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“Broomsedge bluestem’s primary mode of reproduction is sexual” (see here). That’s one thing I like about plants: they’re not completely dependent on sex to make more of themselves. Which is good, because sex for plants usually involves the intercession of a third party — a moth, a hummingbird, an extinct ground sloth, you name it. Sounds chancy.

In any case, botany geek-talk is cool. “Sessile spikelet 3-4 mm long, twice to half again as long as the internode, the awn straight, 10-15 mm long; pedicellate spikelet wanting or rarely present as a minute scale, pedicel exceeding the sessile spikelet. Flowers: Either sessile and hermaphrodite, or stalked and staminate, sterile or not developed.”

Broomsedge bluestem (Andropogon virginicus L.), also known as whisky grass or yellow bluestem, is slowly spreading through our old fields. The photo above was taken at what we call the Far Field, which was never planted to non-native brome and orchard grass the way the First Field was. I love the stuff, especially at this time of year when its far-from-blue stems and leaves stand out against the snow. Its flame-colored foliage seems appropriate for a plant that flourishes after fires, and thus has evolved to provide a nice, dry tinder. Absent fires, it’s also an early colonizer of overgrazed pastures, old strip mines, and old fields like ours, especially on acidic soils. It’s slowly infiltrating the non-native grasses in First Field, relying on chemical warfare (allelopathogens), but has a harder time competing with the native goldenrod. At the Far Field, it’s restricted almost entirely to the mowed paths; the rest of the five-acre field is dominated by goldenrod…

goldenrod stem stripes

which looks like this right now (speaking of blue stems). We may have as many as eight different species of goldenrod on the mountain.

This kind of old field habitat is becoming increasingly scarce, so we think it’s important to keep it open. Dad used to use a tractor and mower, but in recent years he’s switched to using hand pruners on the encroaching black locust sprouts. It’s good winter exercise, he says.

The goldenrod provides, among other things, a valuable nectar source for migrating monarch butterflies, which come south along the ridge in great numbers each fall. Plus, this is a northeast-facing hollow. For our own psychological health, especially in the cold, dark months of the year, we appreciate all the extra light a field provides.

To tell the truth, though, it’s very difficult to say whether the value to conservation of maintaining old field habitat is greater than the value of forest interior habitat, which is becoming just as scarce here in the crowded northeast. If we were to let our 45-acre First Field grow in, and/or plant native trees to accelerate the succession, we’d create a parcel of virtually uninterrupted forest close to a mile wide. Numerous studies document how the nesting success of forest interior-dependent songbirds, for example, improves dramatically with distance from the nearest forest edge. But are wood thrushes more important than monarch butterflies? Probably if you’d ask ten different ecologists, you’d get ten different answers. I hate that we even have to make these kinds of choices, playing God.

sledding hill

All over the planet, we are rapidly approaching a point of no return, and not just where climate change is concerned. The loss of biodiversity and the radical simplification of ecosytems are epiphenomena of equal importance to our long-term survival. A world of simplied ecosystems is one with far fewer feedback loops, fewer checks and balances, and therefore greater extremes. Extremes of heat and cold. More catastrophic floods and droughts. Plagues and outbreaks of all kinds. More frequent and hotter fires, many of them fueled by invasive species — as broomsedge bluestem has become in fire-prone Australia. Forests giving way to savannas, and savannas to desert.

snow surf

But there will be a lot more light. Our descendents will learn to love this shining, depauperate world. They will see God’s stark handiwork at every turn.

The eclipse of a cry

The easy and the difficult complement each other.

1. Sí­, “Mister” Ashbery

I have my browser home page set to Poetry Daily, and this morning I was greeted by a John Ashbery poem, Yes, “Señor” Fluffy.

Now, I know John Ashbery is a poet who inspires strong feelings — as poets should. Some critics insist he is our greatest living poet, while others denounce him as a tone-deaf, pretentious fraud. I think it’s obvious that the snipers are just jealous. He’s a big target. And sadly, all too many people don’t know how to read a John Ashbery poem — or any poem, for that matter. American poetry is more than Billy Collins and Ted Kooser, folks. For example, there’s Ron Silliman.

It’s easy to read John Ashbery as if he weren’t difficult and deserving of a more practiced form of attention, like cleaning under one’s fingernails and mistaking them for moons, or perhaps vice versa. We’ve been so moonstruck by the romantic figure of the poet, we forget that when he points at the moon, his other three fingers are pointing back at himself, and not necessarily like Narcissus — which would make it a myth demeanor — assuming he (or she) doesn’t point with, say, pursed lips, as they do in some parts of the world, a sideways shake of the head, or a suggestive motion of the penis gourd. But I think if you put in the effort that any difficult poem requires, you’ll begin to see, beneath the “free-flowing, often disjunctive syntax, extensive linguistic play, often infused with considerable humor, and a prosaic, sometimes disarmingly flat or parodic tone” (Wikipedia), whole new vistas of, you know, deep poet stuff. Also, it really helps if you read all his poems in a Krusty the Clown voice.

2. Shepherd: “death is contagious”

Of course, it’s all too easy to make fun of what we don’t understand. Poet and new blogger Reginald Shepherd has a very thought-provoking post on difficult poetry, supporting his argument with an array of great quotes and assertions. One commenter wonders why Shepherd doesn’t include any examples from actual poems, but the result of that omission is an essay I had no trouble reading as a vindication of my own views. Here are two snippets:

Incomprehension and even frustration can seduce in poems just as they can in people: many objects of desire are obscure, but their outlines are clear. What does the sunlight breaking through the clouds that have hovered all day, then filtering through the leaves of the giant live oak tree in my back yard, “mean”? It is, I saw it, I felt in on my skin. You can see something too, feel that slight difference in the temperature when you step out from under that tree, your feet sinking a little into the thick layer of leaf litter. Too many bad poems, dull poems, are just meaning, with nothing or too little doing the meaning. I know what they mean, but I can’t be bothered to care. As Charles Bernstein notes, some poems are easy because they have nothing to say. Conversely, some poems are difficult for the same reason, in an attempt to cover up their vacuity.
A destination is also an end, but as Nietzsche wrote, the end of a melody isn’t its goal. Too often understanding is the prize you get after you’ve consumed the poem. Now that you’ve taken it apart to get the decoder ring, you’re done with the poem, you can throw it away. I don’t see poems as things I want to get over with, any more than I see life as something I want to get over with. The end of life is death, and we start dying from the minute we’re born. But on the road to the contagious hospital there are muddy fields full of new growth if we just take the time to look closely. We’ll get down that road soon enough. Death is contagious, people are always catching it; the time we don’t take will be taken from us. There’s no need to hurry oneself along.

3. An Angel named Ralph

Difficult poets don’t help their case any if they can’t read their stuff in public, by which I mean introducing some inflection and moving one’s body once in a while. The other week I went to hear Ralph Angel at Altoona College, and had a hard time staying in my seat — and not because he was that funky. I wanted to climb up on stage, elbow him out of the way, and read his poems myself. I could tell they were good. Difficult, yes, but in a way I happen to like. Intriguing shapes kept emerging from the quiet, halting, expressionless fog of his reading, only to recede again before I could get a clear idea of them. “In our white and blue city, everything smells like a story,” I heard. Well, I think some of us were getting a whiff of connectivity, too — but only a whiff. From the next poem, I got: “What I am trying to say makes faint scratching sounds on the paper.” Ah. So this reading style is a deliberate affectation, and not just the result of a lack of aptitude for public speaking? “You’re transparent in the basement by way of all exits.” Actually, we were on the ground floor, but otherwise, yes. The room was packed, and I imagine our collective bafflement was written on our faces.

Those were all last lines, identifiable as such by the longer-than-usual pause that followed, and then the brief return to a slightly more expressive voice indicating ordinary speech. During the fourth poem, I was able to extract a line from somewhere past the middle. “I write down everything as I forget it, especially at night,” Angel murmured. I liked the idea of writing as a process of forgetting. I put my notebook back in my pocket.

Afterwards, I bought copies of both his recent books — a volume of selected poems (Exceptions and Melancholies: Poems 1986-2006) and a translation of Lorca’s Poem of the Deep Song — largely to confirm my suspicion that he is, in fact, a very fine poet. But I don’t think my reaction was typical. The students, who had all dutifully signed in before the reading, stampeded out as soon as the question-and-answer period was over, with hardly a glance at the books. As far as I could tell, the only ones who bought Angel’s books were other poets. Maybe he doesn’t care about that, but I do. I want people to like good poetry, and it pains me every time I have to listen to a gifted poet who can’t read his or her own stuff. Doesn’t an MFA in poetry require credits in public speaking and performance? I’m not saying that all readings should be as dramatic as the average poetry slam — that’s like saying symphony orchestras should have light shows and stage diving. But poets should at least know how to engage an audience, I think. One of the Lorca poems Angel read was a translation of El Grito, “The Cry.” The word Ay! occurs three times in the poem; it’s an exciting piece. Let’s just say that it was not well served by murmuring.

The eclipse of a cry
echoes from mountain
to mountain.

From the olive trees
a black rainbow
veils the blue night.


4. Imposture

In that video clip from The Simpsons I linked to above, I love it when Bart unmasks what he takes to be an imposter by pulling his fake nose off. “Krusty’s a real clown!” he tells his sister. “That’s just some lumpy old guy in a clown suit.” Pandemonium ensues, as pandemonium is wont to do.

That’s what a good poem should be like.


In a follow-up to the post quoted above, Reginald Shepherd has a very helpful ennumeration of the various ways in which a poem can be difficult. I encourage everyone with even a passing interest in this topic to go read it. I especially liked his conclusion: “Every reader encounters poetic difficulty of some kind at some point.”

Good Morning Blues

As the months wore on
it began to fade, the once-
sharp contrast between
our skins & hair & lips,
as we knew it would.
Our rubbing together
built up less & less
of a static charge.
The pale apple on the back
of her laptop no longer
reminded me of anything
in particular, & we traded
fewer glances over
the rims of our cups.
For me, the morning paper
became a cosy crib
to wake up in, gazing
through bars of ink
at something like a moon-
lit yard — colorless,
fuzzy with possibilities —
as it slowly shrank
into the hard day.


I stole the title but not much else from the traditional song. I’m most familiar with Leadbelly’s version, which begins with a spoken line: “Never was a white man had the blues, ’cause, nothing to worry about.” Street musician Arvella Gray performs a more light-hearted “Good Morning Blues” at Chicago’s Maxwell Street Market in this video.


frost hand

When I came up the house yesterday morning, my mother was in full rant mode. I encouraged her to blog about it at our new Plummer’s Hollow site.

Many schools were cancelled including Tyrone. I couldn’t believe it. In Maine, at 40 below, I removed the heater from the car engine, bundled baby Mark in layers of clothes, and took Steve to first grade and Dave to nursery school in our Volkswagen bus that never warmed up above zero during our half hour ride. No one ever talked of calling school because of the cold.

And here, one year when Bruce was off to a conference in January and the boys had to get to school on their own, I walked them the two miles down to town at zero degrees, we stopped at a restauarant and they had hot chocolate to warm up, and then they walked on to school while I walked home. I remember the hoarfrost clinging to the trees beside the river and forming on my hair. In those days, Tyrone didn’t cancel school because of the cold. No wonder kids stay indoors like their parents, mesmerized by technology and getting fatter day by day. The outdoors has become something to fear.

I feel much the same way. Pennsylvanians have always been weather-wimps, and they seem to be getting worse. Plus, weather forecasts weren’t as hysterical back in the seventies and eighties, when we regularly got alot more snow and cold than we get now. Sometime in the past ten years, I became aware of the fact that the threat of virtually any measurable snowfall, or temperatures falling below 10F, is an occasion for a “winter weather advisory,” a “winter storm warning,” or a “winter storm watch” (possibly a misuse of the National Weather Service terminology). The wind-chill factor was just beginning to take hold when I was a kid; now, it’s almost constantly on the lips of broadcasters eager to keep people inside and glued to their TVs or radios.

However, I must admit I’m not as cold-hardy as either of my parents. Both sleep with one of the windows open in their bedrooms, even at two below F with a howling wind. “Well, I have a really warm comforter,” Mom told me. “And when it’s really cold like this, I tie a sweater around my head.” Ohhhh…kay.

knot (detail)

This seems like a good juncture to remind everyone that qarrtsiluni will be soliciting for contributions to the current theme, “Come Outside”, only through the 15th. Our guest editor, Fiona Robyn, has been doing a fantastic job acquiring, editing and assembling posts to go up at the rate of five a week; by Friday we will have welcomed our tenth new contributor since the middle of January. I hope some more of our past contributors will feel inspired to send stuff in, as well. And of course, we welcome just plain readers, too! If you like what you see there, please help spread the word.

snow boot

I’ve been getting outside as I can, both to snap pictures and to do a little bit of sledding. I do wish it would warm up enough to snow some more; the snow cover we have is so thin that strong sunlight is enough to melt it off on south-facing slopes, even with temperatures in the single digits.

My apologies to subscribers for the duplicate posting. I’ll blame it on my half-frozen typing fingers.

Supreme Ultimate Fist

          Taipei, 1986

4:30 a.m. & the foreign devils
are staggering home, loud
on the otherwise deserted avenues
where only sixteen
hours earlier, tanks
& missiles had crawled,
draped in flowers,
& floats bristled
with stooped dignitaries
holding each other up
like cigarette butts in
a crowded ashtray.
One flatbed bore a small
plane from the mainland,
complete with defector
waving stiffly from the cockpit,
smiling that smile
that drives
the expats crazy.

Now the Chiang
Kai-Shek Memorial
glows all alone in
the darkness. A taxi
approaches, head & arm
protruding from
the rear window,
obscene fist extended
with a howl:
Fuck you & your 4000
years of civilization!

While two blocks away
in the unlit park,
dozens of shadowy figures
are just beginning
to move the tips
of their fingers.

The title is a common, albeit poor, English translation of Tai Chi Chuan (太極拳)

Little Sadie

powered by ODEO – click here if you can’t see the player

Parental Advisory labelPARENTAL ADVISORY: Contains explicit lyrics. Granted, explicitness is generally considered to be one of the main features of good writing. But this is America, where most people prefer sugar-coated platitudes, perception management, and bald-faced lies. What we really mean to say is, this contains lyrics describing things that no impressionable young mind would have any idea about, were it not for music such as this. Also, please be advised that the failure to expose your child to at least 20 hours of Mozart per week, instead of the depraved noise made by low-life degenerates and colored people, is now treated as a form of child abuse in some states.

Night unto night

This entry is part 5 of 7 in the series Self-Portraits


ice ear

Seated between the quietly humming computer and the cold-air return vent for the furnace, I begin to hear voices. It’s not the stirring of a crowd united in passion for some cause or spectacle, nor the whispers of a moss colony buried by snow, but a simple and pleasing cacophony — the kind that grows from any gathering in which many conversations blend and merge. Picture yourself in some cave-like station or terminal where every other person is speaking animatedly into a cell phone. They might as well each be talking to God, except that, from time to time, they pause to listen. That’s what this pause is like. I’m tired and I’ve run out of things to say, so I give listening a try. The furnace stops, and a moment later the refrigerator shudders into silence. I power down the computer; the voices merely rise in pitch, till they are thin as the hairs on a fly. Call it sensory deprivation if you want. It’s past midnight, the full moon is hidden by clouds and I’m sitting in the dark, accompanied by the white noise of angels in which I do not believe.