This wondrous foe

Here’s an old poem. What is it about dead animals that makes them such pungent material for poetic treatment?


For hours now the grownups had kept at it:
a scarcely modulated piano roll of talk
as steady as an all-day rain. At last
we bolted out the back where
the corn came almost to the door,
the tassels shining like epaulets
in the late afternoon sun.
We bushwhacked through the knobby-
kneed ranks, crouched in weedless furrows
to burst from cover with rebel yells
& Hollywood whoops of the wounded

until someone let loose with
a scream that sounded too real–
Vultures! Barely missing us
as they sailed out from a ragged
knot of trees we hadn’t counted on:
three, six, then ten or more
immense black pairs of wings,
each dangling a shrunken head, red
with glassy yellow eyes as empty
as outer space. They hung
so close they must’ve risen
on the air sucked out of our lungs.
Then the smell hit us.

Alone, anyone would run.
But being a threesome we had to brave it,
couldn’t go back with half a story.

The smell wasn’t hard to track:
a dry sinkhole big enough
to swallow a tractor–the reason
that patch of woods remained unplowed–
had trapped a cow.
Its bloated hide bounced our bold missiles
like a trampoline. We tested its tautness
with ever larger rocks until, one
by one, like gleeful privateers we leaped
or scrambled down, unable to resist
such bounty. Now

the foreshortened sky had no more room
for vultures. We danced
on the carcass of a dragon–a woolly
mammoth–the last dinosaur! And
the sunlight scaled the hole’s lip
& slipped away through the corn
while we shouted & argued
over the provenance of this wondrous foe
we had so clearly vanquished.

In lieu of listening

This entry is part 18 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


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

This poem is set in rural Brittany, where Zweig spent much of the year.

Listening to Bells
by Paul Zweig

I hear bells ringing in the village,
Filling the valley with their deep liquid sound.
They mean that someone has died today…

[Remainder of poem removed 9-24-05]

* * * *

Listening to Owls

      for Yemi

An hour before dawn, two screech owls start calling,
loud & close.
I feel like an involuntary eavesdropper
on someone else’s scandal-ridden version
of our lives. It passes
from ridge to ridge, shivering over the houses
& the thirty-five acres of goldenrod plundered from the woods,
like a truncated version of the same
open wing that descends nightly
all over the world, leaving only a few pinholes
of available light.

The owls start calling with the suddenness
of all terrible descents.
I have just been thinking about the long stretches
of highway I would have to walk
to visit distant friends, how we have quarreled
& quickly, almost effortlessly, made up.
But now I tilt my head back
& gaze at those enormous purported suns,
farther away than their image can travel in a lifetime.

When the owls start calling, it takes me a moment
to realize it isn’t my infant niece wailing
in the back bedroom,
fighting her way free of a bad dream
in that existential solitude before language.
Sometimes screech owls keep to a monotone trill,
but not this morning. It’s all high-pitched peals
with a plunge at the end
& enough tremolo to make me think
of the laughter of the desperately happy –
laughing just to keep from crying,
as they say in the blues –
or delirium tremens, the gone high
turned vicious as a beaten dog.

I listen to the owls & chide myself
for anthropomorphizing, not unlike
Indians who can’t hear an owl call
without remembering their own lost
or inconsolable dead. Who else
could part the air so noiselessly?
Staring down the dark tunnels
of frantic scurrying lives,
the eyes of the ancestors grow big as satellite dishes.
They clack their bills.

But these owls are calling for reasons entirely of their own.
They bear no greater share of blame
for this wild tremor in the human throat,
this stutter of images,
than any other ill-omened
inhabitants of the known world.

This might be a mother & her recently
fledged offspring
, I think.
It occurs to me that they call
the way they do – with such brevity & abruptness,
throwing their voices –
because of their own, well-founded fear
of larger owls.
They stop far sooner than I stop listening.

Chant for the Summit of the World Body

unaltered phrases from on-line news sources, via Google News

He wanted a real overhaul for the world body
An urgent overhaul of the world body
Poetically described the world body
A final text to move the world body
A harder line at the world body
Taking the message of Youth Upliftment to the world body
To breathe new life into the world body
To encourage and support the world body
To consider committing the world body
The Palestinians want the world body
President Bush called on the world body
The most sordid and shameful episode in the history of the world body
Washington’s relations with the world body
Would have been unthinkable for the world body
Admission into the world body
“Working methods” within the world body
Acceptance of help from the world body
A more strategic relationship with the world body
A particularly troubled time for the world body
Monday night among members of the world body
Committed to strengthening the world body
Enhancing the capacity of the world body
Reason enough to create the world body
The world body could take action
The world body has had past experiences
The world body is the prime instrument
The world body is possibly too democratic for its own good
The world body is supposed to print and oversee
A document enabling the world body
To undermine the effectiveness of the world body
It should have its own seat in the world body
A “Goodwill Ambassador” for the world body
Deviously appointed to the world body
A second-class citizen at the world body
Has yet to get approval from the world body
A horde of reforms for the world body
The Western Shoshone tribe has asked the world body
To tackle the problems facing the world body
Detrimental to the internal unity of the world body
World Rankings released by the world body
Findings that further tarnish the world body
Sweeping changes to the world body
What larger players have in mind for the world body
Taking Iran before the world body
The Islamic world in the world body
Endorsing the reshaping of the world body
Will also oblige the world body
To regain legitimacy for the world body
What future would await the world body?
The bleeding sometimes never seems to stop, according to the world body

Above the ears, below the waist

This entry is part 17 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


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

Robinson Crusoe’s Notebooks
by Paul Zweig

When I am alone,
the world becomes an erotic dream.
Sex boils in my shoes…

[Remainder of poem removed 9-24-05]

* * * *

John the Baptist’s Final Sermon

Whose tongues tick, whose lips move in whispers
as if to raise lost consonants from the dead?
I am that man just off-stage, in the prompter’s box.
If I find willing ears, they will hear me
the way I see the world: askance.

Madam, I am no Adam, giving creatures their names
while his still-ignorant member wandered in his lap.
Male & female, says the scripture, hermaphroditic
were they made to gambol along the edge
of unpronounceable vision – through dreams, perhaps,
or in the margins of a hand-drawn map.
But then the names leapt like sparks from a campfire,
setting their fur alight, & scorched them into awareness.

We who are among all creatures the most naked:
unto us is given the most excruciating consciousness.
I remember how it burned for weeks, that circumcision.
I remember the crown of an infant’s head, right
at the moment of birth: apple of its mother’s eye, full
to bursting. And an even more pregnant fullness I recall,
among glossalalia & the moving shapes of shadows,
in which this Life was shouted into being.

Whatever is holy is almost unbearable.
One cannot proclaim the Word with unclean lips
or catch more than a glimpse of holy Presence
& expect to live. How could such immensity
restrict itself to a name on the tongue or
an image within the heart, within the head?

But dipped in the waters of rebirth,
the Anointed One prepares his terrible crown.
Everything above the ears becomes a place apart –
& then the whole rest of him, of us, because
for the longed-for future ever to descend,
we are commanded to cleave to just such single-
mindedness, O Salome.

Perfect night

This entry is part 16 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


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

Amanita Phalloidus*
by Paul Zweig

To be alone in the woods, poking at the moist odors
For mushrooms, knowing the diffuse sexuality
Which comes after a long rain has soaked the forest floor…

[Remainder of poem removed 9-24-05]

*Zweig apparently means Amanita phalloides, a.k.a. Death Cap. Despite its scientific name, it is not nearly as phallic as the stinkhorns (Phallaceae).

* * * *

Fungal Earth

This afterlife in the upper air
is a form of exile. The forest drips,
oozes, swells like a sponge

while we huddle under
our umbrellas, painfully swollen
with these spores, our names,

waiting for some
transcendent breeze
or the diaphanous touch of a beetle’s under-wing.

But below, in the perfect night of the earth,
we one-eyed men are King.
Sparrows fall into our efficient nets.

With garrote & poison we keep the soil safe
for our charges, whose every eager rootlet
finds its hyphen

until a clot of fungal
flesh encloses
each cell of sunlight.

The forest is our whore,
soliciting godhead
in knots & gnarls,

crossed branches rubbing
each other raw,
excrescencies of wood.

Hardly a flower bud
opens to a bee
without our hosannas.

Our lucky coins shimmer
& turn green
at the bottom of the sky.

Most plants rely on symbiotic relationships with mycorrizal fungi for basic tasks such as water and nutrient uptake and protection from disease and predation; the study of these relationships, including basic taxonomy, is in its infancy.

Many of the more familiar fungi are the primary agents of plant decomposition in forest ecosystems, and they too are turning out to be less plant-like than was traditionally supposed.

Mushrooms, it turns out, are even more interesting than scientists suspected. They know that the colorful forms we call mushrooms are actually the fruiting bodies of fungi and that each one is sustained by miles of microscopic filaments, called hyphae [or, in aggregate, mycelia]. Those hyphae snake through the forest floor and into rotting logs, secreting enzymes that break down complex carbohydrates into the nutritive sugars needed by the mushroom. Such saprophytic mushrooms break down woody materials into soil. Without them, our woods would suffocate in their own debris.

The mycologist George Brown and his graduate students at the University of Guelph in Ontario have recently made more remarkable discoveries about what fungi do. Apparently many of them are not benign saprophytes, but fierce predators which attack and eat the microscopic nematodes, rotifers, amoebas, copepods, and bacteria that share the soil with them. And the ways in which they capture and eat them often have the makings of a horror story – catching them in adhesive nets, crushing them with constricting rings, immobilizing them with toxins and eating them alive, attaching to them like tapeworms, impaling them on spores shaped like grappling hooks, and shooting them with projectiles.

– Marcia Bonta, Appalachian Autumn

My life as a landlubber

This entry is part 15 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’m still reading Paul Zweig, and trying to get back into the spirit of writing poems in response. The following prose piece was sparked by the fourth poem in the second section of Zweig’s Selected and Last Poems, entitled “The Archaeology.” I’ve been in a bit of a confessional mood lately…

My first God was a lake in Maine with a soft mud bottom & plenty of leeches. I am too young to swim, but I love watching my mother, so slow on land, slice efficiently through the small waves while seeming merely to recline on her right side. The lake is large & not to be trifled with. In the winter, it turns to stone, my first desert: a white lid for the dreamless eyes of fish.

I am four and a half. My mother is hugely pregnant, & my older brother & I decide to play a practical joke: I hide myself in the deep grass on the back slope above the pond, while Steve bangs in through the kitchen door: “David’s drowning!” Mom rushes past me, frantic, calling my name. I leap to my feet: “Here I am!” She’s furious.

Later, I sit inside staring numbly out at the grass, wanting to be missed again like that, wishing I could still be hidden there, curled up like a comma in that green sea as the wind moves through.

Oceans with stone beaches, thundering surf. In an old black-and-white photo, we wander at low tide past the iconic cliffs at the Bay of Fundy. Fifteen years later, in Taiwan, Steve & I find ourselves on another beach dotted with stout, wave-gouged menhirs. He swims out to a small island, then hollers back: “Come see the geysers! Hurry, it’s spectacular!”

A typhoon is swirling somewhere off to the east, raising mountainous waves. Somehow I fight my way out, & it’s worth the effort: smoothly sculpted sandstone as if from the desert southwest, undermined by the sea & pocked with hollows just the right size to lie down in, imagining I’m St. Brendan innocently beached on a whale’s barnacled back. Its blowhole shoots spray high into the air with every wave, each time giving rise to the same rainbow.

After a while I hear faint voices from the shore: “Come back! Come back!” I try to obey, but the current is too strong & pulls me sideways, out to sea. My strength quickly dissipates; I go under once, twice, my brother reaches me just before I go down the dreaded third time. “Stop swimming,” he says, “& stand up in the water – there’s a shelf of rock we can rest on.” I quell my panic & feel for the rock with my feet, my chin just barely above the troughs. For the first time, I learn to space my breaths. “Here’s what we’ll do,” he shouts in my ear. “Put an arm around my neck, but don’t strangle me. If I paddle & we both kick, we can get to shore.” It works.

Back in the car, we marinate quietly in our separate swamps of self-disgust: “I would’ve died without his help.” “I almost killed him.”

Then, I was too skinny to be buoyant; now, I’m unsinkable. Adrift in my skin boat – hide stretched taut across the ribs, the sea on the wrong side – I float through my days.

Eating a tomato

I wake at 2:00 a.m. with a bad taste in my mouth, and I think I know what it is: it’s me. That slightly metallic taste of ego. It mingles with last night’s eggplant curry, which was a culinary disaster. I have been cooking too quickly, eating too quickly, I have been much too quick to speak my mind. Why such haste? It’s as if we’re shrews or blind moles, daydreaming about slowness and enlightenment in between our frantic gropes and gulps. Fortunately, I have a very forgiving digestive system – but perhaps it would be better if I didn’t. It might force me to slow the hell down.

I remember as a child how I pictured my insides: a great, dark cavern below the heart and the gracefully flapping lungs. The throat ends in a sort of chute, out of which food and drink drizzle or plop into the swamp below. I don’t know when or how this image originally took shape in my imagination, but I remember clinging to it in a half-unconscious sort of way well into my teenage years. The fact that it was incompatible with what I had learned about human anatomy in school was not in itself enough to banish it; I had to bring it to the surface of my consciousness and reason it away, just as I had driven out ghosts and under-the-bed monsters years before.

Now I wonder if we don’t dishonor and diminish the imagination to enslave it to our daytime egos in such a manner. In a conversation last night before bed, my linguist brother reminded me that the root meaning of “tantra” is “trick.” The idea that there might be educational value in training our minds in conscious self-deception, though fundamental to vernacular religious traditions the world over, seems almost incomprehensible to those of us accustomed to thinking of the mind as an innocent mirror. The religions of the powerful – the traditions whose central focus has become the perpetuation of power – school us in reduction, in the wonder-sucking necromancy of algebra. Something either is or it isn’t, Parmenides intones. Do good and eschew evil, the sacred texts say, making stern necessity out of virtue.

In my freshman year of college, I plowed through a lengthy tome on Daoist cosmology that simultaneously attracted and repelled me. It devoted many chapters to detailing the Daoist microcosm of the body circa the first millenium A.D., and I remember being fascinated by the notion of such an elaborate system of visualizations based on nothing but idealistic desire. I mean, it’s not as if the ancient Chinese didn’t have good models for the way the body worked. The relative effectiveness of technologies such as Chinese herbal medicine, acupuncture, taiqi and martial arts – all ultimately derived from the same stream of popular religion that spawned Daoist microcosmology – surely testify to the power of the trained imagination, I thought. But I found the focus on physical immortality very off-putting, perhaps because it clashed with my own, Western tendency to devalue the concrete in favor of the abstract.

In any case, it was hard not to be charmed by the culinary route to immortality advocated by popular Daoism: one first eliminates meat, then grains, then vegetables, then finally even liquids until one learns to subsist on nothing but air. Though this might sound like a recipe for anorexia, it’s hard to see how it could lead to that in practice, given the Daoist emphasis on corporeality. Isn’t anorexia nervosa pretty much a Western disease, deriving from our endemic devaluation of the body and the earth? Daoism simply promotes the endearingly goofy idea that the air itself has nutritive value, if only we were sensitive enough to appreciate it. I suspect that the real effect of a Daoist diet would be to train one in greater attention to the sensual qualities of everything one ingests, and in learning to distinguish what the body really wants from what the grasping ego thinks it wants. And lately I’ve been hearing about new research by Western nutritionists suggesting that regular fasts might indeed form a vital part of a healthy diet.

It seemed to me then and still seems to me now a kind of blasphemy against life to try and prolong it indefinitely, but isn’t that what all the world religions are about – abolishing death? Or am I being unfairly reductionist to issue such a sweeping indictment? I do like the teachings about purifying or spiritualizing consumption that are near the center of so many traditions: the Christian communion, the Jewish Pesach, the North American rituals of inhalation – smoke of tobacco, cedar, sage.

I sleep late, break my nightly fast with coffee as usual. Sitting in the sun on my front porch, I think of Vicente Aleixandre’s poem about the old man slowly nibbled away by sunlight. My maternal grandfather attained that level of sweetness in his old age, I believe, though through some cruel trick of fate his death was preceded by several days of agony. I remember last night’s news about the death of my friend Tom’s indomitable mother-in-law: she died peacefully at home, he said, ending her life with a sigh.

I shut my notebook and walk around the house, figuring on putting off eating for a couple more hours at least, but then I spot a ripe cherry tomato on one of the volunteer vines twining through the butterfly bush. To me, a cherry or grape tomato has the perfect proportion of firm flesh to juice. This one’s skin is encased in a thin film of dew, and for the fraction of a second before my teeth close around it, my mouth fills with the pungent, feral redolence common to all the Solanaceae, from jimsonweed to belladonna. Then its blood-colored mucilage mingles with my saliva: such acid sweetness! Grace isn’t something you say, I think, it’s just what happens. And here’s another one. Oh taste and see.


Quarter till six. I’m sitting outside with my coffee and a brand new pocket notebook, in which I am writing the following words: A jet crosses the chest of Orion, dragging its roar half a sky behind it. Fog forms around me as I write, guessing at the lines, unsure of whether I have started this notebook with black or blue ink. Trucks are loud in the valley — I try to determine from the quality of the sound whether or not they are driving through thick fog.

Last night, I dreamed about finding my missing set of keys — they had been right where I usually keep them, and had simply been hiding from me each time I looked there before. Now, they were ready to be found. But other things remain lost. It seems that I am part of a group of pilgrims about to set off for New Orleans on foot, but I want to bow out and go by car instead because my glasses are in such bad shape. One of the lenses keeps popping out, and I’m afraid that if the frame breaks I won’t be able to get it repaired on the road. Even in the dream, I realize the foolishness of this anxiety. But I am quite nearsighted, and always feel terribly vulnerable without glasses.

We’re following one of New Orleans’ cemetery angels come to life, who is searching for her missing thumb and thinks that it might have been ‘borrowed’ by a hitchhiker desperate to get out of the city. Our plan: to comb the shoulders of every major road and highway between here and there. When we find the thumb, the angel will turn back to stone and will return to her station, directing traffic at the center of a vast necropolis. For now, she seems human enough — in fact, she has a bit of a pout. I want to find out if her wings smell of mildew, but she keeps her distance.

As the light strengthens, my handwritten words get smaller and straighter, falling into line. The stars fade. I hear the “wick wick wick” of migrating wood thrushes dropping down into the trees to rest and forage. They have thousands of miles yet to go. It makes me sad to think I won’t hear them sing again until next May.

Katrina links: the big picture

Here’s a brief selection of links to some blog posts that have helped me grapple with the aftermath of Katrina in the last few days.

Two Cabbies in New Orleans, from the marvelous garden, is my favorite appreciation of the city so far. Never mind all the rampant corruption, endemic poverty, police brutality – it’s through stories like this that you learn the true flavor of a place. And in an update yesterday, Patry reported that she and her husband have made contact with one of the cabbies they befriended.

“The state of the city, and the number of the dead is far worse than anything you see on TV,” he said, his voice briefly cracking. “But I feel grateful to be alive, grateful that my children are safe. People have shown us so much love.”

“What do you need?” my husband asked.

Briefly, Chris faltered, his needs so clearly overwhelming. “I try not to think about that,” he said, attempting a laugh. “Because we need just about everything.”

Then he told us how his son had broken down in a particularly vulnerable moment.

“Where will we go? What will we do now?” the son asked.

And Chris responded, “We’ll be like Job. We’ll praise God more than ever and he’ll triple our bounty.”

Artist and former New Orleanian James W. Bailey wonders, Is America Really Prepared to Allow the Hoodoo Culture of New Orleans to be Destroyed by Hurricane Katrina? (thanks to Marja-Leena for the link). Black Cat Bone is an enjoyable new blog whose mission is

to burn the flesh off modern art to get down to the raw bone of what’s really happening with art in American society. Black Cat Bone is a free road trip through the wild, chaotic and blissful world of the contemporary visual arts and originates with a down-home Blues-based root philosophy born in the Delta of Mississippi. Broadcast live on the Internets on a daily basis from just outside our nation’s capital of Washington, D.C., Black Cat Bone utilizes advanced digital technology designed, engineered and manufactured by the Devil to tap into the cosmic positive powers of Hoodoo to better serve its world-wide audience…

The most linked-to essay in the blogosphere right now is all about Being Poor. I hope that its popularity, and the passion evinced in its lengthy message string, are signs of the start of a national conversation on poverty and class, and are not just a flash in the pan.

Maria of alembic has written a great screed on Blinders.

For the social narcissist there can be no such thing as the working poor. It is inconceivable that people should be working and not have anything to show for it. For the social narcissist, it is better to think of the poor as dependent on the government or charity rather than not having a living wage. This way, the social narcissist doesn’t have to be accountable for his or her part in this distribution of the garden’s yield … or, to bring it home to the backyard, the possibility that our little paradise in Marin is not exactly a realization of our pure will in shaping the landscape. Better to feel sorry for the poor than to see how we are implicated in their plight…

Should we succumb to anger, though? Does anger ever really solve anything? After a couple briefer attempts to explain himself, Dale of mole lets loose with what he calls My official Buddhist sermon on the subject. I found little to disagree with, surprisingly enough.

Finally, Pica at Feathers of Hope asks, What Can I Do? I like her answers.