August 1st, 2008

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Happy to be home -

I am happily home after a wonderful, exhausting trip away.   My lap-top was dying and the internet connection not satisfactory so I could rarely post and perhaps that is the way it should be.  I was in a valley, a place to interact and reflect.  Actually, I feel like I was dissolved and now it is time to put myself back together in a new, more open and edgy way.

I have so many thoughts, so much to share, and perhaps I will begin with the power of poetry.   Poetry is meant to incite and invite action.  This conference alternates each year between experimental and more formal work.  This was the experimental year.  How do we wake people up?

I will be sharing the material once I get it organized.  I have notebooks and notes scattered all over the place.  I want to emphasize that there are people writing.  We need to listen, buy and then read their books, and act.  Where I stayed there were three fiction writers, another poet, and a spouse of a fiction writer.  The fiction writers were stunned by the ferocity of the poets.  I really "got" that throughout history the poets have led the way.  They are not there to comfort.  They are meant to poke, prod and be a pain in the gut and heart.  They are our conscience, and I Nick Flynn, Claudia Rankine, and Brenda Hillman are masters at that.   I was too tired to hear Mark Doty speak, but I understand from the fiction writers that he was more gentle and accessible.  Brenda Hillman wears her code pink t-shirt and is in Washington and Berkeley demanding peace.  We need actions as well as words. 

Nick Flynn spoke on bewilderment.  Remember these words of G. W. Bush, the night before we invaded Iraq, 2003


            “The outcome of the current crisis is already determined.”



“The mistakes are there, waiting to be made.”

            Savielly Tartakower, chess grandmaster




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baby in the womb -

I am washing clothes and sorting through books and notes, and I realize Jon Carroll is back.   We need to take care of all that is in the womb.   There, too, is a place we change the world.

Jon Carroll - SF Chronicle - August 1, 2008

Now it can be told: The reason we went to Montreal is that our younger daughter, Shana, often known in this space as "the trapeze daughter," is six months pregnant. We wished to celebrate and talk and do adult things, but we didn't want to wait until she was very big and maybe cranky and we would be mostly a burden to her.

"Oh good, Daddy's in town. I'm going to lie down."

She is in wonderful spirits, still working (not at performing, of course, because duh), choreographing a routine for 30 trapeze artists for a celebration of Quebec's 400th anniversary, among other things. She looked radiant even when she was doing non-radiant things, like washing dishes. I am not sentimental about pregnancy - no, strike that. I am not sentimental about your pregnancy. Shana's pregnancy is a deeply moving event.

Don't blame me; blame my primal instincts.

The second day we were there, she told us that she'd made an appointment for all of us at something called UC Baby, a chain of Canadian ultrasound clinics. They do not provide any medical advice or diagnosis. Instead, they provide a half hour ultrasound experience, complete with still photographs in color available in DVD format. Relatives can join the prospective mother in the ultrasound room and, well, gawk.

I've seen a fair number of fetal ultrasound pictures, and I have had trouble making any sense of them at all. "Is that the head?" I'm thinking to myself while saying, "Oh, that's so wonderful." Often the photos just look like grainy undersea pictures of a pod of whales, or perhaps a coral formation. I'm glad doctors find them useful, but I find them confusing and weird.

We were going to be treated to a half hour of this. Not so sure about that. Two minutes, maybe, although I was definitely curious to see my second grandchild, little Deuce, as I've been thinking of her (she has a name now, a very good name, but the due date is not until November, so things could change. I can reveal that her middle name is Carroll. Such a fine choice).

(Just a word here to indicate that I know overpopulation is a growing problem, that baby worship is a Western fad with unlovely consequences, and our responsibility as citizens is - oh, shut up. This is my grandchild. This is little Deuce. This is not your local NPR station.)

So we get in the room, Shana and her husband, Seb, and Tracy and I. The technician rubs goop all over a mushroom-shaped wand and puts it on Shana's belly. At that moment, Viennese waltz music, heavy on the strings, starts up. Apparently it's the genre of choice for fetus viewing. It's a little eerie, because it makes me think of the movie "2001," which had, as you'll recall, images of a somewhat ominous child floating in the void.

So we get the first ultrasound picture, on a nice big flat-screen TV, and it looks like all the other ultrasound pictures. "Definitely a girl," says the technician. Bwah? She moves the computer arrow over to illustrate the distinguishing feature. I'll be darned. Then she tries another view and - it's like one of those optical illusions that look like masses of dots until your brain sorts out the data. A face. A nose! An arm!

"Ten fingers," says the technician. Such good news.

And then the photos start in earnest, black-and-white standard trapezoidal ultrasound images interspersed with square color photos - looking a lot like old-time Polaroids - of the Deuce looking fabulously adorable and, may I say, very, very intelligent. It's not as if you could tell what she would look like as an adult, exactly, but you could tell that she had a big nose - "and big cheeks," says the technician, helpfully.

Plus, she moves! Not a surprise to you, perhaps, but I was bowled over. She puts her fist in her mouth, she puts her foot in her mouth. Such a flexible baby. (Well, she was in the fetal position - why did that surprise me? - so the distance between toe and tongue was not large.) Another view, and we can see her tongue moving in and out, drinking the amniotic fluid. (Is this Too Much Information? Avert your eyes, then. You should have seen it coming.)

She yawns! A stupid fetus trick!

I should tell you that there is yelling in the ultrasound room. There is pointing and gasping and back-pounding. Half an hour is not nearly enough time because, you know, she might yawn again. Some of us are crying, and I notice that my cheeks are wet - probably an allergic reaction to the goop. Or the pollen. Or the sudden overwhelming joy. 

alan's beach photo

wrapping around understanding -

Nick Flynn was one of the instructors at the Napa Valley Writer's Conference.   I just googled him and this poem came up.  It is helpful for me, because sometimes in the workshop in which I participated someone would read a poem, and I would like it, and then, it would be taken apart, and I would still be with my initial response, while also understanding the validity of the critique.  Maybe in the case of this poem, there is no excuse for such a  critique, but it allows me comfort and assurance in some of my responses.  

Alan Dugan Telling Me I Have A Problem With Time

He reads my latest attempt at a poem
and is silent for a long time, until it feels
like that night we waited for Apollo,
my mother wandering in and out of her bedroom, asking,
Haven't they landed yet? At last
Dugan throws it on the table and says,
This reads like a cheap detective novel
and I've got nothing to say about it. It sits,
naked and white, with everyone's eyes
running over it. The week before
he'd said I had a problem with time,
that in my poems everything
kept happening at once. In 1969,
the voice of Mission Control
told a man named Buzz
that there was a bunch of guys turning blue
down here on Earth, and now I can understand
it was with anticipation, not sickness. Next,
Dugan says, Let's move on. The attempted poem
was about butterflies and my recurring desire
to return to a place I've never been.
It was inspired by reading this
in a National Geographic: monarchs
stream northward from winter roosts in Mexico,
laying their eggs atop milkweed
to foster new generations along the way.
With the old monarchs gone (I took this line as the title)
and all ties to the past ostensibly cut
the unimaginable happens--butterflies
that have never been to that plateau in Mexico
roost there the next winter. . . .I saw this
as a metaphor for a childhood I never had,
until Dugan pointed out
that metaphor has been dead for a hundred years.
A woman, new to the workshop, leans
behind his back and whispers, I like it,
but the silence is seamless, as deep
as outer space. That night in 1969
I could turn my head from the television and see
the moon
filling the one pane over the bed completely
as we waited for Neil Armstrong
to leave his footprints all over it.

Nick Flynn

alan - joshua tree bloom

Are people afraid of poetry?



Nick Flynn - Someone said every piece of paper has an indeterminate value. You can print money on it, a deed on it, a will on it. But as soon as you put a poem on it it's worth less than what it was before.