Economy, memory and inspiration

Economy issue of qarrtsiluniAsk a chef to name his favorite dish, and he’ll likely say, “Anything I don’t have to prepare myself.” If it’s his own recipe, though: “Wow! This tastes familiar, but it was never this good when I made it!”

That’s kind of been my reaction to reading the print edition of qarrtsiluni’s Economy issue, which I had almost nothing to do with this time, since Beth found an excellent volunteer proofreader, Brittany Larkin, to help her out (thanks, Brittany!). I did have a hand in ordering the contents, since Beth followed the order of the posts in the online issue, which the issue editors, Anna Dickie and Pamela Hart, had left up to me. I was also intimately familiar with the poems, essays, stories and images since I’m the one who sets the posts up for publication, edits the audio, and puts together the podcasts.

Still, it’s been a year since we serialized Economy online, so I was pleased to rediscover some things about the issue that had kind of slipped my mind. I’d forgotten, for example, how many Scottish contributors it had — no surprise since Anna is Scottish herself, but appropriate for the theme since Scots are, rightly or wrongly, associated with thriftiness. In order to keep the print version affordable, the interior images are all black-and-white, but it was still fun to see all six of artist Alec Finlay’s oatcakes in the form of famous lakes and islands gathered on the same page, even if they didn’t look quite as edible as they do in the full-color versions online.

laptop version of qarrtisluni's Economy issueI don’t own a proper laptop, let along a mobile device, e-reader, or tablet computer, so this was my first laptop experience with the issue — the first time I’ve been able to read it on my front porch. I’m in the camp of those who, like my friend John Miedema, believe that reading books is a fundamentally different experience from reading online, though it sounds as if the Kindle and some of the other new e-readers are blurring the distinction quite a bit.

This is actually one of the reasons we’re experimenting with print-on-demand versions of qarrtsiluni issues: we want to encourage deeper, more reflective reading. As publishers, we love making authors’ works accessible to anyone with a good internet connection, but we worry that, by serializing small bits of content on a daily basis, we are simply pandering to the average online reader’s short attention span and need for a regular fix. I do feel, however, that publishers can help mitigate the distracted nature of online reading by providing audio players alongside texts, as we do at qarrtsiluni. In fact, I think this is one of the web’s huge advantages for literary publishing, especially of poetry. So far, I haven’t seen any article on the slow reading movement (of which Miedema is an advocate) and/or review of Nicholas Carr’s new book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, make this point — not even the very thorough Christian Science Monitor cover story, “Is tech rewiring our thinking?” (that’s the print title), which I had the privilege of reading in print form this morning, since my parents subscribe and pass it on to me.

But of course audio isn’t an option at too many magazines yet, so perhaps it doesn’t merit mention. The audio podcasting craze peaked around 2006, I think, right before YouTube took off. Now all the tech pundits seem to think that video is the online medium of the future and nothing else is worth talking about — but video is a lot more expensive to produce, and besides, the advent of television didn’t do away with radio, did it? I continue to feel that the combination of text and audio players on the same virtual page is a wonderful thing, even if not every author is the best interpreter of her own work. (Over at Linebreak, a literary magazine I admire, they post audio of a poet other than the author reading each poem, which is a pretty neat approach, too.)

I might not have remembered every nuance of every poem and story in the Economy issue, but to my surprise and amusement I did remember many of the poets’ voices, and heard them in my head as I read through the print edition. Of course, a Scottish accent is pretty memorable for a Yank like me, but I found I remembered the accents of many of the other poets too: Alex Cigale’s precise consonants, Tom Sheehan’s age-mellowed Boston accent, Eileen Tabios’ hilariously seductive reading of “Post-Coital,” Monica Raymond’s world-weary, vatic cadence in the closing piece, “Economies.”

I think the fact that I was still able to conjure these up a year later is a pretty strong testimony to the power of audio to focus attention. The Monitor article mentions Socrates’ dismissal of written language in passing, as a way to call into question the seriousness of these new criticisms of electronic media, treating it as self-evident that Socrates was just a conservative old fart. But Socrates was right, as any number of studies of contemporary oral societies have shown: dependence on writing systems has harmed our memories and fundamentally altered our ability to listen and thereby internalize language. Heard speech is alive in a way that printed words are not, though our ability to record and now digitize it does alter its ephemerality, if not quite its relationship to time. The druids too opposed literacy, for much the same reason as Socrates, but they took a huge gamble in doing so and essentially lost: what we know of them today is largely what was written down by their enemies. And would anyone remember Socrates if not for Plato?

Economy in the gardenJust as there are tradeoffs in transitioning from orality to literacy, so too, I think, are there tradeoffs in making the mental adaptations to a more webby organization of knowledge. I’ve always been prone to associative thinking myself, so it’s no surprise I’ve become addicted to the web. Reading books (and occasionally magazines, such as the Christian Science Monitor’s print weekly) remains a great pleasure, however. This past April, when I read and reviewed a book of poetry a day, I didn’t feel as if I was depriving myself of anything to spend all that reading time away from the computer each day.

Like a lot of people, I’m still trying to find the right balance between online and offline reading, but since I’m also a writer, I have another way to measure the satisfaction I get from different media: not only how much do they stay with me and impact my thinking, but also how well do they inspire me? And I have to say that these days I am just as likely to feel that familiar tickle in the back of the brain that says “poem on the way” after watching a bunch of videopoems or listening to poetry podcasts as I am after reading a print collection. Inspiration is a kind of gestalt experience for me, so perhaps it’s no surprise that I find these novel combinations of printed, digital and oral texts and still and moving images so stimulating.

Phoenicia Publishing is running a brief sale: 10% off all qarrtsiluni print editions through August 5. See the site sidebar for details.

To a Child in a Tree, by Jorge Teillier

This entry is part 37 of 38 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas


You’re the sole inhabitant of an island
known only to you, encircled
by a surf of wind
and a silence barely touched
by a barn owl’s wingbeats.

You can see a broken plough
and a threshing machine whose skeleton houses
one last gleam of sun.
You see summer shrunk into a scarecrow
whose nightmares disturb the wheat.
You see the irrigation ditch in whose depths your missing friend
grabs hold of the paper boat you launched.
You see the town and fields spread out
like pages in a spelling book
where one day you’ll realize you’ve read
the true history of happiness.

The storekeeper goes out to close the shutters.
The farmer’s daughters herd the chickens in.
In the sky, the eyes of strange fish
begin a menacing vigil.
Better return to earth now.
Your dog comes bounding up to meet you.
Your island sinks in the sea of night.


A un niño en un árbol
de Jorge Teillier

Eres el único habitante
de una isla que sólo tú conoces,
rodeada del oleaje del viento
y del silencio rozado apenas
por las alas de una lechuza.

Ves un arado roto
y una trilladora cuyo esqueleto
permite un último relumbre del sol.
Ves al verano convertido en un espantapájaros
cuyas pesadillas angustian los sembrados.
Ves la acequia en cuyo fondo tu amigo desaparecido
toma el barco de papel que echaste a navegar.
Ves al pueblo y los campos extendidos
como las páginas del silabario
donde un día sabrás que leíste
la historia de la felicidad.

El almacenero sale a cerrar los postigos.
Las hijas del granjero encierran las gallinas.
Ojos de extraños peces
miran amenazantes desde el cielo.
Hay que volver a tierra.
Tu perro viene a saltos a encontrarte.
Tu isla se hunde en el mar de la noche.


I came across this poem just this morning, and decided to try translating it for the 50th edition of the Festival of the Trees (submissions due by midnight!). The host this time is Growing with Science Blog, and the theme: Trees through a child’s eyes.

Climbing trees was a regular activity for my brothers and me when we were kids. Mom warned us to be careful and look out for each other, but other than that, she and Dad encouraged us to explore, for which I am eternally grateful. We stayed away from fruit trees and other species we knew to have brittle banches, but we certainly didn’t shy away from tackling the tallest trees we could get up into. Usually, these were woods’-edge trees with a convenient ladder of limbs on the field side.

Needless to see, this was free-hand climbing, usually with bare feet for added traction. We tried building tree forts a couple of times, but none of us really had the carpentry skills to make it happen, and besides, if you climb high enough, the leafy branches close in and it’s just as easy to pretend you’re surrounded by walls. Tellier’s poem resonated with me, even though we don’t live in sight of town, because it really captures that shipwrecked experience of being alone in the top of a tree, and seeing how things below seem to grow distant in time as well as in space.

In some way that I can’t quite put into words, climbing trees strikes me as an essential experience — one that teaches you things you can’t learn any other way. Our physiognomy still reflects the arboreal habitat of our not-so-distant ancestors; watching the tree elves in Lord of the Rings or the Na’vi in Avatar, we’re struck by a powerful nostalgia. Trees are almost like godparents, nurturing, teaching us both how to aspire and how to respect our limits. It saddens me to think how many kids these days never get to learn such things.

Going for blueberries

mannequinsWatching a video shot in Manhattan after spending much of the day alone in a high mountain bog, I feel suddenly claustrophobic. People everywhere! The heat, the noise, the lack of escape — something close to panic sets my heart racing, and I start to itch all over.

Actually, it’s not quite true that I was alone. The young woman wandering through the city in the video looks alone, yes, but I spent the day in the company of ravens, crows, cedar waxwings, pileated woodpeckers, deerflies, crickets, goldfinches, catbirds, tree swallows, bluebirds, towhees and swamp sparrows. Once I heard a small group of humans pass by on foot about a quarter mile away. And somewhere off by herself my mother also picked blueberries in her own favorite spots.

This is our yearly ritual: pack a picnic lunch, drive to the blueberry bog on a beautiful, mid-week day, and pick several gallons of berries — enough for another year’s worth of blueberry muffins, pancakes, and fruit mixtures. For the first two or three hours, I am in explorer mode, striking out for the far end of the bog — which I have yet to reach — in search of the ultimate blueberry bonanza. Sometime in early to mid-afternoon, I turn around and start back — and almost invariably, find the most loaded bushes of the day.

I always tuck my pocket notebook and a camera into my pack, but rarely use either, in part because the mental space required to photograph or write is, for me, virtually incompatible with the hunting-gathering mind. I tend to pick in a dreamy, abstracted state, focusing mostly on the berries and on the bushes that need to be stripped. How they slowly straighten up after having been relieved of all that blue. The squelch of sphagnum under my feet. The few trees offering shade.

But there’s also no doubt that I write best here at home, seated in my familiar chair, staring at the monitor of my old desktop computer. This more than anything might be why I remain such a homebody, despite the fact that I enjoy seeing other places. Bear Meadows Natural Area, in Pennsylvania’s Rothrock State Forest, is one of the most unique and poetic places you’ll ever see, home to rare species, fringed by old growth, and as free of anthropogenic noise as you can get in this part of the state. Bear Meadows blueberriesThe fact that I can spend half the day there and not feel inspired to jot down a single word makes me feel like a failure as a poet.

On the other hand, though, one handful of wild highbush blueberries seems about equal to one good line of verse, and today I ate many, many handfuls in addition to those that went into the bucket. As with writing, picking blueberries is as much about taking pleasure in the moment as collecting something to savor later on. And growing in such a tannin-rich tea, they are acid enough to cure almost anything, these blues.


This entry is part 12 of 37 in the series Bridge to Nowhere: poems at mid-life


Dance, house.
White as a corpse in moonlight,
in sunlight white as a small hill of salt.
Dance in your wig of rain streaming from the eaves.
We who pass through you, who sleep
under your asphalt-shingled hat
are little more than ghosts.
The earth might move or it might not,
but thunder comes knocking almost every day in the summer.
How long can you sit while the moon circles like a madman
& flowers fade?
You don’t have forever, that sterile seed.
Somewhere on the other side of the world,
with nothing but water beneath it,
a white sail rocks.

Corn moon

Too hot to sleep
I bask in the moonlight’s
illusion of coolness


A warm breeze
fireflies come blinking
out of the shadows


Katydids chant
full moon full moon full moon
a passing jet


Staring at the moon
I wish I too could be buried
up to my neck

Regress report

The paperback cover of the book I’ve been reading lifts and curls back, as if unable to endure contact in this sticky heat — especially with anything as dense and woolly as poetry. It’s the season of light beer and light reading. We close up the houses in the morning and the cooler night air persists through much of the afternoon, but we can’t do anything about the humidity. I make salads for supper — rice salads, bulghur salads, pasta salads, bean salads — cooking in the morning so they have the rest of the day to marinate and chill. When I need to make bread, as I did this morning, I bake it down here so as not to heat up the kitchen at my parents’ house. If there’s a breeze at suppertime, we sit outside and try to convince ourselves it feels refreshing.

The heat seems global. Facebook friends all around the northern hemisphere have been complaining, from the Pacific Northwest to Western Europe and even Japan. I’m a bit surprised: I thought that unpronounceable Icelandic volcano’s emissions last winter were going to give us a little short-term global cooling, but apparently not.

I’ve been happily occupied in designing a website for this year’s winner of qarrtsiluni’s chapbook contest, but that won’t be unveiled for another month. If you start noticing Via Negativa undergoing major changes, you’ll know that the heat-induced blog ennui has reached a critical stage.


How many notes to self can you take?
A road nobody drives for pleasure.
Scan the dial for something
sung in drawl. Get out & walk.

The older you get, the fewer options
still tempt you: the wet membranes through which
light enters our heads versus the eardrum,
coins in a fountain versus coins in a jar.
And if you want to feel every note
you find a desert, even one small as a banjo head
or unreachable as the moon.
You go to a tattoo shop
& ask them to take dictation
on the parchment of your arm.
Don’t try to explain.
This isn’t that kind of trip.

Sonorous beetles

Egyptian scarab

Apocryphal or not, the famous J. B. S. Haldane quote about the Creator’s inordinate fondness for beetles has thoroughly confused god and beetle in my mind. As with most matters theological, of course, the Egyptians got there first, and so sacred and scarab also seem to me to have a very close kinship. The Spanish word for beetle is a cognate of scarab, escarabajo, and I was pleased to run across it yesterday morning in Lorca’s Poema del cante jondo (“Poem of the Deep Song”), in a poem called “Castanet.”

Escarabajo sonoro.

En la araña
de la mano
rizas el aire
y te ahogas en tu trino
de palo.

Sonorous beetle.

In the spider
of the hand
you make the warm
air ripple
and you suffocate
in your wooden trill.

Last night toward dusk, as I sat working at my computer, I became aware of a ticking noise in the kitchen. Thinking I might be able to surprise a mouse in some act of destruction, I snuck in as quietly as I could. The noise was coming from right beside the sink. A large brown click beetle had become ensnared in a spiderweb next to the sponge (and yes, this is a good indication of the quality of my housekeeping), hanging upside-down about an inch above the counter, and it was trying to escape the only way it knew how: by snapping the hinge of its body every few seconds. After each attempt, the tiny spider — about a tenth the size of the beetle — rushed in with another sticky grappling thread. Lorca’s lines suddenly seemed strangely prophetic.

For once, I decided to intervene and not let nature take its course, in part because I like click beetles better than I like spiders, but also because I knew if I let the clicking continue, aware now of what it meant, I would probably end up dreaming of time-bombs or the clock ticking down to my own eventual death. And a hinge, after all, is a synecdoche for a door. You want it free to swing open when the time comes. I released the beetle back into the sink to resume whatever it had been doing before it blundered into the web.

Around midnight, another noise got me out of my chair. This time it came from the front doorsill. Rather than turn on the overhead light, I grabbed my flashlight from the end of the table. There, bumbling along the bottom edge of the door, was the largest beetle I had ever seen on the mountain — some kind of longhorn beetle, I thought, but that didn’t narrow it down much. It was about two inches long, all black, and sported a pair of mandibles that gaped open and snapped shut with a faintly audible click. I scooped it up in a drinking glass so I could give it to my brother Steve, a beetle collector, when he stopped by the next morning.

This beetle too had come a cropper of some spiderweb, which I removed from its mandibles as best I could with a pencil. It seemed unable or at least disinclined to fly, so I left the glass open, but it made me a little uneasy being the guardian of such an enormous beetle — as if I’d imprisoned a minor god. In the morning I took the glass outside for some pictures, but the beetle had lapsed into a slight curl to fit the bottom of the glass and I had to poke at it with a grass stem to get it to uncurl and open its mandibles.

Steve had been having some really bad car troubles, among other things, but perked up a bit when he saw the beetle. “That’s a female Prionus laticollis,” he said, and spelled it out for me so I could look it up online. “The females are a bit larger than the males but have shorter antennae. The common name is ‘broadnecked root-borer.’ They’re not too common up here because they feed on the roots of fruit trees — they’re considered a pest. Yeah, this one’s a female. See the distended abdomen? She’s full of eggs.”

So if not the mother of all beetles, this was certainly the mother of some. Given the species’ tree-destroying habits, I wasn’t too upset when Steve decided to keep her for his collection, which he shares with his best friend Sam Wells, a professional entomologist — the Bonta-Wells, or Bowells, collection. He rummaged around in the bulging daypack he carries everywhere, found a mostly empty vial of alcohol, and popped her in. “Bonta-Wells can definitely use another Prionus laticollis,” he chortled. God isn’t the one with an inordinate fondness for beetles.

Prionus laticollis, broadnecked root borer

Curriculum Vitae

This entry is part 11 of 37 in the series Bridge to Nowhere: poems at mid-life


I was never the wise child who, hearing a patter in the leaves, tilts his open-mouthed face toward the sky. I dreamed of powerful machines with banks of dials & buttons encased in gleaming alloys, beautiful & mysterious as cathedral windows. I practiced levitation by standing on one leg — it was better than nothing. Prophesy fascinated me because of the way it made otherwise clearly random lives appear significant. I learned two different ways to hypnotize chickens. What was merely a parlor trick at first turned into a new way to make them tractable prior to execution. Adulthood came slow as a summer evening in the far north.