April Diary 16: deer trails

This entry is part 16 of 31 in the series April Diary


the thing about erasure poetry is you don’t get a blank page to stare at

but if you keep looking ideas will emerge like deer trails in the woods, some petering out after a few dozen yards, others leading you to things you never would’ve seen otherwise

today’s raw material for erasure was short and relatively lacking in concrete imagery so my choices seemed few. interestingly for a process that might appear to be pretty far removed from anything confessional, it was only when I allowed myself to express some emotional honesty that it turned into something like a poem. or at least something good enough to blog

finished Charon’s Cosmology so it’s on to Simic’s next title with Braziller, Classic Ballroom Dances (1980)

this is one i don’t think i’ve read more than once before, and a long time ago at that—the least familiar of Simic’s early books. that’s what a difference it makes never to have owned it

on this current Simic binge i’m paying attention to how and how often he writes about the natural world. a lot of straightforward ecopoetry bores me after a while but the people mixing in surrealism often don’t appear to have much to say. when Simic writes specifically about nature he does appear very much to have seen or heard what he’s writing about, and there’s usually a point of view being expressed. and he uses language from natural history in poems that aren’t strictly speaking about nature, such as “Species” in Charon’s Cosmology — not prominently but it’s part of the mix

Peaceful Kingdom

The bird who watches me
from the branch of an apple tree
in bloom.

A black bird
for whom a strange man
gathers rocks
in the ruts of the road.


And among the willow trees:
before water made up its mind
to be water.

My sister says if I drink
of that water I will die . . .
That’s why the heart beats:
to waken the water.
Charles Simic, from Classic Ballroom Dances

i have strong feelings about the whole peaceable kingdom thing a purely colonialist ideal of a tamed and sanitized nature devoid of wildness but Simic’s deceptively simple poem exposes the violence and danger that always lurk just beyond the frame. and also the possibility…

the ending reminds me a bit of the way the legendary blues pianist Jimmy Yancey would always switch from whatever key he was in to B flat for the last few notes of a piece: less dissonance than wildness, an opening toward something other

i used to spend a lot more time in the woods after dark. but some time last summer i got tired of being snorted at by deer, squeaked at by weasels, chittered at by flying squirrels and once even run into by a fox (i think). the night creatures need time without what must be the incredible stress of having humans close by

so i still go for walks at night sometimes but i don’t sit out in the woods nearly as often after dark and mostly stick the porch

just as i finish that sentence the barred owl says who! as in who do you think you are

(which is slightly unfair because they are the friendliest of owls)

I don’t like to write about poetry i don’t like so i guess i won’t, other than to say that whether or not a book has been widely hyped seems to have little relation to whether i’ll end up liking it, except insofar as the hype is based mainly on what the poems say rather than how they say it. i don’t care if we align 100% ideologically, if your poetry is too didactic i will stop reading

such a serene experience taking a leak in the nearly full moonlight

gray rat of a cloud get away from my moon

a dove cries out in its sleep

April Diary 14: cardinal, coyote, owl

This entry is part 13 of 31 in the series April Diary


Dear April there’s a cardinal nesting beneath my bedroom window

she’s sitting on three speckled eggs

our first hot day. sitting on a bench in the woods where i swear the same two or three bluebottle flies keep landing on me no matter how many i kill. no wonder people used to believe in spontaneous generation

the Zang Di book has already proved its utility as a flyswatter. well done Zephyr Press

Stir-fried pork and asparagus is a starting point for poetry.

Zang Di (tr. Eleanor Goodman)

i like this guy. his mind moves in interesting ways

this too in the middle of a well-used trail is language

coyote calling cards

hypothesis (clears throat): the invention of symbolic language by humans was essential to make up for the lost richness of meaning our more distant ancestors accessed through their noses

there’s a profusion of trailing arbutus blooms this year like nothing we’ve seen here in 52 years. not sure why. though i do have some hypotheses…

it’s maybe a bit unusual in the modern world to know exactly where you’ll someday be buried. i noticed today a porcupine has been littering the ground all around with spruce twigs (they’re messy eaters)

my future gravesite
old puffball
blowing smoke

barred owl calling up in the woods, just one disapproving-sounding who! at a time

for years, my ex heard me talking about bard owls and wondered what made them so poetic

sitting just inside the edge of the woods is a completely different experience from sitting on my front porch less than 100 feet away. a more vulnerable experience, especially after dark. a humbler experience

(when did humility stop being a virtue asks the old crank)

the porch offers the remove of civilization. a roof blocks most of the sky—it’s no wonder suburbanites long ago ditched porches for back decks

April Diary 13: wildflowery

This entry is part 14 of 31 in the series April Diary


out on a spring wildflower-gazing expedition southeast of here with my Mom all day. we saw twinleaf, cut-leaved toothwort, trout lilies, hillsides covered with Dutchman’s breeches and spring beauties, and more hepatica than I’ve ever seen in one place before

a surprisingly large, intact stand of eastern hemlocks included stumps that were still alive at least a decade after they were cut, kept on life support by their adjacent relatives, continuing to grow scar tissue over the amputations year after year

we talked about life and death, family and friends, the state of the planet etc. on a gorgeous (and WARM) day

it’s undoubtedly good for my poetry to take a day off from it now and then. i might have enough brain power left to bang out an erasure poem before i go to sleep but it isn’t looking good, and i’ve abandoned another poem i’ve been working on off and on for the past two days because while it was highly clever it lacked any original insight, and while i’m sure i could still get it into decent shape i know it would never spark joy. so following Marie Kondo’s advice I am throwing it out

in today’s mail a new translation of a new-to-me contemporary Chinese poet, Zang Di: The Roots of Wisdom. it looks great. here’s part of the publisher’s description:

Zang Di (臧棣) is widely acknowledged as one of the leading poets and literary critics of his generation. In this new bilingual collection of his work, The Roots of Wisdom, he uses rich, emotional language to explore the natural world, including his beloved Weiming Lake at Peking University — his “Walden.” The lake has been a muse for him for more than 30 years. While Zang Di’s detailed observations often begin in nature, they go on to unearth insights into human psychology, relationships, contemporary life, and the mysteries of language.

Zang Di maintains a prolific writing practice (he composes one poem each day), and his unique style draws not only from nature but also from his extensive reading of Chinese and Western literature, and his travels through several continents.

here’s how the title poem concludes:

The wind arrives, and its casualness is conflicted; in the name of white clouds
are traces of those wild geese you like. People’s words fly, with no concern for direction.
The rain departs, and the vastness is lonely not paltry.
Your tears are rainbowed bandages.
These tangled things are again and again the apex of emptiness,
but they still plant their roots deep in a life of poetry.

overall, Zang Di’s poetry appears to have a higher density of abstractions than i’m used to, but with just enough concrete imagery to give me something to sink my teeth into, i hope

April Diary 12: flowers in hell

This entry is part 12 of 31 in the series April Diary


Dear April it’s been a day spent largely in my head a commodious place since i haven’t stuffed it full of facts or indeed much of anything with a practical use

walking down the mountain i was thinking about something the Norwegian poet Rolf Jacobsen once said: “In an age of tiredness” he said “I write for the half-tired”

there’s definitely a class angle to the accessibility vs. difficulty debate (which for many of us is also an internal debate) though here in the chronically overworked US, sleep deprivation cuts across class lines. it’s more inescapable though for those near or below the federal poverty line. for members of the professional-managerial class it can be a bit more volitional

the point is as an insomniac i am intimately acquainted with all the ways that sleep deprivation can interfere with concentration and aesthetic appreciation, to say nothing of the mind’s overall speed and ability to function

with my strong preference for shorter lines and stanzas and for direct, more colloquial diction perhaps i too write for the half-tired

i do not believe in ever writing down to people which is i’m afraid how some on either side of the debate perceive accessibility. but
(insert winter wren trill here—i’m close to the stream)
gnarly or unfamiliar ideas can be presented in ways that invite a reader in and experimental language can be presented in a way that’s fun—see Christian Bök’s Eunoia or pretty much anything by Gary Barwin

it’s the cliquishness and austere aesthetics of a lot of avant-garde work that turns people off. if you doubt that people without college educations can appreciate difficult art, i’d invite you to consider the extreme metal underground, where in many genres complexity of composition is fetishized by the still largely working-class fan base. i believe the same was true of bebop in its day. you don’t need an expensively educated elite to have sophistication in the arts

all that said, there’s no denying the deep anti-intellectualism of anglo-american culture. what poetry does do well commercially tends to be pretty straight-forward fare, whether prosy free verse, rap- and Beat-influenced spoken word, or artistically arranged motivational poster copy

it’s quite a late spring. the first round-leafed hepaticas are finally fully out in Plummer’s Hollow after just a few hours of warmer sunshine this morning. now it’s clouding over again

i tell myself i don’t need any more hepatica photos but it isn’t a matter of need

first hepaticas
will the circle be

that haiku came a bit too easily. hope i’m not unconsciously plagiarizing someone!

also the first stinking Benjamin is out of the ground, green blade stained with mud

the best vistas must now contain something dissonant, tacky or even garish or else risk becoming cliché

bright red roof
the devil is just a hard
working cook

(is that even a haiku?)

(does it matter?)

no one ever talks about how Africa is giving birth to a new sea

also, two of the greatest poets i ever knew never published a book. one stopped writing altogether i suspect. brilliant but troubled. how fortunate must of us are to be neither

i say i’m talking to myself but i’m not — in the same way you say you’re talking to god but you’re not

(maybe that’s why i’ve begun to resist capitalizing i)

no ideology can ever be a perfect map to reality. i feel this is something that poets and physicists should intuitively grasp and it always bothers me when they don’t

places are the best mnemonics. they’re irreplaceable that way

when global corporate monoculture eliminates the last corner of local quirk and the same suite of hardy invasive species grows everywhere, what will happen to memory?

i suppose everyone will be on THC by then so it will be a moot question

i sometimes get really angry when i hear about texts or speech intended to be private, for a single person’s eyes/ears and ephemeral being nevertheless recorded and eventually shared. if this angers you too, prepare to be outraged when you find out how all the classic Zen ko’ans came to be

the collected ko’ans of masters such as Yunmen and Linji are unique gems of world literature and i’m so glad we have them. but a significant part of their opacity is down to us not knowing every intimate detail of the master-student relationships that gave rise to them. at their origin in other words while still conundrums intended to lead to breakthroughs they weren’t necessarily quite as mysterious as they seem today

mystery like many products of fermentation gets better with age

April shower
that heavenly odor
rising from old leaves

i really love how the flat thin soles of my shoes let me feel the smallest contours of the earth

trail running is a strange subculture of exercise freaks but they make some good products

but i wanna say to anyone who does like to run through the woods: imagine if you slowed down and got to know the trees and flowers so well that you began to see the natural world less as a passive environment to discover yourself in and more as an endlessly fascinating series of unique neighborhoods to lose yourself in—likely the way you already imagine cities. imagine walking at one mile per hour and feeling it’s much too fast.

imagine there’s a heaven and you’re in it
it’s easy if you try
but it’s also possibly a pointless exercise in privilege
hell isn’t exactly beneath us but we do manage to keep it out of sight most of the time
above us only the vacuum of space

which puts me in mind of Issa’s famous haiku

in the midst of it all
with hell yawning under us
gazing at flowers

that’s my version but you should try your own

yo no naka wa
世 の 中 は
world’s midst as-for
jigoku no ue no
地獄 の 上 の
hell’s on-top-of’s
hanami kana
花 見 哉
flower viewing!

all of which has me reaching for Baudelaire

he sits right next to Basho on my bookshelf

Time and nature sluice away our lives.
A virus eats the heart out of our sides,
digs in and multiplies on our lost blood.
Charles Baudelaire, from Flowers of Evil (Robert Lowell translation)

so. much. more. metal.

April Diary 11: you may already be obsolete

This entry is part 11 of 31 in the series April Diary


on the porch reading Elaine Equi (from near the end of her New and Selected which i just retrieved from the bottom of a pile) and i’m brushing goddamn snowflakes off the pages

i love Equi’s wit and regular nods toward surrealism, mainly at the level of metaphor but sometimes going further. she’s an absolute master of the craft. I was nudged to re-read the book by my online attendance of a reading she gave in a North Jersey bookshop last month

(she read a bit too quickly i thought but i was charmed by her Chicago Italian accent and now i can’t help reading the poems in that accent (in my head, not out loud—i’m a terrible mimic))

“Trenton Local” captures the pleasure and wonder of seeing the world from a train window as a series of brief, vivid tableaux—something i also love

that poem and a couple more until my tea is done and it’s time to compose an entry for the Morning Porch, which naturally comes out sounding a bit like Equi

and i am completely unconflicted about that kind of influence on my work

(saying ‘my work’ sounds a little off though. it’s play)

Dear April do your worst. it’s my day of rest. i’ll probably end up taking a walk anyway but who knows

glancing at Facebook on my laptop during a break in composing an erasure poem (i take lots of breaks; they help me come back to the text with fresh eyes) i click on a 2016 article from LitHub shared by novelist and poet Rachel Dacus: The Man Who Invented Bookselling As We Know It: On James Lackington’s Temple of the Muses, “The Cheapest Bookstore in the World”

One of 11 children, [James] Lackington was apprenticed to a cobbler as a boy. He had no formal education, but at an early age he recognized the value of books, and he and his friends scoured the markets for cheap editions of poetry, plays, and classical literature in translation in order to teach themselves to read and expand their understanding of the world. Later, as a shoemaker, he moved to London with his wife, Nancy, and years later in his memoirs he describes how, upon arriving in the city, he spent their last half-crown on a book of poems, Edward Young’s Night Thoughts: “For had I bought a dinner, we should have eaten it tomorrow, and the pleasure would have been soon over, but should we live fifty years longer, we shall have the Night Thoughts to feast upon.” Shortly thereafter, in 1774, Lackington was able to rent his own shop, and he began selling both shoes and books together.

of course it took someone born in poverty who loved reading for its own sake to realize that there was a huge need for affordable books to fill the shelves of a growing middle class:

The standard practice was for booksellers to buy large quantities of remaindered titles and then destroy as many as three-quarters of the books in order to drive up prices. But Lackington bought huge lots—sometimes entire libraries—and then drastically reduced the prices of all the books in order to sell them at high volume. In this way he kept books in circulation, made them affordable to a wider range of buyers, and turned a substantial profit all at the same time. […]

By 1794, he had amassed a large enough inventory to move into a massive shop on Finsbury Square with his partner Robert Allen. He named the shop The Temple of the Muses, and above the entrance a plaque boldly announced: Cheapest Bookstore in the World. The Temple of the Muses became a tourist attraction, and this was Lackington’s fourth innovation: the sheer size of his bookstore—a spectacle that dwarfed all other bookshops of the time—made it a destination in itself. With a shop front 140 feet long, the cavernous lobby featured a circular counter with space for a mail coach and six horses to pass through. Above this counter, a staircase led up to “lounging rooms” where patrons could read beneath galleries lined with book-filled shelves, four floors in all. The higher patrons climbed, the cheaper and more tattered the books became. The poet John Keats spent many hours reading for free in the lounging rooms, and it was here that he met his first publishers, Taylor and Hessy, who worked in the shop.

never heard of this guy until now but he’s my new hero. i love the idea of Keats hanging out in the equivalent of Barnes and Noble but of course this was long before free public libraries were a thing

as for Edward Young, he seems as keen on the YOLO philosophy as any modern social media influencer. i can see why his stuff would resonate with an ambitious young businessman in late 18th-century London:

Of man’s miraculous mistakes, this bears
The palm, “That all men are about to live,”
For ever on the brink of being born:
All pay themselves the compliment to think
They, one day, shall not drivel; and their pride
On this reversion takes up ready praise;
At least, their own; their future selves applauds;
How excellent that life they ne’er will lead?

Edward Young, “The Complaint: or Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality

because it was my day of rest i decided to work insanely hard and make a videopoem in addition to the blog roundup and an erasure poem

this was the first videopoem i’ve made in months and i’m afraid it’s not at all sophisticated, just a single stationary shot with a haibun cobbled together from spare parts i found in my files (the haiku is from last week)

i did get out for a quick, four-mile walk after supper to enjoy as much of the late-in-the-day ridgetop sunshine as possible after a very cold and gloomy day

i also just needed to warm the hell up after a sedentary day

it was the opposite of my usual slow contemplative ramble but who cares—it’s my day of rest

i’m told that most members of Gen Z, at least here in the US, don’t like or even get irony, which freaks me out. we Gen Xers are all about irony

but it’s a great example of why that literary immortality writers are taught to strive for is such a complete will o’ the wisp: if your writing leans heavily on irony for its effect, congratulations, you may already be obsolete

April Diary 10: on not following myself

This entry is part 10 of 31 in the series April Diary


yesterday for the first time I tracked myself on one of those hiking apps which is a weird experience. the app was already on my phone so i thought what the hell. i wanted to verify that the distances i thought i was walking were accurate and they were. but!

it was somehow very distracting, like even though my phone was in my pocket i couldn’t stop thinking about my progress on a virtual map

until the actual world around me began to seem abstract, even a little unreal

but i thought i’d do it again today just so i could measure the alternate-day version of the hike when i go up the other ridge from the bottom, though the distance is bound to be within a tenth of a mile of the other route

halfway down the hollow i noticed i somehow hadn’t the gotten the app working properly and as it was too late to go back i shut it off. immediately i felt a huge wave of relief.

i walk for pleasure, inspiration and healing—to feel connected with the cosmos. everyone who’s into fitness claims their ultimate goal is to feel good but they’ve got some mighty strange ideas about how to get there

a few hours later i got a message from my cellphone carrier that i was almost out of data so it’s a good thing i fucked up today’s attempt to follow myself

questions that popped into my head while walking down the hollow:

how have the past 9+ years of making erasure poems changed the way i write?

how have the past 9+ years of making erasure poems changed the way i read?

i guess i thought if i wrote them down like that i’d have answers by this time. but it’s getting late and my brain is barely working. I’ll have to come back to this — and no doubt i will but it’s funny how i had so much to say about erasure poetry during the first couple of years of the Pepys Diary project when i really didn’t know what i was doing stylistically, but ever since i kind of figured out where i was going with it i don’t think i’ve written another thing, other than the occasional response to someone’s comment or question

another day of intermittent showers, even colder than yesterday

i sat in the sun against a tree and read fewer than 10 pages (Charon’s Cosmology again) before the dark clouds came up and a cold wind began to blow so i packed up and walked a mile and a half along the ridge through several very brief showers to the bench without wifi by which point the sun was shining again

so there i am sitting in the sun, gazing across the valley toward the other mountain disappearing into rain as I drink my sassafras tea

six crows fly over emitting duck-like calls: fish crows! (confirmed by comparing with audio from an online library). my brother the birder who lives in town later tells me he’s seen them along the river near the bottom of the mountain so i guess the species is moving into our area now, like black vultures before them and Carolina wrens before that — southern species moving north. next it’ll be Carolina chickadees i suppose

between showers
six fish crows
and the sun

made a somewhat experimental photo haiga out of that one since earlier in the day i’d posted a more standard haiga for a somewhat experimental haiku. i get bored of doing things the same way all the time

Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another.

Mark 9:50

happened across this quote, which i must’ve read more than once but somehow never paid attention to, whilst coming the Bible for quotes about peace that might fit on a gravestone or memorial marker (my dad, who died last September, was a peace scholar). don’t think we’ll use this one but as general advice it’s kind of perfect

the good ol’ KJV may not be the most reliable translation of the Bible but it is for sure the most poetic

Dear April yesterday i walked through a three-minute sleet storm. today it was graupel. the weather is becoming more opaque

April Diary 9: sapsuckers, beginner’s mind, and Phoebe Giannisi

This entry is part 8 of 31 in the series April Diary


a day of bright sun and sudden showers

a day for Louisiana waterthrushes and yellow-bellied sapsuckers

I wrote a haiku about the former, posting it from the trail, and texted my birder brother about the latter

i’m picturing one of those 16th-century fonts where lower-case S’s look like F’s

I had one rule for this diary: to compose and post it entirely on the phone and I broke that rule on April 1, more fool me

what is it about poets and the need to set arbitrary rules which we honor mainly in the breach

the point of the rule was to enforce brevity (I type very slowly and poorly on it) but perhaps my laziness will serve the same function

is it a diary or zuihitsu though really

as British poet Cheryl Moskovitz put it

Zuihitsu is neither prose poem nor essay although it can sometimes resemble both. To ‘follow the brush’ suggests a certain not-knowing of what will happen, that whatever might result from the process will be down to discovery rather than plan. There is a strong sense in zuihitsu writing that the creation of order depends on disorder. Zuihitsu demands as its starting point, juxtapositions, fragments, contradictions, random materials and pieces of varying lengths.

so should I take Sei Shonagon for my guardian spirit, or the monk Kenkō, author of Essays in Idleness?

What a strange, demented feeling it gives me when I realise I have spent whole days before this inkstone, with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts that have entered my head.

Donald Keene, Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō

that’s how the grumpy old priest begins

the equally curmudgeonly Shonagon began her Pillow Book like this (in Ivan Morris’ classic translation):

In spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful. As the light creeps over the hills, their outlines are dyed a faint red and wisps of purplish clouds trail over them.

she goes on to say that in summer is it the nights, in autumn the evenings and in winter the early mornings that are most beautiful

and i’m thinking that might be true in central Pennsylvania too

back at the end of March I attended a reading at Penn State Altoona by a couple of friends who teach there, both of whom had new books to launch: Todd Davis (Coffin Honey) and Erin Murphy (Taxonomies)

they both read very well and each is at the top of their game – so far so good. but should i stay for the rest of the reading, an open mike that i knew would be dominated by students with little more than one or two poetry classes under their belts? yikes i thought but i did stick around anyway

and actually it was kind of awesome. for one thing nobody hogged the mike. the audience was large but respectful and the work they shared had plenty of surprise

it occurred to me that listening to beginner poets is an exercise in recognition: recognizing what is salvageable, what is already brilliant, how true poetry and the received wisdom of the tribe are sometimes interchangeable. recognizing true insights no matter how encumbered by cliche

recognizing one’s own best moments with Beginner’s Mind

it’s also always valuable for those of us who have been immersed in poetry for most of our lives to get these periodic reminders of how newcomers to the craft might perceive it

most male birds aside from ducks lack penises, so copulation consists of what ornithologists refer to as a cloacal kiss

without the distraction of any kind of penetration one can see clearly that sex is at base a form of communication and perhaps its quintessence: a making in the sense of the Greek poeisis. DNA not unlike computer code to which it is often compared has the power to bring things about, like a sorcerer’s spell

the sapsuckers were certainly noisy about it too with that weird vuvuzela-like sound they make

here’s how the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website describes yellow-bellied sapsucker sounds:

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker’s signature call is a scratchy, nasal mewing that is often repeated. They also have a squealing call, a repeated quee-ah, quee-ah, that’s territorial and often heard in breeding season. And they make a waa call when disturbed or to alert others to danger.

Other Sounds

Like other sapsuckers, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker’s drumming is slower and more irregular than other woodpeckers. Its stuttering cadence can sound like somebody tapping out morse code. In addition to trees with good resonance, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers also drum on metal surfaces—like street signs or chimney flashing—to amplify their territorial messages. Most drumming is done by males during breeding season.

a stuttering cadence suggests code or language because I suppose our ears are trained to recognize speech-like patterns, even in inanimate things like thunder or or the wind

i imagine birds hear a lot of sounds as potential birdsong, including human voices

i’m working my way through Greek poet Phoebe Giannisi’s book Cicada as translated by Brian Sneeden. the three epigraphs at the very front of the book are by J. Henri Fabre, Plato, and Basho so i figured the book would kick ass and it mostly does

like much of the poetry i read (and nearly everything i write) these are minimalist poems without a fixed narrator. according to the publisher’s description

Giannisi is a poet internationally known for her idiosyncratic ecopoetics, her poetic multimedia works and performances, and most of all, her brilliant vision glowing at the borders of language, voice, place, and memory.

i particularly like how she envisions ecdysis as an act of giving birth to oneself (not sure that image would’ve occurred to a male poet) but let me share instead the opening poem both because it is short and because it sort of fits with what i’ve been talking about:


Inside these articulations
the beginnings of language
outside of yes and no
inside only the I want
the soul with the body meeting
in all the openly
meteoric leaves
and now, see:
one of them falls slowly
to the earth

Phoebe Giannisi

more davebonta.com tagline possibilities

  • mouth-breather, poet
  • son of Bruce
  • fairly good egg
  • #amwriting #butpoetrysonobodyreadsit
  • young codger

April Diary 8: talking mushrooms, Utnapishtim, dead poet society

This entry is part 9 of 31 in the series April Diary


8:30 am. Dear April this is pushing the definition of “showers” rather far don’t you think? But we need the rain and I probably need to give my walking muscles a rest… at least until mid afternoon

Previous research has suggested that fungi conduct electrical impulses through long, underground filamentous structures called hyphae – similar to how nerve cells transmit information in humans.

It has even shown that the firing rate of these impulses increases when the hyphae of wood-digesting fungi come into contact with wooden blocks, raising the possibility that fungi use this electrical “language” to share information about food or injury with distant parts of themselves, or with hyphae-connected partners such as trees.

But do these trains of electrical activity have anything in common with human language?

Mushrooms communicate with each other using up to 50 ‘words’, scientist claims

half an hour before I saw this article in my Twitter feed believe it or not I had just been wondering whether fungal communication could be considered a language, and thinking how vital it is regardless for anyone trying to write ecopoetry to grapple with the role of fungi in an ecosystem

“the interpretation as language seems somewhat overenthusiastic” says University of Exeter professor Dan Bebber about the new research. what an absolutely classic British put-down

whether language can exist without the sort of consciousness that members of the animal kingdom possess seems more a question for philosophers than for scientists

but “hey, let’s ask a philosopher about this!” is about as common a reaction as “let’s send a poet into space!” — something that would’ve seemed dead obvious under any past civilization, but, you know…

fungi are not just algae farmers (forming lichens) and essential partners for most plants (forming the wood-wide web) they are also the planet’s main engines (along with some bacteria) for fermentation, digestion, and decomposition

and you can’t have composition without decomposition. for one thing there’d be no room

last night as I was heading for bed an amusing concept for a sci-fi novel occurred to me: organisms in the human microbiome become sentient and start going on strike, demanding that everyone eat as much as physically possible

don’t think i’ll ever write a novel but if i do, it would probably start out as satire and just get successively stranger with each chapter until eventually it switches to cuneiform and the reader hurls it across the room in disgust

and now the sun is shining through the pouring rain

April why are you torturing me

speaking of cuneiform I did some quality wool-gathering earlier while sitting on the porch watching the rain come down. here’s the seedy fleece:

introducing Utnapishtim Press: distilling the world’s great literature onto clay tablets before everything goes kabloobie!

Utnapishtim Press makes essential collectibles for any cultured survivalist — priceless artifacts of human civilization that could survive for millions of years and delight alien archaeologists

porcelain isn’t indestructible but manufactured in sufficient quantities and spread around the globe, the chances are good that something would survive

its major project would be an open-ended, multilingual Book of Life with a poem for every known species with whom we’ve shared the planet

a decentralized network of potter-printers could work independently, downloading whichever portions of the vast, Creative Commons-licensed corpus would be appropriate to their bioregion

this is one of those big ideas i can’t quite seem to banish despite my commitment to dilettantism. i ain’t no Utnapishtim (Babylonian Moses) and if human civilization is going to collapse under the weight of our greed, hubris and brutality, maybe we need to just let all of it go. let decomposition take place… so completely new compositions can arise

after all such total erasure of cultures is nothing new, even without genocide. “oral literature” sounds oxymoronic with the way literocentrism is baked right into the word literature, but at least 99% of all works of oral literature that have ever existed are lost. whole languages are winking out all over the globe under the pressure of colonial, consumerist monoculture

so why would poets want to contribute to that monoculture by in effect creating a new canon in the form of a potential new sacred text, spread in differing versions all over the globe? just what the world fucking needs

I finally got out for a walk around 3:00 when the rain slackened into mist with occasional sprinkles. Other than when i scramble up a steep slope, it’s no trouble to hike with an umbrella. that makes it much easier to stop and jot down thoughts

though today nothing much came and i suspect that’s because i have only so much creative energy in a given day and i’d already shot it on two erasure poems not to mention all the B.S. above

a fellow former student of my original poetry mentor, Jack McManis, happened across my 2004 blog post about him and emailed me with some of his own recollections. he took a couple of Jack’s classes back during the period when I was regularly hanging out in his office as a high school student. i asked permission to quote from the email:

Jack got assigned — against his will — to teach a freshman English comp course in 1980. By luck of the draw, I ended up in his section. As a rebellion, he threw out all of the required BS essays freshmen were supposed to write and let us write whatever we wanted. I’ll never forget him saying “Writing is writing.” So I turned in poetry, short stories, rants about things that bothered me, song lyrics. 

I got an A, and took his poetry writing class after that.

He loved one of my poems I submitted in the poetry class. It was about the shallowness of my classmates. At first they didn’t get it, but he had me read it a couple of times. And he asked the class questions. As people got it, it made some folks angry and others uncomfortable. He was delighted. I was proud. And scared. He labeled it as “powerful.”

He had me submit it to the Central PA Festival of the Arts (or something like that), where he was a judge along with two other people. He recused himself from voting since he knew me. He later told me one judge said it was shit. The other judge said it should win first place. He worked out a compromise and I got an honorable mention.

He made a great impression on me, as here I am 40 years later thinking about him and writing to you.

Chuck Hall

my friends who are teachers will appreciate that sentiment i’m sure. though it does seem like a bygone era indeed when professors could actually get away with letting students feel uncomfortable in class. the horror!

here are some lines by Jack (from my original post; go there for more samples of his work)

So the twenties, time of the great gestures! And whose
were greater than yours, St. Slapstick? You who spun truth
in crazy pantomime, though it’s half-past mayhem, time for me
to return to the missing persons bureau of the eighties, before
the onrushing manifest planet spill me in the whistlestop dark,
my keepsakes scattered in cinders, let me spin off the rods
not in mourning but laughing far down in my bones, tickled
by you, old holy pie thrower!

Jack McManis, from “Child of the Twenties in the Eighties”

four decades on and i think we can still say Amen to that!

April Diary 7: wolfish

This entry is part 7 of 31 in the series April Diary


Dear April your daffodils are as late as I’ve ever seen them

their yellow buds ease open like swimmers dipping a toe into the cold and the wet

I’m sitting on the ridgetop and as i wrote that last line two deer came up behind me caught my scent and bolted, bounding down the steep, rocky slope toward I-99

Dear April today is a moss and lichen day, the tree trunks dark with rain under heavy skies and the gray-green sleeves of their upper limbs

It’s almost axiomatic i think that any place where you have a close encounter with a charismatic creature becomes forever marked by your memory of its presence. approaching this stone seat where i had a brief staring contest with a coyote a month ago, i noticed a somewhat wolfish piece of old lichen-encrusted pine

earlier, standing in the kitchen i’d started humming that song “the bare necessities” from Disney’s original animation of the jungle book and a few lines of a new bear poem came to me:

as for the bare necessities
Balu I am still looking

I have been unbearable
to some but like you

I am a sluggard
I go to the fancy ants

my tongue works far
harder than my teeth

yeah I thought i’d just throw in a fun little riff on a Bible quote there because I have an imaginary audience of fellow KJV nerds. oh hell yeah

Dear April I read one poem in the course of half an hour sitting in the woods. is that good or bad? Charon’s Cosmology still

there aren’t too many poets so brilliant that a practiced reader can’t anticipate where a poem is going from one line to the next but Simic is one of them

there are natural landscapes like that, so full of surprise that even a practiced hiker can’t imagine what’s around the next bend. we call such places old growth if they’re forest

if we truly pay attention they confound every effort at an easy narrative

there’s nowhere i’m really going with this thought but feel free to expand upon it at your leisure

but there is a terrifying arbitrariness to our choice of narratives isn’t there

what does this mean in the age of the novel and the TV script that it might not have meant in the age of the ballad and the epic, i wonder. in slower times people might’ve had more time to think their own thoughts but history suggests that many if not most of those thoughts, especially where war was concerned, were utter dogshit

in a time of war we are reminded of the immense destructive power of official narratives, our propaganda more insidious than Russia’s because, at least in its liberal version, so few members of the professional/managerial class even recognize it as propaganda

and so we are being memed and emoted into a war that could end nearly all life on earth

Dear April there was a raccoon on my Mom’s back porch late this afternoon when i got back from my walk and at first we were excited because, you know, not really all that many raccoons up here

but then we noticed how skinny and how scroungy her fur and she seemed to have a limp no wait she’s staggering oh hell poor thing must be rabid

and our neighbor came over with a shotgun because all i have are rifles and a shotgun is the right tool for this grim but necessary job but the raccoon had disappeared probably under my house

Dear April i won’t lie: seeing that raccoon stagger felt like a haiku moment

poets are monsters

I don’t want to end on such a dark note so let me instead leave you with a haiku by a living master of the art, John Stevenson

this is from his 2004 collection with Red Moon Press quiet enough (one of the two books that came yesterday from bookshop.org)

leaves budding
a little girl
spinning in her dress

John Stephenson

such a pure, perfect, timeless moment. with that is-it-or-isn’t-it-a-metaphor frisson I get so often with Buson

April Diary 5: Dutchman’s breeches, sorcery, glutes

This entry is part 5 of 31 in the series April Diary


Dear April today a fat porcupine led me to an early-blooming patch of Dutchman’s breeches so it was a very good day

also i climbed a new-to-me mountain and met a lot of fantastic trees and rocks

(i’m not even kidding, i still get genuinely excited by cool-looking trees and rocks)

i’ve read maybe six poems today; mostly i was walking and snapping photos

the walk did generate some haiku but i thought maybe for once i’d hold them back and, i don’t know, maybe even submit them somewhere

as an inveterate online self-publisher i feel a little dirty even admitting that

during bouts of insomnia i’ve been reading a tome about Viking-age sorcery and last night I was struck by some of the translations of Sami magic specialists:

Types of Magic-Workers

according to Neil Price

  • one who harms by sorcery
  • one who harms and cures by sorcery
  • one who cures with the help of conjurations
  • one who performs wonders
  • one who bewitches people’s sight
  • one who knows a thing or two
  • one who creates illusions
  • one who whispers
  • one who dreams

The book by the way is The Viking Way: Religion and War in Late Iron Age Scandinavia

Neil Price is a brilliant historical anthropologist but if you’re not up on Viking studies this text wouldn’t be the best way in

you still have to just start with Egil’s Saga and have your mind blown

(Snorri’s Egil Skallagrimson is for my money the most compelling portrayal of a poet in all of world literature. poet and part-troll. but really more of a gangsta rapper, let’s be honest)

ever since I decided that boredom was no longer my enemy it simply vanished (tweet from yesterday)

can’t decide which sounds better, “gluteus maximus” or “butt muscle” (tweet from today)