Sunday, November 30, 2008
The house on the hill
has a song behind its door
each morning someone
lets it out out of kindness
the song flaps up to the roof
and looks demented
and ruffled and it hasn’t
tried to fly away
for a long long time
neither has the poor soul
who lives there
who opens the door
and says pshh
what are wings for
just as I’m coming their way
our father who art in
heaven give us this day
and then they go back again
and I dream on
furiously waving my arms
From Songs and Letters, Volume 19, originally published May 27, 2008.
A new poem, “Self Portrait,” added to Songs and Letters.
Saturday, November 29, 2008
World Literature in Armenian
1-2 (14-15) 2008, January-June
Writers Union of Armenia
Editor: Samvel Mkrtchian
Design: S & H Project
Cover: Samvel Mkrtchian
Includes one drawing
Writers translated for this issue:
Georg Trakl, Emil Cioran, Stephen Leacock, William Michaelian, Dino Buzzati, Robert Musil, Ahmad Shamlou, Romain Rolland. Also contains one review by Ashot Aleksanyan.
Note: My thanks to editor Samvel Mkrtchian for his fine translations of fourteen poems from Winter Poems and Another Song I Know. In recent years, he has translated a number of my stories and poems, and has been instrumental in their publication.
A short note about Artasahmanyan Grakanutyun added to News and Reviews.
In the Forum: Winston, the ungrateful wretch.
Friday, November 28, 2008
The murder of the imagination was seen as great progress. “Now,” they said, “if we could just do something about these children — you know, nip it in the bud.” But then, before anything was decided, the bud grew, and it opened, and its cloud-sized petals nearly smothered them all. It was a symphony, out on the town. “We’ve failed somehow.” And there was laughter from one mountaintop to another, and the rattling of tin cans tied to the bumper of an old Cadillac — not another wedding! The driver had plans of his own. “Call me on Tuesday.” Tuesday arrived: a card shoved under the door. “The baby’s eating something he shouldn’t.” An éclair? A worm? “No, far worse. Sorry, sir. We’ll pay for your leg.” The imagination: ah! — what a curse.
“Foiled Again” added to Poems, Slightly Used.
In the Forum: The Muffin Affair.
Thursday, November 27, 2008
Although references to the old black wool sport coat I bought for $12.99 at Goodwill seven years ago to wear to a wedding are scattered here and there around the site, I haven’t written a poem about it until now. I still wear the coat for months at a stretch during the colder part of the year. In fact, I do more than wear it. I rely on it. I have only one other sport coat — a pointlessly speckled light-gray affair that I wore only a few times several years ago. A bit on the flimsy side, that one cost $7.99, and it never did fit that well. I don’t remember just why I bought it. Restless, probably. The black one fits perfectly and is quite warm. It was made in Hungary. I love it. It’s a faithful friend.
My Old Black Sport Coat
Someday I think I’d like to wear it in Ireland,
And maybe even be buried in it there.
I could fall asleep while leaning on its sturdy
Unfaded elbows, surrounded by strangers in a pub,
And then simply not wake up — as if I’d lost
My train of thought, or managed to forget
The most important thing. Perdóneme,
What did you say again? Ah. He’s dead.
But what a fine sport coat.
That same train is calling in the wilderness.
Now it’s moving slowly past the docks.
Men look up: the beast sniffs along the track,
But knows not where to stop.
Six years ago, when I helped lay my dear Basque
Mother-in-law to rest, I was wearing this coat.
Her grave is beside her husband’s
In a cemetery adjacent to an onion field.
Earlier, in the church,
The man who rented her vineyard
Looked at me as if I were strange.
Jealous of the coat, I thought,
Or puzzled by my hair and beard.
And now, he is dead.
His tractor is calling in the wilderness.
Now it’s moving slowly past the docks.
Men look up: the beast sniffs along the furrow,
But knows not where to stop.
I taught three sons how to drive
While wearing this old black coat:
Country roads, parking lots, residential streets.
I taught them how to use their mirrors
And to back up along a curb.
Hills were easier, they learned,
In first or second gear.
Frequently, along the way, I remembered
When my father had taught me.
After our youngest son got his license,
I was wearing this coat when the two of us
Stopped at a tobacco shop after buying his insurance.
I bought a cigar and smoked it in this coat,
To celebrate what he’d done, but also in memory
Of my old man,
Who somehow became lost in the wilderness.
Now he’s walking slowly past the docks.
Men look up: maybe they know him.
But if they did, wouldn’t they call out?
When I held my grandson for the first time,
I was wearing this coat. Outside, rain.
Along a scented, night-black street,
I walked away from the hospital in this coat,
Pleased and wondering what it meant.
You never know who you’ll meet in the wilderness.
Introduction and poem from Collected Poems, written November 26, 2007. “My Old Black Sport Coat” also appeared in the Armenian Poetry Project.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
The patient didn’t know
he was the patient
the doctor didn’t know
he was the doctor
I didn’t know
either of them
so I turned away
from the mirror —
yes I said I turned away,
turned away from the mirror.
Imagine an ordinary pincushion full of pins, and that this pincushion has been left undisturbed for quite some time, and that microscopic beings of great intelligence have built an advanced harmonious civilization among the pins, and that an old woman on her way through the room happens to notice the pincushion and decides for a vague sentimental reason that she needs a pin, and that with her thumb and index finger she destroys the civilization’s archives, killing the director and his leading scholars, and also topples several buildings, trapping thousands of microscopic beings in silent transparent elevators while ruining a major portion of their solar-powered transportation system, causing also a cataclysmic dust storm, and that one brave, intrepid member of this microscopic race manages to record the entire event though it brings about his own death, and that the few surviving beings flee to a wool cap hanging on a doorknob several light years from the pincushion. Then imagine hearing the woman say, “My goodness. What on earth did I come in here for?”
Note: The two “specimens” that comprise “Jung and Easily Freudened” were written simultaneously on the same word processor page — which is to say, I alternated between them, advancing and refining (defining? undermining?) each as I went along. Total play time: less than an hour, during which I also washed a few dishes.
Image: Jung and Easily Freudened (click to enlarge).
“Jung and Easily Freudened” added to Poems, Slightly Used.
In the Forum: a defining moment deferred.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Monday, November 24, 2008
In a pleasant exchange of letters on the subject of The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, by Nikos Kazantzakis, a reader in Atlanta told me that the poet’s multiple references to honey reminded him of “Wild Bees” by New Zealand poet James K. Baxter (1926-1972). That poem in turn reminded me of a strange little story I wrote in 1997, and later included in a Notebook entry. Here is Baxter’s poem, as harvested from this forum page, which also includes several more of his poems:
Often in summer, on a tarred bridge plank standing,
Or downstream between willows, a safe Ophelia drifting
In a rented boat — I had seen them comes and go,
Those wild bees, swift as tigers, their gauze wings a-glitter
In passionless industry, clustering black at the crevice
Of a rotten cabbage tree, where their hive was hidden low
But never strolled too near. Till one half-cloudy evening
Of ripe January, my friends and I
Came, gloved and masked to the eyes like plundering desperadoes,
To smoke them out. Quiet beside the stagnant river
We trod wet grasses down, hearing the crickets chitter
And waiting for light to drain from the wounded sky.
Before we reached the hive their sentries saw us
And sprang invisible through the darkening air.
Stabbed, and died in stinging. The hive woke. Poisonous fuming
Of sulphur filled the hollow trunk, and crawling
Blue flames sputtered — yet still their suicidal
Live raiders dived and clung to our hands and hair.
O it was Carthage under the Roman torches,
Or loud with flames and falling timber, Troy!
A job well botched. Half of the honey melted
And half the rest young grubs. Through earth-black smouldering ashes
And maimed bee groaning, we drew our plunder.
Little enough their gold, and slight our joy.
Fallen then the city of instinctive wisdom.
Tragedy is written distinct and small:
A hive burned on a cool night in summer.
But loss is a precious stone to me, a nectar
Distilled in time, preaching the truth of winter
To the fallen heart that does not cease to fall.
A new haiku, “Page One,” added to Songs and Letters. Also: a short poem, “Traveler,” added November 16, 2008, but overlooked.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
Saturday, November 22, 2008
In my mother’s old copy of Andersonville, which she has never read and doesn’t remember buying, receiving, or bringing home, I found a bookmark that consists of a laminated eucalyptus leaf with a tiny yellowish-green frog perched near the stem. The frog is about a quarter-inch thick, with dark eyes slightly larger than the head of a pin. When I showed it to her, my mother didn’t remember the bookmark either.
The fact is, it might not be a bookmark at all. For one thing, the frog is too thick to allow the book to close properly. And when the leaf is adjusted to avoid the problem, a disproportionate amount of it is visible outside the book. It seems to me that the frog and the leaf would look much better in a terrarium, or perhaps in a decorative dish near the sink in a bathroom reserved for guests.
What would a frog be doing on a eucalyptus leaf anyway? I suppose if the tree the leaf had fallen from were near water, the leaf might be discovered by a frog and maybe even used for a time as a barge. Imagine a frog hauling rare insects in tiny cages down a narrow stream, and other frogs meeting him at landings along the way to purchase his exotic wares. Imagine muscular frogs working along the shore, laughing, singing, and calling out to one another as they drag the cages onto creaky platforms.
Like any frog,
at the end
of a hard day
I tie one on
at the nearest
I stay until
my wife croaks,
then I hop
I give her
Ribbit on, she says. Ribbit on.
Introduction and poem from Collected Poems, written and first published “about two and a half years ago.”
Image: Frogs (click to enlarge).
In the Forum: The Three Princes of Serendip.
Friday, November 21, 2008
In our old public library, a patron died reading in her chair. I was there. As gently as she could, the librarian removed the book from the widow’s hand, closed it, and set it on the table. Then she wrote a number on her cooling palm, nodded for my help, and together we shelved her in the reference section. She’s been there ever since. And when I hunger for the knowledge she possessed, I carefully take her down — a volume mute, but never dumb, her faded skirt and blouse, her rigid spine, her yellowed teeth and bones.
Note: Around ten years ago, I wrote a story about an old woman who died in a library. Had I taken this approach, maybe it wouldn’t have been rejected so many times — not that this piece is necessarily any better, but one never knows. Of course, ten years ago this approach would never have occurred to me, as back then I was still struggling with occasional bouts of sanity.
Here is the “tiny bit of pertinent information” that accompanies the story’s link on the title page of my Early Short Stories:
One thing I take pride in is being able to write any kind of story, according to the demands of the story itself. I don’t tell a story what to do. It tells me. If a story wants to be simple, I don’t try to make it complicated. If it decides to be crazy, I am crazy right along with it. To impose myself on a story, or to decide ahead of time how it should sound or what it should accomplish would be like denying the individuality of my own children. The approach leads to frustration, resentment, and uniformity. This brings to mind an interesting question: Is it possible for a story to resent its author? Judging by some of the stories out there, I’d say it would be impossible for them not to. Do any of my stories resent me? Undoubtedly — but for reasons they have thus far been unwilling to explain. “Miss Martin” has been rejected by editors all over the country. Finally, we had tea together one day, and she convinced me she wasn’t really the traveling type.
“Now and Then” added to Poems, Slightly Used.
In the Forum: unforeseen positive consequences.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Looking forward to your visit.
Stay as long as you like.
P.S. Bring dynamite.
From Songs and Letters, Volume 18, originally published January 20, 2008.
The following note added to You Don’t Say: Odrovir or Odhrevir. The “poet’s mead” of the Scandinavian gods. It was made of Kvasir’s blood mixed with honey, and all who partook of it became poets. Kvasir was the wisest of all men, and could answer any question put to him. He was fashioned out of the saliva spat into a jar by the Aesir and Vanir on their conclusion of peace, and was slain by the dwarfs Fjalar and Galar.
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Note: This poem was inspired by the brief exchange of comments following my November Postcard entry. I like the idea of there being an Artist of the Lonely — a person whose exploration takes him deep into the heart of loneliness and far from its mundane practical applications, thereby shattering the wretched assumptions and negative connotations by which it is so commonly maligned.
Dreams: Another added to the Annandale Dream Gazette (part of 11-18-08 entry).
“The Art of Loneliness” added to Poems, Slightly Used.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Note: My thanks to Lynn Behrendt for adding another of my dreams to the Annandale Dream Gazette. The twenty-three she’s posted so far are collected here.
Faced with the possibility of real work, we consider conducting parallel interviews as the Conversation continues.
Monday, November 17, 2008
My mother, Laura,
no longer recalls
“I should, I know.”
Note: “Lara’s Theme,” from Doctor Zhivago, along with the film and its entire score, has long been one of my mother’s favorites, and mine. Another is “Danny Boy.” In fact, late in my unpublished second novel, The Smiling Eyes of Children, the main character, a sixty-year-old-writer named Ross Freeman, sings “Danny Boy” to a young journalist-friend and his wife in their apartment shortly before they must part company. Damn it — I really should publish that book. It’s a good one, and unusual in that it’s written almost entirely as dialogue. That took a bit of work, and I loved every minute of it.
“Lara’s Theme” added to Poems, Slightly Used.
In the Forum: a game that requires a bone-dry dirt course, blistering heat, the deep shade of walnut and ash trees, ten thousand sparrows, and a vineyard nearby.
Sunday, November 16, 2008
This bright frosty morning,
the world smells like
a million lonely breakfasts.
Haiku from Songs and Letters, originally published November 15, 2008.
Note: I almost dedicated this poem to Richard Brautigan, then I thought, “What the heck, he’s dead.”
Strangely related link: Library of Unwritten Books
Saturday, November 15, 2008
A scenic sky journey at dusk becomes a free-fall when I’m separated from my traveling companions. At first, when they’re still in sight, I yell to them that it’s windy, and that I won’t land where they expect. They yell back and wave from their drifting balloon-less basket — they think I’m joking. Then I’m swept into darkness over the ocean. Falling through miles of dense clouds, my face wet, I wonder how far underwater my momentum will take me, if I’ll be able to make it back to the surface, or be killed on impact. Should I try to land on my feet, or go in head first, arms extended? I try turning every which way, but nothing seems right. And then, from the front window of my childhood home, I see a small group of friends and relatives in the graveled driveway. I go out to greet them. They ask me about my ordeal. I laugh and tell them it was nothing. Their expressions are sympathetic; they are there for my funeral.
Added yesterday to the Annandale Dream Gazette.
Friday, November 14, 2008
“I have been all the way around this mountain.
I tell you, it has no other side.”
The possibly meaningful conclusion of a brief new Notebook entry, in which I borrow Milton’s line, When I consider how my light is spent, in the vain hope of sounding intelligent.
Recently linked: Yesterday’s Donne to Dryden entry has elicited a nice book recommendation from halfway around the globe.
Thanks, meanwhile, to Doug P. Baker for his comments on Donne to Dryden and Religion is a Funny Thing. His blog, Triocentric, where sonnets have held sway for some time now, certainly does not lack enthusiasm.
As the Conversation continues, we find a good use for empty tomato sauce cans.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
The Centuries’ Poetry
Vol. 2, Donne to Dryden
Edited by Denys Kilham Roberts
Melbourne, London, Baltimore
(1949, reprinted 1952)
This stately fifty-six-year-old paperback smells exactly like the little used bookstore it came from, where minds diverge and each volume is a tiny tempest of dust. It contains the dignified remains of thirty-seven poets, orderly, proper, and in many cases dull, and of course I love them dearly.
I’m particularly moved by this opening line from John Milton’s sonnet on his blindness, which has been going around in my head for several days now:
When I consider how my light is spent, . . .
Lo these centuries later, I can’t help thinking of light in other terms — as one’s talent, perhaps, or love, or quickly passing time on earth.
I love the little biographies in back, too, in which we learn that William Cartwright (1611-43) was the son of an innkeeper at Cirencester, and that Richard Corbet (1582-1635) was the son of a gardener, and that after a dissipated youth, Charles Sackville (1638-1706) became sixth Earl of Dorset and developed a sense of responsibility in public and private affairs.
I plan to read each and every one of them, and to try to imagine the lives they so succinctly betray.
Poets included: John Donne, John Webster, Sir Henry Wotton, Edmund Bolton, Ben Jonson, Thomas Dekker, Richard Corbet, Thomas Heywood, George Herbert, Phineas Fletcher, Thomas Carew, William Browne, William Drummond of Hawthornden, Francis Quarles, Robert Burton, Thomas Randolph, Sir John Suckling, William Cartwright, George Wither, William Habington, James Shirley, Richard Crashaw, Robert Herrick, John Cleveland, Sir Richard Fanshawe, Richard Lovelace, John Milton, Abraham Cowley, Edmund Waller, Andrew Marvell, Thomas Stanley, Thomas Traherne, Thomas Shipman, Henry Vaughan, Charles Cotton, Charles Sackville, John Dryden, and “Anonymous.”
This entry, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, added to And I Quote, “A random selection of books and authors, some famous, some forgotten.”
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Use this word in a sentence, the teacher said, and I was incredibly torn, because I loved to write but hated being told what to do — yes, even then — and yet I felt it my sacred duty to give the word a good home, to give it a place of honor on the rough blank gray sheet of paper, and so I began to write, and after writing for what felt like the whole joyous first day of summer vacation, I looked up and the teacher was standing beside another student’s desk saying That’s very good in a fraudulent meaningless tone, That’s very good in a way that proved I knew her better than she knew herself, That’s very good with no clue as to how or why — and then it was my turn, and before she could speak I said That’s very good, and was immediately sent to the principal’s office, a man with hair on his fingers who said That’s very bad in the same fraudulent meaningless tone, and I wondered if he and the teacher were married, and what words they used in sentences when they were home and their tasteless supper was cold, and if they ever, ever listened to themselves.
“The Early Years” added to Poems, Slightly Used.
In the Forum: Dylan’s Balzacian tendencies.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Someday, my friend, we’ll have a table in the sun.
(There will be tables in abundance, I assure you.)
We’ll sit for hours, drinking, smoking, and talking about
Crazy street-side performers and newly minted books,
The balloon-man’s enormous mustache, and children’s eyes,
How they reflect musicians, poets, and colorful signs.
We’ll loudly discuss the uprising and other hysterical events,
The rapidly falling price of apple pies, cooking oil,
And a pound of éclairs, solé non broubon fondueliz, the girl on the stairs,
The uniformed men marching on Boomblatz Strasse,
All of them late for the train, brightly Phoooooooooo! sounds the whistle
Heedless of their solé fon armament, stomp, stomp, stomping
In their leather-gouted, maniacal shoes.
Have faith, I tell you, for the day will surely come:
Perhaps later, perhaps never, but certainly soon.
Be prepared: there will be more to say than there is to know.
See those men there? The arrogant ones with blood on their hands?
You can tell by their eyes they’ve lied on a thousand occasions.
Labor is beneath them: they thrive by deceit alone.
And the serfs at their elbows? We are here to chew their food.
How easy it would be to set fire to their hair! How paltry, yet grand!
My friend, these criminals are but a gust away from flames.
And you and I, by a lucky twist of parfait, are here to watch them burn.
From Songs and Letters, Volume 4, originally published February 4, 2006.
Note: “The Waiters (Long Live the Revolution)” was also published in 2008 in The Modern Story, an online magazine that came and went within a few short months.
Still tuning on Desolation Row.
Monday, November 10, 2008
One held up a leaf,
the other his bare white hand.
“The asylum is that way,
Note: The letter “s” in “friends” makes all the difference. Without it, there would be only two people in the poem. Add the “s” and there are three. It’s a miracle, I tell you.
“Maps” added to Poems, Slightly Used.
Sunday, November 9, 2008
Religion is a funny thing
at five o’clock in the morning
before it’s had its coffee
and put on its robe
it looks like any other
to call in sick
one piece of toast
away from insanity
one hollow-futile scrape
of blackened crust
away from shrugging
From Songs and Letters, originally published April 28, 2008.
Note: “Religion is a Funny Thing” is part of the thirty-two-poem cycle of “religious” and “philosophical” poems that make up Volume 19 of Songs and Letters.
More on Bob Dylan and Chronicles as the Conversation continues.
Saturday, November 8, 2008
Friday, November 7, 2008
This room is like a great cathedral
when the people have gone
and the tired priest
takes off his robe
and eats alone
haunted by symbols.
From Songs and Letters, originally published November 7, 2007.
Note: “Supper at the Asylum” is part of the twenty-poem cycle of “asylum poems” that make up Volume 15 of Songs and Letters.
In the Forum: Bob Dylan’s Chronicles.
Thursday, November 6, 2008
On Page 238, in the Spanish and Portuguese section of Adventures in World Literature, a book I’ve mentioned here and here, is this note on coplas:
“The reputation of Spain as a land of song is justified by the tremendous number of little four-line songs called coplas, which have sprung up like field flowers, without literary cultivation or known authorship.”
The note is followed by twenty examples. Here are two, translated by S. de Madariaga:
When I saw you coming,
I said to my heart;
What a pretty little stone
To stumble on!
I dreamt last night
That the Moors were killing me,
And it was your beautiful eyes
Looking at me angrily.
“Philosophers,” a haiku inspired by pumpkins, added to Songs and Letters.
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
He always answers
when you knock,
and is glad to let you in.
His house is strange,
with many halls
Each contains a mirror
that shows you
where you’ve been.
Each contains a door
that leads you
To gain your freedom,
must show the way.
Before he can, or will,
you must almost
want to stay.
From Songs and Letters, originally published May 17, 2006.
Note: On the second day of February back in 2007, I received a short e-mail from someone in Canada asking my permission to make copies of “Pain” to hand out at the end of a one-hour “psycho-education session” for sufferers of psychological trauma and chronic pain. I readily consented. He didn’t reply.
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
It’s a rocking chair universe,
isn’t it, and it’s about
to come down
on a cat’s
From Songs and Letters, originally published November 2, 2008.
Note: This poem and the one in Sunday’s entry were written within the space of a few hours, with a very bad sinus headache, cough, and runny nose, between errands and cups of jasmine tea. It’s a rather strange form of record-keeping, I suppose.
In the Forum, we discover the dark side of the mud pie business.
Monday, November 3, 2008
I recently received four beautiful gifts from poet Vassilis Zambaras: a copy of his book, Sentences, published in 1976 by Querencia Books in Seattle and printed in a limited keepsake edition of 300 copies in Athens, Greece; his book, Aural, published in 1984 by Singing Horse Press in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, in a small hand-sewn limited edition; his simple four-page Triptych, published in London in 2005 as part of the Kater Murr’s Press Piraeus Series; and finally the following incredibly beautiful poem from his unpublished third collection, The Intricate Evasions of As, released by Kater Murr’s Press in a plain white card edition (1998) of 200 copies.
Keep what I give you
we shall inherit
As I told Vassilis when I wrote to thank him, these books and printings are real treasures — especially for the musically profound yet simple poems they contain, but also as carefully designed objects that serve as proud, tangible evidence of an artist’s brief time here on earth. Books like this bring me hope and inspiration. They take me back to the beginning of my own dream and desire to make something real and of lasting value. They remind me how lucky I am to be a writer and a poet, and that as poets, we must be givers and bringers of light:
And yet, we know something of bitterness —
this draining out of love in syllables
teaches us, among other things, silence
and how to talk our way around it.
— From Sentences
Image: Aural, by Vassilis Zambaras; cover by Binney and Ronaldson (click to enlarge).
Note: Sentences cover design by Robyn Tarbet; Triptych artwork by Leslie Buchanan.
The poet’s blog: Vazambam.
In the Forum: non-violent cookbooks.
Sunday, November 2, 2008
Saturday, November 1, 2008
At last, your letter has arrived —
in the form of a butterfly.
Isn’t that just like you?
And now, everywhere I go,
I hear children say,
“Look — that man is whispering in color.”
“Your Letter” added to Poems, Slightly Used.
As the Conversation continues, we discuss the idea of manufacturing harmless weapons.