This month’s Featured Selection, “Blue Cocoon,” is a collaboration between Tess Gallagher and Lawrence Matsuda. The entire book (three sections), entitled Boogie-Woogie Crisscross, is the first production of Plume Editions – for more details see the Editor’s Note in this issue, and/or the April Newsletter. Below is a brief introductory exchange between the poets, moderated by Associate Editor for Special Projects Nancy Mitchell – who wants you to know that she found the poets as engaging, personally, as their work.
NM: I’m intrigued with the shifting and recurring perspective, tone and imagery within each of the individual poems and consistent across each of the three sections of Boogie-Woogie Crisscross. In Section I—“Pow Pow Shalazam,” Section II— “Wild Haired-Labyrinth Renga” and the final Section III—“Blue Cocoon,” the recurring imagery particularly seems to create a constellation of sorts, a coordinate by which this Crisscross might have been charted…maybe a Boogie-Woogie Starcross of sorts?
LM: No title change at this late date. It is too embedded in the work and “Starcross”seems like it is something ill fated like star-crossed lovers.
NM: You’re right, of course; and I wouldn’t presume to suggest another title—my comment was as result of the feature’s contagious mischief and zaniness Tess mentions.
TG: Each of the sections has a different tempo and central concern although as in the dance ‘Boogie-Woogie’ we swing each other wide and wild at times, trying to challenge each other’s balance and come-back. Blue Cocoon’s central image comes from a painting by Josie Gray, my Irish companion of 24 years now. When we carried the painting which is named Blue Cocoon to show the Irish painter Sean McSweeny, Sean commented on the fact of the blue in the painting not receding as blue is suppose to do when used correctly. In fact, what I loved was the unmannerly levitation of that blue. And some other unmannerly elements come forward, such as the Irish company, following their host, picking up their dessert dishes and licking the cream from them! So there is mischief and zaniness and the notion that rules are being broken in a jubilant way. Josie, who never went to art school, doesn’t mind if his blue refuses to recede.
NM: Yes! I love this!
TG: Earlier sections like “Pow Pow” dipped in and out of comic book language and car lingo and the drive-in-movie era. The style is careening like on a carnival ride, veering this way and that. “Wild-Haired Labyrinth Renga” is perhaps the most political section as it deals with the death of an Indian immigrant woman by sepsis due to misconceived Irish laws which failed to consider the life of the mother during birth. The woman did not receive correct attention after the child was allowed to die within her, and she died. Her husband recently settled with the hospital and the Irish health board for an undisclosed amount of money, and the case never came to trial.
NM: Correct me if I’m mistaken, but you began the first section in 2011, the second in 2013, and the final recently?
LM: No is the answer–The sections are purposely out of chronological order. “Pow Pow” in 2011, “Wild Haired” in 2013-15 and “Blue Cocoon” was completed in 2015.
TG: Yes, Larry is correct here, that we placed “Blue Cocoon” between our first section and our second. We liked the feel of it there, incubating between the two snap crackle and pop sections. In the book the order is “Pow Pow”, “Blue” and then “Wild”. “Blue” because “Blue”, the most recent and shortest, fit best in the middle.
NM: You both gave yourself permission to respond spontaneously, directly to each other’s poems, which creates a delightfully immediate and playful tone. Did you ever go back to these original responses and revise them?
LM: “Wild Hair” was revised more than 28 times and the others were in the teens for revisions.
TG: As Larry says there was a long process of revision since the poems were published first in PLUME on line and we proofed them for that even after we had worked exhaustively on our own with them. Although the poems were conceived in a spontaneous way, they were worked over to a close finish.
NM: Did you find yourself challenged by this process?
LM: The process was not a challenge because it was like sending emails. The challenge was responding to Tess in a fresh fashion so that new and interesting ground was covered that was entertaining, informative, and as real as poetry can be in terms of telling a story without becoming didactic.
TG: I think the fun and challenge was, as Larry says—to come back to each other’s work with something engaging and yet that would move the exchange forward. Larry had to educate himself to the entire political event of the death I mention above which stimulated a change in Irish law as regards childbirth wherein the mother’s life receives equal concern as the unborn child’s now. In “Blue Cocoon” we had to take in several developments concerning islands that came to be devoted to singular purposes like importing a population of cats to kill mice to protect the silk worms, and on another island rabbits who became feral when exposed to poison gas during war-making experiments. Islands within islands became a topic. And this section is also a kind of island within the other two sections.
NM: How do you feel the tone and perspective of these exchanges evolved/morphed/changed over time?
LM: I would say the first poems were more of me as “little brother” bothering my older sister. But very quickly I pushed forward to gain ground and occupy a more level playing field. But I never was able to maintain that position as the next response from Tess was like a tidal wave coming in. So after each wave I gave ground and ventured out again as the tide receded. My determination was the core theme from my point of view. But I never could declare victory except that the exchange made me grow as a poet under the tutelage of the master.
TG: I love Larry’s game revivals of spirit and subject matter each time he responded to a poem from me. Whatever I could bring forward he took on with vigor and audacity. He is a fighter for women’s rights and for those who plunder our procreative gifts and use outdated laws to bind us into untenable bargains set by religion or laws which in Ireland made it against the law to use contraception in 1935. I also came into his corner when he brings forward elements of his birth in Minidoka and the many losses and humiliations the Japanese American people suffered during the unlawful incarcerations of WWII.
I’d say we had a rollick in these poems, but they have their serious undertow, which is possible because the tone is of the dance and doesn’t allow the reader to sidestep the business at hand.
NM: Yes, indeed; a rollick, a wild ride, a whirl, but with a serious undertow as a ballast.
TG: The beat and the avalanche speed of the poems whirl forward, sweeping all before them, scooping up a more than normal amount of material. I think one of the things the poems display is just how wide reaching a series of poems can be. We hopefully learn a lot about Irish and American points of view and concerns, but not with too heavy a hand!
NM: Tess and Larry thank you; “Blue Cocoon,” PLUME’s final installment of Boogie-Woogie Crisscross is an amazing, unforgettable ride! Readers, fasten your seat belts!
Tess Gallagher, Lawrence Matsuda, Nancy Mitchell – March 2016
“Blue Cocoon”. 9” x 11”. 2014. Josie Gray.
Section I—Pow Pow Shalazam
Section II—Wild Haired-Labyrinth Renga
Section III—Blue Cocoon
Below is the last installment of the series. The entire book (three sections) is Boogie-Woogie Crisscross, forthcoming from MadHat Press, 2016.
Blue Cocoon (From Larry to Tess)
In Ballindoon, lambing over
and hay bailed high,
Josie wears his red shirt
as he drives to your County Sligo cottage.
After 40 years some call you Yank or blow-in,
woman with perfect eyebrows,
who attracts gold finches, coal tits, and chaffinches
to a pastoral scene overflowing with bird calls and songs.
Hedge cats skulk like Serengeti lions, nose
your milk dish in anticipation. The two Eileens up the road
brew pots of Lyons or Barry’s tea, expect you at their door
before Josie’s family reunion where you claim your place
among his clan: sons, daughters, grandchildren, great grandchildren,
and his late wife’s memory.
In Portland, Oregon I rise in my hotel room,
pillows strewn helter-skelter,
scene reminiscent of marshmallows floating
in a hell’s broth. I recall our mutual friend, Alfredo,
who lands in Portland like a shanghaied sailor
unable to remember anything beyond
his Blue Moon Tavern binge in Seattle the night before.
Alfredo’s adventure rivals the night he stacked
two unsecured paintings on the roof of his car,
navigated hills under the influence
and pin-balled down Ravenna Avenue.
His canvases must have sprouted Edvard Munch-like
expressionist arms and hands to grip their extraterrestrial
mosaic faces in fear as they screamed all the way home.
I discover Portland is a carnival wonderland where
bacon drapes maple bars and pretzels impale chocolate
voodoo doll donuts filled with raspberry blood.
Food-cart shantytowns sprout in downtown parking lots,
gypsy chuck wagon villages, magnet for hordes of lip-smacking,
khaki-clad office workers and itinerant street musicians.
As a visitor I search for the Yin and Yang
of Portland’s vibe, only to dodge
snares where amplitude sine wave intersect
and outstretched hands release grocery baskets piled
with bursting garbage bags.
Gauntlet of medieval palms reach out to me.
To the beggars, I am a lump of protein
zigzagging a trespass across their sidewalk,
sidestepping invisible webs that snag coins
in a spare change geometrical world of angles.
Scrawled message dangles from a liberated Safeway cart,
The last person who stole this cart, owns it.
From my ten story hotel room,
I open curtains to a miniature crime scene below—
life-size G.I. Joe toy action figure face-down—
twisted in a camouflage sleeping bag on the lip
of a vacant storefront.
No blood trails, blue police lights,
or crime tape, just a voyeuristic sense of peering
into private corners of a lost soul,
someone who in a different reality might have
killed enemies who looked like me.
In the morning I embark on an urban fishing adventure—
bind a net and two spinning rods,
pull a red Igloo Cooler strapped to a luggage cart
past food trailers and the Chinatown Gate
to the esplanade on the Willamette River’s east bank.
My cart clack-clacks, echoes
through the homeless cardboard shanties in rhythm
with tires whining on bridge grates above.
Below the Burnside Street overpass,
glowing eyes track me like prey.
My designer glasses or yellow skin mean nothing here,
only the sound of rattling wheels—passport
to polite nods of recognition as if I were
a lost brother seeking the cathedral built for myself.
Tess, when lambing is over and hay is
wrapped in plastic like giant jelly rolls
scattered across the shorn fields,
what rattles your wheels when Josie gathers
his clan around the evening hearth?
Cat Mountain (Response from Tess)
Polish coal rattles into the grate, signals
the ozone layer over Ballindoon that the EU’s tax
won’t snuff carbon fumes here any time
soon. Poverty, the great instructor, inhibits
change. Though overnight the Irish quit smoking
in pubs, they huddle to their open coal fires and will not
easily surrender them, even against taxes. These
are a people who ate grass during The Famine
to stay alive, and the old Chinese proverb says
“if a person can chew roots they will be able
for anything.” I am among a people, Larry, able
for anything. I remind myself of this daily, watching
Mickey Moran head to the bog on his tractor
to haul out sticks to extend his coal fire. As for
shopping carts, it takes a 2€ piece to free one from
a locked chain of trolleys. Failing that you must shop small
with a hand basket. Make trips. Poverty puts good legs
on some. Helmeted bicyclists whizz past my windows as petrol
goes up. The moon could care less how we get around,
but I swear sleeping under the Sligo moon has swept my usual
dream-cargo free and cleared my spirit-realm of
festering. Like sleeping under cherry blossoms,
a gentleness falls through me, sifts my proclivities
for connecting to the troubles of others, and stays
temporarily my need to bind up the world’s
miseries. Not to say I can’t be outraged
by daily ignorance: the Sligo doctor quoted as
saying he could not tell if his East Indian patient had jaundice
“because of her color.” At one report she has kidney failure,
the next she’s dying: Dhara whom her husband called:
“the light of my life.” That light snuffed a few days after
her boy was delivered by caesarian. The inquest witnesses
her relegated to a maternity ward instead of ICU,
though she presented with “more than two organs in
failure”. Bloods drawn, but not read. Doctors in attendance
but no alarms to save her. The worried husband mollified
by a nurse, told to get his wife a lemonade if he wanted to help
her. Here, Larry, skin color is more than punitive
with daily humiliations; it can cost you your life.
The headline actually read: “We can’t tell if Dhara has
jaundice due to Indian skin.” I want to howl and crawl
into a hedge. I want to live on Cat Mountain, far from
such goings on. Though months have passed since I left
for America, Basho-cat has magically returned, perhaps
from Cat Mountain. I swear he raised a paw in a salute
of good luck, as I put down his dish of milk and fish.
I am worse than itinerant, more like a strange comet
that not only falls out of the sky but up
out of the ground! Not even a cat should depend
on me. Especially since I fell while gathering lake stones
for the garden and broke my wrist. The Japanese warning
not to move stones by daylight
comes back to me. I hug the roadway hedge
to Eileen Frazer’s only to find she’s in Sligo General
with a broken hip. Ahh we are such egg-shell manifestations,
such feverish migrations. It’s a wonder birds don’t
entirely desert us, we who infuse the day with spiritually illiterate
peckings and preenings. Only my great-granddaughter Jade
saves prospect. She paints a bracelet of flowers
and cats’ whiskers around my cast. The world needs more
of her. She can recite poetry and draw dogs
leading people around on collars to “Obedience School.”
On my cast I wear to the NY premier
of BIRDMAN she scribbles “Mummy Teresa,” gets the giggles,
then cartwheels into the hydrangea. Oregon,
she says, is where you get “onto The Trail.” She’s
not sure if she would like “The Trail” but without it, she says,
nobody in America would have arrived anywhere
West. Most of all she’d like to meet an Indian. She’d trade
two magpie feathers for an eagle shaft, or
bargain black bogwood for a string of beads,
and be happy to go fishing with you, Larry. But you’d better
have something to trade. Remember she’s of the tribe
that chews roots, a mighty lot. You’ll recognize each other, your being
from the tribe that forages mushrooms among
sword ferns. She says she would rather
go to Cat Mountain though,
than to Oregon.
Cat Island and Bunny Town (Response from Larry)
While drift-fishing for King Salmon at Point Defiance,
I spot a floater, not a plastic bottle or Coke can but
a large black feather. Feathers should sink
among crabs and mud sharks, not
bob on green waves. Since there are no flying turkeys,
it must be from the bald eagle I call Icarus.
Like World War I biplane fighters, crows
dive for Icarus’s tail feathers in flight,
harass and squawk defending their turf.
I examine the feather closely. No UPC codes,
made in Japan, China, or USA markings.
It is a magnificent quill pen, something Jefferson would have used
to sign the Declaration of Independence. Your great-granddaughter,
Jade, would have loved it, except it is a federal crime
to possess an eagle feather unless you’re a Native American. It carries
a $10,000 fine, amount that could free 4,000 Irish shopping carts
from their 2 Euro cages, depending on the currency exchange.
So I set the feather adrift with a short prayer of thanks and good wishes.
It swirls, then holds close for a moment, like the bottle-nose
porpoise who plays and follows me on occasion.
Gently the feather breaks free from my gravity
and floats like a happy wayfarer riding the currents
towards Vashon Island and Quartermaster Harbor
until it fades, a dot in the distance.
Tell Jade if I visit Ballindoon, I would take her
for a grocery cart ride past the pubs and stores in Boyle,
the nearest town. First I would liberate Josie’s red shirt,
then don black and white war paint, tie a scarlet bandana
around her forehead and place a Turkey feather in her auburn hair.
We would stop at every bakery, sweet shop, and tearoom,
feast on delicacies—not grass or roots,
then trundle towards the horizon and disappear
like a movie iris dot near Eileen’s cottage where
her tea pot waits, cradled in a salmon colored cozy.
I would tell stories about Tashirojima Island,
Japan, and how cats were shipped in to chase mice
that ravaged silk worm cocoons. When the company moved,
animals outnumbered villagers.
They had cared for the cats, hoping the felines
would bring good luck to the few remaining residents.
It was a scene reminiscent of the medieval Maneki Neko story—
cat who raised its paw in salute as a rich priest’s palanquin passed,
a sign the holy man should stop for the evening.
The poor village prospered when travelers learned
of the priest’s favor, spawning hordes of ceramic
Maneki Nekos and plastic charms to clutter Japan today.
Can you imagine an island governed by wily felines,
representing different independent parties?
You and Basho, the hedge cat, would be in heaven and I am sure the
cat citizens would be enlightened enough not to pass a coal tax.
Laws against dogs would serve better
even though none would ever have seen one.
This village should not be confused with Okunshina, the island
of feral rabbits, which Jade would like more than you and Basho.
Offspring of those used for poison gas experiments run free
after the plant closed. Tame and friendly they wander the island protected.
This twisted tale reminds me of a movie call for Japanese extras
I answered last week. They asked that I shave, bring a white shirt,
and a suit, only to stand around 8-10 hours for minimum wage.
I declined when I found the movie was about Japan winning
the war and occupying America.
That falseness meant my relatives in Hiroshima
and those in Nagasaki were never incinerated alive;
that the Japanese liberated us from American concentration
camps in the desert after 3 years of confinement; that we would have been
heroes and not the vanquished foe looking like the enemy after the war.
“Slightly jaundice” would be the preferred national skin color
and all property lost from our unjust incarceration would be returned.
Ironically this topsy turvey fantasy turned me inside out
and badly disrupted my psyche, unless, of course it was a comedy.
Alas, Tess, how many belly laughs can you pack in to a movie
about America losing the war?
By the Sea (Response from Tess)
All afternoon in North Sligo lunching in the artist’s studio:
tubes of paint, tubs of Gesso, paintings
big enough to make your bed on. Sean McSweeney
and his wife Sheila dancing the conversation from rugby to
the Peace Rose planted early in their marriage, rose devoured
by sheep. Orna, their daughter, reads
Akhmatova in Russian, serves apple tart with full
cream, the apples picked dewy from the orchard.
I smile conspiratorially, pick up
my plate, rediscover the tongue,
that neglected snail. Cats have nothing
on us, Larry. We lick cream. Blessed freedom
to sit at table with one’s grown friends in old age
and caress sweetness from a dessert plate.
The cats on Cat Island sit about all day licking only fur
while Chuang Tzu dreams he’s a butterfly mistaken
for a bird. “Wake up! Wake up!”
we shout. “Wake up and be a man or
be eaten or mauled to death!” Chuang Tzu flutters open
his eyes and loses his life
as a butterfly. One less butterfly on Cat Island
makes no ripple on the indolence of cat multitudes
dreaming in sunshine. Meanwhile, the floating blue
at the center of Josie’s painting has perplexed
Sean who says “blue should always recede.”
But this frisky, ill-mannered blue levitates
as “Blue Cocoon,” asking us to tolerate its daring
masquerade as art plundering the rules of art, blue
successfully deluding itself it doesn’t have to lie down
to the artist’s brush. Your refusal, Larry, to appear
in the movie slated to undo the outcome of WWII,
has kept mountains of history books from having to be
burned on street corners. Meanwhile Alejandro’s BIRDMAN
pecks the indolent money-pocked eyes of the Hollywood
Buddha, trying to generate more than cookie-cutter
heroes. Josie’s unruly blue raises its blue salute,
suggests we throw a party where we all lick
cream from white porcelain plates at a long table
by the sea—a blue-green sea that tosses waves
at Cat Island. When asked to offer a story, an Irish custom
at occasions, I’ll tell of meeting the wizened man
near Lough Arrow who insisted I stroke
the breast feathers of his tethered hawk—after which
I quoted Wilfred Gibson:
Because I set no snare
But leave them flying free
All the birds of the air belong to me.
Those lines, committed to memory, free
a multitude, our minds floating out like music.
If we provoke the imagination of the captor, even
for a moment, Larry, he might wake up from his
power-dream to witness
a leather glove of cow’s hide flying his empty hand
away, away over the blue-green fields.
Island Within an Island (Response from Larry)
Chuang Tzu, dozing butterfly,
dreams of being a man.
Absent his vibrating wings,
the world spins sideways for a nano-second.
During a harmonic convergence,
rain storms meant for parched vineyards
of the San Joaquin Valley twist through Port Angeles
and the Straits of Juan de Fuca.
Wake up Chuang Tzu, your life is more than you think.
Like the sound of heavy cream slurped
from an apple tart plate in Ballindoon,
smacking lips and gulping conjure squeeze-box
rhythms of an Irish ballad pulsating from Josie’s brush,
spreading blue hues across the painting’s heart.
I recall gazing down at Campbell Lake from
Mt. Erie on Fidalgo Island where an island sits
in the center of blue like a watercolor painting, an island
within an island. As the wind rises over the cliff, I remember
what my first wife used to say,
No man is an island, Larry, except for you.
Instead of quoting Gibson when asked to offer up a story,
I visualize a sugar-frosted Easter egg decorated with pink swirls
and clear plastic viewing port with a diorama
of a miniature bride and groom. I am the white-haired minister
in a blue aloha shirt next to the mossy waterfall
in Kubota Gardens. We stand on the edge of a cliff
under a canopy of pine trees. Anna’s Hummingbirds,
goldfinches and butterflies flutter in celebration. We are all
butterflies on the verge of morning.
Like an Irish sleepwalker Josie wields his brushes,
madly paints Tess’s Ballindoon cottage blue instead
of the promised white as she flies like an un-tethered hawk
over the Atlantic from Dublin.
Flap your butterfly wings, Chuang Tzu, parched
San Jaoquin hardpan and thirsty grapes beckon. Monarchs
cluster in the park, expect your entrance as the teapot whistles
a high pitched warning.
Stop your nodding and chase sleep from
the silkworm cocoon of your mind, wake from lazy dreams
of hammocks and Mulberry leaves. No longer
a sheltered worm, know you are
more than a Moon Pie treat, silent victim
Tess Gallagher’s latest book Midnight Lantern: New and
Selected Poems (Graywolf ), was published 27 September, 2011.
Graywolf also published Dear Ghosts and Moon Crossing Bridge,
as well as other works, including her selected stories, The Man
from Kinvara. Her essay collections, A Concert Of Tenses and Soul
Barnacles, are also available from University of Michigan Press. She
recently companioned the film BIRDMAN, which includes one of
the short stories of her late husband, Raymond Carver: “What We
Talk About When We Talk About Love.” She became an encourager
of its director, Alejandro Inarritu, throughout work on the film, and
their friendship led to his mentioning her as he received four Oscars
for the film in 2015. She continued as companion to making of THE
REVENANT by Inarritu, sending him restorative poems to read
during the breaks in the arduous filming. The film won him the Best
Director Oscar for 2016 and two other awards went to his cinematographer
and to his main actor, Leonardo DiCaprio. She was present with Josie
Gray at the Premier in NYC where the film was welcomed.
She wrote “a poet’s introduction” to Marina Tsvetaeva: The
Essential Poems, translated by Michael Naydan and Slava Yastremski,
published in 2015. She lives and writes in Port Angeles, Washington, her
birthplace, as well as intervals spent in her cottage in the west of
Ireland, where all of the poems included here were written in her
chair that overlooks Lough Arrow and Jimmy Frazer’s green field in
Lawrence Matsuda was born in the WWII Minidoka, Idaho,
War Relocation Center, an American concentration camp.
He was among the approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans
who were held without due process, some for three or more years.
Matsuda has a Ph.D. in education and was a visiting professor
at Seattle University. In 2005 he and two colleagues co-edited
the book Community and Difference: Teaching, Pluralism
and Social Justice, Peter Lang Publishing, New York. It won
the 2006 National Association of Multicultural Education Phillip
Chinn Book Award. In 2010 Black Lawrence Press published his
first book of poetry, A Cold Wind from Idaho. “Minidoka Fences”
also appeared in Cerise Press, Spring 2010, Vol. 1 Issue 3.
His new book, Glimpses of a Forever Foreigner, was released in
August of 2014. It is a collaboration between Matsuda and artist
Roger Shimomura. In 2015 he completed two graphic novels; part
one, An American Hero Shiro Kashino, was released in April and part
two, Fighting for America: Nisei Soldiers, was released in September
2015, published by Wing Luke Museum and Nisei Veterans
Committee Foundation in Seattle.