Reflection

burning some old barn
beams for fuel

the 19th-century knots
pop like pistols

and my train of thought
goes off the rails

forlornly blowing
its figurative whistle

into a night bright
with fallen snow

we’re all fugitives
from the present moment

in our distracted states
of america

no wonder it takes gunshots
to wake us up

i hear footsteps
in the kitchen

and find myself
in the bathroom mirror

happy to dwell
in this icy stillness

it’s the future
i’d like to escape

a choose-your-own-
doom story

we picture as a shining city
on a hill which once

might have been more
like a mountain

Beyond Belief

ravens have come to out-
number crows here

so we have fewer murders
but more odd cries and gurgling

the October sun glows
in a dull white institutional sky

but in the small hours
how the stars had glittered

Taurus’ V was no bovine face
but a wolf sharp with purpose

clear antagonist
to the well-hung hunter

while Astarte the morning star
had gone over to the morning—

stories to convert a sky
into the heavens

even beyond belief
to be at home in it

this cold milk
curdling overhead

On Pilgrimage

a morning-fresh aroma
from the compost
steaming in the cool air

i descend the mountain
just so i can climb it
yet again

through fog
as soft as the moss
acorns clattering down

the sun’s already out
in the valley for
the annual farm show

and above the gap
the first broad-winged
hawks of the day

spiral high around
a column of rising heat
then hurtle south

while a long rumbling
line of tractors
snakes through the fields

they used to say
rogation was good
for the crops

even bullshit walks
on six legs
bit by bit into the earth

***

Another day, another poem. Thanks to my brother Mark for the bird info and the Sinking Valley Facebook page for the farm show info. Rogation was/is a Catholic ritual with parallels in folk religions around the world, a form of annual pilgrimage in which a priest leads a procession of local residents in a circuit of the fields.

Basket Case

No one, when he has lit a lamp, puts it in a secret place or under a basket, but on a lampstand, that those who come in may see the light.
Luke 11:33

1.

night forest restless with autumn
and insect chants

the sound of distant drums
from band practice

overhead the dark canopy
glittering with stars

a train horn’s one-of-a-kind chord
returns me to myself

under an old mother oak
wind paging through the leaves

before moonrise in a woods
as dark as a womb

2.

look what the moon has done
with borrowed light

recycled from that workhorse
with its quotidian round

a light that savors
instead of swallowing whole

oh little white pill
what visions will you precipitate

so this tendril of wakefulness
can corkscrew inward

a reverse heliotropism toward
whatever resists illumination

the unexamined life
like volcanic glass

lightweight and porous
a stone that floats

God of Wednesday

A picture-stone from Gotland believed to depict Odin (top right) receiving sacrifices (photo by Elena on Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND)

sacrifice yourself to your self
that ruthless cabal

and of course you’ll call it
wisdom won’t you

with birds of slaughter
muttering into your ears

father of frenzy and panic
poetry and the unspeakable

i saw your red eye
glimmering through the night

and a sudden fear
floated up like ice

what’s changed since the death
of your death cult

wolves and bears have dwindled
into plush toys

doom is called
by new names

your day has worn down
to a barren hump

***

Note: I stole the title from author Nancy Marie Brown’s excellent blog about Iceland and Old Norse-related things.

Star attraction

If I ran a movie review site, nothing would get more than one star. Movies would compete for fractions of a star.

Times are lean. We could run out of stars.

No one could afford to live under such a dark sky. They’d go mad with loneliness.

I saw another fireball the other night. Spend time under the stars and you see things: fish, a bull, a hunter, you name it. It’s so liberating to realize thanks to modern astronomy that the universe isn’t about us.

That said, there is a gas giant in my guest bedroom. My older brother can’t help his stature or intestinal difficulties. In his religion, everyone gets their own universe someday—a classic Ponzi scheme if you ask me. But what if it’s true?

I think the opposite is more likely the case: everything is drifting farther and farther apart, into an ever emptier void. You can already see it happening. People have that distance in their eyes.

the high inhuman
shriek of a dying rabbit
4th quarter moon

(via Twitter)

***

Finally got a good look at the pair of red-breasted nuthatches who’ve been hanging out in the spruce grove all year, according to my younger brother, and presumably nesting. Like the red squirrel i got a good look at yesterday, they were right near Dad’s grave. The spot is beginning to feel a bit magical, I have to say. Currently there’s a bit of fresh rain-water in the reflecting rock. I’m sitting on the bench listening to the stuttering calls of Linne’s cicadas, “a steady pulsating rattle sounding like a saltshaker” as the Songs of Insects website puts it. They outnumber dog-day cicadas now, of which I’m hearing just two—that buzz-saw whine. I’m also hearing what sound like falling acorns, a very hopeful sign.

***

In my poetry i want to write about nature without breathlessness. Don’t know whether i always succeed. Sharing new poetry on social media is an essential part of my probably Quixotic quest to normalize talking about wildflower sightings and wildlife encounters in the same way people post about the latest books or movies they’ve consumed.

I suppose in time I’ll end up creating a personal iconography of favourite species and other natural phenomena, licensed by the ubiquity of the smart phone and modern search engines—hardly any reference is too obscure anymore. For all that the internet has diminished attention spans, it does still expand access to layers of context that previously would’ve escaped all but the most knowledgeable of readers.

***

Successful ideologies are those that promise more than they can deliver. That way their adherents are never forced to answer for their beliefs. Evangelical conservatism may soon be dead as a political force because its adherents actually achieved one of their main goals, and everyone else is horrified.

***

Somewhere in the world right now a 90-pound weakling is sitting beside a hotel pool writing an epic novel and a 300-pound man in a tiny basement apartment is sweating over a haiku.

Hot Planet Summer

Realizing that one of the things I really like about Facebook and Instagram is the mundanity of much of the content. As far outside the mainstream as I am in how I occupy my time and what I like to read and think about, it’s useful to be reminded of normal things that people do, such as attend sporting events, cook on backyard grills, dance to music that nobody loves but almost everyone can tolerate, go on family vacations, etc. Especially at this point in my life, when I know that everyone else is just winging it, too, and that some of the most organized-seeming people are also the most terrified. (And considering the state of the world, if you’re not terrified, I don’t know what to tell you.)

Normality seems precious, now. Many actively debate its existence. I want to commit as much as of it as possible to memory. What we were like. How beautiful the planet still was.

***

mosquito wading
through my arm hair
her caress

stump water
a jake-braking truck’s
thunderous stutter

roadside diner
a vulture walks the last
few feet

stick insect
the wings you can’t grow
would be so green

mossy log
an old lightning strike’s
glossy char

***

How many times can an axis mundi be destroyed before the concept of the sacred becomes completely nonsensical? In the book of death all will be unwritten, but in the name of Life. Those who pray for the end of time and champion the destruction of the planet claim to speak for the unborn. For whom do you claim to speak?

The smell of smoke

I used to love watching Londoners watch the moonrise. At such times, a metropolis can feel like a village; strangers may actually find themselves having spontaneous conversations in one of the most uptight places on earth. The famous views become even more instagrammable: Let no one drink alone with the moon ever again! And the dogs running off-lead in the park, rolling ecstatically in the grass wherever a vixen had sprayed her scent.

open moon—
someone’s fingertip making
a wine glass sing

***

lyrics for an imaginary pop song

eyes on
her wing bones
hot tattoo summer

the voyeur finds
his gaze thwarted
by skin turned screen

close your eyes
and see more
with augmented reality

pay no attention
to the smell of smoke
behind the curtain

***

Ridgetop cellar hole for a collier’s hut. Two hundred years ago, this mountain was a smoking ruin.

An oak that started growing about that time.

Another oak that started growing about that time. Not too long ago, it seemed sturdy enough to get married under. Sic transit gloria mundi.

The charcoal fed the forge in the gap; the forgeman might’ve seen the mountain before it was entirely denuded. It was he and his family who settled it when clearcutting made it affordable. I suspect it had been a place of wet meadows and rhododendron thickets where forge workers liked to go on picnics, gather ginseng and sassafras, go hunting, etc.—a backyard wilderness even as devastated as it was.

***

A click beetle lands in my lap and seems unable to escape, given its strategy of trying to, I guess, freak predators out by snapping its body several inches in the air—and landing right back in the same spot. I take pity on it after six or seven clicks and give it a flick.

Whippoorwill, crickets, an occasional katydid. The moon isn’t due up for… a while. As for me, I’m going down to the house and up to bed.

Bad Snufkin, butterfly battle, saved by the privy

mourning cloak butterflies facing off

My interior monologue: I don’t get why people still need mythic archetypes. Are we really so shallow?

Five minutes later: Let’s be honest, you’re still just a Moomintroll who longs to be Snufkin.

And that felt like a pretty solid insight, you know?

The moral of the story: Be sure to expose your children to the Moomin books—they’re pretty great.

There’s much more I could say on all of this but I’m currently (evening of June 28) chasing the sunset up a steep hillside. Which is absolutely not a metaphor for anything.

*

I understand the need for sacred theatre, i.e. ritual, around major life events—especially death, when the survivors are the most earnest in their need to behave as if a truer but less tangible reality exists in which total annihilation can be overcome or evaded somehow.

*

hot tub
laid bare in the woods
a junkie’s pale face

(via Woodrat photohaiku)

*

My interior monologue is heavily laced with sarcasm. I suppose that’s a Gen X thing. (Yes, of course you do. That’s the kind of sophisticated analysis you’re known for.)

Perfectly healthy, I’m sure.

***

“If everyone just thought like me, the world would be a better place” is a hallmark of both imperialism and fanaticism — in fact, they summon each other up, I think.

This is not idle philosophical speculation. Most left-wing revolutions turn repressive because fundamentally the revolutionaries are either too fanatical to accept that there will always be dissent, or too callous to care.

***

The forest is full of mourning cloak butterflies with pristine-looking wings: the new generation has just turned into adults. They will likely be aestivating soon, but in the meantime they’re defending territories in the woods.

I watched two mourning cloaks battling for several minutes on the side of an oak this afternoon. Since tree sap is their main source of food, perhaps this tree is especially good tasting. They used front and middle feet to bat at each other; mouthparts didn’t seem to be involved, and wings only a little. Here’s a brief video of the very end of the fight:

watch on Vimeo

***

Bushwhacking through a Pennsylvania state forest, it’s impossible to stay lost for long. My first sign that a road was near, this morning, was a hunting camp privy. As is so often the case.

At one scenic overlook, a memorial to someone who leapt to his death. I actually remember this. I was a Penn State undergrad at the time.

Someone had spray-painted “no fear” on the retaining wall-like structure:

*

I remember my parents pointing out a “lovers’ leap” place on some family trip when I was a little kid, and how baffled I was. If romance made people jump to their deaths, it struck me as something best avoided.

*

Some trails are notional—made through bushwhacking.

Some trails are roads.

Some trails are the spines of mountains.

And some Snufkins go for a wander primarily to get a new perspective on where they live.

Tell me we’re fucked without telling me we’re fucked

In American poetry as in our ordinary discourse, a kind of positivism reigns supreme, using language to expose, explore, and extract meaning. We bring this mentality to haiku in English and are thwarted, because in Japanese culture, language is considered to be such an inadequate vessel for conveying true thoughts/feelings that what isn’t said becomes at least as important as what is. (This is the point at which my own attempt to master Japanese faltered, as a young man in love with a certain style of discursive conversation. What’s the point of learning a language if you can never use it for robust arguments about ideas? I said to myself then.)

Haiku with its wealth of off-the-shelf natural imagery (kigo) represents an attempt to enlarge the overall cultural vocabulary for human feelings, which are considered much more recondite than most WYSIWYG Americans tend to admit. Suggestion and concision in haiku, tanka, etc., more than just arbitrary restrictions intended to spur inventiveness, represent openings for interpretive possibilities that require sensitivity and creativity to parse. So for American poets the challenge becomes “tell me X without telling me X”—a currently popular online meme formula. But rather than jokey photos, we work with two images or observations, a main one and a subsidiary one, joined by a semantic break in an almost kintsugi kind of way, mindful of the gap itself. According to the aesthetic values of Edo-period Japan, which still hold sway in traditional arts and crafts, in kintsugi “such ‘ugliness’ was considered inspirational and Zen-like, as it connoted beauty in broken things.” This wabi/sabi aesthetic finds parallels in a number of countercultural currents in the West, from Medieval monasticism and the whole Christian embrace of poverty and brokenness to the disruptive force of Eliot’s The Wasteland, and provides I believe the most reliable bridge between two otherwise quite different understandings of the limits and purpose of language..


There have been five upheavals over the past 450 million years when the environment on our planet has changed so dramatically that the majority of Earth’s plant and animal species became extinct. After each mass extinction, evolution has slowly filled in the gaps with new species.

The sixth mass extinction is happening now, but this time the extinctions are not being caused by natural disasters; they are the work of humans. A team of researchers from Aarhus University and the University of Gothenburg has calculated that the extinctions are moving too rapidly for evolution to keep up.

If mammals diversify at their normal rates, it will still take them 5-7 million years to restore biodiversity to its level before modern humans evolved, and 3-5 million years just to reach current biodiversity levels, according to the analysis, which was published recently in the prestigious scientific journal, PNAS.

Mammals cannot evolve fast enough to escape current extinction crisis

The brokenness of the world is far more urgent than it was in Basho’s day. If we don’t mind the gaps, they will soon swallow us and all our art and culture, because a world without beasts, a world where the immense creative power and resilience of nature are hidden for millions of years, is a world without poetry.


dancing flames—
a ruby-throated hummingbird
here and gone​

(via Woodrat Photohaiku)


There’s one wood thrush here with a markedly less pleasant song than the others. It’s sort of flat and minor key, and while still musically more interesting than most songbirds, simply does not meet the high standard set for wood thrushes. This thrush’s performances feel perfunctory, even dialed in. Two and a half stars.


I wonder whether I’d be more concerned about my legacy as a poet if I had planted fewer trees?