A poem-in Arabic, no less

February 13, 2014

I wrote this ages ago. My Arabic is epically bad and remains where it was, at a 4th grade level. With thanks to my friend Sultan and, of course, the great Mahmoud Darwish, one of the finest poets of all time.

صور ثابتة من منزل في أطلال

الأطفال لن يتوقفوا عن الصياح حتى ترسل الشمس خيوطها , و هم مقّيدون
الى الجذور الخضراء لأغنيتنا الخجولة .. نادهم الى جنبك , أماه ! , حيث تهويداتك
تكمن جنبا الى جنب مع ذكرياتهم , مع الأنهار في عيونهم اليائسة .. و لتسلمي سقف
في بتلات ابتسامة .. أماه ! , هل ستعيديهم الى الرحم حيث هم مجهولي الهوّية ؟
هل ستسرقين من عيونهم هذا المنفى و تطيينه في كل الأماكن الصحيحة , حتى هو يكون
محض قصائد ؟
لقد فقدنا مدن قريبة جدا من الأرض ,, حتى في هذه الأنقاض
يجب أن تكون هناك أغنية ….

أسمعينا , ملائكة , تلك الأغنية الحلوة من شبابك , ليست هذه , تلك الأخرى عندما
كلاكما تمرحان تحت الزيتون , أنت و هو , معسّل الأطراف تتشابك عادة , و العشاّق يهبطون
الى الأرض لجرة الذاكرة الحافظة .. أسمعينا , ملائكة , تلك الأغنية الحلوة , مخبأة
فقط في فضيات فظيعة لأمك , لا النشوة نفسها , لا القمة مطلب , لا عظام , في كل مكان , لا غضروف .
تعال , غن لنا من الأشياء العتيقة , ابن بيت للذاكرة مع خيوط من شعرك ..
يجب على أطفالنا أن لا يتوقفوا عن البكاء حتى الفجر ,
عندما يجبرون من قبل فرق نارية للملائكة العليا على التخلي عن أنشودتهم ..
ملائكة , تعالوا الى جانبنا , حيث أشعتهم تتحد مع ضوء السماء .
أخبرهم أن أجسادهم هي وحوش , أخبرهم أن حوافرهم تنمو ,
أن ظهورهم تزهر مع عبء الحقيقة ..
أخبرهم أن جرس كبيرة معّلقة تحت ذقونهم
أخبرهم أن يمشون من دون صوت
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This is an edited excerpt from my first ever attempt at a novel, from about five-six years ago. I don’t know why I’m busting this out now.

Sitting on her sparse chair in the corner of the yard under the shade of an old tree that no one had ever classified on account of its substantial foliage, she decided to name the world Luis.

The yard had not seen much rain the last year. The vegetable crop had withered in chunks of roughage to her right, and if she had the patience to water it, she was sure it would at least be grateful for the nourishment. Luisa didn’t, however. She never did. She liked to sit out in the yard on sunny days and imagine the world outside her walls and ever so often, she would think of a man, Luis, who was just like her, only an older gentleman, dressed in a breezy cotton shirt with lapels the color of their eyes and he was smiling and she was too and all was well between them and the world and thus she had no choice but to name the entire world Luis.

The entrance to the yard was a dark metal gate of fauns and satyrs and the trellis was bare beside. She imagined the dark gates creaking open the way they did for the milkman who made his rounds every morning. She heard the patter of a child’s feet, stumbling uneasily into the yard. She saw herself preparing for the long winter standing in her grey housecoat and in her ear, she heard Luis whisper in tongues and every fourth word was querida. And by the time he had reached the two sixteenth word, Luis’ tongue had already made her shudder and she’d forgotten where she lived and why it was lucky that it had not rained.

The air was weak and smelling of disease. The last month alone had seen fifty-seven people take to the beds of The Hospice of Our Lady of Civil Tongue. Half of them had sores and boils on their lower back-arse-and thighs. Nothing much could be done about them. They lay in the smells of their own refuse. Her friend Hanna brought up the topic every day, the poor dear. Hanna was a nurse. Luisa thought of Hanna’s plain starched uniform and how she’d reacted when she told her she’d named all Hanna’s patients Luis. They lived in her world after all. This was Luis’ world and all the people in it were him also. Mad Luis, giggling hysterically as he poked his fingers in his refuse; cynical Luis, resigned and apathetic, the only sane person in the sardine-can; crazy Luis, sniffing his fingers and sucking them questioningly; even tired Luis who was really a girl and photographer Luis who scrawled his socialist beliefs on the wall in his own blood in a slanted scrawl. The clock indoors struck four. The telephone, prompt as ever, rang dully four times without a response and before it could stop, little Simon climbed over the garden wall and hurried towards Luisa’s chair.

“Mama needed to go to the ferry and here’s your food, Luisa,” he said, setting a steel tub of food on the bench. “I’m supposed to stay with you tonight.”
“Yes, yes,” she replied. “But you must promise not to make any noise. A gentleman’s coming to visit your Aunty Luisa. Be a mouse, will you?”
“Okay,” said the boy and was gone into the house, which like her, had turned fifty the previous year. He would return with a deck of cards like he usually did. But for now, she was alone in the yard with a container of black beans and rice on her lap and she began thinking of Luis, who hadn’t returned to her in so long.

She blamed Luis’s absence on the moon and all those girls from the big towns who surely he hated for their easy virtue. She said a prayer for Luis, counting off beads on her rosary that was allegedly blessed by His Holiness. Luis’ tongue was fire when he swore to return to her and she knew from looking at him that there was love in his eyes and that she’d forgive anything. In her mind’s eye, she knew this was exactly how the apostles had won the world over, with fiery tongue and a rumbling, misguided love. A trespass would do her good, she mused. Her last had swollen her belly and knocked the wind out of her and two teeth but she whistled when she spoke and no one could take away her joy at hearing her new magical whistle. Like a child, her breath came out of her in gasps. Ever so often, her breath would coalesce into a little-girl sigh through the partition in her incisors. Luis had done this, also. The gap in her teeth was rather endearing, her friends had said, and there was no need to get it fixed, they asserted, and she knew what they weren’t telling her was that the only dentist was also named Luis.

She laughed, a melodic whistle-laugh, and thought to herself, how is it that I may think of myself when I have named everything Luis and at once, a dried-up leaf alighted upon her belly-button.

Zarabanda (short story)

March 26, 2011

This is my first attempt at fiction in a very long time. So pardon the morbidness.

At the funeral, the priest, Fr. Benedict, thrust two Polaroids of Elicia Castellanos into my hands. I recognized them instantly, I had to say, even though Elicia’s body, by then lowered, covered, bore no resemblance to the pictures Fr. Benedict presented me, shot through with the ugly sepia of an early summer. I studied the pictures with a hungry eye. I pored over them, aware of my hatred for myself growing steadily. Hatred, most of all, for the unfortunate circumstance of Elicia’s death. As you can imagine, all of this was happening against my will.

I knew I was fated to never see Elicia Castellanos again, and yet, there I was, presented with her leavings. By a priest, no less. Such finality! Surely, you understand why I would be distressed by the discomfort I saw coursing through the translucent patchwork of Elicia’s veins. Her unease, hammering at the crow’s feet of her eyes. Are you all right? the priest asked me. I shook my head. I’ll be fine, Father. I thanked him for his time and asked his permission to look away.

The mourners collected their sorrows and moved single-file into the black transports of their lives.

Free at last, I gave myself a moment to collect my thoughts. I set myself down at the foot of an ancient oak tree. I was out of breath. Why had this incident distressed me so? I did not know. She was gone. I had pictures. Plenty of pictures. There was nothing special about these Polaroids. This much was fact. I loosened my tie and sat very still in the afternoon’s glare, half of my face shadowed by leaves. Surely, I said aloud, I had been with Elicia through every day of her long march into illness. God and I, her constant companions, she had always said. Then it struck me. The answer. What upset me was my own absence in these last reckonings. What I did not see in the picture, after all, was my body. Where was I? I had lived with her all her adult life. Where was I? Who had taken the picture? Was it me or was it someone else? In her final leavings, what space did I occupy?

Elicia Castellanos’ favourite song was a piece of furniture by Erik Satie. Zarabanda. Our first dance. Oh Elicia, that it were not my favorite also! I could hear it looped in the background of the pictures Fr. Benedict had thrust into my hands. Our cat, on her lap, asleep in some nightmare, its claws digging into the soft flesh of her thigh. The crucifix wrapped tightly around Elicia’s left wrist. Curious, I thought, how curious, and in a moment of rashness, found myself leaping up and running towards the cavernous cemetery gate.

There, at the threshold, I found the priest and retrieved the pictures from his jacket. I must know, I said, there is something further still.

My gaze returned to Elicia, poor, gaunt Elicia in the oppressive summer of our youth. I watched her grow steadily sicker the longer I gazed at her picture. Oh my poor attempts at medicine! Squinting, I could make out ten pinpricks in the soft material of her dress. nothing further could be ascertained with any degree of certainty.

The second picture was taken after the California earthquake of ’89. I could tell she hadn’t cleaned up because the pots were still overturned and our zinnias were leaking from them, crushed under the heavy clay.

I asked Fr. Benedict why he had chosen this moment to show me the Polaroids. These are obscene, I told him. He laughed. The Zarabanda was considered an erotic dance when it was first performed in Spain, he replied, clapping me on the back, humming to himself.

Dostoevsky

December 13, 2010

My wonderful thesis advisor, Alice Dark, left this in her mailbox for me. It’s a marked up section of “How Fiction Works” analyzing Dostoevsky’s work with respect to trauma. Anyone who knows me in a literary or classroom context knows how drawn I am to the theme of trauma. Alessandro Baricco’s “Without Blood” is my Bible, after all. I can’t believe I lent it out!

Anyways, here’s what Alice wanted me to know:

“Dostoevsky was the great analyst-in a sense, almost the inventor-of the psychological category that nietzsche called ressentiment. Again and again, Dostoevsky shows how pride is really very close to humility, and how hate is very close to a kind of sick love…Dostoevsky would call this psychological torment the “Underground,” meaning a kind of poisonous, impotent alienation, a chronic instability of self, and a vaunting pride that at any moment might unexpectedly crash into its reverse-cringing self-abasement.”

“Dostoeveskian character has at least three layers. On the top layer is the announced motive…the second layer involves unconscious motivation… [that] presages Freud’s comment on the action of the superego: “In many criminals, particularly youthful ones, it is possible to detect a very powerful sense of guilt that existed before the crime, and is therefore not its result but its motive…The third and bottom layer of motive is beyond explanation and can only be understood religiously. These characters act like this because they want to be known; even if they are unaware of it, they want to reveal their baseness; they want to confess. They want to reveal the dark shamefulness of their souls, and so, without knowing quite why, they act “scandalously” and appallingly in front of others, so that people “better” than they can judge them for the wretches they are.”

That’s the sentiment that animates the very last line of Bernard McLaverty’s great novel “Cal,” that human wretchedness of the trickster who desires harsh judgment, all the while working to avoid said judgment. Every character I’ve ever written suffers the same predicament, leading me to postulate that perhaps I share this as well. It’s an interesting thought, certainly. I wonder what Alice thinks. In any case, trauma seems to me to be a twisted Mise-en-Abyme that is at the heart of the human condition. Twisted, in this case, refers to the opposed nature that trauma brings to the heart of the Matrioshka.

My dear friend Sultan Al-Shaaibi translated one of my poems for me. You probably can’t read it but I hope you think it’s cool 🙂 I can though I’ve forgotten most of the meanings of words. However, I like the sound of the words when I read it out loud a lot.

صور ثابتة من منزل في أطلال

الأطفال لن يتوقفوا عن الصياح حتى ترسل الشمس خيوطها , و هم مقّيدون
الى الجذور الخضراء لأغنيتنا الخجولة .. نادهم الى جنبك , أماه ! , حيث تهويداتك
تكمن جنبا الى جنب مع ذكرياتهم , مع الأنهار في عيونهم اليائسة .. و لتسلمي سقف
في بتلات ابتسامة .. أماه ! , هل ستعيديهم الى الرحم حيث هم مجهولي الهوّية ؟
هل ستسرقين من عيونهم هذا المنفى و تطيينه في كل الأماكن الصحيحة , حتى هو يكون
محض قصائد ؟
لقد فقدنا مدن قريبة جدا من الأرض ,, حتى في هذه الأنقاض
يجب أن تكون هناك أغنية ….

أسمعينا , ملائكة , تلك الأغنية الحلوة من شبابك , ليست هذه , تلك الأخرى عندما
كلاكما تمرحان تحت الزيتون , أنت و هو , معسّل الأطراف تتشابك عادة , و العشاّق يهبطون
الى الأرض لجرة الذاكرة الحافظة .. أسمعينا , ملائكة , تلك الأغنية الحلوة , مخبأة
فقط في فضيات فظيعة لأمك , لا النشوة نفسها , لا القمة مطلب , لا عظام , في كل مكان , لا غضروف .
تعال , غن لنا من الأشياء العتيقة , ابن بيت للذاكرة مع خيوط من شعرك ..

يجب على أطفالنا أن لا يتوقفوا عن البكاء حتى الفجر ,
عندما يجبرون من قبل فرق نارية للملائكة العليا على التخلي عن أنشودتهم ..
ملائكة , تعالوا الى جانبنا , حيث أشعتهم تتحد مع ضوء السماء .
أخبرهم أن أجسادهم هي وحوش , أخبرهم أن حوافرهم تنمو ,
أن ظهورهم تزهر مع عبء الحقيقة ..
أخبرهم أن جرس كبيرة معّلقة تحت ذقونهم
أخبرهم أن يمشون من دون صوت

Chrysanthemum: a tanka

August 21, 2010

She is afraid of
her surname capitalized
sashimi tickled pink
but mostly her uterus
her steady undoing flesh

On a lovely Tuesday afternoon, reading a rather compelling academic thesis on alienation in Japanese-Canadian literature, it occurred to me that there may be a cultural aspect to how different literary members of various ethnic groups process alienation or voicelessness.

It seems to me literary representations of European alienation are fundamentally different from non-white representations of alienation, in terms of how alienation is defined. The seminal European alienation narrative, to me anyway, is Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, where the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, inexplicably finds himself reduced to a bug, estranged not only from his already othered family, but also from himself and his humanity. Consider the role of the family within this sort of narrative. They protect him at first, then take advantage of him, later attack him and then profit from his death. He is alienated not only from the larger world of humanity but also his family and community. The alienated person is besieged from all sides and removed from all illusion of safety, with even his family posing a mortal threat. When one seeks to understand this alienation, one realizes that the protagonist is unique but his problems may be scalable. In essence, we must look to move from the uniquely personal into the general. It is inductive. It is, in many ways, an easier problem to understand as the details of the unique experience anchor the reader in reality, which makes moving outwards considerably easier.

I read The Metamorphosis as a Jewish book, seeing as it fits squarely within the canon of Jewish literature, which shares said inductive focus, but also as a white alienation narrative. I suspect Kafka would agree, given his discomfort with Jewishness. These characters are singular characters. Take the Immortal Bartfuss, for instance. Immortal though he isn’t. These two examples shouldn’t serve to say Jewish lit is necessarily white literature, only that it is the literature I personally have read the most of within the European canon and is the most emblematic of alienation in a European context. Sephardic literature comes, I’ve noticed, from a different place (Counter: the Brazilian Jewish writer Moacyr Scliar’s The Centaur so hmm). That said, within white alienation narratives, the most important thing is to understand the sufferer with the sufferer’s fellows given much less priority, even in a more community focussed narrative like Camus’ The Plague. These are individualist narratives. Understand me, I am unique, then you may understand us all.

Non-white alienation narratives seem to have a different focus. Understand us all, then you will understand me, and finally see how I’m unique. It’s a deductive approach to alienation as the alienated cannot see themselves apart from the community. The tapestry of the family plays a much more significant role, particularly in Latin American literature, the community in First Nations literature. Is it perhaps because the communities are alienated as a whole and individuals are less inclined to seek further alienation? The burden of alienation is shared across a family or community with the author usually taking pains to describe interpersonal relationship within the family unit before moving it beyond. Everyone is alienated within the family but not necessarily from each other, only the outside world. The individual understands the value of co-opting the voices of others. Unlike Gregor Samsa who has no way of reaching across, non-white alienation narrators find strength in numbers. What affects the community at large trickles down to reach the individual. These narratives take place against a backdrop that affects society at large, not in relative isolation.

Even when individuals react against the family in these narratives, the focus is different. Unique characters such as those within Achy Obejas’ “We came all the way from Cuba so you could dress like this?” still frame these narratives within the context of the community. Note the “we” in the title.

In Joy Kagawa’s Obasan, a narrative about Japanese-Canadians and the deplorable conditions within which they existed until not too long ago, shamefully enough, there are these lines:

There is a silence that cannot speak. There is a silence that will not speak. Beneath the grass the speaking dreams and beneath the dreams is a sensate sea. The speech that frees comes forth from that amniotic deep. To attend its voice, I can hear it say, is to embrace its absence. But I fail the task. The word is stone.

She clarifies this thought with:

We are the chips and sand, the fragments of fragments that fly like arrows from the heart of the rock. We are the silences that speak from stone. We are the despised rendered voiceless, stripped of car, radio, camera, and every means of communication.

Unlike Kogawa’s characters, Kafka’s Samsa would never claim the “we” suffer as much as the “I” or vice-versa.

ps: I didn’t actively consider GLBT fiction (despite the Obejas) when ruminating this afternoon so that’s something to think about.

Libraries

May 4, 2009

One of the panels this year at AWP was apparently literature about libraries. I love libraries. Ever since I was informed of this panel, I’ve been curious about what they might have spoken about. More people should write about being in them.

In the Library
-Charles Simic

There’s a book called
“A Dictionary of Angels.”
No one has opened it in fifty years,
I know, because when I did,
The covers creaked, the pages
Crumbled. There I discovered

The angels were once as plentiful
As species of flies.
The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away.

Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows.
The library is a quiet place.
Angels and gods huddled
In dark unopened books.
The great secret lies
On some shelf Miss Jones
Passes every day on her rounds.

She’s very tall, so she keeps
Her head tipped as if listening.
The books are whispering.
I hear nothing, but she does.

I’ve been reading archives of The New Republic and one thing led to another, I stumbled on to a poem I absolutely adore. It’s not like me to like old poetry but apparently I’ve a taste for it now. Read a lot of this guy, Randall Jarrell, especially. He reminds me oddly of Larry Levis, who Brandon introduced me to. Levis is awesome! Every time I read this poem, I appreciate the turn more and more. Damn you, research on economic policy, for your wicked procrastinating ways!

A Man Meets a Woman in the Street
-Randall Jarrell

Under the separated leaves of shade
Of the gingko, that old tree
That has existed essentially unchanged
Longer than any other living tree, Read the rest of this entry »

So your neurotic, unfaithful wife, driven to desperation by your apathy, manages to (unknowingly) cure you of AIDS, rendering you immortal, then dumps you in the bottom of the ocean tethered to a bust of Venus. What do you do when you awaken? Why, forgive, of course, and love. Takes eternity, but still. Princeton psychology professor Michael S.A. Graziano’s new book, Love Song of Monkey (Leapfrog Press), removes his protagonist Jonathan from humanity itself so he can arrive at that startlingly simple conclusion.

Love Song of Monkey harkens back to a time before the complications of the novel. It’s very short, doggedly fantastic, the sort of straight-line narrative that widens eyes around campfires or at bedtime, while being beautifully post-modern.

Read the rest of this entry »