It feels like I’ve known Rachel Barenblat, AKA the Velveteen Rabbi, forever… but actually it’s only been since 2003, when she and I and a bunch of other people got bit by the blogging bug. She recently got in touch with a few of us who, like her, have kept it up all these years, wondering if we’d like to participate in some kind of celebration of (at least) 15 years of blogging. We used a Google document to share some thoughts in response to an initial question, “Why the hell am I still blogging?” Here are some excerpts from our discussion, jointly blogged here and at Blaugustine, the cassandra pages, Hoarded Ordinaries, mole, and of course Velveteen Rabbi.
Rachel: Writing is one of the fundamental ways I experience and explore the world, both the external world and my own internal world. I think it was EM Forster who wrote, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Blogging as I’ve come to understand it is living one’s life in the open, with spiritual authenticity and intellectual curiosity, ideally in conversation or relationship with others who are doing the same.
Dave: At some level, it’s easier to keep blogging at Via Negativa, the Morning Porch, and Moving Poems than it is to stop. Basically I’m an addict. Writing poetry is fun for me — entering that meditative head-space required for immersion in writing. As for the social aspect, I’ve been in, or on the periphery of, several distinct blogging communities over the years, and at one time, we all commented on each other’s sites, but with the rise of social media, most blog commenting went away — and I’m not entirely sure that’s a bad thing. Writing and responding to comments did take up a lot of my time ten years ago, and now that I can scratch that conversational itch on Twitter, or in real life with my partner, I’m OK with most interactions on my blogs being limited to pings. But I must immediately qualify that and admit that Via Negativa is a special case, because for well over half its existence now I’ve enjoyed the virtual companionship of a co-blogger, the brilliant and prolific poet Luisa Igloria, and a small number of occasional guest bloggers as well. I wouldn’t say I’m competitive, but Luisa’s commitment to a daily poetry practice has definitely forced me to up my game. Then there’s Mr. Pepys. My Pepys Diary erasure project grew directly from sociability: my partner and I wanted to read the online version of the diary together, and I worried I might eventually get bored with it if I weren’t mining it for blog fodder.
Lorianne: I am not attached to the medium, but I am attached to the message, and the process of creating/sharing that message. There has been a lot of hand-wringing among bloggers over the “death of the blog,” with long-time (and former) bloggers worried about attention divides between blogs and social media. Where do “I” live if I post in multiple places: on blog, in a paper notebook, on social media? For those of us who do all three, the result can be confusing, distracting, and frazzling…or it can be creative, collaborative, and synergistic.
Dale: I didn’t really expect ever to have readers, so in a way, having readership dwindle is a return to the early days… I’ve outlived some of my personas — I’m no longer recognizeably very Buddhist, and my politics have morphed in some odd ways. I don’t think I’m as salable an item as I used to be :-) But the inertia, as Dave said. When I do have something to say and my censor doesn’t step in, the blog is still where I go. It’s been home for fifteen years: my strand of the web… The community that was established way back when is still important to me, and still a large part of my life. And there’s still a lot of value in having a public space. The act of making something public changes it, changes how I look at. I become the viewers and the potential viewers. It helps me get out of myself. It helps me work through my favorite game of “what if I’m wrong about all these things?”
Natalie: Why the hell still blogging? Not sure I am still blogging. I put something up on Facebook whenever I feel like saying hey, listen, or hey, look at this. Then I copy/paste the post to Blogger where I keep Blaugustine going, mainly out of a sense of imaginary duty. The idea that there are some real people out there who may be actually interested in some of my thoughts and/or artwork is undoubtedly attractive, even necessary. I live a mostly hermit life and don’t get much feedback of any kind. But my interior life is very active, all the time, and having a tiny public platform online where I can put stuff is really helpful. To be perfectly honest I think that’s about it for me and blogging at present. I don’t do any other social media, it would all take too much time which I’d rather devote to artwork.
Beth: I think a lot of it has to do with a sense of place. My blog is like a garden or a living room that I’ve put energy and thought and care into as a place that’s a reflection of myself and is hopefully welcoming for others.. The discipline of gathering work and talking about it coherently has been extremely good for me and for my art practice. And I’ve also really appreciated and been inspired by other people who do the same, whatever their means of expression. There’s something deeply meaningful about following someone’s body of work, and their struggles, over not just months but years. In today’s climate of too-muchness and attention-seeking and short attention spans, I feel so encouraged and supported by the quiet, serious doggedness of other people like me!
The Peruvian poet José Santos Chocano (1875-1934) is of some considerable historical importance, I gather, as the first Latin American modernist poet to turn away from French models and embrace native and mestizo themes. A badass who spent time in prison for killing another poet and died in a knife fight in Chile, he wrote poetry of place long before it was fashionable, and played a huge role in starting the tradition of Latin American writers embracing anti-imperialist politics. Today, however, he is mostly remembered for a poem about a caiman. A 2001 Mexican gangster film even took its title from the poem, El sueño del caimán.
Written in 1906, the poem conjures up an almost steam-punk leviathan, with language as lush and grandiloquent as anything of Darío’s—but there are enough true-to-life details to make me think that the poet had actually observed caimans in the wild, which is a lot more than I’d say about Darío and swans. The poem is difficult for someone with intermediate-level Spanish like me, using some fairly obscure vocabulary and being deliberately vague on a couple of points (such as: Whose dream is it, the poet’s or the caiman’s? And what exactly do the adjectives in line 11 modify?) so yesterday morning I turned to my friends for help, posting a tentative translation to Facebook along with the original. The resulting discussion was lively, with too many participants to name, but Luis Andrade was especially helpful, along with the poets who, much to my surprise and pleasure, each tried their hand at a translation and gave me permission to share them all here. It turned into a really fun exercise, and the results go to show — in case anyone needs convincing — that there’s no such thing as a definitive translation.
Since we all read and were influenced by each others’ translations and comments, I’ve decided to post these in the order of their last posted edit. This means that my own effort will bring up the rear, because this morning I had to have just one more go. I’m not going to post bios, but simply link names to blogs, websites, or Facebook pages. But first, the original poem:
El sueño del caimán
Enorme tronco que arrastró la ola,
yace el caimán varado en la ribera;
espinazo de abrupta cordillera,
fauces de abismo y formidable cola.
El sol lo envuelve en fúlgida aureola;
y parece lucir cota y cimera,
cual monstruo de metal que reverbera
y que al reverberar se tornasola.
Inmóvil como un ídolo sagrado,
ceñido en mallas de compacto acero,
está ante el agua estático y sombrío,
a manera de un príncipe encantado
que vive eternamente prisionero
en el palacio de cristal de un río.
Dream of the Caiman
translated by Dale Favier
Enormous log dragged by the wave—
caiman beached on the river shore:
backbone a broken cordillera,
formidable tail, jaws an abyss.
The sun wraps him in a dazzling aureole—
a seeming mail-coat and heraldry,
a metal monster who shimmers
and whose shimmering lays a sheen.
Unmoving as a sacred idol
girt in a mesh of compact steel,
he lies against the still, dark water
like an enchanted prince
who lives an eternal prisoner
of the river’s palace of glass.
translated by Caitlin Gildrien
A great log, hurled by waves
ashore, the caiman lies stranded:
spine of jagged mountains,
an abyss in its jaws, the fearful tail.
The sun drapes it in brilliance,
shining like an armored knight,
this plated beast whose thrum
and glare shimmer the air.
Steady as a sacred idol,
girded tight in mail and chain,
he waits by the water, still and grim,
a prince, enchanted,
imprisoned now forever
in the limpid palace of the tide.
translated by Luisa A. Igloria
Trunk felled by an enormous wave,
the alligator lies stranded on the shore;
jagged cordillera for backbone and spoor,
jaws an abyss, formidable tail.
Bronzed by the sun’s resplendent aura;
and it is knighted, superior,
leviathan plated in metal that,
trembled, turns iridescent.
Unmoving as a sacred idol,
cinctured in a mesh of steel
against the water’s static umber,
enchanted prince disguised,
prisoner who dwells forever
in the river’s glass palace.
Dream of a Caiman
translated by Jean Morris
A great trunk dragged here by the current
The caiman lies beached on the river bank
Backbone like a rugged mountain range
Cavernous jaws and formidable tail
Haloed by the dazzling sun
How resplendently crested and armoured he seems
A reflective metal monster
Whose reflection casts an iridescent sheen
Unmoving as a venerated idol
Encased in dense links of steel
Outlined against the water, sombre and transfixed
Like some enchanted prince
Held prisoner for ever
In the river’s crystal palace
Dream of the Caiman
translated by Dave Bonta
Huge tree trunk dragged by a wave
and washed up on the bank, the caiman lies:
sudden spine of mountains,
chasm of a maw and formidable tail.
The sun envelops it in a replendent aura
until it seems to don armor and visor—
a beast of metal whose reflective glare
shimmers to a glossy sheen.
Motionless as a sacred idol,
swaddled in mesh of strong steel,
it faces the dark, unchanging waters
like an enchanted prince
who lives eternally captive
to the river’s palace of glass.
As we watched, a turkey vulture came slowly, slowly down, in great circles, till he was skimming the little beach and practically brushing the rock walls with his huge wings. Eventually he settled on the gull’s rock, a little farther back, and observed the crows at their work. He was remarkably small, with his wings folded: not really much bigger than the gull. We expected him to drive off the crows, but he just watched, for a long time. Eventually he stepped down, going carefully behind the gull, and sidled up to the grey lump, whatever it was, that occupied the crows. He never pecked at it, or interfered with the crows: all three of the bird-kinds resolutely ignored each other. He just looked it over, a long, patient contemplation, while the crows darted in and out. He did not seem to like the surf much, and retreated from it a couple of times. And then he took to the air, unfolding again into a huge, magnificent bird, and rose in circles, as slow as he’d come down.
Soon there was no way to hide the fact that I had mangled it. I kept going back and crunching it, craving the sensation, wondering what it was, wondering if it was poison, wondering if my secret transgression would end up killing me. “I had no idea he was going into the closet for that,” my tearful mother would say. Everyone would say there was no way she could have expected it, why would any boy do such a thing? And behind her back they’d note that I had always been a queer boy, no accounting for me. This at least was quick. Perhaps it was a blessing.
You could lodge things in it: paperclips, toothpicks, straws. It would take the imprint of a key, of a coin, of a knuckle, though not very finely.
The afternoon I found myself drawing a fine reproduction, in scarlet pencil, of a small splatter of ketchup: easier than facing the shrieks of desolation that would have met an attempt to wipe it up & leave no record of its beauty. Or the dread of walking out on a rainy morning, and knowing that six blocks would take half an hour, because every drowning worm on the way must be rescued. There might be twenty such, and each must be lifted tenderly: they are easily injured, especially when waterlogged. At two years of age, she suddenly comprehended that all the dinosaurs had died. She grieved for a year.
Until enlightenment I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and in the supreme assembly of the Sangha, I mutter, but I don’t really: I take refuge in the car starting and in scrambled eggs and in coffee fatted with cream. I think of all the cancers growing in my friends, and in strangers, possibly in myself: the race between cells that know restraint and cells that don’t is not a hard one to call. The worst are full of passionate intensity, and single-mindedly, bloodily intent on replication. The faces in the Republican Convention hall didn’t even look human to me: they looked like masks.
Not Coming Back: 11 poems by Dale Favier
If you’re a reader of Dale Favier’s long-running blog mole as I am, you probably don’t have to think twice before ordering a new collection of his poems, because chances are very good you’ve already read them and know you’re in for a treat. This collection especially interested me because it was so unlike any other chapbook-length collection I’ve read in its design and execution. Nina Tovish, who blogs at Something Beautiful, used a service from Hewlett-Packard called MagCloud, set up to produce glossy paper and PDF magazines, and filled it with gorgeous photos chosen to play off Dale’s poems. The result is a poet’s fantasy of a magazine: no ads, no infographics or news notes, just “news that stays news” from front cover to back. Inevitably, some of the groupings of poems and photos work better for me than others, but all in all this is a happy-making booklet.
One interesting side-effect of presenting poems in this format so associated with a different kind of media, I find, is that any oddness in the text seems much more striking. “Spring,” for instance, almost shouts in its white text on a dark green page, and I’m like, whoa! Spring is pissed off.
The strength is coming
back into my hands, and the warmth is coming
back into the soil. Strange rooted things exult
and push into the air; tendrils
cinch on bricks and tear the mortar.
Your houses are falling. Your cars
are sliding sideways down the drives;
Your marriages split like melons
dropped from a grocery bag.
I’m back. As if I’d never gone.
In one of my favorite pairings in the book, Nina placed a full-page photo of a riverbank after a flood, with scoured boulders and small trees festooned with dead weeds and grasses, opposite the poem “Clean and Pretty,” which begins:
It becomes familiar, the taste of a household
being dismantled. All its shifts revealed:
the squalid corners no guest ever sees …
Another imaginative conjunction: “Anna’s Hummingbird, Nesting” with a photo of a mimosa bloom, which suggests hummingbird motion and color and is simultaneously a bit nest-like — brilliant! And Dale describes the hummingbird fledgling like this:
She is the stylus of an etch-a-sketch,
the point of a glitter pen;
frantically motionless; hanging; the sky’s
I find I like the fact that I can fold the booklet open at any point and flip it over to read it — something I suppose I could do with any saddle-stapled chapbook, but wouldn’t really want to for some reason (and it wouldn’t stay open if I did). I can roll it into a U-shape in one hand while carrying a mug of coffee in the other. What I’m saying is, the magazineness works for me. I got the PDF too, because it was bundled into the cost of the print edition, but since I don’t have a mobile device, it’s not very portable in that format. Considering how good the color reproduction is, it’s worth paying a few dollars extra for the tactility of the paper incarnation, I think.
The back cover features a macro of water drops on something very red, presumably flower petals, with a poem called “Mouse” superimposed in a cream-colored font. Somehow I missed this when he posted it to mole, but it’s one of the best penis poems I’ve seen. An interesting way to close a collection that begins with a poem about swearing off church, “Outside the Walls”:
Thank you for letting me in.
Thank you for letting me gaze
at your strange and bloody pictures.
Thank you too, Nina and Dale, for much the same thing. And thanks for, in a sense, redeeming the medium. So many magazines are filled with a kind of useless beauty, because who really wants to hold onto them? But it’s hard to throw out something so pretty, so there they sit on dusty shelves or in boxes in the attic. This is one magazine-like thing that I will keep, and add to my book collection, without a qualm.
If you’ve been following this blog for even a little while, you must’ve noticed snippets from a blog called mole in the Smorgasblog and seen comments from its author, Dale Favier. Dale’s one of my oldest friends in the blogosphere (we’ve even met twice in person!) and he claims it was my example at Via Negativa that first got him to try his hand at modern poetry. (He had been primarily a fan of Victorian and Middle English poetry before that, so I think “modern” means “anything that doesn’t rhyme.”) Dale’s first collection of poems, Opening the World, is due out in September from the U.K.-based Pindrop Press, and I recently had the pleasure of reading it in manuscript. You can read what Luisa Igloria wrote about it on the publisher’s webpage.
With Dale’s book fresh in my mind, a sighting of a hairy-tailed mole in the lawn in front of my parents’ veranda on Monday morning seemed providential: videopoem material for the mole blogger! (See the Plummer’s Hollow blog for the full, 15-minute video and a few quotes about the largely unknown life of this mammal.) But figuring out which poem to envideo proved surprisingly difficult; several were a pretty good fit, but none was a perfect fit, I thought. Finding the right soundtrack was even more difficult, and consumed many hours. I’m not convinced that the trip-hop instrumental I finally settled on was optimal, but I think it works fairly well. A mole out foraging on the surface after daybreak does seem like an apt choice for a poem about mortality. There are a whole host of predators that could dispatch it at any moment — foxes, coyotes, weasels, fishers, feral cats, owls, hawks — especially considering how blind it is, and how close it let the three of us human watchers get.
I hasten to add that lack of awareness is not a characteristic I associate with Dale Favier! But vulnerability — perhaps, yes. I was a little more succinct than Luisa, but here’s the blurb I wrote:
Dale Favier is a new kind of American Buddhist poet, one less concerned with wisdom than compassion and desire, and as comfortable with the fables and paradoxes of the West as those of the East. His poems sing, chant, weep, declaim and delight. Earnest to a fault, yet always ready to indulge in foolishness and absurdity, Favier wears his erudition lightly and takes risks that few professional poets would take: “They have not written this in books;/ they would not dare; they have their suppers to earn.” Johan Huizinga wrote in Homo Ludens that poetry “proceeds within the play-ground of the mind,” and “the true appellation of the archaic poet is vates, the possessed, the God-smitten, the raving one.” Favier is one of the few modern poets I know who seems to fit this ancient mold. Opening the World documents no mere dalliance with ideas, but a life-long, passionate struggle with gods and mortals, love and death.
Yesterday and today, Dale Favier left poems in response to Luisa Igloria’s poems in the comments at the Morning Porch, and both times it prompted a further exchange between Luisa and me as time permitted. Here are the results.
Jessie’s wearing a knit belt,
a band of vivid pink.
She whistles the beginning of something
again and again.
I glance down at my coffee.
When I look back up
she’s pulled on a gray sweater
and gone to look at the sky.
(This made me smile in two ways at once. Well done!
Things That Make Me Smile
In Two Ways At Once
Lost and found capers
A long drink
of something mint
inside a small hour
That little dish
of nectar partly
—Luisa A. Igloria
Jessie’s wearing boots of mint. She whistles the hummingbird out of the leaves in another story, one without curved bakery cases and metal tubes that hiss into small cups. In this dimpled time, nectar drips from gold cages, & a sad lawyer feeds himself to a lie-in. She hums & taps her toe. She homes in.
But what if she hasn’t learned how to whistle? Will the hummingbird come out of hiding, will it part the leaves for a pucker, for a yodel, or if she crooned? Will it flutter its wings more rapidly than eyelashes? Summer is a long way away. Summer is stripes of vermilion, the plumage of birds of paradise. She looks out where the wind has started sifting fine snow again. The birdbath is an upturned bundt pan ringed by tiny marzipan leaves. Knock on its sides and the echo circles the garden. When it’s cold, we want to suck everything down to the marrow, forgetting the fire in the feathers, the smolder in the song. The sad lawyer in the canopy bed stops alternately tossing in the sheets and sitting up to smooth them. She regales him with stories, pretending she is Sheherazade: short of the endings, before daylight, she braids their ends and coils them flat as coins. Laughing, she tells him he must find them himself. She hides them underneath the mattress, then wishes she were a florin, a ducat, a coronet dollar piece.
That ache in the lungs
on a very cold dawn—
I almost enjoy it.
The blue near the horizon
is the earth’s own shadow.
a leaf flaps
from the frozen birdbath.
I pluck an unsightly hair
from the bridge of my nose.
In the post office window,
the clerk & I compared
ten dollar bills.
1001 spam emails
vanish with one click.
That ache in the lungs
on a very cold dawn,
that blue near the horizon—
Across the counterpane
I’ve chased my shadow
half-in, half-out of sleep—
I fill the chamber with ink
and the nib presses
against creamy paper—
Ink color named after a battle,
That ache in the wake
of language, words like pennants
marking what can’t ever be held—
As in a roomful of people
where I find I’m still always
speaking to you—
* * *
In the massage room is
a trickle-water fountain
which pricks the Reiki music
with little pings of drips.
That high harsh sound
of something tearing
is only my tinnitus.
I believe for a desolate moment
she is going to lay her head
down on my oiled chest.
A man built a city
in his basement out
of balsa wood, all so
the model people
riding round & round
on his train wouldn’t
get bored. Look!
There’s a fountain,
as artificial as in
real life! And trees
with an ageless foliage
that won’t show dust.
I crouch down & peer
under the table.
A rat trap has been
baited with what looks
like catfood. We have
just been introduced
to his wife’s collection
of orchids, & I am
still agog: all those
for special lovers who
will never find them,
so far into the country
of winter in their hot
So far into the country
of winter in their hot
glass house they find
the abandoned piano,
a yellowed score and jazz
notes drifting overhead.
She follows the scent
of ginger and he follows
her down the winding
corridor. The air is cool
in rooms carved from old
wood. He looks for twigs
to whittle, happiest finding
stray pieces that the wind’s
blown in, or that the surf
washes up on shore.
No matter, they can both
admire the heavy tapestry
embroidered with a garden–
all the vines and brambles,
clusters of fruit shot through
with gold thread; the lovers
outlined in white and sienna,
each with their haltered
animals: they bend toward a chink
in the wall that separates them,
press ear and mouth against
the place they might align with
the other; they hear the short
relay of filtered breath.