Wednesday, August 27, 1997

An Inarticulate Hunger


HUNGRY for words, Sineád has read some 5000 books in her 30-odd years of life—a book a day. Final chapters of bodice rippers orchestrated in the wee hours by the heavy breathing of real birdsong. Aunt Toddy used to bring us huge red onion sacks full of books. A consummate literary escape-artist, I struggled through my grandmother’s bookshelf: Sir Walter Scott, Burns and Poe, hating poetry, but hungry for the stories gleaned from opaque lines and songs. During dry periods, I puzzled over Finnegan’s Wake, the banned Ulysses, The Dead. Even in her 90s, my grandmother could recite passages from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, I couldn’t recall the right facts at school though friends called me a walking encyclopedia. A diagnosis of dyslexia would have to wait decades to dispel the myth that I was dumb.

A poet wrote I am uneasy with this love of books. And at 40, I vowed to buy no more books or to take more lovers. All this love of books, I never heard the word love pass between my grandmother’s Victorian lips. Unmentionable as sex, though she had eight babies; the last in the procession was Sineád’s mother, Canice, who hated porting the armloads of books to her father each week. He devoured the meatier stuff: anthropology, archaeology, history. Some habits seem to skip a generation. After Canice left Sineád’s father, she met a man who couldn’t read; the sons took after the father.

“During the Cromwellian,” my grandmother said, “we kept the tongue alive, sent tykes to the priests in the hedgerow schools.” This hunger for learning distilled for generations. Sometimes I’d sneak off to read in the tall grass as if to keep memory alive. An inarticulate hunger raged unchecked, devouring me from the inside, pre-verbal desire and gnawing in my mind as I teased the dark veins from chicken thighs at Sunday dinners. I sucked pomegranate seeds in the dark and counted the tide of seasons with new lovers while Canice gathered her stories from a long line of bar stools. My tally of lovers, longer than her reading list.


© 1997, revised 2000 Maureen Hurley

Tuesday, August 26, 1997

THIRST


THIRST

Last full moon of summer, a tide of ants journeys
to the evening’s dishes stacked in the sink.
Colonies­—eons before we paved these headlands—
why do they ring the bathtub like flotsamic ink?
Counter our battle with traces of formalic acid on bread?

They’ve no need for time or history or maps,
breaching bungalo walls to win the font.
Neil brings me some sweet tea in the bath,
removes the sugar to a stove island where at night
a pilot light guides lost craft and keeps ants at bay.

By the soapdish, ants emerge from riddled plaster,
they pool by fallen brethren, staining the tub.
Perhaps seeking the end of religion they eat their dead.
The communion of phagos: no sweetness wasted.
No tyranny of soul or tragedy of self to proclaim.

Unmade dreams slip from the thicket of thighs
where I caress the cloak to see if I’m alive,
having dreamt of women chadored and circumcised,
hemmorhaging on the white tiled floors. No words come.
I cannot help them nor staunch the red tide.

Who else sat in this tub watching the ants’ progress?
What clothing was shed on the honeycomed floor,
what seminal dreams were flushed down the drain
with little to survive them except the salt-
sweetness of laborer’s sweat at the close of day?

Sequestered on the parched bed, he sleeps with
hands wedded to thighs drowning in moonlight.
Moans in the night, dreaming blank futures,
returning to the womb with tonsured ardor,
leaving a river of ants to circumscribe my thirst.

8/26/97
Oakland

Monday, August 25, 1997

Blue Willow


WHEN I was a child playing at the seashore, I imagined the Coast Miwoks wrapped in bright silk brocades, supping from celadon bowls, dining from blue and white plates painted with rural scenes of China. When Sir Francis Drake the Pirate landed here in Nova Albion the summer of 1579, claiming Point Reyes for the Crown, he left behind a legacy of coins, glass beads, and his cargo of exotic silks and porcelain from China. Later shipwrecks offered up inlaid rosewood tables, ornate carved chairs waiting for an audience to gather on the beaches. Tabula Rasa. Feathered cloaks for the wind.

Perhaps I became a writer because I ate morning cereal from a story painted inside a Chinese Blue Willow bowl: two birds on the wing. It’s spring: fruit trees bloom beneath a surreal tree near a temple. Though a path of light invites us to the temple, a fence stops us because we are not Chinese. Though I am four, I know this, for my grandmother takes me to Chinatown to buy new pieces for the set. Old men in black robes with thin grey queues down their backs, kow-tow to her, offer me sweets. I stare, round-eyed at the rows of pale celadon melons glowing with a mysterious verdant resilience beneath a grotesque curtain of plucked fowl hanging by the neck. Gateway to another world. Here, we are all immigrants.

When no one’s looking, I climb over the temple fence. (Later I will find a gate, learn the story of the lovebirds—changelings: to escape her father’s wrath, the forbidden lovers find each other on the wing. A story that includes European colonialism and the Far East—a Chinese story from an English design by way of the Dutch, or was it the Portuguese? Evolving into Blue Willow pottery, ideas shipped back and forth across the oceans.)

I am in love with the blue language of the teapot offered up each evening and the insistence of silver spoons against teacups calling us to vespers. My grandmother says the designs on the edges of the bowl are like hieroglyphic Greek keys—a symbol for clouds, or, the Almighty. (She knows that I will search for celestial dragons in the mountains of the world, for I was born a wanderer during the tail end of the Year of the Dragon.) Every morning I’d wait for the two lovebirds to meet mid-air. Messengers from the otherworld .If they emerge through the thin layer of milk, upside-down, did it change the story? They say birds are the kisses of Aengus Óg, the Love God. My grandmother urges me to finish the last two swallows of milk—because babies are starving in China. My eating habits will become inexorably linked with the welfare of those babies.

I gaze deep into the milky scene: A fisherman in a junk casts his line into calm waters. Distant islands. I’m trapped within the white heart-shaped void between island, trees and slender birdwings. No children. I hardly notice three men dressed in robes on the bridge, who, after morning prayers, leave the temple, carrying the tools of my profession: walking stick, scroll and lantern. As they approach the archway, so like a Japanese torii gate, the ancient willow, roots bared by time, weeps and leans into the east wind, small hands of branches claw the air as if to follow them. Every day they’ll begin the journey but never reach the portal, the birds will never quite meet mid-air. Soon my grandfather will die, the dinnerware and our family will scatter when we move north to the Point Reyes Peninsula. Only a platter and a teapot will survive the uprooting. My grandmother and I will drink tea from it for decades. And the platter will bear the holiday bird at family gatherings.

But from my coffee mug made during the height of the Cold War, modern Blue Willow—not from the English copper engravings of the 18th century—tells another story. Memory reemerges with a different historical slant. The two birds meet mid-air, but have grown into fat, complacent pigeons, the fisherman still fishes, but the boat is farther from shore and the fish don’t bite. Our eyes are no longer drawn to what lies beyond the uneasy sea. The islands are gone. Three men still cross the bridge, they’ve lost more than priestly robes: the first one carries on his walking stick a bundle of rags, the second man still carries a scroll—what is written on it we cannot decipher—, the third has lost his lantern. They are centuries from home. The shining path to the temple is dark, the celestial gate is gone—bringing us that much closer to the land. And so I am alone on the edge of the continent, dancing on the brink of I know not what.


© 1997 revised 2000 Maureen Hurley


Unearthing the history of Willow Pattern
The pattern’s popularity was so enduring that by the Victorian period it had even become the subject of its own song:
‘Two pigeons flying high
Chinese vessel sailing by
Weeping willow hanging o’er
Bridge of three men maybe four
Chinese temples stand
Seem to take up all the land
Apple trees with apples on
A pretty fence to end my song’

Saturday, August 23, 1997

White Deer


My grandmother and I used to travel to Inverness Ridge each fall to pick huckleberries, and to watch for a glimpse of Old Man Ottenger’s exotic white deer and the spotted fallow deer; but the National Park Service took the land from them, parcel by parcel—destroying most of the dairy ranches in the process—

The NPS gave the land to the public, tore down historic farm buildings, killed off the exotic deer: non-native species. If the alternative was a future of tract-housing, then they did a good thing, taking the land, but what they destroyed in the process was a thriving community of farmers and ranchers—for the greater good of tourists and their easy dollars.

But most of this land commuting northward at 2 inches a year along the Fault, is so far from civilization that its isolation is its salvation and its reward.

Trigger-points of memory: a certain angle of light reposes on the blood-red roses splayed against the limed wall of an abandoned farm. A bleached redwood wine vat holds the music of spring water plashing into the mossy trough where cattle and deer come to slake their thirst at sunset. Generations of barn swallows sip and weave the air into arabesques. No one wants to look at the moral dilemma: ranchers—treated like the Coast Miwoks their forefathers displaced—offered land treaties in the form of 25-year leases. Polyester tourists, also a non-native species. Rarer now to see the white deer.

Once while camping, I saw a big white buck in the night mist—an otherworld apparition of white on white—his antlers tining the haloed moon. But another kind of darkness hid in the pale Albion moonlight.

A sudden chill, a premonition drove me deep into the arms of pine boughs as truck lights severed the darkness. The silhouettes of two men illumined by red tail lights filled me with unseasonable fear.

At Limantour Spit death’s admiral was waiting in the staccato report of poachers’ guns—like Chinese firecrackers—the night they shot Ranger Kenneth Patrick for the rare white deer hides. Like the dried penises of white tigers, the deerskins were destined to be sold as aphrodisiacs and for healing magic to the highest bidder in the black markets of China.


© 1997 revised 2000 Maureen Hurley



The poem this prose piece came from:
WILDCAT BEACH, BELTAINE 5/5/89

"Clem Miller, a US Congressman from Marin County wrote and introduced the bill for the establishment of Point Reyes National Seashore in 1962 to protect the peninsula from residential development which was proposed at the time for the slopes above Drake's Bay. Miller's vision included the continuation of the historic ranching and oyster farming along with the preservation of the grasslands and open scenic vistas. The mix of commercial and recreational uses was the reason the area was designated a National Seashore rather than a National Park."


Sunday, August 17, 1997

Celtic Fringe

The Celts are going, the Celts are going at last. Hurrah! Soon a Celt on the streets of Dublin will be as rare as seeing an Indian on the streets of Manhattan.—British Government, ca. 1847.



IN my family we eat soda bread with tea, croon Irish songs when the uisge beatha whets our pipes: it helps us reach that 2nd octave in Danny Boy. My grandmother never let us forget our history: the millions dead from the Famine Years. A dirge for the dying: Oh the praties they grow small. . . My great-grand-father raised fast horses, drove them with the cattle between bonfires at Lugnasadh. My family is of the earth, they survived because they held onto the land, the farms: at Coomb an-nOir, the Hill-of-Gold Walshes, and the one-eyed Sullivans of Bantry; the Reillys and Duffys of Long Kesh, Fihora. My ancestors survived by eating the blackened potatoes, cow fodder, and wild grasses. Then, when that was gone, they sucked stones, swallowed dirt, buried their dead and dreamed of another country to the west: Tír na-nÓg.

Lord Russell said the famine is good, teach the Irish a lesson. Ships laden with Irish cattle and grain sailed for Britain while we died with grass stains on our teeth. Béal na blát: from the mouth of flowers I came. In America, the Cherokee Nation collected $200; they sent us cargoes of maize and beans. Too late. “Coffin ships to the Americas. Slavers to the cane fields and estates of the Barbados,” she said. From the Celtic Fringe to the Celtic Diaspora; countless children sold in the West Indies, destined to enter the bloodlines of Africa. A Black woman asks why she never learned this in school. I tell her we share the same Anglo roots of history. She said, “I had an Irish grandmother,” we joke about being black Irish.

I’m allergic to the new world foods: beans, corn and potatoes. They say there was enough food in Ireland to feed 20 million. Instead we fed the enemy with our bones. Their sheep replaced us. But we survived. Sínn Fein: Ourselves, alone, she said, Never forget. Use their language against them, she said. This, my inheritance. Sláinte Gael macushla mo chroidhe. I’ve kissed the Blarney Stone, though there was little need. The cats form semi-colons at the foot of the bed: what was the lesson were we supposed to have learned? The Irish nation scattered to the winds. Full glottal stop.

© 1997 , rev 2000 Maureen Hurley

Friday, August 15, 1997

VIENNA, 1939

VIENNA, 1939

An old woman contemplates 
a passage in her black book.
She sits alone in a park.
It could be it be Vienna, 1939.

She sits in a metal chair, 
her purse sits on the wall 
like a well behaved cat. 
An umbrella bridges the arms of the chair.

She is dressed in black and white.
Her earrings are of gold, 
she wears a worn wedding ring.

On the other side of the park 
three people sit lost in thought,
as blurred as daydreams they once held.

Her hat and glasses, are from another era.
She primly crosses her ankles, 
maybe it's earlier than I thought. 
The dress is too long and her gloves dangle 
helplessly, and swoon from the arms of her chair, 
a white shawl, in case there's a chill.

Her hands are thick with age. 
The young moon of gold on her ring finger 
remembers her wedding day.

She is, like Proust, stirred by remembrances 
of things past. Perhaps it is Paris. 
Will she go go into a café at teatime, 
order madelines and think of her well spent youth?

She's dressed in widow's weeds.
The dark mourning after the war. 
Was it the first one? Or the second one? 
Did she lose a son, or a lover? Or both?
But that's all in the past. 
She's sitting in the park, lost in a book 
and the city waits for her to reinvent it.


8/15/1997
10/15/2015


COLLAGE

COLLAGE 

The beach rises from the swamp, 
rise and fall by the edge of the sea.
Bring out the lions. 
Little remains of the next frontier.

How lovely, this green made of spring.
Deep in the heart, the earth will translate your arrival
Calling out the names of cattle 
on this last handful of dying earth.

You better find another way out 
of this country by the execution of desire.

A Celtic lion, the flowered word.
Writing jails a tropical sunset 
with its Venetian blind approach to image.
Line after line in pewter script, 
it relentlessly marches across a trinity of palms. 

The ubiquitous cliché of paradise.
But below that crepuscular sea, 
lines and words become like strata 
and break into symbols. 
Like schools of fish in the sun.

At the bottom of the ocean 
the lion is awake 
spewing forth the flowered word 
into the depths of the abyss. 
He is awake, not rampant.

The artist practices her name 
over and over again
Design elements and fluid writing 
like the ripples on the pond 
breaks the surface. Hold her sanity in check.

Sometimes if you sit still enough,
you can see where the fish come to feed, 
breaking the mirror with their small o's
of their mouths as they breach the air. 


8/15/1997
10/15/2015

CORIOLIS EFFECT


South of  the equator 
water doesn't swirl in the opposite direction. 
The Coriolis effect in the bathroom sink, 
is as confused as my current relationship.

Postcards from Fiji and the Southern Cross
arrive. Images of Islanders, Polynesia, 
cave writing, the hieroglyphs of a lost culture.

Red lateen sails at sunset. An Egyptian dhow.
Island pals shimmer and dance and sway.
Coconuts are like money in the bank. 
Copra currency in the tropics.

Meanwhile back at home, 
snow falls in the coastal valleys.
Mount St. Helena is like a white lion 
stretched against the empty winter sky.

The equator divided us, 
it did not make us equal, or whole. 
It divided the distance of seasons, days.
Enough to say that I still miss you, 
Especially at sunset in a strange land.

The fish knows no boundaries
other than infinite variations of blue.
The sky fills up its vault with careless stars
and the Southern Cross is crucifying me.

I know of the infinite variations of blue 
in the sky, I know they named the darkness too.
But I no longer know the real word for balance. 

Already the nights are growing colder. 
We've had our first unseasonable snow. 
Postcards floating like rafts 
on the edges of memory.

8/15/1997
10/15/2015


VALLEY FEVER

VALLEY FEVER

It's the way the ivory keys line up 
at the ready, like so many tombstones.
Lives were lost dragstripping along backroads 
where dangerous curves and soft shoulders 
collided at the speed of thought.

It's the way the tree held me, 
as we crawled out of the wreckage, 
all missiles, silos and combines.

Fingernails in columns in varying shades 
of red and gold, and the silk tassel 
of pomp and circumstance.
We were among those who 
almost didn't make it back, like James Dean.

I remember my mother's voice, 
disembodied, and she told me how 
Brenda Fullick's mother crawled out 
of the burning car, her face rippled like water.

My aunt can't abide the dirge, Danny Boy 
because of a boy she once loved.
She would never tell me his name.

My uncle loaned Danny his car 
with a jerryrigged battery 
and a milk carton for a seat.
When the headlights went out
they didn't see the parked truck.

Before the accident, I dreamed 
of images of wheels spinning in dry earth, 
I dreamed of the fragile beauty of flowers
harvesting the dead.

I saw seven keys for the days of the week 
opening the memory of destruction. 
I think of cars and locks that once held keys—
they are no longer whole, or complete.

They are separated from their source. 
Time reels me in, in increments of weeks.
I still dream of those wheels spinning 
out of control as they bit into the soft shoulder 
and screamed at dangerous curves. 

Eucalyptus trees that loomed in the sky. 
The odor of fresh grated earth. 
At least this time it wasn't a grave. 
A John Deere tractor awaits a writer 
to plow and scribe the fields beyond.

8/15/1997
SRJC Workshop with Terry Ehret
10/15/2015

AN ALPHABET OF WAR

AN ALPHABET OF WAR

She purses her red lips beneath the archway
waiting to be kissed under a storm-laden sky,
a vulture's wingspan completes the doorway. 

Once I tacked vulture wings over the barn door
not expecting their enormous span to engulf me.
Or the stench. The cats lunged skyward like birds.

Over the dead cities of the Fertile Crescent, 
palm trees from an earlier era, pray in the wind.
Mirage water mountaineers the horizon.

Did I gather apples in the Gardens of Babylon 
by the canals, where wild strawberries grew?
This valley cradled a swamp, teaming with life,

where blackbirds whistled drills in the reeds.
Lions guarded the gate as alphabets 
began their ascent from the mud 
and the cuneiform of clay tablets.

Imagine a culture where the aurochs, 
the ox used to plow the field, 
becomes the sound of a baby,
or the barrier of the lips.

The walls of the house, 
the temple in the beginning, 
was the alphabet of lips. 
Mountains on end.

But in the temple. God breathed, 
the sacred ladder of the sky rose up, 
became smoke in the hollow of the hand, 

Became a hook, then an arm, an eye for an eye, 
became a mouth seeking revenge,
a tooth biting off more than it could chew.

It became the head in profile, resh,
pulled back in introspection, or in sorrow.
And see how the monkey turned its back 
to look one more time at Gomorrah?

And that final mark, the tau
that X marks the crosses of the dead, 
and the illiterate mark of the unlettered,
has fresh fodder for its hunger.

A stone angel stands in repose, 
lost in thought, head turned down, 
arm to mouth, in that lovers stance, 
his shields and arrows at rest.

Frozen moment in time. 
Whose lips were waiting for a kiss?
Did a woman come to the city, 
wait beneath the lintel of death?

A woman's lips waiting for the man.
As the red letter a escapes: an ahhh!
merging with God's aspirants.
But the old men objected to this lip service.

Fearing contamination,
they closed the doors to the temple 
of the heart. Slammed shut. The letters of war.
This is what's written in stone. 


8//15/1997
10/15/2015