“These are the chickens you let loose one at a time. . . “ (Kay Ryan)

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The Palestinian Sky at Sousia Bedouin Village. (Photo: Harold Knight, Nov. 15, 2015)

Poet Kay Ryan read some of her work a couple of days ago at Southern Methodist University, and told a about herself in the same way she writes poetry. That is, less is always more. I have been smiling at, giggling out loud at, and all-but weeping at her poetry for years. Her images and insights are precious to me, the more so because we are virtually the same age (I am eight months her senior) and she so often that it’s uncanny says exactly what I was thinking and didn’t know how to say (I think that’s the definition of great poetry).

I am grateful to have heard her read and talk a little about her poetry because I now know my intuition was right―her delightful, funny, strange little poems are “about” something. They are about the kinkiness of living in this world, and about the mixture of joy and pain getting old―among other realities―brings. At least that’s what I heard the other night.

All the ideas, experiences, (mistakes?) of 70 years I’d like not to remember seem to be taking over my life. The chickens are, re: the old cliché, coming home to roost. It’s not only the bad chickens. It’s all the chickens, even those ideas, experiences, and accomplishments I’m proud of. This is not good or bad. It simply is. In Kay Ryan’s words, they are “all the same kind,” and they are all coming home “at the same speed.” Her poem “Home to Roost,” exemplifies the poet’s―a real poet like Kay Ryan, that is―ability to say all of this precision and elegance (and humor).

“HOME  TO  ROOST,”  by  Kay  Ryan  (b. 1945)

The chickens
are circling and
blotting out the
day. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in
the way. Yes,
the sky is dark
with chickens,
dense with them.
They turn and
then they turn
again. These
are the chickens
you let loose
one at a time
and small—
various breeds.
Now they have
come home
to roost—all
the same kind
at the same speed.

This reminds me of a poem by Ogden Nash. It’s fair to quote him because Ryan quoted one of his poems. The last two lines of his poem “Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man,” comparing sins of “omission” and “commission,” are

The moral is that it is probably better not to sin at all, but if some kind of sin you must be pursuing,
Well, remember to do it by doing rather than by not doing.

If all the chickens coming home to roost turn out to be of the same kind, returning at the same speed, what difference does omission or commission―or being or not being sinful―make?

Poets make connections between ideas and images that you and I would never think of until we read them in poems. My mind makes connections, but they are not elegant and certainly can’t be turned into poetry.

About 25 years ago in Boston I taught a college music appreciation class. One of the students was a young Palestinian man. He was had to leave this country soon because his student visa had run out. Unfortunately, the First Palestinian Intifada was just winding down, and his parents had managed to escape and were living on Malta, but he could not go there. He had no passport from Israel. Long story short. Details are not important―it’s complicated―I learned from him about the Nakba, about the Palestinian refugees, about the crushing oppression of the Palestinians before 1967, and about the totally untenable circumstances of their lives since then. He disappeared to Tunisia, and I’ve wondered since then what became of him.

One of the chickens that has come home to roost for me is my delay advocating for the Palestinians. In 1984 I had seen what outspoken advocacy could do for an international star when the Boston Symphony cancelled a performance by Vanessa Redgrave because of her advocacy for the Palestinians. I had no international stardom to fall back on.

But the truth of that situation would not let me go. When the Second Intifada was winding down (2003), I decided I had to see for myself. I went with a delegation of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (their Palestine/Israel delegations are now independent as Interfaith Peace Builders). It changed my life. More aspects of my life than I thought at the time or than I realize even today.

Some of those chickens came home to roost.

My lifetime peripheral dedication to the cause of justice became in some ways an obsession. I’ve been back twice.

Since I cannot be a rabble-rousing activist, I have one little almost-private method of staying involved. I put together a blog about daily events in Palestine. Virtually every day. In the year since February 15, 2015, I have posted 255 times.

As far as I can tell, “the sky is dark with chickens, dense with them.” I have done much that might be considered “wrong” (by the Baptists I grew up among). I have done much that seems “right.” Most of my life at the moment seems “all the same kind.” My life is as it is.

My relationship with Palestine InSight is as it is. I simply do it. I’m not sure how many people read it. I used to beg my friends to read it. I wanted it to float to the top of Google searches. My purpose is to provide a place where Americans can see a tiny (tiny, tiny) slice of what’s happening in Palestine that might shed some light on their struggle―and to make available every day a poem by a Palestinian poet. Every day, a poem.

For a while I worried that no one was reading it, that I was wasting my time (about 2 hours a day). And then I realized the blog needs to be there whether anyone reads it or not. If someday someone finds it and loves the poetry or understands something about the lives of the Palestinians, so much the better.

If not, it is part of my “sky [ ] dark with chickens, dense with them.” There. Only there, not to worry about. Do it. Let ‘em loose one at a time.

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Lifta Palestinian Village, Jerusalem. (Photo: Harold Knight, Nov. 12, 2015)

“. . . My tunes arise from my heart . . .” (Mahmoud Darwish)

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Useless?

In his essay “National Music” Ralph Vaughn Williams says that the “chief glory of music is that it is absolutely useless”―or something like that. I’ve quoted him often enough that I ought to be able to find the statement in my copy of the book, but―believe me―I’m not going to read the book until I find it. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

Or if you know the page or that it isn’t there at all (go ahead, prove a negative!), leave me a comment.

By useless, he means, of course, that music serves no scientific or utilitarian purpose. He did not know the work of Oliver Sacks and other neurologists, of course, who have discovered how important music is to the functioning of the brain―not necessary, but more helpful than any other activity (do you hear that, you home-schoolers and student test score junkies?).

In the long run I think he is right. Delight, mental acumen, expression of emotion, communication―all of those things are useless, particularly in a materialistic pseudo-capitalist society. I made a stab at proving him wrong a few times by teaching college courses in “Music as Propaganda,” but that was almost always about words coupled with music. There are precious few musical statements that “mean” anything or serve any purpose politically. “Finlandia,” “God Save the Queen,” Ein Feste Burg, and a few others do, of course. “The Star Spangled Banner” does not rise to that level because it is an anthem to a piece of cloth, not to a nation―we sing our allegiance to a picture rather than to the nation, but don’t get me started).

Since I retired from regular work as a church organist, I have come to understand the glorious uselessness of music. The music I make very seldom serves any purpose except to “invite my soul,” the value of which is unclear.

Playing the organ in my living room is not my only useless pastime. I watch “Death in Paradise,” “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries,” “Antiques Roadshow,” and “Property Brothers” quite regularly on TV. Notice none of those are binge-watchable hit show on cable TV―I don’t have a clue how to download and binge watch and, since watching TV serial shows and going to the movies are both “social” activities in my mind, I probably never will learn how to sit by myself and watch hour after hour of ongoing stories.

But that’s a discussion for another time.

I read quite a lot of useless poetry.

And I play Sudoku on my iPad. That, of course, is not only not useless, it may well be detrimental. I began that habit because someone told me that someone had told them that they had heard on Dr. Oz or some such show―probably one of those “self-help” shows PBS has been playing for twenty years when they are asking for money―that doing puzzles is a good way to keep your mind active. I’ve ignored neurologists’ admonition that you should find another game when you’ve mastered the one you’re playing. Always work a puzzle or play a game you can’t finish, or it doesn’t help your brain.

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Always work a puzzle or play a game you can’t finish, or it doesn’t help your brain.

Actually, playing Sudoku is sometimes not completely useless. I sit in front of the TV watching “Property Brothers” or “Fixer Upper” and play Sudoku when I need a nap in the afternoon and can’t fall asleep. It’s great fun to fall asleep in mid-afternoon with visions of Jonathan and Drew or Chip dancing in my head. (Tarek on “Flip or Flop” doesn’t make the cut.)

I spend a great deal of time virtually every day posting on my other blog. It usually takes 1.5 to 2 hours daily.

I started that blog in February of 2015 because I discovered the wealth of poetry (useless stuff?) written by Palestinian poets. I was enamored of the useless poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye, the Palestinian-American poet who lives in San Antonio. I discovered that she has translated a great deal of Palestinian poetry from the Arabic to English, and because it was she, I started looking into it. Soon I owned 22 hard-copy volumes of Palestinian poetry and about a half-dozen more on my Nook (iPad).

As I read more and more poetry by Palestinians, I began to realize that the nobility, the anguish, the grief, the defiance, the passion of the Palestinian poetry was the same whether it is by Rashid Hussein (1936-1977) writing first-hand about the Nakba, Tawfiq Zayyad (1929-1994) giving voice to the suffering of the 1967 War, Salem Jubran gently striving to express the relationship between Israeli Jews and Arabs, Fadwa Tuqan (1917-2003) disclosing the devastation mothers and daughters have experienced from the Nakba through the Second Intifada, or Yusef Abu Loz and Abdel Rahim al-Sheikh writing of the precarious situation of their people today.

Standing apart (and, it is almost universally agreed, above) in its passion and clarity is the voice of the Palestinian-American Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008).

Inspired by these (and dozens more) poets, I began to try to give a context for their work―or is it to use their work to give context for the news from Palestine? I don’t know. I don’t really know what it is I do every morning. It may, in fact be a useless enterprise―and I think it most likely is. I don’t have any real idea if anyone reads it or who they are.

What I know is that I must do it. I have no choice. This poetry and these (sometimes related) news stories must be together in Cyberspace for some reason I do not know, and I am the only person who can make it happen. Perhaps it is as absolutely useless as Vaughn Williams says music is.

Which is, after all, probably not useless after all.

“A  DIALOGUE  WITH  A  MAN  WHO  HATES  ME,”  BY  MAHMOUD  DARWISH
Rome was burnt, O crazy man
· Rome is more durable than Nero
Rome will not grasp your poems
· She can recite them by heart
Rome will slice your strings
· My tunes arise from my heart
Your voice echoes a miserable past
· My voice echoes a rocket rage
Your path is long
· I shall not tire
Yehuda** sold you
· I shall not be crucified
My ancestors were cremated in Auschwitz
· My heart is with them
· Pull out the wires from my skin
And the wounds of yesterday?
· A shameful scar―in the face of the executioner over there
What do you carry in your head
· A little wheat
What’s in your chest?
· A picture of a wound
Your face reflects a rancor color
· My face reflects the color of the earth
Then convert your sword into plowshare
· You did not leave me land to plow
You criminal!
· I did not steal―did not kill―didn’t oppress
You Arab! You are a dog!
· O man, may God cure your soul
· Why don’t you try the taste of love
· Why don’t you make way for the sun!!

** The Israeli town of Or Yehuda was established in 1950 on the lands of the depopulated Palestinian villages of Saqiya and Kfar ‘Ana. Jews from Iraq and North Africa settled there.

1-IMG_2984The Village of Lifta, Jerusalem, depopulated in 1948. One of a handful of Palestinian depopulated villages where the homes were not destroyed. (Photo: Harold Knight, November, 2015)

 

“Solitude glanced at me with its two eyes of a gazelle. . .” (Yousef Abdul-Aziz)

bird is not stoneThe tattoo ringing my right forearm spells out the Latin words

Quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum

They constitute the first phrase of Psalm 42,

As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.
My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?
My tears have been my meat day and night, while they continually say unto me, Where is thy God? (KJV)

Three months ago I wrote about this tattoo. I don’t need to explain it again, but for several days I have needed to write about solitude—loneliness—isolation again because mine has again become unbearable (this, too, shall pass). I am mystified to note that often when I am feeling most alone, I am drawn to Psalm 42. “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.”

Why those words come to mind when I am feeling most alone I am not sure (perhaps because of the hauntingly beautiful musical setting by Herbert Howells—about which I have also written recently). I would not say that my soul “panteth” after God. I frankly don’t know—my self-understanding for some time is that I am no longer interested in searching for God.

When I took on the tattoo, I remarked to Joe the artist that we would know how skilled he is by whether or not the eyes of the Palestinian gazelle accompanying the Psalmist’s words seem to be looking at anyone who sees them. I think he did.
DSC01748-001
As I explained in December, I make a connection in my mind between the “hart” and the gazelle that I had the gift of seeing in Palestine in August of 2008—a gift because they are so rare, so endangered that few tourists ever see them wild in the hills of The Galilee where they are native. The “hart” the psalmist knew was likely a Palestinian gazelle.

If anyone had asked me 15 or 20 years ago (or perhaps 5) if I was prepared to be alone, that is, to live alone exist alone sleep alone dine alone play alone, I would have said absolutely not. I had no intention of being alone. Solitude in the desert for a week or two at a time or on the beach at port Orford, Oregon. But not as the condition of my life.

Often on TV A real-estate company’s ad plays about finding the right house to buy. It ends with the sentence, “You are not just buying house. You are looking for the place for your life to happen.”

Somehow my apartment does not feel like the place where my life is happening. I’m not sure where I might be that would seem like that place, but it is not here. If this is where my life is happening, then I must not be one of those Homo sapiens the Nature program on PBS often indicates descended from the same ancestor gorillas came from. I do not seem to be a social creature.

Of course that’s not true. I have many friends and spend a great deal of my time with other Homo sapiens—today I will be with university student athletes for five hours, and I will be with a bank teller, a member of Best Buy’s Geek Squad, and a check-out clerk at Kroger. It is, however, likely that I will not spend any time with another person simply in order to be with them, and I will most likely not touch another person all day.

I’m not feeling sorry for myself (not intentionally, at any rate). I am contemplating the reality of my “social” existence.

I recently came across a poem by the Palestinian poet Yousef Abdul-Aziz titled “The book of doubt.” Its opening image startled me.

Tonight
I stumbled across Solitude in my house.
Not only wearing my best shirt
and drinking my coffee. . .

I thought, “Abdul-Aziz has written a poem for me.” The poem startled me because it is from the volume A Bird Is Not a Stone: An Anthology of Contemporary Palestinian Poetry (Glasgow: Freight Books, 2014). Most of the work in the book is clearly about the political/social situation of the Palestinian people.

Abdul-Aziz’s poem does not seem to be. It seems to be personal. And its metaphor seems to be a metaphor for my own situation. Maya Abu Al-Hayyat writes in the introduction to the anthology,

We notice that most of the poetry particular to this generation [of Palestinians after the Oslo agreement] [is] very vague. They [use] words like “mirrors, shadows, absence, presence,” words that revealed the process of discovery and transformation from one state to another. They [deal] with viewing things in a different way, exactly parallel to the political situation. . .

Palestinian poetry became personally questioning about the poets’ place in the political realities rather than, for the most part, politically activist. The Palestinian people are living in a period of promise but uncertainty, and most of the poetry in the anthology reflects this communal uncertainty. (Of course, the situation has changed again in the short time since this poetry was written to one of the all-too-certain possibility of the destruction of Palestinian society.)

Here in the company of poetry about the enormous struggle of an entire people is a poem so personal as to be startling. And it uses one of my favorite images—one of which I am fond enough to have had it tattooed on my forearm—as a metaphor for solitude.

Perhaps I need to rethink my solitary life.

Living in a situation of political and social impossibility so different from mine that I can scarcely comprehend it is a man—a person—whose experience of being alone seems to correspond to mine. A man, a person, not a Terrorist, not a Militant, not an Arab, not a Muslim, not a Palestinian, but a person. A person with whom I feel together as we both struggle with being alone.

“THE BOOK OF DOUBT,” BY JOUSEF ABDUL-AZIZ
Tonight
I stumbled across Solitude in my house.
Not only wearing my best shirt
and drinking my coffee
but also smoking my tobacco
it was thrashing about the pages
of what looked like my manuscript.
It sat in my chair like a queen
and from its hands
rose an enchanted fog. . .

Still cloaked in my dreams I stood close by
trembling like a branch of the night
raining down bitter
questions:
What is woman?
In which storm
may my heart play?
Where did I bury the fire?!

As though I were a ring on its finger
it didn’t give me much thought.
Unfazed by my stiff shadow at the door
Solitude went on
with a sneer
scrambling pages
tearing them out of the manuscript.
I saw myself cast out to blind lands
and I hollered;
I saw before me a sphere of water
rising up in the wind
and above, a cracked moon,
and slain butterflies
strewn around me.

I’m sure
you will wrap up this farce! I yelled.
Solitude glanced at me with its two eyes of a gazelle—
my own eyes.
And it handed me
the book of doubt—it was my own book.

— Translated by Juana Acock
— From A BIRD IS NOT A STONE: AN ANTHOLOGY OF CONTEMPORARY PALESTINIAN POETRY (Glasgow: Freight Books, 2014) –available from Amazon.com.
— Yousef Abdul-Aziz was born in Jerusalem and studied in Amman and Beirut. He is a teacher, a committee member of the online journal Awraq, and recipient of literary awards, including the (Jordanian) Arar prize.

The Sea of Galilee (Photo by Harold Knight, August 2008)

The Sea of Galilee (Photo by Harold Knight, August 2008)