Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off an annointed king.

She said it proudly, fiercely, her head thrown back, daunting for a moment the rebellious courtiers, who believed it as much as she did. And as much as we did, the tiny audience in a tiny theater. Disaster was coming to England if they pulled down this sacred king.

It was a performance (still running, see it, if you get a chance!) of Richard II with an all-female cast. Paige Jones was playing Richard, playing him with verve and passion. It took all of thirty seconds to forget the fact that the players were the wrong gender, and to sink straight into the play. They weren't playing in drag: they weren't pretending to be male actors doing Shakespeare. They were female actors doing Shakespeare, and doing an incredible job of it.

They made nothing of their femaleness, but it informed everything about the play. Strange sidelights and illuminations. Of course, Aumerle was in love with Richard II: why had I never understood that before? And Bolingbroke's relentless masculine insensibility, which everyone was so anxious to put on the throne, was going to drag England to ruin as surely as Richard's capriciousness.

Richard II (Paige Jones) consoling Aumerle (Brooke Fletcher). Photo by Rio of the NWCTC.

It made me think of all the great poetry that has been written by men in the voices of women. All the female parts in Shakespeare, of course, were written by a man to be spoken by a male actor -- women weren't permitted on the boards in those days. Which made the reversal of the genders in the NWCTC performance exact. Chaucer wrote much of his best poetry in women's voices: The Wife of Bath, of course, but also the Legend of Good Women, which is what he was famous for in his own time. When men wanted to explore pathos, they had to give the mask of conventional manhood the slip, and speak in a female voice. It's no accident that the great exception to that is Chaucer himself, who wrote the greatest narrative love poem in English, about Prince Troilus being abandoned by his lover Criseide. He found the voice for that in his early poetry, spoken by women.

We still turn to women's voices for our great popular songs of betrayal in love, of desertion and loneliness. Men still don't get to talk about that much in their own voices. A gruff allusion in a Johnny Cash growl is as much as we get.

So I resolved to write my next poems in a female voice. Not to think of any particular subject matter, or to try to make any particular point: just to walk into the role, as Paige Jones walks into Richard II, and to see what happens when I open my mouth.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

10th Avenue

The new leaves are half grown, so that the lunch kiosks on 10th Avenue flicker under a dappling canopy. People stand, all slanted to each other: to stand in straight lines would be too formal. Or it would make them look too eager for their turn. Or it would obstruct their view. Whatever the reason, they arrange themselves off kilter to each other, and to the booths, and I negotiate through the loose crowd, noting that I'm aware of each person's field of view, and each person's claim to personal space, as I thread my way through. This is the sort of thing it's very difficult to program, a problem of genuine complexity: I don't think anyone can yet make a robot that could make its way gracefully through a crowd. It would either bump egregiously or simply halt, overwhelmed by the shifting choices and priorities. Yet this is the sort of problem-solving that we scorn, because any human being can do it: whereas something like medical diagnosis, which machines are actually better at than people, we raise to a mystical status. It's a ritual we allow only our most prestigious shamans to perform. No one would want to just plug their data into a mere machine and get their diagnosis, even though the machines do have a better track record, and it could be done for pennies per consultation.

Well. The clouds loom up in jumbled towers. This spring, this rising of sap and blood: it makes me feel a little old, old and tired. The gears still catch: I still know which spring this is, I still see the women shedding clothes with pleasure, I still hear the birdsong with wonder. But I can picture the time when the teeth will no longer mesh, and the wheel will spin free, and I won't know know which spring it is. Then it will be time to die. For now, spring strikes me as a subdued amazement. Another one has been granted to me. They come much more frequently than they used to, but they're all that much more precious: I don't know how many I have left, but I know I've seen more than half that I'll ever see.

For now, I will enjoy this extraordinary gift I have, of being able to thread my way through flocks of my kind without ruffling their feathers. Faces striking for beauty, or shrewdness, or stupidity, flash by me, each one landing a body blow. The wind stirs the leaves, and everything trembles. I can't begin to tell you how much I love you, and how grateful I am for this gift, for all the gifts. But when you want me, I'll be ready to go.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Opening the World

Jo and Christine have rolled out the website for Pindrop Press, with three titles for next year: collections of poetry by Michelle McGrane and Joyce Ellen Davis, and a chapbook by me.

I'm delighted and abashed to be in this company. If you haven't read McGrane or Davis, you should do so, and you'll immediately see why.

I'm acutely aware that I haven't paid my dues as a poet: I should have a bulging file folder of rejections before even thinking about a chapbook. All my life I've had this kind of extraordinary luck, and it feels a bit uncanny.

A puzzled friend asked me about the chapbook: "are these some of the Santiago poems?" These are in fact the Santiago poems. Last year I decided to collect together some of my poems and self-publish them: I was going to name the collection Santiago, after the poem that's now up on the Pindrop site. I sent the poems to several friends, who were wonderfully generous with their time in reading and commenting on it. Two of them, independently, suggested renaming the collection after a different poem, "Opening the World."

I liked that idea, and it made deep sense, because these are poems I wrote during the Years of Upheaval -- from 2004 to 2007, roughly -- when my meditation practice suddenly flowered, I found a new community of writers, I quit IBM to go to massage school, and I took to poetry. A world that had shrunk to a dark cell broke open.

Mole blinking in the sunlight, I wrote then, in the air, over Montana. It still feels that way.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Beach

At sunset the shadow of the railing was perfectly horizontal. All too perfect. It left me laboring, trying to understand: and as the sun fell into the last bank of cloud, you told me about the Northern Lights you'd seen as a girl. "The whole sky," you said. "the whole sky was shifting and glowing and moving."

The bar across the bedroom wall faded, and returned, as the sun made one last bid.

"The dance of the spirits," The Cree called it. Roger Ascham wrote, long long ago, about watching the snow fall, swirling in patterns, and realizing that what he was seeing was not the snow, but simply the air: the snow made it visible. The air was swirling and making patterns, intricate and beautiful, all the time. We see it, once, and think: oh! Snow! How beautiful and rare!" But we're wrong. It's the air, and it's dancing all the time. So is the solar wind above us, rippling, twirling, draping its curtains. When conditions are just right we see the Northern Lights, and we think it a special event. No. It's nothing in particular. It's just a chance to see what's there all the time.

Those are the ones we know about. A little tilt, a little shift in the conditions, and we can see what we're ordinarily blind to. There must be more that we've never learned to see. Hundreds, thousands more.

The light faded from the room, high up above the sea, just as it had come. Perched as we are on this little whirling rock, the sun climbing up one side and down the other, climbing up red over the hill and falling down red into the sea, and all the beauty sequestered in that high room condensing to a single horizontal bar of shadow. All these things are as improbable as they can well be.

I am ill today. The pulse in my head knocks with little painful surges against the top of my skull, against my sinuses. My eyes are sore as if I had watched the sun all day. Now the evening is cool and dark. Most of me is still in the wind, rippling under the night sky. Vultures were everywhere, on the drive back, spinning slowly on the updrafts, sideslipping, their small red heads, penile and crooked, so oddly at variance with their grace.

"We're still alive!" we pointedly said, and mimed doing jumping jacks to convince them. But vultures have no sense of humor. They nodded slowly, wobbled on their vast wings, and spun away on other hills of air. Some other time, then, they might have said. If they remembered us that long.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bitten Again

Yes, I've been bitten by the China bug again. Every few years an overwhelming desire to be able to read and write Chinese characters comes over me, and I learn a couple hundred Chinese words, and drill myself endlessly on a couple hundred characters. Then I realize that I'm never going to be proficient in Chinese in this life and give it up, and move on to scrape the rust off one of the languages that I actually do know well enough to read reasonably easily. But Chinese continues to tease and haunt. The characters are so wonderful. The poetry is so old, and so good. Or so I hear. You never really know, with translation, do you? But the dream of being able to read Tu Fu and Li Po in Chinese never really dies.

I love Chinese characters in spite of myself. There's a lot of mystical nonsense still batted around about Chinese, and the nature of the writing system is often badly misrepresented, even by people who ought to know better. People put about the idea that there's a character for every word, which is nonsense. Such a writing system would be beyond most people's capacity to learn in a lifetime. Learn 50,000 symbols, or even 10,000? Even people who have a bump for that sort of thing would find that a tall order. Chinese writing is actually a diffuse, inefficient, and redundant syllabary, with semantic or phonetic hints jumbled in at random. Characters represent syllables, not words. (Except, of course, that some syllables are words. In Chinese, which doesn't have a lot of syllables, most syllables are also words: but of course, most words are not -- and don't let anyone convince you that they are -- single-syllable.) It would have been much better for Chinese literacy if the language radicals had won out, in the 1950s, and an alphabet, or a logical syllabary (in which one syllable gets one and only one representation) had been adopted at the time of the revolution. But I'm selfishly glad they didn't. I love Chinese writing: it's baroque and illogical and inefficient and supremely un-modern.

I expect I'll spin out on it eventually, again, and be ignominiously driven from the field again. But I'm having a great time.

(No, I haven't abandoned the 18th Century and classical music. More on that anon.)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

How We Rise

We rise like November creeks
In the hard fast rain;
We spill over banks -- muddy,
Impenitent, flowing over
Drowned grass, washing new ways,
Spillways, spurling down culverts,
Swirling down rushways, and still --
Rain, beating hard, beating fast.

Or we rise like single bubbles,
Loosened indistinct from a pebble-side;
Slow, stately dirigibles of air,
Closer to the surface, closer to bursting.

Or we rise like stars before dawn
At the summer solstice, announcing
The radiance of the sun; stars
Awash in the morning light,
Overtaken by the sun, still shining,
Always shining, vanishing
Into brightness.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Third Tape, or, Virtue Rewarded

Went in at six this morning to swap in a 3rd backup tape. I take a childish delight in being at work at odd times, and using the security fob -- which never fails to make me think of Get Smart -- to open the building doors and make the elevator respond. Up to the tenth floor. The strange early morning light makes the workspaces soft and tender. I avoid turning on lights, and go through the empty, twilight offices. In the window beyond Juli's desk Mt Hood hovers above the clouds, across the river; soon the sun will rise behind it.

Working by feel, I open the safe and find the third tape. In the server room -- a closet really -- which has no windows, I yield and turn on a light, joggle the mouse so as to wake up the monitor, pull out the old tape. Yep, the backup is still running, having filled up this tape since I swapped it in last night, at ten o'clock, stopping downtown after my last massage. The IT guy and I are perplexed about why the backups are suddenly so much bigger. We used to be able to fit a full backup on one tape. We both have guesses, but we're old enough in this game not to believe in them. Nontechnical people get to believe in their guesses; tech people learn not to. I swap in the third, and I hope last, tape. It takes a minute or two, and I sit perfectly still, breathing evenly, till the byte counter starts to increment again. Forty-five gig and counting. What the hell is taking all that space?

The elevators take me back down. You don't need a fob to make them go down. You also don't need a fob to get out: you just have to touch a metal plate from the inside. Not like Gringott's.

So out onto the rainwashed streets. Dawn in Portland. Asian women are hard at work readying their coffee shops for the day. It's all brown people downtown in the early morning: Asian shopkeepers, Latino cleaning staff. The white and black people are all still asleep. Easy to remember where I parked: across the street from the Greek Cusina's huge purple octopus. So. Virtue rewarded: now I get to drive up to Tosi's, have eggs and bacon, and write a rambly morning blog post.

Trees are beginning to leaf: pointillist clouds of buds hover at every street corner, their brilliant spring greens alternating with the pink, or white, thicker-clotted clouds of fruit blossom.

After several months of having a hold on Mark Doty's collection, Fire to Fire, at the library, I finally got it -- they were caught on the hop, I guess, by the book winning the National Book Award, and had a long line of people waiting for it: they bought five more copies, then, but it took forever to get them. The publishers caught on the hop, too, no doubt. It's nice to know that there are enough people waiting for a prize poetry collection in Portland to make the library scramble for five more copies of it.

Worth the wait. My favorite so far, in the section of new poems at the start, is a poem about a beauty parlor in his neighborhood, the House of Beauty, burning down:

If beauty is burning, what could you save?
The house of beauty is a house of flames.

Also not to be missed is one about the grackles' evening jam in Houston:

Now one's doing the Really Creaky Hinge,
making it last a long time;
now Drop the Tin Can, glissando,
then Limping Siren...

Also reading The Brain that Changes Itself, a fascinating and readable account of brain plasticity -- of the research that established that some blind people could learn to see, by way of cameras relaying patterns of electrical impulses to their tongues; and that some stroke victims, given proper stimulus, could recover sensation & motor control by colonizing other parts of the brain to replace the damaged areas. The brain is not, apparently, nearly so hardwired as was long thought.

That was some comfort to me as I was doing massage in a nursing home, last week, on a woman who had lost all function on her left side. She was learning to feel again, on that side: she could feel me rubbing her left foot, and knew which one it was. That was progress, big progress. Her husband of 63 years told me eagerly of how much progress she'd made. They were casually but deeply tender with each other.

"That hurts?" I said

"Oh, my lower back has always hurt," she said.

"She'd wake up and walk around hunched over like this for an hour or two," he said, standing up and demonstrating. And then added ruefully, "We thought that was bad, didn't we?"

Thursday, April 09, 2009

On Never Having Written a Poem

What we have sought, what we have strained after, lean dogs on leashes;
Sky folding in on sky folding in on sky, and nothing to hold;

Long backwards, tilting, tumbling, shifting of the past: lights falling, sparks
Winking out as they touch the smooth skin of the river.

Wet grass, deep earth, pooling water. Words mulling in wells of thought: but
You should be able to dig your fingers into poetry and feel its bones.

Sunday, April 05, 2009


Death rides to the edge of the meadow
to look on. Checks his horse. All the apocalypses
obediently stop as well. For all their pyrotechnics,
he is still in command, here. He still calls the shots.

Ostentatiously he pulls out his watch and notes
the time. "One more!" he calls out. "If you hurry!"
He turns for a quiet jest with Famine.
Plague strains to hear. War jostles for a place.

It is only the fabrication, manufacture,
and export of love products; it is only what
your fingers can clutch in a three minute scramble
for the treats raining from a burst piñata.

It is only what we live for and cannot imagine
doing without. It is only a secret indulgence,
a commercial disaster, a moral failing,
a literary excess. What can we say more?

Yes, well, hold your horses. We're not done here yet.
Death himself says there is time. There are
wild roses and meadowlarks and a few
early mosquitos. Sit down with me and eat.

Saturday, April 04, 2009


The North American wilderness, 1754

Tu n'est pas encore mort, mon père,
said the Half King. "Thou art not yet dead, my father."
And while the young and awkward tall Virginian,
in his first command, looked on, stupefied,
the Half King took his tomahawk, opened that living head,
and washed his hands in the Frenchman's brains.

They had surprised the French at dawn,
a couple dozen, not yet dressed, stumbling out
of their tents. It was over quickly. Before he quite
understood, his Indian allies began
to kill the wounded; too late, he formed his troop
around the remaining prisoners, to protect them.

He never did like Indians, after that. He went on
to have a street named after him in every town
three thousand miles west of there;
the Half King succeeded all too well
in bringing the English and French to blows, and drowned
his people in a war he thought they could surf.

Ensign Jumonville, aged thirty-five,
what of him? Nothing. Nothing of him.
His fame is that his skull served as a washbasin,
what more do you need than that? And
the solemn young Virginian became my father,
haunting two bits with his toothache ever since.

Well, it was long ago, and far away.
What is it to us, if an Indian repudiated
his French father, and took an English one?
The lesson is only this, that no father's writ runs
farther than his son's red arm; Jumonville
sleeps there as well as anywhere.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Gorgeously Beshrifted

Tosi's. Rode my bike here for the first time since it broke down last fall. It's not right yet: the rear brakes don't grip, despite all my adjustments, and in the lowest gears the chain starts to slip, though it doesn't come off. I suppose I'll either have to learn to fix it properly or pay someone to do so. Both are larger expenditures of time than I'm happy with. But things do take time. At least it's on the road again. And I can always go around the north ridge of Mt Tabor, rather than over it.

Still, some of the shine has gone off the bike. It wasn't actually the right bicycle for me, though I had no way of knowing that, really, when I bought it. What I want now is one of those big Dutch cruisers that you sit up straight on. My wrists are valuable to me now, and the slight airfoil advantage (to a slow rider) of being bent over is not worth the ergonomic disaster of making the wrists serve as secondary ankles. I don't want to set speed records: I just want to get places.

But it will be a while before I have that sort of discretionary income again. So I'll make do.

Feeling haunted by a lack of time. It's good to have my life so full of good opportunities that I don't have time to do them all: but Not Having Enough Time is not a mental state I want to allow myself to settle into. It becomes habitual, and it does horrible things to body and mind if it's entrenched. I have clients I'm convinced are being incrementally poisoned by it. I can even tell you where it accumulates in the body: in the upper, inner thighs and in the fleshy back of the neck.

I'm embarked on this food project, which takes considerable time. And March was a remarkably busy massage month for me. I've had a lot to do at the Foundation: I've been working some on the weekends there. So I've been feeling short on this time: the time when I'm beholden to nobody, the time I use to write poetry or dull quotidian blog entries such as this: time to back off, slow down, take stock. Small additional commitments, such as writing a monthly column (more about that anon), start to loom and oppress.

So the only way I know to stop Not Having Enough Time is to stop playing by its rules. To deliberately squander some time. To stop trying to do more, and deliberately do less. I'm not writing a poem right now. I'm not writing a column. I'm not writing something inspiring and spiritual. I'm wasting my time, and yours, quite intentionally. This is proof: we have time to kick back and chat at Tosi's. The rest of the world will get by somehow without us.

Such lovely advice I got in comments about the 18th Century, and about music! I listened to the sarabande Jean linked to three times. It's lovely, lonely, poignant. I realized midway through the second time that I've heard cello music all my life and assumed I was listening to a string quartet: I had no idea one instrument could make all those sounds. (More anon, as I follow more of the delicious links given me!)

I think Lucy was right that denigrating the 18th Century thing is an anglophone disorder. I remember being surprised, in taking a history of German literature, to find how rich the 18th Century was and how seriously it was taken. And I note that Lucas (welcome!) refers to a lot of French music and writing. I've come late to an appreciation of France and things French. It's not surprising, I suppose, that we English speakers should revel in our Elizabethans and give short shrift to a century in which German and French music and literature were in their glory.

So what is shrift, I wonder? I guess you could say my aim at the moment is to give ample shrift to all things. To be prodigal in shrift. I'm picturing shrift as a sort of fancy fabric: let's wear long flowing ornate robes of it, slashed and decorated, layered and laced. Let's live gorgeously beshrifted. We have all the time in the world.