Monday, June 08, 2015

The Wife of the Painter

She is turning toward you
against a dark background,
and a spray of flowers
near the garden window,
in a sunlit dress
of the bright eighteenth century,
light and cheerful and demurely
(her hand cupped as if beckoning)
as the enlightenment itself—
her face pale and quietly shining,
with its sweetly curved nose
and small lips that barely hide a little
pouty smile, tender and ironical—
as if she has just caught you staring at her
and is about to ask you, “So,
Mr. Ramsey,
am I about to become your next painting?”
And you are about to laugh out loud
and reach for your pencil
and say, “That’s it, that’s it, my darling! Don’t breathe, don’t move!”

And you didn’t move,
and the painting held you
like a lover
and carried you
like a child,
down the broken path
between the rose bushes
and the hawthorns,
and the darkening country lanes,
and the gathering seasons,
past the withered garden
and the bitterness of love
and the gravestone in the churchyard corner

to a far country
in the sea-blown light
under other suns
and other skies.

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Glass Wing

heavy as a mountain
translucent as ice
broken from a great body
its feathers melting like snow

the shard of a hill
snapped from a potter’s hand
then laid in a box
on the prison island of birds
a vice of brightness
surrounded by broken windows
crowds of eyes of dust

the steel bones like fingers
opening from a clenched hand

it shimmers in the afternoon

the tremendous wing

o frozen dream of flight
o grave shoveled by the sun

for Ai Weiwei

The Beginning of Evening

When the northern sky grew pale
with the setting of the sun,
and one half of the sky
held the other in its hand,

and the western streets knew winter,
and the cities were as grass,
and you were here among the hidden
like a child among the lost,

still the quietness was there, still
the shadows closed the blinds,
still the door between the windows
opened to your small, cold hands,

till a drift of southern swallows
swept above the apple trees,

and you slept among the rushes
beneath wasps and flies and bees.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Garden of Infinity

What if the multiverse 
is an infinite garden
with infinite universes
inside it, 
and each universe is a flower?

And each universe
is an infinite garden
with infinite galaxies
inside it, 
and each galaxy is a flower?

And each galaxy
is an infinite garden
with infinite stars
inside it,
and each star is a flower?

And each star
is an infinite garden
with infinite worlds
inside it, 
and each world is a flower?

And each world
is an infinite garden
with infinite atoms
inside it, 
and each atom is a flower?

And each atom
is an infinite garden
with infinite quarks
inside it, 
and each quark is a flower?

And each quark
is an infinite garden
with infinite strings
inside it, 
and each string is a flower?

And each face
is an infinite garden
with infinite beauties
inside it,
and each of its beauties is a flower? 

And each mind
is an infinite garden
with infinite thoughts
inside it, 
and each of its thoughts is a flower?

And each thought
is an infinite garden
with an infinite multiverse
inside it,
and every multiverse is a flower?

As above, so below; as below, so above.
infinite, infinite, infinite,
forever, and forever, and forever?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The World in the Palm of Your Hand

The stain of the sun:

as my eyes opened
the light struck the clock –
a little plastic thing
with a face, round and plain,
given for Christmas by my closest friend.

I moaned a little. “Mmm—let me
sleep a little longer….” It said a minute
or two, not enough, before seven.

There was nothing special about the clock:
small, functional, foldable, accurate,
it could be slipped into a pocket and carried
easily enough
to the farthest ends of the small blue planet.
It had a delicate but curiously penetrating alarm.

My friend had bought it at a little store
in Chinatown from a teenage gamine-like girl
named Mary Chew, who had a mole
on her chin, perfectly shaped eyes, and a stutter.
Usually she worked only weekends, but
that day had been the first of winter vacation,
and she wanted to earn some extra money
to buy a motorcycle base-layer crew neck tee (a surprise)
for her 22-year-old boyfriend, Daniel Chan,
whom no one in her family liked.
“His family is not from Guangzhou,” her mother complained.

Mary’s employer, Charles “Charlie” Wang,
was a little wiry man, all abrupt manner
to his workers, all unctuous simpering
for his customers. He usually paced
the back of the store looking at all
the clocks, but could never remember the time.

He had purchased the clock
as part of a consignment from a saleswoman
named Kelly Smithfield, a tall, big redhead,
born in Modesto, a graduate of Davis,
who had brought it in a case of samples
she showed him one day at the end of October
on a cold call at the Golden Mountain Happy Clock Store.
Kelly was twenty-seven, vaguely desperate –
she waved her hands a lot and laughed too often –
still on probation with the company,
she hadn’t sold a single clock since August,
and nearly fell over when Charlie Wang
bought her entire case. When Charlie
invited her to lunch at the Dragon Palace of Dim Sum –
“You will love their chicken feet!” – well, how could she refuse?

Kelly had been given the clock
by her assistant, Amanda Clark,
at the home office in Sacramento.
Amanda was twenty-three,
petite, blond, scattered,
with two years of community college
and aspirations to become a real estate agent,
though she was afraid she may have missed
the height of the market
by a decade or two.

Amanda had gotten the clock
in a case with other clocks –
small-traveling, silent-alarm, valedictory, vanity-table,
of all shapes and designs, from the plainest, like mine,
to luxury, to joke and variety designs:
Dooby-Doo, Bart Simpson, Princess Elsa, Shrek –
a case she had gotten
from the office delivery clerk, Steve Butts,
a middle-aged man who had been downsized
by a local insurance company at the age of 55
and was taken in out of compassion
by the office manager, who knew him
during his glory years as a claims adjuster.

Steve had gotten the case from a warehouse clerk,
José Parra, thirty-two, prematurely balding,
undocumented, who lived in a trailer park
with several men from his village in Guatemala.
He sent half his minimum wage to his family
and sold clocks he had filched from the warehouse
late at night on eBay.

A young warehouse worker named Minh Vuh,
a Vietnamese whose parents had been boat people
when they were children, had placed the clock
carefully in the case, with a handful of confetti. Minh
was engaged to a sweet young Laotian
who lived three blocks from his family home.
Their parents were not too happy about that,
so they had to meet secretly after school
and on his work breaks when she was in the neighborhood.
It all felt very romantic. “Like Romeo and Juliet!”
his girlfriend said, giggling. Minh kissed her on her tiny nose.

Minh didn’t remember (he had no reason to), but
he had put that very clock on the
second shelf from the top in column 37 of aisle C
last September
after receiving it in a shipment of similar clocks
off a truck driven by an ageing Filipino
named “Jack” (he had rejected his original name when a young man –
he said he wanted to be “100% American!”
and that meant having a name like Bob or Joe or Bill,
and he thought “Jack” sounded sexy and macho).

Jack had picked up the shipment from a Sacramento wharf
where it had been unpacked from a container
by a young African-American
named Obadiah Washington,
who was in fact a rap artist (the day job was a secret)
and performed at local clubs at night under the name
Dr. Sling.   

The container had been hauled off the ship Flower of Seoul
by Ted Anderson, of old Swedish stock, on his last day
before retiring. The container was his last but one.
When he hauled the final container of his career,
his fellow longshoremen smashed a champagne bottle against it
and made a party of it for the next hour on the wharf.
The container with the clocks inside got a splash of the champagne,
but was otherwise undamaged by the festivities.

The Flower of Seoul had carried the container
across the Pacific the week before.
The ship was manned by a small crew,
most of them young Indonesians, and piloted
by a Taiwanese captain named Jiang-Ji Li,
forty-five, with a family of six girls at home
and a nagging wife who made the boredom of sea life
seem like an endless vacation by contrast.
Getting his girls married, however,
was another matter: the eldest
had been poisoned by “women’s liberation”
(as he still called it) and wanted to become a captain
like her father. Why couldn’t she have been a boy?
These thoughts had made the crossing
an onerous one for Captain Li,
especially the prospect of going back:
the Flower of Seoul would be making a week-long stop,
after picking up timber in Portland,
at Taipei.
The clock had sat for the entire trip,
unseen in its dark container,
its hands set at the traditional 10:10.

In the port city of Busan, South Korea,
the container with my clock in it
(though, of course, it was not yet my clock –
would it ever be, really? Is ownership
of anything, let alone a clock,
time’s strict and impartial measurer,
by a limited and mortal being like man
even possible? That is a delicate
philosophical question
that we can not, alas, pursue here),
that container had been placed on the deck
of the Flower of Seoul
with two dozen other similar containers
of different colors and sidings –
some corrugated, some smooth –
with the result that the ship looked like a father
so overburdened with packages
he was likely to fall down,
by a longshoreman named Kim Dong-hyun,
twenty-eight (a little fat fellow
who loved dakon kim-chi so much
his mother gave him a case every year
for Gujeong),
using a crane
to lift it from a semi driven by a driver
named Kim Ji-hoon (no relation), a tall, skinny fellow
of thirty-three,
who still lived with his parents
and played computer games on the weekends,
driving his mother to despair about ever having
He had driven the truck
from a small factory outside Seoul,
where he had stopped by for the clock consignment,
up near the border
(it was a long drive not helped
by the bad heat wave and the endless traffic –
the highway was becoming a continuous traffic jam,
but no one in Seoul wanted to pay for improvements,
so Ji-hoon just growled and daydreamed about the next version
of WarCraft, supposed to be coming out in August).

A young woman – a sixteen-year-old named Song-hi
with long hair and fat cheeks and a pert expression –
had packed the clock in the consignment box
after taking it from the end of the assembly line
where it had been checked for quality by a grim matron
named Yun, who had a drunken husband,
two ungrateful children and a spoiled cat,
the only creature in the world she felt understood her.
The clock had been assembled
by half a dozen other girls, all wearing the same uniform.
Chimin, whose face was a perfectly flat oval
and always rode her bike to work,
added the swivel stands to the clocks.
Soyon, who was always sad
and never talked about her home life,
put in the inner workings of the clocks
and the battery receivers:
the little drawer that poked out of
the clock’s plastic case.
Subin, who liked to clown and make practical jokes,
attached the minute and hour hands, and “sweeps”
(i.e., second hands), when they had them, to the clocks.
Hayun, who was very tall and very proud
(actually, her unusual height made her painfully self-conscious),
added the white face to each clock. Once,
she had been so distracted,
she had put the faces in upside down
for more than 20 clocks.
Nobody down the line noticed until Mrs. Yun, of quality control,
saw them and had a meltdown,
and threatened to fire everybody.
That was a bad day for Hayun!
Chi’u, who was so short she
disappeared under the assembly line
when she stepped off her stool,
put in the oscillating mechanism
that ran the clock.
Hyechin, who, for some reason,
no one liked and everyone made fun of,
put in the alarm.

The girls got the parts from the other side of the factory,
where they were made by two men and a woman:
Chunyong, fifty-five, who dyed his hair,
was the lead craftsman
amd made the clock oscillators.
Songmin, his first assistant,
a stiff young man – the first of his family
not to have to work in the fields –
crafted the cases.
Yuchin was the first woman in the factory
to have made it into “craft”: she had a small tattoo
of a periwinkle on her left inner wrist,
and was considered quite wild,
but that was all right by Chunyong,
her manager,
because she was so talented.
She crafted the clock faces,
arms and sweeps,
based on her own designs.
(These were first OK’d by upper management, of course –
that was one of the reasons they had hired her:
design and craft in one person, with only one salary!
The clocks sold consistently, especially in the American market,
so “UM” was content.)

Songmin and Yuchin got the polystyrene they used
from bins of plastic parts
that had been delivered by
Kwon Young-sik, who had only one eye,
from a bad accident on his last
delivery job (it had not been his fault;
he had left because he thought that it would bring even worse bad luck,
after his accident, to stay).
The parts had been made in the big
National Plastic Co. Ltd. plant
on the other side of Seoul.
Much of the plastic was recycled
from toys, hardware tools, and other clocks.

Chunyong had gotten the quartz for the
oscillator crystal that runs my clock
(I guess I can call it mine, now)
from a bin where the crystals were packed
in small boxes
after delivery by Park Ye-jun,
a short, fiery man with bad breath
(he lived on garlic for breakfast, lunch and dinner),
from the mines of Tae Wha,
near Chungju, half way between Seoul and Busan.

The quartz from which the mechanism of my clock was made
had been mined from the earth there
by a very young man named Ahn Min-kyu,
eighteen years old, just out of school.
His family had been fishermen from time immemorial,
and he had planned on being a fisherman too,
when the fish stocks of his seashore village
disappeared one day –
it was thought because of pollution from the North –
so he had to change plans and, instead of probing the ocean
for a living, probed the earth, as there were jobs
at the booming Tae Wha Mine.
So he left his village
and went to Chungju
and learned to dig the earth
for minerals. Then one day,
in a poorly lit tunnel,
smelling of sulfur and damp,
he dug out, with his pick
(the machinery was down, as so often),
a clump of quartz – several million years old,
formed by magma thrusting
from deep within the earth –
the mine was along the rim of fire that followed
the edge of the northern Pacific
from America to Asia,
and made volcanoes erupt
and quakes shake the earth
(a smaller quake had woken me
not long after I was given the clock) –
a clump of quartz that had been deposited
in milky white crystals
with other rocks, from fire and river and wind,
in the dark earth.
He placed it, using his shovel, into the cart,
and the cart rolled away to the surface
and the sunlight,
then he turned back to the wall of rock
with his pick, and swung.

And that is the list of people to whom I am indebted
for the appearance on my bed table of the little alarm clock.
The list could go on –
there is really no reason to stop here:
What about the parents, and the grandparents, on and on,
of all those people who at one point or another
touched or handled or carried the clock, or
what would later become the clock?
What about their siblings, uncles, aunts,
cousins, teachers, friends?
What about the original inventor of the very first clock?
And who, or what, invented him?

One could go on and on. And on and on,
without end.

And that is just for the clock I looked at
when I woke up that morning.
What if I had to do the same thing
for everything else in my life?
The mind suddenly flies off
like a flock of astonished crows,
shredding the air . . .

I woke.
It was the alarm
“get up! get up! get up!”

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Modernity Is Catastrophe

He woke in the middle of a nightmare.
The terror lay in his room
like the body of a dead animal
covered with flies. Its teeth
shone in the grass.
                                A French soldier,
half-asleep above the stove of a peasant,
turned, restless with insomnia from his problem:
“What can I know, if anything?”
He knew he could doubt; besides that, 
could he know anything at all?

A man raised a tube in Italy
with curious lenses toward the night.
The moon bowed its face toward him.
“What will I see there, if anything?”
To his eye he put the tube and squinted.
“Cara luna, will I see anything at all?”

An Englishman sat carefully writing
a work of indisputable logic
through the night. He raised his eyes, reflected:
“What can a man do, if anything?”
In the darkness he heard someone whisper:
“What if he can do anything at all?”  

A gentleman in Paris totted up figures
in two columns on a smooth surface of calf-skin:
“What can I make, if anything?”
He counted again: the numbers added up, beautifully.
His fingers grasped the quill so hard it split.
“I can make more. What if I can make it all?”

It was nearing midnight in Europe.
A messenger was crossing the mountains,
taking an urgent notice between sovereigns
who had never met face to face.
Nearing the summit, he stumbled,
his boot dislodging a stone
that fell, gathering stones as it went
in a wind of rocks, trees, snow, 
collapsing across the valley
in an avalanche, burying it all.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Love, Faith and Science

The headline read in this morning’s Times:
“There Is No Such Thing as Love.”
It had been scientifically proven.
The selfish gene would not have it.
There was lust,
exquisite as acid on gold.
There was even a lazy pleasure
in a certain body’s company
when it didn’t outstay its welcome.
There was the excitement of imposing one’s obstreperous ego
on another body and mind
and the exquisite satisfaction in inhabiting
another person’s soul:
what else were the joys of tyranny
and art’s wanton thrill?
All of this was adaptive, said the reporter,
quoting a faceless biologist.

And then, of course, there is habit:
the familiar shadow
against the corridor wall,
the silhouette in the garden,
the footfall in the living room,
the musky smell in the sheets.
This reinforces the survival of the species,
and thus of the monster twined in the chromosome
like the Minotaur in his labyrinth.

There is the notorious obsession,
the adolescent psychosis,
that makes life seem a glory,
ineffable, sublime,
with all its suffering meaningful,
and all its emptiness a garden
of almost unbearable enchantment,
and for a brief hour,
the long humiliation of human life
seems actually worth the time.
But even the scientists quoted in the Times
were not yet certain
how something so clearly maladaptive
ever survived natural selection.
(My own, completely unscientific, theory
is that no completely rational species
would ever reproduce
in the prison of matter and time
we call the universe,
so, to be induced to replicate,
we need to go out of our minds.
But I am no biologist.)

And this brings us to the question
that might make an interesting debate for us here
when I have stopped writing and you have stopped reading:

Is human life worth living
if there is no such thing as love,
as the biologist claimed to have just proven scientifically—
if the human race is not (let’s face it) all that lovable
after the first years of childhood,
and there is nothing but dust, gas, stones,
whirling energetically in a space that is
incalculably vast and essentially dark?
(Scientists proved that a very long time ago – see Lucretius.)

No love—and no intelligence either,
since we are blocked from reality by our very minds
(this was also proven by scientists quite recently,
though they didn’t seem to realize
this obviates, renders null and void,
this and all of their other claims: they’re just
deluded fools like the rest of us!).
We are condemned to live in cages
of darkness and ignorance and pain,
mocked and terrified by our own delusions
from the cradle to the office to the hospice to the grave.
Neither love, then, nor faith, nor science,
those tawdry shadows of God,
to console us or to save us—
so, what are we to do?

I told all this to an atheist friend over a beer,
my dark little thread of speculation
(the newspaper I had spread on the bar between us),
to join me in an interesting debate
that might further our mutual enlightenment.
I thought he would appreciate the logic,
so elegant and simple and clear,
that I had spun from the pages of the Times,
the liberal’s bible, the secularist’s book.
But his eyes burned with a fury,
and I thought he would burn me at the stake.

Friday, March 13, 2015

A Refusal to Mourn the Death by Gunfire of Five Cartoonists and Seven Others at Charlie Hebdo, in Paris, January 7, 2015

We shall not weep, shall not rage, shall not lament—
we shall laugh, and not a bitter laugh,
a laugh from the belly, a loud and giddy 
laugh that knows no bounds,
splits our sides, shakes us like jelly,
makes us dizzy, gasp for air,
a laugh that almost makes us want to die--
but we don't die of it, 
we live because of it,
we live in the heart, on the waves of this laughter,
we laugh - chuckle - chortle - giggle - hell we can’t
stop it – STOP IT!
Nope! We soar across the sky, like shrimp shooting backwards,
airborne on shrieks,
hysterical as angels
laughing at those poor devils
who don’t know how to laugh for the sheer cracked fun of it
and never could take a joke,
who turn everything into anger and hatred,
into spite and resentment, who poison life with their hatred,
who are messengers of death, bringers of death
with their terrible pride and hatred and anger,
their refusal to look in the mirror and giggle,
because life and love are wonderfully absurd,
but there is nothing more absurd than death,
and nothing more stupid, beside the point, ridiculous
than murder and its bloodthirsty family, battle and war:
they cannot laugh, so they must kill,
they will never know that laughter is love of life,
is life itself, and whenever we laugh, life
triumphs. No:
we shall not weep, we shall not rage, we shall not lament—
we shall laugh like the angels as they welcome these twelve into paradise.

That deep thunderous sound (do you hear it,
shaking things up in the background?)
is the Old Man undergoing the tickling treatment—
first a grin, then a giggle, then a chuckle, then a chortle,
then a titter, a guffaw, wheeze, sneeze and the bees’ knees –
it’s a hurricane, it’s a typhoon:
hold on to your hats, ladies!
hold on to your heads, gents!
Those guys must’ve just shown him that cartoon
where God’s in a bar, saying to the barkeep,
“Technology! I keep saying, ‘Fiat lux, fiat lux,’
and the goddamn light won’t go on!”