December 2005

I don’t believe it: 39 years old, and I am still having back-to-school dreams. It was my last dream before waking, though it takes me a few minutes to register the absurdity of the situation. I’m standing in the shower thinking, Jesus, do ex-convicts still have nightmares about prison twenty-two years after their release?

Actually, the dream was fairly innocuous. I was my present, more-or-less confident, wise-cracking self, and even flirted a bit with the homeroom teacher when I arrived a minute late and had to submit to some extra paperwork. She responded with amusement. Neither of us had to clarify the situation, so familiar in the funhouse mirror world of my dream life: the System had finally caught up with me, and as penance for all the tests I’d taken without studying, the homework I’d refused to take home and the hundreds of hours of class time I’d spent daydreaming, I had to go back and take twelfth grade over.

Almost everybody has these dreams, I guess. I wonder whether they qualify as symptoms of mild post-traumatic stress disorder? If so, that might explain a lot. Certainly, our society-wide acceptance of the therapeutic effects of punishment, sensory deprivation and imprisonment can be attributed in part to the fact that we’ve almost all gone through this system and internalized its lessons. But what do psychiatric professionals say about back-to-school dreams? I’m not sure what the consensus would be, but I suspect “the Dream Doctor” is fairly typical when he assures Cheryl in NYC that

[B]ack to school dreams do not reflect a desire to return to school, nor do they reflect emotional trauma from our school years. Instead, the dreams reflect challenges in our current life–usually in a career or social context–about whether or not we will “graduate to the next level.” What’s the connection? The pressure we feel today reminds us of how we used to feel back in high school or college before we took an exam: nervous, and wondering if we will “make the grade.”

Back to school dreams occur when we are stressed about completing a project at work, for example, or if we are switching careers, experiencing money problems, or are trying to “graduate” to a new position in our romantic lives.

Hmmm. Yes, that’s me.

Come to think of it, though, I was involved in one highly stressful situation right before bed, though I wasn’t the one having a bad night. My parents buzzed me on the intercom around 9:30 and asked if I’d mind coming up and helping them get a bat out of the house. I grabbed my coat and raced up the hill.

It was on the floor of the sitting room, down among the boots and slippers, doing a pretty good job of resembling some kind of bizarre winter garment – a thumb warmer, perhaps, or a toddler’s fuzzy boot. Due to its size, appearance and evident cold-hardiness, we decided it must be a big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus). Based on past experience trying to evict other, more fearful species of bats in the summer months, we expected an ordeal, but it turned out to be no trouble to slip a plastic basin over it and slide a piece of cardboard underneath. It emitted a single, high-pitched squeal. We carried it outside and lifted the basin. I held the cardboard in one hand – mindful of the species’ reputation for ferocity – and my camera in the other. FLASH. It bared its teeth – good! Hold that pose! FLASH. Then it spun around and launched itself into the night. I went to review my pictures and found I’d left the lens cap on.

So you’d think I would’ve dreamt about small, fierce creatures of the night… or at least my anxiety concerning my inability to photograph wildlife. But all I remember is an earlier dream, sometime between 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning, which also concerned education. It seemed that I was a high-paid tutor of would-be poets. (Don’t laugh!) One of them mentioned that she was a high school administrator, and asked me if I had a theory of teaching. “Give me a moment,” I said – and woke up. A theory of teaching? Hmm. I lay there thinking about it. Yes, maybe I would have to have one. But it would need to be flexible, changing from pupil to pupil, even from hour to hour.

Dialogue, I thought. Apart from the give and take of conversation – including the internal dialogues we have with our favorite authors – it’s all just technical training or indoctrination, isn’t it?

I guess it makes sense that, when I finally drifted back to sleep, the roles would be reversed and I would find myself a student once again. In my waking life, too, I honestly feel that I haven’t learned anything of value in my nearly forty years on the planet, and perhaps this provokes a mild state of anxiety. Shouldn’t I really know something by now?

The other students all appeared to be of high school age, though the only one I focused on – because he happened to be talking to the teacher when I walked in – was one of my old classmates. That’s one of the things that struck me later on, standing in the shower. Why the heck would this guy be in my dream? True, he was the state heavyweight wrestling champ, and one of the most popular kids in the school. But he wasn’t in any of my classes, and he and I didn’t cross paths from one year to the next. A couple times since graduation I’d heard about what he’d done in life: attended a state university on an athletic scholarship, gotten an education degree, and gone into – what else? – public school teaching. He even won some teaching awards, I think. Then a couple months ago I heard that he’d died suddenly, of what exactly I’m not sure. As I said, we were never close. But here he was standing next to the teacher’s desk, giving me a friendly but uncomprehending look, seventeen years old again. I bared my teeth.

The first post for qarrtsiluni’s December theme, “Finding Home,” is up, and it’s excellent. Dale of mole is an astonishingly good writer when he wants to be.

“Home,” ever since, has been loose in its socket. An undependable word. Or maybe — as I have more recently come to think of it — a little opening, a window, through which a wider, richer, more dangerous world can be glimpsed.

I believe there’s still time to submit original writing or artwork for this month’s theme. See the qarrtsiluni sidebar for contact information and guidelines.

This lengthy article from the NY Times is a must-read for anyone interested in Tibet, the Dalai Lama, and/or liberation struggles and the politics of nonviolence. The debate between the older generation of monks and the younger Tibetan activists, turning on fundamental questions about the relationship between means and ends, reminds me of some of the more memorable discussions from this corner of the blog world over the past couple of years.

“Our ultimate goal,” Samdhong Rinpoche told me, “is not just political freedom but the preservation of Tibetan culture. What will we gain if we win political freedom but lose what gives value to our lives? It is why we reject the option of violence. For respect for life is an inseparable aspect of the Tibetan culture we are fighting for.”

Tsundue, however, remained unconvinced when I reported Samdhong Rinpoche’s views to him. We were in a small bookshop owned by a friend of his, browsing through the collection of Tibet-related books. Tsundue immediately said that he could not identify Tibetan culture exclusively with Buddhism and that the preference for nonviolent politics could also become an excuse for passivity and inaction. “Our leaders quote Gandhi,” Tsundue said. “But Gandhi saw British rule in India as an act of violence and said that resistance to it was a duty. I see the Chinese railway to Lhasa as a similar act of violence. What’s wrong with blowing up a few bridges? How can such resistance be termed wrong and immoral?”

Many young Tibetans speak with admiration of the Khampa warriors of eastern Tibet, who fought against the invading Chinese Army in 1950 and, in 1959, initiated the bloody revolt against Chinese rule, effectively forcing the Dalai Lama to choose between a subservient status in Tibet and exile in India. An account of the Khampas, published by the acclaimed Tibetan novelist Jamyang Norbu in 1987, inspired many Tibetans of Tsundue’s generation to consider more militant solutions to their problem. As Norbu, who now lives in the United States, told a filmmaker producing a documentary for PBS in 1997, “Some people don’t want to be enlightened, at least not immediately.” Norbu went on to say: “We are ordinary Tibetans. We drink; we eat; we feel passion; we love our wives and kids. If someone sort of messes around with them, even if they’re an army, you pick up your rifle.” Tibetans, he added, have an “affinity to their place they live in. And they don’t want the Chinese there. And his Holiness cannot understand this.”

In the end, I tend to side with H.H. and Samdhong Rinpoche about nonviolence and nationalism, the need to include all ethnicities in any future Tibetan state or autonomous region, etc. But I don’t understand why, if they truly accept the possibility of a generations-long exile as they say, they continue to scale back their demands for sovereignty. They seem to be intent on proving that they are good reservation Indians – which, it occurs to me, may be part of the reason for the Dalai Lama’s popularity in the U.S. We Americans love that figure of the noble savage who declares that “The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth”, or “I will fight no more forever”: wise, eloquent and best of all, accepting of defeat.

This entry is part 33 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig

I’ve been reading Paul Zweig, and responding to his poems with poems of my own: thirty-three of them so far. I haven’t done this in close to a month, though, so I’m not sure how successfully I’ll be able to get back into it.

This is the sixteenth poem in the third (“Eternity’s Woods”) section of Zweig’s Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details on this experiment in responsive reading.

This You May Keep
by Paul Zweig

A showering of branches,
Leaves in all their fits, their sultry shakes,
Like voices circling in a room . . .

[Remainder of poem removed 12-28-05]

* * * *

This You Must Know

The surface tension of water, & how to use it
for nearly effortless walking.

Light without heat: what every glowworm knows.

What it means to be larval,
to have complicated mouthparts
& the sprout-tips of wings.

The secrets of chitin, which imposes limits to growth
through an architect’s dream of fully inhabitable space.

Why snow fleas persist in seeking their fortunes
on the skin of such a cold, white host.

What the inchworm really measures
with its green prostrations.

What this is that we are told
the meek
shall inherit.

__________

Chitin, pronounced KITE-n, is a nitrogenous polysaccharide – i.e., a type of sugar – responsible for the tough, outer shells of most invertebrates, including insect exoskeletons, as well as the architecture of fungal mycelia and lichens.

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This past Saturday was the last day of regular rifle deer season in Pennsylvania – kind of like the twelfth day of Christmas to those for whom hunting season is a bigger deal than Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s put together. Oddly, though, there didn’t seem to be too many hunters out. And the light was perfect, so around 2:30 I put on my blaze-orange hat and vest, grabbed my camera and headed into the woods.

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I was wrong: the hunters were out. Those who weren’t sitting in trees on down the hollow had spent the morning on the other side of the ridge, in the woods above I-99 – an unsuccessful drive. I learned this from Carl, who stood a little ways up in the woods and motioned for me to come over.

I barely recognized him. Normally clean-shaven except for a mustache, he now sported a full beard. “Damn, you’re getting shaggy!” I said. “So are you,” he observed. “Yeah, well, I thought I’d grow my hair long for the winter,” I said. “Well, there you go,” he said. “This is my hunting beard.”

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They were about to start a drive up toward the spruce grove at the very top of the watershed – right in the direction of the setting sun, which was also the direction in which I wanted to walk. Carl’s wife Carolyn was one of the two hunters lying in ambush. I quickly offered to go walk somewhere else. But they could use an extra driver, Carl said, and let the others know via walkie-talkie. He moved on up the ridgeside and told me to walk slowly forward through the laurel along the contour, pausing at the powerline right-of-way until the fellow on the other ridge – who bore the walkie-talkie handle “Iceman” – came even with us.

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I was grateful for the excuse to bushwhack. My trajectory led me on a route about fifty feet above, and parallel to, one of our main trails: precisely that part of the property which is least familiar to me, because how often does one go bushwhacking so close to a trail? And the slow-but-steady pace forced me to stay attentive, make decisions quickly about what to photograph, and move on. The recent snow was still dry and easy to move through.

At the powerline, we had about a ten-minute wait, since Iceman’s route took him right through the areas hardest hit by last January’s devastating ice storm. Evidently this whole drive was his idea, though, so I didn’t feel too sorry for him. I watched anxiously as the sun sank lower and lower through the trees.

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At the far edge of the powerline, I found a clump of sweetfern (Comptonia peregrina), a huckleberry-sized shrub related to bayberry. Due to its wonderful aroma, it’s one of those plants I always stop to sniff and admire during the warmer months of the year. It’s just a very charismatic plant. According to the Wikipedia article, “Comptonia is used as a food plant by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including Grey Pug and Setaceous Hebrew Character.” Setaceous means “bristle-shaped; slender and gradually attenuated to the tip.” The Hebrew character in question is nun, the one that looks a bit like a backward C. I’d never stopped to look at sweetferns in winter – a calligraphy replete with ornate, bristly Cs. Their dried leaves would probably still make a decent cup of tea, but that would seem like a desecration now.

You can probably begin to sense why I am content to leave the deer-slaying to others, much as I admire the Pennsylvania hunting tradition and recognize its ecological value.

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My more tender-hearted readers will be happy to hear that the deer were elsewhere that afternoon. I found one, day-old track – that was it. When the drive was over, the hunters stood around glumly contemplating their next move. “You should carry a camera, ” I teased them. “That way, you may not shoot what you set out for, but you always bag something.” For once, Carl didn’t have a snappy comeback. I probably should’ve kept my mouth shut.

I left them to their hunting and walked back down through the field, following my shadow.

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You can live on the earth a long time and not get tired of that “certain slant of light,” as Dickinson called it.

When it comes, the Landscape listens —
Shadows — hold their breath —
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death —

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Poetry is a natural accompaniment to food. Poem chemistry helps to soothe the psyche, appetize and refresh the palate, and assist with digestion.

Some combinations of poetry and food are more successful than others. However, attempts to set down a complex list of “rules” for matching food to poetry are ill-advised; the myriad variables of preparations, spices, sauces, side dishes, etc., along with individual palate and preference, make rules impossible. That being said, I’ll step into the quagmire and share some generalities that guide me well…

If the food flavors are complex, keep the poetry simple. If the poetry is complex, straightforward and simple food preparation will allow the poems to show off.

Matching the general flavor profile of the poetry with that of the food usually works. Keep the categories simple:

FOOD FLAVORS and corresponding POETRY FLAVORSSalty or sour (savory) – Light, crisp, imagistic

Bitter – Difficult, avant-garde, acerbic

Rich – Word-rich, metaphorically dense, allusive

Sweet – Musical, direct, ecstatic

When flavor elements mix in the food, try the same combination in poetry. Tomato sauces, for example, usually combine both sweet and sour flavors, so try poems that have both aural and syntactic complexities. This is not an exclusive or hard-and-fast system by any means; there are other combinations that may work just fine and serendipitous surprises are always palate-thrilling, but this chart can be a good starting point.

Occasionally a particular flavor element in a book of poems may be echoed by one in the food, but these pinpoint matches have an element of risk. A hint of cinnamon, for instance, can work wonders with some, but not all, Ondaatje. Poems by Charles Simic tend to go very well with sausages. But best try any new combinations on yourself before serving them to guests or large gatherings.

SPARKLING POEMS are very all-purpose. Wit is a great refresher and palate cleanser. These kinds of poems are especially good with savory foods. Want a treat? Try May Swenson with pizza!

CRISP, IMAGISTIC POEMS are a good all-purpose category. Allusive poems with little or no enjambment will harmonize with a wide variety of dishes.

RICH, FORMAL OR NEO-FORMALIST POEMS are good matches for foods that have cream or butter-based sauces. Some enjambment here is usually all right.

HAIKU work with delicate foods, such as trout.

ECSTATIC OR SURREALIST POEMS are the best choice for spicy (hot) cuisine, such as some South Asian or Mexican dishes. Be careful trying to match orgasmic poems with orgasmic desserts – one will probably climax before the other, leading to a combination of satiety and dissatisfaction more reminiscent of The Wasteland.

LIGHT POEMS are another good all-purpose category. They are fine with roasts and stews, fowl, and light meats. Many will even work with meaty fish, like salmon, swordfish, or halibut.

BEAT POEMS are reserved for steaks, chops, charred dishes, and scrapple. They also handle acidic foods, like tomato sauce, and take the edge away from bitter greens.

Feel free to experiment. Learn what works for your palate. The important operative wisdom is to eat and read what you like.

For more specific recommendations of poetry, barely in time for holiday Christmas shopping, see here.

Facing west, the direction of the Blessed Lands both in northern Europe and in many parts of native North America. The place where the light goes each autumn, threatening to stay unless we can lure it back.

7:33 a.m.

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7:34 a.m.

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3:50 p.m.

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3:51 p.m.

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This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Peckerwood Pilgrim

On a Monday morning, sleepless after a night split between the Memphis Greyhound station and a crowded bus, I wandered the streets of Nashville looking for a decent cup of coffee. Few other people were stirring except for the homeless, who sat patiently in a little park across from the public library. Where were the armies of flatpickers, the corn syrup crooners desperate for a break? Whither the twangy sequined suits and the Schlitz-and-rivet tough guys in their ugly hats? Back in their rented rooms, no doubt, playing a lonesome tune on the one-holed flute. Does it make sense that country music should have a capital city?

But much to my surprise, Nashville turned out also to be the capital of Tennessee, full of monuments to its own glory. Approaching the War Memorial Plaza from behind, my first view was past the heroic ass cheeks of an immense stone Nike. The fountain had been left on all night, and the high winds had scattered its water across the plaza. Pieces of the sky lay scattered like false memories between the estranged pair of trash receptacles.

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The wind blew in great gusts. Half the metal newspaper boxes in town lay face down in the gutter. I walked along with a hand on my head to keep my hat from flying off, the one with an ivorybill embroidered above the brim.

I caught two small hydraulic excavators enjoying a tender moment right in front of the bank. When I came back that way fifteen minutes later, they were gone.

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At the base of the Life and Casualty Tower, a pair of concrete planters with little nodules of boxwood poking through tangles of English ivy were making maternal gestures toward a traffic cone.

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Larger-than-life, priapic guitars dotted the streets, each the work of a different local artist. I suddenly remembered an artist and sculptor I used to know who had moved to Nashville ten years before. Back then, almost everything she worked on sooner or later turned into a guitar. I wondered if she still lived here, and if so, whether she was behind all this, somehow. It seemed possible. She always had a pretty good sense of humor.

I’ll admit, I didn’t expect much from a city whose landmark skyscraper looks like the head of Batman. When the public library opened its doors at ten o’clock, I followed the homeless people inside. I had found and drunk my coffee an hour before, and now I needed a place to get rid of it.

But there, in a hallway lined with old theater posters, was the perfect title for the last post in a travelogue. Life imitates art, as Oscar Wilde said – especially when one is severely sleep-deprived. Art never sleeps.

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I walked around for a while eavesdropping on the quiet conversations of the books, which were crowded onto shelves for no better reason than that they happened to be headed in the same direction. I felt as if I were already halfway home.

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The bus pulls up beside the gas station/convenience store that serves for a bus stop in Cleveland, Mississippi. It’s 8:30 in the evening; the last hint of daylight is just draining from the sky. A small line forms behind me at the side of the bus, waiting for the door to open. It purrs quietly, lit up inside like an empty theater. The driver has disappeared, presumably into the restroom at the rear of the coach, as bus drivers always put it in their welcome-aboard announcements.

“Tell me that this bus didn’t just drive itself here,” says the guy behind me with a bit of a tremor in his voice.

When at length the driver does emerge, he turns out to be the most taciturn bus driver I’ve ever met. There are no announcements, just lights-out and go. And I think I prefer it this way, to be leaving Mississippi on the fabled Highway 61 in quiet and in darkness.

You’d never know if you hadn’t heard the Bob Dylan song – or read a little history – that this arrow-straight stretch of road was once such a fabled route, one of the main arteries for the great African-American exodus out of the South. There’s a historical marker in the middle of Clarksdale, but the main highway now bypasses the town, which must frustrate blues pilgrims looking for “the” crossroads of 61 and 49, and finding themselves directed to the intersection of Routes 49 and 161 instead.

But even though this is a four-lane, divided highway now, it’s not limited-access. Numerous small roads still intersect with it, and even the major exits are, strangely, almost all unlit. I was struck by this the previous night, when I rode up to Clarksdale with my sister-in-law Luz to see a blues band there. As familiar as she was with the road, she had trouble finding the exit, and on the way back, with the car buffeted by high winds on a night with tornadoes in the forecast, the road felt lonely indeed.

The flat enormity of the Delta is best experienced after dark, when distant lights can keep pace with you for miles, almost as faithful as the evening star. Halfway to Clarksdale, the lights in the bus come on for no apparent reason, and I wait tensely for some explanation from the driver about a mechanical dysfunction or some other urgent need to pull over. But there’s no announcement, and after about five minutes the lights go out again. Maybe the bus is haunted. I remember Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues”:

You may bury my body
down by the highway side.

[spoken] Baby, I don’t care where you bury my body when I’m dead and gone.
You may bury my body, oo,
down by the highway side,
so my old evil spirit
can catch the Greyhound bus and ride.

Except that this isn’t Greyhound, it’s a regional outfit called Delta Bus Lines. Greyhound doesn’t stop here anymore, although the historic preservation people in Clarksdale have kept up the old Greyhound station downtown, probably for the benefit of tourists searching for the ghost of Robert Johnson, as so many like to do. Me, I’m more interested in Bessie Smith, who, though hardly a Deltan, did die in a hospital in Clarksdale after her car rear-ended a parked truck along a dark stretch of Route 61 somewhere north of Cleveland, back in 1937. Try to imagine how her driver must’ve felt, having just killed his lover, the Empress of the Blues. Really, any number of unquiet spirits could be haunting this stretch of highway.

Judging from its schedule – one run south out of Memphis beginning in the early morning, and one run north back to Memphis beginning in the early evening – I suspect that Delta Bus Lines might consist of just this one bus, and maybe one other plying a different route. This looks very much like the same bus I rode down on, though the driver then was short, female, and very aggressive toward her passengers. In the little town of Shelby, the transmission suddenly failed and she spent ten minutes vainly trying to get the bus into gear. This apparently involved pushing a few buttons and muttering a few words over and over. She called for help on her cellphone, then tried pushing the buttons in a different way, or something, but nothing worked. Everyone sat very still; you could tell we weren’t in the northeast. At last, the hundredth time she tried it, the bus suddenly lurched into gear.

“That was Jesus!” a black woman across the aisle called out. “Yes it was!” answered the elderly white woman in the seat next to me. I bit my tongue.

There’s always an extra bit of pathos to rural bus routes, I think. Maybe it’s because country people tend to approach travel with more ceremony and trepidation, given what the Big City represents. The young white couple a few seats ahead of me, who were so giggly and affectionate at the bus station, have grown quiet, staring out at the night. The older black man whose entire extended family assembled at the side of the bus to see him off puts on a headset and listens to music for less than twenty minutes. Now he, too, has surrendered to the pull of the darkened landscape.

Our bus swings off the highway at Mound Bayou – the oldest incorporated African-American town in the South, named for one of the tells from the Mississippian civilization that dot the Delta – but no one is waiting there, so it doesn’t stop. We pull into Clarksdale without further incident.

The new bus station is out on the strip, and looks as if it might once have been a fast-food restaurant. Some of the older buildings out here would probably already qualify for historic preservation, I think, if only they had had the good fortune to have witnessed something certifiably historic. But history is often dangerous, as all too many people found out back in the heyday of the civil rights movement. Most of the time it’s probably better to remain anonymous. Plus, towns that have reinvented themselves as Historic Quaintsville annoy the hell out of me, like the blues band we’d driven up to see the night before: still playing the same, tired songs in the same generic way. Funny how the attempt to be completely authentic often results in just the opposite. We left after two beers.

The driver gets off the bus, then climbs back on as if suddenly remembering the passengers. “We’ll be here about five minutes if you need to get a smoke,” he says in a quiet voice that surely must have been inaudible to the folks in the back. “This is Clarksdale. Clarksdale.”

For my poem about the death of Bessie Smith, see here.