The conclusion of the 2014 Split This Rock Poetry Festival was a deluge of poetry readings which were all free and open to the public. The Dresser thinks this is brilliant strategy because toward the end of any conference audience dwindles because there are matters of life--and death--to address. Here are the lineups but the Dresser, being only human, will focus on the Saturday night event, which turned out to be a surprising show of creative energy.
Saturday night, the sui generis performance artist and poet Regie Cabico moderated--well, no, there was nothing moderate about his flamboyant style of dancing the poets on and off the stage. The young spoken word poet Thomas Hill opened with his performance of "Sunday Morning," a piece about his mother that includes this devastating line "I keep her company in the art of hating herself."
Next up so as not to be upstaged by the performances that followed came the scholar, professor, and prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa. Standing at the lectern, he began with the poem "Ode to the Oud," that "gourd shaped muse." He closed with:
by Yusef Komunyakaa
For Derek Walcott
An island is one great eye
... gazing out, a beckoning lighthouse,
searchlight, a wishbone compass,
... or counterweight to the stars.
When it comes to outlook & point
... of view, a figure stands on a rocky ledge
peering out toward an archipelago
... of glass on the mainland, a seagull's
wings touching the tip of a high wave,
... out to where the brain may stumble.
But when a mind climbs down
... from its high craggy lookout
we know it is truly a stubborn thing,
... & has to leaf through pages of dust
& light, through pre-memory & folklore,
... remembering fires roared down there
till they pushed up through the seafloor
... & plumes of ash covered the dead
shaken awake worlds away, & silence
... filled up with centuries of waiting.
Sea urchin, turtle, & crab
... came with earthly know-how,
& one bird arrived with a sprig in its beak,
... before everything clouded with cries,
a millennium of small deaths now topsoil
... & seasons of blossoms in a single seed.
Light edged along salt-crusted stones,
... across a cataract of blue water,
& lost sailors' parrots spoke of sirens,
... the last words of men buried at sea.
Someone could stand here
... contemplating the future, leafing
through torn pages of St. Augustine
... or the prophecies by fishermen,
translating spore & folly down to taproot.
... The dreamy-eyed boy still in the man,
the girl in the woman, a sunny forecast
... behind today, but tomorrow's beyond
words. To behold a body of water
... is to know pig iron & mother wit.
Whoever this figure is,
... he will soon return to dancing
through the aroma of dagger's log,
... ginger lily, & bougainvillea,
between chants & strings struck
... till gourds rally the healing air,
& till the church-steeple birds
... fly sweet darkness home.
Whoever this friend or lover is,
... he intones redemptive harmonies.
To lie down in remembrance
... is to know each of us is a prodigal
son or daughter, looking out beyond land
... & sky, the chemical & metaphysical
beyond falling & turning waterwheels
... in the colossal brain of damnable gods,
a Eureka held up to the sun's blinding eye,
... born to gaze into fire. After conquering
frontiers, the mind comes back to rest,
... stretching out over the white sand.
Franny Choi opened with To the Man Who Shouted 'I Like Pork Fried Rice' at Me on the Street." This poem was published in the March edition of Poetry magazine which featured poets presented at Split This Rock. She concluded her out-on-the-slender-limb of confrontational poetry with "Pussy Monster," a deconstruction of rapper Lil Wayne's "Pussy Monster."
Closing the show, Wang Ping brought to the stage a musician who provided flute, drum, and guitar accents. She opened with "A Hakka Man Farms Rare Earth in South China."
A HAKKA MAN FARMS RARE EARTH IN SOUTH CHINA
by Wang Ping as edited by Melissa Tuckey
First of all, it's not earth nor it's rare, as they say
It lies under our feet, sparkling the soil we farm
Red, green, yellow, blue, purple, sky of grass
And buffalos, patches of rice, bamboos, sweet yams
We came here as guests--Hakka--fleeing from angry
Lords. Year after year, we bent over the earth
Feet and hands in the neon soil, our sweat
Fertilized the fields, children, ancestors' graves
Our stove cooked the fragrance from the sun and moon
Now we dig, deep in the mud, our boots
Rotting in the rainbow sludge...Dig, and we dig
Hoes, pickaxes, guns, explosives, acid wash
Ten Yuan a sac, this red dirt speckled with
Blue and yellow. Home, we say, a small haven
Painted with green. Now the mountains are lifted
Deep crates in the fields, blood and pus in rivers
Streams...all because the world wants this earth
"Vitamins" for I-pods, plasma TVs, wind turbines
Guided missiles--things that make the world
Cleaner and more beautiful, as they say
And here we are, in the waist-deep sludge
A sac of mud--a tail of greed leached in our stove
Fire licks my wife's slender hands
Acid fumes her lungs, liver, stomach
Can't even sip the porridge laced
With the thousand-year-old eggs
In the iron wok, we exhume
Dysprosium, Neodymium, Promethium
All the names of Gods, they say
If gods have eyes, why didn't they see us
Slaves of this world that no longer holds?
In the distance, a mushroom of dust--Boss
And his Toyota Prius, powered by the sludge
That chokes my eyes, ears, nose...One Rich Field
25 pounds of metal, ten thousand sacs of earth
Ripped under our feet. We're slipping
Our chests soaked in blood, backs broken
Digging, pulling, no food or water
Our quota still short, the boss will be mad
But no matter. I light a cigarette, each puff
Is the last. Tomorrow is gone, like our village
Here and far away, where horses ran wild
Under the sky, where we, children of
Genghis Khan, return every night in our dream
That is gone, too, they say. Mongolia
Our origin, now a rare earth pit for the world
Oh, Hakka, Hakka, forever the guests
Wandering on this bare earth
Hakka: Nomads from Mongolia, scattered all over China and world. Most of them now live in Guandong, where the rare earth metals are mined and leached in stone-age methods. Inner Mongolia and Guangdong produce 95 percent of the rare earth supplies for the world.
Toyota: the Chinese name is FengTian, meaning Rich Field.
What is important to know about the work of Wang Ping is that while she writes both in Mandarin and English, she does not hold back in her English language poetry. Two poems in this STR reading that knocked the breath out the Dresser dealt with Chinese nannies caring for the adopted Chinese daughters of wealthy middle class white couples. Both of the poems were set in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. In one poem, the nanny was a former neuro-surgeon who rants about how these pampered adopted girls are nothing but peasants with flat back of the skulls, that these girls will be intellectually and artistically inadequate. The other nanny of the second poem is more sympathetic, but is still tough, saying the child she is caring for belongs to her culture and to her, that she, the nanny, is the true mother.
And so it was for the fourth Split This Rock Poetry Festival that anyone with any issue could find a home or battleground for his/her beliefs. Kudos for another well run festival where conversation mattered.