Relinquish the Day: A Memory

My stepfather, James Kestell, passed away yesterday morning. He died with his son, nephew, and my two brothers as witnesses. Thinking about his passage onwards, my mind can’t help but recall some of the landscapes I wandered through last winter–in Iceland outside Reykjavik and along the mouth of the Snaefell peninsula, and in the arctic mountain plains outside of Tromso, Norway.

The intense saturation of blue at the cusp of the long nightfall holds the sky with a heavy physicality. The horizon disappears, and distances recede into you with profound intimacy. These landscapes helped me emit an immense grief. The endless wind that poured over the Atlantic and rolled across these icy plains simply pulled grief out of me, letting it roll with pale tendrils across white and blue reaches into un-nameability. Into far span, into farewell and soft light. I was called back into my humanity by my encounter with these severe landscapes. Maybe you will be, too.

Mountain plain in the west fjords of Iceland

Flateyri, West Fjords of Iceland

Flateyri, West Fjords Iceland Flateyri, West fjords of Iceland Southern Iceland



Into Night

I just bought plane tickets into the arctic circle. I’ll be in Norway the last half of January, and in the far northern city of Tromsø the last weekend of the month, before flying out to Iceland for February.

And what do I expect to encounter in that darkness?

I have no idea. I am simply obeying this call which tells me to pursue the subtle light. I think I’ll probably have more intensive experiences of artificial light than anything else, frankly, but I do suspect I’ll find what I could not have imagined to discover. And that excites me intensely.

Light is a language. I want to open myself to it. To speak the far distant ray… its orphaned, jettisoned calling.

I think it will perhaps open what has been long orphaned in me.

Can lost light be a home?

Can the broken, displaced, and evacuated body become fertile ground in the dark subtle night?

I pray to be dreamless and afloat among stars. To have the deep blue sky infiltrate me and erase what was false inside. The sky is deepest blue in subtle light, not black. I want to steep myself in that immense hue. May there be no requirement.

I discovered immeasurable peace in the infinite day of the Norwegian summer solstice. I’m curious if I will accomplish a dark peace in its long night.

Let the Fire Burn

My dear friend Jack took me to go see the documentary film by Jason Osder, Let the Fire Burn, which examines the way the Philadelphia police department bombed the MOVE headquarters in West Philadelphia back in 1985. The resultant fire destroyed about 60 homes and killed many MOVE members, several of whom were children.

MOVE was a radical black collective that also functioned like a religion. Watching many of the members speak about their beliefs in the video footage was heart rending — I could so thoroughly appreciate their standpoint in the social order and how they were radicalized. I found myself agreeing with them when they spoke about how “the system” and “the man” were organized in such a way that the MOVE community could only be perceived as an alien, irrational threat. I also saw how their radical politics skirted on more dangerous philosophies — the way they were feeding their children, the way they were willing to provoke and alienate their neighbors.

The film did an excellent job of examining the complexities in community relations around this event. Set in a predominantly black neighborhood, MOVE antagonized many of their black neighbors, courted white radical allies, and was a lodestone for the police department’s interest — despite MOVE’s initially non-violent activities.

I saw much in MOVE that reminded me of North Korea. They were simultaneously clear sighted and mad. It was the clear vision and madness one clings to when the world refuses to acknowledge your basic humanity or right to self-determination — and sadly, madness distracts from any recognition of clearness. They reached out and imagined a new mode of being, setting out to recompose themselves as best they could.

Listening to the commission questioning a few MOVE members, police officers, and public officials also illustrated to me how these two imaginations for social order — MOVE’s and the City’s — were one hundred percent incompatible with each other. Several of the police officers involved clearly had no ability to see MOVE members as human beings with rights, thoughts, and feelings. There were two different sorts of human beings occupying a shared space together, and though they both seemed to speak the same language, the words they spoke fell on ears that could not hear them.

What I witnessed in this documentary film was a fundamental failure in the human imagination.

A failure to imagine each other otherwise.

A failure to imagine the world otherwise.

As much as I applaud MOVE’s desires to liberate themselves, I also saw how so much of this imagination was founded on completely broken structures of being. How can we create a break in the social order — with history — when we ourselves have been so broken?

This is a question I spin back to incessantly.

How to renew my imagination.

How to imagine the world otherwise.

How to be otherwise.

I do not believe any imagination can be renewed or produce fruit without love. A generosity in attention.

How can we start to see that to be human is to be more than our bodies and minds. That we are our histories and our environments. That there are collectives and trajectories that compose us all the time, which we participate in all the time.

I am describing the way we are starlight and earth, how there are spirits that fill us and they continue to have names. Fire consumes as it burns, but even it leaves a residue.

Philadelphia is a haunted city, but it is haunted in the way that so many of us are. Just under the skin. If you pay attention, it speaks to you. It writes ciphers in the sky. Listening to these sounds and signs can lead you into a transformative encounter of this space.

I wish more people could see this documentary. I wish its black char could rise into the sky and be free.

I wonder — what messages were sent skyward on the tongues of those flames.




Street Harassment: An Awful Narrowness of Attention and Why “Men” Aren’t Just the Problem

“You look just like Chinatown.”

“Let me taste your pussy.”

For me, living in Philadelphia often means getting sexually harassed on the street. Almost every week, I am the object of an unwelcome comment or stare from a strange male. This attention sometimes comes from men I do know, such as my neighbor, who deserves his very own blog post. Some comments are more banal than others, but all of the energy directed at me carries the ultimate message — “you are not a person.”

“Ride my dick!”

This post by Soraya Chemaly at Salon hits the nail on the head about street harassment. I completely agree with her comments that street harassment is indicative of how our culture subjugates women. However, what she fails to discuss is how street harassment often makes up for or masks other social subjugations. The black man who asked for spare change and didn’t receive any from me and then lashed out at me verbally with lewd comments — he doesn’t have any social power. So he turned to the one framework in which he felt he did. Recognizing the other social subjugations for men at work in street harassment doesn’t make it okay. However, I am concerned with the pervasive way men are criminalized, when I feel that they are just as frequently caught up in and at the mercy of larger social forces which likewise seek to dehumanize and flatten them as individuals. Yes, men regularly behave criminally towards women and those actions should be punished. But for true justice to occur, I think the conversation needs to expand to take in a broader view of subjugation more generally in light of larger historical sociopolitical flows. Global capital, race, urbanity, etc etc. Let’s not just beat men over the head about this stuff. Let’s have a genuine discussion about power.

I find that street harassment is usually a compensatory gesture for the men who use it against me. The men who have harassed me are disproportionately ethnic minorities, of lower socioeconomic status, under-employed or unemployed. They are sometimes under the influence of some psychotropic substance.

Philadelphia is a city at some risk. Our public school system is actively being dismantled by forces that want to see everything privatized. (For more about this IMMENSE CRISIS, please visit The Notebook.) We are still teetering from the financial crisis and housing bubble collapse. There are more and more yipsters (young urban professional (? I never know how these folks are employed) white hipsters) moving into the city, pushing out longtime residents. Once while biking home, I saw a white guy in a beard and flannel shirt holding a large package get SCREAMED AT by another white man in a car. The white man in the car was a prototypical working class Fishtown-ite who was foaming at the mouth at these “asshole kids” moving into his neighborhood so he can’t afford it anymore. A friend of mine — a tenured professor — recently moved into a block where she noticed that a home was for sale for over $600,000. To turn the gas on at her apartment, she had to take a signed copy of her lease to the utility company because they described her block as “low income housing.” The breaks between those who have and those who have-not and those who are actively having-things-taken-from-them are very thin.

It is in this framework that I can appreciate why I get harassed here more than any other place I have ever lived. While in Boston, I was hardly spoken to on the street. The same goes for New Orleans. But here in Philadelphia, it’s endemic.

The compensatory function of street harassment is terrifying — what other violence will such men take up against me in order to vent their social impotencies and frustrations? I won’t even get into the other optics of race that shape how I am perceived by these men. I’ve had glass bottles thrown at me and once feared I would get pulled off my bicycle by a white man who was *clearly* angry, sick, and high.

These men are behaving badly. They are dangerous. But they are also caught in a system that is bad to them and dangerous to our humanity. Simply condemning them isn’t helping us think more clearly about the broader social ills that have placed these men in such precarious and socially abjected positions. Yes, women still occupy some of the lowest rungs on the social pole, which is why these men turn to harassment in order to empower themselves — but that doesn’t mean that these men’s stations are actually any “better” for it. If we want to genuinely stop harassment, we can’t just criminalize men and their behavior, but get at the root causes for these actions. Telling a poor, frustrated, politically impotent man (often of color) to be polite to women is potentially just one more way of policing him. Where and when does he ever get to be bad, mad, and powerful? I’m not licensing harassment. But we need a broader view for the conversation to have meaningful social change derived from it.

I am writing this in the wake of four Indian men who are going to be executed for raping and killing a young Indian woman. These men are murderers. They are also without social prospects and opportunity. If these men had a stronger political consciousness, would they be trawling around town in a bus looking to attack women? This case ignited a global furor that will now be slaked with their deaths. And whose heads rolled when the global economy nearly collapsed? The perceptual blade of criminality and justice only cuts one way — down.

And another point — personally, I have noticed one major, unexpected consequence of being the object of this type of harassment, which I wanted to describe a bit.

One of my responses to street harassment had been to narrow the focus of my attention when I walk through the city. It was a defensive gesture on my part — of not letting myself make eye contact with men in public, of not turning my head and looking around. All of this was in order to convey an aura of “she is so terrifically focused and bad ass that nothing I do or say will penetrate her attention.” I used to try to actively embody a certain kind of shark-ness as I walked — a sleek attention that was dormant and too powerful in its inattention to provoke any comment. You can marvel at a shark, but the shark is too otherwise to even know about it or care. Its silence eats your words. It is of the deep and alien sea, without ears.

This had the negative effect of making me less attentive to the details and environments of my daily life. I noticed this when I was walking through town with CA Conrad a few years back. He kept pointing out and commenting on amazing graffiti, colored lights, and details on buildings that caught his attention. All I could see was a gray street and the road ahead of me. This made me incredibly sad. CA’s world was textured and vibrant, magical. Mine was dark and quiet, encased like a bullet in its shell.

People often list low self-esteem, depression, and body image problems as results of sexualized harassment. I noticed an awful narrowness of my attention. Time and space were flattening for me. I didn’t allow it to surprise and challenge me. I did not want to let my city in.

Now, given so much that has happened in the past few years, I see how I do not have skin, that I have been misled my entire life by all the forces of society and “learning” that sought to teach me otherwise. I am actually porous with my location. It is coterminous with my consciousness. Its horizons equal the limits of my spiritual focus. You are as much a part of me as I am of this earth.

I still get pissed off when I am harassed, but I also try to forgive my harassers with the same generous kindness I seek to permit for myself when I fail to be “good” — when I am bad, mad, and powerless. And then I write and think about these things and talk about them with friends and try to effect a change.

I want us to be emotionally round and psychologically full, not spiritually flat and politically thin. I want to be free to move through a textured and surprising world. I want men to have these same freedoms, too.

Can we work against the awful narrowness of attention that this world constantly seeks to impress upon us?

Postmemory / 한 (HAN)

Sometimes research is a lifeline, a beautiful kaleidoscope that unveils a myriad horizon. At other times, it is the haunted umbilical cord that pulls at your center. Such pain.

I’m researching into cultural trauma. It is “funny” to read into something that feels so intimate to me. The traumas of war, displacement, domestic abuse,”the nation,” racial logics — these have left black fingerprints all over my family’s portraits. It ate my marriage. And still I sing! I am known for my sunny disposition!

I think about this term, “postmemory.” The psychological multi-generational fallout of trauma. A cultural violence, distilled into our bodies. KOЯEANs know it so well. We call it 한. I know HAN by a sort of native birthright, I suppose. It courses through me. It is not all of me, but it is mine. HAN. A deep sorrow, anguish, bitterness. Where are its roots? A heartrending sound, it pierces. It has an elemental depth. It hurts, it is familiar. Is this how continents are born? This beautiful folk singer, 김영임, has it coursing through her voice.

I’ve described it a bit previously in my review of Kim Hye-Soon’s poetry. I’ve written to and from it in so many places.

HAN is not just a feeling or a sound. It is also a gesture, a feeling inside your body. I have been working to release it through movements. I hesitate to call it dance. I meditate. I become filled with a mood. This mood moves me. I give into it.

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Can I climb this thorny rope that reaches from my guts, out of my throat, and into the sky? Can I climb this thorny rope into a new element, a new figure, a new light? Without ambition. Without hope. How may I climb.

Tell me the story / Of all of these things. / Beginning wherever you wish, tell even us.

Insight, the body. Sinuous it goes.

According to East Asian astrology, this is the year of the water serpent. I’m trying to understand what this means for my imagination of this year. Serpents. Sinuous, terrestrial. They know and observe according to different rationalities. I feel time might congeal for them where it runs past me.

I passed by these dragon statues near Chinatown on my walk home this evening. The dragons felt nude to me, exposed. I normally imagine them enclouded, outside of my total vision. They roam the skies, dwell in fog banks encasing hermetic mountaintops, slumber in taut, silent lakes. Aren’t these truly the totems of inspiration, insight, the knowledge that crashes down through us — what we can’t prepare for?

I feel that so much has already crashed down. This year will hopefully be a quiet year of recovery, of subtle, deep set and slow terrestrial movements. Of serpent tectonics that bring the sky down into the sea. Serpents as land dragons. Slowed down, distilled and more gentle for our encounter. Speak.

Sha told me he was prepared to give up being human.

What am I prepared to foreswear in order to enter this dark blue room, the other side of sight. To continue as I have is to be pinned to the sky — blind, mute, frozen, exposed. An iron curlicue. No new forms.


Light is a container full of noise

I was looking at this picture of the Cygnus cluster earlier this week. Nasa Spitzer Space Telescope image of Cygnus Whenever I look at satellite images of deep space that have been re-rendered to highlight their anatomy, I’m struck by how much data is carried in light. This image has been processed in order to make infrared information visible to us. From light, we can determine the composition of these celestial bodies, their rotation and movement, their age…we can even predict their futures.

When I think of radiation as light, when I think of heat as light, when I think of vibration as light, I am moved by the notion that all things in the universe transmit. Communicate. Cast informational streams from themselves. What does the heat generated from my body say? What am I broadcasting at every quivering instant?

And the light that reaches me and interacts with my body, my perceptions, my ideas… what information is being so blindly delivered into me?

Our bodies require light.

I seek the opening of an understanding.

What is being said and said again with me. What am I now saying, too. If my skin were composed of eyes, what would it see. If my body were a gigantic listening drum, what would I perceive.

A still from Hardcash production's documentary, "Children of the Secret State."
A still from Hardcash production’s documentary, “Children of the Secret State.”

When I was working on what later turned into my second book, Underground National, I was watching several documentaries about North Korea. I watched these documentaries with a grain of salt, of course, but the images were arresting. I was particularly moved by the plight of orphaned children in North Korea, many of whom are starving and live by begging or picking out scraps. There was one orphan, a boy, who was in clear distress. His face was contorted with pain. No one stopped to even look at him. He walked about, holding his clasped hands up to his chest. I am not sure how old he was. Perhaps 8 or 9. He was very small. The documentary was made over ten years ago. My spirit tells me this young boy did not survive. And when I think of this, I realize that the only documents that attest to his life could very well be the footage that was used in the film. And I was observing the recreated light patterns of what had once echoed off his body and into the camera’s lens, captured.

Light moves and fills me. It is not quite life, but it echoes and drums and resounds and speaks it.

KJI has died.

So the news has blown up all over the internet since yesterday that Kim Jong Il (KJI) has passed away.

As many of you know, I have a longstanding fascination with KJI. As a public figure shrouded in such propaganda he was, and will remain, beyond any stable understanding. So, I’ve spent the day thinking of how best to respond to the news of his death. I’m not a policy pundit, and I can’t claim to have any insight into the man or what can/should happen in Korea now. I’m a spectator from a different shore, but I’m pained and concerned.

The only thing I could think to do was share this poem I wrote about 4 years ago about him. It’s from my first book, That Gorgeous Feeling. Unfortunately, I’m not able to get the formatting quite right. I’m just not savvy enough. So, this piece appears mostly left justified.

For all those who have been cut apart, split, cast away, and somehow survived the same forces that pushed even this man into being.


Kim Jong Il: A Reader

He is the great teacher who teaches them what the true life is, a father who teaches them with the greatest political integrity and a tender-hearted benefactor who brings their worthwhile life into full bloom.

—from an official North Korean release

We don’t want our own native dogs to die out.
We must make sure that Pungsan and Jindo dogs prosper and propagate. 

if it dies then bring it over
bring it over before it dies

this is my piano
I have studied it for years


“perfectly rational”

“isolated but not uninformed”

heralded by a bright star and double rainbows
a crown prince of sorts in the world’s most isolated state


“we have not been able to give them the kind of reassurance”

a crippling famine.
fruit; a nut.
a young radish.
come to fruition.


You may have received letters from your relatives living here about the food shortage.
The situation is not as bad as it may appear. 

this and that. between you and me; between both sides.
make a fire ((in the stove))
smoke. lifelong. one’s lifework.

necessary articles; necessaries. necessities.
daily necessaries; the necessities of life.
driven by. a requirement.
be indescribable. be [beyond] description.
be [unspeakable].

avert people’s eyes. avoid [keep away] from bad company.
do not touch me. dodge [duck]. from disaster.
avoid. flee from ((a war))

                                                                                suck on our fingers to kill the hunger pains


Supreme Commander
Dear Leader

a member of the Central Committee
reported to have concentrated a great
deal of effort on the performing arts

good fortune in love; a lady’s man.

Madeline Albright
she allegedly held his hand


have ((something)) snatched away.
become. be [exhausted] impoverished. stained.

a. a limit. limits; bounds. “Human desire knows no limits.” as [so] far as. as far
[much, soon]. as much as one can. as much as possible.

b. one. a single. a [one] man. some; nearly. in the same house. the same.

c. big; large; great. a (main) street. the most. the very; in the middle of the night.

d. a bitter grudge. rancour; hatred. bear malice ((toward)). vent one’s grudge. an
unsatisfied desire.

regrettable. deplorable. a lasting regret; a matter of great regret.
a life full of regrets.

                                                                      no barriers in heart

one place. the same place. one mind. one accord.

our wisdom. our will. our strength.


Iran, Iraq and North Korea
a new bond of brotherhood
in the mouth of the American president

a passionate love
be eager [anxious] for
(after, to do); long for

“we long [are eager] for peace”


“his brinksmanship does work”

former years.
the years gone by.
a large eyed person.
of what was said and done.

(be) thin
(be) light; pale
light colored; faint

                                                             I am an object of criticism in the world

Tony Leung

I’m an insane fan of Tony Leung Chiu Wai. He portrays his characters quite soulfully, leaving a long impression on me. That being said, not everything he does is a hit … he’s had some real stinkers over the years … but he has surprised me with some performances. Bullet in the Head (1988), an early John Woo film, comes quickly to mind. I was NOT expecting the emotional intensity that Leung portrayed there. I watched that film after seeing all of Wong Kar-Wei’s films and already having a strong impression of Leung’s range as an actor. The rawness of Leung’s work in Bullet is worth checking out. It’s unstudied, un-sculptural.

I finally just watched  Anh Hung Tran’s 1995 film Cyclo today while it sleeted outside. What an elegantly brutal film. So collapsing. This is the mode that I’m most accustomed to seeing Leung in. Disenchanted, weary. Heart sore, locked in, a bit beyond us. Some of the expressions on his face — like when he first lures the sister into prostituting herself and he climbs out onto the windowsill to eavesdrop — has that calmness of a catastrophe’s wake.

Here’s a great interview he gave about a decade ago in which he discusses how he approaches acting and what it was like working with various other directors and stars.

You can see how soft spoken he is. I bet that in life his charisma is unremarkable. But on camera, something else happens. Maybe because the camera has trained our eyes to look for subtleties, to love the detail.

I wonder about that quality in some actors that transmits so certainly in this way. Performers, generally, really impress me. I feel like I would disappear before a camera. How does one even imagine inviting that sort of scrutiny? Everything about you becomes a channel for something else guided through you. And what is that like.

The best actors, in my mind, have a translucency about them. It’s an innocence.