Oak Apple Gall

This entry is part 26 of 34 in the series Small World


Incidental planet, Biblical
metonym for bitterness,
a green anti-fruit filled with air
in citrus-like sections
& harboring a larva at its core.
The oak’s response to a bit
of foreign matter is not
unlike the oyster’s: wall it off
inside a solid tear-drop.
Come fall, it turns red
but doesn’t rot, lapsing instead
into tough brown paper,
a manuscript in the round
that whelps a wasp.

September 1972

This entry is part 45 of 47 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Summer 2012


This is how it was settled: my father’s first cousin, who was some minister or deputy of tourism or other, would help him get a room at the Hilton by the bay. Failing that, his other cousin the congressman had one of his half-dozen apartments in Bel-Air. We could stay in the guest room, which was really his home office. The only caveats: his maid might come in at odd hours to retrieve from one drawer in the filing cabinet, bottles of black label Johnnie Walker, Courvoisier, bourbon; also: his Korean mistress might be in town. He borrowed a government car which came with an assigned driver; after all, it was his oath-taking ceremony at the palace.

My mother took special care, ironing his barong between sheets of dressmaking paper. Feeling generous, he told my mother she could bring a friend, but she didn’t want to invite any of the women in her various clubs. So I invited Rhonda instead. We listened to the adults gossip through the six hour trip and drowsed or threw up in paper bags from motion sickness. There was a new and explosive biography about the First Lady, telling of her origins in the south. How she lived in the garage, illegitimate child of the man in whose household her mother served. A few surreptitious copies were making the rounds; the writer had gone into hiding.

Of course it was hot. Even a butterfly pod would shrivel in the shade, split a sleeve open before its time. But still, we fished out our swimsuits as soon as we got there, and went to bake in the sun by the pool, armed with cheap plastic sunglasses. To hell with heatstroke. We were too young for anything but pineapple juice on the rocks, but the waiters brought them with paper parasols. Rhonda tried to teach me how to affect what she called an air of worldly ennui, but I was working through a library copy of Anna Karenina. She gave up on me and flopped face-down, on her untanned belly.

The next day, the swearing in itself was a blur; but mostly because someone decided at the last minute that we (women) might not have the protocol clearances. The cousin-congressman and cousin-deputy went with him. As for us, we returned to the pool and ordered sandwiches and Coke. My mother cooled her bunioned feet in the water and filed her nails. After lunch, my father came back and said we had to hustle. Rumors, he said. Best to travel back north before nightfall. When I think about it now, I realize he was what his contemporaries might have thought a lightweight, not a big stakes player. Too conscientious for his own good, never took a bribe.

That evening, after we got back, more rumors. Then radio and TV blackouts, and sirens at six and at nine. Not the clarion of the Angelus, but signals for the first of many curfews and the squall ahead. Our sunburned skin peeled for weeks afterward, but nothing of that sort mattered anymore. At home, in the streets where people cast furtive glances at each other, we learned bits of new vocabulary: martial law, suspension, writ of habeas corpus; rally, molotov cocktail, salvage, subversive, detain.


In response to Morning Porch and small stone (150).

No mas

This entry is part 92 of 93 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Summer 2011


‘Laughter was our only wealth.’ ~ Carlos Bulosan, “My Father Goes to Court”

All these years, paisano, and it’s la misma
mierda de siempre
: same old, same old,
and I don’t mean creative recycling. You’d think
by now we’d get a little more respect, a little more
credit, a little more of that bankable dream
for things we’ve actually done— My kumpadre
next door gets it. He’s not from the islands, but
like us, he knows (this is the way he puts it)
the trials of people of a certain pigmentation
I might not be able to identify the birds that call
from inside the woods, that open their mouths all
at once from the inside of a dream; but I can see,
most vividly, how the purple asters slowly unclench
beneath overcast skies. The signs have been appearing
for a good long while. Just as Carlos wrote,
the cities are burning. The faithful are marching
with schoolchildren in the streets. The women
marrying women and the men marrying men
drink wine on the hillside. The citizens have pitched
their tents in the park to steal back the laughter
the rich tried to take while they thought they slept.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.

Fish Hook

This entry is part 25 of 34 in the series Small World


Shrink an arrow
bend it back upon itself

strip it of feathers
give it a lead sinker & a cork

& a small steel eye
to aid its introspection

let the quarry do
all the travelling

drawn by flash or flicker
lure or wriggling bait

let it exhaust itself against
this irrevocable stillness

Why we need war stories

Hoarded Ordinaries:

I suspect my students think they were assigned to read The Good Soldiers so they could be better informed about the war in Iraq, and presumably that is part of the common reading’s purpose. But a good book, like a true war story, does so much more than merely inform. Given the pictures that both Finkel and O’Brien paint of war, what does either writer want us to “do” with that information? Once you get a vivid taste of what war was like for a particular group of soldiers at a particular time, how does that awareness change you as a reader and a citizen?

A good book, like a true war story, can help you become better informed, but it also can (and perhaps should) make you a more earnest asker of questions. Forget about what happened in Vietnam or Iraq; instead, raise the question of why it happened. If there is a lesson to be learned in any war (or in any war story), what are those lessons, and have we learned them?


This entry is part 44 of 47 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Summer 2012


At lunch in the Chinese restaurant: couples with salt-and-pepper hair (the women in modest pumps and tweedy jackets and the men just loosening their ties), babies in high chairs, teens in tunic tops not even teetering in their absurd stiletto heels. A veil of sesame oil in the air, the clatter of dim sum carts. The child says— I wonder what you’ll look like when you’re older? On the way here, we passed the Woodlawn Cemetery and I couldn’t remember if that was where the writer who was a diplomat in his other life, was buried. Many years ago I spoke with him a few times, over a crackly phone connection; me in graduate school, acorns pinging from the trees as autumn in the midwest made the branches ready for a long sheathing in ice. He must have been in that nursing home where he died. I did not know then about the daughters they said had left him there then disappeared, the nurses unable to trace them to any forwarding address. He told me he walked to the local library as often as he could, a yellow legal pad under his arm. In the latter part of his life, he scoured the shelves for poems, copied them out by hand. He complained he could not find anything by René Char. I think I might have sent him a book, translated poems found in one of the used bookstores up on Clark. le Poème pulvérisé? I can’t remember now. I knew about his hasty exit from Cambodia just before the fall, he and his wife with one suitcase each. The former dictator’s government never made up for his losses, those years of faithful service. I must repeat, I never really met him. He was a voice on the phone, a voice I imagined when I read his stories. Often I wonder if he ever thought this would be a place as good as any, in which to die.


In response to Morning Porch and Via Negativa: Drinking Companion.

Drinking Companion

There comes a point, toward the bottom of the second pint of beer, when every passing thought sounds like a line from a poem — something about the evening light, perhaps, or my falling intonation as I address my pronouncements to the praying mantis beside me, who turns her head to follow the glass as I raise & lower it, & when I set it down empty beside her, rocks slowly from side to side on her four hind legs. Her people are more recent immigrants than mine. She hasn’t yet learned all the rules about when to open the green umbrella on her back. It’s a good thing I’m not drinking cocktails, I tell her. Her fighter’s form is impeccable as she retreats to the underside of the table, though she does tremble a bit. The decor here is a little rustic, but I think she’s thinking this would be a good place to die.


Every story says, The bottom line
is death.
Or fear. Or grief. Or
loneliness. Or bodies turned to bone,

to minerals, to ash. Which is the same
as death. But a blind man takes your hand
and urges you to draw, eyes closed, as if

from sight before you lost that sight—
Each gargoyle on each pediment, each
pillar flecked with salt and glinting

in the votive light; each buttress loosed,
as if from gravity, in brave reproach.


In response to Via Negativa: Salt.

Asterisk (videopoem)

This entry is part 24 of 34 in the series Small World


This may be too literal and/or droll a video for the poem, but I couldn’t resist. Rachel encouraged me to make a shot list this time, so I did. It looked like this:

  1. Location: yard / Shot description: asters / Framing: whatever looks good / Action: whatever happens / Actors: whatever flies past

I used the Extract effect in Adobe Premiere to make it look vaguely like an animation.

Salt Crystals

This entry is part 23 of 34 in the series Small World


In my last dream before waking, I was trying to explain why I felt that coherent ideologies, religions and philosophies do more harm than good: somehow, in trying to make the world make sense, they flatten out experience & dull the mind. It’s like salt, I said. Imagine if everything you ate had to be salty, to the point where you couldn’t taste anything else: no sweet, no sour, no bitter, no umami, no thousand subtle flavors.

Yet salt is so easy to worship, its crystals so translucent, such perfect little cubes. Ah, salt! I said, losing sight of my argument & waking up. When I used to watch sumo wrestling, my favorite part was the ritual tossing of salt, little guessing that this show of purification hid a culture of corruption. Meat that is already rotten can’t be cured.

Going to the shower, I thought of Grettir Asmundarson, the strongest man who ever lived in Iceland, done in by sorcery and a gangrenous infection that climbed from his foot to his intestines, decapitated by his enemies & his huge head stored overwinter in salt, the whole story captured in a saga’s unadorned prose. Perfect cubes, inviolable rooms.

The world does mostly taste of salt, because much of the world is ocean, even our bodies, I said to myself as I got dressed. Then I fixed some breakfast — two fried eggs — & found myself reaching first for the pepper.