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What’s out there, boy? What’s out there?


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That’s just a garter snake, boy, don’t worry ’bout him. See that tongue of his? That’s like your tongue and sniffer rolled up in one.


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‘Course, he don’t slobber much.


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You sniff everything, dontcha, boy? Bet I know what that reminds you of.


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Good boy! That there’s a mourning cloak butterfly. If she looks a little beat-up, that’s ’cause she spent all winter like that – same cloak. Now hold real still while I get a shot off…

Memo from the back-scratching department

I’ve started a page for reciprocal links, the first click on the main Links page (see top bar). If your blog or website has a permanent link to Via Negativa and you don’t find it on the list, let me know. So far, thirteen blogs have installed links to the new site, beginning with whiskey river five days ago. Thanks, y’all!

It may seem extravagant to list some blogs in three different places, but I’m anticipating eliminating the “Vaguely Compatible Blogs” category from the main page, preserving the sidebar for intra-site links. It makes no sense to spend as much time writing as I do and then let the vast bulk of my output molder unread in the archives. My hope is that having an annotated links page will actually bring more readers to those blogs than would a mere sidebar listing. Having an additional listing for reciprocal links helps assure readers that blogs in the main listing were chosen on their own merits, with no expectation of reciprocity. It satisfies peoples’ curiosity about who links here. And let’s face it, reciprocity is the next best thing to love. It’s only the bloodless angels who can remain apathetic toward the opinions of others. We are apes. We scratch each other’s backs.


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Meet Stachys byzantina, popularly known as lamb’s ears, lamb’s tails, lamb’s tongue, woolly betony or woolly hedgenettle. It’s a native of Iran, Turkey and the Caucasus, though long naturalized in Western Europe and North America, like other Caucasians – apples, for example. It belongs to the mint family, but makes an indifferent tea. Even so, the leaves are the attraction; the blossoms are small, nondescript, pink or purple things, nearly lost among the flower stalk’s silver fur. It needs full sun, and likes a dry, light soil, but will grow nearly as well in damp clay. It attracts hummingbirds, and at dusk in midsummer, the hummingbird sphynx.

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Stachys byzantina is a hardy perennial, grown as a ground cover. This time of year it forms one of the few patches of green on the bare ground of my garden. “The leaves are often retained quite late into autumn or winter in mild areas but the plant is not properly evergreen, and the foliage falls eventually to be replaced by a fresh crop in spring,” says the BBC, but many other gardening guides do call it an evergreen. Cultivars have names like Big Ears, Helen Von Stein, Primrose Heron, Silver Carpet. The last-named cultivar has been bred not to flower at all.

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Surrounded by champions of scent and color, S. byzantina appeals to an earthier sense: few garden visitors can resist bending down to stroke its ears, or tails, or tongues – whatever they are. Rain beads on them like pills on a wool sweater. In early spring, when new growth crowds upon the old, silent tongues wagging in all directions, the colony seems Byzantine indeed. Let it get out of hand, and you’ll never see the ground again, though occasionally a blade of grass may intrude upon its woolgathering. It shares a genus with Chinese artichoke, wood betony, and woundwort.

Housekeeping note

. . . to be lean, to maximize flexibility and minimize code bloat.

– www.codex.wordpress.org/Plugins

How fine to feel so fit from header to footer! That code bloat was killing me, I swear.

Now, I can maximize or minimize, mix and match, and if bugs can be fixed, I can flex unguessed-at muscles. The codex is the limit. This code seems most commodious.

I could rename every post slug “melvin” for the sheer hell of it. I could allow pings and trackbacks like a nervous hiker in grizzly country. I could learn to preprocess my hypertext, or content myself with editing the timestamp.

I grow old . . . I grow old . . . I shall wear the bottoms of my sidebar blogrolled. Gray as a gravestone this theme in which I chip. I must prepare to meet the dead links with a 404 message that reads, Found – just not found here, and not by anyone you’ve ever heard of.


O.K., don’t mind me – just getting a little punchy here! Make yourselves at home. If you need anything, I’ll be down in the archives putting in shelves and cabinets, and unpacking things I didn’t know I had.

Onion snow

UPDATE: Apparently, the term “onion snow” isn’t as widely known as I’d thought. Here in Central Pennsylvania, it’s a common expression for an early spring snow that comes right when the onions are sprouting in the garden. The dark green tops of wild onions are also highly visible around field edges at this time (and in centuries past, were mixed with other early greens for a welcome antidote against scurvy).

We also have a term for the occasional, heavy, wet snowfall of mid-April: that’s a sapling-bender.

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An onion snow goes well with tea, I’m told.
But I had it with my coffee; it was all gone by 3:00.

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It melted in the mouths of daffodils, & didn’t even turn their lips blue.

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Snow & a cold wind bring out the blush on the ridgeside.

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Pussy willow & red maple blossoms wear wool caps for a reason, it seems.

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“Abstract expressionism” is such a stupid expression, isn’t it? I mean, if you can picture it, it obviously isn’t abstract.

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I suppose it might be possible to see the world without imposing representations on it. But why would you want to?

Phoebe! says the phoebe. It’s hard to argue with that.

What is music, and how do we hear it?

I’ve spent much of the day annotating my Links page (see top bar – and please let me know via email if you feel I’ve slighted your blog in any way). So in lieu of an original post, let me just put up a couple of quotes that between them encapsulate my own thoughts about music.

I first wrote about Stephen Dunn’s book of prose poems, Riffs and Reciprocities, back in December, 2003. Paired with “Noise,” here’s Dunn’s definition of “Music”:

Something overheard from the dissonant street – a screech, a bang – taken in and arranged. A subjective correlative. Sequences, resolutions, deliberate unfulfillments. The sublimity of large and small moments surrendering to the whole. What feeling feels like over time. An attempt to screw up what feeling feels like over time. Heartbreak and a high C. The twang the nervous system wants when it’s in revolt. The often welcome melodic lie. Ululation and a stomp of heels, scat-sense, voice and ear living together in brilliant sin. The soul’s undersong. The orchestration of randomness, a flirtation with the boundaries of silence and space. When Bun-Ching played last night – a reminder that the self wants to disappear, be taken away from itself and returned.

And here’s a description of the concert hall experience from a contemporary philosopher, Alphonso Lingis, in his book The Imperative (Indiana University Press, 1998).

We enter the concert hall, locate our seat; we look at the musicians picking up their bows and sticks and reverberating the violin strings and the taut skins of the drums. Our eyes move from one instrument to another in the orchestra pit. Then the music begins, and the tones now disengage from the surfaces upon which they were vibrating and weave into the space between us and the instruments. Our hearing begins another movement, from one tone to the next in a lyrical space that dilates and condenses, expands over a vast horizon, approaches from distances nowise limited by this renaissance salon whose ornate mirrors present on each of its walls only the other walls. This space is complete unto itself and the musical forces, more than tones, do not evoke or depict visible and tangible things, but materialize emergences, events, and destinies inexhaustible in themselves. At the end of the concerto, we look about as though awakening from the caverns of a trance and relocate ourselves in the hall with friends and with refreshments outside.

Last year around this time I posted a short story (well, a fictional vignette, at any rate) set in a concert hall, but I can’t find it right now.

You know, all this writing and thinking about music almost makes me wish I had a stereo of my own. It’s too damn quiet around here! If you’ve ever exclaimed, “I can’t hear myself think!” let me tell you: it’s not always a pleasant music that the brain makes. When my mind draws a blank, it’s not because it’s empty, but because it’s full to overflowing with white noise. Better the “melodic lie” or the surprise of dissonance than this unquiet peace, sometimes.

Living in dissonance: a very selective guide to 20th-century classical music

The way classical music fans ignore or shy away from the great works of the 20th century is a source of continual frustration for me. I grew up on this music. Here are some highly personal responses to some of my favorite works. Most of these riffs bear little or no relationship to programmatic content or the composer’s own view of the work. Please note also that this list does not pretend to be either representative or exhaustive, so don’t leave comments chiding me for neglecting this or that “important” work or composer. But please do feel free to tell me about your own favorites!

Krzysztof Penderecki – Dies Irae

The most appalling of centuries loses nothing in this translation into the dead languages that once launched the Punic and Pelopponesian Wars. Between Cassandra and Medusa there might have been a secret sisterhood of horror. Those who would be prey must first turn to stone.

Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki – Symphony #3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs)

A Polish girl imprisoned by the Nazis writes an invocation to the Blessed Virgin on the wall with a slow shard, re-tracing the letters again and again to make them straight and deep.

Leos Janacek – Glagolitic Mass

How could such soaring syllables belong to the language of slaves? How, wondered JanáÄ?ek, might the God of Nature be shrunk into something small enough to inhabit a church or concert hall?

Howard Hanson – Lament for Beowulf

English, not Hebrew, might be the most fitting tongue for those fated to remain strangers in the earth. Its words are cast in base metals, better for the clash than the clasp. Ah, but the hoard is mute, amassed by monstrous prodigies of the old gods and used to stuff the artificially enhanced hill where the king retires for his last, rapacious sleep.

Igor Stravinsky – Symphony of Psalms

The composer who scandalized bourgeois audiences in 1913 with the Rite of Spring in 1930 explored what is most scandalous about the Bible: the way its best verses erase the line between blessing and curse. David dances before the Ark of the Covenant like a prizefighter, taunting his lover: Destroyer, Motherfucker, I’ll finish what Jacob started. Don’t tempt me! It all sounds glorious.

Francis Poulenc – Stabat Mater

How much longer will the Mother stand for this, one wonders? The Mothers of the Disappeared circle the square until the dictator is forced to flee or face the music. This Stabat Mater (and there are, of course, many others) continues long past the final note.

Bela Bartók – Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste

I once heard a gypsy fiddler on the radio playing an ironic tribute to the late communist dictator of Romania, Nicolae Ceaucescu. In the middle of the song, he set his bow aside and used his fingernails to rake the strings for the length of a verse. Bartók would’ve loved that. His Music is much more life-affirming, but as with almost everything he wrote, it insists upon freedom with every jagged and joyous turn of phrase.

Fernando Lopes-Graca – História Trágico-Marí­tima

This isn’t that sea that Debussy saw, but the other, the still-unexplored ocean. She knows nothing about the romantic storms and shipwrecks that her would-be knights-errant bear like pox-ridden scraps of cloth to foreign shores.

Alban Berg – Violin Concerto

The soul in the guise of a violin always yearns for transcendence, like the girl in the old story made to lie night after night upon the king’s wrinkled and impotent body in a hopeless effort to stave off the chill of death. But what if an orchestra answered your prayers with questions of its own? The ear must get beyond its patriarchal desire to be ravished.

Akira Miyoshi – Cello Concerto

If the wood of a fallen, thousand-year zelkova tree from some Shinto shrine were cut and polished like an agate, the grain could be interpreted as a musical score – or so this work has led me to believe.

Carl Nielsen – Clarinet Concerto

True story: Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto was the wordless and slightly warmed-over theme song for my first major romantic fling. She had played percussion once in a performance with a former lover, who soloed on clarinet. Could we have picked a worse omen, I wonder, than this tribute to bipolarity with its drunken lyricism, its self-mockery, its pungent soups of despair?

Manuel de Falla – Harpsichord Concerto

Another true story: Right about the same time, a composer offered to teach me harpsichord in return for helping his daughter with English. I declined, having already decided to devote myself to Noh. Twenty years later, I remember a couple of chants, but my body has long forgotten how to unfold a landscape in one sweep of the arm. How much luckier in love might I have been had my fingers learned all the intricate steps of modern gypsies on a horizontal staircase?

I-sang Yun – Muak

The other day, I heard an auto mechanic describe what happens with a vacuum leak: It isn’t that the vacuum is leaking out, he said; the air is leaking in! In a similar manner, just a breath of an air from the steppes – less than a whole melody – is enough to turn the pure, unchanging tones of Confucian music into sonic turmoil.

Charles Ives – Three Places in New England

Whenever I hear the phrase, “bedrock American values,” I think of literal granite in New England – what geologists call the Canadian Shield. I first fell in love with it as a child in Maine. Though the tourist comes to New England for a dose of lyrical maples and churches, a resident might come to prefer the stark look of granite and everything it hides.

Virgil Thomson – film score to The Plow that Broke the Plains

What once was carried off by the wind now washes into the Gulf of Mexico. One way or another, we’ll get back to those bedrock values! But just because the plow is smiling doesn’t mean it likes its work. And just because the tunes sound happy doesn’t mean we really know how to have fun.

Roger Sessions – The Black Maskers Suite

Sometimes tenderness is all in one direction, you know? Sometimes a falconer captures a hawk and keeps it for just one season, solicitous for that roll call of distances in its hooded gaze.

Bela Bartók – Miraculous Mandarin Suite

The exotic dancer’s genius is in what she withholds. Imagine falling in love with that still center of a wheel, despair growing like a ship’s captain becalmed in the age of sail.

John Antill – Corroboree Suite

Clowning was once a scared vocation. Any real or mythic figure, any inhabitant of air, land or water could ripple through the clown’s malleable form with the flicker of a shadow from the fire. His laughter was sometimes as frightening as a difficult birth.

Alberto Ginastera – Panambi Suite

A man from the pampas wanders into a forest for the first time, gets enthralled – or maybe spooked. A clearing just wide enough to support a blade of grass looks like a revelation. Beaten by the incessant rain, he dreams of fountains, roofed courtyards, an inner sanctum as resonant as a drum.

Ali Rahbari – Persian Mysticism in G

Once, a holy man loved his donkey almost as much as he loved God. When the donkey died on the road, he raised a grave mound over him, wept, and went on his way. In time, the local residents built a shrine and spread a legend about a dead saint, and pilgrims began to come. Many hearts were blown open by the encounter. This all happened in the key of G.

Alan Hovhaness – Symphony #2, Mysterious Mountain

The exile dreams of a mountain at the center of the world, having heard that, in an expanding universe, the definition of “position” is something like “an apparent center away from which everything flees.” He nurtures his growing solitude, and writes the symphony again – sixty-seven times in all.

Arnold Schoenberg – Moses und Aron

Though a brilliant librettist and composer, Schoenberg was unable to complete his only opera; his version ends with Moses despairing of his own inarticulateness in the face of the inexpressible. According to the Wikipedia, the famed discoverer of the twelve-tone technique “suffered from triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number thirteen).”

[I]t is said that the reason his late opera is called Moses and Aron, rather than Moses and Aaron […] is because the latter spelling has thirteen letters in it. He was born […] on the thirteenth of the month, and thought of this as a portent. He once refused to rent a house because it had the number 13, and feared turning 76, because its digits add up to thirteen. In an interesting story […] he feared Friday, July 13, 1951, as it was the first Friday the 13th of his 76th year. He reportedly stayed in bed that day preparing for what he thought as his death day. After begging her husband to wake up and “quit his nonsense,” his skeptical wife was shocked when her husband simply uttered the word “harmony” and died.

We live in dissonance – remember that.

Part of the solution

After weeks of drought,
rain falling in the night
smells so fresh:
wet leaves & ozone
& the soil coming to life.
I keep going outside
to pee off the porch.