Poetry for naturalists (3)

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Part 1; Part 2.

11. Collected Shorter Poems, 1946-1992, by Hayden Carruth (Copper Canyon Press, 1992)

Then it came to me,
this insane song, wavering music
like the cry of the genie inside his lamp,
it came from inside the long wilderness
of my life, a loon’s song, and there he was
swimming on the pond, guarding
his mate’s nest by the shore,
diving and staying under
unbelievable minutes and coming up
where no one was looking. My friend
told how once in his boyhood
he had seen a loon swimming beneath his boat,
a shape dark and powerful
down in that silent mysterious world, and how
it had ejected a plume of white excrement
curving behind. “It was beautiful,”
he said.
–“The Loon on Forrester’s Pond”

Earthy, often plain-spoken, rooted in the landscapes of New England and upstate New York: this excerpt encapsulates the major features of Hayden Carruth’s work as well as any could. His prominence as an editor (Poetry magazine, Harper’s, the anthology The Voice That Is Great Within Us) may have led some critics to overlook the fact that he’s a damn fine poet in his own right — a master of language and a virtuoso of poetic form. And imagery from the natural world is no occasional ornament, but an almost constant presence in his work.

12. Some Heaven, by Todd Davis (Michigan State University Press, 2007)

The second book of a poet with roots in Indiana and western Massachusetts, recently relocated to Central Pennsylvania. I’ve written about (and quoted from) this book before, after attending a reading by the author. Like Wendell Berry, Davis often mixes religious themes and subjects into his poems about nature and landscape. Here, for example, is the first half of the title poem:

The rabbit’s head is caught
between the slats of the fence,
and in its struggle it has turned
so the hind legs nearly touch
the nose — neck broken, lungs failing.
My boys ask me to do something
but see no mercy in my plan.
At five and eight, they are so far
away from their own deaths
that they cannot imagine the blessing
a shovel might hold, the lesson
suffering offers those who have
not suffered.

13. The Wild Iris, by Louise Glück (Ecco Press, 1992)

This book is, for my money, one of the greatest poetic achievements in English of the last thirty years: a modern book of hours from a fallen Eden in which the poet addresses a God in whom she does not believe — and God and the plants in her garden talk back. You don’t have to know anything about plants to appreciate the genius of the arrangement or the vatic intensity of the monologues, but it probably helps. Here’s the latter part of “The Red Poppy”:

I have
a lord in heaven
called the sun, and open
for him, showing him
the fire of my own heart, fire
like his presence.
What could such glory be
if not a heart? Oh my brothers and sisters,
were you like me once, long ago,
before you were human? Did you
permit yourselves
to open once, who would never
open again? Because in truth
I am speaking now
the way you do. I speak
because I am shattered.

14. The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer: Collected Poems, by John Haines (Graywolf Press, 1993)

Another one of my favorite books, which I’ve quoted from more than once before. A blurb on the back of my edition puts it well: “Splendidly odd, somberly beautiful. … John Haines’s spare, oracular lyrics feel as if they have come from a great distance” — from Alaska, to be precise. Haines writes about wilderness and the experience of living in it without a false note or trace of sentimentality. Picking one excerpt is challenging for me, but since I began this series by talking about the difficulty poets sometimes have in using the specific names of organisms, how about a poem which depends on such names for its effect? Here are the opening stanzas of “Mushroom Fable”; the capitalized phrases are names of fungi:

I knew them all in that age of saliva.

Soapy Tricholoma I knew,
and Blackening Russula.
I called Oak-loving Collybia
my friend, I gave her
Pig’s Ears and Witches Butter.

Born a Smoky Woodlover, I scored
with Chicken-in-the-Woods,
and cast my spawn in a Fairy Ring.
I wanted Dark-Centered Hebeloma
once, but never found her.

But I turned my back on those
tragic sisters, the False Morels;
I pitied the pale Amanitas
their bitter names
and bad complexions,
for they were beneath me.

15. The Shape of the Journey: New and Collected Poems, by Jim Harrison (Copper Canyon Press, 1998)

It is very hard to give birds advice.
They are already members of eternity.
In their genes they have both compass
and calendar. Their wing bones are hollow.
We are surprised by how light a dead bird is.


Offenses this summer against Nature:
poured iced tea on a garter snake’s head
as he or she dozed on the elm stump,
pissed on a bumblebee (inattentive),
kicked a thousand wasps to death in my slippers.
Favors done this summer for Nature:
let the mice keep their nest in the green station wagon …

That’s from the long poem “Returning to Earth,” one of many varied treasures in this volume, which also includes 65 ghazals, the 30-part Letters to Yesenin, and an eccentric collection of 57 American Zen poems named for the equally eccentric Japanese Zen master and poet — After Ikkyí» & Other Poems. A native of Michigan dubbed “the poet laureate of appetite” by Salon magazine, Harrison is gaining fame for his fiction and nonfiction, but poetry seems his truest calling. His poems are as warm and full of humor as Haines’ are stark and grave; a fondness for nature and natural imagery is really the only thing these two, radically different poets share.

Continue to Part 4.

Junk shop

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

oak leaf under chestnut bark

Not all falling leaves go to the same place. Trapped under the peeling skin of a dead chestnut, the oak leaf fades from blood red to bloodstain brown,

maple leaf under oak bark

while an orange and scarlet maple leaf peeks like an insurrectionary flag from a crevasse next to a bulge of scar tissue on an ancient oak.

chestnut oak leaves

The November woods are a little like a junk shop, full of discarded treasures.

Be sure to send your tree-related links to Larry Ayers — larry (dot) ayers (at) gmail (dot) com — by November 29 for the next Festival of the Trees, this time at Riverside Rambles.




Outside a junk shop,
a quilt, the bars of a gate —
wandering shadows.


the cassandra pages

Behind the plate glass, behind the empty outside baskets and washed blackboard, tomatoes shine in red pyramids and leeks stand at attention like sailors. White mattresses in dormitory rows already sleep under all-night lights while men in black suits discuss the day’s receipts. Outside the Intermarché the man with the tattooed face eats something rapidly, seated on his blanket […]

Empty sandwich board.
The man with the tattooed face
wolfs down his supper.


Somewhere in NJ

I don’t think I could ever tire of watching sanderlings and was glad to see such a large group huddled together against the wind. Have you ever seen sanderlings hop on one foot before the surf, rather than running like they normally do? Funny – that sight was my delight this morning!

A windy beach.
Sanderlings hop on one foot
when the surf comes in.

Poetry for naturalists (2)

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

In Part 1 of this series, I listed four anthologies. I didn’t include any anthologies specifically of nature poetry, because I have yet to find one that’s fully satisfying — and in any case, I prefer reading single-author collections, which I’ll list alphabetically by author. Please note that this is a purely personal list, heavily influenced by serendipity. I have somewhere around 1000 books of poetry, most of them acquired by chance at sales and used bookstores. I apologize in advance to my British readers for the scarcity of British poets, for example. Books by American poets are simply a lot easier to get a hold of over here.

5. Jaguar of Sweet Laughter: New and Selected Poems, by Diane Ackerman (Vintage Books, 1991)

Ackerman’s talent for lyric verse is enormous, her knowledge about natural history extensive, and poems about non-human subjects make up the bulk of her work. Her language makes me think of a cross between Plath and Oliver, but that might not adequately convey the lushness of some of these poems. They are best savored two or three at a time, like anything rich. And the geographic scope is enormous, with a poems set everywhere from Amazonia to the Antarctic to the Bronx.

So, in the dark night of the hummingbird,
while lilies lather sweetly in the rain,
the hummingbird rests near collapse,
its quick breath halved, its rugged breath shallow,
its W-shaped tongue, as bright as Cassiopeia,
now mumbling words like wistful and wan.
The world at once drug, anthem, bright lagoon,
where its heart knew all the Morse codes
for rapture, pales into a senseless twilight.
–“The Dark Night of the Hummingbird”

6. Uplands: New Poems, by A. R. Ammons (Norton, 1970)

It took me a long time to discover that I liked Ammons’ unique style, where a love of word-music is matched by a passion for understatement. Now I wish I owned more than just this one, slim volume, in which so many poems betray a deep knowledge of the natural world. He writes about “Runoff,” for example,

quiet and clear,
never tipping enough to break sound,
slowed into marshy landrise and burst

into a bog of lupine and mirrored:
that was a place! what a place!
the soggy small marsh, nutgrass and swordweed!

And in the last two stanzas of the almost-title poem, “Upland,” Ammons deftly captures a geographic feature I’m intimately familiar with:

take the Alleghenies for example,
some quality in the air
of summit stones lying free and loose
out among the shrub trees: every

exigency seems prepared for that might
roll, bound, or give flight
to stone: that is, the stones are
pepared: they are round and ready.

7. Eyes to See Otherwise / Ojos de otro mirar: Selected Poems, by Homero Aridjis, edited by Betty Ferber and George McWhirter (New Directions, 2001)

The editors have gathered the work of multiple translators for this bilingual selection from one of Mexico’s best-known poets, who is also probably its most prominent environmental activist. Homero Aridjis grew up in the closest town to the over-wintering site of the eastern population of monarch butterflies, in Michoacán, and witnessed the destuction caused by careless logging. He went on to form the Group of 100, an association of literary and artistic intellectuals trying to draw public attention to environmental issues. (Wild nature might not have quite as large a constituency in Mexcio as it does here, but intellectuals are held in considerably higher esteem!)

Aridjis’ poetry mines historical as well as natural subjects, finding abundant tragedy and wisdom in both, as in a poem recounting the 16th-century friar Bernadino de Sahagun’s description of the birds of New Spain, or in a prose poem sequence re-envisioning the Aztec New Fire ceremony. Here’s a short poem in its entirety, spoken by some distant descendent of Jonah. I’ll substitute my own translation for the one provided.

Ballena Gris

Ballena gris,
cuando no quede de tí­ más que la imagen
de un cuerpo oscuro que iba por las aguas
del paraí­so de los animales;
cuando no haya memoria de tu paso
ni leyenda que registre tu vida,
porque no hay mar donde quepa tu muerte,
quiero poner sobre tu tumba de agua
estas cuantas palabras:

‘Ballena gris,
danos la dirrección de otro destino.’

Gray Whale

Gray whale,
when nothing is left of you but the image
of a dark body moving through the waters
of the paradise of animals,
when there is no longer any memory of your passing
nor legend to register your ever having lived,
because there is no sea that can accomodate your death,
I want to place on your watery mausoleum
these words:

Gray whale,
show us the way to another fate.

8. The Monkey’s Straw Raincoat and Other Poetry of the Basho School, introduced and translated by Earl Miner and Hiroko Odagiri (Princeton University Press, 1981)

This is really an anthology, an exception to my single-author rule here, but it’s indispensible for anyone interested in the poetry of Matsuo Bashí´ as he himself chose to present it: in multi-author haikai no renga sequences, poetic essays, and collections of hokku arranged by season. The translations are readable, and are accompanied by transcriptions of the originals and detailed notes on facing pages, which are especially useful in letting us see what sort of considerations guided the composition of a linked-verse sequence. Miner and Odagiri made the wise decision to repeat each component verse twice, so we can hear and see it as part of a tanka, and sometimes vary the translation to reflect the shifting sense. Here, for example, is how they present the first five verses of a 36-verse sequence called “Even the Kite’s Feathers.” The authors are Kyorai, Bashí´, Bonchí´, Fumikuni, and Bashí´ again.

    Even the kite’s feathers
have been tidied by the passing shower
    of early winter rain

    Even the kite’s feathers
have been tidied by the passing shower
    of early winter rain
stirred by a single puff of wind
the withered leaves grow still again

Stirred by a single puff of wind
the withered leaves grow still again
    from morning onward
his trousers have been wetted
    in crossing streams

    From morning onward
his trousers have been wetted
    in crossing streams
and he sees the bamboo bow
set to frighten badgers off

Not far from the bamboo bow
set to frighten badgers off
    and through lush ivy
crawling over the lattice door
    comes evening moonlight

9. A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997, by Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 1998)

I remember not thinking too highly of Berry when I was in my late teens and twenties, but either he changed, or I did. This book is unified both by theme and method of composition: each poem describes a walk he took on a Sunday morning in lieu of going to church, in poems that might be considered prayerful, but never preachy. Here’s how Sabbath IV from 1985 begins:

The fume and shock and uproar
of the internal combustion of America
recede, the last vacationers gone
back to the life that drives away from home.

Bottles and wrappers of expensive
cheap feasts ride the quieted current
toward the Gulf of Mexico.

And now the breeze comes down
from the hill, the kingfisher returns
to the dead limb of the sycamore,
the swallows feed in the air
over the water.

10. BioGraffiti: A Natural Selection, by John M. Burns (Norton, 1975)

As the title and subtitle suggest, this book is the naturalist’s equivalent of “Car Talk,” full of puns and other jokes only a nature nerd could love — or even understand. The introduction by Stephen Jay Gould explains how Burns, his lepidopterist colleague, used to read his light verse at every Wednesday luncheon and Natural History Seminar at Harvard. And if I hadn’t read this book and known of the connection, I wouldn’t have been able to decode the ending of one of Gould’s later essays. He was taking a former colleague and erstwhile supporter to task for his attacks on Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium, and his last paragraph builds up to an apparently innocent repetition of the Delphic maxim, “Know thyself.” However, it’s also the complete text of the shortest, and hence most memorable, poem in Burns’ book — a poem which I suspect would’ve been well known to the target of Gould’s essay. It’s accompanied by an engraving of a snail:

To a Lonely Hermaphrodite


A poem about fern reproduction is entitled, “One Good Fern Deserves Another.” The second stanza adequately conveys the flavor of the book:

Up springs the frondly sporophyte,
        with rhizome, root, and rachis
And a meristem that’s apical and tight.
It uncoils; but on a leaf that is preparing for meiosis
Sporangia in clusters make a very sori sight.

Continue to Part 3.

Like Kyogen’s stone

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

small change

She made her way down the steps and as she took her first step on the path, conk, she felt something hitting her head fast and hard. Just about where her right frontal lobe area might be residing, a big nut from a tree (which she can’t identify botanically just now), knocked, as if trying to remind her of the sense of the day she spent.

Like Kyogen’s stone,
that falling nut made contact
with something pliable.


feathers of hope

Went back to Cordelia this afternoon. I saw people looking in pools as I arrived. I went up and there, in the first pool I got to, were about twenty surf scoters. Swimming. Clean, washed, waterproof, and swimming. I sketched one quickly. Have you seen the grebes, I was asked.

Free of oil,
the surf scoters swim in circles
around the pool.


The Middlewesterner

The red tail hawk just north of Fairwater is the color of absence today. Everything changes in the somberness.

Hawk in the rain
darkens to match her perch
above the highway.


Roundrock Journal

The stump has rotted away. Only the part protected by the mailbox is still there, and I won’t be surprised when we find the box on the ground beside a spongy stump.

Birdhouse on a tree,
mailbox on a rotting stump:
a lonely campsite.


Hoarded Ordinaries

Yes, the bear’s mouth is wide open in the front, and that’s where your face sticks out. So it kind of looks like you’ve been swallowed by the bear & are looking out of its mouth, I guess.

The hockey fan’s face
half-swallowed by a foam bear,
roaring drunk.




The cut stem hardens,
taking a firmer grip
on the big pumpkin.


box elder

Then it seemed as though everyone in the northern hemisphere was photographing misty morning spiders’ webs, which was no reason not to do it myself, but I didn’t get around to it anyway. Now I’m wondering about blogging out of season, as it were, when the moment has passed, posting things after their ‘sell by’ date… I’m not sure.

The month-old photos
of dew on spiderwebs —
cobwebby now.


Eye in a bell

..waar komen ze vandaan? Reflecties van de ramen, of van de letters op de paarse vlag? Zijn ze een teken? Moet ik een staatslot kopen eindigend op 8? De 8ste trede van de trap overslaan als ik morgenochtend het perron opren?

Reflected light:
mysterious numeral 8s
on a shaded street.

Poetry for naturalists (1)

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Back on August 3, Chris Clarke wrote A paean to Charles Simic to note his getting a new job. It began:

I’ve read some of your poems.
You seem to notice birds a lot.
They show up in a lot of your poems
but you don’t say what kind of birds they are.
Are they warblers? Owls?
Robins, or big brooding hawks?
Whooping cranes? You don’t tell us.

And when the birds sit in a tree or shrub
you don’t tell us what kind of tree or shrub. It’s OK.
Not everyone is curious about that kind of thing,
and even if you told us it was a nightingale
and that it was on a Liquidambar branch
most of us wouldn’t know what either of those was.

I’m a huge fan of Charles Simic, especially of his earlier books, so I kind of bristled at the post. It seems unfair to single out Simic for something that so many poets are guilty of. On the other hand, Chris does address something I’ve thought about a lot in reference to my own work: how specific can we get in talking about nature without losing half our audience, which neither knows nor cares about such details?

It’s been interesting to read the submissions that have come into qarrtsiluni over the last twelve days. “Insecta” is the first theme we’ve had where carelessness about natural history can get otherwise stellar submissions rejected. Marly and Ivy made it clear in their call for submissions that they welcomed all manner of literary and artistic creations, including those that are merely inspired by insects; a poem doesn’t have to be what Chris Clarke might consider a nature poem in order to pass muster. But it can’t be about spiders! I really don’t think it’s too much to ask that a literate person at least be able to distinguish an insect from an arachnid.

I’d go further and suggest that it’s not too much to ask anyone who calls him- or herself a poet to take a strong interest in learning the English names of most of the common, macroscopic species that call their bioregion home, in the same way s/he should have a working knowledge of Greek mythology and the Bible. It’s basic knowledge that can only enrich one’s appreciation for the world. And poets are all about vocabulary, right? It doesn’t have to make it into your work, but for Christ’s sake, at least give a shit!

Simic, on the other hand, is unapologetically anthropocentric: “Human beings and what happen to them are much more of a presence in my poems than, let’s say, nature,” he told an interviewer in 1977. He went on:

The problem with the so-called nature poems is that they generate all that false, easy pantheism and mysticism. Sure, we have such experiences, but they are really rare. I distrust poets who have a mystical experience each time they look at a tree or a falling leaf. It just doesn’t happen. It’s a kind of fakery. I’m all for nature and all the good, wholesome thoughts it produces in human beings, but in moderation. I mean it’s harder to deal with a city and that totally fucked up world of super highways, slums, subways, and the poor bastards who have to go to work every day in that world. Religious emotions about nature are easy; this other thing — that’s very difficult. That’s why I always respected David Ignatow, who has written so many incredible portraits of poor unfortunates who make their living in this monstrous world. I see a kind of integrity there. We are surrounded by piles and piles of shit, and it’s not something we can dismiss. It’s where we live. You’ve got to look at it and do something about it.

That’s from Simic’s The Uncertain Certainty: Interviews, Essays, and Notes on Poetry (University of Michigan Press, 1985).

Again, as with Chris’ “Paean,” there are points here I do agree with, depending on what kind of “nature poems” we are talking about. However, his insistence that poets should be primarily concerned with the plight of modern, industrial humanity is eerily similar to the official position on poetry in most 20th-century communist regimes, inluding the one Simic and his family fled in Yugoslavia. To me, all good poetry is nature poetry; I’m not in the habit of sorting either the poems I read or the poems I write by subject matter. Some poets who treat nature as an ideological touchstone or an excuse for pseudo-mystical rambling do leave me cold, as do poets who — like many of the supposedly great English poets of the 18th century and before — rarely admit an unconventional natural image into their work, to say nothing of a named species. I agree that it’s difficult to write convincing poems about non-human subjects, having failed so many times in that regard myself. But it’s also rare that I write anything about plants or animals without at least alluding to “this monstrous world” in which we all, rural and urban alike, are complicit in. And of all the poets I admire who write with integrity about the natural world, I can’t think of any who “dismiss” the concerns of humanity, as Simic implies.

In fact, there are a lot of poets on my bookshelf who manage to write about non-human subjects without descending into “false, easy pantheism and mysticism” — and who don’t mind calling a species by its proper name on occasion. With these two guidelines in mind, I spent an enjoyable couple of hours this morning gathering a tall stack of books, and I thought it might be worthwhile if I wrote a little bit about each one, and/or found a good quote to share. Tomorrow I’ll begin a list of single-author books of poetry for nature-lovers, but first — speaking of pantheism — here are a few anthologies of poetry in which close attention to the natural world is a conspicuous feature.

1. The Honey Tree Song: Poems and Chants of the Sarawak Dayaks, by Carol Rubenstein
(Ohio University Press, 1985)

Oral poetry of an agrarian or hunting-gathering people is often replete with natural imagery, and these poems are no exception. Rubenstein is a poet as well as an anthropologist, and she did a phenomenal amount of work gathering and translating oral poetry from seven distinct societies during a three-year residency in Borneo back in the 1970s; this is a lengthy work. In the introduction, she describes in some detail the procedures she used for trying to determine the exact meanings of words and allusions when the dialect changed every five miles and she had to work with a shifting cast of translators into Malay and English.

Here are a few lines from the title poem:

The rhinoceros beetle — the heavy gurgling sound.
The cricket — the high insisting sound.
The rhinoceros beetle says this comes first,
the cricket says that should be first —
the words of the honey tree song.
The seeds that come from the land near the sea
are big as that in the beak of the little kunchih bird. …
Honey tree found by my grandfather when he was lost in the jungle,
found by my grandmother when she was hunting with a blowpipe,
found by my father when he was out walking.
Planted by a tiny short-tailed porcupine and his wife,
planted by a big long-quilled porcupine and his wife,
planted by a pheasant on the edge of the jungle,
planted by a moonrat on the edge of the hill,
planted on the edge of the junction of two rivers,
planted between two ponds.

2. I Breathe a New Song: Poems of the Eskimo, edited by Richard Lewis (Simon and Schuster, 1971)

From Dayaks to kayaks! If Rubenstein’s work is a little too scholarly, this might be a little too popular in its presentation: the lack of notes identifying the exact source for each poem in the anthropological literature bothers me. Other than that, it’s a fine selection. The poems are arranged thematically, with the cultural/geographic provenance given at the end of each. Here’s one that demonstrates a good, earthy sense of humor (I take it that “turned its back” really means, “went bottoms-up,” i.e. mooned):

Then said the blowfly:
“Because you are bellyless — perhaps
You cannot reply at all!”
The little water beetle then said:
“Devoid of belly — maybe so!
Still, you may be sure that I will answer back!”
And with a grimace
It turned its back at once
Without making any attempt to answer back.
He was a bad one for arguing.

3. Singing for Power: The Song Magic of the Papago Indians of Southern Arizona, by Ruth Murray Underhill (University of California Press, 1938)

Despite the extreme simplicity of their material culture, the Tohono O’odham, as they now prefer to be called, have an extraordinarily rich oral literature. It’s been well documented but unfortunately rather poorly translated, with a few exceptions, and this popularly written study is one of them. As in many oral cultures, the O’odham had several different levels of performative speech, at least two of which might translate as “poetry,” and Underhill includes examples of both genres, along with just enough description at the beginning of each chapter to set the stage, describing the social circumstances from which the poems arose. My only criticism is that her selections are a bit on the short side, considering the length of the sequences from which they were drawn. The reader gets the mistaken impression that the O’odham specialized in verses of haiku or tanka length, where in fact they favored linked-verse sequences capable of continuing all night.

Quail children under the bushes
Were chattering.
Our comrade Coyote heard them.
Softly he came padding up
And stood wriggling his ears
In all directions.

4. Yoruba Poetry: An Anthology of Traditional Poems, by Ulli Beier (Cambridge University Press, 1970)

This is the only book here I don’t own; I’ve only read the copy in the Penn State library, and don’t have it with me to quote from. As with the other books I’ve just listed, I can’t comment on the accuracy of the translations, only on their effectiveness in English, and in that respect they are superb. Yoruba poetry is full of concrete images, many derived from the natural world. Fortunately, some of the poems are included in a book I do own: The Penguin Book of Oral Poetry, by Ruth Finnegan — which by the way is a great anthology, flawed only by the author’s failure to include any African epics (which she mistakenly believed did not exist). Anyway, here’s one of Beier’s translations from Finnegan’s Yoruba section:


Gentle hunter
His tail plays on the ground
While he crushes the skull.

Beautiful death
Who puts on a spotted robe
When he goes to his victim.

Playful killer
Whose loving embrace
Splits the antelope’s heart.

Continue to Part 2.

Stick figures

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

red maple tree in snow

It snowed most of yesterday, small, wet flakes that stuck to everything, and this morning the water from my too-shallow well was faintly pink. On my way up to my parents’ house, a pair of small insects — caddisflies, or something similar — somehow found their way onto the toe of my right boot. They must have been mating in the snow when I picked them up. They were joined back to back, and walked in either direction quite ably, like the pushmi-pullyu in Doctor Doolittle.

snowroad 2

I’ve written a couple new posts for the Plummer’s Hollow blog: Clash of the seasons today, and First snow two days ago.

I’ve also started a new writing exercise using the micro-blogging tool Twitter, which is designed mostly for people with mobile phones or Blackberries (I have neither) to post periodic updates on their activities. I won’t be doing that. Instead, I’m taking advantage of Twitter’s strict, 140-character limit, challenging myself once a day to answer the question, “What can I see or hear from my front porch while I drink my morning coffee?”

The results appear on my Twitter page, Morning Porch; in a feed that you can subscribe to, if you wish (you don’t have to join Twitter); and in the sidebar of Via Negativa’s home page, down below the blogroll feed, where I’ll limit the display to the ten most recent of these tweets, as they’re called.

Yeah, I know, the terminology is a little silly, but trust me: tweets and twitters make up the bulk of what I hear each morning.

It’s surprisingly difficult to condense a half-hour of observation into just 140 characters. My inspiration in this effort is Tom Montag, who kept a Morning Drive Journal about his daily commute for many years, though he was never quite that brief. Long-time readers might also remember that back in November 2004 I blogged the results of a front-porch journal I’d kept five years earlier. That effort ran out of inspiration after only a few weeks; I’m hoping to keep this up for a year.


My Gorgeous Somewhere

My magnetic poetry set promises lots of boring poems.


Guy on the elevator tells me to have a nice day, so I do.

Not enough options
among the magnetic words,
I have a nice day.


under the fire star

You can buy firecracker chains of 10,000 crackers — you unroll them down the length of the street, and they seem to go on exploding forever. I have been told that chains of 100,000 crackers are available too, but fortunately we’ve missed out on them so far. Big bangs and flowers of light rise above the popping crackers.

Lights can only be
so bright: hence the too-many bangs,
the too-sweet sweets.


bird by bird

This is what a surf scoter looks like, oiled. It doesn’t smell good either. This female is waiting in a warm pen till she’s stable enough to wash, probably tomorrow.

The thing with feathers
barely recognizable
under the oil.


Ah, to be stick figures
so nothing could cling for long,
neither snow nor tar.

Some good news, ending in cat vomit

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

That new anthology of poet-bloggers I mentioned two weeks ago is out, from the new, Montreal-based Phoenicia Publishing.

Writers and artists have always formed groups for mutual support, commentary, and encouragement, sometimes collaborating on public projects from group shows to hand-printed literary magazines. But while one tends to think of local writers hanging out in Paris cafés in the 1930s, or on the lower East side of New York in the 1950s, how does that desire for communication and creative inspiration translate into today’s online world?

You can browse the Table of Contents and read sample poems (including two of mine that you might recognize) at the Phoenicia site, then follow the link to order a copy or two. It’s a beautifully designed book, and should make a classy (and very affordable) Christmas, Hanukkah, or Solstice present.

UPDATE: Rachel Barenblat, one of the two co-editors, does a much better job of describing the book.


I’m guest-blogging at Blogging Blog (say that three times fast!) on Blogs as a medium for online literary magazines: lessons from qarrtsiluni. And yes, I committed what I always thought was a cardinal sin for bloggers: using a colon in a title. Ack!


Last night, I got some very exciting news from a blogging friend of mine, the multi-talented Natalie d’Arbeloff (also included in the aforementioned anthology, by the way) whose Blaugustine I have linked to so many times. Natalie was one of six finalists in a huge competition sponsored by the Guardian newspaper to win the right to edit their women’s pages for a week. Natalie didn’t learn until she attended the party last night that she had won! Be sure to stop by (November 8 entry – no permalink) and congratulate her.


If I were serious about getting more readers and links for Via Negativa, I guess I’d be leaving these comment haiku far and wide. But that’s not the point of the exercise; I simply want to respond more thoughtfully to the blogs I already read. Sometimes I can’t think of a haiku, but the effort translates into a more substantial prose comment than I might’ve come up with otherwise. And lots of times, still, I nod in silent appreciation and move on.


stained glass of
rusty red and yellow
birch leaves on wet skylight

Leaves on wet skylight:
this must be what a snail sees
from inside its shell.


Dr. Omed

In this series of nude photographs of the frankly obese-and-proud-of-it women of the Big Burlesque and Big Bottom Revue, he fights the good fight against the ‘tyranny of slenderness.’

The yin-yang tattoo
on the fat woman’s back has grown
as big as an apple.



cold walk in the dark
dog in circle of flashlight
home a distant light

First snowfall melts
on contact with the ground. Only
the fallen leaves turn white.



It’s always been difficult to describe the colour of the carpet that runs along the corridor, up the stairs and along the upper corridor of this house. Not mustard, not buttercup. Sunrise? no. Baby-shit comes close. But now, thanks to Cat, I know the exact hue. It is cat-sick-bile coloured.

A mixed blessing:
the color of the cat’s vomit
matches the carpet.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

& round
& shiny as
a sex toy,
studded collar
biting into
the dirt,
the translucent
hum of
his wings
folded away,
the six-
legged god
plods backwards,
wheeling his
little world
of shit.



holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

In some parts of Africa, the Chicago Bears won the 2007 Super Bowl, and the Colorado Rockies, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the Cleveland Indians all won the 2007 World Series. It’s true! I read it in the newspaper.

And it’s funny, because for years, internationally minded folks have criticized major-league baseball for calling a purely North American contest the World Series. What are they going to say now that kids in Ghana or Zambia can wear t-shirts and caps advertising teams that won the series in alternate universes? Dreams that were thwarted here still shimmer with potential in the African sun.

Where did all this apparel come from? It’s made in preparation for one of the simplest but most powerful rituals in the entire ceremonial year of an American athletic association: the donning of new costumes proclaiming the superior medicine power of the championship team.

“The moment of a clinch, the teams celebrate. They pile on top of one another, they get all crazy, and part of that celebration is, in fact, them proclaiming their championship clinch with a T-shirt and a cap,” explains Steve Armus, MLB’s vice president of consumer products. “It’s something that’s traditional in baseball and some other sports, and for all the teams it’s an important moment.”

The centuries-old tradition that governs Euro-American sporting contests prevents more than one team from performing this ritual in a given year, due to a superstitious belief in something called the Law of the Excluded Middle. So to preserve the purity and efficacy of the sport, the ritual garments prepared for the other teams must either be destroyed or shipped to Africa, which has in recent years become a major destination for global waste and hand-me-downs. A Christian aid group called World Vision collects, ships and hands out the apparel. Isn’t it inspiring that missionaries still take such a strong interest in seeing that the bodies of brown-skinned people are kept properly covered? And the manufacturers get a tax credit instead of simply taking a loss. It’s just like the Special Olympics: everyone’s a winner! Even the Cleveland Indians.

False spring

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Meanwhile, back in the holler

So there are lilacs blooming in the dooryard, and it is November.

I also saw peaches, pears and hickories in bloom on the way home from Gallatin the other day.

Trees blossoming
even as their leaves turn yellow:
it hurts to look.


box elder

And this is a picture of my left big toe, getting over familiar with a sea anemone. Mostly because I just posted this today on our family blog, where the subject of feet has come up, and it was all shrunk and ready to go. (The photo, not my foot).

Toe to tentacle
with a sea anemone,
what nacreous nails!


Burning Silo

The first morning after arriving, we found many Pelicans gathered on the wharf in a section of the harbour. By the next morning, the numbers had multiplied to the point that almost every square foot of wharf was occupied by these birds.

Pelicans on the wharf
waiting out the storm all face
the same direction.



Beyond the glass, two white-tails head downstream;
one walks the north bank, the other the south.

Dead deer in the creek:
a vulture rises from its perch
between the antlers.


tasting rhubarb

The ‘cells’ were my favourites: intricate, enclosing, troubling dolls’ houses for grown-ups where I could have lingered, playing mind-games, for hours.

In the bush by my door
it’s the second winter now
for that cocoon.

Oddly enough, a WordPress “child” category can only have a single parent. So I guess I’ll place this new category for comment haiku under Poems & poem-like things, though it could just as easily go under Blogs and blogging.