In the early days of my quilting group, we met on a Friday night. We’d bring food and gather after work as the sun started to set. We brought our favorite foods, and we lit candles. We ate a meal and worked on our quilts. It felt very sacramental, in terms of my Lutheran training.
Around Holy Week of 2003, I wrote the following poem, which was later published in the journal Ruminate:
I knead the bread leavened with beer,
stew a lamb shank in a pot of lentils,
prepare a salad of apples, walnuts, and raisins,
sweetened with wine and honey.
No one ever had herbs as bitter as this late season lettuce.
My friends gather at dusk, a motley band
of ragtags, fleeing from the Philistines of academia:
a Marxist, a Hindu, a Wiccan, a Charismatic Catholic,
and me, a lapsed Lutheran longing for liturgy.
Later, having drunk several bottles of wine
with prices that could have paid our grad
school rents, we eat desserts from disparate
cultures and tell our daughters tales from our deviant days.
We agree to meet again.
Gnarled vegetables coaxed from their dark hiding places
transform into a hearty broth.
Fire transubstantiates flour and water into life giving loaves.
Outcasts scavenged from the margins of education
share a meal and memories and begin to mold
a new family, a different covenant.
We have participated in the Paschal mysteries,
not yet comprehending the scope of what we have created.
I was not a lapsed Lutheran (I kept that word because I like the alliteration); on the contrary, I’d been planning a Maundy Thursday meal for my church. I had wanted to create a full Seder meal, the Passover meal Christians traditionally believe was Christ’s last supper. But I didn’t have any assistance, so I decided to do something more simple, a stew of lentils, which would have been a common meal amongst the disciples.
I was not a lapsed Lutheran, but my friends did have that wide diversity of beliefs described in the poem. And those daughters that joined us are now finishing college.
In the poem, I can see the elements of the Seder meal and the imagery of the early church. This actual recipe may not create a meal that’s quite as sublime, but it’s delicious, cheap, and easy. I created the recipe for a cousin who didn’t cook, so I was trying to explain the process along the way.
A timing heads up: this soup needs 30-60 minutes to simmer.
The bare minimum of ingredients you’ll need:
12-16 oz. package of lentils
28 oz. can of diced tomatoes (I like Del Monte petite cut) OR 2 15 oz. cans diced tomatoes
Pot of water
Several carrots (3-6), chopped into bite-size pieces (you can use baby carrots, but they’re more expensive). Carrots are SO nutritious and cheap—don’t be afraid to use a lot.
1 onion, chopped
several cloves of minced garlic (put the cloves through a garlic press or look for jars of minced garlic in your produce department and use a spoonful or two); garlic powder is easier and will work just fine
several Tablespoons of olive oil
herbs: oregano and basil (1-2 Tablespoons of each)
several Tablespoons of brown sugar (or molasses)
several Tablespoons of red wine
several Tablespoons of balsamic vinegar or red wine vinegar
Put the onion and oil in a big soup pot. Turn the burner to high or medium high (8 or so on your burner control dial). Stir the onions around in the bottom of the pot until they’re limp and more translucent. Add the garlic and the oregano and basil. Stir another minute or two.
Put all the sliced carrots that you’re going to use in the pot and cover them with water. Turn up the heat of the burner under the pot until the water boils. Let the carrots boil 10-15 minutes. You want tender carrots before you go any further. Spear one, let it cool, and eat it to be sure.
Add the tomatoes and the lentils and all the rest of the flavor boosters that you’re using. Fill the pot the rest of the way with water. Let the pot come to a boil, then turn the heat way down (you want it to simmer just below a boil—you’ll probably want to keep the heat at medium low—at 2-4 on the dial). The lentils probably need a half hour of cooking at this point. If you think about it, give the pot a stir every so often (if not, no big deal).
You can also let this soup simmer away for an hour or longer. Just keep an eye on the liquid level (those lentils will soak it up as they cook!) and add water as necessary.
You could serve this topped with a dollop of sour cream, if you wish. But it’s great plain.
A pot of this soup will easily serve 6-15 people; smaller groups can get several meals out of one pot. And it’s cheap (it will cost you less than $5 to make a whole pot), so when you’re tired of it, throw it out.
Or you can turn it into something else: boil as much liquid out of it as you can. Add chunks of feta cheese to the lentils, along with tomatoes (cherry tomatoes cut in half work well), cucumbers, peppers or whatever veggies you have on hand. Voila! A lentil salad (feel free to serve it on top of greens) or something you can spoon into pita bread.
each one a small loyalty
to what lies in the hive.
—Luisa A. Igloria, “Extravagance“
It is said
Hasan of Basra
once wrote out
a legal document
by an old man
upon his death-
bed, and had it
by two just
men. In this
God would not
the dying one
The old man
with the signed
who was he
to make such
of the Beloved,
who was he
wrote out such
Based on “Hasan of Basra: Hasan of Basra and the Fire-worshipper” in Muslim Saints and Mystics: Episodes from the Tadhkiral al-Auliya’ (“Memorial of the Saints”) by Farid al-Din Attar, translated by A.J. Arberry (Rutledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1966)
Up by four or five o’clock, and to the office, and there drew up the agreement between the King and Sir John Winter about the Forrest of Deane; and having done it, he came himself (I did not know him to be the Queen’s Secretary before, but observed him to be a man of fine parts); and we read it, and both liked it well. That done, I turned to the Forrest of Deane, in Speede’s Mapps, and there he showed me how it lies; and the Lea-bayly, with the great charge of carrying it to Lydny, and many other things worth my knowing; and I do perceive that I am very short in my business by not knowing many times the geographical part of my business. At my office till Mr. Moore took me out and at my house looked over our papers again, and upon our evening accounts did give full discharges one to the other, and in his and many other accounts I perceive I shall be better able to give a true balance of my estate to myself within a day or two than I have been this twelve months. Then he and I to Alderman Backwell’s and did the like there, and I gave one receipt for all the money I have received thence upon the receipt of my Lord’s crusados. Then I went to the Exchange, and hear that the merchants have a great fear of a breach with the Spaniard; for they think he will not brook our having Tangier, Dunkirk, and Jamaica; and our merchants begin to draw home their estates as fast as they can. Then to Pope’s Head Ally, and there bought me a pair of tweezers, cost me 14s., the first thing like a bawble I have bought a good while, but I do it with some trouble of mind, though my conscience tells me that I do it with an apprehension of service in my office to have a book to write memorandums in, and a pair of compasses in it; but I confess myself the willinger to do it because I perceive by my accounts that I shall be better by 30l. than I expected to be. But by tomorrow night I intend to see to the bottom of all my accounts. Then home to dinner, where Mr. Moore met me. Then he went away, and I to the office and dispatch much business. So in the evening, my wife and I and Jane over the water to the Halfway-house, a pretty, pleasant walk, but the wind high. So home again and to bed.
We worship the god
of self-improvement plans, that idol
made of the gold of all our hopes
for lives changed
by exercising more, losing weight,
adding this, subtracting
that, these plans cost.
We thin our coffers
at the temples of our false
gods. Instead of potluck
suppers, we go to one more workout or work
late in our fluorescent offices.
We have banished
the other prophets who declared
a different gospel of improving
ourselves by purifying our souls.
Let those prophets preach
to the wind-scoured landscapes.
Let them eat locusts for lunch.
We shall dine on food cultivated organically,
We shall drink wines made with grapes
grown in a far away soil.
Only late at night, our electronics
silenced, do we hear
that still, small voice
that declares all of creation
to be good and very good,
perfection inherent in our beings,
that small flickering pilot light of grace.
Rows of targets on the side of a barn with an arrow in every bull’s-eye. “An expert marksman must live here!” Or a fool who fires at random and paints a target where each arrow lands?
It’s difficult not to make sense—not to find meaning in words or see faces in the forest. The truth is that wherever an arrow lands, something like a bull’s eye opens. Bulls aren’t terribly perspicacious. Wherever one charges, something like an enemy crumples. It might be a matador’s cape or china in a shop, who knows? But the bull sees as well as he needs to and shits anywhere he wants. Let his B.S. dry out and you can burn it, use it to cook a can of beans.
A poet is more than just a fool or a bull-slinger, though. Our job is not simply to make sense, but to make it beautiful. That requires a selective kind of vision. You have to not only find the bull but also un-find it, and ultimately forget about it. Pastures are so much more beautiful if they haven’t been grazed.
I don’t post book reviews the way I used to, and I feel more than a little guilty about that. But here at any rate is an annotated list of my top reads of 2014. (Note that most of them weren’t actually published in 2014. I have no desire ever to become one of those people who tries to read all the fashionable books.) In no particular order:
Madwomen: The Locas mujeres Poems of Gabriela Mistral, translated by Randall Couch (University of Chicago Press, 2008). Mistral doesn’t fit easily into anyone’s pigeonholes and neither do the women of these astonishing persona poems, translated into English for the first time in their entirety.
Under a tree, I was only
washing the journeys from my feet
with my shadow for a road
and dust for a skirt.
—”The Fugitive Woman”
Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art by Michael Camille (Reaktion Books, 2012). My favorite (OK, only) art history read of the year. It’s a definitive look at the marginal art of medieval manuscripts (and analogous carvings on cloisters and cathedrals) that manages to be readable and thought-provoking as well. If you liked Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World, you’ll love this. Camille leads the reader step by step into a very different way of thinking, one in many ways more alien to the modern European or American worldview than (say) the 5th century BCE writings of Zhuangzi.
Rather than being freaks in our sense, these images are conceived as products of the terrifyingly promiscuous medieval imagination. For imagination was not only understood to be a cognitive faculty lodged in the front of the brain, nearest the eyes and thus closest linked to vision, but a force that could actually create forms. As the thirteenth-century Polish scholar Witelo argued, imagination, being an intermediary between mind and matter, allowed demons to couple with human beings, since what was perceived in the phantasia was, in some cases, real. It was for this reason that pregnant women were urged not to look at monkeys or even to think of monstrous things, lest their imaginations impregnate their offspring with hideous forms.
Zhuangzi: The Essential Writings with Selections from Traditional Commentaries, translated by Brook Ziporyn (Hackett, 2009). And speaking of Zhuangzi… I’ve long been an advocate of A.C. Graham’s translation, but Will Buckingham recommended this newer translation and he’s right: the scholarship and philosophical acuity raise the bar for all future translations of classic Daoist texts. Zhuangzi is a touchstone text for me, so getting acquainted with a new translation as authoritative and ground-breaking as this is an ongoing process. I’m never actually done reading Zhuangzi, just pausing to let it sink in for a while.
Back home, Carpenter Shi saw the tree in a dream. It said to him, “What do you want to compare me to, one of those cultivated trees? The hawthorn, the pear, the orange, the rest of those fructiferous trees and shrubs—when their fruit is ripe they get plucked, and that is an insult. Their large branches are bent; their small branches are pruned. Thus do their abilities embitter their lives. That is why they die young, failing to live out their natural life spans. They batter themselves with the vulgar conventions of the world—and all other creatures do the same. As for me, I’ve been working on being useless for a long time. It almost killed me, but I’ve finally managed it—and it is of great use to me! If I were useful, do you think I could have grown to be so great?
“Moreover, you and I are both [members of the same class, namely] beings—is either of us in a position to classify or evaluate the other? How could a worthless man with one foot in the grave know what is or isn’t a worthless tree?”
Carpenter Shi awoke and told his dream to his apprentice. The apprentice said, “If it’s trying to be useless, what’s it doing with a shrine around it?”
Ancilla: Poems by Erin Murphy (Lamar University Press, 2014). Erin Murphy is currently my favorite central Pennsylvania poet. Which may sound like damning with faint praise, except that the area boasts such gifted and accomplished poets as Julia Kasdorf, Lee Peterson, Ron Mohring, Marjorie Maddox, Todd Davis, Robin Becker, Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, Steven Sherill and Gabriel Welsch. Ancilla is a collection of portraits, both in the first and third person, of historical figures both famous and obscure, with a decidedly subversive and feminist slant. I was delighted to discover after I bought a copy at a reading that it contains a number of erasure poems, all very well done — and impossible to reproduce accurately here, as they are printed with all the white space from the erased portions intact. But let me share one of them in prose form, at least. Here’s “Jane Austen’s Letters to Sister Cassandra, Abridged”:
I was nice. I behaved. But love was cut-up silk gloves and old paper hats. Regret is a vessel, not a spinning-wheel. The wind proved to be my future, delivered it to me with a sigh. I flirt with tears. I write.
Even Now: Poems by Hugo Claus, selected and translated from the Dutch by David Colmer (Archipelago Books, 2013). Whenever I visit a new place, I like to buy at least one book of poetry written there. This is what I bought on my trip to Belgium last summer. Our host Marc Neys mentioned that he liked Hugo Claus’ plays better than his poetry, but the plays must be terrific, because the poetry is pretty damn amazing. I can’t believe: a) that I never heard of Hugo Claus before, and b) that he never won a Nobel prize. Clearly one of the premier figures in post-war European literature. This is not a bilingual edition, and at 245 pages it’s closer to a “collected” than a “selected” poems (not that the publisher uses either term).
Flat is my white,
As white as a fish of stone.
I have been razed to the skin.
My population purged.
She has become someone else. Strange to my eye,
The one who lived in the scruff of my neck.
Seahenge: A Quest for Life and Death in Bronze Age Britain by Francis Pryor (Harper Perennial, 2008). Originally published in 2001, this is the first of a trilogy of popular archaeology books by Britain’s most prominent Bronze Age archaeologist, Francis Pryor, continuing with Britain B.C. and Britain A.D., which are both also marvelous (and spawned documentaries of the same titles that you can watch on YouTube—which is how I found out about Pryor in the first place). Pryor is not just a great interpreter of archaeological evidence, he’s also a gifted writer. It’s not surprising that he’s now turned his attention to the writing of detective fiction, for Seahenge too unfolds like a mystery (as so many archaeological discoveries tend to do).
It is entirely possible that the Holme circle was never about human life and death at all. It could have been a shrine—possibly built by a family that identified with oak trees—to the trees themselves.
The Hangman’s Lament: Poems by Henrik Nordbrandt, translated from the Danish by Thom Satterlee (Green Integer, 2003). Nordbrandt was perhaps my favorite discovery of the year; I liked these poems so much, I immediately ordered everything else in English I could find. But this book remained my favorite of the lot, in part because it fits so comfortably into the hand (love those Green Integer editions).
And the beams fall into place in the floor
where someone will go to take his first shaky steps
or dance to the sounds of a flute carved from the same tree
when the wood’s time is about to end
and a cold wind blows over thistles, stones, and broken ground.
—”The Forester’s Dream”
Two Faint Lines in the Violet by Lissa Kiernan (Negative Capability Press, 2014). Powerful, searing poems that among other issues grapple with one that’s bound to become even more topical in the years ahead: the effects of radiation from nuclear power plants. Kiernan’s first full-length book displays a virtuosic range of tones and forms, from the ironic “Recipe for Yellowcake” to the elegiac “Icarus Blues.” There’s a father who comes out as gay, a grandfather who molests his granddaughter… this may not be the American nuclear family we think we know, but it’s certainly one that deserves to enter our cultural vocabulary.
You stood calm as an untroubled tree,
rigid as the spine of an unopened book—listening to me
listening to your slurred, impenetrable breathing.
—”At the Door”
Feral by George Monbiot (Penguin, 2014). I don’t have it at hand to quote from because I passed it on to a friend—not because I wanted to get rid of it, but because people who care about wild nature need to read it! The book has two different subtitles. The British edition, which I read, is subtitled “Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding,” while the American edition (University of Chicago Press, 2014) is subtitled “Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life.” Either way, it’s a terrific book: a first-person account of the author’s quest for wildness and wild experiences in his native Britain, interwoven with an impassioned yet scientific (and extensively documented) brief for rewilding. George Monbiot is best known as a political columnist for the Guardian, but he studied biology at university and started off as an environmental reporter, and it’s obvious he’s a nature nerd and outdoorsman from way back. But more than anyone else I’ve read on wildlands conservation, including Dave Foreman, Monbiot takes a nuanced approach to the problems of balancing human needs with the preservation of the natural world. He tackles head-on some of the elitist attitudes that have plagued preservationist arguments in the past, and presents rewilding as—among other things—something we need to do for our own mental health. The book is also a great introduction to nature in the British Isles, cutting through a lot of the crap peddled by more mainstream British conservationists who try to ignore the fact that the islands were once covered in temperate rainforest, and that vast landscapes have been “sheepwrecked,” as Monbiot memorably terms it. American readers will be shocked at just how backward farming interests in Britain can be, blocking even the most innocuous species reintroductions and ecological restoration attempts and fighting to preserve a tamed and diminished landscape at all costs. But the book ends on a positive note, reminding us of how quickly marine ecosystems, for example, can recover if we can only find the political will to protect some areas from total exploitation.
Approaching Ice: Poems by Elizabeth Bradfield (Persea, 2010). As with Murphy’s Ancilla, a lot of research went into this book, which for Elizabeth Bradfield involved a certain amount of travel as a naturalist, as well, for the subject of her book is polar exploration, and how to write convincingly about that without multiple visits to the Arctic and Antarctic? Also as with Ancilla, I bought the book after a reading, which I wrote about at Moving Poems since Bradfield concluded with a multimedia segment.
Always back to Eden—to the time when we knew
with certainty that something watched and loved us.
That the very air was miraculous and ours.
That all we had to do was show up.
The sun rolled along the horizon. The light never left them.
The air from their warm mouths became diamonds.
And they longed for everything they did not have.
And they came home and longed again.
—”Why They Went”
I can’t let the subject of books read in 2014 slip away without reminding everyone that Via Negativa’s own Luisa A. Igloria published not one, but two collections of poetry this year: Night Willow from Phoenicia Publishing and Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser from Utah State University Press (May Swenson Poetry Award Series, selected by Mark Doty).
An editor asked me for a “statement of ecopoetics” to accompany a poem in an as-yet unpublished anthology. (More on that if/when it becomes a reality.) I’m not normally given to these kinds of academic exercises, but I did in fact have such a statement that I’d written back in 2010, and I initially thought it was good enough to use again, because I still agree with its premise: that poets should add extinction to our roster of the great subjects, right up there with love and death. But it didn’t say anything about the sort of nature poetry I most enjoy reading and trying to write — not to mention what, if anything, might differentiate ecopoetry from traditional English-language nature poetry. So I’ve just come up with the following new statement which, believe it or not, represents me being as concise as possible.
For ecopoetry to become more than a simple re-branding of nature poetry, it must begin with an avoidance of easy pieties and recycled myths. It must be grounded not only in the writer’s felt contact with the non-human world, but also in actual knowledge of that world and its inhabitants and processes. It will share with science a passion for careful observation and discovery and a full awareness of the tentative nature of human understanding. For models, it will look less to Ovid, Wordsworth and Gary Snyder than to Lucretius, John Clare, Kenji Miyazawa and Pattiann Rogers.
Ecopoetry should be humble, recognizing that humans are far from the only makers; other species are also capable of tool-making, habitat-shaping, empathy, deception, and art. Most of all, it should abandon the traditional Western dualistic understanding of nature. The Mandarin Chinese word for nature, ziran, literally means “of-itself thus,” and it’s this sense of a world with its own laws, of beings with their own integrity and trajectories that also lies behind our word wild (a cognate with willed, according to some). Nature poetry may be pastoral, but ecopoetry is always wild.
The thing I think I’ll remember most about this summer in northwest London is the constant sound of gunfire. Fortunately it’s all from video games.
Civilians die by the hundreds in Gaza, Syria, and countless other conflicts, but in the “realistic” MMORPGs, the casualties are mainly if not exclusively other players. The bombed-out hellscapes are a given. It feels almost innocent.
But while the teenagers played war, Rachel and I watched all four seasons of Game of Thrones, which our mutual friend Jean Morris — a fan of the show — aptly described as “adrenalin porn for aging hippies.” The graphic violence and frequent nudity and sex did feel gratuitous, though the show was gritty in many other ways as well. What we perceive as realistic helped the supernatural elements from seeming too wildly improbable most of the time. It all added up to good, escapist fun.
But last year on Facebook I remember Dylan Tweney pointing out in reference to Game of Thrones that the drug cartels in Mexico are also fond of putting enemies’ heads on pikes. It made him uncomfortable, he said, that we would take pleasure in such a spectacle.
What does it say about us that we are so entranced by violence… and that we conflate graphic violence with realism? Perhaps there’s some law that states that the grimmer the world becomes that one is trying to ignore or escape, the grimmer the escapism too must become. Perhaps we are locked in a new kind of arms race: between reality and imagination. But if so, is another world still possible? And do the still, small voices of a greater-than-human, numinous reality still stand a chance?
The poem behind the poem says
what do we do with the other
creatures of this world?
Those that stay put, stay put;
those that move, raise their mobile
devices to the window
and press record. What do we do
with the other languages of this world,
the other ways to forget or fall silent?
Dogs can’t be the only ones
whose vocalizations have adapted
to the inattentiveness of the human ear.
And there’s a bird in New Guinea
that can imitate with equal accuracy
a camera shutter or a chainsaw.
What do we do with ourselves
during the 99% of our lives
when we are not listening
to the poem (song, prayer) in which
our actual names happen to be recorded,
and customs agents are demanding more
and more documentation for everything
that crosses a line, while those that stay put
learn to imitate themselves…
I’m sorry, what
was the question again?
I’ve been busy collecting photographs of cherubs.
I love how they manage to be
both fleshy and impossible.
And now the voices are telling me
to mind the gap—
over and over, as if that were
our most essential task…