Attempts 4: Expatriation, Teaching, and Memory

I was grading tons of essays today–the kinds of student essays that show the students were mostly paying attention but were not quite there yet–and listening to podcasts.  I took at break, walking around my third floor Cairo apartment and noticing that it was raining.  It’s hyperbolic to say it never rains in Cairo, but this is a culture that had the status of bread basket to both the Roman and Islamic world because it was so wet yet never rained enough to erode the minerals in the soil.  For some reason, perhaps somewhat obvious, I thought about the time in Torreon, Mexico, when the uncharacteristically heavy rains put out my gas water heater, and I miss lit it, and melted my eye brows and third-degree burned my face to a vivid pink. Then I thought about my first monsoon season in Yong-in, when I just met my current partner over talking about competitive debate in South Korea, and Osan river flooded the first floor of my apartment building, leaving me having to climb up and down fourteen flights of stairs.

Then I thought about my last teaching day in Georgia. Listening to podcasts and backing up my classroom for the last time.  My first three years of teaching had been hit-and-miss, and I was exhausted. A few months prior, my principal had given me a warning: if two other teachers didn’t retire that year, I was to be laid off.  I had applied and been accepted to a Phd in Educational Leadership, but got no funding, and without a full-time job, I had hedge my bets.  Two weeks prior, a friend of mine had asked me to interview for a job. This friend was my former philosophy professor in undergrad–a rather conservative philosopher who had tried to get out of academia in housing, then when that collapsed into the abyss that was 2008-9, he left to Korea to work in publishing and then at Korean Universities. I did not know this.  We had not spoken in several years aside to argue about politics and Hegel, and sometimes relationship between Buddhist logic and post-Enlightenment Christian logic.  He would later live with me in the ends of his marriage for a few weeks after we refused to speak over a political argument. He was trying to find qualified lecturers for University and my part-time job after school had been teaching Composition and Literature courses to community college students. I sent my C.V. to him, and went a week, I got an interview.  That interview as at four o’clock in the morning because I was interviewing with a panel of professors in Seoul.

I got that job, but at the moment I was packing up my desk and going to tell my Department Head at the community college I was teaching that I would be leaving in two months, I felt like an utter failure.  My marriage was on the rocks, although I had no idea that it would end. My then wife had lost her job somewhat unfairly and unexpectedly, and was swimming in a sea of confusion about what to do with her life. Our worlds had moved further and further apart–I thought she was, of course, as intelligent as me but she was intimidated by the academic world I had moved in and since she had no college degree, she was not employable at any institution that I would work at abroad.  Furthermore, I was leaving as the first class of students I taught who were graduating, and as their graduation ceremony completed, I just slowly stuck out of the hall my school was renting, and went home to drink.

So as I was listening to a podcast like “Atheist News” or “The Geologic Podcast,”  trying to laugh, sending tons of documents to University a million miles away, canceling my plans to appear at Skepticamp.  I stopped blogging on the first incarnation of this blog for about a year, I had let my live journal go dormant. I was drinking a lot of whisky. I had also gained weight.  I would go to a dinner one last time with my ex-wife to a new Chinese restaurant, and I remember just playing with the orange chicken and trying to talk about closing out my 401-3b to pay for our medical bills before I left the country.  We argued about whether or not it may sense for her to move in and go to school online in South Korea, if she could transfer our cats to Korea.

I went a few times to my favorite used book store and sold most of my unsigned physical books.  I bought a kindle despite thinking e-books where stupid because they were easy to transport from country to country. I said goodbye to some students. I visited my family, and would say goodbye to some  people. I got on a plane to Seoul, and softly and quietly tearing up as left my life behind, I watched mumble-core movies and French films about Moliere and Mic Macs, and was wowed by the powder blue uniforms of the Korean inflight attendants. All of whom were preternaturally tall, and disturbingly beautiful.  A Korean woman rested her head on my shoulder.  I felt alone.  My relationship to the past changed.

I mark time by places there forward, and my media I consume.  Each period of my life feels discrete, although for months there were reminders.  Three months later, I found my now ex-wife’s hair in my clothes and books.  I was in shock, and my ex- and I drifted further apart. She got a new job.  We fought sometimes.  I started talking to other female friends.  I visited over Christmas, and then we decided to divorce.

In that time, I wrote this poem, which was later published in the Ann Arbor Review,

EXPATRIATION

Moving my books out of baggage
a brown hair from my wife
brushes my hand. Fissure
and erasure. Trace of small
moment, even the hair
without the scent, dialectic
pull of the memory. Loss.
Once there was a love
story. Once a beginning,
middle, end. Here absence
stalls and sputters. Trace
of keratin, cutting of crown,
moving her here, a bleak
scar across a page and palm.
Everything apart pulls back
together. Gently tucking
the hair into my pocket,
I become ellipses
as if I can reconstruct
specters from loss.

Yet at the end of the day, the specters of lose became a new life: one in which the trauma of my twenties–some of which is too personal to mention on this kind of blog–turned into a turn to philosophy, writing, and travel. I have been a writer for six or seven years, but in jumping to Korea and packing up my old life, when I really moved into having something to write about other than childhood, and something to say about America other than just the reactions to whatever political tribe seems nearest to my emotive core.

Travel changes you.  Travel becomes you.  It unsettles your sense of time and plac,e but in that disruptive sorting, defines time and place for you more clearly.

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Two older poems

Foreign Holiday

Expats eating sandwiches in the American style—
white faces draped in Canadian flags between
cheap draft beer and slumped shoulders. Canada
Day in Seoul and few have written on it. Lethargy
settles on the evening, seas of black hair in
the streets. Women averting their eyes as the
unfolding foreigners stumble drunkenly,
wax-eared and smelling of piss, seeking some
of oasis of familiarity. Restless surges in heat,
each one sweats the beer in the humid haze.
I laugh and listen to the slight-slur of English
against the sheens of vowels . Here people
are natural forces, countries are signs
and portents, rumors. Each running from
a notion of nation and also running towards
it. Soft air, sticky sweet sweat, and the smell
of alcohol as a perfume in the city dust.

Blown Apart

It is almost to say anything about summer breeze,
even one off the Han River: Han, river whose sound
is lamentation and samsara about which grass sings
which cyclists bike the path. False fires in the mind’s
of men, wounds of being, evolving fire to fire until
the riven thing driven into wholeness as a clutch
of gnats rises from the river’s edge. In the center
of this city, the light from sky and neon, the song
that seems to clench in sadness defines the line
that cuts the beating center into its separate
spheres. So what is there to say of wind: hell-eyed
and wet from summer and the coming monsoons,
the city’s own dark machinery, mismatches at the
bases of buildings. I, addicted to being half-in-
love and half-in-time, long for another home
or the scent of the idea of home, the form
that is emptiness, the emptiness that is form:
home is what the heart lacks. Home like a
river of memories cutting apart a new city:
home, my prayer. Home, my samsara. Even
in the city park, there is always shattering.

(Originally published at Blast Furnace, September 2011)

Five Poems, Mostly About Places and Pasts

Auguries: Dias De Los Muertos

The patina of brown feathers scatter
across the old lienzo charro, replacing
horses which cars have rendered

long irrelevant. I throw the sugared
bread of the dead for them to pick
apart. The altars and their marigolds

are heaped into trash. The old world
tampering away. I can’t hold but find
the sugar skulls funny, and brings

a giggle. A lover once, between
frustrated kisses and a bad film
about demonology wryly said:

You are the kind of man who
finds decapitation by a power
line humorous. At least from

a distance. Something has
to feed the crows. Breaking a bough,
a toddler climbs at a tree,

in my broken Spanish, I offer
her some of bread as she watches
me break down the day

into bits for the birds. She bends
down to my hand and takes some.
As I walk home, I think of catrinas

kissing as the paint fossilizes
into the rigid morrow,
passion becomes rattling love.

The dust in my hair, desert dry
skin. Memory. Black-brown
feathers. What happened to her?

 

Upon All Things, Rock

-for Robinson Jeffers

Fiat iustitia, ruat caelum.

The desert chafes into the scars
of a ranchero, baked into the bricks
and cactus, with agave and joshua
trees brimming along the edges
of the highway. Here, stitched

into wishes and half-dreams,
the road – it gashes into the sand,
and hawk flits down into the ash,
wing-broken and heat-drenched.
Plenty of men die here, so hard

to mourn a hawk, and in this
war or next, there will be bleached
bones. I have no gun for the hawk,
although it would be blessing. The
Federales drive past, no bullet for
the bird. I take a stone, let my hand

burn for the penitence of mercy,
and drop as the hawk hunts the last
minutes. We get into the pick-up,
vinyl seat heated to magma point:
stones are justice in the desert,
bleak words akin to prayers.

Two Above Originally Published at Australian Latino Press

Nightmare (Re)Canto #1

’We do NOT know the past in chronological sequence. It maybe convenient to lay it out anesthetized on the table with dates pasted on here and there, but what we know we know by ripples and spirals eddying out from us and from our own time.’’ – Ezra Pound, Guide to Kulchur

“Amor, che a nullo amato amar perdona,
Mi prese del costui piacer sì forte,
Che, come vedi, ancor non m’abbandona…”- Dante Aligheri, Inferno

The dreams that come are not our own;

since most hymns are murder ballads,
reminding us the cost of sacrifices: Resistenza
leave the bodies of Germans for flies
in the Via Triumphale, Garibaldi brigades

breaking themselves against the cobble
stones in the return machine gun rattle,
from the blood springs the ladder
for descend into the forests of limbo, twisted
by proxy to hell and history. All this history

has no past.The sky opens like a split,
bloated belly. Changeling, the circles have
collapsed in on themselves, Clara Petacci
hangs in the trees as decoration. Virgil has no

commentary. We should cast away these memories
ephemerally imposing themselves in half-reflected
radiance. Confusion in tense. The gnashing
of teeth. We can walk on the skulls of bishops
and poets who scribbled in cages in Pisan, awaiting
trial for treason. The hallow light is on the film
charred by burning stones, but images remain
and the world of man paralyzed from the visions

to explain the past: Obviously, an unknown country.

So is the present, Changeling. We both know.
This. Stars racings. Breaking down as the forest
grows ever higher. Tangled in the light of a past
dreams, ambivalent men flee into the valley

of broken and dead. This animal life. Pulses.
No place in dreams. The partisans march pass
the noble pagans. Riffles rusting near the river
Styx. No boatman coming. No boat calls. Nothing.

Coheres. Flags are made red. With the bleeding.

Changeling, let us avoid the Via Roma. The fire.
Decomposes even the language. To speak of what.
We see. We must forfeit our tongues. Only fire
can speak our nightmare. No chant to recant or redeem.

Originally Published at The Thing in Itself Journal

Adamah

According to the Hebrews
all men are named from mud,
gargled forth in painful sculpting
formed of under-kilned clay.
Half-made, flesh slumping
like a toothpaste tube squeezed
in the center. Dirt to dust,
all things considered, isn’t
too bad in the end: the body
breaks, beloved, and in the
breaking scatters out
in headwinds until the name
stains not only the crafting
aprons but also the fire
of the forger.

Expatriation

Moving my books out of baggage
a brown hair from my wife
brushes my hand. Fissure
and erasure. Trace of small
moment, even the hair
without the scent, dialectic
pull of the memory. Loss.
Once there was a love
story. Once a beginning,
middle, end. Here absence
stalls and sputters. Trace
of keratin, cutting of crown,
moving her here, a bleak
scar across a page and palm.
Everything apart pulls back
together. Gently tucking
the hair into my pocket,
I become ellipses
as if I can reconstruct
specters from loss.

The Above Two Originally Published in Ann Arbor Review

Limitations: Tone to Tone

Much has been said on thunderous silence:
the gradual unmooring of the voice you hear,
long half-drowned in the inky past, and if the
scream you have choked back, kicked open
your lips and drank the greenish air. There

is more to say on nothing than can be said:
someone is feeding sparrows, someone is
becoming the small world, and sparrows
fly to become nations, and nations become
noise, and noise, the parataxis. Like a

hawk, voice wants to ride a mechanical
horse into the heaven, break the harmony
of the planets, and place the notes in new
order, place the notes into a chorus only
silence hears. The silence knows how

to rumble the bones, how to cut to the
quick, how to feed sparrows, to end
the end chirping, how to unsing
the national anthems, how to take
away the hymn of a land that was
never ours in the first place.

Originally published at Union Station Magazine.

Four Poems That Are (Not Really) About Love

Afterimage

I often talk to a friend about love,
my love of her, of ropes, of cedars
waning into the slush of unfroze
snow, the way air impacts the trees
leaves them winter-thin and wispy
like a cool emptiness.  There is a
code flashing against the night,
brown-throated wrens hum against
the wind.   Gray sky fragments
in the lovers’ orbits, and I talk
to my friend about all these
things, chilling myself into a
happier glow. It is the wind
off of icing junipers to denotes
the demarcation between
myself and others.  If I talked
too much of love, I’d freeze
along the beachhead. If I drew
too many conclusions, I think
life was a wet spot in drying
sheets. The wind ululates
against the window. There
is nothing more to say.

Originally Published at Full of Crows

Decupidas

There are no birds in this poem:
no poets were damaged in its
creation, although that would
be no great loss. If your lover
malfunctions, make sure there
is no fire in the nether cavity,
or you may need to reboot.
If your heart is broken, try
suede or clean, oiled
full grain thigh-highs.
When you wake in tangled
bedding from dreams
of bog-bursts and lost
lovers submerged and
glossy like black birds.
When you make love in
the back of an old hearse,
you will be bitten, new
pain will open and drip
unto the floorboard. When
you fall for your friends, they
will love you anyway but
you’ll need air for the fresh
flora in your lungs. For love
pains, take ibuprofen but
don’t call in the morning.
Notice that there are no
swallows or magpies in
the poem. Wonder why.

Originally Published at Jet Fuel Review

Cuffs

You, lover, once laughed
as I struggled against
the ropes, but ties
that bind, hollow
out with hemp burns
that kiss the small
of the thigh, leaves
no word, no thoughts,
the spent waste that
renders me rags.

Every sound
relevant, strangely
to the syntax
of yearning.  True,
the weight makes
me breathe easier,
the heft removes
the heft of empty
skies.  If my love

have lifted me
with her skinny
fist with that rope
to the center of sky,
I would fly-mercurial
and bound, open
like the hinge to
heart and swoop
out the viscera
into the bliss
of immaculate

emptiness.
Opening my eyes,
our love turned
the stars into
shards of our
bones, cleaned
by the friction
and the entwining
little mouths
that whisper,
our tongues

clearly preparatory,
and the algae retracts,
rodents leave the
safety of pines
outside of our bed.
The ocean itself
barely breathing
as rain falls on
someones shoulders,
we thought
our breathe white
against cold of
other women.

Originally Published at Deuce Coupe.

Metamor

Pornography is boring
Like watching someone
Chew steak for twenty
Minutes. Lacking all
Context: the smell
Of cherry blossoms
And sweat, the years
Of watching someone
Read Milton and not
Become a misogynist,
The flannel nightgowns
Or their lack.

To speak of bodies, to ask
we to come to bed with us
After a Fellini film or
Complaining about Spielberg
Or in the pauses between
Breaths. Loving more

Than the pulse, the twitch
Of flesh. Consciousness
Between people is too
Bright. Gibbous light.
Half-reflected. Swelling.
What we wanted from
Two or three, what we
Want from one. Glacier
Slow and churning
Like salt slush between
A tow line.

To speak of love, to ask
Of every cliché that it lingers
Into strangeness like filming
A crystal wine glass until
It looks like mountains
Of barren, jagged
minerals.


Originally Published at JMWW, Summer 2009