Saturday, July 25, 2009

"There's a Hole in the Bucket"

The other night, I began singing to Adam, “There’s a hole in the bucket, Dear Liza, Dear Liza...." (Full-force twang on bucket, of course.) We started scrambling to remember how the song went and eventually pieced it together. You need straw to plug the hole, an axe to cut the straw, a stone to sharpen the axe, water to wet the stone—and alas—a bucket to carry the water for the stone. In the end, Liza and Henry are the model of the dysfunctional couple and accomplish zilch-o. These types of songs, infinite-loop motifs, are fun, but there’s something beyond silliness to this song. Adam said what he loved about the song is how you know that Liza and Henry waste their days in this type of talk, that this infinite-loop is who they are. Adam being a fiction writer, it’s no surprise he would say that character development is what differs this song from such grand works of art as let’s say “99 Bottles of Beer.” But I think he’s right. The song is a great example of when “form follows content.” Liza and Henry are themselves loops that never go anywhere. Now, here’s what I was wondering. As I was poking around about this form, I found that songs, stories, and art all use it. (For art, it’s M.C Escher; for stories, it’s “It was a Dark and Stormy Night.) I can’t think of this form being used in a poem although I’m sure someone out there will offer up some example. Still, the point is that the infinite-loop form is not used in poetry as often as it is in other genres, and that makes me ask: why not? Is it contemporary poetry’s aversion to predictability? To fun? Its preference for private versus collective voice? Open form over received form? Whatever the reason, dear Liza and Henry are still water-less and work-less.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

"The Lesson of Plenty"

Being in Malaysia, I can’t help but sniff around for Malaysian poetry. I’ve always loved the Malaysian pantoum—that slippery, muscular, eel-in-the-hands form that is as much about repetition as resistance to the repetition. I mean, even when a line is repeated, it takes on a slightly different meaning because of what has come before it (if it’s done well).  Admittedly, I’m at a disadvantage trying to find the pulse of Malaysian poetry since I don’t know Malay or Chinese, but I’ve been enjoying some poets who write in English. One poet, fairly well known in the States, is Shirley Lim. She has won the National Book Award for her memoir Among the White Moon Faces and awards for her poetry as well. I love this line from “Eating Fruit in California” about a foreign speaker’s encounters with fruit from the U.S.: “Still, I do not know how to shop/ 
For two, for one, cannot learn the lesson/ 
Of plenty.”  Yes, learning “the lesson of plenty” is one that I keep learning—and traveling is great to remind me of how little I actually need. And I always vow to keep that philosophy of needing less once I return. But one thing the U.S. does very well is creating that link between what one owns and who one is: identity and ownership. Again and again, I learn the lesson of plenty. Anyway, here is a poem by Shirley Lim:


Going East, 1848-1948

California is an old place for Chinese. 

In 1848 Guangdong fathers

Were already walking, and walking away 

From young women’s beds and mothers’ kitchens 

Toward the Eastern rollers. Endless motion 

Glittering like silver pieces and demons.

The cutting smell of bilge and their own piss.

Rice boiled any old how. Salted black beans 

For sixty days of slurping ocean,

Before land fall in San Francisco, January, 

Having left after October harvest.

No one had told them snow would cover

The Sierras where they’d look for gold ore,

That it would take wars and a century

For Guangdong fathers to become American.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Ashram of the White Album

I’ve been in India for the past two weeks—hence the lack of any postings. I’m not going to try to describe the experience in such a short amount of space, but I’ll just say that I’ve never had all of my senses and all of my thoughts so barraged. (Tsk, tsk: smelled like an attempt.) My friend Tiggy and I kept seeking out some quiet, so we went to Rishikesh. This is a town known for its yoga and ashrams—and The Beatles. It was here they wrote the White Album in this ashram a five-minute walk from where we stayed. (Rumor is Ringo and wife left citing that they missed their kids—and meat and alcohol. Interesting trinity.) The ashram is now empty and crumbling, but in some way that seemed appropriate. All we saw there were some cows—and this one black bird. I was shocked that this hasn’t morphed into a Come-Here-And-Write-Like-the-Beatles profit machine. As writers, we know that trying to follow someone else’s process doesn’t work. I’ve borrowed bits from others, but trying to recreate my own experiences—much less someone else’s—results in only staler versions of the first version.  Here's a link to "Blackbird:"