For years, I got it wrong when I said
it was a badger I’d seen on Hatcher Pass road,
squat brown animal that darted for the brush
when it saw our truck–I should’ve known,
badgers don’t dart and anyway
we don’t have badgers in Alaska
(a child formed in the third grade curriculum
told me this) but it was smaller than a bear,
bigger than a spaniel and I swore up and down
the alternative was too rare, too incredible
the sharp claws, the pointed teeth,
nature honed to hunt kill run, dark hump
of it’s back ringed with a lighter nimbus
of guard hairs. A glimpse and it was gone
and in its place the word impossible
I picked up like a wet stone
that dried and dulled in my hand
and good for throwing.
Dec. 1, 2013
This is the month trees crack
midnight bangs on your roof
with an icy hoof
Winter is just arrived
and already you’re running out the lies
that con you into believing this is your life.
Only November and all you have left
is air so cold and thick, stacking in deep valleys
you will carve stairs
and climb out over the mountains
when you know you must leave.
You know you must leave.
Abandon your neighbor. He has his own faith
that calls you stranger before his hearth.
Come dusk, he feeds his horses,
smashes ice out of their water trough,
sings a worksong to his fenced pasture–sound ricochets
like a gunshot and the blue distance shatters.
The horses flicker their ears. They heard
what you heard, make no mistake.
They bend their apostatical faces down,
knock on the ground, muzzle and trample
the splintering bale to nothing. They are already
white steam from their cloud red bodies
Nov. 30, 2013
If only the moon–
give me something anything
a hint of yourself as a grail
or a swan’s egg,
even the petrified face
of someone I miss or mourn–
it would be so easy to write a poem
Moon, you’re just being a moon
which makes me nothing more than a woman staring
through dirty glass
at unnamed brightness
this morning after Thanksgiving.
Yesterday, I was so grateful.
Today, I’m cold and convinced the world
is ruled by a policy of ice and commerce
Why should writing a poem be any easier
than standing in line through the long night
for the discounted holy cup of the xbox?
Go be the moon. Keep your metaphors.
Your silver horn blaring through the trees
doesn’t work anymore. You’re out of the band
and according to this black dog under my desk
knocking her white-tipped tail against my leg,
I’m the big drum that booms the call to march.
Nov. 29, 2013
I got a package in the mail today from one of my favorite poets, Anne Caston. Wild woman of words, you can never predict what treasure Anne has carefully wrapped and taped and marked with your name and address. In the past she’s given me:
a beautiful handmade quilt top
hand dyed fabrics
her book of poems
copies of new poems
hand made soap
Before she left Alaska, she gave me a little charm of orange haired theatre woman. I hung it above my bed. A little bright spot on the wall, I think of it as an eccentric stenographer taking down my dreams in short hand.
So today, this was in my package:
The motherfucker mug looks good next to the mermaid, don’t you think?
Anne, if you’re reading this, THANK YOU!!!! I LOVE IT!!!!
And I know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing at all times.
And for the rest of you reading this, if you don’t know Anne’s work, click on the link above for some of her poems. Explore the terrain of your own heart with her words. But be warned, Anne writes an unflinching truth and rarely provides safeguards in her poetry. That’s what makes her so brilliant.
BY ANNE CASTON
Madison, Wisconsin, 1996
I want to start an argument
with a tiger. I want to provoke him.
I want to growl back at him,
bare my teeth when he bares his
so we both flash the long sharp knives
of our conviction. I want to cross
the line. I want to call him out
from behind his leafy cover,
square my shoulders, match his crouch
and when he lunges, I want to lunge
so we crash against each other. I want
to tear his bizarre orange hide, bite into
his velvet throat. I want to suffer
his heavy blow to my chest,
I want him to open
my skin. I want him to stand
his ground so I can rise up
on my two legs against him, so we
can lock arms in a fierce embrace. I want
to push him back, I want him to shove
me back until we are both crazed
with rage, equally. I want the dust to rise
like an emptied arena around us. I want
to stay like this for days, deadlocked
for weeks, then years, constant until we shake
from exhaustion, caked in our bloods
and salivas, holding tight
to the others’ neck, breathing deep
the angry musk of a foe. I want
to hang on, to endure beyond logic,
until we could almost give it up,
go home—No! Impossible to forget,
no recourse but to live
straining hard against each other
while our opposing hearts drum:
one beats yes, one beats no,
the muscles’ rally to fight. I want
an oath to rise from my breast,
I want him to answer me back.
I want to fight a tiger to the death.
On the spectrum of things I hate, ranging from downright despicable to death is better than dealing with this, it goes like this:
vacuum the house
eat a lychee nut
go to church
write an artist’s statement
shake hands with George Bush and/or Dick Cheney
touch a spider
Honestly, you’d have to threaten me with a spider to get me to touch a spider. As for Bush and Cheney, they surely don’t like me, either. Alas.
Then there’s the artist’s statement. Evidently, I can write a hundred page play, no problemo! But ask me to write my “artist’s statement” in five hundred words or less and I got nothing. I’ve been working on applications for writers’ residencies all day. I know I am not the first or the last writer who hates these things. I’ve spent hours on this–hours I could have spent on, oh I don’t know, my actual writing.
But whereas spiders are just pure evil, artist’s statements are more of the necessary kind. So I will endeavor to persevere on this application for a writer’s residency instead of working on a play or a poem. In the meantime I offer my ars poetica, from a few years ago, my first attempt at my explanation of myself as an artist. I read it from time to time, just to remind myself.
For instance nothing in this world
not me making the poem or you
You know what poetry is to me,
God made a rabbit
set it in the grass,
Devil made a popgun
shot him in the ass
and goddamn if you don’t laugh.
It’s a poem, after all,
you’re supposed to.
Someone said of you once:
you are an apple unpicked
on the highest branch where harvesters
couldn’t reach you
up there where
the winds of heaven mix forever
with a sweet emotion
a place you and I converge
thee mine, I thine
and I ask you take my hand, take this, my body,
and years ago and years from now
when any of us true in love but truly writes,
it won’t matter if it’s Sappho or Jesus,
Shelley or Shakespeare or the man in a white apron
packing salt around a fresh leg of pork
for a six month cure in the cooler.
The words came from you,
they belong to you.
for Mit, Rudy and Son of Rudy
Monday morning always a zoo,
freight rolling in and the restaurants calling in
out of sirloins, out of tenderloins, out of pork chops
for godsakes and now it’s up to you
to stand hours cutting
the day into 8oz portions to replenish
the larder behind a city’s appetite for the weekend.
You work for the wage and live by the yield
and take five at the next coffee break
when you wipe your hands on your apron,
lean your hip against the cutting table
to cross your arms and listen
to the other meatcutter’s joke about the guy…
but the damn phone never quits ringing
and across town some executive chef
is clear out of bulk sausage
and the whole fucking world
is going to come to a bad end
if it’s not delivered before lunch.
Pick up your knife.
You belong to a class of people
named for a verb, to a trade of men
stained with blood. The red
on these steaks is vital, brilliant,
against white mylar, the only color
in the whole damn place.
400 each center cut tops.
You made them.
When I was in poem school, the myth–now realize poets hold myth as ultimate reality–so therefore the truth we used to tell about ourselves was according to the theory of six degrees of separation we have all at one time been intimate with Walt Whitman. I’m not quite sure how it works. His atoms into our atoms. Six degrees of sex. Looking backwards, body to body to body to body to body to the Great Ecstatic Poet.
Me and Walt.
You and Walt.
Your mom and dad and Walt. Wow.
Your great aunt Myrtle in her grave crumbling and becoming earth and Walt. (Way to go, Aunt Myrtle!)
Sex aside, when I read Whitman’s poems, they enter my body and soul. It’s poetry. It’s going to be intimate. For me, his poems are the song of us all. We are Whitman and he is us.
We imagine Whitman as the old grizzled poet, white beard and soulful eyes. What if we thought of him in terms of his voice and not his photograph. Below is a clip of the voice of Walt Whitman–well his voice as I hear it now. Listen to this young Whitman singing his song to us:
That young Whitman in the recording is my nephew in fourth grade. He’d asked to borrow my copy of Leaves of Grass. He wanted to take it school for show and tell. They were doing a unit on poetry. He wanted to show it to a girl but he would never admit that.
When I read Whitman now, that’s the voice I hear in my head. He’s young and discovering each word, exultant in the gallop of his lines, his tone like a clear bell chiming in our midst.
Here’s the text, the first page of Leaves of Grass, the 1855 edition.
I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease….observing a spear of summer grass.
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes….the shelves are crowded with perfumes,
I breathe the fragrance myself, and know it and like it,
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.
The atmosphere is not a perfume…. it has no taste of the distillation….it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever….I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
The smoke of my own breath,
Echos, ripples, and buzzed whispers…. loveroot, silkthread, crotch and vine,
My respiration and inspiration….the beating of my heart….the passing of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark colored sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,
The sound of the belched words of my voice….words loosed to the eddies of the wind,
Someone I knew died last night. Suddenly. Heart attack. His passing leaves an empty space in our community.
I didn’t know him well, but that’s beside the point. He was kind and creative and made the coolest puppets I’d ever seen. Each one was a work of art, distinct in their detail and personality. I used to wonder what his house looked like with a crowd of his creation filling it. If they all talked at once, what a fabulous cacophony!
He always encouraged me in my writing. Whenever he saw one of my plays he always made it a point to send a message congratulating me. That meant a lot. I know he’d seen a helluva lot of plays.
He was a member of the IATSE union, worked in the wings at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. When I attended plays there I could always see his distinct outline moving set pieces in the blue dark of the scene-change light. When he found out my play Rush was going to go up there this February, he messaged me to congratulate me and we made plans to celebrate with a beer at Darwins, his hangout pub right around the corner.
It’s the little things like that you look forward to. Sure, my play is going up, there’ll be opening night stuff happening, all the big deal stuff going on, but I thought it was really great that one of crew, one of the “cool” people in our theatre world, wanted to have a beer with me.
That beer is still going to happen. Anyone who wants to join me, Feb 14, yes, valentines, can lift a pint to Buzz Schwall and all the people who’ve touched our lives. All the people we miss.
Here in the Valley Between
Everything today asks the same question,
the great mystery our lives:
How long do we have here?
Across the inlet, two volcanoes
stare into the east, their steep faces
bathed in the soft light of this particular earth day.
But what of evening? when the sun
fires the atmosphere
and the inferno remembers
why it is here among us
–Creation and Destruction–
How audacious I am
brushing my teeth against decay, boiling water
for an egg three minutes from now, telling a friend I will attend
the Breast Cancer luncheon next Wednesday.
Tomorrow and tomorrow
and the day after that, I have plans
here in the valley between two volcanoes.
Probably not tonight, but eventually
they’ll shatter our sky. Let’s agree now to look
for each other in the morning.
Think of it as a green forest
where sun travels through
on no particular path,
with no real destination but the whole day itself.
There is song, the smell of earth,
a small table of water where the moon spreads her writings.
Each leaf is a green-lidded eye.
Love who you love. There is nothing
that does not see you.