Sunday, February 16, 2003


SPEAK MEMORY, iii               

It began like this:under
the desk, eyes and neck covered
to keep  the soft skin  from melting
and I remember the drills and the testing
and how we all assembled on the playground
facing east and we witnessed how the sky paled.
I heard “Jackass Flats.”Where did all the blue go?
And the jump ropes all quit chanting Hot Pepper
the tether ball was a full moon in a white sky,
a sonic boom in our heads, a litany
sung for The Bay of Pigs
& the missiles
& the silos
& Castro
& Khruschschev
& the blockade of ships like silver cigars,
Sputnik wobbled across the Milky Way. Her mother died in a fire because she translated an enemy tongue. This is how we learned McCarthyism. Black lists. Red diapers. Will they send Babushka back? I imagine a chain-mail Iron Curtain. Was it like the Berlin Wall, only bigger? Memory spoke in the shape of a cloud, it became a curtain of fire and scorpions inhabited our dreams.     
 The captain shipped out to sea in darkness,
& the prayer plant folded its leaves like me.
I thought late night sounds were bombs
falling in Vietnam across the Pacific,
those planes overhead at midnight
and then, the utter stillness
jet streams  writing  the  sky
with no birds singing, crickets
all seething in the dry oat grasses.                        & there was a mysterious relative at Ground Zero
no address,  just a note saying: Hello, I’m fine.
from Los Alamos, Alamagordo, Stallion Gate,
from Oak Ridge, but we would wait a half-life
for the code names of The Manhattan Project:
We would have to wait until after the funeral
we would wait long after the dawning of Light.
& so now it begins, the waiting; only this time we’re slouching against the Darkness & the Light.


© 2003 Maureen Hurley, published in My AmericaBrandon Mise,  Blue Barnhouse Press, Asheville, North Carolina. More on Blue Barnhouse blog.

Wednesday, February 12, 2003



Dark morning, deep November,
low clouds threatening rain.
We sat by the firebox, slurping tea from a spoon,
she twiddled her hair into long white snakes,
while arguing with the dead:
blaming Cromwell, deValera, the Anglosaxonsandjutes.
An unnamed thing stirred at the pit of the stomach.
Who were they, the long dead?
I scooted around on my back the way kids do,
my robe, a red stain on the gray floor.
The cats hunched up, wanting in. No, she told us.
A bird banged at the kitchen sill.
Too much effort to fly, the air, palpable.
Calm before the storm, my grandmother said.
That knocking is the dead wanting in.
Shivers up my spine, a ghost story in the daytime.
The rain sobbing, not God, but the rain and me
crying—for no earthly reason.
Dead man walking on your grave.
Come closer to the fire, child, she said.
The small sorrows of my seven years welled up and found a thirst.
The birds and the cats, the rain and me, all wanting in.
All t’ings come in t’rees, she warned,
she never could say the T-Haiches  right.
I wanted to undwind her hair snakes,
and laughed at her  loss of “H”es,
Tír na-nÓg, she said in Irish, Land of the ever-young.
And here we are, west of the west. Samhain.
Be careful, the door to the otherworld are still open—
She cautioned me: “H” was the letter of the Lord.
A silent ladder to the sky. The sound of breath. Inspiration.
I climbed the first leafy rung. Plucked an apple. The sky breathing.
A knocking at the door. An scéal? No news is good news.
But the gates were already open.
My drunken uncle burst through the door,
giggling hysterically, Did you hear? Kennedy was shot!
My grandmother’s small sob, played over and over,
her hands fluttering like flocks of useless birds.
A sacred letter had fallen from the sky.

Wednesday, February 5, 2003

Articulating a Moment of Personal Witness


When I left class last Wednesday, I was enamored with Brian’s Oz-like description of walking into the New Year with red glitter on the soles of his shoes... I was humming Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of My Shoes” except that I wrote down “souls” instead of “soles.” And as I began to take stock and catalogue moments of my personal witness—that Joycean Aha! moment when you know that everything you’ve ever done in your life has led up to and prepared you for that particular moment in time where you cannot go back to who you were because suddenly everything is irrevocably changed. I realized that I have an abundance of such moments—most of them in second- or third-world countries.

It is the act of witness that compels me to write. So the issue at hand was which moment? Should I describe witnessing the body of a lawyer for the Sendero Luminoso in the Chorillos Tunnel, Lima, the daily news covering his face, the garua drizzling on the windshield, Carlos Orellano speeding us off, saying “Don’t look!” Or the Sendero’s reciprocal attack blowing up the power plant and the US Embassy so we ate soupa criolla by candlelight Independence Eve; or having to bribe our way out of the Peten Itza jungle when things between the guerrillas and the Guatemalan Army were heating up—a friend’s sister, a nurse, missing in action; or being stuck at the Guatemala airport with no way home because the US invaded Tegusigalpa—shamelessly resorting to bribing ticket agents for the next flight out anywhere in Mexico; or winding up in the USSR at the exact right moment, I was interviewed at a reading (on the Beat Poets, no less, not knowing the socio-political significance THAT had on my audience) right when Jesse Helms began his NEA purges? The shame I felt as a US citizen... And I haven’t even mentioned the home front: 9/11 or AIDS. As I tried to narrow down a particular a moment, I began to feel like one of Tom Stoppard’s reporters in “Night and Day,” always after the big story. In fact, at the time, I was a penny-ante freelance photojournalist, I knew the thrill of the hunt, front page bylines in yet another newspaper...

How did I get into this sordid business anyway? I was in workshops with Carolyn Forché after she and her photojopurnalist friend, Harry had returned from the atrocities of El Salavdor. She told us that poetry in America wasn’t enough, she told us to go out and to bear witness. El Salvador was a little too real for me, but as my then boyfriend John Oliver Simon and I traveled in other safer periphery countries meeting with, and translating Latin American poets, the trouble came naturally to us. Right place right/wrong time, depending on the viewpoint.

I rendered those experiences into poems, always struggling with the dilemma of didacticism, polemics, and rhetoric. San Francisco poet David Meltzer wrote that poetry is where inside and outside worlds collide. You have to be ready to reassemble the parts. But as I rendered experience into art, I found that this bearing witness also  came at a great cost to the soul. Stateside, I was dreaming of snipers in the closets with Uzis and I could tell an AK47 on sight. One time I slid out of bed and broke my tailbone, thinking it was an embankment, and I was under fire. I learned I had thin boundaries. Why couldn’t I be more like sweet Emily alone in her garden, writing small, internal, psychological poems about plants, why was I chasing around the world in search of a good story, or a good poem while so many of my friends were content to write from the home front, so to speak? So, I went to post-Glasnost USSR on a Soviet-American Friendship exchange, thinking it would be a piece of cake... And the walls of the Cold War came tumbling down. There was this Soviet poet... But that’s another chapter. I’m from the US where despite what Dana Gioia said, where  poetry doesn’t matter. Or does it?

Well, when I got home from Brian’s class, I learned the home front had turned into the front lines: Jack Foley forwarded us an email from Sam Hamill (who was at those same workshops with Carolyn Forché) asking for poems to make an e-book to take to the White House for a poetry tea with Laura Bush, “Poetry and the American Voice.” I didn’t have any poems about Iraq, or on last Saturday’s big  peace march—it was too soon for me to write about it—so I contacted poets around the world. It was the least I could do. But the White House got wind of the fact that Sam had received some 2000 poems protesting Bush’s planned Iraqi war within 24 hours, and fearing politicized poets, Laura Bush canceled the event. So the rest of my week has been spent sending emails, politicking and organizing. Not writing my assignment in the way I had envisioned.

ENVOI  One email I got from Eliot Weinberger’s Feb. 1 talk at St. Mark’s Poetry Project in NY, had this to say about bearing poetic witness, though it’s well worth reading in its entirety, I’ve included some selections as further food for thought. Weinberger states: “I take this gathering as a kind of union meeting-- the union of writers, mainly poets--... the primary question for us is: things are going to be happening with or without us, are we going to be part of it, or are we going to continue to talk about ...finding your voice at the AWP? Poets in times of political crises have three models. The first is to write overtly political poems, as was done during the Vietnam War. 95% of those poems will be junk, but... 95% of anything is junk. It is undeniable that the countless poems and poetry readings against the Vietnam War contributed to creating and legitimizing a general climate of opposition; they were the soul of the movement. And it also resulted in some of the most enduring poems of the 20th century, news that has stayed news indeed. The second model is epitomized by George Oppen... [who] stopped writing and became a union leader.

The third model is César Vallejo, another Communist in the 20's and 30's. He refused to write propaganda poems-- he wanted to write the poems he wanted to write-- so to serve the cause he wrote a great deal of propaganda prose. People who are poets presumably know something about writing. So why does it never occur to them to write something other than poems? There are approximately 8000 poets registered in the Directory of American Poets--are there even four or five who have written an article against the Bush Administration? ...most of us do have access to countless other venues: hometown newspapers, college newspapers, professional newsletters, specialist magazines, websites, and so on. All writers have contacts somewhere, and all these periodicals must fill their pages. Even poetry magazines: Why must poetry magazines always be graveyards of orderly tombstones of poems? ... How many of them today have any political content at all?...

I send my articles out via e-mail. It's one of ...the easiest, to publish political writing in this country...Let the readers vote, not with their feet, but with the forward button. ....most American writers have lost the ability to even think politically, or nationally, or internationally. In ... anthologies and magazines devoted to 9/11..., nearly every single writer resorted to first-person anecdote: "It reminded me of the day my father died..." "I took an herbal bath and decided to call an old boyfriend..."Barely a one could imagine the event outside of the context of the prison cell of their own expressive self. (Or, on the avant-garde, it was a little too real for ironic pastiche from their expressive non-self.)

We are where we are in part because American writers-- supposedly the most articulate members of society-- have generally had nothing to say about the world for the last 30 years. How many of those 8000 poets have ever been to a Third World country (excluding beach vacations)? How many think it worthwhile to translate something? How many can name a single contemporary poet, not living in the U.S., from Latin America or Africa or Asia? In short, how many know anything more about the world than George Bush knows?

After thirty years of self-absorption in MFA and MLA career-mongering and knee-jerk demography and the personal as political and the impersonal as poetical, American writers now have the government we deserve. We were good Germans under Reagan and Bush I; we were never able to separate Clinton's person from his policies and gave him a complacent benefit of the doubt; and the result is Cheney and Rumsfeld and Ashcroft and Perle and Wolfowitz and Scalia and Rice and their little president. They can't be stopped, but I do think they can be slowed down.”

Feb. 5, 2003

Monday, February 3, 2003


When the echoes of thunder 
repeat the dream of the wind, 
why does the storm speak of wishes 
trapped deep in the metal 
of a starship exploding 
into pure light?

Brian Thorstenson's MFA Seminar

Imaginary Ancestors

I come from a place where real and imaginary ancestors dance under the rainbow arch. I was the one who dreamed of flowers under the full moon, the land where I arose from was like the light in my veins. More and more often I dream of a fictional place deep in the mind, more real than what is real. Like Robert Duncan, often I am called to a meadow where a cabin grows wings and stories, leaving me lonely for the laughter filled place where the living and the dead sit around the dinner table, leaning back on their chairs after the feast.