Tuesday, April 29, 2008

What kind of duck am I?

If you walk around Lake Merritt in Oakland (the Oakland Estuary), it is clear that all ducks come in discrete pairs of male and female. But there is one spot where, in recent years, I see this same sex couple. (Of course, the complete variety of sexual behavior in animals has been verified in scientific studies, as presented in books like SEXUAL EXUBERANCE.) So -- sail on, brothers!

Slogging through the Blog

Blogging in April was interrupted by a trip to see my friend Peter A. in Portland. He showed me wonderful things in Portland, including the Japanese Garden, and maybe I will add more Portland photos later.

Unofficially, the Jim Eilers Park

After a lively discussion at tai chi breakfast, Fred G. and I went to see a Potrero Avenue show by a friend of his, Michael Staley (www.michaelstaleydesigns.com) whose art process is strange, and yet results in beautiful things. He covers everything with buttons! For me, it worked especially on the frames of mirrors. Then, before going to a movie, as it was a sunny day, Fred said, "Where can we go?" I said, "Too bad there is no park in this area." Then I remembered: "I will show you a park you have never heard about," and I directed Fred by a tortuous route (I want to use that word now that Fred has pointed out that people often use 'torturous' where they mean 'tortuous') beyond 3rd Street and along the last little fragment of 24th Street.

I could not be offended, and I had to laugh myself as I knew what Fred meant when he laughed and said, "I hate to say this, but this is so Jim Eilers." We surmised that someone had cast a lot of seeds for native California flowers, as there was a wealth of them, as well as a lot of weeds. We discovered some mosaic pieces, half-submerged under weeds and dirt so that someone had tried at some time to bring some beauty to the place. "I see the place as hope," I said. "Hope that someday this funky little park will be surrounded by civilization instead of an industrial wasteland." Here was the picturesque view at the water's edge of the park:
The name of the park is the Something Something "Cove" -- until I look for its real name, I am going to call it Blue Elephant Cove.

Going to Watsonville with George

George Washington and George Washington Birimisa

TRIP TO WATSONVILLE [Very much abridged to omit the names of some who might not want their personalities broadcast to the world.]:

With an impending trip to Croatia, the native land of his parents, George Birimisa wanted to return to Watsonville where he spent his early years with those parents, Charles (Charlie) and Anna. He wanted to revisit the sites of early trauma, but also to see a man (T.M) who has arranged for him to meet with surviving Birimisa cousins there in their native area of Croatia, and to meet a man there who has written books about that part of Croatia and who will be able to clear up a lot of family history for George and to show him where the Birimisas had lived. We agreed to meet T.M. at the town plaza, that used to be the center of town where George, at 9, in 1933, saw his father give a fiery Communist speech from the Victorian bandstand to a large crowd. The police disbursed the gathering with a fire hose and arrested his father. In jail he developed pneumonia and died soon after.

....Seeing three white bearded men enter the Blue Sky café, the young waitress, pretty, with long, straight black hair, asked us if we were brothers, and later she would say, “Do you boys want anything else?” T.M. and George pieced together a network of family and community associations in the Croatian community in Watsonville that also touched on small town class structure. We went to visit the large Victorian house belonging to wealthier relatives
that had been even larger to George’s childish eyes when his mother had dressed herself and her three children in their best clothes and came to that door to seek financial aid only to be turned away. The same relatives took over their house after his father's death made it impossible to keep up on house payments.

We went to a cemetery and found Charlie Birimisa’s grave, a slab where we left George for a while so he could sit and have a cry.
T.M. knew of an old woman whose great grandmother was a sister of George’s great grandmother, making her George’s second cousin, from the wealthier relatives, but Tom arranged a visit, and she gave George a sense of acceptance that somewhat mollified his grim childhood.

Mrs. V. lived in a large comfortable house where she had always lived; it overlooked a valley and mountains. The valley had fields of rows of raspberry plants, some under large aluminum hoops that were covered in white plastic sheets, looking like giant white caterpillars. She missed the days when the valley was all apple trees when she could watch the changes through the seasons, and I could imagine how beautiful it must have been when the valley was all white apple blossoms.

The three Croatians pieced together family and community relations and the local cultural events of the Croatians (with specific strange dishes), but their knowledge extended also to the links with the villages in the old country to the local Croatians. Mrs. V. remembered George’s family, although George, later, felt that in her lady-like way she had painted an innocent portrait of him, his siblings, and their parents. She revealed another nickname for Charlie Birimisa: “Rough Rider,” that she assumed was because of some association wih horses (how he rode? how he trained them?)

There is no way to summarize the traumas and divisions of members of George’s family, tragic separations and tragic ends, but, as an orphan, after his father died and his mother abandoned her children, George spent time in various Catholic facilities and orphanages, and T.M. left us finally at the site of one of those schools. We went into the church over that school (St. Francis Something Or Other) to pay our disrespects....

George had not liked the route I followed, from Mapquest, to get there, and insisted he would guide us home. We happened to enter some construction zone where the cars were bumper to bumper for miles, resembling the scenes in Godard’s WEEKEND.
I am not sure yet where we ended up before we guessed that we were on the wrong highway. Was it Nevada? At first when we saw a vast body of water, we asked “Is it the Bay?” It was some kind of San Luis Something Or Other Reservoir, and it was worth getting lost to see it near the end of the day on that particular day where the particular twilight coloring on the hills and the unbelievable shade of blue in the water created a scene of ineffable beauty.
When a Latino man tried to explain how we would have to go back in the direction from which we came, almost back to Watsonville, and that it would probably take us about 45 minutes to get back where we started before we began again to travel to San Francisco, we began a long period of mad hysteria that made everything funny. It became a theme that no matter where we drove, we would end up back in Watsonville, drawn back to that kind and helpful man, T.M.
We retraced our way, past previous minor stops for coffee; a walk down a tree-lined country lane that was like an outdoor garage sale; a fruit and vegetable stand that had closed for the day; and found our way back to Highway 101.
If we had not been so terribly delayed, we would not have arrived back in the City at an hour where we could be amazed by the appearance of a golden full moon, mammoth in the sky. I dropped George off at his building on Berry Street around 10 p.m. As I drove across the Bay Bridge to my own home, I saw that the moon had become a normal-size white moon, merely full and perfect.

Nothing Knits Nothing


Nothings looks in the window
where the knitting needles clatter
that no-one holds. X's and W's
are written over the easy chair
where no-one sits. The words in the message
the letters make are misspelled.
No sense can be made of it.
No ball of yarn unwinds,
drawn into the needles to knit a new line
in a garment that doesn't appear.
No-one gets up and looks out
the window where nothing looks in.
Something, something there is,
that wants to be there but cannot
remember and so has forgotten to be.
The world is at peace at last.

-- James McColley Eilers, copyright 2007

Thursday, April 17, 2008

W.S. Merwin, Poet and Translator, 15 April 2008

I am enjoying lunchtime presentations at the Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco. On 15 April 2008, poet and translator W.S. Merwin began at the beginning, ready to suppose that poetry and language were born at the same time, “as a reaction to unbearable passion, like a mother in Iraq confronted with the body of her murdered son.”

Merwin said that one of the lines that always comes to mind for him as a perfect line that symbolizes the mystery of language is Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” As well as I can remember, or discern from scrawled notes, Merwin explained, “Shakespeare never said that line to any woman or man. It is not something you would say to someone, and yet it is perfect. So where did it come from? It is not stilted. It has the flow of natural speech.”

Merwin quoted Pound who said that young writers should write a lot but they don’t have anything to write about at that age so they should study languages instead and make translations. “Translation will teach you your own language,” said Pound.

Merwin said he was originally simply a translator – translating plays and other materials for the BBC, and only then did he think of writing his own poetry. Merwin read a verse by William Stafford (probably in a particular cohort of poets including Merwin). Then he read his own verses “The Blind World” and “Gifts.” Merwin spoke of the influences that Pound liked to write about – that modern verse was born with the Troubadours of Provence who got rhyme, he said, from the Arabs. [I think others, such as the Welsh, would feel that poetry began with their own early bards.]

Before reading from his new translation of Dante’s PURGATORIO, Merwin said that he sees Dante’s INFERNO as being a succession of stories that demonstrate the “locked-in ego,” never able to escape itself – hell as it reappears in Sartre’s NO EXITS. In the INFERNO, Dante becomes whatever he is looking at, afflicted with anger when he sees and hears those in the circle of the Wrathful, etc. With the PURGATORIO, Dante emerges back into the light, steps from the underground back onto earth. After reading a passage from his translation of the PURGATORIO, he read from his translation of SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT. As he enjoyed that Welsh work, he seemed to welcome the card on which I wrote the name of Welsh-American poet and translator (of THE AENEID), Rolfe Humphries and the title of his book that spells out and demonstrates all the elaborate verse forms of the Welsh bards, GREEN ARMOUR ON GREEN GROUND. I hope he can find it in print.

When I had last seen Merwin in person, he was not this old man with white hair. It was at a party that the poet John Logan was throwing for the poet Jon Anderson (Jon, who died in the fall of 2007, was still a young man, and at that time in his life Mr. Logan had grown very fond of young men). Almost a side tableau at that party, Merwin was lolling on pillows, a beautiful woman on either side of him, symmetrically, as if they were attendants. I thought, “This must have been how Dante Rosetti looked,” for Merwin and both women comprised living figures in a pre-Raphaelite painting. I think he was wearing a brocade vest, and perhaps velvet trousers, but I may be wrong. The two beautiful women were also glowing with a natural splendor of feather and cloth and different textures. In 2008, the glamour of youth was gone, but the frail-looking, white-haired Merwin of today had a sweetness that was more impressive than the romantic image of the late 1969.

Jon Anderson and his second wife, Linda, were staying with Robert Minichiello (They had been friends in their native Boston) and me, and so we were there with them. I had just guided Jon and Linda on their first acid trips (a foolish thing to do) in Golden Gate Park, starting at the lagoon by the ancient giant ferns that some called Paradise #1 in those days – a good original starting point for first acid trips.

My lover at the time joined us at the Logan party – Robert Helps, composer and pianist, alternately teaching six months at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and six months as the Boston Conservatory of Music. Jon said that at last I had a lover he approved, having seen some of those I was always trying to “save,” and certainly Bob was at ease in his usual milieu, an intellectual and artistic crowd.

My memory fails about the others who were there, but I remember that poet Linda Gregg was there and her lover, a poet of equal reputation.

It was 1969 and there had just been an epic poetry reading at Glide Memorial Church in support of those involved in the San Francisco State Strike, with a stellar line-up of poets, John Logan included with the likes of Muriel Rukeyser. The alcoholism that was destroying John was no secret, especially as, at that event, he read his hymn to his failing liver. Poet and teacher, and onetime student of Logan, Louise Nayer said that Logan was bemused by the word "La Foie" as it could be either his "faith" or his "liver,” as both drink and the Roman Catholic Church were his obsessions; a series of his verses were dedicated (tongue in cheek?) to Mother Cabrini.

John Logan was high with spirits or high with the pleasure he took in bringing Jon Anderson out to the world of poetry with such a splendid gathering, spilling over from the Strike Benefit. Logan scanned my eyes happily as he took my hand, the hand of one of Jon's friends. Except for that evening, my impression of him is created from his poetry and the stories of others.
But I was impressed with John’s sweet personality, and somehow ended up writing a verse about him later, when he died:

Memorial Remarks on a Poet

Like the man in the Dada film who watched
ants crawl out of his palm, he used his body
as an inkwell and wrote with his blood. Father
of nine, then lover of young, talented men,
he came at last to be the saint he wished to be,
Mother Cabrini's child. He tattered himself
with drink, feathered his flesh with fire, changed
in the phoenix nest of the Church to keep love
stronger than life. At last he winked into light.
His blood twinkles now, black wit on bright pages.

-- James McColley Eilers, copyright 2008