Poetic meditations on place, specifically the San Bernardino Valley College campus.
The poems in this chapweb are held together not by theme, but by location and purpose. The location is the campus of San Bernardino Valley College, primarily the outdoor areas, encountered either on purposeful walks to and from my office, classrooms, parking lot, etc. or more frequently on the meandering walks taken as a break from grading or other office work. The purpose is a bit more difficult to explain, as purpose is often confused with outcome (especially these days, when everything has to have mission statements and outcomes and be “data driven”). Aside from writing poems, a fairly clear and measurable outcome, the purpose was simply to cultivate attention (an important quality for a writer, or human being), especially attention of where we are. At the writing of this introduction, I have spent more than 20 years working at Valley, spending 5 long days a week (and some Saturdays) there most of the year. It is where (often) I am.
The inspiration for this chapweb is the work of great haiku writers who had the attention and skill to capture images and moments. Many, like Basho, were influenced by Zen, which is sometimes simplified as “realizing reality”. So at first, my thought was to write these meditations as haiku. But it soon became clear that would be unworkable. First, I have never been a very successful writer of haiku (which puts me in very large company), though there are some haiku/senryu here (when those proved ideal vehicles for the poem). Though truly capturing a moment in a small corner of reality, allowing its own implications to ripple out simply and directly, as if the scene itself was its own metaphor is an amazing feat, which the best haiku manage, my own direction is to see relationships between a series of things or moments.
The idea of “correspondences” which I encountered in some early reading of Baudelaire (a concept which I believe he got, not without his own modification of it, from Swedenborg) has always been one of those poetic intuitions working silently within my composition. But all of this frequently needs a bit more space and an attitude which haiku do not allow. Helpful were some of the classic Chinese chüeh-chü (four line poems) which often had the right meditative focus and somewhat broader scope (and rhyme). And of course the long history of “walk poems” was useful to provide models for ideas that required a bit more space (though quite a few walk poems are much longer and more digressive than I am going for). While it would have been satisfying to have a series of poems all in the same form, I believe the constraints of location and purpose will provide enough unity, and what is lost in purity of form is compensated by the ability to follow a series of impressions as they build and unfold.
This is the shortest of the chapwebs in part because this is a project that began only a few years ago and because attentiveness is fleeting and the moments that inspire insights are few. But I have a dozen or so pieces that are not quite ready to post here. Like with all the chapwebs, new pieces will be added as they are written and feel complete enough for posting.
The Water Lilies
Like newly sharpened razors,
the pale blue petals shine.
A breeze sways blades to slash.
I’m cut so clean and fine,
I cannot see the line.
The Palo Verde Tree
sizzle with bees
After Daylight Savings
Though it is well past dusk,
the campus is mostly dark,
the timers not reset.
Nothing defies the night
but solar-powered lamps
along some sidewalks, casting
parabolas of light.
The morning sidewalk is bejeweled
by pearls, like scattered sunlit tears
of eucalyptus boughs above.
Up close, crow crap, the truth appears.
The A-frame sign’s black arrow points
to the concrete cylinder next to it,
a trash can, where two sidewalks cross:
above the pointer, bold, all-caps “EVENT”.
And while I’m sure it’s happening,
a gas — sex, death, decomp — I’ll pass.
The Tao teaches us
water seeks the lowest place;
wisdom soaks my shoes.
This Morning, Millipedes
Across the sidewalk’s barren plane,
inch-long line segments march.
What could this congregation mean,
what weal or woe portend?
The angles of their courses vary,
seem random, purposeful:
the scattered web of pick-up sticks,
a dream of yarrow stalks.
Is some occult geometry
at work and echoed here?
I step with care across that maze
but feel a shiver through,
recall that day in traffic’s loom,
the flying metal shuttles.
I sensed conjunctions, cause, effect,
a moment later, collisions
some called an accident.
In Relative Shadow
November 11, 2019 during transit of Mercury
The widely scattered dark grey clouds
confuse the sky’s blue glass.
Some surly crows peck their shadows
and eye me from the grass.
A cloud’s dim umbra tints my path.
The sidewalk seems to cool.
It seems I almost feel the slowing
of every molecule.
And then I’m back in sun again,
two dozen footsteps on.
I see another patch of shade
creep across the lawn.
The phantom passes over me,
its filmy veil extends,
and as I pass beneath some trees,
a double gloom descends.
I rest a moment on a bench,
to watch the shadows play
while others walk by unaware
of the light show matinee.
And then I think of all the layers:
dense shade of closer trees,
the clouds at varied altitudes
tint fainter by degrees.
The variations in the light,
relations I can’t know –
distance, angle, opacity –
coordinate the show.
And higher still than trees and clouds,
I realize the moon
at times throws shadows on the earth:
the campus clock chimes noon.
So I stroll back, without the screen
of oaks or somber clouds;
the full intensity of noon
has shaken off its shrouds.
Then I remember Mercury
is transiting the sun.
Its faint antumbra, though unfelt,
shades me, and everyone.
The sidewalk angles out
from under olive trees
and I can see the sky
and think of arcs, degrees.
An airplane’s vapor trail,
a line of chalk, bisects
the dome of azure slate
along the x-axis.
The few, faint clouds seem more
the smudge of things erased,
attempts or errors made,
a lesson past, replaced.
The full moon’s pale and small,
but sharp and definite:
above the line, point one
on heaven’s unfinished graph.
The burst of motion draws my eye: ahead,
on the sidewalk, darts and pauses, darts again.
A lizard by size and posture, that brown-red.
But no, a gust propels, then up, a wren?
The current dies. The thing floats down in swings
and twirls, a leaf. The stem a tail, the blade’s
five points, dried, curled, made legs and head, then wings.
The shape a sail for wind to play charades.
But for a moment there, it lived. And I
feel rush of air. My coat flutters like flame.
I shiver, thinking of drafts and squalls that sigh
across the universe to catch my frame
or that dead leaf to dance a life, the way
that quirk of form may ride the flux of light,
or tidal pull of gravity: the ray
or breeze then faltering, which ends our flight.
In the Underbrush
A plosive crackle in the undergrowth
of grasses, flowers, hedges punctuates
my crunching steps across the gritty dirt:
in there, a will that skitters or undulates.
I have disturbed a sunning lizard at times,
and grasshoppers hurled themselves across the path,
contraptions as unlikely to fly as man’s
first hare-brained gizmos, heedless of the math.
But often revelation waits; the rustle
does not return. No doubt quick eyes scan me
from twigs and leaves. Perhaps I too
am just a scrape and crunch, a mystery.
And if some finch erupts in leaves and wings,
or whiptail leaps onto the path? and so?
A pebble datum that: the shape, the name.
Another screen of fronds and sticks to know
and wonder at the cause, accept we can’t
discern the core of things from outward show.