I’ve been to the ERPA

Last night, in chatting with an environmental consultant, I learned a dandy new acronym: ERPA. That stands for Engineered Rock Placement Area. It refers to the artificial mountains created from the rubble of bedrock blasted out to make room for a new highway, Wal-Mart, or other envelopment. Such piles are “engineered” in the sense that some specialist tries to minimize their effects on the local hydrology, keep them from collapsing, etc.

The specific ERPA my friend was talking about will consist of highly acidic mountaintop rock removed for a certain local highway cut and placed in the adjacent valley, where it will tower over the new highway and an adjacent railroad line and creek. I am being vague here because he asked me not to quote him about the tenuous chances of its success as a long-term environmental solution.

I just liked the fact that “ERPA” sounds like a burp — a gross and embarrassing discharge resulting from too-rapid consumption — and that it rhymes with “Sherpa.” From what I gather, one might well need a Sherpa guide to scale this thing by the time they’re done with it.


It’s been three years now since I began work on my own ERPA, Via Negativa. The previous spring, I had begun writing essays to post to my then-new Geocities site, and forwarding the links to a number of email contacts. Many of the essays I was writing were in response to the Iraq invasion — a catalyst for many people to start blogging in 2003, it turned out. From time to time, one of my hapless email victims would tell me I needed to start a blog, but I’d pooh-pooh the suggestion.

The main thing that kept me from jumping into blogging as soon as I found out about it was my impression that blogs consisted mainly of political and social polemics. Where was the poetry? I didn’t want to narrow my focus like that. When I finally did start a blog in mid-December 2003, I had the notion — erroneous, as it turned out — that I’d be doing something largely without precedent. I aimed to write a “celebration of the unknown, the unknowable, and the mystic experience,” as I put it at the time. But within two weeks I was straying beyond this self-imposed limitation, and by late spring, I had pretty much abandoned all pretense of having a thematically unified blog. In the meantime, though, the name Via Negativa had stuck, as names will do.

I went with Blogger because it was free. After about three weeks, I figured out how to add a commenting system, which Blogger didn’t provide back then. Suddenly, with comments coming in, and my own participation in conversations at other blogs, the writer’s life was no longer a mostly solitary affair. I started getting valuable feedback that went beyond the polite or enthusiastic applause one might earn at a poetry reading, or the occasional responses from email correspondents. And of course I discovered plenty of other bloggers working in similar territories, writing about faith or lack thereof, about nature and place, about art and philosophy and what they had for breakfast. I found myself in a blog neighborhood that felt both compatible and invigorating, as if I had just entered a graduate program at some elite university.

This past year has seen the biggest changes since I started blogging. Via Negativa moved to its present location on April Fool’s Day, changing URL and software platform in the process. I discovered the wonders and challenges of blogging with open-source software, something which, as an anarchist of sorts, I deeply believe in. I started a sideblog, Smorgasblog, and saw myself become a much better reader of other blogs as a result. I helped start a blog carnival, Festival of the Trees, with Pablo of Roundrock Journal, and with Beth Adams (the cassandra pages) took over the managing editorship of qarrtsiluni.

Less than a week ago, I began to assemble a new collection of poems derived mostly from Via Negativa, a project which I am calling shadow cabinet. I’ve gotten so used to doing things online, it seemed natural to put it together as a website, using a WordPress.com template, rather than just a dull document in MS Word. This has led me to think about the difference between blogs and other kinds of websites, especially as it relates to publishing poetry. The apparent stasis of a regular website — to say nothing of a book — aids in the perception of poetry as finished creation, an illusion central to our appreciation of any art. The dynamic nature of blogging, on the other hand, helps us see poems as ephemeral expressions of a continually evolving creative process.

I think it’s fair to say that blogging has made me a better writer, more disciplined, less prone to spend all my time polishing what I’ve already written. As I noted in a comment to a recent post about blogging and writing at the cassandra pages, because I try and post something at least once a day, six days a week, I’ve learned to be a little more easy-going in what I write — less prone to try and pack everything I want to say into one poem or essay. Much as I dislike Billy Collins, I have to agree with the quote that appears on the front page of Poetry Daily: “The urge to tie a poem to a chair and torture a confession out of it lessens when poetry arises freshly each day.”


Last year at this time I did a quick survey of the immediate blog neighborhood, but now that I keep the Smorgasblog, that doesn’t seem as necessary. I would like to thank all my enablers (see Credits page). Thanks for reading. It’s been a real pleasure, and I hope to stick around for many more years. In ten days — wood willing, knock on God — I’ll be getting a new (to me) computer, many times faster and larger than what I have now. So starting with the New Year, I’ll have the space and ability to back up files much more effectively, shoring up this mountain of rubble against collapse.


Here’s another recycled, pre-owned, gently used, like-new, encore presentation of a post. The wordier original version was here.

Speak of an itch & it will appear,
pure miserable temptation
to turn on ourselves,
to rub our bodies clean
of all sensitivity. Existing
mainly in the details,
its names are legion:
arm itch, thumb itch,
calf itch, back itch,
breast itch, chest itch,
lip itch, rib itch,
forearm itch, foreskin itch,
elbow itch, ankle itch,
facial itch, anal itch,
mouth itch, muscle twitch,
groin itch, gum itch,
head itch, heel itch,
wrist itch, fingernail itch,
kneecap itch, behind-knee itch,
leg itch, neck itch,
nipple itch, nose itch,
scalp itch, stomach itch,
eye itch, eyelid twitch,
vaginal itch, clitoris itch,
testicle itch, penile itch,
thigh itch, shin itch,
underarm itch, eyebrow itch,
ear itch, cheek itch,
sole itch, shoulder itch,
knuckle itch, upper arm itch,
buttock itch, foot itch,
hand itch, finger itch,
palm itch, jaw itch.
Even an amputee’s missing part
can somehow itch, on the other side
of an unbridgeable absence.
It’s a bait-&-switch.
What we miss — we’re convinced —
is simply the scratching.

Earth Tongue

I’m digging up old poems and rewriting when necessary. Some require extensive revision, which I’ve been neglecting for three years now. Some may not have even known they were poems. I found the germ of this poem in a prose piece from July 19, 2004. I’m hoping that readers can still appreciate it without knowing all the plants and fungi invoked.

Enchanter’s nightshade,
rattlesnake plantain,
a deer fly stumbles —
jumpseed —
through my matted hair.
In the daylong dusk of midsummer woods,
I find him with the flat of my hand.

White moths dot the ground,
flopping like landed fish.
Who knows what goes on up there
where the leaves run out?

The trees sweat.
Every fifteen feet, another web
& a spider the size of carpet tack.
I wield my walking stick like a fencer’s foil.
No damage done: this species of spider
eats her own web each night,
starts fresh in the morning.

Listen, these woods are far stranger
than anything I can write.
Here’s a mollusk without a shell,
a four-inch hermaphrodite,
gray pinstripes stretched on a bed of moss.
I crouch down to watch its lubricated progress.
Eyestalks swivel to tune me in.

Somewhere close by, a tree gives way,
roots loosened by weeks of intermittent rain.
After the crash, a wood peewee
keeps bending the same two notes.
Earth tongue,
fly agaric,
his fondest wish is for the clouds
never to part.

Santa Lucia

barn tree

For those of us in the northern hemisphere who live below the Arctic Circle, this time of the long night is also when the sun, low in the sky for much of the day, most easily floods our caves. Now more than ever we are dazzled by the play of shadows. We stretch our half-dead fingers toward the screen.

barn light 2

The barn is no church or synagogue; its plank siding is spaced to allow the circulation of air, not spirit. The floor in the haymow is only half there, and low beams can clobber you in the forehead. You have to watch your step. The sky peers in through a dozen knotholes.

barn light 4

In late afternoon, fat candles of sunlight illuminate the far wall. Golden beams bristle with splinters. Some bear the semi-circular marks of a saw blade, others, the rectilinear patchwork left by an adze. Many were recycled from older barns, reminding us, perhaps, of other necessary sacrifices: the stars, for example, that had to die in order to create the ingredients for life here on the third planet from the present star.

barn light 5

Louvers in lieu of windows offer no view out or in, just a prisoner’s stripes, a choice of identical horizons. High overhead, the cupola is a virtually inaccessible, floorless cell. One can get a tinge of vertigo simply by looking up at it.

barn lightbulb

The sun singles out the lone lightbulb, offered up for its delectation like the glistening eyeball of the future patron saint of blindness, whose name means light.

barn forebay 2

Outside, the sun sinks behind the goldenrod, a multitude of blowsy, rounded seedheads as if from some strange flock gone feral. Their only use for the barn is as shelter for the tractor and brush hog that keep the dark woods at bay.


The night goes great and mute.
Now one hears in every silent room
a murmuring, as if from wings.
Behold, at the threshold, standing
all in white, with lights in her hair,
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!
— Swedish song for St. Lucy’s Day


For more photos of the barn in Plummer’s Hollow, see here.

Caul: seven definitions

1. A veil for a sailor, to ward off the covetous eye of the sea.

2. Sackcloth made of nimbus, used for storing multiple outcomes.

3. A pod full of seeds too lucky to ever sprout. Logic dictates a creation ex nihilo by an ad hoc committee.

4. A cross between foam and flotsam. In particular, a bottle with a ship for a message.

5. A piggy bank, when its change turns into rent money.

6. A sort of mammalian exuvia, soft and spongy after being vacated by the internally boned organism and its shrill cicada cry.

7. An old wineskin.

Caul; exuvia.

Next Door to Dorothy

for R., with love

Next door to Dorothy, there’s
another girl who stays behind
in Kansas, who sleeps through storms,
her father a slab-faced drunk,
mother vicious with regret
for this brood she should have
drowned at birth, because they so
distract her from her spells
& weather-making. The daughter
hides in her bed & petitions
the great and powerful wizard
for a way out.

Thirty years on, oblivion doesn’t
seem any closer. She has two
kids of her own, now, who creep
quietly past her bedroom door.
A tornado comes & makes off
with the neighbor’s roof. Sirens,
helicopters. She stirs awake.
Why couldn’t it have been me,
my house,
she asks the crack
in the ceiling.

Oz is only three clicks of the mouse
away, & the fact that it’s no place
like home is an inducement
to visit often. But we read her latest
messages & lose our appetite
for dancing in circles. Weeds
sprout between the yellow bricks.
Maybe I should retrieve that old
heart from its safe-deposit box?
I lie awake shivering as the first
serious snowstorm of the year turns
the world back to black & white.

Going to Heaven

In my family, shopping for Christmas and birthdays is virtually synonymous with buying books. I suspect a number of Via Negativa readers are that way, too, so I’d like to put in a pitch for Elizabeth Adams’ new book, Going to Heaven: The Life and Election of Bishop Gene Robinson (Brooklyn: Soft Skull Books, 2006). Gene Robinson, as most of you will recall, garnered considerable press attention three years ago when he was elected at the Episcopalian convention as the first openly gay bishop in Christendom. What many people may not realize is that Gene is also a very inspiring, charismatic-yet-humble minister and leader. And since his election, he has become to gay Christians what Bishop Desmond Tutu was to blacks under Apartheid, or what the Dalai Lama is to Tibetan Buddhists. (I can hear Gene protesting that he is not worthy of the comparison, but in fact I doubt that either Tutu or the Dalai Lama are the perfect saints that their more ardent followers imagine, either. What they have in common is an ethic of humility, boundless compassion, and leadership-through-service.)

The author is a good friend and my co-editor at qarrtsiluni, and I even read the book in manuscript for her, so I didn’t think a standard book review from me would have a whole lot of credibility. Moreover, Going to Heaven has already been ably reviewed at Velveteen Rabbi, The Middlewesterner, The Tao of Jeremy, Exigency in Specie, mole, and Even the Devils Believe, among others.

As some of those reviews demonstrate, you don’t have to be gay, Episcopalian or even Christian to enjoy this book. When I lent my copy to my mother, she said she found it difficult to put down, and Mom is hardly what you’d call a conventional believer. Of course, she knows some gay and lesbian couples — who doesn’t? — and so was partly interested in reading it in order to see what light it might shed on their situation. But what makes the book compelling, I think, is the storyline and the characters who animate it, just like a good novel. It’s amply illustrated with black-and-white photos, and at just $14.95 (currently $10.17 through Amazon), it’s a heck of a bargain, too.

The central drama, of course, is the ordination and its aftermath. The struggle pits Gene and his supporters against the so-called traditionalists who, in their zealousness to prevent gays (and sometimes also women) from being ordained, are willing to do away with all democratic processes and turn the Episcopalian church into an authoritarian copy of the most regressive member churches of the Anglican communion. In essence, this is the same struggle that we see going on in Sunni Islam, Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, the Catholic church, and many other religious traditions and institutions striving to keep their most fearful followers from turning the church, synagogue or mosque into a fortress against an increasingly scary and materialistic world.

As a good librarian’s son, I generally refrain from marking up my books in any way. But when I re-read Going to Heaven, I found myself reaching for the pencil to mark numerous passages that struck me as quotable. Here are a few of them.

“It’s such a different world we live in today,” [Gene] remarked at a meeting with students at Dartmouth College before his consecration as bishop. […] The students were shocked when he described how many homosexuals used to commit suicide, or become alcoholics or drug addicts after being told repeatedly by society, family and religious leaders that they were unacceptable and disgusting in the eyes of God.

“Homosexuality was so abhorred that those who understood how condemned it was by God just did the logical thing and did themselves in. Suicide was something we thought the good homosexuals did.”

Gene expressed understanding with the plight of bishops like Paul Moore, who were certainly in favor or the ordination of women [in 1974] but were unwilling to go outside the rules of the church. “It’s a fear of throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” Gene said. “You start dealing loosely with the canons, and I don’t know where it ends. When it came time for my own consecration, all these years later, I was approached about the fact that there were at least three bishops who were willing to consecrate me anyway if my election was not consented to at convention. And I would just have none of it. I felt that my election and consecration had to be absolutely by the book — and of course that’s what makes the opposition so angry is that it was absolutely legal, and they have no leg to stand on about that.”

“But in terms of women’s ordination . . . I’ve thought about it a lot. If I had to do it over again knowing what I know now, I don’t know what I would say, I might be tempted to do it. I don’t know how women’s ordination would have come, legally, had they not done what they did.”

On the phone David [Jones] had described himself as an evangelical from a conservative theological background, and he had sounded eager to tell me his story. […] “I didn’t really come to this from the same point of view as many of the progressives. […]

“This whole adventure, the search process and its outcome, has really been an interesting spiritual journey for me. It’s not that I’ve changed my basic theological position at all, but it’s forced me to think about how, if you consistently and accurately apply what you say you believe, you might come out in a place you didn’t expect. And having had the experience of going through what happened over these more than two years, I realize, from my perspective, that the hand of God and the power of the Spirit is so clearly in charge of that, that I can’t say, ‘God, you’re not allowed to do that, it doesn’t fit in with my understanding, stop that!'”

“The thing about the election that I don’t expect anyone outside of New Hampshire to understand is that Gene was not elected because he was gay and because he was going to be the first elected openly gay bishop.” [Former New Hampshire Bishop] Doug [Theuner] rubbed his hands together gleefully, faking a malicious grin, and leaned closer, whispering conspiratorially, “It’s not like the people here were just salivating, waiting to elect the first gay bishop.” Then he waved his hand back over his shoulder in a dismissive gesture. “First of all, New Hampshire people aren’t that way, for the most part. They’re — unpretentious. They have their quirks and idiosyncrasies that they love — the ‘Live Free or Die’ thing, no income taxes — but they’re not out there trying to win the world to their point of view. That’s part of the ‘Live Free or Die’ thing: I’ll do my thing, you do yours. There might have been a few people who were all excited” — he rubbed his hands together again — “about the idea that we might elect the first gay bishop, but most people never even thought about that.” The former bishop sat back and straightened up, and his voice boomed out, large enough to fill any cathedral. “They elected someone they knew and trusted! And knew was competent! And, oh yeah, he happened to be gay.”

In almost every audience, someone rose to ask Gene about how he interpreted Biblical passages that seemed to clearly denounce homosexual behavior. Gene […] usually began by saying that, as Christians, we take Scripture very seriously — and then adding that Episcopalians have always taken Scripture seriously, and never literally. “Some of the critics are calling themselves traditionalists,” he said, “and yet are trying to take us to a place that has never been our tradition. Ever. We’ve never been a denomination that that literally read and believed every word of the Bible. On the other hand, we take it all seriously. But what I’m going to tell you is that I don’t think the Bible addresses what we are addressing today, which are faithful, life-long, monogamous relationships between people of the same gender. The Bible doesn’t talk about that.” [See Father Jake Stops the World for an extended quotation from this passage.]

Gene says he likes to think of the Episcopal Church as “advanced placement religion” and explains, “It’s hard work if you start by saying, ‘We have to use our minds and prayerfully engage one another as a community of people, using the best scholarship we have among us, to figure out what those writings [in the Bible] meant to the person who wrote them, and then ask the question, “Are they eternally binding?” But that’s what we, as Episcopalians, try to do.'”

Gene Robinson has said bluntly that organized religion in the Western world is at a crossroads. “Unless the church recovers its sense of what Jesus meant when he spoke of ‘restoring sight to the blind and setting the captives free,’ it runs the risk of either actually dying, or becoming hopelessly irrelevant.”
“It’s the thing you’ve heard me say ten thousand times, which is that God loves us beyond our wildest imagining. That’s why I use a passage from Isaiah so often, about ‘proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.’ There are so many people, including people in the church, who have no idea how favored they are by God.

“But for oppressed people, that message is harder to believe. I think for people of color, for women, for gay and lesbian folk, they’ve been told that they’re ‘less than’ for so long that it comes as especially good news to them, but it’s also harder for them to believe. They have been shamed, and if they had faith, it has been battered and eroded and picked at, which is why Jesus was always preaching to those types of people, bending over backwards to let them know.

“We’ve had some gay people who have done very well — Martina Navratilova, arguably the best tennis player ever, Ellen DeGeneres, Greg Louganis — people who have accomplished a lot. But maybe why there has been so much furor over me and what I’ve accomplished, or whatever God has accomplished within me, is because it goes beyond saying, ‘I think I’m all right.’ It says, ‘I think God thinks I’m all right.’ […]

“It goes back to what I said in my investiture sermon: nobody will get on your case if you preach a judgmental, narrow, punishing God, but if you start preaching a God that is too loving, too merciful, and too forgiving, people will be all over you like a duck on a junebug. It makes people crazy. I think that is fascinating, that so many people would not see the idea of a loving, forgiving God as ‘good news.’ That’s exactly what happened to Jesus. The people who didn’t see God that way were the ones who crucified him.”


Up at 5:30 a.m. for a bit of moonbathing. I take my chair and thermos mug of coffee around to the southwest side of the house, in front of the portico. A couple minutes after I settle in, a cat-shaped, detachable shadow trots down the driveway; even from ten feet away, I can’t hear a sound. Of course, that may be because I have a knit cap pulled down over my just-washed hair, which is already beginning to form ice-dreads.

The moon is a day past full and stands low in the west, in the same direction as the interstate, and sings the same, monotonous, high-pitched tune. It’s the howl of a lonely Yeti — or, more likely for this neck of the woods, a Stone Coat. (The din of my 8-year-old computer is at least an octave lower, though, so don’t think I’m talking about myself here!)

The black cat trots back up the driveway, pausing for a moment to glance in my direction, then accelerating just a little. The other day I surprised her in the middle of the field, and she ran flat-out for the barn. She seems to sense that it’s bad luck to cross my path, being fonder of native songbirds than non-native, feral cats as I am. But in fact I’m both too lazy and too softhearted to grab the gun. I keep expecting a coyote, a great-horned owl or a fisher to do the job for me, but somehow year after year the cat manages to survive this gauntlet of eager housecat predators. Just lucky, I guess.


Found in the archives of a blog called an open chart:

i thought cinderella’s dancing was far more beautiful when she was barefoot–there was such grace to it, such childlike simplicity. when she put on her magical slippers, i thought something was lost.


Sometime last night while I was sleeping, spam comment #40,000 (since June!) stormed the Akismet-protected walls of Via Negativa and was thrown back down with the rest of the barbarian mob. I’m not sure why this blog has become such a magnet. Maybe it’s the sheer number of posts in the palisade, each with a spot to put a ladder up.


The opening line of an email addressed to my mother from an angry all-terrain vehicle (ATV) enthusiast, in response to a message of hers that was forwarded to an ATV riders’ list:

Education is the key to all things successful, and I see that you lack education in some of this arena.

The letter went downhill from there.


That was one of two things that gave me a belly laugh yesterday. The other was a story from the furnace repairman, Earl, who had come up to replace my wildly inaccurate analog thermostat with a state-of-the-art digital one. In the course of installing it, he mentioned that one can adjust it so that its actual temperature setting is hidden, allowing unsuspecting users to set it as high as they want without effect — a feature in high demand from local landlords who pay for their tenants’ heat, he said. “They want to turn it up to 80 degrees? Fine, it’ll read 80 degrees! And most of the time, they’ll be satisfied with that, even if it’s still just 70 in the apartment,” Earl said.

One problem tenant was an elderly woman who complained of being cold all the time. The whole building ran off one thermostat, and the landlord couldn’t turn it up high enough to satisfy her. So he called Earl. “We gave her her own thermostat. She watched us cut the hole in the wall and fish the wires through. What she didn’t know was that the wires didn’t connect to anything — they were just hanging loose in the wall. She turned that thermostat up to 85 degrees and that’s where it stayed. She said it felt good to finally get warm.”


Sometimes I tap my foot while I’m writing. Yesterday afternoon, one of the tenants in the crawl space under the house — probably either a porcupine or groundhog — started tapping back from about five feet away. I adjusted my speed and volume to match. It felt like we were making music together, you know? I’m just like those people who play saxophones to the humpbacked whales, only doubtless more irritating to the wild creature in question. After a while, the porcupine-or-groundhog’s tapping petered out, so I stopped too. I’ll let it think it won that round.

Just now, I started tapping as I wrote the preceding paragraph, and wouldn’t you know it — my unseen interlocutor answered with some taps of its own. I wonder how it’s making the noise? It has two tones: the aforementioned tap, and a lower-pitched knock. It’s not a gnawing sound, but I still picture large teeth connecting with the beams somehow. I refuse to believe that it’s actually tapping and knocking with one of its forefeet.


I notice that the new thermostat makes a click whenever it signals the furnace to run. It’s a loud tsk sound. The furnace comes on with a groan and a sigh.