Poem of the Week | November 15, 2011
Jason Koo: "Work"
This week we serve up a previously unpublished poem by Jason Koo. Koo is the author of Man on Extremely Small Island (C&R Press, 2009), winner of the De Novo Poetry Prize and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Members’ Choice Award for the best Asian American book of 2009. His recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Octopus, The Journal, Vinyl Poetry and TMR. The winner of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Vermont Studio Center, he teaches at Lehman College of the City University of New York, where he directs the graduate program in English. He lives in Brooklyn with his cat, Django. Visit his website.
I like to write in the mornings. I’m usually up by 8 AM, waking up to the sounds of my girlfriend Anna getting ready to teach a yoga class or the nudging of my cat Django, wanting to be fed. Sometimes he just walks onto my pillow and wobbles there. I feed him, make coffee and sit down at my kitchen table to read and write in my notebook. On non-teaching days, I do this for a couple of hours, then walk back to my bedroom/office to work on a poem at my computer. And Django is always lying on my bed by that time, where he sleeps for the rest of the morning and afternoon while I work, save for a few bathroom and food breaks. I’ve come to think of this sleep as his work. He’s incredibly good at it. Some might say he’s lazy, but from my perspective alongside him, staring into space, fidgeting over words and pacing back and forth, he seems productive. He’s completely at home in what he does. His life’s work is to be at rest. And he shows me how much anxiety and agitation there is in what I do, both in writing and teaching. Anna’s yoga mat on the kitchen floor serves as another reminder of this. Thanks, guys.
Everyday Django goes to work at the same time.
Takes breakfast at eight, runs a quick shower-paw over the ears, then hits the office
By 8:25. And by office I mean
Bed. This is work he excels at, stretching and accepting
Petting when he’s looking particularly cute. I find the word “particularly”
Particularly hard to say, but Anna has no such problems;
Everyday she goes to work putting people into yoga poses, making them say “particularly”
With their bodies. In yoga, you learn to release yourself
By resisting yourself. What a beautiful idea.
Even more beautiful is how one almost always feels this actually to be happening while doing it,
Unlike poetry, which is governed by a similar idea
Yet rarely provides this feeling while one is doing it.
Of course, one never really feels oneself
To be “doing” it. Anna leaves a mat on the kitchen floor
That serves as a runway for spontaneous headstands
As I’m “writing.” I’ll be walking back and forth between Django’s office and the kitchen
And think, Hell, let’s get inverted.
Already today I’ve done three headstands.
Anna recommends this as a good way to get the blood
Pumping through the brain in the morning
And hence the poetry, but so far I have yet to see Rilkean results.
Django loves his work, he never tires of being tired.
It is a particularly human quality to grow tired of being tired.
Look at him using the whole country of the bed,
First camping out in Florida, Maine, Alaska, Mississippi, now Idaho, Oregon, Nebraska, Arizona.
He likes to spread the good work of his body around, as does
Anna, what a service she gives her students.
She makes them feel better about their bodies and themselves.
Importantly, her students want to be there.
I go to work in the Bronx and most often my students do not want to be there.
What a strange thing, to be required to be somewhere
You don’t want to be, submitting yourself to the particularly painful torture
Of writing. They put up with it because the College demands it
And listening to the College will help get them a job.
I talk and they listen and don’t listen and more and more
I wonder what I am doing. I am not making them feel better about themselves or their bodies
Like Anna, and I am certainly not making myself feel better
Like Django. Who wins? English Composition?
Django has moved to Pennsylvania, which is a big state but he covers almost all of it.
He’s got his left rear white paw sticking out like a golf putter
Over the Warhol museum in Pittsburgh, where there’s a wonderful room
Full of silver balloon pillows blowing around
Called “Silver Clouds.” That is one way to work.
You know you’re making people happy when you’re making clouds.
Warhol told Lou Reed he wasn’t working hard enough,
But maybe Lou Reed just wanted to be making clouds and couldn’t
Because ol’ Factory Warhol had already smelled that idea out.
Warhol would also tell me I’m not working hard enough, to which I’d say,
You look like you have a cat on your head.
Does your cat think your head is his office? Do his paws give you all your ideas?
A little scratch or two and presto, Clouds. Many thanks, Fluffy.
Django provides no such service.
Amazing we’ve been together all these years and still he speaks no English.
I speak a little cat but he can’t even say “Hi.”
Since Anna moved in, Django no longer sleeps on the bed at night.
He sleeps in my office and I sleep in his office; in the morning, we change places to go to work.
Django had to cede position to Anna, the superior speaker of English and petter.
The problem with Django is he accepts all this petting
And never gives any back. That’s just not part of his line of work.
Neither is playing the guitar without a full assortment
Of fingers, as his namesake Django Reinhardt could beautifully do.
Just once I’d like to feel him rub me on my belly.
Who speaks better English, Django or my students?
On some days, it’s a toss-up. At least Django harbors no pretensions
He’s good at English, unlike those students I have to strain
To give a C who storm into my office wondering why they haven’t gotten an A.
I do feel bad for them, they accept all this torture,
No petting whatsoever. But they give the torture back.
I don’t grade their papers so much as continually cry for help in a quicksand of sentences.
I’m trying to teach them how to write critical papers
So they can potentially write papers for any college course.
And so I prepare them for college but not for life.
If I were preparing them for life, I’d teach them how to write
Thoughtful, anger-alleviating break-up letters,
Sweet but sexy Valentine’s Day cards,
Witty but grave toasts and eulogies that make everyone in the room want to sleep with you,
Tasteful, unburdensome thank-you notes,
And gracious but subtly snarky emails to hopelessly idiotic but higher-ranking co-workers.
I’m a writer. When have I actually used a thesis statement
In my adult life? Sometimes I think thesis statements were invented
To make reading student papers less onerous for teachers
Because they helped them identify the student’s heretofore M.I.A. main point.
But ironically students in search of a thesis statement
Have come to write particularly gruesome English.
Sometimes when I have trouble with the word “particularly”
I can hear a vestige of how my parents struggle with r and l sounds in English.
What a nightmare for a Korean speaker, all those r/l sounds
Jammed together in such a fast, polysyllabic word.
I remember how my mom used to pronounce the word “film”
Fihdum. I thought this was kind of cute actually.
But when my students make mistakes with the language
I go insane, and Anna has to hear about it as we de-tox after work at night
By intoxicating ourselves with beer or wine.
What a mystery, how one person learns and another doesn’t.
Or maybe not a mystery. Everyday my dad woke up early to work at the hospital.
We moved from Minneapolis to St. Paul to New York to Toledo to Cleveland
As he kept getting better and better jobs.
He worked hard to get better jobs so he could get paid enough
To send me to better schools, where I learned the particularly particular craft of English,
So someday I could release myself like this.
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