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

Night from the inside (6)

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Night from the Inside


Living here for 50 years in a bend of the railroad’s main line through Pennsylvania, I couldn’t help but become an aficionado of train horns. As they age they grow in dissonance, till they’re making chords straight out of Schoenberg.


cold twilight
of a distant ball game


night valley
the unadorned darkness
of Amish farms


What I thought at first were stars reflected in the forest pool’s nearly still surface turn out, when I look up, to be satellites — a long line of them, easily visible through the half-grown leaves as they file soundlessly overhead. This has the name, I recall, of an almost bird: Starlink. Creepy and unnerving as hell. I guess we should be grateful they don’t spell out DRINK COKE or something, but the long-term plan is even worse: to outnumber the visible stars in the night sky. All so one multinational corporation, SpaceX, can have a monopoly on rural broadband service. I’m reminded of Robinson Jeffers’ misanthropic quote: “Man would shit on the morning star if he could reach it.”


I love the startled barks of raccoons. Even when my presence is the occasion for it.


A small outbreak of fireworks down the valley: a local clusterfuck.


Out in the woods at night, it’s hard to shake the impression that I’m surrounded by tribespeople — I mean the trees. They act as if they own the place. You can see it in their posture, their habit of rarely bowing, their standoffishness. However often we cut them down they keep coming back, as best they can, to this same backward place, clannish, profligate. Prone to annual revivals that quickly devolve into orgies, pollen flying everywhere. Full of exotic music from all the nomads they take in.


My brother Mark’s nocturnal audio recordings show that field sparrows, a supposedly diurnal species, are the most regular nighttime songsters. I wonder if being a light sleeper confers evolutionary advantage to a dweller in open spaces? Mark wrote,

A field sparrow or field sparrows called 42 times on the night of May 14-15, after dusk and dawn choruses were over, over the course of 7hr45min. So that works out to about once every 11 min. I believe it was more than one bird, given the differing volumes–assuming they weren’t flying around.

Other diurnal birds singing at night I’ve encountered so far are the [yellow-billed and black-billed] cuckoos, an apparent chipping sparrow, catbird, and a common yellowthroat.


I’m sitting in the ridgetop forest listening to a dog or coyote in the valley, yipping and howling to the accompaniment of the high school marching band.

The howls are getting closer, the band more distant.

It is almost fully dark, I’m a mile from home, and I’ve just had my second Covid shot.

OK, no, I must be listening to an outdoor rock or country concert. The howls aren’t canine but human, sounding multi vocal when the audience joins in. I can almost make out the melody line.

It’s like I’m in the world’s darkest, deadest bar with a dying jukebox just out of sight around the corner.

But doubtless this is something the town leaders have dreamed up to get people outside and lift their spirits. I’m glad.

And I’m glad that it’s now over, climaxing in a frenzy of colored spotlights. Silence and darkness descend like benedictions from the great velvet Elvis above the bar.

without my glasses
the shapeliness
of night


A genuinely blood-curdling cry from the other side of the spruce grove. It spooked a couple of deer, who just ran past me.


s t r e t c h i n g
into the woods


The crescent moon is the best moon: more stylish than the full moon, and available for moongazers and performers of dark rites twice a month rather than just once. Plus it doesn’t nearly eradicate the darkness as the full moon does.


In one dream I am hunted — or haunted? — by the Polaroid of a fish.


moonlit forest
the sudden crack and roar
of a falling tree

the mouse keeps on
nosing about

Fifteen minutes later, another tree crashes down, twice as close. I take the hint and get out.


first field cricket
through the open window
half a moon


Fifteen minutes past sunset, coyotes strike up a chorus not far from where I sit, on the appropriately named Coyote Bench. They start out sounding plausibly dog-like, but the yipping and wolf-like howling quickly give them away. Like all music that resonates down deep, this is part moan, part jubilation. Closing in on prey, and close to prayer:


First firefly blinking through the half-grown black walnut leaves, all alone going here… here… here…

Rainbow colors in the clouds around the moon — a reminder that even on a sultry evening, ice is less than ten miles away.

Night from the inside (5)

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Night from the Inside


To go for a walk in the woods during the day is to participate in a fantasy of knowing through seeing. The mysterious unknown is pushed back, engendering the desire to keep walking just to see what’s around the next bend. At night, all such illusions fall away. The forest we’ve just walked through retains its essential unknowability. Without darkness, the very possibility of the wild becomes endangered.


From off in the darkness, the sound of a porcupine clacking its teeth. Against what threat, I wonder?

It goes on and on. Somebody doesn’t have much sense.


I sit on a bench in the moonlight, put down my hand, and find the pen I didn’t know I’d lost. A small moment of grace, like so many over the years that have allowed me to see myself as deeply fortunate, despite the fact that I’m broke.


The absolute silence of an owl’s flight. If I hadn’t been gazing in the right direction, I wouldn’t have known it was there. Even the moonlight makes more noise.


In a moonlit forest there are far more beasts. I have had to get out my flashlight three times in the course of a mile to verify that dark shapes were merely logs or root balls. But of course in reality, too, more animals are able to forage or to hunt when the moon is bright.


Trees don’t need heads because they have the sun. At night, all that remains are their gestures of ardent worship silhouetted against the sky.


Angels with the jaws of lions, these clouds trying to swallow the full moon. A bat less seen than felt — a ripple through the still air currently bearing the monotonous hectoring of a whip-poor-will.


Full moon through the trees: the last I’ll see it like that, with so few leaves, until November. I watch it inching along through the branches.


Sitting in the middle of a mowed path through the meadow, I feel something bump into the back of my canvas chair, followed by the sound of running feet. Didn’t turn around in time to see what it was. Too small for a deer, too fast for a porcupine. A near-sighted fox? A not-so-wily coyote?


moon dog
taking off my glasses
to make sure it’s real

moon dog
sprouting a cloudy tail
time to plant


the old anthill’s
shaggy look


moon bathing
that elusive piece
of soap


Sólo la luna sospecha la verdad.
Y es que el hombre no existe.
(Only the moon suspects the truth.
And that is that Man doesn’t exist.)
Vicente Aleixandre


The night’s doors opening all at once. Flickers of lightning on the horizon. The false thunder of a jet.


The sounds of my digestion startle me — and perhaps others off in the darkness. Wouldn’t this have given our hunter-gatherer ancestors an adaptive advantage? I like the idea of the wild within — our gut microflora — helping to safeguard us against the wild without.

Night from the inside (4)

Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights - Hell - detail from bottom
This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Night from the Inside


Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights - Hell - detail from top

Moonlight in the kitchen is a sign of God.
Anne Carson

Does the moon ever shine in my kitchen with its northeast window? Maybe only in January, on the full moon known as Wolf, or Popping Trees, or Absence of Bears.


night train
and the rattling wind
in one bed


2:00 a.m. road
without cars the tarmac’s
own carcass


into mere roadkill
so many stars


future fossil
all these travels written
in my teeth


One set of keys for the day and one for the night. But if the locks fill with rain they will drown and our souls will devolve like cetaceans, returning to the deep and its sunless music, now with microplastic.


Nautical twilight. A distant, non-human wail from one of the farms in the valley. Microdrops of rain on my face.

The pleasure of watching headlights move through a forest ten miles away.


Through the bottom of my mug, my other hand shrinks into an insect: seat of my soul, dung beetle. Scarab sacred only to a little world of shit.

Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights - Hell - detail from middle

When you sit or lie1 on the forest floor, in a strong wind you may feel slight movements beneath you: tree roots working the night shift.


It’s too cold for the bat. Now the moon is recalling all shadows.

Do trees feel the moonlight? If so, it must be the lightest caress.


Gazing directly at the moon for too long feels disrespectful, especially when it’s just beginning the monthly molt.


A voice off in the forest calls You and after several seconds the response: Yah.


That lone window still lit at 4:00 in the morning. The patch of dim light it inflicts on the edge of the forest.


every hidden hammer
hitting its string

the pianist’s fingers
not her own

I can’t stop fantasizing
about soup


With their frog mouths and weird nocturnal calls, the nightjars wouldn’t seem out of place in one of Hieronymous Bosch’s teeming tableaux.2 One North American species, the common poorwill, is the only bird known to go into a prolonged state of torpor very like hibernation.

every time
I go out to take a leak


landscapes of my childhood
aglow with bleakness


cedar tree
knocking at my house
must be sleepless too


The first hint of dawn in the sky and in the forest the first hint of gray. It begins its daily dwindling into mere woods.

1 Due to the threat of Lyme disease, this is of course best done in a tent.

2 I do a web search and sure enough, Bosch gave Lucifer the head of a nightjar:

Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights - Hell - detail from bottom

Night from the inside (3)

mountaintop forest pool at dusk with a band of sunset light still on the horizon
This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Night from the Inside


Dark enough to see in each black space between the stars a haze of light, soft as the fur of a cat.


dark of the moon
if anything is going
to go bump


Vividly imagining every kind of death has become my mental background noise. It’s not as if I’m even slightly suicidal. So why do I do it? Self-loathing? A deep need to keep my ego in check? This is the kind of everyday, ordinary darkness that fascinates me.

Is it even correct to call negative feelings dark? I almost feel they stem from darkness deprivation.


the twilight
of animals
under my house


night rain
on the roof
my greed for poems


What if there were an ancient, possibly immortal, protector of the hollow? Or more than one? It certainly wouldn’t hurt to pour out an offering now and then, just to let them know we acknowledge their sovereignty. But otherwise don’t speak or even really think of them. Because that’s doubtless how they would prefer it, should they actually exist. They have their work and you have yours. They are of the dark. They loathe worship.


trees of fog
a train horn’s
dissonant chord


Every time you walk through an older forest, remember: you are surrounded by beings that could crush you at any moment, but for some reason have not done so yet.


twilight pond
a porcupine puts
one foot in


As the crescent moon ripples and breaks apart, the mountaintop pool suddenly seems cavernous, its tree reflections trailing into the abyss. I stand to leave and the illusion passes. A bat nearly the same shade of darkness as the forest careens in and out of vision. The short path to the woods’ edge seems to have doubled in length, but this of course is another illusion. As is the bobcat quality of that snarl I just heard from the spruce grove.

The night makes everything grow: half-seen, fuzzy outlines dissolve, and the darkness itself becomes the only upward limit on size. Names and identities we wear by day become as loose-fitting as nightgowns or pajamas.


beyond the jet
a meteor’s
utter silence


The odd kinds of noises that various random songbirds make in the middle of the night, possibly without waking up: what a rare privilege to hear them, and imagine that you’ve just gotten an inkling of a wild creature’s unconscious mind.


pre-dawn creek
raccoon lifting a rock
lowers the pitch