Green plague

This entry is part 9 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the ninth poem in the first section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details. I’ll remove Zweig’s poems after one week to prevent egregious copyright infringement.

Pastoral Letter
by Paul Zweig

I will name nature’s poisons. . . .

[Remainder of poem removed 8-31-05]

* * * *

Pastoral Spell

I dreamed I drove a sprayer truck
slowly along the berm of a road
in prayerful silence.
Behind me, the red letters of sumac leaves
turned brown
& my rubber gloves shone
like the udders of a cow,

all for the crown vetch
& its hateful pink.

I name the invaders:
buffel grass, barberry, knotweed,
kudzu, privet, leafy spurge.
Cursed be houndstongue & snakehead,
stiltgrass & tree-of-heaven.
A plague on every scourge
of purple loosestrife, hemlock
woolly adelgid, cane toad;
the European rabbit down under,
demonstrating its fabled gift
for multiplication in the wrong abode;
Australian eucalypt in California
stretching resinous leaves toward
the redwood’s portion of the sky;
medusahead rye.

Far from their native countries,
free of restraints, the immigrants
do not swarm; they mob.
They lodge in the earth like shrapnel.
When they sprout,
they are already in full uniform.
The Greeks called them Spartoi,
the Sown.

The only way to get rid of them
was to pit them against each other.

I dreamed of skinning feral cats
& selling their meat at auction:
Fresh mutton, I chanted.
They were slick with the fat of tanagers.

Waiting for the detonation

This entry is part 8 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the eighth poem in the first section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details. I’ll remove Zweig’s poems after one week to prevent egregious copyright infringement.

America at War
by Paul Zweig

I work at night, carried
By conveyor belts from one sex to another…

[Remainder of poem removed 8-30-05]

* * * *

The Servant

Even the godless
generals speak
of mission. The way
maples spread their
seeds, we
scatter love:
by helicopter.
Our transmitter has to battle
sandstorms, weather
terrorist strikes.
Each night,
I tune out the filth
& jabber – which
otherwise make
all my follicles
pucker up – & press
my ear to the radio’s
D-cup speaker.
Try it:
in the empty stretches
between stations
you can
just hear
the whisper of dry
sticks being rubbed
together. The crackle
of that
first flame, its
parched little tongue.
I am the light,
it sings.
Nations that knew
thee not shall run
unto thee.

if you need
more fuel, say
the Word.

This I don’t believe

Recently, a couple of the blogs I read featured statements of personal belief. Rachel Barenblatt of Velveteen Rabbi wrote what she described as a personal credo, although with a few caveats:

I don’t want to risk misunderstanding, or to lose nuance in the attempt to speak too plainly about matters which don’t lend themselves to language. At the same time, I don’t want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good; just because I can’t be sure of expressing myself perfectly is no reason not to try. My final caveat is that I’m not sure it’s possible for a credo to be comprehensive — otherwise it would take lifetimes to write, let alone recite!

Then Tom Montag at The Middlewesterner, in a break with his unwritten rule against personal essays that aren’t related to the blog’s Middlewestern focus, published a somewhat darker statement, the greater part of which seems to consist of caveat.

I believe this as firmly as a righteous Christian believes in Christ, that some twenty-five billion years from now the universe will collapse back upon itself, will congeal and compact and become again the speck from which the Big Bang erupted, and everything that we know, everything that we have cherished, will be lost. That I have lived will mean nothing then. Nothing I have written will survive. Both the good I have done and the pain I have caused will have evaporated as surely as the wind blows away my spoken words, blows away the scent of the decaying world.

I was reminded of National Public Radio’s “This I Believe” feature – not that we are likely to hear views as challenging as Rachel’s or Tom’s on the airwaves any time soon.

Much as I enjoyed reading these statements of belief, however, I felt little inclination to follow their lead, and at first, I wasn’t quite sure why. Rachel’s “Credo” had been sparked by a post at not native fruit, where Karen Mattern penned what could only be termed an anti-creed screed. Karen talks about her strong impulse to escape what she considers the excessively credal focus of her native Catholicism. In my case, though, I can hardly claim to be reacting against my upbringing. My parents always encouraged us kids to think for ourselves, in an environment that was neither hostile toward religion nor favored one religion over another. We took turns reading and discussing the Bible and (eventually) other sacred texts at regular family religion meetings, and all views were welcome as long as we could argue persuasively for them. (I remember how much this used to bother my conservative Methodist grandmother. “Why don’t you take those kids to church and teach them what to think?” she once snapped at my mother.)

The upshot? One of my brothers had a conversion experience and joined a Christian church, while the other remains indifferent to the claims of organized religion. For my part, as readers of this blog may have sensed, despite a strong interest in religion, I have never been able to commit to a single one. To me, this is like going into a Baskin-Robbins and being told that, whichever of the 32 flavors you pick, forever after you can only order that flavor.* I’ve become something of an intellectual chameleon: I change colors to match whatever I am reading at the moment. “Via Negativa”? Perhaps it’s to preserve my own psychic health that I prefer to let my most strongly held convictions take a negative form.

Negative propositions have played a pivotal role in my thinking since at least the age of fifteen, when I read Masanobu Fukuoka’s lyrical book about natural farming, The One-Straw Revolution, with its central insight that humanity knows nothing. Armed with this conviction, the author says, he was led to pioneer a productive and ecologically sound method of farming which, in contrast to modern industrial agriculture, approaches each problem by asking, “How about not trying this? How about not trying that?” Following nature meant, above all, cultivating one’s mind to appreciate the way things tend to happen on their own, and making as few modifications to these natural processes as possible. As an enthusiastic vegetable gardener who had recently published an article in Organic Gardening magazine entitled “An Experimental Garden,” I was enormously surprised and impressed.

The translator’s footnotes led me to Daoism, in the form of D. C. Lau’s translation of the Tao Te Ching, and the opening verse changed the way I thought about metaphysical questions for good.

The way that can be spoken of
Is not the constant way;
The name that can be named
Is not the constant name.

Though I might now prefer a slightly different translation – one that treats Dao more as a verb than a noun – Lau’s translation still seems designed for maximum impact on the worldview of an essence-obsessed Westerner.

Shortly thereafter I discovered some of D.T. Suzuki’s writings on Zen, and began my acquaintance with the Buddhist theory of the self (or rather, no-self) – still the only psychological tradition I can claim any familiarity with. Seven or eight years later, a chance reference in another book about growing food (I think maybe one of Wendell Berry’s, but I can’t recall for sure) led me to Peter Kropotkin, and the great, sadly misunderstood and under-appreciated tradition of Western anarchism. Kropotkin’s views dovetailed with, and greatly expanded upon, political insights I’d gleaned from philosophical Daoism. Along the way I also grappled with such books as Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man and Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method. Once I got beyond the shock of realizing that “the emperor has no clothes,” I started turning the questions back on myself, trying to get to the root of our shared assumptions about how the world works, or ought to work. Eventually, I even rejected anarchism, reasoning that as an anarchist my first duty was to free my mind from a subservient relationship to a set of received opinions.

I resisted making a systematic study of any of these influences, believing that insights imported from others are never truly earned. The point is not to be able to claim ownership of an idea, whatever that might mean, but to be able to appreciate its full impact. Plus, I enjoy playing around with ideas; I am far from sharing Buddhism’s disdain for the “monkey of the mind.” Given any new idea, I tend to immediately consider its antithesis, and then try to judge how large the apparent gulf between thesis and antithesis really is, and whether it might be bridged. That virtually reflexive impulse to counter with “How about not?” has proven to be enormously useful to me. I thought it might be fun to list a few of my favorite contrarian stating-points, to give my readers a better idea of where the heck I’m coming from.

Here’s the caveat. Just as the articles of faith in a regular, positivist credo are things one aspires to realize more fully in one’s day-to-day thoughts and actions, so are the non-articles in my anti-creed. The fact that I list them here doesn’t mean that I have fully absorbed their impact or worked out all their implications. They are non-articles in the sense that the form they happen to take here is completely arbitrary. In fact, merely allowing them to coalesce in this fashion may damage their utility for me, because, above all, I view these as starting points for reflection rather than objects of intellectual assent. In no particular order, then:

I don’t believe that “life” has “meaning” in the sense of some knowable purpose. To think otherwise is to reduce a multiplicity, which at best can be experienced as a gestalt, to a limited and tool-like shadow-life.

I don’t believe in the idea of progress, whether in personal, social or evolutionary history. In the long run, as my friend Tom points out, we are all a null set. Salvation occurs in the present or not at all (see next-to-last non-article, below).

I don’t believe that coercion, punishment or retribution can ever be anything but regrettable. Killing wild animals for meat or killing another human being in self-defense may be necessary, but imposing one’s will on another is never of any benefit to the other. It is a criminal’s empathy for his/her former victim, not punishment, that brings about remorse and (with luck) efforts at restitution. True justice works to restore harmony, not to perpetuate disharmony.

I don’t believe in hierarchies. While they may sometimes serve a limited, heuristic purpose, hierarchical structures, methodologies and ideologies are little more than extensions of ego, and work to hamper the freedom (political, intellectual, and spiritual) of those who use them as well as those whom they seek to define.

I don’t believe in ownership. The ultimately fruitless attempt to possess is nothing but an enlargement of ego, harming the would-be owner as well as the being, object, idea or portion of space over which ownership is asserted. (The concept of God is most useful as a way of conceptualizing that portion of experience which is fully sovereign and beyond ownership: to a faithful monotheist, virtually everything.)

I don’t believe in essence. “Being” is a falsely reified byproduct of an Indo-European grammatical construct, the copulative verb. This is not an argument for nihilism, because “is not” is simply a derivation of “is.” (The Buddhist concept of Emptiness is most useful as a way to remember the contingent and provisional nature of all things.)

I don’t believe in a unique and singular self. The quest for liberation becomes immeasurably simpler when one realizes that there is nothing to liberate (see also next-to-last non-article below). Whether or not we experience ourselves as unitary individuals is conditioned by culture: many traditional societies have the belief that a person is made up of multiple souls and spirits, for instance. For psychological health, probably only the experience of wholeness is necessary.

I don’t believe in the alienation of subject from object. While discriminatory reasoning is a powerful tool with many obvious applications, those who employ it should beware against its unlimited extension; they risk becoming the sorcerer’s apprentice. (By contrast, the “logic of participation” at the root of magical/animist views is vital to the creation and appreciation of art, music, love – everything that makes life worth living.)

I don’t believe in a mundane level of reality. Life may appear mundane much of the time, but that is because we are not fully awake to it – and/or because we are unwittingly conspiring to perpetuate collective delusions and multiply suffering, our own as well as others’, in the pursuit of ego-gratification. (The non-mundane may take the form of sacrality, comic absurdity, or anything in between.)

I don’t believe in proselytization. For persuasion to remain non-coercive, it must stop short of explicit or implicit threats aimed at the other’s spiritual well-being. Invitations to join a faith community should only ever be offered in a spirit of genuine friendship; otherwise, efforts to increase the numbers of the faithful amount to little more than empty power plays (and will lead to endless schisms).

I don’t believe in the pursuit of personal salvation, liberation or enlightenment. If you make your own advancement a priority, your ability to empathize is fatally compromised – and without empathy, there can be no true understanding. Besides, advancement – a version of “progress” – is an illusion: there is nowhere to advance to beyond the present moment. Liberation seems to be a natural human instinct, just like the instinct for food or sex, but as with these other desires, until we are willing to abandon it at any moment to serve others without a second thought, we remain imprisoned, mired in egotism.

I don’t believe in static creeds, ideologies, or other self-consistent systems of thought. A god that requires assent to propositions as a pre-condition for salvation is no God, but a tyrant. And even for the godless, I think, when the pursuit of intellectual consistency starts to feel compulsive, it’s time to stop. Abstractions are masters incapable of mercy. Repeat after Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I embrace multitudes.”

O.K. that’s enough! I could probably split some of these up or think of one or two others, but these are the monkey bars on which my thoughts most often play.

*Although, in point of fact, I always do get the same flavor of ice cream wherever I go: mint chocolate chip.

Written by the vanquished

This entry is part 7 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the seventh poem in the first section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details. Zweig’s poems will be removed after one week to prevent egregious copyright infringement.

Anyone who has been following this project should be especially interested in today’s effort, which I think showcases my first serious failure of imagination so far. I am not sure whether this is due to the length of Zweig’s poem making sustained focus difficult, or some other factor, but I am struck by the contrast between his lines, which seem so urgent and necessary, and mine, which strike me as dilettantish and ultimately disposable. I’m not fishing for compliments here, and you’re welcome to find things to like in my poem (or to dislike in Zweig’s). I simply want to remind myself that there is no such thing as a failed experiment, as long as one is clear about the design and honest about the results.

The Natural History of Death
by Paul Zweig

I decided at birth to go on living,
Not even my parents convinced me I was wrong. . . .

[Remainder of poem removed 8-26-05]

* * * *

Life History of a Stunt Double

      …Those who were in no hurry to live. – P. Z.

I used to have such a horror of turning back.
The about-face offered two
equally frightening alternatives:
that everything would be the same,
or that it wouldn’t.

Thus muttering, I fix my gaze
a few inches in front of my feet.
While the real actor is off somewhere
rehearsing his lines or stroking his little double,
I strap myself to that perpetual
motion machine they call the horizon.

Even in the womb, I refused to turn.
When my mother tried to evict me, I mooned the world
& the doctors had to pull me out by my ankles.
I started to wail & didn’t stop
for twelve years – or so they tell me.
It sounds like the kind of melodrama
I’ve since come to hate.

But the bad actor in my skinny frame
loved the feel of warm saltwater
coursing down my cheeks, the way it dissolved
the hard outlines of things,
& in the belly, that twist of heat.

The first nonfiction book I read on my own
swarmed with monsters – the kind
that stalked around in scientific skeletons
dragging heavy Latin names through the swamps.
The book had a green cloth cover
& taught a stark, almost Biblical lesson:
that the dinosaurs went extinct because they were slow,
they lived too slowly.
Our quick-thinking ancestors the rats ate all their eggs.

The book’s barbs pointed
in one direction: we can’t go back.
But that summer, my brother & I made a periscope
by mounting mirrors in a cardboard tube,
& we stuck it through a hole in the side
of a huge, empty carton. We crayoned in
all the necessary knobs
& sat in that box for 200 million years,
going back & back
while my brother described everything he saw.
My job was to believe it.

Lush jungles on the other side of history
hid reeking punji traps on legs.
A twig snaps & skyscrapers with teeth
roar into motion.
Where? My god! Where?
My vision seems permanently blurred –
not that I would’ve noticed on my own.
My brother administers a homemade eye exam.
In the next frame, I’m sitting
in an optometrist’s waiting room
squinting at pictures in a magazine
about the fall of Saigon.

Later comes the idea that one big collision
could’ve finished them off – I don’t know.
At the close of the Mesozoic, all over the earth,
flowers open their sexual faces
& for the first time the sun itself has shadows.
I want to believe all that unthinking growth
could be eclipsed by filigree: petals,
feathers. The delicate leather
of a bat’s wing.
A sea of grass.

In the meantime, I have settled
into my body like a stone
at the bottom of a pond.
Sometimes there’s wind, but the leaves
don’t talk. I lie on my back with
my toes chastely touching
& fold linked fingers over my gut.

In the Middle Ages, before
the Black Death teased the skeleton out
of its cage of flesh, & before
that grinning scythe grew wide enough
to split the laugh from its belly,
the mean time was thought to be reached
at the age of thirty-three.
Anyone who could afford it paid for a portrait then
so that when they died, whoever carved their tomb
could capture for the ages
their closest approach to
that fragile equilibrium the Church called Christ.

Churches were true sanctuaries then, beyond
the reach of the state. One knelt
irredeemably on the flagstones, which were also a roof
for the temporarily vacated bodies of one’s predecessors.
But here in the middle of the woods,
in the dead center of my life,
I’m napping. The action is elsewhere.

Growing up on an isolated farm, no TV
meant that I never learned from Mr. Rogers
how to get along.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Is this what you really think, or merely
what you think you should think?
Are you digging a root cellar here,
or a hole for a privy?

I also skipped Kindergarten, reputed source
of everything one really needs to know.
So instead I consider the lilies of the field,
which having escaped their former confines
in the now-abandoned dooryard garden,
extend their dominion up & down the slope.
Each summer their rhizomes double
& double again, strangling the sunlight
in a few more square yards of meadow.
Velvet petals that close after a single day,
pliant leaves that weep mucilage when bruised:
they are part of a clone that might live –
who knows? – forever.
Its loving hope is to make the world

I went wild with obedience, I believed
everything & nothing until belief itself seemed
the most heretical of self-indulgences.
I stopped talking to ghosts, including my own.
Maybe that’s what happened.

Once rid of the madness called youth,
I begin to relish the return journey
as much as the beginning, because
things seen from one side only
seduce the eye. There’s no contest any more
between depth & surface. Let the bones
stay housed, the seed incipient in the bloom.
To hell with life.

I want whatever comes
in its own time, translucent
or wholly opaque, here
& gone.

Spotting the webs

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The first clear weather after weeks of haze or showers, and what I am most agog at are the shadows. That, and the profusion of spider webs, most from one species – spined micrathena. I walk slowly through the woods, trying to spot each web before it snags me, but more than once I have to stop and clean myself of web and spider. I do appreciate the fact that this forces me to walk slowly and pay close attention. But they really should go after smaller prey.

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In the spruce grove, small as it is, the air is noticeably cooler and (naturally) more fragrant than in the surrounding field. Here, too, the shadows are uncommonly sharp.

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The effect of a two- or three-acre planting of even-aged trees in more-or-less orderly rows is altogether different from the oppressive feeling one gets from walking through a large plantation. An evergreen grove this size is a habitation within the larger landscape. For two years running, sharp-shinned hawks have nested here, secretive to the point of invisibility until the young hatch, then increasingly aggressive toward any intruder. We have yet to pinpoint the exact location of their nest.

Leaving the grove on the northwest side makes for an abrupt and surprising transition. Right outside it, among a ragged file of half-dead black locust trees, a half-acre milkweed patch hosts more monarch caterpillars than I have ever seen – one or two per plant. The location of the patch, at the one place where the old field laps up to the top of the ridge, may be especially effective in attracting the migratory butterflies. Be that as it may, there’s no question that these caterpillars are among the last of the year, and will become the generation of butterflies to head down-ridge toward Mexico, following the invisible paths of their great-great-grandparents the year before.

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I cross into the black cherry – red maple – sugar maple woods that was so devastated by last January’s ice storm. The spear-point snags of snapped boles now sport clusters of five- and six-foot-long sprouts; I am cheered to think that many of these trees will live. In the middle of the old woods road, I come across a box turtle, one of at least two that reside in the vicinity of the ephemeral ponds. We found them mating last year at this time: a sight at once comic and awe-inspiring, as the male lies almost all the way over on his back, gyrating non-existent hips against the firmly planted female. I wonder if their slow blood is once again stirring? This one retracted its feet but not its head when I approached; the picture doesn’t do justice to its dark red jewel of an eye.

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On the way back from the Far Field, a large burl on the trunk of a red maple brought down by the ice storm seems to invite the prurient attentions of a hay-scented fern. Or am I with my camera the one who’s being prurient? As I follow the trail along the head of Roseberry Hollow, one of the pair of ravens that have been circling and calling all morning lands in a tree somewhere close above me on the ridgetop. I’m startled by the loudness of its cries: RAWK RAWK RAWK RAWK RAWK. Then it switches to a more metallic, nasal call – ONK ONK ONK. An eerie sound. It repeats the phrase, as if pleased with the sound of it. I hear the distant reply of its mate. Then it lifts off, its wingbeats almost as silent as an owl’s. I catch a glimpse of its shadow passing through the trees, sliding up and over the strange green paintbrushes of new growth.

The fears and pleasures

This entry is part 6 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


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I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the sixth poem in the first section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details.

Afraid That I Am Not a Poet
by Paul Zweig

Afraid that I am not a poet,
Yet willing to write
Even about that . . .

[Remainder of poem removed 8-25-05]

* * * *


Outside of a poem, I have never seen
such a seemingly everyday thing as
an empty mirror.

I think of the fear I would feel if
I came face to face with
the absence of myself
& shiver with longing & delight.

Ah, that the mere thought of a thing –
an outline, an image – can open
a window in my chest
& make my tongue dance about
for words!

Ukiyo-e, which refers to a genre of pre-modern Japanese woodblock prints depicting scenes from the demimonde, literally means “Picture(s) of the Floating World.”

They call it Stormy Monday

Six-thirty a.m. at the Super 8. I shut off the air conditioner – blessed maker of white noise – and slide the window open. Rain falls on hundreds of acres of pavement to no purpose. I sip my coffee, prop my feet up as if I were back home on my own front porch.

Four men stand talking and moving their arms in the parking lot below, gesturing toward the GP station, the Shoney’s, the Wal-Mart Supercenter – maybe even toward the hills. I can hear every word, but understand nothing. Can my Spanish really be that rusty?

I call my linguist brother over to the window. “That’s not Spanish. It’s some Eastern European language, I think.” After a few minutes, they arrive at some decision, get into their pick-ups and drive away.

I listen to the semis going by on the wet highway – shhhhhhhUSHHhhhhh. Something triggers a car alarm in the distance, a plaintive beeping that goes on and on without stopping.


Ten-thirty in the small reception area at Scotty’s Discount Tire and Muffler in downtown Summersville, West Virginia (population 3,900). I return from a walk with my umbrella in the on-again, off-again drizzle and find my brother reading a history of India as he waits for news about the car. A small, white-haired lady in the next seat over is singing about Jesus.

As I stand gaping in the doorway, a middle-aged woman walks over, leans down and asks the other woman if she’ll be coming for supper that night. “Just nod your head if the answer is ‘yes,’ mother,” she says. The singing woman nods, then goes on slowly nodding, keeping time to one gospel hymn after another: jubilant words in a voice as sad and quiet as the rain.


Twelve-thirty at Fran’s Restaurant, catty-corner from the courthouse, waiting for lunch at a table facing the street. We can just make out the sign for another body shop, which appears to be closed – Rusty Auto. “Too bad they’re not open – that seems like the place for us,” I joke.

Steve swats at a persistent fly and misses. “Clap your hands in the air above him – that always works,” I say. “Oh, I know. But I prefer to catch them,” he says, “Like this – ” and as the fly makes its next pass low over the flat monotony of imitation wood, his hand darts in from behind and scoops it up. “So the question now is, how to get rid of it?” he asks rhetorically, and proceeds to demonstrate, dashing the fly against the table so it lies there, stunned, waiting for the hand’s deliberate descent.


This entry is part 5 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the fifth poem in the first section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details.

On Possessions
by Paul Zweig

Burning what I own,
Burning this fuel of nerves and money . . .

[Remainder of poem removed 8-25-05]

* * * *

On Possession

The Gothic cathedral at Burgos, in northern Spain,
was too much: all that colored light
flooding in around the apse
where the monstrous symbolic god was expected
to lay his thorn-pillowed head.
I couldn’t see it.

Cathedrals are best on days when wind & rain
beat their wings against the glass.
Outside, the stone shell darkens
& one longs to pull it tight against the skin
like a frogman’s wetsuit.
Inside: revelation. That a blue drop
should hide a molten core!

The lords of this world reach as far as they need to.
Their fingertips smell of oil & wet ashes
from the crematorium.
We are all possessed, say
the bells of wherever.
This very poem gutters in its wax, poor thing.

The university library commissioned a sculpture
to mark the dedication of a new wing:
in white marble, an open book
with a flame rising from the page, tall
& sinuous – a lap dancer
in the seat of what, we are solemnly
given to understand, represents knowledge.
The room vibrates with the hum of computers.
Sunlight slants through the high windows
above the milling crowd of students,
smooth faces glowing,
from the firing of each split-second synapse,
that light-drenched gap.

Becoming grass

This entry is part 4 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the fourth poem from his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details.

A Sadness from the Old Philosophers
by Paul Zweig

I plant my stick in the loose earth,
And now my father lies down beside me….

[Remainder of poem removed 8-23-05]

* * * *

A Wryness from the Old Wives

Click, clack says my walking stick,
& the soft buzz of a rattlesnake
shivers from the rock.

You go for water & bring back a strange new lover:
that’s how it is in the tales the old wives
used to roll between their palms.

One long noodle of clay made a bowl, a mirror
you could drink from. Coiling or uncoiling,
something always gets loose.

Raising the tank

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It’s been over thirty years since the thousand-gallon oil tank was buried in the lawn, and we figured it was only a matter of time before it rusted through. This would be an environmental catastrophe, since it sits right above the stream, near the head of the hollow. We were planning to replace the old guest house furnace with a new, more efficient model anyway, so it seemed like a good time to put in an above-ground, fiberglass-lined tank, as well.

Thus, Saturday morning found us – my dad, my brother Steve and I – helping to free an aging, submersible craft from a shallow sea of soil. I say “helping,” because in fact the diesel-powered farm tractor did most of the work. The backhoe arm had no trouble moving earth that had been broken up by the original excavation in 1973, but as soon as it tried to bite into virgin ground, it ran a cropper of the bedrock, which is little over 18 inches down in some spots. Dad sat at the controls while Steve and I leaned on our shovels, or climbed up behind him for a better view. From the front porch, looking straight down as dirt and boulders tumbled onto a growing pile, I really did begin to feel as if I were watching a kind of semi liquid, like the stuff that spills out of a field-dressed deer. But when the hole got below four feet in depth, we saw water for real: even in this drought, the bottom of the tank sat a foot below the water table.

Of course, the air itself was saturated with moisture. The thermometer was climbing past 90 and we were sweating buckets just standing still. But Dad was afraid of undermining the guest house front porch, which he and I had spent considerable time and effort shoring up a few summers back, so Steve and I did have to jump down into the hole at one point and do a bit of digging around that side. Standing on top of the emerging tank, Steve discovered a metal ring or handle poking up. Without that discovery, we might’ve spent all day trying to get a chain under and around the tank.

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Using the tractor’s front loader, Dad was able to lift and carry the tank up to the barnyard. I had already gone up to the main house to begin preparing that evening’s supper – we eat almost nothing but cold dishes in this kind of weather, so I have to work well ahead. But Steve buzzed me on the intercom so I wouldn’t miss it, and I ran back down and joined Karylee and Elanor on the porch. As the tank lurched free of the earth, it swung dangerously close to the nearest porch column, and we all moved down to the far end.

Once in the barnyard, we lowered the tank onto concrete blocks, stacked so it would sit an angle. I pulled over the steel drip pan from underneath the bulldozer, and Dad and Steve proceeded to cut a small hole in the bottom with a sawzall in order to drain out the last of the oil. When it was finished draining, Dad gave the end of the tank a kick and discovered that it had amazing acoustic properties: a booming bass that went on and on almost as long as a Japanese temple bell. After supper, on my way back down to the guest house, I grabbed a sledgehammer from the barn and tried it out, striking the end as hard as I could. From a foot away, I could hear all kinds of overtones. Dad joined me in the barnyard after dumping the kitchen scraps in the compost pit. “Bet they can hear that all the way from Tyrone,” he said. I tried an accelerating rhythm: BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOMBOOMBOOM, like the world’s largest ruffed grouse. My dad’s never been to a rock concert. “You can feel the sound right in your chest,” he marveled.