Why this?

The occasional poem of my own and a generous helping of work by others that I find inspiring. Site is named for a beloved book by one of my favorite writers, Italo Calvino, whose fanciful work lights--and delights--my soul.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Wounded Knee

In Memorium, 1890


I think that blizzards are something real like men,
if men are dust and particles, and if they blow
like shadows between the centuries, so do these giant storms
that tread the prairies down
assume personalities and go
and not be seen again
but, in the seasons of snow,
there are games too great for men ever to understand,
there are games too vast for men to ever play,
games of the wind, games of the avalanche, of falling stones
or mountains poised in thought,
or games of lightning leaping
from sky to crag, games of wild forests burning
with animals for flames, or sparks on quiet breezes
creating holocausts that sweep aside
only at cataracts. I scarcely know
for what they marched or what they would consume
but here
high on this pass
which has a wide road now
just forty years ago December played a different game,
a game of death with two men in a drift-stalled car.
But was there cold?
Yes, there was cold that came
straight from Canadian prairies on a wind that howled
like running wolves, a wind that carried
the murderous sleet from buffalo pastures
where no life remains,
the wind that crossed the dead at Wounded Knee.
I stand upon the pass remembering
the frantic labor at the broken chains,
the bleeding hands, one shovel, and no cars,
the wise ones all inside and we trapped there alone,
no cars, no cars. We made it but just barely,
luck and youth
not to be trusted now.
The wind is cold
still in that pass,
the wind is cold
across the whole stretch of the northern plains.
Luck and youth,
here in the high grey twilight I consider
what tiny particles are men intruding
sentience and will into the streaming curtain of the night.
Luck and youth,
I do not think that mountains
blizzards
prairies
have thoughts for these.
I do not think the snow upon this wind
knows anything but cold since Wounded Knee.
I stand in memory upon the pass and feel the cold
clutch at my shaking hands,
my face dissolving in
the snows of Wounded Knee.
I think that something follows those who come
too close to where man has usurped
the blizzard's and the closing rock's prerogative
to underscore extinction.
The march of glaciers may be a cleansing
but in man
genocide is a pettiness.
We can attempt but never play with dignity
the great game of the elements.
I am glad for this survival
giving myself
and my companion
forty years to contemplate
what is being prepared in the wild furnace of the mountain's heart.
The rock will close upon us
without compassion
without hatred
not having noticed
its creations,
being immersed forever
in games too great for man,
ice, blizzards, the burst throat
of Krakatoa or of Thera,
deaths but not pettiness,
because not human,
something beyond time
quieting us in season
like a falling bird.
God grant far off no memory of Mylai or Wounded Knee
or even Homo sapiens unless his name
troubles the night wind.
One can hear him now, his death songs
muffled in all the snows of all the winters
in the world.
Extinction is an art too great for man, he bungles it
by obscene malice.
Mass death should be left to mountains, left to glaciers.
It should be left to the sand that covers
the boasting of fratricidal kings,
it should be left to prairie grass,
it should be left to the sea that floats lost timber
but never returns the wave-tossed mariner.
Listen, I warned you, you can hear the rising voices
not of wind only, not of snow.
This is the unmistakable sound of men in their own blood
here in the snowy Christmas of this pass.


--Loren Eiseley

From Colson Whitehead's The Colossus of New York

I'm here because I was born here and thus ruined for anywhere else, but I don't know about you. Maybe you're from here, too, and sooner or later it will come out that we used to live a block away from each other and didn't even know it. Or maybe you moved here a couple years ago for a job. Maybe you came here for school. Maybe you saw the brochure. The city has spent a considerable amount of time and money putting the brochure together, what with all the movies, TV shows and songs--the whole If You Can Make It There business. The city also puts a lot of effort into making your hometown look really drab and tiny, just in case you were wondering why it's such a drag to go back sometimes.

You start building your private New York the first time you lay eyes on it. Maybe you were in a cab leaving the airport when the skyline first roused itself into view. All your worldly possessions were in the trunk, and in your hand you held an address on a piece of paper. Look: there's the Empire State Building, over there are the Twin Towers. Somewhere in that fantastic, glorious mess was the address on the piece of paper, your first home here. Maybe your parents dragged you here for a vacation when you were a kid and towed you up and down the gigantic avenues to shop for Christmas gifts. The only skyscrapers visible from your stroller were the legs of adults, but you got to know the ground pretty well and started to wonder why some sidewalks sparkle at certain angles, and others don't. Maybe you came to visit your old buddy, the one who moved here last summer, and there was some mix-up as to where you were supposed to meet. You stepped out of Penn Station into the dizzying hustle of Eighth Avenue and fainted. Freeze it there: that instant is the first brick in your city.

I started building my New York on the uptown No. 1 train. My first city memory is of looking out a subway window as the train erupted from the tunnel on the way to 125th Street and palsied up onto the elevated tracks. It's the early 70's, so everything is filthy. Which means everything is still filthy, because that is my city and I'm sticking to it. I still call it the Pan Am Building, not out of affectation, but because that's what it is. For that new transplant from Des Moines, who is starting her first week of work at a Park Avenue South insurance firm, that titan squatting over Grand Central is the Met Life Building, and for her it always will be. She is wrong, of course--when I look up there, I clearly see the gigantic letters spelling out Pan Am, don't I? And of course I am wrong, in the eyes of the old-timers who maintain the myth that there was a time before Pan Am.

No matter how long you have been here, you are a New Yorker the first time you say, That used to be Munsey's, or That used to be the Tic Toc Lounge. That before the internet cafe plugged itself in, you got your shoes resoled in the mom-and-pop operation that used to be there. You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.

There are eight million naked cities in this naked city--they dispute and disagree. The New York City you live in is not my New York City; how could it be? This place multiplies when you're not looking. We move over here, we move over there. Over a lifetime, that adds up to a lot of neighborhoods, the motley construction material of your jerry-built metropolis. Your favorite newsstands, restaurants, movie theaters, subway stations and barbershops are replaced by your next neighborhood's favorites. It gets to be quite a sum. Before you know it, you have your own personal skyline.

Go back to your old haunts in your old neighborhoods and what do you find: they remain and have disappeared. The greasy spoon, the deli, the dry cleaner you scouted out when you first arrived and tried to make those new streets yours: they are gone. But look past the windows of the travel agency that replaced your pizza parlor. Beyond the desks and computers and promo posters for tropical adventures, you can still see Neapolitan slices cooling, the pizza cutter lying next to half a pie, the map of Sicily on the wall. It is all still there, I assure you. The man who just paid for a trip to Jamaica sees none of that, sees his romantic getaway, his family vacation, what this little shop on this little street has granted him. The disappeared pizza parlor is still here because you are here, and when the beauty parlor replaces the travel agency, the gentleman will still have his vacation. And that lady will have her manicure.

You swallow hard when you discover that the old coffee shop is now a chain pharmacy, that the place where you first kissed so-and-so is now a discount electronics retailer, that where you bought this very jacket is now rubble behind a blue plywood fence and a future office building. Damage has been done to your city. You say, It happened overnight. But of course it didn't. Your pizza parlor, his shoeshine stand, her hat store: when they were here, we neglected them. For all you know, the place closed down moments after the last time you walked out the door. (Ten months ago? Six years? Fifteen? You can't remember, can you?) And there have been five stores in that spot before the travel agency. Five different neighborhoods coming and going between then and now, other people's other cities. Or fifteen, twenty-five, a hundred neighborhoods. Thousands of people pass that storefront every day, each one haunting the streets of his or her own New York, not one of them seeing the same thing.

We can never make proper goodbyes. It was your last ride in a Checker cab and you had no warning. It was the last time you were going to have Lake Tung Ting shrimp in that kinda shady Chinese restaurant and you had no idea. If you had known, perhaps you would have stepped behind the counter and shaken everyone's hand, pulled out the disposable camera and issued posing instructions. But you had no idea. There are unheralded tipping points, a certain number of times that we will unlock the front door of an apartment. At some point you were closer to the last time than you were to the first time, and you didn't even know it. You didn't know that each time you passed the threshold you were saying goodbye.

I never got a chance to say goodbye to some of my old buildings. Some I lived in, others were part of a skyline I thought would always be there. And they never got a chance to say goodbye to me. I think they would have liked to--I refuse to believe in their indifference. You say you know these streets pretty well? The city knows you better than any living person because it has seen you when you are alone. It saw you steeling yourself for the job interview, slowly walking home after the late date, tripping over nonexistent impediments on the sidewalk. It saw you wince when the single frigid drop fell from the air-conditioner twelve stories up and zapped you. It saw the bewilderment on your face as you stepped out of the stolen matinee, incredulous that there was still daylight after such a long movie. It saw you half-running up the street after you got the keys to your first apartment. The city saw all that. Remembers too.

Consider what all your old apartments would say if they got together to swap stories. They could piece together the starts and finishes of your relationships, complain about your wardrobe and musical tastes, gossip about who you are after midnight. 7J says, So that's what happened to Lucy--I knew it would never work out. You picked up yoga, you put down yoga, you tried various cures. You tried on selves and got rid of them, and this makes your old rooms wistful: why must things change? 3R goes, Saxophone, you say--I knew him when he played guitar. Cherish your old apartments and pause for a moment when you pass them. Pay tribute, for they are the caretakers of your reinventions.

Our streets are calendars containing who we were and who we will be next. We see ourselves in this city every day when we walk down the sidewalk and catch our reflections in store windows, seek ourselves in this city each time we reminisce about what was there fifteen, ten, forty years ago, because all our old places are proof that we were here. One day the city we built will be gone, and when it goes, we go. When the buildings fall, we topple, too.

Maybe we become New Yorkers the day we realize that New York will go on without us. To put off the inevitable, we try to fix the city in place, remember it as it was, doing to the city what we would never allow to be done to ourselves. The kid on the uptown No. 1 train, the new arrival stepping out of Grand Central, the jerk at the intersection who doesn't know east from west: those people don't exist anymore, ceased to be a couple of apartments ago, and we wouldn't have it any other way. New York City does not hold our former selves against us. Perhaps we can extend the same courtesy.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the world geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.


--Mary Oliver

Sunday, July 29, 2012

For Sale to the Right Party

Emerald green tree boa for sale to the right party,
no triflers please.
Daily News want ad amidst listings
for Weimaraners, Great Danes, terriers.
Emerald green, one of the most beautiful snakes in the world,
seen in its proper setting, flowing like green light
deep in the rain forest; even in this time when the whole earth is
robbed
and hurried to collectors via air, hard to believe,
but someone had it. I
looked out the window in drab snow, looked at the curtain rods,
saw it quite clear, twining among the curtains, even draped
across the lampshade, an old urge surging up from boyhood
for some world-shaking Worm, some dragon gained.
Studied my wife, too, secretly over the paper in my middle age,
the pros and cons, how much I could persuade.
Should be allowed, of course, the house, be free to climb,
insinuate itself
among the book shelves, could be encountered unexpected,
unprepared--
so it preferred--could also hang in coils, its head wrapped up,
most precious gem of all. I stared
over the paper, speculative, but knew 
it must be fed alive, sighed, grasped the problem,
went back to Weimaraner ads, sighed again, grew smaller,
became a ten-year-old, wife vanished, hunting
in a lost decade and another time.
Two wading in a swamp, small boys alert
see everything that moves, caught the green reflection
along a scaled
old dragon's back,
a giant snapper's back, never such a turtle
have I seen since along a prairie slough.
They grow and grow,
get mossed and ancient lying in the mud, but now,
all over now
they're routed out, they don't achieve
such age, such armored growth, and reptiles grow with age;
just keep on growing.
This one must have slept
growing in mud and light and water
till the last men with ox teams had trudged by.
"Rolly," I screamed, "Rolly Rolvagsen, good god
get a tree branch, there's wire along the fence line,
he's asleep, he's tired, he's so big
he's not afraid of us,
let's take him home," a snapper, mind you, that
could take a toe right off,
we barefoot, but we did it, did it,
an engineering feat so desperate, I shudder now,
lashings of tail, slipping of naked feet within an inch of ruin.
Pole under him, wired down, the two of us to lift,
carried him miles to Rolly's house
and there he filled a tub.
Rolly's grandmother,
Norwegian, pale eyes ageless, used to all sea monsters,
incommunicable, just looking. We were told,
later we were told, the great beast got away, accepted it like children
never doubting
the stories of adults, cried a little
for all the risk and effort wasted, went to play.
Wasted, one turtle wasted; for what I know not. Why did I organize
so vast a capture, undoubtedly destroy,
though I did not intend,
something the mud conceived, something the sun had wrought
where now
nothing at all exists, no dragons and no dreams. I know
I wanted him as though I were a river god. 
Mine, mine
out of the uncreate old mud, a century nourished,
dead because parents could not waste the time
to put him back.
I looked. I know. Hadn't we labored with his weight on poles
through miles of dust? Behind the newspaper
growing ever smaller
the old, wild urge returns: an emerald tree snake in
my middle age,
want that as well, no, not really, just for a day
the green coils flowing over the pictures, over the davenport,
then I
would take him if I could, but cannot,
back to the filtered light, the stillness, the great vines
and let him
toil upward in green splendor til he vanished, became leaves.
Yes, Rolly Rolvagsen, I was wrong, you know.
Mud has its own ways, they are not our ways.


--Loren Eiseley

Compliments from my peers to reread when I'm down on myself

First and foremost, your poems have a freshness to them that I have never seen before. They are modern, ultramodern, in fact, different from anything I've ever read before because they are so simple and yet so complex.


There is an ecstasy with which you write that should not be ignored. 

Miniature

The woman stands up in front of the table. Her sad hands
begin to cut thin slices of lemon for tea
like yellow wheels for a very small carriage
made for a child's fairy tale. The young officer sitting opposite
is buried in the old armchair. He doesn't look at her.
He lights up his cigarette. His hand holding the match trembles,
throwing light on his tender chin and the teacup's handle. The clock
holds its heartbeat for a moment. Something has been postponed.
The moment has gone. It's too late now. Let'd drink our tea.
Is it possible, then, for death to come in that kind of carriage?
To pass by and go away? And only this carriage to remain,
with its little yellow wheels of lemon
packed for so many years on a side street with unlit lamps,
and then a small song, a little mist, and then nothing?

--Yannis Ritsos, tr. from the Greek by Edmund Keeley

Arc Welding on Night Shift

We were lighting up the factory,
the hot-white current
striking through wire and steel.

"I'm a hooded assassin," Tubbsy said laughing,
bending over and pulling the trigger.

Some of us were sheathed in thick denim,
some in heavy leather, the sparks
burning small craters into our gloves.

If we weren't careful with our aim
we could run wire clear through our palms.
If we raised our hoods too soon,
we would tear all night from blindness.

We were doing piecework, welding
gussets to tubing, rods to plates,
but who knew what we were making,
how it was adding up, where it was going.

We were trying to keep our verticals true,
one streak of steel melting into another
and cooling into such a ribbed hardness

it was beautiful, Willis said,
pulling his hood off,
running his fingers softly
along the spine of a bead,

something so incidental to all
our fire and arc it took us by surprise
to see it being touched

not knowing exactly
what it was about, only
that it was among us now,
coming and going all night
without regard of who we were,
where it was taking hold.

--Gregory Djanikian

Relative State Formulation

Say you're driving through a strange town, not strange,
really, but unfamiliar. Eventually
you'll pass that one particular house where
you'll almost stop, or at least briefly idle.
There will be something in the way the shutters
blister, how the late sun makes a parallel
blazoned pane with the door that will tell you
that this is the house of your other life.
The one in which you told him yes, in which
the branch did not, ultimately, catch her,
in which the storm kept your father from making
that train. You can almost see your red chair
in the living room, can't you, and the back
of a head you pray won't turn toward your lights.


--Nicky Beer

Fiddler Crab

To travel sideways--
lunging at the world with one


big claw, lopsided vision,
junk-heap of evolution's


elbows, prongs, and hinges,
uncommitted to the surface, skimming


warily--you bolt,
are poised even when still


to withdraw at the slightest
tremor, a shadow's digit,


your adventures thin compared
to the incremental journeys of a snail


(effusive as pleasure,
each blade of texture


wallowed and soiled),
with brittle fidgets touch


little to keep you here, scuttle
again and again


as if slung by a rubber band
or yo yo'd 


from the corkscrew 
involution of your burrow


which you will back in,
blocking


claw held aloft, bulged
eyeballs on the intruder, withholding 


your lightless, shallow, brief
interior.


--Lisa Williams

Queen Charlotte Sound

Mornings, the scattered drift shines
like jawbones. Amassed in piles,
cold seaweed cinches into place. Clear
shells filling with fog--
first the round ones, then the spirals.
Beneath the waves, gray whales itch
with sea lice.


So absence is compelled
by premonition. Fog pouring
into firs until the forest is erased.
Your own hand subtracted.
Even the bogs sublimate: studded
as they are with sundews,
carnivorous plants with sticky
ends collecting light--


Their appetites glitter. Then
the whiteness consumes them.
Like a candle held for a moment
between mirrors, your body
senses what has come before, what
remains.


And so, the last jar's filled with its final
shard of quartz. Pages of the field notebook
decant the living sap of trees. Even the white
gold ring on your finger
burns with the memory of supernova.


--Katherine Larson

Metamorphosis

It is astounding how little the ordinary person notices butterflies.
—Nabokov

We dredge the stream with soup strainers
and separate dragonfly and damselfly nymphs—
their eyes like inky bulbs, jaws snapping
at the light as if the world was full of
tiny traps, each hairpin mechanism
tripped for transformation. Such a ricochet
of appetites insisting life, life, life against
the watery dark, the tuberous reeds. Tell me—
how do they survive passage? I rinse our cutlery
in the stream. Heat so heavy it hurts the skin.
The drone of wild bees. We swim through cities
buried in seawater, we watch the gods decay.
We dredge the gods of other civilizations.
The sun, for example. Before the deity became a
star. Jasper scarabs excavated from the hearts of
kings. Daylight's blue-green water pooling at the
foot of falls. Sandstones where the canyon spills
its verdant greens in vines. Each lunar
resurrection, each helix churning in the cells
of a sturgeon destined for spawning—
Not equilibrium, but buoyancy. A hallway
with a thousand human brains carved out of crystal.
Quiet prisms until the sunlight hits.

Solarium

The pomegranates are blurs of rouge
in the sky's tarnished mirror.

The city, bleary with heat. Each day the eyes
of my cat assemble a more precocious gold.

We press our blackened flesh against a sky so bright. I hold
her in my arms at the fading windows.

We gaze together at nothing in particular,
down an avenue that leans so far her tawny eyes

gutter out. In my laboratory, immortal cancer cells
divide and divide. The pomegranates

are almost ripe. Some splintered open the way
all things fragment—into something fundamental.

Either everything's sublime or nothing is.

A Lime Tree for San Cristobal

On this island, all the tortoises are priests
of an exclusive past. What other living thing
survives on prickly pear and guava? The pure
sting of citrus delivers perfume in a halo
of blossoms.
My carpentry here is rough
and leaves me dreaming of Spanish arches.
If there's anything a coast imparts, it's patience
with imperfect lines.
Today's specimen: Eel dark
reddish purplish brown with pale or whitish 
brown spots.
I know I'm still alive because I love
to eat. On the table's a gift
from fishermen: pink gills embroidered
blood, the eyes--two mirrors snapped over
with iron. This shark that I will cut and soak 
in lime has a mouth made for eating darkness--
an architecture built without a need for dawn.


--Katherine Larson

Shame: An Aria

You think you’ve grown up in various ways
and then the elevator door opens and you’re standing inside
reaming out your nose­ something about the dry air
in the mountains­ and find yourself facing two spruce elderly couples
dressed like improbable wildflowers in their primary color
definitely on vacation sports outfits, a wormy curl of one of the body’s
shameful and congealed lubricants gleaming on your fingertip
under the fluorescent lights, and there really isn’t too much to say
as you descend the remaining two flights with them in silence,
all five of you staring straight ahead in this commodious
aluminum group coffin toward the ground floor. You are,
of course, trying to think of something witty to say. Your hand
is, of course, in your pocket discreetly transferring the offending article
into its accumulation of lint. One man clears his throat
and you admit to yourself that there are kinds of people if not
people in particular you hate, that these are they,
and that your mind is nevertheless, is nevertheless working
like a demented cicada drying its wings after rain to find some way
to save yourself in your craven, small child’s large ego’s idea
of their eyes. You even crank it up a notch, getting more high-minded
and lugubrious in the seconds it takes for the almost silent
gears and oiled hydraulic or pneumatic plungers and cables
of the machine to set you down. “Nosepicking,” you imagine explaining
to the upturned, reverential faces, “is in a way the ground floor
of being. The body’s fluids and solids, its various despised disjecta,
toenail parings left absently on the bedside table that your lover
the next night notices there, shit streaks in underwear or little, faint
odorous pee-blossoms of the palest polleny color, the stiffened
small droplets in the sheets of the body’s shuddering late-night loneliness
and self-love, russets of menstrual blood, toejam, earwax,
phlegm, the little dead militias of white corpuscles
we call pus, what are they after all but the twins of the juices
of mortal glory: sap, wine, breast milk, sperm, and blood. The most intimate hygienes,
those deepest tribal rules that teach a child
trying to struggle up out of the fear of loss of love
from anger, hatred, fear, they get taught to us, don’t they,
as boundaries, terrible thresholds, what can be said (or thought, or done)
inside the house but not out, what can be said (or thought, or done)
only by oneself, which must therefore best not be done at all,
so that the core of the self, we learn early, is where shame lives
and where we also learn doubleness, and a certain practical cunning,
and what a theater is, and the ability to lie.”
the elevator has opened and closed, the silver-haired columbines
of the mountain are murmuring over breakfast menus in a room full of bright plastics
somewhere, and you, grown up in various ways, are at the typewriter,
thinking of all the slimes and jellies of decay, thinking
that the zombie passages, ghoul corridors, radiant death’s-head
entries to that realm of terror claim us in the sick, middle-of-the-night
sessions of self-hatred and remorse, in the day’s most hidden,
watchful self, the man not farting in the line at the bank,
no trace of discomfort on his mild, neighbor-loving face, the woman
calculating he distance to the next person she can borrow a tampon from
while she smiles attentively into this new man’s explanation
of his theory about deforestation, claims us also, by seepage, in our lies,
small malices, razor knicks on the skin of others of our meannesses,
deprivations, rage, and what to do but face that way
and praise the kingdom of the dead, praise the power which we have all kinds
of phrases to elide, that none of us can worm our way out of,
which all must kneel to in the end, that no man can evade,
praise it by calling it time, say it is master of the seasons,
mistress of the moment of the hunting hawk’s sudden sheen of grape-brown
gleaming in the morning sun, the characteristic slow gesture,
two fingers across the cheekbone deliberately, of the lover dreamily
oiling her skin, in this moment, no other, before she turns to you
the face she wants you to see and the rest
that she hopes, when she can’t keep it hidden, you can somehow love
and which, if you could love yourself, you would.

Iowa City: Early April

This morning a cat—bright orange—pawing at the one patch of new grass in the sand-and tanbark-colored leaves.

And last night the sapphire of the raccoon's eyes in the beam of the flashlight.
He was climbing a tree beside the house, trying to get onto the porch, I think, for a wad of oatmeal
Simmered in cider from the bottom of the pan we'd left out for the birds.

And earlier a burnished, somewhat dazed woodchuck, his coat gleaming with spring,
Loping toward his burrow in the roots of a tree among the drying winter's litter
Of old leaves on the floor of the woods, when I went out to get the New York Times.

And male cardinals whistling back and forth—sireeep, sreeep, sreeep—
Sets of three sweet full notes, weaving into and out of each other like the triplet rhymes in medieval poetry,
And the higher, purer notes of the tufted titmice among them,
High in the trees where they were catching what they could of the early sun.

And a doe and two yearlings, picking their way along the worrying path they'd made through the gully, their coats the color of the forest floor,
Stopped just at the roots of the great chestnut where the woodchuck's burrow was,
Froze, and the doe looked back over her shoulder at me for a long moment, and leapt forward,
Her young following, and bounded with that almost mincing precision in the landing of each hoof
Up the gully, over it, and out of sight. So that I remembered
Dreaming last night that a deer walked into the house while I was writing at the kitchen table,
Came in the glass door from the garden, looked at me with a stilled defiant terror, like a thing with no choices,
And, neck bobbing in that fragile-seeming, almost mechanical mix of arrest and liquid motion, came to the table
And snatched a slice of apple, and stood, and then quietened, and to my surprise did not leave again.

And those little captains, the chickadees, swift to the feeder and swift away.

And the squirrels with their smoke-plume tails trailing digging in the leaves to bury or find buried—
I'm told they don't remember where they put things, that it's an activity of incessant discovery—
Nuts, tree-fall proteins, whatever they forage from around the house of our leavings,

And the flameheaded woodpecker at the suet with his black-and-white ladderback elegant fierceness—
They take sunflower seeds and stash them in the rough ridges of the tree's bark
Where the beaks of the smoke-and-steel blue nuthatches can't quite get at them—
Though the nuthatches sometimes seem to get them as they con the trees methodically for spiders' eggs or some other overwintering insect's intricately packaged lump of futurity
Got from its body before the cold came on.

And the little bat in the kitchen lightwell—
When I climbed on a chair to remove the sheet of wimpled plastic and let it loose,
It flew straight into my face and I toppled to the floor, chair under me,
And it flared down the hall and did what seemed a frantic reconnoiter of the windowed, high-walled living room.
And lit on a brass firelog where it looked like a brown and ash
grey teenaged suede glove with Mephistophelean dreams,
And then, spurt of black sperm, up, out the window, and into the twilight woods.

All this life going on about my life, or living a life about all this life going on,
Being a creature, whatever my drama of the moment, at the edge of the raccoon's world—
He froze in my flashlight beam and looked down, no affect, just looked,
The ringtail curled and flared to make him look bigger and not to be messed with—
I was thinking he couldn't know how charming his comic-book robber's mask was to me,
That his experience of his being and mine of his and his of mine were things entirely apart,
Though there were between us, probably, energies of shrewd and respectful tact, based on curiosity and fear—
I knew about his talons whatever he knew about me—
And as for my experience of myself, it comes and goes, I'm not sure it's any one thing, as my experience of these creatures is not,
And I know I am often too far from it or too near, glad to be rid of it which is why it was such a happiness,
The bright orange of the cat, and the first pool of green grass-leaves in early April, and the birdsong—that orange and that green not colors you'd set next to one another in the human scheme.

And the crows' calls, even before you open your eyes, at sunup.

Layover

Thin snow falling on the runway at Anchorage,
bundled bodies of men, gray padded jackets, outsized gloves,
heads bent against the wind. They lunge, weaving
among the scattering of luggage carts, hard at what must be
half the world’s work, loading and unloading.

Mounded snow faintly gray and sculpted into what seems
the entire vocabulary of resignation. It shines
in the one patch of sun, is lustered
with the precipitate of the exhaust of turbine engines,
the burnt carbons of Precambrian forests. Life feeding life
feeding life in the usual, mindless way. The colonizer’s
usual prefab, low-roofed storage sheds in the distance
pale beige and curiously hopeful in their upright verticals
like boys in an army, or like the spruce and hemlock forest
on low hillsides beyond them. And beyond those, half seen
in the haze, range after range of snowy mountains
in the valleys of which—moose feeding along the frozen streams,
snow foxes hunting ptarmigan in the brilliant whiteness—
no human could survive for very long, and which it is the imagination’s
intensest, least possible longing to inhabit.

This is a day of diplomatic lull. Iraq seems to have agreed
to withdraw from Kuwait with Russian assurances
that the government of Hussein will be protected. It won’t happen,
thousands of young men will be killed, shot, blown up,
buried in the sand, an ancient city bombed,
but one speaks this way of countries, as if they were entities
with wills. Iraq has agreed. Russia has promised. A bleak thing,
dry snow melting on the gray, salted tarmac.
One of the men on the airstrip is waving his black,
monstrously gloved hands at someone. He seems very much alive,
strong body, rhythmic, efficient stride. He knows
what he’s supposed to do. He’s getting our clothes to us
at the stop. Flowerburst ties, silky underwear.
There are three young Indians, thin faces, high cheekbones,
skin the color of old brass, chatting quietly across from me
in what must be an Athabascan dialect. A small child crying
mildly, sleepily, down the way, a mother murmuring in English.
Soft hum of motors stirring, through the plane’s low, dim fuselage
the stale air, breathed and breathed, we have been sharing.

Happiness

Because yesterday morning from the steamy window
we saw a pair of red foxes across the creek
eating the last windfall apples in the rain—
they looked up at us with their green eyes
long enough to symbolize the wakefulness of living things
and then went back to eating—

and because this morning
when she went into the gazebo with her black pen and yellow pad
to coax an inquisitive soul
from what she thinks of as the reluctance of matter,
I drove into town to drink tea in the cafe
and write notes in a journal—mist rose from the bay
like the luminous and indefinite aspect of intention,
and a small flock of tundra swans
for the second winter in a row was feeding on new grass
in the soaked fields; they symbolize mystery, I suppose,
they are also called whistling swans, are very white,
and their eyes are black—

and because the tea steamed in front of me,
and the notebook, turned to a new page,
was blank except for a faint blue idea of order,
I wrote: happiness! it is December, very cold,
we woke early this morning,
and lay in bed kissing,
our eyes squinched up like bats.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Bean House

… humming in the summer haze.

Diane christened it the Bean House,
Since everything in it came straight from an
L.L. Bean Home catalog. It looks out upon two
Meadows separated by a stand of trees, and at night,
When the heat begins to dissipate and the stars
Become visible in the uncontaminated sky,
I like to sit here on the deck, listening to the music
Wafting from the inside through the sliding patio doors,
Listening to the music in my head. It's what I do:
The days go by, the days remain the same, dwindling
Down to a precious few as I try to write my name
In the book of passing days, the book of water. Some
Days I go fishing, usually unsuccessfully, casting
Gently across a small stream that flows along beneath
Some overhanging trees or through a field of cows.
Call it late bucolic: this morning I awoke to rain
And a late spring chill, with water dripping from the
Eaves, the apple trees, the pergola down the hill.
No fishing today, as I await the summation
Of my interrupted eclogue, waiting on the rain
And rhythms of the world for the music to resume,
As indeed it does: all things end eventually,
No matter how permanent they seem, no matter how
Desperately you want them to remain. And now the sun
Comes out once more, and life becomes sweet again,
Sweet and familiar, on the verge of summer.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Defended privately

"Happiness is not something that happens. It is not the result of good fortune or random chance. It is not something that money can buy or power command. It does not depend on outside events, but, rather, on how we interpret them. Happiness, in fact, is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person. People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy." --Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Citizens of the Dream

There is no escaping this, so you might as well accept it now. If you turn away from your creative gift, it will not go away. It will just fester, and you will become depressed.


You may have a modest gift. Still, it is a gift. It is not yours; it is entrusted to you. It is something beyond you, something you didn't cause to come into being, but something that was handed to you. It is a gift, and with it comes a duty. Carry it lightly, but carry it.


*


I don't believe you are ever wasting your own time by writing. Some people might think you are wasting theirs, but that's their problem.


--Cary Tennis

Ran Ortner in The Sun



In a sense mountains and oceans are similar. The mountains heave up with the collision of tectonic plates and then erode down, just as the waves rise up and then crumble. They just operate on different timelines. What I respond to in the ocean is that the waves break in synchronicity with the beating of my heart, the in and out of my breath.


*


In the ocean I see the collision of life and death: the rising of each wave is life insisting on itself, and in the trough I see death. These high points and low points are all part of the larger dance. You really feel the lament of the ocean, and at the same moment there's a generosity, because the waves keep coming. These forces are working back and forth endlessly.


The paradoxes of life are all there in the sea. The ocean is often referred to as feminine, but the waves arrive in a masculine surge. As soon as they reach the full extent of their masculine expression, they shape themselves into a tube, a womb. 


There are tempests and dark depths. You do not mess with the ocean. It will pummel you and chew you up. It is devastatingly brutal. And yet it can be luminous and delicate and tender. We clean our wounds there. What a reflection of our own impossible nature. We're so brutal, so base, so horrific, and yet we have the capacity for such tenderness, such warmth, such empathy, such generosity.


*


There are moments in painting in which somehow you're processing far more information than your mind is capable of handling. There's so much layering going on in a painting, so many techniques. You have dark and light working against each other. Edges can be hard or soft. There are cooler or warmer colors, and more or less transparent ones. Then there's texture and proportion. After a while you don't see the techniques anymore--it's just all in there. The soup comes to a boil.


As painting gets more complex, it gains the same quietness that I've found in racing and surfing, where everything is happening so quickly that the demand for deep, internal calm is high. We can't be at our most responsive unless our nerves are quieted. If there's any noise on the lines, if there's static or some kind of discourse happening within you, then part of your wiring is not available to the activity. 


*


I think it is key what Einstein said about the importance of only ever having one simple, childlike question--never two. His was: How does the cosmos work? The psyche responds to basic, direct questions because we have so much energy that can move us in many different directions. Until we determine our proper framework, the right endeavor for us, we just mill around.


*


We've all been weaned from our mothers. We've all come to know that we are mortal, that the body has dominion over the spirit. And we each live in a sealed container of the self and must deal with that enormous loneliness.


*


I think that making art is profoundly and fundamentally life affirming. To make art is to give, to pour yourself into life, so you don't die with the music still inside you. You give it to your culture.


*


There's a tremendous puzzle in it for me because of the violence in the world. It will never feel appropriate, the level of violence that I know to exist. You look at a black hole, which is this implosion where time itself is distorted and torn to bits. And the ocean can display such incredible violence. But somehow that doesn't begin to diminish the beauty that's all around us. If anything it makes the beauty more astonishing. As much horror as there is, there is still a place where flowers bloom and outside the front door it's spring. Out of this crack in the sidewalk, life comes again, God damn it. You can use all the weedkiller in the world, and it will still come.


*


More truth, beauty. Ran's site. Above-photo credit

Give and give

"You are going to have to give and give and give, or there's no reason for you to be writing. You have to give from the deepest part of yourself, and you are going to have to go on giving, and the giving is going to have to be its own reward. There is no cosmic importance to your getting something published, but there is in learning to be a giver." --Anne Lamott

Material of pain

"What marks the artist is his power to shape the material of pain we all have." --Lionel Trilling

Almost

"There are moments when art attains almost to the dignity of manual labor." --Oscar Wilde

As if by magic

"It is the function of art to renew our perspective. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The writer shakes up the familiar scene, and, as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it." --Anais Nin

Simply eat something sweet

"Very few people possess true artistic ability. It is therefore both unseemly and unproductive to irritate the situation by making an effort. If you have a burning, restless urge to write or paint, simply eat something sweet and the feeling will pass." --Fran Lebowitz

Primary distinction

"The primary distinction of the artist is that he must actively cultivate that state which most men, necessarily, must avoid: the state of being alone." --James Baldwin

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Pasture Poem

This upstart thistle
Is young and touchy; it is
All barb and bristle,

Threatening to wield
Its green, jagged armament
Against the whole field.

Butterflies will dare
Nonetheless to lay their eggs
In that angle where

The leaf meets the stem,
So that ants or browsing cows
Cannot trouble them.

Summer will grow old
As will the thistle, letting
A clenched bloom unfold

To which the small hum
Of bee wings and the flash of
Goldfinch wings will come,

Till its purple crown
Blanches, and the breezes strew
The whole field with down.