Monday, February 28, 2011

Red House

Always surprised by the pure bright crimson when they take the blood out of my arm: the life that can feel so feeble and dull, at times, is pulsing there, brilliant red, all the time. All the work that goes into making that fluid: spleen and liver preparing and purifying it, the lungs carefully oxygenating it to come up with that red -- the characteristic hue of oxygen working its Shiva changes: the rust red of corroding iron, the brilliant red of the radical blood -- it goes on all the time, under my drab pale skin, whatever the weather, whatever the mood.

We live in many houses, built and natural: we're so many intersecting series of hyperdimensional Russian dolls. Oh, but we believe specially in this house, the house of the red blood! Never mind that a clever researcher can convince you with ease that you've sprouted a third arm, one that you can feel and move just like your others. Still you believe the others are real, real as the cold pounding rain, indisputable. And we call this being hard-headed and realistic. Yah.

When we wriggle out of this carapace, in sleep, and wander into our other houses? Then we're dreaming. “It's only a dream,” we say. We could say that of many things.

A crow flies in the rain, cold, waterlogged, and resolute. I follow him and travel backwards into the houses of the past. I open my mouth and my teeth roll out like pearls, or like the pomegranate seeds of the fairy tale. (Find them all, before the Djinn comes!) I linger in the little red house of my childhood.

We tell a funny story about why our present house, the one we're selling, is red. One day when we were nearly finished painting, I came down the steps to look at the progress with Webb, our carpenter. “It looks pretty good,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “I wasn't too sure about this red, but I think I like how it's turning out.”

Martha gave me a look. “You're the one who wanted this color,” she said.

I looked back at her in astonishment. “I thought you wanted this color,” I said.

Webb was not much given to laughing out loud, but this made him do it. He regained his composure, turned grave as turnip, and surveyed the two storeys of fresh paint. “Still time to change your mind,” he said.

I chose the color? Martha doesn't make mistakes about this sort of thing. I must have chosen the color. And I chose the color of my childhood house, though I didn't realize that till just now. What color should a house be? Why, red, of course: a good sober but powerful red.

My massage sheets? Red, blood-red: not the color they call blood red, which is the shade of blood that's darkened five minutes in the air, but real blood-red, the red you see spurting through the needle into the clear plastic vials. Chinese red.

To the Chinese, red is not the color of wrath. It's the color of luck, and the color of wealth: what we would call a golden opportunity, they would call a red one. I often wonder how much of the Western dread of Chinese Communism came, not from the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and so forth, but simply from a failure to translate fully. “The Golden Army” -- how much less sinister that sounds, to Western ears, than “The Red Army!”

Out through the sleet, the traffic lights on 62nd Ave burn bright red, and the neon of Ken's automotive picks it up. Everything else is rain-dimmed and indistinct: but that glow goes to my heart and lifts it up.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Suitable Girl in Portland, Oregon

In Tom's, a local reads The Suitable Girl. Rumor has it he's on the eleventh Way with Figs.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Four Reasons to be Nice to People

1) Something horrible may have just happened to them. Even lucky people have devastating events in their lives. The deaths of people close to them, for instance. A deep betrayal by a friend or lover. The suicide of even a distant acquaintance. Having to move away from a loved home. Losing a job or an opportunity that seemed like it was going to make a better life. Being personally affected, even tangentially, by a disaster of great scale or a crime of great cruelty. The worst of these devastate people for months, even years: and most people are going to have at least half a dozen of them in their lives. If you do some rough and ready math with this, you can reckon that probably several of the people you encounter today are going to be walking around in a state of emotional devastation. Of course they're not going to be chipper and accommodating and on the ball.

2) They may be ill or in pain. A lot of people are: as a massage therapist I've discovered that the number of people in serious chronic pain -- who usually successfully disguise it from coworkers and even family -- is very high. These people don't wear signs around their necks, announcing “I'm in excruciating pain!” or “if I bend over to pick up that folder, I may faint!” And if we can trust the popular statistics, a quarter of the people we meet are suffering from some diagnosable mental illness. The amount of suffering out there is immense.

3) Then there's Maslow's hierarchy of needs. According to Maslow -- I learned this young and I've never seen any reason to doubt it -- people don't move on to higher-level things, such as creative work, real hard thinking, abandoning prejudices, etc. -- until their needs for love and esteem are met. Someone who feels unloved or un-valued is going to gravitate to a place where they can get love and esteem, at almost any price. Until they get it, you've got no hope of engaging them at the higher levels. It's just not going to happen. So if you want people ever to rise above themselves, your best starting place is to love them and value them. You don't have to be deceitful: you just have to find things to love and admire about them. If you look, you'll find them.

4) People are wonderful when you're nice to them. They're unexpected and madcap and delightful when they know they're loved and esteemed. So it's a self-reinforcing project. If you want people to be beautiful, then your best bet is to look for their beauty, not only because it's there -- it is -- but also because looking for it cultivates it and nurtures it. So ultimately, if you look at it this way -- I don't usually, but one could -- it makes pure greedy, self-aggrandizing sense to be nice to people. I'm surrounded by delightful people, and the main reason for that is not only because I am outrageously lucky in my friends and family -- though that's true too -- but also because I love them and value them and let them know it.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Purely Local

I pause at the landing and lift the window curtain to look at the dawn. Half moon due south: a pale blue sky, a dim rash of yesterday's snow on our neighbor's roof. The chances of getting more snow have dropped, but it's truly cold now.

On the street I glide, motionless, standing on the left pedal, the air burning my bare right calf. Sometimes the cold takes me this way, makes me want to be perfectly still. I will only really feel it if I move. And the faint downward grade of this street keeps me in motion: I stand still while the street threads past. It rolls by me like a film set. Scene: prosperous suburban neighborhood, early morning.

The moon tangles in the nets of bare twigs, struggles free, tangles again. The bicycle slows and I suddenly rediscover my will, as the cold ratchets up. Damn. It really is cold. I turn the corner onto Lincoln street and pedal hard: I'll have to get colder to get warmer.

But the distance to Tom's is short enough that I don't have time to get the internal fires really stoked. My gloved fingers fumble with the bike lock. The “Tom's” sign is not yet lit, but I glimpse Robin darting in the side door -- a few minutes late -- and before I have my lights turned off and my pants-leg rolled back down, the white and pink lights are running round and round the sign. The door is unlocked.

I sit down, still in my gloves and coat. In fact, still in my bike helmet, which is distinctly silly. I take it off, but the gloves I'm going to keep on till I have a full hot coffee cup to hold.

It's not all that cold, but after all these years back in Oregon, I'm not longer used to real cold. And I have no clothes for it, for one thing; I'm in jeans, a t-shirt, and a light jacket -- the same thing I wear year-round, except for those rare summer dawns when it's already warm, when I'd dispense with the jacket. I have gear for the rain, but not for the cold.

Martha makes fun of me for not dressing for the weather, but usually, who cares? When you live someplace where the lows are only 40° F away from the highs, it hardly makes much difference. It isn't worth the bother of having lots of different kinds of clothes. I wear jeans and t-shirts, or polo shirts. Simple and easy.

I'm fortunate to live in Portland, where lots of people go to work dressed this way. It's a rumpled and dumpy town, sartorially speaking. Kindly but unsophisticated.

Hot coffee, now. Bliss. And sun streams in through the east windows. Still a chill in the air, though. Everyone's keeping their coat on. As cars go by on Division, or or 39th Avenue, wild reflections and diffractions of sunlight whirl through the cafe.

Excuse me: not 39th Avenue. César E. Chávez Boulevard. The city council, in fit of political correctness, renamed the avenue, something that caused a certain amount of ill feeling, since -- for reasons best known to themselves -- they didn't follow their own procedures and railroaded it through without consulting the locals. It was a typical Portland city government move, these days: they've gotten a bit high-handed. This was a gesture of inclusion to the Hispanic community, which in principle I approve of, though I do wonder how many young Hispanics have the faintest idea who Chávez was, or why he's a hero to the aging WASP counter-culture heros who run this town. There's also the fact that 39th Avenue is not Hispanic territory, particularly: it's mostly poor Anglos here, and they resented having the outlandish name of a labor organizer they'd never liked foisted on their street. This resentment of course was declared racist by the proponents of the name change, and no doubt some of it was: but it was also generated by the knowledge that, this being a politically powerless part of the city, the council could do whatever they liked without stepping on any toes they minded stepping on.

I dislike changing names for correctness' sake in the first place, and I dislike top-down impositions like this. It made me want to grab some trendy part of town, NW 23rd Avenue, maybe, and agitate for renaming it Ronald Reagan Boulevard, or Dick Cheney Way. How do you like having your home streets named for your political enemies? There's the added irony that, in making this gesture of inclusion, they used a name that almost all Anglos, even those with a smattering of Spanish, mispronounce. “Go up and turn right on Sieze 'er Shavézz,” the locals will say, leaving Spanish speakers completely at sea.

Oh well. I'm a great admirer of Chávez, and, as his son reportedly said, he wouldn't have given a damn about a street name either way: what he cared about was people having decent lives.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Brief Snow in Portland

A response to Dave's Morning Porch for today

Portland pretends to snow — very pretty!
but it’s frosting and frippery.

A single crow calls for company, her low cough rising
to a shrill confident shriek.

The byways are already black, the eaves already running,
a whisper of water gushes in gutters:

the hard hot pulse of Portland
will not pause for a moment.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


In my building downtown, a man gets on the elevator and behaves very peculiarly: he does not immediately take out and check his cell phone. Is he dangerous? Should I call the police?

We sit in the Les Schwab store, inhaling the scent of new tires, listening to classic rock. Behind us a fountain tinkles. Not a little one, either. An image of Les Schwab in his ten gallon hat, gazing off over the brushland of eastern Washington, rises easily to my mind, burned in as it was by hundreds of repeated television commercials when my brain was young and growing. “Look for the sign you're in Les Schwab country...”

I'll be able to sing it on my death bed: that, and the theme to Gilligan's Isle. The fountain, and the spotless display room, jostle the cowboy uneasily. I am, like Miss Clavell in the night, seized with the conviction that something is not right. Is it the tire store, or is it me?

Alan tore down the back porch, mostly with his bare hands, in less than an hour. Now we have a small back deck, and stairs that go down to the driveway instead of to our neighbor's yard. It really looks pretty damn good. But strange, very strange. We should have some little ceremony for disturbing the balance of the world this way, a precautionary apology to the genii loci.

In the rubble under the porch we found a little white glass pot with a white glass lid: inside the lid, in raised letters, was written “Professor Hubert's Malvinas Cream.” It looks like it might have been buried there when the house was built, in 1913. The freckles it was bought to efface have been effaced in earnest, now.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Non Credo

Because I'm afraid, I start to write by saying “I don't believe” -- oh, there are so many things I don't believe! -- but the point is, I don't want to construct an identity out of a laundry list of things I don't believe, it's just the reverse of the medal, it's no different than pounding your chest and bellowing “I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ!” and thinking that's going to get you a little Jesus juju to curse your enemies with, and finally get the girls to eye you with a bit of respect. No, sir. Bellowing believers, bellowing unbelievers alike, you hurry by them on the sidewalk and avoid their eyes. Subadult orangutans, that's what they are, and everybody knows it. Nobody wants to mate with them.

Which brings me neatly to the first thing I don't believe, which is anybody's story about love. The other day a Facebook Friend (not someone I know at all well), the mother of a one year old, announced in a single sentence that she was now a single mother, because she'd found out her husband was cheating on her. People responded with a bit of shock and jaw-dropping, but mostly by furious imprecations and extravagant personal denunciations of her husband. This was from a wide enough collection of people that you could be reasonably sure that some among their number were adulterers. What stories had they made up for themselves? How did justify themselves? How might they have responded to being pilloried? And then a bit later my Friend posted a semi-retraction saying maybe this was only a flirtation after all. Which made for a somewhat awkward pause.

An odd thing to post about, surely, and I don't think I'd handle it that way myself -- not out of goodness, but out of vanity -- but I don't blame anyone for doing anything, really, under the stress of that sort of revelation. That's not my point. My point is that, for a large circle round about, everyone went nuts. I'm interested in when, and how, people go nuts like that. It signals cracks in the structure, weaknesses, places where people aren't really sure that what they purport to believe is in fact what they believe, or else places where they're determined to believe something no matter what evidence may arise: the weaker the shriller.

Now, when I say I don't believe anybody, that's exactly what I mean. I have never heard a story about sex and love that appears to me to “save the appearances,” to account for the variety of phenomena it produces. It's an absorbing topic to me, so I've read a great deal “about it and about,” as Omar says, and every book I've read seems to run inevitably to some central point at which I find myself bristling, shaking my head, muttering, “that's just not the way it is, though. That's just not the way it is.” There's that swerve where people start talking about what love should be, and they describe some wholly admirable frame of mind, some exquisitely laudable kind of relationship, something that makes deep and perfect sense, which is very nice, except that the question you come to after that is, why don't any of these relationships exist? And why is it that, if you're a betting man, you'd lay odds on precisely the people who present as if they were in these ideal relationships to be posting on Facebook next week that they've achieved single parenthood?

And then there are the various reducers: love is really only this, or only that, it's not so important, our culture magnifies it absurdly, erotic love was regarded as simply a joke among (whatever culture the speaker is not very well-versed in), it's actually friendship that matters, or Buddhist compassion, or Christian agape, and I bristle even more, because it doesn't really work that way, either. Not here and now in this culture, not in my heart. Love is the only thing that's real, to me. If I have a path to God, it runs exactly as Dante's did, right through Eros. Nothing else matters, not really.

I'm not saying this is good. I don't think it is. I think the Buddhist compassion and Christian agape people have the right of it, we should value that love most highly, and all the other loves should be subservient to that, which is, really, the love of God. I think the arguments are knockdown, water tight. That's how it should be.

But it's not how it is. I can't cram my heart into that jar. And I'm not sure how useful a theory is, if it accounts for everything but the facts. Useful if you need to trot out mottoes and slogans, yes. But what if you want to live a human life?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

How much Time the Moon Loses, and what Math is for

The moon is higher, setting later, this morning. She loses time, of course. Every day she rises and sets later -- I don't remember how much, exactly: 45 minutes? Hang on a sec, I'll work it out.

I forget, sometimes, that the sky is not so legible to everyone, that many people don't even have clear in their minds the path of the zodiac -- difficult though it is for me to understand. It's the same path the sun and the moon walk, higher in summer, lower in winter: how can you live in the world, day after day, and not realize that the the sun and the moon appear only in a certain swath of the sky?

I know that learning the names and appearance of the planets is something only a few of us do -- and that only a few of us learn the patterns of the stars well enough to say certainly, that has to be a planet, it can't be a star, because there is no star there! -- but everyone knows the sun and moon. Except, apparently, they don't. It seems that at every full moon, I hear someone marveling over the coincidence that this moon happened to be rising right around sunset! or setting right around sunrise!

Um, yes. That's what a full moon is, it's the moon standing (vis a vis us) opposite to the sun. It's not a rare coincidence. It's been happening, every 28-and-some days, since our species was sniffing about on all fours.

Anyway, since the moon has to slip back to the same spot in the sky in roughly 28 days, she's got to slip 28 times through the 24 hour clock of the sky, meaning she has to slip about 24 28ths of an hour each time. 24/28 = x/60 -- let's say 51 minutes? Close enough.

This is what math is for. So you don't have to be helpless and look it up, if you don't remember something like how much the moon slips every night. It's not rocket science; it's simple arithmetic. They taught you this in third grade so that you wouldn't have to take anyone's word for it: you can do it yourself.

Don't let anyone push you around: keep your math skills up to snuff. Work little problems like this every day, take the extra couple minutes and satisfy yourself that you're right. It's a magnificently empowering feeling. And you can surprise and amaze your friends by telling them exactly when they're going to see the moon rise tomorrow night. This stuff works. It's real. You can bet your life on it, in fact, we all do, every day, because this the way the engineers who built your cars and roads and bridges figured out how much they could take. Simple physics, simple arithmetic, for the most part.

It's our birthright, as human beings: it's our inheritance. It maddens me when people turn away from math and science as disempowering. This is empowerment. It's when you don't know your math and science that people can lead you around by the nose and hoodwink you. You don't like your math teacher? He's a condescending sexist oaf with the aesthetic sensitivities of a roundworm? Fine. Hate him. But take what he has on offer anyway, because this, this is genuine power, this is the real stuff. This is one of the fundamental ways you get a grip on the world.

Don't give it up because you're sensitive aesthetic person. So am I. I'm a poet and a massage therapist, for God's sake, the very model of a pansy aesthete, and you'll take my math away when you pry it out of my cold dead brain.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


Black ice makes a pattern on the pavement
of negric circles reaching out to circles:
tatters of white frost hold them isolate.

As I come up over the rise an alien sphere
glides into view, startling the treetops:
an incongruous face

floating in the fresh untroubled blue;
an unshaven drunk on a dewy park bench,
bringing a reek of taverns into the day.

O, thou moon of misdemeanors,
outliving truth and trust,
why here, why now?

The real poets are all asleep,
and I only have escaped to see you
wandering along the West Hills

full of drunken song and imprecations,
ready to stumble into the river with Li Po,
oh! Drowning in your cleverness.

You will have set
by the time the real poets wake,
with their memories

of the chaste and solemn orb
that shot the shores of night with silver,
and glimmered and gleamed on the river.

And no one will ever believe me,
that I saw you shrieking here at dawn
with a musk of hops and malt around you.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Morning Porch Poems

If you haven't been following the extraordinary poetry flowering over at Dave Bonta's Morning Porch, you're missing something pretty wonderful. Luisa Igloria has been writing amazing poems, day after day, in response to Dave's tweet-length posts there. And there have been a few dances with other poets, too, including me. I've never been a good responder to formal prompts, but the prompting of the Morning Porch posts, and sometimes spotting a clever way to navigate between both Dave and Luisa's words, seems to work for me. Not that I'm in the Bonta or Igloria league: but anyone can play. They're very gracious. This morning I wrote a poem there titled Snowmelt at Tryon Creek.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Survivors of the Wedding

I stand uncertain in the aisle, while
impatient brides brush past me,
giddy with power, anxious to make a promise
that even Jesus didn't dare.
Oh, they go off like bombs!
and the wedding guests drink desperately
in hopes of being a little less flammable
when the conflagration, congregation
begins. But wait. A solemn girl of nine
chooses me to dance with her.
She alone holds out her hands: understands
that this moment is all about clothes
and a measured twirling. It's you, who think
it's about love and family, who
have it wrong. You
have it backwards. I lack words --
I am glad for the first time today
that my shoes are polished. We dance
gravely, the girl and I: my bow
and her courtesy
are maybe the only things
that will survive this day intact.

Monday, February 14, 2011

After These Words

. . .

Actually the conversation was between God
and Avraham: God said take your son
Avraham asked, which one? God tried your only son
but Avraham said one is Sarah's, one is Hagar's.
Whom you love, God said, and Avraham said
so help me, I love them both.

When it was all over God said
I never meant for you to kill him,
I only wanted you to raise him up.
But Avraham had forgotten
how to hear God's voice
and he never replied.

Rachel Barenblat, “After these words,” 70 faces

Sometimes you wonder why you ever wanted to hear God, such horrible things He says, but what else is there to listen to? The human voices patter all day long, it's like when I drive to Salem and the only radio stations are the deep dull valley stations playing country music that sounds like rock (without rebellion), or rock music that sounds like country (without conscience), and you begin to think of human voices as the cawing of so many crows, quarreling over carrion on the road. If there was truth to be found in human voices, don't you think we'd have found it by now? We know you can't get what you want and every cowboy is sad. We knew that before the exit to Woodburn. The question is, what now?

Well, once past the little knot of the Ankeny Hills, you'll be in the broad flatlands of the Willamette Valley, some of the best farm land in the world, and at some point there will rise from the fields a murmuration of starlings like a glittering dust, twirling and falling, cascades of reckless and grieving birds. And you can pull off on the shoulder to watch their strange whirling, a cloud of beating hearts following God knows what passion. Now that's a voice that has new things to say: even if it tells you, as it will, things you never never wanted to hear.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


But listen, I want to tell you all about
the crustacean stubbornness, the
antennae that can grip like ropes, the mouth parts
working unceasingly: an Edisonian dream
of perpetual motion, a mother's dream
of careful chewing. I was always a good boy.

And listen: I want to tell you how the blue sky
came and said that stealing wasn't bad,
not when the sun is high;
that candy wants to be stolen,
that God made the tongue to
curl around theft in a special way.
When they cried “stop thief!” I was sure
they wanted my autograph, or maybe
a cure for the king's evil. I ran like the wind:

but that was just the delight of my heart.
And here, where the dark polished wood of the railing
matches exactly the police batons, where
jurors sit on uncomfortably pleated underwear,
not daring to shift, and the lights buzz
and wail like a distant Indian singer,
here I still remember the joyful lift of my heels

when I flew ahead of you all, and none of you,
none of you could catch me.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Sounding It Out

I feel about democracy the way that people felt about monarchy a hundred years ago: it has a certain quaint charm, but its chances of surviving in the modern world are minimal. I watch people express delight about the Egyptian unrest with incredulity. Have they never read a history book, or even a newspaper? It ain't over, buckos, till the fat army colonel sings.

The rifle, the saying was, made all men tall. It was the musket and rifle that ushered in the age of revolution. Cutting edge military technology in 1776 was a cheap weapon that could be wielded by a single person with minimal training. How many people do you know who keep an Apache attack helicopter parked in their back yard, ready at a minute's notice take off and defend their freedom? I see people pour into the streets, as at Tiananmen, as in Egypt, and I think of stock gathering at a slaughterhouse.

The communications, that so delight a certain kind of optimist -- the twitter-revolt in Iran, say, which, as you may have noticed, led immediately to everyone feeling free to exercise complete freedom of speech and assembly in Iran -- actually serve the purposes of counter-insurgency far, far better. Have you noticed that not a single major terrorist event has happened in the US since 9/11? And it is not, believe me, for lack of animus, planning, or funds. The fact is that the technology now in the hands of counter-insurgents is far better than it's ever been. Their job is easy now. If Thomas Hutchinson had had information technology like this, the American Revolution would have ended at the Tea Party. Even without helicopters.

The odd historical quirk we have lived through, of military power being subordinated to civil authority, is nearly over. No doubt the forms of democracy will persist for a while. Britain, after all, still purports to be a monarchy. But the conditions that made democracy possible, and even probable, have disappeared. Military and information technology is now much as it was in medieval times -- way beyond the means of an ordinary citizen, requiring years of training and specialization to master. We can expect political reality to catch slowly up to to the changed material conditions.

That's the writing on the wall, as I sound it out. I could be wrong; I often am. And I want to be wrong. I'm an old, old fashioned Bobbie Burns style democrat: I don't in believe all this meritocracy and plutocracy claptrap. A man's a man for a' that, a woman's a woman for a' that, and as far as God and I are concerned one is worth as much as another, whatever marketable skills they may have and whatever they've got in the bank.

Still, I would be unhappier about my prediction if I felt that revolution and democracy had always yielded great results. But revolution gave us not just George Washington, but also Robespierre, Stalin, and Pol Pot. Democracy gave us Lincoln, sure, but it also gave us Hitler and Mussolini. And Hosni Mubarak, for that matter. The record is decidedly mixed. It's not the end of the world, nor the end of human dignity, nor the end of lives worth living, if revolution and democracy disappear.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Submitting to be Shaped

No more fingering,
pinching, pruning, bleeding,
every branch and twig wired,
brown and flexible, bent to the shape
of his fingers and thumbs.

Michelle McGrane, “Bonsai,” The Suitable Girl

How much do we want to be adored? Too much. And what are we willing to pay for it? Everything. But it's not a one-time deal: we renegotiate over and over, and get a worse bargain every time. And by the end of it, the price we have paid may have ruined us.

But. The know-it-alls (whose private lives appear to be just as disastrous as our own) talk as if you could refrain from selling. The truth is that if you don't go to market, the market will come to you. “Free” and “market” are two words that should never be used in the same sentence. All markets are slave markets.

So, what then?
when you raise the partitions
you'll run like new watercolor

offer yourself on the altar of stone
beneath the varicolored sky.

Rachel Barenblat, “integration,” 70 faces

Well! There is not much advice to be given, except to pay attention to the trend of payments: and if you're going to be refashioned better go straight to the top.

To Bleed at the Edges

I am old, older than the hills, older than the rain:
my fingers are stiff and nobbly in the morning,
and my knees carry scars of five decades.
I watch the veins on the backs of my hands
slowly rise to the surface,
coming like whales to breathe:
I watch the lines deepen in my forehead,
till I can make faces like a puzzled gorilla.
It's good to bleed at the edges,
to bark and screech and flutter. They say that Adam
gave names to the animals, but of course
that's the Pravda version: what really happened
is that they taught him to speak.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The Right Shop

After six months of being in a bad mood, it's probably time to consider the possibility that what I have here is not a mood to be shaken off, but a new mode of being. At any rate, any time I hear myself saying impatiently, “just get over it, Dale!” I can be confident that I'm trying not to see something that's plain before my face.

Night before last, unable to sleep, I sat up in the bed, murmured my refuge prayers, and meditated twenty minutes. The covers before me lay in a long pale question mark. At the corner of my left eye was the green spark of the clock on my side; at the corner of my right eye was the amber spark of the clock on Martha's side. Time's wingéd chariot. Not just drawing near: signaling to overtake.

. . .

Could the whole project be a wash?
In God's heart, regret bloomed hot
and a tempest of sorrow rained down

Still, some simple sweetness in us
roused divine compassion like milk
found favor in God's tired eyes.

Rachel Barenblat, “Postpartum,” 70 faces

In our end is our beginning. It is too easy to say such things, to forget the rancid backwash of the flood, forget the children terrified, terrified now and terrified forever, the certainties -- that houses stand still, that clean water comes out of the tap -- never to be regained, not on this earth, not in this life. Still, pick your way along the ruined levee, through the sodden heaps of mildewed clothes, barbed with flakes of broken china and glass. Of course God has a temper. Artists are like that. So are fathers. The wind comes again, gently this time, carrying morning.

. . .

the quickening breath,
the rapid heartbeat
as blood blossoms through the body.

How one woman
might turn to another
and with untried muscles, smile
before straightening her shoulders
and moving forward, slowly,
to enter the strange, mercurial light.

Michelle McGrane, “The Art of Awakening,” The Suitable Girl

Once again, a soiled and tired gray dawn, but the sky lightening at the horizons, pouring silver through the black ribwork of the firs. Smoke from chimneys draws the light down over wet asphalt roofs, and spray from the passing cars draws it up into the laurel hedges. There's no escaping the light: even at a whisper, it echoes and rebounds from street to wall, sings under the car tires, and worms its way under my fingernails.

If you're looking for anarchy, brother, you've come to the right shop.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Memorizing Poetry

This post began life as the beginning of my latest “Minding Words” column for the WTLP Zine. It ended up being way too long, so I chopped out the column for Sage (which became simply “How to Memorize a Poem.” and forgot about the rest. But a recent wonderful discussion on Voice Alpha -- Read or Recite? -- and the arrival of the WTLP Zine in my inbox reminded me of it. I am fascinated by various ways of intervening in mind and memory, and a bit baffled by people who aren't interested in doing it. I have similar difficulty understanding people who don't want to try unfamiliar cuisines: even if it turns out you don't like them, they're so intriguing, so ramifyingly suggestive, that it's always worth the venture. Even -- especially? -- something repulsive is interesting.

I started memorizing poetry because I panicked. I was in graduate school, working towards a doctorate in English, my oral exams were only two months away, and I couldn't remember a damn thing. I'd been reading for hours and hours every day: Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley, you name it. And I couldn't even remember what I'd read last night. I couldn't tell you the name of the poet or the title of the poem. I was doomed. The panel of professors would ask me a few questions, ascertain that I knew nothing, and sadly (for they were all kind people) flunk me. They'd have no choice.

It was time for desperate measures. I took half the time I had for reading and used it for memorizing instead. I put together a program of memorization for myself. I'd pick a poem, or a passage of ten or fifteen lines, and every day I'd say it over and over to myself. After a couple days I'd have it down pat, and I'd move on to memorize something else. But I'd keep coming back to what I'd memorized before. By the time my exams came, my memorization time was mostly spent saying over things I'd already memorized. I was determined that nothing I'd taken so much trouble to engrave on my mind was going to wear away before the exams. That was the whole idea.

I now know, of course, that it didn't matter. They would have passed me no matter what; the blankness of my mind was an imaginary condition, the quite predictable result of anxiously trying to respond to every imaginable question about every poem, story, or novel ever written in English, all at once. When faced with a perfectly ordinary question about, say, Pride and Prejudice, I muddled along with a perfectly acceptable answer. Only once did I get to show off my memorization. I was asked something about Yeats, and found myself saying lines from “Lapis Lazuli”:

. . . their eyes,
Their ancient glittering eyes are gay.”

So memorization is probably not a very good way of studying for exams, at least not for exams of that sort. (Although as a method of allaying test anxiety it's not bad.) But the real benefits of memorization only became clear to me gradually, over time. My relationship with the verse I memorized changed profoundly. The poetry I memorized remained clear as time went by, while the poetry I didn't became indistinct, or vanished altogether. I reached for it and it was there. It was the difference between a marriage and a one night stand.

They were not always happy marriages. Byron was glib but untrustworthy. Wordsworth wouldn't leave well enough alone. Shelley, for someone who insisted so often on clearness and transparency, was irritatingly vague and gauzy. Whitman didn't know when he'd worn out his welcome.

But some of the relationships became far deeper. I had never taken Christina Rossetti or S.T. Coleridge entirely seriously: they both had, on first acquaintance, irritating affectations. But the better I knew them the less that mattered, and they both drew me into regions of thought and imagination that my apparently more suitable spouses had never dreamed of.

Often the way people who don't memorize much (or at all) speak of memorization puzzles me. It seems that they think memorization freezes a portion of the brain, or freezes your response to a poem. It does neither. Memorized poetry does not become inert. It becomes more vivid and more active in your brain, not less; it argues and couples with levels of your consciousness that once-scanned poems will never even touch. It invades your dreams and your daydreams; it rises at all kinds of times, opportune and inopportune.

It's true that, like marriage, it can't be undone. It is -- again like marriage -- a rash commitment, whose consequences are unforseeable. Don't expect a memorized poem to behave itself. It won't.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Not Going Anywhere

Back in September last year, Jupiter was suddenly in the news. It was coming close to Earth! Wouldn't be this close again until 2022! Newscasters told you how to look for it, and breathlessly told you that at present it was the brightest object in the sky, except for the moon! And maybe the sky would be clear tonight, and you'd be able to observe it!

This was all very entertaining to the sort of person who knows Jupiter by name and pals around with him nightly. Because while all this was technically true, it was quite silly. In the first place, Jupiter didn't look much brighter on September 17th than it ever does. It's often the brightest object in the night sky: only the Moon and Venus are brighter (well, and very occasionally Mars.) But the really amusing thing was the sense of urgency, as if Jupiter might suddenly dart away again: as if you might miss it, as you might miss, say, the Perseid meteor shower. Jupiter is very big and very far away, and from our viewpoint here on Earth, it doesn't move very quickly at all. In fact, it's been in roughly the same part of the sky ever since September, and when I began writing this post this morning I could still see it through the window at Tom's, blazing away in the pale blue dawn, off to the southeast. Your chances of missing it were very small indeed.

This animation by Brad Goodspeed is terrific for showing how big Jupiter is: he tried to give you a sense for how big different planets would appear to us if they were as close as the moon. Of course, if Jupiter were this close, our little Earth would drop -- plop! -- into it, like a pebble into a pond, and that would be the end of government health care, and Mubarak's presidency, and a number of other things.

Scale from Brad Goodspeed on Vimeo.