Monthly Archives: August 2009

Five Protopoems

With the crush of school starting Monday, I’m opting out of a formal post and offering an apologetic bouquet of buds from the pad I keep in my back pocket. Like everything written there, they may be on their way to becoming something else—poems probably—but maybe there’s something appealing in their half-formation.  I hope so.  This is all I have this week.

1.

The increments within hours trip over each other in a crowded line.  We might laugh if we weren’t so busy looking away, hoping for an invisible order to descend and become the backbone of time.

2.

The rhythm of a scooter passing over joints in the sidewalk, the pitch of a child’s voice stretching to my open window on the third floor…

Their parent’s voices are plainer, wheedling them to stop, go in, leave an evening chill no child can feel.

The children waylay every dog to learn its name.  They say “Bye bye” to use its meaning up.  And the traffic passes in sighs.  The light cools to gray as their scooters roll deep into twilight.

I look down to discover their parents, sitting and stooped, silent in their company.

3.

Two orchids remain on the arm that once bore more blossoms than it could support alone.  Maybe the plant feels lighter with less of its life spent in show, but I watch days waiting for them to wither and fall.

Their faces peer up into the sun, turning from my attention.

4.

I know what you are telling me.   You say, if I really look I might see the globe turning on itself and catch day from the front.

You want me to live before what befalls us.  But I’ve never believed.

If I could, you say, I might laugh my million cells open, burst like a comb of honey made perfume again or, like days loosed from borders of dawn and dusk, forget the count of seconds on seconds.

Your advice: stare into dark’s face.  When tears start, I might meet you fully.  We’ll swim in the same ink.

I know what you want—belief aflame in the heart of each atom.  Downwind, I smell the smoke, invisible and unreal.

5.

Beneath the tracks, the roar of the train washes away everything but a shrug of futility.  I start to say what I began that, in that pause, turned to something else.

The sun crawls out of a cloud and draws a lattice of shadow on the sidewalk.  When it crawls back in again, I swallow the words.

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Filed under Chicago, CTA, Doubt, Experiments, Home Life, life, Meditations, Memory, Prose Poems, Thoughts, Writing

Another Other

At first, he wasn’t sure if he blinked away film on his eye, saw the shadow of a plane pass over the window, or caught a reflective object at an odd angle.  His brain, he thought, misinterpreted some momentary phenomenon.

But soon he learned to predict the circumstances.  Standing in a doorway preoccupied with a newspaper, food, a note, a pen, his phone, he sensed a flicker, a change of light and then a positive thing, an entry for his exit.  From the beginning he knew, though he couldn’t say how, that he and the other couldn’t share a room.  His presence pushed the other out.

Just as you’d predict, he altered circumstances as soon as he noticed them. He put distractions aside and rushed into rooms after feigning a move in the opposite direction.  That’s how he caught him, or began to.  More than a flicker, the solid image disappeared not quite instantly enough—a flash, but real.

At first, he couldn’t have told you much.  Like a crime victim, he couldn’t recall detail.  Clothes, height, or any distinguishing features evaporated.  He was a he, that’s all, and, though he tried to stay calm and take it all in, every encounter surprised him equally.

You’ll ask why he didn’t go see a doctor to be checked out, but weeks passed between the early encounters. At first he hoped he’d experienced the last.  That doesn’t entirely account for his neglect, though.  Looking back, he always knew what was happening.

Later, he saw him when others were around.  He asked, “Did you see that?”

“What?”

He couldn’t answer, and, by the time he could, he also knew no sane person would ask.  He should have gotten help.  He meant to.  But other necessities took over.  The moment of intervention passed. Then the lingering presence of another made their meeting inevitable, desirable even.

Less time fell between encounters, and one day he woke believing he was seeing himself.  The next episode confirmed it.  He looked at his own back leaving.  He’d never seen his back of course, but he knew it.

If you’re scoffing, perhaps you should examine how impossibility seduces us. What seems a long way to run or an excessive sum can become ordinary. Habits can seem peculiar, but not to those who live them.

Only his nervous system rebelled.  His stomach leaped as if he teetered on being discovered in an error, a lie, a scheme, an affair.  You need to know—he almost thought he wanted that feeling.  Perhaps his dwindling life needed another, so he crept into rooms, hoping to find himself already there.

One day, he heard a voice in the next room and came in to discover an old friend in an armchair, a sheaf of papers in his lap.  The friend gave him an odd look and said, “That was fast—so you found it?”

“No.  No, I forgot what I was looking for.”

Recovering from awkwardness was easy until great absences pocked every day.  Life became waking from sleep. Dimly remembered afterimages of dreams faded so quickly he stopped trying to retrieve them.  Anything that seemed impossible to piece together—almost everything—he fled.  He knew someone would be around soon with a remedy.

You’ll see sense.  You’ll know what happened next.  He exited and always exited.  Maybe he traded one dwindling for another, but you might too—the challenge became being gone, staying gone.

For his friends and family, nothing changed—this transition no different than the daily shift from day to night.   But he knew.  He wouldn’t be seen again.

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Poetry Foes (And Woes)

Some students aren’t shy about hating poetry—they use so many words:

“I… hate… poetry…”

I keep cool because they may be suffering through some turmoil (I teach high schoolers) or they may be revealing some scar (resentment over a previous poetry encounter is common) or they may be baiting me (they do that).  I nod sympathetically and work on transforming their loathing into something more manageable and specific like “I find poetry daunting” or “I’m not sure how to read poetry” or “I object to the idea that every poem has a solution I don’t get” or “I don’t enjoy poetry as much as fiction” or “Poetry makes me feel reality isn’t as clear, steady, and understandable as I’d like it to be.”

To their credit, they usually leave these conversations admitting they speak only for themselves and accepting it’s O. K. for people like me to love poetry—even to write it, if that’s the crazy thing you’re into.  Some students promise to try harder to tolerate it.

But I leave with a question: can I convince a student how to feel?  Strong emotions resist persuasion, and, like spatters of oil on fabric, they resurface, gathering whatever dirt is around to make themselves known again.

Many teachers now settle for “exposing” students to poetry.  They throw in a quick poem now and again before the business of class or create a poetry unit from the leftover week at the end of the term.  These teachers celebrate the genre’s flexibility.  If any other study goes over or goes longer, poetry can always give.

Sometimes I wish I could see it so modularly.  One of my students’ favorite fallback positions is saying it’s not poetry they hate, but analyzing it.  They tell me,  “Poetry wouldn’t be so bad if you could just read it and move on” or “Poetry isn’t meant to be analyzed, and, besides, don’t poems mean whatever you think they mean?”  One of my students compared studying poetry to explaining a joke to make it funny—both are futile.

Trouble is: I enjoy scrutinizing poetry, and what students call “analysis” I call reading closely, carefully, appreciatively.  Some poems I may read once, say  “hmmm,” and move on, but others beg exploration and discussion.  And I’m not talking about dissection—which few students have the training to do anymore anyway—or finding a specific, concrete answer for the poem.  I’m talking about why one word or image appears instead of another or what implications might arise from this collection and sequence of lines.  By “analysis,” I mean noticing details that give this poem its full effect.  I mean learning to read more observantly next time.

Are poets really offended by our attention to particulars?

Perhaps I’m oversensitive to the haters, but I often find myself sneaking up on poems so students won’t recognize what’s happening.  I urge them to read aloud for maximum impact, and then engage them in a discussion of what that impact is.  I go around the room having each student select an image that struck him or her hard, and then ask what their collection tells us.  I have them picture the poem as a video and then discuss what their choices suggest.

These methods are fun and push a class some distance into poems, but I’m tiptoeing.  And the poor students who think they may love poetry as much as I do tiptoe as well, fearful their analysis will brand them as too earnest or sincere.

I won’t even get into discussing what happens when you ask a class to write poetry, except to say that, if the assignment is of any consequence, it’s ugly.

You can say my frustrations are an age-old debate writ-small—what the teacher wants versus what students want.  I accept that.  I’m sure some of my English department colleagues wish I’d just get over it already and give up being the designated we-don’t-do-enough-poetry crank.  Honestly, I wish I could resist expressing my pique.  But I have too many questions to settle first.  Is poetry truly dead as a subject of study?  Can we win it back from haters who seem increasingly unabashed in their rejection?  Can we persuade them to like it?  If so, how?

And, if not, what’s next?

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Filed under Art, Doubt, Essays, High School Teaching, Jeremiads, Laments, Opinion, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts

No-Count Sentences

In recent weeks, I’ve been reading haiku journals online and have discovered that the rest of the world has stopped counting syllables.  So, in writing my daily haiku, I’ve decided to stop too.  It’s hard, putting your fingers away after years of use, but I look more carefully at what, apart from form and convention, haiku are.

The beat poet Allen Ginsberg said he never understood haiku and preferred his own “American Sentences.”  He still counted—the sentences were supposed to be 17 syllables—but mostly he focused on the immediacy of a single observation.  In my journal, I’ve been experimenting with un-metered notions, jotting down thoughts I’d consider poetic instead of prosaic.

I’ve offered 15 prose poem-lets  below, each with its own title.  They are hardly polished or condensed—Mr. Ginsberg would disapprove—but I sometimes wonder what I sacrifice in editing.  Shortening them to 17 syllables might make them something else…

1. A THOUGHT BEFORE REALLY WAKING

The blackbird’s song holds a hole of night open and then squeezes it shut.

2. UNDER SCRUTINY

All the doors watch me, smug knowing where I’ve been.

3. THE HOTTEST DAY OF THE SUMMER SO FAR

By ten, we sweat coffee… but still can’t steer the air’s torpor.

4. DISTRACTED

The shadow of your chair: a creature tangled in mixed intentions.

5. MOMENTARY STATE OF ANXIETY

Words escaped from billboards gather outside town to shout us to silence.

6. WAITING FOR SOMEONE AT A PARK BENCH

Trees as ants see them—every road promises heaven, then splits and dwindles and splits and dwindles until it reaches an impossible shore of sky.

7. WAITING FOR SOMEONE AT A PARK BENCH (FIVE MINUTES LATER)

Maybe the trip down is better, merging until you enter the earth together and on one path.

8. STALLED CONVERSATION

You say you’ve had enough.  I can’t think of anything I’ve had enough of.

9. A. D. D.

A bird flying by a window reminds me how little I see.

10. RELIGIOUS THINKING ON THE L

Every train a little ark, all the world you might know.

11. DOZING ON THE L

As I neared sleep, I saw some graffiti-ed light inside my eyelids and thought, “Hey, who put that there?”

12. WISDOM AS A BODY

Everything has an elbow, something you can’t get near enough to know.

13. WATCHING A NATURE DOCUMENTARY ON THE SEA FLOOR

The rising puddles of air—maybe the dead are down there, hoping their voices will one day surface.

14. SUBJECTIVE OBSERVATION

Bells swing their hems, showing their asses, sounding the same note the same way to a world they assume adores them.

15. TROUBLE GETTING TO SLEEP

Why did you slip and say “Goodbye” instead of “Goodnight”?

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Lost in LA

This week, a story I wrote for a workshop in Fiction at the Newberry Library:

“Again,” he said.

The word fell somewhere between a statement and a question.  As they walked toward each other, his son raised his eyes.  The subterranean parking garage was all shadow, but they met and stood in particular darkness beside a cement column.

“Maybe a floor up,” Jack said, his answer—if it was an answer—also split intentions.

They’d been in LA for almost a week now, navigating the interstates, seven lanes of speeding cars always on the brink of clotting into parking lots.  They’d seen five colleges, and, because you had to be twenty-one to drive a rental car, his son hadn’t been behind the wheel once.  For the first two days, Christian approached the driver’s door expectantly and groused about being more comfortable as driver and, besides, who would know? Since then, he’d settled into his role as navigator, looping around to stand passenger side and wait for Jack to unlock the car, moving maps from the floor to his lap at each journey’s start.  He consulted Google’s route, gave the name of the first road they’d travel and the number of miles they’d be on it.  Then he returned to texting one of his distant friends until the next exit or turn.

The silences invited Jack to speak, but he wasn’t ready. Friday, a day before their flight, he’d been escorted from the building when his job was eliminated.  A box of personal items still sat in the trunk of the car in the remote lot back home.  He’d pushed it aside when they loaded their luggage, sidestepping Christian’s curiosity about what it was and what it was doing there.

“It’s just some stuff I’m getting rid of,” he’d said.

Now Jack’s eyes ached as they started off together toward the stairs in the corner of the parking garage.  Two guesses on the car’s location had failed.

“We’ll be late,” Jack said.

“Don’t worry.”

“How could I—Jesus!“

“There are a million white cars,” Christian said, “but, hey, ours is extra-special.  It’s a PT Cruiser.”

“There are a million PT Cruisers,” said Jack.

Three months after Christian’s mother’s death, when he was small, still in a child safety seat, they’d traveled together to see Jack’s parents 500 miles away.  Armed with CDs of Christian’s favorite music, they’d blasted down empty highways.  Christian was too young to sing along, but in the rear view mirror, Jack could catch his head bobbing.  That was July, and Christian napped in the stupefying rhythm of seams in the road and the white noise of blowing AC.  In every way un-memorable, the long drive went without incident until they hit construction just an hour from their destination.  The air conditioning seemed unequal to the strain of stop and go traffic, and Christian awoke pink and sweaty, his sparse hair matted to his temples and forehead.  Hoping to comfort him, Jack slipped a Raffi CD into the player.

Oh Mister Sun, Sun,
Mister Golden Sun,
Please shine down on me

Oh Mister Sun, Sun,
Mister Golden Sun,
Hiding behind a tree…

Christian wailed.  Jack tried to quiet him from the front seat, saying they’d be there soon, everything was okay, even singing with Raffi and making funny faces in the rear view mirror.  But Christian’s tears barely abated and, trapped as they were between exits, Jack could do little but bear it, pretend everything was fine, though his head pounded and he desperately wanted the beer he hoped his mother had chilled.

Jack barely remembered his wife now, or, rather, remembered her as anecdotes and framed images.  Christian kept a few mementos in his room: a brush, a medal she’d received for winning her age group in a fun run, a fountain pen one of her professors had given her, a curled photo of her holding Christian in a hospital wheelchair.  Jack wasn’t sure why he’d chosen these things.  In his own bedside table, Jack kept their engagement ring.  He told himself he’d saved it for Christian, thinking of the day he might give it to a girl he loved, but, on particularly tough nights, he put it on his pinky, hoping some of her warmth lingered.

On the next level of the garage, Jack realized—his recollection of the rental car’s location relied on a different context.  When they arrived to park, the PT Cruiser shared the row with a beat-up Volvo like one they’d once owned and a shiny white truck eclipsing their car from the next spot.  But that was hours ago, those drivers might have moved on to other destinations.  Jack couldn’t hope to find their car with any other.

“Dad,” Christian walked a few paces ahead and half-turned to speak, “Which school have you liked?”

“USC was impressive.  But big.  I didn’t think you wanted that.”

Jack lost Christian’s reply in his own anxious search for a white form in the gloom.  His attention just returned in time to hear Christian say, “… which would be cool.”

Three weeks earlier, Christian received his SAT scores. The numbers didn’t mean much to Jack, but Christian said they were good—he said, “good enough to get into most schools.”  Christian was a capable student.  Maybe he had a right to be ambitious.  But Jack knew things Christian didn’t—some of the colleges he liked weren’t guaranteed anyone, and most cost more than Jack could hope to pay.  He’d saved some money, but not enough. And when they returned home, Jack’s week off would continue indefinitely.

Jack knew something was coming.  He’d participated in several meetings bemoaning company returns on marketing plans and advertising.  He’d fielded questions from a vice president charged with streamlining operations.  He’d heard his boss say, on several occasions, something had to give.  But Jack hadn’t really expected to have to give himself.  He’d decided there was no use being angry over it—many people found themselves where he was—but he couldn’t talk about it either.  He knew he had to and knew he would.  Of course he would.  But water welled in his eyes.

The previous spring, Jack left a meeting early to drive out to a track meet in the suburbs.  Christian ran the 800, his mother’s event when Jack met her all those years ago.  He’d arrived at Christian’s meet late because of afternoon traffic and wouldn’t get to talk to his son before he raced but saw Christian warming up in the infield, leaping in the air, drawing his knees to his chest and throwing his arms out.  Landing and leaping again, landing and leaping again.  Pure nervousness, wasted energy, Jack thought, but the moment also struck him as familiar, a lithe combination of anxiety, resignation, and hope he remembered.

When Christian stepped up to starting line, his hands, which had fluttered like birds, stilled for the gun.  Once underway, a taller boy on Christian’s left instantly made up the stagger, pulling himself abreast of Christian, and, by the time they cut into the first lane on the backstretch, Christian had fallen behind most of the other runners.  He tucked into the pack, head and eyes slightly down, his determination balled up like his fists.  At one lap, the half-way point, Christian was with them, well out of first place, but still in the same race.  The pace quickened after that and so did Christian, accelerating with the rhythm of his strides.  He passed three boys on the second backstretch and one passed him, but he was in fourth place by the time they reached the beginning of the last turn.  In the sprint for the finish, another runner came up on Christian, but Christian’s attention was forward and drew him closer to people ahead.  In the end Christian just nipped another runner for third, just a few meters away from the winner.

Only after shaking hands with the other competitors, debriefing a teammate, and checking his split times with his coach did Christian spot Jack in the stands.  Another event awaited him soon, but, before he headed off for a cool down, he waved to his father, smiling, pointing to his chest, and flexing his arms like a muscle man.

After this college trip, Jack would dust off his resume and renew all those contacts he’d let lapse.  He’d already peeked at the bank statement and guessed how long he could go jobless.  There’d be lunches and meetings for coffee and conversations about how his experience might fit something he’d never done or dreamed of doing.

He couldn’t help being afraid.  So many years had passed—most of Christian’s life—and he rarely missed his wife anymore.   He felt regret.  He felt a smoldering anger he could never locate exactly.  He felt abandoned sometimes.  But he thought her absence—his wound—had healed.  Yet, occasionally an intonation or expression might bring back a forgotten moment.  Then he’d be holding her hand.  They’d be standing outside an apartment door, music and voices inside invading the hall, and she’d be laughing at him, urging him with her smile to just raise his fist and knock.

Christian’s senior year loomed with applications, and essays, and interviews.  Jack’s mind jumped over telling Christian about losing his job.  He pictured his son hunched over his work at the dining room table and imagined sitting beside him tapping on their laptop, working on his own applications or filling in spaces on financial aid forms.  Perhaps one of those nights, they might begin talking about a curious eddy in history or some lost wonder of the ancient world and turn to something real—the way life raced or stopped on a whim, memories of Christian’s mother and her outsized hope for him.  Then Jack might let a little out… and gather something in.

Just ahead Christian broke into a little skip as he pointed to a white PT Cruiser down the dim slope.  “Ah ha,” he said, “Our Cruiser awaits, just where we left it.”  Jack let a little relief take him.

Christian, doubling back to join his father, smiled and draped his arm over his shoulder.

“See Dad?” he laughed, “and plenty of time to spare.”

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