I seem to recall a blog meme that went around earlier this year or last in which bloggers were supposed to post photos of their workspace. This post was prompted however by some photos of his studio space that Clive Hicks-Jenkins put up on his Artblog. Now of course an artist’s studio is bound to be more interesting than a writer’s desk, but I thought Clive’s posts gave a real glimpse into his work habits and personality. In fact, I have to say I was a little frightened by the abundant evidence of a rage for order (though Clive claims in the comments that his studio isn’t always quite so neat). Because, as you can see, I’m a bit of a slob.

Also, yes, I do dress like a homeless man. But I figured these would be really boring photos if I didn’t put myself in them (thanks to a cheap-ass tripod and my camera’s ten-second timer). Objects of note in the first photo include a balsam pillow handmade by my hiking buddy L. from a recycled men’s shirt and stuffed with needles collected on one of our trips to the Adirondacks; a plaster bust of Chopin wearing a turban; an old Pennsylvania Railroad kerosene lantern which I use during prolonged power outages; about half of my fiction collection; a view of the kitchen; and a coat rack I made from a dead pitch pine. The dark object in the foreground is the shoulder pack for my cameras.

workspace 2

This photo looks a little weird because I played with the light levels. The room has lots of natural light — from my swivel chair I have a view of the outdoors in all four directions — but it was kind of an overcast day.

This is starting to seem like a self-indulgent, even narcissistic exercise (thought somehow it didn’t when Clive did it). But what strikes me about this photo is that almost everything in it was a gift or a hand-me-down. The filing cabinet, lamp and chair were all Christmas gifts (on different years) from my parents, who are also the biggest enablers of my writing habit. The computer monitor and speakers are hand-me-downs from the same source. Hat and fingerless mittens were both knit by blogger friends. The ducks who watch over me while I work are a mated pair of mallard decoys that once belonged to my paternal grandfather, who I believe actually used them for hunting. The smaller object in front of the right-hand decoy is a black clay toucan my brother Mark brought back from Oaxaca. The tree is not a Christmas installation but a potted, year-round resident: a Norfolk Island pine that once belonged to my poetry mentor Jack McManis. So when I look at these photos, I see other people.

If any other bloggers want to pick up this meme, consider yourself tagged.

Personal blogging for writers: a manifesto

This entry is part 8 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


Thanks to weblogs and other modern content management systems, a poem, essay or story can now be written in the morning and published the same afternoon. Does this spell the end of polished writing? Not judging by some of the highly polished books I’ve read by active bloggers, many of them derived in whole or in part from blogged material.(1) On the contrary, I have seen people become better writers as a result of blogging, myself probably included. Writers have always done some of their best writing in a white heat of inspiration, and blogging can either aid or hinder this depending on the personality of the writer and his or her approach to blogging: it can just as easily be a tool for artistic exploration as an agent of distraction.

Many writers prefer to use blogs merely to share news of their publishing success elsewhere, and that’s fine. But I think those with a more exhibitionist streak are missing out on a great deal of fun, and poets in particular — who are almost invariably exhibitionists, let’s face it — are missing an unparalleled opportunity to connect with audiences they might never otherwise reach. But there’s a risk, too: that they will be so seduced by this new medium that they won’t want to go back to jostling for publication in snooty print magazines no one reads, and their professional reputations will suffer as a result.

Blogs began as collections of links to real material published elsewhere, and to the extent that it’s still possible to generalize about blogging as a whole, I’d say that the “Hey, look at this cool thing I just found!” approach still predominates, whether it’s a tumblelog of quotes and images from around the web, a StumbleUpon blog, or the Huffington Post with its tabloidy presentation of news stories mostly lifted from other sources. But that’s as it should be. For the internet to remain vital, I’d guess that linking of one form or another ought to constitute somewhere around 80 percent of total web publishing behavior.(2)

“Publishing” in this sense means simply the creation of something on the internet that didn’t exist before, even if it’s only a link. Obviously this kind of secondary publication depends entirely upon the publication of original work in the first place, a relationship which the less internet-savvy may be tempted to characterize as parasitic. It certainly can be, in the case of commercial spam blogs with content scraped from RSS feeds for the purpose of gaming search engines, but otherwise I think it’s actually a symbiotic relationship, since without incoming links, an online author is limited to whatever readers s/he can reach through email or handbills.(3)

The biggest difference between online publishing and print publishing is its greater ephemerality: anything that’s published online can also be unpublished, and sites that are not actively maintained will eventually disappear. The flip side of this represents a huge boon for author and editor: any online publication can easily be altered at any time after publication. The print-oriented writer’s obsession with producing the most polished work possible is a natural reaction to the immutability of the printed word. Before I began blogging, I too would typically spend days, weeks, sometimes months on a single poem, returning to it again and again like a dog returning to its vomit. Now, as soon as I get something into a half-decent form, I just post the son of a bitch. I can always go back and swap in another draft later — and sometimes I do.

Mine isn’t the only approach, though, just the one best suited to my particular, impulsive brand of slap-dash perfectionism. Other writer-bloggers might prefer to publish later drafts in new posts, linking back to the original (Dick Jones does this a lot, to good effect) or save them for a spin-off project on another site, with component parts linked in both directions. I’ve also come to admire and sometimes emulate the style of some literary bloggers who share notes on the writing process alongside the primary text. This can make many kinds of writing more approachable for a general audience, especially if the notes are informal and personable. As blog software becomes more sophisticated, I hope to see more templates with innovative approaches to the presentation of notes and commentary.

Instantaneous self-publishing gives the author more power than at any time since the invention of literacy, but it also confers a new degree of autonomy on the text. Once published online, especially on a blog with a feed, the text can be replicated endlessly. Though it’s easy enough to instruct search-engine robots not to index a website, doing so kind of misses the whole point of the internet. Authors who desire complete control over their creations should not go anywhere near the web.

Readers have more power now, too: in most cases they can log comments in a space directly adjoining the text, with a reasonable expectation that the author will read them and even respond in turn. Of course, in many cases the readers are other bloggers, a situation that should feel familiar to most poets. But in some cases they’re bloggers from very different backgrounds, specializing in other genres, with cross-communication enabled by a personal/creative blogging culture in which some blogs (like this one, I hope) elude pigeonholing and mix genres in ways that would be considered unmarketable in traditional publishing.

Becoming part of that culture means adhering to a set of mores that might seem strange to those more familiar with the posturing and flame-wars of the political blogosphere, but the rewards include the chance for new kinds and greater degrees of creative interaction. In a nutshell, I’d say the personal blogger has an obligation to be a gracious host (which includes throwing out mean-spirited or disruptive guests as quickly as possible) and the commenters should behave as if they were guests on someone’s front porch: a publically accessable, privately controlled space.

Blogging enables the mixing not just of genres but of media, too. In contrast to print publication, full-color illustrations entail very little additional expense (and may even be free, depending on one’s web hosting arrangements). The web is in many ways a visual medium, which doesn’t mean that online audiences for longer, unillustrated texts don’t exist, simply that authors have to be aware of different strategies for gaining and retaining readers. Ekphrastic writing is one very common example of the kind of creative synergy maintaining a blog can inspire in its author. Writers with digital cameras can always shift to photoblogging when they start feeling blocked, and the kind of seeing required to take good photos can feed back into their writing.

The web doesn’t have to remain a purely visual medium, though — and this is another of its great advantages over print. Online poets in particular are fools if they don’t at least occasionally take advantage of the opportunity to return listening to center-stage. While eye-catching photos might draw in easily distracted readers, a good audio recording embedded in a Flash player alongside the text can lead someone to actually pay close attention to the poem. Video is another great blogging medium, and while putting videopoems together may seem too complicated for most, anyone capable of writing a sonnet or a villanelle can certainly figure out the basics of video and audio editing. In fact, digital literacy should probably be taught in all college writing programs now.

The greatest thing about the web, for me, is that authors can reach anyone in the world with a connection to the internet, for free or close to it. There is no longer any need for a publisher as an intermediary. The personal weblog medium offers the potential to reach beyond traditional audiences for poetry, nature writing, and other genres that commercial publishers have for decades considered irrelevant. While it’s true that blogging has passed its peak of faddishness, I see that as a sign of growing maturity. And all the people who are now using Facebook and Twitter instead of blogging are still looking for cool things to link to and tweet about.

Many print and online magazines will not consider previously blogged material for publication, causing the more ambitious writers to avoid posting drafts of their work, except possibly in password-protected posts. The irony is that in many cases a poem posted to the author’s blog can reach more readers than it would receive in all but the most widely circulated magazines — even online magazines, which are all too often poorly designed, practically invisible to search engines, and lack any kind of feed.

On the other hand, self-publishing alone does not advance a literary reputation, which is essential if academic advancement is at stake. One solution is for literary bloggers to publish each other. The same tools that enable the easy publication of a personal weblog can be used for any other kind of online periodical. Authors (and readers) can organize formal or informal networks through interlinking and the use of social media tools. We can rise together rather than compete for pieces of an ever-dwindling publishing pie.

Networked bloggers can help promote not only each other’s online work, but books as well, through organized virtual book tours. Audiences built up through years of blogging can be counted upon to buy copies and in some cases to assist in viral marketing, too.

Books need not remain the holy grail of literary publishing, however. Think what writers of such titanic energies as Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, or Pablo Neruda would’ve done had the web existed in their day. Though books are wonderful and will probably always be produced, much of what goes into a blog really can’t fit into a book, and the experience of reading a regularly updated blog as it is being written certainly can’t be reproduced in print. Balancing the immediacy of it are the opportunities for comparison and perspective provided by internal and external hyperlinks, archives, and search unequalled by any indexing a traditional book might provide.

While there is no one best way to present literary and artistic material online, the personal weblog may be the best suited for this age of the memoir. Writers concerned that a focus on personality might draw attention away from the work itself should consider applying a “copyleft” licence to their works, such as a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike licence, to release them for creative re-use and remixing by other writers, artists and musicians. We can also engage in networking and community building with other bloggers, as mentioned above. This includes collaborative projects of all kinds, as well as participation in blogging memes, carnivals, writing and photo prompts, NaNoWriMo, NaPoWriMo, and so on. We can provide readers with tools such as email subscriptions, easy social media sharing options, and print-this-post buttons to encourage the redistribution of works originally written as part of a journal-like blog stream. With all these possibilities for transformation, though, no longer can we think of a creative work as having a single authoritative version. Like its author, the blogged text is forever a work-in-progress. (4)


(1) In addition to the poetry chapbooks by Rachel Barenblat and Sarah J. Sloat that I’ve reviewed previously, these include: Going to Heaven by Elizabeth Adams, Mortal by Ivy Alvarez, Mapmaker of Absences by Maria Benet, Cargo Fever by Will Buckingham, Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole, Uglier than a Monkey’s Armpit by Stephen Dodson and Robert Vanderplank, The Brother Swimming Beneath Me by Brent Goodman, and The Idea of the Local by Tom Montag.

(2) A completely made-up statistic.

(3) During my first eleven months online, before I discovered blogging, I was publishing stuff on a Geocities site, and advertising mostly via email. I get more page views now in a single day than I did in those nine months.

(4) Where does all this leave the critic, then, if writers are reviewing each other and no longer competing for the attention of publishers? Personally, I think literary critics need to combine forces, incorporate, and open an app store. If you want to be a gatekeeper in today’s increasingly open, content-sharing, remixing media environment, you simply have to build a more attractive gate.

Written for Via Negativa’s sixth birthday. Thanks to Jessamyn Smyth and Arvind for the Facebook discussion that gave me the idea to attempt a personal blogger’s manifesto.


trapped maple limb

Light unmitigated by leaves can change in an instant.


This is what makes deserts both so alluring and so unforgiving — that lack of moderation. Sharp contrasts appeal to the eye as well as to the moral imagination.

broomsedge footprints

The condition of the snow can change by the hour: what held you up at dawn might crumble under your boots at ten. The only constant is the need to walk and walk and walk, for warmth more than exercise and for revelation more than warmth.


In a radically simplified landscape there are fewer places to hide, and things that had been hidden are selectively revealed, in strong light and with maximum contrast: that’s what I mean by revelation. Nothing mystical about it. And the extreme conditions should serve to remind us that revelations are not necessarily pleasant; a preference for pleasant news and comforting beliefs can be a real obstacle to an accurate perception of reality.

bull thistle in winter

The desertedness of deserts is of course another big part of their appeal. You can be alone with your demons. The wintertime desert is barren, devoid of fertility — but as anyone who has chosen to remain child-free will tell you, this can be a gift, too. All sorts of things need open space to flourish. Biologically speaking, the extreme environments known as barrens in the eastern U.S., like the western deserts, often accommodate species found nowhere else.


So what seems barren to most might be for some the most fruitful country imaginable, the moment-by-moment mutability as welcome as the phases of an unpredictable moon.


Chimonophile: Someone who enjoys cold winters.

In the Voice of Sarah J. Sloat

In the Voice of a Minor Saint“Everything that appears possible/ can be turned into something impossible,” writes Sarah J. Sloat in “Curtains,” a poem from her chapbook In the Voice of a Minor Saint, published earlier this year by Tilt Press. This is an apt description of Sloat’s usual modus operandi in these poems. For example, here she is on that touchstone of modern identity, the gasoline-powered automobile:

Pity the swoon towards motion,
the yen for speed.

Pity the billow and sinew of fumes,
muscle that makes the crash spectacular.

God have pity on the whole machine
gas has to carry: lead, flesh and metals
that do not travel light.
(“God Have Pity on the Smell of Gasoline”)

The title poem works much mischief simply by taking a familiar phrase — “minor saint” — literally.

I came at a wee hour
into my miniature existence.

I keep my hair close cropped
that my face might fit in lockets.

My heart is small, like a love
of buttons or black pepper.

“Grassland” is another possibility that Sloat’s facility for imagistic and linguistic prestidigitation renders, if not impossible, at least highly mythic. Both the Biblical Sarah and Lot’s wife seem to be waiting in the wings:

I hold a handkerchief
over my mouth to veil the clover
and bees that tickle my throat,
but the angel
who’s due at my tent
won’t catch me laughing.

A kiss would do it.
One sprinkle of milkwhite salt
and I’ll break like bread at your table.

That was, by the way, one of three poems in this 22-page collection in which honeybees get close and personal, a leitmotif like automobiles and the smell of gasoline whose reoccurrence contributes to the book’s overall strong musicality. These poems are deeply pleasurable to read, and as I read and re-read the PDF that Sloat sent me, I often found myself chanting them out-loud. I was interested to see that the first reviewer in the Read Write Poem-sponsored “virtual book tour,” Joseph Harker, also remarked upon this quality. Another blogger, Nic S., drew attention in her review to the poems’ “elegant luminosity” and their capacity to “consistently delight the reader by asserting bold unexpected connections with complete confidence.”

Regular readers of my Smorgasblog should recognize the author’s name: Sarah Jane Sloat blogs at The Rain in My Purse, one of the most consistently rewarding reads in my blogroll. Almost everything she encounters takes on a tongue-in-cheek mythic dimension. In “The Problem With Everything,” she bemoans “Every day a dull assault of sudden loves./ Instant, lachrymose attachments,” while in “Please Remove My Name,” she describes “a man who will write/ my name on a grain of rice for 5 euros.” But wait — did I say “tongue-in-cheek”? The narrator of “Silent Treatment” imagines a far less quotidian destination for her tongue,

No more
wagging in the shallows, it’s plunged
in a tunnel to the underworld where
they stump in a strange dialect.
Eat your heart out, it might say. Eat
your pilaf, your side vegetable
and the pox upon your crops.
It might say anything, were it not
lounging around a lower hemisphere.
Laid back at some southern spa, mudbathing,
overdosing on motionlessness.

The book’s title is not entirely a tease. The voices in these poems generally betray a liturgical interest in the ruts and rhythms of the vernacular and an anchorite’s quality of attention to time and verticality. The narrator seems religious but not spiritual — much less pious — in poems like “High Heeled”:

I always want more:
more Everest, more starshine,
something in the department of vertical.

That’s why I’m up here.
It’s better than smog,
better than settling.

Since coaching myself to one-up
the utmost, my dreams
only know the amazonian.

In “3 Deep,” she talks of receiving a poem from a pen pal named Luke about cunnilingus and the hydrogen bomb, a conjunction that makes “perfect sense:/ sex and death and sleep —/ the three dear deepnesses.”

I lie down knowing Luke is dredging
atomic oceans with his bare hands;
I can sleep knowing the dark
holds its appointments dear.
The whole ruined world can lie down
and wait for it to be revealed
which strain of pillow talk
will come to smother us.

Book reviewers typically try to show their sophistication by finding at least one quibble with the book under consideration, but try as I might, I can’t find anything to criticize in this collection. Then again, I am not the most sophisticated of critics, aside from my penchant for using ten-dollar words like “quotidian” and “anchorite.” I was amused to see that the reviewer for the Rattle blog, Linebreak editor Ash Bowen, managed to take what would otherwise seem to be an unadulterated compliment — that the book was too short — and infuse it with a learned, critical air:

[T]here’s a hint of Harmonium-era Stevens in the language play of Sloat’s poems. If there is a problem with the chapbook, it is that it’s too small. Sloat’s world needs more walking around room, more opportunities to take a look down some alleys, instead of the straight walk down the street that we get. But such are the limitations of chapbooks.

Whatever, dude. I love this book. I wish I had written this book, were it not for the likelihood that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it nearly as much if I had.

I only wish I actually had this book, instead of merely the PDF, which was set up for printing and therefore presents the poems in the wrong order, starting at both ends and proceeding toward the middle. True, I could’ve printed it out, one page at a time on either side of a sheet, then folded and stapled the thing together, but I kept expecting to get a copy imminently. Apparently it’s my fault, though, since when I placed my order with Tilt Press in mid-November I was seduced by the offer at the top of their order page: all five of their 2009-2010 titles for $30. I didn’t read it carefully enough, however, and erroneously assumed that Minor Saint would be among them. When nothing had arrived by December 2, I queried the press, and received this response:

The subscription you purchased is for the 2009-2010 series, not the 2008-2009 series in which Sarah’s chapbook was released (that sale is no longer available). The reason you haven’t received anything is because we are preparing to release the first in the series within a few days.

Oops! The editor went on to offer me a free review copy of the book, however, and I hope to receive that soon. I post this in the magical hope that so doing will make it materialize in the P.O. box tomorrow morning.

UPDATE (12/16): Sure enough, the chapbook was in today’s mail! It’s a beautiful and very sturdy production, designed by Rachel Mallino with cover art by Emmanuel Polanco — well worth the $8.00 retail price.


Sloat’s book includes a couple of ghazals, which inspired me to try my hand at one, too. I had some idea that I would write it in the voice of Sarah J. Sloat, but in the end it just sounded like another Dave Bonta poem. Oh, well.

Ghazal of the Unreceived Book

Thirty percent post-consumer recycled bond
& saddle stitching, how I yearn for you.

I have read all your words but in the wrong order,
elegant letters that the typesetter kerned for you.

I finger teabag tags with printed witticisms,
no book’s crisp pages to turn for you.

The feral cat coughing under the floor
& last night’s jumble of dreams might adjourn for you.

The meteor shower invisible above the sleet,
No falling star could I wish upon or even discern for you.

Surely your data deserve the connective thread
of a chordate. You risk dissolution. I’m concerned for you.

The P.O. box grows heavy with seasonal wishes —
well-meant minimal books I can hardly burn for you.

What if you arrived tomorrow, & challenged everything
I thought I knew? Could I unlearn for you?

Like any artwork more than the sum of your parts,
some parts will always elude my long sojourn for you.

What are your favorite web periodicals of 2009?

As a follow-up to my previous post, I was thinking I’d put together a new list: Ten Favorite Web Periodicals of 2009, until it occurred to me that my picks might not be as interesting as yours. For one thing, I’m too busy publishing my own periodicals (qarrtsiluni, Moving Poems and this beast, among others) to read as extensively as I otherwise might. Plus my list would be heavily weighted toward publications of a literary nature, such as Cordite Poetry Review, Born Magazine, The Peter Principle and There’s a lot out there that I’m missing, to put it mildly.

So I’m interested in hearing what other people are reading, for possible inclusion in a new post and/or poll, depending on the response. It can be any kind of online magazine, blog, or blog carnival, covering anything from political commentary to science to the arts. My only requirements: its most recent content must be no older than June 2009, and it must have a working RSS or Atom feed. In the case of a blog carnival, it should have a coordinating site with its own feed. Oh, and please don’t nominate any of my stuff or your own stuff — let’s keep this classy. (Nominating magazines you’ve been published in is of course fine.)

UPDATE: Please let me know if your comment doesn’t appear; I don’t normally check through the spam folder before deleting it. I have temporarily increased the limit on the number of links you can leave in a comment to five. If you have more than five recommendations, feel free to leave multiple comments.

Ten favorite blog posts of 2009

In chronological order. Links all taken from the Smorgasblog archives.

1. Alpaca Koolaid (Feathers of Hope)

I found myself in this funky yarn store in Woodland with a scary McCain truck outside and plastic lining on the windows looking for bulky cashmere for my mother’s birthday scarf but all they had was baby alpaca so I took it and ran away but the color wasn’t quite right so remembering you could dye yarn with Koolaid I dove into Safeway where I never go and where I won’t be recognized buying koolaid for god’s sake but I don’t even know what aisle it would be on is it with spices or sodas or even controlled substances…

2. The day the world changed (Real Live Preacher)

Suddenly I felt a spasm of raw emotion. My eyes filled with tears and my chest heaved. I managed to keep from bawling, but it felt like I was trying to swallow something the size of a golf ball. These girls were just like my daughters. This woman was like my wife. I play with the children at my church just like this monk plays with these children. My own life was presented to me in the forms of another culture by a smiling God who convicted me, tore me up inside, and forgave me all at the same time.

How can joy and sorrow be melded together in such a powerful way? I could hear the voice of God speaking to me, straight and direct, but also with love.

“You look a little shook up, Gordon. It hurts, doesn’t it, when you see the faces of the people you have been so quick to condemn? And yet, is it not also wonderful to see my other children, your brothers and sisters?”

3. Darwin Day (

How will I be celebrating Darwin Day? Not with diatribes against the willful and darkly strange obsessions of the Biblical literalists, nor with polemics or arguments. But by leaving my desk, and going outside where I can (now that I turn my mind to it) hear the wood-pigeon calling on the roof of the house opposite, and a dog barking some way off, so that I may experience that wonder of being here at all, amongst so many of my kin.

4. Odd Corners at the Opera House (box elder)

Of quite recent years I’ve acquired a charming nephew-in-law who has a gift with anything sparkly. This talent being recognised, he has recently come into the job of his dreams at the Royal Opera House in London, in the lighting department. He very kindly gave us a tour. I’d never been there before, and I was astonished how big it was, and how much he knew about it, after really quite a short time of working there.

He took us from top to bottom. We saw the Flying Dutchman’s ship being built, and a great room full of young dancers, long-eyed boys like fauns and slender girls like wood-nymphs, and much more besides.

We saw the stage being prepared for that evening’s performance. Something about watching, from above as an outsider, the stagehands going about their purpose in pools of light, while the decontextualised translated surtitles for the opera hung in the dark above them, was unsettlingly, mysteriously beautiful.

5. Vernophobia (Paula’s House of Toast)

I know what’s coming. Green will rish up through the thawed loam, through the leafmould, and surge through the limbs of trees, preparing to erupt. Then the wee fuzzy things, downy infant life, will crowd out the stiff, withered, gone-to-ground or toppling-over debris. Then look out for the throngs of humans — in shirtsleeves, shorts, convertibles; on rollerblades, bicycles, skateboards; wearing shades, billed caps, jogging shoes; and worse: in their new bathing suits. In their oiled skin. With their suntans. Playing volleyball. Frisbee. Tennis. The world becomes a beer ad, a Satyricon of inebriation and copulation. There is no place in such a world for an old woman muttering

I take pictures of weeds. Dead weeds.

6. Thirty Thoughts in Thirty Minutes (the cassandra pages)

My ancestors read poems: Tennyson, Longfellow, Sandburg, Frost; committed them to memory.

At twelve my great aunt gave me a blue-bound book of favourite poems she had written out by hand: a treasure.

Civil war poems, fairies in glens, Victorian love poems written out by a spinster school teacher who loved history, art, reading.

Have I done them justice, these gentle souls who taught me to think and look at a world slowly passing?

When I think of them, time almost holds still for us.

7. Of salt, in gray (Somewhere in NJ)

Today I thought about salt and how my life could be clean and simple if I reduce it all to salt; how I’ll be able to talk to someone without going from pure joy to silence. And touch someone without going from truth to concealment. Salt is the only thing that lasts here at the shore. It gets into everything, your hair, eyes, clothes.

8. Yates County (Coyote Crossing)

The car’s engine noise died off a quarter-mile down the road. The wind picked up a bit. Something odd flicked back and forth in a clump of teasel: a shed snake skin, tan and translucent, belly scale covers lenses magnifying the teasel stems.

That, as near as I can figure it, was the first time I noticed it happening. Whatever it was I’d been upset about was gone. A shed skin stuck in the weeds and I was rapt. An unexpected joy makes predictable annoyance fade in importance.

9. direct experience (slow reads)

Sammy was also genial — a slim, middle-aged man whose gait pointed up his feet and knees and elbows — but our conversations with him were equally limited. I remember only his responses to my aunt’s directives, remarks like, “Yessum, I’ll have that done by supper,” or “Yessum, over against the shed.” My youngest cousin, a bit younger than my brother and I, would always address Sammy as “Sammy-boy,” picking the habit up, I guess, from my uncle, and it didn’t seem to bother Sammy, or my uncle, one bit. I grew up addressing all adults by their title and surnames, but I never learned Sammy’s or Floe’s last names. I don’t think I addressed them as anything.

Besides his responses to my aunt, I remember only Sammy’s laughter. He’d laugh at most anything anyone said, laughing even when most people would have responded with words. His good-natured laughter seemed as deep as an empty well.

10. Paris: there will be no miracles here (Creature of the Shade)

It’s just an outdoor hallway, really. In one direction the explosion of light at the end blinds all else — a slice of a vast display on the walls of the Police headquarters across the Seine, 30-foot high images of happy police offiers in all their earnest diversity.

But the walls of the street itself are rich with artistic claims, some not even signed, like this clownish face claiming “La rue est à nous” — the street is ours. Unsure if this nous includes me, I can feel embraced and rejected in the same gesture, a consummate Parisian sensation.

Saturn Devouring His Children

If they can’t be killed let them live
piecemeal in my stomach, my bloodstream,
the dense bulb of my liver.
Let them measure my gut like tapeworms
until they know nothing else.
This is the Golden Age —
things take care of themselves,
& a god who lives forever has
no need for descendents.
That last one, Zeus, was a hard candy
I gave up trying to chew & swallowed whole.
I still feel him down there,
rolling from side to side
as if needing to be nursed.
Sleep, my indigestible issue.
Your age of base metals will never come.
I have taken my medicine & it’s time
you took yours: a god too,
if only & forever in the spleen.

Desiderata for a sacred text

Half-way between a bestiary and an almanac. Multi-authored by an international consortium of the homeless. Heavy on Yes, low on No. Too big to fail. Available only in whalesong, and impossible to translate.

St. Brendan's whale, by Honorius Philoponus, Novi Orbis Indiae Occidentalis, 1621
St. Brendan's whale, by Honorius Philoponus, Novi Orbis Indiae Occidentalis, 1621


monster buck

This morning was foggy and rainy. The five inches of snow that had fallen overnight turned to slush and began to melt. For those few deer hunters who were out in this weather, the hunting was excellent. They spoke of climbing into their trees before daybreak and listening to coyotes sing.

monster buck 2

The head of a four- or five-year-old whitetail buck is significantly larger than the head of a younger deer. The hairs around eyes and muzzle are longer, and one can even find whiskers on its lower jaw — where a chin would be if deer had chins.


The antlers are thicker and have a wider spread, with longer tines. I was struck anew by the strangeness and wonder of the cervid family: This animal sprouts a pair of trees from its head every year, uses them to battle with other males, then sheds them in the middle of the winter and starts growing new ones in the spring!

What about the meat? I asked. Oh, we grind it all up, they told us. Bucks have a strong taste to them during the rut. Prized as they may be for trophies, it’s the does that are really the best eating.

slush track

By mid-afternoon the sky had cleared. The snow was so wet, it practically splashed when I stepped in it.

drainage ditch

The melting and settling gave the landscape an almost shrink-wrapped appearance, accentuated by the long shadows of a low sun less than two weeks from the Solstice.

barn door

With tonight’s return to sub-freezing temperatures, I am hopeful that winter has come to stay for a while. I can hear it howling up on the ridge.

Buson tells a fart joke

Gakumon wa...  haiga by Yosa Buson
Gakumon wa... haiga by Yosa Buson (photo by ionushi on Flickr, Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license)

Gakumon wa ketsu kara nukeru hotaru kana

(Study/scholarship as-for, ass from exiting/emitting firefly [exclamatory particle])

All this study—
it’s coming out your ass,
oh firefly!


I found this gem while looking for a photo of one of Buson’s haiga (haiku illustration, a proto-Manga-like genre he did much to advance) as a possible addition to Sunday’s post. It comes courtesy of Mexican blogger and man-of-letters Aurelio Asiain, who, as it happens, now teaches at the very college in Japan where I spent a formative year as an exchange student back in 1985-86.

This is as close to an outright simile as a haiku can get. Notice that there’s no firefly in the painting, which acts as a kind of commentary on the poem. In the absence of any additional information, one could certainly read this as a poem about a firefly whose diligent study bears fruit in the radiance coming from his abdomen. But the facial expression of the figure in the painting encourages a more Rabelaisian interpretation. Notice, further, the placement of the text in relation to the figure, the calligraphy suggesting curls of vapor. This is a fart joke.

It translates particularly well into modern American English, since “talking out one’s ass” is such a popular way to characterize know-it-all bloviating. Intellectual pursuits had a much higher value in Edo-period Japan, though, where students and scholars were often poetically said to study by firefly light — a conceit that survives to this day:

“Keisetsu-jidadi” which literally translates into “the era of the firefly and snow,” means one’s student days. It derives from the Chinese folklore and refers to studying in the glow of the fireflies and snow by the window. There is also an expression “Keisetsu no kou” which means “the fruits of diligent study.”

So Buson’s insight consists simply in pointing out where on its anatomy the firefly’s light emerges.

We shouldn’t be surprised that such a humorous haiku came from the brush of one of the greatest haiku masters. Humor and earthiness were primarily what distinguished haiku and haikai no renga from the much older renga (linked verse) tradition in the first place. In social terms, haiku poetry represented a middle-class appropriation and popularization of what had been a very aristocratic pursuit. And Japan was and remains an earthy culture; there’s nothing like the split between classical and vernacular views of the body which has afflicted Westerners since the Renaissance. Buson was able to paint equally well in a high-brow Chinese style and in the cartoonish fashion seen here, just as Chaucer included the Knights Tale and the Miller’s Tale in the same work.