The teachable moment arrives in its dollar-store shoes & hand-me-down corduroys and takes a front-row seat. We properly interred citizens shift uneasily on our plush velvet beds. Why is the blackboard green now? Who hung that Muslim star map over our heads? The teachable moment brings laughter into the classroom, and never wants to do anything but play with the fingerpaints, which are edible now, they say, & taste like corn syrup. Look, a face! Red mouth, open, open. Angry hot grill. But the blue doesn’t taste as good as the others, so pour it on thick: jeering bluejay, jailbait, merchant marine. Swirl the primary colors together until they all turn to mud. Only the corners of the paper stay dry. Teachable in what way, we’d like to know. Comfort in one’s own skin is the mark of a mongrel. We are all strangers & sojourners in the earth; our name is Legion. American Legion. Why can’t the road crews spray that feral patch of prairie against the fence, that growth the plough’s steel scalpel could never reach? What have they done with our cypress spurge, which smelled so much like lilacs in lilac-time? Quickly now, before the paint dries! But the moment is gone. The millipedes go back to their homework, its evil twin.
When I was your age, I remember once actually wishing upon a star. I’m not going to tell you what I wished for, because who knows — it might still come true. Although I suspect that that “star” was actually Venus, first star-like object in the evening sky as it so often is. And I’m not sure whether a neighboring planet possesses the same wish-granting powers as some sun whose light has just taken a million years to get here. It’s that very distance — the huge, mostly empty gulf we stare across — that’s responsible for star-power, I think.
When I was your age, I was as fascinated by death and decay as I am now, but I had a very one-dimensional view: death was simply a horror, something to be recoiled from. It didn’t occur to me that aging is usually necessary for sugars to form, and that decay and fermentation involve a kind of magic. Of course, back then I didn’t drink alcohol, either, which is something we do mostly to try and recapture the spontaneity of childhood. It’s hard to be quite as spontaneous when you wake up every morning with aches in your joints.
When I was your age, my favorite thing to do was to lie in the woods and dream about all the things I might do someday if I ever stopped dreaming. After a while, the dreaming took over and became my primary vocation, to the extent that I can be said to have one. Creating poetry involves a very disciplined form of dreaming, actually more similar to a half-conscious sleeper’s lucid dreaming than to typically self-indulgent daydreams. And you know what’s weird? I hardly daydream at all anymore. My 8th-grade math teacher would probably be astonished to hear that. I still remember a poster she had on her classroom wall — she was very fond of motivational posters. This one showed a seagull, and read, “They can because they think they can.” I might be an example of someone who can because I know I can’t. The only flying that matters to me now is the kind I do in dreams. I’ve gotten pretty good at it, I think.
When I was your age, I did go fishing at a friend’s house once. The “pond” was a bit bigger — the Georgian Bay in Lake Huron — but the fish was no bigger than my hand. And we put it with the others and ate it for supper, as I recall, unlike the bass you caught last week. We didn’t worry about mercury back then.
There might’ve been other scattered fishing expeditions, but that’s the only one I remember. Picture two or three cabins on a small island of smooth, bare granite dotted with junipers and maybe a couple pine trees. I got a cabin to myself that night, lined with books and a bed that folded down out of the wall. A shack, really. I loved it. I’ve always loved the water, even though I’m not much of a swimmer. I got up at dawn the next morning so I could have the island briefly to myself — or not so much the island, but the feeling of being surrounded by all those miles of deep water, full of secret things that had absolutely nothing in common with the surface play of wave-shadows and reflections. I stood listening to the sounds of strange birds.
UPDATE 7/30: I had to edit the URL to eliminate confusion with the date archive. My apologies to anyone who tried to comment earlier and couldn’t get there by clicking the permalink. (Thanks to Marja-Leena for alerting me to this.)
I’ve been working on this poem for the last three days, thinking I could repurpose some video I shot back in March 2008 and only shared in black-and-white form at the time (see Rabid fox). The story has been simplified slightly, but most of that simplification is a consequence of memory’s alembic — I did not refer to my earlier post before completing the video.
The gray fox was sitting in the driveway
when we got up. A blessing, we thought,
returning its gaze from the veranda.
To have found a place in the cool regard
of a creature so at home in the forest
& so seldom seen by day — it felt
like a message: that we belong here
on the mountain, that our presence
is acceptable. We were already
rehearsing the story we’d tell about it
as it got to its feet, that lovely animal
the color of ash & flame, & trotted
up past the garage & out of sight.
We’re still basking in the warm glow
of chosenness when later that day
we see it again, wandering in circles
around the stark sunlit field. Now
it wears a beard of bloody foam
& keeps shaking its head as if
something has it by the throat.
We watch through binoculars
as it sinks into the grass & disappears,
then rises again: undead. Rabid.
What we took for friendliness
is instead a violent kind of taming,
the virus robbing it of every wild instinct.
I get close & watch as long as I
can stand to. Its jaw works & works.
Its eyes close for long moments.
If my presence registers at all, I doubt
I’m anything but one more, minor torment.
The brief convulsion after
the bullet shatters its skull is almost
refreshing to watch — a return to
the expected order of things.
I dig a deep grave between the roots
of a wild black cherry, break the brick-
red clods with the back of my shovel
& trickle the soil over that shining coat.
Someone asked, “What is my self?”
Jôshû said, “The oak tree in the front yard. Look at it.”
A monk asked, “I come from far away. Master, what is your teaching?
Jôshû said, “I do not tell it to the people.”
The monk asked, “Why do you not tell it to the people?”
Jôshû said, “This is my teaching.”
The monk said, “If you do not tell it to the people, why should they come across the seas to visit you?”
Jôshû said, “You may be a sea, but I am not.”
The monk said, “Well, then, what is there within the sea?”
Jôshû said, “I hooked one fish.”
The official Sai asked, “Can even a great master go to hell?”
Jôshû said, “I lead the way.”
Sai said, “But why should an excellent master, of all people, go to hell?”
Jôshû said, “If I don’t go, how can I meet you there?
—Yoel Hoffman, tr., Radical Zen: The Sayings of Jôshû (Autumn Press, 1978)
I hadn’t planned on making another snake video poem so soon after the last one, but I got some great footage of a northern water snake yesterday on a visit to a friend’s hunting camp, and the poem came to me this morning. The reading here might be a little over the top; I decided to try reading through clenched teeth.
Whatever burns in the airless ooze of my gut,
it’s far from fire. If red be its color,
it’s the toxic red of cinnabar.
It churns. It gurgles. It ties itself in knots.
Anger is an acid, altering everything it touches.
Vitriol, the alchemists called it:
mixed with common salt, it produces
gastric acid, which those ardent
scientists of the soul revered as spirits of salt.
Ah, to think that their philosopher’s stone,
granter of base wishes,
might be glimmering at the end
of such tortuous metamorphoses!
The Alkahest, universal solvent, so wondrously corrosive
nothing could ever hold it in.
Several times a year, a black rat snake climbs the black walnut tree out back to get in my house and eat the rodents, for which I’m grateful. This video poem depicts its latest entrance.
We were just talking about you crooked tunnel
the way you funnel your long freight up the walnut tree serpent
& glide out along one diminishing limb until you reach the roof
drop into the gutter & loop into a squirrel hole above the kitchen
We’d just found one of your old skins snagged on a thorn
I don’t think he’s coming back for it I joked
And my neighbor glances up into the tree & says
Well there he is now
And there you were son of a bitch
still & heavy as a tongue with bad news
waiting for a signal neither of us caught
to set you back into motion into path into limbless dragon
flicking your soft Y of flame
Don’t forget to submit tree-related blog posts and photosets to the Festival of the Trees blog carnival, which next month will be hosted for the first time by an India-based blog, Trees, Plants, and more. Details on how to submit are here.
SCENE: The local brewpub at happy hour, back corner of the bar.
COMPUTER GEEK: Wow, he sounds just like my ex-husband: good for a while, until you start to notice all the glaring imperfections. Total alpha.
BIOLOGIST: Oh yeah, mine too! Everything had to be done his way, didn’t matter what it was. Alpha male if there ever was one.
COMPUTER GEEK: Tell me about it. The quicker I adjusted every fucking thing to his modus operandi, the smoother things went. For a while. If I kept my eyes shut and put my fingers in my ears.
BIOLOGIST: Yup. And of course the problem is I’m a bit of an alpha myself, and he couldn’t handle that. Called me the the b-word to my face.
COMPUTER GEEK: Don’t be too hard on yourself! You don’t strike me as an alpha at all, though I suppose we’re all a little rough around the edges. Still, I like to think of myself more as a beta… and that’s definitely what I’m looking for in my next man. Must. Be. In. Beta.
BIOLOGIST: Well, I’ll go along with that! I’m definitely looking for a beta this time around. But I don’t mind admitting that’s because I’m an alpha. Someone has to be! Who’d keep all the betas in line, otherwise? Not all alphas are bad — just the ones that, you know, aren’t any good. (Laughs)
COMPUTER GEEK: Oh, well, I guess that’s true. Can’t have a beta without an alpha!
COMPUTER GEEK: Still, don’t you think that, ideally, we should expect to get a little better at this each time? Relationships, I mean. I’d hate to think that anyone’s just stuck in an alpha version forever, doomed to make the mistakes with the same kinds of men over and over.
BIOLOGIST: Are you saying the beta pattern represents progress? I hadn’t thought about it that way before. To me, they’re just different ways of interacting, different social styles. But you’re right, come to think of it. As they get older, every alpha does eventually become an beta, or worse.
COMPUTER GEEK: Worse? You mean better! The beta stage is when you start to get real public participation, assuming we’re a public beta. The more people you have testing you out, the faster you’ll improve.
BIOLOGIST: I guess that’s one way of looking at it. Age certainly does mellow us out — or wear us down, I’m not sure which! And I’m intrigued by this idea that the beta stage is actually what we’re designed for. Some of the new research on human aging does tend to back that up. I think traditionally we’ve just been so focused on the reproductive stage that we’ve tended to ignore the vital social roles of, for example, non-breeding females.
COMPUTER GEEK: (warily) I’m not sure reproduction is quite the metaphor I’d use, but whatever. The important thing is that you have a pretty flexible architecture to begin with. If someone’s stuck in alpha, they just aren’t reaching their full potential.
INVESTOR (two stools down): I’m sorry, ladies, I couldn’t help overhearing a little of your conversation. I have to say I am fascinated by your interpretation of alpha and beta values!
I’ve always been told that you should go for a high alpha and a low beta, but it sounds like you’re saying the exact opposite! What other performance factors do you look at?
COMPUTER GEEK: Well, uh, it depends. Some people just look at adoption rate, but I’m a purist: I’m looking for elegance, I’m looking for simplicity, I’m looking for ease of use…
INVESTOR: (slides over to the adjacent stool) Tell me more!
BIOLOGIST: (in a loud mutter) Why the hell are males always so obsessed with performance? Do you have any fucking idea what we were talking about?
Over at Identica — the open-source, feature-rich microblogging service which I greatly prefer to the faddish Twitter — I’m collaborating on a chain poem with librarian-blogger Patricia Anderson. It’s probably still quite a few days from completion, but those with an interest in the creative process and/or in social media and micromessaging technology might be interested in following the poem’s slow progress.
Twitter users will notice right away that they’re not in Kansas anymore. Up until a few weeks ago, each reply to another Identica user had a Twitter-like “in reply to” link at the bottom, and you could only follow conversations by clicking backward from one such link to another. But now, as the official description of the latest version of the underlying Laconica software puts it:
Related notices are organized into conversations, with each reply a branch in a tree. Conversations have pages and are linked to from each notice in the conversation.
In the current styling, each nested level is a slightly darker shade of gray, so that a back-and-forth between two people resembles an inverted staircase descending into darkness. A perfect medium for poetry!
Actually, I had wanted to have staggered verses, which would entail replying each time to the other person’s earliest post in the conversation, but Patricia wanted to let the conversation proceed naturally and keep nesting deeper with each reply instead. The poem can end, she suggested, at the point where replies no longer nest. We’re not sure exactly when that will be, but we should have at least another week at our current rate of one or two posts per day. I proposed the topic: “in the news,” with regular images drawn from current, international news stories. You can see our conversation about the poetic conversation — the meta-poem — here.
This is, as far as I know, the first collaborative poem in Identica written to take advantage of the conversations feature, though earlier collaborations, such as this one between Carolee and Blythe, have been threaded retroactively. I imagine that when we’re done, we’ll repost the entire conversation at Open Micro, so I’m not too worried about keeping the thread free of non-poetry replies. In fact, I thought it was pretty cool when an Identica user from Ukraine — Kobzahrai, whom I got to know initially as a fellow member of the blues group — responded appreciatively to my opening sally about the strange mayor of Kiev.
Identica has a small but active poetry community, lured there by such features as groups and favorite notices. Belonging to groups such as poetry, writers, haiku, or lyrics can greatly help reduce the noise-to-signal ratio in your feed, because you don’t need to subscribe to someone who writes 90 percent of the time about Ubuntu, for example, just to see their occasional haiku. And while Twitter also allows you to save favorite posts by other users, only Identica notifies you when someone favors one of your posts. The six most popular posts of the day appear at the top of the sidebar on the front page of Identica, and a longer compendium of currently popular posts is one click away. And perhaps because we poetry fans are inveterate word-hoarders, we probably “favorite” things more often than other users, giving an impression to casual visitors that Identica is — as someone once told Evan Prodromou, the lead developer — “Twitter for poets.”
Incidentally, if you follow me on Twitter and are wondering why you’re not seeing my half of our collaborative poem there, too, that’s because I’ve elected not to send my “@” replies across the automatic bridge that Identica provides.* Most Twitter folks already struggle to make sense of a morass of atomized messages, and I don’t see any point in subjecting them to additional fragments. Twitter is increasingly about broadcasting anyway; “power users” compete to see who can acquire the most followers, with whom conversations will generally be limited to one-way exercises in “crowd sourcing.” If you want true conversation, group-enabled camaraderie, or poems longer than 140 characters (multi-authored renga? Ballads? Epics?) Identica is the place to be.
*The lead developers of Identica are committed to an open microblogging protocol, which if ever fully adopted would mean that users of competing micromessaging services would be able to subscribe and reply to each other without leaving their own service, just as we now do with competing email services. The people who run Twitter, like AOL and Comcast in days of yore, don’t seem to see the need to give their users that freedom, so Twitter is still essentially a silo.
Feed/email subscribers must click through to the post, or go directly to the poll here.
[Aftrthought] If you select Other, please put your suggestions in the comments — PollDaddy doesn’t display them, unfortunately.