Not out of the woods yet


In the middle of life’s journey,
I found myself in a light-filled woods,
the path long since forgotten…

O.K., not quite what Dante wrote. But then, Via Negativa ain’t exactly the Divine Comedy. I am, however, currently exploring the circle of hell populated by malicious hackers and spam bots (which is why the comments are inaccessible). See you on the other side, I hope.

Obama time

Sen. Obama spent several minutes going through the music selection and making requests. He finally settled on Howlin’ Wolf’s “Wang Dang Doodle.”
–CBS 11 News Talks With Barack Obama

Ballast of sea water riding through the lake water, filled with an alien and dangerous life. Ballast of rocks. I am on an alternate picnic, partaking of a feast made up of sustenance other than food. I am watching the Daley Show from afar, and dreaming of hog butchers with big shoulders. We’re gonna break out all the windows, we’re gonna kick down all the doors! The drumbeat diminishes as the bandshell sinks below the horizon. Where’s Maxwell Street Jimmy when you need him? Where’s Howlin’ Wolf? When I listen to the radio, even if it’s supposed to be music, it all sounds like talk to me. Everybody’s signifying. The goddamn fog comes in on LOLcat feet. Are we there yet?


Thaw, from the Undiscovery Channel on Vimeo.

Headlong headlong waters; roaring; old hypnosis.
The river swamps the car cemetery, glitters
behind the masks.
I hold tight to the bridge railing.
The bridge: a big iron bird sailing past death.
–Tomas Transtromer, “From the Thaw of 1966”
(tr. Robin Fulton)

For what it’s worth, I was born in late winter 1966. Possibly during a thaw.

I chose the music for this short film based solely on sound — the lyrics are no more intelligible to me than the sound of the river — but from the little bit of web research I did, it sounds as if the Caddoan people known as the Arikara, Sahnish, or Arikaree had a strong connection to rivers (Specifically, the Missouri and its tributaries):

The Arikara hunted the buffalo in winter, returning to their village in the early spring, where they spent the time before planting in dressing the pelts. Their fish supply was obtained by means of basket traps. They were expert swimmers, and ventured to capture buffaloes that were disabled in the water as the herd was crossing the river. Their wood supply was obtained from the river; when the ice broke up in the spring the Indians leaped on the cakes, attached cords to the trees that were whirling down the rapid current, and hauled them ashore. Men, women, and the older children engaged in this exciting work, and although they sometimes fell and were swept downstream, their dexterity and courage generally prevented serious accident. Their boats were made of a single buffalo skin stretched, hair side in, over a frame of willows bent round like a basket and tied to a hoop 3 or 4 feet in diameter. The boat could easily be transported by a woman and, according to Hayden, “would carry 3 men across the Mis­souri with tolerable safety.”

cable roots

On the bank above the junction of Plummer’s Hollow Run with the Little Juniata River, an invasive ailanthus — the so-called tree of heaven — rose from a nest of rusted steel roots. Nearby, fresh-cut stumps of ailanthus and black locust along the township road probably attested to the desperation of local poor people to get through this winter with the high cost of heating fuel. It’s been three centuries, now, and we non-natives have yet to figure out how to put down real roots.


one-eyed hawk

Download the MP3

I wasn’t terribly keen on yesterday’s poem, but then I listened to this reading of it and almost started to like it. The recording was completely unsolicited, and is by someone who wishes to be identified only as “a nameless friend.” In response to my grumpy comments about the poem, A.N.F. wrote:

No, it’s not a perfect poem — for one thing, I thought the penultimate lines were amazing, but not the final one. And you probably overdid the repetitions just a bit.

But I like it, and I liked it even more as I read it aloud. Praise Whomever for imperfect things.


body and soul

Suppose it’s true: that as you walk,
another is walking within you, perfectly
coterminous with your own walking.
Suppose it’s true that as you sit,
another sits within, weathering you,
like the coal inside the ember.
I don’t like to think that our bodies
are mere vessels — or vassals —
but suppose it’s true. It might explain
these odd, apparently random urges
to hold & be held, or to lose ourselves
through concentration: the not-us within
wants to reach the not-us without.
It might explain why, as we slowly
tighten around our cores,
strands of white begin to appear
on our heads, an extra light glimmers
behind the eyes, & a network of cracks
under the skin begins to offer glimpses
of an inner blue. Suppose it’s literally true
that heaven is within. Would even this
be as illuminating as the knowledge
that we are risen from the ocean,
descended from the trees?

Ending re-written 8/8/13. For the original poem, listen to the recording in the following post, Doubletake.

In response to a Read Write Poem challenge to make use of repetition. Other responses are linked here.

And speaking of RWP, I have a guest column there today, Poetry out loud: audio blogging for poets. Feedback on that from anyone with experience in audio blogging or podcasting would be very much appreciated.

Trespasser’s will


Yesterday I strapped on snowshoes for the first time this year — and possibly for the last (it’s in the 50s today). Unlike a lot of areas to the north of us, central Pennsylvania hasn’t gotten very much snow yet this year, so Saturday’s eight inches on top of the four to five inches already on the ground afforded our first real opportunity for snowshoeing.

There’s a special freedom you feel when walking on top of deep snow through woods where abundant fallen logs and other obstructions have mostly been buried. You get to thinking you can walk almost anywhere, albeit with great deliberation if you’re using heavy, clunky, white-ash-and-rawhide-type snowshoes. I went off-trail almost immediately, and soon found myself straying over the line onto the posted property of a neighbor with whom we don’t have very good relations. I figured what the heck — he’s not going to be up here today, and someone has to enjoy his woods in the off-season. I was after an unobstructed view of the valley, thinking I might take a few landscape photos. It was harder than I figured; there’s a lot of brushy growth in his recently logged woods.

deer bed 2

Fortunately, scenic vistas were among the least interesting things I found. I admired several dense stands of Hercules’-club. These strange, thorny trees are among my favorites, but unfortunately the deer like them, too, and often kill them by stripping off their bark, thorns and all, during the hungriest time of the year — March and early April. And in fact, I did find three Hercules’-club stems that had just been stripped to a height of four and a half feet, their pale yellow nakedness looking especially pitiful against the snow.

The deer bed in the above photo was one of three clustered around a large oak tree on our side of the ridge — the local herd, post-hunting season. But over on our neighbor’s property, where hunting pressure is lower, I was dismayed to find another, much larger cluster of deer beds: eleven of them. All had fresh tracks leading out of them; there was no doubt they’d all been occupied the night before. I saw oak stump sprouts that were still struggling to get above deer browse height, ten years after the logging. The good news is that we won’t have to listen to our hunter friends complaining that aren’t enough deer next fall — the deer, unlike the humans, aren’t constrained by boundaries.

burl 3

By far the coolest thing I found yesterday was this immense burl on a chestnut oak tree. I shot photos from all angles, including one with a view of the valley behind it: you can check out the slideshow here. It amused me to consider that the same grotesque protrusion which renders a tree unfit for regular lumber (and probably the reason why this one is still standing) can make it quite valuable in the right hands. By the same token, I suppose someone with a purely culinary interest in oysters would be annoyed to find a pearl. Liberate the pearl from the oyster, or the burl from its bark and tree, and suddenly the grotesque becomes sublime, like trading a distended abdomen for a newborn baby.

That’s entirely too many metaphors for me, though — I’m getting giddy! Confusing freedom with willfulness is always a risky proposition. Best to hike back onto more familiar ground, safe behind the ridge-top boundaries which also form our horizons here in Plummer’s Hollow.

Don’t miss the March edition of the Festival of the Trees — a wonderful romp through fruit tree and orchard lore.

Nature in the Cracks

On the Outside

A half-hour before the first bell,
as the kids from the early buses
were milling around in the hall
waiting for the library to open,
a robin began to assault
the courtyard window.

A crowd quickly gathered.
He wants in!
Look at him.
What’s wrong with this fucking bird?

Hammering the glass
with its beak & wings
& ineffectual claws.

The jocks thought it was a riot.
Look out, Jim — he’s after you!
He’s gonna kick your ass.

Then the librarian unlocked the door
& everyone ran to get a seat
& a newspaper, except
for one girl with lank hair
& clothes from the Salvation Army.
He don’t want to come in, she murmured.
He wants that fat thing
that mocks his every move
to meet him outside.


Every time we post a new theme announcement at qarrtsiluni, I find myself writing poems in response to the theme without really intending to. As one of the two managing editors, I can’t submit my own work, but none of the rest of you are bound by any such restrictions, so go check out the Call For Submissions. The theme this time is “Nature in the Cracks,” with guest editors Brent Goodman and Ken Lamberton. They write,

We’re seeking prose, poetry, and artwork that celebrates the nature of the world revealed by time, weather, decay, cycle, and neglect. It’s the understated beauty of the stain inside a teacup, not the ornate pattern decorating the porcelain. It’s a sadness for old barns slouching in fog, the branch you accidentally break that turns the owl’s moon face your direction. It’s the liver spots on your grandmother’s forearm, the crooked curl of her fingers over the rocker arm. It’s the well-worn patch of wood stain faded smooth there. […]

It’s in the cracks where nature adjusts, changes, and teems, a marginal place that exists without borders, physical or theoretical, a place where something new might evolve out of the muck. “Nature in the Cracks” seeks writing about wildness found in strange places — from landfills to prisons, sidewalk cracks to salad crispers.

Read the rest here.