Tuesday, February 28, 2006


I loved the swings, when I was in grade school. I was slow, as a rule -- one of those pudgy kids who always trailed at the back of the pack when running laps in gym class. My big athletic ambitions then were a) not to be the very last, and b) not to get "lapped" -- overtaken from behind by the boys in the lead. That was humiliating.

But slow as I was, I always got to the swings in time to claim one. I don't remember, but I suspect I somehow crept out of class a minute or two early in order to do so. (I wasn't fast, but I was good at getting places unseen and unheard.) I loved everything about the swings. The tall steel A-frame of cold steel posts, rock-solid and well-made, standing out as sharp-focused objects in that vague haze of shoddy public property. The flexible black seats, made of some mysterious material I've never been able to identify, half canvas, half tire-rubber, corded with strong fibers. The big-linked chains by which those seats hung from the crosspieces.

I would pump and pump, higher and higher, diving and swooping and diving and swooping. I often did this for the full recess period. I did it for so long that when it was time to go back inside, it was difficult to release my clutch; I had held so tight and so long that my hands had frozen onto the chains. I had to pull them loose, and I would walk back to class gingerly prying my fingers open. It was deliciously painful. The prints of the chain links, a pattern in red and white, were vivid on my finger and palms.

I was reading Noko's diary yesterday, She wrote of finally giving up on "the two things that were the most important, the driving force and cause of so much suffering over the last ten years or so" -- the hopes for an ideal love and the hope for poetic recognition.

-- and I thought of that sensation, the painful but, deeply gratifying sensation of loosening a long-held clutch. You don't know how hard you were holding till you let go.

Thursday, February 23, 2006


I dug out my old passport, circa 1980, a few days ago. The photo showed a strapping clean-shaven blond youth with large blunt scandinavian features, my hair in a ponytail, a cheerful, eager-to-please smile on my face. I was startled to see that I still signed my name in cursive then -- a jerky back-and-forth scrawl with a few awkward swoops. Not long after that I took to signing my name, as I still do, in flowing printed capitals. The whole thing used to be legible. Nowadays there's just "DALE A. ~~~~~~~~" -- it tails off into a wavy line. I signed my county taxes that way, this morning.

I lingered over the picture. I was not happy then. It was in fact one of the low points of my life. I was grinding out an uninspired novel by sheer will power, well-intentioned people having assured me that real writers just crank away regardless of inspiration. I knew what I was writing was worthless, but my ego was clamped desperately onto Being a Writer. It was a miserable time. So why did I look at the picture with nostalgia? I'm much happier now.

Nostalgia is a queer emotion, a collection of emotions really, I guess. There's always dramatic irony in looking at old photographs. I know how the story's going to turn out, but that pony-tailed young man doesn't. I catch the backwash of his anxious hope. The one thing I could tell him that would really appall him, is that I won't be much different in twenty-five years. I'll still be fretting mostly about the same things -- trying to figure out if there's a place for me in the world, falling in love with unattainable people, imagining utopias, squandering time on compulsive pattern-filling. I could tell him that the only thing he's begun that will really have any lasting impact on anyone is his relationship with Martha. I don't think he'd want to hear any of those things. And then of course there's the premonition that twenty-five years from now, I may be pausing again over a twenty-five-year-old passport. The dramatic irony doesn't stop here.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Hakluyt's Voyages

Ships of green wood, ill-carpentered, a velvet scum uncovered
By broaching the water barrels, and men of uncertain alliegance.
Six weeks since sight of land. A birdless sky, and rebellious winds,
Old wounds opening and teeth coming out of young men's jaws,
The telltale pause before following orders, the flicker of mutinous eyes,
We have seen all this before. We know what all this means.
Clouds chasing clouds out of a creaking shuddering unquiet sea;
A kiss from the cold wave, a splatter from its breast.

Holding by a withered linen tape, muttering, I go
And sailors scramble to avoid my eye. One bloody star
In the darkening gloom, Mars rising from our wake and burning
Like a reflection of the sunset in the Goddess's stern eye.
If she will not speak to me, then I must split my mouth to her.
"Lady," I say, "I did not think that you would serve me so,
After all I have done for you." Thunder moans astern, the sky
Shatters along a jagged blazing line.

She reminds me of her gifts. Two days the black-skinned people
Feasted us, and danced with us. On the third we took them slaves,
Sold them to the king of skulls. That was a fortunate start.
Then the Portuguese hoard of silver betrayed into our hands;
We nailed them to their doors, enemies and judases alike,
And fired the town. The Lady was kind to us that day, it's true,
The smoke of men burning, oily and thick, is in my nostrils yet.
"Shall I say more?" She whispers. The taffrail heaves.

"You promised me more," I say. "You know you promised me more."
Another levenflash. The men behind me groan, unless
It is the bones of this rotting ship. "You promised me happiness!"
I shriek, and she laughs, and drapes her hair across my beard,
And murmurs in my ear, "My precious fool, my little toy,
You're thinking of some other god. Happiness? What's that?
I promised you your heart's desire, that's all." A blackness opens.
Her leg is cold on my thigh. Her tongue is cold in my mouth.

Monday, February 13, 2006

A Quiet Generation

Still I can hear your heartbeat when you lean over my shoulder.

The former owners of this house, they say, died in it. After living here a quiet generation, their kids all grown and moved out, one year much like the next. And now we are moving toward being the old couple in the old house. Moss grows on the roof. An old carousel-horse is so buried under long matted grass, by the back-yard fence, that it can be neither seen nor easily removed. Once our kids played on it.

Your breasts rest lightly against my shoulder and the nape of my neck, as you reach past me to lift a bowl from the table.

The neighbors' youngest son -- the one who visits home occasionally from college now -- asked you, not long after we moved in, with wide eight-year-old eyes, if it wasn't spooky to live in a house someone had died in. You laughed and said no. Most old houses, you said, someone has died in, at some point. You grew up in the house your grandparents died in.

You didn't say, but you could have, that what's spooky is a house that no one's died in, no proper house but a campsite. What's spooky is a people who can't hold still long enough to bury their dead.

I lean my head back against the softness, and listen. The distant, resonant beat.

Monday, February 06, 2006


So an odd thing has happened. For over a week I have been full of resolution and combativeness, determined to retrieve my reputation at work, and wholly free from defeatism.

I can identify some reasons. A couple weeks ago I doubled my dose of antidepressants, back up to the middling dosage prescribed for me a few years ago. I got a frankly bad performance review at work. I've been reading books that showcase resolution and gallantry. And I resumed my Ngondro practice. I'm inclined to give that, sporadic as it's been, most of the credit.

With this change, some things have come into focus. How much the psychological center of my life has been a desire for approval in the real world, and a conviction that it's unavailable. I've grown very skeptical about the existence of this world, over the years, let alone its claims to superior reality, but that hasn't stopped it from cowing me. I have fled from it at every opportunity, seeking distinction in all sorts of alternative worlds, but hoping only to avert disaster in the real one. Now that a minor disaster -- that of losing a job I have not much liked for the past five years -- looms, it has suddenly lost its terrors. I don't really care. What I do care about is freeing myself of this incubus of self-doubt. I am determined to fail honestly, if I do fail -- to fail because the work is beyond my capacity, and not because of procrastination and diffidence. Failing that way would be a victory anyway.

I don't for a moment suppose that my struggle with self-doubt is over, any more than my struggle with my eating habits was ended by my apparent triumph over them last year (the last time, incidentally, that I was regularly doing my Ngondro practice.) But -- as with the eating habits -- knowing that this self-doubt can be defeated makes a great difference.

Blogdom being one of those alternative worlds in which I've sought distinction in order to avoid struggling for what I want, and believe I can't obtain, in the real world, I will probably be reading and posting less often. But when I'm here it will be because I want to be here, and not because I'm escaping from somewhere else.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006


Things have been a bit quiet here, but you should all go read Maria Benet's new poem at Qarrtsiluni. It's terrific.

...Again you write:
nothing to declare,
nothing worth currency.