This place could be beautiful

Shanghai Falling (Fuxing Lu Demolition) 2002, Greg Girard

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

— “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith in Waxwing via Hannah Rosefield

Photo: Shanghai Falling (Fuxing Lu Demolition) 2002, Greg Girard

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No Hay Camino

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Caminante no hay Camino

Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino y nada más;
Caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace el camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante no hay camino
sino estelas en la mar.

Poem by Antonio Machado. Referenced in the novel Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi.

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Difficult Names and Cultural Erasure

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It begins
with your second last name
gone missing from your mailbox,
school ID, and learner’s permit.
It is hard to explain to your relatives
back on the Island.
Your mother says,
you had it
when you left home,
where is it now?
You cannot claim
to have misplaced
your mother’s surname.

–“Crime in the Barrio” in Call Me María by Judith Ortiz Cofer (via)

“Give your daughters difficult names. Give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue. My name makes you want to tell me the truth. My name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.”

–Warsan Shire

Weeks ago, I was proctoring an exam at my university’s law school. Everyone was stressed but one student was especially frantic. She had claimed a spot in an exam hall based on the first letter of her last name, but the official exam listing had assigned her to a different room. She was disputing it with the head proctor: “My last name is de la Rioja, Rioja, not de la. I should have been assigned to this room, with the R names, not the other room with the D names.” The head proctor was indifferent. “You need to tell the administration to change that.”

Some time ago I was getting dinner with a public school teacher. This person was white, but she worked in predominantly low-income black and Latino neighborhoods. “You would not believe the names!” she commented blithely.

During add/drop period at the beginning of a semester at my university, professors at my graduate school often begin with calling attendance. It should be quick, but it always takes twice as long as it needs to because of professors stumbling–apologetically to be sure–over the names of international students. The Chinese sanguinely provide their American names. Even I generally call my classmates by their “American names” if they provide them, and in Nagaland, I often interacted with people I met through their “Christian names” rather than their given names.

People’s identities are complicated–certain parts of our identities may come to the foreground in interactional certain contexts, sometimes prompting different variations of our names. But the patterns of whose names tend to be changed, and in what ways, by whom, and with what consequences, is clear. Is this a world we want to create–one where cultural backgrounds are erased and given dominant-culture replacements? A world where a supposedly global-minded educational institution does not know how to handle its international students’ last names? A world where certain names are written off as difficult compared to an arbitrary standard?

I say no, and that we all have reflection, self-work, listening, and targeted learning to do to put a stop to this erasure in the domain of one of the most intimate words that an individual possesses–their name.

Photo: “Lady Liberty” by SETH at the Museum of Public Art, LA 

Meditating aliens: Murakami metaphors II

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I recently finished 1Q84, Haruki Murakami’s three-volume, 1000-page “magnum opus.” Just as when I read Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Murakami’s usage of metaphor stood out to me, so I am once again reproducing a selection of metaphors from the novel. The list is only slightly curated to prune out some repetitive imagery. Having spent a lot of time with (or should I say, “in”) 1Q84 over the past month, I am enjoying revisiting these snippets and trying to recall, or re-imagine, what characters, events, and settings they referred to. Maybe they will spark your imagination, too.

  • like a lonely castaway on the open sea.
  • like an imaginary miniature cloud.
  • like a flock of birds swooping through an open window.
  • like a hibernating animal trying to wake up in the wrong season.
  • like the smoke from a bonfire on a windless afternoon.
  • like an old sorcerer chuckling to himself over an ominous prophecy he was about to reveal.
  • like a rock on the far side of the moon.
  • like a frightened little animal hiding way back in a cave.
  • like life-forms stirring in a primordial sea.
  • tantamount to giving a butterfly a skeleton.
  • like a lone planetary exploration rocket that has sailed beyond Pluto.
  • like a female fox cutting through the forest.
  • like short-lived punctuation marks in a stream of consciousness without beginning or end.
  • like a whale rising to the surface to exchange all the air in its giant lungs.
  • as if some huge, ancient animal were waking itself from a long sleep.
  • like a camera’s diaphragm when the photographer adjusts the aperture.
  • like alchemy or perpetual motion.
  • like sediment in a bottle of wine.
  • as sharp and cold and pointed as a merciless idea.
  • like a player of chess or shogi who could see several moves ahead.
  • Like the unfortunate children in a Dickens novel.
  • like a piece of paper bearing the indecipherable text of a magic spell.
  • like the great karmic wheel of Indian mythology that kills every living thing in its path.
  • as if we’re playing a game in which everybody else can move only when I have my eyes closed.
  • as if a small eddy had suddenly begun to swirl inside her and had immediately quieted down.
  • like an oyster clinging to a sunken ship.
  • as though he were trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle without having been given all the pieces.
  • as though he were swallowing some imaginary thing.
  • like someone who has mistakenly swallowed a thick swatch of cloud.
  • like some historic massacre.
  • like a talented accountant who finds deep pleasure in the complex manipulation of figures in a ledger.
  • like little animals from an alien land that were deep in meditation.
  • like an expanse of earth that had been ground down by a glacier.
  • like a vacuum, absorbing all sound waves in the vicinity.
  • like the sighing of a disemboweled animal.
  • like ghosts tied in place by some ancient curse.
  • like vampire finches in search of blood.
  • like souls groping for their eternal resting places.
  • like a mistakenly applied shadow.
  • like someone who’s been thrown into the ocean at night, floating all alone.
  • like a veteran fisherman standing in the bow of his boat, reading the ominous confluence of two currents.
  • like a soldier on guard duty, determined not to miss the next signal flare sent up by the savage tribe on the distant hill.
  • like living in an empty town.
  • like chopping down a rope bridge.
  • like hornets having their nest poked.
  • like medieval village children trying to avoid a fearsome slave trader.
  • like vegetables raised in abundant sunshine.
  • Like a trade imbalance.
  • like a sailor trying to catch the song of a ship’s ghost.
  • like the smell of dew-laden flowers in midsummer.
  • like a vine’s new tendrils seeking sunlight.
  • like two young snakes in a spring meadow.
  • like the distant roar of the sea.
  • as if studying an insect undergoing metamorphosis.
  • like a little animal in hibernation.
  • like arranging the contents of a desk drawer.
  • like transferring a sleeping kitten to its bed.
  • like a snake that keeps going even after its head is cut off.
  • like a fisherman dragging his net, putting the items in order and mulling them over with great care.
  • like a brand-new brushstroke across the sky.
  • like a drop of dew in the morning sun.
  • like a mathematical proposition.
  • as if many souls were gathered, each whispering his story.
  • like something clammy sticking to your bare skin.
  • like fish that live at the bottom of the ocean.
  • like the mouth of a river where the seawater and the fresh water flow in.
  • like a shellfish at the bottom of a deep ocean, maintaining a strict silence.
  • like a secret switch being turned on.
  • like some indiscreet person who had wandered into a wake.
  • like an oyster stuck on a rock.
  • like my brain is a tub of tofu past its expiration date.
  • like musical notes being rewritten.
  • like a fairy in the throes of a lewd dream.
  • like a child hiding in its mother’s skirts.
  • like the coldhearted breath leaking out between the teeth of a person who has lost all hope.
  • Like a map showing buried pirate treasure.
  • like a code waiting to be deciphered.
  • Like Gregor Samsa when he turned into a beetle.
  • like ordinary citizens who had wandered across the front lines and stepped into a minefield.
  • like eyeballing a room to see if a piece of furniture would fit.
  • Like nameless birds returning to their shabby nests.
  • Like birds flying home to their nests at twilight.
  • like a pilot having just landed after a rough solo flight at night.
  • like sea turtles and porpoises poking their faces through the surface of the water to
  • like his head was filled with frozen lettuce.
  • like the skirt of a girl at play.
  • like being handed a pile of damp, heavy blankets.
  • Like a diver slowly acclimatizing his body to a change in water pressure.
  • Like the stone lid of an ancient coffin.
  • Like an image reflected to infinity in a pair of facing mirrors.
  • like listening to lines from an avant-garde translated play.
  • like the fingers of some ancient person shaking out a warning, with a desiccated, raspy sound.
  • like a long skirt whose hem had been accidentally dipped in dye.
  • like people standing beside the Pacific Ocean for the first time in their lives, awestruck at the waves crashing on the shore.

Lavinia

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Sana gitme demeyeceğim.
Üşüyorsun ceketimi al.
Günün en güzel saatleri bunlar.
Yanımda kal.

Sana gitme demeyeceğim.
Gene de sen bilirsin.
Yalanlar istiyorsan yalanlar söyleyeyim,
İncinirsin.

Sana gitme demeyeceğim,
Ama gitme, Lavinia.
Adını gizleyeceğim
Sen de bilme, Lavinia.

I won’t ask you not to go.
You are cold, take my jacket.
These are the loveliest times of the day.
Stay with me.

I won’t ask you not to go.
Still, you know.
If you want lies, I will tell you lies,
You’ll be hurt.

I won’t ask you not to go.
But Lavinia, don’t go.
I will keep your name a secret
Even you shall not know Lavinia.

–Özdemir Asaf, 1957

Years ago, a friend recited this poem to me. He himself heard the poem from another friend, who in turn must have learned it from someone else before her–a teacher, a professor, a romantic interest. I forgot about the poem until yesterday, when the first lines jumped out at me from a wall near Galata Tower. Now, I am posting it here in the spirit of passing on what was passed on to me.

Poetry Pilgrimage and Dover Beach

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My two favorite poems are “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats and “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold. Though they are both by British authors of the Romantic strain, they are almost complete opposites in terms of their message. The former poem, which I call my life insurance, insists that the pains and indignities of life are transitory, and the real nature of reality is truth and beauty. It was one of the first poems I memorized and it appeals deeply to the philosopher, artist, humanist, and optimist in me. Arnold’s poem, with its progression from a serene coastal evening to a chaotic field of war, claims that the essence of the life and the world is pain, confusion, and suffering. “Dover Beach,” therefore, speaks to my cynical side, which thinks that truth and beauty are convenient constructions and that the best we can hope for in life is to find some shred of solace and refuge in one another. Together, these two poems encapsulate the extremities of my worldview.

So naturally, when I visited England in the spring of last year, I wanted to make it a poetry pilgrimage. I would view the Greek pottery that inspired Keats’s verse, and I would see in-person the cliffs and beaches of Dover which inspired Arnolds’ pessimistic lines. The Greek pottery was easily checked off with a stroll through the British Museum’s antiquities collections. Dover took more time and effort–a couple hours’ train ride from Waterloo station, a brisk walk through the town of Dover, an entertaining detour through Dover Castle, an hour of being lost between the castle and the coast, and then some wind-whipped hiking to reach the best viewing points of the cliffs and beaches.

But I knew it would be worth it, as I had high hopes thanks to Arnolds’s scintillating description in the first stanza of the poem:

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

I had in mind a tiny town perched directly on an endless pebble beach, kissed by ocean waves, the water in turn wrapped in a gray sky. I would hear the “eternal notes of sadness” in the “grating roar of pebbles.” Since it wasn’t nighttime, I wouldn’t see the “fair” moon or feel the “sweet night-air” but I would see the gleaming light on the French coast beyond the straits. And I would witness the cliffs of England “glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.” I would be able to experience being inside one of my favorite works of art.

The reality was quite a bit different. The cliffs were not nearly as glimmeringly white as Arnold suggests. Sometimes they were chalky white, sometimes a grungy brown. There was no grating roar of pebbles; when we descended to the bottom of the cliffs we found the stinky beach too clogged with seaweed and mildew to whimper, much less roar. There was no light gleaming from the French coast; the sky was so overcast we caught only a momentary glimpse of France. My travel companion who accompanied me to Dover was quite amused at how far art and expectation diverged from reality, but I was devastated.

In retrospect though, I realized that this divergence was perhaps the most fitting homage to the spirit of the poem. Isn’t disappointment and disillusionment the over-riding theme of “Dover Beach”? And in the end, apart from the expectations set up by me and my poetry pilgrimage, we had an entirely enjoyable day in Dover. We drank mead and ate seafood, wandered through the castle, hiked through thoroughly impressive and expansive landscapes, managed to see France (a rare sight through the coastal fog), explored a shipwreck and odd WWII-era fortifications on the beach, and then anointed our late-night return to London with a fish and chips dinner. If you don’t go to the town expecting the Dover of 1851–when the poem about it was written–it’s really a pleasant day trip, much more optimistic Keats than pessimistic Arnold.

Bring me everything

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Bana insanlar getir,
Her biri geldiği yerin tesellemecisi olan.
Bana hayallerini getir,
Yaşarken beni baştan ayağa sen yapan.
Bana kendi belleğimi getir,
Hasretle karşılaşmayı beklediğim.
Bana her şeyi getir,
Her biri bir başka şeyin her şeyi olan.

Bring me people,
May each be the storytellers of their home towns.
Bring me your dreams,
These dreams that turned me into you, head to foot, as I lived.
Bring me my own memory,
That memory I yearn to meet.
Bring me everything,
Each thing the everything of something else.

–Handan Börüteçene, 2008, extract

Striking poem on memory, time and the interconnectedness of life that I found displayed alongside an installation at the Istanbul Modern. The full poem is below: Turkish text provided by Evrenin Dunyasi, translation from Istanbul Modern.

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New Year miscellany

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birthday card

“i am running into a new year
and the old years blow back
like a wind
that i catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises”

–Lucille Clifton, from “I Am Running Into a New Year”

The above text (above the lovely poem) an excerpt from a birthday card given to me on my birthday (which happens to be on the first day of the year). Good friends always somehow have a clearer image of who we are, and our flaws, than we do ourselves, don’t they? Or at least, an intriguing image–I never would have suspected that my knowledge of halloumi cheese (which has a higher boiling point than other cheeses and can therefore be fried) was a notable and possibly essential part of my personality and character, but there it is.

Anyway, as the card suggests–don’t all of our self-improvement goals come down to doing less of the bad, hurtful, counterproductive things and more of the good, creative flourishing things?

Whatever good you want to do more of this year, and whatever bad things you are trying to do less of, best of luck achieving that as we run into the new year.

Photo source: unknown

Service and love

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Even
After
All this time
The Sun never says to the Earth,

“You owe me.”

Look
What happens
With a love like that,
It lights the whole sky.

–Hāfez, 14th century Persian poet

The other day, coming home late from work, I was thinking about my students and how much I love them, in an unconditional way that I have never quite experienced with anyone else. When I pass by them in the hallways, or see them circled around me nestled in their desks, or when they come up and chat with me during break times, my chest warms and my hearts lifts and my stomach flutters. I am filled with this urge to help them and support them and serve them–and become a better person in order to better help them–even though I don’t get anything in return from them by doing so.

“I really want to meet and have more students,” I thought that night, “so I can teach them and help them, because every student I’ve taught I loved, and I want more students to love.”

And I realized at that moment–it’s by helping people that we grow to love them unconditionally. There is a connection between service and love. We learn to love, and grow to love others, through service.*

It’s a mysterious connection–I have not come up with a logical progression of thought as to why helping others leads to this profound empathy and attachment–but somehow, I know it’s true and I know serving others is going to have to continue to be a theme in my life.

*Just like the Jesuits at my school always said!

Exactly how it is

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When Mount Everest was measured in 1856
it was discovered to be 29,000 feet exactly.
But since no one would have believed the figure,

sounding as it does too much like something
rounded off, two extra feet were found,
invented out of thin air, the thinnest on earth,

and added to the mountain’s top
to provide the appearance of precision.
Twenty-nine thousand and two.

So too, tonight, a cloud has passed
before the moon in such a way
that were I able to describe it

exactly how it is, no one would believe me.
Which is why I need two extra feet of moonlight,
or dark cloud, or to be fair, one foot each.

Taylor Mali, “The Moon Exactly How it is Tonight”

This poem feels like how I’ve felt in the last month–like were I to describe everything that happened and is happening, exactly as it is, no one would believe me. So I describe bits and pieces of it to different people, rounding off the truth to make it more believable and digestible, which is exciting and lonely at the same time.

Poem: via Orpheus Melted the Heart of Persephone.

Photos: Trinity Church on Kazbek Mountain in Georgia, and a full moon rising over Mount Kazbek. Both photos by me.

Life insurance

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’–that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

–“Ode on a Grecian Urn,” final stanza

I’ve learned and forgotten dozens of poems, but I always ensure that this one never slips my mind: “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats. I intend for it to become so ingrained in my memory that, even when I am 70 or 80 or 90 years old and have lost my my memories, my relationships, or even my identity, this poem will still be there, deep down and unforgettable. If I have to forget everything, then I want this to be the last thing I remember; you could call it my life insurance.

Photo: manuscript of the Ode from here.

Slumbering pterodactyls: Murakami metaphors

I recently finished Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, a collection of stories written by Haruki Murakami between 1981 and 2005 and first published in 2006. As I was reading, it slowly dawned on me that Murakami’s use of metaphor is a big part of his distinctive style. He has a knack for introducing jolting, highly specific, disparate imagery that somehow makes perfect sense, and at the same time makes absolutely no sense in context of the plot. Some of the metaphors–“like sharing a puddle on a quiet morning”; “like the footprints of an Indian elephant that’s lost its way”–feel like a whole micro-story unto themselves, and I love the jarring divergent thinking that each metaphorical microverse entails.

For a fun creative exercise, try to imagine what each metaphor could refer to: intercourse like a well-trained crustacean? A mannequin’s face as blank as a handwriting practice pad? One thing’s for sure: if I ever form my ukulele garage band, we will call ourselves the Slumbering Pterodactyls.

PS: In now way is this a conclusive list of all metaphor in Blind Willow, it is in no particular order whatsoever, and I also have no knowledge of how translation affects the way Murakami’s metaphors surface in English. Enjoy it with the same surreal humanistic creepiness so characteristic of Murakami Haruki.

  • like planting a garden.
  • like a jazz improvisation.
  • like a well-trained crustacean.
  • like bones that had atrophied.
  • like handfuls of sand.
  • like a room without furniture.
  • as though sound itself had been ripped from the earth.
  • as if I were walking on ground that was floating on water.
  • like slumbering pterodactyls.

Many more below the cut.

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to a Young Child

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

–Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Margaret”

My family, with whom I’ve been living for the past couple months and on-and-off during college, has nearly finishing purchasing a new home, and although I will never reside in the new digs I’ve felt strangely affected about the prospect of leaving the house that has been my base for my entire adult life. I’m moving to Turkey in two months, and have every intention of never moving back in with my parents and siblings or depending on family for accommodation–so why is the move bothering me so much?

The lilting lines of this poem immediately leaped into my mind. It’s not the old house I am becoming melancholy for–it’s the progression of time and change in my life that I am mourning (and, I suppose, death, if you take the thought to its literary conclusion). I love that this poem nestled in my mind gave me that perspective.

P.S. If you’re looking to get into memorizing poetry, this is an ideal one to start with. Just sayin.