In the temples of Syrinx

Summer weather has hit with a vengeance. Starting last Thursday, we were awoken by thunderstorms three mornings in a row, and by yesterday, when the dawn chorus could finally return to normal, the wood thrushes were much subdued. I suspect that they have paired up and are getting down to the serious and urgent business of building nests and laying eggs.

Be that as it may, I did get a bit of a consolation prize yesterday when I went for a dawn walk down along Laurel Ridge. I’d been startled by the sight of the rising sun glowing a lurid red through the mountain laurel. Then when I dropped down a little off the ridgetop to follow an old woods road we call Ladyslipper Trail, I was even more surprised to hear a Swainson’s thrush calling – for the second time in five days. The first time I heard him, he was on the ridgetop right up from the house, and we naturally assumed that he was just passing though. The fact that he is still here raises the possibility that he may be thinking about setting up shop, well south of the normal range for his species. This happened three years ago, when I heard a Swainson’s singing for about three weeks on another part of the property. I got the impression that that one hadn’t been very successful in attracting a mate.

The song of the Swainson’s thrush unmistakably belongs to the same group as wood thrush, hermit thrush and veery. It has the same bell-like quality, resembling a hoarser version of the hermit thrush – a very quiet series of ascending phrases. As my brother Mark once pointed out, for the thrush family, generally speaking, the relative loudness of the call indicates the type of habitat preferred. The loudest songs belong to the denizens of hedgerow and dooryard, such as the American robin, while the quietest are the deep woods or high altitude specialists, who have to compete only with the soughing of wind in conifers. The Swainson’s call is very much in this latter category.

Last week, when I was looking through the book Bird Sounds, by Barry MacKaye, I was struck by his description of the mechanics of avian vocalization. Instead of a voicebox, birds have a unique structure called the syrinx, located right where the trachea and the windpipe divide. The position and musculature are designed to take maximal advantage of the fact that birds resemble nothing so much as flying bellows. In addition to the lungs proper, they have nine air sacs distributed throughout the chest and abdomen, some of which may even extend into the bones in some species. The main evolutionary “purpose” of these structures, of course, is to provide bouyancy and improve gas exchange. Any given breath, MacKaye says,

may be stored for more than one cycle of inhalation and exhalation. Initially, the puff of air does not go directly into the lungs, but passes through them without gas exchange. The puff of air goes directly to the rear part of the bird’s body. First, most of the air the bird inhales reaches the posterior air sacs, including the large, paired abdominal air sacs. Parts of the lungs also receive air, and there is a subsequent exchange of gases as the breath passes through the lungs on the way to the back of the bird. But as the bird breathes out, the posterior air sacs contract, pushing the puff of air into the lungs, completing the first cycle of the bird’s two-step breathing process.

As the bird breathes in again, while the new air enters the bird via the route just described, the initial puff exits most of the lungs and enters the anterior air sacs via lung bronchi, where more gas exchange occurs. This single breath of air carries with it some of the warmth generated by the bird’s metabolic processes . . . The body contracts, and the initial puff of air leaves via the anterior air sacs at the front of the bird and the bronchial tubes that lead up from the lungs past the point where they join the trachea, and out. Put simply, the same breath of air passes through the lungs twice, although not the same parts of the lungs.

Thus, whereas humans, for example, “use only about 2 percent of the air column that passes out of the respiratory system in making vocalizations . . . songbirds use nearly 100 percent of the air column to produce song.” And the songbird’s complex anatomy allows the harmonic blending of different tones and even, in the case of some species such as the brown thrasher, two wholly separate songs, sung simultaneously.

The bird’s control of the configuration of the syrinx and associated sound-producing anatomy is so finely tuned that it can operate one side of the syrinx independently of the other. By rapidly altering the configuration of the trachea, throat and mouth, the bird can focus the two separate elements into the single complete song. Like a pianist’s two hands playing tune and harmony, a bird can blend two separate sounds into a pleasing harmonic.

Pretty nifty, eh? I can’t help recalling the lyrics from an old “concept album” called 2112, from the Canadian hard rock band, Rush —

We are the priests of the temples of Syrinx.
All the gifts of life are held within our walls.

— which leads in turn to hazy memories of bowls and water pipes and puffs of air being breathed and re-breathed, strained by one pair of lungs and then another, capturing every last trace of blue until our bodies filled with light and the music on the stereo slowly turned itself inside-out. Ah, if only paranoia hadn’t forced us always to lock ourselves in, the dawn choruses we could’ve heard . . . the lives that could’ve been saved, I think, through such revelations . . .

Desire: new and improved!

So New Orleans is bringing back its streetcar system.

“In 1964 the streetcars were removed from Canal Street and were replaced by buses. The new streetcars will look just like the old ones, complete with reversible wooden seats. The difference is that the new cars have heating, air conditioning and are ADA compliant,” said Elmer von Dullen, New Orleans RTA superintendent/vehicle assembly. “We are building a part of New Orleans’ history.”

Can we expect that one will be named “Desire” for the benefit of the tourists? Well, does a bear . . . you know.

In honor of this unlooked-for blessing, here are some quotes from Tennessee Williams’ play, proving that it is just as timeless as it ever was (or something like that).

“I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic. I try to give that to people. I do misrepresent things. I don’t tell the truth. I tell what ought to be truth.”

“Deliberate cruelty is unforgivable, and the one thing I’ve never been guilty of.”

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I said I was sorry three times.”

“Straight? What’s ‘straight’? A line can be straight, or a street. But the heart of a human being?”

Zero tolerance

New Iraqi prisoners’ accounts allege not only rape and sexual humiliation, but Muslims forced to eat pork, drink alcohol, violate Ramadan, and profess Christianity. How like the ancient Romans we’ve become! Just substitute Islam for Christianity, and Christianity for emperor-worship – which might not be a very big difference for some of the power- and mammon-worshipping epigones of the religious right.

I read about this yesterday afternoon, in a Reuters story on the front page of Google News. But on All Things Considered last night, only the sexual humiliation on display in newly released photos was mentioned. They didn’t use either “r” word (rape or religion). Will forced apostasy join racism and homophobia as dimensions of this scandal that must somehow remain off-limits in polite analysis?

I must admit, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by all the attention this story has garnered in the mainstream press. So many others like it have simply been buried over the years. But many aspects remain almost unexamined. For example, I’d like to hear more follow-up on the fact that some of the soldiers charged with abuse work as corrections officers in the U.S. I’d like reporters to pay more attention to Bush’s record as Governor, where he oversaw hundreds of executions of prisoners, including the mentally retarded and prisoners who were denied fair trials. Bush even publicly mocked one prisoner’s pleas for clemency. It might be useful to remind Americans that the death penalty – a practice we share with such regimes as China and Saudi Arabia – itself violates international law. Has our government’s willingness to flaunt international law in this regard led to permissive attitudes toward other violations where the treatment of prisoners is concerned?

Another, more-or-less off-limits story is the strong possibility that the agents directing the abuse of Iraqi and Afghani prisons received training from Israeli counter-terrorism experts. We know that U.S. Special Forces did receive training from the IDF in urban warfare. And one, extremely effective tactic of Israeli counter-intelligence has been to build a large network of informers in the Occupied Territories using ex-prisoners who have been humiliated and blackmailed in very similar ways to those on display at Abu Ghraib. Was this, in fact, an integral part of the plan? Were our soldiers under orders to arrest as many Iraqis as possible, in order to jump-start a network of informers in occupied Iraq? It would certainly help to explain: (1) how 70-80 percent of Iraqi prisoners could be manifestly innocent of any involvement in the insurgency, according to the IRC, yet still subject to torture; and (2) why torture was used so extensively – to the disgust of more seasoned intelligence experts, apparently, who point out that any information so extracted is generally pretty worthless.

Then again, this entire invasion was built upon false pretenses and worthless information; already the chief purveyor of that information, Ahmed Chalabi, is being forced aside as a public embarrassment and an increasingly inconvenient nuisance. And the removal of obvious truths from the bounds of acceptable discourse (such as the fact that this is a war for oil) has licensed the erection of elaborate superstructures of lies and self-deception. It doesn’t take a genius to foresee that the scheduled “hand-over of sovereignty” will carry about as much resonance for Team Bush as “Mission Accomplished.”

It’s good to see the attention of Congress and the media broadening to include the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. But how much of this kind of prisoner abuse is routine for American citizens and others held in prisons on U.S. soil? To what extent does the brutal treatment of Iraqis by American soldiers on the streets parallel the brutal treatment of African American youths by inner city cops in the U.S.? The evidence is very clear about how so many black males – about one third – end up in jail at some point in their lives: through racial profiling that begins as juveniles, when they get sent before a judge for such “crimes” as jaywalking and back-talking. The cops – black and white – are “just doing their job,” of course: enforcing law and order by keeping the rabble in line.

I would argue that the abuse begins right there, with the definition of a rabble – an entire class of people whose very existence is viewed as problematic. In Iraq, soldiers’ accounts suggest that the Iraqi people in general are viewed this way by the troops. The suspect isn’t at home when you break down the door? Nuts. Well, at least we can arrest the over-inquisitive neighbor. The friend of a crud is crud.

How far this “law and order” mentality can go may be seen in such “ethnic cleansing” exercises as the on-going, state-sanctioned genocide against the Anuak people in southwestern Ethiopia. (Since Ethiopia is a geopolitically strategic ally in the “war on terror,” this genocide has yet to make a ripple in the mainstream press.) Barnabus Gebre-Ab, the Federal Minister directing the slaughter, sees himself much as Ratko Mladic or Adolf Hitler did: a heroic defender of the public order:

“These are Anuak,” Gebre-Ab said. “It’s an Anuak group which claims to have formed a liberation front in Gambella, okay? So these are the ones who are killing. They kill engineers. They kill health workers. Teachers. If they are Highlanders, they kill them. Deliberately. And we are hunting them. We have to hunt them down.

“If you want to challenge the political order through violence, we won’t let you go. So we are doing our job. Because we are giving them a mortal blow, they are fabricating about this rape, and this and that, it’s all fabrication.”

The homocidal mayor of Duvao, a city in the Philippines, has been far less circumspect. As a recent expose in the Independent describes it:

Davao’s reputation as an oasis of law and order in one of the world’s most dangerous regions masks a dark secret. Since [Rodrigo] Duterte took office three years ago, the city has witnessed a wave of murders, carried out in daylight by assassins on motorbikes. The victims are young men and street children suspected of petty crime. The death toll has reached 241, and not a single person has been arrested. . . .

Bizarre though it seems, few people in this city of 1.2 million are disturbed by the sight of dead bodies turning up, almost daily, on the streets. They call it the “40-pesos solution” to crime, referring to the cost of a bullet, about 40p. “I like it,” says Davao’s tourism officer, Edmundo Acaylar, stuffing a handful of cashew nuts into his mouth as he waits impatiently for dinner. “Whoever is doing it, I say ‘thanks very much, you’re doing a great job’. They are ridding Davao of criminals and making it a safe place. I call it a process of expurgation.”

Most of the victims come from the city’s slum communities, where half a million people live in grinding poverty. Many are teenagers, some as young as 14, whose only “crime” was sniffing solvents – said to take away hunger pangs. Others are suspected drug pushers, pickpockets or thieves, with a record of snatching handbags and mobile telephones.

Justice is meted out by two men on a motorbike, one acting as look-out, the other as assassin. Many of the murders have been carried out in public places, in full view of crowds of onlookers. But no witnesses have come forward to testify. “People fear that if they give evidence, they’ll be next,” says Carlos Zarate, president of the Davao chapter of the Philippine bar association.

Lawyers believe the death squad is run by Davao police, in collusion with Duterte. Bernie Mondragon, the coordinator of the Kabataan consortium of children’s advocacy groups, agrees. “These are summary executions,” he says. “They are state-sponsored killings. Otherwise, the death squad could not operate with such impunity”. . .

Duterte’s zero-tolerance policies are enormously popular. The president of the Philippines, Gloria Arroyo, has appointed him her special adviser on law and order. His constituents credit him with transforming the image of Davao, once the most lawless city in the Philippines. Callers to talkback radio extol his achievements. The summary killings were the main issue in this week’s election, which saw him swept back into office with a big majority.

Sofronio Jucutan, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, says the elimination of criminals is good for business. “We don’t condone summary killings, but we want society to be cleansed of its scum,” he says. “These people are garbage and, just like any garbage, you have to dispose of them.” He adds: “But we are a Catholic country and we value human life.”

At one of his campaign rallies, Duterte, 59, told the crowd: “If I win, more criminals will get killed because I have vowed to protect the people of this city. It’s true that there have been killings. But who were those killed? Weren’t they criminals? They were all fools. Now if you tell me you won’t vote for me because I’ve killed many people, then don’t vote for me.”

“We value human life – therefore the scum must die.” Lord have mercy on us all.

Stranger than fiction

I want to keep this clarity as long as I live says the deluded friar Marcos de Niza as he slips a Zuni fetish stone into his wallet. Irony – or higher truth?

Of course, this Marcos is largely a fiction of my own devising [.pdf file]. What little we know of the historical figure does suggest a touching naivete: the anguish at the cruelty of the conquistadors in Peru (as recounted in his letter to Bartolome de las Casas), the unbridled enthusiasm in his Relación for the riches of the North which, if they ever existed, eluded Coronado’s flint-eyed vision. And we glimpse the terrible loneliness and disgrace that must’ve been Marcos’ lot after his final return to the horror scene that was New Spain, as witnessed by his plaintive letter to a friend requesting a shipment of wine from his beloved Provence.

Last night I had a vivid dream involving a young boy who seemed either to be possessed by a god or demon, or to have strongly charismatic and psychopathic tendencies. I half-woke and pondered the novelistic possibilities for a while. Much as I like mystery novels, I am always disappointed when the mystery is solved and tawdry human emotions – almost always greed – are revealed to be the chief motives. Would it be possible to write a satisfying novel where the mystery remained a mystery? I don’t mean so much at the narrative level; I’m more interested in the unknowability of motives than in the difficulty of figuring out what “really” happened a la Akutagawa’s story “In a Grove” (the basis for Kurosawa’s movie Rashomon).

But I guess I already tried that in Cibola, where scholarly disagreement about the reason for Esteban’s death provided the initial spark of inspiration. And regardless of the merits of the final product (concerning which I harbor considerable doubt), there’s no question that my decision to preserve the integrity of the central mystery was key to maintaining my enthusiasm for the project, and may even have prompted some valid new interpretations of events, themselves still under dispute.

In Friar Marcos I saw a modern, conflicted, Charlie Brown-type figure. True to the canons of literary fiction (as opposed to oral epic), Marcos changed and deepened over the course of the poem. The line quoted above was his last; subsequently, the “other Marcos” – a completely fictional Indian oblate who accompanies him on his journey to “Cibola” – gives his own, more worldly take on things. But even if this Marcos knew the real score – that Indians would always be second-class Christians in the view of Church authorities – his Christianity is nonetheless genuine. He rightly senses an equivalence between the scorned “idols” of the old faith and the treasured symbols and fetishes of the new:

The land lives within me
like a nest of nails.

I know what they want from me,
these hypocrites: to renounce
the world, the flesh,
all creatures,
all Indian thoughts.
I know

as much about God as they do,
possibly more: which is to say,
nothing. A night wind,
an obsidian mirror
that fogs with your dying breath.

No prayers, no ticking glass beads
can you take . . . even
the crucified Christ
gets left behind. Why linger
in the doorway, clinging
to the empty frame?

I was born with a caul–
singled out for service to Tlaloc,
rain-god & gourmand.
Cortez came just in time.

The friars say I was given to the church
through a misunderstanding:
it seems my parents were among
the first few thousand converts,
heeded the exhortation to plunder
their former idols.
It seems they were hoping
to save their own skins
from the pox.

Imitatio Cristi indeed–a lamb of God
before I even reached the age of reason.
Now turned scapegoat, put out
to find forage in the desert.
Free to harangue
every whirlwind.

But I don’t have a quarrel with the Lord
of the Close-at-Hand,
only with you who brandish
the law of Love.
You who flaunt
your stylized poverty,
patched robe & cowl
I’m forbidden to wear.
Telling yourselves that more virtue accrues
the more wealth & privilege you’ve had
to give up.

Or if sincerely humble–like this
haunted Frenchman, Marcos–unsuited
for battle. At the mercy of storms
& currents he can’t
even name.

This is an Order where bullies flourish,
men poisoned by envy of our own Founder.
They say the fighting started
while he still walked the earth,
too saintly to understand
the ways of vipers.

They say he preached to birds,
to unschooled fish.
Who went
throughout the world to spread
the gospel. So
we who have gotten
all our news of Heaven
from birds
for ages–
what do we need these friars for?

Ah, but–says the Saint
in my dreams–
they need you.

Pursuing a separate line of thought, an hour ago I pulled an anthology of Islamic writings off the shelf: Windows on the House of Islam, edited by John Reynard (University of California Press, 1998). Opening at random, I encountered a rather startling analysis of idolatry, Commentary on Shabistari’s Garden of Mystery, by Shams ad-Din Lahiji (tr. Leonard Lewisohn).

Since behind the veil of the determined form of each atom of existence the sun of divine unity is latent and concealed, [Shabistari] remarks:
If Muslims knew what idols were, they’d cry
that faith itself is in idolatry.

This means that if the [formalist] Muslim who professes divine unity and disavows the idol was to become aware and conscious of what the idol is in reality, and of whom it is a manifestation, and of what person it is who appears in the idol’s form, he would certainly comprehend that the religion of the Truth lies in idolatry. Since the idol is a theophany of the absolute being Who is God, therefore in respect to its essential reality, the idol is God. Now, considering that the religion and rite of Muslims is Truth-worship and [as has been explained above] idolatry and Truth-worship are now seen to be one and the same thing, therefore true religion is in idolatry!

Since so-called blasphemy of the idolaters arises from their ignorance of the idol’s inner reality, he adds:
And if polytheists could just become aware
of what the idols are they’d have no cause to err in their faith.

. . . And since the ‘heresy’ of the idol worshipper consists solely in his attitude and attention, which is focused in the wrong direction toward the outer form of the idol, the writer observes:
The graven image they have seen
is but external handiwork and form.
And so by Holy Writ their name is ‘infidel.’

. . . Likewise, if you who make claims to Islam and orthodoxy perceive naught but the idol’s visible form and do not envision God hidden behind the veils of its determined form – and it is this particular form which is a corporeal receptacle for God’s theophany – you properly and legally cannot be called a Muslim! In fact, you are an infidel because you have veiled God’s theophany appearing in the idol!

So much for the Taliban! Lahiji adds that a true mystic should become “disillusioned with the false metaphorical Islam, based on the premise that possible being is absolutely distinct and separate from necessary being, God.”

I’m intrigued by the suggestion that metaphors themselves may be idols of a sort. I’ve always felt it’s impossible for a poet not to be an animist on some level. It’s a risky profession. Like Marcos, we may find ourselves lost in admiration for things whose original purposes were far from what we suppose – but does that make the insight any less genuine? If every “truth” is really a lie, then how can we approach Truth except through willful blindness?

For the love of blog

Are you a blog whore?

The semi-coherent weblog Burning Bird defines “blog whore” thus:

wannabe Blog Diva. one who inveigle other bloggers to link to their blogs. Blogger that succumbs usually referred to as a Blog John (thus the blogroll)

However, a Google search suggests a much broader application. At least two other behaviors – quoting extensively from other people’s material, and leaving lots of comments on other blogs in the hope of attracting readers to one’s own – also seem integral to the blog whore gestalt. But wouldn’t that make virtually all bloggers “whores” in some sense? Let he who is without sin . . .

But wait! Is blog whoring actually considered a sin? Well, heck, nobody sins anymore. That’s just beyond retro, even. It’s hip to be bad, to push the envelope, to surf on the bleeding edge, to subvert the dominant paradigm. (I’m sure there are newer, hipper terms than these, but you get the drift.) My search revealed that in the vast majority of cases, “blog whore” is a status writers claim zealously for themselves. In other words, many, many people seem eager to qualify for the status of blog whore; few seem willing to extend this exalted status to others. In the highly competitive world of blogging, the feeling apparently is that if one can’t be a diva, one can at least aspire to whoredom.

Now, what are we to make of the fact that most of the bloggers fighting for the rights to the titles “diva” and “whore” are male? Is the so-called blogosphere actually modeled on a prison?

Perhaps my fellow bloggers are simply avid Bible-readers. Because, really, it’s the King James Bible that makes the most extensive use of the term “whoring” to denote any broadly transgressive behavior.

And yet they would not hearken unto their judges, but they went a whoring after other blogs, and bowed themselves unto them . . . (Judges 2:17)

And thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their blogs, and make thy sons go a whoring after their blogs. (Exodus 34:16)

And they transgressed against the Blog of their fathers, and went a whoring after the blogs of the people of the land, whom Blog destroyed before them. (1 Chronicles 5:25).


Well, Lord forfend! No whoring in this blog! Henceforth, when I “borrow” from others, and when I drop comments hither and yon, I will refer to it instead as cross-pollinating. Isn’t that a much more couth term than “blog whoring”? Yes, I think it is.

Cross-pollination: that’s what we’re all about here!

Of course, I am blatantly stealing this term from Gary Paul Nabhan, whose excellent Cross-Pollination: the Marriage of Science and Poetry (Milkweed Editions, 2004) I’ve just finished reading. But I’m sure Gary wouldn’t mind.

In his own desert

Sunt hic etiam sua praemia laudi,
sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.

(Here too we find virtue somehow rewarded,
tears in the nature of things, minds altered by what humans have to bear.)

Virgil, Aeneid (adapted from the translation by David West)


From an interview with Staff Sgt. Jimmy Massey, recently retired from the U.S. Marine Corps:

Q: I would like to go back to the first incident, when the survivor asked why did you kill his brother. Was that the incident that pushed you over the edge, as you put it?

A: Oh, yeah. Later on I found out that was a typical day. I talked with my commanding officer after the incident. He came up to me and says: “Are you OK?” I said: “No, today is not a good day. We killed a bunch of civilians.” He goes: “No, today was a good day.” And when he said that, I said “Oh, my goodness, what the hell am I into?”
I was like every other troop. My president told me they got weapons of mass destruction, that Saddam threatened the free world, that he had all this might and could reach us anywhere. I just bought into the whole thing.

Q: What changed you?

A: The civilian casualties taking place. That was what made the difference. That was when I changed.

Q: Did the revelations that the government fabricated the evidence for war affect the troops?

A: Yes. I killed innocent people for our government. For what? What did I do? Where is the good coming out of it? I feel like I’ve had a hand in some sort of evil lie at the hands of our government. I just feel embarrassed, ashamed about it.


En alguna parte, en estos momentos,
confusamente complacido escribe en pulcro idioma
la ciencia de la mentira.

(Somewhere or another, at this very moment,
in confused complacency
is setting down in beautiful language
the science of lying.)

Roberto Sosa, “La puerta única,” El llanto de las cosas (adapted from the translation by Jo Anne Englebert)


Three Stanzas from Goethe
translated by James Wright

That man standing there, who is he?
His path lost in the thicket,
Behind him the bushes
Lash back together,
The grass rises again,
The waste devours him.

Oh, who will heal the sufferings
Of the man whose balm turned poison?
Who drank nothing
But hatred of men from love’s abundance?
Once despised, now a despiser,
He kills his own life,
The precious secret.
The self-seeker finds nothing.

Oh Father of Love,
If your pslatery holds one tone
That his ear might echo,
Then quicken his heart!
Open his eyes, shut off by clouds
From the thousand fountains
So near him, dying of thirst
In his own desert.

([Translator’s] NOTE: These three stanzas are from Goethe’s poem “Harzreise im Winter.” They are the stanzas which Brahms detached from the poem and employed as the text for his “Alto Rhapsody” of 1869.)

The German original for Brahms’ text is here. For background on Goethe and Brahms, music critic Herbert Glass has a nice essay on the Alto Rhapsody. It seems that this dark text represented a turning point for both the author and the composer, who positively wallowed in the gloomy grandeur of his composition:

In the words of Brahms biographer Jan Swofford, “He loved it so much that he slept with it (metaphorically) under his pillow. He took it to his bed, in other words, like a bride.”


Thanks to my brother Steve for the link to the interview with Massey.