David Antin


icy seagulls


i guess we all need the mike because the people in the back wont hear it             it feels a little weird to me to have it            the glasses are a mistake i only use them for reading and i cant see you if i have the glasses on and ive learned in recent years ive learned from the fact that i can no longer see anything clearly sixteen inches from my face that i need glasses     but i cant see people three feet away with glasses without them looking like blurs           so this is my new experience of optical deficiency   and the trouble is i havent gotten used to this whole thing and i was doing a set of book readings and book signings in san francisco a couple of months ago and it was a little bizarre because id sort of try to read something and i put the glasses on and then id feel like this is ridiculous   because im a talk poet and i should be talking and id interrupt and change what i was saying and id take off the glasses and id put them on again till i began to realize it was kind of a cute routine            you know   i was beginning to feel like i was doing schtick                    which im not above doing but nevertheless                but nevertheless it seemed a little awkward and im glad this is really just doing a talk piece which feels much more human to me           i don’t really like working from a script   even though reading is a perfectly fine activity i just dont like to do it in front of an audience anyway coming here is really in a certain sense a great pleasure because of the history of this place which i remember from its origins    the poetry scene had lost access to or had quarreled with i no longer remember one of the downtown cafes       whether it was deux megots or it was the seventh street coffee shop it was one of those places that had housed the poetry readings the great open readings and then the wednesday night singular readings           and paul blackburn and carol berge were out combing the scruffy areas on the lower east side second avenue and the bowery trying to find a place            and they found this place       and nobody knew how long it would last      it was offered rather generously and it became a place that i think is probably one of the most important places in american poetry at all         because so much experiment has gone on here so many new things have been tried so boldly by so many people             the range of poetry has been to use a funny word    catholic           in that it has included everything from madly shouted poetry       to a whisper poetry consisting solely of murmurings           which in its extreme form became a poetry of silences the most open of all    so my works have been called lots of things theyve been called essays sometimes           and sometimes fictions     and i dont really care but i think of myself as primarily a poet for one reason       poetry is to my mind the language art            the fundamental ground        and then there are all these secondary forms like novels which is a little bit like accounting                    you know poetry is the place where the language is at stake     if nothing else is at stake       the language is at stake         and thinking that then            i was glad i was coming here because i wanted to think a little bit about words               words come into play all of a sudden and sometimes go out all of a sudden     i mean somehow a word like fatwa id never heard the word before          and its not as if i hadnt actually studied some arabic   id studied it for about a year and id learned lots of sentences in which the word never appeared

            i had learned that the king was generous and the queen was beautiful and that the head of a nejdi mare was smaller than any other or that the reason for the failure of the arab league was a want of unity between    these two extremes i finally gave up             but the word fatwa occurred and i wondered what exactly is a fatwa is a          you know         who utters a fatwa     does it have to be someone with an authoritative islamic position maybe            or could anybody declare a fatwa      can any muhammed or abdulla declare a fatwa whether he has a right to declare it or not      the question is would anybody come to listen to it   i knew that the word fatwa was important because poor salman rushdie was under a fatwa   which meant he had to travel around with two bodyguards that any idiot attending one of his lectures could elude follow him into the restroom pull out a pistol and shoot him with the intense approval of official islam

            these are the kinds of words that erupt into our language with the force of an explosion             while there are other words that slip into the english language that are strange and simply remain strange like recently we had a tsunami          and a large part of the word disappeared i mean people sitting on the beach their houses gone their lives gone their children destroyed sitting there in the midst of spars of their life and the word tsunami like a kind of plague hangs over them     the word tsunami       but i asked myself is that different from a typhoon how many people could tell me the difference between a tsunami and a typhoon      the dictionary can tell us but can we preserve the difference is a tsunami always characterized by underground volcanic activity and a typhoon is not        a typhoon is a sort of tornado effect its wonderfully specific but     do we really remember it that way   or do we hear the words and begin to give them a range of meanings they never had before            like bayou        lately weve had several typhoons      weve had a couple of hurricanes       and weve started to hear the word bayou you know now we have the word bayou bayou you know its interesting that the word bayou was originally a choctaw word        whereas typhoon had a chinese origin   but when you hear the word bayou you think bayou levee you dont think great wall mandarin                 a bayou they say is a watercourse and a kind of tributary to a river            is that different from an arroyo         an arroyo is very southern californian            every time i think of an arroyo i think of a ravine in back of our house where there is no water except sometimes         i mean like the mexican rivers are sometimes rivers             that is they run sometimes and sometimes they dont         like in the spring they may flood        in the summer theyre scorched and parched like los angeles the los angeles river   its called a river but how many times have you seen water in the los angeles river   the los angeles river is a sort of parched tunnel that ripped through the earth when they diverted its course      but its still called a river   and now lately we have another word that has been causing a lot of trouble        refugees          i was a little surprised to find that the people who have been driven from their homes by the hurricane in new orleans                    many of them seem to resent being called refugees          and i tried to think what did that mean         they felt there was something racist in the term     it wasnt clear to me why       i suppose it seemed strange because to me refugee simply meant people from some other country who were fleeing for help             well these people were driven by decree from the city and by natural disaster            so that great crowds of the dispossessed people trying to flee to the safety of the relatively undamaged neighboring county crowded onto the bridge that marked the border between the two counties where their way was blocked by an angry mob bearing shotguns and placards who shouted insults at them         refugees

            so i had to rethink my experience of the word refugee        my first memory of hearing the word refugee was during the second world war                  i grew up during the second world war            i was ten when we got hit     it was one of those lazy sunny sundays         december seventh           hard for me to forget             we were sitting around the great radio in my aunt sarahs moorish double living room waiting for the assured voice of the commentator to explain the world to us   but the voice had lost its assurance and seemed to tremble as it struggled to give us an account of japans treacherous surprise attack on pearl harbor   it was certainly surprising to most americans          though it was not entirely clear whether what surprised us more was japans surprise attack on our pacific fleet or the sound of surprise coming over the radio             but all that got corrected once there was a declaration of war and all the formalities had been observed          because now it was just a regular war           only we happened to be in it but since the main combatants were separated by several thousand miles of ocean and our pacific fleet and its air wing had been severely damaged by the japanese attack tales of actual combat were rare and had to be replaced by political stories         stories of preparation or want of preparation for war          and one story making the rounds of washington detailed how we had just given japan our no longer useful trolley cars and they were attacking us for it

            but in any case the attack on pearl harbor seemed surprising to most americans            though somewhat less to us              because for us the war was older than that                      i grew up in a european jewish family to which relatives and friends would come for refuge from various places in europe where they were being persecuted and dispossessed          even now i can imagine great crowds of displaced people choking the roadways pushing wagon loads of furniture and clothing and baby carriages filled with books         i can see them scrambling for shelter at the roadside from the strafing fire of those stukas          you know i can see those flex winged aeroplanes strafing people on the road fleeing from paris toward the south of france hoping for safety in vichy        perhaps mistakenly    or hoping to escape over the pyrenees into spain which while fascist was not yet completely under the domination of hitlers people                  so i had an image of refugees as people fleeing from a country where they were being persecuted to another country where they hoped to be safe                    though these countries were not so eager to have them           and we watched with growing concern as hitlers forces marched into the sudetenland absorbed austria invaded czechoslovakia and attacked poland and each of these german victories produced increasing numbers of homeless people                  mostly jews seeking refuge from the brutality of the imposed nazi regime whose explicit policy was the expulsion of the jews                    which rapidly became an imprisonment policy                    and by 1935 a policy of extinction      so that vast numbers              their homes destroyed           their property stolen                       and realizing early that they had to flee to countries whose languages they didnt speak signed up for crash courses in english or spanish that couldnt guarantee them fluency but could give them enough competence for employment purposes          but there was no employment anyway    america was in the midst of a severe depression resulting from a credit crisis climaxing in the wall street crash of 1929 and this financial failure unluckily coincided with an eight year drought in the wheat producing southern and southwestern states            but at the end of hostilities America was in much better shape than the rest of the allied powers and it fell to the u.s. to play a major role in creating some sort of order in the chaos they found there               the first and most obvious problem was that there was no organizational system            and there was no one to talk to         or more accurately     in the course of the war they were replaced with puppet governments run by local nazis and nazi collaborators and the ss whose administrators stole what they could and joined these people to be called refugees became the term had been institutionalized in such a way that there some systems of support available to people who were documented as refugees the numbers were so great that the allied bureaucracies did what all bureaucracies eventually do                they divided the vast number of displaced persons               into two groups: displaced persons, who were assumed to have somewhere a home to go and refugees who were classified as homeless this was very satisfying because it cut the number of homeless persons in half                but it was a paper distinction                     since almost none of the displaced persons wanted to go home      so the numbers helped were small   on the order of a few thousand a month while we watched as the number of the persecuted and homeless needing such help mounted to several hundred thousand a month and growing every year i had my own first experience with two real refugees when i was a kid       liuba and charlie were two polish refugees           a brother and sister who had slipped out of poland during the german occupation and wandered around through several countries looking for a home they were a study in contrasts           charlie was a chunky cheerful guy with blonde hair laughing blue eyes and a rudimentary grasp of english that he deployed very effectively                   cracking up over his own linguistic blunders as generously as the jokes of others         leaving the impression that these were also jokes and that he knew english much better than he really did       while his sister was a small birdlike creature as dark as he was blonde       as small and fragile as he was strong and hearty     and seemingly afraid of everything but song                i heard her once at a family party at sarahs house in an unusually festive affair celebrating the safe arrival in america of three more relatives recounted in a rich mix of polish russian and ukrainian where nearly everyone who could be considered family was there listening to            recounting and speculating on the fates of the missing in a mix of language i could barely make sense of         but as the story telling went on        it apparently drew laughter as well as tears and charlie called out in russian        “if this is a party why dont we dance”             as he seized a young cousin by the waist and started to dance       an act she found startling at first but then terribly funny as she threw herself laughing into a passionate waltz where they were gradually joined by others getting carried away by the imaginary music till my aunt sarahs double moorish living room was choked with dreamy dancers            at that point charlie started to sing a melancholy russian ballad                        others joined and looking around he saw liuba sitting primly on a white empire chair this made him so mad that he shouted at her DANCE LIUBA DANCE GODDAMMIT DANCE to which she responded not by dancing but by singing in a flutelike purest high soprano an incredible obligato that silenced the entire room

            her voice was one thing but her language skills were quite another                       she and her bother had been in the country over a year now hanging out in my uncle sams large brooklyn apartment         but she couldnt speak a sentence of english                         if she had to go to the grocery to buy eggs for breakfast she had to resort to sign language   which was fairly simple when it was eggs she wanted                    but it got more complicated at the butchers when she had to signify ground round or tender cuts of rump steak     this was still all right according to charlie             because funny and funny is good       make everyone happy             and happy people never afraid           but liuba was afraid of everything       and that was when he made this intriguing proposal to me to teach her english

            “why me”        but i knew the answer            charlie had tried several professionals with good credentials and lots of experience teaching english to refugees     they came variously equipped with lesson plans      illustrated with crude little line drawings of what were supposed to be scenes from conventional family life in america      okay     he said            okay     practically grinding out his words      you think she stupid    got no college degree       okay?               but two years gymnasium      equal               two years american college   okay?               she not learn american         learn little american   okay     but lots latin and greek          and some pieces french italian spanish and whatever people speak wherever we go          she give us head start            so for rest       you a smart fella        even little good looking                      you practically same age        i think she like you      you both entitle to little fun   at this point liuba who had started to blush retreated to the most distant part of the room     liuba    who spoke fluent russian to go with her native polish as well as dribs and drabs of german french italian spanish        and whatever was the native language of the land she and charlie were thinking of escaping to yet couldnt form a single coherent sentence of english            but because she spoke enough french for me to get by with her when her limited understanding of english completely failed i could work to improve her understanding of english and hope that some of this improved understanding would spill over into an ability to speak the one language that she needed and seemed to be wrapped in a dark blanket from whose folds she couldnt escape             i remember that i had a ridiculous grammar book out of which i taught her american sentences      that she dutifully repeated to me like

                                                            may i walk on your lawn
                                                            i would like to buy a green hat
                                                            or maybe a red one
                                                            in the winter i like to sit beside the window
                                                            and watch it rain

these were the sentences i heard while i kept thinking how nice it would be to take liuba to the place where the culver line comes out of the dark into the light   because the f-train is not a subway train for the whole length of its run                but an elevated that begins somewhere in queens travels the course of the tunnel cut across under southern brooklyn where it emerges briefly for two stations   before plunging back into the dark waters under the city because i wanted to see how she reacted to the sight of all those trim little houses built in a variety of styles ranging from the early part of the century to the early forties with no sign of the heavy hand of government till the train would emerge once more and travel two more stops as an elevated before plunging back into the dark tunnel for another stop before finally emerging into the light and traveling as an elevated all the rest of the way down to coney island and the great pleasures of the beach
            but of course she had no bathing suit            so i grabbed a blanket off my bed while i kept wondering would she be frightened of being on the beach watching the atlantic ocean come in   the atlantic is not a friendly ocean    the pacific ocean is pacific and sort of bluer the atlantic is sort of gray steely and green and sometimes looks like stone and she wondered if we wouldnt be cold sitting out there near the edge of the surf but i assured her that we could always find a sunny spot and how exciting it was for us to see the sea in all of its grandeur drawing its skirts together in a final majestic image of power before it collapsed on the sand         but liuba was much more interested in the bird life and fascinated by the pompous looking grey and white birds strolling around in the wake of the surf and wanted to know what they were called             SEAGULLS       i said   and pointing to an especially pompous one she repeated after me             I SEE SEAGULLS          she said it again insistently I SEE SEAGULLS and started to laugh      and i said why are you laughing         its so funny     dont you see   I SEE SEAGULLS          ICY SEAGULLS                   and i thought it was so funny that it was so cold and that she loved the feel in her mouth of their name            as she loved the sound of it too                   so much that my thoughts of icy were funnier than icy eagles though my thoughts of eagles were funny too but it was a kind of cool day and watching the seagulls and watching the waves come in getting stronger the way i told her they would      and advancing further up the beach in the course of the day      and coming further every day as i told her they would under the direction of the moon                        how the waves would come in very strong as this was the atlantic and she said atlantic              which was a word she didnt like and didnt resemble any language she knew and so my image of her was not as a refugee

            and as for charlie        what was he       in the course of time he joined the american army wangled a good job in the signal corps and got citizenship as well

            charlie was a very deft and skilled carpenter and mechanic and he would have been an engineer in a place where he was not a refugee but nothing hindered him and on the advice of an army buddy he went to a place where there was always a need for more houses    a city called houston           houston was a place a lot like southern florida         that would normally be under water except it happens not to be       like galveston              and he went there with his buddy and they got jobs building cheap houses for a small company that couldnt keep pace with the demand and eventually sub-contracted the actual construction to charlie and tex who soon realized they could borrow from the banks all the capital they needed                 so the two buddies eventually bought out the old owners and charlie brought liuba out to houston where she knew nobody   but he thought he was doing her good by building her this large blunt house that was too large and too empty for her and that he thought to make more livable by calling in a decorator who filled it with japanese screens rugs and huge chinese vases that made it feel even more alien than before while liuba seemed to be spending most of her time trying to hide from the maid or sitting by the window and watching it rain


David Antin (1932-2016) was a philosopher, poet, improvisational performance artist, and leading literary and art critic. His many books include Talking (1972), Talking at the Boundaries (1976), Tuning (1981), and What It Means to Be Avant-Garde (1993). He was a Professor Emeritus at the University of California at San Diego, where he taught for over 25 years. “icy seagulls” was his last work, written during the final terrible weeks of Parkinson’s Disease. 


Published December 2017.