Confessions of a semi-professional misanthrope

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1. I would’ve liked to be a charlatan, to cure the incurable despite myself & the spooky footlights that would’ve come & gone, turning my cheeks into sudden caverns. I could’ve learned how to capture & breed the small mice of fear. I’d have had a riverboat & floated upstream on the tide, under the sycamores. I’d have told each client to be patient while I made a careful, horizontal incision all around the skin of a pomegranate, then eased it open, revealing who knows what mucilaginous gossip to feed an infinitely malleable appetite for lies.

2. The woman at the cookout says things that no one believes, not even us strangers. She tells us she’s already eaten. She says she & her husband are leaving the United States for some place civilized, some place where more of the people think the way they do, keep their needs within bounds. The campfire makes her young husband’s eyebrows dance like an elf’s; even his smile is eldritch. Her own smile is extremely brief, like an involuntary twitch she has labored to suppress. We talk about music & the pleasures of silence. “I have to have something on all the time when I’m alone,” she says softly. “I guess I don’t like my own company very much.” The night grows cool & the firewood quickly runs out. Everyone gets up to leave, bowing to each other’s silhouette in the darkness & expressing mutual gratitude, warm regards.

3. Call it natural sound if you want, I said, or call it silence: more & more, this is the soundtrack of pleasure for me. I hear music whether I want to or not. Thoughts rise to the surface & burst, pretty little bubbles. I stand outside in the middle of the driveway until my freshly barbered head grows cold. Above, the usual glitter. I try to imagine all the busy little lives going on underground, in the forest litter or in hollow trees. I go back in my house & shut both doors as quietly as I can. If this is loneliness, my friends, it tastes delicious!

4. I do enjoy the company of my fellow misanthropes – preferably one at a time. And on rare occasions when I’m drunk I play loud music to cancel out the unaccustomed roar inside my head.

5. I am still haunted by stories of those child soldiers forced at gunpoint to execute their own parents, then fed a steady diet of drugs & made to rape other children until acts of violence came to seem as natural & urgent as eating, or voiding the bowels. Their leader was a portly, ebullient man who taught them how to cut off the hands of villagers without killing them. At first, the idea was to prevent them from voting or defending themselves, but the children took to it with a special relish – and who am I, said Papa Sankoh, to deny them their pay? From hands they branched out to feet, ears, lips – all of the body’s most delicate instruments. If one cannot go to war against love itself, surely this was the next best thing.

6. Horror movies bore me. They’re like elaborate practical jokes we play upon ourselves. The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out – flaccid penises that suck rather than spurt, vaginas with teeth. Big deal. I’d rather hear about the woman who married a bear, or why coyote’s eyes are yellow. Tell me about the time a snake almost swallowed the sun.

7. The brown tree snake in Guam. Kudzu in the American South. Nightcrawlers in the North Woods. These are only the most catastrophic of our slithering doppelgangers. Upon thy belly… Dust thou shalt eat… I will put enmity between thee and the woman. Who are we to deny the Lord His pay?

8. Beetles by the hundreds & the thousands, coming out of the walls. They crawl everywhere. I brush them from my beard, the back of my neck. Sometimes they bite. By the end of the winter, the house reeks of them. In my dreams, the floor heaves & cracks with their huddled masses. In their native Asia they winter in white cliffs; here, a white house or barn draws them like a beacon. Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home! But they are far more than just a nuisance. Some entomologists believe that dozens of ladybird beetle species native to the eastern United States have already gone extinct, unable to compete – their numbers too low, their habits insufficiently aggressive.

9. We have met the enemy, and he is us. We have. He is. This is authentic horror, the only kind that will matter in the end.

10. Call me Ishmael, then. I am a charlatan; how could it be otherwise? But better that, I say, than the unconscious & unconscionable sorcery of markets & bosses. Follow me, & we will both be lost – I promise. Salvation exists in the present or it doesn’t exist. We will thirst forever.

Death: letters

I found this child’s glove on the lawn after the snow melted. I’m not sure where it came from. We don’t get trick-or-treaters here.

A is for Absence, which we are unable to imagine for ourselves but all too ready to visit upon the world.

B is for Bones, which grow and break and knit themselves back together, but mercifully do not feel.

C is for Carcass, or Carcase – in either case, the body turned into burden, a dead weight.

D is (of course) for Death, which we can only understand by reference to life, which we cannot understand at all: thus, it is a mystery of the second degree and not the first.

E is for Eater, or Earth, which rhymes with mirth for no particular reason.

F is for Fate, curator of retrospectives.

G is for God or Gangster, Google or Ganges, Gog or Gag.

H is for Hell, which used not to be so Hot before the Christians conquered it and turned it into a penal colony.

I is for Iconoclast – the most precise job description for Death that I can think of.

J is for Jack and Jill, who went looking for water in high places rather than in low, and suffered the consequences.

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I almost stepped on this doe skeleton down in the marshy corner of the field yesterday – probably a winter kill from 2004.

K is for Knack, the one thing we can neither take with us nor pass on, as Zhuangzi noted.

L is for Languor, which seeks to escape but manages merely to omit.

M is for Motive, without which Murder is truly a Mystery.

N is for Narcotic: henbane, thornapple, belladonna – plants that remind us that death is a form of ecstasy.

O is for something Other than what you think.

P is for Post or Pillory, the original way to spread news both Public and Personal, where all letters arrive marked current resident.

Q is for Query, a kind of minimized Question that permits a sleight-of-hand substitution of words for bodily presence.

R is for Return, a logical impossibility (see Heraclitus).

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Also yesterday, I found this dead fish in the woods. There are no live fish on the mountain. All I can figure is that a passing osprey dropped it.

S is for Snake – or rather, S is a snake, whose hiss must be one of our favorite sounds. It makes the blood race in our snaky veins.

T is for Test, a Terror-ridden, Terrible justification for child sacrifice, both in Abraham’s time and in our own.

U is for Uncle, the ugly one that children make other children call them, on pain of death.

V is for Vault, a place to store money or bones.

W is for Want and for Worm: the price of admission, regardless of the show.

X is for X – anything you want (see W). It signals openness and cancellation both, a friendly kiss and a pornographic rating.

Y is for Youth, when immortality and tragedy both seem possible.

Z is for Zest, the merest smidgen of which is proof against Zero.

Life: sentences

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She had stood too still for too long in the clothing store window, and found that now she couldn’t even shift her weight to the other foot without frightening the customers, who weren’t necessarily paying close attention but who did know the difference between art, which is immobile, and its pale imitators that insist on moving, bulging, sagging, wrinkling – looking for life, so to speak, in all the wrong places.

It was always the same April that came around to raise up the same clumps of daffodils and pry their petals open for the same refreshing breeze, I figured the old dog statue might be thinking, ignoring for a moment the new hairline cracks the winter left behind and the fresh flakes of paint furring his haunches.

An amazing coincidence, really, she said, that in Spanish el bis, the encore, and Elvis, the singer, are homonyms – not to mention that in English you can rearrange the letters of the King’s name to get lives, Levis – which he sometimes wore – and evils, which he battled in his own bloated way, enthroned on a golden crapper.

After a while, even sunflowers grow tired of craning their necks, and that entire motley field ended up with heads bowed, facing the dark and unremarkable earth, so that they did not see the bear come out of the woods to eat and smash and roll on his back for delight among the stripped stalks.

With the clumsy puzzlement of a minor prophet carrying two smooth pebbles in his mouth, he was unable to explain those spectacular failures of the eyebrow to rise in the east and the toenail to metamorphose into something with an insatiable hunger for tunnels.

But what faith hasn’t taken its cues from the living body, I wonder, thinking of bell tower and stupa, grotto and lingam, remembering labyrinths engraved on the pads of fingers, twin doves in the thighs, the spine’s vertiginous ladder: smiling now at the scandal of it, how all roads led to a rose tattoo just below the navel, that stingless bee.

A herd of goats stood in the branches of a thorn tree as if to take the place of leaves they had eaten, the shade they had banished to their tough stomachs, the perpendicular light that must have tasted a bit like dust blown from the cover of a book too large to fit in the shelf with all the paperbacks, a book of photos meant to be paged through and nibbled at rather than actually read – a book specifically designed for guests such as I am now, sipping my coffee, stroking the hairs on my chin.

What all these hip bohemian kids are too young to remember, he told us, is the way one used to see black shawls and dresses in every square, black in the long coats of the police, black ties and belts and suspenders on men in ordinary restaurants, black rooks and lines of ants that came to pick everything clean and carry off the sugar, black even in your one maybe glimpse of garters against, you know – the very word, let alone the stark sight, remained off-limits still, I think, for two or three years beyond the death of that son of a whore, the president-for-life.

Problems with “if”

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Show your work.

If a human being dies in the city, and there’s no tree to absorb its dying breath, does it make a death rattle?

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If love is blind, why don’t blind people wear see-through lingerie?

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If you can keep your head in brine for a fortnight, will it stop the voices?

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If they toss a coin and neither team calls it, does everyone get to go home?

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If you love somebody, set them free. If they don’t come back, set yourself free. If you don’t come back, can I still crash in your garage?

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If wishes were horses, could dead wishes be rendered into enough glue to stick all the broken dreams back together?

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If every dog has its day and every day is the first day of the rest of your life, does this necessarily imply that you should spend the rest of your life sniffing crotches?

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If a pound of feathers weighs as much as a pound of lead, and if clocks had feather pendulums, would time still fly?

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If at first you don’t succeed, and you know that your chance of success on each subsequent try remains completely unaffected by that outcome, wouldn’t it make more sense to spend your last lucky penny on a gumdrop?

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If a module met a unit coming through the rye, would anyone sing about it?

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If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me for a quarter, how many quarters would I have to give away before I had enough money to endow a chair in Applied Autopoiesis?

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If homeless mimes inhabit invisible rooms, how do you know where to wipe your feet?

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If you never had second thoughts, and you were traveling at the speed of light, how would you be able to tell yourself apart from God?

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If I had my way, to whom would I give it back when I was done with it?

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If there really were One True Way, how many turning lanes would it have to have?

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If a hundred monkeys typed at a hundred typewriters, and only one key worked on each typewriter, how long would it take them to use up all the paper?

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If you’re lost in the rain in Juarez, and it’s not a Bob Dylan song, either, and the raindrops keep falling farther apart, but you decide to walk more quickly, do you still get just as wet?

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If x=2, doesn’t that take all the fun out of it?

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If you had one match, a cup of water, a mirror, a pair of chopsticks and a stopwatch, how long would it take it you to think up a conundrum that involved all these things and nothing extra?

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If two cannibals fell in love with the same woman, couldn’t they just eat each other’s heart out?

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If carrots help you see in the dark, do eggplants help you see underwater?

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If Fate and Opportunity both knocked on wood at the same time, what would it sound like from underneath the table?

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If I were you, wouldn’t that be weird?

Two legs at noon: new poem-like things

I want to give myself back to myself, I thought, sitting on the porch at dawn & watching the dark details slowly filling in between the scattered patches of white, which, among all possible fallen things, I suspect will once again turn out to be nothing but snow.


My first published poem in years & they fucked it up, printing double spaces between the lines. And they’re short lines, too. I’m amazed by how well they manage to bear the burden of their isolation. My words have never seemed so measured before. They pick their way over the page on herons’ feet.


Along with What do you do? & Where are you from? I would like to ask each new acquaintance, What do you grieve for? Because I have this hunch that everyone clutches a portion of the self-same grief. We give it endearing names, as culture & circumstance may dictate. Our male or female nipples ache to give it suck.


I remember sitting under, inside, encircled – surrounded by her, as ripples in a pond surround a water-strider, rowing the skinny boat of his fish-bait body to & fro.


After a day spent hunched over a keypad, to stand outside in my slippers looking at the moon seems wholly fatuous. How does taking this in for a few minutes make up for everything I have failed to witness? The calendar on my computer tells me to expect a full moon, so I wait for the clouds to thin & the trees to grow shadows as they should. In the space of ten minutes, my front yard expands to an enormous size. The calendar on my computer says it’s Good Friday. Resist the urge to pray long enough & the sweetness will rise & spread to your outermost branches.


Easter Sunday: thick fog, dark shapes of redwing blackbirds in the walnut trees, all calling at once. They drown out the song sparrows, the robins, even the creek. It’s the auditory equivalent of a rolling boil: the overtones rise & burst, rise & burst.


Whichever direction I walk, the fog keeps its distance. It reminds me of driving in certain parts of the Midwest where trees are spread just thickly enough to make one swear there must be a forest on the horizon. Here, the woods are never far. A pileated woodpecker drums & cackles. This corner of the field where plow & mower have been absent the longest has the highest concentration of ant mounds & small mammal burrows. Leave land alone long enough & it will grow – not in acreage, perhaps, but certainly in surface area. Its dreams are no longer yours. They multiply, re-drawing the horizon. Like a girl turning into her own woman – a rarer thing than it should be in this over-farmed world.


The snow lingers on old logging roads & on the weather side of abandoned plow lines. On a clear day in the middle of March one can see such scars on wooded hillsides from miles away. But today we’re socked in with fog; I keep my eyes on the damp leaves beneath my feet. Here & there I can make out drag trails from last fall’s hunting season, tufts of white hair from a deer’s belly.


Coyote shit always lies parallel to the direction of the trail. Here’s a case in point: three hairy gray turds side by side, half caterpillar, half pupa. Remember this if you’re ever lost in the woods. As much as its priorities may differ from ours, a coyote can be trusted to follow a straight line for miles.


Orange on the ridgetop where a porcupine has chewed the bark off a fallen red oak tree, limb & branch. Orange in the Far Field where my father always mows the same path with his tractor, a stripe of broom sedge through the gray-brown mess of old goldenrod.


Fifty feet off the trail, a tree drops a limb just to see if I’m paying attention. I am now.


Winter-bleached leaves on a stand of beech saplings hang tip-down, curled like funnels, holding moisture for no good reason I can think of. When the wind starts up they drop it all at once. I hear the patter from around the bend & picture things running – yet another harmless conclave broken up by the approach of a human being, two legs at noon.

Crane fly

“I feel as if I’ve said pretty much all I have to say,” I said, & then felt the opposite.


Why I like being a writer: every morning it’s back to square one, just as if you’ve never written a single line.


An enormous crane fly is sitting in the middle of the ceiling above my writing table, as if it weren’t the middle of winter & the so-called law of gravity didn’t apply.


For a really good starter, my friend told me, use nothing but wild yeast & feed it only on the most refined flour.


From going too long without talking, I had grown contentious. Evolution and progress have nothing in common, I said as the new subdivisions sped by.


Are children still allowed to go off in the woods by themselves & play with old bones?


“Night soil” is such an evocative euphemism! It was, of course, neither soil nor the exclusive product of nighttime visits to the outhouse. But people liked to think of it in a kind of future perfect tense, with the carts already having made their nocturnal rounds, the composting over, the fields heavy with the harvest.


The absence of leaves in the winter woods is felt most keenly by a boy walking home from school with a runny nose who is tired of being made fun of all the time for using the sleeve of his coat.


Jello never stays still – the nine-year-old girl explains to her little sister – because it’s made from wild horses that they catch out west.


Every creature follows its own route to dissolution; to generalize is to bludgeon it with a gray & implacable Death.


I would like to tempt Fate, but first I have to figure out just what she finds most tempting.


All day yesterday the noise from the interstate came over the ridge so loudly that I didn’t want to leave the house. In any case, it was raining. The patches of bare ground grew & merged. Little clouds of mist kept rising off the remaining patches of snow & hurrying away toward the quiet farm valley to the east.


The picturesque village survived the 20th Century with everything intact except for its link to bygone days, which were never as picturesque as they seem to be now.


Post-traumatic stress is not a disorder, I’m thinking; it is the working heart’s response to the profoundest kind of disorder. We drive ourselves as if we were horses, but our bodies are more like camels, or stubborn donkeys. The rider sits facing the tail & berates the poor beast for running in the wrong direction.


My stomach mutters breakfast, breakfast, breakfast until it begins to sound like the purest poem.


I am that man in the little crooked house that you heard all about when you were small.


I am attached to this half-broken plastic wall clock in the same way that a hair might persist in sprouting from the tip of a beautiful woman’s otherwise perfect nipple.


When she was sick & couldn’t get out of bed, I remember holding a tissue to her nose & telling her to blow.


If I saw them again, those flowers with their unknown names would doubtless prompt the same mysterious yearnings.


In the blues, they used to talk about working from sun to sun, as if the sharecropper’s day were just another, larger portion of darkness.


Even with the Andes, even with the Himalayas, this world would be smoother than the youngest lover’s cheek to any humungous deity’s figurative touch.


Suppose the morning star hadn’t been there to return his suddenly penetrating gaze – would the Buddha’s right hand simply have kept sinking deeper & deeper into the earth?


When I stepped out into the cold fog at dawn, a bluebird was singing.

Bad maxims

Caustic cynicism, anyone?

1. You create your own reality. Re-write history to eliminate your rivals and give yourself all the starring roles.

2. If not you, someone else then. If not now, whenever. It’ll get done. If it doesn’t, well, it probably didn’t matter all that much in the first place.

3. Live in the past. That way, you’ll never have to worry about being surprised.

4. If at first you don’t succeed, hit the government up for more subsidies.

5. It’s not who wins or loses, it’s whether we all get to taunt the losers.

6. Power corrupts. But if nothing ever corrupted, we’d be up to our ears in shit and corpses.

7. Cleanliness is next to chemical allergies, birth defects and senility.

8. Eat the poor. They’re 90% fat-free!

9. It is better never to have loved at all than to have loved and lost your dignity. So suck it up, you big baby. Repression works.

10. Real men don’t ask for help. If things get bad, you can always talk to Jesus.

11. If you meet the Buddha, tell him to give me a call. He still owes me $25 bucks.

12. It’s not the goal, it’s the journey. Especially when you’re lost.

13. You can sleep when you’re dead. Be sure your grieving loved ones spend at least $3000 for a really comfortable casket.

14. A friend in need is fine, but probably isn’t the best person to go out drinking with.

15. If you put all your eggs in one basket, you can save lots of money on heat lamps.

16. A stitch in time is bad for the economy. Throw it out, already!

17. I’m O.K., you’re O.K. It’s those other people who are fucking things up.

18. First thing we do, let’s kill all the murderers.

19. Misery loves company. Specifically, the Frito-Lay Company, makers of Fritos, Cheetos, Doritos, Tostitos, Ruffles and Lay’s brand snack chips. Frito-Lay.TM Food for the fun of it!TM

20. Before doing X, always ask yourself, “What would happen if everyone did X?” If the answer is, “Cataclysmic war and social chaos, leading to the rapid extinction of most higher life forms,” then it’s probably a pretty good way to turn a profit.

21. Some people see things as they are and ask, “Why?” Some people dream of things that never were and ask, “Why not?” If you know either of these kinds of people, please call the Department of Homeland Security’s toll-free hotline.

22. When the going gets tough, remind yourself that countless generations before you have faced these very same problems. And now they’re all dead.

Comparative religion: a brief exercise

Jesus wept.
Sarah laughed.
Gautama touched the ground.

The Messiah came, and is expected to return.
The Messiah will come when all hearts are ready, when all minds have turned.
The future Buddha is still a bodhisattva, but you can visualize him as a Buddha in the present if it helps.

With God, all things are possible.
With God, all things are possible except the forgiveness that only the person you have wronged can give.
With bodhi-mind, all things are as they are: impossible.

Consulting the Mirror

When I look into a mirror, I look at the enemy.
— Darryl Strawberry

Look: the mirror lies.

Not only because it switches sides, but because it doesn’t redeem.

True, it accuses; it judges, yes. For certain, it condemns.

A face’s truest reflection is in moving water: another face.

And the body? The body shines too. Its only true mirror is the body of another.

If I fall in love with a narcissist, am I too condemned?

We say the face of the earth, but never the face of the sky.

If I fall in love with the blue of heaven, who will redeem me then?

What does it mean to make a face?

Why is the straight man essential to the joke?

When you hold one mirror up to another, why doesn’t the world go dark?