For the Living and the Dead

Against the machine.

When the horror of a moment renders a body speechless, the acts of pen to page, brush to canvas, fingers to keys––become negotiations with death. Yours, mine: what are they and how do they relate? To account for whole cities of dead, a vast underground rendered invisible through banality. What is it to write a voice, paint a vision––while standing on ground in full recognition of the brothers beneath it, and the invisible sisters with their children and parents in mass graves? Welcome to the necropolis, says one, where screens herald the battalion.

What are the stakes at this scale? Life. Lives. Forget numbers, abstractions. Try instead: One.  

One. 

One. 

One.

Each a brother, sister, mother, daughter, each with a scent of their own, a particular laugh and secret hopes––erased.

What is at stake? The human condition in the age of the war machine.

How to resist? The first act is naming.

***

Inspired by the work of Juan RufloChristina Rivera Garza, and Achille Mbembe.

Flight in Darkness

The poet remembers.

Only symbols. When I saw that the architecture was burnt out in me, I became a poet. Now I am grief, hunger, the embers of cities. But making is older than killing, and what is this man to make of this life but a brief flight in darkness, now and then on a rainbow?

***

This morning I learned that it was the birthday of poet Andrei Andreyevich Voznesensky, who  Robert Lowell once distinguished as the greatest living poet in any language. He came to fame during the Khrushchev thaw and was known as an outspoken critic of artistic censorship of any kind. I don’t have a complete translation of Voznesensky’s work, but I was able to find some selections online. The above is assembled from my a small sample of these findings, adapted.

Hunting Days

Aging writers recollect.

Remember the silence of our thoughts where we would wait, crouched in corners with pens poised to catch them, spectral geometry flickering in the shadows as they flew across our line of sight? They appeared and disappeared like bats, to and from nowhere––and us beckoning, show yourself! Our own thoughts, retreating. The nerve. We would tame them. 

We were young and eager to tie them down, to possess the authority of others who had managed to do so, somehow. Only by evading our pens could they find any haven.

Even a small one would be good, we thought––squirrel-sized, perhaps––anything from beyond the veil. If we could just catch one, we could prove ourselves successful hunters of what moved in the wilds of that other place. We could remove the skin, eat the meat, accumulate proud trophies. Others would envy what we had. But it was no good.

Rabid as we were, we didn’t see ourselves this way; we thought we were gentle. But they must have heard us, our pens poised like arrows to fly at them when they dared to run. No wonder they fled. We were starved for what we feared we would forget, but they knew it was worse than that. They knew they had already left us, and they recognized that we were in the stage of those still unwilling to accept the loss, who are willing to do anything to pretend that it is not what it is. 

They would wait until the visions of trophies had left us and we were bald and frail with grief. Then they would come and sit at our feet, on our laps. We would let them build nests where our hair used to be. Okay, we’d tell them, have it your way.

The Third of May

The logic of brutality.

Careful now. The sleep of reason breeds monsters. Look, they have arrived.

Early morning, a firing squad. Captives at gunpoint.

The sleep of reason breeds monsters armed with a multitude of manufactured reasons. The cool efficiency of mechanistic executions. The gunmen are symmetrical. Stand, aim, hold, repeat. Stand, aim, hold, repeat––a relentless column. 

Their target: crumbling, irregular men. One falls, one bleeds, one holds his head. Several hold one another. One prays. One, in the yellowed white shirt of a laborer, holds hands up, his palms already pierced by the nails of the erased cross.

In the center, a lantern. You can see what is coming next, how the soldiers will use its light to perfect their aim. The end will be quick. The march will continue.

See the bodies, finished. One bleeds into the next. The marching column, still bloodless, will move on. Where the order of the machine is the order of the moment, they will be celebrated.

In the background, a crowd with torches, looking on. Someone whispers, monsters.

Careful, don’t look. Here, take this. It will help you sleep.

***

Inspired by Francisco Goya’s iconic painting, The Third of May, which was groundbreaking in its depiction of brutality without catharsis. Goya’s handling of paint as well as his subversion of traditional symbols inspired a new generation of artists, including Manet and Picasso. On the disasters of war, Goya observed, “El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (The sleep of reason produces monsters).” 

Third of May, 1808 by Francisco de Goya

Dizzy

Recollections of spinning season.

High on spun sugar, sit and spin art; merry-go-round the world, all fall down. Ring around the bathtub, spin the top, the wheel, the bottle. Blindfold now, three turns and pin the tail. Ferris wheel, tilt-a-whirl, pinwheel ice cream, to everything, turntake your turnit’s coming. Here is the season of the whirligig, kaleidoscopic dreams of the widening gyre, helicopter hats and flying cars, the end of history, where is the falconer now? Find your pillow, watch the spinning fan.

***

I don’t know how it got in there, but I woke up with the song “Dizzy” in my head. As a child of the 80’s-90’s, my in-head version is sort of a mash up between the Vic Reeves & The Wonder Stuff take and the original by Tommy Roe. Also on the mind: memories of childhood, and Yeats.

Time Out of Mind

A quilted retrospective.

After the sand of the hour had spilled from the mantle, I kept watch beside myself in low tide mirrors, the sea at my ankles returning us to the corners of childhood libraries. With bare feet resting in tulip beds, I borrowed confidence from open pages and read to them. Their still-unopened faces swayed in blind brilliance and we held there, unknowing.  

Seasons passed and we were separated until I was alone at the edge of a wasteland. I had a threaded needle and no pattern in sight. I spent a long time dreaming. Once in the warehouse, time’s gears were in pieces on the floor. I held a face in my hands, and it whispered reminders. I would need to fold the fields behind me first, then set to stitching. 

I wore fire against the rain and cut a new dress from the remnants of the last harvest. Gorged on ripe losses, my scalp sang anemones. Hold, I whispered to the new blooms, that they might stay until the hour returned. 

***

Inspired by images in this article about the work of Ukranian artist Oleg Oprisco, known for creating surreal settings from everyday elements.

More than an Elegy

New life in the ruins.

You can try not to believe the dizzy river or trembling mountain as a matter of pride, or maybe fealty to the fact of this ruin. This street where I work takes its name from a water body I’ve never seen. I’m afraid to ask. The mountains above the freeway, behind the strip mall by the Arco, seem often to sit in silent judgement, accepting the cell phone towers at their crowns like parents too tired to argue.  Here, in this concrete landscape of grey-beige buildings with garish trim and iron rails, where the center that once had shade trees now calls to mind a prison yard, I am so often in mourning that even the occasional peal of real laughter sounds like the fall of the last pane of glass in a war-ravaged former home, and all I can see are the abandoned tricycles tipped over in the soot of the wreck.

But yesterday morning, in the dingy shade of a narrow steel awning, above the concrete walk, against the industrial stucco, on top of a steel grey electrical box, there was a nest of baby birds my love had rescued when he saw it beginning to slip. I was afraid to touch them, he said, but–– we had learned, as children in the wake our parents’ wars, that even our hands could mean death to whatever still managed to hatch. The freeway roared behind us, and the leaf blowers in the parking lot, and we stood there, beholding. Soon we were a small circle of celebrants, calling Oh! and Oh, look! One shared how she had watched the slow build over time, afraid to believe her ears when she heard them finally, the day before.

The babies called back to us, lifting their fuzzy heads, opening new beaks wide, something that sounded like See us! See! See! –– as if to echo our nearly muted hopes, amplified to drown all other noise; as if to answer those questions we feared to ask, about the possibility of life, even now. Hi birds! I called back, open palm over heart.  Hi! Hi! Look at you, I repeated, again and again, gaping, a fool helpless in witness.

Cornered

From a tight space.

Call it a threat––back against two walls, but some dream best from spaces like this. If I wanted to hide, I could walk in the open, but only from here can I bear witness to being, the intricate choreography of shadows, swinging between the arms of a branching angle. Turning from one wall into to the next, I find the other half of this shell, enough to negate the noise of a universe with its effusive unknowns, and hear, between breaths, the song of a single house finch. 

***

Inspired by, and using borrowed phrases from, the chapter “Corner” in Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space.

Wing

In the aftermath of fracture.

When the stone sky locks the angels out, who watches for the saints beneath a daily march, crunching underfoot? Grains of sand, listen: which of your every has ears? Without compass or clock, I can answer only, no, I do not know the way or have the time; please resist the impulse to make me a metaphor. Put down your pen and help me look. It was all in a pocket under this wing, along with a spare key to the late morning blue. We were supposed to practice today, scales of light and choreography of chroma, and I had soft branches to buttress the round of the new nest. The babies–– It’s cold enough to see it in the air when I call and here it is again, this cry, I am.