In praise of gray

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When Natalie d’Arbeloff changed the design of Blaugustine this past October, I left the following comment in praise of her new backdrop color:

Gray – oops, I mean grey – is always my favorite sartorial choice, though of course it doesn’t look good on everyone. Here, it definitely works for me – or maybe I’m just happy to see such a color-drenched blog vindicate my belief that grey need not be synonymous with drab. One can choose greyness as a worthy destination in its own right, not simply as some compromise between the extremes of black and white – which are in reality never “pure,” but must always contain some slight admixture of grey if we are to perceive them as other than blinding light and blind absence of light. In a certain sense, we might even be justified in saying that it is grey that approaches “purity”: pure pigment, cosmic dust, the gray matter/mater from which all else emerges.

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Natalie replied,

I wholly agree. It is a beautiful colour in its own right and sets off the primaries wondrously. A grey sky, for instance, makes other colours luminous. And there is an infinite variety of greys.

“I don’t know about wearing it, though,” she added. “You’ve got to be tall.” Like a beech tree?

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Black and white are always relative; it’s contrast that delights the eye. Or so my experiments with photography have led me to suppose. The following picture of an old, weathered stump of a black locust tree is the only one here actually taken under a gray sky. I think it has a little of that luminosity Natalie mentions – though again, the contrast with the yellow and brown of the background seems to play some role in bringing that out.

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As Pennsylvania’s numerous fieldstone barns and houses serve to remind us, gray works well in architecture. Paper wasps (as in the first photo above) might agree. I see more and more wooden houses painted various shades of gray, too, and have flirted seriously with the idea of painting my own house that color (it’s currently white, matching the other buildings on the farm).

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One reason I chose my current blog template was the presence of this very light gray behind the main text column.* In books, too, bleached white rarely looks as elegant as a page with some color in it. To be gray, it seems, is to be sturdy and full of years. I think there might be something to that metaphysics of gray that I cooked up on the spot back in October, when gray November still loomed ahead, and white snows made luminous by gray skies.


*Refers to my old site.


Image hosting by PhotobucketLast Friday, I wrote semi-facetiously about my poetic ambition. It would be easy to infer from my relative lack of motivation for pursuing publication apart from this blog that I have little or no ambition for my writing – in fact, I’ve drawn that inference myself from time to time. Isn’t “poetic ambition” in fact something of an oxymoron for me?

But when I examine my motivations more carefully, I find no lack of that mix of supreme self-confidence and submission to the demands of craft and inspiration that adds up to ambition in other writers. And it’s not as if I haven’t made concerted efforts to seek publication in the past. A combination of laziness and arrogance convinced me that it simply wasn’t worth the time and effort: sending out 25 submissions for every one acceptance drains the budget for stamps and robs one of time that could better be spent reading, writing or – best of all – going out in search of new material. And the payoff – publication in literary magazines – isn’t really worth it to me, because I don’t happen to enjoy most literary magazines; they strike me as, by and large, pretentious, elitist, and not very much fun.

Image hosting by PhotobucketIn a way, I think I’m very ambitious for my work, in that I’m not content to be read chiefly by other poets. I want to be able to speak to the concerns of so-called ordinary people – at least, those among them who like to ponder the age-old questions about love, death, the place of humans in the cosmos, the nature of our relationship with the numinous, and so forth. A lot of practicing poets seem content to win the approval of their academic peers, or aspire to write truly difficult poems that will intimidate their competitors for a proliferating number of prizes, fellowships and honors. But I’m encouraged by the example of poets like Mary Oliver, Lucille Clifton, or Martin Espada, who refuse to retreat into a privileged world of private meanings and continue to risk everything for the possibility of reaching another heart. What insights they bring to their work are no less profound than the obscurantist ramblings of a Jorie Graham or the remote and threadbare visions of a W.S. Merwin – to say nothing of the nihilistic circle-jerk currently masquerading as an avant-garde. The difference is simply that they haven’t given up on the prime directive of good writing: to communicate in living language.

Image hosting by PhotobucketWell, O.K., I don’t really need to air my poetic prejudices here in order to make my point. Why do I write? At root, it isn’t about changing minds or even reaching other people; it’s about pleasing myself. And this is where the most audacious kind of ambition comes in. If I were ever completely satisfied with the work of any of my poetic masters, I’d have no need to write another poem. But through no fault of their own, they’re not quite writing the poems I want to read, so I have to write those poems myself. This impulse stems not from insecurity and competitiveness, but from a lust for the authentic insight, by definition unique and unrepeatable.

It sometimes seems to me that a world of pure inspiration exists, like another dimension in science fiction, parallel to the familiar world of the senses, and accessible to anyone who pays close attention. Paying attention to language – something almost every minimally competent poet learns to do – is only part of the equation. We also have to learn how to listen, how to see. We have to leave the scriptorium on a regular basis and risk an encounter with the Other, and bear witness to the way in which even the most ordinary things and occurrences can turn strange and slip from our grasp.

Image hosting by PhotobucketI do still aspire to print publication, but on my own terms. I think some of my most successful experiments here at Via Negativa have been those that blur the lines between prose and poetry, and many of what I consider my greatest hits involve a call-and-response combination of photos and text. But I know how expensive it can be to publish books in color. While I don’t rule out publishing a book-length collection of miscellaneous lyric poems, it no longer excites me the way it used to. I have specific ambitions for further narrative poems along the lines of Cibola and for thematically unified anthologies exploring specific questions, but whether they bear fruit will ultimately depend not so much on my desire to write them as on their need to be written. And therein, perhaps, lies the key to this whole puzzle. If there are good, true and beautiful things that can only come into existence through me, then it’s my responsibility to see that they get that chance. If there aren’t, hey – at least I’m staying busy!

News briefs

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On Monday afternoon, the first coltsfoot opened in the middle of the driveway – the earliest wildflower in Plummer’s Hollow.

Spring comes to Blogistan. Leslee returns from Mexico, Karrie digs out from under a mountain of work, and Jarrett emerges from hibernation:

The rainforest winter is always claustrophobic — grey skies so low they seem to press us into the little grooves of our scurrying. At other times (and a bit further south) I’ve thrived in its indoor pleasures, but here it overwhelmed. If I’m fated to have another winter here, it will have to be under a skylight, I think, where I can hear the rain in its gentleness and capture any hint of actual light.

Paula visits with springtime ghosts.

“Tell me about camera, Uncle. Camera obscura, camera lucida.” The ghostly face wrinkled. A smile, perhaps.”Camera,” he explained, “is from the Latin for vault. As in I am lying in camera. There are light rooms and dark rooms. Rooms with and without doors. Do you understand?”

My uncle handed the camera back and wafted off toward the river.

Meanwhile, in her temple in South Korea, Soen Joon ponders more earthy spirits:

I’m quite fond of the kitchen god, despite having grown up in a godless kitchen. We had a little God (“Come Lord Jesus, be our guest…”) right before we ate, but compared to this kitchen god, offered rice each day, greeted respectfully in the morning by us all, flowers arranged for him by the kitchen bosalnim and even money from time to time, it looks to me like Jesus got the short end of the kitchen-god stick.

I guess we are what we worship. In northern Alabama, spring fever is taking a most peculiar form:

Everywhere we went, my husband ogled piles of dirt. “Look at that dirt! That’s good dirt. Where do you think they got that dirt?”I feared he’d have a wreck and I’d be left tearfully explaining to police officers that dirt envy did him in.

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Down in the boggy corner of the field, Indian hemp is still working on scattering its seeds.

Listening post

Five a.m. A low cloud ceiling and the scent of rain. Moments after I come outside and sit down with my coffee on the dark porch, I hear the scattered, flute-like calls of tundra swans off to the east. A couple minutes later, more swans, a little closer and in the other direction, also headed north. Then a flock passes right over the house. I’m a little surprised they’re still migrating; I’ve been hearing (and sometimes seeing) tundra swans off and on for about a month, now.

It’s noisy this morning. But the highway sounds are coming up the hollow rather than over the ridge from the west, and mingle with the sounds of freight trains going through the gap. Odd that these two, major sources of anthropogenic noise here should strike my ear so differently – I love the rumble and whistles of trains almost as much as I hate the soulless whine of traffic. At any rate, I’m sure it’s partly this sonic blur of mechanical noise that makes the swans’ music seem so scattered: only the loudest notes are making it through.

About a hundred and fifty feet away along the woods’ edge, something is moving about in the dry leaves and ripping at the bark of logs or trees. It sounds too loud to be a porcupine. Maybe a bear? They could be out of hibernation by now.

From up behind the house, a dry, feline cough. We do get bobcats coming through now and then, and there are occasional sightings of cougars in Pennsylvania, but I’m betting that this is Felis domesticus – specifically, the black and white female who we think just gave birth to a litter of kittens in the basement of the barn, her major annual contribution to the local food chain. She’s probably working over the fresh chicken bones in the stone-lined compost pile we call Fort Garbage.

Light slowly seeps through the cloud cover. Whatever has been making so much noise at the edge of the woods is coming out onto the driveway. To my disappointment, its silhouette is much too small for a bear; it’s round and waddley – a porcupine. It crosses the big grate at the bend of the driveway, then goes down into the stream and comes up on the lawn near the dog statue. It noses around in the yard for the next ten to fifteen minutes.

But now something else is coming from the direction where I’d heard all the bear-like noises earlier. Another basketball-sized shadow waddles across the springhouse lawn, crosses the driveway, and heads straight under the front porch and on into its burrow under the dining room. Well, that explains it: two porcupines!

I’ve been listening for the peent of woodcocks – we’ve had two of them calling almost every night since the second week of March – but the highway noise drowns them out. At about 5:35, though, I hear the telltale whistle of wings, followed by the loud chirps emitted by a woodcock at the apex of its aerial display. And no sooner does the first one finish then the second one launches into flight.

About five minutes later, the dawn chorus begins: first the song sparrow, as if testing the waters, followed quickly by Carolina wren, phoebe, field sparrow and cardinal. A robin starts up its motor: puttputt, putt, putt. The cat pads down the driveway, rounds the bend at the big grate, and continues off down the hollow. The porcupine in the front yard stops doing whatever it had been doing, turns around and waddles down the road after the cat. What could they be up to? Should I be worried?

Just as I’m about to go inside, at 5:46, I hear the deer beginning to stir up in the woods. They’ve presumably spent much of the night bedded down in the laurel. It’s light enough now that I can just make out the shape of the lead animal as she crosses a clearing, and the next in line a few seconds later. I stand and stretch, and two white flags appear dimly among the trees. A hoof stamps once, twice, three times. As I turn toward the door, there’s a commotion of hooves on dry leaves, as if a large deck of cards were being shuffled.

I am reading Gregory of Nyssa: But how can that which is invisible reveal itself in the night?

513 years of mellow flavor

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Christopher Columbus, log entry for November 3, 1493 (translated by Samuel Eliot Morison):

These islands are inhabited by Canabilli, a wild, unconquered race which feeds on human flesh. I would be right to call them anthropophagi [man-eaters]. They wage unceasing wars against gentle and timid Indians to supply flesh; this is their booty and is what they hunt. They ravage, despoil, and terrorize the Indians ruthlessly.

Excuse me while I spit.

Problems for a short course in divinity

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Suppose you wanted to crucify a tree. Would you nail it to the ground?

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Suppose you could undo some violent event of your choice. Could you recover the future as it had been before that break in time, so full of promise?

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Suppose winter were all you knew. How would you explain the shape of a tree, the arrangements of its limbs, the gestures of its twigs? Would you ever assume such an outlandish thing as a leaf?

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Suppose you’d been educated in the darkness, like a druid. How would you explain the effrontery of laurel, holding up its little, waxen effigies of shadow in broad daylight?

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Suppose you could change position from one moment to the next, but you couldn’t change where you’d been. How would conversion be possible? If you left your past behind you, what’s to convert?

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Suppose you planted each nail with the idea that it might set root…


For more questions – and a few attempts at answers – remember to visit the Progressive Faith Blog Carnival, most recently at Blue Texas and Velveteen Rabbi.


She shaved her head to get closer to God, she said,
prompted by a line in a song by a band called Nirvana.
Or maybe that wasn’t the reason, & she simply
thought of it afterwards, running her trembling hands
over all that smoothness. God. Congealed light.
Stones rounded to a shine by ceaseless contact,
saplings stripped of their bark, that arresting blank
that fashion models cultivate in their stare.
White, white, sing a song of skeletons that dance.
She had followed the Dead for five years, she said,
& every concert was different & amazing. It was a lesson
in how to be natural, how to just be there. God
speaks through our impulses. If I get pregnant
or get AIDS, she said, it was meant to be.
She read omens in the flight of birds or the fall of a leaf.
This morning I saw a tree’s shadow lying on the lawn,
perfectly still, & thought about her
for the first time in years. What does it mean,
this absence remembered in the sun’s angular wake?
Is she still alive? Is she being looked after by men
in white coats? It ought to be possible to tell,
I think, suddenly superstitious. I scan the sky
over the ridge. A vulture can follow a rumor
for hundreds of miles without flapping its wings,
as close to God as any appalling truth.


From a blog on the other side of the world
comes an unblogly thing:
a piece of poem set in a concrete slab
at the edge of the sea, cast up on the rocks
like the sole survivor from a wreck of words,
or as if the poet’s voice, like Alberti’s,
couldn’t take fresh water in its gills
& had to be restored to its native salt.


Something about a poem in a public place
disturbs me. Every time I’ve spotted one
among the advertisements on a city bus,
I’ve had to look away. It’s like
surprising a couple in flagrante delicto,
or overhearing someone’s cellphone conversation
with their therapist. At least with a reading,
merciful silence follows, & the bare podium.


Then there’s this business of objectification.
Poems grow like agates in the dark,
each according to its own mysterious rules.
Like agates, they are common & impossible to market.
But marketing needs the claim of uniqueness
more than anything, so poetry
gets pressed into service to provide ballast
on the ship of foolish products & bland commodities.


Poets, however, are taught to value the concrete.
Seeing such weighty jetsam,
I conceive a sudden ambition for my own work:
to see it published up on the ridge
on some ostentatious boulder, enough in the shade
that lichens of every crustose & foliose form
would find my lines ideal for a slow, private,
thoroughly absorbing read.

Unsafe socks

You’re never far from a road in Pennsylvania. Fifty-eight percent of forested habitat lies within 300 meters of a road or permanent opening, such as a Starbucks parking lot. As a result, our wild areas are uniquely vulnerable to invasions of non-native, exotic species of all types. Ever since last month’s discovery of a healthy, mated pair of wool socks in the wild, I’ve been on the lookout for further evidence of a breeding population of feral socks.

The evidence found to date remains somewhat ambiguous. The above photo shows an obviously mismatched pair of socks in a multiflora rose bush adjacent to the parking area for a small parcel of public land in an old field-mixed hardwood/conifer forest ecotone. Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) is an aggressive colonizer of forest edges and disturbed sites, and its use by the escaped socks (Soccus vulgaris) demonstrates the kind of perverse synergy not uncommon among invasive species. For example, a study of the effects of exotic plant species on soil properties in New Jersey found that they created conditions highly favorable to non-native earthworm species. The earthworms combine with the invasive plants to help push native wildflowers, salamanders, and other vulnerable inhabitants of the forest humus toward extinction. Another example would be the way feral housecats (Felis domesticus) provide nearly irresistible targets for all-terrain vehicle riders (Homo magniclunes), luring them much farther from the bar and deeper into the woods than they would otherwise venture. Together, cats and ATVs put a real hurtin’ on dwindling populations of neotropical migrant songbirds.

So yes, the socks are cute and cuddly – everyone likes socks, don’t they? But the woods are not the right place for them. If you accumulate too many socks – and I know from experience just how easy that can be! – please dispose of them in a responsible and humane fashion. Especially if they stink.

An opening

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A new theme at qarrtsiluni is open for submissions: an opening in the body. The editors are Rachel Barenblat of Velveteen Rabbi, an accomplished poet, along with my favorite author of all time, that rascal Anonymous. As Rachel explains it, they are interested in “physical bodies, orifices both natural and artificial, or corporate bodies, or communal bodies, the body of the church, a body of work, any kind of body that can open in any kind of way…”

In other words, the theme is very much open to interpretation. Have at it!