Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Yanayacu River Journal, Part III - Wildlife & Village Life: Piranhas, Caimans, and San Juan

Back at the lodge – Adam, Anna, and Laila left this morning, while two guests arrived. I spent the last hour in the shower, wonderfully cold, then the hammock, listening to birds and watching the varieties of butterflies – white, yellow, ocher, black, iridescent green, incandescent blue and scarlet. They amble like the people do – purposeful, yet unhurried. The pace is slow, languid like the river, and when things happen they happen slowly, like the distant sound of an approaching boat growing louder and louder until it slips past, laden with palm fronds and the men sprawled on top, smoking cigarettes.

The buildings and the walkways between them are covered in thatch and stand on stilts for the high water season. The walls and ceilings are largely open and covered in blue mosquito netting, and at night kerosene lamps and torches light the rooms and the grounds. I have a private bungalow with a shower and sink, a deck with a hammock, and a queen-sized bed. The water is cold, and the nights are so warm I sleep on top of the covers in my boxers – not before checking the room for spiders, of course. Birds nest in the trees and palms – a noisy flock of yellow-rumped cacique inhabit a nearby palm and occasionally burst from their hanging nests in a shower of bright sparks – and natives pass by in small canoes powered by muscle and sinew or the occasional outboard. Considering most supplies come from Iquitos by boat, the food is excellent – fresh fish is plentiful, as are chicken and eggs, fruits and vegetables, coffee and tea and beer. The owner is Peruvian, and the lodge staff are Amazon natives, friendly and laid back, and their laughter as they go about their work echoes around the compound.


Rode upstream past San Juan village, and moored under a tree leaning far out over the water, with long roots hanging down from branches slung with vines, and bromeliads growing from the nooks where branch and trunk meet. A three-toed sloth hung under an upper branch and for a while moved faster than the fishing. Our poles were wooden sticks about eight feet long, with an equal length of fishing line and a barbed hook tied to the end. Fishing for red-bellied piranhas is easy. Attach raw meat to the hook. Splash the water with the tip of the pole to simulate prey in distress and attract the piranha. Drop the bait, set the hook at the bite. It doesn’t take long. Maybe I should’ve said simple, because I didn’t find it particularly easy. These piranhas are small, just a few inches long, but they bite fast, and hard. I hooked a number before landing one. Hulber removed the hook from the first and our pilot (a young native from San Juan) promptly cut it up to use as bait in a deft display of karma. I caught another and insisted on removing the hook myself – the piranha was small enough to grasp in my left hand while I carefully pulled the hook from its jaws, a wide mouth that resembles an oversized pair of industrial nail clippers lined with serrated teeth and a swift, almost mechanical bite.

The ease of catching piranha makes me think that the rivers are filled with them. I knew to expect it, but the sight of villagers bathing or swimming or washing clothes in a dark river filled with piranha is still strange. Life in the jungle depends on the river – it is the primary means of transportation and of communication, acts as a primary food source, and informs and structures every activity in village life. Villages lie on high ground along the banks, organized in a row of raised buildings, with paths leading to the shore where canoes and peque-peques are tied up or beached in the thick mud.

The villages are usually no more than a building deep, stretched along the bank; fields and a soccer pitch or a few common buildings might add a little depth. In Ayacucho, where the Yanayacu greets the Amazon, the majority of the population leaves during the rainy season. Most villagers have no such recourse, and the river in flood enters their lives by the front door. But no one lives far from river access, and the river runs through the villager’s lives just as blood runs through their veins. The Incas looked upon the milky way as a celestial river, a common enough symbol that I wouldn’t be surprised to find in Amazon tribal myth. Hulber told me that the Yagu believe the ceiba tree is the Mother Earth, and that when it fell, it created the Amazon from its trunk and branches. I can see in the ceiba the Amazon’s serpentine form, and I can see the wide meandering and slow current of its tributaries in the ethic and outlook of the people who live by it. They are often quiet and reserved, but quick to laugh and banter, greeting each other from canoes and calling out from shore to passing boatmen. Generous, peaceful, and kind, they share what they have, in an easy and necessary exchange with echoes of the Incan system of reciprocity. They move methodically but unhurriedly, without much in the way of possessions except what they absolutely need, and much of what they need, like the fishing poles we used, they improvise. In almost every boat is a plastic soda bottle cut in half to use as a bail – I’ve seen these deep in the forest, carried by flood water, their bright artificial color incongruous against the shaded jungle foliage. The homestead I saw on my first day here is fodder for thought, and I’m looking forward to visiting Ayacucho to learn more about the permanent residents of the jungle.

All these ideas, and a couple of guys and a sloth hanging out fishing for the afternoon. The hours passed by and we flipped piranha after piranha out of the water, throwing the guts to a black-collared hawk that dove from a nearby tree to snatch entrails from the water. We caught a number of other fish, catfish and perch, and something larger and meaner-looking than piranha, a dark brown monster with spines and tremendous teeth filling a gaping mouth. Not a bad way to spend a vacation, fishing in the Amazon.

They served the piranha for dinner. No one would touch it until I took one off the tray, head still attached, and went at it after sprinkling it with lime. Not bad, but too bony.

In an entertaining demonstration of cultural and linguistic barriers, the Frenchman tried convincing me to eat the piranha’s eyes. I did not.

The rest of dinner: squash soup, chicken, hardboiled eggs, olives, rice steamed in a sweet, flavorful local leaf, cooked and sweetened plaintains, pineapple, and tomato and avocado sandwiches. Like all the meals here, served buffet style and far more food than necessary. I find myself going back for more every time; my hunger is ravenous.

After eating I smoked a cigarette, one of the Inka brand I brought from Cusco. There are ashtrays everywhere, and the mosquito netting blurs the distinction between “inside” and “outside.” I’m the only smoker. No one seems to mind. Many Peruvians smoke very causally – I recall Henry Jorge bummed a few smokes off Tom and I one cloudy night on the Inca Trail, while we watched stars peek from the southern sky and drank sangria.

A short time after dinner we jumped in one of the larger boats and went upriver in the dark, looking for wildlife with a flashlight. As we passed San Juan, we saw several sloths, each high in their individual trees. Occasionally kingfishers would dart from the trees and fish would leap from the water, silvery streaks in the torch’s powerful beam. We entered a lake and one of the shores fell away into the darkness, and I felt suspended in an inky void, black water calm on all sides and a black ceiling hung with stars doubling as chandeliers. We motored on while I wondered how anyone could possibly keep track of our location, and a few minutes later, when a spectacled caiman’s eyes shone near the shore, we pulled in close. It swam away, disappearing in the water. Too late, we tried again - and again, we were in the dark, a darkness populated by lightning bugs and lit by distant lightning. Finally, we found a caiman’s eye-shine and pulled up to shore, close enough to see it in detail. One of the guides, Moses, lowered himself over the side and waded in ankle-deep water right up to the caiman – then he reached down, grabbed it by the neck, lifted it from the water, and brought it into the boat. For a while, he showed it to the new arrivals, a young couple from France. Then, he handed it to me. I took it firmly by the neck for a few minutes while Hulber took a photograph, and before I had time to think, I released it into the water. In my hands, it had been unmoving, hanging limp and frozen in the light from my headlamp and Hulber’s torch. In the murky water, in its element, the caiman moved with grace and form, propelled by a tail as long as its head and body, legs trailing as it undulated into the darkness outside the reach of our lights.

Only after it disappeared into the lake did I think, “I held a wild spectacled caiman in my hands!” It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time – I’ve been able to do some amazing stuff in Peru – but it was a big deal. Spectacled caimans can grow to two meters or more and live for decades. As soon as Moses pulled it from the water, I’d wanted to see it closer, and maybe hold it. The guy next to me didn’t want anything to do with the caiman, moving away pretty rapidly when Moses handed it to me. It’s been a day of that – the same guy also freaked out when a fish leapt out of the river and landed near his feet in the boat, and when the same thing happened to the French girl, she actually stood up and screamed.

So far, nothing in the jungle has scared me more than the idea of tipping a canoe. And that only because I’d soak my camera.

When I started to write, the lodge cat – Panda – sat above me on top of the mosquito netting. She’s gone now, trotting off into the darkness. The jungle must be an interesting place for a domesticated cat… That strange, syncopated, echoing clicking has started again – I keep meaning to ask Hulber what makes it. It reminds me of the Kodama portrayed by Miyazaki – benevolent forest spirits that make a strange clicking noise. I find it incredibly relaxing to lie down in my bungalow, with the darkness of the Amazon all around me, listening to the noises of the jungle as I drift off to sleep. At night, the volume of the jungle takes on a depth and breadth as rich as a symphony, with modulations in tone and pitch and rhythm, with themes and measures and solos, fugues and crescendos, and pregnant pauses. None of the forest sounds frighten me, or make me nervous, perhaps because no one else pays them any attention and perhaps because I have no frame of reference. Moses said the other day that he loves how quiet the jungle is, and I wonder if he would be as disturbed by the silence of Oregon forests as some people are by the cacophony of the rainforest.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Nicanor Parra: Today Nothing is Known in This Regard

Nicanor Parra is praised by poets and critics alike. Neruda calls him “One of the great names in the literature of our language,” and Howard Bloom, calling for Parra to receive the Nobel Prize, says he’s “unquestionably, one of the best poets of the west.” Yet, I’d never heard of Parra until I read a series of articles posted by Tom McCartan to Critical Mass. The series is titled “What Bolaño Read,” and the second installment deals almost entirely with Parra. Intrigued, I ordered a copy of Liz Werner’s recent translation, “Antipoems: How to Look Better and Feel Great.” I am now in the uncomfortable position of responding to a slim volume of poetry -one of the twenty-some volumes Parra published - that makes very little sense to me, both in terms of the poetry itself and the reasons why this poet isn't more widely known in the United States.

On the basis of one book, it is impossible to form a compete opinion of the poet Parra. Just as Bolaño slipped past American readers, so too Parra, despite his enormous influence in his native Chile and in the Spanish-speaking world. Cursory internet searches reveal hundreds of editions of his books available for sale, and thousands of articles and biographies about him – and yet, only a few of these books are in English translation, and even fewer in print. The rest are out of print, Spanish-language editions, or individual poems published in journals and anthologies.

What I’ve learned of Parra, then, is not Parra; its Parra filtered. Born in 1914, he studied engineering and physics in Chile and in the Unites States, and cosmology at Oxford. He currently lives in Chile, as he has almost all of his life, teaching mathematics and physics and writing what he calls “antipoems.” His antipoems subvert conventional poetic and cultural norms, though not in a negative sense – his “anti-translator” Werner describes antipoems as complementary to poems, just as antimatter particles are complementary to ordinary particles in physics. Parra was at the vanguard of Chilean poetry in the 1950’s, leading the way with an aesthetic that would revolutionize South American poetry for many years.

While this helps me better understand “Antipoems: How to Look Better and Feel Great,” in the absence of the larger context of Parra’s work, my understanding is still quite limited. Yevgeniy Yevtushenko said that “A poet’s work is his biography,” and without being able to read Parra himself, my understanding isn’t just limited, but obscured by the works of others. It is dangerous to form a criticism on such thin material, but then again, the most important aspect of criticism is the work itself, not the context, and knowing one’s limits is a way of focusing attention on what matters.

In “Antipoems: How to Look Better and Feel Great,” Parra’s poetry is colloquial in tone, critical of politics and religion, decorated with quotes and allusion, and filled with wordplay built on mathematics and humor. It is a poetic in touch with the times, responding to contemporary events with a sharp eye and graceful wit. Sometimes, these poems feel less like poems than they do slogans or revolutionary verse scribbled on subway walls or boarded-up construction sites. Often, they contain strong images, and just as often, the images don’t add up.

Antipoems don’t add up as a literary movement, either. Literatures grow by breaking convention before developing into the status quo and falling to a new revolution. If the intent of antipoems is to push boundaries, raise questions, expose artifice, and demonstrate potential, then aren’t all challenges to conventional form antipoetic? What happens when everyone is writing antipoems, when antipoems become the convention?

These questions are not value statements. Literature needs to be pushed and prodded, forced to look at itself and change. Parra has been very successful at that, writing not just antipoems but traditional poems as well. He just hasn’t been successful in being translated into English. I believe there are several reasons for this. Americans do not read much in translation, and maintain certain expectations raised by familiarity with more accessible Spanish-language poets such as Pablo Neruda and Frederico Garcia Lorca. Furthermore, Parra’s poetry presents textual and contextual difficulties to the translator and reader alike.

But there is much to gain in Parra, despite the difficulties. Take his short poem “No President’s Statue Escapes:”

“From those infallible pigeons

Clara Sandoval used to tell us:

Those pigeons know exactly what they’re doing”

The title is part of this funny and overtly political poem. I dare say most Americans today only have a peripheral knowledge of Pinochet, but it’s enough to know that directly criticizing a dictator in power is gutsy business. Clara Sandoval, Werner tells us, is Parra’s mother, poeticized. Footnotes, introductions, prefaces, and biographical notes are necessary to make sense of these and many other motifs in Parra’s work, but other aspects are more visible, as in “3 Pre-Columbian Artefactos,” with its echoes of Ginsberg:

“Expelled from Barros Arana Academy
4 going around planting trees on the tennis courts."

Ginsberg wrote in “Howl:” “who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull.” That ties Parra quite neatly to the Beats and vice versa, a relationship well worth exploring.

Mathematics are everywhere in Parra’s work, and assume levels of meaning not usually ascribed to numbers. The Parra/Beat relationship above may be nothing more than coincidence, until you learn that Ginsberg was, indeed, influenced by Parra. However, in the poem “Watch Out for the Gospel of the Times,” Parra subverts what we accept as true – including coincidence and conclusions based on evidence – using mathematics:

“2+2 doesn’t make 4:

once it made 4 but

today nothing is known in this regard.”

The last statement is patently untrue; if it is true that “nothing is known in this regard,” yet Parra (or the narrator) knows it, then the statement is contradictory and evidence of an unreliable narrator. Parra pokes fun by making a bold statement against the status quo, then undermining his own attack. Furthermore, Parra the mathematician knows that the 2+2=4 theorem isn’t as simple as most people think, with a proof requiring almost 2,500 sub-theorems. And what does it mean that "nothing is known in this regard?" Which regard - that of mathematics? That of accepted logic, of commonly known formulas, of fact? It is these and other intertextual layers of subversion that make Parra difficult to comprehend. Parra even reused these same lines in “Humungous Mistakes,” a poem that doesn’t stop at math but which also re-imagines well-known lines from Hamlet and the Bible.

It seems as though Parra is playing all sides, adopting the figure of the devil’s advocate in order to illumine the inherent emptiness, randomness, or meaninglessness in the world around him. That he does so with humor makes his poetry something more than a simple record of the times or a reasoned critique of cultural forces – it makes his poetry pleasurable. In “Note on the Lessons of Antipoetry,” Parra writes:

“Often our pleasure in antipoetry is impaired by our curiosity: we attempt to understand and dispute when we shouldn’t do either."

At first, I wasn’t sure if Parra was joking here or not. If he isn’t joking, then in the absence of pleasure there’s no point in reading further. But he is joking – just a few lines down, he writes “Ask your questions openly and listen without argument to the poet’s words…” This is what makes him a pleasure to read, once you learn what to pay attention to.

I can think of no better reason to read poetry than for pleasure, and that’s reason enough for me to seek out more of Parra’s work.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Escaping December: What I've Been Reading

Jim Harrison writes in so simple and straightforward a style that I’m always lulled into plot and place, only to be stunned from this transport by a line or two of unending beauty:

“…it occurred to her that she had to keep expanding her life so that her trauma would grow smaller and smaller.”

In “The Farmer’s Daughter,” the title novella in his just-published collection, Harrison describes Montana so accurately that my own memories of the place swirl with his details and the effect of years of removal. You don’t seem to truly know a place until you’ve left, a truth Harrison explores in subsequent stories. I remember fields of winter grass rising from snow and stretching out towards distant mountains – but now I remember them in connection with what it was like to grow up an outsider in your own skin, much as the farmer’s daughter, Sarah, does. Living outside the mainstream is one of Harrison’s main themes, and his characters are eccentric and charming in their awkward attempts to live self-determined lives (the third novella features a werewolf desperate for a lost love and unable to find the peace he wants in urban society – trust me, it works). The three novellas in “The Farmer’s Daughter” share as common denominators adolescent groping for sexuality, Patsy Cline’s “The Last Word in Lonesome is Me,” tremendous appetites for the natural world and an earnest and sincere effort to transcend the limits of place through intellectual pursuits. In other words, they are about quiet self-sufficiency, and Harrison writes as though nothing else matters. After reading the book, I found myself wishing the world were a simpler place, but calmed by the idea that that place is something we can attain.

That place might even be our backyard. Robert Michael Pyle’s investigation into the phenomena of Bigfoot takes him across the west coast, from British Columbia down to the redwoods, although it focuses on a wilderness not far from Portland, Oregon. “Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide” is a treat for naturalists and native north-westerners, and the book is as much about what makes us human as it is about the mythical hominid in our forests. And it’s a really fun book, full of humor and grace and bursting with unusual facts and colorful people.

Pyle is a scientist and his writing leans towards narrative beauty and butterflies. They flit through pages as the shadows of Pyle’s prey flit through hemlock and fir. In one particularly gorgeous passage, Pyle describes the spectral flight of ghost moths in the darkness outside his tent, deep in the Dark Divide Wilderness. As an investigation of beauty and belief, this is powerful medicine. As a sociological investigation, this is magic. Pyle interviews Native American elders and storytellers, serious Bigfoot hunters and loony cranks, scientists and residents of dying logging towns. He favors hard science, but encounters doubt, and the unabashed joy he feels in hiking and camping in places like the Indian Heaven wilderness (one of my favorite places to hike in the northwest) was more than enough to forgive him for his faults. Pyle goes to real places – I’ve hiked where he hiked, camped where he camped, driven the same roads and visited the same towns – and even if his quarry is never proven to exist, Pyle successfully exposes what it is to be left to one’s own devices, deep in the winding ridges and forests of Washington state, alone with only eyes and ears and intuition to guide whatever perceptions and senses wilderness evidences. The world is a vast place, he suggests, and even the unknown deserves our respect, for it reflects upon us.

Pyle’s book is a winter read that makes me yearn for summer, quite unlike the Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler novels that I read over Christmas. I needed something escapist, and there’s nothing better than the adventure novels I grew up with. I know these books so well I can skip through most of the story and still feel the tension grow as the plot races towards climax.

As an adult, I disagree with Tom Clancy’s politics. His Jack Ryan novels started well with “The Hunt for Red October,” which focuses on a few people in the midst of something far larger than themselves. The sequence of novels ends with Ryan, a self-made man – as an outsider president, and the action in these later novels takes place on a world stage, with less focus on character than on plot. Clancy is great at the military techno-thriller, but as his main character evolved, right-leaning politics replaced some of the action, and I began to distance myself from the novels. As a child who moved frequently whenever my Air Force father was reassigned, I developed an appreciation and respect for the military and what they do, while simultaneously I cultivated a moral stance against violence and misapplication of force. Clancy is popular because his novels are intricate, well researched, and well plotted – and also because he worships the military and feigns a civilian’s outsider naïveté of government machinations. These are powerful attractions, but Clancy should stick with tanks and espionage. Not only is he better at it, but his prejudices don’t show as much.

Clive Cussler, however, has this and another, bigger problem entirely. I picked up my copy of “Raise the Titanic” and within a few pages, the quality of writing fell short of the Dan Brown standard. I loved this stuff as a kid, but I find it barely readable now. Early on, a husband and wife are arguing with each other at a White House reception:

“May I join the battle?” The request came from a little man with flaming red hair, nattily dressed in a blue dinner jacket. He had a precisely trimmed beard that matched the hair and complemented his piercing hazel eyes. To Seagram the voice seemed vaguely familiar, but he drew a blank on the face.

“Depends whose side you’re on,” Seagram said.

“Knowing your wife’s fetish for Women’s Lib,” the stranger said, “I’d be only too happy to join forces with her husband.

“You know Dana?”

“I should. I’m her boss.”

Seagram stared at him in amazement. “Then you must be – "

“Admiral James Sandecker,” Dana cut in, laughing, “Director of the National Underwater and Marine Agency…”

It doesn't get any better. “Raise the Titanic” was published in 1976, and while Cussler's later novels are stronger, they remain over-dramatic, overwrought, and factually inaccurate. They take enough leaps and bounds enough to make me reach for Clancy’s politics instead, and that’s sad, considering how much I once enjoyed reading about Dirk Pitt, his trusty Colt .45, and the beautiful women who fell at his feet when he rescued them from swarthy terrorists or international cabals.

I met Clive Cussler in 2008, when I introduced him to 200 people at a signing at my book store. He was a fun, elderly man basking in the warm glow of a life well spent – writing bestselling novels, organizing real-life treasure hunts, leading marine expeditions. The man behind the books had the fortune of living out fantasies in writing that his readers devoured, which helped fund his real-life searches for shipwrecks and underwater treasure. At the signing, the issue of the quality of his novels diminished, and I sensed that Cussler’s life and his novels mirror each other perfectly – they each celebrate the self-determined path, a plunging headlong into experience, with self-assured men transcending their place by successfully living both the armchair and the explorer life.

Borges wrote in a poem, “Seek for the pleasure of seeking, not of finding.” I understand that to mean always have something to look for, and go after it joyously – something all four of these writers understand well. We’re all looking for something in life, and how we get there is a way of our own choosing and of our own making. In that, there is art, and vice versa.