IF LIFE IS, AS IS SAID
March 11, 2005
"Prima, quae vitam dedit, hora corpsit."
If life is, as is said, "to build death,"
what stage in the project am I?
Be still my heart: listen carefully, have courage.
A YOUNG WOMAN COMPOSES A RHYMED POEM AFTER READING EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY'S "RENASCENCE"
August 26, 2003
"And reaching up my hand to try, I screamed, to feel it touch the sky."
--Edna Millay, "Renascence"
I am me, and I am not me,
and I thrive on this basic antinomy;
and because I am someone else too,
perhaps that someone is a part of you;
I really care for this new me,
formed from the chrysalis of your poetry.
FROM ANTIQUITY: THE INSUFFICIENCY OF THE SOLITARY GREEK FIGURE
January 10, 2003; revised Tuesday morning, October 28, 2014 at 9:42 a.m.
"This boy, of course, was dead, whatever that might mean,"
the lecturer said, quoting another poem in the lecture hall;
but what I want to know is this—what, if anything,
does this kouros know that we don't? What, if anything,
is he trying to communicate with his eyes?
What does he signify, this solitary striding figure
standing strangely erect? Something about solidarity,
community? Do his eyes signal something about . . . ?
The figure gathers on beaches and streets and in parks
only through coincidence, and, with its companions
forms a tableau of desire, as if the power of desire
could counteract, contraindicate our basic absurdity.
Alone in that moment of utter immobility,
does the figure wish to lash out at the gods,
the gods never here, never there then, never present
to witness, to care, to minister to our needs?
Well, I need, you need. You and I need to look
this human figure in the face and ask, "What exactly
is it you need? What is it, if anything, you are trying
to tell us?” “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” Forever
beautiful and erect, there is, here, in his muted presence,
a marked absence, an ignorant absence at the center of things,
a blank stare, a hollowness, an emptiness approaching dead silence.
“Nihil ex nihilo fit”--nothing out of nothing--
What do we make of universal causation when we
don't even know where we stand nor where we begin?
Nothing. Nothing begets nothing—negation following negation--
this has been the formula, the hallmark of Western masculinity,
of masculine protest from antiquity. Nothing from nothing--
his self-portrait—his long, braided hair, his comely face,
his left foot stepping strangely through space. Are we deceived,
self-deceived? What are we? Standing here, stepping forward,
I know that from misplaced convictions we have compromised
our rights and liberties for a false sense of security; today, this polis,
this nation seems buried forever in willful, forgetful killing:
“just three Iraqi children died today.” Kroisis, youth, you act again today
as young Americans die far away for an appearance and a seeming.
Kouros, smiling youth, you who can neither hear, speak, see, feel nor reason,
move, step forward, lead the way—we will follow you at our peril.
FOR KIANG KANG-HU, WHO DIED IN PRISON IN 1954
March 3, 2001
Note: Kiang Kang-hu and Witter Bynner translated the poetry of T’ang Dynasty poets
into English, and completed a translation of the Tao Te Ching (The Book of Changes).
published in 1944
谁记得在一个战争世界里的学者？“Who remembers the scholar in a world at war?”
--Lu Lun �R�] (739-799 A.D.), T’ang Dynasty poet
When I first read about you in another man’s book,
I felt an unfathomable emptiness inside, and still do.
I wondered about your crime, what it was, still do,
but know It wasn’t without asking you. You acted
according to conscience, suffered the consequences.
You lost your later years in the silence of a prison cell
Over one thousand years ago,Lo Ping-wang felt your loss,
and if we listen carefully enough,can still hear his cries
issue across the centuries: Is anyone listening anymore?
We are listening intently as the royal ghost pines in the city
of Nanking, as the ten thousand feet of iron chain are sunk
to the bottom of the sea, and as the flag of surrender
Is hoisted above the fortress wall. We’re listening still
as six of your countrymen have been confined today
for espionage while visiting relatives in your homeland.
Is such fraud, hypocrisy, the way of life everywhere?
Kiang Kang-hu, you were not merely a man of letters.
You showed us the way to live, give by example:
yours was the ultimate humility.
Death cannot dispossess you.
Even now I can hear your gentle breathing,
Your voice in the prison cell patiently repeating,
“A sound man’s heart is not shut within itself
But is open to other people’s hearts . . .
I feel the heart-beats of others above my own
If I am enough of a . . .” You were more than enough
though you died undistinguished among the fleas, lice
and flies that cohabited that Shanghai cell. Who will translate
the Tao Te Ching for you now? How will they translate you
to this petty, fickle world? Your loss is more than mere words can . . .
I have learned that the world is a vast and empty place,
so empty that words such as “holy” and “sacred” can find
little home here. And yet, out of the void, steps a person
like you! How to explain this? Kiang Kang-hu, this is funny:
I sometimes feel America is as foreign to me as it was
to youwho never set foot here, and I miss you like a brother,
like the brother who scaled the mountain slope alone
on festival day carrying his lone branch of dogwood flowers.
What happened to Wang Wei’s branch?
If you find it, tender it to me.
A HISTORY OF TRAUMA: NAT, BABO, THEN PERHAPS DON BENITO CERENO IN HIS TURN
Thursday, March 25, 2010, 11 p.m.; revised Thursday, August 18, 2011
“His aspect seemed to say, since I cannot do deeds, I will not speak words.
Put in irons in the hold, with the rest, he was carried to Lima.”
--Herman Melville, Benito Cereno
“You may forget, but let me tell you this: someone in some future time will think of us.”
--Sappho, Fragment #60
Not much has changed throughout human history, or will hereafter
if history is any indicator: toe the line, follow protocols, procedures,
or else; it’s just a matter of how many how often, when and where;
nevertheless, we should never stop asking why, the ultimate whys and wherefores.
I want to ask Babo, Nat what they were thinking in their final moments.
I want to ask for the sake of memory, lest I forget their terror, their trauma,
for without memory, what are we but slaves to this particular time and place.
At the end, however, neither man had anything to say, Nat going silently
to the hanging tree, Babo’s head mounted on a spike in the plaza, gazing
silently at the Spaniards at St. Bartholomew’s where Aranda’s bones lay;
and across the Rimac bridge towards the monastery on Mount Agonia--
the gaze across history being the gaze to be without. “Without power,
having lost it, unable to do deeds, why speak?” Babo must have thought.
Only Captain Delano spoke that day, volubly as was his habit, while walking
across the plaza with Don Benito Cereno, the Spaniard too lost in thought,
too silent, as silent as his friend’s bones lying in the crypt about which
he had nightmares—he could still hear his cries. Had he spoken more
than two words that day, Don Benito might have said this: “Look at me--
a Spaniard, barely alive, and at him, what’s left of him, on that spike there.
History never tells the truth. History is trauma realized, then silenced.”
THOUGHTS AFTER TRANSLATING BASHO . . . WHAT ONE REALIZES IN WATCHING
THE SMALLEST CREATURES . . . AND THEN, MARY MAGDALENE, YOU AND ME
Thursday morning, May 4, 2017 at 10:15 a.m.; Friday morning, May 5, 2017 at 8:12 a.m.;
Saturday morning, May 6 at 8:37 a.m.;Sunday morning, May 7 at 9:08 a.m.; Monday morning, May 8
at 12:20 a.m.; Thursday morning, May 11 at 8:16 a.m.; Tuesday afternoon, September 19 at 5:50 p.m.
suspended from a nail
a cricket . . .”
--my translation of Basho’s “Sabishisa ya/kugi ni kaketaru/kirigirisu . . . ”
on the wall where a picture hangs
a cricket . . . ”
--my translation of Basho’s “Shizukasa ya/ e kakaru kabe no/
kirigirisu . . .”
“And all night the fountain pours/its voice
out as though this: this random array
in nature, fruiting in daylight,
famished in mistral.”
--Elizabeth Robinson, from her poem “καθαροί”
What one realizes
in watching the smallest creatures--
the crickets, cicadas, the ants--
live out their lives, their destinies,
is the absolute fragility of all existence,
its arbitrariness, its cruelty . . . its brevity.
This knowledge becomes a part of you--
(it humbles you for the briefest of moments,
and those moments linger—then you come back
to who you are—and you know you don’t want
to be clever or manipulative of others,
their emotions. You don’t want
to deceive them. But you also realize
this is the real world and people are who they are--
self-seeking advantage-takers and manipulators,
deceivers and self-deceivers, even when in love,
and even sometimes, perhaps, when facing death--
we can’t get past ourselves, our bad habits,
behaviors, and I don’t know what we can do.)
I keep thinking of this poem I keep reading over
and over again by a poet who doesn’t know me,
doesn’t want to know me—and what she says
about herself (Mary Magdalene?), about us,
about you and me—well . . .it’s true. Truer
than true. And why are women much smarter
than men, and then not? Yes, why, and then not?
Not. Thanks for the provision—yes, thanks a lot--
no consolation, no solace no matter what, nothing--
nothing save my arms emptied, my hands emptying.
THROUGH, THROUGH, THROUGH
Saturday morning, February 4, 2017 at 12:32 a.m.; Monday morning,
February 6 at 11:10 a.m.; Thursday morning, Feb. 9 at 10:58 a.m.
Thursday night, November 9, 2017 at 9:04 p.m.
Go ahead, take advantage when I open up to you.
That’s your intention isn’t it? Even if it isn’t,
that’s how it feels, and I trust my feelings implicitly.
I like you, your companionship, the feeling I get
when I’m with you. I’m not going to lie about it.
But with little effort we disappoint each other . . . .
Especially right now . . . . and I want not to . . . .
and yet . . . But like I said, I have no . . . .
Just look me in the eyes again, like you did;
find me, venture in—through, through, through.
SHIROI—YUKIO MISHIMA’S FINAL CONFESSION, IN ENGLISH: “SOME DAY, SOME MORNING”
Friday afternoon, November 24, 2017 at 2:25 p.m. ; Sunday afternoon,
November 26 at 2:28 p.m. and Sunday night, November 26 at 11:09 p.m.;
Monday morning, November 27 at 10:02 a.m.; Wednesday morning,
November 29 at 9:50 a.m.; Monday morning, December 18 at 9:57 a.m.
“And later, as I looked down at the city from a window of the elevated train, the snow scene had
not yet caught the rays of the rising sun and looked more gloomy than beautiful . . . When the still almost
empty train was nearing the station for my school, I saw the sun rise beyond the factory district. The scene
suddenly became one of joy and light.”
--Yukio Mishima, exerpted from his first-published novel Confessions of a Mask, translation
by Meredith Weatherby
“A human being too is many things. Whatever makes up the air, the earth,
the herbs, the stones is also part of our bodies. We must learn to be different
to feel and taste the manifold things that are us.”
--Lame Deer, native American and Lokota holy man, speaking in Derrick Jensen’s Endgame, Vol. 2, Resistance
Shiroi—everywhere—as I rode the train
through early morning darkness, everything
I saw, covered in, then the sun rising beyond
the factory district, beyond the towering smokestacks.
Snow-covered, smoothed every city crack and crevice
that morning as I exited the train and skidded my way
to school. Omi’s white school gloves. Mine. The snow
melting on athletic fields, the track. My twin impulses--
a foreshadowing of my lifelong struggle, to overcome--
the mask I was forced to don to survive—we make up
difference—say what you will, the body is eminently
interpretable; it wears its culture, wears it out. Sun And Steel.
All those other novels. The Sailor Who . . . Maita! Mairimashita!
Words . . . just words. But you and I? You and I are free
to inhabit our own images, yet every single one of us has
nowhere to stand but at temporary embarkation points . . .
a series of them. Discrete? Discrete series? It seems . . .
We compose ourselves as we go as per our various attractions,
our wishes, yet consciousness is not the flesh, and my point
is this: the things we say about the body, gender, gender identity,
are themselves at some level fictions. Nevertheless, we can say
gender is an active style of living one’s body in the world. That.
Only that. Like every living thing, the body has its history, and
I reiterate: we make up difference as we go along as we each are.
The night before, a friend called to tell me of a snowfall coming
in the morning, so I went to school early anticipating a snowball
fight, only to discover Omi standing beside his white footprints,
his tracks—I followed my nature. That’s how I realized what
was occurring, and later I learned to speak English. At one time,
we had all learned one language, but that time is now forgotten--
all the same, we’re one being, but this fact is also largely forgotten.
We misunderstood—as you misunderstand me. My sister’s death
affected me much more than losing the war—Toojoo, his gang,
can go to hell! I never supported the wartime military . . . .
That perversion! What I had wanted was to instantiate,
recover our— But . . . my obsession, fixation—whatever
you choose to call it—had become a mere glimmer—yet I gave
everything—my life—for it--Tennooheika banzai! Banzai!
Some day, some morning, I hope the snow will no longer look
like a dirty bandage hiding the open wounds of the city as I . . .
This morning, the sun is shining brightly through the trees,
upon lines of cars and gray, flat-angled rooftops and parking lots
at a nearby intersection—I hold a sliver of hope as to the power
of education to educate—that perhaps one day, society will become
a function of education, and not the other way around—that those
in power, the police, the military will no longer be able to bully
the average citizen. As things now stand, two opposing forces
are contending for supremacy here, and one need choose a side.
HOW I FEEL: ASKING AND ANSWERING FOR MYSELF
February 9, 2006; revised Sunday morning January 15, 2012
“As long as you say ‘one’ instead of ‘I’ there’s nothing in it and one can easily tell the story;
but as soon as you admit to yourself that it is you yourself, you feel as if transfixed, and are horrified.”
--Franz Kafka, “Wedding Preparations in the Country”
“How does one feel?”
One feels a great pouring out of the DNA
and amino acids, an emptying out into thin air
as cells congregate with cells at the cell walls
as the spirit passes out through the membranes.
Then nothing. Absolutely nothing. One feels nothing,
and nothing to return to, but this. How can I better describe it?
It feels like standing on the edge of a field somewhere
hearing the echo of a sound but not the sound itself;
or waiting for a loved one to arrive only to see
his or her shadow pass by like some half-remembered dream--
the blood obscures everything.
This is what I know; this is how I feel.
What wine then does one drink?
What bread does one eat?
I wish I knew; I wish I knew;
I want to ask my own questions,
and answer for myself.
I WRITE THIS POEM AS IF YOU ARE HERE
Saturday morning, April 20, 2013
I write this poem as if you are here,
beside me, for what good is a poem
if no one is there, listening, speaking
in turn? At least two are necessary
to alleviate “this primary loneliness”,
and, yes, I’m well aware we live
and die alone—loneliness is our way,
our one and only possibility.
In antiquity, the poets reminded us,
and today here I am, trying to write
a poem that is “like the presence
of another person”, my friend Tom,
for instance, who grieved his wife’s death
both before and after she died.
I need him, or someone like him,
to keep me going, to keep me company here.
BEAUTY, A VOICE, EVEN THE SMALLEST WORDS BECOMING
May 18, 2003; revised Tuesday morning, October 28, 2014 at 9:57 a.m.;
revised Tuesday morning, November 14, 2017 at 8:40 a.m.; Sunday morning,
November 26, 2017 at 10:23 a.m.; Monday morning, January 29, 2018 at 11:52 a.m.;
Wednesday morning, January 31, 2018 at 9:57 a.m.
--for my son Shawn Michael Ryan
"My voice is my teacher that instructs me about itself--and ultimately about me."
--Jewel Kilcher, CHASING DOWN THE DAWN
Something inside opened up as I listened
to the sound of my own voice, my own words
saying what needed to be said at the time,
the personal pronouns saying I saying you saying she,
the participles and adjectives running free, saying
“trust yourself, believe in me”. It was no longer
a matter of making, of taking pleasure in the aesthetic;
no, it had become a totally different thing, much more
a matter of becoming me, a feeling of pure joy in becoming,
in disclosing me—my being, my person and personality. . . .
It felt something like destiny, this feeling of becoming.
Besides, I had a form already, an I, another me, a my,
and a myself too finally, my own place to go to--
a pass high in the Allegany mountains to climb to conquer
as these smallest of words filled out my world.
Beauty is where one finds it: in the personal pronouns
that speak to questions of case, number and gender
in a voice which measures out feelings by degrees--
solitary sadness to intimate happiness; in a voice
which locates, yet asks questions of time and place,
a voice in search of, one that creates an opening in,
whereby it finds itself exploring the unknowns of “before”,
“during”, and “after”, sound and reception endlessly merging.
THE LOSING GAME: SAY GOOD-BYE AGAIN LIKE YOU MEAN IT
Sunday morning, January 22, 2017 and Sunday night, January 22 at 8:44 p.m.;
Wednesday morning, January 25 at 11:10 a.m.; Tuesday night, January 31 at 11:55 p.m.;
Friday morning, November 10, 2017 at 9:30 a.m.; Sunday morning, November 12 at 9:50 a.m.
Go ahead, lie, manipulate, disappoint me again.
I’m used to it now; just say “good-bye” again
like you mean it, so I can believe it, believe in you
again. What do emotions matter anyway—yours, mine
anyone’s? Just fake it real good—I’ve come to expect
this kind of behavior from you. You’re just another pretender
lacking in perceptivity and . . . whatever, whatever else--
someone who has no sense of me—of most anyone--
as a human being, a person. Ice-cold towards me.
(My cat has more sense, sensitivity.) But say “good-bye”
again like you mean it, so I can believe it. Make me feel
something for you—move me, make me want to love you,
again, if only for a hare’s breath—your eyes, hair, voice,
tones, everything, everywhere— pretend, say “good-bye” again . . .
IDENTITY IS DIFFERENCE; THE WEATHER TELLS US THIS TOO
Friday afternoon, December 8, 2017 at 12:56 p.m.; Sunday morning,
Dec. 10 at 12:25 a.m. and at 9:32 a.m.; Tuesday afternoon, Dec. 12 at 12:12 p.m.;
Sunday morning, Dec. 17 at 7:48 a.m.; Monday morning, Dec. 18 at 9:08 a.m.;
Thursday afternoon, January 4, 2018
“Shirauo ya/The whitebait
Kuroki me o aku/open their black eyes
Hoo no ami/to the net of the law”
--my translation of a haiku by Matsuo Basho 松尾 芭蕉 (1644-1694), Japanese “haijin”
(haiku and haikai poet), who wrote poems based on his everyday observations
“Yesterday the heart of a yaksa [butcher]
Today the face of a Bodhisattva.
Between the Bodhisattva and the yaksa
There is not a shred of difference.”
--Chu-tu’o, Chinese Zen Monk, 9th Century, wrote this poem shortly after his enlightenment
and decision to change occupations from a butcher of pigs to a Zen monk
The common whitebait opens its eyes to what is,
and so too I, to look first, then to describe the world:
“The willow is green, the flower is red; just as things are . . . ”
As things are—as Sonojo would have it, who earned
her living as an eye doctor . . . the eyes see, yet one cannot
see oneself clearly. Where does one venture then to find . . . ?
Attendu—Identity is difference in a split second of time--
this recognition. We are, more or less, Hamlet’s sparrows
quietly hunting our food, mating, doing little else besides
season to season as spring unfolds into summer then goes—
we fall, winter. Like Hsien-tzu, I fish for trout by obstinate
waters, feel I have no fixed abode from which to address you.
I look out the window—it’s rainy and cold today—as gray
clouds gather to speak your name to the trees—like me, they say,
you are of little consequence. Believe this. The weather
tells us this too: identity is difference; difference is identity.
DECLARING AN ARS POETICA: THE BREAKING LOOSE
March 27, 2005; revised Sunday afternoon, November 12, 2017 at 12:20 p.m.
“”The times are wild; contention, like a horse
Full of high feeding, madly hath broke loose
And bears down all before him.”
--William Shakespeare, Henry IV
"He was a man, take him for all in all."
--William Shakespeare, Hamlet
What is a man? What is a woman? What is a poem?
What is this utterance? Are my words out of order,
are they deficient in propriety and restraint,
are they excessive in resolve and defiance,
or are they just what the occasion demands--
not lying, telling the truth bluntly? Not lying?
You? What about you? Your utterances?
Your poems? Are they careful and calculated,
self-protective and repressed, unable to really
free your tenderness? And does this poem
pose you a problem? Do my utterances gain
or lose you? And do your replies, the sounds
your lips make, make you better or worse, more
honest or . . . ? Do they imprison or somehow
make us more equal? Is there any reciprocity here?
Do you feel dispossessed, and do you reply at all?
I can't answer for you, but can say this: my words
declare by asking you the most vital questions.
THE FUNCTION OF POETRY IN A POSSIBLE WORLD
November 28, 2003
"We are acting as if we were the last generation on the planet.
Without a radical change in heart, in mind, in vision, the earth will end up like Venus, charred and dead."
--Jose Antonio Lutzenberger, London Sunday Times, March 1991.
Most people don't know or care about poetry--
the same way they don't know or care how
a tree buds, how a branch springs into life with leaf
and survives--but their survival depends upon it.
They're too busy surviving to understand survival.
Poetry concerns itself with our survival as a species--that possibility.
Poets understand this, and some have written beautifully
about it. Like a child, poetry is a branch "we fall from,
where would be bramble." We feel.
Good poets feel their poems in their veins.
What do I feel? Some days I feel very still
and lonely in here, but I want to live freely,
and simply. I want to feel you in the air,
to breath you in and out dearly. I want to breath freely.
And I want the possibility of living in a possible world.
That, and to write poems about that--that's what I feel.