The Function of Writing (part 1)

Sometimes not sure where to go I find myself inside a little room that’s filled with comic books and afterglow and flowers of the noncommittal kind. Vines with petals everywhere boast brightly colored stamens and a spectrum of phylogeny that promises a boundless, wallless world. How true this is is always under scrutiny by some imparted ill-reputed source, but nonetheless there’s always room for questioning the coins in air that might provide the groundwork for a newer kind of mind. The room, the room, invented by a need to catalyze a way of life that makes more sense, that feels like life as it was meant to be, is just a room insofar as it lights itself on fire and becomes a city burning down, a city full of vines. What kind of flames grow vines? What kind of cities fly? What kind of room constructs a city meant for evolutionary thrive? What kind of stamens dive? What kind of garden has no rot, what kind of shoe undoes its knot, what kind of room becomes a kind of sky?

~ ~ ~

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Bobbi Morrison

October 15, 1925 – July 15, 2017

My dear Aunt Bobbi passed away peacefully this month at the age of 91. She was one of the most creative people that I’ve ever known, having devoted her life to making music and visual art, and generally to living her life as an art project. Bobbi was a jazz drummer who played out across the U.S. for over 60 years, including a stint as a touring drummer with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-women mostly black swing band, in the late 1940’s. She went by Bobbi Loranger at first, then Bobbi Stader (by her first husband), and finally Bobbi Morrison (by her second), so she was known by several names, but there were all very much her. She finally gave up drums at the age of 75, when arthritis made them too difficult to carry around and to play properly, though she continued to have jazz salons at her homes in Northern California, which brought musicians from around the country, for some years after, and was known to sit in on a tune, or pic up the mic, into her 80’s. After that she took primarily to visual art, which she’d dabbled in throughout her life – she’d even owned a stained glass shop with my cousin Bob outside of Philadelphia for several years in the late 1970’s and onward. She especially enjoyed painting, and I have a gorgeous abstract acrylic piece hanging by my bed that makes me smile every morning. You can see a poem about that painting, and about her, in Fresh Words this month.

When I was just figuring out as a teen that I was biologically required to write, Bobbi was one of the main older folks who let me know that was okay, and important, and she encouraged and nurtured my creativity over the years, as she did with many others. I’ll be forever grateful for that. She was also a terrific mom, as any of her four kids would attest, and they, my cousins Amina, Deni, PG, and Daun, all miss her greatly. And so do I.

Keep that rhythm going, Bobbi. We’re still listening.

Bobbi Morrison on drums - circa

~ ~ ~

Writing your way into a new life constructs a vessel on which you can ride through any element. We live in a world without paths, the man-made roads mere brutish slabs, but we can sniff and sense our way from one field to another, through sumptuous greenthick forests, to the edge of a bluff with magnificent sight. We sense and step through pathless ways with certainty. We divine. Writing your way into a new world sets out tendrils to a new way of seeing. Nerve stalks reach and find, tasting curves of light and thought or blocked by expectation. Be guided by taste, by that which surges, piques, calms, by that which makes each glance electric. Reach and be carried through an orchestra of sense, each sense building on the last. Allow yourself. Writing your way into a new body brings you closer to your body as it is. Skin is apparent but the end of the body is not, gushing forward into energy. There we feed and dance, there we make ourselves in the world. But there we also risk, meet menace, hazard, which is why we write a vessel that can ride those elements, that can taste our way around them, that can stand and breathe. And in that way we write our lives, our world, our bodies with every breath.

~ ~ ~

UPCOMING EVENTS  ::  Somehow after avoiding public appearances for much of this year, I’ve ended up with six (6) (cyx) engagements in the coming month. This I cannot explain, but I can index and adjure.  ::  Wednesday, August 2 – Reading at Pandemonium Press Presents’ annual Hiroshima / Nagasaki Remembrance, with Rafael Jesús González, Rose Black, and Sandra Wassilie. Will likely read a chunk of the big mobius poem, which seems most fitting, right then and there at The Octopus Literary Salon. Let us not forget.  ::  Friday, August 4 – I help kick off the new book of selected poems by Jack Micheline, just out from Zeitgeist Press, and the Beat Museum in SF. Fellow off-kickers include William Taylor Jr. (who edited the work), Jack Hirshman, A.D. Winans, Matt Gonzalez, Julia Vinograd, Cassandra Dallet, and Bruce Isaacson (of Zeitgeist). Humbled to be starting fires with such a crew.  :: Thursday, August 10 – Hosting Babar in Exile #9 with Paul Corman-Roberts at The Octopus Literary Salon in Uptown Oakland. Featured for this melee are Tom Stolmar, Sparrow 13, and “Honorary Babarian” Vanessa Lewis. We’re talking some calamitous sanity here.  ::  Sunday, August 13 – Doing a talk about my text are and performance and the relationship between language in various media. It’s called Shifting Media, and will held at the Nomadic Press Uptown space in Oakland, accompanied by a brief exhibition of physical art and video. Do consider coming by to see a side of my work you might not be familiar with.  ::  Saturday, August 19 – Reading with about a dozen folks in a wild spree at the East Bay Media Center in Berkeley. This is a Steve Arntson affair, so you know it’ll be, uh, lively.  ::  And FINALLY, Saturday, September 2 – Reading at Oakland’s one and only Beast Crawl, a three-legged mutation of fine literature, under the auspice of Skinless: New and Raw Writing at the Uptown Nightclub. Gonna raw things up for you just this once with Keith Mark Gaboury, Daryl Llamas, Indiana Pehlivanova, Matthew Sherling, and SB Stokes. You can rock the boat all you like, but do not rock the Stokes.  ::  Deets re: all this way too much shit at once on the Events page. Catch me while you can, as I don’t expect much more reading to occur this year.  ::  XO to all.

~ ~ ~

The workmen down the street are sawing apart the sidewalk again, and I think of planets crashing together. Who can doubt our universe is one raindrop in a hurricane, and how many people even think about it? And what’s the big deal about our being so infinitesimal? Does it really matter? There’s still a nice breeze, and the workmen will stop eventually, and many things are infinitesimal to us, and they’re doing fine. Relax, I say, and enjoy your relativity, go for a walk, check out the trees, find something that smells good, and when someone derides you for being something that you’re not, or for not being what they want you to be, remember just how infinitesimal they are.

~ ~ ~

REVIEW  ::  To and From on the Day-for-Night Coast by Stephen Francis Cosgrove  (Regent Press, 2017)

I’m alive with perspective
          and race the engine a little     prior to going

Stephen Francis Cosgrove is a complicated cat. For instance, he is also Steve Arntson, long-time San Francisco Bay Area poet, Steve Chaparro, classical pianist (Stephen Cosgrove is as well), and dozens of other appellations which come and go too swiftly to keep track of. At a recent open mic that I hosted, he signed up as April on the Moon. (It was May.) He’s also a night watchman, a movie buff, a mountain climber, a burner, and a roadtrip maniac.

The paths besides are toll-free   non plus ultra
You are welcome
          every which way on the bluff
Like thought     and near-thought
All the gifts of the ironic fog that rises
         suddenly authoritative
               like an Office of Nuance    now hiring

A footloose man in his 70’s, he lives his life with a true Beat sensibility. Yet in over twenty years of writing poetry, he’s published no more than a handful of pieces in anthologies. He rarely uses a computer, and he never types anything up, keeping all of his poetry scribbled in tiny notebooks. Like everything else in his life, for him it’s more about the writing than the getting read, more about the doing than the showing.

Beyond the signage settle down
Dare to prolong the sidetrip
                                    in spite of a schedule
For the idea was always to pretend
Pretend one is eternal enough
         to know the whole coast
                   in such a way
                   individual histories
                   all its inhabitants are learned
The exact number of deer   of squirrels

Then this: his first book, To and From on the Day-for-Night Coast, just published by Regent Press of Berkeley, comprises a single 144-page handwritten poem – no shit, he has painstakingly inscribed this himself in the equivalent of a 14-point font to buck convention and to show us how the poem looks and feels to him. Lest that put you off, it is readable, and more than that it is replete with stunning passages that carry you away.

It was an avalanche of darkness
And where you stop to take its switchbacks
          was unknown staging
Those upper woods disappeared
                        and only the creek comprehensible
                        twisting   like the highway
                               to one more exit
                               that will be all-of-a-sudden

Like everything in the night

When I read a book for review, I often use little post-it flags to mark lines and areas that I might want to quote. In this case, I almost ran out of flags marking 69 passages that struck me, and that on just a first readthrough. It’s a complex, many-themed piece that flows with the ease of a river. Or a roadtrip.

Waiting for rain with Rachmaninoff
The oncoming headlights are lamps that pass you by
        and in such a symbolic manner
        you think you are missing something
                                                with every encounter
Double comets in retreat from an absent sun

Which might be because, in fact, it is a roadtrip. Or was one. Or a record of one. Or both. To and From on the Day-for-Night Coast is an epic roadtrip poem, documenting in some detail a drive that Steve took over the course of a single weekend in the fall of 2013 up the California, Oregon, and Washington State coasts, just to have lunch with Harry. We don’t learn who Harry is till halfway through, so I won’t spoiler that, at least beyond saying that they do have lunch, whereupon Steve turns around and drives back down. That’s right – he drives from SF to Seattle for lunch. This is that poem.

The engine likes this stretch
And has settled into a different “hum” than so far
Rather a mechanical contentment
         wishing to include the driver, too
         albeit indirectly
As the Moon almost secretly illumines the hills
                                                                 to the right of 101

And it’s so much more. Arntson/Cosgrove has created a tapestry of the road and what (and how) one thinks while driving. It’s a beautiful record of that, and more specifically of the West Coast of United States in the 2010’s, and the perspective of one American man in his 60’s who somehow, through his own concerns and age, opens that perspective like an Everyman.

Warrenton    Fred Meyer
The guy’s everywhere
                           like John Jacob Astor

Ross is here
You “dress for less” but never leave home
Such are the chains you stay in one place
                                    and do not travel anywhere at all

Rite Aid     anyone sure of that?     that it’s right?

What are all these chains doing
                                       in the land of Lewis and Clark?

He takes us, takes us, takes us with him. It’s a tapestry of many threads: old movies, classical and pop music, the sheer geography stretching back eons, the many towns (with which he’s familiar), the history of place, his own history, all woven and weaving till they become a single entity.

H Street     a long one     Harrington
Long as the G Note Road of Paderewski
         minueting every mystery of youth
                 a presentation    which steps to begin
                 but it’s a riddle
If you were thinking of solving it     be dissuaded

So as you read, many things are happening at once, all of which are, in some way or another, a great examining, reflective, inflective, all of history congealing in the moment. Did I mention Beat?

And where the second Rock-That-Broke is
There will also be a violinist     Sarah Chang
        her instrument cocooned against corrosion
        for the Sky God and Sea God do conspire
And her Strauss is rehearsed so magnificently!
Serenading the wind
        and ensuring I’ll go there to be with her
                                                  there at the second Rock!

The descriptions are gorgeous and enigmatic, the histories fascinating, while the blending of inner and outer worlds rings true, radiating a love for the towns, a love for the road, a love for the land, the rock, the sea that lifts and sustains, that carries us along and makes life feel worth living.

Nothing will change
And the sea’s bright testimony
         tells a story of its choosing
                         with brilliant annotation
Pillar like a great insight
               amidst the black ink splatter
          of ruined seastacks

A midnight sun in the temperate zone
Its crystals smashed yet still aglitter
       more so, even    for having shattered!

Through all this the poem, the language, the thought maintains a remarkably steady pace, yes, much like a roadtrip.

The placid sign like a dream’s guideline
“This way go”
         to be among evening boulders
                    handled heavily one-at-a-time
                                                                 close to the roar

That Moon walking day-for-night visibility
I’ll be honest:     the Light and the Dark have joined
         and it is a third condition

Like a very thin past
         that is neither Then or Now
                 but the essence of In-Between
                         which denies the Future its tense entirely

Is it ignorance or truth
                 the middle of the night is safest terrain?

We feel a consistent sense of time whether we’re speeding along or pausing to look at details (the dominion of cats at a motel, the atmosphere of a specific tavern, rock formations along the coast, a remembered beach), lingering, longing, taking off.

These coastal towns like ghostly overlays
A haunting
        where     what is most recently constructed
                is the most phantom for the two-by-fours

Get ready for more singing

* * * * *

Spell it any way you want
We just want to hear you say it     that’s all
          and all of us will note
          how the proper name
                  restores faith in language
                                     to say a thing with sound alone

A way of life discredited
There is all the more yearning
          in the letters
          each proposing sadness should enter the alphabet
The word thus made

* * * * *

There’s a moon right now
Demonstrably benign
An eastern moon preparing a seascape
        one that will summon pearls to the beach
                  and somehow infer their beauty
                                                       from shades of gray

Yet the threads keep weaving, looming what is very much tapestry, montage, melange, culminating (tiny spoiler here) in the revisiting of Steve’s childhood stomping grounds, for the first time in decades, in a way that so many (at least those of us over 40) will find deeply, hauntingly familiar.

Meadow Avenue     Garden     Meadow
How bucolic!
         but there’d once been a foundry     pounding
Made quite a racket in Renton
Not much of a garden then     or meadow

Still     the shrubberies stood     and the maples
It was a noisy kind of Eden
No sex as yet
       only dogs and cats
                and ducks in the glades

Why do childhood homes seem small?
When the future comes they’re scaled back

This seems to energize the weave, so as he heads back down the coast, heading past places we’ve seen vividly earlier now in the dark, the threads, the themes, the images, the histories, the introspections come together in what felt to me to be a thrilling final ten pages, making all the journey worthwhile.

This afternoon you are remembering, aren’t you?
Childhood    just     earlier-in-the-day
                                and plenty of time to get it right

Believe and belong on the day-for-night coast
And especially here
        marveling that no other headland will do
        for bringing the heartland
                                             to the continent’s edge

* * * * *

The color black is tutoring
Does not distinguish a hill from a dale
Wants mystery to matter most
                why I signed on in the first place

* * * * *

No one will stop you from returning
No one has the time
Even if it seems like a good idea
        no one

~ ~ ~

Your body is made entirely of words. Your face of etymologies. Your eyes of allusions. Your hair of syllables. Your lips of entendres. Your teeth of phonemes. Your throat of adverbs. Your spine of syntax. Your chest of metaphors. Your heart of clauses. Your gut of hyperbole. Your sex of conjunctions. Your ass of paradox. Your hips of euphony. Your thighs of rhythm. Your shins of diction. Your feet of rhetoric. And all these words ring out, resound their language through the world in great fleshly ripples.