Wednesday, October 30, 2013


The emptiness of the past is what most disturbs me. I remember my childhood home from the outside: a small low suburban house among others of its kind, surrounded by expansive, flat, close-clipped lawns of yellowish grass, dotted with low shrubs that we called... junipers, I think? – low, squat, dense, prickly blots of dark green. Nothing you could explore or hide under. All dull: all exposed and yet confined. I realize that it's subjective fallacy, and a failure of imagination, but to this day I can't picture a bodhisattva, or even a happy person, living in such a neighborhood. A graveyard of hopes. It's where my parents' marriage went to die.

When Martha and I first got together, she tells me, the thing that most disturbed her about me – and I was a queer enough young man, in all conscience; there were plenty of things to choose from – was that I remembered nothing of my childhood. I seemed to have emerged into a vague and partial consciousness when I was eleven or twelve, and to have almost no clear memories from any time earlier than that. Which, since I was only seventeen when we got together, did not make much of a remembered life. From time to time, small memories, preserved like specimens, showed up. But compared to her riches – she seems to remember absolutely everything, in Dickensian profusion – I was remarkably poor. I had lived in my head, not in the world. I remember the books I read and the pictures I saw. I remember the girls I had crushes on. That's about it.

It was Eros that brought me to anchor in the world, that gave me motive and memory. I really don't seem to have existed before that, in any substantial way. I drifted somewhere, but I don't know where. And if I contemplate a life with the erotic fading from it, my imagination turns up the same emptiness my early past does: a formless, uninhabited, uninhabitable flatland of dry lawns and junipers.

It recurs to me: I need to build a place. I need to make my house into a home, to fully inhabit it. I have thought this before, said it before, but there is an existential urgency to it now. The erotic may have been the only vividness my early life provided – the bright thread to follow – but it's only a thread, a guide out of the labyrinth. It can't make a home. The other impulses to make and mark are only adumbrations of this first, primary need: to make a place, a real place, one that will take the impress of memory and give memories back in return.

I don't even know if it's possible. For a long, long time my primary response to the houses I have lived in has been the imperative need to secure my lines of retreat from it. How do I get out of this place? How do I know I'm not trapped here? How do I keep my freedom of movement? Can I, really, live in my own house? I really don't know. Maybe I can't.

But whether I can or not, it becomes clear to me that nothing else comes next. I either take this step forward, or stay where I am.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Color of Shells

A cold white morning. Even the crows were silent: when I walked down the drive, they glided overhead towards their morning gathering without a word.

My life is very quiet right now in all its externals, but my mind is a boiling hive. All of my past is vivid to me. There is no long ago, no blue distance. Everything is here, now, urgent. I feel I have never settled anything, never closed any account. Anything might break open again.

I lay my hand on your chest, and roll your cheek into the crook of my elbow; the other hand makes one long stroke over the collarbone, the throat, the face. I end with my fingers tangled in the hair of your scalp, gently pulling your hair. Coda.

… So here is the fisherman
who never caught a thing, having moonlit
conversation in the reeds. She
is covered with scales and sinuous as
brocade. She listens
but will not grant
a mansion for his wife…

-- “Parable of the Fish”, Luisa Igloria, The Saints of Streets

This poem goes walking with me, up the strange little bluff with its terraced, impossibly-named streets (Billingher Drive, Beyrl Terrace). It follows me from the hondonada of 82nd Avenue to the little upland where Dale and Martha are making their last stand.

His hair is fading to the color of shells: so it is, too.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Another Fir

Here is a spiral notebook, water stained,
its wire unthreading from the pages
to make a jabby wayward serpentine;
here is a pen from the dashboard of the car,
where we keep it to endorse a check or
work a crossword puzzle. The old
technology of writing, half forgotten,
peripheral and quaint. Then will I write a poem?

It will not do. I have two
bathtub sponges standing in as kidneys;
an antique bellows, black and salt-stained,
rigged up for a heart; two
clammy pale filters from an air duct
to do the work of lungs. They gasp and shudder,
and the whole machine works, in its way.
But don't mistake me for a person. Hilarity
will not ensue. Out of the window:

nearer hand, a cedar, almost clear --
behind a fir tree lacking in detail --
and further still and dimmer in the fog
another fir, a phantom full of grief.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Secret Lives

I had to confess to Elissa that I hate this cover. First there's the painting style, which sets my teeth on edge. I associate it with LeRoy Neiman, who did so much illustration for Playboy Magazine, and who set the style for so many book covers in the sixties: it says to me: Cold War, doublespeak, and above all naughty. I don't do naughty. And then there's the grim, menacing, masterful man, having his way with someone: the stereotype of masculinity that made my life a misery, when I was young, because I was a gentle, tender, and shy person, not at all what was wanted in a boy. I was – up until I was saved by my wonderful, hippie-free-school high school – completely wrong, non grata, weird. I bear the scars of that still.

But I love this novel, and I think it's an important one. It's about submission. Not submission as an act, or a state, or a perversion – submission as a drive: as a fundamental human impulse. It runs from the sweet chivalric devotion of the first protagonist's Russian husband – a totally socially acceptable form – to the totally socially unacceptable work of the professional submissive, Nan, whose devotion lights up the other main narrative of the book. In between these two magnificent characters, the two protagonists, twin sisters, are making their way: what sort of submission, at what cost, with what limits? There are two very poignant love stories in this book, one of finding and one of losing.

The predominant mood is forlorn. Perfect submission, it turns out, is as unachievable as perfect equality. The intense joy of fearful service is something hard to obtain and impossible to keep, like everything else our hearts most desire.

And in the meantime, we have other things to do: we have jobs to keep and children to raise and homes to keep. I can't pretend to have read many BDSM-themed books, but I'd venture to guess that none or few others end like this:
He poured two flutes of champagne, nudged one of them toward me and lifted the other.
To family,” he said. And we drank.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Touching the Air

Shah Jahan
"After a period of time they'll dry out, and then the phosphorous will contact the air and start burning again," said Detective Howard Greer of the Oregon State Police. "If people are near these things when they start burning again, you can get some very, very serious burns."

“That's why you're safe from me,” you said.

As if any of us could ever be safe from each other:
we are like those tubes of white phosphorus
that wash up on the beach, submarine markers:
it's all a matter of when we touch the air.

May this hand be full of light
may this heart be tipped in the morning sun
may the bowl of my skull be scraped
and clean
and microwave-safe: 

a vessel for morning oatmeal
for coffee
for slanted light
for two hunched crows on a maple limb,
waiting for kibbles and a kind word.

Kartika and kapala
(skin flail and skull cup)
in the bathroom cabinet with the toothbrush
and the razor: maybe the jumbling
becomes richer with age.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


Rooster Rock State Park. Standing on what, in Spring, is the riverbed: this time of year, with the river low, it's a wide expanse of drying sand. The wind blows steadily. We lean into it and walk upriver. Rivulets of dryer sand come flying over the surface at us, staying ankle-high.

Turn and look back. Down on the river, the kite-sailors' wings rise and fall over the horizon like monstrous birds flocking. The rivulets run away from us.

I remember to tell Martha about the vultures a couple weeks ago. Above the 82nd Avenue train station, I counted 46. Not wheeling, as they usually do, like in a cowboy movie -- they were more rumbustious than usual, like crows mobbing together, flapping their wings, going every which way. And not anchored: they were drifting south. I've never seen them do anything of the sort, and I don't know what to make of it.

Now, worn out with the wind and the sun. Wondering.

We walked back, carrying plastic water bottles, a quart Pennzoil bottle, two small plastic bollards, an energy drink can. Martha took a stick and threaded the bollards and and cans on it, and carried it before her like a scepter. "I'm a new age shaman!" she said. "Woo."


Good night.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Settling of Bones

Sometimes it's bittersweet, to drive away
with a gibbous moon groping
over the crowns of dusky trees
and dragging her game leg.

We held hands in the dark
(not what you think)
and I could have made up a thousand
stories, but I chose not to be the last sad man

on the shore of a long sad sea.
If it's true, and it is, that I know more ways
that hands can fit together than
even the moon before her wound,

then the interlace of fingers,
the ball of my thumb
wearing your palm like a hood,
might be only professional skill:

and that gasping creak
might be only
the settling of bones
preparing themselves for winter.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

One Swift

I nearly typed, "do I exist?" as a Facebook status update, but I realized that no answer I received there could be convincing.

No answer here could be convincing either: but here there's room to unpack a little. To ask, for instance, "why do you ask?"

Well, obviously, because a sense of unreality is growing on me. The gears of my soul are stripped. The wheels are turning, but nothing is happening.

So, well -- just stop, then.

Take a few breaths.

Think about it. What do I really want? There are a number of shadowy people lingering here, who want a variety of things, but I think that even when they seize the steering wheel, the conviction that they are not real is altogether appropriate.

It is not any particular falsity about myself, however, which produces these phantoms. It is the unreality of this life. No one could feel real in these circumstances.

So. Therefore?

Therefore, do something real. It's pretty much as easy as that.

There is no changing the falsity of the modern world. But that's finite, and I am not. Not by any measure. Mortal, yes, but that's the answer to a different question.

This, actually, is a start. Just to write it down. Even if it is like picking out one swift to follow, from the swirl over Chapman School.

The house where I did a couple massages today looked out over the Valley, with the trees turning, and a bit of river showing like a steel plate under long grass. The sky a patchwork of grays and whites and silvers. And my client lying on the table like the statue of a crusader on his tomb, with his hands crossed on his breast, his bones too large for his flesh.

Later, when I lifted one from under the blanket -- such large hands men have! He asked for more pressure. "It hurts, but it feels good," he said. I wondered, he was so thin, if he was ill. Or -- my imagination running somewhat wild -- if he had been captive and ill-fed for many months. I suppose my medically-minded massage friends would consider me remiss for not pressing him, and finding out. But sometimes people don't want to be pressed. Sometimes they want to drop their identity and leave it behind, like their clothes, for the duration of the massage: and why not? I've never wanted to take on a medical role. Not qualified, not by education, not by temperament. Even when I know something, I don't know best. I have no intention of knowing best: not now, not ever.

Friday, October 11, 2013


Sagittaria Latifolia: Wikipedia Commons

Morning. Across the street, the new gas station is framed, and clothed in plywood. It is actually, right at the moment, a pleasing and well-proportioned object. Sober concrete steps go up to the rectangle where the side door will be. Soon, no doubt, it will be uglified with advertisements and decked out with lurid pictures in (as the Spanish would say) shrieking colors: but right now it's a testament to the extraordinary, underappreciated building skills of my people: modest but sturdy. It will stand easily through storm and earthquake: properly painted and maintained, it should last practically forever -- certainly longer than civilization that built it seems likely to.

Sitting on my couch is a booklet, published in 1909, I believe: the 15th edition of a dictionary of the Chinook Jargon. Its own introduction confesses that it's useless for any practical purposes: the last Chinook speakers had died recently, and no occasion for the use of the jargon would ever arise again. Still they published it then, and I leaf through it a century later, finding place-name elements that I know -- "chuck" means "water": of course, I should have guessed that! It gives me a queer and salutary frisson of transience. I and mine will pass too, without the hills paying much mind. Seeing the name of the river I was born beside, and have lived beside almost all my life -- Portland being simply a hundred miles downriver from Eugene -- spelled "Willamat" gives me a twinge. And Sauvie's Island referred to as Wappatoe Island: which makes me think -- as I do periodically -- that there is something impious about living here on the Lower Columbia, where sixty thousand Chinook, drawn hither by the wapato, used to live, and not to recognize the plant, and never to have eaten the root.

P.S.: this site quotes Lewis & Clark:  “in this pond the nativs inform us they Collect great quantities of wappato, which the womin collect by getting into the water, Sometimes to their necks holding by a Small canoe and with their feet loosen the wappato or bulb of the root from the bottom from the Fibers, and it imedeately rises to the top of the water, they Collect & throw them into the Canoe, those deep roots are the largest and best roots”.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013


Gestures are not love, but what is love
without gesture? Once an almost imperceptible moue
told me you'd thought of kissing me:
was enough.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

The Song Again

I don't know. The grief goes on, running under the surface of things. I've pretty much conceded that it's just going to be the way it is. It will never be okay with me. It will never be closed.

Now that I say it in so many words, it seems both obvious and right to me: why would I want it closed?

But still: how to explain it? And who to explain it to? And is there really a reason to explain at all? After all, I have learned nothing, have come to no conclusions, have solved nothing.

Shall I, then, go backwards or forwards? There seems little point in doing either. I am pretty sure that I am somehow faced in the wrong direction. Stuck in one slot. Whether I go forward or back is of little moment. What I need to do is get out of the slot.

Fallow, yellow; fealo, gealu. The dapodencia of Fall, the rattle of seeds in their cases. Gold and the value of men. Something does not quite line up, here. I'm missing something.

Just do the next thing, I used to tell myself, in the bad old days, when I could not bring myself to do anything at all. I thought it was such clever advice, but it wasn't really. Because it was written on the blackboard of despair. Just do the next thing, because it doesn't matter what you do. Nothing you do will change anything, so why fret about which one to start with? That wasn't really going to prod me into motion.

Now, you know, despite my frustration, I have to acknowledge that I have left that behind. The things I do matter, now. I may be confused and grieved, but I'm not hopeless, and I'm not powerless. "I did not know I was so empty, that I could be so full."

I suck up this autumn sun, like the juice of nectarines, through a thin straw: it goes straight into my circulatory system, and flickers of bright yellow flame run under my skin, tiny pulses of intelligence. There is something to be done, something to be said, whether I can identify it or not: there's something being written, in a fine solar script, on the walls of my arteries and arterioles. I spread my hands, palms up, and the sunlight skates across them: and something inside answers too, an equal and opposite brightness. Lift the song again, in our time; it is not too late.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

My Brush with Fame

A little embarrassed by how thrown I've been by my little brush with fame. I knew it would pass, leaving hardly a wrack, but every time something like that happens it takes me weeks to recover from the sense of exposure. It's so destabilizing. There's a wild hope that rises: this might be it, this might be when it all comes true, when everyone realizes my brilliance, when all the fascinating people want to sit at my table and all the beautiful woman want to lie in my bed.

What would I do? I already know more fascinating people than I can find dinner-date time for, and there are already as many beautiful women in my bed as I will ever be able to cope with. People already tell me I'm brilliant, with embarrassing frequency: if I don't believe it now, what makes me think I would believe it then?

Its promise of a different life is as obviously bogus as the (deeply Christian) Nigerian widow's plea that I let her park eight million dollars in my bank account: yet that doesn't diminish its force, its almost wholly baleful force. I eat anxiously, forget to exercise, haunt the social media. I go to check the preternatural run of the page-view counter. All those people are reading me. It must mean –

Well, you know, it means only that I hit a nerve, this once: it was short, sweet, believable, and inoffensive, and it said something that people badly wanted to hear. It was true, too, which is nice, but that's not why it's popular. And my point here is not to fish up compliments about it being well-written: sure, it is well-written, but so are hundreds of others of my posts. No, my point is that it's very peculiar that it should matter to me, in quite this way, with quite this much force. Perhaps I am of a uniquely, squalidly weak character, but actually I don't think there's anything unusual about this response. When I ask, who cares what strangers think of you? The answer that comes back is, I do. And so does everybody.

And really, you know, it's odd that it should be so. Of course you care what the other primates in your troop think of you: the people at work, the people in your family. Your economic and psychological security depend on their approval. There's nothing mysterious about that. But why care what the others think?

I suppose it's because we don't stay put all our lives. Almost all of us eventually move out of our parents' basement, eventually get a new job. And every time we shift, or are forced to shift, we are at a moment of high vulnerability. Are we still wanted? Do we still matter? And that's why we care what strangers think of us. Because somewhere, in the back of our little primate brains, is the dread and desire of the new troop. Maybe we'd be more important there. Maybe we'd even be alpha there. Or maybe we'd be the cringing, scrounging, perpetual outsider. We don't know. But there's a piece of us that never, never stops wondering.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

On Reading the Essay of a Friend

Litera scripta manet, so we're told
but words written on the flesh
must move when the body moves;
words written on the heart
must beat.

The scrape of metal on stone fades
into silence. I almost think I will
set myself to unwrite every word –
my tongue at the corner of my mouth,
my pen filled with white ink; that I will carefully
trace every line you wrote,

until the words gleam only like
old scars, caught by a chance
change in light: weals of meaning
to be traced by a lover's hand.