Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Sort of Music

“I'd let 'em down easy, let 'em down easy,”
said the man who drove implacably
the cruelest war of the age:
but he wanted his beaten enemies

to go home and start again, build
a new coop for the chickens,
haul the beehives upright, turn
their muddy ground into fields.

What becomes of us now?
The hills are no closer, the sky no further.
The first frost comes
when it always did.

We reach for whatever splinter-hafted
tools are still in reach:
at a distance the banging of a hammer
becomes a sort of music.

In response to this Morning Porch post.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Wild Pears

The deer rise high on their hind legs,
reaching for wild pears;

it's not that we do it well, Dr Johnson says,
it's that we do it at all.

I asked, too late, “do you do hugs?” – and you said
“I don't really, but I'm trying to learn” –

but by that time you were in my arms.
Oh, darling, I wish I could rewind,

and revoke the expectation.
I want to love you only and always

as you understand and want to receive it,
as deer receive the wild pears:

the sweetness at the limit,
where reach and grasp are one same thing.

In response to this Morning Porch post.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What Impends

The woods are more open by the day.
Three croaks from overhead: a raven,
rattling like gravel in an ice cream churn.

We've moved to the high country
where the power lines cut the sky
into polygons of cloud

too bright for human eyes: where
the stars burn like acetylene,
and loneliness fits over your heart

like the sleeve of a sphygmomanometer.
What impends – what waits – what hangs –
is a noiseless leaning tower of air.

In response to this Morning Porch post.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


There are always ruins, she said. I used to think, but not here: not in this raw country. The Indians left no real trace, and our traces, the wounds we've inflicted on the forest, are still open and bleeding. There's nothing calm or elegiac about the trash fields left by clear-cutting.

But I was wrong, though I had to grow to middle age to understand why. For one thing, the Indians did leave traces, and in fact they're still here: they just didn't leave the sort of traces I knew how to see. And for another, with enough practice you can see the present wounds as ancient tumbled temples. The space of years and the paint flaking off the white bones of the statues, the impenetrability of the old carved letters, those are accidents that make it easier to see the futility of ancient hopes. With practice, you can see the stumps and snags and quick-rusting cables the same way. The ambitions are no less forlorn and distant for having moved men yesterday instead of couple thousand years ago.

I traveled in Greece when I was in my early twenties – it was I think on my 22nd birthday that I sprang up a slope spattered with massive stone blocks to the top of the hill of Mycenae – and nothing hit me so hard in the face as a Greek tour guide, in the front of a bus, announcing with pride our entrance into the Forest of Daphne. I craned my neck: I looked everywhere, bewildered. We were swaying through a stand of sparse shrubbery and spindly second-growth pines. It was on my lips to ask, “where is the forest?” when I understood. This was the forest. And yet Greece had forests, real forests, once. And then almost at once we were on the other side of this wretched man's “forest,” driving on to the next wonder.

There are always ruins. When we were moving out of the old house, I drove to the Powell's warehouse, where they buy books in bulk, and brought in box after box of decaying books: yellowed paper, cracking spines. They bought a tenth of them, for a tenth of what I paid for them. The rest, a person could dump into a bin to be sent to hungry libraries in the third world. I dumped them there. All those books. I'm not one of those people who buys books and doesn't read them: I had read all of these, at least once, at some point in the long backward of days. They were supposed to make me wise, or at least knowledgeable. Ha.

After a month of dislocation, a month in which I've ridden my bike maybe twice, my own body is a ruin: I haul myself out of bed with an effort; I use my arms to help heave myself up from a cafe booth. It all goes to wrack so quickly.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


Three preceptors have told me three different stories recently, and I consider them as I wash down the little stand – full of construction grime – to make myself a sink for shaving.

One told me: “you are fearless: I have always appreciated that about you.”

And one said, “you are soft,” which others have said of me. They are to be taken as words of praise from Buddhist lips, or from a poet's, I suppose.

And yet another said, “but there's no problem!”

Of course there is a problem, but – I translate – what if the problem is not what I think it is? What if a person with one sweep of the arm cleared the table – books and papers and dishes flying – and simply started over?

I have let so many nets of expectation, so many interpretations of my duty, settle over me; I have developed so many habits of thought and action for fulfilling or evading them, that I can no longer see through it all. They don't just color my world: they make it. But there is a real world out there, a world of red leaves, and shifting sunlight, and ants with ticklish stomachs, that cares nothing for my obligations.

Theodore Roosevelt's uncle was the man who arranged for building and fitting out the Alabama, in England. I never knew that.

Over there, the heads of two Douglas firs stand against an October sky the color of old snow. The trees are an old, tired black: the black of a belt that is fading a little, going a little green. They don't move.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

From a Love Letter

Just memorized this stanza this morning -- this is from memory:
I don't love you because you're good at rhymes
and not because I think you're not-so-dumb,
I don't love you because you make me come
and come and come innumerable times;
and not for your romantic overcoats,
and not because our friends all think I should,
and not because we wouldn't or we would
be at or not be at each other's throats,
and not because your accent thrills my ear --
last night you said not "sever" but "severe,"
but then "severe" describes the act "to sever" --
I love you for no reason whatsoever.
It is so easy to memorize metrical stuff that rhymes: I got this by heart in five minutes, and started graving it in my long-term memory by saying it over as I walked back from Tosi's; just a couple recitals tomorrow and I'll have it forever. It's from "Love Letter" by Gjertrud Schnackenberg, from the early 80's. The whole poem is marvelous.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"Opening the World" at St Johns Booksellers

Portlanders: St Johns Booksellers is now carrying Opening the World. Support me and a fabulous local bookstore!

(If you're not in Portland, order it direct from Pindrop.)

Monday, October 10, 2011

Tenth Horseman

All day the roar rattles my office window,
the chanting and the drums, the honking
of the horns of supporters safe in cars,
headed for a weekend in the suburbs.

All is horror: your baby faces all alight
and dressed in tattered cotton armor
you think will make you real
when the rubber bullets fly. Oh, go home!

This beast is older than you think,
and he sleeps in your own young blood as well:
if you once wake him well he'll eat you all,
using your own teeth, chewing your own tongues.

Go home and make a peanut butter sandwich.
Find a channel playing Gilligan's Island
or Bewitched. Dream about

some spotty Apollo, some Aphrodite
wearing braces. Do a little algebra homework.
Forget about oppression and justice. Go home.

On empty pavement, two blocks from the march,
drawn up two abreast are nine police
on horseback, still but for the swish

of tails, their plastic visors raised, the horses
visored too, in riot plexiglass.
A strategic reserve, no doubt. Oh please, go home!

The third row was missing a horseman: the third man back
had no one on his right. So they sat
before Agincourt or Crécy, before

Peterloo. Always that one space empty,
held by the phantom dream of order. That's the one:
the one who will panic and begin to shoot.
Oh please, my dears: oh please, go home.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Death Pledges

It seemeth that the cause why it is called mortgage is, for that it is doubtful whether the Feoffor will pay at the day limited such summe or not, & if he doth not pay, then the Land which is put in pledge upon condition for the payment of the money, is taken from him for ever, and so dead to him vpon condition, &c. And if he doth pay the money, then the pledge is dead as to the Tenant, &c. -- Sir Edward Coke
With all due respect to Sir Edward, this is absurd spin and obfuscation. It's called a "death pledge" for the simple reason that someone taking it on knows that he's going to be in debt until he dies. Debt peonage is as old as civilization: it's illuminating to consider,in fact, whether the two terms are not broadly equivalent.

Thursday, October 06, 2011


On the wrong side of a continent
which the origami of my heart
has never learned to fold, or on the shore
of islands whose names made my heart catch, oh!
when I had not traveled and learned
that no country is far and fabled
when you get there, or where the scented oil
gathers my hands and your chest together –

on any of these crumbling banks,
with the cold rain rattling, and summer
just a story to soothe the children –
is it too late
to stop the dapper Mephistopheles,
to refinance my soul, consolidate
its mortgage, amortize the beating
of my under-capitalized heart?

House within house, roof under roof:
oh darling! Where tabs and slots of flesh
are fitted and rocked, where happiness
is sold by weight, because (you know, my dear)
contents may settle – I hear
the splatter of the wind against the shingles,
the push of tiny, restless, chitinous feet –
I feel the waste, the coming-on of war.

Sunday, October 02, 2011


Suddenly, Chopin is the theme of my life. On Friday, my massage downtown was done to his music – I have no idea which pieces, I don't know one from another, but I always recognize him, ignorant as I am: I had an album of his piano music, which was the only classical music I ever played back when it was usually Crosby Stills & Nash, or Simon & Garfunkle, on the record player. (Not the stereo: stereo was beyond my means, back then.) I loved the way the piano wandered, seemingly without direction. I've never been able to view the over-organized authoritarian march of symphonies as real music, however grand it may be: music that knows where it's going before it gets there leaves me cold.

So I stroked the chest of my poor South American exile, who longs for warmth, and thought of Schnackenberg's “Kremlin of Smoke,” about Chopin in exile in Paris, Warsaw falling to the Russians, and Chopin, having no more sense than any other musician, but having the extraordinary sense to simply follow the notes. That's all the sense we need. The only discipline we need. As if that weren't to say: all you have to do is the hardest thing in the world.

And then today, Luisa's poem about the ghost of Chopin rising from a Japanese bed:
However his name is said, its syllables
linger a little: sostenuto, the way water-
drops slide down the glass panes, the way

each prismed surface looks sheathed in another
skin; the way each bud in the garden might be
a heart embalmed, floating in a globe of fluid.
Sunday at Tom's. Coffee. Over there, a glossy girl of Japanese descent is sitting with a Caucasian couple – kindly, dowdy, gray, and stout. She is sparkling and making jokes, and wagging her index finger at both of them: they are rolling their eyes, but glowing with her warmth. They heave themselves at length out of the booth, and she lifts, hummingbird-like, without effort, to accompany them. Sage is right about how all these things converge to a message:
When I nearly knocked myself out in the garage as my brother and I were digging around in the bikes, I found myself on the floor with a pile of toddler toys on top of me. Was this The Universe playing a knock-knock joke where the punch line was my lack of playfulness? I don’t know; but it’s fun to guess.

Saturday, October 01, 2011


. . . fans
open in the underbrush like a hundred
feathered eyes. . . .

Oh yes, there was a time
when the back of my hand could see Alcor,
when my knees could read an optometrist's chart
down to the smallest line.

Great sad watery eyes in my shoulder blades
looked backwards with regret;
my every knuckle was nobbled with eye clusters
that gave me a wicked return
to a table-tennis serve.

My penis's hooded lens, on its flexible neck,
could see around corners, up skirts:
every bit of me was eating up light –
the soles of my feet had a sidelong glance
at the passing ants on the sidewalk,
and my elbows blinked sentimentally
at moonset over the river.

How did I dwindle to this one minor pair,
huddled on their cheekbone ledges,
peering through a shrubbery of eyebrow,
timid as soft-boiled eggs?

I have offended some great hulking sweating
son of a sea god, maybe, dripped hot oil on Cupid,
stolen a pie that was cooling on Pluto's
vaporous window-sill. I took the tags off a mattress,
undertipped at a fancy restaurant. Who knows?
My offenses are in ranks, they march to heaven.

Now my palms are empty flesh, my ankles
are lumps of bone: my forehead is blank
as an unwritten check. Not even a lash
flutters at my wrist. My body is blind,
blind as Homer, blind as Stevie Wonder.
I blunder and I stagger:
just two tiny bulbs for guides.