Reflections on a Sunny Day

I’ve almost finished vice, but that’s going to have to wait until tomorrow since I got at the gym at 6:30, left at 9:00, walked the dog until 10:20 and then was forced to take a bird walk for several hours when the sun suddenly appeared this afternoon contradicting predictions of rain.

I only got as far as Ruston Way, and, with the exception on not sighting the Belted Kingfisher, I only got pictures of birds I usually see, like this Bald Eagle that flew overhead,

Eagle Flying By

a pair of Common Goldeneyes necking, a mating phenomena I’ve noted several times in the last few years,

Goldeneye Male Necking

and another close-up of a Surf-Scoter, all of them marked by interesting reflections.

Surf-Scoter reflection

All in all, it was a most enjoyable day, reminding me just how good I really have it.

Who You Calling a Victim?

I’m not sure I’d agree with Ai that the poems in vice are about “transcendence — that’s what I’m striving for in all these poems; no matter what the characters go through, no matter what their end, they mean to live.” At least not my definition of “transcendence.” What they do exemplify beautifully is empathy, empathy for those society often seems to abhor. She identifies with her characters and allows us to see them through their own eyes.

I must admit that considering how many of the poems are about “outsiders,” those who defy society’s conventions or who are destroyed by them, I was rather surprised when I read this poem but soon came to see it as the epitome of Ai’s work:


You say you want this story
in my own words,
but you won’t tell it my way.
Reporters never do.
If everybody’s racist,
that means you too.
I grab your finger
as you jab it at my chest.
So what, the minicam caught that?
You want to know all about it, right?-
the liquor store, the black kid
who pulled his gun
at the wrong time.
You saw the dollars he fell on and bloodied.
Remember how cold it was that night,
but I was sweating.
I’d worked hard, I was through
for twenty-four hours,
and I wanted some brew.
When I heard a shout,
I turned and saw the clerk
with his hands in the air,
saw the kid drop his gun
as I yelled and ran from the back.
I only fired when he bent down,
picked up his gun, and again dropped it.
I saw he was terrified,
saw his shoulder and head jerk to the side
as the next bullet hit.
When I dove down, he got his gun once more
and fired wildly.
Liquor poured onto the counter, the floor
onto which he fell back finally,
still firing now toward the door,
when his arm flung itself behind him.
As I crawled toward him,
I could hear dance music
over the sound of liquor spilling and spilling,
and when I balanced on my hands
and stared at him, a cough or spasm
sent a stream of blood out of his mouth
that hit me in the face.

Later, I felt as if I’d left part of myself
stranded on that other side,
where anyplace you turn is down,
is out for money, for drugs,
or just for something new like shoes
or sunglasses,
where your own rage
destroys everything in its wake,
including you.
Especially you.
Go on, set your pad and pencil down,
turn off the camera, the tape.
The ape in the gilded cage
looks too familiar, doesn’t he,
and underneath it all,
like me, you just want to forget him.
Tonight, though, for a while you’ll he awake.
You’ll hear the sound of gunshots
in someone else’s neighborhood,
then, comforted, turn over in your bed
and close your eyes,
but the boy like a shark redeemed at last
yet unrepentant
will reenter your life
by the unlocked door of sleep
to take everything but his fury back.

It’s easy to see the young black kid lying dead on the floor killed by the police as a victim of “a racist system.” It’s harder to also see the policeman who does the shooting as a victim, but it’s pretty clear that he’s a victim in more ways than most of us would like to admit.

First, he’s charged with enforcing the rule of an often unjust society, enforcing the laws written to protect those who have from those who don’t have. More often than not, they are portrayed badly in the media for doing so, “but you won’t tell it my way./Reporters never do.” Personally, having fought in Vietnam, I’ll have to admit that I’m generally surprised that more policeman don’t abuse their power because it’s damn hard not develop an “us versus them” mentality in such situations.

Thankfully I’ve never killed anyone I’m aware of, but just the act of trying to kill someone, anyone, night after night changes you in ways unimaginable to those who haven’t tried to do so. I can’t imagine killing someone that directly and not being haunted by that act, “but the boy like a shark redeemed at last/ yet unrepentant/ will reenter your life/ by the unlocked door of sleep/ to take everything but his fury back.”

The greatest strength of Ai’s vice is that it forces you to see society from the view of its victims, even those you don’t realize are victims.

Ai’s “I Can’t Get Started”

Vice by Ai is one of those books I purchased after browsing a local bookstore, not really expecting to buy anything but always on the lookout for something new and different. As it turns out, this is quite different from the poetry I usually discuss here. Ai is a much harder-edged version of Tracy Chapman, always reminding us that for every “winner” in life there’s a “loser.” I’m half way through the book, and I’ve yet to find anything faintly resembling an upbeat poem.

In some superficial ways she reminds me of Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath, but Ai is not a confessional poet. In fact, she rarely, if ever, appears directly in her poems. But her poetry, so far at least, seems to see life from the perspective of those who’ve been maimed by life, maimed in ways most of us have never directly experienced. Thankfully.

Even those few poems that are about “famous” or apparently successful people show how, or why, they failed. For instance, here’s a poem about a marine who is portrayed in the famous picture of American marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima.

for Ira Hayes


A coyote eats chunks of the moon,
the night hen’s yellow egg,
while I lie drunk, in a ditch.
Suddenly, a huge combat boot
punches a hole through the sky
and falls toward me.
I wave my arms. Get back.
It keeps coming.


I stumble out of the ditch
and make it to the shack.
I shoot a few holes in the roof,
then stare at the paper clippings of Iwo Jima.
I remember raising that rag
of red, white and blue,
afraid that if I let go, I’d live.
The bullets never touched me.
Nothing touches me.

Around noon, I make a cup of coffee
and pour a teaspoon of pepper in it
to put the fire out.
I hum between sips
and when I finish, I hug myself.
I’m burning from the bottom up,

a bottle of flesh,
kicked across the hardwood years.
I pass gin and excuses from hand to mouth,
but it’s me. It’s me.
I’m the one dirty habit
I just can’t break.

You don’t have to Google very hard to discover the sad story of Ira Hayes, and, in fact, it seems like a story I’ve heard somewhere before, but takes on a whole new meaning when read in conjunction with Ai’s poem, as if we’re seeing it through Ira’s very eyes.

For at least a moment, we see the world through the eyes of one who feels that he is so weak, so flawed, that he can’t change, “It’s me./ I’m the one dirty habit/ I just can’t break.” There’s something particularly sad about this recognition. Most of us would like to believe that “the poor” are just like us and that if they can be raised up for a moment that their problems will be solved.

Taken within the context of the other poems in this collection, it may be even more troublesome. How do we help people like this if rising them up to “hero” status cannot save them from themselves, may, in fact, exacerbate their problems precisely because they feel unworthy of such recognition.

A Delightful Sunday

Yesterday was by far the sunniest day for quite awhile, so despite the fact that we had an afternoon wedding to attend, we headed out to Belfair early in the morning. So early that it was still quite foggy and cold. Few birds were to be seen on the walk out along the creek except for this Black Capped Chickadee that was so protected by blackberry bushes and tree branches that he seemed happy to pose several minutes:

Black-Capped Chickadee c

On the walk back, though, the sun returned and we greeted by this beautiful Red-Necked Loon, which I mistook for a Western Grebe until I took a closer look on my computer and realized what it really was:

non-breeding Red-Necked Loon

I’ll have to admit that I’m not particularly fond of weddings, but this one seemed more fun than usual, perhaps because of the large number of children present, including grandson Gavin and granddaughter Lael, who both took part in the ceremony. Here Lael tried to give me some photographic directions, which, judging from the pictures I ended up with, I should probably have taken.

Lael in Flower-Girl outfit

The day ended with an even more pleasant surprise when Tyson called from the airport and said that he needed a room because he was in town on an emergency call. It was quite late before I actually got to bed on a long, delightful day.