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Home > Poetries & Communities Project > Oliver de la Paz–Desert Ghosts: On Postcards, Presences, and Poetry Communities

Oliver de la Paz–Desert Ghosts: On Postcards, Presences, and Poetry Communities

 

 

 

 

I’ve been working on a series of prose poems for the past five years. The series started through collaborations with poets from the Kundiman retreat. Timothy Yu, one of the fellows from the annual Asian American poetry retreat, presented the idea that all of the fellows and staff members for that particular year send each other poems on postcards for a whole month. So, for the entire month of August I’d write and receive postcards with little poems on them. I wound up continuing a series of prose poems that initially started as small scraps of images but grew into a larger series of epistolary poems. What made the process joyous was that I was writing each postcard for someone I knew. I also knew that they were doing the same for me. Every day of that August, I felt like someone was wrapping a small precious stone in cellophane after having carefully plucked it from a stream and sending it to me.

***

What’s always been useful to my writing process is envisioning the recipient of the poem–someone who will receive the poem after I’ve written it as though it were a gift. My early understanding of poems and the act of making poetry is that one’s attention must be granted wholeheartedly towards the other person who will be participating in the poem’s creation, whether he or she is aware of their participation or not. That person needn’t be a full flesh-and-blood person in front of you. Rather, that person or those persons could be like the images one sees along an interstate in the distance during the high sun of the summer. The waves of heat creating the illusion that there is someone walking along the road just ahead of you–forever just ahead of you.

***

Some of the earliest picture postcards in history depicted war emblems. In the 1870′s a picture of armaments adorned the face of one of the first printed postcards to commemorate the Franco-Prussian war. Later, advertising appeared in postcards. Some of the early postcards in the United States were called “penny postcards” and were used as expedient means of communication. And for their size, the postcard is an ideal mode for expediency in communication. The picture does much of the talking. The text can enhance the picture, be enhanced by the picture, or can remain autonomous. There is a distance suggested by the postcard–the sender is somewhere far off. The sender is wishing the recipient were there, but also the sender acknowledges that he or she is in a place that could generate envy in the recipient. “Wish you were here.” “Having a wonderful time.” “I miss you.” The picture is shorthand for the shorthand. There is also the acknowledgment that the distance between recipient and sender is great, and that the sender is in a place where the normal rules of time do not allow him the luxury of a long engagement. The message must be as quick as a synaptic flash.

***

I’m constantly worried about these new poems.  How they’d be received outside of the immediate poetry community that assisted in their creation. There is something intensely sacred for me about these poems–I feel, in some regards, like they are not poems of my body, but rather, they are poems of a collective. Within each page, the words of some other poet climb out of the margins.

***

My family moved to the desert of Eastern Oregon when I was a young boy. There were no other Filipino families there. It was the 70′s and the Vietnam War had “ended” three years prior. Many of the soldiers who had returned from the war lived around the periphery of Ontario, Oregon, the town where we settled. I would sometimes see them when I was out with my mother, dressed in torn fatigues, coming into town for tractor parts or for groceries. They would look at us for a minute, as if they were reaching for something that had dropped into a deep and ever narrowing tube. Then they would snap out of their reveries and return to the business at hand. Their expressions always showed a bit of surprise, as if they were discovering something new as they shopped along the cereal aisle or as they filled their trucks with gas. I wanted to know who these men were. I wanted to follow them as they insisted on the ordinariness of the lives that had been returned to them. My concepts of distance and community were formed through these chance glances. I recognized the “othering” glare, but I also recognized that the glare saw something within itself that it did not know had existed.

***

Each poem of this series begins with a salutation: “Dear Empire”. Am I the ghost of this Empire figure or is the Empire figure the ghost of the poem? Throughout the poems there are ruins. There are ruins atop ruins and there are people who live among the ruins who are real people and not ghosts. My mind has lived among them for five years and I have to be considerate of their needs. A respectful distance cannot be maintained when one lives among the ruins and ghosts. But an understanding can be reached. For example, I know when I must leave the room. I know when the ghosts have been disturbed, when I have torn back the seams.

***

When I lived in Arizona, I’d frequently get lost. I’d be driving down a long road and everything would look the same. Building after building, the same stucco would rocket past me, blurring into the very landscape as though each wall were a part of the soil. I was always amazed at the sudden oasis of an apartment complex as one would spring up out of the landscape, its manmade lake and geyser issuing forth a burst of water into the air that would immediately evaporate. Some of my “Dear Empire” poems return me to this landscape. The audacity of it. The deep veins of a dry riverbed is always near these structures, the fissures deep and dusty.

***

I am writing about Empire because I want to understand Empire. Wherever Empire goes, there are many ghosts that follow. When I first began writing the series, he was an innocent enough character. I’m getting to know him. There are places, though, where he has yet to take me. I want to understand Empire’s wake, knowing that I travel in Empire’s wake. Such perspective is difficult to glean within the confines of its very walls. In order to understand a community, you have to leave that community. You have to wander into a different desert.

***

My son keeps jumping out of his bed during naptime. He is crying. He says that there are ghosts in his room. I scoop him up into my arms and carry him down the long hallway, back into his bed. I assure him that there are no such things as ghosts. That the world is filled with tangible things. That there are no apparitions. No phantoms possibly materializing in his room, the closet, on the other side of the door.

***

The veteran’s assembly hall was across the street from my Catholic elementary school. During recess, we’d see young men step out of their pick-up trucks and head inside. This happened quite often and in the middle of the day, and I wondered whether any of them worked like my parents. Whether they had any place to be. The world, as far as I knew, was full of duties–the expected places our bodies must go in order to fulfill some larger contract which I did not understand. I wondered what sort of agreement these men had made.

***

There were early controversies with postcards as a new medium. In some countries, certain images were illegal to send across international  (and even national) borders. For example, there were a series of early seaside postcards that contained images of nude bathers. Such seaside postcards were never received by people in these countries since they violated the country’s morality codes. Every community has its taboos, and every community has its way of skirting them. The postcards poems that I am writing are not themselves taboo, nor are the subjects contained within them taboo. However, I can’t help but feel like I am sharing a secret which I should not be sharing. I can’t help but feel like I’m saying something I shouldn’t say—as though I am breaking the bounds of some decorum.

***

Once the postcard prose poems were removed from the Kundiman community that assisted in their creation, they became longer pieces, as though I were writing to an audience who did not understand their context. In some ways, more exposition crept in which I would later cut. I sometimes wonder what it takes to have someone understand my poems. What words need to fit? How can I show you? If I show you, will you still be here? Therein lies the value of a community—you don’t have to explain yourself, your context. You can just be. The planes that define your body’s outline line-up with the community’s understanding of what it means to be. Your histories can remain your histories without any justification. Without any back story.

***

One of my favorite postcards that I received is that of a young Japanese schoolgirl looking out the window of a bullet train in Tokyo as the city’s light reflects in the glass. It looks as though her body is slowly dematerializing, the molecules of her dress, her skin, slowly twirling away from her as the train pushes forward through the evening air. In the photograph, she looks distracted, as though she is talking over her shoulder to someone holding on to a pole to keep themselves steady. It’s as though she too feels she is talking to someone who is slowly disappearing.

***

My son is slowly sinking into the sheets as I read him a story. There are pictures of our family in the Philippines, lining his shelf: his cousins, his aunts and uncles, their images rest atop a turquoise-painted bookshelf. It’s as though the sea were between them.

***

I remember when the director of my graduate school first met with all of the new creative writing graduate students for orientation. She looked at each one of us earnestly and urged us to embrace our time together and that our time together was finite. That we’d all be slowly moving away from each other like galaxies.

***

In the desert, you can hear things. If you are quiet, you can hear the skirt of sand pass over the rocks with a small gust. You can hear the feet of the lizards pad across the rocks. There are so many palpable ghosts in the desert–the little threads of sweat twisting their way through the cloth. The rodents tucked under the roots of a saguaro. I came to the desert years ago to find a writing community, but more importantly, I came to the desert to understand my ghosts. I needed to find a place where I could hear them. A place where I could give them my full attention.

***

Little postcards are lining up along my wall, and I am running out of room for them, so I begin taking photographs of the front and the back and then tucking them away in a shoe box. A postcard is such a useful thing–it doesn’t have the length of a letter, so there are details that get left off. So much of the language in a postcard can be substituted by the image on the front of the postcard. There is the expectation that the recipient will understand the image and, when coupled with the few words on the back, perhaps an understanding can be reached. Maybe envy. Maybe loss. What’s also useful is that the postcard takes up space. It is, itself, a body. It is not the same as an e-mail note–rather, because the postcard is a body, it occupies an area the size of its height and its width. I, myself, have no more room for all these selves, so I must put them away. My office is littered with presences.

***

In the local Phoenix news, a horse and rider had somehow ascended Camelback Mountain but had no way of descending the mountain. So the newscasters were constantly talking over the footage of a helicopter carrying a horse in a harness, dangling from a cable over the city of Phoenix as the purplish dusks of the desert eased their way into the lenses. The horse’s head was slumped down–it was obviously sedated, and the apparitions of the city’s lights veered this way and that as the camera’s tried to steady their shots.

***

I have written over 100 “Dear Empire” poems and see no end to them. They fill my hard drive. I write them with a strange ease, as though someone were controlling my hand. As though someone were cradling my arm in a harness and dragging my limp wrists over the keyboard. They are easy for me to write because they are ongoing conversations. And while that conversation was initially prompted in the midst of a community of Asian American poets, I’ve maintained that conversation. I am having that conversation with my son, telling him about the painted rocks, the little gems of postcards arriving in the mail. I’m telling him about the desert monsoons. The way water so quickly vanishes before it touches the ground.

***

I was driving from New Mexico. The rocks there were like the veins on the back of the hands; there was a near-fibrous quality to them. The colors streaming out of them like ribbons around a gift. The road was clear, except for the yellow dashes of the highway divider, blurring into a single line with my car’s speed. I was leaving Arizona for my first job, carrying behind me all my books, my clothes, furniture. I could feel the weight of it all drag the U-Haul down a bit, especially as I drove up the hills. It was August in the desert, which was a terrible and unpredictable time in the Southwest. Not only was it hot, but there was also the possibility of flash flood. In my side mirrors, I could see the thick-headed thunder clouds bearing up on me. The desert can play tricks like that–clouds suddenly appear and disappear as you turn your head, or squint. Up ahead, the apparitions of figures arc and dance off the blacktop.

***

My poetic process has continued to be a dialogic one. Even before the postcard project with my Kundiman cohorts, I wrote poems for someone or for the idea of someone. For the longest time, my private poems were written for an unrequited love, my father, mother, for me. The act of writing a poem has to be one of the most compassionate things someone can do, for within that act, you are ultimately declaring you are here before a ready listener, preparing to say something that will reveal an emotional state–yours, regardless of the illusion of distance. And in that emotional state, we as speaker and listener are vulnerable.

***

The truth is, when I decided to go to Arizona State University for graduate study in creative writing, I wanted to return to the desert because it was the closest thing to a home landscape that I had ever had. And though I never felt that I had established a community within the desert landscape, I felt a sureness walking on the ground within that landscape. Certain ideas of home are difficult for me to process, since I have had many homes–while I lived in the desert of Eastern Oregon for the longest duration of my life, I never felt I was a part of that place. Once, during a break from college, I purchased postcards from a local mini-mart. The postcards had pictures of cowboys, jackalopes, pheasants, and dusty covered wagons bouncing along the trails. Some of the postcards celebrated the pioneering spirit of the West. Some of them mocked the “redneck” lifestyle. I sent these postcards to friends in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, aware that they’d find novelty in the cards. I imagine the postcards pinned to someone’s refrigerator with a brightly colored magnet. The image of a cowboy rising up with the arch of a horse’s back as it attempts to kick its rider, lifted high above the kitchen tiles and faded pictures of cousins and uncles.

***

I’m writing these “Dear Empire” poems because I’m trying to define my community in them. They also depict my struggle to identify myself within a community. There are ghosts throughout their sentences. Whole paragraphs can be heard without bodies attached to them. They pass through walls. There are spaces that are embodied within the words. There are gaps within the prose poems’ narrative memories. I am writing many of these poems because I am searching for something that a single prose poem cannot find. The act of writing these pieces is the act of driving through the desert–the veterans’ facilities, the strip malls, the saguaro and the sage brush all blur by in my mind’s search for something, a single locus that I can call here. That I can call home. Somewhere, high above the skyline, I imagine the body of a horse being lifted from a mountain, dangling from a harness above the cityscape. Its legs hang limply and it looks like a spent rag, heavy with the wet weight at its tips.

***

This is a postcard for you. I am here at my desk and the world is behind the door. The world is outside, lining up toy cars and trains.  Sound parts the barrier. He is sorting colors and shapes and I can hear his mother talk calmly to him as his voice rises with the high excitement of young joy. There are so many other things to tell you–the sun has come out, finally. The cedars flat needles turn silver in the shine. I am about to open my door. I am about to walk down the hall past the portraits of my family and friends, far away from this place. I am about to step out into the brightness of the afternoon.

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Oliver de la Paz is the author of four collections of poetry: NAMES ABOVE HOUSES, FURIOUS LULLABY, REQUIEM FOR THE ORCHARD, and the forthcoming POST SUBJECT: A FABLE, which is a collection of epistolary prose poems. He is the co-editor of A FACE TO MEET THE FACES: AN ANTHOLOGY OF CONTEMPORARY PERSONA POETRY, and the co-chair of the Kundiman advisory board. He is the music editor for AT LENGTH and teaches in the MFA program at Western Washington University.

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