Thursday, March 31, 2022

March 31: Get the Heart, Takosubo Cardiomyopathy, Elegies

Santiago gets a good look at the fish for the first time . . . 

"I'll just steer south and west," he said. "A man is never lost at sea and it is a long island."

It was on the third turn that he saw the fish first.

He saw him first as a dark shadow that took so long to pass under the boat that he could not believe its length.

"No," he said. "He can't be that big."

But he was that big and at the end of this circle he came to the surface only thirty yards away and the man saw his tail out of water. It was higher than a big scythe blade and a very pale lavender above the dark blue water. It raked back and as the fish swam just below the surface the old man could see his huge bulk and the purple stripes that banded him. His dorsal fin was down and his huge pectorals were spread wide.

On this circle the old man could see the fish's eye and the two gray sucking fish that swam around him. Sometimes they attached themselves to him. Sometimes they darted off. Sometimes they would swim easily in his shadow. They were each over three feet long and when they swam fast they lashed their whole bodies like eels.

The old man was sweating now but from something else besides the sun. On each calm placid turn the fish made he was gaining line and he was sure that in two turns more he would have a chance to get the harpoon in.

But I must get him close, close, close, he thought. I mustn't try for the head. I must get the heart.

It's always the heart, isn't it?  That's what ends things.  A harpoon to the heart.

I used to work in a cardiology office.  There was a condition that some people were diagnosed with.  The technical name was takotsubo cardiomyopathy.  The common name is broken heart syndrome.  It's when someone experiences such stress that it weakens the heart.  One of the most common causes of this condition is grief.

You may have seen takotsubo cardiomyopathy in action already.  Often, when one of the life partners in an elderly couple dies, the remaining partner passes away within a few months, as well.  The cause:  a broken heart.

I think it has something to do with a person being unable to overcome the loss.  Dwelling on it for a long time.  Such sorrow effects heart tissue.  Thus, it is literally possible to die from grief. 

I have experienced quite a bit of loss these last five or so years.  Adding it up, I've lost one brother, two sisters, my father, and my mother.  That's a lot of death in a relatively short period of time.  

I do not have takotsubo cardiomyopathy.  Mostly, it's because I write poetry, I believe.  My writing allows me to process difficult emotions in a relatively healthy way.  I don't keep things bottled up inside myself.  In short, poetry has saved my life.

For every loss I've experienced these past few years, I've written poems for the funerals.  In the days following the deaths, the composition of those elegies helped keep me sane.  They have been some of the most difficult poems I've ever written, and, yet, they are some of the poems of which I'm most proud.

Is my heart broken?  No.  Do I still experience moments of profound sadness?  Of course.  

But Saint Marty has poetry to lift himself up.  And chocolate.  A lot of chocolate.

One of my elegies . . . 


for Kevin, May 12, 2014

by:  Martin Achatz

My daughter saw it first,
tucked under the garage eave
like an abandoned hat or trapped
tumbleweed, a jumbled braid
of grass, twig, leaf,
detritus of last autumn's letting go,
sculpted with beak, claw
into a soup bowl, deep with down and dung.
I stepped closer, inspected it, wondered
what else made up the sinew
and rib of its creation. Maybe
a Tootsie Roll wrapper from July 4,
brown, white, sweet-smelling.
A blade of blue or silver Christmas
garland, flashing in the sun
like Tiffany glass. Mud made
by my son in August
when he drowned the pumpkins in the garden.
Ribbon frayed from my daughter's
ballet shoe, pink and slick
as a hummingbird tongue.
All the lost and forgotten
twisted into the DNA of spring,
something new, green.
On this evening of letting go,
I feel like a robin, gathering
shards of you from my backyard.
The root of your voice. Hay
of your hair. Thistle of the last
joke you told, the one
about the spark plug and bartender.
I try to stitch these elements together,
bring breath back to your lungs
one final moment so I can
hold your hand maybe,
feed you one more fork
of pumpkin pie.
Tonight, when I sleep,
I will see you hatch, break
open, shake off your lake-
blue shell. You crawl to the lip
of the nest, spread your wings,
then launch yourself
into the bright palm of heaven.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

March 30: Rest on the Next Turn, Winter Rose, No Rest for the Wicked

Santiago rests a little . . . 

"I'll rest on the next turn as he goes out," he said. "I feel much better. Then in two or three turns more I will have him."

His straw hat was far on the back of his head and he sank down into the bow with the pull of the line as he felt the fish turn.

You work now, fish, he thought. I'll take you at the turn.

The sea had risen considerably. But it was a fair-weather breeze and he had to have it to get home.

Winter rose considerably today.  No school for my son.  Virtual learning.  Which means that he checks online to see if he has any work to do (he usually doesn't), and then he plays computer games the rest of the day.  

I, on the other had, taught at the university.  Worked at the library.  Hosted a concert in the evening.  When my father had busy days, he always said, "No rest for the wicked."  That saying comes from Isaiah 48:22:  "The Lord God said, peace is not to wicked men."  

Perhaps wicked people keep themselves busy planning and doing wicked things.  Or maybe the phrase is more metaphysical.  The wicked person's mind is never able to rest because it is constantly in a turmoil of guilt and anger and sadness.  No peace of mind.

I don't think of myself as a particularly wicked person in any way.  I don't go out of my way to ruin lives or kick puppies.  Yet, I am constantly weary.  Even as I was sitting in a blues concert this evening, I was thinking of my couch at home.  A pillow.  The darkness of my eyelids.  

Marty wouldn't mind being the patron saint of naps.

And a Lenten poem . . . 

In Praise of Sameness

by:  Martin Achatz

Each morning, I rise at the same time,
4:15 a.m. I eat the same breakfast:
Two soft eggs, a piece of toast, unbuttered.
I drink the same kind of soft drink,
Two cans of Diet Mountain Dew. I work
Until 10:40 a.m. Then I drive to campus,
Teach a literature class from 11 a.m.
Until 12:30 p.m. I walk back to my office,
Where I hold office hours from 12:45
Until 1:40 p.m. I drive back to my other
Office, work from 1:47 p.m. to 4:53 p.m.
I drive home, arrive at 5:19 p.m. I eat
Dinner at 5:42 p.m. Hot dogs and eggs
Or turkey breast and mashed potatoes.
Maybe stir fry with broccoli, chicken.
I drive my daughter to religion class
At 6 p.m. Pick her up at 6:45 p.m.
Take her to ballet class. 7 p.m. Pick
Her up at 7:50 p.m. Drive home. 8:09 p.m.
Make sure my daughter takes a shower.
Prepare lunches, set out tomorrow's clothes.
Get my daughter to bed by 8:47 p.m.
Correct papers, prepare lesson plans.
Until 10:12 p.m. Brush. Floss. Bed.
10:38 p.m. I give God thanks for this
Sameness. The gift of no surprises.
Surprises bring bronchitis to babies. Brake jobs
When you expect oil changes. Pulmonary
Embolism after Caesarean section.
Breast cancer in your 80-year-old father.
A roof leak after a hard winter.
Unemployment after 20 years on the job.
Loss of health insurance. Loss of home.
Planes flying into skyscrapers,
Soldiers in sand, in mountain cave.
I praise God for sunrises, sunsets,
Stars, moon, planets, universe all in place.
I praise the God of habit, of the mundane.
Of garage sales. Of unbuttered toast.
Dry. Plain.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

March 29: Tireder than I Have Ever Been, Jobs, Jeff Bezos

Santiago is tired . . .  

"I have no cramps," he said. "He'll be up soon and I can last. You have to last. Don't even speak of it."

He kneeled against the bow and, for a moment, slipped the line over his back again. I'll rest now while he goes out on the circle and then stand up and work on him when he comes in, he decided.

It was a great temptation to rest in the bow and let the fish make one circle by himself without recovering any line. But when the strain showed the fish had turned to come toward the boat, the old man rose to his feet and started the pivoting and the weaving pulling that brought in all the line he gained. 

I'm tireder than I have ever been, he thought, and now the trade wind is rising. But that will be good to take him in with. I need that badly.

I am tired.  I'm not sure if I'm tireder than I have ever been, but I'm pretty damn tired.

I've been reflecting a lot on the life I've led, career-wise.  I've held a lot of jobs.  Aside from summer work I did during my undergraduate and graduate school years, I've stuck with the jobs that I've had for a long time.  I worked as a part-time bookseller for close to five or so years.  I was part of the healthcare industry for over 25 years (20 for an outpatient surgery center, five for a cardiology office).  I've been a contingent English professor going on 30 years.  And I have been a church organist since I was 18 years old.  (Not going to say how many years that is--but it's a LONG time.)

I still hold down about four jobs in order to pay my bills.  Barely.  And that is my point today.  In a country that is supposed to be the wealthiest in the world--where, supposedly, hard work is rewarded--people shouldn't have to work four jobs in order to survive.  There's something obscenely wrong about that.

Those of you who know me personally would never call me lazy, I think.  Granted, I chose to study English and poetry.  However, I have been working consistently for the same university, year-after-year, for three decades, and I am still considered part-time with no possibility of full-time employment.  On top of that, I work full-time for a public library.  I write $20,000 grants.  I teach community poetry workshops.  And I clean churches in the evening, after I've hosted concerts and readings for the library.

Just typing all that makes me tired.  

Yet, there are billionaires in this country who pay less in taxes than I do.  This is because our country is run by rich, privileged millionaires who have never pushed a broom or cleaned a toilet or flipped a burger their whole lives.  I'm not a big fan of politics or politicians.  Democrat or Republican.  Anyone who gets paid upwards of $200,000, with really great, cheap medical insurance, shouldn't be allowed to make decisions about minimum wage and healthcare and welfare.  

There shouldn't be homeless people in our country.  Or starving people.  Or people dying because they can't get proper healthcare.  There shouldn't be billionaires.  No single person should have more money than a third-world country.  According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, it would cost $20 billion to end homelessness in the United States.  Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, estimates the cost of ending hunger in the United States to be $25 billion.  Jeff Bezos' net worth is $184.5 billion.  That means that Jeff could end homelessness and hunger in the United States and still be worth $139.5 billion.

Think about that when you are dragging yourself home from work with swollen feet and an aching back.

Okay, Saint Marty is putting away his angry eyes now.

And a Lenten poem for today . . .

Lazarus Speaks

by:  Martin Achatz

I heard His voice in that cold place,
Calling me from darkness to light.
I left my bed of stone, stepped back
To sun and hunger and need. My sisters,
Martha, Mary, their need for me,
Strong as ten thousand hippo-lionesses
Of Egypt, pregnant with pyramids,
Returned me to flesh and muscle,
Blood, dates, bread still warm
From the fire in a bowl of bone.
They fill me with want,
Have made me thirsty and tired again,
Cold at night, under moon, stars.
Neighbors avoid me like the leper, afraid
Of stories I may tell of endless dark,
The taste of death in my mouth
Like unclean meat. But I have nothing
To tell them. No conversations
With Moses, Elijah. No valleys
With souls piled like grain
On the threshing floor. I have
The itch of sand in my hair
The ache in my loins for woman.
The constant call of my body for
The meat of lamb, cool wine, water.
And the work of breath, in, out, in, out.
I would trade it all for one more minute
In that cave, away from the urge
To lift my face and hands and voice,
To hope, to sing a psalm of human
Longing to the blue and empty heavens.

Monday, March 28, 2022

March 28: Drive Him Mad, Bad Weather, Chaos Theory

Santiago thinks like a fish  . . . 

He is hitting the wire leader with his spear, he thought. That was bound to come. He had to do that. It may make him jump though and I would rather he stayed circling now. The jumps were necessary for him to take air. But after that each one can widen the opening of the hook wound and he can throw the hook.

"Don't jump, fish," he said. "Don't jump."

The fish hit the wire several times more and each time he shook his head the old man gave up a little line.

I must hold his pain where it is, he thought. Mine does not matter. I can control mine. But his pain could drive him mad.

After a while the fish stopped beating at the wire and started circling slowly again. The old man was gaining line steadily now. But he felt faint again. He lifted some sea water with his left hand and put it on his head. Then he put more on and rubbed the back of his neck.

Because of his experience, Santiago knows exactly what the fish is doing.  The old man is thinking five or six steps ahead of fish, anticipating each flip of its tail and head.  Of course, that doesn't mean that the fish won't surprise Santiago.  Even seasoned meteorologists can't predict tornadoes and blizzards with 100 percent accuracy.  One of my favorite forecasts from this past winter had a local weatherman saying that between one to twelve inches of snow would fall.  He was right.

There's some bad weather coming this week.  It could be anywhere from two to 15 inches of snow with 1/4 inch of ice to six inches of snow with a 1/3 inch of ice.  So, basically, the weather is a fish that may or may not jump, which is typical for the U. P. of Michigan this time of year.

Of course, being a person who likes to plan things out, I don't really like to live in a space of negative capability.  I prefer certainty or near certainty.  It makes my life much easier.  Yet, the universe doesn't work that way.  (Cue Jeff Goldblum talking about chaos theory in Jurassic Park.)

So Saint Marty is waiting for 1/4 inch of rain, 15 inches of snow, and velociraptors to attack some time in the next three days.  

And a Lenten Poem . . . 

Wrong Turn

by:  Martin Achatz

When I visited her in the hospital, she sat in the lounge with me, brooded, stared out the fifth floor windows, her face empty, hollow as a church bell. I made small talk: "What did you have for dinner?" and "How'd you sleep last night?" and "How'd group therapy go?" Her answers, one or two syllables. A shrug. A nod. I knew my presence irritated her, reminded her of the flannel sheets on our bed, turkey loaf, our daughter's shitty diapers. When I left, walked out the doors, heard them close, lock, I knew she hated me even more, wanted to scratch, claw my skin, make me ache the way she did. She would go back to her room, her bed. Lie down. Stare out her window. Try to draw a map of her mind. Get lost. You are here. Marked with a fat star. Magnetic Street. 1.75 miles from Superior’s shores. Turn left. Maybe right? Me, I drove home, through dusk, listened to the classical station. Bach. Mahler. Mozart. Didn’t pay attention to streets, traffic lights, other cars. I thought about her on our wedding night. Warm against my nakedness. Each curve, path of her body as familiar to me as my breath. I wondered what wrong turn we had taken. When I got home, our house was dark, silent under the starless sky. Foreign. Berlin. Gdansk. Sarajevo. Nagasaki. Baghdad.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

March 27: Faint and Dizzy, Will Smith, Slap

Santiago feels the strain of the battle . . . 

But the fish kept on circling slowly and the old man was wet with sweat and tired deep into his bones two hours later. But the circles were much shorter now and from the way the line slanted he could tell the fish had risen steadily while he swam.

For an hour the old man had been seeing black spots before his eyes and the sweat salted his eyes and salted the cut over his eye and on his forehead. He was not afraid of the black spots. They were normal at the tension that he was pulling on the line. Twice, though, he had felt faint and dizzy and that had worried him.

"I could not fail myself and die on a fish like this," he said. "Now that I have him coming so beautifully, God help me endure. I'll say a hundred Our Fathers and a hundred Hail Marys. But I cannot say them now."

Consider them said, he thought. I'll say them later.

Just then he felt a sudden banging and jerking on the line he held with his two hands. It was sharp and hard-feeling and heavy.

Okay, the fish is circling the boat.  Santiago is feeling faint and dizzy.  And Will Smith slapped Chris Rock in the face for telling a joke at the Academy Awards.  

I'm not going to spend a whole lot of time on this post.  It's late.  The Oscars just got over.  I'm sure that the whole world is going to be losing its collective mind for quite some time over what happened this evening.  

I watch the Oscars every year.  Even in the Out of Africa and Crash years, I enjoy myself.  There's something fascinating about seeing these celebrities patting themselves on the backs for three hours.  Or slapping each other in the face.  It's like going to the zoo.  Even when the monkeys are masturbating in front of you, it's still entertaining.  

Is assault ever an appropriate response to a situation?  No.  Do incredibly rich and famous people feel a little above the law?  Probably.  Is this whole situation going to ruin some careers?  Probably, for a while.  

Please keep this in mind, though:  there are thousands of people suffering and dying in Ukraine.  It's life-and-death there right now.  If you want to get outraged, do it over something important.  Something that deserves outrage.

That's the last thing Saint Marty will say about the slap seen 'round the world.

And a Lenten Poem . . . 

Planet of the Ape

by:  Martin Achatz

Caesar hated his home
In the ape house in Detroit,
Sat with his silver spine
To visitors, crushing his truck
Tire like machines in the Ford plant,
Over and over and over,
Planning his next rebellion.
A handful of feces flung
Through cage bars at the glass
Protecting kids and mothers
From his frustration, boredom,
Rwandan moons dying in his eyes.
Bananas, lettuce, apples, grapes
Smashed on keepers' heads,
Ground with the force
Of tropical rain, hard
Enough to splinter trees.
Caesar suffered indignities,
Vets observing him, his mate,
Lulu, in intimate moments, he,
Unable to scream, beat his chest
In wild pleasure, or lose himself
To that moment of brute release.
For decades, he stared, placid
As the Sphinx, day after day,
Waited for night to come,
When people went away, when
He closed his eyes, drifted back, back,
Back in blood, in DNA,
In ancestral memory,
To mountain and jungle,
To moon in a canopy
Green as Eden, to the beginning,
When he was named before names.
Thunder. Earthquake. Hurricane.
Eclipse in trees and rocks.
Avalanche of fist and tooth
And hunger.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

March 26: A Very Big Circle, Wonder Business, Lines and Feet

Santiago knows the fish is weakening . . . 

The sun was rising for the third time since he had put to sea when the fish started to circle.

He could not see by the slant of the line that the fish was circling. It was too early for that. He just felt a faint slackening of the pressure of the line and he commenced to pull on it gently with his right hand. It tightened, as always, but just when he reached the point where it would break, line began to come in. He slipped his shoulders and head from under the line and began to pull in line steadily and gently. He used both of his hands in a swinging motion and tried to do the pulling as much as he could with his body and his legs. His old legs and shoulders pivoted with the swinging of the pulling.

"It is a very big circle," he said. "But he is circling."

Then the line would not come in any more and he held it until he saw the drops jumping from it in the sun. Then it started out and the old man knelt down and let it go grudgingly back into the dark water.

"He is making the far part of his circle now," he said. I must hold all I can, he thought. The strain will shorten his circle each time. Perhaps in an hour I will see him. Now I must convince him and then I must kill him.

When I read this passage, even though the reader is supposed to be on Santiago's side, I can't help rooting for the fish.  Any creature that has survived long enough to be bigger than a boat deserves to live out the rest of its days eating, swimming, and mating without threat.  In some ways, Santiago killing the fish is akin to killing the last wooly mammoth for its hair or tusks.  It's the extinction of wonder.  

Poets are in the wonder business.  The poems I love--the ones that leave me breathless and stunned--are the ones that tap into this wonder.  Robert Frost and his bending birches.  Emily Dickinson and her feathered hope.  Gwendolyn Brooks and her pool players at the Golden Shovel.  These poets somehow bottle moments where the veil is pulled away from our limited eyes, and we are able to see the beautiful ugly of the universe.

I think that's why the idea of Santiago killing that 18-foot marlin bothers me so much.  I know that the point of the novella is this struggle of man versus nature.  I learned that in high school.  However, I know that Hemingway doesn't see beauty in the same way poets do.  It's all about human struggle for Hemingway.  That's where he finds wonder and astonishment.

Me?  I've never been much into fishing or hunting or trapping.  I am not opposed to these activities, having lived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for the majority of my life.  My father, brothers, and sisters treated opening day of deer season like a religious celebration.  I get my adrenaline rushes a little more organically.  For instance, driving into work one morning recently, I saw a huge wild turkey strutting on the side of the highway.  I slowed down because I wasn't sure if the bird would saunter into oncoming traffic.  As I slowly drove past, I could see its whole body shiver and inflate, as if it was getting ready to charge my car in anger or consternation.  It was an amazing sight.

Turkeys aren't necessarily beautiful creatures.  In fact, I would probably say they are homely birds, looking more like fat buzzards.  But that turkey was stopping early morning traffic like a runway model during Fashion Week. 

So, my lines are not for dropping into the sea from a boat.  My feet don't carry me to deer or duck blinds.  I hunt with my pen and journal.  I'll leave the man versus nature battle to Santiago and Hemingway.  They are better equipped.  A poem never stopped a charging elephant or hungry shark.

Saint Marty simply prefers the white chicken beside the red wheelbarrow.

And a Lenten poem . . . 

A Murder of Crows

by:  Martin Achatz

I saw a murder of crows, black as Good Friday, in a stand of sugar maple, their cries a riot of thanksgiving in the gray air. Beneath them, a wrack of rabbits, too young to flee, mewled and bled, torn and ravaged by a boar sounder. I heard the pig screams in the woods, full of spring starvation, the way I feel when the sugar in my body makes my brain move like a sleuth of bears, all lumber and crash. In this time between February and April, Ash Wednesday and Easter, the world vacillates. Snow, heavy as a gam of whales, one day. Warmth and wind, an ostentation of peacock plume, the next. This morning, I woke to sleet, ice, crèche-of-penguin weather. This afternoon, I walk to my office, taste pollen, nectar, a charm of hummingbirds, a flicker of spring. I know, one day soon, the tomb of winter will open, sun will flood the world. A rabble of butterflies. A murmuration of starlings. An ascension, exaltation of larks.

Friday, March 25, 2022

March 25: Down to the Tail, Breakfast, Middle School Sucks

Santiago eats breakfast . . . 

He took hold of the line carefully so that it did not fit into any of the fresh line cuts and shifted his weight so that he could put his left hand into the sea on the other side of the skiff.

"You did not do so badly for something worthless," he said to his left hand. "But there was a moment when I could not find you."

Why was I not born with two good hands? he thought. Perhaps it was my fault in not training that one properly. But God knows he has had enough chances to learn. He did not do so badly in the night, though, and he has only cramped once. If he cramps again let the line cut him off.

When he thought that he knew that he was not being clear-headed and he thought he should chew some more of the dolphin. But I can't, he told himself. It is better to be light-headed than to lose your strength from nausea. And I know I cannot keep it if I eat it since my face was in it. I will keep it for an emergency until it goes bad. But it is too late to try for strength now through nourishment. You're stupid, he told himself. Eat the other flying fish.

It was there, cleaned and ready, and he picked it up with his left hand and ate it chewing the bones carefully and eating all of it down to the tail.

It has more nourishment than almost any fish, he thought. At least the kind of strength that I need. Now I have done what I can, he thought. Let him begin to circle and let the fight come.

Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day.  As a diabetic, I am constantly aware of the body's need for food.  Like Santiago, I know food is necessary, even when I'm not hungry.  There are mornings when I get to my office, get busy, and realize that, three hours later, my body is running on empty.  

I sometimes go all day, moving from one near hypoglycemic reaction after another.  I work like crazy, get sweaty-clammy hungry, eat, work like crazy some more, get sweaty-clammy hungry again, eat . . . You get the idea.

Today, I dealt with a situation regarding my son at school.  Part One was yesterday.  Today, Part Two.  I won't go into the details, but all I can say is that middle school sucks.   And middle schoolers can be some of the cruelest people on the face of the planet.  I would never want to go back to that hormone-driven stage of life when everything is sprouting hair and glands are working overtime.  When everyone becomes acutely aware of their perceived flaws, and those flaws become the stars of a movie titled My Life as a Mutant Misfit with Acne.  

So, because of this drama, I forgot to eat this morning, and, by 11 a.m., I was a sweaty-clammy mess.  Having been a diabetic since I was 13, I should know better.  But life doesn't always work that way.  Sometimes, you find yourself adrift on a boat, focused on what lies beneath, and you neglect your needs.  Don't realize you're tired or hungry or ready to pass out.

At the setting of the sun, my son is doing well in the haze of middle school nastiness.  I finally ate my breakfast around 11:30 this morning without embarrassing myself too badly.  (In my younger days, I have been known to hold student conferences while suffering a low blood sugar.  The students were happy, but I couldn't recall a damn thing I said.)  So, in the end, I'd put this rat-trap of a day in the "win" column.  Nobody died or ended up in jail.

Saint Marty has very low standards when it comes to success.

And a Lenten poem . . .

The Happiest Person In America

by:  Martin Achatz

According to a Gallup poll,
The happiest person in America
Is tall, not Jimmy Stewart tall,
But not Tom Cruise short. He
(Of course a man, women need
Not apply) is Asian-American,
To insure aptitude for math,
Science, I suppose. He must
Be an observant Jew, Christians
Tending to be too Republican,
Therefore humorless, Muslims
Raising eyebrow threat levels
On airplanes too much to allow
For vacations in Europe, Fiji,
Greece. No, a Jew, enlightened
Enough to appreciate the writing
Of E. L. Doctorow, but strict
Enough to take Yom Kippur off work.
He should be 65 years of age
At least, ready to collect
Social Security for a few years
Before the money runs out.
Married with children.
His wife should be up
For kosher late night dinners,
Skinny-dips, Tony Bennett songs.
His children, graduates of Brown,
UCLA, make trips home for
Radish and salt at Passover.
He lives in Hawaii, snorkels
Coral reefs in Huaname Bay,
Stops at roadside fruit stands
To buy fresh-cut pineapple.
He has his own business, something
Non-stressful like surf blogger,
Hot air balloon captain, pastry chef,
Earns more than $120,000 a year,
Not enough to attract the attention
Of relatives, but enough to pay
For botox, liposuction, Kindles.
This man is happiest. Satisfied.
Wakes at dawn to sit lotus,
Watch the Pacific surf, kiss
His wife of forty years before
She goes for her morning jog.
Statistic perfection, as unattainable
As Liz Taylor’s violet eyes,
As peace between Israel, Palestine,
As John Lennon’s no Heaven, no Hell,
One Gallup world, living as one.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

March 24: Our True Work, Talk Myself into Courage, Introverted

Santiago gives himself a pep talk . . .

"You better be fearless and confident yourself, old man," he said. "You're holding him again but you cannot get line. But soon he has to circle."

The old man held him with his left hand and his shoulders now and stooped down and scooped up water in his right hand to get the crushed dolphin flesh off of his face. He was afraid that it might nauseate him and he would vomit and lose his strength. When his face was cleaned he washed his right hand in the water over the side and then let it stay in the salt water while he watched the first light come before the sunrise. He's headed almost east, he thought. That means he is tired and going with the current. Soon he will have to circle. Then our true work begins.

After he judged that his right hand had been in the water long enough he took it out and looked at it. "It is not bad," he said. "And pain does not matter to a man."

I often do what Santiago does here when I'm facing a particularly challenging day.  I talk myself into courage.  People often don't believe that my nature, for the most part, is introverted.  Getting up in front of people takes a lot of my energy.  And often, after many days of social hubbub and connection, I need to withdraw, recharge my batteries.

Tonight, to recharge my batteries and reinvigorate myself, I attended a poetry workshop led by a good friend of mine.  Leading poetry workshops in one of my great joys.  However, there's something very freeing about not being in charge.  To be able to sit back and simply have fun without any pressure to perform in any way.  To be in the background.

In the space of a couple hours, my friend took us through some writing prompts, and, at the end of the night, I had the draft of a new poem that I think is almost complete.  That's pretty amazing, and it truly restored my spirit, which has been feeling particularly depleted recently.  Several times this past week, I needed to have some serious personal pep rallies to keep myself going.  

Saint Marty was reminded tonight of why he loves poetry.

And a Lenten poem for this evening . . . 

In Praise of Silence

by:  Martin Achatz

Praise the Lord for the silence of dusk
As it shifts the air from winter sun
To winter moon, the melt of snow
To something hard as onyx or bone.
Praise the ring of eardrum in quiet,
How it vibrates, hums with the memory
Of the day, news of tsunami in Japan,
The lives of thousands swept away
Like crumbs from Friday dinner
Of lentils, crackers, apple juice,
The tablecloth taken outside, shaken,
The way my grandmother taught me,
For lost souls who roam the night,
Tap on black window glass, hungry
For light, warmth, or prayer.
Praise the tide of heart in my chest,
Calm waves of blood, in, out, in, out,
Reminding me this night that I am safe. Alive.
That my tongue doesn’t taste ocean mud.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

March 23: So Fearless and So Confident, Ice Storm

Santiago contemplates fear . . . 

The line went out and out and out but it was slowing now and he was making the fish earn each inch of it. Now he got his head up from the wood and out of the slice of fish that his cheek had crushed. Then he was on his knees and then he rose slowly to his feet. He was ceding line but more slowly all the time. He worked back to where he could feel with his foot the coils of line that he could not see. There was plenty of line still and now the fish had to pull the friction of all that new line through the water.

Yes, he thought. And now he has jumped more than a dozen times and filled the sacks along his back with air and he cannot go down deep to die where I cannot bring him up. He will start circling soon and then I must work on him. I wonder what started him so suddenly? Could it have been hunger that made him desperate, or was he frightened by something in the night? Maybe he suddenly felt fear. But he was such a calm, strong fish and he seemed so fearless and so confident. It is strange.

Santiago know fishing.  Is confident.  The fish Santiago is battling is large and strong.  Yet, at this moment, Santiago wonders what has frightened the fish into jumping out of the sea into the night air.  Not just once.  Many times.

We all face fear.  Every day.  Some of those fears are tiny, focused mainly on things like the car starting on a cold morning.  The furnace dying in the middle of a January night.  The dog peeing on the couch.  Of course, there a large fears that lurk in the background all the time, as well.  Death.  Failure.  A broken heart.  It comes with the territory of being human.

Last night, a huge ice storm blew into my little corner of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  This morning, I woke to a list of cancellations as deep as Santiago's sea.  Even the university where I teach cancelled classes.  

When I stepped outside in the morning to let my puppy pee, the whole world was sheened in ice, and the wind made the trees crack their knuckles.  It's always amazing when you go to bed in one landscape and wake up in another.  That happens often during winters in the U. P.

I didn't do anything today.  Didn't face any fears.  I worked from home, watched episodes of Cash Cab, and ate.  That's about it.  I hibernated in my house, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Saint Marty wishes he had more days like this.  

And a Lenten poem . . . 

Spring Snow Storm

by:  Martin Achatz

The weather guy, in his ugly tie,
Predicts six to twelve inches tonight,
A spring storm out of Alaska, Canada,
Winds as strong as cattle trains.
Tomorrow, I will wake to this creature,
This force of different fronts from ocean,
Mountain, glacier, tundra. I’ve heard
It said a butterfly’s wings, trembled
On African savannah, causes hurricanes
On the Gulf Coast, another flood
In the Big Easy, wipes out Mardi Gras
For good, an oil slick of jazz
On magnolia, pelican wing, bayou.
I wonder if the collective gasp in Japan
After earthquake and tsunami caused
This early spring snow, set into motion
Winds across the Pacific, bore
That shock and grief through salt,
Through supermoon, mixed it with cries
Of caribou and polar bear, brought
It to me, to my home, snow falling
On roof and car, snow on street, lawn,
Gas station, church steeple, snow
Everywhere, heavy as a thousand souls.
Tonight, when I press my lips to my son’s
Fingers, somewhere on this planet
Rain will start to fall in a desert place,
Filling the land with green life.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

March 22: The Fish Jumped, School Musical, Cult of Oprah

Santiago finally gets what he's been waiting for . . .

He woke with the jerk of his right fist coming up against his face and the line burning out through his right hand. He had no feeling of his left hand but he braked all he could with his right and the line rushed out. Finally his left hand found the line and he leaned back against the line and now it burned his back and his left hand, and his left hand was taking all the strain and cutting badly. He looked back at the coils of line and they were feeding smoothly. Just then the fish jumped making a great bursting of the ocean and then a heavy fall. Then he jumped again and again and the boat was going fast although line was still racing out and the old man was raising the strain to breaking point and raising it to breaking point again and again. He had been pulled down tight onto the bow and his face was in the cut slice of dolphin and he could not move.

This is what we waited for, he thought. So now let us take it.

Make him pay for the line, he thought. Make him pay for it.

He could not see the fish's jumps but only heard the breaking of the ocean and the heavy splash as he fell. The speed of the line was cutting his hands badly but he had always known this would happen and he tried to keep the cutting across the calloused parts and not let the line slip into the palm nor cut the fingers.

If the boy was here he would wet the coils of line, he thought. Yes. If the boy were here. If the boy were here.

Everyone has things they wait for.  Books from Amazon.  Birthdays.  Christmas time.  Summer vacation.  I do it all the time.  I try not to look too far into the future anymore, though, and I try to keep my list fairly small.  Large lists, with huge life goals, are for people who follow the cult of Oprah.  Me?  My list of things I'm waiting for includes pizza on Saturday night.  A nap.  A beer with a friend every week or so.  (Yes, I still dream about Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes, but I'm not going to commit to a time frame on those.)

Today, my son performed in his school musical.  Schoolhouse Rock.  He had one of the lead parts, and he was fantastic.  Animated and funny.  After the second performance, I spoke with the director who has been a friend of mine for over 25 years.  Without prompting, he started praising my son, saying something like, "This was a really good way to end my career."  (My friend is fully retiring at the end of this school year.)

So, there you have it.  That's my big fish jumping today.  My son, at a microphone in a spotlight, hamming it up.

Saint Marty has no idea where he gets that from.

And a Lenten poem . . . 

My Son’s Cars

by:  Martin Achatz

When I read to my son, he runs
From me, as if I’m a hungry lion,
He, a well-fed Christian condemned
By Nero. I have never played with green
Soldiers, refuse to buy toy guns or darts,
Still have my daughter’s old dolls
In the toy chest. My son obsesses over
Cars, matchbox tractors, helicopters tiny
As frogs. I don’t know where he learned
This hunger, if it somehow mutated
From some Neanderthal gene, hairy,
Full of mammoth hunts, stone wheels.
He sits on the floor, growls, makes sounds
Of rusty mufflers, truck engines stuck
In pools of swamp mud. I listen,
Watch him shove cars across hardwood,
Think of my father, the plumber, hunter,
Car guy, in the front row for Our Town
When I was in high school. He watched me
The way he watches the Super Bowl
Every year, as if his life depends on
His team bringing home the Vince Lombardi
Trophy. I took my bow, looked at my father,
Standing, clapping, maybe understanding
Thornton Wilder’s words about how
We all go through life, ignorant of
Toast mothers make for breakfast,
Grass fathers mow on summer nights,
Our daily acts of devotion, sacrifices
We make without even thinking.
I will sit in stadium bleachers
If my son joins the football team.
I will buy popcorn, cheer, stomp.
I will do this for him, not quite
Comprehending the rules of his game,
The mechanics of toy cars pushed
Straight through the walls of my heart.

Monday, March 21, 2022

March 21: School of Porpoises, One Recurring Dream, Winged Holsteins

Santiago dreams . . .

He did not dream of the lions but instead of a vast school of porpoises that stretched for eight or ten miles and it was in the time of their mating and they would leap high into the air and return into the same hole they had made in the water when they leaped.

Then he dreamed that he was in the village on his bed and there was a norther and he was very cold and his right arm was asleep because his head had rested on it instead of a pillow.

After that he began to dream of the long yellow beach and he saw the first of the lions come down onto it in the early dark and then the other lions came and he rested his chin on the wood of the bows where the ship lay anchored with the evening off-shore breeze and he waited to see if there would be more lions and he was happy.

The moon had been up for a long time but he slept on and the fish pulled on steadily and the boat moved into the tunnel of clouds.

Santiago remembers his dreams.  I don't.  I've said this in previous posts--dreams evaporate for me almost as soon as I have shaken off the last vestiges of sleep from my body.  As soon as my feet hit the floor in the morning, anything that my unconscious has placed on the movie screen of my eyelids has faded into the realm of the forgotten or lost.  My dreams sit next to a pile of mismatched socks, never to be seen or heard again.

I have only had one recurring dream in my entire life.  A strange montage of travelling down an unknown highway in a large empty van with no driver.  Everything echoing like I'm underwater.  Not a boogeyman or ghost or demented clown in sight.  That's it.  I stopped having that dream around the time I left my teenage years in the rearview mirror.

That doesn't mean that I never dwell in the dream world.  On good days, when I'm working on a poem and it's going really well, it often feels as though I'm in some unconscious place of image.  Association and metaphor come easily, and I see things like schools of mating porpoises or a pride of golden lions on a beach.  Those kinds of things don't come from the part of me that teaches composition or files reports.  They are the stuff of dreams.

As a poet, I am in the dream business all the time.  It's who I am and what feeds the hungry side of my spirit.  Well, that and Lucky Charms.  Maybe that's why I don't recall my nocturnal dreams so easily.  I store them up for when I sit down to write a poem.  Then, my mind opens up, and all the dolphins and driverless vans and  winged Holsteins jump, drive, and fly onto the page.

Saint Marty recall his dreams when they are needed.

And another Lenten poem . . .

The Perfect Poem

by:  Martin Achatz

I dream I write the perfect poem,
See it before me, read the words
In a coffee house, before a crowd
Of movie stars, writers, saints.
John Wayne, front and center,
Looks confused but moved,
The way he appeared when he won
His Oscar, stammering like a schoolboy
Asking for a slow dance.
I read. They listen.
Dante sits next to Duke, clothes
Still suffused with faint sulfur.
The great poet glows as I speak,
As if he has finally found
Beatrice, touched the face of love.
I read. They listen.
In his mitre, Saint Isidore,
Patron of the Internet, floats
Between open bar and snack table,
iPhone in hand, blogs, tweets
About my poem to his heavenly
Followers: seraphs, cherubs, martyrs,
Some rebel demons, the Big Three.
Father. Son. Holy Ghost.
Princess Di shares couch, spumante
With Anne Boleyn. Wordsworth sniffs
A vase of daffodils. They all listen
To my perfect poem. Three pages long.
Lines fall like maple leaves
In October, grace, color, drift, plunge.
Image as pure as penguin down,
Full of snow, sun, glacier, ocean.
When I finish, the room rises
In ovation, air a riot of rose petals.
I keep my eyes on the pages,
Commit syllables to memory.
When I wake, I grab pen, journal,
Scribble ten minutes, transcribe perfection.
This morning, I read what I have written:
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Pages and pages and pages.


Sunday, March 20, 2022

March 20: Canyon of Clouds, Documentary, Somewhat Intelligent

Santiago falls asleep . . . 

The sky was clouding over to the east and one after another the stars he knew were gone. It looked now as though he were moving into a great canyon of clouds and the wind had dropped.

"There will be bad weather in three or four days," he said. "But not tonight and not tomorrow. Rig now to get some sleep, old man, while the fish is calm and steady."

He held the line tight in his right hand and then pushed his thigh against his right hand as he leaned all his weight against the wood of the bow. Then he passed the line a little lower on his shoulders and braced his left hand on it.

My right hand can hold it as long as it is braced, he thought. If it relaxes in sleep my left hand will wake me as the line goes out. It is hard on the right hand. But he is used to punishment. Even if I sleep twenty minutes or a half an hour it is good. He lay forward cramping himself against the line with all of his body, putting all his weight onto his right hand, and he was asleep.

Santiago needs to rest, but he knows that he may lose the fish if he allows himself to completely relax.  He has to remain vigilant, even when he closes his eyes.

I get Santiago in this passage.  When I get home after working and/or teaching, I rarely rest.  There is always something more to do.  Clean a church.  Grade papers.  Write a blog post.  Work on a poem.  Usually, I am completing a task right up to the point that I crawl into bed.  Even when I put my head on the pillow, my mind still takes several minutes to wind down.

At this point right now, I am pretty spent.  One of my best friends came over to my house today.  He's a poet/musician/filmmaker/artist.  Really talented.  He filmed a documentary about me last year.  Yes, you read that correctly.  A documentary about me.  Marty.  Would-be saint.  Bigfoot poet.  It's titled Bigfoot & Marty.  Watching this movie with my friend this afternoon, I haven't laughed so hard in years.  It really filled my soul with light.
I'm not saying it's a good film because of its subject matter.  I'm saying it's a good film because of how my friend assembled it into a cohesive piece of art.  It really captured the flavor of my poems and the whole Bigfoot subculture (which deserves a blog post unto itself).  Plus, I sound somewhat intelligent when I speak.

It was a good way to end a very busy weekend.  Laughter.  A good friend.  Poetry.  

Saint Marty feels a little rejuvenated right now.

And a Lenten poem for this evening . . . 

In Defense of Pluto

by:  Martin Achatz

At Solar System Elementary, Pluto got bullied
Off the playground by bigger planets,
Despite the policy of zero tolerance
Instated a few years ago when Moon
Showed up one morning, eclipsed
Sun with a fist of shadow so hard
She had to go to the nurse's office
For treatment of a bruised solar flare.
The kindergartners in Ms. Copernicus' class
Saw the whole Pluto incident, shook
In their little comet shoes as Neptune,
Uranus, Jupiter caught Pluto by the fence,
Smeared him with cosmic shit left behind
By Mr. Bigbang's schnauzer, Eris,
Chanted over and over "dwarf, dwarf, dwarf"
Until Pluto broke orbit, fled home
In a vacuum. Principal Galileo released
A statement: "Milky Way School District
Will not tolerate any form of bullying,
In outer space or cyberspace. All planets
Will be safe, dwarf, terrestrial, or gaseous,
Regardless of color, shape, orbital orientation."
Pluto remained at home, didn't return
To school. Neptune, Uranus, Jupiter
Were suspended pending further inquiry.
Rallies, parades, candlelight vigils were held
Across the universe, calling for tolerance,
Acceptance, peace among all celestial bodies.

Saturday, March 19, 2022

March 19: Head Cut Off, Expectations, Gin and Tonic

Santiago kicks himself for not thinking ahead . . . 

Under the stars and with the night colder all the time he ate half of one of the dolphin fillets and one of the flying fish, gutted and with its head cut off.

"What an excellent fish dolphin is to eat cooked," he said. "And what a miserable fish raw. I will never go in a boat again without salt or limes."

If I had brains I would have splashed water on the bow all day and drying, it would have made salt, he thought. But then I did not hook the dolphin until almost sunset. Still it was a lack of preparation. But I have chewed it all well and I am not nauseated.

Salt or limes.  Cooked or raw dolphin.  Santiago chastises himself for not being more prepared for his current situation.  Of course, he had no idea that he was going to hook the big fish.  Nor did he know that he would be out in his boat on the sea for days.

That's the way life works, though.  Every day is a matter of expectations.  Waking up in the morning, I always go through a mental inventory of the day's activities.  Then, I plan my wardrobe, meals, and time accordingly.  Usually, my plan works perfectly.  

But there are days when curve balls are lobbed at me, and I do what Santiago does in this passage--I make do with what I have.  No other choice.  And I try not to take it personally.  There's always the impulse to get angry with God or the universe.  It doesn't help anything.  Instead, it sort of drives the anger into your skin like a tattoo.  

Today, not everything went according to the grand design I created in my head when I woke up.  However, nothing catastrophic occurred, either.  I count that as a win.  In a little while, after I have imbibed in two very strong gin and tonics, I will sit down to record an episode of my podcast Lit for Christmas.  I'm not sure how it's going to go.  My cohost for the episode is brand new, although she's smart as a whip and funny as hell.

No curve balls tonight.  Drunk Saint Marty can't handle it.

And another Lenten poem . . . 

In Praise of Silence

by:  Martin Achatz

Praise the Lord for the silence of dusk
As it shifts the air from winter sun
To winter moon, the melt of snow
To something hard as onyx or bone.
Praise the ring of eardrum in quiet,
How it vibrates, hums with the memory
Of the day, news of tsunami in Japan,
The lives of thousands swept away
Like crumbs from Friday dinner
Of lentils, crackers, apple juice,
The tablecloth taken outside, shaken,
The way my grandmother taught me,
For lost souls who roam the night,
Tap on black window glass, hungry
For light, warmth, or prayer.
Praise the tide of heart in my chest,
Calm waves of blood, in, out, in, out,
Reminding me this night that I am safe. Alive.
That my tongue doesn’t taste ocean mud.

Friday, March 18, 2022

March 18: Get Some Rest, Quiet Paragraphs, Playing Games

Santiago eats . . . 

Back in the bow he laid the two fillets of fish out on the wood with the flying fish beside them. After that he settled the line across his shoulders in a new place and held it again with his left hand resting on the gunwale. Then he leaned over the side and washed the flying fish in the water, noting the speed of the water against his hand. His hand was phosphorescent from skinning the fish and he watched the flow of the water against it. The flow was less strong and as he rubbed the side of his hand against the planking of the skiff, particles of phosphorus floated off and drifted slowly astern.

"He is tiring or he is resting," the old man said. "Now let me get through the eating of this dolphin and get some rest and a little sleep."

A quiet couple of paragraphs, filled with rest and light.  

Spent some time with my my whole family (son, daughter, daughter's boyfriend, wife) this evening, playing games and laughing together.  Nothing monumental happened or was said.  We didn't solve any earth-breaking issues.  Climate is still changing.  The pandemic is still pandemic-ing.  Putin is still Hitler-ing.  And Ukraine is still suffering.

It was good just to be together, something I take for granted all the time.  I felt blessed for those few hours of togetherness.

Saint Marty wishes all the people of the world would just sit down and play board games together.  Putin can play Risk.

And another Lenten poem . . .

Make Me a Poet

by:  Martin Achatz

Dear Lord, make me a poet like cummings,
Except with capitalization and punctuation.
Make me hungry, wild as Uncle Walt,
Less the fingers of grass in delicate places,
Prolific as Emily, know Death's home phone,
Minus the agoraphobia, moth-white dresses.
Lord, I want to be Dr. Williams
With his wheelbarrow, rain, chickens,
But I don't want to go to medical school.
I'll observe the mating habits of blackbirds
With Mr. Stevens, but I won't sell car or life insurance.
I want to walk like Bob down a yellow road
That forks, get lost on a snowy evening, but can't
Pretend to farm, raise poultry, or pick apples.
I want to rage against dimming light like Dylan,
Without having to drink anybody under the table,
Dive, as Adrienne did, into the shipwreck,
Without the Jewish angst, the struggle of being
Woman, wife, mother, political activist, lesbian.
Let me sing like Sylvia against Nazi daddies
And not have to stick my head in an oven.
Allow me to garden words like Stanley,
Live a century, but also win the Nobel Prize.
Lord, I will leap in the streets, dance like a fool,
Strip naked, grab a tambourine, shake
My hairy goods at all onlookers if only
You will let me raise my voice, weave
My poems like David, the lucky bastard.
Of course, I don't want to cheat on my wife
Or kill a friend. I won't go that far.
Other than that, anything for You, Lord.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

March 17: Trail of Phosphorescence, Saint Patrick's Day, Stories and Poems

Santiago prepares a meal . . . 

Back in the stern he turned so that his left hand held the strain of the line across his shoulders and drew his knife from its sheath with his right hand. The stars were bright now and he saw the dolphin clearly and he pushed the blade of his knife into his head and drew him out from under the stern. He put one of his feet on the fish and slit him quickly from the vent up to the tip of his lower jaw. Then he put his knife down and gutted him with his right hand, scooping him clean and pulling the gills clear. He felt the maw heavy and slippery in his hands and he slit it open. There were two flying fish inside. They were fresh and hard and he laid them side by side and dropped the guts and the gills over the stern. They sank leaving a trail of phosphorescence in the water. The dolphin was cold and a leprous gray-white now in the starlight and the old man skinned one side of him while he held his right foot on the fish's head. Then he turned him over and skinned the other side and cut each side off from the head down to the tail.

He slid the carcass overboard and looked to see if there was any swirl in the water. But there was only the light of its slow descent. He turned then and placed the two flying fish inside the two fillets of fish and putting his knife back in its sheath, he worked his way slowly back to the bow. His back was bent with the weight of the line across it and he carried the fish in his right hand.

If I didn't already like seafood, this description would probably make me never want to visit another Red Lobster for the rest of my life.  Of course, for Santiago, eating the dolphin is a matter of life and death at this point.  He has nothing else to fill his hungry belly.  

Today was Saint Patrick's Day, and the only thing I did to celebrate was wear a green shirt.  I didn't drink any green beer, eat corned beef and cabbage, or go hunting for leprechauns.  What I did do to fill my hungry heart was attend a Saint Patrick's Day virtual open mic.  

It was a lovely evening of sharing.  The host is a good friend of mine, and she spoke of her travels to Ireland and her love of Seamus Heaney.  Everyone else shared stories and poems, not necessarily about Ireland.  But I always think of a night of stories and poems between friends as a particularly Irish kind of gathering.  

So, stories and poetry.  A lovely way to honor Saint Patrick on his feast day.

On his feast day, Saint Marty usually just has a bowl of warm tapioca.

And a Lenten poem for tonight . . . 

Praise Hymn for Dog Crap

by:  Martin Achatz

Praise the smell of dog crap in March,
Fecund as tulip bulbs waiting to sprout,
Patches of mud, pools of snow melt,
The ancient shift toward vernal equinox,
Primal as Louis Leakey's Kenyan digs,
Skulls, bones of Adam's sons and daughters,
Driven out of the place of eternal produce,
Carrot and cuke and scallion and broccoli,
Blueberry, watermelon, banana, kiwi,
But not apple, not that serpent fruit
That sentenced the human race to evolution,
To the hunch of spine to fire, to a spit
Of brontosaur, blackened with smoke and fat,
Chewed with ape teeth to a pulp of protein,
Digested, absorbed, converted to muscle,
Skeleton, tendon, blood, a form suited
To ice age and mammoth hunt, stone
Spear versus saber tooth, the struggle
With bronze, iron, pyramid, pharaoh,
The split of Red Sea, a forty-year Bataan
March in the wilderness, then a land
Of milk and honey, a land of promise,
Filled with the reach of crocus
Through frost, through mud, through snow,
Through dog crap, toward the blessed sun.


Wednesday, March 16, 2022

March 16: Remember to Sleep, Pizza and Beer, "Praise for the Nun of Amherst"

Santiago must eat and sleep . . .

But remember to sleep, he thought. Make yourself do it and devise some simple and sure way about the lines. Now go back and prepare the dolphin. It is too dangerous to rig the oars as a drag if you must sleep.

I could go without sleeping, he told himself. But it would be too dangerous.

He started to work his way back to the stern on his hands and knees, being careful not to jerk against the fish. He may be half asleep himself, he thought. But I do not want him to rest. He must pull until he dies.

Santiago is trying to keep maintain his strength and his sanity.  Because he knows that he is about to face a pretty difficult battle.  I love that he has to remind himself to sleep, because I often have to do the same thing with myself.  I work until I drop, usually.

But this week, I haven't been that busy in the evenings.  Not many library events.  No real obligations to worry about.  Tonight, my family and I met some friends for pizza and beer.  Usually on these Wednesday evenings, I have to set an alarm to remind myself that I have a program to host or another meeting to attend.  Didn't have to do that today.  Instead, we sat at our table and talked and laughed and drank.

And I give thanks for that.  It made me feel like I was almost in charge of my life.  It also demonstrated that I need to schedule some downtime for myself at least once a week.  When I left the pub, I felt renewed, a little drunk, and gloriously relaxed.

Saint Marty's new prescription for good mental health:  take one pizza, two beers, and two friends one time per week.  Unlimited refills (of the prescription, not the beers.)

And another Lenten poem for tonight . . . 

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.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

March 15: Unclear in the Head, State of Mind, Lenten Poems

Santiago needs to sleep . . . 

How simple it would be if I could make the line fast, he thought. But with one small lurch he could break it. I must cushion the pull of the line with my body and at all times be ready to give line with both hands.

"But you have not slept yet, old man," he said aloud. "It is half a day and a night and now another day and you have not slept. You must devise a way so that you sleep a little if he is quiet and steady. If you do not sleep you might become unclear in the head."

I'm clear enough in the head, he thought. Too clear. I am as clear as the stars that are my brothers. Still I must sleep. They sleep and the moon and the sun sleep and even the ocean sleeps sometimes on certain days when there is no current and a flat calm.

Unclear in the head.  That pretty much describes my current state of mind.

I don't have much to give today.  As I said in yesterday's post, I am approaching total shutdown in terms of energy.  And I still haven't got my lesson plan done for teaching tomorrow.

So, for the next couple days, I'm going to cheat a little.  Many years ago, I decided that I was going to write a poem a day for Lent.  From Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, that is exactly what I did.  Before I allowed my head to hit the pillow, I forced myself to write a new poem.  It didn't matter whether it was good or bad.  It simply had to be done.

Tonight, I'm going to start posting some of those old Lenten poems, since it is the middle of Lent, and I am frayed at both ends.  Once I get some sleep this weekend (hopefully), I will start writing more thoughtful blog posts again.

Until that time, Saint Marty is going green--he's recycling old poems, with no guarantees as to their quality.

Ecstatic Stigmatic

by:  Martin Achatz

A Cajun friend told me I’m bleeding
Poetry, that my hands, feet, side, head
Have opened, like Francis of Assisi
After his chat with the burning angel,
Lilacs, roses spilling from my ragged
Skin. Put your hand in my ribs, pull
Out a sonnet or elegy, slick, pink,
Like a newborn as it flushes with breath
For the first time. Dig your fingers
Into my palms, feel the moon rise
In my veins, the tongue of a lover
Brush the dermal ridges of your
Fingertips. On the gauze of bandage
I wrap around my feet, I find
Words, lines of verse in frank, red
Blood that say things like, “ I press
My lips to your mango neck, taste Eden”
And “Rise with me at night, climb
The slope of my body to heaven.”
In the mirror, I examine the mystic
Cut of thorn in my forehead, see
Within my wounds the girl I wanted
In high school, her dark hair,
Curve of back, rosary of body I would
Have kissed over and over with prayer,
See Teresa of Avila in ecstasy,
Her seraph as he pierced her
Heart again and again with his spear
Of gold, made her writhe, moan
In sweet pain until she opened
Her lips, sucked in a breath,
Cried out her love poem for God.

March 14: Punishment of Hunger, Power Down, Pigeons and Diamonds

Santiago rests . . . 

Now, he thought, I must think about the drag. It has its perils and its merits. I may lose so much line that I will lose him, if he makes his effort and the drag made by the oars is in place and the boat loses all her lightness. Her lightness prolongs both our suffering but it is my safety since he has great speed that he has never yet employed. No matter what passes I must gut the dolphin so he does not spoil and eat some of him to be strong.

Now I will rest an hour more and feel that he is solid and steady before I move back to the stern to do the work and make the decision. In the meantime I can see how he acts and if he shows any changes. The oars are a good trick; but it has reached the time to play for safety. He is much fish still and I saw that the hook was in the corner of his mouth and he has kept his mouth tight shut. The punishment of the hook is nothing. The punishment of hunger, and that he is against something that he does not comprehend, is everything. Rest now, old man, and let him work until your next duty comes.

He rested for what he believed to be two hours. The moon did not rise now until late and he had no way of judging the time. Nor was he really resting except comparatively. He was still bearing the pull of the fish across his shoulders but he placed his left hand on the gunwale of the bow and confided more and more of the resistance to the fish to the skiff itself.

Rest is important, no matter what the circumstance is.  

I used to be able to go for days on three or four hours of sleep a night.  Sometimes less.  I have always been a night owl.  Watching TV or reading until one or two in the morning.  Getting up at 5 a.m. to write and then go to work/teach.  Returning home, grading or writing some more.  Maybe leading a poetry workshop.  Staying up until one or two in the morning again,  Stumbling off to bed.  Rising and repeating.

Living like that is not sustainable, unless you want to end up having a stroke.  After maintaining that schedule for a couple weeks, my body pretty much lets me know that I need to power down and let my battery recharge.  It's not even a choice.  I literally can't do anything except sleep.

I am reaching that point right now.  By the end of this week, I will be needing to go into low power mode for a while.  Tonight, I hosted an event at the library.  One of my great writer friends just had his newest book come out in paperback.  So, he read for a few minutes from his book, and then we sat on a stage and had an hourlong conversation about pigeons and diamonds and writing and food and swearing.  

Going into the event, I felt brain dead.  However, as often happens, my reserve power supply kicked in, and I had a great time.  I was on pointe for two hours.  And then I went home and crashed on the couch.  Literally did not move for around three hours.

Thus, I am typing the post around 1 a.m. on March 15.  I feel revitalized a little, but I know I'm going to regret staying up to blog when I rise at 5:30 a.m. to drive my wife to work.

Saint Marty needs a vacation.  Or a distant unknown relative to die and leave me about 30 million in unmarked bills.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

March 13: Try to Kill the Stars, Saint Francis, Brothers and Sisters

Santiago imagines killing the moon and stars . . . 

"The fish is my friend too," he said aloud. "I have never seen or heard of such a fish. But I must kill him. I am glad we do not have to try to kill the stars."

Imagine if each day a man must try to kill the moon, he thought. The moon runs away. But imagine if a man each day should have to try to kill the sun? We were born lucky, he thought.

Then he was sorry for the great fish that had nothing to eat and his determination to kill him never relaxed in his sorrow for him. How many people will he feed, he thought. But are they worthy to eat him? No, of course not. There is no one worthy of eating him from the manner of his behaviour and his great dignity.

I do not understand these things, he thought. But it is good that we do not have to try to kill the sun or the moon or the stars. It is enough to live on the sea and kill our true brothers.

I love that Santiago recognizes his place in the universe.  He calls the fish he catches "true brothers."  Saint Francis did the same thing, calling animals brothers and sisters.  Brother Fly.  Sister Dove.  Brother wolf.  It's a healthy way to exist on this planet, acknowledging the interconnection of all living things.  It negates the human impulse to own and exploit, which has been the root of some of the worst atrocities committed by us naked, hairless bipeds.

Of course, Santiago also recognizes some things that are simply out-of-reach for humans.  The moon and sun.  Hemmingway wrote about Santiago many years before Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon.  In fact, Santiago had his little adventure with his brother fish about five years before the Russians launched Sputnik.

Today, I performed in two episodes of a radio variety show.  I helped write the scripts, as well.  I really love working with this group of musicians, actors, and actresses.  They have become like brothers and sisters to me.  We all have neuroses and quirks.  When we get together, it's like celebrating Christmas with all of your strange relatives that you love.

Is there competition between us?  Just to see who can make the audience or each other laugh the loudest.  That's what we hunt.  Laughter.  Is there stress during the weekend?  Absolutely.  Pulling together a show in the space of a couple days is the definition of stress.  Because you are creating something out of nothing.  In a sense, we are hunting moons and suns.

My favorite thing I did this weekend was a Saint Patrick's Day skit that I wrote and acted in.  It was fun and funny.  I shot for the stars, and I think, to use an acting term, it killed.  In a good way.  Everyone had a good time--musicians, actors, and audience.  All brothers and sisters in comedy.

Marty--the patron saint of the one-liners.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

March 12: All His Distant Friends, Joy Harjo, Cheerios in my Life

Santiago settles in under the stars . . .

"How do you feel, fish?" he asked aloud. "I feel good and my left hand is better and I have food for a night and a day. Pull the boat, fish."

He did not truly feel good because the pain from the cord across his back had almost passed pain and gone into a dullness that he mistrusted. But I have had worse things than that, he thought. My hand is only cut a little and the cramp is gone from the other. My legs are all right. Also now I have gained on him in the question of sustenance.

It was dark now as it becomes dark quickly after the sun sets in September. He lay against the worn wood of the bow and rested all that he could. The first stars were out. He did not know the name of Rigel but he saw it and knew soon they would all be out and he would have all his distant friends.

My favorite part of this passage--"he would have all his distant friends."

I've been an astronomy enthusiast my whole life--from the time I was about eight or nine and got a telescope for Christmas.  I spent many a night gazing at all my distant friends when I was a kid.  I remember the first time I looked at the moon's craters through my telescope and realized there were mountains and valleys out there in space.  It was a humbling revelation, making me realize how really tiny I was in comparison to everything in the universe.

This evening, I am in Calumet, Michigan, with my wife and son.  I'm here to write and perform in a radio variety show.  These weekends are always kind of a whirlwind of travelling, writing, rehearsing, and acting.  I get to meet and work with a lot of gifted and talented musicians and performers, many of whom I call friends.  

I sometimes wonder how I ended up living a life that has allowed me to do some of the things that I've done.  I've spoken with and interviewed three-time United States Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, the first Native American ever to hold that position.  I've spoken with and interviewed two-time United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey.  I still have both of their private cell phone numbers as contacts in my cell phone,  I sat in a room with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Sharon Olds for a whole week as she talked poetry, read poetry, and critiqued my poetry.  

I've published a collection of poems.  Released two spoken-word CDs of my poetry.  I was selected to serve as Upper Peninsula Poet Laureate.  Two times.  Consecutively.  I've directed plays and musicals.  Starred in plays and musicals.  I saw Lily Tomlin perform Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe on Broadway.  I met Alec Baldwin.  Saw Elie Wiesel speak in-person about the horrors of the Holocaust.  I touched Vincent Price.  

I have two beautiful, smart kids.  The cutest puppy in the world.  A couple jobs I love.

I don't go around bragging about all the things I've done.  All the brilliant people I've met.  Self promotion is not my thing.  I find people who feel the need to make themselves the brightest stars in the sky a little . . . boring.  They want to be moons and comets and Joy Harjos.  And they're really just bowls of Cheerios.  Bland and milky.

And Saint Marty has to pour a lot of sugar on the Cheerios in his life to make them interesting enough to eat.