Teacher

After this post mentioning William Carlos Williams's In the American Grain, I went to my "Poets on Poetry" bookshelves to take down my copy and give it a quick review. Well, the book wasn't there, which means, I suppose, that I loaned it out some time. Probably to a student. And, as is rarely the case, it didn't get returned to me, which is, in the end, just fine with me.

Maybe that student will continue reading, continue writing poems, because they've got the book. Or maybe they won't, but will stumble on it one afternoon like this one, and will remember the class they were in, and think generous thoughts about their classmates, and think of me fondly, as I do my teachers.

I've been thinking a lot about my teachers as of late, and not finding the Williams reminded me that it was my teacher and mentor Garrett Hongo who first charged me to read it.

I've also been rereading my teachers' poetry collections, and doing this because I'm seeking, I think, to reconnect to my student-past, and seeking to, at the same time, recontextualize my student-teacher-present while coming to terms with my teacher-future.

Sure, education is something that continues for a lifetime. Yeah, I get that. But now that I've completed my PhD coursework and finished my comprehensive exams, this is all a strange reality, a strange liminality.

I was talking to a friend on the phone the other day and he asked me to try to describe what it feels like to be nearly done with my schooling. I think he was expecting me to rave with joy, but what I said was that, while there's a deep sense of completion--these lines from Jon Anderson come to mind: "Done, there was a kind of exultation / that wanted to go on."--there is, also, a feeling of grief.

I'm still sorting out the implications of this, but it is true nonetheless. A threshold has been crossed, and a critical part of my becoming has been left behind. Is it wrong to grieve this? I don't think so.

Again, Jon Anderson: "My grief is that I bear no grief / & so I bear myself."

While there is a tone of sadness, the chord struck within me is also appreciative and optimistic, and hopeful for the what's-to-come.
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I started rereading Garrett Hongo's The River of Heaven last night, and E. asked me if my perspective on his work has changed in the years since I was his assistant, and since I worked so closely with him at University of Oregon. All I could say was, "Nope. He's still the man and he knows how to write a good fucking poem."

I'm going to type up and post Garrett's poem "Mendocino Rose" in just a minute, but before I post that here I want to quote some from his commentary on the poem, a background which can be found in his memoir Volcano.

And I excerpt this here because his description of grieving and of feeling and of connecting sorrow to power is something I find very helpful right now as I try to understand my own life as it becomes.

Here is Garrett describing his grieving process after the loss of his father,  a description that becomes, in the end, a meditation on grief and its elegiac processes moving toward a powerful beauty. You'll see this in poem as well.

From the chapter "Mendocino Rose" in Volcano:
When I realized what the man was singing, true grieving rose up in me like a swelling breaker and I dove under it. I looked off from the black asphalt road winding ahead to the roses blooming around me as though they were a music too. I looked off over the cliffs across the Pacific....It was not only a place but a resolve of purpose, I suppose, a feeling of connection not so much to any particular place, though that helps, but to the world of feeling and openness to it, that exchange between the human and whatever might be the rest--the infinite, say, or the natural world of pure spirit that the nineteenth-century romantic philosophers defined as sublime. Whatever it is that is greater than the self but that, nevertheless, empowers the self, overwhelms and inspirits the self. "And who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic orders?" wrote Rilke, skeptically, in his Duino Elegies. "Even if, suddenly, one of them were to grip me to his heart, I'd vanish in his overwhelming presence." Beauty is nothing but the start of a terror we can hardly bear, he concluded, a scorn so serene it could kill us. It is the Buddhist's vajra, the lightning bolt of pure, cosmic perception, a grieving that leads to eternity.
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Mendocino Rose

In California, north of the Golden Gate,
the vine grows almost everywhere,
      erupting out of pastureland,
from under the shade of eucalyptus
      by the side of the road,
overtaking all the ghost shacks and broken fences
      crumbling with rot
and drenched in the fresh rains.

It mimes, in its steady, cloudlike replicas,
      the shape of whatever it smothers,
a gentle greenery
      trellised up the side
of a barn or pump station
      far up the bluffs above Highway 1,
florets and blossoms,
      from the road anyway,
looking like knots and red dreadlocks,
      ephemeral and glorious,
hanging from overgrown eaves.

I'd been listening to a tape on the car stereo,
a song I'd play and rewind,
      and play again,
a ballad or a love song
      sung by my favorite tenor,
a Hawaiian man known for his poverty
      and richness of heart,
and I felt, wheeling through the vinelike curves
      of that coastal road,
sliding on the slick asphalt
      through the dips and in the S-turns,
and braking just in time,
      that it would have served as the dirge
I didn't know to sing
      when I needed to,
a song to cadence my heart
      and its tuneless stammering.

Ipo lei manu, he sang, without confusion,
      I send these garlands,
and the roses seemed everywhere around me then,
      profuse and luxurious
as the rain in its grey robes,
      undulant processionals over the land,
echoes, in snarls of extravagant color,
      of the music
and the collapsing shapes
      they seemed to triumph over.


Garrett Hongo
from The River of Heaven