Long Gu

in response to a painting by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, Flight of Swallows Over the Field of Gold

Calm are the thoughts, serene the visage & regular the bowels of he who partakes of a dragon’s bone. Swallows visit him with eternal summer. For as every doctor of traditional Chinese medicine knows, dragon bone powder (long gu) is the king of sedatives, subdues manic episodes & tames insomnia. In order to be fully efficacious, its collector too must calm his mind, by (for example) ingesting dragon bone. Therefore it is said: If you want a dragon’s bones, become a dragon. A true sage can rest in emptiness & ride the wind, not knowing where he’ll stop, can turn into a bird & become immortal. The mere sight of him mortifies a dragon, whose proper realm is the boundless void, & it writhes like a candle flame in the wind & gutters into stone. From this rapid constriction comes its famed astringency, so useful in the fight against night sweats & diarrhoea. The sage has only to pierce the dragon’s skull & let its spirit loose, becalmed in the void called extinction.


Another alternative reading. (I think Clive thought he was painting St. George.) One website I looked at said that these days, long gu is derived from fossil bones — presumably dinosaurs and mammoths. However, Chinese medical use has driven other, actual species to the brink of extinction, such as the black rhino and the Siberian tiger.

Advice for silo bloggers

Are you a silo blogger? By that I mean: does no one ever link to you or comment on your posts? Well, I doubt it. Because if that were the case, you probably wouldn’t be reading this, either. Or if you did read it, you wouldn’t leave a comment with your name linking to your blog, because then I’d know about it and there’s a chance I’d go read it — and you wouldn’t want that, would you? The next thing you know, we might get into this weird relationship where we’d feel compelled to read each others’ blogs on a regular basis. You might have to learn how to use Google Reader, and be tempted then to subscribe to other blogs, taking valuable time away from your real work, which is the crafting of perfect poems, essays or novels. Pretty soon you might have a hard time continuing to keep your sidebar free of such clutter as links to other blogs, or (god forbid) one of those awful widgets with the avatars of other bloggers in it. You need that space to link to all your publications elsewhere on the web.

Remember, the blog is your space, a tool for leveraging your personal brand, as I’m sure your agent has told you. Like a real silo, its sealed environment is integral to its purpose as an efficient storage space for fermented fodder — the blog archives. And while you can use your blog to share some original content now and then, be careful with that because most literary magazines — your real destination — don’t like to see content replicated until after they publish it. They want their poems to be virgins! So try and restrict yourself to sharing news about your writing, with the occasional link or embedded video to show off your wide-ranging intellect.

Now, none of this should be construed to mean that you shouldn’t be social. Quite the contrary! Social networks are invaluable for making connections with editors and publishers and possibly even meeting a few readers — in short, advancing your brand. Consider joining Facebook and sharing your blog content there, so that if people really feel compelled to comment on that announcement of your upcoming book signing, they can do so on Facebook and keep your blog silo clean as a whistle.

There is a danger, though. If you start finding yourself getting sucked into conversations that have nothing to do with you and your writing, then you might legitimately question your involvement in this too-social network with its birthday announcements and silly online games. Remember, you are a serious writer! The web is little more than a distraction machine, with none of that hallowed hush that one finds in books and the better magazines.

So if Facebook becomes too much, I advise abandoning it and trying Twitter instead. Some of the most famous and important writers are on Twitter, and the reason is simple: you can amass way more than the 5,000 friends permitted on Facebook. Plus, on Twitter they’re called followers, which is a much better description of what you’re looking for. And whereas on Facebook you may find that constantly sharing links to your own content alienates people (take it from me), on Twitter, it’s considered weird not to link to everything you do. Best of all, for your purposes as a silo blogger, conversation is kept to a minimum, and hardly anyone ever clicks on links. It’s perfect!

Woodrat Podcast 26: The Music of the Mountain

spectral frequency display of this podcast
spectral frequency display of this podcast (click to see larger)

On a long-ago family trip to Europe, we were amused and impressed by a national park sign in the French Pyrenees that urged visitors to turn off their radios and “listen to the music of the mountain.” But do these have to be mutually exclusive? Today’s podcast episode is what a radio station devoted to the music of the mountain might sound like. Following my five-minute spoken intro, it’s nothing but natural and anthropogenic sound recorded from my front porch between dawn and full daylight, 7:00 to 7:35 a.m., on Wednesday, October 27.

Readers of my Morning Porch microblog sometimes seem to think I live far removed from the human world, but as this recording shows, that’s hardly the case — and yesterday morning was a quiet one, especially for this time of year when strong inversion layers often mean that the highway noise from over the ridge to the west drowns out everything else. I was also fortunate in that the wind was hardly blowing, and because it had rained during the night, there was a steady if irregular beat as water dripped off the top roof onto the porch roof.

I used my new toy, a Zoom H2 portable digital recorder, which packs front and rear mikes and records in a non-lossy, .wav format. Just listening through it with ear buds while it records really focuses my attention on the soundscape. As I say in the intro, I’ve long been interested in natural sound. John Cage is a hero of mine, and I was pleased to read a new appreciation of him in the October 4 issue of the New Yorker — it isn’t online for non-subscribers, but Lorianne DiSabato was kind enough to send it to me. The author, Alex Ross, quotes John Cage about his infamous “4’33””: “There’s no such thing as silence.” And he quotes composer and scholar Kyle Gann, who recently published a book with that phrase as its title, and describes the composition as “an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention in order to open the mind to the fact that all sounds are music.”

Making a podcast strikes me as another way to frame “environmental and unintended sounds,” though in the natural soundscape birds and other animals do occupy distinct aural niches, so I think it’s no accident that natural sounds seem more “right” than, for example, mechanical noise. The fact that we evolved in concert (pun intended) with the former obviously colors our perceptions as well. But I do think there’s value in learning to listen to all sound, even noise — which is increasingly inescapable — as if it were composed. It’s a practice perhaps similar to religious faith, increasing one’s sense of gratitude for the givenness of the umwelt. Perhaps I’ll repeat this experiment next May or June, at the height of migratory bird breeding season, so y’all can hear a real dawn chorus, but the more minimal sound of an autumn morning has its pleasures, too, as I hope you’ll agree.

Many cultures recognize natural sound as the ultimate inspiration for human music. The 4th-century B.C. Daoist classic Zhuangzi includes a paean to “the music of heaven” — the sum of environmental sounds — calling it superior to all other forms of music. And the Irish Fenian Cycle includes this exchange, translated by James Stephens:

Once, as they rested on a chase, a debate arose among the Fianna-Finn as to what was the finest music in the world.

‘Tell us that,’ said Fionn, turning to Oisin.

‘The cuckoo calling from the tree that is highest in the hedge,’ cried his merry son.

‘A good sound,’ said Fionn. ‘And you, Oscar,’ he asked, ‘what is to your mind the finest of music?’

‘The top of music is the ring of a spear on a shield,’ cried the stout lad.

‘It is a good sound,’ said Fionn.

And the other champions told their delight: the belling of a stag across water, the baying of a tuneful pack heard in the distance, the song of a lark, the laughter of a gleeful girl, or the whisper of a moved one.

‘They are good sounds all,’ said Fionn.

‘Tell us chief,’ one ventured, ‘what do you think?’

‘The music of what happens,’ said great Fionn, ‘that is the finest music in the world.’

Here’s some of that music.

Podcast feed | Subscribe in iTunes

A few highlights. Those who bore easily might skip ahead and start listening about half-way through, when bird calls are more or less continuous.
4:49 end of blather, start of recording
4:50 first of numerous loud taps that punctuate the recording: water dripping onto the roof
5:30 distant horn/whistle, not train
6:35 first bird call (white-throated sparrow, I think)
6:55 unidentified mechanical noise
8:54 more sparrowish chirping
9:36 the flock moves closer
11:00 first cardinal
11:15 brief cut to erase noise of wind filter being inserted over mikes
11:36 first Carolina wren
11:49 beginning of jet overflight (cruising altitude)
13:03 blue jay calls intermingle with wren song
15:19 song sparrow singing
17:00 Carolina wren getting closer
17:47 first crow
18:44 crows getting closer
20:00 two wrens greet each other
25:40 distant plane
27:10 nuthatch’s “yank yank” call intermingled with red-bellied woodpecker’s “cha cha cha” and crow caws
28:36 plane still going over
29:26 begin loud/close crows
31:36 call of pileated woodpecker on fly-by
37:00 another, more distant jet is going over
38:21 crow flies over house
38:30 second snip in recording to remove very loud sound of me leaving porch to answer call of nature

spectral phase display of this podcast
spectral phase display of this podcast (click to see larger—it's beautiful)


Charles Schroyer in the gardenThe old metal corncrib beside the barn is almost 100 years old, and it shows. In this photo from 1919, it’s the small structure to the left of the barn toward which the toddler appears to be pointing. It’s never been anything but an ugly, functional building, even when it wasn’t yellow with rust. Now the metal roof is bowed in, and is probably beyond saving. We don’t use the building for much of anything these days — I’m not sure how much it was ever used to store corn, since this place was primarily an orchard — and there are plans afoot to tear it down next year and haul the metal off to the scrap yard to be recycled.

corncribbed light

And yet inside, the light patterns can be quite beautiful. When I poked my head in today around noon, my camera card was already nearly full with photos of autumn foliage, but I would’ve deleted any of them if I’d needed the room for pictures like this. At first I concentrated on the patterns of light shining in and falling across an old table. Continue reading “Corncrib”


in response to a painting by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, Touched

Will you dance? I fear
the chance won’t come again.
Cold nights and dry days
have loosened our once-
youthful grip & put
a sunset color in our cheeks.
Let’s take a turn, swing
to the wingbeats of the rust-
voiced grackles. Let’s swirl,
break trail for the rain,
for everything good.
Later we can have a tete-a-tete,
escape the stares of those
golden-haired debutantes
& lie whispering together
in a golden bed.
We can dream of increase
in the sleek crops
of nightcrawlers.
But first we must part
from our parent oaks.


Update (10/27): I should explain what I’m up to here. Clive’s painting is his take on the Annunciation, a creative re-imagining of an oft-painted myth. Marly Youmans noted in a comment that she’d never seen an Annunciation in which Gabriel actually touched Mary like this, and the sunflowers and the abundant oak leaves were novel additions as well. Traditionally, the Annunciation is celebrated in March, but the leaves and flowers suggest late summer or autumn.

I thought it would be fun to try an intentional misreading of the painting. My first draft had them as a human couple, with Gabriel as an Edward Scissorhands kind of mostrosity, the wings actually deformed limbs from a partially reabsorbed twin. But the more I looked at the painting, the more I focused on the oak leaves. At first they were simply the occasion for the dance, but soon they took over and the figures at the center of the painting became something like leaf spirits.

Thought Shield

Direct link to video on Vimeo.

A Facebook friend linked to a website with instructions on how to make a thought shield to protect oneself from space aliens with telepathic powers. If I don’t link to it, it’s because I don’t want this post to become crank-bait. All I’ll say about the troubled people who take such sites seriously is that they are only more haunted than most by an angst about the nature of thought and scientific inquiry which seems endemic to our civilization. Here’s the text of the videopoem.

Thought Shield

There’s nowhere to hide. Ever since
the first abduction, I have felt them
sifting through my thoughts,
pinpoint headaches never in
the same spot twice.
Other times, something almost
imperceptible, more felt than heard,
like a breeze so slow there’s only
one moving blade of grass.
But I know it’s their doing that
I find myself questioning who I am.
When I start to doubt my
own memories, I know it’s time
for action. I will line a swim cap
with eight sheets of carbon-
impregnated Velostat, attach
grounding wires for when I sleep
& the silver-fingered aliens slip
through the walls like fish.
My mind will appear in their probes
only as an absense, black
as any hole that used to be a sun.

Leaf Peeps

Direct link to video on Vimeo.

It’s hard to get a video like this to look decent at low resolution. I tried uploading an allegedly high-definition version to YouTube, but I don’t see much of an improvement. I’m more pleased with the poem-like thing that came out of it — basically a flash-fiction piece, though here I’ve arranged it into lines for the hell of it. I don’t think there are a whole lot of white-collar jobs for illegal immigrants from rural Mexico, but who knows? Over at Big Tent Poetry, the prompt this week was to write a poem with something scary in it, and I suppose this qualifies, given how many Americans are afraid of Muslims and Mexicans — not to mention chainsaws.

Leaf Peeps

My friend Jesús has a glass
paperweight in the shape
of a mountain with one red
maple leaf trapped inside.
Jesús, I say, what do you need
a paperweight for? You have
no papers. He frowns,
then smiles. Sometimes I bring
the mountain to Mohammed
across the hall, he says.
We think it’s funny.

I take both of them on a ride
in the country to look at
the leaves. They keep asking
things I don’t know the answer to.
Which tree is that? Why
is that flower blooming now?
Jesus Christ, I say. Can’t you
just look & enjoy? But no,
they keep hollering to pull over.
I take their pictures with cows,
with a Dairy-Treat sign, &
with a chainsaw-sculpted Indian.
This looks like my friend Pedro,
says Jesús. He’s still in Michoacán,
sleeping with all our wives.
I’ll make the print into a postcard
that says, Wish you were here.
Mohammed laughs harder
than I’ve ever seen him.

They’re both familiar with
chainsaws—I’m disappointed.
It’s the one thing I know:
those whirling teeth,
their hungry search.

Woodrat Podcast 25: Sherry Chandler, Bluegrass poet

Sherry Chandler
Sherry Chandler (r) and her Aunt Gladys, posing with a hay rake

Sherry Chandler is one of those rare poets who actually does research. We talk about her delvings into family lore and Kentucky history in between poems, many of which are from a new online chapbook from the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Firing on Six Cylinders, which she calls “a romance of the road.” We talk about the car culture, and where that restlessness and rebellious streak might’ve come from.

In addition to her regular blogging, Sherry posts micropoems at Identica and Twitter, where she has more than 2000 followers. She has a good bio on her blog, detailing her publications and awards.

Podcast feed | Subscribe in iTunes

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

The Truth About Potemkin

Everything I thought I knew about Potemkin, godfather of the public relations industry, turns out to be false. His villages were real, however new and fancied up — nothing like the “village squares” in 21st-century America, which spring up near highway exits and have no residents at all. The peasants posing with their herds weren’t rushed in for the empress’s visit, but had been there for at least four years. And he himself was no empty suit. He wouldn’t have had any motivation to deceive the empress; they were confidantes and former lovers who knew each other’s secrets. When he wanted to impress her, he arranged to set off 20,000 rockets, or spelled out her name on a mountainside with pots of burning oil. His ideas were often grandiose, and his greatest colonization scheme ran out of funds and had to be abandoned when it was less than half complete. Toward the end of his life, he announced plans to conquer Turkey, Poland, and Egypt. He contracted a fever, ate a whole goose, and died on the open steppe.

Odes to Tools review round-up

Three weeks ago I blogged about a great review of Odes to Tools at Verse Wisconsin Online, but I’ve failed to make note of any of the other reviews and mentions the book has received over the past nine months. I started counting them up today, with the help of Google, and rediscovered a couple I’d completely forgotten about, so I think it’s high time I attempt a round-up.

  • My friend Todd Davis, author most recently of The Least of These, supplied a blurb after publication — which makes it almost like a review, right? — to help us promote the book. Read it here.
  • The first true review, on February 6, was from Dale Favier at mole. Dale is one of my oldest friends in the blogosphere, so this meant a lot. And I loved what he had to say: “How can you get lost, in a thirty page book? But I did. All these poems have edges, teeth. It’s a brilliant collection.” Read the rest.
  • The second review, in March, was from John Miedema, author of Slow Reading. I am all about reaching non-poets, so I was tickled to be reviewed by someone who loves reading and tools in equal measure, on a blog with a readership of librarians and geeks. John’s was a very bloggy review, meaning that he related it to his own experience, and he drew a design lesson about single-purpose versus multi-purpose tools that helped me see the book in a new light. Here’s his review.
  • A couple days later, poet and novelist James Brush published an equally bloggy and generous response at Coyote Mercury. The book led him to “imagine a world in which we didn’t throw things out the moment they broke.” Here’s what he wrote.
  • Also in March, the obviously very discriminating Daily s-Press, a blog about small press publications, took note.
  • In June, Verse Daily published a poem from the collection, “Ode to a Wire Brush.” I don’t know anyone there, so that definitely comes under the “kindness of strangers” heading. As a bonus, I got a chuckle out of their typo in the original title (subsequently corrected): “Odd to a Wire Brush.”
  • In July, poet and blogger Sherry Chandler compared me favorably with Emerson, and called my work “quiet and grounded.” It took days for my head to return to normal size. Here’s her review.
  • As mentioned previously, I didn’t know the reviewer at Verse Wisconsin Online from Adam’s off ox, and was impressed by the perceptiveness of his criticisms. I was also pleased with the venue. Judging by how many Wisconsin poets have made the cut at qarrtsiluni over the past five years, it’s a great place for poetry.
  • Most recently, my friend Rachel Barenblat, guest-blogging this week at The Best American Poetry, devoted a post to a review of the Odes. “What makes these poems work,” Rachel writes, “is their juxtaposition of mundane objects with breathtaking leaps of imagery.” Well, gosh. “Breathtaking” seems a little over-the-top, but who am I to argue with a soon-to-be-ordained rabbi?

Thanks to everyone who’s reviewed or linked to the book so far, and if I’ve left anyone off the list, please let me know. This is a really gratifying number of reviews and mentions, especially for a poetry chapbook. Hundreds of equally deserving chapbooks are published each year to far less notice. But probably their authors don’t blog, or if they do, aren’t active participants in blogging communities.