Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Ullambana in Portland: The Review - Part 1

[Note: I'm humbled & deeply grateful to Sheila Graham-Smith for reviewing my recent book Ullambana in Portland. Sheila is not only my de facto editor, & as such, intimately familiar with the work, but also my collaborator in an ongoing Chinese poetry translation project. In the past she served as managing editor of Tangerine Tree Press. The review, which will post over the next three to four days, is intelligent, insightful, & a wonderful piece of writing in its own right. I know you will read it with interest.]


you count the steps you take—history is always like this,
in motion in increments along this sidewalk—
(“february sidewalk satori” from Ullambana in Portland)

There is no shortage of odes to cities – “CITY of orgies, walks and joys!... O Manhattan!” – “LONDON, thou art of townes a per se”
and there are even collections of poetry spotlighting their setting, but there are few collections so shaped, so informed at every turn by the city that gave rise to them as Jack Hayes' Ullambana in Portland.

In many cases the city, named or un-named, is a stand in for something else. It becomes, as Richard Wohl and Anselm Strauss put it, an “evocative and expressive artifact” (1), a symbol of despair or a symbol of hope, of alienation, of anonymity and therefore of a certain sort of freedom, of opportunity, a state of mind, the embodiment of the American spirit, the heart of America, a crossroads, or a melting pot. We seldom see a city as itself.

We often see the city described:  "Call Chicago mighty, monstrous, multifarious, vital, lusty, stupendous, indomitable, intense, unnatural, aspiring, puissant, preposterous, transcendent-call it what you like-throw the dictionary at it!" (2)  Hayes however, never speaks of Portland adjectivally. Nor does he deck it in metaphors. There are no flatly carnal beggars in its smile, no censers swing over the town as it receives the gift of the holy spirit, it is not Super-God’s house, not the home of the new Colossus, not New Troy, not Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, not even a sea-maid in purple dressed, wearing a dancer's girdle all to inflame desire. The Willamette River never flows “this side of Stygia” and if its bridges are clamouring for tales we aren’t hearing about it in the poems.

Hayes doesn’t personify the city of Portland, impose a character on it, address it directly or use personal pronouns when speaking of it, nor does he gives it the ability to act on history, society or the observer. The only agency in the poems is human. “Analogies of cities, personifications of them, or mere lists of their attributes in a succession of adjectives – all these represent conscious efforts to establish those distinctive qualities which help explain or rationalize the swarming impressions that crowd in on the observer”, (3) and Hayes is not interested in containing the crowd of impressions.  In the final lines of the final poem in the collection – sometimes our ends really are in our beginnings, and vice versa – we find mention of “the 10,000 phenomena in a JJ Newberry’s downtown on the square I can’t let go of in this life” and understand that if Portland is anywhere characterised in the book, it is there, as the department store that holds “The 10,000 phenomena infinitely connected together” (4)

Ullambana in Portland begins with a nine poem sequence called raintown, and an opening tercet introducing the city;

watercolor gray white sky the
aerial tram swings into its 45 degree
descent towards the Willamette’s yellow barges—

We’re all set up for an Albert Ruger drawing of the vast almost-grid of Portland’s streets stretching in all directions, with the confluence of the Willamette and the Columbia rivers over there, the airport slightly to the east lying along the river bank like a Nazca geoglyph of a thunderbird, and further to the southeast, the great punctuation mark of snow capped Mount Hood, but what we get is not the view from up there. We get, instead, a catalogue of what registers on the mind of a quirky, compassionate, almost promiscuous observer:

a wheelchair the fogged glass a green
oxygen tank a cell phone—a child grasping
his mother’s shoulder—cyan blue

streetcar’s reflection in mirrored
plate glass windows, & mosses’ awkward
hand against a weeping birch trunk

A “green coffee cup half filled” – we should note it is neither half full, nor half empty – on an empty seat, and we’re firmly placed on Portland public transit, moving through the city:

the Willamette River viewed from the
Steel Bridge—impasto ripple
in oils running slate gray under the

Broadway Bridge—

until suddenly the focus shifts:

on the bus someone’s words
overheard, half understood—the
bare tree on the lawn surrounded by

slick brown leaves & hung with un-
gainly gold-blue-red holiday decorations
and the piece ends, not with the cityscape, not with the many snippet views caught on a journey through it, but with the what the cataloguing mind has concluded from what it has seen:  you are not alone

Going through this opening sequence you get the feeling the writer is a relative stranger in the city, at a post crisis point in life. The trees are unfamiliar, he’s devastated not to know their names, disturbed by the absence of familiar birdsong in familiar trees. He observes from the windows of buses and streetcars, moving back and forth between a hospital clinic and an apartment complex nowhere in particular, overhears snatches of conversation, reads the writing on the wall in the scrawl of graffiti - tonight I can write the saddest of all lines— his main human contact apparently with nurses wielding sharp implements, with the exception of one odd encounter:
standing next to the
wrong car something happens that

can’t be explained—two bodies close for
instants & an aftermath of imaginings—

This serves, more than anything, to throw the general sense of isolation into vivid relief. Even the birds he encounters collude in the impression:

crow carves guttural “o” & “zero”

cawing into gray air as if the words
“one” “impossible” “isolation” con-
sisted of all plosive consonants—
And yet, at the end of every one of these poems there is a concluding comment or question that points elsewhere: will mercy ever be sufficient - our death unswerving comrade - none of us being merely broken - the biggest mercies are what we are spared.

The opening raintown sequence concludes on a rainy March day, three or four months after it began:
last autumn’s leaf-fall mulched

brown as an old bloodstain along the
sidewalks’ edge—the nurse’s 3-year-old
son is getting a drum for his birthday—

her hands in lavender surgical gloves she
wears a purple bandanna—two men a-
cross the room discuss bone marrow transplants—

“better in the long run” one says—
outside Multnomah pavilion camellias
bloom crimson against the wall in thick

drizzle—on the bus a woman knits doll
bathing suits discusses the expression
so ist das Leben

So ist das Leben—hart aber dafür gemein. “Such is life, hard and mean.” But as we’ve already come to understand, the circumstantial details of place and moment don’t have things all their own way, and some greater truth, given by the city and the life around him, has the last word:

across the lot on the roof
the brown gull stretches its wings nearly angelic

Sheila Graham-Smith

© 2016


1. R. Richard Wohl and Anselm L. Strauss, “Symbolic Representation and the Urban Milieu”. American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 63, No. 5 (Mar., 1958)  Pg 8
2 Julian Street, quoted in The Chicago Literary Experience: Writing the City, 1893-1953: Frederik Byrn Køhlert;  pg 42
3. Anselm L. Strauss, Images of the American City.  Pg 15
4. Mo Zhao Ming, Inscription on Silent Illumination. 

Please check back tomorrow for part 2 of Sheila Graham-Smith's review.

All photography © John Hayes

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