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

for those wonderful people out there in the dark

20 September 2006

Poetry Thursday: Song of Myself

For this week's Poetry Thursday assignment, participants are asked to write a poem from the voice of the "authentic" self. That's a tough fellow for me to unveil. Maybe I've written too many poems, taken on too many voices, given over myself to too many aesthetic tasks, that I end up thinking about what the poem itself necessitates in terms of a voice.

On the other hand, there are times when I do try to be truthful with a voice that feels like my own, and not surprisingly, those times occur when the subject matter is more personal. Since I have been sharing poems from my first and third book, I thought I would go to my second book, nearly Florida, for an example.


My child, in his room, is playing,
and I cannot tell whether he
is laughing or crying, but I will
not stir from my reading, for his joy,

as I imagine, over the leaves
of sycamore we found is his own,
and if his noise is the child’s
grief, that, too, is his own. To be

truthful, I am afraid that I can
no longer restore comfort out of pain.
Still, I know I will seek in the broad
ways whom my soul loves, and I

retrieve one trick I learned young,
so that I do rise and go. I mix
sugar milk and take paper and matches
into his room. Here, I tell him,

I have something to show you. With
the liquid, he traces circles
with his finger upon the paper, and I
lay my hand over his hand, to feel

the movement of what he has in mind.
The circles, I think, become smoother,
rounder, smaller. I say, Okay,
let’s let the paper dry, and

I return to my reading, and he
to his quieter play. And it is fear
again: how a father dreams of
the drowning child he can never save,

the child’s face disappearing
in a swallow of silt, how a father
plays with combustible materials
and their traces — fire and ash — that

will leave nothing but the child’s
tiny bones. It is fear because I know
my son will come to me, asking
if it is ready, and I will have

to say yes. I will light the match
beneath the paper, and from nothing
will appear maybe something like a face,
something like my own face,

fevered, blistered, blackening faster
than the paper, or the design becomes
my child’s face in a cry or a laugh,
calling out someone else’s name.

17 September 2006

Carson at PeaceJam

My son attended this weekend's PeaceJam Conference in Denver, Colorado. While it's easy to think of American youth being so caught up in the material entanglements of our culture, being lost in the comfortable safety-nets their parents laid out, being paralyzed by the constant beat of fear-mongering and war-mongering, or being completely blase about political action, it's heartening to see evidence to the contrary.

14 September 2006

Poetry Thursday: Somebody Else

This week's Poetry Thursday assignment is "to slip on someone else's shoes for a while and write some poetry." I love persona poems, and so I want to share an old one from my first book, The Sunshine Mine Disaster, which is mostly told from the perspective of a miner trapped some 5,000 feet beneath the surface during the worst mining disaster in Idaho's history. 91 miners perished, all due to a fire and the subsequent carbon monoxide poisoning. Two miners, however, survived, after a week underground.

This disaster took place in 1971, and it was an event that brought national attention to my state--quite a rarity, as Idaho is very much off the grid. I was 12 at the time of the disaster, and I got to know two girls who were orphaned by their father's death (the location of the mine is in northern Idaho, over 300 miles from where I lived). And it was a subject matter that stayed with me through a truly botched attempt at writing a sequence in the early 80s, and I struggled through it into the early 90s. It was like writing a novel more than a set of individual poems.

The main character in the book is a fictional miner, a composite really, named Dan Taylor. He's in his early 20s, with a newborn child, well read if not well educated, with no options available but to work in the mines, where one could make a very decent living then. Oh, and he's a devout Catholic. He's someone I understood mostly (I had in mind, at least partly, a friend from Lewiston who did not go to college), but not entirely, which was the great challenge for me.

I never stepped foot in a silver mine, let alone work in one, and writing the book meant conducting interviews with survivors and undertaking significant research--I make a point of this because a reviewer on Amazon says the book is inherently inadequate because it's not nonfiction, just poetry, which meant the book could not be credible, serious, or significant. Obviously he did not read the book. Obviously he is afraid of poetry. His/her loss.

But getting into Dan Taylor's perspective was such an imaginative leap for me, a liberating one, that has made me a more supple and playful and serious writer. About this poem, it closes the book. Some words you'll need to know: stope is a miner's immediate workstation (usually at the rock face where someone drills holes for dynamite, or who shovels out the muck, the debris, after the dynamite has been set off); drift is a tunnel; and censer, of course, is the small incense burning ball that is used in high church ceremonies. The Sunshine Mine, by the way, was the largest silver mine in the country, having some 110 miles of tunnels, and going to depths of greater than 7200 feet. And of the poem's title, it obviously references the motto stamped on American coins--to me, a very strange branding of money and god--but it also goes to Dan's own spiritual crisis.

The situation in the book at this time is that Dan has been underground for almost a week, and he's at the very end of his rope (I don't imagine him surviving). He's had to survive by eating the remnants of food in his buddies' lunch pails, and then endure the depths, the heat (the temperature is over 100 degrees at that depth), and the distances he must imagine. I see this last poem as a kind of reconciliation, which would not be possible but through Dan's eyes and voice.

Under God

God so temper me.
When I think ascension,
it is the hurl of the icy body,
perfected, to heaven.
But one mile down, among
the rock and rigor-mortised,
it is hard to remember God's
face in the clouds, no more
than the sleight of wind
effacing the under-skiff,
pulling down, and I would
see nothing but the lactating
teats of cows. But how could
a ten-year-old boy submit
such a confession to the other
kids? And so with me, the clouds
were a U-boat, something
my father had fought, and I
could recall each part
from my father's plastic model
in the bottle, especially the dorsal
hull he let me fit, and he steadying
my hand as I held the forceps,
giving the submarine its outer
form. That night I practiced
my signature, playing upon
the variations of D and T,
and nothing worked. I
remember now that extraction
really has to do with something else,
something religious, but that
is gone, too. So much muck. So
much grounding. God, so
temper me. Perhaps extraction
begins with Jonah,
or what father called the sign
of Jonah, speaking out in the whale's
great chambering, underwater, deeper
in it than I, and the voice rang out
of the belly, spilling diaphanous
into water, rising to the surface,
into the air. He could hear it,
my father said, as his PT boat
sounded above the ocean. It's hard
not to think of the German sailors,
those whose submarine stalled
in the depth-charge's shock. What
sounding. What sounding.
And no sign of rescue for six
days. It would be easier, cleaner,
to make my own coffin, to return
down the drift to my station
and slide into the stope, take
a breath. It would be easy, if not
for the faces, none of them
angelic. I have come to think
of Christ, although disillusion
awaits all adoration. Even
so, I am given to beseeching
helpless saviors, the infant
Christ, the crucified Christ. It is
the Ascension I cannot grasp.
There is too much earth. My own child,
with his ten months a wounded vein
in me, may be sleeping above me, and I
still tremble to cover him
although I know he will not wake
by a father's disturbance. I come
to kiss the face of the rock.
It is the face of the Christ.
It is my father's face.
And I will not look again,
for I do not want that old retrieval,
but my family: my wife, my child,
my dread, my own, hearing those calls
home, heeding them in heart, and
oh, how nigh is death, and how nigh
are the ringing censers' sounding
of what might be yesterday,
or tomorrow.

11 September 2006

And from Father Walt . . . .

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of their mothers' laps,
And here you are the mothers' laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas'd the moment life appear'd.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

10 September 2006

Long Live Wharton, New York City, Irony

Tomorrow, I'll be reading Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country, something of a post-script/counter-version of her brilliant The House of Mirth. It'll be my way of acknowledging the 5th Anniversary of 9/11. Yes, I will also remember the events of that awful day, but I'll have to keep far away from all the public ceremonies, as they will prove too hollow for me to stand. I don't want to be yelling at the television how we don't get it.

Edith Wharton did get it, especially about the brash, resilient, acquisitive, shallow, and unthinking American spirit. Yes, it gives us energy and optimism, but the sheer velocity of it should make us queasy and the pure force of it should make us uneasy.

So with Edith Wharton and her deadly ironical eye in mind, I would like to share this poem I wrote for the first year anniversary of the attacks. Yes, it's about my own dis-ease about this American spirit, which was then exacerbated by the uncritically sincere and maudlin reflections of Roger Rosenblatt in his essay "The Age of Irony Comes to an End."

The End of the Age of Irony

Today is the one-year anniversary
of the end of the age of irony,
and to commemorate this date,
the Governor of New York State,
the honorable George Pataki, will read
the Gettysburg Address, and please
never mind the context, since our sensibilities
have been cleansed of irony, never mind
that when Lincoln spoke the bodies
of a thousand unclaimed Confederate
soldiers lay a-moldering on the fields,
never mind that Lincoln was honoring
the voluntary fallen who had rifles
and something of a call to fight,
and especially never mind that
the gubernatorial election for New York
is less than two months away.
Before Governor Pataki's reading, we
will watch the Fox Network's tasteful
and silent slow-motion replay
of the airline jets crashing
into the towers, the videotape
synchronized to the time of day
when the planes disintegrated
into fire and glass,
so that we will most soberly
and un-ironically relive that moment
in real time. Sometime later today,
we will listen to Samuel Barber's
Adagio for Strings, previously known as the
theme-song to Platoon, but now we
can appropriate it for our collective sincerity,
rename it Adagio for 9/11,
kind of like when Sir Elton John
rewrote "Candle in the Wind," no longer
a gay swan-song,
good enough for an actress with nerve
and sex, but now a belabored
requiem for Our Saint of the Bulimic
and Versace-Dependent.

It is the end of irony. So there's
room only for the authentic,
which means that now we must have art
that “uplifts the spirits and touches
our hearts.” Thus, let our national poet
be poor Mattie Stepanek, wheel-chaired
eleven-year-old, plucky muscular-dystrophy
survivor, friend to Larry King and Jerry Lewis,
whose earnest poems
make even me go all weepy, draining
my cynicism dry. Thus, I no longer write
poems about 9/11, or for that matter,
any poems that would disrupt our use
of the dead for a national media event.

For after the end of the age
of irony, we cannot afford any luxuriant
art, any idle or difficult poem
that would inconvenience our leader’s resolve
to eradicate Saddam, set North Korea
straight, send Iran’s clerics packing.
Days from now, or weeks,
or years, thousands of Iraqis
will lie dead, buried in the spit and rubble
of our smart bombs, and this fact is neither
ironic nor remotely poetic,
because we Americans are no longer a happy,
indulgent people, because, yes,
we have changed our ways for good.

04 September 2006

Gyorgy Faludy, and No, Not the Crocodile Hunter!

Just read the headlines that Hungarian poet Gyorgy Faludy died at the age of 95. Faludy was an important translator of Villon, before he gained fame as a post-war dissident poet. His latest interviews bemoaned the fall of "high" literature as a central force in Western culture.

While I might argue against some of Faludy's views about the standing of literature (mostly to deal with whether or not it ever held that centrality in popular culture), his passing is sadly, perhaps aptly, overshadowed by the news of the death of Steve "Crikey!" Irwin, the Australian "Crocodile Hunter," and his all too apt death by the barb of a stingray (the power of Karma). Yes, Irwin did couch his manic antics with all the proper environmental messages, but his very intrusion into nature was so bloody wrong--all about inquisition, intervention, and shouting, amid all his mostly staged encounters with the natural world.