Sunday, May 31, 2009

May 31, 1819 - March 26, 1892

5.31.2009 #2
5.31.2009 #1


prehistoric blue

these ants have made
of you a church

a bell.

(first publication)

“Ruins” added to Poems, Slightly Used.

In the Forum: Li Po, the Chinese wino-poet.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Penny I Have Found

Oh, how I love to walk.
I used to take a good long walk every day.
Now I walk across the street to get the mail,
Or across the grocery store parking lot
To buy a newspaper or loaf of bread.
Then I walk back again.

Across, then back.
Across . . . . . . . . . . then . . . . . back.

I notice the sun when I’m walking,
The wind, the clouds, the seam where the curb
And asphalt meet beneath the splintered post
That holds up the rusted, dented mailbox,
Or the painted lines in the parking lot
Discolored by oil, spit, and grime —

But wait: here’s a coin, a penny I have found.

It’s the same penny, over and over again,
The one I dropped into a hundred gumball machines
When I was a kid, the one I put into a sidewalk scale
As I climbed aboard to see how much I weighed,
The one that stained my fingers with money-smell
And tasted bitter through my nose.

Where has it been, and through whose hands?
Into my pocket then, into my pocket, then home,
Into my life, into my shoes, into my sleep,
Into my bones — into everything I’ve known.

How can I tell my children I pick up pennies?
How can I tell them how thrilled I am?
I don’t need to. They already understand:
It’s just one way of being born again —
That, and yelling, and making up things,
Including all I need to make up to them.

Across, then back again, bearing thoughts
No one in his right mind would believe.
Up the driveway, along the sidewalk,
Past the bush I trimmed to find my mother
Waiting at her door: an old jar full of pennies
Cracked and chipped at the rim.

I put another penny in. I put another penny in.

From Songs and Letters, originally published September 1, 2006.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Slide-Bone Willie

Using this old bone as a slide on the little finger of my left hand, I can make the high E string sound exactly like an ambulance on a dark night. At the ninth fret, terror; from the twelfth and then slowly back down, the awful feeling that the siren is for someone I know.

5.29.2009 #2
5.29.2009 #1

Still Farming

On my knees, planting flowers on the rough clay slope
next to the driveway at my mother’s house, trowel in hand,
dirt under my fingernails, sweat dripping from my brow,
I suddenly sense my dead father behind me and say
out loud, “That’s right, I know you’re there.”

Still farming, that old man of mine. Can’t resist the call
of planting time, the scented earth, the feel of tender leaves.

From Songs and Letters, originally published May 28, 2009.

In the Forum: “125th Street” and “Harlem Sweeties,” by Langston Hughes.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Finger Exercises

Pressed firmly at each and every fret*, traveling slowly in both directions, the thumb and then each of its fifty-three-year-old brethren, with attention given the knuckles and the hair thereon, the nails, lines, and creases, the strength required, the wood against the palm, first cool, then warm, followed by fingers in alternating patterns, dumb, dumb, dumb ...

* except those nearest the sound hole, physically out of reach

5.28.2009 #2
5.28.2009 #1


A mirror that one day wanders off and becomes a lake, just because.

(first publication)

“Understandable” added to Poems, Slightly Used.

In the Forum: the work of Ruaidhrí Ó Dúill.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


... near perfection resonates // with a more lasting force.

From a lovely poem, “About and About,” posted this evening
by Brian Salchert.

5.27.2009 #3
5.27.2009 #2
5.27.2009 #1

Naming Names: Barbaric Yawp, April 2009

Barbaric Yawp
April 2009, Volume 13, Number 2
BoneWorld Publishing
Russell, New York
John and Nancy Berbrich, Editors

Contributors: Brent Badders, Maria Bennett, Larsen Bowker, Mandy Brown, Ralph Dranow, Gary Every, Bill Finnegan, W. Frank, Kelly Daisy Ida Frost, Karyl Anne Geary, Michael Keshigian, Beth Konkoski, Michael Kriesel, Michael Milano, Brian C. Miller, Matt Morris, Barry W. North, Kristene Perron, Cathy Porter, Charles Rammelkamp, Justin Rogers, Dennis Ross, Paul B. Roth, Mark Spitzer, Aleksandra Starsak, Don Weinstock, Josh Weir, Neal Zirn.

The issue also contains “The Nonfiction Writer as a Self-Cleaning Insect: An Interview with Andrei Codrescu,” the verbatim transcript of a February 2009 interview conducted by students in Professor Mark Spitzer’s nonfiction workshop at the University of Central Arkansas. The interviewers, in order of appearance, are: Melissa Conley, Adam Sweatman, Julian Spivey, CB Byrd, Rachel Kopp, Rhett Ferguson, Hali Wiley, Meg Houston, Dominque Maltbia, Tommy Montgomery, Kale Anderson, Robert Haynes, Cody Bray, Aprille Hanson, and Michael McWilliams.

Michael McWilliams: Who is your favorite nonfiction author?
Andrei: God.

In his regular “Book Beat” column, John Berbrich reviews Taxi Cab Poet Confessions, a pocket-sized memorial edition dedicated to the late poet Dave Church; Dave Newman’s poetry chapbook, Allen Ginsberg Comes to Pittsburgh; and Stephanie Hiteshew’s poetry chapbook, Kid.

Cover design: Nancy Berbrich (click to enlarge).

For my review of the April 2008 issue of Barbaric Yawp, go here.

Juggling: Because William Michaelian Asked For It

5.27.2009 #2
5.27.2009 #1

Memorial Day

Golden poppies snug around a fire hydrant — face in tire shop window.

(first publication)

Recently Linked: Do Poets Dream of Lineated Sheep? My thanks to Joseph Hutchison for mentioning and linking to my dream file in his comment following Camille Dungy’s recent Harriet post about dreams at the Poetry Foundation. Thanks also to Kevin Atteridg for signing on as a follower of Recently Banned Literature. Kevin has just launched a new blog, Something Like That, which we should read, among other reasons, because he has a cat.

“Memorial Day” added to Poems, Slightly Used.

In the Forum: Actors can be so temperamental.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Two Flies, a Businessman, and a Drum

The E string can also be “played” by pressing it with a finger of the left hand against a fret anywhere along the neck, or against the wood between frets. I achieved the best results while holding down the other strings with my right hand. Pressing the string against the third fret just above the sound hole, I can make it sound like the buzzing of an obnoxious fly. And pressing it against the same fret, but ever so slightly toward the sound hole, I can make it sound like two flies. The buzzing of the second fly is a little higher in pitch than the buzzing of the first. It also reminds me of bees buzzing in the distance on a warm spring day, when, although you might not see them, there are so many of the creatures active that the air itself seems to hum.

Do flies and bees buzz at different pitches because they are stronger and weaker, younger and older, and move their wings at different speeds? Do they hear themselves buzzing? What happens to the sound of a human voice when it enters a cloud of gnats? What happens to the gnats?

Meanwhile, I should have known: the E string speaks a different language when the other strings are held down. It’s more sensible, like a businessman in a dark-gray suit. It wants its shoes shined. It needs a glass of lemonade.

With the strings held in place, the back of the guitar makes a fairly expressive drum. As soon as I tried it, the fingers knew what to do. Popping, thumping, dragging, whisking — after twenty minutes, it was all I could do to get them to stop. With a little practice, I’ll be able to mimic a horse’s gallop, and the sound of a door being shut followed by footsteps dying away. Don’t leave, the guitar will say, grieving to the last beat of its heart.

In the Forum: the that that broke the camel’s back.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Whale Song

Several times now, while lightly picking the E string, I’ve accidentally touched the A string, its nearest neighbor. Much to my surprise, the resulting sound was that of whale song, which gradually died away as the gentle beast returned to the depths. When I tried to duplicate the effect, however, I failed. It was as if I were standing at the edge of the ocean in water ankle-deep, calling hoarsely across the waves for the whale to return.

In my most recent session, I spent quite a bit of time picking with each of my other four fingers, using the skin only, using a little or a lot of the nail, using the main surface of the nail, striking with varying degrees of pressure, scraping, twanging, plucking, moving up and down the neck, toward me and away. I can’t begin to remember all of the sounds that arose during this exercise, or where they occurred. But like certain words in certain languages, some were pleasing and others weren’t.

Other notes: Shortly after four this morning, I heard my son playing the piano. A few minutes later, he switched to his guitar. Then he went back to the piano, and then back again to the guitar. When I got up, I found him on the couch reading Guy de Maupassant. As usual, the piano bench was piled high with books and papers. Nothing had been disturbed. Still, I remarked on his nice piano playing. He said he hadn’t touched the piano, and that he had only been playing his guitar. I wonder what I did hear. Was I dreaming, or did the guitar sound like a piano? When I think about it now, I remember thinking when I was still in bed, “They are both string instruments.”

In the Forum: back-to-back that-thats.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Other Names

A guitar string named Ulysses. Tuned down, Hades. Up, a nimbus staircase. I met him on a goat track. He said, “E is just my nickname.” And then it rained, and rained, and rained.

5.24.2009 #2
5.24.2009 #1

Balancing Act

High upon my crooked ladder, cloud in one hand, sun in the other.

(first publication)

“Balancing Act” added to Poems, Slightly Used.

In the Forum: Jaysus, as James Joyce would say.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Parlor Talk

Eleven or twelve years ago, my mother bought a small organ at a garage sale across the street. It worked for a time, but now it sounds like a washing machine. Its sole purpose, it seems, is to hold up the two crystal wine glasses my brother gave our parents for their fiftieth wedding anniversary — unless the glasses are keeping it in place. They each have their doily, and I seldom look at them without remembering how my father cried that day — for love, for life, for his crippling arthritic pain. He had a beard at the time. It was white. He recovered for cake.

From Songs and Letters, originally published May 22, 2009.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Lumpy pudding

Another pleasant surprise:

“Judging a poem is like judging a pudding or a machine. One demands that it work. Poetry succeeds because all or most of what is said or implied is relevant; what is irrelevant has been excluded, like lumps from pudding and ‘bugs’ from machinery.” — Wimsatt & Beardsley

Here we celebrate the excluded, lumpy parts of the pudding!” — Ed.

Note: I just discovered Lumpy pudding this afternoon. I would thank the editor or editors by name, but I didn’t see any publication information while I was clicking around the site. There’s a wide variety of poetry and poetry-related quotes scattered throughout. Take a look. Meanwhile, I’ll add a link to the “Reading Room” for future reference.

5.22.2009 #2
5.22.2009 #1

The E Train

Fascinating. The harmonic at the ninth fret can also be played at the sixteenth, and the harmonic at the twelfth fret can be played at the nineteenth. And I’ve learned that if I pick the E string very lightly while holding the middle finger of my left hand over the fifth, seventh, ninth, twelfth, sixteenth, and nineteenth frets while almost touching the string — by which I mean that part of the time I can’t quite tell if I’m touching it or not, and it seems the connection might be electrical instead of tactile — I can hear three notes at once: the low E of the E string itself, the harmonic, and another E one octave higher.

Thoughts while playing: Do words possess similar musical properties? When they echo and ring in the mind, are they acting according to a musical principle? Can anything exist apart from music? One night, about thirty-five years ago, a high school classmate’s younger brother was killed at a railroad crossing in the country. After it was struck by the train, his car landed in a nearby orange grove. He died soon after in the hospital — the same hospital where my father died, and where twenty-five years before that a friend of his from our old farm neighborhood died of cancer, his screams audible from the street, and where a dear friend of mine died when he was eighteen, and where I had my foolish appendix removed, and where three of our four children were born ... all along the E string?

As the Conversation continues, we grind it, soak it, and mark it with a B, then we put it in the Yawp for baby and me.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Small World

My thanks to Frans Roumen for including two of my poems, “Armenian Music” and “He Knows,” in the May 20 birthday entry of his blog, along with a snippet of background information harvested from the public record. Also represented are Gerrit Achterberg, Annie M.G. Schmidt, Wolfgang Borchert, Ingvar Ambjørnsen, A.C. Cirino, Hector Malot, Hanna Krall, Sigrid Undset, and Honoré de Balzac.

5.21.2009 #2
5.21.2009 #1

A Chamber Pot and Van Gogh’s Ear

I have been thinking about sanity and ways in which it might be preserved, lost, regained, or understood. What is sanity? Is it sane to ask? Is sanity relative? If you and I and several other people agree, does that make us sane? Is it sane to go to war? Many think it is. They also think they are sane. But are they? People who have burned other people at the stake thought they were sane. Over the centuries, those who ordered the extermination of entire nations thought they were sane, as did those who carried out their orders. If mass murder is an example of sanity, then who in their right mind would want to be sane?

I repeat: What is sanity? Is there such a thing? And, if so, is insanity its opposite? Or is insanity a sane response to what all too often passes for sanity? Is insanity what happens to a person when he is unable to adapt to the circumstance or society in which he finds himself? And what of the person who does not wish to adapt, who sees no advantage in it physically or mentally, who realizes his adaptation would cripple and torture him, and therefore goes his own way? Is he sane or insane? And what if he is not impressed by the concept of sanity? What if he cares more about the moment, and the miracles and surprises the moment contains?

I have read that when Beethoven was caught up in the fever of composition, he might pick up a pitcher of water and pour it on his head, or leave his chamber pot unattended for days.

Van Gogh cut off part of his ear. Later, he took his own life.

Do sanity and insanity come and go, or are they absolute? Does it matter?

Last night in a dream, I asked an old acquaintance I haven’t seen for years about the health of his father. When he told me his father no longer knew who he was, I felt very sad. Then the two of us took one of those inexplicable drives, which led us to an open grassy area in which dozens of lost souls were wandering about, looking like they were waiting for something. There were people of all ages, but most of them were young. All were unhappy, and some, I was sure, were insane. My acquaintance disappeared. A young man bumped into me, his eyes staring, and then he moved on. I began to walk, and as I walked, I drifted up off the ground. I walked carefully to avoid stepping on anyone’s head, and to avoid being pulled down by the ankle. Then I awoke.

As far as I was aware, I had not drifted up by choice, but I had chosen to avoid being pulled down by the ankle.

Sane, or insane? A choice, or not a choice?

Lord, this chamber pot is ghastly. But I still have both ears. That in itself is a blessing. And the moment. I must not forget the beautiful, mysterious, glorious, inexhaustible moment.

From Songs and Letters, originally published March 7, 2006.

In the Forum: making paper out of recycled manuscripts, worn out clothes, and old shoes.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Drone Accompaniment to the World

In my second guitar session, just before I lost my mind, or perhaps just as I was losing it, I discovered that within the E string there resides a resolute monastic order whose prayer is a magnificent drone accompaniment to the world. As I learned to keep the string ringing with successive thumb strokes moving up and down along the neck, these men, dressed in black and still sweating from cultivating their plot of cucumbers, assembled in a great stone cathedral dedicated to E, which, I now realize, must stand for Everlasting.

Quite by accident, I also discovered what my son tells me are harmonics, by lightly tapping a finger of my left hand on the fifth, seventh, and twelfth frets while plucking the string with the thumb of my right hand. What intrigues me, besides the high ringing sound that results, is that the harmonic octave ascends and descends in the opposite direction of the notes on the neck. The highest notes on the string are achieved by holding the string down on the body end of the neck; the lowest harmonic occurs at the twelfth fret. And yet the ninth fret, which rings higher than the fifth and seventh, acts contrary to this pattern. Perhaps it represents the monk who is troubled in his faith.

Other notes: after my session, I told my son that I thought the other strings might be growing jealous. His reply was simple and direct: “Next,” he said, “I’m going to read Gogol.”

Guitar for Beginners
Notes on the E String

5.20.2009 #2
5.20.2009 #1

The Idiot

The Idiot
May 19, 2009

Early yesterday morning I was going to write a poem about two yellow tanagers in the pine tree across the street, and how they looked like bananas, when my son, who had been up all night, came into the room, agitated from having just finished reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. I made this drawing while we talked about the book, music, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, and Beethoven’s sometimes neglected chamber pot. Our conversation lasted about two minutes.

In the Forum: a six-pack advance against royalties.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Notes on the E String

My first session with my son’s first acoustic six-string guitar — the black Art & Lutherie we bought together when he started learning to play, and which he set aside in favor of the 1969 Guild I found a couple of years ago in a local vintage shop — was enough to show me what an adventure this experiment can be.

I began with the heavy E string — the one at the top and most likely to become tangled with my beard. I cut the fingernails on my left hand prior to picking up the guitar, but I needn’t have, since I never got around to holding down the string. So far, I’ve been picking it with my left thumb, against the skin near the bottom curve of the nail. I did try using the thumbnail briefly, and also a quarter dated 1979. But both were distractions I wasn’t quite ready for.

I started at the bottom, below the sound hole, and slowly worked my way up, past the body of the guitar and all the way to the top of the neck — the bridge, I believe it’s called, or maybe it’s the nut and the bridge is at the other end, but the name hardly matters at this point. What matters is how different the string sounded as I moved along. There are positions down low where the sound seemed more or less simple and straightforward. But as I moved past the sound hole, I thought I could hear three octaves ringing at once — although it’s possible that part of what I was “hearing” was actually the vibration of the guitar against my body. (I was sitting on the edge of a bed.)

There are eight frets between the sound hole and the top of the body of the guitar. More than once, the sound in this area, when I allowed it to die away naturally, reminded me of a rainbow. It was as if the note were a color, and I was hearing it across a wide spectrum, in a great many shades.

Then, as I moved up the neck, something magical happened between the first two frets past the body. When I struck the string there, I heard two sounds: one resembled a didgeridoo, the other a low, somber church bell. The first really did sound as if it were radiating through a hollow wooden pipe or branch; the second brought to mind a stone courtyard.

I played for about twenty minutes. The inclination, of course, is to race ahead: the mind, or at least a busy small portion of it, is eager to find out where the experiment will lead. It also says, “Relax. Let sound be a meditation.”

In the Forum: The Sunflower Cycle.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Why I Write

Why I Write
May 18, 2009

5.18.2009 #2
5.18.2009 #1

Guitar for Beginners

A year or more ago — I’m not sure exactly when — I took it upon myself to learn a few guitar chords. I worked at it long enough to toughen the fingertips on my left hand, but not long enough to develop any command, or even comfort, in shifting from one chord to another. Gradually, because writing and family matters must always come first, I stopped playing. A couple of days ago, though, I told the eldest of my two guitar-playing sons — not the one who plays acoustic, but the one who is an expert in vintage electric equipment, that I was thinking of starting again.

My idea this time is a bit different: Instead of starting with chords, I would approach the instrument as if I have no idea what it is, and devote weeks, months, possibly a whole year, to finding out what can be done with a single string, and then proceed on that basis until I’ve gained an intimate understanding of what all the strings have to express, and what I might express with their cooperation. Along the way, I could also write down some of what occurs to me during the process — perhaps turn it into a novel or diary, or both. After all, it’s possible to travel great distances even while tying one’s shoes.

Oddly enough, my son liked the idea, although he did say it could lead to a few technical problems, such as when I finally begin to play the strings together I might find they are much closer together than I thought. And immediately a picture arose in my mind of giant guitar strings stretched across a vacant field, with utility crews shouting back and forth as they work desperately to close the gap between them. Somewhere, there is a hand. It might even be attached to a brain.

In the Forum: a story in the form of a disclaimer.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Green I Won’t Describe

I won’t describe the shade of green our neighbors are using to repaint their house — except to say that as spring gives way and summer arrives, I rejoice in the colors that nature provides.

5.17.2009 #2
5.17.2009 #1

The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Recently Acquired:
The Diary of Samuel Pepys
The Heritage Press
New York (1942)

I probably shouldn’t be so excited about buying books I might never read, but since the chances of me growing up are so slight, I won’t worry about it.

This is a two-volume hardcover set, in very good condition. The books were two dollars each. On the title page, it says the Diary was “transcribed by the Rev. Mynors Bright from the shorthand manuscript in the Pepysian Library at Magdalene College Cambridge and edited with additions by Henry B. Wheatley, F.S.A.” The first volume begins with a preface by Wheatley and his “Particulars of the Life of Samuel Pepys,” which, combined, amount to forty-six pages. This is followed by the first half of the Diary, which covers the years 1659-64. Total page count for the book is 1,530 pages. The second volume, the heftier of the two, covers the years 1665-69. That books contains 1,682 pages. Grand total: 3,212 pages. Wheatley has also supplied thousands of footnotes.

Here is the entry for May 17, 1663:

[17th] (Lord’s Day). Up and in my chamber all the morning, preparing my great letters to my father, stating to him the perfect condition of our estate. My wife and Ashwell to church, and after dinner they to church again, and I all the afternoon making an end of my morning’s work, which I did about the evening, and then to talk with my wife till after supper, and so to bed having another small falling out and myself vexed with my old fit of jealousy about her dancing-master. But I am a fool for doing it. So to bed by daylight, I having a very great cold, so as I doubt whether I shall be able to speak to-morrow at our attending the Duke, being now so hoarse.

Note: While I was in the bookstore, I overheard one woman telling another about her toenail fungus. At one point she said, “It’s black and blue.” The other said that a friend of hers recently had to have her toenail removed for the same reason. “I hope I don’t have to do that,” the first woman said. “Before this, my nails were perfect.”

Samuel Pepys Diary FAQ

This entry added to And I Quote.

As the Conversation continues, I consider adding a warning label to one of my stories.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

What Others See

in a fairy tale
beside a dream,
there is a boy
who swallows
a firefly,
and a girl with
seven knees.

Beautiful knees
her jealous mother
tries to hide.

The firefly lives
inside the boy,
makes his hair
and fingers glow.

The boy and girl meet:

I am ugly, you know,
for I have seven knees.

But what of me?
I’m too bright
to sleep at night.

The girl is shy,
but in the countryside,
she decides to show the boy
her seven knees.

One by one, he sees,
then he falls in love.

As velvet night descends,
the girl takes his hand.

By his inner light, they dance,
and dance . . . and dance . . .

From Songs and Letters, originally published March 13, 2006.

In the Forum: Key Margo.

Friday, May 15, 2009

William Archila: The Art of Exile

The Art of Exile
Poems by William Archila
Bilingual Press
Hispanic Research Center
Arizona State University (2009)

Paper. 88 pages. $11.00

A match light in the cupped hands of a soldier,
that’s my country ...

In a haunting, magical way, each of the poems in this excellent first book by El Salvadoran émigré William Archila is like receiving a letter from a dead friend or relative. Yes, you might have attended the burial and watched as the body was lowered into the ground. But that doesn’t matter, because the handwriting and the voice behind it can belong to no one else. In some of the letters, entire novels are distilled into a few telling lines. In others, images of beauty and pain arrive tangled in the beak of a crow.

          Self-Portrait with Crow

          As I punch the time-clock, I know
          men will be gunned down at dawn
          in a distant continent, someone
          will dart into a café with a bomb nestled

          in the belly, by the roadside a woman
          will moan over the body of a man,
          shrunken, stretched on the earth, that God
          will finger the forehead of a dying country,

          all of it funneled through the news on TV.
          But tonight, instead of tuning in, I’m going to kneel
          beside the window, recognize myself
          in the croak of the crow, high above the black tree

          of winter, claws hooked and rough, wings swept
          back and hunched, face masked with exhaust.
          I’m going to try, even if I fail, to see myself whole,
          complete in the cry, in the beak of the crow.

In poem after poem, Archila makes something beautiful out of tragedy and suffering. He writes to clarify and to survive. He speaks as if the sun were a lemon and its juice is running down his arms, cleansing wounds he knows might never fully heal. Memory is dirt in his pockets, a native feather, a corpse without its shoes. Language is a song in his mouth.

William Archila was born in Santa Ana, El Salvador, in 1968. Escaping the violence there, he fled with his family to the United States when he was twelve. Archila earned his MFA in poetry at the University of Oregon. He currently teaches English and lives in Los Angeles with his wife.

Image: Cover art, Back View (2005), by Ramón Ramírez. Design by Bill Greaves. (Click to enlarge.)

In the Forum: poverty and a burning world.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Sophocles: The Theban Plays

Recently Acquired:
The Theban Plays
by Sophocles
translated by E.F. Watling
The Penguin Classics

King Oedipus
Oedipus at Colonus

168 pages. Ninety-nine cents.

Judging by the many underlined passages in King Oedipus, it’s obvious someone was doing her homework. Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone, though, are completely free of marks.

Night’s agony grows into tortured day, the Chorus proclaims on the thirty-first page.

For the mind to dwell beyond the reach of pain, were peace indeed, Oedipus intones on Page 64.

Still doesn’t realize truth, the former owner notes in the margin on Page 48, as if she were a member of the Chorus who had overslept. I say “she” because it is a woman’s name I find inscribed on the title page. But of course the book might well have had more than one owner.

No copyright date is given, but the translator’s introduction, also heavily underlined, is dated December 1946.

I just imagined a wonderful scene: a full amphitheater, the drama underway, and everyone in the audience clutching an underlined copy of The Theban Plays, trying to follow along.

He doesn’t know his fate yet, someone murmurs on Page 33. A thousand scholars can’t be wrong.

This entry, sans cover image, added to And I Quote.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Dream in Three Acts

A casual swim begins in calm, blue waters. First I’m alone. Then I hear others laughing and splashing. The waters expand. In the distance there’s a small rocky island. I start swimming toward the island, but then a breeze comes up and the current pulls me off course toward a cliff. At the edge of the cliff is a black road; beyond and far below is where the ocean begins. A fog settles in. I feel a sense of panic. Then it lifts and somehow I can see under it and over it, but not through it. Now the stars are out. I’m walking on the road. I hear my brother’s voice. He and his wife are in a cave with pale walls. They’re waiting for me with a small fire and a meal of bread and cheese and wild greens. Before I take any, I realize that I’m holding a key. When I look up, it’s daylight again and I’m facing a locker on a busy street corner. But before I can open the locker, I have to empty out my mother’s closet. Most of what’s in it is old and stained and doesn’t need to be saved. Then I find a familiar looking towel. I retrieve it for the locker. There’s a field of corn stubble between her closet and the street corner. While I’m crossing it, I see a young woman standing alone, her back turned toward me. She’s been crying. I don’t know who she is or why she’s unhappy. I ask her if I can help. She smiles and says it’s too late. And I think, how strange that we are standing here in a field. How beautiful and lonely and sad everything is.

Added yesterday to the Annandale Dream Gazette. My thanks, once again, to Lynn Behrendt.

In the Forum: family fortunetellers.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Issa: The Autumn Wind

Recently Acquired:
The Autumn Wind
A Selection from
the Poems of Issa

Translated and Introduced
by Lewis Mackenzie

Kodansha International, Tokyo,
New York, San Francisco (1984)

Previously published by John Murray, Ltd., London (1957)

250 haiku in English and Japanese. Also includes original text.

Paperback. 137 pages. Ninety-nine cents

Note: This is one of two books I bought yesterday at Goodwill. While I was there, I checked the furniture department. I saw a bookshelf that stood about seven feet high. It had six shelves, and was stained a reddish-brown color. Despite its wear and tear, I wanted it. The price had been marked down to $14.99. But I had no way to bring it home. And so now the pile on my work table is two books higher.

In the Forum: the fourth horse in the fourth race.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Little girls
in the street

on the way
to Sunday school

Did you see my mother’s pretty hair?

(first publication)

“Saved” added to Poems, Slightly Used.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


Something rather disturbing happened to me yesterday that I think I’ll hide in a novel. Or there’s a novel hiding in what happened. Or I’m hiding in yesterday. Or yesterday is hiding in me. They’re all possible, really — unless what happened is still happening. Because if what happened is happening, then it hasn’t quite happened. Or has it?

In the Forum: Throw West, young man.

Saturday, May 9, 2009


What larger thing
in a smaller space

than that which

the heart

(first publication)

“Pizzicato” added to Poems, Slightly Used.

In the Forum: a dim view of hat-stealing.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Deaf American Poetry

Deaf American Poetry
John Lee Clark, Editor
Gallaudet University Press
Washington, D.C. (2009)

I’ve just begun reading this tastefully designed 294-page volume, which poet and editor John Lee Clark graciously arranged for me to have. What I know about the culture of deaf people, the signing community, and deaf poets would leave room in a thimble. But as someone who regards silence as an integral part of sound and a key component in the making and understanding of poetry, I see a book like this is an opportunity to test such nebulous ideas.

Several months ago, Jerome Rothenberg posted a poem of his called “The Silent Language.” To this he added a note on signing, the “possibilities of a poetry-without-sound,” and the relation of poetry to human speech. In the comment section, I said,

Indeed, it can be said that sound depends on silence for its existence and meaning. Silence is certainly at the heart of poetry, and is its guiding impulse — the silence between words, between lines, between thoughts; the silence that arises between alert, receptive human beings.

The larger the silence, the greater the music.

Poetry revels in sound, but does not require sound for its existence.

Does dance require movement?


With so many of us talking at once,
I wonder how there can be silence at all.
Or is silence the sum total of sound,
An infinite roar, a vessel rimmed with stars?

... none of which, I realize, effectively addresses the making of poetry from a deaf perspective. As a hearing person, I sometimes contemplate silence as I contemplate the night sky — as a living, palpable distance. That is a luxury I have. But that luxury might also be a limitation. Frankly, I doubt that my understanding of sound is any better than my understanding of silence.

The fact is, there is an immense difference between hearing and listening. I have a feeling that a deaf person has no greater edge in understanding silence than a hearing person has in understanding sound. Either can be taken for granted or misunderstood. Listening demands attention. We are all disabled to some degree in our thinking and preconceptions.

The book, as I said, is beautiful. It is a compilation spanning more than two centuries that contains ninety-five poems by thirty-five deaf American poets from the signing community. Mr. Clark includes interesting biographical information on each poet, and helps place the poets’ lives and work in a larger cultural context. As I read on, I hope to learn a great deal.

And then there are the poems themselves, which must be considered on their own delightful merits and shortcomings as poems, born of creative impulse, restlessness, and the need to communicate:


          This tree is music; and this rose
          Is laughter rippling on a stream
          Free-flowing into hills of dream
          Grown phantasmal in evening’s close.
          The counterpoint of wind that blows
          In faint, elusive gusts is them
          For all the undertones that teem
          In glimmering light which fades and glows.
          This woodland that is yet a world,
          Peopled with all that Eden held,
          Has one cold angel, forthwith hurled
          From sound to silence,—he who felled
          The ululation of this wound
          With all the instruments of sound.

          — Rex Lowman (1918-2001), Page 136

Image: Cover photograph by Willy Conley using a technique he calls watergraph. Conley takes photographs of water reflections that have been turned upside-down. Depending on environmental factors like the wind, debris in the water, and the color of the sky, each inverted reflection creates a painting framed by whatever was surrounding the water.

(Note from copyright page; click to enlarge.)

This entry, minus the cover image and related note, added to And I Quote.

In the Forum: a small press publisher defends his hats.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Orange Blossom Time

The scent was at its peak the day we laid my friend to rest.
At his graveside, near the end of the service,
he took a deep breath, then sighed.

Everyone was surprised.

The pastor smiled.
He said, “Orange blossom time.”

(first publication)

“Orange Blossom Time” added to Poems, Slightly Used.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Tea Stains and Powder Clouds

A coat of paint in my mother’s bedroom, long overdue.
Pictures down, nails from the wall.
Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” framed inside a narrow mirror.

              Life is real! Life is earnest!
              And the grave is not its goal.

Dead fly on her window sill.

My father’s dog tags hanging from the chifferobe —
a word we borrowed from a book she loved.

The carpet around her bed worn down
from countless trips to the bathroom.

Tea stains and powder clouds.

Workman’s ladder: thirty-nine dollars.
“At one time,” he said two days ago, “this room was yellow.”

I think of Van Gogh, and the yellow house on the corner
of Avenue 408 and Road 74, half a mile from where I grew up.

North of there, a neighbor killed himself in his pickup
beside a pump house down a vineyard row.

Farewell behind a clump of fiddlenecks.

One brown wire across the road, from power pole to power pole.
Holes in the wall left by molly screws.

My dead father taking notes, windows closed, engine on.

“So far, so good. But a second coat will even up those walls.”

From Songs and Letters, originally published May 5, 2009.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Work Notes

the eaves

flees into my memory

(first publication)

“Work Notes” added to Poems, Slightly Used.

As the Conversation continues, a dour Scottish detective takes his turn at the weird hat poetry reading.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Sunday’s Child

To be my mother’s lilac,
and for her to somehow know it

like its scent, a thought that
cannot last for long

(first publication)

“Sunday’s Child” added to Poems, Slightly Used.

In the Forum: a weird hat poetry reading.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Did You Know?

A few words in a jar
will light the room at night
if you love them first
and say them

(first publication)

“Did You Know?” added to Poems, Slightly Used.

Saturday, May 2, 2009


My mother’s desk is not an inanimate object.
Oh, it sits there calmly enough.
You won’t see it get up and walk across the room.
But if you listen, you might hear it breathe.

Yesterday in the typewriter well, I found an old charge receipt.
It was printed in Italian and signed by my father in 1989.

My father’s brother was shot down during the war.
He’s buried in Italy.

             “Do we really need to name our wars?”
                          I said to a friend in a letter the other day.
             “Isn’t there really but one?”

I found another slip he’d signed in London.

I found another saying his mother-in-law
had earned a few hundred dollars changing sheets
and making beds at a hotel in Stockton.

I found a picture of my cousin’s kids, dated 2001.

A note in my mother’s hand: “short term memory loss.”

             “I am sane the way a search light is sane,”
                          I said in the same letter.

I paraphrase, of course.

From Songs and Letters, originally published May 1, 2009.

Note: Eleven or twelve years ago, I wrote a pleasantly disturbing short story called “Voices.” It was published in Barbaric Yawp, and is included in my Early Short Stories.

Recently Linked: My thanks to Peter A Leonard for publishing my poem, “Death Treads Softly,” in this entry of his blog, Peedeel’s Blog. A link to Mr. Leonard’s blog can also be found in the “Reading Room.”

In the Forum: Freudian wrench.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Ghost and Cathedral

I do marvel at the twists and turns my writing has taken over the years, and how in some ways it has come to resemble one of my favorite San Joaquin Valley landmarks, widely unknown and long since gone: a wild grapevine, out of place and thriving in a muscat vineyard about a century old.

The vineyard, owned by a remarkable, not entirely sane widow with piercing blue eyes, was across narrow Huntsman Avenue, which ran along the south side of my in-laws’ farm five miles west of the town of Fowler. The wild vine was several rows in. It was much taller than a man, and loomed above its more docile muscat neighbors. Its hairy bark-covered arms twisted and reached in all directions. Lizards scurried in and out of holes in its trunk. Squirrels burrowed at its base. Bird tracks and empty nutshells were further evidence of its importance. At dusk, the vine became both ghost and cathedral, almost as if its mission were to haunt itself.

That I see my writing in this light makes sense. To a large extent, I’m haunted by what I do: around the clock, I write writing, I think writing, I hear writing, I dream writing. At the same time, writing is where I dwell and where I pray — where I celebrate, learn, fail, and mourn; where I lift myself up and shut myself in; where I die and where I’m born.

I’m a nutshell under that old vine.

One arm is memory. One is prose, one is poetry, one is observation, one is study, one is frivolity — and from each of these arms grow other arms: the arms of books and paper and ink and electricity; the arms of ego, pride, foolishness, experiment, and stubborn illogic. The arms overlap. They are similar in that they are nourished by the same sun and the same root, but they respond differently: some are stunted; some are unruly; some bear strange fruit. If they were children, they would drive their mama crazy.

Note: “Ghost and Cathedral” is the latest addition to my Notebook. The archive of past entries is here.

Related image: For a lovely photo of an old vineyard taken on a foggy day west of Stockton near Oakley, California, go here.

Elsewhere: My poem, “Keeper of the Bones,” was published yesterday in the Armenian Poetry Project as part of the third annual Poetry Blast organized by founder and curator Lola Koundakjian. “Keeper of the Bones” was originally published October 8, 2005, in Songs and Letters. I also posted it here.

In the Forum: elevator symbolism.