Art-Poetica

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

I painted my first Emily Dickinson in 1992, probably as a kind of totem. I had spent my early childhood living in a cottage my parents rented on the property of a defunct artist’s colony in the hills outside Honolulu. Founded by artists Lillie Gay and George Burroughs Torrey after they eloped (with some scandal attached), the colony was called “Wailele”—“Leaping Waters”—in homage to Kalihi Stream, which cut through the artists’ estate, and the Falls which was so central to the atmosphere there.

Our cottage was isolated from the world outside—from “civilization”—but the Torrey mansion and thatched “teahouse” gallery, where art salons had lit up so many tropical nights, were only a short walk down a lava stone path. I spent \my playtime in the shadows of that world, beside huge paintings that still occupied the teahouse walls.

But I didn’t pursue art myself (though I did play around with it) until a Drawing 1 class in college, where I rendered passionately and the instructor decided very publicly that my drawings “had no imagination.” I put aside the earnest pencils and charcoals, the Conte crayons, in favor of another perilous pursuit: poetry.

Several years later a friend reeled me back into the world of art with some exercises in Betty Edwards’ Drawing with the Right Brain, which then led to a few years of study with artists Jimmy Suzuki and Anne Gregory (http://www.annegregoryart.com/), which resulted a few years after that in my first solo show. Since by this time I was also deeply involved in the life of poetry, I began to wonder how I might incorporate the poetry with the art, fuse the two somehow.

In the mid-eighties I went to the Degas show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where I learned his method of working chalk pastels into wet watercolors. I came home immediately and tried Degas’ technique—painting three nudes colors I intensified with the melted pastels; then I inked in a poem (“Shadow Woman,” which appeared in Hawaii Review) in unbroken lines, as a frame around the three figures, adding fragments of lines here and there like little free-floating webs of word-dust. (The poem was in part a meditation on how our cells replace themselves every seven to ten years.) The piece hangs in my dining room twenty-five years later. It is certainly more successful than other pieces I attempted, but it never accomplished what I hoped for: the fusion of visual image and word into something entirely other.

But: Back to Emily: In the early nineties, I was working in an arts program for homeless and low income women—teaching both art and poetry—and came up with an idea a group project. The women painted self-portraits in acrylic on blank, unglazed 5 x 5 ceramic tiles; when finished we assembled a splendid mural—a mosaic of painted selves. The project set me off on a tile-painting mission of my own that included (along with portraits of several women artists in the program, including “Judy,” of A Camellia for Judy, and icons like Kahlo and O’Keeffe) my first painting of Dickinson—just her face this time, with that bit of famous ribbon at her neck, on a red background, with leaves, a crescent moon and those familiar lines, that wishful mantra: “I dwell in Possibility/ A fairer House than Prose.”

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The Fall Of An Khe

by John Samuel Tieman

I never saw Saigon.   In 1970, I was stationed at Camp Radcliff next to the village of An Khe in the Central Highlands.   I was assigned to the army’s 4th Infantry Division.   The 4th lived way north of Saigon.  

But in March of 1975, a month before The Fall Of Saigon, I lived in Dallas with Debbie Dugan.   We met at Southern Methodist University, where we were both studied history.   In addition to a love for the past, Debbie and I shared an enthusiasm for great sex and a lot of it.   Which is about all we had in common.   That said, Debbie was a sexy and beautiful woman with a gentle and generous heart.

I left Vietnam in December of 1970.   I was twenty.   Those years, between my participation in the war and The Fall Of Saigon, were a time longer than America’s entire involvement in World War II.   This was the whole of my undergraduate years, the early 70’s.  Dallas was a long way from An Khe, but the war was never far from me.   One night, it occurred to me that, for the first time since my discharge, I had gone 24 hours without dwelling on the war.   I was a junior.

In my senior year of college, in 1975, the North Vietnamese invaded the South.   I knew the South wouldn’t fight.   Not that I blamed them.   Who wants to be the last man to die?

Every evening that March, I watched the TV news.   I watched for the map.   As the North captured another chunk of the South, that bit of the map was painted red.   One evening, An Khe was red

Camp Radcliff fell without a fight.   The South Vietnamese Army just ran.   Not that I wanted anyone to die.   But An Khe fell without a fight.   And I wept bitterly.  

I thought of Williams Bridge.   Williams Bridge spanned a small river in An Khe.   Specialist 4th Class Eric Williams died while building that bridge.   I never met him.   He died four years before my tour of duty.   Every time I passed that way, I read his plaque.   I identified with him.   I’m not sure why.   Perhaps it was because we shared the same rank.   Perhaps, as the Good Book says, “There, but for the grace of God …”

As I watched the news in March of 1975, I thought about the death of Specialist Williams.   Somewhere, in all that grief, were all the deaths, Americans, Vietnamese, the French and all the rest.   But I fixed on The Sp. 4 Eric Williams Bridge.   And I wept bitterly.   Because it was all in vain.

Twice in my life, I have wept like that.   The other time was when my father died.  

Debbie did her best to comfort me, something for which I remain grateful.   But my grief confused her.   I was the only veteran she knew.   I’d heard of Nam vets being spit on and such.   Their sadness notwithstanding, my experience was one of isolation.   I was the only Vietnam veteran I knew at SMU.

The next day was an ordinary weekday.   I just went to class.   I remember listening to a lecture in Dallas Hall.   And knowing I was alone.   Because, of all my classmates, my teachers, friends, people I liked, people I loved, of all those folks, I alone wept for Eric Williams.

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Border Town Ballad

By Laura Schultz

Growing up in a border town, California in the 1950’s was the best of times—and a time of great awakenings for all of us country folks as well as the nation. The town of my youth, El Centro, was a thriving hub of California’s agriculture that was often referred to as “The winter salad bowl.” The mostly family owned farms grew ¼ of the nations’ fresh vegetables, particularly lettuce. It was a magical playground for kids in the country. Our town was a place of extremes where summer days withered under scorching heat and most of us tried to drench ourselves in a neighbor’s cool, refreshing swimming pool. The sounds of the days were filled with the growl of farm machinery and the nights were filled with cricket songs.

The ground we walked on was hard and filled with cracks and fissures and the crunch under our boots in the lettuce fields was enjoyable as a child. Unpredictable earthquakes slept under our feet as the town was located at the southern tip of the San Andreas Fault line. And we never knew when the earth would shake from another violent episode. As a result of the juxtaposition to the San Andreas, the earth’s crust was constantly being torn asunder and earthquakes of a magnitude 5+ were not that uncommon.

On the rare occasion of gloomy weather, thunder roared from the sky with torrential rain that followed, creating pools of mud. The irony was that while thunder scared me tremendously, a horse named “Lightening” was my best friend for years. Amazingly he jumped the fence on the corral as a warning sign to us, whenever a sizeable earthquake was mere minutes away.

Nestled a mere 10 miles from the Mexican border, El Centro was in many ways an idyllic setting. Being in such close proximity to Mexico held both challenges and opportunities as I grew up. However, most of my early childhood was much like an episode from the tv series “The Andy Griffith Show.” In the fictional town of Mayberry on the tv series as was true in El Centro as well—ducks, goats and sheep were a child’s beloved pets along with the occasional dog or cat. While watching “The Andy Griffith Show” on our black and white television set, I was comforted by the fact that the setting of the show in Mayberry was much like our cozy community. Many of the moms in the 1950’s were homemakers like June Cleaver in the tv series “Leave it To Beaver” and the dads all went out to work like Ozzie from “The Ozzie and Harriet Show.” Like the families in these tv shows, we grew up without the contradictions of modern urban life.

The migrant workers, many of whom crossed the Mexican border in the wee hours of the morning, were filled with hopes and dreams of a better life for their families back in Mexico. They picked the lettuce and other crops in the hot sun in El Centro and the surrounding farm communities like ours. All but the younger children, had faces like roadmaps that marked the many other places they had been. Depending on which crop was in season in various locales, the workers referred to as “braceros” during that era, travelled to other towns in California to pick grapes, cantaloupes, watermelons or other sweet delights. These very proud workers brought with them a cornucopia of Mexican culture including dance, music and historic art. These wonderfully creative displays from Mexico were proudly shown at major events in El Centro such as the annual County Fair and the yearly Christmas parade.

We spent our days laboring in the bounty of what grew aplenty with the aid of the nearby Colorado River that was harnessed for its life giving energy. But mostly what the workers received was a life on the road living in barren shacks and weary nights filled with sore backs. This was the plight that the migrant knew all too well. The toil of long days with meager financial rewards was a difficult life during the 1950’s and is still not easy for many who must travel to many locales to find seasonal work.

The rich hues of green, orange and white from crops such as carrots, alfalfa, cabbage, cotton and luscious-looking lettuce fields formed a creative geometrical design that was startling as one peered down from a tiny puddle-jumper plane. These four-seater planes which carried visitors down the narrow runway into town often shook mercilessly while in flight and were uncomfortable for most of the passengers. The tiny airport brought planes in from urban areas such as San Diego and Los Angeles. However, most of the passengers were farmers who were travelling for farm related business or family members who came into town to visit their relatives. We rarely got a tourist who came merely to visit our sleepy town.

The lovely patterns of lush crops that could take one’s breath away from a momentary glance from the airplane, were a stark contrast to the proximity of drab, dreary yucca cacti amidst mounds of sand –just a short stint away from the center of town. I can still remember the sweet smell of freshly cut hay as well as the pungent aromas of the cattle feed lots. One of the most notable sand dunes was affectionately called “Heber Beach”, though there were certainly no waves in this portion of the “Colorado Desert.” As children at play, though, we were having too much fun riding our horses and frolicking to notice too many negatives around us at that time. Everything seemed to be a normal part of farm life.

The winters brought a blanket of frost that covered the ground and froze many crops year after year, much to the dismay of the farmers who made their living on those winter crops and “lost their shirts”, as my father used to say. But when summer came upon us when temperatures were sizzling at 115 degrees, it was unbearable for any homo sapien, let alone for exhausted cattle and horses who grazed all day on alfalfa, hovering near any shady spot they could find.

While I was still a naïve child about the ways of the world, a sugar manufacturing plant moved right on the perimeter of town to extrapolate the succulent juice of the farmer’s sugar beet crop. This industry while welcomed by farmers at the time– may have signaled the beginning of the end of the family farms as we knew them. Slowly and insidiously, agri-business and other companies bought up this preciously rich land that had been in families for generations. And what transpired in the next few years in El Centro and other towns in close proximity had tragic consequences for the town and its residents. Change was all around us as the country was about to struggle with its own growth, changing landscape and population explosion. As I look back at my childhood in this California border town with great nostalgia, it will still always feel like home.
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The Cacophony of Dreams

by Elizabeth Kirschner

Not for me a garden of dreams. Instead mine rip into my delicate brain sac, tear its membranes as though it were a placenta. These dreams, after a decade of being knocked out by heavy duty sedatives, anti-psychotics, basically an arsenal of lethal, at times, tempting, alluring, let’s just do me in drugs.

Now dreams come unbidden, war inside me, singe my brain cave with haunting pictographs as I go off my drugs, bit by, after finally reaching a plateau of peace following years of tumultuous madness that left me looking like a concentration camp detainee. My mind was my concentration camp, the tortures exquisitely executed with a tour de force I’ve not yet been able to capture in words.

Dreams drain me, create a chaotic cacophony. What was muted, gagged, now erupts, each explosive kernel a slice of being. Last night, I was in a war-torn country with the daughter I never had, impoverished, homeless, starving. We ate charred pieces of burlap, but we were the only victims in our exiled exodus, those we came across were shored up with food, drink, shelter. We even tried to seek out a once upon a time lover—my daughter’s father?—but, of course, he was not to be found. Desperately we clung to each other, two writhing figures.

What raw comfort can I take after such a Boschian nightmare? This morning, as is my custom, I walked by the sea, nearly climbed into its briny womb so I could re-emerge as a woman no longer embattled. Tiny, fingertip-size shells were miniature bassinets. It is spring in this paradise lost I call home. So much burgeoning in the buds—their red-veined like blood vessels look like they might burst and the knock out blossoms nearly knock me off my feet.

Desolate dreams, as well, of my ex-husband who stands as a ghost in an army of ghosts in the winter cornfield bordering the cemetery of my dead—Mother, Father, Grandfather, both Grandmothers—in the bleak, nearly reptilian landscape of my grotesque childhood.

In one, I’m doomed to withering silence, my body a hollow stalk or a whistle carved out of bone through which seethes a deathly dirge. I am in a crowd, but no one sees me. I am a remarkable absence, fracturing, splitting like a strand of my own hair, soul bound in mummy wrappings.

Only once a dream of love with a man I might come to love. The universe reduced to two in my high iron bed in the glow of firelight though there wass no fire. Perhaps it was the tumbledown flames singing on black wicks, wicks that may be tiny crucifixes.

Somehow I have been butchered into being. All my life, knives have been flying toward me, but now in this rash spring rubbing me with its rare beauties, there comes the sound of wind-whipping wings. Dreams strip search me, hunting for weapons, but I have none and the drugs I once used to threaten to take my life away are being flushed down the toilet, one by one. My med tray is no longer a bizarre Nativity calendar with nuggets of poison behind its shiny blue doors.

I cannot let these dreams, attacking like Hitchcock’s birds, destroy me. Now is the time to build up more than break down and breaking down was what I had so glamorously mastered, the way Bishop mastered loss. My dreams are churning currents trying to pull me back under, this time for good.

Each morning I shudder awake as early as 5:00 a.m. There in the pitch dark, dawn is just a mirage, as distant as what could be my breech birth into a more peaceable kingdom. Again and again, my dreams drag me into a jungle of beasts, a surreal jungle of surreal beasts that create a skewed narrative that skewers me.

I must shake off these devilish mini-dramas, continue on in my era of resurrections, leave them behind me as I creep, crawl, slither out of that beastly jungle that houses what was my slaughtered consciousness. In my wake, not a trail of breadcrumbs, but of pills. Each grows mildewed in ruined dew, sinks like a mushroom into black earth.

Slowly I lift off all fours, shake off a torrent of tears the way a dog shakes off the wetness of the sea. I will rise to my feet, take note of a sky the color of melted ivory, curlicues of light spiraling down through it, let the dregs of my cacophonous dreams drain away, listen to the world’s music, come to be and then stride on as the pages of my days turn like Whitman’s leaves of grass.
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Back to Basics

by Songyi Zhang

I have an English-Chinese electronic dictionary. It’s as small as a lady’s powder box but contains English vocabulary and expressions as comprehensive as a cumbersome hardbound Oxford dictionary. I thank the inventor of the electronic dictionary for bringing immeasurable convenience to me. In fact, almost every Chinese, Korean and Japanese student that I’ve met on campus has an electronic dictionary of his or her mother language. Although I brought my Oxford dictionary to America, every time I come across a new word I’d rather press those little buttons in my electronic dictionary than flip the pages of my big fat Oxford dictionary.

But good days do not last. A couple of weeks ago, some of the gelatin buttons stuck and my electronic dictionary became useless. I was upset about it for a week. I don’t think I can get it fixed now since I am so far away from China. So I dust my big fat Oxford dictionary on the desk and resume its glorious mission. It turns out I enjoy using my dictionary as much as I used to before I bought the electronic one. The hardcover actually has more thorough definitions, and I hadn’t realized how much I’ve missed feeling the crisp paper between my thumb and index finger.

I cannot help thinking of how much convenience has changed our way of living. In America, I can fill my glass with tap water and drink it without hesitation. I can unpack the headless, peeled, cooked shrimps and throw them directly into my mouth. I can sit in the car to do my banking or purchase a cup of coffee at McDonald’s. I can have my pictures printed instantly from a silent machine at Wal-Mart.

One day when I was at my American friend’s house for dinner, I marveled that he sliced up a couple of garlic cloves in a minute with a round plastic container with tiny knives in it. He told me that it was a garlic shredder. We don’t have garlic shredders in China, although the one that my American friend has is likely labeled “Made in China.” In China, we need to boil water before drinking. We cook and peel the shrimp by hand before we eat them. We tell the workers at a photoshop what size pictures we need and how many ; we won’t get the photos until the next day. We cut garlic with real knives. We wash dishes by hand.

It’s hard for me to reject the conveniences I enjoy here in America. If I can drive to a library, why bother to walk? If I can get a prepared meal in a supermarket, why do I still spend hours cooking in a hot kitchen? If I can have my laundry dried in a machine, what do I need a clothes drying rack for? But I’m convinced that to enjoy life is to taste every part of the manual work. I don’t want to grow into a habit of not doing the “hard work” to achieve my goal, or it will be too difficult to return to my old life in China. Above all, I like studying my big fat Oxford dictionary.
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The Making of a School Teacher

by Publius

There is today much hypothesizing about how to train teachers.   In my three decades in the classroom, I have supervised student teachers from a variety of universities.   I am certain that the qualities, which enable this career, at least in part are found in erudition, skill and emotional discern­ment.   Regardless of how teacher education is rendered, a truly successful educator answers in the affirmative the following questions, questions more easily asked than answered.

—–

          1) Does the teacher have a scholarly understanding of the field?

          2) Can the teacher adequately plan, and capably deliver, a lesson?

          3) Has the instructor mastered the skills of respectfully, but firmly, ordering a class and disciplining an individual?

          4) Can this instructor find appropriate means to comfort him or herself during times of great anxiety?

          5) Does the teacher love the students?

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Driving in America

By Songyi Zhang

Since I’ve been in America for a year, I am no longer considered a newcomer. I am supposed to know the society better, at least deeper, than a year ago. But if you ask me whether I am used to my American life, I’d say I am still adjusting.

A year ago, I had no identity other than my passport. I had no asset other than the four suitcases I brought across the Pacific Ocean.

A year later, I have my student ID, a social security number, and a driver’s license. My wallet is bulging with a number of cards—library card, health insurance card, supermarket discount card, and debit card. And I have my first automobile, a used 2002 Chevy Cavalier.

Owning a car is a dream for young working people in China. Many of them work for years to save money for a car. But here, in the Country of the Automobile, having a vehicle is not only necessary but also cheaper than in China. I would have to pay four or five times more in China for my used Cavalier.

Of course, with privilege comes obligation. I have to remember the date for an oil change, the date for an inspection, the date for license registration, the date for insurance renewal, and I have to remember to wash the car and fill the fuel tank. Having a car is no different from raising a pet. Fortunately, I don’t have to fill my car with gas every single day like I feed a dog.       

Not until I drive on the road, do I realize it’s almost as common as the sun rising from the east that Americans enjoy talking on the cell phone while driving. Why don’t they use headsets? In this regard, drivers in my hometown of Guangzhou do much better. Strictly speaking, drivers are not allowed to do anything other than keep both hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. Eating, drinking, listening to the radio and anything that will distract your attention are not recommended, and these rules are clear in the Pennsylvania Driver’s Manual. Like everyone, I also studied these rules carefully for my driver’s knowledge test. But reality is a different story.

In America, it is common to see drivers holding a phone with one hand with the other on the wheel. Don’t they consider other drivers’ safety?  Some people even text message while driving. Although their multi-tasking skills are admirable, I really hope they don’t kill someone.

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I

Of Cost-Cuts And Bosnians

 

by Publius 

8 AM

 

            In order to save money, the school district is making bestial layoffs.   About one out of every four of the teachers will be fired by sundown.   Or so the rumor goes.   To deal with our anxieties, several schools of thought have developed.   Schools within this school, as it were.

            On my third floor resides The School Of Rationalization.   We are, after all, social scientists up here.   There are several strains within this school, each variation ending with the proponent keeping his or her job.

            On the second floor resides The School Of Denial.   I went to a meeting down there.   When I asked how folks were coping, the responses were like, “Is there something going on today?”

            I’m avoiding the first floor offices, for much evil resides therein.   Bunches of secretaries, administrators, counselors and other first floor types are to be fired.

            I really feel for Jerry.   He’s my buddy down the hall.   Jerry has steadily worked his way up from part-time sub to permanent sub to, just last week, certified.   So now he’s got club membership.   But he doesn’t have a contract.   For all his playing by the rules that the district gave him, he might get fired.  

            Or not.   Nobody really knows who or what is getting cut.

            I’m subscribing to the Credentials Theory of the School Of Denial.   Because I have tenure, a doctorate, seniority and certification, I’m all good.   Or not.
           

 

3 PM

 

            Cost-cutting measures have just been announced.   Six schools closed.   No more subs.   Fewer counselors.   Twenty-four administrators gone.   Bigger classes.   More classes per teacher.   Fewer buses and fewer janitors.   Another school is being moved into our building.  

            In the comic relief category, I applaud the decision to save money by not running the air conditioning that was just installed.

            As things turn-out, downtown is going to lay off only one in eight teachers.   Almost all of us at my school survived.  

            Jerry survived.   His new certification saved him.  

            But Ademir Smailovic got culled from the pack.   He’s got an M. A., but he’s not certified.   Once again, certification trumps qualification.   Smailovic is a Bosnian Muslim, a refugee from that terrible war.   The Bosnian kids admire his academic success, and identify with him as a model of survival.   His presence is – was — inestimable.
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