“Whatever you say, say nothing”

I’m back in Dublin on the 4th of July after a quick train trip to Belfast, and I’ve been thinking about this journey and its images, as well as about the most recent violences abroad (Turkey, Bangladesh, Baghdad) and the constant violences at home that color the pages of CNN with anguish and exclamation marks.  “The ‘voice of sanity’ is getting hoarse,” Seamus Heaney wrote, and although I hear an echo in there of “The best lack all conviction,”  I won’t claim any insight about his response to The Troubles in his country.  Belfast struck me as a city trying to transition from a violent recent past–and only making a little bit of progress (and those gains may vanish quickly because of the Brexit vote).  There are great restaurants, hipster hangouts, and glitzy new shopping areas sprinkled with bistros where you’ll hear the proprietors echo the line “Belfast is one of the youngest cities in Europe,” but there are also persistent signs of economic and social struggles.

I was there just before the festivities of July 12th–an occasion with literal fire-works that make our biggest celebrations at home look like children smiling and dancing with sparklers. See that pile of wooden pallets?  As part of “Orangeman’s Day,” it will become a huge pyre commemorating The Battle of the Boyne, a conflict in 1690 when William the Orange (Protestant) defeated James II (Catholic).  The present day observances, according to the cab driver who took us on a tour of the city’s murals, involve the fires, drunken people (men and women) pissing in the streets, thousands of Union Jacks fluttering, and a stretch of time when you wouldn’t want to be out and about wearing green.

All of which is to assert that, even though there is a slick new mall and some of the famous murals are being painted over with optimistic images, transforming war zones into functional neighborhoods is challenging if not impossible, especially when citizens are less concerned with progress and healing than they are with inadequate housing and shoddy infrastructure, social problems that lead to scapegoating that lead to fanatical displays of nationalism that lead to–well, we know the end of that cycle.  And, of course, the divisions are much more layered and complicated than I can hope to understand, the walls tall and thick and maybe never to come down.

And the literal walls dividing the city are striking. In recent years, people have taken to writing and painting on them in an act of reclamation that seems both well-intentioned  and sadly inadequate.

“We hug our little destiny again,” Heaney writes, and I’ve quickly slipped into acting as if a three-day visit gave me some sort of credibility to comment on a conflict that is centuries in the making.  And so, without conviction and uncertain of what else to say, I’ll  say nothing, which is probably what I’ve been doing anyhow.

And What Rough Beast

I found myself deplaning in Dublin right about the time the world got official word about Brexit. Strange to be arriving in Ireland during the centennial recognition of the Easter Rising while the actual vote was being tallied that would declare the United Kingdom’s secession from the EU.

Dublin is a bustling city; at the Poets Corner,  you’ll see a pub that has the faces of many Irish writers for whom social change was integral to art:  Swift, Yeats, and Shaw to name only three.  Contemporaries have picked up the causes:  Eavan Boland and Paula Meehan, for example, are important voices for feminist issues in Ireland–and there are so many other writers who could be listed, who have spoken for those without speech, who have tried to bear witness to the fracturing of their worlds, but I haven’t the energy right now to recount all of the wonderful Irish writer who have troubled “the living stream.”  Jet lag is upon me, and I need to rest, but I feel far from home, and these are tumultuous times, and  I’m having a hard time seeing exactly how any beauty (terrible or not) will come of these ruptures–so many hearts have been made into stone and too many purposes seem at odds; another of Yeats’s grim poems (“The Second Coming“) resonates:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

But I’m tired–literally and figuratively–and that fatigue might be inciting apocalyptic visions when the world is just spasming again in a way that is frightening but not a new “blood-dimmed tide.”

The World is Burning

I.

Am glad to be home for a few days–to rest and to reflect (and mow the lawn, mull on some way to get rid of the den of skunks down the road–Robert Lowell is no help).  Elizabeth Bishop, a favorite poet, titled one of her books Questions of Travel.  In the title poem, she wrestles with the call to adventure; she writes, “Is it lack of imagination that makes us come / to imagined places, not just stay at home?”  Those lines are at the end of a long meditation on the pluses and minuses of hitting the road; I suppose for those of us who have “lost cities, lovely ones,” the call of the road might be less compelling. As someone who moved many, many times as a child and for whom a favorite day now might be comprised of sitting in the same chair sipping coffee (my little dog draped over my legs), travel and its questions can be a challenge.

All of which is to say, I feel the effect of these many journeys throughout our state, but it isn’t an exhaustion so much as a shift, a “tipping / of an  object toward light,” and that light is changing me bit by bit–and in a good way, I hope.  I find myself talking to strangers and shouting fun encouragement at raucous readings, simply smiling more.  For this, I’m thankful to many kind people–and to poetry.  Perhaps sometime soon I will even dance.

II.

William Carlos Williams wrote, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men [and women] die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”  I believe those lines.  As in, I really believe those lines.  Our world is figuratively on fire, burning with distrust, anger, and hatred, and literally on fire; continued climate change is wreaking havoc in a variety of ways, most acutely (and locally) in the form of the deadly fires of last summer.  A few months ago, Governor Inslee gave me a poem and permission to share it with the world.  It’s pretty cool to live in a state where the governor writes and paints, and I’ll be reaching out to other poets laureate around the country to see what arts their respective governors might practice.  If, as Percy Bysshe Shelley argues, poets are important as the “unacknowledged legislators” of the world, then it might also be important to look at the poems of our acknowledged legislators, too.

Anyhow, here’s the poem, and let’s hope that it’s more of an elegy to last year’s conflagrations than augur of more flames to come.

Okanogan Complex

By Jay Inslee, Washington State Governor

 

A blaze to light a reddish sky it came

To char a forest green of native fame.

 

In shards, clouds sent bolts of lightning

To tops, to trunks, to sparks most frightening.

 

A hungry thing it chewed, it clawed, it licked

The pine and sage and grass.  All were picked

 

To feed a table so ignorantly set

By clueless humans who have not gotten it yet,

 

And so we eat this acrid fruit of smoky reliance

On myth, excuse, and denial, instead of science

 

And curse the walls of hellish heat, but still

Fritter our time in baseless fraud and do nil

 

But slap empty foreheads.  It’s right, not rude

To raise the hell we need for a new attitude.

Practice Losing Farther

After a crazy April and early May, I had a chance to kind of slow down for a few days in Spokane and say farewell to some of my favorite seniors (and to go and catch some fish “Big Two-Hearted River” style–ahh the slow methodology of backpacking and fly fishing and how it eases the brain back to a steadier pace; wet snow in the morning made a night in the tent even more of a mini-adventure!)  And what poetry was next?  I headed out to Vancouver last week (for a visit to Fort Vancouver High School, a lecture at Clark College, a workshop in the Angst Gallery, and a reading as part of the Ghost Town Poetry Open Mic Series) and Seattle (to meet our United States Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, and to hang with Claudia Castro Luna and Leija Farr, Seattle’s Civic and Youth Poets Laureate).

Lost in Vancouver, WA, I came upon street signs that reminded me that I’m usually lost–and where I’m usually lost is (as John Cage would put it) Kansas.  I continue to be enthused at the richness of poetry in our state, the many sorts of poetry that people create and enjoy.

I noticed (above) how parenthesis seem to have taken over my writing, and it made me think of Elizabeth Bishop.  A few years back, I became a bit obsessed with her use of parenthetical asides, and so I started counting them in her books in order to try to verify my sense that she uses them more and more in her later work.  She does, and, of course, one of the most amazing usages is at the end of her villanelle “One Art.”  My point?  As I zoom here and there and meet so many wonderful people and see so many compelling places and hear so many astonishing poems, I’m starting to get haunted by how much of these encounters–no matter what I try to do–is lost.  Life is no parenthesis (to quote another poet), but I wonder if the parenthesis is the punctuation we try to use like a desperate catch-all to try to keep just a few more details of life (write it!) or, at least, to hold all of it a little longer.

From Quiet Gardens to Louder than a Bomb

I drove a couple thousand miles, flew a few thousand more, met many wonderful people, read poems, heard poems, wrote poems, and ended the month profoundly grateful.  Let me just try to describe this last Saturday:  I spent the late morning and early afternoon at the Pacific Bonsai Museum in Federal Way; it’s a zenlike space, filled with these stunning Bonsai that have been cultivated for many, many years:  some are hefty appearing (even though they are small); some are calligraphic in their grace.  IMG_0590

I had the privilege of walking around and experiencing these forms, and then I started tuning in the exhibit–I knew what the theme was, but it didn’t really register until I saw it in person.  DECKED OUT:  FROM SCROLL TO SKATEBOARD grinds out a sharp juxtaposition between the meditative calm of the Bonsai and the clattering frenzy that is skateboarding and brings them together through skateboard decks functioning as the traditional scrolls that accompany Bonsai plants.  Here’s an example:  IMG_0587

It’s well worth a visit for this exhibit alone–but we were also doing poetry stuff, and at about two o’clock, folks started gathering near the poetry tent organized by the wonderful folks at The King Country Library system.  About a dozen or so of us heard some poems, talked about poems, and then wrote some great drafts. I was so impressed by the poems that the writers in this group made. IMG_0596.JPGWhen the event ended, I jumped in my car and zoomed (well, sort of crawled down I-5) toward Tacoma Community College; I made it in time for the last hour and half of LTAB, and I was so, so glad that I did.

I heard funny poems; I heard many finely crafted poems; I heard poems that cut and poems that burned.  I heard poems driven by visceral anger and pain that seemed to defy articulation–and yet some of these young people were finding words that were somehow up to the task of speaking the unspeakable.  When the event’s organizer, Michael Haeflinger, someone the kids obviously respect and trust, paused the performances so that he could share poems by teens who couldn’t be there because they were locked up, well, I lost it.  As Mike so clearly pointed out:  these voices need to be heard, and their poems about racism and disappointment spoke powerfully to the stark and brutal divisions in our country.  When the last of the recorded poems ended, there was a hush over the audience for a few moments, and then enthusiastic applause that sounded appreciation and solidarity.  The whole afternoon was driven by mutual respect (and there was a great crowd in the auditorium).  When the event ended, I felt so thankful for the opportunity to listen.

IMG_0611

It was a long drive back to Spokane, but April had given me a lot to think about, and so that’s what I did until I’d made it over the mountains and the travel started catching up with me, and I needed some music to sing along with as The Cascades became the Columbia became crop markers by Moses Lake became Ritzville became Sprague and Fish Lake and then Maple Street exit and, finally, home.

An Ocean, Some Mountains, Lots of Poetry

 

In the last few days, I have read in Gig Harbor, Langley, and Bellingham, and I’ve given a talk on community, creativity, and the self on Samish Island.  In other words:  art and the ocean have been integral to my time spent with so many talented people.  I am grateful to Doug and Kari Murphy of Gig Harbor for putting on such a great series and to the hospitality of the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts (and Elizabeth Austen!) for hosting me (and reading with me).

Here are some images from Edison Open Studio Day, the final reading for Noisy Water:  Poetry from Whatcom County (editors Luther Allen and Judy Kleinberg), and the sunsets they get in Fairhaven. So many people to thank in that scenic and artsy city–Dobbie Reese Norris, Luther and Judy, Harvey and Connie Schwarz, Jim Bertolini, Anita Boyle, Beth Joffrion, Sylvia Tag, Katie Vulic, and so others.  What a vibrant and supportive community with so many fine writers and artists.  I was especially pleased at the chance to meet some WWU students who were at work making anthologies (Nancy Pagh seems like a great teacher); I understand their labors!  And Poetry Night in Bellingham is another great example of creative people coming together to make art happen in our state.

 

 

 

A Great Day in Olympia

National Poetry Month!  Here’s a sample day:  I began my day at 7 am by giving a keynote address at the Readers Are Leaders benefit breakfast.  This organization is comprised of a wonderful collection of people (teachers, police officers, mayors) from a variety of backgrounds who are all committed to one thing:  helping make sure that children get a chance to have reading (and all of its rewards) as part of their lives.  At 9:15, I went to Olympia High School and hung out with three classes (check out the red wheel barrow!) and then met with the good folks from Arts Wa to have lunch and chat about Polaureate stuff.  At 6:30, I got to hear the energetic and diversely talented open mic crew of The Olympia People’s Open Mic: poets shared raps, well-rehearsed and well-crafted slam pieces, Robert Service poems, and a crazy-good poem about fishing by Patrick Dixon.  I made new friends and realized that those new friends knew some of my old friends.  They Old Growth Poetry Collective (sponsor of the open mic) is having their grand slam soon, and from what I heard, that slam is not be missed!  And last of all:  gotta admit that this isn’t a bad part of the day:  no more miles to go before I sleep.