Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Geography & Shapes

This has so far been the most confusing of my submissions. "Geography" and "Shapes" were accepted for publication in the January-March 2014 issue of Sentinel Literary Quarterly (based in the United Kingdom) sometime in November last year. March came and went with no news from the pub. Then, with half the year already gone, the issue's finally out - at least parts of it, based on how the website looks. My poems are supposed to appear only in the print version of the magazine, so here they are.

*     *     *     *     *


Tonight, my lover promised we would go places--
edge of the sun or rim of a lunar crater
circle the burst of stars in our patch of sky
hitch a ride on a spinning asteroid
and feel how space invades the distance
straddling two electric bodies.

Here was our house, next to Moscow
and the frost that permeates its empty squares.
Every morning, we woke to bells ringing
from the onion domes of St. Basil's
sounds we imagined mailed to our window
by melting snow, the hurtling wind.

My lover believed in all things real and imagined,
and I, the rest that hover in between.

In the place where they sell coffins,
I first saw her, looking from beneath one of the cases
the glass reflecting the whites of her eyes
her body, a lazy shadow supine in its polished casing.
I took her, there and then, on a trip around the globe
painting portraits of ruins and walls, hillside
trees, a field of wildflower, mountains.
She devoured the sights, the moving pictures
down to the final shred of celluloid.

Stop-- touch this acre of soft earth.
Here was the place for the invention of promise:
bend of the harsh ray of light
and spark of the first gleam of life.
Notice how everything collapses to its core,
how nothing seems able to withstand
the pull of gravity. This is also a place
for broken things, and for things to be broken.
Shards of glass collect on the bleeding feet,
wounds refusing to close with every washing.

Here was where we landed last night:
not in Zurich or Oslo, balmy Barcelona,
the lofty heights of Denver or swampy New Orleans.
A house of stone and fog, both solid and wisp
like whispers inhabiting the space between our mouths.
Here, our words are nothing but air.

*     *     *     *     *


The lemon tree makes a curious shape
in the way it bends to the sky:
stooped, slight dent along the delicate stem
as if praying to heaven or asking
what shape the rain takes
as it plummets in a raging storm.
To be old and still bear fruit-- yellow,
flock of eager schoolchildren
navigating an empty museum at daytime;
sour, the aftertaste of troubled marriages--
is quite enviable. It means the capacity
to create is still intact, like looking beyond
the windowpane and asking the glass
what shape the moon takes at midnight,
hoping to imitate its spectral glow,
the curve where darkness meets the light.
This morning, the lemon tree travelled
one inch farther from its mound of earth,
but also, nearer to when it shall finally stop
trying to be taller than the rest of the garden--
the nonstop pendulum of bamboo stalks,
the rose bushes blossoming in summer--
and learn to let go of the one perfect fruit
hanging from the one perfect branch,
or what is the shape of sadness
trapped in the bubble of trickling tears
when a father's face has turned away
after his daughter's wedding.
Tonight, the lemon tree stands content
with the geometry of its place--
the triangle of leaves moist with dewdrops
the parallel branches bearing weight
of the future fruit, or what shape
the unborn seed takes in its watery womb,
in its nameless state when even strangers
tend to its needs, an old man's need
to see circles and squares take the form
of boisterous grandchildren, like saplings
breaking through the soil for the first time.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Extended Summer, Week 13 (The War)

I watched "Saving Private Ryan" for the first time the other night, and by the time the credits started rolling, I was already so distracted by how corny and embarrassingly derivative (given this is Steven Spielberg we're talking about) and patronizing to the audience in an America-is-the-best-place-in-the-world way the ending is, that I started thinking how the movie totally deserved to have lost Best Picture to "Shakespeare in Love" because "Shakespeare" was indeed an equally ambitious but miles more creative film than this war flick.   
I thought about the first and final shots of "Saving Private Ryan," with the American flag proudly waving before our faces, and I thought about how American directors - the whole of Hollywood, really - sometimes find the need to convert a film into their own private Fourth of July event. I thought about how this somehow helps (not necessarily that it's a direct cause) in promoting a culture of ignorance in American classrooms, especially in the subject of geography, when all these Stateside kids get to see and hear all day are America, America, America. Like in that classic movie "Mean Girls," where the character of Amanda Seyfried asks pre-rehab Lindsay Lohan, "If you're from Africa, why are you white?" and that random anecdote about many an American school kid not knowing where Guam is or, heaven forbid, even Hawaii. (But perhaps the reference to Mean Girl Karen may just be a bit unfair.)

And then I started thinking about Michael Cimino's "The Deer Hunter," the one where Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken go to Vietnam and get captured and play Russian roulette, and where Meryl Streep plays the long-suffering wife, and Walken goes cuckoo because of the madness he witnesses in Saigon and instead decides to be a Russian roulette prodigy. And I was reminded of the movie's length (three hours!) and that I watched it during that week when I almost got a cold but successfully suppressed the virus through a combination of vocal rest (imagine that!) and gallons of water, and how I had to pause "The Deer Hunter" every thirty minutes to drink a glass and pee some. And it brought me to the final scene of the movie, where Meryl Streep starts singing "God Bless America," and I realized how it could have been the only perfect ending at the time (the film came out in 1978) and the gamut of emotions that must have flooded every screening in every theater back then.

And I thought to evaluate more carefully the merits of "Shakespeare" as a Best Picture winner, and decided that it's very much a "clean" film (and here, observe how I've shifted from using the populist term "movie" to "film"), meaning that the plot is carefully thought out, and the storytelling is neatly structured. From there, however, I realized how little I remember about my experience of watching it a few years back - mainly, Judi Dench's delightful, if rather literally mortifying, appearance as Elizabeth I, and all those excerpts from "performances" of The Bard's plays, and that mesmerizing final shot of a woman walking down a seemingly endless beach. And so I decided that I should probably stop comparing "Saving Private Ryan" with it until I get around to watching "Shakespeare" a second time, and that it was totally wrong and rash of me to have mentally condemned the former simply on the basis of an overtly manipulative ending.

And then I read Roger Ebert's review, and gee, did a lot change. For example, realizing that the first thirty minutes, depicting the initial stages of the invasion of Normandy, is truly one of the most gripping and skillfully made battle sequences of all time, and that this section alone is justification enough for the critical acclaim the film had earned. Also, that if we just get hold of the reel and cut off the opening and closing scenes, "Saving Private Ryan" is really a magnificent, magnificent film (see what i did there). But most of all, that my frustration over the character of the cartographer/translator/believer of goodness and the rational/battle virgin Upham (Jeremy Davies) in that part during the culminating fight sequence where he ends up cowering on the stairs with a string of unused bullets the length of a reticulated python, could only be, to echo Ebert, my subconscious way of relating to the character.

And so I imagined how I'd fare in war as a civilian abruptly thrown in the thick of action, how I'd face the endless barrage of bullets, how I'd gun down the enemy or if I'd even get around to doing it, how I'd trek across towns reduced to rubble in my muddied, bloodied uniform. And I remembered how my paternal grandfather, long before he became a chain-smoking alcoholic, but also a great and humble man, as many in our city remember him, was supposed to have been a guerrilla messenger or something during the Japanese invasion. And that next week will be his 15th death anniversary.

This city is vicious. It has sucked the writer in me dry.