Grievance Machine

let me brand myself
he-who-is-different

let me howl around
in lieu of feedback

then unwind
in a hot bath of outrage

feed the twist in my gut
that feels like hunger

we discriminating consumers
who like what we like

we must be sure to bark up
all the right trees

A Palimpsest

16  

(with lines from Ada Limón)


Once, I may have believed it possible to repair 
          the errors, push the cart in a different direction, 

revive a sputtering fire. I too have said Lose 
          my number, sadness. Lose my address, my storm 

door, my skull. But then again, who am I of any
          importance in a world burning with war and famine, 

war and decline? As you slept, I pushed my ear up
          against your back to hear the sloshing of your heart

in its bath water. When asked questions, I didn’t necessarily
        have answers. I was only terrified when reminded

it’s nothing short of cowardly to think what we say 
          might not change the course of history. Let me start

over: once, I may have believed in the virtue of return. Once,
         I may have felt ashamed for not knowing my place.

Weather permitting

I can’t deny the central importance of my phone’s weather app to my daily walking practice. Being able to squeeze in an hour’s fast walk between thunderstorms, yesterday evening on a day otherwise too buggy and humid for a pleasant walk, is something I wouldn’t have been able to pull off in the old days, before up-to-the-minute weather radar data in one’s pocket.

Needless to say, global weirding also makes the weather harder to predict just by watching the sky and knowing what’s expected in each season. “Red at night” could mean anything these days. If it was sweltering yesterday, it’s likely sweater weather today.

***

highway work—
bandanna gone white
from his salt

***

It’s odd, looking back, that I never had much interest in general literary culture aside from poetry. I’ve tried to read journals like the Georgia Review or the Kenyon Review and found them interesting enough, but not so much that I wanted to let high-brow discourse and concerns take over my whole Weltanschauung. I think it’s intellectually limiting. Watching comedy on YouTube, listening to underground metal on Bandcamp, or reading nonfiction strike me as a better use of my non-poetry-related free time.

I should add that I’m not one of those jerks who submits to journals I rarely read. But I do have to wonder how many of these publications would even exist without tenure and review requirements that academic writers publish regularly in prestigious places. As the tenure system goes away, how many of these journals will survive? Those few that do will probably be quite a bit less arid and more edgy, designed solely for an audience of urbane intellectuals.

Simply having Poetry Daily, which reprints poems from journals and other publications, as my laptop’s homepage for the last 18 years, plus following a bunch of poetry bloggers, is enough to a) keep me apprised of interesting new collections and translations I might want to pick up, and b) prevent me from feeling completely out of the loop. Social media helps fill in the gaps with more ephemeral poetry-world news.

Reading poets’ personal blogs, to the extent they still exist, offers in some ways an opposite experience to reading a journal: largely un-copy-edited, raw, unfiltered, full of quirk and charm and way more ideological diversity than you’d find in any one organ with a unifying editorial vision. I follow poets from nearly every conceivable background and persuasion, socialists, centrists, libertarians, scientists, school teachers, beat poets, experimental poets, etc. If they write or simply appreciate good poetry, I’ll add them to my feed reader.

It’s a shame that feed readers never really caught on. It’s like the bizarre reluctance of online literary magazines to serialize content using blogs, a technology designed specifically for serializing content. But all too often, as the founders of Substack realized, it’s not enough to have tech solutions out there if they require too much sustained attention to technical details that most people, even editors unfortunately, don’t want to wrestle with.

The resistance of our literary elite to anything requiring technical know-how does get tiresome, though. I suppose that’s why I find the poetry film crowd so congenial—they’re not afraid to wade in and play around with some of the amazing tools and toys currently at our disposal. (For how much longer, who knows.)

***

One of the unexpected adjustments I’ve made as I’ve gotten older is I’m OK with not knowing the answer to, or even having an opinion on, every goddamn thing. It’s very liberating. I recommend it.

rat mummy—
a rictus of agony
in old leather

***

Songbirds harrying a cuckoo. I didn’t realize they did that, but it makes sense. They may not notice the difference in their eggs, but they would sure as hell notice someone trying to sneak into their nest.

And now I have a Clarence Ashley earworm—a quality problem!

***

The topic of personal identity tires me after a while, with the rather literal spin that most people put on it in a desperate effort to assert some thereness for this nebulous mental placeholder, the self. I want to know more about shadow identities, for example: one-time or persistent mistaken identities ascribed to one by others. Let’s also consider any and all fantasy identities one might assume, whether in imagination alone or in role-playing games. Persistent dream identities, if any. Characters in favorite novels, comic books, movies etc. with whom one deeply identifies. And of course the way they all intersect. Let us not through dissection diminish what is in a sense larger than life.

***

Deep in the woods, a small sun-starved blueberry bush is having its best year ever: it produced a flower for the first time—a perfect yellow bell!—and a forest bumblebee with pollen on her feet found its nectar. Now the green berry swells.

What bird will find it when it assumes the color of the sky? How far might its seeds travel? That’s how suddenly the future can change on you.

forest floor
striped with shadows
swallowtail

A Palimpsest

15  

My mother, who is only a few years younger than the widow
of the former dictator, can only shuffle around the nursing home
with a nurse by her side, holding her up and helping push the walker.
Her soft bones bend her over. Her fingers can’t stop fluttering. 
Whereas the wife of the former dictator, now in her early nineties,
can still walk with a certain kind of aplomb though there are folds 
under her chin. She is fleshy all over and made up, fingers winking 
with rings, tugging at her red butterfly sleeves and tight bodice. 
Whereas my mother has never ridden a private limousine 
through the city, dispensing bundles of cash to the poor 
running alongside. The only thing they possibly have 
in common is their love for that song and its saccharine 
refrain: Because of you I want to live; because of you until 
I die. My late father would have said: Look 
what money can buy. Or cannot buy.  

Mixed signals and grave matters

Mixed Signals

fireflies seen from inside
a dark house

wander like the spirits
of lost children

or thoughts flickering
between synapses

but it’s wedding season
and courtship can be perilous:

an evolutionary arms race
between related species

each with a signature pattern
of light and darkness

the females get hungry
waiting in the long grass

so switch to mimic
other species’ flash patterns

indulge in a romantic
dinner for one

as inside the dark house
I toss and turn

ah for a midsummer
night’s dream

***

When I got to the spruce grove last night a half-hour after sunset, there was still rainwater pooled on top of the small slab of Juniata sandstone that we just moved to his gravesite from down the ridge. I sat on the bench our neighbours donated so that I could see a small patch of sky reflected in Dad’s rock and sat until it got so dark, that was nearly all I could see: a bit of sky where we planted his ashes. Peaceful. Reflective. Steadfast.

Dad always enjoyed the company of children, so I’m hoping this will seem like an inviting thing to play or sit on. It’s a rock I’ve known for years. It will hold just a half-inch of water for a day or two, so shouldn’t breed mosquitoes or the wrong sort of algae for a bird bath.

I miss you, Dad.

A Palimpsest

14 


Home was an altar: meaning

plaster statues of saints, laminated 

prayer books, change and crumpled

receipts emptied out of trouser pockets

at the end of each day. Carved idols 

of guava wood guarded the rice bin, 

sacks of potatoes, braids of garlic. 

In summer, river water curled

cold against shale. In winter, 

frost on the fingers; but never enough 

to learn as children do in other lands, 

the price of a ripped tongue 

from kissing the cold 

full on the mouth. 

Around a lagoon ringed by willows, 

horses cantered all day for tourists. 

When we are all done with our short

careers, where do we think we’ll go?

Starting with a thunderclap

morning thunder
a fawn dancing
with deer flies

***

Alaskan poet Erin Coughlin Hollowell posted a Joanna Klink poem to Instagram and I immediately went and dug out my copy of Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy, whence it came. The bookmark was only a third of the way in, but in my defense it had been my second Klink book in a row, and she is not a poet to read quickly.

But my impression from April is soon reaffirmed: she is a poet of unquestionable genius, one of our best. Terrance Hayes uses the term “Rilkean elegies” in his blurb and that’s not hyperbole. In fact Rilke does rather well by the comparison, I think. Here for example is a section of the poem “Novenary”, where my bookmark was parked:

***

roses
between the doe’s teeth
thorns and all

*

dark clouds
the robin revisits
his dawn repertoire

*

downpour
so many memories
smell like the earth

***

If I am only hull to what happens,
let me at least feel more deeply that flitting,
the dead light of stars over my hands,

into my throat. Oar of my body.
Things that were sensed but not known.
Joanna Klink

That’s how “Novenary” ends. And I am reminded that typing out another’s poem prompts a deep reading when you type as painstakingly as I do, with one clumsy finger, on my phone, as if with “the dead light of stars” indeed.

***

They’re still forecasting a high of 90 this afternoon—32C—but at the moment it’s 56F/13C and I am fighting the urge to put long johns on. “Rain stopping in 19 minutes.” That’s global weirding for you.

***

This morning’s earworm is from Blackwater Park, a masterpiece of an album by the progressive metal band Opeth, which I had on in the car last Tuesday. So much great music about serial killers! Bartok’s Lord Bluebeard’s Castle comes to mind.

A cheerful thing to hum while fixing breakfast.

***

One of the great climbing trees of my childhood finally gave up the ghost this spring. Red maples don’t live long but they also don’t die easily.

Enjoy the climb, Virginia creeper! You can’t help that your name makes you sound like a sex offender and an outsider. Hell, I was born in Virginia myself.

***

Stopping to write down a thought, I see that I left another thought unfinished and expand on that instead, forgetting what I had intended to write. As so often in life one redirects energy from one thing to another. Would I have been a more productive poet if I’d had a career, related or otherwise? Undoubtedly. But I always prioritized happiness in the moment.

lucky day
the coins I keep forgetting
in my pocket

***

blowing my nose
a maple leaf’s dry
underside

***

Half-way down the hollow, the sun comes out. And so, I’m afraid, do the midges. Black flies, I suppose we should call him, a call-back to the North Woods of my early childhood. But the white supremacy embedded in that common name makes me more than a little uncomfortable. As does this cloud of midges. Global weirding—what can you do? My nose begins to itch, a psychosomatic reaction as old as my earliest memories of being engulfed by small biting insects.

A small hole in the middle of the gravel driveway which I always thought was the entrance to a chipmunk bureau has filled with water. What an unexpected thing! (The dictation app heard burrow as bureau, and it’s just too perfect to change.)

I decide to head straight up the mountainside to escape the midges. I forget just how many spring wildflowers hide out on the steep slopes where no one ever goes. They’re past blooming now, of course, but it’s good to know they’re here. And I say no one, but in fact I did meet another climber on the way:

red eft

the hollow
between twin oaks
collecting leaves

midsummer—
rain-soaked ghost pipes
steaming

*

This crook-handled umbrella is the best: a cane when I need it climbing a hillside, or a stick to shake rain off vegetation before I walk through it. I was pleased to see, walking with my mother recently, that she uses her folded umbrella to deftly toss fallen sticks off the road just as I do.

*

ghost pipes
sweating through the longest
day of the year


via Woodrat Photohaiku

*

I’m seeing lots of evidence that this year’s much smaller cohort of spongy moth caterpillars has almost entirely succumbed to its main natural control, a fungus. Fingers crossed that oaks won’t be as stressed again as they were in 2020 for a long time—I’m convinced that’s what allowed the caterpillars to build up in sufficient numbers to cause last year’s widespread defoliation, because trees busy fighting drought, after a late hard frost had required them to re-leaf, would’ve had very little energy left over to produce their usual insecticides. Two years later, there are as many dead trees from that frost as there are from last year’s outbreak, though they’re not concentrated on the ridgetops like the latter, but here and there throughout the woods. In either case, just the sort of small openings that are great for overall biodiversity, as long as they don’t presage a new disturbance regime that will turn forest to savanna, as seems to be happening on Plummer’s Hollow’s southeast-facing slopes without oak-hickory cover, where things are kept at a weedy stage of succession—a kind of arrested development—by increasingly harsh ice storms in the winter and thunderstorms in the summer.

If/when sudden oak death aka Phytophthora ramorum arrives here, I may need to be put on suicide watch.

However, it has not escaped my attention that Disturbance Regime would be a great title for something. Or as we GenXers invariably like to joke: if you were ever in need of a rockin’ name for a garage band…

***

At 12:42 the midges find me on top of the ridge. It’s getting hot. The lucky coins are still in my pocket. My feet are damp but the rest of me feels pretty damn good.

The world is always ending somewhere. Today, so far, it’s not ending here and for that I am grateful. North America as a whole might get through the current economic state-change relatively ok, given our economic, natural and demographic advantages. But I fear for friends in other parts of the world. And for wildness and biodiversity dwindling everywhere.

A shadow of a red-tailed hawk passed over me as I was writing that.

(I love augury right up to the point where it stops being about the birds and starts being about us. How dull.)

When I got home, I found a stowaway on my sleeve:

An immature northern true katydid, if I’m not mistaken.

***

For the second day in a row I actually manage a mid-afternoon nap, which is great this time of year when the nights are so short but also so enchanting—and keep in mind that Shakespeare etc. never saw fireflies, which are such a feature of June nights here.

After supper, sitting on the porch to begin editing this post, a fringe of grasses at the edge of my weedy front yard, illuminated by the low sun, caught my eye:

Watch on Vimeo

When I knelt to shoot the video, I looked around to make sure there wasn’t any poison ivy. Instead, I was delighted to discover a baby tulip tree! I had been looking all over for seedlings to transplant a couple weeks ago, because they’re such excellent yard trees—grow straight and tall, are lovely in bloom, and can live for hundreds of years—but couldn’t find a one. So when I’m not looking, one appears. And in a very good spot, too.

I lost no time making a deer cage for it. Blog posts can wait!

A Palimpsest

13

When did the dictator’s son

start combing his hair 

into that small, 

slicked-back, one-length 

pompadour in the same style 

as his father?

His mother and sisters

can talk of nothing 

but how happy they are

to be restored to power.

There is no canvas 

or mural on which 

their likenesses could be 

restored to anything 

but their own imagined 

glory. No length of fabric

to bandage the smell of goat 

piss out of the air, or lighten

the color of blood money, 

blood diamonds. 

Seeing in haiku, walk therapy, against harmony, shrieking owls

Surely part of the pleasure of reading haiku is to make the current moment more special. Literary critics probably even have a term for it: the way an especially vivid evocation of a particular time and place can lend radiance to another, so for example I can read

night snow
the silent rooms
of dreams
Ann K. Schwader, Modern Haiku 53.2, Summer 2022

and for a moment I see everything in its light, this lush green meadow and forest edge on a crystal-clear morning in June. By taking me briefly out of it the poem shows me more of what makes it unique and unrepeatable. I read, smile, look up and smile again.

***

Walking instead of talking. Going out instead of holding forth. It’s been a year since our nearly decade-long conversation trailed off into silence and the great ridgetop oak we got married under toppled over on a still evening in late June. That spot will be choked with early successional plants and then pole timber for a generation. It will be interesting to see how it shakes out, and what tree or trees end up dominating the local conversation with the sun—probably a black cherry or red maple, but with deer numbers way down from chronic wasting disease, a hickory or even another oak seems possible. Though what kind of world, etc.

To be fair, I may have found a way to keep talking despite all my walking: you’re looking at it. But in any case the idea was to spend the time I used to spend online outside instead; walking is just one option that I happen to enjoy. Sitting in the woods and reading or writing is another. Yesterday, since a breezy cold front had driven away the gnats and mosquitoes, I was even able to compile most of the weekly blog digest in the woods.

It occurred to me the other night that this is really just a return to the patterns of my childhood. Yes, I was a bookworm, but I can’t remember spending very much time in my room, or even indoors unless it was raining. I’m not sure I’ll go back to climbing trees, though. As nice as it’s been to recover the spring in my step, I can also feel autumn in my joints.

***

The harmony-with-nature folks seem nice enough, but I always feel awkward around them because, I don’t know, it feels terribly presumptuous somehow. Like, that tree didn’t ask to be hugged. You’re not part of the local food chain, and you’re a member of the single most destructive invasive species in ecological history, so your position relative to the rest of nature is in fact the opposite of harmonious. Should we not begin by acknowledging this extraordinary privilege?

I mean, unless you’re hearing-impaired, how can you walk through the woods and not hear how much you are feared? So many of those adorable-sounding chirps mean “Look out! Another fucking human!” Sure, if you stay still for a while, enough critters will forget you’re there or not notice you that you can pretend you’re having a harmonious moment, but you have to literally hide in some sort of blind, or set up remote cameras, if you really want to see what the nonhumans are up to.

Except of course for invertebrates, so many of which rush heedlessly through their days, allowing even the most impatient children to get absorbed in watching them. J. Henri Fabre’s Life of Insects series is a masterpiece of world literature, because invertebrates are kind of in that uncanny valley between critter (being with face) and robot. They’re absolutely alien and absolutely everywhere, and most people seem completely blasé about that. Freaky, man. Freaky.

The Japanese have this one right. That’s one of the things that has always drawn me to Japanese poetry, in fact: the healthy appreciation for, and close attention to, insects. It shows they’re serious about nature; they see other creatures as connected with us on a deeper cultural level than any of my own ancestors have experienced in the last thousand years.

Of course, none of this supposed nature reverence matters a whit in today’s hyper-capitalist economy, where other Japanese cultural traits, such as the avoidance of conflict in pursuit of a distinctly hierarchical harmony at all costs, make the excesses of capitalism especially difficult to oppose. Their wild areas are in even worse shape than ours.

***

I don’t know why Western Buddhists went with “enlightenment” at all, really—“awakening” is a much more powerful root metaphor, and I gather more accurate. It’s also more immediately relatable than most high-minded religious goals, I think. Oneness with the Godhead? Sounds dodgy, like an adolescent concept of bliss. Awakening, though? We’ve all had those rare days when we felt unusually alert and alive. It’s not a great feat of imagination to extrapolate from that.

Ecstasy, getting outside oneself: that’s what Eliade said Shamanism was all about. Complete projection: that’s what Eliade was all about. Escapism is a fantasy with, I’m sure, widespread adoption across cultures. But Buddhism, along with many other, traditional belief systems, prized the opposite of escape: attention.

Which I seem to have precious little of today. Too much getting in touch with my feelings to actually feel.

***

This post is less than half as long as it would’ve been had I not cut out much of the blather. Even still, I don’t think you could say it is entirely lacking in blather. But who wants to go through life on a blather-free diet? Not me. (I’m even back to drinking whole milk. Delicious!)

***

dead air
over the dried-up pond
the first bat

***

Coming down from the spruce grove through a narrow part of the meadow I hear a weird shrieking noise, which turns out to be juvenile barred owls, according to Merlin. There are three of them calling all around me, but it’s too dark to really make them out. Five minutes later, from farther down in the meadow I hear the parents talking back to them in chimpanzee voices. Nice to witness that bit of family interaction. They are always such great owls to have around.

I’m told there might be people who don’t have strong feelings about their various local species of owls, but I’m not sure I believe it.

A Palimpsest

12 

                 
I am in love with the color

of hydrangeas—blue on blue,

blue on purple; purple on white,

along with the scent of gardenias

just before they brown at the edges

like books left too long in the sun. 

Sandpipers leave hieroglyphs on mud

flats. Silk from golden orb spiders 

wrap around a body like steel. 

I can profess such love for things 

regarded as mostly inconsequential. 

I can grieve both the rising tide 

and houses collapsing in slow 

motion along the coast. 

How fortunate to believe in small 

annotations that might still 

make it possible to inhabit a different 

kind of importance in the world—