Writing Poetry

In college I wrote a poem on a Greyhound bus from Maine to Boston, something about a water gun, sun, translucent plastic. The next poem arrived in slumber, The Brilliant Liar, you are a shining ripple on the surface of a stream, enticing all currents you are spread thin, and to the bottom you sink, like a now forgotten skipping stone. That earned me an 8-page single-spaced reply. Slanted, upside down, my ebullient view, my lens, the one I use to look at the landscape and us in it. Apart, distant, watching my inner introvert who lives in constant wonder. The ink has sat in notebooks, on trains, planes, imitating others, their rhyming schemes, becoming my future plans. I have used it to protest wars, entice love, linger longer in memory, where it all becomes eventually ephemeral. In the past I was mostly scared, to share it, the words. But now, in the social media world of half-truths, fake news, tweeting presidents, an eroding earth, I look for little bits of real, especially tiny slivers dwelling well within.

 

 

History On One Foot, 2003

I’m standing on one foot; leg quivering slightly, the sweat is no longer just in my pits, it’s a wet ring expanding to the size of a sand dollar, darkening my Arrow shirt. On the board in my handwriting, Violence is the answer. The words simply arranged to spur discussion, debate. We are moving towards Sherman, the scorched earth policy, total war, weeks later we’ll compare Grant to Truman, and the dropping of the A bomb, but I always start with psychology, especially with this class, my basic section. When friends ask what I teach, I reply, United States History, AP, College Track, Basic. Basic basically means that the students show up, sometimes stoned, sometimes with weapons (knives, brass knuckles, that kind of stuff), rarely focused, a few barely literate. Raymond is also sweating, we’re 20 minutes into class, his leg looks wobbly. Raymond is the center for the football team; he keeps coming to class late, my pleas falling flat. 11th grade, 16, 17 years old, they’re all systemized, stigmatized; I’m the public school bureaucracy, handing out tardies. He’s a tough, kinesthetic kid; I needed to lose the script. I bet you put your foot down before me, I say when he comes in late. I wanted him to do push-ups, but that seemed like a step too far, now we’re in this one-foot thing together. Violence is the answer, if Gandhi got shot, he’s dead, then what? says Patricia. I hop over towards Brian who has his hand up. People talk about peace, but what about us making nukes? Only peace because we might blow someone up, he says. How many of you could burn someone’s house down in front of them, watch a child’s teddy bear become smoke, you holding the torch yourself? I ask. No one says they could do it, they’ve almost forgotten about Raymond and me, we’re all in the moment, thinking about destruction’s role in history. There are no rules in war, Phil says. So, if you could, you’d poison the water supply for the entire South? Kill all the toddlers, dogs and horses? I ask. Phil starts to squirm. No, no, there should be rules against thatBut why? I counter. 35 minutes into class and Raymond is puffing, flushed, swaying, about to topple. He finally puts his foot down, gives me a grin, sits at his desk. My face is dripping sweat, I jump over, shake his hand, please don’t be late againI won’t, he says. I stay on one foot for the rest of the 55-minute class, the bell rings, they walk out still debating, I hear one of them say, violence isn’t the answer.

Hip-Hop Junkie

Hip-hop, rap, freestyle, beats, bass, breaks, MC, laying down tracks, mixmastered, the mic. Summer of ’84, the beginning, Jam On It by Newcleus is playing; I’m outside a breakdance circle watching Marcus in awe. Legs fluttering through the air, propellers of his windmill. I don’t know it fully at the time, but the music is my cross-cultural bridge, a window into my black friends, Taliaferro, Alphonso, Terry, Tracy, Dennis, guys who live defacto segregated in South Arlington, or Hall’s Hill. The songs, the lyrics, aren’t their truth or mine, artistic expression, usually African-American, black mind creation; we interpret, make meaning. I start by memorizing the lyrics of Whodini, people used to say that you had a big mouth and now I understand what they’re talkin’ about. I find the DC stations on the dial, hear the infectious rap through static. Teenage years bring the Beastie Boys, N.W.A, Run-D.M.C., Will Smith; the Alpine in my Pontiac can’t go loud enough. My college roommates get me hooked on Pete Rock & CL Smooth, school me on Harlem, Chicago, lotion for ashy brown skin. They try to give me a fade, but the sides of my head just go cream-colored, no blending. We listen to all the MCs, talk about who rhymes superior, poetry of words, acceleration, intonation. Eric B. & Rakim, Brand Nubian, Tribe, Ice Cube, Redman, Method Man, names like superheroes. I see Tribe and De La in concert, meet Chuck D, his Public Enemy audio history, middle passage, Black Panthers, slavery. 1996, winter, The Smallest Bar in the NYC, me wearing khakis and an oxford, delivering drinks, my hip-hop night, lots of Biggie and Craig Mack. Reese, grew up with LL, comes in from Queens with his boys, freestyling. Years later students stare in disbelief when I recite all of My Philosophy by KRS-One, word for word. Hip-hop grew up with me and I grew up with hip-hop. Much older now, the CDs and cassette tapes are mostly gone. A few months ago I’m the middle-aged guy in the Prius, Fight The Power blasting out to the gentrified streets of San Francisco. A man at a stop sign stares at me, raises his fist into the air, gives me a nod. I feel like a hip-hop hippie, old days gone, Phife Dawg dead, MCA too, once a hip-hop junkie, that will always be true.

Being Jewish

Most days I forget that I would have been put in the gas chamber. I rarely tell anyone that by Jewish Law, I am, Jewish. I never understood how the Jewish part got to lay claim to me because of my Mother, even though I always celebrated Christmas with my Dad’s family. Daniel Polk, first name Jewish, surname Christian. At Temple Rodef Shalom I studied Moses and the Maccabees. I labored there reading an ancient alphabet with my moussed hair slicked back, trying to look like Don Johnson. Hardly anyone from my intermediate school went to that temple. I never fit, in a word, I thought they (the Jews), were nerds. I liked sports not the computer games they spoke about, their noses and animated faces more Ashkenazi than mine. Yet, I still learned about the holocaust through the patience of Ziva Zysman who survived the camps, endured my halting Hebrew, trained me to stand and be a bar mitzvahed man. Like many quasi-half breed reform Jews, I quit going to synagogue after my bar mitzvah, took the money and ran. But later I journeyed to Israel, researched my mother’s family from Iasi, Romania, Odessa, the pogroms, went through periods of reading Isaac Bashevis Singer, kept flirting with my inner Jew. Judaism would sometimes flirt back, they are married now, have kids with real Jewish men, but we dated then and I pretended that religion could mean something. Years later I took my biggest leap, taught at a Jewish high school where some of the students wore kippahs everyday. My first year a parent asks me, What’s it like for you to be surrounded by all these Jews? After that, I put my Bar Mitzvah certificate up over my desk like it was some kind of diploma, like I actually belonged, like somehow the paper made me kosher. I didn’t, I’m not. Last December I met a rabbi in Mexico while on vacation, told him my lifelong dilemma. Daniel, you either feel it within or you don’t. I don’t feel it, but I don’t not feel it either, caught between tradition, definition, and my own philosophic spirit. Most days I just breathe, some days I pray. To what God? I’m not sure.

Thinking about Meditation: 2008

Meditation, mindfulness, yogic breathing, transcendental meditation, zazen, guided visualization, the breath, mind in the moment, in the seconds really. I’ve read about them all, but I’m absorbing Kabat-Zinn now, his words slowing me down time, as I walk through campus seeing sentences, one by one, as they arrive from colleagues and students. Usually it is a torrent, flooding phrases, mine, theirs, uncontrolled verbal ejaculations, reactive, sometimes rehearsed. How are you? Good. It hasn’t yet occurred to me, to go beyond reading, to actually sit, breathe, listen to my breath. You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf, Kabat-Zinn says. Intellectually I comprehend, but don’t yet know about the doing of the not doing, the complicated simplicity that is meditation. The aloneness of my lungs, eyes closed, the stopping, no audience, no tangible reward. As I read, I like to pretend that I’m mindful all the time, that I’m a Zen monk, learned, wise. Fantasy, like when I pick up a Runner’s World in the airport and think, I’m a marathoner, or I can do that, have calves that look like that. Could be mindful all the time, could run a marathon, can’t, won’t, truth. I sell myself the same ideas that are sold to me. But meditation, just breathing, is free. It will be three more years before I begin, really breathe in, breathe out, stringing minutes together, before I learn, that you don’t think about meditation, you do it.

Wealth Gap San Francisco

Are you renting? Do you own? Where? (I love that neighborhood!). What are you up to this summer? This ski week? This weekend? Where do your kids go to school? They ask, sitting in their sparkling Mercedes, Tesla, Range Rover, or standing in front of their manicured garden, wearing Jimmy Choo shoes. Sometimes I want to answer: I’m renting, Visitacion Valley (where’s that?), working, can’t afford to ski, nothing, random public school. But I don’t, I usually play along, pretend like it matters, wealth, status. Name droppers, social climbers, Facebook vacation photo posters, flakes, the ones who don’t return emails, are SO busy. San Francisco, New York, LA, they are everywhere, at galas donating, sipping malbec, their smiling faces in magazines with page after page of real estate ads. Presidio Heights, Pacific Heights, Sea Cliff, tucked away behind fences, cameras, red and white Bay Alarm signs, safe. Old as time, rich, loaded, moneyed, affluent, well-heeled, well-to-do. I’m an American, I get it, the free market, understand the system, the distance needed between the haves and the nots. But how far is too far? When does our country end, the chasm too wide, American no more, just the rich and the poor?

Palo Alto Hermit, 2006

I live two blocks from the Apple store, don’t own a cellphone or a TV, don’t have an internet connection. Some weekends I unplug my landline and I’m an ascetic, surrounded by my volumes of John Muir, Jane Kenyon, A Buddhist Bible, and my journals of poetic plodding. I’m between girlfriends, single by the strictest definition. I watch them on their headsets, talking to the air, talking about technology into technology. They fill the Starbucks on University Avenue with their napkins, sketching schematas of the next IPO. I’m a walking anachronism, a luddite they call me, voluntary simplicity, I call me. Doing the mental math, I calculate whether I’m the only one in all of Palo Alto, completely disconnected. Maybe a couple of Stanford religion majors without TV, but none would be internet free, no, that is just me, 1 out of 66,000. There is Greg, that isn’t his real name, no one knows his real name, he drags his feet through downtown Palo Alto, toes sticking out of his shoes, his long, unkempt blondish brown hair jutting in all directions. Greg and the other homeless people by the creek are my kin, my kind, fiber-optically missing, invisible, off the grid. One night I meet Larry Page at a Stanford pub, we don’t talk about his company, Google. He tells me he likes Dance Dance Revolution, but only does it in private. The seven-minute conversation sticks with me, like the mornings when I see Steve Jobs at the farmers market. Me, Steve, and Larry, we’re in this thing together, makes me feel like I’m a part of the team, the future. But all I teach about is the past, the Cherokee, the Californios, the buffalo, the removed, the replaced. I hike miles on Sundays, Butano Ridge Loop, Foothills Park, my fern-filled temple, my isolation, my solace. I try to make sense of it all, the movement of time, my standing still. After many days, maybe hours, I plug my phone back in, walk down Kipling Street, go to the library, check my email.