September 2011

This entry is part 8 of 63 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Autumn 2011

What is the story you keep trying to tell,
the thread that keeps poking through
the fabric of every poem you write?

The setting might change, the season,
the number of figures in the tableau,
the time of day— Perhaps there is

a deer standing in dim light at the edge
of the woods, her ears swiveling toward
the east, where plumes of dark smoke

are rising and where her fawn has lost
his way. Perhaps there is a king
who has taken to his bed, and three

sons or daughters who must cross seven
hills to bring back the song of a bird;
thread a bolt of silk through a needle;

breathe stone statues back to life.
Perhaps there is the eternal lover— man
or woman, it does not matter which—

who patiently scours the earth to piece
back the other’s severed limbs, or journeys
to the afterworld to lead her back, now

ransomed. Whatever it is, this
thread colors everything: lures you
forward through the dark like a trail

of crumbs that gleam in moonlight, fans
open in the underbrush like a hundred
feathered eyes; dulls all the senses

but the one which knows to bend toward
the banks of the jelly river, knows
to listen for the dangerous sound

of feet in pursuit; hungers for good,
bright scents of milk and bread and water,
rising above gingerbread, blood, or bone.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.

Will Buckingham

On my visit to the U.K. last spring, I arranged to meet with the novelist and philosopher Will Buckingham in a restaurant near the Birmingham train station on my way from Aberystwyth to London. I’m a long-time reader of his blog ThinkBuddha (and more recently of his personal blog) and a fan of his first novel, Cargo Fever. So knowing that he was a guy with wide-ranging interests and a gift for translating abstruse ideas into ordinary language, I figured he had to be pretty interesting to chat with. I wasn’t disappointed.

In this first half of our conversation, I got Will talking about the philosophy in the Moomin books of Tove Jannson; the ancient Chinese Daoist text Zhuangzi (actually, I’ve spared you most of that — Will and I share a great fondness for the work, but I realize most listeners won’t have read it); the pervasive sense of loss in the Western philosophical tradition; teaching and writing; Martin Heidegger; why existentialism is no longer popular; Emmanuel Levinas; and parallels between Indian and Greek philosophy.

Podcast feed | Subscribe in iTunes

Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence).

This entry is part 7 of 63 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Autumn 2011

“The feeling heart does not tire of carrying
ballast.” ~ Jane Hirshfield

But at the end of the day it does
want to complain, even just a little—

so long having borne the heft of metallic
plates, having had to stand in a stream

of electric current in order to stabilize
its flow. Beneath the train tracks,

layers of crushed rock and gravel; and on
each ship that cruises past the harbor,

weights of wood to keep the sails aloft.
It isn’t easy trying to be always

good, always generous, choosing virtue
over selfishness or spite. And there are

so many gaps in each day, so little time
to get all of it right. Even the leaves

of the tiny heal-all have turned into orange-
tinged lace, now riddled with holes. How long

have I been trying to make a little more time
every day? After the dishes are washed,

I chop and slice, cube and simmer two more
dinners to freeze. I tell myself, If I do

Saturday’s laundry now perhaps I can actually
have a weekend
; or, If I stay up to finish

this report, perhaps I can get a full night’s sleep
. And through all this, the weightier

demands of time filter through the practical
work of minds and hands: suffering and longing,

desires that have not yet been met. Some days,
the heart is exhausted before it can even lay

itself in the arms of sleep or love;
most days it peels back the covers

and pushes itself again into its shoes—
thick, sensible soles made for work

or walking, anchors to keep the body
dreaming of flight, close to the ground.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.

This entry is part 6 of 63 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Autumn 2011

Mamihlapinatapai (sometimes spelled mamihlapinatapei)
is a word from the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego,
listed in The Guinness Book of World Records as the
“most succinct word”, and … one of the hardest words
to translate. It refers to “a look shared by two people,
each wishing that the other will offer something
that they both desire but are unwilling to do.”


And as autumn begins to deepen in earnest, I love
late afternoons best— when the yellowing leaves
have not yet all fluttered down, exhausted moths

looking to cluster for warmth. I love the way
the light gilds branches so that they form
a sort of nave in a green cathedral, love

the way their long arms arc over the widest
stretch of the avenue. And sometimes, driving
from work or taking children home from school,

more than once I have been surprised to find
that the light has also touched a hidden lever,
a fiber of longing in my throat. I have

no words for it, just as I have no words
for the film of tears that sometimes comes
unbidden and just as quickly dissipates.

Is it a kind of joy mingled with such
wistfulness, a feeling of being taken up
and embraced before goodbye? Who

are you? I want to ask of no one in
particular, as I pass under the lit up leaves,
before the sky lowers and a little rain begins.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.


As a follow-up to yesterday’s post, I decided to shoot some pictures of the black walnut tree in question. It had rained off and on, but the sun came out while I was shooting, making everything glow and glisten. In processing, I tried switching to black-and-white and found I preferred that for almost all the photos, with the possible exception of the one above. Here’s a slideshow of the set, which requires Flash, meaning that if you’re on an iPhone or iPad, you won’t be able to watch it. However, this is best viewed on a large monitor — once it starts playing, click the four-arrows icon at bottom right to expand it to full-screen. (If you’re on dial-up, it’s probably easiest to browse the set, and if you’re reading this via email or in a feed reader, you’ll probably have to click through to view the slideshow.)

The photo with my hand in it shows what I believe is the scar from our long-ago Frisbee attack. Usually black walnuts that sustain damage to a terminal bud end up forking, but this one did not. A single bud became the new main stem.

Black walnut wood is prized by furniture makers, and the supply is relatively scarce because the trees grow slowly once they start to get big. As these photos and yesterday’s post suggest, however, they grow quite rapidly in their first few decades. My feeling is once they start bearing nuts, that takes so much out of them that they don’t have much energy left to channel into wood. Consider they remain leafless for roughly seven and half months of the year at our latitude, not leafing out until early June, and the very woody nuts are always plentiful — I don’t think pollination ever fails.

The yard of my parents’ house is dominated by black walnuts, which might not seem like a good thing given their legendary inhospitabilty toward certain other plants, which can’t tolerate the chemical juglone exuded by black walnut leaves, husks and roots. However, for birdwatchers like my mom, they’re ideal because they leaf out so late and lose their leaves so early. When migrating warblers move through the yard, she has no trouble spotting them.

As for the walnuts, they are a bit of an acquired taste and a lot of work to remove from the shells, requiring a sledgehammer and extensive use of a nutpick. The hulls — source of the ink my friend Alison is so fond of — are easy enough to remove, but you have to wear gloves. If you don’t, as we didn’t when we were kids, you tend to provoke comments like, “Hey Bonta! Did you’ns run out toilet paper?” Kids can be cruel. These days, we find it much easier just to buy a jar of pre-shelled black walnuts for a couple dollars from the local Amish whenever we need some, so the squirrels up here feed very well.

Gray squirrels are scatter hoarders, and it’s their burying of the walnuts all around the yards and meadow that’s responsible for most of the new trees — those few that get past the deer (or boys with Frisbees). In the book North American Tree Squirrels, mammalogist Michael J. Steele recounts some of the strategies gray squirrels use to keep other squirrels from discovering their walnuts, including digging a couple fake burial sites in a row before finally burying the walnut for real if other squirrels are watching. I also once watched a squirrel excavate a walnut that had been buried about a foot down, clean it all off, then dig another hole a yard away and re-bury it. I suspect it thought another squirrel had watched the initial bury.

The most amazing fact about this behavior to me is that the squirrels rely on memory alone to recover hundreds of nuts, even when they’re buried under an additional foot or more of snow and ice. Steele has calculated that a squirrel digging a black walnut out of the frozen ground on a bitter cold January day, then chiseling through the rock-hard shell, expends more energy than it gets back from eating the nut. Hence, I suppose, the frequent raids on the birdfeeder to make up the deficit.

Don’t forget to submit tree-related links to the Festival of the Trees monthly blog carnival (deadline: September 30). The next edition will be at europeantrees — and we are still looking for a host of the following (Nov. 1st) edition.

There’s a black walnut tree beside the driveway that my brothers and I tried to kill one spring evening when we were teenagers and it was just a seedling. Now it drops fat green planetary objects from 50 or even 70 feet up, another one landing on the old cracked tarmac every so often with a heavy thunk, like a worn-out clock that has forgotten how to toll. But the tree’s in the prime of youth; it is I, the one-time would-be assassin, who has turned decrepit. I have a fan in a little cage that I turn on my face in the heat of the summer, and for most of the other three seasons, my bony knees remain cold no matter how many layers I wrap them in. The falling walnuts remind me not of harvest-time and blessings as they should, but of all the projects I’ve abandoned, including love, reproduction, a career, the whole matter of being a useful citizen.

It should be noted that we have plenty of squirrels, so sometimes the walnuts don’t fall on their own; they are pushed. Maybe the squirrels are simply clumsy, and drop the nuts by accident. But I’ve watched them do it, and I have to say I think they relish the sound of a walnut connecting with its unmissable target the earth, like bored kids with a frisbee aiming for the terminal bud of a tree seedling at the edge of the yard, and shouting with triumph when a lucky throw shaves it bald.

This entry is part 5 of 63 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Autumn 2011

The cloud in search of lightning, the cloth
seeking the thunderous rip across the grain.

Gold leaf on a frame peeling away like ruin;
sorrow’s name written long across the water.

The keyhole’s outline of the beautiful one: that speck
waving, moving closer from the padlocked garden.

The cup on the table awaiting radiant downpour;
vessel poised for the tilt of the river’s skin.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.

This entry is part 4 of 63 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Autumn 2011

you are the last lingering tomato plant that never
flowered through the dry summer, only pushed
yellow-green stems up through the cone trellis,
pretending its goal was succulence—

you are a broody sky the color of the cast
iron pot in my childhood home, in which
we boiled rice and only rice; beneath its lid,
an army of uniformly spaced beads of moisture—

you are the rusted orange marks against the sides
of the old garage, which tell how high the waters
rose in the flood of ___; and sheets of heavy
plastic someone couldn’t bear to throw away—

you are the night heron we’ve sighted in the shade
of the garbage bin, beside the neighbor’s wall
trailing ivy and white asterisks of jasmine;
where is it you go, when we don’t see you?


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.

watch on Vimeowatch on YouTube

A bit of fun with William Shakespeare and a couple of public-domain films from the Prelinger Archives. SoundCloud came through once again, with a small selection of Creative Commons-licensed English Renaissance music to choose from. The piece I used is by William Byrd, “Malt’s come down,” performed by Vicente Parrilla and company.

This entry is part 3 of 63 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Autumn 2011

Sunday evening, and they come up the front
walk: the same lanky guy sporting an unkempt
mustache, dented baseball cap, t-shirt

and loose canvas shorts; and somewhere
on the periphery, his henchman ready
with props— a folding ladder

and clear plastic bag half-filled
with leaves and assorted debris. Their
modus operandi: some weekend

in early spring or fall, go up and down
the row houses, claiming to be “back”
to service gutters and downspouts

that need cleaning, like they’ve “always
done”. Someone told me Rob and Alma down
the way gave them sixty dollars in March

after they clattered around a bit on their
deck, showed them the bag of fake detritus
from their roof, then disappeared. What’s

even more mind-boggling is that they
come back to the same neighborhoods, season
after season— either they’re not very smart,

or are brazenly confident they won’t be
recognized. My ten year old, who saw them
the first time they came around two years ago,

rightly observed their ladder could barely
clear the second-floor windows. She said,
How do you think they could even get up

to the roof? But here they are, punching
the doorbell and peering through the blinds again:
I bet they’re getting ready to gesture toward

the slate-grey shingles, spin the same old spiel—
like a pair of mosquitos that keep coming back to buzz
in your ear, just when you’re about to fall asleep.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.