Hurry Up, Hurricane! Epigrams

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Dec 032012
Tao #47 by Lao Tzu
Without crossing your welcome mat,
You can tour London and Peking;
Without drawing the curtain,
The Milky Way spills in your lap.
The farther out, the less within--
Therefore, sit still and be wise.
Point out the truth though you are blind,
And accomplishments will fall at your feet!
Hey diddle diddle,
The cat and the fiddle--
And Sandy ran away with the moon!  
My house, I say.   But hark to the sunny doves
That make my roof the arena of their loves
~~Robt. Louis Stevenson

Part One: Lifting the Plywood

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Dec 032012
Nailing his windows shut,
I help my neighbor
Lift the plywood.
The old blue storm-sign
Gets spray-painted over in red:
Get lost Irene Sandy.

I have never liked to travel, having a dislike of the confusion of new scenes, but I find myself hamstrung at home as well with a deep sense of offended opprobrium at the repetitiousness of the local rituals of the Jersey Shore–beginning with Bar A and ending with the not-quite-naked strip joints like Untouchables that used to line Highway 35 up toward South Amboy.

Too lazy to travel,
I wait for the busy weather
To come knocking.

Despite this distaste for my native land, there are many quiet corners of Monmouth County that I treasure as a field mouse treasures his fluffy burrow. Indeed, it was during the occurrence of Hurricane Sandy (which changed practically the whole coastline of my state) that I first really felt the impermanence of even the big communal things that everyone is always shoving in your face–the facile fun of shore amusement parks, or the desirability of certain high-class/high-cost views of the Atlantic Ocean you can get from Rumson or Deal townships.

From the old boardwalk,
I take a last look at the sea
Before it changes.

My second-story garden hut contains books, some plants, and myself. I dragged the biggest plant inside–a palmtree that squats with his green mustachelike leaves poking over the balcony railing–making my knees creak unexpectedly.

Watering plants
With a pointy watering can
Before the hurricane.
Heavy with watering,
I drag the big palmtree in
Out of the rain.

The newscast flickered bright in the dim room. There was a watery holocaust on the way in the form of a Halloween “Frankenstorm” with the improbably friendly name, Sandy. All of the dynamically flowing charts of the globe had blinking red arrows pointing straight to Atlantic City; a weather-woman with perfect features would follow the blinking arrows with an even, smooth, flowing motion of her arm, ending with a cute frown at the camera. I took a long stroll in the unseasonably warm evening air, noting the suddenly colorful fall leaves that had come out in the last week, returned home, did nothing for a few hours, and then went to bed as usual.

Looking out from my condo--
A bird on its slender perch
Looks back.
On the windowsill,
Just before the autumn hurricane hits,
A dead bee.

The next two days went by engaged in work and poetry. I was putting together essays and stray snippets of prose–mostly to amuse myself, but also, more simply, to offer what instruction I had to offer to anyone who thought they might profit from it. An author digs his grave with words many times before he lays down upon his final page, his spine aligned with the book’s spine, Finis printed neatly on the bottom of his left shoe. The news was just as insistent as it had been the week before, with grey pinwheel swirls of the hurricane’s progress crawling across the Caribbean. I made another cup of hot coffee and hunched into my sofa.

So carefully!
My neighbor parks his truck
Under the tree that will crush it.
--So carefully!

My girlfriend wanted to stop by the day before the official start of the hurricane to hang out for a few hours and catch up on what each of our weeks had been like. We laughed a lot and ended up dancing around in my living room singing all the words to “Crocodile Rock” before she got too sleepy to drive home to South Jersey on just one cup of instant coffee.

Somehow the livingroom floor,
Usually so reserved, really enjoyed
Our dancing on it!
Anxious to get home
To catch the hurricane--
A quick kiss,
And no rain-hat!
Hurricane Sandy--
Slowly the house sucks in its breath
Before the guest arrives.

Later that same night an old poet friend dropped in. We stayed up until the moon quit buying us rounds, discussing all aspects of our mutual obsession with poetry. I think the idea of a hurricane reminded us both of how poetry had come upon us when we were young–and rushed though our lives, changing everything.

Before the hurricane,
Up all night laughing and drinking
To poetry!
After our pre-hurricane party
A vulnerable stack of bottles and dishes
Leans in the sink.
There's some Robert Frost poem....
Ah!  My Kindle remembers.

The next day, I woke up painfully late into a breezy overcast day. Leaves on the trees seemed to rustle for attention before falling off onto the still-green lawn. Was I getting anxious? I started pacing around the apartment in my socks, looking under stray objects that had been in the same place on the shelf for years and expecting to see–what exactly?

What else to do?
I count the handy batteries
On the refrigerator shelf.

I spent the afternoon doing many things, eventually. Going to the grocery store, getting a newspaper, writing a few last minute “stay safe” emails to friends I hadn’t called in eons, watching the kids in the neighborhood play and run, answering a mistaken doorbell ring. Owners walk their dogs quickly as the wind picks up.

On my nose,
A first bit of rain distracts me
Out of my thoughts.
Muddy children push
Their wooden boats
Through enlarging puddles.
Just before I pick it up--
A breeze makes Hurricane Sandy's portrait fidget
In the early edition.

“Clean-up in aisle four!” A clerk with a busy look ran down the aisle at the A&P pushing a mop in a wheeled bucket. Just before Hurricane Sandy hit, in the rush of moms to procure H2O for their young ones, a gallon jug of water had been spilled on the tiled floor near the nearly empty shelves. Outside the store, abandoned shopping carts piled up by Subarus as squirrels hurriedly buried a few final winter chestnuts.

Afternoon before the thunder--
For the first time
No Big Wheels roar
In the empty courtyard.
First evening of the hurricane,
The kids are unhappy
Being called in to dinner.

Filling the tub with potential toilet flushes was one ritual of readiness I remembered from childhood. There was always something so big about the hollow sound of drawing cold water into the bath. It seemed such a lot of water, full to the overflow vent, causing waves of coolness to lift off an agitated surface that would eventually calm its streaky brightness into the image of your own face.

Is there any reason other than a hurricane to draw such a cold bath? Even babies and dirty puppies require tepid water. I thought of the gelid end of the doctor’s stethoscope and gave an involuntary shiver as I turned the tap shut. Almost done with my prep list!

Before the hurricane
Even gets here--
A stormy heart.
In the rising wind--
Pages of a book
I can no longer read
Flip idly.
Over the shore
This first night, boardwalk lights
Keep their pink.
Down at the marina
Every guy-line receives
A goodnight tug.
Hearing yet again of Hurricane Sandy,
A small wind licks
The back of my neck.

The shared news of an on-coming storm had both myself and my neighbors chatting much more than usual. The usual recluse in his mashed-down snow cap called out: “You ready, Irish?” Then he cackled and gave a friendly wave without waiting for a reply.

As the hurricane comes on,
I stick my head out the window
And nod to neighbors.
First hurricane evening--
Summer fans twirl idly,
The windows thrown wide!
Windstorm night--
The vertical blinds
Shudder like icicles!
The night gale is rising--
The wind has a sound
Of tearing tinfoil.

Part Two: Being a Grassblade

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Dec 032012

Anything you really, carefully examine begins to resemble everything else you have ever examined. What they have in common is you, your process of examination. There’s the famous haiku:

Fanning myself:
I watch myself wanting:
Fan, move!

This is what struck me most strongly as I began my examination of the hurricane that was to engulf the entire existence of the only world I had ever lived in. Everything around me began to take on a double meaning; the Halloween candy was wrapped in enigma and revelation.

An autumn leaf
Plastered to the kitchen window,
Trying to get dry.

Thinking I would have the long hurry-up go-nowhere of the storm to myself, I received an unexpected phone call from an old roommate. Her name is Sunny. Ironic, huh?

Evacuation orders
Unhouse thousands--
Snowflakes on damp asphalt.
Last minute hurricane call--
No message except to say
"Can I live with you?"

Finally, I stood staring out the window as the sun went down behind a swirl of misty grey cloud cover that had been hanging over the region for a few days already. We were all living under the overhang of Sandy’s big straw hat, and had been for some time.

An unexpected guest--
Blown into my flying scarf--
Hello, nettle-leaf!
Ruminating before the storm,
I find myself unavoidable:
Hurry up, Sandy!
Pre-hurricane trees--
Shadows enlarge and blur--
Which way will they fall?

That night, my friend moved in her cats and about 16 gallons of Evian “emergency water.” I kept waking up to scribble this or that down irritably, look out the windy window, and then pull the covers back over my head.

Rain driven in under the sill--
How the drops of water
Stay wet!

Just as I was putting a towel alongside the leaking window, something in the headlights of my evacked friend’s old Pontiac caught my eye–like a green flicker of wind–as she slipped her car into an open slot.

A single grassblade
Being itself:
A single grassblade.

Her cats carried in and settled, we were ready for the onslaught of the storm. Mostly, we watched it swirling and nearing on the TV news. My old friend in the house (safe for the moment) played sudoku on her iPad.

Feeling scared together,
NASA pics show us
Our smallness.
Anxious in the storm,
We eat Chinese by candlelight
And read our fortunes.

I had had a few last minute “Are you ready for Sandy?” conversations with other folks in the complex a little earlier in the day. Later, I would get up periodically through the night to check on the storm’s progress.

Interviewing neighbors--
They are cheerful, mostly,
Under wind-blown frowns.
Distracted faces pass--
Neighbors gone wandering
For cell service.
* * * *
As night comes down,
Not even my thoughts
Keep pace.

In the darkness of that first night, I felt both cavalier and concerned. Time dilated in my mind, and my fingertips tingled, as if witchcraft could be conjured by their twiddling. But, of course, nothing happened. There was only the darkness of my thoughts, and the surprising softness of the air outside that I let in through windows pulled wide-open on one side of the apartment, since there was very little rain accompanying the black rush of air that came on cool as a kiss blown by a lonely Frost Giant.

The wet balcony at 3 a.m.
Feels as narrow
As a footstool.
The railing shivers
In the driven rain
--So cold!
Even in this wind--
The skinny neighbor on his balcony
Lights up.

Once up, and wandering around my place in silent slippers, I followed my curiosity through several self-concerned revolutions of thought until I finally gave up on myself and wanted to see just what was going on in the whooshing world around me. I went down to the front door in my hand-sewn moccasins, my eyes as big and hungry as the bleak end of a vacuum hose–trying to suck in every available sight.

In the wet floodlit portico,
A squirrel chewing seeds
Kittens like the dark--
What fun they have,
Attacking my feet!
In the lightning flash--
Unlit Ikea lamps
Spawn shadows.
In this strange gale
The wind is searching
For the rain....
Rush rush rush....
Wither wither wither?
--The wind!
Such a gale!
The kite falls off its shelf

There’s a lightness to all things, rightly conceived. Not a lack of seriousness, so much as a spirit of un-seriousness–a playfulness in the ever-present immanence of joy just beneath the surface. Even our most hellacious heartaches are but the base notes of a vast symphony of being, whose melody delights. Would you rather be bound to the Catherine wheel of your misery, or be able to laugh at your fragility? Old age afflicts, but a whistle’s quickness lifts the heart forever.

The mind makes mistakes.
--Just so.--
We notice it.
The body decays--
A face drawn in dough changes
As the dough rises.
Death, too, is part of this--
A broken branch falls as easily
As a leaf.

Somewhere in the dark, the wind revved itself up in a series of vicious gusts–variations on a theme–wailing and whining like a hand-cranked siren. What was the wind doing, moving so awfully fast in the big dark?

Hold on roof!
The sky is asking
You to dance!

Part Three: A Nameless Bird

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Dec 032012
A nameless bird
Brings nightfall, singing
An unknown word.
The hurricane flies--
Grip the maple tree.

That first night of the hurricane seemed both too long and too short. Experiences were heightened by their newness, and I kept trying to expect the unexpected as the “Frankenstorm” kept bringing its magnificent indifference to bear upon my weak house. Before I knew it, a soft core of light was asserting itself to the east. There was no sun particularly, but colors began to leak back into the world–the deep greenness of a pine tree, the paleness of water on a wet slate step.

Hurricane dawn--
At the edges of the street,
Colors without sunlight.
Walking outside,
I hadn't expected this:
The sky's a watercolor.
Beside these pleasant marigolds
Of what use
Is a hurricane?
Waking up after a storm night--
The wind blowing in my dreams
Has been busy!

Unexpected pockets of good humor came out as I realized I might not have to put in a full day at work that Monday. I put on a pot of coffee and sat back with the Star Leger, cracking it open with a practiced flick. As a joke on the American (and NTA’s) fondness for holidays, I read that Halloween for the state of New Jersey was pushed ahead almost a full week to the following Monday. There was even some gossip about postponing the Presidential election because of the expectation of widespread power outages–and, more seriously, of canceling the New York Marathon. Ridiculous!

Halloween Hurricane--
Shingles on the lawn
Spell 'boo!'
NYC hurricane--
Watch out!
...Donald Trump's toupee.

We’d had some damage, but the newscast confirmed the worst was to come that night at eight, an unusual confluence of high tide, full moon, and the stormfall surge of the hurricane. Sandy’s big splash in the national media garnered a flurry of phone calls throughout the day–concerned voices without faces that were usually so wry and acerbic. I could hear the sunshine in the voices of my Cali friends, so many miles away, blowing me their happy hurricane kisses!

Late autumn wind--
The unsorted leaves fall

As the day carried on, I got used to Sandy’s rising ghostlike “Ooooo”ing, and even began to assume that nothing much would happen that second night when the “triple threat” of full moon, high tide, and storm surge landfall were all scheduled for eight o’clock.

Against the window
Blue with rain....
The cat sleeps.
Hurricane cypress,
From exclamation point
Curls to questionmark.
Trees lean together,
Swaying like drunks
Drinking the wind!
Hurricane night--
No moon for me
To philosophize about.

“Blow you hurricanoes, crack your cheeks!” King Lear was being rerun on PBS this second night–whether by coincidence or plan, I don’t know. How bleakly Larry Olivier delivered the despairing king’s soul into my cossetting lair. How wild and blank the heath! How foolishly apt the wily fool! How tragic indeed that accomplished men of the world, men of power and knowhow like the royal Lear can be so deceived by their own energy and effectiveness. It is not pride, exactly, but ability well and often executed to a tee that tricks noble and the wicked equally. This world’s painted on panes of candy glass we race through like finish ribbons–congratulating ourselves on our victories while reality lies in stained-glass shards all around us.

I most like those things I don’t often hear from others–odd comments, rueful truths reluctantly revealed–and Sandy gave me plenty of that! Tragedy is a stranger to modern America–and that is a long and often un-remarked-upon blessing. Our animal minds are built to scan the horizon and see saber-toothed tigers, limb-rending dangers, and other such vicious threats that in our common communal American life are (more or less) absent. But a hurricane 1,000 miles in diameter is not to be ignored or brushed off. Sandy was a talkative disaster, and I spent many days listening to little else than her winds and her black, hushed mumblings. When the power cut out, all of the quibbling clocks finally agreed. To be thrown out of one’s century and back to one’s most lonely childhood, TV-deprived days is of a significance equal to the autumn change of leaves, the aging of one’s thoughts, the limited energy that a single organism can bring to life–which is but the boring boing and unwinding of a crimped chemical entropy clock–at best.

After all those long slow strolls--
Who knew the boardwalk
Was a surfboard!
In the dark
The hurricane
Gets louder.
A neighbor says hello
Behind his lantern.
Pitch black,
Howling gutter-rattler--
To bed as usual,
Glasses on the nightstand.
Haiku fall--
Leaves from a hidden tree
I hadn't noticed.
Right around midnight--
A half-dozen blown transformers
Blaze black clouds sun-orange.

Now was our first time properly alone as host and guest. We each let out an involuntary “whoo-hoo” when the lights clicked off. Then there was some excited rushing about for lanterns, and the selection of the night’s candles: Scented or not? Fat and rosy, or thin as a whisper?

Stories of other hurricanes poured from us as the wind raced beyond the open screen–for it was a strangely rainless gale in our small corner of the storm. Sunny had the best tales, having lived in The Highlands for over a decade with its low-to-the-water business area and its uppity-high safe houses painted a crazy-quilt torrent of poorly-chosen colors. During one particularly fluid nor’easter, Sunny had run outside to reverse her car onto higher ground, with bread-bags and sandals on to keep her feet dry–and was nearly floated out of her driveway into the flood!

Hand-cranking the radio,
DJs chuckle at the hurricane
From far away.
From the dead fridge,
A half-frozen tropical popsicle
Tastes like sunshine.
Hurricane beer--
So warm and
So good!
Watching pipe smoke
In the hurricane....
Watching pipe smoke....
Putting away my pipe,
I keep my lighter out
Beside the candles.
For a second night,
On both sides of the window
--Just as dark.

Anticipation magnifies any experience. And we had been caught up in a warp speed bubble of hype about Sandy. I wondered when the couch would fly out the screendoor like a magic carpet and kidnap me up to heaven to kiss the very lips of the wind! But, despite my geared-up fancy, I found the reality of the storm a changeful enough challenge. What’s real may lack something in imaginative exultation, or excess–the piling up of improbabilities until we giggle or our eyes go wide with disbelief, but reality has a way of stretching, detail by detail, our thoughts until they match the actual matrix of things. With the lights out, I thought, no one sees our happiness. Like earthworms coring out the soil so that, unknown to their small blind minds, other roots may delve more easily, so we dive into reality–and by simply participating create more than we can imagine.

Not too bad--
Alone with my thoughts
Beside this candle.
Without a nightlight,
I reach outside my window
And click on the moon.
Quick, fireflies!
Help me pick up
This evening's heavy darkness.
Such noise outside!
Hurricane candles
Burn silently.
Through the windstorm
Sound red.
All night in the hurricane
Words blow about loudly
As trash cans.

The night came and went. What had been wished for or feared either materialized or dissipated like a snuffed candle’s smoke….

Even with all these troubles
The trash man rolls through
Politely at 7 a.m.
Joking barefoot on the porch
With cigarettes and cold coffee--
If only we knew how bad it is!
Without power,
Many more apartments
Lift their shades.
The late shrub-blossom
Tips, spills onto my face--
Yesterday's hurricane.
Dogs pull their owners,
Picking up hurricane sticks--
Wet and happy.
Trees after the storm--
Only now do I see
How patiently they were waiting!

Part Four: A Reporter on the Road

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Dec 032012
Going to view the storm damage--
On the doorknob,
A single evergreen leaf.
Stepping outside....
After the hurricane, only the grass
Looks the same.

It turns out, just by taking a few steps beyond my door there was no end to the incidents and adventures available in my own neighborhood. Going down one street, trees had been felled by a troop of invisible lumberjacks, holding their deep roots up for the most minute inspection as if they were being robbed of their underpants. Getting near a big evergreen that had gone over, peeling back as it had fallen a sinuous line of sod along the driveway’s asphalt edge like foil peeled back to reveal a meaty lasagna, the overwhelming smell was not of mud, despite the wet (nor of lasagna, despite the image)–the smell was of fresh dry loam and mossy roots–a sunny day on a broad fairway and a clear shot to a golden layup. I was pinged back to warm June possibilities–and the busy nest of maggoty worms (or whatever they were exactly) seemed distressed to be so turned out of their summer home–and on such a prosaically rainy day too!

After the storm's destruction,
My neighbor looks out from his doorway
Holding a big broom.
Finicky seagulls
Pillage bins of spoiled meat,
Discarding the lesser cuts.
This reminds me of a haiku by Joso, to wit:
Among blossoming cherries
A woodpecker pecks--
Hunting for deadwood.
The long wooden fence
Torn open by the storm--
Must've been a gate
In another life.
Through a crack in the fence
--A new shoot
Of green laurel.

Crossing into Keyport, I stopped at the local WaWa, the only food outlet for miles with a generator, which allowed them to open their doors that day–cash only. The only line was for coffee, caffeine being the mental health drug of choice among adult Americans. And the line snaked through the whole building and out the door. Regular or decaffeinated? The theological debate in the line was fierce.

Waiting for hot coffee
A hundred pairs of muddy shoes
Face one way.
People pulled
To the WaWa, the wifi, the caffeine,
And each other--
Black bees on a crowded sunflower.

It was in this line that I got my first dose of stories. A few shore residents had seen the actual storm surge make landfall, a green tyrant thirty feet tall, wearing a crown of white foamy thorns. Tony, a naturalized American from Costa Rica, had watched from his second story apartment window as the “tsunami” poured though, pushing boats with abandon and hitting the bay side of Ye Olde Cottage Inne, waiting for a beat of four seconds, and then bursting from the far side by the road, spilling the guts of the place out like mouthwash filled with dinner detritus, and leaving the once grand facade smiling toothlessly at the town like an idiot cousin. There were a dozen or more stories, all told with a survivor’s relish, and the hot expectation of a daily fix of coffee. When I stumbled through town a short while later, I saw what was left of the Inne; I knew I was getting close by the small flotilla of French onion soup bowls that had been sent out nearly half a mile in every direction from the destruction. Picking one of dozens up, it was still dry on the inside, and muddy on the bottom.

Where the weak reed rebounded
A dragonfly hesitates--
After the hurricane.
Kids touch the tacky sap--
Counting aloud the cut-open rings
Of hurricane trees.
Mist on the sea--
Just where the hurricane came in,
Storks float home.
Bright orange safety jackets
Move over the wreckage in Keyport--
I feel I am helping.

Crossing back out of Keyport, with acres of bay-blasted wreckage behind me (and acres of wind-wrestled wreckage before), I bumped into a reporter for the Star Ledger in front of Bob’s Hot Dog House. Bob’s was squished flat as a runcible tophat–only the faded red painting of a hot dog survived as the fecund marshland unrolled behind the flattened trailer. We kibitzed about the whole area, and she gave me some good details about what had happened in other areas of New Jersey, where the newspaper had sent out its fleet of note-taking snoops.

A reporter on the road
Lifts stories from the locals,
Shaking gloved hands as she goes.
The hurricane crow
Darts brilliantly about--
Dodging raindrops!
In the burnt-out house
--Swung wide open--
A perfect red door.
Through the flood-busted churchdoor
...A lost frog.
The Long Branch beach--
An ice cream sandwich
Licked clean out!
Ribbon-painted boats,
Piled like discarded kites
Drawn by a single string.
Storm-tossed boats
Jump playfully as dolphins--
Over the bridge.
Loud out of nowhere--
On top of an overturned boat,
A wild sparrow!
Their sails like moth-wings,
Little boats pile up overnight--
Attracted by the full moon!

Later in the day, as I toured a tree-decimated neighborhood littered with windfall and tangles of powerlines like the discarded ribbons from Christmas packages, I was able to take a surprisingly comfortable sunshine-nap in the topmost boughs of a downed evergreen tree. When I woke up from my doze, I discovered that I had been joined by a stray cat curled up near my feet. Good news always finds a friend, as they say.

After so much hurricane worry--
Sleep seeps in anyway, at noon,
Under my eyelids.
Following the disaster,
Muddy footprints track back
To my doorstep.
Broken spines,
These chainsawed cherrytrees--
Bones of the hurricane.
Whole streets, houses too,
Painted very minutely
With mud brushes.
All this mud!
And still no butterfly
....Nope....Not yet.
*    *    *    *
The refreshing cool
Of the water coming in
Washes the feet
Of the water going out.

The poem above and the poem below go together. Ransetsu takes the common conceit that “all things change,” and shows that these changes can be accepted with grace, with washing the feet of the new thing by the old thing; I think of a combo retirement-baptism party. In Ransetsu’s verse, both the thing coming and the thing going are water–again the common conceit that “all things are one thing.” I think his would be a great poem to carve at the cool water intake of a nuclear plant. The second poem plays with a similar element of graceful acceptance of the changes the hurricane has made.

Taking careful pains to wash
Hurricane tchotchkes in a puddle,
I place them back in the mud.
Clearing the debris--
Children hold fallen shingles
And look up.
Still there--
Under a storm-tossed shingle--
The dewy grass.
Grateful enough to make it through,
The whole sky looks
Like one color.
Every town window reflects
A world at sunset--
Walking home at sunset,
The ruined town turns gold a moment
As the wind dies.
Eh, not much scarier
Than dying--
This gigantic storm.