The Operating System

5th Annual NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: Day 7 :: Joannie Stangeland on Oliver de la Paz

[box]It’s hard to believe that this is our FIFTH annual 30/30/30 series, and that when this month is over we will have seeded and scattered ONE HUNDRED and FIFTY of these love-letters, these stories of gratitude and memory, into the world. Nearly 30 books, 3 magazines, countless events and online entries later, and this annual celebration shines like a beacon at the top of the heap of my very favorite things to have brought into being. [If you’re interested in going back through the earlier 120 entries, you can find them (in reverse chronological order) here.]
When I began this exercise on my own blog, in 2011, I began by speaking to National Poetry Month’s beginnings, in 1966, and wrote that my intentions “for my part, as a humble servant and practitioner of this lovely, loving art,” were to post a poem and/or brief history of a different poet…. as well as write and post a new poem a day. I do function well under stricture, but I soon realized this was an overwhelming errand.
Nonetheless the idea stuck — to have this month serve not only as one in which we flex our practical muscles but also one in which we reflect on inspiration, community, and tradition — and with The Operating System (then Exit Strata) available as a public platform to me, I invited others (and invited others to invite others) to join in the exercise. It is a series which perfectly models my intention to have the OS serve as an engine of open source education, of peer to peer value and knowledge circulation.
Sitting down at my computer so many years ago I would have never imagined that in the following five years I would be able to curate and gather 150 essays from so many gifted poets — ranging from students to award winning stars of the craft, from the US and abroad — to join in this effort. But I’m so so glad that this has come to be.
Enjoy! And share widely.
– Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, Managing Editor/Series Curator [/box]


[line][script_teaser]“If you haven’t read any of Oliver de la Paz’s poems, I would sit with you, pass the books back and forth, their pages well worn, well read. I would want to show you the poems, let you discover their flights and resonances on your own. Here’s what that might be like. Have a seat.” [/script_teaser]
I first encountered Oliver’s poems in Furious Lullaby, which opened me up to worlds of image and a new way to travel through a book, a new way to craft that journey for the reader. Aubades, such as “Aubade with Doves, Television, and Fire” and “Aubade with Constellations, Some Horses, and Snow,” make this a morning book—all the worries, memories, and dream residue that hover around us as we pull ourselves from sleep or the tossing not-sleep.
In between the aubades are other series—”What the Eye Said,” “What the Devil Said,” and letters to “My Dearest Apostasy” and “My Dearest Conflict,” and more—the whole creating a fabric of love, loss, gratitude, and regret.
That’s the structural side. Then we have the images!
From “Aubade with a Book and the Rattle from a String of Pearls”:


[articlequote]On such a day as this in hot
July, when moistness slides around
Us everywhere as if alive,
And sunshine pours down like the rain
And moistens us the same, …[/articlequote]


“…the way night moves its shoes from side to side” is one of my all-time favorite images.
In “The Devil’s Book,” a three-part poem, we get images that are repeated differently, creating a layering.

The Devil’s Book

The devil is awake with his velvet pen.
Fingernails filed to points, he plucks
a blank white sheet and inks his name.
It bleeds through the paper. His apartment
is a miniature of mine, meticulously kept
and coldly academic. The books are filed
by century and there is no dust. I am keeping
up with him, my chair, the vertigo of a failed poem.
Bluing day. The frosted window is a lover,
a heart-shaped medallion in his throat.
The silver-throated man walks a cloven-
hoofed mile out of four in the morning
with a clickity-clack. Heels and cigarettes.
Zero moon. The devil makes me wait
but the night dials it in. Stolen
cars drive endlessly
fueled by uranium. Tires squeal
past my interior and the punks offer
names of all their childhoods. They are
little candles shifting in their wicks.
The devil presses his chin on my shoulder and tells me
to write this world, his voice raspy but soft.
The devil shifts his weight from left
to right. His nimbus is a-kilter, darker
from the red robe he wears so early
in the morning. It is a difficult thing
to remake paradise. The ravens betray
this truth. They are shadowed seraphim
which hurts him like a tongue rent in two.
He dreamt my pen last night, and the moon
was a polished apple offered to the next
world. My note pad was laboratory white.
I was trying to remember a word
standing for light and rhyming
with innocent sex. Each time he spoke,
a candle flame flared, burning a crisped heart
into my poem. The devil wonders how long
he can endure in this dream of heaven.
The days drag and drag, murderous laces
against the pine floor. His paces
wear a cleft into the earth like a lie . . .
a lie, hungry and gaping.
The devil rolls another cigarette. Thin papers
curl against his finger pressure.
He would rather the nighttime
and the illusion of godlessness
than a ravenous star. Easy
to see through the ink black
centuries after the fall. He is a grand piano
without white keys, all elegance
and bluster. He is no more the light
bringer or morning star, and his name,
a daily sermon. Dry lipstick.
Red filter. Smoke, a flavored silk.
Oh, to be rich with syllables, he puffs.
How they would cover the apartment
like the wingspan of a fat crow.
Heaven is his word. He knows he cannot say
“Let there be” and expect it to be . . .
his velvet pen cracked at the nib.
We have these colors recurring and their associated images—the apple, the page bleeding, the red robe, the proximity of “Dry lipstick” to “Red filter,” and then the moon, the blank page, the piano keys that aren’t there. We have the cigarettes (and the days that drag and drag). We have the crows and the sonic resonance of “ravenous star.” We have “Bluing day” and “The silver-throated man…” The poem is gifts within gifts—each section to unwrap, and then the delights within each—beginning and ending with that velvet pen.
Another wonderful thing about Oliver’s work is that each book is different. Before Furious Lullaby, he wrote Names above Houses, which is like a novella that follows the boy Fidelito, with his father Domingo and his mother Maria Elena. The story is told in prose poems that inhabit the realm between surrealism, their formal prose-poem origin, and magical realism.

Domingo’s Advice for Fidelito

So you want to levitate, to float in the sky the way the tops of trees jut out?
Wind-stunned sparrows will nibble your earlobe. Bees will make a hive of
your hair. In rain you’ll be so high no roof can cover your head. You will
fear music from brassy instruments because their notes sit in your brain
with no one to sing along. Listen. Listen.
There in that gray cloud is the woman like you. She sits lotus style and
sails like a box kite. How wonderful when she blows away, past exotic
ports near the ocean. The air eats its way through her shirt. See how the
sky darkens? She fades from sight like an uncontrollable star. But soon,
son, she will miss finer things: chairs and beds. Look, over your shoulder.
Smaller than a thumbprint, she sighs apologies. I’m sorry, she says,
I’m sorry.
Foolish, hard-headed girl. She’s hovered just out of reach. You act like
that and you’ll bid farewell to the ground, who is less forgiving than
your mother.
When Fidelito speaks, the poems fall into their lines.

Fidelito Contemplates How Powerful He Has Become and Thinks of Ways to Alter Weather Patterns

See how my thumb spreads the clouds?
It is simple. My arm moves the white ocean.
Flight is just that. Easy sleep—like nodding
In class to the teacher’s constant talk.
That kind of rest comes only when children
Press their tongues to the desks.
I am not one for this space . . .
After school I make a blot with my thumb
And watch it grow there in the blue,
A space filling out.
The clouds pull back their hairs
And extend the arms I give them
When I close one eyelid,
Press my thumb to the sky.
After Furious Lullaby comes Requiem for the Orchard. These poems offer a father’s longing and nostalgia—but it isn’t a rosy glance at the past. It’s a hard look at growing up in a small town, at growing up.
In the prologue poem, “In Defense of Small Towns,” after talk of cruising and fighting, the beauty and the limits, he says:
[articlequote]And when I wake up, I watch my son yawn,
and my mind turns his upswept hair into cornstalks
at the edge of a field. Stillness is an acre, and his body
idles, deep like heavy machinery. I want to take him back there,
to the small town of my youth and hold the book of wildflowers
open for him, and look. I want him to know the colors of horses,”[/articlequote]
The horses reappear in “Self-Portrait as the Burning Plains of Eastern Oregon”:
[articlequote]There’s beauty in their fear, like the stun of a hushed landscape
after a catastrophe. And there’s beauty in a boy,
shameless in his need for moments to explode.
That hunger? If you hold your breath long enough, you can feel
the weight of the horses as they run in faster and faster circles
but really, they’re in no mortal danger. They’ll settle down
to a trot, then rub their sides against the fence posts to feel warmth.
Time takes air and fuel and in the end what’s left is smoke.”[/articlequote]
There are more Self-Portrait poems, the Eschatology poems, and the Requiem poems of boys learning to be men “keeping pace with our shit job, / how we each knew we were getting ripped off and how the filthy / dollars we’d wad into our pockets couldn’t buy us a fuller river, time, / or the deep meaning of zinc powder on chapped hands.”
This is a coming to terms book, and it includes poems about coming to terms with cancer, as in “Ablation as the Creation of Adam”:
“Useless is the thing taken out of the body. Little stinkweed.
Little broken thrush. What’s left—a socket. A keyhole.
I used to have something to miss; now my neck’s a rattletrap.
Thus my body was corrected. A hand moved the waters
and said flesh be done. And it was done. Evening.
Morning. The sterile tube shunted in to my neck.
And it was good. I rose, fawn-weary. The stun of spiced cleaner
cooled the room. Nothing like the clean of a new world”
and in “Insomnia as Transfiguration”:
“The scar on my neck, clarity—two curtains sewn.
A little door locked from the inside.”

“Dear afterlife, my body is lopped off. My hands
are in the carport. My legs, in the river. My head, of course,
in the tree awaiting sunrise. It dreams it is the owl,
a dark-winged habit. Then, a rabbit’s dash
to the apple, shining like nebulae. Then the owl
scissoring the air. The heart pumps its box of inks”
This is only a little bit—I want to give you more—the whole poem, the whole book. And there is more.
In Oliver’s fourth collection, Post Subject, he returns to prose poems—ekphrastic epistolary prose poems! Evoking Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, here, each letter is not to an emperor, but to the entire machinery of the realm.
Because each title is Dear Empire, the table of contents lists each first sentence, and reading them is a journey:
[articlequote]This is your atoll
These are your battlefields
These are your boardwalks
This is your breeze
These are your bridges[/articlequote]
Here is “This is your breeze”:
[articlequote]Dear Empire,
This is your breeze. The sea is a thousand miles away, yet it crushes us
still. Blue trees—blue distances wash up on our doorsteps. Off the
coast there is a gauntlet of ships, but I cannot smell them from here.
Your children miss the ocean. They sleep in its absence. Cry out for it.
Sometimes out of mischief. Sometimes out of genuine longing.
But longing for such a body is no good for us. There are lights here.
And arms to keep us safe. We can do without fickle tides, without the spindrift.[/articlequote]
The wide-ranging images are grounded in characters that return—the artist, the jellyfish, the artist’s son, and a dancer. The dancer figures in “This is your art”:
[articlequote]I held her shoe in the pads of my hands, still warm after she had
stepped off stage. There are little ringlets sewn on her dress that
resembled fish scales. You should have seen them move. She was like a
flash of light on a tiled wall. She was like a migration.”[/articlequote]
and the artist in “These are your guns”:
[articlequote]Therefore, the artist takes her brush and paints the cliffs in a way that
expresses their joy. Therefore the artist sets to make something beyond
a paper understanding. To make certain the pines are understood.
That the kindnesses of childhood echo in a hail of gunfire.
Yet the tide seeks to take it all back. The passive bodies of jellyfish
surrender themselves to movement. To gravity. To life in someone
else’s music.”[/articlequote]
When I first heard these poems, I bought the book, came home, and read it straight through. The next night, after work and the long drive home, I sat on the sofa and, with those poems as a doorway, wrote a poem that I had struggled with (and needed to perform at a dance concert in a few weeks). That’s one example of how Oliver’s poems have influenced my work. Another is the prose poems in A Piece of Work and In Both Hands. For now, I’ll go back to Furious Lullaby and what its series taught me about structure when I was working on Into the Rumored Spring. I began to write song poems, Intermezzo poems, and a group of “In This Chapter” poems. I later removed “In This Chapter” from the titles but kept the poems, and here is one of them.
A Crow Means Everything
A feather on wet pavement,
wings the tinge of midnight,
the rough cry rattling her morning.
In the back of a closet,
a black frock without pockets
on a faded silk hanger.
Who needs this dirge of a dress?
She will write people
who wear pink and walk
by blue water, who plant petunias
in the damp spring and read
magazines about Mongolia or Peru,
characters who speak a flock of languages
and open their hands to find
five days dribbled into the harbor
like pennies in a stone fountain
or stale bread scattered. She will
describe the falling twilight sky.
When the murder makes its own weather,
a wheeling dusk, that flurry
blocks what sun will show.
If there is one way to fly,
the crows will find the other.
[textwrap_image align=”left”][/textwrap_image] Joannie Stangeland is the author of the poetry collections In Both Hands and Into the Rumored Spring and the chapbooks Weathered Steps and A Steady Longing for Flight, which won the Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award. Her poems have also appeared in Off the Coast, RHINO, Crab Creek Review, Hubbub, First Water: Best of Pirene’s Fountain, and other journals and anthologies, as well as on the bus.
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