption that a city so overfilled with human misery can be written about as if it were empty.
— Jerry Herron, AfterCulture: Detroit and the Humiliation of History

Your emptiness
takes up so much space!
It casts a shadow longer than your history,
broader than anyone’s field of vision.
Your inscrutable landscape
is missing any hint of a horizon, you
pink noise, static screen,
white-washed palimpsest.
Even the fissures in your outermost skin
are hard to discern; your scars
only disguise your still-raw wounds.
You are a book left in the rain,
a headstone eroded and sunk beneath the grass. 
 
This is no nothing—
no blank page, nor fresh canvas,
no return to unspoiled nature,
no pristine innocence.
No raw materials remain.
Full of treasures, refined and reified,
you are disassembled, left to rust. 
 
Your inhabitants
are all but invisible, eluding
all scripted identity. 
 
It is said of you

 

that no human is found in your streets—only
curious beasts: pheasants, foxes,
cryptids, chimeras, criminals. 
 
None of which is true.
 
 
–1 April 2013
 
Everyone who knows me here in California knows I am chronically homesick for Detroit. This poem is a response to all the media reports about my home town, as well as the research and reading I’ve been doing. The last line is the key. 
 
Some of the poem is true, however: Detroit is full of treasures; it isn’t empty; it is decidedly not a blank slate for outsiders to write on. 
 
I’m not a fan of the native/outsider divide, however, any more than I am of the city/suburb divide. I’m a fan of Detroit, and whatever really promotes the city’s health ought to be welcome. Detroit Future City seems to be a particularly exciting project, because it opposes gentrification and seeks to create a “just city” first for the residents that have stayed in the Detroit, as well as for newcomers.
 
Don’t look for Detroit to “come back”—that’s backwards thinking. Look for Detroit to slowly emerge as a fresh possibility of what a city can be, constructed by grass-roots efforts by ordinary people and devoted experts for whom this work is a labor of love. Detroit’s supposed “glory days” were a bubble, and one with a very ugly underbelly. We don’t want that again.
 
As Jerry Herron also writes (in the same book quoted above),

Detroit is the most representative city in America. Detroit used to stand for success, and now it stands for failure. In that sense, the city is not just a physical location; it is also a project, a projection of imaginary fears and desires. This is the place where bad times get sent to make them belong to somebody else; thus, it seems easy to agree about Detroit because the city embodies everything the rest of the country wants to get over. [AfterCulture: Detroit and the Humiliation of History, p. 9]

 If that’s the case, and I agree that it is, then the rest of the country continues to have a vested interest in Detroit, and should join its citizens as “we hope for better.”

Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus –Detroit city motto
[Translation: We hope for better; it will rise from the ashes.]


(The quote at the beginning of the poem is found on p. 83 of Dr. Herron’s excellent book.)

"The Sound" and the "Source": Thoughts on finding your voice

THE SOUND

Forty days and forty nights among the elements –
earth and water, wind,
and spirit’s fire –
After my ears have calibrated to this silence,
a polyrhythmic solitude
retrains my ear
To discern deep in the white noise of my loneliness
a holy voice,
its wild modulations crafting a new language
out of my words and its own.


This poem is from To Kiss the Sun and Mean It (2000). I thought it would make a good namesake for this blog. 

So while I’m revealing the source of my blog title, I might as well share this poem, from 1997’s Deciphering Scars:

SOURCE
 
I’m making notes by candle light.
Thoughts drip slow and hours hum,
unmoving, like this halo-glow
that barely aids my tired eyesight.
All this could change should morning light come.
Words, whose timbres sing through charged ozone
are clay that oozes sensuously
through jittery hands that cannot say
what they mean. The clay intones
this small flame’s simple melody.



So these are a couple poems about finding your voice. I’ve had to do that several times. I think anyone working in any art form can attest to the fact that you have to keep re-learning your craft from time to time, either to avoid stagnation or in response to changing circumstances. This blog so far is a place for me to re-publish my old material; in the meantime, I’ve been through that re-learning process yet again. It makes you re-assess your older material, too. This blog certainly will not contain the old material I no longer like! 

With the possible exception of this one. I still like it, but recognize that it’s not the best poem I’ve ever written. But it has a story:


PRAYER IN THE DOWN-TIME

Memories encoded in scars,
carved into this tender flesh by sharp-shooting stars;
Vision painstakingly sculpted by blind hope;
Eyes caress the boundaries that fingers grope,
and I wait for you
To call forth nothing from my masochistic ploys
   and to breathe life into my empty, fledgling voice.

 
Poetry for me had always been an art brut, sort of the equivalent of your typical teenager picking up a guitar and starting a garage band. I didn’t have a guitar or a garage, but I had pen and paper. First things first: I poured my feelings into all kinds of verse, realizing I didn’t have much to say, but that I needed to learn how to say what little there was. That would be the “clay that oozes sensuously through jittery hands that cannot say what they mean.” For a long time, my writing was driven by mood. Images and words would follow, and I would sculpt them. It was a technique that came to work for me, but it didn’t allow me to begin with an idea.
 
“Prayer in the Down-Time” precedes that particular technique, though. I hadn’t been writing for a few years, following a friend’s comment that “no one wants to listen to you whine.” Fair enough. But if I wasn’t going to “whine,” though, I had no clay to work with. 
 
One afternoon in my Lansing-area apartment, I was listening to Black Tape for a Blue Girl’s album, Ashes in the Brittle Air. For whatever reason, some words in the song, “The Scar of a Poet,” seemed to smack me upside the head and say, “The only voice you have is your own. Use it.” (The actual lyrics include the phrase I had tattooed on my arm a couple years later: “Revel in your gift”.)
 
I’d found a dollar bill in my possession that had “AABBDCC” scrawled on it. “That looks like a rhyme scheme,” I thought. So I decided to try it out. “Prayer in the Down-Time” is my response to “The Scar of the Poet,” using that dollar-bill rhyme scheme. What resulted was renewed experimentation with my poetic craft. I hope time proves that to have been a good thing.
 

What is your art form? (Even life is an art form, really.) How have you had to redefine or re-attune your voice? What are your experiences in the ongoing process of learning and re-learning your craft?

A little trilogy of poems

Tonight brings three poems from Deciphering Scars (1997). I’ve always thought of them as a sort of trilogy, even though they’re separated in the book. Maybe it’s because I wrote them around the same time (sometime between late ’95 and early ’97), or maybe it’s the sing-songy rhymes. More on that later; I don’t want to color your reading of the poems.

WARNING: May be triggering for people who wrestle with self-harm or eating disorders—especially the second poem. Proceed with care.


Here are the poems; some discussion follows.

NIGHTCAP

I’ve turned the dead-bolt and fastened the chain
to lock the night outside; but in my brain,
the night’s expanse and quiet amplify each sentiment—
then each sentiment drizzles down and freezes on the pavement,
While the moon, all secure in her impenetrable halo
keeps watch by the light of her cold, holy glow.


I’ve switched on all the lights and put on soothing music
to chase away this odd feeling. But by some trick,
the light obscures my vision, and silence shrouds the song,
which leaves me nothing in this waking sleep to move the night along.
So the moon rolls over, stretches out her silvery beams
in a shimmering yawn, and bids me pleasant dreams.

Too tired to even think of dreaming, I reply with a blank stare
and almost feel the melancholy borne in on clean night air
that urges me to yield to its Socratic care-of-soul…
But, true to habit, I deny that I could ever become whole.
Now the moon has wrapped herself again inside her light,
covered herself with a cloud, and left me to my night.


WORLDVIEW

Once back inside the quiet safety of my small apartment,
I start to pull off all the layers of today’s disguise,
trying to ignore the shadow that mocks my boorish movement,

and blinking back the day’s events into my tired eyes.

The Madonna on the wall looks coolly down on me.
She must be wondering why I don’t reach out with both my arms,

take hold of you, and commit this brutal loneliness to history—
But I revert to empty habits that only bring familiar harm.

So it might be such a self-destructive act, but all the same,
I’ve purged, and I’ve fasted, and could swallow you whole!
When I catch the slightest glimpse of you, or simply hear your name,
I want to draw the universe into my tiny soul.

But trapped inside the quiet safety of my small apartment,
I put a knife to my ambitions, and carve out mere routines,

sigh over a late dinner, wondering where the hours went,
and hope at least to spend a moment with you in my dreams.


DE PROFUNDIS

I’ve wandered off alone at night
and don’t mind that I’m hopelessly
lost, with no pay-phone in sight—


Lord, have mercy.

I’ve bruised myself inside and out
for no apparent reason.
I pray, neither from faith, nor doubt:

Kyrie eleison.

My ambitions dwindle to redundancy,
but I just can’t bring myself to care.

Christ, in your relentless mercy,
hear my prayer.


As I mentioned, these were written while I was living in the Lansing, Michigan area, sometime between late ’95 and early ’97. At the time, I was writing long lines—lines that, when hand-written, ran across a page of lined 8-1/2 x 11 paper —with a very simple rhyme scheme, for whatever reason. Maybe it had to do with what I was reading, or the music I was listening to…but I think it had to do with wanting these poems to sound a bit stilted and awkward, as they do from cramming uneven amounts of syllables into the lines and forcing a rhyme or near rhyme at the end.

The first, “Nightcap,” was written one night after I came home from work at the TV station (my shift ended at 4 a.m.). There was freezing rain, and the moon had the sort of halo it does when it’s drizzly outside. I would never go straight to bed after work; I usually went to bed when the sun started rising. So I really did turn the deadbolt, and put on music. I can’t remember whether my friend Shawna pointed it out to me, or whether it was an older joke and I pointed it out to her, but the brief mention of “Socratic care-of-soul” quickly became proof that I had used my BA in philosophy! 

I don’t remember much around writing “Worldview.” I do know that the “you” in the poem is a personification of that elusive sense of belonging and purpose in life whose absence (or, my imagining its absence) was making me quite restless at the time. That I was still undiagnosed and untreated for my bipolar illness certainly didn’t help. The Madonna on the wall was based on a college friend’s room—he was converting to Roman Catholicism, and had hung a picture of the Madonna and Child on his wall. Now, I have a whole lot of them myself—reproductions of icons, in my case. But I don’t feel the kind of gaze from her (any of her) that this poem expresses. Even if I don’t remember much about its composition, I’ve always loved this poem.

De Profundis” came from the same place, that restlessness. I was also reading a lot of Dorothy Parker at the time (both her works—poetry and stories—and a biography of her), and while this poem doesn’t sound like her style, it sounds (to me, anyway) more like her style than anything else I’ve written (that’s survived). I remember one professor in a radio or TV class (I was also a Communications major in college) recommending that in order to find your style, if you wanted to be an on-air personality, you should start by imitating someone whose work you respect. His reasoning was that since the imitation would still be coming out of you, it wouldn’t be exactly an impression, and eventually you’d find your own voice. I found that the same principle worked with poetry—writing out poems you like by other authors, in your own hand, so that you feel the lines flowing as if from your own heart as your hand is connected to your heart by your pulse, that great rhythm-maker. Anyway, I don’t remember copying Parker’s poems, but I raise this because if I feel like a piece of my own work reflects her style, others may not notice it at all. I had also started going to a truly liturgical church—Peoples Church in East Lansing, a multi-denominational church—and one of the Psalms the cantor sang was a de profundis, and the phrase stuck with me and simmered until it came out in this poem. For those who don’t know, it means “out of the depths.” The Latin titles of Psalms are generally the first line, or part of it. I don’t recall off-hand if there is more than one called De profundis. I had also just been introduced at that church to the Kyrie

Peoples Church in East Lansing had been originally founded by 4 members of different denominations cooperating to create a Protestant church for the Michigan State University community. When I was there, it was still a member of four denominations—Presbyterian USA, American Baptist, United Methodist, and UCC. (I was told at the time the church had been founded by 11 different denominations, but most of them subsequently founded their own churches in the area and pulled out. However, their website says it was always just the four denominations.) I became a member, because I didn’t know how long I’d remain in the area and I was searching for some form of belonging. I had visited many different churches in the area, and enjoyed all the visiting, but I liked the ecumenism inherent in Peoples Church. I wasn’t able to get very involved there before I did leave (other than once delivering altar flowers to three shut-ins, none of whom were home), but I have a couple fond memories of the place: First, there was a city-run recycling center (well, unattended recycling dumpsters) just behind the church, so I took my recycling with me on Sundays. It felt like a spiritual practice, going to church and then unloading my recycling! Second, and best of all, I was a voting member, and voted yes, when we decided to purchase the McDonald’s next door, raze it, and make it into a parking lot. That a church would level a McDonald’s for a parking lot just seemed like a beautiful thing.

The Odd One Out

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  [John 20:24-25, NRSV]


As a kid, I had a recurring nightmare. My sisters and cousin (my usual playmates) were just outside our grandparents’ farm house, and I was a ways off, swinging on the swingset near the edge of the lawn, my back toward the large, disused field now overgrown with weeds and wild raspberries and criss-crossed by animals’ trails. In the dream, suddenly, everyone would go inside, and I was left out in the yard alone. I would leap off the swing, and start running to catch up — but, as childhood nightmares go, some terrifying monster I couldn’t even see had leapt out from those weeds and wild berries behind the barbed-wire fence, and was right on my heels as I found myself running but gaining no ground. And, apparently, I wasn’t missed by anyone.

As the baby of the family, I always hated being the odd one out or the one left behind; hence the recurring nightmare. I guess that’s my lens for yet another reading of this rich story of “Doubting Thomas.” I feel like he’s been maligned — at least in some circles — as if any of us would have just taken the other disciples’ word and can criticize St. Thomas for his “doubt.” (Especially in our scientifically-minded world, where empirical evidence is everything!) But put yourself in Thomas’ shoes: The risen Christ, who apparently can walk through a locked door, somehow can’t calculate when all his friends would be assembled together, and appear to them all? He had to pick the moment when Thomas was out?

Of course, I don’t know why Thomas wasn’t with the others, and the text doesn’t tell us. But maybe Thomas isn’t so much a skeptic here as a member of the group who feels slighted and wants to be included in this wonderful experience everybody else got to have except him. Did no one say to Jesus, “Hang on, Thomas isn’t here”?

Thomas isn’t actually chided for a lack of faith. Rather, Jesus honors his request. And that’s where we’re drawn into the story, because, well, we weren’t there either, were we? As he honors Thomas’ demand for a personal experience of the risen Christ, Jesus adds, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” [v. 29] Perhaps, with those words, Jesus is inviting us to demand of him our own “proof.” Be forewarned: the proof is an up-close and intimate inspection of his wounds. But as St. Ignatius of Loyola would remind us, that is a very safe place to be:

Within your wounds hide me; never let me be separated from you.


Don’t ever be afraid to make such demands of Jesus.






I wasn’t going to include a poem of my own with this meditation, but between the two themes of nightmares and scars, I can’t not share this one. The title, hopefully (a friend gave me the Latin all those years ago), means, “Remember to live,” or a reminder that you will live. It’s a play on momento mori, a reminder of death. From my 1998 book, When Midnight Comes Around:

MEMENTO VIVERE

The imprint of your eyes
has stained this thick, rough skin with shadow:
jewel-toned memories
bled out of my emptiness
toward the epicenter of your touch.

This after-image of your presence
lingers: damage to my flesh;
but in my dream of you,
all pain dissolves in comfort;

And waking with a scar
means everything.

 

Happy Second Sunday of Easter!
Continue reading

"Social Contract"

Here’s a prose poem, from Deciphering Scars (1997). 
 

SOCIAL CONTRACT

 
Under the ethereal haze of fluorescent tube lighting fermenting in a liquid base of cigarette smoke and stagnant air that has become the shared content of all our lungs

dizzying scenes of human interaction and boredom and distraction and countless miscellaneous encoded expressions combine to form an isolating wall of Plexiglas
 
too transparent to allow me to ignore the world it separates me from
 
too blurred to let me understand
 
this random mess imposed on a framework of assumed order, these loose elements somehow unified, by noise, or by action, or perhaps by mere proximity
 
while all apparent contact terminates on surfaces of skin, of eyes, of the barriers that shape us
 
into individuals, define us by what we are not. This too we share in common, we
 
flickering bits of smoldering ash still huddling for warmth around the chaos lingering in the afterglow
 
of the Big Bang.
 
 


 
When I was in college at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, I loved shopping at the original Borders…and when they moved into the old Jacobson’s building across the street—which, it turns out, was when the Borders brothers sold the store to Kmart who made a chain out of it, but I didn’t know that at the time. In both locations, I liked to stop by their “untranslated foreign literature” section and browse the plays and novels by French existentialists. I’ve gotten over that phase, as you do. But it’s probably pretty evident in this poem, written a few years out of college. In fact, I remember writing it while sitting at xhedos in Ferndale (directly north of Detroit), most likely enjoying an Italian soda and live music and the company of my good friends. Not at all the scene in the poem, but it sets the date of this poem to 1997.
 
In Ionesco’s novel, Le solitaire (The Hermit), there’s a scene in a restaurant where the main character finds he can no longer understand the language everyone around him is speaking, and feels isolated from them. To be honest, I don’t recall whether he feels he’s behind glass, and my copy of the novel is packed away right now. That’s where the Plexiglas® image comes from. 
 
We all know what “social contract” theory is about: in really broad strokes, that human beings are atomistic individuals who relate to other human beings only through social contracts which can be broken at will. I could never figure out how one is supposed to have entered into such a contract with one’s mother (and other family members), but I’m probably ignorant of some deep intricacy in the theory. But I’m of the belief that “I am because we are.” Just in case you didn’t pick that up in the poem.
 
I suppose if we root around in this metaphor, the “shared content of all our lungs” is a clue to our basic unity as humans; breath has long represented spirit, or essential nature—from ruach in the Hebrew Scriptures to pneuma in the Christian Scriptures to spiritus in later Church tradition, the word for “spirit” is, essentially, “breath.” In an environment where humans believe they’ve created themselves and don’t need each other, that shared breath has become toxic and suffocating.
 
Metaphors are interesting, aren’t they? I suppose it’s because I’m a poet, but I’m convinced that metaphors are useful not just for expressing thoughts, but also for thinking them. Once you find a metaphor for something, by investigating the metaphor, you can often learn about the thing it stands for. For example, in a paper I wrote for a seminar on creativity last spring, I investigated the metaphor of houses, or architecture, for systems of thought. By thinking about houses (I proposed), you can discover truths about thought systems.
 
I think that’s a huge piece of the revelatory power of art. Even non-verbal art forms serve as metaphors. A few years ago I was in a class where Peter Selz, a well-known art historian and curator, now Professor Emeritus at UC-Berkeley, was asked how he decides what artworks to include in an exhibition—in other words, what makes for “good” art? He thought about it for a week, and came back with this response: “Good” art is “a visual metaphor for significant human experience.” Notice he said nothing about beauty or novelty or even technical expertise. And, of course, you can replace the word “visual” for other art forms. 
 
Isn’t that a brilliant definition?
 
So works of art take on a life of their own, beyond what the artist herself or himself even intended. A good work of art will continue to speak to its audiences/viewers; and as a metaphor, it serves as a sort of template for various human experiences. That metaphor allows us to gain insight about the human condition, precisely because it relates to our experience.
 
I don’t know whether this or any of my poems stand up to such high standards. But we can all think of works of art that do.
 
PS— Peter Selz referenced that question and his response in the biography by Paul J. Karlstrom, but he misquotes himself. Somewhere I have the paper where I (like my fellow students) immediately wrote down exactly what he said, but I committed it to memory right away. “A visual metaphor for significant human experience…” That’s the revelatory power of an experienced art historian!