Excerpt from The Good News, a poem from my collection How To Carry Soup (Homebound Publications, 2020).
Net Man originally appeared in the spring of 2020 in poem form, in Crosswinds Poetry Journal in Rhode Island. The piece also called out to me to be written in a form that is part Personal Essay and part Prose Poem, which is what appears here.
“The point is that he had – as we all do in given measures – an unknowable wildness.”
My grandpa was a net man. Never mind how well I knew him, never mind how much I loved him, the point is that he used rope, wove nets with his hands, hands I loved so much I never knew how to say it.
My grandpa was a net man, he was a talker and he was a storyteller. His life was woven with stories as much as it was with rope and he told those stories in a rich gravy voice. He talked about picking rows of cotton as a farm boy in Georgia during the Great Depression.
“I think everyone should have to pick a row of cotton sometime in their life, just to know what it feels like.”
He talked about going down to the Palace Saloon as a boy and easing his mother off of a bar stool, slinging her over his shoulder and carrying her home, talked about being given a choice when he was just a little kid – a choice that would shape the rest of his life: “You wanna go to school, or you wanna go fishin’?”
He talked about World War 2. I listened closely when he talked about the bomb that came down the ship’s smokestack, how he was sent down into the belly of the ship with a burlap sack. I shouldn’t have listened so well, my grandpa was a net man.
He talked about his shrimp boat and the Gulf of Mexico in the 1950’s, when he was known as Captain Buddy. Talked about Veracruz Havana Brownsville Key West South America, having his ear pierced by a prostitute in Campeche, discovering abandoned boats with blood-spattered decks out on the Gulf, my grandpa was a net man. Sometimes the nets were full of shrimp, he said, sometimes the nets were full of shrimp bound up with seaweed and trash, sometimes the nets contained nothing but pieces of junk, he said, sometimes the nets didn’t have a damn thing in ’em.
My grandpa was a net man, never mind his T-bone steaks. Never mind his nine machetes and his earring and how the gators slithered up into his yard from the Withalacoochee River, the canoe my dad and I would paddle upriver to a crystal spring hidden away among cypress trees, their roots dipping into the water’s edge like fingers on an old witch’s hand.
Never mind how the short fuse of his youth alchemized into the easy way he had about him later in life, never mind that his childhood nickname was Junebug, that his wife made the best red velvet cake you’d ever set a fork upon, that when I was twelve years old he talked me into eating a Scotch bonnet off his pepper bush and then laughed and laughed.
The point is that he had – as we all do in given measures – an unknowable wildness. The point is that for 92 years he touched people’s lives without ever once trying to, the point is that now he really has crossed the Gulf, the point is that in the still of the night he left the world and by left I mean he’s gone and by world I mean all of this, I mean the crescendo of his life swept back down in a broad arc and mass overtook energy.
But before the crosswinds took him, he was a net man. I knew it to be true, because he was often out in his workshop making nets. I knew it to be true, because I had lingered on every page of his old photo albums, and it said so right there on the license plate of his old jeep: NET MAN.
He had been a shrimper himself and worked with the nets for years. So when he opened a net shop in 1960, down in Key West, he knew what to do. The shape and size and type of net he made depended on where the shrimper would be trawling, what kind of boat they drove. He worked the rope not only with his hands but with an understanding of what was needed, the intimate knowledge that comes with time spent close to the heart of the work itself.
The nets were dragged along the ocean floor by trawlers, but before that they drifted down, down through the briny seawater. And before that, they had to be made – fashioned – from the rope that passed through the fingers of my grandfather’s hands. Hands I loved so much, I never knew how to say it.
By day, a daydream ponderer who never gets her fill –
by night, a barefoot wanderer who’s wandering still.
With the bamboo wind and a golden rain-tree,
what a lucky pilgrim she shall be.
The essence of time is found spontaneously in moments, not measured in minutes. Minutes are fleeting, moments are precious. Minutes are disposable, moments are priceless. In man's strange invention of measured time, minutes tick tick tick away, evaporating, yet somehow stacking up to become the years of our life, a row of slender volumes held in place between the bookends of birth and death. That's why it's so important to stop, slow down, take notice, pause. The moments are what we notice, what we remember, what we carry with us. They inform us, re-mind us. Our experience of the moment connects us to a deeper, richer experience of life.
It was one of those days when the movie of your life should have won an Academy award for best screenplay. The twists and turns knocked everyone out, the plot was as tight as high-end waterproof luggage, and the soundtrack matched how everyone felt that year with uncanny accuracy.
All you know is it’s one of those days when the music fits how you feel like a jigsaw puzzle edge-piece: tongue in groove on one side, a nice straight line on the other, like driving until you reach the ocean.
How you feel matches the cloud structure, these particular blues of sky and sea, the quality of the light coming through.
Neither the sensations of pleasure or pain, nor the meanings ascribed to them, have anything to do with your experience now.
You take a breath, quite possibly the best one yet. It’s such a relief to finally stop wondering what will happen in the next scene, to stop worrying about how the story might end.
You just sit there filling your mouth with the velvet of water, feeling the support of the ground beneath you, and let go of everything. Maybe the sun breaks through the clouds, maybe it rains. Maybe neither. It’s only weather. These days, you go on feelings. These days, you never know which thoughts you can trust.
The air stirs, moving over your skin, almost imperceptible, unforgettably sensual. The fabric of your sweat-dampened shirt clings to your chest, your back. The air is fine, warm, and soft.
You eat a little something, very slowly, and feel – for the time being – free.
You must not complain about dust. Dust becomes cloud becomes rain becomes forest becomes life, so you must not complain about dust as you wipe it from a table, books, shelves.
May there be an empty space in the palm of my hand, where every night some means to an end used to be. Not just any space – an interstitial space between the microcosm of the container of my physical body and the macrocosm of the jeweled net of infinite galaxies.
Of course the prevailing winds will still blow from the north, and I’ll still be listening to the broken record of myself, but maybe a sound like running water will become loud enough to drown out the static feed of my looping thoughts. Maybe the sound of a tree growing will untangle the knot of my mind’s running commentary, embroider a fine silk cloth of meditation.
I am always wanting to be reminded of something I’ve forgotten. That is precisely why I do every little thing that I do.
Look back but don’t stare. Glow in the dark and don’t think too much about it. Consider yourself a well-loved mystery.
John Lennon’s Imagine, and Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In the Wind are both songs that – when the music is stripped away – reveal themselves as powerful poems. They have both stood the test of time, asking the heavy questions of what it means to be a human society, and both offering us the same fundamental invitation: let’s consider changing the ways in which we have chosen to live, ways less harmful and more peaceful, ways that discourage hate and separation, and encourage love and union.
With Blowin’ In the Wind being written in 1962 and Imagine in 1971, both songs are super-charged with countercultural ideas, calling out war, religion, and injustice on all fronts: social, political, racial, personal, and spiritual. In Blowin’ Dylan essentially asks us, through a series of symbolic and metaphorical questions, what it will take for us to change our behavior, our beliefs and values, our…
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Now the giraffe-like lily, turning its head to look out the window in graciousness.
Now the blackberry, summer’s thimble, its shape discussed at a celestial seminar where Sun and Moon are merely attendees, two out of ten-thousand. The fruit is not on a bush beneath a tree in some faraway land, but here, now, staining my skin, its essence nestling in among the tissues of my hands, their skin softened by enough olive oil to last many lifetimes of a cook.
Now the argumentative weather, now the hawks circling overhead, descending as if on a grand and circular staircase. Now and again, the clean birth of plants, the messy one of animals. Now the mystic light whose source is unidentifiable even for scientists.
Now and again, the contemplation of time and how it doesn’t exist, confused by the human mind with earthly cycles and a construct of our own devising…
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If you were writing a novel and you had something you really needed to say, from deep down in the marrow of your bones, wouldn’t you love to turn the setting for your story’s climactic moments into a perfect stage upon which your characters could play out their final scenes, while at the same time using it as a means to drive your theme home? A setting symbolic of something greater, a way to point at a larger truth extending beyond the pages of your story? While reading Tommy Orange’s highly-praised breakout novel of 2018, There There, I found myself wondering – on multiple occasions – did the author intend the Big Oakland Powwow to be a stage upon which to set his climax, or was he using it as symbolism?
In the book’s prologue, Orange presents the idea of “Urban Indians”:
We did not move to cities to die. The sidewalks and streets, the concrete absorbed our heaviness. The glass, metal, rubber, and wires, the speed, the hurtling masses — the city took us in. This was part of the Indian Relocation Act, which was part of the Indian Termination Policy, which was and is exactly what it sounds like. Make them look and act like us. Become us. And so disappear. But it wasn’t just like that. Plenty of us came by choice, to start over, to make money, or for a new experience. Some of us came to cities to escape the reservation.
The Urban Indian characters in There There struggle with alcoholism, addiction, discrimination, depression, financial struggles and emotional trauma. They each have their own unique difficulties and backgrounds, but they all have one issue in common: they all struggle with their identity. Five of them (Blue, Orvil, Edwin, Calvin and Thomas) grew up removed from their Native American heritage, and feel disconnected from it. A little boy (Orvil) feels like a fraud when he puts on his grandmother’s old regalia. Calvin says he knows nothing about the culture, and consequently doesn’t feel like he should even call himself a Native American. Yet all of these characters (and several more) are involved in the powwow – either through working there, planning to rob it, or (in the cases of Thomas and Orvil) wanting to perform in it. The reasons for the collective characters’ going to attend the powwow are all very different, but at the same time they all share another reason in common: it’s a way to connect (or reconnect) with their heritage, and what it means for each of them, individually, to be Native American, regardless of blood percentage.
The word powwow in itself is from an Indian word that has been Anglicized. It is derived from the Algonquian term “pau-wau”, referring to a gathering of medicine men and/or spiritual leaders. “Pau-wauing” referred to a religious ceremony, typically one of curing. In the 1800’s, European explorers observed religious gatherings and dances, and mispronounced the word as powwow. Non-natives began using the term to describe any gathering of Native people. Eventually, even the Natives began using the word.
“As more and more Native Americans learned English, ‘powwow’ became the accepted standard for both Native and non-Native people.” ~ Chris Roberts (Powwow Country)
In the modern world, powwows have morphed into Native American gatherings (private or public) where the traditional rituals of dancing, singing, making music, and wearing detailed regalia are performed, displayed, described by commentators, and judged. People sell their arts and crafts (clothing, jewelry, herbal remedies, sage for burning, art, etc.) and there are often “Indian tacos” among the food and drinks being sold, though the tacos are not a traditional Native dish. But really it is a gathering, a meeting, a crossroads where people come to be together.
In the context of the novel, it punctuates the characters’ lives with ritual. It connects the personal to the ancestral, the individual to the group, and the group to its collective heritage. One might argue that a sense of worship is felt at a powwow, a sense of the spiritual, because the expressions of the performances often appear to be pointing toward an acknowledgement of God (the Transcendent, the Creator, Great Spirit, etc.) through tradition and ritual. It reminds me of the Latin term religio, the root of the English word religion, meaning to link back, to bind, connect, reconnect.
To quote from There There’s ‘Interlude’section:
We made powwows because we needed a place to be together. Something intertribal, something old, something to make us money, something we could work toward, for our jewelry, our songs, our dances, our drum. We keep powwowing because there aren’t very many places where we get to all be together, where we get to see and hear each other. We all came to the Big Oakland Powwow for different reasons. The messy, dangling strands of our lives got pulled into a braid – tied to the back of everything we’d been doing all along to get us here. We’ve been coming from miles. And we’ve been coming for years, generations, lifetimes, layered in prayer and handwoven regalia, beaded and sewn together, feathered, braided, blessed, and cursed.
Tommy Orange’s Big Oakland Powwow could also be interpreted as symbolic of a massacre, reflecting the senseless violence suffered by Native Americans in their history of oppression inflicted on them by whites, and linking that historical trauma with Urban Indians. Orange opens the novel by telling us about the “Indian Head Test Pattern”, making the extreme to which Indians were thought of as disposable targets clear to us from the start. He then takes us through the fractured lives of his characters, showing us the present-day effects of historical trauma. Finally, he sets his climax on a stage where more senseless violence plays out, but instead of whites killing Indians in the wilderness, he shows us Indians killing each other in his urban setting. And he breaks our hearts as we once again witness death, hate, fear and ignorance, where there could have been life, peace, friendship, understanding and acceptance.
Ultimately, it seems Orange intended the powwow to represent a chance for his Urban Indian characters with identity issues to connect with their heritage, while at the same time being symbolic of a massacre, as well as serving as the ideal stage for his novel’s finale. Either way, it’s a beautifully written, powerfully orchestrated, brilliantly executed story that helps dispel the cultural myth around what it means to be Native American in present-day society, giving depth, range, and a broader scope to the so-often narrow, single-story that so many non-Native Americans have about Native Americans.
“We can train in rejoicing in even the smallest blessings our life holds. It’s easy to miss our own good fortune; often happiness comes in ways we don’t even notice.
It’s like the cartoon I saw of an astonished-looking man saying What was that?! The caption below read ‘Bob experiences a moment of well-being’.
The ordinariness of our good fortune can make it hard to catch.”
~ Pema Chodron