In the Hills of Joseph, Part 4: “Passing the Buck”
IN THE HILLS of JOSEPH
PART I: “The Windswept Soul”
PART II: “A Rivendell of Words”
PART III: “I Think I Am in Love”
PART IV: “Passing the Buck”
PART V: “Notes from the Empty Quarter”
PS: “May We All Become Neighbors”
If so, joy.”
~ Ko Un
By Douglas Imbrogno | July 18, 2012
So, like, there’s this three-point buck just chilling on the Fishtrap lawn. He’s in the way of me getting to my yurt, where I need to go because, well, the writer’s workshop has got me jazzed to write, write, write. And that way lies my MacBook Pro. And he’s in the way, this buck. I’m told that because tourists in the camp and nearby park who come to stunning Wallowa Lake and the mountains here in Joseph, Oregon, feed them, they’ve turned too tame. There’s the clover, too, in the grass they come to eat, leaving the hills and woods behind. These must be lucky deer — eating four-leaf clover for their breakfast. As I draw near to Mister Buck, he rises like a camel off his legs, ambles a few feet away. A couple kids who’ve come to Fishtrap with their parents chased after one the day before. A workshop compadre shoos them off — a quadrangle of them, calmly tearing grass with their incisors — as we approach across the lawn: “Go be deer!” she cries, encouraging them to be more traditional, timid things. Languidly, they move away. Return to clover-chomping: Rip, tear, chew; rip, tear, chew. You can hear it if you listen close.
I realize, Toto, I’m not in Kansas anymore. But there’s more.
I’ve been fortunate enough to get into the workshop led by Luis Alberto Urrea, a prolific, funny, socially and cosmically engaged writer who writes to die for. He’s the author of the transcendent family history-inspired novel, “The Hummingbird’s Daughter,” and its recent sequel, “Queen of America,” as well as a raft of other books, stories, essays, not to mention the non-fiction masterpiece “The Devil’s Highway.” That book is an account of how some Mexican men, led by a pathetic coyote human smuggler, bungled the attempt to cross the border into America. And how so many of them died beneath the unrelenting desert sun, not too far from rescue. Yet it’s not just a liberal howl, but as compassionate, wise and heartbreaking a book about our confounding southern border as exists on any shelf you’ll find. It’s powered by a quiet, controlled fury which allows the portrait he paints to speak for itself. Urrea doesn’t take the easy hit and diss the border patrol, but gets inside their own experience, their attempt to remain human in the inhuman conundrum the border poses. It should be required reading for all of Congress. Much less jingoistic haters and spittle-spewing politicos, who forget their grandmas or great-grandpas came searching for a better life, too, or a square meal, once, and so here they are.
“I stand barefoot on the springtime earth —
a flower is blooming from the top of my head.”
~ Ko Un
But I digress — and maybe rant. The book is not a rant, which is Luis’s gift. My longtime West Virginia mates, Bob and Heidi, who have up and moved to Oregon, have been trying for years to get me to take the Fishtrap plunge. They think it will be good for me. So, last year, they had Luis sign a copy of “The Hummingbird’s Daughter,” and address it to me with the admonition to get myself to Fishtrap. The book, a novelistic rendering of the legend of Luis’s great aunt, Teresita, deemed a saint in rural Mexico, is as wonderful and soul-feeding a book as anything I’ve read since “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Marquez. That’s a book I read at age 13 in hardback, after my mother brought its first edition home about 1970, after she had gotten a job at the new Walden bookstore in Forest Park, Ohio. It was her first job outside the home, after the enervating task of birthing and of raising six kids in a tumultuous, shout-filled household (where you might say anger was a seventh offspring). She would, in another life, have been a writer or earned an MFA. Or, at the least, been ecstatic to have come to a nirvana of the written word like Fishtrap. Working in a bookstore, her ambitious bookmark collection, a sprinkling of poems, omnivorous reading and a late-in-life attempt at a feature-writing class, were about as close as she would come.
Again, I digress. Reminder to self: <digress/> I should add that I think Luis has about heard it enough, the reviewers’ oft-cited comparison of his lightly seasoned magic-shamanic-flavored book to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s more totally magic-realistic work. Like comparing, say, a great golden ale — “Hummingbird” — to a dark porter — “Solitude.” Whatever, I am no critic. Just to say that, like many of its many fans, “The Hummingbird’s Daughter,” for me, was the single most nourishing book I’ve read for several decades. How’s that for a short review?
“You say a day’s too short?
You greedy thing.”
~ Ko Un
I am not about to try to encompass the week-long workshop with Urrea. It’s a loose, organic, inspiration-packed, encouraging exercise in figuring out how writing fits into the world in which you fit. It takes place in Cabin 20, near the bridge you cross to enter the Methodist Camp where Fishtrap, now in its 25th year, occurs. (“Cabin 20” is the name of an online writing discussion group maintained by fans of Urrea). The bridge passes over the muscular Wallowa River, whose tumble and rush are so loud behind Luis’s cabin we must close some of the windows, so we dozen workshoppers can hear, as he perches on the brick ledge of a fireplace and talks. When he gives us writing prompts — ‘What do your hands remember?’ or ‘Write about something you have let go of in your life’ — we grab fresh cherries or M&Ms from bowls Luis and Cindy, his eagle-eyed journalist wife and cohort, have set out. Then, head to the river’s side, where we sit on chairs or logs or grass to write.
Here’s a sample of the way Luis’s mind gets ours going, and a tale of live-action Fishtrap magic realism. Our class includes a mix of women and men, including a sweet young Korean-American woman, decorated with some nice tattoos. Luis passes round a hand-out which intersects her culture, a sheaf of short haiku-like poem fragments by a monk-poet named Ko Un, whose name is so close to ‘koan‘ as to to be wonderful. The handout’s introduction by Luis reads:
“I often find a mind that engages me in mysterious ways on this perpetual journey through the wilderness of writing. I find valuable stuff in that person’s work. And I like to share that stuff with my writing students. Basho, Issa, Annie Dillard, William Stafford, Kim Stafford, Richard Hugo, Charles Wright, Buson, Lu Chi. All kinds of wise and weird minds. Now, I am going to unleash Ko Un on you… arguably Korea’s greatest living zen-monk-poet. His books are full to the brim with interesting wisdom .. and foolishness. Perhaps they’re the same thing: fool’s wisdom. Here, randomly selected for you, are aphorisms for his poems. Koans, writing prompts, advice, admonishments, riddles, epigraphs. Perhaps an opening line….”
Note the ‘randomly selected’ line. Therein, lies some weird magic. And, indeed, he has typed out near to one hundred short bursts of Ko Un’s koan-ic verse. Fun, wise, acerbic:
No high-sounding nonsense can be allowed here
Endurance is the greatest journey of all
and a spider are speechless half the day
Then, Luis introduces what he says is one of his favorites. He reads to us:
By the pain of your darkness the moon rose
He really loves that one. Then, he gives us the day’s prompt: write about something we have given up, in the spirit of this year’s Fishtrap theme: ‘Catch and Release.’ Luis asks: “What have you released in your life?” And off we go to consult with the bubbling river out back. When we return, Luis looks like his head is about to explode. In fact, he holds it together with his hands, each astride his head. The Korean woman has come up to him. Held up her left wrist, which is encircled with blue tattooed Korean prose. The prose reads:
By the pain of your darkness the moon rose.
It’s a famous proverb in her homeland. She did not know it was by this guy, Ko Un. Luis did not know it was such a well-known Korean verse. They meet in the middle of the bridge of their amazement. And ours. It is, says Luis, the quintessential Fishtrap magic moment. Less than 24 hours later, at least two people not inside the room tell the story back to me out on the Fishtrap grounds full of its chilled-out deer.
I kind of like this place. Bob and Heidi were right.
It’s good for me.
“Without any words of welcome:
~ Ko Un
What have I released or given up? This is what Luis’s prompt produces from me and which I read out to the group upon our return to Cabin 20 (and thanks to you, o gurgling Wallowa River, for your assistance). I provide it here as an example of personal reportage from the front lines of Fishtrap:
This is what I’ve always sought.
To peer into the heart of things.
Remove these goddamned angel wings.
I am no saint, I’m not all sinner.
I am not damned, I’ve been a winner.
My father’s fist upon the table, I look askance and try to hate him. My mother cowers as I stand and come to her defense.
Yet it is hard to hate a father, especially a wounded one, who had no one to talk to as a man. Not a one, except his brother, in whose Sohio service station, in the shadow of the steel mills of Lake Erie he’d stand for hours, and the talk that came was all carburetor and ignition. Nothing of the fists that rained on him when he was just a boy like me and his papa — Eugenio Imbrognio, before they changed the name, perhaps at Ellis Island, dropped one ‘i’ and rounded out the ‘o’s — pummeled him there down upon the floor, hands raised.
Until he fled, age 17, onto the waves of Erie and Superior, a merchant machine, floating off from home, that infernal place. And so, in retrospect, my home was not so infernal as all of that. He did not hit, just raged, though words can strike like stones and crunch and break. And so, for years I bore his rage like bad tattoos, inked on my skin, a drunken misadventure or mistake. It is hard to hate a father! Especially one who was like a wounded bear, moaning in a cave.
So, when I was safe at last, in another state — in both senses of the word — I gave it up. And lo and behold, he came clear to me and stood before me as a boy. Like me. When you see your father as a boy like you, you know, it’s good.
He wrote me once a letter — nothing special. Hello, hi, how are you, we miss you, love, dad, goodbye. I keep it in the case of my guitar. His handwriting, going with me, everywhere my music goes.
IN THE HILLS of JOSEPH
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