Prescriptive (edit 2)

If happiness is honey, tickly-thick
enough to make you choke,
if happiness is wine, a smooth swallow
and a short-lived high,
if you’re defended against joy,
and now you’re breathing faint for want of it,
the remedy is to take happiness anyway.
You already know life will trip you up
and slap your smile away — don’t
give it an assist.
If your secret is that joy’s a fleeting presence,
if you don’t like loss, and you know
joy’s as insubstantial as leaves in the wind,
the remedy is to catch it, even so.
Open your arms,
stretch out your fingers,
and catch good times as
they whistle past your ears.
Flying leaves land and crumble.
But they’re tender, too, and
when held up to the sun
offer shade in red,
green and gold.

The value of dissolution, part 2 (edit 1)

Chhoti Bahu, she of the biggest eyes and motion
most honey-like, begs you to stay.
Here is she:
bound by your space, still at your whimsy,
her desire ‘broidered and enfolded in silk,
now softened to the lateral by draughts
of sharaab, throwing petals.
How could the asking be more gentle?
You stiffen and flinch as if roses are made of flint,
as if to your ears her song
is a loud and acid vibration.
You wince under the petal-storm, duck,
lay the blame on her, and reach down to stay her.
She catches your hand. She wants a touch
of attention and respect, nothing more, just
a little two-way conversation.
You let yourself be held, then tear yourself away.
Note, you let yourself be held.
Meena Begum is never more beautiful than when she’s
at your feet in this role, her hair a river
of dark silk, made by God to cool your irritated skin.
Her love’s stronger than the laziness and self-contempt
I see in you,
and when you’re ill and honest thus, you remember her
and let yourself be gathered to her breast.
She can’t save you –
not one of us can save another, forever.
Her sacrifice is a gift you say you don’t want.
But you take it anyway.
In time, far away in some
limitless place,
her dissolution is going to soften
the harshness you learned to breath.

(part 1 isn’t written, and maybe never will be.)

Note: This is an ekphrasis on the picturization of the song Na Jao Saiyan Chhudaake Baiyan from Guru Dutt‘s 1962 Hindi film Shahib Bibi aur Ghulam. The actress is Meena Kumari, the actor is Rehman. Chhoti Bahu means little or younger sister-in-law, in an extended family setting; sharaab means wine; Begum is a term of respect, similar to the old formality Mistress.

The sloop on motor (edit 1)

In this story of then, long ago, there are just two of us: a man, wet through, in soaked purple shirt and running shorts, fast-walking through stands of lush trees tossing down by the river; and me, lounging against a stone parapet a hundred feet above him, watching as his fine profile and dark stride disappear into the dense rain.

The weather, from the east-southeast and pretty much right in my face, is heavy and wild. That’s an understatement. Even on the steep slope of this hill, the rainwater runs higher than my ankles.

Four hundred years ago, in the then-wilderness, dozens of stream-threads would have been tumbling down to feed the rising river. This then is not that then. Here, I’m wearing backless sandals, for the rain, and I’m weak. I worry about walking home. I might hydroplane on street asphalt, or slip on curbstones of granite and slate.

A rock-dove flies in, a few feet from my face, making for a cranny in the stone wall that this parapet overtops. The dove’s landing path is long and low, and shows the colors — iridescent blues and greys, creams and a little black — on the undersides of the dove’s wings. Its narrow, overlapping wing-feathers are distinct, against the soft backdrop of the clouds.

The dove’s passage spins out an epic moment, shaped by motion and light: an arc of bird-flight scribbled with curved muscled wings and scalloped feather-edges, traced through the inverted swoops of suspension cables of a sturdy bridge that sits, wet-footed and seemingly small, under a giant’s bow of clouds.

Then the world moves again.

To my right, clouds run below the cliffs opposite. To my left, the bridge makes its own weather, as fog mounts a hill of air hundreds of feet higher than the bridge-towers till, just above me, streams of clouds roller-coaster down.

On the river, where its north curve is lost behind a solid wall of rain, near a red-painted buoy, here comes a graceful sloop, sails down, running on motor.

Cars — usually turning north to enter the highway, or making a u-turn around the little park nearby — are stopping for 20 seconds at the dead-end overlooking the river, held by the stormy view.

Trees on the river — maples, oaks and wild apples wearing grapevine shrouds — are full and round, more so than I’ve ever seen.

The stone walls against which I rest are old and high, and very wet.

The river’s on the ebb now, even in this rain. We all are over-looked by the tall, strong bridge — hello, Brother Bridge. What’s that you say? It’s time I was leaving? Yes, yes.

Then, long ago, I set out for home again. I went with care and fear, and, once there, found myself very shaky and finally willing to be warm and dry again. The only bit of cloth dry enough to wipe the water off my door-keys was a small rain-shadow that my left elbow had made against my waist. Pneumonia sucks: I was so weak. And rain sings: my body and spirit were grateful for the rain.

Long ago, I went out to catch the smell of salt, and to meet you. I was cold and afraid. My feet were almost bare. But the rain had washed the air so sweet…

A poem, an edit

A poem’s beginning is maybe a waking dream — expressed in words.
Inside that beginning, the writer hides something secret,
even from him- or herself.
You could call that secret the poem’s truth.

Editing a poem uncovers secret meaning,
and brings words into unity with the poem’s truth.
Yet the writer cannot always make a poem better with an edit.
Edits can whittle away freshness, and obscure truth.
It’s a complicated thing.

Working on a poem is a journey.
The writer needs that journey —
its changes and its passing time — to learn to see what’s in the poem.
Slow writing — an evolution of consciousness — is what a poem is, for the writer.

Here is the third edit of a 2007 rough-draft poem. Be warned, this is not good writing — the poem has a long way to go. To see what the original was like, and the intermediate drafts, check “Like a fall of earth” on my editing blog:

Like a fall of earth in a tiny cave (a beetle’s home)
or sweet soft rain
on pinnate leaves — quiet like that, he slips into the sea
and froths up a dance, and the sea turns blue,
and the dance goes on, as the sea and the man
bring love to the center
of the earth.

No words

Please, don’t speak when I’m making art or thinking about palettes with no greens, pigment granulation or studio space. I won’t hear you. I’ll deflect your conversation. Don’t wait for me, I have no words.

After having been away from art for years, I’m back to it. And I’m finding that it unmoors me from directionality, taking me into myriad-threaded deltas of possibilities, from which a wildness spills over, even into talking or writing.

Bits and pieces of ancient root words, casual talk, slang and language syntaxes float up, seemingly meant to be played with and mixed, like colors. And I play, willingly, with little regard for the structures that make language understandable.

When I wasn’t doing art, I learned to write, and speak, with strength and sometimes-grace. Such skills, the result of hard work, were mine to keep, I thought. But no — now I find they were only of that time.

My relationship with words has broken. It’s become a gritty confrontation, in which I fight to shift thoughts into meaningful sequences. My native way of communicating, apparently, is with my hands. Art feels fluent to me, words don’t. I’m communicating in my primary language again, and I’ve lost my way with words.

Yet I don’t want to lose my way there. I owe such a debt to word-work, especially editing, which taught me dispassion, care, economy and gave me multi-leveled vision, lessons I’ve carried over into art, where I sorely needed such capabilities.

As a result, I can now see what I’m doing, understand layers of composition and meaning, and see unity or what’s preventing it, much sooner than I used to be able to. Moreover, working with words wore down a fear I had, of my own creative nature and its capacity for making chaos.

I never would have come back to art if I hadn’t worked with words. I need writing’s structures, and how it teaches a writer to think and see, and its non-judgmental nature.

Oh blessed Words, thanks for what you’ve brought me. I have Hisham Matar‘s Reflections piece “Two Revolutions“, in The New Yorker, for fresh top-notch short prose. I have some Philip Levine and others’ work, for poetry. I’m editing old writing again. Let me not turn away from you, though things are a little tough between us now.

High summer, mid-afternoon

Then thank you, oh food delivery service, for running out of local peaches and cornish hens last night, so I ordered Finger Lakes plums, curried chicken salad, and home-baked chocolate cookies, instead. Then thank you again, for running out of chocolate cookies, so I ordered white-chocolate-and-dried-cherries cookies, instead. And thank you again, for offering summer juices from the upstate orchard that grows the plums.

And when your man came, he was quick and kind, leaving the boxes outside my door as I called out to him to do since I couldn’t get up from my work right away. And some minutes later on this difficult day that started so early and had me feeling beset and in need of pampering, I brought the boxes inside and unpacked them and put most everything away.

And then I had lunch. The turmeric, cumin, ginger and cinnamon in the chicken salad relaxed my breathing, the tiny plums shocked with flesh as diffusely-sugary as watermelon on the outside and as tart as lemon around the pit, and the cookies, oh the cookies!

Thank you, oh food delivery service, for being good bakers, and using pure ingredients. I promised myself one. One cookie, one white-chocolate-and-dried-cherries cookie. But oh food delivery service, you still had a mind to challenge my beliefs today. You knew what I needed wasn’t what I thought I needed. You shook the cookie box hard as your truck made its rounds all morning, and three cookies broke, and you knew the soft-hearted me, the me who couldn’t let three damaged cookies sulk, unloved, inside a darkened cardboard box, and so, yes: I ate all three.

And then I sipped some tart-sweet tingly lemon-apple summer juice from the Finger Lakes orchard that grew the plums you brought. And then, I wanted to work again. But only after giving thanks for the gifts that your last night’s minor chaos brought, on hard-bumping truck wheels, in the strong arms of a quick, kind delivery man, in mid-afternoon of a high summer’s day.