When the world goes plunk

You’ve heard about bolts from heaven. This was a lug nut. It pierced the windshield of my parents’ Nissan Pathfinder and slammed into the passenger seat where my mother had been sitting a short time before. Dad pulled over to the side of the road and looked back — there’d been no overpass. The only other vehicle on his side of the freeway was a Winnebago a quarter-mile ahead.

The guy at the shop said sure, that could’ve spun off the wheel of an RV. Just bad luck that it happened to come down right where you were. No — I said when I heard about it — it’s good luck, excellent luck! If Mom had still been sitting there, she could’ve been killed.

This is the kind of logic by which a sailor who loses his leg to a shark gets nicknamed Lucky Pete. It might mark me as an optimist, were it not for the fact that my dour realist side tends to get the last word: Luck had nothing to do with it. There’s no way Mom could’ve been there, since the purpose of the drive had been to deliver her to a conference, which Dad had already done when the incident occurred. And in any case the whole notion of luck represents an absurd attempt to project consistent, self-centered narratives onto chaotic, impersonal events. Unless, of course, you believe some kind of divine conductor is running the show, in which case the language of luck would be even more inappropriate, and you’d better get right with Jesus/Allah/whoever right now if you don’t want to be S.O.L. come Judgement Day.


That happened several years ago. The lug nut from heaven may have missed my mom by a mile — several miles, in fact — but as a fervent environmentalist her faith in the apocalypse remains unshaken. Just last night, in fact, we were talking about the old manual typewriter I keep under my writing table Just In Case. Mom said she thought that was an excellent idea. “At least when the world goes plunk,” she said, “we’ll be able to keep writing!”

“Wait. What? When the world goes plunk? Are you telling us that the sound the apocalyse makes is PLUNK?” My brother and I cracked up. “Yeah, you know — plunk!”

O.K., maybe it was more of a descriptive thing than straight onomatopoeia, but I like it either way. There’s such finality in it. It’s a quarter hitting the wall, dice hitting the table, a poker hand being laid down. It’s the sound of the clock running out on the game, or the numbers sliding into place on an old, pre-digital scoreboard at the ball park. It’s the sound of something small and ordinary landing in a totally unexpected place.

And when the world does finally go plunk, that machine-gun sound you’ll hear next, punctuated by bell-like dings? That’s my mom, continuing to type.


Don’t forget to check out qarrtsiluni’s Journaling the Apocalypse issue, now in its last ten days of publication. We won’t be posting anything tomorrow or Thursday, so this might be a good time to catch up.

25 things about Via Negativa

Bum with sign: 'Blog Ate My Homework'

  1. Almost every year, I think Via Negativa’s birthday is coming up on the 20th. Every year, it turns out to have been the 17th. The problem I guess is that I think of the first post as having been in late December, although it was really the middle of the month. So given that I can’t even remember that much, I can’t vouch for the complete accuracy of everything that follows.
  2. My gateway drug to blogging was Yahoo Geocities. I still have a webpage there, which is usually the second result for a Google search of my name. And I haven’t touched my proto-blog there, the page of essays I wrote in 2003, originally sparked by the invasion of Iraq. Note that the brief apologia at the bottom of that page already contains the germ of my blogging ethos:

    [M]y most memorable prose, I think, has been written on the run, or off the cuff. It’s fairly disposable–but maybe that’s the point. As long as it biodegrades in a timely manner. And gives off a pleasant fragrance, thanks to all the spirits of the invisible wild: yeasts, molds, fungi, bacteria. Whatever works.

  3. When I started blogging, I didn’t anticipate any need for comments. (And the original Blogger/Blogspot didn’t have any; you had to hack in a Haloscan commenting system. Which, in early January 2004, marked my second CSS/HTML hack, after learning how to code links for the sidebar.)
  4. When I started blogging, I didn’t think there were any other bloggers covering religion, philosophy, or poetry. The first such blog I found — by using a blog directory (Blogarama, I think) and looking under “philosophy” — was the cassandra pages. Five years later, I remain close friends with its author, Beth Adams, and co-edit qarrtsiluni with her.
  5. “Via Negativa” is probably not the best name for a blog. Not for this blog, at any rate. I quickly dropped what I had thought would be my primary focus — religious agnosticism, broadly defined — but kept the name because regular readers had already gotten used to it. I decided that if the name tended to weed out people who avoid any hint of negativity, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Being near the bottom of most alphabetized blogrolls was a bit more of a problem.
  6. I started my very first side-blog in 2004 — Dead Raccoon. It was also my first microblog, though I’m not sure the term had been invented yet. It consisted of almost daily absurdist political bon mots, filled with cynicism and black humor. I killed it after a few months, because I realized I didn’t have very many original political insights, and most of the time I really don’t know what I’m talking about.
  7. The indirect successor to Dead Raccoon was a cartoon called Words on the Street, which began as a text-only feature called Diogenes’ Tub. The idea to make it into a cartoon came from a reader who at the time used the pseudonym the Sylph (and who was also, I believe, Via Negativa’s very first commenter, though all those Haloscan comments are gone now). A big part of the reason for doing it originally was to break up the text — Via Negativa had virtually no other illustrations until I started taking and posting photos in 2005. Diogenes the bum still puts in an appearance from time to time (as at the top of this post).
  8. My first two years as a blogger were my most ambitious in terms of average post length and number of series. (I’ve subsequently been able to put most of the latter into fully functioning series, with archives in chronological order, thanks to the fantastic Organize Series plugin for WordPress.) What happened I think was that I had a certain number of ideas I had to get out of my system. Once I did so, I noticed an unexpected real-life side-effect: I began to feel much less of a compulsion to turn every conversation into a lecture or a harangue. I’m not trying to claim that that impulse has completely gone away, but I believe I’ve mostly broken the habit.
  9. I began blogging an epic poem, Cibola, on January 3rd 2005 and finished it up six months later. Those posts were interspersed with almost-daily Words on the Street cartoons as well as my regular blog posts. I think I scared off a lot of readers that year. Nowadays, I do just as much stuff online, but it’s spread over several different sites.
  10. Via Negativa is part of an informal “class of 2003,” which includes a number of blogs still in my blogroll. Blogging first hit the internet-using mainstream that year, I guess, and the war made a lot of us look for a bigger soapbox. My first meet-up with other bloggers was in New York City in February 2005, where we convened to see Christo’s Gates installation in Central Park. I blogged it, of course. So did Lorianne and Leslee, not to mention Diogenes.
  11. I moved off Blogspot on April Fools Day, 2006. My main reason was the lack of categories, which I dearly wanted in order to make my burgeoning archives slightly more accessible. I think it was at least a year and a half later before Blogger finally introduced categories (“lables”). It was hard to leave more than two years’ worth of comments behind when I moved. I really felt bad about that.
  12. One of the irritating things about Blogspot is that it doesn’t retire domains when someone deletes a blog. So cyber-squatters snatch up newly cleared domains like mine in order to take advantage of the incoming links, even if they never put up more than a single post. And if they then encode instructions to search-engine bots not to spider their site, the Internet Archive Wayback Machine will restrict access to all its archives of one’s own site. Moral: Never delete a Blogspot blog. Clear the archives if you need to, but keep at least one post there redirecting visitors to your new site.
  13. Since April 1, 2006, Via Negativa has been hosted free of charge by my cousin Matt Albright, who grew up nearby but currently lives in Silicon Valley with his wife and three daughters. Matt bought lifetime server space for a website some years ago, but has never had time to put up more than a CV for himself. My dad’s site, Peaceful Societies, piggybacks on Matt’s website as well.
  14. Matt’s also the guy who got me into digital photography when he sent me his old camera in late February 2005. I had blogged about an icestorm, and he wanted to know what it looked like. The Via Negativa readership at the time was divided about whether the addition of photography would be a good thing, but eventually I think they all came around.
  15. My first Blogger blog used a template with the sidebar on the left, but within six months I switched to a right-hand sidebar and it’s been that way ever since.
  16. I’ve been on-again, off-again with stats counters, which means I really have no idea how many people have visted Via Negativa over the years. I seem to average about 10,000 page views a month. The best month for which I kept records clocked in at just shy of 30,000.
  17. I am still routinely surprised that anyone stops by here at all, though. Sometimes Via Negativa readers even make me things and send them through the mail, which astounds me. At times, I like to tell myself that blogging makes me a useful and productive member of society. But probably the reality is that Via Negativa and my other online projects are a drag on the economy, by helping diminish the productivity of office workers.
  18. I passed my one millionth spam comment at the beginning of this month (see the counter at the bottom of the page). That’s since August, 2006 when I installed the Akismet anti-spam plugin. I’m told that’s a pretty meaningless figure, but so too are a lot of the other metrics that bloggers use to try and assess their blog’s value or importance. Via Negativa has gotten 9,392 legitimate comments since moving to WordPress. (That figure includes my own responses, though.)
  19. I’ve written some 1,138,000 words in 2,270 posts (not counting the 218 Smorgasblog posts, since they’re just quotes). That’s the equivalent of ten or eleven novels, I guess.
  20. Aside from Cibola, I’ve made two e-books of poems that originally appeared in Via Negativa, Shadow Cabinet and Spoil. I’m not real crazy about either one of them; I just enjoy creating websites.
  21. Via Negativa posts have been translated into foreign languages twice that I know of. Blogger Agustin Fest translated Should poetry be open source? into Spanish, and Poetikon translated the first half of Poem for Display at a City Reservoir into Norwegian. Very very flattering.
  22. All my work here is licensed under a copyleft statement designed to permit everything except taking my work and claiming it as your own, or preventing other people from modifying something that you have made from something here. Creative remixing is just another form of translation, as far as I’m concerned — something to be welcomed. I also decided a while back not to care about the scrapers who take fragments of text from Via Negativa (along with tens of thousands of other sites). I don’t understand why some bloggers get so worked up about that.
  23. The relative lack of focus on personal stuff here has less to do with any desire for privacy than the plain fact that I bore myself. And as a poet, first and foremost, I am more interested in self-mythologizing anyway.
  24. Blogging has had a really positive effect on my writing. Even though I’ve been writing and publishing poetry since I was seven, my poetry writing has become much more fluid and sure-footed over the last five years, I think. I’ve written more than 540 poems and translations for Via Negativa, and in the process have grown much more comfortable with sharing relatively unpolished work. And I’m fond of telling people who wonder why I blog that as a poet, I have found a much larger and more varied audience online, through blogging, than I would get in most print journals — to say nothing of the ability to interact with readers. I’m also pleased with some of the prose I’ve churned out, as well as the posts combining photos and text which are perhaps most typical of the non-political blogging medium.
  25. Fewer than half a dozen Via Negativa posts have ever included numbered lists.

First Smoke

man smoking cigarette through a four-foot-long holder
Photo by Yale Joel for Life magazine

Little smoky thumb, how
I’ve missed sucking on you!
My head floats on its stem
like a flower that’s just been pollinated.
In the seven years
since I broke the habit,
every cell in my body has been
replaced at least once, but
my fingers still remember
exactly what to do, juggling
the huggermuggery of matchbook
& rolling paper, ashtray & ash.
What other parts of my new/old body
have inherited secret flaws?
With growing detachment
I watch the thing go gray
as I draw the glowing life out of it,
picturing the road in Japan
where I’d stood 21 years ago,
having just placed the very first one
between my lips & wondering what
the hell to do next.

Atrial Fibrillation

This entry is part 6 of 15 in the series Ridge and Valley: an exchange of poems


Dear Dave,

Yesterday was the dull gray of a river stone.
This morning snow covers our neighbor’s roof,
sky the color of an indigo bunting’s cap.
Fresh from sleep we reach back for summer’s green,
fecund and ridiculous. At our feeder a blue jay
cracks open a seed to warm itself on the fire burning
in the hull. To the west fields are bare and my mother
wears a heart monitor. She rises slowly from bed
to bathe, hope against hope that her heart won’t flutter
like the wings of a sparrow, the furious beating
of a finch as it tries to bring the body into balance,
an agreement with the wind, the rhythm
of the blessedly invisible air.

Todd Davis


mixed-species flock of winter birds in raspberry canes


Bamboo: two poems by Hagiwara Sakutaro


A bamboo-hauling expedition with my friend L. on Saturday prompted me to dig up a couple of Japanese poems by Hagiwara Sakutarô that I translated 20 years ago when I was in college. I couldn’t find the translations I did back then, so I worked from my old notes in the margins of my copy of Tsuki ni hoeru, “Howling at the Moon” (1917), Hagiwara’s first and best-known collection of poems. He’s considered Japan’s first truly modern poet, in part because of the obsessive, neorotic tone on display here. These poems, both entitled “Take” (Bamboo), are the second and third poems in the collection and echo imagery also found in the lead poem, so they were presumably meant to showcase a brand new way of looking at a traditionally poetic thing. While modernism in the West had little over a century of Romantic traditions about nature to contend with, in Japanese poetry, an immense and intricate set of correspondences between natural phenomena and expected emotional reactions made innovation daunting, to say the least.


Bamboo (1)

Out of the ground a straight thing grows,
out of the ground a blue-green pointed thing grows,
piercing the frozen winter,
glimmering green in the morning’s empty road
bringing tears to the eyes,
tears falling even now
from above shoulders swollen with regret,
hazy, the bamboo roots spreading, spreading,
as out of the ground a blue-green blade comes up.


bamboo beetle


Bamboo (2)

In the shining earth the bamboo grows,
the blue-green bamboo grows,
underground the roots of bamboo grow,
roots that gradually taper off
with fine hairs sprouting from their tips,
hazy fine hairs faintly growing,
faintly trembling.

In the adversarial earth the bamboo grows,
aboveground the sharp bamboo grows,
perfectly straight bamboo grows,
with its rigid joints going rin, rin,
at the base of the blue sky bamboo grows,
bamboo, bamboo, bamboo grows.

Tight and Highly Musical

some very helpful guidelines for submission, culled from actual literary magazines

We seek work of the highest literary quality. Our only criterion is excellence. If your writing has an original voice, substance, and significance, send it to us. The main criterion for selection is quality. We like alliteration, extended metaphors, image, movement and poems that can pass the “so what” test. We look for the best writing available and are often pleased to introduce new writers. Poems should emanate from textured, evocative images, use language with an awareness of how words sound and mean, and have a definite sense of voice. We are looking for edgy, original poems. Our only fixed requirement is good writing. Each line should help carry the poem, and an individual vision must be evident. Be sure you read contemporary poetry. English poetry is a continuum in time, and the practice as well as the reading of poetry benefit from a broad knowledge and understanding of the development of the art and craft. Writers should expect their work to be considered within the full context of old and new poetry in English and other languages. [Our magazine’s] intention is to publish the best writing available, both from beginning and established writers. We prefer poems that are between 8 and 80 lines; serious, well-crafted, and full of imagery; tight and highly musical. We seek the very best work whether by Nobel laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners or by little-known (or even previously unpublished) writers. Work that conveys a sense of necessity and implores readers to pay attention is what belongs on [this magazine’s] pages. We are interested in any strong writing of a literary variety, but are especially partial to poetry that engages the reader through a distinctive voice—be it lyric, narrative, etc. The editors are especially interested in original writing that engages in the work of honest communication. We always ask “What’s at stake in this writing?” “What’s reckoned with that’s important for other people to read?” Send work that has a strong jab, work that knows how to sing, work that can endure long nights and early mornings. Originality and precision of language are important for us. Take us someplace new. Move us. Transport us. Run us over with a locomotive of brilliant imagery and voice. The most successful work is exciting, new, fresh, creative, carefully-wrought. We’ll use our intuition and a keen sense of smell to guide us in the right direction, and we’ll know what we want when we find it. [Our magazine’s] core equation: Idea + Imagination x Craft = Lasting Poetry. Poetry submitted for publication in [our magazine] must be typewritten. We suggest you familiarize yourself with our journal before submitting.

Open-faced sandwich

peanut butter sandwich

First the crust must be carefully removed from the slice of bread. The peanut butter must be mixed with wildflower honey, or vice-versa. Then the ambrosial spread is ready to be removed from the sandwich, one fingerful at a time — or if that seems too slow, by direct application of tongue to bread. Don’t worry if some of it ends up on the face or in the hair; it can be cleaned out later.

The hard work of chewing becomes easier once the tastebuds have been bribed. Cleared of spread, the bread may be cut into bite-sized pieces to facilitate consumption. The least appetizing part — the crust — is saved for last. Maybe it will be eaten and maybe it won’t.

This is the currently popular train of lunch-time events, and the wooden caboose may be pushed back and forth to help keep it in motion. The black-and-white cow stands in for a docile passenger. And as the wheels turn, the conductor spins, a big grin on his round wooden face.