Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Stage notes for LA LLORONA, a performance I did for Oakland Readers Family Night

LA LLORONA                                                                                   

Welcome/bienvenudos. Me llamo Maureen, o Marina o Maria pequena.  

BEGIN with HOOK: This is a tale, a very old tale...about a girl, a beautiful girl, who...

Sientate mis hijos. Come closer. Donde esta mis hijos? Closer so that I may see you. Venga aca! Sientate.

This evening we are going to visit Mictlan/ the Otherworld para Todos Santos. Cuantos personas comprenden Engleis? How many people understand Spanish? Bilingual? 

Bueno, yo hablo solemente en Russo. 

I’m going to tell you a real Californio ghost story. 

This evening we are going to invoke el duende/the goblin wind with a story that’s at least 500 years old. Cantadora, cuentista, curandera, seanachie...huehuetatlolli (words of the elders), tlapuetzali (story) historia para todos santos. a real temblón, a shiver story.

Listen well to all the parts because after, we’re going to act out the play for the audience. Insert historical info about halloween/Aztecs /oral tradition whenever possible.

HELPERS: Quisiera tres o quatro ninos para ayudarme para traducciones porque no hablo espanol bueno, mi lenguaje es muy simple y rustico, especialmente un historia con lenguagje suave. Disculpeame!

LA INVITADA: THE EMPTY CHAIR. TELL STORY Use Joe Hay’s version. (take audience requests/responses for direction) put on white face as I begin to tell story, transform into character. Black cape with skeleton suit underneath... White sheer scarf for ghost.


Maria (dressed in black or white, with a blank mast, or a horse head)

Abuelita (scarf, shawl)

Hidalgo & horse (hat, hobbyhorse

2-3 children


A river (green silk: 2 kids to wave it)

The wind, The moon


narrator directs

PROPS: flashlight/moon(also for scary bits),

green silk for the River Guacamole

noisemakers, rainstick, fan, bells, etc.

scarves, hats, etc

ELEMENTS: A beautiful, but poor (native/slave) girl falls for a man above her station, a Don Juan, a hidalgo, a Californio, a ranchero, or a Spanish nobleman, and has 2-3 boys by him (living in sin) but is cast off by him for another woman of noble birth, a highborn Spanish woman for his real wife. He either takes her children from her, or comes only to visit them. She either witnesses the marriage, or when he comes for the children, he spurns her, and in a jealous fit of revenge, under a full moon, she stabs. or drowns them in the river, or they fall in (neglect). She dies, falls against a rock, or drowns. Next day she is found by the river and the townspeople dress her in white and bury her there but she haunts the river at night, especailly when the moon is full, and the wind whistling, looking for her children so that she can get into heaven. 

Other tales have her dreseed in black, either with a horse’s face, or blank. She always wanders near water, under a full moon, with the wind whistling, looking for lost children. Whatever version of the story you know, the moral’s the same: a warning to young girls to marry properly, beware of falling for a pretty face, or a man who won’t be a good husband, and a warning to all children come straight home at night or La Llorona will get you. ENVOI: a true tale about a boy who didn’t believe, is caught by her, escapes by praying when he hears church bells.

CLOSURE Tell my real ghost story about la Llorona in San Cristobal de las Casas (Dave Evans & Kayla). OR Have audeience members share their versions.

END with the Provencal Arthurian (Celtic) protection charm:

Avanti avanti maleficium defense (out out, dark spirits)

Honi suit que mal y pense (get thee behind me...)

* * *

(I’m not going to use all of this, it’s mostly background to draw from)

Why this story? perhaps because I just returned from Cayo Hueso, the island of bones, or because it’s almost el dia de los muertos: a tradtiona the Irish and Mexicans share in common. Both suffered from colonialism, and prolonged revolution, and both had their cultures threatened by Colonial powers

When I was a child, I learned Irish stories from my grandmother’s knee. I learned that Halloween, or the old name, Samhain, Feis na Samhna, (the feast of an ancient god), was the last day of the old Celtic harvest year (Oct. 31-Nov 4. There was a calendar shift in 1735) and that it was dangerous to go out at night because the doors between words opened and the sprits from the other world, that enchanted place where the gods and fairy folk, the Tuatha De Dannan, lived. The dead could visit our world, and we could visit theirs...but that’s another story...THE NEW YEAR is brought in with stories.

There were other customs too, putting the hearth fire out, the druids relighting it, cleanig the house, hollowing out a turnip light for each window  —pumpkins are from the New World—putting a candle in it, so that the family’s dead could find their way home. My grandmother dressed in rags, and carried a bull roarer bladder to scare away bad ghosts and went trick or treating. If they sang a song, a poem or danced, they were rewarded with a treat.

But there were also more dangerous beings trapped in the Otherworld as well, and on Halloween they escaped to roam the terrestrial earth. The Cailleach, the hag, and especially the banshees—the women wailers, would roam the hills looking for their kin. This is why we wear masks on Halloween, so they won’t recognize us. Samhain is very similar to El Día de los Muertos. The Irish and the (Aztec/Toltec) Mexicanos share many traditions in common. The Irish myths maintain that their ancestors came from Gaulish Iberia, and the Gallegos, or the Galicians, are distant cousins of our Irish ancestors. The Luisitanii are perhaps the most famous tribe from the port of the Gauls. from them we get place names like Lisbon, and Portugal. Both cultures fought single combat (war fot he flowers) Both believed life was a dream on the way to death (the brave dead become birds and butterflies

I didn’t think it strange that my best friend, ’Lupe—Guadalupe —Villaneueva, knew stories similar to mine, that of La Llorona but I didn’t know her by that name. I knew of banshees, the women of the sidhe (the Mound, the grave barrows of Ireland), who wailed whenever death approached. And the cailleach, the hag who sometimes appeared as a beautiful young woman...Each family had their own banshee, ours’ howled and knocked at the door in the middle of the night whenever anyone in my grandmother’s family died.

Lupe, with her green cat eyes, would scare me as we walked home from catechism on Thursday evenings. We got out of class just as darkness was falling, and walking home along the old road, from Lagunitas to Forest Knolls with only the moon to light the way, we told stories to shorten the road, and it was a long one indeed. More than a mile to Forest Knolls, along the creek. We lived in the country in the days before streetlights. My own road was another mile up the hill, with no one but my imagination to walk me home. And the owl moaning as I entered the forest along the creek, I could see white logs shining with phosphorus, I believed they were chasing me like big white snakes moaning like la Llorona. I was terrified to walk that lonely passage at night, I used to run as fast as my short legs would carry me.

Stories are always being reinvented to fit the needs of the people. Has anyone ever played Gossip or Telephone? (whisper to someone, who repeats it). Well, you know first-hand how stories change with each repetition. At UC Berkeley, I studied Celtic mythology and history, and I studied the cultural anthropology of Folklore. One of the things I learned is that there are many variations of stories and they change from locale to locale, from place to place. How many people know the story of La Llorona? There are many versions. Some say the story of La Llorona is more than 500 years old. Some say it was pre-conquest.

Well, the story of La Llorona began in Tenochtlán. Perhaps in 1502 or 1503, when the Spanish came to the New World. Where is Tenochtlán? Mexico City. Near Xoximilco, the place of flowers. Poetry is the flowered word. Las palabras floridas. I will tell you some flowered words, and perhaps scare you with a story as well.

One verson of the story of La Llorona spread up Mexico and up the Rio Grande, through Texas—wherever the padres built missions, and converted, or subjugated the Native Americans. Another branch of the story traveled up California with Junipero Serra. But there was a large distance between the two places/lugares. And the stories changed.

There are many songs/canciones about La Llorona, and many modern writers have added their personal history to the story: “El Mechudo y La Llorona,” by the famous Spanish poet, Ramon Sender, whose son, a friend of mine, lived in Sonoma County; New Mexico’s Rudolfo Anaya, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Sandra Cisneros, Joe Hayes, Alma Villaneueva. Hector Armenita is writng an opera. Gloria Anzaldua’s version is a children’s story “Pretita and the Ghost Woman.” In 1992 it even entered the New Age market in Clarissa Pinkola Este’s book, “Women who Run with Wolves.” Most people say that the story was told to them by their family, usually by a grandmother...

The Southwest version usually tells of a haughty beautiful but poor girl filled with pride (bad), usually named María, who falls for a handsome but shiftless man above her station. She hooks him, but he leaves her and her three children to marry a noble lady. Like the Greek Medea, she takes revenge, or is driven insane by grief, and drowns her children in the river, and jumps in herself. The townspeople find her along the river and bury her. But at heaven’s gate, she can’t get in without her children, so she wanders the river at night under a full moon with the wind whistling looking for her children, crying “Mis hijos, mis hijos, donde esta mis hijos?”

The California version is more sorrowful with symbols of pain as sadness and probably contains fragments of the myth of the Mexican creatrix goddess, Cihuacoatl, consort of Quetzalcoatl, who is both light and dark; good and evil. We Californians focus on the part of the story where la Llorona wanders the land looking for her lost children, and she has become something of an urban legend, with many sightings throughout California. She is a genious locii, like the Sovereignty figure of Ireland, the land as a beautiful captive woman, weeping.

POSTLUDE: Besides hearing Lupe’s short version, I learned one version from Ramon Sender-Morningstar, and another version from storyteller Georgia Churchill, as “La Girona.” it was years before I realized the connection between Girona and Llorona, merely an anglicized pronunciation. La Llorona, a manifestation of Cihuacoatl, Quetzalcoatl’s mate, or María Coatlalopeuh, aka Guadalupe, or call her Califia, or Gaia. Her handmaidens who guard the corssroads were called the Cihuateteo.  Her cries always herald the advent of war.  "Oh my children!" she wails into the deepening night; "your destruction has arrived. Where am I to take you?"

La Llorona may have arrived with Fray Serra who was fond of "Our Lady of Guadalupe."  The star-draped, turquoise-shrouded Virgin first appeared in 1531 to a poor Aztec farmer recently converted to Christianity. Cuauhtlatoatzin ("One Who Talks Like an Eagle") walks in the Tepeyák hills, a luminous woman appears, singing to him in his native Nahuatl. The figure says she is María Coatlalopeuh, later degraded into "Guadalupe." (Nahuatl doesn't contain the letters d or g.) In his language coatl means "serpent." On the shrine of Tonantzin, the all mother, the virgin. mother of Huitzlopochtli, the war got, she appears. Guadalupe is cast in a more virginal light vs. the shadow: La Llorona, the Weeping One, (María) who, betrayed in love, drowned her children to spare them from growing up in a cruel world and who perished, her white-clad shade condemned to wail and wander near moonlit waters. (She is a dual goddess. La Llorona’s alter-ego, Guadalupe, is named after a town in west-central Spain, the name, a corruption from the Arabic that means "river of love, river of life.")

La Llorona AKA Doña Marina, La Malinche,  Malintzin, Malinali or María Under the fifth sun, in the year One Reed, 1519,  the empire fell, among the many gifts Cortés aseen s Quetzalcoatl, received from Moctezuma is a 14-year-old female interpreter of noble descent sold into slavery by her family, who kept a son, and proclaimed her dead. The Spaniards rename her Doña Marina; the Aztecs call her Malintzin, a variant of Malinali. Cortés is married, but he makes her his mistress. She will be called traitor, La Malinche (Captain's Woman), and Chingada. Malinche bears him a son, the first mestizo. in 1520, la Noche triste, the empire fell. Moctezuma dies. Some say she killed her son so that he wouldn’t suffer the pain of conquest.

In 1532, Cortés names California after the island of gold and pearls ruled by the pagan Queen Califia from Garcia Montalvo's heroic fantasy novel The Adventures of Esplandian. The Baja base closes a year later, but no matter. The colonization of California has begun. In 1550, after the death of La Malinche, three years after Cortés, the story travels north to Alta California. There have been urban legends of sightings ever since. In 1550,  is the first recorded sighting of a veiled, white-garbed ghost of La Llorona, "the Weeping One," who materializes in Mexico City, sobbing frightfully, calling out for her dead children, wandering, inconsolable, near a lakeside lit by a feverish full moon. And in 1810, the Virgin of Guadalupe figures as a source of inspiration in the Mexican Revolution. Sightings of her continue to spread beyond the confines of Mexico. During the War of 1812 with Britain, an earthquake destroys several California missions. (The Chumash believe earthquakes are caused by the movements of a serpent whose immense coils frame and fill the Earth.) 


Wednesday, October 8, 2003


in vino veritas/ in praise of the grape
  —An occasional poem for the Coppola Niebaum Cafe, 10/8/2003

It was on one of those achingly clear days in Fall, like today,
when the coastal ridges bezel the sky into lapis lazuli.
Because the harvest is in from the fields,
long nights of roulette with the weather are done.
Indian Summer has again sweetalked the grape into honey,
and coastal fog suckled up the river canyons at night
has teased that hot, sweet passion of sun and stone
into a diaphanous gown of noble rot and bloom
so that we may freely dance under the Hunter’s Moon.

Kirkegaard said the spirit of occasion recorded in the mind
is an indelible distillation of watery particles of memory—
like the generosity of wine shipped round the Horn.

On the long journey from vineyard dust to the delta of tongue,
we toast that struggle towards civilization: we raise our glasses
to the murals of Las Caux, to the pharaoh’s last offering,
we celebrate the miracle of water into wine, where, under a Tuscan sun,
Caesar’s Gaulish legions drowned solace at the bottom of amphorae,
where Cortez and Columbus decreed wine to grace the New World,
and an army of padres marched north to the tabula rasa of golden Califia
with their precious cuttings for the sacrament of the altar chalice,
where a Hungarian Count Haraszthy, slipped the first zinfandel
into the sweet Mayacama soil, opening her bounteous vein...
We toast the past with this fine wine, older than recorded history,
yet as young as the next harvest, into the poetics of the dream

Where we hold to the party line: In Vino Veritas,
because there will always be poetry, to be sure,
and not only fine conversation steeped in wine,
where we swirl the stem to observe the other
between veiled sheets of glycerin
cascading into a slow waterfall of desire.
And there will be eloquent speeches—
not to be made, except in vino,
and no truth to be uttered here,
excepting that which is in vino—
where wine is a defense of truth,
and truth, a defense of wine.


Sunday, September 21, 2003

With a Weary Heart...

With a weary heart, and though fighting a malaise of the soul, I  try to stay proactive during these tough times. The Battle ain't over yet...the fat lady is singing something about democracy and rights. Only sometimes it's hard to hear the words for all the fanfare.  

We must continue to stay proactive— especially as we approach the 2nd anniversary of 9/11 —and especially in lieu of last night's presidential address where Bush has asked for yet another 87 BILLION dollars for war aid in Iraq. (So who's keeping all the oil this point, it should be a self-sustaining war...fed by Iraqui oil profits...).

For the first time in 25 years, thanks to current federal and state govt. spending patterns, I have no employment in the schools (zip, zilch, nada), and Bush's request for a further 87 BILLION dollars is hitting me hard in the viscera. 

I wake up nights sweating bullets. Last night, I watched the full moon cross the face of Mars and I thought long and hard on the god of war. For a moment I envisioned the night sky as a vast game of chess. The moon's checkmate.

Perhaps the Harvest Moon will cleanse the battlefield of the sky. Meanwhile, there's work to be done.

As Dylan Thomas admonished, do not go gentle into that dark night. We must rage, rage against the dying of the light. (and against those new nukes as well...) But do light a candle this week at one of the myriad vigils planned worldwide, hold it up to the moon so she can see the way. 

Happy Solstice. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

ENDGAME after Sesshu Foster

      ...found a body republic...  —Sesshu Foster        

Finding my lost writing notes to taste,
garden snails sampled the corners of the page,
but dog-eared paper thwarts any attempts
to tame an unruly kingdom of paper.

         I think in mnemonics: Kings played chess...

What phylum of mollusc covets a taste for fingered corners
where I’d penned a temporary pledge of allegiance
to Sesshu Foster’s republic of the body?
They paid particular attention to the “p” in “pledge,”
rimming the place where I had crossed out “body” for “sex.”
But left untouched the place where I wrote:
“by which it stands, indivisible from nature.”

Maybe it’s a taste for ledges or lead, not Latinate structure,
or pickled fingerprints that attracted them.
As if in answer, they chewed on an article speculating
on chromatic emotions and cephalopod sentience,
shunning the newspaper headlines ablaze with war headlines
to calligraph another kingdom across a rugged terrain of laundry.

         while the mind toys with: ...on fine grain sand

                  We used to sprinkle salt on them,
                  & listened to the hiss and sizzle of green flame,
                  indifferent to their agony.                           

What class of sentence, what order of word
tempted snail cognoscenti to gather at the garden gate
beneath a full moon or street lamp?
What family of noun or genus of verb feeds them
as they pledge allegiance to the continuation of their species
beneath a moonlit republic of mollusk self?



Friday, September 12, 2003


Heart-root. Surrender or defeat? Sounds like a battle cry. Infantry means foot soldiers underfoot, on their feet marching, marching towards defeat or victory. I'm lost amid Caesar's batillions.

All these war words on our minds. AWAD's selection is bellicose which means warlike. Nothing to do with full bellies though I'm getting one. Not enough marching since the last time I wrote in this in this journal. A freak accident with a  truck hitting my cousins house and my new-to-me car, wrenched my spine. I've been flattered by it. A silly accident, injured by my own car slamming into the house.

Yesterday I helped Neil prepare his room for open house, I covered a wall with collages from under the sea, and outer space, to the inner workings of the mind. It's all one thing. 

During during our writers' group meditation, I could feel the energy trying to climb up my spine and and immerse itself past the injury, but the cat yowled and we giggled. The energy retreated and then surged past the blockage and I was thinking about Windex. The cure-all in my Big Fat Greek Wedding. Wendex cures everything. Maybe I should spray Windex on my spine, or on my feet. Never surrender to defeat. 

This is ridiculous, I can't deepen. I can't write something pithy. Maybe I need to spray some Windex on my pen. Or on my mind. Making collages yesterday to heal the date, indelible on the brain, 9/11, like Kennedy's death over and over. I was at JFK high school. Art, my first language, is what I used to heal myself. We all need some Windex for the soul so that we may heal, so that I may see again with a clear vision, nothing between my thoughts and the air. 

Last night I dreamed I was on the hill of my childhood and the harvest moon passed in front of Mars.

Writers' Group

Letter to the Enright House, County Kerry, Ireland

To the Enright House
Martin Enright, Irish Agent
Dromlought, Lisselton
County Kerry, Ireland


Enclosed are several poems for consideration in your publication of Irish-American poetry:

Like So Many Board Feet
In Mary Bianchi's Garden
Lighting the Electric Fire
Condemned Flesh
Chickory II
Comida del Muerte
Dispelling Darkness

However, I find the 25-line framework a bit limiting—so what I’m sending is not necessarily indicative  of my larger body of work. I am interested in where you got my name for your publication venture, because once I wanted to do a poetry exchange with Ireland, but was unable to find funding for it. But my contacts did put me in touch with Seamus Heaney (whom I've met several times), I've also met Paul Muldoon—he was staying in Berleley, CA for a while.. Are you familiar with the work of a San Francisco  Latino poet, Francisco Alarcon? He  just returned from a reading tour of Ireland; his poetry was translated into Irish. New Rivers Press of Minneapolis, Minn., is also doing an Irish-American anthology. You may want to contact them. 

I am interested in finding out more information on your book-length manuscript competition. I will be in Holland until the end of October. You may reach me at R. Hogerbeetsstraat 97 -III, 1052 VV Amsterdam; otherwise, please send information to the above address after October 25.

Sincerely yours,

Maureen Hurley

P.S. Most of my Irish connections (Walsh & Sullivan) are from the West—in Kerry (Tralee), Cork (Bantry)— and some in Dublin ( Reilly & Duffy), Fighoragh (sic) & Longkesh. My father’s side of the family left Ireland during the late 19th c.; my maternal grandparents left in 1910 - 1919. As far as I can deduce I’m 100% (Black) Irish by all four bedposts(there was talk of the  invasionof the Spanish Armada in Bantry). I was raised by my maternal Corkonian grandmother, and so learned history/culture  according to the  Irish alongside the Anglo-Saxon (American)versions of history. Her Irish sensibilities certainly are  a prima source in my writing.


Maureen Hurley lives near the Russian River, where she is California Poets in the Schools Area Coordinator for Sonoma and Napa Counties in California. She's recipient of several artist in residency awards from national, state, local, and private agencies including seven California Arts Council grants. She has led workshops in public schools, a mental institution, and universities in California, the Bahamas, and in the USSR. She is director of Poetry Across Frontiers, a program that exchanges student poetry and art with sister city, Cherkassy, in the Ukraine. Hurley is a visual artist and photo-journalist as well as a poet. Her poems and photographs have appeared in Apostrofe!, ROTOR, Phantom Cherkassy Krai (Ukraine); The Louisville Review, Shaman’s Drum, Sing Heavenly Muse, Looking for Home, Chaminade Literary Review, Caribbean Writer, Gulf Stream, Poetry SF, First Leaves, Napa Poetry Review, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, Poetry Flash, California Quarterly (CQ), Blue Window. Electrum, Sculpture Gardens Review, American Poetry Review, Mexico City News, & Oakland Museum Magazine. Her poetry has been translated and published in Spanish, Russian and Ukrainian. She has work forthcoming in Tin Ear and Maverick. Student poetry and art anthologies produced and edited by Maureen Hurley include: Poem for a Russian Child, The Gift of Dreams, A Night Full of Doves, The Power of the Reckless Sleeper, Still Writing on Rocks, Someone Inside Me, The Poem is the Person's Life, and  Seeds Deep in the Earth.

filed 9/12/03

Thursday, September 11, 2003


Today San Francisco is 42° warmer than average. How do you beat the heat? Today, during the height of the heatwave, I thought I was having a stroke, staggering around the house.

I fell into and out of the shower wanting to run away from my body, the way Hemmingway's cats did at Key West, only they were too tired to move and slouched across every cool tiled surface they could find. All 61 of them.

But the house I live in has carpets and wooden floors. Only the bathroom has tiles and it's hard to compute from the bathroom floor as the laptop is down.

So I kept thinking, maybe I'm dying, maybe I'm really sick. Maybe I really did get West Nile virus in south Florida. it was reported that there was an outbreak. Great, I'll get encephalitis.

I have headaches and I can't sleep and Diana keeps talking about the guy with encephalitis, who had to carry his gonads in a wheelbarrow. Well, no worries there.

So, I don't have sleeping sickness, I know that's from tze-tze flies. When I was in fifth grade I thought about these things a lot, you know. I worried about things like malaria and lockjaw. I was forever stepping on nails in the corral. So I was always checking to see if my jaw was locked. I couldn't imagine what kind of key it needed.

I imagined one exotic disease or another slaying me. I was like a young pre-med student with psychosomatic symptoms for every known disease known to man and woman.

I loved reading all about strange viruses and protozoa, thinking I was going to be a veterinarian when I grew up. Feverishly I studied scientific arcana, trying to beat the heat from some imagined illness.

An editor sends me a picture of glaciers. You can't beat that, she says.

My skin is splotched grey-green and red. People with too much iron have to get bled. It's a Celtic trait. We still live within the Iron Age.

Meanwhile, police helicopters circle overhead, it's a a new 9/11 legacy. Nonstop, red white and blue lights flashing in the night. Some legacy.

Someone asks: if your soul were a flower what kind would it be?

The cat is eating my tongue.

The full moon is eclipsing Mars. I can't take the unseasonable heat. The earth is heating up. The glaciers are melting.

We are still in the war zone. We never left.


Tuesday, September 9, 2003

Educating the Imagination

Maureen Hurley on Censorship

McCarthy in the Classroom?

Censorship has always been present in the classroom. As teachers and teaching writers, we are used to choosing which poems are appropriate for the end-of-the-year anthology, which story we will have a child revise for Parent Night. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s true. At its most harmless, censorship can operate to maintain equilibrium and respect. But since Columbine, and even more prevalently after the events of September 11th, censorshop and subtle forms of censure have begun to hinder educators in their efforts to teach creative writing.

One California teacher I spoke with expressed her concerns that school administrators (in conjunction with the courts) are gradually becoming the “thought police” of student writing. Write a scare story or a dark poem, and go to jail. The case of California student George “T.” is a compelling example. A San José Supreme Court appeal case this fall will test First Amendment rights when the court decides whether or not the 15-year-old student’s dark poetry constitutes a crime. The bizarre case of George “T.” is not an isolated one. Since Columbine, there has been a rising number if iuncidents in which school authorities and courts have arrested children for their art.

Homeland security and jingoism have only exacerbated the pressures on teachers. Since the war in Iraq began last winter, censorship has played out in myriad ways. One writing teacher in the Bay Area told how a colleage at his high scholl prohibited any student discussion that was critical of President Bush’s policies. The end result? A host of student poems containing retaliatory pro-war rhetoric. On a similar note, another teacher said her principal objected to the idea of student peace songs being a part of their annual spring concert, for fear that some parents might object.

While I have not encountered outright censorship in California schools, I noticed something more subtle occuring in my own writing residencies—in a word, self-censorship. For two year now, I have found myself walking on eggshells in order to assure school administrators that I am “safe.” But my students are scared of terrorism and war, and naturally their concerns emerge in their writing. And it is not merely fear they express, but pacifism. I have frequently been caught in the double bind of wanting to please school administrators on the one hand, and on the other— wanting to offer a safe haven for students to express themselves.

During the course of research for this article, I discovered that I was not alone. Several writing teachers expressed an almost palpable fear, an unspoken code for teachers not to mention the “unmentionable.” And while these fellow educators assured me that they were not being censored, their actions spoke louder than words. With the exception of one teacher who plans to retire this year, not one would allow their names to be used in this article, for fear of future repercussions from both their school administrators and from parents in the community.

What ways have teachers developed to deal with this situation? In my own workshops I have begun to use a method I call “redirection.” By this I mean that I search for equivalencies that allow my students to explore “dangerous” subjects in a more neutral way. For instance, I gave students bellicose poems from Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. I asked them to pen imaginary translations of them. This allowed them to funnel their concerns over contemporary events through the voice of a person from another culture and a distant time. The poem, “The Sword of Victory” (an imaginary “translation” from the Hittite by an Oakland sixth grader) demonstrates just how relevant this exercise can be:

War is a nightmare that never ends,
It’s not the blood of victory,
It’s always dirty by blood and tears.
There is no winning in war.
How can we fight for peace...?

I agree with poet Dana Lomax, who told me that “poetry unleashes stress in very real and honest ways.” It’s up to us to guide (not to control) the manner in which the emotion is unleashed. By choosing to assign a group list that repeats “peace is” (in lieu of “War is”) Dana’s first grade class was able to confront the same issue but with a less fearful, anxiety inducing outcome:

Peace is no fighting, no war, no guns.
Peace is your heart beating....
Peace is an ice cream sandwich...
Peace makes daisies bloom.
Peace makes friends and love happens.

First Grade Group Poem, Pacifica, CA

"One of our jobs is to pay attention to
And point out the uncivilized civility of
Everyday cruelty in language." ––Daryl Chinn

I also concur with poet and teacher Daryl Chinn of Arcata, CA, who added that: “one of our jobs is to pay attention and point out the uncivilized civility of everyday cruelty in language.” The job of the poet in the classroom is to civilize, to redirect violent or cruel thoughts and make something creative and graceful out of it. Daryl asks his students: “is it art or is it a rant? Then the real work begins—how to improve, to transform it.

William Carlos Williams famously wrote that it is difficult to get the news from poetry. During this uneasy time when our values are constantly being challenged, poetry is often the only clear voice of that can be heard above the hubbub of media overload. As we face new educational crises during the coming year, it is important to remember that the arts are not extra, they are an essential and integral part of the lifelong process known as the humanities. One of my sixth grade students summed up the job of the teacher when he wrote: “I am the breath of the people... I am the one who carries the heaviest dream for you.”


I was teaching at an alternative high school prior to and during the beginning of the war we waged and are continuing to wage on Iraq. I felt it was important to discuss and write about issues of identity, as well as community and national identity, since these seem to subsume any discussions about war. In one prewriting conversation we were talking about President Bush and his policies. I cannot remember exactly what I said, but one of my students quickly warned, “You better not let him [the main teacher] find out you said that. He doesn’t like it when anyone criticizes President Bush.” That gave me pause. Not so much for myself, but for my students who spent six hours a day with that teacher and were witnessing the build up and launching a major war—clearly no thought-provoking conversations were taking place in their classes…. That is my recent censorship tale. —Aja

Of course censorship is in our back yard. California, poetry, kids, you name it. What happens to them is what’s happening in the real world…. Poets are just barometers of everything else, remember, not the creators. Perhaps synthesizers.

I have an edgy long poem about about name-calling. I talked about it with my seventh-graders. Their reaction was, “Name-calling doesn’t mean so much when we do it.” We. It was an African American girl who said that. So if a 7th grader calls someone else by the n-word, it’s OK? I think of Wynton Marsalis, who, in an inspirational talk, said, “Hey, do you really want to get used to this?” He opined that ancient Romans, in gladiator days, must have gotten used to this talk: “Hey, did you notice how that tiger ate that gladiator today, head first. It was cool, better than last week, when the other tiger just tore the head of the other guy....” One of our jobs is to pay attention and point out the uncivilized civility of everyday cruelty in language.

Isn’t that the job of (poet) teachers, to civilize? To redirect violent and cruel thoughts into something creative and graceful?

There is, of course, an atmosphere of hatred and paranoia and fear: I don’t know what to do about the kind of writng you describe, except do things similar to what you do: redirect. Redirect. —Daryl Chinn

Outside of the overtly political realm, other situations come up that also require a degree self-censorship. I had a fourth grader whose mom died unexpectedly during my residency. He wrote a poem about finding her dead before school one morning. The poem came out of an exercise that emphasized sensory detail. He wrote, “There was no smell. There was no sound.” The last lines were something like: “She was very pale. She looked like a great queen.” Neither the teacher nor I knew exactly what to say. I think I told him it was strong work, asked him to come up with a title, and moved on.

It’s as if when poetry allows students to do exactly what we know it can—i.e. unleash the difficulties they encounter, in very real and honest ways—we (as poets and teachers) have to be careful about how we deal with the resultant intensity of feeling. I’m not sure what motivates this caution. What is the fear? Aren’t aggression, angst, “darkness,” lust, etc., all human traits? What is our role in opening young writers to these sides of themselves, or in shutting them down? —Dana Teen Lomax

From Teachers & Writers, September-October 2003, Volume 35, Number 1, “Educating the Imagination: McCarthy in the Classroom?” Page 15 –18

Maureen Hurley works for California Poets in the Schools and Young Audiences as an artist-in-residence teaching poetry and art. Her most recent publications include an essay in Writing the Rails: Train Adventures by the World’s best Loved Writers (Workman),, and two prose-poems about 9/11 can be read at

© 2003 Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 5 Union Square West, New York, New York 10003-3306

Thursday, September 4, 2003

Quake Notes 9/4/03

I felt the pre-quake coming from the northeast, I could hear it coming like an impossible train. Or maybe a hurricane. I knew right away it was an earthquake and I knew it was significant so the pre-rumble was a good warning, the earthquake came violently, with a bang.

I was worried that the apartments north of us would sway. They may have contributed to some of the pre-quake noise. It was rolling, like riding a barrel on a pond, I could feel the direction it came from. 

We took cover in doorways as things bent and swayed. And we counted the time it took to stop. Bright jars of Pepper Eggplant leapt from shelves and spun dizzily in the light  like startled large Hawaiian cockroaches.

I could tell it was a 4.0; at first it felt like a 3.5 but then by the end, I upgraded it to a 4 (chalk it up to experience). I could tell we were near the epicenter. There was a tiny afterquake. Less than a 2. What was weird was that we could feel it roll right through the house, like an underground beast going south. The actual quake was more  like an explosion, the pre-rollers like heavy trucks rolling down 580, which we live next to. The baby after-quake felt like shaking pudding. Chocolate.

7:45 PM.  Another jolt. Felt like it was about a 2 a very large horse nudging the house...again it came from the north. This 1926 cottage is wood framed. Balloon construction and stucco. Takes quakes well. We're on bedrock, right above Lake Merritt. I will expect more tremors. 

Much later, we'll find the cracks in the walls. Now we thank God it wasn't the Big One. Tonight I sleep with my jeans on, pockets loaded with keys, wallet and cell phone. Ready to go. For we sleep on the uneasy Hayward Fault. Stuck techtonic plates, a ticking timebomb.


Sunday, August 31, 2003

GAME PLAN 1—after Sesshu Foster

GAME PLAN 1—after Sesshu Foster

The road goes on. Yes. Into a river. What was the game plan? To plunge in deep. To observe light rippling into shadow where the willow roots drink deep. Where the swallows dip down. Where the mare is tearing at the grass. The road not taken. Where we forded the river.

To the body's transgressions. To a life half lived. To a half life on the shell. To artillery. An explosion of doves. Is this the part where you duck & cover? Cheval de friese. Archaic names of war found in a field manual. Foundered. Labor long unto darkness. To the choices made. Was that the game plan?

The mare, she, pulled up short. Now I lay me... Remember to fund yourself. If only. Not regret. Observe leaves practicing flight, late afternoon. She came up short. Empty shore. Name the distinction between sea and sky. Her crooked legs failed her, Man o War blood in her veins. Her eye always on the horizon. Riding her into the wind. As if there was no end to it.

To fund the intellect the way of the psyche.

Is there a manual for that? To think we were once the wind. And now living in the present tense while sirens... Ordnance. The odor of pine, chaparral under the hot sun. Lughnasadh. End of summer. Before the fall. Hot flashes. Red mare, faster than verb. To be or not to question this life. We were in the race. But tortured dreams ran me down, tied me up in sheets. To ride like that.

Asylum from the mind, from the body.

To know flight. Call it God. Then, foundered horsepower.

Fear of mortality, fear of death. Fighting the prison of the mind. Clipped wings. I came up short. How many horses under the hood? To find a river, to fund a relationship, to found a life. To lose it. Then what?

Before the event horizon, at the race track, I looked up at her ancestor cast in bronze. We always used to yell at the slowest: Come on Seabiscuit! But a car was threading the road toward a determined republic of blood. Now I lay me down, down down... No, not in the middle of the road. Ashamed, we fought darkness. Gazing up between the oaks, I couldn't leave all that blue. No, not yet. In the middle of the road under all that cerulean sky. Let there be time to catalogue all the colors of the wind. To watch hawks tumbling down. No, not the siren. Not the needle aimed at her heart, too long for thought. Not that plunge into flesh. Deep. A whisper of wings into the dark.



Thursday, August 28, 2003

Letter to Michael Kettner, Catalyst

Dear Michael Kettner,

I noticed that you're selling a book I'm published in, under I'd completely forgotten about it...and AD Wynans...Migawd! How did you obtain a copy of the book? Would you like me to sign it to increase its value? Hahah. Um, what poem DO I have in it?

Maureen Hurley

Bookseller: M. Kettner and Son, Booksellers
Contact: Michael Kettner
Address: M. Kettner and Son, Booksellers, 1501 NE 68th, Seattle, WA, U.S.A., 98115
Phone #: 206-323-7268

Dear Maureen, 

How nice to hear from you again. Lest you have forgotten, i was the publisher of said CATALYST. Have taken a few years off writing to insure i have retirement income - to set up an on-line book biz specializing in poetry and sm. pr. stuff. Only have a few dozen of Catalyst 19 left, and since so popular, am selling them one by one on line;

Your contribution to #19 was a graphic, "self-portrait". thanks for offering to sign a copy. however with periodicals, there is little value enhancement with signatures unless multiple contributors do so or if signed by editor or famous person. in the case of erotica, the mere fact it is erotica, is usually enough. 

You did receive a copy or two of #19, did you not? don't remember you being on list of copies returned with no forwarding address. check out my list on ABE by clicking on booksellers. have over 1500 sm. pr. titles on line with at least as many to go. also have large list of general titles since it's hard to make a living on poetry alone. if you ever want to sell off part of your poetry collection, let me know. 

Take Care, M.

In a message dated 8/28/04 12:24:34 PM, writes:
<< if you ever want to sell off part of your poetry collection, >>

Hi Michael,

I've been thinking about it for ages, the books just sitting in my cabin in Forestville, some rare ones at that. And correspondence. Robert Bly/ Calliope Press...I put on that event at SSU. Lotta work & little gratis from himself.

Lee Perron--do you know him? also got into the rare book business--along with John McBride...who, if I have the story right, was laif off after 25 years from Moe's Books on Telegraph--recession, a sign of the times. As our friend Ken Bullock said, hell of a time to try & sell books. How are you doing with it? Are you still publishing journals? I did look at my resume and Catalyst is indeed listed--way back in the 1980s.

Ach, the book signing, It was merely a ploy to say hi via cyberspace...your name rang a bell, and certainly, Seattle....I'm trying to put a face/event/place to your name as I'm certain that we SF? Or Port Townsend? I'm excellent with faces, even after 20 years...when & where? Obviously you've got my drawing, it must be a self portrait...

Gawd it's been a right long while since that epic journey we took north from Mendocino: Sharon Doubiago, Leonard Cirino, Tobey Kaplan, myself and Moonlight the Alsatian shepherd, in a white station wagon named Roses. An anarchy of northern California poets crashed the Port Townsend Writers' Conference...Carol Jane Banks was having apoplexy right, left & center.

We were all sleeping on the beach, one full moon night, the tide came in and nearly swept us away. Leonard was floating around in his down bag like a cork. Bill Knott was living in a big Victorian on the bluff with Pamela Uschuk (sp)?, we spent a couple of nights on the porch. We later found some barracks that were open after that. CJ Bangs was trying to get us bounced out of the conference but we were like bad pennies. Meridel LeSueur took to us, said we stayed or else and that was that.

Meridel took Sharon under her wing, and that was the start of something, all right. I kept out of the way, feeling like a poetry impostor, and years later, Meridel was asking me why I stayed away so long, was I mad at then it was too late for a prodigal daughter.

I remember Ray Carver, a long cool drink of, er...uisge beatha, chainsmoking and we were all singing Irish songs at some bar with Tess Gallagher... and Michael Daley. Empty Bowl. And Marina Albert...putting us up. All these names bubbling up. it was a spur of the moment event that irrevocably changed my life, somehow I always thought it would continue like that, mad confabs of poets...but then long distances of time and isolation set in.

After finally breaking it off w / John Oliver Simon, I wound up in the USSR doing a poetry & art exchange. It was there I began to translate the Soviet poets. I ran into Marina in Moscow, we were both living in Leningrad with crazy Soviet singers. We'd hoard our dimes and meet at the Seagull Cafe on Nyevsky Prospect, we'd pay an outrageous sum (a week's wages for some) for lattes, worth every penny. 

One time we met Mendelstahm's publisher, it was Glasnost and there was hope. He brought his samizdat publications out of hiding and we held a piece of history. For that one publication he could've been killed. In Moscow, I saw Akhmatova's frail sister feeding pigeons in the snow. But I had to let go of Russia in order to survive. I came back to the States.

I did get to Poetry International in Rotterdam a couple of times, and was in on the Breytenbach translation project...with the likes of Holub, Heaney, Dove...I was onto something, in that I loved the process of translation, then I was nearly killed in 1997, a car accident, and with the shock and healing and all that, poetry sort of left me. I still write, but not with the fervor of the past. Dabbling in prose too, but what's a dyslexic to do with linear thought? After the accident I went back to school and got a MA/MFA at SFSU, w/ a side of Celtic studies at UC Berkekey. Did some playwriting too. But I blather on...


Hey Maureen, 

no, 12 years of publishing was enough for me. still writing. on-line is the way to go with book biz these days. more one has on line, the more you make. been learning on-line biz from a couple of the masters here in seattle. left Kathleen after 23 years a couple revolutions about the sun ago. tough at first but had to be done. 

quit job of 16 years and decided to set myself up so i'd never have to work for someone again. just write and sell books. if your poetry collection is anything like mine, i'm very interested if you truly want to sell. i'm just getting past initial years of set-up and debt management it takes to get going and could probably work something out as autumn progresses. 

glad to hear you've recovered. the writing impulse is fragile. been observing it in others for years, studying, if you will, how to maintain it and have it thrive. not easy to do, especially as one ages and life's vicissitudes work on one. have to get ready for work (at Horizon Books). talk to you again soon. -M. P.S. No, we have never met. You were in town once but we didn't hook-up, if i remember correctly.

Take Care, M.

Wednesday, July 9, 2003

Letter to Lynn Woolsey on Head Start

Dear Representative Woolsey:

There's an old adage: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Head Start, a highly successful educational program which, in the 1970s, has helped several members of my own family--my dyslexic cousins who would have otherwise become juvenile delinquents by failing school, as their mother did--is under threat of dismantlization by the Bush administration. 

When I went to school, there was no such program available and the California education system failed me miserably: my dyslexia went undiagnosed for 30 years. I had to wait until junior college to discover that indeed I wasn't stupid as the California educational system had allowed me to believe. I received an education by sheer determination alone. 

I just completed my MA and my MFA: English/Creative Writing at SFSU, something I could have accomplished in my 20's instead of waiting until I was nearly 50, had there been a Head Start program available when I was in school. Head Start catches some of these problems with early childhood screening programs, with nutrition programs and tutoring programs. 

How can our nation claim to offer equal opportunity (let alone, justice or happiness) for all when we are failing to give all of our poorest kids the basic skills necessary to better themselves--programs that Head Start offers, which has a track record of success in helping kids mired in poverty, our most vulnerable citizens, to succeed:

* Children who participate in Head Start are more likely to graduate from high school;

* Kids who graduate from Head Start commit far fewer juvenile crimes;

* Because children in Head Start require less special education in school and don't break the law as frequently later in life, Head Start saves between two and four federal tax dollars for every dollar invested in the program.

It is patently obvious that Head Start offers much more than just an ounce of prevention to our most vulnerable citizens... Why in the world is the Bush Administration proposing to dismantle Head Start and replace it with inconsistent and untested state programs? This makes no sense and is directly at odds with the values that our country stands for. 

It's shameful enough that our government is giving huge tax breaks to millionaires but failing to provide our poorest kids with the basics, such as Head Start. If anything, Head Start should be fully funded by the federal government with an additional $2 billion/year (that's less than one half of one percent of the Pentagon budget!).

I realize that "ain't" is no longer king's English, and we're no longer the colonies, but a nation--however, if we allow Bush to dismantle federal funding, and replace it with unregulated state funding/ administration, a significant portion of our children won't even be able to spell "ain't," let alone read it, or know why it's no longer in current usage. 

Forget about the subtleties of dangling participles and the delights of other grammatical errors. Ain't that a shame. (Although judging by some of Bush's linguistic gems, he also might have benefitted by attending a Head Start program himself, but I digress...) if I may borrow a phrase uttered by Bush, Sr.: "Read my lips": this proposal is a recipe for unmitigated educational disaster. 

As you may recall, I work in the Bay Area schools as an artist in residence (CPITS/YABA), teaching poetry (you've attended many of my events: especailly the sister city-USSR exchanges), let me say that it's already pretty grim in many of our schools. 

As it is, California's educational system funding is already at the rock "bottomth" percentile in state funding, do you seriously think that a state-administered Head Start program would stand a chance of surviving current budget cuts? 

Look at what is happening to our California Arts Council. Rather than dismantle the highly successful Head Start program, please fight to continue the program and expand its funding to cover all eligible children. An ounce of prevention goes a long way indeed.


Maureen Hurley 

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Poetic Manifesto II

What Passes for Poetic manifesto, Part the Second

When confronted with the idea of revisiting a Poetic Manifesto on the Poetry of Witness, I kept drawing a blank wilderness, but then, slowly, I came to realize that the abstraction of nouns are, at best, a vague idea. That language itself fails me. I am drawn back to an imagist quote: “not ideas, but things.” And I began to realize that the tangible comfort of concrete things is how I define my poetic world. I think in terms of things—like a Joseph Cornell assemblage box. I see in terms of visual metaphors: This is to this as that is to that, which is related to that other artifact...  A scientific observation: compare/contrast. This tactic is how I render my world into poetics, though it feels  a bit like trying to describe light to a blindman. Or as philosopher John Locke put it in 1690 in “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” For, words being sounds, can produce in us no other simple ideas than of those very sounds; nor excite any in us, but by that voluntary connexion which is known to be between them and those simple ideas which common use has made them the signs of.

The visual world is my first language, words are but translations from an unnamable place where ideas come from. Unnamable signifiers. I say unnamable because I suspect that visual comparisons too are translation. A ready means of escape from a harsh world. The abstraction of words come from the stacking of things, like so many logs to build that cabin my grandmother who had eight screaming kids, always longed for—escape to a bee-loud glade.  Ergo, to witness is to observe, and to react to that witnessing requires the rendering of an image into the poetic mind where it takes on new characteristics and becomes a solitary act outside of the mirror of self.

I inherited my grandmother’s dream to escape from this world, to enter into another reality. Call it the Otherworld—a parallel that coexists alongside this world. I wanted to believe in its existence. Yeats’ dream, or the collective dreams of medieval Irish druii agus filidhe agus seanachie cum-monks in search of Tír na n-Óg, or God. After getting their mitts on the apocryphal gospel of St. James, they had a field day. Excluded from Babel, (an oversight, of course), they could freely render their own alternate universe to suit their needs, in order to belong to the Judeo-Christian world. Lacking in desert wilderness, they brought the idea of desert to Ireland and then transformed it. Diseart. The Emerald Isle never yet yielded a decent desert except for a dry pub on a blue moon), and so the hermit’s hut deep in the woods, a cell on Skellig Micheál, or a cabin on a lake isle on Inishfree, became their desert, a place for the idea of bearing witness, a symbol for the search of God in the wilderness. A signified place for God to exist, therefore ergo sum: I am.

In “Meditation at Lagunitas” Inverness poet Robert Hass, wrote: Each particular erases from the clarity of a general idea... and the more I try and define it, the more it gets erased. Or the lake waters, ruffled by an offshore wind, churn and muddy the idea until I’m left adrift on a small boat and the oars are commas separating things and worlds. A collision of rock and thought, the sea beckoning. Yeats was a young man when he wrote that most anthologized of poems, “Lake Isle of Inishfree”; he later wanted to take it back, calling it a fraud, but there it was, published for the world to see. An artifact. He wanted to control it, master it, but poetry isn’t like that. It has its own hidden agenda. As does the poetry of witness. It’s more like a Nantucket sleighride—you just hold on for dear life and come out into another world inhabited with the testimony of strange juxtapositions.

UC Berkeley professor emeritus, Julian Boyd, said that when English was codified in the 17th c.: the Siamese twins “will” and “shall” were severed from each other—as an Anglo bishop put it: the correct use of “will” and “shall” which separates men from beasts—was established. He was referring to that quare Hiberno-English usage of Will you be having a bit of coal on the fire now? versus the right proper: Shall I put more coals on the fire?  ...using language to  scientifically establish Anglo superiority over the Irish who were little better than “beasts of burden.” Language as a weapon. My grandmother said: Tír gan teanga, tír gan anim: a country without a tongue is a country without a soul—the Irish idea of revenge is to use the language of the enemy against him. Joyce, Beckett and Wilde—bearing hard witness on the properties of the English language come to mind.

English distinguishes between desire, belief and intention: most other languages don’t. Will = duty /oath/ promise/ belief; versus Shall = intention/prediction/desire. The ability to dream and manifestation/ implementation of will... I will live alone in a bee-loud glade... A performative speech act of free will is “to witness.” This process happens between the act of witness and the place where the origin of words forms a semiotics that we happen to call reality. What Aristotle called praxis: doing/action. The only sentences that matter are T/F; everything else is religion or poetry.

Philosopher Roland Barthes states that both the literal and figurative definitions give a text its multi-lingual nature. Metaphor makes a text plural, since with more synonyms and “forms of language,” the text is multiplied in both quantity and meaning. Ergo, metaphor requires translation. Charles Simic states in his notebooks that something before language exists, and that everything is translation. He maintains that poetry is not what gets lost in translation but the orphan of silence because:
I’m one of those who believes that there is something that preceded language. The usual view is that there is some kind of equivalence between thought and language; if you can’t verbalize it you can’t think it. I’ve always felt there is a stage that precedes verbalization, a complexity of experience  that consists of things not yet brought into consciousness, not yet existing as language but as some sort of inner pressure.  (Bruce Wiegel, ed. “Charles Simic: Essays on the Poetry” Univ. of Michigan Press,1996; Bruce Bond; p157).

According to UC Berkeley Celtic Studies & Rhetoric professor Daniel Melia, that image/idea precedes thought/language is an age-old debate. That inner pressure is the natal ground of witness compelling us to act. Something pre-lingual behind the epiglottis and the tongue. The idea of separation and exile also enters into it, giving us the distance, the lens by which to observe/write. History tells us what happened; poetry tells us what ought to have happened, said Herodotus. Plato saw poetry as a mirror of history. He said, Fine ideas are the father of poetry, words are the mother of poetry: poetry takes after its mother.  But Plato banned poetry from his Republic because it upset the emotional equilibrium of the psyche and gave no truth of its own. Did Plato mean answer vs truth?

To witness is not just the seeking of truth, but it requires an act of translation. Equivalencies. Simic utilizes the visual cortex as a more accurate form of witness. Many of his poems are the laying down of multiple visual images juxtaposed to create a larger picture which we enter, with our differing portmanteaux of experience. The exact combination of cumulative events whether, real or dreamed, becomes a form of witness.
While Simic never imposes a moral obligation on poets to reveal truth in this authentic manner, he does say that poets seem to be able to make more sense of this age of uncertainty than other artists.... Bruce Weigel asks how Simic reconciles the larger forms of history...with ‘the more exclusive forms’ of art. (Ibid; Brian Avery, p.88).
And Simic refers us back like a möbius loop to the philosopher Martin Heidegger:
Already Hölderlin asked the question: ‘...and what are the poets good for in a destitute time?’ And Heidegger replies: ‘in the age of the world’s night, the abyss of the word must be experienced and endured....’ ...poetry says more about the psychic life  of any age that any other art. Poetry is the place where all the fundamental questions are asked about the human condition.... Our situation is impossible, and, therefore, ideal for philosopher and poets. (Ibid; Brian Avery, p.89).

Our situation is impossible, therefore ideal. Shipwrecked, we are adrift in a sea of ambiguity. This is our stance of witness. To create an integral order from the Charybdic void of  informis is to land on a desert island, to write “I am” in the sand of that undiscovered country. But John Locke bemoaned the lack specificity in words, how they ultimately fail and betray us. As the exiled Indian writer Salman Rushdie put it: A poet's work is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it from going to sleep.  But it is indeed a solitary monkish position. As the exiled Paistinian poet Mahmoud Darwish noted: You are my country...but I am a stranger, always a stranger:...stripped of identity...those who pass between fleeting words carry your names...above us, as above you are sky and air...

We are alone. We are alone to the point of drunkenness with our own aloneness, with the occasional rainbow visiting...The prisoner said to the interrogator. 'My heart is full of that which is of no concern to you. My heart is full of the aroma of sage. My heart is innocent, radiant the remains of dawn I walk outside of my own being...’

5/7/03; rev 5/14


ON THE FIRST DAYS OF WAR                                                       

First sweltering day of spring:
Cumulous scribbles place a child in a proverbial meadow
where he toys with cloud camels—he is flying,
sliding down the pale satin body of the sky
until the fist of evening robs him of his plaything.

Soldiers stand at attention in wheat fields
& scarlet poppies glow like drops of blood.
A sandstorm howls across the country
painting everything a hostage yellow.
Later, the green afterglow of SCUD missiles
         will slap that dirty whore of a sky silly.

A stillness descends like a shroud over the city without a moon.
Infinite whispers disturb sleep. Bridle a nightmare.
Artillery hisses overhead, spewing shrapnel into the night.
Debris wheezes and whirls in the sky like lawnmower blades
as indiscriminate death and bitter chordite fills the air.

In Baghdad, the memory of rain falls on deaf ears.
Calligraphy loosened from parchment firestorms the sky
with the widowmakers of lost history. Tears and spit to put it out.
A small scrap of paper with a prayer written on it—
a broken dove flutters beneath the boots of the invading army.


Monday, May 12, 2003

Mike Tuggle on By Request

I found some notes in my journal on Mike Tuggle, I was probably an MC and was introducing him to a reading because I asked him the usual, when and where he was born etc., 1938, Tulsa. And we got distracted. I asked him why he always closed his set with that By Request song, and where did he learn it from. Mike said he learned it from his Pa, in Oklahoma. He said, when I was little, my dad and mom didn’t have a radio, but they would sing songs in the car. And the last song he’d always sing was always By Request.  It was an absurd and scary song, the idea of Josephus, an academic was. It’s absurd and final and funny. Ending on cholera by request. It made me remember the song on the brevity of life. It made me think—is that all there is? He said his grandfather was part Choctaw, and Lula was half Cherokee. But my grandpa on the European side was an Indian hater, big ham of a man who invented the first Gott cooler, a large thermos and he sold his idea to Gott’s department for $100. He invented the double-ended wrench for fuselage on airplanes. JW Tuggle married Martha J Booth. JW looked a lot like me as a young man. Edwin Booth was an actor, and he did a great Hamlet. But it was Junius Brutus Booth, not a relative, who sang the folk song and passed it on.

Wednesday, May 7, 2003

Victimless Crime

I'm the victim of a victimless crime. I would not repeat this year for anything. The negation of the self is the same as erasure, therefore no victim. We're so used to being victimized, we no longer count ourselves. Body count.

In a room of nine women and one man, in Spanish, we're the masculine neuter gender. Tyranny of language or, betrayal? Cilantro or persil? With a condiment request, the prisoner gives himself away, as we do daily.

Brian says writing is a monkish, solitary act, the intensity is so personal. This is what I've given up with this relationship – the personal, versus the social. This is where laundry, shopping, and cooking enter in a frilly maid's apron. We don't need to take the uniform off at bedtime, just hike up the skirt and you're ready for sex.

And how do we balance both worlds? For years I lived the writer's life, in my hut in the woods. I was prolific, but then I spent my talents on a man, an actor used to being watched. I, the writer, watching the actor, who has no lines. If he has no lines, his own, or otherwise, is he still the actor? Still, I watch. But the words don't come. I stay on task but I keep missing the appointments with my words.

Parsley or chervil? Cilantro or persil?

My grandmother said parsley goes seven times to the devil. Mary's parsley flags are tall enough to be trees, a mutant garden in the twilight zone. What a phantasm of witness is that?

Will versus shall. To do versus action. That straddling place between action, a verb, and inaction, a noun. To name it isn't enough. Passive witness versus active witness. A pronoun of ethics. Not just action, but right action. Knowing when to…

Someone reads a book on insect dreams, another on the Chicago school of architecture, while a third in a blue cape reads a manual couched in the rhetoric of children's stories.

I feel like Kafka's cockroach trapped in a nightmare of a room and I can't fit through the bleedin' door. The train sways from side to side as we test the thickness of the air under the bay, all that water bearing down on us like a birthmother.

Instructions concentrate on...  work with the I Ching, the book of changes. Everyone is looking for a metaphor by which to live. People making temporary sense of random acts of nature.

Then, the ego, afraid, said: There is no god. Afraid, it said there is a God, then it revolts, becomes a masterbuilder of elaborate ruses. There is either truth, or fact. All else is within the realm of religion, or poetry.

Linguistics at 4 AM. When I realize that the incomprehensible hunk of twisted metal on the front porch was once my car, that the explosion rocking the house like bombs being dropped—was my car. I became a victim of a victimless crime because I wasn't in the car. I was asleep on the couch where the truck hit.

The woman next to me taps her chest three times as if asking for forgiveness. How very Catholic of her. Mea maximum culprit. Classmates disembark, there goes my community.

On Bart we are all polite xenophobes needing a good excuse for eye contact, hence the proliferation of books on empty seats, which few are actually reading. She points to the signs of development, and I think, do I want this relationship now that we've made some sort of amends?

At night I replay the tapes: what needs to happen. Change, as I struggle between worlds—either witnessing it, or not.

Parsley or cilantro?

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