Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Laguna Continued - The Linguist Staff

This week we went ekphrastic, meaning we wrote poems off of art objects.  The piece of art that struck me was a staff from Ghana called Linguist Staff and Top Representing an Elephant  because it struck me as such a metaphor for how we should proceed forward talking about history and understanding the present, always with our hand touching the ears that remember the past, that are listening to what we are saying. 

The Linguist Staff
is covered in ears. Not real ears, but carved,
extruding, so each grip reminds fingers
that the ears exist.  No need to pour these
ears onto a table to illustrate
a point.  Instead, through touch, the linguist speaks
through the ears. When he holds the golden staff
and speaks he knows the ears are listening. 
This is a way to proceed on the rutted path
of history.  If we keep our fingers
locked tightly on those golden ears perhaps
we won’t forget that the past listens, and
expects us to circle back and look under
what we think we know even if the path
is overgrown, impassable, or lost. .

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Laguna: The Lesson of Mud and Potatoes

This week, I had trouble writing from the prompt we were given.  It was a great prompt: to write off of Kim Addonizio's poem "What Women Want". But, difficult can be good, because it can make you split something open that you've been stuck in your ways about.  I find when I'm writing a narrative-based project like the one I am currently working on, the Laguna de Santa Rosa, I need to be shaken up.  I need to have someone pull the rug out from beneath me.  Not sure, if I found my legs afterward yet, but here's my draft of a poem for this week.  It's still on the Laguna, but it goes in a bit of a different direction.

The Lesson of Mud and Potatoes

History comes in many forms — some of it, apparently, edible.”
 –Gaye LaBaron

What a citizen wants is to peel back
the skin of history that shields a place
the single story that survives record.
Time offers its own flood—washes out roads
of thought no matter how deep the ruts run.

To ask what it was like to be a passenger
on Bill Tibbet’s bone-jarring stage coach ride
from the docks of the Petaluma River
to the potato mines of Bodega
where nutty-flavored red-skinned potatoes
thrived in the salty, mineral soil
until blight wiped out the crop; until we

forgot to tend the road between then and
now.  When landmarks like Spud Point
loom mysterious instead of marking
the story they once told: a barge too full
of potatoes that sunk at the spot.

How to still imagine each stop the stage
took in 1860 after winter rains
left roads nearly impassable
mud to our knees, wheels stuck in ruts but the
Laguna swollen and fertile, offering
a passage across in the steam engine
ship Georgina or later the Pride of the Laguna.

What questions should a citizen ask to dredge this out?
So we can dig up a few forgotten tubers of those lost potatoes,
so that we can find that tin-rusted hull of a ship,
to carry us back to a place that speaks
in more than one voice, that we continually
rewrite and remember.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Laguna Continued - The 100 Year Flood, 1986

This week, we were to write about an uncertain memory.  I chose to write about the way we often remember natural disasters.  I was twelve in 1986 and the flood that swept the Russian River, almost completely submerging the town of Guerneville, and flooding many parts of Sonoma County (including the street where I lived).  My Uncle and Aunt and cousins lived and had a shop in downtown Guerneville.  So, for me, this natural disaster looms as one of the biggest and closest of my life.  But, this was a disaster that happened before news media was reactive and everywhere. So, those who weren't here then, have a hard time understanding the brevity of it.  For them, the history of Sonoma County (as Gaye LeBaron puts it in the quotation below) begins the day they arrived. Part of my Laguna poem sequence is based on helping foster that remembering.

The 100 Year Flood, 1986

“But people are like that about natural disasters.  Everyone believes that the history on any place began the day they arrived.”  --Gaye LeBaron

Memory is as uncertain as islands
that rise in a flood—you don’t know what lurks
underneath. A silver boat can split this
seam of water: even gone muddy, gone
untold for so long. Disasters rise and stay
like high water marks in the unconscious
and each day after is checked against it.
What do we have to fear?  The worst already
happened, couldn’t happen again.

But the river, like a muscular animal,
overtakes the banks, chews up asphalt, rises
more to fill stores and homes.  Until
the whole Russian River Valley is filled
with her muddy, pulsing body
regardless of what history you remember.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Laguna continued - The Nature of a Place

For this week's poem, we were supposed to try and write a New Yorker poem.  We listened to the Poetry Podcasts and the buttery, smooth voice of Paul Muldoon introducing and speaking with such great poets as Sharon Olds and Phillip Levine.  I tried, but, I didn't write much of a New Yorker poem. Instead, I went back to the Laguna series and wrote about egrets.  I was inspired by the stories I'd read about the inception of the Audubon Society and how their first work was to save the egrets in the early 1900s.  I hope you enjoy this draft. I think the Laguna series is close to being done.  Just two or three more poem-sections to complete the cycle (I think!).

The Nature of a Place

"The nature of the place—whether high or low, moist or dry, whether sloping north or south, or bearing tall trees or low shrubs—generally gives hint as to its inhabitants."  --John James Audubon

Today, on the Laguna, one can still
see the shock of a white, plumed body mark
the space between a raw, golden field, and
the open question of sky because
somehow, the Great Egret, the Snowy Egret
and the Cattle Egret all survived their beauty. 

By late the eighteen hundreds the Laguna was
the heart of the Bay Area plume trade.
During breeding season when egrets grew
aigrettes, a waterfall of long thin feathers
cascading off their backs, hunters would raid
the giant stick nests built high in the air
in the eaves of oaks and willows to get
$32 –double the price of gold--
for an ounce of feathers used on women’s
fashionable hats.  Spotting an egret
became more and more rare until a man
who had spent his life watching birds, nest, and
eat and rise to flight, who had sat all day,
knee deep in brackish mud, and drawn what he
saw so vividly that it came to life,
was honored with the Audubon society
which was formed to eradicate plume hunting.

By the 1920s the egrets had
begun to return. But, the nature of
the place – the lack of steelhead and salmon
that swim in the deep, unseen waters, the felled
oaks and cleared willows, the waters gone thick
with sediment – tell the story of its
inhabitants.  When you walk smooth paths
of the Laguna today and sight the
white arrow of an egret remember
the quiet, unforeseen hunt that continues
and still threatens his beauty today.