Seven things that make me happy right now

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

1) Republican “leaders” in the House of “Representatives” giving up, at least temporarily, on their latest attempt to deface and destroy the Arctic wilderness.

2) The good people of Dover, Pennsylvania voting in a new slate of school board candidates who have promised to restore natural causation to the science curriculum – and incidentally restore religion to its rightful position as an outside counter-weight to scientific hubris. (If only Kansas voters were less credulous about arguments that denature and attempt to second-guess Creation!)

3) The impossibility of discerning what is most likely to be true apart from considerations of what appears to be the most beautiful (or, as scientists like to say, elegant). As the New Yorker’s exposé on “intelligent design” points out, “to scientists, a good theory is one that inspires new experiments and provides unexpected insights into familiar phenomena.” Over the past century or more since the general acceptance of Darwin and Wallace’s theory of evolution by natural selection, some of those insights have included the astonishingly beautiful ideas of coevolution, convergent evolution, and cladistics. I.D., by contrast, “has inspired no nontrivial experiments and has provided no surprising insights into biology. As the years pass, intelligent design looks less and less like the science it claimed to be and more and more like an extended exercise in polemics.” And what could be uglier than that?

4) The fact that, thanks to evolution, one can think compassionately and synergistically, comprehending the world as numinous Creation – or givenness, as a philosopher might say. One corollary of this is that one can appreciate – and, with luck, communicate – the beauty of scientific theories without fully understanding the complex math, chemistry or physics upon which they are based, thus keeping one’s head from hurting too much.

5) The presence of readers who are co-creators, and writers who co-evolve and sometimes converge – in the blogosphere and beyond.

6) The fact that the beauty- and symmetry-obsessed Navajos, well in advance of J. B. S. Haldane, gave primacy in their creation story to the Air-Spirit People – insects. Long before anything else stirred,

Yellow beetles lived there. Hard beetles lived there. Stone-carrier beetles lived there. Black beetles lived there. Coyote-dung beetles lived there. … Whitefaced beetles made their homes there…

7) The pear tree behind my house, which this year turned a wondrous shade of orange instead of its usual dingy yellow.

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With beauty before me, I walk.
With beauty behind me, I walk.
With beauty above me, I walk.
With beauty below me, I walk.
With beauty all around me, I walk.
It is finished in beauty.
It is finished in beauty.

(Navajo chantway refrain)

String theories

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 31 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the thirteenth 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.

Anything Long and Thin
by Paul Zweig

All traffickings upward out of the earth
Or sideways across it: longitudes,
Desperations; the glue of sentences . . .

[Remainder of poem removed 11-18-05]

* * * *

Living On

Consider what one might learn
by meditating on a corpse:
how the flesh can crawl, the bones
of a beautiful face break
the crust of fantasy like little moons
out of the ground, vacant snail-shells
still glistening with an off-white rheum.
Or consider swallowing two squares
of LSD & looking in the mirror:
what perfectly disintegrating visions
might be yours, & with what slight effort.

It’s exhilarating, really, to find this
blind matter – that it somehow coheres
despite its utter insensitivity to longing
or loneliness. It gives itself
only half-grudgingly to the chance
mouths of the shark or the brown bear.
True horror comes disguised
as cold necessity: learning about cells
in the fourth grade, our bodies began
to dissolve into prisons
or office towers populated by soft-
walled cubicles. Then atoms:
solar systems with pin-prick suns,
barely enclosed eternities
of inner space. The schoolroom clock
made a mockery of turning.

To know that emptiness, they suggested,
was to know ourselves. They could have said
that matter is incredibly rare,
a temporary resting state for energy.
They could have told us
about fictons, their mad spinning
that somehow keeps the lover’s caress
from encountering a null set,
bodies collapsing into a shrug
of cold fusion. What a comfort
it would’ve been, maybe,
to learn about the stubborn corpse
rippling outward for millions of years,
if only in bone shards or a line
of footprints in some fossilized beach
that come to a sudden end: indelible
record of buoyancy, & the killer wave.

For more on fictons, see here. Please note, however, that I mean something different from Robert Heinlein, whose fictons inhabited a thoroughly Newtonian, narrative space. My fictons are massless and carry a negative charge.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Yesterday afternoon, I picked and ate a ripe cherry tomato from my garden. For those who shuddered at my report of an early snowstorm two weeks ago, the real news here is the unprecedented lateness of a frost. Those white shooting-stars that were bent down by the snow? They’ve put out new blossoms.

It’s hard what to know what to make of it all, but this much I can tell you: the tomato was delicious.

Deep in the weeds,
the wrong shade of red for autumn:
last ripe tomato.

Ash fruits

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

An impressionistic review of the article “Night of the Growing Dead: A Cult of Virabhadra in Coastal Andhra,” by David M. Kline, in Criminal Gods and Demon Devotees: Essays on the Guardians of Popular Hinduism, edited by Alf Hiltebeitel and published by State University of New York Press in Albany, 1989.

A cobra moves into the termite mound, which has grown tall & full of turrets, like a Disneyland of dirt. The villagers build a shrine around it as a home for orphaned spirits, who inhabit large, gray, egg-shaped fruits that the potters fashion out of tree semen & the ash from burnt cow dung. Those who could not be burned are jealous of ashes.

And the ash fruits grow, year after year. They swell with offerings – the rounded towers of rice – having no way to take a shit. Every dead thing resembles a fruit, the sum of long-ripening actions. But these ones, with all chance of future action cut off, ripen only in their rage.

They are the pills too bitter to swallow, the gray implacable grief that drives every cycle of violence. The deaths of innocents violate the law of the universe, so the world must burn. The spine of Sati crumbles in the funeral pyre & God smears her ashes all over His skin, as sealed off now as a stone in these avatars of ash.

One night a year when they travel in procession to the river to be dipped & blessed, they can seize anyone by the throat – an onlooker, or their own former mother – & make him or her throw up the indigestible pits of their words. Which, however disjointed, always add up to a single, non-negotiable demand: more life.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Seven points in search of an argument

Friday’s photo-essay about windows got me thinking about self-effacement, and how dangerous it can be. Think of guerrillas lying in ambush, or the CIA operative in deep cover. Then, too, privacy issues have been in the air lately with all the discussion about nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court. I don’t know whether the Constitution contains an implicit right to privacy or not, but I’m pretty sure than any government that denies the existence of such a right for its citizens, while multiplying arguments for higher and higher levels of government secrecy, is one badly in need of being overthrown.

I’ve also been following an exchange about blog privacy on a listserve I belong to, and feeling more and more baffled as one blogger after another talks about his or her fear of being read by the wrong person. They talk longingly about anonymous blogs where they would have complete freedom to say what they want.

What’s wrong with me that I don’t feel thwarted by my inability to say what cannot be said? I’d always thought that near the core of every relationship there lay a little bundle of forbidden things – those terrible words that, once uttered, can never be retracted. One’s consciousness of this (or any) taboo creates a kind of tension that is ultimately creative. For me, the challenge is to find the words behind or beyond those terrible ones, which in a certain sense are only fuel for the spark that enlivens and illuminates every authentic, I-Thou encounter. But maybe for others this just sounds like an argument for self-censorship.

I’m wondering whether poetry might not serve as an outlet without which I, too, would feel terribly constrained. Growing up, I had the benefit of a stable and supportive family, where every creative effort, no matter how minor, received praise from one or both parents. But at the same time, we were (and are), like many WASPs, not much given to talking about our feelings. That’s not to say I didn’t emote much; far from it – I was a rage and self-pity junkie. I threw tantrums almost constantly up until the age of twelve, when I began to get good enough at writing poems that I could start channeling my affective energy into that instead.

And what is a poem, after all, if not an attempt to say what is otherwise unsayable? To pick a well-known example: if you want to tell someone you like them, but are afraid of making yourself too vulnerable by baldly saying so, what do you do but write a poem in their praise? Poetry allows us to elevate ordinary discourse, to turn our words into a gift. Writing at that level leads one to focus on something outside oneself. For me, writing is not and has never been about self-expression; I’m not even sure I know what that would entail. Even when I write in prose, my main motivation is to try and share my insights with other people. I’m not interested in anonymous publishing because I don’t think that my words have any value beyond whatever connections they help me forge with a reader.

I must admit, the idea of writing in different, assumed personas or “heteronyms,” Fernando Pessoa-style, has some real attraction, adding another dimension to the game-like back-and-forth between author and audience. But otherwise, apart from the need to elude criticism-intolerant employers or censorious family members, I don’t understand why one would ever need a disguise more impenetrable than one’s given name. I’ve always had this sense that “Dave Bonta” was a completely arbitrary place-marker, and I guess that’s the primary reason why I don’t mind the thought of anyone finding the stuff I put up on the web. I honestly don’t think of it as mine in any essential way; a good poem belongs to itself. If someone tries to assert their own authorship of it, of course I’ll object. But if they tease me about writing it, I’m happy to join in. And if they want to lob brickbats, so much the better: there’s no writing so flawless that it wouldn’t benefit from a strong critique.

I know the kinds of uncharitable things people say about each other behind their backs, and I assume that I must come in for a certain amount of that. On the other hand, I also assume that people have better things to do than to think or talk about me – and 98 percent of the time, I’m sure I’m right. Then I remember that, from 7th through 12th grade, I was more or less the class pariah, and it occurs to me that my outlook on being self-conscious may not be very helpful to anyone else. Basically, I just don’t give a shit whether anyone likes me or not. As long as I can keep churning out poems that please me, as long as I can keep finding excuses to immerse myself almost daily in the bliss of creation, I’m happier than I feel I have any legitimate right to be.

I guess I’ve been influenced enough by my Christian heritage to believe that self-disclosure, confession, and vulnerability are valid, perhaps essential routes to spiritual understanding. To put it another way, it seems to me that whenever we buy into the modern materialist notion of the self as unique, independent, ideally impenetrable interior space, we are much more likely to forget the fragility of the rest of Creation and thereby participate in its abuse. In Christian terms, we go from the imitation of Christ to the imitation of Pilate. In Jewish terms, we resemble the smooth talker Aaron, ready to build a golden calf if our friends want us to, rather than the hesitant, tongue-tied Moses or the inspired Miriam. I very much fear that my shamelessness, thick skin and too-fluid words condemn me to ignorance of something I have little business even speculating about. My friends who, at first blush, strike me as being excessively wary of self-exposure, may in reality be close to some implausible quarry, some unicorn or behemoth, which I, through my heedless whistling and stomping about, have inadvertently frightened deep into cover.

But poetry has taught me that disclosing one thing always entails concealing something else. To find is to lose, and vice versa; the eye remains invisible to itself. No single identity can encompass the mystery of who we are, whether as individuals or as nodes in social, political and ecological webs. Protecting privacy means, above all, preserving the freedom to become whoever we want. And a government that tries to assert the power to know every aspect of its citizens’ lives is one that, as we’ve seen, will stop at nothing to extract ultimately worthless confessions.

Restoring the words

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 30 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the twelfth 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.

One Summer Before Man
by Paul Zweig

Listen! The undergarments of the women
Are rustling OM. It is the Sanskrit
Of skin, the Hebrew of hair. . . .

[Remainder of poem removed 11-18-05]

* * * *

One Autumn Before Computers

A giant puffball bulges among
the dried stalks of goldenrod
like a misplaced hope.
I stuff it in my coat pocket & look
around for others, without success.
That evening, I chop its spongy cloud-flesh
into a sauce with clams.

Then, too, there was the spruce tree
a porcupine had recently girdled.
It stood in the dense center of a galaxy
of needles, some fallen pale side up,
some dark green – a pleasing blend.
Out at the feathery edge, a scattered pile
of hickory shells. I crouched there
tracing words with my finger
over & over in the soft dirt,
as if into the uncomprehending palm
of a young Helen Keller.

I try to imagine what it would be like
to write for such an audience:
one autumn before home computers,
on a Xerox machine at the university,
my father making a copy
of a copy
of a copy
until my poem rose from the page like mist.
I forget the point of the exercise, now –
something about the need to keep
the originals, maybe, or to write
as firmly as we could.

Or years before, at another college,
going with him into the library
after hours, to run off copies on
what must’ve been one of the very
first Xerox machines, enormous,
full of lights & noises –
the only thing stirring
among all those wordless books.
“Will it make a copy of me?
I was five years old.
“Sure. Close your eyes.”

I remember the heat as its beam raked my face,
my mounting excitement
& the letdown that followed,
squinting at a piece of paper heavy
with drying ink. What would I have done
if, as I’d expected, the machine had given
birth to my identical twin?
Imagine someone with whom
deceit is impossible.

Thirty-five years later, I still recall
how the sky looked when we went
back out: fast-moving clouds
back-lit by an almost-full moon.
It was a revelation.
“Clouds at night!” I whispered,
taking one last glance behind me
into the shadows.