After oblivion

In bright moonlight, you can see clearly that a building is a blank to be filled in rather than a real presence, in the same way that fireflies actually make the shadows darker. You realize the moon is a clock that runs a little fast, the role model for every fruiting body. But the building resists its pull. The building has feathers of paint; it is a wingless bird. Its closest neighbor is a red cedar tree. They nestle, the two of them. Sometimes the tree dances slowly in the night, as if with a real partner. Tapping on the roof as if to massage away the emptiness.


I like the way Cynthia Cruz embraces poetic imperfection and incompleteness in her latest collection, Hotel Oblivion, with a number of poems titled “Fragment,“ few actually shorter than a page long. One ends:

Empty vessel, I take all of it in,
so I can give you this thing.
Beautiful, sometimes, but almost
always broken, and imperfect,
this poem, this song, this fragment.

That’s essentially how I feel about everything I write. I also like the “Hotel Letter” poems scattered throughout the book, with all the disorientation and attempts to cobble together a coherent self in the midst of a peripatetic existence, which feels sometimes devotional and sometimes reactive and brittle. Phrases reoccur in varying forms from one poem to another. The effect is one of thinking out loud, but at a higher level than most writers ever manage.

I am inside the parked sedan
outside the high-rise, waiting.

Nomadic, my entire life, I have been
packing my things and leaving.

In the hotel room
in the short black and white film,
I am the one,

the girl, the blur,
the pretty blonde
smear in the background.

Seeing one’s life as a black-and-white film feels like a throwback to the Cold War era. There’s just enough such subtle mythologizing in Hotel Oblivion to lend the poems a cinéma vérité or theatre of the absurd vibe, with Jean Genet regularly invoked as a sort of muse. It all makes for a very thought-provoking conjunction with her white working-class, midwest American background. Rootlessness is, after all, a central feature of our current social and environmental malaise, so I always appreciate being prompted to think about it more deeply.

By the time you read this
I will have walked off the stage
having long since lost
the words to this music.
The song is tremendous
because it has no words.
And disastrous, filled with a sweet
kind of violence. Alone in a room.
Marvelous, and it sounds just like this.
Cynthia Cruz, “Hotel Letter” (Hotel Oblivion, p. 36)


On Twitter, I am entranced by a viral video of a fledgling bird following a mealworm around with its mouth open, which as user @Rainmaker1973 comments, shows that

Crested mynas, as many other birds, are born altricially, which means young are undeveloped at time of birth, therefore fed by parents. When they grow up, they have to learn that food doesn’t simply jump into their beaks

It’s always interesting to see what nature-related content proves popular online. So often it’s photos and clips like this, which show other animals doing very human things. And while there’s always a risk that this will simply lead people to infantilize critters instead of trying to understand them on their own terms, on the whole I think it’s great because it takes us from a very alienated view of nature as fundamentally different from humanity to a more holistic recognition that pretty much all lifeforms have unique personalities, including, for many vertebrates, the same sorts of mental and emotional pitfalls that challenge humans.

So many traditional cultures around the world believe this; ours has been almost an outlier in rejecting that view until recently. The willingness of scientists to begin taking animal cognition seriously about two decades ago represented, i think, a sea change in Western thinking about nature. Even now, many scientists remain wary of anthropomorphism, as I suppose they should, but at least they no longer laugh out of the room any attempt to study non-human personality and emotion.

So it is that we can begin to understand what Buddhists grasped two and a half millennia ago: that higher wisdom is not simply a human thing, and that we can all learn from and help out our fellow beings, with whom we are bound together in a net of consumption and causality. (I don’t buy the rebirth bit.) Which of course is rooted firmly in what anthropologists used to call animism: a perhaps once nearly universal recognition that other beings too have personhood.


Planting a pair of witch hazel seedlings in the drier, rockier part of Mom’s lawn, close to the house. I’d been thinking we needed more shrubs in there, for wildlife mostly but also aesthetics, and was actually planning to transplant a couple from the woods when a friend offered me these: pure serendipity.

As wet as it’s been, this is a perfect year for such things. The hitch is that everything I plant must be protected from the deer, at least for a few years, and the price of fencing has quadrupled—when you can get it at all. Over the years, though, I’ve built up a number of rings of deer fencing that I keep moving about as trees and shrubs outgrow them. Most of them actually serve to protect volunteer seedlings—spicebush, silky dogwood, hawthorn, etc.—because why risk being wrong about where plants want to grow when you can just let them show you were they want to be?

Or so I naively thought until three years ago, when a volunteer tulip tree that I’d protected from the deer long enough for it to well outgrow their reach died anyway, for no good reason I could see other than the site it had chosen—or more accurately, that the wind had chosen for it—was too waterlogged.

And of course nature is not kind to young trees. Molds, bacteria, and other soil organisms will kill almost all seedlings, which is why the “nurse log” phenomenon exists for hardy pioneer species, such as birches, that can get started quickly without lots of nutrients. Stumps and logs act as nurseries not because they’re more fertile but because they are more impoverished. Starting out too well-off can ruin a tree for life.


You might not hear this from artists or composers, but summer can be a time for grieving, too. Especially if advertisers keep reminding you about Father’s Day. The sudden too-muchnesses of nature can feel simultaneously comforting and appalling in the shadow of a recent loss.

But why am I spelling out something I already expressed at the beginning of this post in a prose poem? Because I suppose there’s as much value in exploring the particular as there is in gesturing toward the universal. The fact that I like to separate these two things makes me a bit of an outlier as a contemporary American poet, I suppose, but not by much.

Ultimately, I think, for me personally, both blows of the past year—the dissolution of my marriage and my father’s death—were as clarifying as they were devastating. Like so many people these days, I have a new-found appreciation for the brevity and fragility of the good times. Learning how to grieve and also how to get on with it are such essential life skills. Though even to suggest that there might be an up-side to death seems monstrous.

When flowers fade, it’s sad, but there’s a fruit or seed on the way. If you choose your analogies carefully, you can make nature seem a source of solace. But death and entropy are integral to nature’s design. Only a fascist finds anything to celebrate in that. Grief is intertwined with the basic structure of reality, I think.

If this is a religious perspective, which I suppose it is, I am clearly a person of faith. I believe in an ultimate rightness to the cosmos which is completely unjustified by any evidence, simply an intuition that our severely limited understanding can never by itself create a justification for continuing to struggle, to live, to love. You just have to decide to believe in something greater than yourself and what your mind can encompass. And whatever secular language we might use for that, it still comes down to a leap of faith, doesn’t it?


When I get to Dad’s grave this afternoon, I notice a new red oak seedling less than two feet away from it. That seems highly unusual for a spruce grove.

Now, as I was saying earlier, most tree seedlings don’t survive. And this is not a great spot for an oak—it’s much too shady under the spruces, as Mom pointed out when I showed her the photo. But if it actually does make it past seedling stage, we could certainly transplant it to down around the houses, where we’d like more oaks.

So Mom agreed to let me put a little cage around it, just to give it a fighting chance. Hopefully we won’t get too sentimental about it.

Two ravens fly low over the grove just as I’m finishing up, one after the other, making high-pitched calls. I may already be too sentimental about this. A red squirrel comes out of hiding to scold me.

On the walk back along the ridgetop toward sunset, I’m stopped short by a couple colonies of moss illuminated by a stray sunbeam in the dark woods, sporangia glowing like the bright hopes they are.

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