How to cast a shadow

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This entry is part 27 of 39 in the series Manual


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Do not emit light yourself. You can glow, but only with radiance borrowed from elsewhere.

Take corporeal form. Acquire inertial mass.

Become at least partially diurnal, or failing that, inhabit a city that never sleeps.


Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessary to have a soul in order to have a shadow.

Maintain proximity with another body or surface, e.g. the ground, if you want visual evidence of your shadow.

Do not subsist mainly or entirely on a diet of blood.

If your shadow becomes inky, or disappears into Stygian darkness, you may need to dispense with the fedora and trenchcoat.

If you’re new to shadow-casting, work on getting a crisp, dark umbra before advancing to a penumbra and—for advanced students only—an antumbra.

To make your shadow dance, dance. To make your shadow talk, stand on a streambank.

Learn from your shadow. Broken glass won’t cut it, barbed wire can’t stop it, mud doesn’t stick.

Whether or not you have a dark side, you can do your part to keep the world from becoming a desert, blasted by the implacable light of reason.

At noon on the equator, your shadow will stretch into the earth like a vein of pyrite.

If your shadow is crossed by the shadow of a black cat, throw pepper over your shoulder.

Keep your friends close and your shadow closer.

Do not attempt to make love to your shadow. That’s been shown to cause amnesia in laboratory rats.

Don’t share your shadow with strangers. Ideally, everyone should cast his or her own.

If you see nothing, say nothing. The shadow government appreciates your cooperation.

How to sleep

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 26 of 39 in the series Manual


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Treat every night as if it were your last. Lay the alarm clock out for burial.

Practice uni-hemispheric sleep for greater productivity, for example while migrating.

Alternatively, take micro-naps every time you blink.

Build up enough fat stores to last till spring, waking only to chew off the calloused pads of your feet.

During REM sleep, mouth the lyrics to “Get Me Naked 2: Electric Boogaloo” by Minus the Bear. This will frighten off any intruders.

Keep a glass of water by your bedside to douse your partner or roommate at the first sound of snoring.

If you intend to sleep on a bus or a plane, be sure to bring pyjamas and a bootle of hooch.

Even if you wait for the sun to set before powering down, it’s still a good idea to close your eyes, as this usually triggers sleep mode.

Instead of sheep, count electric cars, which are quiet as cats and run on nothing but self-righteousness and coal.

As with tickling, the self-administered lullaby has little effect.

If all else fails, listen to the audio version of this manual.

How to dig

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This entry is part 25 of 39 in the series Manual


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Whatever you’re carrying, set it aside.

Can you dig it? If not, look for an area that is free of concrete, asphalt, paving bricks, or other impervious surfaces.

Digging need not involve a downward motion. Those who are buried may endeavor to dig themselves out.

When digging into your past or your subconscious, stay well above the high-tide mark.

An earthworm severed by a digging tool will only grow into two new earthworms if the split occurs between the 12th and 18th segments. The head will grow a new tail, the tail will grow a new head, and neither will need a spade to resume digging.

Dig quickly, before your excavation can cave in.

Dig slowly and take many breaks to enjoy the haunting music of the moles.

Don’t stop to fraternize with rocks. Daylight makes them dangerous. Boys have been known to turn them into weapons.

Don’t remove the top of a mountain unless the adjacent valley happens to be devoid of rich people.

The technical name for soil that has been forcibly relocated elsewhere is dirt.

If there’s nowhere else to put it, dirt can be eaten. Bake at 350 for two hours and season with vinegar.

Even in the softest soil, the human penis is a very inefficient digging tool, since it lacks a baculum. Try a trowel instead.

When digging through bedrock, resist the temptation to stretch out and take a nap.

If you’re in a hurry, there are many pre-existing excavations, such as old mine shafts and abandoned railway tunnels, that you can use to escape from the tyranny of the surface.

The deeper you go, the fewer options you have. Blindness is a mercy.

Don’t dig to plant or to unearth. Don’t dig for exercise. Just dig.

How to talk

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This entry is part 24 of 39 in the series Manual


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Unless you’re in an opera, stop singing. There’s music in speech, true, but it comes from the ground rather than the sky.

Do not attempt to say everything at once. Take advantage of the fourth dimension: time.

Do worry syntax not about, out figure will it they.

Words are like moss: plants without roots that rely on each other for support.

Never think before you speak. That’s tantamount to speaking before you speak—rehearsing everything before an invariably appreciative audience of one.

To start a conversation, it’s not necessary to have something to say. Find someone who looks as if they have nothing to say and ask them about themselves.

True conversation requires listening. A basic audio surveillance bug can be purchased on Amazon for as little as $28.50.

When learning a new language, the second thing to master is the way pauses are filled, the way they say um and ah. Master the shapes and rhythms of the inarticulate and meaning will take care of itself.

The first thing to learn, of course, is how to curse, and the body language that goes along with that.

Only when you understand how to say what can’t be unsaid will the everyday rituals of giving and receiving, welcoming and taking leave, apologizing and expressing condolence begin to make sense.

To speak is to fabricate. This is why so often sociopaths are such charming speakers.

The god of silence, Harpocrates, never wore clothes.

How to take notes

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This entry is part 23 of 39 in the series Manual


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Note-taking is a sacred duty. The first secretaries recorded the mandates of heaven, as divined from entrails or the cracks on tortoise shells.

Stay in character. Wear surgical gloves and carry a mute parrot under your hat.

Apprentice yourself to an earthworm, whose assiduous note-taking turns dirt into soil.

Don’t write what you hear—what good is that?—but how you hear it.

Never lift a pen from the page, even to dot an i, lest it become lost in lust for the flange of an ear.

Use unlined stationary and let your letters imbricate to better shed the sweat of your brow.

Staple your tongue to the moonlight until you learn how to shine with borrowed radiance.

The goal is become invisible, like a street photographer in the mountains.

Type rhythmically, in 4/4 time. Improvise a work song to make it go faster.

Have your way with semiquaver and crotchet, but beware the Franciscan Minims of the Perpetual Help of Mary.

Domesticate the hortatory: speak off a freshly laundered cuff, blank of ink.

Get speech recognition software and use it to transcribe whatever you babble in your sleep or in moments of ecstasy.

Invent the world’s most offhand shorthand, in which each letter is signified by a random mark.

There are certain sentences that can only be heard by note-takers. They lurk like puns, disguised as slips of the tongue, stammerings and clearings of the throat.

Notice everything.

Marry the slate to the chalk with a long claw’s screech.

How to sacrifice

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 22 of 39 in the series Manual


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Start with the cut that severs all connection with the earth.

Start slowly so the body can re-learn how to be whole after each amputation.

Start by living elsewhere, in another part of town. You’re better off not knowing.

Once you start giving things up, it becomes difficult to recapture the joy you felt in the presence of an adored partner or possession.

What happens to the worshipper who makes a gift of her worship and learns to do without?

What happens to service when the floor falls away and every salaam is infinite?

Let the child and the ram both go and place the knife on top of the stacked wood.

Too long have you thrilled to its militant conversation with the whetstone.

Let it go out like a phoenix, come back as a black wing.

Stay in the wilderness until someone calls you by a name you’ve never heard.

How to make a face

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This entry is part 21 of 39 in the series Manual


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Carve a bowl-shaped hollow at head height in a softwood tree and stand with your head in the hollow, embracing the trunk.

Stare into the darkness until it returns your gaze.

Accept no substitutes, neither love nor a mirror.

Remember: you’re not your reflection, much less the water in which it appears, but the dropped stone that shatters its composure.

Practice being smooth.

Learn laughter from schizophrenics, ecstacy from pornstars and outrage from politicians campaigning for office.

Shave your head so your face will have nowhere to hide.

When applying make-up, don’t forget to leave breathing holes!

Scowl at the moon. Don’t be its sycophant.

Your goal isn’t to make children laugh, but to make them love the façade.

When you feel yourself smiling for no reason, say: this is what happiness feels like.

Keep crayons and a paper bag handy for emergencies.

The Captain’s Reverses

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This entry is part 14 of 29 in the series Conversari


after Pablo Neruda

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In you the earth, murmurs
the make-believe sailor,
dipping his old-fashioned
straight razor into a bowl
of steamy water. Little rose,
he croons, beginning to feel
that familiar stirring in what
he has always supposed to be
his heart. Tiny and naked
he clutches the razor like a pen,
like his poet’s scalpel—
you have grown, watching
that celebrated moon emerge
from the shaving foam,
its sensuous lips, its ravenous snout.
You are loosed, my love.
You are full and fleshy.
I am all at sea.


Only by becoming an object of love does the woman come into being. Without her male lover, she is “vacía, sin substancia” (“El amor,” LVDC). This portrayal of woman in the texts is sharply juxtaposed with that of the male speaker, who does not depend on the physical presence or the love of the female for his existence. At times, the woman’s absence is even considered preferable, since it allows the male to recreate her in the text, and thus provides him with a heightened level of inspiration.
—Cynthia Duncan, “Reading Against the Grain of Neruda’s Love Poetry: A Feminist Perspective


Thanks to Rachel Rawlins for prompting this with her unexpectedly negative reaction to The Captain’s Verses, which is making me rethink my admiration for Neruda’s love poetry. Thanks also to musician and SoundCloud user Hani Maltos for uploading the music I used and licensing it under the Creative Commons (since I’m too rushed this morning to be able to get permission). I have a video in mind for this, but don’t know if I’ll get a chance to do it before my departure for Chicago tomorrow afternoon. (Incidentally, if you’re going to be at the AWP conference too, please get in touch.)

See Rachel’s photographic response, “A pair of blue eyes.”

How to make a fist

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This entry is part 20 of 39 in the series Manual


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Abdicate. Grow backwards.

Let the flowers retract into their buds, the buds into the stalk and the stalk into the hemispheres of the seed.

Let the circle be unbroken: form a feedback loop until the brain roars with howlround in its cage.

Focus. Prune every Y until there’s nothing but a pollarded knot of pure intention.

Trade nuance for the on or off of a machine.

Don’t give anything away.

Without a hoard, there can be no power. Let your waters build and build behind this new dam.

Zero in like the ouroboros.

Curl. Coil. Clutch. Constrict. Consume.


Note: this is not a revision but an extended commentary on my poem, “Fist.”

How to burn

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This entry is part 18 of 39 in the series Manual


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Become an idol sheathed in gold leaf.

Let no one touch you but the wind, and then only through proxies.

Have your hands replaced with hooks and your feet with augers.

Avoid lakes and oceans, thunderstorms and kisses. Dry out.

Live on earth: an unconsummated star smoldering under a thin crust of ash.

Spend your holidays on a barely cooled tongue of lava, or the slag pile from an old coal mine.

Become coal yourself if necessary, but avoid the extremes of heat and pressure that would turn you translucent.

Diamonds are a poor fuel, and their cold fires last nowhere near forever.

We need to burn carbon if we are to fulfill our destiny.

Embark on a long-distance relationship, ideally with the assistance of an anatomically correct knitted heart.

Listen through keyholes.

Feed small rumors with bacon grease and fan them with the shoulder blades of race horses.

What is digestion but a controlled burn?

Join the crowd for a public execution or the overthrow of a government.

Dance the way flames dance, leaping in and out of existence.

Oxidize and exfoliate like a slow book made of rust.

Glow if you can’t flicker, flicker if you can’t blaze.

Set fire to the crops so the harvest will never come, cold and dark—that death that grows inside you like a field of snow.