Sunday, March 13, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 33: Isaiah’s Making It New, When I Was a Child, + Jeff Gundy and Dante Di Stefano

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 33: Isaiah’s Making It New, When I Was a Child, + Jeff Gundy and Dante Di Stefano

Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not;
see, I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
In the desert I make a way,
in the wasteland, rivers.
Wild beasts honor me,
jackals and ostriches,
for I put water in the desert
and rivers in the wasteland
for my chosen people to drink,
the people whom I formed for myself,
that they might announce my praise.
--Isaiah 43

I love the fact that Isaiah predates Ezra Pound’s dictum “MAKE IT NEW!” by over two millennia. (Poets, stop fetishizing the modernists.) Isaiah’s call for a clearing away of the past, a new start, is as radical as it was two thousand plus years ago. We know that beginnings are difficult—they’re difficult personally, socially, politically, and historically. As our Father Tom Fanta said, we like to “hold people in their sin,” to fix them by what they have done or been in the past, not letting them do something new, become something new.

In the poem below, I recount a moment when my Dad and I were playing a computer game (“The Mother of All Tank Battles”), a ridiculously primitive game that re-enacted the Persian Gulf War, a war I bitterly protested, a war that killed thousands of people in Iraq and was represented like a video game on American television. My father himself is a devout man, who attends both a Melkite Catholic Church and a Roman Catholic Church, and does Centering Prayer (a kind of silent meditation) with my mom at least a couple times a day, so the fact that he made fun of St. Paul was all the more delightful to me. When he read the poem, he wasn’t pleased with the line; it seemed a little unfair and slightly blasphemous. Perhaps I fixed him in that moment wrongly. I have great respect for him and for his military service. It’s because of him that I’ve never wanted to demonize soldiers, even though I knew I could never serve in the military. I respect my father more, though, for what he and Mom did when the Vietnam War was over—which was to sponsor a Vietnamese refugee family, to help them resettle in the United States. The Nguyens became part of our family. Over the years, my Dad has come to say that the two most important things he did during the war were to teach English at a Vietnamese orphanage for girls and to sponsor that family. In the desert we make our way.

Thanks to Jeff Gundy and Dante di Stefano for their beautiful contributions today.

When I Was a Child, I Lived as a Child, I Said to My Dad

Saint Paul was a jackass, my father muttered,
keystroking his tank into position in The Mother

of All Tank Battles
. I turned back to the screen,
maneuvering pixilated tanks. Each arrow key

altered trajectory, each cursor tap a tank blast. Fast-
forward two decades: in a cubicle outside Vegas,

Jonah joysticks his Predator above Afghanistan,
drone jockey hovering above a house on computer screen.

He knows someone’s inside. Is it his target? Who else
inside—cooking, crawling—will not outrun his digital will?

He is cross hairs and shaking frame. Stone implosion.
He watches the collapse replay on-screen, then

heads home. Pizza. Diaper rash. Removes a thumb
from his toddler’s sleeping mouth. Again, no sleep…. Our game’s 

quaintly obsolete. On mailboxes around our neighborhood,
our beagle would sign his line of piss, which said: it’s good  

to be alive and eating meat. He was adding to the map
our eyes can’t see, nor throats can speak. Our shield and our help

at Great Lakes Naval Base, my father imagined permutations
of disaster. We were Region Five. Coordinates run,

scenarios conceived, New Madrid fault lines, the possible
flood of Des Plaines, a tornado’s blinding spiral

rolling its dozer across the plain. No preparing for it,
just to pick up what remained. If a nuclear bomb hit

Chicago, the epicenter here, he’d draw concentric circles
radiating, a pebble disturbing the mirror of a lake. Each circle

meant a slower death. Between us and them, the Wall
was a mirror reflecting us and nothing beyond. The whole

world was what the mirror hung upon. He showed me how
to hold a blade, how to watch my reflection for every nick, how

to cut my face without bleeding. I bled. I hooked my glasses
over teenaged ears. Outside, the blur of lawn became grass,

each blade stabbing upward to light. I thought I knew
we see as through a glass, darkly…. My frames have narrowed

to lenses eye-sized. My myopia grows. To see
what’s happening, I open a laptop, lean into the screen: 

“When I Was a Child, I Lived as a Child, I Said to My Dad” by Jeff Gundy

My firstborn son was under two when he discovered he could turn around his red plastic golf club to make it resemble a gun. “Bang, bang!” he yelled, a first sign that pure pacifism is not easily maintained in this impure world.

This poem reminds us how enmeshed our lives are in violence, real, simulated, and imagined, and how seductive simulated warfare is even for those of us with lofty ideals about nonviolence, personal and public. From the pixilated tanks of the computer game Metres remembers playing with his father, to the drone operator near Vegas who rains down literal death on people thousands of miles away, to the myriad fears and defense mechanisms that modern life seems to require, the poem is unsparing—of its speaker and of us all.

The world is not a gentle place. The beagle marks its territory with piss. We mark our borders and build our weapons and make our plans: “If a nuclear bomb hit / Chicago . . .” A father can show a son “how / to cut [his] face without bleeding,” but the son will bleed anyway. The world has always come to us mediated, by parents, by our senses, by its very blooming, buzzing existence. So—what do we do? “Open a laptop, lean into the screen” to “see what’s happening.”

And then what? That’s the real question. This poem, as a small part of the Sand Opera project, is an act of recognition within a larger act of resistance. It won’t save the world. It may be only a gesture, but sometimes the right gesture can cause a turning.

I’m myopic too, helpless without my glasses, and like Metres, like most of us, I get much of my information by gazing at screens. Day by day, I make my own small gestures toward justice and peace, then spend most of my time in labor or distraction. I don’t play video games, but I soak in those movies full of gunfire and explosions and the myth of redemptive violence even as I mutter about their ideology. I was glad my sons decided to play soccer, but I still watch football.

Today my son and his wife are raising their own bright, rowdy, rambunctious child, trying to direct his endless energy into peaceable channels. They have steady work in a safe town, so it’s merely exhausting, and accompanied by many golden moments. They know how lucky they are, and they do what they can.

I am troubled, by all that’s wrong in the world, by how many steps remain between us and justice, by my own weakness. If I am not quite defeated, it’s because of poems like this one, because of people like Phil, like a thousand others, who are not asleep and not resigned.

--Jeff Gundy’s latest books are Abandoned Homeland (Bottom Dog, 2015) and Somewhere Near Defiance (Anhinga, 2014), which won the Ohio Poet of the Year award. Recent work is in Georgia Review, Nimrod, Poetry East, Christian Century, and Image. He teaches at Bluffton University and spent a recent sabbatical at LCC International University in Klaipeda, Lithuania.

“When I Was a Child, I Lived as a Child, I Said to My Dad” by Dante Di Stefano

We enter this poem in the middle of a conversation. Between the poem’s title and its first line a space opens as wide and as narrow as the space between any father and son. This is the space in which Abraham beholds Isaac, the blade levitating in his hand. This is the space we call “home front” in a nation endlessly implicated in violence, domestically and overseas. This is a parable of faith in a digital age, an age where the horrors of warfare are pixelated into entertainment and actual warfare is translated into the language of Playstation with carnage unfolding in real time. The son quotes the wisdom of I Corinthians 1:13. The father mutters against Saint Paul as he plays a videogame. The poem fast forwards two decades. The son, Jonah, has become a father, dutifully operating a Predator drone to make his daily bread, bombing the Afghan countryside by day and changing diapers by night. Jonah lives inside the belly of a leviathan whose ribcage maintains the logic of strip malls and flashing cursors.

The poem ends with a colon: opening on a black page, but the poem never ends; it remains lodged forever between a redacted torture report, detailing a father and son being brutalized together, and a blueprint for the torture chamber itself. I admit that I barely bat an eye when I read a headline about the newest drone strike in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq... To ignore any elsewhere. To disown sorrow. This is a great sin, an American sin. Living with this poem, which lives within Sand Opera, I question what it means to be a father, to be a son, in a cultural landscape that privileges empathetic inattention and fosters self-involvement. What does “love” mean now? What about “home?” When we utter the word “home,” do we experience the first failure of homecoming? The razors our fathers wielded cannot prepare us for the cuts no styptic can staunch. Thinking of those wounds, Søren Kierkegaard comes to mind: “A poet is not an apostle; he drives out devils only by the power of the devil.” To see what’s happening, I open a laptop, lean into the screen:

If I Did Not Understand the Glory and Suffering of the Human Heart I Would Not Speak Before Its Holiness
after Saint Theresa of Avila

When I close my eyes I see my father,
dying. I dab his head with a washcloth.
His open mouth jaws a gurgled amen.
His eyes emote hosannas of breakage.

I wish my eyes could blink a drone strike back
into tactical non-being; the dead
ghost down the road in a wedding convoy,
and I wonder how I might turn away

from a deep sorrow that is not my own.
When I fall asleep I don’t dream stairwells.
In me, a school of salmon swims upstream.
In me, a fish leaps against the headboard.

Dear Lord, I fear paradise diffuses,
in a sharp gust, like dandelion puff.
Set the tinder of old phrases burning.
I’m waiting to pull the bee from the rose.

I call the door ajar in me a grace.
I want to be as flagrant as the wind
that cuts December Wednesdays in half.
I hear notes that build a more merciful

God, some days, and other days I just let
the bear in my belly swing from my hips
and I paw out my animal blessings.
And my animal blessings paw out me.

This poem originally appeared in The Dialogist.

--Dante Di Stefano's poetry collection, Love is a Stone Endlessly in Flight, is forthcoming from Brighthorse Books. His essays and poetry have appeared in The Writer's Chronicle, Shenandoah, Brilliant Corners, and elsewhere. He lives in Endwell, New York. 


Maureen said...

I read Isaiah 43 as very positive - just see what can happen: God can and does prevail.

The passage and commentary also lead me to think back to events during Arab Spring, when it seemed that space at long last opened up in the minds and hearts of activists and of supporters worldwide to imagine not only that change (the "new thing" being democratic government) was possible but also not to be feared (as we Christians don't need to fear our deaths in the future because of Christ's resurrection and the promise of something better in our afterlife). For all that subsequently happened, the initial weeks of Arab Spring seemed all about that perceiving of which Isaiah speaks, the ability to re-conceive fear of what was (the past) so that it is transformed into hopefulness both for what is (the present) and for what can be (the future). To venture into Tahrir Sq. was, to extend my line of thought, akin to going into the wilderness, risks being worth taking because success would mean an end to suffering. That sense of hope was infectious, inspiring. It was because people were, to use Jeff Gundy's words, "not asleep and not resigned" that the spark first took and then was re-ignited in so many other places. May God leave the door ajar again.

Thank you for Dante Di Stefano's piece; I am not familiar with his work and will look him up. I very much like what he contributed here.

Philip Metres said...

Thanks, Maureen, for your comment and reflection. I'm a fan of radical hope, for sure. Yet Tahrir ("Liberation") Square, of course, revealed itself to be too soon, too fragile, and history (and power) re-emerged with a vengeance!!