Méconnaissance (A Prose Poem)
There is a river in Riverside—you’d never suspect it until you leave Riverside, driving south wondering where did all the water comes from to green the orange groves but then the orange groves are very few and between sprawling neighborhoods that they seem parasitic the orange groves that is hanging on to dear life.
They’re not as an adaptive species: oranges.
And you’d think twice about the river because you can’t really see the river until it is no longer there. I believe this is the foundation for any faith—behold the white cloud in the distance, the last exit of doubt.
The river must be dry in relative proportion to the growth of pipes and pools that extract much more than any native river can offer. Certainly the northern aqueduct or diversions from the Colorado would have generous effects but crediting imports are not what one thinks when leaving Riverside. Instead: plaster’s aid and comfort. Whether or not the AC should be serviced? Or…did I remember to set the alarm?
There is a toll road connecting Riverside to San Diego. I used it the first time when my cousin married his medical school sweetheart. Perhaps this was the occasion when my girlfriend and I forecasted our future. Speed to the coastal chapel before the parents realized the insincere exchange of vows. We imagined guaranteed married student Family Housing, with Internet, electricity, water, modern kitchen, yard and parking included. After the reception we spent the night in a San Clemente timeshare. In the morning as we walked towards the beach, the drowsy day laborer stares echoed a vicarious existence all too familiar.
Can I really afford the day off when the Border Patrol’s white Jeep Cherokee is parked across the Baskin-Robbins?
It was only then when we crossed the railroad tracks and finally reached sand, I was accepted like any other with a nine-foot surf board, and pass the breakers, I described wisdom: long black hair with the perpetual tan, shaking out the fraternal hang-ten.
Toll baskets are in place of toll keepers. You do not need exact change and for this reason travelers do not have the opportunity to reason for change with sympathetic toll keepers. Not in this heat. Finger the camera for lack of customer service but…Challenges: what are given to the roads. There is a map and how often we leave it behind
But this isn’t what one thinks leaving Riverside.
Toponymy has its urban myths and a city’s emergence from desert attracts prodigal sons from the interior. This is as close to the ocean as most people can rent. Prodigal sons are none different. We would call it settling. Prospects are least unforgiving when parents aren’t watching. The heat will not halt the sprawl but will stop prodigal sons in their tracks.
When you forget a map, how do you know when to leave?
Instead, when leaving Riverside, I wondered why my father-in-law, the toughest Creek Oneida in Oklahoma, left his home for this. Fighting crabgrass on his small lawn, then retreating to his garage to silkscreen t-shirts for the powwow circuit because university students are better consumers than the people they study in their textbooks, and with his blonde wife, an ex-hippie, role-playing Tarzan and Jane. He in leopard print skivvies. She needing protection from the sun. The waterbed succumbed tides. Humbled, my girlfriend and I discovered quieter sex.
In November, driving to Providence, Rhode Island, I had come to an island in the middle of the turnpike north of Tulsa. Aspen and Cottonwoods service the service station’s natural habitat. So it seemed to me—remediating heavy soils. It is where people gather when they want to leave but cannot. So they watch others fill their tanks and dream what is beyond the state lines. And maybe this is the stark difference. Can you really leave the State when turnpikes are manned by those unshakeable Charons? Who keep census on the toll moving away has…who will maintain a personal record of the comings and goings of vehicles. Each driver a tenor, voicing the inimitable stretch of undiscovered road…and who for no other reason besides work, accepts the silver bribes for the rite of passage because no one else will.
When you recognize industrial cottonwoods like the kind used to absorb Super Fund site metals then Envy is defined as a full tank of gas, a place to go, a new alternator, a rebuilt transmission, a fresh timing belt, and caffeine pills.
I did not know what to think when I stopped for gas only that I found familiar the environment left behind. My Ford Tempo suggested that I have come from a thousand miles. Stickers identify cities and towns visited every 300 of those miles and thus anticipating the next 300 miles, and the next, and the next. And in these 300-mile intervals I had slept in the car. Altoid tins celebrated every waking up. My cheeks required shaving. The odor of nag champa heavy on my Soulfly concert T-shirt, grenades clutched to sleeves inspiring in those paybooths and cashier counters a militancy I did not expect. I agreed when nodded to. Yes, we will “search and destroy” them all. I was trespassing on a secured channel between cities and the long black hair framed by the perpetual tan warned of my conviction. If recidivism was an object like framed hair, then, I had come a long way to be mistaken as some one reeled back.
I knew, here, I wouldn’t be resting.
Last week, I received a rejection e-mail from the editors of New Plains Review (University of Central Oklahoma). The poem did not find a home in the “Special Section,” Oklahoma American Indian Experience. I wrote it just for the issue. The e-mail arrived three hours after I had interviewed for a job at Peet’s Roasting Plant in Alameda. The interview took place in the facility’s café. The highlight? Espousing fatherhood.
“My commute is less than ten minutes. If I could, I would kayak to work. I am that close. If not, I’m more than motivated to bike.”
“I have a son who just started kindergarten. Because there is no commute fatigue, I will have the energy to do the things my son wants to do immediately after school.”
I remind myself: the best thing to have happened to me is Taeo.
My child support is based on the potential to earn and not on earning reality. The Family Law Court Mediator had given me six weeks to find work that matches my potential to earn. My potential to earn is measured by my ex-wife’s earnings. We have both earned an MFA through Mills College. We did this together. I think we did this together. Our son spent his first three years of his life on this campus while we earned our MFAs in poetry. He should have walked in robes too for an MFA.
I would not recommend earning an MFA in Poetry to anyone in a slumping economy. I wouldn’t recommend court mediation on the second day of a summer teaching contract with undisciplined juniors recruited from underperforming high schools all the while suggesting they have a future in a green economy. While the mediator and my ex- fancied how I would find work in the Fall, I had thought about how ineffectual the course I developed for 35 Oakland students living in the Mills dormitory for the summer: “Asthmatic Nation: Reading the 880 and 580 Toxic Corridor.” Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was going to be a tough sell. It was going to set the background of corporate and government irresponsibility. Does the history of DDT really make a difference in the life of the East Bay?
There were more believable smoking guns just beyond the fence circling Mills College. I had made a note to myself to warn the T.A. before the beginning of class that any student who would interrupt lecture must be funneled out of class, as I would not have patience. That said, the summer of 2007 was the worst teaching experience ever. My fuse was shorter than I thought. In a class of 35 students, one out of four suffered asthma. Furthermore, each student knew at least one other who had asthma. This matched recent statistics measured in West Oakland. Imagine an epicenter where two highways intersect at the Port of Oakland where container ships meet railroad depot. I asked if they were shocked that so many had asthma. To them asthma was normal, was natural, was expected, a fact of life. Besides, asthma was the least of their concerns. When I was 15, I only knew one other kid in my class with asthma. If there was a similarity between the lives my students lived outside the classroom and my life as a fifteen-year-old, and it was guns. However, I learned how to be a sure shot at the San Leandro Rifle Range with my neighbor’s legal assault rifles.
Divorce can make an English teacher edgy, and as natural as it seemed within the State of California, I was shell-shocked. Within three years, 50% of marriages end in divorce. Ours was barely eight months. But for my son, he wouldn’t know the difference between living with parents who are married, and living with parents who are engaged. He doesn’t know the extra cultural and moral value added to marriage. It’s that suddenly I became phantasmatic, a ghostly father. I was no longer the stay at home Dad, Day Parent, I was returning home to live with my mother and to claim the old bedroom. The ex- kept the apartment, and the son appalled that I wasn’t coming back. Joint Custody gives me 30% of his time. I am 30% father.
“A Dark Continent Companion” was the title of my MFA poetry thesis, now heavily edited and looking for a publisher. I dream passing the advance and the royalties on to my son. I dream it shaping and shaking Pilipino American literature. The companion referred to she who would follow me into the physical and metaphysical Philippines. Textually, imagine a quadruple sestina narrating a Pilipino American’s return to the Philippines during Holy Week when penitents march to crucifixion sites to re-enact the Passion. San Fernando does not come close to the gore imagined by Mel Gibson. Vendors ply the parade grounds. Multi-nationals have banners advertising soft drinks and cell phones. My ex- was three months pregnant when we screened The Passion of the Christ, an unmarried couple getting to know our margins of affinity in a packed Sony Metreon. The anticipation in the theater matches the carnival advertised by the Philippines Department of Tourism.
Repulsion, or the getting-to-know each other really really well, came later. Even then I did not tell her that while I was still an undergrad doing field research in the Philippines, an uncle invited me to participate in Holy Week. He was eager to fashion for me my own flagellant.
What about those nails?
I have yet to take him up on his offer. What deal with God did he have in mind? Regardless, the unexpected pregnancy pushed Easter aside. But this bleak economy has resurrected the proposition.
I have had considered selling my body for proxy to an ailing Pilipino who was unable to make the journey to the archipelago. In fact, it could be anyone ill. Obama, are you listening? I propose a way to fix health care—employ Pilipinos, especially the one’s removed from the nation’s airport security for lack of citizenship. What better employee than a Pilipino to service health care. I mean don’t convalescent homes in the United States prefer Pilipinos? Who better to clean the bedpan? For me, what other way is there to muster $900.00 monthly child support so my son could attend child-care, or after school programs, or so he can have a bedroom all his own within a half mile from me? I am far from the slim and desirable eighteen-year old attracting the attention of fifty-year old white men. If only there were generous fifty-year old white women for NSA FWB.
Yes, click Paypal and send me to the nails.
I certainly would not be paying for my ex’s respect by paying in full and on time. Yet, it is a handsome ransom to see my son every Wednesday and every other weekend. What good is a poet who does not live up to his own thesis? Did I mention my son’s name translates in to “poet of heaven?” His name in another language means “us.” A divorce buries the translation.
I think I wouldn’t recommend earning an MFA in any economy. There’s no job placement after graduation. Career counselors are looking out to keep their own jobs more so than help alums find their own. The institution washes its hands of you and hopes you contribute to the alumni fund. Furthermore, more institutions have realized the cash cow called the MFA. Pay big bucks to sit in a class of so-called peers who will either look at you cross-eyed or not look at you when discussing poetry. There is something deceitful or deceptive, so be warned. I fail to see the humor of poets in bed. Fuck me for not attending Orientation and not getting the scoop on what to do to get ahead. The “publish or die” and the sleeping around attitude certainly take a toll. The diploma seems fitting for kitty litter liner.
With an MFA in poetry, my ex-wife earns $40,000 as an administrative assistant at a for-profit art institute. She has an office in a tall building in the South of Market. She works for people who have more fashion sense that she does. Or she works for people who make a career establishing fashion sense. She deals with students who blab blab blab fashion sense. She is either uneasy of this dynamic or she finds this dynamic more suitable to her personality. Uneasy in the sense that numerous mirrors of herself cancel her out, maker her irrelevant. She respects people with fashion sense. I have no place in her world of fashion. I find comfort at the local Army-Navy store owned by the Afghan, a refugee from the Soviet invasion. She learned to not respect my fashion sense. I have a tried and successful line and it comes in one color. Black. Everyone knew that. She should have been there when I came in purple.
It has been fourteen months since our mediation and the $40,000 a year job eludes me. I remind myself that I am not deadbeat when the economy slouches. I am not deadbeat when I do not measure up to her. She text-messages that I am “not trying hard enough to find real work.” My father defined real work as “the United States Navy.” Text messaging is our preferred form of communication. “Will you be making a deposit? How much?” Even for a poet, I lack the words to describe my humiliation and inability to make a full deposit. Her third favorite message to me describes how I do not provide for my son. I should include this bit into my resumes: explain I will work for child support. Otherwise Fatherhood hangs at the gallows. But, I am getting good at writing cover letters that do not appeal to any human resource manager. Anyone who had taught juvenile hall must have a mirrored attitude to withstand and accommodate a healthy dose of tough love. Yes, Tough Love will work for child support. Appeals to disregard my Master degree go unheard. I mean where is the heart in hiring an under-employed poet? I would be over-qualified to shovel dirt and yet I would prefer to shovel dirt. Nothing wrong with agrarian humility.
Once during an interview I realized I was not going to be hired. I asked for the possibility for the least skilled work. The manager said he preferred his bussers to be Mexican and went on to test my Spanish. Mexican busboys do not have MFAs in Poetry? Mexican busboys do not speak of sons. I have taught in outreach education for six years. Who wants to hire someone exposed to that brusque environment. If I had difficulty explaining to high school students that their health matters then what makes me think a hiring manager will take my word: yes I will be an asset to your company. Did I mention my two favorite students in the Hall were in for murder? When economy slouches, outreach cuts are deeper. Fewer beds in the slammer too.
Seriously, as the immigrant Philippine population grows older and more attuned to the fair-weather of the Bay Area, travel to the tropics becomes farfetched and risky. But fair fair-weather is no guarantee to fair health. Bay Area weather improves fairness, a gene often lacking. You’d be surprise how easily fair skinned Pilipinos are horrified when they turn dark brown when returned to the home country. I have this problem called tan lines and will do anything to smooth them out—even if it means losing some blood. I can mediate a transaction for an elder suffering from incurable gout (for example) and petition God for a cure. I would just need to hang from a cross for a couple hours and wait for God to hear my sincere and poetic pleas on behalf of client. Sometimes a couple hours lengthen to several. God can be busy sorting out the sincere from the insincere. I wouldn’t be the only petitioner. Unlike the others, I understand sincerity that sincerity is the measure of participation. Those nails better penetrate. The Philippines is fourteen hours a way. I can do that and be back before my son wonders where is his Daddy.
Yes, Paypal and send me on my way to economic security.
The problem with Easter is that it comes once a year, and jet travel can take its toll on my good humor. Crucifixion is seasonal work. I propose an Easter for every month: an Easter tour of the major American cities where Pilipinos live. I can’t go wrong with a population over two and a half million Pilipinos. Imagine a Calvary on wheels.
Imagine taking this show to Burning Man. It would be totally syncretic!
Option 2 has me in another direction: Embedded Poet (contra inbedded poet or contra indebted poet). Boot on the Ground.
Poet on the Ground.
Is this a dilemma of every contemporary poet who has reported on the war on terror but from a far and comfortable distance churning out volume after volume of protest? Without a scrape or scrap. I mean for every poet who wrote about refuting the war, awed by the precision juggernaut, measuring casualties and manipulating obituaries—shouldn’t there be a poet on the frontline. Shouldn’t it be that poet whose subject is war?
Imagine Juliana Spahr in body armor? Quite sexy I think.
Judith Goldman scoping a sniper?
Barrett Watten disarming an IED?
Leslie Scalapino—whose famous lines to me were “its all about the war” when answering a question about the subtle violence in Tango—laying grazing fire?
K. Silem Mohammad de/coding Flarf?
Meg Hamill at a triage station?
Paolo Javier painting a target? Yes what about those bombs?
Edward Hirsch in Arlington! Or rather Meg Hamill at Arlington! Collaboration?
Suzanne Stein leading a night-march (because I have seen her boots, and what wonderful pairs she owns.)
Taylor Brady, a public affairs officer, nuancing collateral damage?
Laura Elrick, internment specialist.
Laura Moriarty. Do you hear the bugle?
Alas where are my Carl Sandburgs? Or my Pattons?
Warporn poetry is a question about authenticity as much as sincerity—given that the war has endured for so long. New poets—to your battle stations! MFA programs risk graduating “poets of the insincere.” A poet who produces journalism should at least walk the beat; know what it is like to be an extension of foreign policy? After 8 long years and promises for far more, aren’t you at all curious? I concurred with Bhanu Kapil. After long-term war poetry exposure, what else can you want, but a war?
Besides the obvious, re-enlistment is student loan bailout and my son signed as health and insurance beneficiary. The shopping center Army recruiter corroborates my inspiration. Potential new recruits, many in there 30s, have admitted that a change in the White House had made the military option viable. With forecasted Afghanistan presence to last in to the next decade—then re-enlistment is job security. Thank the Pentagon for recommending a Troop Surge.
1994 was the last time I was on the government’s payroll. Then like now, North Korea rattled its missiles. I was in the U.S. Navy and aboard the only “stealth” cruiser to be stationed at Pearl Harbor. I would rather go to war for a President I had voted for and although I voted for Clinton and worked on his campaign before enlisting, his foreign policy gave me goose bumps. Retreating from Somalia was such a downer. In the current geopolitics, an American poet’s relevance is his ability to read and translate Arabic, Persian or Pashto poetry. It is another kind of job security. The Middle East is profoundly here to stay in the American literary imagination. Imagine enjoying the ghazal in the original and learning it on site? Yes, I know—a man can get pretty murderous after a lousy divorce and the army is just a license to kill, projective verse.
Recently at Javarama, a wartime café, Professor Judith Bishop asked would I be able to critique the imperial project while servicing the imperial project? Would I be co-opted? Would I contradict everything I have taught my son: guns are bad, killing is bad, war is bad. Are there exceptions to the rule? I would only sign a contract if I have a clear enough path to the Defense Language Institute. I would like to interrogate in several languages and explain to those subalterns in their own language, I pay a high price not to see my son.