Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Love Poems, 2.

It's Valentine's again
time to lay down the law.

  • no long-stemmed roses.
  • no garish birds of paradise or alien heliconias
  • no heart-shaped coffins for sicky-sweet cherry cordial chocolates
  • no pre-filled cards
  • a general ban on all things red and pink.
  • no fancy over-sauced restaurant meals
  • not a drop of cheap champagne
All I need is
a mountain
a river
a lifetime.

That's all.

Love Poems. 1

I'm on a tropical island with you.
Whales breach, dolphins spin,
seals sun themselves, turtles surface..
We could go beach...

The canyon is every shade
of red and orange and green--
waterfalls are white streaks on cliff faces
rainbows arch into the misty sky...
We could go mauka...

Friends and family throng the pavilions at the beach,
barbecue smoke and sunset ocean views,
Slippers in a sandy pile, fish sizzling in the wok oil
wooden hashi snap and scrape
We could go party...

But let's us
You and I
Stay home
Light the candles
And keep the noise outside
at bay.

(Another class assignment! This one is based on "In Paris with You" by James Fenton, which is a funny anti-romantic poem about all the things the author will NOT be doing Paris. My prompt to the students was-- Write a love poem about all the things you DON'T want to do.)

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

On Avoidance

On Avoidance
My to-do checklist
multiplies like protozoa
osmosises and mitosises into
      things to procure
      things to discard
      debts to pay
      mundane tasks
The list glares at me from my phone
      an unblinking eye
            a high pitched tinnitus of
            adult obligations.
      so I subvert my list,
            add nonsense:

  • "sit in the sun: five minutes."
  • "sample 3 kinds of chocolate."
  • "draw a seabird."
  • "sketch a mad genius."
So between the sandpaper-on-bone tasks
      of "callthebank"
I can dutifully check off whimsey
accomplish nonsense
procrastinate responsibly
      and with great satisfaction
            avoid the doing by doing
      and play a counter-harmony
            on the vacuum-drone of my 
                  adult life. 

(This is another poem prompt I gave my students in-class. We read Grace Paley's "The Poet's Occasional Alternative" about the poet avoiding writing poetry by baking a pie because sometimes it's too hard to do something that won't please everybody, that might never find an audience. But... everybody likes pie! I gave them the prompt: write about what you avoid

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Heaven and Hell

Heaven + Hell
are estranged sisters
eyeing each other
across uncrossable distances.

Each gathers her allies
   mutters darkly about the other.
   Envy might glint, sometimes, in their eyes.

Heaven plants her roots, sends up fronds
   sweet green shoots
   and harvests ripe.

Hell skims lightly over the world
   undoes bindings.

Heaven seals
    with honey and wax.

Hell dissolves,
    molecules sigh into their component parts.

Heaven keeps a tidy yard,
   bakes fresh bread,

Hell, she walks out the gate,
   leaves salty footprints (no backward glance)
   in her wake.
   She forgets.

(From a classroom prompt based on X. J. Kennedy's fantastic poem, "Nothing in Heaven Functions as it Ought." I had the kids brainstorm connotations and denotations of heaven and hell, and compare them to the Hawaiian concept of the afterworld, Keaopo, which is non binary, non-human, and plural. There's one on every island.)

Thursday, January 22, 2015


   The hollows and rough edges on elm trees
   the startled up-look of a deer
   the shallow whisper of the creek
Come with me and see!
   200 tones of green
   from emerald to scum
whitegreen underside of oak-leaf
greenblack shine of dogwood
slick green rocks
softgreen moss
   Come with me
   lift the stones suddenly
     if the crawdads
   will startle us
   prod the soft rotten log
come with me and
   whisper secret names into the hollows
   half-glimpse fairies
   half-hear gnomes
Come and follow the narrow path
Swing a stick-sword
   swoop away the spiderwebs
or else they'll snag our mouths
and eyes
tiny spiders jeweling us
Come and hear the complete quiet
   the hush of high-up branches in the air
   the careful step of our own small feet over the earth
Come and greet the forest of my twilit child-time.

(I challenged my students to write invitations based on Leaves of Grass (Thanks Kenneth Koch!) and I wrote one too. What's the point of having a neglected blog if not to post poems?)

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Makauwahi: Eyes on the Smoke of History at Kaua'i's Cave

Five and a half million years ago, Ha'upu mountain was the molten heart of a new caldera. Kipukai was  another erupting core.  When the oceanic plate shifted, and the hotspot venting lava with it, Waialeale became the active volcano, and Ha'upu began to succumb to the wind and waves. Two million years later, as the volcanic activity settled down, pu'u-- or small cinder cones-- erupted from the volcanic plain all around.

Enormous sand dunes piled up on the south shore of Kaua'i, in the wet shadow of Ha'upu-- no longer a living volcano.  The years layered the soft round sand, and the rain leached the minerals out.
The dunes lithified into limestone. Ribbons of minerals twined under the sand: olivine and silicates. Cathedrals beneath the hard packed mineral protected hollows full of ancient ocean sand.

Ice ages came and went-- the polar ice caps grew and froze the earth's water. Water leaching through the limestone formed intricate stalactites under lithified sand dunes. Sea levels dropped: ten thousand years passed-- the ice caps melted. The sea levels rose and waves plowed through lava tubes under the limestone. Fresh water from the water table mixed with the salt water in underground caverns.

The water shot through lua-- holes-- in the roof of an enormous lithified cathedral below the dunes. The churching water smoothed the roof of the cave-- and finally the roof collapsed, and a brackish lake remained.

Animals and plants were washed into the salty water and preserved.  Seeds were pickled. Layers of silt captured generations of accidental flora and fauna migrations from wind and waves.

About a thousand ago, people arrived. Suddenly ipu (bottle gourds), kukui (candlenut), wauke (mulberry), niu (coconut), mai'a (banana), noni, uala (sweet potato)-- important polynesian plants appear preserved in the layers inside the brackish cave.

At the same time, staggering waves of extinction-- shocking absences-- change the layers. The endemic palm with its tasty-to-rats fruit-- the enormous land ducks and moa--other giant flightless birds disappear. Snails disappear. The moment humans come on the scene, we send out shockwaves of ecological destruction.

About 400 years ago, an enormous tsunami picked up boulders and huge chunks of coral reef forty feet above the sea level and smashed inland. The retreating wave hurled volcanic rocks and scoured the landscape. The megawave mashed back and forth between sea and land. There had been a human settlement between the water and the cave: it was atomized. The human terror that day remains in fragments of beaten tapa, in polished wana tools and hooks.

By the 18th century, the human settlement was rebuilt and called Mahaulepu. Or Māhāʻulepū. The people carved petroglyphs into the half-buried ocean stones-- the images surface now during the summer when the sands wash away. The people bent iron nails from shipwrecks into fish hooks. More people came, and brought goats and more iron. More extinctions ripple through the record.

It was clear that people never lived in the weird swampy cave. Their detritus washed in and accumulated accidentally.

But  even though the place was never for habitation, it was important to the people. A holy man named Keahikuni had a platform inside. People would crawl through the narrow entrance to the cave and wade through the water and bring him offerings. Keahikuni built ritual fires and read the smoke that swirled in the unusual trade-winds and cave eddies. He used highly polished basalt "mirrors"-- slabs of black volcanic rock painstakingly smoothed to a shine. Water could be carefully pooled on the surface, and the mysteriously distorted reflections read as a portal to the other world. His work there gave the place its name: Maka Uwahi-- Eyes on smoke.

Keahikuni's bones were denuded and secreted into the high cave walls, with many other ali'i. And in the center of the cave, an unusual limestone formation gave the who area its name: a 20 foot tall stone like a lingam-- he maha ule pu-- the foreskin of the flaccid penis-- or the head of the squid penis.

Today, grants and volunteers sustain the ongoing archeological research. An extensive garden of seeds recovered from the dig is guarded by sleepy baby boomer tortoises (whose gentle grazing mimics the work of the extinct moa that co-evolved with the threatened plants) and a mala (garden) of polynesian canoe plants and lo'i of cultivated taro reflects the work of a thousand years of Hawaiian cultivation. Archeologists and paleo-ecologists and Hawaiian cultural practitioners and storytellers and volunteers and activists work together to protect the endangered species and the bones, and the archeological and ecological research.

Today when I ducked my head and walked crouching into the cool cave, and saw the textured walls and the carved blow holes and the incandescent cat-eye algae shifting in the light-- it felt like magic. But better than magic: it's a time machine. Makauwahi is a place that allows you to peer 10,000 years back in time, layer by layer of sandstone, wave by wave of human influence. It's a small place, but it tells an enormous story.