Friday, January 30, 2009

Now the River

Oh, but listen: down the far side the scrunch
of soldiers' feet in scree. Here is all the quiet
that a heaving chest can manage. Here
for five minutes, the war is over.

Listen again:
here and there. Fingertips pulled over
soft warm flesh.

Soft, pulsed nursing
At that little hooded nub of flesh,
Rose red in the dusk: trembling, ticking over
like a tiny bird
in a thicket at sundown.

Swans rear up indignantly, bugling
and sparring; beyond them the river runs away;
the cars on the bridge open their eyes wide
and bring on the night they are trying to dispel.
The rust-red steel clenches both banks, darkening
to old, clotted blood.

Unstranded, unbuckled, unworded
Love-sucked, undone, unmade, unmanned.
A husk in the starlight, turned backwards at the ends;
My hair falls loosely, as the wind blows it
here and there.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Completing the Blessing

Sunim Soen Joon sent me a card from Korea year before last, congratulating me on passing my massage exams. Dangling from one corner of it by a narrow bit of yarn was a silver mylar cut-out of a bird in flight. The size of a nickel, maybe.

It's been my bookmark ever since. The card goes in the book, and the bird dangles outside. It picks up the light wherever it is: it looks, in fact, like a little flake of bright sky fallen to earth. Its tail has a kink in it now, and the yarn is badly frayed. It won't last forever. I'm thinking of it as Tibetans think of blessing cords and prayer flags: when it finally frays completely, and the bird is (as we say) lost, the blessing will be complete.

It's how I'm thinking about death, as well: as the completion of the blessing. "For a word to be spoken, there must be silence," says Ursula Le Guin's wizard. "Before, and after."

Sunday, January 25, 2009


Going to the grocery store on Sunday afternoon is not efficient. The store is full of the indecisive, the poor planners, the amateur shoppers. They run aground with their shopping carts, mouths agape, in the middle of the aisles, flummoxed by the choice between thin spaghetti and vermicelli. They back slowly away from shelves, murmuring to themselves, unaware that they're backing into you, and then even when they become aware, reacting groggily, their reflexes dimmed. It's clearly, for many people, a stressful and difficult thing. Most people have their shoulders hunched and their heads down.

I love grocery shopping. All of it. I love the food, the prodigality of an American supermarket, all that produce and meat, all the color and the bright lights and the cleanliness. I love the soaring ceilings. I love being able to look at people, all the people jumbled together. There are always at least a few people of surreal, intense beauty. And a few people who are looking about them, joyfully alive.

Food is miraculous to me these days. I'm cooking more than I ever have, and discovering a delight that many people learn young, but which I missed: that I can make all those things that I usually buy ready-made -- make them cheaper, and better, than restaurants and packaged food. The fact that I can make something as simple as chicken soup fills me with wonder. And the whole store is full of secret ingredients for such things.

The checker is a stout, goggle-eyed woman with faded blond hair, an eastern European, stolid and inexpressive. She dutifully asks me if I found everything I was looking for.

"I did," I say happily. She looks up at me, curious. And a light seems to blossom there. She's not smiling, exactly, but we've become aware of each other. In some other lifetime we knew each other. We were children together, once, and balanced on the railing over a brook, dropping leaves into the water. Even farther back, lives before, we were lovers. One of us buried the other, but it's so long ago we no longer remember which was which.

She hands me my receipt. I thank her. I want to take her hand and say, "I remember, too!" Except of course I don't, I don't really remember. I'm just making it up.

Still. Outside the store the sky goes up and up. The early winter twilight. Pale blue, and dark trees. All the light is being gathered into the air.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Lose Six Inches in a Week!

I lost six inches around the waist last week. What a terrific diet!

Well, strictly speaking it wasn't the diet. And the inches were virtual. After the two rapid inches I lost, I seem to have stalled out at waist measurement between 44" and 45". Which is fine, so far; I'm still on schedule. What's changed is my goal. Remembering that I used to wear levis with a 32" waist, long long ago, I was thinking that I was looking to lose 15" total from the 47" I started with. Which is a lot.

But last week I realized that my 45" waist is now fitting comfortably into my supposedly 38" Levis. Which means that the "waist size" of the jeans and the sizing of my waist are not the same thing at all. If that proportion (45/38) holds, I really have only 7 inches to go. Which makes more sense all round, so to speak. I couldn't really picture where all those fifteen inches were going to come from. So the official goal of my diet has become a waistline of 38", not 32". At any rate, when I get there I'll see what I see. Which should be considerably less than I see now.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

How I Will End the War

I will catch a rocket in the air and fly with it
into the sky. I will be a tracer, a beautiful line;
Between my thighs the chemical witchery

will burn, burn for vengeance. But I will soar
up and still up. I will be the glow, the memory
of dates eaten in a violet twilight back when love

seemed a power to reckon with. In my hands
the fuse will glitter like a sparkler drawing patterns
against the summer dark. Remember?

I will not drop. I will go so high that the sky
will darken and the stars will lift their startled heads
and the beautiful blaze of anger will surge through

my fingers and my nipples and still higher and higher
while the fountain of sparks runs for the touchhole;
and when we explode into tatters

The quiet evening will be marked by lovely
falling stars that are little pieces of me, and children
will point at them, at the tiny dropping fires winking out.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Scholars sometimes talk -- seriously, so far as I can tell -- about a fabulous beast they call The General Reader. The non-scholarly reader who reads the books put out by the university presses. When you're writing your book about the adoption of Dantean tropes into 13th Century Lithuanian liturgical exegesis, your editor may tell you, you want to bear in mind The General Reader, who may not know all the works of Philenius the Younger, and may need to be reminded of the exact wording of the riparian statutes of Basil IX.

This harmless fantasy of a mass readership is one of the more endearing foibles of academics, whom I find an appealing lot, for the most part. But I bring it up as an introduction to our own variant of The General Reader, The Non-Blogging Blog Reader. I have one. (I had two, at one point, but I convinced one of them to start blogging, so now I have only one.) My prize possession. He signs himself "Bill." (No, no link. Haven't you been listening? He doesn't have a blog!)

Bill commented, Annihilation is my sharpest craving. Certainty that the next moment will be just like the last is something I can't abide. "Coffee, deliver me!"

And this led me to think again about craving, and to wonder whether all craving is not a craving for annihilation. I don't remember Freud's late work on thanatos and eros very well (if I ever read it: maybe I just heard the cool kids talking about it.) But in a certain frame of mind the only convincing alternative to endless continuity is death, and the hunger for change becomes the hunger for death. That death. A large death that is very like the Little Death. A gathering of all frustration and desire into one flowering: and then -- unimaginable, but deeply desired, peace.

As one gets older, one of the terms alters, and a new fear creeps into the equation. What if your frustration and desire is not great enough to flower? What if you are unable to die that death? What if the only death available is the long, slow ebb, draining away into triviality, irritability, and whining?

I used to go to strip bars and get drunk. I thought of it then as running away from death. The whole point of the dancers was that they were young and fearless, and had no part of age or death. With the help of a few beers I too could become fearless. And there we all were, having escaped from death together. I could buy them drinks and we could build towers of tavern matchbooks and tell each other stories, and I would live forever. They were lovely and they didn't give a damn and they didn't plan a thing, and I loved that about them.

That was a long time ago. I still think of them fondly. But to return to craving and death: I didn't actually want them, not to have them. I wanted to desire them, that's all. I wanted to stir desire up to its highest pitch -- and then walk away from it. Why?

After I quit drinking, I went a few times to the bars and had a club soda, but I found that without the alcohol the transaction became just weird and pointless. What on earth was I doing there? These people didn't particularly like me; I didn't particularly like them, we had nothing to talk about. I wandered away, and have not really been tempted in that direction since. The alcohol, which I had thought of as incidental to the whole experience, was in fact central to it.

I think what the alcohol did was disable my awareness that I was not, in fact, going to die that night. That I could not actually escape continuity. That this experience itself was a continuation, more of the same, just another in a series of unsuccessful debauches. (Any debauch that you live to the other side of is unsuccessful, really.) Without drinking I could not escape my own history.

Now, as a Buddhist, I have to wonder: was I closer to a true perception drunk or sober? Buddhism holds that continuity is a delusion. The world actually is new every moment. We are actually, whether we see it or not, radically free, now and always: we only imagine ourselves at 8:20.20 AM to be the same person we were at 8:20:19 AM.

I wonder if the real intention of Buddhist meditation is not to get really, truly, roaring drunk, and stay that way.

Monday, January 19, 2009


Today a horrible deadness came over me, in the afternoon. It was all sun glare and freezing weather, and I craved sugar and annihilation in a way I have not craved them for many weeks. I wrote:

Strange buds have grown in my throat, until they stick out my mouth; inarticulate fronds, nodding wisely, dumbly. I have only nonsense and failure. Sometimes the loneliness is so cold. There is nothing to do but nothing. Wait. Wait for another turn.

This evening Tori called from the hospital to say they were okay, but that she and her partner had had an accident on the freeway this afternoon. Getting on the freeway, she had veered to the shoulder, apparently, hit gravel and lost all traction: the car hit the divider on the right, spun across the three lanes, hit the divider on the left, and came to rest in the left lane. Collided with nothing else. They're fine now, though of course they'll be sore tomorrow.

I can't help connecting the distress I was in with the accident, which must have been happening at about that time. I don't believe in that sort of thing, particularly. But it certainly was an overwhelming fit of -- something.

Anyway. Grateful to have my daughter & her partner still in this world. But a little shaky.
Late-Breaking News

Well, what do you know. Memphis is in Tennessee, just as Chuck Berry claimed. In the southwest corner of it, on the Mississippi. And what's more -- late-breaking news! -- the state of Tennessee extends all the way to the Mississippi! and it sits square on top of the states of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia, like a lintel.

(How, how can I have looked at maps of the US over and over and not really seen this? It's seeming downright spooky to me, now.)

And Columbia is, in fact, the state capitol of South Carolina, plumb in the center of the state. It sounds like a lovely little city. Memphis, to tell the truth, sounds like something of a hell-hole. But my responses to the South are all tinged with my horror of hot, humid weather. So are my responses to the East Coast, for that matter. I moved to Connecticut in late August, some 25 years ago, and could not believe that human beings voluntarily lived in such a climate. It was clearly simply uninhabitable. I was appalled to find that it did not get cooler at night. I had never lived in place that didn't cool down at night, and it gave me the horrors. It was as if the laws of physics didn't work there. In the daytime you moved through a miasma of hot, thick, soupy air, full of weird brown stuff. And if you opened a window at 3:00 AM and took a deep breath, you took a deep breath of -- hot, thick, soupy air, full of weird brown stuff. God. I still shudder to think of it.

(One good thing about it is, that I vowed that upon my return to a civilized climate I would never complain about hot weather again; and since I moved back to western Oregon, twenty years ago, I never have. There is no such thing as hot weather here. Weather that once would have made me fretful and cranky now leaves me placid and smiling. I know that I have only to wait till 3:00 AM to draw a breath of cool, pleasant air. Life is good.)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Clumps and Voids

The contemporary poets I read are mostly bloggers, and mostly, like me, they're in rebellion against overly precious, obscure poetry. Our unwritten credo might be: if this would make boring impenetrable nonsense written out as prose, chopping it into lines will not make it good poetry, no matter how many clever effects you build into it and how much verbal riffing you do.

We don't have a lot of patience with poetry that yields its surface meaning reluctantly. Too often it does so because there isn't much meaning there in the first place, and it has to make what there is last.

I say all this, not to argue that our poetry is better than theirs ("our" poetry is always better than "theirs," and who cares?) but by way of urging you to read a poet who doesn't at first look like one of us. Her poems do yield their surface meaning with reluctance. But there's more and more and more in them. And if you read them aloud, which I urge you to do, their music will astonish you, and the words will keep resonating in your head for days Her use of rhyme and alliteration is magnificent, and her meter is the most skilled and disciplined of any poet I read (with the possible exception of Dick Jones'). Say these stanzas over to yourself a few times:

glass spice-vials
of curry/ cumin/ turmeric


processions of jars
glink-glink reassurances

The poet is Julia Martin, of Clumps and Voids. She is also, not coincidentally, a brilliant aphorist; check out the sidebar, "herr keppler's notebook," for such asides as:

Professionalism is not saying "asshole" until you hang up.


Mammograms are S&M without a safe word.

The appearance of Clumps and Voids has been one of the delights for me of 2008.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Slant Water: Meditation at the Half Moon

Sitting shamatha, my eyes unfocused;
following my breath as it leaves my body,
and appears at once again unbidden
in my pale lungs. It leaves again,

The world leans east, and the hanging sun
is edged from the window: the shadows slide away,
like clothes on the deck of a heeling clipper ship;

say some China merchant, reckoning on a killing
in tea and opium, racing for a Middle Kingdom
he can't begin to imagine.

If you think you're making no progress,
said my teacher, you're probably going backwards.

The world leans harder. The ship
labors uphill now: the sea gets steeper
by the minute. We claw for a grip on the water.

At last we can go no further, splash down
gasping in a trough of thin black fluid,
the backwash of the tilted sea, but
calm in defeat, and rocking softly, awake
at last, we look up:

Stitched loosely to a faded blue silk sky
is the broken button of the moon.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The South, Wrapped in Darkness

My brother and sister and I as children used to play, with great enthusiasm, "the map game" with my father. He had a world map, and a box of file cards with the names of countries, cities, rivers, islands, mountain ranges, lakes and oceans -- color coded, so which knew when he drew a card whether we'd be looking for a mountain range (yellow) or a body of water (blue). We each had a pointer, made from slender sticks that had once held the balloons they used to give away at Pietro's Pizza. He would draw a card -- we'd all note its color -- and then he'd announce, in his careful teacher's diction: "Atlas Mountains," or "Caspian Sea," or "Czechoslovakia." The first of us three to point to the place on the map won an M & M. We each of us had specialties: I specialized in mountains, so my heart leapt each time I saw a yellow-bordered card come out of the box.

In high school and college I played the marvelous historical games created in those days by Avalon Hill and SPI, played on beautifully rendered maps with superimposed grids. I was as familiar with the military problems and opportunities presented by the Pripyat Marshes of the Soviet Union as I was with the local bus routes.

But there are fuzzy areas in my geography. the places that have changed significantly are murky to me. It's hard for me to believe in the countries created in eastern Europe by the collapse of the Soviet Union: learning their boundaries and capitals seems to be beyond me. And then there's my ignorance of what by many standards is the heartland of humanity. China and India are simply huge blocks of land, to me. I know almost nothing of their provinces and geography. It's ludicrous that I know the exact shape of Idaho, with its handful of people, and nothing about the most populous lands in the world.

Prejudice creeps in. An inability to take people seriously results in an inability to learn their geography, and vice versa. I know the outlines of the states of western Europe by heart: given time I could draw them freehand with fair accuracy. Africa? Not a chance. I don't believe in the African nations, at some deep level. I think of them as made-up. It's partly a legacy of colonialism. As nation-states most of them were, of course, in some ways, made up. But the places are real enough, and so are the people who live there. I decided recently to force myself to learn the places. There's a certain circularity to this sort of insidious prejudice. If you don't know exactly where the place is, when you read about it in the paper, you take it less seriously. And then you're less likely to learn exactly where it is, because you don't take it seriously. And so on. I need to make Africa, eastern Europe, and the interiors of India and China real.

But what got me thinking about geography was reading about the Civil War, and realizing how sketchy my geography of the American South is. The rest of the country I know pretty well, but not the South. It's not an accident. The South made me deeply uneasy, as a child. I knew we'd fought a war with the South to destroy slavery. That stood clear in the light. But what had come after that was in pitch darkness. There was something that made the South impossible to speak about. I recognize it now, of course. Guilt. There were two pieces of it: one is that we held the South against its will. We were, or at least had been, an imperial power there: which called in question everything that America was supposed to stand for. And the other piece was that we had failed the slaves. Set them free and abandoned them. As the civil rights movement grew, that gradually came into focus. Light began to leak in. Memphis and Selma erupted into the news. But -- not so far as to illuminate the map. I didn't go to find them in an atlas. They were different. Not places that I wanted to exist.

So my geographical knowledge of the South remains stubbornly bad. I've tolerated a vagueness about it that I would never have tolerated about the rest of the country. I do not, for example, know which state Memphis is in, though the refrain of an old song comes to mind ("something something something, in Memphis Tennessee") which suggests it's a lot further north than I thought. There's a city of Columbia (unless it's Columbus), which is the capital of some southern state -- I think -- but I don't know which. All I know is that Sherman either burned it or tried to prevent it burning, depending on who you ask.

Of course, there are many people whose geography of everywhere is vague. My ignorance of these places only signifies because I have loved maps and pored over them all my life. And I have read detailed histories of the Civil War, complete with maps, and I still can't hold the places in my mind's eye.

So it's time to get some file cards, and drill myself a bit. By this time next week, I solemnly swear, I will know whether Columbus is actually Columbia, and what it's the capital of. And I will know where Memphis is.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


It is only a clearer example of the strangeness
of a God who creates us, and a few decades later
destroys us. We who make it alive out of the womb
may muddy the issue with guilt: we shouldn't have eaten
so much red meat. We shouldn't have smoked cigarettes.
Sure. However, that small heart that formed,
but never began to beat: nobody will lay the blame
on anyone but God. That strange and willful God.

He told Abraham to sacrifice his son, and wrapped
it in words, made it part of the covenant. A one-time deal
in the linear world of the fated kingdoms.
There are no words to help the women who see
the mute sacrifice of a bloody napkin. No one offers
a ram instead. No one explains. No one promises
a glorious kingdom. You can try again. That's all.

We walk to the water, listening,
all the world's women:
we listen for the slantwise words
of books written by men
whose sacrificial altars are
outside their bodies, who think
the Bible is talking about somebody else.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


After his first narrow defeat, running for a senate seat in Illinois, Lincoln was tentatively offered the position of Governor of the Oregon Territory. I wonder what would have happened, if he had taken it? We would have suited each other down to the ground, I think. We've never been much for pomp and ceremony. The shiftless get-rich-quick settlers were mostly siphoned off to the California goldrush, and good riddance: California's been saddled with that inheritance of greed and goofiness ever since. People here expected to work for a living. Lincoln's homely, shirtsleeve style would have played well here.

It's impossible to see Lincoln as a villain. Shelby Foote says, justly enough: "He would go down to posterity, not primarily as the Preserver of the Republic -- which he was -- but as the Great Emancipator, which he was not." The Emancipation Proclamation, frankly, is a miserable document, "freeing" slaves in the Confederacy (which of course it had at that time no power to do) and leaving them in servitude in the border states (where it could actually have affected them.) Lincoln, as always, was taking the practical course. He was a politician in the mold of Bill Clinton, possibly a little too quick to compromise, a little too responsive to the shifting political breezes. Fortunately for us, he was also a deeply humane and humble man. He wanted to save the Union, and he did save it, by taking on unconstitutional powers and wielding a despotism America had never seen before. In some ways the American Caesar, remarked Dave Bonta, and that's true enough: he marks the turning from the Republic to the Empire. The fact that we took as little harm from it as we did, though, was due I think largely to Lincoln's humanity. He never wanted to be a despot, and every unprejudiced person could see that. To him the issue of the Civil War was never slavery, but whether democracy could really work. He saw clearly enough that if the country split apart every time a really difficult dispute arose, a few generations would see the ruin of the whole experiment.

I have always loved and admired Lincoln. I wrote a report on him in school, in the fourth grade, I think, for which I read a simple and short biography. It's a book I'd like to see again, in the light of what I know now. Whatever it may have done with the facts, it conveyed the man.

I wish he'd come here, and never meddled in national politics again. We wouldn't have shot him. We would have given him a modest, unvisited mossy tombstone down in Salem, Oregon (marked "died 1892," say) instead of an outsize marble chair in Washington, D.C. Maybe Mary Todd would have settled down a bit here -- she would have liked being the first lady of the Territory, I think -- and his home life would have been happier. I like to think of him, old and content, wearing his slippers, reading Shakespeare by the fire. He would have done right by us, and we would have done right by him.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Fog this morning. Last night was clear: as I walked to the bus stop the full moon ghosted between the building tops.

Wrung and worn with love. In the last three years I've exhausted as many lifetimes: I am older than the earth. And yet younger than I have ever been. My leaves, if you could see them, are tender and Spring green. I've stopped trying to understand it.

Death is always with me. I look around Tosi's and see all the customers as they'll be in their coffins, slack-faced and shrunken; I talk with people at work and see their skeletons gently working apart, their bones nestling into the soil. There's nothing gruesome or terrible about it. But it makes it difficult to take the troubles of the workday or the discontents of the hearth all that seriously.

The days flicker by. I find myself looking more and more at the sky. Every time I go outside I have to contemplate it, puzzle over it. It has nothing to tell me, nothing that will pay the mortgage or fix the roof. But every day it sets the question over again: why, it asks, am I so heartrendingly beautiful? Until you understand that you don't understand anything.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Why a Non-Liberal Votes Democrat

It's funny that I almost always end up voting a liberal ticket, because I don't have a liberal bone in my body. I'm neither secular nor humanist. I want a small government. I don't want to improve people. I don't want to educate them so they're more like me: I don't even like government-run schools. I don't want government health-care (although I'd prefer a single-payer system to what we have now.) All this ought to put me in with the loony far right. So why did I again vote for a bunch of Democrats?

Well, because there's four non-negotiable issues, for me, and the Democrats fairly consistently take my side on all four.

One is a foreign policy that recognizes that as a general rule war is a spectacular waste of money, a crude and clumsy instrument of diplomacy, environmentally disastrous even on a small scale, and likely, on a large scale, to end humankind.

Two is an understanding of the gravity of the environmental crises (plural intended). The market is not going to solve this: it requires massive regulation and intervention. This is one of my few big-government positions.

Three is a commitment to civil rights. I take my first amendment seriously.

Four is a commitment to helping the poor. Your run of the mill Americans give maybe one percent of their income to any sort of charity. That's not enough to make even a dent. So, willy nilly, even though I find the Democrats' approach distasteful, paternalistic, expensive, and overbearing -- I vote for them. Because they propose to make sure everyone gets housed and fed.

Now, there are a couple of alternatives open to me, that still take in my four non-negotiables. One is the Green Party, and the other is the various incarnations of American socialist parties. (Nader wanders somewhere in these fields, angry and impotent.) I would vote for them before I voted for any party that stood against any of my four issues, let alone, as the Republican Party ordinarily does, against all of them. But -- leaving aside the realities of who has a shot at winning elections -- in both of them I find everything I dislike about the Democrats, only more so. Distasteful, paternalistic, expensive, and overbearing applies to them in spades. Their conviction of moral superiority reeks to heaven. You can't picture them deciding that something is too expensive to burden taxpayers with, or considering that opposition to them could proceed from anything but greed and malice. They do have a keen understanding of how deeply the Republicans and Democrats are beholden to big money, but I somehow think that if they gained a foothold and actually got some of that big money themselves, their scruples would mysteriously vanish. I don't know how to reduce big money's lamentable influence on our politics, but I don't think voting Green or Socialist will do it.

The libertarians are sometimes (though not always) with me on civil rights: I like Ron Paul, but -- they're an environmental disaster. They really just don't get it.

So that's why, although I'm not a liberal, I vote liberal, election after election. Notice to competing parties: I'm ripe for the picking. Give me something else to vote for, and I'm your man. Until then, I'm going to grimace, and sigh, and color in the little (Dem) ovals on the ballot.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Men without Weakness

"No. Shoot them all. I do not wish them to be brave."

Stonewall Jackson, responding to a Confederate colonel's regret at having killed so many young men of a particularly gallant Union cavalry force.

The cold blue eyes look down history, finding us with contempt. He gave up drinking whiskey when he found that he liked the taste of it; he gave up reading the newspapers when they started to praise him. He did take pride in winning battles, but he knew it was a sin: the victories belonged to God, not to him. In winning a battle he found spiritual ecstasy: it was, maybe, the only token of God's love he would ever believe. He exemplifies the hard cold center of the Confederate dream, as far removed from chivalry, in his direction, as Sherman of the Union was in the other. Between the two of them what was sentimental and humane in America would be ground to nothing. There was to be nothing but a wasteland, from now on, between the cold fanaticism of Jackson and the materialist imperialism of Sherman. In that devastated countryside men like Twain and Whitman would try to scrape a desolate spiritual living. It was a hardscrabble life.

Jackson was notoriously intolerant of weakness, and shot deserters without compunction. After his brilliant victories in the Shenandoah Valley -- achieved partly by marching his men so hard that they covered a phenomenal amount of ground, and began to be referred to as "foot cavalry" -- he was brought down to join the defense of Richmond. Driving himself even harder than he drove his troops, he rode all the way down to consult with Lee and rode all the way back to join his army and march down with them. He got some ten hours' sleep in four days.

What happened thereafter, in the Battle of Seven Days, perplexes many students of the war, but I don't think it would perplex many students of sleep deprivation. What Jackson mostly did during the Seven Days was fall asleep. Lee barely pulled a victory out of the fire anyway, but Jackson's veteran army, probably the best troops in the Confederacy at that point, took almost no part in it.

He loved his wife with surprising, even astonishing, tenderness.

I am rereading Shelby Foote's three volume history of the Civil War. Last month I read a biography of Grant, and I'm also in the midst of Sherman's Memoirs. I'm confirmed in the opinion I once gave, that if I were to give a foreigner one book to explain America, it would be Foote's Civil War. The Civil War is what made us what we are: it's when America hardened and set, when the dream of a New World empire triumphed over the Jeffersonian dream of a nation of independent farmers and artisans minding their own business.

People who think that it was World War I that destroyed the old order tend to forget that on this continent we had already fought a total war, a war of trenches, railroads and machine guns, a war of economic devastation, a horrible four year maelstrom that undid American civil liberties and destroyed the economy of the American South. It destroyed slavery as well, and thank God. But once a nation has practiced mass conscription, systematically eliminated its dissident press, and disappeared hundreds of its citizens, it will never, ever, be the same again.

Reading William Tecumseh Sherman's Memoirs, things began to fall into place. Why the South fought the Civil War is clear enough. But why did the North fight? "The mystic idea of the Union," explained Shelby Foote, and I thought: what the hell? What does he mean? But reading Sherman, I get it. "Union" is code for "Empire." It's all about expansion, the romance of the Reich. Sherman is high-strung and lyrical, and what excites him most deeply is the expansion of America. The dream of conquest. He began his career hunting Indians in the swamps of Florida, to make room for settlers; and after the war he hunted Indians again as the head of the U.S. army, protecting the railroads west by waging his trademark ruinous total war. That's why he couldn't bear to see the South depart. Nor can the South claim any moral high ground, here: they wanted to devour Mexico and Cuba as well. They wanted an empire in the image of Virginia, that's all, not in the image Massachusetts. An empire of planters rather than of manufacturers.

The two impulses weave throughout American history, from its earliest days. Two responses to the New World. One is: here is a place where we can finally be let alone, and put our own house in order. And the other is: here is where we shall found the new Rome, and make an empire to overawe the world.

We only want to be let alone, said Jefferson Davis. But one of the reasons the North fought was because Northerners felt there would sooner or later be a showdown anyway: why not now? Someone was going to master the continent, and then the world -- was it going to be a slave-owning planter aristocracy or honest egalitarian hardworking ingenious yankees?

But we are still here, too. The people who genuinely only want to be let alone. We want no part of war and empire. We want no corporations, no billionaires, no get-rich-quick. We don't want an enormous standing army posted all over the world. We want to tend our own garden in peace. I would appeal to the rest of the world: we've been overshadowed and our voices drowned out by the hectoring, bullying imperialists and frantically greedy capitalists, but we are still here, and our American dream is not dead either. Don't count us out. Men without weakness have their weaknesses, nevertheless, and weak men have their strengths.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009


Look at this. You're not going to find anything more beautiful & true today.

. . . the fourth dull day of breathing greyly here amid the landscape drained of all warmth and colour, you start seeing sparks through your lowered eyelids . . .

Monday, January 05, 2009

Bringing us Home Safe

Since I've been writing about the difficult part of having parents lately, I thought I'd repost this, which I wrote a couple years ago. There's a lot that's wonderful too.

On the ride home Sunday evening, in the pitch dark, our skis back on the rack on top of the station wagon, I would sit in the back seat, longing for the warm air to make its slow way to the back seat. It would take me half an hour, sometimes, to undertake getting my ski boots off. First I had to lift the heavy left boot, still cold and wet, with snow-ice wedged between the laces, onto my right knee, which had only just gotten warm: always the cold water soaked the knee of my ski pants. Then I took my numb fingers and began working on the knots. There was all the time in the world. Another hour to home. Sometimes I'd take fifteen minutes, worrying at the knot for awhile, then holding my hands under my thighs to warm them back up for a while, then going back to it, and worrying some more. Eventually the laces would come untied, and I'd unwind them from their hooks (little slivers of snow-ice dropping onto the floor, onto the seat, onto me).

Finally I'd ease my foot out. Numb and stiff. Pull off the sock. Cradle my foot, as cold to the touch as the snow at first, in my hand. Such pleasure, to feel the warmth slowly come back, to be able to wriggle my toes. It hurt a little too. I'd stare out the window, watching the snowflakes appear in the headlights, gleam once, and streak over the windshield, back into the dark. Eventually I would lift the heavy right boot onto my left knee, and begin worrying that knot.

We never went into the lodge. We skied all day. That was what we were there for, after all. I had hot chocolate in a thermos. It wasn't very hot by the middle of the day, but it tasted wonderful. We kids discovered that we could climb down the snow-drifts and duck under the walls of the chairlift housing. There, in a secret, dark, hangar-like space, unheated but out of the wind, I would drink my cocoa. Except we always called it "hot chocolate" -- there was something vaguely self-indulgent about the world "cocoa." It was the kind of word people would use who would come up to go skiing and then hang about in the lodge with warm feet. Not for us.

(Not that my father cared about dignity. In town he held hands with us and skipped down the sidewalk. He would try to climb anything, appropriate or inappropriate -- bridges, fences, trees in someone's yard. He skipped stones across rivers with us; carried us piggy-back, as we called it; built sand-castles with us; taught us to yodel.)

All day is a long time to ski, when you're six years old. I was terribly proud, though. I skied with my legs shoulder-width apart, maybe, but the skis were parallel -- no snow-plowing for me. And by the time I was eight I took the chairlift clear up, and skied the most challenging slopes. People would remark on how little I was and how well I skied. (It never occurred to me that they were letting me hear them say that on purpose. And I would never look at them or show any sign that I had heard. But I would lift my chin and stand very straight.) And I was terribly proud of my father, in his huge baggy grey pants that fluttered madly as he swooped down the slopes. He skied beautifully. He always wore those absurd grey pants, and an ancient beat-up coat and silly bright-patterned hats with tassels, and his skis were unfashionably long and unfashionably wooden. (Short, fiberglass skis -- shorter than the people who wore them, for heaven's sake! were just becoming standard. I was crestfallen when he finally gave in and got a pair.) He was dowdy and ridiculous looking, maybe, standing still at the bottom of a slope. But no one would have thought that, watching him ski. Grace; confidence; sprezzatura, even.

Finally nightfall, and the long drive home. My Dad, no longer the dazzling skier, but now the cautious, slow-but-sure driver. Absolutely safe. He was the safest thing, the solidest, most reliable thing in the world. My confidence in him was boundless. Being his son might mean having achingly cold feet on Sunday nights, but it also meant that I knew I was safe. I didn't know, at the time, that I was lucky. I thought all fathers were basically safe. But my Dad was extra safe. He did mountain rescue and ski patrol. He did scuba-diving and spelunking. He could go anywhere, and take us anywhere, and bring us home safe. I spent my seventh birthday at the bottom of the grand canyon, having hiked all the way down. By the time I was eleven, I had written my name in the mazama registers at the peaks of half a dozen Oregon mountains, and rapelled down into the lava tube of little Belknap, and into Frog Cave, and into one cave we found once but could never locate again, on the far side of the mountains -- just an inconspicuous hole in the flat ponderosa chaparral, but it dropped into a big cavern, with tunnels snaking away in three directions. We explored them all. I gained a physical confidence that I see, with a pang, that my own city-bred kids have never acquired. I belonged in the wilderness. I belonged on cliffs, in the water, under the ground, on the ice. I might loathe and dread human beings, but nothing in the natural world scared me.

It sounds reckless, taking children into such places, but actually my father took his risks very carefully. He was endlessly patient. However long it took to get the belay just right, that was how long he took. He drilled us in what we had to know. How to fall down a snow slope. What to do if we got lost. How to make a fire. He never rushed anything. I remember vividly, still, watching him climb. He was deliberate, one-pointed. He tested every hold before he used it, and abandoned it at once if it didn't turn out as secure as he liked. There was always another route to try. There was always all the time in the world.

The contrast between the recklessness of the endeavor and its patient, deliberate, meticulous execution thrilled me, then. It still does, really. I've never left off admiring him. I still want to be him when I grow up.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Year of White Roses

for Michelle

It is the year of white roses, whose common theme

is death of fathers. I can't be clever today. No sleep comes.
Oh, give me your hand. Walk away with me to someplace

cold and simple. I am heavy with kisses, pregnant with love,
wanting to give what I know only time gives,

wanting to take what can't be mine. Forgive me. It is still
love, as I know it, and the only thing I know.

Listen to the meltwater, old snow dripping from the eaves.
July is under January: in Joburg you can tell

because the layers are reversed, and the light
is hot on thin cotton. Today is perihelion,

our closest approach to the sun: but plainly
what matters is not how close we are but how

we are inclined. Death came to hold our hands awhile
but he is saying goodbye, and we must let him go.

Ice hesitates here in the shadows
of northern walls, but the snowmelt is already

on its way, by cloud, to Africa.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Another Country


Strange, to come to the drenched hills
webbed with fog; the low, single-storied
houses, hidden under the trees, snubbed
between laurels and rhododendrons.
I was born here, and spent my childhood
yearning for space. For heights and vistas.

The raincloud broods, huge and dovelike, over
the nest of the city. Nothing ever hatches here.
Creatures eat the yolk and die in the shell.

My mother bought a grave for me,
a rectangle of putting green grass.
Eighty-four inches of wet soil waiting for me,
and a place beside her always. I'm not going
to come. Take what you can use: a cornea, a liver,
a kidney or two, and give the rest to the fire.
I'm never coming back. I'm going to the sky.

Thursday, January 01, 2009


Dark wet morning: cold rain, gray sky, leafless trees. In a subdued mood. Thinking of those I used to know, and no longer do. Thinking of how, at the grave age of fifty, I still can't visit my parents without feeling that I'm in danger of suffocating in alien expectations, in danger of my perceptions being overridden by theirs, in danger of losing my self and my way. It's none of their doing -- they can't help having their own perceptions of the world and of me, no more or less accurate than anyone's perceptions of anything, and they are very kind. But I limp away from the holidays feeling obscurely violated and lonely, at once overexposed and unseen.

And so. Hardly in the resolution-making frame of mind. More inclined to take to the hills, and find some hole under the soft dry duff in which to hide and heal up.

I'm glad of the rain and the thick drapery of clouds. I don't feel I could meet the stars on equal terms, just now.

I was so grateful to have a massage scheduled when I got home, which I did by the glow of a gas fire and christmas tree lights. A new life inside a pregnant belly. (Much is expected, little one: but you'll find your way, as we all do. And soon you'll be expecting things yourself, and you'll fondly believe these expectations are your own.)

It anchors me as few other things can, laying hands on a full abdomen, and feeling the baby move. The dream time, the long dark warmth, the mother's heartbeat like the constant sound of surf on a beach. Distant sounds. Shifts and turns. Soft walls to push against.

Maybe that's the real life, and this interregnum of separate personhood is only a necessary adjunct, an elaborate, farfetched way for the fully human dyads to blossom. We wouldn't be the only living things to flower only once in a generation.

No doubt the maple helicopters think they are starting a brave new life when they fall from the tree, whirling and swooping in the wind, and respond with horror when the flight ends and they're buried and trodden underground. They must wonder what it all was for. No way to tell them.