Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Thank you, Neruda

I have been restless with reading poems lately. My dad was diagnosed with cancer a month ago (stage one renal cell carcinoma), and so many poems written in the detached, elliptical style now all the rage just haven't spoken to me from human voices*. But this isn't a complaint, really, just an observation I'm sounding out, however trite--a reminder of one of the reasons we, as readers of poems, dig into them in the first place.

Tonight I read these lines in a Neruda poem for the first time:

Death arrives among all that sound
like a shoe with no foot in it, like a suit with no man in it,
comes and knocks, using a ring with no stone in it, with no
finger in it,
comes and shouts with no mouth, with no tongue, with no
Nevertheless its steps can be heard
and its clothing makes a hushed sound, like a tree.
--from "Nothing but Death"

I set the book down on the chair, shivered and understood the strange textures of these lines as if they had occurred to me that day back in July. When I heard Dad has cancer, it was as if someone had made an incision in the air. It was a bright, hot day, and more than the sunlight leaked through the cut. Everything around me filled with his voice, his whistle in the morning when he'd rise and dress for work, his laughter in the kitchen late at night when we all talked and joked. Something cut at the air and threatened the fact of him and all the nouns in his possession (thank you, Brenda Coultas), and it threatened me and my family because we love him. But this wasn't like the horrible moments (these came later)...this moment was radiant and filled with a beauty heavy as the sun.

My grandfather on Dad's side ran a commercial fishing boat on the Delaware Bay, and Dad was first mate during his high school years. One of Dad's most lyrical stories has him standing on the bow one morning, watching four hammerheads glide in sync a thin layer beneath the glassy water, and they were beautiful until he broke away from the trance of their power moved by grace, their embodiment of life by way of death. Tonight, Neruda's poem inhabited an ordinary moment and recollected for me the way death intrudes into whatever we're doing in the meantime. The way it will flood the day with the strangest, most familiar light. Thank you, Neruda.

*There are exceptions, of course--Mary Jo Bang's ellipticism is always from such a lived-in space of ordinarily unspeakable emotion. Alex Lemon has written fantastic associative poems. And there are so many others who have genuinely embraced this you line scribblers out there will have to forgive this generality missing half its sequins.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Landscape Projected

Good friend Bryan Schutmaat stopped by Kansas City on his way back to Houston from Chicago, where he had been visiting our good friend Dave Gunn, recently expatriated (banished) from Lawrence & Dodge City, Kansas. See the creepy doctored photo of the three of us; from left to right: Dave, Bryan, and me last summer with a ridiculous stache (Danna was terrified for a month).

But we met up, caught up, and then dropped by the Human/Nature: Recent European Landscape Photography show at the Nelson-Atkins museum, where we carved up and ingested the phenomenal landscape photos by Bart Michaels, Andreas Gefeller and five others.

At 24, Bryan is already an accomplished photographer doing gorgeous work with landscape, interiors and portraits. We collaborated recently on a project tentatively titled The Slow Season. My first ekphrastic project, I let a series of his photographs tell me a story, which I recount in short blocks of prose, roughly one per photograph. Here's one of the fifteen photos that shut my mouth, that stilled my qwerty fingers:

On the way home to Houston, invigorated by the landscapes exhibit, Bryan shot this photo:

He sent it to me in an e-mail, calling it "a bit derivative." I call it wonderful.

You can see more of Bryan's work in his Young Photographers United portfolio.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Notes on Baldness

With my thirty-fourth birthday coming up this month, I've been thinking about age and its signifiers in the male animal. Here are some random notes and observations on baldness:

-->100,000 follicles per scalp; each one will grow an average of 20 hairs per lifetime

-->Twenty-five percent of men begin balding by the time they hit 30; two-thirds of the male population in the U.S. will begin balding by age 60; average hair-loss is 100 strands each day; balding men lose upwards of 250 hairs each day

-->My friends and family started noticing my thinning hair at age 24; I started noticing my youngest brother Craig's thinning hair when he was 25, and my middle brother Matt's when he was 24. Dad's hair didn't start thinning until he was in his mid-thirties; grandpa Smith's hair started thinning when he was in his mid-twenties, and his two sons, Mom's brothers, each sport male pattern baldness.

-->So many people will never experience baldness. Here's what it's like to be bald(ing) from season to season:
-Winter: cold on top; a cotton or wool cap feels great, but so do the snowflakes or ice pellets
-Spring: April is the cruelest month; bald men half expect their crowns to bloom like the flowers
-Summer: sunburn is a serious threat to the 8-head; a blinding glare is also a concern
-Fall: the trees losing their leaves hearten the bald guy

-->There are many myths surrounding what causes baldness: Grandpa Smith, for example, told us he had gone bald from wearing a hat during his younger years. This was during the 1930s, 40s, and early 50s, when men wore hats. His sweaty hat band might have increased the bacteria count on his scalp, but I doubt there's a real correlation between haberdashery and baldness. I bet this was a myth perpetuated by a younger, newly hatless generation of men. It wasn't enough that their exposed plumage drew more looks from the ladies, they had to rub it in by suggesting that the hat was oppressive in more ways than one. Of course, I could be completely off-base with this speculation.

-Another myth about baldness is that scalp circulation, or a lack thereof, has something to do with baldness. This has been refuted; the secretion of a specific kind of hormone has more to do with it than anything; don't ask me about the physiology of baldness...Somewhere there's a great picture of novelist Saul Bellow standing on his head (couldn't find it online). I wonder if, aside from yoga and the obvious kick he and his friends got out of it, he did headstands because he believed he was preventing male pattern baldness. Here's a good pic of him upright in the 1960s, wearing a hat to cover his bald pate:

-->There are as many cultural stereotypes surrounding baldness as myths. Bald characters in recent television and movies build off of an archive of archetypal bald traits. Sometimes the bald character is portrayed as psychologically unstable, such as the pedophile (Jackie Hailey) in Little Children, whose half-submerged, sunburnt dome fitted in snorkel and mask at the public pool is conveyed as the most frightening specter imaginable to suburban families. Living with his mother, surrounded by curios, his bald head embodies an infantile state of mind. In another film, Sideways, the balding character Miles (Paul Giamatti) is hyper-sensitive, depressed and anxious. His wife divorced him two years earlier, and we can imagine he has lost upwards of two-hundred and fifty strands of hair each day since:

Bald and balding men can also be tough guys. Take television series The Shield's Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis). A mercurial, nearly sociopathic kinesthetic genius. An effective vice cop who doesn't play by the rules because, as every teenage bully knows, the rules waste time and are followed by sissies. Vic is balding but, as evidenced by an atoll-like shadow of lateral hair, not completely bald. Since a full head of hair would gather resistance, he has chosen to shave his head slick and clean. His meathead could easily kick open doors, and I swear there's an episode where he headbutts a perp senseless.

On the positive end of the bald man spectrum, there are characters such as Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) who are seen as strong, virile, wise, and ethically superior to men with full heads of hair. Here's Pickard at the helm, making the difficult decisions:

-->In researching baldness on-line, I found out that many primate species lose hair following puberty. (Maybe we humans lose hair later because of our prolonged adolescence, and because we have a more advanced cerebral cortex that needs protecting?) Some species even convey increased status through a display of large foreheads; several species cheat by intentionally rubbing their heads bald to attain this status. This reminded me of certain teenage Morrissey fans back in the early nineties who cut faux widow's peaks in their hair to look more like him:

-In terms of baldness in human social evolution, researchers Muscavella & Cunningham speculate that baldness evolved in males through sexual selection as an enhanced signal of aging and social maturity. The bald head of an early human male, then, suggested a decline in risk-taking behaviors and an increase in nurturing ones beneficial to child-rearing. So maybe having less hair says to younger competitors: Dude, I'm older now, not as alluring or tough as you, maybe, but I've got a college education, a two-story house and a new Honda. You might, um, look out?

-->Babies are bald. This might be the most unnerving consideration about balding. Losing your hair is a sort of return to a baby-like state of hairlessness. This frightens men, I think, because it makes physical the already palpable vulnerability of growing older:

-->At nineteen, I was visited in a dream by a bald version of myself. He told me I was looking at what others would see forty years from now. But he was warm, confident and attractive, what old ladies (and my friend Robin) call a Silver Fox. He told me to not be afraid of who I would become. Nearly half-way there, I'm not afraid of turning into the old man who has lost his hair. But I am really dreading that old person smell.