Friday, July 31, 2009


The recognizance on which I have been released
is not my own. What, exactly, do they recognize?
What has their reconnaissance found? What
do they reckon is in my heart? I reek of bad faith,
I wreak havoc, I recall
what should never have been called. Reckless,
foolhardy, wanton: I am the wreckage
of a human soul.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


The end of July. As hot as I've ever known it in western Oregon. I sit in Tosi's, the sweat from my bike ride prickling on my forehead and running down the back of my neck, at 8:00 in the morning. I knew if I didn't get some exercise in this part of the day, I wouldn't get any at all.

Weather like this forms its own bardo, its own in-between time. There's a sense that nothing really counts, until the weather breaks. We're on hold.

I've spent a lot of my life in these dream times. It's a blessing and a curse, to slip so easily from one world to the next, to be so unrooted in any one reality. It keeps me from building in any of them. Just passing through: no need to fix anything or establish anything. According to some versions of reality, I've squandered my talents by wandering. But I believe in those less and less, as time goes by. Insofar as people are meant to do things, I was meant to wander. There are ivy-shrouded doors glimpsed in stone walls, painted-shut windows in old factory buildings, ladders vanishing into sewers. And you don't really know where they lead: you only know that they are elsewhere, and that the people who built them and used them originally thought differently about them.

Harold Bloom once wrote that he read for consolation. I found that statement astonishing. At first I didn't believe it: I had to return to it over and over. Finally, I managed to believe him. And I realized, after that illumination, that people read for all kinds of reasons. But I read, really, for just one reason: to pass through doors that are ordinarily shut, to enter hidden worlds, to walk in vanished places. In some ways, the harder and more alien the text, the more deeply it calls to me. One reason I've never become a real scholar of any of the languages I've trifled with is that I don't want to master any of these places. I don't want them to become completely known. I want them to be lonely, half-lit places, empty ruined halls. The last thing I want is to string up floodlights in a deserted cathedral.

bed before bright moon shines
think be frost on floor
raise head gaze bright moon
lower head think old home.

or more Englished,

The moonlight beside my bed
Is bright as frost on the floor.
Raise my head and look at the moon:
Lower my head and think of home.

-- Li Po, or Li Bai, if you prefer: Thoughts on a Still Night. The nice thing about real poetry is that it's never completely known. You can study it forever and it's still half lit. And when you write a poem to a living person, and read theirs in return, you can even have companions in those dreamspaces. I used to think you could only visit them alone, or with the dead: but it's not true, though the company is, in some senses, not real.

--How do you know that your sister's story is not true?

--Well, sir, if things are real, they're there all the time.

--Are they?

And Peter didn't know quite what to say.

The senses in which the company is not real, I think, are none of them very important ones. How real are all these relationships in the real world that we take so seriously? We're all precariously perched in life, a careless step away from violent death, a heartbeat away from a stroke that will make us wordless and motionless. It's really not so real, here in reality. Not so real at all.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Free Climb

The rope snaps
with a burst of dust like pollen
and slithers down the rock.
You catch yourself
in time.

We watch it glide away
falling in graceful loops
raising powder as it goes:
smoking, dragging
small stones along

that click
and chatter down the slope
bounding from ledge
to ledge
setting the whole

field of scree far below
in motion, raising
clouds in the still air:
until the silence
under it all

rises to the surface.
We never trusted that rope.
And it's better now:
just hard clean stone
under our fingers.

Whether we make it down
or not there is
in having the problem

Thursday, July 23, 2009

On the Other Side

A few nights ago I was scheduled to do heart surgery, and it was very difficult to arrange everything. Everyone assumed I knew what to do, but I kept having to check on things and ask about things. At first I was okay with it. It was sort of like being an airline pilot, I told myself. So much is automated, and you have so many assistants.

"I'd open up the third rib, go in that way," someone said. The third rib? That didn't sound right. Too high. I'd sort of been picturing open heart surgery, splitting the chest open and taking the heart right out, putting it on ice. But I couldn't get a clear picture of what was even wrong. Stents, maybe I should put stents in the arteries? Events marched on, relentless. They were prepping my patient.

I don't even know where the damn coronary arteries are, I thought. I can't just slice all around the heart till I find them. This is crazy.

And gradually a new consciousness crept in, a capacity for thinking at a remove. And with it came a sudden resolve.

"I'm not doing this," I announced. "You'll have to get someone else. I'm not trained for this."

They clucked at me, the way people clucked when I announced I wasn't going to look for teaching jobs: just nerves, they said. You'll settle into it. Look at some of the chuckleheads already doing it. Everybody gets nervous right before surgery.

"I'm not doing this." I said again, stubbornly.

I entered the bardo, the space between sleeping and waking, still carrying my resolve to quit. Slowly I adjusted -- as your eyes slowly adjust, when you enter a darkened room -- to the fact that I was now in a world in which no one wanted me to start carving open anyone's chest.

"I'm not doing this," I muttered again, on behalf of that poor man on the receding side of the bardo, still surrounded by people who wanted him to be things he couldn't be, and do things he couldn't do. But it was too late. I was in the waking world, and he was on his own.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Nibbling in the Agora

Unexpectedly, a chill white day in the middle of July. It happens, here. Clouded over as I rode, this morning, before the sun was up, and the expected heat hasn't materialized. Not yet, anyway.

It was fun to read my poems aloud. It's always different, depending on the audience: different people respond to different things.

I love Tiel's poem about the glass people on the dark side of the moon.

Perhaps rashly, I've ridden my bike to Tosi's. My back is a little twinge-y. I promise it I'll lie down flat on my back as soon as I get home.

A little lost, a little forlorn. Sometimes looking at my old poetry, I feel like an ignorant peasant wandering in ruins. Supposedly it's the work of his own people, but it's nothing they could do now. Or would want to. More than just the poetry: ruins of all sorts of projects surround me. Chinese, Eating Properly, Getting Travell & Simon Down Cold, Reading Modern Poets, Getting a Grip on the 18th Century, Learning to Listen to Real Music, Marketing Massage. I pasture my sheep in the old agora, and look around me uneasily, at the moss-covered blocks of marble, the crumbling faces of forgotten gods, the undecipherable inscriptions.

Just do the next thing, Dale.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Reading Tomorrow Evening

Tomorrow evening I'll be reading with Tiel Aisha Ansari -- the marvelous Sufi poet who blogs at Knocking from Inside -- at the Rockwood Branch of Multnomah County Library. 7:00. I've picked out some of my poems with more Tibetan-Buddhist imagery to read. It should be fun. Come by!
What Pulling Your Back Gives You

1) The opportunity to learn new skills, e.g. crawling to the bathroom and peeing, on all fours, into a Breyer's ice cream bucket. This is a new, valuable life skill with many potential applications, all of which I am hoping to avoid.

2) A better understanding of what your clients with "back trouble" are experiencing.

3) A chance to find those trigger points in the gluteus medius and the external hip rotators on yourself. Yes, they are there, and yes, they do hurt.

4) Gratitude for the meds left over from Martha's surgery two years ago.

5) A new understanding of the meaning of "happiness." Happiness, as it turns out, is quite simple: it's what happens when your back is not in spasm.

I stood up just a little bit ago, with no ill consequences. I have informed God that I will never, ever neglect my daily back exercises or short myself on sleep again. He was not impressed. "Oh, I've heard that before," he said.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


I paused on the stair landing this morning, and looking out the south-facing window, saw Venus blazing alone in the soft sky.

Tithonus, I thought, though I couldn't quite bring the Tennyson poem to mind: I felt old beyond mortal years. Tithonus lying still while the heavens wheeled over him again and again. When his lover, the Goddess of Dawn, asked eternal life for him, she forgot to stipulate eternal youth. Oops.

And yet, I thought -- as Tithonus must often have thought -- and yet I have lain with the Goddess. I have had all I ever wanted.

And I thought of those wretched people whose bodies ossify, soft tissue turning to bone, and of other misfortunes: Ovidian transformations in our daily lives, the cancers and tumors, our bodies growing into other things than we expected. I've always been a partisan for feminist issues (out of self-interest, as much as any sense of fairness), but slogans about owning one's own body seem ridiculous to me. We don't own them, we can't control them, we can't even insist they stay human, if they decide otherwise. Let's leave the language of ownership where it belongs, in the realm of money and other such fictions. Bone and blood are too real for that.

Still. Joy runs over me, lambent and irresistible. My skin is on fire with it. Breakers of delight crest and crash on every shore of my body. I'm so light that little shifts of wind cartwheel me down the streets and blow me up into the sky. I settle momentarily in the crowns of apple trees, on the creosoted tops of telephone poles, and caw with all my heart, full of primal lust and delight in mischief. My feathers are glossy and iridescent in the sun. I am irrepressible.

Here's my myth: the gods took pity on Tithonus, though he deserved none, having received already favors no mortal should aspire to, and they turned him into a crow. He ruckuses and quarrels like any other crow now, and tumbles on the breeze. But every once in a while you can see a stillness come over him, when he remembers. Not for long: what crow is still for long? But he does remember.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Realization of Cats

Cats are regarded as low on the Buddhist scale of realization, because they are so carnivorous, so lacking in apparent compassion, and so subject to their desires. One Pure-Land tradition at least holds that the cat, alone among animals, doesn't get to appear in the pure lands.

But cats don't need to cultivate detachment from their desires: they are their desires. If any creature has achieved one-pointed attention, it's a hunting cat.

Possibly you're reborn as a cat if your realization of emptiness outstrips your accomplishment of compassion by too much: I have known, I think, highly accomplished meditators who are going to be toying with mice in their next lives, and snapping little mouse necks with relish.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Word Made Flesh

Reading, writing, sex, contemplation – one looks for the one in the two and, finding it or something like it, becomes herself again, maybe for the first time again.

Nearly five o'clock: the sky hasn't lightened yet, but it will soon. The time in-between. Bardo. The cloud cover, seen through the window by night, is complete and featureless. The sun will slowly fill it up with soft light, will find the thin spots in the overcast and pool there. The first birds will begin to tune up.

But now, only the tick of the clock, and the glow of the screen on my hands. About to unmoor and give myself to the day.


Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Companions

They lie in scattered tumuli
from Samarkand to Kyushu:
the Prince's true friends who died with him
at the last extremity, clad in
the gorgeous silks and the silver amulets
he gave them.
They sleep uneasily, reaching
an occasional hand to pat the horses
and the dogs that are buried with them.

In their group barrows they sigh, and shift;
the weight of their golden armbands
reassures them.
Shall we call it love? They did.
They swore to share their Prince's death,
to fall in battle with him or to stand
for loving execution, with their dogs and horses,
to follow him into the next world. Loyalty,

they thought, was not a thing just of today.
It was forever, and, faithful, they wait
to rise from sleep and follow the man
who was to them what you are to your dog:
always right, always kind: to be kicked
or accidentally stepped on was a better gift
from him than any ordinary man's caress.

We think we know more of love than they did.
I wonder if when we stir in our narrow coffins,
no dog or horse to greet us, no Prince to take our hand,
I wonder, then, if we will be so sure.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Invasive Species

Dark clouds: the sky is weighing the pros and cons of really storming. Heaven gave us beautiful weather for the 4th of July weekend. But now it's thinking of other things.

Stopped at Latourell Falls Sunday. A concave swoop of basalt, like a great overhang built out of gray legos, and water spilling slowly over its top edge. Four turkey vultures turned slowly in the sky at the top. A Spanish boy, maybe ten years old, capered and mugged for the camera in the wind from the splash pool, his shirt fluttering madly. A family group of Japanese walked solemnly up the path that leads under the old highway bridge, acknowledging us by just barely ducking their heads. In the parking lot I caught the complicated consonants of a Slavic language, the sing-song of some dialect of Chinese. Time ran up to the crest of a hill, hesitated near the top, and then ran backwards to the bottom again.

I don't know how to begin to say how precious all this is to me, how anxiously I view all the threats to it: the English ivy, the Himalayan blackberry, the grubbers who want to privatize and develop. And just the endless, endless inrush of people. Our unemployment in Oregon rivals that of Michigan, but still they keep coming. Good people, most of them. Individually I'm glad to have them. They mostly come for the right reasons. But these places are gasping under their collective weight. People who asked me where I was from, at IBM, used to be incredulous when I said I was from Oregon. Waitresses and pizza-delivery guys might be natives, but programmers? Was that allowed?

I'm only second-generation Oregonian, but Martha, who's been looking for work for months, was born in the house her grandfather built in northeast Portland.

"So I'm in this meeting about rooting out invasive species," she remarked the other day, "and I look around the circle: he's from New York, she's from California, he's from Chicago, she's from Pennsylvania..."

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Unified Command

Often I come smack up against what is probably my deepest ideological difference with most people: which is -- to simplify a bit -- that I don't believe people can control their actions. If you don't believe that, then you can find the bulky apparatus of praise and blame that everyone is trundling about with them a little exasperating. And it becomes difficult to participate in most casual conversation, which is, to a remarkable degree, about apportioning praise and blame. Michael Jackson was or wasn't to blame for whatever he did or didn't do with the children at Neverland. The Governor of South Carolina is less culpable or more culpable because he viewed his Argentinian lover as his soulmate. Whatever. To someone who views human action as I do, all this busy scuffling to scribble in the book of judgment is a little tedious. I prefer to leave that job to the angels, who presumably have the data and the skills to do it properly.

It's tedious because I can't even get into the conversation. Everyone thinks I'm saying that pederasty and adultery are fine (since I must be either approving or blaming, and I'm not blaming, then I must be approving.) Well, no. I don't think pederasty and adultery are fine. That's not what I'm saying. What I'm saying is that if you want to prevent these things, it's not enough to get everyone to recite the same catechism. Probably Michael Jackson thought pederasty was wrong. Certainly Governor Sanford thinks adultery is wrong. That's not enough.

Freud had an inkling of this, but he didn't have the brain science to back it up. He proposed a model of mental life which was (for Western science) revolutionary, and mostly wrong, but it got one crucial piece right: that there is no unity of command in the human brain. The brain has (again to way oversimplify) several layers, and all of them have at various times access to sensory processing and motor control. The mechanisms by which one layer or another takes precedence are extremely obscure. But if you want to understand why Governor Sanford, who wholeheartedly believes -- with some of the circuitry of his frontal cortex, anyway -- that adultery is wrong, engages in adultery, those are the mechanisms you want to investigate.

Or you can just say that he's bad. If you like. If you feel like that gets you anywhere. I don't.

I've been eating badly, again, and I'm completely fascinated by that process. I watched myself getting ice cream out of the freezer, and spooning it into a bowl. The part of my brain that intended to eat ice cream was in firm control. I could hear the part that thought I shouldn't do it. It wasn't completely shut out. The "still, small voice" the Bible talks about was there, saying I shouldn't eat it, I'd be sorry, the gratification would be fleeting, etc., etc. But it had no access to motor control. Something else was running the show. For simplicity's sake, I'll call it the hypothalamus, but I'm sure that's a very crude and inaccurate name for something that I imagine is really, insofar as it's an entity, a "software" entity, not a "hardware" entity.

Now, the hypothalamus doesn't do words. I couldn't have told you why I intended to eat that ice cream. I couldn't have given you a justification for it. I couldn't have given you an argument in favor of it. The arguments -- squeaking away in the background -- were all against it. They simply made no difference.

Perhaps I'm a bad person, and that's why I eat ice cream when I shouldn't. Or perhaps I'm weak-willed (though I must say that no one who knows me well has ever thought that about me: I am considered by my nearest and dearest to be one of the most stubborn human beings alive.) But that's not very helpful. If I'm bad because I want to be bad, what hope is there for me? If my will is defective, then -- how do I repair it? By an act of will?

The fact that the hypothalamus doesn't do words puts it at a disadvantage in the world of books and discussion. It always comes up the loser in a seminar, or a convention of theologians. To hear us talk, you'd think it didn't stand a chance. But somehow, in real life, it manages to get hold of a lot of ice cream and Argentinian mistresses.

But suppose we give up, once and for all, the delusion of the unified command. Suppose we recognize that there are multiple entities running the show. Suppose we even go so far as to grant that there may be very good reasons why the argument-generating part of our brains gets excluded from motor control from time to time. St Augustine's mother had the wacko theory that depriving her children of water would improve their willpower and make them better people. St Augustine thought she was right, of course. Mom is always right. He drank water anyway. If he hadn't, we probably wouldn't ever have gotten to read the Confessions: little Augustine wouldn't have made it out of childhood.

The thing is, the cerebral cortex is always coming up with wacko theories. It really can't be trusted to carry out the fundamental bits of survival: eating and drinking and sleeping and procreating. So it simply gets shunted aside from time to time. You can hold your breath until you fall unconscious, but you can't hold your breath until you die. Another piece of the brain cuts in and says, "enough, already!" and starts breathing again. It's not because you're bad. It's not because your will is faulty. It's simply the way the nervous system works.

If we accept that the moralizing, theorizing part of our brains is just one constituent among many, rather than the lord and master of all it surveys, I think we will be both happier and better at regulating our actions. I think, for instance, that the reason so many priests have abused children is that they see the problem as being that they're not trying hard enough to fight down temptation. If they simply took it as read that there were temptations they couldn't fight, the actions to be taken would be obvious: get the hell out of the priesthood. Stay away from children. Tell the people close to you that you're not to be trusted with them. Instead of engaging in titanic struggles at the point of temptation, structure your life so as to avoid the temptations altogether. But of course they can't do that: they can't enlist the help of others because that would be admitting, in effect, that they are so bad they won't even try to be good. If you hew to the theory of the unified command, there's no other way to think about it.

I don't believe that things are this simple. I don't believe the entities I refer to as the hypothalamus and the cortex are the only two players. I don't believe they're even distinct. I think they, and others, reconfigure wildly on the fly. I think the variety of things we airily call "will power" probably do have tangential influences, here and there: enought to keep the mythology going, anyway. But one thing I'm dead sure of: that if the schema I've proposed here is oversimplified, the "unified command" schema is even more so. It doesn't even begin to save the appearances.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Why I don't Celebrate the 4th of July

The 4th of July! The day that a group of wealthy slaveholders got together and declared that all light-skinned people with penises and a certain amount of money in the bank were created equal, and solemnly concluded that this made it their duty to refuse to contribute a modest amount towards paying their war debts, and to start a bloody five years of civil war and devastation. Hurray!

That was part of a comment I posted and unposted last night, in response to someone encouraging me to write about the 4th of July. As you can see, I'm unsuited for celebrating revolution. I'm a conservative down to my finger bones. I loathe war, disorders, and mobs. My suspicion of fresh starts is limitless. Taking large groups of angry people shouting together to be the ultimate fount of wisdom strikes me as lunatic.

I understand why the colonists objected to the Stamp Act. I would have objected to it too. But all we had to do, really, was wait. Parliament was going to backpedal soon anyway, when they learned that the thing was unenforceable. That government was remarkably thick-skulled and ham-handed, but some governments are: you dig in your heels, make your objections known, and wait for them to run themselves into the ground. We're hardly talking about a totalitarian regime, here. Important parliamentary figures were making eloquent and impassioned speeches in our favor. Demography was, slowly but inexorably, on our side. If we had waited a few years we would have gotten nearly everything we wanted.

I don't give a damn about self-determination. There's no such thing. There's only one ruling class or another, and all of them treat some minority or other badly. The only question is how badly. If it's bad enough, sure, you take up arms. But even if you succeed, you only replace one ruling class with another. If some minorities are relieved from oppression, others will, I guarantee, have it worse under the new regime. Ask the Indians of the Ohio valley how great a step forward for human rights the new American government was. If you can find any.

So no. I don't celebrate the 4th of July, any more than I celebrate the Confederate Secession. I don't like revolution. I don't like civil war. I don't believe the tree of liberty is refreshed by the blood of patriots: what is usually refreshed by it is the tree of oppression.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Almost July

Almost July. A fallen cherry
clings to the burning hood of my car,
its skin dark as a plum's, vein-purple,
its oozing flesh blood-red, and
the stone showing bone-pale
in the compound fracture of its heart.

Friday, July 03, 2009


In the middle of taking a Facebook quiz
(which damned soul are you? Everyone hopes for
Il Miglior Fabbro, of course) I pause to
pull the curtain aside.

Light pours from the white wall opposite.
Light pours from the top of the window, where the sun
finds flaws in the glass and rushes through,
overwhelming the silica levies; light rises
from the blinding sill, light courses
through my phantom, fading skin and makes my bones
burn like white phosphor.

At night, among the old yellow headlights,
a pair of new ones, blue-white as Vega, rise,
blasting my night vision, turning me sightless,
making me old in a splintered second.

And when I fumble
into the refuge of the darkroom
I find the floor has gone, the tiles fallen away:
and below me is only the endless glory
of uncountable clustering stars.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Friday Quotidiana

The romance is back.

Yesterday I got my bike back from the shop. Maybe you remember me complaining about it a month or two ago? With the vague idea in my mind that it was a year, maybe two years, old, I was unhappy about how many things seemed to be going wrong with it. A new bike shouldn't have only half its gear range viable, a chain that slips, brakes that won't hold tension.

Searching back here, I found that it was actually three and half years old, with no maintenance beyond my clumsy attempts to adjust the brakes. So I took it into the nearby bike shop -- the Bicycle Repair Collective -- for a tune-up. And my miraculous flying machine is back. My noiseless, weightless brother of the wind.

Yes, I know bicycle maintenance is not rocket science. I know I could learn to do it properly myself. I also know I'm not going to. For the price of one of my massages (the basic unit of exchange, in my mental economic picture) I got my wings back. Walked to the shop, picked up the bike, and flew downtown to work. It's true that coming back up home from the river is not quite flying, even on my little blue Trek, but it still beats riding the bus by a wide, wide margin. And it takes about the same amount of time.

Actually it cost two massages, because I had managed to destroy the wheels by riding so long with bad brake pads. I will treat it lovingly from now on. The guys at the repair collective are going to be my best friends.

Still to figure out is how to ride in the rain, so I can keep doing it in the Fall. I suspect that the best solution, here in the maritime Northwest where it's so seldom really cold, is just to accept getting wet, and to bring dry clothes to have at the other end.

The blogroll. I really must do something about it. was taken over by pod people, who, after a long incubation, during which you couldn't update your blogroll at all, re-emerged and put ads on top of the blogs linked to, without consulting their subscribers. Not cool. They've completely forfeited my alliegance. So I need to fiddle with my template. Blogger has some kind of blogroll infrastructure now, I think, which I can probably use. I just need to get around to it. It's rather like fixing the bike. And after all, my template's been broken for ages. The corners of my border outlines went all funky years ago (no, it's not intended to look like that.) But this is probably like getting my bike fixed up: expect action in three or four years. Though I am anxious to get links up to some of my newer favorite blogs. Where There are no Chickadees. 20th Century Woman. Tejana Poet. Box Elder. (Box Elder isn't even new: she's been a favorite read forever. Why she's not on my blogroll is a mystery to me. I think the gremlins who get into bicycle brakes get into blogrolls, too.) Now that I use Google Reader, the blogroll has become a poor cousin, but it's still an important element of the blogosphere. I know that people sometimes click dead links over there. Sorry.

I have a backlog of five or six drafted posts which I hesitate to publish. This happens to me, every once in a while. The posts just seem wrong to me, and I can't figure out why. Is it that I'm afraid people won't like them? It is it because there's something genuinely wrong with them? Is it that my brain has gone the way of my bike and my blogroll, and I will never write good posts again? How could I know, and why should I care? It's none of my business.