Monday, November 29, 2010

Fling Open

the windows. Get a breath of air into this place, man. You're taking things way too seriously.

Across the street, a construction worker with saddlebags of gear slung on both hips, in an orange t-shirt, stands out against the airbrush fog of the sky. People make fun of construction guys for standing around, but that's what the good ones do. Look at it. Think it out first. Measure twice, cut once.

This guy is roofing a vaguely Japanese gate that will brand the extinct Hollywood Video store as a new branch of the Umpqua bank. I like the Umpqua bank. They sponsor New Music Monday on some radio station or other, here -- new songs by local bands. All I know about it. So I'll forgive the Japanese gate. Besides, its new wood is a brilliant warm orange-yellow -- an unearthly hue, though natural. The gate and the worker on top of it float, a superrealist vision, above the quotidian world, in this thin unexpected November sunshine.

Already the sunlight is draining away. Somewhere to the east the cold fog is rising up over the sun.

Time to get on my bike and ride on down to the Foundation, enter the final batch of last week's gifts, and run the weekly reports, so as to have them ready for the 9:30 meeting. Later, compadres. Go with God. Be gentle as pigeons and wise as snakes, and keep your powder dry.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Calm and Dispassionate Assessment

I have lost my face. I have only a raw pulpy mass of sensitivities, hanging off cheekbone and brow. I look out of the bloody caves of my eyesockets as if out of reversed telescopes, and see tiny, busy, ant-like figures far away. Not ready to appear in public. Wind me up, wind me up in linens brushed with petroleum jelly, darken the room, and wait. Just wait, dear.

I write blog posts about the Third World War, or medical practice in America, or building for passive solar in the Pacific Northwest, or neo-Pagan family structures in the post-industrial world, and edit them until they disappear. What I have is a face of raw hamburger and a clutch of blue-penciled paper. I walk backwards, explaining my positions carefully to non-existent juries, and feel with my toes for the edges of the cliff. Wait.

At the same time, I am, inexplicably, a comfort to my family. I read aloud to them. Last night, after Thanksgiving was finally over, I read them “A Bit of Luck for Mabel” -- that grand short story of Wodehouse's. They laughed and laughed. I do lovely, effective massage: I'm at the top of my game. Do I even need a face? Do I need to convince the juries? Maybe this is a life, after all.

But the holidays come, inescapable nightmares, huge paste-like smears over the calendar. When the holidays come I despair of ever having a face. Let me buy a plastic Ordinary Joe mask, and keep it by the door. Nobody cares to look closely anyway. It should do. Just make sure it's buttered on the inside, so it doesn't stick: things are painful enough already.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Yet Another Crow Poem

a crow in glossy black knickerbockers
snicksnops over the asphalt's yellow lines:
he has business with the blowing cellophane.

Friday, November 19, 2010

March into the Quaint

I am reading After the Victorians, by A. N. Wilson, a history of Britain in the first half of the 20th Century. Wilson is not easy for me to classify. I'm sure my British friends would be able to tell me exactly where he's taken to stand in the spectrum of English politics and class, these things never being very vague in England. I prefer at the moment not to know.

The greatest interest for me, in this book, is that the events immediately preceding my birth have passed into the historical record, and are now subjects of history in the same way that Victorian times were the subject of history when I first began reading seriously, a generation ago. It's all over and done with, the party passions are receding, and the Horrifying and the Exalting are both making their inexorable march into the Quaint. (And I, obviously, am headed that way myself.)

The greatest shock to me was turning to the photographs, seeing one of John Cowper Powys, and reading this: John Cowper Powys (1872-1963) is surely the greatest English novelist in his generation.

Now, of course, such a statement will never be uncontroversial. But the fact that someone could make it was, to me, staggering. When I was studying for my doctorate in English at Yale, in the early 1980's, there were precisely two people in my class who had read Powys, I and Ian Duncan. We both thought he was terrific. Nobody else had heard of him.

I have been out of academic circles for a very long time. Probably Ian, who last I knew was at Berkeley, making a brilliant academic career, has had a hand in this remarkable literary ressurection. I read Powys when I was perhaps 20 years old, a dusty library book called A Glastonbury Romance, picked nearly at random off the shelves, because anything Arthurian, in those days, had huge magnetism for me. I read the book in a trance. Much of it was beyond me: it teased and disturbed. I was well aware that I had a bigger fish on the hook than my line could stand.

So of course, the next thing on my reading list is to go back to Powys, with I hope a stouter line. I suspect it will still get away, but I'm excited, as I was excited by Nicholson Baker, as I have been excited by modern poetry. It seems I am awake again, as a reader, after a long sleep. And a strange country it is, that I've woken in.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Rain Songs

Last night the rain sluiced down, soaking my hair and my jacket and my shoes. I walked up 6th Avenue to the bus stop, so happy with the rain, so happy with the cold, feeling myself young and strong and alive.

On the bus, it was delightfully warm, yet well-ventilated and airy. Everyone looked glum and put-upon. The downpour had sent extra people looking for buses, of course, so we were full, as Americans understand it. The driver asked us to move back. People shuffled back an inch or two, making room at the front for perhaps a couple more people. Americans, western Americans anyway, have not the faintest idea how to scrunch together. People I know who have arranged Dharma events here and in India tell me that they reckon the same space that will comfortably hold 200 Americans will comfortably hold 500 Indians. I had an absurd urge to sing out, “come on, folks squeeze together and let more people on! You were just out in that rain, you know how anxious they are to be aboard!” We could have taken on at least a dozen more passengers. But no. The riders were mute and sullen. I felt a fleeting contempt for my people, so convinced of their divine right to personal space, so willing to snatch what they imagine to be their own and to deny it to their brothers and sisters. And I looked at the enormous display of wealth -- all the iPads and iPods, the Blackberries, the shoes and jackets and dresses worth thousands upon thousands of dollars -- and thought, what right do you all have to be so unhappy? And if you are, then why don't you do something about it? Strike up a song, for God's sake. We could all have a terrific time, here. We could sing old favorites and enjoy each other's company. We could marvel at the fact that every single one of us is on our way to a warm dry home, where we'll change into dry clothes, where there is central heating and electric lights and food in the fridge.

Well. I'm a shy introvert: I was no more likely to exhort people to scrunch up or to lead them in a rousing group sing than I was to grow a second head. And the intense happiness, the rain-drunkenness, was dissipating as I walked home, under a gentler rain now. I'm glad it came. For a while there I thought maybe it was done with me for good.

Why don't we sing? Why don't we all know rain songs, to sing together on the bus? Oh, this is not a rich country at all: it's a poor, poor place, a wretchedly poverty-stricken detention pen of great apes accustomed to nothing but zoo cells, and terrified by the forest. We have nothing to give to each other or to anyone else. And what other meaningful measure of wealth is there? A wealthy man is one who can afford to give things away: almost every culture but our own knows that.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Like the Wasps

Like the wasps I have built
a tenement of paper,
hole upon hole of storage...

Chase Twichell, from "Partita for Solo Violin."

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Well, but we don't even know
when the sky began to snow
when the soft yet utter
white began to flutter,
when the trembling girlish flakes
began to kiss the cedar shakes.

We don't know when the sphere of white
coalesced around the light,
when it began to spark and swirl
and dramatize the breeze's curl;
we only know the street is gone
and looks no different from the lawn.

And then again we don't know when
an impulse firmed into a yen,
or how intention to inquire
precipitated such desire;
what gave these clouds the final shove,
and set loose such a fall of love.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Burning Ground

This is where I live, in the burning ground,
surrounded by the skeletons of loved ones,
the ghosts of the dead, the whispering of poets
that died many hundred years ago.

If we were not precious,
uniqueness could not make us so.
If you found two of me, one in the kitchen
scrambling eggs, and one dressing in the bedroom,
which of us would you judge worthless?
Which would you throw out?

We are not children, dear.
We've seen love check at a pimple, we know
that innocents hang, that children go hungry,
that hearts wear out their cases,
as a knife wears out its sheath.

Here the smoke is greasy in our eyes;
here the caged ribs,
the blackened timbers of a ruined house,
fall: but here is where love remains
when all the rest is burnt.

Monday, November 08, 2010

We Three

Among the the infirmities of body mind and art,
The failing of the future in the past,
Will we finally sit at table, just we three?

No interloper will be left to take a part,
No unknown speaker horn into the cast:
Our dwindling talk will finally be free.

Oh my heart, my poor old ragged heart,
Scraped over so many portages, are you launched at last
On the wide water that will take you to the sea?

Saturday, November 06, 2010


A couple days ago a troubled aged moon rode in the pools left by the cloud-wrack, and I wrote an American Sentence: “the moon's thin arms cling to the ghost-gray smear of her vanishing father.”

If you're marinated in Coleridge, as I am, you'll know the antecedents: his epigraph to the Dejection ode, from “the grand old ballad of Sir Patrick Spens” --

Late, late yestre'en I saw the new moon
With the old moon in her arms,
And I fear, I fear, my maister dear
We shall have a deadly storm.

Which inspired in their turn possibly the most brilliant lines Coleridge ever wrote:

For Lo! The new moon winter-bright
And overspread with phantom light --
With swimming phantom light o'erspread
But rimmed and circled by a silver thread --
I see the old moon in her lap, foretelling
The coming on of rain and squally blast,
And O that even now the gust were swelling
And the slant night-shower driving loud and fast . . .

Well, well, you'll never be Coleridge, Dale; never mind; we're just doodling here. Your lines will do for a pale 21st Century “poem.”

It just happened to be an American Sentence. As you may recall, I don't think the American Sentence makes much sense as a verse form. English verse is a stress-counting creature, not a syllable-counting one. But I recollected that I could make it a “haiku,” as we disastrously miscall that other unsuitable-to-English form, that 5-7-5 thing. So I tried it out.

The Moon's thin arms cling
to the ghost-gray smear of her
vanishing father.

Ugh. Ending a line with “of her”? No thank you. And the feminine near-rhyme of “of her” with “father” is icky, if your attention is drawn to it like that. In fact, maybe that near-rhyme is a problem anyway. Hmm.

Well, leaving aside how to chop this thing into lines, if at all, I turned to the problem of titling it. “Waning crescent?” There's a nice inbuilt semantic contradiction there: “crescent,” etymologically, means “growing.” This moon of course was not growing, it was dying -- the last of the old moon, not a new moon yet. And then I realized that this was critical to how I saw this Moon. Not everyone observes the distinction I do -- or even knows it exists -- between the last edge of the old moon and the first edge of the new moon. The poem makes no sense if you think it's a new moon. Maybe it should go like this, and then the problems of lineation and title might both solved:

Old Moon

Waning crescent: the moon's thin arms cling
to the ghost-gray smear of her vanishing father.

And so, it becomes a poem of four-beat lines, and as Nicholson Baker's Anthologist insists, all English poetry is really in four-beat lines. Good enough. For now. But I still think that internal near-rhyme is a problem.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

The Glowing of Such Fire

I feel the pulse of your blood whenever I look up
and the sky is crowded with hurrying angels,
their feet cracked and bleeding, tracking light across the clouds;

I hold your heart cradled in my worn-out hands,
and it throws strange shadows; light pours
between my fingers, it spurts and crackles and flares;

There are things you can't undo, and the first of these is love.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Nicholson Baker

So my friend Jarrett -- you know Jarrett, the man who writes both Creature of the Shade and Human Transit, the one who can make Australian foliage fascinating and can take your breath away with principles of laying out bus routes? Yes, that Jarrett. So Jarrett wrote me an email, I think he's worried about me, and he said he was reading a novel by one Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist, and that it reminded him sharply of me.

Well, if you really want someone to read a book, that's how to get them to read it. “Man,” you say, “ this book is just you,” and since we're all desperate to get a handle on who we might be, we read it. And usually we get a ways in and we think, “I don't know who this is, but it's not me. Why does Lucy think it is? What can she have been thinking of? Is it that the protagonist is bald?” and it just goes downhill from there.

But in this case, it so happens, that this book is me, for better and worse: the narrator is hapless and sweet and and can't keep his attention on things and is intermittently wise, and it puts me in mind of Dave Bonta, who once said that I was the wisest person he knew, except when I wasn't, and I felt that about covered it.

And all I really have to say so far, and I'm only on page 28, is that if I'd known people were writing novels like this I wouldn't have stopped reading novels.

Just for instance. The narrator picks ups up a New Yorker magazine:

Let's have a look at this poem. Here it is, going down. You can tell it's a poem because it's swimming in a little gel pack of white space. That shows it's a poem. All the typography on all sides has drawn back. The words are making room, they're saying, Rumble, rumble, stand back now, this is going to be good.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Rain Likely

Today's weather forecast: “Rain likely in the morning... then rain in the afternoon.”

It's challenging, reporting the weather during the nine-month rainy season in the maritime Northwest. There aren't really that many captivating ways of saying “it's going to rain all day, what else?”