JB Bryan

For no other reason except it’s spring and my yellow columbines are still sprouting in the backyard (actually, I started this 2 weeks ago and it's time to deadhead the columbines, poor things, the viscious hot summer coming) and the spring winds are leaving me and El Paso alone, I want to celebrate my friend Jeff Bryan, aka JB. This picture of him is in front of his adobe teahouse that he built mostly by himself. It’s sits outside his studio in Placitas, NM. Below is a picture of JB as he guides me through a tea ceremony inside the teahouse. A wonderful occasion. JB told me the history of the tea ceremony (the hero--venerable what's-his-name--at the end of a story falls on his sword, doing the honorable thing because he has offended the Emperor), he explained all of his implements that he bought here and there and he of course he made me a delicious cup of tea.

Not a lot of people away from Albuquerque know about JB. He seems to like it that way. He basks in his peculiar contented curmudgeonly goofy randomly-carnivorous Buddhist exile, extolling the blessings of the local arts and local groceries, the native flora and fauna, sometimes conked out on a good glass of wine, while happy to be saving us all. He’s a fine poet and fine abstract Zen painter; and he, with his wife the artist Cirrelda Bryan, operate their small mostly-poetry publishing company La Alameda Press. That’s with their left foot. You can't make a living publishing poetry books, for God's sake. So with their remaining appendages and time, JB and Cirrelda cobble together their living almost magically. JB is a delightful book designer. His books--whether for La Alameda Press, Tres Chicas Press or our Cinco Puntos Press--all have a definite feel and presence, their own JB personality, like Black Sparrow books did back in the day when Barbara Martin was slinging type alongside her hubby John. Most of this is done from their funky adobe house in the NW of the Albuquerque, just off Alameda Avenue, hence the name of the press. The place is immersed in art and books (there's always delightful small books of poems next to the toilet) and animals and computers and projects of every sort and their wonderful daughter the percussionist Cirrelda Beth, aka CB.

For the last several years, every time I talk to JB he is quitting the publishing business. Why shouldn’t he? It’s a pain in the ass. But JB doesn’t seem to listen to himself because La Alameda Press keeps putting out its quirky list of books, most of them poetry books which are doomed to financial failure. Among the recent is an important edition of Home Among the Swinging Stars: The Collected Poems of Jaime de Angulo, edited by the world-wandering German poet Stefan Hyner, poetry that was elemental to the poetics of Snyder, Kerouac and Blackburn. La Alameda also did Joanne Kyger’s AGAIN: Poems 1989-2000 (Jeff also designed Kyger's collected About Now for the National Poetry Foundation) and my particular favorites Lisa Gill’s Red as a Lotus: Letters to a Dead Trappist and Joe Somoza’s Cityzen which I’ve talked about before. Jeff also is a collaborator and active participant in the city’s poetry scene, and he’s a fellow Zenster. He and his cohorts make up the Three Stones Sitting Group and every Wednesday night they sit staring at the wall at the Friends Center near downtown Albuquerque.

Below the photo of JB and me enjoying our tea, I'd like to paste his long rambling ranting manifesto "Aesthetics" about the meaning of living the life and being a poet and a painter and all that other good stuff, but it's too long and it's scattered all over the page. Just too much work for a distracted blogger. Hopefully, he'll put the damn thing in a broadside and try to sell it although in the end he'll give away like he always does. But instead I'll paste in a poem that I cherry-picked from the Santa Fe Poetry Broadside. Oh, I love his poetry. Enjoy JB in his many hats. Buy his books and support La Alameda Press. Small press ventures like his are so rare these days, so vital.

Thirsty for Greywater


I have a broom, my wife has a broom,
our daughter has a broom--
that's because we're slobs.
I have a dishrag, my wife wields the shovel,
our daughter--a measuring cup,
that's because we're busy.

Squash in the compost,
tossed-out seeds start a wild spread.
Old boards stacked in careful piles,
needlenose tin snips and baling wire
turn broken sticks into trellis and gate.
Sump-pump sends septic water onto
ornamental wetlands experiment.
Washing machine hose
snakes alongside the house,
lathers iris, feeds the yarrow.
I catch dishspill in tub and pail,
toss beneath the red plum.
Inside every drip, our black ink
slides deliberately below the surface.


My version of utopia?
Laze about the backyard in my rumpled Stetson,
loud Kahanamoku Hawaiian shirt,
peruse epazoté, tend volunteer salvia--
ignore every skewed expectation.
I wave at a robin with my left hand,
then measure a board with a length of my saw.
Upright like the hollyhocks,
I shuffle around humming
a Thelonious Monk tune--
can't quite get how the intervals work,
can't get rid of it though.
The last section of drainpipe is a serpent's tail.
Screwdriver blade is creative thought.
Someone invented boiled linseed oil
to keep paint viscous and painters live by it.
I've ended up in this part of town on purpose.
What's broken is at least paid for.
Please O water table
float high to every root
and guide my reckless, ignorant trespass!


Solid as a beast,
a loop of grapestalk wraps upon itself,
tendril upon tendril upon light,
leaves so thick as to make a fence.
Full tilt kale & lettuce & spinach,
A crow tip top the old catalpa tree,
and one talking back that talk!
Five tons of bee buzz
in the space above the raspberry jelly!
My wife's laundry takes care of the locust tree
& two miscanthus along the road.
If I think about society for too long
I begin to itch all over.
I'm a prisoner of envy.
I wish I'd invented the manila folder!
We should write what we notice
& to whatever notices us back.
I put down the clippers.
As light fades to disappear,
skin turns the color of eggplant.
Last night, a long shout of stars
flooded the Mother Ditch.


Border Books

Last month I blogged Bad Business on the Border about the US/Mexico border, El Paso and Juarez in particular. This is an appendix to that piece because I'm thinking readers from elsewhere might want to know more about this place. I’m a poet, so my understanding comes through story and metaphor and mythos, not by statistics and theory. That said, if you’re interested in reading well-written books about El Paso, the drug trade along the border and the Mexican Diaspora, I would recommend the following:

Sam Quinones' two collections of essays about the migration of Mexicans to the U.S., True Tales from Another Mexico and Antonio's Gun and Delfino's Dream. Sam doesn’t talk about the Mexican diaspora as “immigration,” which infers a political situation with a governmental solution, but as “migration,” which is an anthropologic term inferring organic movement for specific reasons (e.g. climate change, famine, disease, poverty, etcetera). This may seem like a minor point, but it’s not. It allows for a much more in depth understanding of what we are witnessing. Next, Sam doesn’t write about statistics, he writes about people. And he uses these people’s stories to understand certain geographies and circumstances and cultures. His two pieces on Juárez are brilliant. His piece in True Tales, although written in 1999, still is the most insightful piece about the murdered women. He shows how the vacuum of law enforcement and city services has created an environment of violence that allows such tragedy to occur. And in Delfino’s Dream his piece documenting the black velvet painting craze that put Juárez on the map should become a definite part of our history.

Next is Charles Bowden’s Down by the River: Drugs, Murder, Money and Family. Chuck has a love/hate relationship with El Paso and Juárez. He loves it for its down-home realism and grainy streetwise truth, but he hates to see how the drug industry and the U.S. militarization are tearing at the fabric of relationship of these two cities and their two-million people. Further, the inattention that U.S. media, in particular, the El Paso Times, gives to the on-going terrible dilemmas in our sister city infuriates him. The 1995 unresolved murder of Lionel Bruno Jordan (the brother of DEA bigwig Phil Jordan) in the Bassett Center parking lot struck a match in Bowden’s imagination. He spent years coming to El Paso and Juárez to write this book. Bowden's prose gives us a revelation of the drug world that is the underside of our culture here on the border, but it also reveals much of our culture here, our cross-border relationships, that is being destroyed by the militarization, plus the narco and immigrante wars. Chuck’s book Juarez, A Laboratory of the Future, along with an article in Harper’s, first brought national attention to the terrible tragedy of young women being murdered in Juárez. The book also made famous a loose collective of photographers (aka “street shooters”) who were documenting the violence in their city. The collective splintered as organic arts communities do, but one photographer in particular, Julian Cardona, continues to document the ordeals of living just south of the border.

Our own Cinco Puntos Press has also published a number of books that are relevant to these issues:

Gary Cartwright’s Dirty Dealing describes in page-turning prose the history of El Paso’s Chagra family and the almost romantic beginnings of the drug trade along the border. This book remains a best seller in El Paso after all these years. And the anthology of essay Puro Border: Dispatches, Snapshots and Grafitti from the U.S./Mexico Border. The anthology has essays by Debbie Nathan, Charles Bowden, Sam Quinones (his piece about the murdered women), David Romo, Louie Gilot, Cecilia Balli and many others. In the interest of full disclosure: these last two books were published by Cinco Puntos Press, which is our family’s publishing company. Indeed, my son John and I, along with Tijuana novelist Luis Humberto Crostwaite, edited Puro Border.

These are all good and interesting books, very relevant to what's going on today. A man works for us from time to time, Gabriel. An American citizen, he lives in Juarez with his Mexican wife and two sons (one born on this side) for a web of stupid bureaucratic reasons. He crosses over to work on this side. This morning he was telling me about the 2000 federal troops that Calderon has sent to Juarez to curb the narco violence. He says the troops bring their own form of violence. According to Gabriel, the troops are going into homes for searches and when they leave they take with them money and jewelry and televisions. Meanwhile, the violence and murders continue, although not to the extent that it was before the troops came.


The Human Brain: So Who Are We?

Mike LaTorra, aka Gozen, is a Zen priest and abbott at the Las Cruces Zen Center where I used to sit most Sundays. Recently he sent out on the LCZC's list service the text and video link to Jill Bolte Taylor's lecture which is on the TED website. At the link, you can read and copy the text of her talk, but I highly recommend that you watch the 18 minute video. It's a most remarkable lecture--scientific very interesting, witty and wise.

Ms. Taylor, a neuroanatomist at Harvard, experienced a stroke on the left side of her brain, and because of her expertise she was able to witness the separation of her right and left brain lobes and to understand precisely how they each see the world. The talk is eight-plus years after the stroke, the time it took for her to fully recover. She became, in her words, in those few hours before help arrived like a new born baby in a woman's body. She had no language, no skills, no baggage of her 37 years on the planet. Yet, it was euphoria, a leap into what she called nirvana. And she realized during the experience that was soon to be dead. Luckily for us, this last transition didn't happen. She awoke finally in a hospital, startled to be alive. Her talk brings up incredible questions for me as a citizen of all the different communities where I hang my hat, for my work as a poet and writer and for my practice as a Zen Buddhist, those nagging spiritual or religious (I hate both those words, so much baggage) interests I carry around in my heart.

She says toward the end of her talk--

So who are we? We are the life force power of the universe, with manual dexterity and two cognitive minds. And we have the power to choose, moment by moment, who and how we want to be in the world. Right here right now, I can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere where we are -- I am -- the life force power of the universe, and the life force power of the 50 trillion beautiful molecular geniuses that make up my form. At one with all that is. Or I can choose to step into the consciousness of my left hemisphere. where I become a single individual, a solid, separate from the flow, separate from you. I am Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, intellectual, neuroanatomist. These are the “we” inside of me.

Coincidentally, Lee and I on a roadtrip back and forth to Dallas were listening to an audible telling of War and Peace (those 1300 miles weren't nearly enough for that huge book). Tolstoi describes Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who when almost fatally wounded on the battlefield having an almost identical experience as the one Ms. Taylor describes. And we've all read similar statements from mystics and practitioners of various spiritual disciplines and religions. Hell, I'll cut off the language machine in my head and go eat dinner now.

Thank you, Jill Bolte Taylor.
And Peace.


Blondie's on Calle Muerto

Blondie's is a bar on the corner of Myrtle and Cotton on the edge of downtown El Paso, about seven or eight blocks from where Cinco Puntos has it's offices. Blondie's is an old-fashioned Mexican bar. Probably best, if you're a gavacho, to go in Blondie's with a Chicano friend. Or at least know how to speak Spanish. The sign is hand-painted, and it possesses that essence of fronterizo aesthetics, what Chicanos call "rasquache," where too much is never enough. In the Cinco Puntos anthology Puro Border we did a whole section on rasquache. But I don't want to get into a long riff about rasquache right now. I just wanted to put this picture on the blog. I love this picture.
And to add a note about Myrtle Avenue. It's known by los viejos in the neighborhood as Calle Muerto. Death Street. Jesus, I thought, what a gruesome name. I asked a friend of mine, Why is Myrtle called Calle Muerto? He laughed at me. "Because we couldn't say 'Myrtle,' that's why."


Hotei and my brother Bill

Saturday I woke up with vertigo and during that ordeal I remembered this photo. There, among my books, is my Zenster altar, and peeking out between the little statue of Hotei (aka, “the Laughing Buddha’) and the Three Stones is my big brother Bill. He died in 1996. A candle is burning.

Vertigo is a horrible experience. Lee has gone through this several times, I’ve done it once, so I was lucky to have some memory and a guide. Still, spinning around, unable to catch hold and unsure, you realize how fragile you are. How mortal. My body became queasy, I sweated and my skin, Lee said, was clammy and cold. The doctors say that vertigo is a malfunction of the inner ear, that bony mechanism that looks like a snail and somehow keeps us in balance. I don’t know what caused it. Perhaps a drug that I’m taking for my prostate. Or Friday afternoon I went to the chiropractor because my neck is stiff. Maybe something in the guy’s rather rough adjustment jiggled the tiny apparatus. All I know is first when I woke up there was a strange sensation in my head, like my brain was being bathed in electricity, and then the world began spinning. I started sweating, and I got clammy and cold. I wanted to lie down, but lying down made everything worse. I wanted to throw up. My only bit of relief was to sit hunched over on the edge of my bed and wait. After a while I had enough energy to go get the paper and read it. Davidson had beat Wisconsin, Stephan Curry, who looks like he might be 15, had scored 30. I decided to go outside to my office to meditate. I walked slowly. The spring air was so beautiful, the yellow columbines are blooming, the trees are leafing. I was happy to see these things. I lit my candle and turned to go sit and I got dizzy again. So dizzy that I curled up on the tile floor. The cold felt good, but the lying down made me nauseous. A few minutes and I found enough strength to get up go back inside. I stumbled into the bedroom and sat down on the bed, sitting straight enough I hoped to allow me to exorcise the vertigo out of my body. No such luck. I called Lee and she brought me water. She also brought a garbage can. Lucky she did because I started vomiting. I didn’t quit until my belly was cleaned out. Uggh. All through this ordeal I thought about dying. Maybe this wasn’t dying, but it could be like dying. I also remembered the photograph and thought about writing this piece. That’s how I am a poet, I guess. A couple of hours later I could move around. By the end of the day I felt strong enough to work some in the yard. Lee and I took a short walk. It was beautiful walking and talking and holding her hand.

Every morning I chant and meditate. This is my ritual. My habit. It takes about 30 minutes. When the bell sounds and my meditation period is over, I look to my left and I see my altar and outside the window is where we live. If the desert wind is blowing, like it is now, a wind chime will be ringing. The story about Hotei is that he carries a big sack on his back and gives out little gifts of food and sweets, especially to kids. Sort of a Santa Claus. The Zen Flesh Zen Bones collection says that once upon a time a Zen master came along and asked Hotei how is the Buddha realized? Hotei dropped his sack of goodies and sat in his meditation posture. He said not a word. This is what he’s doing on my altar. Then the master asked him, “Well, how do you actualize Zen?” And Hotei picked up his sack, bowed to his questioner and went on down the road. Again without a word. The stones are stacked on the altar instead of a statue of the Buddha. I picked up this idea from the Three Stones Zen Group in Albuquerque, of which my poet and painter friend J.B. Bryan is a member. The stones represent the three treasures—the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. And then there is my big brother Bill. I miss him very much. He was the oldest of our troubled single parent family. We loved each other ferociously and sometimes with terrible anger. We never found a way to talk. Bill, through the guidance of my grandfather, became a renowned hunter and fisherman. His neck was very red from sitting in boats and staring at the water. In college he earned the nickname “Swamp Fox.” He was also an alcoholic. But he knew and understood things about the woods and growing up and living and dying that are important pieces of my childhood. Bill must be 12 or 13 in the photo, at the cusp of his manhood. So every morning I look past the altar every morning and see the house where Lee and I have lived for the last 30 years. Also, though this photo doesn’t show them, three other photographs decorate my altar—my big sister Peggy, my little sister Patsy who is dead too, and me. They are formal photographs. My mother had them made as remembrances for us all. If Bill was 13, then I was 8. The year was 1950. Harry Truman was president. Next month I will be 66.

So when I finally felt strong enough that evening, I went outside and sat on my stack of pillows staring at the wall. Then, like I do every morning, I closed my services with The Five Remembrances. According to Thich Nhat Hahn in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, the Buddha had his young disciples repeat these remembrances when they were practicing kinhin, their walking meditation. This is Thich Nhat Hahn’s translation.

The Five Remembrances

I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to be ill.
There is no way to escape being ill.

I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground on which I stand.