Thursday, October 8, 2015

Marconi's Oranges

One dreary winter afternoon we drove out to the coast along the eastern shore of Tomales Bay with our Norwegian neighbor Agnes, and her sister Borg Haugen, who both loved the sea. The Haugen sisters also drank like Vikings, hitting the bottle after breakfast was not unheard of during the holidays.

We pretended we didn't notice, we played along with Toofta, an invisible wight (similar to our leipreachán), who had a fondness for screwdrivers and eggnog. After a morning's liberal libation, the sisters grew restive, and longed to be in sight of the sea. So we piled into the green Packard and would often wind up, somewhere along the coast.

As we headed out to Marconi Station near Marshall, my grannie who sailed over from Bantry Bay on the world's largest passenger ship, the Lusitania, Lady of Inverclyde (it was torpedoed in 1915), told us a story about Valentia Island, off the coast of Kerry. She said that Valentia Island was hooked up to the Marconi Station in Tomales Bay.

Somehow Hawaii was also involved with my childish equation of Marconi Station, as Agnes received ship-to-shore calls from her husband Lucien, a merchant marine. No matter that I thought those sea cliffs of the Farallon Islands were Hawaii. Borg said that she sailed to Waikiki on a Cunard ship and it took days to get there, yet I could see the islands from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Sunday evenings we'd gather round Agnes's radio and listen to Hawaii Calls on the radio. The idea of Pearly shells from the ocean, shining in the sun....crackled across the sea, fired my imagination.

As my grandmother elaborated upon the stringing of those transatlantic cables, the wonderous Guglielmo Marconi, Morse Code, telegrams, or marconigrams, I was confounded. I envisioned those really long cables stretched under the oceans still being used a hundred years later.

Though I was only a child, even I knew that Ireland was a long way from the shores of Americay, and that we were due west of west. And the world was a really big place, Hawaii aside. Not only was there the Atlantic ocean to cross, but the entire continent of North America in the way.

The old ship-to-shore Marconi telegraph receiving station was built after my grannie had left Ireland for good, in 1912. After a mishap, she was late and missed the boat, which happened to be the good ship Titanic, laden with Irish immigrants—otherwise I wouldn't be there to tell you this story.

The old Marconi Station, near the site of the old Coast Miwok village Echa-kolum, had been closed since 1939. During the early 1960s, it was converted to a drug rehabilitation center called Synanon. It seemed like a good idea at the time. A sober utopia. There was a big spread on it in the Sunday Paper. We had no idea that Synanon would become synonymous with evilness incarnate, but that's another story. It should've been renamed Narconi Station.

It must've been mid-winter when we took that drive north along Tomales Bay toward Dillon Beach. It could've been a day straddling either side of Christmas. The sky was overcast. Perhaps it was drizzling. A soft Irish day, my grannnie would always say. 

Perhaps I was grousing over a lack of adequate Christmas gifts, or perhaps I was was ever hopeful for pie in the sky kind of Christmas. Seeding the field, so to speak, for Christmases to come. Christmas was a meager affair, as my grannie's small pension barely covered the necessities. I was dependent upon our neighbors for gifts.

My grannie also told me that every Christmas her brothers and sisters each got one sweet Valentia orange wrapped in foil for Christmas. That was it. It was something to be savored, its seeds duly counted. One for each member of the family, if luck would have it. The trick was to hold out and eat it after everyone else had eaten theirs. Then eat it in front of them. Slowly.

Sometimes my grannie and her siblings got a few walnuts and sultana raisins, or tiny currants—like the kind she added to Irish sodabread—too if her parents could afford it. Sweetmeats were considered luxuries in the west of Ireland at the end of 19th century.

There wasn't anything much to see at Marconi Station. Not even a plaque. A disappointment. I kicked the sand as they admired the pullout off Highway One. I didn't understand it was the end of an era. They had no camera, but the day is indelibly etched in memory.

Unraveling my grannie's convoluted stories is probably why I became a writer. I couldn't see or hear that silent 't" in Valentia, and confused it with Valencia oranges. The conundrum haunted me. See? Suits you to a "t," as my grannie might say as she handed me a proverbial orange. 

But then, adults were always doing inexplicable things—like driving up the coast on a  whim, not wanting to stop so we wound up in Gualala staying the night with not even a toothbrush between us, let alone pajamas.

What I learned was: Valencia is in Spain. Valencia, spelled with a "c" was once a river island. They grow Valencia oranges there. Apparently they wrapped them in gold foil for export, a real Christmas treasure. Valencia oranges came form India, or China. 

My grannie loved Valencia oranges. Too sweet for me. I prefer tangy tangerines or naval oranges—don't even ask me about the conflation of bellybutton (really a lost orange twin) and nautical equation). A good thing I didn't know about Valencia, California.

Valencia, located on the orange blossom coast of the Mediterranean Sea, was once spelled Valentia, in rough Latin, meaning strength/valor.  Its Moorish nickname was Medina bu-Tarab/Turab (either city of joy, or city sand, depending on the mis-translation.) However, a Marconi station was built in Aranjuez near Madrid, Spain. It means hawthorn in Basque. So, magic was afoot. It seems those Marconi stations were everywhere.

Valentia Island, spelled with a "t." is located in County Kerry, Ireland. Why they called it Valentia, after Valencia, Spain was a complete mystery. Maybe they really liked Christmas oranges, my ten-year-old mind reasoned. Or they liked Marconi. Of course, I confused Marconi with macaroni and wondered what pasta salad had to do with Yankee Doodle. 

Valentia is a malapropism, a corruption from Oilean Dairbhre—means the Island of the Oak Woods (pronounced dwervne). I was disappointed to discover that Valentia Island is not even remotely located in Spain, but it is one of Ireland's most westerly points off the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry.

Before the Transatlantic Cable was installed, it took a fortnight or longer for messages to reach North America from Europe by boat. Valentia was where transatlantic telegraph communications cables were laid from Telegraph Field, the "birthplace of global communications" at Foilhommerum Bay, Ireland, to Heart's Content, Newfoundland in 1866, some 2,300 nautical miles away—after six unsuccessful attempts (1857).

Valentia was formerly an island studded with oaks and apparently some rampant resident druids. The telegraph was one of history's game-changing moments, global telecommunications, the ancestor of the internet. That's pure wizardry at work. Imagine that. Marconi's oranges. 

On 16 August, 1858, transatlantic communication was established. The message: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will to men.” Unfortunately the overexcited engineer fried the cable. In 1866, the final cable was laid. The Valencia Transatlantic Cable Station was laid to rest in 1966. And in 2013 it was up for sale. I wonder who bought it?

I know I've wandered far and wide in this memoir, but that's the shape of memory. Back then, if I knew what he adults were up to, I wouldn't have had this story to tell now, would I? Perhaps that tangled up day was the first day of the rest of my life. A self-examined life, as told through memoir, itself, an oxymoron for truth, such as it is.

Writing too, is an addiction, from which there is no recovery, nor cure. I understand that full recovery is impossible. As I write these words, I discover anew, that today, as always, is the first day of the rest of my life.


The California State Parks Foundation acquired Marconi Station in 1984 with Buck Trust funds, turned it into a conference center, and gave it to the California Department of Parks and Recreation. So communication continues on at the old Marconi site. Another Marconi Station was located north of Bolinas, on the mesa at RCA Beach, which was strictly off-limits during the Cold War. 
 In 1913, an American Marconi Company transmitting station was established in Bolinas (Marin). The receiving station KPH was about twenty miles further north, at Point Reyes. In 1914, the stations at Bolinas and Marshall would allow messages received from New Brunswick, New Jersey to be retransmitted to Hawaii....In the early days of wireless communications, Marconi used the Hawaiian Islands as a test run. (Bolinas might've been built later:) ...Built in 1919 by Marconi, it was taken over in 1920 by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA).
Why two Marconi stations in Marin? The reason the transmitters were far away from the receivers is because their powerful outgoing signals made it difficult to pick up weak incoming signals from faraway ships on the same frequency channel.

The First Marconi Cable The manufacture of transatlantic cable began in 1857 and was completed in June. It was stowed on the American Niagara and the British Agamemnon. They both left Valentia Harbour in Ireland on 5 August. Cable laying went well but six days later, the cable snapped, a brake mishap. Only 380 miles had been laid. The ships returned to port. An extra 700 miles of cable was made for a second attempt, in 1858. The two ships met mid-Atlantic where they joined their respective ends. The cable broke. They made another splice: and managed to string 40 miles before it broke. The fourth time they laid 146 miles before the cable was yet again lost. It was decided that, despite the loss of a considerable amount of cable, they still had enough for another attempt. On 29 July they made their fifth attempt, starting from mid-point. On 5 August 1858 both ships reached their destinations – Valentia Harbour in Ireland and Trinity Bay in Newfoundland. The two continents were joined. On 16 August communication was established with the message “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will to men.” Unfortunately the engineer in charge, used high voltage rather than the weak current that had been tested during the cable laying. Within three weeks the cable ceased to work. Fried. (Go to the site for the 2nd and 3rd cable story).

Historic site of first transatlantic telegraph cable on Valentia Island up for sale

Synanon's Sober Utopia: How a Drug Rehab Program Became a Violent Cult Their motto: today is the first day of the rest of your life.

The weekly journal, the Point Reyes Light was the only newspaper to take on  Synanon, (cult activity, child abuse, drugs, mayhem, munitions, and murderous threats in the form or rattlesnakes in mail boxes), David & Cathy Mitchell won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for their in-depth reportage.

How a country newspaper won a Pulitzer; The Light on Synanon, by David Mitchell, Cathy Mitchell, and Richard Offshe.

Toofta an invisible singular wight—like a Norwegian leprechaun—is not in the internet, he's unlisted. Perhaps that's a good thing. He's a thief with a fondness for booze. Perhaps he's a Nisse, a Vittra (but they're plural social beings) or a singular entity, Tomte
"Other names are tuftekalltomtegubbe or haugebonde, all names connecting the being to the origins of the farm (the building ground), or a burial mound." 
Tomt means house, or farm loft.

What excites me is finding the word: tufte-kall. Toofta, is that you? He was associated with Christmas.... And perhaps Toofta was the Haugan's own personal wight. Haugkall means mound man... Think Harry Potter's house-elf, Dobbin.


When my grannie talked me about Valentia Island, I was confused. Valentia Island was hooked up to the Marconi Station (in Tomales Bay!), and every Christmas they each got Valentia orange wrapped in foil for Christmas. Unraveling my grannie's stories is probably why I became a writer. I couldn't see that silent 't."

Valencia is in Spain. Valencia with a "c."They grow Valencia oranges there. Apparently they wrapped them in gold foil, a real Christmas treasure. My grannie loved Valencia ornges. Too sweet for me. I prefer tangerines or naval oranges (don't even ask about bellybutton and nautical equations).

Valentia Island with a "t." (Oilean Dairbhre—it means the Island of the Oak Woods) is not in Spain, but is one of Ireland's most westerly points off the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry.

Valentia was where transatlantic telegraph communications cables were laid from Ireland to Newfoundland in 1866. Formerly an island studded with oaks and druids.

See? Suits you to a "t," my grannie always said.

yet another Facebook post that prompted a blogue! Thank you Jane Allen!

Monday, September 28, 2015


The back wing of the old hospital,
the mountain stands sentinel.
Eve of the full moon eclipse,
king tide flooding the marshes
in a relentless hurry towards surcease.
Then the exodus. Systole, diastole.
Sine wave patterns.
What becomes important
are the little things,
both ordinary and plain.
We assign order and dominance
over statistics, meaningless
in and of themselves,
but crunch those numbers,
and the answer is a thin blue line
between life, or death.

Corte Madera

The back wing of the old hospital, where the mountain stands sentinel. Eve of the full moon eclipse, tide pushing in, it's in a relentless hurry towards surcease. Then exodus. Systole, diastole. Sine wave patterns. What becomes important are the little things, both ordinary and plain. We assign order and dominance over statistics, meaningless in and of themselves, but crunch those numbers, and the answer is a tin blue line between life, or death.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Spelunking for Gold

Silly squirrel hid several acorns in the gaudy green water goblet I wedged atop the wooden fence as a drought relief aid for small creatures. Cats, bees, wasps, even butterflies sip from it—and an occasional 'possum or rat leaves a calling card.

The red east coast squirrel, may not be native, but he's my most loyal customer. He has nowhere else to go to find water. Because of the drought, people's birdbaths and fountains are dry, leaky faucets are a thing of the past. We've all cinched down our belts during this fourth year of drought.

What's a squirrel to do? The lake is too far away, and with several busy roads to cross, long-distance travel never bodes well for for squirrels and other small creatures. If the water glass gets low, he peers into the kitchen window, and impatiently flicks his tail, as if to say, Hey, you. I'm tawkin' to you. I'm outta water, here! 

Squirrel is on his third iteration of  water bowl. The crystal glass cast beautiful reflected prisms, not that he ever noticed, came crashing down. As did the pint beer glass. I had to anchor this goblet well with boards and long nails, because every morning the squirrel rubs and stokes his chin along it as if it were Alladin's lamp, saying: Mine. All mine. Squirrel doesn't want to share. 

Last night, Squirrel had a change of heart, fearing for the safety of his buried treasures, he retrieved them all, save for one green acorn, which had already split, and was beginning to sprout. Acorns don't float. I bet he nearly half-drowned in the process of spelunking for his hidden gold. There's no water in the goblet. I bet at least his head is squeaky clean.

first draft

Silly squirrel hid several acorns in the gaudy green water goblet I wedged atop the fence. He has a change of heart, retrieves them all, save one, and nearly half-drowned in the process of spelunkering for gold.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Droughtful Musings

An East Bay gardener who writes a blog, Annie's Annual and Perennials, posted a blog saying that home gardeners are not a water use problem. Annie then urges us to go ahead and water that home garden—for the birds, butterflies and bees' sake. It's a mere drop in the bucket.

Though I agree with Annie that agribusiness and fracking are using the lionshare of California water, not to mention Nestlé, I disagree with her fuzzy logic and rhetoric, holding the plight of bees hostage to her particular train of thought.

OK, so maybe I'm a tad cranky, it was boiling hot yesterday, and the house never cooled off last night. It was so hot even the neighborhood cats and squirrels were running around buck-ass-nekkid.

My main complaint is Annie's myopic point of view. She writes: "If every domestic household in California stopped using water completely it would barely make a difference at all."

 And then she states that "residential water use is a mere 5%-8% of total water use in California." Um, Annie, it's 10%. Her solution? Keep on watering those gardens. It don't matter, nohow in the long run. How very East Bay of her. It wants what it wants.

Yes, but of that 8- to 10% (not 5% as she stated) of California's residential water use, a whopping "...53 percent of total average household water use — or more than 190 gallons per household per day"—is used for landscaping, gardening, etc.

Let's do the math. That's 14,000,000 households in California x 190 gallons a day x 365 days = 971,000,000,000 gallons per year, or 2,979,885.66 acre feet. (One acre-foot = 325,900 gallons). Does that seem like nothing to you? Now I really suck at math, but Lake Chabot has a storage capacity of about 504 acre feet of water.

That other 47 percent of residential water use is indoors. "Indoor use accounted for more than 170 gallons per household per day..." That's the toilet, laundry, showers, the faucet...and leaks! (source—KQED) Repeat above figures—nearly 3,000,000 acre feet x 2 = that's about 6,000,000 acre feet for residential use. 

After reading Annie's blog, I wanted to scream: So, lose the friggin' lawn already! Use your gray water. Get this: Annie showers at public pool so all that lovely shower water goes down the drain. Hmmm. 

I want to tell her: Shower at home. Use that shower water to water the plants. And yes, do turn off the water while lathering up. Quit shampooing your hair daily. Wear your clothes several times before washing them. Be frugal with your dishes

(About washing your hair: "By the 1960s and ’70s, however, women were being encouraged to wash their hair seven times a week, which not coincidentally was also when today’s synthetic shampoos and conditioners came of age." It's all part and parcel of a move to get consumers to, well, consume. Just say no.) Frugal water practices may be a mere drop in the proverbial bucket, but it's still water saved. 

The oft quoted: "agriculture industry, consumes 80 percent of the water used in the state" isn't accurate, but it's trotted out every time someone wants to point fingers at farmers and defer blame: the "Not my problem" mentality at work. So Annie trotted it out without examining it. Stats are dependent upon several factors and cannot be trotted out without reference points. Otherwise, you really are comparing apples and orages.

Agriculture uses more water than cities, but not necessarily 80 percent more because state officials also include environmental uses for that water, too. Agricultural use is more like 50%, depending upon the wetness of the year. And almonds or apricots are not the main water guzzlers. Alfalfa, used to feed the cows, is. So, dairy/beef is our biggest agricultural water user.

What percentage of California’s water is used by agriculture?
  • 80% based on the developed water supply 
  • 52%: based on the total water supply of a dry year 
  • 29% based on the total water supply of a wet year   
—Blaine Hanson Department of Land, Air and Water Resources University of California, Davis
Regardless, I want to tell Annie that it's not an Us vs Them (agribusiness, fracking) vs (consumers, gardeners) equation.

We all eat food, we drive cars, All of us here, in California, almost 40,000,000 of us—we ARE the problem. Deferring blame to the farmer is not the answer. Yes, we need to kick Nestle's buttnuts, and ban fracking, and quit driving cars, but I'm rather fond of eating. Not willing to give it up. The farmer is the man.

So, I'll save every drop of water I can. Because I can. 

See, I grew up on spring water, and when the my grandfather's well (a seep cave) went dry during the 70s, we learned to make every drop of water we could eke out of the spring, count. And we recycled all grey water, because it mattered. 

We took a Saturday night shared bath once a week, the tub had maybe 5 inches of water in it. The equivalent of a five-minute shower. My grannie got first wash, I got second wash, and my poor brother was at the tail end of the line. 

That thrice-used bath water was then used to flush the toilet. And yes, we strictly adhered to the mellow-yellow rule. And no TP in the toilet either. It went into a paper bag and was burned in the fireplace.

My grannie had an old school wringer-washer (it used one 15-gallon fill-up of water to wash 3-5 loads of clothes. We heated water on the stove) and the rinse water in the bathtub (15-30 gallons) also watered the garden. That's 30-45 gallons total. We also wore our clothes until they really were dirty. Modern washers use about 60-80 gallons per load x 5 loads. Do the math. At least modern washers don't try & wring your arm off. Don't even ask how I know. 

Unfortunately our collective habit of showering daily, wearing clothes only once, then laundering them, is a modern phenomenon that contributes to a huge amount of wasted household water. 

When consumer goods corporations began to up their advertising game antics and successfully push cleaning products during the 1970s, there was a dramatic upsurge in bathing and washing habits. We became part and parcel of the disposable and thoughtlessly wasteful consumer culture. 

Our personal grooming habits reflect this rampant consumerism which lead to slovenly and wasteful water practices. Then there's Nestlé's pushing the 8 glasses of bottled water a day on us (and we don't even need 8 glasses of water a day, it's a myth.)

So Annie, though I agree with you on most points, I'd suggest that saving water at home really does matter. Think of it as a concerted war relief effort, like saving rubber bands, string and tinfoil. (How many of you still save string?)

And yes, I do water my drought tolerant garden with shower water. And no, I don't shower daily, and yes, I do wear my clothes multiple times before washing them. (I'm much more careful about my clothing and it doesn't wear out, or fade as fast). 

An added bonus of watering the garden with gray and black water (the kitchen sink water is considered black water—we wash by hand), is the unexpected surprise of finding long-lost flatware in the flowerbeds. I'm waiting for my teaspoons to sprout and am looking forward to harvesting my forks too. I'm not sure what the knives will bring. But I have hope. 

Meanwhile, the garden, despite the lack of water—as I do not use fresh water on it— thrives, and the hummingbirds and cabbage moths stop by daily. You can have your cake and eat it too. In this case, you can conserve water, and have a garden too without saying that saving water doesn't matter.

Uh-oh, I'm running low on spoons. Time to go and raid the garden.

Friday, September 18, 2015


Yeah, I'm pretty weepy today, I'm crying over a photo of a dead horse lying by the side of the road, seemingly untouched by fire, as if asleep. You half-expect him to rise up and gallop off. But his hooves will never pound the earth again. I'm sobbing for that poor black cat, so burnt, it's as if he turned to stone, like an Egyptian cat god. Yet he purred when the vet petted what was left of his singed coat. He was a symbol of hope, someone said. I'm crying for the fireman who brought the cat in, and for all the other unseen animals who perished in the fires. I'm sobbing for the trees, the pines and manzanita, and for 75,000 acres. And the birds. I'm crying for the hay laden caravans coming down from the north to Middletown. I'm weeping for Michelle, who lost everything, except her life. All her poetry. All her belongings. Gone. Now times that by 20,000 people who've lost everything. I'm crying for the loss of Harbin Hot Springs, and for Hoberg's, where my family used to play. I'm weeping for the communities all torn apart, and for the newer ones pulling together. I'm sobbing for my cousin, the fireman, a hero awaiting more skin grafts in a sterile hospital bed. I'm crying for his poor burnt hands, and his face, will he ever play the bagpipes again? All these useless tears, not enough to put out the fire, not even in my own heart. And yet, I hear the strains of Amazing Grace skirling in the distant corners of the mind.

Cal Fire officials said the 75,781-acre Valley Fire in Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties is the third-worst wildfire in state history in terms of the number of damaged structures. The 118-square-mile Valley Fire that started Sept. 12 in southern Lake County damaged 1,780 structures as of Monday afternoon, Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

CPITS Symposium Colors of the Future poems with Marsha de la O, etc.

(Raw notes from Marsha de la O's writing intensive)

Mango grandmothers, papaya and nopales.

A man"s soul is worth different weights

depending upon his remembered homeland.
The disappeared are always against forgetting.
The salsa of the volcano in remembered countries
Is both the flower and the trigger points of politics,
The blind road of the revolution
Is that which separates us, cleaving us
in the name of religion, politics and gender.
We are undressing the day, minute by minute.
But the relentless sea churns and devours the cliffs
and we are left with nothing but tenuous handholds,
saving everything for the warriors of the sun
Singing at the edge of the tides.

Having written myself into a tight corner,
no right words surface, nowhere left to go, 
but the page, and of course,
 the weight of the iconic date haunts me.
I am unwilling to write of it, give it energy.
All I can think of is how far we've come,
and how much we've regressed.
I'm repeating the names of lost cities:
Damascus, Aleppo, Palmyra.
That nameless boy in the surf, what we've lost. 
Irreparable stations of the mind, no longer functional.
Burned into the retina, also,
the aftermath of refugees in the Budapest train station.
To arrive in a strange place, and to leave again 
with nowhere to go. Like the Albanians of Bari.
Photographs of shoes, toys, blankets. 
Entire lives left behind.
I cannot fathom the loss, the crusades, Isis, 
this sullen anniversary.
We are haunted by images of small children.
That small boy rocked in the cradle of the surf.
Incunabula. The sea comforted them.
They returned to the amniotic brine, breathed it in.
Tiny starfish hands fluttering 
in that final dance of the surf,
summer closing in on autumn with a vengeance.
And the winter yet to come, nowhere left to go
with only a passport for the wind.

Oh the praties they grow small
Over here, over here.
My grandmother used to sing this dirge to me.
Every night we ate potatoes
With their jackets on.
We ate them boiled, baked, mashed,
in potato salad, and in soup.
Their blind eyes were pale ghosts
still wandering this earth
searching for food.
An Gorta Mor, the Great Hunger
still haunts us 150 years later.
Residual, cellular memory.

When I crossed the Andes
I ate bitter black potatoes.
When the potatoes turned black,
my ancestors survived the famine,
without giving up their religion,
without turning turncoat, which was
the British alternative. For food, give it up.
It only made my ancestors more stubborn.
They ate cattle feed, mangles, turnips,
they ate grass, their mouths stained green.

I am allergic to solincea, tomatoes,
eggplant, and raw potato juice.
Phototrophic stains turn dark on my skin
A picture developing, perhaps ghosts, or tears.
She roasted potatoes with their jackets on.
The eyes of the peat glowed like dragons.

My grandmother was late and missed the boat
Out of Cork Harbour. It sank. 

The next boat was between munition runs,
so she made it to Ellis Island with her brother.
The Lusitania, the Titanic—names passed down.
Journeys undertaken. Almost never begun.
Her brother Joe had five pounds in his pocket,
it was enough to put Jenny on a train to Battle Mountain,
but not enough to get him to Home Ranch
where Uncle Paddy waited 

for the rest of his family to arrive.
Joe got a job on a tramp steamer
and worked his way to Galveston 

by way of New Orleans, he earned
enough to catch a train to Nevada 

and he left the high seas
to herd cattle and buck hay
in the dry desert heat 

of the Reese River Valley.
A long way from Bantry Bay.

She pulled at the thread on the seam of her skirt
So much effort went into making that gabardine suit.
The painstaking hand stitches,
and knotting the threads so they wouldn't unravel.
It was different sewing the suit for herself
instead of for the customers at the shop.

She flicked imaginary lint from her skirt,
brushed smooth her lap. New beginnings.
There was never any question of staying.
She would miss the glass mirror of the harbor
but not the stench of fish. Catch of the day.
She didn't care if she ever ate another fish again,
Friday, or no.
She'd do without, that's what she'd do.
She fretted the edges of her lace collar,
the nuns drumming in the catechism 

of thread and homily,
all was God's work. All 

was God's work.

The cart was late. The horse snorted, 

and impatiently pawed the cobblestones.
She boarded with a cardboard suitcase 
filled with all her earthly possessions
destined for the New World.
The horse's breath hung on the chilly morning air
as they trotted towards Cork City.
She could hear the lonesome call of the ship's horn
as it pulled out from the harbor. Reprieve.
She wasn't yet ready to say goodbye.

scribbled while Marsha de la O was reading many poems from Latin America. Unfortunately Marsha didn't really give us time to write, she was reading too many poems, perhaps assuming we didn't have the background, and all I wanted to do was write, and so, when I saw the writing on the wall, or, rather, the lack of it, I began to randomly write, in order to keep my sanity. Words become a skeleton to wrest into meaning, not necessarily having anything to do with the original poems. So, they are collage poems, where I wrestle meaning into the randomness of juxtaposed words.

César Vallejo talked of hope 

and the shuffling feet of despair
as if they were blossoms of bright light.

In a Trujillo prison, he dreamed of words,
like stone islands, interrupting the current.
He longed for a new language scoured clean of artifice
with words, sharp enough to feed the hungry man.
The inarticulate night, a evil cup of darkness.
No matter how many times he turned, 
the four witewashed walls entombed him.
In his cell, he dreamed of trees, 
they would lead the way to the moon.

Neruda, have you forgotten us?
All that is fire will be repeated.

Nothing will be extinguished.
No, not lost. Forgotten. Little by little.

A slow moon dallies on a red branch
like a lobe of shining fruit, cradled 
in the arms of another homeland.
Ah, love, nothing is extinguished, 
or forgotten. These words.

I can't write of all the sadness.
My voice tried to find the source of the wind
but it was lost in the darkness.
On this earth we are all born without a name.
If you are the darkness, I am the rising sun. 

if I am the sun, you are the spaces 
between the stars. Then I am the void.
Without you.

I would like to ask Claribel Alegría,

when she invoked the rain, 
did its drumming pierce her temples, 
did the river speak to her in thin reedy voices, 
dank with eddies and fetid mud?
Did it polish river stones into comet?
Did it feed those lost volcanic flowers,
the children, the names of flowers, 
buried in ash, foliage and stone,
 did she dream of lost horizons
teaming with birds? Sentinel herons.
Chacmool's hard-on, another offering
to Tlaloc's thirst that is never slaked,
The Lord of the third sun will always feed
on the dying pulse of her remembered country,
for Tlaloc never sleeps.

And what of Ernesto Cardinal?
Those tropical lights and moonlit lagoons 

of the zero hour on palaces 
Another beach, another time.

Was it Octavio Paz who said no one listens to the rain?
You must listen to the water that is true.

If I am the darkness, you are the rising Sun

What of Lorca , and the kingdom of Harlem
Repeat the airs lost curves. Baila conmigo.

Like Pessoa, my gaze is clear as a sunflower.
What is seen when the window is left open
to a life we seldom use?
It has little color, the sky is an impoverished
river of blue feathers.

Once I found a red stone in the middle of the road
as divine as love, as heart's blood 

blossoming in the alkali dust.

Say a word now that can't be invented.
What now, José? 

You, without a name, who mocks the others?

My heart bleeds for Carlos,
oranges under a full moon.

Our children are the colors of the future.
Mangoes in a grandmothers backyard
Say these words: olive, avocado,
canyon, arroyo, barrio, camino.
Words we know, but are indifferent to:
papaya, piraña, pachuco, prostitute, 

pecadillo, politico, peon, 
renegade, vigilante, desperado.
Those small sins that come to haunt us in our sleep.

Dream suitcase

I dream with a suitcase
of words: guayaberas
the color of snowflakes.

Parsley goes to the devil seven, 
no, nine times.
I walk on stone, on sand
Every last step is always in front of me.
Ah, to walk on the sky
or on a sacred parcel of earth
hidden beneath the pavement.

Define the notes of a foreign land
I remembers the scent anchored in dreams
Guyana tenements. Trumpets
caressed the overtones of summer
other planets of time ran like oiled clocks.
Concrete sky, and streets made of sand.
I found small pieces of earth at the bottom of a cup
The basement of letters and tapestries made of love. 
We have deceived language in a foreign land.
'T'was mercy brought me to my pagan land 
to negotiate my identity, on sea and sand.
Compositions of lynchings 
and who was named after a ship?
Whose teeth mastered the spoken word?
Gazing at the night sky, and writing of the stars
Wy aren't we genuflecting to the sun?
You too will come and go.

'T'was the colonies that brought me here
from my first winter to pay, to owe you your life
Racing to port the tradewinds whispering
freeing the harbor's dark trade.

Systems of the sky
Write, always write, 

always keep paper at your bed
Then the prodigal darkness won't devour your psyche.
Sitting rooms of generals come and go
like a drowned tree in winter.

Train to Lvov

To go to Lvov, which train, which station?

The metro, the tracks, a green thread of copper
Which station, which metro, the train.
 a green thread along the copper tracks
 and the stench of coal

The sweet tea of the babushka 

the glass cups in their picket fence 
metal prisons
The amber eyes of tea
the murmur of stones.
He sucked tea through sugar cubes
hissing like a snake.
The forked tongues of bells peeling from the church
The Antichrist is inside the houses 

Writing overflowed into the lake of regret
Carpati. Woven rugs 

boundless fields of summer
Shearing the length of memory
Voluptuous dresses 

cathedrals of tears
 just pack it all in a satchel
and pass it on.

To go to Lvov
so many train stations 

where fate has whisked me off
or left me stranded
The aftermath of Syrian refugees in Budapest 

abandoned shoes, toys, blankets – 
entire lives left behind, discarded, 
leaving literally with only the shirts on their backs
I cannot fathom this tragedy, this grief.

We are haunted by images of small children 
rocked in the cradle of the surf
Incunabula. This scene comforted them, 

they return to the amniotic brine 
tiny starfish hands fluttering that last dance,
summer closing in on autumn.
They will not see the winter
Leaving Aleppo, leaving Damascus

a tide of refugees, like ants 
pouring out of the country being bombed 
back into parched earth 
leaving Palmyra in ash, smoke, and dust 
on this anniversary of 911
I am heartsick of this world, 

no place to get off, no train station left,
I want to bury my head in the sand, 

emigrate to another planet, maybe Mars. 
No history to destroy there, yet.

I am trying hard not to hate, 

but I hate hate hate
I hate the loss of Palmyra, 

the bullshit of false idols
How are stone pillars that have stood 

2000 years in the desert sands, idolatrous?
No god no false gods no idols, just architecture
Blow it all up, and then what?
To what purpose? 

But this is not the stuff of poetry, 
it is raw anger. They want us to hate them 
it makes it easier 
the objectification of lines 
traded for an ideal 
justifies their actions.

And what the Syrian boy 

lying on that last sure before his life has begun, 
have they no heart no soul at all?

Yes, I hate

Knowing that hatred is part of the problem. 

They want me to hate them 
I cannot get beyond it. 
This unseen enemy we have come 
retribution upon retribution? 
Are we paying for the sins of the Crusaders 
leaving Damascus so long ago 
the city of roses where no rose grows, 
only the rows of hatred, the rows of death 
the rows of bloodshed 
I throw red roses into the sea 
on the other side of the world 
for that Syrian boy. I do not understand 
I can make no poetry from it 
because it is not art 
we are all too close to it 
to render into art.

Storm, Buenaventura

I awoke to the unfamiliar sound of rain, in the poet's house. Around noon, the sky cleared, the sea calmed, and into the drink I dove. Small waves, seductive. Ah, Buenaventura, so aptly named. The water was so warm, I haven't bodysurfed since I was a kid. The Channel Islands arose, dreamlike in the mist. Clouds reflected on the shore. Sea and sky are one thing.

On my bucket list: to go to the Channel Islands.

I spent a fabulous weekend at La Casa de Maria with my poet tribe: California Poets in the Schools. So many of us are getting long in tooth and claw. I never imagined this. These are my people, this tribe of poets. But there are new poets joining our tribe, in its 51st year.

Seeing that I'm a Sagge and not a Gemini, there was no way I could attend both the CPITS symposium in Santa Barbara, and also be in San Anselmo at the same time for my 45th high school reunion. I couldn't pull it off, not even with a Gemini rising. I hope that we're all still alive in five years hence. And that we can still remember the past.

I chose time present over the nostalgia of the past. My Piscean moon made me all weepy and left me with an unreasonable longing for the sea. And for the past. Crocodile tears, easily shed.

At the poet's house, coyotes gathered beneath our window and howled, the pups didn't quite have their howling skills down. We joined in with the parents teaching them how to howl properly. I was struck with the revelation that this is what we do with kids in the classroom, we help them to get their howl on. We give them voice.

As I was bodysurfing, I remembered a childhood event, at Venice Beach, when I was counting waves. And a poem I wrote, 13th Wave. Where I nearly drowned. This poem saved my life. I am drowning now in memories of the past, forging words in time present, to be read later during someone else's visit to time past. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Bathing the cats

In deep summer it became an annual tradition to toss the cats into the creek. I don't know when it started. Or whose idea it was to toss them in the creek. Sure, they'd get upset when I chucked them into the pool below our house. They'd grumble and yodel all the way down to the creek, they knew what was coming, but they never clawed me. After I tossed them in, they'd dog-paddle to the nearest shore and then streak back up to the house shaking their paws in disgust. But then they'd flop down for an earnest wash, as if the creek bath wasn't enough. When they were all clean and fluffy, they were proud of their coats. They'd purp and preen and purr. I was forgiven until next summer. They were durty barnyard tomcats. Not like indoor cats. They were slovenly and stank like old dust and stale morning breath. They kicked up their bathing habits a notch for a few months, but by the time summer rolled around again, they slid back into their slovenly ways. But I loved every one of them fiercely. I dressed them in dolly clothes. And I named them all.

Sure they'd get upset when I tossed them into the creek, then they'd flop down for a good wash, all clean and fluffy. All proud of their coats. They were durty barnyard tomcats. Not like indooor cats. But I loved every one fiercely. And named them all. Dressed them in dolly clothes.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Party Line

I can't abide the telephone and will do almost anything to avoid talking on it. Especially answering it.

I'm not sure when this dislike of phones crystalized. Maybe it's because I didn't grow up in the phone generation. No long teenage schmoozes on princess phones in our house. No extension lines in the bedroom. Just the standard black rotary phone on its rickety stand straddling the dining room and the living room.

When my grannie (who was old school, as in Victorian) finally got a telephone, it was solely for emergencies. So when we were allowed to use the phone, we were taught to get off the line as quickly as possible as it was a party line.

The entire end of our road was on that one line. Mrs. Decker who trained guide dogs, Old Man Latindorf, who spoke German. The Vinciliones and Ratios. You could recognize everybody's voices. And their breathing too when they snuck on the line to have a listen.

When someone did call, you had to listen to the ring pattern to figure out who the call was for, two close rings was for us. Receiving a phone call was terribly exciting. We'd run to the phone. The anticipation, guessing who it was on the other end. The news to come.

When answering machines were invented, my phone stress levels dropped. Screening calls became the norm. I tended to hyperventilate while on the phone, and wearing a paper bag over my head became problematic. So I just quit answering the phone long before it became fashionable to screen calls.

I prefer to talk to people either in person, or in writing. My cellphone's only used for emergencies & texting (if I'm running late, or stuck in traffic, etc.) But that old jingle jangle still has that same knee-jerk reaction. Pavlovian response, at best.

Can't abide the phone and will do almost anything to avoid talking on the phone. Especially answering it. When answering machines were invented, my stress levels dropped. I prefer to talk either in person, or in writing. My cellphone's used for emergencies & texting (that I'm running late, stuck in traffic, etc.) I didn't grow up in the phone generation. When my grannie (who was old school) finally got a phone, it was pretty much for emergencies. So we were taught to get off the phone as quickly as possible as it was a party line. The entire end of our road was on that one line.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Ukrainian Independence Day

A friend writes: Today, Aug 24, Ukrainian Independence Day! Слава Україні! Героям слава! синій і жовтий! He posts a Ukrainian flag.

I was transfixed by the image, then was deluged by memory. The trident and its hidden sword—I remember the day the Ukrainian flag was raised in Cherkassy. One hot August afternoon, in 1989, we attended a special cultural event, my translator explained, thinking I might find it interesting.

The old Soviet style wood-paneled hall, decorated with sheaves of wheat surrounding hammer and sickle, was oppressively hot, no air conditioning. People, dressed in their Sunday best, circa 1950, were packed in like sardines. It looked as if the entire town had turned out for the event. For us, it was standing room only. Our clothing stuck to our backs as if we'd been working in the fields. We were a rather damp cultural conspiracy.

How I got to the USSR, in particular, the heartland of the Ukraine was through a Sister City cultural exchange with Santa Rosa in California, and Cherkassy. (See my blog links below for that story).

The cultural event turned out to be a variety show. Performers dressed in embroidered peasant garb, sang ancient folksongs accompanied by banduras and balalaikas. Floral-wreathed maidens sang sweetly, and Cossacks exuberantly squatted and danced.

There were classical piano recitals, and kids reciting the poetry of Cherkassy Oblast's own native son, Taras Shevchenko. We all applauded heartily during their final bows. But something more was afoot. 

At the end the event, a grizzled actor still dressed in his cossack attire, came on stage and began to sing "Ще не вмерла Україна," the Ukrainian National Anthem. The audience hesitantly began to join in. As they found their way, remembering the old melody and words, they soon sang with vigor. It was positively electrifying. The walls resounded like the inside of a drum.

Then the actor unrolled an old Ukrainian flag made of silk, bordered with a golden fringe. A flag of blue sky and yellow wheat from 1917. The audience became still as death.

My translator was transfixed—caught up in the moment—he forgot to translate. I was lost between worlds. Something momentous was happening and I couldn't understand a word of it. He said: This is something that has never happened in my lifetime. I never thought I would live to see a day like this. I could only dream of such a day.

The actor gave an impassioned speech and saidГероям слава! Glory to the Ukraine. The crowd exploded. A cultural event suddenly turned into a political rally, my excited Ukrainian host explaining the significance of the song. Ukraine has not perished. 

People were prosecuted as criminals and arrested for merely owning the Ukrainian flag, let alone, raising it, he said. It had survived, hidden all these years. I remember shivering that hot August day—wondering if we were all going to be disappeared to the gulag.

This was before the fall of the USSR, during the heady days of Glasnost, but revolution and the idea of freedom was well on its way during the summer of 1989. The stifling heat along the vast Dnipr River Valley no longer oppressed us. 

And Neptune's trident (some say it was a hovering falcon and a cross), held aloft against a cerulean sky and endless golden wheatfields, so far from the sea, offered promise of a cool breeze at the back of our necks.

 As we walked home, the leaves of the linden trees whispered secrets, then as the breeze picked up, they applauded the sky.

A forerunner of things to come.

Flag of Ukraine History and significance
Coat of arms of Ukraine a medieval symbol of a flying falcon with a cross above its head, was not a trident, but the sound of the letter U as in Ukraine.
Shche ne vmerla Ukraina  On the Ukrainian National Anthem.

(in no particular order)
The New Zamizdat
Hermitage Group 5/14/92
Letter to Valentin Yemelin—The Putscht
Letter to Valerie Stupachenko—Putscht
Dark Winter Days at the Hermitage

I have many Soviet poems as well:
Soviet Poetry Since Glasnost translations
Poetry Unites the World by Dr. Andrei Bantaş review
Letter from Oleg Atbashian on translating & Cyrillic typography

This was the 2nd Facebook draft; after 9 revisions, I decided I'd better just blog it...
The trident, yes. I remember the first time it was again raised in Cherkassy. A big rally, my host explaining the significance. People were prosecuted as criminals and arrested for merely owning the flag, let alone, raising it.I remember shivering, wondering if we were all going to be disappeared. This was before the fall of the USSR, but it was well on its way in 1989-90.