01 August 2017

"The Skerry" a poem by Knut Hamsun

The boat glides now
towards a skerry,
an isle in the sea
with luxuriant shores.
Flowers grow there
never before seen,
they stand like strangers
and watch me moor.

My heart has become
a fabulous garden
with flowers like these
on the island now.
They talk with one another
and whisper strangely,
like children meeting
with laughter and bows.

Perhaps I was here
at the dawn of time
as a white Spiraea
waiting to be found.
I know that fragrance
from long ago,
it makes me tremble,
that memory profound.

I close my eyes,
the recollection fades
my head onto
my shoulder falls.
The night is thickening
over the island,
the sea is thundering –
Nirvana's thunder calls.

My translation of "Skærgaardsø" from Det Vilde Kor, 1904

23 July 2017

In Patagonia

It was tree-less, grey-green thornscrub for as far as you could see. There was no shade and the wind was relentless. The gusts blew my bike out into the road. I had ridden all day in my lowest gear. In 12 hours, I had covered 80 kilometers.

I passed a shrine to Gauchito Gil and then a sign for “Agro Tourism,” and I turned off onto a one-track dirt road that led back to an estancia. In front of a white farmhouse shielded by poplars a man sat at a table drinking mate. I had not seen anyone in three days.

¿Qué tal?

“The wind is strong. The wind has defeated me today,” I said.

“This wind is nothing,” said the man. “In the Land of Fire is the strong wind. La Escoba de Dios. The Broom of God, they call it.”

His name was Guido and I asked about food and water and a place to put up my tent. Did I also want to go horseback-riding, or to fish at the coast? Did I want to hunt guanaco? I told him I was too fatigued for those activities and we came to an agreement that for 100 pesos I would put up my tent and have an asado of mutton for dinner, then breakfast in the morning.

Guido showed me a place along the poplars to put the tent, and as I started to put it up, he whistled and called for “Samantha.” A guanaco came trotting out from the corral. Two sheepdogs barked and nipped at her legs. I had only seen guanaco from a distance on the pampas. They were like deer with bulging black eyes. As the guanaco neared, Guido quickly turned his back to it. The guanaco sniffed at his hair and his neck, and then it rubbed its nose on his back. 

"You must not look at the eyes of Samantha," Guido warned me. “If you look at the eyes, she will [something] on you.”

I looked away. But I did not understand the verb. I asked Guido to repeat it, but I still didn’t understand.

Guido tried in English, “You look at the eyes, she put a spell on you.”

“A spell?”

“A spell. Yes.”

Whether or not I respected the dark power of certain animals to cast spells, I saw the seriousness with which Guido turned his back to the creature, and so when she came for me I quickly turned away. I felt her at my back and then her breathing upon my neck. I reached behind and touched her fur. I wanted to be friendly. I didn’t want her practicing any witchcraft upon me. She pulled out a mouthful of hair from the back of my head and I jumped forward.

Guido laughed. “Cuidate. If she [something] on you, it will take four baths to remove the smell. The saliva is dark and very terrible.”

I realized Guido had been trying to say that Samantha would spit at you if looked directly in the eyes. There was no sorcery involved. He had confused the English words “spell” and “spit.”

I went back to putting up the tent, but Samantha continued to harass me. Being unable to turn and face her, she would trot up behind me and pluck out my hair. It was all very funny for Guido.

When the tent was up, we went behind the farmhouse where the peon was butchering a sheep for the asado. He stretched the carcass on an iron spit and staked it above the fire. A dog chewed on a purpled bunch of intestines in the dust. Guido and I drank cups of rainwater from a barrel.

"Do you not fear camping?"

“What is to fear?”

“Do you not fear the Mapuche?”

“What is the Mapuche?”

Indígenas. They come with a knife in the night. Chorros. Thieves. I do not hire Mapuche. No one hires Mapuche.” He nodded at the peon. “That one is Tehuelche. Only a half-breed.”

Inside the farmhouse, we sat at the dinner table drinking Fernet and cola. It was dark outside and the generator hummed loudly. Samantha looked in through the farmhouse window, her nostrils pressed against the glass. “She looks for you,” said Guido. I thought so too. His wife brought out the heaping plates of mutton-chops with mashed potatoes and a salad of greens and tomatoes. The meat was delicious.

“Do you think more gringos will come here?” Guido asked.

“Maybe. But it is far.”

“In Patagonia everything is far. But there are penguins here.”

"There are penguins in other places too."

The lights flickered and went out. The generator had stopped. It was quiet and his wife lit the candles and we finished eating by candlelight.

“If only they brought us electricity. If only the government brought us running water and telephone lines. More gringos would come then.”

“Maybe.”

“She destroys Argentina, this Kirchner. This one destroys it worse than the husband. Esos chorros roban Patagonia. These thieves steal from Patagonia.”

His wife touched his arm.

“They argue always for who has the true Peronismo. But all are chorros. Thieves. What they do not steal for themselves, they give to the poor. That is the true Peronismo.”

"He is a little drunk."

“And what if I am drunk? Are they not chorros? Do they not steal from Patagonia?”

“Yes, Guido,” she said gently.

“These thieves steal from Patagonia because it is where there is money. But soon they take all the money. Soon there is no more money!” Guido slammed his fist on the table, his glass bouncing off and shattering on the floor. “Putos chorros!” He looked as though about to cry. He stood from the table and left the room. His wife picked up the pieces of broken glass.

“I am tired,” I said finally.

“Yes,” she said. “The wind was strong today.”

I did not see Samantha at the window. I went to the door and opened it carefully and started towards the tent. Then I heard the guanaco behind me in the darkness and I ran. I heard her stumble on something and I quickly unzipped the rain-fly and crawled inside. I heard her outside. She was nibbling on the tent poles.

In the morning, I packed up and loaded the bike. Guido prepared mate for us and apologized for the night before. After all, it has happened before, he said. First the army will remove her. Then the generals will name the towns and streets after themselves. It has happened before many times. Argentina will have more towns and streets named for generals. He was resigned to it.

13 July 2017

The Black Poet

It was early morning in Ibarra, Ecuador, and all the bars were closed except for a small, one-room tavern at the edge of the old city. It stayed open for men who were committed to their drinking. The police did not bother with it so long as the drinking was done quietly. At a wooden table inside, I was sharing liter bottles of beer with an out-of-work carpenter, a belly dancer, one very drunken photographer, and the Black Poet of Ibarra.

The belly dancer had just finished her performance and returned to the table. She wore a green sheer dress and a sparkling bikini top, and she jingled when she moved. Four old men at the other table looked at her longingly. She smiled and was not ashamed of her bad teeth. She very much enjoyed the attention.

The Black Poet stood and announced that his poem for me was now complete.

He asked that the pasillo music be turned off. From the pocket of his corduroy jacket, the Black Poet produced a jagged piece of convex glass. It looked as though it had been broken from the bottom of a bottle. He held the glass to his eye and he began to read the poem he had written on both sides of a small square of paper:


– PETER –
Undiscovered friend, pollen of light,
Dragonfly that heeds the pollen of the setting sun,
Torch of wind inflamed,
You noble rebel of thought
Your heart is a tear of rain
That no one can undermine to fail
Your thought is perfect, but cold
Like a game of death
On the outspoken lips of life
You love not philosophy,
But love instead the sad and cloudy mirror
Of the fool’s heart
Go and fill your pockets with wind
And having no longer the ugliness of words
All shall be yours
The perfect, impressible beauty of the heavens.


The photographer had his head on the table and was asleep. The belly dancer put her hand on my thigh. Your poem was beautiful, she said. Take her upstairs if you want, said the carpenter. The Black Poet handed me the square of paper. The poem was written in a shaky but elegant script. The poem is now yours, he said. Please, will you do me the favor of walking me home? 

The Black Poet was old and very sad. His wife of 48 years had just died. He walked slowly and talked to me of Augustine and Nietzsche and the Pre-Socratics. He talked of how life might have been had not men become so reasonable, had not the myths been rejected and the gods exiled. I told him that his verse about having pockets filled with wind was going to stay with me a long time. The Black Poet lived nearby and I slept a few hours on his couch until the sun came up.

21 June 2017

A Message for Suscal

There was no one else staying at the hotel and the doors of the empty rooms were left open. My room was on the third floor and looked out at the plaza and the basilica and across the rooftops to the higher mountains. Cañari men and women crossed the plaza. The Cañari were short and dark and wore wide-brimmed felt hats and the women bright pink wool skirts. It was cold in the mountains and the shops closed early. The plaza was empty and clouds came up from the valley.

From the window, I watched the clouds rising. They covered the mountains beyond the town and covered the town itself and then, finally, the plaza. The clouds covered everything. There was only the glow of the hotel’s pink neon sign below my window.

The next day, it was clear and bright and I went out of the hotel for lunch. A Cañari man stopped me and wanted to know where I came from. What was I doing in Suscal? He was called Alberto and he wanted to know my religion. Was I married and did I have children? He wanted to show me his hardware store and together we walked to it. Inside, Alberto presented his wife to me. She was very short and dark, and she looked at me from beneath her wide-brimmed felt hat.

Then Alberto asked if I might prepare a message for the people of Suscal and deliver this message to them at the evening church service. I agreed to do it. We would meet at 6pm in front of the basilica.

I walked back through the plaza and made the steep climb up through town to the main road. A man passed me carrying a basket of potatoes on his shoulder and wished me a very good afternoon. Within an open door, there were women weaving on a large wooden loom. At the top of the hill there was a restaurant, and I went inside.

A young man and a girl were drinking bottles of Coca-Cola and they watched me sit down. The young man wore a New York Yankees baseball cap and a red Nike t-shirt. “Guci” was misspelled in glitter across the girl’s shirt. The old woman came out from the kitchen and I ordered the lunch special. The young man and girl laughed and whispered something.

I began to consider the message I would deliver to the people. I thought to make remarks about the simple beauty of the Cañari mountain culture and the strength of their religious beliefs and how it sustained their happiness. But were they happy? I did not know. What did I really know of them? I had seen the ruins at Ingapirca, and I knew the Cañari had resisted the Inca successfully — until the Inca used intermarriage with their women to defeat them.

The old lady came back out with a tray and set down the plate of carne, rice, and plantains, along with a glass of tree tomato juice, and she wished me good eating.
They defeated you through the women. That was one way to do it. I would tell the people not to be defeated again.

Do not let the gringos defeat you. Ingapirca will bring gringos and maybe one day some of them will stay at Suscal and make a hostel. That is how it will start. Then other gringos will create a bar and a restaurant and more gringos will come. There will be gringo money in the town and so far you will think it is good.

With the gringo money, you will pay others to do what you once did for yourself and you will begin to forget how things are done. You will learn to want gringo gadgets and pleasures. So you will have to learn the professions that make gringo money. A few will prosper in this, and the rest will be promised to prosper one day.

You will learn to stop sharing. You will learn to hoard. You will learn to take advantage of your neighbors and to create marketing deceptions and clever accounting tricks. That is called economic growth. The economic growth will cause bankers to come and make loans, and these loans will raise the value of assets. Those with assets will become very rich. Those without assets will have never been poorer, but with bank loans and indebtedness these poor will make of their lives an approximation of the rich.

With the gringo money, you will be able to live in large homes without your parents or other family members, and you will fill the home with things and diversions. They will say that you have achieved a higher standard of living. They will build tall towers so that many can live inside them and be closer to shopping centers.

They call this economic development. It is measured by the size and number of parking lots and shopping centers. They will expect you to become sober, aspiring, middle-class wage earners. But still, with a few of you, they will expect you to wear traditional clothing, work the traditional trades, and be a curiosity for tourism.

To repay the loans and maintain this standard of living, new income must be found. Foreigners will come to dam up the rivers. Corporations will come to farm the soil until it blows away as dust. Others will cut down the mountains to extract valuable ore. What cannot be monetized in the natural world will be called waste and treated as waste. They determine this through a cost/benefit analysis. There are professionals who perform this analysis and you will learn to trust them.

What is fast and cheap and efficient will be what is important regardless of its consequences. And there will be consequences. The families will break apart and mothers will be less important. The pleasure and happiness of the individual will be the primary value. The women will lust for cocktails and shopping instead of raising children. The basilica will be empty, and other than the very old and the incurables, no longer will the people have any need for God or the helping spirits.


I thought it was a good message. I finished eating and called the old woman over and paid the bill. The young man and girl were gone. I walked back down the hill through the town and crossed the plaza and went up to my room at the hotel. Perhaps my message would not be understood. Perhaps it would not happen that way at all. I stood at the window looking out. Beyond Suscal, far away in the valley, the clouds were gathering.

Indeed, I had come south to receive messages, not to deliver them.

05 May 2017

Alternative Facts

View of Resurrection Bay from the second floor of the Seward Library

In the summer of 2014, to commemorate the 50 year anniversary of the Good Friday Earthquake in southern Alaska, the Seward Public Library exhibited a series of crayon, pastel, ink and pencil drawings made by a class of Seward schoolchildren in 1964, one week after the 9.2 magnitude quake.

On display were marvelous renderings of the fires that burned on the waterfront, billowing black smoke, buildings and homes and cars destroyed, exploding Texaco and Standard Oil tanks, Resurrection Bay covered in a burning oil fire, boats washed up into the town, and tiny stick figures fleeing towards the mountains from a giant tidal wave. 

Most interesting among the drawings were two by little Jimmy Bradford. In what a half century later would be labeled "Fake News", little Jimmy Bradford had illustrated two alternate factual accounts of the tragedy and its devastation. 

In the first of little Jimmy Bradford's drawings a Nazi warplane flies over the town dropping its munitions onto the defenseless citizens. In the second, a giant reptile, perhaps a dinosaur, has emerged from Resurrection Bay and is rampaging through the buildings on the waterfront.

Perhaps the Seward boy was expressing his incredulity with the official explanation for his town's destruction. But it should be assumed possible too, that little Jimmy Bradford did indeed observe a giant sea creature and an enemy bomber from a war concluded 20 years previous, and that his account was deliberately left unreported by the main stream media.
 
 
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