Monday, March 30, 2009

Spring in Amagansett

I'm filled with pleasure about being home, back in the northeast, especially because coming home means coming back to our house in Amagansett, which we barely had time to begin to know before we left for California just after the new year began. Now it's a time of much rearrangement, unpacking, figuring out where things go, fetching stuff from Fire Island and from storage: a chance to consolidate and to make home in a more solid way than we've been able to the last few years.

It's funny that all this should coincide with the publication of Louise DeSalvo's new book, ON MOVING, a meditation on relocating, leaving old places and making home anew. Especially because Louise's book discusses, among the domestic disruptions and revisions of many writers, yours truly. I am moving, and my moving is being represented, all at once.

Last night I stood up in the garden, on the slope above the house looking down to the woods across the road. It was a little foggy, so that the lights of the house spilled out into the air in an unfamiliar way, and the trees (still leafless) were slightly blurred. In the vernal pools, the peepers seemed to be growing louder -- that sweet ringing annual chorus I just don't ever get weary of. I'd been spending all my time working, settling, and that moment made me just stop and pay attention to where we are.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The pitch of harm

A couple of posts back I mentioned Liz Bradfield's first book, INTERPRETIVE WORK (Arktoi Books, LA 2008) which is nominated for both a Lambda Literary Award and a Publishing Triangle Prize. Liz works as a naturalist, and her poems reflect a lifetime's involvement in looking at the complexity of the "natural world" -- though the poem that follows here engages the way that "natural" probably doesn't work any more as a descriptor. What hasn't been influenced by human actions? The poem speaks artfully to the plight of the manatee, those big sweet endangered mammals who love the warm waters that spill out of Florida power plants.


The voice of the manatee is shrill,
harsh as a rusted pennywhistle.
This only increases my pity, my
sad head shaking at the propeller cutwork

lathed across its muddy hide because
although its screeches rise
toward the whine of machines, it can't
hear the Evinrude, all cavitation and churn

speeding the bungalow-lined and dredged
canals of Cocoa Beach. It doesn't flinch
at kids, loud with riffs of jibe and cheer,
tossing Snackables into the mangrove roots.

The pitch of harm has been recalibrated,
and the manatee's ear isn't tuned. To it,
danger sounds like distant rumble:
a car door slams two blocks away and the manatee

lazing by the culvert, suckling
the sweet water of a garden hose
left running, twitches its bulk
and slowly begins to flee.

Above, another space shuttle
flares toward space. Below,
turtlegrass grows through old tires.
Warm water flows from the power plant.

Here is what it senses: the grass is sweet,
the canal's currents slow.
A ways off, another manatee skrils:
sweet grass, still waters, warmth.

If the poem inclines you to want more information about these creatures, have a look at Save the Manatee, an organization that would be grateful for even a modest donation to help these big gentle "sea cows" -- somewhere between a hippopotamus and an underwater blimp -- live.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Mansion of Happiness

Here's a poem from another fine first book, THE MANSION OF HAPPINESS by Robin Ekiss, coming soon from the University of Georgia Pres.


The question of my mother is on the table.
The dark box of her mind is also there,
the garden of everywhere
we used to walk together.

Among the things the body doesn't know,
it is the dark box I return to most:
fallopian city engrained in memory,
ghost-orchid egg in the arboretum,

hinged lid forever bending back and forth --
open to me, then closed
like the petals of the paper white narcissus.
What would it take to make a city in me?

Dark arterial streets, neglected ovary
hard as an acorn hidden in its dark box
on the table: Mother, I am
out of my mind, spilling everywhere.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


In Denver for readings -- at Metro College today, which has the surprising distinction of being adjacent to an amusement park, so that from the campus you can see this big white roller coaster undulating in front of the distant mountains. Tonight I read at the Tattered Cover, one of the stalwarts of independent bookselling. After two readings and a talk, I can barely put a sentence together, and the whole day blurs. But there's this single image I want to keep: a woman brought a four month old golden retriever puppy to the reading, a dog who was in training to become to become a service animal for diabetics. Who knew? It turns out dogs can be trained to sense (via smell?) when there's a blood sugar problem for the person they're guarding. I think of young golden retrievers (from experience) as being wide-eyed, borderless little blobs of living jelly. But this one was self-contained, sober, and even when she was lifted up off the ground, off-duty for a moment so that I was allowed to pet her, she never dissolved into a wiggling puddle of fur, but maintained this beautiful reserve. I, on the other hand, after three events, am basically a pool of fur myself.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

And more congratulations

Two terrific new first books: Anna Journey's IF BIRDS GATHER YOUR HAIR FOR NESTING, a winner of the National Poetry Series, chosen by Thom Lux. And Paul Otremba's THE CURRENCY, just published by Four Way Books. There's something truly heartening about
wonderful first books -- the sense of arrival, a sensibility that already seems achieved, even in its initial appearance, a new way of seeing and speaking.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A wave of congratulations

The spring round of awards-finalist listings brings wonderful news. Three poets whose work I love, each of whom was a student of mine at one point or another, are up for prizes. Rick Barot's WANT is up for a Lambda Literary Award. James Allen Hall's NOW YOU'RE THE ENEMY is a finalist for the Texas Institute of Letters Award for Poetry, and a Lambda Literary Award. Jericho Brown's PLEASE is a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award and for the Thom Gunn Prize from the Publishing Triangle. Whoo hoo!

A spray of confetti also for Liz Bradfield, our friend here in Palo Alto, a Stegner Fellow whose first book of poems, INTERPRETIVE WORK, is also a Lammy finalist, as well as a finalist for the Audre Lorde Prize from the Publishing Triangle.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Even though you are who you are

Last night we went for dinner, gelato and a walk in North Beach. We had a good time -- a sublimely garlic-centered meal, some shopping in the poetry section at City Lights (where I found, among other things, a new biography of Taha Mohammed Ali, a complete surprise). Chocolate-orange gelato. Then we were just walking, taking pictures of engaging signs, and turned up a side street onto a block of Chinese shops and restaurants. The storefronts were battered and beautiful, so we kept going for a while, and then turned back downhill to return to Columbus Ave. In front of a Chinese restaurant, a family group had gathered while a frail elderly couple were being slowly helped into a waiting car. Just then a car came screeching down the street way too fast, slammed on its brakes, and sounded its horn for a very long time as it came to a stop behind the idling car. More honking. Everyone was looking at the woman who was agressively leaning on her horn as if they were wondering how anyone could behave like that. And that's when I did something I probably need to stop doing: criticizing the uncitizenly actions of strangers.

I yelled something like "Behave yourself!" The people standing in front of the restaurant said, "You tell her!" The woman behind the wheel glared at me, flipped me off, glared some more, then called me a "fucking faggot." We kept walking, and in a while the idling car moved, and the woman still behind her wheel drove past, calling more names; I thought she had to be high to be that cranked up. As we moved on down the hill she was still carrying on. She pulled around the corner to the left on Columbus, and just as we were turning the corner ourselves she re-appeared -- unbelievably, on foot this time. She'd parked her her car and come back to have it out with us. She was tall, very forceful, and walked right up to me, maybe a foot away from me. Paul told her that she'd just committed a hate crime, and she proceeded to a little more verbal abuse, at which point I gave her some back.

Now comes the incredible part of the story. The woman runs across Columbus; she's double-parked in front of a restaurant called the Caffe Macaroni, but instead of getting into the car she runs into the restaurant. We are walking away when we hear her yell "There they are!" We turn and she's come out of the restaurant with about four big guys, who start to come in our direction.

My impulse is to get off the street, so we dash into a cafe on the corner, a tiny little place. There are no customers; two waiters are sitting around smoking, since they've got nothing to do. We tell them we're being followed by some people who called us faggots. They're shocked and tell us we can hide in there, and usher us into a little area behind the dining room. They run to the door to look out, but suddenly they're exclaiming -- hurrying to hide the cigarettes, because it's their boss who's coming. We seem to have chosen to hide in a restaurant owned by the same guy who thinks this insane woman's honor needs protecting.

And suddenly, as if a trapdoor has opened in the evening and we've landed in a scene from The Sopranos, two guys enter the restaurant, two more are posted just outside the door, and I've got an angry middle-aged guy in a black shirt with flowers on it standing in front of me and he's not happy. I cannot narrate our conversation here, as it's all a jumble in my head. He's threatening (not necessarily in his words but his stance and tone), he's telling me to get out, but I'm not about to walk out onto that sidewalk with these weird entourage bodyguard types standing there, I'm saying I'm going to call the police. Then the strangest thing: he takes my arms and he says, "Even though you are who you are, you gotta think twice before you talk to somebody."

I have no idea what this means. Does "who you are" mean gay man, middle-class man, entitled person? No idea. The guy's telling me to get out of his restaurant, and somehow I make it clear that I will not leave with those men at the door, and they move over, and out we go, with a barrage of insults behind us -- "The Castro's on the east side of town, get out of the neighborhood, twinkletoes, get lost faggot" and so on. We're hurrying away with our hearts racing and half sure that those guys are going to be right behind us, a feeling that goes on for blocks.

Later, my legs feel liquid, my heart isn't ready to slow down. Thinking about how strange it is for a woman alone to come after two six-foot guys. Thinking how she wanted this to happen, somehow -- singling us out for her rage instead of the people in the car ahead of her, coming back to provoke us, then running into the restaurant to fetch the men. So that she could feel her power over them, or us? So that she could vent her rage at men who for whom her sexual mojo doesn't work? Something about the nature and complexity of violence -- which this very nearly turned out to be -- makes it feel impossible for me to really understand the scene. Not much context for all this but what I can create.

Resolutions: when I see people behaving badly, I will keep my mouth shut unless it is a matter of life or death. And I will never go back to North Beach, never.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Little Butano Creek and the boys of my youth

On Saturday, while Paul was teaching a workshop in Santa Cruz, I wandered up the coast. Just north of town there was a farmers' market, where a glowing array of kale, spinach, beets, lemons, bags of salad greens spiked with orange edible petals -- well, a big early spring bounty was laid out on folding tables under temporary tents. I loved that a lot of the vendors -- under signs with names like Happy Dog Farm and Bright Boy Produce -- looked like the young men who fascinated me around 1970: beards and long hair, handmade knit caps, "ethnic" clothes -- ah. Who gets to be so lucky, that a style that conveyed mystery and beauty when you were 17 returns (or never entirely vanished)? Blessings on California! Then I drove further up the coast, near Pescadero, and took a back road to Butano State Park, for a hike in a deep cool redwood grove. These photos were taken looking down from a wooden footbridge into Little Butano Creek.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The hat I most want to wear in all the world

This beautiful thing is in the Museum of Asian Art in San Francisco; it was made in mid-Thailand, in the 1950s or 60s. The eyes are lustrous brown glass with black pupils. It's a cap to dream on.