Monday, May 30, 2011

The Honey Dipper of the Heart

Photo from the Honey Harvest Farms Catalog

She said scornfully, “You don't know what orzo is? It's not rice. It's pasta, shaped like rice.” When she spoke faster, as the flirtation proceeded, her r's stumbled over each other and began to roll. I couldn't place the accent. Greek?

The Greeks seem unable to shake the delusion that pasta belongs in soups. I remember dozens of shipboard meals of spaghetti soup: that, and spinach, cooked to disintegration, floating like seaweed in bowls of olive oil. We speculated among ourselves: did the Greeks eat that stuff at home, or was it just something they thought tourists would like?

Pasta in soup can be done. That avgolemno, egg-lemon soup! We used to eat it in Seattle, at a place in the U-District called “The Continental Cafe.” It was wonderful, sweet and sour, utterly new to us. A new taste for a new world.

Not new any more, of course. I don't know if the cafe, even if the district, is still there. When you're young you think these trendy neighborhoods are immortal, but they're as short-lived as rats. Seven years is a good run.

I watch the blue flickers run down the sides of my face, pool along the top of my collar bone, and soak inwards. The sudden thin wash of despair. Yah. It changes nothing, my pretty darlings..

But. Not looking for new worlds, now. Looking for a way to fully inhabit the ones I know. God, this is hard. And the rewards seem so slight, compared to the tremendous rattle and roll of death and debility. Just one more, they whisper. Just one more world, before you give up. This time you'll know what to do.

I grow increasingly suspicious of the provisional, the “just for now,” the “just this once,” even as I become more deeply convinced of impermanence. Ad hoc, we say, but everything is ad hoc: the real question is just what hock we're adding to.

I settle my forearm across the small of the back, let it wash up on the shore of the sacrum, and rake between the ribs with the fingers of my other hand: up the grooved side and over the back. I just want people to know that their ribs go all the way around, sweet living hoops, graceful flourishes.

The cage of the heart, said the Anglo-Saxon poets, with the typical Anglo-Saxon stupidity about the body. No. Say the sleeve of the heart, the honey dipper of the heart, the Saturn's rings of the heart. They're not caging anything. They're less like armor than they are like the framework of bars over the bed of our pickup truck, something you can grab and tie to.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Not Looking Away

I don't know much about the Philippines. There was a time in my life when I used to take those fat old hardbacks out of the library, the histories of nations, 19th Century books, mostly, from back when nobody had any doubt about nations being the basic objects of history. History of Spain. History of Japan. It irked me, always, to have portions of the globe and no story to go with them. I'd read the books cover to cover. I don't know how much of it stuck with me: but the sheer bulk of the material must have had some effect.

But somehow no History of the Philippines ever came my way. Maybe because an obscure uneasiness tended to steer me away from places that came into the modern world as colonies – I'm still ashamed, and still have not done much about, my abysmal ignorance of Africa – and the Philippines seemed, maybe, the most colonial of all. The very name I assumed to be (rightly or wrongly? I have no idea) from Philip II of Spain, the Philip who sent the Armada against England. (It's odd how people keep these colonial names. We kept Georgia and Virginia and Maryland, even after six years of bloody brutal war to shake free of the British monarchy. I wonder why?)

Anyway – I knew the Philippines had been Spain's Asian colony, ceded to us after the Spanish-American war. I knew we'd fought a horrible war against an insurgency there – all such things of course are seen to someone of my generation through the frame of Vietnam, and I read Twain's famous essay about it, so that I always looked darkly on the monuments to those who fell fighting the Filipino insurgency that are dotted around Oregon. (Oregon has always been prime recruiting ground for dirty little wars abroad: sometimes I think, given the steady trickle of boxes coming home, that half the kids in Iraq and Afghanistan right now are from Oregon.) But I also knew that there was genuine ambivalence about America there, and that it was one of the places that resisted Japanese occupation most resolutely, during the Second World War. We must also have done some things right. But that was about the sum of my knowledge.

But the very thing that used to steer me away from it, steers me towards it now. It's precisely these palimpsest places, countries that have been half-overwritten by successive colonial powers, that seem to me, now, to be best-placed to understand what the world is becoming. The purity of nations has always been a fiction, and a particularly unfortunate one. There is no country without racial, linguistic, and religious minorities. If we can once get that fully through our thick heads, maybe we can realize that our political mission is not to to divvy the world up “fairly” into homelands of chosen peoples, but to somehow figure out how different peoples can cohabit civilly in mixed, messy, unfair impurity. That's the political mission of the 21st Century: we'll either figure it out or die. Nationalism brought us the blessings of the first two world wars: if it brings us a third blessing, it will be the last one.

It seems to me that our political duty as artists – insofar as we have one – is simply not to turn away. Not to avert our gaze from what is messy and disquieting in our histories and in our present. For me, to see the Mexicans who made my breakfast today, glimpsed momentarily through the pass bar; and to see Martha's resentment of being at a disadvantage, looking for work, because she doesn't know Spanish, in a city that had virtually no Spanish speakers when she was growing up here fifty years ago. Or to look sometimes at the strange silk map of the home islands of Japan, made by the US Air Force, that I was given by an old WW II bomber pilot. The weaving that ties us into all the crimes of the past and the future is not hard to see, not if we look.

The thing to steer by is precisely that obscure uneasiness, that impulse to look away. I take that to be the guiding principle of Juan Luna's Revolver. Juan Luna the Filipino painter who shot his wife and mother-in-law in Paris in 1892:
Juan Luna the painter was pardoned
        and ordered to pay one franc each
                to his victims' immediate relatives,

because of an obscure French law which explained
        that native people, very primitive people,
                have this tendency to run amok.

Of course one goes looking for the predecessors who reflect credit: there must have been some impulse to look away from these murders, some impulse to move along and look for some other Filipino expat artist wandering in the belly of the beast. She could have done that, and written a much more comfortable, much less important book.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Rain and Exposure

I'm drenched: a fine old-fashioned Oregon rain caught me on the way to Powell's. But I'm too old an Oregonian to fuss about getting wet. I found what I was looking for on the shelves: Juan Luna's Revolver. I beam at people as I trot down the sidewalks, weaving under awnings when I can. And then I settle down in the Virginia Cafe, hanging my jacket to dry on a little wooden peg. And soon I'm reading about Caillebotte's painting of a rainy day in Paris, and the teardrop gleam of an earring. Rain, rain outside the Virginia Cafe, rain in the Blue Ridge mountains, and behind those, our various experiences of rain in our homelands. Luisa and I are each specialists in a particular kind of rain; we can both view the European rain with a certain ironic distance. Here, M. Caillebotte, sit down and we'll tell you about rains: downpours that render umbrellas ridiculous; rains that darken the world to twilight for months at a time!

I stop to count the characters introduced in “Minim.” The poet and her daughter. The music teacher. Modigliani and his pregnant wife. Juan Luna, of course. The two gladiators dragged off in his painting. Retana, an art critic apparently? Should I know who he is? José Garcia Villa, the dismissed poet. That makes ten, in a thirty-four line poem, and yet such is our capacity for perceiving persons, and perceiving persons perceiving persons, that there's nothing even slightly confusing about it. The poet is speaking to us: in the first frame is her daughter and (at the end) the Russian emigré music teacher. The magazine opens to the world of Modigliani and his wife. Then the poet's thought ranges to the Filipino emigrés, Juan Luna and José Garcia Villa. Retana belongs to Juan Luna and so do the gladiators in his painting. We make sense of it all effortlessly. Luisa's right: the reader's mind can hold them all without strain. It is, in fact, how we ordinarily think: through cascades of personas. We don't really think about Modernism; we think about Modgliani. And we don't really think about Filipinos looking for ground to stand on in Europe: we think about Juan Luna. And I think, not about this book, but about Luisa. If I did not know her (do I know her?) I would have to invent her.

Well, I told myself I had to post on my massage blog at least once a week. It's funny, after all this time in the online world – I've been blogging, after all, since 2003 – how exposed and unnerved I feel, writing on a different “platform” with a different audience. And after all, I'm only, what, four? five years old? as a massage therapist: what do I know? And there's additional complexities to blogging when your professional persona is on display. I'm mostly writing to other massage bloggers (since they're the people who will respond to me – on Facebook, mostly; it's an odd sort of three-cornered conversation that usually develops, with people reading each other's blogs but conversing about them on Facebook) – but of course I always have an eye over my shoulder for the clients and potential clients listening in. And as health care providers, not to mention as decent human beings, we're all hampered by the fact that we can't actually talk about what we do, except in generalities and heavily disguised cases.

I had high hopes, when those movies started coming out where adults swap places with kids' bodies and go back to kindergarten or high school, that someone would take the opportunity to show how much of childishness and immaturity is simply a response to living in an authoritarian world of constant surveillance. But reviews didn't make it sound like anyone did, and I don't usually have the patience to watch movies. But I often think that if I was in public school again I'd probably behave just as I did then: sulky, balky, and given to tantrums and affected “weirdnesses.” And now that I'm blogging in a slightly new world I'm having precisely the same exposure anxiety, uncertainties, and fluctuations of tone that I had when I started up here at Mole. One thinks one has matured: but what's really happened is that one has surrounded oneself with supports and comforts.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Or something. My recent blog posts seem to be spending the week in their other house, where we love them just as much, right?

Energy and Bodywork

Repost of the notorious "Medical Uselessness of Massage" series.

Monday, May 23, 2011


Every day we haul more out.
Every day more remains,
stuff we can neither love nor part with,
shabby, peeling, broken, stained.

Bare redone floors, emptied rooms
ripple with ice-edged air
like the cold of isopropyl on the skin,
or shreds flowing over the galvanized rim
of a bucket of stage mist, melting dry.

“Mama?” calls my grown son,
and the sound shivers, becomes high pitched:
becomes the voice of the three-year-old
we will leave behind with the house.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Fire and Rescue

Each leaf rolls its drops
into one fat bead,
each bead tries to gutter away
into the pointless stem,
each leaf bucks it back to raise
her neck against the sun again.

Thrush in the throat,
thrush in the wood,
thrush in the crawling soil --
the song begins when the leaf gives up,
and the slow bead falls,
and the poisoned fire, arm under arm,
climbs down to the waiting crowd.

in response to this Morning Porch post.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


It's strangely exhausting. I'm just stripping the poems that are going into my book out of my blog, putting them in a single text file, and doing a few minor edits. Mostly these consist of de-capitalizing the first letter of every line, which I stubbornly kept doing the first couple of years I wrote poetry, not realizing then how pervasively the lower-case convention has taken hold in modern poetry, and how outlandish I was making my verse look. I have, as you might say, capitulated.

I did rewrite one poem extensively. But for the most part it's a simple clerical job, and not a difficult one: find the poem in the archives, copy it to the file, de-capitalize the first lines, save the file, delete the blog post. But it's taken me all morning to do that with ten poems, and I feel as shaken and worn as I did after the first time I lectured to a crowd in a big hall. Clearly, the fact that this is a book that's really going to be published has brought the big guns of appearing-in-public anxiety to bear on me. I've been shelled all morning.

The book as I picture it now is in five numbered sections of about ten poems each. This is the second section I've extracted. My persistent worry is that the book is just too big -- but I remind myself that I'm a wimp in the matter of reading poetry. I couldn't even read the four poetry books I set out to read for Poetry Month: I got through two of them, by pushing hard, and that was it. So I'm not a good judge of how much poetry is too much poetry.

One good poem throws a hood over my head, shoves me into a jeep, and carries me away to an unfamiliar place for days. People talk with funny accents and none of the street signs make sense. I eventually find my way home, but the Stockholm syndrome is strong in me, and ever after I wonder if this home is really the right home after all, if these people are really my people. There's a limit to how many times I can stand to be carried off in a month. Other people though seem to take it quite in stride.

But. Shaken as I am, it's joyful, gratifying task, making on this scale, even though I have seldom been so keenly aware of having no idea what I'm doing. I'm very grateful to have the chance to do it.

PS Go read Luisa Igloria's latest Morning Porch poem.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


I'm not saying that there could be nothing more sexy than what a German woman does with her throat and lips when pronouncing the word Orangensaft ("orange juice"). I'm open minded. I'm willing to entertain other possibilities. Maybe I'm unduly influenced by knowing that German Saft is the same word as English "sap," but with the vowel broadened and lengthened; with the final consonant eased lovingly over the lower lip, and finally sent on its way with a teasing tap of the tongue, so that it's pronounced something like "zoft." The sap of oranges. The soft of oranges. (Zaftig, Yiddish zaftik, is another cognate: full of juice, running over with sweetness.) But of course it's the 'r' of Orange, way deep in the throat between those two back-vowels, that sets the stage. After that, who has much left in the way of defenses? And then you get the rich 'g', the same consonant as we get in the middle of "pleasure" or "azure." You're lost before you even get to the Saft.

There are people who think German is an ugly language, presumably having formed their impression from the tense Prussian whine of Colonel Klink on Hogan's Heroes. Whatever.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Cheapo-Cheapo Strategy

So I'm laptopped again: an HP mini 110, at a total cost of $290. I'll probably regret this, but I'm keeping the Windows 7 "Starter" OS. I uninstalled the Norton teaser and installed free Avira instead. Downloaded Open Office (I'm damned if I ever again will submit to the highway robbery of Microsoft desktop tools!) and trying out Zumo. I am now officially ready to rock and roll again.

My aim is to keep my laptop cost down to $15 per month, and my strategy for doing that is going the dirt-cheap route. The big downside is that really cheap laptops don't last long at all. To meet my goal I'm going to have to keep this running for twenty months. Since all three of my last laptops have died of power jack contusions, I'm going to try to be very tender with this one's power jack. No more working on it while it's plugged in: no more getting tangled up with the cord when I get up off the couch.

It's a pain to go the low end route, since you have to replace the laptops so often, but it also keeps you disciplined about storing *nothing* that you really want to keep locally. That's been my goal for years. The local drive is there as a backup, of course, but anything I really want I keep pushed out to the net, one way or another, where professionals tend the data and back it up. Every time one of these laptops goes south, I do discover stuff that I was keeping only locally. But less and less. I handle each succeeding calamity with greater aplomb.

One could also go high end. But the thing is, if I bought myself a really nice Mac, say, I'd be looking at keeping it running for ten to fifteen *years* before it would work out to being as cheap. And unless the technology races slow way down, any machine looks to be useless ten years from now, no matter how high end it may be right now. I have a settled preference for taking my lumps up front.

I had a bad, bad hour with this machine when I first took it out of the box, and it would not power up for me. The power switch is a little spring-loaded slider that masquerades as a two-notch switch, and there was nothing on keyboard or screen that acknowledged powering on: I apparently turned it on and off so rapidly that I never saw even a flicker. I called India in high dudgeon, and spent half an hour learning, painfully, that there are alpha-bravo systems for confirming alphabetical serial numbers that I have never heard of (was he really saying "a as in aardvark," or was I having auditory hallucinations?) and that a circular saw going in the kitchen moves me easily from "hard of hearing" to "stone deaf." Eventually the screen started doing something, and I hung up on my friend in Bangalore -- who was by this time nearly as frustrated with me as I with him -- and life became one long sweet song.

So I'm back! And now I can get seriously to work on my poetry MS. O happy day!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Are sun, moon, or stars by law forbidden
To smile where they list, or lend away their light?

I wonder where Donne really comes down? He loved to tease, of course, and I suppose his real conviction was that the whole game of love was a house of worldly cards. This poem, like others, is a reductio ad absurdum. Take love seriously, and it leads you to conclusions like these: therefore love is not to be taken seriously.

Donne himself indulged regularly in that bizarre 17th Century habit of alternating (at least in poetry) between attempting to seduce women, and vilifying their inconstancy. But he could at least see that the two projects made nonsense of each other.

I think of myself these days as only vaguely Buddhist. Not apostate, but certainly careless. But I am brought up short by a Facebook friend, scorning merciful thoughts towards Osama bin Laden, and expressing the wish that his corpse should be hanged from the Statue of Liberty till he rots, and then that his bones should be scattered in the gutters for passing New Yorkers to piss on.

I deliberately did not notice Osama's death: I do not choose to regard him as an important man. I'm not shocked on his account. The karma of his life and death is as obvious as karma ever gets. Osama's great misfortune is that he found people to take him seriously: I won't add to his troubles by joining the crowd.

No, I'm shocked on my friend's account. He has no habit of introspection, no religious tradition to help him, and he has no idea what he's doing to his mind by cultivating this hatred, what marks that kind of thinking leaves, what impotence it causes. And there's no way even to begin to tell him. It would be like trying to explain calculus to someone with no algebra or trigonometry: the conceptual building blocks are just not there. So again, I come to silence.

But I also come to realizing that, impatient of ritual and skeptical of authority as I may be -- dismissive of such fundamental doctrines of reincarnation and enlightenment -- I am a Buddhist now down to the bones, and will be till I die. I would not sink my hands in a tub of human shit and then walk around all day without washing them: with precisely the same urgency, and for precisely the same reasons, if I found my mind sunk in thoughts like these, I would clean up immediately with meditation and prayer. It's ordinary hygiene: I'd do it for my friends and family as much as for myself.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Lighted Windows

The waitress, seeing me lost in thought, paused to wave a hand in front of my eyes. Not because she'd asked me anything. Gratuitously: simply because she'd seen that I was thinking. At once the old anger was ignited, and suffused me like a blush. I fixed a cold unsmiling gaze on her face, rocked with a rage so deep that I could do nothing but what I did in childhood: cut off my voice and my face, and present a perfect blank to the world, until I had control of myself again.

All my life people have done this. Seeing that I'm thinking something out, or exploring some emotion or experience with deep attention, they deliberately come and interrupt me. It's supposed to be funny. They've caught me, they seem to think, in a lapse.

If they knew the deep hatred their interruption lights in my heart, they'd back up even faster than this waitress did. In all the years I've suffered this persecution, I've never yet killed one of my tormentors. But there's always a first time, my pretties.

It's incomprehensible to me. If you see someone painting, do you step up to snatch the brush out of their hand? If you see someone working with power tools, do you go find the fusebox to switch off the electricity? If you see someone singing, do you take the opportunity to pitch a balled-up kleenex in their mouth? Why is thinking the one act of creative attention that it's supposed to be a harmless joke to ruin?

I have a horror of imprisonment, because I picture prison as a place where this happens all the time, where nobody ever leaves you alone to think.

Nowadays this sort of interruption happens so seldom that I can afford to hold no grudge; sometimes I don't even get angry. When I was in school it happened all the time, and I'm sure it still happens all the time to thoughtful children. I wish I could do something to protect them. I wish, at the very least, I could tell that that the day will come when they can surround themselves with people who would no more interrupt them because they are thinking than they would break a window because it was lighted. Someday, it will be rare enough to be worthy of a blog post. Hang in there, kids.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Counting from the Middle

Oh, but maybe it’s you after all who’s right, to count
the costs of lingering. I have grown white with blossom,
wrinkled with lichen, confused with kisses that came
after the peace was declared. And still the roots push deeper
and the flare is brighter, and the copper-green pulls gold
tighter to the finger. How to reckon now, with the end
and the beginning both lost in the half-leaved trees?

In response to Luisa Igloria's Letter to Ardor at Via Negativa.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Customer Survey

At some point, five years ago or so, some application or other asked me to supply an avatar, and the nearest image belonging to me was the scan of this napkin-drawing:

So I cropped it a bit and stuck the image in there, and the image sort of hitchhiked around until it became my image in the Google-Yahoo industrial complex, like this --

If you know me online at all, you've probably seen it beside my comments and so forth. So after five years of this, it suddenly occurred to me that this more or less randomly snipped thing has become part of my "brand," and that I should think about whether it actually presents me as I want to be presented. (I love, by the way, the fact that we use the word "brand" about human beings, since human beings have indeed been branded, throughout history, with hot iron. If they're slaves. Now we cheerfully do it to ourselves, happy to be our own slavemasters and peddle ourselves in the market.)

The hitch is that I have no idea how it lands for people. I took a certain pleasure in the fact that it was a) homemade, b) had moon, stars, hills and water in it, and c) hinted at something possibly, in an off-center way, erotic. As a Buddhist (not to mention as someone tending to morbid self-consciousness) I always have an uneasy relationship with this sort of self-reification, so having once come up with something, I just kept it.

But now it occurs to me that I should do a customer survey of the consumers of my brand. What do you think of it? Does it represent me? Should I substitute something else? Have you always hated it and been too polite to say so? Now's the time to be rude.