Archive for the ‘Culture Shock’ category

Relocation

April 27, 2010

“London” can be read on pp. 126-127 of heart speech this (Atropos Press, 2009, ISBN 9 780982 530948)

a flurry of breaths—“London” is scattered across the page like breaths snatched between words. It’s a sonnet in a series of sonnets (“Joy” and “Syncope” are also in heart speech this) I wrote as I grew into a place I thought would never fit.

Tell me why I stay here—My first year in New York, I broke yet another of my “I’m not going to do that” promises. I had vowed never to live on the East Coast and especially not in a city as thick and dense and over-stimulated as this. I wanted mountains, ocean, desert, and space. Spareness and horizon. And of course I found myself driving from Oregon to Pennsylvania in the space of a week, first south through the Siskiyous and then east across the deserts, the Divide, the sudden clusters of townships and hills, soybean fields and trees.

the frenzy for crumbs shouldering brothers to curbs—I was not prepared for the city despite visits in the ‘80s, despite traveling and living in US and European cities in earlier parts of my life. Six years in forested, rivered Oregon had dulled my agility. I had lost the sense of crowds, the athleticism required for hip checks, blocking, taking a charge.

fringed with vain shadows obscuring the light—There was a moment of horror when I stepped onto the subway car and saw a pool of blood on the seat I’d been ready to grab. Moments of utter confusion when directions and lines and numbers/letters had no pattern or system internally mapped—the constant shifting, running, and straining to hear/see were like bodysurfing in riptides, pulled off my feet and tangled in waves, kelp, sand, and rocks.

surround me with pigeons fluffing their breasts—the first place I’ve lived where strangers start conversations in the middle, speaking to anyone close enough to address, blurting out intimate and unrelated observations and complaints. So much reaching for connection, posturing for attention, and offered simply for the pleasure of being a little larger in the crowd, of making the city of knots on a string more like lace than measurement.

savoring haste over hunger—“You don’t like the city very much, do you?” observed one of my French students when I shared this poem in class. And I was surprised, because I did like the city, in the way one likes family one can’t live with but always feels affection for, the mutual agreement to love the differences one can’t understand but tolerates for deeper connections.

Offer me tastes I’ll refuse to forget—There are people who love the gulping nature of this place, the ravenous energy to get, make, and be more. And I have not escaped. Yet I love those days, those minutes, when there is something truly, truly slow, some ache that develops into emptiness and then desire that rumbles inside and makes embarrassing comments, like the stranger standing next to me as we wait for the train.

to long for this din—and yet “London”, which is about London as well as New York and all these cities of stink and staleness and compressed sights and sounds, tells me I can learn to live anywhere and love the place I’m in, just as Helen, in whose series “London” crowds, learned her cities and shock and elbow room.

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Book, Title, City

February 3, 2010

Why title a poem for a city about to be fractured by war? Why title a book not for the war but for something both more general and more individual? “Baghdad” is an inexplicable poem that insisted on its becoming.

“Baghdad” can be read on pp. 139-140 of heart speech this (Atropos Press, 2009, ISBN 9 780982 530948)

Before and After

The inspiration: it was March 2003, shortly before the invasion of Iraq. A former student of mine was living in Riyadh; we were communicating about the transitions in our lives. My heart hurt for him and the other Arabian students whose lives and assumptions had been already torn apart by September 11; I was deeply concerned for their well-being as the war became closer and closer to its violent and uncontrollable being.

I wrote this student to apologize and express my concern for his and his family’s safety. I assumed that this war, as the previous had, would expand far beyond the borders of the targeted country and that cities and citizens with little connection to the protagonists would be destroyed.

He responded with a phrase that comes from learning to speak one’s own tongue in a second, giving meanings a language might not have known it was capable of expressing. “It hearts me,” he wrote, “to speak of this.” And his heart/hurt became the voice wanting response, the voice pushing me to make a poem out of his fragmentation and mine, out of the shattering that had been part of the world I’d always known and that was now surfacing more urgently again.

The poem was revised to its present form in the spring of 2006 shortly after the death of my fiancé, who had suffered a stroke and struggled through six months of coma before waking and fighting to recover his voice and strength. He was unable to survive a heart attack on April 2, 2006.

The pattern: it’s an ecstatic poem, a pantoum broken across the page. Images repeated and broken, wounded in their reappearance, bearing traces of coherence like scars. Pantoums in English are simplified from a Malaysian verse form: it’s repetition that works like a braid, with the second and fourth lines of each stanza’s becoming the first and third of the next grouping of lines (four lines grouped together make a quatrain). The poem curls back on itself by bringing by the first and third lines, in reverse order, as the last set of even lines. And the end, like the snake swallowing its tail, is in the beginning.

The images: The Splintered, Howling Self

“It hearts me, he writes, to speak of this.” In a written statement about a written statement, the writer is not named. The “this” is not made explicit. The poem opens with statements that call themselves into question, following not the response to what is written but the response to a word used out of expectation, a word that calls the self as reader into question.

The next line pushes the participants further from each other, further from the line. “We furl back from these notes, you and I.” The he and the you disappear until only the 1st person is left. The reader of the poem is now face to face with the speaker. The he in profile and the you that were addressed can no longer be seen.

There is a recoil here (“coiling like a knife-stroked ribbon”), a forced shape and a flexibility that enact a physical transformation to the cutting off and artificial containment of something formerly living and connected to a larger organism. The lily’s stem, once cut and left to stand in water rather than soil, splits itself and begins to spiral toward the surface where exposure will drain its sustaining fluid and speed its decay.

The lily’s stem is named here but not the lily. One sees the flower without seeing the flower. It is the stem as support and self-destruction that is described, the evidence of action in a setting of inertia.

As the stem becomes cord, the body itself becomes a line, stretching across the poem as a tension between the retreat of the plural first person and the resistant stasis of the lily, now seen un-stemmed. The body is strung: it is intentional, constructed, segmented and fluidly connected.

Again, it is a poem of identity destined and created, self destroyed and reconstructed.

The question of shape appears: “Like beads in the form of melons.” The artificial represents the natural, the round/oval represents wholeness and maturity, the ripeness ready to be harvested and consumed. Is that the aim of developing the self? To ripen to the point of consumption?

There are multiple ways of seeing refracted here. In this poem, seeing is challenged to reconcile and balance opposites not as opposites but as options. There is an impossible depth to sight suggested by “in the eyes behind my eyes.”

Then the I asserts itself by falling, another falling back or retreat from the stability and centrality associated with identity. The I not only falls but startles (“clatters”) and disintegrates (“splinters”). The lost balance is broken control. The fall is liberation, release from intentionality into accident and happenstance.

Fallen, the I is “fierce to stretch beyond myself and run.” This is no beaten victim on the floor, no shattered identity unable to gather itself. There is more power and desire in the scattered self than in what was contained, delimited, and erect. This is the first mention of desire and the first constructive extension beyond limitations. The self desires to be more than itself, more than self, to overcome in an explosion of movement.

“For time has never been my problem.” Why has time never been the self’s problem? Either it is not a question or it is not a factor. Perhaps for this self there is no conception or ripening toward a goal. Perhaps there is no temporality. No mortality.

And yet, within the self the heart is as contained as the lily, as oval and ready to splinter as the beads shaped like melons. The heart is wounded and trapped. It “howls.” The heart is the self’s voice, the self who has addressed the you but not itself as self until now.

“I am smeared with dreams, bloody and chaste.” Unlike Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose self is “smeared, bleared with toil,” the I here is blurred with the unconscious self, an unconscious that is itself ambivalent, innocence and implication confused like fingerpaints slurred across paper and skin.

The unconscious, confusion, and clairvoyance leave the I literate and dumb: “I read my future in leaves fresh-plucked from branches,/my past lost to my tongue.” The future is visible the immediacy of the present. New growth is plucked like petals, like the lily whose stem is echoed in these branches. The past, however, is lost as the branch is lost to the leaves and the roots are lost to the stem. What cannot be held cannot be spoken. Broken connection=not only silence but an inability to break silence. The tongue cannot find what would make its identity coherent. The self de-stabilizes through the plucking, coiling, and reading. Is presence the silencing of the past?

The search for another present, a different spatio-temporal consciousness, persists. “Still, I twist, seeking somewhere else to wake.” Perhaps the self is the root here and has confused its self-consciousness with its extension and appearance in a world where the unconscious has been self-presentation rather than an intentional, woven identity, the knife-stroked ribbon sought at the return, an image in which both ends are also beginnings, and the fabric of the I can be re-formed both externally and internally to reach for “heart, speech, this.”

The resolution: A Knife-Stroked Ribbon

The chain set in motion by the pantoum coils back on itself in the repetition of lines and images. The chain, like beads, like melons, splinters in the self’s turning away from an external relationship with a familiar other into self-examination as an internal relationship with an estranged, scattered self. The form reflects the content; the broken self that cannot retain its past is itself the source of its own movement and cohesion. Repetition and return indicate a self capable of relation and continuity. It is resiliency in the spiral followed down the page and through the ribbon, the stem, the unstrung beads, the self that twists toward futures, spaces, somewhere else to breathe. In the act of respiration and inspiration, the speaker recovers the loss of identity, expression, and place.

heart, speech, this–introduction

January 28, 2010

There are stories within stories in this book, myths and memories and might-have-beens. Love stories, ruptures, alienations. And like all poetry, what the reader brings to the work creates a different poem with each scanning of a line, each taking apart and putting together of images and sounds.

In these essays, I will think and feel through some of what occurs to me as I reinsert myself in this work that in some ways is no longer mine as if I were reinserting myself in a life I no longer own.

Here is what the book came to be: seven series of poems exploring women of Greek myth, each series with its own poetic form and voice, interrupted and conversing with poems more contemporary, less narrative, in both traditional and nonce forms. These women, some goddesses, some mortal, some half-mortal, half-divine, are more often described than given voices in the myths. And I wondered, still wonder, what they might say, how they might understand the fear and violence and brokenness in which they found themselves, and I wondered, still wonder, what it would mean to interpret these stories as experiences of ambiguous loss (see Pauline Boss’ work), of knowing and not knowing the presence of those they loved.

Although the myths explored are Greek with Roman additions, many of the poems evoke other parts of the globe. Persia, Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan, Italy, England, Arizona, New Mexico, New York, Japan—the poems wander and tangle themselves in places and times of earth and sea and fire. Exile is as strong a theme of love fractured and made more than it was.

“Scheherazade” opens “heart”, the first half of the book, with warring desires between words and sense—hunger, thirst, and affection grabbing for the space that wanted to be a story. And the story becomes the “fleet desire” of Diana chased by Actaeon, Orion, and the dogs with which they hunt.

Diana is followed by Persephone, confused by her own violent responses to desire, and Persephone gives way to Psyche and the desperate, impossible work of rescuing the disappeared. Athena finds desire within herself and the development of strength in isolation, refusing just as her half-sister Diana to be caught.

“Speech”, the book’s second half, goes deeper into ambiguous loss with the experiences of women at war—Leda’s rape, Penelope’s wait for Odysseus, Helen’s infidelity and return, Athena’s anger, Athena’s peace. They are women connected by blood as well as conflict, and my re-tellings of their myths imagine greater independence, justice questioned and applied, resolutions that sustain the impossibility of solutions.

At times, these essays will explore the series and at times, the individual poems interspersed in each section. Feel free to comment, question, add more information, and post your own poems, stories, reinterpretations in response.