Dear Reader: “Charming Gardeners,” by David Biespiel

There used to be a public telephone booth down on the corner from our place, the kind the caller entered through a panel glass door and dropped coins into the phone, outside the cleaners, across from the realtor’s office, the street corner just a dot of commercial activity in an otherwise residential neighborhood. The telephone booth got hit with graffiti occasionally, or a pumpkin around Halloween, and the glass was often in need of repair. The door broke and was discarded, the telephone book disappeared from its chain, and finally the box was taken away. The booth attracted activity, some locals opined of the nefarious sort. The booth might have represented to some a stranger. At night, a small lamp lit the booth. Outside the booth, a couple of newspaper stands added to the tiny urban pastoral. One day, out walking, I passed by the booth, and the phone rang.

On the corner across from the phone booth stood a blue mailbox. The mailbox got more business than the telephone booth, but not enough, apparently, for it too was taken away. The newspaper boxes that stood next to the phone booth have also been removed. The cleaners closed, and for a time the corner reminded me of an abandoned gas stop on a two-lane road bypassed by a highway. Bit of an exaggeration, that, but not much, for like the telephone booths, many of the mailboxes in the Southeast Portland neighborhoods are disappearing, and the small bookstores, like the newspaper stands, are being rooted out, also. Last year, one of my favorite small bookstores, Murder by the Book, at the west end of the Hawthorne district, met its demise.

Really? Are we to read yet another letter on the disappearance of newspapers, books, newsstands and bookstores, and poetry?

Not at all. Some things don’t change, among them, Emily Dickinson’s one way missive: “Her Message is committed / To Hands I cannot see.” And what better way to illustrate the stubbornness of the staying power of poetry than a book of poems in which each poem is a letter to someone? We save letters, but first we have to write them, send and receive them.

Poetry, as John Cage said of music, occurs whether we intend it or not, but we won’t have the unintended poetry of letters if we stop writing letters. The democratically accessible form of the letter is still with us, even if mailboxes are becoming scarce. Is an email not the same as a letter? An email is a phone call compared to a letter. Letters don’t have the immediacy of an email. Letters are not immediately delivered, and we don’t expect an immediate reply. We might wait weeks or months for a reply, or years. But we probably wouldn’t resend the letter, noting “2nd request” in the subject line, as we do with emails. Letters can be a bit of a hassle to write, requiring a kind of toolkit: paper, pen, table, envelope, address, stamp, mailbox. Letters, perhaps, require more of an occasion than emails, occasion to write, more of a purpose. If you really want to get someone’s attention, you don’t send them an email; you write them a letter. Letters are more difficult to forward than emails. And the letter might be returned, as emails are sometimes returned, too, as undeliverable. Or a letter might wind up in the dead letter post office, and you might never know if your letter sent was ever received or read.

Melville’s Bartleby worked in a dead letter office before going to work as a scrivener for the lawyer who narrates the tale. Where have all the scriveners gone? The poet Charles Olson’s father was a mailman. In “The Post Office: A Memoir of My Father” (1948), Olson describes how, through office politics, misunderstandings, and general stubbornness all around, his father had his mail route taken away from him. Olson explains the importance to letter carriers of personalized routes, but also explains how the letter carrier is important to the community of people on the route. Olson explains how the mail carrier becomes a confidant reader and the most knowledgable person in the neighborhood of personal affairs:

“Mail, over any length of time, will tell secrets a neighbor could not guess. Nor do I mean the reading of postcards or the ‘lamping’ of letters. Nor what a man hears over a coffee. Or that a man’s mail does not always come to his house, or a woman’s either. It lies more in the manner in which people look for, ask for, receive their mail. And talk about it” (43).

Olson insists this is “not to be mistaken for nostalgia,” for the post office was akin to the military, and letter carrying is hard work, hard on the body. Yet the loss of Olson’s father’s route was both the loss of valued labor and the loss of an identity. Not for nothing does a man wear a uniform.

Another Charles and poet, Charles Bukowski, explains further, in his novel “Post Office” (1971), about his days as a letter carrier in Los Angeles, in bitter, sardonic, and laughing prose, what carrying the mail is all about:

“There were 40 or 50 different routes, maybe more, each case was different, you were never able to learn any of them, you had to get your mail up and ready before 8 a.m. for the truck dispatches, and Jonstone [supervisor] would take no excuses. The subs routed their magazines on corners, went without lunch, and died in the streets” (10).

But the point here is that bit from Olson about “how mail is received.” That’s the poetry. And try giving someone a poem, not publishing a poem, but just give someone a poem, as a letter, and see how he or she receives it. You’ll learn more about that person than you might learn sitting over coffee or beers talking about children or baseball.

I’ve often felt about poetry what the poet Marianne Moore said in her distinctive poem titled, simply, “Poetry”:

“I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all
this fiddle.”

But fiddle is a perfect word to describe the activity of poetry, where the gig is a jig of restlessness, and I like to fiddle, more and more these days, if fingerpicking the Telecaster qualifies as fiddling. And I like to watch a fiddler at work, pushing and pulling the bow. In any case, we might get very little actual fiddling at a poetry reading. By the time the poet takes the mic, the fiddling part is over. He puts the bow aside and starts to talk. But the poem as letter suggests an importance Moore’s definition seems to discount. Don’t go near the water if you don’t want to get wet.

DB ReadsThe rectangular space of the swimming pool, the opening of the swimming hole, the lake or ocean cove below the cliff as a page. The poem as a dive, form, and a form of competition, an argument. The poet, a high diver, slips into the water, no splash, no wake, surfaces, swims to the ladder, climbs out, takes his seat. The poet David Biespiel has been a diver. I don’t know if that matters much to the enjoyment or understanding or getting at his poems, overall. But I thought about it as I walked down to Powell’s Books in the Hawthorne district a week ago to listen to David read for the launch of his new book of poems, “Charming Gardeners,” the poems conceived and formatted as letters. I listened, observed what I could of the audience, doodled some, was distracted by the books on stacks surrounding the podium and audience – some funny titles out of context, ironic when juxtaposed to the reading, the room holding the Young Adult category of books:

“Hideous Love,” “Wild Boy,” “How to Love,”  “Pretenders,” “Frozen,” “Sick,” “The Hunger Games,” “Catching Fire,” “Chasing Shadows,” “Captain Cat,” “A Taste of the Moon.”

I need to get back over there and browse through some of them.

The last time I was at Powell’s on Hawthorne for a reading was to hear Patricia Marx, of the New Yorker, upon the launch of her new novel, “Him Her Him Again the End of Him,” (2008). There were about 12 people in the audience on a bitter winter evening. I was there with Eric in support of some high school assignment-deal. Patty tried playing a recording of some kind, but the technology failed for some reason. But I enjoyed her, nevertheless. A live reading is like live music, better than radio, but only in some ways. Because listening to the radio at home, you can get work done around the house. But in a reading you have to sit still and be polite (Biespiel’s was not a Beat reading accompanied by a jazz combo) and not fidget, sort of like being in church, the folding chairs as uncomfortable as pews. This isn’t always the case, depending on venue. The Robert B. Laughlin lecture Eric and I attended (out on another high school assignment junket) back in 2005 sported a rowdy crowd of all ages and disciplines, as the rousing Q&A following the lecture showed.

DB Notes 2Poems as letters, or letters as poems, I’m not sure which comes first, but the idea raises the hand for a question. What is the intended audience? And is the reader a voyeur, as David, perhaps jokingly, suggested? And recall Emily’s note: the writer can’t see the hands of the letter holder, not unless the writer is also the letter carrier. The epistle is an old form. David said something about the letter as poem narrowing the audience, the focus now on an individual, not a song to nobody in particular. William Carlos Williams: “To Daphne and Virginia” [his daughters-in-law], the beginning of the second verse:

“Be patient that I address you in a poem,
there is no other
fit medium” (“Selected Poems,” 1968, 134)

DB Notes 1David read five poems at Powell’s on Hawthorne the evening of the book launch reading: “To Wendy from Yellow Hickory”; “To Buckley from Berkeley”; To Wiman from Walla Walla”; “To Lenney from the Greenbrier Hotel,” and “To C. D. from D. C.” These are lengthy, traveling poems that talk and click along like a train (though most of the travel is by plane), engines full of breath. I was reminded of Whitman, the way he adds on, continually, one thought giving rise to the next, unafraid of repetition, commenting on the landscape, ideas, people, as he goes, adding comments, evaluative, reflective, and several of the poems mention Whitman. In “To Buckley from Berkeley,” for example, which begins, “Dear Bill” (as if we are on familiar terms – you see the extent to which the trope can travel), the letter goes on for 18 lines before we get a period, and what follows is this: “That, Bill, and also this:” followed by another 41 lines before the next period. (If unfamiliar with Buckley, enjoy an introduction by viewing video of segments of his TV show, “Firing Line.” Here, via YouTube, he talks with poet Allen Ginsberg, and Ginsberg, another Whitman influenced poet, reads a poem, which he seems to have mostly, impressively, memorized; he wrote it, he says, while on LSD, but watch Buckley’s, famous for his facial expressions, reactions. A better introduction to Buckley is his book “Buckley: The Right Word,” a book I enjoyed.) But some find Whitman an old coot, and Ginsberg, too, and, as entertaining as he was, Buckley was an old coot, too. Even as a young man, Buckley was already an old coot, conservative, tight blazer and tie. Maybe it’s hard to be a cootless poet. But a drift toward cootness was something Ginsberg and Buckley shared.

Anyway, I am very much enjoying “Charming Gardeners.” It’s an encyclopedic book, chock-full of references of every kind, both personal and general. It’s a book that strikes out to find America, an act that may or may not require preparatory reading. There’s a “Postscript” of explanatory notes. The note to the letter-poem “To Hugo from Sodo,” for example, explains that SoDo, in Seattle speak, refers to the area south of downtown Seattle, an area I’m familiar with. It’s an industrial district. From the I-5, drivers can see SoDo sprawled out along the waterfront, the new stadium now an iconic part of the scene. The Seattle Mariners used the acronym in a marketing campaign, “Sodo Mojo.” More poets should attach notes to their work. Marianne Moore often provided her readers with notes. Then again, while sometimes the notes help, sometimes we feel the bottom fall away even deeper. “Charming Gardeners” is so full of references that it will take a long time to read – if one is to track all the references down. But that’s the idea. It’s a watershed, full of names (“…the law firm / Of Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, Cassidy, and Corso,” for example – funny, that) and locations all around the country, and events, historical and local. Other topics: baseball, the Civil War, God, cities, politics, illness, love.

That day I was out walking and walked by the telephone booth down on the corner, and the phone rang. Are you not interested in whether or not I answered it? And if I did, who was on the other end? There’s no chance to answer it now; the telephone booth has disappeared. This is why we should continue to write letters. Whether we turn them into poems or not is a different matter. But most people like reading letters; most people like to get mail. But someone has to start the chain. For a poet, a letter ensures, maybe, at least one reader.

Related Post: Walt Whitman and a Letter of Ourself – How a letter I wrote to one of my sisters came back to me, some 40 years later.

East Side Mt Tabor Photo Essay Walk

The sidewalks in what used to be called Tabor Heights, on the north slopes of Mt Tabor, were poured in the early 1900’s. The dates are marked on the curbs, but many of the dates are being lost to code enforcement requiring homeowners to fix broken concrete in their sidewalks. Curbs rounding corners were banded with steel to protect them from wheels of horse drawn carts. The steel bars are now peeling off.

Steel rings were placed into the curbs for horse ties. Some folks have taken to tying play animals to them these days.

The names of the streets were cut into the curbs.

John Lennon once said a poet’s job is to walk around and notice things that no one else has time for. It’s late December, but bulbs are already starting to come up, and noticing them, I was reminded of John.

 

There are a few poetry posts in the neighborhood. Today, this one contained Walt Whitman. I stopped to read it. Here’s what it says:

“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

The excerpt is from Whitman’s preface to Leaves of Grass.

Someone left a small pile of used bricks near the sidewalk. Maybe they are going to make a little stepping block. Used brick is very useful.

The deciduous trees in the neighborhood are asleep. One of the biggest yard trees around is located on Yamhill, across from the small pile of bricks.

In addition to a lot of bikes, beer, and beards (as illustrated in Alex Barrett’s This is Portland), there are a lot of churches in Portland. This stained glass window is at Ascension, on the corner of SE Yamhill and 76th.

Tri-Met Line 15 passes through the neighborhood. This one’s rounding the Ascension corner, continuing its westward route to Belmont and downtown.

The NO sign is on the fence of the playground-parking lot at Ascension. It was the occasion of a sestina (see previous post). Today there were a couple of bright orange-red cones by the fence. So much depends upon the bright orange-red cone; not sure what depends on the sign of NO. John Lennon might have written a song about the sign of NO, instead of a sestina.

Just below the sign of NO, on the wall, is a little plaque that reads, “Dedicated to All of the Lost Children.” It’s easy to miss. It’s just below the sign of NO.

Inside the Ascension grounds, there’s a lovely shrine.

This building on SE Stark shows a number of projects involving bricks.

This is a Portland landmark, on SE Stark. Stark was originally called Baseline Road, and from the baseline meridian, measurements and directions were made. The two photos show one of the old baseline markers, located just west of Flying Pie Pizza, on the south side of Stark.

This is another Portland landmark, the original Flying Pie. Above the sign, you can see the tops of the firs atop the northeast corner of Mt Tabor. I’ve dropped a few hundred feet since beginning the photo essay walk.

 

 

 

This is my destination, Bipartisan Cafe, SE Stark and 79th. Note the Vintage cocktail lounge sign just below the Cafe sign, where I’ve played guitar a few times. Vintage used to be the Why Not Wine bar. I played some guitar there when it was the wine bar also, a few times with George, and a few times solo.

 

 

 

Here I am inside Bipartisan, putting together the photo walk essay, drinking a cup of coffee. The cafe is crowded today. I’m sitting on a couch with my back to the wall. They’re playing some good songs in the cafe. People all around me are talking, reading, working on laptops, as I am, drinking coffee. There’s a guy showing his daughter how to play Scrabble. There’s another guy reading and listening to his iPod, white wires going into his ears. Outside, the rain is beginning to fall again. There goes another Line 15. Above and behind me is a large poster of a Rockwell. At the top it says: “OURS…to fight for.” And at the bottom it reads, “FREEDOM FROM WANT.” The drawing is of a family turkey dinner.

Remembrance of Things Past: or, The Card Catalog – ACCESS CLOSED!

What better way to close Open Access week than with a post on the card catalog? The Library of Congress’s In Custodia Legis (the blog of the law librarians of congress) has posted a photo of a notice users still find at the entrance to the card catalog, and librarian Christine Sellers explains: “When you walk into the Reading Room of the Law Library of Congress, you might notice something you haven’t seen in a while. A card catalog that is still in use, though no new cards have been added since December 1980.”

Open Access is necessary – efficient, effective, fair. But more, the virtual world, its backlit windows, are like Whitman’s “…Houses and rooms [are] full of perfumes, the shelves [are[ crowded with perfumes, I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it, The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.” Though we can not smell it, the virtual world still attracts us, like a sterile flower.

We miss not just the card catalog, its thumb-worn cards housed in red oak, carefully annotated by the librarian’s perfect pencil, but we miss too the smell of the open stacks, the aisles and shelves of books like Ferlinghetti’s Backroads to Far Places. But that’s not all we remember and miss. We miss the mimeograph machine, helping teacher turn the drum, watching the press emerge, holding the freshly inked papers to our face, smelling the wet ink. We miss the feel and smell of the pages of books, the large windows full of available light, and when the sun slanted through the library windows on warm summer evenings, the lighted air in the high-ceilinged library, like Ezra Pound’s, from Canto XCIII: “…The light there almost solid.”

Walt Whitman, McTeague, and We Go to the Movies

Having established our ethos to write film reviews (prior experience in the film industry as an usher for a few weeks at the Paradise Theatre in Los Angeles), and having surveyed the literature (from reviewers and neuroscientists), and synthesizing the results (two thumbs up; two down) on the most recent blockbuster, “Avatar,” and dispatching our own contribution (thumb down), we turn now our attention to the theatre itself, the room in which we sit and watch the movie.

In “Song of Myself,” Whitman moves from the grass outdoors to rooms: “Houses and rooms are full of perfumes….the shelves are crowded with perfumes, I breathe the fragrance myself, and know it and like it. The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.”

Were he writing today, Whitman might have mentioned the smell of buttered popcorn, the greasy, creamy butter already all over his fingers and lips as he makes his way down the aisle toward his favorite seat (perhaps Jonah Lehrer, also now taking up film reviewing, could next explain why it is the brain always wants the same seat), his hands full of popcorn box and semi-toxic coke spilling and bubbling over the butter on his fingers. Hard to not let this intoxicate you, and the movie hasn’t even started yet.

Our brain always goes for the first row in the balcony, or some other seat with an unobstructed view; if one isn’t available, we sit behind an empty seat, but it’s often our fate that a late arriver with a Jimi-do sits in front of us. Once, at the Paradise, in a packed house, the movie was about to begin when a guy the size of the Hulk with an afro like a Banyan tree found the last seat in the house, in front of us. To see around this obstruction we had to sit in Susan’s lap.

It is our habit to arrive early to movies, the better to find a good seat, settle in with the popcorn and coke, and not miss the previews (these days, the previews can be so long and engaging we often forget what movie we came to see), and as we sit, particularly if we have arrived ridiculously early, we are reminded of Frank Norris’s masterpiece, McTeague, and Mac and Trina’s night at the theatre. After his panic thinking he has lost the tickets, then remembering he’d stored them in his hat for safekeeping, “The [McTeague] party entered and took their places. It was absurdly early…the ushers stood under the galleries in groups…McTeague was excited, dazzled…he beheld himself inviting his ‘girl’ and her mother to accompany him. He began to feel that he was a man of the world. He ordered a cigar.” Later, during the show, “McTeague was stupefied with admiration…Think of that! Art could go no farther.”

Such is the parentage of our prefrontal cortex in the darkened but illuminated and intoxicating halls called theatres, originally natural spaces in the open air, where Whitman, McTeague, and we might have enjoyed a show taking our ease on some summer grass.

Walt Whitman and a Letter of Ourself

letter-of-11-dec-19691

Thirty-nine years ago this month, I sat on a bunk in a barracks in Fort Bliss, Texas, writing letters. This week, one came back. I wrote dozens of letters during my stay at Fort Bliss; alas, all are lost – to time’s sometimes worrisome and weary but always wealthy passing and tossing. But no, wait, here’s one returned, to tell a tale.

The letter came wrapped in a Christmas card sent by my oldest niece, whose mother, my oldest sister, passed away a few years ago. “I’m going through boxes of pictures, albums and letters & cards of my parents,” my niece wrote, “and thought it would be fun to return to the sender.”

Today’s Fort Bliss soldiers are no doubt writing emails home. The Internet intoxicates, and perhaps the future return of an email forty years old will be as remarkable as the forgotten letter is now. But later today I’ll walk down to the Bipartisan Café and sit at a window and write some letters, on paper, with pen and ink.

Walt Whitman said, in “Song of Myself,”

Houses and rooms are full of perfumes….the shelves are crowded with perfumes,

I breathe the fragrance myself, and know it and like it,

The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.

It’s difficult to think of Whitman composing Leaves of Grass on his computer. We can save emails with a click, without much thought or sentiment, but saving letters requires something more, a deeper commitment, perhaps, a foreshadowing of snow and love, of blank beaches and empty waves.