I Am Big. It's the Pictures That Got Small

for those wonderful people out there in the dark

29 May 2006

On Threatened Rivers

I'm really not a coastal person, even though I live just a mile from the Gulf of Mexico, and I'm not a mountain person, even though I grew up in Idaho. I'm a river person, geologically speaking, which makes me closer to Mark Twain than to Herman Melville or Vardis Fisher. Rivers are ways out, obviously, but they are also ways back to some finer sources; their watersheds define continental divides; and I love the adjectives we create from rivers: estuarine, riparian.

A tremendous environmental organization, American Rivers, annually lists the ten most threatened rivers in the United States, a way to bring attention to specific (and correctable) threats to rivers. This year's list includes the Boise River, the river of my childhood, and the Caloosahatchee, the river of my current life.

The Boise River is truly a western river, fast moving, cold, and clear. Its sources are the Sawtooth Mountains, and two dams have been erected, Lucky Peak and Arrowrock, primarily to provide irrigation for the rich farmland of the Magic and Treasure Valleys. The current threat is the Atlanta Gold Mine Company's plans to blast out two deep mining pits, with the resultant likelihood of cyanide leaching into the river through extraction processing. This project had been abandoned two years ago, but investors from Japan have backed it due to the rapid rise in gold prices--thanks to concerns of America's involvement in the Middle East. Boiseans love this river, as it does go through the heart of the city, truly an oasis for fishing, tubing, and strolling. Culturally, however, Idahoans are extremely conservative, and they are not quick to intefere with free enterprise, but they may be bigoted enough to stop this foreign backed venture. Prognosis: salvageable, but for ugly reasons.

The Caloosahatchee was an oxbow meandering river, whose source was the sheetflow of the Everglades, a murky, wide, shallow, and lazy affair of a river. The Army Corps of Engineers, however, straightened it, and connected it by canals to Lake Okeechobee, so that it has become a mechanism of flood control for South Florida. Periodically, the water managers order "releases" of Lake Okeechobee, which floods the Caloosahatchee with "nutrient laden" run-off--essentially, the water polluted with fertilizers. While technically not toxic, this discharge creates an imbalance in the sediment, supercharging especially non-native plant species. Furthermore, the artificial release of this fresh water creates an imbalance in the brackish water in the bays at the Caloosahatchee's mouth, stressing oyster beds, mangrove habitat, and fish and crabs. The long-term threat to the river, however, is the urbanization of Southwest Florida, of which I have contributed to. The grand scheme of Everglade Restoration (and this is a joke, as it is more about creating an acquifer system for lawn maintenance than rehabilitating damaged ecosystems) seems woefully insufficient to redress this damage. Prognosis: terminal, I'm afraid.

20 May 2006

Best Book of American Poetry of Last 25 Years?

After reviewing The New York Times story on the best work of U.S. fiction of the last 25 years, it made me think of what might be in the list of the best books of poetry by a U.S. writer (this would eliminate the inclusion, say, of Seamus Heaney's wonderful translation of Beowulf).

Before I offer some suggestions, I really don't think these lists are all that valuable, as they bring out the worse qualities of canon formation. Still, it is a fun exercise, and perhaps a way to get others to find books that otherwise are easily ignored.

Works I would consider, off the top of my head (I'm purposely excluding reissues, collected editions, etc.):

Hayden Carruth The Sleeping Beauty
Yusef Komunyakaa Dien Cai Dau
Lynda Hull Star Ledger
Mark Doty My Alexandria
Sharon Olds The Cold Cell
Li Young-Lee The City in which I Love You
Kenneth Koch New Addresses
Ellen Bryant Voigt The Lotus Flowers
Kevin Stein Bruised Paradise

No doubt, I am overlooking work by heavyweights like Rich, Merwin, Merrill, Ashbury, and by really good poets like Hass, Hongo, Jarman, Alexander, and Coleman, and mid-career poets like Duhamel, K. Young, D. Young, Hayes, Addonizio, and N. Tretheway, and young whippersnappers like Hopler, Fleury, Loudermilk, and Pavlic.

18 May 2006

Poetry Thursday: At the Library, Jesse Millner

For my first Poetry Thursday venture, which was to take a field trip and explore through books of poetry in a library or bookstore, I went to my university library and wandered through the PS 3500 and PS 3600 sections, culling through Elizabeth Bishop, Terrance Hayes, and Muriel Rukeyser. But I stopped at a very slim volume.

Oh, before going on, I hope the other Poetry Thursday contributors either bought or checked out the books of poetry, which I think might be the real goal behind this week's assignment.

I unconditionally recommend Jesse Millner's wonderful chapbook, The Drowned Boys, published by March Street Press. Below are the final two sections of his title poem, a long, breezy, associative narrative/meditation, and this exerpt alone does not do the work justice.

from "The Drowned Boys," by Jesse Millner:

The lost shoe woman takes the 151 bus
north on Lake Shore Drive.
On the ride home, she composes a grocery list: deodorant,
granola bars, tofu hot dogs, cat food;
and doesn’t notice the long dream of water to the east
or Lincoln Park to the west.

And all around her the world is quickening.
The statue of Phil Sheridan at Diversey
disappears into dusk and lights come
on in the big apartment buildings
along the eastern edge of the green space
that stretches for miles.

Soon the moon will rise from the waters,
fat and full but shrinking with altitude.

I can tell you now that I’m grateful for my new religion
of moonlight confessions and communion
with yellow cheese.

I take in la luna and I am transubstantiated
from drinking man to spirit.

I confess my sins, of which there are multitudes.


Is anyone still listening?

Whitman’s sleep is a moonlit field
near Des Moines.
His poem has become the earth
and his lines are as long
as geologic time.

The lost shoe woman sleeps with her cat
in a canopy bed next to an open window
where white curtains catch the east wind
off the lake and moonlight gleams
on the just-varnished oak floors.
She no longer dreams of a red Converse all-star.

And the drowned boys whisper on humid river nights.
Their muted voices become
the living current.

14 May 2006

Cynicism vs. Earnestness

That's the spiritual/aesthetic battle for me, not that old tirade between good and evil. And the point for me is to maintain a foot in both, but not to be swallowed by the quicksand of either one.

I am desperate to find the goodness in individuals--this is why Gerri tells me that everyone "likes" me so immediately. I guess I am that transparently earnest, which is a danger of being too affable, too noncontrary, and so ultimately, being too dismissive. Even so, I need that confirmation of goodness in others. I suppose it is to see that seed of God in them, or perhaps it is a Buddhist/Hindu thing in me, the whole namaste business. And without that rather foolish belief, I don't think I could write a word of poetry, but it is also a fool's paradise as well, to dwell in that happiness for too long.

And on the other end, the cynicism is the caffeine jolt that keeps me awake, and with a drop of fear, it all becomes paranoia. But oh dear, how I am sure I am living in one of the worst stretches of American history, the apex of American Imperialism. I think of Mark Twain now, especially his dread in America's appropriation of the Philippines through the Spanish-American War. No, it is not as bad as the stretch right before the Civil War, but in some ways worse, with our material wealth, our cultural comfort, and our overwhelming information agencies. Yes, I want to be awake, alert to it all, to be hep. But the price of that aloofness leads me away from poetry, too.

Here is an example that gives me hope: a couple of weeks ago, I receive a hand-written card/letter from a former student, a genuine Ayn Rand objectivist libertarian, and she's telling me how she's living off the grid in rural Vermont: a cabin without running water or electricity, bartering for water from neighbors, raising free-range chickens, etc. It's all about living by one's wits, individualism--though there is a genuine communal aspect as well, especially with the trading and trucking with neighbors, but she insists that it's not icky-new-agey. When she describes her own beauty now--her complete abandonment of cosmetics, her callused hands, her broken nails, her strong back, her more ample bosom--I believe her. I also view her endeavor as heroic, even though I can't get a hold onto her absolutism, that such sure footing is too dizzying for me. I am warmed to know that such Americans are about as she is.

And then I think of more manufactured beauty, too, that I adore, the Miami kind, the Hollywood kind, the very worst of the late fifties kind, all a result of that crass Americanism and capitalism. And so I have that, too, that love as well as that adoration of Amanda and her good life. And there I am again, with this awful mix between being high minded and low browed, and still wanting something that devastates me with its intelligence, brilliance, and goodness, that sheers me of the saccharine and the cynical.

13 May 2006

Hannah Kahn Reading

Lots of fun with the reading at Nova, with Jesse and Jill (we were billed as the "triple J," kind of like a pro wrestling smackdown), and extended fun staying with Jesse and Lyn, with special guests Kimberly, Jane, and Maybelle, and as always, our Sammie.

The organizer for the reading, Richard Ryals, is a tremendously kind-souled and generous man, and we learned that ours was the last installment of the series, at least its formation of it at Nova. After the reading, we went to a terrific Indian restaurant (I had aloo golib), and Richard was telling us of the lack of support he had from the Nova folks for putting up the readings--clearly he was tired and frustrated. It reminded me of the suspicions cast against creative writing folks by otherwise friendly academics, just how uneasy that relationship is, which is also true at my home institution, even though on the whole that relationship is as healthy as I have seen it at almost any other university I've experienced.

To be sure, many poets and fiction writers invite those suspicions, just through being ill mannered, but there's a point where it just gets to be silly, juvenile. So much of it is a paltry turf war, battling over the most measly scrap, only because we all have so little. Fortunately, on both sides, I know enough good folks who see the bigger picture, who understand that the real enemies out there are the politicians, bio-techno-media honchos, etc., who love to see us fight and squabble, confirming only our own irrelevance in our sad pillow fights.

09 May 2006

Fort Lauderdale Bound

This Friday night, I'll be sharing the stage with Jill Drumm and Jesse Millner for a reading at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. Before that, however, on Thursday, I'll be going with the Millners to North Miami to enjoy a reading of Wave Books poets, Joshua Beckman, Noelle Kocot, and Anthony McCann. Should be a fun weekend of poetry and friendship.

I'm especially looking forward to reading with Jill, an FGCU graduate who is finishing up her M.F.A. at FIU (love all those letters). She's working on an amazing thesis, Forms of Exodus, which will eventually be a pretty amazing book of poetry. She's really grown in her work at FIU, obviously from working with Denise Duhamel and Campbell McGrath--I think Campbell has truly challenged Jill--and from her exposure to a diverse writing community in Miami. She has genuine range with her work, being experimental and formal in her strategies, but her voice remains strong throughout her work: a remarkable fluidity with the Saxon and the Latinate, a grounding in the lyric via Dickinson, Roethke, and Gluck, and a brave willingness to stretch it all out. Her thesis is light-years ahead of what I produced at Indiana.

05 May 2006

Florida SB 2424

The Florida House unaminously passed a bill, which was unaminously passed by the Florida Senate, to bar professors and students from using state funds to travel to "terrorist" states, specifically Sudan, North Korea, Libya (weren't they removed from the list), Iran, and Cuba. The actual language in the legislation says "none of the state or nonstate funds made available to state universities" may be used to organize, direct, coordinate or administer any activities related to or involving travel to a terrorist state.

So, no travel for professors to Cuba to gather data about possible decendants of the Calusa. No travel for study of the last known habitat of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. No travel for study of archives relating to Spain's role in founding the New World. No travel for study of ethnographic lineage of Afro-Caribbean music. But of course, no problem with state funding for travel to China to build economic partnerships that conveniently ignore torture, human rights violations, and environmental ruin.

According to the bill's co-sponsor, David Rivera of Miami,
"I sincerely believe that these leftists of higher education don't understand the lack of a moral equivalent between America and her enemies."
Evidently, these professors don't understand that restricting their academic freedom is a sign that America believes more strongly in freedom than these other countries.

This kind of activity makes it all the more important for writers of the United States to join organizations such as PEN International through the PEN American Center. It's also disheartening to see, yet again, the Florida legislature over-reach its role. No doubt, the governor will sign this bill, perhaps in some attempt to get all these "leftists" and intellectuals to leave the State of Florida.

03 May 2006

On Dan Bourne

First, the standard bio information on Daniel Bourne: author of Where No One Spoke the Language (Custom Words), The Household Gods (Cleveland State) and On the Crossroads of Asia and Europe (Salmon Run), a collection of translations of Polish poety and essayist Tomasz Jastrun. He teaches at The College of Wooster in Ohio, where he edits Artful Dodge.

I was in the M.F.A. program with Dan at Indiana University, and I worked for about a year on Artful Dodge under Dan's guidance. Already AD had already established itself for its very important interviews (Borges, Merwin, and others) and for its outstanding translations of mostly Eastern European writers, this at the time of the crackdown against the workers in Gdansk and the Solidarity movement. A favorite memory is being with Dan, Don Boes, Karen Kovacik, and glueing on the four-color cover art to the covers of the individual magazines, getting a little high from the fumes, and drinking bourbon and Rolling Rock, and worrying, worrying about Reagan and the vanishing safety net, and goofing on remembering plot-lines in old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. Anyway, Dan represented all that was right about the midwest: strong work ethic, grounded political values, and a deep continental voice. He also proved a valuable friend and mentor.

What I appreciate most about his poetry is its strong political and moral perspective--his poetry is made of iron--while it maintains a personal orbit. A selection of his poetry can be found at the Custom Words web site. His poem "Recycling" typifies how Bourne's speakers often stand on two different lands: here, it is Illinois and Poland, somewhere between the living and the dead, the personal and the political, the reverent and the comic, the father and the son. His poems are anchors.