David Antin: 'icy seagulls' (a new talk poem)

David Antin talking while Jerome Rothenberg listens in the background (photo by
David Antin talking while Jerome Rothenberg listens in the background (photo by D.G. Wills)

i guess we all need the mike because the people in the back wont hear it    it feels a little weird to me to have it    the glasses are a mistake i only use them for reading and i cant see you if i have the glasses on and ive learned in recent years ive learned from the fact that i can no longer see anything clearly sixteen inches from my face that i need glasses     but i cant see people three feet away with glasses without them looking like blurs    so this is my new experience of optical deficiency    and the trouble is i havent gotten used to this whole thing and i was doing a set of book readings and book signings in san francisco a couple of months ago and it was a little bizarre because i’d sort of try to read something and i put the glasses on and then i’d feel like this is ridiculous  because im a talk poet and i should be talking and i’d interrupt and change what i was saying and i’d take off the glasses and i’d put them on again till i began to realize it was kind of a cute routine    you know    i was beginning to feel like i was doing schtick    which im not above doing but nevertheless    but nevertheless it seemed a little awkward and im glad this is really just doing a talk piece which feels much more human to me    i dont really like working from a script    even though reading is a perfectly fine activity i just dont like to do it in front of an audience    anyway coming here is really in a certain sense a great pleasure because of the history of this place which i remember from its origins    the poetry scene had lost access to or had quarreled with i no longer remember one of the downtown cafes    whether it was the deux magots or it was the seventh street coffee shop it was one of those places that had housed the poetry readings for a while and then there was no place for anybody to hold the readings and then the wednesday night singular readings    and paul blackburn and carol berge were out combing the scruffy areas on the lower east side second avenue and the bowery trying to find a place    and they found this place    and nobody knew how long it would last    it was offered rather generously and it became a place that i think is probably one of the most important places in american poetry at all    because so much experiment has gone on here so many new things have been tried so boldly by so many people    the range of poetry has been    to use a funny word    catholic    in that it has included everything from madly shouted poetry    to a whisper poetry consisting solely of murmurings    which in its extreme form became a poetry of silences the most open of all    so my works have been called lots of things    they’ve been called essays sometimes    and sometimes fictions    and i dont really care    but i think of myself as primarily a poet for one reason    poetry is to my mind the language art    the fundamental ground    and then there are all these secondary forms like novels which is a little bit like accounting    you know poetry is the place where the language is at stake    if nothing else is at stake    the language is at stake    and thinking that then    i was glad i was coming here because i wanted to think a little bit about words    words come into play all of a sudden and sometimes go out all of a sudden    i mean somehow a word like fatwa id never heard the word before    and its not as if i hadnt actually studied some arabic    id studied it for about a year and id learned lots of sentences in which the word never appeared


    i had learned that the king was generous and the queen was beautiful and that the head of a nejdi mare was smaller than any other or that the reason for the failure of the arab league was a want of unity between these two extremes i finally gave up    but the word fatwa occurred and i wondered what exactly is a fatwa is a    you know    who utters a fatwa    does it have to be someone with an authoritative islamic position maybe    or could anybody declare a fatwa    can any muhammed or abdulla declare a fatwa whether he has a right to declare it or not    the question is would anybody come to listen to it    i knew that the word fatwa was important because poor salman rushdie was under a fatwa    which meant he had to travel around with two bodyguards that any idiot attending one of his lectures could elude follow him into the restroom pull out a pistol and shoot him with the intense approval of official islam


    these are the kinds of words that erupt into our language with the force of an explosion    while there are other words that slip into the english language that are strange and simply remain strange    like recently we had a tsunami    and a large part of the world disappeared i mean people sitting on the beach their houses gone their lives gone their children destroyed sitting there in the midst of spars of their life and the word tsunami like a kind of plague hangs over them    the word tsunami    but i asked myself is that different from a typhoon    how many people could tell me the difference between a tsunami and a typhoon    the dictionary can tell us but can we preserve the difference    is a tsunami always characterized by underground volcanic activity and a typhoon is not      a typhoon is a sort of tornado effect    its wonderfully specific but    do we really remember it that way    or do we hear the words and begin to give them a range of meanings they never had before    like bayou    lately weve had several typhoons    weve had a couple of hurricanes    and weve started to hear the word bayou    you know now we have the word bayou    bayou    you know its interesting that the word bayou was originally a choctaw word    whereas typhoon had a chinese origin    but when you hear the word bayou you think bayou levee you dont think great wall mandarin   a bayou they say is a watercourse and a kind of tributary to a river    is that different from an arroyo    an arroyo is very southern californian    every time i think of an arroyo i think of a ravine in back of our house where there is no water except sometimes    i mean like the mexican rivers are sometimes rivers    that is they run sometimes and sometimes they dont    like in the spring they may flood    in the summer theyre scorched and parched like los angeles    the los angeles river    its called a river but how many times have you seen water in the los angeles river    the los angeles river is a sort of parched tunnel that ripped through the earth when they diverted its course    but its still called a river    and now lately we have another word that has been causing a lot of trouble    refugees


    i was a little surprised to find that the people who have been driven from their homes by the hurricane in new orleans    many of them seem to resent being called refugees    and i tried to think what did that mean    they felt there was something racist in the term    it wasnt clear to me why    i suppose it seemed strange because to me refugees simply meant people from some other country who were fleeing for help    well these people were driven by decree from the city and from natural disaster    so that great crowds of dispossessed people trying to flee to the safety of the relatively undamaged neighboring county crowded onto the bridge that marked the border between the two counties where their way was blocked by an angry mob bearing shotguns and placards who shouted insults at them    refugees


    so i had to rethink my experience of the word refugee    my first memory of hearing the word refugee was during the second world war    i grew up during the second world war    i was ten when we got hit    it was one of those lazy sunny sundays    december seventh hard for me to forget    we were sitting around the great radio in my aunt sarahs moorish double living room waiting for the assured voice of the commentator to explain the world to us    but the voice had lost its assurance and seemed to tremble as it struggled to give us an account of japans treacherous surprise attack on pearl harbor    it was certainly surprising to most americans    though it was not entirely clear whether what surprised us more was japans surprise attack on our pacific fleet or the sound of surprise coming over the radio    but all that got corrected once there was a declaration of war and all the formalities had been observed    because now it was just a regular war    only we happened to be in it    but since the main combatants were separated by several thousand miles of ocean and our pacific fleet and its air wing had been severely damaged by the japanese attack    tales of actual combat were rare and had to be replaced by political stories    stories of preparation or want of preparation for war    and one story making the rounds of washington detailed how we had just given japan our no longer useful trolley cars and they were attacking us for it


    but in any case the attack on pearl harbor seemed surprising to most americans    though somewhat less to us    because for us the war was older than that    i grew up in a european jewish family to which relatives and friends would come for refuge from various places in europe where they were being persecuted and dispossessed    even now i can imagine great crowds of displaced people choking the roadways pushing wagon loads of furniture and clothing and baby carriages filled with books    i can see them scrambling for shelter at the roadside from the strafing fire of those stukas    you know i can see those flex winged aeroplanes strafing people on the road fleeing from paris toward the south of france hoping for safety in vichy    perhaps mistakenly    or hoping to escape over the pyrenees into spain which while fascist was not yet completely under the domination of hitlers people    so i had an image of refugees as people fleeing from a country where they were being persecuted to another country where they hoped to be safe    though these countries were not so eager to have them    and we watched with growing concern as hitlers forces marched into the sudetenland absorbed austria invaded czechoslovakia and attacked poland    and each of these german victories produced increasing numbers of homeless people    mostly jews seeking refuge from the brutality of the imposed nazi regime whose explicit policy was the expulsion of the jews    which rapidly became an imprisonment policy    and by 1935 a policy of extinction    so that vast numbers    their homes destroyed    their property stolen    and realizing early that they had to flee to countries whose languages they didnt speak    signed up for crash courses in english or spanish that couldnt guarantee them fluency but could give them enough competence for employment purposes    but there was no employment anyway


    america was in the midst of a severe depression resulting from a credit crisis climaxing in the wall street crash of 1929    and this financial failure unluckily coincided with an eight year drought in the wheat producing southern and southwestern states    but at the end of hostilities america was in much better shape than the rest of the allied powers and it fell to the u.s. to play a major role in creating some sort of order in the chaos they found there    the first and most obvious problem was that there was no organizational system    and there was no one to talk to    or more accurately    in the course of the war they were replaced with puppet governments run by local nazis and nazi collaborators and the ss    whose administrators stole what they could and joined these people to be called refugees because the term had been institutionalized in such a way that there were some systems of support available to people who were documented as refugees the numbers were so great that the allied bureaucracies did what all bureaucracies eventually do    they divided the vast number of displaced persons into two groups: displaced persons who were assumed to have somewhere a home to go to and refugees who were classified as homeless this was very satisfying because it cut the number of homeless persons in half    but it was a paper distinction    since almost none of the displaced persons wanted to go home    so the numbers helped were small    on the order of a few thousand a month while we watched as the number of the persecuted and homeless needing such help mounted to several hundred thousand a month and growing every year i had my own first experience with two real refugees when i was a kid


   jiuba and charlie were two polish refugees    a brother and sister who had slipped out of poland during the german occupation and wandered around through several countries looking for a home    they were a study in contrasts    charlie was a chunky cheerful guy with blonde hair laughing blue eyes and a rudimentary grasp of english that he deployed very effectively     cracking up over his own linguistic blunders as generously as the jokes of others    leaving the impression that these were also jokes and that he knew english much better than he really did    while his sister was a small birdlike creature as dark as he was blonde    as small and fragile as he was strong and hearty    and seemingly afraid of everything but song    i heard her once at a family party at sarahs house in an unusually festive affair celebrating the safe arrival in america of three more relatives recounted in a rich mix of polish russian and ukrainian where nearly everyone who could be considered family was there listening to    recounting and speculating on the fates of the missing in a mix of languages i could barely make sense of    but as the story telling went on it apparently drew laughter as well as tears and charlie called out in russian   “if this is a party why don’t we dance”    as he seized a young cousin by the waist and started to dance    an act she found startling at first but then terribly funny as she threw herself laughing into a passionate waltz where they were gradually joined by others getting carried away by the imaginary music till my aunt sarahs double moorish living room was choked with dreamy dancers    at that point charlie started to sing a melancholy russian ballad    others joined and looking around he saw liuba sitting primly on a white empire chair     this made him so mad that he shouted at her DANCE LIUBA DANCE GODDAMMIT DANCE to which she responded not by dancing but by singing in a flutelike purest high soprano an incredible obligato that silenced the entire room


    her voice was one thing but her language skills were quite another     she and her brother had been in the country over a year now hanging out in my uncle sams large brooklyn apartment    but she couldnt speak a sentence of english     if she had to go to the grocery to buy eggs for breakfast she had to resort to sign language    which was fairly simple when it was eggs she wanted    but it got more complicated at the butchers when she had to signify ground round or tender cuts of rump steak     this was still all right    according to charlie    because funny and funny is good    make everyone happy    and happy people never afraid    but liuba was afraid of everything    and that was when he made this intriguing proposal to me to teach her english    “why me”    but i knew the answer    charlie had tried several professionals with good credentials and lots of experience teaching english to refugees    they came variously equipped with lesson plans illustrated with crude little line drawings of what were supposed to be scenes from conventional family life in america    okay    he said    okay    practically grinding out his words    you think shes stupid    got no college degree    okay?    but two years gymnasium    equal two years american college    okay?    she not learn american    learn little american    okay    but lots latin and greek    and some pieces french italian spanish and whatever people speak wherever we go    she give us head start so for rest    you a smart fella    even little good looking    you practically same age    i think she like you  you both entitle to little fun    at this point liuba who had started to blush retreated to the most distant part of the room


    liuba    who spoke fluent russian to go with her native polish as well as dribs and drabs of german french italian spanish    and whatever was the native language of the land she and charlie were thinking of escaping to yet couldnt form a single coherent sentence of english    but because she spoke enough french for me to get by with her when her limited understanding of english completely failed    i could work to improve her understanding of english and hope that some of this improved understanding would spill over into an ability to speak the one language that she needed and seemed to be wrapped in a dark blanket from whose folds she couldnt escape    i remember that i had a ridiculous grammar book out of which i taught her american sentences that she dutifully repeated to me like


may i walk on your lawn

i would like to buy a green hat

or maybe a red one

in the winter i like to sit beside the window

and watch it rain


these were the sentences i heard while i kept thinking how nice it would be to take liuba to the place where the culver line comes out of the dark into the light    because the f-train is not a subway train for the whole length of its run    but an elevated that begins somewhere in queens travels the course of the tunnel cut across under southern brooklyn where it emerges briefly for two stations before plunging back into the dark waters under the city because i wanted to see how she reacted to the sight of all those trim little houses built in a variety of styles ranging from the early part of the century to the early forties with no sign of the heavy hand of government till the train would emerge once more and travel two more stops as an elevated all the rest of the way down to coney island and the great pleasures of the beach


     but of course she had no bathing suit    so i grabbed a blanket off my bed while i kept wondering would she be frightened of being on the beach watching the atlantic ocean come in    the atlantic is not a friendly ocean    the pacific ocean is pacific and sort of bluer    the atlantic is sort of gray steely and green and sometimes looks like stone and she wondered if we wouldnt be cold sitting out there near the edge of the surf but i assured her that we could always find a sunny spot and how exciting it was for us to see the sea in all of its grandeur drawing its skirts together in a final majestic image of power before it collapsed on the sand    but liuba was much more interested in the bird life and fascinated by the pompous looking grey and white birds strolling around in the wake of the surf and wanted to know what they were called    SEAGULLS    i said    and pointing to an especially pompous one she repeated after me I SEE SEAGULLS    she said it again insistently I SEE SEAGULLS and started to laugh    and i said why are you laughing    its so funny    don’t you see    I SEE SEAGULLS ICY SEAGULLS    and i thought it was so funny that it was so cold and that she loved the feel in her mouth of their name    as she loved the sound of it too    so much that my thoughts of icy were funnier than icy eagles though my thoughts of eagles were funny too but it was a kind of cool day and watching the seagulls and watching the waves come in getting stronger the way i told her they would    and advancing further up the beach in the course of the day    and coming further every day as i told her they would under the direction of the moon    how the waves would come in very strong as this was the atlantic and she said atlantic    which was a word she didnt like and didnt resemble any language she knew    and so my image of her was not as a refugee


     and as for charlie    what was he    in the course of time he joined the american army wangled a good job in the signal corps and got citizenship as well


    charlie was a very deft and skilled carpenter and mechanic and he would have been an engineer in a place where he was not a refugee but nothing hindered him and on the advice of an army buddy he went to a place where there was always a need for more houses    a city called houston    houston was a place a lot like southern florida    that would normally be under water    except that it happens not to be    like galveston


     and he went there with his buddy and they got jobs building cheap houses for a small company that couldnt keep pace with the demand and eventually sub-contracted the actual construction to charlie and tex who soon realized they could borrow from the banks all the capital they needed    so the two buddies eventually bought out the old owners and charlie brought liuba out to houston where she knew nobody    but he thought he was doing her good by building her this large blunt house that was too large and too empty for her and that he thought to make more livable by calling in a decorator who filled it with japanese screens rugs and huge chinese vases that made it feel even more alien than before while liuba seemed to be spending most of her time trying to hide from the maid or sitting by the window and watching it rain


David Antin                                                                                                                     at the Saint Marks Poetry Project                                                                               New York, New York                                                                                                       December 7, 2002                                                                                                           Re-Created July 2016