In October, 2012, I spent a week travelling with a poetry circus, giving readings in Spanish in Rosario, San Nicolás and La Plata, Argetina, all along the shores of the mighty River Paraná. Now Lorena Wolfman and I have edited the voices of 21 poets who read those nights and caravanned those days into a special on-line issue of Aldebaran Review.
The poets range across a half-century, from Alicia Salinas (1976) ,a tough-minded glamorous Rosarina who for my money is the best young poet in Argentina, to Mario Verandi (1926), the living embodiment of San Nicolás, to the tender veterans of the Malvinas war , Martín Rabninqueo and Gustavo Casi Rosendi (both 1962), our hosts in La Plata.
This marvelous outpouring of poetry is happening out in the provinces of Argentina, which means it doesn’t count in the inevitable hierarchy of reputation closed on itself in the black hole of Buenos Aires. Read it here first.
Lorena Lobita and I translated everything into English. There arte bios and always the voice of the river. Also poems in French and Basque. I don’t think I can bring the whole site over here, but I can offer a little teaser and a link. My compilation is at <www.aldebaranreview.com>, while Lorena’a far cooler format is at <http://poetasjuntosalrio.blogspot.com/>.
Here Lorena, Pennsyklvania poet Craig Czury and I prepare to launcm helium balloons, each one affixed with one of our poems and our flag, into the skies above San Nicolás from the courtyard where Argentine independence was proclaimed. As well, rapid, seamless Stéphane Chaumet joined us from Paris, sincere Kepa Murua from Basque Country, and Juany Rojas, who danced with Lady Death, from the Atacama desert of northern Chile.
Antes de comenzar el juego conoció el fulgor.
Pero le quitaron el brillo, las brasas. Se reveló
entonces la ajenidad de las aureolas: la luz
no es de nadie, la oscuridad
No importa quién vendó, de dónde
la recomendación de la tiniebla.
Es hora de (vol) ver.
Esta gallina se rebela a la ceguera, al titubeo.
Otros fuegos se esparcen en la noche.
Doloroso tendal traman los pasos,
y sin embargo a su través se atisba
el final del túnel.
Hoy nadie puede la indiferencia
ante semejante voluntad
de abjurar La Sombra.
Blind Hen (Blind Man’s Bluff)
Before the game began she had known splendor.
But they took away the shine, the spark. Revealing
the otherness of radiance: the light
belongs to no one, the darkness
to us all.
It doesn’t matter who tied the blindfold, where
they got the idea of lightlessness.
It’s time (again) to see.
This hen rebels against blindness and groping.
Other fires are scattered across the night.
Footsteps weave a painful way
and yet through it all the light
is glimpsed at tunnel’s end.
These days no one can be indifferent
before such an act of will
abjuring The Shadow.
(Translation: John Oliver Simon & Lorena Wolfman)
De acá a 50 o 60 años
algunos cometas regresarán dócilmente
los ceibos habrán florecido otras tantas
veces en San Nicolás de los Arroyos provincia de Buenos Aires
no estarán mis huellas
de animal perplejo
indeciso frente a las rutinas menudas de la vida civil.
Para ese entonces
mis hijos también
ya serán viejos
sumidos en la contemplación de sus enfermedades iridiscentes
y la pluralidad de los mundos.
Tal vez salgan al silencio del espacio
a mirar hacia acá
hacia esta esfera doliente
donde el padre yace
a salvo del fracaso.
50 or 60 years from now
some comets will return docilely
the ceibos will have flowered a number
of times in San Nicolás de los Arroyos province of Buenos Aires
there will be no trace of me
the perplexed animal
indecisive when faced with the small routines of domestic life.
By that time
my children too
will be old
lost in the contemplation of their iridescent illnesses
and the plurality of worlds.
Perhaps they will go out into the silence of space
to look over this way
towards the pained sphere
where their father lies
safe from failure.
(Translation: Lorena Wolfman)
A beautiful new anthology has found its way to my door. Collecting Life: Poets on Objects Known and Imagined, edited by Madelyn Garner and Andrea L. Watson, from 3: A Taos Press: poems about hoarding, hiding, saving, buying, clutter, spiritual materialism and material of the spirit. Not a whole lot of big names among the 88 poets: Lyn Lifshin, Denise Duhamel, Gary Young, CB Follett, Jane Hirshfield, Kimiko Hahn; just a lot of really good writing.
My own poem included, “Isla Negra,” is about the frenetic and obsessional collecting activity of Pablo Neruda.
Here’s a mini-anthology of the six Neglected Poets I have profiled so far on this blog.
Edward Smith (1939-2003)
d.a. levy (1942-1968)
Donald Schenker (1930-1993)
Rebecca Parfitt (1942)
Charles Potts (1943)
George Hitchcock (1914-2010)
Send me your nominations for the next batch. Already in mind: Charles Foster, Joe Gastiger, Mary Norbert Körte, Jack Grapes, Morton Marcus, Flora Arnstein, Sharon Doubiago, and, because Jack said “thee and me, my friend!” Jack Foley and, naturally, myself. Send dates, bio info and poems or URL with your nominations, if you have ‘em.
Edward Smith (1939-2003) was born to missionary parents in China, and
mastered Vietnamese in about five minutes when the CIA sent him in-country in ’63. Ed became fluent enough to startle the eponymous Bea of Bea’s Wok ‘n Roll in DeKalb, Illinois, with his proficiency four decades later. He was spirited out of Saigon overnight on the heels of the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem. Ed Smith was the dominant hippie poet in 1967 Seattle in a scene that included Charlie Potts, then underwent an unfortunate conversion conjugal with whiny first wife to childhood Evangelical Christianity which cost him thirty years of poetic work that would have made his name. Smith returned to the craft around the millennium. He approached Potts and began to rev up his axe once more, drove all night to DeKalb in August 2003 to bore Rebecca Parfitt and me to tears ranting against nefarious and irrelevant Roethke while finishing her Bailey’s Irish Cream, appeared at the Walla Walla Poetry Party that fall and wowed ‘em, and got the flu Xmas 2003 and died because he didn’t have health care. Ed Smith is a rapid, submarine didactic poet with great expanse and large male pattern blindness. Smith taught Potts the art of the assonant rant, or maybe they both learned it from Dorn. This is a late poem, from his comeback tour, for his older daughter.
Father & Daughter
Divina & Heather Ferreira,
her aunt Shani Benesh
of mostly naked Barbies
Jim Buerster’s mouth reflected
in a Matthias Grunewald picture
printed from the Internet in black & white—
Lindsay gripped it in her hand
to lay on Mrs. Kuebel
before the bells
even years after the ultrasound
showed us a girl growing
in Sindy’s tummy
I’m not a real man
I tell my friends sometimes
just to be funny, I don’t
golf, fish, hunt
I detest action movies
dislike fast cars,
in fact, all cars
adore quiche, salads
yellow cheese, red wine
oboes & romantic comedies
and yet I am a man
in the wash of a daughter’s love
frantically clinging to my arms
when the answers don’t come out right
& she cries out, “skip, skip!”
to get me to move on without an answer
evading the unpleasantness of
not knowing everything at six
& Lindsay, when you come some-
day to lock horns with the truth
remember the closeness of a man
who pulled you up
through fights, colds, changes
of schools, friends, your
body rounding to all
things full & sweet sixteen
for when a boy will zoom
you outa here, maybe
in a white Mustang
as in Suzy Bogguss’ “Cinderella”
your nighttime fears forgotten
in the prospects of another
young man’s toast
before you finally go
remember the man
who pushed you high
& whose curved arm
welcoming yr little
female nature to his heart
was all you knew
d.a. levy (1942-1968) was understood among the poets
of the mid-to-late 60′s underground to be the most American important poet of his, and my generation. A Cleveland boy who graduated high-school entirely without distinction — his one entry in the 1960 Rhodes High School yearbook is the phrase “Hey, You!” — levy took it amiss that Cleveland didn’t have a world-class poetry scene and undertook to create one via mimeograph and coffee house. Not surprisngly, levy was busted by the Repub D.A. for reading obscene poetry to minors (the 16-year-old chick in the second row was bugged, and I do hope she’s had a happy life). Allen Ginsberg came to levy‘s aid in the grand benefit reading. levy was a telepath, a pain freak, chained to Cleveland as a Dog Warrior ties himself to a stake on the battlefield. His most important work is the North American Book of the Dead. The weight of the evidence suggests that levy sat in lotus the day after Thanksgiving and blew his brains out.
i have nothing to say
in all this darkness
everyone runs from
words that carry light
from the closed doors
of the mind
i have nothing to say
why don’t you just sit there
waiting for some naive
child carrying the
crippled bird of yr love
to say the things you are
afraid to say & perhaps
in a millennium or two
you will begin to understand
that naive child
and you murdered him
in the darkness
Donald Schenker (1930-1993) had a poetic career of sorts in the Bay Area, but is now forgotten except by a few deep friends. Don came out West from natal Brooklyn, married blonde artist Alice from Wisconsin, resented Ferlinghetti and Rexroth, started a successful business (the Print Mint) and practiced his chops in recurring jazzy neurotic uncommanding poems until the day in 1985 when he got the diagnosis. Don sold the business and had eight years as a great poet. He spent as much time as possible in a cabin up in Siskiyou County where he wrote all his best work — Up Here, High Time, and The Book of Owl. He got to be a grandpa before the cancer took him away. Don Schenker and I were close the last two years of his life, and I treasure that.
Jorge Luján, the músico ambulante, asked me for some poetry to read at bedtime, “algo fresco, lúdico” and I gave him Schenker; Jorge’s deft translation of most of Don has had the same curious unsuccess in getting published in Argentina as Scenker has had posthumously here. Dorianne Laux, happily not a ngelected poet, will tell youhow good Don was. Schenker‘s late poems are his good as Robert Creeley’s early poems, while his early poems are as empty as Creeley’s later work. That’s bad career timing.
Noon at Bear Meadow
We were on our separate ways
to the meadow, the bear and I.
We were going to meet there.
He was going to stand up
and open his arms
and I was going to walk in.
In the middle of the meadow,
in the middle of the day,
nobody there but him and me.
We thought we’d try it.
But something happened.
He got there early and didn’t wait,
and I came late.
He was leaving as I arrived
and never looked back.
I stood and watched him go
and never called out.
I went back every day after that
for a long time.
Then every month, then every year.
In the center of the meadow at noon
I’d sink down into the grass,
close my eyes in the bright sun
and think about how close we came,
the bear and I.
Here’s my own elegy for Donald Schenker, written after we went out for Vietrnamese in downtown Oakland and first published inPoetry Flash.
After all I’m neglected too (“I’m Nobody! Who are you?/ Are you Nobody too?”) In her lifetime, Emily was neglected. Now she isn’t.
ALL OVER THE PLACE
—for Donald Schenker (1930-1993)
Don says there’s poems all over the place,
it’s practically embarrassing, and I nod
without enthusiasm, driving into downtown
Oakland thinking yeah, those two pigeons
squatting on the blue-gray sign HOTEL MORO,
how the part of it that’s a poem could fall out
between the word and the bird, or the word Moro
all the way back to the reconquest of Spain
and all the bloody hemisphere ending up
on this block I don’t care if I see again.
Don says he could just stop anyone
and look at them, they’re all so deep
and beautiful, and I say what’s interesting
is the stories they all carry around
stranger than fiction, stronger than truth
all these gente waiting to cross the street
each one forgetting their great-grandparents
each one forgetting to tell their children
and I’m no novelist, I can’t move a
character across the room, much less two guys
to lunch at a Vietnamese place on Webster.
Over bowls of translucent noodles and odd meat
Don says he always felt like the other poets
were the big boys, and I see how the grand
famous names of his peers, now pushing sixty
have turned into the padded artifacts
of their own careers, while Don’s obscurity
has kept him fresh and sweet, and Don says
he loves his tumors, the big one that hurts
in his left hip, the one that’s hammering out
among sparse hairs inside his baseball cap,
and though it’s his own death that gives him truth
I’m stuck in my heart without any words
while poems in Vietnamese are fluttering up
from all the restaurant tables around us
and escaping into so much empty light.
John Oliver Simon
Rebecca Parfitt (b. 1942) is my girlfriend, which raises the nepotism factor. It occurred to me there were no women on my list. Most of the best student poets, aged now about 3 – 52, I have worked with, are women. Maybe women don’t typically follow the Smith-levy-Schenker trajectory of the ambitious but truncated career. Becky‘s path is more typical of women: she never made a serious effort to establish a poetic reputation, has written a few gleaming poems in a life devoted to service to battered women, participates in a terrific writing group in DeKalb (whose dominant poet — she will hate that formulation — is Joe Gastiger), publishes occasionally, and is basically fine with that. Unfortunately, WordPress’s debvotion to the left margin won’t allow me to reproduce the elegance of how this poem, written upon seeing her first image of the being who became her granddaugher Lila, spreads pleasingly across the page.
After the Ultrasound
for my grandchild
All night it rained softly
all night the seals pop their shiny heads
up out of the water and look softly
We lean over the boat railing
Look, seals! The children swimming!
I will bring you to the water
I will sing you songs of nonsense & longing
We will walk the cliffs
naming the flowers as we go
deep sea explorer
jutting knee of you
tiny throbbing heart of you
pebble knobs of spine of you
fingers fluttering toward your mouth
(just wait until you taste peaches)
pinpoint toes oh my little seal
the wonder of it!
Charles Potts (b. 1943) is a force of nature. His dad was a fur trapper in Idaho; Charlie was a high-school basketball star who met Ed Dorn in Pocatello, Ed Smith in Seattle, and me and Richard Krech in Berkeley. In the apocalyptic Bay Area spring of 1968, Charlie wrote and read and promoted at white heat on caffeine, nicotine, drugs, and no sleep or food until he flipped over the line into Napa State Hospital, a painful transition he eidetically chronicled in his memoir Valga Krusa.
For many years Charlie has maintained an alternative Pacific Northwest poetry tradition through The Temple bookstore and magazine in Walla Walla, Washington. Hed rushed to the scene to be of support and assure the safety of manuscripts when Ed Smith died. There is a rock band named after him: the Charles Potts Magic Windmill Band. Charlie sometimes tours with them. Ron Silliman is one of Charlie‘s fans. It is entirely strange to me that there is an entire huge poetic universe that wouldn’t naturally name Charles Potts as one of America’s five most important poets. Go figure.
Fu Hexagram 24 No Hangups
Charlie Potts is dead
And I wonder if I should
Be opening his mail
Just as though it had
Been addressed to me
By all his friends
And for him as well as me
I tell you I have gone
All the way with Charlie
Back to nothing
And the cycle is complet
By the highest sound
I every heard
Going around in circ les
My name is Laffing Water
And whatever form it takes
I have plenty of
Changes to go through
Before I outwrite
All my errors
In longhand Legge’s English
10 year trip
With the further suggestive note
10 may be a round
The waiter laid on Crash
in North Vancouver
When we went in to have us
Front us a meal
Keeps my head up
The farthest north
Though sometimes I feel trapped
With so many other
Locked in English
Long time — no see
The blind embrace the blind
The deaf the dumb
The dead the living
Let go of me
I may not be one
But I am one with me
And you are 2
And we are 3
And 4 is cool
And 5 is plenty
Let’s get higher
Let’s get higher
One times nothing
For it is nothing
And I am it
And everything’s nothing
Belongs to you
Are part of it
Doesn’t make any difference
Whether or not I’m one
With the phone book
Dial a thought
Psycho somatic music
I’m completely inside
Your head now
But you can relax
For I won’t be long
And I’m not dangerous
Nor habit forming
But in case you’d dig to know
Why the sound is coming
Out of your mouth
And into your ears
Throwing my voice
You can relax completely now
I’m back in my corner
And it came with me
On the 7th day
it all returns
We got very close io it
Before it got away
But it’ll be back
The Sabbath started
With life one and is going
To last ’til dark
‘Cause it is
A band of invisible
4 space astral light
We find ourselves
Are you ready for this
Have we been here before
But how did it end
It never ends
The verb for all corrections
The petering out of Pleistocene
The sun whips
The magnificent completion
Of the next galactic cycle
And the final
We passed through
With rudimentary tales
Down the Kelvin scale
Which is the round number of
The largest perfect circle
How the genes knpw
What you all did
I can be happy with nothing
Every step you take
Is in the right direction
And it’s not recorded anywhere
If everything is true
This match will sparkle
I didn’t really know the Santa Cruz Surrealist poet George Hitchcock (1914-2010) very well. Our paths crossed briefly in his active great age when I published our mutial friend the Baja California poet Raúl Antonio Cota (Hitchcock wintered in later years in La Paz). Hitchcock — a former longshoreman and labopr activist — publihed the influential and incorruptible little surrealist magazine Kayak for many years, and his famous collating parties are affectingly remembered by the late Morton Marcus. It is typical of my modus operandi that the only time I ever even submitted to Kayak was just after George had ceased publishing the ‘zine, and he returned my poems with a kind note. His was a life dedicated to poetry at the highest level, and if he had lived in New York, he woulda been John Ashbery.
AFTERNOON IN THE CANYON
The river sings in its alcoves of stone.
I cross its milky water on an old log—
beneath me waterskaters
dance in the mesh of roots.
Tatters of spume cling
to the bare twigs of willows.
The wind goes down.
Bluejays scream in the pines.
The drunken sun enters a dark mountainside,
its hair full of butterflies.
Old men gutting trout
huddle about a smoky fire.
I must fill my pockets with bright stones.
There are several claims in the above statement that fly in the face of generations of standard linguistic hypotheses.
I have no doctorate in paleolinguistics. I’m only a poet and translator — what do you know about language? — but I keep up with the research, and in the last 44 months I’ve spent a large amount of quality time with an avid language developer, my granddaughter Tesla Rose.
Let’s start with date and place, 70K pre-present in South Africa, about both of which we can be quite precise.
69-77K back, a funny thing happened to us on our way to the internet. Geology and genetic analysis concur that our ancestral line almost went extinct.
A mega-volcano — Toba on the island of Sumatra— super-erupted, creating a ten-year nuclear winter, a thousand-year cooling trend, and arguably extincting straggling hominid bands outside of far southern Africa. Our cousins the Neanderthals, in Europe and the Middle East, and their cousins the Denisovians in Siberia, were less affected, but they, with measurable exceptions, are not ancestral to us.
The remnant bottleneck population of our ancestors, living on seafood in caves on the South African coast, minused out somewhere between 2,000 and 10,000 folks. This community was small enough for a wildfire inno0vation like syntactic language — and brain mutations to support it — to spread evenly throughout.
I draw the analogy to thermal equilibrium before the inflation phase of the Big Bang.
All present-day cultures, no matter how technologically simple or “primitive”, use complex, fluid language, with cases, tenses, moods and clauses expressing hypothesis, probability and relationship in deep and immediate past, present and future depending on who is speaking, to whom speech is addressed, and various degrees of doubt, emphasis and status. All human cultures have poetry.
Complex language, therefore, developed before current humans separated into far-flung tribes. The longest pre-globalization isolation is that of the Australian aborigines, who got to Oz around 40K and ditched their reed boats. They talk as fancy as anybody.
A recent study compares the number of phonemes used in 504 current world languages. Southern African indigenous people like the !Kung use as many as 120 different phonemes (including lots of different clicks). The farther you get from our original homeland of refuge, the more phonemes drop out (while grammar continues to weave equal complexity). English is run of the mill with 42. At the far end of the human diaspora, Hawa’iian gets by with just 13 phonemes, five consonants and eight vowels.
Prior to to our unfortunate-fortunate bottleneck at 70K, cultural change proceeds with more than glacial slowness. Over the millions and hundreds of thousands before that, hand-axes and spear-points evolve very gradually. After that point — energized by true language — we spurt headlong toward modernity in what has been characterized as the Great Leap Forward.
There was certainly a very long pre-syntactic period during which we were just beginning to use words for things. Our distant cousins the bonobo, chimpanzee and gorilla can be taught to do so. Dolphins can successfully learn elements of human syntax. True syntactic language was preceded, historically as well as ontologically, by a very long period of pidgin.
Recapitulating phylogeny, point-and-noun dominates ages one to two of human infancy. At 13 months, Tesla Rose was saying “mama,” “dada,” “ball,” “bye-bye” and “agua.” She supplemented this vocabulary with emphatic squeaks and gestures. There was rarely doubt about what she meant.
Gesture is integral to language. This is ittle discussed. ASL is a very fluid language that goes faster than talking out loud. Everyone talks with their hands, even when they’re walking down the street shouting into cell-phones. My friend Gaby and I rented a rowboat on the Lagunas de Montebello in Chiapas with an Italian girl, Hilaria. When it was her turn to row, Hilaria framed such an interesting sentence with her fingers that she dropped both oars in the lake.
Australopithecus, homo habilis, erectus, heidelbergensis and Neanderthals represent slowly growing repertoires of distinction: colors, numbers, verbs. Probably Lucy, at 4.2M, had a few words, and used them to the point, reinforced with a lot of gesture. I suppose Neanderthals had a few hundred words. Maybe they sang. But something happened down along the coves in Southern Africa that made a dramatic difference. A system of connections evolved. If… then. When. Probably. Always. Never. I wish. Although. Because. Despite. It became possible to measure verbal scenarios against time-frames of agency and draw up contingency plans, to lie, to pray, and to make up poems.
Default thought, that of adult male thinkers, has attributed the innovation of language to alpha-male hunters arguing about which flank to spear the mastodon. This scenario is offhandedly accepted and is obviously wrong.
There is no population more averse to language than adult males. Us guys are the strong, silent type, and we ain’t asking for directions. The hunt, like warfare, functions best in silence, with hand-signals. Girls are more verbal than boys, women than men; language came from the women’s side of the fire. Thus sprach Seinfeld:
ALLISON: (sitting) George. We need to talk.
ALLISON: I really think we need to talk.
GEORGE: (pause) Uh-oh.
From the women, yes. At what age?
There is a language window in human development. Language acquisition starts at birth. By six months babies are babbling only their home-language phonemes. Before a year, they start using simple, isolated words and we’re in Neanderthal territory. At 26 months, Tesla Rose uttered her first complete sentence: I want the ball. That gets a ball faster than pointing and yelling ball! Most kids are talking fluently at three. If they don’t learn language by five or seven, viz. very rare Wolf-girl situations, they never learn it, they are permanently cognitively crippled. Syntactic language was invented in the childhood window.
I say “a girl” but it had to be a cohort of girls, chattering, gossipping, making up their own secret code, turning pidgin into creole. Tt was Greek to the guys, and the grownups had no idea what they were talking about. In the next generation, syntactical mammas talked to their kids, including boys. Syntactical girls wanted to mate with guys who could talk to them. The new fad, the new slang, would have spread through the small human community is very few generations.
Shortly after the 70K bottleneck, humanity leapt from our southern African refuge with lightning speed. By 60K we were in Israel and the neighborhood, where we interbed minimally with Neanderthals while otherwise consigning our beetle-browed cousins to the dustbin of history.
African people have no Neanderthal DNA; everybody else has something on the order of 3-6%. Thanks to slaveowners’ droit du seigneur (think Tom Jefferson and Sally Hemings) and Native Americans’ lack of racism, African-Americans have a lot of ancestry from “everybody else” and so largely share the Neanderthal connection. Melanesians and some folks headed for south India interbred with Denisovians in Southeast Asia. The DNA we took on from our pidgin-speaking relatives seems particularly to strengthen our immune system.
Africa, source of multiple waves of human origin, is more diverse than the rest of the world combined. Nor is it any coincidence that 17 of 20 world records in men’s running, from 100 meters to marathon, are held by African descendants.
By 40K syntactical humans got to Australia and were ethnically cleansing Neanderthals from Europe. The last Neanderthals made their final stand at Gibraltar about 30K. Behind the front, Aurignacian shamans were painting marvellous wildlife scenes in caves. Maybe as early as 30K by boat, and certainly in a massive megafauna hunting party around 11K, humans poured into North and South America.
With global warming after the Younger Dryas, women in five continents started cultivating wheat, barley, rice, corn, beans, and potatoes, making cities, kingdoms, laws, politics, and religion possible. Written language was invented about 6K to deal with transport and exchange of agricultural products. The rest is history.
Language keeps changing. Kids are always inventing slang. The first recorded use of the verb “to google” dates from 1998, but the adjective “cool” goes back to African roots.
Language evolves at a constant rate, separate populations achieving mutual unintelligibility about a thousand years out; language families can be dated like carbon-14. We know the Romance languages separated from Latin, and each other, about 2K. Proto-Indo-European has a well-established vocabulary going back to about 6K (and was probably spread by the whirlwind movement, out of Central Asian steppe, of the first folks to effectively domesticate horses).
That’s less than 10% of the way to the origin of syntactic language; attempts to trace the putative tree farther back are not convincing. Proto-Nostratic, at 10-12K, has been elaborated as a hypothetical ancestor of Indo-European, Semitic and Dravidian, but there’a a lot of noise in the data. A word list for Proto-Human includes who?, what?, finger and vagina, but the suggestion for “water” is akwa, which sounds like special pleading. The rising intonation at the end of a question seems to be universal and was probably present from the beginning.
Language is the central human invention, the hive which we are ceselessly elaboratng, even as I speak. Language sprouts meta-languages, of which music and mathematics are the most salient examples. Cyberspace, where you are reading this, is based on AI languages and includes acronyms and emoticons. LOL. If we wetware people are supplanted by cyborgs at the Singularity, I expect the language enterprise to continue and accelerate.
I suspect humanity will not speciate again until another bottleneck reduces us to a fused community. Speciation is extremely likely to occur in the isolate population of a colony on Mars or Enceladus or Tau Ceti. That is, if we ever manage to stir our ass from the muddy ground of self-induced economic dysfunction and fling ourselves back into space.
I fell in love with the Spanish language when I was forty years old.
I took French for six years in high school and college and hated it. Jeanne Case, my French teacher at the Putney School, used to tell me, “Jean, you arre ‘aving mecca-nickel di-fickle-tees.” I memorized endless lists of verb tenses concerning unlikley situations in the past or future (this is stupid!) and with exception of Villon, Rimbaud and Appollinaire I hated the French poets.
Finally, at twenty-four, after I backpacked around Europe and the Middle East for six months, and my gender mistakes (C’est la change, monsieur, c’est feminin) sufficed the French to affect total incomprehension, I decided I was bad at languages. Plus ça change.
I got interested in Spanish around 1980 out of some geopolitical notion of continental solidarity. The Sandinistas had triumphed in Nicaragua, poets were coming back from there with glowing faces talking of workshops, the talleres, that were just like California Poets In The Schools but with adults, most of them recently illiterate. Meanwhile the Republicans were beginning to sponsor the Contra terrorists.
For years I had styled myself a poet of place in California, a watershed poet, writing about lichen and coyote-scat, following in the bootprints of John Muir, Gary Snyder and my mountain-climbing grandfather Oliver Kehrlein.
The terrain I was stomping made it increasingly obvious that the Spanishlanguage haunted the political meaning of earth not too far below the Anglo surface of North America.
Sure, the California Indians lived here first, Olema, Petaluma. I already had written more than my share of feather in my snakeskin headband, bearshit in gleaming in the trail poems. Spanish was scattered in names like desert varnish along my highways: Anza-Borrego, Aguas Calientes, Los Angeles, Ventura, San Joaquín, San Rafael, Corte Madera, Santa Rosa.
And this next part feels artistically embarrassing to admit, but I was plotting a science-fiction novel set both in Mexico and an alternate California in a timestream wherein Hernán Cortés took an arrow in the eye on his way out of Tenochtitlán on the Noche Triste and the Americas were never conquered by Europe. I had some good California scenes; San Francisco is Puerto Buenu, a tough harbor town with Ohlone suburbs. I figured I ought to do some research at the scene of the crime.
Later I spent a couple of years taking that meshugganah novel through interminable drafts, increasingly encrusted with local color, language and grudges to settle. All my women characters were smoking cigarillos: mirages of sexual triggers. I tangled myself impossibly in paradoxical time-travel intrigues. A few people bravely read it and liked it. But after all it seems I am not a novelist. I still want to write it just one more time. Sigh.
So I self-studied for a few months out of a book by Charles Berlitz (later spent two full years in the Vista College classroom of the incomparable maestra Carlota Babilón) and flew to Mexico City for the first time in April 1982. I got a room in the Hotel Monte Carlo a couple of blocks from the Zócalo on the Calle República de Uruguay because D.H. Lawrence stayed there in 1924 when he was thinking about writing The Feathered Serpent. That same afternoon I headed out to the Museo Nacional. Here’s my first jetlag-stunned uncomprehending ride on the Metro, emerging into the teeming daylight of Chapultepec:
more than I can take in
crush of people
train windows open
rushing through darkness
sweet little girl
clutching her blind mother’s hand
pyramids of chewing-gum
Indian woman in blue rebozo
taps rhythmically with a peso
on black iron railing
my Spanish withers
Rhapsodic were my inscriptions wandering in through the monumental, comprehensive Museo Nacional de Antropología. Paleoindian, Olmec, Teotihuacán, Toltec, Aztec, Maya, Nayarit and Sonora masks and gods and weapons and trade goods…
I can’t sing
my tongue is stone
limbs bound like reeds of years
snake’s coils disappearing,
Mictantecuhtli stole a bone
and then she couldn’t find it
That first night in the Monte Carlo I dreamed that I had better cease and desist writing poems to my third ex-wife and tacking them up on the doors of my father’s modest Connecticut summer cottage, because it’s making my girlfriend, or whoever I’m supposed to be in love with, nervous…
Later I lived entire summers in the Monte Carlo. One summer I managed not to speak any English for about six weeks until interviewed about my California Poets In The Schools projects by a reporter from the English-language Mexico City News. After ninety minutes of English my jaw ached…
Years after that I stood in front of the Stone of the Sun to teach a poetry lesson to Mexico City sixth-graders about their experience in the 1985 earthquake, in which maybe 55,000 people died (who’s counting?) and a tumbling shoddily-built parking garage fell and dealt a codazo to the Monte Carlo, once a convent attached to the Augustinian church on the corner, and braced on colonial foundations, remained standing and opened for business again after a year of renovations. I got to peek upstairs at my old room cracked and shaken.
Lonely and desolate in the morning I found my way to the blue-tiled Cafe Tacuba, situated about where Cortés had or had not taken that alternate arrow in the eye. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1696), the greatest Spanish-language poet of her half-century, gazed amiably down as I devoured arroz con dos huevos for 55 pesos. My depression had gone away.
Later, my steady breakfast cafe in the Centro Histórico was the Esla on Bolívar. Mario Ramírez, waiter, friend and teacher, would shout ¡Avena! to the kitchen when he glimpsed me stumbling toward the door and greet me across the formica counter with two copper samovars, one of potent thick coffee, one of steamed milk. “Estamos envenenado al planeta,” Mario confided. “We are posioning the planet.”
Porque la vida no vale nada, wailed a blind singer by the black cathedral fence. Years later, Becky and I stood in there off the Zócalo as the moon, Coyallxauhqui, eclipsed the sun, Tonatiuh. Night fell at noon and Venus glowed around the ghostly coronaat the head of a sequity of stars as patrol-k;lights spun blue and red and the crowd chanted ¡México, México! as if the astronomical portent were a soccer game in the Copa Mundial.
all this is a surface
clay flutes muy baratos
I am not close to the heart of the pattern
At close of day, with heavy heart, I stood awaiting a bus to return to the megalopolis. One arrived, I swung aboard, but when I offered to pay everybody laughed with comments far too fast and fluid to catch. They took my money anyway and swung down at a corner, returning with armfuls of six-packs. It was the arqueólogos returning from a day of digging for simple implements representing people’s everyday lives in the middle-class barrios below the imposing pirámides of Teotihuacan.
We began to converse in a lively way over cracked-open cervezas, me fearless in then-execrable Spanish, using the present tense for all possibilities. When we got to the Centro the archeaologists invited me out for cena and más cervezas in the Bar Gallo.
The first Spanish joke I ever got (though it probably had to be explained to me) was when I showed them a photo of my then 13-year-old daughter, and Sergio cried out “¡Suegro!” (father-in-law)
There was a certain anti-Americanism in their politics, which I basically agreed with, the current malignant Alzheimer’s Republican president not being exactly, as I would later learn to say, un santo de mi devoción, and the upshot of our cena was that Sergio and Chucho invited me to return with them that very night to Tenochtitlan.
Why not? ¿Por qué no? From the Gallo in el centro we three hurried by Sergio’s parents’ apartment in Los Doctores where our pace slowed for polite and leisurely tasas of chocolate a la olla, then sprinted to the Monte Carlo where I gathered my things, thence at midnight por el Metro out the northern line to Indios Verdes, Green Indians, where we barely caught the very last bus for Tenochtitlan, squeezing painfully aboard. I’ve been packed that closely in since on the Metro or in second-class buses in Guatemala, but in my middle-class gringo existence this was the first time my personal space had been so absolutely stripped away, and I understood that if I died right then I would remain pressed upright by my neighbors.
In Sergio and Chucho’s dorm room we sampled some tasty local harvest of the benevolent herb. Then we wandered out in ancient darkness into the city once the most populous, powerful and beautiful in the Americas.
I had hurried past the feathered serpent stairway already in the ashen light of noon, surrounded by tourists from Japan and Pensecola. Now, at 3 am, we three mosqueteros ducked under the ribbons holding back the phantom erstwhile daytime crowds. The mouths of the plumed dragons were black cenotes of darkness. “Si te metes el brazo y dices una menteria, te lo va a comer,” Sergio told me. Whatever inanity I whispered must have been some kind of truth.
We clambered up the forbidden stairway between the bird-dragon heads of Quetzalcóatl into starry night. Sitting there under the overarching clouds of the galaxy, we talked largely, if rather brokenly on my part, about poetry and destiny. Stars fell from the sky. “Estrella errante,” whispered Sergio.
Over the ensuing three decades, my Spanish got a lot better (though there’s always an annoying remnant of that horse-muscled-jaw gringo accent). I’ve travelled largely throughout Latin America. My longest voyage 1995-96 nine months from Mexico to Chile and Argentina culminated in my participation in the Festival Internacioonal de Poesía in Medellín, Colombia and was chronicled in 131 eight-line stanzas in Caminante, which Gary Snyder blurbed “a major poem.”
I’ve published many hundreds of poem-translations from Spanish to English and poets have translated me. Sergio Gómez became perhaps the most respected Mexican archaeologist. Chucho Sánchez became a well-known adviser to Subcomandante Marcos and spokeman for the EZLN, the Zapatistas. Chucho showed up at my book party in San Cristóbal de Las Casas for Son Caminos, my poems translated into Spanish by many of the best poets in Mexico.
That night in Apri 1982 is when I set my foot on the Latin American version of the path, which as Antonio Machado tells us, is made by walking:
Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino y nada más;
Caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace el camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante, no hay camino
sino estelas en la mar.
My notes on a reading by the late great Santa Cruz poet George Hitchcock (1914-2010), on October 5, 1980.
Intensive detective work in my 28th blue notebook does not reveal the venue of the reading, only that I paid a 75-cent toll on that date to cross a bridge. San Francisco, probably. Somebody named Ivan, probably Argüelles, was the M.C. Evidentally it was in a bookstore-cafe. Could it have been the Blue Unicorn?
The first link takes you to a deeply-felt essay by Morton Marcus, who knew Hitchcock for decades and was frequently published in his seminal magazine kayak. Marcus never missed a kayak collating party. I never went.
Marcus narrates Hitchcock’s labor-organizing background in the thirties, when he wrote a sports column signed Lefty for the People’s World. He was famous for a 1957 colloquoy with the counsel for the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), who got Hitchcock to admit he did underground work. “Of course I do! I’m a gardener!”
Hitchcock was a protegé of Kenneth Rexroth, and kayak published early work by current U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine, Charles Simic and Raymond Carver, among others. George and I collaborated a little bit years later; George spent every winter in La Paz, Baja California, where he became good friends with the poet Raúl Antonio Cota, whom I translated.
The Blue Unicorn reading:
[GH's] first poem [refers to] Conrad Aiken, De Chirico, Black Diamond Bay. Antique clarity with psychological focus. GH sitting in a wicker chair, wearing a white Panama hat, smoking a [Cuban] cigar. Voice shoots out of space with authority. Sharp mixture of vivid and reduced, contexted and not.
Each April another government
evaporates at the Finland Station.
Unavoidably. The fact is. A little too Mozartean in the quilt poem. Insects restore Italian focus. Detail. Imagistic conviction reminds me of [L.A. standup poet] Jack Grapes, from quite another tradition.
His poems fall into pentameter, catch themselves, painterly. His dedication: attitude weakens “roseate wound” O god.
Sleep settles its lion
on top of a distant red tower.
Meanwhile, as the reading proceeded, two young Black men went into the attached cafe, robbed the register without a weapon, passed quietly through the rear of the crowd, applauded as Hitchcock finished a poem, and slipped out into the night. A flawless poem of its kind.
I’ll leave you with a George Hitchcock poem that I wish I wrote:
AFTERNOON IN THE CANYON
The river sings in its alcoves of stone.
I cross its milky water on an old log—
beneath me waterskaters
dance in the mesh of roots.
Tatters of spume cling
to the bare twigs of willows.
The wind goes down.
Bluejays scream in the pines.
The drunken sun enters a dark mountainside,
its hair full of butterflies.
Old men gutting trout
huddle about a smokey fire.
I must fill my pockets with bright stones.