Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

Paterson Jarmusch

Monday, May 29th, 2017

queenandjack

Queen and Jack drawing by Todd

 

Objects have names (what our dreams

come to). “It’s what I want.”

Begin asking.

          Kate Greenstreet

We recently watched Jim Jarmusch’s new movie Paterson and I loved it from first frame to last. Marcia loved Paterson, too, and we have been talking about the film for days—a sure sign of a movie beyond the ordinary.

Adam Driver portrays the main character in Paterson, a man named Paterson, an introspective and emotionally subdued fellow; and Paterson is also the city in New Jersey where the character Paterson is a bus driver circa 2016 and lives with his sweetly zany artist wife portrayed by an angelic Golshifteh Farahani.

Paterson is also the name of an epic poem by William Carlos Williams about this same Paterson, New Jersey, founded in 1792 to harness the power of the great falls of the Passaic River. The movie is, among many things, a tribute to William Carlos Williams and his enduring influence on poetry and literature and art in America and around the world; and more specifically, his influence on Jim Jarmusch.

How would I describe William’s influence on literature and art? While running the risk of annoying those more credentialed than I regarding William Carlos Williams and his place in the evolution of poetry, I would say his lyrical non-rhyming poems explore abstract concepts—death, life, time, love, change, sorrow, joy—through the contemplation of things and happenstance composing everyday reality. His poetry was certainly not the first to do so, but he was among the early escapees from rhyming poetry, his sensibility modern and non-paternal, and his poems about birds and wheelbarrows and flowers and paintings and going to work and changing seasons and grieving and love are beautifully wrought, musical, humorous, unique, and accessible to those who don’t know Latin.

I first collided with Williams’ poetry when I was seventeen, a senior in high school, 1967. I had recently fallen under the spell of the poetry and personalities of Philip Whalen and David Meltzer, so visited Kepler’s bookstore in Menlo Park to see if they had any books by Whalen or Meltzer.

“Sorry, no,” said the all-knowing clerk, “but we’ve got several volumes of William Carlos Williams. Huge influence on the Beats.”

So I bought Williams’ Pictures from Brueghel and Selected Poems, and devoured them countless times over the next several years, feeling certain those poems were antidotes to the ills of growing up in middle-class suburbia. Fifty years older now, I rarely read William Carlos Williams, but while watching Paterson felt thousands of poetry synapses lighting up and burning brightly—much of that frisson owing to my youthful imbibing Williams and some of the poets he inspired.

In this day and age of political and economic chaos, when most American movies are painfully unoriginal sensory assaults created for the entertainment of not-very-bright children stuck in the bodies of adults, Paterson, a contemplative movie about a poet bus driver who lives and breathes poetry, is so unusual and gratifying for the likes of me, I must heap praise on Jim Jarmusch.

Things got complicated.

“It’s hidden

in the ordinary.”

(a shot that everybody

had

and used)

            Kate Greenstreet

For me, Paterson is a profound call to share our gifts with other humans. To not share our gifts is to go against nature, to betray the purpose of being human. We are here to share our thoughts, our feelings, our food, our wealth, our love, and our creations. Our brains and bodies evolved to interact and collaborate in complex ways with other brains and bodies; and to constantly resist such interactions and collaborations will make us unhappy and unwell.

On two occasions in the movie, Paterson bumps into other poets—people he doesn’t know—and is privileged to hear those poets recite poems they have written. As a result of hearing these poems, Paterson comes out of the shell of his emotional privacy and encourages his fellow poets to keep pursuing their art, to keep sharing their poems with others. As I experienced the movie, the universe clearly put these people in Paterson’s way to show him how to proceed with his life and poetry, a way he resists until…

Where nothing was, it had to be created.

We can’t make everything we need inside.

            Kate Greenstreet

Those two lines from Kate Greenstreet’s poem phone tap from her collection of poems case sensitive, elucidate Paterson’s challenge, the challenge for every poet: to birth a new reality, to bring forth a new world, through our words. Australian aboriginals believe they cause the physical world to manifest through their songs—they call it “singing up the country”.

Which reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s lines from his poem Ash Wednesday, lines I used to preface my novel Louie & Women.

Because I know that time is always time

And place is always and only place

And what is actual is actual only for one time

And only for one place

I rejoice that things are as they are and

I renounce the blessed face

And renounce the voice

Because I cannot hope to turn again

Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something

Upon which to rejoice

And that reminds me of another thing I loved about seeing Paterson: the movie inspired me to re-engage with favorite poems written by favorite poets, one poet and poem leading to another poet and poem—a delightful way to spend time. So if you love poetry, or if poetry was a formative force in your life, I think you will enjoy Jarmusch’s movie Paterson. And if you love poetry and movies, you may also enjoy the poetry and videopoems of Kate Greenstreet, who graciously allowed me to punctuate this essay with lines from her poems.

Pomp & Circumstance

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

 

sextant

Sextant drawing by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2014)

“Everything in life matters and ultimately has a place, an impact and a meaning.” Laurens Van Der Post

Been one of those weeks where every conversation with all kinds of different kinds of people began with talk of the drought and the state of our personal water supplies, and from there we spun off into discussions of the swiftly changing reality of what it is to be human on this little planet that used to seem so vast.

“The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.” John Ruskin

You might have missed the news, or simply not given a hoot, that Stephen Hawking recently announced there are no black holes. Thus thousands of astronomers, physicists, science teachers, and graduate students are in various stages of shock that the foundation of their careers has been decreed by Mr. Black Hole himself to be a misconception, and that their decades of work have been about what isn’t there, and that billions of dollars spent on black hole-related research was essentially a big waste of money, not to mention time and space. Oops.

What made Hawking’s proclamation especially interesting to me was that the widespread foundational scientific belief in the existence of black holes was apparently not scientific at all, but mere conjecture. Hawking and his influential colleagues have abruptly changed their minds, so everyone else (including millions of people who ponied up the cash to buy Hawking’s A Brief History of Time) better change their minds, too, or risk…what? Not agreeing with the emperor who now blithely admits he wasn’t wearing any clothes, though he kind of thought he was, sort of? This is science? You betcha. Remember: medical doctors all over our scientific nation used to prescribe cigarettes to ameliorate symptoms of anxiety. Oops.

I hunted up Hawking’s explanation for why he and the entire scientific community were wrong about black holes, and I present his explanation here for your enjoyment. For extra fun, I suggest you imagine John Cleese and Eric Idle of Monty Python impersonating balding scientists taking turns presenting this blatantly self-contradictory proclamation—also pure conjecture if not outright balderdash.

“The absence of event horizons means that there are no black holes, in the sense of regimes from which light can’t escape to infinity. There are however apparent horizons that persist for a period of time. This suggests that black holes should be redefined as metastable bound states of the gravitational field. It will also mean that the CFT on the boundary of anti de Sitter space will be dual to the whole anti de Sitter space, and not merely the region outside the horizon.

“The no hair theorems imply that in a gravitational collapse the space outside the event horizon will approach the metric of a Kerr solution. However inside the event horizon, the metric and matter fields will be classically chaotic. It is the approximation of this chaotic metric by a smooth Kerr metric that is responsible for the information loss in gravitational collapse. The chaotic collapsed object will radiate deterministically but chaotically. It will be like weather forecasting on Earth. That is unitary, but chaotic, so there is effective information loss. One can’t predict the weather more than a few days in advance.”

“There are two ways of seeing objects, one being simply to see them, and the other to consider them attentively.” Nicolas Poussin

Songs nowadays are no longer songs as I used to think of songs being songs. That is to say, the things I still call songs can be listened to with my eyes closed. But the popular songs of today, the Grammy winners and the songs on all the charts of today’s music must be seen in order to be properly heard? Songs today, not the ones we oldsters think of as songs, but the new ones the youngsters live by, are inextricably bound to little movies for which music is soundtrack, and most of these soundtracks are composed of many layers of synthesized sonic noise underpinned by mechanically generated rhythm tracks designed to support the visuals comprising the little movies.

“Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter: second, telling other people to do so.” Bertrand Russell

I like that definition of work: altering the position of matter. I would add that for some position altering of matter one earns money, and for some position altering of matter one does not earn money; and there are two kinds of money: regular money and gig money.

Gig money is worth much more than regular money. I used to think the added buying power of gig money had something to do with black holes, but now that black holes no longer exist, perhaps the extra buying power is attributable to anti de Sitter space, but I wouldn’t bet on it. I think the extraordinary nature of gig money is alchemical. Now before you climb on your scientific high horse and declare alchemy a pile of mystical infantile wishful thinking black hole rabbit poop, feast your eyes on the following from Smithsonian Magazine: “There is growing evidence that alchemists seem to have performed legitimate experiments, manipulated and analyzed the world in interesting ways and reported genuine results. And many of the great names in the canon of modern science took note, including Sir Isaac Newton and Lavoisier.”

What do I mean by gig money? The word gig has come to mean job in today’s world. “I have a regular nine-to-five gig for a software company, but my main thing is recording random street sounds and turning them into rhythm tracks,” is common parlance today, but a gig used to mean a performance, usually of jazz or poetry, made with the hope of possibly making some money from the performance, but maybe not making any money. It is this maybe/maybe not making money aspect of a gig that endows gig money with its alchemical mystical extra-potent power. Why? Because nature abhors a vacuum or nature doesn’t abhor a vacuum. You choose.

For instance, one night I made forty bucks for reading my short stories and telling jokes in a used bookstore in Sacramento, the audience unexpectedly large, the donations jar overflowing. With that gig money I bought groceries for the entire week, went out for Mexican food twice, bought new guitar strings and three pairs of pants at the Salvation Army, and still had money left over. So I bought a pile of Russell Hoban novels at the used bookstore, gave ten bucks to a friend, bought my sweetheart some flowers, and splurged on three goldfish for the backyard pond, and I still had money left over. And if I hadn’t gone and cultivated negative thoughts about an annoying person who was just doing the best he could, I might still have that gig money because thoughts are actions and the karmic wheel rolls on ceaselessly. Which is why we should always endeavor to be kind and generous even when we’re just sitting still with our eyes closed listening to songs.

 “There are two kinds of fools: one says, ‘This is old, therefore it is good’; the other says, ‘This is new, therefore it is better.’” W.R. Inge

Currently in the throes of rewriting my new novel, I am carving up my printed-out pages with red ink flowing from a pen held in my hand attached to my arm and directed by my brain far from the madding computer and text on a screen. Writing longhand and editing longhand are considered by most writers under the age of fifty, and even by many writers over fifty, to be antiquated practices inferior to doing everything on the screen from start to finish. I beg to differ, but who cares if I can tell by reading a few paragraphs of a novel or short story whether the author composed his or her words longhand or on a computer? That doesn’t mean one way of writing is better than the other, but it does prove (to my satisfaction) that there is a qualitative difference between those two ways of writing, and I find the quality of one of those ways vastly superior to the other. But that’s just me. And speaking of black holes, here is a recently crafted paragraph from my new novel.

In the near distance Donald sees the sign known to every alcoholic and pool player for a hundred miles around, a gigantic square of blinking neon, pink and green and blue, spelling Hotsy Totsy, a misleading moniker if there ever was one. Home to three pool tables, a long bar, seventeen bar stools, six warped plywood booths, two hideous bathrooms, and a juke box full of rock music from the 1960’s and 70’s—nothing after 1975—Hotsy Totsy is a low-ceilinged beer-soaked bunker presided over by the bald and portly Hell’s Angel Calvin Jensen, owner, bartender, bouncer and popcorn maker, popcorn and peanuts the primary foodstuffs available at Hotsy Totsy.

The Source

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

 The Source Cropped

Snail Mail photo by Yogini Lena

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2014)

“The fishermen know the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.” Vincent Van Gogh

Every now and again I will come across an article or a documentary or a book about an artist no one ever heard of until that artist died and it was discovered she left behind paintings or drawings or sculptures or musical compositions or novels or poems or mathematical equations or architectural designs hailed by some authority or another as works of towering genius. This kind of art is nowadays referred to as Outsider Art, which I think is a silly name for the work of artists who are anonymous while they’re alive, either by choice or through the exigencies of fate, since that definition includes nearly all the artists there have ever been or ever will be—outsiders.

And just what are these creative people outside of? This is a good time of year to be asking that question, as we are in the thick of the annual awards season, when members of our tiny cultural elite give each other awards for being members of the tiny cultural elite that jealously guard and control the spigots of what most people in our culture watch and read and listen to. Those who win Oscars and Pulitzers and Golden Globes and Grammys and Emmys and Tony’s and MacArthurs are the visible insiders, and they owe their memberships in that exclusive club to the less visible but much more powerful members of the ruling elite. Everyone else is an outsider.

“Do not quench your inspiration and your imagination; do not become the slave of your model.” Vincent Van Gogh

I’ve known many writers and artists and musicians in my sixty-four years of stumbling around, and though I cannot prove scientifically with double binding cross lateral placebo control group studies what I am about to aver, I know this to be absolutely true: insiders imitate, outsiders innovate. Which is not to say innovators don’t become insiders—they do. And then, no matter how hard they resist the ferocious forces governing the inside, they become imitators of themselves or imitators of other insiders—the only cure a return to the outside.

“So impossible

The odds against it

Too high and yet

We must feel free to do with it

Whatever we can, for laughs

or for serious” Philip Whalen

Once upon a time a long time ago I’m minding around sitting my own business when I get a call from Crazy Cat, and I mean in-and-out-of-mental-hospitals-on-a-semi-regular-basis Crazy Cat, and he says, “Tawd, I got this space, man, a big space, a huge space, a magic space, a miracle, you’ll see, and I want to put on a show, you know, poets and musicians, and Larry and Lisa said they’ll paint a huge like backdrop of stars and unicorns and shit with glow-in-black-light paint, and Tim said he can light the place like Las Vegas, you know, neon tubes and spotlights and sparklers, and Twilby said he’ll do the sound with those same gigantic speakers he used for the famous concert he did at the Esquire, and Margot is jazzed out of her mind about running some modern dance between the readers, and Eric and Gino and Jessica said they’d play music all fuckin’ night, and the only thing is…I kinda already told everybody you were doing the show, and they said if you were doing the show they would definitely do it, too, and so I kinda already printed up the posters and put them up around town and put your name at the top so…”

Now I had told this Flipped Out Feline if he ever did this kind of thing to me again I would not only boycott the show, I would call every peep he used my name to con (because I am known hereabouts to have a verifiable fan base numbering well over three) and blow the whistle on his crazy ass…but for some unforeseen undoubtedly mystical reason at that particular moment on that particular day I was feeling especially outside of everything including myself, you know, and feeling gruesomely grim about the dearth of original anything in our kicked-to-shit culture, and I was longing for some kind of zany collaborative improvisational happening to lift my suicidal gloom, so I say to Crazy Cat, “Okay, I’ll do it, you sneaky lunatic, but we have to meet right now and put a stop to you promising every cock and pussy you meet star billing on a roster that by now may number in the dozens.”

I take a quick shower and dress in artfully stained blue jeans and a Ludwig Von Hendrix T-shirt (pink with red lettering) and try not to think about the last time this psycho duped me into headlining a happening in an underground garage we absolutely packed with hundreds of peeps ready to partake of the random ferment of artists chosen by dumb luck to strut their stuff when Crazy Cat took the stage before anybody else had a chance, and he snarled so ingloriously for such a murderously long time about the genius of his penis and his intimate relationship (on the astral plane) with Kerouac and Ginsberg and Marilyn Monroe that those hundreds ran away like someone had set the place on fire with noxious gas.

And if not for the intercession of Crazy Cat’s insanely cute intelligent gorgeously ultra-reasonable girlfriend Kitty (why was she with that maniac?) I would have slugged that crazy jerk just so I could say, “And then I slugged that crazy jerk!” But Kitty purred me out of my violent impulse with paragraphs of libido-tickling innuendo and actually made a viable case that Crazy Cat’s garage-emptying diatribe might have been culturally significant, however immeasurable, and there was no telling what kind of poetry and music and new thinking his outburst inspired (subtext: please imagine sex with me, frequently and deeply satisfyingly, okay? Okay!)

So we meet at the Big Buzz Bistro, Crazy Cat unshaven, unwashed, and ugly as sin, Kitty clothed in a pleasingly prurient purple paisley cleavage-celebrating dress clinging to her every glorious curve, and we drink lattes out of huge green bowls and get so high I’m sure the barista must have spiked my java with at least cocaine and maybe opium, and with Kitty taking notes in a gigantic sketchpad full of superb Renoir-like nudes she’s drawn of men and women and women and women, her postmodern handwriting maddeningly abstract yet entirely readable, we design the show and I have Crazy Cat sign in blood that he will perform dead last and I retain the right to kill him before during and after the show for any reason whatsoever and he waives his right to haunt me in perpetuity etc.

Then we go to the huge old warehouse that Crazy Cat scored for the happening, a former hotrod hangar smelling vaguely of motor oil and not so vaguely of wino piss and we walk around in a state of wonder, for truly this is the Sistine Cavern of the Forgotten Grandchildren of the Lost Beatnik Tribes of Brooklyn, and we are Diaghilev and Barnum and Colette imagining the divine transformation with a soundtrack by Miles and Cannonball and Satie, and I envision the baby grand bathed in a baby blue spotlight as I appear in a baby turquoise T-shirt and baggy black corduroys and red ballet slippers, adjusting the piano bench to fit my tush while a big silver potato of a microphone descends from the rafters on a silver chain glittering in the soft white spot that frames the poets I accompany with quietly tasty noodling.

And after weeks of honing the unhonable, the mythic night of nights finally arrives as fierce winds howl and shake the roof of the old hangar mobbed with ugly beautiful young old hip square white black brown stoned drunk straight lucid sad happy crazy good souls yearning for even just a phrase of inspired something to hang onto as they make their way through yet another tomorrow on the battlefield of what who where why how will we find our way to love? And will she be waiting? How will he know me? How will I know her? Etc. And most important: will we be brave enough to fight through those bloody roadblocks of self-doubt and dare to say to whomsoever it may concern, “You! Yes you! Wanna dance?”

Afterwards in the wreckage of whatever we did, our collective heart dancing to an irresistible bossa nova beat, scores of peeps hurrying home to get laid with the fantabulous energy of what just transpired, and with our ideas of the possible expanded way beyond our ideas of the possible, Kitty more beautiful than (name your favorite goddess) is packing up her flashlights and ukulele and harmonica and tambourine and masks of comedy and tragedy and making ready to leave with Crazy Cat though I know she’s gotta love me more, I ask her, “Why you going home with him and not with me?”

To which she replies in a husky honeyed voice that makes me love dizzy every time she speaks, “Because he’s the one puts on these shows, honey pie sugar pea cute boy piano guy. He puts on these shows with nothing but chutzpah. From nothing came the universe. From nothing came you. From nothing came me. He is the gritty unwashed source, I his sorceress. Mazel tov! See you in your dreams.”

Shameless Self-Promotion

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

wildgardener2

Wild Gardener Black painting by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2013)

“And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world—unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.” e.e. cummings

In those long ago days when I was invited to read from my novels in bookstores and libraries, and for college audiences and writers groups, I was frequently asked if I had any helpful advice for people who wanted to become writers and make their livings from writing. This was before the advent of personal computers and digital everything, before people began writing with their thumbs on phones, and before a new myth conquered the collective psyche. That new myth goes something like this: Writing novels is easy. Anyone can write a novel without any practice and without ever having written a short story or even a viable paragraph. Just do it! And then publish your novel online and…voila!

Myths take hold and become established because they reflect a strong collective belief or wish. The myth that writing a novel is easy reflects a strong collective desire for everything to be easy. The suggestion by e.e. cummings that even just beginning to master the art of writing a good poem may take many years of practice, is the quantum opposite of the new myth about how easy it is to write poetry and fiction. After all, poems are just stacks of lines of words, right? So say today’s college academics and snake oil merchants making millions running the thousands of Creative Writing MFA programs now extant in America, programs wherein the only requirement for getting an MFA is enough money to pay the exorbitant tuition.

How hard can stacking lines of words be, especially now that the latest vogue in academic poetics is for those stacks of lines of words to not make the least bit of sense—literal, symbolic, or otherwise. Indeed, making sense is now considered a bad thing by academic poetry professors. Logic and meaning and connectivity are clearly signs of enslavement to something or other and must be avoided at all costs. Strike out any combination of words that might be construed to possibly make some sort of sense. Embrace the random whatever. Okay! Let’s get stacking.

Contrast the new anybody-can-do-anything-with-ease myth with cummings suggesting, “If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed.” Ten or fifteen years of hard work? Nobody gonna buy that app.

In any case, way back when I was presenting my published works to a public still abiding by the old myth that it takes years of practice and persistence to possibly succeed as a writer or an artist, I was forever being asked for advice about how to proceed on the artist’s path. After several bumbling attempts to give helpful answers, I settled on the following. “I have two words of advice for anyone who wants to be a writer or an artist in our society, and those two words are low overhead. The less time you must spend making money to pay for rent and food, the more time you will have, as cummings put it, to fight and work and feel your way to the beginnings of mastery.”

Ah but mastery of the art form is only part of the struggle if an artist hopes to make money from his or her creations. And it is on this trying-to-make-money-from-art leg of the artist’s journey when most artists give up their quests, for this is the part of the process largely controlled by others. This is the part of the journey when the artist learns the painful truth that making money from art in America has little or nothing to do with art and everything to do with selling one’s self.

How ironic! Having worked with hundreds of writers as a teacher and editor, and having known hundreds of artists, I feel confident in saying that the vast majority of writers and artists in our society are introverts, many of them extremely introverted and painfully shy. Yet nearly all the successful artists and writers in America, as measured by the amount of money made from their creations, are extroverts. Indeed, all the most commercially successful of my former students and clients are minimally talented, while none of the several brilliant writers I worked with has had any commercial success to speak of.

This was not always the case. American literature and music and art prior to the advent of television and mass media and the corporate takeover of culture, was peopled with many painfully shy introverts represented by savvy extroverted agents and publishers who recognized the value of those oddballs’ genius.

So what? What’s wrong with most of today’s popular authors being beautiful and handsome and sexy and coming off well on talk shows and infomercials? Sure their books aren’t very good, but some of the books are kind of okay. Aren’t they? And besides, who cares about making money from art now that anybody can publish his or her book online and no one will stop him or her. That’s great, isn’t it? Artistic freedom from the tyranny of corporate lap dogs. Power to the people. A global creative renaissance via YouTube and podcasts and cyber sharing! Right on!

Yes! Nowadays anyone can publish anything and record anything and draw anything and say anything and film anything and offer those anythings to the world. And I’ve studied many of the ways people do that kind of sharing and I think that’s…yeah, exactly. Okay. But because I am a painfully shy introverted techno doofus detached from all cyber social network sites, as well as being an old-fashioned diehard three-dimensionalite, and because shameless self-promotion is a necessity for the cottage-industry artist of our time to eke out a living amidst the new electronic digital smartphone e-everything reality, I offer the following for you to reject or embrace or ignore or respond to.

Shameless Self-Promotion Presents

Todd’s New Stuff For You and To Give As Gifts

Helloooo out there wherever you are. I’ve got two new creations for you to possibly buy along with lots of somewhat older goodies you may wish to consider buying. If you’ve never bought anything of mine, that’s okay. Please don’t let that stop you from doing something you’ve never done before. I hope you’ll buy multiple things from me and in so doing support the arts and stir the synergetic pot and be happily surprised at how good my books and music are. This my hope.

I just got my shipment of Incongroovity, my fourth piano-centric CD, and I’m selling this entrancing album for a mere ten bucks. I still call them albums and array the tracks to be listened to as an album, though the new norm of perception is random individual track downloads, and you can do the download thing with Incongroovity, too, from iTunes and CD Baby etc. But you might love the original art I made to package the disc. Talk about a neato stocking stuffer. This is it. Nine groovacious piano instrumentals, one song Real Good Joe (a stirring tune about coffee and love) and two evocative and sensual poems set to piano music.

And I just picked up my second batch of my novella Oasis Tales of the Conjuror from Zo, Mendocino’s premiere copy shop. Illustrated by the author, each handsome comb-bound copy is individually and extravagantly signed and numbered by the author. Oasis Tales of the Conjuror is the story of Anza, a clairvoyant, and his family and friends who live in a walled oasis in a time of relative peace following an era of apocalyptic war and famine. The tiny paradise is home to artisan farmers and is remarkably self-sustaining. Allied to a great city, the oasis is on the brink of new disaster as its population begins to outstrip its food supply. Through a series of connected tales, Anza and the people of the oasis must overcome escalating challenges to their continuance, which they do in creative and harmonious ways. The stories are humorous, dramatic, and mysterious, driven by the imperatives of community, love, and survival. Only seventeen (17) bucks a copy, you may want to get several because…why not? To further whet your appetite, you can read the first three chapters of Oasis Tales of the Conjuror at Todd’s web site UnderTheTableBooks.com.

At this same web site you can listen gratis to big chunks of audio versions of Todd’s novels and short stories, sample music from Todd’s music CDs, peruse his art, and buy books and cards and music with a credit card or email Todd to arrange to pay with check or cash. And no matter how many of these wonderful creations you buy, shipping is only five bucks. Such a deal!

So there it is, my shameless self-promotion for 2013—my response to the new digital age. I may be out of step, out of time, out of gas, and out to lunch, but as I climbed the steep hill from the village yesterday, my knapsack full of the next twenty copies of Oasis Tales of the Conjuror, I felt some invisible power lift my pack so the load did not weigh too heavily upon me. And as I began to flag on the home stretch and to doubt the wisdom of my seemingly retrograde strategy, there came a delicious tail wind that propelled me onward.

Connections

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2012)

“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” Woody Allen

The stock market was way up yesterday on news that Bank of America announced that he (being a gigantic person according to the Supreme Court) plans to cut sixteen thousand jobs by Christmas. How nice. What a fine and humane time to fire sixteen thousand people in order to increase quarterly profits for a quarter or two.

“Everything in life matters and ultimately has a place, an impact and a meaning.” Laurens Van Der Post

So I was in the hardware store buying screws and varnish and masking tape and grout and glue, and having a laugh with the fellow helping me find things (about the trials and tribulations and triumphs and compromises of fixing things), when a couple entered the store and my Super Wealthy People alarm went off. That is to say, having grown up in Atherton, a town that is not really a town but an enclave for super wealthy people and those who serve them, a shiver passes through me when one or more of these folks comes near, and then I try to get away as fast as I can.

The woman was elegant and beautiful and perfectly coiffed and wearing a gray silk dress and a strand of fat white pearls and these amazingly svelte red leather boots, an ensemble that probably cost as much as most people’s cars, and the man was wearing a shirt and trousers I would more likely frame and put on the wall than wear. As is the habit of many super wealthy people, the woman walked up to the fellow helping me find things and began speaking to him as if I did not exist and he and I were not already having a conversation, because as far as this beautiful wealthy woman was concerned I was invisible.

“I know you probably don’t carry the kind of thing we’re looking for,” she said to the fellow who had previously been helping me find things. Then she laughed in a sophisticated sort of way and added, “This being Mendocino and all, but…we’re looking for poison. To kill weeds.”

“Oh, we’ve got poison for killing weeds,” said the fellow who had previously been helping me find things. “What kind of weeds are you wanting to kill?”

“They have it,” she said, turning to her husband who was peering into his phone and frowning gravely. “Tell him what we want it for.”

“We have a place here,” said her husband, flourishing his phone like a baton. “About a mile south of here. We only get up here a few times a year and there are these weeds that grow in the gravel driveway. We have them pulled, but then they come back. We want to kill them for good. Do you have a poison that will do that?”

Another fellow who helps me find things in the hardware store beckoned to me and I moved away from the Super Wealthy people to pay for my purchases and make my escape, but not until I heard the fellow who had previously been helping me say to the super wealthy people, “Well, I don’t know that anything will kill weeds forever. Even the strongest poison eventually dissipates.”

“Oh,” said the woman, pouting in a sophisticated sort of way, “but it’s so annoying to turn into our driveway and find those weeds there again.”

“Well,” said the fellow who had previously been helping me, “you could always pave the driveway. Weeds don’t grow through asphalt.”

“But we like the gravel,” said the woman. “The rustic feeling of the tires crunching on the gravel.”

“How about something that would last five years?” said the man, nodding authoritatively. “Or three? We could have someone apply it every three years.”

“There’s only two things that money can’t buy—that’s true love and home-grown tomatoes.” Guy Clark

I was thinking about those super wealthy people and the poison they wanted to buy as I was reading about the suddenly vanishing Greenland ice sheet, a shocking turn of events that even the most savvy of ice sheet scientists hadn’t expected to happen for some decades, if ever. And now the ice is gone. The ramifications of this astonishing disappearance can hardly be imagined, but oceans rising and catastrophic weather events are certainly to be expected; and there is nothing to be done about this unfolding disaster in the short term except to fasten our seatbelts, so to speak. In the long term, we can stop burning fossil fuels and, it seems to me, stop using poison to kill weeds in gravel driveways.

Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe I’m no more environmentally responsible than those weed killing wealthy people. After all, I drive a little truck that runs on gasoline and I turn on myriad electric lights to banish the darkness, and I use a computer and buy clothes made in China. And, in truth, people of all economic classes in America use poison to kill weeds. We all contribute to the sum total synergy wreaking havoc on the natural world, and we all have the opportunity to lessen our contributions, if only we will.

In related news, the net worth of the four hundred richest Americans grew by thirteen percent in the past year to 1.7 trillion dollars, while twenty-eight states report large increases in unemployment. Hmm. The stock market goes up when corporations fire lots of people, and the four hundred richest Americans, philanthropists all, I’m sure, keep getting richer and richer, and at an accelerating pace, just as the ice sheets are melting at an accelerating pace.

“There are two ways of seeing objects, one being simply to see them, and the other to consider them attentively.” Nicolas Poussin

I learned about the phenomenon of ephemeralization from reading Buckminster Fuller’s Critical Path, which Bucky defines in his stream-of-consciousness way as “the invisible chemical, metallurgical, and electronic production of ever-more-efficient and satisfyingly effective performance with the investment of ever-less weight and volume of materials per unit function formed or performed.” An illustration of this would be that the first moderately successful computer was the size of a huge office building and nowadays our little personal computers are thousands of times faster and more efficient and sophisticated than that original behemoth.

Bucky believed that ephemeralization would ultimately provide humanity with everything we needed to live successfully on spaceship earth without our needing to keep burning fossil fuels and destroying the environment. He also believed that computers and the worldwide interweb could provide the means for a shift in global awareness that would bring an end to war and overpopulation and the mistreatment of women and children and the needless destruction of the environment. Alas, computers and the worldwide interweb have not saved us, nor have they slowed our ravenous gobbling of the forests and oceans and mountains. Indeed, as our computers have gotten smaller and faster, the poor have gotten more plentiful and the richest four hundred people…

 “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” Edith Wharton

Many years ago I ran the Creative Writing program at the California State Summer School for the Arts, my students talented teens, one of whom, a sassy eighteen-year-old vixen, presented me with the book of poems Rain by William Carpenter, and said, “I want to have this man’s child.”

I read the book that night and found his poems as exciting as great short stories. I then wrote to Bill Carpenter and he and I eventually became pen pals. I told him that I was using his poems to inspire my young charges, and that certain of his poems seemed to help unlock their creative flow. Here is one of those poems that came to mind as I was writing this essay.

THE ECUADORIAN SAILORS

The Ecuadorian sailors arrive in Bucksport.

They stare at the American girls who stand

on the oil wharf in shorts and halters, eating

pistachio ice cream in the long Maine afternoons

as the sun drops behind the refinery. Evenings,

the Ecuadorians gather on deck. From the town hall

you can hear their slow, passionate music

as one of the officers, immaculately dressed,

sings something about love, about a man murdered,

a woman stolen in the night. The Bucksport girls

throw daisies to the Ecuadorians, who place them

behind their ears, and the officer sings about

a flower blooming in a forgotten place. The next

morning, the girls wear yellow flowers between

their breasts, but the sailors do not see them.

They want to shop in the American stores. They move

through Bucksport talking rapidly. Soon they find

Laverdiere’s Discount Drug Store, where you can buy

anything. A line of Ecuadorian sailors streams

from the ship down Main Street to Laverdiere’s.

Another line returns, carrying brown paper bags.

Where the two meet, they talk and touch fingers

like ants describing the source of food and pleasure.

Some have small bags with radios and calculators,

others have large mysterious bags. Two of them

carry a color television while a third holds the

rabbit-ear antenna and tells them where not to step.

One solitary man carries a red snow shovel, as if,

when he brings the shovel home to Ecuador, it

will snow in his village for the first time since

the Pleistocene. When Laverdiere’s closes, girls

come to the ship with long dresses and daisies

plaited in their hair. The air fills with music

from guitars, with emotions like red and blue rain-

forest parrots that no one in Bucksport has ever seen.

Each Ecuadorian sailor invites a girl to dance

and speaks to her in Spanish, which she understands

fluently, like a lost native language, like words

uttered by eloquent red parrots in a country where

it is always afternoon. At night, among the oil tanks,

the girls all become women. They go to their houses

before dawn, but they are not the same, they have

new languages, new bodies, they have grown darker

and will wear flowers forever between their breasts,

even when the sailors have returned to Ecuador, even

when they marry and take their clothes off for the

first time in a lighted room, the flowers will be there

like indelible tattoos. Their husbands will grow silent

as winter, but it will not matter, they will teach

their children three or four words of Spanish, a song

about red parrots crying in a place of sunlight where

it never snows, and where the heart is everything.

William Carpenter

 

Kyoto Amore

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2011)

“But a whole school of lady koto players

Best kimono and Japanese hairdo

Perform on tatami platform underneath falling blossoms”

Philip Whalen

I’ll never forget the night in 1989 when we danced at Melarkey’s on Broadway in Sacramento, dancing for joy because in a free and fair election, for the first and only time in history, the majority voted to shut down an active nuclear power plant. And only a handful of people know that Ben Davis started the whole thing, and I, in the beginning, helped him keep the ball rolling.

Ben, an eccentric, stubborn, self-educated advocate for the public good, first tried to shut down the Rancho Seco Nuclear Power Facility by single-handedly taking SMUD (Sacramento Municipal Utility District) to court for not having an adequate emergency evacuation plan in the event of a catastrophe such as the multiple catastrophes ongoing in Japan today. The courts wouldn’t oblige Ben for the usual putrid reasons (putrid as in corrupt), though Ben had more than ample proof that SMUD, for all intents and purposes, had no evacuation plan at all.

Failing to overcome the entrenched putrescence of California’s so-called legal system, Ben thought he would get a proposition on the ballot and encourage the people of Sacramento to shut the plant down, since SMUD was a public utility owned by we, the people. With zeal and naiveté, (and before the advent of the internet) Ben and I thought we would use a pyramid scheme of friends to get enough signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot; and that is what we set out to do. Joining us in our endeavor were two others, Martha Ann Blackman and Melinda Brown. Ben wrote the ballot initiative and had a lawyer friend help him get the wording right, we had a couple strategy sessions at my house, and then we alerted the media.

When an article about us appeared in the Sacramento Bee, and we got a bit of radio coverage, all hell broke loose. To make a very long story short, our little organization was quickly joined and taken over by professional environmental peeps who got all the credit for getting an initiative on the ballot, passing the initiative, and shutting down the power plant. But I know that Ben Davis started the whole thing and got none of the credit. So what else is new? The important thing is that we, the people, shut down a piece-of-crap nuclear power plant that almost surely would have partially or entirely melted down by now and irradiated most of northern California had it been allowed to stay in operation.

How can I say such a thing? Because after I joined forces with Ben, I did a ton of research and learned more than I ever wanted to know about nuclear power plants, Rancho Seco in particular. And by the way, Rancho Seco is still home to piles of nuclear fuel rods that will remain murderously radioactive for tens of thousands of years. Those cancerous rods sit in that massive mausoleum of human stupidity because, oops, there’s no safe place on earth to store them.

Buckminster Fuller pointed out that Nature knew exactly how far from humans and other living things to site a nuclear facility: 93 million miles. He also suggested the only safe way to dispose of nuclear waste was to deliver that waste to our sun (93 million miles away) where said waste would be harmlessly incinerated. However, getting the poisonous radioactive guck to the sun without blowing up the planet in the process is seriously problematic, so forget about it. Instead, we must swiftly end all the needless wars, carefully dismantle every last nuclear power plant on earth, and spend the next half-million years safeguarding the poisonous guck and never making another drop of it.

“Autumn comes now triumph chrysanthemum harvest

Moon burnished persimmon plumed Suzuki grass

The spirit perishes when the season turns.”

Philip Whalen

Sick with sorrow about the devastation in Japan, I am also furious that amoral corporations in collusion with amoral governments have poisoned and continue to poison the planet with radioactive waste. The media coverage of the nuclear crisis in Japan has been, to me, most remarkable for the enormity of the lies and misinformation spewed forth by the offices of propaganda. The truth, alas, is in the isotopes, and they have been unleashed in quantities the nuclear overlords will never admit to. The next time you hear someone say nuclear power is safe, please know that they are either extremely stupid, morbidly ignorant, or insane.

“We have going to change it all.” Philip Whalen

When I was twelve, my mother went back to college to get a master’s degree in education. To replace her on the home front, she hired Doris Ishigawa to clean our house, do our laundry, and be on hand when my little brother came home from school. Never was our funky old house so deeply cleaned as when Doris cleaned it. The previously perpetually filthy windows became so clear the house seemed wholly new and better—flooded with light. Doris introduced us to salmon and bass sashimi, fresh-caught by her husband. She created exquisite flower arrangements using flowers and twigs and grasses she found in our largely neglected garden. She was, as I recall her, gentle and generous and kind.

When Doris died of a stroke some years later (she was in her fifties when she died) her obituary revealed that she and her husband, prior to World War II, had been wealthy, successful, and revered members of their community. However, while the Ishigawa’s were incarcerated in an American concentration camp for the crime of being Japanese, their house and land and money and possessions were stolen from them by opportunistic crooks. And when our putrescent legal system negated the Ishigawa’s attempts to reclaim their stolen property, Doris became a cleaning lady, her husband a gardener; none of which I had known about because Doris never once spoke of her ordeal.

Gauzy emerald

goldfinch music

pleasure & delight

Philip Whalen

I have been punctuating this article with snippets from poems by Philip Whalen because he was a great lover of Japan, lived in Kyoto in the late 1960’s, and is one of my favorite poets. Whalen wrote funny lyrical insightful poems while in Japan, and thereafter about Japan. I experienced a profound transformation of how I saw myself in the world when I heard Whalen read his poetry in 1966, and I became a devoted reader of his work. I possess a handwritten note from him giving me permission to use one of his poems to begin my novel Ruby & Spear, and every now and then I’ll get the note out and feel amazed and grateful to see Philip’s scrawl. Here is the poem.

LATE AFTERNOON

I’m coming down from a walk to the top of Twin Peaks

A sparrowhawk balanced in a headwind suddenly dives off it:

An answer to my question of this morning

The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen, nearly eight-hundred pages, was published in 2007 by Wesleyan University Press, and though I had read most of Whalen’s poems several times before, I devoured every word in that fat volume from first poem to last, inspired anew by Whalen’s originality and musicality.

In my anguish about Japan and the madness of nuclear power—which I know is your anguish, too—I hear Whalen exhorting us to pay special attention to the present moment, to the joy and sorrow and miracle and mystery and humor and pathos of Now; for the past no longer exists, nor has the future yet arrived, so to dwell persistently in either is to miss the boat, miss the point, miss the present—to not receive the gift.

HOW MANY IS REAL

Whether we intended it or liked it or wanted it

We are part of a circle that stands beyond life and death

Happening whether we will or no

We can’t break it, we are seldom aware of it

And it looks clearest to people beyond its edge.

They are included in it

Whether or not they know

Philip Whalen

After Rain

Friday, December 24th, 2010

(This short story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser Christmas 2010. I am grateful to Bruce Anderson and Mark Scaramella for giving me the space to share my fiction and non-fiction with their readers.)


After Rain

1

Who (what) are we when light from

our never-sleeping star wakes us?

“I think,” says Bob, scratching his scalp through his wiry white hair, “I was writing a poem in that dream.”

A slender man, Bob often thinks of his bowling ball of a beer drinker’s paunch as a tumor, ugly and discomfiting, yet benign. He is also handsome and remarkably graceful, yet wholly unconscious of those traits.

Bob consults his Gauguin calendar on the kitchen wall to confirm the moon will be full tonight, and here is Christmas three days in the future, Christmas reminding him of his son Daniel who he hasn’t spoken to in five years, and of his daughter Alice who calls him on his birthday in June to give him a rundown on how she’s doing, only she never gets very far before she starts taking other calls, and Bob grows weary of being put on hold so he hangs up and she doesn’t call him again until his next birthday.

His children remind him of his house in Sacramento that is no longer his house, and of his wife Andrea who is someone else’s wife now, which makes him think of the thirty-three years he worked for the state because he couldn’t imagine any other way to give Andrea and Daniel and Alice what he thought they wanted. Oh, how he hated that mind-numbing job of incessant phone calls and emails and senseless meetings to organize seminars on traffic abatement when all he ever wanted to be was a poet.

He recalls the bad air, the crowded malls, and the countless things he bought for his wife and children because he felt he had to buy them. He remembers Daniel and Susan tearing open their gifts, both starving for what was never there. He remembers sitting in church feeling cold and tired and bored and false.

All of which brings to mind the annual trip in bumper-to-bumper traffic from Sacramento to San Jose for Christmas eve and Christmas morning with Andrea’s parents, and gobbling breakfast while ripping open presents before jumping back in the car for that hellacious drive to San Luis Obispo for Christmas supper with his mother, the children squirming and miserable in the backseat, Andrea vowing for the millionth time, “Next year we make a choice,” but they never did.

Bob’s dog yips three times in quick succession.

“Sorry, pup,” says Bob, turning away from Gauguin’s portrait of brown-skinned women in paradise.

Boots, a yearling Malamute, huge and black, sits at the front door waiting as patiently as he can for Bob to let him outside to chase the delicious scents of deer and rabbit and coyote.

“Here you go,” says Bob, opening the door for Boots and letting in the sweet mountain air.

Bob has lived on String Creek for two years now, the nearest town Willits—a slow, bumpy, half-hour drive away. When he was a young man living in a garret and striving to write good poems, he dreamt of living in a fertile valley such as this, a valley surrounded by wilderness, but in those youthful dreams he was not yet bitter, nor was he so entirely alone.

He steps out onto the front porch and watches Boots race across the meadow and leap over the little stream that is String Creek, a tender flow not three-feet deep where salmon will soon be arriving at their journey’s end. Bob didn’t believe the realtor when she told him that salmon, big salmon, swam up the mountain every year to spawn in the tiny creek. “They swim hundreds of miles from the ocean,” she said matter-of-factly, “and climb two thousand feet to spawn right here in your own backyard. How’s that for a selling point?”

The idea of enormous fish finding their way to a stream that was no more than a trickle in September seemed so preposterous to Bob that he banished the thought until the week before Christmas last year. And then, after unceasing torrential rain kept him inside for six days, Bob braved the deluge and went out to walk his twenty acres; and there were the salmon, beaten and bloody, crowding the rain-swollen creek to birth their next generation.

And when he saw those salmon in the little creek, the wall around Bob’s heart came tumbling down. He wanted to shout and weep in amazement and grief and triumph, but no shouts or tears escaped him. Still, he wanted to weep, and this was enough to inspire a new poem, the first he’d written since the birth of his daughter thirty years ago.

But a few days later, Bob woke to find the wall around his heart rebuilt, and no more poems came to him. So he cursed himself for failing as a poet and for selling his soul for money and for being a terrible father and a rotten husband and a disgraceful human being, and he burned the new poem.

Boots returns to Bob, laughing in the silent way dogs laugh.

“Smells good out here,” says Bob, scratching the big pup’s head. “I’ll get my boots on Boots and meet you down the road.”

Reassured by Bob’s voice and touch, Boots races away to sniff the myriad traces of animal news.

2

Are we expressions of dreams?

Bob walks north on the valley road, moving slowly until exertion lessens his stiffness. The air is icy, the sky void of clouds, the sun an hour away from cresting the ridge.

“Gonna finally have some blue sky,” he murmurs, smiling in anticipation of meeting Boots along the way, their day officially begun when they return home together, Boots to come and go as he pleases, Bob to spend time in his woodshop making beautiful little boxes, and in his living room sitting by the woodstove reading history and short stories and poetry. And after supper, Bob will play Scrabble and chess with himself at the kitchen table before moving into the living room to practice Bach For Beginners on an old teak upright piano until he’s good and tired and ready for bed.

Afraid the pup would run away and be eaten by coyotes, Bob kept Boots inside all day and on a leash whenever they went out until Boots was five months old. But now that the dog is so huge, Bob’s fear has largely subsided, though he still worries when Boots is gone for more than an hour or so; and he keeps him inside at night.

3

Are we flesh and bone bagpipes

to be filled with air and played?

There are eight homes on String Creek, and everybody knows everybody else, except for Bob, who made it perfectly clear from the outset he wasn’t interested in making friends with anyone. Indeed, to this day he never waves when he drives past other people coming and going in their cars and trucks, nor does he wave to people working in their orchards or out chopping wood or walking their dogs. He is a recluse and his neighbors leave him alone.

As he approaches the house of his nearest neighbor, a modest one-story home watched over by five colossal oaks, Bob is surprised to see a woman in the road. She is wielding an axe and striking ineffectually at a tangle of enormous oak limbs that have fallen across her drive and trapped her car. Small and pretty with gray hair in a ponytail, she’s wearing brown boots, black jeans, and a black Giants sweatshirt—a strong, healthy woman, but no match for the massive branches.

Bob has met this woman twice before. The first time was on his third day in the valley when she came to his house to welcome him with a bottle of red wine and a bouquet of yellow roses. He declined her gifts, saying he didn’t drink wine, which was a lie, and that he was allergic to roses, which was an even greater lie since roses are his favorite flowers. And the second time he met her was a few months ago when she walked Boots home after the pup spent the morning playing with her dog. On that day, she caught Bob out chopping wood and managed to tell him a little bit about herself before he escaped. She is German, a therapist of some sort, lives alone, has children and grandchildren, and is exactly Bob’s age: sixty-six.

“Do you have a chainsaw?” asks Bob, surprising himself by asking. “I can clear a path for you to get your car out.”

“Oh, thank you,” she says, her blue eyes sparkling. “I have one in my tool shed. Would you mind? I’m picking up my friend in town. She came all the way from Switzerland to celebrate the solstice with me.”

“But first I need to get my dog,” he says, hurrying past her. “I’ll be back in a little while.”

“Oh, I’ll send Lily to get him,” she says, looking toward her house. “She and Boots are good friends.”

Bob is about to decline her offer when a big wolfish white dog appears beside the woman and gazes at Bob with her big brown eyes.

“Go find Boots,” says the woman, touching Lily’s head. “Bring him home for snacks.”

Lily sings a high musical note and runs away.

“Are you sure she knows what you mean?” asks Bob, suddenly aware of the musical burbling of String Creek.

“Oh, yes,” says the woman, beckoning him to follow her. “She knows exactly what I mean. And she knows my feelings, too.”

“I had a cat,” says Bob, recalling his long ago life when his greatest joy was to be writing a poem he thought might be good. “A big orange tabby. And she always knew when I was sad.”

“What would she do when you were sad?” asks the woman, turning to look at him.

“She’d come to me and mew until I picked her up and held her.” He smiles wistfully. “But only when I was sad. Her name was Athena.”

“I had a wonderful cat, too,” says the woman, sighing. “A gray tabby named Omar, after the baseball player. But she killed so many birds and then a coyote killed her so I never got another one.”

Bob blushes. “Forgive me, but I’ve forgotten your name.”

“Irene,” she says, bowing in a sweetly clownish way. “Irene Weintraub.”

“Bob,” he says, bowing a little, too. “Bob Webster.”

“So how do you like living so far from town?” she asks, her accent beguiling. “We’ve all been wondering about you.”

“Oh, really?” he says, oddly flattered. “What have you been wondering? Whether I grow pot or not? I don’t.”

“No, it’s just that most people who come to live on the creek only keep to themselves for a year or so before joining in or running away, so…”

“I’m not going anywhere,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m here to the bitter end.”

“Why so grim?” she asks, pouting sympathetically. “When the air is so sweet.”

4

hungry animals

Irene’s chainsaw is out of gas and in need of oiling. She finds some oil, but her gas can is empty.

“Do you have a length of hose?” asks Bob, glaring at the funky old chainsaw. “For siphoning gas from your car?”

“My car is electric,” she says, apologetically. “The man who cuts my wood brings his own fuel.”

“I’ll be back in ten minutes,” says Bob, turning to go. “I’ve got a much better saw and plenty of gas.”

“Great!” she says, calling after him. “You’re a prince, Bob.”

5

desperate criminals

Bob likes Irene. He admits this as he jogs back to his house. And he likes that she needs his help, which reminds him of how he met Andrea.

He was shooting hoops at McKinley Park in Sacramento when Andrea walked by disconsolately pushing her flat-tired bike. Bob had a pump on his bike and offered to fill Andrea’s tire so she could ride a bit further before having to walk again. He ended up riding with her and pumping up her tire every few blocks until they got to her house.

6

lost children

Bob eats two bananas and three big handfuls of almonds to give him energy for the work ahead. Now he loads his saw and axe and toolbox and gas can into his pickup; and as he is about to get into his truck, he realizes that he is happy. So he stands still for a long moment and enjoys the rare sensation of being eager to help someone.

7

visionary geniuses

Irene comes out of her house as Bob is inserting his earplugs.

“Good news,” she says, smiling warmly. “My friend, her bus is delayed, so we have extra time to clear things.”

“Extra time,” says Bob, daring to return her smile. “What a concept.”

“All the time in the world,” she says, laughing. “In no time at all.”

“I should have this cleared by then, I think,” says Bob, putting on his work gloves. “I hope.”

“You’re an angel,” she says, gazing fondly at him. “My savior.”

He pulls the cord and his saw roars to life.

Irene covers her ears and retreats into her house.

Bob lowers the whirring blades onto the bough and braces himself as the teeth bite into the wood.

8

earthworms

Eleven months ago, on a rainy day in January, Bob was driving into Willits to buy his suicide kit—a gun and bullets. On a hairpin turn halfway to town he came upon a little girl, barefoot and filthy, carrying a cardboard box.

Bob stopped to see if he could help her, and she said, “My dad wants to drown them so I’m going to Safeway in Willits and give them away.”

There were four pups in the box, three dead, Boots barely alive.

Bob steps back as the blade comes through the bottom of the bough, his seventh cut complete. He shuts off the motor and sets the saw down. His heart is pounding, his shirt soaked with sweat, his beard and face and hair covered with sawdust.

Irene brings him a big glass of water. “Boots and Lily are in the kitchen,” she says, speaking loudly so he can hear through his plugs. “I think I will keep them inside so they don’t run off. Lily hates chainsaws.”

“Thanks,” he says, gulping the water. “Big old tree. Too bad so much had to come down.”

“Yes,” says Irene, taking his empty glass. “But I can use the firewood, and now I will have more light in winter.”

“The benefits of tragedy,” he says, laughing self-consciously.

“The opportunities of crisis,” she says, dancing away.

9

indigenous hominids

Bob has been working for three hours and is exhausted, the driveway not yet clear.

“Help me,” he whispers, speaking to God. “Help me do this.”

He tries to lift the saw to start the next cut, but his arms are too tired. So he kills the motor and sits down on the last bough he has yet to clear, the largest of them all, and recalls the last time he saw his son.

Five years ago. Sacramento. Bob arrives at Daniel’s house in River Park to visit Elise, his beloved grandchild. She is four years old, Bob’s only certain joy in those terrible days of his horrid divorce and the nightmarish selling of his house and the humiliation of training his replacement for that insipid job that defined him for thirty years.

After a few beers, Bob begins disparaging Andrea.

Daniel interrupts and asks to speak to Bob outside.

On the front lawn, the Gingko leaves turning yellow, Daniel says, “I don’t want you saying bad things about Mom in front of Elise. It isn’t fair. She wants to love you both. Needs to, Dad. She needs to love you both.”

“Fair?” says Bob, trembling with rage. “Was it fair that bitch used me for thirty years and dumped me like so much garbage?”

“That isn’t true,” says Daniel, shaking his head. “You used her as much as she used you.”

Bob explodes—blasting his son with cruel obscenities.

Daniel goes inside and closes the door.

Bob lifts his head as a big brown United Parcel Service truck comes around the bend and stops a few yards from Bob’s pickup.

Now a beautiful man with creamy brown skin hops down from the truck and says, “Sorry to bother you, but could you move your truck? I have a package for Bob Webster. Last house on the road.”

“I’m Bob Webster,” he says wearily. “Trying to clear this tree so Irene can get out.”

“You want some help? I’m Alfredo Lopez. Brought you a million books from Amazon. I wondered if I’d ever get a look at you.”

“I hide whenever you come,” says Bob, laughing at how silly he has been for so much of his life. “But now I’m too tired to hide.”

“I’ll get my earplugs,” says Alfredo, hopping back into his truck. “You lend me your gloves, I’ll get that last limb for you.”

“You’re a prince,” says Bob, slowly rising to his feet. “Thank you.”

10

goldfinches diving out of the sky

Driving home from Irene’s, Boots beside him in the cab, Bob begins to shiver violently.

Too exhausted to bring in his tools, Bob barely has the strength to open his front door.

His heart beating erratically, Bob somehow manages to take a shower and crawl into bed.

11

angels descending with wings extended

Bob and Alfredo hover in the air over String Creek, the tender flow dammed with logs and debris. Below the dam, hundreds of salmon lay gasping for oxygen in the dry beds.

Bob and Alfredo attack the dam with huge electric carving knives.

The dam gives way and Bob runs down a wooden tunnel into the living room of his old house in Sacramento where Daniel and Alice are hiding behind an unadorned Christmas tree.

Bob sings to his children, “Come out, come out, wherever you are.”

And here under the tree, presented on a red pillow, is the package Alfredo brought.


12

and golden slippers touching down beside the river

Having slept through the night and most of this next day, Bob wakes to the slow steady beating of his heart.

He gets out of bed, his arms and legs aching from yesterday’s labor—dusk giving way to moonlight. He feeds Boots, starts a fire in his woodstove, and runs a hot bath.

And as he watches the water tumble from the spigot into the tub, he conceives the letter he will write to Daniel and Susan and Andrea.

Greetings from String Creek

I hope you’re sitting down when you read this so you don’t fall over in amazement and hurt yourself. Ahem. As you know, I have been a self-righteous, self-loathing, self-pitying jerk for a very long time, and you have suffered greatly because of my actions toward you. I don’t expect you to forgive me for being so unkind to you, or to believe me when I say I have changed, but I want to invite you back into my life, however that may manifest. Maybe we could write to each other. Or maybe you could come and visit me. And should you invite me to Sacramento, I will come in peace as a friend.

From now on I am going to make a conscious effort to live my life with an open heart and an open mind, and do my best to eschew (gesundheit) blame and shame and judgment. I want to love you, nothing more.


13

we kneel to kiss the lucid flow

Lying in his hot bath, Bob weeps for the first time in three decades, and when he is done weeping, he laughs.

14

and imbibe the divine infusion

Bob goes out naked into the moonlight, his body steaming, and immerses himself in String Creek.

Now he hears splashing downstream—the salmon coming home.

15

clarity after rain

Bob shaves off his beard and dresses warmly for the walk to Irene’s. But before he and Boots leave the house, Bob opens the package delivered by Alfredo, a package from Bob’s granddaughter Elise who is nine-years-old now.

Her gift to Bob is a turquoise T-shirt, turquoise being Bob’s favorite color. Across the chest in purple thread she has carefully embroidered

I  AM

ELISE’S GRANDFATHER


16

After Rain

Who (what) are we when light from

our never-sleeping star wakes us?

Are we expressions of dreams or

flesh and bone bagpipes to be filled

with air and played or hungry

animals or desperate criminals or

lost children or visionary geniuses

or earthworms or indigenous

hominids or goldfinches diving out

of the sky or angels descending with

wings extended and golden slippers

touching down beside the river

where we kneel to kiss the lucid

flow and imbibe the divine infusion

of clarity after rain?

(Photo by Marcia Sloane)

Q

Saturday, May 15th, 2010

Our dear friend Quinton Duval died last week at the age of sixty-one, and the world lost a most generous soul and a marvelous poet. Q, as we called him, was a quiet person and a quiet poet, thus he was little known outside of Sacramento. I regret that I could not afford to publish an elegant volume of the collected poems of Quinton Duval while Q was still alive, but it’s at the top of my list of Things I’ll Do If I Ever Strike It Rich.

There is a funny story by Mark Twain entitled Captain Stormfield’s Visit To Heaven in which a Twain-like explorer hitches a ride on Haley’s Comet to heaven and reports on what he finds there. At the height of Stormfield’s visit, excitement ensues as word spreads that the greatest writer of all time has just died and will soon be arriving at the pearly gates. Indeed, so paramount is this writer that luminaries such as Shakespeare and Homer, not seen among the common angels for hundreds of years, descend from their places on high to greet this unsurpassed genius.

Captain Stormfield, a cultured man, wonders who among the most famous writers on earth has died; but the incomparable genius turns out to be an unknown young fellow who only managed to write a poem or two before he was tarred and feathered and murdered by an ignorant mob who found him intolerably odd.

Quinton’s death reminds me of this story, not because I think Q was the greatest poet who ever lived, but because he was, in my estimation, deserving of a much larger audience than he was able to achieve through the careful crafting of his beautiful poems.

You have undoubtedly heard of Poetry Slams. They are all the rage these days among pseudo-educators and extremely extroverted wannabe poets. Slams are poetry competitions (a deeply repugnant idea) in which so-called poets try to upstage and beat their opponents by outrageous dress, comportment, choreography, and vocal pyrotechnics. The poems themselves are largely irrelevant to the proceedings, though the more shocking and nasty and shoutable the lines, the better the chances the so-called poet has of winning the contest. Yuck. If you are a lover of poetry, a lover of the words themselves, a lover of the tender truth of a good poem, do not attend a poetry slam. When teenagers slam, the experience is merely pathetic. When older folks undertake such travesties, it is repulsive.

I think of Q’s poems as diamonds in the sludge of our American-Idolized culture, everything become a contest, a special effect, a showy narcissistic puff of nothing, and I want to stop people on the street and say, “Turn off your cell phones and listen to this. A poem by the late great much missed Quinton Duval.”

Dinner Music

The things in this dish have each been touched

by your fingers. The dough has marks in it

where you shaped it out round and white

and rising slowly. I remember all this

as I begin to eat. It is exciting

in the light given off by the oil lamp

on the table. I smell the kerosene,

your perfume, and the scent of the food you made.

I am touched by the wonder of it all. I mean

your hands are in my mouth even as I eat

what you have made, like other things you make.

After dinner your lips open quietly to the dark

passage down inside you. What is all this,

this odd food we give away? We eat each other’s

love and feel amazed and full.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com

Enough Already

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

(This essay appeared originally in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2010)

Many of us traveling into late middle age have by now laid our parents to rest and/or moved them in with us or into transitional facilities. In so doing we have come face-to-face with the detritus of their lifetimes, and having disposed of their stuff (or, heaven forbid, added their stuff to our stuff) we are seized with new ambitions: to downsize and streamline and free ourselves of the burden of so many things we used to think we couldn’t live without. We have learned again what we already knew: things, cumulatively speaking, are a pain in the ass.

Carl Jung in his old age was convinced that all things, including pots and pans and knives and books and shoes and stones, were animate entities and demanded our attention and energy. It is said that when the elder Carl entered his kitchen he would politely greet the knives and pans and forks, and ask them to be kind to him so he might successfully brew his tea and scramble his eggs. He was convinced that by acknowledging the aliveness of these allies they would be less likely to jump from his hands or fall to the floor. Thus his cooking would be a delight rather than a danger.

Indigenous North Americans, dubbed Indians by their irrational conquerors, believed, as Jung did, that spirit animated all things. Stones, water, wind, trees, stars, clouds, and fire were alive, so it was common practice (not crazy) for a person to address a tree or a rock or the sky as brother or sister or friend. Would we want to possess and keep captive hundreds and thousands of things if we felt each was our relation and possessed a soul? I doubt it.

When my mother began her Alzheimer’s adventure, she developed a grave concern about her things. How did they get here? What were they called? And what were they for? I would soon learn that Alzheimerians cannot learn. They only unlearn. But before I gained this awareness, I would patiently explain to my mother that she had bought the things called bowls and books and vases, and they were for putting things in or for reading or for holding flowers. She would nod, see another thing, frown, and ask, “What’s that?”

“That is a teapot?”

“How did it get there?”

“You put it there.”

“Why?”

“Well, because it looks nice there and you can reach it easily when you want tea?”

“But I don’t want tea. I want coffee.”

“Fine. I’ll make some.”

My father was a pack rat of psychotic dimensions. I theorize his junk was the main thing that drove my mother crazy, along with his incessant cruelty. Long before the onset of her Alzheimer’s, my mother would go into rages about the ever growing stacks of magazines and newspapers and junk mail and just plain junk, none of which my father would allow her to throw away. For some years he collected electric motors, though he never did anything with them. When I cleaned out his garage the year before he died, I found fifty-seven little electric motors in various stages of disintegration, thousands of rotting magazines, and over five thousand books, none of which had been looked at in decades.

My father went off to work every day and left my mother alone in a big house full of useless junk. When she would leave the house to visit friends or shop or do volunteer work, or for the ten years she practiced law, she was an entirely different person than the person she was in her dysfunctional house. I’m talking Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde different. Away from the massive jumble of things she was brilliant, competent, funny, and happy. Then she’d come home and become helpless, befuddled, humorless, and miserable.

And isn’t it true, as Perry Mason liked to say, that when you get away from your accumulated things you feel lighter and, dare I say, happier? Why are vacations so refreshing? Certainly because we’re seeing new sights, breathing new air, and breaking free of ossified behavior patterns; but I contend we feel most refreshed because we are free of those myriad animate things, each demanding a share of our psychic energy.

Reading interviews with people who lost their homes and possessions in the Oakland firestorm of 1991 in which nearly four thousand homes were destroyed, I was amazed to discover that after their initial shock wore off, many of the survivors said they were greatly relieved to be free of their accumulated stuff and to be “getting a fresh start.” Which reminds me of cost analyses proving the average American spends a much larger portion of her income providing life support for her things than for herself.

When my first marriage ended, I went from being a home-owning car-owning person to being a room-renting bicyclist pedestrian, and I felt, literally, fifty thousand pounds lighter. Some of this lightness came from escaping an unhappy emotional life, but some of it was unquestionably the result of being freed from the psychic responsibility for a house and a car and the ten thousand attendant things.

My Jewish grandmother, poor from birth until thirty, wealthy from thirty to sixty, and poor again until she died at eighty, told me she was happiest when singing or reading poetry, no matter her financial state. And it is from that perspective I prefer to judge the current economic collapse: the failure of a thing-based economic and social order, but not necessarily the end of happiness.

The mainstream pundits and politicos and economic puppeteers keep telling us that the much-ballyhooed (but essentially non-existent) recovery is mere moments away if only people will resume buying things they don’t need. Never mind that all fifty states are bankrupt and their citizenry bankrupt with them, people have got to roll up their sleeves and start stimulating the economy. Come on! What are you waiting for? A job? Money? Yet despite historically low interest rates, people are saving money as never before, if they have any money to save. People are driving less, shopping less, and needing less than they used to think they needed.

So wouldn’t it be great if this meltdown turns out not to be a meltdown, but a turning point, an awakening? The death of the parent equals the death of the old economic paradigm. In cleaning up the parental junk, we come to terms with the futility of hanging on to huge piles of stuff. In picking up and reforming the economic pieces, we leave out the making and getting of piles of junk. If we aspire to possess anything, it will be a few high quality things we lovingly care for as opposed to crap we stack up and eventually throw away or leave to our children to throw away for us.

I know. I’m waxing utopia here, but maybe, just maybe, there are good times ahead and they won’t look anything like the previous good times but rather more elegant and spacious and egalitarian. There will be less judging people by what they own and more celebrating people for how uniquely they jitterbug, how kind they are, and how fun they are to hang out with.

Todd Walton’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com.

I Will Play Chico

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

I Will Play Chico

a cinematic poem

I want to make a movie, a modern variant of the Marx Brothers.

My brother will play Groucho, you will play Harpo, and I will

play Chico. The movie is a classic comedy mystery chase love

story. We race around being ourselves in myriad situations—

basketball games, delicatessens, hardware stores, museums

pizza parlors, schools, post offices, gas stations, taquerias,

coffee houses, traffic jams, ice cream parlors, prisons,

art galleries, trains, psychotherapists’ offices, hotels

noodle joints, laundromats, sporting goods stores,

bistros, police stations, zoos, churches, houses,

hotels, corporate headquarters, jungles—

and everywhere we go we encounter

men who are so outraged by our

being ourselves they will stop

at nothing to try to kill us.

Now and then during the movie we take time out from being

pursued by these outraged men to perform for gleeful

audiences of women and children and a few unusual

men who are not enraged by our being ourselves;

and during these breaks in the chase, I play

the piano, you play the harp, and my

brother strums a ukulele. We read

poems, sing soulful songs, tell

funny, poignant stories, and

paint lovely pictures of a

tender new society free

of cruelty and jealousy.

In the end we are captured and jailed and charged with

the crime of being ourselves. The trial takes place in a

spooky courtroom presided over by a judge wearing

a mask and hood. We are sentenced to death and

are about to be executed when all the women

and children and a few unusual men we’ve

met along our way rise up to save us.

And in a fabulous song and dance

finale, the men who wanted to kill

us for being ourselves wake from

their trances and understand

that without us they would

have nothing to hope for.

Todd Walton