In the forest of the meantime

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

half-sister to the poem In the Ice Forest, from last February

Deer flies bumble into my hair and can’t get out. I’m walking in the day-long dusk of midsummer woods, under a low cloud ceiling. I’ve learned how to pause, wait for just the right moment to give myself a swift blow to the head.

It’s the season for dramatic understatements: enchanter’s nightshade, rattlesnake plantain, jumpseed. The spring ephemerals have all taken new aliases. Violets’ heart-shaped leaves swell and darken, cloaking the semi-mythical cleistogamous seeds.

When the woods were filled with April light, they bloomed according to the script: a parade of shining faces, perfect forms. But now the leaf rot parts for the lurid sex organs of fungi, July’s freak show of boletes, russulas, earth stars, stinkhorns, dead man’s fingers and the fatal fly agarics.

Indian pipes rise in clumps, pale as vampires. They sink their hypodermic roots into the veins of trees and suck.

In every break in the laurel, some spider has staked a claim. The trails grow treacherous with webs. I move slowly, waving my stick from side to side like a blind conductor. Small white moths flutter up from beneath my feet.

Somewhere close by, a tree gives way, roots loosened by rain. There’s a muffled crash; no echo. In the aftermath, the wood peewee keeps bending the same two notes. His fondest wish is for the clouds never to part.

But where in this labyrinth could sunlight ever find an opening? I pause for a three-inch slug, dapper streak of brown-on-gray, stretched across the moss like an exclamation without a point.

I crouch down to watch its infinitesimal progress. The eyestalks look as if they might move sometime soon.

Biblical truth

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Real Live Preacher has an excellent post on the various ways the Bible can be used and misused.

Those people around the table? The ones you spoke so harshly to that night when you came upon them sharing a meal and pleasant conversation at church? You told them it was a shame when Christians gathered only to eat and talk. You dropped your big black bible on the table with a thud for emphasis. They are some of God’s oldest and wisest servants. They have prayed down the walls of prejudice and broken the strongholds of anger and pain with the prayers of their hands and feet. Their meal was a prayer, though you couldn’t hear it.

They know something that you do not know.

These people know that the bible is not a self-help book full of easy answers, but a book of stories and wisdom that is meant to lead us into relationship and worship. There are hard and fast truths in it, yes, but they are surrounded by soft truths, and slippery truths, and sometimes truths, and truths that once were true but are no longer true, and truths that are only true if you are in the right state of mind, and truths that are only true if you are not hurting someone, and truths that are true in the moment but not if you are talking about the moment, and truths that can only be lived and should never be spoken, and truths that we cannot hear, and truths that are more than we can bear.

Incidentally, the Preacher has travelled at least part-way down the via negativa and come out whole, to hear him tell it.

I learned some things. I found my way.

Turns out Christianity is an Eastern religion. The earliest Christians were Hebrews. Semites. People of the East. They did not know how to separate mind from body. They were holistic before holistic was cool.


Thunder bear

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The other night, toward dusk, I heard heavy footsteps coming down the walk toward my front door, and looked up from my computer just in time to see a black bear peering in.

I say “peering in,” but that’s not really accurate. What it did was, it kind of sidled up to the door and pressed its large and expressive nose against the screen for a few seconds, without looking directly in. No doubt if it had looked in, it would’ve had a hard time making sense of the jumble of right angled, brightly colored objects.

It wasn’t a large bear, just a yearling, and it didn’t stick around to visit. It was probably the same animal whose blueberry-filled scat I had discovered on the driveway that morning.

There isn’t much to say about such an encounter, really. But I was reminded of it this morning when I was awoken by a single, loud clap of thunder around 2:00. As I drifted back to sleep, I remember thinking something along the lines of, One side sings continual hosannas, the other side recites cautionary tales in a deadening drone.

What I think I meant was, every act is unique and unrepeatable – or so it seems to the angels. Against the angels I picture not devils but pedants, functionaries and technicians reminding us that the sun also riseth and vanity of vanities. But I may also have had some more private idea in mind.

I like the way black bears always seem to be grinning.

Truth teller

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The komo is thirsty; the power grid could go at any moment. Where can we get more juice?

Ah, go ask the dawn’s griot, that rooster. If he didn’t crow, the sky would never redden. He flaps up to the roof and looks all around. He waits. Feels the eyes of the night spirits greedy on the teeth of his comb.

Who among men could be so unafraid? The four-legged stool in the courtyard is silent; it hoards its stories. The granary guard dog’s nose twitches with fear, though the faintest rustle of his chain makes the nighttime walker soil his pants.

Without the right words, no action can bear fruit. We shrink into thin shadows, moonlit things. Who gave this scrawny bird such power?

Ringed in gardens, shaded by kapok trees, the village seems a cozy place. But secret jealousies crouch in the rafters of a dozen huts. Buried hatreds come alive at night, grow fur and fangs – no joke. Even the Christians know better than to leave nail clippings or the hair from their combs lying around where someone might pick them up.

But ah, the rooster! If he cares, he doesn’t show it. His eyes at midnight still sparkle with the light of noon.

Call then, bring the dawn! Sing, and I will say namu for you. Tell the truth.

He stretches out his neck, flapping his wings like a blacksmith’s helper pumping at the bellows. Kambu kaaru, kambu kambu kaaru! Wanjuburung, wanjabarang!*

Friend rooster, even if you knew this dawn would be your last, would you do anything differently? Let the first line of white streak the sky. Let feet feel for sandals, let pestles grope about for mortars. Let no one hear how, hidden in the rafters of the komo house, buried in jars under the floor, the secret generators are sputtering, thirsty for fuel.

Nothing is free in this world. For order and reason to prevail, everyone must give up some cherished thing: a flap of skin, perhaps. A favorite food. A fortnight’s worth of company with women. To every being, God has given the power of some gift.

The white band grows. A splash of red. The rooster crows as if his life depended on it.

* Mandinka onomatopoeia, lifted from Hunters and Crocodiles: Narratives of a Hunter’s Bard, by Bakari Kamara (edited and translated by Gordon Innes with Bakari Sibide, Paul Norbury Publications, 1990).

Komo is the pre-eminent secret society among the Mande people. Here, I have applied the term to its power objects as well.

This is my contribution to Ecotone wiki’s July 15 topic, Secret Places. Be sure to check out the others. At the end of her own entry, Pica notes that “the wiki has recently been vandalized by spammers; we’re trying to keep it up and running but it’s a bit of a battle.” So, see it while it lasts.

Poems about movies

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I’ve never understood why summer is officially Dumb Movie Season. In fact, given that most of us do suffer a decline in creativity due to heat, humidity, beer drinking and babes (or guys) in form-revealing outfits, I should think that would make intellectually challenging movies all the more essential. The brain is like a muscle, folks; trite but true.

But then here comes this summer, with the unprecedented box-office success of a nonfiction film, Fahrenheit 9/11, and with others in the offing (I’m especially eager to see The Corporation). The Day After Tomorrow, silly as it seemed from the reviews, evidently got audiences thinking about serious issues (global climate change, corruption in the government). I gather even Spiderman II was unexpectedly engaging. Whatever happened to movies about alien invaders and giant meteors?

So anyway, since Friday is movie night for a lot of folks, and since I don’t have time this morning for an original post, I thought I’d reproduce a couple of old poems relating to the movies. The first describes three shots from an imaginary film noir. This is one of my oldest successful poems; the germ of it is at least twenty years old. Despite the reference to a corrido (Sonoran folk ballad), the piece I have in mind for the soundtrack is modern classical: a tone-poem called Song of Love and Death (Canto de Amor e de Mort) by the Portuguese composer Fernando Lopes-Graca.

The second poem combines two real, public school experiences, so I guess it would fit in the category of “almost nonfiction.” Off-hand, I can’t think of any other movie poems I might’ve written. Does anyone else have any?

I apologize to anyone who has already read these poems (both are included in the manuscript Capturing the Hive, available in PDF form at my personal website). I promise some original content tomorrow, even if it’s just that doggerel I mentioned yesterday. Until then, TGIF y’all.


her jailed lover’s image in the mirror
slowly loses color
like tea poured again & again
from the same leaves
or a cloud of cigarette smoke mixing with the air


beneath the mirror’s mercury lies
the captain lost at sea in some
interminable corrido
his waterproof watch still ticks inside his slicker


it’s past 3:00
light from the street lamp
filters through the slats of the blind
outshines the moon:
two sets of stripes that cross at
an oblique angle on the walls & the bed
where she lies staring into the one dark corner


Twelve hundred kids packed the auditorium
for a high school assembly: a road show
on the history of animation, brought to us
by Pepsi. The punishment for skipping
such mandatory fun was an extra hour
of school. But some wise-ass
Spoiled It For Everybody with
a little
laughing box.
In the middle of the presenter’s
introductory talk, a sudden
outburst of demented giggles
followed by rapid-fire hos & haws,
squeals & peals, belly laughs
going off like depth charges.
The thing about
a laughing box is, once
you get one started, you can’t
shut it up. Propelled
by apprehensive kicks,
it ricocheted from row
to row beneath the seats,
its laugh track whipping around
like a sperm cell’s flagellum
in a Sex Ed film. As the shock
wore off we watched the three
or four minor führers on stage
shrinking into their scowls.
Finally it flew
out–a bright blue
plastic cube–struck the baseboard
with considerable force & died
in mid-guffaw.
A long moment of silence.
Then the clapping started, spreading
throughout the hall. Cheers,
whistles. The assistant principal
on his feet, waving his arms
as the applause went on & on.