Is the mind's authentication of what the tongue tastes really needed?
Does the bougainvillea bud wait for the gardener's permission to bloom?
Must a priest quote the sacred texts every time we want to know a pebble's whereabouts?
When your lover playfully bites your belly, must you ask your doctor to view the bite-mark for you to know it's real or is it enough simply to close your eyes and feel it pleasandly throb?
Is the mind's authentication of what the tongue tastes really needed?
My book Closing the Hotel Kitchen includes a poem about Aaron, a soldier serving in Vietnam. The poem goes like this --
He talked about a bay, the smell
of seaweed in the morning.
Before long the seasons changed and he took us
for a walk along the shore in a snowfall so heavy
we barely could see the water.
“There’s a duck blind up ahead,” he told us.
We didn’t know where we were going
and didn’t care.
Soon the helicopter landed at the LZ. Dust swirled
all around us like thoughts that wouldn’t cohere.
I've written a number of poems about Aaron. The most recent one is below.
“What they experienced, they remembered, and told their children, and then their children told their children too.”
-- Passover Prayer
After his daughter went to sleep at night, he often
lay on the sofa, concentrating
on the sound of water
slapping eelgrass outside. Once
as a boy, he snuck
into a synagogue near the bay and sat
in the perfect quiet until
disturbed by a noise: someone
clearing their throat. Soon, shaped
from this phlegmy sound, a first
word found its way
into existence: somewhere
in the unlit building, the cantor
started to practice singing. As the voice
grew louder, turning
into a structure made of breath, even the walls
and floor became sound.
Without knowing why, Aaron
began to cry.
He didn't leave
for over an hour.
Sometimes, lying on the couch, he heard no wind, nothing, not
a single sound, not even waves
foaming onto sand
or lapping reeds.
But he didn’t believe
in absolute silence. He heard
was the sound made by all the other
he kept the beat by tapping
his thigh with a finger.
A widower with a child to raise,
often during his walks along the bay
he heard its history in
the waves’ murmurings. Rolling
they came from the time he was a boy
when men still harvested Blue Point oysters
for good cash. Sometimes back then
he imitated with his arms
the seaweed’s sinewy movements as he glided
among lifeforms overseen
by the plankton that formed
God’s cells. Everything
at such moments
moved to the rhythm
of the water’s currents, its music
of this way and that, of swirling notes
submerged concussions. And now, all
these years later, Rachel growing up and him
continuing to walk along the bay, there was still
the water’s music, its history’s
endless stanzas The sound
of one type of bay algae dying out while another
smaller in size but
spreading everywhere, replaced it. The new
by duck farm runoff
into the bay, colonized
the depths and stopped the sunlight from filtering
down. Soon afterwards
the remaining oyster beds died as the water
grew dark like the inside
of Billie Holiday’s mouth
as she sang “Strange Fruit” on the old RCA TV
while the algae, multiplying
with each passing day, thickened, occupying
ever more space. He heard
the algae blooming back then
and all the other
noises too, the swish of one era
dissolving into another
underwater while above, where
greater clarity abounded, the sound
of county permits passing from one hand
to another was the same
as a breeze brushing
along a shore that, as he walked
with his daughter, disappeared
under their feet, making a noise
like the cantor’s voice trailing off
in a synagogue that
with its walls and roof lying in ruins now
finally was what it should be: nothing special, just
what was there, land, water and everything
on and in them, a space
big enough to contain
all true reverence and grief.
Aaron thought of the past, but not for long.
He and Rachel walked along the bay’s edge.
Like a science without an underlying logic,
al-Hallaj hung from the gallows,
hands and feet cut off,
the message: blood and gore are intrinsic to the spirit.
I crawled onto the wooden platform
beneath where his body, a sack of garbage, swung.
This was the end of things. Desert stones were darkened
by the shadow of a buzzard’s flapping wings.
Yet in spite of the ugliness, I scrambled
on hands and knees across the platform, slurping
the grisly stew al-Hallaj had blessed me with.
“This is how to live!” I thought.
In the morning when they cut off his head,
then flung his limbless torso in the fire,
I swirled in circles
and chanted syllables only Allah admired.
Now, nourished by al-Hallaj’s bones and sinews,
and with a broken mind the unknown beckons,
his words echo in my head like the wind pounding
the rocky crags atop Cheekha Dar mountain:
“Fools wedded to themselves begat tax collectors.
Nomads in the desert, we leave behind no wells.
Like a coin dropped in a sandstorm, the past is lost.
Blind as she-camels, we roam without locating home.”
A blasphemer in love with what he hates
and spattered with al-Hallaj’s blood and urine,
I pray in the gallows’ shadow
to whatever Allah creates or ruins --
I want to be your voice,
I want to be the sound of thunder,
I want to be the hypocrite’s despair,
I want to teach the killed to subdue their murderers.
A pile of filth, I curl up in a corner of my house.
Both hope and hopelessness have lost appeal.
With a nod to God, I crawl away toward nothing.
Laughing, he decrees, “Only through disbelief can you find me!”
Here's a YouTube recording of Vidya Rao singing a Kabir poem ("Yeh tun thath") as part of the Kabir Project. For more information about the project, cliock here. In order to purchase the Vidya Rao Kabir CD on which this song appears, click here.
The booklet that accompanies the CD, includes the following translation of the Kabir poem sung above by Ms. Rao.
O wise ones!
This body – a splendid tambura!
Made of the five elements, this tambura
strung together with nine resonances.
Tighten the strings, twist the pegs
and the song of the lord emerges.
The strings snap, pegs lie scattered.
The sweetness has turned to dust.
Dont cling in vain to this body.
Its swan has flown away.
Kabir says, listen seekers:
the path of the brave is pathless.
Her voice is a hand
of air, a breeze
barely touching the leaves
of the body's trees. It soon
For hours afterwards
the leaves shiver.
Later, at night under cover of dark, the body
seeks the inaudible's music, hunting everywhere.
with people it doesn't know
in a lawless section of town, the body hears
the voice again. Taking
its hand, it walks
out the door.
The night is over.
The leaves shiver.
The body wanders restlessly.
From Jan. 16-18, I attended, and gave two presentations at, the Hyderabad Literary Festival in India.
Here are two links to the current issue of Muse India, the festival's main sponsor. The first link is to my article "Experiencing India," a summary of some of the main points I made in my presentation for the panel "Adopting, Adapting to India." The essay is in part drawn from my notes for the talk and was written at the request of Surya Rao, Muse India's managing editor. The second link is to the poems I read at the conference, which also appear in the current Muse India. Most of the issue is devoted to the writings of conference participants, so you might want to browse through the other contributions, many of which are of great value to anyone interested in subcontinent literature.
If you click the "Click to read more" link below, you will find a letter I wrote to Surya Rau a few days following the festival's conclusion. The letter contains thoughts on the festival's significance.
(revision of poem for graffitti poster "Back in the Day" in honor of Lolita Lebron, 1919-2010)
When she was a girl in Borinquen, she saw
someone use a sharpened stick
to dig a tumor the size of a brussels sprout
from an old woman’s breast.
Impressed, the girl grew into
a surgeon who removed tumors that, growing inside
our minds, crowd out all light so
even pineapples & kind words appear ominous in the growing dark.
Don’t let anyone tell you she was bad
just because she once fired a pistol while screaming, “Libre!”
25 years in jail is what she & her friends paid for that.
When she was released she had gray hair & the island wasn’t
But she still loved parrots & reveled in the sound
of bomba drums thumping like the human heart.
New monage graphic for "Back in the Day" graffitti poster. An aged Lolita Lebron on left. In background: invading U.S. troops in Arroyo, a Puerto Rican municipality bordering the Caribbean, during the Spanish-American War in 1898.