TURTLE ISLAND QUARTERLY 7
David Kann (3 poems), Christopher Hansen (1 poem),
Tony Press (1 nonfiction), Laura Melling (1 poem)
3 poems by David Kann
For Beth Buxton
You died by inches,
surgeons carving pieces
always one step behind
that filthy crab.
when you lay
together with your lover—
for your lover—
though your desire had become
no more than an echo,
and when you let him
and reveal the gnarled landscape
your body had become,
did you turn your head away
in the slant lamp-shadows,
like a child believing
not to see him meant
you were free
of his gaze
while he read
the chart of scars,
some red and purple and new,
some tallow-yellow and settled-in—
that odyssey of agony—
could he squint through the map
and regain the territory,
and navigating by dead reckoning,
did he lay his cheek by your tender navel
and breathe you in,
honey-sweet as an infant?
how a shard of shell,
razory beyond remedy
works its slow way
into tender gray flesh
barely able to writhe but speaks
its agony in lunar radiance.
The barb drives deep.
Soft pith flinches.
Slow nacre blunts it.
When the shell is pried apart,
raw meat cringes in the sun,
revealing blush and opal;
how ambergris is
so loathy and vomitous
that though the whale dives deep,
he carries its ache
clenched and curdled in his gut
until he vomits
or shits it out,
and he swims on,
leaving behind floating
that air and water’s seethe
make a gift of:
waxy attar, balm and ease.
Libation to the God of Bats
City summer’s twilight air hung heavy as old velvet drapes,
trapping the smells of dog piss and sour soil
that rose from basins where spindly gingkoes drooped.
Family dinners were silent and heavy,
while disappointment’s aggregate shimmered
through aimless conversation like banked coals.
Understanding nothing, we sat eating,
head down, waiting it out
through these sparse meals,
tense with sooty heat
trapped in kitchens windowed with air shafts
Down the street there was a vacant lot
surrounded on three sides by walk-up tenements,
overgrown with nettle, thistle, and milkweed,
mugwort, henbit and pigweed,
strewn with stained, stripe-ticked mattresses,
wrinkled shed-snakeskin condoms,
random pieces of clothing
stiffened by cycles of snow and sun, merging with the dirt.
From all around evening teevee voices filled the air
like grown-up mumbles from another room.
We ran together into that lot
ours between morning and dark,
away from those desperate dinners
and their tight-strung humming silences.
Sometimes we scavenged
old hamburger wrapped in stained butcher paper,
or bacon gone dry and brittle,
forgotten at the back of a fridge.
Unwrapped, the meat cloaked us
in the sullen reek of pink and rust-
colored beef on the far edge of spoiling
or the cloying stench of smoke and rotting pork.
When I pinched a wad of meat,
cold, pulpy and flesh-slick between my fingers,
bleeding thin red juice into my palm,
That’s how a corpse must feel.
We threw it underhanded into the air,
an offering to thick dark drawing down.
Suddenly the still air condensed,
roiled and came alive
in black flapping rags and tatters,
taking the meat without a sound.
With each dip and curve we cheered,
our voices rising,
feeling quick and light.
Some nights I wake,
terrified by empty black,
like standing at the mouth of a cave
that swallows my voice
in stillness cold and sharp as ice on pines,
slicing me, throat to gut to groin,
telling me how diminishment
draws me downward day by day,
and I remember meat’s death-glamour
taken pinch by pinch, each wad
cupped in ten-year-old palms,
meshed in the smell of putrefaction,
and I feel in my back the lift of a child’s hand,
sent spinning in the air, snatched up,
then borrowing flight
from leathery wings,
diffusing into the dark,
ink drops fallen into wine.
David Kann teaches English and now creative writing in the Cal State University System. His daughter is a superb poet. Attending her readings, Kann found a lot of the other poets’ poetry not very good and said so. A poet friend of his dared him to do better, so Kann returned to poetry after a long hiatus and found that he felt more like himself when writing than he did most other times. Kann got an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts so he could get better at poetry, which was one of the finest experiences of his life.
Poem by Christopher Hansen
With gratitude to the Choctaw Nation, and following their creation story
in Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians, pp 12-20
When people tell the story of this migration
They will not speak of how it started, or what you did, or how you died.
They will speak of your decaying body
Dragged on a sledge behind your loved ones
Instead of being properly placed in the trees
To enter the sky on vulture-wings.
They will tell of the bone-picker
Whose long fingernails
Scraped away your putrid meat
Whose tattooed hands
Bundled your bones into a sack
Whose unwashed hands
Presented your family with a feast of corn gruel
And tied the sack to your wife's shoulders.
They will speak of the ever-growing burden of bones
Borne by children who never knew their owners
And never learned their names.
They will speak of the redoubled journey,
As family after family
Moved from camp to camp with all the bones they could bear
And then returned
To make the walk again with yet more bones.
They knew no deer would come to them
If they forsook the thick-hovering spirits
And abandoned the far-fetched precious treasure of bones
For the wild dogs to grow fat on the unscaffolded corpses.
Until one day a man would choose to speak to the living
Instead of the dead
Who could not hear him, or benefit from his speech.
Christopher Hansen is a botanist associated with the Florida Park Service. He has translated every surviving poem from China's Song dynasty concerning mushrooms.
Essay by Tony Press
HEARTS LIKE A GREAT LAKE
Today, twenty-one days before Good Friday, the people of Oaxaca celebrate the Day of the Samaritan. Two, three, five times in each ancient block of the city, on small tables in front of stores or offices, and houses, too, as well as in grand gatherings on church steps, you are offered “agua” -- bottled water, sometimes horchata, or jamaica, or even Coca-Cola -- all to remind us of the benefit of sharing what we have. And what is more important than sharing water?
I woke in Oaxaca this morning realizing I’d been dreaming in Spanish. I’m blessed to be here, to have the time and space to study, practice, realize -- not just the language, but so much more. Daily I sit in contemplation in the hidden patio of La Iglesia Soledad. Neither locals nor tourists seem to find this small paradise -- it is mine. Weekly I lunch with Father Jesus -- that is his name -- the uncle of a dear friend back in the states. The first time I ventured to introduce myself to him the church secretary directed me to what I thought was his office. It turned out to be a room for hearing confession. After a few confused moments we were laughing and chatting of his sister’s family to the north.
Six months ago I was in the hills above Alicante, the Southern Spain skies all the blankets I needed. We were inland from Villajoyosa, just a few kilometers beyond the tiny village of Sella. It was a thirty-day retreat, a gentle mix of meditation, conversation and study, physical labor around the grounds, and silence, shared with five other Buddhists on a property known as “The Secret Realm.” Spring and summer were reserved for four-month retreats and as many as 35 participants. The grounds had a large kitchen, meditation hall, and library. This September, it was just six men: five from that side of the Atlantic, and me, the lone American. I was El Gringo. Days rolled into nights, morning birdsong into its evening counterpart.
Our huts were encircled by terraced rows of almond trees. Behind them were massive rock walls, one so large we called it “La Ballena” -- “the whale.” Winding through the property was a public path for hikers, some of whom were real women. When I’d arrived in Alicante I was met by one of the six retreat participants, who took me on a walking tour of the beach, filled as it was with captivating bare-breasted women. He said, “if you’re going forth, it’s good to know what you’re leaving behind.” One day in the middle of the retreat I managed to walk a mile or two with a woman along that path, and she gave me a kiss on the cheek when we parted.
It was here, within the remarkable library, that I discovered St. Therese of Lisieux. St. Therese, a Catholic nun, followed what she called The Little Path, attempting to meet everyone with love, no matter how ill-tempered the other person might be. She endeavored to treat every situation with love. She did not attempt miracles. She did not wish for great events. She simply attempted to act as a saint would act, every waking moment. She died at 24, of tuberculosis, after seven years in a nunnery, after a lifetime of ill health. When she was dying, she feared she had been a failure. She wondered what, if anything, she had accomplished in her short life. Reading about her years later, to me it is evident what she did accomplish: to serve by acting in a manner as true to her path as she possibly could. And more, to be sure, because you and I and everyone who might read these words knows, deep in our Great Lake hearts, that the best teacher, the most effective instructor, is example. We change our lives, we sharpen our minds, and we open our hearts, when we see it, when we experience it. Imagine meeting each person, no matter how difficult, as St. Therese, as a bodhisattva, with love. We can learn from all we encounter, and teach, too.
I gushed to Father Jesus about St. Therese. He smiled. He knew a bit more about her than I did, and had for many years. Still, he welcomed my enthusiasm. That was the day we most intensely explored my Buddhism, his Catholicism, our poetry.
In Spain I could have meditated more -- I could always meditate more -- but when I wasn’t sitting with the others, which we did four times daily and are still the finest meditation experiences of my life, when left to my own devices I often sat in the sunny rock garden outside the library. I don’t often read biography but I don’t often live so near to the sun, and biography filled my morning hours. In addition to the slim volume on St. Therese, I found Ariel by Andre Maurois, written in 1924, which, according to a later dust jacket, “established a new form of dramatic biography.” Its subject: Percy Shelley; its enthralled reader: me.
In London, in Shelley’s time, arrests were illegal on Sundays. In those days you couldn’t get arrested in the daylight, not on a Sunday. No doubt there were exceptions for actions committed that very day and directly observed by law enforcement, but if you were an ordinary man with your name on a warrant, or with debts beyond repair, and threatened with immediate seizure, on Sunday you could leave your crime behind and walk the boulevard with your head high. Warrants could not be served. A day of grace, one in every seven. You could stroll arm-in-arm with the love of your life, clad in your best suit, and when is liberty sweeter than when we know it is temporary?
St. Therese, with her fears and her legacy; Percy Shelley, larger-than-life; and even his young bride Mary, she of Frankenstein fame, she whose grave I once visited in Bournemouth, England, with the notation that it also contains Shelley’s heart, all this I carried with me on the trains north to Madrid, to London, on the plane to Mexico City, the six-plus hour ADO bus to Oaxaca.
Imagine: Thieves and gentlemen, cops and robbers, could dine together, could have a drink or two or three, but unstated was the knowledge that the one would slip into the night. It never occurred to the other to follow -- it wouldn’t be sporting. One day a week, everybody could come to the table. Today in Oaxaca, under the intense rays of the sun, there is no thirst. There are tables for everyone, and no pesos change hands. No pesos are required.
Tony Press lives near San Francisco and tries to pay attention. He generally writes fiction, believing facts are valuable but stories are invaluable, but sometimes strays from the plan. See Blink/Ink; BorderSenses; Boston Literary; Doorknobs & BodyPaint; 5x5; Foundling Review; Grey Sparrow Journal; Halfway Down the Stairs; JMWW; Journal of Microliterature; Linnet’s Wings; Literary Orphans; MacGuffin; Menda City Review; Rio Grande Review; riverbabble; SFWP Journal; Switchback; Toasted Cheese; Workers Write; and more. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Poem by Laura Melling
even the cows were happy that night
of grass and lightening bugs
I put my hands in the tomatoes
lightening across darkness
and squeezed them to bits
I wanted to yell into the pasture
but contented myself
with chopping basil
sometimes giant leaves wrap my sleep
grape skins cling my feet
mad for falling
comes rushing from the sky
grain swoons under the heft of love
as light dives to the ground
to catch on round things
who could say if he was crazy?
it was peaceful
lightening across darkness
in the field of ice
the storm tearing off his clothes
arctic light breathing from his skin
his music was pain and space
snow cutting like blades
glaciers drifting in shade
but they medicated him against the cold
melted the icicles he preserved in dream
are you afraid of the splicing night?
he is no longer what he could be
sometimes I can hear voices
coming from painted caves
all mumbled incantation
endless litany of names
forms, sources, each and every seed
the call to them beginning
with a throat wrenching scream
awed gaze into the abyss
it is only sometime we get to live
walls of rock moaning
creaking with heat shifting
as life hidden heaves
frogs crack and reach
up from frozen lakes
Earth's revolving pull
goes deeper than the grave
sometime man or woman
sometime plant or beast
breath in, outward release
and so on unto rhythm:
as the beat, he used to say
creates space for the melody
who dare say what is crazy?
lightening across darkness
this world is a bumble bee
circling a golden flower
in spiraling breeze
under dappled leaves
sometime in seeming madness
out past the swells of sadness
I can see the shining center
to the wheeling year
to the litany of dreams
Laura Melling has a Masters degree in Anthropology from New York University, a Bachelors in Cultural Psychology from Rutgers University, is an affiliate teacher and former company dancer of the Isadora Duncan International Institute, a Waldorf kindergarten teacher, and the director of Myth and Movement Arts, a nature & arts education organization based in Boulder, Colorado. Originally from New Jersey, Laura has spent significant time traveling and living abroad, and now resides in Colorado. Her poetry has been heard on stages, in cafes and at arts festivals in locations around the US and Europe.