The blog in literature

There is no pleasure to me without communication: there is not so much as a sprightly thought comes into my mind that it does not grieve me to have produced alone, and that I have no one to tell it to.

I rejoice in my spine, as in the firm audacious staff of that flag which I fling half out to the world.

The power of doing anything with quickness is always prized much by the possessor, and often without any attention to the imperfection of the performance.
Jane Austen

For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?
Jane Austen

There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.
Mark Twain

We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.
Mark Twain

It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it.
Charlotte Bronte

On day Lord Korechika, the Minister of the Centre, brought the Empress a bundle of notebooks. “What shall we do with them?” Her Majesty asked me. “The Emperor has already made arrangements for copying the Records of the Historian.”

“Let me make them into a pillow,” I said.

“Very well,” said Her Majesty. “You may have them.”

I now had a vast quantity of paper at my disposal, and I set about filling the notebooks with odd facts, stories from the past, and all sorts of other things, often including the most trivial material. On the whole I concentrated on things and people that I found charming and splendid; my notes are also full of poems and observations on trees and plants, birds and insects.
Sei Shonagon

There is nothing in the whole world so painful as feeling that one is not liked. It always seems to me that people who hate me must be suffering from some kind of lunacy.
Sei Shonagon

Read you my epigrams? No, you burn
not to hear mine, but for your turn.
Martial (William Matthews, tr.)

If an epigram takes up too much space,
you skip it. It’s not substance you crave
but speed. I combed the markets for this spread
and you eat nuts and candied violets.
Fuss on your own budget, reader, and have
taste enough to salivate for bread.
Martial (ibid.)

The weird sisters, hand in hand,
Posters of the sea and land,
Thus do go about, about.

He appeared to enjoy beyond everything the sound of his own voice. I couldn’t wonder at that, for it was mellow and full and gave great importance to every word he uttered. He listened to himself with obvious satisfaction and sometimes gently beat time to his own music with his head or rounded a sentence with his hand.

When I makes tea I makes tea, as old mother Grogan said. And when I makes water I makes water … Begob, ma’am, says Mrs. Cahill, God send you don’t make them in the one pot.
James Joyce

Yet he who grasps the moment’s gift,
He is the proper man.

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?

Only he is an emancipated thinker who is not afraid to write foolish things.

What is the via negativa?

Beth knows.


In other news, qarrtsiluni inaugurates a new theme, “Lies and Hiding,” with a poem about the vagaries of history by Maria Benet, which seems to reflect her own history as an Romanian immigrant. I guess it’s O.K. with poetry to give away the ending:

You are packed:
the clothes of your new life
folded and stashed in your mind–and again you rehearse:
the border, customs, forms
to fill. Again you write:
nothing to declare,
nothing worth currency.

Dick Jones shares two wonderful poems based on his travels in the Ural Mountains between 1989 and 2000. “BIRDS ON THE CHUSOVAYA RIVER” begins:

High flat sun, sour light
draining like whey
through muslin cloud.
This bird’s geometry — square-winged,
turning on the axis
of its hunger, reorders
the sky. The berkut, summer eagle,
sideslips into the treeline.

SB compiles some recent good news for internet addicts and writers of poetry. I particularly liked this quote (from the Independent): “Poetry, it seems, is not the new rock’n’roll, but the new Prozac.” (Fortunately, the author of the article is considerably wiser than this may suggest, and comes down rather hard on the notion that the best thing about poetry is that it might be good for you.)

Finally, Tom Montag‘s Morning Drive Journal feature helps remind me what a real winter might be like. This is how it was in Fairwater, Wisconsin on February 1, 2000:

It’s a lovely winter morning. A cold nip to the wind, partly cloudy, the sun hidden, a greyness. No frost on the windshield of the pick-up. I can see my breath in the air. A stillness, as if winter holds its breath, then the branch of a bush moves and the spell is broken. Clouds are smears to the north and east and west, haze above. If we could cup the day in our hand like water, what would it look like?

Christmas letter

Dear Friends,

Well, Via Negativa is two years old now. I knew the birthday was coming up sometime around the solstice, but I missed it: it was last Saturday. And here I’d been assiduously taking notes for a “year in review” post (which, I see, I avoided doing in the first birthday post). Nuts. Well, here’s that post anyway.

2005 saw a lot of changes in Via Negativa, beginning in her sidebar. Three of my favorite brainiac bloggers – Abdul-Walid of Acerbia (formerly Elck of the vernacular body), Siona of Nomen est Numen, and Andi of Ditch the Raft – hung up their blogging hats. They each had very good reasons for doing so, I think, and it’s not their fault that I felt my enthusiasm for the medium ebb just a little after they left. But now one of them is back, blogging under a new name. Andi took her vows as a Korean Buddhist nun-to-be (haeng-ja), and just last week returned to the blogging fold as Soen Joon, with a blog called One robe, one bowl – the first cloistered blogger in my blogroll.

Three of the bloggers I read faithfully have scored major successes in the world of print publishing this year. Ivy – surely the hardest working poet online – had her first book-length manuscript, Mortal, accepted by Red Morning Press. Patry Francis, who blogs at the aptly named Marvelous Garden, having more than paid her dues with years of waitressing, had her first novel accepted by Dutton. And I was perhaps most excited to learn back in October that Beth successfully pitched her book on Gene Robinson to a small New York publisher. Back in January 2004, Beth’s post about listening to Bishop Robinson preach and then going to a shopping mall sparked a memorable discussion spanning three comment threads. That was, I think, the first really meaty blog conversation in which I took an active part, and it was a revelation to me. I added a comments feature to Via Negativa shortly thereafter.

This past September saw the birth of a new kind of online publication, qarrtsiluni – equal parts group blog and literary magazine. While there are all sorts of equally valid reasons for blogging, those of us involved with qarrtsiluni are hoping to inspire folks around the blogosphere to sometimes take a bit more time with their writing, starting with ourselves. And we want to encourage more collaborative literary and artistic efforts, taking advantage of the much greater opportunities for interaction and feedback available online than in print journals. So far, I think, qarrtsiluni has had a pretty good run.

One thing my sidebar doesn’t reflect too well is the exponential growth in country/nature blogs over the past year (see Rurality‘s sidebar for a good collection of links). I’ve added a few, but I’m always wary of expanding the list of “vaguely compatible blogs” beyond the point where it can still serve readers as a handy guide to a sampling of sites I find interesting. But this past week I decided to put in links to the parent sites of two blog carnivals – regular, community-generated compilations of links to the best posts about a given topic, in this case birds and invertebrates. I coupled them with the useful, weekly compendium of Buddhist-flavored posts at Blogmandu – an old-fashioned meta-blog – to create a new sidebar category, which I hope to expand in the coming year as similar efforts get off the ground, or as I discover more such places already in existence. They offer great solutions to the blog addict’s eternal dillemma: how to read more blogs and still leave time for, well, anything else.

There are many other things that excite me about the blogs in my blogroll: new experiments in writing or artwork, major life changes for the people whose lives they chronicle. I started jotting down notes, and the list quickly got out of hand. So you’ll just have to click through my links and discover them for yourself, I’m afraid.

I don’t want to sound more selfless than I am, either. Via Negativa has had a pretty good year in terms of its original content, too. Long-time readers probably have their own ideas of what the most significant developments were; here’s what stand out in my mind:

1. I got a camera, a hand-me-down birthday gift from a loyal reader (thanks, Matt!). Though only one megapixel, it’s proved more than adequate for the low-resolution pictures required for the Internet. I haven’t owned a camera since I was a kid – film processing was never something I thought I could afford – and I have really enjoyed the effect that taking pictures has had on my quality of attention.

2. I blogged an epic, Cibola (see sidebar links). At least six people claim to have read it all the way through, not counting myself. It had its moments.

3. An involuntary sojourn in lovely Summersville, West Virginia with a broken-down car led me to read the one poetry book I had on hand with the same approximate intensity with which the survivor of a shipwreck clings to a raft. That book was Paul Zweig’s Selected and Last Poems. Unlike Andi, however, I didn’t ditch the raft once I got home; I made a shrine out of it and began regular prostrations. So far I’ve written thirty-four poems in response to Zweig’s, and the project continues to hold my interest. Let’s face it, we can only ever write as well as we read, so why not make the effort to read more consciously? And the blogging medium seems ideal for experiments in antiphony.

4. After some fourteen months of finding captions for the same cartoon, many of them mildly amusing, I finally ran out of steam with the “Words on the Street” feature early last August. The efficient cause, I think, was that it lost out against my new-found enthusiasm for responsive writing – I didn’t have enough time to write two features in addition to a regular essay. The material cause? I was simply running low on ideas. But the final cause may have been the reality that, with all the photographs, Via Negativa no longer had to rely on a daily cartoon to provide graphic relief. Nevertheless, Diogenes the Bum had become in some sense his own person, and it has proved impossible to keep him from popping back up from time to time.

5. The travelogue I just completed was satisfying to write, and I learned (or perhaps relearned) a couple things from it: First, that the pieces I write off the cuff, following just a few leads, are in many ways more satisfying than those I plan out and research (the ivorybill posts). And second, that the time I spend here at home, following all my usual waking and beginning-to-write rituals, is absolutely essential. I really can’t write anywhere else. But given the necessary distance in space and time from the actual travelling, travel writing, I discovered, can be a blast!

6. Overall, I think I can discern a few trends. The lengthy treatises that I used to inflict on Via Negativa readers with monotonous regularity largely disappeared this year, though I doubt the overall word count has diminished too much. I don’t indulge in nearly as much speculative thinking as I did the first year – whether because I got that all out of my system, or simply because I haven’t read much philosophy lately, I’m not sure. There’s been a much higher proportion of poetry, though some of it has taken the form of prose.

One thing that hasn’t changed is that I can’t remember where I’ve been from one month to the next. On occasion, when I go back into the archives searching for a particular post, I find myself reading the adjacent entries with only the faintest recollection of having written them. That’s good, in a way, because it means I can keep coming up with the same ideas again and again and they’ll seem fresh every time. You may think I’m joking, but many of the poets I most admire seem never to have had more than a small handful of original insights. In fact, that may be part of their charm, what makes their oeuvre seem so tidy and unified in tone. Last year at this time I said, “Long live the melange!” But given my craving for variety, sooner or later variety itself may come to seem tiresome, and I’ll crave the simplicity and mystery of the eternal return. Even now, it might be possible to imagine all the words posted here to date as constituting some kind of interminable, profane mantra. Om mani padme jesus h. christmas hum!

Best wishes for a joyous and safe holiday season. Thank you all for reading, and I hope you’ll find the time to visit often in the coming year.

– Dave


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A rare visitor rounds the bend of the driveway below my house

The screech owls gave me another chance to listen more closely to their calling the night before last, so I was able to revise the poem I wrote in answer to Zweig’s “Listening to Bells” the other day. Take another look – I think it’s a little less “In lieu of,” a little more of a genuine listening now.

I also want to draw your attention – for the benefit especially of readers who might have been grumbling to themselves about the dearth of prose here lately – to some truly inspired writing by recent contributors to the comment strings. There’s a longish and delightfully chaotic kite-tail of comments helping to keep the Chant for the Summit of the World Body aloft. Two of my favorites in that string include one from Jean:

…[T]he world body doesn’t need a rest. None of these is about the world body doing anything, just about what people would like it to do, or think they would like it to do. In fact, the world doesn’t have a body, only a shadow, a reflection indicating the presence of body that actually isn’t there. It talks a lot about wanting to have one, but no one can agree about what kind of animal it should be, and Bush is determined it should not come alive, wants a robot or nothing.

Farther down, Rexroth’s Daughter – one of the pair of inspired misfits who call themselves Dharma Bums – added this:

Thanks for poetically revealing the myth perpetuated by google. The world body is like an urban legend. Repeated enough it becomes evidence of its own existence. The google bomb of self: A desperate need to believe in the reality of our own skins writ large.

Google bomb – the willful multiplication of incoming links with uniform wording or naming, in order to increase the attraction of a place or position by its sleight-of-hand substitution for the results of otherwise unrelated searches, using a god-like logarithm of our own invention – has to be one of the most accurate analogies for the formation of self I’ve ever seen. As the Wikipedia article points out,

Google bombs often end their life by being too popular or well known, thereby attaining a mention in well regarded web journals and knocking the bomb off the top spot. It is sometimes commented that Google bombing need not be countered because of this self-disassembly.

In a different, more animist vein, Beth left a vivid comment after the aforementioned “Listening” post:

…I dreamt of an owl last night, a big one – like a great horned – seen in the dream first through trees, and then flying over the roof of the moving car and then ahead of it, down the road and off into the trees again.

It was blue.

Thanks to everyone who comments and to all who visit here, whether with words or with the gift of silent presence. It’s never quite the quiet of a tomb, though I must admit, sometimes I feel that I ever stop chipping away at my epitaph, I’ll have to go lie down under it and mind my manners. And then it’s nothing but cut flowers – no gardening allowed! So gather ye rosebuds and all that. Or rose hips, really, by now…

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A pasture rose, New York aster, and the light above my writing table visible through the dining room door

UPDATE: Bloggers are invited to enter their favorite comments from among those left at their blogs for the 90 Great Comments Contest, hosted by Glittering Muse (and inspired in part by this very post, for which I’m honored).

Not far from nowhere: a memoir from the middle

It’s Summer Book Week at Via Negativa. Since I’ll be gone part of the week on vacation myself, I decided it would be an ideal time to consider what constitutes the perfect summer read. Here’s a review I wrote last weekend.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usI’ve never understood why summer reading is supposed to consist mainly of light, escapist fare. Isn’t summer vacation the one time when many people actually get a chance to relax and enjoy living in the moment? To my way of thinking, the perfect summer read draws you in, but doesn’t completely suck you in; is best savored in small bites slowly chewed rather than inhaled at one sitting; brings you to your senses rather than making you dead to the world. Tom Montag’s poetic memoir, Curlew: Home (Midday Moon Books, 2001) is just such a book.

Montag grew up on a rented farm “one mile south and a quarter mile west” of the town of Curlew,

dead center in the northwestern corner of Iowa. It is not far from nowhere, admittedly. When I was growing up, the town’s most remarkable feature was the short strip of pavement that constituted Main Street.

The book is not so much about Montag himself as it is about what it means to grow up in the middlewest, as he prefers to call it, raising food for people on both coasts who never give the continent’s vast midsection a second thought. It’s a kind of meta-memoir, a book about memory itself and the place of remembered landscapes in the imagination – especially urgent questions for a farm boy who, against all odds, grew up to be poet. As a fellow middlewesterner, reviewing the book for, notes, “Curlew, Iowa, and the Midwest become symbols of the greater reality of family, home, life, death and change. It is a book about what it means to be human.”

“Home is in your heart, you take it with you, you wear it like a stink,” Montag says. Don’t expect any weepy, County-Western-style sentimentalism here. Curlew: Home is infused with stoic melancholy, but also contains flashes of a cautious kind of joy. In this regard, as well as in its impressionistic style of composition, it reminded me strongly of old-time blues music – some talking blues epic by Leadbelly, say, where lyric alternates with narrative and the occasional shouted line.

Montag spent the month of October, 2000 traveling back to his childhood haunts, and intersperses journal-like episodes from “The Journey” with stories from his boyhood. Though not averse to drawing the occasional pithy moral, most of the time Montag wisely lets the people he interviews and the incidents he relates speak for themselves. As with blues lyrics or a Japanese linked verse sequence, a great deal of the reader’s pleasure comes from the sense of contrast and consonance between adjacent sections. (It’s interesting to see that these techniques were fully developed well before Montag began deploying them in his daily blog The Middlewesterner.)

Many of Montag’s stories glow with the light of the miraculous: the time his father witched for water, indicating not only where the well should be dug, but predicting the precise depth at which water would be found. The time Montag dreamed of having his legs run over by a tractor – and two days later having the dream come true. The time he broke his sister’s collar bone, much to their mutual surprise, or when his brother and he discovered the bitter mysteries of iced tea. Almost every character encountered in the book seems simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary, from Montag’s indomitable mother and his child-prodigy sister Colleen, to Curlew’s 93-year-old mayor and the outspoken, anti-corporate female postmaster Montag interviews on his visit in 2000.

The stories are rendered especially effective by their location within an overall trajectory of loss and longing. In the narrative present we see Montag restlessly circling the now-abandoned homesite, walking the four miles around the square of grid that had included his parents’ half-section farm again and again. We feel his shock at the emptiness as he stands among the windbreak trees where their farm had been, visits graveyards, stares at vacant lots where grade schools and grain elevators had stood. Miraculous things may have happened here once, but what’s to show for it, Montag wonders.

The tradition of stereotyping country people as clowns and simpletons is as old as agriculture, as old as literature. Curlew: Home helps demonstrate the literal groundlessness of that prejudice. It takes its place in a counter-tradition questioning the civilized fantasies of detachment from the earth that stretches from the ancient Daoist classics to Wendell Berry and Henry David Thoreau. From an early age, Montag and his siblings, like many farm kids, learn sober lessons about violence, suffering and moral responsibility.

A series of essays in Part Three details the inevitable cruelties of farm life: “Cutting Pigs” (everything you ever wanted to know about castration, but were afraid to ask), “Butchering Chickens,” “Killing Rats,” “Killing Pigeons.” The first in the series, “Feeding the Cattle,” sets the tone. One time, Montag writes, “I was slower getting out of the way then I intended to be,” and one of his father’s prize Herefords, all 1300 pounds of it, “put its foot exactly where my foot was. The full weight of pain.”

He slams the steer as hard as he can, first with an elbow, then a shoulder, but it doesn’t move. Finally he twists its ear with all his strength, and it “bellers” and lifts its foot just enough for him to extract his own. Then he goes to work dumping the feed in the trough as usual, bucket after bucket. Afterwards, he stands watching them, “like mountains pushing and shoving.”

Off to the west the sun was dropping down behind the trees in the grove. Long shadows were spilled like paint. Wind, cool and soothing. The sound of chickens, the sound of a car along the gravel road in front of our place, the sound of one of my sisters calling out “Supper!””There has got to be more than this,” I might have said to myself. I was watching the cattle feeding dumbly and I was looking at myself. Had I been bred into a life no less predetermined than the march of those steers toward the slaughterhouse, I wondered. “There has got to be more to life than feeding cattle.”

“Hey!” I shouted at the evening sky, just for the hell of it, just because I could. The sound roared from deep within and exploded out of me. None of the cattle turned to look at me, not a one of them.

I went to my supper.

At the other end of the series, Montag tells us “Why I Don’t Hunt.” In order to fully appreciate that story – like so many others – you’ll have to read the book, and even then you may not get it the first read through, as I did not. True epiphanies are hard nuts to crack, impossible to get at without shattering the shell of words.

All my life I’ve been waiting for that pheasant’s arc of flight to be completed. All my life the bird crumples and falls to earth. What is beautiful has been broken since.


Never empty. Empty.

Chalice, ringworm, birthmark, mole.

Halo, mandorla. The oriole’s aureole.

Home made by instinct, reproducing the architecture of desire.

Mandala. Prayer wheel.

Round because the egg is round.

Round because the breast is round.

Round because the tree is round.

Round because the horizon is round.

Coiled basket. The snake’s embrace.

Gape, gullet, belly.

A big fat zero.

The kind of thing I write when I don’t know what else to write, gazing at the hairy nest of my navel.

“People say snails carry their homes around with them. But I think because they secrete their whorled calcium carbonate shells out of their own bodies and cannot be detached from them (in life) we should say snails are their own homes.

“They can close the front door with the operculum at the end of their stomach-foot.”
– ever so humble

“How alert and vigilant the birds are, even when absorbed in building their nests!”
– John Burroughs, Wake-Robin

Abdul-Walid of Acerbia

“Amnesia is the soul of wit.” – Abdul-Walid

On the orders of its unelected leader, the beleaguered posts of Acerbia are about to undergo a Structural Adjustment Program. There is no Universal Declaration on Blogging Rights, no legal basis for charges of blogicide.

“I am the state,” Louis XIV famously declared. Abdul-Walid recently entertained a similar delusion, equating the contemplated termination of his blog and all its contents with suicide.

But at other times and in other contexts, the Acerbian dictator has been one of the blogosphere’s staunchest defenders of textual autonomy. He has been known to reprint other bloggers’ posts without their advance permission – tolerated under the lax laws that govern the blogosphere – and sometimes has gone so far as to change their shape, once even editing out lines he didn’t like and briefly withholding attribution. Soon thereafter, he quoted Pascal with favor:

Certain authors, speaking of their works, say, ‘My book,’ ‘My commentary,’ ‘My history,’ etc. They resemble middle-class people who have a house of their own, and always have ‘My house’ on their lips. They would do better to say, ‘Our book,’ ‘Our commentary,’ ‘Our history,’ etc., because there is in them usually more of other people’s than their own.

So is this the end for our beloved cities of the plain? Will their zealous ruler consign them to fire and brimstone, blind to the plight of the righteous few? You bet your booty.

Innominate. I play the tic-tac-toe with my tongue: I-No-Mi-Nate. It is one of those fabulous words, like “eponymous,” a word that testifies to itself, a word that hides behind itself. Or, like Lolita, or opolopo; words that entertain the mouth.The surface of Os innominatum wends deliriously: a gentle rise on a broad Iliac plain suddenly leads to a ridge which gives way to a volcanic crater, and a pair of mismatched wings surrounding a circular canal and subtending sheer cliffs. It is a prodigal shape, beaten every which way for pure functionality, bearing not a single wasted spur.

Word has it, however, that all the inhabitants have been airlifted out and have been granted refugee status elsewhere – most, in the shape-shifting way of web denizens, in multiple locations. Soon enough they will learn the bleak truth behind one of Abdul-Walid’s own apothegms, You have been sentenced to life outside prison, but this is harsher judgment than you think.

And Abdul-Walid himself?

As they pay their bill, and get up to leave, the older of the two is heard to say:”Insomnia. But I don’t count sheep when I can’t sleep. I count corpses.”


Friday catbird blogging

A foggy, rainy morning. While I’m drinking my coffee, the black cat pads down the driveway and up into the woods, seemingly invisible to the catbird, who’s holding forth from the vicinity of the springhouse, or the wood thrush caroling at the woods’ edge. But a couple minutes later, a gray squirrel goes apeshit. Oddly enough, this squirrel’s whiny alarm call doesn’t sound too different from the mewing of a catbird – or a cat. So often, it seems, we come to resemble those we fear. Imitation is the sincerest form of opposition.


Checking the log of keyword searches each night, I am often amused, as I expected I’d be when I signed up for statcounter. My extreme verbosity, combined with my decision to archive by month, makes Via Negativa a real sink for Google searches of every description. What I didn’t expect is this feeling of frustration that I couldn’t have been there somehow, standing at some virtual doorway or sitting behind a desk marked INFORMATION, ready to welcome visitors and send them where they need to go. Must be the influence of my father, a retired reference librarian. We’re all about service, you know? In the comment string to a recent post about search strings, my friend Peter flattered me by stating, “I go to Via Negativa instead of Wikipedia. Who the hell cares if the precise question gets answered.” In response, I wondered whether I should give the blog a new slogan: “With misinformation like this, who needs to know the truth?” From simple ignorance, perhaps, one can progress to full-fledged unknowing.

I collect some of the more memorable search strings (together with the pages where they ended up) and ponder how I might have handled them in person…

camp songs about feathers
lead to campy dreams about angels, which may not be suitable for all audiences.

origin, land of enchantment
virgin is for lovers
I [heart] You, Nork

egil vomit
Propulsive verse. Skald ick. Skoal.

st lucy eyeballs the cake before digging in. I’d give my eyetooth to see what it tastes like.

striation kidney bowels
Mm, haruspicy! Don’t believe the tripe.

how do i make a egg salad?
Slowly and carefully, so as not to break the eggs.

swallow hash slime and turn back into a handsome toad.

is the african art humanistic or religious
is the american imagination stunted or over-stimulated

i am a bright steak of light in the sky. i am made when a small piece of space rock enters the earth
and after an hour or two of sky-watching, you are a pain in the neck.

hanging gardens daily life
The hangman likes his job O.K., but doesn’t care for the long commute.

criticisms of the via negativa will be promptly deleted.

has pennsylvania’s mountain laurel bloomed in 2005
not in this blog.

analysis of the african proverb: when it rains, the roof always drips the same way
drip drip drip drip drip

coon dick toothpick
You’ns is ignernt.

catbird and thrush walk into a bar…


I dream a ghost-body, heavy on top of mine. At first I am aroused, then frightened. It sits on my chest the way my big brother used to sometimes when we were kids, though it doesn’t taunt, doesn’t speak a word. I snort loudly to wake myself, find only my own arm sprawled across my ribs. I drift back to sleep and into a new dream, in which a psychopath smiles ingratiatingly and explains that he really couldn’t help murdering over 200 members of a small, isolated community in the mountains. I try to talk the others into locking him up, but we’re not able to reach consensus. The only suitable jail is the old springhouse, damp and cold, where I once imprisoned my little brother for several hours. I find myself joining the others to plead for his human rights. When the cops come, it is not to apprehend him but to interrogate us. “Have you seen a suit like this?” one of them asks each of us in turn, displaying a child’s plastic model of a gangster, furred in what someone informs me is meant to represent a zoot suit. I realize there is no right way to answer. I look at the handcuffs that I found in the basement and decide they really belong around my own wrists. “If they take me to jail, I’ll be safe from the murderer,” I think.


It’s only at the end of their all-day hike, as they begin to pitch camp beside the wilderness trout stream, that they realize they forgot to pack the bag that contained half their fishing gear. Time to improvise, says the engineer, while his friend the poet rummages around for the dime-bag of pot. A half an hour later they’re good and stoned. The engineer begins shaving willow wands for the basket trap he sees as clearly as a lure flashing in a sunlit pool. The poet rolls up his pants and wades out into the stream. He feels the hair rustling all over his body, follicles suddenly standing at attention.


I finally succumb to curiosity and install a free site meter from I realize that it won’t be terribly accurate, since many regular readers use an aggregator such as Bloglines. I’m primarily interested in the search strings people use to get here, but the visit length data is fascinating, too. In two days, 83% of all visitors alighted here for less than five seconds. On the other hand, four people spent more than an hour with their browser open to Via Negativa. What sort of masochists are these? Here’s someone who’s been back five times already, and visited thirteen separate pages! And good grief, he lives in the same town and uses the same server as I do. Same browser, same operating system, everything. Unbelievable.


But what were they looking for, those less-than-five-second visitors? Two searched for the via negativa, poor souls. All the other Google searches were unique, and included the following (Via Negativa’s order in each search result is given in parentheses):

“bird calls” birdy birdy (5)
“origin of words” “spelunker” (3)
tribesman “man essence” (1 [!])
william stafford methow valley poems (4)
“The Recorded Sayings of Ch’an Master Lin-chi Hui-chao of Chen Prefecture” (4)
coon dong (2)
raccoons sex (4)
bestseller “baghdad burning” (3 [?!])
The word Hammock originates from a Haitian word (7)
THEODORE ROETHKE,DOLOR,analysis or explanation (2 – a Yahoo search)
lion fucked (2 [!])
Zuni vulture (5)


“But how many people actually remember seeing Barney Google in a comic strip?” asks Toonopedia. Indeed. While the search engine that bears his name seems omnipresent, he of the goo-goo-googly eyes and his once-famous steed Sparky have been mysteriously absent for half a century. There was no celluloid finish, no riding off into a sunset. One pictures instead some repudiation or return to sanity, as with Don Quixote. Except that Sancho – or Snuffy Smith – doesn’t buy it. It’s all too real to him, this epic snipe hunt, this been-down-so-long-it-looks-like-up-to-me. “What’s so funny?” he wants to know. He’s still out there in his lonesome hollow, hunched over a keypad, typing outlandish search strings in the gathering dusk.


Late afternoon isn’t always the best time to read poetry, I find. The book is Katha Pollitt’s Antarctic Traveller, her first. After a while, I decide to jot down some of my accidental misreadings:

…sphincters [splinters] of glass and pottery…

…the world [word] that widens
until it becomes the word [world].

…the orchid,
which signifies the virtues of the noble man:
reticence, calm, clarity of wind [mind].

…now you’ve travelled half the world and seen
the ergo [ego] glinting at the heart of things…

Pollitt’s poems are wonderfully luminous; this is one of the best first books I’ve ever read. Its language is strange the way all truthful language should be. If my slips seem even stranger, perhaps that’s simply a measure of the mind’s difficulty in assimilating unfamiliar truths. We hear what we want to hear, reverse-engineer the worlds that come out of our mouths and call the results logic: the ergo glinting at the heart of things, just so much wind from a glass sphincter.

Out-of-the-blog experiences

After rain, a dry high blows in, bringing such clarity that one can see the tiniest gnats dancing in the sun. It was days like this that used to make me feel the most anguished, back in the days before my heart shrank to the approximate size and durability of a black walnut. You can live in the most beautiful place in the world and still wish to be someplace else – or at least to be somebody else. Those yearnings haven’t entirely gone away, merely subsided a bit as I coasted into my long middle ages. And I have learned that I am far from alone in feeling that way. I can sit on a figurative pew in the figurative cathedral here in the back forty and watch the light streaming through the figurative stained glass with a kind of vague contentment verging on joy. I can contemplate a lady’s slipper orchid, listen to a cacophony of coyote pups or watch a black bear nosing around the lawn at dusk and feel – for lack of a better term – blessed. It’s still escape that the mind is after, though, I know that.

I’m going out again in a few minutes, but if you’re stuck inside for the day, here are a few other places worth visiting in this Neverneverland called the blogosphere.

On Tuesday, Susan of a line cast, a hope followed described a moment of near-panic in a Rite-Aid store:

My son walks over to the shelf of cars and picks up an army tank, saying something like “I don’t have this” and quickly putting it down as if he recognizes why he wouldn’t have one, and then says “I like all the Hotwheel cars” waving expansively at hundreds of tiny cars, which does not surprise me but I am feeling like I will faint if he asks me to buy him something, as the excess of the stuff in our house has loomed up in my mind to meet the cacophony of colors of baby bowling pins and Frisbees and neon pool toys and women’s Ked’s style shoes in fuschia and cobalt. Why is this bothering me now? Why doesn’t it bother anyone else? All I can see at this moment is a meaningless excess of cheap soul-stealing stuff. At home many things are broken – the fluorescent kitchen light, the garage door and siding on the south side of the house need replacing, the pond leaks, a car is dead in the driveway and requiring towing. I’ve spent the last hour talking to the repair guy about all the different ways to replace the fluorescent light with no clear answer.

In Acerbia, Abdul-Walid briefly inhabits the hell-realm known as CNN:

My mind was disturbed by the multiple layers: lies, vapid lighting, torpid commentary, mob mentality, more lies, stage-managed debate (on stem-cell research), “news”, trivial pursuits (a report about a housecat stuck in a tree in Oregon, followed by footage of fighting in Iraq), canned laughter, death dealing as entertainment, car commercials, perfect blonde hair, gleaming teeth, and even more lies.

I thought I would lose my fucking mind. A baby being held near me started crying. I must have had a crazed look on my face.

I sought refuge. I started to think of the Zen Center in Cambridge, I thought of an Arboretum in the midwest that I love, I thought of Mount Athos, I tried to still my mind with the words of Krishnamurti. I knew that, given the choice between constant exposure to the obvious insanity that is capitalism, and the mental effort it would take to pretend I actually believed in the dogma of a religious orthodoxy, I would gladly worship the Theotokos or Kuanyin.

On a more cheerful note, earlier in the week Chris at Creek Running North treated his readers to an engaging description of a canyon hike. That’s “Canyon” as in “Grand.” The ending of his five-day sojourn was, predictably, bittersweet:

On the trail in the inner canyon, especially away from Phantom, each person you meet is a welcome spark of humanity in a huge inhuman landscape. You stop, you ask if the person is comfortable and they ask you, you trade life stories and plans for the next hours of hiking, you feel a bond of sincere appreciation. Over a few days, I met a dozen folks I thought of as friends. I never learned their names.

Walk toward the rim and that diminishes. The closer you get to the ice cream trucks and gas stations, the less important it seems to cultivate those ties. Your every need is granted, assuming you have the cash. The closer you get to the rim, the more distant the strangers’ eyes become, the more your wave of greeting is seen as a startling intrusion. Mommy, what does that dirty, hairy man with the backpack want? It took me a few hours, after Cindy and I stepped triumphantly and with some wistfulness onto the Rim, to stop striking up conversations with total strangers.

The Middlewesterner continues to report on Tom and Mary’s recent drive around Iceland.

For lunch we stopped in view of another g-damn waterfall. Yeah, it has come to that. To the tourist in Iceland, the waterfall becomes as ocean is to the fish. Soon enough you just don’t notice the waterfalls. Your spirit may need them but you cannot think too much about them. You cannot process the reality of them after a while. At least that might be the case if you had grown up in the great middle flatness of the USA where even one of these throw-away falls in Iceland would be a source of great wonderment; yet eventually the sky-full of waterfalls becomes too much to comprehend.

A few days ago, Natalie of Blaugustine blogged about her visit to a maxilofacial unit’s waiting room:

A Rabbi in full mufti enters the room and sits down beside me. He immediately pulls a handsomely bound volume from a briefcase and opens it. Out of the corner of my eye I notice the large, beautifully wrought Hebrew lettering. Strangely, at that moment I am reading a chapter about the Nazis who went into hiding in Paraguay after the war. I don’t dare ask the Rabbi what is written on the page of the holy book he is absorbed in. The Rabbi and I are the only people reading in the waiting room, everyone else is staring into space.

Over at alembic, Maria describes her narrow escape from an MRI machine:

Does magnetic resonance shake up your brain? Is it like a mild version of electroshock therapy? When we came out in the sunlight on Post Street, and later, as we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin, I could have sworn everything was aglow with color. Maybe it was just that the timid poking fingers of the first summery fog withdrew into some other pocket over the Pacific….

Meanwhile, in Keene, New Hampshire, Lorianne makes some startling discoveries about her fellow inhabitants: some are

transgender hermaphrodites, starting life as male and turning female upon maturity.

And Fred First travels to Vancouver, where the locals also have some surprising customs.

Rain or shine, Vancouver BC is a city of walkers. We would look out our hotel window and see folks sitting on park benches along English Bay, no hat, no umbrella–in a heavy drizzle. Water is like a second skin for these people and to be outdoors, they think nothing of being wet. In an hour it can stop and start raining a dozen times, so you can’t really wait for ‘good’ weather to leave the house….

On one of our umbrella-walks on Sunday–our second night at the Sylvia on the west side of downtown–as we approached Stanley Park, I heard what I assumed was a chorus of frogs. The raucous calls were coming from the trees. It had to be tree frogs. I’d never heard such a dense cluster of any other invisible creature calling back and forth in great numbers; and the wet weather seemed perfect for amphibians, didn’t it? But wait. What were those manhole-cover-sized clumps of sticks in the branches–ten in this tree, half again as many in that one there? And I could see movement, but in the dismal light against the somber sky, it could have been anything. Anything but frogs….

Finally, in the cassandra pages, Beth – like Susan in the essay quoted above – writes about Allergic Reactions.

The past few days I’ve felt crummy: I’ve had a bad headache from, I think, my usual spring time allergies: the dark side of all those blossoms. But it’s also from too much stress, too much breathing-in of the suffering that goes on around me and the impossibility of finding solutions. I wish I could just hate it and push it away; dismiss without compassion the woman barking at her child. But what made her that way? As much as I despise a world in which beautiful dark-eyed girls end up begging on city streets and small boys, bribed with fast food, learn early to cherish the fat-drenched moment when the unhappiness around them seems to abate, I’m unable to find release either in judgmentalism or escapism. As Merton said, we’re meant to hold both the dark and the light. I wish it were easier.

Now I really need a walk.