Glide

I.
A long-looking wind blows
memory into drifts and dapples
the withered ego
of an old tree alone
among the husks and chaff.

There is no sound but the rattle-clack
of its old rheumatic branches
in a wind not of its making.
A wind form somewhere else that
bends it nonetheless away –

it always seems away
always bent away because a wind
from somewhere else
never has you in it.

II.
The bent tree tends forever back
and barks ahead across
a thin space made on a frozen pond
in the blown prairie.

A thin space made
of a wisp-drifted memory

where, with no blades to cut the ice
with nothing so precise
we skated in our shoes and listened
for the deep – the ancient –
sound of gasping cracks that we knew,
because we were experts already
in suffering,
would never reach the surface.

The Willing Left Behind

Visible saints, back from visible wars,
Mount our black tarmac and try coming unstuck.
They come bleeding sand from unsettled scores,
Try smiling at wives and babies and luck.
We smile right back as big as we’re able,
Thank them at ballparks and ice hockey rinks.
Hide our old story behind a true fable,
Salute them with handshakes, college, and drinks.
We broadcast their service in movies and books,
Sure to display them with due gratitude.
They did what the softened civilian can’t brook
So we hail their hard hearts (but think ours less crude).
Some, though they drummed in the same brothered band
Cover their ears with their unbloodied hands.

The Kitchen Window

Genny lived next door
and made cupcakes sometimes
that we could smell in the middle of the day.

Our feet would come off the ground a bit
and we’d

float,
cartoonish,
noses up and eyes closed,

pulled in somnolent faith along an invisible rope
that painted our insides with
the light blue colors of an old, paint-flaking house
where she was forever framed in the glass of
her kitchen window. (please always have a
window in your kitchen
right there over the sink.)

Glass so old it sagged from time
and its own weight
until everything you saw through it looked uncertain
and underwater like a mute memory
more than the real, wrinkled face
that smiled nonetheless across
that little space between the houses
on a day that swung too high and short
even in the morning.

Genny lived next door and
made cupcakes that smelled so good
that our feet came off the ground

and our toes
– just
– brushed
the grass

and left wavy little trails all the way to her kitchen
where we woke up with crumbs
and blessings on our lips
and a little sunlit spot
that took the place of
knowing how we got there.

At Once Against and With

At Once Against and With the World

Autumn starts for me like this,
With an evening’s cold, capricious kiss,
Chiding me to stay alert
That I don’t miss my turn to flirt.

I hustle down the dim lit walks,
With lamps on slightly swaying stalks,
Not bothering to dodge the leaves
Cascading down from dormered eaves.

When now the hub of town comes near,
With its public houses pouring beer
Colder than the brittle air
Because it’s close and warm in there,

I go inside against the cold,
Where I like to think we’re men of old.
And on every wooden bench and stool
Sits a girl – an honored golden rule.

They’ve hung their woolen coats on hooks,
And the boys are warming them with looks.
A suggestive stitch, a hopeful hem,
Autumn’s stockings are November’s gems.

And so we work with noble tones
Toward a sense of coming home.
Because man seems tempted to his best
When woman is so smartly dressed.

When everything to do’s been done,
We wrap back up to hold the fun
As close to us as a person’s able,
And leave the rest upon the table.

Though warm within and cold without,
It is easy to forget about
The discomfort we’re supposed to know,
And on our brazen way we go.

Fall is where the season’s heart
Truly shows the human art
Of marching out with soul unfurled –
At once against and with the world.

Originally posted November 2010

Morning’s Mile

In the cities there is nothing
to milk but time. You are spared
the poetics of rote labor.

There is no duty to recall
in that strange awakening
of late adulthood

mother’s feathered hands
or the careful thud, thud,
thud of father’s boots trying

helplessly not to wake you yet.
In the cities when young
men find themselves wearing

their own fathers’ rent vestments
they do not smell like
dirt, shit, and oil.

They smell like paper
and staples and the florid
lining of a brass-clasped

briefcase swung swish,
swish against a silk-slacked
thigh.

In the cities young fathers
grow up slight and light
because their histories weigh

less and don’t ask much
muscle to carry around.
They lack the heraldic sound

of the only engine in a morning’s mile
being turned churlishly over and
breathing exhausted clouds into an

unhidden sky. But in the city in
the street where a thousand engines run
you don’t hear a single one.

Out There

Thoughtcrime announces itself like a claymore.

I kind of didn’t want to write about this, because in a way I see it as marking me guilty of the same kind of enemy-making that I accuse our modern social justice movements of doing. Trampling the Good in the pursuit of the Right. Also, I remind myself that what’s missing from the discourse on contemporary social issues is generosity. If I cannot employ it where others don’t, then I should keep mum (but that sounds rather ungenerous itself).

In the end I have to remember that I cannot control responses or reactions. I can control my own words, and I can know what I am on about, but I cannot, in a single sentence or paragraph or essay, sharpen the distinction between statement and judgment, knowledge and belief, or especially reason and purpose, to the extent that someone untrained to know the difference will suddenly come around. I can only write (with very intentional capitalization), and endure misunderstandings, willful or otherwise. But I promise to work with you on them.

 


 

I made it to my first class of the new quarter yesterday. Encountering Intercultural Literature. Social narratives have been built, at this point, in such a way that we all know immediately that the word “intercultural” is why we’re here. And that’s because it has become evident over time that the word “culture,” especially when appended and prefixed to “intercultural,” is one of those many weaponized words that we’ve come to employ and discharge as we engage in our own inward-looking marches towards the eschaton (which will, of course, be televised tweeted). It is evident from that word alone that this will not be a simple compare/contrast of different literary styles or themes from various cultures during a particular historical period. It doesn’t work like that anymore. “Culture” is simply not allowed to stand as an innocuous concept that can be studied dispassionately. It is a battleground, where lines are drawn and sides are taken, and every statement is weighed for valuation of virtue tariffs.

Students – young students – get excited for classes with words like “intercultural” in the title because they are smart enough to know that in that class is an environment where other Good People are, who will say The Right Things. A place of unambiguous intent, where it is easy to know what to say without any measurable worry of incredulity. What they may not be keying into immediately is that it is a place where the ostensible material is the study of cultures across geography and history, but the real material is the concrescence of the ideologies of their own current culture. The ossification of the unbelievable strictures of right think, and a carefully designed backdrop against which thoughtcrime announces itself like a claymore. That they’re really studying or creating a gossamer version of their own culture which, incidentally, they don’t believe in. When asked, yesterday, what our definition of “intercultural” was, two students stated unequivocally that intercultural study must exclude the West. High school taught them that we are either too vile and criminal a thing to be considered alongside Noble Distant Others, or we simply do not pass the sniff test to qualify for the title of “culture” at all. It is immaterial, either way.

I try to remember to be a little careful in that class. Not because I look down my grisly nose at other cultures and am afraid my grade will suffer if I make it known. Rather, it is because people have utterly lost the ability to discern between understanding and support, such that if I question anyone’s understanding of the subject matter, I will be accused of supporting some Hateful Ideology. In the Academy – indeed, in the neighborhood, on the streets, on the Internet – you either say the Right Things, or you are the enemy. There is no room for general disinterest or passive acceptance. There is only the protest marcher or the cross burner, and your classmates, neighbors, and friends will not let you live between the two for long.

Yesterday, and for the next week or two, we are into Lieutenant Nun. Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World. It’s a fun read in the adventurous vein of Don Quixote or Robinson Crusoe, and generally as believable as either of them (but I’m a born skeptic). Half an hour of discussion centered almost entirely on pronouns. What should we call…this person who is credited with writing the story? The consensus landed on “they,” to which I simply swallowed my objections about grammatical reality (you cannot pluralize an individual, credibly, popular usage be damned), as it’s hardly a hill worth dying on. And never mind the fact that, absent any knowledge about what the author herself preferred to be called, any modern day “consensus” is really just a small tyranny – a passive-aggressive instruction that this is the way we do things, here (there are few English phrases as pregnantly pernicious as “we have all agreed”). I only mentioned at one point that we could not continue to laud this as a piece of feminine literature if we could not agree to call the author a woman. The breathing reader will note the judgment-free logic of this. The Professor professed agreement, and nobody else commented. I sit in the front row, so I could not see if there were any looks of approval or disdain. But I speculate, because I think it is fair to do so in this case, that that simple logical clarification was enough to mark me as a Bad Person in a mind or two in that classroom. The subject matter of the discussion was transgenderism and I said something not explicitly supportive, which, if not quite the same as setting the cross ablaze, is at least as bad as walking towards it with a can of gasoline.

It would be one thing if I was sitting in that room (and this is really very much the case everywhere I go in the University, and in the city) as a true opponent to their causes. But I am not. Of course it is called Social Justice so that it can be said that you either agree completely or you don’t believe in social justice at all, a thing which is simply not true of any but the most ridiculously irrelevant wastrels of society. But the marches and the protests go on under the presumption of some powerful enemy amassed and assembled against it out there somewhere. And if you are not actively, conspicuously in the march, you are, by default, out there. They believe in the enemy far more than the enemy believes in them, because the enemy does not substantively exist. Except in the case of those wastrels, those marginal extremists (they’re called “extreme” for a reason, and it isn’t because of their teeming membership) who become synonymous with people like me by dint of the fact that I am not issuing high-fives and posterboard to the sign-makers and hat-wearers, the gender-includers and the intersectionalist line-drawers.

I would sit here and say that I am ok with things. That I will call you whatever pronoun you wish to be called, and will only object if your request begins to smell a little like antagonism. I would say that I have no ill judgments towards transgendered people or gay people or people of color or Muslims or of any protected class you can drum up. That I respect everyone equally until they demonstrate that they don’t deserve it. That I am every bit as tolerant as you, and in truth probably quite a bit more (just think of what you think of me right now, for instance). I would say a lot of things, but I am afraid they would not be worded strongly enough to pass for inclusion among the Good People who are on that ever-shrinking Right Side of History. Acceptance is no longer acceptable – it is deemed too flaccid a response to progress, and so the minimum expression of acceptance has become passionate vehemence. Neither is tolerance any longer tolerable – it is deemed too temporary and shallow a response to difference, so the minimum expression of tolerance has become celebratory self-loathing. If you doubt me on this, please come to class with me, where the students look around themselves and believe, passionately, vehemently, self-loathingly, that the only place they see a culture, is out there.

Grades, Grays, Graze

The Human Facebook Comment

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There’s nobody in that picture. Mostly, at nine-ish on a cold weekday morning, the few people about are older couples, ambulating carefully along at a thoughtful and deliberate pace that I should adopt myself more often. There’s nobody in that picture, but there is a cool little seagull way up in the corner, like a staple, if at the entirely wrong angle. I might become paralyzed if someone handed me a stack of papers stapled that way.

Grades came in from Winter Quarter. All is well in the world, as I managed all A’s. There was some anxiety because my Brit Lit grade, while good going into finals, depended on a final paper and a final exam, so just about anything was possible there. Philosophy was a worry, too, because I went into finals with the lowest A possible at the time. My paper needed to be spot on, and I suppose it must have been. I know I had an absolute blast writing it. How could I not?

Here’s the cool thing about philosophy, too, that I wish more people would understand about life in general: Understanding something doesn’t mean agreeing with it. Believing in something doesn’t mean supporting it. I can write a fun and thorough paper on Sartre’s philosophy, absolutely sticking the landing on every point we were asked to hit, without agreeing with any of it. But we get stuck in these patterns of thinking where if I say that I understand the reasoning behind a travel restriction or a border wall, that means that I want them both to happen and think they should. We have these conversations where we view the person we’re talking to as if he were a Facebook comment, electronic, robotic, and incapable of intellectual nuance. Philosophy, done right, doesn’t make that mistake. I do think that Western people are generally raised to not do it right, and are trained to resist doing it right by schools and social media, so we are starting from a position of weakness. Everyone wants to win at something (because they weren’t allowed to as kids), but when you look around and don’t see any opponents, you have to manufacture them.

I do, incidentally, agree with a lot of Sartre. To get to the end of his ideas – to read your way through “Being and Nothingness,” for instance, is difficult and confusing. But once you get to the core of what he is saying it looks like a common sense acceptance and description of reality as it is. That table you’re looking at is a table. Seriously. Sartre doesn’t really allow for a bunch of esoteric weirdness that renders the table some imaginary construct of the mind. There’s a friggin’ table over there. Deal with it. And of course we have to deal with it, especially when someone else is looking at it, too, which is where I start to part ways with him.

Here’s a link to the paper.  It’s only 4 pages, so a 5 minute read or so. What follows is an excerpt from it:

A certain momentary me. I know that this is just a story I’ve invented, and for a few moments the internal negation between that coffee-drinking self that’s been created, and the reflecting consciousness that created it, gives me space to wonder – do I have to be that person this morning? I could just as easily be a man who starts his day with a grapefruit juice or a tea or nothing at all. Neither coffee-me nor tea-me are a me that needs to be, and I’m starting to notice that with all of these possible beginnings to my day, none of them have singular importance. Whatever me it is that gets out of this bed – if I even do that – is no better or worse a version than any other. None of them can stake a foundational claim to me or my day or my life. This is a woeful resignation on the first Saturday of Summer. My Summer. I could choose a breakfast of fish and vodka instead of coffee, because the story of me as a coffee drinker is fundamentally unmoored from facticities like time and place and body and freedom. Anything else could take its place at any time. But that smell is delicious.

I’m still rocking along on Spring break and trying to write a poem that’s probably my most “serious” effort to date. But the funny thing about art and beauty is that the accidental kind is very frequently what tends to stick. The castoffs and the rigorless productions spring up out of the past and give you a “holy shit” moment. I wrote this one a while back, just a few quick revisions and done, and I love it more every time I read it:

Un-brella Weather

In October the wind came at its worst
and the rain became confused
from knowing how to fall
just plain down
anymore.

The boy said the rain is going sideways.

His sister used one hand
to put up her hood
then casually closed her umbrella
because she knew
it wouldn’t help anymore.

The boy said hey we need that.

But his sister just put the furled umbrella
(a rainbow colored rebuttal)
under an arm
and used one hand
to help him put up his hood too.