Saturday, June 18, 2016

Reflections Following the First (Half) School Year of a Real Goddamn Teacher

I don't know how long I've been a teacher.  It's not because it's been a long enough time for me to have forgotten.  Neither has it been because of some crack philosophical musing over the meaning of words or the concept of identity.  I mostly mean that I don't know how long I've been a teacher, because the state of my life since starting grad school in January of 2010 has been deeply confusing to me.

The semester of February to June 2016 was the first time I ever held a full time teaching position in the United States.  But when you consider that I taught for nearly eight months while living in South Korea, or that I was a substitute for two years, or a lowly teaching intern before that, it is difficult to call this my "first year" as a teacher.  When you further consider that I have not yet completed teaching an entire school year, it is even more questionable; nevertheless, I can't really consider 2016/2017 my first "first year".  In this warped mind of mine, in which I am unhealthily obsessed with milestones and categories, all of this is deeply confounding.

But none of it really matters now, because I am a teacher today.  I have my own classes and curriculum and I even get paid for it.  I no longer have to explain my life to people with qualifications and caveats.  As a matter of fact, I don't have to explain anything to anyone.  I'm on summer vacation and that means no teaching until September, suckers!

But it is time, I believe, to reflect on what I have accomplished this year.  Not merely because this is a significant milestone for me, both professionally and personally; I feel I owe myself an account of my achievement.  There can be no resting on laurels: I have to make a career of this, both for my survival and for my satisfaction.  There is so much work to be done, and as the students march on it is plain that the work can never really be finished.

The really good news is that, as some have suspected, I'm pretty good at this job.  I'm not great at it yet.  I don't have the deep wells of self-confidence needed to launch myself into legendary status by force of will.  But my skills and talents are neatly attuned to the task at hand.  Whether it's researching for lessons, facilitating discussion, or building relationships with students, I have met with fine success all semester.  I've met with frustration as well, but my colleagues have indicated that they respect what I am doing, and my weary spirit has not yet flagged from any such discouragement. 

My theory of good teaching is being refined all the time, as I observe the needs of different students and try to adjust myself to them.  In fact, I've needed to be flexible, as I now teach students of virtually every age from seven to eighteen.  This is by no means an easy job, and the fact that I am enjoying myself while doing it is something like a miracle.  Pride comes easily at moments like these, and it's not unjustified.

But I have to be realistic, and I have to be critical of myself too.  As I said before, I'm not a great teacher, and whether I can append the word "yet" to that statement is still only a presumption.  I learn more about the craft every working day, but my weaknesses are apparent and they don't all have obvious solutions.

Perhaps my greatest difficulty thus far has been differentiation, or the adjustment of my lessons to meet the needs of students with different skill levels.  This is a challenge every teacher faces, because students of the same age and grade are not necessarily alike in ability.  In my case, the challenge is multiplied by the peculiar situation of my school.

The school where I teach is a charter school in a small rural community; we have a little over forty students in total, with the majority being high schoolers.  This year I taught three classes of high school, with compositions of 12th and 11th, 11th and 10th, and 10th and 9th graders.  I also taught a single middle school class composed of 8th, 7th, and 6th graders, as well as an elementary class with two 5th graders, a 4th grader, a 3rd grader, and a 1st grader.  So to begin with, every class I taught was composed of students who were already of different ages, which made striking a balance with appropriate material a constantly evolving challenge.

Complicating the problem is the relative unpredictability of their skill levels.  Students come to our school for a variety of reasons.  Some have parents looking for smaller class sizes; some have older siblings with positive experiences in our setting; some have had trouble with socialization, often in the form of bullying in harassment.  Many of them, however, come to us because they lack the skills to succeed in public school, due to learning disabilities, mental health concerns, or personal issues.

I have 5th graders who read more fluently than some of my 8th graders; I have 12th graders who are not truly literate.  Since my subject area is social studies, it is extremely difficult to teach in the traditional way if I cannot count on my students' ability to decypher simple texts.  There is only so much instructional time in the day, and I can become frustrated when I must pass over content in order to perform what I might see as "remedial" skills instruction.

My frustrations in that area, however, may hint at a more fundamental issue: my anxieties over forming working relationships of children from different class, race, gender, and sexual backgrounds from my own.  This is another challenge that all teachers must face; I would argue that is a special concern of social studies, as these factors are consistently relevant to the content of our lessons, in addition to the meta-content of a typical day in the classroom.

It's a fact that I'm a straight, white, cis-man who, despite making a spectacularly awkward and protracted entrance into the working world, has never had to live in a state of genuine poverty or deprivation.  I have my struggles, but my struggles are of a different order from those of my students who cannot relate to the arc of my life.  Likewise, it is dreadfully obvious to me that I cannot always relate to their experiences.

The issue of social class looms especially large over my door.  I have many students who live in real poverty, the kind that needs no qualification or caveat.  Some of my least accomplished readers can be found in that group, and I know that this is not an accident of fate.  Poverty disadvantages children at every stage in the educational process, gradually alienating them not only from the school environment but from the social values that promote academic success.  Then along comes the son of a wealthy professional who has been a precocious reader longer than he can remember, and it's difficult to see what basis a relationship can be formed on.  When I become angry or frustrated with a student who will not even make an attempt to do the work I have assigned, it's hard not to see the failure as mutual.

And there is a stickier patch to consider: when my frustrations spill over from the strictly professional to the personal.  Have you ever believed that a teacher simply did not like you?  You may well have been right: teachers are very capable of disliking children, particularly those who make their jobs harder.  Untangling my animosity for a student who does not know any way to relate to me other than through insults and slurs, from my obligation to educate them to the best of my ability, is as hard as it sounds.  Failing to do so can aggravate the tensions of class and race even further, as well as the old prejudice that adults often have toward children in general.

It became clear to me this year that, for all my youthful pretensions, I really am too old to fit naturally in the head space of a teenager anymore, no matter what their background.  Relating to any one of my students requires an impressive leap of imagination, one that may be neither encouraged nor welcome, and is not assured of a successful landing.  I have never been particularly good at socializing with my own peers; assuming an air of leadership and authority is not a comfortable stance for me, and when I have nightmares they are often driven by a loss of leaderahip.

A great teacher is not beyond these concerns - they are fundamental to the practice of teaching, and every teacher is always engaged with the fundamentals whether they want to be or not.  Nevertheless, I take it as a sign that I am not (yet?) a great teacher that these fundamental questions are my worst stressors.  It would not be accurate to say I have not found the solution: rather, I have not yet become fully conversant in the ever-evolving language of the eternal problem.

Some day, I will know what works and what doesn't; how to assume my role in a manner I can perform with no regrets.  My successes will grow and my failures will further my education - the mantra we all hope to establish as a solid belief, teachers as well as students.  I feel confident predicting this, because despite my struggles I am still having a great time.  I could easily go another ten rounds, however long that expression translates to in the count of years.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Poetries #6

It's hard to take poetry seriously when you're being paid to do something else.  It's also hard to take your own poetry seriously when you're reading some one else's.  I've got books by B.H. Fairchild and Rae Armantrout checked out from the library right now; reading the work of a professional is an important reminder of the vast gulf that exists between me and "them".  It's not just about skill or talent, but rather about the intuitive sense of living in the space between words, manipulating them as naturally as a bird sings in the morning, that a successful poet conveys.  It's also about skill and talent, though.

Needless to say I am easily impressed, which is both encouraging and discouraging for my own poetry.  But since I've been so neglectful of this blog while I've been working my new job, and since in the last five months I have allowed the Dreaded Backlog to resurface, it's time to put aside such small concerns as "quality" and get them the heck online.

The dates of these tiny compositions run from January to May of this year.  So I guess the backlog isn't that big, nor have I been especially productive in the poetry department.  Like I said, I've been busy!

My usual fixation with sex and depression remain a thing here, but once or twice it was happiness which drove me to scribble, and I think that's worth celebrating.


Blessings in Bed

Early on that blessed evening,
I was knocked unconscious by
the fury of your hips, your fearsome
kisses in our private room;

But truth be told, you had me at
a terrible disadvantage, dear,
from all the strength I had expended
on that blessed afternoon.


Rhapsody of Foreplay

Wine and fish, with lemon, butter, pepper;
salty with the pearls of the ocean
and as sweet as apple-flower honey,
warmer than the breath of bubbling springs.

Half asleep I taste your mouth, a fever
burning in my dreams; a sudden waking
in the body of a blazing eagle,
rising up in glory on its wings.

Dancing through the dewy morning flora,
left and right, as quick as thieving fingers,
fiercer than a hive of bees in summer
armed with fatal, suicidal stings.

Wet with pressure, live with storm and gasping
in the sturdy grasp of icy water;
never have I been so fully woken,
eager for the breezes loving brings.


Melissa

Melissa worships Death, and
Death is praying for her mother,
sweetly warm like honey
baking in the afternoon sun;
Death ascends, and
takes Melissa with her,
again and again and unto
the final generation
she takes her,
somewhere sweet and warm
to die, in veneration
of the face behind Death, the
Mother of Worship, the life of
honey, the face of
dear Melissa.


The Promise of Poetry

To find your voice
amidst the strange disorder
of your thoughts,

to hear the truth
as if within a moment
of creation,

to forge a bond
between your mind and body,
fierce and raw,

to know the devil
of your soul, the angel
in its nature,

for the price
of a sacred promise:
never look away.


But Now I Remember

I wondered why I didn't hear them,
twenty years of wondering, why
the voices in my head were silent.
And tonight, at last, I realized
the voices in my head had never
stopped their howling, their infernal
baying - I had simply, in my
unbounded arrogance, forgotten
how to listen to the hellhounds
and their voices in my head.


Old Frostwine

He lingers in the lower places, cold
as the burning sun of morning, white as a ghost,
sleeping off the wine his gracious host
provided from his vineyards in the wold.
The lights of spring advance across the hours,
bearing swirling storms of migrant birds
on gentle breezes, singing foreign words
and phrases to the lambs among the flowers,
rudely waking him with hot discord
from dreams of thawing flesh, immersed in wine.
He clings in desperation to the vine
with fingers stiff as weary oaken boards,
before submitting to a wakeful piety,
embracing nature in its wild sobriety.


Old Records

She read it from a list
of great ideas for cheap dates;
"spend an afternoon
browsing through some old records".
And I felt intoxicated,
because it hit me like a hot whiskey
that, by definition,
every record is an old one,
just another echo
of a never-ending, infinite present.
It felt so good, I had
to close my eyes to concentrate,
to kiss the girl goodnight,
and fall in love all over again.


Precog

This life will be my death, before my time;
I shall approach my end in great excess
of all the limits of cosmic speed, and just
in time to catch the eternal instant replay,
cringing with the angels in their seats.


Running Out

The future is an empty space,
expanding in my heart, and slowly
filling with the resolution
of grainy moments, slipping down;

Like bits of sand the moments race
along transparent slopes, to lowly
rest, a failing destination
that slips to grey from pale brown.


A Token of Courage

The feather in his cap was cool as ice, but red
with thunder's blood in circles all along its length;
and this was called a subtle imperfection, as
the thunder should have never given him a fight.


The Ocean Styx

So long, so insensitive;
deep in the warmth of my
pillow, I long to be
fully dissolved in a
tincture of silence, to
abdicate memory.

Bear me through currents of
dreams, slow, relentlessly,
high on the delicate
wings of an albatross,
further than any have
dared to be taken.

So long, and so quietly
passes the journey, and
this is according to
plan; I am rich among
travelers, fortunate
here among galaxies.


Mayday

The spear becomes a shield at
the most inopportune of times.
An army captain contemplates
the rank disorder of the lines,
and gives the men their share of water,
whiskey, butterscotch and limes -
they burrow down and bear the winter,
chilling slow beneath the waxy pines.


Abecedarian

Aphids, bumblebees,
chef’s delight -
every fly
gives honey
in June.
Keep lemon
meringues nearby,
orange peels,
queued rinds.
Softly, they
utter vanities:
white xanthan,
yeasty zopf.


Mind in Body Blues

Never enough ice in the bathtub, never
enough soap in the water,
never enough time to cool down,
to clean up, to get wet and
dry, cold in a smooth, still breeze -
there’s never enough of this water
to slake me, there’s never enough
of the shivers to keep me in roses.


Miller's Bullshit

You amateur scientists, studying quantum
mechanics, debating the odds of a universe
perfectly suited to life - could it be?

Could it be we exist in the universe, yes,
and we also exist in a second, a third,
and a fifth, but (apparently) not in a fourth?

_______________

Evidently, I wrote Blessings and Rhapsody on the same day, which must have been a hell of a day.  Is it a thing where chronically lonely people compensate with fantasies of being exhaustively oversexed?  I wonder what the psychology is on that.  I was trying to be more verbose with Rhapsody, feeling that my poetry of late (or maybe just all of my poetry) has been somewhat lacking in the "color" that comes from a wild vocabulary.  Somehow that led to food entering the mix, which may be your thing, or may not be.  Not sure it's mine.

"Melissa" is a pretty name, coming from the Ancient Greek for "honeybee" (though that's only one of the reasons I find it pretty).  I think I started writing Melissa pretty much just to work with the name, but very quickly went into something dark and symbol-riddled.  It's got kind of a Persephone vibe to it, though it isn't exactly Persephone's story.  I like the slightly mythic tone it takes on.

So, The Promise of Poetry makes me blush a little.  I started working my new job as a teacher in February, and I was asked what elective I'd like to teach in the semester that was starting up.  The first thing that came to mind was creative writing, with an emphasis on poetry, and I got really excited about it.  Thinking I might have to dive into the teaching pretty quickly, I decided that in addition to collecting some poetry for teaching example, I should come up with a work of my own to illustrate my philosophy on poetry.  So , I wrote The Promise of Poetry, and shortly thereafter was told that for my elective I'd actually be "teaching" Study Hall.  Not that there's any connection between those two events...

But Now I Remember is the product, essentially, of a rush of anxiety the night before my first real teaching day.  The feeling was so acute, it felt at the time like I'd never really been anxious before.  I don't hear literal voices in my head, but when I'm anxious I do feel like I'm being accosted by what I imagine people might be saying.  So I tried to convey that feeling of being accosted by the invisible or unreal.

And what have we here?  A sonnet!  Old Frostwine was inspired by the spectacular imagery I saw on my drive to work, up highway 99 in the very early morning.  I was deliberately reaching for the mythic again, this time for some kind of sleepy Dionysus-type guy.  It was very early, after all.  I think it's one of my better recent sonnets, very pretty in its evocation of mists and farms.

I wrote Old Records on the night of my birthday, after having driven down the 99 again to visit some friends of mine in Corvallis.  I was drinking cinnamon spice rooibos, listening to kick-ass soul records on the radio, and generally feeling like the king of the goddamned world.  I felt so good, I evidently felt like I could write about falling in love, even though I don't recall an actual romantic prospect at the time.  It just didn't matter when I was motivated by such a relentlessly positive feeling.  I think my friends found me annoying that night; they didn't seem to think my "all records = old records" formula was as profound as I did. 

Precog finds me in a lower mood again, contemplating early death.  The worst part of death, according to my anxiety, is the whole "life flashing before your eyes" business.  I'd be fine with skipping that, going straight to the oblivion.  Except I really wouldn't, I guess.

Running Out is one of two poems I wrote on the white board in my classroom during study hall, the other one being a misfire that I have since consigned to the memory hole.  This one's mostly a rhyming exercize, and I admit that resolution/destination is not an especially dazzling pair. 

I think that A Token of Courage grew deliberately out of an effort to make something out of hexameters, on which front it is technically a success.  It's another of those mythic fragments, a small piece of a story about a daring warrior plucking a feather from a Thunderbird.  I got this idea in my head: would it be considered a flaw in the performance of the myth if the hero did not get away clean?  It kind of rung with me.

I don't do drugs, apart from alcohol and caffeine of course.  Poems like The Ocean Styx are my half-hearted attempts at inducing something like a trip, not necessarily psychedelic so much as sleepy.  Yes, that's it.  I'm trying to put myself to sleep.  It's not always easy.  Dactyls and anapests seem to be the way to go.

Mayday, Abecedarian, and Mind in Body Blues were all written, more or less, in the middle of sleepless nights.  They are more literal attempts at combating insomnia, I suppose.  Abecedarian in particular is barely more than an exercise (I think you can see the parameters of it quite easily), but I still like it a lot.  I worked harder on it than I do on some real poems, which probably wasn't helping with the quest for sleep...

Miller's Bullshit is exactly that, mixed with quantum physics.  Just a fun little lark.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Album Review - To Pimp a Butterfly

When I started collecting vinyl a few months ago like the goddamned hipster I am, I had a few guidelines.  I would avoid paying for music I already owned, endeavor to include both contemporary and "classic" albums, and attempt to "expand my musical horizons" with genres and artists I had not previously paid close attention to.  Those guidelines led me to the hip-hop section, and they go a long way toward explaining how Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly found itself in my living room, in all its twelve-by-twelve glory.

I'd like to write something original and thoughtful about this album, but its dense lyricism and evocative sounds require a deep knowledge of the context of both hip hop music and the social environment of black communities in the modern United States.  As it turns out, being a twenty-something white dude with a few Outkast mp3s and an abiding fascination with the Roots, doesn't quite qualify me to speak authoritatively on either.  The sky is blue, the rain makes you wet.

So the best place to start, I suppose, is with what this record means to me.  Butterfly is a beautiful record, musically and emotionally.  It's relatable, even to someone like me, when Lamar raps and recites about the weight of society and out-of-control circumstances on one's mental health.  I've spun both discs nearly a dozen times in the past several weeks, learning more each time, both from the record and my not-infrequent trips to genius.com to clarify the meaning of verses and gather much-needed background information.

Maybe it goes without saying that I would need to do some homework to begin making sense of, much less really enjoy, a strong political hip-hop album.  Or maybe it doesn't - but what does need to be said is that Kendrick Lamar and myself speak very different languages.  When it comes to understanding rap, it's not a matter of just keeping up with the syllables.  African American English is replete with unique vocabularies, constructions, and an enduring sense of irony that does not translate into white or "standard" English.  Naturally, how could I expect to listen once and just get it?

More than a language barrier or a culture barrier, there's an experience barrier between myself and Butterfly.  If the music weren't so compelling, handing out funk and soul with equal measures of drive and poetry, the experience of this album would be incomprehensible to me.  How to fathom the depth of survivor's guilt and hypocrisy expressed in "Hood Politics" or "The Blacker the Berry"?  Not without effort.  The swagger of "King Kunta" illustrates the contradictory dynamics of success and oppression, a state embodied in the aspirations and reversals of black men and women.  And yes, I looked these songs up on genius.com before I felt comfortable making any kind of statement about them.  I am still learning how to listen to this music.

For me this album is an education, but for its intended audience it is a view of life, another contribution in a body of culture that is both familiar and increasingly alive.  The emotions on this album aren't just strong, they are expansive, as Lamar leads the listener on a whirlwind tour of rage, joy, hope, and depression, without letting any of it settle into a muted schwa.  That's the real magic of a record like this, that it can embody so completely a full suite of feelings and ideas in eighty minutes of sound.

And controversy?  Why, of course there's controversy.  Every successful hip-hop record is controversial simply for being what it is.  The attacks on police brutality and the insidiousness of white power are central to the message: you can't separate them from whatever content on Butterfly may be "apolitical".  The apolitical is beside the point, as is the ongoing, facile debate over why white people can't use racial slurs if black people are going to insist on reclaiming them.  Sure, that makes it somewhat difficult for me to sing along like I might to some one else's songs; but that only raises the question, why do I feel the need to sing along anyway?  There's so much more to gain just by listening.  If you're scandalized by Butterfly's politics, you've got a lot of listening to do.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

I Don't Know Where I Began

I really did not mean to leave this idle until May.  I'm not sure why I wanted it to go like that, or if I did want it, or if there's really any answer beyond laziness.  But I did.  I have things to say, so I guess it's time to say them.

Seeing as my last post was in late January, I have about four months of good news to condense into a few lines, for those who read this and wish to know what the state of my life is.

The best news is that I have achieved a small measure of economic security, and have done so by acquiring what is probably the closest thing to a dream job I've ever had.  In February I started working as a full-time teacher at a small charter school in rural Oregon, just outside of Salem.  Shortly thereafter, I rented a two room apartment in downtown Salem, where I reside to this very day.  Thus from the jaws of dejection and defeat, I have been plucked by good fortune to something very like victory.  In the big scheme of things, I've become one of the lucky ones.

What a change, huh?  And no record of it on The Wave Function Junction for four months.  I must be busy with the new job to have been so negligent.

Well, I have been busy.  Teaching social studies is hard work, especially if you want to do it right.  But I haven't been as busy as all that.  Whole weekends pass by where I mostly lie on the couch and engage in distraction rather than creation.  I scribble a poem now and then, and I do keep up on creating assignments for my students.  Very occasionally, I have even found time for exercize.  But it would be a stretch too far to say I'm at the top of my game.  In a way that I haven't quite perceived before, I can see that I am still sick.

Since looking my depression in the face for the first time over a year ago, I have become aware of what it means to be mentally ill.  Back then, it meant idle thoughts of killing myself, against a backdrop of endless waiting for a natural death.  It doesn't mean that so much anymore.  The sertraline pills have done their work of evening me out, I suppose.  And to be entirely fair, I have learned so much in the past year, about myself and about the workings of the mind, I have begun to heal myself from the worst wounds.  The world has become survivable. 

But as I said, I still feel sick.  I still feel cut off from the world, cut off from passion and love.  I can feel these things, and it is joyous when a connection is established by communication, or by physical presence.  But in my inevitable retreat to solitude, I love without anyone to love, and I despair.  Other people see it in my eyes, but they do not see the cause.

Maybe it's just perpetual dissatisfaction?  Maybe it's never enough to have a job and a home, I also need a raise and a vacation and a woman to sleep with me and why not a shiny new everything?  Maybe it doesn't matter.  I'm better and I'm getting better.  As I have reminded my friends, and as I struggle to remind myself, the world inevitably changes with time. 

And I have the time.  I have admitted it today, and that's why you're reading this.  I'm still (unbelievably) not yet thirty, I'm young and reasonably healthy, and getting hungrier every day.  Who'd have thought a meal of life could cure the blues?  Well, it can't.  To do that, I have to finally brave the bureaucracy and figure out how to transform my benefits package into actual health insurance, and get some damn therapy in me (and maybe about a million more pills, who knows).  Perhaps discovering the true love of my life will have a positive effect, too. 

The world has become survivable, and it turns out I'm sort of a survivor.  That's the news as of May 2016.  Hopefully it gets more interesting from here.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Poetries #5

Poetry, poetry, all I do is poetry... and not enough of that, if you ask me.  But I've got another line up of beauties here, and it's time for them to shine.  If you want to call it shining, anyway; they do have their own sort of luster.

Having exhausted my backlog in the last Poetries post, I can say that all of these have been written quite recently.  They're fresh, and perhaps less labored-over than some of the poems I've posted before.  Not that I've ever been that much of a perfectionist, but it may be I want to slow down again in the future.  We shall see.  Some of them are silly, and some of them are less silly; I hope they're all enjoyable in their own way.

There are only fourteen of them, but the last one is extra long, so we'll call it fifteen, why not?  As always, I'll yammer on at the end.  Some of these poems have a kind of dark sexual edge to them (oh, so edgy, ooh), so watch out for that; some others have only a light sexual dusting.  The poem Sustenance may also be triggering to people with a history of abuse or eating disorders, so here's a warning ahead of time.

_______________

Beard

I can feel it grow, like wire
through the edges of my face,
and every day it makes me older
with conspicuous lack of grace.

I scramble to evade its trap:
my youthful smile it would eclipse
and make me nigh un-kissable,
with itchy chin and whiskered lips.

The answer is apparent, though
it pains my heart to make the pledge -
the victory takes violence,
a slashing from the razor's edge.

There was a time, I'm almost sure,
when I was much too young to grow
a beard like this, so stiff and scratchy:
oh, age is such a cutting blow!


Garlic Lover

Once I ate a bulb of garlic,
roasted whole
with oil and salt for flavor,
sesame and pepper,
warm and savory, a surge of umami
wrapped in paper -
but I guess I should have known
(or should have guessed)
that it was all a dangerous mistake.


From Her Lips

Even when I was a selfish boy,
I would have gladly given my power of speech
to learn the kisses in her mother tongue,
receive instructions in her native grammar,
and a lesson in the arts of Lithuania.


La Papa

A decision is forthcoming:
white smoke rises from the chapel,
and the world nods as one, they know,
 at last, I have elected,
I have been selected
and I have accepted.

Now the flock can breathe my smoke
with open nostrils
and thank religion for the privilege;
now the saints in heaven will admire
my cowboy hat.

But someone has to find my hat,
I do not pay
myself enough for this,
I am become a very busy man.

My regnal name is loaded
with the riches of the ages,
but still
I do not pay
myself enough for this -
I could have made a living
blowing smoke
in any old place,
you know.

I could have been
a real fine potato.


Never Send a Poet

The only real irony in life
regarding the state we know as "bliss"
is that the poet, should
they be so lucky,
never
could describe it.
Blessed by holy flesh,
the heat of dandelion wine,
the blinding music on a whisper's lips,
their thought becomes as fallow ground,
their hand as nothing new
to write regarding
"bliss".


Darling

Darling is a coil of rope
around my throat,
as tender as a ribbon
and slender
like the veins she gently teases.

Darling burns,
so slowly;
but
first
she
melts in a pool of magma.

Darling kills me deathly every night,
as painful is the genesis of life.


Cruelty

My pet,
the fire is restrained
and I
shall see it through its life,
you bet.
It feeds beneath my roof
on carbon,
never satisfied,
my pet;
and should it gnaw the ceiling,
I
would drown the embers, soak
them wet.
If you should make the same
mistake,
would anybody blame me,
pet?


A Ruined Mess

Sweet, merciful
hand of shame -
handling me with
ire and blame,
a curse upon
my wretched name!
But life continues
all the same -
considering what
my friends became,
these kinks of mine
are (mostly) tame.


The Natural Aristocracy

Time was,
all a boy had to
do
to impress his buddies
was own the newest toys
before their parents
could afford the same -

which is to say,
the boy in question
really didn't have to
do
anything, but ask.


Jeans

You shouldn't come to me in dreams,
it isn't faithful -
even if you play it coy,
and restrict yourself to cruel teases,
I doubt your lover would approve.
Breaking homes
is not my business,
even if the taste is tempting,
so I'll be waking up now
to wash the kisses out of my mouth.


Sustenance

The Chef is famished; she refrains
from tasting any of the courses
she prepares with her own thin hands.

She loves this hungry man, and always
keeps him happy, warm and fat;
she wishes he would starve to death.

Another someone feeds the Chef
in secret, so is it any wonder
when the kitchen is gutted by flames?


Seventeen in Reno

But is he really English after all?
Every time he opens his mouth, I'm getting
less and less convinced that this is so.
And everyone else in this crowd is over fifty,
drinking in the name of the summer of love
from cocktails served by breasty, long-legged girls,
smiling bright with braces on their teeth
and bits of glitter dusted around their nipples.
The banner called it "Rock and Roll", and my father
nodded, adding sagely, "this is history -
this English guy was a really great rocker
when I was younger than you -" and my eyes are fixed
on her pink nipples, but my ears are listening,
and if he says he's English, I won't argue.


Crooked Scales

Market money, weighed in heavy
gold and silver, laid in piles,
overwhelms the weight of justice
to the joy of Crooked Scales.

Crooked Scales and his Justice
keep the pieces in position:
debtors on the brink of ruin,
patients with expensive treatments,

native people out of sight, and
Mexicans and blacks in prison.
Crooked Scales has the people
paying for their subjugation,

subsidizing the protection
of the friends of Crooked Scales,
who will never come to justice
while the band continues playing,

'til the chairs  have been diminished
and the only person seated
is the soul of greed incarnate,
the contorted Crooked Scales.


The Weeping Mountain

Misty skirts about her ankles,
hand in woolen glove;
she is the kind of mountain girl
a valley boy could love.

With hair as gay as autumn leaves
and eyes as bright as snow,
her beauty is a legend with
the valley folk below.

Her tears of laughter, in the morning
when the clouds are grey,
awake the flowers from her doorstep
to the valley, far away -

her tears of everlasting sorrow
when the night is dim,
flood the river, where the valley
people buried him.

In bygone days she sang a tune
that echoed from her roots,
and so inspired a lover from
the valley's doomed pursuit.

A giantess, she truly was:
her arms embraced the sky!
And when she held him to her breast,
the valley boy could fly;

across the great expanses of
the mountain maiden's heart,
above the wide terrain, of which
the valley formed a part.

The mountain maid could see the earth
in all its awful size,
reflected by the starlight in
her valley lover's eyes;

she loved him from the moment when
he climbed the highest fir,
as much or more intensely as
the valley boy loved her.

And through the living wilderness
he walked with her for days,
the giant girl enraptured by
her valley lover's praise.

He promised her a country wedding,
dances through the hills
and a honeymoon festooned in wreaths
 of valley daffodils -

"I'll only fetch the preacher, have
him meet us at the church;
you know the one, it's shaded by
the valley's silver birch."

So down he ran with lightning speed,
the grace of youthful years,
and the mountain maiden filled the valley
with her joyful tears.

But even tears of joy from her
could raise the waters high;
when last the boy had come that way,
the valley bridge was dry,

but now he found it rocked by foam
and creaking from the stress.
The valley river surged beneath him,
tossed him to his death.

The bells announced his funeral
and killed the maiden's dreams;
she cried with loss and misery,
and filled the valley's streams.

Today the weeping mountain's river
floods in darkest night,
but only when the girl recalls
her valley lover's flight.

_______________

Beard and Garlic Lover are prime examples of the sort of poem that I consider funny, which may not say much for my sense of humor, but as long as I'm having fun, right?  Both are very true to life, and believe me: eating a whole garlic bulb is a terrible idea.  Don't do it.  You will regret it for days.

From Her Lips is a poem about my first girlfriend, who was born in Lithuania and about whom I was crazy.  It's not exactly an original concept to equate a foreign language with some kind of exotic romance, but it suited my mood at the time.  There's something I like about the idea of five lines of iambic pentameter, I don't know why that form doesn't have a name.  Five by five, right?

Then there's La Papa, which is free verse and not quite stream of consciousness, but pretty bizarre regardless.  The title is of course a contrived multilingual pun: "el Papa" means "Pope" in Spanish, while "la papa" means "potato".  This poem is, therefore, about a Pope who may or may not also be a potato.  With a cowboy hat.  And a propensity to committing various frauds?  It's a curious situation.  I had a lot of fun working out the line breaks on this one; it came pretty easily, but I spent more time than I might have getting it right.

Sometimes poetry is a vain attempt to express the inexpressible, and my vain attempt to express that is titled Never Send a Poet.  "The blinding music on a whisper's lips" is kind of a cool line, but this poem is still too coherent to really represent the gulf between what we want to say and what we end up muttering softly.

After that are three poems about some darker aspects of sexuality.  Darling was an attempt to write something that had a real dangerous bite.  The first stanza is probably the most successful in that regard, with its reference to breath play, but each one references a kind of sexual fetish.  I would stress here that writing about something doesn't necessarily mean it's part of my own life, but other than that I have no comment on what sort of thing I'm into.  Cruelty sort of "discovered itself" halfway through the writing; I had the idea of using "my pet" as a refrain, and sort of arrived at a theme as I kept working with it.  Naturally, that poem is about some kind of manipulative monster.  Finally, A Ruined Mess is about kinks, and kinkshaming, and feeling ashamed of one's own kinks.  The best that can be said for a good, honest kink, I think, is that it's perfectly fine in private.  Writing dimeters is kink of tricky, especially when they rhyme, but it's a neat exercise.

The best thing about The Natural Aristocracy is the conspicuous emphasis placed on the word "do".  Other than that, it feels a little stilted to me, and I'm not sure what purpose it serves.  It's got a message about... social class?  immaturity?  both?  Something like that.

Jeans is another sexy-guilty poem, about dreaming an erotic encounter with someone who is otherwise attached.  Have I done this?  Why of course I have.  I assume everyone has.  Right?  Of course, a dreamer isn't usually so fastidious in resisting temptation as the protagonist of this poem.  Why the title?  In the most recent dream I'd had of this type, the girl was really rocking some jeans.  It seemed like a sexy title.

Sustenance is a pretty easy metaphor for domestic abuse.  It grew out of a conversation I'd had with a friend a few years back about emotional feeding, a concept I've been thinking about ever since.  There's also a reference to eating disorders and other issues of body image.  The last stanza isn't quite as strong, but I wanted it to end with some measure of justice.

Seventeen in Reno is a true story, hand to god.  My dad took me to see Dave Mason in concert at a hotel in Reno when I was seventeen, and there were absolutely half-naked waitresses there.  I don't really remember if there was glitter where I said there was, but it's my memory and I can embellish it as I please.  As to Mr. Mason's ethnicity, I am satisfied that he really is English, but we bought a live album after the show that's been on my hard drive ever since, and I have to say his accent doesn't really show it.  This is another of my occasional unrhymed sonnets, pseudo-epic forms suited for pseudo-epic events. 

If any poem here has a message, it's Crooked Scales, a hideous screech at capitalism and the corruption of the justice system.  I consider its lack of rhyming a weakness, but the attempt at rhyme felt like it was only getting in the way.  I derived the name of the central character (sort of an embodiment of the capitalist order) from a certain Supreme Court Justice, whom it would be very unfair to single out by name.  The whole system is guilty.

Last is The Weeping Mountain, part of my ongoing fascination with long-ish narrative ballads.  It's the third I've written in the last few months, after all.  It's a sad little story about a (fake) local legend concerning an unlucky boy and his lover, who may actually be a mountain.  How does a boy love a mountain?  With all his heart of course, but it's also possible that she's simply an enormous girl.  I only put the last six stanzas in satisfactory form today; I was having a lot of trouble getting them right on paper. 

Thursday, December 31, 2015

How Little Pyroraptor Saved the Season

An ancient night in long ago December
loomed across the forest like a fog,
and dinosaurs of every size and color
shivered under frozen leaf and log.

The winter sapped the animals of strength,
and each despaired of ever being warm;
but hope was struck by lightning in the distance
from a Late Cretaceous thunderstorm.

A flame was spotted in the eastern mountains,
pulsing with a lively orange glow,
yet none would dare approach the peaks, except
the fire thief, her feathers white as snow.

She told the prehistoric animals
that huddled in the icy forest trees,
“Prepare a pit to hold the distant fire;
I’ll bring it back to heat our homes with ease!”

As Pyroraptor journeyed through the woods
she left her footprints in the snow beneath,
and clutched a sturdy branch of verdant holly
tightly with her fierce, determined teeth.

She deftly climbed the distant mountain slopes
with claws for gripping, movements sure and quick,
while leaping up between the snow-capped rocks
in search of fire to light the holly stick.

The promised flames were near extinguished from
the mountain’s only westward facing slope,
but embers from a patch of withered branches
offered Pyroraptor’s greatest hope.

“Alas,” the little fire thief declared,
“I’ve climbed too far and traveled much too high:
although my legs may speed me to my friends,
the branch will be consumed if I should try.”

She set the verdant holly branch aside
and looked around the mountain in dismay,
when lucky chance revealed a hollowed trunk
which, with a push, might make a decent sleigh.

Of course our Pyroraptor knew the risk,
but just as well she had compelling reason;
and so determined that she had no choice,
except to do her best to save the season.

So Pyroraptor took her holly branch
to stick it swiftly in the glowing coals,
and when the branch was fully lit, she leaped
into the crude toboggan’s dugout holes.

Down and down the trunk was sliding soon,
with Pyroraptor riding in the front,
the flaming brand of holly held aloft
in triumph for this daring downhill stunt.

And in the woods, the fire pit was dug
by Iguanodons and other dinosaurs,
while tinder, sticks, and grass were fetched for fuel
by smaller mammals, birds, and pterosaurs.

The storm grew worse, and many animals
fell into deep depression and despair -
but gazing out toward the eastern mountains,
a watchful Martinavis took the air.

Afar he spied a speeding orange glow,
and burst into a loud and hopeful song:
“the fire thief is coming down the mountain,
the fire thief will shortly be along!”

And shortly, Pyroraptor’s makeshift sleigh
was sliding fast toward its destination,
weaving nimbly ‘tween the pines and firs
to bring the forest creatures their salvation.

The log slowed down, and Pyroraptor sprang
to bring on foot her precious holly torch,
and reached the forest clearing none too soon -
the feathers on her snout were being scorched!

“Hurry Pyroraptor!” cried the bird
that saw the sleigh approaching from the hills,
“the pit is dug, the pile of wood is ready,
so throw the torch and save us from these chills!”

The holly branch was up in roaring flame,
and Pyroraptor gave a mighty throw -
the logs and tinder soon were burning, while
the hero cooled her feathers in the snow.

Though all about the northern winds were fiercely
blowing ice and snow across the land,
the flame from Pyroraptor’s log of holly
warmed the forest creatures as she’d planned.

The Hadrosaurs made merry trumpet calls
while squads of Spinolestes jumped and danced,
And every creature hailed the fire thief
with jolly wreaths of green coniferous plants.

They wassailed through the dark and ancient night
for Pyroraptor and her glorious deed,
and woke a sleeping hive of Melittosphex,
begging honey for a brew of mead.

So Pyroraptor and her forest neighbors
passed the winter happy, safe, and warm;
the days grew long, another year began,
a spring devoid of prehistoric storms.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

WFJ Book Club #13: The Hobbit

The Lord of the Rings is, at least in my estimation, one of the most incredible novels of the last century.  It is a forcefully imaginative and undeniably influential instance of an author cutting against the grain to build a place in the popular culture for his own, somewhat unconventional, tastes.  And I could go on like that for a while, really, because I am a huge Tolkien nerd and I've internalized a lot of this kind of praise for the old man's most popular book(s). 

What I really want to talk about today, though, is The HobbitThe Hobbit is of course an enduringly popular novel and is often associated (to the point of complete identification) with The Lord of the Rings.  As a prequel (though to be more accurate, Rings is a sequel), it contributes to the epic events that follow, and the stories are both similar in their focus on the activities of Hobbits and on the Baggins family in particular.

The similarities between the two stories was such that Peter Jackson, following up his acclaimed work on a trilogy of Rings movies, felt justified in taking the same approach and creating a new Hobbit trilogy.  I of course watched and reviewed each of the three new movies when they came out, and while I appreciated the filmmaker's obvious love for the source material, with each passing year I became less confident that we fans were getting a Hobbit adaptation that was anywhere near as definitive as Jackson's The Lord of the Rings.

Flash forward to this holiday season, and I found myself actually rereading The Hobbit for the first time in years.  It was every bit as wonderful as I remembered, and I found myself effortlessly transported to the Middle Earth of my childhood, before its geography became synonymous with New Zealand.  But when I put it down again, my thoughts turned endlessly to darker themes.  Peter Jackson and I, thought I, needed to have a conversation.

The sad truth is that, barring a few real improvements (like the addition of Tauriel, and some of the background material on the One Ring), the movies did not do the original justice.  It's not a matter of which scenes were included and which scenes were not; it was a matter of missing the point.  This is supposed to be a book review and I've spent way too much time talking about movies, but I think it needs to be said that someone, in the future, is going to make a brilliant ninety minute Hobbit adaptation.  That is the work we fans deserve.

The truth is that as similar as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are, they have a very particular and symbiotic relationship for the reader.  To read them in their original order is to see Tolkien pull back the curtain on a world that, for him, already existed even before The Hobbit was composed (though he was himself still in the process of discovering it).  To go back and read The Hobbit after its sequel, then, is to be astonished at how effortlessly a tale so small, for lack of a better word, fits into a world so vast in potential.

The Hobbit stands apart for a tone of voice that is more friendly and personable than any of Tolkien's other Middle Earth writings.  It is less self-consciously literary, having been first conceived as a bedtime story for Tolkien's children, with no wider audience in mind.  The adventure of Bilbo Baggins never strains for mythic significance, as the hero takes a fairly straightforward path through increasingly greater dangers until finally reconciling his bold nature with his meek, domesticated habits.  But the story achieves significance anyway, because Tolkien (quite audaciously) had Bilbo breathing the same air as the heroes of the great myths he had already been writing for years.  Practically no one who read The Hobbit in 1937 had any idea about The Silmarillion, but that dense work echoes throughout The Hobbit without overwhelming what is still essentially a story for children. 

That continuous presence animates The Hobbit and gives Tolkien the opportunity to take his world's history as given, confident that readers would accept the introductions of elvish swords from Gondolin, without asking too many questions about just what or where "Gondolin" was.  Elements like the Necromancer or the Arkenstone hold obvious significance, but even though the initial audience knew nothing about the agents of Morgoth or of the Silmarils, the author was already practiced in exploring their associated themes.  The reader might know nothing of Middle Earth's history, but it is obvious to anyone that the narrator knows what he's talking about, and isn't merely making up silly names as he goes along.

So what is the magic of The Hobbit?  It is depth in the service of simplicity.  The function of that depth is to take a simple story about fantastic events and make them seem so weighted with history as to be nearly tangible.  It's fiction, but it isn't trifling; light, yet substantial.

Tolkien's Middle Earth was created as a way for for the author to express his fascination with the "authentic" myths that were his academic specialty, in a way that satisfied his own creative impulses.  For that reason The Hobbit also rings true for its reminiscence of the stories of Norse mythology, with Dwarves and Elves and the distinctly Odinic wanderer Gandalf.  Indeed, Tolkien's imaginative appropriation of these types had the effect of casting a distinctly "Nordic" quality over subsequent "high" fantasy fiction, a historically unfortunate result but one that works to great effect in giving The Hobbit the illusion of authenticity.

Another problematic element of the story is Tolkien's rather obvious and often cringe-worthy characterization of his Dwarves with stereotypes of Jewish people.  Though I am not Jewish and can't speak fully to the anti-Semitic effect, I will venture to say that the Dwarves of The Hobbit are not villains, and neither are they as single-mindedly obsessed with wealth as a true bigot likely would have had them.  In a roundabout way it seems that Tolkien really admires Thorin and his companions, while still carelessly stereotyping them.  Cultural misunderstanding is a recurring theme in all of Tolkien's works, often reflecting his own feelings about the clash between ancient and "modern" values; whether he could appreciate the conflict between modern people in the same way is unclear.


That problem illustrates the limitations of attempting to build a whole world from one's own imagination.  Real worlds are impossibly huge, rendered in imperceptible deal and visible from infinite perspectives.  Even the most fully-realized work of fiction is only as real as it can be generated within human minds, and the smallness of our minds gives us flawed worlds.  I think that is part of what makes The Hobbit so endearing in its original form: its satisfaction with being small, even as it sets out into the great wide open.  The "battle of the five armies" is a spectacular moment, but I think what most people remember best in the end are the small scale delights of the Shire and Bag End.