Sunday, April 30, 2017

April 30: Grading, Classic Saint Marty, "Praise for the Nun of Amherst"

Long day.

I got an 911 organist call at 7:40 this morning.  The regular organist at my wife's church had a family emergency, and she needed me to fill in for her at the 11 a.m. worship service.

That set into motion at day of anxiety.  Rushed to church.  Practiced the hymns.  Practiced with the choir and praise band.  Played the service.  Stayed for a potluck.  (A Methodist motto:  where two or three are gathered, there shall be food.)  And then an afternoon and evening of grading.

Like I said, a long and busy day.

Two years ago, it seems I was having another long day . . .

April 29, 2015:  Transcendent and Beautiful, Something Beautiful, Opportunities

[Ives] sat there in his son's room thinking about the time when he had experienced the presence of God, or of something, on Madison Avenue, for the life of him, he tried to imagine death as something transcendent and beautiful, as he had been taught to believe and had wanted to believe in those moments.

This paragraph appears in Mr. Ives' Christmas shortly after Ives' son, Robert, is shot dead on the steps of a church.  Ives is full of anger and grief and confusion.  He has lived a good life.  Faithful husband.  Doting father.  Loyal friend.  Devout Catholic.  Yet, a few days before Christmas, he has to plan the funeral of his son, who was about to enter the seminary.

I struggle all the time when terrible things happen.  Right now, in Nepal, thousands of people are dead and homeless because of an earthquake and avalanche.  In Baltimore, residents are rioting in the streets against police and the National Guard.  In my life, I'm coming up on the one year anniversary of my brother's death.  My good friend, the head of the English Department, died the night before Thanksgiving.  My sister is in a nursing home.  My mother's health isn't great.  My medical office job is unsatisfying.  And my contingent position at the university is, as always, under attack from full-time professors and members of administration.

In short, my life feels like a big pile of manure.

Like Ives, I want the promise of something beautiful and transcendent.  There's a hymn by Bill Gaither that we sometimes sing at my wife's church called "Something Beautiful."  The refrain goes like this:

Something beautiful, something good
All my confusion He understood
All I had to offer Him was brokenness and strife
But He made something beautiful of my life

I don't understand why, in the space of twelve months, so much has gone awry in my life.  I try to see some kernel of beauty in all that has occurred.  I hope that something beautiful is coming my way.  That's the job of a Christian, I guess:  to believe and hope.  I read a saying every morning by Blessed Solanus Casey:  "In the crosses of life that come to us, Jesus offer us opportunities to help Him redeem the world.  Let us profit by His generosity."  I try to think of my struggles as opportunities.

Saint Marty is a little tired tonight of all the opportunities that have come his way recently.

I truly believe this

And a poem, inspired by Emily . . .

Praise for the Nun of Amherst

by:  Martin Achatz

Lord—send the buzz of poetry
A fly—black as the grave—
Bless me with the gift of verse—
The ghost of Emily.

Fill my lines with feathers—Lord—
Song perches in my skull—
My spirit hops—It caws—It crows—
It fills the air with hymns.

If my psalm seems narrow—weak—
Thin fellow in the grass—
Pardon my unbraiding words—
They stumble into bog.

But if my music makes White Heat
Against vermilion cloud—
Take flight with me—My Heart—My Love—
Toward dim Eternity.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

April 29: Unicorn, Tyehimba Jess, "Blind Boone's Pianola Blues"

Last day for the week of Tyehimba Jess.

I'm always excited to become familiar with a poet that I haven't read.  It's like opening up my eyes, looking out the window, and seeing a unicorn grazing in my backyard.  It makes the trees and grass and dirt look different.  The world a little clearer, brighter.

Saint Marty saw a unicorn in his backyard this morning.  The bastard was eating his lilac bushes.

Blind Boone's Pianola Blues

by:  Tyehimba Jess

They said I wasn’t smooth enough
to beat their sharp machine.
That my style was obsolete,
that old rags had lost their gleam
and lunge. That all I had
left was a sucker punch
that couldn’t touch
their invisible piano man
with his wind up gut-
less guts of paper rolls.
And so, I went and told them
that before the night was through
I’d prove what the son of an ex-
slave could do: I dared them
to put on their most twisty
tune. To play it double-time
while I listened from another
room past the traffic sounds
of the avenue below.
To play it only once,
then to let me show
note for note how that scroll
made its roll through Chopin
or Bach or Beethoven’s best.
And if I failed to match my fingers
and ears with the spinning gears
of their invisible pneumatic piano
scholar, I’d pay them the price
of a thousand dollars.

And what was in it for Boone?
you might ask…

Might be the same thing that drives men
through mountains at heart attack pace.
Might be just to prove some tasks
ain’t meant to be neatly played
out on paper and into air,
but rather should tear
out from lung, heart and brain
with a flair of flicked wrists
and sly smile above the 88s…
and, of course, that ever-human
weight of pride that swallows us
when a thing’s done just right…
But they were eager to prove me wrong.
They chose their fastest machine
with their trickiest song and stuck it
in a room far down the hall from me.
They didn’t know how sharp
I can see with these ears of mine—
I caught every note even though
they played it in triple time.
And when I played it back to them
even faster, I could feel the violent
stares… heard one mutter
    Lucky black bastard…
and that was my cue to rise,
to take a bow in their smoldering
silence and say, Not luck,
my friend, but the science
of touch and sweat and
stubborn old toil. I’d bet
these ten fingers against any coil
of wire and parchment and pump.

And I left them there to ponder
the wonders of blindness
as I walked out the door
into the heat of the sun.

April 29: Delousing Station, Creature of Habit, Tight Times

Billy and the rest were wooed through gate after gate, and Billy saw his first Russian.  The man was all alone in the night--a ragbag with a round, flat face that glowed like a radium dial.

Billy passed within a year of him.  There was barbed wire between them.  The Russian did not wave or speak, but he looked directly into Billy's soul with sweet hopefulness, as though Billy might have good news for him--news he might be too stupid to understand, but good news all the same.  

Billy blacked out as he walked through gate after gate.  He came to in what he thought might be a building on Tralfamadore.  It was shrilly lit and lined with white tiles.  It was on Earth, though.  It was a delousing station through which all new prisoners had to pass.

Billy did as he was told, took off his clothes.  That was the first thing they told him to do on Tralfamadore, too.

A German measured Billy's upper right arm with his thumb and forefinger, asked a companion what sort of an army would send a weakling like that to the front.  They looked at the other American bodies now, pointed out a lot more that were nearly as bad as Billy's.

Another lengthy section from Slaughterhouse.  Billy being herded through the prison camp with other American prisoners, toward a delousing station.  Now, Billy knows he's going to survive.  In fact, he has already survived, gotten married, become a father, and been abducted by aliens.  Certainly, he also has knowledge of concentration camps and the Holocaust.  Yet, this delousing station is frightening.  It could be a gas chamber.  In description, it certainly fits the bill.  The shadow of genocide looms in this passage.

I have written about Billy's unique perspective on time before.  The fact that the past, present, and future are fairly liquid states for him.  Yesterday he was born.  This morning, he's a German POW.  This afternoon, he may die.  Tomorrow morning, he'll be seeing patients in his office.  Billy doesn't fear death or tragedy.  He's not going to die in a German gas chamber.  Billy already knows what has, is, and will happen.

I have never been a big fan of uncertainty, as many of my faithful disciples know.  I am a creature of habit, embrace daily sameness.  When a new school semester starts, I quickly work to establish a schedule for my days and weeks.  Having two full-time jobs sort of requires ruts, tire tracks that I can follow easily for a few months.  And it's comforting to know where I have to be next Monday morning at 6 a.m., when I have to teach on Wednesday, what my office hours are on Tuesday.

Soon, I will be establishing a new daily schedule for myself.  The winter semester is coming to an end, and I'll be transitioning into summer mode.  No teaching.  Early work days.  Afternoons of relative freedom.  Time to read what I want, without having to grade it for grammar and organization.  And, of course, the loss of a teaching income for four months.  Tight times for this saint's household.

However I will enjoy the warmth and sun and relative calm.  Sure, about mid-July, the money worries will be piling up, and I will start counting down to that first paycheck from the university in August.

Right now, though, Saint Marty is thankful for the prospect of his summer rut, with all its hidden secrets in unlikely places.

Friday, April 28, 2017

April 28: Difficult Subjects, Tyehimba Jess, "100 Times"

One of the jobs of a poet is to write about difficult subjects sometimes.  Subjects that may shock, transgress.  Mental illness.  Rape jokes.  Menstruation.  Lynchings.  Abortion.  Abandonment.  Genocide.  Police violence.

As I said in my previous post, and as Emily Dickinson said more than a century ago, my job as a poet is to tell all the truth, but to tell it slant.  Tyehimba Jess knows a thing or two about this.

Saint Marty's truth tonight is that he still has a shitload of grading to do.

100 Times

by:  Tyehimba Jess

I say “nigger” a hundred times before breakfast every morning just to keep my teeth white.
–Paul Mooney, Comedian

Of course, I was skeptical, but because there’s often wisdom in the hardest humor, I stood before the mirror one sunrise and began my morning chant. All repeated calmly for the first week, but with flavors added on as the regimen continued into the second. 50 with er and 50 with a. 1/4 as question, 1/4 as surprise, 1/4 as anger, 1/4 implying the complaining “please.” All alternately whispered, shouted, laughed, snarled—all in search of the ideal whitening formula. After four weeks I remained skeptical. However, perseverance paid off by the sixth, when colleagues remarked on my brightened, hazeless smile, when friends alerted me to a steely glint in my grin.

I doubled the regimen to maximize results. Week eight saw a 2/3 increase in brightening, with a luminousness approaching diamond quality, particularly in the lower incisors. The uppers were sun white, never leaving room in their shine for shadow. Side effects became audible as well as visual: a small echo became perceptible after each repetition in my mantra, such that the cadence assumed a wondrous worksong rhythm. Upon closer examination, magnifying mirrors revealed one (1) small, brown man peering into the side of each tooth’s mirror-smooth enamel, each one appearing only briefly before each utterance. Alarmed but intrigued, I enhanced my treatment. Various gesticulations were added to the morning litany. Sneers, chuckles, sighs, and facial contortions were enhanced throughout. As a result, the echo’s intensity increased from slight windy whisper to low murmur, to small and steady chorus each morning, a daily affirmation of my will to shine. A halogen glare burned from my mouth throughout the day. I’ve become a walking lighthouse of shine—the ritual has grown above and beyond and through me. I wake each morning to stand before my mirror, and before I open my mouth I hear the chant begin above and around me, as if I were in the middle of the mantra’s core, as if I’m one in a circle of prayer. I’ve found others who hear the chant with me, or they’ve found me, those who rise up with me each morning to stand before our mirrors with the diamond-sharp sound of ourselves polishing each tooth until we gleam—our number grows daily. We shimmer and shine inside the bulging head of our chant, polishing our glowing mirrors, staring into the glare until we shield our eyes.

April 28: Haystacks, Pain, All the Truth

So tonight the passage from Slaughterhouse is a little lengthy:

At the base of the pole from which the light bulb hung were three seeming haystacks.  The Americans were wheedled and teased over to those three stacks, which weren't hay after all.  They were overcoats taken from prisoners who were dead.  So it goes.

It was the guards' firmly expressed wish that every American without an overcoat should take one.  The coats were cemented together with ice, so the guards used their bayonets as ice picks, pricking free collars and hems and sleeves and so on, then peeling off coats and handing them out at random.  The coats were stiff and dome-shaped, having conformed to their piles.

The coat that Billy Pilgrim got had been crumpled and frozen in such a way, and was so small, that it appeared to be not a coat but a sort of large black, three-cornered hat.  There were gummy stains on it, too, like crankcase drainings or old strawberry jam.  There seemed to be a dead, furry animal frozen to it.  The animal was in fact the coat's fur collar.

Billy glanced dully at the coats of his neighbors.  Their coats all had brass buttons or tinsel or piping or numbers or stripes or eagles or moons or stars dangling from them.  They were soldiers' coats.  Billy was the only one who had a coat from a dead civilian.  So it goes.

And Billy and the rest were encouraged to shuffle around their dinky train and into the prison camp.  There wasn't anything warm or lively to attract them--merely long, low, narrow sheds by the thousands, with no lights inside.

Somewhere a dog barked.  With the help of fear and echoes and winter silences, that dog had a voice like a big bronze gong.

Kurt Vonnegut survived internment in a German prisoner of war camp, the firebombing of Dresden.  Surely, Vonnegut, like Billy Pilgrim, traveled across Germany on a train with other captured soldiers.  And, I would guess, he was forced to put on the coats of the dead, like Billy.  In fact, much of Billy's wartime experiences are probably drawn from Vonnegut's life.  In a way, in Slaughterhouse, Billy Pilgrim is wearing Kurt Vonnegut's overcoat.

Vonnegut's book is an interesting mixture of fact and fiction.  In order to be able to write about his life during World War II, Vonnegut had to invent a time-hopping optometrist who gets abducted by aliens.  I understand this impulse.  There are some things about my life that I have written about in my poetry that I would never approach head-on.  As Emily Dickinson advises, I told all the truth, but I told it slant.

I think that's the job of any writer--novelist or essayist or poet or blogger.  To find a way to depict the truth in some form.  For example, I have written about my wife's mental illness and the difficulty it has caused in our marriage.  Like Vonnegut, I've taken some of the most painful moments of my life and transformed them into poetry.  A poem I wrote about my wife's stay in a psychiatric ward won an award from a literary magazine.  I have never read that poem in public.

So, I guess my point tonight is that pain makes great literature.  They're two sides of the same coin.  Last night at a gathering for my book club, we talked about the need for sadness in life.  If sadness didn't exist, then we would never understand true happiness.  To write about sadness is a way of writing about happiness, as well.

Saint Marty is thankful tonight for the truth of Kurt Vonnegut.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

April 27: Hard and Sweet, Donald Hall, "Maple Syrup"

I will return to Tyehimba Jess tomorrow night.

Tonight, in honor of the meeting of my Book Club, I have a poem by Donald Hall to share with you.  It's beautiful and hard and sweet.

And it makes Saint Marty hungry for pancakes.

Maple Syrup

by:  Donald Hall

August, goldenrod blowing. We walk
into the graveyard, to find
my grandfather’s grave. Ten years ago
I came here last, bringing
marigolds from the round garden
outside the kitchen.
I didn’t know you then.
                                  We walk
among carved names that go with photographs
on top of the piano at the farm:
Keneston, Wells, Fowler, Batchelder, Buck.
We pause at the new grave
of Grace Fenton, my grandfather’s
sister. Last summer
we called on her at the nursing home,
eighty-seven, and nodding
in a blue housedress. We cannot find
my grandfather’s grave.
                                  Back at the house
where no one lives, we potter
and explore the back chamber
where everything comes to rest: spinning wheels,
pretty boxes, quilts,
bottles, books, albums of postcards.
Then with a flashlight we descend
firm steps to the root cellar—black,
cobwebby, huge,
with dirt floors and fieldstone walls,
and above the walls, holding the hewn
sills of the house, enormous
granite foundation stones.
Past the empty bins
for squash, apples, carrots, and potatoes,
we discover the shelves for canning, a few
pale pints
of tomato left, and—what
is this?—syrup, maple syrup
in a quart jar, syrup
my grandfather made twenty-five
years ago
for the last time.
                           I remember
coming to the farm in March
in sugaring time, as a small boy.
He carried the pails of sap, sixteen-quart
buckets, dangling from each end
of a wooden yoke
that lay across his shoulders, and emptied them
into a vat in the saphouse
where fire burned day and night
for a week.
                Now the saphouse
tilts, nearly to the ground,
like someone exhausted
to the point of death, and next winter
when snow piles three feet thick
on the roofs of the cold farm,
the saphouse will shudder and slide
with the snow to the ground.
we take my grandfather’s last
quart of syrup
upstairs, holding it gingerly,
and we wash off twenty-five years
of dirt, and we pull
and pry the lid up, cutting the stiff,
dried rubber gasket, and dip our fingers
in, you and I both, and taste
the sweetness, you for the first time,
the sweetness preserved, of a dead man
in the kitchen he left
when his body slid
like anyone’s into the ground.

April 27: Shatter Like Glass, Book Club, Donald Hall

Billy didn't want to drop from the car to the ground.  He sincerely believed he would shatter like glass.  So the guards helped him down, cooing still.  They set him down facing the train.  It was such a dinky train now.

There was a locomotive, a tender, and three little boxcars.  The last box car was the railroad guards' heaven on wheels.  Again--in that heaven on wheels--the table was set.  Dinner was served.

Billy is a little disconnected from reality.  He's traveled for days in a dark railroad boxcar, without sleep, without much food.  He feels fragile, like a piece of crystal that would splinter if exposed to sudden movement or operatic high notes.  So he sits, stares at the guards and their food.

It is Book Club night.  My house is prepped, the casserole is in the oven.  This month's selection (in honor of National Poetry Month) is former U. S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall's book Essays After Eighty.  It's a beautiful collection, and Hall, pushing into his ninetieth decade of living, is undiminished in talent and wit.  He's an inspiration to me as a writer and person.

I remember, a few summers ago, an occasion where I was able to attend a dinner held in Hall's honor.  There he sat in his wheelchair, signing books, looking a little grizzled and wild.  When we started speaking together, Hall's years seemed to melt away.  He spoke of a mutual friend we had, and, I swear to God, he giggled as he told me a story about the friend.

That moment, speaking with Donald Hall, was a Billy Pilgrim disconnect moment for me.  If I had shattered into a pile of dust, I would have died a happy man.

So, the table is set.  I am wearing my old man flannel shirt in honor of Donald Hall.

Saint Marty is thankful tonight for his Book Club friends.

The great man and Saint Marty

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

April 26: New Political Party, Tyehimba Jess, "Mercy"

I just heard a report on National Public Radio, which still exists (so far), that the threat of a federal government shutdown in the United States has been averted.  It seems that the 45th President backed down on his threat to close things down if Congress didn't pass funding for his little Mexican border wall.  The President was waiting for Congressional Democrats to blink.  They didn't.

I'm a little tired of all the rhetoric about Islamic extremists coming out of Washington these days.  There seems to be a great supply of fear-mongering and finger-pointing, not a whole lot of compassion, understanding, and empathy.

Maybe Saint Marty should start a new political party.  He'll call it the Mercy Party.  Anyone interested in joining?


by:  Tyehimba Jess

the war speaks at night
with its lips of shredded children,
with its brow of plastique
and its fighter jet breath,
and then it speaks at daybreak
with the soft slur of money
unfolding leaf upon leaf.
it speaks between the news
programs in the music
of commercials, then sings
in the voices of a national anthem.
it has a dirty coin jingle in its step,
it has a hand of many lost hands,
a palm of missing fingers,
the stump of an arm that it lost
reaching up to heaven, a foot
that digs a trench for its dead.
the war staggers forward,
compelled, inexorable, ticking.
it looks to me
with its one eye of napalm
and one eye of ice,
with its hair of fire
and its nuclear heart,
and yes, it is so human
and so pitiful as it stands there,
waiting for my hand.
it wants to know my answer.
it wants to know how i intend
to show it out of its misery,
and i only want it
to teach me how to kill.

April 26: Single Bulb, Tysen Benz, True Friendship

The only light outside came from a single bulb which hung from a pole--high and far away.  All was quiet outside, except for the guards, who cooed like doves.  And the liquid began to flow.  Gobs of it built up in the doorway, plopped to the ground.

Billy was the next-to-last human being to reach the door.  The hobo was last.  The hobo could not flow, could not plop.  He wasn't liquid anymore.  He was stone.  So it goes.

It's not a very pleasant scene, the prisoners disgorged from the railroad car like a tide of sewage.  Each passenger fecally plopping onto the ground, except for the hobo, who kept on saying throughout the journey, "This ain't so bad."  The hobo doesn't make it, turns from liquid to stone.  And Vonnegut repeats his death refrain:  so it goes.

The casual acceptance of death in Slaughterhouse disconcerts me a little bit.  Characters, like the hobo, that I have learned to like are simply dispatched with that three-word phrase.  Of course, Vonnegut is reflecting the randomness of war and fatality.  Most of the time, fairness and justice don't come into play when facing the Grim Reaper.

Just recently, an 11-year-old boy hanged himself in a town neighboring my own.  His name was Tysen Benz, and he was the victim of a terrible social media hoax by a 13-year-old girl, who convinced Tysen that she had committed suicide.  Tysen lingered in the hospital for several weeks before succumbing to his self-inflicted injuries.

Now, I am not going to talk about the dangers of social media.  That point is obvious.  I'm not going to talk about the sheer cruelty that brought about this young boy's death.  Again, that's obvious.  Tysen's death was, simply put, a monstrous tragedy.

There really is something wrong with the world when something like this happens.  I can't be Kurt Vonnegut here.  This does not warrant "so it goes."  Tysen's death was not random or coincidental.  On the contrary, his death was the result of a criminal cyber-prank.  It could have been avoided, through kindness, compassion, and true friendship.

So, don't simply forget Tysen Benz.  I have heard from family friends how funny, smart, and warm he was.  Suicide leaves holes in your spirit that never really heal.  I have been praying for Tysen and his family every night.  I've also been praying for the 13-year-old girl and her family.  Healing is a long way off, I'm sure.  Anger is an easy emotion.  Love and forgiveness, that takes a whole lot of work.

Tonight, Saint Marty is thankful that he can hug his kids.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

April 25: Sonnet, Tyehimba Jess, "What Marked Tom?"

A sonnet from Tyehimba Jess.

Saint Marty needs to get Jess' book.

What Marked Tom?

by:  Tyehimba Jess

Did a slave song at a master’s bidding
mark Tom while asleep in Charity's womb?
The whole plantation would be called to sing
and dance in Master Epps’ large parlor room—
after work sprung from dawn and dragged past dusk,
after children auctioned to parts unknown,
after funerals and whippings. Thus
was the whim of the patriarch. No groans
allowed, just high steppin’ celebration,
grins all around, gritted or sincere.
Charity threw feet, hips, arms into motion
to please the tyrant piano. Was it here
Tom learned how music can prove the master?
While he spun in a womb of slavish laughter?

April 25: Extermination Camp, Geneva Convention, Powerless

The train had arrived on a siding by a prison which was originally constructed as an extermination camp for Russian prisoners of war.

The guards peeked inside Billy's car owlishly, cooed calmingly.  They had never dealt with Americans before, but they surely understood this general sort of freight.  They knew that it was essentially a liquid which could be induced to flow slowly toward cooing and light.  It was nighttime.

Billy has been on the prisoner-of-war train for ten days, traveling across Germany to different internment camps.  He hasn't slept for a good portion of that journey, and the cuisine along the way has been sparse to nonexistent.  To put it simply, the Germans are not really following the rules of the Geneva Convention.

I appreciate organizations that fight to insure that people are treated fairly and humanely.  The United Nations.  ACLU.  Labor unions.  The rules of the Geneva Convention regarding prisoners of war have existed since 1929.  That doesn't mean that those rules have always been followed in times of war, but those standards of conduct exist to hold countries accountable.

I work for two large organizations--one a healthcare system, the other a university.  At the healthcare system, I am not a part of a labor union.  In fact, the healthcare system has done everything within its power to dissuade its employees from unionizing, and those tactics have worked, over and over and over.  At the university, I am a member of the faculty union.  I am accorded certain protections because of that union membership, including seniority and class assignments and promotion.

Really, the Geneva Convention and labor unions exist for the same reason--to help people who are not in a position to help themselves.  To protect the powerless from the powerful.  To make sure that everyone--rich, poor, white, African American, man, woman, gay, straight--is treated with respect and understanding.

Of course, the United States--and the world at large--has been swept up in a tidal wave of xenophobia recently.  Refugees from war-torn countries like Syria are not seen as human beings.  They're seen as would-be radicals and terrorists, ignoring the fact that the five million people who have fled Syria are victims of state terrorism. That is not an alternative fact.

I'm not saying these things because I'm Democrat or liberal or anti-Trump or pro-Bernie.  I'm saying these things because I'm part of the human race, and I think that every life is important.  Sure, there are radicals in the world.  Extremists.  Terrorists.  But, if I turn my back on a person in need because of fear, then the bad guys have won.  I refuse to let that happen.

Saint Marty is thankful tonight for love and compassion.

Monday, April 24, 2017

April 24: Poet of the Week, Tyehimba Jess, "Blind Boone's Vision"

Tyehimba Jess is the Poet of the Week. 

Jess won this year's Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his collection Olio.  I am not really familiar with his work.  I do know that Olio is his second poetry collection, and that he's won several other prestigious prizes, including a Whiting Award. 

The real test is in the poems themselves, though. 

Saint Marty thinks that Tyehimba Jess passes the test.

Blind Boone's Vision

by:  Tyehimba Jess

When I got old enough
I asked my mother,
to her surprise,
to tell me what she did
with my eyes. She balked
and stalled, sounding
unsure for the first time
I could remember.
It was the tender way
she held my face
and kissed where tears
should have rolled
that told me I’d asked
of her the almost impossible—
to recount my blinding
tale, to tell what became
of the rest of me.
She took me by the hand
and led me to a small
sapling that stood not
much taller than me.
I could smell the green
marrow of its promise
reaching free of the soil
like a song from Earth’s
royal, dirty mouth.
Then Mother told me
how she, newly freed,
had prayed like a slave
through the night when
the surgeon took my eyes
to save my fevered life,
then got off her knees
come morning to take
the severed parts of me
for burial—right there
beneath that small tree.
They fed the roots,
climbed through its leaves
to soak in sunlight . . .
and so, she told me,
I can see.
When the wind rustles
up and cools me down,
when the earth shakes
with footsteps and when
the sound of birdcalls
stirs forests like the black
and white bustling
’neath my fingertips
I am of the light and shade
of my tree. Now,
ask me how tall
that tree of mine
has grown to be
after all this time—
it touches a place
between heaven and here.
And I shudder when I hear
the earth’s wind
in my bones
through the bones
of that boxed-up
swarm of wood,
bird and bee:
I let it loose . . .
and beyond

April 24: Third Law of Motion, Foreknowledge, Certainty

Listen--on the tenth night the peg was pulled out of the hasp on Billy's boxcar, and the door was opened.  Billy Pilgrim was lying at an angle on the corner-brace, self-crucified, holding himself there with a blue and ivory claw hooked over the sill of the ventilator.  Billy coughed when the door was opened, and when he coughed he shit thin gruel.  This was in accordance with the Third Law of Motion according to Sir Isaac Newton.  This law tells us that for every action there is a reaction which is equal and opposite in direction.

This can be useful in rocketry.

Billy is exhausted from the ten-day train ride through Germany.  He hasn't slept or eaten that much.  He's surrounded by death and people who hate him.  Of course, during the course of the journey he has been shuttling back-and-forth in time, and this gives him a tiny advantage over his fellow passengers.  He knows that he's going to survive, return home, and become successful.

I sometimes wish that I had that kind of foreknowledge.  It would make going through difficult times just a little easier.  For instance, right now, I don't know if I have any classes to teach next fall semester at the university.  That's the existence of a contingent professor.  It's a balancing act between gratitude and desperation.  I'm teaching now, and I'm grateful for that.  I don't know if or what I will be teaching in four months, and that plants a tiny worm of panic in my brain.

The way I have learned to deal with this kind of uncertainty is by focusing on the certain.  Tonight, I have to teach a class.  Student presentations for three hours.  That is a certainty.  Tomorrow, I have a full day of work at the medical office.  Certainty. 

If I begin to focus on the "what ifs," I would drive myself crazy.   For example, what if I don't get classes for the fall semester?  What if my job is deemed unnecessary by the healthcare system for which I work?  What if my car's engine dies on the way home tonight?  What if my students all give me horrible evaluations?  What if . . .?

You get the idea.  It would not be a pretty scene if I gave into the What If monster.  I would go to bed and simply never emerge from under the covers again.

So, tonight, is about certainty.  Saint Marty is thankful for the certainty of his students.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

April 23: End of the School Year, "Pointe," Classic Saint Marty

I am tired.  I've been working all day, but, as usual, it feels as if I haven't accomplished anything at all.  Grading, planning, grading again.  It's almost the end of the school year, and I--a contingent professor working two full-time jobs--am entering the most difficult two weeks of the semester.  It's a tough time for full-timers.  It's doubly difficult for part-timers.

I'm not complaining.  I am simply tired.  That's all.  In two weeks' time, I will be at the point of near exhaustion, but I will be done and ready to go into summer hibernation.  Maybe do some poetry readings.  Work on some new poems.

Speaking of poems:


by:  Martin Achatz

They're wrecked after a year,
each second my daughter spent
on her toes creased
into the wood box
with sweat and blister,
her first steps, panicked
lurches across the dance floor,
as if she were on the deck
of the Titanic as it listed,
snapped, sent her skidding
to the black Atlantic.
I wanted to save her
from gravity, have her grip
my fingers the way she did
as a baby, tethered to me
like a lifeboat, each move
an exercise in balance,
the ground beneath her feet
as unstable as lake ice
in May.  I still have her
first shoes, small, white
as bleached driftwood.
They're reminders of how
she once depended on me
to rescue her from each
drowning stumble.  The pink
slippers sit on her dresser now
along with stones she found
on the shores of Superior,
a wrist band for treading water
ten minutes longer than anyone
else at Bible camp last summer,
and medals, ribbons for ballet.
If I close my eyes, I see her,
mid-air or mid-water,
clumsy one-year-old,
graceful almost teen,
her limbs stretched
toward me or away,
wanting to be scooped up, saved,
or wanting to strike out
for swifter currents,
higher leaps,
deeper, bluer waters.

A couple years ago, I was closing in on the end of the school year, as well.  My sister was in a nursing home, and I was recovering from a low blood sugar:

April 13, 2015:  Visiting My Sister, Low Blood Sugar, "Ives" Dip

You'll pardon me if my thoughts seem a little disjointed or non-jointed this evening.  I just got my son to bed, and my blood sugar is hovering around 45 at the moment.  For those readers who are not diabetic or are unfamiliar with normal blood glucose levels, most non-diabetics have blood sugars between 70 and 110.  Hence, my slightly incoherent coherence right now.

I went to visit my sister in the nursing home this evening.  She was in good spirits, or she was faking it really well.  The latest news on her health front is that she will be going to Mayo Clinic for her parathyroid surgery.  The social worker at the nursing home is working on transportation (an ambulance) and insurance issues.

Frankly, I don't know how my sister can stand being in that place, not that she has a choice.  There are people in wheelchairs roaming the hallways, moaning and screaming.  My sister keeps her room door closed to discourage unwanted visitors.  The walls are painted cinder block, and the air is perfumed with the scents of urine and feces at times.

Which brings me to my Ives dip question:

Will my sister ever come home from the nursing home?

And the answer is:

". . . Just remember, if you don't take care of business, no one else will.  Do you really think God gives a shit?"

As a matter of fact, I DO think God gives a shit.  I have to.  I know that my sister isn't walking out of that place without some serious medical intervention, but I believe God IS watching out for her.  If He wasn't, she would already be dead.

Saint Marty's blood sugar is coming up.  He can actually focus on the computer screen now.

Good advice this evening...