Tuesday, November 27, 2012


It was a green block of – something. I discovered it in a closet and was drawn to it powerfully, inarticulately. I pushed a finger into it and it felt like something that would spring back – it resisted with some spirit – but it didn't spring back. The dent remained. And it gave with a faint crunch, like crusted snow. I didn't know if I had ruined it, whatever it was. I hid it where I found it, upside down, hiding the finger-dent.

My childhood is full of such hidden transgressions. It's strange, because my parents were mild and reasonable people, and I was a willing and obedient child: a quick confession would have liberated me from many quiet miseries! But I was unable to confess, then or ever. And I crept back again and again to take the stuff out, and to stick my fingers into it. That strange snow-crunch; that feel of breaking flesh; and an odor of post offices and attic rooms.

I suppose it was floral foam, of some sort. I'm sure it cost less than a dollar. Soon there was no way to hide the fact that I had mangled it. I kept going back and crunching it, craving the sensation, wondering what it was, wondering if it was poison, wondering if my secret transgression would end up killing me. “I had no idea he was going into the closet for that,” my tearful mother would say. Everyone would say there was no way she could have expected it, why would any boy do such a thing? And behind her back they'd note that I had always been a queer boy, no accounting for me. This at least was quick. Perhaps it was a blessing.

You could lodge things in it: paperclips, toothpicks, straws. It would take the imprint of a key, of a coin, of a knuckle, though not very finely.

Like almost all the stories of my boyhood, this one trails off into hypotheticals, variants, perplexities; it changes locales and characters. I'm five years old, or ten, or thirteen. I can remember my sin being discovered, in various ways, but I doubt any of them happened. My mother found the mashed up foam and clucked at me. She discarded it without a second thought. It disappeared and I never knew why. I was challenged as to what on earth I had done it for. Who knows? At most one, perhaps none of those things happened. I will never know.

Tonight I find myself longing for that block of foam, for its unearthly lightness – like balsa wood; for its malleability; for the burst of strange tactile information it sent pouring up my nerves. And above all for its secrecy, and for the alien countries it hinted at, where this was the stuff of soil. The moon rose in cold backwash of fog and fir bough tonight, contending with the streetlight, and all of it, even the streetlight, was too far away to touch.

Saturday, November 24, 2012


Kiki loves a good string to chase as much as any cat: to lurk, and pounce – “aha!” – and almost get it, as I tug the end past her flickering paws: a quick frenzied pursuit and then a pause, while she studies the terrain, pretends nonchalance, and then – suddenly – pounce, again!

But when she tires of the game she turns, tail twitching, and cuffs my hand. Usually, though not always, with her claws sheathed. Just letting me know that we're done pretending, that she knows it's my hand pulling the string, and that she'll tear it to bloody shreds if I don't quit. Kiki is not one of your mild-mannered cats.

Sometimes, after an illness, I have a similar sense of impatience with appearances, impatience with having my instincts trifled with. I don't know what hand is pulling the string exactly so as to capture my attention: but I know it doesn't move of itself, and I'm tired of the game.

Friday, November 23, 2012

What I did for Thanksgiving

Sick, like I used to get sick when a child: nothing but fever, burning merrily. This is the second time I've managed to sit up in the last 36 hours. Kiki adores this new temperature setting, and this new propensity for staying in bed: every time I come to consciousness she's nestled in some blazing crook.

There's no suffering to it, not even when I find myself giving little moans, every fourth breath or so. To suffer I think you have to be lodged in time, and I'm free of all that. The moans are just the obvious thing to do.

At first spreadsheets were in all the background: I was working some complicated data transformation, over and over. “I need to save this,” I would think. But gradually that burned away too.

Back to bed.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Personal Space

“I don't want to be a widow,”
you said.
The leaf that shivers
over the wire:

in her green interview,
no one told her
about the jump
in November.

And I, with my coffee precarious by my thigh, and a white upland morning contending with the lamp: about to turn to my Spanish, and to leave aside a poem that won't quite set. Death is turning up everywhere these days: he is one of those loud, intrusive strangers who uses your first name in your face and is too familiar with your wife. – Did you never hear, Mr Death, of personal space?

– No, hum a few bars and I'll fake it! – he grins, with a mouthful of teeth, and you realize you'd better leave well enough alone. Buffoon he may be, but he's not one to trifle with.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Close of Day

The hem of the cloud cover
does not quite reach her ankles:
her toenails are polished with silver,
but tarnish remains in the seams of her feet.

Slow and ancient
marsupials are there
in the pools of light.
You can't see them but you can feel
the hesitation of their wrinkled paws,
the tremor of their slow hopeless grope.
They arch their backs
and their blind snouts
nose in the skirts of cloud.

Coming to the edge today,
I looked and saw dolphins
playing in the deep, drawing
clusters of stars behind their tails:
spurts of darkness
rose above their heads.

I set one slender spike
and raised the sledge.
Catlike hisses came from
the unseen watcher
as if from some steam engine
afraid to die;
but oh, the sting of the haft
as the hammer struck home!
It's ringing still
in the great bones of my enormous arms,
and their shivering light filled
the hang of the emptiness
where the dolphins played.

But nothing
holds back the evening for long
and the creatures that nose for night
are older than me,
older than my kind;
and the even the light that still runs out
through flaws in the shell
is forced by the irregular beat
of this dear deep beast, my heart.

Friday, November 16, 2012


A strong impulse to withdraw, to head for the hills, to wander in the oak savannas of the central Willamette Valley: I want nothing but the sound of running water and sight of hawks high up in the sky. Too much. I'm tired of cajoling people out of bed to face another day of disappointment, tired of washing other people's dishes and cooking other people's food, tired of buses and trains full of damaged people and halfwits, tired of obscure struggles with rules that slyly shift so that they always favor the Haves and keep us off balance, so that we're always running and never catching up, and so that we always blame ourselves and not our masters. Tired of it all. Tired of trying to maintain a spiritual equilibrium at the same time, a compassion that recognizes that our masters are just as frightened and wanty as we are, that they're cruel out of panic and desperation, just like we are. That we are, globally speaking, ourselves the Haves, clutching more than our share. I just want them to be bad, so I can hurt them and enjoy it, or anyway spew poison out on my blog, or on Facebook.

So. I breathe a few times, touch the ceramic of my coffee cup for its warmth, think of Carolee coming to Portland and of Antonio Machado's verse. I think about the light falling slant across the table. I think about the thick glasses of Christopher Luna and the way conversation roils around you, when you can't hear well enough to understand any of it, but you are rocked in the warmth of it, at a party. I think of a coworker coming into my office every evening to give an the end-of-the-working day's hug, something I find stupefyingly improbable, and for which I'm terribly grateful. Touch, you know, is all I have ever believed: the words just rise and fall, crest and ebb, like bubbles around a boiling egg. They don't mean anything. They bobble me back and forth; maybe they crack me, if they're hard enough; but they never reach my heart. A strange thing for a writer to say, maybe, but it's true.

Hands, flesh, breathing, the knocking of a heartbeat against my fingertips, the arch of the small of a back that's covered with ribbed fabric, so that my fingers run up and down the rivulets, the lines of force. Have you ever thought about the relentless verticality of the human body, its up-and-down-ness? Like a sunflower; like a poplar tree. It's a queer thing, and I'm not sure if it's a blessing or a curse.

Still: the air I breathe into my nostrils is cold and dry, and the pale light that falls across the table is a winter light. Barely a month to the solstice. The trees across the street are despojado y deshojado, despoiled and unleafed, and their branchlets are yellowish whips in the cloudwash. November.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Poor Judgment

I'm afraid I had to giggle when Petraeus solemnly averred that he had shown poor judgment in having an affair. Does anyone actually use their judgment when they have an affair? Weigh this with that, take one thing with another, ask their staff for second opinions? If he actually used his judgment, sure, then it was pretty damn poor. But I would guess that he was just tired of using his judgment. He used his judgment all day long, in life-and-death decisions, and there came a point when he was sick of it, and told it to go take a hike. All of us do that eventually, but most of us, fortunately for the world, are exposed to fewer temptations of lesser moment. The fact that we ate two entire bags of Pepperidge Farm cookies doesn't make the front page of the New York Times, and we don't have to tender our resignation about it.

My first thought, when I saw Paula Broadwell on the Jon Stewart Show, was, “Ah, now there's trouble!” (Well that's not quite accurate, my first thought was “my God, what lovely arms!” Trouble, that was my second thought.) But Paula Broadwell is not quite my type, and she would never adore me, so I needn't congratulate myself on my perception. The fact is, mutatis mutandis, I might have done exactly the same thing as General Petraeus. Which I'm not particularly proud of, but not I'm not especially ashamed of it, either. Titanic feats of will, white-knuckling one's way against temptation, are not a special interest of mine.

David Petraeus did show poor judgment, but it wasn't when he decided to have an affair – if he ever did such an improbable thing. He showed poor judgment when he had the first inkling that such a thing was possible, and he kept the door open: when he let things set themselves up so that more and stronger temptations would keep on arriving. He's the only one who knows when that was: but I'm guessing it was long before the first email that would have interested the FBI.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

para dar un alivio a estas penas

I give. I've been working all morning on translating these simple lines:

Para dar un alivio a estas penas
que me parten la frente y el alma
me he quedado mirando a la luna
a través de las finas acacias.

... and I have nothing to show for it. I think this is the hardest kind of poetry to translate: simple, obvious, almost childish, resting its weight on the language itself rather than on the cleverness of the poet.

The problem boils down to two words: pena and frente. Pena means grief, pain, punishment. But the “punishment” sense has vanished from English pain, except fossilized in legal phrases – “on pain of death,” for instance – and the “grief” sense, it never had. Both are crucial here. It's not just pain that the poet is undergoing, it's loss of a loved one, and the loss of a loved one is a punishment, a punishment for some unspecified transgression.

The marvelous ambiguity of the next line is perfectly translatable. “que me parten la frente y el alma,” can be rendered exactly with “which divides my forehead and my soul,” preserving the the doubt about exactly what's being divided. Is it his forehead that's being divided from his soul, a standard flesh/soul dichotomy? Maybe. Or is each being split? Maybe the pain he's talking about is a splitting headache? And maybe the soul is being split because some of it is remorseful and some of it is not?

So far, so good: but the real translation problem is the word frente. It is a forehead, and that is probably the strongest literal sense here. But it's also “front,” as in the line of battle; it's also “front,” as in what you present to the world, and it's also “face,” as in what you prepare to meet the faces that you meet. So this:

To gain some relief from this punishment
that divides my face – and my soul –

or this:

To relieve this pain
that splits my forehead and soul...

or even this:

To find some respite from this grief
that tears the front from my soul...

But the more farfetched you get, the farther you wander from the directness of the poem, which is perfectly colloquial and straightforward: Jiménez is saying nothing outré or forced, and you do violence to the poem if you create a translation like the last. It's not a poem that's trying to startle you: it's a very quiet, gentle sing-song.

To relieve this pain
that splits my forehead and soul,
I have lingered, watching the moon
behind the slender acacias.

There is something in the moon that suffers;
something, in the halo of silver
that kisses my eyes,
and dries – weeping – my tears.

I don't know what the moon has
that caresses – lulls – calms –
and silently watches the prisoner
with a saint's immense compassion.

And tonight, as I suffer and think
of freeing this flesh from my soul –
I have lingered, watching the moon
behind the slender acacias.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Massage in Winter

Cold air from all sides. It stirs the hair on my forearms and tickles my scalp. Delicious when I push my hands under your shoulders, between the heated flannel and your skin: warm oil; glowing flesh; the massage table and its trimmings an enfolding rose of warmth.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Prayer for a Winter Kittening

Let all that is whole be broken,
let all that is true be false,
let vanish all premon and token,
let the cord unwind from the halse.

Let me see by the light of winter
new muzzles that gleam and chirr:
let the sleep of my dreaming sinter
in the stroking of newborn fur.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


They have all had one thing in common: amusement at a half-secret joke; a characteristic lift at the corners of the eyes. Some have been sad, and some cheerful, but they all have had a keen quizzical glance, which says, “can he really have said that, and still be taking himself seriously?”

Saturday, November 10, 2012


The afternoon I found myself drawing a fine reproduction, in scarlet pencil, of a small splatter of ketchup: easier than facing the shrieks of desolation that would have met an attempt to wipe it up & leave no record of its beauty. Or the dread of walking out on a rainy morning, and knowing that six blocks would take half an hour, because every drowning worm on the way must be rescued. There might be twenty such, and each must be lifted tenderly: they are easily injured, especially when waterlogged. At two years of age, she suddenly comprehended that all the dinosaurs had died. She grieved for a year.

She grew somehow to be a young teenager. I sent her out one day to pick up the windfall apples in the backyard. She took a bucket readily enough – she was always a willing and obedient child, when she was not in despair for the loss of life and beauty – and set forth. From time to time I looked out the window. For an hour she worked, with great diligence. Every apple had to be inspected, lest a wasp or spider or ant be troubled. If it had such residents, they must be coaxed gently out, and new homes found for them: then common humanity required waiting to see that they were settling in, and to make sure the new place exposed them to no predators. When she finally wandered in, with the bucket one-third full, and the yard still full of windfalls, I thought, “She'll never find work.”

Yesterday morning her phone reminded her, at 6:30, that she had “an observation” at 8:00. She typed up a full lesson plan, arrived on time, improvised brilliantly with a large stuffed horse (unexpectedly presented to the class by a parent) & generally shone for the observer. You would think the worm-rescuer had vanished. Until you see her tenderness with the kids hitting sensory overload, and her uncanny ability to head off tantrums in autistic ones.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Erasing our Necessity

After my reading, my partner poet asked me, on-stage, during the question and answer period, why she could not find me in my poems. I said something inadvertently, unthinkingly, which has been reverberating inside myself. And I think it must be true.

I said, "I write so that I will not be needed."

     - Ivy Alvarez

Just so, parenting. Just so, living in general: in some fundamental way, our task is to erase our own necessity.