in transit | patricia j. mclean at elohi gadugi

Lines of Descendance

The Israeli poet is Amer­i­can born. Israel, she says is ancient. Every­thing is old there, the build­ings, the streets, the tem­ples, mon­u­ments, ceme­ter­ies, hills, the sea — old, old, old. She feels the age of it like a line of descen­dance. It passes through her now. She is con­nected to the past and the future through that line. She has a role in the pas­sage of his­tory. A cer­tain future will exist because of her, like those behind her, she is cre­at­ing worlds.

She lives in the Set­tle­ments, so she is also con­nected to the destruc­tion of worlds. Cer­tain futures will not exist because she is there. She has made a choice to be there, to be part of the mak­ing and unmak­ing of worlds.

For now, she is on the win­ning side of the wall. Per­haps that is all the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion she requires of her­self to remain there.

I look around the world I inhabit. A world I did not choose, but my fore­bears did and they chose to be the mak­ers and unmak­ers of their times. They had no regard for the peo­ple whose worlds they were unmak­ing, peo­ple who died eas­ily by the touch of breath or skin. Peo­ple whose weapons were more suited to hunt­ing than war. Ancient his­tory is harder to read here. But it does exist as san­dals in a cave, arrow­heads, and 15,000 year old stone tools, Though few of us know how to do so, his­tory can also be read in the Willamette Val­ley which has been cul­ti­vated and manip­u­lated for thou­sands of years. Geol­o­gists deci­pher the pyro­cul­tural record In the strata of soil.

I remain here. Where would I go, a refugee from the sins of my fathers? A DNA test might tell me what Euro­pean fam­ily I have inher­ited the most genetic mate­r­ial from, but it won’t tell me if I have a place in that fam­ily. After all, my ances­tors were exiles, either self-imposed or forced. Who wel­comes home the exile? Who would make a place for me at their table?

tuesday on Powell

The sun is in the east, back­light­ing the slen­der blond haired woman in pony­tail cut­off jeans a light­weight jacket over her torso. One leg is bent a the knee, the other straight. She dan­gles a cig­a­rette from her right hand. A man with a bicy­cle stands a few feet from, and to the south, of her. The man sits motion­less astride the bike, his broad back cov­ered in a black t-shirt, wear­ing jeans, head bald, skin sun-browned or brown-brown.

As I near them, she bends. I think she is putting out her cig­a­rette, but she is pick­ing some­thing up off the ground. Pen­nies. And, as I pass, she says, “I’m going to need some luck today.” Or did she say, “every­one needs some luck”?

She might have been a pros­ti­tute. Cer­tainly there are those who would make that assump­tion. But what does that say about who she is really, or even what she is? Her story, her exis­tence is so long and so deep, I can’t say any­thing about it. I can only see this moment, when she bent from the waist and her pony­tail fell down along her arm and the sun lit it up and lit up the line of her fore­arm as sweetly as a sun ever kissed anyone.

Covert Purple

You drop that lit­tle piece of some­thing out the win­dow of the car, covertly, as if to hide it from the dri­ver or any­one who might be watch­ing. As if I were an under­cover bicy­cle cop and the fine for lit­ter­ing might sud­denly be enforced and the price too much to pay, but the risk is one you’ll take, carefully.

What impels you to decide that this bit, this small strip of pur­ple noth­ing, should flut­ter to the street here instead of to the floor of the car in which you are a passenger?

What bird will find some­thing other than death by eat­ing it? Why should I, or this world, this earth, this street be less impor­tant than the inte­rior of that car?

I know noth­ing about you. Why you were so furtive when you dropped that bit. It might have been a bandaid, or a pur­ple strip of paper with a secret inscribed. You’ve been kid­napped and you are leav­ing a trail in the des­per­ate hope that some­one will fol­low and find you. You work for the CIA, you’re a spy and you thought I was your con­tact. The sig­nal con­veyed, I should go to the drop site and pick up the lat­est code, I will deci­pher the mes­sage, uncover betrayal.

I think of this too late. You’re already far down the road. I’ll never be able to give you a sign, to let you know that I am not your con­fed­er­ate. It was a dropped sig­nal in the dark any­way. One you never expected to complete.

Milepost 5

Mon­day, July 25th

Sleep past five am eludes me. I sit in the old white wing­back watch­ing the sky glow a lighter shade of grey as the moments slip past. Objects in the room take form, stacks of boxes, so many fewer now than yes­ter­day. We worked non­stop on Sun­day and my bones feel it, my knees and feet ache.

The loft is find­ing a shape under­neath the bur­den of our belong­ings. There is not quite yet a space for the couch com­ing tomor­row. So glad we didn’t get it last week.

Phone line is not con­nected yet so we don’t have the net. This is good. Instead of play­ing stu­pid games, I’m writ­ing. I need to write so bad and I have the draw­ing ache again. Some­times I need to have a pen­cil in my hand and be slop­ing across the page, lay­ing down lines as if there were a pur­pose to it.

On Sat­ur­day night with our refrig­er­a­tor still basi­cally bar­ren, we went urban for­ag­ing and found a Chi­nese restau­rant half a block away. Some of the best Chi­nese food I have had in Portland.

In the court­yard of the Stu­dios, a painter was busy at his easel as the light dimmed from after­noon to evening.

Rain this morn­ing loud enough to hear. I am happy that we will be able to hear it rain. Wind pushes at the leaves of the maple tree. It feels good to be home.

Bless You?

I think we should be mind­ful with lan­guage, to know what we are say­ing before we speak. Every­body knows that words are more pow­er­ful than sticks and stones despite the school­yard litany to the con­trary. Bones mend, and if you think that words can­not kill you, then the lessons of his­tory have been lost on you.

Leav­ing aside the deadly uses of lan­guage, what do we know about the words we use daily with­out think­ing? Words of greet­ing: Good Morn­ing, How are you, Have a nice day, Bless you.

Greet­ings and salu­ta­tions. Hello and to your health. Friendly, with mean­ing only so far as to say, I’m not going to pull out a knife and kill you actu­ally or metaphor­i­cally, and whether or not we mean to be friendly when we make the greet­ing is not the point. How often are we think­ing about  how much we would like the stranger or friend we are greet­ing to have a good morn­ing? How would we know what a good morn­ing would look like to them? How often do we really want to hear a report of someone’s con­di­tion when we query, how are you? Have a nice day– nice, not spec­tac­u­lar, nice as if that is the best we can hope for or are will­ing to con­fer upon another.

Bless you? Ah, now there’s a greet­ing, a salu­ta­tion that car­ries a lot of bag­gage. This one is doing more than say­ing, “I’m not going to kill you”. This one is an iden­ti­fier. It says, “I’m Chris­t­ian”. The per­son offer­ing the greet­ing may indeed want to con­fer the bless­ings of God upon the friend or stranger or they may just want to make a state­ment about their own identity.

I’m think­ing there are very many folk out there bring­ing down the bless­ings of God upon their fel­low human beings who have not really exam­ined the mean­ing of the word bless.  Lately, I’ve been study­ing French and read­ing French news on the net. Lots of these news sto­ries involve, as one would expect, events wherein per­sons meet with unex­pected death or are wounded, injured as a result of some calamity. Tuer, to kill. Mort, death. Blessé, injured. Interesting.

Look up the ety­mol­ogy of  that word, bless and you find that it is san­guine. All about blood and sac­ri­fice. To be blessed is to bleed in the cause of some­thing. A word like this is beau­ti­fully ambigu­ous. To be blessed by God could mean to be wounded by con­tact and that wound could be the sign of your state of grace. Holy wounds. Like the Mora­vians who became obsses­sively focused on the wounds of Jesus. Like stigmata.

But over time, as the expe­ri­ence of being human in the Eng­lish speak­ing world  becomes ever more removed from dan­ger, as death with­draws to a safer dis­tance, we lose con­tact with the san­guine ele­ment of blessing.

To invoke bless­ing becomes less about the blood of Jesus and the life of the spirit and more about remov­ing obsta­cles that stand between our­selves and what we want. And also about reveal­ing our own sanc­ti­mony.  Who stops to con­sider whether or not the recip­i­ent of the invo­ca­tion has any inter­est in the bless­ing? Like a spell being cast, an unso­licited prayer may be per­ceived as unau­tho­rized interference.


A man with a gun walks into a town hall ses­sion in a park­ing lot in Tuc­son, Ari­zona. He kills six peo­ple among them a judge, a child, a politician’s staffer, an elderly man, he seri­ously wounds a US Con­gress­woman. He is dri­ven by some ter­ri­ble cer­tainty,  or some incom­pre­hen­si­ble logic, or cog­ni­tive dys­func­tion, or insan­ity. Within hours, as the inves­ti­ga­tion unfolds, it becomes known that his behav­ior grew increas­ingly bizarre over the months pre­ced­ing this action. It is also appa­rant that he planned to kill the rep­re­sen­ta­tive. He took time to buy a gun, to buy ammu­ni­tion, to say good­bye on Facebook.

Will we find out that he was an unhappy child, that he suf­fered bul­ly­ing or other abuse? Or will we find out that he was quiet, a loner, or that he was pop­u­lar and out­go­ing? Will we find out that he was indis­tin­guish­able from thou­sands of other chil­dren and only grew into unrea­son as an adult? I’m not sure it mat­ters what we find out about him.

What we find out about our­selves is more impor­tant and has more poten­tial to impact our world, our coun­try, our com­mu­ni­ties. The man with the gun will be tried, judged, and sen­tenced. His power is spent, his day is done.

Has the event fright­ened peo­ple? Is that why we hear peo­ple voic­ing so much vio­lence as they describe what should be done to the shooter? Fear is often masked by bravado, hatred, vio­lence. So maybe that is what it is. Mil­lions of ter­ri­fied peo­ple. But I don’t think so. I really don’t. What I hear in their words is that they have iden­ti­fied their tar­get, just as the shooter iden­ti­fied his. There was some­thing wrong he thought he could make right by killing a par­tic­u­lar per­son in a very pub­lic and delib­er­ate way. He had his tar­get. Now he is the tar­get. He is the thing that can be destroyed in order to make things right again. There is some­thing pri­mal about this. A sac­ri­fice must be made.

We scent the air for blood. Our noses twitch­ing our hands reach­ing for the stones. Except that the rule of law stands between us and our blood­lust. All we can do, the most we can do is envi­sion the hor­ri­ble things that ought to be done to the shooter and seize the oppor­tu­nity to broad­cast our ulti­mate solu­tion. And for some, for many, the vision and the chant will elicit glee, for some the plea­sure will arouse.

A few, too few, will wit­ness this mob mad­ness with dis­may, despair­ing that human­ity will not ever rise above its baser instincts, that as a species, we will never learn how to rea­son. We hear Gandhi say, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” and then we pluck out eyes with greedy aban­don. Gandhi was wrong. The whole world is already blind. We are blind peo­ple grasp­ing at the blind eyes of our neigh­bors, grop­ing in dark­ness afraid of the intol­er­a­ble light just beyond our cave.

Wordstock — Portland, Oregon

We went to Word­stock today walk­ing the mile and a half there in a steady driz­zle. One umbrella between us, which I used because Duane has a hat. Just the one umbrella. I’ve lost too many of them to be trusted with one of my own. It really didn’t seem like that much of a rain, but we were damp by the time we got to the Con­ven­tion Cen­ter. There were not many attend­ing Word­stock. Not like in years past. Some­thing a lit­tle depress­ing about it this year. I don’t know when they started charg­ing for the event, but I think that has some­thing to do with the lower turnout.

We cruised the booths. I had a nice chat with a cou­ple of ven­dors. Duane and I went to our friend’s read­ing and there really wasn’t any­one else we were inter­ested in hear­ing until much later in the after­noon and even though we paid $7 to get in, we left to find some­thing to eat and go home. We talked about why Word­stock seemed so unsat­is­fy­ing this year. We fig­ured that most of the atten­dees were writ­ers or peo­ple involved in the pub­lish­ing indus­try in some way. The exhibitors were much the same–writers and pub­lish­ers. Noth­ing wrong with that. Except that some­thing is miss­ing. It isn’t cre­ative or excit­ing. It’s restric­tive, tra­di­tional, stodgy.

Port­land has a ten­dency to be stodgy in spite of all the young cre­atives every­one claims have moved here in droves, in spite all the tat­too par­lors and micro-brew pubs, at heart Port­land has always been the sort of city a lit­tle afraid to color out­side the lines. At least on the sur­face and it is on the sur­face where Word­stock takes place. What Port­land needs is an under­ground lit­er­ary fes­ti­val for all the fringe dwellers and mar­gin­alised folk, the ones who can’t afford the Writer’s Dojo or writ­ing jaunts to Prague with their favorite author. It should take place on the streets and in the cof­fee houses and small book­stores. It should take place in the tat­too par­lors and brew-pubs.

A proper lit­er­ary fes­ti­val would be a cel­e­bra­tion. It would be a recog­ni­tion of lan­guage as the pri­mary medium of cul­ture. It would explore the his­tory of story, the pol­i­tics and eco­nom­ics of lit­er­a­ture, the state of the pub­lish­ing indus­try, how lit­er­a­ture has been shaped by invention–the print­ing press, the inter­net. There would be dis­cus­sions on the impact of film on lit­er­a­ture, the search for authen­tic voice, and trans­la­tion. It would involve the­ater and mean­ing­ful workshops.

Peo­ple would read their work, sell it, trade it, give it away. We might come to under­stand that the tra­di­tion of word is an end­lessly evolv­ing cre­ative stream and we could walk away daz­zled by our own dreams, which is how it should be.

even the dandelions are beautiful

The cherry tree across the street is thickly bloom­ing. Heavy pink clus­ters wave in the slight breeze and con­trast against the lush green lawn dot­ted with dan­de­lions. Grape hyacinths edge along the base of the house. Trees all around are push­ing out new leaves. Tulips of red, yel­low, pink, pump­kin, pur­ple, black, white, striped and spot­ted, abundant–Spring in Portland.

In Powell’s the thin white girl, in a thin white dress, with thin brown hair sits bent over her work. Her right arm forms a tri­an­gle, bent at the elbow back toward her body and her back bent the way it is forms another tri­an­gle with her legs. In her pale skin the blue veins glow. On her shoul­der blade a tat­too is vis­i­ble through the gauzy mate­r­ial of her white cot­ton dress. She is all angles and transparency.

Book Review: The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl

Title: The Windup Girl
Author: Paolo Baci­galupi
ISBN: 978–1-59780–157-7
Pub­lisher: Night Shade Books

Paolo Baci­galupi presents us with a dev­as­tat­ing vision of the world that could be should we allow the cor­po­ra­tions with their pro­duc­tion of GMOs to con­trol our food sup­ply as they seem dis­turbingly intent upon doing. He also reminds us that change and suf­fer­ing are con­stants in human existence.

Every­thing is under extreme ten­sion in Bacigalupi’s Thai­land city of Krung Thep. Sea­gates guard the city from inun­da­tion, but dur­ing the mon­soons must be aug­mented with coal-fired pumps, which add to the envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, which in turn has led to ris­ing ocean lev­els. Star­va­tion is held at bay with genet­i­cally mod­i­fied foods, which are sus­cep­ti­ble to toxic dis­eases. Every­thing cre­ated to solve one prob­lem cre­ates another.

So many mil­lions have died since the dis­ap­pear­ance of cheap energy and safe food crops that the departed must wait and wait and wait for suit­able bod­ies to rein­car­nate. They hang about wait­ing, some­times engag­ing in con­ver­sa­tion with the living.

And the ten­sion spring is the pri­mary power sup­ply for almost every­thing. Trains are pow­ered by them, but the vast major­ity of peo­ple travel no faster than a bicy­cle. A vehi­cle from the “expan­sion” era trav­els at speeds almost incom­pre­hen­si­ble for the peo­ple of Krung Thep and are as rare as snow leopards.

There are new beings in this world. Cheshire cats, genet­i­cally engi­neered as a birth­day gift to a mod­ern Alice, have sup­planted the domes­tic feline. There are new peo­ple, too. Peo­ple made of recom­bined DNA of ani­mals and humans to exhibit the obe­di­ence of dogs and the strength and speed of the swiftest and strongest of ani­mals. There are also flaws delib­er­ately engi­neered into these peo­ple. They can­not repro­duce and their cool­ing sys­tem is defi­cient caus­ing them to over­heat quickly.

But they are human in shape and thought and feel­ings. Most every­one regards them as less than human, with­out souls. It is the old argu­ment. That which has no soul is less than and can be cre­ated, exploited and dis­posed of with­out con­sid­er­a­tion, with­out karmic consequence.

Is this a story about the ten­sion between good and evil? It could be, but The Windup Girl is not that sim­ple. It is a story about choices and about the con­se­quence of choice. Ulti­mately, the char­ac­ters must make choices they can live with and in that way are all, includ­ing the windup girl her­self, exactly like the rest of us.

My rat­ing: 5.0 stars

Review: The Fourth Century

The Fourth Century

Title: The Fourth Cen­tury
Author: Édouard Glis­sant
Trans­la­tion: Betsy Wing.
ISBN: 0–8032-7083–6
Pub­lisher: Uni­ver­sity of Nebraska Press, 2001

All this wind…”

These are Papa Longoué’s first words in The Fourth Cen­tury by Édouard Glis­sant. The wind is a con­stant theme in the novel. It is a wind of enor­mous force, a hur­ri­cane which car­ries off his silent wife, Edmée, to her death. It is the wind of his­tory, of our own his­to­ries which if not known blows us all to our deaths, asleep. The Fourth Cen­tury awak­ens the dead and gives them voice. This is the African descen­dants’ his­tory of Mar­tinique. A his­tory not writ­ten, not exam­ined, triv­i­al­ized by the French colo­nial­ists who, as the con­querors, the ones in power, anni­hi­late the peo­ple they must con­trol by anni­hi­lat­ing their lan­guages and histories.

His­tory is writ­ten by the dom­i­nant cul­ture and is pri­mar­ily con­cerned with the bat­tles and vic­to­ries of the most pow­er­ful and wealthy in that cul­ture. The Fourth Cen­tury departs from that par­a­digm and presents the oral his­tory of the African descen­dants’ expe­ri­ence as slave, as maroon, as freed men and women, as toil­ers in the soil, as indi­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies seek­ing mean­ing and life on the island, while never quite able to for­get or remem­ber the “infi­nite coun­try” from which they were torn.

Glissant’s stream of con­scious­ness approach cre­ates a prose poem of a novel, beau­ti­ful from the begin­ning to the end. In many ways it is incom­pre­hen­si­ble for the non-African, non-Martinican, but what is glean­able, what is know­able, is so worth know­ing that what is unknow­able can only be mourned, not ignored. To read Glis­sant is to begin to scratch the back of the mir­ror, to see through the sliv­ers to another world.

My rat­ing: 5.0 stars