Thursday, April 28, 2016

Reading Spanish

Something shifted, a few months ago. I had been going on for years, reading a few pages of Spanish and adding two or three words every day to my Anki flashcards, and I had settled into an amiable despair about it. The lovely thing about Anki is that it keeps bringing the words back to you, and you get a real sense, over the years, for just how much work it is to keep your vocabulary alive: you no longer get to believe that just because you learned a word a couple years ago it's going to stay learned. The real progress I could make with vocabulary turns out to be maybe two words per day. That's fine if you aim to be able to chat about the weather, but if you aim to be able to read difficult texts, and poetry, you're aiming at a vocabulary of, say, 20,000 words. Ten years' worth of work.

Well, sure. But I've done ten years' work -- considerably more, actually -- and the slow accumulation is paying off. And I realized at last that the vocabulary drilling, though necessary -- I do need to have a certain number of words really nailed down -- is not an efficient use of most of my time. What I actually need to do is read, read huge quantities of Spanish, and most of the time, just glide over words that I don't know, or don't really know. So I changed the proportions. I require myself to read at least twenty pages a day, and sometimes double that. And I'm beginning to see the end of the road, when my reading facility will near my English reading facility. I'm still drilling on vocabulary -- partly just because I like doing that -- but I just have to get through the pages. I actually can master the reading of Spanish, even if I never become fluent speaking it. ("After all, you can't speak English fluently either," said Martha, which is true enough.)

So I'm happy, and energized, about this.

A quiet white-sky day, heart-wrenchingly beautiful, with soft oblique lights: new leaves glowing, and the new needle-growth a pointillist's dream on the dark firs. Everywhere the scent of flowers. All the sound is muffled and muted, almost as when there's fresh snow.

Wishing I could go rambling up the river: but it's a work day. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Pre-Paid Cremation

When I am old and gray 
and feathered like the pard
I shall take my shotgun out 
and whistle for the bard.

God is great and good 
and has a sword upstairs,
but poetry is final 
and winds up your affairs.

We have on hand an envelope 
whose outside offers us
a pre-paid cremation 
with very little fuss,

but I'll wait a bit until the buggers 
bid each other down,
and sweeten up the flames 
with a night out on the town.

Sure, dementia is a cruel word 
and hides a host of ants,
a crawling dissolution 
of stray words in your pants;

but ferocity's the greater 
as the hearing gets more dull,
and the blurry sky's more brilliant 
when your watered eyes are full.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

This Little Boat Of Happiness

This little boat of happiness
has a gunwale rimed with salt;
your lacerated hand will feel
the prickle and the fault.

The distiller has a funnel
where sun sparkles on the drip:
if there's joy in pure water,
there's smarting where you grip.

Seawater and blood
are the same in vacillation,
this dissolution followed
by that desalination;

The sea is wide and sad
and full of ions of magnesium,
solute gold enough for princes,
and ions of potassium;

We purify to drink because
we have no other choice,
but it's salt in the water
that gives our tongue a voice.

Saturday, April 16, 2016


Poetry is not a calling, for me. More
an intermittent whisper, or possibly a peeling:
one whittles when anxious. They say Grant,

at the Battle of the Wilderness, stripped dozens
of unoffending branches. Collateralia.

So on a bright Spring day when a young man
ought to be getting his healthy exercise
(and avoiding self-pollution) I grasp

a less problematic rune-stick, a Welsh
I Ching, a private prophecy: one keeps thinking
naked truth might appear, till one

looks down to find the stick is peeled to nothing
and the truth is still unsaid.

Friday, April 15, 2016

A Complex Recurved Bow

Lines wander over your face, 
shadows of we know not what 
tracery of string or
leafery of twig:
we only know curves, 
forced on light that longs 
for Euclidean purity which would destroy it once for all:
the glimpse of cheek, 
the crescent of ear appearing
where the round flicker of flesh is there and gone.

Silly Greeks with their straight noses! Thank God
no nose is straight, and no mouth but forms 
a complex recurved bow, however slight: all
potential force, coiled and strung; the tongue
fletched and ready to fly.

A full quiver of love and dread,
a tin cup on a ring, some plums,
a sandwich in a bag:
the archers have risen early, with the mist,
and gone into the hills before the sun was up.

Thursday, April 14, 2016


The third proximal phalanx of the hand
runs from knuckle to knuckle
of our most defiant finger:

mine, some two inches long,
I would like to have as a knick-knack,
save for the trouble

of cutting it out and boiling it down.
Bell clapper or door knocker,
or simply a worry bead:

how comfortably
it would nicker and pout
between finger and thumb!

Polished bone;
protuberance, nubble and shaft:
it would be a talisman,

a covenant,
a piece of luck to carry in my pocket
or nestle in my palm.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


Deep brown leather, bound and banded
with gold thread cinched in the furrows:
it's easy to the hand. Each finger finds its place.

Stained and in places dry and even crumbling:
but it buzzes and trembles like a living thing.
Strength runs from it into even an innocent grip.

If you raised and whirled it -- the fulcrum
not far, but far enough -- you'd pull back and the edge
would whip down with more than human force.

Notched and blackened, long disused,
a wavering light, a dim croon. Why 
would a weapon come to me now, when

my heart is wrung dry and my soul has flaked away?
I kneel in the dark with the blade across my knees;
dust on my tongue, starlight on the floor.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Pretend-Summer Morning

A sudden strange access of confidence, as though I had walked out of myself into some other person, a person with no history of doubt or failure. Death sniffs at me like a curious cat. I'm ready to lay out all my things on the hilltop, free to all finders. This is good. I'll take it.

An extravagantly warm day, a foretaste of summer. The weather is an almost daily reminder of disaster, nowadays. Everything a little off kilter, a little on the wobble. We screwed up good, and now we're in for a ride.

Happy doesn't quite describe my mood. There's weariness in it, for one thing, shading to impatience, and a tenderness, especially for everyone I touch. People's real words are written in their skin. They say things, sure, they have to, but those words, even when they reach my dull ears, don't make much impression. 

You were afraid of your surgery, and grateful for my touch, last night, and today I'm thinking of you. Were they sobs, or the beginnings of snores, or both? So often weeping is what we do when we can't find our way to sleep.

Meanwhile, this pretend-summer morning gets warmer and warmer, and the new leaves shiver in the wind. Wishing the surgeon a sure hand and a clear head, and the same to the nurses, today! And blessings on all who are abroad and homeless, at sea or on the street.