Eating Dried Fish With Our Hands

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 2 of 63 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Autumn 2011


Tonight, this kitchen is not a place
the foreign or the faint of heart
would willingly choose to enter:

I’ve fried a panful of air-dried, salted,
and butterflied fish
(is that why we hear
the wail of the neighbor’s cat, or is it merely

in heat?)— So what if the smoky haze sits
thick in the air, is likely seeping through
windows, clinging to drapes and furniture?

I’ve sliced three plum tomatoes to toss
with a squirt of lime, chopped scallions
and a handful of cilantro. All this,

because the homesick tongue has dreamt
thin, golden crumbs of fish dipped in
a saucerful of vinegar, crushed garlic,

and bird’s eye chillies; followed by
a mouthful of hot jasmine rice scooped
up with the fingers. Why is feasting

on and touching this simple food such
a pleasure? Mornings, we have a little
hail of cereal grains hitting the sides

of the bowl; then the thin, cold
stream of milk. Lunch is often skipped,
in favor of coffee. And how many times

can the trio of salad, meat, and potatoes
exercise their dinner charms? The stove
flicks on, the bottom of the pan heats

to a coppery red. Sometimes the hungry,
rusted parts of memory call out for more
salt, more tang: more time to linger.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.

The Origin of the Exclamation Mark

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 2 of 34 in the series Small World


A gasper, a screamer,
a dog’s cock, say
the old type-setters,
frozen at point.
But it’s older than
type, old as a dried
stalk trembling on
the way to earth,
a mud-dauber tube
like a tuneless flute,
the trail of a slug
down the moss face
of a cliff, a severed
finger packed in ice,
a No. 2 pencil pocked
with toothmarks, a
snake made of sand,
a microphone hung
from the ceiling,
the fossilized thigh-
bone of an extinct
sauropod, a string
of drilled shells
used in lieu of
money, or a
gas flare on
an oil field
at night.

says: the word
joy written vertically,
in Latin, a big letter I
balancing on a
full belly.

Listening to Piazzolla’s Tango Etudes

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 1 of 63 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Autumn 2011


Sinuous braid of trenchant longings,
windmill footwork criss-crossing

the polished floor then pausing to slide
and wrap— dark stockinged thigh and leg

seething with friction, that bow
ascending toward the edge of oblivion

and driving the breath, before its sudden
drop— O I’m the crimson petal

that detaches from its ebony nest of hair,
tight gather of pleats fanned off

a narrow waist; velvet cummerbund that pins
the white sleeves close as sails—

Outside, see how late afternoon rain
beats down and street lamps flare;

how leaves of the yellowest birch reflect
ardent bronze shimmer on window-panes.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.

Kay Ryan on nonsense, poetry, and knowledge

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Watch on Vimeo. The Lannan Foundation has also uploaded a video of the reading that directly preceded the conversation.

I usually share other people’s videos only on Facebook or (for poetry-related stuff) Moving Poems, but the length and via negativistic content of this conversation might make it a better fit here, I thought. I love what Kay Ryan has to say about poetry and knowing, and about knowing and making stuff up. You have to watch the video to really get a feel for how unseriously she takes herself, but I spent some time this morning making a transcript of a few of my favorite parts of this conversation, which occur somewhere near the middle. This helps me understand a little bit better what I do myself in my writing — especially the part about the need for coldness.


Kay Ryan: “I think nonsense is extremely close to poetry. Nonsense — I figured this out when I was fairly young — nonsense operates by rules. You cannot have nonsense outside the context of sense. It, uh — it’s in tension with sense.”

Atsuro Riley: “You like to make a statement in your poetry. You’re quite willing to do it, you like to do it, you seem insistent upon it — ”

Ryan: “A lot of them are bogus, though. They’re bogus. You know. I like the fake — I think you pointed this out! — the sort of, you know, the pedant, the mock polemic. Yeah. And they’re just ridiculous, you know. Like uh, oh, what’s the one about the, uh, extraordinary lengths… Oh yeah, right — I don’t know, uh, ‘Extraordinary lengths are always accompanied by extraordinary distances.’ And, you know, that’s just such a stupid thing to say! I just love to say something like that. I, uh —

“Well, let me explain that. I like to make — well, boy, I’m glad you brought that up. Because I, I think that I’m really interested in something that is so hard to perceive. Like light coming from the furthest star. It’s, it’s, it’s very frail when it gets here. Very frail. But looked at another way, it’s incredibly strong, ’cause it’s gotten all the way here from the furthest star. So it’s something incredible strong, but we’re getting just a little bit of it!

“So what I do, what I try to do with this thing that I can just barely perceive, is to jack up the intensity like crazy. Make a cartoon out of it? You know. Make a diorama, have puppets do it. You know — overdo it. I’ve gotta magnify it because it’s — and I have to sound more sure than I am. Because — because I don’t know. I only a teeny tiny bit know! Maybe. I’m trying to know. So I build up — I build something that I hope has a lot of, uh — well, as my step-daughter would say, flavor-punch. I like flavor-punch. I love Southwestern food! But I like to give a lot of color. And reality. Of course it’s all specious, but, uh, you know — ”

Riley: “But to help you think through the question.”

Ryan: “To help me think, yeah. It’s like setting up — and I think you said, too — ”

Riley: “Magnified conundra.”

Ryan: “Yeah. And little, uh, models. You know? Einstein — and I always like to connect myself with Einstein! — Einstein, you know, worked in the patent office. Before he was — before he thought his really great thoughts. And I think it shaped his mind to a certain degree. That business of seeing in terms of models. And I think that that’s what we do in poems. (I mean, not just me, but — ) We make a model, and it’s really a model for something different. I mean, this is the model, but it’s really trying to talk about that starlight somehow. That little thing we just know with some interior part of our brain, to which we have very little access.”

Riley: “Let’s talk about coldness. What is it in a poem — I’m not sure I exactly understand — and, um, why do you like it?”

Ryan: “Well, I mean I think it’s just constitutional. I think — I think one of the things that we do when we write, or one of the things I’ve done, is try to make a world I could live in. You know? I make in my poems a world that is, uh, congenial to me. ‘I like how she thinks!’ You know? It makes me feel at ease to articulate those things. It, uh — I can make a world that has the rules that I want. And I think that, as most people here [in the audience are], I am sensitive. I feel under… I am too stimulated. There’s too much coming in all the time. There’s too much heat. There’s too much closeness. There’s too much personal. There’s too much giving away of secrets. There’s not enough, ah, distance. There’s not enough chill. And if I can do my small part to add a little coldness and distance to the world, I will not have written in vain.”


Ryan: “I discovered a long time ago — and it seems so counter-intuitive, but I found that I had to start writing about things when I was just on the front edge of knowing about them. I mean, just — I hardly knew about them. If I waited, I would be paralyzed by knowing too much. And I, I couldn’t write. There always has to be a large sense of, ‘Oh, I’m just inventing this.’ But then later you can look back and say, ‘No actually I wasn’t inventing it. I still think that I, that there’s something there that I will stick with.’ But I always have to write it before. And if I’m overwhelmed by knowledge, or feeling, or something, it’s just no — I just can’t write.”


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 91 of 93 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Summer 2011


Something burns somewhere: faint
hickory smudge carried on the air,

woodsmoke and leaf crackle. Against
the sky’s blue scroll, sleeves of green

donned a few more times before winter’s
coming. Half-covered in leaves,

one deer snorts to another. They
turn; one white-tufted beacon, then

the other— relays raised aloft
at the edge of the field.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.

Walking in the dark

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Walking through a dark forest without a flashlight is an exercise in trust: trusting your feet to find the trail, trusting chance not to place a new fallen tree at shin level, trusting that a storm won’t blow in — for there’s no hurrying this slow shuffle. Over the chanting crowd of katydids in the trees, I hear the thin, whispery alarm calls of flying squirrels. I stop and peer at an almost vertical row of glowing spots a few feet off the trail: foxfire.

The damp air is an olfactory smorgasbord of molds and fermentation. As my eyes adjust, I begin to discern different flavors of darkness, too: here the rich black shadows of trees, there the cafe-au-lait openings of trail or blow-down. I feel less helpless now, more in control. But no sooner do my feet and eyes grow accustomed to their new normal state than the restless mind is off again, and I have to keep calling it back: Heel! Stay!

Is it loneliness that prompts it to wander like that? If I were sharing this darkness with others right now — say, outside a federal penitentiary in Georgia, cupping a candle flame — would I be better able to maintain focus? If instead of myself I were, in fact, concentrating all my thoughts on some victim of the criminal injustice system on his last, too-short walk into permanent darkness, wouldn’t my own hopes and dreams fade into the background, as faint as foxfire?

The sound of a very small shower approaches. I take my hat off to relish the tap of its millipede feet on my close-cropped scalp, but it’s already past. An odd reaction, perhaps — a sign that, deep down, I might still crave another’s touch.

Somehow I find the brushy intersection where the Short Way Trail leads down off the ridge, and soon I am seeing a light among the trees. Look, nobody’s home! Blinking dots of light in the window where an ethernet unit sends and receives from a world-wide web.

And how is it, I wonder as I enter the house, that I managed to walk all that way without blundering into a single spider web? The equinox may not be until Friday, but autumn is already here. Or as the book of Jeremiah puts it: The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.

Rest in peace, Troy Davis.

Protecting the environment from the Department of Environmental Protection

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Watch on YouTube

So as luck would have it, the Juniata Valley Audubon Society‘s first lawsuit is happening under my watch as president — this despite the fact that in my personal life I avoid confrontation like the plague. Fortunately I’m not the point-man here, and today I was happy to use my presidential authority merely to insist upon shooting a video of the real heroes of this fight (as well as to record some audio, which I hope to share eventually as a Woodrat Podcast episode).

The video wasn’t very eptly shot, but what the heck. It’s JVAS’s first official video, and I figure we have to start somewhere. It features Mollie Matteson, Conservation Advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity, and Stan Kotala, JVAS Conservation Chair, member of the Pennsylvania Biological Survey’s Herpetological Technical Committee, and general bad-ass.

Dear samba, dear bossa nova

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 90 of 93 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Summer 2011


beat pouring through the sound system
of this corner cafe, something in my
blood rises immediately to the warmth
of syllables that alternately quicken
(darting hummingbirds among the green)
then lengthen, humid as afternoons swung
from hammocks against the setting sun.
Even if I don’t understand the words
crooned in Portuguese, they unloose
the languid locked in my wrists,
the small of my back, the tight
ladders knotted in my spine.
The low cloud ceiling suspended
over this day transforms into sultry
stage setting: the gloom no longer
somber, only achingly melancholy;
the isolated call and response
amid the trees querulous, perhaps
even occasionally sweet— and
in between, those rich, syncopated
silences of expectation and release.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 89 of 93 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Summer 2011


When I turn on the radio I hear
the story of a dead NASA satellite
about as large as a schoolbus,

which is right this minute falling
to earth and poised to burn in re-entry,
scattering a rain of hefty debris

some time in the next few days.
Where exactly on the six inhabited
continents it will land is anybody’s

guess: though all the wags have
already suggested locations anywhere
from Downing Street to Alaska, to the White

House and Libya. The odds, however,
are about one in 21 trillion that any
of us will be struck by a scrapyard

piece that has actually hurtled
through fields of quietly pulsing stars.
In a manner of speaking, that satellite

has been falling since it was launched
into the atmosphere in 1991, in the same
way mold begins its inevitable descent

upon the wheels of cheese just
lifted out of their cloth, the coarse
brown bricks of bread the baker

slides out of the oven. Even now,
though the season has not truly turned,
the walnut trees have begun to lose

their leaves. The smallest animals
are lining their nests with seed and paste,
preparing to bury themselves in the dark.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.

Dear meadow vole disappearing into the woods

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 88 of 93 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Summer 2011


Meadow Vole, Field Mouse, or Meadow Mouse (Microtus pennsylvanicus)

“…he led them up the mountain’s brow,
And shews them all the shining fields below.
They wind the hill, and thro’ the blissful meadows go.”
— Virgil, Aeneid (6.641)[16]


Dear meadow vole disappearing into the woods
in the jaws of a cat who holds her head high
and does not slink, perhaps it is unwarranted

to think of assigning you the role of gladiator
borne away in death, departing through fronds
of grass toward Elysium. But couldn’t I

imagine you an unwilling foot soldier conscripted
daily into war? Casualty fallen anew to the enemy
(as always, as in tragedy, classically mismatched:

bigger, meaner, more cosmically predatory than you),
yes it’s merely nature, neutral as red fox or mink
or short-eared owls that hunt above tufted nest or

burrow. In winter, for short-lived sustenance,
you find, hidden under snow, green parts of plants.
Our lives: mere wingspan of months in the wild;

easy sport, soft, twitching target for the gods.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.