Kudos to Kooser

For many months now I’ve been liberally sprinkling this blog with excerpts from Braided Creek, the “conversation in poetry” that Ted Kooser co-authored with Jim Harrison. So can I claim credit for Kooser’s selection as the new Poetry Consultant to the Librarian of Congress? (I refuse to employ the new, overblown term “Poet Laureate” for an appointment that lasts a single year!)

Ted Kooser, like Wallace Stevens, made his career in the insurance industry. I believe this is the first time in many years that the Library of Congress has selected someone from outside academia.

Here’s a piece that speaks to me. This is from Kooser’s Sure Signs: New and Selected Poems (Pitt Poetry Press, 1980).

Visiting Mountains

The plains ignore us,
but these mountains listen,
an audience of thousands
holding its breath
in each rock. Climbing,
we pick our way
over the skulls of small talk.
On the prairies below us,
the grass leans this way and that
in discussion;
words fly away like corn shucks
over the fields.
Here, lost in a mountain’s
attention, there’s nothing to say.

From the dragon’s belly

Yesterday, I took my sister-in-law Luz to visit Jack Troy, a local potter and author of Wood-Fired Stoneware and Porcelain, a seminal text in its field. The focal point of our visit was his huge anagama, a wood-fired kiln of traditional Japanese design. Made from special, high-temperature-resistant bricks, it stretches some ten to twelve feet up the side of a hill, bulging in the middle like a snake digesting a rabbit. A side door, through which the pottery is loaded, allows one to enter and sit inside.

I felt as if I were sitting under an overturned boat – a common impression, Jack said. But in fact the resemblance is accidental. The design evolved over the centuries largely through trial and error. Anagama means “cave-kiln,” and the first anagamas, Jack said, were basically just “woodchuck holes with a chimney.” The chimney for this one is relatively short, because an arched flue extends from the tail of the kiln uphill underground for another twelve feet. A large, open-air tin roof shelters kiln and wood supply from the elements.

Though there are many other ways to fire pottery with wood, the anagama process is unique for the extremely high temperatures that are involved – up to 1300 degrees Centigrade during the last day of the 5-day firing. No glaze is needed; ash from the burning wood lands on the pieces in a random pattern and then melts and flows over them. The chemicals in the wood as well as the currents and eddies of the flames determine the look of the finished work.

Jack uses hardwoods exclusively – oak, cherry, maple and black locust – because of the complex colors they can yield. Pine and hemlock produce nothing but greenish tints; only deciduous trees, with their high calcium content, can reproduce all the shades of flame. Most of the wood comes from a local saw mill’s scrap pile, so there’s a high proportion of bark to wood.

Jack fires the kiln only once a year, in late spring. During this time the fat snake turns, of course, into a dragon. The anagama consumes roughly a cord of wood a day, and needs to be tended around the clock. Firing is thus of necessity a cooperative affair, with many potters sharing the labor and the rewards. Barry Lopez wrote a lyrical piece for Harper’s a few years back in which he described the experience of helping with an anagama firing: it was like watching over a river of fire, he said. Peepholes in the side allow the tenders to gauge its condition with the help of special cones designed to wilt at precise temperatures.

Concentration is essential. To keep the tenders alert and entertained, Jack has rigged up what he calls an “Amish video game”: a long cord with a two-inch-diameter metal ring tied to its end. The cord is suspended from the eaves midway between two of the support posts, and a hook protrudes from one of the posts about five feet up, right at the end of the cord’s swing. The idea is to stand next to the opposite post, grasping the ring, and let it go with just the right trajectory and momentum to make the ring drop down over the hook.

Jack’s delight in this simple game was infectious. He managed to hook the ring after ten tries, Luz after eight. It was difficult to gauge the role played by accident, as opposed to skill. I quit after 15 unsuccessful attempts, though I think I could have gone on trying the rest of the afternoon. Luz and I were impressed by the way that an activity so addictive could have such a calming effect.

The anagama method militates against any consistency in appearance; Jack’s resistance to assembly-line standardization extends to every facet of his work. He takes his motto from Moby Dick: There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method. Barry Lopez’ river analogy reminds one of Heraclitus’ famous dictum that you can’t step into the same river twice. Accident and surprise animate the anagama potter’s art.

“I’ve never been a lizard,” says the generally silly Random Surrealism Generator at the bottom of the page when I go to fetch the Heraclitus link from my archives.


Up at 4:30 and out on the porch at 5:00. The fourth-quarter moon, horns pointing to the right, hangs low over the ridge. The only other celestial object visible through the thin mist is Venus, caught in the crown of an oak. A yellow-billed cuckoo breaks the silence – or tries to. It falters, two notes short. The moonlight is so weak and diffuse, one can just as easily convince oneself that it is rising from the earth, from the tall grass where the insect motor goes on running day and night, from now until first frost.

I am thinking about my attraction to magic and hermeneutics, the fallacies of world-as-altar and world-as-text. But why privilege logic – an artificial system of rules if ever there was one – with this talk of fallacies? Keep your eye on the little pea, says Venus. Keep imitating the oroborous, says the moon. Watch me catch and swallow my tail until there’s nothing left!

Ennightenment never lasts. Already, as I type these words, the hour hand creeps past 6:00 and I can see out the door how belighted grows the world, how green and decadent. I am remembering the wondrous series of photos I looked at last night on Paula’s blog: up close and personal with a common milkweed, from bud to empty pod. If I had a macro lens like hers with the pen to match, I too would kneel in near-worship before what Blake might have called the lineaments of gratified desire.

He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star, says the infernal proverb. Eternity is in love with the productions of time. Now you’re talking!

And the planet, let’s remember, has two hemispheres. From January in July we come to February in August. If I were Australian, this would be the month of my birth instead of my parents’ wedding anniversary. But I particularly like the idea of the two-faced god having two stations in the course of a year. In July, his warm and cold eyes trade places. The moon, after all, is a crescent twice. And the poet, with a mind of winter, argues always from the particular to the particular, case by case. Midwives, you know.


Every newborn follows its own map into the world:
I know them all.
So many ruts have been worn into my palms
there’s hardly any space left.

When the moment arrives I can see everything.
The womb is a Möbius river for its blind fish
swimming toward the net of my hands,
a sun always at zenith for its melon
ready to part from the vine.

Neither fish nor melon
the slick chrysalis peels open
& a newborn tugs at its tether like a kite,
I cut it loose & it lurches,
wheeling toward the breast.

Listen, these images are for
your benefit, not mine.
I want you to see how this work
is never routine.

I’ve yet to lose one: the Lord’s been with me–
whether or not the husband helps–
there’s always a voice saying Now.
A voice saying Breathe.

I quote myself [PDF], chasing my own tail: how shameless! Hoping thereby to disappear behind the rhetorical flourish, the sleight-of-hand. My recurrent fantasy, which comes to me unbidden right before sleep, is to saw myself open – to commit seppuku without dying or feeling pain. Is it a birth fantasy, I wonder? I would like to hold my own viscera in my lap and read the future. But this chronicle inside me – I fear it won’t give up without a struggle. Joys impregnate, says Blake again. Sorrows bring forth.

Thanks to Everyman for reminding me recently about “ennightenment.” It was Paula, again, who blogged about “a mind of winter” a while back, but I couldn’t turn up the post just now. The phrase comes from Wallace Stevens’ famous poem “The Snow Man,” which concludes with
“…the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

Missing notes

I was a Phebe – nothing more –
A Phebe – nothing less –
The little note that others dropt
I fitted into place –

Six-thirty. The treetops glow with the first rays of sun. A hummingbird circles a bull thistle’s purple tuft – all looks, no substance – then zooms over to the bergamot with its washed-out, scraggly heads.

Aside from the background trill of crickets and the sound of cars and trucks on the interstate highway a half-mile to the west, I’m struck by how silently the day has dawned. Early August is always a sad time of the year for me: the dusk and dawn chorus has dwindled to almost nothing. No more phoebe, wood thrush, Baltimore oriole, indigo bunting, scarlet tanager, catbird, great-crested flycatcher. Their young have fledged and learned their parent’s songs, and some have already begun the journey to their true homes in the tropics. Without such stalwarts as the cardinal, song sparrow and especially Carolina wren, the morning would arrive completely unheralded eight months out of twelve.

Already, the early goldenrod is blooming, and by the end of the week the whole field will have turned to gold. The season’s final generation of monarchs is on the wing. A dry high has settled in, bringing clear skies and autumn-cool temperatures. My niece is in heaven – she can spend almost every waking hour out-of-doors if she chooses. She spends the nights apart from her parents, sleeping up in her grandparents’ house in what had been my bedroom when I was growing up. And though she sometimes seems to wish that every adult were as facetious as her daddy and uncles are, there’s no question that her serious, naturalist-writer Nanna is still her main role model.

Yesterday morning the two of them went for a walk down Laurel Ridge, and Eva discovered a box turtle that her Nanna had walked right past without noticing. It was half-grown – only a few years old – and completely unafraid, even when Eva picked it up. After a careful examination of the eyes and plectrum, they decided it must be a female. Eva was so excited to have been the first to spot it, she ran all the way back to the house to tell her grandpa – and anyone else who would listen.

After lunch, without prompting from anyone, she sat down with a clipboard and legal pad and began to write what she proudly predicts will be her first published nature essay. We were astonished by the neatness of her hand and her fantastic spelling for a second grader. Mom reported the following conversation from earlier in the day.

Eva: “Are you famous, Nanna?”

Nanna: “Well, no, not really.”

“But do people know who you are?”

“Well, in Pennsylvania, I guess some people know who am.”

“That’s what I want! I want to write about Nature so people will know who I am!”

Yesterday afternoon my cousin Heidi stopped over with her three-year-old daughter Morgan in tow. Eva immediately took her under her wing and managed to coax her into walking much farther than she ever had before, showering her with praise for the feat. It was amusing to see these two only-children relate to each other in a big sister-little sister fashion.

As for me, I’m just happy for the company of two spontaneously affectionate and imaginative children – even when sudden storms of temper blow in from nowhere, as sometimes happens. Most of the time I am content to play Thoreau without regret for my single, childless state. But then I get a hug from a little kid and am reminded suddenly of just how much I’m missing.

The missing All, prevented Me
From missing minor Things.
If nothing larger than a World’s
Departure from a Hinge
Or sun’s Extinction, be observed
‘Twas not so large that I
Could lift my Forehead from my work
For Curiosity.


Both quotes are from the R. W. Franklin edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson: nos. 1009 (first stanza) and 995 (complete).

This post brought to you by Halliburton

What would you do if you received an e-mail from a friend announcing that he had obtained four one-piece work suits (a.k.a. union suits) that had formerly belonged to Halliburton employees? Each sports the Halliburton logo as well as the first name of the person to whom it was issued. Best of all is a suit with “Richard” on it (think “Vice President”).

I’ve never been much for street protests, but the opportunity to borrow one or more of these suits seems just too good to pass up. So I’m thinking, maybe I should organize some sort of “Poets Against the War” reading? If the emcee of such an event were outfitted by Halliburton, that might make for a compelling five seconds or so on local television.

Poets Against the War have designated September 11 “An International Day of Poetry” – presumably in commemoration of the CIA-sponsored coup that brought Pinochet to power in Chile in 1973, as well as for the events of 9/11/01. But as I thought this over today, it occurred to me that we would be better off titling a September 11th reading Poetry for Peace. Being “for peace” is just a lot more inclusive and disarming than being against war. I don’t want veterans, for example, to feel unwelcome. In fact, I don’t even want to presume that everyone who reads would be “anti-war.” Just pro-peace.

I am not especially interested in emceeing a rally or demonstration. I’m not a big Kerry supporter. But when a man can be publicly derided as a flip-flopper simply for seeing both sides of an issue, you know, that gets my back up! In this atmosphere, simply holding an event where people have to actively listen to those they may disagree with cannot help becoming a political act, I’m afraid. Even without the Halliburton suit.

(Remainder of post removed for violating Via Negativa’s ban on self-promotion)

House and garden

My brother Mark’s family is visiting. Yesterday, I had an interesting conversation with my sister-in-law Luz about clay tile roofs. When they paid a contractor to rebuild her mother’s house in Juticalpa, Honduras, they replaced the roof tiles with tin. How come? Well, short of setting them in concrete, it seems there’s no way to fasten the tiles securely in place.

I was especially intrigued by Luz’s description of the traditional manufacturing technique: women in Honduras used to make the u-shaped tiles by bending slabs of wet clay over their thighs.”Surely they’ve graduated to using logs now?” “Well, I suppose so. But you never know.” Parts of the country remain deeply traditional, though electricity, television and internet cafes are spreading to the remotest villages.

One consequence of the loss of traditional techniques is that in the bigger towns and cities, like Juticalpa, it has become impossible to find anyone who understands the delicate art of roof tile readjustment. As I understand it, the tiles are nested together and keyed to notched roof beams in some way. All is fine and dandy until the neighborhood cats start using the roof for nuptial activities. Their constant running about is enough to vibrate individual tiles out of position.

“Can’t you just get up on a ladder and move them back into place?” “It’s not so easy. I’ve tried it. Mark’s tried it. It’s practically impossible if you don’t know what you’re doing. You should’ve seen us three years ago, during the rainy season. Every night we had to keep moving our beds around so we could sleep without getting dripped on!”

And concrete? “No, because kids, you know, throw stones. The tiles are softer than the concrete. One broken tile and you have to replace the whole thing.”


So after supper I am sitting here going through my e-mail when my eight year-old niece comes in and grabs me by the hand. “Uncle Dave!” “Niece Eva!” “Tell me the names of the plants in your garden!”

I let her drag me outside. “You know this one, right?”


“Yep. They’re all volunteer plants that I rescued from the compost pit. And you should know this plant, too. Here, smell a leaf.”

She takes the proffered leaf, crunches it against her nostrils, then chews on it. “Smells like limes!”

“So it’s lemonbalm, remember? We made tea out of it last spring.”

“What’s this yellow one?”

“That’s rudbeckia. I got the seeds from Pop-pop originally, over ten years ago. It just keeps re-seeding itself, year after year. Now that he’s dead, I have something to remember him by.”

And so it goes: bouncing bet, lamb’s ear, thyme, butterfly weed, bindweed, tansy, peonies. She wants to know not only the name but each plant’s reason for being there.

“This tall purple stuff is bergamot or oswego tea. It does make a nice tea, but really, I keep it for the hummingbirds.” I make her feel the square stem characteristic of the mint family, then show her catnip, with the same property.

“Is that for cats?” she asks, knowing that the only cats around here are the fully wild ones that show up from time to time.

“Yes, well, it does make cats crazy-hyper. But it has the exact opposite effect on humans. It’s an essential ingredient for sleepytime tea. I don’t plant it – it just grows wherever it wants to, and I pull out the ones that get too aggressive.”

After a while of this, she inadvertently pays me the ultimate compliment.

“Uncle Dave, this is the strangest garden I’ve ever seen! You can’t tell the good plants from the weeds!”