The red oaks are still robed in their green and red glory as we approach Christmas. The hackberry stands quiet in its winter bareness. I do not know the tree with tiny leaves that remain green all winter. Here on the edge of the Edwards Plateau it whispers it name—Plateau Live Oak. Before the settlers arrived, this plateau was grasslands. Fires burned trees and encouraged fresh grass. The Indians burned small sections, attracting animals and discouraging infernos. The settlers' cattle liked the fire-managed grasslands. They were born to grassfires. The settlers, not so much. They eliminated both grassfires and Indians. Trees followed the settlers onto the plateau. Some were natives elsewhere in Texas—migrants. The ubiquitous Mountain Cedar's seedlings are too bitter for cattle—opportunists. Some trees the settlers brought from their homeland—importees. A few hitched a ride—stowaways. Some fled extermination—refugees. The native limestone on which all stand is full of ancient seashells. Here, seven hundred feet above sea level, not plants, not animals, not humans, not even the rocks can boast, "We've always been here."
The fish and chips on the table are an idea imported from England. The English had to wait for potatoes to emigrate from Peru, put down roots, acclimatize, settle in, assimilate. Tikka masala arrived later, a bank shot emigré from India, via England. But it had to wait for chilis to cross from New World to Old to East. The Colombian Exchange upset every cuisine’s apple cart. Apples are a Central Asian native. Did my paternal line, that turned east, somewhere in the Middle East, where my maternal line turned west, later bring apples to Europe? Or follow them? We’re both as American as apple pie, an ambiguous metaphor. Even our continent came here from somewhere else. The gold in my wedding ring was formed in neutron star collisions, in another star cluster, several star lifetimes ago, We’re all immigrants, not from around here, before there was a here. Ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust.
I can be compassionate for someone without wanting them to be president. I can want them gone from that position without pulling the trigger myself. I can want them gone and want the path to that end be right. There will be unhappiness when he leaves, violence if done badly, probably violence however he leaves. I don’t want to wait for another elected, that’s too long. Assassin, violence, heart attack, stress. Impeach, indict—long unhappiness and violence, regardless of outcome. I wait and yet, what will I do? Vote, get out the vote? This year? Or wait two more years of disruption, the loose cannon given free reign, to trash about after it’s lost its mooring? How long til I act? And how? Easy solutions? Unsatisfactory! I wait for illumination.
My poem “Kent, TX” has been accepted for the 2020 edition of the Texas Poetry Calendar. I’m real proud of this one. It is expected to be published on July 1. The publisher, Kallisto Gaia Press, is good about doing readings around Texas. I expect to read in Houston (and visit the great art museums), and the readings within an hour of Austin (based on last year: Malvern Books, Georgetown Poetry Festival, and Waco Wordfest). I’ll announce the dates as they are published.
Red River Review published my poem, “The Grammar of Juggling” in the August 2017 issue. More recently, the journal has sat idle for several years. Recently, the publisher, Bob McCranie, has taken over as editor and publication has resumed. He published all three of the poems I submitted, “How Long & How”, “Immigrants”, and “Settlers” in the May 2019 issue. To read just my poems go here. There are number of good poems in the issue.
Ta-Nehisi Coates‘ “Between the World and Me” is a powerful book. While reading the last chapter I noticed a rhythmic drive like poetry has. This fits the definition of prose poetry, “a piece of writing in prose having obvious poetic qualities, including intensity, compactness, prominent rhythms, and imagery.” With a little work, I found the form of poetry, line breaks that don’t necessarily follow sentence structure. Here is my imagining of the the last paragraph as poetry. I’ve read it several times at poetry open mics and it works. Last night I redid it with line breaks from memory. It is part of an open letter to his son, Samori. The Mecca refers to Howard University and its community.
I drove away from the house of Dr. Jones, thinking of you. I do not believe that we can stop them, Samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves. And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom, for the warmth of The Mecca. Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But don't struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed for us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos. I saw these ghettos driving back from Dr. Jones's home. They were the same ghettos I had seen in Chicago all those years ago, the same ghettos where my mother was raised, where my father was raised. Through the windshield I saw the mark of these ghettos— the abundance of beauty shops, churches, liquor stores, crumbling housing—and I felt the old fear. Through the windshield I saw the rain coming down in sheets.
I’ve never been to Chicago or Howard University. In my own mind/imagination, the image in the second to last stanza is 12th St. in East Austin near Chicon. There are a number of Black churches within a mile of here, though none are visible.
I certainly enjoy hearing a cover of someone else’s song, but what really excites me is a group or an artist remaking a song in their own imagining.
One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.T.S. Eliot
Interestingly, this is a reworking of a meme that goes back at least to 1892. Mature artists take something someone else did and make it their own, i.e. steal it. Joe Cocker did this with most of his hits, e.g. “With a Little Help from my Friends” when done by The Beatles is a mid-tempo pop song, by Joe Cocker, it’s a slow blues or lament.
“Into the Mystic” has wondrously ambiguous lyrics. I enjoyed hearing the original. It’s ever better when done by more mature artists, e.g. the Allman Brothers Band. Even more fun is a re-working is a different style, e.g. Greensky Bluegrass’s bluegrass version. Watching the video, it’s clear they are reworking a number of aspects, bluegrass with fog machines, solid body electric upright bass, and a lead singer that looks like he’s living on the street. This is not Bill Monroe’s bluegrass.
He bungee jumped the tallest bridge, the one in China. It required a lot of lies to authoritarian authorities. The thrill was shorter than he expected. Elsewhere in China, someone built a higher one. The authorities are on to him. It will be hard. He's working on it. For sustanence until then, he flies a wing suit from whatever is tall with an unobstructed view. When time comes, he plans to ride the thermals in Hell.
“Dare Devil” first appeared in Austin Best Poetry 2017-2018, available on Lulu.com.
In one of his memoirs, Gary Snyder tells of moving to Kyoto, Japan. After a week or two, he noticed the city was not welcoming him. Kyoto is many things, including the Imperial capital for over a thousand years, but most relevant to his situation, it is a city of three thousand shrines from temples spanning a city block to a simple shrine in a niche on a back alley. After a long day visiting the major shrines and whatever other shrines he passed, Kyoto welcomed him.
Diana Conces, an Austin poet, recently read one of her poems about arriving in New England by air, but not really feeling arrived. After due consideration, she stopped at a road side stand and had a lobster roll with pineapple cole slaw. With a local specialty inside, she had arrived.
Beyond these two examples, how to deal with dislocation of place? Local foods and local gods/spirits/lords differ but both were part of the location’s fame. If I was visiting San Francisco, I’d go for the food to settle in, probably a sandwich of the local salami or cold cuts on sourdough french bread. Best consumed, weather permitting, somewhere you can see or smell the fog and hear the foghorns blow.
In Austin, Texas? Probably walk around Lady Bird Lake, eating a taco while on your way to pay your respects to either Stevie Ray Vaughn’s or Willie Nelson’s statue.
New York City? On my one visit there with my grandparents as a kid, we went by the Empire State Building and peered up at it from the car. Now days? Probably something involving local bagels, a mixed drink, and a Jewish deli.
In Gary Snyder’s case, it’s easy to say he visited the thin spaces where heaven and earth are closer than usual. How do you find the thin spaces in a new location?
Down by the dying park, on the bench, sits a man with a story. It's heavy. He tells the story to anyone who comes within earshot, even the pigeons. At first, he had bread to toss. They came and he told the story to them. They don't come any more. He no longer brings the bread. After a person heard the story, you could see him brighten a bit. After a bird, less so. The air, hardly at all. At this rate, it will take a long time to tell the story down to something he can carry.
This poem originally appeared in Austin Best Poetry 2017-2018, available on Lulu.com.