Where to look for miracles

If people are determined not to believe something, then no amount of proof will change their mind. You will be called a liar for proclaiming things that call into question the way people are living. But remember, you’re just one in a long line of Cassandras and Jeremiahs — prophets who were scorned for being right. They stuck to their guns, and so should you. What’s the alternative? You can’t change the laws of nature.

If you still think you can overcome people’s aversion to the truth by uncovering better evidence, hey, go for it. Delve into the mysteries of geologic time, subatomic particles, or the outer reaches of the known universe, and bring the clearest evidence you can find — see if that makes any difference. Only those who have learned to listen will actually hear, and that depends in great measure on whatever chance circumstances shaped their upbringing; you have no control over it. Those who can’t hear are as good as dead — and therefore soon to rejoin the cosmic mystery in any case.

Some will say: How come God hasn’t sent some sort of obvious sign about this? And all you can say is, signs and miracles abound! Most people just don’t know how to read them. All creatures that move on the earth or fly through the air belong to communities equal in importance to your own. God doesn’t overlook anything, and we’re all in this together.

The foregoing is my own rough paraphrase of several verses from the Quran, 6:32-38, based primarily on the Ahmed Ali translation but with reference to several others on the Internet, especially for the crucial passage about the equal validity of non-human communities (other translations offer “societies” and even “peoples”). I even found a Sufi blog that interprets 6:38 as a call for animal rights.

Note however that in attempting to make this passage a bit more palatable for modern secular types, I have stripped out most of the poetry. The part about geologic time and subatomic particles, for example, paraphrases: “Seek out a tunnel (going deep) into the earth,/ or a ladder reaching out to the skies, and bring them a sign…” Fascinating stuff one way or the other, though, I thought. I am seriously exploring the idea of writing a modern bestiary now, and looking for inspiration. Who’d have thought the Muslim holy book would contain such a radically inclusive vision?

Woodrat Podcast 6: Todd Davis

A conversation with Todd Davis about life and death, religion and poetry

Todd Davis stops by to read some poems from his latest book, The Least of These, as well as from his previous books, and to talk about public reading, what motivates him as an artist, growing up with Mennonites and how that shaped his own beliefs, nature poetry, travel poetry, deer and deer hunting, how to kill in a manner that honors the spirit of the slain, and more.

Here’s a set list of the poems in the podcast:

If you live within driving distance of Altoona, Pennsylvania, don’t miss Todd’s reading on Thursday, February 18, at 7:30 p.m.

Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence)

Podcast feed | Subscribe in iTunes

Ars Poetica?

Video link.

Czeslaw Milosz reads his poem. This is a different translation from the one he did with Lillian Vallee for the Collected Poems.

I made this thinking I might post it on Moving Poems, but I’m not sure it quite qualifies as “the best video poetry on the web.” Nevertheless, I enjoy matching poems to footage like this, and I happen to think it’s a pretty good fit, assuming I’m correct in reading a fairly light-hearted tone into the poem.

I wholeheartedly concur with the sentiment that “the world is different from what it seems to be / and we are other than how we see ourselves in our ravings.” The closing assertion, that poems should only be written rarely and reluctantly, strikes me as a rather strong prescription: potentially life-saving for some poets and very dangerous for others. I do love the next-to-last stanza, though (in the canonical translation):

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

Shady Side


The bottom of the hollow is a strange place: so steep that the trees grow tall and spindly, with few branches, and are spaced far apart. Two hundred years ago it would’ve been a much darker place, dense with hemlocks, but now it’s mostly deciduous and, in winter, as light-filled as a northeast-facing hollow can be. Plummer’s Hollow Run is of course as wide as it gets down here, and we have to be vigilant to keep it from undercutting our access road when it floods. Most of the winter, though, it’s dark and quiet.

wild hydrangea

The steep slopes provide some protection for vegetation that the deer would browse down to the ground anywhere else, such as wild hydrangea (above) and red elderberry. In May, they harbor our largest patches of purple trillium.

snow patterns 3

The wind is fierce along the railroad tracks at the bottom, and reaches up into this bottom portion of the hollow to make its mark on the snow, erasing and rearranging daily like a never-satisfied artist. Cold and wind have defined this landscape for the last two centuries. I think of the people who used to live in a small cluster of houses at the entrance to the hollow, on the shady side of the gap — a desolate and dirt-poor hamlet whose hey-day only lasted for a couple of decades before the railroad came through in 1850 and took out the heart of the settlement and its raison d’etre, an iron forge. (It was the forge that precipitated the original clearcutting of the hollow, since it ran on charcoal.)

snow patterns

People who grew up in the last of those houses are elderly now, and come to visit every now and then (though probably not in the winter). They walk up around the first bend, sign the guest register next to the Plummer’s Hollow welcome board, and return to gaze at the empty spaces where their homes once stood and listen to the thunder of the trains.

Poetry and extinction

The great subjects of literature, they say, are love and death. But isn’t it time we added a third subject? To me, any contemporary poetry that does not in some way acknowledge extinction fails to rise above the level of a diverting parlor game. I mean the extinction of species; of ecological communities and the unique landscapes they give rise to; of unique human cultures, languages and ethnicities. Extinction: the unraveling of creation. The loss of something that can never be replaced.

Deliberate genocide and ecocide (as in so-called mountaintop removal) are of course the most terrible and extreme forms, but even the wholly unintended loss of some obscure moth due to the insatiable demands of our consumer economy is an unpardonable sin. More than that: we should be sensitive enough to the vast stretches of time and the wondrous workings of chance (or divinity — I’m not always sure of the difference) required to bring about new life forms or new languages to understand that any extinction, even one in which human over-consumption or exploitation are not implicated, represents a loss of a completely different order from the death of an individual. If we are beholden as poets to mourn ordinary death and to celebrate the wonder and beauty of human love and life, aren’t we all the more obligated to respond in some way to the horror of extinction, and to celebrate non-human life in all its strangeness and beauty?

It seems to me that as beneficiaries of an unsustainable, wasteful and destructive consumer economy, we are engaged in a Faustian bargain: our physical comfort, convenience, and stimulation in exchange for… well, eternal damnation of a sort, yes. Purely as a thought experiment, ask yourself which of the following would you be willing to consign to oblivion in order to continue at your current standard of living:

These aren’t all threatened or endangered species, just random cool creatures, each deserving at least an epic in its honor, and emblematic of the staggering diversity of life on Earth.

I’m not saying we don’t need more poems about love. (Though come to think of it…) I am simply proposing that we poets stop our silly wars about style and theory and start writing elegies, psalms, odes and lamentations for each and every species and unique community on this endangered earth. Imagine a leaderless, global collaboration of poets resulting in a multilingual mega-anthology bigger than the Mahabharata, the Talmud, and the Buddhist Tripitaka combined…

Scruggs Style

Our only god the clock
has the face of a banjo
& three efficient fingers.
On the weekends we get
behind its wheel & go.
Drunk & loud, you want
everything to clatter apart
at once: breakdown! But
we’re out of the mountains,
so it’s full speed ahead,
boys — rewind & play.
When Earl says the word,
the snow will return to the sky.

Woodrat Podcast 5: Radames Ortiz with Jonathan Jindra, Amplified Bards

A conversation with Houston-based poet Radames Ortiz and his audio collaborator, the composer Trills (Jonathan Jindra).

Topics include: How electronic music is composed; the arts scene in Houston; composing and improvising music to accompany poems; making the transition from ambient music to electronica that demands active listening; how Radames started writing poetry and why he chose not to get an MFA; turning a poetry reading into a multimedia experience and getting the audience involved; online reading, e-book readers and the supposed death of the text; the obligation of poets and writers to master multimedia tools; making and watching videopoetry.


Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence)

Podcast feed | Subscribe in iTunes

Snow forest

snow on witch hazel

I set out this morning before the snow stopped, eager to take full advantage of the silence that settles over the land when a major winter storm falls on the weekend. This was the first I’d worn snowshoes in a couple of years, and I began with enthusiasm, despite the fact that I sank in nearly a foot with every step. Progress was slow. My own breath moved more quickly than I did, and I was soon almost out of it.

I’d almost forgotten what a deep, dry snow was like. From time to time my footsteps set off shockwaves, quiet little booms accompanied by a sudden settling of all the snow within a few yards’ radius. Sometimes this was enough to shake the snow loose from a nearby laurel bush, the waxy green leaves springing up and throwing off their white straitjackets. Before long my calves were aching, and my glasses kept steaming up and then freezing. I finally took them off and put them in my pocket, and did most of the rest of the hike half-blind: up to the top of the watershed, through the spruce grove and out to the Far Field, alone with the sound of my exertion.

Or nearly alone. The downy woodpeckers were out and about, and a pair of cardinals foraged in one thicket. On the ridgetop not far from its den tree I crossed a porcupine trail — an almost-tunnel through the snow — and wondered whether it had been going out or returning home. Twenty minutes later, on the lower trail back from the Far Field, I had my answer.

porcupine in a blizzard

This was shot hurriedly in dim light through a zoom lens, and then magnified further through digital zooming. But I really only took the picture to make sure of what I was looking at, especially with my glasses so fogged up. Had it not been for the location on a thin branch, I might’ve dismissed it as an unusually messy squirrel’s nest. It sat motionless with its head tucked against its belly as the snow sifted in through its forest of quills.

What this isn’t

Unknown web searchers, I’m sorry you were led astray and ended up here. This is not a site about Amish rubber boots, heavy rain penis, existentialist haircut, tweety only poems about love, how is a turtle and a groundhog alike, or (Lord knows) poems and classy behavior. This isn’t a site about sexsexsex, what colour is cat vomit, what does a groundhog penis look like, don’t eat whatever you say, tips for surviving the apocalypse, how to make me happy, shit creek banjo, wood rat midden photo, poem about not being a dick, poems about being rescued from climbing, explanatory poems on mitosis, or 20 gauge crow hunting. Most of all, this is not a site about the via negativa. I’m sorry. Better luck elsewhere.