The Surfaces of the Sea

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1. To Idleness

It’s a humid, breezy day in Cassis, edge of the Mediterranean, turquoise and cobalt surfaces of the sea            tumbled with soft laces of waves curling in towards the tan, cliffrock shore below me.

I’m back again, Cap Canaille’s chameleonic cruise ship                                                    rising over the bay, flaxen and ochre at the top, midline to water             patchy green with mottles of gray.

Shizuka ni shite the winds command—             Still the heart— and I’m starting to want to after years giving voice to ten thousand pursuits that never speak back, asking for these twisting arpeggios of quietude.

A catamaran leans left on its white skate,              tacking in from out there, a fishing boat trawls out its nets half the horizon away, and I wonder why it’s been so hard to find myself                        these long three years of the pandemic, in streaks of chalk, my profane utterances, and long disquisitions                  trying to explain dark encryptions on the moon to new initiates, dutiful ephebes in their desk-arm seats.

Don’t worry, baby, say those towering Tiepolos of clouds rising like avatars of white mystery over the cerulean sea. Yet I wonder why it is we give ourselves to samsara and not the grand Unbeing, that pure void of nothingness, dona nobis pacem, and an unembittered Emptiness        out the dross trouble in our souls.


2. So Like Lāʻie

. . . the same sea-soaked air, thrashes of surf against layered rock                                             hollowed out and wave-tunneled, the celadon sea-line under a silvery horizon of computer-screen mist.

On rainy days like this, fishermen would be out with their long poles, bamboo-butted and graphite-tipped, needling the North Shore winds, the scream of a big bite paying out the multi-colored Dacron line, and a blalah would leap alert, tee-shirt and shorts flapping,  to grab his rig and set the hook, ʻulua or papiʻo on the other end                                          shuddering for the reef.

But here, tourists and locals pad along the concrete path to the lighthouse, sit in boredom or wonder at its base,                                 witnesses to time present and time past,               both as likely MIA as present in time future.

Except for that, itʻs quiet today—no cicadas in the rushes ratcheting the air, no pleasure or excursion boats pushing from the port to the sea                                and the Calanques up the coast. My teen daughter orders up some French jeans, fiddling with her phone                                             in the dining room, and Iʻve Hui Ohana on the Bluetooth soundbar, falsetto harmonies                                       praising the bay at Hanalei.

Why have I come so far from the islands that I know?                     And what do I know except hankering and the long, nervous trail through entanglement                            as I gaze up at the invisible river of stars? What face of mine does the world acknowledge                                 when I call down its rock seawall for the lost voices of my past to sing through dazzle-throated thunderheads                                              and the warm scarves of rain spiraling over the sea back to one whose heart roams the phenomenal world in search of the beginning, finding its abandoned shells, sea-worn luminances, its vacancies and scornful stares, a shopkeeperʻs scream ne touchez pas…

Cap Canaille welcomes me, though, aloha e inscripted across its brow by the wings of gulls, unambiguous, extended across the vaporous distance. Kaena Canaille, I want to say, praise the rogue who wanders. . . . Home another point up the coast from here and a stage before radiance.


3. Apologia Pro Vita Sua

                   I’ve a fear of pure poetry sometimes,                                      the immaculate peace of it,             so I busy myself in pursuits of distraction,                               looking left and looking right,                          failing to follow the middle path                   away from the burning house of impure consciousness.       I seek illusion but Thusness, the true being of the universe, eludes me.                         I fill my days with errands and choring:                   a call to the travel agent, bookings for Paris and Rome.             I test the home alarm, review subscriptions.                         I clean, whirl the Dyson around.                               I Swiffer-sweep,       read the Navian manual why the hot goes cold in the shower sometimes.                         You know the drill.

                  And when I check off the whole iPhone list,             I prep classes, reread Theocritus and Virgil,      Wyatt’s sonnets, Lyrical Ballads, the Preface to the Second Edition,                    my notes on the same and more.                         I delve. I seek.                    I meditate upon thorns of literary pursuit,        its persistence through millennia with variations and filigrees,                          its rarely, faute de mieux, sui generis occurrences. 

                                    I create a language of explanation,                          a shining discourse to dazzle young minds,             quoting Benjamin, Longinus, and whoever else I can think of                                           from Heraclitus to hip-hop.             I mount Plato’s chariot coursing through a sky of the Great Unsaid,                         trailing a luminous stream of revelations as though a comet                   had crossed their songless paths of common language.       I imitate my betters who taught “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent,”             “Sunday Morning,” “They flee from me…,” “Taking Leave of a Friend,”       and all the grand stars that light a path for Imagination to follow—                   intimations trailing clouds of glory,                          a skylark, and wild swans at Coole.                   Murray the K, Wright and Meyers, Lentricchia,              each bending over books and their binders of loose-leaf notes…

                        A kind of folly, I guess, my effort to follow them.             “Watch yourself,” Yusef said to me once back at Irvine,                                hearing my ambitions.             He meant, I think, to give more to the quiet of selfless meditation,       the dream-work of dwelling in numinous mysteries and not explanation,                         that our job was to make poems not poets.

But lately I feel that these miscellanies of effort were an unconscious fulfillment                   of Kubota’s wish to build a school in the sugarlands,             that the children of cane workers might accede to betterment,                   that he’d have created, out of goodwill,                          a new culture of amity and education.

      The war stopped him, his school got shuttered, and he was dragged off             to prison for “sponsoring foreign nationals” by the DOJ,                    fearing it was a step toward espionage.                   He raged about it all the nights of my childhood.                         And I gave him my faithful witness. 

            It’s certain a man can’t know why things go the way they do,                          hot or cold water on his naked skin.                   The Book of Changes tells us that.                          He can only follow what karma demands,                    what the twin wings of his breath sigh he must do—             read the manual, study sutras, chant homage and praise to the heart.

                        I did this in the dark, not knowing the light of it                   till threescore of my old students gathered to meet once,             in Portland, in a nondescript conference room during a convention.                   I saw on their faces Kubota’s dream for them:                               Shaku Shūchi, Shining Wisdom of the Law. . .                    the tail of the comet that is the human soul                          furling in and among them like a banner of stars.

4. So Many Stars

            I get spidery strands of memory whenever it turns to twilight                                                       and I’m near the sea.       My mind sylphs to whatever lights there are,                                      amber or blue hummingbirds of luminance,                   sparks and buzzes from insect-zappers,                                      a string of candle-flame bulbs       that hang in a bellied loop, post-to-post,                                      along a storefront awning                                                  or on the quai       like the one below my second-story, sea-view window                                            here in Port-de-Cassis.

            70s disco music drifts up from the bistrot                                on the harborside of the long breakwater,       nasal Francophone covers of Earth, Wind, and Fire or Kool and the Gang,                   but then come flagged notes of another tune,                                      bossa nova this time,                                            suggestive as gentle rain,                         a gauze against the purple night,                                Cap Canaille an indigo Leviathan                                           breaching the Tyrian sea.

            I hear it but can’t make words out,                                      lyrics sung in French,                          yet the melody so familiar,       its English just beyond my kenning,                    stranded between languages and near a lifetime,                                           the night so clear,        I can see the river of stars stream in a silver banner                                     across the mauve dome of sky.

            On a night like this, my daughter, all of five,                                ran across a pier in Tuscany                         to me at the railing                    looking out over the bay,                          beginning a stray remembrance.             We’d just had dinner.                          She’d found a gelateria, and music,                                            piped and programmed,       came from speakers strapped to rusting lampposts                                      along the walkways of the pier.              The tune was the same. . . .

                  Even more years back, sitting on sling-swings                                            on the beach at Hermosa,             a girl and I were nineteen,                               talked of being and becomings to one another,        Heideggerian dreams of bringing forth the non-Emptiness we felt                                                  within our impatient hearts.                                     I intoned phrases of poetry                    while her own thoughts she kept masked.                                                       I spoke too fast.

            And, before that, we were on a splashy date,                                            learning love at sixteen,        Greek Theater in L.A., a Brazilian group on stage,                                its lead singer, a contralto,                                            stepping out front for her featured song,                         her dress aflare in bronze sequins,                                brown hair spilling over her shoulders,                   shifting as she sang under the spangle of stage lights,                                     her dress shimmering like hammered gold.

                  And ten years after that, it was a winter night,                                      our pit of a home town,              the two of us holding each other by the shoulders,                                foreheads together,       standing beside the pulsing waters of Wakako’s backyard pool,                         ponds of our clothes brimming around our bare legs,              her taut body within the desert cold                    shivering against mine in a passion held too long,                               and above us,                    in the amplitude of light years,                                                  so many stars. . . . 


5. For Hideo Kubota in Heaven

Itʻs a blowsy, balayage des nuages day, the sky a slate gray and the sea its deep turquoise to scalloped savoy, then cool blue under the independence of the horizon. I try closing windows against a spatter of rain, curtains interfered with by Aeolian puffs of wind, and a squid-ink streak of strato-cumulus ruptures                                      the ultramarine of sky.

Off in the hills above the village, a truck downshifts its gears, descending through a street of quaint and toney shops, making its daily delivery of charming rags and trinkets. Nothing else about that I can see, all is shuttered and shooed away, tables and chairs of beachside bistros pulled back inside                               behind draw-down metal doors.

Itʻs maybe like December 8th was, the day after Pearl Harbor, when my grandfather Kubota shut all his doors and windows against the coming onslaughts—fury and misjudgment, guilt-by-race, guilt-by-lantern-light, torching for kumu his crime, guns and ammo he sold in his store the evidence, short-wave radio, pistol, and dictionaries all confiscated.

FBI telling I one spy for Japan, he said to me most every night I was ten, eleven, then twelve, Four Roses tinkling with ice in a jelly jar cupped in his hand.  I no can explain I fishing nighttime. No signal submarine me.  You go tell, learn speak good, tell my story.

He spent three years in lockup in the stockade,                               Leupp Trading Post, Navajo Nation. and I sit free for his sacrifice, for his loneliness and pain, noting the trembling of winds, the hush of clouds descending like a counterpane over the unmade bed of the Mediterranean Sea.

Survivorʻs guilt?  Not me.                                Itʻs homage I pay, mortal to the Titan learned in ideograms and calligraphy, in chant and sage smoke, his desk shelf cluttered with Confucian texts and sticks of incense, Kubota thereafter searching lifelong for the solace his heart and time could not compose. Letters were his fire, the idea that eloquence could transform guilt to innocence in the registry of history, his anguish a fuel for my learning, speak dakine                                      as though I were a senator.

Make FBI bʻlieve I tell the intimate bluff of Cap Canaille,  write Kubota’s story on the time-soaked ledgers of its lithic pages. I tell it on the mountain behind his home village on Oʻahu’s North Shore, its volcanic cliffs rising over cattle lands, once green                                       with waves of sugar cane.

I tell it to myself–and you, Pilgrim–                                that we might reach out  and catch the winds of absolution in the empty cups of our hands, drink in comity the raw ichor of time’s truth and righteousness  given to us as we grieve the lost–ones we can name                                     and ones we cannot, wheeling above the clouds in the turning verses of heaven’s stars.