Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bonta reviews Not Coming Back

I was delighted yesterday to discover Dave Bonta's review of Not Coming Back. Totally unexpected, and the review is such fun!

 "One interesting side-effect of presenting poems in this format so associated with a different kind of media, I find, is that any oddness in the text seems much more striking. 'Spring,' for instance, almost shouts in its white text on a dark green page, and I’m like, whoa! Spring is pissed off."

Saturday, April 28, 2012


He is large, clumsy, inarticulate:
and he carries a shallow pan filled with white,
or cream, or light, or wincing happiness.
It slops, as he hurks and hesitates
his way across the stibbled ecliptic,
poor man! A reluctant king, who limps
up to his ankles in freezing cloud,
as anxious to please and sure to fail
as Maximilian of Mexico.

This is the awkward dawn of an age
writ in the stars with dry-erase; this,
the white-board of heaven, where
a mortal's brainstorm is a bullet point
scrawled each in its personal faded color.
Cast your eyes up to the dribbling pan
of our distressed and twitching lord:
this is the spill of compassion;
this is the splash of eternity.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Digital Clock 1, Unconquerable Soul 0

The last few months, I've been waking three or four times a night, needing to pee. Not urgently, not even pressingly, but enough to keep me from going back to sleep. So I pad over to the bathroom – about twenty steps in our new place – pee, wash my hands, and come back to bed. Not really a problem. In the old days, when my stress levels were higher and getting back to sleep was an issue, it would have been a big problem: I'd have been done with sleeping for the night. Still, I was starting to wonder if I should google it and see if maybe I had some sinister health problem developing. (The trouble with doing that, of course, is that the answer always turns out to be yes: just about anything presages health disaster, if you ask Google.)

One night Martha remarked, “You know, that clock really puts out a lot of light.” It was true. I had been thinking the same thing. It was just the glow of the green numbers on the digital clock, but they were pretty bright numbers. And then there was the glowing orange button on the power strip beside the bed. It was not only bright, but had an annoying occasional flicker to it.

“I've been thinking about putting the clock away,” I said. “Now that it gets light early enough, I don't need it.” (The only thing I use that clock for, you understand, is to tell me if I ought to resist the impulse to get up and start the day, and make myself get more sleep: in the summer, I don't need it – if it's dark I know I should still be sleeping.)

I would have gotten around to it, possibly even before Fall. But Martha, being a more proactive type than me, got around to it immediately. Away went the clock. I covered the orange power-strip light, too. It's been a week now, and the number of my nightly trips to the bathroom has abruptly dropped from three or four to zero or one.

The thing is, I knew that small amounts of light have a large impact on quality of sleep. I had read Dement's terrific book. But there's a strange resistance sometimes to believing that our own unconquerable souls are subject to the same influences as those of ordinary mortals. And to the notion that our unconscious brains, one way or another - did you know that human beings can detect light without their eyes? True fact - are picking up and processing information that our conscious brains never handle. No matter how thoroughly we understand that – we never really believe it.

Thursday, April 26, 2012


The dream line: the clouds whipping past, flaring over the clinic, and the shells from the buds of the cherry trees clattering along the gutters like the hooves of tiny galloping horses. How they brought the good news from 37th Avenue to 38th.

Stopping with my fingers over rim of the iliac crest, not really mixing it up with the iliacus, not trying to do anything – that ambition that has ruined so many massages! – but just resting there. I've done deep work on this client before, going right down to the psoas, where it nestles by the spine under the intestines, and into the bowl of the pelvis to work the iliacus. It's not needed now, and it would in fact be counterproductive, but I pause a moment, letting my fingertips be so many heavy gold ball-bearings, weighing there. This is part of the temple too: this is sacred too.

How difficult and necessary the concept of the sacred is! It gets bullied and worried from both sides: from the people who think it makes no sense, and from the people who insist that properly speaking everything is sacred, so we shouldn't single anything out. The everything-is-sacred people are right, of course, on some abstract plain far above 38th Avenue: but we're just a bunch of nervy, overexcitable primates, and we need our touchstones, our lucky charms, our teddy bears. Let them not challenge to themselves a strength they have not, lest they lose the comfortable support of those weaknesses that indeed they have.

I spoke of every day being an opportunity to start over, and Barney said every moment could be such an opportunity. Any moment could be a such a turning. I wonder if that's true, or if that's a similar reach for a feline dignity, a reach for something beyond what primates can really do?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Lines in April

April is the cruelest month, wrote T.S. Eliot, and when I first read that I imagined that Eliot and I were twin souls: oh yes! April filled me with apprehension and dismay, too.

I later figured out that my kinship with T.S.E. was – in this matter, as in many others – bogus. To Eliot, April was cruel because it woke hopes of a summer happiness that would never come. To me, April was cruel because it presaged a summer weather that really would come, and which I hated for its own sake: for its featureless blue skies, burning sun, and meaningless glare; for the noisy nights and drunken fun that I found frightening and alienating; for the heat which made having a body a misery to me; for the sun that set too late and rose too early. I didn't want summer to come. The only thing I really liked about summer was that women wore fewer clothes.

I've changed. I have a guarded liking for summer now. Something has changed in me physiologically: the hot weather doesn't distress me as much as it used to. I used to dislike the sensation of the free air on my skin, and now I enjoy it. And I have always liked all the green and growing things waking up and reaching for the sky.

Always my days have seemed to me too short to achieve my desire.

Lines converging on the distance, and then flipping over my head, a sudden inversion. What are my hands for? Why all these gifts? And why the long whisper of sand running?

My Dad had a real hourglass, and it fascinated me. My vision was better than it is now, and I could watch the individual sand grains struggling to make it through the neck, and then, each one, drop like a parachutist out of an airplane. And when they were all through, except for a little inevitable dust, you could turn it again. Up became down, freedom became bondage, and the struggle began all over again.

But getting back to lines, convergences, asymptotic approaches, verges and swerves. Sometimes, above the silver ringing, there is a complicated drumming going on as well, a bass throb, a snare rattle, the sharp tok! of wood-block: an endlessly surprising syncopation, slightly delayed gratification, all the more gratifying for the wait. A broad jumper suddenly launched into the air.

A faint taste of vinegar in my bread, an unfamiliar tang to the lettuce. The pins that hold the day in place have slipped, and it's wobbling, wobbling.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Odds and Ends

I've finally had a chance to read the first couple chapters of Marly Youmans' Death at the White Camellia Orphanage. People will inevitably call it Faulknerian – it's Deep South, it's hot, it's told through the lens of a boy who's neurologically atypical. And it's got fruit and blood. But if you have any spiritual antennae at all, you'll quickly grasp that it's anti-Faulkner. There's fullness, not emptiness, in back of everything.

And the story is backwards, too. Christianity first made its way by claiming the crucifixion and resurrection as the answer to evil. But this novel turns that upside down: in this the novel the crucifixion (at least) is the evil that must be answered. Pip knows at once, in his chaotic, inarticulate way, that everyone is responsible for the death of his brother. The question is, how do you find your way, hobbled with knowing that? Christianity here is the question, not the answer.

Fun fact: only about 75% of people in my new zip code, 97220, speak English at home. Behind me, a conversation in a tonal language – Vietnamese, I think, though it might be Chinese: my ear for these languages is very poor. I find I'm still defensive and unhappy about having failed to learn Chinese. I'm a smart-ass and a showoff, academically: I don't take shit offa nobody and I don't give up on learning anything. Except Chinese. (And its distant cousin Tibetan.) I devoted years to those languages, and I remember absolutely nothing, not a single word, of either one.

High walls against the sky, dust blowing up into my face, the faint sour smell of lichen.

Jessie, sleepy, wearing a turquoise cardigan over a hot pink shirt, her hair swarming like an amiable Medusa's. She looks as though she just rolled out of bed, grabbed a coffee pot, and went straight into battle, taking orders and refilling cups. I'll take the time to wake up later, she seems to have said to herself. I find her adorable. I do worry that she doesn't get enough sleep. But I've never seen her irritated or fussed: whatever she bases her sense of herself on , it isn't the ups and downs of waiting tables.

I want about five more clients. I imagine writing fan letters to fifty Portlanders I admire, enclosing gift certificates. Super-targeted marketing. Would that net me my five? Or even one? I've been putting off advertising again, it's such a tiresome business, and I haven't needed to for a couple years. You get spoiled when that happens.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Morning flares up. Alarm clock lost in the covers. We've been in the new place half a year, and I still wake uneasy at the different fall of the light. I half expect to open the door and see the ground covered with snow.

I wash the morning dishes, do my back exercises, take my shower. Everything flickers: nothing stays still.

Mornings like this, I come loose in time, as I imagine people with advanced Alzheimer's do. I could be a college student in Olympia, a pantry chef in Portland, a programmer in Beaverton. I check, and try to stabilize my story: I'm a massage therapist and a database guy, living in the East County. Right. Spies must need to do this: get their story straight before the day begins. I have a feeling it's not so common for other people.

I see no particular reason why it should be true, why I'm not somebody else today.

Kia pauses, the sparse long hair on top of my head between her fingers. “I don't cut this?”

There's an odd amused cast to her expression, as though she's offering complicity. It takes me a moment. My perception of my own hair is crude: I have only two categories for it, “right” and “too long”: I'm clearly missing something here. Then it dawns on me: she's offering a comb-over! You always wonder how hapless men take to those silly things, how they tell their barbers to do it. Well, this is how it starts. “Whatever will look right,” I say cautiously. I slip a hand from under the cloak to show: “I part it here.” – Not saying, but meaning, and not way off to the side! “Up here?” she says evincing faint surprise. I leave, not exactly disgruntled, but not quite gruntled either. Balding is fine, no problem with that: but to be taken for someone who would be anxious to conceal it is wounding.

Out on the sidewalk, unlocking my bike, I start laughing. It's all vanity: it's just that some of it is more obvious. I'm still laughing as I kick off and head up 81st, and the wind flows over my bare neck.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Rochester's Slippers

Brilliant clouds: my eyes are dazzled. I lower them from the window, and inverse shapes still hover, moving erratically across the screen, pulled here and there by the focus point of my gaze.

I am at a brink, certainly: the long sandy crest of a dune, where the wind laps at my feet.

Some things twinge and some don't. Tulips of extraordinary beauty in my office. They opened over the weekend. I think of making something: but I'm so tired, and there's a constant babble all around me. All I want is the stabilization of touch. I forget everything else: some things I forget on purpose, and others by accident, but I forget pretty much everything. A few frozen pictures, that's all.

There is a lingering anger at being so obviously and deliberately misunderstood. But after all, why shouldn't I be misunderstood? In what spiritual bill was it written down, this inalienable right to be understood? It takes time to understand, and everyone is short on time. I am too. And the payoff to understanding me, when I am so confused and contradictory, is pretty small. Let it go. Let the wind blow the sand in snake patterns, sidewinding over the beach; let it ruffle the hair on my head.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


I thought it would be warmer today
I regretted my gloves (folded
in the lap of the dreaming
Awakened One of Tools, on the
dusty workbench)
before I had gone a block. My jacket
fluttered in the wind, and my eyes wept.

It is your birthday today,
and all week I have thought
of flowers, calligraph'd poems,
phone calls at dawn, inviting you to see
the sunrise I gave you.

But the dawn runs bleak, colorless,
ancient. I saw last week
an opossum so elderly,
confused, and stiff, that
he walked witless in the daylight,
limping blind, with his teeth bared,
in the gutter.

Carefully I lock the U
around the bike's tenderest parts
with numb hands. I will give you nothing today.
There is nothing that it makes sense to give,
there is no kindness compares to silence.
In my ears the silver tinnitus
soars into a higher song. I wipe
my eyes carefully. I
regret my gloves.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Spanish Beech Trees and Presidents

Reading again a Spanish translation of The Hobbit – I noted it down inside the back cover, apparently the last time I read it was in July 2001 – to try to clean some of the rust off my Spanish. And because I love the book, and have read it countless times in English, both to myself and aloud to my children. I pretty much know it by heart. I catch the translator out, occasionally, but by and large it's a good job. Each day I make a list of 25 Spanish words I had to look up, and I go over them a bit. My Spanish vocabulary is in a strange, hazy state. It's often hard for me to say whether I know a word or not. An haya, now, that's a beech tree, did I know that? Well, sort of. If you tell me there's three trolls sitting around a bonfire of troncos de haya, I do. But if I met an haya standing by itself in a new poem, I bet I'd have to look it up.

Finishing reading a biography – it's always a melancholy business, the finish of a biography – of George Washington. Obama is often compared to Lincoln by his admirers, but really the predecessor he most reminds me of is Washington: particularly in his patience, in his extraordinary ability to leave unripe fruit on the tree. I disagree with him about a great many things – he is after all a center Democrat, the sort of creature we used to call a moderate Republican – but I often feel, as I often do reading about Washington, that he's the only grown-up in the room: the only one who recognizes other people's good intentions, and the only one who understands thoroughly that we don't actually know what's going to happen if we follow one policy or another: we're only guessing. Poor old Washington, who thought that Hamilton and Jefferson would be able to work together in harness, because they were both patriots! There's something very sweet about being able to make a mistake like that.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Three-Week Projects

So the grand project of mending my life marches on, in three-week sub-projects. There's something a little surreal about it, something a little pompous and overdone feeling, and I wonder if it will eventually reveal itself to be bogus. But so far, it marches.

I set my three-week goals with absurd precision. Be in bed by precisely 10:35. Ride my bike at least 28.4 miles each week. Buy the salad fixings before noon if there's only one salad's-worth left in the bowl at dawn.

But it has to be absurdly precise, because I have to know with no doubt whatsoever that I have either failed or succeeded. There must be no doubt. As soon as I fail, I need to chuck the project and reformulate it, usually (though not always) by halving the effort involved, or relaxing the “time tension” on it. Sometimes the revisions are absurdly small. “No eating after 7:30” becomes “No eating after 7:45.” That sort of thing. And it all gets written down and tracked in its own color on my Google calendar.

The idea is that the commodity in really short supply, the one I must hoard and deploy carefully, is what people commonly call will-power, and I call oomph. As things become habitual, they require less oomph, and typically – as with cleaning the kitchen daily – they can be moved into the less oomphy parts of the day (which for me are afternoons and evenings), leaving the high-oomph mornings for working on the hard things.

And things that are established do, really, require much less oomph as time goes by. When we had first moved into the new house, even things that had been automatic for years – flossing my teeth, for instance – had turned into things I had to force myself to do, with huge efforts of will. It helps a lot to know that every time I successfully do something like this, I make the next time easier, I free a tiny bit of oomph for the next project.

The increments are small. It will take a year or two to get to where I want to be food, for example, so that I'm mostly eating fresh food that I've prepared myself, and drastically curtailing the refined carbs. But since I've been struggling with it all my life, I'm willing for it to take a couple years. I've had enough experience of flinging myself at the whole problem and utterly failing, sliding clear back to zero (and under zero, to new lows). I don't know if I'll ever get there, but I know by now that I can't a) establish new habits of cooking and cleaning, b) establish new habits of eating, and c) forgo most of my favorite foods, all at once. It's too much, and it all crashes, and there I end up, as discouraged as bloody hell, gorging on potato chips and cookies because – since I'm going to be fat and disgusting and die young – I want at least to have some chips and cookies first.

So I'm going in increments, and actually refraining from certain foods comes dead last in the process. I may not ever get there, and if not, then that's just the way it is: but at least I'll be eating good food as well as bad food.

All this focus on myself makes me uneasy, but I tell myself it's not really just in service of my own vanity. I'm going to be a burden to other people, not a help to them, if my health breaks down: and I've already had more good luck that way than I deserve. I may have a tough, sturdy Norwegian frame that can carry seventy extra pounds with a shrug, and guts that absorb anything that faintly resembles food without complaining, but I'm not really indestructible.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Not Coming Back

As I told Nina, my marketing hurdle here is what to call it. A magazine? A photo-chapbook? It's sixteen 8 1/2 x 11 inch pages. You can buy it here -- Not Coming Back -- print version for $5.00, digital version for $2.00. Nina Tovish took 11 of my recent poems and put them together with her photographs. They're amazing photos, which won't surprise you if you know Nina's work -- but what does surprise and delight me is how deeply the photographs and poems speak to each other.

Everyone I've shown it to pauses at the spread that pairs a full page photo of a stream flowing through a an unkempt winter landscape -- trees shaggy with moss, soft alternating with harsh, textures fading away -- with a poem I wrote about the griefs of breaking up a household after a death, of selling, giving away, throwing away the stuff that accumulates in a house over a lifetime. Most of the pairings are more obvious than that, but that's the one that moves me most deeply.

This is not really a collaboration so much as a new thing that Nina made out of my poems. I treasure it. I've never met Nina in the flesh, but we go way back in the online world. She was a student of theology and serious tournament poker player, back then. We both are incorrigibly restless border-walkers, people who can't stay put in one world, and we both experience love as a disaster devoutly to be wished. She tended to pick out my more erotic and theological poems.

The poems include my Anna's Hummingbird poem, which I think is the best poem I've written in the last couple years, about the anxiety of a mother Anna's for her fledgling:
God save us from the slow raccoon
God save us from the mocking crow
God save us from the wide-eyed cat
God save us from the fingered apes.
I hope you'll find this magazine -- photo-chapbook -- whatever-it-is -- as rich an experience as I have.

Sunday, April 01, 2012


I was walking down Rodney Street toward KCC, and and a dark pickup truck suddenly pulled to a stop. Two women waved and beamed at me, Phuntsok and -- was it Michelle? My mind ran through names, couldn't find one. She'd cut her hair, and my brain apparently had indexed her name by her hair.

"I'm loving your poems!" she called. Phuntsok nodded vigorously. "We both are!"

"Thanks so much," I said. There was a tiny awkward pause. I should have said something, but my mind's librarians were racing up and down the aisles, looking for Michelle's name. I beamed back at them, and put my hand on my heart. That seemed a poet-ish gesture. We all beamed at each other a bit more, and then they drove on.

So: there. I'm famous.