Old Life

“Tell me, what shall we do with this hour of abundance?” ~ Deryn Rees-Jones

From between the window
and its screens, I lift whole
insect bodies swathed in webs

like spun cotton: funerary
vestments, or the finished
playbill after dress

rehearsal— Dinner first,
then that other hunger,
sex. Who served, who

waited for the visitor
to dally? In that space—
interstitial, between

entry and egress—
filaments are threshed
the same as time.

Here are jewels it has left
behind: blue vein of tattered
wing, dark prismed eye.


In response to small stone (217).

Zuihitsu for G.

This entry is part 26 of 29 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Winter 2012-13


“C’est payé, balayé, oublié…
(It’s paid for, removed, forgotten…)”

~ Je Ne Regrette Rien

On Sunday, the seventh anniversary of his death, she will walk to the Delaware river, light candles, set a little cup of flowers adrift.

Wasn’t this where they dredged for his body, brought it ashore, pockets empty of identification, cleaned-out car found a week later, many parking lots away?

When I first spoke to her on the phone some years after not knowing where she had gone, I heard Gounod playing in the background.

Rain or sleet rattled on the windows; water knocked discordant symphonies against the ancient plumbing.

The years have brought no balm for me, she says; all work is sublimated grief.

I get postcards from her whenever she travels, which is often; a blanket woven from yak hair in Tibet, where she has gone to start a school for women; inks and polished bone.

Jars of grey-tinted salt from France, sun-dried tomatoes from Italy, a tooled leather folder from a workshop in the city where Dante was born.

Just this morning I was explaining allegory to my daughter: the meaning of the wood, the threshold of the crater lake, the circles upon circles of souls; the way station, the bus stop, the climb out again in search of heaven and the muse…

But always, at this time of year, my friend who has been abroad so much circles back, returns.

There is nothing I really want now for myself from this world, she writes on hotel stationery in Amsterdam, or New York, or overlooking a marbled plaza where pigeons descend to fight for bread that tourists have thrown.

Sometimes I wish to just quietly go away.

In my mind, I listen for the plink of coins in the fountains’ shallow basins: their bronze arc in the air, their weight in impossible wishes softened by a film of green moss covering the stones.


In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.


“They were being taught to thank the sun for their lives and the warmth that it brought, the life that it brought to the earth and they were told to do that right before they did their sun salutation exercises…” ~ complaining parent quoted in 09 January 2013 NPR news article “Promoting Hinduism? Parents Demand Removal Of School Yoga Class”

And why should we not thank the sun
for life and warmth it lavishes on all
regardless of caste or class; why not

thank the mountains that sustain and are
far older than the buildings and townhouses
lining the avenues, older than the giant

letters that have spelled Hollywood
in bright white only since 1923, older
than Grauman’s Chinese Theatre

and its forecourt bearing the handprints,
footprints, and signatures of movie stars?
And why should we not give thanks

for the heart expanding, the lungs filling
with our common lien of breath, the ribcage
hinging open as the body is reminded

how it feels to press its length along the ground
then rises like a cobra, like a tree, like an eagle
balancing upon a rock? And what is prayer

but a way to teach— in any tongue, by any
means— the kind of quiet that extends
farther than comprehension; and what

is wonder but what might link us once again
to vastness, leaf outward as gratitude, no matter
circumstance or clime? Just ask the oldest

giant sequoia— so old it must have started
growing in the iron age, rooted first
as seed before reaching for the sun.


In response to Yoga School Program....


erasure of a page from Samuel Pepys' diary

Chance came, Charles came
carried in a basket.
They command the sea to free the water
and the prison to be set at liberty,
and a brave eight voices made words:
domine salvum fac something
gavel glory rang spong!

And Christ free the rest.

Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Tuesday 21 February 1659/60.

Interior Courtyard, Old Vigan Church

What vines peeled back
from the portico

What marriage of metal
on the rusted lamp post

What figures courting
sainthood in the shadows

What water pools
as verdigris in the font

What chorus of habits
hidden in the rafters

What panel pressed
into the flower of wood

What roots revive
beneath the ruins

What sediment of bones
falls on the grass as rain


In response to Via Negativa: Digger.

The Pepys erasure project so far

In accordance with Marly Youmans’ suggestion in comments, I want to share a few observations about my on-going erasure poetry project with the Diary of Samuel Pepys. First, I should say that the encouragement of a number of writers, bloggers and readers whom I respect has been a great boon, and probably plays a larger role in my continued commitment to the project than I’m willing to admit. Thank you all.

I’m not ashamed to admit, however, that this began as a surprise gift for Rachel, whose long-standing enthusiasm for Pepys’ diary I did not initially share. Reading the Pepys entry of the day has since become part of our nightly ritual on Skype, and she enjoys seeing what erasure I’ve made of it when she wakes up in the morning. That’s a powerful incentive for me to keep going.

Tom Phillips, the author of the most famous erasure poem, A Humument, has said that he’s never actually read the text he uses (A Human Document by W.H. Mallock). That’s interesting, but it’s not my style. I view this erasure as an homage to Samuel Pepys as much as a new creation/discovery (or series of creations/discoveries). Although I make no particular effort to sound like Pepys or to avoid modern references, I want the “I” in the poems to reflect something of his interests and appetites — a son of Sam, as it were.

I’m also very interested in the two periods reflected in the online Diary of Samuel Pepys: the latter half of the 17th century, and the period from 2003-2012 when the online version made its first run. Because I started blogging in 2003 myself (as did Rachel and many other of the bloggers I still read), Pepys’ diary feels oddly like a piece of my own personal history. I was never an avid reader of it, but it was always there, and now I find that reading (or at least skimming) the copious and informative annotations left by readers ten years ago gives me a sense of inhabiting three historical periods at once. The diary is no longer just about them, those far-away Englishmen and women of the 17th century; it’s also about us, and about the many ways in which, over the past ten years, we’ve used the web to share and generate texts — and to present or invent our own daily lives.

With 51 Pepys erasures under my belt, my approach has changed in small but significant ways. The visual presentation itself has changed from “blackout” — using the highlighter tool in MS Word set to black to blot out all but the chosen words — to digital erasure. At first, I took a screenshot only at the end of the process. Now, the process involves copying and pasting the text from the online diary into a new file in my word processing program (Open Office Writer rather than Word these days); adding back any text censored from the 19th-century edition used for the online version, as supplied in the annotations by readers with newer editions; full-justifying the text; taking a screenshot with Screenpresso and saving it as a jpeg; drafting a poem below the text, in the same text file; and finally, opening the screenshot in Photoshop and using the eraser tool, set usually to a 15-pixel radius for a 700-pixel-wide image. Sometimes the text of the poem gets adjusted in the course of the erasure, but not too often.

My rule that I can only use words, or consecutive groupings of letters, in the order in which they appear in the original hasn’t changed, and won’t. (Contrast with A Humument, where Phillips typically constructs passages from words that are adjacent on the page, and links passages via umbilical-cord-like strings.) But I have loosened up: originally I only permitted myself to use words unchanged from the original, allowing for differences in spelling which I would correct in my text versions. But several weeks ago I began permitting myself to look for shorter words within longer words, which opened up more possibilities. For one thing, there are now a lot more potential indefinite articles!

Initially, my focus was completely textual, not aesthetic at all (and I think the blackout-style erasures were pretty ugly, too). But now I do pay attention to the look of the erasures, though I still try to keep the process simple enough that it doesn’t become enormously time-consuming. I try to preserve a scattering of un-erased marks to give the erasure a more physical, analogue feel, as well as to suggest the continued, shadow presence of a larger, parent text. If I have two or more options — duplicate words — in the parent text, I tend to pick those on the most natural visual route. And sometimes, as with yesterday’s haiku, I’ll allow myself to include an extra word (“west,” in that case) which the poem doesn’t necessarily need, but which gives the image a more balanced look.

Although I’ve entertained vague notions of building a collection whose component parts make some sort of consecutive sense, in practice each erasure stands on its own. I add the titles last of all, as with almost all poetry I write, but since they don’t emerge from the process of erasure, I think of them as quite superfluous — there because my blogging style at Via Negativa has been to provide original titles (as opposed to, say, “Pepys I.2.20,”  which is how I am saving them on my hard drive). Nevertheless, in some cases I think the titles have added something to the poems.

The text versions below the erasure images aren’t as much of an extra as my decision to place them in brackets might suggest. (And I’m considering doing away with the brackets.) In part, they’re there for accessibility reasons: if I didn’t put them out front, so to speak, I’d include them as HTML “alt” text instead, so as to make the erasures accessible to screen readers for the visually impaired. But for those who are not so visually impaired as to need a reader, and who simply rely on increasing the font size, the 700-pixel-wide image by itself, available on click-though, would not suffice. Hence in part the gloss. More than that, though, I am obviously enough of a traditionalist to want to make standard-looking, modern lyric poems out of the erasures, punctuated and arranged on the page for maximum impact. And I kind of like the idea of having two versions of each erasure, neither one of them authoritative.

The writing has certainly gotten easier than it was for the first three or four weeks, when I was often drafting two or three different poems before deciding on a keeper. Now there’s usually just a single draft. That’s largely because I no longer put the cart before the horse (as I now see it) by trying to erase from the outset. I start with a list of attractive nouns and phrases, then see where the best verbs are and start matching them up until an idea occurs to me. Occasionally, as in the one I called “Revolution Revelation,” Pepys’ language is so vivid and exciting, I can’t resist lifting great portions of it almost unchanged, and the erasure poem becomes more of a found poem.

As I suggest in the category description at the head of the archive, I started this project at a moment of personal crisis, if that’s not too strong a word. Re-reading too much of my own poetry has always left me slightly nauseated, but recently it had gotten even worse. I needed to expand my horizons, get a transfusion of new vocabulary, not worry so much about making complete or even comprehensible statements, and most of all, stop imposing so much of my own preconceptions on my poems.  I wanted to give accident a larger role in my writing, so that perhaps genuine discovery could take place more often.

Judged on that basis, I feel this erasure project has been a success so far. It may seem ironic, but working within these fairly severe, self-imposed restrictions has taught me a lot about creative freedom, which is always a dance between some kind of rules (be they only syntactical) and total license. Thinking of my materials as given in some sense has been immensely liberating, though it’s something I’ve long felt, a bit more abstractly, about writing in general. The arbitrary restrictions I’ve imposed on myself for this project probably don’t limit me much more than would the challenge of writing, for example, a sonnet sequence, though in the case of an erasure it’s the material rather the organization of the material that is limited. And I’ve enjoyed indulging certain delusions of an erasure poet.

My initial expectation that these erasure poems would all be of a piece — semi-surrealist, full of eating and drinking and bodily functions — has not been borne out. Instead, the results have resembled my usual flow in their variety: sometimes dominated by word-music, sometimes humorous, sometimes metaphysical, etc. Probably I need to stop fighting my natural tendency toward variety in style and tone. Also, as Luisa can probably attest, writing a poem every day is enough work without trying to strive for a high degree of continuity yet. Still, I’ll be curious to see if Son of Sam’s voice ever develops a degree of consistency, or if he continues to suffer from multiple personality syndrome.