Sunday, June 5, 2011

Exile From Main Street

In my reading of Paul Christensen’s the human condition, I did not mention the poem “Leaving Texas.”   If you, like me, have been following Christensen’s critical and artistic exploration of Texas for the past 35 years, you can’t help but read the poem in a state of grief.  While he never went native, at least Christensen sat among us, wise from his years of travel, able to translate ourselves to ourselves, an exasperated and loving ambassador, Sam Houston among the Cherokees.

Goodbye to Texas, and all I ever knew,
under your Old Testament heaven, your
backed earth curled like shards
of pottery, your abandoned
native world.  Crags, eagles, snakes
in a choke of yaupon shoots,
your crack and thunder, your
dry arroyos and burnt desert towns. (“Leaving Texas, 43)

One of Christensen’s many projects in service to poetry was Cedarhouse Press, a publishing enterprise that he ran out of small building beside his house in Bryan.   Among the books he published is Mel Kenne’s Eating the Fruit.  Kenne, like Christensen is a migrant.  Keene, a native of Refugio, Texas, has lived in Istanbul, Turkey, for almost twenty years.  There he has taught at Koc University and at Kadir Has University.  Kenne met Christensen, not in Texas, but in Malaysia.  These are guys who have gotten around.

I barely know Kenne, though our paths have crossed a few times. He taught at Austin Community College for a few years.  But when I was coming out as a poet, he had left Austin.  He was a roommate, I believe, of John Lee, who would become a dear friend during my mid-life changes.  One of Mel’s books, The Book of Ed, is a CD with music composed for the poems.  I was part of the group that rehearsed the material and performed it several times in the “please give some money to project” phase.  When the CD was produced, I was wisely replaced by a real actor.  Shout out to actors Paul Wright and Margaret Hoard, whom I much admire!

One of Kenne’s recent books is Galata’dan, or The View from Galata, published in Istanbul in a bi-lingual editon, by Yapi Kredi Yayinlari publishing house, and translated into Turkish by Ipek Seyalioglu.  Galata is a neighborhood in the European side of Istanbul, which we know from Paul’s (St. Paul, not Paul Christensen) letter to the Galatians. 

On my first reading of The View from Galata, I kept having flashbacks to some European film, or several, really.  There is an archetypal character in them, or so it seems in my memory/imagination, of the older man, a bachelor or widower, slightly unkempt but perhaps also a bit formal and reserved and dignified. He is a judge or an academic, maybe even a retired police chief.   He has seen a lot, this gentleman.  He has travelled far emotionally.  Perhaps there was something idyllic in the past that has been lost; perhaps there was something terrible that is more or less overcome.  But this gentleman has ceased his travels, or assumes he has.  And the heart of his life is looking and watching and thinking.  This man’s travels are no longer travels of breadth and distance; they are travels of depth.  He magnifies, brings the far away closer, makes the small bigger, explores the detail.   Maybe he fingers an emotional scab or two.    

So this is who I kept thinking about as I read these poems.  They are poems about the outside world, but there is someone looking and it matters who this person is who is looking.  In this case, it’s not some innocent, some romantic, someone light, making the world into something he wishes it were, but it’s not.  The person looking is some at home, not at home.  Unheimliche ,sure, but I am not going to go all Freudian on you here.

In this book, in general, Kenne, as pared himself down to a William Carlos Williams simplicity.  Here’s a poem “Galata:  Children Playing in the Street.” 

I love the sounds
of life outside
these bounds.

each day

we all cry
Anne! Anne!  (page 60)

Note (“Anne” is Turkish for “mother.”)

One of the things I notice in this book is the stillness of it, the quietude, that still contains rhyme, and the pauses of the breaks between the strophes.  And there are no commas in the second strophe: it’s a list but it’s all happening at once. 

I suppose I like this poem because there is a poem telling us how that poem was written:  “Prelude to the Poem Following this One.”

Walking home today,
I passed four girls
who were playing a game.
Three formed a triangle,
its points connected
by a string they held up
with their waists,
forming a kind of corral. 

The fourth ran right up

What I sense in reading Keene’s poems is that there is a simple dedication to just trying to “get it right.”  We’re humans, we see the world, we feel the world, and isn’t that enough.  What’s with all the worry, and the drama, and the artifice.  Keene is doing really hard work here.  He is dismissing centuries of aesthetic mumbo jumbo, of fancy dancing, of showmanship, of selling his wares as a poet.  You know, we can look at this opening and we can imagine Botticelli’s Primavera, the Three Graces and Venus, playing in the street.  But, really, do we need to do this?  Why not just be in the moment, someone there, but someone watching, not really part of it, but, yes, somehow part of it.

I walked on home,
both arms weighted
with provisions—
cheese, salt, whiskey, water—
and later sat down
and tried to write a poem
that began,

“I love the sounds
of life outside
these bounds . . .” (page 58)

 The things he is carrying?  Just the essentials.  And I love the two pauses here—the first, narratively, when he comes home and then, pause, later sits to write, all this time with the thought in his head of a poem that he will write.  Then the second, structurally, following “began” with a comma, pause, line break, now a joy remembered.  He had carried this joy of living with him, down the street, to his apartment, while he took out the key and unlocked the door, put the food up, changed his clothes, visited the rest room, made a drink. 

There is nothing large here in these poems—no desperate searching, no coy stretching of the truth, no family histories to turn vendettas on—this book is filled with the smallness of living daily in a place without one’s history.  Since Keene has given up his personal history, he has plenty of room for the facts of daily life, and, what is more, he can see the facts of his daily life.  He can watch, not only the city, but himself.

Here is the first stanza of a poem “I, Today.”

All I did today was read and swim.
And feel empty.  Oh, yes, he did
feel strongly irritated once, when,
on his way to the pool, he came up
to a man who was standing in
the middle of the sidewalk, talking
to some workmen, blocking his way.
When the man wouldn’t move
to let him pass, I waited for a moment
and then, firmly but gently, pushed
the man aside. Quickly walking on,
he turned and looked back sharply
to see the man staring at him, his
eyes open wide in surprise.  And I
felt almost good, as if he’d done
something for all of humanity.

This could be a complicated narrative, something out of Kafka, a divided self in a foreign city, thoughts combating in an anxious mind.  But Keene’s sharp observation comes to the essence.  We are foreigners, even to ourselves, but sometimes the observer must act, and sometimes the observed will turn to us “eyes open wide in surprise.”  In this book, Istanbul turns and smiles.