Saturday, March 28, 2015

Born Guilty

We're born guilty, stupid and guilty, and with luck and hard work we may slowly struggle out of the evils our elders taught us, and that they take for granted. 

They insist: it's right and proper that dripping heads should be displayed above the city gates, and we take in their explanations, how without the heads everything would be much worse, how the heads brought it on themselves by being a sort of people we would never be: and we nod and learn how to cut off heads ourselves.

But comes a time when we pause, and eye the saw dubiously, and dare to think that it might be nice, to come home of an evening and walk under a clean gates that smelled only of sunwarmed stone.

From that moment, we become dangerous: we are outlaws in our hearts, and we no longer saw through the cordage of our batches of necks with the proper zeal. By that time, of course, we are worn and tired, and weighed down with the accumulation of our half-understood sin. There's not much to fear from us. But we still make them uneasy: they still look at us sidelong and suspiciously. 

It's lucky for them, lucky that we don't live very long, lucky that we get so tired.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Too Smart to Bother with Details

I never was able to write cursive. Even to think of it, now, after all these years, makes my throat constrict and my heart race. The pencil was ordinarily my friend. I worked math with it: I was good at math. And I wrote with it: I was good at writing. Well, I was good at printing.

When you write a letter, in cursive, you need to hold the letter you are writing in your mind. But as you approach the end of that letter, you need to begin to hold the next letter in you mind as well, because you're going to transition from one to the other. The end of the first is going to have to become the beginning of the second. I could not hold both in my mind at once. I could not make that smooth, slow transition. Either I was writing 'm' or I was writing 'o': if I thought of 'o' too late, I would find myself ending my 'm' at the baseline, already too far forward, and having to laboriously backtrack to find the beginning of the 'o'; if I thought of the 'o' too early, I left off writing the 'm' too quickly, and went straight from its second arch to where the 'o' was to begin. I was left with a strange character, which looked rather like a Greek 'eta', but nothing at all like any letter in the English alphabet.

Under the stress of this impossible task, I leaned in to the paper, writing darker and darker, jerkier and jerkier. I'd go back and add the missing third leg of the 'm' by viciously scoring the paper. The task enraged me. Partly because it was so unnecessary -- the ligature between the two letters was purely ornamental, adding nothing to legibility -- but mostly because I could not do it. I was the worst in the class. To add insult to injury, my teachers concluded that, because my writing looked hasty and slapdash, the problem was that I wasn't concentrating. If I just slowed down and tried harder, I could do it.

No way to explain. If I had gone slower, bearing down as heavily as I did, I would have torn the paper to shreds. I took the coward's way out: I pretended to think the whole thing was beneath me. I had more important things to do than to learn cursive. I couldn't be bothered. A boy will take any available role -- clown, criminal, supercilious creep -- before he'll take "incapable" or "incompetent." The die was cast: I was The Boy Who Was Too Smart Too Bother With Details.

Well. I've paid, for taking that role: paid materially, paid spiritually. It's a little late in the day, at 57, but I am ready to abandon it now. I was not too smart. I simply couldn't do it. Whether it was some odd short-circuit in the motor center of my brain, or a crippling anxiety, or merely trying to learn the task in some way that didn't suit me: the simple truth is that I failed, and I was ashamed.

Sunday, March 22, 2015


Joy flecked with garnet or with turquoise;
grief that persists; after every iteration 
the distress is deeper laid.
I find that I have less and less to say. 

The anger subsides, and the past takes on an air 
of inevitability. But that's what the past does:
 its face enamels into mask. Historians 
make their living by demonstrating why

everything had to happen just the way it did: 
armies of apology. Until, if you're not attending closely, 
you decide that everything that was awful 
is okay. An excuse of cloisonné: 

bruise and blood turn into mosaic, 
little bits of blue and scarlet glass.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Swoon, My Dear

Swoon, my dear, in sorrow for yourself;
lick the tears from the corners of your mouth.
Here is where the last melody 
stirs the lovely hair upon your scalp:
grieve for the laboring wings a-beat to south.

Peer, sweet one, in the mirror of your worth;
fog the glass with the sweetness of your breath.
Each perfect line will blur to gray,
each sigh obscure a fine delight;
mourn a while the reflections of your death.

Why should not sweet girls be sad? Here
is the figuring forth of delights you never had.
The busy sawing of the violins,
the braying of the horns, they'll never guess
the opportunities you missed for being bad.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


Hokulei, winter king, goat star,
so many names, so many glances, yellow 
as an old ivory domino handled over years;
Hokulei, bring her home across the water,
Hokulei, bring her home across the sky.

Capella, little goat, springing stone to stone,
coldest star of winter, last to leave in spring,
counterpoise to Vega, one last favor:
Capella, bring our sister from the island,
Capella, bring our sister to the main.

Alhajoth dearest, Alhajoth who nursed 
heaven alone and hunted when he 
was hidden from the old one's rage at time:
Alhajoth, bring her home across the water,
Alhajoth, bring her home across the sky.

Friday, March 06, 2015

Early Spring

I am afraid of this early Spring. Apples burning
white hot through the frost; choke-cherries
with faces suffused. The Indian plum
throwing caution to the wind. We have not begun to reckon
what we've set loose. Bareback, we would feel
the muscles moving under our thighs,
the dangerous twitch and surge: but bareback
is a girl's shamefast fantasy, not adult, 
as we have learned to call it. We will miss our girls soon enough.

To the east, clouds never seen before
in this valley
build turreted bastions, fortalezas, strong points,
mass piled on mass, till they topple, and the air throbs
and mutters to itself, and the long summer
heaves up over the ridge. This.
We have called on names we only knew in books
and brought a wind to strip the chamber,
scatter and erase the chalk pentangle,
blow books to the walls and break the windows,
and roll the spitting candles to the clothes.
We've called, and they have come. Prepare your welcome.

Thursday, March 05, 2015


Walked across the valley of 82nd Avenue and up onto the eastern slopes of Mt Tabor, yesterday: Mt Hood white and vast, its foothills (for once) clearly delineated. You could see the form of every rise leading from here to there. I imagined walking there -- I often imagine such things -- in bits: driving out to however far I got last time, and walking on from there. Like so many projects I imagine, the overhead would accumulate to intolerable levels before it was done.

Every view of Mt Hood was slashed with power and telephone wires. It's strange to me how aware I am of that cordage up there, and how oblivious everyone else seems to be. It's not even that I mind it, though I do, sometimes. It's just so present to me: the sharp black cuts dividing every city sky into sliding parallelograms and triangles, hypnotically tangling and untangling as one walks. I'm not sure that most people even see the sky at all, day to day.

Of course, thoughts like that tend to veer into nasty self-congratulation and self-reification. Best to cut them loose.

You, sitting sideways at the top of the half-flight of stairs in your bathrobe, consulting the calendar on your laptop. I was reminded of how Martha used to sit in front of the furnace vent in the little hallway on Milroy Street. Sometimes you can feel the current of time pulling on you and pouring past you: it's like sitting braced against the current of a river in the mountains. No problem; no problem; but any moment of inattention could be disastrous.

So I attend: and the stars come and go, and the planets shift. Orion walks over the southern sky, with Sirius bounding at his heels, over the heads of the douglas firs. The moon rises fat and full. My hands pleasantly sore from days full of massage: the lingering scent of lavender or bergamot or palo santo. Jupiter caroming off Leo and vanishing to westwards. I suppose it's more accurate to think of the moon as falling behind, but I usually think of the stars and planets as scurrying ahead, losing their footing, and then sliding down the slick western slopes of heaven. Not as much traction as the moon.

I stretch, crack my knuckles, shrug. A deep breath. I am the lieutenant of a missing captain. No message, no marching orders, but I'm still under military discipline. -- Unless I've simply been forgotten, and the army is disbanded, and everyone else is making their way home.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015


Mervyn Peak, study for Glassblowers
I suppose I should read up about beauty, and I suppose, having had that thought, I will; but at the moment I have thoughts whirling that I'd like to set down, unformed and uninformed as they are. I don't think I've ever read a satisfying or even intelligible definition of beauty, first of all. And second of all, I don't think I've read a philosopher who placed the experience of beauty at the heart of her understanding of What We Are Here For and What It's All About, which seems odd. Unless the capacity for perceiving beauty and the capacity for formulating philosophies are mutually destructive. That strikes me as facile and unlikely, the sort of thing that people say when they're looking for excuses to shirk. Probably though I am just ignorant.

I certainly have encountered this in fiction. Mervyn Peake bodies it forth, along with much that is beautiful, much that is puerile, much that is unfair. Those of us who do put beauty at the heart may not make terribly good advertisements for the beautiful life. We tend to screw up and to swerve off into the weeds.

An unsatisfactory welter of catch-phrases rises around me. Keats saying that truth is beauty: that's always irritated me. Truth is truth, beauty is beauty, what do they have to do with each other? Accuracy is beauty, maybe, or necessary to beauty, but that's different. The smudginess characteristic of people Trying To Be Artistic is maybe the Beautiful's version of original sin. You can smudge your way to Pretty, but not to Beautiful.
Begin when all the rest had left behind them
Headlong death in battle or at sea.
It is not accident, I am quite sure, that my first real hints of literary beauty came obliquely, in translation. You prepare yourself in the right ways, when you're picking up a translation. You know it's not the real thing, that you're going to have to open your eyes a little wider, that you're trying to see around a corner. (You always were able to see around corners, a friend said to me, the most flattering thing anyone has ever said to me. But I digress, unless I don't.)
I vowed that I would dedicate my powers
To thee and thine. Have I not kept the vow?
 Well, no, not really. But I haven't forgotten it, either. I guess that will have to do.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

A Curl To The Left

I want to say your cruelty redounds upon yourself,
but two problems. One is I suspect
this sense of "redound" is out of date;
and two, while true, it's really not the reason

not to be cruel, or not the one 
you're built to understand. Try this:
the sunwashed wall one summer morning
longer ago than all you still remember

and the crumpled paper blown
at a canter
down the dry Modesto gutter.
There was a shadow of acacia

moving on the Spanish plaster, and you
thought, quite suddenly, that there might be a place
the complaints of your mother might not reach.
And after, when you had drawn 

an opening curve with tiny beads
of shining red along the line, that place of peace
became a counterstory, the positron
hypothesized but never seen. (Still

never seen, known only by the trail
of bubbles curving to the left: but without
them how to make sense, make balance
of all that negative charge?)

And I would ask you now, forgetting
what redound may mean, to hold 
in one small hand 
the enormity of that defiance.

Tell your mother to go to hell,
(as she surely has: it wasn't far to go) 
and follow that haunted curve
left, that unfamiliar, frightening curl,

the unwinding of all she drew so tight.
Pull the hair tie loose and shake your head
so that all that glossy hair swings as it will:
left, and right, and left.