Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Wahington D.C. I was born in the U.S. and have lived here all my life, and this is the first year I ever felt like I was really a citizen. Maybe it's a Jewish thing, maybe it's being from a liberal coastal state that was the only state that voted for McGovern in '72--and I was probably the only person in the country who believed McG would win--but I have always seen myself as fundamentally outside the corridors of power. I've never even had a desire to see them up close. No reverence, no patriotism, nothing. Until now.

Last week, in D.C. I wanted to kneel and touch the ground. I really did. There were tulips everywhere, banks of yellow and red tulips, and daffodils. the cherry trees were in full bloom, fat, pink pom pom blossoms, and the delicate purple flowering Judas tree. It's such a beautiful city. I had only ever been there before for demonstrations, had never seen the streets when I wasn't part of a chanting, freezing, have-to-go-to-he-bathroom-where-is-the-port-o-potty throng. Pro-choice, anti-war, no nukes, you name it. My memories of D.C. were all uncomfortable.

But now we were here with a president whom we had actually elected doing his work behind closed doors only a few miles from our hotel! The second day it gusted and rained outright, but still we sloshed through it in our sneakers to stand at the gates of the White House (which are surprisingly low, and look almost unguarded, although there must be invisible security all around,) to peer in in and send warm thoughts in Obama's general direction.

We bought cheap umbrellas which promptly broke; we visited some of the Smithsonian museums. I say some of them because you could camp out on Capitol Hill for a year and spend all day every day in the museums and still not see a fraction of the treasures there. We walked all over: down the mall, to the Washington monument, to the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, the World War 11 Memorial, the Korean War Memorial. Beautiful, beautiful, tired, footsore, hungry, beautiful.

We spent hours in museums--all of them free to the public. The Holocaust Museum took four or five hours. So much thought and care and elegant design had gone into the creation of exhibits that would showcase the most brutal wrong-headed behavior the human race is capable of. That was the supreme contradiction. The building itself had a deliberately industrial feel, as if you were in a depressed Germany, perhaps between wars; red-brick walls, factory decor. There was a whole exhibit especially designed for children, where you could walk through the replica of a house where a Jewish boy named Daniel lived, touch his toys, see his schoolbooks, and hear his mother and sister laughing in the kitchen as they made cookies.

You followed Daniel's story as he was thrown out of school for being Jewish and then sent with his family to live in a ghetto, and finally a concentration camp where his mother and sister were killed. This was the historical record of a real family: photographs, old steamer trunks, clothing, and wallpaper.

There was a railway compartment that was a replica of the one that concentration camp inmates were transported in; you could walk through it and feel its dimensions. There was a huge glass case filled to the brim with human hair that was cut from the heads of women and used to stuff mattresses. i don't know how the museum's curators got hold if the hair. Unthinkable. There was another glass case entirely filled with shoes--many many small children's shoes, and women's shoes, all dirty and dusty.

I heard sniffling behind me. C was crying, and he cried throughout our four hour visit. If a book should be an axe to break through the frozen sea within us, as Kafka says, then that museum was designed to be a similar kind of axe. I felt numb and shut down: I had had too much Holocaust in my youth, I couldn't, wouldn't, couldn't let myself go there again. What thawed me were C's tears. I could feel with him and for him and through him. It was piggy-backing, it was cheating, but his example helped ease and open my own heart. I was so moved by his stamina. As long as our visit took, as many stories piled up, as overwhelming as the heartbreak was, he just didn't shut down. He allowed himself to be overwhelmed, and he kept feeling. He did not try to protect himself. Of all his great qualities, this is the one that moves me most. That specific kind of courage.

The part that got me was at the end, the stories of the survivors--one woman ended up marrying the American soldier who liberated her camp; fifty years later they told the story together. And the stories of all the rescuers, the many many people who risked and sometimes lost their own lives saving and hiding Jews. Would I have had that courage? Would I have risked torture, or having my whole family sent to a concentration camp, in order to help people I didn't even know?

And what about the victims I pass every day on the street, the homeless and drug addicts? What about the people in Darfour, or anywhere else around the world, who are in danger?

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We also visited the Museum of Natural History, along with about 10,000 schoolchildren, all of whom, like C, were on their spring break. Deafening. Still wonderful, especially the dinosaur movie which we watched in an IMAX theatre (along with about 10,000 schoolchildren) and 3-D glasses. If, in geological time, the dinosaurs ruled the earth for 48 minutes, the human species has been here for 48 seconds. That's right, an eyeblink. You and I as individuals? Less than nothing.

And: it was a meteor which destroyed the dinosaurs, brought their long era to an end. It crashed in the Yucatan, and recent advances in infra-red photography now show that there have been a lot of meteors that have crashed into the earth over the millenia, and very likely another one will wipe out us humans if we don't do it to ourselves first.

So have some chocolate cake!

That was my first thought: whoo-pee, freedom!! Freedom from this impossible stupid pressure we put on ourselves with the illusions of control and accomplishment. I don't have to revise any more essays for publication, update my resume, swim a mile, or even floss anymore. It really doesn't matter in the long run.

Of course in the short run there are quality of life issues. And a mortgage. But this overall weight of feeling like every little thing we do or don't do--I went to yoga class, good girl, I ate a cookie, bad girl, and on and on-- has some tremendously important bearing on our lives, on our very survival--it feels better to go through my day without that. Just living, like the dinosaurs.

The human species may not survive, and perhaps our demise could pave the way for a more evolved life form. We don't know; we don't even understand our little 48-second eyeblink. Had the dinosaurs not become extinct in a global atmospheric catastrophe, we humans could not have developed. No matter what the creationists claim, it would have been impossible for fragile, puny, thin-skinned big-headed two-leggeds to evolve with hundred-ton armored monsters crashing about everywhere.

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I think C would have been quite happy to live inside the Air and Space Museum for a year or two. He got to see a replica of the first space capsule, and the Wright brothers' earliest aircraft, and a bunch of other cool stuff. And I got to soak in the art museums, including a wonderful Louise Bourgeois exhibit at the Hirschhorn. And we didn't even scratch the tip of the iceberg.

D.C. is a nerd's paradise, the proverbial candy store for insatiably curious kids who can't get enough amazement into their craniums. There is a museum for every possible interest you can imagine, and we only had time and stamina and foot-energy for a handful. I didn't get to see the Folger Shakespeare Library, and C didn't get to see the Museum of Design, and neither of us saw the American Indian Museum, and the African American Museum wasn't even open yet. So we'll be back maybe next year, sore-footed slack-jawed, puny, and rapt. Which seems the right scale for humans.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Yesterday I reread the poet Ted Berrigan’s work, and critical essays about him, and got so turned on I wrote three or four poems. Of course I sent them prematurely to Ruth, and C and Carla, and only later saw how unready they are, how glaringly full of clich├ęs and errors. Today I am working on them more, and just wrote another one, using Berrigan’s technique of cutting and pasting lines, disrupting the syntactical flow in order to get more jagged edges, and especially in order to see the poem as a built thing rather than just an emotional outpouring.

In Berrigan’s aesthetic, especially in his Sonnets, lines are like building blocks, like Legos, and you can fasten them and unfasten them and refasten them to other lines in new and interesting ways. He uses lots of repetition and variation.

I’ve never been a language poet—quite the opposite, I lean too heavily in the direction of meaning I think, which sometimes makes my poems weighty and non-musical—but I appreciate what language poets do. They revivify and refresh, they wake us up to the tired old ways we habitually use English, they delight in serendipity, and their integrity lies in being true to the rules they themselves set up.

I’ll always love everyday speech. The other night C and I were eating at the little hole-in-the-wall restaurant we like, just a tiny local place, and a couple of young women were at the next table talking loudly about how much they loved “Mowatt.” (Moet champagne.) They interrupted themselves occasionally to yell at a little four-year-old boy climbing all over the chairs, whose head was covered in braids, named Michael.

The most formative poet for me was probably William Carlos Williams who knew how to take this kind of speech and make great poems out of it. He was unafraid to be plain, daily and awkward.

That’s the challenge, if you’re working with this kind of material—not to “transform” it, which just calls attention to the poet, but to let what is already in it shine through. To let it transform, in its own way, on its own terms. When I was younger, n older poet looked at my work and suggested I do what Berrigan had done—the cut and paste thing. I was offended. I had worked so hard to achieve coherence and meaning. Every line in my poems was precious to me, it was all set in concrete, and now he was suggesting that I just throw it up in the air and see where the pieces settle? Never!

Now I’ve been mining that vein of coherence and meaning until I’m tired of it. Now I see the value of breaking my own patterns and throwing things up in the air. Now I want to play and experiment.

My editor from NY just called to see if I checked the revision of the essay about playing tennis with C that will appear in MORE in June. They changed the title to “A Perfect Match”—not my idea. I don’t like the word “perfect”—it seems hubristic to me. And C and I are from perfect, either as individuals or a couple. What we are is stubborn and lucky, and willing. We’ve been humbled enough to be willing. But God save me from perfect or from anyone talking about their perfect relationship. I don’t trust that and I hope I never give that impression.

My editor and I started talking and got on the subject of The Wire, which C and I watch with feverish interest, occasionally pausing the DVD to ask each other, “What just happened? What did they say?” My editor said that Obama watches The Wire too, and that his favorite character is Omar.

I feel like I should be working on essays not poetry—essays are more lucrative, when and if I can actually sell them. (Big if.) But poems keep coming. Essays are work, poetry is obsession. The solution, as always, is more coffee.

Monday, April 06, 2009

I taught at the Pleasanton Arts Festival this weekend. Dana Gioia spoke. I had only heard of him, never read his work, except for a few poems. He's a great speaker! Passionate, funny, and he didn't use notes. He told the story of Robert Frost, how he was a failure at age 37, how he'd never amounted to anything at any of his jobs. He talked about Philip Larkin, and quoted from his poem, "They fuck you up, your mum and dad..." (He said that poem was very popular with nuns. Who knew?)

When he spoke about the Poetry out Loud program which I coached for in January, and what it has meant to some of the students who came through it, he got tears in his eyes.

It was great to see his passion. Inspiring.

He was asked about his own writing process. He said when he is writing full-time for himself he spends about 3 hours at his desk feeling like the biggest loser in the world before he gets over himself and starts writing. I can relate all too well.

Yesterday I took my Little Sister to the beach--keeping out of C's hair as much as possible so he could weed-whack--and then played tennis with C and then went to see Elizabeth perform at Dance Mission in the city. (Today I was so tired I could barely crawl out of bed.)

The bodies of the young dancers were so lithe and muscular. They swung from ropes, bounced and flew across the stage. Elizabeth was a great comedienne. She danced with a little boy as her partner, tumbling him over her shoulders with ease, like a little monkey.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Run, don't walk, to the nearest bookstore and buy a copy of Lisa Jones' book, Broken; A Love Story, about Stanford Addison, an Arapoho medicine man who has been paralyzed for thirty years following a car accident in his reckless youth. Addison teaches people how to break horses; he teaches everyone how to surrender humbly, lose themselves and find their center. He does it through sacrifice, suffering, humor and love, in the midst of poverty and illness and swarms of kids, dogs, horses, relatives and refugees.

This all sounds very woo-woo and New Age. It isn't. Trust me, I hate that shit. The Indian community as depicted in this book is awash in contradictions; sacred and broken, poor and wealthy, sick and healthy. The people drink diet cherry cokes and shop at Wal-Mart; ingest peyote and attend sweat lodges; get arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct and offer cigarettes to a stature of the Virgin Mary the Virgin Mary during hospital stays.

It is not, repeat not, another romanticized white person's spiritual quest on Native lands. Instead it is a lovingly wrought, painfully honest, crowded, poignant, and funny look at all of it.

I had read versions of this book in draft form a year or two ago when I helped Lisa with some little editorial things. She manages to pack in history, politics, spirituality, healing, and personal stories so seamlessly and compactly that you are not even aware of what a huge mouthful you are digesting until after you have swallowed it and are lying around in the sun like a snake that has just swallowed a jackrabbit. The book is the snake and your ego is--was-- the rabbit. Taking it in is like ingesting peyote for those of us who are less adventurous with hallucinogens. Read it and weep, shake, laugh, and let your heart creak open.