Becoming Israel

Genesis 32:24-32

It’s the night before the reunion with my brother the savage whose people & whose flocks infest the land. I isolate myself like a woman in her monthly time. But through the tent wall, through furs, through woolen blanket & robe, another pair of hands find mine & begin to push.

This is contact almost at the level of pure symbolism, but still a kind of arousal occurs. Some slave girl, perhaps, ambitious for a piece of the inheritance? I bump up against a maybe hip & thigh — something warm & solid with just a little give.

Who are you on the other side of sleep? Are these truly hands? Are you even human?

By way of answer, I am crushed in a sudden embrace. A hot harsh breath in my ear: this is no sweet angel. Now I am throwing punches hard enough to stun a ram. Now the curtain falls away & I am face to face with the darkness between the stars.

Ah, but we keep each other close as adversaries must, skin burning skin, grinding into the stony earth. I will not be anyone’s bitch. I will never say Uncle. I will survive until morning, & limp fully blessed into the glare of meeting.

WALL-E: Descartes Meets Rabelais

I digest, therefore I am. Mere consumption leads to stasis and death, but the self-aware machine builds phallic temples from the products of its digestion and outfits a shrine with fetish-objects from the civilization of the consumers. Life happens. Love happens. The consumers experience wonder, and start giving a shit.

Poem Dissection 101

Via, via Never Neutral.

Poem dissection, like frog dissection, isn’t as straightforward as it may at first appear. Take, for example, Matsuo Basho’s famous haiku about a frog. Are the relationships between the ideas in the poem generative, associative, or a mixture of both? Here are two possible ways to map them, which strike me as equally valid.

So obviously with longer poems, many of the routes become quite arbitrary indeed. diagram of a poem
Click the image to see a larger and more legible version.

The best I can say about this exercise is that it helped me discover a relationship between two ideas in the poem that I hadn’t consciously recognized, the one between ‘it wants to go home with you’ and ‘there are no motels in this vacancy.’ Whether this will be of any real use to me if/when I get around to revising the poem, I don’t know, but in general I do find that, while the intuitive mind ought to be paramount during the original drafting, the analytical mind should take over during editing and revision. So as far as the author is concerned, this sort of exercise can’t hurt, even if it looks like a bloody mess to everyone else.

Poem for Display in a Vacant Lot

This entry is part 12 of 14 in the series Public Poems


The concrete dreams
of bindweed & beggar-tick,
burdock & wineberry,
gravid mosquito mothers,
copperheads, a wild rose
equipped with grappling hooks.

The concrete wants to be loved,
not merely walked upon.
It wants to go home with you,
clinging to your pants leg,
or at least take a bite
your skin will remember.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
The concrete was our gift
to an unimproved land
where woods & weeds ran riot.
At best, we might condescend
to preserve some open space,

a light-green stripe across the grid.
But the pavement, too,
begins to bulge open.
There are no motels in this vacancy.
The flag of our alienation
goes down to kudzu.


turning the page

At last the author relinquishes his hold on the book he has been struggling to finish for almost a century. There’s a sound like the rapid turning of pages, or the beating of wings.

leaning tree

Two vultures were circling low above the treetops, as if in a slow-motion chase. I watched their shadows move through the forest, sliding up and down trunks and gliding over the shiny leaves of the laurel. On a cool morning, they were looking for light and warmth like everyone else. They were looking for a lift.

It’s not the vultures’ fault if their very name provokes fear and revulsion, simply because we are ashamed of where we came from. We too are scavengers with naked faces and an aesthetic preference for clean, straight bones. In the middle of the day, when the predators retreat to the shade, we venture out, alert to the crushed leaf, the snapped twig, the blood-dark berry. Stark contrasts are pleasing to us. The savanna — half grass, half trees — was our founding parchment, and we return to that garden every chance we get.

birth of a tree

At this very moment, in some back garden in Damascus, a brand-new tree is struggling to be born.

Ode to a Shoehorn

This entry is part 24 of 31 in the series Odes to Tools


A shoehorn’s a sort of
spoon-shaped chute
for the foot,
not for the shoe.
Or at best, a social lubricant
between the two,
with or without
the Freudian interpretation.

Boots are for those
who toot their own horns,
sporting as we know
the handy bootstraps,
which give the so-called
self-made men
a better metaphor for rising
to their own occasion.

Having a Cow

name of god

At the busiest bus stop in the heart of the affluent college town, a middle-aged black woman flanked by bulging plastic bags sits and rails at an enemy no less real for being invisible. The passersby — students, professionals, mothers headed for the public library — lower their voices, murmuring into their clamshell phones. Those without phones mutter prayers. Those without Jesus take a strong sudden interest in the weeds sprouting through a fissure in the pavement, this thin and brittle lid on green disorder.


In the news, the former Bosnian Serb leader and instigator of genocide, Radovan Karadzic, turns out to have been hiding behind a bushy white beard and glasses all this time, selling New Age snake oil. The webpage of his alter ego, Dr. Dragan Dabic, apparently intends no irony with the English email address, “” At the bottom of the page appear “10 favorite ancient Chinese proverbs as selected personally by Dr. Dabic.” They include “He who cannot agree with his enemies is controlled by them” and “The one who gives up his own, should dig two graves.”


In the news, the name of God appears in Arabic on several pieces of cooked beef in northern Nigeria. Thousands flock to see what local mullahs proclaim to be a sign of the universality of their religion. What was it like for the cow, grazing in the near-desert with the One Name growing like a tumor, thick enough to appear on three eventual cross-sections of muscle tissue? Did it burn? Did it give off light? In which part of the cow did the deity inscribe His miraculous autograph? The reports do not say, and I hesitate to hazard a guess. I recall that the second and longest sura of the Qur’an is called Al-Baqarah, “The Cow.” It takes its name from the fawn-colored heifer sacrificed by Moses at God’s command.


Responding to a relayed message about a fawn trapped in the deer fence around our three-acre wildflower sanctuary, I find instead a bluejay with what looks like a broken neck, lying on its side in the middle of the trail and bleating like a fawn in distress. I run back to the house to get the .22. Later, I try and tell dad it was a jay he heard. “Heard? I saw it, from out in the field! A light-brown, mid-sized animal, thrashing about.” But later, when he went back to check, the fawn had disappeared — escaped on its own. Perhaps the shot from the other end of the exclosure had given it the strength to break free.


Among the stones at the side of the road I notice three purple stars: Deptford pinks, blooming on two-inch stalks. Are they merely stunted by the harsh conditions, or do they represent a new, road-adapted strain? Natural selection is constant, the scientists now tell us; significant evolution in weedy plants can take place in as little as seven years, and among animals, “fewer than 40 lifetimes.” Seven, forty: such Biblical numbers! This presumes, of course, that the populations are subject to large-scale die-offs or other extraordinary stresses: prolonged droughts, the sudden arrival of competitors, the use of pesticides. That too seems Biblical.


The jay was hardly the first bird mortally injured by flying into the fence. In the seven years since we erected it with the help of our hunter friends (who had a vested interest in creating a permanent demonstration of their value to us), we’ve found a ruffed grouse, two sharp-shinned hawks, and a red-tailed hawk that all seemed to have died that way. Lord knows how many more bodies were carried off by scavengers before we could find them. In trying to protect a small patch of woods from the deer, we end up killing birds. Losing predators such as sharpies and redtails is especially bad news from an ecological standpoint, though at the same time the revitalized understory should make much better nesting habitat for migrant songbirds.


The chipmunk is in the tree again.


dead sharpie

Chipmunk in a tree

Chipmunk in a Mulberry Tree, from the Undiscovery Channel

Houses make superior wildlife blinds, provided your yard isn’t some manicured, chem-lawn desert. I shot this video through two panes of glass in the window next to my writing table this afternoon, a welcome break from answering qarrtsiluni correspondence. I’ve been asked why I leave the storm window down in that window year ’round, and this is part of the reason: so I don’t have to shoot through a screen.

I was originally planning to publish a grim little piece I wrote yesterday about shooting an injured bluejay, but fate intervened. If for some reason this leaves you wanting still more cute chipmunk pictures, I did post one to the photo blog, too. In four hours, it’s already racked up five times more page views than that poor mushroom photo has gotten in four days. Damn. O.K., I give up! Tune in next time for some adorable footage of puppies and kittens.

Buck in velvet

bolete pattern

At daybreak, the sound of hooves on gravel: a small buck accompanied at some distance by a doe meanders up the driveway, sampling the vegetation first on one side and then the other. As he rounds the bend opposite my front porch, I get a better look at the branches sprouting from his head, covered in dark-brown velvet — only four, rounded points so far, but the size and spread suggests he’ll be at least a six-point, and therefore a legal target come October.

Horns, many people call them, but the remarkable thing about antlers is that they are shed and regrow every year in a matter of months, unlike true horns, which are permanent. The energetic cost to the animal must be enormous. A rack, they call it, as if it were designed by God or evolution as a place to hang coats or display trophies. But this most prized of natural artifacts is itself a trophy — to hunters, and perhaps also to the deer, who holds his head so differently from a doe.

It’s just light enough to let me observe what he eats as he approaches the house:

  • the leaves of several goldenrod stalks, starting at the bottom and working toward the top;
  • a couple twigs of a multiflora rose bush, one of two beside the driveway that are as compactly rounded as if they’d been kept pruned by hedge-trimmers;
  • half of a large, compound leaf of a black walnut seedling the same age as the deer;
  • one stalk of wild garlic, starting with the tight fist of baby cloves at the top;
  • several mouthfuls of orchard grass;
  • the tip of a leaf of bracken fern;
  • some brome grass in front of the stone wall that borders my garden.

He’s near enough now that that I can hear the chewing and the smacking of lips. He crosses the road, lured by the sight of black raspberry leaves, and starts working on the end of the very cane that hosts a paper hornets’ nest at its base. A moment later, the anters jerk upright, and he bats at his shoulder with a hind leg. Then with one leap he clears the drainage ditch and lands among the cattails, twisting and rearing like a wild mustang with a bronco-buster on its back. A few seconds of that and he prances over to the woods’ edge, head still held high, to join what I imagine must be his sister — last year’s twins. If any hornets are still following him, he doesn’t show it, and neither does she. Their association is safe for at least a little longer from nature’s maddening sting.

Hat season

Mom in the berry patch

Ah, summer — time of berry picking, vine-ripened tomatoes, corn on the cob, and big ol’ floppy hats. Because it’s also high noon for deerflies, mosquitoes, no-see-ums, and, well, high noon. (There’s a video that goes along with this shot, by the way. Catch it at my mother’s blog.)

Dad in the woods

I’ll admit, though, I was a little shocked when my dad traded in his usual stylin’ John Deere cap for a shapeless straw hat he found in the closet. “The brim goes all the way around with this kind of hat,” he marveled. “The mosquitoes don’t come under it.”

I’m not entirely sure the hat was made for men, but whatever. My dad is nothing if not secure in his masculinity.

mushroom sombrero

It might be that Ma Nature is sending us subliminal messages, though. Between the Indian pipes and the mushrooms, hat-like things have been popping up all over the place. I watched gnats swarming around a rotting amanita yesterday: they crawled all over the top-side, but I didn’t see a single one venture beneath the brim.

Which got me to thinking there might be a big evolutionary advantage to this sort of behavior, because the underside of a mushroom, or any other projecting shelf, would be an ideal place for a spider to lurk. Maybe to the Diptera, it’s not that mushrooms are hats; hats are great big mushrooms.

Just, you know, a theory.


When your hat is your home, you take it off at your peril. Things will never again seem as safe and dark and quiet as they did under a hat. Mosquitoes will come and sing in your ears, and not only because they’re looking for a blood meal. They get a darn good echo in there. Ears, being put on sideways, probably don’t look like hiding places for spiders in most cases.

But think of the way an ear is shaped. Maybe, just maybe, the mosquitoes too are looking for a hat.