Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Affection pulses in my stomach
like a drumbeat in the hollow of a drum.

You photographed his hands:
pale, freckled, vulnerable fish

reaching for a pot. Spruce tips
went from green to seaweed yellow;

yeast took a couple anxious breaths
and sank again to learn its breathing new.

Jealousy is for immortals,
or at least Asuras: not for

creatures of seventy seasons,
barely long enough

to imagine love, let alone
unfold its heavy banners

and rig them on the walls. No.
What I have done, awkward as it is

will have to stand: I have a dying
to work out, and children to soothe.

There is no record to set straight:
this fermentation

began long before
the continents came adrift.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


On the night
that I was born,
the bells rang out
across the world.

– Dick Jones, “Stille Nacht,” Ancient Lights

Me, I was launched more or less
with Sputnik, that steel Russian
egg, peeping day and night
with unhatched, unhatchable dreams.
It floated above us, pregnant with fire,
reflecting on Hiroshima.

We grew up with Boris Badenov
and a thousand other tales spun for us
by alcoholic Jews from a ruined world,
trying to imagine innocence. Not
an auspicious beginning,
but you don't get to choose these things.
If we noticed that our mentors' hands
were shaking, we adopted
a hard-bitten style laughably unmeet:
we lived outside of history
in a land of endless Spring, and
it was explained to us carefully
that nothing would ever come due,
that no one would ever die.

How then to meet
an English kid from Horton Kirby
who thought our beats were real?
We stumbled yearning
towards each other's countries, thinking
somewhere was something
that wasn't spoiled. Trade places:
I'll take the Shire, you can have
the big sky and the Big Easy;
I'll take Shakespeare. You
can have the Delta blues.

Only the bells survived.
That, and the flesh, which we handed on
as best we could. We go now wearing
bear-shirt or feathers, wearing the fell
of whatever our people used to kill.

They knew a thing or two, those Olafs:
that it's better to wear your curse
than to run from it; that home is the straw
where your mother had to stop for the night.

Friday, May 18, 2012

A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage

I don't often read novels about myself. Oh, sure, all novels are about me: I am Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, and Ishmael – not to mention Rochester and Micawber and Ahab – and so are you; but that's only because we all are. It's only once in decade, maybe, that I meet myself in a novel in a more personal way, so as to turn red and plus myself non: I didn't know anyone knew this about me. Tolstoy wrote a monstrous great novel about me, calling me Pierre Kirillovich Bezukhov; Trollope once gracefully eviscerated me under the name of Bertie Stanhope. But no one had written about my childhood and coming-of-age, which was a grimmer story than either Tolstoy or Trollope had in mind. Suppose you are a boy of ferocious will and intense desire. Suppose there is an early overwhelming loss, a hole where the center of your life should be. Suppose what is difficult for other people is easy for you, while what's easy for them is impossible: you can solve quadratic equations in your head, but you can't remember the names of the other kids in your classroom. Suppose the sensual world is overwhelming, full of beauties and patterns, while the social world is full of puzzling, trivial detail. Suppose you are awkward, clumsy, irritating: and yet, when whispering time comes, possessed of an eldritch capacity for persuasion. Suppose your own vulnerabilities are so different from other people's that you regularly wound, and are wounded, without anybody meaning any harm. How do you grow up? And how do you recover from a deep, precocious understanding of evil, which – for all your immaturity – marks you as old?

Well, by blundering about, and doing a fair amount of damage; by lots of dumb luck, and by the grace of strangers who are extraordinarily generous and kind. That's my story, and it's Pip Tatnall's too. I cared enough about the outcome of this novel that when I was twenty pages from the end I suddenly stopped, and put off finishing it for several days. I was afraid it would end badly, and I couldn't have stood that.

It doesn't end badly. But 'nuff said.

A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


If you could talk to your 16-year-old self, what would you say?  What advice, warnings, or encouragement would you give your younger self?

Oh, he comes now and then, striding, talking to himself, his pale London Fog raincoat swirling around him, his fine blond hair floating over his shoulders and gathering particles of mist. He was never quite in focus, and he always had that broad grin, the grin of someone anxious to be liked, anxious not to give offense. He went long walks and sang, or recited verse. Or argued things out earnestly with himself. What would I tell him? I don't know. He was smarter and quicker than I am: I don't know that I'd have much business trying to teach him things.

I might tell him: the problem is not finding a utopia. The problem is making yourself a person who could live in a utopia. Do that, and the utopia will come of its own accord. Fail at that, and no utopia will be of any use to you, even in the unlikely event that any will let you in.

I might tell him: you haven't got a narrative bone in your body. Give up trying to write fiction. Give up trying to be published. The last thing you want to do is muddle your making with your livelihood.

I might tell him: pay more attention to the people you like, and less to the people you admire.

I might tell him: of all the things you're doing now, only one will turn out to have been important and have lasting consequences, and that's finding a wife.

I might tell him, you'll be stout all your life. Save yourself a lot of grief and don't fret about it.

I might tell him: you take money too seriously and not seriously enough. It's never going to mean anything, but you are going to want it.

I might tell him: look, Kierkegaard says Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom. Don't try so hard not to be anxious. Don't try to make it hang together. Let the shutters bang in the wind.

I might tell him: beauty will always be a grief to you.

And I might tell him also: spend more time nesting and less time gallivanting.

I might. But I the longer I think about this question, the more it's borne in upon me: I shouldn't be trying to give this young man advice, warnings, encouragement. I should be doing what he most desperately needs someone to do: I should be listening to him.

I should say: sit down with me here, where there's a sound of water, and tell me. Tell me everything, the grief and the longing, the anxiety and the shyness. Tell me about being invisible. Tell me about the dream-maze, far underground, where you wander in the dark, catching glimpses sometimes of a man who is searching, carrying a glimmer in his left hand. What is he be looking for? Why do you see him, at the far end of a long, narrow gallery, every night as you fall into sleep?

One of us is the dreamer and one the dreamed, I suppose. Do we trade places, in the small hours of the night? Does one of us hand off the glimmer to the other, and turn back, defeated again, to find his way back to the daylight world?

No, I don't think advice, or warnings, or encouragement are in order here. I don't understand anything that he didn't.

Sunday, May 13, 2012


A faint rose-quartz kind of day, everything falling away into distance. One friend said of another, “all her paintings have the same horizon line,” and I think all of mine would too, if I were to paint.

My eye is always drawn to the point of convergence, to the place where all things meet. If I ever realize that it's only a fact of the eye, I don't know what I'll do. I could invert it and decide that my eye is where all things meet. Every ray of light that I perceive, from a star or hill or the salt shaker on the next table, has ridden a straight line to come to my eye, out of whatever unguessable distance, from its last glance. Which is a disquieting thought, if I hold on to it long enough. All this radiance for me? The prodigality of it makes me nervous: I've clearly been cast for a far larger part than I have any idea of playing.

Sometimes too when I think of the river, I feel the pull of the whole watershed that draws into the Willamette and the Columbia, the tug of all the water in my body wanting the sea. Not long now! It's just pooled here for a moment; it's just a brief eddy and swirl.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012


Up at Tosi's, where there's no wireless. It feels strange, now, to be disconnected: I like it in a way, but I find my mind groping, at every transition, for some way to check for new mail and new Facebook notifications. The way, when the kids were little, I would always be checking their safety, always be listening for noises or ominous silences. I love my online communities; I love being connected; but I don't think this constant nervous nibbling at social reassurance is an entirely good thing. I find myself longing for silence, for the mountains, for the play of wind and water against a deep background throb of quiet. I am not entirely at ease. I have been pushing too hard too long.

Playing with Anki, a flashcard program, as I read my Spanish Hobbit: so far I find it intuitive and easy to use. Adding twenty “cards” per day. Just four days in, so I don't know how it will behave when I've built up a substantial deck, but it might be a tool I want to use a lot.

It takes a long slow weary time to become human, for some of us. I preach the Church of the Bitter End and the news of your guilt, boy. I'm loving Marly's White Camelia: the story of Pip's slow coming-to-humanity cuts close to the bone, for me. It's always been too easy for me to cut free of ties, to shrug and wonder if any of it matters, really, to lose myself in the sheer welter of the senses, the building of patterns and their collapse.

A twelve-step program for pattern-addicts, said the Rabbi on my table, describing her path, and I said that was mine too. A 5,000 year tradition insisting on the absolute reality of the Abstract travels west from Palestine, halfway across the world, and meets a 2,500 year tradition insisting on the absolute unreality of the Abstract, which has traveled east halfway across the world the other way from India, and now they're thumbs in the hollows of the shoulders in a sunny room in Portland, Oregon, and they find that they've become very close to the same thing. How's that for a pattern? Leave it. Leave all of them.

I'm a slow reader of fiction now: I'm more tuned to poetry than to prose. I like to read a page or two and then mull it over, maybe write back to it. There's something to be said for losing yourself in a story for days, taking it in so fast you don't even know what you're drinking till you're drunk of it, but that doesn't seem to be my way any more.

Clouds piling up in a sky that was pure blue this morning: the sun has vanished and my hands are cold. Time to ride home, change the laundry, make a salad, get to work. Cross the street carefully and watch for cars, my dears. We need you.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Ode to a Sky-Lark

A bright cloud with two deep, gray gullies,
as though a huge W had been pushed into its dough
early in the baking. I glance away and back: the two –
though not moving – have grown into one, and the one
opens like a hand that mimes a flower. Beyond, somewhere,
the blue fields stretch away, and passengers with window seats
look down on torqued towers
and a half-risen, candy-breaded floor.

Already their calves are aching, and they think
thrombosis and embolism, syncope of pilots,
the carelessness of maintenance guys, occlusion
of arteries and fuel-lines. Somewhere above again,
the delicate lines that Glenn and Gagarin traced,
scribbled over now with satellites for phones,
and filamented drones of unknown purpose.

Higher still and higher from the earth thou springest
like a cloud of fire, the blue deep thou wingest,
and singing still dost soar and soaring ever singest,
I suppose. I have never heard you, never will,
I will never lie back on the meadow-floor
of some brickly Scottish island hill.
No more journeys in the air for me. I'm bound
under the threads of space, the woven nets of time.

The webs are falling on my upturned face:
snowfalls of consequence, dews of karma,
wetting and drying and wetting again.
They thicken and brittle the mask:
the sheathing grows stiff even as the jelly
weakens within. Undress while you still can!
While the mud caked on your jeans is still
soft and wet, and the smell of grass is strong.

Thursday, May 03, 2012


Whether an act of grace was a finder's fee,
whether the joy will be stained or wholly new,

whether the admiration will leap as high, or higher,
whether the body will please, or more, or less:

these are questions I can face with equanimity,
if slightly hard. The zest of the fruit, say,

where the vitamins are. This much
I knew when I sniffed the rind.

I even knew it would be good for me
(“five points from Gryffindor, for being

an insufferable know-it-all.”) So.
But I am lost today, and all days,

wandering by the river where the old
concrete granaries are split and weeping,

silos opening gasping mouths to the sky,
where the ships no longer come, where

the boot of a longshoreman would sound as strange
on the lingering cement as the knock

in the bud of a stethoscope, as the murmur
of a heart that's not quite sound.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Collecting Light

“Light,” he whispered. He would collect, slowly and laboriously, a sufficient radiance.

-- A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage

So Pip's story goes on, to the scary parts: where he goes about collecting light. Of course he does, because that's what human beings do: but Pip's working under such a deficit that he has no real thought for what it's going to do to other people, and to himself eventually, if he simply makes up his own rules and plunders it. Here's where the book turns into a book about me, and I find myself reluctant to pick it back up: at twilight the camellia on the cover hovers like a ghost on the end table.

Two fish, one eager and one weary, circle each other in the bowl of my stomach. One thinks, “it is a new day: anything might happen!” and the other thinks, “it is a new day. Anything might happen.”