At the Charles Simic reading

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The aging soundman saunters down front to fiddle with the mike and won’t leave, mimicking the famous poet they’ve all come to see. With his bad posture and offstage clothes, it’s a travesty, compounded by a highly questionable accent. “Well, you know – ” he’ll say, and improvise another droll story about his supposed life in New Hampshire or childhood in Belgrade during the war.

A few stray pieces of paper and two or three books have been left at the podium, and he picks them up one at a time and peers down quizzically, as if addressing several exceptional frogs at the bottom of a well. He ends each poem – if that’s what they are – with an audible sniff and consults his watch. It’s the modern kind, he explains – it doesn’t tick.

The imposter’s grin never quite leaves his face. He holds up the famous poet’s most famous book – printed in large type, you see, so as to take more room on the page – and claims it’s nothing but a doodle in the margins of his memoirs. A likely story! It’s boring to describe what really happened. A writer always prefers to make things up. So you say.

The overflow audience crowds the floor, up to within an arm’s length of his feet. Many of them are here by choice, it seems, and would have every right to feel cheated, but only a few people get up and leave. He goes on for forty-seven minutes, stops, and takes a few tentative steps away from the podium as applause breaks out, mingled with appreciative laughter for an almost fully credible performance.

Snowball’s chance

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

October’s theme for qarrtsiluni is Change and Continuity, which, as some readers may have noticed, I’ve been riffing on here as well. I submitted the following series of linked prose pieces, but on reflection, my fellow editors and I felt that it didn’t really hang together all that well; the third threatens to overwhelm the first two, and really deserves to stand alone.

This editing is a tough job, and we worry about the extent to which blogging has made us lax in the standards we apply to ourselves and each other. It’s a peculiar, god-like dilemma: how to be appropriately merciless and compassionate at the same time…

I stood watching traffic and thought: a winch, a windlass. Some iron drum on a medieval instrument of torture, allowing pain to be administered in increments no thicker than an eyelash. That kind of wheel.

The day before, a friend of mine had been impossible to console: he had received two pieces of terrible news that morning, he said, and the one he was willing to talk about involved a young teenage girl in South Africa – the daughter of a woman he used to work with – raped in her own room by three masked men. “You know, there’s this persistent myth that AIDS can be cured by having sex with a virgin. Preferably dry sex.”

I wondered about the other piece of news, but said nothing. We were playing cards, one of those games where the jokers can steal any identity and the player who finishes with the lowest score wins. I was winning, and whistled under my breath.

In my last dream before waking, I am trying to find a poetry reading in a restaurant basement. Raw sewage is oozing through the cracks in the floor and under the stairs, green, incredibly foul. The manager shrugs: the health inspector won’t come around for another two months, and anyway, the city floats on a river of shit and stale urine. I find the exit and take deep gulps of the alley’s gentrified air. Here’s some fancy brickwork, an old brass hitching post. Every passing hand rests briefly on its cool metal skin.

The news isn’t good, almost by definition. Polar icecaps are melting; the Amazon is drying out. All across Siberia, methane gas percolates through the warming soil, suddenly unencumbered by a frozen ceiling. Millions of years of freeze-dried shit and corpses have a sudden date with the anaerobic rulers of the planet, whose patience and whose appetite are equally infinite.

The wheel has turned too far, it seems, and now the ligaments are beginning to snap. In the long-term forecast, there’s an 80 percent chance of the extinction of most multi-cellular life forms on earth. Our ancestors were cold and lonely and desperately afraid of their own extinction, and read in the heavens a promise of unlimited semen. Now we will be plenty warm, I bet. And life will continue without us, in whatever form; those who believe in biogenesis can take comfort in the thought of earth’s own bacteria seeding the stars.

I remember once as a kid, toward the end of January, putting three or four snowballs in the freezer for some reason. I found them six months later while trying to make room for blueberries, and it took me a few moments to recognize what they were. The snow had turned to lumps of ice, gray and lifeless: such a fragile crop, impossible to preserve.

How will we describe the snow to our great-grandchildren? It drifted down from the night sky like flour, we’ll say, or sometimes like a rain of flowers the color of light: little vajras, wheels with six spokes. It gave cover to mice and to the ugliest of wounds. It made us dream of oneness. Wasn’t it cold, they’ll ask, and we’ll say no, you could burrow into it as into a down comforter. Sometimes a ruffed grouse would burst from the snow right in front of you in the middle of a still morning. It changed by the day and by the hour, and when the sun came out you could see the shadow of the sky itself: blue, blue.

When it breaks

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 25 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


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

A Fly on the Water
by Paul Zweig

It is eating me.
It is everything hungry in the world,
And wants me, and I’ll tell you, I don’t mind. . . .

[Remainder of poem removed 11-06-05]

* * * *


It isn’t death I dread, but the lidded coffin
& all that soil coming between me & the sky.

The earth is for living in, or under,
safe between the third and fourth ribs
of the great land whale.

Chewing the fat
with our boneless ancestors,
we could relearn the art of metamorphosis –
from the larval worm, how to wait
in the darkness for a stone
skin to split

& mixing dust & water,
bring clay to life with our own
perilous breath.

It isn’t death we fear, but the pain that precedes it
& this waking, all alone, in a strange bed.

Thousand Steps

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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There’s a place a few miles southwest of here called the Thousand Steps. It’s an old ganister quarry on the side of Jacks Mountain just north of the water gap known as Jack’s Narrows, named for an early settler who achieved great fame as a serial killer of his Indian neighbors. A narrow-gauge railroad on a steep, switch-backing grade hauled the quarried rock down into the Narrows, thence to the refractory in nearby Mount Union. Workers built the dry stone steps in the 1930s in order to make a faster commute.

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The steps climb a steep ravine where hemlock, Table Mountain pine, birches and maples have grown up in the more than fifty years since the quarry ceased operation. The old switchbacks make for convenient landings on which to pause and catch one’s breath. Since the acquisition of the Steps as part of a state gameland some ten years ago, they’ve become very popular with local people in search of spectacular views of mountains and forests and the winding Juniata, most poetic of all eastern rivers.

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Another attraction of the site is the fortress-like building that used to house the dinkey locomotives, made of the same stone as the talus slopes that surround it. An immense red oak tree stands directly below it; it’s easy to imagine the quarrymen resting briefly in its shade after trotting up the side of the mountain.

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Sunday was chilly – a good day to make the climb. Although the air was very clear, the sky was not. A pale mortar connected heavy blocks of cloud, sometimes gapping just enough to permit a brief view of the sun.

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Whenever that happened, cameras came out of pockets to record the instant transformations in the landscape. The few trees that had already turned color blazed like torches against the dark pines.

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The wind blew in strong gusts out of the northwest. Turkey vultures rose in tight circles above the Steps, catching whatever slight heat must still have been rising, despite the chill in the air, from all those open patches of bare rock. By the time we returned to the car, our legs felt like rubber from the long descent.

Robert Hass on poetry and activism

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

From the on-line environmental magazine Grist comes a brief but thought-provoking interview with California poet Robert Hass.

Q. You studied biology in college, but it seems like today colleges cast students as either science or literature people. In your class, do you find that people aren’t communicating between the two sides of their brain?

A. I think people do try to communicate between those two sides of their brain. I think part of the interest of the intelligent design/evolutionary biology debate is about how the implications of science talk to the rest of our feeling, affective selves. To try to figure out how to put those together is the fun of this class.

My partner, a science professor, gets the poetry people who are worried that they can’t get the science, and I get the science people who are worried they can’t do the poetry. So I’m sitting in my office with some really bright young people who can do neurobiology or astrophysics but say they can’t understand poetry. And I’m inclined to get down a poem off the shelf like Wordsworth’s sonnet, “All things that love the sun are out of doors,” and I say, what don’t you understand about that?

Can poetry save the world? Maybe – but it’s no substitute for activism, says Hass. In either case, we need to start by noticing what’s around us. I agree.

I found a longer, less focused interview with Hass, conducted right after his inaugural reading as Poet Laureate in 1997 and published in American Poetry Review, online here. At one point, Hass advances an argument that should be familiar to readers of this weblog:

I think that to praise or dispraise, to enchant or disenchant, both of which functions art has – you have to include a lot of the one if you’re going to do the other. I think poetry that says yes has to swallow great goblets of darkness; and poetry that says no has to say no in the face of the fact that there must be reasons why the poet has chosen to continue to live in order to say it. I always think in this connection of Monet because I read that his water lily paintings were begun as a response to reports he had read of the dead in the trenches in the first world war.

Grace Cavalieri: Have you used that in a poem?

Robert Hass: No I haven’t used it in a poem. I mean, I think it’s already there. It doesn’t need to be. But the reason those paintings seem to us so supremely great and not wallpaper is that they are full of the dead. They’re full of all those, all those colors, full of the colors of the bodies in the trenches as he imagined them. Poetry that praises the world has to have immense ballast.

The watermelon revelation

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall


They had been eating a large watermelon, each night slicing another cross-section and dividing it in thirds. They agreed that it was one of the sweetest watermelons they had ever tasted. “The last of the season,” the mother said sadly.

It was only on the third night that the father felt moved to get up from his chair and watch the cutting of the melon. And father and son together were given to see what neither of them might have ever have noticed alone, distracted by the task at hand. The pink flesh bore no mere random pattern of splits, they saw, but a sign – and a well-known one at that.

“It’s a message!” the son cried.

“You take pictures! I’ll email the Vatican and the White House!” said the father.

“Oh, for God’s sake!” said the mother, hungry for her slice. “It’s just a watermelon!” But her objections were brushed aside as the son raced for his digital camera.


They took still pictures from several angles, then got out the video camera and shot footage of the miraculous melon, which by this time, they noticed, had begun to emit a kind of faint bioluminescence. The father hurried to his computer and began to assemble pictures and text into a basic Dreamweaver template while the son interviewed his mother – “the resident skeptic,” he called her. “Look, it’s just a watermelon!” she reiterated for the benefit of the soon-to-be hordes of virtual pilgrims.

“But can you verify for our visitors that we have not tampered with the natural pattern in any way? You saw me each night. What did I do?”

“You sliced it cross-ways with a bread knife, taking off a third at a time. You started using those splits as a guide last night, I guess.”

“So even though you personally don’t think this is anything special, you can assure our visitors that we did nothing to alter or enhance this Sign?”

“Yes, I can attest to that,” she said, sighing.


Less than twenty-four hours later, the site went live – Within the first twelve hours of operation, the hit counter logged over five thousand unique visitors. This was going to be big.

The splash page featured simply a photo of the melon against a black background and an audio clip of a church organ playing “Give Peace a Chance.” Inside were more pictures, the videos, and a user-friendly form to allow visitors to record their own reactions to the melon and its message. This quickly took on a life of its own. A man from Connecticut, who described himself as a Quaker, denounced “the primitive, superstitious credulity of anyone who takes this so-called revelation seriously.” If we want authentic revelation, we have to learn to follow our Inner Light, he said. But a “Diana in Phoenix” testified that viewing their website had brought her violent, alcoholic husband to his knees in front of the monitor, weeping and pressing his hands against the glass. And someone with the handle AgnesofBlog sparked a lively debate by wondering whether a watermelon was a vegetable or a fruit.

While the father turned out press releases, the son combed the Internet for suitable Pentecostal, Catholic and New Age blogs and message boards on which to leave provocative comments hinting at a divine message of great import. Creative use of Google and Technorati led him to hundreds of faith-based bloggers who made a habit of reporting similar, albeit lesser, revelations, such as the widely publicized Lady of the Grilled Cheese Sandwich.

That’s when it hit him: a sudden inspiration that flooded his veins with an almost unbearable sensation of melting sweetness.

“E-Bay!” he gasped.

And so it was that, by the grace of God and the invisible hand of the market, peace, in all its pinko glory, finally got a chance.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

If only the personal weren’t, as they say, so political. If only the person-holes called leaders were a bit less personable. If only the suction from those walking vacuums weren’t always so goddamn difficult to resist.

Autumn is the time for longing thoughts, they say; rapid change makes us yearn for stasis. It’s autumn, it’s raining, & I crave the familiarity of cliché. What is a cliché, after all, but an aborted proverb? One man’s culture of life is another man’s petri dish. (To say nothing of the women, of course.)

If only failure were not, as they say, an option. If misery really were capable of love, what loving company a miserable failure might find himself in. The great and powerful POTUS side-by-side with a scruffy, self-promoting documentary filmmaker: what fearful asymmetry! If only a mere Google bomb could blow the manhole cover off that septic stream of lies. But the lies are old news, and in the U.S.A., old news is no news – good news for those who stand to profit off the unstoppable buck, the bull market, the zero worship.

The rain started two hours before dawn while I was in the shower, so that when I stuck my damp head out the door, I heard the soft deliberate footfalls of a burglar in the grass, on the porch roof. Take all you want, I said – as if anything here were mine to part with in the first place.

Every morning I scan the headlines, shaping my lips & tongue unconsciously around the new-yet-strangely-familiar-&-comforting litany of other people’s misery. (I’m only a fully silent reader in company.) Earthquake, hurricane, I whisper, mudslide, flood. A school roof collapses like a sick joke on the heads of schoolchildren; an art museum is flattened by a floating casino. Whole towns are buried under suddenly wakeful, supposedly sacred mountains. Library collections turn gray & mushy in the mouths of their most thorough readers ever.

All that future, down the shit hole. All those centuries of incense & slow fasting.

What does it mean to be a lyric poet in times of widespread disaster & a global extinction crisis? What does it mean to cherish quietness, faced with the absolute silence of the null set? Words too easily succumb to a dervish vertigo. I am bone-tired of this present tense, its tightly wrapped present of tension, waiting for an epiphany that may be nothing like what we have ever imagined that we deserve. I am sick to death of the prayerful moment. I want to tell the wonder-junky in me, shut your goddamn slavering cake hole with some actual cake, for once. Fill your glistening eyes with some light-hearted miracle, some fancy contraption involving hidden wires & gaps in the fabric that earns a standing ovation from your pants. Get a real job. Consume. Obey.

Last month I lost my only set of keys & ever since, everywhere I look, there’s another keyhole right at eye-level. No peeping, now, I have to admonish myself. The world can go to hell, and maybe it will; a wrong thing never turns right. Someone lives in there, I have to think.

With gratitude for the influence of Chris Clarke’s much more analytical series on The Anatomy of Bad News (here, here, here, and here, with more to come, I hope).

Juarroz on waking up

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 35 of 38 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas


I woke up this morning with a poem about waking up (how self-reflexive is that?!). I was struck by its argument that humans are basically crepuscular critters.

The Argentinean poet Roberto Juarroz (1925-1995) won international recognition as a master of the modern philosophical poem. He is often compared to Octavio Paz, but I find his work more reminiscent of Rilke and Juan Ramón Jiménez, with a dash of Laozi. Both W.S. Merwin and Mary Crow have authored book-length translations into English of selections from his multi-volume magnum opus, Poesí­a Vertical (Vertical Poetry). I was drawn to the following poem (found in Crow’s bilingual edition) not simply by the subject matter but by the fourth line of the third stanza, in which “huecos” reminded me of home: water gaps, hollows, coves. I chose “coves” over “hollows” simply because I think it might be more widely understood outside Appalachia, and I felt “intemperie” justified my addition of the modifier “mountain.” I also felt Crow mistranslated in two places, justifying my own, fairly free attempt.

Poesí­a Vertical

por Roberto Juarroz

Despertar es siempre
una difí­cil emergencia:
reencender la lucidez
como quien recomienza el mundo.

Por eso nos quedamos
en los estados intermedios.
El hombre no es una criatura despierta:
desconoce lo abierto.

Llamos que se consumen a medias,
párpados que se olvidan del ojo,
jardinez paralizados en la noche,
huecos de la intemperie acorralada.

Los caminos se aglomeran en vano:
despertar es borrar los caminos.

* * * *

Waking up is always
a difficult emergence:
a re-ignition of lucidity,
as if one were starting the world all over.

That’s why we abide
in the in-between states.
Man simply isn’t a wakeful creature:
he lacks familiarity with the open.

Flames that burn themselves out halfway through;
eyelids forgotten by the eye;
gardens paralyzed in the night;
mountain coves socked in by bad weather.

In vain the roads multiply and converge:
to wake up is to wipe the map clean.


Those who read Spanish might be interested in Juarroz’ reflections on his craft, Un rigor para la intensidad, which begins with a somewhat different take on “lo abierto” than the above poem:

Yo me he sentido atraí­do en primer lugar por los elementos de la naturaleza. Nací­ en un pueblo al borde del campo. Mi padre era jefe de la estación de ferrocarril y tení­amos enfrente el horizonte abierto. En esa pequeña ciudad de Coronel Dorrego me acostumbré desde muy chico a los silencios. Esas noches abiertas en donde se veí­an las estrellas, la luna ní­tida, los vientos, el agua, el árbol que para mí­ es un protagonista de la vida.

(I have felt an attraction from the first for all the elements of nature. I was born in a town on the edge of the country. My father was a railroad stationmaster and we had the open horizon always in front of us. In that small city, Coronel Dorrego, from a very young age I grew accustomed to silences. Those open nights in which one could discern the stars, the crystal-clear moon, the winds, the water, the tree that was for me an active protagonist in my life.)

A beach in hell

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 24 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


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

The Perfect Sleepers
by Paul Zweig

The light flooding my chair
Is too strong at six in the morning;
It was meant for the policeman prowling
In a room around a criminal…

[Remainder of poem removed 10-21-05]

* * * *

In the Hold

The sealed cracks around the permanently locked door between the two apartments were no barrier to the flood tide of her enormous need. I had seen them sitting outside until well past dark, his jeep riding considerably lower on the passenger side as they took turns drinking from a paper bag. They came in around ten & went straight to work – an all-night shift.

Sleep was impossible for me as well as for him. Every half hour, just as I started to doze off, her shrill voice would jerk us back to full consciousness: I haven’t seen you in three months, and you’re just going to SLEEP? He’d answer in a low murmur I couldn’t make out. Then the asthmatic creaks of her long-suffering box spring as she once again mounted the ladder that led – Oh dichosa ventura! – out of the dark hold of her hated flesh.

As the night dragged on, my annoyance gave way to admiration for her persistence & her unwillingness to abandon her partner to the vicissitudes of sleep. I knew well enough how the rungs of that ladder multiply toward the top, crowding more & more closely together until, inevitably, we lose our footing & fall back into ourselves: ragged breathing, the soaked sheets, dust mites swarming in the drifts of shed skin.

The Spanish quote (“oh happy chance!”) and the image of the ladder are from St. John of the Cross’s mystical poem La Noche Oscura, or The Dark Night.