Thursday, March 31, 2011

Blunder and Peel

There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off. -- Tolkien, The Hobbit

. . .

How gently you ask me
to peel back my ribs

and reveal what's inside.
To really believe

I'm a reflection of the one
who will never cast me away.

-- Rachel Barenblat, “Beat,” 70 faces

No, there is no magic about me, despite your kind words,
what I have is the ordinariest human kindness, and the gift
of holding still. When the blundering is past, the love remains.

The light pours, sticky sweet, through cherry branches,
putting me in mind of cordials and liqueurs, apéritifs
that only promise opening. Crème de cassis as drunk

by the great Hercule. How gently you ask me to peel back my ribs!
There are two layers to the pericardial sac
(the packaging is worse than what you find at Walmart,

also referred to as the cod or scrot);
but what we find, after all this shying and sidling
is that we were naked all along, and loved

in all our awkwardness: not in spite of,
says God -- not in spite of, but because.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Less Clear

less clear, less cold: here comes
the muddy murmur of Spring,
the gleam of my glassy rival:
who shaves believing that lovers
arrive in April, that omens
never cash out, that the
knotted fist of my heart
can hold its clench forever.

in response to this Morning Porch post. I forgot to post it here, till now. I'm thinking a lot about alliteration, these days, and this poem maybe mirrors the thought: I start deliberately in the northern style, with alliteration on the pounding syllables, and then ease off to unstressed consonants. Influenced maybe by Carolee Sherwood's brilliant backstitching with internal rhyme.

I did think of titling this poem "Miserable Clench": A miserable clench, in my opinion, for Horace to record; I have heard honest Mr. Swan make many a better, and yet have had the grace to hold my countenance. But it may be puns were then in fashion, as they were wit in the sermons of the last age, and in the court of King Charles the Second. I am sorry to say it, for the sake of Horace; but certain it is, he has no fine palate who can feed so heartily on garbage. --Dryden

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Season is Announced

The rabid stipple of
squirrels painting with their fingernails
the scrabble tiles of last years nuts
the rapid barber pole spin of
water in quivering pipes:
O Spring! Is it left to me
the last of your servants
to announce your coming?

in response to this Morning Porch post

Sunday, March 27, 2011


Thirteen cattails, each holding its shot glass
nod by the bar. They almost have faces. If you try hard
you can see them. (Try another drink.) They grow here wild,
immortal, in bronze corduroy jackets with thistly collars.
Round about six they begin to appear, displacing
the water lilies and the more exotic growths.

The raw tincture of potato is not for them.
It tells too clear a story, Too cold and fiery.
No, they’re drinking seven and seven, or rum and coke,
and by morning they’ll be sober as a board.

In response to this Morning Porch post

Friday, March 25, 2011


I am writing to apply for the position teaching Old English, Middle English, and the history of English that you advertised in the October MLA Job Information List. My fields of specialization are Old and Middle English literature, and I am particularly interested in 1) the representation of relations between men and women in Medieval literature, and 2) the ways in which 19th and 20th Century writings (both literary and critical) re-invent and deploy "the Medieval" to further their literary, social, and political aims.

I am a graduate student completing my Ph.D. in the English Department at Yale University. In September 1989 I expect to submit my dissertation, titled "Painting the Lion: Chaucer's Legend of Good Women."

Among the papers I'm throwing out: a draft of an application. I'm struck by the listlessness and pomposity of it -- do all academics sound that way? It goes on for pages, of course, describing my dissertation and the books I supposedly envisioned writing. Including, I was surprised to see, the dissertation I had just abandoned, the book -- that was to establish at one blow my literary theory and historical linguistic chops -- about metaphor and metonymy in Old English poetry. Ay me! I loved to play the bad boy, and I was such a pandering lickspittle. I didn't believe any of that crap, but I was still offering it up to my masters for approval.

In the same notebooks, which are mostly journals, the endless litany: I can't get myself to work, I can't get myself to eat right, I can't get myself to stop going out to taverns. And yet I never get my head above water long enough to say: this is clearly wrong, I'm clearly embarking on the wrong life, I won't work for any of this stuff because I don't actually want any of this stuff.

Throwing away these papers makes me very, very happy.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Eve of the Living

Frustrating day at work, not getting things done, anxious about outcomes I can't influence. I get on the elevator, trying to shake it all off. A piece of good luck: it's the leftmost of the three cars, the only one that goes clear down to the basement, where the bicycle racks are. If you get one of the others, you have to go down to the Lobby, get off, push the “down” button and wait all over again for the leftmost elevator to show up. I swipe the magic fob (not just anyone can go to the basement) and press the 'B' button.

9th floor, 8th floor, and there's a hesitation. Ah. Picking up somebody on the 6th floor. The doors open and a lanky, bearded, sandy-haired young man steps on board. He has a wide-open, fearless face and an engaging smile. As the doors close again I press the 'L' button for him.

“Oh! Thanks.” He takes in my bike gear. “It's so lucky when I'm going to the basement, and I get this elevator! I feel so blessed.” He grins. I say something about wishing you could call this particular car, he agrees, we get to the lobby, and he wishes me good night and disappears.

In the basement I take my bike down from the rack, check that my patch is still holding air -- it is! -- and take it back up to the lobby. The night guard, Mike, is already on duty. It takes a while to do all my bike stuff: I have two jackets to do up, the “camelback” cover to secure over my backpack over the rear tire, the lights to adjust and turn on, the reflective velcro doo-dad to put around my ankle to keep my jeans out of the chain. Mike, meanwhile, has been gazing at the painting that dominates the lobby.

“What was that?” I always have to ask him to repeat himself; he's even softer-spoken than I am.

“So much work went into this!”

I go look at the painting with him. It's a landscape, a stream at sunset in autumn woods, trees and water and soil all orange. I usually grimace at it as I go by. Lobby art.

But I join Mike and look at the stippling. It's a big canvas, and he's right, it must have been a lot of work.

“When I was a boy, my parents used to take me to a stream like this. I'd play there all day. You don't care about anything, when you're a kid. No bills to pay.”

Not me, I thought. I worried about things all the time when I was a kid. I bet you did too. But I don't say that. We're not dealing in fact here, we're contemplating paradise. “Where was that?” I ask.

“Oh, in the California mountains.” Then he adds, in a different tone, “The Other Side of the Bend.”

“What?” I heard him this time, actually, but I couldn't make sense of it.

He gestures to the little plaque on the ostentatious frame. Sure enough. “The Other Side of the Bend,” that's what the artist titled it. “Kind of mysterious,” says Mike.

“Did you hear that Elizabeth Taylor died?” he confides then.

“Yeah, I saw that.” We both sigh. “I saw a little clip of her on 'What's My Line.' You remember 'What's My Line?'” He nods. “She must have been twenty,” I added. “So beautiful.”

“I used to drive her maid to work at her house,” he says, unexpectedly. “She said she was a wonderful woman. She gave a van to guy she knew who was hard up. And probably some money, too, I guess. Just gave it to him. She was just like that, they say.”

A few more desultory words. She almost died five times, he says. Really did die once, they brought her back. Another pause to contemplate the painting.

“You ever see this, right here?” Where the stream winds of out sight, there's a little whiteness, as though, out of sight, it comes out of the forest into open country, and a light that's relieved of all that damn orange comes through. “You kind of wonder,” he says apologetically, “what's there. Is that 'the other side of the bend,' where that light is? Kind of mysterious.”

Outside, an oblique light is scattered by the light rain; the sun is shining, but the sky makes a dark, bruise-colored backdrop. The passers by look at me, their faces lit up as though they were on stage. People always get a kick out of seeing a white-haired man on a bicycle: they smile at me benevolently as I wheel it off the curb and onto the street.

All so alive, I think, as I pedal up towards the bridge. The opposite of the zombie fantasy that's so rife these days, the sense of living in a world of dead people. “Dawn of the Dead.” This apparently is the Eve of the Living. Everyone is human tonight. I don't mind, don't mind that work is frustrating, don't mind that I need to remember to change the rear inner tube. Not if I can live in a world where people are alive.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Two Milk Bottles

Two poems I left recently on the Morning Porch.

In response to this:

Implacable whites, unappeasable skies:
the saturate shell of our wandering eyes.

And in response to this:

Mt Hood, DST

Cold and dawn-dark
(they’ve been messing with the clock again
who knows what time it is?)

The ridge disappears into cloud,
cloud into mountain, mountain into sky:
here at the raw crude

edge of the world
we need no pretending.
A fastness? No, a slowness.

Turn the wheel and the sunline,
taut and glimmering,
God’s garotte,

pivots on Hood’s shoulder
as slow as an impalement stake,
and the mountain,

a scabied ragged hungry eagle,
turns its tufted head.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Half Inch I'm Not Throwing Away

So here, stacked on the table at Tom's, five inches of paper headed for the recycling, and half an inch to keep.

I'm going through old boxes of files, getting rid of them at a great rate, so as not to have to move stuff I don't want to keep. It's easy to dump so much of it, now that I'm sure that a) I will never write fiction, b) I will never be a literary scholar, and c) I will never be famous. I'm only keeping writing of mine that I actually like reading, and what that turns out to be so far -- to my surprise -- is some of my old graduate school papers, and some of my unpublished dissertation chapters from the 1980s.

I heard myself say to someone the other day, to my own astonishment: "I was a good literary scholar. I was as good as they get."

It was so out of character for me to think such a thing, let alone say it. But looking at what I wrote about Chaucer, I have to say I still think it's true. It's not an important genre of writing, of course. Academic literary writing, like journalism, is inherently ephemeral, whether it's printed on expensive acid-free paper or not. But I did it as well as it's ever been done. Nobody, as of the 1980s, understood and explicated Chaucer as well as I did.

How strange. It was the worst period of my life. Everything in upheaval. I had -- for the first time in my life -- unequivocally failed. I was a terrible teacher. I had the classroom presence of a soggy paper towel. I was drinking a lot, hanging out at taverns, scribbling a bit here or there at whiles, exiled in Portland: I had given up all my literary friendships with people at Yale -- or maybe they had given up me -- and I found no literary connections here. I had no vocation, no direction, no hope: I had two small children and a life to invent from scratch, and my skills were fluency in Old English and Latin, and a visceral understanding of what it felt like to be an English poet in the 14th Century.

And yet, I wrote this wonderful stuff. Not much of it, not even a whole dissertation's worth. But there it is, glowing in its nest of yellowing paper. No: this half inch I'm not throwing away. This I keep.

Monday, March 21, 2011


I needed this day,
this time. Grieving
takes a long time.
Not getting over it:
that doesn't happen at all.
One tap on a hollow wall,
one glimmer ghosting
off the gray mottled
choker of cloud,
can echo for years,
maybe for lives.

I will be listening for your voice
as I die and the syrup fills my ears;
as the brightness flares
and fades on the
knobbly shabby
emptied pincushions
back of my eyes.

So. Make fun of me,
I've earned it;
but the world rolls over for you
as it does for me,
and the lurch
of that buttery warmth into our laps,
that spilled delicious breakfast,
soaks us all.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Lengua de Señas

A seña, then, is not a sign
nor yet quite a signal;
neither quite a gesture
nor a code.

There is more lost
in flattening the tilde
than the breasts of mourning,
or the sehnsucht of heimweh:

it is signed but not sealed
set but not sent;
silent, unseen -- an
unpictured scenery,

an encipherment
of zero.

In response to Luisa Igloria's response to Dave Bonta's Morning Porch for today

Friday, March 18, 2011

Religion and Science, and What People Really Believe

Religion and science gave me much of what I treasure in my life. Religion gave me a meditation practice, within a frame of cultivating clarity and compassion. Science -- broadly speaking, including history, held to scientific standards of truth -- gave me information, and ways of evaluating information, which I use all the time. And to me they are simply the inner and outer versions of the same thing: the discipline of seeing, not what I want to see, not what I expect to see, not what I've been told to see -- but seeing what's there, whether I like it or not; and testing what I think I know by experiment.

More. In my own life, religion and science are correctives to each other. There are errors of the mind and heart that are characteristic of religious people, which science corrects. We're given to all the variations of the pathetic fallacy. We perceive persons where there are no persons, intentions where there are no intentions. We want to make the world into a mandala, an outward emblem of our inner life. We rework the outer world, not as we want it to be (that's a slander on religious people which has never been true) -- but as it makes emotional sense to us. Science rescues us from this.

Likewise, there are errors of the mind and heart that are characteristic of scientific people, which meditation and comtemplation correct. We tend to hide our motivations from ourselves; we tend to take our thoughts at face value. We tend to put our energy into answering external questions, and to forget the very first, fundamental question, the question before the question: why are we asking? There is always a reason why we ask any question. Often enough it's not a very pretty one, but we had better know what it is. That's where the techniques of rigorous introspection -- which have been worked out in various religious traditions, through struggles just as difficult as Gallileo's and Newton's -- are indispensable. If you haven't learned them and practiced them, I can pretty much guarantee that you are deeply deceived about how your mind works and why it asks the questions it asks.

I said something like, “There are tens of thousands of religions, and very few of them make a big deal of subscribing to a laundry list of assertions about cosmological reality,” and he answered, “I think almost all of them do.”

It wasn't answerable in the space of a Facebook thread, so I dropped it, but I understand why we were talking past each other a bit. Some of the difficulty is just in how you count. One way to think about religions -- the way I was thinking -- was to take each one as of equal weight. So a shaman practicing way up the Amazon counts for one, and Catholicism, with its hundreds of millions of adherents, also counts as (only) one. Moreover, historical religions, which we know about but which are no longer practiced, also count in this census. Most religions, counting this way, are animistic or shamanic: they are not organized, and have no power, even if they had the wish, to enforce subscription to articles of belief. You might call this the Senate of religions. But you can also think proportional representation -- a House of religions. In that case, Catholicism, say, ranks as a sort of California. There are *lots* of Catholics, and they have a lot of weight to throw around.

But there's still difficulty with the definition of “religion.” There's a lot of different ways of thinking about what Catholicism is. You can ask the Pope what it is, and get one answer, and that's the basic approach that someone writing a Wikipedia article would take. And so go read the article, and you'll find out exactly what Catholics believe: all about God the creator, the trinity, transubstantiation, and so forth.

The problem with this top-down approach is that it gives you a wildly inaccurate idea of what most Catholics, most of the time, believe. Most of the French, for example, identify as Catholic. A large proportion of them also identify as atheist. There is a huge disconnect between the official position of the church and what its members actually think and do. You can airily dismiss the Catholicism of these atheists, and say that they're not really religious -- and in fact my interlocutor took this route, and averred that I was not religious, even though my religious convictions and practice are the center of my life, and give it such meaning as it has -- but that doesn't really answer any questions. What is an atheist doing in church, then, and why does he do it? If it's not out of religious motives that I prostrate in front of a little wooden Buddha statue in the morning, then what exactly do you call those motives? A definition of religion that excludes such a large proportion of what most people think of as religious activity may not be a very useful one.

When Christian missionaries encountered a new religion, they investigated what they thought was important about a religion. The first thing they asked is: what do you believe? Who made the universe? What happens to people when they die? How does one become saved or damned? Because those are important questions to Christians, at least to the sort of Christians who become missionaries. But what they didn't ask were questions such as, “how important is the creation of universe to you?” or “How much do you care about what happens to souls after death?” A Buddhist, for example can come up with a creation myth -- with several, in fact -- but these myths are trivial in Buddhism: they're superstitious bric-a-brac. The Buddha explicitly and emphatically declined even to entertain such questions. Buddhism is simply not interested in the origin of the universe: a common phrase in Buddhist liturgies is “since beginningless time...” But look at a Western encyclopedia about Buddhism and you'll probably find one of these creation myths trotted out as if it was a core belief. I was mildly surprised to be told recently, that since I am a Tibetan Buddhist I believe that the center of the world is a vast mountain, Mount Meru, ten times higher than the Himalayas. Of course I've heard of Mount Meru, I know prayers that mention it, mandalas represent it all the time. But as far as believing it? There may be monks in very remote monasteries who believe it, but I've never met anyone who did. You want to be careful when you're told that people of some foreign faith “believe” this or that.

And still more. If you have an argument with a zealous Christian or Muslim, they will present as sublimely confident and secure in their belief. Of course they will: they're on their mettle. But they're lying through their teeth. If you think they don't sometimes wake up at three in the morning, feeling utterly alone and sure that they're going to die dead as a doornail, then you're much more naïve and credulous than they are. The atheist nightmare of hordes of happy untroubled true believers, who never asked a question or had a doubt in their lives, has nothing to do with reality.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


I take Saturdays and Tuesdays off. So yesterday being Tuesday, not needing to present myself, I didn't shave till late in the afternoon. And so this morning I didn't feel any pressing need to shave again. When one has a beard, the shaving bits, the upper cheeks and the throat, are not that noticeable. what's a half-day's growth?

But now I'm wishing I had shaved. I had a flat tire in the rain, coming in to work. Equidistant between bike shops. And no patch kit with me, like a tyro. So I locked the damn bike to a stop sign and caught a bus, feeling clumsy and enormous in my rain gear, like someone impersonating a Japanese hazmat worker. And when I arrived at the office, Juli looked at me in a puzzled way. I couldn't hear what she said, so I went closer. She said: "Oh! You have grease on your face."

And so I did, a great big smear of it, from examining my flat tire; I looked as though I'd blacked my face for a commando raid but only gotten halfway done. So I washed it off. 2:00 in the afternoon, and just starting the day: the omens were not feeling very good. My birthday, and I was excited about 53, a prime number, a number to conjure with: but now I was feeling rather seedy and used up. Maybe, after all, 53 is the official age of washed-up-ed-ness. The birthday greetings piling up on Facebook are lovely, but a little daunting. Who am I, after all, really? What are we celebrating? What is this thing, that wanders through Portland and up and down the net? Does everyone know but me?

I woke at three this morning, fretting about a whole long list of things, things I needed to remember to do. No sleep in me. And then this morning I drank too much coffee and indulged in disputation. Entertaining but hollow: I was playing a convinced Buddhist, for some reason, and we all know that I'm never convinced of anything, particularly if it has to do with me. I bump along the ground like a wrinkled balloon. I keep touching my face to make sure I'm here. I'm here, all right, but I'm not shaved. And I feel old and shabby, just something sketched in. A day's growth: you can sprinkle dots to represent that, each dabbed with one sure poke of the pen. Easy.

Then if thou are the food of worms O virgin of the skies
How great thy use, how great thy blessing! Everything that lives,
Lives not alone, nor for itself...

I try some Blake, but my voice dries up, vanishes. Online, I keep pulling up my blog, and there it is, but powder blue and not quite right. I click on this and that, and finally realize that, not quite consciously, I'm waiting for the old comfortable template to load again, and tell me everything's safe and secure. But everything's topsy-turvy. At the turn of the stairs are a couple hundred books ready to trundle off to the Powell's book buyer. I have to force myself not to handle any of them, or I'll pull them out of the "go" pile and put them back in the "stay" pile.

I'm like a cat: I don't really care what my surroundings are like, so long as they're warm, but I don't like them to change. (Is that what I am? Like a cat?)

I'm going to slip out, go to the bank, cash a check, maybe get a patch kit, and go pick up a library book. The siege of Constantinople, 1453: traditionally, the event that marks the end of the Middle Ages. Guns. The Ottomans must have had guns by that time? In fact I vaguely think I've read about them, enormous ones throwing stone shot. Maybe I served in the Varangian Guard, once. (Is that what I am? Like a Germanic mercenary? They were at first Vikings, later on mostly Anglo-Saxons. They probably looked pretty much like me.)

Saturday night Martha and I are going to see Brenton's Bloody Poetry at the Shoe Box Theater. (Shelley. Is that what I am, like Shelley?)

Sunday, March 13, 2011


I know. It's blue. I expect I'll twiddle the color eventually, but I'm sort of soaking up this template, and playing with the tools. The last time I remodeled was probably five years ago, and I'm reminded of the houses we've been looking at. "They did a lot to this place" is not something we usually say in an approving tone: mostly we look at their improvements -- dark wood faux paneling in the bathroom? How creative! -- and wonder how long it will take us to rip them out and replace them with something civilized.

But the two important things are in place. I have comments and a blogroll again! When I started blogging, in the Pleistocene Era, Blogger did not offer comments or blogrolls, so I imitated the cool kids and added comments, by way of Haloscan, and a blogroll, by way of Blogrolling.

Blogrolling died first. They were bought out by somebody who had the genuinely atrocious idea of turning this free software into a paying proposition by placing ads -- not on my blog, which would have been a morally justifiable quid pro quo -- but at the top of the blogs I linked to, which was simply evil. I nevertheless left them grumpily in place, figuring that on the net links are always better than no links, and I'd get something different eventually. But then they were hacked, and they clearly weren't keeping house, so I just yanked them off of mole. For a few months now I've been that abomination, a blog that doesn't recognize its friends. Hated that. But now I have a blogroll -- imported, smooth as butter, from Google Reader -- and though it has some dead links in it that doesn't matter much, since by default it just shows the ten most recently updated, along with snippets, which really is almost what I would have done if I'd ever gotten around to writing such a thing myself.

Haloscan was an altogether more civilized experience. Echo, which bought them, tried. It made it easy to export all the comments into an xml file, for one thing. So I haven't necessarily lost the comments for good: in my spare time, say in the late 2030s, I might figure out how to re-import them. The trouble with Echo was that it simply tried to be too clever. It just had too much stuff, most of which I didn't want. It tried to piggy back on all the other social media, which meant that -- if, like me, you wander around the web with different names and avatars and logins and passwords, according to whether you're on Google or Yahoo or Haloscan, sometimes logged in and sometimes not -- you never knew whether you were logged in or who you were logged in as. And if you were new it officiously tried to tie your identity down and get you to say what your other social media affinities were and by the way what your passwords were on them. I'm kind of surprised anyone commented. Echo also offered a million ways to link and add media; and it also offered, or rather forced, threaded comments. I don't like threaded comments: I like mine flat. I want everything everyone has to say to jostle together, so that the juices swap around, as Huck would say. In comment structure, to my mind, less is more. Threaded comments are like a party at which, as soon as you start talking to someone, your host pushes the two of you into a private room and slams the door. I like my parties a little more sociable.

So here we are. Brave new world. It's possible that I've lost some links -- if you were on my old blogroll, and you're not on it now (you can check by clicking the "show all" thingy), please let me know. My subscriptions to Google Reader were always ad hoc, and I might have missed you.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


Species of North American ring-plover,
the name imitative of its cry

a lost shorebird circling the waves of the hills

in the Outer Hebrides, a rare visitor

what I hear in the dark
when the stroke of the umze fades

ring-plover, shorebird, visitor (and photo source)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Aren't All Poems Love Poems?

But there comes a lift, a bluff of wind from the west,
an intimation. I have nothing to offer but this: a lull --
a softening -- that, and the discipline not to speak
when opportunity arises. Follow
the bunched extensors up the ulna,
asymptotically approaching
the knob of the epicondyle, a well-known road
to fingers scarred with grief
and swollen with disappointment: fingers
that have brushed lips and drawn a thousand times
the Chinese character for “squander,”
fingers that hold a razor in the blue light
of mornings so far away that calendars
inspire silent rage. But hush. They walk
steadily, for all that, like a drunk
who can walk a straight line for the sheriff.
I'll be able to do massage up to the moment
I pitch face-forward in the grave.

But what, you asked, about the deeper
massage of the spirit? Those hungry ghosts
that have been hounding you
for more than twenty years? I have to stop at that,
And look at my enciphered hands.
What, indeed. My pockets come up empty.
If I had an old butterscotch
wrapped in cellophane, I'd offer it to you,
and you'd sit up
with the blankets around your shoulders
and we'd suddenly be best friends,
the last awake at the slumber party,
and tell each other secrets. We didn't want that much:
a kiss from that boy with the soulful eyes,
a word of encouragement from Mrs Tyler,
a ride on Evelyn's bike when it was new.

And I would sit on the floor, and
catch your dangling foot, and kiss
in passing the outside malleolus,
and hold your toes against my chest.
It's time, time that's the enemy,
time and wanting more. Just let this moment
linger. Faust was trying to cheat: he knew
that if ever we could want just this, just now,
we would vanish:
leaving God and Devil, empty handed,
gaping at the air.

(See more poems in this conversation in yesterday's Morning Porch comments.)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Spring Mutiny

It's a Spring morning, as we know Spring mornings here: Spring shuffles into the Northwest casually, all but unnoticed, rumpled and sleepy: a few crocuses here, a fruit tree trying out some buds over there. Not a big fuss. Sure it's green, but it's green in January too.

I dream of the days when everything will cohere and make sense: I'm scattered and confused. One thing at a time. We won't be settled in our hearts until we're settled in a new house, and have accomplished everything that it will take to get from here to there. The biggest difficulty, as always, will be negotiating all the changes in family and social relationships that it will entail. We are such intensely social creatures, and so much of our sense of belonging and hierarchy is wrapped up in place. Moving house puts everything into play: who really belongs? How much territory do they get to mark, how much do they freely traverse?

The life of dogs is so enviable. They need to belong so much that the dog rule is simply everybody belongs: just find your place and stay there. So you establish dominance and submission once and for all, and from then on you just roll with it. But cats and human beings never really settle. Who's boss right now? Who belongs at the moment? No dog ever asks those questions, but cats and people ask them all the time. Forget tool-using and language: the really distinctive human trait is a constant social uneasiness. (Yes, I understand that I've just defined cats as human. That's because they are.)

I can't find the quotation from Samuel Johnson, but he once said something like -- no two people can be together for an hour without one establishing a clear superiority over the other. This is nonsense, of course, but it's fruitful nonsense. There are dozens of overlapping spheres of capability, each having its own importance at its own time: at one time we may be painfully aware that someone is physically stronger and quicker than we are, at another we may silently congratulate ourselves on being emotionally hardier than someone else: at a public meeting a person who can speak forcefully and cogently suddenly becomes a person to be reckoned with, despite his incompetence with a hammer.

We are fascinated by combat and contests: those who don't go in for football are likely enough to be fascinated by academic disputation or political contention. We follow these things avidly even when they're of no real concern to us. I have no conceivable stake in the Green Bay Packers winning the Superbowl, and I have far less stake in the outcome of the political races I follow than justifies the eagerness with which I follow them. (Ireland shall get her freedom, says Yeats' Parnell to a laborer, and you still break stone.) No: it's the drama of winning and losing itself that is perennially gripping. Our ache for winning and our dread of losing attaches itself to any passing conflict. Some time ago there was some spam-ish ad that invited you to vote for Coke or Pepsi: some clever person correctly perceived that a preference as trivial as that for one flavor of sugar water over another would engage people's competitive instincts and get them to click something.

Moving house will be such a visible marker of dropping in class, that I'm abnormally sensitized to class and status just now. My friend Teju Cole has hit the big time with his novel Open City -- rave reviews in the New Yorker and all that sort of thing -- and I doggedly, rebelliously, have not read it yet. There's envy mixed in to that refusal, I'm afraid, but mostly its stubbornness. Several of my friends have books just out, or books I'm reading in draft, and I'm resolutely keeping Open City in its place in the queue. Famous or not, one friend's book has the same importance to me as another's. But I can feel the undertow, the impulse to let it jump the queue because it's more important, and the impulse to drop his name. It's a deeply unpleasant feeling to me, and its resonance with the house-downsizing is more unpleasant still. I feel mutinous, and my socialist convictions have re-engaged. These days, the image of subadult orangutans, jealously tagging after the patriarch orangutans and their multiple wives, keeps coming to me, unbidden. It's not a comfortable image, and it doesn't bring comfortable thoughts.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011


Above the beardline
I stroke the half inch of stubble on my cheek,
and below, the loosening flesh of my throat
is all prickle and fuzz:
half emery board, half peach.

I am an overripe and jowly kiwi fruit,
An incipient but failed Tolstoy, a patriarch
shorn, domesticate, yet run to seed.
No news from the mountain here.

And anyway, I'm Aaron, not Moses.
The one who stayed behind, the one
who looked after the little ones
and tried to make everyone happy.

Well, sure, I said, I can make you
a calf, if you're sure that's what you want.
And so I made it as beautifully as I knew how,
and put the love of real calves in it,
Their awkward plunging for the teat,
Their great dark worried eyes.

And I said to them, “Israel, this is your God,
which brought you out of the land of Egypt.”
Not because it was, you understand.
It was their earrings and bracelets:
they knew that as well as I. But
it was what they wanted me to say.

Ah, well, you know the story.
My brother came home in a temper,
and I told a wicked lie and said
that when I threw the gold in the fire
it just came out that way: a calf. He
burnt it and ground it to a powder
and mixed it up with water --
he was kind of nuts --
and made everybody drink some.

My sin, the way he tells it,
was in representing God at all, and
in letting the people pray to it,
letting them make offerings.

Well. It's a long time ago;
least said soonest mended.
But that's not what I asked forgiveness for
when I prayed in my own tent.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011


In response to this Morning Porch entry

As Spring begins to fill the cup of Summer
and everyone else rejoices, I feel
the longing and the loss of Winter,
the craving
for a truer North and
a more lonely tundra
where grooming swans bite their feathers
and pools of meltwater sway
the black strands of last year’s grass.

Sunday, March 06, 2011


Whiteness, sheets washing out with the tide,
rain sweeping windows with light,
the swash of white headlights below in the streets,
white coiled within white like a shell

just turning to blush. And
a flush begins at your throat, and slowly runs
over your collarbone: angelfood
breathing what seeps from

slices of strawberry,
or the last light of a clouded sky
rising on white walls farther away
than the chance of seeing you ever ever again.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Not Looking at March

never make love at sunset never
leave strands of hair behind in your comb
always avert your eyes when march
that gawky teen on olympus
fumbles trying blue eye shadow
for the first time splotchy unskilled
we try so hard but not hard enough
to stay out of trouble with the gods

Thanks to Uma for Better off Unborn and Jean for Trying to be March.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Thatch and Penfish

A French chaumière, it turns out, is a hut or cabin, specifically a thatched cottage, from chaume, thatch, deriving ultimately from Greek kalamos, reed. (Yes, the same kalamos that becomes Latin calamus, pen, extant in English as “lapsus calami”: a slip of the pen, a typo.) The riddle, then, is “why is a thatched hut like a typo?”

I'm not sure why the pleasure of such simple excursions into etymology is so intense for me. I meet the word chaumière (new to me) and until I can connect it with the words I already know I feel a lack, a yearning. Everything, I feel, should go back to words as simple as “reed” if you follow them back far enough. I think the reason I stalled out on Chinese and Tibetan was that there was no way to trace them back to common ancestors of my own language. It was turtles all the way down, and tonal turtles at that. At the end of the road was not a picture of a shrewd Greek sitting by the riverbank inventing a pen by slicing a reed on the bias: it was a faceless bing, or mao, sung in a tone utterly strange to me. At the lowest stratum, it all dissolved into the chirping of alien birds. Perhaps for some people all foreign languages are like that.

And yes, calamus is related to calamari, because the squid, or by some accounts the squid's beak, reminded some Italian body of a pen -- and of course it squirts ink -- and so he called the squid a “calamaro,” a penfish. And if this doesn't make you wriggle with delight I don't know what I can do for you.

Fourth day back on regimen. As before, one of the first things I'm struck by, when I get my eating under control again, is that I sleep longer and more deeply: I didn't wake till nearly seven this morning. I wonder if the steadier blood sugar accounts for it, or if it's the fact that I only manage to get my eating under control when the other stresses of my life have moderated? Or for some other reason? Whatever the reason, I'm paying off a long-standing sleep deficit, and it feels good, although, as always when I sleep this much, I feel as though the air has thickened and my reflexes have slowed. It's a sensation I don't much like, although it does seem wholesome and restorative: I feel I've temporarily lost my edge. I wonder how people who live this way all the time survive it? Being pitched straight from sleep into the demands of the waking world, I mean. I'd go mad in short order.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

In The Game

Does the eagle know what is in the pit?
Or wilt thou go ask the mole
Can wisdom be put in a silver rod
Or love in a golden bowl?

A long, long time ago, the colors blurred, the voices unsteady, and yet, little in the present can compete with it. What are we playing for, here? The ante alone could break us. You know what they say: if you've been playing for twenty minutes and you still don't know who the patsy is, you're the patsy.

Walk naked down the long cool halls, the polished butter-yellow fir wood warm under your feet, the light bending around corners, slanting across your thighs, motes rippling away from your turned hands. What did they tell us? Oh, story after story, none of them true. The bedclothes still rucked up and smelling of sweetness and almonds and sex. If one still smoked afterwards, this would be the time for it.

We thought, if all the stories were lies, we'd get to make up our own stories: but it doesn't work that way either. The stories run the show, true or false: they set the ante. They make the rules.

The part you really loved was rolling the cigarettes afterwards. Thin brown nimble fingers, and the smell of unlit tobacco. Then the spurt of a match, and the faint blue spiral rising up, climbing up through the bars of the the sunlight, until your breath catches it and it's all confusion and turbulence, light and smoke tumbling together like dancers, like lovers.

Well. You can't wish love never happened. You pay the debts you can, you rub sweaty hands over your hair, you hope for rain, and you walk, walk right out of the past into the future, where the colors are even more fragile

So far, here in the future, the imagination collapses as soon as it tries to rise. But we're still in. They ante for you, in this house: you're in the game whether you mean to be or not.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Moon at Anchor

If I sewed two little connected flannel bags, each the size of the circle I can make with my thumb and forefinger (the 'O' of the “OK” gesture), and filled them with steel shot or small ball bearings, that might work. Little velcro-shut bags. I want something small and heavy, that will sit right on top of the eyes to block the light, but will stay put, so that I can do supine neck and shoulder work, and even scalp and TMJ work, without having to fuss with it. I have a client now who simply pulls the covers right over her head when I turn her over onto her back. But of course I have to pull them back down when I do what I usually save for last, the serious neck & shoulder & scalp & face work, and she grimaces a little, involuntarily, when I do. Every thing I've seen so far is a little light, or not properly washable, or drapes over the forehead and temples.

I could empty the balls into a dish, wipe them with bleach, and wash the little bags with the sheets. Or if a regular wanted one of their own they could just keep one, that would be easy. The metal balls would start cold on cold days, though. I'd have to smuggle the eye pillow onto a corner of the table warmer, so it would be nice and warmed up before I turned my client over.

I'm at the door, with all my kit packed up. Her daughter loms onto her, for a hug, and I ruffle the girl's hair. She flashes a smile at me. She likes me. I didn't give her away when first I spotted her, years ago, creeping down to get a glimpse of her Mom getting a massage, when she was supposed to be in bed. We have been secret sharers, ever since. “Now let me give Dale a hug before he goes,” laughs her Mom. The girl yields the floor with dignity, like a veteran senator. A warm terrycloth hug, and I'm out the door, into a cold night with flying clouds and the moon riding restlessly at its sea-anchor over the housetops. This part of my life, anyway, is right. I've found my work.