April Diary 20: balancing on one foot, waiting for Armageddon

This entry is part 20 of 31 in the series April Diary


Dear April the headline in the local paper reads WINTER SPRINGS A SURPRISE and i wonder whether there’s a course they all take in journalism school, Bad Puns 101

we got a LOT of snow. Mom measured nine inches at one spot in the field. but as wet as it was and as quickly as it began to subside it was hard to tell

last night it occurred to me that after i lost my pot belly and before i got bifocals there was like a six month period when i actually had a clear view of my junk while taking a leak

thank you for coming to my Netflix comedy special

this morning for some reason i was remembering how i used to advertise poetry readings in the late 80s and early 90s by putting flyers in unexpected places all around Penn State’s main campus, and how a grad student in mathematics once showed up out of sheer curiosity — “I’d never heard of such a thing!”

people from the sciences generally seemed like a more attentive audience than the literature people for some reason

back when blogging was still new and exciting, for a few years poetry bloggers like me regularly attracted such non-traditional audiences as well. but relatively few poets took advantage of that. most assume that the only people who want to read poetry are other poets and act accordingly. i remember how surprised i was the first time i heard someone refer to other poets as her tribe. i dunno, i’ve just never felt that way. i used to belong to a pretty convivial group of bloggers all of whom liked poetry i think but most were more readers than writers of it. it was only after that group went quiet that i started the poetry blog digest. i had resisted turning Via Negativa into just a poetry blog for years, but in the end i felt that if i didn’t specialize i wouldn’t be able to retain even the small audience the site had

this April Diary exercise feels like a throwback to those early years of writing whatever pops into my head. and it may well be the sort of blogging i’ll go back to when i’m done with Pepys

losing weight and getting in better shape has had a few unexpected consequences. my favorite is that i am much better at balancing on one foot. i revel in that every morning when i put on my socks

a snowflake insinuating itself under my umbrella lands on the page of my open book: that brief moment before its star vanishes into a wet spot

snow squall erasing my own tracks as i sit watching

now i know how Pepys’ Diary feels

walking back along the ridgetop i’m impressed by the way the storm plastered snow on both sides of tree trunks giving them a distinctly calligraphic appearance

the world feels really precarious these days. global weirding is in full effect and i wonder just how bad and widespread famine will become as more and more crops fail around the world on top of the situation with grain exports from Russia and Ukraine

meanwhile the drumbeat for direct military action against Russia grows deafening as Taibbi’s latest essay on Substack makes clear. anyone attempting to challenge the dominant narrative gets shut out of mainstream commentary altogether, even more thoroughly than in the run-up to our invasion of Iraq in 2003. for the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall nuclear annihilation seems like a real possibility

it’s essential for any working poet to understand how propaganda works, how dominant narratives are crafted and how they become dominant, in part by ridiculing or simply ignoring or deplatforming anyone who challenges them

the invisibility of dissidents in this society parallels the invisibility of poets and i would argue both derive from a common source: our very but not exclusively American intolerance of any nuance plus a general discomfort with hard truths e.g. about death and suffering

finished Cicada. here’s a stanza i liked:

Our dream gathered
and spit us out polished
in the night
without tears
without the depth of touch
the morning couldn’t find space
to bring its light
across to the other side
on the riverbank stones
one by one
open their eyes

Phoebe Giannisi translated by Brian Sneeden

April Diary 15: all my best friends are books

This entry is part 15 of 31 in the series April Diary


sitting on the porch first thing in the morning going back and forth between Phoebe Giannisi and Zang Di: two cerebral humanist ecopoets both born in 1964

both reward slow reading are often tongue in cheek and discuss ideas in a very concrete, embodied way

they have different concepts of what’s most primal though: for Giannisi it’s smell or touch; for Zang Di it’s taste

both translators Brian Sneeden and Eleanor Goodman are highly regarded by their peers. imagine pouring so much selfless effort into a product that in the end may garner three or four glowing reviews and fewer than 500 sales i’m guessing. heroes

i now want to buy every contemporary Chinese poet translated for Zephyr Press not all at once but as i finish the previous one (though that means a lot more money on shipping)

though my previous such book was from those wacko hipsters at Ugly Duckling Presse, I name him me: Selected Poems of Ma Yan a young Sichuanese Muslim poet whose work really took off in China after she topped herself in 2010, sigh. in her lifetime just two self-published collections drawn from her blog

hi my name is Dave and i’m a bookaholic

here’s a short poem by Ma Yan:


The butterflies climb against the wind,
they hobble on the cable.
Sunlight in mid-spring and
roadside trees smothered in dust
say hello to each other.
In this heavy Beijing,
the thick smell of oxygen,
the TV sign happens to cut out
like thunder at noon.

I name him me: Selected Poems of Ma Yan, translated by Stephen Nashef

this is a perfect haiku pairing:

John Stevenson, from quiet enough

the problem with people who want to be poets i find is that they want to have written poems more than they want to write them. they are in love with the idea of being someone who loves to write

some of these people end up committing literal plagiarism. others limit themselves to passing off commonplace ideas, conventional wisdom and other such calcified thoughts as their own original insights

all of these people need to be encouraged. there’s too much good poetry getting published these days—one simply cannot read it all. it’s appalling

also i love me a good plagiarism scandal, although it’s a little sad when you know the plagiarist and had thought well of her. still, i stand with Ira Lightman all the way. he’s a genuine hero for exposing so many cases of well-published, reputable poets committing plagiarism. it raises so many questions about originality and why it matters (or doesn’t matter if you’re an idiot). and why the hell some people want so badly to have written that they can’t be bothered to write

Dear April when the high finally blew in late this afternoon, I was four-fifths of the way through my walk and drinking my tea up at the vernal pools. Great timing, as it turned out, because I suddenly found myself writing a poem that was neither a haiku-like thing nor an erasure poem. i know, i’m shocked too. the germ of it was a childhood memory, actually: a rare moment of pure happiness such as one has maybe a half dozen times in the course of an ordinary life.

of course, that was only the germ. it sprouted into something different and a bit darker i’m afraid:

pine trees say
a sigh can be happy

and the sky is bluest
in a mountain pool

between the parentheses
of salamander embryos

birds fly

one falling maple blossom
sends a shock wave

in this universe it’s easier
to talk to the dead

this blogging thing could become a habit. i’d better be careful

April Diary 9: sapsuckers, beginner’s mind, and Phoebe Giannisi

river in November light between bare woods and mountain
This entry is part 8 of 31 in the series April Diary


a day of bright sun and sudden showers

a day for Louisiana waterthrushes and yellow-bellied sapsuckers

I wrote a haiku about the former, posting it from the trail, and texted my birder brother about the latter

i’m picturing one of those 16th-century fonts where lower-case S’s look like F’s

I had one rule for this diary: to compose and post it entirely on the phone and I broke that rule on April 1, more fool me

what is it about poets and the need to set arbitrary rules which we honor mainly in the breach

the point of the rule was to enforce brevity (I type very slowly and poorly on it) but perhaps my laziness will serve the same function

is it a diary or zuihitsu though really

as British poet Cheryl Moskovitz put it

Zuihitsu is neither prose poem nor essay although it can sometimes resemble both. To ‘follow the brush’ suggests a certain not-knowing of what will happen, that whatever might result from the process will be down to discovery rather than plan. There is a strong sense in zuihitsu writing that the creation of order depends on disorder. Zuihitsu demands as its starting point, juxtapositions, fragments, contradictions, random materials and pieces of varying lengths.

so should I take Sei Shonagon for my guardian spirit, or the monk Kenkō, author of Essays in Idleness?

What a strange, demented feeling it gives me when I realise I have spent whole days before this inkstone, with nothing better to do, jotting down at random whatever nonsensical thoughts that have entered my head.

Donald Keene, Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō

that’s how the grumpy old priest begins

the equally curmudgeonly Shonagon began her Pillow Book like this (in Ivan Morris’ classic translation):

In spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful. As the light creeps over the hills, their outlines are dyed a faint red and wisps of purplish clouds trail over them.

she goes on to say that in summer is it the nights, in autumn the evenings and in winter the early mornings that are most beautiful

and i’m thinking that might be true in central Pennsylvania too

back at the end of March I attended a reading at Penn State Altoona by a couple of friends who teach there, both of whom had new books to launch: Todd Davis (Coffin Honey) and Erin Murphy (Taxonomies)

they both read very well and each is at the top of their game – so far so good. but should i stay for the rest of the reading, an open mike that i knew would be dominated by students with little more than one or two poetry classes under their belts? yikes i thought but i did stick around anyway

and actually it was kind of awesome. for one thing nobody hogged the mike. the audience was large but respectful and the work they shared had plenty of surprise

it occurred to me that listening to beginner poets is an exercise in recognition: recognizing what is salvageable, what is already brilliant, how true poetry and the received wisdom of the tribe are sometimes interchangeable. recognizing true insights no matter how encumbered by cliche

recognizing one’s own best moments with Beginner’s Mind

it’s also always valuable for those of us who have been immersed in poetry for most of our lives to get these periodic reminders of how newcomers to the craft might perceive it

most male birds aside from ducks lack penises, so copulation consists of what ornithologists refer to as a cloacal kiss

without the distraction of any kind of penetration one can see clearly that sex is at base a form of communication and perhaps its quintessence: a making in the sense of the Greek poeisis. DNA not unlike computer code to which it is often compared has the power to bring things about, like a sorcerer’s spell

the sapsuckers were certainly noisy about it too with that weird vuvuzela-like sound they make

here’s how the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website describes yellow-bellied sapsucker sounds:

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker’s signature call is a scratchy, nasal mewing that is often repeated. They also have a squealing call, a repeated quee-ah, quee-ah, that’s territorial and often heard in breeding season. And they make a waa call when disturbed or to alert others to danger.

Other Sounds

Like other sapsuckers, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker’s drumming is slower and more irregular than other woodpeckers. Its stuttering cadence can sound like somebody tapping out morse code. In addition to trees with good resonance, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers also drum on metal surfaces—like street signs or chimney flashing—to amplify their territorial messages. Most drumming is done by males during breeding season.

a stuttering cadence suggests code or language because I suppose our ears are trained to recognize speech-like patterns, even in inanimate things like thunder or or the wind

i imagine birds hear a lot of sounds as potential birdsong, including human voices

i’m working my way through Greek poet Phoebe Giannisi’s book Cicada as translated by Brian Sneeden. the three epigraphs at the very front of the book are by J. Henri Fabre, Plato, and Basho so i figured the book would kick ass and it mostly does

like much of the poetry i read (and nearly everything i write) these are minimalist poems without a fixed narrator. according to the publisher’s description

Giannisi is a poet internationally known for her idiosyncratic ecopoetics, her poetic multimedia works and performances, and most of all, her brilliant vision glowing at the borders of language, voice, place, and memory.

i particularly like how she envisions ecdysis as an act of giving birth to oneself (not sure that image would’ve occurred to a male poet) but let me share instead the opening poem both because it is short and because it sort of fits with what i’ve been talking about:


Inside these articulations
the beginnings of language
outside of yes and no
inside only the I want
the soul with the body meeting
in all the openly
meteoric leaves
and now, see:
one of them falls slowly
to the earth

Phoebe Giannisi

more davebonta.com tagline possibilities

  • mouth-breather, poet
  • son of Bruce
  • fairly good egg
  • #amwriting #butpoetrysonobodyreadsit
  • young codger