Saturday, January 31, 2009

Beetle on a String, Exploded

Yesterday, I posted my poem "Beetle on a String." Today, I discovered a very different kind of beetle on a string. An exploded, deconstructed, disassembled, suspended one: a full-size, real-life Beetle — a VW, that is — on strings. A 2002 installation at the University of Pennsylvania's Institute of Contemporary Art, "Cosmic Thing" by Damián Ortega, a Mexican artist. Just tremendous. Check it out:

This beetle on strings, it turns out, was part of a "Beetle Trilogy." You can read about it in Ortega's book Damián Ortega: The Beetle and Other Works, coauthored with Alma Ruiz, Eungie Joo, and Hari Kunzru. According to Amazon's product description, this book
documents 10 years of work focused on conceptual practice, social organization, and humor, including the installations and performances that make up his acclaimed Beetle Trilogy, several works never before exhibited and a great deal of unpublished material.
The description goes on to outline The Beetle Trilogy itself:
The first episode of the trilogy, The Cosmic Thing, a disassembled Volkswagen suspended in the air, was featured in Gabriel Orozco's Il Quotidiano Alterato at the 2003 Venice Biennale, and was one of the most widely reproduced images of that year's exhibition. Moby Dick, a heroic action [piece] involving the artist's Beetle, a live band, ropes and pulleys, followed, and then Beetle '83 Escarabajo, a ritual return to the vehicle's place of birth, closed the cycle.
Damián Ortega is clearly an artist to watch, a man after my own heart, what with his interests in beetles and strings and all. Since I've owned a handful of VWs myself, two Beetles and two Karmann Ghias, I think maybe I feel an "exploded Beetle" poem coming on!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Fame? Well, Sort Of ...

I recently discovered that I have been "graced" (so to speak) by an online paper mill that's offering for sale a college paper on one of my poems. In its website, calls itself an "academic essay library" with student papers that "can be used for research, reference, and revision aid only." They continue, "Note, that our essay data base is submitted to the plagiarism detection software." Their "party line" — if we were f2f face-to-face I would do air quotes here — their "party line" is that their papers cannot be submitted as original work by students who buy them, yet on their "testimonials" page, one of their satisfied clients says, "I am really impressed with the quality of the essays and so was my professor. I revised the essay and changed some things, yet the hard part was already done for me." Hmm. Ironically, the company cites as one of its reasons for rejecting submitted papers "duplicate or plagiarized content." In-freaking-credible.

Okay, let's dig a bit more into this. First, here's the poem.

Beetle on a String

When I was a kid, I walked bugs on a leash.
This was in the Philippines, where my parents
and I moved when I was a toddler, trading
foggy San Francisco for Manila's typhoons.

Actually, it was an idyllic place for a child —
warm evenings drenched in the sweet scent
of sampaguita flowers, but most of all,
a huge universe of enthralling insects

filling the night with buzzing and clicks, strobe
flashes of their glow-in-the-dark wingflicks.
It was my father who showed me how to catch
a scarab beetle in the cup of your hand, wait

for the wings to subside and close, then loop a thread
between thorax and carapace, tying it off —
not too tight — to allow the insect to fly
on a two-foot-long lasso. I remember

how I would smile and laugh, maybe five
or six years old, as a beetle would circle my head
like a whirring kite, iridescent green in the sun,
the thread stretched almost to the breaking point.

At night, I would tie my beetles to the round knobs
on my dresser drawers and be soothed to sleep
by a lullaby of buzzing. By morning, the beetles
were always dead, weights hung on string.

Those long nights must have been horrible.
Straining your body to shift an immovable weight,
unable to evade the swooping flight
of predators, banging again and again hard

against the dead wood, brought up short
by that unforgiving tether, cutting off
your pulsing blood every time, the long tube
of your heart quivering. It makes me shiver now

to wonder what thoughtless boy holds my string?

— Vince Gotera, first appeared in Flippin': Filipinos on America (1996); reprinted in Bold Words: A Century of Asian American Writing (2001), the textbook Asian American Literature (2001), the textbook Music, Pictures, and Stories: A Poetry Anthology (2002), and the textbook Holt Multicultural Reader (2007).

According to the specs, that paper on my poem earned an A originally, and so presumably would earn the buyer an A. However, the fragment of opening paragraph which the website lets us see suggests that the paper focuses on the father's imparting to the speaker (as a child) the knowledge of how to keep a beetle as a pet. This is a minor point; the main point has to do with the speaker's sense of guilt, as an adult, about having essentially tortured these beetles. I really doubt this paper would earn an A in a rigorous class environment. (I should issue a caveat here: the author of a work is typically not the best authority on that work, because all sorts of features of the work may be invisible to the author because of repression, which we all do constantly.)

So, if you are now looking at this blog page because you are writing a paper on "Beetle on a String" and you googled your way here, do not buy the paper. First, it's not illegal but certainly wrong. Second, you won't learn as much, no matter what says (" is highly appreciated by teachers!" . . . yeah, right). Let me give you a little boost up: "Beetle on a String" is written in a roughed-up pentameter. You figure out if it's iambic or whatever. Or if you think I even care, as a poet, about such things. Look at some of the write-ups on other poems in the blog, especially "Craft and Technique (1.0)."

Finally, about fame. I have to admit I'm perversely proud that there is a term-paper-mill essay about my work. It's like the time when a copy of one of my books at the Rod Library here at the University of Northern Iowa turned up missing. Someone had actually taken the effort and risk to steal my book. Well, that's cool in a weird sort of way. I guess such is fame. We take what we can get. Peace out.
NOTE: Sources for the images above, top to bottom, are (1) H. Vannoy Davis © California Academy of Sciences, (2) Richard Calmes Photography (Vietnam, 1968-1969), and (3) DK Images. Do browse through Richard Calmes's photographs; his portraits are amazing, both the contemporary dance photos and the Vietnam War images. Viewers' comments in his Vietnam War gallery show that his photography has touched a deep chord in many people's hearts.

Note added 31 January 2009: check out a wildly different beetle on a string!

Note added 6 May 2011: "Beetle on a String" featured in online video.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Poetry at the Inauguration, with Apologies

In yesterday's post, I did an injustice to Elizabeth Alexander by posting the news transcript of her presidential-inauguration poem without its proper line breaks. Here is the poem typed out correctly. The line breaks demonstrate how eloquent the poem really is, and if you read it in prose (as in the transcript), much of the impact of the poem, and its beauty, is lost. In fact, I would add that the transcript damages the poem, and I added to that damage by posting the transcript yesterday. Read the poem below in its proper form. (I'm also including again the YouTube video of Alexander's performance so you can compare the poem as written with the poem as spoken by the poet.)

Praise Song for the Day
by Elizabeth Alexander
A Poem for Barack Obama's
Presidential Inauguration
Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other's
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what's on the other side.

I know there's something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need.
What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

Text from the Academy of American Poets website

My sincerest apologies to you, Professor Alexander, for adding to the brouhaha about your poem. Having the poem in its proper form really enhances the experience of hearing it, and your performance is quite remarkable, Elizabeth (if I may), because you are clearly voicing (and voicing clearly) the plain speaking that both you and President Obama hold so dear. Despite what unfriendly commenters on various blogs and news venues have been saying about the poem, it is clear to me you are working to circumvent the esoteric qualities that many people not accustomed to verse point to in American poetry overall, and your poem's plain and clear speech is the source of its eloquence and beauty (as more friendly commenters have also emphasized). Congratulations on a lovely, apt poem. And thank you for striving to make poetry a part of everyday life in the entire world. Brava!

I am particularly moved by the reference to the "many [who] have died for this day." I would imagine that some people, perhaps many people, read this as a reference to African Americans and other people of color. I submit however that, although that understanding is of course important to acknowledge, this refers ultimately to all of us, all Americans who have died for and worked for freedom for everyone. The swearing-in of our first African American president is not a victory only for black people; it is a victory for all Americans, in fact all people across the world. Thank you, Elizabeth Alexander; thank you for this crucial lesson and this important poem.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Poetry at President Obama's Inauguration

At President Obama's inauguration today, his friend Elizabeth Alexander read a poem she wrote for the occasion. (They were academic colleagues at the University of Chicago, I believe.)

Here is the text of the poem Professor Alexander read at the inaugural today. Please note: this is a transcript and not the poem with its actual lineation. When a definitive version of the poem surfaces in the news or the web, I'll update.

Praise song for the day.

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each other's eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.

A farmer considers the changing sky; a teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."

We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, "I need to see what's on the other side; I know there's something better down the road."

We need to find a place where we are safe; we walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; the figuring it out at kitchen tables.

Some live by "Love thy neighbor as thy self."

Others by "first do no harm, or take no more than you need."

What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp — praise song for walking forward in that light.

by Elizabeth Alexander

What do you think about Alexander's poem? And her performance?

Note from 1-21-2009: I have crossed out the text above because I have realized it's really an injustice to Professor Alexander to post her poem in this way. For the correct version, please see my blog entry for 21 January 2009.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Martin, Jimmy, Barack

This week is a monumental one historically, with the annual celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today, followed by President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration tomorrow. I've been watching TV shows on the lives of these two men this past weekend and noting the interesting interplay between one focus on how their work benefits African Americans and the other focus that the benefits are really for all Americans, all people. Similarly, Obama is lauded as the first African American president, but many also note that of course he is part white, with an upbringing that includes Asian influences and experiences. In fact, in an interesting cultural twist, some Irish Americans as well as some Irish claim Obama as one of their own, through his ancestor who hailed from the Irish town of Moneygall; these relatives pronounce his given name with a stress on the first syllable: BARE-uck.

All of this got me to thinking about how Filipino Americans of my generation grew up in this country: we fit in the gaps and hollows between black and white, and I can recall taking on, as a youth, typical characteristics of African American or European American identity, as needed in various situations. One of those environments was the world of "bagboys" — both boys and men, actually — at the US Army Commissary in the Presidio of San Francisco during the late 60s. I particularly remember one young African American man, Jimmy (whose surname in the poem has been changed).

Jimmy Hurt

They called us Schoolboys, the Regulars did.
Mostly men in their forties, all black except
for that old Filipino, Pablo. We were high
school kids, cruised in weekday afternoons

and Saturdays to bag for tips at the Army
commissary on the Presidio. The baddest
of us schoolboys was Jimmy Hurt. He would
float in, with rust alligator shoes, red piping

on his socks, double-breasted Edwardian,
gold-tipped mahogany cane, and a Billy Preston
natural. The rest of us came in our white shirts
and blue aprons, but Jimmy would change

in the back room, among the piled-up bales
of grocery bags, then swagger out. The royal
blue of his apron folded under, an ironed crease
just where a Nehru coat would be hemmed.

And man, could Jimmy bag! Half-gallon
Coke and Pepsi bottles spinning in his hands
like Cisco Kid's six-shooters. Gerber's jars
orbiting in air before the swish into the sack.

The ruby on Jimmy's right ring finger
glinted as his hand swooped down
on a 16-oz. can of Del Monte peaches, then
right hand behind back, the can materializing

over left shoulder, the left hand plucking it
from the air like a Willie Mays blind catch.
Square as Euclidean angles, Jimmy's bags had
edges sharp as his dark Ben Davis pants.

He always made fifteen to our mere five per hour.
And then we might not even get home with that.
Jimmy'd hold court in the back room, playing
"Tonk" for five dollars and ten. He never lost.

I heard he later played secret agent for the cops,
when police stations in San Francisco were under
siege by pipe bombs and other explosive devices.
Jimmy, in black turtlenecks and cords like

some Hollywood commando, lurked outside
Fillmore Station with a walkie-talkie,
reporting any "suspicious individuals" besides
himself. Anyway, last week, Danny McVeigh

and I were shooting nine-ball for beers
at the Town and Country on Geary, when Jimmy
walked in, carrying a glossy cue case, no cane,
sporting a charcoal-gray knit with red accents.

I called a three-ball combination: 4-5-9
into the left corner. Jimmy stopped to watch.
Purple clicked into orange, yellow on white
sliding two feet seven inches into the pocket,

sweetly. Jimmy reached up slowly, pulled
his bottle-green shades down to the tip
of his nose. Looking at me over gold rims,
he said, "How much you want to shoot for?"

— Vince Gotera, from Forkroads: A Journal of
Ethnic American Literature
(Winter 1996).
I really looked up to Jimmy back then. He was eternally sharp, always dressed "to the nines," an unbeatable pool shark, never off-balance, always in charge. The Regulars, the bagboys who were shagging tips to support families, treated Jimmy as an adult, though he was probably eighteen or nineteen when I knew him. I would have been fifteen, probably. And of course he lorded it over us, the other "schoolboys" &mdash Peter Pan to our Lost Boys, though Jimmy would have sneered at that comparison, would have thought of Pan as fey, no street cred. Jimmy was the ultimate hipster, cool and composed, a ladies' man, a cardsharp, con man, player, dancer, hustler, entertainer — the way he bagged groceries was what got him 2-3 times as much in tips as the rest of us (we all worked only for tips, even the Regulars). Jimmy exhibited the mastery and command of James Brown with the poise and looks of Marvin Gaye.

Jimmy would be about sixty now. I wonder what he ended up doing? Could the alleged "secret agent" phase have turned into a career in law enforcement? Did Jimmy perhaps win something enormous in a game of nine ball? A Lincoln Continental with a white shag rug? Maybe his very own pool hall? Or maybe Jimmy became a man of the cloth? A pastor in some AME church in a big-city ghetto. Though part of me sees him as more of the TV-evangelist type, raking in lots of moolah, checks and cash. I bet he didn't end up a bagboy Regular. I bet he didn't end up in prison (maybe you were thinking that; it certainly occurred to me). Jimmy was too much the entrepeneur, a young black man who made the most of the space society allowed him and enterprised beyond that space.

As I was writing that last paragraph, I couldn't quite figure out what I would say about poetic craft in this poem. There is my usual play with line breaks, using enjambment to push double meanings. The usual sound play: "double-breasted Edwardian" paralleled with "Billy Preston" — not just the ən sound at the end but also the echo of rest. The element that jumps out to me in this poem, which I don't think I've discussed before in the blog, is narrative.

Like a movie, the poem begins with an establishing shot: the commissary, the men and boys bagging groceries for tips, the social hierarchy. Then the presentation of the protagonist, Jimmy: both how he looked and what he did. Told in little flashes, micro-vignettes. All in past tense, a distant past: customary, repeated actions. Then, in typical storytelling fashion, the narrative flashes forward to a later time, to something Jimmy was said to have done between the bagging days and today, a kind of "middle past." And finally the transition to a very recent past — "Anyway, last week" — for all intents and purposes, the present, really. We see a scene played out: characters named, a real location, the landing of the combination shot. And finally the kicker: Jimmy, who apparently doesn't recognize the speaker or maybe does but plays coy, starts up his hustle, his con, his game. Always the playah.

For what it's worth, it's all based on "true stories" from my own past. During those bagboy days, I did shoot pool one time with fellow bagboy Dan McVeigh at the Town and Country pool hall on Geary Blvd. Jimmy came in and witnessed me sinking that exact 4-5-9 combination. And he did say, "How much you want to shoot for?" I don't recall now if I played Jimmy then, but I'm sure he would have figuratively cleaned my clock, walked away counting all my money. The difference in the poem is that I build in an implication that time has passed, perhaps quite a bit of time, but Jimmy hasn't changed. Still the playah. And of course that's Jimmy's strength, his attractiveness.

Not sure what else to say about the narrative. What do you think?

Today, I wonder where Jimmy is. And what he thinks of Dr. King and President Obama. Maybe in the nation we have been becoming between Dr. King's day and Obama's presidency, grown men won't have to bag groceries only for tips — no wage, no insurance — to put food on the table. I guarantee, Jimmy would have something really striking to say about all of that. And the man would be dressed up, yo. Slick.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Dragonfly (pages 4-5)

The third poem in the book addresses fatherhood and (im)mortality in what is — I hope — a unique fashion. Here goes:

Tutankhamun, September 1979

The moon's pale crescent has beached like a stone boat
into these skeletal knobby trees
ranked and filed in front of
the deYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park.
Almost midnight, this crowd

is queueing up for the exhibit: royal scarabs
of blue glass, constellations of semi-precious stones,
the burial mask of solid gold.
My son Marty's eyes shine
like brass buttons in creosote light.

In ten years, he'll remember this
as the afternoon I told him, "Take a nap,"
almost as if he were two years old
again, the small brain buzzing like a hornet's nest,
fighting off sleep.

But our afternoon strategy
has worked and we file this night
wide-eyed past the concrete gatekeeper Sphinxes,
who look genuine for once
in their counterfeit decades.

Inside are miles of beaten-gold inlay on chests
of aromatic wood from Thebes, cedar shawabty figurines,
ankh mirrors, the scorpion goddess
Selket's slender gilded statue,
a faience blue and crimson boat of acacia wood,

a stone ibex with real horns, ivory lions,
Horus falcons, serpent gods, a leopard's head
with quartz eyes, lapis lazuli beetles, and ebony jaguars.
The sheer volume of panoply and pomp
is too much for Marty, and I hoist

Page 4

his seven-year-old frame
upon my shoulders. His head, heavy
with hieroglyphs and alabaster carvings,
rests upon my head. And now, the pièce de résistance:
Tutankhamun's nemes headdress.

The mask's profile sharp as a ship's prow,
a recurved Pharaoh's scimitar slicing through millenia.
I front the boy-king's face,
his pearlescent eyes level
with mine. Between us

my milky reflection shimmers
in plexiglass, my features
superimposed on his, and for a minute
our faces meld. On Tutankhamun's forehead rise
the vulture and cobra of the two Egypts

just where Marty's hands are clasped.
Around the brass moon
of his face, the indigo stripes of his headdress
flower like a pyramid.
Around my own face is

another headdress: the body
of my sleeping son draped over my shoulders,
his forehead striped by sweaty hair
melding with my own.
And across the Nile-wide abyss

of centuries — amid the drone of humanity
bustling like grave robbers in this fake
Egyptian hall — through plexiglass,
something passes between us: a whisper
of how it feels, even for an instant, to be immortal.

Page 5

Ever since grade school, I have been fascinated by Egyptology. When I was in college, for example, I researched in great detail for an art history class the evolution of the Horus falcon figure from representational sculptures of the bird itself to the iconic falcon-headed man (see picture at left) that symbolized the Egyptian sky god Horus, son of Isis and Osiris, and bestower of divinity on the Pharaohs. What an Egypto-crypto-nerd I was! (And still am, thank you.)

So, anyway, when the traveling King Tut exhibit came to San Francisco in the late 70s (with the famous golden death mask, no less), you damn right I was there. And I wanted to pass on my love for all things Egyptological to Marty. However, our tickets to the exhibit were scheduled for midnight (the museum was setting up the tours of Tut's treasures 24/7), and I was worried eight-year-old Marty wouldn't be able to stay awake for the entire tour. So, as the poem's narrative says, I had him take an afternoon nap earlier that day; that worked for a short while, but the rooms and rooms of gold and blue faience and lapis lazuli and ebony and filigree tired Marty out, poor kid, and I ended up carrying him on my shoulders, asleep, for much of our audience with the great boy-king, the magnificent and ultimate golden boy for the ages.

In terms of poetic craft, one can't help but notice the wildly varying line lengths here: more a visual free-verse device than a metric or syllabic one. I do sense the influence, in the occasional dramatic line break, of Sharon Olds (as I mentioned in my last blog post), but for the most part there is quite a lot more control in my lineation here than in the previous poem in the book, "Gallery of the Mind." I just now double-checked my Master of Fine Arts thesis, and it doesn't contain this poem, so I must have written it after I finished my MFA in 1989. Probably 1990 or 1991 then.

Something craft-wise that jumps out at me now is the poem's diction. My obsession for phrasings you don't get to say out loud often and which are like hard bits of ever-lovin' candy in your mouth: skeletal, queueing up, creosote, gatekeeper, faience, ibex, lapis lazuli, panoply, scimitar, pearlescent. And of course those lovely Egyptologist words and phrases: shawabty, ankh, nemes, "the scorpion goddess Selket" (pictured above) and "the vulture and cobra of the two Egypts" (shown above on the brow of Tut's death mask). Ain't it all just grand?

As I was recently searching the Net for images to accompany the poem, I found a couple that deserve special attention. The first, on the left below, is a black and white shot of a face-to-face moment between Tut and a young woman that astonishingly parallels the feeling of my poem's ending but from a woman's point of view. Clearly such feelings have been shared by other people viewing Tut's golden face.

The second image interestingly highlights Tut's glass enclosure, his fishbowl that both protects and imprisons. Looking back at my poem, I notice the word "plexiglass" appears twice, so that I was evidently (though probably subconsciously) also honing in on that barrier. And it is that barrier that allows for the superimposition device at the end, right?

In these two images and in the poem there is a fascinating focus on what separates us from Tut, the glass wall that paradoxically as well as poignantly emphasizes our shared humanity with him. I suppose we all have our figurative gold masks and invisible cages.


Note: The image on the left is from the blog Queen Mediocretia of Suburbia (28 Sep 2006). The image on the right is from Royal Exhibitions, which could put on a King Tut show in your very own mall. I do want to make sure to recommend "Queen Mediocretia," which I discovered only because of this King Tut photo; this blog is one of the best I've encountered lately in the blogosphere: tremendously entertaining and witty, never dull. Check it out, especially The Great Hall of TMI, though only if you are 18 or older! Fun.


Thursday, January 8, 2009

Dragonfly (page 3)

The second poem in the book is also dedicated to Marty. As I said in an earlier post, "I thought of Dragonfly," when I was putting it together, "as a kind of long letter to Marty about things I wanted him to know as he entered his adult years."

Gallery of the Mind
— for Marty
You'd stare at Richie Rich, your Playskool pull toys,
the hamster's Habitrail, anything brightly colored,
for long minutes then gaze intently at a blank

wall. You were just five. Could you have known
those ghosts (Richie Rich dressed in teal)
were only after-images, topsy-turvy

colors? Or were you looking for a place you knew
just had to be? Where cabins sailed in tornadoes,
and a marionette some whale swallowed could become

real. If only you didn't have to blink
your eyes or breathe, you could funnel the world
into shapes on the wall, a photo gallery

of the mind. Your hamster Goggles before he died.
Your mom and I dancing a tarentella
to divorce. Your grandmother, sheets

drawn up to her chin, the night we smuggled you
into the cancer ward — you were Batman,
it was Halloween. If only the moments

would freeze on the wall, you could soar above it,
like Peter Pan swooping over London's
lights. Glitter sprinkled on black cloth.

Page 3

Marty, around age 6 or 7 in the poem, was a quiet child. His mom and I noticed during this time that he would stare, for long periods, at images full of color (for example, Richie Rich, dressed in red in some comic book). Then he would transfer his gaze to a blank wall. We eventually asked Marty what he was up to, and it turns out he had, all by himself, figured out how to impress, so to speak, an image onto his retinas so that he could subsequently see it as an afterimage on the wall, in colors complementary to the original.

When I began writing this poem, probably almost a decade later, in 1986 or 1987 when I started working on my MFA, it occurred to me, in hindsight, that perhaps Marty was symbolically (or perhaps actually) playing this afterimage game to escape his life, which was quite difficult at that time, with deaths (of a beloved pet and then his grandmother) and impending disaster (the rocky marriage of his parents teetering on the edge of collapse). That's the seed of the poem.

On craft: the poem shows the writerly influence of my teacher Yusef Komunyakaa as well as one of my favorite poets at the time: Sharon Olds. For example, the phrase "a photo gallery / of the mind" sounds a bit like Komunyakaa; when I was writing this, I probably didn't know I was imitating, but there it is. A pale imitation of Yusef's manner, though, I should add. The breathless, hurried enjambments are probably influenced by reading Sharon Olds: "at a blank / wall"; "topsy-turvy / colors"; "could become / real"; "London's / lights." Quite definitely my attempt at a bravura image as an ending is derived from Olds's style.

In poet circles, you often find people saying they no longer like the poems in their early books; in my case, that's not so true, generally, but this poem is definitely stale for me. My technique has moved quite a ways away: I am much more aware, more deliberate about line breaks, and I have developed phrasing and language that are more acutely my own. In other words, as poets say, I found my voice (probably two decades ago, in 1989 or so).


NOTE: about the afterimage thing, try it yourself: have a piece of white paper handy, then stare intently at the green, leaf-like form in the middle of the image at left. Do this for at least one minute, maybe even two. Quickly turn your gaze to the white paper. Now relax. The afterimage should coalesce, but only if you don't push it hard.

You can also research this cool optical effect on YouTube, where there are quite a few videos that demonstrate it, such as "Jesus Illusion" (black and white) and "Cool color illusion" (obviously not black and white!).

So what did you see in the afterimage? What did the green "leaf" turn out to be? Tell me — and everyone — in a comment below. Hint: Anglo-Saxon for "language."

I do hope your new year is unfolding happily. Be well.

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