Sunday, November 29, 2009

Serious moonlight

Last night the moonlight in the Springs was an astonishment. It seemed to transform the atmosphere into a kind of vague, milky solid. Warm late November night, and over the mostly gone garden, this almost tangible suspension. In honor, here's Dorianne Laux reading her wonderful poem, "Facts About the Moon," with a video accompaniment.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A poem I would have read had I been there

At tonight's Harvard reading to accompany the "ACT UP New York" exhibit, I'd planned to read this poem by Rynn Williams, from her book ADONIS GARAGE. Rynn died this year, too soon, but she left behind this superb collection, the evidence of a life deeply lived into.

The Forest at the Edge of the World

Today I left groceries by the playground on Hudson
and tried to haul, up toward my block,
a cross section of maple grown too large,
chainsawed into manhole covers. Alphonso,
Super for All Buildings east of the projects,
stopped sweeping. He leaned his bald broom
against the stoop, nudged the wood with his toe.
"Nothing to do but roll it," he said, hands
deep in his pockets. I nodded,
barely believing my luck in the midst of asphalt,
transistor radios, and the wet smell of dogs
as he squatted eye level with the log, heaved it
against his shoulder like a man who bears
a handmade cross for miles on his penitent back.
I saw a kind of glory in his eyes, he understood
the heft of the trunk, nicks in the damp bark.
I stood on the side and righted the thing
and together we rolled this boulder of tree
past the Indian deli, the Russian shoe repair,
the Caribbean bakery. "You can smell the forest,"
he said, as we reached my stoop, wood
in the crook of his neck, sawdust and humus and sweat.
And we hoisted the thing, one step at a time, stopping
only to breathe the scent of sap and after a good half hour
it was filling the whole of my apartment--
the shade, the damp smell, that enormous presence--
light brown rings so perfect my whole life
fell right down inside them, concentric circles,
tree within tree, the single slab a world within itself--
suddenly it was thirty-five years ago:
I stood on the edge of a forest, someplace upstate,
and looked up into the branches of my first
true and majestic tree, in the first real forest--trees
instead of buildings. Oh the breadth of those limbs--
after the taut geometry of elevator, fire escape, lobby,
to see the world through branches to the sun--I believed
the world was mine, there was sap in my veins,
the tree was limitless, the scent of the tree,
the bark and the branch and the six-year-old sightline,
which goes on to the edge of the known world.

I'm not at Harvard

I'd expected to be reading tonight with the wonderfully live-wire Eileen Myles in Cambridge, and I was looking forward to it. The Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts has mounted a show called "ACT UP New York," centering on posters and other activist art from the crisis years of the epidemic. I'd planned to read poems by Tim Dlugos, James Merrill and the late Rynn Williams, as well as some work of my own.

But I don't know that anyone had quite considered the exigencies of travel on Thanksgiving week. Penn Station was packed, and when the track number was posted on the board for the Acela to Boston there was a mad race toward the escalator. In the Age of Terrorism, you have to get your ticket checked before you can go down to the platform, which means that the cone of travelers has to funnel down to a narrow line, like cars entering the Holland Tunnel. Lots of big wheeled bags, as much must be carried back to the family gathering. As we get closer, more and more of them wheel over my shoes. Once I'm down the escalator a conductor points to the quiet car, which turns out to be full save for a seat at the back, one of those where a narrow table separates two facings seats. There's a woman already sitting on one side; I ask if the other side is available and she says yes, so I stash my stuff above. But as soon as I try to sit another woman sits down beside the first, and I realize my long frame will not fit: my knees will be in the lap of one of the other passengers. So I scoop up my stuff (not noticing I'm leaving behind my sandwich and bottle of water), but it turns out the doors behind me are shut; there's no way out except back through the crowded car, and the aisle's completely choked by travelers and big rolling bags.

Eventually, I'm back through the crowd, duck out of the train, hurry down toward the other end, head in again -- not a seat in sight, unless I make a famiy with a crowd of kids move their pile of coats and toys and bags. The aisles are still full of the unseated, and suddenly I just can't deal. I turn and walk off the train.

There's another in half an hour, the cheaper "regional" train, running a little late. Once it's called I get back into the funnel again, only to be stopped at the head of the stairs by the Amtrak person who's protecting us from Al Qaeda because I have a ticket for the earlier train. He won't let me on unless I go change it, which would mean waiting through the huge line at the counter. So I'm sunk. I turn back, make my way through the wedge of bodies and luggage, over to the security counter where the handsome bomb-sniffing dogs hang out, and find myself beginning to weep. It's the big wave of all this fall's work and travel and responsibly showing up for all I needed to do breaking over my head. It's Thanksgiving, enough! In my head I am already apologizing: I would love to read for you, I'd like to be there, but I am going HOME, I am NOT going to Harvard.

Perhaps, given that many thousands of people travel via Amtrak at Penn Station every week, and that Thanksgiving week is a predictable crush, maybe they could do a little planning to get people onto the train in a humane fashion? Or add some cars?

Apologies to anyone who's come out to the museum this evening, but I hope the reading's wonderful.

Monday, November 16, 2009

By owl-light

Last night in the Springs I was just getting ready to leave the house, putting some things away, hanging a coat in the closet, when I heard a sound I'd never heard before outside the bedroom window. Over the summer a pair of screech owls woke us up a few nights with their unearthly call -- they sound like a very distressed raccoon, some careening warble of trouble -- but nothing like this. I went outside to listen, and there were the soft notes of the call again. I did a quick web search, listening to owl calls, and found this. If you click on "Typical Male" you'll hear exactly what I heard.

A short-eared owl in our maples! I left feeling sort of aglow with the experience. I drove to the train station, opened the car door, and there it was again, another owl calling over the parking lot. Then, on my fifteen minute walk to the jitney stop, beside the fire station, another owl; on the other side of it, another. Then, by the farmer's market, the next one: Amagansett was full of owls! And they were calling to each other from tree to tree in the warm November evening.

The web page says they glide low over open fields at night, looking for prey. Right behind the trees where I heard them calling there are big open fields -- corn in the summer, and the new organic farm behind the market. I love thinking of the dark shapes of the owls, silhouetted against the stars, flying there a few feet above the earth.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Twilight at the zoo

A great night at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans last night. Two hundred visitors rode the little zoo train through the dark (think squabbling flamingoes and scrambling nutria) back to the swamp, where a cantilvered series of boardwalks carry you above the alligators in their green kingdom, back to a big wooden house like a Cajun dancehall. There they enjoyed wine and good, a jazz trio, and then readings of some of the great poems that will be installed next year around the zoo: Whitman, Dickinson, Roethke, Hopkins, Andrew Marvell, Kay Ryan and many more. Joining me in reading the texts was the luminous Nevada Barr, a mystery writer known for her series of books set in National Parks, who turned out to be a poetry reader of fierce presence. It's always a pleasure to see how much people enjoy hearing great poems aloud; it takes me back to the Favorite Poem Project events, and it's a reminder that perhaps we err in having so many event where poets read their own work. Of course that can be a huge pleasure too -- but something else happens when readings center on the art of poetry, on great work NOT written by the reader. It's a whole different sort of energy, and something about it seems an intrinsic pleasure, even for people who don't know they like poetry.

But I have to say that the truly memorable part for me was getting to the zoo just at twilight, when it was already closed. Not finding anyone to meet me, I slipped through a side gate that the education people use, and walked through the gloaming back to the swamp area. The zoo is well over fifty acres, and the trails and boardwalks loop all around. I was alone with the flamingoes, the big tapirs lumbering across their low plain, the shy alpacas, some haughty cranes, a huge and hurrying flock of -- um, ibis? Squawking, rustling, how many eyes in the shadowy depths of the leaves? Fantastic, to wander alone through those paths toward the welcoming lights shining above the green surface of the swamp.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Five AM, Ronkonkoma train

Taking Long Island Railroad out of the city at five in the morning turns out to be an oddly differently experience than riding the train any other time, as it's full of people who've been out all night and are on their wobbly way home. This morning there were two women talking in the seat just across and one ahead of me. They were bleary, and in a confiding mood. "One man," one said, "all it takes is loving one wrong man, and your whole life is fucked." The other agreed. And in a while she added, "But he's not the one that matters. It's your little girl. A mother is..." Long pause. "How does that saying go? A mother is..." long pause "...a necessity." Concurrence, nods, silence.

A young man, quite drunk, enters the train, speaks to the women, who let him know they're talking to each other and don't want to be flirted with, and then they soften and proceed to flirt with him. He says he's going to Jamaica and he's afraid he's going to fall asleep. They say they'll wake him up and he lies down on the seat in front of me --- immediately out.

At Jamaica, he's still sleeping, and the two women are talking among themselves. I start to head on for the airport, thinking about who's responsible here -- the boy, the two who said they'd wake him, me who overheard? -- and how the guy's going to wake up in Ronkonkoma in an hour and wonder where he is. Another man waiting for the doors to open has heard all this too; he looks at me and says, "Those girls said they'd wake him up."

I think about this and decide it's easy enough to do a good deed. I tap the sleeping man on the shoulder, nothing, tap him again, he opens his eyes. I say, "You wanted to get off at Jamaica, right? This is Jamaica." He looks at me as if I might be an alien abductor. The women, who are talking to each other, pay no attention at all. I leave the train, look back to see the two of them strolling away, but I never see the fellow leave the train. Did the women know all the time he was going to be sleeping a good long while? And did he wake up in the middle of Long Island? The conductors on the early shift must be experts in this.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


OUT Magazine has just published this anthology of essays they've printed over the years, including a profile of Provincetown by yours truly. The cover makes me think of the discussion of the commercial uses of Walt Whitman's work below -- here are some boys together clinging. Well, actually they look like they have just finished clinging, and both do and no not want you to know about it. Do they know whom they souse with spray?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Morning on Sunset Boulvevard, night near the airport...

I've mostly been enjoying the diurnal pleasures of L.A. -- the dry sunwashed greenery of Sunset Blvd to the west of the 405, just beneath the Getty. A benefit for the industrious and excellent Red Hen Press, which celebrated their fifteenth anniversary yesterday at a glittery afternoon reading/lunch/champagne reception, with a room full of wonderful writers; Jamaica Kincaid, Wanda Coleman, Alicia Ostriker, Chris Abani. Today I'm off to read at Claremont College with Alicia and with the charming and very witty Matthea Harvey -- pleasure all around, and Los Angeles is co-operating with suprisingly clear skies, so that all the details of the mountains are visible. Not the way I'm used to seeing this place. And during a Northeastern November, southern California is fantastically inviting.

Daylight beauty aside, I'm posting a noirish photo, an iconic donut stand near LAX. I like how crushingly enormous that vast pastry is.