Ask Me for the Moon: The Beginnings of Inspiration

Poetry is the form of literature that I struggle with the most. The metaphorical nature of it allows for so much ambiguity and misunderstanding that it is frightening to even try to think about explaining a piece for fear of missing the point. Ironically, poetry is also the main form of literature that I feel naturally compelled to use to express experiences and emotions that feel too important to say in ordinary terms. The muddling nature of imagery that attempts to express intangible ideas has a beauty and emotion that the ideas themselves may not hold naturally. Poetry has a way of packaging things in a subversively visceral way, so that even those who may normally turn a blind eye when presented with difficult subjects in an informational way (e.g. minority experiences, political turmoil, environmental issues) can’t help but attend. We don’t have to look far to see the rhetorical power of poetry as social commentary, as it is evident in the works of some of our most popular poets – Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde, etc. I mention all of this because as I went through the e-poetry piece, Ask Me for the Moon, I found myself captured by the imagery of the piece (both literally and figuratively) and moved by some underlying feeling that something was very wrong. The themes of social injustice, neocolonialism, and environmental destruction were not ones that I was overly familiar with on an intellectual level, but as I moved through the piece, I could sense them on an emotional level.

I went through this piece at least three different times over the last month, and it took that long for me to actually grasp that something way over my head was happening. When I initially looked into the piece, I payed attention to the night images, the sounds of breathing that play over the pictures, and the movement of the words as they overlap and disappear. The second and third time, I tried to read through all of the initial descriptions and notes to get a better understanding of what the purpose of the poem is before I interacted with it again. After doing the technical reading, I was able to pay more attention to the words that were being used and the imagery they created in my mind.   

The initial imagery that struck me was the constant presence of the moon in this piece. When I think of the moon, it often invokes a sense of longing and love – “Blue moon, you saw me standing alone…”, “Because I’m still in love with you, on this harvest moon…”, “I’m just the words, looking for the tune, reaching for the moon and you.” So, before I really looked into the poem, I thought it might be about love or a lost love. And as the beginning screen played, it felt like it was headed that way. We are invited to step out with the poet to look at the moon, not unlike the beginning of most songs or poems about moonlit love, but the purpose of our midnight reminiscences shifts quickly. “Reef of spent muscle, secretion of hope and work…” dashes the delicate imagery we have been lulled into, and any sign of romanticism officially disappears with the continued description of our night view being filled with the lights of “palisades of purchased love.” This wasn’t as shocking the second time around because I read what the poem is supposed to be about, but I was still left with a shock at the moonlight shining not on a lonely lover, but on the darkness where truths reveal themselves in the forms of night workers “secreting sweat” as they clean and rakes upon beach sand, the tools of a cover up scheme that are slowly destroying the environment.

I think if you have experienced any kind of service related work – be it in a hotel, restaurant, bar, kitchen, golf course, etc. – you immediately recognize the spirit of some of what is being revealed here. Behind the veneer of the nicely made bed, the well-manicured lawn, and the perfectly laid plate, there is grease, fluids, machines, smells, and all sorts of human conditions that in the light of day cause grimaces and hushed whispers. These are the ingredients for creating luxury; it is appalling , but it also has a kind of sick charm. (Look no further than Anthony Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential about his life in the kitchen and you will find yourself revolted and yet strangely attracted to the chef life). But this poem is not just about the ups and downs and injustices of the service industry. I didn’t fully comprehend the deeper themes of oppression until I hit the first of several philosophical quotes that Zuern inserts throughout the poem.

As soon as the words “the state of verb, to the state of thing” and “deposition” appeared in the poem, I knew there was something beyond the confusion of poetic metaphor going on that I wasn’t understanding. When the page with the quote from Emmanuel Levinas’ Ethics and Infinity popped up, the poem shifted from airy imagery to weighted historical and philosophical undertones. Reading the philosophical blurb that was connected to the poem put the confusion I had about the poem to shame – I had no idea what it meant. Reading back through the description of the work, I noticed that Zuern (2005) calls this work “Poetry-as-scholarship.” His goal was to use the poem to highlight certain philosophical literary pieces by threading their imagery throughout the body of the poem. After the reader experiences them in the poem, they are taken to another page where they see the imagery in the context of the original philosophical piece. Though I struggled to understand the philosophy behind the imagery, I felt this technique was brilliant. It isn’t new for poets to refer to ideas with passing words and imagery in their works, but to be able to integrate the original sources into the actual piece is something that is unique to Ask Me For the Moon.

The ability to integrate something that is serving as a reference in a poem is a feature of e-lit that highlights the many possibilities it brings to traditional forms of literature. The multilayered nature of e-lit shows once again how a piece that is already rich in meaning can become even deeper, in both a literary and practical sense. The depth that coding and creating hyperlinks, as well as involving movement, sound, and imagery, bring to our experience with e-lit is truly groundbreaking. It was this depth and navigational aspect of the poem that made this piece one of my favorite elit pieces we have gone through thus far. The depth and layered nature of Ask Me for the Moon creates so many ways to experience its meaning. On the most surface level, I can read the poem by itself and get an emotional sense of the unjust conditions and history that Zuern is highlighting. On a basic understanding level, I can go into a side part of the poem (where it says ‘Notes’) and find a description from Zuern that gives me the historical and political context in which his poem was created. But at the deepest point of understanding, Zuern has created a way for the reader to explore the philosophy of his piece through integratiing the actual philosophical pieces in the poem.               

Do I understand this piece? No. I can explain elements of it, but I don’t understand the full scale of what everything means. Did that take away from my ability to enjoy the poem and appreciate the methods used? Not at all. This piece highlights exactly the dynamic I spoke of at the beginning of this blog post about poetry bringing attention to social injustice issues that are overlooked. I knew some about the history of Hawaii and the oppression forced on it by the United States and other countries, but I didn’t feel the depth of it until I experienced it through the eyes of Zuern’s poem. Taking all the different elements of this poem together, I found that this piece of elit is probably the most inspirational for me in terms of the kind of elit I would want to create. Through this poem, I have found the beginnings of inspiration.

References

Zuern, J.D. (2005). Ask Me for the Moon. Electronic Literature Collection Vol. 3. https://collection.eliterature.org/3/work.html?work=ask-me-for-the-moon

Songs – Blue Moon, Harvest Moon, and Reaching for The Moon

Ask Me for the Moon, while I look into the Window.

“Window” by Katharine Norman

“Ask Me for the Moon” by John Zuern

As I began this assignment with great curiosity, I couldn’t help but notice from the Editorial Statements on each how vital the code and programming were to the presentation of the pieces.  “Window,” by Katharine Norman showcased how it appeared that the user could manipulate rain drops on the window that invited more words, phrases and ideas to take flight on the screen.  The interface for “Ask Me…,” had me feeling very much like a tourist, coming and going through the author’s mind.

The other idea from the Editorial Statements on each that caught my idea was the use of ambient sound.  I am deaf in one ear.  If I’m not focusing, background or ambient noise can be my worst nightmare.  However, the flip side to it is that ambient noise really helps me relax and hide within my brain.  I was really excited to see how both authors were going to treat that and each did not disappoint.

Norman used the phrase, “Traffic as a form of silence.” I grew up in New York.  My grandparent’s home was right near the Long Island railroad crossings for our town.  The sound of that train is what put us all to sleep.  When we would all go on vacation as a family, no one could sleep because the hotel was just too quiet.  We needed the traffic and the train as a form of silence.  Norman had sounds from a near-by airport.  I can relate to that one.  She also had the sounds of early morning birds.  The train scares the birds off the lines.  When the train leaves, the birds all sing and cry out for their new spot on the lines.

Zuern had some heavy breathing sounds in his presentation that activated using the interface.  However, while sound was not present in its audio form, sound was decisively present in the language Zuern used. Onomatopoeia is an amazingly effective rhetorical element to interject sound into writing.  This is evident when the author uses the written idea of leaving and revisiting.  We all know what that sounds like.  Norman takes onomatopoeia a step further when she is describing the making of bread; with all of the slapping and pounding going on.

Poetry has always been something I have found difficult to teach.  Poetry is such and open world of language.  In college many years ago, I had a professor who encouraged us to interpret poetry freely, yet on exams we had better feel exactly as he did, or it would cost us our grade.  Unfortunately, that was the case for me.  The only D I ever received because I failed to see things one way personally and forced to feel another for academic reward.  My morals aren’t for sale.

So I have always stressed about poetry.  Zuern had a line from Ask me that went, “…deployment of images and metaphors.”  I used some pretty powerful images and metaphors two years ago, and I’m still fighting in court just how powerful those images and metaphors were. 

The other lines from Zuern that I really liked was his lines about “castles in the sand,” and “spent muscle.”  While I fear teaching poetry, I do have a soft spot for it.  I have the word INVICTUS tattooed on my back.  The words from that poem outline my life. Henley wrote INVICTUS to inspire – to give hope.  Zuern’s poem gives that same hope by exposing the truth that real castles are built on solid foundations.  Not the glitz and glamour of the hotels and skyscrapers that line the Hawaiian beach.   I have seen those who make their castle out of sand – it never works out.  I have shared years of spent muscle making that evident.

Norman has some pretty great lines that impacted me.  The entire writing process has to be about can the author get the reader to relate to the words on the page.  “Spoon against the bowl,” to me that speaks about how empty your soul can be and the desire to want to fill it.  “Taking the long way around.”  I understand a desire to do that to.  No man or woman can escape the inevitable.  However, every man, woman and child can take their time getting there.

Norman’s other thought about a, “window between here and there.”  I would like to know, whose “here” are we speaking of.  I would also be inclined to wonder whose “there” are we glimpsing into.  My belief is that Norman wants the reader to reflect upon that very notion.  Is it a window, or a mirror?  That would be the question I would ask of both pieces.  Zuern has me reflecting on my perceptions as a tourist while Norman has me reflecting introspectively – to which many feel like a tourist.  I think that sums it up:  We are all tourists amongst each other and within ourselves.  We can either ask for the moon or peek in a window.  It’s all in the experience one looks for.