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Graduate School ETD Form 9
(Revised 12/07)
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
Marianne Boruch
Wendy Stallard Flory
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Research Integrity and Copyright Disclaimer
Title of Thesis/Dissertation:
New Octaves
Master of Fine Arts
For the degree of ________________________________________________________________
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May 2010
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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.
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
substitute for experience, or as barrier between the artist and experience, in my poem “New
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
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,
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.”
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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?
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
“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.
ABSTRACT……………………………………….……...……... xxii
Puccini Aria………………………………………………………
Snow Globe…………………………………………...…….……
On the Subway Reading Ruth Stone……………….…...…………
Stanford Hospital…………………………………………………
New Octaves………………………………….………….……….
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………………………….………………………
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
New Octaves
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?”
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.
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
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.
“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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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
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.
“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.
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,
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
want—beach town, heartland,
city or country,
prestige or family?
Those trees reached almost
the street. The prettiest women
study cliffs, and
Old China is more memory
than presence—look around you,
distilled to a menu, or TV.
You’re mistaken. Where, then,
is the new China,
a needle in a haystack,
strands of noodles
in the latest Michael Crichton
book, an upscale college town?
I saw old China
in front of the cash register,
looking over her shoulder
wondering which China
was waiting in line, looking
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
family and mine, how
distance lets us forget
the bickering we were
forced to mediate—how
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.
Red Lanterns
Without struggle there can
no identity,
said Mao Zedong,
but what is identity—
a mouse-trap with a
of sushi
placed on it,
sure to snap
before night’s
a propped-up idea
for red lanterns
and neon logos,
colors making a
contrast in the window.
The win-lose
situation is dialectical,
would suit Mao’s
pirates of the
Caribbean anti-metaphysics.
One culture jumps
ship—eye to eye,
no captain
needs a peer
to navigate the
We who put our
foreign policies
and Gap clothes
in the same grab
should know—
there are bigger cities
but that’s just a poor
reason to
the cold, solitude, obstacles,
challenges. You are
what you ooze,
I read somewhere, which
some people sex
stars, breathing ether.
Identity goes reeling
before these
tea bag, blue lamp,
hands in the pocket.
You wear wool,
or red, and Fall
gets translated
over your skin.
Stay and watch the
turn if you can
take it, resist
the urge back to the coast.
No homeland, but
bootleg rum stash
will never be
imaginary—think of the
font on the menu,
how much it has
already decided for you.
Tears on the
of a Cartier watch,
trusting church or state
never yielded
a trail of
Try to look
at the global role
of sticking it out—
there’s a woman
talks dirty
in Polish to you,
her words
can outweigh the
tundra of her state.
She may let loose
and trust again.
More than photocopied
bringing energy
into the room,
her life leaves me
only with the
of a black-and-white
image of a stranger,
almost as foreign
as the one you
on most days.
Or not, when the temperature
sinks below zero.
Make your call
then. China
and Winter
are sleeping giants now,
except that China won’t
for 45 years,
and Wisconsin’s cold
blitz is around the corner.
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
cotton sateen
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
and still know her? Maybe
was right, he thought,
it was an atomic question,
without change there
could be no real
Still, he wondered if Mao
had eaten too much bread,
or if his wheat diet
had influenced his
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
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.”
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
scold the cat,
worry for his future,
write poems in imitation of Du Fu.
He too was
in a new direction,
revising poems
that would speak to Republicans.
Like the one Richard Nixon
when he visited Beijing in 1972:
“On days of sunlight
the planet teases us in her white dress and rouge.”
Nixon’s assistant
that this poem was about
the importance of initiative.
Mao wrote the poem
when the Japanese
the Russians were still in Manchuria,
and a U.S. ambassador
flew Mao to Chongquing
to discuss ending all
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
by the time Nixon came.
Mao’s intimates knew this best
although no change occurred
in Mao’s poetry. He filled
the blanks of classical forms:
“Mountains dance like silver snakes.”
He advised the young
to write “modern”
to suit their appearance
or temperament.
Mao achieved great
economic independence, many
the fruition of his influence
and what it would do to their markets.
But Mao never saw what
he was changing
He became the reckless kid
who escaped capture
and walked all night through the mountains.
He turned back, envisioning
traditional “truncated verses,”
four lines, syllabic,
the form the haiku sprang from.
Commentators reported on
transitions, but he felt stalled,
afraid to make another bad decision,
revert to the slash and dash
style of his
Mao wanted to become a new Mao,
but the days moved slowly,
some productive,
others monotonous, after the civil
came to an end. Clarity became
his jade virtue, he didn’t want
to detract from nature’s independence.
No one knew who the
Mao was, fated to fame
while he toiled to meet
the expectations of his country.
He might never overcome the
myths. He was, with no folklore
to explain the world,
a frond that didn’t get enough sun.
Mao’s Hundred Flowers
“Let a hundred flowers
and a hundred schools
of thought contend,” Mao said,
commenting on the varied
choices that
the marriage-minded youth,
and the equally
varied ideas
attendant upon such
“Never use the word Nationalism
on a first date,” Mao
“because using foul
goes against the dialectical unity
of charm-seduction.
Lots of Northern Europeans
come here to get away from the
so the residents
put up decorations.”
Mao told his woman, "You don’t care about décor,
so that will be left up to
but don’t expect me to be
your professional shopper
unless you come along to try on
the outfits, turquoise earrings,
satin headbands, sky-blue shirts."
Mao wanted to let the 99 flowers fade
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
in her wanted
a hundred blossoming flowers
to sprout a hundred schools
of thought, not for any revolution’s
but a stay against the
dwindling of choices,
whittling her down to
‘her true life.’ She would sooner
Edward Said’s essay on
“The Anglo-Arab Encounter,”
Bakhtin’s Discourse in the Novel,
Walter Benjamin’s
than the moment unprecedented
in her history, the moment she knew
that one day she would leave him.
"Give me one
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,
as you do, to liberate
yourself from the gaudy outfits
and mediocre singing
of daily life. So let’s
one flower and two
or three schools of thought,
leaving the exact number
open for future
She fingered a few notes
of misremembered Satie
on the upright piano
that used to be her
"I am of old China," Mao said,
"a simple man with
one school of thought
and no flowers, a man
by mixed bouquets,
who wants to know every detail
of every school of thought
imagined through the
She said, "I’ll give you a flower
for your thoughts,
the stories of your life.
Don’t be afraid of a little
when I come to you in the morning
asking stubbornly
for a hundred flowers."
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
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,
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.
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,
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.
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—
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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—
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?
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?”
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.
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