3 Baseball Poems
High and Outside
I spent years heaving a baseball high and wild
into the August sky. Easy, easy my
dad cautioned me but still I threw my arm out
in a vain attempt to beat gravity and make
that baseball dangle long-limbed and light above
the monotony of Sunday afternoons
and the well intentioned whispers saying that
my time was up, that a growing girl had no
reason to feel the singular ache of a
curveball or spin impossible dreams about
major leagues and baseballs that would cheat the air
landing beyond sunflower seeds and logic
straining the hand with the promise that maybe
the next throw would spiral above all their heads
rise and rise against every law of physics
taunting the sky in an open rebellion.
There are stelae at Palenque
that are nothing but names and numbers.
Home runs, strikeouts and stolen bases
for Hunahpú and Hunahpú
who played the sacred game back when
you had to claw for every run
not like today. The losing manager
got disembowelled on the mound
by the knife of the morning star.
I grow older, hombre, or the beardless
mozos striding to the plate grow young.
At 41 I played in Jalatlaco,
place-name meaning “sandy ballcourt.”
The Zapotec lefty decked me.
¿Cómo se dice beanball en español?
And then for once in my mortal
vagabond middle-infielder’s career
I got good wood on the pelota,
it sailed toward the sacred ring,
reached the ancient wall on one bounce.
Hunahpú and Hunahpú
played ball against the gods
in Xibalbá. They lost.
They got their heads cut off
and turned them into baseballs
and stuck them on a tree.
A girl ate them. She had babies:
Hunahpú and Hunahpú.
They finished second two years running.
They smoked the candles of the underworld,
came back to challenge in the playoffs.
They used a mosquito in center field
to steal signs. They stole them blind.
They sacrificed, they had the long ball,
they had defensive magic. They threw
the change, they threw the split-finger.
You remember the sequence from Game Six.
The Mayans carved the standings
into limestone. Learn to interpret
the statistics of heaven,
these cyclic fractals of the endless game.
—John Oliver Simon
Jefferson practices a big windup
from the pitcher’s mound,
Giants cap flopping over eyes
as he deals a southpaw
sidearm fastball into
Gwydion swings an imaginary bat > at home,
momentum whirling him
laughing into a
batter’s box heap.
Jefferson continues pitching
despite the prostrate body
next to the plate
While I crouch
Jefferson’s often errant fastballs,
Gwydion crosses his hands behind > his head,
lying there gazing skyward,
“Dad, did you know
clouds are like castles?”
Ball into glove
“Dad, was that a strike?”
“If the wind changes their shape, > even dragons
can’t see them.”
Laura E. Davis
Many nights, as a boy, I woke to the sound of crashing.
My father, an insomniac, found solace in our unfinished
basement—a second-hand couch and a red-felted
pool table. He quieted his mind by shooting 9-ball,
something calming in the precise geometry required
to rattle a ball into a pocket with a soft thud.
Lying in my bedroom above, I could almost see
the pool balls spin across the felt and careen into
each other under the controlled force of my father’s hands.
His brother lived in that basement some months,
between jobs or wives. He slept on the worn couch,
coming upstairs to the fridge when he needed to
fetch beer or food. His laugh rasped from too many
cigarettes when he cracked jokes during the day,
but at night, drunk, the laugh often turned mean.
One night his girlfriend stood up to the bullying,
and their fight spilled upstairs, and instead of fetching
beer from the kitchen, my uncle came after a knife.
My father lay awake in his room, listening.
I squinted into the blinding bright
of the kitchen, and watched my father move
his body between the blade and a woman he didn’t know.
He gripped the thick shoulders of his only brother
and shoved hard, flinging the large man into the pantry.
The force of his collision shook soup cans loose,
and they rattled to the floor and spun towards
my uncle heaped on the linoleum. Wordless, my father
walked over and stood above his brother, paused,
then pulled him to his feet. The fight was over,
and they never spoke of it again.
On my own sleepless nights I miss my father most.
Insomniac is a lonely profession, so I haunt the shadows
of quiet rooms, looking for some life with which to commune.
I sometimes end up in my son’s bedroom, sitting on the rug
next to his bed. I wrap my fist around his and watch
his chest fill with breath. The crickets he keeps to feed his
gecko chirp, the cage clicks as one leaps a failed escape
through the plastic wall. I hold my son’s hand in the quiet,
and hope I, too can pass on what most of us only learn
the hard way: who to pull close, and who to push away.
Before the fog lifts going up the hill
on my run home up the street
just over the curbside looks like a stick
but something makes me stop
because I saw it differently maybe a lizard a skink a gecko
with its tail cut off a few blood spots it was alive
and because I once had a leopard gecko
and often dogs chase lizards on local trails
I am trying to figure out
a lost pet or a feature of our landscape
I find a couple of candy wrappers
and carry the gecko home
put some rocks in the cracked yellow recycling bin
a hiding place a low plastic dish for water
use the worm scraps for insects
a little rug of mud leaf dry grass mulch dirt and compost
and as I’ve planned to take it the Vivarium later
so they could identify my reptile and what it needed
but I then I leave with the dogs
come home to find it
not hidden under my crude cave as it was earlier
in the sun no longer moving at all
I pull out the pitchfork find a patch of dirt I can stab
and turn over as I’m looking at it now for the first time really
gecko limbs pulled back against its body
gray green white belly design
alligatored scales diamond shaped head
eyes open to another world
Chanco had endless rows of white houses made of adobe
with thick terracotta shingles.
Old eucalyptus trees, taller than 50 feet, formed a natural barrier
between the Pacific Ocean and the village.
The people made a living producing wine and cheese.
As a child I ran through the eucalyptus forest to the ocean
in a race with my half sibling.
Small roads of red clay covered by generations of fallen leaves
made for a cushioned walk for our sandals and bare feet.
I always won all the races.
Then, on the ocean, there would be another race
to get rid of our clothes
and be the first to jump into the water.
My mother would open a basket filled with bread, hardboiled eggs,
cheese, blackberries picked by our own hands
and soda, spreading an old yellow tablecloth out on the sand.
Meanwhile Clemente would cut the watermelon he carried
from the house to the beach.
In Santiago things were different.
The day of the Coup, Mr. Monzalves visited us.
He sat on a sofa in our living room beneath a print of Picasso’s “Guernica”.
My grandfather occupied one of the loveseats.
Later I came to know that Mr. Monzalves worked for DINA
(National Department of Intelligence).
My grandfather did not talk about what Mr. Monzalves said,
but it was clear that he knew that my grandfather
was a sympathizer of Allende and that he had come to deliver a warning.
Just before I left Chile the last person I met from the Front,
in Santiago was my commander.
His real code name was Wolf.
I told him I was planning to leave the country because I could not
avoid the surveillance anymore and my good friend,
the lawyer Insunsa, had arranged for me to go to Sweden or France.
The Swedes were fond of Latin America’s cause of liberation,
he had said, and they had been receptive to Chileans
from the beginning of the Coup.
Sweden is too far, go to the South, I can’t, my family lives there,
I told him.
He wanted to schedule a last rendezvous before my leaving.
I explained that it was exhausting to get to him in my condition.
I already had my visa and a plane ticket.
Still, I finally agreed to meet, changing between different
subway lines, moving to a taxi and then to a bus to avoid being followed.
I risked everything so that Wolf could make one last effort
to get me to stay.
He never appeared. I had wanted, at least, to say goodbye.
I left for Sweden on October 24, 1985, five weeks after
my daughter’s father died.
Spring was beginning in Chile, as Winter was in Sweden.
It would prove to be the coldest winter in one hundred years
with a mean temperature of -27.2°C in Vittangi.
A Mother Thing
After I was settled when I got “home” from the hospital
there was a bed and a baby bed beside it, and a letter
from my mother that was forwarded from the refugee camp.
In the letter my mother said that she had missed the bus
that would have brought her from the South of Chile to the airport
to say goodbye. Somebody told her that I was leaving.
She had read about J.’s death in the newspapers. More
than 1000 people came to his funeral and the riots
that followed were covered on national TV. Reuters smuggled
pictures out of the country and in the archives of the Agency
that I would read 20 years later it would say: …the case of J’s may
turn into another scandal similar to the case concerning
the death of the three “degollados”.The last paragraph
of the letter said “I hope now when you are a mother yourself
you can understand your own mother a little bit better.”
I couldn’t answer her. Not because I didn’t have anything
to say but because it was so hard to say it. I wish I could have written
something to her at that time to bring us closer together.
But I still couldn’t think clearly. It would be a long time before I could.
If Not Perfect
You said nothing about the stain on the cover of Vallejo’s Trilce.
You hand me an ostrich feather as if I had never been truly alive.
We end up dying over a lunch of buttered bread.
I collide with my insides and finally get the joke.
But the table shakes as if the earth had a friend.
You and I have known one another’s toe in a different shoe.
Walk like an animal and spoon me your source.
I could investigate finishing my life by walking room to room.
The way your singular kindness covers my infatuation with all things brassiere.
The sound of midnight trains has always been erotic in their long cat-crawl and dominating sleep.
The Vicenarian or My Twenties So Far
My therapist says, “Tell me about your twenties.” At twenty I’m born
again. Bush vote. My heart turns purple and my insides become composted
totems of faces I’d forgotten. Grandfather starts dialysis. Get homesick
in St. Lucia while eating fresh mangoes. Buy my first vibrator. Men fly
planes into buildings while women inject collagen into their lips. My hair
is short and blonde. My uncle gets Parkinson’s disease. Sleep with five people.
Turn twenty-one. Do a shot called a Red-Headed Slut. Lock my keys in the car
five times. Diagnosed with ADHD. Bush says, “Mission Accomplished”
while standing on a boat. Have sex with a woman. And with seven men.
My heart is an onion, a flaky and potent organ of flavor. Taste-tongued.
Get my first cell phone. At twenty-two I have a threesome. Reality television.
My heart thumbs it to Kansas City without me, leaving a see-through escape
route between my sternum and spinal cord. I stop praying. Forget that I love
camping. My friend Jes punches a guy in the face outside of a bar. He spits
his blood on my shirt. I tell my brother I’m queer. Mom starts getting manicures.
Turn twenty-three and have an affair with a Marine. Takes me to Washington
where he cries at the Vietnam Memorial. Date a Buddhist who drives a Honda
Civic Hybrid. Finish college and buy lots of hemp products. Get engaged.
My gynecologist tells me I have HPV. I think about dying. Get married.
Twenty-four. Heart becomes one million avocado pits skewered on BBQ sticks,
suspended in jars, the roots leaping away from the water. Get an intrauterine
device. Vote for Kerry. Get a job selling home refinances. Stop eating meat.
Gain ten pounds and decide to have an open marriage. Get a boyfriend.
And a girlfriend. I start taking Welbutrin again and find my first gray hair
which makes me smile. My grandfather has a kidney transplant. I turn
twenty-five. Hurricane Katrina. I lose my job and start temping. Ian Frazer
develops a vaccine for cervical cancer. Then twenty-six. Tell my mom
I’m getting a divorce. I get my first apartment. Buy my seventh vibrator.
Heart develops a sense of smell, scoops up grubs in the topsoil, and seeks
quick fixes of musty armpits and the undersides of garbage can lids. Decide
I’m an atheist. I pose in a pinup calendar for charity. Twenty-seven. I am
alone for the first time in six years. Heart learns how to flap prophetic,
predict the weather and spot criminals behind brick buildings. Organize
information into death or almost-death and I have my first panic attack.
I do not wear Crocs. My uncle dies. Fall in love with an Italian. Obama vote.
Twenty-eight. Michael Jackson dies. My heart is a shoe that fits both your feet,
toes curling inside like a newborn with enough space for sighing. Get my first
teaching job. H1N1 vaccine. Grandpa dies in his sleep. I dream about him
whistling. I remember I love camping. Stand inside a family of Redwood
trees and kiss the Italian. At twenty-nine listen to Ginsberg sing Father Death
I’m coming home. I learn that we are always gray with fragments of color,
not the reverse. My heart resting on the kitchen table is a machine gun.
—Laura E. Davis
first published in SPLINTER generation and reprinted by permission of the author
kiitos, the one word in Finnish I learned there
“thank you” Aunt Sylvi taught me context in 1970, Sysmå
my grandmother’s & Aunt Hilma’s sister
we did not speak each other’s languages
whenever I looked bored,
coffee always came with sweets
extending the familiar, (American)
she showed me “Joy” liquid
she went to the well
cranked up the heavy bucket
poured water in a big pot
on her wood stove
when the steam started rising
she applied Joy
then her dishes
it took the grease right off
(like after a sauna)
of course, Veikko, her son
who lived next door
had all the modern amenities
she preferred to live as she always had
I’m learning that now
as I fail to upgrade this damned
& wondrous computer
—Bill Vartnaw © 2011
The Great Heart
The awkward boy,
his fingers open, sweeps hands
to brush past stray bees.
He cuts a path through wheat
beyond the other children
to keep them safe—
master of gestures—
the great heart is the taste of pears,
you’re outside, a bee,
heart that breaks its habits
when they disappoint, or
so it was in the last ice age.
The Taste of Blood
We grew up in gardens, we grew up
with hammers lying around.
At a family barbeque,
I bit you on the shoulder,
you a toddler, younger than my granddaughter.
The even teeth marks, tiny square dents
filled with red. Then the fuss.
In fourth grade, Cheryl Young slept over
and we played with your little prick.
The next day, Mom moved your bed
into the dining room. How was that,
to camp out where they carved the turkey?
No wonder when they got old
you took over the whole house.
I want to see you again, my brother,
I want to lay my hand on yours
at least once before it’s over.
But I’ll never forget that wild joy,
sinking my teeth into your tender flesh.
Copyright © 2012 Aldebaran Review. All rights reserved.
I’ve decided to move the locus of my Web activity back to tghis blog. I’ll start by rescuing some of the terrific work I published last year in the brief virtual existence of Aldebaran Review (in print in Berkeley lo these 40 years ago and more). Enjoy!
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.