Wednesday, March 26, 2003

TULIPS


TULIPS

     "In the first days, in the first nights...
     when earth separated from heaven,
     and the name of man was fixed...
     a tree was planted by the banks of the Euphrates...
     Inanna cared for the tree...
     'How long will it be until I have a shining throne.. a shining bed?'
     ...[but] a serpent who could not be charmed
     made his nest in the tree...and Inanna wept."
                  (From the Sumerian, 2000 BC).

In her front yard, a bulb—dormant since the Gulf War—
makes a surprise appearance, burning the retina.
A miracle of red worships the spring grass.
On the day war is declared, a carpet of tulips
blooms in the land between two rivers.

Equinox. We have crossed the Euphrates, Al Furat,
we are crossing the Tigris, the Hiddekil.
We advance upon a country where 1001 fibs nest in the huluppu tree
on the banks of the rivers where writing was born.

As we mortar the world tree in the land of two rivers,
we have lost our wrappings at the gates of the Great Below,
where Ereshkigal awaits Inanna, the Queen of Heaven, to steal her finery,
where fragments of the world's first literature, records of crops and conscripts,
etched on clay shards are buried beneath the dry wadis.
During the Gulf War, countless cuneiform tablets were lost
and now, after 4000 years in desert sands,
the Ur stones of our civilization are irrevocably lost,
casualties of war, as we advance on Baghdad.
What Gilgamesh will build a shining throne, from what tree?

3/26/03 rev




 *            *            *



Note Bene: this poem came from facts on TV: the sky roiling with smoke, burning palaces like an action movie with Bruce Willis, but the TV stations and the bridges over the Tigris are spared—for Iraq's new masters. What we don’t see: a mother breastfeeding her baby who witnessed seven of her family wounded by shrapnel. The peasant woman visiting her daughter who stepped out of the taxi looked down to see her blood tattooed on her limbs and chest. Her 5-year-old had climbed out of the taxi first. Two unnamed boys. More women: Isra who ran into her garden as the blitz began, and Najla who still tries to cover her head with a black scarf but can’t hide the purple wound of her legs. How should they pay for September 11? We photograph and cross-examine them: were they hit by their own shrapnel, or by ours?

More facts: For every 4 Iraqi soldiers wounded, we maim 21 civilians; mostly women and children. This is not reported on CNN. Instead, we learn how modern technology toys with war, about smart bombs that can target a truck beneath a bridge and leave it standing. We watch the Iraqis light oil fires in Baghdad to foil the cruise missiles: smoke screen against computer screen. And what of the taxi man who answers: "All Iraqi people want this war.” How do we reconcile the regime against the civilian poor? How is it better to be liberated & dead, than oppressed but alive? How do we reconcile? We learn that in Arabic, soummoud is “steadfastness,” the same name as the missiles that Iraq destroyed. President Bush says that winning this war is “far from over.” They are looting the museums, the national libraries have gone up in smoke for the sky to read.

In this land between two rivers, greenly visible from satellite images, this fertile crescent where the kings of Sumer fought the Elamites, the Akkads, the Chaldees. In this land of Sargon, the city-states of Ur/Uruk, in Nineveh/Nippur—the soul of Sumer, the land of Hammarabi’s laws, in the home of Abraham and the cradle of three religions: Judiasm, Christianity and Islam, where the Persians, Xenophon and Alexander died, in this land where the Mongol hoards and Suliman the Great, the Ottoman Turks, the British, all built vast empires by sacking Ctesiphon/ Baghdad.


3/26/03 rev

Thursday, March 20, 2003

Letters to Diane Feinstein Gulf War


Dear Senator Feinstein,

This is to inform you that as a voting and politically active constituent of yours, I write today as a participant in Win Without War's Virtual March.  I am one of the true majority of Americans concerned that President Bush's rush to war is both dangerous and unfounded.

Our nation needs to support adequate and timely United Nations inspections. Going to war with Iraq will kill thousands of innocent civilians and soldiers, thus creating an atmosphere that breeds more terrorists, and diverts money from social welfare programs that can create and foster a safer and more just society.

We once used religion to justify the brutal crusades of the middle ages, killing thousands middle eastern Christians and Jews in the process of purging the infidel, because we were xenophobic toward anyone who looked different.

Now we embark on using the religion of politics and capitalism in order to justfy what will be historically viewed as genocide in the middle east.

A war with Iraq will only breed more terrorism in that half the population is under 14 years of age. The survivors will only remember our agression, not our justice. I come from a long line of those who remember; the civil war in Ireland continues nearly 1000 years after its inception. Lest we forget. Ourselves alone.

Please do everything within your power to support the inspections process by allowing the UN officials adequate time to do a thorough job and resist our nation's foolhardy rush toward war where no one will emerge a winner.

Maureen Hurley

3/20 letter

I find Bush's pre-emptive strike on Iraq an agressive war crime against humanity, like Napoleon in Spain & Moscow, The British in Ireland, or Caesar at the Rubicon. These unnecessary and unjust wars were the downfall of both emperors, and now, after an 800-year illegal occupation, the British can't get out of N. Ireland--it's become an economic hemmorage.

There is a lesson here: history does repeat itself. Though I do not condone Saddam Hussein, he is an evil leader, I am having trouble accepting that Bush's war tactics as being "just."

My credulity is strained to the limit by Bush's rhetorical palette. Does he take us all to be such fools to believe his skewed version of 'truth?"

And what of the Iraquis who believe in their ancient culture and right to govern their country as they see fit, will they willingly embrace our "so-called democracy" inaction--when we have blatantly disregarded the democratic process in our own country?

Napoleon erred, the Spanish never yielded their culture or religion. What makes Bush think he will have better luck in Iraq, where the median age is 14.

Ironically, Bush is a good teacher, training a nation of young men towards jihad in a manner never even imagined by Hussein. And I fear we will reap the fruits of this unjust war for years to come.


Maureen Hurley





Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Poetic Manifesto C, II rev



WHAT PASSES FOR POETIC MANIFESTO

When I approach the class assignment, to write a poetic manifesto—whether from a direct or oblique angle—I am bathed in waves of exhaustion: this becomes my default Poetics of Witness Manifesto in times of need. It begins at the highest point of the cheekline and extends downward toward the heart and belly and into the songline. I find myself seeking the fetal curl. I understand the classic definition, yet I am helpless to change it, other than to let it flow through me, the words, informis buried within the form. A grave of sorts with only the spade-tip of my pen by which to excavate.

How then, to make sense of MOAB—not a high desert place of fire-colored sandstone and acrid mesquite in Utah, but an acronym the Mother of All Bombs? A friend sends me an email that the Stocton Street Tunnel will function as a rallying point or shelter. I cannot believe, let alone comprehend, what I am reading this morning.

Earlier, I went back to that childhood playground I wrote about in a poem, at Lagunitas School, where we witnessed the bomb testing nearly 50 years ago. Only then, we were practicing for nuclear preparedness for another enemy.  Not against ourselves.

My cousin and I stroll around the school yard...I remember playing in the sandbox with the Daley twins...They were far from identical and why they always come to mind is a mystery. Perhaps it’s because Adrian—dressed in her favorite red cowboy skirt, gun holster & boots threw sand in my eyes, or shoved me down again for no real reason, other than I was there in line—she has become a symbol of aggression. Adair was the gentle one, always bearing witness. Little did we know that we would both become writers. You may know her pen name, a tag left over from a misplaced husband. I think of another Lara—from Dr. Zhivago. The bully who became a cop would be upset to read this but I can’t close the window of memory. Only disguise the names, but what’s the point? To bear witness is the issue at hand.

I walk past the building where the steer jumped through our 2nd grade classroom window. We all piled in, excited to be center-stage, and there was blood everywhere. Thick ropes of it. I’d never seen so much spilled blood on white tiles. Why a steer would jump through a window in the middle of the night is still a mystery. Unless he was chased. Or it was a rumor. Someone must have broke in to steal our treasures—but all that blood. How could he have survived? I thought of the steer’s heart my best friend’s father, Les Stone presented us with, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat it. The rosemary and sage my grandmother stuffed it with did little to disguise it—for I knew that animal by name.

A man is mowing the baseball field. I remember when the bases were loaded, the final inning, Lagunitas against Nicasio: Billy Joe hit a home run, sliding into home plate, the green grass stains on his white knees like crayon scribbles, a benediction of the field for Home Team. And the cheerleaders all going crazy: Linda Gregg and her twin, the one that was murdered.  Through them, murder had come to our peaceful little valley. Or was that the Barbano girl? It was a big story in Time magazine, I later learned. Why I remember Linda and not the other twin too is a mystery. They really were identical: like peas in a pod.  Not like Adrian and Adair. Different mirrors.

I stand in front of my old 5th grade room, and peer back into the past where one spring day, like today, our teacher was telling us about the millennium, and I imagined my life on a day, like today. I daydreamed forward in time to 2001, 2002, then 2003, but then I got stuck I couldn’t imagine myself past the age 50. And here we are. Today.

An odd thought came into my head, of terror, a darkness, of destruction. I chalked it up to childhood angst. I had an unusually susceptible imagination, incapable of erasing or suppressing negative images. And these images frightened me more that any scary movies. Thin boundaries. But as I walked this future shadowland, I knew it was significant, not just nightmarish daydreams. A signifier similar to my grandmother’s experiences of the dead who come knocking, and birds flying into the house. Clairvoyance, my mother said. Déjà vu. Precognition. But I was a firm disbeliever—because she was crazy, everything was suspect.

Only there are some things you see so clearly, you don’t want to remember them, or to bear witness, and the veil of sleep erases, or at least suppresses them. And unless you’re a Hamlet, you have no words for them, until they play out in real time...like reruns of Kennnedy shot over and over. And you are watching shadows flit across the retina. Mirror of time. The only way out is through...

On International Women’s Day, we gather at a friend’s place, once the old Forest Knolls Post Office—an impromptu gathering of women & babies and a few boyfriends from Mexico or Germany. We talk of war, of the upcoming peace march, the women writers arrested at the White House for loitering: I have friends and acquaintances among them: Alice Walker, Susan Griffin, Maxine Hong Kingston, women warriors, all. We are all on Code Pink Alert.

And as I serve the salmon, a shiver runs across the soul like that movement of mice almost seen at the corner of the eye, an acute feeling that I’d been here before, done that. Got the tee-shirt sort of thing. A woman is talking about an upcoming school fund-raiser, the progress of her children in the progressive Open Classroom. How they were so well socialized, they were articulate, but didn’t know how to study. How would they survive high school? And I’d heard this conversation before, been in this room with its white walls, though at the time, it would’ve been an impossibility as it was once the post office, federal property. What good is it to half-remember licking Lincoln stamps and sending away for dreams?

Then there are strange words in the news like behemoth, Massive Ordnance Air Blast, MOAB. Dead man walking on my soul again. Yesterday I fingered the video of “Fat Man, Little Boy, but a shudder ran through me...there are no degrees of separation between me and the bomb: I know Keb; Camp-2; the Manhattan Project first-hand. And now today, our government unveils the mother of all bombs and I can’t help but think: sacrilege. These mothers in this room, I am the only one childless, though my cousin’s child is my godson. All these roots, and I am no closer to writing a manifesto than when I started. Manifesto requires hard, strident words, like Bukowski, Ginsberg, or Whitman. And I have only these small, hidden words afraid of rebirth, afraid of the dark, afraid of the light. The heart glistening with blood.

3/12/03, rev.




Tuesday, March 11, 2003

ON INTERNATIONAL WOMENS' DAY


ON INTERNATIONAL WOMENS' DAY



I was having dinner at a friend's,
at the old Forest Knolls post office,
we were a gathering of women and children,
feasting on salmon and talking of resistance:
of marching & writer friends, Maxine, Susan,
women warriors handcuffed for loitering at the White House.

I'd just walked the Lagunitas School playground
where we lined up to witness the test bombs at Jackass Flats,
where we prepared for nuclear bombs by hiding under our desks.
It was as if no time at all had passed: I was in 5th grade
and we imagined the coming millennium.
But I couldn't get past the year 2003,
an unnameable terror had seized me
and I forsaw darkness and destruction....
I had a hard time leaving behind that nightmare...
Then at dinner, the floodgates of memory opened,
and here we are, the dogs of war slouching toward Bagdhad.

A friend sends me emails (amidst penile & breast enlargement spams
cleverly disguised as an exonumia of mortages & loans.
It says: “don't pay any more” but it opens into promises
of “superb fresh breasts” and “lust, sex & no commitment”)
and how shall we pay? With handcuffs? Jeb Bush hands out cigars
when the bomb test is declared a success—
MOAB, the “mother of all bombs” for the “mother of all battles.”
And angered by such blatant sacrilege, I fear the worst,...
Inexplicably, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness comes to mind:
I can’t make it out: “Mistah Kurtz, he dead.” Then, “The horror. The horror.”
My friend writes about how the Stocton Street Tunnel
will serve as gathering site should the bombs begin to fall
or perhaps it will serve as a bomb shelter or a masoleum

when it comes
when it comes
when it comes...

She says: Oh, baby, it's going to be alright. I know this is scary and hard but we—and millions like us—know how to love, and we will know how to love, no matter what happens. Energy created cannot be destroyed. More life, to you, a chara, and to us all, more life, more life, more life...

3/11/03

Monday, March 3, 2003

WHAT AMERICA MEANS TO ME

WHAT AMERICA MEANS TO ME


Aside from the fact that I get knee jerks at the very thought of what America means to me, an old patriotic drill arose: Lagunitas School in the 1950s, I was in 3rd Grade, after the Pledge of Allegiance, we’re singing Oh Beautiful for Spacious Skies. Only it’s more like speciousness these days... Coin of the realm. But even from the relative purity of childhood, I recall a taint: my grandmother muttering something about the damned Anglo-Saxons again. Too close to God Save the Queen. I explain it’s just the melody, not the same song—even the Irish stole songs from themselves and updated the words: but she’s off and running. Soon Cromwell will arise and you know where that leads to. Don’t say anything to upset the antichrist in the kitchen...

I always loved the part about the purple mountain’s majesties. We had a WPA mural at our school with exotic orange groves and grapes framed against purple mountains. Sometimes when the light was just right, the ridges framing the San Geronimo Valley really turned blue when the woodsmoke collected in the hollows, mid-winter. There was something about the queen in the song and purple was the color of royalty. “Murex shells were used to make purple,” my grandmother said, pointing to a tiny black spot at the tip of the shell. “It took hundreds of snails to dye Roman togas, that's why only royalty was allowed to wear it,” she said. And it remained so until the invention of the aniline coal dyes of the Industrial Revolution. Beginning of the end of an era.

Father John Connery wore royal purple when he was serving the mourning masses: the color of forgiveness. Sometimes it was white, or red, or green. Uaine, my grandmother said in Irish. Chemical green, as in illness, or the almighty dollar. Not glas, the color of fields and plants. The big-bosomed old women of our parish always wore black... Life for the immigrant woman was hard: babies, and work and more babies and more work. They even wore black in the garden as if they were in deep mourning there too. They greeted each other each in their own language: Portuguese, Italian-Swiss, Irish, Spanish... the church, our common denominator against the powerful ruling class, the WASPS. And so the life of the poverty-stricken immigrant living close to the land has shaped my view of what it means to be American...

I was never a blue-eyed blonde, nor did I live in a tract house, or even in a town. I wasn’t raised in a nuclear family, with a mother-cum-housemaker and a father as bread-winner. Things we stereotype as American, like apple pie and mom. My mom was a Beatnick, therefore crazy. My father was absent in the neck of a bottle. So my grandmother took over the business of raising me. I was never a daughter of the America Revolution...we were related to Myles the Slasher, of County Longford, not Miles Standish of Plymouth Rock. So it was suggested we were second-class citizens...like the pecking order in the barn yard...the chickens, the horses, the cats, they all had a pecking order.

We were the ones who quietly snuck up the feed bowl when the others had already taken the edge off their hunger, and maybe they wouldn’t notice us if we edged in slowly, folding ourselves into the crowd. Safety in numbers. We were the invisible made visible by our ethnicity, which we clung to, a safety line of identity. We took refuge in the church from state. Did we inherit this division? Did we take it on? Or did it come from the outside? Or was it something put upon us from America itself? Indivisible under God, with liberty and justice for ...whom? For the WASPS who didn't want to share their America? The ones heckling my grandmother, calling her all kinds of names on the trolley because she was pregnant with my mother? Irish Catholic bitch always in heat.

* * *

My 3rd grade students are humming the song as they paint purple mountains on the silk banners for Saturday’s Art Auction/Spaghetti Feed for the Alexander Valley grange. This is as close to America as I can get, community events at the granges. Like the Nicasio Druid’s Hall Palm Sunday Brunch where all the west county ranchers gather and trade stories. This is the heart of my America. I hum along as best as I can with my students who are all blessed with tin ears, it seems. We are covered in purple dye. A discordant crescendo of America, America, God shed his grace on thee...

The auctioneer’s lips are a blur and we give standing ovations to the overbidders, swilling some of the best wine in the country. I rub shoulders with the old Italian families, the Mexicans and yuppies. Nike, Reebok are represented here at the CEO level. I have taught all their children poetry. I try not to think of slave labor. That’s what built those companies, this valley, this wine on my lips. Sacrament. This is my blood...

These west county microcosms at the edge of the continent are where I have witnessed what it means to be an American as the next wave of immigrants, the grape pickers from Guanahuato who used to sleep under the Russian River bridge, now celebrate a son, a daughter or a nephew or niece graduating from college. A daughter I once taught poetry to in 3rd grade, Ayacel, is a continuum of my tribal roots—but she is from another country of origin. Mexican-America. In this valley we are forgiven under the benediction of commerce and grapes because it what we choose to do with our citizenship, we have come here to make a better community for our children. It is a dream we all hold in common.

* * *

Note Bene: I developed a curious form of amnesia when it came to doing this assignment. I would write down a phrase, then lose it. Then I completely forgot about doing the assignment. Talk about avoidance! In the background, I kept singing America, America and when my poetry students were learning to sing this song (albeit off-key), it became a mantra. But it wouldn’t come in poetic form.

What finally moved me to write was an email from Martin Mooij, of Poetry International, who has led numerous successful campaigns to free incarcerated poets, who said he was thinking of me, because I represented the Other America, not the America embarking upon a stupid war. I noticed how, in his Dutch English, how war is both verb and noun. Both a naming and an action. And that I am/was an American ambassador for something not quite tangible, that of witness, with only my language as my tool to represent me.

And that somehow, California, isolated for millennia from invading tribes, developed the most linguistically diverse map in the world, with some 400 separate languages evolving. Something from the Ohlone: 10,000 years of dancing on the brink of the world. We are west of the west, west of the heartland, the belly, the brains of America. We are the unacknowledged dream of the body, where it is sometimes possible to legislate an escape route from the nightmare. These words by which we breathe become spades to dig us out from under the belly of the grave.


03/3/03, rev