One-shot poems, 5 a.m.

A ladybug is sleeping on the letter N.
Somehow this reminds me to go turn
the thermostat up.
Full moon above the low cloud ceiling.
Under their roof of snow a city of voles.
In the not-quite dark of the not-yet light,
silhouette of an opossum against the snow
scuttling from tree to tree.
Directly underneath me where
I sit and type,
something is chewing.
The eaves grow longer teeth,
ice dams overflow.
My burrow is damp.
The moon shows its face for half a minute
through a thin screen of cloud,
snow falling sideways.

Questioning dreaming

I had two blog-related thoughts in the middle of the night and can only remember one of them, more or less. Of the other I retain an outline: it seems that I was compiling quotes, and had found one that made a worthy companion to Buber’s meditation on a tree from I and Thou, which I’ve been meaning to include for some time. I did not wake up completely in either instance, but simply made a mental note to retrieve on waking. This is dangerous, given the inexact impressions of the thinking mind during sleep.

Perhaps as I grow older, I will take to imitating my father, who keeps a pen and a stack of 3×5″ slips of paper on his nightstand. When he has what seems like an important middle-of-the-night thought, he’ll half-wake up, write down a few key words or phrases on a slip of paper without turning on the light and drop it on the floor where he’ll see it in the morning. Sometimes, he says, he’ll get up in the morning and find that the stretch of carpet between bed and door is white with thought-spoor from a productive night of dreaming.

This would be a good place to launch into a disquisition on the anthropology of dreaming, but I’m missing the one really essential text: Dreaming: Anthropological and Psychological Interpretation, edited by Barbara Tedlock. Also, I did a lot of research and thinking on this topic for my book-length poem Cibola the year before last, so I’m a little burnt out on the subject. (This isn’t necessarily a plug; I now regard Cibola as an artistic failure, though I still feel there’s some pretty strong writing in it – mostly in the last third – and a lot of good insights.)* The book incorporates regular sections of epigrams from various sources, both as an aid to the reader’s understanding and as a nod to meta-texuality and multi-vocalic whatnot. One of the things I quote from is George Steiner’s essay “The Historicity of Dreams” (in No Passion Spent: Essays 1978-1995, Yale U.P., 1996).

The essay is subtitled “two questions to Freud.” It throws out a number of points worth pondering, for example: “Animals dream. Am I altogether in error in thinking that the philosophical and historical implications of this platitude are enormous, and that they have received remarkably little attention? For if animals dream, as they manifestly do, such ‘dreams’ are generated and experienced outside any linguistic matrix.” The ability to dream in other members of the animal kingdom is often cited as evidence for the view that dreaming is necessary to affix events and images in the memory. Steiner cautions, however, that “not only can we have no proof that the dreams of animals occur in such ‘imagistic-sensory’ mode, but we cannot even ‘think’ any such mode without adulterating it into verbal discourse. Man can almost be defined as a species with only exceedingly limited and falsifying access to the universe (for it is nothing less) of silence.” (Emphasis added.) **

“Did hominid species, in their intimate co-existence not only with primates but with the whole animal kingdom, dream zoo-logically?” Steiner asks. This line of speculation is interesting to me because of my own sense that many dreams are fundamentally altered by their conversion into narrative. And the possibility of hyper-linguistic dreams such as I had last night – i.e., examples of abstract thinking of the kind that are rare enough during waking hours for most of us who are not scientists or philosophers – implies to me that such conversion may not always be completely after-the-fact, upon waking, as the rest of Steiner’s study of dream interpretation assumes. Rather, an almost simultaneous translation may be going on.

Who is the translator, then? Is it the same as the witnessing “I” (eye) of the lucid dreamer? And what to make of the division between witness and protagonist within the selfhood of the dreamer? This could point in several directions. My usual anthropological interests make me want to try and trace a connection with what comparative religionist Karl Luckert refers to as the pre-human flux of mythological time among gatherer-hunters. I’m also thinking of the many ways I’ve read about in which dreaming (and other unconscious or semi-conscious states) can be developed and directed for shamanic purposes: to divine, to heal, to harm – even to kill, in some cultures.***

Steiner is sensitive to these possibilities and nuances as well: “We do not sleep at the same hours, in the same milieu, in the same psychological aura – climatic, nutritive, sexual – as did, say, an ancient Greek, a medieval serf, a Trobriand islander. . . . The dreams recorded by the royal scribes of ancient Egypt or the Bible, by Plutarch or the medieval allegorists differ among themselves as radically as they differ from those set down by anthropologists and ethnographers in the field. They differ strikingly, as well, from those cited as typical in the literature of psychoanalysis.” He goes on to ponder the great gulf between traditional dream-interpretation, in which “dreams are the momentary runes which the future inscribes on the sleeping soul,” and modern psychoanalysis, in which “dreams feed not on prophesy but on remembrance.

“The semiological vector points not to the future but to the past. The dynamics of opacity are not those of the unknown but of the suppressed.” This reorientation first came about among European “Enlightenment” thinkers of the 17th century, he says, and gathered steam with the Romantics, for whom dreams were “homecomings to the ‘visionary gleam’ of birth and childhood.” Steiner proposes several reasons for the shift. First, our conception of the future became mechanical, statistical and stochastic – i.e. “scientific.” Gradually, then, “responsible knowledge is assimilated to daylight (cf. the light-symbolism, the noon-poetics in the iconography and discursive conventions of the Newtonian revolution). Concomitantly, night and its output are assigned to the domain of illusion, of childishness, of pathology. As Goya has it, in that most haunting of his engravings, nightmares are born of the sleep of reason.”

This may be an accurate analysis of Enlightenment prejudices, but it’s hardly a new trope. Sufis, Buddhists, the Kogi Indians of Columbia and others have long used not only the image of enlightenment for the ideal/natural state of the thinking mind, but also the analogy of waking from sleep to describe its experience. But of course Steiner must know this; it doesn’t invalidate his argument, simply re-situates it within a truly global hermeneutic of unconsciousness compared with which modern psychoanalysis seems infantile indeed.

Our guide continues with a brief discussion of the reevaluation of childhood during the Romantic period, which is obviously still very much with us (and very much worth celebrating – especially now in this “Seusstennial” year!). A third possible factor in the shift is “that of the internalizations of experience which come near to defining modernity itself.”

“Such conjectures are,” Steiner hastens to add, “too vague, too portentious, to be of real use.” I beg to differ! What he calls vague I prefer to think of as suggestive.

The remainder of his essay is devoted to rebutting the “arbitrary naivety” of Freud in regard to poetics. (“The phenomenology of dreaming is embedded in the evolution and structures of language. A theory of dreams is also a linguistics or, at the very least, a poetics.”) His own, relatively safe and highly provisional conclusion about the relationship of dream interpretations to waking life is that they reflect and transmute not only individual but shared experiences. And, he implies, they may be predictive in at least the limited sense that one’s unconscious mind can be open to aspects of the larger social and historical milieu ignored or blocked by the waking intellect.

My mother is sometimes prone to dreams that seem vaguely prophetic or clairvoyant. Her only moment of true clairvoyance was many years ago, when she knew the exact moment of her beloved grandmother’s death. I had a similar experience two years ago, when I had a very vivid dream about an old acquaintance whom I hadn’t seen or even much thought about in several years, at what turned out to be the approximate hour of his death. In my dream, he was getting out of a van right next to me in a parking lot, but seemed not to recognize me when I called his name. In fact, as it turned out he had been driving a van when he careened off the highway and was killed. But I am not sure that these dream-visitations occupy the same order of reality as predictive dreams.

My mother included in her book Appalachian Autumn a dream which she had not herself considered to be prophetic. Interestingly, her editor at the University of Pittsburgh Press wanted to take it out – she found its inclusion irrelevant and a little melodramatic, apparently. Before reading the manuscript, based only on my mother’s telling of it and knowledge of the proximate events (which I had not been at home to witness), I felt moved to make a poem out of it. Thus innocently and inadvertently I stumbled upon what seemed to me and to her to be a logical reading. The only part I fudged here, obviously, is the suggestion that she “remembers her dream” a week later, during the event it seems to have foreshadowed. I can’t recall if the part about the guy swallowing his plug of tobacco was my invention or not; it was a later addition to try and offset the high drama with a touch of humor.


It shook her out of a sound sleep, she says,
it seemed so real: the catamount
with all four feet dug into her flesh
riding her back like a demon in an old folktale.

Was it the lion’s voice or her own
she heard as she tried to turn
& couldn’t, couldn’t look,
doubled under that unearthly weight?

One clear autumn morning a week later
she wakes to the roar of a lumberman’s bulldozer
& remembers her dream. The man looking
down from his nest of gearshifts

must wonder at this gray-haired woman
who faces him from the other side
of the blade with hands
half-clenched. He reaches for the switch

& it shudders into silence. Don’t worry,
, he says, eyes watering (no doubt
from swallowing when he should’ve spat),
we’ll cut well above your line.

This Cat is yellow & its teeth and claws are steel.
It lays the wooded spine of the mountain bare.
My mother runs to the far field
to flee the chainsaw’s scream.****

As for the thought I had last night, it was neither prophetic nor especially profound. I’m sure it’ll worm its way into a blog post at some point; I’ll keep y’all posted.

But I think that’s really why I do my blogging first thing in the morning, preferably beginning well before dawn: to take advantage of the lingering impressions from my dreams, which I otherwise rarely make any particular effort to remember. I consider myself a pragmatist on the question of dream-interpretation. For the writing mind too enters a mild state of trance; the self-conscious ego is forced into a temporary retreat. Whose dark words are these, then, with which I am so presumptuously attempting to map the via negativa?

*A pdf version of Cibola is available here. Be advised that there are no page numbers (for no better reason than my very incomplete mastery of Pagemaker at the time of composition) so anyone wishing to print it out should be careful to keep the pages in order.
**I love that “almost”! Steiner’s caution as a thinker is one of his most attractive attributes to me. Without it I would probably be completely intimidated, given his immense erudition.
***See Timothy J. Knab, A War of Witches (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993) – the rare example of an anthropological page-turner.
****Included in Spoil (another pdf), p. 32.

A bad case of the mumbles

The screen comes to life in a way that pen & paper never could. The cursor taps its foot. Down below, the computer hums. I am humming this morning a phrase from a song I learned off the radio a good while back. It was in Arabic, I think, or maybe Urdu. No, I am whistling under my breath – all breath, that is: pitch, but no tune. (If you don’t know what I mean I can’t help you. Have you ever tried to describe whistling to someone who can’t whistle? Better to hum, then!) I line my words up as if they were in a poem, but no one’s fooled: my thoughts this morning are nothing but humdrum prose. Sad-eyed, like a hound squatting to take a dump. Glum. I should get with it, act as if I believed words were lifeless dumb inert mechanical servants. Why persist in this fe adorable que el Destino blasfema, this strange irreligion of mine? I have never seen a man turn into a bird, but I believe it is distinctly possible. I have never been shaken by a god inside or out, gourd rattle that I am. I want to shout hey HEY! Ho! but all I can do is giggle. Let others wave signs & chant. Slogans fill me with dread: words outfitted in little uniforms & made to march in a circle. They proclaim we are sincere but anger is so terribly untrue! I would go dressed for an off-color skit about extinction & the first bird Noah released from the ark – not that pale clay pigeon but the other, the one they were all anxious to get rid of because he spoke raucously & out of turn. Said Awk, ark & took off. Awkward fact, too, that he never came back. And while Noah was getting drunk & putting on a show, somewhere a raven was circling, building a great hoop of sticks at the top of the tallest tree, flying all over the earth with branches in his bill. Or something like that. With a better soundtrack, of course.
[Alguna] fe adorable… is a quote from Vallejo, “Los Heraraldos Negros” – “[Some] cherished faith that Fate laid a curse upon.”

The Dao of Jones

“It is difficult to punctuate Heraclitus’ writings because it is unclear whether a word goes with what follows or with what precedes it,” Aristotle drily observed (see Philosopher or blog?). This is one of the first and most obvious indications that Heraclitus’ Account may have resembled the enigmatic Chinese text Laozi (a.k.a. Daodejing).

Classical Chinese lacked punctuation altogether. What grammarians call particles – one-syllable words whose function is to denote possession, interrogation, emphasis, etc. – served instead. (Think of them as punctuation marks that you pronounce.) In addition, fairly regular meter and end-rhyme aided enormously in the reading of poetic works like the Laozi. But entire schools of interpretation have coalesced around opposing views on comma placement in this most gnomic of texts. The lack of differentiation between singular and plural adds to the confusion.

Take the famous opening chapter. The first couplet is uncontroversial; translations vary simply because of the difficulty of translating Dao as both noun and verb.
Dao ke dao, fei chang dao; ming ke ming, fei chang ming.
“The dao (knowledge/way) that can be known/followed is not the constant/enduring/eternal Dao;
The name that can be named is not the constant Name.”

The comma wars begin with the very next couplet:
Wu ming tian di zhi shi; yu ming wan wu zhi mu.
“Without name(s) heaven-earth [possessive particle] beginning; having name(s) ten-thousand creatures [possessive particle] mother.”
D. C. Lau, dean of the most prominent contemporary school of Western scholars of philosophical Daoism, in his translation for Penguin (Tao Te Ching, 1963), followed the more conventional interpretation. Based on a comma placement after the second character in each clause, he got:
“The nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth;
The named was the mother of the myriad creatures.”
But an edition I picked up in Taiwan – part of a series of critical editions of the classics designed for college students – places the comma after the first syllable in each clause. This is possible because wu has the stand-alone meaning “void,” and yu is the common word for “being.” This produces a reading something as follows:
“Void: a name for the beginning of the cosmos;
Being: a name for the mother of the myriad creatures.”

The divergence between interpretations continues for the rest of this chapter, which is in many ways a key to the whole work. For example, the third couplet appears to deal with the question of desire. Lau translates,
“Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets;
But always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations,”
with “it” understood to refer to the Dao.
But equally plausible is the following:
“Thus, eternal void: seek to contemplate its mysteries;
Eternal being: seek to contemplate its manifestations.”

One can begin to see why the Daodejing has become the second-most-translated book in the world, right after the Bible. I once came up with a semi-facetious translation of the first chapter that was predicated upon the assumption that the author was something of a cynic. This is possible with just one more turn of the interpretative wheel. In D. C. Lau’s translation the last portion of the chapter reads:
“These two are the same
But diverge in name as they issue forth.
Being the same they are called mysteries,
Mystery upon mystery –
The gateway of the manifold secrets.”

Sounds properly mystical, doesn’t it? The trouble is, we have no way of knowing whether that was the original intent of the author(s). After all, he/they did use the pseudonym Old Fellow (Laozi). Since all sages were presumed to be old and venerable, this is tantamount to signing it “Mr. Smith” or “Mr. Jones.” What were they trying to hide? Was the whole thing just a spoof on a genre which may have included many dozens of earnest attempts to repeat the critical success of the great Zhuangzi? (The evidence from some newly discovered texts argues strongly for reversing the traditional chronological ordering of the two classics of so-called philosophical Daoism – probably not a real category at all, by the way.)

The late Warring States Period was a time of profound disillusionment. Zhuangzi includes sections that espouse philosophies of primitivism and of rational self-interest (the Yangist school). The latter contains what may be the original encounter-of-an-earnest-worthy-with-a-wise-old-fisherman dialogue. This (or another like it) was presumably the basis for the “Daoist” story of the cynical fisherman (cited in Monday’s post) who tells Chu Yuan to become one with the fishes.

The morass of competing views about Life, the Universe and Everything was no doubt troubling to many in this period. But for some it must have been a source of amusement, as well. I have no good evidence for this, but it tickles my fancy to think of the Laozi as a deliberately obscure book, in which the esoteric interpretation is actually the expected or exoteric reading, and the hidden or truly esoteric meaning is – well, something as follows:

“These two categories, emerging together, (appear to) name different (things), so their coincidence is taken for a mystery. One mystery after another! (This opens) the floodgates to endless obscurantism.”

Snow good enough to eat

A snow date sounds like a most delectable fruit: chewy at first, but quickly dissolving on the tongue. Fanciful? Perhaps, but don’t laugh. When I was a kid, my mother used to make snow ice cream.

Back then, a new snowfall could be wonderful in so many ways. First and foremost, it might let us stay home from school (not always a given in the bad old days before the fear of litigation overwhelmed common sense). It promised the highest and purest forms of outdoor adventure: sledding and tobogganing; snowmen and snow forts and snowball battles; and the elemental pleasure of walking spellbound through a transfigured forest. After a long day out in the snow, it gave one a good feeling to strip off wet boots, socks and pants and pile them to dry behind the woodstove. And sometimes, right before dinner, Mom would give one of us a bowl to fill with fresh, unmarked snow – “I’m making snow ice cream for dessert tonight!” Magic words!

These habits were formed in Maine in the late sixties, then transferred to central Pennsylvania where we moved in 1971, when I was five. For most of the 70s, snowy winters were the norm, back before global climate change really began to have a noticeable impact. Since then, it’s been hit-or-miss; 2001-2002 was the Year Without a Winter. But now that we’ve entered a strange new cycle of heavy precipitation, which began early last March, the snow is back with a vengeance. I feel some of the excitement of my childhood returning. This morning’s snowstorm lured me out for over an hour, wallowing along in snowshoes through the woods, my glasses fogging up repeatedly from the exertion.

When I drop down to the road and divest myself of snowshoes for the walk back up the hollow, it is absolutely quiet except for the faint trickling of the stream and the shhh of flakes against tree trunks and branches. I resign myself to walking without glasses – it is simply too much trouble to keep them clear. As soon as I take them off all detail is lost; I am myopic as an owl in daylight. I feel suddenly small and vulnerable. A hint of nameless panic rises in my chest for a second or two before I can shake it off. What if the winter never ends? How long would my perverse enjoyment of the season hold out?

The new snow – 8 or 9 inches already – has obscured all the spots along the road bank where the white-tailed deer have been pawing down through the snow in search of edible scraps of rhizomes and dried leaves. They’re starving. There was virtually no acorn crop, and their numbers are up as a result of poor hunting success: high winds and heavy snows conspired to keep hunters from connecting with their quarry on the biggest days of the regular deer season. Already we have eaten the last of this year’s venison steak. I fear for all the evergreen seedlings – white pine and pitch pine, hemlock and rhododendron -that have yet to make it above the browse line. A half-dozen years of good hunting had given them a respite, and I was beginning to nourish hopes of the woods someday recovering even a normal herbaceous layer.

Now those hopes are in jeopardy. In the course of my brief walk this morning I have already scared up five deer. As I watch them flounder through the ever-deepening snow, my emotions are a peculiar mix of pity and a cruel hope: not necessarily that they will starve to death, but at least that the coyotes will get quite a few of them before the winter’s out. All it would take, my father commented this morning, would be a good freezing rain on top of a couple feet of snow. Enough of a crust to give firm footing to the coyotes would mean death to as many deer as they had time and appetite to chase down. From what I read, the eastern coyote is already having a significant impact on populations of adult deer in the Adirondacks, where deep snows confine them to yarding areas every winter. This won’t make up for the eradication of the top predators, cougars and wolves, whose year-round predation would compel the deer to completely alter their feeding habits. But it might help a bit.

These kinds of mixed feelings are precisely what make us pine for the simplicity of childhood, I think. Back then, the only serpent in the garden was the far-off and easily ignored payment that would be exacted for our unscheduled holidays: I mean the real snow dates, those awful make-up days that could fill an extra week or two in early June. Climate change was barely a rumor in the 1970s. Children and adults alike were spared the angst of having to decide whether any given weather event was “natural” and a thing to be celebrated, or might in fact be the unnatural result of our mushrooming numbers and our collective over-consumption of fossil fuels. For me, I think the innocence began to fade around 1980, when the news about acid precipitation first hit it big. Here in the mountains of central Pennsylvania, downwind from the coal-fired power plants of the Ohio Valley, acid rain monitors have recorded some of the lowest pH readings in the country. Winter, we learned, could be the worst time of year for acid deposition, especially from the increasingly frequent ice storms and the ridge-hugging fogs that accompanied them.

With all the worries about air pollution, my mother stopped making snow ice cream. Right about the same time, our neighbors began clearcutting their sections of the forest, and fed with easy browse the deer numbers skyrocketed. From my father’s decade-long battle to preserve our access road and watershed from the worst effects of lumbering, I learned perhaps the most valuable and most scarring lesson that can mark one’s passage into adulthood: that you have to fight for what you love. No victories are permanent, and nothing should ever be taken for granted.

The woods are in some ways a little wilder now than in my childhood. Black bear were once so scarce that we could raise bees without any fencing. Now, our end of the mountain is part of the home range of a female bear who raises a new litter of cubs every two years. Ospreys and bald eagles are increasingly common along the larger streams in the vicinity. Fishers have repopulated the area following almost a century of absence. Most marvelous of all is the arrival of the eastern coyote – not an original inhabitant, but with enough wolf genes to qualify as an honorary native. And sightings of cougars in the East become every year more numerous and harder to dismiss.

Are we foolish to hope for comparable success with efforts to reverse global climate change? The unholy alliance of multinational corporate power and an increasingly imperial United States government certainly seems intractable. On the other hand, due in large part to the unremitting agitation of untold thousands of activists over the last couple decades, power plants are slowly cleaning up their act. If the northeastern states are successful in their efforts to strengthen the Clean Air Act and call the power industry to accounts, it’s just barely conceivable that someday snow will once again be good enough to eat.

My mother says she doesn’t remember the recipe she used for snow ice cream. Here’s one I found on-line that’s probably pretty close. The author’s childhood memories mirror mine.

Leaving the questions blank

Of the most ancient origins,
who can tell the story?
Before “above” and “below,”
how to venture a description?
With light and darkness undivided,
who can discriminate between this and that?
The supposed chaos of forms without substance –
how do we know anything about it?

Thus begin the Questions of Heaven (Tian Wen), a 4th-century B.C. text from southern China. This short book consists entirely of questions, addressing first cosmology, then mythology and history. Modern scholars have their own questions about the work: why was it compiled? What genre should we assign it to?

One traditional view is that it may have been a kind of final exam for candidates to public or ritual office in the ancient kingdom of Chu. Thus, we should read the title as “Divine Questionnaire.” But David Hawkes, translator of Ch’u Tz’u: Songs of the South – the larger anthology of works that includes Tian Wen (Oxford U.P., 1959) – argues that the questions are in fact riddles. “One of the indications that the questioner . . . is neither asking for information nor challenging accepted beliefs is the frequency with which he uses kennings and other riddling devices in order to conceal the subject of his questions . . . If this explanation is correct, it would seem to follow that [Tian Wen] was written as pure entertainment, and not with a view to fulfilling any religious or philosophical function.”

Although there is obviously a strong riddling quality to the work, I am more inclined to view it as a collection of questions for Heaven. (Heaven was still personalized as a divinity during the time it was written.) In other words, I see it as a secularized, poetic version of the questions posed ritually to Heaven during divination. The I Qing (I Ch’ing) and its innumerable commentaries testify to the immense philosophical significance accorded to the arts of divination in ancient China.

And in fact, one of the companion texts to Tian Wen, Bu Zhu, consists of two brief dialogue-stories in which the limits of divination are assessed. Both address the mythic poet-scholar-public servant Chu Yuan’s Hamlet-like dilemma (in Hawkes’ translation):

“‘Is it better,’ Chu Yuan asked [the diviner Jan Yin] ‘to be painstakingly honest, simple-hearted and loyal,
Or to keep out of trouble by welcoming each change as it comes?
Is it better to hoe the weeds and put one’s strength into husbandry,
Or to win a name for oneself by dancing attendance on the great?
Is it better to risk one’s life by speaking truthfully and without concealment,
Or to save one’s skin by following the whims of the wealthy and high-placed? . . .
Of these alternatives, which is auspicious and which is ill-omened?
Which is to be avoided and which is to be followed?
The world is turbulent and impure:
They call a cicada’s wing heavy and a ton weight light;
The brazen bell is smashed and discarded; the earthen crock is thunderously sounded.
The slanderer proudly struts; the wise man lurks unknown.
Alas, all is silence: no one knows of my integrity.’
Jan Yin threw aside the divining stalks and excused himself.
‘There are times,’ he said, ‘when a foot is too short; and there are times when an inch is too long.
There are times in which the instruments [of divination] are of no avail, in which knowledge can give no enlightenment.
There are things which my calculations cannot attain, over which the divinity has no power.
My lord, for one with your mind and with resolution such as yours,
The tortoise [shell] and the divining stalks are really unable to help.'”

In the other dialogue, a cynical fisherman advises him basically just to “go with the flow” and ape his corrupt lords. Chu Yuan’s famous suicide by drowning is anticipated in the mean-spirited suggestion that he try to become more like the fish.

The posing of questions without obvious or immediate answers may possess superior powers to educate or enlighten: one thinks immediately of the koan (gong-an), literally “question/response,” in which the response is not merely provisional but tailored to the needs of the questioner and the exigencies of the occasion. To quote more or less at random:

“What was [Bodhidharma’s] purpose in coming from the West?”
The Master replied, “[You must be hungry after such a long trip;] there’s gruel and rice on the long bench!”
(Master Yunmen, trans. by Urs App, Kodansha, 1994)

“What was the intention of the Patriarch [Bodhidharma] when he came from the West?”
The Master replied, “What good is it to mumble in one’s sleep in broad daylight?”

The closest modern literary parallel to Tian Wen of which I’m aware is by the indefatigable Pablo Neruda, El Libro de las Preguntas, or The Book of Questions. This is one of his last and most playful works, ably translated by William O’Daly for Copper Canyon Press (1991). It begins:

Why don’t the immense airplanes
fly around with their children?

Which yellow bird
fills its nest with lemons?

Why don’t they train helicopters
to suck honey from the sunlight?

Where did the full moon leave
its sack of flour tonight?

A similar playfulness infects the last poems of the equally prolific William Stafford. (Despite my gentle mocking of him the other day, I do place Stafford in the same class as Neruda – two of the greatest poets of the last century.) In “Facts” he questions the most basic data of received opinion about the world:

‘Zurich is in the Alps.’ I learned
that, and had a fact. But I thought the Alps
were in South America. Then I learned
that’s the Andes – the Alps are somewhere
else. And Zurich is famous, for something.

So I gave up fact and went to myth:
Zurich is the name of a tropical bird that
whets its bill on the ironwood tree in south America
singing about life and how good facts are. . . .

Another poem in the same collection (Even in Quiet Places, Confluence Press, 1996), echoes the traditional reading of Tian Wen: an existential questionnaire.

My NEA Poem

A blank place on the page,
like this here “______,”
means, oh it means,
you know, but not said.

And it is better when you come to these
“______”s again
to leave blank places.

But some people
get a grant
and want to show
artistic freedom;

So all they say is,
and “______.”

Also among Stafford’s final works are the almost effortless-seeming Methow River Poems, written in answer to a request from a couple of imaginative forest rangers for a series of poetry road signs. Out of the twenty he submitted, seven were ultimately chosen to be etched and mounted on signs along the North Cascades Highway in Washington state. These are poems that, in a very understated way, go to the heart of our call-and-response relationship with the world,

. . . the elaborate give-and-take,
this bowing to sun and moon, day or night,
winter, summer, storm, still – this tranquil
chaos that seems to be going somewhere.
(“Time for Serenity, Anyone?”)

In the Afterword to Even in Quiet Places, William Stafford’s son Kim asks, “What do we make of a line like, ‘How you stand here is important’? The line hardly says anything, asserts nothing in particular, turns in place clear as water or air.” He goes on to describe an incident from his youth in which his father deflected the attention of a gang of Hell’s Angels solely by adopting “the most pronounced nonchalance I had ever seen, a kind of studied slouch. His baggy pants helped, and the way he leaned back into his left heel, face turned up. It was the quiet, the insistent, the unmistakable posture of a pacifist: Nothing is going to happen. You can do as you will. You will not draw me into violence.

I can’t help thinking William Stafford would’ve given a more useful response to the disgraced exile Chu Yuan than either the diviner or the cynical fisherman.

Suddenly this dream you are having matches
everyone’s dream, and the result is the world.
If a different call came there wouldn’t be any
world, or you, or the river, or owls calling.

How you stand here is important. How you
listen for the next things to happen. How you breathe.

William Stafford, “Being a Person”

Cross-reference: The world of the riddle.

Philosopher or blog?

Heraclitus the Obscure: as Heidegger notes, this was his reputation even to the ancients who had access to his intact works. He lived near Ephesus in Asia Minor in the 6th-5th centuries B.C., and apparently spent at least part of his life as a hermit in the mountains. His writings are lost; all we have are fragments preserved among the critiques and summaries of others.

Aristotle, in Rhetoric:
“It is difficult to punctuate Heraclitus’ writings because it is unclear whether a word goes with what follows or with what precedes it. E.g. at the very beginning of his treatise, where he says:
Of this account which holds forever men prove uncomprehending,
It is unclear which ‘forever’ goes with.”

From what one may surmise about Heraclitus’ belief-system and love of riddles, is it not conceivable that such ambiguities were planted deliberately to confound the pedants? Incidentally, the use of such ambiguous pivot-words was highly prized by the classical Japanese poets. Elusiveness and allusiveness were thought to go together; some measure of obscurity was required to elicit the strongest aesthetic response.

From Hippolytus (Refutation of All Heresies) we learn that Heraclitus may have preached the existence of a monad similar to the Dao of his presumably unknown contemporaries in China. Hippolytus clearly indulges in a rather free interpretation, however, in order to cast Heraclitus into the role of a proto-Christian heretic:
“Heraclitus says that the universe is divisible and indivisible, generated and ungenerated, mortal and immortal, Word and Eternity, Father and Son, God and Justice.
Listening not to me but to the account, it is wise to agree that all things are one,
says Heraclitus. That everyone is ignorant of this and does not agree he states as follows:
They do not comprehend how, in differing, it agrees with itself – a backward-turning connection, like that of a bow and a lyre.
That an account exists always, being the universe and eternal, he says in this way:
Of this account which holds forever men prove uncomprehending, both before hearing it and when they have heard it. For although all things come about in accordance with this account, they are like tiros as they try the words and deeds which I expound as I divide up each thing according to its nature and try to say how it is.
That the universe is a child and an eternal king of all things for all eternity he states as follows:
Eternity is a child at play, playing draughts: the kingdom is a child’s.

All these quotes are translated by Jonathon Barnes, in Early Greek Philosophy (Penguin, 1987), with the exception of the following (also originating in Hippolytus), which is poet W. S. Merwin’s version (used as the epigram for his book The Lice). Heraclitus said,
All men are deceived by the appearances of things, even Homer himself, who was the wisest man in Greece; for he was deceived by boys catching lice: they said to him, “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.”

It seems that Heraclitus used paradox to suggest more than mere nominalism; like Laozi and Zhuangzi, he apparently felt that the limitations of language reflect unconscious biases of perspective:
The sea is most pure and most polluted water: for fish, drinkable and life-preserving; for men, undrinkable and death-dealing.
Also in a strongly Daoist vein are reports that he stressed the pig’s use of mud and the chicken’s preference for dust or ashes to bathe in, with the implication that human values are without ultimate significance.

Hippolytus claims that Heraclitus preached the undifferentiation of terms such as up and down, straight and crooked, dark and light, good and bad. But elsewhere it appears that he did not believe such opposites fully dissolve into One, but maintain a dialectical separateness. How much of this was playfulness or koan-like riddling is of course impossible to tell. According to one source, he took advantage of the ambiguity of the word “bios,” which meant both “life” and “bow”:
The name of the bow is bios, its function death.
In a similar vein, he is said to have thought that the mortal and the immortal feed off each other:
Gods are mortal, humans immortal, living their death, dying their life.

One of the briefest fragments seems to contain the quintessence of Heraclitus’ teachings:
Nature likes to hide itself.
But the word translated here as “nature,” according to Heidegger (Early Greek Thinking, trans. by David Krell and Frank Capuzzi, Harper and Row, 1984) should be interpreted more along the lines of “emergence” or “upsurging” than “essence of things,” which is impermissible before Plato. This makes it more of a piece with the other sayings about opposites, i.e., “The emerging longs for concealment.” (The rest of Heiddeger’s analysis strikes me as a reconstruction no less fanciful than that of Clement or Hippolytus, the difference being that Heidegger sought an ancestor where the other two wanted a foil.)

The popular favorite among the sayings of Heraclitus is reported from several sources, but the version with which most of us are familiar comes from a paraphrase by Plutarch. “For it is not possible to step twice into the same river, according to Heraclitus, nor to touch mortal substance twice in any condition: by the swiftness and speed of its change, it scatters and collects itself again – or rather, it is not again and later but simultaneously that it comes together and departs, approaches and retires.”

The ordinary interpretation holds that a simple acknowledgement of mutability is meant, but Plutarch’s last phrase implies that some more radical notion is in play. This impression is reinforced by another version:
We step and do not step into the same river, we are and we are not.
Is this a comment on time, on being – or both?

Heraclitus may have viewed motion as intrinsic to life; Theophrastes reports that he cited a kind of beer, evidently consumed while still in an active state: “The barley-drink separates if it is not moving.”

Then, too, it appears that water or moisture in his cosmology was closely identified with the source of life and death. It is interesting to speculate to what extent the phenomenon of fermentation may have played a role in shaping this view, since yeast was the prototypical activating spirit in much pre-modern thought. (In English, “ghost” and “yeast” are cognates.) According to Numenius, “Heraclitus says that for souls it is pleasure or death to become moist, and that for them the fall into mortal life is pleasure; and elsewhere that we live their death and they live our death.” And John Stobaeus cited various sayings that suggest Heraclitus preached temperance, including:
A man when he is drunk is led by a boy, stumbling, not knowing where he goes, his soul moist.
A dry soul is wisest and best.

This may point to a wider critique of desire or attachment, in the Buddhist sense – a logical extension of the insistence that thinkers look beyond appearances and not get caught up in ultimately illusory discriminations. It may also relate to his famous distaste for the bacchanals of the worshippers of Dionysius, for mobs in general, and for violence.
You should quench violence more quickly than arson.
The people should fight for the law as for the city wall.

And Justice is strife, he is reported to have said.

By “strife,” however, he probably meant something akin to the notion of a dynamic equilibrium. He scorned the raving prophetesses of Asia Minor for never yielding to mirth. He had little time for either great philosophers or the ignorant who looked up to them, and refused the role of law-giver when it was offered to him by the Ephesians. Truth should be sought in the particularities of life, a bow that bends back upon itself. According to one source, Heraclitus likened seizing upon a single moment, being or event to the attempt to find the beginning or end-point of a circle. Any given point contains both a beginning and an end.

For the present, then, I’ll conclude this brief chrestomathy with a sketch by Timon, quoted in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, keeping in mind the Heideggerian interpretation of emergence or rising as key to “essence”:
Among them Heraclitus the mocker, the reviler of the mob,
the riddler, rose up.

For it may be in the role of trickster or adversary that we can best understand what he was up to, this distant cousin to both Zhuangzi and the mythic Aztec sorcerer Tezcatl-Ihpoca, the Enemy of Both Sides.

Divining the wild

In winter, figure and ground trade places. The leafless trees stand out against the snow, allowing more comprehensive and more intimate views of the forest. The composition of whole stands is now more immediately obvious; one can pick out the big trees and the snags, see where saplings crowd a recent windthrow gap, admire the contrast between deciduous and conifer, straight and twisted, rough-boled and smooth. Up close, details of the bark delight the eye in the same way as do the winter resident songbirds. The lightning stripes on whistlewood and the melancholy, five-note whistle of the white-throated sparrow alike lead the mind onto untrodden paths – which is more than metaphor, of course. Winter is, above all, a summons to discovery.

Given sufficient depth of snow, most logs and other impediments to off-trail wandering are buried and forgotten, and the clumsy snowshoe becomes an instrument of relatively free and easy exploration. And the snow gives one so much more to investigate! For those of us who are not expert trackers, it is a source of constant revelation. This shallow depression with an imprint of feathers on either side marks where a ruffed grouse spent the night, having flown headfirst into a snowbank and pulled a quilt of powder over it so as to leave no tracks for a predator to follow. But this indentation, also flanked by wing prints, marks the literal end of the path for a white-footed mouse. Here the arrow-straight lope of the tireless coyote; there the fantastic tangle of prints where courting cottontails fandangoed in the moonlight.

But the new freedom the winter offers can’t be won without effort. Every new trail-breaking is a labor; familiar routes that in summer months could be covered in an easy half-hour before dinner now assume the proportions of an epic struggle. One grows accustomed to the slightly metallic taste of oxygen-hungry blood crowding the small vessels of mouth and throat. But that has its limit, and one shares with the other animals a certain preference for the road more traveled by. On a walk early last week, I found myself following an old trail of bootprints which showed signs of having been used by more than one pair of human feet. The original pioneer had laid a course that doubtless many others had followed, step by step. The tracks had been partially covered by that morning’s snowfall, but were still in use. Sometime earlier in the day a coyote had come through, carefully placing its paws in the indentations to avoid the deeper snow in between. A white tailed deer had followed suit sometime later, and now here I came with my snowshoes obliterating the whole record.

I fell to thinking about prints in general: are they ever really erased? Or do they simply await new techniques, new ways of seeing, for their recovery? I had just been reading about how researchers in Iceland are using remote sensing tools that measure electrical resistance in the earth in order to locate where the turf walls of houses had been 1000 years ago. Correlated with layers of ash from known volcanic eruptions, and mapped with GPS data, archaeologists are able to uncover the patterns of human dwelling through time and space. Clued in by an anomaly in architecture found elsewhere only at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, they believe they have discovered the very longhouse built by the fierce Gudrid upon her return from Vinland.

Of course, this is no different in kind from countless other discoveries arising from the meticulous and ingenious sleuthing of archaeologists. I am struck especially by the results of excavations of unprepossessing spots – certain riverbanks out west where people cleaned and dried salmon for millennia, for example. Better yet, good camping places rediscovered anew by parties of hunters and wayfarers for ten thousand years: I am thinking of course of the Meadowcroft Rockshelter in southwestern Pennsylvania, home to some of the earliest remains of human habitation in North America. Radiocarbon datings as old as 14,000 years B.P. have been suggested for artifacts from the deepest layers; much more recent deposits have yielded evidence of the earliest maize (ca. 350 B.C.) and the earliest squash and ceramics (1115-965 B.C.) in the region. But how many other such sites just like it still await discovery?

Think of photography: not so much an invention as a discovery of how to preserve the imprint of light and shadow on certain insoluble salts of silver. I am especially charmed by the efforts and enthusiasm of the legions of self-styled lomographers, whose populist aesthetic seeks nothing less than to document the entire surface of the earth at every moment. They are, in a sense, archaeologists of the present.

Ogotemmeli, the blind Dogon elder whose discourses on traditional religious ideas were such a revelation to ethnocentric French anthropologists of the mid-20th century, emphasized above all else the importance of seeing patterns as the path to true wisdom. The universe is given shape by a series of primordial Words of increasing complexity, which Marcel Griaule (Conversations with Ogotemmeli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas, Oxford U.P., 1965) likened to the three dimensions of Euclidian geometry. The first Word was the line of braided fibres, which could be made into clothing – the fundament of civilized existence. “It manifested on earth the first act in the ordering of the universe and the revelation of the helicoid sign in the form of an unbroken line,” Griaule discovered. “For the fibres fell in coils, symbol of tornadoes, of the whirlings of torrents, of eddies and whirlwinds, of the undulating movements of reptiles.” The second Word, less occult, was the revelation of the arts of spinning and weaving, and the third was the fully three-dimensional granary, originally modeled on an inverted, woven basket. And the granary became the template for the entire cosmos, echoed in a plethora of other symbols: the termite mound; the spindle-whorl; the head of the smith’s hammer, his four-sided anvil, and his invisible female side; the very torso of the twinned divinity (Nummo).

Weaving is a form of speech, the Dogon say, and cultivation is a form of weaving. Patterns define our membership in the human race: to be naked – without the patterning Word – is to be speechless. But the animals, lacking speech, are in some measure superior, “because they belong to the bush and do not have to work,” Ogotemmeli explains. The possession of patterns and the intelligence to perceive and elaborate them is thus a highly ambiguous thing, Griaule found. It seems that the speaking and the speechless are intimately intertwined in a manner directly analogous to the relationship between the civilized and the wild. “‘The animal,’ said Ogotemmeli finally, ‘is, as it were, man’s twin.'”

Fascinating that the African – so similar in his outlook to the European in many ways – can advance an apologia for civilization that does not presume the obliteration of all competitors and the triumphant imposition of the human pattern upon all wild Nature. This morning, as I prepare to go off to a meeting of the Pennsylvania Wildlands Recovery Project, I am thinking that we Americans would do well to trade our rigid, either/or dichotomies for the more flexible and forgiving dualities perceived by sages such as Ogotemmeli.

Humans, like coyotes, are denizens of the in-between, the savanna, the forest edge. Now, through ecology and evolutionary biology, we are beginning to descry intricate patterns where before we had seen mere disorder. We are discovering just how much our own survival – including the survival of the imagination – is linked to the preservation of wild habitat. Wilderness, in our own culture, exists under the sign of the untrammeled. But some human trammeling is benign and necessary: the song, the poem, the drawing or photograph. The rock shelter with its ancient fire ring. We need to learn new ways to interweave the trammeled and the untrammeled: to see in the speechless wild, as Ogotemmeli did, the completion and perfection of the divine Word.


Everyone strives to learn what they don’t know;
few strive to learn what they already know.
– Zhuangzi

I stare at the keyboard as if willing the poems to come forth
& damn me if they don’t! Letter by letter
like the heads of grouse chicks popping up
through the dense grid of feathers
on their mother’s back.
Car & horse switch places back & forth –
a not uncommon thing to happen in a dream –
but what I remember in the shower is how,
when the bottom dropped away & the wheels
became swimming, circling hooves,
a raft of sea ducks lifted from the far shore.
Sure it’s corny to write about birds as angels
but May Swenson can, & gets away with it.
I think now of the sharpie that missed his prey
yesterday by the bird feeder & slammed
full force into the bow window. I ran out
onto the porch in time to see him drop
from a momentary perch in the cedar
& land head-down in the snow, tail twitching.
A half-hour later, dinner in the oven,
I look again: gone. The first juncos
are returning by twos & threes to
the strewn millet.
On snowshoes crossing the wind-
groomed field, sun at
my back, the hissing granules
in motion around my feet

now & again rise like
genies released from their lamps
to spin, veering off
across the field

or growing to sudden whiteout
that tempts me to turn, gaze full
into the sun’s
nimbus of wind! Then calm again,

the sharp silhouettes of spruce
take shape on the hill. I turn back,
under the trackless sky
resume my plodding, trailing behind

this long blue figure whose outlandish legs
lift high with every step,
deliberate as a heron stalking
shimmery fish.
Bill Stafford – rest in peace – was dead
wrong. Daily practice may make poems,
but to stop at one’s an impossibility – at least
for those of us, less given to gravity,
in whom enthusiasm rises almost
to the level of possession. Get thee hence,
old workshopper – I’m not buying.
I would trade a hundred inspired lines
for a half-dozen real evening grosbeaks
crowding into the feeder on any
January morning.

NOTES: The May Swenson poem referenced is “Angels at ‘Unsubdued.'”
William Stafford – in many ways the godfather of contemporary North American poetry – is famous for encouraging poets to write a poem every day. For one recent appreciation, see here.

Looking ourselves over

1. The apple of the eye

“Incline thine ear unto me, and hear my speech,” prays the ancient Hebrew psalmist. “Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of thy wings” (Psalm 17:6,8). Might the non-religious person, too, give voice to one’s innermost feelings and still preserve our essential privacy and sense of wholeness? Is this not what it means to bear witness: to attest to the truth of our experiences without violating the essential mystery of our personhood?

“In the common man’s perception facts appear with a minimum of significance, while to the artist the fact overflows with meaning; things communicate to him more significance than he is able to absorb. Creative living in art, science and religion is a denial of the assumption that man is the source of significance; he merely lends his categories and means of expression to a meaning that is already there. Only those who have lost their sense of meaning would claim that self-expression rather than world-expression is the purpose of living.”
– Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1951).

Amen! The cant about poetry being important primarily as a form of self-expression has always irritated the hell out of me, so I was delighted to stumble across this passage while idly re-reading the first few chapters of Heschel’s manifesto this morning.

Let me hasten to add that I do recognize the importance of writing and other artistic endeavors as forms of therapy. For girls and women, whose thoughts and experiences have traditionally been devalued by the would-be arbiters of taste, the confessional mode – in which “what I really think” and “what really happened to me” are of necessity foregrounded – is said to be especially empowering. Well and good! But of what use is power so obtained if it doesn’t prompt one to go beyond the boundaries of the mundane self – to give voice to the world-self in all its ineffable wonder? That, after all, is the prerogative that male thinkers and artists have sought to preserve for themselves throughout the millennia. Was our mythic mother Eve thinking of mere self-expression or self-aggrandizement when, with her smooth-tongued helper, she obtained the forbidden fruit?

As a sweet apple reddens
on a high branch

at the tip of the topmost bough:
The apple-pickers missed it.

No, they didn’t miss it:
They couldn’t reach it.

– Sappho (trans. Jim Powell, Sappho: A Garland, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1993)

If the root purpose of art is to try and give shape to nameless longings, intuitions and aspirations – to engage in world-expression, or counter-creation as the critic George Steiner puts it – then surely some tact, some reverence toward our material is called for. If poets wish to put some portion of their naked selfhood on display, let them remember that they are as much a mystery to the discovering eye as any other portion of the cosmos. Let artists in the confessional mode strive to be nude rather than naked: the eye must be entranced, not invited to vivisect.

2. Ourselves as others see us

We Anglo-Americans are particularly weak at showing (self)respect and practicing hospitality. Our love of superficial verity – “That’s just the way I am,” “I am just being honest with you” – is childish. At best, we are charmingly innocent; at worst, we are boorish and even brutal in our obliviousness to the feelings of others.

Keith Basso’s study Portraits of “The Whiteman”: Linguistic Play and Cultural Symbols Among the Western Apache (Cambridge U.P., 1979) is one of the few anthropological studies to focus squarely on what happens when the natives turn anthropologist. Through sheer chance (a tape recorder left on when he left the room) Basso stumbled across a genre of improvised comedy in which the Western Apache ape the stereotyped oddities of the Whiteman – a caricature that will strike most readers (myself included) as uncomfortably familiar.

This a funny book and a good read. I will confine myself to listing those Anglo-American traits that Apaches find particularly mystifying or obnoxious, according to Basso (pp. 48-55):

1. “There is no word in Western Apache that corresponds precisely to the English lexeme friend. The nearest equivalent is shich’inzhoni (‘toward me, he is good’), an expression used only by individuals who have known each other for many years and, on the basis of this experience, have developed strong feelings of mutual respect. In contrast, Apaches note, Anglo-Americans refer to and address as ‘friends’ persons they have scarcely met, persisting in this practice even when it is evident from the things they say and do that they hold these individuals in low esteem.” Indians all over the continent are of course painfully aware of this bizarre predilection: the “forked tongue” phenomenon.

2. “Except among persons who enjoy close relations, such as husbands and wives, unsolicited queries concerning an individual’s health or emotional state constitute impertinent violations of personal privacy. If an Apache wishes to discuss such matters, he or she will do so. If not, they are simply nobody’s business. But Anglo-Americans make them their business, and they go about it with a dulling regularity that belies what Apache consider an unnatural curiosity about the inner feelings of other people. This is interpreted as a form of self-indulgence that in turn reflects a disquieting lack of self-control – the same lack of control, Apaches say, that manifests itself in the prying queries of young children and the unrestrained babblings of old people afflicted with senility.” Ouch!

3. The way Anglos publicly acknowledge an individual’s entrance or exit from a gathering, with much fuss and fanfare, can cause that individual to feel “isolated and socially exposed in a way that can be acutely uncomfortable.” Basso nowhere says so, but this kind of gulf in behavior must relate in part to sharp differences in belief about the reality of witchcraft. In many parts of the world, calling undue attention to others or toward one’s self, one’s possessions, etc. is an open invitation to ensorcelling envy (the evil eye, e.g.). However one prefers to think about witch-beliefs, the fact is that in close-knit, village societies, envy is perhaps the single most dangerous and disruptive emotion; every effort must be made not to arouse it.

4. Closely related to this is the taboo against use or overuse of personal names. To many native peoples, the “Whiteman” most appears as a sorcerer in light of his persistent violation of this taboo. “Calling someone by name is sometimes linked to temporarily borrowing a valued possession . . . Just as rights of borrowing imply friendship and solidarity, so do rights of naming . . . Persons who name too much, like persons who borrow too often, can be justly accused of engaging in an obsequious form of exploitation that violates the rights of others. . . . Whitemen are observed to use the same name over and over again in the same conversation. This practice is harder to understand [than the mere use of someone’s name immediately upon learning it]. A frequent explanation, only slightly facetious, is that Whitemen are extremely forgetful and therefore must continually remind themselves of whom they are talking to.” Ouch, again!

5. Constant physical contact – actually, any physical contact, especially between adult males – is regarded with extreme discomfort and alarm, including handshaking and backslapping. (White politicians are not real popular on the rez, apparently.) And as in many cultures, “prolonged eye contact, especially at close quarters, is typically interpreted as an act of aggression, a display of challenge and defiance.” Anecdotal observation suggests to me that this taboo, like the previous two, is in fact observed to some extent among sub-groups of Anglo-Americans as well. Appalachian whites, for example, are similar to Apaches in valuing personal privacy and individual autonomy above all else; preferring understatement to loud acclamations; and engaging in frequent joking among male friends as a substitute for, or sublimation of, aggression. Though handshakes are not avoided, I have often observed avoidance of formal introductions and especially of eye contact. Probably many rural folks would feel much the same way about people from suburban or urban backgrounds as the Western Apache do toward stereo-typed Anglos in general: that they (we) are “entirely too probing with their eyes and hands . . . indicative of a weakly developed capacity for self-restraint and an insolent disregard for the physical integrity of others. As one of my informants put it,” Basso concludes, “‘Whitemen touch each other like they were dogs.'” Arf!

6. What we may consider essential components of hospitality are frequently interpreted by the Apache as arrogant and offensive. This includes insistent invitations to “Come on in!” and “Have a seat!” Basso says, “If a visitor to an Apache home wants to enter it and sit down, he will quietly ask permission, wait until it is given, and then find an unoccupied space within. If not, he will state his business at the door, conduct it there or at a short distance away, and depart after a requisite exchange of pleasantries.” We have often observed this kind of circumspection among our rural Appalachian neighbors, as well. In this regard, I might add, the local importance of front porch sitting is more easily understood. The porch is an extension of the doorway, a neutral space between private and public realms where informal greetings, news and gossip may be exchanged and where folks can come and go, sit or stand as they please, without formal invitation. “To insist that the visitor come inside, to command him, is to overrule his right to do as he pleases,” Basso says.

7. In general, Apache find the way in which Anglos suggest that others do things extremely bossy. Indirection is preferred. For example, instead of suggesting that someone ought to wear a coat if they go hunting, an Apache would say something more innocuous like, “There sure are a lot of mosquitoes around.” Again, the culture of rural whites in Central Pennsylvania exhibits a milder form of the same reserve. The cardinal sin – judging from the number of times one is joked about it – is “getting a swelled head,” thinking one is better than anyone else. At a job site, workers will typically take much longer to perform a task than impatient managerial types deem necessary or efficient – hence the widespread perception of PennDOT workers, for instance, as ass-scratchers and shovel-leaners. On closer inspection, however, the reason for these delays quickly becomes obvious: everyone must be consulted before every major decision. The boss must be very careful to at least go through the motions of consulting the other workers, lest he be perceived as arrogant and obnoxious and lose the respect of his men. This kind of work-place democracy among the laboring classes in Anglo-Saxon society probably goes back a thousand years or more.

8. Another behavior regarded by many Anglos as an expression of courtesy is also seen as discourteous by Apaches: urgently inquiring of a guest what s/he wants or needs in the way of food, drink, etc. Apaches don’t like any questioning that appears to require an immediate response. This deprives others of their right to think things over before speaking. “Apaches agree that Anglo-Americans are inclined to ask too many questions and to repeat the same question (or minor variants of it) too many times. This gives them the appearance of being in a state of extreme hurry and aggravated agitation, which, besides being distinctly unattractive, sometimes causes them to lose sight of what Apaches take to be an obvious and important truth: carefully considered replies to questions are invariably more reliable (because less likely to be retracted or modified) than replies that have been rushed.”

9. The propensity of Anglos to speculate about misfortune and adversity – especially sickness and death – is highly alarming. Talking about trouble is held to contribute to the likelihood of its occurrence; hence, Apaches have the impression that we are “eager to experience hardship and disaster.” This may not be as absurd as it sounds. In the sickroom, such discussion should indeed be nearly taboo, in my opinion. A trusted doctor who pronounces that a patient has so many months to live – unless specifically pressed for such information by the patient himself – should be stripped of her office for violation of the Hippocratic directive, “First, do no harm.” (In Japan, by contrast, doctors will go to extreme lengths to avoid suggesting that patients might be on the way out.) On the other hand, I have the impression that speaking of one’s own death or other personal disasters in a joking fashion – gallows humor – is one very effective way to challenge their power over the imagination – and hence, possibly, to ward them off.

10. Comments regarding the personal appearance of others are widely criticized by Apaches. This has to do, again, with the taboo against directing public attention toward someone. Apaches strenuously avoid the kind of self-consciousness that Whites actively cultivate through minute, constant attention to their own personal appearance. Apaches believe that “Whitemen are deeply absorbed with the surfaces of themselves, an obsession that stems from a powerful need to be publicly perused and to be regarded as separate and distinct from other people.” One informant expressed amazement at the way Anglos look each other over, and the way we strive “to look different all the time. Some change clothes every day.” This critique gathers force when one considers the tremendous burden this looking-over behavior places on poor people in this country to always look and dress their best. It is only the well-to-do who can afford to look slovenly in Anglo society. Interestingly, in pre-modern Europe, crops, livestock and other forms of wealth that had been ensorcelled were said to have been “overlooked” – i.e., looked over by the witch’s envious eye.

11. When Western Apaches imitate Anglo speech, they use a fast, loud and “tense” manner quite opposed to their own cultural preference for low, soft and deliberate speaking. Apaches are fond of saying that “Whitemen are angry even when they’re friendly.” By contrast, as linguist Deborah Tannen noted in a recent essay, people from fast-talking societies, such as Manhattan, tend to regard slow, deliberate speech as a sign of dull wit. (See Languagehat for some additional reactions to this essay.) For what it’s worth, my personal preference is for somewhere in the middle, being on the one hand an inveterate blurter, but neither quick nor witty enough to effectively compete with a Manhattanite!