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A Reverence for Baseball, the Bible, Buddha and Truth

Alison Schaumburg -- July 26, 2006

Alison reviews an unusual collection of poems by Paul Lobo Portuges.

A Reverence for Baseball, the Bible, Buddha and Truth... and flowers and children and questions. The list is innumerable. The poems are innumerable. And this dynamic collection began as one thousand poems written one summer. But poet, screenwriter, critic, translator, film maker, director, teacher and currently the creator of a culturally experimental film/poetry project, Paul Lobo Portuges has given us, in his The Flower Vendor, one hundred and fifty small, prayerful, haiku-like moments that a busy reader can absorb at any chosen moment in our fast-paced world. Each poem is like a concentrated psalm and allows the mind to sip a thought. Some are subtle but the majority are right on the surface like a late night visit to the laundromat. As Karl Shapiro is, "Tired of picking the locks of poems," we are easily allowed to peer into the keyhole of Portuges' refreshing, yet universal philosophy. He gives us a bouquet, one flower at time. He writes for: busy pill pushing doctors, tired bodies, hungry souls.

Orphaned at an early age, (his great-grandfather Lobo came from Spain), Paul found himself growing up in Merkel, Texas, "The Windmill City", sixteen miles west of Abilene, home to big fans of the Bible, "the greatest stories ever told." His first foster family experience was where hard work and prayer were valued. They attended the Church of Christ. He also spent several years with a Jewish family. In high school he was raised by Virginia Johnson, an older Baptist woman. Each afternoon, upon returning from school, Paul would find she had re-hung all the pictures of Jesus he had removed from his bedroom walls that morning. Mrs. Johnson believed Jesus was going to come down from the moon someday and cover her with a blanket. Paul Lobo Portuges can't quite go for that, but a religious aspect is evident throughout the poems: I kiss your eyes / sooner or later / god willing / we will / be / clouds. Or: the stained glass / of your mouth / my soul gladdened / by the rosary / of your body / there is a God. He enters into that bargain you have with God, meditative, "in the zone" when he writes. Portuges asks the questions we all want answered. He once asked a Buddhist monk, "What about all this reincarnation stuff?" The monk's answer was, "Breathe in - you're born. Breathe out, your dead. Breathe in - your born. Breathe out - you're dead. It's like that." Well, not so simple for Portuges. His good friend Kenneth Rexroth, who was a Buddhist his entire life, asked for a priest in the end. Thus the poem: a Buddhist / all his life / he confessed / to a priest / on his deathbed. This poem explains further his, and our, longing: beyond my / dashboard Buddha / a stupid cow / watches stupid / me watching.

The truth is oh so important in these works. The truth about love is essential. Included are the bare bones of love poems where the truth is never obscured: when she / smiles she / is all / that matters she / is marvelous / is is. Portuges spoke of a famous Zen monk named Ikkuyu who at age sixty met a young blind Buddhist nun and fell madly in love. The love affair lasted for twenty years and is a source of inspiration for the author. For Portuges the bottom line is, "All that means anything is loving somebody. Truth gets obscured. Don't censure yourself. Tell the truth. Some of this work is embarrassing -- even to me. But if your voice is honest and true, it penetrates," such as the simple yet profound contradiction of existence in: help my son / memorize / the constellations / pay bills. Or the distraction romantic love produces: in the broken mirror / husband friend / lover poet / a fool for yes.

The poems in The Flower Vendor are like haiku in that some of the most thrilling describe daily situations in a way that gives a reader a brand new experience of a well-known situation. Truncated, cubist, Zen-like, abrupt, like the click-click-click of the old film projector, the pace is breathless, the message urgent, spare, ironic, sharply etched, close to a late night conversation. Whom does Portuges admire? Pablo Neruda, "He's everything: a love poet, a political poet, a philosophical poet." Also, Jack Hirschman, homeless organizer and Marxist poet laureate of San Francisco, "the best American poet."

Then, there's baseball. Several poems in this collection reveal baseball's secrets. "Baseball is the purest sport, one of the few that teaches you to perform both as an individual and as a team. It's you and the ball. It builds character and keeps kids out of trouble." Portuges writes: why all / the worry and grief / when it's so simple / to play baseball / with my son.

What's next for Portuges? An exciting on-going project involving film and poetry. His new book The Body Electric, consisting mostly of prose poems, will have a film component. Most poems will be about 3 to 5 minutes long, with some presented in a documentary style while others are abstract; some will tell stories, while some will convey images and sounds. How fortunate we have a "fool for yes" who states his autobiography would have the title Blood of the Music.

This collection's dedication is... for friends long gone or going. In Wallace Steven's Sunday Morning he states, "Death is the mother of beauty." What was it about death that Portuges has chosen it for the dedication? Answer: Death makes you stop bullshitting. Virginia Woolf in her Diary, 17 Feb 1922 also says, "I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual." Paul Lobo Portuges poses the question: lost friends / dead lovers / flowers planted / flowers cut / why am / I still here. And the answer: I am a warrior / in the army / of truth / on the fields of life / in the battle of love / hopeful against death / armed with reciting / paper words / hoping to make / a difference.