Saturday, March 28, 2009

For Saniyah

I hate taking death calls. I don’t know what to say. There really is nothing. There are no metaphors to help describe something so immensely sad, no obvious parables to offer. The only thing I can think to uncertainly ask is: what happened, what time, what place, what was the color and temperature of it? I already know all the likely answers: sudden, grim neighborhood, blue and cold. The world is suddenly shocked into focus, and this is all I can ask.
I was blithely planning our evening (off to Nomad Café for a poetry reading), when the cell phone blurted to life and told me of death. The afternoon vanished, the future retracted into the present. I’ve decided that the best thing for me to do in times like these is to listen to Shostakovich’s String Quartets (really only number 8 over and over again) until the world and life seem circumscribed by hopeful, tremulous movement, followed by violent overtures, and sad retreats. The sad cello answered by an even sadder fiddle weeping in C minor. Melancholy, tears, and a world in black and white with overtones of sepia.
Saniyah died this week. Hearing the news from Marilyn, one of the most emotionally empathetic people I know, made it harder and easier. It made me feel like weeping and embarrassed that I was not; that I was too numb to cry. Saniyah was a quiet little girl who liked to smile and play with her mother’s face. She was born in a dysfunctional world with arbitrary international borders, fractured families, and uprooted classes of people. She lived at the top of rickety, narrow stairs; she had a one-year old birthday party with a piñata and birthday hats; she had a mother who thought the world was her; she had a lot to live through and a lot of reasons to live. She always seemed like a reasonable little girl, easy to hold and easy to love. I’ll miss watching her grow into a beautiful woman, a little braver than the world she was given, making us proud to have known her.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

About Poetry and Place
Breyten Breytenbach, whose name is as interesting as his poetry, wrote: “One travels through many lands and one’s words go with you as swift, half-tamed birds, and at night they return to warble what they have eaten.”
The other night in a moment of clarity, I paused at the front door of our apartment building on University Avenue and noticed that the Ghanaians had painted their restaurant in national colors – from white to red, green, and yellow – and that Quaker Oats had put up a new billboard that said “Go Humans Go.” Funny how things that were once wonderful in their difference to the conventional now seem quotidian. The Lhasa Salon and Beauty Tek that flank the Ghanaian Restaurant have become normal, regular parts of the topography of the place. Yet now as I stood there braced against a young tree next to the parking meter ticket machine, it seemed once again strange. Even more estranging was the pacing of eminent anthropologist Paul Rabinow’s ubiquitous teaching assistant (the one who has a Ph.D in both theology and anthropology) as he softly shushed his new born baby while his cooing wife entertained guests in the Salvadorian place twenty steps from our backdoor. Gaymon Bennett (I’ve since found out that is the TA’s name) broke into a lullaby, but the baby kept wailing.
In January moving from New York to a new environment seemed impossibly good. I was actually surprised a month or two later that living among yogi naturalists and dreamy anarchists in a peaceful and quiet neighborhood didn’t necessarily mean that I would never be grumpy. Even space so perfectly organized did not necessarily guarantee my satisfaction.
Last night J. and I stalked Joanna Newsom and Gary Snyder up in the Nevada County Sierra. We wanted to see what sort of place could produce the poetics and practice we like to emulate. Nevada City is a mining turned wining and dining town not far from John A. Sutter’s mill where gold was noticed back in 1848. The town sparkled with truth in sharp greens and greys, the downtown a march of old brick and hard-wood buildings tight and square with stenciled signs. The scent of sourdough bread and wet ponderosa pine filled the air when we were there, eating local Cajun food while listening to Jonny Cash. In the bathroom of Ike’s Quarter Cafe we saw signs of Woody Guthrie, a dislike for neckties, a band of thirteen year-old local rock stars called “13” and known as the “best band in the galaxy.” The food was expensive and local and the toilet seat was made of wood. The place was like the poetry Robert Hass, our poet laureate, prefers: “poetry is a late night coffee shop: it makes you feel truth and social belonging.” Driving home for the last time out of the foothills, I put my hand on the back of J.’s head as close as I could to her brain and pointed out Mount Diablo and Mount Tamalpias rolling back on opposite sides of the San Andreas Fault and San Francisco Bay. We were floating home like two Canadian geese, I was hoping she would chatter and chirp like an excited four-year old chickadee as she sometimes does; instead we listened to Peter, Paul and Mary and thought about what it means to be happy and how maybe a nice place is like good poetry: it prepares the ground for a strong politics and just society, and it makes you understand just a little the naiveté of cynicism.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

matteo dudek

Great Failure

Matthew Wenger who might remember with me that we have only seven generations before Mennonite history is reduced to myth (or at least this is what they say in Africa about African history), recently told me that I have a “voice” when I write and that it has gotten “gentler” since we moved to the livable West Coast. For three years I have attempted to restrain the vapid impulse toward callisthenic verbosity (inspired in the first resort by Jorge Luis Borges) and tried in a very small way the practice of alienation defined by J.M. Coetzee as “inner emigration” to a world of marginality where one can finally speak both within and to a culture such as “Mennonite.” Operating from the position of a surely lapsed member of Country View Chapel (a problem space located next to the Amish Door Restaurant in Wilmot, Ohio); the son of a Mennonite lay bishop (not to mention a career-path shaping professional), I’ve been projecting back to Mennonite readers (I assume), in a language that is not easily assimilated, three cryptic paragraphs every week.

It’s been a failure as Slavoj Žižek would frame it – expression is always such; but at times it has been a glorious, feverish failure, pencil to paper urges, the sort of passion that would make Rainer Maria Rilke smile (or at least that’s what I’m told). It’s been a self-serving failure sometimes, like Ayn Rand or George Orwell at their worst. And it has been a failed attempt at cultivating mindfulness, as the mundane still appears boring more often than not. The writing life has failed many times to construct meaning out of the hyperreality of current experience: I remain an often overwhelmed but rooted individual floating around in time and space like a water lily. Sometimes, though, I feel like I’m on the cusp, pushing at something provocative and evocative, and that’s when writing is great, and the degree of failure is the best.

Yesterday Jennifer and I drove the winding roads of North San Francisco Bay with no real purpose. It felt like the countless Sunday afternoon drives I took down County Road 2 southwest toward Maysville out of Mount Eaton or on the dirt stretch between what we referred to as “the Dump Road” and Kohler Road down by Rodney Stutzman’s old place (where I trapped frogs and dug for black diamonds as a 12 year-old). When the melancholic light was right (at around 5 pm) and if I was lucky a dramatic thunder storm had just swept through, the Amish-Mennonite landscape of southern Wayne County seemed just about perfect. It was green and quiet, the air sparkly, just birds and me and the occasional cow. I was saying goodbye, moving to the city, away from the simple life toward a utopian community “out there.” On my aimless silent drives by myself, I think I was trying to orient myself with the Mennonite landscape. I was trying to see it for what it was; as a natural system not as a function of me. I can’t really see California in the same way, because we don’t know it well enough (after all it is the third degree of separation from my Mennonite roots), but it was still nice to say goodbye like that, we’ll miss it a little when the show here is over and all we will remember are the bright lights of good feelings and near misses.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Stealthily Stretching Out

Driving fast like a fast car in slow-motion in a Porsche commercial down sweeping roads in the green Sierra foothills we listen to Joanna Newsom split glass in Nevada County: the sheared rock of Yosemite towering behind us a muted roar in our minds against the crystal blue sky. After an extended conversation about money and its inevitable decline, Jenn and I sit in silence for a few minutes thinking about becoming adults, the siren call of the wild against our bipedal human nature and its proclivity to procreate or at least surrogate.
When we reach the alluvial plain of the San Joaquin Valley variegated by millions of sweet almond trees and huge piles of ripe manure mounded next to milk-making factories, a little squabble ensues over the proper integration of our IPod with the stereo of our dark red car. Dark thoughts dissipate now as Rufus Wainwright wails in his unabashed way now in our long swerve around the spinning blades of hundreds of windmills down towards Pleasanton.
Our 48 hours in Yosemite had been filled with clear moments in air so clean it left “an aftertaste of granite in your nose,” Jennifer thought. We watched a bobcat stalk mice, mule deer browse grass, and small clumps of third-world tourists investigate the scenic spots. We listened transfixed to frogs sing in an interlooping rounds of other-worldly under/overtones and worried only slightly about the future of our lives; that is, imagining the possibilities and being creative. As we sipped coffee out of heavy glasses at our spa/yoga retreat/hostel surrounded by pictures of bugs, we thought a slow morning, sleeping late buried in blankets like giant cats was more important that a guided tour – even if Ranger Jack gave you free snowshoes.

Sunday, March 01, 2009


With the Menno Panther

Following in the footsteps of Allen Ginsberg, Philip Whalen, and Gary Snyder who inaugurated the circumnavigation of Mount Tamalpais, San Francisco’s holy mountain, this weekend we prowled around with Olivia Wenger, the original Menno Panther. We were trying to forget all our trials and make our own way as confused individuals. Along the way we paused to venerate special trees, honk on some grass, absorb the geography, and dwell on the human ecology of being friends on a particular mountain.

moss on a tree

jennifer speculates while the menno panther smirks

small hip break on the ascent

giant ferns cascade like cataracts on the cataract trial

worshipful mood sets in

small mennonite women recline on the west face of mt. tam

jenn lies down on command as olivia looks on

jenn tries pathetically to honk with grass
jenn smiles modestly while darren succeeds 9 times in honking

olivia has a good time
darren hugs a purple tree like a young girl on a practice date

a painfully posed picture at the summit pagoda