13 May 2009

I'm Not There

Just as I didn't attend the Workshop Prom last night, I also didn't make it to the Workshop's annual Writers Versus Poets Softball Event a few weeks ago. (Team Fiction ended the curse, at long last -the poets have won for something like 8 years straight.) I also didn't make it out to see, hear, and schmooze with Z.Z. Packer a few weeks ago. I miss big Workshop events all the time. Why? 'Cause I'm taking care of business, baby. That's how I roll.

08 May 2009

Ballad of the Alchemies


And the war was on. So the thin man waited.

Yes, he. The brilliant one, the genius. Yes, that one. The pacifist who, according to many, single-handedly ushered in the final days of the human race; he who, not long after, was accused of being one of them and was summarily dismissed from the project and all subsequent projects; who would not find work at any university, laboratory or institution; who as a result of the chain of events set in motion that very day, would later succumb, famously, to a nervous condition; who, outcast, would turn to strong drink and disappear into history’s track of nameless faces, thus adding the final question mark to a life’s work anchored in controversy and supposition.

But before any of this, he was simply the thin man - the brilliant one, the genius - waiting somewhere in the desert as pitch-black clouds, seeded heavily with silver iodide, twined and mounted at dusk.

There were two assistants as well. Large men whose faces were empty of expression. They were, as was the thin man, clad in hooded suits of thick, insulated rubber. At their feet were stacked several bound reams of computer-generated data, a farmer’s almanac, a magnetic compass, numerous laminated maps stamped CONFIDENTIAL, and four large canvas satchels, each containing implements and technical gear suited to the thin man’s purpose.

They donned infra-red goggles and watched as the skies flashed and pitched forth a fomenting sea of clouds. A portable ionometer, strapped to the thin man’s belt, began to crackle and whine.
The desert animals began to seek refuge under rocks, in small dens, and in nests under the ground. Rabbits leapt. Javelinas skittered. Electricity crackled in the ionosphere as the clouds, soot-black and heavy with rain, billowed in the skies uniformly.

The thin man cleared his throat. Nervous energy crept over his body.

Ribbons of lightning began streaming across the sky in staccato bursts. As the atmosphere grew light and porous, the skies seethed.

He started to speak, but could not. Something ethereal gripped him-
(He later would later describe it as “some form of terrified ecstasy.”)

Strong winds surged down from the upper-atmospheric flats.
A torrent, now, of rains, pounded the creosote and cacti as the ditches overflowed with sunset-colored muds.

A sinister form twisted down from the heavens and began steering itself wildly across the desert floor, trailing a plume of sand and debris, which it swept immediately into its churning, winding innards. Diffuse pulses of lightning now began to concentrate into bright streaks and bolts that struck from the center down into the desert sands.

The three men hoisted their supplies aboard a truck that sat a few yards away. The thin man climbed behind the wheel, and began racing towards the vortex as the winds howled and bucked the truck with increasing speed and fury.

Balls of lightning came streaking down around them and surged into the ground.

Then it happened-
Down the center of the sky, a fiery, jagged column.
As it struck the ground before them, the eyes of his assistants grew wide-
the thin man gasped-
And a light blasted across the firmament, illuminating, for milliseconds, the awful, endless expanses of the desert.


You were less boy than girl.
You were perfect and nine.
Tucked behind your tiny ear,
a Yoshino blossom.

You, Genji, were my best friend.

When would our world end?

Slack upon meathooks, the pigs, perhaps, knew the answer. But they would not speak it.

The pheasants, free in their cages, regarded only a sky reflected in the dim puddles.

Our fathers were as silent and grave as the oysters they had netted that morning, hauled in from the sea, and piled into buckets.

But these are the things I remember:

My father’s hand, punctured by a marlinspike two days earlier, wrapped in bandages.

Breakfast – a bowl of purple plums my mother picked from the garden.

The prayer ties strung across the kami shelf. When they fluttered that morning, Mother said, Listen, Ritsuki! The grandmothers and grandfathers are stirring!

How, from the market, we threaded a path through the jumpseeds and nettles, past fields of cucumber and melon, to reach the train tracks at the edge of the forest.

When would our world end? A question not meant for young boys.

We lilted through cypress and pine, past
thickets choked with kudzu.

And, at the crossing, we knelt in the gravel and placed our hands flat against the cool rails of the track.


Yes, in the soft haze of that morning,
we sat by the tracks and waited.

By the pines we waited-
I, in my sister’s orchid yukata,
watching the skies
as you, Ritsuki, springing up,
shucked your sandals and
rose upon the track, poised, laughing,

my Ritsuki,

first one foot, bare,
then the next, as your arms
floated outby your sides,
your hands tiny Kwanyins I adored,

and our bent nails and old washers
lining silently the rail-

We had come to see what a train could
make of our collected indestructables.

When we heard the sound of the locomotive,
when it rounded the bend, casting small gusts of
that stirred the needles on the pines,
when the sound of the engine grew to a deafening
we covered our ears and stepped back into the
and watched the machinery of war sweep by on
draped in seas of canvas and rope netting
the color of ripe beans.


After the blast, the storm ended abruptly. The thin man, addled, climbed from the cab of the truck to survey the strike. The scent of rust and burnt cabbage choked the desert air. Lit by the headlights of the truck, where no insects stirred - in a declivity less that ten feet away - a saguaro cactus lay, split down the middle, its two halves flat upon the ground, the fleshy innards a smoldering jelly.

Heated by the intensity of the explosion, the sand surrounding the point of impact ran with long, serpentine channels of glass that forked and webbed from the center of the saguaro in nearly every direction. And as the thin man approached, these crunched under his boot heels.

He peered down at the cactus, where, wedged at the epicenter of the glass veins, in the exact center of the split, sat the wan stump of a lightning bolt, flickering faintly in the breeze now stirring.

The thin man retrieved his tools from the truck and, stepping carefully over the drowned jackrabbit which lay at his feet, gently looped an ammeter cable around the lightning bolt and squinted down at the needle unmoved.

Checking once again, with fine, slender fingers, he jiggled the wires, eyed his connections closely, and tightened the hex nut that fastened the needle in place. Still, it remained motionless.


Dislodging the spent bolt from the ground was, you see, no small charge. Using a hand winch, stored above the wheel well of the service vehicle, my assistants and I were able, utilizing no less than all our combined might, to shift the weight of the bolt enough to gain a purchase with our shovels. Afterwards, it was a matter of prying and digging until the extraction was complete…

Yes, yes. upon full view of it, we discovered that the lightning bolt most resembled
a slender, jagged column, roughly the length of a doorframe. At its center, the
bolt was around eighteen inches in diameter. That it crooked downward to a fine
tip surely accounted for our difficulty loosening it from the sand and glass…

Then we collated, tagged, and loaded the most prominent and accessible fulgurites before emptying the canvas satchels and, from them, fashioned a makeshift stretcher for hefting the spent bolt onto the roof of the service vehicle. There, you see, we secured it with ropes and made haste to base command, where surgical and forensic studies awaited...


It had taken us a week to compile this sacrifice. Our tokens of metal, now crushed smooth
by the might of the train, felt light in our hands.

The washers now looked a little like yen. The nails were silver noodles, mashed flat
and still hot to the touch. And the old key you found? Now it resembled a rain cloud or an island as seen from above.


We divided our treasure,
carefully identifying each piece and
returning it to its proper owner.

The locomotive sat upon the tracks,

and you caught the bottom rung
of a ladder and hoisted yourself up,
into a boxcar, smiling down

I remember this:

the planes that had
tracked high overhead
that morning,
barely visible and silent
sugar ants,
emerged from the clouds
your hand floated down,
to receive mine.


Now, the first incision merely cleaved through the bolt’s spongy epidermis. Very curious. The second pass exposed a more fibrous, subcutaneous tissue that initially defied our attempts at refraction. Underneath that tissue, however, was situated a highly-charged magnetic field which… caused us alarm and yet intrigue, for…under closer examination, we discovered that it was but the by-product of a…condensed, proto-energy that lay dormant at the heart of the bolt. Our studies have indicated that, when activated and re-applied, this proto-energy could prove beneficial to your efforts in countless ways, including, but certainly not limited to, applications as a deployable… device of detonation.

The Urakami Valley

A machinist reached into a bin of screws.
A family of crabs stirred in a puddle.
Flatcars heavy with machinery sat silent on the track-

when our world took flame.
In a home by the river,
(her sister’s)

a midwife from Hiroshima’s
hibakusha exodus, exhausted, lifted a teacup to her lips –

(sea of green light)

-but instead of nettles, she found herself drawn down into the darkness of rubble. Something huge pressed against her charred body and left her unable to move. Fires erupted in her abdomen. Black air scorched her lungs. As she burned from the inside out, she detected faintly, at the end of her left arm, the cup fused into what was left of her hand.
The mother and child were vaporized to the bone.

Black crosses, B-29’s, dove in the sky:

Sweet Moses, boys! Do y’all see that?! Mission fucking accomplished!

Vicious winds swept, dissolving the city.

The Honkawa became a river of corpses.

An old man with the back of his head torn off searched the rubble of a schoolhouse for his son.

He is a teacher! Have you seen him?!
I want to find him but I do not know where to look!

A turbulent, boiling cloud erupted over the city. A woman tried to tear away her monpe to stop the burning, but could not. It was burned onto her body. She screamed an arc of blood then fell to the ground.
Torsos and wreckage in the river.

Hot damn! Look at that mushroom climb!

Skin flaked off the survivors.
Their faces were melted beyond recognition.

Mothers, roan-mad with horror, screamed for their children, dead or

Black rains, filled with the radioactive ash of the city, fell in ethereal
showers that poisoned the countryside.

I saw him burning – Hiroshi, the old, blind calligrapher who lived in a hut across the street from my family - his face was barely recognizable, the skin melting off his bones. As he ran past me, bleating, flames climbed off his body into a horrible black cloud.

A young woman shrieked under the tent. Her breasts were pools of black grease.
Her cheekbones poked through the singed flesh of her face.

Crowds of survivors ran through the streets, in all directions away from the blast.

Bodies burned from the inside out.
Gondolas, truckloads, and ferries full of corpses.

Throngs of people stopped to cup their hands and scoop muddy water into their mouths.
Others dove into the Honkawa River. Many drowned there, dragged down by the torrents.

In the countryside, livestock, poisoned by the fallout, could be heard lowing through the night.

Have you ever heard a hundred cows screaming?

In the days that came, the wounded died slowly and painfully as new, mysterious wounds grew on the unaffected.

Something never before seen took hold. We called it “Disease X.”

Purple spores appeared on the epidermis. Even with antibiotics, these spores rapidly flowered into gangrenous flesh. In the filth of the wreckage, maggots feasted on the living.

Brush them off, just brush them off. But they keep coming back! Where do they come from?

They seem to come from nowhere…

High fever and dementia.
Then diarrhea – bits of entrail blackened and tarry from the fallout-

the doctors were reminded of meconium-

they daubed soybean oil on our burns.

and looked it
in its hundredthousand eyes –

The Dream of the Thin Man

It recurs.

The lightning bolt lays slack in its box, on a bed of cotton stuffing. The undertaker appears. He bathes it with a vinegar solution, then carefully swabs it with brine. The tailor, an old man with grotesque hands, enters and girds his tape across the breadth of the lifeless bolt. Tip to tip, he then measures its length. As he does so, the lightning bolt emits a high whine, a primitive song. Alarmed, he notices a steel trocar and surgical tube attached to it, quietly siphoning fluid to someplace far away.

The undertaker is faceless.
The tailor is unknown.

And he is the omniscient watcher, watching, now, as

two eternal boys crouch in burning pines,
their pockets full
of gleaming charms,

before waking dimly to what remains.

05 May 2009

Albino Animals

More photos from my natural history museum foray.

Know what? Life is hard for albino animals. Stripped of their natural pigment, they typically have a hard time eluding predators. Photosensitivity is also an issue. And because their eyesight tends to be poor, they have an equally hard time procuring food, safety, and other essentials. These facts make albinos a hard sell at singles' clubs, too. And so, as a result, it's rare to actually stumble upon, say, a pigment-free catfish or raccoon. "Natural selection's a bitch," quoth the albino lemur.

It's a little different for human beings with albinism, though. In the human realm, the issue isn't physical survival - it's social inclusion...which is survival, really. Some people think albinos (both humans and animals) are beautiful, ethereal and otherworldly. I happen to be one of 'em.

03 May 2009

The Idea of Grief

Yesterday, we drove out to Lake MacBride, where Stella's buried, and made a flower garden out of her grave. It felt good to dig in the dirt after a year of academia and chainsmoking nonexistent cigarettes, hunched over my laptop like a freaking mugwump. Digging in the dirt feels encoded in my DNA, deep down on the ladder of my brain stem. Of course, I have no proof to back up that claim, except that I feel more aliveness covered in dirt than any dirt free, sanitized institution's ever been able to afford. So yesterday was a good day. I felt a little extra movement in the grief process, which, I'm remembering, has all the complexity and nuance of a female sexual orgasm. Except it's not an orgasm at all. It's grief. It's running your finger along the edge of something too profound to even name. It's loss. It's sorrow.

I'm aware that in mourning Stella's death, I've been mourning, also, the passing of time itself. The loss of a certain phase in my life - the Stella Phase, which was a considerable one. It happened to be the Phase wherein my heart actually started to grow. And did Stella play a role in that? Most definitely. She got me used to the idea of caring about/for somebody else. She taught me all kinds of lessons - the kind that if any human tried to teach me, I'd have told them to eff off. But because she was an animal, my ego didn't get engaged. I just took what she had to offer, which was unconditional dog love and a total embrace of the present moment. Stella was a magic zen dog, and maybe we all are.

It felt good to make something good out of Stella's grave. We planted some hostas, vinca, and some marigolds. Eleanor laughed and ran and played. It was a glorious sunlit Spring day. A dog named "Aisha" kept running over to frolic with us. Lake MacBride shined like a billion dimes. When we were ready to leave, I took down the little bone mandala I made a long time ago (just before I moved to Colorado, actually), but had hung above her grave the day we buried Stella. I tied it to our rear-view mirror as we drove away - cranking a little Neko Case - and it flew in the winds of May that came streaming across all our bodies.