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.

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.

Some Facts About Paradise

paradise never sticks
it’s too purpose-driven

the first wings lacked feathers
the first feathers lacked wings

i used to love the idea of giving
my body to medicine

now i’d rather go back to dirt
and grow mushrooms

paradise in the sticks
may require some assembly

the first godhead went nova
the second is a donut hole

i used to be content
as a content creator

now the cold creeps in
through my hobo coat

paradise on a stick
would taste of oppression

the forest pool in new ice
is a thing with feathers

it goes away in the autumn
a blessing for the frogs

whose eggs would be eaten
if it had year-round residents

wood frogs are wise
and live under rocks

paradise sticks
to the script

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

Known unknowns

To St. James’s, where the King’s being with the Duke of York prevented a meeting of the Tangier Commission. But, Lord! what a deal of sorry discourse did I hear between the King and several Lords about him here! but very mean methought. So with Creed to the Excise Office, and back to White Hall, where, in the Park, Sir G. Carteret did give me an account of his discourse lately, with the Commissioners of Accounts, who except against many things, but none that I find considerable; among others, that of the Officers of the Navy selling of the King’s goods, and particularly my providing him with calico flags, which having been by order, and but once, when necessity, and the King’s apparent profit, justified it, as conformable to my particular duty, it will prove to my advantage that it be enquired into. Nevertheless, having this morning received from them a demand of an account of all monies within their cognizance, received and issued by me, I was willing, upon this hint, to give myself rest, by knowing whether their meaning therein might reach only to my Treasurership for Tangier, or the monies employed on this occasion. I went, therefore, to them this afternoon, to understand what monies they meant, where they answered me, by saying, “The eleven months’ tax, customs, and prizemoney,” without mentioning, any more than I demanding, the service they respected therein; and so, without further discourse, we parted, upon very good terms of respect, and with few words, but my mind not fully satisfied about the monies they mean. At noon Mr. Gibson and I dined at the Swan, and thence doing this at Brook house, and thence calling at the Excise Office for an account of payment of my tallies for Tangier, I home, and thence with my wife and brother spent the evening on the water, carrying our supper with us, as high as Chelsea; so home, making sport with the Westerne bargees, and my wife and I singing, to my great content.

what did I hear in the park
except many things

calico flags
conformable to their meaning

I went therefore to them
to understand us

with few words but the water
high and singing

Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Friday 28 May 1669.

“Write what you know”

Up, and there come to me Darnell the fiddler, one of the Duke’s house, and brought me a set of lessons, all three parts, I heard them play to the Duke of York after Christmas at his lodgings, and bid him get me them. I did give him a crowne for them, and did enquire after the musique of the “Siege of Rhodes,” which, he tells me, he can get me, which I am mighty glad of. So to the office, where among other things I read the Councill’s order about my Lord Bruncker and Sir W. Pen to be assistants to the Comptroller, which quietly went down with Sir J. Minnes, poor man, seeming a little as if he would be thought to have desired it, but yet apparently to his discontent; and, I fear, as the order runs, it will hardly do much good. At noon to dinner, and there comes a letter from Mrs. Pierce, telling me she will come and dine with us on Thursday next, with some of the players, Knipp, &c., which I was glad of, but my wife vexed, which vexed me; but I seemed merry, but know not how to order the matter, whether they shall come or no. After dinner to the office, and there late doing much business, and so home to supper, and to bed.

I hear the music of my pen
quiet as desire
apparent as the letter M
telling me she will play
a glad wife


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Tuesday 22 January 1667.

Limited

Up, and having sent for Mr. Gawden he come to me, and he and I largely discoursed the business of his Victualling, in order to the adding of partners to him or other ways of altering it, wherein I find him ready to do anything the King would have him do. So he and I took his coach and to Lambeth and to the Duke of Albemarle about it, and so back again, where he left me. In our way discoursing of the business and contracting a great friendship with him, and I find he is a man most worthy to be made a friend, being very honest and gratefull, and in the freedom of our discourse he did tell me his opinion and knowledge of Sir W. Pen to be, what I know him to be, as false a man as ever was born, for so, it seems, he hath been to him. He did also tell me, discoursing how things are governed as to the King’s treasure, that, having occasion for money in the country, he did offer Alderman Maynell to pay him down money here, to be paid by the Receiver in some county in the country, upon whom Maynell had assignments, in whose hands the money also lay ready. But Maynell refused it, saying that he could have his money when he would, and had rather it should lie where it do than receive it here in towne this sickly time, where he hath no occasion for it. But now the evil is that he hath lent this money upon tallys which are become payable, but he finds that nobody looks after it, how long the money is unpaid, and whether it lies dead in the Receiver’s hands or no, so the King he pays Maynell 10 per cent. while the money lies in his Receiver’s hands to no purpose but the benefit of the Receiver.
I to dinner to the King’s Head with Mr. Woolly, who is come to instruct me in the business of my goods, but gives me not so good comfort as I thought I should have had. But, however, it will be well worth my time though not above 2 or 300l.. He gone I to my office, where very busy drawing up a letter by way of discourse to the Duke of Albemarle about my conception how the business of the Victualling should be ordered, wherein I have taken great pains, and I think have hitt the right if they will but follow it. At this very late and so home to our lodgings to bed.

I know what I know
to be false

how things in the hand refuse us
gives me comfort

a thought should be worth
one wing


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Friday 6 October 1665.