“Samurai Song”

Samurai Warrior with Sword Drawn

I love this poem by Robert Pinsky, formerly Poet Laureate of the United States. It reminds me of my own situation, in which I must deal with the waning years of my life with the spirit of a warrior. The poem is called “Samurai Song.” I first discovered it in The New Yorker. Several years ago, I met Mr. Pinsky at a book festival and told him how much this poem meant to me.

Samurai Song

When I had no roof I made
Audacity my roof. When I had
No supper my eyes dined.

When I had no eyes I listened.
When I had no ears I thought.
When I had no thought I waited.

When I had no father I made
Care my father. When I had no
Mother I embraced order.

When I had no friend I made
Quiet my friend. When I had no
Enemy I opposed my body.

When I had no temple I made
My voice my temple. I have
No priest, my tongue is my choir.

When I have no means fortune
Is my means. When I have
Nothing, death will be my fortune.

Need is my tactic, detachment
Is my strategy. When I had
No lover I courted my sleep.

 

 

The Tomb of the Hero

Honor Guard at the Tomb of José de San Martín in Buenos Aires

The liberators of South America from the Spanish are honored throughout South America. One keeps running into the names of Bolivar, San Martin, Sucré, and O’Higgins again and again. The honor guard at the Metropolitan Cathedral on the north side of the Plazo de Mayo in Buenos Aires is dressed in the uniforms of the early 19th century, with swords drawn and standing at rigid attention.

Even Jorge Luis Borges, who never served in any country’s military, bragged of being descended from Colonel Manuel Isidoro Suárez, hero of the Battle of Junín in far-off Peru back in 1824. Many of his poems refer to this ancestral hero. Here is the last stanza of “A Page to Commemorate Manuel Suárez, Victor at Junín”:

His great-grandson is writing these lines
and a silent voice comes to him out of the past,
out of the blood:
“What does my battle at Junín matter if it is only
a glorious memory, or a date learned by rote
for an examination, or a place in the atlas?
The battle is everlasting and can do without
the pomp of actual armies and of trumpets.
Junín is two civilians cursing a tyrant
on a street corner,
or an unknown man somewhere, dying in prison.

I have read biographies of Bolivar and San Martín—as well as Gabriel García Márquez’s excellent The General in His Labyrinth, about the former—only to find that the heroes are more honored today than they were in their lifetimes. San Martín became so disgusted with his fellow Argentines that he moved to France. Only many years later did the Argentines invest him with the sanctity he wears today like an uneasy crown.

 

 

“Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile”

1963 Oldsmobile Cutlass

Here is a poem from Adrian C. Louis, a Lovelock Paiute Indian from Northern Nevada, who wrote a poem entitled “Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile.” This poem had a huge effect on Sherman Alexie, my favorite Indian author, a Spokane from Washington. First of all, here is the poem:

July 4th and all is Hell.
Outside my shuttered breath the streets bubble
with flame-loined kids in designer jeans
looking for people to rape or razor.
A madman covered with running sores
is on the street corner singing:
O beautiful for spacious skies…
This landscape is far too convenient
to be either real or metaphor.
In an alley behind a 7-11
a Black pimp dressed in Harris tweed
preaches fidelity to two pimply whores
whose skin is white though they aren’t quite.
And crosstown in the sane precincts
of Brown University where I added rage
to Cliff Notes and got two degrees
bearded scientists are stringing words
outside the language inside the guts of atoms
and I don’t know why I’ve come back to visit.

O Uncle Adrian! I’m in the reservation of my mind.
Chicken bones in a cardboard casket
meditate upon the linoleum floor.
Outside my flophouse door stewed
and sinister winos snore in a tragic chorus.

The snowstorm t.v. in the lobby’s their mother.
Outside my window on the jumper’s ledge
ice wraiths shiver and coat my last cans of Bud
though this is summer I don’t know why or where
the souls of Indian sinners fly.
Uncle Adrian, you died last week—cirrhosis.
I still have the photo of you in your Lovelock
letterman’s jacket—two white girls on your arms—
first team All-State halfback in ’45, ’46.

But nothing is static. I am in the reservation of
my mind. Embarrassed moths unravel my shorts
thread by thread asserting insectival lust.
I’m a naked locoweed in a city scene.
What are my options? Why am I back in this city?
When I sing of the American night my lungs billow
Camels astride hacking appeals for cessation.
My mother’s zippo inscribed: “Stewart Indian School—1941”
explodes in my hand in elegy to Dresden Antietam
and Wounded Knee and finally I have come to see
this mad fag nation is dying.
Our ancestors’ murderer is finally dying and I guess
I should be happy and dance with the spirit or project
my regret to my long-lost high school honey
but history has carried me to a place
where she has a daughter older than we were
when we first shared flesh.

She is the one who could not marry me
because of the dark-skin ways in my blood.
Love like that needs no elegy but because
of the baked-prick possibility of the flame lakes of Hell
I will give one last supper and sacrament
to the dying beast of need disguised as love
on deathrow inside my ribcage.
I have not forgotten the years of midnight hunger
when I could see how the past had guided me
and I cried and held the pillow, muddled
in the melodrama of the quite immature
but anyway, Uncle Adrian…
Here I am in the reservation of my mind
and silence settles forever
the vacancy of this cheap city room.
In the wine darkness my cigarette coal
tints my face with Geronimo’s rage
and I’m in the dry hills with a Winchester
waiting to shoot the lean, learned fools
who taught me to live-think in English.

Uncle Adrian…
to make a long night story short,
you promised to give me your Oldsmobile in 1962.
How come you didn’t?
I could have had some really good times in high school.

Indian Poet Adrian C. Louis

In an article in the Atlantic, Sherman Alexie wrote about the impact of this poem on his life:

In 1987, I dropped out of Gonzaga and followed a high school girlfriend to Washington State University (it’s called Wazoo). And by complete chance, I enrolled in a poetry workshop that changed my life. On the first day, the teacher, Alex Kuo, gave me an anthology of contemporary Native poetry called Songs from this Earth on Turtle’s Back. There were poems by Adrian C. Louis, a Paiute Indian, and one in particular called “Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile.” If I hadn’t found this poem, I don’t think I ever would have found my way as a writer. I would have been a high school English teacher who coached basketball. My life would have taken a completely different path.

This was the first line of the poem:

            Oh, Uncle Adrian, I’m in the reservation of my mind.

I’d thought about medicine. I’d thought about law. I’d thought about business. But that line made me want to drop everything and be a poet. It was that earth-shaking. I was a reservation Indian. I had no options. Being a writer wasn’t anywhere near the menu. So, it wasn’t a lightning bolt—it was an atomic bomb. I read it and thought, “This is what I want to do.”

Interestingly, that wasn’t the first line of the poem, as you can see from above. But the feeling was genuine, and Alexie ran with it. Next week, when I return from the desert, I want to talk more about Alexie.

 

The Dreams of Dolphins

Dolphins Near Hawaii

Silvina Ocampo is not only the wife of the great Argentinian writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, but she is a world class writer and poet herself. The following poem is called, simply:

Dolphins

Dolphins don’t play in the waves
as people think.
Dolphins fall asleep going down to the ocean floor.
What are they looking for? I don’t know.
When they touch the end of the water
abruptly they awake
and rise again because the sea is very deep
and when they rise, what are they looking for?
I don’t know.
And they see the sky and it makes them sleepy again
and they go back down asleep,
and they touch the ocean floor again
and awaken and rise back up.
Our dreams are like that.

 

1,000 Yen and Six Haikus

Japanese Author Natsume Sōseki (1867-1916)

One of my major literary discoveries this year was Japanese author Natsume Sōseki, who was best known for his prose and who was honored on the 1,000 yen note between 1984 and 2004. Here, however, are six haiku that he wrote:

Over the wintry
forest, winds howl in rage
with no leaves to blow.

The lamp once out
Cool stars enter
The window frame.

The crow has flown away;
swaying in the evening sun,
a leafless tree.

Watch birth and death:
The lotus has already
Opened its flower.

Plum flower temple:
Voices rise
From the foothills.

On New Year’s Day
I long to meet my parents
as they were before my birth.

My favorite haiku is the second one, but the most poignant is the last one. Natsume Sōseki was born to such aged parents that they, being embarrassed, gave him up for adoption, until they re-introduced themselves as his grandparents. Eventually, Sōseki found out about this subterfuge.

 

Poems that Shock and Awe

Harold Pinter in a Photo by Eamonn McCann

It was during the Presidency of George W. Bush, who at the time was putting together the so-called “Coalition of the Willing” to combat the evil Saddam Hussein. Playwright and poet Harold Pinter had given a speech at a “No War on Iraq” Liaison meeting in Parliament. He ended his speech indicating that we all add “a clear obligation, which is to resist.” The following two poems were written by Pinter with that spirit in mind:

God Bless America

Here they go again,
The Yanks in their armoured parade
Chanting their ballads of joy
As they gallop across the big world
Praising America’s God.

The gutters are clogged with the dead
The ones who couldn’t join in
The others refusing to sing
The ones who are losing their voice
The ones who’ve forgotten the tune.

The riders have whips which cut.
Your head rolls onto the sand
Your head is a pool in he dirt
Your head is a stain in the dust
Your eyes have gone out and your nose
Sniffs only the pong of the dead
And all the dead air is alive
With the smell of America’s God.

Democracy

There’s no escape.
The big pricks are out.
They’ll fuck everything in sight.
Watch your back.

It’s always interesting to see oneself as the villain of the piece. But then, of course, we put ourselves all too willingly in that role. It didn’t take long before the “Coalition of the Willing” was down to us all by our lonesomes.

 

Looking Past Devastation to Hope

Nathan Altman Portrait of Soviet Poet Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966)

I love this poem. Its first stanza is like the United States under Trumpf, or Russia under Stalin—take your pick! Then, in the second and third stanzas, the devastation turns to hope. The poem’s name? “Everything.”

Everything’s looted, betrayed and traded,
black death’s wing’s overhead.
Everything’s eaten by hunger, unsated,
so why does a light shine ahead?

By day, a mysterious wood, near the town,
breathes out cherry, a cherry perfume.
By night, on July’s sky, deep, and transparent,
new constellations are thrown.

And something miraculous will come
close to the darkness and ruin,
something no-one, no-one, has known,
though we’ve longed for it since we were children.

There is something of the seer about the gaunt poet, who under her bangs sees into futures that might possibly, hopefully lie in wait for us.