sea urchin shell

Plagued by insomnia, I pad downstairs & grab a book at random in the dark. I soon find myself reading about Arctic terns, which fly 22,000 miles each year, circling from one end of the earth to the other so they can spend their lives in continual daylight — an endless frigid summer. They are, the book says, delicate-looking black & white birds with bright red feet & beaks, and very high-strung: they assault anyone or anything that approaches the little hollows in the permafrost where they make their nests. The male & female take turns incubating the eggs, & when the off-duty bird returns, it brings its mate the gift of a small fish.


I’ve been thinking about those porcupines of the ocean, the sea urchins. Their transparent, shell-less eggs have been featured in textbooks of developmental biology for over a hundred years, & Aristotle himself first drew attention to the simplicity of their digestive systems with their five hollow teeth and five-chambered stomachs.

Purple sea urchins, I learned recently, use their spines to excavate hollows in solid rock, & so anchor themselves against the surf. The spines attach to ball-and-socket joints, & can be used also for defense or locomotion. The purple sea urchin genome was sequenced just last November, & 70 percent of its genes were discovered to have a human counterpart.

Among my collection of miscellaneous natural objects is a sea urchin’s flying saucer-shaped shell, or test, which I found washed up on a beach when I was a kid. Thirty years later, it still smells faintly of the ocean.


Can there be anything lonelier than a fourth-quarter moon, which loses its shine so long before it sets? There it is in mid-morning, like a half-eaten midnight snack of milk & cookies. Imagine trying to describe moonlight to someone who has never experienced anything but day.

Written in response to a ReadWritePoem challenge. (UPDATE) Links to other responses are here.


foam leaf 3

Today I came across the term lifestream — “a chronological aggregated view of your life activities both online and offline” — and decided that I like the word but dislike the concept. The idea is to blend all of one’s separate online activity streams (Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, del.icio.us, StumbleUpon, WordPress, etc.) into a single stream, often on a platform where no comments are permitted. I’m not sure I see the point of that. A blended feed might make sense, but is anyone really so into me that they don’t want to risk missing a single thing I do online? I sure hope not! I’d much rather have highly discriminating fans, who might only subscribe to my occasional satirical posts, for example, or who might visit my Flickr photostream or the Plummer’s Hollow blog and never even look at Via Negativa. So I’m tickled to be picking up a few unknown “followers” on Twitter who are presumably only interested in my daily quickies at The Morning Porch. In the pre-digital age, desperate poets resorted to megaphones in the public square; now we can infiltrate the mobile phones of strangers.


Unity and consistency are temptations we’d probably do well to resist. A friend recently criticized qarrtsiluni for publishing too many hymenoptera in a row — my fault entirely. My poetry mentor, Jack McManis, edited a magazine called Pivot for a couple of decades, and one time he shared with me the secret of how they decided what order to print things in. “I take the whole stack of poems and throw them up in the air,” he said, “and then pick them up without looking at them. That becomes the order for the issue.”


“I learned long ago that writing — the outward form of my thinking — is the best means I have for discovering how the various separate and confusing threads of my life actually relate to each other, and how they weave together to form a whole cloth,” Beth writes in the latest post at the cassandra pages, entitled Change — a stirring defense of the blog medium. My own post was already three-quarters complete when I got bored, clicked on my feed reader, and saw hers. There are always other streams, aren’t there? Why obsess over unity? Just today Peter of slow reads and John of slow reading discovered each other, and it’s like they’re long-lost blogging twins.

Beth elaborates:

The blog or journal is, actually, a mirror of that movement through life that I observe in myself — neither like the geese flying across the still photograph, nor like an individual being standing motionless while life swirls around her — but rather the sense of myself as a moving, mutable being who exists in inner and outer worlds that are also in states of constant change. Seen in that way, the “self” doesn’t exist; it cannot be fixed. We humans spend much effort trying to deal with our discomfort about that dual movement, attempting to fix ourselves in time or trying to find ways of convincing ourselves that we won’t someday stop while time continues without us. So we write books, paint paintings, take photographs, build buildings; we have children and fixate on our belief that they represent a continuation of our own animation; we construct religions and place our hope on immortality.

I couldn’t have said it better. (Be sure to read the rest.)


Sometimes I’ll spend half an hour looking through a magazine or browsing a well-illustrated blog and find myself getting depressed, because every last picture has people in it. It’s not that I don’t like people. In fact, I believe strongly in the agora and the souk, and the ideals of conversation, hospitality and exchange that they represent. But any place where you can’t get out into the country within an hour’s walk feels very alienating to me: too much otherness, too many strangers. The streets and subways are rivers of humanity in which one can never fully relax. I find it desperately sad that, for a large percentage of the world’s population, escape from other humans and from human-dominated landscapes is nearly impossible.


During the last half-dozen years my dad worked as an Arts and Humanities librarian at Penn State’s Pattee Library, he had the unpleasant duty of finding a certain number of subscriptions to cancel each year in order to save the library money. Librarians refer to any regularly issued publication — a journal, magazine, newspaper, newsletter, almanac, annual report, or numbered monograph — as a serial. So my dad was a serial killer. Streams do run dry.

Speaking of the Morning Porch, I’m looking for an artist willing to colloborate on the tumblelog version, with an eye to eventual tree-flesh publication of some sort. Drop me a line if you’re interested.


stumped 1

I see, said the blind man, and he picked up a hammer and saw. Not blindness, exactly, but a very objective and analytical kind of seeing is required to cut down a tree, or to cut one up that has fallen on its own and may be spring-loaded with hidden stresses. Especially in a second-growth hardwood forest, where trees aren’t so massive that their falling will always follow a straight line, the logger must stay focused on the play of forces, ready to jump back at a moment’s notice.

stumped 2
Click photo for larger view.

But as time passes and the new surfaces made by a chainsaw begin to weather, strange things can happen. Those few minutes filled with the shriek and stink of the saw can acquire a patina of legend, in the way that violence so often seems to impart a glow of significance to the grayness of the ordinary.

fungus stump

But forget all that and look at the sawn wood. Should we be surprised if something that once passed messages between the sun and the underground kingdoms of the fungi should retain, even in its severed parts, a bit of magic?

Submissions to the 18th edition of the Festival of the Trees are due by Thursday. See here for details.

Bell Pepper

Something has drilled a tiny hole
right above the base of the bell pepper.

I try to picture what it must’ve been like
to inhabit that green cathedral space as it expanded
& its single cloud grew ponderous with seeds.

Imagine the light & the sliding shadows of leaves
shaped like enormous beetles.

Imagine an orange sunset, in the absence of a horizon,
starting from random spots
that slowly spread across the vegetable sky,
deepening week by week into fire-engine red.

There is no heart like this, so roomy, so full of sugar.
If it is a bell, it’s much too good at absorbing
every kind of blow — or else
its tone is too high-pitched
to be heard by anything larger than the head of pin.

Written for the prompt #2 at Read Write Poem. The other responses (mostly food poems) are here.

Hunting vs. gathering

Hunters, by Banksy

Yeah, yeah, it’s Black Friday. But it’s also just three days until the opening day of regular rifle deer season in Pennsylvania, which for some people I know is like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s rolled into one. So while the gatherers are standing in checkout lines, the hunters are moving tree stands around, cleaning their rifles, and going to the target range.

For the righteous among us, of course, there’s always leftover tofurkey and Buy Nothing Day. To each his/her own. Me, I’m going out to look for some photos.

Plastic mantis

A bearable Thanksgiving

Barracuda 3

What’s there to say about a Thanksgiving that was disrupted by a six-and-a-half-hour power outage? Only that, like the Pilgrims at Plymouth, we made the best of it, and filled our bellies in the end.

Margaret's porch 1

Fortunately, we hadn’t planned a large gathering, and so were just able to fit around my sister-in-law’s table in town.

It was a day that began with a fat porcupine squeezing under my front porch — which is something that never looks quite possible even while it’s happening — and ended with a very full toilet bowl that just barely managed to flush. And in between I got to see a black bear cub climbing a tree from only 100 feet away through a tangle of wild grapes. Both of us were too busy stuffing ourselves with grapes to notice the other at first. Then it started to rain, the cub went down the tree, and I closed the distance between us just in time to see the mother’s rear end disappearing into a thicket.

wild grapes

This was the fourth time we’ve had a power outage on Thanksgiving or Christmas, and also the fourth time we’ve seen a bear on a major holiday (the others were on Christmas and Easter). I guess I’m thankful to be living in a place where power outages are still rare enough to be remembered, but even if someday they become a routine occurence, the chances are good that we will still be sharing the mountain with bears and porcupines — and for that I am truly thankful.

Passing water

Clouded Drab

I thought I’d post a fresh picture for once, so here’s one from my jaunt to Greenwich on Friday: someone walking their dogs near some of the C17th sweet chestnut trees.

Giant mossy boles
of ancient chestnuts. A dog
strains at his leash.


Burning Silo

There’s a hypnotic quality to wave-watching. I find a safe spot to stand or sit, and then let my mind get in synch with the rhythm of the waves. Among my favourites is to find a place where I can watch the seething, frothy riptide as it churns to wash up and away from the shore. The white caps and foam smash together and frequently rise up to form mountainous crests in the surf.

A wild coast–
white peaks of water rise
between the rocks.


Dharma bums

We’ve been distracted by beauty and pain. Stunning sights of sleeping sea otters and stories of rage and murder.

Laid up with pain,
he thinks about the sea otters
sleeping on the waves.


Creature of the Shade

The trees themselves aren’t interesting to photograph, but I had a pleasant half hour looking at lavender blossoms on someone’s dark blue car. It yielded a monochrome effect, with reflected accents of both city and tree.

Sky-colored blossoms
on the hood of a sky-colored car
float on their shadows.


Two Dishes But to One Table

Rivers in the desert are open for business intermittently. The rest of the time they are tempting trails.

at the bend of a dry river:
sinuous lines.

White space

hook-shaped sapling

Snow is a harsh editor, bringing out the most dramatic details and burying the rest. This black gum sapling grows less than ten feet from a trail, but I’d never focused on it before: an antelope in mid-leap, looking back over its shoulder.


From almost nothing in the depths of the hollow, the snow grew thicker on leaves and branches as I climbed the side of the ridge. A hundred yards beyond the “antelope,” I surprised a doe that had been bedded down under white mounds of mountain laurel. For once, her tail matched the color of the woods, and it was the grayish-brown of her winter coat that flashed alarm.

snow textures
(Best viewed at larger size)

What begins as erasure, a laudable minimalism, becomes positively rococo as every last detail is freighted with a burden of white space.

snow on witch hazel blossoms

Witch-hazel blossoms are capable of self-pollination when cold prevents the late moths, flies, and beetles from visiting. Is it possible that an early snow like this could also do the trick, if it were to soften and slide down a branch just so, from one flower to another? Well, probably not. But I like the idea of snow as a matchmaker, for some reason.

snowy trunks

Going back along the ridgetop, I relished the silence and the fact that, for once, I didn’t break it just by walking: the fallen leaves were as muffled as those still clinging to the trees. From time to time a leaf-sized clump of snow would plummet to the ground, making a leaf-shaped print, like a promissory note.

Poetry for naturalists (4)

Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.

16. Selected Poems 1966-1987, by Seamus Heaney (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990)

Though Heaney may not be the sort of poet likely to make it onto standard lists of nature-poets, few of his poems are without an almost palpable presence of the land and its inhabitants, both human and wild. This particular volume includes a number of things of likely interest to nature lovers: selections from Death of a Naturalist and Wintering Out; the bog-people poems from North; a generous selection from Field Work; and best of all, five translations from the Medieval Irish cycle Sweeney Astray, about the Ulster king who went mad and was turned into a bird, as well as Heaney’s own “Sweeney Redivivus” cycle from Station Island. Here’s an excerpt from one of the translations (or versions, as Heaney terms them), “Sweeney’s Last Poem”:

There was a time when I preferred
the turtle-dove’s soft jubilation
as it flitted round a pool
to the murmur of conversation.

There was a time when I preferred
the blackbird singing on the hill
and the stag loud against the storm
to the clinking tongue of this bell.

There was a time when I preferred
the mountain grouse crying at dawn
to the voice and closeness
of a beautiful woman.

There was a time when I preferred
wolf-packs yelping and howling
to the sheepish voice of a cleric
bleating out plainsong.

You are welcome to pledge healths
and carouse in your drinking dens;
I will dip and steal water
from a well with my open palm.

Silent reading often gives short shrift to poets like Heaney. I found an online recording of the poet reading a piece from a later collection, The Spirit Level — listen to St. Kevin and the Blackbird.

17. The Book of Medicines, by Linda Hogan (Coffee House Press, 1993)

The bear is a dark continent
that walks upright
like a man,

says Linda Hogan, and of a mountain lion, she observes,

Her power lived
in a dream of my leaving.
It was the same way
I have looked so many times at others
in clear light
before lowering my eyes
and turning away
from what lives inside those
who have found
two worlds cannot live
inside a single vision.

But it’s way too easy to find such quotes in this book of eminently quotable poems, where concern for the health of the land and the health of people — both whites and Hogan’s own Chickasaw — are closely interwoven.

There is still a little life
left inside this body,
a little wildness here
and mercy
and it is the emptiness
we love, touch, enter in one another
and try to fill.

Hogan’s is a wise voice that deserves a much wider audience.

18. Wolfwatching, by Ted Hughes (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989)

Nobody mythologizes animals quite as effectively as Hughes, I think. I could’ve chosen almost any of his books for this list, but this slim volume edged out the others for its inclusion of the three-part poem, “The Black Rhino.”

This is the Black Rhino, the elastic boulder, coming at a gallop.
The boulder with a molten core, the animal missile,
Enlarging towards you. This is him in his fame —

Whose past is Behemoth, sixty million years printing the strata
Whose present is the brain-blink behind a recoiling gunsight
Whose future is a cheap watch shaken in your ear

Listen — bedrock accompanies him, a drumbeat
But his shadow over the crisp tangle of grass-tips hesitates, passes, hesitates, passes lightly
As a moth at noon

For this is the Black Rhino, who vanishes as he approaches
Every second there is less and less of him
By the time he reaches you nothing will remain, maybe, but the horn — an ornament for a lady’s lap

Extinction, like genocide, makes the imagination seize up, but for that very reason I think it is imperative for any poet of the late 20th or early 21st century to keep trying to put it into words. Hughes succeeded as well as anyone can.

19. The Way Winter Works, by Harry Humes (University of Arkansas Press, 1990)

If Pennsylvania had a poet laureate, Harry Humes would be my choice for the post. His understated-yet-powerful poems are firmly rooted in the hills and valleys of the hard coal country where he grew up and lives still. (So strong is his commitment to understatement that he has never written a poem about Centralia, the famous Pennsylvania town that had to be abandoned because of the slow fire burning underneath it in an abandoned coal mine. “Too obvious,” Humes said when I asked him about it after a poetry reading once. At least five other poets, including W.S. Merwin, haven’t suffered from any such scruples.)

More to the point here, Humes is a competent naturalist and fly fisherman who knows the names and ways of the wild, or what passes for it in the well-used landscapes of central and eastern Pennsylvania. I guess I own all of his books, and I love each one of them; The Way Winter Works simply happens to have the greatest number of personal favorites. “Deer Hunting,” for example, might well be the definitive poem on that subject, though definitiveness was probably the farthest thing from the author’s mind when he wrote it. And the book contains touches of surrealism absent from his other books, as in “The Woman Who Called Whales across the Fields.”

A lot of Humes’ poems are about memory; I hope he won’t mind if I quote one of the shorter ones in its entirety.

Sorrow near the Old House

I walk to the place in the woods
where an old foundation fills
with one season after another
and sit on the stones
to watch for copperheads and deer,
then walk along the stream to the inlet.

All of it the same.
Bats beginning their dance,
oars creaking on the lake,
the overgrown path through the meadow
with its yarrow and pearly everlasting,
the way I imagine the house,
yellow with light, watertight with children.

20. Imperfect Thirst, by Galway Kinnell (Houghton Mifflin, 1994)

This may not be the most obvious choice of a book by Kinnell to demonstrate his closeness to nature, but it is dear to me for the inclusion of a poem called “Holy Shit,” which begins with a ridiculous shit-load of epigraphs, continues with a three-page consideration of various kinds of human and animal excrement, and ends with this injunction:

Let us remember this is our home
and that we have become, we mad ones, its keepers.
Let us sit bent forward slightly, and be opened a moment,
as earth’s holy matter passes through us.

Rereading another poem, “Trees,” just now, and hearkening back to the discussion in Part 1 of this series about when and whether poets should use the proper names for things, I was struck by Kinnell’s decision to describe rather than name a woodpecker and a nuthatch:

Tok-tok-tok-tok, as from somebody
nailing upholstery, started up nearby:
the bird with a bloodmark on the back
of his head clung, cutting with
steady strokes his cave of wormwood.
On another tree, a smaller bird,
in gray rags, put her rump
to the sky and walked headfirst
down the trunk toward the earth
and the earth under the earth.

Since the poem is describing an incident from childhood, I think we are meant to understand that the narrator didn’t know the names of these birds. But think how much less wonder would’ve been communicated in these descriptions if the names had been included! By contrast, a poem called “Collusion of Elements” takes the opposite tack, in its first two lines referring to familiar garden flowers by their less familiar, full Latin names. In either case, the poet aims to strangefy, I guess:

On the riverbank Narcissus poeticus holds an ear trumpet toward the canoe apparitioning past.
Cosmos sulphureous flings back all its eyelashes and stares.

In my favorite poem in the book, “Telephoning in Mexican Sunlight,” the narrator is at a pay phone in Mexico, talking with his “beloved in New York,” when a dozen small hummingbirds start orbiting his head, attracted by the lurid color of his shirt. Rereading it, I’m thinking I like it better even than Diane Ackerman’s hummingbird poem now (see Part 2), though that of course says more about my preference for economy and punchy endings than anything else. An excerpt really wouldn’t do it justice, but fortunately the whole poem is archived at the Boston Review. Notice how here, too, an unnamed word focuses attention, and how we are permitted to guess it through the circumspect ruse of three flower names offered in its stead.

Windshield frost


We crawled cautiously, semi-sighted, across junctions and around corners until, on the slope by the park, we turned head on toward the sun. That first lick of low light was enough to temper the ice which now slid softly sideways under the rhythm of the blades.

The first touch of sun
and the windshield frost is gone —
so clear a view!


Light Verse for a Heavy Universe

Most of the numbers in the world are wrong and always have been. Government agencies ceaselessly and shamelessly revise their figures. Scientists and engineers “refine” theirs. Economists “massage” their data and finally turn the charts upside-down or sideways to make the numbers match reality.

Counting to 10 can help prevent a row —
is having a number better than having a cow?
Our days are numbered, we think, but we don’t know how.
Clocks make us forget that every moment is now.


Twitter [note on login page, 11/16]

You’ll be able to access Twitter again in just a second. We’re just shuffling a few things around. Just hang tight… [emphasis added]

an adjustment, but so un-


One Word

I didn’t write today. I cleaned.

Last week sucked mightily.

I have the next three days off.

This is not a poem. This is how my brain is working now.

I want D to be happy. I want Moby to be happy.

Moby is easier. He got to lie in the sun on a curl of red wool today.

This is not a poem.
This is how my brain is working now.
I want D to be happy.


bird by bird

Here’s the Cordelia resident snowy egret, which perches on pens and pools and knows how to get free food…

At feeding time
for the de-oiled waterfowl,
a snowy egret.



I am twenty, walking home from work in Billings. A man in a car calls me over to ask directions. When I get to the car, I see that he is exposed, masturbating. I turn away, thinking this did not happen. I hear the words: this did not happen. I even see the words pass by my eyes, like the ticker on the bottom of the CNN screen (cable news, which hasn’t yet been invented): THIS … DID … NOT … HAPPEN.

Penis in hand,
he calls a woman over
to ask directions.


box elder

…and, of course, button-eyed frogs. I say of course, because, in truth, my sister is a frog phobic (and I will leave it to you to find out the correct Greek-rooted word for that), and as so often happens with phobias, the object has become something of a motif in her life and work!

Buttons for eyes
on the bestiary quilt —
you’ll find them at night.


{ Never Neutral }

I spend long hours staring at the computer. Autism redefined. Suddenly, an eyelid starts to twitch, then the biceps, or the triceps sometimes, starts to pulse, like a heart, like a rabbit inside a magician’s hat, like saying, take me out of here, “remember me”. The ghost is not in the machine, but in the body enslaved by the machine.

There on the glass
when the monitor goes dark,
my own sad face.