The Starlings

This entry is part 24 of 37 in the series Bridge to Nowhere: poems at mid-life


Today was no longer fall, but fly,
with high winds & a fast
traffic of clouds. Now that
it’s almost still, the birds are making
strange noises in their sleep,
like fragments of car alarms,
& I remember the forest floor startling up
on iridescent wings & streaming
through the branches, a rush
hour crowd, & the dark road
they unfurled across the sky.

Voice Alpha

I’ve been roped into invited to become a contributing author at Nic S.’s new companion site to Whale Sound called Voice Alpha, “a repository for thoughts, theories, suggestions, likes and dislikes and anything else related to the art and science of reading poetry aloud for an audience.”

The idea came out of our conversation last week, though I didn’t expect Nic to jump on it right away! But jump she has, and I am only the first of what I hope will be a whole posse of regular contributors. Check out in particular “Why don’t they teach us to read & What makes a poetry reading fail?” and “On looking (or not) at your audience when you read poetry.” If you have any reflections on the art of reading poetry, either as reader or as audience, we’d love to hear from you.


I want what we all want: the past in its own house & enough trees to hold up the sky. But in my dreams, going out only means going farther in. One night I’m a sniper. My target appears to be a normal, middle-aged woman, but my instructions say that she is a danger to us all. I pull the trigger on my noiseless gun & a small red hole appears in her forehead. She continues talking as if nothing happened, so I enlarge the hole with a second bullet. As her body crumples, I feel more and more certain that I did the right thing. Soon I am feverish with rectitude.

Not all bad dreams are nightmares; this one stays with me for hours after I wake. It plays over & over in my imagination like a video game with only one outcome: sight target, aim, fire, see a red eye blaze open. Turn to ash.

How I stopped smoking

I realized the other day it’s been ten years since I stopped smoking. Notice I didn’t say quit. I never quit; I just stopped. I can have another cigarette anytime I want! I just don’t want to at the moment.

Quitting smoking: even now the thought fills me dread. Never again to open a can of loose tobacco, take a deep breath of the fragrant leaf, and lay a pencil-thick plug of it in the rolling paper! Never to roll it back and forth to pack it, then twist it up tight and seal it with a fast lick, like the peck on the cheek that devoted husbands used to give their wives on the way out the door! Never to strike a match in the dark and touch it to the paper and listen to the crackle as it catches! Never to take that first delicious lungful of smoke and blow it out through the nostrils like a dragon! Never to watch the ash grow like gray finger, pull the glowing ember close to my lips and stub it out just before contact! How utterly desolate I’d feel to think I could never again indulge in these beloved rituals. That’s the kind of desolation, my friends, that only a cigarette can heal. So it’s best never to quit, simply to stop. Besides, what kind of lily-livered coward quits something just because it might kill you?

So why did I stop? Mostly, just to see if I could. Oh sure, there were lots of other reasons, my personal finances chief among them. I liked to walk, and it bothered me how out-of-breath I’d become. I hated to make my parents worry. I didn’t like thinking of myself as a kind of slave. All of these made dandy rationalizations after the fact, and provided all the ingredients I’d have needed to shape the narrative of my smoking cessation into a morality tale to prove my superiority over those who still smoked, if I’d chosen to follow the typical quitter’s path.

But the fact is, I’d been smoking for 14 years, to the point where it had become deeply integrated with my lifestyle and self-image, and I was curious to see what life without it might be like. Always an idealist, I loved how smoking could create a semi-sacred space within the most quotidian stretches of time, how it both symbolized and enacted not merely relaxation but escape. No matter how bleak your circumstances — say, sleepless, cold and miserable on the third day of a backpacking trip gone wrong — hey, you could always have a smoke.

I loved that, and I’m glad it’s still an option. Once in a rare while, maybe once or twice a year, I do have a smoke, but in recent years the experience hasn’t borne much resemblance to the way I remember it. It doesn’t taste very good, for one thing, and I’m ready for it to be over before the cigarette is even half gone. Also, factory cigarettes were never very good in the first place, but that’s almost always what’s on offer. Sometimes I position myself downwind of smokers, and it smells good to me in the same way that wood smoke smells good, but other times I catch a whiff of second-hand smoke and am repelled. It depends on my mood, I guess.

I remember the dysphoria that accompanied my physical weaning from nicotine, and how — being a bit of a masochist — I managed to fool myself into thinking that it was almost like a kind of trip. I was house-sitting for my parents for two weeks while they vacationed in New Mexico, nobody was around, so I have no idea whether I would’ve been short-tempered or not. I just remember shuffling around the fields and woods looking at things through a haze and going “wow.” And since it was the latter half of October and my refrigerator was full of apples, I didn’t have to look far to find something else to put in my mouth.

I remember being curious about what I would do to punctuate those long, empty stretches — or rather, the one long empty stretch I imagined my life would become if I stopped smoking. It took two or three years for the feeling that something was missing to go away. Now I have the opposite problem: chronic contentment. This is a dangerous condition for a poet or artist, or really anyone who would like to, you know, accomplish things. But at least it’s not life-threatening.

Woodrat Podcast 28: Nic S. on Whale Sound and audio poetry

Nic S. and Whale Sound avatars with listening tree
Nic S. and Whale Sound avatars with listening tree

A conversation with Nic S. about the challenges and rewards of reading poetry and sharing it on the web. There are three essential links connected with this interview:

(Update 11/15) Nic has just launched a new companion site to Whale Sound, Voice Alpha, “a repository for thoughts, theories, suggestions, likes and dislikes and anything else related to the art and science of reading poetry aloud for an audience.” She is actively searching for guest bloggers.

Podcast feed | Subscribe in iTunes

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


This entry is part 23 of 37 in the series Bridge to Nowhere: poems at mid-life


Direct link to video.

The flies were half-frozen, they could
barely rub their forelegs together.
How was it the mind still managed
its manikin dance? The galvanized
steel bucket had yet to heal
where a hunter had shot it
beside the old settling pond, now green
with duckweed. What was it like
to flicker wingless, like a flame,
among the ranked objects of desire
from the latest raid? And as
the utmost treasure sang its drone note
into the palm, to feel the fever leave.
I have only muscle memory
of this now: a hooded falcon
ruffling its index feathers
& the bare oaks like a ribcage
through which I passed.

Supporting our troops

I’m re-posting a few of the things I originally published on my now-defunct Geocities site, from what I like to think of as Via Negativa’s 11-month gestation period. Here’s one from March 23, 2003. The invasion of Iraq had begun three days before.

cardboard Dubya
Cardboard effigy of a chicken hawk
Exhortations to Support Our Troops have always made me a bit queasy. How come? Sure, I’m anti-war, but that shouldn’t matter, should it? Because if I value human life so highly as to oppose war on principle, surely I must join in empathizing with the men and women on the front lines?

Well, of course. And if that’s all this little slogan means, can we also agree to support their troops? But that sounds so… disloyal. Which leads me to think that if support our troops means anything at all, we ought to be honest and admit that one of its primary meanings is go team! And I feel bad about saying this, especially to anyone with family members or lovers on the front lines, but I’m not in the cheering section. Not for either team.

But that’s not the only reason this slogan makes me so queasy. How come you never hear “Support our soldiers“? Is it because we’re all maybe a little anxious about what it is they do?

But of course in modern warfare soldiers do all kinds of things besides simply killing. Some of the stateside soldiers, according to web sources, are joining in street demonstrations when they go off duty. I can support that! And a few soldiers — several dozen, so far — have demonstrated another kind of bravery: they’ve become conscientious objectors. Can we agree that these soldiers, at least, who have chosen to risk their futures and even their freedom for a moral scruple almost no one understands, are very much in need of tangible support?

“Support our troops.” What is a troop? It’s still a plurality, even without the s. Does this notion of troops have anything to do with actual human beings? What is it we’re supporting here? It reminds me very much of the old communist slogans about the masses — another plural of pluralities. When we deploy this phrase support our troops, aren’t we in some way supporting the dissolution of individual men and women into a nameless, faceless machine?

O.K., Mr. Intellectual. But what about all those masked demonstrators? They are, literally, effacing themselves too, aren’t they? Not to mention the tens of thousands of marchers chanting and cheering in unison. Go team!

That argument sounds a little too facile to me. Donning a mask to protect one’s identity — or project a new one — is actually an assertion of individuality, and a freedom that the authorities often seek to deny. Further, the voluntary solidarity of diverse interest groups with differing agendas is a far cry from unquestioning uniformity imposed by leaders.

But the demonstrators — masked and otherwise — are indeed soldiers of a sort. Their actions may not always inspire much sympathy, but as far as I’m concerned, they are truly standing in the gap for all of us. For one thing, they are probably doing a lot more to protect our freedom than anyone in uniform, given that in reality no one is threatening the existence of the United States, and the supposed WMD are as transparent a fabrication as the Gulf of Tonkin incident. No, it’s the demonstrators who are safeguarding our freedom, because freedoms are like limbs: fail to exercise them regularly, and they tend to atrophy.

A more overlooked possibility, however, is that these anti-war soldiers may be helping to protect Americans from terrorist retaliation. A senior cleric, described as a leader of ultra-orthodox Islamists in Saudi Arabia, told an interviewer on NPR that he and his fellow clerics would try and take all extenuating circumstances into consideration before any declaration of jihad against the United States. Such a jihad, he explained, would of course enjoin the targeting of any and all U.S. civilians as knowing accomplices in crime. So it seems reasonable to hope that enough TV images of large masses of Americans demonstrating and getting arrested for their passionate opposition to this war might make a big difference to those who would help legitimize another 9/11.

You don’t have to accept that the US-led invasion of Iraq is a crime to recognize that the majority of Muslims, fundamentalist or otherwise, believe it to be so. Further, whether or not you agree with senior American intelligence officials that Gulf War II will lead to an escalation of attacks against domestic targets in the US, it is an undeniable fact that funds and personnel have been diverted from the War on Terror to this new War on Weapons of Mass Destruction.

So collectively, as troops, the soldiers in uniform may actually be endangering us, while the soldiers on the streets may be helping to protect us. Makes one a little queasy just to think about it, eh? Support our troops!

Goodnight moon

This entry is part 22 of 37 in the series Bridge to Nowhere: poems at mid-life


After hearing about a poetry workshop where references to the moon were strongly discouraged

Goodnight moon you nail clipping you garlic bulb

Goodnight moon baring a fat white buttock

Goodnight moon over only a paper Miami

Goodnight moon you’ve been a great audience

Goodnight moonstruck wino posing as a poet

Goodnight moon and tidings good or ill

Goodnight moon with fluids leaking

Goodnight moon bound to your orbital bed

Goodnight moon of other planets

Goodnight moonscaped mountain of tailings

Goodnight moon I had a lovely time

Goodnight moon hello freeway exit

Mr. Hitter

I’m re-posting a few of the things I originally published on my now-defunct Geocities site, from what I like to think of as Via Negativa’s 11-month gestation period. Here’s one from February 14, 2003. We were hearing every day how Carthage must be destroyed…

“Unstructured play” was the rule during recess at the New Day School, where my big brother in 1970 would’ve been a first grader, had there been any formal recognition of grade levels. And as it happened, an unstuctured variant on the game of tag grew up around an old board, some six feet long, that had a tangle of rusty nails sticking out of one end. They called this game Mr. Hitter.

The biggest six year-old in the state of Maine attended that school. His name was Joshua and he was always It.

This was a state of affairs the other kids strove valiantly to maintain, no one wanting to risk the consequences of a successful tag. No one but Joshua, in fact, was ever especially eager to play this game of his. The more precocious among them, like my brother, had plenty of opportunities to demonstrate their leadership abilities by attempting to distract him with a variety of ad hoc diversions, like seeing who could spin around the longest before falling, or if anyone could lob a brick clear over the school.

But most days Joshua would eventually remember, and grabbing the board by its good end he’d sweep it before him like a mace, staggering from the weight and momentum of the thing. With fanatic glee he’d careen around the back lawn howling Here comes Mr. Hitter! And everyone would scatter and regroup in his wake, like gulls at the town dump when the backhoe drove through.

I remember this from the half dozen times I got dropped off there after nursery school, and being the youngest and slowest I had to rely on my brother each time to dissuade Joshua from trepanning my skull: Leave him out of it — he can’t play! A delicious phrase I learned then and there never to resent.

A doubter’s guide to agnosticism

I’m re-posting a few of the articles I originally published on my now-defunct Geocities site, from what I now think of as Via Negativa’s 11-month gestation period. Here’s one from February 9, 2003, which, whatever other merits it may have, shows where I was philosophically and what led me to title this blog as I did. New additions are in brackets.

Though they are often used interchangeably, agnosticism and atheism are not the same. Etymologically, an atheist is “without god” while an agnostic is “unknowing [of god or other ultimates].” Someone who identifies as an atheist, however, uses the term to mean “without belief in god,” while people who describe themselves as agnostics usually mean to suggest that they have not made up their minds about the existence of god and/or other religious claims. In both cases, the influence of Christianity’s unique emphasis on intellectual assent to propositions as part of the emotional commitment to Christ is unmistakable. [Here I had in mind the distinction between faith as belief that xyz is true vs. trust in some god, ground of being or ultimate reality, which I picked up from Leo Baeck by way of Martin Buber. It’s all too easy for people from a Christian culture to assume that all other religions make the same demands of their adherents, but this is far from the case.]

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “agnostic” was invented by the great naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley at a meeting of the London Metaphysical Society in 1869. He explicitly cited Biblical/pagan Greek precedent for this coinage: St. Paul’s sermon about the shrine to the Unknown God (an attempt by polytheistic Athenians to “cover all bases” — see Acts 17:23). Thus, although the term itself is modern, the intuition is ancient, as Huxley recognized. Indeed, many modern nature writers and ecologists cite humility as the scientist’s most important attribute, since “nature is not only more complex than we know, but more complex than we can know.” [Quote attributed to ecologist Frank Engler.]

Huxley’s neologism quickly caught on in the late 19th century, both as a self-description for those who wanted to stress the paramount importance of observable phenomena in the sciences, and as a way to characterize non-theistic philosophies such as Buddhism or Sankhya. But given its uniquely Christian origins, I wonder how meaningful it is to use the same language to describe basic postures of belief within widely divergent religious traditions — even other monotheistic ones such as Rabbinical Judaism, Islam, and Sikhism. Is the god that a worldly Muslim doesn’t acknowledge the same as the god repudiated by an atheist of Protestant heritage?

Western atheism also has sound Christian roots. The French “Enlightenment” thinker Voltaire once cynically remarked, “If God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” Some 150 years later, the Russian anarchist Bakunin replied quite earnestly, “If God DID exist, it would be necessary to overthrow him!” Both men could fairly be described as humanists, a posture that developed quite early within Christian scholasticism in its struggle with the centripetal force of church authority. Furthermore, their respective statements are consistent with an intellectual rebellion against god as Lord of Hosts, Heavenly Father, etc. that goes back at least as far as the 3rd century writer known to us as Pseudo-Dionysius (a.k.a. St. Denis), if not all the way to Jesus in the Gospel of St. Matthew, 27:46. This tradition might be described as religious agnosticism, and is the common source of modern atheism and agnosticism. It ranges from a conviction that knowledge of ultimate truth(s) is unattainable by mortals, to a mystical praxis of Unknowing as a point of departure for deeper communion, to a pragmatic open-mindedness characteristic of many modern church-goers.

In sum, my feeling about these terms and what they signify is simply that they make no sense outside a religious context. Christian fundamentalists use the term “atheist” to describe any unbeliever as they define him, but many younger folks are quite simply materialists or sensualists for whom the existence or non-existence of god is a matter of almost complete indifference. The label “atheist” implies an active commitment to unbelief that very few people share — unless we are to return to the strict, etymological meaning, which is of course Greek and therefore pagan. (Are fundamentalists condemning themselves to eternal hellfire through their unChristian application of this word?)

To orthodox Christians, the notions of agnosticism and atheism blur together for the same reason they might have blended in the minds of Voltaire and Bakunin: both signify rebellion. What is a conventional believer to make of someone who worships a non-hierarchical (yet still personal) god? In the West, most such worshippers — including the great Meister Eckardt, famous for statements like “for the love of God, get rid of god” — were burned as heretics. Yet a quick overview of Eastern Christian traditions suggests that non-Roman churches were relatively hospitable to this position. And one could argue that honoring the Job-like rebel has been central to the survival of Rabbinical Judaism through centuries of exile and persecution. Most Jewish thinkers, of whatever school of thought, honor the memory of the patriarch Jacob/Israel second only to Abraham. Both men wrestled with God, Abraham through cunning speech alone (though his wife, Sarah, used laughter) and Jacob in the flesh.

Looking deeper, we find that the entire Hebraic tradition as presented in the Bible is based upon acts of rebellion and a fanatic commitment to atheism: rebellion against Pharaoh and, much later, against Babylon and other imperial rulers; atheism in the sense of the central commandment against “idolatry.” Even the most innocuous fetishes must be destroyed, or the Hebrews’ collective covenantal relationship with YHWH would be endangered. Originally, perhaps, it was only the power of competing deities that had to be denied, as many scholars claim. But a distinction between denial of power and complete nullification strikes me as fairly academic, if not completely meaningless to all but the most theologically sophisticated of believers.

The Hebrew Bible is replete with major and minor commandments against any attempt by individuals to influence events through supernatural means other than petition to YHWH. Even planting by signs was suspect. Originally, as I’ve implied, these laws were instituted with communal survival as the main desideratum (one of the astonishing things about the Old Testament is how little of it evinces any concern with the afterlife, even in later, individualist tracts like Job and Ecclesiastes). But simultaneous with the institution of secular kingship (viewed as blasphemous by YHWH himself) comes news of a movement — mysterious to us today — of ecstatics and visionaries claiming direct revelatory knowledge: the nebiim, or prophets.

It’s my contention that the prophets’ emphasis on individual moral behavior laid the groundwork for agnosticism in two ways. First, it extended the earlier commandment against idolatry to include ANY attempt to encompass divine sovereignty within human conceptual frameworks. (It’s fun to speculate whether this might have derived from actual contemplative practice — an early version of the Via Negativa — but I don’t think that’s intrinsic to this revolution in thinking as I imagine it.) To this day, I gather that many religious Jews feel uncomfortable pronouncing or even writing out the name of G-d.

Second, this movement made possible the skepticism of critics like Qoheleth “the Preacher,” not to mention the angst of later prophets like Jeremiah, who strove to make themselves heard above a din of contradictory prophets all claiming to speak for the same god. It’s interesting to me how Ecclesiastes moves from worldly cynicism to a kind of pragmatic orthodoxy reminiscent of Confucianism. Neither Qoheleth nor Confucius would have us waste much breath on questions we cannot reasonably expect to answer in this life. Such speculation, they felt, only distracted from much more vital questions of ethical behavior. In this, they would’ve agreed with Buddha, as well.

So, ignoring for a moment the pitfalls inherent in overly facile assimilations of Western and Eastern philosophies, we can at least propose one further question: when agnosticism becomes orthodox, what is heterodox?

Most religious historians agree that the proximate cause of Buddhism’s eventual disappearance from India lay in the rise of Shaivism and Vishnavism: emotional, functionally monotheistic cults. If true, one can imagine a populist revolt against Buddhism’s deracination of all passion as a source of attachment and bad karma. Confucianism, on the other hand, was opposed by highly individualistic forms of Buddhism and Daoism evolving in tandem. Both Buddhism and Confucianism originally spread, however, through the royal sponsorship of elite institutions with relatively little concern for the details of village belief, so comparisons with the more totalistic world religions aren’t very instructive.

One perennial avenue of rebellion against orthodoxy is in ecstasis itself. It’s a commonplace of comparative religion that movements such as Voudun or Pentacostalism find fertile ground among people living on the margins of society. And when orthodoxy becomes more-or-less agnostic, such as seems to have been the case for most literate Greeks and Romans and many cosmopolitan Jews of the ancient world, then rebellion often turns fanatic and absolutist. There is a strong sense in which the holy warrior — whether crusader, jihadi or zealot — longs for a literal ecstasis (death).

And in any case, even outside a religious context, rebellion in the absence of imagination so often leads to appalling violence! I wonder if the most stifling orthodoxy wouldn’t be preferable?

“I don’t know”: I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. Are these three statements one and the same? Frankly, I’m skeptical.