Decades between Iowa City and today. A short sketch touches on the decision not to go into the MFA program at Iowa. Instead building grain elevators and feed mills throughout the Midwest. Hundreds of thousands of yards of wet concrete. Still coming out of old burn scars on my hands today. Wanting to acquire a physical relationship to my body.
Logging, fishing Alaska from Bristol Bay to Dutch Harbor to Nome and back again. 300 cords of firewood sold in one year. Iron work with an Oglala crew. Building things. Tearing them down. Then in an almost seamless bringing together of poetry and manual labor I began working as a tree planter, reforesting the clear cuts of the Pacific Northwest. Planted over a half million trees which is enough to make me smile but not close to the amount others in the crew planted. And now--so far—yoga—teaching and practicing for 20 years with my beautiful life partner Nöle Giulini. Poetry.
I’m looking ahead from today and the current now is heavily influenced by the Snake Quartet. Let me speak a bit about this snake individual and how her and him became the centerpiece of a decade’s work.
The first book evolved out of a poem in Bristol Bay called End Game in which the voice of Snake appears. It’s a poem that came from a dream about the end of life on the planet. A planet exhausted beyond tolerance from the activities of its inhabitants. Through a series of catastrophic events it kills every living organism—and everything imagined by those organisms--in an intelligent act of self-preservation.
From these deaths Snake emerges as the repository for their imprint. They live inside of snake not realizing they’re gone. Almost like phantom pain in an amputated limb. Their reality doesn’t change. They still think they’re alive in the world that Earth destroyed. And of course—they are. The question arises whether any of us inhabiting space are real or simply figments gifted with the art of morbid delusion. The entire Quartet is an attempt to make sense out of this question.
The dream, or source of information for the Quartet more accurately, is ongoing. My job is to wake up at odd hours and write down what is revealed. Many of the poems appear almost unedited—arriving as complete directly out of the dream state. Others are edited as more information becomes available. Still others are essentially translation from one set of symbols and images into another.
I distrusted this process immensely at first. I don’t write this way. I wasn’t trained to write this way. I take an idea and develop it through whatever combination of luck, skill and attention I can press through the formal studied craft of writing a poem then edit it until approximately satisfied.
One thing has always been true about my poetry--I’m not so much interested in working with ideas and concepts although in the long run those are the buckets of accelerant that must be carried up hill and thrown on the fire.
I’m more interested in creating landscapes where readers—and I include myself—are asked to explore without a map—to perhaps lose themselves—to take risks with meaning and language—to put aside even briefly current suspicions about truth and visible realities. To allow room for intuition, chaos, revelation drawn not from my poems but from their own bodies.
I want to write poems that disrupt the space time continuum in such a way that if meaning is derived it comes from the heart—from glimpses and insights and memories—especially memories--both individual and collective--rather than from following a linear thread to a reasoned mental cookie that may taste good but is so filled with sugar and preservatives it rots first the teeth and then the head.
My favorite contemporary poets, Norman Dubie, Sam Hamill, Joanna Klink, Kate Gale, John Huey, Nick Hill for example, drag their readers into landscapes in which they are obliged to consider new sets of presumptions that self-destruct once the poems block all the exits.
More and more I’m convinced that our job as poet is to create worlds, realities--not books.
The Snake Quartet
On this website there are links to interviews—both oral and written--about Snake—the first book in the series. I won’t go into much detail here other than to say when I wrote it I assumed I was done with the character and the narrative line. The book addresses the end of life on the planet—the transformation of one human being through magnitudes of torment into snake—the collective embodied--and the responsibility—as the survivor—to sequester the energy imprints of the dead in the way a reservoir takes in rain common to many watersheds.
In the first book snake finds out she is both genders wrapped in one-- or better—as a now eternal entity--she is genderless and so speaks with the experiences unique to both depending on the occasion. He finds out that infinity can be squeezed out of the bloodstream of a fictional character and subsequently injected into new realities when this character speaks. Like gods or devils or the regrets of the dead left behind to cause chimes to ring when there is no wind. Houses get blown down by fictional storms. It happens. Somewhere.
Snake runs on raw terror. It was an act of intentional self-cruelty to continue to write down the images in the context they arrived. Yet the headlines of the daily paper were filled with similar horrific events. It became very clear the job is to look into the darkness at the consequences of our entitlements--especially at the expense of personal comfort and belonging. I wrote this book often in tears. I wrote Snake feeling out of harmony with people I most admire and love.
Snake #2—Second Wind
Second Wind introduces a couple of themes that run through the books that follow. The first has to do with human consumption of things at the expense of other things. In the case of appetite or eating it happens at the cost of a life or lives. For everything fed some thing dies to feed it.
Appetite takes other forms as well--perhaps not physically fatal but morally or spiritually deadly. Greed for something another owns. Desire for land or possessions. Worth determined by compulsive gathering. Possession and marketing of freedom. Denial of creative expression. These forms of appetite happen in every family—in every country--clinics and hospitals are filled with both perpetrator and victim.
The second primary theme is the idea that thoughts, imaginings, shaped objects, past events, inert forms, mythical narratives, rumors and beliefs have an actual life and that our history is always incomplete if it doesn’t reckon with these things. The idea of history in Second Wind presumes nothing disappears but is continued in a non temporal reality shifted slightly out of phase from current experience.
These two themes are not far apart since most of history--if not all of it--is fiction. Having been chronicled it immediately becomes an interpretation. It becomes a lie that has power and lives among us often masquerading as truth. And lies are the highways appetites travel between victims.
What snake discovers—what the poems record—is that in an infinite universe there are no finite things—no fininity in infinity. Which means—yahoo—the dead aren’t dead. And the probability curve never hits 100%--meaning nothing is impossible.
Snake #3—Hunger SutrasHunger Sutras continues snake’s inquiry into why nations, neighborhoods, even families became so savage, so indifferent, so predatory the only condign response for Earth was to bring down the whirlwind on every living organism. The innocent oak—the tiny mouse in its winter burrow—the serial killer in the rest stop bathroom at midnight—atomized into mist by intelligent geologic intention.
Then snake begins to hear the voices that say--nothing is innocent—everything eats something else—there is no zoological or botanical safe haven for organic forms—there is no innocence under the existing design. The lichen on the rock is eating it.
Nothing can be whole or sane that takes a life to live. Whether this is a one-celled organism or cancer, bacteria or virus or whether it’s a wizard of high finance moving pins on a map that cause people or wildlife to disappear doesn’t signify. The design is flawed and re-energized with every birth.The lynchpin poem in Hunger Sutras is the 50 page Dia de los Muertos. It intends to illuminate the dark things that scuttle out of graves carrying pieces of the newly buried back to the world to reanimate with new potential.
The other poems compose the sutras—or the sacred lessons snake observe and records—along this billion year old arc. In some cases these are considered solutions. In many cases there is documentation. The past and present and future have merged in snake so completely the poems flee from hiding places in time like antelope before a grass fire.
Hunger Sutras was a hard book to write. As hard as Snake. The narrative wraps itself around a conceptual space that has no bottom and so what is observed sinks from view as soon as it written. I identify with Rilke “drinking a cup of the abyss...”
This digging into the causality between the things we do to one another and the planet and distant consequences is grim and difficult for me to write in a way Second Wind was not. In essence Hunger Sutras takes the bones extracted in Snake and puts them back together long enough for them to die again.
The hope—clung to like a rope thrown to a fish—is that seeing it now—I’m talking to myself—by drinking deeply from the puddle at our feet—we can salvage our future. Certainly I’ve never learned anything by looking away and have often been blindsided when I did.
Snake #4—Original GraceThis book is not scheduled to publish until sometime 6 years or so from now. It is in a presentable and completed rough draft stage but will undergo many edits as it evolves to completion. The book is about the reality--perhaps ours in the future--that comes from changing the design at a cellular level through the interdiction of an energized willingness to create a new fiction to inhabit—as opposed to this dreary one everyone abjures but no one wants to let go. I won’t say any more about it.
Except to say that Original Grace--the 4th book in the Quartet will attempt to bring the entire swarm of philosophical bees let loose in the first three books back to the hive. This is after all where the honey is made.
I have to make this distinction because for so long I didn’t know if I could write without snake somewhere inside the voice or peering over my shoulder. But as the Quartet winds toward its end I find new work arriving as if I were some sort of Capistrano and Spring has come after a lovely winter and there are swallows in the trees.
The Weight of Light is finished. It is with Red Hen and they are considering it. Here aret a few poems from it. I’m stoked about it—in many ways it feels like a breakthrough and I surely hope it finds a way out of my computer. It’s been a total gas writing it.
The Botany of Hope is very close to finished. It’s in about its fourth complete edit cycle and soon I’ll consider it done. At this juncture I’m moderately pleased with it.
From The Weight of Light
I’m grilling bush meat
Over an open fire made of animal
Stools mixed with river
Grass—it’s perfectly hot
And illuminates a circle
Within which my family waits
For the meal to slide
Off the scavenged fence post
Impaling the monkey.
Kabir said the beloved is in
Everything and he knew this
Better than most having
Turned so many cheeks as a child
His brown face grew red
From hands that slapped
Him into poetry—
I tell my family—
The monkey is ready.
The count rides another
Horse to death then comes home
To his children asking if
They’d like to recite the lessons
Learned from beneath
The skirt of the current tutor.
I don’t care if the skirt
Is calico or organdy but am aware
The dead horse was left
For servants to divide into
Equal portions for dinner.
If I cry about anything
It comes from looking with two eyes
Open seeing only one thing—
The child on the banister
Losing balance as the parallax of joy
Turns into a head wound.
When we wake up in a painting
Of an empty stable where a bucket
Of rain reflects an eye not yet open
Let’s surrender before it does.