The Poet Poem

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

ivy alvarez
pier paolo pasolini
alison fell

ahmed faiz
ono no komachi
cornelius eady
galway kinnell

carlos williams
lucille clifton
ishikawa takuboku
william kloefkorn

yehuda halevi
salvatore quasimodo
ed dorn

june jordan
nazim hikmet
d. j. enright

lawrence ferlinghetti
alicia suskin ostriker
kate light

Walking in the snow

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

the signboard beech

If you’d gone for a walk up the hollow this morning, you might’ve noticed this beech tree right around the first bend, on the other side of the stream. It’s right above the little three-foot waterfall on Plummer’s Hollow Run, which is flowing pretty well because of the all the melting — on the sunny slopes, at any rate. There’s still plenty of snow and ice in the depths of the hollow, as I had to remind a friend of mine who wanted to drive up here tonight. If you want to visit me right now, you’ll need a high-clearance vehicle with four-wheel drive. Or just plan on walking.

The hemlocks start at the top of the first hill. When I walked up the road after the big snowstorm on Wednesday, chickadees were foraging in the snow-laden boughs, setting off minor avalanches every time they moved.

northern short-tailed shrew 1

About half-way up the hollow in one of the tire tracks that day, I came across this sad sight. The northern short-tailed shrew, though far from uncommon in moist woodlands, is seldom seen alive due to its underground habits. My mother was fortunate enough to watch one of these creatures foraging on the surface for about 20 minutes one February:

It pursued its prey vigorously, its pointed snout questing, its clawed back feet pumping, its front feet digging like a frantic terrier. Once it pulled what looked like a caterpillar from beneath the leaf litter and chomped it down.

A small, plush, charcoal-gray, furry ball, it scuffled over the snow. Its pink nose constantly sniffed while its naked, pink feet scratched the thin snow layer or the open turf. The little creature ate so much that it even paused to excrete.

Feral cats and other predators tend to kill shrews and then abandon them uneaten, due to their strong muskiness — a by-product of the mild poison they emit in their saliva. I’m not sure what did in this particular shrew — possibly a hawk, since I didn’t see any tracks. The bird had probably spotted it when it emerged from a snow-tunnel into the tire track.

northern short-tailed shrew 2

Short-tailed shrews spend much of the winter sleeping in order to conserve energy, but they don’t actually hibernate. Instead, they fill underground larders with seeds, fungal parts, insect eggs — virtually anything edible. Their poison, ineffective against larger prey like mice, is thought to be used to immobilize insects and insect larvae, keeping them alive and fresh for later consumption.

Considering how numerous and how voracious they are, shrews probably have a much larger effect on the forest ecosystem than their diminutive size might suggest. For example, two of their favorite foods are earthworms and, in the winter, fallen gypsy moth eggs. At this latitude, all earthworms are non-native and their proliferation in forest environments has led to radical changes in soil make-up and chemistry, probably paving the way — so to speak — for a number of invasive plant species, while destroying habitat for native plants, invertebrates, and salamanders. It’s funny to think that a major predator of salamanders and snails like the short-tailed shrew might actually be helping to save them by keeping a competitor somewhat in check! (Emphasis on “might”: that’s pure speculation on my part.) As for the gypsy moth, I suppose most people are familiar with the devastation it can cause during its periodic outbreaks. Over the past couple of decades, a suite of predators and diseases have helped keep gypsy moth populations in check in our area; it would be hard to measure the contribution of any one predator. And of course gypsy moths are far from the only insect whose larvae or adult forms prey on trees.

Nearly blind, the northern short-tailed shrew compensates with an exquisite sense of smell and the use of sonar, like a wingless, earth-bound bat. Deep snow creates a lighter, more permeable medium than soil. A thick layer of brown fat between the shrew’s shoulder blades burns like a furnace, as another of my mother’s columns describes. (See why I wanted her to get a website?)

oak apple gall

If you’d gone walking up the hollow this morning, you might’ve seen the first tundra swans flying over, en route to their breeding grounds in Canada. They weren’t very vocal, this bunch, and if I hadn’t stopped to try and get a picture of a pileated woodpecker (obviously without success), I never would have heard a stray clarinet sound and known to look up. That’s always how it is, though, isn’t it? Stop to look at one thing, and you notice something else. I forget what I was looking at when it suddenly occurred to me that the road itself was beautiful in the long shadows of winter.

road stripes

I find it all too easy to keep my eyes on the ground whenever there’s snow. Devoid of life as winter otherwise might seem, it’s actually the one time of year when I can find daily, tangible evidence of the animals I share the mountain with. This morning I admired fresh tracks of wild turkeys, coyotes, deer, a gray (?) fox, a porcupine, white-footed mice, meadow voles, gray squirrels and chipmunks. The chipmunk tracks have diminished a little from earlier in the week, when every chipmunk on the mountain seemed to have gone into a mating frenzy at the same time. Some of them even looked as if they were chasing after their own shadows, they way they zipped back and forth over the snow. But that’s another story.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

An old poem, reprinted in honor of International Women’s Day.

We cut them down at daybreak
at the head of a dry wash
with their dogs & their rifles asleep
in the thorn scrub,
soon to flower

as I remember it growing up:
the sudden reds & purples
against the ground,
the clouds of bees

& I close my eyes
for a heart-
beat or two–
but not, I assure you,
from any faint-heartedness.
It’s only men who tremble
when their guns go off.

I could tell you about the girl
I used to be: quiet,
solemn in the face
of the world’s inevitable cruelties.
Helping my uncle at slaughtering time

I loved the way he made
his blade shimmy right through
the toughest joints so fast
they hardly moved–
one moment a carcass
complete with bone & gristle,
the next an exclusive
disjunction. Even now

I can hear him singing
as he feeds the low fire,
scraps of fat simmering
for soap:
One knee for Doña Sebastiana,
both knees for God alone.
It’s a dull knife that cuts the hand.
Keep your heart still
& your shoulder to the sky.


Doña Sebastiana: In Mexican folk religion, personification of Death as a female saint. See photo here.

The descent

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

frost web

Yesterday morning, I found myself drawn to the abstract geometries of frost. It was time to stop spinning stories about what I was seeing and just shoot. The descent beckoned.

[Click on photos to view larger, jpeg versions.]

coyote tracks


buried maple branch


leaf tracks


blackberry cane



Hundreds of spam comments come into Via Negativa every day, all but a tiny fraction going straight into the virtual trashcan (i.e. my Akismet spam blocker). Sometime last night, the 100,000th spam comment arrived. I awoke to snow, and the first red-winged blackbirds of spring.

red-winged blackbird in snowstorm

The Hokey-Pokey

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

An enormous army-green helicopter squats on the roof. We pass through the hokey-pokey checkpoint, revolving in a kind of dance with our hands above our heads, praise the Lord. That’s what it’s all about. Then echoey corridors, the squeak of new boots. Craning my head to peer through a skylight, I see HONDURAS still etched into one of the battlements. I know I have nothing to fear, but keep my thoughts to myself in any case, sitting in silence at the desk I’ve been issued, or dividing up an enormous baked squash with a butter knife as if it were a pie, as if it were a circle only temporarily stretched out of shape. The orange meat crumbles as the blade passes through. Nobody here can eat another bite. The busboy fumbles with something under his fatigue jacket & my mouth goes dry: in another moment we will be filled with shards of metal and foreign flesh. If I’m lucky, I’ll live out my life with fragments of the enemy lodged in my side. I will turn myself around.

Note: According to the OED, hokey-pokey (or hokey-cokey in the UK) comes from hocus pocus, the all-purpose conjuror’s formula dating back to the early 17th century. The nonsense Latin is popularly believed to derive from hoc est (enim) corpus (meum), “this is my body” — the words spoken when the priest elevates the consecrated host, marking the moment of transubstantiation. An 18th-century abbreviation of hocus pocus gave us the word hoax.

For what it’s worth, I didn’t know any of this when I wrote the first draft.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

runoffHere’s how my co-editor Beth Adams and I began an email to qarrtsiluni supporters this morning. If you’d like to join our bimonthly notification list, please drop us a line: qarrtsiluni (at) gmail (dot) com.

Winter isn’t quite done with us yet in the northeastern U.S. and Canada, but the usual pas de deux between winter and spring is well underway. At qarrtsiluni, we’ve begun to solicit contributions to a new kind of dialogue, as well. The theme for March and April is ekphrasis – poetry (or poetic prose) in dialogue with visual art. Our two guest editors have extensive experience in creative writing, editing, art and design. For links to their blogs and to our general guidelines for submission, please see the full theme announcement.

Dream city

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The city I visit in my dreams has a car-free center with many narrow, winding alleys that morph into covered passageways. It combines features from every city or large town I’ve ever spent more than a week in, so picture a combination of Osaka; Kyoto; Taipei; Tegucigalpa; Ithaca, New York; Austin, Texas; and State College, Pennsylvania. In many dreams, it’s just a set for the usual play of mundane anxieties: losing my backpack, for example, or suddenly discovering I don’t have enough money to pay for a meal I’ve just eaten. But in some dreams it’s also a landscape of longing, and not in the sense that I wake up and wish I were still dreaming. Rather, within the dream itself, I am often searching for a place I found once, a long time ago, and have never been able to find again. I suppose that’s a kind of anxiety, too, isn’t it?

Don’t get the wrong idea when I tell you that the place in question is a bar. I’ve seldom enjoyed hanging out in bars: they’re almost always too noisy, too crowded, and too expensive for my paltry income compared with just buying a case of beer and drinking it at home, and they tend to be filled with loud music I don’t like (I don’t care for most classic rock). I much prefer coffee shops and diners where one can sit at the counter and have normal, non-pick-up-oriented conversations with the waitresses and the other patrons. I can’t tell you why I feel such longing for this bar in my dreams. It almost seems as if that’s part of what I’m searching for: some explanation for my attraction, or the memory of attraction.

All I can really tell you about the place is that it was very small, moderately well-lit, and decorated in orange and red, with maybe some green thrown in. There were no tables, just a bar on three sides of the room. The bar was made out of metal, I think, and the stools were free-standing draftsmen’s stools. It was basically a place where one ducked in for a quick drink on a cold evening, I guess. What made it seem so convivial? I remember it as virtually deserted, with just one bartender present, and no other customers. (Perhaps it closed subsequently for lack of business?) I believe I found it by accident while looking for another place where I was supposed to meet some friends. I don’t remember how long I stayed: maybe a few moments, maybe the entire evening. What’s time in a dream, anyhow?

Unless it wasn’t a dream. I visited a lot of strange little places in Japan and Taiwan twenty years ago, so I’m not absolutely sure it’s a figment of my imagination. The inexplicable longing I feel to visit it again, even now that I’m awake, is every bit as strong as the nostalgia I feel for things that I know were real. But the bar’s reality or lack thereof is almost beside the point, because I suspect that I was barely awake for most of the things that provoke nostalgia in me now. What is nostalgia, after all, but a manifestation of the desire to be fully present without the discipline to achieve it in the here-and-now?


Members Only, said the sign on the door. The room was filled with severed penises.

Some of my anxiety dreams are so ridiculous, I wake up laughing.

Old Joe Clark

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

It ain’t true, none of it. The yellow cat, the buck-toothed mule, the sixteen stories — all whoppers. When a man gets too big in the world, everybody tries to bring him down, that’s all. Success ain’t a crime.

Sure, I like a card game, and women, and no shame in that, unless you listen to my pa. Bastard son of a circuit preacher, that’s me. And I got the law on my side, too, because I went and bought a license for my distillery, and I sell corn cheap and in broad daylight. A lot of them moonshine boys don’t like that. My next-door neighbor’s missing an arm, and you can ask him why if you want to sing about something that’s true and packs a lesson. But if you sing about the ladies you’d best be careful, or I’ll shoot off something you’ll miss more’n an arm.

I ain’t no different than anybody else, except when I go for something, I aim to get it. Every man has a shadow as long as the sun shines. And 46 ain’t old.


There are several stories surrounding his death. J.B. Weaver gave this account, as told to him by Joe’s son. Clark was living with a woman named Chris Leger and they split up. He then began living with a McKenney woman in his store, renting his house to Chris and her new friend, the brother of Old Jim Howard. Leger and Howard then devised a plan whereby they would kill Joe and she would claim he had left the farm to her. Howard shot and killed Clark on April 22, 1886, near the back porch of the store. Howard then fled to Beattyville, where a few days later while crossing a bridge, he was stabbed to death by two men from Clay County.

Clark is buried in the family cemetery on a hill overlooking the farm at Sextons Creek.
–Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives

Old Joe Clark Ballad
Mountain ballad, about 90 stanzas, sung during World War I, and later wars by soldiers from eastern Kentucky. Early version, as sung in Virginia, printed in 1918. Joe Clark, born 1839, lived here; shiftless and rough mountaineer of that day. His enemies were legion; he was murdered in 1885. In the moonshining days of 1870s, he ran government-supervised still.
roadside historical marker, Jct. KY 577 & 1350

The Pleasures of a Book: Francis Ponge

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Francis Ponge bookThe Nature of Things, by Francis Ponge

Translated and with an Introduction by Lee Fahnstock

New York: Red Dust, 2000 (2nd printing)

Originally published as Le parti pris des choses
by Editions Gallimard Paris, 1942

Poems crowd into the meager paperback like moss on a stone: the book teems. Its ink and glued binding give off a faint odor of fermentation. The margins are scandalously narrow, and the shorter poems don’t even get a page to themselves. Often they lack the most rudimentary spaces between their stanzas, and poorly reproduced engravings are the only illustrations.

But what fecundity! The French originals linger somewhere close by, like shed undergarments littering the floor around a marriage bed. And between these thin covers, everything is in flux, surrendering to multiple readings — at first slow and tentative, then gradually more assured. The off-white paper takes on a greenish cast, like the base of a flame. Fire or ferment, some kind of oxidation is clearly taking place, beyond the normal decomposition that disorders the senses after a good, long read.

Entering a poem by Francis Ponge, we become conscious of the way our thoughts take on the shape of whatever they encounter, though never as a mere vegetal clone. Eyes and lips no less than tongues serve as reproductive organs for the mind. To a poet like Ponge, there could never have been more than one poem in existence at a time. It’s we readers who are to blame for this profligacy: it’s our throats that burn, it’s our paper bodies that are spent.

As for the book, it will not lie flat. The moment I remove my fingers, it springs back to its original position: shut tight, but for the slight gap of the top cover.

Trembling to be trees

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Standing in our numbered rows
we stretched and stretched, embracing

the enormous air, our fingers
splayed, heels rising up

off the floor, bodies grunting, sweating,
trembling to be trees.

That’s from “Forest,” by Mike White: the poem featured today in Poetry Daily. It seemed like a timely reminder to check out the brand new edition (#9) of the Festival of the Trees. Among the many and varied topics covered in this edition, I was especially struck by the beeched wail; Napier’s Bones; l’emondage; and the rather startling news that E‘s 7th sexiest celebrity in the world has married a tree — actually, two trees. Whether she herself is “trembling to be [a] tree,” the blogs don’t speculate.