Friday, January 16, 2015

Conversations with the Homeless in San Diego

Day 22 Of My Winter Break…

As I wait to hear from the Fulbright committee about my application to do “in-depth journalism” (a label that I wouldn’t readily use to describe any work that I’m capable of doing at this point) in rural China, the challenge that looms most daunting is that of the interview. I’ve never really conducted interviews like the ones I’m proposing to do in China, and I thought I could use some practice. In China I will be interviewing villagers about their lives and their opinions on migration, urbanization, Chinese society, as well as their feelings about their private life. My concerns lie in my ability to engage them in conversations in such a way that is both non-invasive and insightful, non-exhausting and exhaustive. This can I only be done, I think, over a long period of time, and with adequate trust on the part of the participants. I could, however, replicate a first interview (the hardest, I predict) with people who I am not necessarily comfortable speaking with. This is how I came to the idea of speaking with homeless people. I would find them on the street, or in a park, and try to spark a conversation. Afterward, I’d give them some money for their trouble, and not feel that I was exploiting them. Below is an account of my encounters with two men affected by homelessness in San Diego. 
First Encounter

I thought a lot about ways I could approach people that would balance truth with the desire to come off as both purposeful and respectful in my self-assigned mission. I finally landed on an opening line that sounded appropriate: “Hi, my name’s Simon. I’m a student at San Diego State University (true) and I’m doing a project (half-true) that involves speaking with people affected by poverty in San Diego.”
It took me a while to decide on “people affected by poverty.” I wasn’t going to a homeless shelter, so I couldn’t say “people affected by homelessness” because I simply could not know. I was walking the streets of downtown San Diego looking for people who looked destitute, and judging based on the most superficial criteria imaginable. 
Acknowledging my flawed system of finding participants, I wanted to be as ambiguous as possible in my explanation of why I approached any given individual. At the same time, I didn’t want to lie to them — perhaps out of a naive or overly self-conscious sense of truth. That’s how I landed on “people affected by poverty.”
I parked my car on the edge of Balboa park at around 10:30am because I had seen a few people there before who looked like they were homeless, or otherwise impoverished. I immediately spotted a short, hispanic-looking man camped out on the grass and parked my car. He appeared to be folding his bedding — some orange and purple blankets — and organizing socks strewn around his patch of grass. He had a large black suitcase with some clothes, Bibles and a knapsack beside him.
I approached him, said hi, and was happy to hear him return the greeting. Then I gave him my opening line, to which he replied, “I’m not affected by poverty.” Dammit, I thought. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have assumed that you were.”
“What is it you wanna know?” he asked me. I was nervous. Off to a bad start.
“I want to know about you,” I said clumsily. “I want to know your story.”
“My story?” he said incredulously. He never stopped moving since I’d approached him, walked onto the grass next to his blankets and squatted awkwardly in an effort to make myself shorter than him. He was collecting socks scattered around his blankets, taking things out of and putting things into his suitcase.
“The problem is that people are adulterers, man. People are adulterers to children. They don’t hear God. God’s name is Jehovah.”
He talked for with me for some time about God and the sins of “people.” He was wearing a sleeveless sweater V-neck and shorts. He wasn’t fat, but when he lifted his arms I saw that the shape of his stomach was strangely contorted, like a snake was coiled around his abdomen.
I felt that I should let him talk because he was doing me a favor by speaking to me — some kid who wanted his “story.” In a way, he was giving to me, safely coded in a sacred, shared language.
Then he took out his knapsack from his suitcase. Its apparent weight and bulge made me curious, and slightly tense. I understood the potential danger of approaching people who may be intellectually or emotionally unstable, and asking them to tell me about their life. But I was confident that being in a public park would mitigate the potential for being attacked.
I asked him if like San Diego. He said, “God’s in San Diego,” and continued to condemn the wickedness of “people” who do things only for themselves. I wondered if he was referring to me. After all, I was imposing on him to get some material for a “project.”
Finally he opened his knapsack and took out a pair of pliers with a red handle. My tension rose. He continued to reprimand selfishness and extol Jehovah’s teachings. Then he took out a large rock, and then another one. I started to imagine how he could attack me with two large rocks.
“What is it exactly you’re doing?” he asked me suddenly.
“I’m just talking to people in the neighborhood,” I said,  trying to avoid any possible offense. “I’m just collecting peoples’ stories.”
He blew his nose loudly into a sock, which he then used to polish a worn pair of black dress shoes.
“Are you gonna stay here all day?” I asked in an effort to understand something concrete about his life.
“Yeah, I’m gonna exercise,” he said to my surprise.
“Exercise your mind and spirit?” I asked, gesturing to his many Bibles.
“I lift rocks,” he said, looking at me for the first time in our conversation. I noticed his teeth were crooked and gapped. His eyes were long and not so much sad as disappointed. Disappointed, perhaps, in the “people” who had contributed to his misfortune. They communicated a reluctance to expect anything more than a few dollars. He did not seem to possess a particular desire to share his story, nor any illusions that doing so would amount to anything but a loss of his time and energy.
I gave him a dollar and he said “God bless you.” For what is, I think, the first time in my life, I replied, “God bless you too.”

Second Encounter

I didn’t walk far before I found another man who looked like he was homeless. He seemed to me at the time to be the quintessential homeless man. I first saw him from the back — a camouflage lump, capped with a mop of dirty grey hair. He was the elderly homeless man who doesn’t frighten, who exists in the periphery of sight and smell, whose presence or behavior you wouldn’t likely recount to a friend later that day.
I approached him more timidly than I had the first man. I made eye contact, smiled, nodded, he nodded back and asked if I had anything to eat. I said, “no, I’m sorry.”
“It’s hard out here, man,” he said.
“Where are you from?” I asked him, happy that he’d given me an opening.
“I’m from Crest. Not Hillcrest. You know El Cajon? Crest over by El Cajon.”
“And what brought you out here?”
“They brought me in an ambulance. But it’s hard out here. Crest was much better. Everyone knows me over there.”
A plane rumbled loudly overhead. His eyes were bloodshot and foggy. He had a long white beard. I asked if I could sit down. He said yes.
“Why were you in an ambulance, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“My legs are torn up. I crawled halfway here from Scripps Mercy.” He motioned towards his legs. His jeans were very dirty and the one leg was locked-out in front of him. He shook badly.
“Is that why you can’t work?” I asked, trying to sound more sympathetic than judgmental.
“I can walk from about here to the other side of the street.” The distance he referred to was about fifty meters. “I just don’t like to impose myself on people, you know? It’s a matter of pride. It just took my pride away.”
“And that’s why you’re out here?” I asked, trying to avoid using the word “homeless.”
“Well, I have no family.”
Tom was born in San Diego to a family that would disband soon after. His father was “in the service,” which apparently kept him away, and his mother moved to Oregon. Tom grew up with his grandparents, who seem to have been a strong presence in his life. They died when Tom was 8 — he recalled the exact date without any hesitation — and he went to Oregon to live with his mother. He didn’t have much to say about his mother, except that she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and couldn’t continue taking care of Tom after some years. He moved back to San Diego to live with his dad and step mom who was unkind to him, and who he had considerable contempt for: 
“I left the bathroom light on and she’d make me stay in my room for two weeks. That’s not right.” 
“So did you leave?”
“Yeah I left to Missouri and raised chickens. I had thousands of chickens. A huge coup,” he showed me how big his coup would be if it were transported in front of us.
“I made $150 a week doing that. My mom and my brothers and my cousins all came to live in my house.”
Tom moved lucidly from one scene of his story to the next with what may easily have been mistaken for ease, if not for his shaking and the pained look on his face. I was constantly searching for signs that he did not want to speak with me, but he seemed to enjoy telling his story, so I listened.
After a few years raising chickens, Tom moved to Washington state to work on tractor trailers and other vehicles with his “great cousin-in-law.” In an incident that I did not ask him to elaborate on, he assaulted a cop and put in jail for two years. I asked him if he was in a protest, and he replied that he “just doesn’t like cops,” with a little chuckle. “Alright,” I said with an affirmative smile and nod.
When he got out of jail, Tom moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma to work for Montgomery Ward building bridge beams. Some years later he got married to his best friend’s sister and they moved back to Missouri, to a city called Branson. Branson lies at the bend of a thin, winding lake named Lake Taneycomo. It was on this lake that Tom says he became a pirate.
“Excuse me? Did you say pirate?” A large plane had just passed and I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly.
“Yeah, I was a pirate,” he chuckled again.
How he came to rob large ships on Lake Taneycomo is unclear. When I asked him about his pirate days, he told me that he and his pirate crew would sail out on a small boat, jump aboard larger boats, brandish weapons and demand gold. Why gold, I’m not sure. What commercial ship would carry gold when it’s traveling domestically on a river? It’s one of the details that makes me doubt the truth of his story. But it only got more farfetched.
So they’d jump aboard this ship and demand gold. Tom described it like this:
“We’d say: where’s the gold?! And a small boy would bring it to us in a sack. Sometimes when they didn’t have gold, they’d fill the sack with rocks and then give it to us. When they didn’t have any gold, I’d say: I’ll take her!”
“Excuse me? You took what?” My sympathy came to a halt.
“I’d say: I’ll take her! A girl. I wasn’t as ugly as I am now. We’d take her on the boat and bring her back to shore.”
I didn’t ask about this. If he was lying, which I suspected he was, it was a distasteful lie. He said that being a pirate was not compatible with married life, so he quit.
The rest of his story remains vague to me. He hitchhiked across the country and found himself back in San Diego county. At some point he was hospitalized because he needed to have cartilage taken out of his legs — a cause and effect of his inability to walk, I assume. His stay at the hospital was not an enjoyable experience for him because of the large amount of Asian staff there. He told me that he doesn’t like Asians. When I asked why, he told me that there are so many of them that they’ve lost any sense of human compassion.
“There’s an abundancy of people over there,” he said. “How can they care for one person? I know we’re all from other continents, that’s fine. We all came from Africa and Asia.” He understood that he wasn’t being particularly fair to Asians by discriminating against them, but he disliked them nonetheless. His dislike seemed like more of a reflex than a rational decision. I wonder if he recognized that I’m half Asian.
Tom asked me what I did, and I told him I was a student at San Diego State University. He asked what I studied, and I told him literature. He told me that he went to a community college in San Diego — he doesn’t remember the name — and took classes in sociology and psychology, among other subjects.
He asked me where I was from, I told him upstate New York. He said he’d been to New York City once for a wrestling tournament. This sparked my interest, and I asked him about wrestling. He said he’d taken 2nd place in a high school national wrestling competition.
“That’s very impressive,” I said.
I asked if he was religious and his was the classic modern moral-vacuum crisis-of-belief answer: “God is just a word.” He believed that good and bad were relative, that people should do what they please to a reasonable extent, that the key to living a good life is balance.
When I got home I did some research on pirates in Lake Taneycomo, and found out that a popular tourist attraction involved a mini-cruise across the lake, and part of the entertainment was an attack by a band of fictional pirates. Tom, I assume, was one of those actors who jumped on board the cruise ship and scared the children senseless. That is, until they discovered it was all a farce and cracked-up laughing alongside their one-eyed, gold-seeking captors.
Tom told me that he was going through withdrawal. He was an alcoholic, and the day I spoke with him marked a week without drinking; not by choice, but by necessity. He told me that more people die from alcohol withdrawal than from heroin withdrawal. Tom also has Parkinson’s. The only thing he had besides the clothes he was wearing was a plastic water jug. Each time he brought it to his lips he trembled so much that I thought he was going to splash water everywhere. 
He said he could go back to Crest if he could just get to the trolley. My car was parked a few feet away, and I thought about taking him. I thought about the smell, the lice, the germs; the idea that I could let those things stop me from helping this poor man disgusted me. But in the end, I didn’t give him a ride. Instead I gave him $3. It was easier for me. And yet, looking back, I regret not giving him that ride. 

I hope to, at some point, have more time to collect stories like Tom’s. When we assume, guess, or imagine another person’s story based on superficial evidence, it is more than a disservice to them and ourselves — it is prejudice. Prejudice has given way to countless injustices, and it is only through understanding the story of an individual that this tendency can be countered. A homeless person invites a host of negative prejudices by virtue of his/her presence, and these prejudices manifest themselves in everything from petty disrespect to violence. For this reason, it is imperative that their stories are heard.   

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Studying Abroad

Balancing fun and adventure with obligation and pragmatism is a challenge every college student faces, but it gets even more complicated for college students studying abroad. For all the orientations and meetings that students attend in preparation to study abroad, there is not very much discussion about how students’ priorities change when they step off the plane. Preparing students to study abroad is important, and some more out-of-the-box discussion could really benefit them.
An exchange student does not fly across the world to read books in a different time zone; they go to experience another country, to learn or practice a foreign language, and to have new and enriching experiences outside of school. Learning Spanish in a classroom in San Diego is not terribly different from learning Spanish in a classroom in Madrid. It’s true that part of studying abroad is figuring out for yourself how to make it an enriching experience, but I’ve found that often students don’t know where to start.
Something that colleges could discuss in greater depth is the role of travel when studying abroad. Travel is integral to the exchange student because it allows them to see the country, or continent, in a more holistic light. Students studying in Shanghai for example will gain a much more profound understanding of China if they travel to rural Sichuan. Not to mention, chances are good that your country is home to an important historic site, natural wonder or famous attraction.
While students are encouraged to travel while abroad, they’re usually unsure how to do so with weekly classes. This leads to people travelling too much, or not enough, or at the wrong time. In preparing to go abroad, it’s valuable for students to talk to others who have studied in the country they’re going to. Those experienced students can talk to them about how tolerant the host university is when it comes to missing a class here and there for travel; when the best time to travel is during the semester; and where they should go for a weekend trip, for a week-long trip etc..
I’ve met some students abroad who are afraid to travel because they think it will lead to bad grades, but there are always ways to balance the two. Some people take local weekend trips during the semester, and do the big cross-country trips before and after the semester ends, and over long holidays. There are host universities that will not tolerate more than three absences, or whose classes require rigorous effort. But there are also those who recognize the value of travelling for foreign students and will ask them to make-up missed work in a presentation or essay about their travel experience.
 Another component of studying abroad that many students are not adequately prepared to handle is that of language emersion. This is pertaining to those who go abroad to learn a foreign language, but can apply to any foreign study experience. Immersing oneself in the culture, and more specifically the language of a foreign country is a decision that can make or break an exchange experience. It is a decision because it will rarely happen organically - it requires a bit of push.
Language emersion starts with who you choose to live with. A host family is a great option, but if you’d rather live with people your age, try to live with someone who doesn’t speak English. The next, and hardest part, is making friends who don’t speak English. This is where students really have to take initiative to avoid slipping into the comfort of their native tongue and gravitating towards people who speak their language. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to have friends who speak your language, but try to get at least one person in the your group who doesn’t. This will force everyone to speak the language of the host country, and will ultimately benefit everyone involved.
Another way to get a valuable dose of conversation practice is through a language exchange. This usually involves finding a person native to your host country who wants to learn English, and proposing that both of you meet a few times a week to speak an hour of English and an hour of their language. These exchanges can be at a cafe, at a bar, or any cool places that your partner knows about. Chances are they’d be happy to show you their city while you talk, and there’s nothing like seeing a city from a local’s point of view.  
Too many students make the mistake of thinking that they’ll learn a language just by being in a country where it’s spoken. There is only one way to speak a language well, and that is to speak it a lot with people who don’t understand English.
Most college students don’t understand this about language, and if they do, they’re still hesitant to apply it when abroad. Preparing students to make the right decisions about language emersion is vital because language emersion can be very difficult. Students have to be educated and shown how to go about it if they’re expected to get the most out of their experience.

While schools try their best to prepare students to go abroad, they do not do enough. Studying abroad is an experience that cannot be wasted on avoidable mistakes.

Zombies in Academia

Scrolling through the list of Comparative Literature classes offered this Spring at San Diego State University, I came across one called “Zombies.” My first reaction was, are you serious? I want to study something that matters -- diverse cultures, great thinkers, geopolitics, social movements, wars, race relations. Zombies are the stuff of cheap thrills.
However, after reaching out to the professor of the class, Dr. Emily Hicks, and reflecting on what makes zombies so scary and at the same time so enthralling, I came around to a different opinion. Zombies, I’m now convinced, is one of the best concepts for a literature class that we have at SDSU.
I say this because the study of zombies is, in fact, the study of serious social issues. Dr. Hicks explained in an interview that her class covers “disease vectors, infection, cultural differences and fear of the Other, slavery...and the Haitian revolution.” She also noted such concepts as “consumerism and social (including peer) pressure(s)” that surface in class discussions.
This fresh take on zombies led me to do some additional research. Apparently, there’s been a significant amount of sociological and philosophical research done on zombies and their significance in contemporary and pre-modern society. Many of these studies comment on the implications of a zombie outbreak in terms of our perception of the Other, of race, and of freedom.
The popular book entitled The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead by Max Brooks often uses as its setting different locations and times when some form of imperialism has taken place. In these fictional histories, the zombies, which are the product of a virus, end up driving out the colonizers. For example, in one of Brooks’ reports wherein a zombie virus is spreading through a colonized St. Lucia in 1762, the European population barricades themselves into fortresses, leaving the darker-skinned inhabitants to fend for themselves. Lucky for them, the indigenous people are able to quell its spread due to their “deep cultural understanding” of the undead. Brooks commented on the reaction of the colonists, saying: “their racial bigotry matched their cowardice.”
Brooks’ anti-imperialist commentary through zombie scenarios is an interesting one that highlights the destructive nature behind western fears of the Other. Today, in movies such as World War Z, or the TV show, The Walking Dead, social relations are divided between the undead and alive by a single, clearly defined line. This leads to interesting interactions between the living -- all of whom are made to abandon social pressures and artificial structures to band together for survival. The poor must cooperate with the rich, the dark-skinned with the light-skinned, in order to defeat the undead onslaught. These scenarios usually serve to expose the contrived and harmful nature of classism and racism that are so prevalent and destructive in our so-called “modern” world.
So zombies may have a place in social commentary, but do they deserve a whole class? I think so. As Dr. Hicks said in an interview with KPBS, “I have taught here 30 years and I have never had students so excited about writing a mid-term.” The zombie class’s significance lies in its ability to generate excitement among students.
Themes such as colonialism, race, and perceptions of the Other could easily be tackled in a literature course through great texts such as Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. But would most college students opt instead to read The Zombie Survival Guide? Enough to fill a classroom, apparently.
One of the great things about the zombie class is that it was conceived as a course that would capture the interest of young people, rather than a course that would educate them on themes that a straight white male professor declared important 50 years ago. College classes should always be critical and engaging for students, and the best way to achieve this is by making them relevant to their lives. We need more classes like Zombies to permeate the Ivory Tower of higher education and level it with the interests of students because it is in their best interest. Capturing their students interest should be an end in itself for professors. Engaged students are able to think critically, independently and originally about that which engages them. They are able to tie theories and concepts into their personal lives and current events.
There is a plethora of material floating in the realm of popular culture that can be used to analyze the zeitgeist. Every pervasive social trend says something important about the society that embraces it, no matter how meaningless it may seem. Hashtags, CrossFit, Paleo diets, Selfies, Hipster culture etc. are all indicative of a spirit of our time; the skeleton of which is history, the mind -- our generation.
It is my hope that educators will take a lesson from Dr. Hicks and other progressive professors, because it is too easy to claim to be “out of the loop,” or “old school,” and shy away from the challenge of introducing new material through new themes and mediums. We, as students, have a vested interest in our contemporary culture, and could do so much with it were we given the chance.


Our Growing Fascination with the Butt

Kim Kardashian's recent attempt at "breaking" the internet says something important about American culture. The butt has been rapidly propelled to the forefront of sexual imagery, and I’m intrigued by its prevalence not only here, but across the U.S.. I have recently been made aware of Instagram sensation Jen Selter, who has made a career off the attractiveness of her butt. She said, in an interview with New York Times writer Marisa Meltzer, “When I was growing up, everyone wanted to look like skinny, bony girls. Overtime, butts have become a thing.”
Other celebrities, like Kim Kardashian and Nicki Minaj are fawned over for their voluptuous posterior endowment. When did that absurdly exaggerated ideal of a slim woman lose its momentum to the ample butt? Why has this appendage so suddenly, it seems, and so forcefully captured the attention of men, and the aspirations of women? It’s hard to say when the butt really started to upset the hierarchy of erogenous body parts - long reigned over by breasts - but it seems that the butt is the new erogenous zone in the U.S.
The emergence of the butt can be largely accounted for as a product of female empowerment. Viewed in contrast with breasts, which are genetically predetermined and alterable only through means whose ethical foundation is controversial at best, the butt can be a symbol of determination and sexual empowerment. Unlike the passively hanging breasts, the butt serves a very functional physiological purpose as an important source of physical strength. It can be made stronger, and many would claim more shapely, through exercise. As a result, a “nice,” or strong buttocks becomes a marker of a woman’s discipline, work ethic and willingness to take control of her sexuality. It is a statement that boldly asserts her ability to thrive as an independent human who can actively seek out romantic partners.
Female empowerment is certainly not new to modern western society by most standards, but its manifestation in sexual assertiveness is. Gone are the days when a woman had to wait for a man who happened to like her to sweep her off her feet. Today’s college-aged woman feels little pressure from her friends, even parents, to be a passive object of desire. This woman does not accept her genetic fate, but rather pursues her desires in an intelligent, calculated and vigorous way that become an end in itself. The butt, and all its connotations of physical perfection through hard work, is the perfect example of this.
English Junior Kara Ferguson agrees: “Reeling in guys with their physical appearance (such as a big butt) gives some women a sense of control, and then going into the situation knowing that it's ‘no strings attached’ also feels liberating for some women. They have less expectations, aside from feeling beautiful or attractive.”
Miranda Collinge, a writer for Esquire, says that our inclination toward the tuchus may have its origins in our paleolithic ancestors. She cites the 1967 book The Naked Ape by zoologist Desmond Morris who writes that our early human ancestors “must have been using the rear approach.” In other words, sex from behind was the preferred method. Somewhere along our evolutionary path we discovered love, and have since sought to make sex more personal, hence our attraction to the front of the body.
If this is accurate, then our renewed interest in the backside is one to think about. Are young women, in beautifying their butt, sacrificing “love” for fleeting pleasure? Or are women working to fulfill men’s sexual fantasies, and subordinating themselves to male desires?
A male SDSU student who I asked said, “[women], unfortunately, are made the focal point of this fad, and to stay popular, they must embrace it.” This may be true for some women, as is always the case with trends, but I think it’s more interesting to look to the women who embrace the trend more completely.
The way I see it, women are beefing up their bottoms for reasons similar to why men beef up their upper body. The phenomenon we’ve all seen on campus - the exposure of the bottom flap of the bottom - is very similar to a man showing off his well-trained biceps. They are comfortable admitting that they sometimes do not want a serious, emotionally invested relationship. Instead they want interesting, liberating experiences. The perfect butt is sought after for its sexual desirability, but a desirability that the woman wields on her own terms.
A female SDSU Junior whose identity I’ll leave anonymous can attest to this: “My friend just recently got out of a long relationship and has been having one night stands but it's been her choice and she hasn't been upset by any of it! Just enjoying being single I guess.”

Whether this butt trend is part of a revolution or a response is, in the end, for women to decide. What I can say for sure is that it is part of a cultural shift that is changing the way we in the west think about gender roles.


Friday, December 5, 2014

Reimagining "I Speak of Blood" from the Chinese of Xu Lizhi

Reimagining “I Speak of Blood”

Blood tickles my tongue,
I taste a scarlet verse
breaking with laughter:
its words choke on rice wine,
its page is gilded
with the red and gold brushstrokes
of a cracking urn

But I only utter the wail of my mattress
when I level her bones,
the silence of a girl spooning daylight
from her metal bowl.

I watch boys meet the city in the throat of a bottle
staggering into government offices,
chased through a paper maze.

I pass a grandfather who’s told that his jade is glass
and watch him wonder how he’d ever know
for certain.

I hear girls floating through halls
on grey whispers
weaving fantasies beyond the gates
of husbands and sons

they paint their cheeks a sleepless pink
on Saturday nights,
and sing to dormitories
where boys shuffle their fate in a deck of cards.

When I speak of blood, listen
for the songs sewn shut,
for the crimson secrets
dripping from my tongue.

San Diego Studies a New York Fall

San Diego Studies a New York Fall

The sun passes from autumn deserts
over the Adirondacks,
as the sound of my boot leaves
the maple cabin,
scattering bract ash about the forest.

The trunk traces the grin
of my axe, pendulous about my knee,
mocking its own flirtation
with peace.

I imagine that there’s so much
in a wrinkle of bark
as the axe strikes the evening hour.

Back in my cabin
a black streak excites
the jealousy of a painting;
my finger pokes through its glove
to dress the hearth;
I light a match and learn
that the leaves curl faster
when they’re on fire.

Falling Through A Cloud

Falling Through a Cloud
A trance in the witchgrass
watches its own flare
on the cusp of the Colorado River.

Two boys ambled up the hill
to talk through the troughs,
shovelling the debris of what they had done;
removing the fangs
to watch the skin blossom in soprano red.

While they talked they shuffled
in place, meeting their gaze no more than was needed
to share in the tremor of memory.

Did she
say anything? Why didn’t you do

I don’t know.

Night lowered in sea-grey clouds,
the boys tongued their porcelain plates
like lazy toads.

He’d showered without combing;
nothing on his body read blood or smitten rage,
his gaze was washed clean as dew-dropped glass
and everything that moved was the bucking heel
that had grazed his jaw.

What will happen now?

They will wonder how much you’d had to drink,
what the nature of your relationship was
and why I couldn’t raise myself to her sound.

She went with me so easily;
her skirt, the way she offered her gaze
to my lips.
Daylight gnawed its way through the clouds,
she rolled against a dream
and woke.
Before she saw, she knew
that the maw of being had turned its teeth
against her.

She knew it by the chopping breath,
by the head frozen mid-bolt
in the vermin’s mad dash,
by the fall
of love’s first sting.

She felt his pain give
under the weight of her stride
and wished that pain could be hers
to give, wished she too could take something
that never was
but the sweetness of drifting through a cloud.

Hairs lifting all over,
she paused at the river, unable to reflect
the twitch above her eye
against the dead water lurking in the riverbed.

If they ever met again, she thought,
she’d bring him back to this very spot,
lure his gaze to that tadpole there
watch him wonder at the drowsing tide
nudging the yolk toward the claws
of the shore
let him cry and reach for her
deny him water when he begs to drown
leave him gasping in the heart of a cloud.