Building a better reader-trap

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I’ve just introduced two new features that should improve navigability and access to the Via Negativa archives: an Advanced Search function (see sidebar, under “Search Via Negativa”) and a Table of Contents (see top of page). I can’t take credit for either of these innovations: both employ free, open-source software plugins, and as usual I needed my cousin Matt’s assistance to get them up and running.

Advanced Search allows boolean operations, searching by category, searching of comments, and other nifty features (see the plugin page). Let me know if you have any problems with it.

The Table of Contents page is exactly what it sounds like: a complete, clickable list of blog post titles arranged in reverse chronological order. It uses software developer and photographer Justin Blanton’s Smart Archives plugin. I did this as much for my own convenience as for anyone else’s — I can barely remember what I wrote last week, let alone last year. I’m beginning to think more seriously about pulling some material together for a book, and this new navigation tool should help me find it. But I hope it will also encourage visitors to settle in and browse. I want Via Negativa to become a total time-sink experience for everyone who stops by.

To make room for the TOC link at the top of the page, I’ve moved the blogroll link into the sidebar, under “Other Places.” The credits are linked in the footer as well as at the bottom of the sidebar (as Acknowledgements). I’ll probably make more changes in the days or weeks ahead (I really like Blanton’s idea of a website tour, for example). The challenge, as always, is to engage new visitors while also serving long-time readers. Please let me know if you have any ideas or suggestions. And thanks for reading.

“Precondition Failed”

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

If you’ve gotten this message after attempting to leave a comment at the previous post, or after clicking on any of the navigation links from the post page, you’re not alone. I don’t know what the heck’s up with it. I’ve tried taking the post down and publishing it anew, but the problem persists. I felt bad about the negative tone of the piece when I wrote it last night, and now, it’s clearly cursed. I don’t know if the hex can be lifted. Best not to click on it for now.
My apologies to anyone whose comments have been lost.

UPDATE (1:12 pm EDT): All fixed now! Matt tells me that some word or combination of words in the text of the post (“pretty pictures”? “exploitation”?) had triggered a block from the security system in place at the hosting provider. That system has now been turned off for Via

Old Scratch

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duckweed 3

Itchiness wakes you in the night: chigger bites, mosquito & no-see-um bites, poison ivy, athlete’s foot, eczema, dermatitis, hives, dry scalp. Itches without cause or number. You scratch yourself awake, then lie still, focusing on the unrelieved itchiness the same way you focused on your nicotine craving when you quit smoking. What is this “I” who feels itchy? What are you really, apart from this urge to scratch?

Life is unsatisfactory, said the Buddha: there is itchiness. Or as the medical professionals say: pruritis. Ha! Speak of an itch & it will appear. Its names are legion:

arm itch, thumb itch,
calf itch, back itch,
breast itch, chest itch,
lip itch, rib itch,
forearm itch, foreskin itch,
elbow itch, ankle itch,
facial itch, anal itch,
mouth itch, muscle twitch,
groin itch, gum itch,
head itch, heel itch,
wrist itch, fingernail itch,
kneecap itch, behind-knee itch,
leg itch, neck itch,
nipple itch, nose itch,
scalp itch, stomach itch,
eye itch, eyelid twitch,
vaginal itch, clitoris itch,
testicle itch, penile itch,
thigh itch, shin itch,
underarm itch, eyebrow itch,
ear itch, cheek itch,
sole itch, shoulder itch,
knuckle itch, upper arm itch,
buttock itch, foot itch,
hand itch, finger itch,
palm itch, jaw itch.

Hearing these words, you begin to itch all over. You’re scratching places you’ve never scratched before!

Ready-made phrases float through your half-awake brain as they’re supposed to, responding to an itch for rhythm & meaning. What’s in a name? Itchiness is not exactly pain, & scratching an itch is not exactly pleasure, is it? Real pain cannot be eased by scratching, & real pleasure cannot be found solely in the response to one’s own itches — I should know. Pain has a single dimension; happiness, they tell me, has three.

Itchiness, then, is two-dimensional, a thing of surfaces. When you gaze at the so-called heavens, you’re really looking at the underside of the world’s own, fatty skin. At night, the stars shimmer from its spasmodic twitching, full of these chiggers called human beings —

going to & fro in the earth,
& walking up and down in it.

No wonder the whirlwind descends, that great middle finger.

Click Language

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common mullein

Married women in my area
want sex, you say, & I believe it.
Is this the hotshot stock alert
I’ve been waiting for? I could get
a laptop of my choice, on you,
or realize total & absolute power
& domination in bed. I am approved
for all loans, with no headaches,
no stomachaches, no come-down.
Your pills are soft & dissolvable
under the tongue. If I sign up
for help, I’ll be put into the hopper
for your daily cash giveaway.
Easy babes are looking to hook up.
I should not entertain any atom
of fear, as all required arrangements
have been made for the transfer,
but my response is needed.
If I want to be removed — &
sometimes I do — I can click
below. What have I done to deserve
so much consideration?

Psalm for the Rapture

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Farther away — much farther,

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high as a predator drone above the caution tape,
distant as a satellite from the chalk outline on the street,

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safe from the suck of the swamp,
its cottonmouths & mosquitoes,

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free from the burden of earth
& the deadly irredeemable stones,

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beyond the sting of conscience
& the discomfort of moral ambiguity,

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rapture me in the always-now of amnesia,
in the never-enough of consumption, rupture me,

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oh god oh god oh god oh god oh god.

David to Abishag

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devil's bindweed

I was David, slayer of tens of thousands,
dancing half-naked before the Ark.
Power flowed through me: everyone saw
how the Lord gloried in his tool.

      Abigail, Michal, Ahinoam — where were they?
      Forgotten on their pillows of goats’ hair,
      like the graven image that slept in my bed
      on the night I staged my first
      tactical retreat.

Don’t look at me like that! Remember,
Jonathon was dead, whose love had been
more wonderful than the love of any woman.
The Lord had taken my seed
for his own: my sons would be his sons.

      But what does a virgin know about love?
      I danced, I circled back on myself
      like a serpent, honey-tongued.
      I fucked Bathsheba & had her husband killed.

A flash of anger in your eyes — good.
I hold nothing back; neither should you.
More than anything else,
El Shaddai loves openness.

      Ah, but Absalom, beautiful in outrage,
      broken at the bottom of a pit!
      What kind of arch is supported
      by a single pillar?

You have heard these stories a hundred times,
I know. They are all I have left.
I keep hoping somehow to set you aflame, poor girl,
forced to cuddle with this soft cold worm
your King.

Abishag – see I Kings 1:1-4
dancing before the arkII Samuel 6:12-16
the graven image that slept in my bedI Samuel 19:11-17
more wonderful than the love of any womanII Samuel 1:25-26
the Lord had taken my seedII Samuel 7:12-16
BathshebaII Samuel 11
a single pillarII Samuel 18:17-18
For another take on the real David behind the layers of tradition, see Baruch Halpern, David’s Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King (Eerdmans, 2001)


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Look, the night doesn’t fall like a curtain
or rise from any ground. In fact,
it doesn’t move at all.
It’s still there, even in the heat of noon.

Ay, Carnival.
Fields of dog grass.

We pass through that black purse
like stones through a gizzard,
grinding against each other, a currency
no sooner earned than spent.
Our features fade, rubbed smooth.
Veins appear just under the skin.
Strands of silver.

Ay Carnival,
bald as a nickname.

Now more than ever, I am nothing you’d
care to save. But night still rattles
with the dreams of poor Indians,
in their hats & shawls like broody hens
unwilling to abandon the egg
that will never hatch.

Big overblown Carnival.


Lines in italics are taken from Quechua folksongs collected by Jesíºs Lara and translated by Maria A. Proser and James Scully (Quechua Peoples Poetry, Curbstone Press, 1976).
For background on Potosí­, see here.

In the Mountains of the Lion

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Imagine having to go on with no way to touch.
Giving birth to the child of who knows which
stoned soldier, & never knowing the silky
feel of his skin, whether to caress
or to shove away, away.

I let him nurse to ease the swelling in my breasts.
I licked him like a cat — it was all the salt I could get.
Were they not terrible, those severed hands,
when they stood back up at last
& began to point?

Territory Folks

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Click on the photo for a larger image

After mother remarried, her new husband
shot the horse that had returned
with an empty saddle.

It hadn’t let anyone but me ride it since.
You couldn’t slam a door or fire a gun,
it would kick down the stalls.

We’d put it outside during thunderstorms.
I’d hear a frantic drumroll of hooves
circling the pasture,

& something heavy — the Sunday roast — scraping
across a table. I mean, the way it sounds
from underneath,

crouching among the chairs, hungry,
keeping a wary eye on those tooled
leather boots.