Almost done--took a while, but I'm starting to get happy with it.
It was a day at the end of April, “Supposed to shoot up, near to ninety-two” She said, her fan held still, her parasol Open to catch the raining rays. “I heard, And it might just be rumor,” the fan starts Again, “I heard the record’s ninety-one.” And shook her head almost around full turn, As if to tell her, too, somehow, something About how records scratch after they break.
“I was the youngest, so I never cared for records—making them or breaking them.” She wiped her brow. “Are you the youngest girl?” (She was, but not the youngest of them all, And guessing at the meaning, shook her head.) “No,” and again, “No. I’m the middle child.” And the across became an up and down— Agreement? Comprehension? She stood still, In the tight heat, and then, uncertainly, As if that, that not knowing (or the sun?) Made her legs engines, gave her fuel, she shrugged And walked away. (She marched, to be more accurate, Since accuracy is the rage these days.)
Alone again, her midday wanderings Strayed off from sidewalks, strayed from pavement grooves, And gazed into a stand of daffodils, The perfect upswing rows of yellow cones, Upended bells unrung; she gazed a long Time, thought of that other between figure, Or figurant, Narcissus, stooping down On banks, or tidelines, marshy grass. She thought of his eyes next, a pair of two And both were looking for a rainbow bridge, A light and sturdy transom strong enough For body and image and that starboat Of beauty, vanity (some call it pride) Alike, a bridge to hold it all (an ark— to be precise, but how can arks hold boats, especially boats made of stars? How’s that?) But, failing water-light, or arks, he drowned.
So too would these sun worshippers, in joy, If they could, merging with what they reflect And consummating color, name, and shape Alike, at once recombinant, unselfed (The blind man told him, he whose death feeds them, “You stay alive as long as self’s unknown.”) As they bent up and stretched before her eyes In tip-toe straightlines, ruffled ends a crown, The trumpets heralding and strident blast, And narrowing the tube, the March windshield, And out to petals. Here she noted on some The extra bred-in ruffles, adorned As to spread out the bell, open it wide— Even the decorative, adored first bloom Gives way to its own beauty ruse, she thought, And, laughing, plucked one of them, to cup the weight Of the selected for, of extra, trait, And watched the rigid rows maintain their bask As if to drench themselves until full drunk In this, this chance to honor their Sun-God.
She sniffed and closed her eyes, and like a wish The sky went gray, the billowed cloud shapes swarmed Their deity and masked it, and let loose Into the blooms turned buckets fat raindrops. They splashed and pelted petals, and tested The wishes of the congregants to drown With tastes of rain to fill the flowers’ frames (And she knew, wet herself, God had two names. Of this, suddenly, she was now sure: To punish and to give away were acts Receiving letters at the same address.) But she thought of the woman’s parasol And laughed to wonder if its gossamer held.
It was about the first of May, and hot Again, a little hotter than last time, Some said. (She couldn’t say herself. She lost Her parasol meteorologist to sun-stroke’s calm.) Without the record scratch she became more than middle; she became lost. Doubly so, without measurement or relationship, so she sought both at once in her old haunt, the organized display of botany, the sense arranged in knowns, in pocketed themes, in placard facts.
She knew where, just where, she would go, first thing— And, eager, nearly passed by the hillside, Its bunches of drooped scallion shoots disguised As scrubby ground, as cover, the stand gone Despite the bright and blinding glow of light The daffys honored through resemblance to (Instead of family, become beloved). But where had her beloveds gone? She asked, And in the sizzling heat she saw shade stalks That days ago had been ripe, butter-hued, Hang shriveled as if on flypaper. “I saw them flooded just the other day.” (But when exactly she had no one to say.) “And now. Now look!” She cried up to the sky. Still soggy looking, sagging so, and shrunk Down to half-size at least, a scorched bouquet. “You look just like wet cats, the bunch of you!”
The daffys, though addressed, were still bare. She pressed her cheeks in with her hands, her lips Gave out a fish’s O. Not knowing why, She shook her head until it would fall off If not for triggering a thought. She turned And let her cheeks go slack, gave her eyes room And saw the visitors: the elderly Smooth wrinkles out with bloom, and to her left The mothers push their strollers, padding past In brisk short sneakered strides. One of the old Zipped up his windbreaker and muttered through, Another spotted her, tipped his pageboy cap. No one got her attention. No. Not one.
She was far gone by then, bent low over A peony, a lone bud blushing past In lavender plush nests. She groped and gasped, “It’s not right. It’s just not.” She sputtered on Past tulips, past their prime, thick waxy drips Of red, or gold, the petals dripping down In lazy candlewax streams. “Insect wings.” Growing impatient, confirmation close— Begonias? Check. Full blown, and early so. The cherries, lilacs’ scent—all these belonged— But this? She thought, beholding a wide blank Of white, the mortarboards and tasseled tops Of light green puff that signified dogwood.
She huffed, disturbed, and her reward showed up As riot flames—the burst bloodlines in rows. “Azaleas.” Said between question and cry. The names came flooding through: rhododendron, Blue bells. “Not cannas?!” Halfway peering out, Afraid the whole thing would come tumbling down At once—what if? She puzzled in her brow What if at once? Like an instant message Of some kind (right on the brink, cusping close).
She marched in broad daylight between the trees, Appropriately pink flushed cherry trees, Without seeing herself alone, the rest Aside in shade and fanning, huddled close Or posing, all tongues foreign to her As she considered now. Now. Everything Packed tight into a now, and here; if so She must be here for it, here now (the sun Is beating on her temples, sweat’s beads come).
For with this now so big, so suddenly Apparently at once, it flipped itself Over to near otherwise, too (wisdom’s Sometime dancemate, the shadowboxed other): It meant a big now must (at once) be small, Be short, and quickly passing—and she thought Of an eclipse, its now moment stuffed tight And rare, and missed often (at least by her).
She thought of schedules of how to ensure Next year she’d get in closer, here for more (for a small now always has room for more) And worried she wouldn’t adapt her time So when the party came she’s have to check The box that read “unable to attend.”
She fretted right over the stone arched bridge A single humped piece—missed the cool water Below, the stream flow dribbling old rain past And just about tripped headlong exiting: The fountain’s rim unleveled ground enough To catch her back to earth, and sheets of drops, A curtain drawn in shade around a duck.
yesterday, Sunday, May 3rd, 2009, I went to the Cherry Blossom Festival, known as Sakura Matsuri, in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. I went with Olivia, who was willing to go out in the rain. The Botanic Garden is right near my house, and even though it was raining we walked. I couldn't hear much Olivia said because her umbrella is huge and blue and perhaps magical (see her blog for more on that) and blocked her face. I have bad hearing anyway so the background noise of the cars on eastern parkway whooshing the water out of the way of their steel belted radials drowned out, and sometimes splashed out, most everything she said. This frustrated me, because Olivia is an interesting person and I like listening to what she says, so we tried to work it out so that she held the umbrella under her but at an angle tilting away from me. Eventually I just gave her my umbrella, which is smaller and broken and has lions on it and is probably not so magical, but allowed me to hear her better.
The garden was beautiful! Wet cherry blossoms are darker, and you can see time pass in the way the rain washes them off. Olivia said that she liked seeing an individual blossom kind of kamikaze off the branch, because the way each one spins to the ground is like its own dance. It's sort of like pink snowfalls under a canopy of cloud trees. There's a little spring in winter after all--it's no wonder they are neighbhors. The lilacs looked like whipped cream Olivia said (she wasn't using her umbrella at all at this point) and she stuck her face in one and tasted the lilac water, which if it was as sweet as the lilac bushes smelled must have been delicious. I tasted one but I can't smell as well as Olivia.
The thing we had agreed on seeing was the poetry reading they do at the festival. The first year we went, which was three years ago, they did readings by the Brooklyn Haiku Society or something like that, and it inspired me. They read at this mini-amphitheater carved out of stone right on the pond that banks the Japanese garden. There's one arching cherry tree that lopes into the water there, and it looks like a waterfall when it's in bloom. I think a duck was hiding under it from the rain yesterday, but not all the ducks hid on the pond. Last year the poetry wasn't as good or memorable--something about the atmosphere, which the first time had Japanese American girls in kimonos and sandals trickling through the amphitheater, but who I don't remember that second time. Maybe we showed up late that second year, which was last year. Can't tell. But THIS year it was held indoors, in the auditorium of the visitor center.
The stage was big and blank. On it was a very small man in a dark blue robe and the same sandals the Japanese American girls wore, with the same white socks pulled up so you couldn't see the color of his shin skin. He looked calm, gentle, and happy. The picture might convey that, I dunno. He's also old, 71, and beautifully so. His name was Enta Kusakabe, and he talked to us about Gogyohka, a five-line form of poetry that he created. He told us his voice was very coarse--he spoke softly and a little raspily, but I wouldn't call it coarse--and that three months ago his voice was beautiful, that he doesn't know what happened: poof! Voice gone. So a woman who was head of the first and only American Gogyohka Society (more on that later) read the poems for him. He talked a great deal, though, and introduced the Gogyohka form, how it's different than more traditional forms of Japanese poetry like Haiku or Tanka, which also has five lines. Gogyohka (which you say with hard g's in both instances, go-gee-yo-ka), though, allows more freedom in its "melody," he said, that it's tune is different, because as a form it allows for any subject matter and does not restrict syllables. The only thing gogyohka asks is that each of the five lines are short, that they are concise and the images very clear, and in this way they are very similar and in the tradition of Tanka and Haiku. The big difference is that you can talk freely and openly about your feelings, and you don't have to use "poetic" words or conventions, like referring to the seasons, though you can if you want to. It was very, very hard to hear him, but I sat forward in my seat because not only his words but they way he said them was very captivating to me. He said life begins at 50, which was funny to me because he started writing gogyohka, created the form, at the age of 19. He was very funny in general, and also very open. The woman would read a poem, which was of course very short so only took a couple seconds, and then she'd hand him the microphone back. Sometimes he said a few words, or almost nothing. After this poem:
When you laugh your eyes narrow Isn't it strange then how the world expands
he said almost nothing, just, "You get it? Yes!" And then he kind of exploded with his hands and his little eyes got huge. Even from my seat in the crowd I could see it (my eyes are much better than my ears). One time he said a great deal, got carried away, walking stridently from one end of the stage to the other, very animated, was after the woman read one of his poems:
It wasn't the Americans who dropped the bomb it was the consciousness of the era If Japan had had the bomb we would have dropped it too
he got so animated in talking about this poem, about how important it is for all of us to change our consciousness, that he forgot to hold the microphone close to his mouth, and the woman on the stage, who was much younger and had beautiful eyes, kind of gently and hesitantly with obvious respect sort of nudged the microphone back toward his mouth. He smiled and kept going and going and going, but I could see a lot of people getting up and leaving and answering their cell phones or just talking and ignoring him. Maybe they couldn't hear, maybe they had other preoccupations, or worries, but I struggled with my enmity toward what were after all my fellow people, not just my community neighbors but my fellow citizens. I felt, and still feel, they were very disrespectful, but what can you do?
Well, if you're Olivia you buy me a book about Gogyohka that Enta Kusakabe wrote and signed for me (he signed his name in English and Japanese, which was super cool). I had asked him a question at the end of the presentation and reading, and as he was leaving the auditorium he walked up my aisle and smiled very warmly at me and shook my hand. I told him his answer to my question was like the poem I quoted up above about the laughter and the world widening with it (he talked a lot about gogyohka widening the world of Japanese poetry, that it could be a very small package or door that opened into a much bigger world). He smiled even bigger and let go of my hands and his hands exploded again. I remembered after he walked past that when I had asked my question he had shaded his eyes so he could see who I was past the house lights, and when he was done answering he looked right at me from the stage to ask, nodding, Yes? Which meant to me did I answer your question. I nodded back and said, out loud because who knows maybe he has better ears than me, yes, thank you. And then he came down my aisle because the presentation was over and shook my hand. I think Enta Kukasabe must have good eyes, too.
One thing he talked about extensively, emphasized, was how accessible and easy gogyohka were to write. How in Japan there is no distinct separation between "poets" and "lay people," that something like half a million people are writing gogyohka. He publishes a monthly poetry anthology that's 400 pages long! Even more people write haiku. It's easy, he said, and with gogyohka you don't have to worry about syllables, or translating japanese "sounds" in their language to english syllables, and so he hopes more Americans will write gogyohka. He said he has already seen many wonderful gogyohka written by Americans, some of which were read at the presentation. My favorite was this one:
It is not a sin to be miserable It is a diving board
At the end of the reading and presentation his last words were, "I hope all of you go out and write gogyohka yourselves. Go! Write!" So I decided to give it a whirl. It's not as easy for someone like me, who is so long-winded, to write such tight poems, but equally I like the challenge. I also wanted to honor the experience and inspiration the day had provided, and since we forgot to bring the camera I wrote mainly nature poems about the botanic garden. I share them with all of you in the hopes that you will listen to Mr. Kusakabe and Go! Write! Your own gogyohka. It's pretty fun, actually.
At the dam a pink algae foam of cherry petals Oh! An orange koi thinks it's food!
The pond refills with pocks of droplets:-- ---: Full-the duck sits on the rain.
The gloom of rain droops the camellia drops petals loud in the glory of wet birdsong
Careful prop to umbrella tent under the cherry tree Snapshot--poomp! Headbutts blossoms
The rain and the lilac bushes: the wet smell you taste like a bee
So wet the smells become tastes The lilac water you eat like a bee.
In the shiny rain black umbrella people become flowers-- open arched thirsty and coated with pink petals.
One dog circles fast while the other stoops in the grass Around and around like a buoy three legs struggle to shit
(i had that last one in my head last night before I went to bed and wrote it just now)
Finally, the image I used of Enta Kusakabe is from The Gogyohka Poetry Society in Westchester, New York, who hosted his visit to the botanic garden yesterday. If you want more information on the form then check out the website, or ask me: I read Kusakabe's book Olivia bought me last night. He wrote it in English, his first time writing a manuscript in the language! He's a small man, but he's pretty mighty. And it occurs to me that in his poetic vision, in his warmth and urging to use poetry to share ourselves, our inner light with each other, in order to bring us all into understanding and a cosmos of peaceful communication, he is like a Japanese Walt Whitman. He embodies his soul, anyway, to me, partly because I felt so moved at the prospect of shaking the hand of a person who had a puff of the soul smoke of Walt Whitman. With any luck I inhaled some of it!