January 2009

One finch doesn’t
fly with the others,
his eyes clouded
over. Whatever
panics the others
never shakes him,
gripping the perch
he had struggled
to find, flying by
sound, by shadows,
by the sudden wind
from fifty wings
leaving him alone
at the round
house of a feeder,
pulling gray sun-
flower seeds
from under
its doors.

Yes, I know my photo blog is down. Shutterchance, the host, sent around an email saying they had experienced massive server failure, and were working hard to try and reconstruct files. It doesn’t sound too encouraging. And I know that Via Negativa was out of commission for close to a day. My blog host and patron, Matt, suggested that’s because I had over 30 active plugins, and the server couldn’t take it. So I’ve been cutting plugins right and left and holding my breath. No more ShareThis, no more silly word count in the footer, no more Table of Contents. (Did anyone ever actually use ShareThis? If so, for what?)

There for a few minutes yesterday morning, even The Morning Porch was down for maintenance, which meant that all three of my personal blogs were MIA at the same time. Scary. What to do?

Well, create a new site, of course. Check out the new group blog for micropoetry, Open Micro.

Most people use microblog services like Twitter and its open-source counterpart Identica for updates on their daily activities, and that’s fine. Some people use them for hilarious bon mots — I try to follow as many of those as possible. At qarrtsiluni, we use Twitter and Identica to help disseminate news about the magazine and our contributors. There are even some novelists taking advantage of the medium, trickling out new work one or two sentences at a time — enough of them that a new word has been coined for the genre, twitterature. But some of us simply enjoy the challenge of trying to create complete poems or prose-poems within the strict confines of a single microblog post of 140 characters, spaces included.

There are actually quite a few haiku writers on Twitter, though of course not all of them take the art too seriously. But it was actually the much less populous Identica whose recent addition of groups sparked the creation of Open Micro. Some of us on Twitter and Identica had long been favoriting other people’s most lyrical notices and hoarding them in our Favorites pages (mine are here), but with the ability to create a Poetry group page came a new idea: wouldn’t it be cool if we could somehow combine all our favorites pages into one?

That’s essentially what Open Micro will do. We’re trying to be careful to get permission for everything we post, though this isn’t as onerous as it sounds, since any micropoem by a fellow contributor is fair game. The group will probably add a few more members, but what we really need now are readers. Stop on over! And be sure to bookmark it, so that the next time Via Negativa vanishes into the ether, you’ll still have something to read.

Crescents of lemon & circles of orange orbit the earthly paradise of the plate. A freshly felled miniature tree, a replica of the inner ear fashioned from a single slice of apple — the garnish turns eating into a cautious act. We pause with our forks poised over carrot curls & strawberries exposed as if for surgery, pickle slices stacked like green coins. How many truckloads of produce bound for the city each day go into these brief displays of inconspicuous non-consumption? It seems wrong to keep count. The devil is in the details & that’s where we like him: red as a maraschino, ridiculous as a toothpick parasol. During a rare lull in the general hubbub, one can just make out the bellowing of a prep cook who’s severed the end of his pinky.


do the sapless twigs of winter
taste any different on the tree
you’ve just girdled,
this waste of a pine?
Its whited branches light
the grove like candles,
like candelsticks.
But you with your poor eyesight
must favor the dark: hollows & cavities,
the undersides of things,
unchewed bark.
This pine was unwise to arm itself
with such soft & succulent spines.
It did nothing but hiss
like a gnawed-on road-salted tire.
Slow destroyer,
do you ever pass
those bleached roads in the air
& long for salt?

Download the MP3

(El Cuerpo Blanco al Fondo del Desierto)
by Homero Aridjis

for J.M.G. Le Clézio

All we saw at first was a white dot
way out in the heart of the desert:
doubtless some dead body
sprawled there in the distance,
a heat shimmer above the sand,
or a trick of the vision, so ready
to believe in anything
but its own shadow.

Then we saw that this body
had an open door:
doubtless some object
fallen from an imaginary space,
a metal bird
with broken wings,
an unserviceable treasure
in the sweltering day.

When we got close, we discovered
that white dot
in the heart of the desert
was a refrigerator
with an open door.


I wanted to submit something to the first edition of the desert-focused blog carnival that Chris Clarke just started, the Carnival of the Arid, but I don’t know much about deserts, so I found this poem to translate instead. Homero Aridjis — whose last name contains the word “arid” — is one of Latin America’s foremost conservationists, in addition to being a widely published poet. He was born and grew up in Michoacán, Mexico, right near the famous over-wintering site for the eastern monarch butterfly population.

Hemlock for Lunch, from the Undiscovery Channel.

Think of the North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) as a really fat, irritable, slow-moving squirrel. (The irritable part isn’t absolutely certain, but that’s the gist of the genus name, Erithizon.) Like squirrels, porcupines are rodents at home in the trees, with an affinity also for subterranean excavations. But while tree squirrels have evolved to eat and hoard nuts, porcupines are attuned to the leaves, twigs, and bark of trees. On our mountain, they seem fondest of conifers (hemlock, white pine, and Norway spruce), chestnut oaks, elms, and fruit trees, roughly in that order, but we’ve seen them in other trees as well. In warmer months, they may graze on herbaceous plants — there’s little that’s consistent about porcupines. Though generally nocturnal, you can find them out in the middle of a sunny day, too. I suspect they don’t always sleep too well. I hear them moving around under the floor at all hours.

For creatures that spend so much of their time in trees, porcupines have remarkably poor vision, relying instead primarily on their sense of smell and hearing. They certainly don’t look like they belong in the trees, especially when they climb out on a thin branch that bends under their weight. Watching this one today made me think of a trained bear on a unicycle — it just didn’t look natural. But their claws and the rough soles of their feet, together with their tails, seem more than adequate to any arboreal challenge.

I’ve often half-jokingly referred to them as my totem animal, but I don’t think I’m quite as strange as a porcupine — at least, not yet. Porcupines are legendary for their taste for salt, and have been known to eat tool handles, boots, snowshoes, or automobile tires encrusted with road salt. They also sometimes take a shine to radiator hoses and brake linings, and the glues in plywood are like porcupine crack.

Porcupines are fond of the dark insides of things, be they hollow trees, logs, or rock shelters, and will on occasion share sufficiently large shelters with other porcupines, each keeping a studious distance from the others. Though they’re quiet much of the time, they can make a lot of different noises when irritated or aroused. Mating season — late summer and early fall — brings out their full repertoire of coughs, grunts, whines, wails, and moans. Love-struck male porcupines are also said to perform elaborate dances, culminating in a spray of urine over the head of the female.

That may sound a little bizarre, but let’s face it: we’re talking about creatures who are fiercely solitary for most of their existence, and who spend way more time communing with the wind in the treetops than with others of their own kind. Oh, and there’s the matter of the 30,000 hollow barbed quills covering their bodies. That should be enough to make almost anyone a little strange, one would think.

Believe it or not, though, a coat of easily removable quills is a practical enough defensive strategy to have evolved twice. New World and Old World porcupines, like New World and Old World vultures, are not closely related, and resemble each other because of convergent evolution. It would be nice to say that similar ecological niches summoned them into existence — which was the case with vultures — but in fact it is only the New World porcupines that have a close affinity with trees. Many South American species actually have prehensile tails.

Porcupines have two main enemies here in Pennsylvania: people, and the large weasels known as fishers, which are quick enough to dart in, flip them over, and attack their unprotected bellies before they can react. We’ve found a number of dead porcupines around the mountain since the return of the formerly extirpated, reintroduced fishers some five years ago, though it’s possible that bobcats have also killed a few. Fishers are just as solitary as porcupines, and have huge territories, so the death of a fisher two weeks ago on a small road a half-mile from the base of the mountain was probably very good news for our porcupine population — and bad news for the trees that, for whatever reason, have the misfortune of attracting porcupines year after year.

The poor eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) in the above video is one such tree. It’s one of the few hemlocks in the upper half of the hollow, and as such gets more than its fair share of attention from the conifer-loving porcupines. It’s undergone such radical pruning over the last couple of decades, I’m amazed it’s still alive, but hemlocks can take a long time to decide to cash in their chips. They’re not, however, the sort of tree to sprout a bunch of new branches in response to pruning, so this particular tree has simply become more and more skeletal, with vestigial tufts of needle-bearing twigs at the ends of most of its branches. Judging from the appetite of the porcupine I watched feasting on it today, this winter might well be its last. Porcupines can consume up to a pound of cellulose a day. This is said, by the way, to make them smell like old sawdust, though I admit I’ve never gotten quite close enough to one of them to see if that’s true.


Don’t forget to submit tree-related posts to the February 1 edition of the Festival of the Trees by January 30. Here’s the call for submissions. Ash laments that he has yet to receive any bark rubbings.

magic oak

I wake at 4:00
but my right thumb keeps twitching
as if in its own dream.


On the plowed driveway’s
hard-packed snow, three dark cigars:
Coyote was here.


Winter palimpsest:
inside each white-tailed deer track,
a coyote print.


Rabbit tracks
go into the laurel thicket
& don’t come out.


A rubbing sound
on the underside of the floor
as something turns over.


Hurtling down the hill
while seated on a sled —
I feel so sedate.


“Transparency.” “The rule of law.”
Never before have I wept
at such dull words.


Nothing has disturbed
the snow on the old statue
of a setter at point.

Over at the cassandra pages, my qarrtsiluni co-editor Beth Adams has been filing reports from D.C. for the past several days: Sunday, Monday, Monday night, and Tuesday. The scene in the capital today certainly sounded like a festival of the dispossessed.

The TV coverage, apparently, didn’t show what really happened: when Bush was introduced, a “boo” arose from all those millions of people that must have been completely audible; it was extremely loud. And when his helicopter lifted off, a cheer arose along with millions of uplifted arms, waving goodbye (quite a few, I’d say, with middle finger raised) — all the length of the Mall. I was a little surprised, and didn’t participate in the booing, but it was not so much rudeness as it was a spontaneous shucking off of a tremendous burden and source of despair, and an acknowledgment that this man never represented us, he was not of us, and Obama is clearly someone entirely other. The day for me was all about being part of that tremendous crowd who felt that America was being taken back, repossessed, by the people who have felt so disenfranchised all this time. Their presence, and the fact that they had traveled so far to be there, was not just a personal desire but also a statement to the world that there actually is another American spirit, and it’s still alive.

UPDATE: Be sure not to miss her final Reflections on the Inauguration.

Video link.

It’s cold. Nothing to do but pull on a thick balaclava, grab the sled, and go steaming up the hill to the top of what we call the amphitheatre, in the field opposite the main house. We have never actually staged anything there, by the way — it’s a little too boggy at the bottom where a stage would go. The only real drama occurs when the feral cat tangles with the opossum in the compost heap above the barn… or when a 42-year-old sledder comes careening down the path, camcorder in one hand.

It’s funny that sledding has such a stigma as being only for children. I’ve been sledding for most of the past 40 winters, at least 30 of them with the same sled, and I’m not about to switch to skiing or snowboarding, which I suspect are seen as adult sports primarily because they require lots of expensive gear. For one thing, I have a terrible sense of balance. Also, I wear glasses: when a friend lent me a pair of cross-country skis for a couple of years, I found myself unable to enjoy them because my glasses kept steaming up and freezing. I decided I prefer slow walking to running/gliding. And the great thing about sledding, after the hurtling, bone-rattling descent, is the peaceful walk back. Ravens flush from the top of a hemlock, filling the hollow with their harsh cries. The snow squeaks — such a satisfying sound — under my boots.

Long after I get back,
my frozen breath is still dripping
from my beard.