Women and Demons

A few months ago, I wrote about the way I’ve been remembering Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Security Chief, Tasha Yar (“Well, It Used to Be: Thoughts on Evolving Perspectives”) as a much stronger character than she was actually written. I’m glad to look back and see how narratives about women have improved. Even in the year between the release of Wonder Woman and Black Panther, I see a shift from using women’s strength as a punchline (Wonder Woman) to expressing it as a simple fact (Black Panther). 

The other day, I watched the first episode of Picnic at Hanging Rock, an Amazon Prime series based on a novel that, I admit, I have never read. The show seems ripe for drama, with a seemingly overstrict all-girls finishing school in 1900, run by a mysterious widow, played by Natalie Dormer. 

SPOILER ALERT FOR EPISODE ONE AHEAD:

In the first episode, I felt creeping dread as I watched the young women get sexually harassed, assaulted, and generally treated like a decorative side dish. (Although I didn’t mind that one of the girls stuck a pitch fork in that jerk’s foot.) It’s not that I’ve never seen or read this type of narrative (and it is, indeed, a valid narrative that is lived by many women, even in 2018) but I’m tired of it. 

I believe that words cast spells. While I do think it’s important to recognize the wrong direction, it is equally important to steer the ship toward the desired destination. So, imagine my relief, when I learned that the true villain in Picnic at Hanging Rock appears to be just some sort of demon. Somehow, it was a great relief to me that the dark and drunken force that lures the vulnerable teenage girls into…well, wherever they are…was not another misbehaved dude who needs anything from sensitivity training to a prison sentence. Demons, I can handle. Maybe, later in the series, the demons will reveal their misogyny. I don’t know. I may or may not finish the series; I’ve recently gotten into Samurai Jack. I’m a bit TV flaky, these days.

This month, I offer you two performance pieces: Sarah Jones’ “Your Revolution” and Joy Harjo’s “A Poem to Get Rid of Fear.” Both poems describe moving forward in a new and improved direction. Enjoy!

UPDATE: I finished Picnic at Hanging Rock last night. Apparently, it was inner demons and the relentless patriarch and corsets. Fair enough.

 

Cats!

I suppose most people long to be where they aren’t. I grew up in Glendale, CA, which is about twenty minutes from Hollywood. However, what I really wanted was to live in the woods. The picture below is of the first apartment building that I remember living in (although those blue panels were brown in the 70s). Our apartment unit was the one in the very back, on the second floor. At the time, it was the only apartment building on the block. 

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Those were the days when “free range kids” were just called, “kids,” and I roamed the neighborhood by myself, when I was four or five years old. Being the smallest kid in the neighborhood meant that either the kids took care of me, or they picked on me. Usually, though, I was content to play alone. There was a parameter that I was allowed to play within unless my mom let me go around the corner to the liquor store to buy a root beer and a 3 Muskateers candy bar. Our neighbor, Helen (her house is on the left in this photo) an elderly woman who wore an old-Hollywood-style turban, graciously allowed me to play in her front yard, since my family did not have one.

One summer, my mom and dad and I flew to Indiana to visit my mother’s side of the family. I was dropped off at my Aunt Doris’ house for the weekend, while my parents visited friends. My aunt had a small farm and a barn. One morning, she said, “Ok, go outside and play.” I asked where I was allowed to play outside, and she looked puzzled and said, “Anywhere outside.” I took off running and weaved through the corn fields. The world seemed limitless. 

At some point, it started to rain, and I headed for the barn. All the while, my aunt’s cats had been following me. In the barn, we hung out together on some hay. Earlier that weekend, one of my older cousins had taken me up a ladder to the barn’s loft and had guided me over the wooden planks, that had huge missing pieces in them, so that I could see the newborn kittens. They were wiggling and crawling over each other in a box. I have a vague memory of being allowed to gently pick up one and hold it, as long as the mama didn’t get upset. They looked like little hamsters. 

As the rain fell outside, I crept up the ladder by myself and carefully stepped over the child-sized holes of the loft to watch the kittens nurse. After it stopped raining, I returned to the house, and my aunt and I sat at the kitchen table, snapping peas with my cousins. My magical cat-friends remained outdoors, which to me, felt like the wild.

I had met cats before, of course. I loved my Hollywood grandma’s tuxedo cat, Muffin. I had been charmed by my grandparents’ neighbor cat, a Siamese who bit everyone but me. However, there was something magical about being released into the country with them, speeding through fields and cuddling them in the barn.                 

I have had two cats of my own, Mouse and Iggy, both of whom performed magic daily. They apparated around the house, edited my poetry, and slinked in and out of my dreams. I still believe that, at least one of them, maintained a secret blog. 

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Iggy and me, earlier this year.
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Mouse Cat Weiland and me, early in our adventure together. (Circa 2004)

As it is finals week, and I am busy herding metaphorical cats, I will simply leave you with a website that features cat poems; photos of Ernest Hemingway with his babies; and a somewhat disturbing Cats number, which is based on T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Naming of Cats.” If you have a favorite cat poem or a picture of you with your little fluffball, please share them in the comments! 

http://www.mustlovecats.net/Cat-Poems.html

 

 

New Moon, New Nightmare

Recently, I was sitting outside with my neighbors, Rhonda and Rachel. We were enjoying infused vodka and joking about the frisky birds and bees, weaving around our drinks like drunken teenagers. Spring had sprung. Rhonda reminded us that the new moon was that night, which meant it was time to release the past.

I remembered a yoga teacher telling me the same thing, the week before, and figured that, if two people had mentioned it, I’d give it a go. I looked up at the pale, blue sky and thought that I’d like to let go of neediness. My neediness isn’t particularly blatant. I like spending long stretches of time alone, and I need my independence. I can take care of myself. But, for the last year, I have been wanting stronger relationships with people who, put simply, are just not willing to play. I finished my vodka and hoped the new moon would take care of the rest.

That night, I had one of those long, multi-faceted dreams that seem to last through morning. I dreamed, vaguely, about a family member who recently dropped me from her life; friends in the recent past, and from a million years ago, whose behavior left me confused and hurt. I’ve always found it interesting that every time I silently declare a shift, my subconscious delivers backlash in the tone of “Oh, you mean this pain?”

Oh, you mean this pain

Also, once I start thinking about a topic, it shows up everywhere. Lately, I keep hearing conversations about aging, which is not unusual, I realize; this is America. My peers are mostly 40-somethings, and from what I’ve seen so far, women tend to fall into two camps regarding growing older. The first group can’t stop whining about it, and the rest of us just want to be happy.

Is that assessment completely fair, though? When I first saw my wedding photos (I got married when I was 42) the thought popped into my head that I would have looked better in that dress ten years ago. However, I also remembered that I did not want to get married ten years ago. If I had done so, I would have gotten the photos back and noticed the look of anxiety and defeat on my taut, symmetrical face. And really, what’s the point in that? Still, society’s unreasonable demands find their way into our heads and ask us to cling and need what is already gone.

It’s easy to recognize large shifts in life: going away to college, beginning a new career, getting married. Many times, though, the little shifts are more profound. Below, I’ve included Tony Hoagland’s “Beauty” and Louise Glück’s “Here Are My Black Clothes.” Both poems deal with leaving behind what no longer serves.

If you know a poem that deals with moving forward (or have written one) please share with us in the comments below! Also, tell me if you have a good new moon story!

Beauty

When the medication she was taking
caused tiny vessels in her face to break,
leaving faint but permanent blue stitches in her cheeks,
my sister said she knew she would
never be beautiful again.

After all those years
of watching her reflection in the mirror,
sucking in her stomach and standing straight,
she said it was a relief,
being done with beauty,

but I could see her pause inside that moment
as the knowledge spread across her face
with a fine distress, sucking
the peach out of her lips,
making her cute nose seem, for the first time,
a little knobby.

I’m probably the only one in the whole world
who actually remembers the year in high school
she perfected the art
of being a dumb blond,

spending recess on the breezeway by the physics lab,
tossing her hair and laughing that canary trill
which was her specialty,

while some football player named Johnny
with a pained expression in his eyes
wrapped his thick finger over and over again
in the bedspring of one of those pale curls.

Or how she spent the next decade of her life
auditioning a series of tall men,
looking for just one with the kind
of attention span she could count on.

Then one day her time of prettiness
was over, done, finito,
and all those other beautiful women
in the magazines and on the streets
just kept on being beautiful
everywhere you looked,

walking in that kind of elegant, disinterested trance
in which you sense they always seem to have one hand
touching the secret place
that keeps their beauty safe,
inhaling and exhaling the perfume of it—

It was spring. Season when the young
buttercups and daisies climb up on the
mulched bodies of their forebears
to wave their flags in the parade.

My sister just stood still for thirty seconds,
amazed by what was happening,
then shrugged and tossed her shaggy head
as if she was throwing something out,

something she had carried a long ways,
but had no use for anymore,
now that it had no use for her.
That, too, was beautiful.

Tony Hoagland, “Beauty” from Donkey Gospel. Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minnesota, http://www.graywolfpress.org.

Here Are My Black Clothes

I think now it is better to love no one
than to love you. Here are my black clothes,
the tired nightgowns and robes fraying
in many places. Why should they hang useless
as though I were going naked? You liked me well enough
in black; I make you a gift of these objects.
You will want to touch them with your mouth, run
your fingers through the thin
tender underthings and I
will not need them in my new life.

Louise Glück “Here Are My Black Clothes” From The House on Marshland The Ecco Press 1975

Photo Credit: Kelley Hudlow

Well, It Used to Be: Thoughts on Evolving Perspectives

In autumn of 1987, I was twelve years old, had just gotten my braces off, and had entered the horrifying world of junior high. I won’t discuss, here, all the ways our culture disempowers women and enables men’s bad behavior, all the while giving young people absolutely no clue how to understand adulthood (unless it involves marketable rebellion). I will say, though, I was told that I had to be pretty, which I was, even though I never saw it. Men did, though, and I was often reminded that, because I was pretty and had big breasts, their behavior (which included stalking, threatening, groping, exposing themselves, masturbating at me, and calling out vulgarities) was just a burden pretty girls had to bear. Once, when I was fourteen, I was at my friend’s house and her grandfather hit on me. I felt scared and embarrassed, but he had no qualms with doing it in front of everyone. His parents laughed it off with an “Oh Grandpa!” reply. People were right; that burden was mine to bear: alone.

However, on September 28, 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered, and my twelve-year-old self was transfixed by Lt. Tasha Yar, Security Chief. I watched her bark orders and flip big men as if they were rag dolls. I loved how she stood up straight and strong on the bridge, not folded into herself as women are often taught to stand, as to show that we are diminutive and never in the way of men. Lt. Yar had grown up orphaned and alone and had experienced constant threat of rape gangs. I don’t know whether or not the men who harassed me had also intended to rape me, but I always felt on edge around them and physically threatened on my walk home from school.

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Last autumn, I decided that my next book of poems will all be about Star Trek: The Next Generation. I have been having so much fun writing new poems about characters and episodes, and I have also been “watching around” the series on Netflix. The latter is nothing unusual for me. In fact, I often spend my weekday lunch breaks watching part of an episode. However, since I’m writing the book, I thought I’d revisit season one, which I never do. Season one was not the most well-written of the series. Nevertheless, I started with “Skin of Evil,” the episode where Tasha Yar dies. I’m not ashamed to admit that, after thirty years, I still got a little teary eyed at her funeral. (Side note: Tasha bleeds like a Kandinsky painting.)

 

Next, I watched the first episode of Season one. Here are my general observations:

  1. Damn, Troi’s dress was short. When she sits down, it looks like she’s wearing a shirt and underwear to work. Don’t get me wrong; she’s got a rockin’ shape. She just looked more comfortable, in later episodes, when she got to wear pants.
  2. God, I love Picard.
  3. God, I love Q. Have you heard the theory that Q is really Picard’s shadow side?
  4. Worf eventually grew into his growl. Love him.
  5. Awww…young, bright-eyed Riker!

What really struck me, though, was realizing that I have been remembering Tasha Yar very differently, all these years. As a kid in the 80s, I had viewed her as strong and in charge. I realized after re-watching the series premiere, however, that even though she throws people around and defends the crew, she’s really whiney about it. She cries, or is near tears, several times during the episode. She also flies off the handle and orates a desperate speech, despite the captain’s direct order to stop and the presence of trigger-happy militants. I’ll be honest, if I were the captain, I would not feel comfortable with her in charge of security. Picard acts fatherly and gentle with her, which at the time, I thought was sweet of him. Perhaps teaching college for the past eighteen years has hardened me a bit because I can tell you that, if I had been the captain, I would have told her to get her shit together. For heaven’s sake, one of her tearful outbursts gets her literally frozen solid, which in turn, makes Troi cry, too.

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Well, it was 1987, and Tasha Yar was still stronger than most females on television. Also, I’m sure my twelve-year-old lens made Tasha’s mood swings appear not as melodramatic as I see them today. I guess I have been remembering Yar more like Gwendoline Christie’s Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones, who is strong, tough, committed, smart, and loyal. She’s allowed feelings, but as a protector, she controls them and performs her duties first.

I think that our cultural view of strength is shifting, slowly. In the 90s, I admired Special Agent Scully’s strength, intelligence, and rationality, and although I did fall for the whole potential Scully/Mulder romance, I also wanted her just to find someone who treated her right.

Scully had to bottle her emotions, most of the time. In “Never Again,” she goes on a date with a man who tries to kill her that night. When she returns from the hospital, Mulder slut-shames her. Funny, I don’t remember Mulder having to pay, even when he slept with other women.

Dana Scully GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

I can’t even bear to watch the currently airing eleventh season of The X-Files. It’s too rapey. I’m tired of Scully being the object of dark, misogynist sci-fi. I love her too much.

Recently, I saw Black Panther, which I highly recommend. One of the many reasons that I liked it so much was because the strong women characters needed no explanation. As much as I adored Wonder Woman, at this point, I find it tiresome when scenes revolve around witty banter that explain how strange and humorous it is that a woman is strong. Also, actual women cannot be strong like Wonder Woman because we are just regular mortals.

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In Black Panther, the women found strength through discipline, wisdom, and intelligence. Some women were more physically strong; others were more intellectual. The old women exuded confidence from experience that married the head with the heart. Women’s strength in Black Panther is obvious and presented as accepted fact.

Oh, and their armor makes sense.

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Although Wonder Woman’s costume is skimpy in both Wonder Woman and Justice League, notice how her sister Amazons get dressed in Justice League. At least Wonder Woman’s costume protected her internal organs (although not much else).

 

What does any of this have to do with a poetry blog? Well, for this month’s post, I want to think about poetry that explores a shift in perspective. A few months ago, I wrote about Carolyn Kizer’s poem, “Bitch,” that describes an interaction between a woman and her ex, and the change in dynamics. Here are three poems that discuss shifting or evolving perspectives. If you, dear reader, can remember any poems with a similar theme, I encourage you to post them in the comments below. The three I’ve chosen to include, here, all recall parent/child relations, but you may find poems that embody different themes.

Photographs Of My Father

On my walls there are three
photographs of my father.
In one he is a young recruit
standing at ease,
third from the left
with his platoon.
In another he has rank
on his cap—a formal
pose in a studio,
intended for his mother.
In the last, a blowup
from my mother’s wallet
taken by a machine
in a foreign port, he is
a melancholy petty officer
in navy blues. Hazy
like a ghost sighting,
creased form her handling,
it is my favorite.

These are the survivors
from a day of fury.  One morning
in my childhood, on his way
out to sea, he had sat
alone in the living room,
and without hurry, with care,
cut himself out of our family.

Book after book.
I watched him work
from my room, knowing
his actions were prelude
or aftermath to family strife.
My mother in the kitchen
holding her coffee cup
with both hands, also waited.

On the floor
my father’s image lay
like peelings from an apple.
In his hands the scissors glinted
at the eye and snapped
like a live thing.

Nothing more. Just picture albums
shameful as a vandalized church,
never seen by me again. And years
after his death, my need to find
his face revealed in innocence,
unguarded, as I never knew it.
This vulnerable young man, this face
that fills me with grief and longing.
I am trying to believe in this boy.

by Judith Ortiz Cofer
from Reaching for the Mainland & Selected New Poems
Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingue, 1995

 

Macaroni & Cheese

One day you may be asked, “How
was it that God brought forth
being

out of nothing?” Then, “IS
there no difference between them—
nothing, and being?” Outside

a strange slow snow, and a big
black bird hunched
over something in the road. The sky

will be a pale

reflection of itself,
like a woman making dreamy circles
at the center of a dish with a cloth.

Love. Hunger. Other alchemies.
You may be asked, “What

Are my eyes made of? Can
Santa’s reindeer be burned by fire? In
heaven, does Jesus eat?”
In the oven, something breathing. Rising. Melting.
Shifting
Shape and sweetening
in the heat. Now

You can see that the bird in the street
is wrestling something bloody

out of a carcass, trying
to expose its heart. You

put the dish beside the cloth, and say,
“Darling, I don’t know.”

by Laura Kasischke
from Gardening in the Dark
Copper Canyon Press, 2004

 

You can hear Li-Young Lee read this next poem: https://vimeo.com/36988030

The Gift

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.

I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.

by Li-Young Lee
from Rose
BOA Editions, Ltd., 1986

Church of Sister Nun

“Church of Sister Nun” is the last poem in Sister Nun (which, if you are new to this blog, is a book of poems from the voice of a former Buddhist nun). I spent the majority of summer, in 2011, writing the book and really had no idea how I’d end it. I knew she had to leave the earthly narrative, but I was not ready to let her go. I also had it in mind that she would have lived a long time. I decided that I would continue with the surrealist nature of the book and let her live for 215 years. In the last poem, I give her a second coming.

Throughout her first physical incarnation, she joins and leaves a convent, but in leaving, she takes a bit of the convent with her. She changes her name to “Sister,” and she keeps her head shaved; however, she also explores the Earth’s core and outer space, and she writes a self help book. Although she often thinks of convent, either to compare or to interpret the present, she never finds religion nor cares to. Therefore, the title of the poem, “Church of Sister Nun,” already indicates that someone, or a group of people, have overtaken her narrative. The first stanza contradicts the title’s implication that she may have started her own church (or has condoned one in her name) and also declares that she has returned to Earth centuries after her death:

In life, Sister always
thought of church as an
unlucky place. The jewel
toned glass, impressing
a false sun. There’s incense,
she remembers that, lit
everywhere like perfumed
bugs, sliding down the stick.
Now, centuries after her death,
she’s back.

The second stanza declares that Sister had lived for 215 years and that, although she was heavy with grief, she was free:

After the span of her Earthly
life, 215 years, she had finally
seen it all. The melodrama
of her broken, old heart.
An impractical paperweight
holding down nothing at all.

For the next stanza, bear with me; I’m about to discuss Britney Spears, gender expectations, and the fine line between pain and freedom. Years ago, as you probably remember, Britney Spears, exhausted by the paparazzi, shaved her head in a hair salon and then took an umbrella to the windshield of a photographer’s car. I can’t speak to her deeper mental state, but I recall seeing the image of a bald Britney, umbrella in attack-mode, and thinking, “Good for her.” She shaved her beautiful, long hair, a symbol of feminine sexuality that kept her rich and working but also hounded and mocked for the better part of her adolescence and young adulthood. Truth be told, I was a fan of Britney after the umbrella incident and was disappointed that the media reduced the scenario to “crazy” (not that that’s any surprise).

Spears is thirty-six now, and like many, has taken more control of her image through selfies on Instagram; however, she is back to promoting that image of sexy seductress. I get it. Sex sells, and the images she posts couldn’t be more stilted, but I can’t help but miss the day she lost her locks and went on the offense.

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For the poem, I pictured the future to be about as hollow as the present, and although Sister Nun’s experience with fame is not as aggressively felt as Britney’s, the paparazzi’s presence burdens Sister in her golden years. The faux intimacy of their proximity foreshadows the remaining narrative after her death: “And/at her age, followers behind her/every step with their future cameras.”

In stanza three, Sister Nun again is objectified, although this time more tenderly. There is also a reference to the commodification of Sister Nun’s image:

Sometime in her 90’s she had caught
the eye of a young, male sculptor
(whom she later outlived) and spent
all his mornings creating versions of
her from clay, glass, silk, even trees.
All his lovers were bald. You see,
to hope that someone has reached
the tower and sees you, the village,
and the hills beyond the sea is worth
even more than an original Sister Nun
fetish.

In the first part of the final stanza, the speaker reveals that the worship of Sister Nun was for nought, as she also did not understand the mysteries of the universe. With this understanding, she slips away “from camp,” indicating that she has a small following in future times:

But the truth is, Sister never knew a thing.
And one night, she slipped away
from camp. The boys slept in piles,
clutching the air. The girls, curled
into the Earth, reminded Sister of
something from a long time ago.

The final lines of the poem juxtapose dark and light imagines and are rooted in nature. Sister has just left the group, and the speaker implies that she will leave her body once more:

Black sky and happy, pulsating
stars as she reached, at last, the
tamal tree, jasmine opening
the night.

In a previous blog post, “Pagans and Buddhists and Christians, O My!” I discuss the religion that I grew up in and followed until my late 20s (Self-Realization Fellowship). In church, I remember hearing stories about Krishna, who voluntarily left his body under a tamal tree. (The Mahabharata tells a different version, claiming that a hunter, named Jara, mistook a sleeping Krishna for a deer and fatally wounded him with an arrow.) The tamal tree is said to have a dark, blue bark that resembles Krishna’s skin. In the last couple lines of “Church of Sister Nun,” I wanted to allude to the story of Krishna, giving up his body under the tamal tree, and to imply that Sister would soon do the same.

Screenshot 2017-12-27 21.29.37.png

I also wanted to end the poem with a sensuous image, and I chose the scent of jasmine because certain varieties will only blossom at night. In the beginning of Sister’s journey, she is grieving and alone. Although it’s arguable that her loneliness remains through the end, it is out of the darkness of her heartbreak that Sister Nun connects with her true self and finds an enlightenment that grants her meaning, depth, and adventure.

 

Church of Sister Nun

In life, Sister always
thought of church as an
unlucky place. The jewel
toned glass, impressing
a false sun. There’s incense,
she remembers that, lit
everywhere like perfumed
bugs, sliding down the stick.
Now, centuries after her death,
she’s back.

After the span of her Earthly
life, 215 years, she had finally
seen it all. The melodrama
of her broken, old heart.
An impractical paperweight
holding down nothing at all. And
at her age, followers behind her
every step with their future cameras.

Sometime in her 90’s she had caught
the eye of a young, male sculptor
(whom she later outlived) and spent
all his mornings creating versions of
her from clay, glass, silk, even trees.
All his lovers were bald. You see,
to hope that someone has reached
the tower and sees you, the village,
and the hills beyond the sea is worth
even more than an original Sister Nun
fetish.

But the truth is, Sister never knew a thing.
And one night, she slipped away
from camp. The boys slept in piles,
clutching the air. The girls, curled
into the Earth, reminded Sister of
something from a long time ago.
Black sky and happy, pulsating
stars as she reached, at last, the
tamal tree, jasmine opening
the night.

Photo Credit: https://visualwilderness.com/quick-tips/choosing-a-location-to-photograph-aurora-borealis

Everybody Must Get Stoned

My first introduction to Medusa came in the form of that ludicrous 70s show, Land of the Lost, where Uncle Jack saves his boneheaded niece from the vain monster by holding up a mirror, which causes Medusa to turn herself into stone. In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, she dies when Perseus beheads her. He then gives the head to Minerva (Athena in Greek). As an afterthought, in Ovid’s version, the reader learns about Medusa’s past. Here’s where it becomes difficult to chalk her up as just another Gorgon: Medusa used to be a hot-looking human with gorgeous hair. All the men used to fight over her. Then, along comes Neptune (Poseidon in Greek) with his male-god privilege, and rapes her in Minerva’s temple. In true blame-the-victim form, Minerva punishes Medusa by turning her into a mortal Gorgon and changing her beautiful hair into snakes, to add insult to injury.

133031_10150113908852474_2230564_o
The Huntington Garden Sculpture in San Marino, CA

In “Medusa’s Slumber Party,” I wanted to portray her as a multi-dimensional person, not just as a monster in her final moments with Perseus. The first stanza begins with the notion that the snakes were metaphor before they were literal:

I had always known
the snakes, long before
the incident in the temple. Long
before the sailors dropped their nets
wrong when they saw her on
the rocks, hair a foamy wave.

This first stanza also gives background to the myth of Medusa. In the second stanza, the reader can imagine Medusa’s childhood as average. I wanted to humanize her history by setting it in modern times, while keeping the myth in tact:

We were childhood friends. Slept
together under a makeshift tent in
her parents’ den, waking each other,
turn by turn, with nightmares and
mumblings. The blankets, pitched
high around our small bodies, glowed
in the morning, converting the dark
cloth red. She burrowed deeper.

In this stanza, although the dramatic situation is innocent, darkness (literal and figurative) permeates the room. The speaker and Medusa suffer from nightmares and restlessness. The light turns the dark blanket red, a color that foreshadows her future bloody death. Medusa turns away from the light and burrows deeper into the literal darkness of the “makeshift tent.”

By the third stanza, Medusa is living as a Gorgon; however, Medusa’s feelings are mixed. She feels the snakes as “a rush, the heavy / crown on her head” but also as “absolute aloneness.” Medusa is different from the other Gorgons, not just because of the snakes, but because she is mortal.

The speaker finds her “After the curse…/ aging in a garden, the snakes for all / to see. Her toga looser than before and / the curve of her collar bone.” Medusa appears weaker and vulnerable. Still, the speaker feels for her and manages “to kiss her mouth before a snake” nips her ear. If the reader is to take the snakes as both literal and figurative, it may be inferred that Medusa cannot let the speaker close to her, even though she seems to appreciate her visit: “I left as she waved / to me from the shade of an oak tree. It smelled like rain.”

The last stanza takes the reader into the future, and continues to keep the narrative modern, with a cocktail party as the setting:

Even decades later, at the awkward
cocktail party where Athena flashed us
the head, tastelessly tacked to her
shield, I stayed fleshy. My blood,
a hot spring, a peaceful grin on my
face. Her limp snakes, informing my
darkness. Teaching me
to let in the light.

Here, Athena is humanized, although the presentation does not flatter: she is awkward and reckless, whipping out Medusa’s head, knowing that it could turn people to stone. Nevertheless, this thoughtless act does not affect the speaker. One gets the sense that her understanding of Medusa renders her immune to the dark powers of Gorgons (or at least of this particular one). The speaker knew about Medusa’s darkness, as a child, and also visits her in the garden, post-curse, without incident. Despite her intimacy with Medusa, it is the speaker’s awareness of Medusa’s tendency to turn toward the dark that teaches the speaker “to let in the light.”

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Halloween 2009: pipe cleaners and googly eyes

This poem first appeared in the Kerf, Fall 2012.

 

Medusa’s Slumber Party

I had always known
the snakes, long before
the incident in the temple. Long
before the sailors dropped their nets
wrong when they saw her on
the rocks, hair a foamy wave.

We were childhood friends. Slept
together under a makeshift tent in
her parents’ den, waking each other,
turn by turn, with nightmares and
mumblings. The blankets, pitched
high around our small bodies, glowed
in the morning, converting the dark
cloth red. She burrowed deeper.

It was a rush, the heavy
crown on her head, the buzz of her
absolute aloneness.

After the curse, I found her
aging in a garden, the snakes for all
to see. Her toga looser than before and
the curve of her collar bone. I managed
to kiss her mouth before a snake
nipped my ear. I left as she waved
to me from the shade of an oak tree.
It smelled like rain.

Even decades later, at the awkward
cocktail party where Athena flashed us
the head, tastelessly tacked to her
shield, I stayed fleshy. My blood,
a hot spring, a peaceful grin on my
face. Her limp snakes, informing my
darkness. Teaching me
to let in the light.

 

Featured Image Photo Credit: Ignasi Monreal

 

 

 

Season’s Beatings, Dadaists, and the Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld

Ah, the holiday season. For some, it is a religious time. Others just like coziness and Christmas carols. For the rest of us, it is a time for worming through trenches, praying to Krampus we won’t set off some gnarly childhood-memory landmine. (That’s me dressed as Krampus in the photo, by the way. Tomorrow, my wife [who is infinitely patient with  my costume-lifestyle] will dress as St. Nicholas, and we will deliver licorice and pretzel sticks [from Krampus] and chocolate [from Santa] to our little three-year-old neighbor. I think it’s important to take stressful holidays by the horns [pun intended] and turn them into something that doesn’t make a switch and cage seem par for the course.)

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Last year, this time, I was at the beginning of what I now refer to as my “year of the mixed bag.” On the one hand, by the end of 2016, Voldemort had finally collected enough unicorn blood to take power and make America gross again. On the other hand, I was planning what was to be a beautiful and happy wedding in the following month. 2017 began in the best way possible: I married my now wife, and the memory of that day, and the fact of our marriage, has provided a backdrop for the year, one that has kept me from ever feeling too dark for too long. On the other hand (there are too many hands in this narrative) I lost a dear family member to mental illness and watched as friends, old and new, either moved far away or changed so drastically that I could no longer recognize them. (Or was I the one who changed? I can’t tell sometimes. Either way, friendship’s fault lines cracked once more.) Work went smoothly…or horribly. My sweet 18-year-old cat died. 2016 has definitely been a good candidate for a sad country music song.

As for Christmas, I think that the commercialized version of it comes at a bad time. I am a mixture of extrovert and introvert, but the latter definitely takes over in winter. It seems as though shopping and making merry are activities better left to spring. In winter, I like to take quiet walks and notice how the branches hold hands across the skyline without leaves to keep it private. Most plant life is either dead or asleep, and I like the silence of the outdoors.

I recently bought my first house. Each spring, I am still surprised to see what types of flowers and vegetation pop up. In winter, though, I am left to find clues about what might have been and what will be. My house is warm, and there’s something in the crockpot. The spices develop and the vegetables soften. I’m not sure what I’ll find in myself during winter, but I know that it won’t quite be ready until spring.

I have always loved the last line of Joy Harjo’s poem “The Path to the Milky Way Leads Through Los Angeles”: “But like crow I collect the shine of anything beautiful I can find.” This month, I want to talk about found poetry and offer a writing prompt. If you, too, are experiencing the affects of “the mixed bag,” perhaps you can write a found poem where you pick out the jewels from a conversation you overheard, from a math textbook, from a fashion magazine, or any other source, really. If you do write a found poem, I hope that you share it in the comments below! In the meantime, here’s a brief lesson on the found poem. Hope you enjoy!

But first, let’s start with…

The Dada Movement

The Dada Movement arose in the early 20th century and philosophized that logic and reason had lead to world war and believed that the only response to such chaos was anarchy and irrationality. Also, Dadaists were none too fond of the bourgeoisie, whom they believed were responsible for society’s rigid imposition on art and society. Dadaists fought against rigidity by producing “anti-art,” flipping the bird to aesthetics, meaning, and morality. Dada art’s meaning was to express meaninglessness. They wanted to offend and to destroy tradition (which is understandable if you’ve ever studied the horrors of World War I).

Meanwhile, many believe that “found poetry” stems from the Dada Movement. It’s easy to see why. Below, Dadaist Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain is a good example of one of his “readymades.” (Yes, it’s a urinal.)

marcel-duchamp-fountain1.jpg

L.H.O.O.Q. (below) is another version of Duchamp’s readymades, which was created from a cheap postcard of the Mona Lisa that Duchamp doctored by drawing on a mustache. The name of the piece is a pun: the letters sound like “Elle a chad au cul,” which, in French, means “She has a hot ass.”

duchamp.jpg

Found Poetry

Found Poetry is a form that is what it sounds like. The poet finds “poetry lines” from unexpected places such as textbooks, advertisements, news headlines, and conversations overheard. The poet may decide to take the lines verbatim, and distinguish them with line and stanza breaks, or may pick and choose parts of the “found poem” and heavily edit it.

My hope is that you, dear readers, write a found poem this December and post it in the comments below! Until then, please enjoy the found poems of D.H. Rumsfeld (that’s not something you hear everyday, is it?) from Hart Seely’s wonderful book, Pieces of Intelligence. Seely’s found poetry comes from Rumsfeld’s briefings and media interviews, and reveals an existential brilliance that I bet you’ve never thought to associate with our former secretary of defense.

Happy winter, everyone, and be nice to yourselves!

The Unknown

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.

—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

A Confession

Once in a while,
I’m standing here, doing something.
And I think,
“What in the world am I doing here?”
It’s a big surprise.

—May 16, 2001, interview with the New York Times

Happenings

You’re going to be told lots of things.
You get told things every day that don’t happen.
It doesn’t seem to bother people, they don’t—
It’s printed in the press.
The world thinks all these things happen.
They never happened.
Everyone’s so eager to get the story
Before in fact the story’s there
That the world is constantly being fed
Things that haven’t happened.
All I can tell you is,
It hasn’t happened.
It’s going to happen.

—Feb. 28, 2003, Department of Defense briefing

The Digital Revolution

Oh my goodness gracious,
What you can buy off the Internet
In terms of overhead photography!
A trained ape can know an awful lot
Of what is going on in this world,
Just by punching on his mouse
For a relatively modest cost!

—June 9, 2001, following European trip

The Situation

Things will not be necessarily continuous.
The fact that they are something other than perfectly continuous
Ought not to be characterized as a pause.
There will be some things that people will see.
There will be some things that people won’t see.
And life goes on.

—Oct. 12, 2001, Department of Defense news briefing

On NATO

You may think it’s something
I ought to know,
But I happen not to.
That’s life.

(July 9, 2003)

On Reporters

If you do something,
Somebody’s not going
To agree with it.
That’s life.

(Feb. 19, 2003)

On the Budget

If you do anything,
Someone’s not going
To like it and
That’s life.

(May 7, 2002)

On Leaks

Look bumpy? Sure.
But you pick up
And go on.
That’s life.

(May 17, 2002)

On Democracy

People elected
Those people to office.
That’s what they think, and
That’s life.

(Feb. 20, 2003)

On Criticism

It makes it complicated.
Sometimes, it makes
It difficult.
That’s life.

(Sept. 11, 2003)