Christopher Buckley

Yo Paseo

          Yo paseo con calma, con ojos, con zapatos,
          con furia, con olvido

Out early, I’m arm in
arm with the damp shadows
before they disappear
in the heat, while I’m calm,
before I forget still more . . .
I’m trying to leave the remorse
I share with the sea behind,
but the marine layer weighs
on my shoulders, pulls
at my hamstrings each time
I bend to admire the day lilies
just opening to the sun.

A week ago I was sure
it was my father in that
tiny coffee shop on Carrillo,
tapping his college ring
on the counter along with
Andre Kostelanetz and his orchestra
over the Muzak—now and then,
I still see my mother
window shopping on State Street,
in front of I. Magnin
for nothing she can afford.
I’m walking downtown,
toward the sea, and look
like some city inspector
checking store fronts for cracks
and water stains, trying to
remember what was there.

What use is it wondering
where the time has gone,
or the lilacs, the loquats
crushed on the sidewalks?
Metaphysics amounts to
nothing more than an itch
at the back of my neck.
I continue in the same dust-
colored coat and shoes—
spindrift tossed up from rocks,
the air stretched thin
to a point on the horizon
where I just can’t see
any further, though I do my best
to recall whatever I can
before the remaining bits
and pieces of memory
fade with the light,
with a last supplication
of acacia leaves . . .
our breath evaporating,
drifting toward the burning
spokes of stars, the furious silence
everything’s headed for. . . .

Palinode on Faith

          Por debajo de me alma y tras del humo de me aliento.                                                                        
                                       —César Vallejo

If I have this right,
swans drift in contentment
with no inner life—
we grasp at fireflies,
at memory, paraphrasing
a starburst world.

The moon reaches
for the roots of the sea—
on sidewalks, bottles
clutch a bit of street light
against the night
that has nothing to do
with the empty wardrobe
of metaphysics—deep
as lint in my pockets . . .
flags of the past
yet to be burnt. . . .

This now, is how things stand
with me . . . eucalyptus
blossoms echo sea clouds
as sky-deep as stars
we cannot see all day
or the asterisks of galaxies
spinning away to
who knows where?

There are no irreducible
complexities, no witnesses,
no testimony to receive,
no glorious metempsychosis—
nothing fills the teleological
saddle bags for those who
shine their shoes
and stay home planning
a year from Sunday?

I’m sitting on the ledge
of doubt where it takes more
than prayer, than patience
to pull up some forsaken bits
to save us . . . more than
this assorted nonsense
floating a boat of theologians,
though I have always walked
carefully in my sneakers
past the boneyard,
guessing at the unmeasured
distance between me
and the unforgiving edge
of our atmosphere,
having always meant
to filch a phrase or two
from a pocket of wind
when it calmed
and was unaware. . . .
But nothing’s convinced me
that my estimations
were anywhere close
to correct; nothing
in my messenger bag
to convey meaning
at last. . . .
                    Just this
window by the sea
where it’s too late,
where little reaches
beyond uselessness,
where the only certainty
has been agony, signaled
repeatedly by wild dogs
at the border, refugees
fleeing the excuses
for free trade, the pant legs
of hope ripped up in
the streets.
                    Still spume
and spindrift cling to the air
here as if deliverance
were available every time
the sky changed shirts,
or whenever I wake up
on the sand, salt collecting
on my lips, fog drifting
into my eyes like the catechism
of the blind . . . sooner or later
my roof belonging to the winds
as I fall asleep waiting
for autumn,
                    for celestial
reciprocations, subtle, or
delirious as the bewildered
mockingbird proclaiming
the illegible text of dawn—
the fragmented notes
of rain, logs smoldering
on the beach, smoke drifting
south. My breath fuses
with the last grey smear
of a horizon where our cells
have a standing
invitation to oblivion,
to dusk dissolving there
like light inside a flower,
like the green arteries
of trees.
cosmologists, whizzes
at math—the algorithm
for suffering is still unresolved.
There is no denominator
for the equivocation of the sky,
for every exile still working
under their black stars.
Who can look further
than the sea foam,
the shore cliff, above which
the stars and a few thousand
years of this, have hardly
changed anything? Anyone
who’s been paying attention
can see that the details
have been largely unavailable
from the get-go,
that the sediment’s run off
with our wishes in the tides. . . .
Make what you will of
all this—what’s the significance
of precisely knowing
the number of light years
to the nearest star
no one will ever reach?

This evening separates
a squadron of clouds,
feathers that dissolve
into nothing, into salt
on the shoulders
of mist, the fractured
geometry of our molecules,
calculus of our bones,
bylaws of our blood
divided by the cold light
of Christ—the tempest
filling the distance
between here and
the towers of wind.
Who’s listening to the dark
language of space,
or the coordinates of
electrolytes rebounding
through our veins,
the silence of roots
and the soft furniture
of sleep—the sharp scent
of rust rising on the air
with our worn breath—
the pause before the last
question mark of dusk?

Star Axis

I have found that if you get astronomers and physicists drunk enough, you can get them to admit that what’s going on in the quantum field is not a hair’s breadth from metaphysics . . . the deeper they go with this stuff, the more mysterious it gets  . . .  
                                        —Charles Ross

Galaxies burn out there like fires
far down the beach, suggesting a shore
at the other side of wherever it was
we started to explain the sky, wherever
beneath the north star we began sailing
toward the indefinable infinite—staring up. . . .
We did little more than name constellations
and circumnavigate our hopes, the Milky Way
emptying like the blue earth’s misted breath,
into a dark river where it’s all a backwash
of stellar tides. . . water glittering before us—
a backdrop or bridge once, down to the ancients
living just above the clouds. . . .
                                                                  For every particle
in our cosmic bubble, there was a precursor,
some bit existing from the get-go and no explanation
of where it/they came from? There’s science
more than a little familiar with faith as far back
as the Dark Ages.
                                      We’ve developed atomic grids
for carbon 14, for the Triple-alpha process
with 6 protons, neutrons, electrons created in stars,
for sea water the antecedent of our blood.
They think they’re sure now how every quantum scrap
of life breaks down in the rush and swim of everything
we’ve reasoned out to date, with almost no mass to begin—
which is what they discovered God particles were for.

Or it could be that time is catching up with us, if,
that is, you believe time is doing anything at all?
The sky surrenders every iota of color; we continue
to be transformed by each reluctance to our brief history,
each shooting star, lost breath and swirl of dust
in the evening—night rising, shouldering the stars
deep as doubt, as far as we can see. . . .

Growing Old with Einstein

	The outstretched tongue reflects my political views.

	Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity;
	and I’m not sure about the universe.
			                     —Albert Einstein

Still in my memory is that
famous photo of Einstein
trying to avoid the paparazzi
after his 72nd birthday party
at Princeton, 1951—
sticking his tongue out
at the press, J. Edgar Hoover,
every university administrator
and assistant under-secretary
poking their noses in.
Comrade, I like to think,
whenever I come across it
as that photograph always
lightens my irreverent,
and irregular heart.

And I also love that shot
of him riding his bicycle
around campus in his 60s,
sockless, legs splayed,
gliding on the slapdash air—
his white electric hair
shocking the wind, grinning
for all he’s worth
having just escaped
(I can almost remember the feeling)
the classroom into the freedom
of the afternoon air . . .
his bare-backed imagination
articulating the scaffolding
beneath matter and time
so that now every schoolboy
knows the speed of light,
and that gravity waves
have finally slipped
beneath our doors
with no particular effects
other than leaving me
feeling we’re not headed
far beyond our bones.

So no matter what
metaphysical scheme
you’ve signed up for,
whether you’re singing
in the choir or not,
you’ll still find yourself
living in 4 dimensions,
among the unreconstructed
fragments of the unified field,
all which oppose the odds
of immortality, regardless
of the elegance of any equations
you can solve, or who you believe is,
or is not, rolling the dice. . . .

Author’s Note

Scraping by: Writing & the Uncertainty Principle

 “I started off with nothing and still have most of it.” 

No one starts out thinking they will get rich. Most writers begin believing they might have something to say—they’re not sure what it is exactly, but they want to say it. Perhaps an over-confident young novelist or two feel they are headed for a payday, though eventually they become aware that modest economic survival would be a good outcome.

Sure, there are exceptions. I had a friend with early success—a big poetry book prize, cash award, top publisher, best magazines. He’d grown up in an impoverished environment, and success in the future was no sure thing, so he kept thinking up ways to moonlight and bring in income for what experience told him were lean times to come. Mid-career, doing well, a substantial savings account, he told me about a scheme in which he and his wife would set up a lab for dental work in their garage fashioning crowns, bridges, etc.; there was money to be had between the lab, the dentist, and the invoice to the patient. He had no schooling or background in the field, so that daydream never developed, but it was one of many shiny objects out there in the face of uncertainty; he never stopped thinking about money, even though he had it.

During high school, I worked at the grocery for $1.65 an hour so I could buy my clothes and pay insurance on a beat-up Bel Air. TV ads aimed at a young demographic, Air Jordans, NIKE T-shirts and flash running gear, were decades away. We didn’t complain; who knew there was much of anything else? I wrote some tortured and inward complaints about failed romance, but was I thinking of choosing poetry as my life’s work, far from it. I have no idea what I was thinking then, other than not working grocery for the rest of my life. But I’ve always remembered lines from a poem by Nikki Giovanni about her truly impoverished childhood:

          how good the water felt when you got your bath
          from one of those
          big tubs that folk in chicago barbecue in 

She found happiness in her family and daily surroundings despite what people outside her experience would see as deprivation. 

College was a constant scramble for cash—weekend jobs “gardening” meant moving a hill from one side of a new subdivision house to the other for $1.50 an hour, no lunch. The “food” in the refectory was so miserable that my friends and I spent whatever we made on crackers, liverwurst, and cheese from the 7-11, or once in a great while chop suey at the bowling alley café—though “board” was included with the tuition. I took a job in the refectory cleaning trays and dishes for $1.75 an hour, and after a month of slopwork I moved to preparation and was assigned to hamburgers for Friday lunch. Friends I sat with looked forward to Friday hamburgers, went back for 2nds and 3rds. I never did; the burgers were small, gristly enough to bounce like super balls, and required waves of ketchup and relish to kill the taste. I was given an apron and a large cardboard box with no USDA markings whatsoever. No sources of poetry there. An ice cream scoop in hand, a greasy cookie tray on the table, I was instructed to open the box and place five scoops across and as many rows down the tray, throw an equally greasy dishtowel over the humps of meat and smash them flat with a large can of tomato juice. As soon as I opened the box and peeled the plastic back from the meat, I knew what it was. As a kid one of my chores had been to mix dinner for my father’s Irish Setter: kibble and fresh horse meat from the pet store. You never forget the smell. I finished my shift and never went back. As much as college kids like beer, most of our cash went to food, especially when staying up late writing term papers, or my first miserable poems. 

I got through grad school on cans of pinto beans, peas, and soy burgers, plus meals scrounged from relatives weekends or holidays. A tub of spaghetti marinara occasionally tossed together for my MFA comrades was as big a feast as I managed. After workshops, my pals and I shared green, seed-bitter, white wine—a large bottle with old Beniamino Cribari’s photo smiling at us from the label. Jon Veinberg and Gary Soto had a porch overlooking the Pacific in their Laguna Beach September to June rental, (in summer, students were out as monthly rents turned into weekly rates), and we’d sit out there with plastic tumblers filled with ice to help the hard wine go down. It was $1.49 a bottle and no one complained after the first glass; we praised and dissected our work, celebrated the sea, the spindrift of our days. Small price to pay.

I received a scholarship to the Squaw Valley Writing Conference the summer in between the two years of our program—room, board, and fees paid if I could get there—but I couldn’t make the trip. No cash saved up, and I needed my jobs teaching tennis to groups at the municipal courts and clerking in the liquor store at night to pay my bills.

After grad school, I became Freeway Faculty—part-time teaching of basic writing and evening classes at three junior colleges plus ten to twelve hours a week in the Learning Skills Trailer at the University. For a year at Saddleback Community College I taught a Saturday 7 AM basic writing course to 25 Laotian students; no overtime/weekend pay incentive. This put an end to any Friday night socializing, early morning writing time; but I gratefully took whatever work came my way.

Proposition 13 passed in support of corporate real estate interests in California, and with the subsequent cuts to education even my dreary weekend jobs disappeared. I moved to Fresno thinking I’d lined up classes for the fall, but when I walked into the Chair’s office at Fresno State he said he’d never seen my application materials? Three months unemployment and substituting at high schools where teachers were on strike, sustained me until the following semester when the chair assigned me three classes of composition—a full-time teaching load paying part-time. As I’ve said elsewhere, this turned out to be the major poetry award of my life as I shared an office with Philip Levine, my poetic hero who became an invaluable friend and mentor, whose advice kept my head above the competitive waters. Did I move ahead to acclaim in the capitals of the world?  Of course not. But I kept working and knew the focus was on the writing regardless of immediate results, or lack thereof. The saving grace was the 8:00 class with five or six students nodding-out while I declaimed the pitfalls of the comma splice and offered humorous examples of dangling modifiers. By mid-semester the sleep walkers dropped and I had fewer compositions to respond to over the weekend. I picked up ad copy writing for a small graphic design company, writing tag lines for a jewelry store offering heart-shaped cakes with any Valentine’s Day purchase, for the valley’s Olive Advisory Board, and other equally inspiring subjects. Every six weeks I could buy a sack of groceries with the extra check. No checks for poems those days. Month to month, skin of my teeth.

Two years later I landed a visiting lecturer position at the university in Santa Barbara, but was still stretched thin. Even with a full-time position, I worked weekends as a gardener, in Hope Ranch, a wealthy suburb—$5.75 an hour for a lady of scrupulously independent means—quiet, unsupervised weeding, planting, trimming, noblesse oblige from her point of view on the terrace. And though it plugged a hole in our budget, I still had to sell my old-school long board for $150 to cover gas and electric bills one month, a classic, easily worth $1,500 today.  I was young enough to burn the cliché at both ends and in the middle. I wrote on a small typewriter table wedged into the living room corner, without thinking too deeply about whether things were going to add up in the long run, assuming that the run would, in fact, be long, and there’d be something someday, to add up?

My wife, a painter and art teacher, took office temp jobs so, at the end of the week, we might have something in the kitty for a bottle of, as dear Rumpole of the Bailey put it, “Chateau Thames Embankment”—wine whose distinguishing characteristics were Red or White. One New Year’s Eve we said, “Hang the expense Agnes, throw the cat another goldfish!” and bought a couple bottles of Spanish Cava, had a few friends over, and made tapas of tuna, cheese and sherry on points of toast. The high life as we knew it.

For my sins, my undeterred ambition, I was offered a tenure-track position at a 4th rate institution in Pennsylvania paying so poorly that one winter Saturday, end of the month, my wife and I walked through snow to the state liquor store for a bottle of sherry, just enough in our checking account (no savings) to cover the $7.54 check we wrote. I later discovered I’d been offered the lowest salary—take it or leave it—as the chair cut a deal with the dean to keep costs low on new hires in return for money to fund his “research” in Greece each summer. Imagine that.

It took nine years and flurries of applications to secure a more reasonable job. I took a position at a university back in California with a creative writing major, offered the position because I was the only poet left standing. The woman they wanted used their offer to leverage her existing position—more money, a new program, advancement. Back and forth for eight weeks until she accepted her university’s increased offer. By that time the other candidates had accepted positions elsewhere. It was one of those times you just had to keep your hand raised and not lose your place in line. Never mind what you thought you deserved, were qualified for. A bump in salary, a more manageable workload acknowledging “research and publication,” yet little really changed. I drove a better Honda on a long commute and wore it out. No grants or R&R for the grey cells in support of the writing with aperitifs and stimulating conversation with artists and scientists overlooking Lake Como. I was still wearing my $40 watch.

I still used coupons at the grocery and looked for sale items. I did my work, kept my mouth closed for the most part, and before I could turn around, reached a point where the administrators let me go with just a hair more than required for soup and taxes. I was not going to end up in the chips—I knew that going in—unless walking the beach, spindrift, and starlight added up to more than I first thought . . . as it turns out they do.

Now, I have this bench overlooking the ocean where I read poetry, a little cosmology, take out my notebook and work on my old investiture with
clouds . . .my books Dark Matter and Chaos Theory were overlooked along with the questions they posed about science/cosmology vs. faith and belief. No royalties—c’est la guerre—as I too often say. Nonetheless, I’m rich in all the residual benefits due me from the air, where from time to time I connect some dots, some daydreams lost, an iambic string of clouds leading off into the blue. . .

If anything changes, develops, comes my way, I’ll know whether or not Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle obtains, the one maintaining you can’t know both where something is and the speed at which it is moving—assuming we are anywhere finally, at all, and that there is something left to move? Which is what, it looks like ambition adds up to—what we’re left with once all the promotional dust has settled and the prizes have been distributed in New York. And I can’t say I wasn’t warned. The poet John Woods—a very good but overlooked poet—wrote a bio note in a ‘70s anthology which shook me as soon as I read it as a young man—something telling me that was what I likely had coming:

 	“I have not been given a Guggenheim, Rockefeller or Ford Fellowship. I have not read
	at the YMHA in New York.I appear in neither of the two anthologies which explain the 
	Fifties, etc., but I have the poems.”

Nevertheless, I’m doing well to still be here, my arms full of the inferences of wind, a trace of salt dried on my brow, a vague investment of the sky. . . I’m content sharing the dust with the friends that are left, none of us with golden parachutes, interest income from mutual funds, or a National Book Award.

Round the sea clouds off to the nearest zero, and that’s pretty much what’s left.  Clouds or stars, who can do the math to any real effect? Einstein left without showing all his work—the slight of hand, the unattested floorshow of quantum mechanics escaping noticeable results—the grand scheme, the unified field, something close to wishes and beggars, all of it likely beyond where you start or end. The journey, as the cliché has it, had better be the reward. Life, afterlife? It seems mostly a matter of staying vertical on the planet in whatever clothes you have. 

Christopher Buckley has recently edited: The Long Embrace: Contemporary Poets on the Long Poems of Philip Levine, Lynx House Press, 2020; and NAMING THE LOST: THE FRESNO POETS—Interviews & Essays, Stephen F. Austin State Univ. Press, 2021.

Forthcoming poetry books are The Consolations of Science & Philosophy, Lynx House press 2022 and One Sky to the Next, Long Leaf Press 2023.