Syllabus, omnibus, blunderbuss

Tom Montag is busy putting together a course on nonfiction writing – his first time behind the lectern in a college classroom. Meanwhile, Fred First comes back from the undead as a reincarnated professor of biology. Some of the other bloggers I read faithfully, such as Lorianne and Elck, teach college more-or-less full time, as I understand it. With all this in my head, I guess, I had one of those “back to college” dreams last night: you know, it’s final exam week, and you just realize that you completely forgot that you had signed up for Physics 666, and now you have to read and understand the entire textbook in a few hours. If you don’t pass the 8:00 a.m. exam you’ll have to return to high school. Where everyone will laugh at you, because in these “back to the future” dreams you are always your present age – a spry 38, in my case.

“NO! I’m too old for thees boollsheet nightmare! I will slay the dragons of anxiety and insecurity the only way possible – by becoming a professor myself!”

Ha. In your dreams, buddy. Or: in your blog . . .

Herewith, then, my proposed syllabus for a ten-week course in poetry. I’ve given this lots and lots of careful thought, as you can imagine. Please note that everyone who signs up will get an “A” automatically. If you don’t want to do the work, god bless you. Cash up front.

1. Welcome to Poetry (De-)Composition 101. Mina Loy said, “Poetry is prose bewitched; a music made of visual thoughts, the sound of an idea.” Class dismissed.

The rest of the week: play with your words. Play with other people’s words. Mix and match, but no alcohol.

2. You know enough, already.

Get shit-faced every night, and blow off all your classes – including this one.

3. William Carlos Williams was right. An abstraction in the middle of the poem tends to turn into one more object. It can make the whole poem. So, devote your energies to proving Williams wrong. Read Basho and the King James Bible in tandem until your eyeballs bleed.

4. Never carry an umbrella when you leave the house. If it rains, you’ll get wet. But don’t count on that, either. Forget a life, will ya?

5. Stand on one foot: easy, right? Now close your eyes and try to keep your balance.

Think about this for a while, then write a poem about storks.

It would probably help if you’ve actually seen a stork. But without “the stork” you wouldn’t be here, now, would you? Write about that stork.

6. That lamppost where you stand to catch the bus – notice everything about it that seems strange. When you get on the bus, do the same thing with the bus, then with everyone who gets on the bus, then with everything that you can see from the bus.

Practice being a stranger to yourself.

And always take public transportation.

7. Never write as if your life depended on it. This is a grotesque self-indulgence. Writing exists of necessity on the periphery, in the margins. Poetry is superfluous and therefore full of grace.

Construct a life-size natural history museum using nothing but scissors, paper and stones.

8. Always write as if your life depended on it. Because it does, you know. Without grace, you are mere consumer, taxpayer, chipped tooth aspiring to the level of cog.

Take everything you’ve written so far this semester with you on a three-day backpacking trip. Every night, use your poems to start the fire you cook your suppers over. Cook everything you eat from scratch.

9. When you start, be sure to have no clear idea of where you’ll end up. Or, have an idea, but don’t think about it for longer than a heartbeat without saying inshallah, “God willing” – even (or especially) if you don’t believe in God.

Learn how to draw.

10. Everything you have learned is wrong. I am partly to blame for that, of course. As your teacher, it has been my solemn and sacred duty to confuse, bewilder, lie, cheat, cajole and hoodwink.

As Blind Willie McTell said to his future wife the first time they met: “Take me until you can do better!”


Suddenly, the little tab in the top center of my Yahoo inbox that used to say “Powered by hp,” is fire-engine red and fires a new slogan one word at a time, Burma Shave style.

YOU (with a target for the O)
you + hp

There’s a thought! Interesting timing, too: I hadn’t noticed it until a couple days ago. Right on the eve of the GOP convention, which is described as the most scripted and theatrical ever.

I gather that on Sunday afternoon, as several hundred thousand of the unwashed mashes acted out their own playlists in the streets, the illuminati of the Republican Party were in the theatres enjoying special Republican Party-approved Broadway musicals, such as “The Lion King” and “Wonderful Town.” “No one will be sent to see Mark Medoff’s play ‘Prymate,’ . . . a show that confronts racial sensitivities and has a black actor playing a gorilla. They will not be sent to Tony Kushner’s “Caroline, or Change,” a serious musical about civil rights. In fact, they will not be sent to anything that touches on contemporary issues,” the New York Times reported.

In other words,

you + GOP

Give my regards to Broadway.

The devil in the details

All weekend the air hangs thick and heavy. On rare occasions when the sun peeks through the clouds, the woods and lawn turn into a Turkish steam bath. With barely a breeze at ground level or aloft, the numerous thunderstorms move at a snail’s pace, like clipper ships becalmed in the Sargasso Sea. From Saturday afternoon on, one can hear an almost constant rumbling from storms in every direction.

When the storms hit, they bring brief downpours of monsoon strength. I sit on my porch and enjoy the tempest, teacup in hand. It’s just as well that I decide to take a break from blogging on Sunday – the computer is off more often than it’s on. My link to the web is through a wireless, so-called ethernet connection between here and my parent’s house, and my father has learned the hard way – through two fried modems – always to unplug the jack from the wall at the first hint of a storm. The surge protector can’t save the modem from a burst of electrons along the telephone line.

Yesterday afternoon we had two lightning strikes that almost certainly would have cooked the modem had it been connected. This wasn’t one of those storms with lots of cloud-to-cloud lightning, “sound and fury signifying nothing.” It was a thunderstorm that meant business: sheets of rain, long minutes between bolts of lightning that went straight to earth (or in fact, straight to sky, but I’m talking more about perception than reality here). The second close strike hit right behind my parent’s house with an earsplitting crash. Ah, adrenalin! I do love a good storm . . .

I was attempting to read a book called The Feast of the Sorcerer: Practices of Consciousness and Power, by Bruce Kapferer (University of Chicago Press, 1997), but it wasn’t easy. The author plunges right into a dense, theoretical discussion in the Introduction, then proceeds to survey the entire field of “Sorcery in Anthropology” in Chapter 1. Only in the second chapter does he begin to get into the nitty-gritty, with descriptions of actual practices in the area where he has conducted fieldwork – among the Sinhalese Buddhists of Sri Lanka. Finally, my head stops hurting and I start finding passages I can sink my teeth into:

The supplicants to the shrines of Suniyam and the other demon-deities unite with the forces of magnified, transcendent, godlike human action. They join with the capacity of this action as a force in the destruction and re-creation of human realities, as a dynamic in the energies of exclusion and inclusion in the orders and relations of the life world, and as the expressive force of alienated and alienating power. When people visit the shrines to Suniyam and the other demon-deities or sorcery gods (usually to ask for assistance for some immediate practical matter concerning their everyday lives), they enter into the vertices of the turbulent power of human being. There they draw upon the magicality of human being and extend themselves into its magicality. This extraordinary potency of human beings is as apparent in lack and dispossession as in possession, to which Suniyam and other demon-deities give marvelous expression. I refer to the capacity of human beings to direct their consciousness actively and transformationally into the world, to make and unmake the realities of themselves and their fellows, to become intimate and influential in the actions of others, and even, as it were, to become consubstantial with the very bodily being of others. This is the potency of sorcery.

It occurs to me that a key phrase in all this is “as it were.” With that last crash of thunder still echoing in my ears, I’m wondering in my usual way just how much it really amounts to, this “magicality” – Sartre’s expression for the power of human intentionality arising from the formation of social bonds. How can you really compare the sparks from a human encounter with the awesome power of Nature? What do “godlike human action” and “the expressive force of alienated or alienating power” really amount to?

But then I remind myself of just how much destruction has been wrought by human beings since their adoption of the mechanistic worldview in the 17th century. Once alienated from the true wellsprings of Creation, the engineers, managers and economists, caught up in their boundless faith in the power and rightness of the human will, have indeed forged a terrifying global reality in which even the weather cannot now be ascribed solely to God or Nature.

The storm moves slowly off. With the last rumbles dying away in the east, it’s time to reconnect the Plummer’s Hollow intranet. But something’s wrong; I can’t get through. I use the pinging software installed by my techie cousin Jeff, and sure enough, there’s nothing passing between the houses. I buzz my Dad on the intercom: is the modem working? Yep, no problem, he says. I run back and forth between the houses, trying this and that, dodging the ever-more-rampant tear-thumb – a moisture-loving plant that has taken over much of the lawn this summer.

We try our usual gambit when the connection fails: turn the main computer off and let it rest for a few minutes before restarting. Neither of us has any idea why this works, but usually it does. No dice this time, though. Finally, it occurs to me to try unplugging and reconnecting both wireless units. I reason that since they are plugged into unprotected circuits, a power surge from the lightning must have somehow knocked them off alignment, even though all their little lights are still glowing green.

It works! Or so the “WS Ping ProPack” suggests. I have to signal my dad to reconnect the modem briefly in order to verify the restoration of my connection. Another storm has already begun to move in.


From Reuters:

Police said there were more than 200 arrests during the day, most unrelated to the march, but there was at least one clash between self-styled anarchists and police along the route.

Why is it they never tell us about the well-behaved, officially designated anarchists that must be out there? I mean, imagine if everyone just called themselves anarchists whether they had any right to or not. It would be, like, anarchy!

New tricks

Most of my best correspondents are machines, I was muttering to myself as I scanned through my latest e-mail messages: automatically forwarded comments from Haloscan (5); automatically generated, monthly listserv subscription information (3); weekly updates from online dating services to which I had never subscribed and from which I could not seem to withdraw my name (2); spam addressed to people whose e-mail handle resembled mine (8); and a barrage of action alerts from close to two dozen do-gooder organizations. My favorites are the ones where all you have to do is hit “reply” and “send” and they do the rest – including sending a fax on your behalf. I love the idea of my lobotomized senator having to pay for the privilege of receiving tens of thousands of identical faxes on some issue he couldn’t give a rat’s ass about. The power of the people and all that.

Just then the phone rang. It was my mother. “Hey, you know that girl Joan you used to date? I just got the nicest letter from her! She mentioned she was doing a lot of driving for her new job, and said she’d be passing through in late September. It kind of sounded like she wants to stop in for a visit! Though she didn’t come right out and say so.”

“Huh,” I said. A letter?

“So this morning I called her up, and we had the nicest conversation! She said she was sorry now about the way things worked out – or didn’t work out, you know – but that she had always admired our family so much, because her own had been so dysfunctional and everything. She told me a few things that I can’t really share with you, but it was just, I don’t know, nice.

“So anyway, she’s going to drop in on the 28th and 29th – that’s when we’re all getting together for a late Labor Day celebration, and to see Tom and Crystal’s new baby, remember?”

“Oh yeah, right.”

“Well, I just thought, you’d be here anyway at that time . . . But with everyone else here too, there’d be less pressure on you to talk with her if you didn’t feel like it. And you remember what a great cook she was! She said she’d be glad to help out in the kitchen – she sounded really excited about it. I mean, you know, I just feel sorry for her.”

“Uh huh.”

I guess I didn’t really mind. Actually, I didn’t think much about it at all, until the very morning of the reunion. My car’s CD player wasn’t working, so I was more or less forced to do some thinking for a while on the drive over. I started wondering about the logistics. Where was Joan going to sleep?

“She can sleep in your old bedroom, can’t she? I figured you could just grab a sleeping bag from the attic and sleep on the living room floor,” Mom said cheerfully when I called her on the cell phone. “It can’t be much different from all that camping you do, right?”

You know those vivid dreams right before daybreak, where you feel as if you’re lucid, as if your conscious mind is fully in control? But then you wake up and realize that it wasn’t, and that you had had no more control over the way things turned out than in any other dream. That’s kind of the way that weekend felt.

Joan was completely different. It had only been twelve years since I’d last seen her – it seemed like yesterday. But in that time, evidently, she had worked at a half dozen different places, traveled all over the world, made (I think) quite a bit of money during the dot-com bubble, and when it burst, spent a couple years “getting her head together” at some ashram in Oregon or Washington state.

This last experience, she said, “totally changed my life,” and I believed her. The thing is, I didn’t much care for the change. The Joan I’d dated had been very opinionated, funny, decisive. She was the kind of person who knew exactly what she wanted out of life, which always fascinated me because it was so alien to my own, more contemplative existence. We liked each other a lot, but ultimately had decided that our constant disgreements were wearing us out.

The new Joan was anything but pushy. Even her voice had changed; her sentences now tended to trail off into the ether, or else would end with that peculiar rising intonation so popular among the younger set these days. And it was almost impossible to pin her down about anything.

“So what are you up to these days?” I asked after the obligatory long hug and effusions of warm mutual regard.

“Oh, so many things, you know? I mean, I’m just sort of being, like in harmony with the universe? Living in the now . . . ”

“My mother said you were doing a lot of driving for your new job. You’re in sales?”

“Oh, I don’t know if I’d call it that . . . I mean, people do call it that . . . Like, you just did? But I don’t know if that’s my reality? . . . I drive . . . Sometimes I might get a sale . . . People in a rest area somewhere might read the side of my van and come over, you know, and talk for a while . . . If they don’t buy anything, that’s perfectly O.K.? Because I’m like in it for the whole journey?”

“Well, O.K., but what are you selling?”

She led me up to my old room and showed me what appeared to be an unpainted piece of lawn furniture. “I brought this one to give to your mother? I think they’re so beautiful . . . But maybe you don’t agree . . . ”

“Um, well, I guess it is kind of . . . compelling. It’s a garden ornament of some kind?”

She let out an irritatingly tinkly laugh. “It’s all hand-forged in the traditional way . . . No one makes them like this anymore . . . It’s kind of based on a design, or really several designs, that I found in an old catalogue from 1898 . . . ”

“You make them yourself?” I asked, remembering that her parents had been artists.

That laugh again. “Oh, it’s not like I have a forge in my backyard or anything . . . ”

Then, perhaps sensing my frustration, she knelt down and pointed out the outline of a dog sitting on its haunches. “They’re so popular with dog lovers . . . Anyone who’s ever had a companion animal knows what a deeply spiritual connection that can be . . . Like my Hermione here? Would you like to say hello to Dave? Dave, this is Hermione . . . ”

There was a dog on my bed. A brown and tan mongrel – a beagle-border collie mix, by the look of it. “Hello,” it said.

Joan let out another tinkle of laughter at my evident surprise. “Yes, she’s quite a talker, aren’t you Hermy?

“We met at the ashram?” Joan continued. “Sri Ramanujan – that’s the guru – he tried to teach her a little bit of the Vedas? But I guess she didn’t really care too much for that . . . She decided to start speaking English instead . . . ”

“I said to myself, fuck this! I want to be able to go into the kitchen and place my order with the cooks! ‘Hey, brother, how about forking over some of that sorry end of a sacred cow,'” the dog said in a gruff but perfectly intelligible voice, ending with a couple of short barks that were the closest she could come to laughing.

“We became, like, best friends?” Joan said.

“Nobody else wanted anything to do with me. ‘Who wants a dog that can talk? Besides, she’s so judgemental,‘” Hermione mimicked. “Idiots!”

I regarded her warily. “So what do you do?” I asked, trying to steer the conversation away from topics that might offend the newly sensitive Joan.

“What do I do? I’m a dog! I piss and shit, shed hair and scratch up the furniture. I live like a queen! And besides, let me tell you, it’s a full-time job just keeping an eye on this flako nut-job!” Bark bark. “I have to take her for a walk every morning, or she’d do nothing but sit around and gaze at her navel all day. Honey, I say, if anything ever happens with your navel, I’ll tell you! You’ll be the first to know!” Bark bark bark.

“She plays piano, too? It’s, like, so beautiful and spiritual,” Joan said demurely. “She says she taught herself, but I think she must’ve remembered it from a past life?” Hermione replied with what can only be described as a snort.

So the visit turned out to be a lot more interesting than I had expected. I figured the only way to find out what had really happened at the ashram, and what was happening in Joan’s life now, was to ask Hermione in private. Plus, I wanted to make sure she was really speaking on her own – I wouldn’t put it past Joan to have learned ventriloquism.

But the dog really was that vocal – and that smart. “No, Joan isn’t a ventriloquist!” she said as I pushed the bedroom door open.

Her words did sound a little muffled, though. She was lying on the bed as before, with one of my bathroom slippers between her teeth.

“Hey, that’s my slipper!” I protested.

“Well, I figured it belonged to somebody,” she said as she gave it a good shake. “Don’t worry, I’ll tell Joan to buy you a new pair before we leave.” Chew chew chew.

“But why . . . ”

“Look, Dave, do you have any idea what it’s like to be a carnivore? I mean a real carnivore with real canines that give you sharp jolts, unpleasant little reminders of their existence, if you go too long without ripping apart a rotting carcass. You know what I’m saying? Bad karma be damned! This isn’t a lifestyle choice!”

I laughed. “O.K., but why my slippers? If you have some issues, let’s talk them out. I mean, you can do that, right?”

“Dogs don’t have issues, Dave. They have problems. Look, I know there are such things as pet psychiatrists, but you’re not one of them, O.K.? I had no idea whose slipper this was. I’m sorry! You’ll get a new one!”

And she was sorry, too, I could tell that. She was, after all, a beagle-border collie mix – they have a gift for that sort of thing. I wondered whether her facility with human speech might have supressed her native capacity for empathy, though.

She let out a bark of laughter. “No, you don’t do it like that! If you want to learn how to tell what others are thinking, you can’t just look straight into their eyes – that’s no good,” she said.

I hadn’t even known that that was what I wanted to learn until she said so. It occurred to me that speech was perhaps the least of the tricks that Hermione had learned from hanging out with the guru at Joan’s ashram.

“The corners of the eyes,” she said, “and on human beings, the corners of their mouth – and the lines between the two. That’s where you look.”

I settled into the armchair next to the bed. “Do you mind if I smoke?”