A BRIEF CONSIDERATION OF EXAQUA [N ZONG!,] BY JAN-HENRY GRAY
When it comes to poets, we know the French. The Japanese. The craftsmen of the Middle East, of course, but who are the Filipino? thinks the writer (me), lost in a fin de siècle semester ending daze, surfing through a sort of blog (last updated in 2010) in which Filipino poetry celebrates itself, crazy desperate fools!, he (me) thinks, staring at the ground, a gray tile of mangled paperclips and gnawed pen caps and institutional dust, or something like that, though maybe it isn't dust (or even that dusty; more substantial, with flecks of broken Doritos—a grime?); staring at an avalanche of ungraded student stories piled upon the metal desk. Midwest stories of the rustbelt: basketball and bass fishing and prescription opiates and rape. Abandoned automotive parts factories. Flooded corn fields (or sometimes soybean). Old barns collapsed or ablaze. School buses spinning on black ice and pit bulls being shot-gunned in front yards and this one animation major wrote (and illustrated) a fable about a star (one of the studs in the belt of the constellation Orion) impregnating a passing comet, somewhat scandalous since stars are millions of years old while a comet only lives a youthful few thousand...But onto other interstellar matters: Read Jan-Henry Gray! For the sheer exuberance! A gem glowing in the gravel path of the cemetery. A sun bursting through the sky that is presently and persistently forming storm clouds in the glossy brown hue of shit. Or: Who is exuberant about anything, in these ponderous days?
Bankers? Okay bankers. They leap from bed with the bloody hatchet and the cackle of crazed creatures!
Registered nurses? No.
The lettuce-pickers of Salinas?
Those who crawl into the scalding cramped caves at the heart of any recreational vehicle plant, to clean with a spackling tool the gangly robots that paint the chassis in oxidized aluminum. To pick and scrape at the welded spackle, hunched and sweating in the dark. While muttering, we must suppose, to a lost father or an aloof deity or maybe just to an absent conceptual stepladder (or a missing staircase). I don't think so.
Those that construct breadsticks?
Those that fly drones, professionally...
Those that construct levels? Those that dye the little yellow water in the center of the level. Those that add the essential leveling bubble. Those that test the level of the levels. No. Exuberance is never meticulous.
Morning radio DJs? You'd think that, wouldn't you? But one always gets the feeling they live in a stifled hysteria, perhaps physically chained by their hands (and by tight, scuffed painful cuffs) to folding metal chairs. The microphone moist with spittle. Digital laughter. Under it all, their voices plead.
Cashiers at party supply stores?
At the pharmacy?
At Rural King? Those that sell rope, wire, shovels. NO TRESPASSING signs. Tortilla chips.
Or produce section employees? They stack the pebbled oranges; they stack the apples and the mangoes into precarious pyramids. The customers molest the fruit: loiter, eye, gaze far too long, feel, push, prod, heft, squeeze and weigh. The pyramids tumble onto the floor with a laugh, then sigh. Will you please thump this melon? The produce section employees dutifully thump the melons (rap with knuckles or flick a finger, often the middle) with no clear idea, no hypothesis or calculation, no reason as to what or how or even as to why.
What of the spouses of professional athletes? What an odd suggestion. They who wear dark, angular clothing and sunglasses indoors. A persistent wary fatigue. Reminding me of the smeary sheen that routinely accumulates onto binocular lenses or eyeglasses (or even souvenir beer mugs), no matter how much I rub or clean. Blurriness can contain multitudes, but not exuberance.
Under a pressing, hot sun, a farmer in Arkansas once sold me, with some exuberance at first (while discussing the perceived craftsmanship of American products), a used washing machine for thirty-five dollars, but then went onto something about a survival bunker he'd built into a hillside, the poor quality of his soil, the increased frequency of flooding over the last decade and then further onto the uncertainties (or lack of) of his colon cancer diagnosis...The exuberance fell away into shadows. The air trembled. The cicadas of an Arkansas afternoon roar more than sing, truly.
You're supposed to cry every day. Laugh, every day. (There's a third thing, I forget.) Because who knows how long you strut and fret this stage. Then trap door: poof! But why not drop all that and just read Jan-Henry Gray? Four points, all metaphors for the actual toil of writing (at least to my thinking), from EXAQUA [in Zong!,]:
First time I walked over to the blue house and banged on the doors (ripped screens, peeling away like ancient wallpaper). Javon answered in his underwear, saw me through a slit in the doorframe, and leapt back into darkness. Then Heather arrived and we both froze. Her hair shone wet and she wore a black sports bra (with ample cleavage) and tight jeans. I stared at her forehead and said awkwardly, "We can't do this? Can't have your dogs running free."
Second time I paced around the garage (basically stalling) and then downed a shot of vodka and walked over and said to Heather: "How can I be more direct? Some neighbors buy a leash or a rope. Some have an electric fence. I'm trying to be cool here, but you need to do something. Come on."
The third time Heather's face was flushed red (as if angry or intoxicated or perhaps just interrupted during a physical activity) and I painted a more personal picture, offering: "I have small dogs, on leashes. I have a kid who gets off the bus at three."
The fourth time Javon staggered out from the house (a rare event, Javon's appearance) with a cigarette dangling from his mouth and his body bent over as if injured in the groin. He hobbled over to the loose dogs. The pit bulls loped up my driveway, along the ditch, dug at the grass, pissed on my walnut trees...And then the front door of my house flew open and my spouse stepped out and screamed, "Get-your-fucking-dogs! Off-our-fucking-lawn! Right-fucking-now!"
Javon seemed to collapse into himself, to fold like a wadded wet rag; he hunched about in a circle, calling after the dogs (I never did actually get their names).
As a parting volley, my spouse hollered out, "We! Have! Guns!" Then slammed shut the door.
Even now, the blue house, it doesn't sell. It just sits and sags. Crumbling brick steps, fly-spotted windows. Crickets buzzing in the high grass. And I still don't know what my spouse meant by those parting words to Javon. Startled, I looked up in that moment and squinted at my spouse and had this overwhelming feeling of a stranger watching another stranger in a dream, slow-motion, drifting, enveloped in a smeary haze of green underwater sea (or maybe a type of gas or fog), if that makes any sort of sense...words floating out into gauzy air: We have guns. A warning or a threat? Unfriendly advice. An inventory. An offering. A variety of word problem. A type of spiritual principle for thinking out the days. An effective use of the concrete over the abstract notion? A certain nuance of that concept, exuberance. Or just a simple declarative statement of things to come.
At first, I thought writing about writing was ridiculous (even for writers). But then I totally flip-flopped and began to see the impressive ways writers actually wrote about writing. Then I stumbled upon the only true response: I am now writing a manuscript with the absurd premise of Writing about Writing about Writing, wherein I write about writing, um, about writing. So. This poem by Gray was written about writing, in a very nuanced way, so naturally I wrote about it.