Thursday, September 29, 2011

Back to Plan A

We've been in the new house a couple days. Our original plan was to shore up the foundation, tear off the roof, replace all the rotten wood, and then put it all back together (maybe with the ceiling pushed up to the roof and a couple skylights), and move in. But at some point Plan B took over: do the minimum now – replace the sewer line to the street and upgrade the electrical system – go ahead and move in, and leave the big repairs and renovations for next summer, when we'd have some experience living in the house. There's things you learn about what a house needs for comfortable living that you only know after you've lived in it for a while.

(I suspect Plan B also took root because Martha thought it unwise to keep me under the stress of living without a home kennel for that long: but she hasn't confessed to that yet.)

But yesterday we found a tiny puddle of standing water up under the ceiling of one of the closets, and tearing down a spongy bit of sheetrock revealed some flourishing mold. Mold like that is serious bad news. So last night we moved back to our long-suffering host's house. It's back to plan A.

Really, I'm relieved. I felt we were jumping the gun, that the house wasn't really habitable yet. And moving in before doing all that work – which would require emptying at least large sections of the house – seemed like deliberately doubling our labor. But we're displaced persons again, for a while. Meanwhile, the sewer work and the electrical work go on. I'm happy anyway to be employing people.

The scale of the sewer work has startled me. When the guy described it, as snaking a new pipe through the old sewer line, I was picturing something minimally invasive: laparoscopic sewer surgery. But this is really impressive incisions: trenches ten feet deep, two mounds of earth on the parking strip as tall as I am. There's a shovel like Mike Mulligan's, only gas-powered, and two big trucks, and crowds of wiry brown men in bill caps with worried expressions and moustaches on their faces. I've never initiated so much physical fuss and to-do in all my days. It's very odd to drive up to one of those “road work” signs with a sense of of ownership. This is my road work.

So – dispatches from the field, as events warrant and permit: we're not home yet. xoxo

Monday, September 26, 2011


Black and ragged clouds
try to pull from the struggling feet
of black doug firs, black socks;

an invisible ball bearing
in a plastic maze -- the first blue light --
circles the rim of heaven.

An unexpected whip of rain
cuts the bridge of my nose:
we die in glory if we die today.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Byzantium: the Lady-Friend of the Archeologist

The serpent is inlaid with gold,
all the gold that he can hold;
the dove is rimmed with chrysolite –
she hasn't got a hope of flight.

All across the tessellations
march the figured constellations:
God is pictured there as well,
and Noah, leading apes in hell.

Where Jesus is, I couldn't say,
From a boy he's been this way:
his mother says since he could toddle
he's always been inclined to dawdle.

Late to dinner, late to lunch,
enraptured by a sudden hunch
that bees will talk if treated right –
you'd only need to be polite.

You'll find him squatting in the yard,
both eyes closed, listening hard,
to the golden-flickered hum
of the vespid on his thumb.

she lifts her fingers from the tile,
lit by a wandering, ragged smile,
bringing away the thick prosaic
dust from the eyes of the mosaic:

she believes she's found behind the sky,
of gathered lapis lazuli,
the lines of his suddenly stinging doubt
traced in the ancient workman's grout.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Raven wrote:

“. . . there are things that we can conceive of that are not possible, but there is nothing that is the other way around.” (On the marvelous POEM site, which, alas, requires registration.)

It was not even a main point. You often find people's most deep-seated beliefs this way: not by looking at what they argue about – which are usually the things they are unsure of – but in their throwaway “of course, we all know” remarks.

This is the fundamental divide between me and the community that likes to think of itself as skeptical. I think that statement is false. Not the first part of it, which is clearly true. Of course we can conceive of things that are not possible. Raven's example of Dumbo, an elephant that flies by flapping its ears, is an excellent. Quite conceivable: utterly impossible. No, it's the second part that strikes me as preposterous. “There is nothing that is the other way around,” she says: that is, there is nothing which is possible which we cannot conceive.

Now I suppose, if I were to put her on the spot, she would rapidly backtrack to a more philosophically defensible position: that there is nothing possible which would be inconceivable by a large enough intelligence, or something like that. And discussion would patter away into increasingly abstract and unprofitable realms of theological speculation. I'm not interested in that.

What I'm interested in is what this reveals about the self-identified skeptical mind, which is a staggering confidence in the ability to conceive, or imagine: that there is nothing which we – we, you and I! – Cannot comprehend. It is a faith compared to which belief in ghosts or astrology or a supreme being looks modest and rational. I can only call it grandiose, and in flat defiance of all evidence. I find it charming, deeply attractive, and quite loony.

I know, I know. I've had these conversations, and I'm familiar with the second line of defense, too. If it's not conceivable, we simply have to leave it alone. Wittgenstein said something along those lines: what cannot be put into language must be left in silence. And there's a pat obviousness to this argument which is appealing. But two things. One, I do not believe it, not for a second. Its not what Raven and her community really think. They really think that everything possible is conceivable. For another thing, it is not actually the habit of the scientific mind at all. Banging away at the limits of the conceivable is practically the scientific national sport. If you want to find me an incipient scientist, find me a child of ten who, with all the force of her imagination, tries to conceive of the Earth, to really conceive of it, to feel it in her bones, as a ball flying through space. She fails, of course, but she tries again, and there's a prickle of euphoria and panic as she gets near it. And then she tries more, conceiving of it as both tiny – as we know it to be, an insignificant planet of an insignificant star – and as vast, as we know it to be, huger than anything our mammalian imaginations were ever designed to hold. Nothing, I would say, is more attractive to the mind that takes up science than this moth-like flutter at the burning light bulb of the inconceivable. Most scientists, would think of this a necessary stage of development. Some of them would even think it was the heart of science.

I do think it's the heart of science: I also think it's the heart of religion, and it's why I identify myself, (although I am by most definitions an atheist) as primarily a religious person. I think that fluttering against that light bulb is important; I believe that anyone who stops doing it begins to harden in mind, and to die in spirit. It's why I think that wilderness is sacred, and that its destruction would be a spiritual disaster even if it weren't an ecological one. We need to stand regularly in the presence of what is beyond our control and our imagination. It's why we religious people, even those of us who don't particularly believe in God, think that prayer or contemplation is a necessary part of a good life. Not because it works. Not because we're sure anyone is listening. But because it's taking on the adventure of speaking to something inconceivable, of being willing to take the enormous part of our mind dedicated to social, interpersonal processing and open it to something bigger, in precisely the same way our ten-year-old budding scientist takes the portion of her mind dedicated to conceiving of soccer balls and opens it to the hugeness of the earth.

Monday, September 19, 2011

To my Daughter, away from Home

It's like a face
that has just looked away:

it's like the outspread
hand of a dancer

when the footlights
are cut. A faint

sickle gleam
is laid over its cheek,

and it turns with
the rising or the setting sun.

Darling, don't grieve for home:
the ghosts are gathered

thick enough already; the light
has already bled into the ground.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

"Opening the World" on Peony Moon

If you're interested in contemporary poetry at all, one of your regular pull-offs on the information highway should be Michelle McGrane's Peony Moon: she features new poetry books and chapbooks, with -- this is the rare part -- a couple pages of poems, enough to really get your teeth into and decide if you want to read more of this poet. Following Peony Moon is a poetic education.

So I was delighted and grateful this morning to see my book featured there, along with two of my favorite poems. One of the the faintly louche pleasures of publishing a book of poems, I find, is discovering which of the poems different people gravitate toward.

I was surprised and pleased by both choices. "Calculus" was written to a prompt from one of the now-extinct prompt sites, I'm afraid I no longer remember which one, to write about mathematics. I think this was supposed to be a really hard prompt, with the idea that if you could write a poem about math you could write a poem about anything. To me, of course, it was cake. I have an intensely emotional and "poetic" response to mathematics: for me poetry and math inhabit the precisely the same ecstatic, extravagant spiritual world of perfect forms and impossibilities. I dashed off "Calculus" as fast as I could type. I didn't expect anyone to like it, though. (If there's one thing blogging has taught me, it's to have confidence in my audience, and trust them to follow me. I couldn't count the number of things I've posted things, expecting dead silence, only to receive warm, unexpected responses, often from the unlikeliest people.)

"Border Country" was another poem whose response surprised me. It's full (I thought) of private imagery and of imagery from Tibetan Buddhism. I thought it was a bit of self-indulgence, a piece of private poetry. But it resonated immediately with the part of my audience I think of as "the poetry people," and I've never been sure why. Maybe they have more of a taste for being teased, that way, than most people.

Here's the link. Thank you, Michelle!

Saturday, September 17, 2011


Infanta, the score of five claws
drawn crosswise over your cheekbone;
consort to princes
of the blood (that one particular blood):
there is yet time but not very much of it --
you could, you could, you could strip off your gold
and go naked into the world of hummingbirds
and of yellow birch leaves spattering light
across lattices of bright white bones
where kisses
come without question or consequence;
where my hand would rest on your belly
and move only with your breath.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Windows Here

You tear the paper packet open
and push your tongue inside.
Sugar meets the spurt of saliva.

It crusts and crumbles; a clear syrup
forms in the channels. Sweetness!
And yet prickly and dry as sand.

The husky voice of the respirator
sings torch songs to a chirping backbeat
of vital signs: O baby,

it croons, O if you only knew.
Huge cakes filled with honey-air
and flavored helium: happy birthday,

happy birthday, dear! This was on sale,
and that stirred an unfamiliar rasping
near the prostate. Birthday candles

of lithium burn a brilliant blue
in the pure oxygen of your room.
One slender needle will suffice

for cake and lung and balloon.
One long venomed stinger
protruding from an infected abdomen

(still jacking) will make you well:
everyone knows that poison
cut small enough will heal.

It's not that your hands are too weak,
dear: it's that the windows here
were never made to open.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


But seriously, how could you say a person had wasted his life? You would have to be sure that a) that his life was intended for some particular purpose and b) that he hadn't met it. Maybe you're privy to God's private thoughts like that, but I'm not. And likewise, I give a skeptical ear to discussion of a meaningful life. Meaningful to whom? And meaning what? Is it really proper – is it really meaningful to discuss a life as if it was an intelligible statement? Possibly. But if so, both the speaker and the audience are supernatural creatures, beyond our understanding. We should probably not get too big for our britches. Lets leave the meaning of our lives to creatures with the capacity to assess it.

I prefer more mundane questions: am I leading a useful life? Am I leading a satisfying one? And these are pretty easy to assess. I'm leading a useful life, if people would be distressed if I vanished. I'm leading a satisfying life, if I wake up looking forward to things. It's a little more complicated than that, maybe, but not much.

Just finished reading a fat history of Mexico. In times of stress I always become more political; and being – in the most minor way possible – a refugee, makes me think of refugees everywhere. My house stands empty, not yet moved into: the house we are buying has stood empty for six months, and belongs, in vanishingly minute shares, to people who have never seen it, will never see it, have not the faintest human interest in it: indeed, it's very difficult to determine, when a bank owns a property, just which bank it is, and equally difficult to determine who owns that bank. And the sale is hanging fire only because the bank (whatever bank it is) doesn't seem to know for sure whether, when it foreclosed on the previous occupants (whoever they are), it entirely extinguished all of their legal claims to the property. The temptation to simply move into this vacant house and get some people employed in making it habitable is strong. We wait, though.

We sleep in a living room with swords in brackets on the walls, a halberd or two, and a sort of shrine made of two daggers and needle-pointed vambrace above the mantel. The three samurai swords and the halberd make the four horizontal strokes of a Chinese character, at night, which the streetlight completes by supplying vertical strokes from the mullions of the window. At bedtime I read The Hobbit aloud to Martha, by dim lamplight. My eyes are not as good as they used to be, but I know the book so well, having read it aloud so often, that I need to distinguish only a few words per line to recite it correctly.

The weather has cooled, and we begin to worry about what we'll do when the rains come: much of our stuff is still loose in the back of the pickup (especially heavy stuff, such as the weight machine) or lining Ashley's driveway in a litter of cardboard boxes and makeshift containers. It's not supposed to rain until Saturday, though, and while I go to work and catch up on things, Martha exercises her genius for compression. I think of James Stephens' Philosopher, who teaches the precept: If there is no more room in a box, you must take something out in order to put something else into it, and his Philosopher's Wife's precept: There is always more room in the box.

Ashley's is close to Tosi's, so close that each morning I hesitate about whether it's even worth hauling my bicycle out of the garage. I could just stroll. At Tosi's I sit in the booth I've sat in of a morning for twenty-five years, and look across the slant of Sandy Boulevard to the north: four doug firs march away down the ridge, in a dwindling sequence, towards the invisible Columbia, beyond Ken Van Damme's Automotive. (Ken has breakfast here too, in the morning, and reads the paper.) Tressa, the ablest waitress I have ever known, brings coffee exactly when I want it, and remembers not only my regular order but also the different order I would make if, by some calamity, I didn't make it in until horribly late, say 8:30. No wifi at Tosi's, though. I can't decide if that's good or bad.

Each morning I think about how full of unemployed people Portland is, and I try to figure out some labor-intensive enterprise I could start up, to help all those people, like Martha, who are chock-full of skills, and are eager to work, and can't find a job. But it's not a kind of thinking I'm used to or good at, and I soon give up. I think vaguely about buying cheap properties and doing a bit to make them good, cheap, ecologically sound rentals, since the great American public has decided that the working class should no longer be able to afford to buy houses. But I know that idea only comes to me because my father did something like that, under radically different economic circumstances; and that few people could be less suited than me, by temperament or skill, to be a slumlord, however benevolent.

I wonder if I can bear to vote for a Democrat for president, again. I'm not one of those people who cherished great hopes of Obama, if you'll remember: he was and remains a center Democrat, and his administration has been governing, by most measures, to the right of Richard Nixon's. I like him more, personally, than I've liked any president since Jimmy Carter: I like his civility and his prudence and his imperturbability. Nevertheless, he is, politically, what in my youth would have been called a moderate Republican: I was horrified by some of his cabinet choices. His great selling point is that he's not dangerously insane.

Of course, if the Republicans nominate, say, Perry – and polls say he might win – and Oregon is in play – I'll vote for Obama, because any other act would be patricidal. Otherwise I'll probably vote Green: I want the Democrats to know that they're losing me.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Mask, Moving

A One Minute Videopoem: 'Mask'

Brenda Clews made this, riffing on a blog post of mine. Amazing.

It's one of the deepest pleasures, having someone take your work and make something new with it. Art to me is nothing more nor less than conversation. I have no interest in making objects, per se: I only want to talk to people: to them and through them and with them and by them.

Elves began it, of course, waking trees up and teaching them to speak and learn their tree-talk. They always wished to talk to everything, the old Elves did.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ser Chö Ösel Ling

A hot moon weltering in the blood of pine forests: the wind could sweep our new-built cloisters away with the careless back of its hand. "The Place of the Clear Light Golden Dharma," in Goldendale, Washington, is threatened by wildfire. But the latest news seems to be good, They're holding the line of the Little Klickitat River, and there's a fallback line at Highway 97. But a number of homes have been lost, already. There's a fire haze over Portland, though from other, nearer fires, I think. After the coolest summer I can remember (while the rest of the country was broiling) we in the Pacific Northwest have surfaced into an intense late summer, now, in the second week of September.

Monks from other traditions, Tibetan and Zen, as well as regular members of sanghas round about, have come to help improve the fire defenses. Mostly lean, tough-looking, shaven-headed men in reddish skirts and heavy brush boots, to judge from the photos. I haven't been out there myself. Possibly it's not the image most Americans have of their native population of Buddhist monks. (Do most Americans know they have a native population of Buddhist monks? Good question. I doubt it.)

Thursday, September 08, 2011

It's Live!

My book is here, and it's gorgeous! Go buy a copy to reward Jo for her rashness in publishing a completely off-the-radar poet. She's done an amazing job. Order it here.

Dave Bonta made this "moving poem" out of a reading of one of the poems in it:

The Last Brave Ship by Dale Favier from Dave Bonta on Vimeo.

(Read his post about the mole, the video, and the book.)

Tuesday, September 06, 2011


Oh Rosetta, little rose, stone
of my multilingual heart:
Do you still think that to say something over and over
is to make it true?

The New Year begins to write itself
in anger and forgiveness, mark after mark
in the soft clay of love and friendship:
the intelligibility depends on the hardening.

Litera scripta manet: each letter, being written,
manhandles the next. In the elevator I count the floors
in five different languages, still hoping
for a 'A' from teachers twenty years dead.

The sound of rain thins to a whisper.
September is the pivot of hope and
the hinge of nativity: it is the kneading trough
of the old year. We lie down naked

in the clay, and the rain surges
as it drums on wart and callus;
on the roof; on the oak leaves
toughened by a long summer.

In response to this Morning Porch post.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Luisa Has Accomplished Fifty Today

In the east there's a glowing patch
of fawn-colored sky with soft gray kerchiefs
drifting across it. Dawn.

Luisa has accomplished fifty today:
the age at which, my old professor said,
you don't take shit offa nobody.

Not grandmothers, who have
gone to their various rewards;
not husbands sifted

to fruit and chaff
in their right proportions;
not puppyish admirers,

blond or gray, who want
to scribble in your margins.
(Fair enough: but

it belongs to them, not you.)
And should anyone ask
the secret of being beautiful at fifty

you don't even have to say
the obvious – “Attend to beauty,
and it will attend to you” –

You can make the faintest
acknowledging or deprecating moue,
an impatient shake of the head,

and go directly to the next task,
as you have as long as you can remember:
cooking, cleaning, worrying –

and doing your daily obeisance
to how the tunic rubs its velvet raw;
to Annie Oakley's interval of thought.

velvet tunic: Occasional

Annie Oakley: Dear Annie Oakley

Friday, September 02, 2011


So I dropped the boys off at the airport. They're going to Boston. And I stay here, trying to piece this broken pot together. I will stay here now forever, I think: no more airports for me. A self-imposed house arrest.

But the sky is gentle, just now, the sky that my son and his friend are rising through at this very moment: in the east there's a glowing patch of fawn-colored sky with soft gray kerchiefs straggling across it. Dawn.

It's not that I have a grievance. I have an abundance, an embarrassment of gifts. They just don't seem to fit the mission I've been given.

It's good to pause, like this. At the new house a lizard dived past my shoulder into the hedge, unless it was a slender gray bird. Either way, it seemed like a good omen.

From the new house, it's downhill in three directions: we sit atop a shallow ridge. The ground only rises slightly to the east. North, west, and south are all downhill. From the edge of the lawn, sighting down 86th Avenue, you can see the top of Mt Scott, with gold grass lit up by the sunset. But Mt Tabor is hidden behind the trees.

Well. Back home, to see if I can get a bit more sleep. Good morning, and good night! Lots of love.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Cardboard Boxes and Postponements

There is no waiting for the clouds to lift, no break in the rain to be expected. We turn with one shoulder the pivot, drawn toward earth, and the other pulling to the sky, fixed to our own skeletons. If we wait for the ergonomically correct moment, we'll wait forever.

No. Heave with such muscles as can get purchase, and hope.

A fleeting wish for a cigarette. I've smoked maybe six cigarettes in my life: the last one must have been ten years ago. I think the wish is gleaned from watching people smoke: the smell of the leaf, the flare of the match, the first breath, and then the shoulders settling as the whole nervous system resets, and north by the compass becomes north by the map again. Those mirror neurons, as convenient as DNA for tale-spinning: we're going to be heartily sick of them soon, and wish they hadn't been discovered, no doubt. Their only larger significance is rhetorical: our sociability, our compassion, is inwritten in our very cells! But anyone capable of introspection already knew that we trade feelings back and forth with other people all the time, that we're emotional sponges, mutual spiritual contaminants. That's why my fantasy life is a public health issue, and why meditation is not self-indulgence, but hygiene -- like washing my hands after using the toilet. I do it to protect other people more than to protect myself.

My life is all cardboard boxes and postponements, just now. My great anxiety is that it may still be that, two months from now. Storage and life-comes-later are powerful habits of mind.

The clouds are breaking up, and the oblique sunlight of September is rushing in. The sun's been stealthily sinking to the south ever since the third week of June, of course, but I never really see it until the first cool weather comes. Now suddenly it's not an overhead light, but a cozy reading lamp by the side of the couch. The last of summer slips down the drain with a swirl and a little plumber's belch. So much for that.

Hugs --