“Are we witnesses or actors?” – Carolyn Kizer from “Twelve O’Clock”
From a tender age, we learn to anticipate expansive boundaries. This is how we survived.
Our inheritances can be found folded into cornered spaces where silence occupies itself. A similar appreciation to realizing how much our eyes have adjusted to darkness. We trade today’s exhaustion for speculative futures. Assassinations happen daily.
Diversions become elegant beginnings when you realize resistance has immortal roots. That’s why performing for an absent savior is a dishonest practice and violence is a loop of fractured sounds. Do you hear that echo abdicating its own existence?
The sun feels yellow today. Birds still relay their news through song. Incantations woven over and through the roar of their own destruction. A natural and honest alchemy. Such revision signals there is enough, a gathering of effort.
When they ask how you survived this century, what will your answer be?
I have to start somewhere and this is a good place to begin. I want this early reflection of my time spent at the William Stafford Archives to be a conscious wandering.
I knew I couldn’t finish. There was too much. I needed a respectable and intuitive pace. I had to make quick and deliberate decisions on what to capture and what to let go — a practiced, indulgent impulse.
“I would like to be known as an action philosopher.”
– Banana Yoshimoto, from the novel Kitchen
I wrote what came to my attention and catalogued patterns — wind, mountains, snow, trees, rocks, and secrets to name the most prominent. It felt the best, and most honest, way to honor Stafford’s daily writing practice. It was what I had learned to do from You Must Revise Your Life and Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer’s Vocation.
On August 17, 1993, eleven days before he died, he asked:
“What can butterflies do if they get mad at each other? Should they express their anger? Stop and get even? Are these questions about a butterfly trivial? And about you?”
And on May 13, 1951, at the age of 37, Stafford wrote:
“How do we know our perceptions have the same feel as others’?” (emphasis in original)
Graceful inquiries such as these found their way into Stafford’s daily writings, which also included his dreams remembered in the darkest shadows of morning light. Intimate and rooted in place, Stafford recorded the present in all its creative movements.
I learned how deeply mountains listen when trees and rocks tell their ancient stories.
Stafford’s lifetime dedication to following and listening — carefully — to what wasn’t being said, or said loudly, was powerful to witness. His repetition was seductive. A rhythm visualized into meditative language that demonstrated “…all living things are afraid (20 June 1975)” and a steady truth that “your hope keeps you awake (20 May 1975).”
What comes next is unknown and that’s exactly how it is supposed to be.
“As if a tenderness awoke, a tenderness that did not tire, something healing.”
— Sylvia Plath, from The Collected Poems; “Three Women,” (1962)
I was born into an isolated, literal Evangelical culture. A place where time was on always on trial and faith was righteous as pride. Our promised future had already been written. We were urgent. The rapture was past due.
All of us who knew even a fraction of the story internalized why Jesus hadn’t returned. Acts of a vengeful god are common and welcomed in this scenario. It was also true when you knew the ending tipped in your favor, knowledge became seductive. A blessing disguised.
To have learned about the world this way feels like a subtle theft. Trauma works that way too. False recognitions bound to real sounds, smells, touch, twists of phrases, and, if lucky, fading re-creations. A true con.
Decades later, I am still carving an existence that is receptive to invitation. There are no answers inside all these non-moments of relentless judgement. That clarity is its own rushed reality. Adapting gracefully to change is an ancient sermon. This is a map to all this undoing.
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
T.S. Eliot, from ‘Preludes (IV)’, The Waste Land and Other Poems
concerts of effort
sounds better inside a fragment
forgive that this starts out so slow
posting at me to me with me
I’m casual to realize
to follow that, your, our vision
is to be organized into spacial moments — threads
a witness of curation
the: father son and holy spirit
faith is within your standing
some think it is earned
as for me I was taught to be innocent
later learning curiosity had its own beneficiaries
a lesson on just how few original ideas are assigned majestic
fueling dark appreciations for wild abstractions
until it is as uncommon as creating reminders to breathe
I know this all sounds strange
you can call it: new wave vengeance
what survives in me
i still suspect.
–Sonia Sanchez, “Fragment 1”
time signatures bridge memories spread wide, open as my early childhood landscapes
we moved most often when work got too hard or you simply wanted a change of scenery
self-destruction a competitive pursuit, or why my syntax lacks a particular kind of self-love
I found an aesthetic: beg
more of a grasp than a hold
& I define how tight
shattered pieces create the best whole
naked sounds vibrate the loudest
most thoughts end
I have no body; the “I” writing this has no body: not in the old way. Zones. Pressures. Here a structured tension there an underlying ache. Vital signs. Phases of disquiet not clearly demarcated from areas of peace.
— Laura Mullen, “Spectograms (projected autobiography),” Complicated Grief
Revolutions are frenetic desires. Seams stretch tight.
familiar stimulation: swelled power and impulse
Violence precedes peace when knowledge becomes ransom.
negative space: culture is public negotiation
Men speak in abstraction. Their distancing performative.
economies of scale: underwhelming demands for mass hysteria
“And whereas one of my students asks a visiting poet about education vaguely getting at what is worth pursuing? The poet suggests looking at whatever is/was missing in one’s life and begin there. So many nods in the room around that table they acknowledge it too. In the missing: power.
— Layli Long Soldier, Whereas (page 67)
The day Ronald Reagan died – June 5, 2004 – I absorbed the news of his death with reverie as his life was exalted by talking heads and famed acquaintances. Their rhetoric ultimately resting within that exclusive canon reserved only for legends. Crowds swarmed to pay their respects to an American actor.
In another breaking newsfeed, and still witness to a grand spectacle of publicized grief, I was transfixed as a captured tiger dangled from a helicopter high above Santa Monica, California. The majestic predator swung inside a canvas sling that looked more like a collective omen akin to a nursery-rhyme cradle.
The events were not related according to the news, yet the Overton window had widened just enough to propagate rumors into exaggerated false equivalencies. After all, time had shifted in unexplainable ways that leap year. Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” had convinced many that something had happened.
Less than a month later, the spacecraft Cassini reached Saturn (a planet associated with karmic lessons). Some speculate that Reagan’s recently released spirit had guided Cassini as it traveled the critical distance to fulfill its mission. As poetic murmurs, I gather these soft shapes into vivid memories. A gesture of truth.
[A]s my mother used to say, if wishes were horses, women would ride.
— Elspeth Probyn, Outside Belongings (62)
The prompt was bold: how do you embody whiteness? My heart froze knowing that some of my truth has no accessible language.
So I thought about how we grew up nowhere, or more accurately, we lived around no one. A place where you learn orthodox norms, where conformity was practiced as integration. A place where we conversed in churches or homes, and almost never on the long road in between.
The days take flight and return again.
My writing practice captures moments, and contain all kinds of shadowed referents, insurrections, and commitments. There’s a way this claiming expands space to repurpose perfection. A response to how surviving trauma from decades past seeps into what I believe is real and how I frame what is just. I’m not afraid to tell you why my fears are justified. I have a story to let you know why this is true.
I am left wanting. I know dissonance can also be harmonic despite its agreed upon definition. There’s room in that idea to breathe. To release orchestrations that dance around forgone conclusions.
Weeks ago, I wrote: don’t let me forget where I came from and the day before that: resistance to belong a furious understanding. I read these reminders, now, as culturally weighted influences. Next week, I will be in Berlin. A city that embodies trauma and healing’s relentless journey. A city where Audre Lorde taught, organized, and loved. A place of intentional inquiry.
cache culture is a collectivized monograph of intentional inquiry. A place to find my way in contemporary American culture. A place to expose how my gendered body has historically been named as white. I post curated moments that reflect culture and place because that’s where belonging takes root. My roots grew deepest in South Dakota, Ohio, Washington, and now California.
Berlin’s calling and its collective response is another cache.
I will be carrying William Stafford’s advice with me, but one of many influential guides on this poetics inquiry.
“We all share, in art. And to be worthy artists we must be ready to look around, give credit where we feel it belongs, help each other maintain that sense of community that will maximize whatever vision we are able to find and share.”
Deep in their roots all flowers keep the light. —Theodore Roethke
these broken pieces are their own ritual
spirals of coping mechanisms
I’ll give you something to cry about was a challenge, a threat, and a promise.
Your unmasked emotions always carried a visible regret.
These thoughts came through, wide-eyed and unaware of their tardiness.
Flowing the way water finds the least resistance, crooked and illogical.
first there were wild-maned horses on frantic wide open horizons
followed by scratched, then abandoned, lottery tickets turned city sidewalk confetti
both are remembered as tender memories so as not to tear open violently
in the same way a new moon rising is full darkness and as obvious
as even the smallest bird creating their own shadows in flight
It’s been said that god is in the details; the devil is too. There can be tension in revealing the obvious and intentions, despite having benevolent origins, should be read with discretion.
Finding oneself alone with language that pushes and pulls with an exactness of familiarity is why I can reread Robert Hass’s Praise, cover to cover, repetitively and with perverse discovery at each angle of detail he so eloquently and simply lays before the reader. Revelations breed epiphanies which begets clarity.
There is glory in those details.
Meditation at Lagunitas
All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remember how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy place where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.
Santa Lucia: eyes jellied on a plate.
The thrust of serpentine was almost green
all through the mountains where the rock cropped out.
I liked sundowns, dusks smelling of madrone,
the wildflowers, which were not beautiful,
fierce little wills rooting in the yellow
grass year after year, thirst in the roots,
mineral. They have intelligence
of hunger. Poppies lean to the morning sun,
lupine grows thick in the rockface, self-heal
at creekside. He wants to fuck. Sweet word.
All suction. I want less. Not that I fear
the huge dark of sex, the sharp sweet light,
light if it were water raveling, rancor,
tenderness like rain. What I want happens
not when the deer freezes in the shade
and looks at you and you hold very still
and meet her graze but in the moment after
when she flicks her ears & starts to feed again.
original publish date: April 24, 2013 (Bluestockings Magazine)
One of the reasons why I identify as someone who reads poetry boils down to valuing perspective.
Poetry can illuminate the beauty of ugly, exhume shadowy forces of trauma, and distill the essence of struggle in one sentence or one metaphor. Poetry can just as easily pivot to elevate the joy of mundane routines or capture moments of secret pleasure; it does not discriminate. Through this demonstration of language and precision, the reader can embody a practice of being open to having those previously defined private moments become moments of public definition.
Ai (which means love in Japanese) is one such poet whose voice dominates those quiet spaces between private moments. With each aptly named collection (Sin, Cruelty, Greed, Vice) Ai weaves narratives that embrace life’s complexity. She provides perspectives that you can follow through darkness and visions that bend toward brilliance.
Coming home, I find you in bed,
but when I pull back the blanket,
I see your stomach is flat as an iron.
You’d done it, as you warned me you would
and left the fetus wrapped in wax paper
for me to look at. My son.
Woman, loving you no matter what you do,
what can I say, except that I’ve heard
the poor have no children, just small people
and there is room only for one man in this house.
from Cruelty, 1973
The Good Shepherd: Atlanta, 1981
I lift the boy’s body
from the trunk,
set it down,
then push it over the embankment
with my foot.
I watch it roll
down into the river
and feel I’m rolling with it,
feel the first cold slap of the water,
wheeze and fall down on one knee.
So tired, so cold.
Lord, I need a new coat,
not polyester, but wool,
new and pure,
like the little lamb
I killed tonight.
With my right hand,
that same hand that hits
with such force,
I push myself up gently.
I know what I’d like–
some hot cocoa by the heater.
Once home, I stand at the kitchen sink,
letting the water run
till it overflows the pot,
then I remember the blood
in the bathroom
and so upstairs
I take the cleanser,
begin to scrub
the tub, tiles, the toilet bowl,
then the bathroom.
Mop, vacuum, and dust rag.
Work, work for the joy of it,
for the black boys
who know too much,
but not enough to stay away,
and sometimes a girl, the girls too.
How their hands
grab at my ankles, my knees.
And don’t I lead them
like a good shepherd?
I stand at the sink,
where the water is still
overflowing the pot,
turn off the faucet,
then heat the water and sit down.
After the last sweet mouthful of chocolate
burns its way down my throat,
I open the library book,
the one on mythology,
and begin to read.
Saturn, it says, devours his children.
Yes, it’s true, I know it.
An ordinary man, though, a man like me
eats and is full.
Only God is never satisfied.
from Sin, 1986
original publish date: April 17, 2013 (Bluestockings Magazine)
the struggle of living fully
I first learned about Minnie Bruce Pratt via Bitch Magazine’s excellently curated Bitch List. The list highlighted Pratt’s newest poetry collection, Inside the Money Machine with Nothing to Lose. In Inside the Money Machine, her poems vacillate between the struggles of surviving in a 21st century capitalist system while looking for joy beyond the obvious circumstances of the working poor.
“I returned to poetry not because I had ‘become a lesbian’—but because I had returned to my own body after years of alienation. The sensual details of life are the raw materials of a poet—and with that falling-in-love I was able to return to living fully in my own fleshly self.”
Below are two poems from the critically acclaimed We Say We Love Each Other that, in my opinion, distill the essence of her power to transform the obvious.
Love, I know you well: how you look, desiring,
upper lip lengthened when you look at what you
want: some wet fat blueberries heaped in bowls, or
me, at times, wet too.
New Year’s, 1984
I avoid the stalled elevator, walk up five flights,
down a long green hall smelling of cooked food
(not cabbage) to have, in my apartment, a night view of
monuments, and public buildings with windows gunslitted
Even though officially War Is Peace,
MX missiles and Marines with guns are Peacekeepers,
and the enemy is a devil with a name not like ours;
even when occasionally a helicopter spotlight
chops through my window, silver-white cuts across
my hands at the typewriter, the nightmare of caught
at the truth, naked as with a lover;
a trapped voice shouts on the other side of my bedroom wall:
They control us like robots;
I do not agree
with my neighbor, I do not agree with my government.
I agree with you, mother-naked on the year’s first night.
I agree with your hand in my cunt. Your fingers explain
the future by scrawling lines of exquisite pleasure
on the walls of my vagina, urgent graffiti.
that comes, as it will, when a neighbor or casual laughing
hating mouth offers to let me pass, if I say Her
not me, if I agree to rat-tooth jaws closing
on you as enemy, Jew, dyke:
then I will remember
your hand has written your name inside me forever.
[such a sky and such a sun
i never knew and neither did you
and everybody never breathed
quite so many kinds of yes]
— E.E. Cummings
We’ve come undone, cumulatively, in the same way that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring warns. Ruled by misunderstandings, which is to say we are ruled by no one in particular, norms are large-scale projects of self-consciousness. It’s public infrastructure.
The ocean goes nowhere except to meet itself.
A private sensation, a mix of urging and friction.
Days bleed into opinion. It is not enough to simply be.
All this pressure to perform as heaven’s rewards remain on layaway.
I want to be inside that pejorative energy. Transposed survival.
Cut. Then paste. Seasons as witness to predictions that light seeks light.
If you are a private poet, then your vocabulary is limited by your obsessions.
— Richard Hugo, The Triggering Town
It’s a fact. Cycles sync. It is October, 2016. The word pussy is in our mouths again. Full and heavy bodied, it’s paired with a specific violence as naturalized as an inherited ownership tone. This is the fetishized frequency of law and order.
*** you’ve got to stack it so it’s stable – Low, No Comprende ***
So this is what whiplash from a mass capture of imagination feels like. A forced common image. Pussy, for now, functions as an ironic partisan anchor, while still maintaining its gendered significations.
What is the whole of this historical objectification of our parts? Patriarchal logic argues that this violence of disassociation is necessary and even desired. This detachment is inherent in our economic theories, consumer-based language, and mass-produced representations.
We learn, repeatedly, there are far more serious and urgent issues to concern ourselves with than ritualized gender-based violence. We are dismissed. We are told to question less and obey more.
*** underneath this hood you kiss, I tick like bomb – Perfume Genius, Hood***
We perform this idealized creed through a perpetual liturgy of demure expressions in a culture that protects mobs of high-volume denials. This contemporary shrill masculinity is socially recycled into discourses that tap into an idolization of individual perspective. For most, this illusion only creates isolation.
Manipulating the dark side of vulnerability isn’t a new strategy to win elections, or maintain control. What feels different this Presidential election cycle is the dredge of cultural material to mine and the hypervoyeurism that has been produced. Public and private boundaries are as unstable as our contemporary understanding of when virtual becomes reality.
As we bare witness to the misogyny that rages beneath all our sacred institutions, may the soundtrack to this ride to November include Magnet by Bikini Kill.
I’m keeping this advice on a loop: I’ve got the love that’s strong and not weak.
Wedding rings hang outside car windows left open to let in the warm winter breeze. Expositions of racism flare, burn, and spread. Secrets, held between breaths, were left behind in paid rooms. Stories about love and risk and reward are threads. As William Stafford ends The Way It Is, “You don’t ever let go of the thread.”
If there is something to desire,
there will be something to regret.
If there is something to regret,
there will be something to recall.
If there is something to recall,
there was nothing to regret.
If there was nothing to regret,
there was nothing to desire.
What we carry
is a result
of not knowing
what the day will bring.
As her legs lifted
to step up
onto the sidewalk,
he took a deep bite
into a pastry
as if he had taken
what was not his.
The room had been painted a soft pink, the color of the inside of your mouth. A mouth that holds all the words you never release for fear of getting what you deserve; a sensitive fear that is a result of not knowing what you are worth.
We told each other only what needed to be said. I should have asked how you make happiness last and when you knew you wanted more than what is in front of you and when you let go after believing you’d never get it.
In the same way light forms around bridges, we move around our own barriers gracefully and with purpose.
This is, and always will be, the art of surviving.
She takes a loaf of bread, the shape and size of a toddler’s skull. Holding it vertically, she carves a slice two-fingers thick with a plastic butter knife. She stops mid-slice to answer her ringing phone. It was a friend whose name she had forgotten. There was no hello or how are you, just the beginning of a story about watching a man on the airplane lick the inside of a Ziplock bag clean. An erotic retelling of licking the insides over and over in an attempt to taste the way hot plastic feels when it melts from sitting in direct sunlight, an unconscious exhibition of witnessing solid shifting to liquid. She took the moment when breath makes silence to hang up and finished slicing her bread.
“How does she get rid of that thing standing between her and what she wants? She says God may show her. But how much more does she need to see? Every day she pulls her chest open and looks at a ruined life. The heart all bloody. What is the name of the thing eating up her only life?”