Thursday, February 28, 2013

White Flannel Trousers

I watch myself with guarded interest. I've seen so many of my fellow old-time bloggers hit this stretch, and spin out – when the giddy joy of having an audience dwindles (as the audience does), when you realize that even if, for once, you can say exactly what you mean, in public – well, so what? It doesn't make much difference. And you realize that, in the blogosphere as in life, for the most part, the only people who want to listen to you are the people to whom you listen. Stop visiting them, they'll stop visiting you. There was a time, in the early, heady days of blogging, when many of us thought the rules of the social universe were about to change. Our audiences would grow and grow, more and more people would realize just how irresistibly brilliant we were, and then... well... something would happen. And when it did, we'd be happy.

Well. There is, still, a deep happiness in just having my say. And I have been extraordinarily fortunate in my “fit audience though few.” But the world looks just the same – and history ain't changed – and now, ten years down the road, maybe I feel a little foolish that I ever entertained such notions. And forget, perhaps, to treasure as deeply as I should the people who still do read thoughtfully.

Blogging, it turns out – social media generally – does not scale at all well, and there's no particular reason why we should have thought it would. A sort of membrane forms around a readership, and new people become less and less inclined to cross that membrane: and in the meantime readers fall away, for one reason or another. Blogs become ghost-towns. We post less often, less freely, less engagingly: we visit other blogs less and comment less when we're there. And meanwhile, the conversations have largely moved to Facebook and Twitter. Blog posts become more set-pieces than conversations. And as one's virtual and real social circles converge, one begins to feel the ordinary social constraints re-assert themselves. If, in the interim, we have also grown ten years older, the decay of conversability and one's ability to form new friendships is all too familiar. We've grown shy, within our membranes: we grow less and less sure of our ability to judge what's appropriate, what's funny, what's charming. These things seem to happen quicker and vivider in the virtual world, but they're happening in the meat world as well.

So. It is time to climb out of the river and shake myself, spraying water over all and sundry; time to forget my dignity and chase some sticks; time to remember how brief all of this is. I have to grow old, but I don't have to grow timid.

The words, the words are as young as ever, and the sun is as fierce. Welcome the sixte, whan that ever he shal!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Decoration for Book IX, The Thalians Choose Home

. . . six remaining children glimpse a sky
Where unfamiliar constellations rule
A dazzling zodiac - the Nine-tailed Cat,
The Throne of Fire, the Fount of Anguishing,
Un-mercy's Seat. I might go cruelly on . . .

     *     *     *

. . . Better to dream and say
That sparkling zodiac shows sympathy
For trial and weariness, presenting Hope
In Silver Feathers, Gabriel in Light,
The Mother's Arms, the Father's Sailing Boat,
The Seven Triumphant Against the Waste.

- Marly Youmans' Thaliad

The nod to Dickinson is entirely in place: the rhetorical move is pure Dickinson - fix your eye determinedly on your goal, and walk resolutely backwards. "I might go cruelly on," - and linger, that is, on the horrors of apocalypse - but instead, having given us the wrenching episode of "The Profane Madonna," we are going to swerve into innocent pastoral. The apophasis loads the innocence with unspoken nightmare, but it also tells us in so many words: this is the antidote for making up nightmare: we make up a lovely story about it. In the good zodiac there are still seven children, there are are still loving parents, and all is as it should be: and in fact we are about to meet the good, but faintly present and soon removed, father of the third covenant. All this is full of high theological doubt, also very reminiscent of Dickinson, and very canny about the narrator's implication in the story.

The broken covenant, and its restoration - the blind, profane madonna and her adopted son, determined to make a mother-and-child story regardless of what has to be ignored or fought to make it so: I took this to be the maybe best that could be done in the unredeemed world. To move to another, we need revelation. And we will get it; or at least Thalia will.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Thaliad: Upside Down From Us

Clive Hicks-Jenkins' Decoration for "Gabriel the Weeper"

We found a sourwood tree that had been killed
By something, but the leaves still drooped in place,
Though every one had faded into brown.
When we came closer, leaves burst into wings –
The tree was green, the death was butterflies,
Alive and pouring like a waterfall
But upside down from us.

So says Gabriel, the weeper, before they abandon him. His abandonment is one of the discomforts of this epic. The gloss tells us that deserting him “sealed the end of innocence” for the children: but you know, I don't trust that glossator for beans. What innocence, and how sealed? It feels less like a sin to me, in the narrative – no one more than briefly really tries on guilt or expiation for it – less, I say, like sin than like sacrifice: and if one is to look for the meaning of that sacrifice, it has to be in the difficulties, the contradictions the sourwood tree.

First of all, it's lost and falsely found:

One day I walked
Up there With my father. I'm sure it was
The place. It could have been... It looks the same.

We are sure that it is not the place: Gabriel of course is simply desperate for any shred of anything like home. Home is gone forever, and Gabriel can't, or won't, still his grief.

The tree is not really dead. There is a sort of miracle that returns it to life: all its dead leaves fly up to heaven, and it's green and living after all. But brown butterflies are a far cry from, say, the brilliant butterflies that populate García Márquez's Soledad. These, coating the tree, giving it a deathly look, are more in the register of moths: and what might with a dab of color or two have been a joyful ressurection remains a disturbing inversion. Death and life may not be what they seem, but there's nothing reassuring about this upside-down waterfall. One thinks more of ashes rising. Gabriel, I think, had to be sacrificed in a more ugly sense, a sense that Homer's audience would have grasped at once: the gods aren't satisfied yet. The fire wants one more.

The deepest kinship of this epic, formal, emotional, and moral, is with the Aeneid. There comes a time, reading that poem, that an acute reader suddenly realizes that Augustus Caesar was sold a bill of goods, and that Virgil, despite all his show of politically correct patriotism, was not really sure that Rome should ever have been founded at all. A similar dismay and foreboding runs through the Thaliad: its beauty is wounded and dark, from beginning to end.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Not Quite Spring

Late last night, Jupiter, still brighter yellow than makes me quite comfortable, falling towards the west, toward a rag-bed of cloud, and Sirius, with the purer flame of a real star, climbing up under Orion's feet – the sky wheeling forward, or the planet wheeling backward, whichever you like – the not-quite-Spring of late February in Portland. Spring stepping uncertainly towards us, coming down the Valley from the south, but winter has no intention of quitting yet. There's snow and frost still waiting, up the Columbia, for an east wind to come down the Gorge and blast anyone who thinks of budding. The wiser plants are making excuses and stalling for time.

I sit hunched over my coffee, staring at my hands. I have a new client tonight: these hands will be under a new pair of shoulders, lifting the scapulas: tracing the sweet spot under the scapular spine, where the muscle hugs its hollow in the bony plate, down to where it runs under the deltoid. I imagine it would be the choicest meat on the human frame; and it comes with its own serving platter, the shoulder blade.“We'll eat you up, we love you so!” And Max said: “No.”

No. And I wonder, again: are we massage therapists the ones who really get it, the ones who understand that it's always only touch? Or are we the dimmest ones, the hopelessly literal ones who can't really grasp a metaphor? I was touched by his concern, says our neighbor, and we, with a faintly wrinkled brow, answer, no, you were touched by his fingers.

Morning floods into the sky up over the eastern horizon: fills the thin places with light, soaks slowly into the thicker cloud. Sheets of light must be spreading overhead, now. Just barely south of east, where the firs are thickest, for brief time: the red fragments of a sunrise. But they wash pink as I watch, and quickly the color goes entirely. That's all the glory for this morning. The eastern sky fills with heavier cloud and goes a sullen, cold, dark blue. A winter sky. It's not spring yet.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Illustration: Dale's rage against the machine

But – first things first. This is still, and forever, going to be long, laborious haul, with no shortcuts. I have a more helpful frame for it now, though: I no longer in any way see my difficulties with food as a manifestation of my poor character. I see it as a distortion imposed on me by industrial capitalism. They skillfully turned me into what Pollan calls “an industrial eater”: and every painful step towards eating real plain food, with no sauce but hunger, is a small act of defiance. “The food thing” falls into a pattern with a multitude of others: I have been conditioned to overconsume in many, many ways; I've been conditioned to believe in consumption as the beginning and end of my happiness, when in fact it's just an endlessly steepening toboggan slide towards a concrete wall. A wall of illness, of hopeless debt, of isolation. Make no mistake: that's what the consumption slide aims at.

That's grandiloquent, perhaps: but so are the extravagances of much of the food writing I've encountered since I began this, with its extraordinary emphasis on every meal being a peak experience. Every meal will not be a peak experience, no matter how much you spice and titillate it: all you can do by trying that hard is jade your palate.

No. I'm not looking for more ecstasy than an ordinary yam will sometimes supply.

Some years ago now – after many abjectly-failing attempts to “eat healthy,” – I realized the problem was larger than I thought. To eat healthy, I was going to have to cook. There was no other way, despite the swarm of people trying to sell me things to eat: the one thing no one was actually trying to sell me was healthy food. (There's a good economic reason for this: healthy food is unprocessed, it has no value-added, it has no brand or mark-up. A french fry you can sell at an enormous profit: a potato you can barely make a few cents on.)

And to cook, I was going to have to have a working kitchen. One that stayed clean and uncluttered, day in and day out, week in and week out. I had never had such a thing. We had a big kitchen, in the house where we raised our kids, and a quantity of dishes, and we operated on the simple principle of going until we ran out of clean dishes, which took about a week. By that time the kitchen was a huge mess, and cleaning it was a titanic enterprise, even with the dishwasher we then had. We'd limp along a few more days by eating fast food alone, and then we'd finally tackle it. It was a much more laborious system than actually washing up twice a day, and we knew that, but knowing something doesn't mean you act on it.

I was deeply embarrassed by the state of my kitchen, but I was also in a state of learned helplessness about it. And there were so many other things I was trying to make myself to do, by sheer force of will, and since they all were higher prestige than the lowly act of washing up, by the time I came to the sink my oomph was exhausted. I just looked at it all, pulled a package of something out of the fridge, and shuffled back to the living room to eat it, with my fingers if need be.

So when I finally had raised my kids; and when I finally had work that I loved, which nurtured me rather than depleting me; when I finally had some fragile self respect growing in my industrially-blighted soul – when I finally had these things in place, and decided to eat healthy, I didn't start with the food. I started with the dishes. The first thing I was going to do was acquire the habit of a clean kitchen. Every single damn day, I was cleaning that thing.

It took years to root that habit. Literally. But I have it now, and it's so strong that I find it almost impossible to go to bed with dirty dishes in the kitchen. It feels wrong, now. And now, for the two of us, we have exactly four plates and four bowls in our cupboard, and some eight mugs or drinking glasses, which keeps us on a much shortened leash. I usually wash up twice a day, now. It's not a very big deal. A few minutes' work. But the expense of spirit, the force of will that it represents, is huge.

Sunday, February 17, 2013


A wet colt trembles
pushing for the teat;

snail paths, old tears, run down
from the corners of his eyes.

There is no sky but iron,
there is no rain but pours;

the fields are pale yellow or red
as withered grass or leaves.


(Bosworth-Toller: FEALO, fealu, feale; def. se fealwa; adj. FALLOW, pale yellow or red coloured as withered grass or leaves, dusky, bay? flāvus, gilvus, fuscus :-- Fealo líg feormaþ and fénix byrneþ the yellow flame consumes and burns the Phœnix, Exon. 59a; Th. 213, 1; Ph. 218: 104b; Th. 396, 8; Rä. 16, 1. Fealu busius? [= fuscus?], Ælfc. Gl. 79; Som. 72, 81;Wrt. Voc. 46, 38. Se fealwa holen the fallow or withered holly leaf, Exon. 114a; Th. 437, 19; Rä. 56, 10.)

Saturday, February 16, 2013


I've been reading Marly Youmans' epic Thaliad. Lovely, lucid blank verse: hardly ever a foot wrong. It's strange to read modern matter in so sure a classical voice: the effect is like the reflections of the sun, playing on the ceiling of a lakeside house. Where is the light coming from? What is it that is moving?

I hope readers will not be put off by a modern poem being called an epic. “Epic” has come to mean “gargantuan” or “undisciplined”: it's used of great sprawling things, and, particularly in modern poetry, of monstrously fleshy lyric poems stuffed with obscure allusions, and no narrative skeleton to hold them up: things like Pound's Cantos get called “epics.” It leaves us no name for the Thaliad, which really is an epic: a rapidly running, easy-to-follow narrative poem. Those who don't like poetry can ignore the fact that the right margin is ragged, and read it as a quick short utopian/dystopian novel.

In any case, my response to finishing this poem was – as I know it has been for others – to turn immediately to the front, and begin to read it again. Epic is always an attempt to find origins, isn't it?

Such time, such toil, requir'd the Roman name,
Such length of labor for so vast a frame.

But in this case it's the origin of something that's not there yet, of something made up. What does it mean, to undertake a retrospective on the future? Where does that phantom come from? Is the whole epic untimely ripp'd? I can't settle. I feel like Ran, patrolling against what he doesn't and can't know. But having finished, I turn at once to the beginning, to read it again, which is of course what one always does with a genuine epic. They begin in the middle of things because they understand that everything is in the middle of things: they're structured as a wheel, and its first revolution is only to orient ourselves. More anon, I'm sure. My first journey in Thalia's footsteps has been, of necessity, silent.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Reading Michael Pollan

I more or less knew all this about industrial food, of course: the corn belt made into a vast featureless starch factory, the corn hybrids that won't “come true,” the steers early-weaned and force-fatted on the feedlots, the industrialization of the certified organics. I have a bit of history with all these things. My expensive education was paid for by a grandfather who was a pioneer in corn hybrids. (In selling them, that is, not in creating them. Slogan in the Depression: “DeKalb corn will lift your mortgage!”) One summer in the 70s I worked on farm which must already have been, had I known it, old-fashioned: they still had much of the ecosystem right there – pigs and chickens to manure the hay and alfalfa, hay and alfalfa to feed the cows through the winter. The old man there, who had never learned to read, had homesteaded the place some seventy years before. I worked in a food co-op around the same time, so I had a sense for what real food looked like. When I first set foot in places like “Whole Foods” my nose told me they weren't. Nothing stank. And everything so glossy and pretty! No. And I had a room mate to whom none of Michael Pollan's news would have been news at all: a grange activist, way ahead of the curve. I wonder what he's doing now?

Still. Food was always TBD. I was literary guy: my job was to master Old English prosody. I kept eating what I'd grown up eating, to wit, as Michael Pollan makes so brilliantly clear, vast piles of No. 2 corn in all its cleverly engineered variations and transmutations: feedlot beef and high fructose corn syrup, and all the bizarre range of fillers, emulsifiers, fixatives, preservatives. All based on plowing massive amounts of fixed-nitrogen into the soil.

I think I basically knew how much time and effort it would take to do food right, and just never had the oomph to face it. Oomph is a precious commodity, after all. You pick your battles. I'm not saying I was wrong. And I could just leave it, not trouble the last few decades of my life with it.

What gets me, though, is not the health implications. I'm still reasonably healthy at 54, and I don't see what rational person could not see that as having won the game already, whatever comes next. No, what gets me, oddly enough – because I'm a city boy through and through – is what monoculture does to the land. I've driven across this country several times. I know what industrialized agriculture has done to it, and I hate it. It seems to me that – to use a singularly inappropriate metaphor – we're eating our seed corn. Gorging and choking on it, actually. Global warming? Pfft. Oh, it's real enough, but its disasters are minor and manageable compared to what we're doing to our farmland, and to our farmers. My farmer up in Yelm, Washington may not have known how to read, but he knew how to make a fairly unpromising patch of rural ground produce chickens and pigs and cows, and go on producing them indefinitely. How many farmers still know how to do that? Not many.

Every time I spend a dollar, I'm voting for the kind of world I want. I've always known that, and in many things, for decades, I've steadfastly preferred the small, locally owned, and quirky enterprises over the large, corporate, and uniform ones. But I have been, all my life, supporting industrialized food. Not sure I can keep on doing that, now that Mr Pollan has really rubbed my nose in it.

Thursday, February 14, 2013


I'm afraid to reach into my memory. Neurologists say that every time we call up a memory, we overwrite it. Our most frequently revisited memories are the least reliable: the most thoroughly revised, supplemented and amended by what people tell us did happen, would have happened, must have happened. And by our own speculations and reasoned extrapolations. It's efficient, but it's a system for storing useful information, not for recording events. The more we revisit the past, the less we will find it there.

When I first tried to rescue a wasp from a swimming pool, I found that by reaching for it, I pushed it away, farther out into the water. It couldn't be done one-handed. Retrieving a memory, I think, will be like that. I'll have to reach both hands, and slowly bring them together. Then throw the whole handful of water up over the cement lip of the pool. With luck the dazed wasp will be there, gleaming gold and black, its abdomen jacking in confusion. With luck it will crawl out of danger, dragging its stuck-together wings.

We were proud, touch-me-not. I only remember us having people over once. They were a stiff Quaker family. Their father and my father had a grave conversation. We kids played quietly. It was a strange thing, having people over. We played matchbox cars. The undercarriages of mine were painted yellow, and those of my older brother were painted red: that way there could be no doubt or contention about whose car was whose. Red was obviously the better color, but he was the older brother, after all. The Quaker kids – what cars did they get? We didn't have colors for them. And they didn't seem to care for the cars anyway.

“He was as white as a sheet,” the next-door neighbor said, confidently. Was I? All I remember is the stillness, the house empty when it shouldn't have been. I was supposed to stay with the neighbor, but I didn't like it there, and I slipped away and went home instead. I had never come home to an empty house before. Trepidation, but also a shiver of freedom. I was unobserved. My life was my own. For the first time. I wandered out under the row of birch trees my father had planted, and looked at the dangling catkins against the blue sky. “I can choose,” I said. “I can choose to remember this moment of this day, forever.” I was seven years old. I was right I still remember. Seven. Catkins against the sky.

That is to say, I remember something. That's the handful of water I fling onto the patio beside the pool. That's the year my parents were divorced, the year the house went quiet, blessedly or achingly quiet.

I only remember the brokenness, not the breaking.

Saturday, February 09, 2013


Rose at six and walked down to Montavilla Park to look at their play equipment. I want something I can climb on. It was mostly, of course, lilliputian. There was a rope I could climb a couple feet on, with my feet braced against ribs of wood: but I couldn't get through the space at the top that let you onto the platform. And some vertical and near-vertical poles: but not above ten feet tall, and anyway, I'm not strong enough yet to climb hand over hand. It was quiet; nobody in the park at dawn. The cold of the metal sank into my hands and throbbed.

So, failure, in a way: I was looking for something, somewhere, that I could climb for free. The monkey-bars that I remember from my youth, which were probably just this lilliputian. Taking my own advice, remembering what joyful movement used to mean to me. I always, always hated running, but I loved to climb. I'm mulling over bolting some metal pipe to the beam in the erstwhile garage, that I could hang from and pull myself up to. Wondering whether any of the trees in our yard could bear the weight of a climbing rope. How did I let a capacity so central to my identity – that of being able to scale ropes, trees, anything that afforded hand- and foot-holds – disappear?

Failure, in a way: but still, my hands have had a workout – they'll be a little sore tomorrow. So it's a success, really. I've worked a little more on reclaiming my ability to move myself. And I walked briskly back, going back and forth along the odd little terraces between 86th and 83rd Avenue: I think it counts as half an hour of exercise.

Friday, February 08, 2013


Morning. Friday, of course, so I'm writing only to myself. Another quiet winter day: gray sky, still air. The net of twigs between porch roof and window sill is motionless. A far-away crow flickers through the tiny-tiled mosaic of sky beyond the net.

I said to a friend who is torn between beloved places: I'm lucky, only having one home, and knowing what it is. I never really thought about that before.

I may love tales of wandering, I may love handling languages and stories from far away and long ago, but I'm no doubt where I belong. I belong in Portland, Oregon, and I would rather live in a scruffy suburban cottage here than in a house in the Greek isles overlooking the sea, than in a Venetian palazzo full of art. Someday I'll live in the city again, perhaps. And someday I may make another road trip, another excursion or two. I still greatly desire to see the southern stars. But this is home, forever and for good.

Not that it will remain. Its destruction goes on apace: this recession has slowed it, but not stopped it. But I've lived with that all my life: hill after hill logged, lopped, trashed; mile after mile of breathtakingly ugly strip installed, full of corporate outposts, each with its own logo and distinctive building-plans and parking lots, dropped in here just as they might be in Phoenix or Miami. Many of them not even aligned east-west, or squared with the street they front on, as if they're eager to display their contempt for the local and the homely.

The sky, too, has changed. I wonder if I'm the only person who has noticed it? The clouds are not as vague and formless as they used to be. With the climate change, we get more of the beautiful cloud-towers of the continental U.S. Thunderstorms are not quite so rare. The sky is clear more often. The shift is small, but I'm quite certain of it: these are the not skies I grew up under. They're wilder, deeper, more beautiful, and more dangerous. You can put change in motion, my dears, but you can't control where it goes. These are skies of disaster, but they may also be skies of a new covenant, someday.

Well. But I'm an ordinary man, trying to work out the end of an ordinary life. I've dodged disaster so far, and my worries are about whether I'll work out what to do with my chicken stock before it goes bad, and whether I can find socks that I'll really like. I float along in the dream of America. And outside there, today, not breath or or twitch of wind, not a single distinct form in the cloud-cover. Sleep, dear ones. Sleep.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Just Friends

                                                          U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 

We took the ridgetop trail, in spite of the grade warning. It gave us a precise number – something like 30%, I don't remember exactly, but I peered about that flat Tualatin wetland and said, “I'm all agog to see how you can get that steep of a trail out of this country.” The whole trail was marked as maybe a quarter mile long: where could you hide such a thing?

We took it. It did take us along the top of a ridge, strictly speaking: a finger of ground a couple dozen feet higher than the marsh, that groped out a couple hundred yards, ending in a faint bulbous flourish. It was studded with doug firs, second or third growth trees. A ridge. Okay.

It overlooked the flats, but not with any very grand or open view. We retraced our steps and wandered out onto a platform that stuck out over the marsh itself, which was more interesting. I've never learned the names of waterfowl, but I always like to look at them. Occasionally a cloud of geese would rise, making a racket – for no perceptible reason – rise, make a broad sweeping circuit, and come back to settle again. A birder with a straggly gray beard and a battered hat, with the brim folded back in front, corrected Martha, when she called them Canadian Geese. Crackling Geese, he admonished her.

He and his younger oriental wife drifted off – we were to catch up with them again, trying to photograph a white-breasted nuthatch, a bit further down the trail – and we lingered on the deck a while, in thin, unexpected, watery sunshine.

“What did he say they were?” I asked.

“Crackling Geese,” said Martha.

“Though I suppose, really, a hat like that doesn't actually make you an expert birder,” I murmured.

“Oh, it does too!” hissed Martha, indignantly.

Gray owl pellets on the gray planking, full of tiny gray bones: we gazed up into the leafless trees above us, but saw nothing. It was not much of a day for spotting things, really. A quiet, melancholy winter afternoon. The only sight I was really taken with was the dark green Tualatin River. They had built an overlook high over the water – they were big on overlooks, at this refuge – and the Tualatin is one of those rivers that always looks as though it has a secret destination. Wherever you are, it's just hurried away from you around a corner. I don't know what gives it that particularly vivid color, a shadowy emerald. The Clackamas has the same color.

I've never let myself grow attached to these rivers. Too close. Someone's going to ruin them, someday. I keep it casual, friendly-like. If anyone asks, we're just friends.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Palely Loitering

I used to watch the stars
wheel on their grand ecliptic, tethered
and dragged on the celestial rim:
the illusion of their movement
did not free them from it.

I used to watch the shadows
on your sleeping face, dream
chased by dream, and imagine
I could unbind
the knight from the mere.