truck Trane

The secret teachings of January smolder in the twelve directions of the clock & turn to fly ash in the alchemist’s spoon, the one with a mother-of-pearl grip like an old-fashioned .38. They are not hidden — their noise is the noise of the world — but they’re easy to miss, just as a painting that moves us once might prove, on subsequent viewings, unable to escape our recollection of being moved. You might hear them & not realize it until the next morning, when the eastern sky begins to prickle under its hairnet of bare branches, the ambiguity of figure versus ground prompting a sudden consciousness of loss. For god’s sake, put the kettle on, says the wren.


And now I am sipping slow clarity with my tea. A half-grown kitten crouches down in the grass and turns to stone. The blacker the cat, the better the chance of its survival in the wild, so what’s all this nonsense about bad luck? If you know me at all, you know how fond I am of the way the world eludes our efforts at interpretation. If reality is my bible, then I confess to the most extreme form of literalism: no bird is an omen. The arrangement of tea leaves in a pot is nothing but art, pure & unrepeatable! The one-sided conversation of a sleepwalker forces us to listen as an infant must; it does no good to drill new ear holes in the mask we long ago acquired as an inducement to love. ‘The music of what happens,’ said great Fionn, ‘that is the finest music in the world.’*


If you can’t decide on a quarry, you’ll never be much of a hunter. Or so I gather. You might be wondering why I started out talking about January, but it’s simply because that’s when the contrasts are sharpest, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. The sun — on rare occasions when it shines — is at the best possible angle for photography. Shadows turn blue against the snow, which can otherwise cause blindness, & a sufficient depth of snow or ice traps blueness for slow release on cloudy days. Sky versus ground: one is as good as the other in my book. Though their tracks are everywhere, seeing a coyote right now would simply be too much to hope for, I remember saying to myself in the last seconds before the shape at the edge of the woods averted its muzzle and hauled ass up the hillside: unmistakeably bear. Inexplicably awake.

*Quote from the Fenian Cycle, translated by James Stephens in Irish Fairy Stories and reprinted in John Montague, ed., The Book of Irish Verse (Macmillan, 1974)

Blogging tools I’d like to see

On Friday afternoon, I lay down for a brief nap shortly after reading a post about blog linking and commenting etiquette at Simply Wait. I dreamed that I was blogging a response to it. It was kind of a self-reflexive dream, because the basic point of my post was that, while blog links are important to me, I’m really more concerned about linking to my dreams. And I included three quotes from recent dreams, each with a hyperlink back to the dream.

This point seemed so reasonable that I woke up fully intending to write the post for real. It was only when I sat down at my writing table that I remembered that my dream world was not, in fact, accessible via the Internet.

It kind of seems like it should be, though. It’s the original virtual reality, after all, millions of years older than the Internet. I can’t believe that I still have to wait until after I wake up to blog my dreams — that’s, like, totally Amish! After all, we can blog from pretty much anywhere else; Anousheh Ansari even intends to blog from space, according to the BBC.

I have lots of ideas of ways to improve blogging and online social networking that seem pretty obvious to me, though for some reason no one has implemented them yet as far as know. For example, it’s great that there are outfits like Technorati and BlogPulse to let us know who’s linking to our blogs, but it would also be helpful if someone could tell us when someone removes a link. As things stand now, a blogger might retain a reciprocal link to another blog for months before noticing that the linking was no longer actually reciprocated. With instant de-linking notification, you would be able to respond immediately, either with retaliatory de-linking or with abject pleading for the restoration of the link.

Taking that idea one step further, social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, and Zaadz could include a “former friends” category, complete with big, black Xs through each photo. That would make things much more interesting, don’t you think? A columnist in a college newspaper I was reading recently talked about her angst whenever she discovers that the number of her friends has just dwindled — say, from 156 to 155 — and she goes down through the list and can’t figure out who’s missing. It must be terrible to lose track of one’s friends like that.

Blog ranking systems are in serious need of overhaul, as well. There ought to be some way of recognizing not only traffic and inbound links, but quantity and quality of output, as well. Why should popularity be the sole measure of worth? Some of the A-list blogs I’ve looked at could almost be composed by a robot, so brief and formulaic are their posts. I favor a ranking system that would factor in such things as the over-all diversity of topics; the average reading level required to comprehend posts; the number of regular readers who are not themselves bloggers, as indicated by commenters who don’t supply blog urls; the proportion of posts containing information not otherwise available on the Internet (with the exception of information about the blogger’s cat or cats); and the ability of the blogger to maintain a regular blogging habit despite a paucity of readers, comments or links. That sounds eminently programmable, don’t you think? Whether it will ever be implemented, though, I don’t know. I’m probably dreaming.

Foggy morning ramble

grape tendrilThe fog didn’t burn off this morning until after 11:00, prolonging the dim, early morning light for hours. At times, the sun would break through for a few minutes, only to disappear again when more fog billowed up from the valley. I went for a slow ramble on an empty stomach, which probably sounds like a lot less fun than it was. Walking through the woods, I kept to the moss as much as possible, thrice surprising deer at close range where they had bedded down among the laurel and huckleberries. They leapt to their feet and went crashing off into the fog.

Nyssa leaf webAt first light, I’d listened to the wicka-wicka-wicka calls of migrant wood thrushes, interwoven with the back-and-forth hooting of great-horned owls a half-mile away. The resident thrushes stopped singing at the end of the first week of August, and presumably headed south shortly thereafter. Since then, our mountain has provided temporary shelter for who knows how many hundreds or thousands more wood thrushes from points farther north. They fly all night, touch down around dawn and forage all morning, fueling up for the next stage of their epic journey. Now, around nine o’clock, I spot one flitting about in a black gum sapling beside the trail, presumably searching for the high-calorie berries signaled by the already-turned, bright orange leaves.

peeling globeOut in the field, the cloying odor of goldenrod mingles with the pungent stench of cow manure wafting up from some freshly sprayed field in Sinking Valley. The resulting mixture actually isn’t bad. I once heard a radio interview with an inventor of perfumes, who explained that a successful scent had to have something really putrid in the mix in order to achieve a proper balance. “A bit of skunk can give just the right note of excitement,” she said.

A monarch butterfly appears out of the fog, already flying at 55 degrees Fahrenheit. It flaps and glides low over the goldenrod, landing every fifty feet or so. I set off in pursuit of it, which isn’t too big a challenge: its slow, meandering course is a good fit with my own pace. But it’s going to take us a while to get to Mexico.

foggy monarch

Spell for a widow-maker

Snag turned deadfall,
dread widow-maker with
your fag-ends caught
in the crotch of a living tree,
hold fast while the chainsaw
gnaws through your limb,
don’t pinch the bar in your haste
to get free, but as soon as
the uppercut meets the undercut,
drop straight, don’t twist
or kick. Sink into the soft
mulch of your many autumns,
the bed you made for just
this final fall.

How the anthropologist learned to tell stories

The natives are getting restless at the poor quality of the anthropologist’s stories. In all his years of schooling, he never stopped to consider how difficult the informant’s job might be: anthropologist and informant were two very different things, he’d thought. But in Imbonggu society, one listens in order to learn how to embroider. And if he wants to hear their stories, he has to tell some of his own. That’s how it works.

So the anthropologist, an American, tells them about Paul Bunyan, about George Washington. Well, they can see how a big blue ox would make giant footprints, but so what? What’s the upshot? And they can certainly understand how a young man might want to test parental authority by chopping down a valuable tree — so far, so good. But the punch line completely eludes them. He told the truth? Why? Perhaps these white people simply lack the imagination to tell a good story!

Then the anthropologist happens upon a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. What the hell, he says to himself, I’ve tried everything else — why not the author of “The White Man’s Burden”? So the next time his neighbors drop in to share the warmth of his hearth, he regales them with Just So Stories. They’re delighted. “The white man can tell stories after all!” they whisper.

When he first headed off to the New Guinea highlands, his parents were distraught. They and everyone else back home were afraid he would get eaten by cannibals, just like Michael Rockefeller. Well, who doesn’t want to eat the rich? But the anthropologist was just a poor graduate student then. Not much to him. He had that lean and hungry look.

After he settled in among his hosts, he was shocked to find that they quite agreed with his parents: the countryside swarmed with cannibals and sorcerers! They infested all the surrounding clans, not to mention people farther away who spoke incomprehensible gibberish — topsy-turvy places where people laughed when someone died and wept inconsolably at the purchase of a new truck. Once, when he returned from a prolonged trip to the coast, his neighbors shrieked and hid, thinking that they must be seeing his ghost.

No, the Imbonggu were unanimous: the anthropologist was only really safe among the Imbonggu. He had nothing to fear but his own untutored cravings. Because white men are themselves notorious eaters of flesh — or so he heard one mother tell her child when the child would not behave. She was making noise when she should have been listening to the grown-ups’ stories, and now it was time to frighten her into submission. Be quiet, child, said the mother, or the white man will eat you!

Her daughter looked skeptical, so the mother elaborated. Hadn’t she seen how their airplanes swallowed human beings through gaping holes in their sides? Every year, young men from the villages get on airplanes and fly away to Port Moresby, never to return. Or, if on rare occasions they did return, they wore the white man’s clothes and wristwatch and carried machines that played the white man’s music: clearly ensorcelled. Their souls had been stolen to flavor some rich white man’s stew.

The child backed away from the anthropologist, her eyes big as platters. Did he not arrive on an airplane? her mother hissed.

Based on the stories anthropologist William E. Wormsley tells on himself in his marvellous book,THE WHITE MAN WILL EAT YOU! An anthropologist among the Imbonggu of New Guinea, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1993.

For more tales about the learning process, be sure to visit qarrtsiluni at its brand-new home.


Image Hosted by
Photo by József Hajdíº — X-Ray Records

Now this
is truly hip
(or spine, or rib):
x-rays recycled
into jazz
& rock
‘n’ roll!

What began as a reaction to wartime rationing, it seems, went underground, & by the 1950s, millions of short-lived records — roentgenizdat — circulate on the black market, wearing out long before the bones whose negative images they bear. But they are cheap & easy to make. Soon, Soviet teenagers are rocking around the clock.

The apparatchiki are horrified. This is not music, says Khrushchev, but cacophony! The masses are asses. Their bodies’ subversive urges must be subordinated to the will of the people.

Then on Mayday, 1967, thousands of youths, instead of ogling the annual parade of missiles, spontaneously begin to dance in Red Square, doing the twist. Pandemonium! The police wade in with truncheons, fracturing skulls, snapping clavicles: more grist for the illicit record mills. The biggest roentgenizdat rings are broken up, their leaders sent to the gulags, but it’s no use.

Chubby Checker
& Chuck
Berry spin at
78 revolutions
per minute.
erase as
they play.
The ghosts
of living bones
roll over
& over.


Thanks to alert reader Mlle. X for bringing these links to my attention. Do go take a look at the rest of the Hajdíº photos.

Off color

xylophoneCompany policy dictated the wearing of bright colors for all male employees. One senior manager wore a sky-blue suit with a scarlet tie; another wore orange slacks and a green sport coat. Maracas were issued to everyone in management, with instructions on how to use them and when. I’m not sure what I was doing there. Probably I had been hired through a temp agency and kept on indefinitely, despite my failure to observe the rules about fun. But now they were trying to make me part of the team.

Along with one other guy, I was taken downstairs to the plush offices of the Chief Financial Officer, who always wore mirrored sunglasses, he said, to protect his eyes from the glare of the suits — including his own, which was a vibrant purple. He spoke in a low, conspiratorial whisper. “What they want us to do now,” he said, “is watch some silly training video. But I don’t think you two really need any more training. I got some other ideas — come on, have a seat.”

I sank into the plush leather armchair and directed my gaze toward the screen while the CFO fiddled with the projector. “I know, I know. We can build the most sophisticated weapons delivery systems known to man, but can any of us operate a simple projector? No, we cannot,” he said with a self-deprecating chuckle. C’mon — how dumb do you think we are? I remember thinking just before the first of the lurid images appeared on the screen.

The CFO maintained the avuncular tone throughout, supplying the only soundtrack to the silent movies of rape and incest and torture. “Good stuff, eh guys?” I found myself nodding in agreement — I wanted the job. When the lights came back on, I forced myself to smile. Our new friend handed us each a pair of sunglasses identical to his own. “Welcome to the firm,” he said.

That was my last dream this morning before I woke. Don’t ever let anyone tell you we dream in black and white — a silly notion — though sometimes maybe I wish I could. Outside it was overcast and threatening rain.

springhouse in the rain

The other day around 3:00 in the afternoon, the sun broke through in the middle of a downpour. In the little marsh across the road, the roof of the springhouse shone brightly through the curtain of rain. It was beautiful. Fog began to form almost immediately, the rain turning back into clouds as soon as it hit the ground. When it slackened off, I rushed up into the field to watch the last of the mist rising off the goldenrod.

path to the clouds

By the following morning, off-and-on showers had given way to a steady rain. My brother brought his year-and-a-half-old daughter up for a visit and they horsed around for a while in my parents’ library. She has been drawn to books ever since she could sit upright — even large books without words. She loves sitting and turning the pages of her daddy’s scholarly tomes, or visiting the public library with her mother. If her grandpa doesn’t sit down and read one of her favorite children’s books to her as soon as they arrive, she gets very out-of-sorts. And I have to say, whenever she comes to visit, the books up on the shelves suddenly seem considerably less solemn and reserved, as if they know it won’t be too many more years before a new reader takes them down, one by one, and translates their black-and-white pages into joyful sound.

playing in the library

(As usual, click on the photos to see the full-size versions, which may take a little while to load at slower modem speeds.)

Remembering the original 9/11

I’m guest-blogging about the Satyagraha centenary today at modal minority, a blog focused on the culture of the Global South. Please visit.
Modal Minority was taken down. For archival purposes, here’s the text of my essay.

Satyagraha literally means insistence on truth. This insistence arms the votary with matchless power. […] Such a universal force necessarily makes no distinction between kinsmen and strangers, young and old, man and woman, friend and foe. The force to be so applied can never be physical. There is in it no room for violence. The only force of universal application can, therefore, be that of ahimsa or love. […] Love does not burn others, it burns itself.
–M. K. Gandhi, “Some Rules of Nonviolence” (1931), in Non-Violent Resistance, Shocken Books, New York, 1961

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Satyagraha movement [popups] at a meeting of delegates from the Indian community of Transvaal Province, South Africa. The events of September 11, 2001 pale in significance next to the birth of the movement that led to the liberation of India, the end of legal segregation in the United States, and so many other successful and ongoing struggles for social and environmental justice around the world.

One of the striking things about Gandhi’s speech to the assembly on the original 9/11 was its ecumenism. Speaking as a lawyer in favor of a proposal that each Indian should take a solemn oath of resistance against a new, racist ordinance, he stated that “We all believe in one and the same God, the differences of nomenclature in Hinduism and Islam notwithstanding. To pledge ourselves or to take an oath in the name of that God or with him as witness is not something to be trifled with.” (M.K. Gandhi, Satyagraha in South Africa, tr. from the Gujarati by Valji Govindji Desai, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, 1928)

The courage of those Indian Africans on September 11, 1906 and thereafter consisted not simply in their refusal to bow to a repressive colonial regime, but also in their willingness to forgo the false comforts of moral absolutism. To commit to nonviolence means, among other things, that one remains open to dialogue. One appeals to one’s opponent as a thinking, feeling human being — much more risky to one’s own sense of righteousness and security than simply blowing him up.

It might also be worth remembering how little credence the young M. K. Gandhi gave to the non-rational side of moral conviction. Were it not for popular beliefs to the contrary, he felt, an individual’s sincere pledge should be worth just as much as an oath before God. But one uses whatever language seems most convincing to oneself and others in order to invest one’s words with the force of one’s full intention: Gandhi’s neologism satyagraha combined satya, truth, and agraha, firmness.

Gandhi’s later writings would stress the importance of discipline and self-sacrifice. But his behavior at the September 11th meeting demonstrates the importance of imagination as well as self-abnegation. He had not gone to the meeting with any idea that a mass pledge of resistance might come out of it, but when another delegate suggested it, he immediately recognized its potential to alter the political landscape and spoke out strongly in its favor. A lesser leader might have reacted with caution, sensing a threat to his own power from a rival’s suggestion.

The original 9/11 does have a slight resonance with the events of the same day in 2001. The assembly was convened at the Empire Theatre in Johannesburg, and quite by accident, the theatre burned to the ground the very next day. “On the third day friends brought me the news of the fire and congratulated the community upon this good omen, which signified to them that Ordinance would meet the same fate as the theatre,” Gandhi wrote. “I have never been influenced by such so-called signs and therefore do not attach any weight to the coincidence.” But he was pragmatic enough to recognize the galvanizing influence of the fire on the imaginations of his countrymen.

Can nonviolent action or reasoned dialogue ever prevail against fanaticism? I know of little else that can. Killing fanatics simply breeds more fanaticism. For a good contemporary example of Satyagraha in action, one need look no farther than Yemen, where public theological dialogues have been helping to keep a lid on violent extremism, according the Christian Science Monitor [popups]:

“If you can convince us that your ideas are justified by the Koran, then we will join you in your struggle,” Hitar told the militants. “But if we succeed in convincing you of our ideas, then you must agree to renounce violence.”

The prisoners eagerly agreed.

Now, two years later, not only have those prisoners been released, but a relative peace reigns in Yemen. And the same Western experts who doubted this experiment are courting Hitar, eager to hear how his “theological dialogues” with captured Islamic militants have helped pacify this wild and mountainous country […}

Critical to the Yemeni mullah’s success has been his willingness to listen and to submit to the give-and-take of real dialogue; these are not the shouting matches that pass for debates on American television, I gather. Yemen is hardly what one would call a peaceful society, but it is a society where rhetorical skill is prized almost as highly as martial prowess. In rural Yemen, negotiations to end or stave off violent disputes are often couched in spontaneously composed verses of complex structure known as zamil; exchanges of gunfire often give way to exchanges of poems (see Steven C. Caton, “Peaks of Yemen I Summon”: Poetry as Cultural Practice in a North Yemeni Tribe, University of California Press, 1990).

So in a sense, though they are probably about equally violent, Yemen may be a more fertile ground for Satyagraha-type experiments than a strongly anti-intellectual, entertainment-dominated society like that of the United States. A gifted orator like Martin Luther King, Jr. can only inspire people to action as long as they are able and willing to listen and think and debate. The terms of political discourse in this country have become so impoverished, and the climate so polarized, it’s hard to see how any but demagogues could make their voices heard. Collective acts of remembrance, such as the 9/11/2001 commemorations, occur against a backdrop of profound collective amnesia, with the result that the centenary of the original September 11 goes virtually unmentioned anywhere outside India. It will be interesting to see if any other national politicians join Rep. John Lewis on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial today for the Day of Peace celebration.

Good Poems

[A remix of lines from the Customer Reviews of the Writer’s Almanac-derived anthology, Good Poems, at]

I was at the airport newstand looking at the usual
Computer magazine section as usual
(The Poetry journals I enjoy
aren’t sold at smaller newstands),
and out the corner of my eye, I saw
my friend holding Good Poems.

I was immediately drawn to this plump little volume
and sat down to read the Introduction.
I was able to find several significant poems
for many different moods and occasions.
I don’t normally read poetry.

Anyone, if you’ve loved poetry for years,
two months,
weeks or minutes,
this book is absolutely right for you.
This book can stand firmly on its own two pegs.
You can carry this book in your hand, and enjoy
the huge amount of good poems contained.
It flows well.
Poetry lover or no, buy this now!

Here are poems you could read between meetings
or classes or before you make dinner,
poems that can send you or smite you
or speed you to joy.

this book is so much more than a barrel of laughs.
Think of it more as a brisk breeze,
that keeps stirring things up, keeping them
fresh, and bringing blood to your cheeks.
That’s what poetry is.

There are no commentaries or points to ponder
that accompany any of the poems
nor are there questions that test for understanding.
It takes the “fear” out of reading poetry.
I read these poems to my children
before putting them to bed.

This is a book for people
who like poetry that creates images and mini-stories.
This is a book for the sort of people
who like to be transported to crisp
autumn days, the sound of leaves
crunching beneath your feet, blah, blah;
or into relationships
you’ve never had.

This book is stuffed
with good poems, new good poems
you’ve never read,
and some old good poems as well.

And some of it is straight forward it isn’t
trying to hide behind huge words that
the average person doesn’t use. I like
that kind of poetry too but sometimes
I think it’s a little more gutsy to write
simple straight forward to the average
person. Because sometimes people end up
hating poetry because of poetry
that seems to just exist
to show off big words.

This book caused a bit of controversy,
but I’m not sure why.
What it is, is a collection of poems
that Keillor thought were good poems.
In short, he cuts out long,
boring poems written by
angry, depressed or
boring people.
“Good Poems” is a ‘Must Have’
for all lovers of well
arranged words.

Even though Mr. Keillor would not be happy
with long-winded praise, suffice it to say that,
as the Brits would, that this book
is altogether “lovely.”

This selection by Mr. Keillor is arranged
in such a way that one will be taken
on an emotional roller coaster ride.

Why is it
that when you care and you love a person
they treat you like your nothing, and after all the things
you do and say to him, He still dont care.
Then he tells you that he’s sorry and that he love’s you
and then you forgive him. And there you go again
gettin hurt, but you still wanna be
with him……..

It is hard
not to respect a poem
that grows warmer with every tread.
I’ve dog-eared pages of favorites and now see
the book is becoming one big dog-ear.

It’s what
a poetry anthology should be: a sampler,
a taster’s counter at the many-flavored
ice cream shop of verse. You can find
old friends and new ones, and learn who
you want to explore in depth later on.
And this anthology lays out
a richer feast of new friends
than any other I’ve encountered.
Highly recommended for any reason.

Tags: , Good Poems, Writer’s Almanac, Amazon Customer Reviews,


By the end of the night, a dozen foxes, several hundred ermines, and well over three thousand minks have passed through the arms of the coat-check man. His hands glow like a swimmer’s, fresh from navigating a cold river of furs. All over his body, the small hairs stand up from the static charge.


It’s the same old story: the bear comes into the cave and takes off his pelt. His wife smiles wanly at the familiar sight. Once the epitome of a brave, he has grown quite full of himself, both literally and figuratively. Soon he will pass out on the bed and sleep for four months straight. She’s sick of it. But her mother had warned her: He’s a bear! He’d eat his own children if they got too close.


He finds his car — one of the last three in the garage — and pulls out slowly, wary of drunks. The sky is just beginning to brighten ahead of him as he crosses the East River. He thinks of stopping at the club, but it’s too late. He thinks about dark, well-tailored suits, and how sad and vulnerable most men appear when they take them off. He thinks of everything but the home ahead and the boneless wife who nearly vanishes in his embrace.


She eyes the empty pelt lying beside him in the bed. No good. It doesn’t fit. He begins to snore, and she wrinkles her nose. Once the fecal plug forms, at least the air at the back of the cave won’t get too bad. But this time, she won’t be here to find out. Let’s fast-forward through the tender scene in which she takes her tearful yet resolute leave of his unconscious form. I’m going back to the riverbank, she whispers. She goes to the closet and pulls out her favorite coat: sleek and brown, with a delicious, musky scent.


He travels north, flying through the endless night of winter. There are no more trees. Land and water turn hard beneath him. Artificial mountains appear: the dwellings of the Stone Coats like longhouses on end, separated by paths that always meet at right angles, like the strands of a net. There’s a small circle in the middle of an intersection where someone has made off with a manhole cover. He dives through a hole in the ice and enters the great ocean.