Graduate School ETD Form 9 (Revised 12/07) PURDUE UNIVERSITY GRADUATE SCHOOL Thesis/Dissertation Acceptance This is to certify that the thesis/dissertation prepared By Kenny Tanemura Entitled New Octaves For the degree of Master of Fine Arts Is approved by the final examining committee: Donald Platt Chair Marianne Boruch Wendy Stallard Flory To the best of my knowledge and as understood by the student in the Research Integrity and Copyright Disclaimer (Graduate School Form 20), this thesis/dissertation adheres to the provisions of Purdue University’s “Policy on Integrity in Research” and the use of copyrighted material. Donald Platt Approved by Major Professor(s): ____________________________________ ____________________________________ Approved by: Nancy J. Peterson Head of the Graduate Program 4/13/2010 Date Graduate School Form 20 (Revised 1/10) PURDUE UNIVERSITY GRADUATE SCHOOL Research Integrity and Copyright Disclaimer Title of Thesis/Dissertation: New Octaves Master of Fine Arts For the degree of ________________________________________________________________ I certify that in the preparation of this thesis, I have observed the provisions of Purdue University Teaching, Research, and Outreach Policy on Research Misconduct (VIII.3.1), October 1, 2008.* Further, I certify that this work is free of plagiarism and all materials appearing in this thesis/dissertation have been properly quoted and attributed. I certify that all copyrighted material incorporated into this thesis/dissertation is in compliance with the United States’ copyright law and that I have received written permission from the copyright owners for my use of their work, which is beyond the scope of the law. I agree to indemnify and save harmless Purdue University from any and all claims that may be asserted or that may arise from any copyright violation. Kenny Tanemura ______________________________________ Printed Name and Signature of Candidate 4/13/2010 ______________________________________ Date (month/day/year) *Located at http://www.purdue.edu/policies/pages/teach_res_outreach/viii_3_1.html NEW OCTAVES A Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of Purdue University by Kenny Tanemura In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Fine Arts May 2010 Purdue University West Lafayette, Indiana UMI Number: 1479675 All rights reserved INFORMATION TO ALL USERS The quality of this reproduction is dependent upon the quality of the copy submitted. In the unlikely event that the author did not send a complete manuscript and there are missing pages, these will be noted. Also, if material had to be removed, a note will indicate the deletion. UMI 1479675 Copyright 2010 by ProQuest LLC. All rights reserved. This edition of the work is protected against unauthorized copying under Title 17, United States Code. ProQuest LLC 789 East Eisenhower Parkway P.O. Box 1346 Ann Arbor, MI 48106-1346 ii ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I would like to thank the poets in my year whose friendship and workshop savvy made these poems possible: Ruth Joynton, Chad Hardy and Cheryl Quimba. I would like to thank Mary Leader for being a great visionary, Marianne Boruch for being the resident guru of Purdue’s MFA, and Donald Platt for being the consummate editor. I am indebted to each of these professors for their invaluable instruction, mentorship and guidance in my writing as well as in my academic career. Special thanks to Donald Platt for being my thesis advisor, a truly helpful mentor who is as realistic as he is encouraging. I would also like to thank Purdue poets and fiction writers in all three years for their world of talent and critical insight. Thanks to Corey Van Landingham for the National Poetry Month daily writing marathon. Much appreciation goes to Wendy Flory whose academic literary insights in both conversation and in notes on poems helped me greatly towards the completion of my thesis. Many thanks go to my parents and my sister Janice whose continued moral support has been an anchor through the years. iii PREFACE The People Who Led to My Poems Franz Kafka. When I first read Kafka’s story, “A Hunger Artist,” I understood it to be a parable about the alienation of the artist. While I don’t perceive the artist to be alienated in the sense that Kafka imagined it, I do think that the cage the hunger artist is confined in is, for Kafka, allegorical, a space of both refuge and entrapment for the artist. In my own reading of the story, the bars of the cage are a barrier between the artist and the rest of humanity; but it is a barrier in the sense that art can never be an accurate reflection or expression of life or experience. Kafka may have written his story about “humanity,” but I read it as art versus life and experience, and the relation between art and life. The artist’s immersion in art, both for his or her own satisfaction and to pick up elements of craft, can never lead to the kind of personal fulfillment that art seems to intrinsically promise. Yet the artist returns to art, at least in part, to seek some level of satisfaction that cannot realistically be found in art. In Kafka’s story, the hunger artist told the overseer, in response to the question, why can’t you stop fasting? “Because I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.” In other words, the artist in Kafka’s world can’t find nourishment in life and experience, and seeks it through the practice and perfection of his art. I wanted to explore this idea of art as iv substitute for experience, or as barrier between the artist and experience, in my poem “New Octaves.” In the first section of “New Octaves,” the speaker remembers his father’s “gut pleasure” and the way he “ached to live.” This is contrasted in the second section to the speaker’s escape from his father’s world of experience, into the world of “plays, philosophy, novels.” Towards the end of this section, the speaker finds a Sappho fragment he thinks he should have read at his sister’s wedding two years ago. Experience takes precedence over art, because the speaker fails to recite the poem he was requested to write for the occasion of the wedding. Even the “sensual world” in “New Octaves,” that is the world of life and experience, is described in terms of art: specifically through references to and quotes from poems by Basho and Baudelaire. This literary referencing is immediately followed by a more direct reflection: “I have not yet found a home, and blame it on / the economy and globalization, but I have not looked / for home, in people or places.” The search for a home has been impeded or blurred by a search for art, or for a search for a home within art. In the art / life dichotomy I present in “New Octaves,” the subject of race is firmly placed on the side of experience. None of the literary artists I reference are minorities in America. It is as if race is too close to life to be referenced. Whenever race is brought up in the poem, it’s staged as the self speaking to the self, or to an audience: “Do we share a Japanese inability to show love? / Does ‘gaman,’ the will to endure, require silence, / or is trust established in language, as Kierkegaard said?” By setting the subject of race in a more immediate, direct relation to life, v as opposed to art, I want to suggest that the subject of race specifically and of experience in general is of far greater significance than art. For example, the anecdote about the speaker’s mother, “The clerks at the fabric stores who turned her away in the 1970s: / ‘We don’t sell cheap Japanese stuff here,’” is more urgent than the quote from Auden I placed at the end of the section, “Be subtle, various, ornamental, clever.” In the second stanza of section three, I return to the theme of the art / life dichotomy: “Art took me away from fields, from skiing / at Tahoe, buying crabs at Half Moon Bay, / hiking in Muir Woods, my dad’s rural pleasures.” Rothkos’s paintings are described as mere “contained bursts,” and Agnes Martin’s painting “White Flower” is described as a bland “doormat of gray,” in contrast to the more visceral, robust experiences depicted in section IV: “swilling the spicy hibiscus-tea flavored Pinot Noir / around in his glass, stuffing his nose in the glass, / like a bear dipping his head in river water. He shakes / his head slowly, to sniff out the tart cherries and tannins.” In “New Octaves,” the father and son are stand-ins for experience and art. The father represents experience and the son represents art. While the father is content with “stuffing his nose in the glass,” and to “settle at a quiet table in the sun,” the son refuses the pleasures of daily life experience and seeks something he perceives to be higher, namely, art: “There is still the impulse in me to move on, drive down / narrow roads, looking for other grapes, words, people, light, / not to invest so much in a single place.” The final couplet of section five shows the speaker’s desire to live like others, or rather, like those for whom art and artmaking play a minor or even insignificant role in their lives: “The women who light up the rooms filled with giant oak / barrels, who sit in the sun, stroking their own hair.” vi In the final section, section VI, academic discourse is set directly next to daily life discourse. After the speaker quotes Frantz Fanon on “culture” and “civilization,” the speaker’s thoughts settle on “the blueberry / pie she wants to bake for me.” Even the concluding four lines of “New Octaves,” which are meant to be a return to the images of daily life experience, are highly aestheticized. Each of these statements are my own loose translations of classical Japanese haiku: “Now, ants walk over mats in the heat. I smell / dried fish in the fisherman’s house. A cool / wind blows through the shrine in a sacred / grove. / A crab climbs up a pine tree in the rain.” Perhaps the final image of the crab climbing up a pine tree in the rain represents the speaker, but that representation is derivative of an eighteenth-century Japanese poem, as if the distance of time and culture were just as great as the distance between art and anything definite or accurate that could be said in art, even as the narrative and lyric modes seem to make these ambivalent promises. While “New Octaves” may have some flaws and is perhaps not the strongest poem in my collection, I believe that it has within it many, if not most, of the themes and ideas I explore throughout this collection of poems: the relation between art and life, race and bicultural experience, the nature of language and discourse, and always the urgent striving towards life and experience in spite of art, at times, and at times because of art. George Santayana. Although George Santayana’s “The Sense of Beauty: Being the Outline of Aesthetic Theory” was published in 1955, Santayana’s consideration of aesthetics is vii especially relevant to artists today, because of the contemporary trend towards hyperspecialization. While people working in the sciences and other fields are also forced to specialize and narrow their focus, Santayana’s description of the potential pitfalls of the artist seems very relevant today: Friendship, wealth, reputation, power, and influence, when added to family life, constitute surely the main elements of happiness… If artists and poets are unhappy, it is after all because happiness does not interest them. They cannot seriously pursue it, because its components are not components of beauty, and being in love with beauty, they neglect and despise those unaesthetic social virtues in the operation of which happiness is found. On the other hand, those who pursue happiness conceived merely in abstract and conventional terms, such as money, success, or respectability often miss the real and fundamental happiness which flows from the senses and the imagination. This element is what aesthetics supplies to life; for beauty also can be a cause and a factor of happiness. Yet the happiness of loving beauty is either too sensuous to be stable, or else too ultimate, too sacramental, to be accounted happiness by the worldly mind. Santayana seems to caution artists to strike a balance in their lives, between concrete social aspects that lead to happiness—family, friendship, work, success, etc.—and the “sensuous,” yet less reliable, happiness to be gained from art or beauty. I believe that this aesthetic law can be applied to any profession or aspect of life today, such as the balance between work and free time. The phenomena of the workaholic seems to be a corollary for the phenomena of the artist obsessed with art and art-making. I try to use this theory to investigate contemporary American poetry in my poem, “On the Subway Reading Ruth Stone.” Stone was no mythical free-spirited artist, the speaker states, rather she “had a spouse and 3 daughters” and wrote “about black coffee and the one hospital in Roanoke.” In this poem, I pit Stone against artists with a capital A, such as Pessoa who “lived with his mother” and Rilke who couldn’t “converse with a child.” Pessoa and Rilke were both writers with an overdeveloped aesthetic sense, and an underdeveloped viii social sense of the world—both were childless. I believe that Stone’s poetry, while more modest by academic standards, is also more robust and invigorating than much of what Pessoa or Rilke wrote, precisely because she was in touch with both the concrete social aspects that Santayana wrote about, as well as the sensual aesthetic elements that Santayana described. She is, in other words, my ideal of the artist according to my reading of Santayana on aesthetics. I try to follow this ideal in my own poem, “Brillo Box,” which is about accepting the average social qualities of happiness. “No portrait of an artist,” the speaker says, “just an average man in board shorts.” The speaker has artistic aspirations, but doesn’t aspire to create a masterpiece; rather he wants to have “a wife / in a green visor, a son looking down into the depths / of the river.” He wants to have a family, and write as Ruth Stone writes, rather than aspire to become some 21st-century American Rilke or Pessoa. In “Pilgrimage to Winters,” I try to blend the appreciation for both the social and the aesthetic, which, according to Santayana, leads to a more complete and deeper kind of happiness. It is my hope that some of my poems might, if not instruct, then point to the possibility of happiness found in the blending of the ordinary and the artistic, the social and the aesthetic. “Pilgrimage to Winters” happens in a social scene, after all, with a man and his sister going on a long bike ride through the back roads of Northern California. The siblings are part of a family, and they are also friends. Yet their experience is also part of the aesthetic realm: the sister “says the trees look Italian” and the speaker says “they look like oil paintings.” Still, the poem doesn’t end on the aesthetic, but rather on the acceptance of the ix social, objective world: “Sunflowers, we saw a field of them. / And hay. Bales of hay.” The sunflowers aren’t made into aesthetic ideas, rather they are part of the socialized experience of the day. I also try to blend the appreciation for both the social and the aesthetic in “No Idea.” The poem is ostensibly a discourse about writing: “Philosophy in poems dissolved with Williams,” the speaker says. And the speaker’s sister says that Faulkner “wrote, with inevitability, the doom / and unstoppable demise of the South: big ideas.” However the aesthetic discourse never overtakes the social, familial element of the poem. The aesthetic idea blurs into the ordinary details of a social scene in the last couplet: “Summer—a jar and the idea of a jar blur. / Thick air the body nestles through, walking.” Most of my poems argue for the tangible things that lead to authentic happiness, rather than the unstable aesthetic qualities that can only lead to an ephemeral kind of satisfaction at best. Robert Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg reveled in mixing media, often incorporating mundane, non-artistic materials with more traditional forms and surfaces. He made “assemblages” with found objects. Rauschenberg used comic strips, cigar boxes, and urban detritus to elevate the mundane to the realm of art. His painting, or rather “combine,” titled Collection, makes use of photos, fabric scraps, newspaper clippings, woodblocks and paint drips collaged together. Daily life objects are blended with artistic materials (paint, canvas). The line between life and art is blurred. The idea of life versus art, and the relation of art to life comes into play in Collection. Yet it stands very clearly as an artwork that makes some kind of statement. “Pay attention to your life as it is already,” the painting seems to say. This x idea contrasts starkly with pop artists like Warhol who suggest an ironic resignation to being part of the machine. Rauschenberg has said, “Painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made. (I try to act in that gap between the two.)” Unlike this early painting Collection, Rauschenberg in his later work is no longer trying to transcend the limits of the canvas. Rauschenberg’s late painting, Port of Entry, references the American flag, European street signs, a Native American woman, ice-cream cones and various figures and objects. The composition is varied yet unified. Port of Entry is defiant and hopeful at once. The former anger and the rage against hypocrisy is gone. What is left in old age is appreciation for the small things in life, and wonder. Previously he wanted to overthrow the established limits; he was “anti-” without affirming what he stood for. His aimless rebellion seemed to beg the question: Why are you a painter if it’s just about overthrowing the limits? In Port of Entry, Rauschenberg has achieved a more mellow state, while maintaining the earnestness that distinguished him from pop artists. In the anythinggoes art world climate of the 1990s, Rauschenberg’s work was no longer iconoclastic. He comes close to a classical quality in his work: a reconciliation with life. A new balance is struck. He no longer needs to change people’s perceptions about art by attacking them. In Port of Entry, Rauschenberg seems to just want to say what he wants to say. While my poems about Mao may seem initially to draw more from Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein than Rauschenberg, it is my hope that readers will see my Mao poems as I intended them to be read: as Rauschenberg-like “combines,” more earnest than ironic, sometimes defiant but never resigned. xi My poem “Dinner with Mao,” like Rauschenberg’s paintings, incorporates many points of reference, from Debbie Harry in the second stanza and the Godard film in the third stanza to Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Glenn Gould. The poem ends on an earnest note of lifestyle-choice-making: “Mao feared the virtuoso’s world. / He, like Gould, had made a home / in the performance of Bach, / but chose, before it was too late, / the road closed off to Gould.” Mao can’t commit to Gould’s highly disciplined, artistic lifestyle because this would involve a commitment to solitude and celibacy. I wanted to state, through exaggeration, the dichotomy between art and life, by staging it in terms of sexuality: to participate in sexuality, in the context of this poem, is akin to foregoing the artist’s life. Celibacy represents a commitment to art. Of course these statements occur in an absurd, highly fanciful context, which, I hope, undercuts the seriousness of the art / life dichotomy—as if the question that the poem poses should not be taken too seriously, because taking the question too seriously would lead, according to the speaker’s perspective, to an imbalance, either too much on the side of life, or too much on the side of art. I wanted to explore, in my Mao poems, that gap between art and life. “Requiem for Mao” also balances the serious with the absurd. The poem begins with a fictionalized scene wherein Mao runs into the speaker on a street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But the poem becomes earnest in the very first stanza: “He let me figure it out slowly: / why he wanted a homeland / and a mother tongue to keep / his adolescence in a perpetual / state of calculation.” In other words, the idea of a homeland is not only a fiction, but it is something that can’t be compartmentalized from all of the other aspects that constitute an xii identity. Therefore the recovery of some essential ethnic identity through reconnection with a homeland is impossible, because the desire to reconnect with places, and identity’s desires in general, can’t be parsed out. The continued attempt to compartmentalize identity according to the rules of multiculturalism could impede maturity and growing up, because identity requires a broader perspective to develop. At the same time, I don’t want to dismiss the importance and necessity of embracing an ethnic identity—it is just as important as embracing the other aspects and desires that make up identity—which is why I introduce the issue to begin with, rather than ignore it. In fact, the repression of ethnic identity can be just as stunting as the singular isolation of it. In my poem, I introduce the art / life question by turning Mao into a painter: Mao “gave up his cell phone, learned how to /sand and prime, to paint without streaks. / Mao never understood if wants / should be limited to achievable things…” Here art is placed in opposition to technology. But Mao has lapsed into the condition that Santayana speaks of— that of the unhappy artist seeking after substance and permanence in ephemeral, aesthetic pursuits (in this case, painting). The question of art versus life is also evident in the 16th and 17th stanzas, and it may be that these five lines explain all of the Mao poems in this series: “Mao thought about brevity, / lifespan, all his silent reading binges. / He imagined the future of a kingdom / to be found, bowing to eagles and seashells. / All his latent talents became ubiquitous.” If we consider a lifetime and evaluate how we have spent our time, what do the sacrifices that were made for art add up to? Were “all his silent reading binges” worth the knowledge Mao acquired? And does a commitment to literature, in this case, lead to overly lofty, fanciful days, imagining “the future of a kingdom”? Is art an expression of xiii the artist’s talents, or is the work produced actually the tip of the iceberg—i.e. does the artist have to learn to live with “latent talent” in a culture that awards the direct application of a specific talent that leads to commercial, financial or academic success? Federico Fellini. The film critic, Carini Daumier, in Fellini’s film 8 ½, tells Guido Anselmi, the director with director’s block, that his ideas for a film about the Catholic conscience in Italy are trivial, too nostalgic and tender, just little disassembled memories that don’t add up to much. Yet this is what the director has to work with. In writing this book, New Octaves, I have identified very strongly with the character of Guido. Professors and colleagues at Purdue, friends and family have all given me opinions about writing and my work, to the point where these various perspectives embody my work much like the actors and figures in 8 ½ who are waiting around for Guido to give them any kind of direction. The anxiety of the aimless characters of 8 ½ and their petty concerns and desires that come out when they are not acting a role in front of a camera, is the main subject of 8 ½. In the same way, small, peripheral experiences are at the heart of my collection of poems. For example, my poem “Davis” doesn’t pretend to have dramatic weight; it is little more than a record of something that happened in the two or three years that it took me to write this book. But I am interested in the question: what is the difference between a record of something that happened, and a poem that says something “big”? Who defines scope and scale in poetry? What are the social, cultural, racial, historical and political underpinnings in this question, and its answer? xiv It’s true that in the past three years—the time in which I’ve been most focused on my book—I’ve had grander hopes and visions for a larger kind of poetry, a poetry that presents a more global view, or maybe a more philosophical or historical approach. But these potential poems did not make their way into the writing. They remained at the level of conjecture, like most of the half-baked, fragmented impressions, dreams and memories that Guido indulges in throughout the course of 8 ½. Towards the end of the film, the film critic Carini Daumier tells Guido: “Why piece together the tatters of your life, the vague memories, the faces, the people you never knew how to love?” Earlier in the film, Guido says that he has nothing to say but wants to say it anyway. But after Carini tells Guido to drop all of the semi-formed projects and ideas he’d been toying with, Guido discovers his true subject: the need to be a more active participant in one’s own life, so that it is possible to make the vague memories and faces and tatters cohere, and more importantly, so that it is possible to discover how to love people again. In order to do this, Guido has to start all over, both in his life and in his art. When he learns to fuse life and art, he overcomes his director’s block. As a poet, I have felt in some sense that I’ve been dealing with writer’s block even as I’ve been writing this book fairly continuously over the past few years. Like Guido, though blocked, I still dreamt, formed ideas and abandoned them (or was discouraged from them by others); I indulged in memories; I blamed myself and others for incidents and events; others have demanded much from me, and I gave what I could, though this might have been far too little, and at times perhaps too much; I believed I needed xv “salvation” from my own doubts and confusion, and mistakenly believed that it would come from some external, fanciful force, rather than from experience and knowledge and wisdom. I never thought a sudden joy would come to me, but it did. And the poems in New Octaves are some of the things that happened to me while I was striving so hard to write my book, which has always been, in theory, not this book with these poems, but a book that can never be written. xvi TABLE OF CONTENTS Page ABSTRACT……………………………………….……...……... xxii I NEW OCTAVES Puccini Aria……………………………………………………… Snow Globe…………………………………………...…….…… On the Subway Reading Ruth Stone……………….…...………… Stanford Hospital………………………………………………… New Octaves………………………………….………….………. 2 3 4 5 6 II REQUIEM FOR MAO Requiem for Mao………………………………………………… Mao’s Old China…………………………………………….…… Red Lanterns………………………………………………...…… Mao’s Pears……………………………………………….……… The New Mao………………………………………………….… Mao’s Hundred Flowers………………………………………..… Mao’s Dominion…………………………………….…………… Dinner with Mao………………………….……………………… 13 17 19 23 25 28 31 34 III INNER REPUBLICAN Elegy for Michael Jackson………………………………………… 37 Pilgrimage to Winters……………….………..…………………… 39 Eureka……………………………….…………….……………… 40 Brillo Box………………………………………….……………… 42 Davis……………………………………………………………… 43 1975……………………………………………………….……… 45 Ohaka……………………….……….…………….……………… 46 No Idea…………………………………………………………… 48 The Tale of Genji…………………………………………………. 49 A Nightmare………………………….…………………………… 51 Inner Republican………….……….…………………….………… 52 xvii ABSTRACT Tanemura, Kenny. M.F.A., Purdue University, May 2010. New Octaves. Major Professor: Donald Platt. Le Vietnam brûle et moi je hurle Mao Mao Johnson rigole et moi je vole Mao Mao Le napalm coule et moi je roule Mao Mao Les villes crèvent et moi je rêve Mao Mao Les putains crient et moi je ris Mao Mao Le riz est fou et moi je joue Mao Mao C’est le petit livre rouge Qui fait que tout enfin bouge L’impérialisme dicte partout sa loi. La révolution n’est pas un dîner. La bombe A est un tigre en papier. Les masses sont les véritables héros. Les Ricains tuent et moi je mue Mao Mao Les fous sont rois et moi je bois Mao Mao Les bombes tonnent et moi je sonne Mao Mao Les bébés fuient et moi je fuis Mao Mao Les Russes mangent et moi je danse Mao Mao Giap dénonce, je renonce Mao Mao C’est le petit livre rouge Qui fait que tout enfin bouge La base de l’armée, c’est le soldat Le vrai pouvoir est au bout du fusil Les monstres seront tous anéantis L’ennemi ne périt pas de lui-même Mao Mao Mao Mao Mao Mao composer, Gérard Guégan, and lyricist, Gérard Hugé. 1 I NEW OCTAVES 2 Puccini Aria It’s the way we’d sound if the office work didn’t turn our voices into pens without ink scratching semaphores on white snowscapes some dead author dreamt. This one hour is a plum waiting to be picked off a Japanese screen where Buson looks at ice on the junipers, one word cutting into another, as if it couldn’t be helped. The pleasure in reading is the same as the pleasure in the forbidden, Hélène Cixous said. And what of listening, as I listen now to Kiri Te Kanawa sing Sole e amore, watch midnight streetlights filter through her single voice? 3 Snow Globe When I wake up in the morning I’d like to see Chaos propped on the counter next to the coffee maker, so real I can touch it. Not just imagined things, memory, interpretation. I want to shake Chaos up like a snow globe or a box of crackers until it yields answers like no woman or man, no mother or father, can. Maybe then I’d see a wool coat hanging in the closet and wise old sayings stuffed in its pockets. My mother piling rocks up outside the front door. The blindfold I put on every day to keep me from seeing the snowflakes fall outside a window in Berlin. And me doing a non-salaried job sweeping floors, no health insurance. Five more years swept away, like snow by snow blowers. Older than Guido in Fellini’s 8 ½ but without the glamorous composure and directorial splendor of Italian middle-age. My mouth torn open by a hook and me forced under water against the current towards some woman who could never love me. Breathless, on the floor, pounding the ground with my hands. Instead, I make coffee, eat leftover penne for “brunch” on a Sunday afternoon, read Carl Jung in the bath until the laundry is finally done. 4 On the Subway Reading Ruth Stone I’m getting off at Mission and 24th to have enchiladas and sangria with a friend. I wonder about themes and think of what Stone said: as we age, more stuff goes into our brains, and the things we make are deeper. But look, Stone is no free spirit; she had a spouse and 3 daughters. She wrote about black coffee and the one hospital in Roanoke, the obligations most of us know. The tether that keeps the goats from jumping into some rival family’s village. Pessoa lived with his mother, Rilke couldn’t even converse with a child. Thank you, Stone, for writing about your grandson, for living your life as Americans do, thinking about penguins and parenthood, clotheslines and Margaret Street in September, and the comet’s tails I adore, dust and gas billowing a path near Perseus. 5 Stanford Hospital There’s a support group for adults undergoing chemo. The pamphlet has an image of a daisy on the cover. My dad never attends. He comes straight home and watches NCIS: Naval Criminal Investigative Service on TV, where Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs is interviewing generals about the death of the President’s military aide. At Stanford, they believe in more than just chemo: strengthening the body, educating the mind, giving “hope and courage.” There’s a testimonial from a yoga instructor: “I Can’t Change My DNA.” Her poem about the healing process. Miriam, her name is Miriam. Healing process? My dad drinks a Heineken after each treatment, says he needs the liquids. He’s planning to drive through the mountains up north, to his favorite fishing spots. “Now that the abstract knowledge of death becomes real,” says another testimonial. No, my dad never went to college, or read for a philosophy course the required texts to help him express himself in mid-life emergencies. While my dad is in the Treatment Area, I stare at the green fish tank and read more testimonials: “Why cancer, why me, why now?” I don’t know. The receptionist’s phone rings. Someone with a plastic name tag opens a door. The elevator beeps. Is my generation too hung up on what our parents do? My dad’s sandals brush softly over tile. “Finished,” he says, standing straight as a corporal behind me. 6 New Octaves I Unseasonably cold for June, I slept lightly as if I would sleep that way for the rest of my life. My parents remember how hot it was the summer I was born. At noon, my dad wipes his forehead, lets out a breath. We take a random trip up north to the vineyards in Napa. I remember the dry heat at 18, my last visit to the wine country, my face flushed from alcohol, the gut pleasure my dad took in sipping Merlot in the sun, letting out grunts from his stomach. He ached to live. * Then, I read plays, philosophy, novels, making a screen between me and the world. Dove into the vicarious worlds of love, marriage, the arcs of lifetimes. “My nose precedes me by 15 minutes,” Cyrano de Bergerac said. “Whom do I love? It should be clear. I love the prettiest far and near, the finest, the wittiest, the sweetest…” And I saw Cyrano’s nose as emblematic of being a minority in America. * I read and reread Sappho’s fragments, then forgot them, until a week after my sister’s wedding day, when I was asked to say a few words and fell speechless. Later, I found the words I once loved two decades earlier and should have recited at the reception at Yoshi’s in Oakland: “for no other girl O bridegroom such as this one now.” When I recited it too late, in my parents’ living room, my sister cried. The reticent, cerebral, older brother’s rare expression of generosity. * Once I loved words for what they offered. Like Thorton Wilder’s: “You know how it is: you're twenty-one or twenty-two and you make some decisions; then whisssh! you're seventy: you've been a lawyer for fifty years, and that white-haired lady at your side has eaten over fifty thousand meals with you. How do such things begin?” 7 * Every afternoon at 4 o’clock I watched the crowd in the public square preen as if they were on the French Riviera with nothing to do except let their perfumed skin change the night a little, like the way frogs alter the composition of a pond, when they leap in. * The sensual pleasure of a crowd, as Baudelaire wrote in Paris Spleen. * The sensual pleasure of almost anything, as in “A Hemisphere In Your Hair.” * “Long, long let me breathe the fragrance of your hair. Let me plunge my face into it like a thirsty man into the water of a spring, and let me wave it like a scented handkerchief to stir memories in the air.” * Or does the eye misjudge the distance between people? “If you wish to form an idea of love, look at the sparrows in your garden,” Voltaire said. A crowd is only the physical fact of bodies repeating the same graceful posture. But in my 20s, I thought each person was stranger than Cyrano, “the bizarrest of all the birds hatched out of Gascony.” * Bits of stories were let loose into public spaces, the woman bending over a man with a child, her arms making an oval around them both. II I have not yet found a home, and blame it on the economy and globalization, but I have not looked for home, in people or places. And so, books. The cracking of syntax. Deconstruction of language, like Noam Chomsky spoiling the barbeques in the backyards of America by giving a speech at noon on Independence Day. Chomsky talked about Iran’s 8 gathering of false confessions of treason, through torture, and how we couldn’t protest because Cheney and Rumsfeld tortured American citizens. * “The War on Terrorism” rumbled on while my father put another ribeye on the grill, and watched it closely as if the scale from medium rare to well done was all we have to measure our lives by. * The passing of years. Asking again for readers to identify. Yes, asking them to overhear something I never said, like “How far did you want to go before we dream of rain? Do you have work to do? I always, always have work to do. I like your outfit a lot. What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done? It’s such a long time, almost a week. It’s good this way, we have something to look forward to. Thank you. Hello. Do men belly dance?” * They say you’re patriarchal if you think you overhead that, gender shaping language into canons, it’s just power speaking to you, in the guise of a lyric “I,” an impostor spy working for the wrong kind, like counts and countesses, the ones who were exiled from Russia, fled to Japan and China, worked in dancehalls for dimes. But I was never a count or a countess, and have never been to St. Petersburg, Moscow or even Shanghai. What I say is what I say, and you may sit close to the samovar and listen, if you will. Have a bowl of noodles. * There is a division between my family and friends. * When my friend Amalia called to say she’d buy me a birthday drink at the bar near her new sublet in “San Fran’,” my mother pressed her small body against the car window, as if to hide from my chatter. Talk-talk like bats flying over a balcony that overlooks a city with traffic flowing on the roads along the river. 9 “That would be fun!” I said. My father sank deeper into the driver’s seat, looked in the rearview mirror as if to watch my mouth form foreign words. He didn’t speak. “Can’t wait to seeya,” Amalia said, and laughed, from the gut, like her godfather does. My family is different. Do we share a Japanese inability to show love? Does “gaman,” the will to endure, require silence, or is trust established in language, as Kierkegaard said? * I still seek and find girlfriends who replicate the self-torment of the family. My mother’s immigrant sadness, broken English like lines from Gertrude Stein, culture shock when neighborhood kids hurled rocks at her door, racial slurs she barely understood. The pawnbroker who took my mother’s ring, her one heirloom, for 1% of its worth. The clerks at the fabric stores who turned her away in the 1970s: “We don’t sell cheap Japanese stuff here.” Her pride turned into an ellipsis, and the quiet anger she gave like “omiyage,” a gift that honors the recipient, to me and my sister. * I’m always attracted to young women too lost in self-examination to care, to even try to sound like they give a damn. * This year it’ll work out, marriage and children, the whole shebang. There’s a big difference between 38 and 39. I’m now more methodical, looking at state roads as a new avenue toward a destination. * While I once heeded Dickinson’s dictum, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” I now listen to Auden’s advice— “Be subtle, various, ornamental, clever.” 10 III My parents have not been to a vineyard since they took me in high school. How much their lives still depend on mine. They stay at home and watch TV or follow my whim, go to the wine country. I want a good life, like the gray-haired man in a convertible driving across the Golden Gate Bridge. Maybe he relives everything he did with his parents, as I do with mine. Like my dad showing me summer in Japan, netting dragonflies in the countryside where his cousin lived. Transparent wings thin as the nylon weave their elongated bodies got caught in. * Art took me away from fields, from skiing at Tahoe, buying crabs at Half Moon Bay, hiking in Muir Woods, my dad’s rural pleasures. My dad wouldn’t be caught dead in the galleries where I wrote—noting texture, the contained bursts of flame in Rothko, his rectangular pink and yellow playfulness. Agnes Martin’s simple, bland “White Flower,” a doormat of gray, hiding the most meticulously drawn lines as if a graph were used to make them straight as a corporate executive’s necktie. IV At Ceja Vineyards, my dad acts like it’s his birthday, swilling the spicy hibiscus tea-flavored Pinot Noir around in his glass, stuffing his nose in the glass, like a bear dipping his head in river water. He shakes his head slowly, to sniff out the tart cherries with tannins. I do the same. Theory and idea have caught up to sense and taste. No ideas but in hints of guava and peach. My dad wants to stay and buy two or three bottles. I insist on going to Sebastiani, up the road. In his old age, my dad wants to settle at a quiet table in the sun. The winery owner’s son, his speech marinated with words like supple finish and crisp acidity. 11 There is still the impulse in me to move on, drive down narrow roads, looking for other grapes, words, people, light, not to invest so much in a single place. V At Sebastiani, the old man behind the counter tries to sell us gadgets that pump argon gas through a bottle-stopper. “The argon blankets the wine, protecting it from oxidation,” the salesman says. The wine gone murky like coffee. My dad’s eyes light up when the old-timer holds the pump close to his face. “It’s only $70,” the salesman says. My dad, who has no money, wants to purchase it. I place the pump back behind the counter. “We’re not buying anything here,” I say. “Why not?” my dad says, like a boy in a toy store. I have to repeat myself. Again and again. The old-timer keeps pushing his product. Beautiful women in summer dresses with revealing décolletés walk through, on their way to a wedding outside. Two pathetic old men: my father and the seller. I want to join the other crowd. The women who light up the rooms filled with giant oak barrels, who sit in the sun, stroking their own hair. VI Later, my sister is on the phone talking about racial self-hatred, Imperialism. She quotes Frantz Fanon, “To speak … means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization.” I can remain calm, not get into arguments, appreciate the blueberry pie she wants to bake for me. * Let my general discontent be no more or less than what it is—a way to understand others better. “Amor omnibus idem,” Lucretius said. Love is the same for everyone. Once, I believed it was so unique to each person that I had to find nearly alien sentences or magniloquent ones. 12 * Now, ants walk over mats in the heat. I smell dried fish in the fisherman’s house. A cool wind blows through the shrine in a sacred grove. A crab climbs up a pine tree in the rain. 13 II DINNER WITH MAO 14 Requiem for Mao Mao walked by me on North Street, the sleeve of his shirt brushed against mine. While I was working at the computer, Mao roller-skated around my kitchen, knocked on the wall with his knuckle. He let me figure it out slowly: why he wanted a homeland and a mother tongue to keep his adolescence in a perpetual state of calculation. But Mao knew that the checkbook on his desk and the honeysuckle on the side-street around the corner from my place were more than a reflection. The basket on the tabletop and the anemones were on the same plane, winners and losers both played with a racket. The neighbor next door was paying alimony but he’d run out of money soon, and Mao was closer than I thought: he gave up his cell phone, learned how to sand and prime, to paint without streaks. Mao never understood if wants should be limited to achievable things, if our gods behave worse than us, if it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. It is. Fear doesn’t count. Mao worried about what costume he’d wear on Halloween, panicked about war and alcoholism. Mao still knew intimately the magnificence of his alarm clock’s red digits, the narrow rectangle of imagination, the vertical block of greed. Perhaps some bitterness kept him here. “Buy a ring that hurts your eyes, if you want,” I told Mao. Mao saw himself as something socially manufactured, 15 never as innate and universal, never as a circus star in a French movie, or a chef fusing Asian with old hat American. Mao came from a place he couldn’t pronounce. When the shipbuilders gave him a big contract he played the race card so he could listen to the Beatles instead of work. Mao was never what I imagined. It occurred to me that he was only the small part of the brain that thinks. If Mao stood a certain way, it’s because he remembered how he used to stand in cities he loved: places like Chinatown microphone one way alley ornate doorbell endless beach tow-truck curbed downwind. If I couldn’t see Mao the way I used to, it wasn’t because he thinned his visibility like a used car. I changed. Mao was defensive and wanted to be himself again. He didn’t coerce this figure in the mirror, it came for him: fending again for the grain, glint and roar of a crystal animal conspiracy. As hours grew repetitive, he began to want a glass house where his surroundings would speak to him. Mao thought about brevity, lifespan, all his silent reading binges. He imagined the future of a kingdom to be found, bowing to eagles and seashells. All his latent talents became ubiquitous. As if he was watching the film The Last Emperor and inserting himself into the story. “Escapism,” they said, “talk about real pitchfork scarecrow living.” But no one lamented him. He wanted to hear it— some dumb condolence for the life he’d led, arguing with architects who wanted to turn 16 lakefronts into residential areas. He was open to all things—new neighborhoods, trout fishing, boredom, chopping wood, trendy ethnic novels, Brooklyn accents and playing darts. But did love mean being alone, and from what movie did he get that idea? He’d gained so much only to slip back into a life he never wanted—all the Buddhist retreats he didn’t get around to meditating on. How could I have helped Mao keep what he needed? What should I have done—put the volume up on the laugh track, cut his hair so it rose like dough, brushed all the flies out the door? Perhaps he was right: the enmity between listening to jazz while sipping mango freezes and remembering all things past, this clash of straw and framed pictures goes back thousands of years. It’s just he couldn’t bear to keep living a life he wasn’t living. I had to imagine Mao’s liquorless, licorice-eating nights, with no firsthand experience. Why did he ask for my help in the first place? He always left the café with smiling happy people who carried their briefcases far away. Maybe he could have walked down the long steps, near to where I sat by the open garage door, and advised me with ideas that still hold true in this world— “I will give you all the secrets of inertia if you take me hiking in the woods, adventuring, like the others do,” Mao said, pondering what it was he hoped to find there: the present moment sitting on a rocking chair. 17 “Past wounds are just food to let go bad and throw away,” Mao said. “Who will assure me that danger in awareness electrifies, is only music, not an insoluble shootout of tricksters, trying to make a fool of me?” Mao trusted the coyote and wound up on a country road. A random fiesta with trumpets came out of the woods. What did it mean, some kind of redemption or pointless excavation? They said Mao was a penitent type. He saw me trying to put down my brush. 18 Mao’s Old China “Young people are unable to see the contrast between the Old China and the new,” Mao said, likening his state to the late styles of his favorite artists, Edward Hopper, Ralph Ellison, Ella Fitzgerald, and Carlos Bulosan— Filipino novelists are old hat, Mao thought, whereas the ones scribbling on visual cultures are way ahead of the game. Some people can’t withstand the smallest pressure, your wife’s back turned to found-art installed in the corner of what you most want—beach town, heartland, city or country, prestige or family? Those trees reached almost across the street. The prettiest women study cliffs, and Old China is more memory than presence—look around you, everything distilled to a menu, or TV. You’re mistaken. Where, then, is the new China, 19 a needle in a haystack, short strands of noodles in the latest Michael Crichton book, an upscale college town? I saw old China standing in front of the cash register, looking over her shoulder wondering which China was waiting in line, looking for the future to explain everything to her—thousands of years from now every China will be Old China, and there will be mint China waiting to be coined. But before that happens, let’s talk about your dysfunctional family and mine, how distance lets us forget the bickering we were forced to mediate—how every new challenge, rooted in the past made us grow towards each other like rows of grape trees before they are picked by worker’s hands, before the gatherers come to harvest what became of us. 20 Red Lanterns Without struggle there can be no identity, said Mao Zedong, but what is identity— a mouse-trap with a piece of sushi placed on it, sure to snap before night’s end, a propped-up idea for red lanterns and neon logos, colors making a striking contrast in the window. The win-lose situation is dialectical, would suit Mao’s oneup-on-the-other pirates of the Caribbean anti-metaphysics. One culture jumps another’s ship—eye to eye, no captain needs a peer to navigate the sea. We who put our foreign policies and Gap clothes 21 in the same grab bag, should know— there are bigger cities but that’s just a poor reason to escape, the cold, solitude, obstacles, challenges. You are what you ooze, I read somewhere, which makes some people sex stars, breathing ether. Identity goes reeling before these involuntary self-definitions— tea bag, blue lamp, hands in the pocket. You wear wool, brown or red, and Fall gets translated over your skin. Stay and watch the colors turn if you can take it, resist the urge back to the coast. No homeland, but California, bootleg rum stash island will never be imaginary—think of the pleasing font on the menu, how much it has 22 already decided for you. Tears on the hands of a Cartier watch, trusting church or state never yielded a trail of diamonds. Try to look at the global role of sticking it out— there’s a woman who talks dirty in Polish to you, her words can outweigh the frozen tundra of her state. She may let loose and trust again. More than photocopied eyes bringing energy into the room, her life leaves me only with the absence of a black-and-white image of a stranger, almost as foreign as the one you love on most days. Or not, when the temperature sinks below zero. Make your call before 23 then. China and Winter are sleeping giants now, except that China won’t wake for 45 years, and Wisconsin’s cold blitz is around the corner. 24 Mao’s Pears “If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself,” Mao said, meaning you must, by biting into the fruit, enter the conversation of a pear, and convince it to change its pear-mind, or at least alter it in some way. Perhaps the ways of decorating a home could be improved: new softer duvets, cotton sateen pillowcases, all mink paisley. You can’t really know a pear unless you change it. A comrade once asked Mao if a lover could be known without changing her, and the Chairman said, “If you want to know the structure and properties of the atom, you must make physical and chemical experiments to change the state of the atom.” The comrade was still perplexed, couldn’t he let his woman be who she was 25 and still know her? Maybe Mao was right, he thought, it was an atomic question, without change there could be no real insight. Still, he wondered if Mao had eaten too much bread, or if his wheat diet had influenced his judgment. Before approaching his woman, he returned to Mao again for counseling, and Mao said, “If you want to know the theory and methods of revolution, you must take part in the revolution.” Convinced, the comrade returned to his woman with the intent of getting to know her. He asked her, “Will you stop being so stubborn, spend less time at home, cook more for me, and get over your issue of needing often to be alone so that I may finally know who you are?” “I am like the pear that is never eaten,” she said, “I am the atom unchanged.” 26 The New Mao “China has undergone great changes in the last hundred years and is now changing in the direction of a new China.” -–Mao Zedong Mao used to type in a garage, scold the cat, worry for his future, write poems in imitation of Du Fu. He too was moving in a new direction, revising poems that would speak to Republicans. Like the one Richard Nixon read when he visited Beijing in 1972: “On days of sunlight the planet teases us in her white dress and rouge.” Nixon’s assistant explained that this poem was about the importance of initiative. Mao wrote the poem when the Japanese surrendered, the Russians were still in Manchuria, and a U.S. ambassador flew Mao to Chongquing to discuss ending all hostilities in China. He wrote it on the plane. “My poems are so stupid—you mustn’t take them seriously,” he said. Yes, Mao had matured a lot by the time Nixon came. Mao’s intimates knew this best 27 although no change occurred in Mao’s poetry. He filled in the blanks of classical forms: “Mountains dance like silver snakes.” He advised the young to write “modern” lyrics to suit their appearance or temperament. Mao achieved great economic independence, many feared the fruition of his influence and what it would do to their markets. But Mao never saw what he was changing into. He became the reckless kid who escaped capture and walked all night through the mountains. He turned back, envisioning writing traditional “truncated verses,” four lines, syllabic, the form the haiku sprang from. Commentators reported on Mao’s transitions, but he felt stalled, afraid to make another bad decision, revert to the slash and dash style of his calligraphy. Mao wanted to become a new Mao, but the days moved slowly, some productive, others monotonous, after the civil war 28 came to an end. Clarity became his jade virtue, he didn’t want to detract from nature’s independence. No one knew who the new Mao was, fated to fame while he toiled to meet the expectations of his country. He might never overcome the ancient myths. He was, with no folklore to explain the world, a frond that didn’t get enough sun. 29 Mao’s Hundred Flowers “Let a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend,” Mao said, commenting on the varied choices that vex the marriage-minded youth, and the equally varied ideas attendant upon such nations. “Never use the word Nationalism on a first date,” Mao advised, “because using foul words goes against the dialectical unity of charm-seduction. Lots of Northern Europeans come here to get away from the cold, so the residents put up decorations.” Mao told his woman, "You don’t care about décor, so that will be left up to me but don’t expect me to be your professional shopper unless you come along to try on the outfits, turquoise earrings, chocolate-colored satin headbands, sky-blue shirts." Mao wanted to let the 99 flowers fade 30 until one remained, and let one school of thought remain: the education of her arrival, knuckle on wood, the same black jacket. Though Mao knew a socialist streak in her wanted a hundred blossoming flowers to sprout a hundred schools of thought, not for any revolution’s sake, but a stay against the dwindling of choices, whittling her down to ‘her true life.’ She would sooner consider Edward Said’s essay on “The Anglo-Arab Encounter,” Bakhtin’s Discourse in the Novel, Walter Benjamin’s travelogues, than the moment unprecedented in her history, the moment she knew that one day she would leave him. "Give me one flower and a hundred schools of thought, then we would have enough to talk about for the rest of our lives," Mao’s woman said. But he replied, "You might get lost in so many schools of thought, spending more time in the library than with me, needing, 31 as you do, to liberate yourself from the gaudy outfits and mediocre singing of daily life. So let’s compromise— one flower and two or three schools of thought, leaving the exact number open for future revision." She fingered a few notes of misremembered Satie on the upright piano that used to be her mother’s. "I am of old China," Mao said, "a simple man with one school of thought and no flowers, a man surrounded by mixed bouquets, who wants to know every detail of every school of thought imagined through the centuries." She said, "I’ll give you a flower for your thoughts, the stories of your life. Don’t be afraid of a little glitz when I come to you in the morning asking stubbornly for a hundred flowers." 32 Mao’s Dominion Like all mathematicians, Mao loved songs that began with the word “Sometimes,” and the refrains that followed loosened his control. Chronically sick, Mao sat in his chair all day while the peasants killed hens and wondered about the price of their lives— were they worth more than the allure of a film, like Tarkovsky’s Mirror, confined to one place and one day? With this thought, Mao tried out for the part of Helena: “Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind. Misunderstanding extended similes, his position was a broken vow. A powerful man stares into wells, and finds that lakes and oceans are different. Mao invented the first antacid tablet and discovered that solitude can be crammed within the large distances others wrote on ledgers. “Love letters, if there’s love, must be ridiculous,” Fernando Pessoa wrote, “But in fact only those who’ve never written love 33 letters are ridiculous.” Mao chose to look at the sky rather than his reflection—sky that yielded a lion’s roar. “Do you know the land where the lemons bloom?” Perhaps, Mao too could be inspired by these lines in the same way Schubert was, maker of unfinished symphonies, copier of Hungarian idioms. Mao wondered why everyone knew about the composer’s String Quartet in C, and Death and the Maiden, while Schubert’s “hopeless passion” for his pupil Countess Karoline was unknown to historians. For all his might, Mao was sometimes fond of peeling flecks of paint from the podium professors once stood behind, pontificating words like earrings catching light a moment, gemming the lobe. He was proud of the prisons he built. How no trees grew t there and the inmates’ lives changed like Mt. Fuji in Hokusai’s eyes. He wanted to be a king, eat purple yogurt and work the land. Mao had a photographic memory and the past was a wet shoe he couldn’t walk in, 34 a pill that wouldn’t put him to sleep. He wanted to get back into the ring and defend his wonder. He wanted to make his story timeless, dabbed with equal parts pain, performance, and tedium. A narrative that would whisk the reader away, to the Dutch Golden Age, to a Catholic named Catherina. This former ballerina Mao wished for, though she had a reputation for having a personality like a bad saleswoman. Mao had qualities that created a wall he could never leap over. He scanned the stone with his hand for buttons that might alert the cats that dance and fall at our every endeavor. There was no one left to help. He grew to prefer anthologies over autumn, when dancers moved to ¾ time, how a word can mean two persons. 35 Dinner with Mao We skimmed The New York Times while waiting for our food. We overheard a conversation at the next table that irritated Mao. This guy said, "You know how Mao solved China's drug problem?" His friend said no. "He killed three million people." Debbie Harry told Mao to ignore them. Mao muttered, “Sure, you expect it from the occasional babbling psychopath.” Chairman Mao famously said: Revolution is not a dinner party. The conversation turned to Godard’s neglected film, The Chinese. We had just seen it at the Embarcadero Theatre. Debbie Harry had seen it too. “Despite its flaws, it is much better than most of the Paris ‘68 films re-released in the last few years,” she said. I said, “Its look at sixties youth (the ‘children of Marx and Coca-Cola’) is intriguing.” “It should have been more than an examination and critique of how I influenced the left in France,” Mao said. “A series of dialogues and sketches that established the political climate.” We were all alarmed by the number of hipsters in the audience, who even as they were watching a parody of their lifestyle, knew that after this exhausting, 36 no-turning-back release from industry norms, Godard was still waiting to pick truth or dare. Debbie Harry said the scene had changed since the Factory and Studio 54. She quoted Warhol as saying painting was just an excuse to listen to good music like Bowie and the Velvets. I ordered a Blue Ribbon Brownie and Mao ordered a Maple Butter Blondie. Debbie Harry refilled her Diet Coke. We listened to the music playing from the speakers, it didn’t suit the food well. Glenn Gould’s performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Mao gave up performing the piano after reading Adorno’s “The Mastery of the Maestro.” Adorno wrote, “This is an institutionalized box office ideal detached from people, which mistakenly sees in itself an unwavering capacity to inspire the audience.” Of course Adorno was right, performance was aligned with the Culture Industry. Mao liked Gould’s rigorous analysis, but disliked his lifestyle: celibate, solitary, cerebral. Mao feared the virtuoso’s world. He, like Gould, had made a home in the performance of Bach, but chose, before it was too late, the road closed off to Gould. 37 III INNER REPUBLICAN 38 Elegy for Michael Jackson And now you, the freak, the fucked-up freak with a reconstructed cheek are transformed into a martyr the day after your death: a pathfinder for black people according to the Reverend Al Sharpton and Magic Johnson. Forgotten Man is King of Pop again; Motown founder says, “The greatest entertainer who ever lived.” And died. As a child, one of the few compliments I got was that my haircut made me look like one of the Jackson Five. Years later, my sister and I would buy Thriller, on record and cassette, and listen to the songs over and over. I loved “Billie Jean,” the most danceable track; but now it’s the sweet stuff like “I’ll Be There” that’s godlike to my ears. Frail man white as a Kabuki actor, did you never find a ticket to self-acceptance in a culture where tastes and ideals are forced on us from without, like gas prices? Kabuki, in kanji, means “the art of singing and dancing” and, also, “bizarre theatre.” Actors wore makeup called kumadori, which exaggerates facial lines to produce supernatural masks. You were white in the white world that made fun of you. On the day you died I heard a young man joke about your nose and if he had his way, you’d have no legacy as humanitarian, as human. I was 13 when I finally learned to dance to the bassline and your vocal hiccups in “Billie Jean,” the song you moonwalked on Motown 25. Some of the girls taped pictures of you to their locker walls in junior high, but some of the boys hi-fived each other when your hair caught on fire while filming a TV commercial for Pepsi. And they say now you are loved in Berlin and Shanghai? Let me learn new lessons from you, and draw from past masters— 39 Basho, Buson, Issa—just as you borrowed from Astaire and Kelly, Ella and Sammy Davis. You collapsed in your wheelchair. Now beautiful women sing the songs you wrote, in tribute to you. You were the voice of a generation? A man who became a Martian? Wallflower or human spinning top in sequins? No, you were just a fine singer and dancer. 40 Pilgrimage to Winters After the 40-mile bike ride, to visit my great uncle’s grave at Winters, my sister says the trees look Italian, meaning they look like the oil paintings in the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. They look like an opera, she says, a Puccini aria. Maybe it was the early evening sun flickering on leaves like the way wheat stalks bend in wind in the early Merchant & Ivory films, but for me the day was like Willie Nelson songs. We biked down country roads, narrowed by fruit orchards on both sides, irrigation canals, the hundred-degree heat. Or it was like the 80s movie Stand By Me where everyone participated in pie-eating contests. I coasted in the middle of the road, between the double yellow lines, my hands in the air for miles and miles. Turning to look over my shoulder now and then, at the small dot of my sister in her orange helmet. Or it was like a movie never made, about learning to accept the banality of identity, getting lost and being transformed. Sunflowers, we saw a field of them. And hay. Bales of hay. 41 Eureka I tell my mother to wait a few years for housing in the Bay Area to go back up, then sell and move to Eureka. We’re in the Nordstrom’s Café. Women in white coats that have the wavy shape of a calla lily’s petals float between racks of designer clothes, as if the world were empty. Everyone in the café talks as if the world contained only them, the mocha lattes on their tables. “I don’t want to live in the middle of nowhere by myself,” she says. I tell her Eureka is a port city surrounded by redwoods, and it’s the size of a San Francisco suburb. Eureka has Tudorbethanstyle homes, the Carson Mansion in Old Town, views of Indian Island. It’s a central point on the Pacific coastline. O Eureka, overlooked by European explorers for three centuries, you are the next big housing market, the Sacramento of a decade from now. “It has the 2nd largest bay,” I say, sipping my coffee. Queen City of the Ultimate West, they call it. My mother looks at me without protest or agreement. “Okay, you get a teaching job and move there, and then we’ll come live there too,” she says. “But I’m talking about you and dad,” I say. Three islands, redwood and Douglas fir, gulches and streams. “I won’t live there with no other Japanese people around and you and your sister far away,” she says, taking a bite of her carrot cake and pouring more cream into her coffee. “If you went to Chicago, we’d want to live near you there, like the Silvas.” “What does this have to do with the Silvas?” I say. I open my laptop to look at the mortgage numbers again. “They’re moving to Folsom to be near their daughter,” she says. I want to take us all far away from here. 42 In the parking lot outside, a row of new Mercedes SUVs reminds me of what we don’t have. 60-year-old women, who look preternaturally 45, walk towards Burberry Kids to buy $150 shirtdresses for their grandchildren. A homeless man is being taken away on a golf cart for panhandling outside of Neiman Marcus. His front teeth are missing. The sky outside the window is a scary, funny, thoughtful … blue. 43 Brillo Box We pause in front of the bridge that crosses Putah Creek, the bridge before which my great uncle stood for his photo in 1913. We are on the way to his grave. “Stand there,” my sister says, digital camera in her hand like a computer extension of her fingers. No portrait of an artist, just me, as an average man in board shorts, tennis shoes, college alum T-shirt and khaki hat to shield my face from the June sun. Broken down to the generic unit of a Brillo Box, ridiculous in my commonality. The only thing missing from the picture is a wife in a green visor, a son looking down into the river. I gulp water, a bottle of Aquafina. A field of sunflowers, an irrigation canal, the sun beating down on the fruit-stand vendors. My place in the world so little, close to my sister flicking straw from her shirt, my great uncle off to the left, hat in hand, because of the heat. 44 Davis It was my sister’s idea for me to rent a bike and for us to ride out to the pond, on the north side of campus. We zoom by Voorhies Hall where she teaches American Literature on a one-year contract, rolling towards expiration at the end of the month. We bike a trail through the arboretum. I keep the pace slow, so speed doesn’t block out the oaks and acacias, fan palms and conifers. Ducks rest on the grass, close to where the green meets concrete, no less restless among people than the Chinese tree brought here for us to relish. The trail follows the river and we pass students who are having picnics in the small Redwood groves. We bike out of the arboretum, cut all the way across campus and turn left on Russell, a four-lane, two-way street. Cars pass by to our right and Van Gogh’s wheat field is on our left but there are no crows and the sky is stable blue. We cross the street and go down Evans Star Lane, pass cherry orchards and vineyards. Other cyclists pedal fast, going the opposite way. They are all ages, healthy and beautiful. My sister has been going stir-crazy in this small town, and resents a little my love for its wheat fields and crispness of light, lush leaves and shadows. I am spending the remaining years of my thirties in a small factory town in the middle of Indiana, studying fine arts, teaching rhetoric, the figures that convince. Reconciling with pollution and conservative politics, religious fanatics. But it’s full spring in this California valley, the weather looks as untroubled as the people, while the Bay Area is still waiting for warmth, its last days of May brisk, gray. I don’t know how to reconcile what my sister has, with what I don’t. The sun here is kind to skin, hair, and mind. 45 It must have to do with breath, the ocean inside us, having space to slowly build up, then flow out to the sand. My sister feels stuck here, but she has always grown to love what I love, afraid as she is to invest much in anything. Is it too late for California wild lilac, Putah Creek? Two more harsh winters in Indiana, before I can consider living in Davis, California, at forty, when I may no longer entertain the aspirations of youth? On the ride back, I tell my sister there is a theme garden on campus, based on the medieval moon-viewing gardens of India and Japan. Later, she looks it up on the map. “Let’s go there tomorrow,” she says, warming up to the town that has given her uncertainty. I don’t want to leave this town that has given me succulents and bunchgrass. In two years, I tell myself, I will live along the banks of the creek which descends from Whispering Pines. “What was your favorite part of the bike ride?” I ask. “I liked riding through the gardens,” she says, gesturing with one hand in the air, one hand swooping down to her side, as if to draw the arc of those lanes. From her face I can see she is beginning to like the town that has given her kingfishers, cormorants, herons, Picnic Day and a Mediterranean climate. “Let’s have wine, since you’re visiting.” We open a bottle of Viognier. Legend says the green grapes were en route to Beaujolais, when they were captured by outlaws in Condrieu, who grew them there. I take a sip. 46 1975 My mother is in the fabric store looking for yards of patterned cotton to sew. “I’m sorry, we don’t sell cheap Japanese stuff here,” the clerk says. My mother heads toward the glass door. She wants to tell the clerk that she has seen the best materials in Tokyo shops, that Japan has always valued quality over quantity. Her breath tightens, she only wants to make it to the parking lot, and then to the Honda Civic. The clerk goes back to the counter and checks his watch. There is still two hours left on his shift. He wants to be paid more. Women take no interest in him. His non-salaried job, his lack of health insurance, initiative. He is thinking that he may be good at nothing. He surveys the hand-dyed silks in the shop, wishes he knew more about them. My mother is wondering if she has time to drive up to the city for material. She doesn’t, her son gets out of school in an hour. Her husband wants dinner on the table. 47 Ohaka Ohaka, my mother says, which means house of spirits—my great-grandmother’s grave. Tome Tsuchida, 1890-1980. Last days of my visit home, I’m in my pajamas, finishing my coffee. My sister is escaping the trip, up at Berkeley to visit with friends she hasn’t seen since last August. At the grave, we throw out the dried flowers we left in winter, and replace them with lily and zinnia from the garden. A plane soars overhead, and a man rides a lawnmower down the path where more graves stand. It feels like a suburban front yard. Standing here is like saying goodbye to my thirteen-year-old friend in 1982, as her parents got ready for their trip back to their home in the city. We stood by the liquid amber tree, the grass under our feet warm from the sun. “The suburbs,” Diane said, as only an eighth-grader can, with a scary precociousness that disappears in adulthood and becomes mere coping with heartbreak and loss. A single mother now. But then, she looked around at the identical houses, the lack of fog, the climate-for-culture compromises. “The city’s not that far,” I said. “But it kind of is,” Diane said, talking through her nose. I couldn’t, at that moment, describe my street but now I know. It was like a graveyard, it was like living over the ashes 48 of dead people, all the history no one cared about, expensive lawn maintenance. This afternoon, no bank building casts shadows at the corner of Oak Hill and Central. Is this where we want to believe the dead are— a pleasant suburban nook with no people on the street and one owl hooting from a tree? Bird-twitter the music our ancestors listen to. My parents put their hands together in Buddhist prayer. “Everyone is doing fine,” my mother assures the dead—about me, I’m fine too. She tells them so. My father tells me about the racial demographics of this corner of the cemetery—-used to be all Japanese, now there are some Vietnamese too. Integration—-better than our city is doing. Most Asians gone. The Chicano enclave no one else enters. Half of the town taken by Silicon Valley and the other dismissed as ghetto. It’s all called Friendly Acres. Is the city, finally, life then? Far from anything buried, tourists pursue their dream of visiting. All the paychecks going into fish tacos and pale ale and the boutiques downtown to prove we can walk up and down for hours, enjoy the perfect Sangria-in-the-park kind of day, and be a little sad for all that architecture. 49 No Idea Stevens, my sister says, never placed a jar in Tennessee; his poem is about the idea of a jar, and more abstractly, about private property. Outside, on our walk to the UC Davis gym, light on the leaves of English oaks looks Spanish and cicadas sing their afternoon songs. Philosophy in poems dissolved with Williams who wrote No ideas but in things, I say. Yes, that’s very American, my sister says. 100-degree summer day, 36% humidity, the mind made to net facts. Women jogging down Howard Way. Faulkner, she says, wrote, with inevitability, the doom and unstoppable demise of the South: big ideas. In and out of the shade of trees we walk, butterflies uncaught in the deer clover. Summer—-a jar and the idea of a jar blur. Thick air the body nestles through, walking. 50 The Tale of Genji is too eventful so I ship it home book-rate. Characters weave in and out, princesses, daughters of former governors, Genji’s first wife, first cousin, emperors and ladies of undinstinguished lineage, children of Ministers, impoverished women of royal origin, daughters and wives, those who just happen to be in attendance, like me, showing up at the English lesson I give at Waukee Co. This engineer from East Africa has trouble with pronunciation. She clusters words in her mind and spits them out in one shot—like-sounding vowels confuse her, like differences in shades of color, not the sharp distinctions between pink and red, peach and yellow, but a slow gradation the eye wouldn’t catch. I teach her where to put the stress in a statement, in a question. She is surprised by the fissures in her speech—this woman who went to college in Milltown, raised two children in the Dairy State, worked for a company specializing in automation. “To be honest,” she says, “I think we’re both foreigners.” “No,” I say, “because I have dark skin, and the country of my ancestors is a chain of eight islands, doesn’t make me a foreigner.” Okay, she concedes, her softspoken words that should rise, be intoned, are phrases vanishing into silence. Words dip under the radar, escape the ear by a hair’s breadth. I wonder if she hesitates, believes she can’t learn because I too am foreign. She asks me to come with a binder and a book, a lesson plan to break the monotones of adjectives, adverbs. Words that describe need emphasis—very, forlorn, stylish, fondly— they refer to our condition, what brought us here to begin with. Prince Genji says to a lady in Akashi: “Only one who does not know deep waters can still be bobbing, dancing on those waves.” According to legend, the Akashi lady felt somewhat happier, because Genji’s visits grew longer. My girlfriend chooses to put up a framed picture of her high-school self on the wall, next to Frida Kahlo. She and I alone make up our story of this place— 51 white walls and hardwood floors, a constellation of quiet, crenellations of cum rag and bloodied pad, butterfly hairpins— man’s silver watch on the windowsill. A caged rabbit in the bathroom. No one returns to the court, autumn never comes to a close. Maybe, sometimes, a strand of hair flows over a robe, someone is summoned. We look out the window in the morning, looking for the garden that isn’t there, for an eleventh-century morning glory to appear, as Murasaki Shikibu does, out of nowhere, with her impromptu effort. More durable by far the bond between us. Who knows when the other will go, or how far? Or when, if ever, such courtly movement takes place? 52 A Nightmare A peaceful Independence Day at my parent’s house until: my sister starts dancing to a song by WHAM! like the middle-aged women in the audience of an Oprah show, that features Arethra as the marquee guest. My sister’s shoulders seesaw, fingers snap, and she is younger than me. And suddenly I am floating through a hole in the ceiling, hovering above the house tied down only by a rope. My outstretched arms are like kites and the wind keeps pushing me in a whirl. Flower petals are swirling around me, but I can still see my brotherin-law sitting at the computer, bobbing his head, his thumb and pinkie in the air. His curling, graying hair shakes as he throws his head up. “Love is hoping for others what you hope for yourself,” my sister says, paraphrasing Frantz Fanon. “People aren’t that wonderful,” I want to say. “Men are cutthroats and women are defensive as cats.” But I’m too far into the clouds now, my voice won’t carry down to the street. The rope breaks and I am flying like a Chagall figure, down the stairs of a subway station, over the heads of men and women with craggy faces, rouged cheeks, racing to the doors that close just as a gust thrusts me into a seat. The people on the platform are pounding on the windows to be let in. They look in my eyes, as if I have the key. The subway starts moving and there are only two people sitting in the car. An old man glares. A woman shivers in a fur coat, swats furiously at flies. An announcement on the speakers says: “Next stop: Daly City. When will you start participating in your life?” 53 Inner Republican The confident senator in you is a Republican though you are a registered Democrat. He’s not so right-wing as to make you feel guilty for his importance to your life. He’s pro-choice, pro gay rights and pro stem-cell research. And he’s Republican because you need that inner leader to be reliable, though you yourself may disagree with some of his opinions on affirmative action and immigration. Every man however radical must have self-determined principles, some figure in the psyche who is ambitious, certain, driven—and who among us would choose, as that figure, a liberal, a pudgy, balding, liberal when there are bills to be paid and tasks to be finished? When you, at times, have trouble with taking out the garbage. Yes, your inner senator must be Republican, the enemy, who doesn’t quarrel with religion and thinks you should settle down and have a family. He may at times support bills that oppose the best interests of your loved ones, but he’s less chronically contrary and knows how to get along. A survivor. More than that. On a solitary mission he feels connected to the world. The car breaks down and he doesn’t complain.