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October 8, 2011 / johnoliversimon

Primera vez en México

Esquina República de Uruguay e Isabel la Católica. Foreground: the former Augustinian convent and Biblioteca Nacional, and statue of Alexander von Humboldt, who slept on this block in 1806; background, the Hotel Monte Carlo.

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

cunningly arranged

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,

spiralled down


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.

I made my way through sidestreets to a local bus for Tenochtitlán and the pyramids of Moon and Sun 1500 years old.  Tramping the ruins, I felt oddly disconnected, probably mostly jet-lag:


all this is a surface

clay flutes muy baratos

dry season

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.

Quetzalcoatl: stick your arm in up to the shoulder and see if you can tell the truth.

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.

September 25, 2011 / johnoliversimon

Neglected Poets 6: George Hitchcock

My notes on a reading by the late great Santa Cruz poet George Hitchcock (1914-2010), on October 5, 1980.

George Hitchcock

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:

Nostalgia for the Infinite

[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:




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.

August 24, 2011 / johnoliversimon

Joseph Campbell’s Odyssey

One of my more pleasant duties in my three years (1978-81) of herding cats as Statewide Coordinator of California Poets In The Schools was to attend the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) regional conference at Asilomar, on the Pacific shore near Monterey, California, and schmooze with the assembled potential clients seeking niches for poets in classrooms. The Asilomar NCTE’s had a truly distinguished set of presenters. My final year the keynote speaker was the renowned American mythologist Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Here are my notes (necessarily framentary, explicated only when possible) on the truly unique take on Homer that Joseph Campbell presented at Asilomar on September 28, 1980. Any flat inaccuracies are undoubtedly mine rather than Campbell’s.


The function of religious institutions is to defend yourself against an experience of God.

Odysseus spent twenty years in passage through a violent male world where woman was booty. To return from that experience, to reach home again, he had to pass through a debriefing which included threats and teachers. The threats were monsters: Cyclops, the Laestrygonians. The teachers were nymphs representing three-fold aspects of the Great Goddess: Circe (Aphrodite), Kallypso (Hera) and Nausicaa (Athene). These three ladies were supposedly  judged by Paris: a male put-down of the feminine.

The Old Goddess was animal as well as human. Pig, deer and water (in the Odyssey) are the powers of life. When she becomes human, the animal is her associate. Eating and drinking, we partake of the universe. The goal of all living is become transparent to the transcendent. The radiance of the transcendent permeates the world of time-space. Squirrel or saint on the shores of experience.

The function of art, of the poet, is to make things ONE, as opposed to war, this against that: DIVISION. That is the large movement that works in Homer. Male and female versions at work and at loggerheads in the text.

Aphrodite, born on the half-shell, out of the ocean, was the cause of the whole thing. Gaea was born inside the father-womb of Uranus. Uranus was so tight, so uptight, that his children couldn’t get out. Chronos was the eldest child, took a sickle and casbtrated his father, throwing his genitals into the sea. Aphrodite was born from thence: this version is another male put-down.

The Goddess was there first! She is time and space and logic. We are bound in those realms, and she is the binding circle. She is being and act, woman and man, love and war together, the ground of being, always naked. There is a bird in her hair: the Holy Ghost. And a snake too. They are the messengers of Aphrodite. The bird is released spirit, the snake bound to earth. The serpent of the moon shed its skin to be born again. Significance of the snake reversed in Judeo-Christian tradition.

Aphrodite as the mother, the fingers of a baby on her nipple: Eros.  Her other male associate is Hermes, with wings in his hair, wearing a white suit at the gate of death, he opens the way. Hermes the dog and the three goddesses. Hermes is Mithra, with a stocking cap. The sun. Christmas is Mithra’s birthday.

Paris is a lounge lizard, an Indo-European latecomer. Accosted by Hermes, he sets up an Atlantic City beauty contest between the goddesses with their three circles of destiny. Another inflexion: the three Eumenides. Hermes tells you: gotta face ’em. Hermes makes you make up your mind.

In the male tradition, Aphrodite offers Helen as a bribe to Paris. Paris abducts Helen. Menelaus objects: “Helen in my property.” Achilles and Patroclus are draftees. Odysseus, newly married, tries to act crazy for the draft board, hitching incongruous animals to his plow. Agamennon is a tough shrink: he sets Telemachus in the furrow. Odysseus flinches from plowing under his own and only son. “You must be sane,” concludes Agamennon. Catch-22.

There’s no wind for the fleet, so the male priest Calchis declares they must sacrifice Iphigenia. Clytemnestra sees her daughter taken away, with nefarious consequences. Clytemnestra has had bad press. In the female tradition, Artemis recues Iphigenia. Homer didn’t know this.

The Iliad among the Dorians is contemporary with Judges and Joshua among the Hebrews. Jephthah also sacrifices his daughter Iphis. We have both traditions. That’s why we’re in such a mess.

Achilles and Agamemnon in a spat over Briseydis: who gets the blonde? Achilles sulks in his tent. Soldiers in their free time, playing chess. Come on, come on!, coax his friends. And the Iliad begins: I sing the wrath… Patroklus killed, Achilles goes to war for personal revenge, a bad reason if you want to keep your soul clean.

Unlike the Old Testament, there are personal heroes on both sides. Achilles is a sports hero: Joe Namath. Hektor is  a real human being. Hektor will be no match for Achilles. Andromache knows it and tells him not to go. Parallel here to Arjuna and Krishna. Astyanax, their son, “little star,” is afraid of his father’s helmet: bad omen for the male side. Achilles drags Hektor three times around the walls of Troy to his death, a magical act, unwinding the walls’ magic. Athene suggests the strategem of the Trojan Horse. The classical tradition survives and is transformed in Europe: the God become heroes. Virgil with Aeneas. Arthur.

Christianity is more Greek than Hebrew. The swan descends to Leda, the dove to Mary.

Helen, taken back by Menelaus, ends up in Egypt. Agamemnon is killed by Clytemnestra, Clytemnestra by Orestes. Is he his mother’s or his father’s son? Two mythologies clash.

Apollo purifies Orestes by pig sacrifice: domestic cult. Tusks of the pig: two crescent moons, blackface between. The blood of the pig puts the Eumenides to sleep. Circe’s animal is the pig. Odysseus meets his son Telemachus in the swineherd’s shelter.

Sword in hand, Odysseus, a wary crazy Vietnam vet, sails his twelve ships first north to Ismarius, where they sack the town, rape and pillage. Boreas, the North Wind, then blows him south to Africa, to the land of the Lotus Eaters. The magical experience, LSD, the shore of dreams. California.

Odysseus goes ashore on the Isle of the Cyclops with the solar number of twelve men. Entering the cave, the narrow gate, he confronts Polyphemus the one-eyed, a reduced negative form of power facing within. Asked who are you? he responds “No man,” divesting himself of secular fame as he enters the underworld.

Polyphemus eats six men, three sheep, nine in total, a goddess number.  The sharpened beam that blinds him is a convenience from the magical realm described in gory detail. When he cries out and tells his friends No man is killing him, they tell him: “keep it to yourself.”

The central problem in the Odyssey is how to coordinate the adventures of the solar hero and the woman who weaves the world. Odysseus is the Ram, the Sun-God, on his way to the Island of the Sun, to which he is introduced by Circe. Penelope weaves and unweaves like the moon. The lunar and solar calendars mesh in a twenty-year cycle. The moon is life throwing off death, bound to the wheel of the world, reincarnation. The sun casts no shadow, the radiant sign of life disengaged from time, nirvana. Locate the eternal light. Am I consciousness or body? You don’t have to quit life to get to the sun. The full moon, the mid-point in man’s life, the 35th year, Yeats, A Vision, Dante.

Aeolus of the winds, Stromboli, the newspaper office in Joyce’s Ulysses, spirit that has left earthly character behind: the danger of inflation, puff yourself up. The temptation of Jesus, to turn bread into stone, to convert spiritual kingdoms into economics and politics. Alternatively, cast yourself down. Given a wallet full of winds, Odysseus falls asleep, his men open the packet. “We blew it.”

Ugly adventure among the Laestrygonians, manic depression, cannibalism the ultimate depressant. We are all flesh, and that’s all. Throw rocks at them, they sink eleven of twelve shiops, more divestiture.

Circe of the Braided Locks, weaving appearance, weaving Maya. Odysseus, you’re in trouble now: a woman whom you can’t push around. Male brute force against woman’s magic arrow. The Iliad is ruled by Zeus and Apollo, the Odyssey by Hermes.

 Odysseus undergoes two initiations: that of the Underworld and that of the Lord of Light, Circe’s father. The underworld is the ancestral world where all bodies are the shadows of spirits.

Tiresias saw two serpents copulating, stuck his staff between them and it made a woman. Zeus and Hera, arguing about who enjoys sex more, man or woman, ask Tiresias, who knows both, and he answers “woman, of course.” Hera took this badly and struck him blind. Angry because she could no longer say, “I’m only doing this for you, dear.”

The power of prophency, the inward eye. Odysseus realizes male and female are one being, one androgyne. Next, please. Circe predicts obstacles. Scylla and Charibdis, the fine craft of bondage.

The Island of the Sun, taboo against killing the oxen: a warning against spiritual materialism. Odysseus again distracted, falls asleep, his men eat the oxen, followed by complete shipwreck disaster, only Odysseus is left. Ishmael after the wreck of the Pequod.

Odysseus fails to pass the sundoor, he is thrown willy-nilly toward Penelope again via Kallypso. The function of women in relation to the Hero: knock him down and put him together again. This is not the Hindu transcendence of the world, but living in the world with knowledge of the light.

Seven years have passed, says Hermes, it’s time. Odysseus is washed ashore in the land of the Phaecians. Nausicaa, the third goddess, is doing laundry, and tossing a ball (goddess roundness activity). She alone has the courage to confvront the phenomenon of a naked gentleman. In her role as Athene, Nausicaa brings him home to Daddy. “Wal, stranger, where ya been?” “I’m Odysseus.” He returns through the threshold, regains his secular identity.

Another mysterious passage: Odysseus falls asleep on shipboard, is left asleep on the shore of Ithaka.

Telemachus is the young man of 21 (three times seven, goddess numbers). Athene tells him : Go find your father.  First he visits with Nestor, the old football coach. Then son and father meet in the swinehard shelter in Arcadia. Odysseus arrives as the Tramp. “Don’t mention my name.”  Old Nurse is the first to recognize him by the scar on his though from the boar’s crescent goddess horns. Adonis was slain by a boar. Buddha died from eating pork. And the Old Dog.

Bending the bow through the twelve signs. Odysseus is the sun; the suitors, the stars. Final reconciliation with Penelope. Leaving the bearded blind Poet on the shores of experience.

August 4, 2011 / johnoliversimon

Craft Lecture: Flora Arnstein

Flora Arnstein (1897-1990)
Craft Lecture
California Poets In The Schools

San Francisco, May 12, 1980

Facilitated by Gail Newman, California Poets In The Schools honored then 83-year-old poet and educator Flora J. Arnstein by inviting her to lead a special seminar of experienced poetk-teachers. Beginning in the 1920’s at Presidio Hill School in San Francisco, an institution which she co-founded, Flora Arnstein became the first American educator to teach free-verse poetry bnased on natural perceptions, emotion and imagination. About the same time, Hughes Mearns went into Hunter College High School in New York City and got terrific poetry from his students. There is a thread of lineage down to Teachers & Writers Collaborative, CPITS and Poetry Inside Out, the translation-based poetry-in-schools program I now direct on behalf of the Center for the Art of Translation.  In 1980, I was Statewide Coordinator of California Poets In The Schools; these are my notes on Mrs. Arnstein’s seminar.

Flora Arnstein answers the question: why did she decnide to start teaching poetry to children? “I had young eyes then.” —Joseph Conrad

Of course students [5th through 8th grade] come up with big topics like What is God? What is Death? but what you can teach them is: the scope and depth of thought and the handling of language. Kids are most stimulated by other kids [other kids’ poems and also classmates as they get it — a reason to type up some poems every week) She says she never gave an assignment. Kids indict adn ults for lack ofbm honesty.

Fragment by a kid named Anna:


why the world does not listen —?

He would pat me on the head

and say in a superior tone’

‘you’ll understand in due time.’


More: “unequal, untamed, unloving” and “O you can shoot me once in a while, it gives variety” Where am I going and what is my purpose in life? Are we really here?

Many of us parents have heard from our offspring, “I hate you!” Look at hate.

Here I am in the midst of all this sickness we call truth. Like walls of hardened steel around me. Poetry, let me know if I am real. Such is the price of consciousness. What would happen if you never told anyone anything?

Student Miriam writes: It all floats, it all floats. Poetry is like silk fllowing from the transcontinebhtal railroad. Diving through the apple, you find the seed. Rage is quick and cleansing through its horreror: a small stab of light. Only once will you be a child. Ah you young children, eager to grow old!

Mrs. Arnstein wrote no death poems during World War II but has written many more recently. Reminiscent of Emily:


I met death on a clumsy day

and after that I died


how deceitful is God

to fool us with a loveable world


When kids say, “I don’t know how to write a poem,” you tell them to dictate their thoughts. Throw your thoughts into space and see if they come back.

July 22, 2011 / johnoliversimon

Caninante 14 ¿Adónde?


The door to the underworld at Toniná




The mountain has a magnet in her belly.
The earth monster has a ball too heavy to throw.
At dusk, everyone is going somewhere,
on bicycles along the trail, on foot, on horseback.
We don’t know where they’re going, but they do.
They’re flying head downward into Xibalbá
to throw themselves into the graves of the angelitos.
Their innocence will nourish the double standard of the corn.

Toniná, Chiapas

Comentario: the gentle grassy slopes of Toniná remind me of the East Bay hills, but there are stone steps rising out of the meadows, and walls inset with intricate stone mosaic farther up the hillside, where we climb through labyrinths of narrow stairs and dark rooms. On another terrace the Earth Monster squats in her archway hatching a perfect sphere between her legs, a basketball of granite, traded all the way from Guayabo in Costa Rica. From the highest tower, with no time to lose, I descend with Paolito on my shoulders so the others will follow.

Overview: The blowout happened 5 km short of Oxchuc, on our way back from the Mayan ruins of Toniná. Paulo Rico Avendaño would be a full-grown young man by now; I tenderly took him hostage on the summit of the pyramid  in ortder to initiate his parents’ prudent hour of return. When we got back to the car, his mother’s girlfriend made a face at me about my over-precise sense of time. “John, ¡eres tan inglés!” We finally got going but it was already falling dark when the tire went out as the Bug was laboring up the bloodthirsty mountain road, and we coasted down to Oxchuc on the rim, your servitor driving. Luckily for us, the vulcanizador was evangelista and therefore, apparently, the only adult male in town who wasn’t roaring drunk.

July 17, 2011 / johnoliversimon

Perú (1): The City Is Going to Explode, Flora

Perú is bigger than it looks from here on a map. It will take me three posts to tell about my encountkers witkh Peruvian poetry and poets: two about Lima, and then one about the Andes, which are their own world.

Casa Rosel in Barranco, Lima, Pehrú

I arrived in Lima for the first time in July 1988 with the phone number of just one Peruvian poet.

¡Caramba!” Carlos Orellana (born 1950) exclaimed, “so you’re really in Lima!” Carlos showed up early on the morning of Peruvian Independence Day, full of enthusiasm to show off his city. We drove south to the Pacific Ocean at Chorillos: gray water under the winter fog Limeños call garúa. As we rounded a bend below the tunnel in the sea-cliff, we saw a body crumpled over the roadcurb. Head and shoulders overed with newspaper. River of blood-soaked asphalt. One police van and a woman photographer, who was about to be sick.

Carlos Orellana was one of the first journalists to take an interest in Alberto Fujimori and would become the later disgraced El Chinito‘s press secretary for his entire two terms as President of Perú. Carlos Orellana’s great poem, La ciudad va estallar, Flora, captures the capital’s terrible heavy rhythms, spewing elephant buses and eternal air of crisis:


La ciudad va a estallar, Flora…


La ciudad va a estallar, Flora,

en medio de este tráfico infernal: ángeles

incendiando los semáforos, convirtiendo a los autobuses

en paquidermos holgazanes.

Alguien ha colocado bombas de tiempo

en los grandes almacenes.

Han asesinado al Cardenal.

Se ha sublevado la tropa.

La temperatura ha alcanzado los 35 grados.

Han cerrado el Parlamento.

Descubierto al hombre más viejo del mundo.

Los ángeles hacen sonar sus trompetas espantosamente

en la Vía Expresa.

Separaron a los siameses, Flora.

La inflación es otra bomba de tiempo.

Ha renunciado el Primer Ministro.

El tigre de Bengala está prácticamente extinguido.

La ciudad va a estallar, Flora,

cierra los ojos, abrázame, no voltees

la cara por nada del mundo


The City Is Going to Explode, Flora


The city is going to explode, Flora

in the middle of this infernal traffic

burning uptraffic lights, changing the buses

into lazy elephants.

Somebody put time-bombs

in the big department stores.

They’ve assassinated the Cardinal.

The troops have revolted.

It’s ninety-five if you can find any shade.

They’ve shut down Parliament,

discovered the oldest man in the world.

The angels are sounding their dreadful trumpets

over the Expressway.

They separated the siamese twins, Flora.

Inflation is another time-bomb.

The Prime Minister has resigned.

The Bengal Tiger is practically extinct.

The city is going to explode, Flora.

Close your eyes, hug me, don’t turn back

to look for anything in the world.


With sure urban instinct, Carlos insisted, “Un accidente, it’s got to be an accident,” and sped away through the tunnel. As we drove to a nice cafe in the misty artistic suburb of Miraflores, Carlos began to tell me about Peruvian poetry. “The misconception is that Peruvian poetry consists of a shepherd and his flute. Our literary tradition is very sophisticated. Modern Peruvian poetry comes out of the Vanguardistas and Surrealistas of the 1920’s…”

Back at his place, Carlos placed each book carefully into my hands as if revealing treasures. A replica edition of Cinco Metros de Poemas by Carlos Oquendo de Amat (1899–1936), accordions out to sixteen linear feet of poetry, jazzy high-tech performance art of its day. There’s a poem in the shape of a face in which the left eye reads:


the rain is a razor coin


When we get down to the typographic chin, Mary Pickford is climbing up to shimmy on the bar.

Born in Puno, on the remote shores of Lake Titicaca, the same year as Ecuador’s Jorge Carrera Andrade, Oquendo de Amat uses his typewriter, if not as a machine gun, then certainly as a movie camera. Cinema de los Sentidos Puros by Enrique Peña (1905–1991), Movie of the Pure Senses, is prose poems out of Magritte by Buster Keaton. The sentences read like fortunate shuffling of magnet-words on a refrigerator: “Happy cannibal swallowing the countryside, cries a foam of harps across the sky… Now when your name has no letters and the angels translate the far-away word… We open the moon like a pink book between our knees.”
The final great Vanguardista was Martín Adán (1908–1985), who at age twenty, in La Casa de Cartón (House of Cardboard), spieled a hymn to the new technologies that reminds me of what Hart Crane (1899-1932)  was doing simultaneously to assimilate twentieth-century technology in The Bridge: “your velocities whose seven colors, raided from Newton’s disk, make morning pale… Slow flight of steel across scary buzzard sun.”
We didn’t mention the “accident” again until that night, back in my hotel, when that same body by the roadside appeared on the eleven o’clock news. The body was identified as that of Martín Febres Flores, a left-wing lawyer who had just successfully defended Osmán Morote Barrionero, the number two Comandante of the Sendero Luminoso, the Shining Path.

Beginning with mammoth-hunting spearheads twelve thousand years ago, Peruvians soon are living in straw huts by the beach, wearing skullcaps woven out of river-reeds, eating seafood special, burying Grandma in the patio. Even before pottery, monumental ceremonial centers convert excess ocean-protein into mammoth displays of supernatural esteem. Early textiles suggest hallucinogens: distorted spiders sing in spiral caves. A dragon-mother stela in the heart of the labyrinth at Chavín is three thousand years old, contemporary with the Olmecs in southern Mexico.

When Chavín falls apart, everything goes local. This happens every time in the Andes, because American geography does not encourage reintegration. In the Old World, fragments of broken polities are recycled through the vortex of the Middle East, but this continent, as Jared Diamond observes in Guns, Germs and Steel, is just one long linear ladder. North America funnels into Mexico, Central America is a corridor, then a narrow road down the Andes with the ocean on one side and oceanic jungle on the other. Gunpowder and paper moved from China to England through redundancy of intermediaries,; the Mayans invented (or discovered) zero and Perú never heard about it.

For a thousand years, Mochica civilization dominates the northern coast, with adobe pyramids and realistic ceramic portraits. In the superb Mochica pottery, men are playing flutes and banging drums and sleeping. Men carry war–clubs in the shape of stars. There are stern faces, lovely faces, blind faces, idiot faces, faces eaten away by leishmaniasis, bodies covered with syphilitic sores. This is the noble Native American culture, but no one is being politically correct. Naked prisoners are tied with ropes. Men are tied to trees with birds perched on their shoulders, pecking out their eyes.
Women are rarely depicted, and their tasks consist of nursing babies and carrying heavy bundles. Ninety-five percent of the infamous erotic ceramics show men fucking women up the ass, in what the Museo Larco Herrera in Lima coyly calls the posición contra natura. The women don’t seem to enjoy it, there is a rictus of disgust. Sometimes the man sits on a throne to emphasize his power, while the woman kneels.

The many scenes of fellatio are not balanced by those of cunnilingus. Women do it with skeletons, dogs do it. There are trick bowls where you drink chicha from the vulva, and a skeleton figure who makes you drink from the cock, while other openings spill chicha all over your face and everyone is laughing, jajajá!

Meanwhile, in southern Perú, stylized ceramic hummingbirds and whales echo cosmic lines traced on desert varnish at Nazca. Wari conquers extensive topography a thousand years ago, creating the notion of a pan-Andean empire. Another local interregnum follows with cultures such as Tihuanaco, and then Incas improve on Wari, with a network of good roads extending five thousand kilometers from Pasto in Colombia to Santiago de Chile.

Inca pottery is meager, but exalted architecture masters mountain space. Top-down socialism, well administered. Smallpox, racing ahead of the Spanish invaders, took down Inca Huayna Capac, and his sons were fighting a civil war when Pizarro arrived. The gods, the apus, do not step forth distinctly from majestic natural background; nor is there is the Mexican fascination with death, nor the Mayan fascination with time. A quipu hangs on the museum wall. What would we learn, if we could read the indecipherable writing of its knotted strings? Ten thousand llamas needed in the upper pastures? Poems?

They say a local cacique got his revenge on the Spaniards by advising Francisco Pizarro to plant his Euro capital on the sad banks of the river Rímac, where it never rains. The Peruvian coast, the driest desert in the world, is a sterile sculpture of sand where no blade of grass ever grows. Death Valley is a garden in comparison.

“Lima la horrible,” wrote poet Sebastián Salazar Bondy(1926–1965). The legless beggar on the corner raises his thumb at me and yells “Hey Meester!” An old street woman approaches a group of three young middle–class Limeñas on a bench in the Plaza de Armas. She hauls off and spits on them and on the fruit they’re eating. The girls abandon camp in haste, leaving behind a half-eaten mango and a bag of grapes. The viejita happily sits down and devours her booty. The old gal ties a bright frayed fuchsia ribbon into her chopped gray hair, and walks off in a great mood, queen of the hill, clapping her hands and inviting everyone to the party outside the liquor store.

Lima la horrible

Open any poetry anthology, and Lima is Perú, and Perú is a narrow zone centered on Lima. This arrogant metropolitan dominance is nothing new. Ninety-some years ago, the most important literary magazine in Lima was Variedades, edited by Clemente Palma, the son of a famous author, Ricardo Palma (1833–1919), who cast a genial folkloric style across anecdotes of the colonial period in his best-selling multi-volume Tradiciones Peruanas, the source for Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

In 1917, Clemente received a submission, a sonnet signed only with three initials, C. A. V., postmarked from Trujillo in the northern desert. Definitely not publishable, Clemente thought. He enjoyed writing hius little rejection note; Clemente Palma thought he’d show this ignorant rube the error of his uneducated ways, rub his face in it, have a few laughs at his expense. Clemente was so pleased with his own wit that he decided to publish, not the sonnet, but his rejection note, in Variedades.

Señor C.A.V., Trujillo:

You’re one of those chaps who joins the chorus that urges us encourage everyone who tyries to play the lyrical bagpipes, one more young fellow dealing untuned and vulgar poetic idiocies. Writing same refrain gives you the absurd notion that we are given no choice but to publish your frippery. You’ve sent us a sonnet entitled “The Poet to His Beloved,” which is better fitted to the accordion or the ocarina than to poetry:


Amada, en esta noche tú me has crucificado
sobre los dos maderos curvados de mi beso;
y tu pena me ha dicho que Jesús ha llorado,
y que hay un viernesanto más dulce que ese beso.


Love, tonight you have crucified me
On the two curved planks of your kiss
And your sorrow tells me that Jesus wept
And there’s  a Good Friday sweeter than that kiss…


The metaphor doesn’t work, continues Clemente, and it’s perverse and blasphemous besides. This airy-fairy nonsense, this mamarracho, is going in the circular file, etcetera and so forth.

Clemente Palma thereby sealed his doom. If he is remembered for anything a century later, it is not as the foremost editor in Lima, not even as the talentless son of Ricardo Palma, but as the editorial buffoon who took public pride in rejecting the first poetic submission of 25-year-old César Vallejo (1892-1938).

Hay golpes en la vida tan fuertes . . . ¡Yo no se!
Golpes como del odio de Dios; como si ante ellos;
la resaca de todo lo sufrido se empozara en el alma
¡Yo no se!

There are blows in life, so fierce… I don’t know!
Blows like the hate of God; as if before them
The undertow of all that suffering
Drained down in the well of the soul… I don’t know!

Thus begins Vallejo’s first book, Los Heraldos Negros (The Black Heralds), published in 1918. But the outrageous blows the poet endured went deeper than a rejection slip from Clemente Palma, who, to be fair, once he realized who — what — César Vallejo was, outdid himself in backslappings, apologies, and adulation. But then, all the critics did. Especially after Vallejo left for Paris. Especially after he died.

César Vallejo was already a published poet when he took a break from his legal studies in Trujillo to visit his native village, Santiago de Chuco, at 10,400 feet in the northern Andes, for the festival of the patron saint. There was a generations-old feud in the little town between the Santa María family, which owned the largest store in town, and other prominent local families, including the Vallejos. The provincial subprefect requested a detachment of gendarmes from Huaraz to make sure everything was peaceful. Sunday afternoon, August 1, 1920, the bored and hostile policemen got drunk, refused to obey their corporal, and ended up freeing the prisoners in the local jail. There was a confused altercation in the dusty street. Shots were fired. A bystander fell dead and two cops were wounded. The gendarmes got on their horses and left town. At midnight, a mob burned the Casa Comercial belonging to the Santa María family.

It took three weeks for inspector Elías Iturri to arrive at the remote village. Despite the subprefect’s testimony that César Vallejo had tried desperately to maintain the peace, the Santa María family had the inspector’s ear. Iturri had been a law school classmate of the poet at the University of Trujillo, and biographer José Luis Ayala hints at literary jealousy — who does Vallejo think he is, a halfbreed putting on airs and  getting published in Lima? — but in any case, on August 31, Iturri signed an order of detention against twelve individuals, including César Vallejo.

Vallejo returned to Trujillo, hoping the order would be reversed. There is a haunting memory of the fugitive poet taking a moonlight picnic of biscuits, cheese and wine out to the Chimu ruins of Chan Chan, and reciting his poems standing on the ancient walls of mosaic adobe. On November 6, the police raided his lawyer’s office, arrested Vallejo and buck-walked him, handcuffed, publicly humiliated, through the center of town to jail. “¡Soy inocente!” insisted the poet, but he was thrown into a narrow, moist, stinking, dark cell with an iron cot, no blanket, no water and no toilet. The police dossier read:


Age: 27 years

Race: Mixed

Face: Hawk–nosed

Complexion: Olive

Civil state: Single

Profession: Literature

Height: 1.70 meters [5’6”]


The poet, who had completed three years of law school, undertook his own defense. The authorities were reluctant to enter a formal charge concerning the events of the first night of August, testimony being confused in the extreme; they were equally reluctant to let him go. So César Vallejo sat in the Trujillo city jail for 105 days.


Oh the four walls of the cell.

Oh the four whitewashed walls

that inevitably add up to the same number.

Nerve–hatchery, evil breach,

how it roots out from the four corners

the shackled daily extremities.

Loving turnkey of innumerable keys,

if you were only here, if you could see

up until what hour those walls stay four.


In that cell, that evil breach, that living death of unjust incarceration, Vallejo hatched the poems of his masterwork, Trilce. Up to what point can the ordinary syntax and vocabulary of everyday speech and/or conventional poetic discourse capture the intimate reality of a man at nightfall in a cage without a toilet?


A little more consideration,

since it will be later, sooner,

and one may better scrutinize

the guano, the simple stranded treasure

that offers itself involuntarily


The prisoner with the runs contemplates his own urgent pulsing biology: the braided guano, that simple stranded treasure that would like to offer itself,


as the insular heart,

salt pelican, to each hyaloid



The heart, like a salty pelican beating its wings within the frame, pulses glandular secretions down to the cellular level. Weakly, humbly, molecularly, indestructibly, all Vallejo pleads for is “a little more consideration.” That is all, and that is everything.

Our professor-poets love Vallejo’s discontinuous textures. Proclaiming the death of communication, they write software which will disassociate their syntax just enough to achieve such meaningfully meaningless effects as “that offers itself involuntarily/ as the insular heart,/ salt pelican, to each hyaloid/ thuds.”

But they are mistaken about the language of Trilce. which is actually striving for super-communication, so highly charged with the extremes of experience that conventional syntax cannot contain it. Vallejo goes deeper than the playful machine-gun and movie-camera typewriters of the Vanguardia not only because his art was condensed and fired in the alchemical negrido of the lockup, but because his roots went deeper into the Andean earth.

Vallejo’s lawyer managed to get him a typewriter, a toothbrush, and a couple of books -—the Divine Comedy and the Peruvian Judicial Code — while his friends conducted a determined campaign in his behalf among writers and in the newspapers. Finally, on February 26, 1921, they managed to get an order for his release pending trial. They treated him to a dinner in the best restaurant in Trujillo, and applauded their hearts out when the poet stood to recite the poems of Trilce:


Mother, I’m going to Santiago in the morning

to moisten myself in your blessing and your tears.


The youngest of eleven children, several of whom had died by the time he was grown, César Vallejo returns to the village over and over in his poems, to find the doors locked, not one candle lit in the windows, everyone sleeping forever. Have they all gone and left me alone among the living?


The grownups,

what time are they coming home?

Blind old Santiago is ringing six o’clock

and it’s already dark.

Mother said she wouldn’t be late.


All during 1922, Vallejo waited for his case to come to trial, while Trilce was being printed. The opportunity presented itself to buy a third-class ticket to France. On June 27, 1923, his case still pending, he sailed away on the boat La Oroya, never to return to Perú.

July 11, 2011 / johnoliversimon

CPITS 1979: The Great Teaching

California Poets In The Schools

Statewide Conference, June 2, 1979, at Anne Ziebur’s ranch in the Orinda hills. Permanant ranch time is 2:15. Discussion probably started around 10 am.

I ask the poets, teaching in K-12 schools up and down California, one question. In a collective trance, they reply around a circle cascading over the porch of the jerrybuilt magical ranchhouse under eucalyptus. Full name and county given whenever I recollect them.


What are you teaching?


Mary H.: Sensory perception leading to haiku.

Will Staple (Nevada):  A poet writes poems about where he is and what he is dreaming of.

Tobey Kaplan (Alameda): You can taste the peaches from a distance.

Lee Perron (Sonoma) : listen, listen, see, see

Bob Flanagan (Los Angeles): imagination

Bill Mohr  (Los Angeles): imagination on a dog collar, early memory, bizarre symphony of clapping hands / pigeons.

Kita Shanteris (Los Angeles):  Personal point of view. We’re exposing them to good poetry. Picture of ourselves: far away >>> zoom  in. From metaphor, exercise, the comiorting formula of routine, to what’s global.

Sarah Kennedy (Alameda): Go for the voice. Listen to the voice inside your head.

Jack Grapes (Los Angeles): Specific attributes the kids do without kinowing what they’re doing. At some point they leap into thinking I AM A POET and it’s magical, they’re hooked for life. Got to make sure they know WHY what they wrote is poetry, its relation to the world. How to BEGIN a poem: WHERE YOU ARE. Don’t think, see.

John Allen Cann (Santa Barbara): Begin with the unseeen, the invisible. Einstein: imagination is more important than knowledge.

C.B. Davis (Sacramento): the chant of words as music,  repetition causes rhythm. They gave you exercise: essence and parody.

Shelley Savren (San Diego, later Ventura): repetition and sound, diction, concrete details from noticing, stretching imagination, unique and unsuual language. Whitman: Now I will do nothing but listen…”

Katherine Harer (San Francisco):  inner language that is their own

Barbara Ruth  (San Diego): who I am, who are my people, my gang, what are my culture, my artifacts, Write under a pseudonym like Paclo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral. One timid girl wrote as KILLER.

Michael Dow (Sonoma): Us long-term teachers find ourselves at some point doing an exercise, and the exercise becomes redundant, you realize you are writing poetry every day of your life, taking it home, ttramsforming your experience, so that the internal = the external language. An angry child in the bathtub calls on Mom to dictate a poem. Some of these kids begin in first grade and by second grade they are master poets. If they have to miss a class, they call each other to get the exercise. Every morning, between getting up and after breakfast, write a poem. A second-grader won the Napa City elementary-wide poetry award at the County Fair.

Anne Zeibur (Contra Costa): validation… when a strong statement comes into your mind, that’s usually the first line of a poem. The babble within becomes the only reality.

Roberto Bedoya (San Francisco): the taste of a letter. Correctness versus validation.

Mary Norbert Kórte (Mendocino): Robert Duncan’s notion of the mis-take, in the cinematic sense. You goof, learn from it, and then there’s take two.

Marilynn Talal (Marin):  the, and, adjective, adverb, oncrete and vague, effect of language on truth.

Lu Melander (San Mateo):  the pantoum. Tension and opposition.

Christopher Buckley (Fresno): there’s a language value to below-grade level students, an antidote to all the white sidewalks and tinted glass of poetry.

Robert Woods (Alameda): poems in historical contezt, Black people’s poetic ancestors.

Roberta: dancing was invented by Adam.

Paula Rath, later Gocker (Alameda): self-naming, forgettable face, boy who hears no whispers

Susan Kennedy (Marin): connecting to a voice. poetry: say something that you have no otber way to say it.

Mary Norbert Korte (Mendocino):  Continuation school: They ask for images, in adolescense, self-centered.

Carol Henry Dennis (San Francisco): after Continuation, there is no more protection for those teenagers.

Sharon Rose Cheadle (Stoctton): the inner journey of eighth-grade Daniel, who wrote “Blue is a shell when I can’t express myself”

Michelle Moore (Stockton): clown’s face, outside/ inside

Abby Niebauer (San Mateo):  chain letter

Robert Harris (San Francisco):  list of defiuitions, dolch word and meaning, when, what, I

Kit Robinson (San Francisco, Alameda): writing in lines, short lines, one word lines as Williams, stanza. Imagine the landscape as one color, nornally or never; a landscape in one mood, a portrait.

Alan Soldofsky (Alameda, Santa Clara): the poem backward and forward.