Friday, October 31, 2014

A New Poem in the Confessional Style About the Passion of Cooking

for Mark Alba

When I first met you I was playing bass
For a band that had potential, and I still
Followed that other path
(In a slight way compared to you)
But I did cut out the heart of the artichoke
Using the method you showed me.

We had our obligatory disagreement
In a skyscraper, Atlanta Georgia lawyers
All around us and you asked me to make sure
The curled parsley lacked stem pieces for
The garnish. Andy told me I won’t be asked again

Because I had to dip out to go pick up
The package, at a specific time, a specific place,
And neither of you thought about Atlanta Rush Hour.
Which would have put me too far behind.

You grabbed my (lost) knife kit out of that van.
And you held it for me until I retrieved it.
I briefly explained my situation and apologized
And you apologized

And when I couldn’t show up again because
My Buick Century engine blew
Crossing through Nantahala Gorge
I knew you were disappointed

But at least there was a woman
Who saved me for a time,
And there was an entirely new direction.

And then
There was your talent,
Just waiting to be recognized
Written on the black meringue bark,
Surrounded by black cherries,
And drifted by dehydrated milk foam

Monday, September 8, 2014

Dental Insurance

             Marilyn Sapp stared through the high-rise window of her corner office, 35 stories above the streets of the city. The low-hanging grey clouds that straddled the skyline appeared to lay a weighted hush on the activity below and she could feel the heaviness of the storm approaching. Today was the next step in her march toward domination of the nanotech sector of the economy. The composure that graced her face concealed the ethical dilemma that hung over the atmosphere of Nanobiotics Inc. as she waited patiently for the senior engineer, Jim Benson, to update her on the latest test trials.
            Sapp had designed the first micro-machines that were capable of self-repair, and more importantly, replication. The uses for the machines ranged from maintaining plumbing systems for the city’s waste water management to rebuilding complete parts for machines on assembly lines. Since the technology had enjoyed such a high level of success in the industrial sectors, Sapp felt the next logical step for the company would be to design systems that could manage in organic life forms. The first trials proved to be highly efficient and tests on lab animals proved to be consistently effective. The next phase would include using a human subject in order to prepare the system for mass production. Sapp imagined the dismay the dentistry field would experience as their services were rendered obsolete by the machines. After all, she had spent a the entirety of two student loan installments fixing her teeth in graduate school, so she felt a twinge of pleasure through her consideration.
            From her desk, the conference phone beeped. After clicking the accept button, she shuffled her hand through her grey hair.
            “Yes?” She examined the device as if it contained a secret.
            “Benson here,” he spoke clearly and deliberately. “We’ve completed the latest test runs and you’ll be pleased. The results show a point zero one percent chance of error and we’ve yet to observe any anomalies. The systems are ready and all we’re waiting for is news from above to continue.” Benson stalled in anticipation.
            “Proceed to the next phase. Our lawyers have drawn up all the paperwork and I’ve interviewed the applicant personally. There shouldn’t be any interference from here on out.” Sapp considered something for a moment and added, “Just keep everything quiet. We don’t want to rattle the protesters. There’s already too much heat rising from the streets and you do remember how quickly things can burn.”
            “Yes ma’am, the monkey trials did kick up a lot of dust, but I’m confident that the current team will practice tighter discretion. I’ll notify you when the preparations are finalized and the applicant arrives.” Benson’s voice disappeared as Sapp clicked End.
            Imogene Bradstreet had been on death row for 12 years, 6 months, and 5 days before representatives from Nanobiotics contacted her. She was jailed for the murder of her husband, who, she had discovered quite by accident, had been molesting her 4 and 6 year old daughters. Upon catching him with his pants down, literally, she bashed his head in with a bedside lamp. The jury had been sympathetic, but the letter of the law prevailed and she was sentenced to execution by lethal injection. She entered the meeting room dressed in a drab blue jumpsuit and grey plastic sandals. Her ragged hair was piled on top of her head and held in place with two pencils that crisscrossed in the tangled mass. The company had met with local officials and convinced them to strike a deal with the inmate. If she would consent to three trials, she would be released from death row and even offered a chance of parole. She sat directly across from a woman who introduced herself as CEO of a company that produced microscopic robots. After a lengthy exchange of personal histories, Marilyn Sapp wrapped up the interview.
            “You understand there is a small margin for error, but our analysts are at the top in the field and they have assured me that the final trial should go smoothly. If something does go wrong, you have my word that you will be compensated.” Sapp studied the lines in the woman’s face. Years of prison had tempered her features, yet deep lines etched her forehead and worry seemed to crinkle at the space between her eyelids and the bridge of her nose.
            “Anything is better than this hell hole. I ain’t got nothin left to do but sit and wait to die anyway. I’m grateful for this chance to be useful again.” Small tears squeezed from Imogene’s ducts but she repressed them in time to avoid an outburst.
            “Good, then tomorrow we can proceed.” Cass stood up and extended her hand, which was gracefully grasped by Imogene. “Best of luck to you, and I will see you after the trial.”
            Imogene Bradstreet thanked her once more and returned to her cell. She figured the final trial would be a snap since the first two went flawlessly. They just shined a concentrated beam of light on a couple parts of her body and scars that she had for years were reconstructed into skin and “healed” as if there had never been an injury. They explained to her, in much too much detail, how the dental machines would be a little bit different. More would be required to reconstruct something as dense as teeth, but not to worry, they would monitor her and terminate the process immediately should anything go awry. She figured since she was marked for a premature death to begin with, being a human guinea pig could not be any worse. Besides, there was the possibility of freedom and that outweighed any reservations she might have conjured.        

            The thick, ash-colored clouds that spread through the sky sputtered droplets that dotted the window as Sapp turned toward the elevator. As she entered the pod, crackled bursts of lightning flashed in the distance and the rain had slanted and started to slam into the façade of the skyscraper. The door closed.
            She emerged from the elevator and proceeded down the corridor to the examination room. As she entered, Benson nodded to her and patted his assistant on the shoulder. He approached her. He explained that the applicant had been sedated, and all the systems were online. He ordered his assistant to initiate phase one. A mechanical arm hovered above Imogene Bradstreet’s face and emitted a concentrated beam of light into her mouth. Her vitals were stable. Everything was going as expected.
            At first it appeared as a tiny line as if a child had taken a pencil and scribbled on her face. Soon, many lines appeared and the skin on her cheek turned green and seemed as if it were metallic. Quickly, Benson’s concern radiated from his command to his assistant, “Turn it off!!! Turn it off right now, something’s going terribly wrong!!”

            The assistant furiously clicked on the keyboard and lowered his head in defeat before he looked at Benson, “It’s too late, it won’t stop until the circuit has completed.”

Sunday, February 24, 2013

In Memory of Gary Miles

Gary was my mother's companion for the past 12 years. She had come to depend on him for simple things like running to the store to pick up some bread, or making sure the oil in the car was changed. He died a week and a half ago and left a gaping hole in our household. On top of that, our car broke down the day after and left us with a nagging sensation of despair. Usually when someone passes away, I remember my relationship with them and feel gratitude for the times we shared. Gary was no exception. Each person I have known to pass away leaves behind an impression of what their whole lives encompassed. Gary struggled throughout his entire life and it seemed like he could never catch a break.

The break he did catch, however, is that he met my mother and they developed a supportive relationship. My brother and I grew close to him and I came to depend on him to help me in times of need, like when he bailed me out of jail, or picked me up in the middle of the night when I had no other way. The impression that Gary has left behind expresses how we may find love in this world, even if the struggle seems so vast, even if our experiences are not very kind. I often wished he would get to be on a television game show because he loved watching them so much. He also loved to sing and always dreamed of being in a talent show like American Idol. Reasonable dreams, since people actually do those things.

So here we are, struggling to figure out how to handle everything from funeral arrangements to contacting his estranged family members. For a while we were the only family he felt he needed, but he had started reaching out to folks near the end. He scrapped through life until the very end and his face was etched with the lines from years of hard labor. He was fiercely loyal and someone you could count on in a fix. The impression he leaves behind is one that maps out the strength we gain through our struggles. He also reminds us to press on even when it seems like everything is falling apart and hopeless. Much like this time. I am not sure how it will all work out, but I do know that Gary's impression will last much longer than his suffering. Even from beyond, he sings, and I sincerely hope that his song is forever joyful.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Abbreviated Language

First of all, it is NOT cute that you shorten the word vacation to "vaca."  "Delish" is a word that seems less likely to describe a tasty treat than to signify a level of socially superior exclusion.  I know, our language is being abbreviated due to the effect of social media on the ways we communicate.  I get it.  We are all so busy nowadays that it is a challenge to utter a word more than a couple of syllables long.  Rushing around, paying bills, working, practicing, studying, eating, sleeping, bathing, all the activities we must include in our daily routines, make the importance of using language properly fall on the level of something like mailing a letter to your great aunt or picking up litter on the side of a highway.  No offense to those who actually write letters to their great aunts, I'm sure your efforts bring comfort.  And forget about the trash.

Language evolves, I get that.  I also understand when Derrida explained how written language, if not completely privileged over oral, is at least AS important.  (I mean, if we all went around saying SMH or LOL in our conversations, we would come across as being one stick away from a boomerang).  That is sort of what he was getting at when he coined the term différance, to show how a word that is read can hold meaning in a way that it cannot if simply heard. Consider "there, they're, their" or "its, it's" or "your, you're" and you'll have an idea of spoken vs. written communication.

There is a reason we shorten our language, and there is a lot to be said for economy.  Only shortening words like "brilliance" to "brills" and "fabulous" to "fabu" does something to our culture that pushes us closer to the abyss of cutesie than towards the realm of substance.  It also means that if you systematically replace whole words with approximations, the odds are that you are a snob.  It is one thing to quickly tweet a message where you say "prof" instead of "professor" or "info" instead of "information" as it shortens the character count and allows your complete idea to be unimpeded.  It is an entirely different matter when you're speaking with your pal and brag about how you picked up some great "merch" when you visited the brewery.

I'm not sure I can explain how "ridic" it is that we abbreviate some words.  When I hear certain shortcuts, I immediately cringe as if someone has inserted a chalkboard into my soul.  I am not opposed to the idea of making our language more fluid and expressive.  Rather, it is an attitude that is attached to the process of shortening. We are so infatuated with our quickness and cleverness when we use such terms, that our self-satisfaction supersedes our good sense.  It is one thing to grow up in a culture where terms are learned and used, quite another to denigrate them intentionally because they sound hip or slick.  It is not going to stop and my disdain will only serve to keep me agitated.  Still, something must be said about how important our language is to our lives, and how by slaughtering it, we slaughter a little bit of ourselves.  Just imagine every time someone says "delish" somewhere in the fabric of space/time, a rupture opens and something like ice cream disappears.  It could happen.

I do wonder why I think it is okay to say "prof" and "info" but not "marvy" or "presh."  It is all a matter of personal taste I suppose.  I can understand why someone would enjoy getting  a "mani-pedi" or goes to the "fridge."  I know that in kitchens, asking what the "temp" is on that steak is commonplace.  There are some words that easily lend themselves to abbreviation.  I feel like I should be composing a defense of all words and how they are used, how it is okay because it follows the line of short attention spans, how language is beautiful no matter how it evolves.  Language is the single most important tool developed by humanity and it serves us in extraordinary ways.  Maybe I should stop right here and rejoice in the fact that I can even communicate at all.  I C it will never change and it comes across as if I'm a H8er.  MayB I M, N this particular context.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Where has Poetry Gone?

As I consider graduate schools, and whether I have what it takes to make it in or not, I return to a consideration that has been bugging me lately.  What has become of poetry?  Is it enough nowadays to have some kind of experience and exalt that experience through word placement in verse?  A lot of poems read like prose and have the feel of narrative.  Because the nature of popular poetry has moved into a realm of self-revelation, there are more and more poems being published that lack any formal use of poetic convention, like simile, metaphor, conceit, personification, metonymy, get the picture.  Now, it's okay to see a sunrise and talk about how many colors there were on that cold winter morning while you pine over lost love and the emptiness that seems to capture the sky.  Okay, maybe there is a bit of convention involved in some places, but it seems like the craft of poetry has become more concerned with eliminating the use of articles and stumping the speech with jerky lines of sudden images than with developing a sense of poetic interaction with an object.  Maybe it is because our emotions are so limited and shared that poetry has burned out.  Maybe it is because there are only so many ways to approach the big themes, and the smaller ones don't seem to have much weight.

The various poetic movements that have arisen through history had a sense of intentional cohesion.  If you go postmodern, you are accused of attempting to undermine the establishment.  If you mimic other forms, you are accused of being unoriginal.  It is a fine line between breathing and spitting.  Haiku has a simplicity that transcends the simple.  Long modern poetry has a complexity that challenges the ways our minds work.  Too many times I have attended poetry readings where we are offered a slight glimpse into a new world, only to find by the end, that it's the same exact world we've been lumbering through already.  It's not a matter of seeing anything new as much as it is about establishing relationships.  Relationship has replaced technique.  I'd prefer to read a rhyming poem set in iambic pentameter about a snail on a stump than I would to read about another person's failed attempt to make things right in a love affair, only to find it never could have been because it wasn't.  I understand the necessity of capturing a spontaneous moment, and revising it through a process of subtle contemplation and craft.  And if you must reveal your disappointment, please consider something fresh, like conjuring metaphors from stacks of aluminum cans, or how advertising drowns out your voice every time you said "i love you."

I am student of poetry.  I embrace the spirit.  I see the value of the verse form and how effective it can be when exploring the vastness of life.  Yet, the world has filled with self-congratulatory expositions of the creative process.  You get into the right circle, then you're guaranteed an audience that will gush over your witticisms and honesty.  It's so challenging to get out of our own heads that it seems like it may never occur again.  We need a new poetic movement that embraces the passion of the Romantics and slams it into the pastiche of postmodernism.  It is not necessary to create something so abstract that you need an inside tip to decipher the riddle.  Rather it is a necessity that poetry pushes through its current stagnation.  Some people are better teachers of what poetry should be than writers of anything.  Some people are so straight-forward that it's impossible to figure out why a work is a poem and not a broken up paragraph.

Maybe I am bitter because I see young poets giving it their all, seeking recognition and being denied because all the journals are filled by fame.  Once you have a voice in the world of poetry, you can write about dog food drying on a board, and stop right there.  There should be an acknowledgement of something beyond that connects us to other things below.  There should be a recognition that transcends the mundane relationship of "oh yeah I've been there too."  I want poetry to reveal the mystery, and show me so many different aspects of it.  I want poetry to excite me and lead me to an awareness where even the most insignificant event achieves relevance.  I want poetry to lead me into the heart of love without pulling me through sentimental sludge.

We've all imagined another way of life other than our own.  We've all seen something that has startled us and has taken us out of our own sphere of understanding, even if for a brief moment.  We are surrounded by an abundance of potential, and until the voice of mainstream poetry changes, we are going to be stuck with the same old thing about the same old thing.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Light of Hurricane Katrina

Though I was terrified as the brutal storm slammed the land, I found shelter through many things,
A likeness of Ganesha, a small piece of jade, candles on the mantle, a small battery powered radio and The hiss of AM, and me pacing in circles and talking to God,
I proclaimed my appreciation for the many things of the world, the cracked corporate conspiracies,
The hearts of secretive politicians, all the systems how perfectly intertwined, the laws of nature
As expressed through a furious deluge, everything in sync and acknowledged as I walked and spoke Aloud, grasping the perfection of the world as if it were my last day.
I watched the storm from different vantages, from the window in the living room,
Where outside the rain seemed less like water than sheets of ice slanting onto the asphalt,
Where the wind roared as it bent and snapped tree limbs and trunks throughout the neighborhood.
I stood in the screened-in back porch and gazed at the huge sycamore that stood in the middle
Of the yard.  I watched the planks of the wooden fence shudder under the force of wind,
Certain that at any moment they would dislodge and seek the façade of the house
Like spears chucked by an angry storm as she displayed her power and her fury.
I held the piece of jade tightly in my fist, seeking the symbolic protective force of a stone,
Rubbing it with my thumb as I continued my conversation with eternity. 
I studied the picture of Ganesha with his blue elephant head and regal robes, his broken tusk that
He had hurled at the moon along with the curse of darkness until he was convinced
To restore the light to the celestial sphere.  I meditated about breathing and attempted Zazen
While the crash of objects being forced into direction and movement echoed through the room.
I napped briefly on the couch to conserve my strength and when I awoke,
I was surprised by the flickering candles’ reflections on the surface of water
That had begun to fill the house as I had slept.  Disoriented, when I touched what I imagined
A dream, the ripples extended to the corners of the room and the candlelight distorted. 
I gathered my things, recent journals, a wallet with identification and money,
The hard drive I had removed from my computer, upon which was recorded my recent efforts
At writing a novel, extra clothing, a compact pillow, and a quilt
My conversation melted into silence as I clicked on the black flashlight, found my way
To the attic over the garage, and cowered in fear as the haunting tornadoes sounded
Through the distance. I wrote in my journal by candlelight and sipped from a pint of bourbon,
I noted the sounds, described the way I tripped over a fallen tree limb as I maneuvered
Through the flooded yard, how my clothing was drenched, how the coldness seemed
To wrap around me more out of solace than out of disdain.  When I had exhausted my strength,
I blew out the candles and slipped into the realm of dreams. 
I slept until the storm abated, and climbed down from my sanctuary.
Outside, the night sky opened up and stars thickly filled the distance as if they had all
Been constructed by one sliver of light and interconnected.  I surveyed the yard, the flood water
Three feet high and filled with toxicity.   I looked at the small crepe myrtle bush,
On whose flexible limb I had secured a bright red hummingbird feeder using a small wire tie.
In awe, I noticed it still hung, though scarcely secured against something like a storm,
And it became another symbol that had protected me
From the terror of a life threatening storm, and the possibilities of unwise decisions.
I had been spared through a process of gratitude, superstition, and reverence
As I waded into the neighborhood, certain I was alive.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Overcome Toxicity

The first toxic friendship I can remember occurred when I was in my early teens.  Through the peer pressure of a fearless kid named Randy, I followed his example through many underhanded adventures.  One time we threw eggs at a kid's house and ran like hell.  I liked the kid whose house we bombarded, yet I still persisted in overcoming my personal opinion and pelted the front door with a couple of eggs.  Why did I do it?  Ironically it was because Randy had a vendetta against Will, the kid whose house we egged.  He thought Will was too smart and a show off, though in reality he was just a soft-spoken kid who liked to read.  We also stole beer from our parents, snuck out of the house late at night, spent weekends on Dauphin Island without a word to anyone, stole wood from the neighboring subdivision as it was being constructed, made fun of everyone, skipped school, and performed many acts of mumbo jumbo with toilet paper and eggs.  Most of these activities, I would have never considered had I not been influenced by the encouragement of Randy.  We all do things while growing up that appall us later in life, but most kids manage to behave within some level-headed boundaries.  Randy knew no boundaries, and had I not moved away before my junior year of high school, I may have ended up in junvenile detention with him.

Through the years, I  moved around and met many people.  Most I got along with and enjoyed learning about.  The few I met where I felt no promise of friendship, we simply parted ways and didn't associate anymore.  Occassionally I butted heads with others over whether lamb shanks should be braised or if the Vols had a chance against the Crimson Tide.  Opinionated disagreements usually ended up diffused and at the end of the night  we sat around like old chums, sharing beers and stories from the kitchen line.  We solved our problems by accepting each other's individuality and differences of opinion.  It was simple and effective.  Toxicity was the last thing we wanted in our environment.

I had not even considered the idea of toxic friendships until recently when a friend shared an article with me.  It was one of those "how to clean up your life" type articles, and it made sense.  One of the signs of a toxic relationship is when you lose a sense of confidence when you associate with someone you think is close to you.  Usually it is accentuated by criticism they claim is to help you become a better person.  Another sign is when you acheive something, they are quick to point out how self-centered you must be to revel in your accomplishment.  They accuse you of narcissism, mental illness, lack of empathy, closed-mindedness, or ineptitude.  All of this under the premise that they value your friendship and want to work through issues.  You endure it because you have invested time and energy into the relationship and quite possibly have even developed a level of pseudo-trust to where their words affect your emotional state.  You never consider any of it as a projection of their insecurities.  It all seems like it really is your fault and you must change or else you'll never be successful.  Another sign of toxicity in "friendship" is when you are expected to put someone else's priorities over your own.  If you don't take time out of your busy day to interject your sympathy and indentification into their personal struggles, you are branded as an egotistical child who will never understand the real world because you lack humility, compassion, insight, and depth of character.

I have never claimed to be some transcendent creature forged from the realm of enlightenment, but I do recognize my capacity to love and I work on developing awareness of how I could change to be better at communicating, better at listening, and better at indentifying with others.  I am aware of how I have messed up in life and when my decisions have been selfish and misguided.  I accept responsibility for my actions and I make honest efforts to ensure I am more careful.  Regardless of my shortcomings, a true friend would be more inclined to clue me in to how I am messing up in life by telling me how I have disappointed them, instead of waging a character attack.  A true friend would step up, question my motives, and point out how my actions are self-defeating, instead of attempting to defeat me through criticism and disdain.  Even if a friend only gets in touch once in a while and it comes from a sincere place, it is far more valuable than being bombed by myopic vilification.

The articles all say that it's best to remove those elements from your life if you want to clean house and feel peace of mind.  There are people in our lives who support us and feel a sense of vicarious pride in our achievements.  They nurture us, build us, and do their best to share our burdens.  I choose to focus on those aspects of my life and say goodbye to the voices that always bring me down.  Though I haven't met many Randys in my life, I am able to see the few that I have set me back in egregiously destructive ways.  The next time a voice in your life tells you how worthless you are for whatever reason, kindly snuff it out and focus on where you intend to be.  Don't give too much life to it or it will reverberate in your head every time you must make a clear decision. Even if all those things really are wrong with you,  they can be fixed.  Odds are you are just fine, but fix it all anyway to the point where that voice  has no fuel and grows quiet as it sinks into the deep dark mist of the past.  Disconnect yourself from such toxicity.  You'll feel lighter in your spirit, and then you can spend time with the people who really do care.