Mothers’ Day Psalm

yours is the thorn that suckles us
the marsupial pouch in which we play king of the hill

yours is the rare orchid appointed
to a moth no one has ever seen

yours the corals whose cities shone
like nothing from a planning committee

and yours the epidemics the cancers the blights
a creativity as limitless as time and space

oh Nature soften the hearts
of all your little pharoahs
so we don’t have to overthrow them

and let those who insist you must be male
give birth through their penises

Worship Services

blogging as if it’s 2003 again

Imagine venerating something you don’t understand.

Imagine venerating anything you do understand.

*

Nothing and nobody needs or deserves veneration. Every living being deserves the care and respect you’d extend to your own kin.

*

What’s the difference between respect and veneration? Showing respect is part of a social dance; the consideration you show to another mirrors the consideration you hope they show to you. This is essential to the harmonious functioning of society. Veneration is tantamount to worship. It presumes a lowering of the head and a bending of the knee. Of course there are powers unimaginably greater than us that may inspire fear or awe. Groveling in the dirt does nothing to help our understanding, not to mention being a terrible basis for a relationship.

*

We do need sacred places—and by sacred, I mean inviolate. Sovereign. Wild. Such places are essential checks on human pride, reminders that reality itself is beyond our everyday knowing, and that only through meditation, prayer, or absorption into the flow of creation (e.g. by sketching or composing poems), can we have any hope of reintegrating with the cosmos.

***

Any contemporary theological system must take into account new findings about genes and cells and the microbiome. It might for example stress that we have inherited things via gene transfer from beings other than our ancestors; that symbiosis more than competition tends to be how disparate creatures interact; and that we each contain a wilderness vital to our health. I mean, for starters.

Now we are twenty

A war of imperialist aggression, sold to a credulous and bloodthirsty public as just desserts for their attack on us, prompts feelings of helplessness and despair in everyone who sees through the lies — the mainstream media has been so captured or bought off. Fortunately, a new independent media seems to be emerging online. Perhaps there we can make some kind of difference.

That was the state of affairs in 2003, when Via Negativa was born—20 years ago today! I had started posting things to a static website at the beginning of the year, but soon tired of having to email a list of friends every time I published something new. And rather than start yet another contentious political web log, I was determined to go against the flow and blog quietly and briefly, and possibly not about politics at all, because what do I really have to add to that conversation? In a post titled Caveat emptor, I said

I’m hoping this format, which favors shorter expressions, will encourage precision. Unbloggerlike, I want to write not the way I talk but in a slightly more controlled fashion. Most important, to write in anticipation of response, and therefore to leave quite a bit unsaid.

It took a few years to figure out that Via Negativa would mainly feature poetry. I was determined not to get drawn into the kind of poetry blogging that animated people like Ron Silliman, whose comment threads were nasty slugfests about things I had zero interest in. Life is too short for arguments about matters of taste, in my view. Though I always enjoyed Ron’s tilting at the windmills of mainstream mediocrity. Silliman regularly pilloried the fundamental silliness of academic poetry fashions in a way any outsider could appreciate.

But as a ‘poet of quietude’ myself, it’s not really fair to call me an outsider. More like an inside-outer. Not unlike my co-blogger here since 2010, Luisa Igloria, who’s paid her dues in a way I never have with public roles as a teacher, mentor, department head, etc., despite being I think an even more private person than me.

Of course, few if any poets are true insiders in American society. I for one am grateful for our cultural insignificance, as I watch poets being jailed or assassinated abroad. Besides, ‘How dreary to be somebody…’

But the most unconventional thing we both do, as American poets, is insist upon blogging our first drafts for all to see, rather than hiding them away so they won’t lose their publication virginity and become ineligible for publishing anywhere else. Literary critics appear to go out of their way to avoid acknowledging that writers’ blogs even exist, which is a bit bizarre, considering the prominent place of epistolary literature in the canon. Somehow despite this stain, Luisa has continued to place manuscripts with publishers, and even got selected as poet laureate for the state of Virginia, which I like to joke is all down to Via Negativa and our legions of loyal readers. And online publishing is central to the very existence of my Pepys Diary erasure project, drawing as it does on a popular site from the first wave of blogging, now in its third cycle.

I asked Luisa if she had any thoughts. Here’s what she wrote:

There’s something about the idea of “negative capability” which I equate with “via negativa,” or the process of figuring out something through an exploration of what it’s not. Poetry works in the same register of mystery and the unknown, kind of like how reading Via Negativa often provides the spark of an idea for writing toward what I didn’t think I even knew a moment ago. Congratulations on the 20th year of Via Negativa, Dave! So glad it exists; and, thanks to you, that I found my way here.

And it’s thanks to Luisa, I’m sure, that I’m still blogging here myself. I highly recommend getting a co-blogger to anyone struggling with burnout.

And here’s the eye of a green dragon that used to be a white pine tree, that rests beside one of my favorite spots for drinking my afternoon tea. Seeing is always a knotty problem. I’m reminded of one of the very first things I posted here back on December 17, 2003, from Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim:

Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav has handed down to us these words of his great-grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov: ‘Alas! The world is full of enormous lights and mysteries, and man shuts them from himself with one small hand!’

Or as the Zennies would say, we prefer the pointing finger to the moon. A lot more fingers than moons on social media.

Blogging is of course dead… or was, until Substack came along. We’ll maintain our independence here, but I’m cheered to see the return of creative energy online among a younger generation, who seem finally to be waking up to the brutality undergirding much of our economic system. I won’t say I’ve lost all hope, but I do think it’s an open question whether any of us will be around for Via Negativa’s 25th. Authoritarianism, runaway militarism, and severe inequality make for a volatile mix even before you factor in the multiple environmental crises we face. Things have never been more grim.

For that reason, it would seem grotesque to make a huge big deal out of this anniversary. Thanks to all who read here or share links with friends, and thanks to my friends and colleagues in what we used to call the blogosphere, especially other members of the Class of ’03, who were such grand company in those dark times. We started online magazines and played with free online tech to make poems in new ways and shared strange thoughts and hand-made things, and from time to time compared notes on the enormous lights and mysteries that still fill the earth.

Sea-faring

Sam Pepys and me

Troubled with the absence of my wife. This morning I went (after the Comptroller and I had sat an hour at the office) to Whitehall to dine with my Lady, and after dinner to the Privy Seal and sealed abundance of pardons and little else. From thence to the Exchequer and did give my mother Bowyer a visit and her daughters, the first time that I have seen them since I went last to sea. From thence up with J. Spicer to his office and took 100l., and by coach with it as far as my father’s, where I called to see them, and my father did offer me six pieces of gold, in lieu of six pounds that he borrowed of me the other day, but it went against me to take it of him and therefore did not, though I was afterwards a little troubled that I did not.
Thence home, and took out this 100l. and sealed it up with the other last night, it being the first 200l. that ever I saw together of my own in my life. For which God be praised.
So to my Lady Batten, and sat an hour or two, and talked with her daughter and people in the absence of her father and mother and my wife to pass away the time. After that home and to bed, reading myself asleep, while the wench sat mending my breeches by my bedside.

at sea an abundance
of sea

in lieu of God
the absence in myself


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Tuesday 12 December 1660.

No-mind

Sam Pepys and me

Within all the morning and dined at home, my mind being so troubled that I could not mind nor do anything till I spoke with the Comptroller to whom the lodgings belong. In the afternoon, to ease my mind, I went to the Cockpit all alone, and there saw a very fine play called “The Tamer Tamed;” very well acted.
That being done, I went to Mr. Crew’s, where I had left my boy, and so with him and Mr. Moore (who would go a little way with me home, as he will always do) to the Hercules Pillars to drink, where we did read over the King’s declaration in matters of religion, which is come out to-day, which is very well penned, I think to the satisfaction of most people.
So home, where I am told Mr. Davis’s people have broken open the bolt of my chamber door that goes upon the leads, which I went up to see and did find it so, which did still trouble me more and more. And so I sent for Griffith, and got him to search their house to see what the meaning of it might be, but can learn nothing to-night. But I am a little pleased that I have found this out.
I hear nothing yet of my Lord, whether he be gone for the Queen from the Downs or no; but I believe he is, and that he is now upon coming back again.

within the mind
no mind to mind

I open a door and find
still more nothing

but this nothing of my own
I believe


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Tuesday 30 October 1660.

No Angels But

a great grey worrybird
chirping in my ear

the key to a sugar maple high’s
downward spiral

or white lightning bugs
going on on on off

these are the winged agents
of an implacable cosmos

the scarlet manager
on vacation in the tropics

chickenhawkers online
flipping whispers

engorged hornbills blowing
for a credulous newscanter

shock-jawed death heads
emptying their payloads

till no unfallen
angels remain

and it’s back to the fire
and brimstone age

don’t look
you pillars of assault

Psalm 2.0

in response to an Instagram clip by Janet Lees (janetlees2.0)

we meet ourselves between
two thrown stones

how can ripples not reach
the edge of each other

a mirror dancing with itself
grows boneless flesh

translucent skin meant
for an angel of onions

how can ramification not lead
to a kind of godhead

dwelling in absurdity
like the invasive species we are

a tree-of-heaven nursing
its litter of lanternflies

we become monumental
in our blind trust

rust blooming
in the rain

oh holy ghost pipe
let creation somehow survive us

one-flowered
cancer root

let our names break down
into a tilth

New videohaiku: the future…

river in November light between bare woods and mountain

Watch on Vimeo

What does it mean to look forward to something any more, in a world hurtling toward ecological collapse if not thermonuclear destruction? There was a bestseller back in the 1970s called Future Shock about the social and psychological damage incurred by modern society’s relentless drive toward progress… or so I imagine, having never actually read it. But it’s been on my mind lately despite that minor detail. I’ve also been thinking a lot about ignorance, both in epistemological and sociological terms, and not coming to any firm conclusions because I rarely do. That’s a poet thing, I suppose. Not knowing the future, though, seems essential to mere survival, let along progress, as the Rene Char quote in the sidebar here says: “How can we live without the unknown before us?”

This has been a horrific summer in many parts of North America, but here in central Pennsylvania we went from a severe spring drought to a very wet but relatively cool summer. Trees went from nearly dropping their leaves at the beginning of June to massive growth spurts in July—aided, I’m sure, by all the extra CO2 in the atmosphere. And part of what kept things cool for us was the haze from burning forests elsewhere, as I’ve mentioned in various poems. But one of the pleasures of haiku is being liberated from having to explain things. They can just lurk in the background, mostly inaudible to the reader. Distant flashes that can mean whatever you want them to.

The fireflies, who had been scarce early on, had their highest numbers toward the end of the season. I shot this 30-second clip of them on my phone at dusk last week, just as the weather was turning from muggy to cool. Three nights ago the katydids started up; in a week or so, their throb will be all we hear. I look forward to weeks of good sleep.

East of Eden

millipede under
the lip of my rock

curling into a question mark
as i stand to go

among mountain laurel blossoms
their sticky white cups

falling in the drought-stricken woods
with audible ticks

we’ve had a taste of rain
the moss is soft underfoot

the breeze carries the despairing
rage of a pair of birds

watching their children die
in the sunless tunnel of a snake

who is presumably savoring
her only meal of the week

knowledge of good and evil
extracts a terrible toll

while two trains
meet at a crossing

two broken chords disharmonizing
clear to high heaven

the way my two grandmothers
sometimes meet in me

the strident one
and the contemplative one

on bad air days when everyone
else also sees

this achingly beautiful planet
through a veil of ash

and i don’t know how it seems
to extraterrestrial visitors

but on earth the truth is bitter
it’s an acquired taste

Gestalt

sun in the crowns
of the oaks

ringing less
like a church bell

than the beeper on a truck
backing into a quarry pit

coming over top of the mingled
voices of birds

whose throats each mix
two vocal tracks

into a single braid ah
the wood thrush

redstart red-eyed vireo
and that alluring odor

from a bank of dame’s-rocket
trembling in one spot

i thought just as a chipmunk’s
tail was disappearing

into the lilies
of the valley

*

Natures are close to one another. It is by practice that they become far apart.
Kongzi, Analects 17.2 (tr. Brian W. Van Norden)