Jnana's Red Barn

A Space for Work and Reflection

TURNING NORTHEAST

two blocks from my apartment, on the way
toward downtown
the Amoskeag Dam impeded the Merrimack
with a broad placidity I associated
with the upper Susquehanna
below it the roaring wildness of hydroelectric generation
or the snow-melt Yakima and its tributaries
why I didn’t just dump half my stuff way back
and start over before trekking through the marketplace
to rediscover how outrageously expensive all these goods
I need at hand can be? at last, though, my belongings
began falling into place where old mills extended
an eerie sense all too similar
to what I had created in one novel
to say nothing of the French-Canadian hilltop
on the west side of the river, neatly occupied
by descendants of Kee-beck, and an air of Kerouac
oh, how I’ve come through calculator-town
foundry-town, shoemaking-town, college-town
fruit-packing-town, sawmill-town, meatpacking-town
car-assembly-line-town, blast-furnace-town
summer-resort-town, and spice-grinding-town
on the harbor
to this ghost of a textile-town on the river where
the warehouses of my broken ambition overflow
once more, I arrived without a lover or children
for now, though
this life in a sleeping bag and cardboard boxes
fatigues and I long to get back to Owings Mills to pick up
the rest of my furniture and files so I can really move in
with essentials that include a toaster-oven and
the little red light on my answering machine,
items I’ve come to miss
but having a little cash in my pocket once more
feels wonderfully strange
and having seven book-length works
drafted and revised allows me to show something
more than a concept in my head or scattered notes
the arduous, tricky road to publication can take ages
usually eighteen months once a house accepts a work
and the contract’s signed, according
to the New York Times Book Review a few months back
In the meantime, my savings have gone
(the miracle is that they lasted as long as they did)
and it’s time to get back on my feet, financially

To continue, click here.
Copyright 2015

THIS MATTER OF FLASHES IN A POET

Chancing upon an old comment in my files, “Our practice also reflects other practices and practitioners we’ve been exposed to,” now has me uncertain which our I was referencing. I’ll assume it was the Society of Friends (Quakers), although other religious circles or fellow poets would be equally valid. Now I’m appreciating how these differing practices, from one field to the next, converge in my own development over the years.

The key word in the remark is expose, and I vaguely recall trying to determine whether I wanted a collection of my poems under the banner of Exposures to be a mirror what happens with a camera and, in those days, film, or perhaps arise in candid, perhaps embarrassing, intimate revelations, or inflict some peril of being caught unprepared in the wilderness. Any or all might fit.

Another kind of exposure, however, involves personal encounters with the Holy Presence, however one wants to define that. Epiphanies may be rare, even once in a lifetime, yet smaller, refreshing opportunities may happen almost daily. Just ask those who believe in miracles or angels.

Meditation – first within yoga and later, among Quakers – has been crucial in my growth as a poet; Japanese and Chinese poetry, even in translation, rings with sustained silence, as do many of the pieces in English I cherish. Sitting motionless lets the restless mind settle into calm, opening a space for intuitive flashes to appear and connect in unexpected relationships. Jerome Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred anthology opened an awareness of the directions that firsthand spiritual experience could take in describing the physical world throughout history.

Dreams do something similar, if you pay attention.

Being at Indiana University when Mary Ellen Solt was pressing her field of Concrete Poetry also had an influence in my thinking about the potential voice of typography itself, even though I never studied with her; the Russian filmmaker S.M. Eisenstein’s collision of thesis and antithesis to create an unanticipated synthesis has also played its role. I could even attempt to articulate my aesthetic, with its preference for lines long enough for each to have a snap or twist, as well as a collision between lines or stanzas to erupt as synthesis, a desire for discovery and exploration (moving along The Edge, wherever that is), a demand for solid reporting, and so on.

My drive for strong visual images may be rooted in the discipline imposed by a demanding high school art teacher, a sensibility applied throughout my journalism career as I designed newspaper pages and cropped photographs. I should add I’ve worked with some of the best photojournalists in the newspaper business.

It should be no surprise, then, that I’m especially fond of poems that evoke a play of light – even flickering lighting or stars – in the forest, on a pond, in the high country of mountains, in a child’s eyes. Light, as it turns out, is the foundation of photography, too. Lightness, and a light touch. More profoundly, in Quaker usage, the Light is a metaphor for Christ, as the opening of the gospel of John proclaims.

And, yes, like my exposure to the outdoors, much of my writing arises in flashes of time rather than interrupted long blocks of solitude: a few words, noted when I was driving on my daily commute or after drying off from a morning shower, or a sentence or two that emerged in my journal (itself, an irregular practice of sessions days or weeks apart).

These elements are central to the middle section of my poetry collection, Ripples in a Bejeweled Prayer Flag. The part that remains titled Exposures.

~*~

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

REFLECTIONS ON MY POETRY AND FICTION

Maybe you’ve seen the adage that you can’t move on in your life if you’re stuck revising the past. (Well, it’s a variation of some more common versions.) I know the message is aimed at an individual’s emotional life, but it hits writers hard, too. No matter our subject or genre, the project in front of us draws on the past – even if it’s nothing more than research we did earlier or our previous drafts. It’s even truer when you’re heeding the counsel, “Write about what you know.”

For an author or poet, moving on typically comes when a project is finally published. Well, one usually moves on into promoting the work, even if the writer’s thinking and work are already on a new project.

Up to that point, the writing can usually be revised – and with poetry, there’s no end, you just have to let it go.

For most of my five decades of writing, my literary efforts – writing, revising, submitting to journals, and attending readings and workshops – came in my “free” time. And for a good portion of that, I was just getting a locale and its people in focus when my job would uproot me and I’d have to move on – just as one big project or another was coming into focus. I’d have to put work aside to complete later.

It also meant that much of my life was stuck in revising the past – meaning the unpublished projects – even I was adding more from the new encounters.

For me, blogging has freed much of that past, weaving it actively into my present. And the book-length releases at Smashwords.com and Thistle/Flinch, especially, have been emotionally liberating.

Seeing the poetry, in particular, as it’s appearing almost daily at the Red Barn gives me a fresh perspective. For all of my repeated honing of the work, compressing to some essence, I also sought a sense of jazzy improvisation and raw edges, an admission of working on the run in contemporary society. A recent essay on graffiti as public art, in contrast to the oil canvas masterpieces of earlier centuries, keeps echoing in my awareness. Yes, I can see many of my poems as graffiti or at least swift sketches or calligraphy.

Yes, there are things I’d revise and other points that leave me wondering just what prompted the line. But they’re up now, in your presence, and I can move on.

What a relief!

At this point in my life and career, I don’t even have to worry about what critics might say, though kind words from perceptive readers and fellow writers are always appreciated.

Not that I’m fishing for compliments …

AND KEY WEST

1

joining me as a bowsprit
on my usual whale-watch vessel
now wintering in Florida, a day trip
en route to Key West

a lonely teen evokes
my lover in college
the year before I met her before

two dolphins leap in front of us and

in his rounds, a crewman explains

“you don’t see that often, especially so far
from shore . you saw them, didn’t you?
you’re very lucky”

an omen, then, to the past

2

in town, roosters in banty yards
on back streets, warning

BEWARE
OF DOG

such a disappointing declaration
to swarming eyeballs
anticipating something more exotic
a gator, perchance, or snakepit
or open voodoo performed with hot sauce
please understand, you’re approaching Haiti

3

acknowledging this is an island of Biblical proportions
I stand outside Hemingway’s veranda
and shout prophetically

KELSEY SENDS
HER REGARDS

meaning her scorn
for required high school reading

this touch of sarcasm gleaned
teaching Sunday school
in New Hampshire

this day, when I’m my own old man of the sea,
is held in the tentacles of Genesis

4

again the Gulf waters roil
and the decision is announced
we’ll be sent back by land (one)
rather than any Paradise Lost
without moonlight
in the dark
road houses and health food
storefronts along the midnight
highway become fragments
of reggae notes, the songs of another
vanished lover, between mangrove

5

even on a subtropical bus
cockroaches climb toilet walls
mimicking addresses I’ve left

Poem copyright 2016 by Jnana Hodson
To see the full set of seacoast poems,
click here.

STILLING THE SEASONS, IF FOR A MOMENT

For all of their range across time, seasons of the Spirit, as well as seasons of the flesh, are grounded in the here and now. It’s the paradox that unites the two, and intensifies their wisdom. Eternity, in effect, as found in a flash.

Keep racing, and you’ll see nothing but a blur en route to some goal. You can be fully alive in the rush of adrenaline, your attention concentrated on what is essential in split-second increments. The pace is unsustainable for long, naturally, and an emotional crash will follow. The alternative is to stop yourself, to achieve calm before the storm or calm within the storm, before continuing. Stopping, to regain strength as well as collect scattered thoughts and actions. To restore focus and wholeness.

When I think of these seasons, I don’t know whether the yin-yang emblem of Buddhism, with its “S” rippling through a circle, and light on one side and darkness on the other (alternating day and night or sun and moon), or the Christian cross is more appropriate. The cross, after all, leaves us with four quadrants, like the seasons themselves, while the yin-yang expresses alternating rhythms encountered daily.

The daily rhythms converge on sunrise and sunset – in many traditions, times of meditation, prayer, or chanting. Moments to acknowledge the presence of Spirit with us, in our flesh.

Walt Whitman, describing his first Quaker meeting, tells of entering a room where people were “sitting still as death.” The phrase initially appears morbid and troubling. Even so, it reflects an early Quaker understanding of a necessity of “dying to the world” and its desires and distractions in order to become open to the Spirit. Deep silent meditation becomes a kind of winter, to be followed by spring. The flesh, too, is given symbolic rest and freed from unessential movement. The moment becomes timeless. The stream clears. Fears and worries fall away.

This, too, is a season I invite you to discover.

The hour will end, and we’ll return to our usual labors, before drawing back together in stillness.

~*~

For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.

YES, AQUARIUS

Why wait for the dust to settle? Here are 10 bullets from my end.

~*~

  1. Since we don’t put up a Yule tree and decorate it until Christmas Eve, ours stays on display longer than any of our neighbors’. The lights make January a less forbidding stretch. Make it more festive and relaxing. So what do you do special this otherwise cold, dark month?
  2. She’s really at home in a grocery store. Knows all the comparative prices, what’s a bargain, what’s special. Not so in other retail settings. Still, you should see our pantry. Or the two big freezers in the barn.
  3. Swami had long ago said I didn’t need a job (I’m an old soul) because that’s not the work I should be offering. That was long, long ago.
  4. How often does it seem: Fashion = Money … along with the race for something better?
  5. Would I be satisfied with a single-line poem that said everything? Stake my reputation on it?
  6. Considering all the hours I put in on my “personal writing” over the years – the poetry and fiction, especially, or genealogy and Quaker fare – it would have added up to a lot of overtime pay. Even at 10 hours a week, though I suspect with vacations and holidays thrown in, the average would have been closer to 20. I’d really have to land a bestseller to come anywhere close to recouping that investment.
  7. The frustration of my twilight years in journalism, seeing us increasingly pander to stupidity, ignorance, and hatred rather than trying to lead and enlighten.
  8. As the funeral director told me, “We hate holidays. Holidays suck.”
  9. Fortune cookie: You will make many changes before settling satisfactorily.
  10. Can this really be happening to America? Or the world?

~*~

 

Looks like white-painted architectural touches to me.

Still looks like white-painted architectural touches to me.

 

GIVEN

a strip of land
to develop
or let go wild
or trash

you make your mark

me, I think I’d rather farm
or run a trap set
drawing on something
in my bloodline

more than the banker

but this is, after all, in a city

Poem copyright 2016 by Jnana Hodson
For more,
click here.

HONORING THE MARITIME LEGACY

 

Suspended overhead.

Suspended overhead.

A reconstructed whale skeleton suspended in the New England Aquarium pays homage to the region’s close relationship to the sea. For generations, whaling was a major industry that provided essential oil to illuminate the night. The aquarium sits on a wharf in Boston Harbor.

The city is a rich and varied destination – the Hub of New England, or the Universe, as they used to say. Living a little more than an hour to the north, we’re well within its orb.

And you knew all along it was a flipper, right?

And you knew all along it was a flipper, right?

 

WITH PRAYERS TO OUR LADY OF THE ASPHALT

In the congregation of pleasure:

Some are fat; some, skinny.
Some cute; a few, beautiful.
They smile, frown, dimple, blink.
Hair short, curled, long and free.
They come from anywhere.

~*~

“Roger was in my room again till five
telling me he didn’t want to sleep alone again,”
she said, glancing at her lover

while he simply smiled, facing away.

~*~

One votive burns
twice as fast
as the other.

Both, invoking
departed honeybees.

To continue, click here.
Copyright 2015

WHERE SPACE UPENDS

Because this is desert, you appreciate shadows. Fear what might be lurking, too.

Enter cautiously.

“Hello?”

~*~

In my first day of solitude since moving to a new job and a new dwelling, no wonder I’m restless. At last, driving out beyond the irrigated orchards and fields of the valley, I follow a coworker’s scribbled directions higher into the foothills and eventually park beside the weathered-gray walls of what was once a one-gas-pump country store. I hoist a daypack and stumble out along a rutted trace in a search for the backbone and spirit of my new surroundings. By itself, the peculiar sunlight of this place triggers a blinding headache — compounded by the abrupt release from the crushing and inflexible deadlines of my office.

There are many reasons for entering arid expanses, as well as many reasons to avoid them. In antiquity, I could have asked Desert Fathers for details. This time, I am no trader following a caravan route or a shepherd following goats, nor am I prospecting or dodging cattle. I’m not running contraband nor am I an illegal immigrant. In fact, I’m running from no one, unless maybe myself. In short, I’m a pilgrim, one who’s been suffering long before this particular headache strikes. I have no idea my journey solicits, above all, a healing my own, as well as the planet’s. Outdoors, away from town, away from the familiar countryside of my past, I resist an intense thirst preceding the throbbing. The only shade I find is in the shell of a rusted Depression-era Plymouth, where I collapse in what had been the passenger’s seat.

The relentless glare drills another hole in my skull for a spider to enter. Every seeker who relocates to desert requires new circuitry. The arachnid rewires my human brain and lungs. Maybe Swami has sent her. Maybe Murshid. Until now, I’ve had no inkling of Trickster, whatever its particular form.

It’s hard to say, precisely, how long I remain out. It seems days, and perhaps is. Even so, in any wilderness, there’s additional jeopardy in roaming after nightfall — especially without a flashlight or torch. In the cooling air of late afternoon, I walk back to my car and steer homeward.

If I could sustain this solitude in this terrain, I would mutate into a desert rat, perhaps crossing over into madness. Instead, I’ve chosen to live at its periphery, and will enter when my calendar allows. Such a pathway, I find, is also maddening.

Desert turns everything to bone. That, or to stone. Even the scattered tufts of cheat grass and the isolated clusters of flowers turn into straw skeletons. Social conventions, too, dry away. In pursuing clarity, which parched spreads possess abundantly, I also enter an order of madness. Paradoxically, to preserve my sanity in dealing with people, it becomes periodically necessary for me to revisit this incomprehensible delirium. Settle back on this my bedrock, readjust to my own frame. Here, then, I return afresh to spaces within and without. Wait. Listen. In this place, wind is a clearing, spiraling on itself. Then, when this twisting reverses, screwing into bony alkaline soil, we give praise. At times, I even see my own heart clearly. As I come to know my way around more securely, I lift a cup of clear spring water and pour it on bleached parchment at my feet. Selah. The next day a bouquet of tiny flowers rises like fingers bent by wind. Always somewhere, wind. Listen.

I look closer and see in that runt garden herds of patient insects. Then I look across the wind to read what its elbows have written in large letters.

At last I sleep soundly, for she’s returned. Selah.

~*~

Perhaps you think it harsh, this description of the spider’s work. “Rewire?” you say. “A human’s not an electronic device!” But some ways, we are a tangle of neurological pathways that remain mysterious. Here, threads harden into wispy bone. Snare dreams in flight and hold them for inspection, for wrapping, for ingestion. Filter and stabilize the air we breathe. In desert, an outcome seldom materializes immediately. A procedure goes dormant — sometimes for years. What appears dead often is merely waiting.

Here a man will learn to pace himself more steadily. To watch for the rattlesnake, especially at river’s edge. To recalibrate his vision to the American Far West, where natural beauty assumes such spectacular proportions few notice the thinness at hand. The spider will teach all this. Clarity, like the desert itself, strips away to essentials. Sweeps away clutter. In what appears sparse, the man will gaze for episodes of miniature grace. Even elegance.

After a rare downpour, wrinkled hills sprout terraced dwarf gardens. I recall glossy photographs of tenacious farmers working green steps above Mediterranean and Chinese shorelines. I think, too, of terraced heights in the Andes and Himalayas. Applications of timeless, universal wisdom.

Around my home, blades of extended orchards flutter in the bowl of the valley. From the tawny ridges I see this as green sandals on wrinkled feet. Science that makes this dusty soil incredibly fruitful also leaves the place comparatively lifeless; the variety of life forms diminishes, even in seemingly arid desert. It’s simply a matter of maximizing profits.

My wife leaves on yet another trip, then phones to say she’s depressed. She refuses to give a reason.

Why put up with it? I’m no patriarch, and no one would allow me such influence. We’ve promised to be equals. I have enough struggles without carrying hers. She should be helping me now, building a home and a family of our own rather than running after her parents or friends. This, however, is one point where spider — and for that matter, desert rats — cannot advise me. What I do know is that when she’s happiest, she’s also faithfully practicing our religious disciplines. Too often, though, she prefers to hitchhike on my devotions.

In the midst of the next drizzle, when the clock demands I return to the office, I prefer to stay put, admiring beadwork on telephone line. Especially in desert, I examine points of rain. Zero in on one gleaming star, a coil of light as pure and functionless as mathematics. Center down wordlessly in this flyspeck and let whatever’s binding me unfold slowly. In reality, I own more time than I realize, if I act in the holy now. That, the spider whispers, is the kernel of celebration. Give praise. Selah.

In other climates, you commonly overlook the element of space, unless looking into the heavens on a brittle night. You observe objects, and space becomes the measure of distance between an object and you, or else some arrangement of objects. In contrast, desert appears more as a vacuum — a juxtaposition of surfaces, of sky and earth extending outward not to some imaged convergence (such as the perspective point where the twin rails of a train track become one) but rather away from any focus, and thus outward around both of the observer’s ears. Here, space itself becomes obvious, as if turned upright, like a wall in your face. So often in life, what should be most obvious is the hardest to see. The spider is on the window; the spider is on this page.

Despite my mission to expose the spirit of this landscape, I worship a portable deity. That is, I’m a follower of the Book. Or, according to my practice, the Spirit That Informed the Book. In a way, the Book follows me, even into the desert, not all that different from the desert where it was written.

The freedom to move about is essential to any mental discipline; I dare not get stuck in a single position. Three points are required for triangulation. How else can I determine where I am or where I’m going?

When I scan the desolation of geologic uplift and volcanic flow, I appreciate the prophetic Hebrew charge, “The gods of the nations are idols.” Nothing humanity creates can equal such an outpouring. Work yourself free of all bondage, indeed. I’ll identify idols crowding into my life, and what they demand. An old white-bearded man carried about in a box as hazardous as radioactive material? A television can be far more fatal. I’ll consider the god Brahma, to some “the most stupendous idea the human mind has ever wrestled with.” And then YHWH, the spinning Word of God, and whatever wrestled with Jacob. Some encounters go beyond human imagining. Try naming the greatest power that has wounded you. Do you rise in confrontation? Do you yield? Every road to liberation proves painful.

I return to dance and move with intellect, emotion, and muscle through the music. Or the prayer. I charge from night into dawn; from rain into full glare. Despite bruises and even bleeding from my latest encounters, I leap within my Dedicated Laborious Quest. Even so, my heart silently rages. Sometimes I’m at peace; sometimes, worldly affairs beset me. When I concentrate on rhythmic cuckoo elisions, my wrath may yet generate voltage, if I own up to my personal forms of power, however frightening they appear. At the horizon, migrating birds coil like an aerial rattlesnake. If I could circle with them, I would face the new sun. Or I could walk in the expanse until my tracks freeze in a chattering alarm as I admit genuine terror, then raise the pistol and fire. Carefully, sever the tail’s rattle for my dance shaker. Skin and tan a length of skin for my hat band. Thus prepared, stare through ghostly prairie grasses and through hardwood stretches beyond. I’ve known cornfields and soybeans, and much that has vanished. I could be the settler who leveled those forests and turned under the endless prairie; I may also be the holy visionary who will yet restore them.

Someday I will drop into a rattlesnake hole, my kiva, my own covered self. Find my private circle, my spirit hoop, a spiral turning me more completely into the sunrise. Behind me and before him are suburbs to unsettle. Wilderness, I perceive, is an illusion until mankind’s true settling. In the meantime, whatever is conquered remains despised, like a common-knowledge harlot.

There are problems in every marriage. I’ll delineate many distinctions. Selah!

And then, as I’m driving, I pull over for a hitchhiker. He introduces himself as Kokopelli.

~*~

An earlier version of “Where Space Upends” originally appeared in Jack Magazine.

For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.