Monday, November 18, 2013

Day 16: Stilled Life, Napa River

Stilled Life, Napa River

Dried thistle erupt skyward
from the earth’s scalp,
tangled in what is still rooted.

Behind, is the river of the mind,
still salt tainted.  Boats of all sorts
moored but at midday nothing afloat.

Birds of all sorts pick through
the remnants, graphing lines
above the dull-eyed river. 

And under the river is the history
of the river: a current that pushes
forward, away from the known.

Some days, I think I’ve discovered
it’s source.  The quiet whisper
beneath ground that worries up.

But most I am just a little weight
marking a path slowly, the cursive
of bare earth as it is revealed over time.


Friday, November 15, 2013

Day 14 and 15: Sweatshops and Sweet Rivers

The last two days I haven't had a chance to post my poems.  So, I'll just combine my post to contain both.  The first poem was written from a prompt about how losing fingers was ordinary.  Since I'm teaching The Valley of the Moon to my classes right now, I'm immersed in trying to convey the world of the early twentieth century sweatshops.  This draft explores that idea:

Sweatshop, Oakland, 1911

That the loss of a few fingers was normal
wear and tear. That the eyes got used to
the lack of light.  That the skin paled,
became papery.  That the sun ripped
open the day. That the soot never washed
out from under fingernails. That the back
never straightened again.  That the fingers shook.
That the days lengthened after the earthquake. 
Stitched closer and closer together by nervous
bosses. That the cracks were never filled.  Grew wider. 
That the sun strained to enter the greasy windows
until night broke it. That the irons singed.
That the beams ached every time a train
 passed. That the girls looked up nervously to see
what others had done.  That girls fainted regularly.
That young girls of seven or eight were fastest.
That they secretly sang to each other under their breath.

The second poem was written from my experience of visiting Tolay Lake on a field trip with my son Max and his third grade class and beginning to read Charmian London's biography about Jack London called The Book of Jack London (Books 1 and 2).  Tolay Lake is no longer a lake, but it is a spectacular place where, if you hike into the hills, you can see all of the surrounding mountains (including Sonoma Mountain where Jack London lived). 

Sweet River of Feathers

From above Tolay lake you can see
the red marsh and Tule spread like
so many red feathers.  Then beyond,
the cool, shimmering wandering
of the river.   No lake.  Just a lake remembered.
A place where once so many came
to leave behind something.  To look out
and see the ring of mountains
that surround us.  Where can a lake
only made of feathers carry us
anywhere, but gently. 

This morning, I read Charmian’s account
of her first meeting with Jack. How
it wasn’t love at first sight.  His bowlegged walk,
his shabby clothes and wavy, unkempt hair.
But also grey eyes, lips that always seemed
poised to smile and a kinetic curiosity
that seemed to illuminate his whole face
as he spoke.  It would be years before
they would meet again.  And the place they met
would be gone, the Old San Francisco,
lost in the earthquake and fires.  But,
always she would look out from this place
as to where her life began again
as to where all the mountains ahead could be found.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Day 13: Visiting Jack London State Park

Today, we had to write about being more powerful than we imagined.  I immediately thought about Jack London State Park where I first confirmed the fact that I am a writer and where I have continually returned throughout my life.  Here is my draft:

Visiting Jack London State Park, Glen Ellen
Perhaps, what we can gather here is slow coming.
First, the sixth grade school field trip, yellow bus,
walking to Wolf House in giggling groups
until we found the ruins and quiet
settled in, hanging in the redwood boughs
like a low fog.  Then, the need to return.
continually.  Museum artifacts that
pile up in the mind: photograph of
Jack staring into camera, half-naked,
the notes pinned on clotheslines above his bed
the wheel of his homemade alarm clock and ,
Charmian’s tiny, fashionable clothes.
So many visits that the stories bleed
into one another.  Here, where I am
more powerful than I ever imagined.
Even days when bones push through skin, revealing
the fragility of what lies beneath.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Day 12: So This is How Jack London Died

This is How Jack London Died

The day was overcast, like this one. 
It was November after all and the sky 
held its breath like defiant child. Mist 
clinging to Sonoma Mountain like a thin veil. 
The starlings circled the stone barns 
in dizzying shapes. The eucalyptus grove moaned 
in a light wind. A few branches clattering 
to the ground. The ground was moist and fragrant. 
The night before Charmian had looked through 
the window from her sleeping porch to his
and saw him sleeping peacefully (the first time in weeks). 
She chose not to disturb him and lay down 
in her own bed--just a wall of glass, a bit of air away 
and slept (the first time in weeks). When she awoke
she was in another world. She startled awake
into the heaviness of a day she'd never resolve. 
He was already gone in spirit. His kidneys had shut down. 
His body lay slumped on the floor. They tried-- 
lifted him, fed him coffee, walked him like a giant stuffed doll.
The parade of doctors ferried in, directing remedies. Until,
his breath caught in his throat and stopped. 
And since it was November a light rain fell, 
disrupting the path of birds, strengthening 
the earth's fragrant scent.

Day 11: Hew Paints Goats

Today was a tough prompt that resulted in a letter poem.  I've always been fascinated with the fact that Jack London's ranch was on Sonoma Mountain.  Sonoma Mountain is one of the tallest mountains in our region.  From it's peak you can see all the way to San Francisco and beyond.  Sonoma Mountain also figures as part of the Coast Miwok creation story.  I always wonder what Jack London knew about Coast Miwok folk lore.  Here is my draft:

Dear Jack London -

Each building on your estate is hewn of stones gathered from our local quarries.  And so many quarries still advertise that Jack London quarried stones from here! But, stones are complicated around here.  Limestone flakes into the soil, metals what we grow.  Then, deeper, you find sinks in.  Take, for instance, Annadel State Park, to the west in Santa Rosa, which was once a quarry where Coast Miwok and Pomo Indians were interned.  The thick stones they dug out, and carried, to stack into neat rock walls (some of which still stand) fenced them in.  You must have heard about those quarries.  You, who lived on the very flank of Sonoma Mountain, or Oona-pa’is in Coast Miwok must have known about their creation story. How Coyote-man perched on top of Oona-pa’is while he made the plants and animals of the region, before creating the people.  At the heart of every mountain is a wealth of stones.  That morning, in 1906, when you and Charmian rushed to the peak to see what the earthquake had done, you found only destruction in all directions.  As if what was under us had risen up to undo what had been done.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Day 10: Elegy 1 for Jack London

I'm catching up today so I had to write two poems in a day.  This, the second, is about the tragedy of Jack London's death.  Yesterday, I finished Earl Labor's biography Jack London: An American Life which (expectedly) ends with Jack's tragic and early death.  Every time I read about his death, about the months leading up to is and the ailments he suffered, it's like watching a friend die.  It's awful.  It's especially awful because from the perspective of modern medicine, his ailments seem dire, but fixable.  Had there been an ambulance or an ER, or even an earlier diagnosis of Lupus (what biographers like Labor think he suffered from his whole life), he might have lived.  Here is a draft of my poem written on the prompt: "When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras."

Elegy 1
When you hear hoof beats, think draft horse, think barns
hewn of unmatched stone, think silos standing
up against mountains (still after 100 years)
think cactus without thorns think oak leaves think
the whisper of creek think path to a dried
up pond think how cool the water once was
Think stone rolled over an urn. Think poison oak tall as trees
Think the ranger who said the Miwok ate
the leaves to cure themselves of the poison

Think blue ribbon think Sacramento State Fair
think from his window he could see fireworks
too ill to leave the hotel (think Lupus, undiagnosed).
Think how to pass a cure from here to there?
Think only days left. Kidney stones. Unable to eat.
Think the body gathering what it can't let go.
Think last words think Charmian's desperate plea:
Mate, please don't leave me. Think smile, then gone.

Day 9: Found Poem on Jack London's Wikipedia page

I've never written a found poem before today, but the prompt was to try something you've never done.  So ... here is a "found poem".  A poem where every word is taken from the current Wikipedia page on Jack London.  I don't think I found much.  But, it was fun to try.  This poem is taken from the section on Jack's first marriage to Bess.  It was during this time that he wrote some of his most successful novels (including The Call of the Wild),  but though they had two daughters together, Jack and Bess weren't happily married and Jack had affairs including with  Anna Strunsky,with whom he wrote The Kempton-Wallace Letters.  I followed a pattern and wrote down every fifth word.  Then, just punctuated what I had.  Not sure it's a poem, but, it was interesting to try!

Found Poem – Wikipedia Page on Jack London
Born author, he, the commercial one, and
his best of set "To Build a Fire" as
of The Sea Wolf. Advocate with his
April 7, 1900 was part friends years.
Stage Stasz that out friendship
they Kingman together clear
did that to during his
The Kempton-Wace Letters philosophies
"Dane Kempton's" romantic London
for on the contrasted known

Bess London child January 15, 1901
later both Piedmont, California
of The Call of the Wild. In was
by close were was gentle
Cloudsley Johns in suspect marriage devoted
tell evidence she me for terrible
back home won't the if Stasz
"code" that prostitutes venereal

Bessie moved and on

Friday, November 08, 2013

Day 8: You Left Me in the Woods

I've always been fascinated by Jack's second wife Charmian.  And this draft explores the deep love she had for her "mate" (as she called him).  Toward the end if his life, Jack (who was very sick from a number of ailments including Lupus), attended a Houdini performance.  Since he was a celebrity, Houndini called him up on the stage.  I've always been fascinated by this episode and how a few years later Houdini would court the mourning Charmian.  Here is my (quick) attempt at a draft.  There is much more to do on this one!

You Left Me in the Woods of this Life

In the last months of Jack's life he saw
Houdini perform at the Orpheum theater.
The audience packed the gold-leafed theater. From it Houdini plucked
Jack, brought him to the stage in a sea of applause. Big boyish grin, bloated, but still appearing strong, Jack stood center before Houdini said the words. Made him disappear.

After Jack's death each night Charmian
played her Steinway piano to the open
mouthed windows. Her notes mingling in the air with the whisper of nervous leaves.

But is would be Houdini who would reappear, not Jack.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Day 7: Make Them Float in Your Mouth

Today's prompt made me think of nothing but islands.  H.D.'s wound island, islands as symbols of sexuality, and Elizabeth Bishop's Robinson Crusoe.  I've always been fascinated by islands ever since the day at 15 that I looked across the span of Matsushima Bay near Sendai Japan.  So, it's no wonder that this prompt took me to the islands that Jack London visited on the Snark.  This draft explores those years of his life.

Make Them Float in Your MouthOn the cruise of the Snark, Jack London, and his wife Charmian sailed to Hawaii, Tahiti, Samoa and the Solomon Islands.

If you want a story, you have to look for it. You have to sail
your leaky boat next to the hissing lava as it enters the sea.
You have to go to Molokai and see for yourself the small girl
who, missing a nose or an arm and covered with sores joyfully dances.
You have to ride a 75 pound surfboard and fail all day. You have to watch
the plantation workers cleave the sweet fruit with machete again and again.
You have to endure sores the size of baseballs that seep and cling.
You have to go up river into the luscious green tangle
of what is unknown until the flowers emerge: red, hibiscus-like
large enough to contain the whole sunset syrupy sky.
You have to find that island. Make it float in your mouth. 

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Day 6: Untitled Hate Poem #57 for Jack London

For today's poem I had to write in response to the prompt: "Untitled Hate Poem #57".  Since my project this month is to write a poem-a-day about Jack London, I had to write a hate poem about Jack London.  This prompt made me think about the complicated relationship I have with Jack London's biography and how, by becoming a writer, I had inherited expectations about reading and writing practices from my earliest literary influence.  Writing this poem was definitely a strange exercise.  Here is my draft.

Untitled Hate Poem #57 for Jack London
The path that I'm walking is well worn. Peels like manzanita. Sky blooms blue even through the reach of thick armed oaks. And at first following you I felt strobbed in light. I'd place my foot into the muddy print you'd carved out and walk on. But lately, I've gotten caught in the mud of you. 
The shining cover of your new biography caws from tree branches, like an agitated crow. Reminds me how as a child I could grow into you: learn to sleep less, write more but now life has snuck into the scene. The children won't sleep or I need to pick them up from school, or we are out of milk/eggs/bread/time.
How you breathe down my neck these days Jack London! This year, I will be 40, the age you were when you died and still I stand in the shadow of your life: how many books have I written? Surely, not even a fraction of yours. How many words do I write a day? Does marking up student papers count Jack? How about emails back to my students? Or, to my sons' teachers? Does it count if I watch Homeland? It has a really intricate plot!

What do I need to do to walk away from you Jack London? Leave this landscape that seeps into me the way it seeped into you? Or keep walking on the moist soil until it peels enough for me to see it.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Day 5: The Year Jack London was Born

I've been teaching my favorite novel The Valley of the Moon to my community college students for several years now and every year I struggle to set up the biography of who Jack London was and what the world was like over a hundred years ago when he was writing and publishing his work.  Recently, a friend of mine sent me a link to Professor Cecilia Tichi's lecture on Jack London.   In this lecture, Tichi does an amazing job setting up the world Jack London was born into by talking about the 1876 Worlds Fair in Philadelphia.  It's a clear introduction into how divided our country had become between the very rich and the extremely poor and child labor and lack of labor laws.  What gets me every time I watch the lecture is her reference to gigantic steam engine that was basically used to power everything at the world fair and more importantly what isn't seen by the spectators: the steam engine dirty little secret (men shoveling coal for little to no money).  Here is my draft of a poem about these two worlds.

The Year Jack London was Born
At the 1876 World's Fair
(Being an able man there are always)
in Philadelphia everything was
((hours stitched tight with coal dust.)
meant to reveal to the world's eye
(hours that sweat and blur into days)
United States' industrial prowess
(the stoop of too many, the scoop and drop)
and innovation. And at its center
(of mute black coal. Being able there are)
was the coal powered steam engine that ran
(years to stoke the machine between then)
nearly everything at the exhibition.
(and now. Who will scavenge what we lost?)

Monday, November 04, 2013

This is Not What I Meant to Say or Myths About Jack London

Yesterday, I attended Susan Nuernberg's talk on the Jack London's Fame.  It was an amazing talk and got me (in the midst of my Jack London writing project) all fired up about how many lies and half-truths have been circulated about Jack London.  Today's prompt comes from two sources.  The first is my weekly writing group where we were assigned to write a "kill list" like the one that has recently been published by Josef Caplan.  The other was to write a poem in response to "This is Not What I Meant to Say".  What I first came up with was long and windy.  Apparently, when it comes to writing a response to statements such as Jack London is a racist I have a lot to say. But, instead, I used simplified and repitious format of the kill list.  Here is my draft.   
This is Not What I Meant to Say or Myths About Jack London
The cottage where he lived on Sonoma Mountain was deserted after his death and and after the death of his second wife, Charmian’s.
Jack London’s life was his greatest book.[1]
Jack London was born poor. [2]
Jack London worked hard and pulled himself out of poverty.[3]
Jack London worked to support his family.[4]
In the 1970s a huge safe was discovered in the dilapidated building.  It was filled with Charmian’s diaries, original manuscripts and notes.

Jack London’s mother never loved him.[5]
Jack’s London’s mother tried to commit suicide.[6]
John London was not Jack London’s real father.[7]
Jack London never got over finding out William Chaney was his father.[8]

Through fundraising efforts, Jack London State Park raised enough money to restore the cottage (where Jack and Charmian lived). 
Jack London was a racist.[9]
Jack London was not a true socialist.[10]
Jack London was a womanizer.[11]
Jack London couldn’t write a female character to save his life.[12]
Jack London was too prolific.[13]
Jack London wrote to make money.[14]
Great effort was put into the recreation of the cottage to its original form.  Of note, are the curtains which are reproductions of the curtains found in photographs of the cottage, Jack and Charmian’s separate sleeping quarters, and Jack’s office where he and Charmian wrote his books.
Jack London was an alcoholic.[15]
Jack London burned down his mansion Wolf House.[16]
An enemy burned down Wolf House the night before he and Charmian were to move in.[17]
Jack London killed himself.[18]
But each year the woodpeckers return and borrow back into the once feral house to leave their winter acorns.

[1] False.
[2] False. 
[3] False.
[4] Half-truth.
[5] False.
[6] Half-truth .
[7] Half-truth.
[8] False.
[9] False.
[10] False.
[11] Half-truth.
[12] False.
[13] False.
[14] True.
[15] Half-truth.
[16] False.
[17] False.
[18] False

Friday, November 01, 2013

Poem-a-daying in November! (I keep looking up from my desk and seeing ghosts)

Well, once again it is November, and once again I am beginning the daily practice of writing a poem-a-day for the month.  For two months out of the year each year I try and keep this practice.  This year my poem-a-daying comes with a project in mind.  I'm reading Earle Labor's new biography of Jack London Jack London, An American Life  and teaching my favorite Jack London novel, The Valley of the Moon.  So, I'm entering the month with a poetic project in mind: a digging into the idea of Jack London that I've carried with me since I was in sixth grade and first visited Jack London State Park in Glen Ellen.  It's an image I continually revise (and will continue revise likely, throughout my life). Today, we were given the prompt: I keep looking up from my desk and seeing ghosts.... Here's what I wrote as my draft in response.   

Jack London, Biography


Out the window: breathe
of ghosts spindled on tall trees
only glass between

There is image that hangs on a museum wall.
Then, there is the ghost the presses against the glass for years to come.
Hot breath. Fog by day. Steam that twists through dreams at night.
In between the images rise up to the surface:
thought to memory to metallic silver
a stop bath on time
stitched together out of the thick thread of chance
a life cobbled out of pieces.

There is also the land to consider.
There is the shell of building out of rock.
There is the stories about these buildings.
There is the walking on the soft earth between buildings
and the smell of the earth as you walk (which must be the same scent?)
There is the shadow of light as it passes through the Scrub Oak and Manzanita.
There is the fog that lingers on the terraced side of Sonoma Mountain.
And in between, there is the glass of time
without passage between the life lived
and the life found again in the fragments
we gather up.