Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Pepek the Assassin

Pepek the Assassin

Even those weird old guys in coffee shops who need haircuts are reading it. Although they first have to wrestle it away from their wives, who protest "but it's interesting, it has a story. It's not like--"

But you don't stay married for thirty years without developing the skill of falling silent at the right time. "--Just let me finish the Pepek part," she finishes meekly.

We both have a weakness for East Europeans, for people who know they're not in control of much and that at some points, for the sake of their family and friends if not themselves, they're going to have to cut and run and let people make up a story to cover for them. West Europeans and Americans learn that once, maybe, in a generation, and write incredulously about it ever after. East Europeans have learned it half a dozen times before puberty.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Dotted Line

Signed the title papers. The house is officially sold. We need to be out in about a week. Hopefully closing on the new place shortly... we're rockin now!

Sunday, August 28, 2011


And again, news of meteorological disaster and suffering in the rest of the country, this time a hurricane hitting New York City and the hill-towns of Massachusetts, while here --

Only this calm, golden summer, that has seemed quaint and autumnal since June, always already nostalgic for itself, never too hot, sweet and gentle, like a carefully painted miniature. We sit out on the deck of an evening and watch the stars come out, the 'w' of Cassiopeia and the bold cross of Cygnus, during the last weeks of living in this house. No pests, no wasps or ants or mosquitoes this year. All is sweet and mellow. The Idylls of Oregon.

And I, I'm squaring up corners and throwing things away, lightening ship, aware of the privilege of these last couple months, fearful of jinxing it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

God's Work Habits

I try not to criticize God, it's a big job and all, but it does irritate me the way that he lets everything pile up in his "Dale Favier" inbox and then deals with it all at once. So that we are knee-deep in buying and selling houses at the same time as I have terrific ideas for no less than three books to write, and I'm going first-timers through the thrilling process of revising and proofing a book for the best editor in the world (how can one book of poems be such a complicated enterprise?) and am snowed under at work while everyone else is busy with the Russian delegation (since when do local Library Foundations deal with Russian delegations?) and Martha has a job interview today and massage business abruptly picks up from the high summer doldrums and I have three books to review that each deserves a really thoughtful treatment, and a conversation about the high philosophy of massage that I desperately want to participate in suddenly ignites. If I owe you email, don't give yourself airs and think you're special: I owe everybody email.

Here's the cover of the soon-to-be poetry book, by Robin Weiss

Sunday, August 21, 2011


"It's to keep my shoulders from getting sunburned while I eat my breakfast," she said.

I was gazing at the dishcloth -- black, with nickel-sized pink, yellow, and turquoise dots -- that Martha had draped around her shoulders.

"What I like about being us," I remarked, "is that we're not going to have to change anything to become eccentric old people. We've already got it down."

"We're prodigies!" said Martha.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Salt Water

My sentence is not to go down to the sea,
which is only for pure of heart;
I wander where the asphalt is bitten away
by winter rains on the clifftop.

The moon is a mottled pearl afloat
in wash of milk: the long fluttering manes
of the white horses wade ashore
in wavering skirmish lines. An endless assault.

The generals fall off
the horsebacks and disappear -- it's only water,
after all. The seals' haul-out is empty,
and no whales swim.

I count them off on my fingers, each wave,
but the total never comes out right. I think
they must be right, that I embezzled
the salt water entrusted to me:

but what I spent it on
I could not tell you now.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Marble Canvas

image from St Mary Magdalen's, Mortlake, London

Clear and cold. This morning Sir Richard Burton
lies on his slab where the light of morning
pours through a marble canvas. His wife lies
on a lower slab, and all around the pink-pearl dawn,
flushed, like milk with a little blood stirred in,
laps in, just as she planned it, just as she pictured it,
when he said “I don’t give a damn. Just
don’t put me in the dark.” He wanted to be
left in the desert or tossed into the sea, he had said:
but seeing the trouble on her Catholic face, he softened.
Anywhere, he said. Doesn’t matter. Just not dark.

in response to this Morning Porch post.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Coming up over Vista Ridge

The transmission shifts down, and
a volley of light spatters the windshield.
Waiting for us on the reverse slope
is a blazing regiment of sun soldiers. They fire and reload.
The glass is all glowing dust, dragged web,
mineralized entrails of bugs
made into a phosphor,
a blinding euphoria, a flourish,
a hissing matchhead, and the slopes of Beaverton
shimmer beyond the flame.

in response to this Morning Porch post


Awkwardly I shove my head up through
stiff fabric, embroidered
with ragged stitchery. What to do
with all this? It settles on my shoulders,
and I start to sweat: little beetle feet tick
above my ears; step knickingly
across the hairline behind.

One must I suppose dress for occasions.
But poetry is the worst cocktail dress
I have found yet. “This little thing?”
I worked on it for years in secret,
and it looks dreadful on me.

Start again.

No. Maybe
some other kind of writer, some other place.
Something more in the Hemingway line?
Unflinching? Unfortunately
Flinching is what I do and how I do it.
If I have a gift, it's flinchery.

Still the corners of my mouth
begin to move; the laughter starts;
the eyes open wider and the light
begins to wash across my lap.
This is what they came for.
They want something else,
they can ask.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Past the Crown of Summer

We're past the crown of summer. I know this because my pail of apples, the windfalls I pick up before wheeling my bicycle out, was not full this morning. For several days the bucket has been overflowing; but not today. Three-quarters full. So the midpoint of summer, as I've reckoned it for twenty years, is past. And looking up, I see the branches lighter, easier. I suppose bearing fruit is not easy on any of us.

I wrote to a friend:
Life continues to be extraordinarily good to me. I sometimes wonder whether I'm Job in reverse: if God and Satan have a bet going about what will happen if they shower me with undeserved blessings. If so, I'm surely pursuing the optimal strategy: giving them no conclusive results, so that the contest has to go on. I wonder how long I can keep it up?

The house is sold, and we'll probably make an offer on a tiny place in an iffy part of town. "Small, dark, far, and cheap," is how I sum it up. But we've met a couple neighbors and they're enthusiastic about the neighborhood. It's just a few blocks from the intersection of 82nd Avenue, the boulevard whose name is a Portland euphemism for "prostitution," and Burnside Street, which is the local name for "skid row." But really neither street lives up to its reputation, where they intersect, and the houses round about are well kept up.

This is not the bad-boy boyfriend house. Martha calls this one the nerdy boyfriend house: not much to look at, maybe, but easy to love and (possibly) a surprisingly good financial bet. It's tucked way back from the street, and the front yard is a riot of trees: not a single drop of sunlight gets through to it at this time of year.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Monkey Makes a Presentation

First real run-in with Crocodile last night. Made a thick hamburger patty liberally washed with Worcestershire sauce, and ate an enormous salad. I can't really have been hungry, in the sense of needing nourishment: I had already eaten a huge burger and salad, just two hours before. But Crocodile wanted ice cream, or donuts, or cake, or even just bread – anything packed tight with carbs. He wanted that feeling of a bomb of nutrients going off at once, of the sugar flooding the system, of energy washing through every cell. He was restless and snappish.

“You're not really hungry,” I told him. “You just think you are. If you were really hungry, any old food would appeal to you.”

Crocodile eyed me coldly. “I'm hungry,” he said, and his tail whipped back and forth like an irritated cat's.

“You can have all the salad you want,” I pointed out. “with all the unsugared salad dressing you want. I'll open a can of tuna for you and you can scarf the whole thing, with mayonnaise, if you want. I'll scramble you some eggs, or fry you another hamburger. See? There's plenty to eat.”

“I'm hungry,” said Crocodile.

I tried to check in, to identify the feeling. I speculated about nutrients I might actually be short on. I really didn't think there could be any. Crocodile wasn't interested in this investigation at all. He wanted ice cream. Failing that, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Images of the foods he wanted flooded the system. He knew exactly where all the treats were squirreled away, and what they were.

“Let's go upstairs!” I said brightly. “Monkey will show you things on the internet!”

We got through, somehow. But we won't get through many evenings like that. So I set Monkey to worrying through what went wrong. He presented his three points, this morning.

“First of all,” he said, “we put off lunch till way late. Because we were waiting for the checks to process at the Foundation, remember? So we actually went from breakfast to dinner time without food. So our blood sugar started swinging.” Monkey loves the image of the blood sugar swinging: he pictures it like a huge weight, a pendulum, swooshing through the air.

“Second of all,” he went on, “we ate those little tiny candies the cleaning crew leaves in the offices, remember? Little bangs of sugar? So that will have added to the swing.”

“And third, we had . . .” his voice lowers to a tragic whisper “. . . ketchup on that lunch hamburger. And thousand island dressing on the salad. That's sugar.”

“It's not very much sugar,” I said, skeptically. Monkey raised his eyebrows, laid his hands on his belly, and looked wise.

“There's sugar in the Worcestershire sauce too, I suppose,” I said. Monkey frowned at that. He likes Worcestershire sauce, a lot, and he didn't like this turn to the conversation.

“But anyway, the first point is well taken. We'll have to be especially careful on Fridays, to eat lunch in plenty of time.” Monkey was on board with that. Eating lunch early is fun. Everybody's out on the street, in the summer: there's so many things to watch!

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Four Feet

“They're going to want to know,” said Monkey. He loves the idea of the book, and he's always thinking about the audience.

"I don't want it to be about the scale and the measuring tape,” I said firmly. “You care about that kind of thing too much already. You'll obsess about it, and the first time the measurements are bad you'll throw a tantrum and eat a pastry shop.”

Monkey looked at me with pained dignity, as if he would never dream of eating a pastry. “You're the one who's so gung-ho on measurement,” he said. “'How do you know without measurement?' You're always saying things like that. 'Anything that is, can be measured somehow.' If you don't measure it, how are you going to be able to say it worked?”

“It worked,” I answered, “if I change what I eat. The size of my body will take care of itself.”

Monkey grimaced and squirmed in his seat. “This is a case study,” he said. “Good information. That's what you always say. You want good information.”

“Look,” I said severely, though I was weakening. “If we make it about the measurements, it will be temporary. It will have an end-date. It will be a diet. Something we go on and go off. And then eventually we'll go off, and you'll go wild, you know you will. And then there won't be any changes and there won't be any book. That's why we're not doing it that way.”

“All right, all right,” said Monkey. “Have it your way.” He picked up the measuring tape and started coiling it backwards, like the ribbon in an old tape recorder: he's always fidgeting with something.

“I wonder,” he added, after a moment, looking off into space, “just how big you are around the waist? Man, you've ballooned, what with selling the house and all.”

“Very subtle,” I said. “Oh, give me that thing!”

I measured myself. 48 inches around the waist. Wow. “I don't think I've ever been that big.”

Monkey was delighted. “That's four feet! Isn't it? Four feet? Two thirds of your height!”

“It's not as if I'm spherical,” I said, grumpily. “That's circumference. My diameter is only, um... fifteen inches. Sixteen. Something like that. 48 over pi.”

“Four feet! Wow!”

Bad-Boy Boyfriend House

“Oh, man,” I kept saying. “Oh, man. I love this place, and it would be nothing but trouble. It's more than we can take on.”

It stands in a gully below the veterans' hospital, flanked by half-million dollar houses. The top of it is just visible from the street: you reach it by descending a wooden stairway, thirty feet straight down the retaining wall. There it sits, a turn of the century house, overgrown with laurel and maple. The roof is thick with moss. The living room looks into a wall of sunlit green. If you could see through the trees, you'd have a splendid view of Mt St Helens. When the big Portland quake comes, it will undoubtedly slide down onto the house below it. If a fire comes up the gully, it will go up in flames. It's only surprising that the rain hasn't yet washed it down. It's a lovely house.

“It's a bad-boy boyfriend house,” remarked Martha, thoughtfully.

“A what?”

“Everybody will tell you to have nothing to do it,” she said. “It's nothing but trouble. Dangerous and exciting. And you say, 'I can change it. It's never been properly cared-for, that's all. It comes from a good neighborhood.'”

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Quick Work

We worked quick when we came home and saw the treats. Monkey stashed the cookies in the upper cupboard, and threw the bag of chips into the lower one. I stuffed the whole sack of groceries in the fridge -- no time to unpack -- and laid the chicken hastily on the table. Crocodile surged forward, nothing but hungry, and ate half the chicken without a pause, his head settled deep in the folds of his shoulders. Totally absorbed. That's his way.

Don't think he didn't mark where everything went. He knows, and he remembers. But he's unlike Monkey in this: he doesn't resent being managed. He won't hold it against us. He won't go after the cookies just because he can -- that's more Monkey's style.

Monkey and Crocodile

When I first thought of them, I thought: since they're forced to live together, Monkey must be very clever. Crocodile is so old and strong! Monkey must learn to manage him -- stay two steps ahead of him -- make sure he's fed and rested and calm. Monkey, I thought, is the one under threat. Monkey is the one who needs to be protected. This will be a book about how Monkey can survive with Crocodile.

But now I'm wondering if Monkey is really so innocent, and Crocodile so brutal. What if I have them mixed up? What if the problem is that Monkey teases Crocodile unmercifully? What if Crocodile was never the problem at all?


Shelby Foote, in the Bibliographical Note to the first volume of his history of the Civil War:

". . . I have tried for accuracy because I have never known a modern historical instance where the truth was not superior to distortion, by any standard and in every way."

I don't espouse what some people call "realism." There's the truth of the dream and the truth of desire as well as the truth of the camera. But they all have inconvenient, fishhook details that catch and seem to want to pull against the story, so there's always the temptation to hammer them straight and to shear off the barbs.

Foote was speaking as a novelist and a historian, but he sums up my position on poetry and science too, and on intellectual endeavors of all sorts. The truth, and the truth, and always the truth: nothing else will do. If it seems to clog and complicate the story, that's only because there's a better, deeper story that I haven't achieved yet. Any time I want to bend a detail to the story, I need to remember that I'm not just betraying the detail: I'm also betraying the better, deeper story that I could have told if I'd kept my commitment to truth.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Closing Costs

We've accepted an offer on the house. Still contingent on inspection, and a month till closing; and I'm assured by everyone knowledgeable that plenty can go wrong in the interim. But I woke today with a load of anxiety off my chest. I rose light and gleaming and wise as a serpent.

We have barely had a summer here. What we have now is like lovely spring weather, but already the days are lengthening, and the word “autumnal” was the first one that occurred to me, when I tried to describe the quality of my happiness. But autumn has always been my favorite season, and summer my least favorite: I'm quite happy to elide this summer and go straight on into September.

We have been looking seriously at houses, all this while, so we have a good idea of the market, of what we want and what we can afford.

My main wish is simply to be done with it. I don't believe which house we live in is likely to have much to do with our happiness, in the end. I want to get back to my untroubled mornings, to focusing on writing and friends and massage: I dislike above all things “having too much to do.” It's debilitating frame of mind, struggling against time. Time always wins, after all.

Still, I have injured myself and my relations with Martha by never fully inhabiting our house, and I intend to do the next one differently, to give more of myself to it: to sink into being a householder without irony or restraint, to care about the paint on the windowsill and the hot water heater. There is something grounding and humbling about caring for a place, which is still there no matter which way the light slants. I don't think I need to worry about getting too caught in the quotidian. Not my weakness.