Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The lineage of innocence

Shoot Elvis
For Bill Smolenske

Suddenly, one day, everything changes. A guy
decides to take a drive down a gauntlet of black
cats and broken mirrors, under ladders in the open
air of his inconvertible logic. They did shit like that
back in 1963, when the lineage of innocence was still
a long unbroken chain of honor stretching far back
into the rewrites of history and conscience was a luxury
no one could readily afford to include in textbooks and
curriculums. Back when Americanism was yet an untarnished
commodity available in shiny boxes of Crackerblack Jack,
ribbed bottles of Nesbitt’s orange, cellophane bags bulging
with the southern heat of Mammy’s Mississippi Moonpies,
all happily within reach at any corner convenience store,
had they been around in those duke of early days.

But there’ll be no cake today, not on this, your thirteenth
birthday, because there are yet four days of wailing ahead,
wailing and mourning for the passing of the last illusory
vestiges of a nation’s innocence, yours and ours, all of it
taken or given up in the crossfire, an acceptable expenditure
of what remains freedom’s finest resource: raw unrifled
gullibility. And it hurt. It still hurts all these goddam years later.

Just sing the birthday song and mean it, somebody. Let’s pretend
the world is still black and white, that soda fountains still say so,
but no one gets hurt over it no more. Let’s not go to the moon,
but leave it beautifully at dream’s reach, bobbing and buoyant
in a black sea of space, unfettered by flags and the color of debris,
safe from the greasy hands of enterprising men. Let’s allow it to remain a simple and unblemished symbol of unattainable purity reflecting only our gazing back into ourselves, a wondrous ivory
lamp by which to do so.

Make me President that day in November, and I promise to stay
the hell out of Texas. I’ll sleep with Jackie every night, and I won’t
blink in October. I vow to display a desk plaque that reads:
The Boogeyman Is A Commie. And if I do surrender to Marilyn,
no one’ll damn well know about it. For what, if nothing, does a man
possess if not his dear and honorable lies? If America cannot exist
in the realm of a boy, it cannot exist at all. Shoot Elvis instead, hips down, but let me open my gifts in peace. For nations grow old and die out everyday, but a boy becomes a teenager only once.

Joseph Gallo
November 22, 2002

Sunday, November 20, 2005

In the year of the dragon

Happy 17th Birthday, Camlen!

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As you march towards manhood know that I am proud of you for who you are and for who you are becoming. Your unique sensitivity and your grand heart is evident to all who encounter you. I love you always even if you are taller than I am. Thank you for being the most wonderful son.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The scent of sweet olives

I dreamt last night. I had fallen asleep late, very late, so late it had crossed into early. Thus, my dream came this morning. I entered a small red room, soft, candlelit, nothing sharp or dangerous. A man was seated playing a guitar as elegant as a ribbon of ebony silk. He strummed and plucked it as rich and delicately as one might pluck a holy pheasant at Christmastime. No words, in the key of E major. I knew this piece.

And then there was a guitar in my hands and I began voicing with it. Then came the words I'd sung before, the man with the guitar joining me in perfect harmony, he the higher part, me the lower: And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water / And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower / And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him / He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them / But he himself was broken long before the sky would open / Forsaken, almost human he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.

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When I awoke some hours later I found myself humming as I made my way down the hall and I wondered why this song was on my lips. Then it came to me. The dream. Nothing too remarkable about it at all as I sat down shivering in the unheated bathroom and opened the curtain above me to reveal a late morning sun dissolving like a sad wound of light in a grey grey autumn sky.

But why this song by Leonard Cohen? Then came the reason: I had stayed awake to watched a program about the science of biblical times, an examination as to the most likely manner in which Jesus would have spread his message throughout Galilee, discussion of the long dead dialect of Aramaic he spoke that has no lyrical equivalent in the language I've come to know his teachings and parables by, and the variable recountings of the words attributed to him so many years later in the gospels of his followers.

Returning to the warmth of my heated room, I turned on my computer to check my e-mail. Joni had answered my letter in which I had told her how I had scented Switzerland in the night air as the full moon rose over this sleepy little town of The Dalles. I told her how I stood there in a supermarket parking lot, eyes closed, sipping it with the nose of my heart, following it as if it were a sensual mating pheromone sent to guide me towards some distant and enchanted moth.

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In her reply, Joni recounted a story to me about the power of scent, how this particular sense is intricately bound to memory. Hers was of planting and landscaping in North Carolina last weekend when she caught something in the breeze and suddenly found herself in Peace Park in Japan. I did not finish reading it all as I began to write the following poem, which has a little of everything above in it. Who knows how or why these things happen, but I am deep in my element when writing, slightly sleep deprived, hung over with dream, and nothing pressing me to do anything else the day would have me do but this.

For Joni Smyth

Listen, for you will not hear his words.
They are sepulchered in a language long dead
as a trod of sunken footprints in a sea of red.
All you know of him has been cultivated from
a saxifrage of hearsay. But these words are known
to you nonetheless somewhere in the spores
of your breath. They have erupted from miracles
cleaved from seeds most invisible, things unseen
even by a god’s unaided eye. Listen, for you may
hear them in the scent of the wind while you are
planting shrubs or trees, tending to the discourse
of heavy water, mulching the sacrifices of ancient
fish so that a loaved verdure might overtake
the memory of what happened there.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall enfragrance sweet olive
in the mountless place where God’s mushroom twice blossomed

Listen, for against such a carbon sky ungathering
the riven multitudes, strewn as the culled hearts
of stars within the structures of their atomic lineages
go the messages you seek. You may find them in such
veils of brelled atmosphere, the beatitudes of believing
that from such a bloom as this might come the secret
names of God, names given to larks and warblers
who give them back to the terrible sun, names hallowed
by black worms who incant their candled syllables
to whales and elephants an afterworld away.

So as you bend in the greening that brings autumn
to your doorstep, furrow spaded with seed and scythe
in hand, kneel with risen head and listen with your nose,
there, and there again, the unmistakable traceless lode
of kinmokusei, that which spoons sermons back from
what cannot be resurrected, that which returns when
the silence remains, the manifest of what the meek have
truly inherited, a dulcitude promised to all who might believe
in the essence of the olive made sweetest by Hiroshima’s kiss.

Joseph Gallo
November 17, 2005

Friday, November 11, 2005

Two poems for my father

Hole In Illinois

There's a hole in Illinois,
a man crouched down
looking into it,

looking for the lost bones of Lincoln,
looking for the seam of the world,
looking for the faint pulse of the broken heartland,

looking for letters never sent
from lovers never consumed by love's consent,
looking for the lost lenses of his early eyes,

looking for the secretnesses of all things,
for everything shut away,
put up, buried

in haste or ceremony,
looking for the lost dogs of all his found boyhoods,
scenting the cul-de-sacs of the genetic trail

that brought him here to his knees,
the traceless roots and groats,
from kinwater to tears to earth

to the end of anything nutrient,
at the far reach of an unnamed
and knownless sea,

searching for any sign of something
beyond this background veil of invastitude,
for what he will have been

when he rises up and out of this looking,
that small part or large of him
looking up and out of that hole,

that hole in Illinois.

Joseph Gallo
March 1995

Men In The Moon

If we could be boys
for a hundred years,
together when mother
calls us in,

the late dogs yarking,
warm suppers humming,
the vast corn silent
across the Great Plains,

and, holding our breath
in the tideswell of moonrise,
we could swim up
on the buoy of the red sky,

ride that white ball
up through a roil
of gillsilver stars,
then maybe we could look

across a small century and
from the top of that blazing arc,
step off without a word
and say it all the way down

like sons and their fathers,
true fathers and sons,
true sons
true fathers
true sons.

Joseph Gallo
May 1997

Friday, November 04, 2005

Labyrinths within the realm of lost sleep

It's late and I am unable to sleep. Whatever moon might have risen tonight has by now run through autumn gutters slick with rain and disappeared down into any number of grated leaf-clogged drains. This small town does not hold the rain well. It is like some forgotten silent film star whose grainworn face is laden with overworked makeup, smeared with a sallow blush it never had to begin with, and locked away in some heavy-curtained room filled with the storied memorabilia of an arrested era.

I can think of a thousand other places I would rather be losing sleep in. Luzern, Paris, Santa Fe, New Orleans, Amsterdam, Salzburg, Geneva, Nyon, Gruyères, Valais, Pau, Papeete, Southern California. But I am here, in Northern Oregon, in one warm room that I heat by electric radiation while the rest of the house follows the cold rinse moon into the river and is lost. I cannot sleep so I began to think about something that happened to me exactly one week ago today.

I had been writing and working on some photographic images at my computer when I stood up to retrieve a page from my printer. Just before I rocked myself up and out of my leather office chair, I experienced a microsecond or two of a strange sensation that seem to amplify as I reached the top of my stance. Everything suddenly went sideways. I immediately thought I had simply stood up too quickly, which can often result in a temporary spatial displacement of orientation. Sometimes I've seen a buzzy cloud of little black gnats swim and swarm in a kind of circular light around my head when this happens, but they didn't come. Then I began to realize this was becoming a real doozy. I sat on the bed to wait it out until it passed. It didn't.

With my hand stretched out to my side to prop myself up, the room began accelerating to the left much like a skipping record jerking back to its start point to race left again before resuming again. I thought I might pass out and so prepared myself as best I could mentally while physically lowering myself closer toward a horizontal position on my bed for that rapidly approaching eventuality. It did not come. The room accelerated further.

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Now a kind of muted panic began to set in as I mouthed to myself, What is going on? My mind thought stroke, it thought heart attack, it thought delirium and blood sugar, it thought diabetes and brain tumor and inner ear and equilibrium and imbalance and vestibular canals and endolymph, and all manner of terms I had studied earlier this year during my brief career in hearing healthcare. The panic shifted into second gear and strained to keep up with the careening room as it sped faster and faster. I made it to my feet.

I had one clear thought during this mad disorientation: to get to the phone in the living room. So I bent my knees and reached my left hand out for the polished black wire interconnected cubes that bridge a pair of shiny black two-drawer file cabinets and span along one wall, terminating at the edge of the closed door. I store clothes, CD's, and other items in these open deco cubes and tentatively braced myself against them hoping not to fall as I clumsily opened the door nearly stumbling headlong into the hallway before catching myself on the far wall.

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I turned into the mostly empty living room in which someone had placed me square in the middle of a merry-go-round turning right at the gathering speed of light while everything became a smear of motion streaking left. I could see the wireless phone and snatched it out of its cradle as I went hurtling by. I went down to the floor and crawled as best I could towards some large blue overstuffed pillows that as yet have no couch to be placed upon. I fell over from my knees onto my side and realized immediately that I had made a colossal error in orbital room trajectory and did not want to make that mistake again. I reoriented myself into a leaning sit position and looked down at the phone.

Quantum mechanics and prime integers collided in a cartoon of digitized theorems all playing out on the keypad rendering numbers obsolete. I wanted to let someone know something was happening to me. I pressed the pattern that rings Celestina, a wonderful friend who lives across town and can be counted on to be on the phone right when I might need her most. Busy. I laughed. The room was going full tilt now and I remember thinking: What if this never stops? What if I have to live with this for the rest of my natural life and the small town doctors can only shake their collectively small heads and shrug their small churchly shoulders and say: Well, how 'bout that?

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I tried calling again. Busy. Alien abduction, that's what it is. I hit the side of my head to try and jar it into stopping but it did nothing. Busy again. Now I resolved to concentrate on just dialing the number pattern and putting everything else out of my focus. For small micromoments I would look at the handset and the motion would stop, then ramp back into JATO mode leaving contrails on the walls. Busy again. I closed my eyes and immediately felt a wavesine of nausea. Not going to do that again unless I lose consciousness. I dialed again and again busy. I fully expected to read Surrender Dorothy in wisps across the ceiling at any moment when the turbulent spinning at last decayed, slowed, and mercifully stopped.

My eyes were wide as a soft terror could make them. I reached for my head and found my hair, my face, my neck were all wet as if I had survived a cloudburst in the middle of my living room. I slowly stood up and made my way to the bathroom, ran some cold water, splashed my face and dried off. I looked at myself in the mirror. I was pale and ashen. My stomach teetered on a vertiginous aerial cable that swayed side to side as if stretched across a great canyon in the wind. I stood by the toilet expecting gravity and expulsia to have their way. They fist fought for some rebellious moments, signed treaties, unified, and called a truce. I was spared the final indignation and headed for my bedroom to lie down and take stock of my parts. I was drained.

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The whole chapter lasted five minutes, as best as I can figure. Five minutes solid is interminable when you're on a ride you want to get off of. I would be fragile and tentative for several days afterwards, being at the mercy of having the sensation that it was coming on again. It's unnerving and wholly alien. This had never before happened to me. The loss of control is the most unsettling aspect of the whole thing. It felt as if I were losing my mind. Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer true / I'm half crazy over the likes of you . . . as Hal slurringly sang it for us so long ago as his memory was being removed.

Since the Afternoon of the Stuttering Windmills I have determined, given the best description of my symptoms and as best I can in the spirit of self-diagnosis, that what I experienced was an episode of labyrinthitis. Vertigo. One source reads: Anyone with the symptom of vertigo should be seen immediately by a doctor in order to determine the cause. It goes on to add that one should not operate heavy machinery or light ships through uncharted living room sectors unless cleared to do so by a physician.

This same source goes on to say: Vertigo can also result from other vestibular (balance center) disorders. Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV) is thought to be caused by tiny loose particles floating freely in the fluid (endolymph) of the vestibular system. Sometimes vertigo may be a symptom of a more serious underlying illness such as a stroke or tumor.


Another source offered this about labyrinthitis, a term I prefer because it puts me in mind of Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentinean writer and poet whom I once had the honor of meeting in person, and makes it more exotic and esoterically filled with magical realism: People sometimes refer to labyrinthitis as an inner ear infection, but it usually isn't due to an actual ear infection. In the most general terms it's a condition which causes irritation of tiny structures such as microscopic hair cells which project into fluid-filled canals (labyrinths) within the vestibular system located deep in the inner ear. Normal balance is, to a degree, controlled by movement of fluid and particles in the labyrinths, in response to changes of body position. This causes the hair cells to send electrical impulses to the brain helping to define the body's orientation. In labyrinthitis, the hair cells and other structures in the labyrinths have become irritated or inflamed. They discharge randomly, sending chaotic messages to the brain, tricking the brain into thinking you or your surroundings are moving or spinning.

Now I certainly wouldn't want randomly sent chaotic messages Med-Exxed to my brain in addition to, or superseding, the ones I already receive on a somewhat regular basis. I gave up my silver shoe and Scotty dog in that game of Neuropoly long ago. I'd just as soon whistle past the windmills and saunter merrily by the sidewinders. Normal balance in my life is scary enough.

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When I finally talked with Celestina the next day, she reminded me that she had danced the same labyrinthine La Bamba three times in the past five years, once for nearly three hours. Five minutes was plenty long enough so I shudder to think of three hours or a day or weeks with this debilitating condition. She had been prescribed Dramamine by one of our small town docs and it subsequently staved off the symptoms she experienced. She gave me a couple of tablets from her personal supply to keep on hand in case some Hitchcockian imp decides to start pushing the damn thing around again.

It is nearly 5am now and I should attempt some antidisomnambulism in the supine position. Before I sign off, I am reminded of something else that once happened to me in the theme of sleep disorders back in 1977, or so. It was my only hyperconscious experience of what the Japanese call kaneshibari: bound by metal. It is a terrifying recollection, one I have thought of from time to time over the years.

But that is a story best told another time.