Saturday, April 26, 1997

Dancing on the Brink

WHAT struck me most about coming home to the north coast of California after a long, wet summer in Europe, was the sharp, aromatic odor of bay laurel, sweet poison oak and sun-burnt hay, flavored with the acrid, thirsty dust—the mellifluous odor of Indian summer making me nostalgic for the past, for memory hidden in the crenulated folds of hills. Buñuel said: You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Pieces of memory resurrect in the mirrored San Francisco Bay and Mt. Tamalpais, the fire-ravaged Oakland hills. They resurrect against a cerulean sky, steep, tawny hillsides cloaked in sizzling non-native oat grasses like sleeping lions, and thick green-black oaks roiling in their crotches—so sexual—it surprises me anew each time I return. It steals one’s breath away, reducing all semblance of speech to that of monosyllabic moaning of prespeech. They say our earliest memories are the strongest. I was conceived on Mt. Tamalpais, my mother watching Point Reyes disappear over my father’s right shoulder at sunset. The lost pieces of memory, a mended patchwork quilt over the bed of time.

A South African writer I know coined the word outgasm. I want to tell Breyten an outgasm of light dances on the bay; I’ve taken in some of his memory into my own. The parched savanna juxtaposed against the funereal odor of escapee calla lilies. “Arum lilies here?” exclaimed a Capetown realtor from the group we led on a hike past an abandoned ranch to view the mouth of the Golden Gate from Indian Cove. I mouth the unfamiliar word, arum; the sarcophagi of Egypt or the pelican daughters of Lear comes to mind. Alcatraz. Angel Island. We resurrect place names of the Coast Miwok, mouthing a dead language: Tamalpais—the land of the Tomales, O’onopais—the land of buckeyes, and Yulupa—the place of the shining Golden Gate. Explorer John C. Frémont’s epithet, Chrysopylae, a historical footnote. Sadly, all that survives of the Ohlone tribal stories of this landscape is: Dancing on the brink of the world. We gently retrace our steps along the seething faultline, the Farallones and the Point Reyes Peninsula draw our eyes to the curvature of the sea’s final horizon.

© 1997, revised 2000 Maureen Hurley

Wednesday, April 23, 1997

Journal entry, Barney O’Reilly, Sr. died

4/23    I go home, smudge the house and spread rose petals on my doorstep for the dead. My neighbor Steve confesses he gets nervous: “Every time I see you do that, somebody dies.” Odd, I never connected the two. Sinéad calls to say our cousin Barney O’Reilly, Sr., died. We prepare for an Irish wake: whiskey and bagpipes in Eagle Rock. I sing Danny Boy. The earth is shaking again. Time is imploding.

Sunday, April 20, 1997

Journal entry, Allen Ginsburg Memorial, Passover Eve., Buddha’s Birthday.

4/20 Allen Ginsburg Memorial, Temple Emanuel, Arguello St. SF. Passover Eve., Buddha’s Birthday. In the courtyard, poets greet us in white robes. Oranges and gardenias float in the fountain. We enter the temple like wedding guests.

Said the rabbi, “‘Others criticized, ‘How could you honor such a person as Ginsburg in a holy temple?’”

Said the rabbi, “A temple is not sacred until sacred people gather in it. Welcome.”

A tribe of poets gather here today, some 3000 strong: an Ecstasy of Poets. The energy is like at COBRA founder Bert Scheerbeek’s funeral in Amsterdam, last June, I stood between his disciples Jan Volkers, Hugo Claus and Willem van Toorn. Breaking from tradition and metered verse, Bert’s post W.W.II vision begat Allen’s voice, which in turn, begat our own poetic voices. I never again thought I’d experience the chaotic force of poets united in one mind. Surely this is Godhead. Yes, we who work at living… and what is the work? To ease the work of living…

So many long-lost friends I haven’t seen in ages, I thought them dead: Steve Petty, Stephen Kessler, the Joannes: Kyger & Hotchkiss, the Jacks: Micheline, Hirshman and Foley, Noni Howard, bald as an egg. A trick of vision:

I imagined the dead joined us. Embodied poetics. Was that really Boschka Layton in the wings, with her face adroop with Bells’ Palsy, dead these 22 years, (Donald Sutherland’s sister). And was it Cliff McEntire serving us platters of sea bass at poets dinners in the Haight? John Logan. Brother Antoninus? (William Everson in his fringed buckskin jacket and boots).

And Robert Duncan in black, like a Zen master Bending the Bow? Kerouac, Cassidy, Brautigan? One-eyed Creeley? I swear I saw Lew Welsh’s face in the crowd. Ring of Bone. Paul Mariah smoking, swigging from his flask and giggling. And the ones I once wished dead, the ex-flames: John Oliver Simon. And a current flame: where is Neil? Oh, to have arms big enough to embrace this room! People five-deep in the aisles: I give Neil’s seat to Terry Ehret. Good to see her.

Nancy Peters said City Lights was inundated with letters, tributes, calls from all over the world. Larry Ferlinghetti said “I’ll always remember Ginsburg’s voice singing Blake.” And read “Allen Ginsburg Dying.” Mark Linenthal who brought Howl into the classroom, said, “He, more than any other writer, changed what a writer could, or should be…”

Ginsburg, our uncle, our poetic ancestor, gave us the right to write from the heart. Kyger, who went to India with Allen, read from his journal: “Widen the area of consciousness until it becomes so wide, it encompasses its own death… widen consciousness…keep it simple…behind writing is the practice of meditation.” Kyger holds up her hand, says “It’s 1977: Allen makes a literary map of Bolinas: ‘I hear the waves of Bolinas reef saying, boxcar, boxcar, boxcar…’” We chuckle.

Pantherlike Ann Waldman notes: “The weight and desire that human attachment brings…Allen flossing his teeth… making chicken soup…” Did someone say he resembled Dostoyevski in death? “All ashes, all ashes again…”

Bob Hass said, “Allen showed us the importance of breath in prosody or free verse—how they breathed their very breath. ‘The point wasn’t to suffer, the point was to get it.’” We murmur in appreciation. Michael McClure, ever in black, “I met Allen in ’54 at a party in SF for W.H. Auden. We were both wallflowers. Allen set benchmarks of political consciousness and speaking out.”

Diane diPrima said: “The excellence of every art is its intensity… How will you measure Allen’s passing… how will you measure the dark?” Gary Snyder remembered Allen visiting in Berkeley, with Rexroth “drinking our graduate schooling down the tubes… Howl held the power of the voice, of the breath… Allen broke that open for all of us.” Gary’s long, rangy voice filled the temple, “It’s Buddha’s birthday. Allen chose to die during the month of cherry blossoms blooming.”

April is poetry month, not T.S. Elliot’s cruellest month… Gary sings from Magpie’s Song: “Here in the mind brother, turquoise blue…” I hum along. It’s Passover Eve. Fill the temple with the sacredness of poets. A kaddish beyond words. Shalom. You spoke of simultaneous thought, Allen: First mind, best mind. Full moon! And Earth Day! Timothy Leary takes to the skies in his silver ship! Bon Voyage Timothy Leary. Say Hello to Allen!

At intermission Herman Berlandt said Neil wasn’t here, but I knew he was, I could feel him. There: standing on the pillar steps. I yelled Neil! several times. He searched, but couldn’t see me. Across the sea of faces, I watched him, as if stranger (who is this man?), before I wormed my way across the courtyard to his side, reclaiming my destiny. Whoever he is, we are linked. There is magic afoot. I touched his arm and he burst into smile.

So many people to talk to: Joanne Kyger asks about the lump in my breast… resuming a conversation we’d had 2 1/2 years earlier. I hug David Bromige, Steve Tills, Ann Erickson, Gary Glazner, Duncan McNaughton—the old Sonoma gang. Last time I saw Whitman McGowan, his face was painted blue. (Light-years before Gibson in “Braveheart”). I choke, suddenly remembering my dead mother’s hands in front of the bonfire in Whitman’s videopoem. An aftergift for the survivors.

The scent of gardenias and 3000 fresh orange rind simultaneously releasing essential oils: the juicy tang of communion. Noni Howard and I nip Hennessy's by the fountain, she was captivated by a man with knee-length dreadlocks, a felt pelt, and here she was bald as an egg, painting on eyebrows and lashes longer than he’s been growing dreadlocks. I don’t think Neil fully caught the irony of the situation. Poets really are wonderfully weird. I hold my breath.

He looks a bit bewildered, but seems to be taking it all in stride. Good. Another test passed. This is where my prospective men have failed the test unless they happen to be crazy as poets too. It’s as if poetry makes us unfit: unable to fit in with the rest of humanity. He walks me to my truck, we lean on the brick wall gazing into the park. Talks of his father, again. And the spaces between worlds. The universe puts me on alert. Something big is about to happen. And he is central to it. Something inexorable closing in.

Jack and Adele Foley, Herman, Neil and I went to the Mission District for dinner at an Indian restaurant. All over the city, poets were feasting and fucking in honor of Allen Ginsburg. Over chapatis, Jack tells us about a long, spontaneous interview he just did with Allen for KPFA. A pregnant woman joins us and announces she’s a single mother looking for a husband. No one makes her an offer. Neil mumbles into his plate: “It’s easier to give birth to a child than to give birth to a husband,” as if he were struggling with the concept himself.

Over dinner, I marvel at how Neil and Jack’s bodies are cast from the same mold: short, barrel-chested, foreshortened arms, diminutive starfish hands. Fir Bolgs? Neil’s a handsome man, most pleasing to look at. Jack’s stringy hair and glasses hide his face, but his eyes and brows are similar. Jack tells us stories of his father, an Irish vaudeville actor blarneying his way out of a ticket from an Irish cop. A lesson on how to grease the spoon.

Neil spoonfeeds me the last of the mango chutney. Walks me to my truck “Like an Old world gentleman.” “In which case,” I say, “I’ll take your arm (and a leg too, if I can).” I give him some Irish books, for, though he’s a descendant of Irish kings, he doesn’t know his own cultural heritage, the Ulster stories of Cú Chullain, Conchobar and Deirdre. The Táin. Fionn McCumhail.

He said, “My flabber is gasted. This merits a kiss…” Our first beneath the orange glow of sodium lamps. He loves to tease me. I like who I am around him: shy, gawky, a child, a sophisticated woman. He pulls me to him, I lay my head on his shoulder. This is becoming habit-forming. I’m still torn by the daisy petal routine: he loves me, he loves me not…

Thursday, April 10, 1997



Did you know I carry
your photo with me
for the times when I need
to restore the grace lost,
for when I’m battling
mad drivers on the road,
for when I’m late again,
for when my mind takes me
to places no one should dwell
for when I doubt
that true love exists,
or comes again
for those who’ve hit their 40’s,
because the stars were too distant
(or too close) after all,
but we weren’t about to admit it.
For dreams were filled with their dazzle,
and we couldn’t see what dwelled
in the darkened rooms of sleep,
because sunspots dazzled us
with sapphire splendor.
And from looking too long at the sun,
by necessity,
we learned to navigate in the dark.
By naming the object of desire,
we could never be satisfied
with the imperfections of an empire
of lost souls adrift on a dark sea
of chaos and survival,
stripped of dignity and grace,
so that I seek…


Tuesday, April 1, 1997

April Foolishness

In the weightlessness of space,
an astronaut's heart shrinks.—Omni Magazine

A VOICE from home via the satellite link-up lessened the burden of homesickness. But where were the poems hidden? Why didn’t they come? Maybe living in another country would open the dam. Amster-dam: the 16th c. dam on the Amsterele river is real, not a metaphor. I've given into the timelessness of being at loose ends—no agendas, hidden or otherwise—in a country not my own, seeking what oddities life has to offer, for death takes such a long time coming in. In another country I could no longer dam my grief, I shed my skin, undressed down to the bone, and resurrected small pieces of myself from the ground up, for death irrevokably changes you, you cannot go home to who you were. Ever.

Death arrived out of breath, I was an orphan. I trolled old sources searching for my lost art. Page One of my journal documented the oddities of The Final Frontier: After fighting three years with Soviet bureaucracy to hook up a computer telecommunications system with the Ukraine for a cultural exchange program, I finally let go of the idea. Then, one April Fool's Day, my first E-mail message arrived from my ex lover via GlasNET. Incongruous to read a satellite message transmitted half-way around the world that began with: “Cosmonaut lands, doesn't recognize his own country.” My first message from the new independent nation, Ukraine, was not about freedom, but about space, the final frontier.

In another journal I found the story of a physicist who told me a story how he demonstrated jet propulsion while seated in his daughter’s Red Racer wagon; using a fire extinguisher for a booster rocket, he shot through the ivy league halls to the surprise of students and faculty alike. He liked to clown around, to act foolish. He gave me one of the first holograms ever made of a chambered nautilus sliced in half. It reminded me of the cross section of a space ship. I was not immune to his charisma or the three dimensional illusion of physics: a rainbow of light, the visible spectrum trapped on that sheet of mylar set my blood racing, but I was uneasy with the whispered secret rumors. Was it in spring? The word fool once meant someone who was in love. Foolish love. April Fools, a day for practical jokes and sex role reversals. My foolish Papá, said the daughter whose warrior soprano vision guided us through the turbulent protests of the ’60s and ’70s. Show me the prison, show me the jail... I study the exposed labial chambers of the nautilus for clues. What’s worse, the walled silence, or the knowing? Will I be silenced for writing holographic truth dammed behind the slander of divided light?

Inexplicably it reminded me of a hologram of St. Steven’s crown with its bent cross László gave me as we stood on the banks of the Danube the day my half-Russian childhood best friend, Stephanie was cremated on the other side of the world. My hands let rose petals stain the muddy river, I wanted to be home to touch the place where the wind took her up. Home to where her Nanna greeted us each day after school in the old tongue where ikonii and troikas were uttered in the present tense. That place called home that Nanna left, became the wind’s body, Stephanie came to me in sleep, we rode our horses out into the deep. Orion’s belt marked our crossing. She was mute, her eyes like stars. Death swallows the unspoken words hovering in the mouths of the dead. When she comes to visit from the other side, my grandmother’s mouth is a thin line dividing worlds in the country of death. I watch Lír’s sea foam horses racing the wind down the strand.

Death nearly boarded the spaceship Mir, forgotten during the 1991 August coup. Stranded Soviet cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev helplessly watched his country disappear: changing its name, anthem, and political order. The abandoned space program was officially broke with no way to get him home. Secret calls in the night; someone trying to sell Soviet space ships for hard currency. When Krikalev returned to Earth after ten months in space, he didn't recognize his own country. White ravens in the snow. In the weightlessness of space, an astronaut's heart shrinks. A loss of innocence. Complex metaphor approaching from the starboard side. In the safe harbor of Amsterdam, I mourned the mounting bodycount, my uncles, parents and best friend. I couldn’t go to Russia after the Fall, to see for myself, the changes. Instead, I translated mute testimony from the dead: my words took on the art of silence and omission. I placed my heart on a small casket, set it adrift in a dark, weightless sea.

Said No to another man who wanted to own me because he loved God more than me.

Who could compete with that?

© 1997, revised 2000 Maureen Hurley