Friday, November 30, 2007

Held by the Forest

I was eleven years old, maybe. I was running pell-mell down a steep path, on the far side of the Hill. Bounding, flying, down the slope.

Abruptly I found myself in empty space. A dirt road cut deeply, unseen, across the path. A moment later I struck the ground with both feet, cartwheeled, and slammed against the leafy floor.

It was suddenly very quiet. The breath was not quite knocked out of me: I could take little sips of air. I lay on my back, quite still. I felt no pain. Both my ankles were quietly reporting zero functionality.

I felt I was floating, as I lay there. Unmoored. Calmly I thought it through. I was about a mile from home. I could crawl that far, if need be. Was anyone home? I couldn't remember. It didn't matter. Someone would be, eventually. The worst-case scenario wasn't so bad. If my back was okay, anyway.

In the meantime, the forest held me. High up, a broken twig rocked against the sky. Every so often a leaf came loose and batted its way down to the ground, with a soft sound like the rustle of a dress.

After a few hours, as it seemed -- I expect it was a couple of minutes -- I could take full breaths. I began cautiously moving my head, my arms, my legs. Taking inventory. Was my back really all right? Apparently so.

My ankles were numb. But I could move my feet. Did that mean they weren't broken? I wasn't sure. But a mile was a long way to crawl.

So I stood up. I had very little sensation in my feet, and it was hard to balance on them: I was standing on numb, useless stubs. But I could walk, with care, with a motion more like wading than walking. Climbing back the way I'd come was out of the question. This road ran south: it had to meet with the back loop eventually. I moved slowly along it.

Sure enough. I found myself in the back loop. A fairly level, fairly straight shot to home. Pins and needles in my ankles now. My feet could tell me a little, now, about the surfaces they encountered.

By the time I had limped home, full sensation was back. Oddly, I don't remember that it ever hurt, then or later.

No one was home. I never told anyone about it. It had been stupid, galloping down an unknown path. I didn't care for anyone to know how foolish I'd been. And my freedom to wander was precious to me. Best not to give anyone the idea that I might come to grief out there.

And anyway, I had been held, held by the forest.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


The first full sleep after many broken nights. I woke for an hour, and watched the moon climb carefully, twig by twig, over the maple tree. But I slept again. Diminished as I am, a small knot of mammalian warmth in that immensity of cold November air.

The white, deaf, dull-witted cat that fled from our neighbor's when her baby grew into a toddler old enough to catch it, and took up residence in our basement, is moving very slowly. Something bit him under the ear a couple days ago. The abscess burst last nights, and a trail of bloody lymph soaked his white neck, and spotted our quilt. He's skin and bones, under that white winter coat, and it seems impossible that he should live much longer.

The waning year. Already Christmas zealots have put up their lights. More is always better. Why just a Christmas day? Why not a Christmas month? That fatal American reasoning. Oh yes. I am every inch an American.

In the light fog, this morning, everything is soft, gentle, and sad. Tree trunks and telephone poles glow faintly through the shadows of leaf and shrub. Cars wash by on Sandy Boulevard, making a sound very like the sea; the tide of people going to work.

Gold is in my mind this morning: soft gold worked in intricate Celtic designs. I feel not just old, but ancient: something half-remembered from a medieval ballad, or the enigmatic mention of a lost back-story in an epic. A scholar comes upon a list of names in a language attested nowhere else, and he murmurs them over to himself, obscurely moved. I feel like one of those names: a last, faded glyph. A fragment of lost meaning.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

New Leaves

I wonder, would it be too weird for a male bodyworker to specialize in pregnancy massage?

I massaged a couple pregnant women last week. The energy of a pregnant body is intoxicating. Everything's at a high burn. The tissues are fierce and exultant, like the new leaves of Spring: my fingertips start tingling six inches away from the skin. The body's not living for itself anymore. It's doing the most fundamental and necessary thing it ever does, biologically speaking, and every other consideration goes to the wall. It's painfully awake; just being near it wakes me up too.

Meanwhile the mechanical structure of the body is changing radically. The center of gravity is shifting. Ligaments are loosening, and at the same time carrying unaccustomed loads; muscles are working with stresses and at angles they've never handled before. Bodywork is clearly called for. My friend Lekshe tells me that in Nepal pregnant women get massage daily, as a matter of course. Seems ordinary common sense to me. There's not just the discomfort and knotting inevitable with unusual muscular exertion. All the body's proprioception has to be rewired: it literally doesn't know exactly where it is anymore. Massage is exactly what it needs.

I always feel grateful, when I get to do a massage. But especially so, in this case. The body is always a mystery, in the religious sense. Just a little more vividly so, when it's pregnant.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Objects of Delight

Full moon westering; Venus burning brilliantly, evenly, high in the east. I ride past frost-covered cars, my magnet-driven lights winking as I pedal.

I love these lights inordinately. A clever Englishman invented them: a light sits on each axle, and two magnets fixed to the spokes of each wheel drive a little generator as they swoop past it. Hey presto! Lights. No batteries to run down, or to buy, or to forget to buy. There has to be a certain amount of drag; but it's so slight that I can't perceive it. Lift the bike and spin a wheel, and it revolves with just as much apparent freedom as before. A capacitor keeps the lights still blinking for a few minutes after the wheels stop. I did the arithmetic and realized that these fifty-dollar lights would pay for themselves, just in the cost of batteries, within a few months. But the real savings, of course, is just in botheration.

I have been spending carefully, this year, and it gives me a new appreciation for objects. I bought a Sigg water bottle a few weeks ago. It is red, deep red, the reddest and most gorgeous red imaginable. It feels delightful on the mouth as you drink. I adore it.

And then there's the scarf knitted for me by a friend, of the most lovely varicolored wool. It's around my neck as I type now at Tosi's, soft, giving an overall impression of muted and subtle color, but, more carefully examined, glowing with vivid blues and greens and ochres and violets. I wear it as I ride, in this frosty weather. At my destination I will gradually shed gloves, hat, and jacket, as I potter about, but the scarf is always the last to come off, if it comes off at all.

I got my copy of Brilliant Coroners yesterday. It's a beautiful book. Last night I reread, slowly, the first three of its seventeen poets. And today I have been getting Rachel Barenblat's "Psalm for Tuesday" by heart:

It is easy to offer praises
when all the world is green
and gold, when the thrush
trills off and on, at ease
for long sweet minutes...

I have five poems in this book, including what I think are my two best ever ("Fall" and "Santiago.") I've seen my words in books before, but never with so much pleasure. Another object of delight.

I am no end of chuffed to have a place in this book. I am not a real poet. I do my best, but if I have a gift, it's for prose. But there are real poets in this book, poets I've admired for years now: Dave Bonta, Maria Benet, Rachel Barenblat. And poets I've learned to love more recently: Tom Montag, Dick Jones, Ivy Alvarez.

But to me the deepest delight of this book is to find collected the poetry of writers I don't ordinarily think of as poets: Anne-Mieke Swart, Peter Stephens, Rachel Rawlins, Jean Morris, Leslee Masten, Alison Kent, Natalie d'Arbeloff, Elizabeth Adams. And also the elusive, or downright unfindable, Teju Cole and B. E. Wing. They all have startlingly distinctive and mature poetic voices.

What do they all have in common? Well, they are nearly all in my circle of daily blog reads. But the book has, I think, a real unity, which consists of a shared sense that poetry is a form of service, or observance.

...But if I forget the losses
of my friends in the places
we call home and holy
May my poems dry up
Like an empty creekbed.

Noticeably absent is any whiff of the hothouse. These aren't poems written by people because they're trying to be poets; they're poems written by people because they had something to say.

Friday, November 23, 2007


Inkscape. It's free, and it's really cool. A vector drawing tool. These are the results of a few minutes' idle doodling with the "star shape" tool.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

All of a Piece

Well. Grieving. But I suppose I can, I suppose I must, take this as a gift. And the only way to do that is to take it as the invitation to make my life all of a piece.

A life with no hidden parts. With no reservations. No secret clauses in its treaties. No escape hatches. To be only and completely what I appear to be.

It will not be easy. I can feel already the stirrings of the temptations to seek out a new secret life. At present -- in the clarity offered by grief -- I can see them vividly, in all their grotesquerie. But the grief will fade, and so will the clarity. I must seal it with practice.

I don't think I could live through this again. I really don't. I'm too old. The stress of holding two loves was going to break me.

I will deny nothing, close no door, repudiate no one. We do the best we can, and we love who we love.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Exit Interview

"You're not really a doppelgänger though," I said, at length. "I mean no one could mistake you for me. You're blue."

"I am blue, it's true." He looked sadly at his lurid skin. "There's a red one too, you know. Have you seen him?"

"I've heard of him. I expect he'll be along."

He nodded. He ran his hand through his blue-tinged silver hair, and sighed. He was slumped there on the couch, almost horizontal. "So you're really sending me away."

I was trying to be patient with him, but he always was kind of a sad sack. Why women liked him so much, I couldn't say: I mostly found him irritating.

"Well, you know," I said, "there's really only resources for one of us."

"Only one of us. I suppose so." His eyes filled with tears. Oh, God. He was going to cry. "I gave you the best years of my life," he said.

"Oh, for Christ's sake," I snapped. "You mean you took the best years of your life. From me. When did you really ever give anything to anyone?"

He sighed again. "I meant to," he said, lugubriously. "Grant me that. I meant to."

"Well, you promised to, anyway. That's not quite the same thing."

He was stung and offended. "Hey, 'I told no lies, and all of the truth I could.' I mean, give me that, at least."

"You told a weird amount of truth, anyway. Just enough to make everyone uncomfortable." He looked so miserable that I softened a little. "Okay, look. I don't think we're going to agree on the honesty thing or the giving thing. But I do know the love was real. All too real. Let's just settle accounts with that."

"Love. That's the weird thing. But it's true, you know. It's all that's kept me going. And it kept you going too." He shot a shrewd, wicked look at me.

"I'm not denying it. And before you oh-so-innocently ask – no, I don't know how I'm going to live without you. That's just one of the things we'll have to find out, isn't it?"

Those long, pained silences of his. Those were something I wasn't going to miss at all.

"Isn't it?" I repeated. But the silence had gone flat. I looked up sharply. The couch was empty.

"Oh, Christ," I said, and burst into tears.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Red Inside

Yah. I'm tired of poetry. Enough already.

Strange echoes of time, frames shifting. It all changes, and it all remains the same.

The aide slid a needle into my arm, this morning, and fresh bright red blood bubbled into a tube. How odd, that we're carrying this beautiful rich shade of red inside our arteries all the time, hidden out of the light.

The beauty inside. To learn to see it: to shine a light and see that redness, that brightness, filling the body and the mind. The spirit falters, in the darkness and dullness and lethargy of surfaces. I start to believe the surfaces are real, or at least more real than the insides. But the insides are at least as real. The outsides can't subsist for a moment without them.

I am so easily frightened and distracted by surfaces. And I hear the chariot at my back. I have to hold very still, sometimes. The mind, like a nervous greyhound, straining at the leash.

I sat at the table last night, eating a marvelous soup, and wonderful bread, in a beautiful house, with a brilliant poet. And I couldn't reach to the insides. It's baffling sometimes. What stands between? What is getting in our light? I couldn't remember a single poem to ask about. And there was so much I had wanted to ask.

What's getting in our light? I am. And that's why I have to go on retreat. It's not rocket science: I'm getting in our light, that's all. So anxious to make things happen that they can't happen. I need some days of prayer and meditation.

Some things you can't see, if you look straight at them. Among them, people. For the very good reason that to see a person you have to look with their eyes, not your own. So it works better if you're both looking at something else.

I do love the laying on of hands. For its own sake, and for the end-run it makes around my anxiety and diffidence. But it's no substitute for practice.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Four Things Meme

This girl tagged me with a poetry advice meme. Now, of course, I'm eager to give advice about writing poetry, because I'm not very good at it, and I haven't been doing it very long; it's always neophytes who are most eager to tell other people how to do things. (I won't tag anyone: I don't do tagging any more.) Have a look at my blogroll: there's a lot of people there whose advice would be much more valuable than mine. But here it is, four things to attend to and four to avoid in writing poetry.

What to Attend to

1) Read old poetry. We write within a tradition, whether we know it or not. Know it. If you're going to echo Shakespeare -- and you are -- then echo Shakespeare himself, not a second-, third-, or fourth-rate imitation of him.

2) Memorize poetry. I say this all the time. I'm saying it again. Memorized poetry lives with you, gets under your skin, in a way that read-and-half-forgotten poetry just never does. And don't give me that stuff about not being able to memorize things. Memorization is a skill that anyone can learn. It's absurd that in a culture that's downright hagridden by qualifying exams we don't teach memorization in school, but we ordinarily don't, so you have to learn it by yourself. Fortunately it's not that hard to learn, and it's an immensely useful skill in many endeavors.

3) Learn a language, or two, or three.You don't have to be fluent. You don't even have to be any good with it. Take classes for a year or two in a language -- preferably, one you just take a shine to and which will be perfectly useless to you forever -- and get to the point where you can understand its basic grammar, read its nursery rhymes, and have a glimpse of what the Germans call its Sprachgefühl, its "speechfeel." Languages have characteristic cadences and habits of sound and meaning. Liberate yourself from the delusion that your native language is "just the way it is." It isn't. It's far more wonderful than "just the way it is": it's a magnificent piece of collaborative art. But you can't see it as such without being able to stand outside it.

4) Play. Be silly, maudlin, obscene, vicious, petty, overwrought, oversimple. If it's bad you can throw it away later. But write it first, and decide how good it is later. Most of it will be bad. So what?

What to avoid

a) Advice. Like this.

b) Words that aren't natural to you. There's a temptation to reach for impressive, rarely-used words, even though you're not really at home with them. The words you use should be supple and well-worn, comfortable in your mind and heart. I'm all for learning new words. But don't use them in poetry right away. That's like marrying someone you just met last night. You'll regret it. Trust me.

c) Violent, garish imagery, unless it really does precisely what you want it to. Vivid is good, but only if it's also accurate. Don't carpet-bomb the reader with gripping images because one of the incidental effects of one of the images is one that you want. Most readers don't like random assault. They want to know that if you're seizing their attention, it's for a good reason.

d) Silent writing. Say it. Aloud. "Poetry must always sing," said Yeats. If you can't make it sing with your voice, readers won't be able to make it sing in their heads. It's easy to fool yourself into thinking that it sounds fine if you only read it silently. Read it aloud.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Under the Wing

The wind tears at the trees,
The leaves weep, the branches shake.
All the days of mourning,
The long regress of mornings, the soft
Fall of light, collapsing perspectives, all the truth
And falsehood crowded together in my head
Like a crowd pushing at the inward-opening doors
Of a burning theater. I cannot speak. Or see.

Take the pieces of the heart and carefully fit them together.
Archeologists do this, all the time, with pots
And take for granted that some pieces will be missing.
That's how it is, they say, under the wing of time.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Spattered City

My response to this week's Totally Optional Prompt, specifically the Celan poem

Turn to the burning of the palaces, the melted gold
Trickling down into the cracks of the stones;
Turn to the glancing, feathering fire.
Turn to the history of this, our spattered
Endless city.

Turn to the skies, stitched all across with tracers
Turn to the wet blood still drawing lines like
A child learning to make his letters
On the wide walls of home.

Turn to the morning: there will be no morning.
No sun would dare to look at this. Tomorrow
There will be no tomorrow.

All we have caught up, all the nightmares we dreamed --
The darkest, earliest home of our
Accursed fathers -- plague after plague --
Could not soften our stiff necks. Psalms are useless here.

Fire from the airplanes, fire from the derricks, fire
From the mouth of Satan. This land,
Like a cracked earthen plate
Broken in the firing.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


I began this post after I had taken the boards, but before I knew I had passed them. (When, in fact I was quite sure I'd failed them.) It goes with the poem about having misery and humiliation for house-guests.

It's the humiliation of the body that makes it worst. Every grade-school humiliation -- every missed easy fly ball to right field, every basket I missed, every race I came in next-to-last -- in short, everything that made me decide, in the course of my nine years in public school, that my body was a lost cause, and that I was going to ignore it, and use my brain -- it all comes back, remarkably vividly. This humiliation comes from that same deep pool of misery. Nothing separates me from that slow, awkward, pudgy, easily flustered boy.

The tempting thing, of course, is to wait. To call this a time that doesn't count. To ignore my reactions, as best I can, and fill my time up with sudoku and hexwar and eating halloween chocolate. To wait until I get my results, and real life starts up again. After all, it's only thirty days.

But this is the thing. It's actually this, right now, that is real life. I am the less deceived right now than I will be when I know how I did, and am either studying to take the test over, or scrambling to get all the accommodations and paraphernalia of a massage practice together. It's no accident or aberration that makes this sinking sensation so familiar. The fact is that the jury is always out. In one way or another, I spend most my life waiting for judgements that will never be rendered. I will never know, in the end, whether I was worthy of respect or of ridicule. There is no epilogue to this novel. There are no answers at the back of this book. There will never really be any more basis for answering the question than there is now.

And there's a reason for that. It's because the question actually makes no sense. It's intrinsically meaningless, in the same way that asking "how red is lopsidedness?" is meaningless. Gathering more information about lopsidedness or about red is not going to help us answer that question. The predicate simply doesn't apply to the subject.

So the conviction that this question must be answered before I go forward -- that I'm just kicking my heels in the waiting room until it is -- that is what needs to be dismantled. Really it matters so little whether I passed or failed. What matters is seeing this whole structure of suffering exactly as it is.

That's why I'm welcomed my house-guests. Not because I enjoy suffering. But because they can tell me how this thing works, what it's made of, what keeps it running. And because I'm old enough to know that misery and humiliation will stay as long as they damn well please; no amount of shooing them away or attempting to distract myself will hasten their departure.

So I listen to them.

They tell me a story, over and over, about a boy playing basketball. His team was losing, they were spending all their time on the home side of the court, fending off attempted baskets. He managed to steal the ball and break loose, and pelted across the court. No one ahead of him. No one even next to him. He ran in his ridiculous duck-footed way, but he ran as hard as he could. There was a roar of approval from the stands -- a sound he had never heard, for himself, before. It was an easy lay-up. Anyone else on the team could have made it.

He missed it, of course. Flung the ball up wildly. Not even a respectable miss; it barely hit the backboard. There was a groan from the crowd. That was it: his day in the sun, as a basketball player. The other team snagged the rebound. Everyone pounded back to the home side. We all went back to trying to fend off the attacks on our own basket.

But listen, listen to the story. There are two points that bear contemplation.

One is the duckfootedness. There is a valuable somatic understanding there. That exagerated external rotation of the hips -- it goes with the exagerated lordotic lumbar curve and the slump of the shoulders. It's an attitude of defeat, of unwillingness to leave the ground. I could barely jump at all -- no one can, in that posture.

But the second point is the more important. The hinge of the story, the reason it still makes my insides crawl, is that the shot was an easy one. For other people. The fact is that lay-ups were nearly impossible for me. I was terrible at them in practice, too. My legs and arms seemed to run on entirely differently neurological circuits: I could control the arms or control the legs, but not both. And switching between them confused me so much that I could control neither: I would run up under the basket and make a convulsive little hop, like a hooked fish, and the ball would float up into the air in a random trajectory. That was what always happened with lay-ups, for me. But in the moment when people were cheering for me, I thought -- if one thing that had never happened to me before was happening, why not another? Why not that effortless leap, followed by a cavalier one-handed tip to the backboard, and the ball falling sweetly through the net?

The story suddenly comes clear. I held my inability to do layups to be a moral failure, a curse bothing causing and caused by my unpopularity. I didn't think of it as something that was simply physically difficult for me, a problem in coordination and posture and timing, which a person could analyze and address. I never practiced them if I wasn't made to. At home, I practiced free-throws, which I was really quite good at. One more galling thing about that failed lay-up was that if I had stopped at the head of the key and simply taken a free throw, I would probably have made the shot.

The sting of the story all rests in the shot being an easy one. If the shot hadn't been an easy one, then the whole thing would unwind to an unremarkable, unmemorable, unhumiliating event. Something I would have forgotten thirty-five years ago, as everyone else on that court has forgotten it. (If they even remembered it the next day.) It should have been easy.

Likewise, I shouldn't be flustered by practical tests. That's the conviction that fuels this emotion, that makes me miserable and humilated rather than ordinarily anxious to see if I passed. If I could learn to hold that as a simple fact, just a morally neutral characteristic, like having blue eyes or short arms -- which is surely a more intelligent and accurate way to think of it -- the misery and humiliation would have no place to sit down. They'd get tired of standing about and just leave.

Well. Easier said than done, convictions like that have the tenacity of old blackberry brambles, steel hard, rooted deep under the ground. Hacking away at the surface is a start, but only a start.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Well, sonofagun

I passed. I passed!

And don't say you knew I would, or I'll put the hurt on you :-)

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Beginnings of Conversations

Sage Cohen's new book of poetry, Like the Heart, the World, is out. I've been carrying it about, reading it at lunch, reading it on the bus.

As I tried to write about Sage's poems, I became more and more interested in the way I read them. I am ordinarily a disciplined reader. I begin at the beginning, just Alice's King advises, and go on till I come to the end; then stop. But I don't do that with Sage's poems. I slither down through them, like a man slipping on a hillside, till I come up short on something. There is usually at least one hard bright stopping place, a foothold in the slope. A quotable quote. Sage is a very quotable poet. Take these lines:
I make you a river,
So my love has somewhere to go.

("I Make You a River.") They're gnomic, epigrammatic. I instantly wanted to write a book, just so I could put those lines on the frontispiece.

But when I return to the top of the slope, confident now that I have the key to the poem, I find I have nothing of the sort. It's not the capstone of the poem. It doesn't sum it up. The poem moves away in all directions. It's still slidey, unstable. The epigram isn't an anchor, either; it slides with the slope.
Names the place markers
of what was last believed possible.

The waitress asks me Just one?
as if I were not enough. And yet
the room can barely contain me.

It is too soon for clarity,
too late for truth."


Each of these is so forceful and precise that I guess that I know what each of these poems will be about. But I am half wrong -- at least -- in every case.

In a comment on her blog, when I first read the book in its entirety, I said:

With so many of your poems, I want to sit down with you and say, "so -- tell me about this one." They aren't obscure in a guessing-game way -- I know what they're about more-or-less; you always give enough information, and they're always rich and fascinating. But they also almost always feel like there's so much behind them, like these particular words are just the outermost layer. They're usually like the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one.

Sage's poetry is thinking poetry, analytic poetry. It strives for precision, makes deductions, lays out arguments. But unlike most thinking poetry, it opens things, rather than closing them.

It is also very beautiful:
But now it is fall and the statues are serious.
A copper horse, back arched, bites her tail.
She is green in her deep places.

as writing weights the hand
but the word is free, we taste

all that was sacrificed
to the clean break

we can hear it in the singing
we can see it in the sheen of things.

("As the Mountain Stands.")

My self is inestimable. Why should I esteem it?
Who is waiting for the valuation? Where do I find
a buyer?

No. I want to have self-esteem so poor
it has to beg for crusts at the corner
and scrabble for pennies in the gutter loam;

so poor that it laughs at the rich men hurrying to work,
while it sits idle in the sun.