Archive for the ‘Poems’ Category

Aleppo — Coming Home

Posted: December 22, 2016 in On Compassion, Poems, Reblog

I have eyes to see In technicolor, the world bleeds intimately into the streets they run red while I swallow waves of grief with my Sunday morning, coffee Imagining an era when video was absent a doomed man’s final pleas for peace posted on social media impossible A time when photos were black and white […]

via Aleppo — Coming Home

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If you’ve been following me for a while then you know that I love to write; you also know that I began blogging to “keep my ‘chops’ sharp” even when my “real job” is not that of “author”. In the past 2 years I’ve posted over 100 times and have had nearly 10,000 hits. In the grand scheme of “bloggers” my accomplishment is minuscule. (Perhaps I should have cooked my way through Julia Child, or something, and then secured a film deal. Then again, maybe not. Maybe it’s just hip enough to be myself; and to share my examined life for a few friends). So, as a guy who really only writes for myself, I’m pretty happy that I’ve been “found” almost 10,000 times.

On The Ritual of Thinking

I really do hope that I am a positive influence on you who find me. I don’t expect to find anyone who always agrees with me. I rarely even agree with myself from week to week. In fact, if you want to find inconsistencies you need look no further. I’ll point them out myself if you so desire. All I want is to live an examined life and to share it when I feel that it will make others think. In fact, all I really want is for me to THINK, and for my THINKING to help other people THINK.

Although I sometimes still consider the possibility that my old friend and teacher, John Lilly, was correct in proposing that Cetaceans may have an intelligence level equal, or exceeding, that of humans; I don’t think there is any credible evidence to show that humans are anything other than the planet’s most rationality-capable beings. I may someday be proven wrong, especially given how insanely the world’s most powerful human’s behave! But, I live my own life as if my species is unique in our ability to REASON and to take action thereupon. So, just as I love to swim to keep my heart in shape and to lift free-weights to keep my musculature in shape, I read and I WRITE to keep my brain in shape. In other words, this blog, my poems, and what I post on Facebook really are, in a direct sense, FOR me. The controversy, wacky humor, and argumentation are all really mind games that I play with myself. I just like letting all of you watch it happen.

On the Sanctuary of Thinking

Now I’d like to set aside the subject of WHY I write and to take up the subject of WHERE I do so.

I have a set of free weights at home; I have a heavy bag and speed bag in the garage. Still, the most progress I make in my weight lifting is when I’m at the gym; and a single lesson in the ring with my friend, the great woman boxer Molly McConnell, is better than all my workouts on the home bags combined. The reason that this is true is a very simple thing called “focus”. When Molly is holding target mitts, I have no choice but to FOCUS. When I’m in the gym, on a weight bench, it’s far easier to CONCENTRATE than when I’m at home. This is true for almost everything. Praying is easier in Synagogue than at home. Walking is easier on a forest trail than around the block. But, I’m misusing the word “easy” when I say that. What I should really say is something like “more powerful”,,”more fulfilling”, or “more conscious”.  I admit, even as an individualist, that part of this comes from doing things with other people. But……….

……… But, I believe that an even greater part of it comes from environmental appropriateness. By this I mean that a Synagogue or a church was BUILT FOR praying, a gym was BUILT FOR working out. These spaces are in a sense (yes I’m about to misuse a word for which I can think of no better) SACRED. They are places where one feels that the tasks done therein are APPROPRIATE.  I don’t want to sound too much like Christopher Alexander in “A Timeless Way of Building” but, in my experience, there is value to the synergy between task and space. We do our best work when we do it where it most feels “right”.

So here I am, sitting a a wonderful block-paneled room. It is a simple room: three bookcases, 4 desks, a coat rack, and some lamps. Surrounding this room is the, dare I say, “grandeur” of a large, modern, urban library. But within this room is a feeling, almost an energy, that writers of the past are sitting beside me. It’s a room that was kept largely untouched when this library was remodeled. It is not dark, or dank, or “old”, or shabby. It is APPROPRIATE. It’s the Multnomah County Central Library’s “Sterling Room for Writers”, a room that preserves the history of writing in Portland Oregon, a room where it feels RIGHT TO WRITE!

I’m been working in this room for over 15 years. I wrote most of the poems in my new book, “The New Poetics of Isolation” (ISBN 978-14 90907659 – available on Amazon and from most other booksellers) in this room from 1998 to 2003. I can virtually guarantee that, had I not been allowed to use this room, many of those poems would not have been completed. I’m going to be borderline-narcissistic by sharing this but I want to show you all photo of the book.

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What is special about this photo is not that it shows my book. But that it shows my book in a display case, here in the Sterling Room. I brought the book here so that it could see where it was born. In so doing, I acknowledge the importance of this space and the fact that, without this space, the book would probably still be a bunch of Microsoft Word docs that would never find a path to wholeness. So, yes, I’m proud of putting the book here. But more than that, I’m grateful that the library makes this space available to writers. It’s a little treasure buried in the back of a big library and it’s APPROPRIATE for the work I do when I need to keep examining this little life of mine 🙂

The conclusion I want to draw (other than the obvious and unabashed suggestion that you buy my book -hehehe) is that WHERE we choose to do thing affects the SUCCESS of our doing. Thinking, and using our rational faculties, is something that deserves the same cognizance of space and the same focus as does any physical or creative endeavor. So, I appreciate (and I hope you will take the time to appreciate) the Sanctuaries of Thinking that present themselves to you!

For better or for worse, every time I get a writer’s block, someone I admire dies. Perhaps this is because I admire many people. Perhaps it’s because the few I most admire have such a profound influence on my psyche. Perhaps I’m just getting old enough that mortality is a frequent theme. Of those 3 options, the only one I know is wrong is the first; I unquestionable DON’T admire very many people. I like a lot of people. I love a lot of people. I put up with a lot of people. Perhaps too honestly I’ll admit that I’m even jealous of a lot of people. But, admiration is not something I distribute broadly. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I simply have high standards for admiration. The people I most admire are the ones I consider better than I, in one way or another. Because I consider myself a reasonably smart, thoughtful, creative, compassionate, and decent guy, that limits me 🙂

In any case, the newest loss in my small collection of most admired people is the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska. I’m not certain, but I believe I own all of her English translations including a few first editions and the uncorrected proof of “Poems New and Collected”. Sadly, from a collectors point of view, none are signed.

Szymborska was born in 1923 and lived through the Nazi occupation / destruction of Poland. While she’s not particularly known as a “Jewish Poet” she was Jewish and only managed to avoid deportation by the random chance that she was already working as a railroad employee and was somehow missed. On the topic of Nazi’s I will admit that I don’t like every one of her poems and that her poem “Hitler’s First Photograph” does piss me off. In that poem she describes the newborn Hitler as “this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe” and “Precious little angel, mommy’s sunshine”. But her point is nothing positive about Hitler. It is that even one of the most evil men to ever live started out “cute”. My own interpretation is that we all start out sweet and innocent but that both internal psychological profiles and external influences can turn us into monsters. So, what pisses me off is not her poem but my reaction.

I’ll also say that her early poems are on themes that I certainly dislike. Like many people of that time and place, Szymborska spent time as a member of the Polish United Worker’s Party and her early work reflects a socialist  philosophy. At the same time, even back then, her first book did not clear the censorship process because it “did not meet socialist requirements”. But, I still can’t universally like anyone who once went on record praising the likes of Lenin and Stalin and the greatness of socialism. So, needless to say, I don’t like all of her work.

The fact is, though, that when Szymborska came into maturity she shed that socialist bent and became a wonderful anti-socialist writer. She even went a bit too far, to my mind, in saying: “At the very beginning of my creative life I loved humanity. I wanted to do something good for mankind. Soon  I understood that it isn’t possible to save mankind”. I’m not convinced that she really meant that because I can’t imagine this many wonderful poems from someone who has given up on trying to save us from our idiocy. More telling, I think, is her statement: “When I was young I had a moment of believing in the Communist doctrine. I wanted to save the world through Communism. Quite soon I understood that it doesn’t work, but I never pretended that it didn’t happen to  me.” Ultimately she renounced Communism and all of her early poetry in praise of it. For that reason, I don’t hold her early socialist tendencies against her. She matured,  came to denounce what she knew was wrong, and had the guts to accept her past and not to deny or attempt to alter it.

I’m not sure why, but I remember the first of her poems that took my breath away. It was beautiful, funny, and insightful; all at once. It’s from her collection called “Salt” and is called “A Moment in Troy”:

A MOMENT IN TROY

Little girls—
skinny, resigned
to freckles that won’t go away,

not turning any heads
as they walk across the eyelids of the world,

looking just like Mom or Dad,
and sincerely horrified by it—

in the middle of dinner,
in the middle of a book,
while studying the mirror,
may suddenly be taken off to Troy.

In the grand boudoir of a wink
they all turn into beautiful Helens.

They ascend the royal staircase
in the rustling of silk and admiration.
They feel light. They all know
that beauty equals rest,
that lips mold the speech’s meaning,
and gestures sculpt themselves
in inspired nonchalance.

Their small faces
worth dismissing envoys for
extend proudly on necks
that merit countless sieges.

Those tall, dark movie stars,
their girlfriends’ older brothers,
the teacher from art class,
alas, they must all be slain.

Little girls
observe disaster
from a tower of smiles.

Little girls
wring their hands
in intoxicating mock despair.

Little girls
against a backdrop of destruction,
with flaming towns for tiaras,
in earrings of pandemic lamentation.

Pale and tearless.
Triumphant. Sated with the view.
Dreading only the inevitable
moment of return.

Little girls
returning.

Like I said, it’s a very touching poem, with some humor and enough grammatical quirks to keep you on your toes. My favorite line is: ” looking just like Mom or Dad, and sincerely horrified by it—”. I think it sums up so much of  adolescent angst. Yet, as I age and as I see more and more of my father in myself, I can even relate to it as a 51-year-old man. So, it may be a poem about freckle-faced little girls but, in some respects anyway, those girls are just an allegory for all of us and how we view ourselves in relationship to our parents and our environment; and, of course, what we strive to be.

In several ways, I’m proud of myself for noticing Szymborska before the Nobel committee recognized her. I love my little collection of her books. I find her transformation from ardent Socialist to one who acknowledges it’s impossibility inspiring. I love her humor and her insight. I’m saddened that I never met her. Still, I sadly must “check another one off” of my list of wonderful artists and I’m sad to see her go.

Rest in peace Wislawa. You will live on; one shelf down from Sylvia Plath and just to the right of Anne Sexton!

September 11, 2001 is one of those days that you never forget. It is one of those times when you always remember exactly what you were doing, where you were, and what you were thinking. My personal story is no better, no worse, and no more interesting than most others. In fact, as 9/11 stories go, mine is not that big of a deal. But I’m sharing it today because the body of stories can never be large enough to fully encompass the profound horror of that day. So, here is my memory of 9/11/2001 and a couple poems on the subject from my book “The New Poetics of Isolation”.

Every year, in September, comes the largest broadcast technology trade-show in Europe – IBC, The International Broadcasting Convention. I was a Product Manager at Grass Valley Inc. and, as such, I had to be at the show for setup, several days prior to the opening. Many of us were flying to Amsterdam that week. Some on September 13th or 15th; some even earlier than I; say, September 7th or 8th. But as it happens, my friend Mark Narveson and I had chosen to leave Portland on September 10th, for arrival in Amsterdam in the early morning of September 11th.

On the morning we landed, it was still deep in the night of September 10th in the United States. Nothing special had happened and we simply landed and headed for the SAS/Radisson hotel. By the time we were settled into our rooms it was mid morning. As dedicated product managers, we immediately headed off to the convention center to help with setup. Then, about 3:00PM, the jet jag was kicking in so we went back to the hotel, intent on resting for a few hours and then going to dinner. But, again, since I was devoted to my product and I needed some software, I chose to first call my engineering project manager counterpart, Dave Slack. I call Dave and he answered. After only a couple minutes Dave stopped me and said “Do you have CNN in your room?” “Yes”, I said. “Well, turn it on now!!!” One month later, I wrote the following poem:

Amsterdam, September 11, 2001

October 2001 (Rev: April 2002)

Jet lag
in an Amsterdam hotel room
after forty-five minutes of sleep.

I awake, as from an overdose of Valium,
five blocks from the “Red Light District”,
and telephone my colleague.

Five minutes
into our conversation
he says “Turn on CNN, Now!”

First astonishment, then a
five-day vacillation between work
and weeping.

And telephoning my family,
with tears and fears,
as from an overdose of surrealism.

Right after I spoke to Dave, I called Mark and told him to watch what I was watching. At this point, only the first tower had been hit and everyone was only speculating. Mark and I decided not to go for dinner until we’d found out what happened. Ultimately 2 towers fell and thousands died. We now know how many people had lost their lives but, at the time, no exact numbers were known. Even a month later, the exact death count was still being continuously revised. That is why my other poem of October 2001 contains incorrect numbers. I’ve never tried to “correct” that poem because I think it demonstrates how long we went without having exact counts. Unlike my first poem, which just addressed my time in Amsterdam, this second poem dealt with my deep anger and my struggle with that anger in the context of my lifelong devotion to compassion and open-mindedness. Here it is:

A Threnody for the Victims of the September 11th Attack and the Compassion Lost with Them

October 2001

September 11, 2001:
Three planes
destroy three buildings
that once stood
taller than the
cedars of Lebanon.

Tijuana, 1963:
There’s a picture of mom,
and dad, and me
with sombreros.
I don’t remember.
To early.

Three-thousand three-hundred thousand people die:
Business or pleasure?
No. Life or death!
In the same week we Jews
pray for renewal.

San Diego, 1979:
A wedding in powder blue.
Yes, it’s true,
powder blue
tuxedos.

Just a few crazed bastards,
some barely 30 years of age,
chose death
to harvest and discard
the entire infrastructure
of humanity.

And where are
the Pope and Dalai Lama now?
And where are
the Moslems who defend life?
And why retain
compassion now?

Redondo Beach, 1984:
There’s a picture of my
tai chi group on the beach.
This
I remember
all too well!

Paris 1987:
A café on the “boul miche”,
with coffee and scientific dictionaries
and the writings of
Pierre Boulez
by the IRCAM sign.

Three-thousand three-hundred people die:
For a cause no one understands.
With hand written instructions for piety and
the roots of liberty are torn from the earth,
in the same week I read about John Adams.

Paris, again, 1989:
A café on the boul miche.
with a wedding,
thankfully,
in black
and white.

Just a few crazed bastards
choose prayer then death.
Clear-cutting over three thousand
people.

Valencia, 1982:
A music degree.
A military industrial complex grows.
An actor for president.

And the law changes now:
They can now tap your phone
by name, not simply number.
The National Guard
checks
baggage.

And pity the man who
visits a pornographic website,
now that they can track the history
of all his visits.

Big Sur, 1967:
A seven year old at Esalon?
No. A family trip
to see “General Sherman Tree”.
Foreshadowing three grown children
whose liberty now stands shaken.

Considering
the threats,
Those few crazed bastards
rightly die.

And where are
the Pope and Dalai Lama now?
And where are
the Moslems who defend life?
And why retain
compassion now?

Los Angeles, 1960
Would I have come into a world
so devoid of human values,
for a lost liberty, in a land of sadness,
had I known and had a soul
to chose?

As my gift of liberty wanes, I fear.
the pope and Dalai Lama
and Moslems who defend life
are overshadowed by the evil.
Tearing the roots of joy from
the tree of life.

Yet, succumb to fear
and lose compassion
and WE discard
the entire infrastructure of humanity!

Los Angeles, 1960:
I think
I have
my answer.

And where are
the Pope and Dalai Lama now?
And where are
the Moslems who defend life?
And why retain
compassion now?

September 11, 2001:
Today compassion was torn from the earth
like the root-ball of a redwood;
taking with it
a rich mass 0f soil
forty-one years in diameter.

I decided to share both of these poems, exactly as written ten years ago, for two reasons. First; while I’d like everyone to believe that I’m a compassionate, benevolent, open-minded, caring, rational guy; I’m content with sharing the fact that I struggled with that then – and that I struggle with it now. Second, in memory of those who lost their lives, I think it’s important for the families and the world to know that even we who had no family die on 9/11 are forever affected by it.

Mark and I went to dinner on the night of 9/11/2001. Every restaurant and bar in Amsterdam was showing coverage of the attacks. When the trade-show finally opened, there was a moment of silence in honor of those who perished. Many of our colleagues did not even make it to Amsterdam and we who did had to spend our time wondering how we would be getting home. Most of the folks in Europe were wonderfully compassionate to us.

Within a day or two, it because clear that the attacks were masterminded by the terrible beast, Osama bin Laden. This led to one of the most interesting encounters that my colleagues and I had in Amsterdam, that year. While almost everyone we met was compassionate, not all were.

One night we were walking around the city, near the main train station. There was a young Arab man who saw that we were American and began yelling at us. He was drunk and was with 2 other friends. Already, he was yelling about the great man bin Laden and how we American’s deserved this. I’ll never forget that the first guy who he started to harass was the one guy in our group when was NOT American. He was German and he looked the Arab guy right in the eyes and, in a very heavy German accent he said “Piss off!” The Arab guy was completely taken aback; but it did not take long for him to start harassing us again. At this point, we were standing directly outside the train station and we had had enough. Ross Summers and I were, perhaps, 30 seconds away from getting in a fight with the guy when his friends called him off and convinced him that harassing us was probably not his finest intellectual moment. I think it would have been a very bad idea to fight with him but I always wonder just how good that would have felt. It’s probably best I don’t know.

Needless to say, like every American, my 9/11 experience will be forever etched in memory. But, unlike today and unlike most times in the past, the upside of the horror was that, for a brief moment, the world felt compassionate toward America. To me that proves that, no matter what, perhaps global compassion IS possible.