Monday, June 21, 2010

Chinese Bell for the Summer Solstice

Never published, this poem continues to nettle, to agitate in my craw. What better day to dig it out and air it in the longest light?

Chinese Bell for the Summer Solstice


Long ago, when he was maybe 50,

my father took a solitary walkabout

by Greyhound bus, across the West,

across the Golden Gate, chasing something

he had missed. From a fish shack

on the wharf he called and said, “It’s still light here.”

It shocked me: time zones something startling, new.

(On the only part of turning earth I knew

Ohio was already dark as it would often be,

Perhaps it was that Midwest night

that drove my dad to Chinatown.)

Outside the screen door, a hundred fireflies sparked,

I barely noticed, not yet knowing how

Exotic they were.

. I wanted more

Of California, hugged the black receiver

and heard from far away a gull.

I tried to see my father there, taking in the cobalt sea,

swooping birds, California sun like heaven

in his eyes. Then: “There’s a prison out there,” he

said., “and sharks would eat you if you tried to get away.”


Back home

he gave my mother

turquoise rings and in a narrow box

wrapped in newsprint with Shanghai script,

a simple cone of solid brass from Chinatown.

For years she rang it, calling guests to dinner,

They signed her leather guest book by the dozens,

An inventory of the Mister and Missus

Christians of Ohio, sipping homemade

Tomato juice from heirloom crystal on paper

Doilies and complimenting my mother’s rhubarb pie.

When we closed up their house,

surprised by melancholy memory

of my father’s midlife pilgrimage,

my mother’s hostess rites when he got back, I grabbed

the bell from a black bag bulging and

all ready for Goodwill.

I wonder if she found him changed,

At peace with her and finally satisfied.


Now every summer solstice,

my days in need of ritual

I wait for darkness with

the bell from Chinatown.

I don’t know how the bell got

Mixed up with it,

Proof my father lit out

Against his rampant heart?

Silvery clang against sorrow?

I love the give and take of light

at this, my native latitude,

a daily shifting truth the earth still owns.

I claim this bell, its perfect “ting,” a token

of my father’s restlessness but

also love: he went somewhere

for happiness, and he came home.


I seem to see things best at fading light,

when sharp black birds at bright 9:30

soar out of elms to shifting blue.

At 10 the cherry tree demolished

by a winter storm bares what I hadn’t seen:

dead branches bent like crones on what will be

the tree’s last sun before the chainsaw.

I’m glad I caught its last two blooms:

the one before the gale, when flowers

rushed our weathered fence, then mournful pinks

of this year’s brave but meager encore.


It’s not quite dark but tough times anyway,

Today, in fact, in floods of Iowa, a farmer

had to kill his pigs. A few survivors

screamed when roped and lifted

from the bilge. They’re all that’s left , he said,

but who would want to eat them now,

soaked with diesel fuel and shit?

What misery – saved, then euthanized

by what was in the flood. This solstice poem ,

at first a song to days, now seems to want

a hymn to night: why do those doomed and salvaged

pigs want in this poem, a poem that’s struggling

with the light?


At 10:15 three fireflies flash the purple yard

And I recall that childhood night

my father’s voice a promise

from the glamour of the bay

but I wonder if when summer dawns

less light may come as a relief.

I ring my father’s bell -- And now

begin invoking myths

for those who followed light

and disappeared.

In the White Room, With Black Curtains...

It's quite possible I lost my virginity to Cream's "White Room." Back then -- "then" being the late Sixties -- the melodramatic strains of "I'm so Glad," "Spoonful" and "I Freel Free" were regular accompaniments to the rebellious forays, experiments and exuberant separation adventures from our parents that kept us energized for years. I avidly pursued my independence in dorm rooms at first Miami U. of Ohio and then the much-sought after "off campus housing" (1009 Vine, true 'nuf, which you know if you read my novel) of Kent State where I drank Thunderbird, sampled skinny little rolled-up tastes of pot, and tried to get laid.

"Getting laid" sounds like the way a guy would put it. Oddly, I can't remember if those are the words I used for it then. But I know I wanted to "lose my virginity," strange erasure that that implies, well, I wanted it so badly that Mike Davison and I, both untutored in the mechanics of sex, tried for about three weekends in a row to make it happen, and stopped each time because it frankly scared us back into our bell-bottom pants. He was afraid to hurt me...I was afraid it was going to hurt. But finally that novel feeling, to be entered, to be filled -- and then all that movement, all that exertion, me "laying" there under him, paying exquisitely close attention to my body, to his body, feeling him sweat, feeling his breathing and already asking, I swear without guile, innocently, "so that's it?" -- well, we managed to get there. I was determined -- dogged, even, in a typical Scorpio fashion -- to have that experience. When Jimi Hendrix said "Are you experienced?" I wanted to be able to shout back, "Yes. Yes. Yes."

I'm remembering all this now because Saturday night Ted and Dennis and I went to Alva's Showroom on Eighth Street here in Pedro for a "Cream Tribute." It was performed with respectful exactitude in this sweet, small-scale venue by Kofi Baker, Ginger Baker's son, along with Fran Banish (fabulous name -- I looked it up to be sure I heard him right!) taking over the Clapton guitar parts and Rick Fierobracci emulating Jack Bruce's bass. They opened their two sets with "White Room," and the crowd lustily cheered. Including me.

Young Baker is a remarkable drummer himself, though far cheerier and, well, robust than his dad, who glared from album covers in the Sixties like somebody who's really, REALLY mad at "old people." Baker Junior and his mates have been making the rounds playing Cream and Blind Faith favorites, and at Alva's, the crowd, populated by folks of at least my age or older, ate it up.

And, sitting in the dark of Alva's, sipping Dennis's champagne from a plastic cup, I remembered Sixties sex.

My first lover and I worked at sex, as I remember it, in a low-ceilinged attic room in the house, which somebody rented out to about five or six Kent State "girls." I remember none of their names. It was usually messy and there were fights about food and who was supposed to clean the kitchen. My roommate for a time, a classically gorgeous blonde, had sex with her boyfriend in a single bed about three feet from me for weeks before I angled for my own room upstairs. I remember candlelight and incense burning -- I'm allergic to incense and had to bury my sneezes so as not to distract. She and her boyfriend didn't care I was trying to sleep right next to them. They were condescendingly worldly and didn't find me cool. I had a black portable stereo I'd bought from my tips busing tables at a Brown Derby Steakhouse. It sat on a bookstand at the foot of my bed. It had those two little matching speakers that attached on either side of the turntable. I had a small stash of records under an Indian scarf that covered the bookshelf: Al Kooper, Mike Bloomfield, Janis Joplin, Cream -- my shards of worldly accomplishments. In the game. One of the "us" that crowded into the culture then, making so much noise.

It was more like "so that's IT." Quiet, satisfied that I'd made it happen. Not the more cynical, jaded, pissed-off feminist reaction of later, "So THAT's It?" of later. It didn't feel particularly good physically. It was interesting. But not particularly pleasurable.

Part of the poignance of this memory -- this set of memories -- when I think about it today, an old woman of 60 on this longest day of the year, 2010, about 42 years since I lost my virginity, is how long it took me to learn how to fully experience pleasure in this world. Back then sex was so often about misplaced revenge, getting vindication for what I felt to be the smothering sameness and boredom of my earnest parents' lives. The fresh air of my new life, my freedom at 18 and 19 and 20 was endlessly intoxicating. And also intensely consuming, not exactly relaxing. Not relaxing at all.

It's possible to make a case that I didn't learn how to relax about sex until about a year ago.

I spend time every day teaching myself, over and over again, to Be Here Now: it is easier these days, with life's limits clear and most of my big decisions behind me, to simply Be Here Now. It still takes practice.

But I am grateful nonetheless for the energy of those tense years of my late adolescence. And I feel affectionate and appreciative of the rich, marvelous backdrop that came with it: music permeated everything. Cream -- Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce, Eric Clapton -- were there, pounding out their complex symphonies, soulful accompaniment to the melodramas of my own young life. It was fun to hear these young kids play it all again, and to remember.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Taking a Breather

Back in San Pedro, and as usual I am keeping busy during the day while Ted's at work -- busy, busy, busy with my own work. I never seem to be entirely free when here...was there ever a time when I could simply sit and "create"? But who ever has such freedom? Anyway, my head is buzzing and achy from putting together my summer online creative writing class, which starts July 6. My first ever all-online class, and I'm very uneasy about it. To help me prep, I'm enrolled in UMF's "Intensive Course Development" class, an eight-week boot camp I took once before, about four years ago, but I swear this is as if I'd never done it...a new version of Blackboard is kicking in, and I'm feeling stretched to the limit technically speaking.

I've made it into Week Five...every day requiring more reading, more posting, more fighting with Blackboard. Safari doesn't like it and it keeps booting me off. Maybe I'll download Firefox finally which is supposed to work better -- it's all fight, fight, fight with various systems most of which I only minimally understand. Trial and error, cussing, making it work...I've been a noisy complainer about all this on the ICD discussion board -- so loudly yesterday I finally felt the need to apologize.

The requirements for clear "learning objectives" has been a rigorous exercise for my left brain, while my right brain is chomping at the bit to invest the class with the "fun stuff." Yet to make the "fun stuff" work online, I'm having to wrangle with set-up -- endlessly detailed, front-loaded...I wish I knew HTML other than my little bits and pieces of it, carried over from this blog, actually. The ICD teachers, headed by a terse math Ph.D., are relentless about "outcomes." This consciousness, this conscious insistence on knowing what we are about, what we want our students to do, how to set up and measure "mastery," is at the heart of responsible teaching, of course.

But it's making my head hurt.

I just want to sit here looking out at the harbor, where the morning's cool marine layer hasn't yet lifted, and watch a barge slide into the harbor. I know I've got a poem in me somewhere. Some new poem waiting to be written. With only a gray legal pad and a pen. Not HTML. No power source. Just paper, pen, and my wandering, restless mind.