The American poet, I have learned, is usually at least one, or perhaps all, of the following things:
1) An ecologist/ environmentalist… which of course, makes sense, since poets are the ones noticing the minute details of nature and describing them in, sometimes, lurid detail (The spicy stench of the stinkbug as its juices explode on the sidewalk…)
2) A Bush-hater. Ironic? Not really. I mean Bush, the former president(s), especially the second one with the W squished between his first and last name. Not a shrub.
I don’t mean they hate Bush the way your neighbor hates Bush. I mean, HATE. Like, they dream about his ultimate demise and death by a barrage of words of affliction. (Poets are generally not fighters; they are adamant believers in that age-old phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword!” The truth of this statement was best exhibited in the last Indiana Jones movie. Remember? When they were in the tank? No- not the latest Indiana Jones movie. I like to pretend that one doesn’t exist. But I digress…) Some people, namely mothers and spouses of soldiers, really sincerely wished Bush had called off the war on Iraq. I think poets like to rail against the war, but never truly wanted Bush to pull the troops, because who then, pray tell, would they have hurled their words of affliction at?
3) Zen Buddhists.
I am none of these things, and perhaps this is why I am a lousy poet. I love nature and hiking and sunsets and little purple violets and drying hydrangeas and the smell of an Adirondack spruce (must be Adirondack, please). But, I do not let thoughts of oil spills and acid rain and the threat of the extinction of the spotted owl consume my thoughts so much as to warrant, well, a poem.
I don’t particularly like Bush… thought he was a crappy president and I do believe the war was based on false pretenses. FALSE PRETENSES! But again, even with the caps on, I can’t muster enough passion (what does that say about me?) to warrant a, um, poem.
This evening, poet Chase Twichell read to a group of earnest college students (and grad students, too) a collection of poems about discovering the self at the University of Brockport Writers Forum. Chase Twichell is a Zen Buddhist, which is, I think, different from a regular Buddhist.
Man, if I wasn’t a Christian, and had the choice of funky eastern religions, I might just choose Zen Buddhism. I would so pursue ultimate reality through greater consciousness like it was my job. To do this, you have to meditate a lot, which sounds very restful and kind of like sleeping ,which is, like, my favorite thing to do in the entire world.
Ms. Twichell said that we are NOT unique but are all a part of one great consciousness. We think we are unique, but that is just the conditioning of our culture and our upbringing. There is nothing new under the sun. I knew that, because God said it first, I think, in the bible. But, I know something Chase Twichell DOES NOT. I have played the game let’s create a sentence no one else ever has before! This is the game where you string random words together to make a completely original statement. Here’s one:
I am going to the Adriatic Sea to eat conch and smell seaweed while stringing toilet paper on my brother who is a sea monkey from Andalusia.
I don’t think anyone else has ever uttered those exact words in that exact order. (If you've seen it elsewhere, let me know right away!) Therefore, I put something unique out into the universe, the sound waves of which are still traveling miles and miles away from earth, and I did it without transcending into the greater consciousness of the universe. Does that, y’know, count for something? And isn’t that kind of like poetry? Really bad poetry?
The evening began with a Q & A with Ms. Twichell. She didn’t talk about being Zen until it was almost time to start the reading. In the meantime, we thought of interesting questions to ask her: What was her writing process? Who influenced her as a poet? When does she know her poems are ready to be fossilized? AND why is the sky blue and the grass green and in the ultimate reality, which can only be achieved through enlightenment, is the sky still blue and the grass still green or is it, like, reversed or totally different and are there more colors that we can’t even conceive of because our mind, is, like, not open enough?
My favorite comment came from the student who compared her poetry to “Duende.” He very politely apologized to the rest of us because we “probably have no idea what I’m talking about” and then he said to Ms. Twichell, “but I’m sure you do.” Very smooth, dude! Putting yourself on par with the famous American poet! I literally felt the rest of us fade away so it was just the two of them, discussing the influences of the Spanish poets on her work. It was a very Zen moment.
I wanted to say, hey, man. Lorca and I had lunch and a long conversation about death and the sublime last weekend over at Jines, so who’s enlightened now? But I'm shy so I stayed quiet.
After the Q&A session, I listened to the words of my fellow classmates as we tottered down the hall to the auditorium.
“Her language is just so, so, like, immediate!”
“It’s uncommon to hear someone so naked.” (An actual comment.)
“Oh, Lord have mercy… there are cookies at this event???” (That was me.)
I liked the poetry. I really did! I even listened to most of it. You know when you’re in church and they go ahead and sing all of the verses of a hymn instead of just the first and the last? And how, toward the third verse, you kind of trail off and start daydreaming about lunch or when communion is gonna start because you’re kind of hungry? That’s what it’s like to listen to lots of poetry all at once. For me, anyway. I get overloaded and have to take a mental breather.
Chase Twichell was very cool, for an environmentalist-Bush-hating-Zen Buddhist. She didn’t seem to take herself too seriously, which is important in a person, I think. She had a sense of humor that was light and self-deprecating, which I also approve of. She had very cute blonde hair and wore a pink shirt. (Nothing says friendly like a bright pink shirt.) She read her poems with evocation and answered our questions gracefully with a confidence that, I’m sure, comes from years and years of presenting her work in front of gushing young students who want so badly to be published in the Kenyan Review. So, yeah, my teasing is tinged with jealousy, because I am a lousy poet.
Just the other day, my mother said something beautiful about hydrangeas… about how lovely they are even after the flowers have died. She reflected on the way they dry so beautifully and how the leaves become tinged with brown, like an old photograph. I was all let’s make this a poem! Death is like a hydrangea…
But here’s where my mind went. I could not get any further than the “both humans and hydrangeas dry up and wither and die” analogy. I got stuck because humans, after they cease to exist, are left soulless and pale and full of stinky liquids that need to be drained. I suppose one could write that in the years before death, wrinkles and age spots and yellowed teeth are like browning hydrangeas. I couldn’t quite make it work. And then my mind wandered off, as it does so often, and I started thinking about whether or not I wanted to be buried or cremated and why it is, exactly, that Christians as a people seem so opposed to cremation? And then I thought about whether or not I had signed the back of my new license to be an organ-donor and about how sad my kids would be in the aftermath of my passing and that I better write out a list of things for John to do (or not do) when it occurred, things such as: don’t buy crunchy peanut butter, don’t talk with the twins’ speech therapist about politics, and for God’s sake, wash behind the kids’ ears because, believe it or not, they do get grimy.
And then I thought about my funeral, and what hymns they should play, and the scent of the flowers I wanted to fill the sanctuary, to cover up the sour smell of death… hydrangeas really are so beautiful. And then I found I had come full circle.
But I couldn’t make a poem about it.
The All of It by Chase Twichell
I stood naked in the icy brook
Under stars. I lay on hot granite
Crisped with pearl-gray lichen
We crushed beneath us.
He tied trout flies with dog hair
And feathers, cooked the little fish over the coals, on green sticks
He later burned, leaving nothing.
Was that it? Exactly that,
The Inside Knowledge,
The All of it?
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Ecclesiastes 1:9