Common Place No. 9 | Spring 2017 Selected Poems & Short Prose, 2016
I caught a glimpse of him in his workman’s apron, the hallway filled with boxes. She’d come back with her children. “Couldn’t you be happier to see me?” —a question I used to ask her, with no answers. The last time he wore it, you handed me Montaigne. I may have said I wanted to be loved. When I heard the word, I wondered. Not so much insular as unhindered, possessing as momentary, a gift, but gifts are their own category, to which I’m partly blind. Each has its correspondence, like the rug brought back from Greece or the mountain poem, written out, descriptive of the room itself, solid and precarious, with its view, the bed where we lay once in plain hearing. My friend Eva Fisher ruled out resolutions, arguing that they are goals. Nothing can be resolved in this fluid world, she wrote (in so many words). But to me resolutions are more sense of the house than state of the world. Just now, I threw the hexagram 63, “After Completion,” which counsels wisely that at points where equilibrium exists, one must take arms against misfortune. “Misfortune” in my case may have to do with taking too seriously Morgan Forster’s injunction to “work as if immortal.” Yes, do so, but prepare for mortality. In particular, prepare for infirmity, for slowing down, for making room for others, for taking up work long neglected. The hexagram speaks of water over fire, which implies the need to keep adding water and wood to keep things simmering. Other things might be added, too, of course. So, prepare—this is one resolution for 2016. A few days ago, I dreamt I was in France, perhaps. I go for a drive, getting lost. At one point, I see a valley of startling beauty. Then I come upon an apartment that I go into, come out of, go to lock the door but it won’t. It becomes the trunk of a car. A woman tells me not to bother locking it. Then I start to drive back. In reality, I know what I saw—the actual, unfolding circumstances complete with an awaited sign that pointed somewhere, but how I get there is unclear. Beauty appears when it does and you wonder how you’ll find your way. It’s a truism that you have to get bitten again to ease the memory of the last time out. In my experience, though, it doesn’t work. I’m between texts, unless I count re-reading Pound’s Cathay. After a conversation yesterday, I thought that I should have read aloud several pertinent poems. Perhaps in a year I’ll have that chance again, God willing. Or maybe she’ll find them beforehand, but this seems doubtful.
How women move is a reason to wait. They are in every case distinct, but you are you. To wait is to remember this— not to move on, but recollect. I put her apron on, pretend to be a woman. If I wait long enough, I’ll come as one. I’m devoted as a mare, the I Ching says, but my mind is like a dressing room in the Kabuki Theater. I dreamt a kind of purifying dream. More often, I’m failing to catch a flight— my suitcase half empty, my clothes in disarray. Always the same city, yet it makes no sense. My parents appear, although they’re dead. Being dead, they never reach their destination. I vowed to stay here to the very end— waiting games the last of it— like slabs first then we decay. Will you attend? The odds aren’t good. I’m not the only person who posts photos of self, but it always seems odd in retrospect. This past weekend was slightly aimless. More accurately, others set its outlines. I don’t mind this, but it usually happens when I’m traveling. In that context, it’s part of the larger challenges of navigating slightly pressed time and unfamiliar space. At home, it inserts a smaller version of this into everyday life—small enough that I don’t really focus on it, yet large enough that it throws me off. In light of this, I’d say that my photos were self-locating: I’m here and then later I’m here. Unanswered is the question, “Who exactly is here?” The black-and-white photos especially contend with a self-view that is anchored in an unfolding present. Experience tells me that I’m considerably slowed down now, but my mind floats above this. An older friend uses a photo that was taken when he was 58. I guess that in his head, he still is. When I meet with him, I adjust to his present. Recently I saw the still-beautiful wife of another friend, probably 20 years after our last encounter. I felt my mind adjusting. Perhaps looking at photos of myself does this, too. Consciousness’s netherworld, aware of its impending end: postcards Death might send from an enclosing future. “Getting older” is a transition that raises questions of identity on several levels. As always, we move through it with our contextual selves in train, sometimes a sage, sometimes anxious. The road toward death shortens and the workarounds that enable us to function become more crucial—being rather than having and a kind of optimism about time and worth. Identity is also sexual and, Frederick Seidel-style, we open up and out in a self-acknowledgement that owns our ambiguity with greater frankness. My poems lately are on this latter theme. They often want you to love them on their own exclusive terms. Love is more a question than an answer. The exception is unquestioned love, which when it exists is mainly between parents and children, possibly between siblings, and rarely between friends.
The deep throb of ships, cats asleep, the easel standing, how I slipped in and out, how it disappeared, how it’s folded now into memory. This is my version. Yours, his, those of others may differ, but I was there filming it in my head. Descartes was mentioned, the split: I or he, you or she, the ships in their channel, the line we made together visible, arguably a stain, then crossing yet again that momentary bridge. This is my version. The curtains billowed when the wind came up. I’m fairly sure that happened. Fecundity and death shape or warp our lives, although we go through stretches when they matter less or we’re oblivious to them. Fecundity is both life’s initial push and its pull thereafter. Death is the shadow of extinction, which dogs us fairly early and grows more pronounced with age or if prompted by deaths around us. This is obvious, and yet they’re the main things. I find now that at night I want to write and make art, so everything to be read is piling up. At a certain point, I toss it out, but with a sense of loss or guilt, which suggests time as a third “main thing.” You ran off yelling. It confused me when it happened, but eventually I called your name, a pointless gesture. (A snippet of reality.) I’m bewildered when things slip out of sync. My mind runs behind some others. It’s like I have to screen the film to grasp what happened. But certain interactions are prolonged by this same phenomenon. This is the sort of human I am. Coming home, the bus driver calls out for me to be careful disembarking. I think later of writing something on the theme of metamorphosis. It’s been done, but can it ever really be done? The urge to live transparently is always there. The line between self-revelation and solipsism is inexact, but we are our subject, project, the body in question, placed here to deal with it. Two women friends wrote in succession yesterday that they were bisexual. They’re with men, but bisexual still. Something like this is surfacing in my poems. Ted Hughes waited nearly to the end. We’d been corresponding about the Sea Ranch, which I’ve never visited. The hedonism of one of its architects came up, “but no one talks about that.” In the course of the discussion, I thought of other venues. A poem by Cavafy, set in a café, suggests that desire can infuse a setting so it takes on a different character. Poets leave more evidence of this in their wake than architects do.
Never was the word you used, that chasm drawn with chalk. Small birds sang along the walk, their haven green and dense. Not far away, you struck something like a longer chord, not purely sound. The women two doors down kept talking. Not far away as I measure time, and never, she said that, too. Dharma is like headlights as the cars turn, the chalk faint on the walk, the trees green and kempt, barely shelter. Not far away. Leave taking, melancholia: death alone registers at odd moments. In some seasons I canâ€™t go in. Will death establish that Iâ€™m really gone? Chalk X below my skull, Y for where desire lived, circle for my empty head. Not far away as I measure lives.
He’s no great beauty as men go, while she orbits her particular sun. Following her along a road she traces an ellipse. And this is not to speak of her fecundity. Some day I’ll outlive this, but propagation dies hard. Thus Francis cleaves to sheep and bees, to crops, to a future creviced in between, the vessel of each transient’s story. I had what I call a traveling dream just before waking. One driver of the plot is difficulty getting to the airport. I read this one as a commentary on my next stage of life. When I reached the barn, I asked the I Ching for advice and it confirmed my reading. My daughter came by and we talked next stages, a topic that follows us through life. I said to her that how you get from stage to stage often looks odd or untoward as you live through it, but makes more sense when you look back, realizing the good that arose from it. We carry our regrets and sorrows, things we’d take back or do differently if we could, but we only have our selves and this time. Your letters go unread, but their phrases recur. Sometimes at night the moon angles and I want to tell you. Lately, I remember how it was, the conversations in between. If they could happen in their own world, separate from every other, then the sign would have pointed there. The rain stopped. It’s supposed to let up. I reread two poems I wrote recently. I cut the first one down a lot; the second is more like talking. I made a collage, thinking about what to use, what not to use. I could take the attitude that it’s all material, but Elizabeth Bishop complained to Robert Lowell about his doing that. Somewhere I wrote about de Kooning painting as his mind gave out, wondering if this gave his work greater directness. Robert Walser, said to be mad, worked out a method to get past the blocks to self-expression. Certain photos people post online strike me as dealing with this issue—the boundary between inside the self and outside the self. The oddity of love, with its slow dances, its rides, its in-betweens and moments of transition from that bodily state to some other. We are these corporal beings who, if capable of breeding, may produce issue owing to our passion, folly, going along, giving in. I’ve always seen time as an accrual of acts and experiences. When I write things like this, I see them as part of a narrative, a kind of written life. Weaving and the collages I do seem similar. The lover I imagine is a chimera.
Australia I go back to the Art Gallery of New South Wales to see the white art of Australia, which lags Norway by about 20 years, based on what I saw, but retains the provincial peculiarity I’ve seen elsewhere—in Göteborg, for example. Mixed in with this are some stunners, like Sidney Nolan’s mid-‘40s Ned Kelly series. Then I give in to tourism and take a taxi to see Utzon’s Opera House—surprisingly good, the way Gehry’s Bilbão was, although I expected otherwise. In Melbourne, having dinner at Supernormal, a Japanese fusion place across from the hotel— jammed. I went to half of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) earlier. The indigenous art was thin, but an exhibit on the Australian artist John Olsen (b. 1928) made up for it—really stunning, mostly landscape-derived work. In a film, he explained that he looks at the structure of things: heads, bodies, topography. Melbourne is quite different from Sydney. I’m staying in the heart of it, surrounded by restaurants and shops that line the back streets. The scale is good—not especially tall, but dense in a good way. I napped after my afternoon in Melbourne’s wine country. While there, I encountered a man who’d just moved back from Slovenia. He’s half Slovenian, he said, and planning to desert a woman there because moving her to Australia “would be hard.” This is our human condition, I thought. After he left, I told my friend that he had the look of a film actor, which was true. At home, it’s evening. Out here over the Pacific, time is a question of progress from one point to another. I wrote a poem thinking of a laconic correspondent whose prose poems, if that’s the right term for them, I admire. Sometimes I think that if I were a woman and younger, I would be like her as I intuit her nature. Or perhaps what I mean is that there’s an inner part of me that’s like her, like my sense of her. But my poem was directed at what we share as two humans, parents and observers—a simpler connection. The poem I wrote about the MoVida bar is similarly observational—not a love poem, but a poem about love. I still write love poems, but they come from a different place: memory’s play with the unfolding present, mostly, and those flashes of desire that are also our human nature. Women touch their hair as they get ready to be loved. They laugh as the men excite them with their muscular arms. Their mouths open and their eyes widen. Later they will narrow. Here at MoVida’s bar she rehearses love’s sixteen steps, starting with her hair, her hands, mouth open, eyes widened, closer, closer, leaning over, hand in her hair.
Scads of feet above, I told my daughter, an island continent behind me. I wrote a poem about love as witnessed, this human thing with its progeny, like yours and mine. We have them earlier or later. They arise from coupling, going underâ€” the thrust of making. Our lives thread in and out around these human acts and their issue, offspring that we love without condition, hopeful that theyâ€™ll know it and live fearlessly as we have tried, often failing, stumbling over our selves, a shambles that we take in our stride, the best we are on many mornings, only our selves to bring along, along, as we have always done, yet somehow we loved, were loved, made it to here, deep in the country or in flight over the wide sea.
We ran like savages, my friend and I. Alice was appalled by our nakedness, feathers, play its own category; not games, but with intent to arouse, a look that said you got to me, I’m wet oh God get in me, or let me get on top of you, do that next thing. Somewhere I read that men know how women are. Their genes crossed that line early on. We hid out mostly and then hiding lost its fashion. Identity is this shifting thing. Perhaps we really want our own kind to play with us, brazen, but we’re so scarce.
My friend compared here to there. I thought about you, sitting near. I am the same in every place (we assert). Behind my faltering eyes consciousness (out walking). You were there. I sat talking. I was there. We spoke. I am the same, only minutely older. Your father, too. All of us sparked to life, genetic matter unfolding ‘til we reach that switch. We’re the same; we’re not. I have the projective apparatus of my sex. That apparatus is what it is. Time passes. Even the wiring frays, although desire has a long shelf life. Someone or ones have noted how inconvenient it is, how the gaze drifts, how the mind hungers after it, how rarely if ever it goes as planned. We are our outward, inward selves. Life’s multiplicative force asserts itself. At this point, I’m immune. Inwardly though I want it, too: each beauty bearing. Writers who are dead aren’t walking. It seems unfair to hinder them. Paths are strewn with things they wrote. The earth will end up charred and dead. The sun, the universe, everything walks back in a collapsing mode, takes to its bed just long enough to start again.
Rain and cold: late fall as opposed to late spring. Nine days in Australia were a reprieve from the winter I annually dislike, although this is when nature sleeps and recovers. It’s a theme of Robert Graves’s White Goddess: the agrarian Corn King reigns through the sowing and reaping, and is then ritually murdered. Winter arrives with its sharpened knife. I dreamt that I was staying in someone else’s ramshackle house with children who I was vaguely in charge of, although they appeared to run things fine without my help. At one point I was back in a stripped-down version of my parents’ midcentury modern house, looking out at the adjoining woods—a kind of paradise of pristine trees, the pond within them now a lake. Fidel Castro stayed in Harlem in 1960. It was clear this was the right move. Later that year, we had dinner in Basel with my father’s company’s rep in Cuba, who recounted his hair-raising departure from Havana. Exiles followed—one taught Spanish in my New Jersey high school. These are the waning weeks of Obama and the waxing weeks of Trump. Clinton partisans now sound like Sanders partisans. The pre-election noise has if anything grown louder, even as it’s punctuated by ugliness from those emboldened by Trump’s win to take his dog whistles as meant for them. The evil around Trump is the reductive, simplistic thinking promoted by hucksters and ideologues. The possibilities he raises relate to breaking with the postwar consensus, of which Clinton was an exemplar, and reshaping the political landscape around new realities. We need a progressive alternative to come forward, leaders prepared to take this project on without Clinton’s inherited baggage. It’s not enough to oppose Trump; he has to be transcended. We need to step through the wall he breached and define a different future than the nostalgic and ahistorical one the Tea Party thinks it can impose on us. Most Sundays, I write a letter to a friend in Maine. We started corresponding some years ago, reintroduced by a mutual friend. All this took place online. I read in an obituary of a London literary agent that he felt collections of letters were dead as a genre, but I’ve never stopped writing them. This may reflect a habit begun in childhood, when letters were the medium. My parents famously produced a Christmas letter that went out literally around the world. I produce an equivalent wrap-up every year in their honor. Correspondence is particular. A diary like this is written both as notes to self, a record, and to an audience that’s intuited rather than known. I’ve re-posted writings of another—prose poems, I would call them, but that’s a loose boundary—that have this quality. I admire their openness and evocative language—both good things. My daughter urged me to collect the diary entries, as I did with my poems. It’s an interesting idea to gather what’s been written over the year and see what’s there—harvesting material that, as I write it, seems ephemeral or ripe for deletion. I tend to keep everything because it may be valuable later, not least because it was written in the moment. Reading it, like looking at photos, brings things back to mind when I have some distance from them. This raises possibilities itself. My attitude toward my poems changes each time I read them. I sometimes think that I’ve been wronged. There’s an attic full of these complaints. Was thinking that this election, which Clinton won in terms of actual votes, is a testimony to the bias against cities we’ve inherited from our country’s founders. It’s time to lift that curse.
It seems I’m now the object of those riffs we tell ourselves to stanch the pain of no one else with whom to riff. Pain’s too strong a word. It’s like an ache, a missing arm. If I could split myself in half or maybe in thirds or fourths, then you’d each have have a piece of me to fuck and talk with, grow old with or outgrow, take to things I sort of like but often don’t. If I had split myself, those lives I tried to lead might have worked better than they did. Draw your own conclusions, how mad it is to think we can split ourselves, but then the knowledge gained is only gained by this congress, this intercession, this joining against odds and rules. I should be thinking of sauve qui peut, of everyone who felt deserted or moved on to her intended, but I’m thinking of you in your two-way mirror, how a part of my psyche is there with you in the frame, wondering if there’s a woman in here somewhere and why nature put this head on me, the old mind-body fallacy. If it were me, it would be a projection, how that protuberance grows into another and why we’re rooted in our several ways in the strata that becoming gives us, these rolling, huffing, illusive conclusions that cue up and are cued up by the study we make of our moving parts, held still for the camera, our breath caught, not to give ourselves away. If it were me, radiated and all, strata half-blasted to oblivion—if it were me, I’d hide behind the scrim that ambiguity lends me. You need none, but perhaps later nature will give you a taste of it, coarse and aggressive, taking what you desire like a man in the old sense, the sense of butch on femme. If it were me, I’d scrape thorns across my breasts in penance—desire’s pain, mirror of pleasure. As a topic, the way men see women is maybe out of fashion, as if they should have no opinion in print or shouted from the safety of a building site. But catcalls aren’t the subject here. Desire is desire, how I see you is how I see you, stated or not. As I write this I picture you and my mind unpacks the hints your clothing gives. How like a film, your face, turned toward me, its own clue.
That human sense of want, the splay or curl, the shock of the part, the plunge, the gift when it’s a gift, possession as it happens. The room is strewn and then each item is retrieved so that only the sense of you lingers. Bits and pieces of flesh cohere in service of this gathering in. Yes, I thought, I dream of this. I woke thinking how acts condemn us. How we are what they say we are, even in dreams. And yet remorse follows us there. Everything is laden. If I were free, if I were unafraid, we would cohere, we would part, burning our letters behind us or maybe not. I have no theory on this point, only practice with its dreadful weight. In one of Stendhal’s manuscripts, he writes in the margin that readers will understand him in 150 years. In some sense art is a public act, self-expression. This isn’t catering to an audience, but desiring to be read, seen, or heard by a receptive other, as in love, for instance. What resonates is hard to predict. For three successive days, I’ve asked the I Ching for advice. I usually do this only three or four times a year, but each result I got this time seemed to be part of a longer answer. It also prompted me to sharpen the question in light of it. They fit together, I saw today. My queries of the I Ching yielded hexagrams 22, “Grace,” 63, “After Completion,” and 15, “Modesty,” becoming 52, “Keeping Still, Mountain.” The opening query solicited advice about my becoming 70, but the response focused on my current position, far enough from the real action that my work is ornamental rather than substantive. The second query followed up on the first, noting a conversation with someone loosely in my field who’s stepping away from it for personal reasons. The response pointed to what I’ve accomplished and how in many ways it’s at a close, so the real attention needs to be on what follows. (A theme of the I Ching is to let the situation unfold.) It also said to limit myself to small things. So what are they, I asked? It pointed to “Modesty,” which states that the Mountain (an image with which I identify in the sense of “grounded”) is the youngest son of the Creative, and then shifted to “Keeping Still, Mountain,” which states that “the way to expansion is through contraction.” So “small things” is both staying clear of ego and paring down in order to focus on the things that really matter. Hexagram 52 adds that the Mountain’s stillness is a deliberate pausing before it moves again. I was 21 in 1968, a baleful year, the start of what the Italians called “the years of lead.” It’s starting to feel now like it did back then. One difference is that students had a big role then, radicalized by an unjust war they were called on to fight. The gap between students and workers was less precipitous. Today’s disaffected see a dead end and politicians who are clueless. Dōgen wrote that moments of enlightenment emerge from a “mind” that’s a half-fiction of interpretation, yet there’s something more to “self” than randomness (”contingency”). If it’s all made up, we do a good job of keeping the plot going. Two questions: First, is the mix, Carnival and Lent, necessary to live as a human being? Swedenborg argued that very few people are good, although many believe otherwise. “We are led by what we love,” he wrote. Even grief is often self-love distracted by loss. Second, Is brilliance or surprise to be sought in poems, or is it false to do so? Techné, Rusty Morrison said, has to be balanced by poesis. She also advocated for pushing and pushing for a perfected line.
“End of the road,” Laurie said. It had that look. Although he drove three days before expiring, negotiating the road’s twists, the state of the place spoke to the negligence with which the departing treat material life. Properly speaking, it’s a sham that mortality brings to light: how we, the quick, shade off into this forest of stunted pines. They taunt us, these firesticks, half alive, spawn of past catastrophes. 'A wood stove,’ my oldest son projected, but pine is a mass of sparks. 'We’ll clear it away,’ he offered at another point, an all-purpose summary of the scene, its wrecked boats, trailers, cars, and yurts. Yet there’s a spirit here that draws you to it. More than a sketch, the house begs to be carried out, more than a shell, but not yet shelter.
1 January: atoning and planning; a death 15 January: the Reverend King’s birthday 22, 24, and 25 January: loved ones’ birthdays, the middle one gone 4 February: appeared 7 February: birthday of dead-by-her-own-hand Jane 13 February: a day of coincidence 14 February: a saint’s day 3 April: day my mother died; an artist’s birthday 7 May: remembered 8 May: a loved one’s birthday 10 May: birthday of one grandfather 15 May: a sign, and then? 17 May: Norway’s national day 18 May: remembered 6 June: D-Day 12 June: remembered 14 June: birthday of the other grandfather 4 July: Independence Day 14 Juillet: Bastille Day 1 August: a loved one’s birthday 10 August: one parent’s birthday 14 August: their anniversary, in between 19 August: another parent’s birthday 30 August: anniversary 2 September: a loved one’s birthday 6 September: a loved one’s birthday 10 September: a loved one’s birthday 13 September: a loved one’s birthday 28 October: a loved one’s birthday 9 November: remembered 7 December: Pearl Harbor Day birthday 23 December: a loved one’s birthday 24 December: Christmas Eve/shopping 25 December: Christmas/presents 31 December: New Year’s Eve Afterword The anthropologist and poet Vasilina Orlova wrote me questioning “Common Place” as an apt title for a journal, even a personal one, which hopes to find an audience. I explained its origins in a comment my sister made, pointing to the commonplace books of an earlier time. I noted Bay Area architect Joseph Esherick’s use of “ordinary” to describe his understated houses. There’s a whiff of Veblen here, I realize—his thesis that the leisure class’s apparent modesty was a feint. The title conveys how the work it collects emerged from the everyday. This issue was drawn entirely from my Tumblr site—j2parman.tumblr.com. Several others were written on the road or started there. Along with commissioned pieces and personal essays, it documents my foray into sonnets and my recent return to free verse. The main claim I can make for it is that it continues. — Berkeley, late winter, 2017
Common Place—A Personal Journal Text and photos © 2017 by John J. Parman ✍ firstname.lastname@example.org ☛ complace.j2parman.com ☛ www.j2parman.com
A personal journal