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.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Insupportable sweetness

Evening and the flat land,
Rich and sombre and always silent;
The miles of fresh-plowed soil,
Heavy and black, full of strength and harshness;
The growing wheat, the growing weeds,
The toiling horses, the tired men;
The long empty roads,
Sullen fires of sunset, fading,
The eternal, unresponsive sky.
Against all this, Youth,
Flaming like the wild roses,
Singing like the larks over the plowed fields,
Flashing like a star out of the twilight;
Youth with its insupportable sweetness,
Its fierce necessity,
Its sharp desire,
Singing and singing,
Out of the lips of silence,
Out of the earthy dusk.

--Willa Cather

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

I Love the Hour Just Before

a party. Everybody
at home getting
ready. Pulling
on boots, fixing
their hair, planning
what to say if
she's there, picking
a pluckier lipstick,
rehearsing a joke
with a stickpin
in it, doing
the last minute
fumbling one does
before leaving for
the night like
tying up the dog or
turning on the yard
light. I like to think
of them driving,
finding their way
in the dark, taking
this left, that right,
while I light candles,
start the music softly
seething. Everything
waiting. Even
the wine barely
breathing. 

--Todd Boss

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Meeting ground

Mark Doty, in here--

And that is the gift of art: we begin in self-expression and as we turn toward "how can I say this well, how can I craft the most vital utterance of what I have to say?" we stop thinking about ourselves and start thinking about the quality of the speech, the strength of the saying, and in doing so we allow the reader in. We make this kind of meeting ground between oneself and another, and that meeting ground is timeless, it continues, it continues to be generative in an extraordinary way.

If you work very hard

Mark Doty, in here--

I think we all struggle with what it means to persist in a life of making art. The thing that you cannot do, the thing you are not allowed to do, is to stay the same. If you continue to write in just the same way, producing the poem that basically replicates the same structure, behaves in the same way, uses the same kind of speech patterns, what happens is that you produce replicas of your previous work to gradually diminishing yields, less feeling, less intensity, less discovery. In some ways that's one of my biggest fears and so I have pushed myself to change, to reach for other kinds of models and other kinds of practices of speech and of song, on the theory that people really don't change very much. If you work very hard, maybe you can change a little. Much about us remains the same, our obsessions and the essential music that we hear behind the poem. That tends to be a constant in a lifetime and if you look back at your early poems you can often see evidence of that there; you just didn't know what to do with it, you didn't recognize it at the time but voice is always. 

Commensurate with experience

Mark Doty, in here--

If I were going to make a general comment about the work of my students, the work of developing poets that I read in literary magazines, I think that many poets tend to quit too soon. I don't mean that I think they should all be writing long poems, by any means, but I think that poems by developing poets often try to arrive at an epiphany, a resonant statement, and then get the hell out there before opening too many doors of complexity, before allowing a satisfying degree of complication to enter into the poem. It's completely understandable why we do that. Complication is messy. It challenges our craft. The more kinds of conflicting emotions on the table in a poem, the harder time we're going to have marshaling them toward any kind of coherence. But I find that preferable to settling for an easy unity. A poem that is too much a simplification, that creates a kind of false order, is not going to be able to feel commensurate with experience, will not be able to hold enough of what it is to live. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

First Halloween: Finn the Mighty Maple

Patterned after "his tree"--behind us in the first pic--which he stares and stares and stares at...





Friday, October 18, 2013

From "Apocalyptic Planet" by Craig Childs

“Facing the elemental fuel of life itself, you have to offer something.”

[In an extreme land or skyscape] "Some people say they feel small in places like this, their lives seeming insignificant in the face of geographic immensity. But rather than feeling small, I think it’s more a a total loss of any reference or scale. You are starting from scratch here, seeing the world as it is, not so much as you imagine it."

(Thanks Mom!)

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Labor

It dawned on me
just before actual dawn:
there was no getting out
of getting him out.
I was in. Did I want out?
Not exactly, though
I wanted something not
how it was happening.
I wanted…the option?
I wanted to stall.
For it was the speed—
the hurtling, exactly—
that horrified me.
That named me passenger
in a car with no plates
and a rogue driver known
by no one.

I got the drugs. It got light out,
I got light. The relief
felt like fresh love.
It was fresh love.
I could’ve wept.
But in time, a new problem:
the stall I’d wanted
wouldn’t stop—meaning
neither of us was driving.

--me

That Little Something

The likelihood of ever finding is small.
It's like being accosted by a woman
And asked to help her look for a pearl
She lost right here in the street.

She could be making it all up,
Even her tears, you say to yourself
As you search under your feet,
Thinking, not in a million years...

It's one of those summer afternoons
When one needs a good excuse
To step out of a cool shade.
In the meantime, what ever became of her?

And why, years later, do you still,
Off and on, cast your eyes to the ground
As you hurry to some appointment
Where you are now certain to arrive late.

--Charles Simic

Nails it

the half-compassion and half-horror we feel for the creatures
             we want not to hurt       and prefer not to touch

Another one I'm linking to for formatting reasons.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

From "All Good Slides Are Slippery" by Lemony Snicket

Poetry is like a curvy slide in a playground--an odd object, available to the public--and, as I keep explaining to my local police force, everyone should be able to use it, not just those of a certain age. 

In general I am suspicious of anything written specifically for children. It is, of course, acceptable to write something to a specific child--"Dear Elizabeth, I have reason to believe this cake is poison, so please leave it alone and I'll take care of it later"--but things written by someone who is thinking only of children far too often have an unfortunate tone. If you have ever seen an adult hunch over and begin talking to a child in the high-pitched voice of an irritating simpleton, then you know the tone I mean. It is a tone that takes the fun out of everything, even everything fun.


--


Poem


I'm in the house.

It's nice out: warm
sun on cold snow. 
First day of spring
or last of winter.
My legs run down
the stairs and out
the door, my top
half here typing

--Ron Padgett

More: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/article/246328

Burden of his needs

Ahhh.

his fingers grasping the metal cord tight

So desperate. So effective.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Atavism

I always was afraid of Somes's Pond: 
Not the little pond, by which the willow stands, 
Where laughing boys catch alewives in their hands 
In brown, bright shallows; but the one beyond. 
There, when the frost makes all the birches burn 
Yellow as cow-lilies, and the pale sky shines 
Like a polished shell between black spruce and pines, 
Some strange thing tracks us, turning where we turn. 

You'll say I dream it, being the true daughter 
Of those who in old times endured this dread. 
Look! Where the lily-stems are showing red 
A silent paddle moves below the water, 
A sliding shape has stirred them like a breath; 
Tall plumes surmount a painted mask of death.

--Elinor Wylie

Pregnant Pause

In the presence of certain people
with whom I’m more or less
expected to some degree converse,
the silence contains too much room. 
Space for a life’s supply of stock 
tickers—one for every potential investment. 
Still I typically default.

In the presence of my self only,
interval is everything. It’s all there is. 
The room, of course, is staggering.
But it’s often like August: you can 
hang your hat, take a nap.

--me

Sunday, August 4, 2013

First Weeks

To my son

They tell me it’s about getting past this part. 
That once you’re 3—4—6 months old
it’ll just be so fun. You’ll interact.

And yet, while there are things
I wouldn’t choose to stand
amid (colic, whole feeds rivering up),
why would I want to rush your arrival to the place 
where sheet cakes and drone wars begin? 

Yesterday you lifted your head
off my shoulder and held it there briefly
(toward one of their “milestones”)
and I smiled, though a real sadness ran through. 

Later, alone on your back in a dim room, 
you stared unblinking at “your poster”—
depiction of deep space that transfixes you daily—
as I watched from the other side
of the cracked door. 

They tell me it’s about getting past this part.
I tell you to take your time.
Whatever, however it is for you, 
I hope it holds. I hope you hold it
as long as you possibly can,
before the world, this world, crashes in.

--me

Monday, July 15, 2013

Meter of your evolution

"A mother's voice is the first call to consciousness in the fluid womb. Her heartbeat Iambe's meter of your evolution. Her muffled syllables begin time." --Laura Manuelidis

Sunday, July 14, 2013

When Apollo Calls

Touching. 

Diluvian Dream

All afternoon I walk behind the mower,
Imagining, though paradoxically,
That even though the grass is getting lower,
What I have cut is like a rising sea;
The parts I haven’t cut, with every pass,
Resemble real geography, a map,
A shrinking island continent of grass
Where shoreline vanishes with every lap.

At last, the noise and smell of gasoline
Dispel my dream. What sea? Peninsulas?
They were the lands my inner child had seen,
Their little Yucat√°ns and Floridas.

But when I’m finished, and Yard goes back to Lawn,
I can’t help thinking that a world is gone.

--Wilmer Mills

A Thank-You Note

For John Skoyles

My daughter made drawings with the pens you sent,
line drawings that suggest the things they represent,
different from any drawings she — at ten — had done,
closer to real art, implying what the mind fills in.
For her mother she made a flower fragile on its stem;
for me, a lion, calm, contained, but not a handsome one.
She drew a lion for me once before, on a get-well card,
and wrote I must be brave even when it’s hard.

Such love is healing — as you know, my friend,
especially when it comes unbidden from our children
despite the flaws they see so vividly in us.
Who can love you as your child does?
Your son so ill, the brutal chemo, his looming loss
owning you now — yet you would be this generous
to think of my child. With the pens you sent
she has made I hope a healing instrument.

--Michael Ryan

Ancestry

The damp had got its grip years ago
but gone unnoticed. The heads of the joists
feathered slowly in the cavity wall
and the room’s wet belly had begun to bow.

Once we’d ripped the boards up, it all came out:
the smell, at first, then the crumbling wood
gone to seed, all its muscles wasted.
You pottered back and to with tea, soda bread,

eighty years shaking on a plastic tray.
One by one we looked up, nodded, then slipped
under the floor. We moved down there like fish
in moonlight, or divers round an old ship.

--Sean Hewitt

Monday, July 8, 2013

Care's Weight

My dying grandmother can no longer feed herself,
her 96-year-old husband keeping her alive
one slow spoonful at a time. 
And my grandfather is so matter-of-fact patient, 
bent and focused through hour-long feeding sessions,
pious under God’s watchful eye.

Out of sync with my quiet brand of liberalism,
his voiceI hear itsounding loud and often, 
dinner-table sovereign. 
He used to on principle make me bristle.   

I recently had a child. 
In the days immediately after his birth—
slippery, taken up—I didn’t have much choice: 
I ate some meals at the hand of my husband.
Until one day I could no longer bear it;
I covered my tracks with a laugh
and insisted on keeping myself.

--me

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Earth Your Dancing Place

Beneath heaven's vault
remember always walking
through halls of cloud
down aisles of sunlight
or through high hedges
of the green rain
walk in the world
highheeled with swirl of cape
hand at the swordhilt
of your pride
Keep a tall throat
Remain aghast at life

Enter each day
as upon a stage
lighted and waiting
for your step
Crave upward as flame
have keenness in the nostril
Give your eyes
to agony or rapture

Train your hands
as birds to be
brooding or nimble
Move your body
as the horses
sweeping on slender hooves
over crag and prairie
with fleeing manes
and aloofness of their limbs

Take earth for your own large room
and the floor of earth
carpeted with sunlight
and hung round with silver wind
for your dancing place

--May Swenson

Reflections on Childhood Days at the Avon Allen Home

As read at Grandma Clara’s memorial service, June 15, 2013

“You can let go now Mom”:
my uncle to my grandmother.
And she of strong Norwegian stock
did, passing quietly on a still June evening. 

The next day, alone in my bedroom, I spiral up from a nap
and think of long days spent at Grandma’s,
years before the containment of adolescence. 
The whir we generated, my brother and me, 
in the yellow-green of midsummer—
whispers in dusty carport corners,
peels and shouts from apple tree boughs,
our fists small blurs still so careful with caterpillars.
We propellered in and out of years-soft towels
and fine lavender nightgowns bobbing on the clothesline, 
and when we grew tired we dropped to the grass 
and caught fat minutes of rest—
buzz of bugs and distant mowers filling,
fueling us with unnamed longing—
before starting up again. It was all so absolute,
we were practically see-through. 

And later, my grandma—soft and creased and kind—
at the kitchen counter prepping dinner, 
humming a song from another world as my brother and I, 
grubby and happy, sat at the table 
under the spell of cottage cheese with pears 
canned in sweetest syrup. 

My thoughts are still back there when my husband enters softly,
kissing the top of my head 
and lowering our eight-week-old baby into my arms. 
And in the wake of weeks grayed 
with the anxiety I’d come to associate with breastfeeding, 
“You can let go now Mom”—
these words reach me. And I do,
my whole body untensing, relaxing against the sheet.
And praise Light: my new son latches easily, 
feeds sweetly, melts into me. 

--me

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

From "Don't Let Me Be Lonely"

There was a time I could say no one I knew well had died. This is not to suggest no one died. When I was eight my mother became pregnant. She went to the hospital to give birth and returned without the baby. Where's the baby? we asked. Did she shrug? She was the kind of woman who liked to shrug; deep within her was an everlasting shrug. That didn't seem like a death. The years went by and people only died on television—if they weren't Black, they were wearing black or were terminally ill. Then I returned home from school one day and saw my father sitting on the steps of our home. He had a look that was unfamiliar; it was flooded, so leaking. I climbed the steps as far away from him as I could get. He was breaking or broken. Or, to be more precise, he looked to me like someone understanding his aloneness. Loneliness. His mother was dead. I'd never met her. It meant a trip back home for him. When he returned he spoke neither about the airplane nor the funeral. 

--Claudia Rankine

String of empty tin cans rattling

Yes. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Iowa City to Boulder

I take most of the drive by night.
It's cool and in the dark my lapsed
inspection can't be seen.
I sing and make myself promises.

By dawn on the high plains
I'm driving tired and cagey.
Red-winged blackbirds
on the mileposts, like candle flames,
flare their wings for balance
in the blasts of truck wakes.

The dust of not sleeping
drifts in my mouth, and five or six
miles slur by uncounted.
I say I hate long-distance

drives but I love them.
The flat light stains the foothills
pale and I speed up the canyon
to sleep until the little lull
the insects take at dusk before
they say their names all night in the loud field.

--William Matthews

Flying

Treetops are not so high
Nor I so low
That I don't instinctively know
How it would be to fly

Through gaps that the wind makes, when
The leaves arouse
And there is a lifting of boughs
That settle and lift again.

Whatever my kind may be,
It is not absurd
To confuse myself with a bird
For the space of a reverie:

My species never flew,
But I somehow know
It is something that long ago
I almost adapted to.

--Richard Wilbur

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Variation on a Theme

Thank you my life long afternoon
late in this spring that has no age
my window above the river
for the woman you led me to
when it was time at last the words
coming to me out of mid-air
that carried me through the clear day
and come even now to find me
for old friends and echoes of them
those mistakes only I could make
homesickness that guides the plovers
from somewhere they had loved before
they knew they loved it to somewhere
they had loved before they saw it
thank you good body hand and eye
and the places and moments known
only to me revisiting
once more complete just as they are
and the morning stars I have seen
and the dogs who are guiding me

--W. S. Merwin

Monday, May 6, 2013

Spent

Late August morning I go out to cut
spent and faded hydrangeas—washed 
greens, russets, troubled little auras 

of sky as if these were the very silks 
of Versailles, mottled by rain and ruin
then half-restored, after all this time…

When I come back with my handful 
I realize I’ve accidentally locked the door,
and can’t get back into the house.

The dining room window’s easiest;
crawl through beauty bush and spirea, 
push aside some errant maples, take down 

the wood-framed screen, hoist myself up. 
But how, exactly, to clamber across the sill 
and the radiator down to the tile?

I try bending one leg in, but I don’t fold 
readily; I push myself up so that my waist 
rests against the sill, and lean forward, 

place my hands on the floor and begin to slide 
down into the room, which makes me think 
this was what it was like to be born: 

awkward, too big for the passageway…
Negotiate, submit? 
                           When I give myself
to gravity there I am, inside, no harm,

the dazzling splotchy flowerheads
scattered around me on the floor.
Will leaving the world be the same

—uncertainty as to how to proceed, 
some discomfort, and suddenly you’re 
—where? I am so involved with this idea 

I forget to unlock the door, 
so when I go to fetch the mail, I’m locked out 
again. Am I at home in this house, 

would I prefer to be out here, 
where I could be almost anyone? 
This time it’s simpler: the window-frame, 

the radiator, my descent. Born twice 
in one day! 
                In their silvered jug,
these bruise-blessed flowers: 

how hard I had to work to bring them 
into this room. When I say spent, 
I don’t mean they have no further coin.

If there are lives to come, I think
they might be a littler easier than this one.

--Mark Doty

This Moment

A neighbourhood.
At dusk.

Things are getting ready
to happen
out of sight.

Stars and moths.
And rinds slanting around fruit.

But not yet.

One tree is black.
One window is yellow as butter.

A woman leans down to catch a child
who has run into her arms
this moment.

Stars rise.
Moths flutter.
Apples sweeten in the dark.

--Eavan Boland

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Welcome to the world, Finn Kjartan Elde-Sylvester!


Spring

Nine months pregnant

Boughs sleeved in pink puffs,
hyacinth nibs starfish curling,
yellow poms on everything.
And the tulips. Such abandon
in the face of a little sun.
How they loose their petals
to the point of near loss—
all but overcome before closing,
opening again.

--me

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

What you have to say

"Don't think what you have to say is important. The way you say it is what's important. What you have to say is rubbish." --William Logan

The Daffodils

I wandered lonely as a cloud
   That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
   A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
   And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
   Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced, but they
   Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A Poet could not but be gay,
   In such a jocund company:
I gazed--and gazed--but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
   In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
   Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

--William Wordsworth

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Spring

Nine months pregnant

Boughs sleeved in pink puffs,
hyacinth nibs starfish curling,
yellow poms on everything.
And the tulips. Such abandon
in the face of a little sun.
How they loose their petals
to the point of near loss—
all but overcome before closing,
opening again.

--me

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Road

for Sandra Nystrom

Your steep deserted road:
Around a hill it wends
And tapers toward the sky
Or where the canvas ends

In dim but rosy distance.
The stubborn eye desires 
To trace the road beyond
The place it disappears.

What lurks around the bend?
Any drama lies
Beyond the line of sight.
No houses and no trees.

Low clouds, or the low light,
Refuse to give away
The hour, which, though veiled,
Is surely one of two:

Dawn gleam or sunset glow,
Promise or memory.
There is no need to know. 
The painting doesn't say,

But endlessly your road
Unspools around that hill
Against a moody sky
Changing, still. 

--Rachel Hadas

Home

Whorl of underpasses, offramps,
freeways that splay
running sedans and tanker trucks

to odd-numbered interstates
with Indian names:
everything aiming 

at everything
and just missing
in eternal roar and return,

sky fixed with the rickety
circuitry of an old rollercoaster park
as we break

out of the airport tunnel--
ascension, assimilation:
even the wish

in the back of a cab
not to think
comes with its own pictures and music.

--Nate Klug

Monday, April 1, 2013

Any day now... (!)

Listening

You wept in your mother's arms
and I knew that from then on
I was to forget myself.
Listening to your sobs,

I was resolved against my will
to do well by us
and so I said, without thinking,
in great panic, To do wrong
in one's own judgment,
though others thrive by it,
is the right road to blessedness.
Not to submit to error
is in itself wrong
and pride.

Standing beside you,
I took an oath
to make your life simpler
by complicating mine
and what I always thought
would happen did:
I was lifted up in joy.

--David Ignatow

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Goods

It's the immemorial feelings
I like the best: hunger, thirst,
their satisfaction; work-weariness,
earned rest; the falling again
from loneliness to love;
the green growth the mind takes
from the pastures in March;
the gayety in the stride
of a good team of Belgian mares
that seems to shudder from me
through all my ancestry.

Friday, March 1, 2013

What the wind blows

"I'll go to the bookshop in town, grab three or four books of poetry, sit in the coffee shop, and read those for a while. It's like loosening up your muscles before a workout."

"Kids teach you to lighten up, which for me was very handy because I wasn't very light at the time. They were a blessing for that."

"I think what makes people ill a lot of the time is the belief that your thoughts are concrete and that you're responsible for your thoughts. Whereas actually--the way I see it--your thoughts are what the wind blows through your mind."

--Thom Yorke

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Not by itself enough

Virtuosity with language is not by itself enough for poetry. A poem has to sustain a strong connection to the suffered world, and any intelligence that dares call itself poetic needs to be penetrated and informed by the life of the emotions. The ego must be breached by the fire and flood damage of experience. At the same time, plaintive wailing will not suffice. Successful poems have grace and vivacity--sometimes even power--of language, mobility of mind, and not a straight-faced, deadpan earnestness, but a brave freedom of feeling. --Tony Hoagland

House or Window Flies

These little window dwellers, in cottages and halls, were always entertaining to me; after dancing in the window all day from sunrise to sunset they would sip of the tea, drink of the beer, and eat of the sugar, and be welcome all summer long. They look like things of mind or fairies, and seem pleased or dull as the weather permits. In many clean cottages and genteel houses, they are allowed every liberty to creep, fly, or do as they like; and seldom or ever do wrong. In fact they are the small or dwarfish portion of our own family, and so many fairy familiars that we know and treat as one of ourselves.

--John Clare

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Confectionary

From the air New York’s skyline looks jerry-built, improvised, as much draped raggedly from the atmospheres as it is built up. I always expect to see rope bridges impulsively thrown across the nearly perfectly calipered gaps across streets. Chicago’s looks modeled, fashioned, carved, as if a hand has just finished its work and gone home--it looks like an artisanal studio or shop. San Francisco’s is confectionary, with fanciful and frivolous irregularities, spires, angularities, and pitches lifting and dropping structures as if the ground had been bunched like a rug and left that way: architects love the challenge of matching structure to pitch. All three cities are money stacked different ways.

More

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Farm Scenes

I.
Snow falls in the feeding lot
All afternoon. Everything is white
Except for the dark lumps of hay
The horse has pushed away with his nose.

2.
We talk for hours. Long after midnight
I carry water to the chickens.
The flashlight sways over the snow
Like a single thought alone in the night.

3.
One rooster and five molty hens
Shift uneasily in their stall. The barn
Is shadowy—one or two
Strands of hay hang from the horse's jaw.

--Robert Bly

Friday, February 1, 2013

Refuge

“To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.”
--W. Somerset Maugham

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Secret of Life

Once during the war
on a bus going to Portsmouth
a navy yard worker
told me the secret of life.

The secret of life, he said,
can never be passed down
one generation to the other.

The secret of life, he said,
is hunger. It makes an open hand.

The secret of life is money.
But only the small coins.

The secret of life, he said,
is love. You become what you lose.

The secret of life, he said,
is water. The world will end
in flood.

The secret of life, he said,
is circumstance.

If you catch the right bus
at the right time
you will sit next
to the secret teller

who will whisper it
in your ear.

--Diana Der-Hovanessian

Saturday, January 19, 2013

So I'm totally bowled over

...by this. Some of why:

Gaston Bachelard says the single most succinct and astonishing thing: We begin in admiration and we end by organizing our disappointment. The moment of admiration is the experience of something unfiltered, vital and fresh--it could also be horror--and the moment of organization is both the onset of disappointment and its dignification; the least we can do is dignify our knowingness, the loss of some vitality through familiarization, by admiring not the thing itself but how we can organize it, think about it. 

*

Eventually, in every poet's life, there must come the recognition of the possibility of unhitching. I take the word unhitching from Claude Levi-Strauss's Tristes Tropiques, an anthropology book that, for better or for worse, changed the views of Western civilization in the twentieth century. Here is the passage I have in mind:

"The possibility, vital for life, of unhitching, which consists ... in grasping, during the brief intervals in which our species can bring itself to interrupt its hive-like activity, the essence of what it was and continues to be, below the threshold of thought and over and above society; in the contemplation of a mineral more beautiful than all our creations; in the scent that can be smelt at the heart of a lily and is more imbued with learning than all our books; or in the brief glance, heavy with patience, serenity and mutual forgiveness, that, through some involuntary understanding, one can sometimes exchange with a cat."

*

I want you to imagine for a moment something that is actually impossible to imagine--the unborn child in the womb perceiving through sound an outside world it has absolutely no experience of, no concept of, and no perception of except through sound. The experience of the fetal being is the experience of sound without sense; the fetal being is overhearing a secret, a true secret insofar as what it hears is not revealed as having a discernible meaning, and so is still kept, still remains a secret, all the while still being experienced, revealed, as sound, which is not hiding itself. So you might say our first "experience" of the world is of a secret. Our first experience of the world is that the world is a secret, that is, it neither hides itself nor reveals itself

*

I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say. Then I thought, "I will continue to write because I have not yet said what I wanted to say"; but I know now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.

*

The psychic energy required and used in writing a poem is also a secret. Where did it come from? How did it get here and where is it going? 

These are the questions we ask ourselves when we write, and these are the questions an astronomer asks of the stars. 

Consider the word consider, which originally meant "to observe the stars." 

Consideration leads to comprehension, which originally meant "to grasp, to seize something with the hands and hold it tight in the arms"; what the mother does with the child. To hold, to put one's arms around. 

As Jung once wittingly noted: "When the neurotic complains that the world does not understand him, he is telling us in a word that he wants his mother."

And who among us is not neurotic, and has never complained that they are not understood? Why did you come here, to this place, if not in the hope of being understood, of being in some small way comprehended by your peers, and embraced by them in a fellowship of shared secrets? 

I don't know about you, but I just want to be held.

*

Andre Gide: "Suffering consists in being unable to reveal oneself and, when one happens to succeed in doing so, in having nothing more to say." Such is the life cycle of a secret: something is repressed, then expressed, leaving a void that fills again with repressions. 

*

People, the people we really love, where did they come from? What did we do to deserve them?

*

Is there a right time to read each book? A point of developing consciousness that corresponds with perfect ripeness to a particular poet or novel? And if that is the case, how many times in our lives did we make the match? I heard someone say, at a party, that D.H. Lawrence should be read when one is in their late teens and early twenties. As I was nearing thirty at the time, I made up my mind never to read him. And I never have. Connoisseurs of reading are very silly people. But like Thomas Merton said, one day you wake up and realize religion is ridiculous and that you will stick with it anyway. What love is ever any different? 

*

"But to say what you want to say, you must create another language and nourish it for years and years with what you have loved, with what you have lost, with what you will never find again." (George Seferis)

*

I've often thought that in acting classes the students should perform scenes in which they are simply reading. And I've wondered what subtle--or remarkable--differences there might be among the outward appearances of reading different books. Early Tolstoy versus late Tolstoy might be an advanced assignment--that kind of thing. Or would they all appear the same? The outward idleness, almost slumbering, that does nothing to convey the inner activity, whether it be reverie, shock, hilarity, confusion, grief. We don't often watch people very closely when they read, though there are many famous paintings of women reading (none that I know of of men) in which a kind of quiet eroticism takes place, like that of nursing. Of course, it is we who are being nursed by the books, and then I think of the reader asleep, the open book on his or her chest. 

*

There is a world that poets cannot seem to enter. It is the world everybody else lives in. And the only thing poets seem to have in common is their yearning to enter this world.

*

"The burrow has probably protected me in more ways than I thought or dared think while I was inside it. This fancy used to have such a hold over me that sometimes I have been seized by the childish desire never to return to the burrow again, but to settle down somewhere close to the entrance, to pass my life watching the entrance, and gloat perpetually upon the reflection--and in that find my happiness--how steadfast a protection my burrow would be if I were inside it." (Kafka, "The Burrow")

*

We are all one question, and the best answer seems to be love--a connection between things. This arcane bit of knowledge is respoken every day into the ears of readers of great books, and also appears to perpetually slip under a carpet, utterly forgotten. In one sense, reading is a great waste of time. In another sense, it is a great extension of time, a way for one person to live a thousand and one lives in a single life span, to watch the great impersonal universe at work again and again, to watch the great personal psyche spar with it, to suffer affliction and weakness and injury, to die and watch those you love die, until the very dizziness of it all becomes a source of compassion for ourselves, and for the language which we alone created, without which the letter that slipped under the door could never have been written, or, once in a thousand lives--is that too much to ask?--retrieved, and read. Did I mention supreme joy? That is why I read: I want everything to be okay. That's why I read when I was a lonely kid and that's why I read now that I'm a scared adult. It's a sincere desire, but a sincere desire always complicates things--the universe has a peculiar reaction to our sincere desires. Still, I believe the planet on the table, even when wounded and imperfect, fragmented and deprived, is worthy of being called whole. Our minds and the universe--what else is there? Margaret Mead described intellectuals as those who are bored when they don't have the chance to talk interestingly enough. Now a book will talk interestingly to you. George Steiner describes the intellectual as one who can't read without a pencil in her hand. One who wants to talk back to the book, not take notes but make them: one who might write, "The giraffe speaks!" in the margin. In our marginal existence, what else is there but this voice within us, this great weirdness we are always leaning forward to listen to?

*

I get so very tired of having to talk about literature. I didn't begin writing because I wanted to sit in a room and talk about the construction of subjectivity in Wordsworth and Ashbery; I began writing because I had made friends with the dead: they had written to me, in their books, about life on earth and I wanted to write back and say yes, house, bridge, river, hair, no, maybe, never, forever.

*

Once, as an adolescent, I stood in a grand, turn-of-the-century, high-ceilinged foyer, with an elaborate staircase behind me, a staircase with a black iron banister in the shape of vines, and the walls were a warm yellow-gold, and I inserted my key into a little brass mailbox and out fell a brown letter, and the sight of the hand (that beautiful term we use for handwriting) caused me to physically stagger, and then swoon, sway; just to receive it, unopened, unread, just to stand there and see it and hold it in my hands! Only now, thirty years later, do I understand what a miracle that moment was, that I was its destination and it had arrived. If I die tonight, that moment is blessed and without regret; very rarely in life are prayers thus answered. That this scene repeated itself several times in my life leaves me speechless.

*

I offer my dinner guest, after dinner, the choice between regular and decaf coffee, when in fact I don't have any decaf in the house. I am so sincere in my effort to be a good host that I lie; I think this probably happens all the time in poetry.

*

"Two tasks at the beginning of your life: to narrow your orbit more and more, and ever and again to check whether you are not in hiding somewhere outside your orbit." Franz Kafka. 

*

WHY ALL OUR LITERARY PURSUITS ARE USELESS

Eighty-five percent of all existing species are beetles and various forms of insects. 

*

WHY THERE MAY BE HOPE

One of the greatest stories ever written is the story of a man who wakes to find himself transformed into a giant beetle.

*

SHORT LECTURE ON SHAKESPEARE

They say there are no known facts about Shakespeare, because if it were his pen name, as many believe, then whom that bed was willed to is a moot point. Yet there is one hard cold clear fact about him, a fact that freezes the mind that dares to contemplate it: in the beginning William Shakespeare was a baby, and knew absolutely nothing. He couldn't even speak.

*

SHORT LECTURE IN THE FORM OF A COURSE DESCRIPTION

My idea for a class is you just sit in the classroom and read aloud until everyone is smiling, and then you look around, and if someone is not smiling you ask them why, and then you keep reading--it may take many different books--until they start smiling, too.

*

SHORT LECTURE ON YOUR OWN HAPPINESS

You know how to write poetry, it is all you need to be happy, but you will not be happy, you will be miserable, thinking you need so many other things, and in years and years of misery you have only one thing, as poets, to look forward to, the day you will not want what you haven't got, the thing you have got is poetry, let nothing cheat, steal, or deflect you from it, even poetry itself. Why are you sitting there? You should have fled before I finished the first sentence.