Archive for April, 2009

Gazette article goes to print…

Posted in Uncategorized on April 21, 2009 by rdunder

Today the Colorado Springs Gazette printed an article on my poem by columnist Andrea Brown. It can be found, for the time being, at http://www.gazette.com/articles/reed_52168___article.html/puts_colorado.html. Also, Gazette photographer and videographer Christian Murdock made a short video of me reading and making some framing comments, which you can see at http://www.gazette.com/video/index.php?source=gsa&v=1.0&bcpid=1155184276&bclid=1155106690&bctid=20107953001. Thank you very much to both of them, and for their sake and the nation’s sake please read a newspaper not once in a while, but every single day.

Also, the oil and natural gas lobby commercial that might run with the video of my reading is the Gazette’s sponsor, not mine. I say this to insist on the discontinuity between that message and my message, even though mediated circumstance has run them together. My word is the refused and refusing whisper that grows from the throat of power despite all its speaking. I mean for my word to swallow whole the words of commercials just like this one.

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The power plant. A georgic. (draft as of 4.1.09)

Posted in Uncategorized on April 1, 2009 by rdunder

The power plant. Or. The lightning.

A georgic.

Begun Inauguration day, 2009.

The epigraph.

“Maybe fire is the opposite principle to light, and comes to the use of those who do not go the way of light. Fire has to consume to give all its light. But light gets its knowledge—and has its intelligence and its being—by going over things without the necessity of eating the substance of things in the process of purchasing their truth. Maybe this is the difference, the different base of not just these two poets, Bill and E.P., but something more, two contrary conceptions of love.”—Charles Olson, “GrandPa, Goodbye”

Or.

“We shall build a tower that will reach to the stars!” Having conceived Babel, yet unable to build it themselves, they had thousands to build it for them. But those who toiled knew nothing of the dreams of those who planned. And the minds that planned the Tower of Babel cared nothing for the workers who built it. The hymns of praise of the few became the curses of the many – BABEL! BABEL! BABEL! – Between the mind that plans and the hands that build there must be a Mediator, and this must be the heart.”–Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang, Metropolis

Or.

Sometimes all I want is a little more power.

The Poem.

Invocation………………………..(1)

“(There is a myth that Prometheus did more than steal fire from the sun and bring it down to man: it is said that Prometheus fathered man.)”

There was a stadium.

My father hurled the bolt like a javelin.

The stadium became a brain

where electric branches dart from synapses

and this poem billows up like thunderheads.

I am made of lightning.

My father sat in the cave. Black hair covered him. It was as invisible as his long teeth and simian jaw, but flashes from the storm outside briefly silhouetted his body.

Our troop roiled in the murk, bodies swapping blows. An antelope stank somewhere close. I crouched on a rock watching for my father’s fleeting profile.

Sudden light invaded the cave.

L’á venir.

A tree outside caught fire.

My father stood.

He picked up a stick.

He marched toward the flames.

He carried back the power plant.

Our troop howled with fear and shied away from the shadows that shivered on the cave walls. My father had to coax each one of them to the stack of branches that he set alight and kept burning. Some tried to touch the flame and cried in pain at being burned.

I drew my father on the floor with my finger.

Stick figure lifting his torch.

My father gave me light to draw by.

I gave my first drawing to him.

By morning my careful lines had been replaced by a panicked dance of footprints.

Electricity is brevity and power at once.

Martin Drake………………………..(2)

My father works for the Martin Drake power plant in Colorado Springs. Other men make radiators or poems. He makes lightning and puts his sun in your house.

I made up the name Martin Drake.

Martin. Bird wings electric current quick.

Drake. Snake breathing fire

and for draconian.

The power plant is a martin drake.

My father is a martin drake.

But the power plant is not named Martin Drake.

The power plant doesn’t know its real name.

It’s dressed up in blue metal.

Trace the wires back to their beginnings.

You’ll find the power plant.

Martin Drake was a man the power plant is named for.

I didn’t make up the name.

I never said the wires aren’t tangled.

Go to the power plant. Find the classroom. Pull down the canvas roll wedged between the back wall and the ceiling. Printed on the roll is a schematic, a map of the process. Colored lines delineate the machine’s parts: the coal loader, the oceanic fire in the burners, boiler blasting steam against pinwheel turbines, sparking bolts day and night. Grey scribbles are clouds hot enough to sublimate my father’s bones in an instant.

If I followed this schematic into the power plant it would lead me nowhere.

It could even lead into the fire.

Sacrifice………………………..(3)

When my cousin was a boy he thought the power plant was a cloud factory.

I thought it was ashes from the coal fires.

My father made Vesuvius.

Actually.

Cooling towers temper the steam used to spin the turbines, allowing the condensed water to be re-circulated. On cool and humid days the rising vapor saturates the damp air and makes a white fog. The clouds are often mistaken for the smoke from a fire.

Pliny’s vaporous pine disintegrates.

The power plant doesn’t have time to be a cloud factory or a fire.

It doesn’t admire its wispy clouds.

It doesn’t care for its floating hair.

Floating on air.

Second grade. A man from city utilities brought a miniature power line and a small gas generator. He carried a frilly dressed baby doll in a thrift store sack. He turned the machine on and my father’s hum turned the air into glass. The man pulled insulated gloves all the way to his elbows while explaining the danger of downed power lines.

He pulled the plastic child from its plastic womb and tossed it against the wires.

An electric shock feels like many things.

A bone cracking shiver.

A reptile snap of jaws.

A phosphorous camera flash.

A flame that burns itself.

The doll caught fire, cradled in the wires. It pitched from its electrified hammock and fell to the floor. A smell like rotting tires rose from the victim. Polyester clothes melted to pink plastic, dripping on the floor, a new fluid of this tortured body.

My father has a power I do not.

It makes him have Abraham

hands with each hair

upright like a lightning rod.

The power plant cares for its children like Medea.

Which is quite a lot. However.

People made of lightning should not touch their babies.

They will become lightning.

In Frankenstein or: A Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley omits any detail of the chemical process by which the creature is brought to life. Victor Frankenstein, the narrator, claims to be redacting the information from the careless disposal of other scientists. In fact, Shelley’s imagination had outstripped physical reality.

A silent adaptation made by the Edison Electric Company in 1910 condenses the creature in a cauldron of chemicals, shredded flesh hanging itself on a palsied frame.

James Whale’s 1931 film version has the creature lifted up toward the storming sky on a mechanized gurney. A strike on a sphere-topped lightning rod powers the machinery that animates the creature. It was after Whale’s version that the creature became known as “Frankenstein” as though he had taken on his creators’ name. As though he had become a son.

Also, the creature could no longer speak, and in the first full sound cinema production.

My father has two children.

He has attended both our cries.

One lets fire lick its guts.

One has coal stained skin.

One is a neuter. One is a son.

Which one? Me

or the power plant.

Sad that in making light

to put in his son’s eyes

my father had to turn

from irises that widened

right at him.

Twelve years after I saw the baby doll burned on electric wires my father told me that the plastic child had been coated in accelerant. Probably the utilities man had doused it with hairspray in the parking lot before he came in. Without a starter the doll never would’ve burned so quickly.

Did I not soak this poem in gasoline

so my father’s currents would burn it?

He works at the Martin Drake power plant in Colorado Springs.

He is not Abraham, no son killer.

Nor is the power plant Moloch, no body eater.

My father dislikes “Daddy”

by Sylvia Plath

because of her hyperbole. However. I insist

a sacrifice needs spectacles

a spectacle needs sacrifices.

Look at the power plant.

Flue stacks are concrete tree trunks.

If you squint they look like Auschwitz.

But why would you squint?

Teaching……………………………(4)

“And fire has proved for men a teacher in every art, their grand resource.”

Ring of stones centered in a ring of juniper

where my father taught me the most important recipe I ever learned.

To make fire you need

heat

fuel

and air.

My father’s favorite singer is Johnny Cash

who sang “Love

is a burning thing

and it makes

a fiery ring.”

My father plugged in his Telecaster

at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964.

He sang “I don’t wanna work on Maggie’s farm no more.”

Pete Seeger tried to cut the power cable with an axe.

In D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back

my father lands on England

carrying a light bulb big as a grapefruit.

A reporter asks if he has any advice.

He says “Keep a good head

and always carry a light bulb.”

My father is both of the robot men from Daft Punk.

He played at Red Rocks on the eve of Colorado Day in 2007.

Both of his silver heads bobbed beneath a light show pyramid

thirty feet tall. It was the power plant in discothèque and our city danced to it.

It was Melville’s birthday.

My father dedicated the set to him.

Without my father Lil Wayne is just a wheezy kid on a street corner

in New Orleans with no mic

and no record deal.

My father stole a flashlight from God’s cabinet.

Then he taught everyone to build flashlights.

That’s how come we have flashlights.

Percy Shelley says my father is as cool as Satan and a nicer person too.

Herman Melville says my father is reminds him of Ahab.

Coal History………………………..(5)

I make the coal trains run backwards.

They demonstrate their history

pulled back to their origin like a fishing lure.

Tesla………………………….(6)

A photograph shows the coil rib-caged in a wooden frame.

Two discharges array in the shape of butterfly wings thirty feet across.

Coil’s invisible roots manifest as light.

The white hair of a mad scientist.

Between the discharges a man

sits in a folding chair.

He is reading a book. A bolt strikes inches away. He doesn’t move.

The man is a lightning rod no lightning touches.

He reads the book. Nothing can hurt him.

Because the man won’t be there when the bolt strikes.

The photograph is a double exposure.

I can unite station to station without the aid of wires.

I can make a charge flow through air.

But still I don’t have a power plant.

“My project was retarded by laws of nature.

The world was not prepared for it. It was too far ahead of time.

But the same laws will prevail in the end and make it a triumphal success.”

Which is to say

I can’t make it cohere either.

But I’ve kept the blueprints.

See what you can do with them.

Cells eat like coal burners.

Earth is a small metal ball.

Conductor for currents crossing

a universe that spends itself for fuel.

The present burns the past

to charge the future.

The power plant is a small or large machine made of everything.

Try negative theology. A negative charge.  La via negativa.

What is not the power plant?

Read these next lines like Beckett in English.

First lightning almost blinds me.

Only when it flashes can I see

and then I move.

In dark I am blind.

I stand still.

If the lightning had pleased

it would’ve taken my hearing

and my sight.

It has power over anything.

—al Qur’an, Surah 2.20, my translation.

Please forgive my sin of metonymy.

Nikola Tesla was close to death. He was delirious, and tried to dispatch a messenger with a letter for Mark Twain. It was January 1943. Twain had died in 1910.

When the messenger returned saying that Twain was dead, Tesla reportedly replied, “Don’t you dare tell me Mark Twain is dead. He was in my room, here last night. He sat in that chair and talked to me for an hour. He is having financial difficulties and needs my help. So you go right back and deliver that envelope—and don’t come back until you have done so.” By January 7th Tesla was dead.

A schoolboy in Croatia, Tesla was struck with a series of illnesses. The doctors all but gave up on him. To pass the time he was given a few volumes of Twain’s work. The books absorbed him. Tesla’s spirits were bolstered and he made a sudden recovery.

Some scholars have questioned whether any of Twain’s books could’ve been available in Croatia at the time.

He reads the book but he can still be hurt.

Metropolis………………….(7)

Wires run from the power plant to a movie theatre

lighting a marquee reading

FRITZ LANG’S METROPOLIS.

A charge runs into the projector

illuminating steel hallucination

onto a canvas sheet.

Three pistons. The outer pair thrust down

when the inner piston thrusts up.

An eccentric disc.

Eros in cogs and whirr.
`
The machine dance becomes a clock

then becomes a dance of workers.

Two lines of men pass in opposite directions through a pair of gates.

The men going out move twice as a slow as the men going in.

The lines are each six abreast and extend across the shot.

“Between the mind that plans and the hands that build there must be a mediator

and this must be the heart.”

But the heart is a thoughtless fist. A dumb pump.

The heart is more like the power plant than it is like love.

The head must let its mirrors fall

to see through the fingertips.

The hands must reach inside the skull

and fill their palms with sparks. Besides.

I have a head and hands both. So does my father.

The power plant burns allegory into ash

that collects on rails and corrodes paint.

Power as political metaphor………………………..(8)

“Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society.”

Michel Foucault was a man who knew about power.

“Full lighting and the eye of a supervisor capture better than darkness, which ultimately
protected. Visibility is a trap.”

Without the power plant

the panopticon is a big dark room.

I hear turbines howl

when cameras focus on my skin.

Streetlights let us observe

each other as we pass at night.

Eyes keeping safe from hands.

Whose hold the other ends of streetlight wires?

Power is not a force, a practice or a technology.

It is a Proteus of usages.

Where has the power been planted?

I mean to dig it up and show you the roots.

Turn up fields thick with buried light bulbs.

My father served in the United States Navy between 1973 and 1977. He sailed around the Pacific to San Diego to Hawaii to Japan to Taiwan to Vietnam to Thailand to Indonesia to Colorado Springs.  His ship was a destroyer escort named the Meyerkord, USS.

A modern ship is run on turbines little different than those in the power plant. My father was a machinist’s mate, working on these turbines and the systems that powered the destroyer. He burned a diesel fuel called JP-5 to fire the boilers.

People work one job their whole lives.

A naval vessel is a mobile power generator.

As NVA troops advanced into South Vietnam, my father’s ship was ordered to assist with the evacuation.

Punishment/Power outage………………………….(9)

One night my father’s boss told him to burn all the coal in the world.

My father went into the forest and wrung the necks of a million cardinals, plucking their bodies clean, and filling two pillowcases with feathers. He took one bag to the power plant. He pasted the feathers onto the coals so they looked like they were burning.

He took the other bag of feathers to the people of our city. My father gave the feathers to the people, but they didn’t know it. He crept down their chimneys, and put the feathers in their fire places. The people were tricked, and warmed themselves and read books by the color all night. They went to bed and had to set their second blankets aside.

The sun rose on heaps of unburned coal covered in red feathers. My father’s boss was angry and filed a complaint with Human Relations.

So they wire him to the side of Pikes Peak.

Graft cables to his arteries.

Solder the cables to rocks.

Trapped like a circuit.

Every day the martin drake descends

with coal and blood on its steel scaled feathers

to eat his liver.

And every day a kilowatt surge

brings his liver back to life.

You forget to notice the power is on

until it goes out.

The work of poetry………………………….(10)

In 1616 Ben Jonson became the first English writer to publish a collection under the title Works of.

Andre Breton wrote in the Surrealist Manifesto

“They say that not long ago, just before he went to sleep, Saint-Pol-Roux placed a placard on the door of his manor at Camaret which read: THE POET WORKS.”

Which means nothing to me

but a bad joke.

Breton popularized automatic writing

which involved turning off the conscious mind.

Some adherents would sit in a dark room

pen in hand on page

and simply wait for the writing to happen.

Both my father and I have reason to deplore this practice.

When my mother was in her twenties and her grandmother was in her eighties they worked together to write a history of my great-grandmother’s early life in Leadville, daughter of Cornish miners, her move from the mountains to the plains to become a teacher, her marriage, her family, a history of living.

My mother compiled the scattered notes her grandmother would send her in the mail, crafting random flakes of memory into orderly rows of narrative. She typed up two copies, one for her family, and one for her uncle’s family in Sterling. Her grandmother asked that the copies be kept within the families, the family.

But I cannot help but leave a fragment of her history

on the floor of the power plant. Anyway

my mother sent me this quote

and gave me permission to use it.

“For light we had candles and kerosene lamps. Then the big day came when Leadville got electricity in homes. I ran all the way home from school to see the lights. Each room except the parlor had a drop cord that hung from the ceiling–one bulb. The parlor had a chandelier. What a joy to turn on a light. We had no wall outlets.”

Once I asked a woman to decorate the dream house

in her mind. She filled nothing

with rust brown, hardwood floors and foggy curtains.

I filled this poem with coal.

A burner for her.

A power plant to light the buildings

in her mind.

My father took a wife

and gave her a well-lit city as dowry.

This is my work of poetry

to pay for

to power

bulbs and color

the well-decorated

invisible houses

that make working possible.

There is a myth that Hercules freed Prometheus from his bonds. There is another myth that it was Prometheus’s son, Deucalion, who set his father free.

epilogue………………………..(11)

I built a new power plant for my father.

It’s made of neat wires and photovoltaic cells.

There are no pipes. No turbines.

No steam. No coal.

No fire but the sun’s.

Silicon lakes washing over rooftops.

Aimed up from every sunward pointed surface.

Offering of sapphires.

Ripe harvest of blueberries.

My father strides in the sun’s true lamp.

Reflections from solar panels cast panes on his jaw.

Windows through which I can almost see him

and that let in enough light to write by.

He reads the book. Nothing can hurt him.

My father and I walk the alabaster city

to a fairgrounds swelling with a dome of light.

Light bulbs in thick bunches

blooming on building sides.

A careful spider’s nest of wires.

We approach a red striped tent.

A signboard outside plastered with

“the World’s Columbian Exposition presents”

“an astonishing gift from distant lands”

“a candle for our wonder cabinet”

“the light not of the sun”

“like a wick covered in Moby Dick’s wax”

“the great acorn of light”

“Dante’s vision realized”

“electricity, flame and light at once”

“a lamp to lift beside our golden doors”

But as soon as we enter the tent

we both know that though the wonder gives light

it is not light.

Does not burn

but the whole world burns to fuel it.

Has no charge

but attracts and repulses at once.

An explosion

crystallizing.

Leaving off mystery

for labor

we fill lanterns with the thing

itself. The fuel

and power at once.

We quit the fair

and take to the continent.

We build a city of lesser stars.

We spin turbines with our breath.

Filaments bristle on our arms.

Sparks drip from our fingernails. Seeds.

We plant power in this “hell of wide land”

true gleaming living power

that can even be turned off

so that

the stars might themselves emerge again.

Books that fuel the power plant…

Posted in Uncategorized on April 1, 2009 by rdunder

Other than Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s marginally bad, and cruelly long Bratsk Station (a post-Stalinist worker’s fantasia about the building of a hydro station in Siberia) I haven’t found too much power plant literature. With that in mind, I do have some books floating around my head and my room as I write this poem. A few of them, here, now:

auto-of-red

On a moment by moment, word to word, image to image basis no one informs my writing more than Anne Carson and Ezra Pound. Carson’s use of the classical tradition sets the gold standard in the 21st as Joyce did in the 20th, and this is the book that proves it (although admittedly it came out in 1998). An essayistic surrealism. A new imagaism. The best living poet.

moby-d-cover

I like to say that if my georgic could be anything it would be for electrical generation what Moby Dick was for whaling, the epic of a single occupation in all its implications. In this way, I am Ishmael, the commentator on Ahab, my father, who wages against nature at the same time he earns his wages from it. And if the idea of seeing a shift supervisor at a municipal power plant as another version of Melville’s captain or Aeschylus’s Prometheus seems quixotic (not in the usual sense of a doomed quest, but in the sense of seeing windmills as giants), then I say that even for something as quotidian as flicking on a light switch the force spirals up into powers that are even bigger than any character ever written of, bigger than our gods.  I can’t say that I think my book is the new Melville, but I can’t deny that that’s my goal for the poem.

ulysses-cover-image

“It is here that Mr Joyce’s parallel use of the Odyssey has a great importance. It has the importance of a scientific discovery. No one else has built a novel upon such a foundation before: it has never before been necessary[….]In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him. They will not be imitators, any more than the scientist who uses the discoveries of an Einstein in pursuing his own, independent, further investigations. It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.”  — T. S. Eliot, “Ulysses, Order and Myth”

When I was younger my dad told me the myth of Prometheus and then about how his job made him like Prometheus. This was my way into the “scientific discovery” that Eliot attributes to Joyce, and it inaugurated my poetic consciousness. I know this is why the project of Ulysses made sense to me from the very beginning. But I also believe, as Joyce clearly did too, that its necessary to put that same continuous parallel up to criticism, irony and deconstruction.

ferry-georgics

The original worker’s text, eighteen-hundred years before Marx. And it remains, with competition only from Moby-Dick, the finest writing on the interaction between the human and the more-than-human. “Georgic” is a Latin descriptor that relates to plowing, to earth tilling. And this act of digging up the earth is part of the machinery of the power plant, which uses coal for fuel. Making electricity is, in some way, living off the land. But the forces involved in human the human use of nature have become so much more dramatic and destructive since Virgil’s time. Also Virgil’s writing engages with the political in a way I can’t help but admire. The poem was in part an address to the two-years crowned Emperor Augustus nee Octavian. Ever since I started my georgic on Inauguration Day, it has been inextricably linked to politics in the most deeply felt, personal sense of the word. Also, go with Ferry’s translation.

charles_olsonmaximus_poems

The king of archival poetics, a madman for multifarious poetic surfaces. Also, he was never one let aesthetics get in the way of being of some use: Olson knew the poetry beyond poetry. Like Pisan Cantos era Pound in his historical sensibility mixed with a lust for lived experience , but a decent liberal who worked  in the Roosevelt administration. Most of my ideas are pilfered from this trove. The scope I’m trying to give to my father as a character in the poem is borrowed from Olson’s Maximus, and my stance to the world merely mimes his firmer one. Olson is the most under appreciated figure in American lit, because he’s probably America’s best poet (better than Whitman even) and no one says it.