You should never believe a poet. They make stuff up. They create worlds of words and twine. They always lie. Do they? Is a poem made of personal experience distilled into its essence that transcends the individual origins and speaks to millions? Is a poem a lesson in verbal pyrotechnics, exploding with fireworks of erudition, allusion and sophistication? Is a poem just a page from an intimate journal left to be read and pondered long after the thinker and the pen are gone?
The pen could outlive the thinker - we see the golden pens in museums. Would the computer do it, too? If the technology shifts as fast as it does, what could we put in our museums along with the clothes and plates and pillows of dead poets? Maybe their Kindles, laptops and smart phones that they use to read their work, scrolling down the screen with miraculously agile thumbs while holding the tiny device up in the air and squinting, because the font is too small in the feeble light on the stage...
Maybe nothing. Maybe there will not be any museums built for poets living today. Too many poets lived and died and clamored for fame already. There's no more space for museums, no space for new words to be added to the universe of language that surrounds us, that makes us who we are, fully human. Does it? Is language, fit for naming things and limiting them with a label, the answer? The only answer? Too many questions just give you a headache.
Mister Cogito wrote Zbigniew Herbert, taking his cue from the famous saying Cogito ergo sum... In her intensely intelligent essay, Oriana Ivy wrote an ode to non-thinking as a key to bliss. I followed another lead - into doubt (Dubito ergo sum , instead of Dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum as Rene Descartes's dictum is sometimes rendered), but I will save it for another day. Could the poets say: Scribo, ergo sum? - "I write, therefore I am?" Sounds unusually boring. How about: Lego, ergo sum... or Recito, ergo sum... (I read, recite...) This does not work either. Amo, ergo sum - now, that's something altogether lovely, but we cannot be mono-thematic, can we.
I started public readings at Poets on Site various events around Pasadena and decided to start the summer with a reprint of one poem first heard in Torrance in the summer of 2008, the first reading that surprised me by the hushed attention of the audience. Everyone was silent, listening to my voice. An eerie feeling, even for a former college professor, used to inspiring silence in the classroom. The difference was that the poets were listening to my own words, not regurgitated thoughts of others. I start from this poem to welcome back our founder and leader, Kathabela Wilson and her wonderful musician-mathematician husband. They just returned from a long tour of China. The picture, by Milford Zornes is depicted in the lower left corner of the photograph. Susan Rogers, who later took my portrait above and called it "Maja Starlet" is standing and reading behind me.
Point San Vincente
~ inspired by a painting by Milford Zornes
Wincenty, my Orthodox great grandpa,
was a cipher I'll never unravel
except that the name bore a whiff
of old-fashioned stiffness.
Prim and proper, St. Vincent
was the patron of lovers in Poland
before the wave of Valentine's red hearts
swept aside such quaint traditions.
In France, old beggars crowded
to St. Vincent de Paul, the giver of bread
to the hungry, love to the afflicted.
In California, one young Vince was proud
of his middle name, shared with the saint.
A lone lantern shines in Vincent's name
onto deep ocean waters from the cliff
of last hope for those who lost
their most cherished treasure –
their life, drowned in the foam
of temptations, slowly strangled
by the fecund seaweed of desire.
Dangers lurk beneath the surface,
tentacled monsters wait
to pull weary swimmers under the waves.
Lasciate omni speranza say the gates
to Dante's Inferno. In the ocean,
Symbolophorus barnardi, the lanternfish
lures its victims with a false light
shining in the murky depths. The golden
sands announce the safety of shore. There is hope.
The light keeps calling: "Come to me,
come to Point San Vincente, come home."
This occasional poem brings together various Vincents from my life in a free play of associations, centered on the image of the light shining over the ocean. Since the inspiration was the painting of Point San Vincente, I skipped the obvious reference to paintings by Vincent van Gogh.
Three years later, on the way to work, I saw horses wondering around their enclosure and the image wrote itself into a poem of sorts. Still fresh and unfinished (too wordy), it brings together disparate thoughts and images in another play of associations.
The bay colt learns
how to shake his tail
properly from left to right
looking at his mom’s smooth bronze coat,
swift movements. Three-times his size,
she does not mind the attention.
They trot around the enclosure
in locked step, their manes waving.
“You look like a tomato” –
my son notices my skin
burned by the first rays of summer.
“Sunscreen, Mom, it’s called sunscreen”
– scolds the girl, as cautious
I wish I lived in Spain
danced the flamenco every night,
an outpouring of passion
distilled into gestures.
I wish I had a horse ranch
in Nevada – a big Stetson hat
and cowboy boots to shield me
from rattlesnakes, made of their skin.
I was a ballerina,
played in an orchestra,
baked Canadian muffins
I hated, with bran and molasses.
Choral singing, knitting
and embroidery - two perfect napkins
still await the half-finished
tablecloth with Art Nouveau flowers
entwined along the edges
in purple and gold.
Shape-shifting, I move
from place to place, life to life,
like a petal carried by the gale
above the ocean.
The colt will grow into a horse.
The children will find their paths
to make and follow. I’ll keep dancing
my solitary flamenco – black, twirling skirts,
fluid gestures cutting the air
that shimmers with the strumming of guitars.
Throaty voices tear the hearts
for life that could not be.
The heartbreaking beauty of flamenco used to be spontaneous, but is so strictly choreographed these days, there's no room for invention. The flamenco "I" would have danced - in my poem - does not, could not, exist.
In contrast, it is very pleasant to write about things that are.
Solid, physical, gold-plated, able to withstand the assault of time.
Things outlive us. The pianist's suit laughs in its glass case,
in a museum room filled with things that make the absence, the loss of the owner even more vivid. His body already turned into dust.
The solidity of a Japanese screen calls for a celebration in a "mock-haiku" sequence. The golden glow is made to last, it is created to fix a moment into perpetuity, transform the afternoon minute into timelessness.
Six Variations on a Screen