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Dream Journal 37: He Woke to a Memory Which Only Happened in Metaphor

As they walked, she spoke and collected items she saw along the trail. A kind of reverse Hansel and Gretel: instead of finding her way back by dropping bread crumbs, she wanted to become lost, and collected markers which would have shown their way home.  Finally, she asked if he would read a draft of something she wrote. He disliked reading friend’s work (it was all too intimate: entering another’s mind), but he said for her he would. He lay down on the soft grass, entranced by her voice. She told a story as she placed the objects she had found (an acorn, a feather, a stone, a dead butterfly, a ribbon) in a shallow hole next to where he lay. After a while, he sat up and glanced at the objects in the hole. He said, it’s like a witch’s ingle. She laughed gently, and began to loosely tie his hands with the ribbon as she finished her story. He watched her dark eyes focus on the task, becoming lost in their intensity. When she was done, she said to him, now you’re supposed to untie yourself, and become free. He said, one would first have to want to be free. With nothing more to say, she walked away leaving him in the woods.

(April 1, 2020)

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ongoing

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (45)

the field is a smooth green

small lines define

the gain and the loss

.

there is no loss

there is no gain

we are there

.

flowers and flowers

dance in decay

no daffodils today

.

he sighs and wanders

along his way another day

another day

.

time is the construct

the die never falls

it just falls

(March 27, 2020)

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spin again

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (44)

the ball clacks

from red to black

a cord turns

this way then that

.

they say yes they

say no as if

saying makes it so

.

it’s certainly true

he held out his hand

such a simple man

while her fingers

traced along a wall

wanting nothing

nothing at all

.

then they turn again

loops through loops

doubled and troubled

a move to the left

a move to the right

chains held them o so tight

.

this is our day

one more song

and one last wrong

(March 26, 2020)

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Writing About Writing My Work in Progress

I read this morning that Hemingway said that better writers didn’t talk about their writing; I think it is often important to reflect on what one is doing as one writes: metacognition to use education jabber. So, fuck off Ernie.

I started a serial poem back at the beginning of January. The plan was to write 140 poems, each poem’s length is pre-determined by a random number generator, ranging from 3-140 syllables. It was to follow vaguely the rules of a renga, where each poem grew out of the one before it somehow, weather through theme, pun, image, or a reply. The number of poems was determined by the number of syllables in a sonnet. 

I have come to the end of the first “stanza” section—40 poems. The last poem in the section #40, ‘rhymes’ with (39), (20), and (1); as (10) and (30) ‘rhyme—in an attempt to create an overall section unity. I will now begin to move forward with the second ‘stanza’ while collecting and tightening section 1, in hopes that as I reread and work over section 1, the themes and ideas that emerged in section one will echo and grow organically in section two: a conversation between sections one and two, if you will, as section two talks to itself.

Well, it keeps me something to do, and think about if nothing else.

(March 22, 2020)

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winter’s end

from a work-in-progress: process, not a journey (40)

blue bonnets bloom in the backyard

as a new plague floods the city

fear all that has changed enough

to become a normal day yet forget

what patterns have been replaced

by emptiness reweaving a past

which should have existed like flowers

found pressed between the pages

of a favorite book marking the poem

you read to me when we were in love

instead of these tattered nets I mend

as best I can from wisps of memory

in the hope a better world will blossom

like the wild flowers in the backyard

(March 20, 2020)

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one

from a work-in-progress: process, not a journey (37)

for years years ago

I thought about amoebas

.

how I wanted a metaphor

which would work well

.

with the amoeba image

to surround and absorb

.

until there was no difference

to contrast a comparison

.

no space between to slip

a prosaic definition

.

where on wanders safely

through dusted hallways

.

and life’s sharp ambiguity

blends into one

(March 16, 2020)

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excise

from a work-in-progress: process, not a journey (36)

I like the silence of morning the slow hum

of the refrigerator from the kitchen

the soft purr of the cat curling around me

as I wait for the coffee pot to finish 

it is there beneath all of these sundry sounds

that the true weight of silence can be measured

as each strain’s lifted from the cacophony

and there’s nothing left but the strum of our blood

(March 11, 2020)

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“Rock Rock Rock Rock and Roll High School”

“My life could have turned out differently, but it didn’t.”

                  –Jim Harrison

“I live with my contradictions intact”

         –David Ignatow

“I’ve got to lose this skin I’m imprisoned in”

                  –The Clash 

“Didn’t nobody seem to know me, babe, everybody pass me by”

                  –Robert Johnson

It is easy to trace the twisted path which led me to where I am; however, it is a bit more difficult to see where I am going next. 

An obnoxious student asked me last week, in regards to this assignment, what my “rock” was. In my usual evasive fashion, I responded, “You are” meaning all of them, my students were my rock. However, even though I enjoy teaching most of the time, when I think of why I do what I do, or rather who I am, I don’t think about teaching. I have several roles I have taken on over the years: husband, father, friend, teacher, student, doctoral student, writer, poet, fool. I don’t think I am a Prufrock, yet, sometimes I feel as if I am no more than a sad man walking along the beach with my trousers rolled. Having a meaning or purpose, it is often said, leads to a happy (ier) life. With that in mind I guess, I would say that teaching gives me some of my purpose, and poetry gives it meaning, or helps me to create a meaning, to create sense out of chaotic universe.

Recently a friend wrote that she had a hard time calling herself a writer, even though I know she writes and writes well. A few years ago, a woman at the first meeting of a poetry group said she did not feel as if she could call herself a poet. I had just said as part of my introduction of myself that I had considered myself a poet since I was fifteen.  She seemed shocked that I would have the audacity to call myself a poet.  This inability to call oneself what one does came up again in another conversation between teachers. One man said that it felt somehow pretentious to call oneself a poet or a writer.  I asked the group how was it any more pretentious to say you were a poet than to say you were a teacher. To me it seemed more pretentious to lay claim to that title, to say, “I am a teacher.” I mean Jesus was a teacher. Who the hell am I? But I have over time become used to being called arrogant, so I guess that is why I have an easy time saying:  I am both: a teacher and a poet.  I don’t claim to be very good at either one, but I am both. Charles Bernstein said that if one says it is a poem, then it is a poem. No claims to quality, but it is a poem.  I am a poet.  I sit down with the intention of writing a poem.  I think about each line, the rhythm, the sounds of the words in relation to the other words, the phrasing, where I can cut and reduce, where something else needs to be added. I use poetry as a way of making sense of myself and the world I find myself in. As I have said elsewhere, poetry (both reading and writing it) helps keep the horrors of the world away and a way to find beauty everywhere and in everyone. I have consciously written poetry since I was fifteen; with luck, I will continue to do so the rest of my life. I am a poet.

Of course, I am also a teacher. If some magical seer had appeared to me when I was a 17-year-old senior, and told me that I would be a teacher for more than 30 years, I would have laughed out loud just before dying in horror. Yet, here I am working at one of the best high schools in Texas as the senior APLit teacher. Sartre famously wrote about a waiter at a Parisian café. The waiter, according to Sartre, is only a waiter when he is performing as a waiter. So, following that train of thought, I am only a teacher when I am at work talking to my students. I rarely think about being a teacher. It is still, after more than 30 years, difficult to think about me being a teacher.  I suppose my life as a teacher would be inauthentic since I don’t think about why I do this beyond making enough to feed my children, pay the mortgage, and send them off to college. Yet, in some small way I like to believe that what I do matters, even though I know it probably doesn’t. 

Maya Angelou said you remember how people made you feel, not what you learned. I think that is why when my former students run into me at HEB, or they come back to visit, they remember my class fondly. A few weeks ago, I was having a beer with a friend when I man in his thirties approached and asked if I was Mr. Neal, as if he were a process server for some lawsuit. It was odd to say the least. When I answered yes, he told me that he had been in my class when he was an eighth-grade student at Pflugerville Middle School. He said he heard my voice, and knew it was me. He remembered “The Road Not Taken.” (I used to have my students memorize poems). He said the first few lines. He said that had been his best English class, which I found embarrassing and kind of sad—his best English class was as an eighth grader. 

I am not retelling this event as an attempt at self-aggrandizement, but to show how one’s self-identity is often much different than how the world sees you.  I am always uncomfortable when people try to define me to me. I find their descriptions to be too pat, too much mired in the cliché, too many wrong associations. I am a teacher, and I feel in some small way I am helping create a better world with my students; yet, I never really know what it is I am doing. 

In a faculty meeting, several times, I have stated I don’t have any idea what my students are taking away from my class. In an age of standardized testing, to say I don’t know what my students learn in my class is tantamount to heresy. I don’t mean I don’t know what it is I am doing in class; I just don’t know what it is they are learning. And I certainly don’t see them as the number they receive on standardize tests.  I have had students tell me years after being in my class what they remember. It is always surprising to me what they found valuable, because it is never really what the objectives were in the class. 

When people ask what it is I teach, they mean what books are we reading. They seem confused when I talk about my students. My students are what (who) I teach. Books, poems, essays, are just the ephemera of my class. The tools that are employed in the teaching. About 15 years ago, I would respond glibly to my fellow teachers when I was asked what I was teaching that six weeks with “Nothing.” My students read what they wanted to read, and for the most part wrote what they wanted to write. I ran my class as a reading/writing workshop. The district where I worked claimed that ELA did workshop k-12, yet I was the only teacher in my high school who did. So it often took several weeks to teach the students how to read on their own, to have the stamina to read for 20 minutes without interruption. So, one day after the students were fairly proficient at the process, I was sitting on the floor in the doorway to my class. I was monitoring the students who read in the hall, and the ones who stayed in my classroom. A history teacher walked by and said snarkily, “I wish I could not teach, and sit around all day and just read.” My students were on the verge of rising up against her, when I mumbled (they had learned to understand my mumbling at that point as well)—I mumbled in response to her, “One would have to know how to read first.’ She walked on, not hearing what it was I had said, and the students laughed as they settled back into their books. I developed a reputation with the faculty pretty much as a smart-ass. Not that they were wrong, but I interpreted what they saw as smart-assness, as more of a way not to scream expletives at them. I refused to accept their definition of what it meant to be a teacher. I created my own definition. Even if some of that definition was simply a defiant rebellion against my fellow teachers.

I do think a lot about what I am doing both as a teacher and writer. So, I imagine I am attempting to be authentic in what I am doing. I question whether my praxis (my beliefs correspond with my actions) is authentic..not just me going with the flow because that is the easy way to go about life. As I said earlier, I am never sure if what I do is effective or worth doing at all. I will fluctuate between thinking I am a decent teacher, or writer, to thinking I am a fraud, fooling everyone, even myself. 

And that is the point I think of life: to try to be brutally honest with oneself, to never settle back and assume you know what it is all about, because one can never know. Which is not to say that we should not try to understand our lives, we should always be trying, even if we know we shall never know. Embrace the vast absurdity of the universe with a passionate intensity, not matter how pointless. It is the process and the awareness of the life you are living that makes the life have meaning and be worth living.

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Three poems

from a work in progress, “process, not a journey” (33-35)

resonance

the cold rail vibrates

beneath his hand

.

It’s inevitable

he stands and waits

.

Time Enough

patience sips her tea

as she watches

the bees flit and hover

among the roses in her garden

.

a breeze shifts the leaves

to the left and right

.

as above so below

morning breaks

pink and blue

beneath the ragged clouds

as the wind chime

in the chase tree

ripples through the yard

(March 6, 2020)

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What Each Transition Leaves Behind

He entered the water,

and drowned.

She entered the earth,

and decayed.

He entered the fire,

and was consumed.

She simply vanished

into the air.

Between her words

and the sediments

of his desires,

they were transformed,

becoming more the other

and less themselves.

Like beasts who love

in shadow’s spheres,

they entered metaphor,

and returned home.

(March 5, 2020)

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politics of fear

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (33)

as i drive to work each day

at eighty miles per hour i slip

between concrete meridians

and rattling White Freight Liners

the eighteen wheelers heave

and pitch in the next lane

like fat cattlemen at an auction

on the radio news of war

and poverty of graft and greed

play out like melodramas

without an easy denouement

the girl remains on the tracks

the train bears down the villian

laughs world without end

among the grass beside the road

my ghosts slowly sing in whispers

this is the time we have become

this is our time to overcome

(March 4, 2020)

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Drama-Drama Mama Gets Dramatic Instead of Writing a Poem

they said, then she said, and can you believe 

it that this happened, then that happened too,

and I said that she should say, but then she 

went and said that this was just way too much 

to stand, much less believe like Santa Claus;

I am so upset that I stabbed myself

with my pen, and wondered if I would die:

but first answer me this: “if you’re tattooed

on your lip, do you have to hold the lip

the whole time, or do they do that for you?”

as she stared into space holding her lip 

lost in the quandaries of everything 

not involved with the task which was right there,                                                

and not there like an answered Zen koan.

(February 28, 2020)

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as if he must explain

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (31)

after dad died

I would wear his shirts

they were too large

for my adolescent body

.

thin wisps of skin 

like spider’s silk

drift in the wind

.

each new mask adhered

to and was shaped by

the one that came before

.

my feet are numb now

as if on fire

.

as the ground slips away

I grasp for space

.

I don’t know how I got here

or where I’m coming from

I’m tired and out of breath

I need to sit down 

.

when asked I don’t know

who I am or where

.

I think of my father

and how he died gasping

for air drowning in phlegm

.

and my collar grows tight

.

(February 24, 2020)

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time enough to establish an alibi

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (30)

in the interim silence

he waited

as if the inevitable

were inevitable

.

this ritual opened a space

easy enough

to occupy because expected

even allowed

.

he could feel safe

for the time it took

to take 

what bit of dominion

was left to him

what scrap of language

he cold manifest

as a disguise

(February 24, 2020)

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I say

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (29)

this is me

these words define

my perception

like skin

.

a vague edge

between

what I hear

and what I say

.

if I peel

apart

the wet layers

I find nothing

.

beyond regret

self-flagellation

embarrassment

psychic decay

.

this is me

a bleeding scab of words

clot across my tongue

like worn rags

(February 20,2020)

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first word last word interrupt

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (27)

if anyone speaks

of anything

she might know

some small bit

that might relate

to her

a childhood memory

the center

of a collapsing star

anything at all

sparks her speech

until it is hers

and she turns and

turns and turns

all to her

as if she were

more

than who she is

and knew more

than

what she was

(February 16, 2020)

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Today’s Lesson

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins”

—T.S.Eliot

my students work over the abstract

idea of redemption in three stories

as a preparation for the wasteland

which we will read for the next class

one thousand miles away students

hide as their classmates are killed

and we are told there is nothing

nothing we can do except pray

prayers are useless balms for the dead

and pale recompense for the living

who must clean blood from walls

and mix memory into the earth

devoid of hope near an open door

we are in a hell we have created

(February 14, 2018)

I wrote this two years ago on the day of the Parkland massacre. I think about my students every time there is another school shooting. And there always seems to be another shooting. And still nothing is done. This poem was published by Shantih Journal.

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belied by circumstance

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (25)

walking the beach

before dawn

before the gulls

pierce

their pointed cries

through the waves’

unrelenting crush

I drown

in the wash 

of noise

my thoughts beaten

calm and submissive

I have no voice

among these voices

they are still

lashed into silence

by the cold waves

the sun’s first

motifs float

along the edge

of the sea

slight pinks

and greens

define night’s end

alone on the shore

I know who I am

without interpretation’s

variance to distract

(February 7, 2020)

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contrapuntal

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (24)

in the turn of dawn and dusk’s

vague half-light night becomes

neither herself nor the other

but a transitory beast slavering

wildly ahead or at the heels

of the raging sun

                                    shadows pulse

through me with celestial fire

each rock leaf flower

each grain of sand vibrates

in resonance the textures

of the world

                        I am all I am

and all I am not a conduit

for violent streams which fall

silent into a churning sea

(February 6, 2020)

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constellations

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (23)

starlings turn a double-helix into themselves

their poetry drifts through dark clouds

I murmur my admiration

still stunned after years

of seeing them dance

like calligraphy through silent air

what’s written into our veins

century by century

flows darkly

in a continuous reel

beneath these stars

(February 2, 2020)

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nothing much

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (19)

Cashel, Co. Tipperary

several years ago

for several years

nothing came to entrance me

more specifically

doors entranced me

the emptiness of doors

the simple lack of existence

led me further to rooms

and bowls cups and spoons

it wasn’t the rooms the doors

the bowls cups or spoons

but the pure embedded absence

nothing was useful

nothing was transcendent

the absence the lack the emptiness

(January 25, 2020)

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disambiguation

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (18)

I’ve been here before

floating adrift frightened

the water is cold

a door opens

I walk through an emptiness

to arrive in another

I’ve been here before

this time the people are blue

and the music hasn’t started

a door opens

air rushes in

to fill the space

I don’t want to repeat

but no one is listening

and patterns are seductive

years later

the same song plays

I dance alone

I’ve been here before

a door opens

I step through

there is no dream

there is no metaphor

the wind is silent

(January 23, 2020)

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how poetry asserts itself

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (17)

he alludes to a poem as if others

know what he thinks about before he can

speak which in this case means before he can

think his thoughts being like Rube Goldberg

devices clacking along tripping springs and

traps which propel the odd idea along

tangential routes until finally falling

into its assigned slot and everything

stops and silence expands like waves of water

rippling across the surface of a lake

eventually lapping the far shore

where a small boy plays with a wooden boat

never once thinking about poetry

(January 23, 2020)

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amorphous

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (14)

forgetting the pattern of fear

and doubt tangled about me

I fall out of sleep and remember

what parts of myself I need

to continue some resemblance

of the day the inessential shades

my ghosts as darkly as the essential

each shifts its position evasively

when questioned like a cat

slips through shadow and grass

(January 21, 2020)

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the future was a threat

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (12)

in school we were always on the move

field trips to museums to math class

with Mr. Buesing to middle school

to high school to college the future

was a threat brandished like a whip

by degrees our world turned

then it stopped and I stumbled

and found myself here in the mud

like a body dropped from the door

of a passing car

(January 18, 2020)

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Squirrel

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (11)

she skitters part way

into the empty street

stops stutter steps

grasps the road

trying not to fall off

then leaps back

unsure what’s next

*

I rarely know

finding myself

now as if

it made sense

yet knowing I’m wrong

*

I turn

without reason

as a car

crushes past

(January 16, 2020)

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with options of desire and defeat

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (8)

I don’t want

to be a salmon struggling

upstream to spawn and die

exhausted and decayed

nor

to be swept downstream

with broken branches and silt

into a churning sea

I want to be

a catfish

calm and content

deep within a silent pool

(January 12, 2020)