Friday, April 30, 2010

The Mountains of Ulkor

I've just finished Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You, which has been dismissively summarized as “the book that argues that video games make you smarter.” It's actually a very thoughtful book, and if he enjoys thumbing his nose at the people who are always moaning about the decay of civilization, so much the better.

Johnson follows a couple interesting lines, about the evolution of television, and the skills needed for dealing with computers, and pairs them up with a persistently bafflingly fact: that the IQ of the general public has been consistently and impressively increasing, pretty much any way you attempt to measure it.

The measurement of intelligence is hugely controversial, for many reasons, some good and some bad. But leave all that aside for the moment. Whether it measures only a few kinds of problem-solving skills or all problem-solving skill, whether it favors certain subcultures over others, whether what it measures is inborn or acquired – no matter what we think about any of these things – it's still true that if you test a bunch of white kids at preppy schools in the year 1980, and then test a bunch of white kids at preppy schools in the year 2000, you would expect to get more or less the same results. You don't. You consistently get higher scores. And the same is true of black kids at poor schools. Almost every year, to make the average score 100, you have to say something like, “okay, 102 is the new 100.” This is intensely interesting. Johnson, reasonably enough, asks, what's changed? And what's changed most is the media technology. Televison narrative has become more rapid and complex (yes, it's still mostly horrible, but that's not the point. It moves faster and is more complicated.) Video games, even the most mindless shooters, are basically puzzles: moreover, they're puzzles in which the rules are implicit. Part of the puzzle is figuring out how the puzzle works. So Johnson concludes, fairly enough: these things are making us smarter. The argument is quite close and well-substantiated.

Still, while Johnson is a refreshing read, I'm not as encouraged as he is. What he's describing – and what IQ tests measure – is the ability to problem-solve in artificial settings. The ability to guess what the person who made up a test had in mind. To guess how things would work in a made-up world. Your average 12 year old of the year 2010 will leave a 12 year old of 1910 in the dust, levelling up in World of Warcraft. These are real skills, and important ones in the modern world, and I don't want to minimize their importance. We live in an increasingly artificial world, and being able to understand and manipulate artificial systems is crucial to surviving in it.

Nevertheless, I wonder what's happening to people's ability to problem-solve in natural environments. If you took these kids out into the woods and said, “find a way to stay dry when it rains tonight, you have two hours, go!” -- I have a suspicion the 1910 kids would ace it, even the 1910 city kids. Tinkering with physical objects is something people used to do all the time; now it's a restricted subset of workers and hobbyists who have much idea of the properties of soil, wood, water, rock, leaf. And the natural world does not play by the same rules. You get nowhere by guessing at the intentions of a forest, by figuring out what a boulder wants you to do.

Everyone knows that the trickiest and most frustrating machine in an office is the printer. But I don't think most people understand why. It's because the printer does something genuinely difficult: it interacts with the physical world. Most software never has to do that. It simply interacts with people via other software. People, and their systems, try to understand you. It may be irritating when an aggressive spellchecker turns “estimable” into “estimate,” but at least it knows that you're trying to create a word, and that it's made of letters. But the paper and ink and trays and rollers, the levers and shifters of a printer, couldn't care less. If your instructions make the word wander off the page, what do they care? A printer has to change digital instructions into real-world results. It has to deal with real paper, and real ink, with dust, with people who carelessly stuff paper into places not meant for it, with people who pry things open or force them closed, with envelopes whose flaps won't lie flat. This is much, much harder than a simple project such as, for instance, writing a program to gather input and produce a digital tax return. A computer program can imperturbably refuse to honor input it doesn't like. “Not a valid password. Passwords must be 8 characters long and include at least this or that. Please try again,” your program says, and that's that. Until you do something it likes, it won't play. And in the worst case, all it will get (from its point of view) is a sequence of 1's and 0's that it doesn't recognize. But if you feed the wrapper from a cheeseburger into a printer, the poor thing simply has to do its best.

I worry that something fundamental is being lost, when we lose the experience of the intractability of the physical world. Perceiving and responding to people's intentions are valuable skills, but there are many things that have no intentions, and must be dealt with in other ways.

The problems presented in video games and intelligence tests have one common property: they all have solutions. If your quest is to retrieve an enchanted amulet from the Mountains of Ulkor, there's a way, be it ever so tortuous, to do so. If you're supposed to arrange the IQ test blocks as a red diamond on a white field, there's a way to do that. But most real problems don't have that quality. Suppose, just for instance, you want a polity that has low taxes, health care for everyone, full employment, and a military that can assert its dominance anywhere on the globe.

This problem has no solution. It will never have a solution. Yet politicians of every stripe keep asserting that it does, that we can have our cake and eat it too; and people keep voting for those politicians. Our government borrows utterly fantastic sums of money every year just to stay in the game, because we just know that amulet is out there.* We only have to find it. Every year we send fresh-faced teenagers off into the Mountains of Ulkor. Some come back with all their limbs. Some don't come back at all.

The fact is, we have to give up on some things to get other things. Until we have accepted that, and are willing to vote for people who say they'd rather have this and do without that, our political discourse is going to remain bizarre, phantasmagorical. I'd love to see presidential debates in which one candidate argued that having a military as powerful as the next six national militaries combined is more important than all Americans having enough to eat, and the other argued that to have universal free health care, it would be worth it to let a Taliban somewhere keep training terrorists unmolested. But this will never happen in the America I know. Whatever a politician may intend to do, he has to say that he's going to make the country more prosperous and stronger, both at once, all the time.

Clever as we are, I don't our shelter is going to keep out the rain. And as someone observed when I was younger, it's a hard rain's a gonna fall.

*I have no objection to governments borrowing money. I think we should have borrowed a great deal more recently, and pumped an even more massive stimulus into the economy. But I also think – this is the other half of the Keynes strategy, which everyone conveniently forgets about – you have to pay off your debts in good times. Our problem is not that we have entered the second Great Depression: that was bound to happen, sooner or later. It's that we have entered the second Great Depression, after years of high times, already deeply in debt.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Re The Sudden Disappearance of My Talent

My writing has become really stupid: for weeks I've been driveling, writing parodies of the stuff I used to write when I really could write. It's ghastly, I can't stand to look at the stuff. Once I was able to write. Wasn't I?

In this anxiety I go back to my archives, six months ago or so, and start reading. With relief, I find that as recently as that, I could still write. There's plenty to dislike: infelicities, repetitions, stupidities. But they could be fixed. My writing didn't become awful until the last few weeks. It really used to be pretty good. I wonder what happened? How did it go so horribly wrong?

This first couple times this happened to me, I believed in it. Now I know that nothing has happened to my writing, and that six months from now I'll be reassured by the goodness of the very stuff that horrifies me today. It's simply a mental disease, a recurrent fever, a malarial infection of my confidence. That the question arises at all is a signal that an outbreak is underway. C.S. Lewis somewhere or other noted that how good we are is not usually our business. We're very seldom called upon to evaluate the general worth of our work. Whether this particular sentence is right, whether this paragraph fits properly, whether that word is quite accurate – that's my business. Whether I'm a good writer is somebody else's business, if it's anybody's. I'm the last person to make a good objective decision about it, and anyway, what good would such a judgment do anyone? I'm not going to stop, even if it's awful.

So ho hum, and who cares? Caveat lector. Today's blog post is the work of a pseudo-writer. You'll have to defend yourselves as best you can from its bottomless triteness, its unfathomable awfulness. I'm not going to do it for you.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Scattered Showers

Each sparse drop of the rain gathers itself up high,
fattens, and begins to slip --
no longer air, not yet earth --
soars for a time, catches updrafts, is bumped sideways
by ripples of wind, and finally --
the last terrifying fall --
kisses my flushed face and lingers a moment
before becoming air again.

Another aeronaut finds cool green grass to land in
goes to earth like
a glistening transparent fox;
loses himself in the soil, waiting for the fine grassroots
to pull his children upward
in the slow cold tender
circulation of the soil: a foreign paratrooper
gone native, forgetful of the war.

And a third, in those last moments sees below
something waver and gleam
like his natal air,
but more, more like, like what? -- no time to think.
Bubbles spin away;
but his landing kicks
a brother drop inch-high, and vanishing, he knows --
more like himself.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Where I Stand

I absolutely refuse to consider myself disqualified for anything, because I supposedly favor one hemisphere of my brain or the other: because I keep a keen sense of wonder and beauty, or because I have some facility with mathematics. I will not leave any science or art alone. I intend to be a human being. The attorneys of modern society have been at my elbow often enough, urging me to sign away my rights of inheritance in one realm or another, in order to lay indisputable claim to the rest. I'm damned if I will. Everything that has ever kindled excitement in a human being is my birthright. Calculus is beautiful and so is Coleridge.

I will never know a thousandth of what I want to know, of what I need desperately to know, but at least I will never commit the egregious stupidity of concluding that, since I don't know these things, they aren't worth knowing. Everything we have found, discovered, and made, has been at huge human cost. I want to honor all of that. And I want to honor all the mute unrecorded labor that made it all that creation possible, and which still makes it possible. Human life strikes me, fundamentally, as heroic.

I understand feeling that humankind is blight on the Earth, a suffocating algae-bloom, a disaster. I feel that way too sometimes: and I soberly think that we're in for a horrific die-off in the next generation or two. But I don't stand with that feeling. My loyalty remains with humanity, with the life of the mind and the work of the hands.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


Sometimes I think, as the headless snuffling crake would have me think, that splitting my attention four ways means that I will never get anything done. “Specialize, specialize!” it croaks. But when I think soberly I know it's wrong. For better and worse, I will never settle to one thing.

Of my four occupations, I give my writing the least respect. I would never refer to myself as a poet or a writer, unless jibingly, and I seldom hear someone else refer to me that way without wincing. I respond to other people's attempts to publicize me gingerly. And yet I know that the days of a neat divide between writers and publicizers is nearly over. In the early days of the American republic it was considered unseemly for presidential candidates to campaign in their own behalf: other people campaigned for them. Those days seem quaint, now, and soon writers of any name who don't tirelessly popularize their own stuff will seem just as quaint. No one is less suited than me, by temperament or talent, for self-promotion. So probably I have reached the pinnacle of my fame, here: twenty or thirty regular readers, including many writers that I admire very much. I could go farther and do worse.

Partly, as I've said before, I don't believe the old literary models can stand. I don't believe there is a scarcity of great writing any more, and publishing is dirt cheap – I have published all my work on Mole , for six years, for a total outlay (mostly on peripheral software of dubious value) of maybe $20. I could have done it free. There are tens of millions of educated literate people who are writing and publishing for free; and the machinery of “Literature” does not, as we say in software, scale very well. A system that worked reasonably well when there were a few hundred or a few thousand potential writers – although everyone involved, so far as I can tell, has always complained about it bitterly – breaks down completely in the face of a thousand or ten thousand times that. It's overwhelmed by sheer numbers.

(There is, on the other hand, a real scarcity of journalism, carefully researched writing. There are very few of these for-free writers who check their sources and investigate backgrounds and examine competing claims impartially. There are some kinds of writing that are better done by people who have no dogs in the fight; and people will only do that if they're paid for it. We're going to have to do something to support that kind of writing. But that's another subject. I'm talking about literature.)

When I was young I wanted to be a Great Writer. I haunted used bookstores and read introduction after introduction to classic works. I read the classics, too, but I have to admit that I read nothing with greater attention than those introductions. I wanted to be the subject of them. I yearned to have people think I was so important that they would write biographical sketches of me and argue about the profundities of my message. I wanted to have a single name that meant me, only me, and one so common that it developed an adjectival form. (It irked me that my name didn't lend itself to that. Favierian? Favieresque? Not likely.) I longed for my life to be attended to, examined, as a thing of great importance. Somehow being at loose ends and dithering and worrying was transmuted, in these introductions, into something glorious. So hard and huge a task it was, to birth a literary greatness.

Well, naturally, when I reluctantly began to be an adult (sometime late in my thirties), I began to find all this fuss about my thoroughly implicit, unexpressed greatness comical. And when I had spent some years with a regular meditation practice, my attitude of genial self-contempt shifted to one of compassion, as I began to walk this yen for greatness back to its origins, and realize that it was not harmless at all, but a poison at the heart of my life. No real-scale respect or liking, of the sort that might content ordinary people, would do for me. I needed devotion. I needed the whole world, or anyway the part of the literary world I admired, to adore me. And the reason I needed so much filler was that the hole was so huge. I was desperate to be seen, acknowledged, attended to: and I had at the same time a baleful conviction that only a few people in the world deserved this. The Great people. If I wasn't one of them, I was nothing. The conviction of my worthlessness and unloveability gnawed at me constantly.

As I unwound all this, I understood finally that the hole could never be filled. Nobody ever got so great that their greatness was beyond question. I was playing a sucker's game. There was no way anyone ever won it. I overheard half a phone conversation once, at Yale. An acknowledged Great Poet – you probably know his name -- talking to a friend, and talking just like I always talked to myself: he had done nothing, accomplished nothing, everything was hollow, his work was no good. He was close to tears. Even at the top – maybe even especially at the top, because then all your eggs are in that one teetering basket -- you lose the game.

The solution was plain: walk away from it. Stop playing. So I did.

But when I walked away from it, I walked away from something else, as I am gradually recognizing: I walked away from the fact that I am a maker. I delight in crafting things. I need to make beautiful things, and to show them to people, not because the beautiful things are in me, but precisely because they are not. The reason I could not make beautiful things in all that time I was trying to be great, was that I was looking for them in the one place they were not to be found: in myself. In my little-self, as Buddhists would call it: that haphazard collection of favierian or favieresque bric-a-brac that for one reason or another I identify as Me.

Turn it all inside out. Make an art of service, make a service of art. The paradox of losing to find, so familiar in both Christianity and Buddhism, began to operate at once. Making things in this way actually did begin to fill that hole.

The tricky thing, which I am still negotiating, is to treat the making seriously without slipping back into the habit of drinking poison with my morning coffee: without slipping into thinking that maybe I will make an end run and become famous despite myself. I post carelessly, and spend too little time rewriting, because of my dread that taking my work seriously will kill it. It's a sensible fear, but one that I want to get past, eventually. Maybe I want to spend only a quarter of my life on this, but I want to spend it well. I want to make the best stuff I can for you. I want to be able to share this wonder, this delight, this leap and buck of awareness. I want to make perfect paper boats, and send them down the stream.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Dangerous Age

I curl up to sleep under the table
at staff meetings, and no one dares to wake me:
they don't know where the buzzing
rattle comes from, when they step too near,
but they damn well know what it means.

Nothing of me is safe.
My heart beats like a son of a bitch;
my blood foams, boils over. Never
have I been so ferocious, so glad to live.
I climb the sky with the Sun. Where I bite
I leave marks. I sharpen my claws on mountains
and tear them to shreds.

It is a dangerous age, they say.
Hah. They have no idea.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Elements

You used to find them with your fingers in the electric blanket. The elements, some adult said, preposterously. You knew what the elements were. They lived in the cup of the periodic table, sloshed up on either side. Hydrogen, Helium, Oxygen, Carbon. They were very important, and if you were very good and learned their names you could hold them in your mind's hand, like plus or minus, times or divide, and pre-empt the physical world, and everyone would admire you, would smile at each other over your head, would be amazed at your precocity. The elements. They were the letters the world was written with. You knew them.

But these, these forbidden lines of warmth, these were something else again. You found them with your fingers. They were in the physical world, in the world itself, and they were nameless.

And later you would find them again. They might run from the nipples to the hollows where shoulder, pec, and collarbone converge. They might run down the inner arm from armpit to elbow crease, and on down to the wrist, where they would multiply and blossom, running every which way in the hands. They might run from the tenderest flesh of the genitals, deep under the inguinal ligament, and surface again where the pevic bones give way to the softness of the belly. Different on everyone. Running fast or slow, loud or quiet, warm or cool, following different courses. And colors might spark and flicker, depending on how your own encountered them.

Something analogous to Heisenberg's uncertainty applied to them, you thought. You eyed the meridian charts of Chinese medicine skeptically: it seemed to you that you could either chart them, or feel where they were, but you couldn't do both.

It's easy to get lost. It's always easy to get lost. In the forest paths seem to appear and then vanish. It's like that. But you can always come back to the hands and the feet and pick up the trail. The trail, or another one: it doesn't matter. And if your heart gets lost, as it does, you just hold still a bit until the anxiety, and the wish to prove something, bubbles up and away. You come back -- like coming back to the breath, in shamatha – you come back to the touch, to your hands on their skin. It's always there. You just forget to attend.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Only The Sun Makes Sense

Nothing that they told us was true.
You can't even begin to add up
the sidelong looks, the gestures of eye and hand,
the sudden intakes of breath. And why?
We worried and worried but in the end
The light was so intense
that none of us could have seen the others,
even if we had been thinking of anything but light.

The buttery taste of saffron, the yellowness
compounding --
The shadows of leaves,
the shapes incised on the wall --
a listening --
Still this longing,
Still this longing.

Lets get naked you said, and we got naked
because naked is what we do, it's the language
we spoke in the old country.
Listen, we try to listen, and the train whistles
red-shift into the distance. All those galaxies
fleeing from us.

I wanted to write manuscripts
illuminated, interlaced, fretted and twined
with letters ornamented so intricately that
you couldn't help but read them beautifully;

And as a ten year old I carved with a ballpoint pen
“remember me” into the soft wood of my bunk bed
imagining the dislocated floaty feeling of the person
assigned to getting rid of the words. Somebody,
somewhere, sometime, would have
to erase me intentionally.
Not a large victory, but I took what I could get.

And again. Nipples like gumdrops
or like new flowers,
warm flesh, eyes
bright with tears:
Where can we think to, that we have not already been?
None of us makes sense
None of us makes sense
Only the sun makes sense.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Age of Wonder

I am reading with delight and admiration Richard Holmes' Age of Wonder, subtitled “How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science.”

I am thinking that he discovered how to write this kind of book by a happy accident. He made his name as a biographer: he wrote wonderful biographies of Shelley and Coleridge, which is how I come to know of him. These are full set-piece biographies, massive books that are both narratives and reference works for literary scholars. Need to know what Coleridge was reading, who was in his social circle, and where he was living at age 34? Look it up in Holmes.

Having read these vast tomes – excellent of their kind – I went on to pick up whatever I could find by Holmes. This is basically how I read: I find someone I think is worth reading, and then I just read everything they've written, no matter what it's about. I fashioned my undergraduate education in precisely the same way – found teachers I admired and then just took all their classes – and I've never regretted the method. What I found next was a very odd book. It was called Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. You might think it was simply the scraps of writing he couldn't make into books, a hodge-podge of short biographical narratives stitched together by his own experience of biographical writing. He's quite clear that some of the research and writing in it is gleaned from failed book projects. But something wonderful and exciting is happening, which will culminate eventually in The Age of Wonder. He liberates biography from the plodding year by year sort of Anglo-Saxon chronicle. These are and aren't biographies. They're good-parts biographies.

If you read a lot of biographies, as I do, you'll know that there's almost always a lot of dull plodding reading in them, along with some dazzling nuggets of information and insight. What Holmes began to do is simply drop the plodding parts, and string the stories together according to a theme. The result is uncommonly rich and illuminating.

So The Age of Wonder is a set of biographies: in it is everything you would remember after reading full biographies of Joseph Banks (the pioneering ethnographer of Tahiti), William and Caroline Herschell (the brother and sister team that gave us “deep space,” and the realization that at night we see the light of stars that burned out thousands of years ago), and Humphry Davy (the brilliant young chemist and poet), along with fascinating accounts of the early “aeronauts” of ballooning, Mungo Parks' exploration of Africa, the controversy about Vitalism and how Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was written as a response to it and an exploration of it, and a number of other fascinating byways. It is a strangely constructed book. Banks weaves through it – as President of the Royal Society, he is pivotal at several points in all these narratives – and Holmes' love of the Romantic poets, and sympathy for their aims, weaves through it all as well. The result is illuminating in both directions. The scientists emerge as wonderfully engaging people – themselves very much contributors to Romantic literature and ideas – and the Romantic poets come off as considerably more complex and nuanced in their responses to science than a parroting of Wordsworth's “we murder to dissect” would lead you to believe. What Holmes finally does, brilliantly, is demonstrate that this the scientists and poets of this generation were at work on the same project, had the same appetite for exploration and the same faith in experiment.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


On the clifftop, The Western Sea
sings softly like a girl working
home alone, folding laundry;

the pools of last night's rain
are brilliant in this morning's sun.
They've drowned the green

green grass; my shoes
are soaked; glassy water
flames around my feet.

I am a morsel for the world's maw.
What business does an old and fat man have
to talk of the love at the world's end?

Still cradled by the halo
of the unseen growing sun
the song comes again,

the drops burn on my fingertips,
old stories turn young, and
The blades of greening cut the light

in splinters, spinning
in the rush of clear water. Below me
the sea goes on,

folding waves to put away
on shelves of level sand,
humming gently to itself.

Once upon a morning, bright as this
before the stones had fallen, the
sea wilder maybe, he came

gleaming in his armor,
His hair as yellow in the wind as
grass is green, his smile

young and wondering;
and the old king foolishly, foolishly
opened the gates and let him in.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


This is bogus too: this poetry, this
posturing. And so is love, and so is
holding love at bay; and so
is that violent hammering,
the inquiry of science.

Break it to bits
and get to the smallest bit. Look far enough
and look to the beginning of time.

Nonsense. There is no smallest bit, and
there is no beginning. Superstition. Poor
giddy lovesick trembling ape. The truth is
you have vanished already in the effulgence of doubt.

All you want is not to die; not knowing
that you're already dead. You dread nothing more
than losing what you never had. But suppose I die?
asks the rotting corpse. What if I get old?
frets the mummy. Let us whisper in their ears:
listen, dear, you're swarming with maggots already.
Your wrinkles are so old they've turned to paper dust.
What do you think you have to worry about?
What more do you imagine will happen?

This already is the disaster. The worst
has come to the worst, push has come to shove;
You are death dreaming from the coffin:
you are suspended in dissolution.

The clouds rise and topple, breaking slowly
over vanishing shores of air. This is it. This
is what being buried alive feels like:
like the green savannahs opening up
when we shivered at the edge of the trees.

Friday, April 09, 2010

In Between

His nightcap is baby blue, sitting a little crooked on his head, and his jaw hangs open. He's perfectly still. I check, just in case. Yes, his thin chest rises a little, and falls. Still with us.

I squeeze between the back of the chair and the stair-rail, and gently rub his shoulders. The little muscle left pools in the crannies of the bone like a soft enameling; my fingertips move gently, gently into it. Whether he's really aware of me, with the topmost layer of consciousness, I couldn't say. Martha said later that his face changed, while I was massaging him. His body knew I was there, anyway. You can tell. That topmost layer hardly ever engages now, anyway, and just as well: it would be awkward for him, being massaged by his son in law, if he knew it was happening.

I do the thin sheeting of the pecs, laid over the tines of the ribs. Reach behind to the lower back. All very slow, and very tender. It's hard for some people to understand how little pressure is needed or wanted for someone this old and this close to death. It's more a laying on of hands than anything like kneading. You always need to let go of the urge to do something, in massage, but never more than with the very old. You don't press; you don't rub. You just let your hands settle and sink.

His wife fusses. Such a favor I'm doing! It's not a favor, of course. I'm far happier doing this than “visiting.” I'm good at this. Touching people is what I do. Making conversation, that I do as a favor.

In any case, I owe him. I took his favorite daughter away, when she was 19, and didn't even marry her, for six long years. He never said anything, but it made him unhappy. At the wedding, my own father tells me, when he said something about being glad Martha and I were marrying, Ernie muttered “Well, it's about time.”

That was nearly thirty years ago. We used to go out on the river on his little motorboat: down the Columbia to the Willamette or upriver to Tomahawk Island. Very gentle and unambitious. Picknicking, really. Very unlike my own father's expeditions, where the first order of business was to get entirely away from any trace of humankind, into the wilderness, and then to scale some particular peak, find some particular cave. Ernie liked humankind, and all its works. He loved watching the ships and barges move slowly on the river. The odd riverbank detritus: bits of wreckage, odd-shaped bolts. We didn't try to get anywhere or do anything, in particular. Just pottered about. The point was just to be uncrowded, out in the open, in the free air.

Now he mostly sits in the dim room, watching the television at whiles, but most of the time sleeping, or gliding like this in the in-between spaces of consciousness, not in this world and not in the next. Hovering.

Martha opens the curtains and the sliding glass door. Cool air and light comes into the dim, overheated room. Ernie finally wakes a little, reaches for her hand, and she sits quiet with him a while.

When we go, we close the door and the curtain again. He doesn't like the light and outside air, now. Not for very long at a time.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Sonnet: Mr Banks Grieves for his Lady.

I took my Lady to the coral sand,
beloved of all. The oiled bodies nesting --
the bloody-headed grief -- we understand
nothing now. If we try to explain the testing
and the dalliance in English words
it goes astray: it was neither love nor whoring
but something in between. The brilliant birds'
feathers in the young men's hair, girls snoring
at noon and waking to stretch like tabby cats;
the brisk trade, a shining nail for a fuck;
the easy unrolling of the tapa mats:
all gone. We turned for home and lost our luck:
Our crew halved by fever; my good hound
Lady dead, in sight of English ground.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010


I have loved uncial letters from the moment I saw them. Clear, easy to write and to read, each one beautiful in itself and nestling beautifully with each other. To me one of the great mysteries of history is how such a lovely alphabet gave way to ugly, clotted, gothic lettering, which is tedious to write and even more tedious to read: who can have thought that this was an improvement? It's like the mystery of American domestic architecture. In 1913, when my house was built, they knew how to make beautiful houses. But a generation later, they had stopped, and were building hideous things, everywhere, all the time, even though people had become much more prosperous, and could better have afforded beautiful houses. A demon of ugliness seems to have possessed the whole nation. What causes such mass lapses of taste?

I think beauty is universal, and that when one person thinks a thing is beautiful, and another thinks the same thing ugly, one of them is wrong. The tail-sting here is that people are almost never looking at the same thing. I don't know what framed the vision of the people who loved gothic lettering, but whatever it was, it made that script beautiful. Likewise, there was something that made a 1960's split-level ranch house beautiful to people, which I never learned to see, even though I was alive then. There was some context, some sequence of images, that made up for the blank spaces and awkward proportions, the bare cold corners and unframed windows. I think, as I must, that my vision is truer, but I also must bear in mind that I am missing something. It's difficult, when it's something I care this much about. I am tempted to sink into the contemptuous attitude of James Howard Kunstler. But that attitude is a deeper mistake than the mistakes it responds to: it forgets that beauty derives its power and importance from love, and not the other way around.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Easter, 2010

This morning the son of God opened his eyes,
stiff and sore, his eyes gummed with clotted tears,
and stumbled to the door of the queer low room,
where the stone was rolled away.

Morning, sun washing roof and garden.
He looked a while, the horror fading,
listening to the birdsong. “I never get used to it,”
he thought, and ruefully smiled at the grave-wrappings
dangling from his wrists. The air was fresh.

He thought of you and grinned, at some
quick secret joke. “It's worth it, after all,” he thought.
“Now I wonder where a son of man gets coffee,
and this a holiday? And where shall I wash up?”

Friday, April 02, 2010

Gabriel and Christina

Across the way a blue umbrella fishes in and out of the new green leaves.

Three girls run in out of the rain, awkwardly, thighs turned in and heels flying out; but happy for all that, laughing at each other.

I think of Christina, the other Rossetti, turning her thighs in, tending her father, curbing her temper.

She should have been the best of the Victorian poets. Perhaps she was anyway: but broken by the stupidities that also, backwards, broke her brother.

Gabriel buried his poems with his young wife, when he was going to be a great painter. The grief was real enough: but later, when he decided he was going to be a great poet instead, he had her dug up, the sheaf of poems exhumed. The poems were soaked through with something. But he thought he could restore the poems, maybe; and he wandered through chloral nightmares ever after. And not a great poet anyway, after all that. He was a painter if he was anything. He might have been saved by what broke his sister: a sense of proportion, of duty, of unimportance. But he had to be a great something. A great artist, a great poet, a great lover. Hence his titanic love affair with Mrs Morris, which dwindled gradually away to something even he felt to be ridiculous.

We have paid some attention, if not enough, to women being ruined by the expectation of service; but we have not paid nearly enough attention to men being ruined by the expectation of greatness.

I've done my damnedest to raise ordinary children, neither servants nor leaders, who will take their turns serving or leading as occasion demands.

Human beings, like cats, are incorrigibly but flexibly hierarchical. Dogs establish hierarchies once and for all, and are happiest being alphas or betas ever after, whichever it may be. We're not like that. We're never quite happy in our places. Never secure in power, never happy in service. Laying rigid gender roles on top of that makes it worse. We need above all to be able to renegotiate, according to the stresses and demands of our lives, if we are to work, or love, fruitfully and happily.

I have said before that I don't have a liberal bone in my body. I don't believe in equality, not for a moment: I think one of the deepest urges of human beings is to place themselves in hierarchies, to find their place, to have heros and mentors, disciples and adorers. What makes me look and behave rather like a Liberal is my conviction that these places have to be lightly held and easily abandoned. The yen for power and the yen to serve easily become pathological, when they become formalized. To me an equilibrium of equality is not something to be aimed at in human relationships, social, political, or erotic: what's healthy is precisely the seesaw of power, the alternation of roles. There's nothing wrong with being a master or a servant. What's wrong is being stuck as the master or the servant.

April WTLP Zine

April's WTLP Zine, an all-poems edition, is out. My poem "Indigo" is in it. (Also not to be missed is Sage's puff of my massage skills, at the very bottom.)

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The World's Cursor

I am followed by trails of light:
Every motion cuts lines in the air.

Even a cursory glance discovers
the divine waitress pouring

slack-jawed while our cup
runs over with trouble.

I am a cursive script. Every
maddening letter of my life

must join with the next: and though
I solemnly swear or affirm

that I will not tell the whole truth,
after years of coursing

they still have not found
a cure for candor.