Slip-streaming through the universe is my only option as the stealthy illogical hucksteristic, misanthropic, devolving marketing and money driven chamber of death eats at our souls. Shifting baselines where now dog eat dog, spectacles of global genocide, national infanticide, and regional flogging follow the bouncing ball of a stupid media, dumber politicos, hoggish Hollywood, and the perverted principles of law firms, armies, corporations play intergalactic Sim-City on us all.
There is a constant reminder that my narrative, or the style of my rants, or the anger unleashed or even the dangerous thinking occupying my very being are just way over the top, and in polite or PC or political or multicontextual company, what I have to say better soften up, or my words are destined for the trash bin and my synapses headed for the orbitoclast.
Here, dangerous thinking, which as been ascribed to me for decades, thanks, Henry Giroux:
“Thinking dangerously can make the pedagogical more political by mapping the full range of how power is used and how it can be made accountable in all of its uses. Thinking dangerously is about more than doing a critical reading of screen culture and other texts, it is also about how knowledge, desire, and values become invaluable tools in the service of economic and political justice, how language provides the framework for dealing with power and what it means to develop a sense of compassion for others and the planet. Dangerous thinking is more than a mode of resistance, it is the basis for a formative and pedagogical culture of questioning and politics that takes seriously how the imagination can become central to the practice of freedom, justice, and democratic change.”
Seriously, good friends, lovers, family, they worry about me, occupied second to second by the big picture, all the injustice driven into good people, good communities, through the art of the steal and the big lie and the scam upon scam by a chosen people who have been footnoted and quoted on the record with the large sweeping statements about why the masses were made for oxen status, to be the brawn and shoulders and even marks in their economics of destruction.
Chosenness. It's coming up more and more as I trip through this bifurcated land, as a social worker, at the whim of lawyers, law makers, banks, non-profits, philanthropies, educators, editors, technologists, orchestrators. At a conference here in Oregon, in Silverton, at this incredible resort, the Oregon Gardens, and people talking about supported employment. The Oregon Supported Employment Center for Excellence. Speakers talking about citizens with mental illnesses (not my word, for sure) and about all the challenges of being treated equally, with accommodations for work, play, leisure, life. This is real stuff – people with intellectual disabilities, psychiatric disabilities, depression, you name the possible mental or emotional or spiritual disability.
Discrimination, Draconian laws, institutionalization, warehousing, stigmatizing, all of that, and more, so these social workers and case managers and vocational rehabilitation folk come together and convene this series of talks.
On one hand, there is some bright ray of light coming from this convening, but in the end, the entire system of at-will work, employers holding sway over everything an employee does, thinks, says, is, and the very fact we have more and more people who are coming out of the womb with epigenetic trauma – issues – and more and more kids with autism, more and more teens with phobias and anxiety disorders, and more and more adults in depression and various levels of trauma it is eating at us all . . . even the elite and entitled.
In the end, the kind of cities and towns we have organized, the type of hierarchies we have set up, the sort of authorities we have looked to for paternal guidance, parasitic capitalism running companies, running global economic markets and ruining vast parts of the globe that is even arable and with any safety for humanity and animal, well, this is where it all comes down to – we are plodding like sheep, eating vast planets worth of resources (do the ecological footprint for your individual lifestyle ) as humanity and ecosystems are denuded, degrade, destroyed, and destined for the elite, in this breakneck thing called consumerism and capitalism.
What is work, really? What is it that we do in factories and warehouses? What sort of humanity and seven generations planning do we bestow our great grandchildren selling bureaucratic lies, hawking destructive goods, hobbling creativity, music, food culture, art, community?
We are working or making demands of youth and others to work so the system of sewage and sumps and sludge continues.
So, yes, second by second, the entire system is there, in my face, like some Mayan codex revealed, or some planetary bio-web discerned, or just some philosophy codified. This thing we call humanity is tethered to the entire ecosystems of the heart, the mind and the biology and physics and thermodynamics that say it all, say it all.
One addict at a time. One homeless woman at a time. One raped child at a time. Downs syndrome, Fetal Alcohol, Fragile X, intellectual disability, bipolar, schizophrenic, one person at a time, holding hands, the intensity of that joining, human to human, caring, and yet, in the end, that social work leads these remarkable people into the chambers of burning hell that capitalism and its chosen few have set forth for us lowly ones to contemplate.
It’s that chosenness that eats too at my soul, when I am in a room with elites or some vanguard group, and there are no clothes, and the pomposity and patronizing and altogether self-important glory of their own reflections eat and eat at the one meth user at a time formula. Nothing but baby steps, retro-steps, decades rewound, the entire game of money for the few and this Cormac McCarthy The Road bounty (sic) for the masses. That is the collapse that angers me daily, minute by minute.
Someone recently, at this meeting this morning, went on and on about being Jewish, as if that Jewishness should be labeled as a protected class, with accommodations since so-so much has been suffered by the Jew. It was a bit odd in relationship to the conference on what sort of new things are happening in Oregon on getting protection for those with mental and developmental disabilities. But I am never surprised, never.
Here, Gilad Atzmon, helping me out about these identifies by a vanguard minority:
“Contemporary Jewish identity involves a certain element of binary qualities due to chosenness. As we know, Jewish assimilation and secularization, starting in the 19th century, led to the evolution of a Jewish concept of biological exceptionalism that is racist in nature. The supremacy we detect in Jewish political discourse, both Zionist and so-called anti, points to an inclination towards a Jew/Goy ‘binarism.’”
I also believe that the Judaic notion of chosenness is less poisonous than the Jewish secular and political version of the word. And yet, when it comes to Judaism, I still wonder what kind of people invent a God that chooses them over all other people.
Anti’ Zionist Jews insist that Zionism and being Jewish are entirely different matters that have nothing to do with each other. Jonathan Boyd, the Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) claims the opposite. According to Boyd, statistics proves that “being a Jew and a Zionist are one and the same, they cannot be separated out.” Demands to separate Zionism and the Jews tear “Jewishness in two,” Boyd wrote today in the Jewish Chronicle.
Somehow all of what this conference brings ties into the struggle against the few controlling the many, no matter what form those few take. The few holding sway over people of color, over people with disabilities, over those in Developing Countries, or sway over the “other,” holding sway over vast populations. It's really the fiber inside my mental sinew. Doesn't mean I can riff with some decent history, decent creative storytelling, something in my past that is not so always entwined in politics and railing against these systems of injustice.
Here, something about William Stafford that says a lot about me, which is what can be easily shaved down to a universal set of truisms.
What more can a memoir do than flip the script, pull from the absurdity of now, the unfolding perversions of tomorrow, to find a home resting in the sanity of memory? Terminal Velocity – Man Lost of Tribe:
A Poet, the Pacific Flyway, and a Sonora Flash Flood*
*first published first in Cirque Journal, https://issuu.com/burwellm/docs/cirque_10_-_full
He holds up the sands of mountain heads and tectonic fissures splayed, from peaks like a purple haze over the Old Pueblo he learned are called Madrean sky islands. His hands soothe flecks of iron ore, pulverized by plates crushing and churned into tsunamis of flash floods booming into Sonora from pine and fir quarries forty miles away.
The Oregonian smiles. There is movement all around: the cumulus clouds push shadows onto the raging seasonal river, almost class five whitewater. He smiles again, as gambler’s quail lift and squeak like bad springs on an International, as a tortoise chomps on acacia.
He lets the air take the rivulets of sand before the surge of flashflood crushes part of a cut bank across the wide arroyo where he gladly stands with students. He smiles, pointing.
There is a fragility in the 19 year old recalled, a thin membrane of memory now, 37 years later, holding onto that moment when I was with this poet the first time. Toughed like basalt after the solar blast of a million years. What is forgotten has been chipped away by sun, wind and lichen. I am going back to Stafford.
I think of him, now, this 100th anniversary of his birth, listening to his son Kim, a poet too, a sort of passenger pigeon of his father’s legacy here in Oregon. That singular idea Kim brings forth about his father’s attention to self, to the inner eye, well, it is now the shape of things to come, here in the writing room, and like a miner clanking about a shaft, remembering years ago where that vein was, I remember Stafford from a time when the world was big and ideas endless.
William Stafford, like a thousand poets (or maybe a few hundred), is refracted memory churned into the daily living of writing . . . his practice:
I put my foot in cold water
and hold it there: early mornings
they had to wade through broken ice
to find the traps in the deep channel
with their hands, drag up the chains and
the drowned beaver. The slow current
of the life below tugs at me all day.
When I dream at night, they save a place for me,
no matter how small, somewhere by the fire.
Thirty-seven years later I announce to the library audience in Tigard, Oregon, when Kim Stafford asks for questions, that I know Stafford like a million others know him, or ten thousand maybe personally, or those of us in the tens of hundreds who had a chance to hitch to that thing called the “poetry reading-slash-poetry workshop.” Three times the sound of his voice, in a room and in situ, the virtuoso of the poet teacher – Stafford – crossed paths with my own sheltering sky. That pathway then and later was impressive, an ambassador of poems, leading him to my place of latticed shadows or leveling titanium sky, Tucson, and then the endless journey away from Arizona to New Mexico, onto El Paso, other parts of Texas, on past Bhutan to Istanbul to the Great Wall to Iran.
How many intersections with youth, how many taunts to our young pugnacity, did he shepherd for only a moment in that time as traveling poet? His name is braided to the valley of Willamette, poured into the delta waters of Columbia threading loam and cedar.
The remembering goes backward to Tucson, in the 1970s. Time and dates are flotsam in my life. Was it 1979?
We all turn to the molting tattooed skin of solar blasts . . . some of us semi-wise decades later . . . the shape of his words alive upon his death. I’ve pushed past continental divides when his words locked into conversations with Neruda or Levertov . . . . Crossed equatorial sunrises caught in my own hardening cornea where W.S Merwin chatted with Lorca and Czeslaw Mislov . . . . And this vast ocean reef web I’ve touched with scabbed skin as narcosis sank into me, when the cul-de-sacs of Sappho, Sylvia Plath, Lucille Clifton let their poems grow like dahlias.
The oddest places Stafford’s poetry eddies up from – a cay off Belize with lemon sharks; or the tipping leaves of jungle liter carried by harvester ants in the millions inside the shadow of Copan pyramid.
Yet, even reckless dusks near Hanoi on an intrepid Russian motorcycle or running through Guatemalan hills with the contraband of thieves, all of this is nothing compared to the monumental histories of what a child writes in that early gossamer light, a floating time, when we observe the world at that intersection of nascent knowledge and the wide brow of endless earth. Now, old and entranced by the child, or the stories, or the things the father and sister and mother and children brought to me then, well, he is right to say childhood is the world of the poet.
That’s what William Stafford whispered to us, in three workshops: Most good poetry -- maybe even most writing -- comes from those first years: the uplifting loneliness in a child’s drama, inside the child’s atmosphere of patina carrying the light. A place where the girl’s take on the tornados that are the world is honored. Or the boy’s yearning to belong to some pattern or some baseball field is captured in song. That weight of poetry is tied to our own clumsy solitary otherness as juveniles, that feeling, as if a snake skin, is all itchy on us, or the wagging coiled tail of an alligator lizard inside about to cut through our belly. Cut through to youth remembered and lived.
That’s what you end up writing for the rest of your life. Those are the sparks setting the adult fire into perpetual stoking and waning.
Kim, his son, 37 years after his father guided me in Arizona, guides the Oregon audience through the shape of his father’s words and life as reconciling and reshaping youth:
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give--yes or no, or maybe--
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
William Stafford listens to us, his student hosts, Wildcats from Arizona who are let off the literary hook or leash through an act of professorial pronouncement – Go a little wild with him, but be aware Stafford, himself, can rattle sage poets and novelists who are your teachers, with his simplicity.
We newbies want our moment with the laureate, this National Book winner, this entrance into all things small and quiet but read by kings and laureates. That head strong inventiveness and our naiveté, he seems galvanized to, or at least that’s how youth remembers intersection with extraordinary literary fame and the passionate tribulations of angsty poet youngins.
The largeness of “the thing” at 19 – poets and revolution, the new coda of continental consciousness, and maybe an end to the old white man’s lament: immolation of the tweed, the pipe and patriarchal beard. We could cut it with machete, that potential paradigm shift, and the new horizons or hope for something different happening was exhilarating under a mescal moon. We were ready to rebuff it all, stoking bonfires as both homage to youth quaking the old and setting the world afire. Or at least that’s what we thought. Stafford speaks:
If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.
This time in my youth we are launching a new undergraduate literary magazine, Persona. We expect (want) validation, or vindication of a life young, but feeling heavy from the travails of a country left for old men and money seekers.
William Stafford takes an interest, understands the impatience of the unaccepted. He hears the clucking youth against the literary weight of teachers and national book award winners. It makes sense to him, that unchecked youth would want some small thing for us, fledglings, but big in our youth. Some time with him without the blustery literary devices of PhDs.
We watched him earlier in the day pushing the flow of that river he visited, pushing his hands into the riot of the hydro-ecology of a dry riverbed the afternoon before when he had arrived to Tucson, now a shadow of itself, furious with the glacial weight of melting snow and four days of rain.
Kim Stafford tells the Oregon audience his father always came to his hosts, wherever he was asked to be poet, with his hands cured by their river. He then flattened palms pointed to them as a form of supplication to the flow of life, river, what might also be benediction and genuflection. His dad would tell his new friends -- poets one in all – the name of a river in a new country he was visiting. “You can never stand in the same river twice . . . .” Heraclitus seems to be stepping into the rivers of bold ink, into those currents where Stafford captures the light of a horizon flecked with stars and abiding rising sun. New horizons, old memories of youth.
Stafford names one of our Sonora rivers so his hosts recognize his awe of place and humbleness in the scheme of what this desert really means. He looks at my map and talks about the Santa Cruz River west of campus, reminding us that while a mostly dry wash year round, the shifting sands of Santa Cruz still echo the water coursing underground: the desiccant white-and-brown river sand hide life-affirming waters that pop up to surface some fifty miles down the line.
Stafford of Oregon is taken by the force of Sonora flash flood miles away uplifting the earth he stands on moments before his big reading on campus. El Rillito, this gaping riverbed north of town, he sees it’s flooding waters from hills and mountains and arroyos deeply etched in shadows miles away cresting fragile banks and eating away at a paved bicycle path.
We see it as the politics of bulldozers and cement hemming in wildness.
He studies each eddy, each roiling muddy pipeline, and sees a poem unfurling at pre-dawn. The hour of his poem building.
We try to talk about land speculators and ecology eaters stripping the desert valley.
He breathes in the swampy creosote bush aroma of wet desert and points to a swoop of buzzards lifting above the swells.
A smile. A dozen turkey buzzards, and that small crack of a smile.
There is a country to cross you will
find in the corner of your eye, in
the quick slip of your foot--air far
down, a snap that might have caught.
And maybe for you, for me, a high, passing
voice that finds its way by being
afraid. That country is there, for us,
carried as it is crossed. What you fear
will not go away: it will take you into
yourself and bless you and keep you.
That's the world, and we all live there.
We drink impatience and tequila at noon, hold broiling debates over the melting facades of a country pushed into the harsh napalm glow of Vietnam, Cambodia, United Fruit, Dow, Nixon, all the reckless killing fields of corporations and manifest destiny. Whose land is this anyway, my Jew co-editor friend asks us. Was it Tohono or Mestiza . . . the battleground of interlopers with dollar signs etched in their souls? We want to prod the Kansas poet.
Stafford listens. Thinks. Speaks.
Once you cross a land like that
you own your face more: what the light
struck told a self; every rock
denied all the rest of the world.
We announce the underground railroad intersects right smack in our Old Pueblo, Tucson. The refugees filing into piping hot desert of organ pipe cactus, that matte black tongue of the Gila monster pointing toward El Norte, el paso del norte, or paseo del muerte – trail of death. We tell him they are searching for shelter in a new land, this new undeliverable homeland, which is the promise of the enemy’s financer accepting refugees.
He nods, gets it, knows what we know, and more.
The USA versus the world, versus the Salvadorans, anchored to the killing squads. Pushed out of highlands and crawling toward El Norte. We tell Stafford there’s some big news coming from the “big time” New York market, our sanctuary movement edited and packaged for TV: The blessings and underground work of men and women lifting the tortilla curtain, bearing witness and then sheltering the travelers at the risk of bolstering the very nature of what to the government is crime and to the human is care.
He knows, he says.
We roil at the incessant bombing of Nicaragua by Carter, the peanut farmer, Navy guy. We list the crimes of Chile, the crimes of C-Ch-CIA.
We splatter paint on the commons when our apartheid village is ransacked by brutes in the ROTC squads, football walk-ons and the security patrols on our University of Arizona campus.
William is there, listening, watching, at the edge of the crowd, talking to the uninitiated gawkers as we help protestors put back the South African shanty resurrected on our campus 9,000 miles from Mandela and Biko. Some of us are humbled by Stafford’s attentiveness, his inquiry into the Chicanos grappling with La Raza and a new canon for American Lit in a workshop he facilitates.
He listens and then reads dead poets.
He lifts a scoop of the Rillito River bed, remembers an earlier time years before when his Tucson hosts told the Kansas “Almost an Indian” (his childhood moniker) Stafford to come back in spring. “And here I am now, watching the waves of a desert awaken the water soul man inside a dust bowl rat who like me who flourishes in wet Oregon.” Listing, surfing saguaros, entire dumped cars barreling downstream, the desert jettisoning its skin some fifty miles away.
He observes . . . a poem inside.
The violence of flash flood and the hard ice melting high into the Santa Catalinas is the joy of Bill Stafford . . . . We know some turn of light or sound of red tail hawk will be lines for a future poem wired to his vast Kansas-Oregon synapses.
I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.
The audience is quiet, like Bill at first, his face reddened by traveling outside, like those of the foreigners’ when they see his hands open to them, this smallish poet crossing new open territory around the world. He talks of Afghanistan, Iran, and then a story of blinding snow where fence lines vanish and cows and cowpokes freeze like monuments of sacrifice with just the edge of bitterness in place to inscribe solitude into a story. Bill Stafford reads some lines from Wallace Stegner’s “Genesis: A Story from Wolf Willow,” calls it one of our country’s best, and then bows to read his own work:
The light along the hills in the morning
comes down slowly, naming the trees
white, then coasting the ground for stones to nominate.
Notice what this poem is not doing.
He beckons us to hold steady the light in each morning alive, to listen to the air rustling with “small furry voles or moles . . . owls crunched up before gliding like gods for a talon swoop . . . crickets and their drumming... explosions of blossoms held in the darkness by croaking wet mating toads . . . .”
Or maybe that is a trick of youth, words recalled now at a distance. Re-appropriating, re-fabricating, retrofitting . . . . Something like what Stafford might have said: “This inching of truth away from a clear stratosphere. . . invention and imagination overcoming a poem . . . for a poem like memory is not a report on life but a painting, quiet but cinched to a fury and imagination.”
Maybe he said that, or maybe lichen-covered memory leads me away from the original source, one of Bill’s counterparts maybe, one that intersected with my youth – Galway Kinnell in El Paso, who knows. Or Bob Bly in Spokane? Garcia Marquez in Austin?
No matter how far he travels, the stints in Washington DC, or the road traversed and flights embarked upon, Stafford wants that West, the Willamette, the true angle of repose of sunlight falling onto the Pacific Northwest . . . . Where all hope is delivered to him in deciduous and pine forest gleaned by waterfalls, cataracts of tears. From an interview, Crazy Horse 7 (1971) by Dave Smith:
Smith: What do you see in your future?
Stafford: We'll go back West and I'll keep on writing poems. I keep following this sort of hidden river of my life, you know, whatever the topic or impulse which comes, I follow it along trustingly. And I don't have any sense of its coming to a kind of crescendo, or of its petering out either. It is just going steadily along. So I inhale and exhale. I experience, write poems, get now and then, great feelings of being on the edge of writing something that reverberates through my own self and that's very interesting.
White Sky –
They come to herald in their connection to Stafford, Oregonians looking to the past in order to re-jigger the waning future. Or, to imagine an Oregon of mythical proportions. Stafford serves as a light, a beam of tungsten into the cold gray of Willamette and Lake Oswego. There is a tender trailing of the voice in that aging, remembering hardscrabble histories.
Fewer birds lift. The mountain men of Stafford have given way decades ago to entrepreneurs, speculators, builders. These people in Tigard, maybe anywhere this year where Kim and others take the Stafford Road Show, are long in tooth, gray and easy to provoke with laughter, rhyme, words.
They are old but still children trapped, looking for a new way to capture their lives moving away from a horizon gushing with fecund life, the verdant buds withered, the trick of thinking like all the earth is inside your at those tender ages of 10 or 12 now snores in a chair.
Somewhere in that slipstream, even back to Tucson, or when we met in El Paso, or was that place in San Antonio or Austin, Stafford rose up, listened and then spoke words of youth, the measure of things. He never wanted a muse, really, tapping away on his shoulder delivering what and how to say it.
I glanced at her and took my glasses
off--they were still singing. They buzzed
like a locust on the coffee table and then
ceased. Her voice belled forth, and the
sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
knew that nails up there took a new grip
on whatever they touched. "I am your own
way of looking at things," she said. "When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be
a sort of salvation." And I took her hand.
The poet’s poet son makes sure to jostle with that muse-concept, makes sure that people he meets and will meet on this Oregon Trail of 100 Years after His Birth do not look for a magical essence for being alive as artists, writers. He knows the routine of a father who penned 20,000 poems, daily exercises like a Zen master waiting for the grasshopper to light on water, or the master pushing hands until mountains move.
Get on with the exercise of writing, maybe that’s the coda I learned at age 19 from Bill. Just go out into the world and write it. The déjà vu of meeting him twice, or three times. That universal, the harmony of youth always jostling with one’s old fellow. Those stories and memories are the best, for sure, and Bill Stafford ramified that 37 or 40 years ago, or the last time when he was on the Palouse, when I met him, listening. Or was that Galway?
His son recalls things that never happened that are, and things that happened that will never be the inseam of a persona, nothing that will shed into a character revealed, but still, the things that matter, they haven’t happened yet. That is the poem of green earth and white sky:
Many things in the world have
already happened. You can
go back and tell about them.
They are part of what we
own as we speed along
through the white sky.
But many things in the world
haven't yet happened