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Memoir

The poet who saved my life never existed for me in his native language. He died fifteen years before I was born. His name is Miguel Hernandez, and he will never be as well known in English as Lorca, Jimenez, or Machado, but he is my poet, the one I would take with me into exile.

When I first met one of his poems I was a senior in high school and my mother had just died. She did not die prettily. I remember the good Catholic liberals in my school showed a film on how a good Catholic family should behave during a terminal illness. I sat in the class growing more and more enraged. I shouted at the teacher: “There’s no right way to behave fuck face,” and stormed out of the class. They wanted to suspend me. My father told them to go see my mother. I was let back into the school the next day, and I was not made to watch any more films on a “beautiful” death. The mouth cancer had eaten away half her face. She had a tumor in the middle of her forehead, and her lips, what was left of them, were swollen so that she could barely speak. She was not yet fifty one.

I did not know how to grieve. My aunts and uncles, who had grown up in a large Irish family, understood all the mechanics of grief. You made tea. You made funeral arrangements. You grew ever more tidy.You smoked and joked, and changed the curtains. On the first night of my mother’s wake, I refused to stay with the family at Aunt Elizabeth’s. I threw myself down on my parent’s bed, when no one was there, and wept the way you might if everything in your life has been dismantled. Sounds came out of me I did not know could exist. I buried my head in my mother’s pillow. I could smell her cancer everywhere in the house. It had become the incense of my life. I was about to turn 18.

Life is not merciful. It does not forgive a weakness in any structure, including that in the human soul, and it will tear, and peck, and hammer against this weakness until it is destroyed. I sometimes think African American “cool” and Irish humor developed out of an awareness of this truth. One must fool life into believing the structure is sound. One must put up a front against the hornets and rats who would build a nest in the flawed structure of the soul, but this “front” becomes a tomb, and I now realize most of the people who raised me, who looked after me, who hovered over my first sleep, were already buried under ten tons of well constructed shite. This is the experiential, non-verbal equivalent of form. All the formalities of our lives are meant to distance us from the merciless beak that seeks out the vulnerable, the visibly damaged. Life sends its chickens to peck the bleeding chicken to death. In a sense, literature, word, is the chief shaping ancient of what can not be shaped. And so on to Hernandez:

I was not allowed to grieve, except in private, and a part of me continued doing teen anger things: I drank, I smoked. Being a nerd, and not very good looking, I pined for a girl who had no interest in me at all. If a loss is big enough, all the little losses come through the hole, and they widen it, and in comes more big losses–an avalanche. My father developed throat cancer. He became a drunk. We lost our house and lived over a record store in Garwood, New Jersey. My family went from solidly working class and Catholic to dysfunctional mess. It was during this time, this time when I realized my Catholic faith had nothing to give me but Hallmark greeting card sentiments, when all the people we had known started to “unknow” us that I came upon the poems of Miguel Hernandez.

I still believed in the sacraments, and in Christ, but I no longer believed in his followers. They made me want to puke. Christ spoke the truth about life hating any structural weakness when he said: “To those who have, more will be given, and to those who do not have, the little they have will be taken away.” I told a priest about this, how this statement comforted me because I knew, by my experience, that it was true. The priest, being a snob ass, told me Jesus was speaking about faith. I said: “bullshit. He told us you only need the faith of a mustard seed. He was talking about the law of life. Strength seeks strength. The healthy seeks the healthy, and the week are ransacked for what ever material is left. He didn’t say it was good or bad. He just said it was true.” Nothing in my experience has changed my mind on this. In life, poetry has been the one mercy I know–poetry and music. Everything else has been a bust.

So I purchased the Hernandez book because it was bright orange on the cover, and I liked that. I didn’t know a damned thing about Spanish poetry, or most poetry for that matter. I wrote songs then, very good melodies, and terrible lyrics. As is my habit, I opened the book to a random page. It had been two months since my mother’s death. There were more deaths and losses to come and I knew it because I am intuitive, and can grasp the basic structure of things with the smallest bit of information. I am not extra sensory. Forget that. I have a brain wired to leap. This is intuition–an ability to jump to conclusions that are often absolutely true (And sometimes utterly false). I opened the book to his poem “Me Sobra El Corazon”:

Today I am. I don’t know how,
today all I am ready for is suffering,
today I have no friends,
today the only things I have is the desire
to rip out my heart by the roots
and stick it underneath a shoe.

I had found one voice that did not seem to be lying to me, and I had a meltdown in the middle of that book store, a used book store half English, half Spanish. I was fifty cents short, and when the person at the desk would not trust my promise to return with the fifty cents, I broke down in tears, and begged. An old Cuban lady gave me the fifty cents, and I bolted from the store, and sat in the park. I did not read any of the other poems for about a week. I clung to this poem because this voice was not lying to me. It was giving me back what I knew. It was not making tea, or hanging curtains, or saying “shut up.” It was telling me my wanting to die, my sadness was now my wealth, that everything else could be taken away from me, would be taken from me, but this suffering was mine:

The more I look inward the more I mourn!
Cut off this pain?–who has the scissors?

I eventually read the book, and read it a hundred times. This Spanish poet, this shepherd, this Hernandez tossed into a prison, freed, and stupid enough (wonderful enough) to go back to where he would surely be re-captured out of compassion for his family, this man who died in filth, in one of Franco’s many prisons, had spoken to me in a way only Christ had: “to those who have, more will be given, and to those who do not have, the little they have will be taken away.” Christ also said: “Anyone who is brought to nothing for my sake will discover who he is.”

My grief was not merely private. The cancer of my mother and father, the loss of our house, the descent of my family went along with what happened to the working class culture I grew up in: good factory jobs went belly up. Skilled men and women were told they were worthless. Unions were destroyed. America went from a country that actually made something to a land of “professionals.” Vague, silly people who, like all vague silly people, create great destruction from their privilege, and are, themselves, eventually, destroyed. Before they are destroyed, they will swell like supernovas, embrace health foods, and spirituality, and a cult of professionalism (they will affirm the very thing that destroys them) and they will turn mean and blame the weak. They are soft spoken, politically correct, and the deadliest people who ever walked the face of this earth, and as a poet, I look forward to their destruction because they have no equipment for suffering (which is the same as living) and, therefore, no true compassion.

A country can not sustain an entire population of Daisy and Tom Buchanans, but that’s what we’ve been doing for the last thirty years. Hernandez shaped my suffering. He also taught me that it exists on a scale beyond me, or anyone I love–that this loss is in, not of, a loss in things. In a time of great suffering, a human being might have only the consolation of his or her sentences. So be it. This is why it is important for poetry to exist: because it is beside the point, and, being beside the point, it cannot be impaled. It shapes what can never be shaped, carries what can not be carried, speaks to the dead, gives courage to those who have little else to go on. The “professionals” rule poetry militant. Jobs are gained and lost. Someone like me who has never been outside the coil of suffering will, no doubt, get clobbered. So what? I have known the impersonal machinery of management as a factory worker. I know the decorum of professionalism for what it is: a brand of benign contempt for life, and an ongoing death wish. Poetry, this scribbling, this jotting down, is no remedy, but it may shape the sickness just enough to make it portable.

I think of all the human emotions that call for the gravitas of form, loss, grief, and outrage need it most. In the case of Paul Celan, the complete break down of syntax and logical priority in his poetry was, chiefly, a formal necessity rooted in the murder of his people. He was writing in the language of the murderer, and, like the conquered Irish, and the enslaved African, this formal necessity compelled him toward re-inventing German, “mangling” it as it were, in order to achieve a true poetics of witness. What cannot be born must ever more carefully be shaped.

The handling of such overwhelming material is first and last, a question of form. Grief, loss, outrage, must be made portable. They must have their ceremony: embodiment, purgation, and, if possible, catharsis, and it is important to instill in a young poet the sense that precision, finding the right ceremony of utterance for what can not be truly expressed is paramount: the harder, the more impossible it is to render the fulll scope of loss, or grief, or outrage, the more vital form becomes. Here, I mean form as an artificiality which allows for truth. The only weapon at my disposal in the wake of all my losses and humiliations is artifice. Only the “insincerity” of form can speak for my heart. The great polyglot, Fernando Pessoa writes in his Book of Disquiet:

The most abject of all needs is to confide, to confess. It’s the soul’s need to externalize.

Go ahead and confess, but confess what you don’t feel. Go ahead and tell your secrets to get their weight off your soul, but let the secrets you tell be secrets you’ve never had.

Lie to yourself before you tell that truth. Expressing yourself is always a mistake. Be resolutely conscious: let expression, for you, be synonymous with lying.

All poets must play not with the difference between truth and lie, but with their intimacy, the way one draws forth the other. As an experiment, I have been putting all my most immediate and sincere thoughts in Facebook status updates. These have made “positive” thinkers of the most depressed poet/friends, all of whom dread my declarations that a life without the beloved is meaningless, and, yet, if I were to put the lie of form, of decoration, of verbal ceremony to these “expressions” I might do more than merely get away with them; I might be applauded. It is never the “truth” that gives a poem its value, but the ceremony of that truth, and all ceremonies are, by definition, artificial.

So let me give a young poet a couple ways “in.” The first is that most conceited of poetic conceits: apostrophic (elegiac) address. Apostrophic address is the poet speaking directly to that missing person, place, or thing, which, of course, can not speak back. It has the power of immediacy, of ancient rites of grief and drama, and yes, of madness. In many classical elegies, it does not occur until the poem reaches its climax. Suddenly, the poet, in the throes of grief or grandeur, turns toward the dead,or the absent, and speaks to him or her directly. I will use the opening four stanzas of one of my favorite Spanish poets, Miguel Hernandez’ poem, “Lullaby of The Onion.” It was inspired by his hearing while dying in one of Franco’s prisons that his wife and son had nothing to live on but bread and onions:

An onion is frost
shut in and poor.
Frost of your days
and of my nights.
Hunger and onion,
black ice and frost
huge and round.

My son is lying now
in the cradle of hunger.
The blood of an onion
is what he lives on.
But it is your blood,
with sugar on it like frost,
onion and hunger.

A dark woman
turned into moonlight
pours herself down thread
by thread over your cradle.
My son, laugh,
because you can swallow the moon
when you want to.

Lark of my house,
laugh often.
Your laugh is in your eyes
the light of the world.
Laugh so much
that my soul, hearing you,
will beat wildly in space.

Hernandez is lying to his son, to himself, but the important truth– this great poet, this loving father, locked away to die in a prison, who is helpless in every way except for his love, comes out. What a bad poem it would be if he wrote:

My son and wife have nothing but bread and onions to eat,
and I am helpless in all ways except my love.

This is what I mean by the necessity of form–whether in rhyme, or meter, or free verse. Pessoa says at a different point in his book that the personal is not the human. Always, a poem is a translation from the personal to the human that almost succeeds. The residue of its best failures is beauty. One must speak for more than just one’s self, even when the self is all one knows, or one does not speak at all. And so on to another trick:

Another way to create gravitas is distancing from the emotion either by sticking to surface details or by an indirect rumination, in order to free the ontology of the poem (its essential being) from the fetters of the merely personal (see Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”). O’Hara uses the form of causal this and that. He goes here, he goes there, Billy Holiday has died. His strategy is an indirectness so accute it makes the loss part of the daily doings and landscape of his life and ours. Elizabeth Bishop uses irony and a sort of stoic rumination on loss done in one of the most strict forms: the Villanelle. This distancing does not have the passion of Hernandez, but it gives the loss and grief a certain elan and dignity.

Here’s an exercise: read all three of these poems, consider a grief, a loss, an outrage in your life, and write on it in all three styles. Use a conceit such as apostrophic address or giving the one you love a name like “Lark of my house” (or, as in Roethke’s great Elegy, “skittery pigeon”). First practice speaking directly to the absent person, place or thing, then write all around it without mentioning it explicitly. Good luck.

I received a very important lesson from my father. We were driving around in the part of New Jersey he grew up in–a once rural area called Chester that was now suburban. He was sad because the street he had lived on so many years before was much smaller in reality than in memory and he mistook it for a driveway. We stopped by a field of sunflowers. He was staring at the nodding heads of these enormous flowers, and I was throwing pebbles at a stop sign. Two people joined us. One had a camera. Out of the head of the sunflower, exploding from the head, came a bird that had the same color scheme as the sun flower: bright yellow, with black markings. It made an undulating flight over the road into a thicket of trees. “Sun sparrow.” My dad said. “You mean Eastern gold finch” the lady with the camera interjected. “No lady, I mean sun sparrow. That’s what we called them.” My dad then provided the scientific name for the bird, and said: “Come on kid let’s get out of here. The smell of experts makes me sick.”

I had three names now for a bird I didn’t know. I don’t remember the scientific name, but I remembered sun sparrow, and Eastern Gold finch. I found out it was the state bird of New Jersey. You would think the state bird would be all over the place, but we lived in the urban area of Jersey–what some have called the armpit of the universe: Elizabeth. In Elizabeth, starlings and Eurasian tree sparrows comprise the niche Eastern Gold finches or sun sparrows might otherwise fill.

It was ten years before I saw another–the day after my father died. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to be away from my family, so I took a walk along deserted railroad tracks, where there were thickets and weeds. I looked up from my shoes, and there was my dad’s “Sun sparrow” perched on a slender stalk of Queen Anne’s lace. It made me cry. I got down on me knees, and held my stomach. It was as if I had been shot–the arrow of love, of memory, of how this accident could shake me to my core. I said “sun sparrow” out loud, and the bird undulated away from me into a dense tangle of brush. I thought about the smell of experts making him sick. As a teenager I had often thought my father an idiot. I now understood how much of an idiot I was.

Names have power, especially when they are linked to memory and emotion, when they act as a part for some vital whole. They stand in for existence. All names are misnomers. Exactitude is the myth we concoct all too often to exclude, to prove we are experts, to prove we own something that can never truly be owned. Used well, names allow us to enter, to understand, to raise our sense of wonder and awe ever higher. Used badly, they become the stink of experts, the rank odor of snobbery and exclusion.

I tell my students that education can do the work of evil: it can make a bunch of aleatory systems with PHDs think they have a right to be superior to the Rocky Weils of this world. They can make a son misunderstand the wisdom of his own father. They stink of torture and snobbery, they are rank with the odor of exclusion and bias, and we call this “truth” or “Dogma” or “terminology.” If we are not careful, the knowing of names can be substituted for wisdom. They become a false wisdom. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me….” sure. Names kill. Names distance us from the stupidity of our actions. When we can call people collateral damage, we no longer have to confront them as a child with a soccer ball, who like your child, wanted to play, who, unlike your child, stepped on a mine and was blown into a thousand pieces.

As a teacher, I worry about power more than anything else. If I arm a student with names and terms, and so called knowledge, and forget that wisdom is not a slave to any of these tricks, I may be doing great harm. I may be perpetuating the very snobbery that allows professors at cocktail parties to call my father, who I loved, “White trash.” I may be allowing the student to think he or she is better than someone else when the truth is, at ground zero, we are all the bitter comedy of aleatory systems: we eat, we shit, we die. Some of us, because of our names, our use of names, our semiotics can eat and shit and die in the better places. My dad had a saying that summed up our human lust for status very nicely: “If life were nothing but a bowl of shit, there would be a whole group of people feeling superior because they lived in the corn section, and a whole other group doing whatever they could to get to the corn section, and then there’d be a group of people feeling lousy because they lived near the peppers.” It’s disgusting, but true.

The beginning of wisdom is the knowledge of ground zero: What is the ground of my being? If I think it is all aleatory, then it is hard for me to feel better or worse than others. If I think it is God and that I am saved, then I can circumvent the equality of the aleatory, and make distinctions. If I don’t believe in God, this does not save me from distinction because I will believe in things: having certain things, a certain reputation, a certain status will become my God. I will serve it–often bitterly. I will obey my lust to mean, even when, at my core, I feel meaningless. If I feel meaningless, I will find a group who feels the same way, and look with scorn at those who believe they are meaningful.

Equality does not flourish except in theory. In the day to day and the minute to minute, we are reading signs, and being read by signs and making distinctions between signs, unaware that, we, ourselves, are a sign. We are signs reading signs, and almost all of it is inexact–a measure, not a truth. Read a sign wrongly, and you are liable to be killed. Be read wrongly, and you are liable to be killed. Call an Eastern Gold finch a sun sparrow, and you are likely to get corrected by some lady with a camera. The lady was correct, but she showed little wisdom correcting a father who was sharing a moment and memory with his son. Some forms of incorrectness have greater depth than the correct. Science can use the exact, but poetry, especially great poetry can make of imperfections the kingdom and mercy of heaven. It can also get people killed. To die for an idea, or because you are an idea, or because you get caught in a certain cluster of ideas is the meaning of both war and of a university education. Ideas and names kill. We should never forget this. They also help us to live. We should not forget this, either.

So with this in mind, arm yourself with literary terms. Used well, used in order to enter or understand a text, these terms may provide you with some deeper sense of joy or wonder, or knowledge. Used badly, they might allow you to look smart and superior at some boring party. It’s up to you.

I still have my 4th grade book bag. Alone, at five in the morning, I picked the rusted lock with a paper clip, and discovered the 10-year-old Joe Weil’s first literary efforts, all crumpled up, in my terrible hand writing, but the meters of the poems were perfect. I remembered using that bag as a make shift sleigh, sliding across the parking lot at the acme super market. The entire route to school, and the voices of my friends turned to smoke in the winter’s air, returned to me. The weirdest things survive. I lost my parents and some of those friends also died: Eric, who introduced me to vampire comics and Henry Miller novels, his brother Greg who netted the biggest trout I ever caught, Huey who threw a good fast ball, and liked jamming with me on the piano. I found a poem in which I’d written about a guy who shoots into the wrong basket and scores two points for the opposing team. Back then, basketball was a minor god in my life. I wasn’t good, but I played it like football–I played street ball, tripped, shoved, bulled my way through. In 1968, there were basketball courts in the convent parking lot. If you were good, you played on the courts where the hoops had nets. If you were really good, the nuns left the lights on, and, except for bingo nights, you played full court on the netted baskets under the lights. I would play after school, in my uniform, before the bigger kids showed up and chased us off. A little later, after my mom ragged on me for tearing holes in all my uniforms, I’d run home, change, and come back to hang and play with friends. When the Magic fountain re-opened in Spring, you’d get a frosted drink if you had the money. If not, you’d go to the acme and carry some shopping bags for old ladies to make the change.

I’d play until nearly six, then race Eric on our bikes to get home in time for supper. The angelus bells would be ringing from all the churches. Old men kept homing pigeons, and they’d fly over the steeples of St. Mary’s, and St. Vladmir’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in perfect formation.

Sometimes, we’d cut across the tracks, and pop wheelies in front of oncoming trains. Sometimes, we’d go and steal a couple orange crates or wood from the back of acme to use for forts.

I thought about Eric, how his father would take us to the pro wrestling matches at the old armory, and how the Amazing Mulah, the woman’s world champ, threw a leg kick at us once when we crowded her outside her dressing room. I thought about how he died of a heroin overdose, and the friends he was with rolled him for his cash, and dumped his body off at the emergency room entrance. I thought about my mother’s face being eaten away with cancer, how she taught me to cook for the family before she died. I thought of standing in that kitchen, 18, her bald head hooded, her dimming voice instructing me to put the chicken in the bag with the bread crumbs and shake. I shook the bag so hard that it broke, and the chicken, bread crumbs, and seasoning all spilled to the floor. She laughed, and felt my bicep and said: “I can’t believe how strong you are Joseph.” It was the last time I heard my mother laugh.

Memory is painful because so much I loved was lost or damaged beyond repair, yet to only move forward like some idiot juggernaut is worse; it might spare me  pain, but at the cost of a sky full of pigeons, and my mother’s laughter. I write to raise the dead, and when I stop writing, they go back to their graves, but this book bag that I kept for no good reason all these years is like the mouth of hades. I can descend into its dark, pull out its scribbled text, and, for a few moments, recover the 10 year old with delusions of literary grandeur. No one had died yet, except for a couple of gold fish. My terrible “epic” called “Big Time Game” contains the lines:

Oh world tossed forth through endless space
I pray no rim, two points, pure lace. 

It was a good prayer, even if it wasn’t answered. My wife is still asleep. Eric, and Huey, and my mother and father are asleep. It is snowing as usual here in Binghamton–and maybe it is snowing in St. Gertrude’s cemetery back in Jersey where my parents, and my uncles, and aunts, and the whole of my childhood is buried. Now I understand why Gabriel forgave his wife in that story, and everyone else, and why the snow fell on both the living and the dead. Now I feel what it is to be born into loss. Now I know what it is to have my love and my futility raise me above the glory of angels.

Oh, love. Why is it always the hardest topic for writers to talk about, yet one we want to talk about the most? We still write about it, of course, in our many oblique ways—but, like religion or politics, part of us wants to just avoid it altogether. Something with the power to make us feel both so vulnerable and so high inevitably keeps us wary of expressing our emotions. But at the same time, it’s impossible to avoid: You can’t talk about being human for very long without talking about love.

These past few months in India, I’ve found the same is true of awe. No one wants to appear childlike and vulnerable to others, but everyone (everyone who seeks out new experiences, anyway) wants to feel that way—along with love, awe is the one of the emotions people seek most deeply. And for writers, whose job is to express the inexpressible, the hidden, these two aims can feel at odds.

Or maybe they’re not, and we’ve just become too cynical and guarded to bring them together. In Mathilde Walter Clark’s latest novel, Priapus, the hero’s father reveals to his family his feet—perfect specimens in the realm of feet—and exclaims simply, bluntly, “Look! Look what God can do!” This is ironic and funny—but why can’t perfect feet (or even just interesting feet!) expand our spiritual worlds? The beauty of awe is, they can! We usually describe it the other way around, but awe is provoked by us and our state of mind, not by an external source.

One afternoon at Sangam House I went to see the Odissi dancers rehearse. These people could control their every movement—even their facial expressions—with astounding precision and strength, inhabit the roles of classical mythological characters, and, holy shit, do it in time to live music. And the musicians—every tremble in their voices, every motion of their hands on the tabla exact. And later, they’d do it all in costumes and makeup and a cloud of jasmine, in front of an auditorium of people who actually knew whether they were doing it right.

*

To my surprise, in the middle of the rehearsal I suddenly felt compelled to get up and leave, totally overwhelmed and needing to escape. Not the way you get overstimulated after walking through Times Square and should leave before you harm others or yourself—but a strange sense of both being in the place too fully and not being there at all. It was as if while watching the performance and absorbing it I had actually gone inside it and forgotten who I was. For a few moments, the membrane to the soul was completely permeable and unfiltered… or that’s what it felt like, anyway. Which all sounds really beautiful (sun shining, unicorns singing, etc.), but was actually kind of unnerving. We all want to have experiences that make us forget ourselves, but at the same time we shy away, afraid of that forgetting. If we can forget ourselves so easily, what are we really made of?

One reason (and, I think, the reason) we seek out awe (and love) so fervently—and why these emotions make us feel so small and inarticulate and intoxicated—is that they fundamentally alter our sense of self. Discovering what God can do—or what humans can do, or just what is possible in the world—enables us to discover our own potential (and limits). We simultaneously see the world expanding and ourselves growing ever smaller in proportion. Logically you’d think this would create an ego crisis, since we all need the illusion of significance to feel purposeful—but somehow, it ultimately doesn’t. In fact, just the opposite—even though we fear forgetting ourselves, or dislike feeling small, we feel greater in the end for being humbled. The possibilities in the world, however remote or vicarious, are what keep a lot of us going on this little march toward death.

Being at Sangam House wasn’t the same kind of awe as standing in front of the Taj Mahal or inside the Sistine Chapel or seeing a person herd thousands of baby ducks from a canoe. But the foreignness of being in India, and the experience of creating community with a bunch of international writers, provided a sort of mental tabula rasa where awe could grow wild. Not knowing the basic details of life, like how to get hot water out of the shower or the proper way to eat your food, is disorienting. This disorientation makes you feel stupid (childlike?) at first, but in that space between forgetting about oatmeal and feeling comfortable with idli and poha, something transforms in the brain. The slate of the old is briefly wiped clean, yet there’s no way to absorb the new quite yet. Even before the mind processes the idea of Indian breakfast and starts measuring the self against it—before questions like “Do I like this?” and “Can I eat it?” slowly turn into “Who am I?” and “Am I a person who eats Indian breakfast?”—there is a clearing. And for me, that clearing made a path for the new images and ideas—the ones I was too jet-lagged to know I was processing—to flood into poems without my knowledge or will. Suddenly, my work was like a bunch of little kids spouting phrases their parents didn’t know they understood.

What I appreciated most about being awed at Sangam House—besides its effect on my writing—was how small the “source” of that awe could be. That it didn’t require the Taj Mahal for me to say, “Look what God can do!” The environment and disorientation allowed me to fully appreciate the intrigue of other people’s feet (sorry, co-residents)—not just what was interesting about their work, but what was interesting about their lives. One writer had taught herself 10 languages. Another could samba like a madman (a Brazilian, of course). People could play instruments, start political campaigns, act or draw, or even just think me in circles. And it was easy for this awe to continue once I started traveling around India—really, that woman can carry 20 pounds of fruit on her head? That man can make a statue of Ganesh by hand, with only a chisel? The funny part is, I see amazements of this caliber every day in New York—I just don’t register them as such. Here, I did.

In the end, of course, you never really forget oatmeal. The disorientation passes, you grow accustomed to the new surroundings, and all the wonders that seemed so strange or amazing get downgraded to “impressive” or maybe even “day-to-day.” Still, I like to think that the same way love sticks with us over time (in one form or another), some awe-inspired humility and impressions sink deep enough into our consciousness to make themselves a little nest, grow, and emerge again.

*Dancer image courtesy Bala from Seattle, USA, via Wikimedia Commons

The first poem I ever loved was The Raven.  Specifically, one line from the poem haunted me when I was young, and still does: “The silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain.”

Writers today might say that the line isn’t a very good one, now that it has become the fashion of writing workshops to balk at any overuse of adjectives.  But in this line the words used to describe this minute detail suggest that the mind perceiving the rustling curtain (the mind that is obsessed by the loss of Lenore) is frantic to most accurately describe and interpret the fleeting details of his life.

A world that is indifferent to our sorrows and our ecstasies produces these details, but we can’t help but infuse them with our own meanings.  These details are what the mind attaches itself to, are what move us, and—when we are privileged enough to even frantically attempt to record them, even as the wind dies and the sad uncertain rustling stops—they are what sustain us.

I have a copy of Milosz’ Facing The River, which is translated both by the author and a poet I greatly admire, Robert Hass. In it, there is a wonderful and spiritual dance between memory and effacement, and, yes the effacement of memory, for anyone who has ever lost a person, or a country, or a language knows that there is a double hell: the effacement that transpires when one must “move on” from that place, or language, or person, and perhaps worse: the effacement that memory assures since to remember anything is to distort it, to make a sort of selected works out of that which once had full life and depth, and which breathed independent of one’s own consciousness. Kafka, speaking of writing, said: “the minute you write, ‘she opened a window’, you have already begun to lie.” Memory is lie, but it has an ethos, a virtue and grace in that one feels this awful gap, one does not tread lightly as one remembers. Nostalgia has no such conscience which is why it ought to be feared as a sort of sociopathic order of memory. It lies without caution, without even the slightest troubling of the waters it fouls with “the happy good ole days.” Memory, especially, in its intimacy with loss, has the terror of the angelic and the beautiful, but it is a distortion, a much more covert yet more powerful form of effacement, and, the best way a poet or writer knows if they are affecting memory rather than mere nostalgia is if they feel this weight, this sense of effacement.

Proust’s great work is neither of memory or nostalgia since these are exactly the forces which adhere the final death masks to all that is vital within consciousness. Proust is in search of lost time, not remembrance. Remembrance is effort. The Proustian moment has no sense of effort, but is grace: for a brief thunder clap, one has recovered the exact co-ordinates of lost time, and, by this recovery, time itself is made unstable. It sputters, and loses its death grip. Time and space flicker, and, in the flicker, time is shown for the inconstant fraud and cheat it is. So let’s make a distinction between memory, nostalgia, and Proustian invocation, which, though most finely delineated in Proust’s great work, is not Proustian at all, but is at the source of all great poems: invocation, the raising of the dead, through style, through verbal ceremony, through the liturgy of man’s ontological fear of oblivion. We must remember that even the triumphs of a great poem are temporary. This is what gives them the power of the sacred: we go down into the underworld, perform the rites just so, the dead speak, yet, when the poem ends, the dark that has surrounded the poem floods back in. In the poem, “A Certain Neighborhood,” Milosz plays with all three registers of nostalgia, memory, and invocation. Like many fine poems, this work by Milosz, is a hortatory act—a meditation on the registers of nostalgia, memory, and invocation, and the great dance of intimacy and distance between restoration and effacement. When I first read this poem I was reminded of my father making a thirty mile detour to show his children and my annoyed mother the street he once lived on in Chester, New Jersey. We complained. We grew bored, but he was a man on a mission. He wanted us to see, but what he wanted us to see was not possible: the sudden longing to collapse thirty years of distance, to reclaim a landscape that did not exist, and, perhaps, had never existed as he “remembered” it. The “driveway”, he kept passing turned out to be the street. Memory had distorted space, expanded, enlarged what was small, and nondescript, and far less attractive to us than the diner nearby where we could pee. I will never forget the look of shame on my father’s face, and of stunned grief. My brother laughed at him, and he turned on my brother, and, seething, hissed: “you’re a smug little bastard.”

We must always be as careful with nostalgia as we are with most forms of vulgarity: it is too close to the whore’s heart, and can be used by politicians to promote a “purity,” an Edenic return that supports the most vile sense of the volk. Nostalgia carries the worst ideas of the purgative. It is amoral or immoral, but true memory is moral in that it proceeds with caution, and Proustian invocation is pre-moral, the origin of consciousness and of our sense of the beautiful and the good. At any rate, the poem:

I told nobody I was familiar with that neighborhood.
Why should I? As if a hunter with a spear
Materialized, looking for something he once knew.
After many incarnations we return to the earth,
Uncertain we would recognize its face.
Where there were villages and orchards, now nothing,
fields.
Instead of old timber, young groves,
The level of the waters is lower, the swamp disappeared
Together with the scent of Ledum, black grouse, and adders.
A little river should be here. Yes, but hidden in the brush,
Not, as before, amidst meadows. And the two ponds
Must have covered themselves with duck weed
Before they sank into black loam.
The glitter of a small lake, but its shores lack the rushes
Through which we struggled forward, swimming,
To dry ourselves afterwards, I and Miss X, and one towel
dancing.

At a party last Thursday night after a full day at this year’s AWP conference, I broke one of my own absolute rules – never, under any circumstances resort to quoting The Big Lebowski. Out of some mixture of awkwardness and that day’s hang over, I recited a line from my high school idol the Dude to another poet. I was simply passing a good piece of advice along, a bit of practical philosophy – some times you eat the bar, and, well, sometimes he eats you. It seemed appropriate, as she’d just finished a tirade, and we’d both lost interest in the subject. By the time I got to bar, she was speaking the line loudly, with panache. She was in on the joke, eager for me to know it, which is what I continually find so gross. At some point in the last 5 years (maybe longer?) seemingly everyone was let in on a joke that I once selfishly held as my own. In turn, The Big Lebowski stopped being the reference-pantry raided by me and my small circle of friends, the endless source of weird one-liners good for boggling those unhip to the film. It’s now become collective knowledge, and worse, quoting the movie has become a norm for so many people my age (who hit puberty mid to late 90s) who probably, I assume, have no understanding of the Cohen brothers’ meticulous talent, or worse, in fact appreciate it as deeply as I do, making it that much less special. So many voices right now across North America are attempting their best Donny or Walter, again trying to remake that initial Edenic moment when someone dropped a burrito down their T-shirt and their friend turned, laughed a little, and coughed out, this a bummer man…that’s a bummer. In that first instant—a miming of the already dramatic, immediate recognition, and thus a new context invented. Lebowski became a movie not only to buy late at night in a Wal-Mart bargain bin, to watch again and again noticing new congruencies and minutiae, but a movie to quote. And in that instant, that quotation became the thing to mimic, rather than the movie itself.

So how does one function in a post-Lebowski world? A world where the thing you loved growing up—the sense that a unique moment is possible, the comradery built around the surprise of both responding to a new joke and remembering it all at once—feels played out? Do you take it to the next extreme, attend an official Lebowski Fest donning shooting-range glasses and a canvas vest? Would you find those beloved people waiting there for you, the real fans, or would you still feel that sense of competition and frustration?

The next day was Friday, and I was prepared for a repeat—hung over, sitting through panels and readings at my first ever AWP conference, conveniently set in my home, DC. I would greet even casual acquaintances warmly, stalk my favorite publishers, push myself to try and drink in all the poetry I could stomach, given my nausea from the last night. I had avoided the conference in past years for practical reasons like money and semester workload. I’d also pictured a monster: a sea of writers confined to a single space all vying for attention. I had imagined the conference as one long stretch of feeling bad like you do when a guy by the metro asks for change and you keep walking, or when a shiny BMW full of laughing college kids pulls up by you at a red light. Pity in the first, envy in the second. Self-deprecation on both fronts. I imagined being sick of people selling me their artistic ethos and ranking it against mine.

In part, I was right. By the end of Saturday, I had a strange feeling, uncanny, some mixture of confidence and deflation, of me and not me. I felt a sense of writerly persona, but also the sense that I had to recoup something important. Some good college friends were in town for the conference, and so there was that—the long, nostalgic nights of bar hopping I so often drunk-dial demanding. There were wonderful readings by some of my favorite writers, and even better by writers I’d never heard of. And there was the realization when I first arrived on Thursday that in a moment I’d be surrounded by thousands of like-minded people, all scraped from the floor wearing similar dirt.

But there was also the feeling that somehow the nametag around my neck stood as a two-word resume, making me easier to read. People cut in line after readings to pass a card or book to a speaker, and subsequently drew out conversations while the rest waited. There were questions after panels which included mostly credentials and never actually reached a question mark. There was the too-muchness of the book fair in an endless basement of  rooms busting with people. There was an air of emptiness to so many that sprang from more than beer or jet lag. People who seemed large to me in the past now looked tiny.

The writers who convinced me to believe in writing were Kerouac and later Ginsberg. In college when I was so ready to be moved by something and directed, I found ‘On the Road,’ which preached no direction, and ‘Howl,’ which celebrated revolt. I had my first transcendent experiences walking through crowds of students who I imagined couldn’t possibly understand the world’s beauty at that moment. I read and believed in what writers do: drink and yell together, break the past, push their every limit, and sing each others’ praises. So I helped a friend edit a home-made journal and organized a reading series in the back of a bar. I read and reread Bukowski. I caroused with and debated the poetry kids. Got smashed like any college student. I took every possible poetry workshop and then applied to MFAs looking to continue in that same vein. I’ve now lived in DC for almost 3 years honing my craft, attending readings, meeting the local writers. All of this under the assumption that I’m following my love, that poetry is my creative vehicle, and that along with my few acquaintances, I’m pushing this thing forward, keeping it alive. It sounds ridiculous, but how else to go on in a medium that favors the individual, without on some level believing you’re an individual?

So this past weekend, walking into my first AWP, the conference that consistently draws a wealth of today’s talented writers and teachers of writing, what should I have expected? Culture or the mime of culture? Ginsberg first reading ‘Howl’ in 1950s Frisco while Kerouac passed cheap jugs of wine and shouted? Or that moment’s retelling in the recent film Howl with its more gorgeous Ginsberg, its less gorgeous Kerouac? Poets like so many thousands of Jeff Bridges decoys, all in matching white v-necks, pacing like lunatics, uttering the same 10 lines back and forth? I think as a poet and person, I often live too much in the imagined past, reliving memories, idolizing personas invented through literature, saving friends in my mind as they once were. But that doesn’t mean I believe the present isn’t real, and that poetry should accept its place as just a teacher’s art, though teaching is incredibly important. There is a reason so many poets are right now budding in MFA programs, and it’s not simply the push for professionalization, the economy, etc. Nor do I think, looking back on my full experience, that AWP should be cornered as some sort of backwoods, yet fancy, family reunion, rife with inbreeding, as was my initial cynicism. I did hear moments of life, feel excitement, swallow poetry and sweat it out. On Friday, Sonia Sanchez stood up during the Split this Rock panel on Langston Hughes, for which she presented. She paused to keep from crying, and said something to the effect of: You don’t understand what this is all about; you have to read Langston Hughes, I mean really go back and read him. I knew she really felt it, even if she couldn’t explain fully just then—just like any good artist really means what they make, no matter the layers of irony we’re asked to sift through. The dramatic voice, fragmentation, wrenched syntax. The CVs, business cards, mingling. Underneath, there must be sincerity, and so often there is. Most writers I meet really believe in the vitality of their craft, even if it doesn’t immediately show. Not everyone’s confident, and not everyone’s talented. The next poet will always on some level be the competition; it’s there in the edicts of contemporary art. But I think we all savor those moments we don’t have to suspect, that just happen, really happen. Those moments you can’t manufacture, which make all the bullshit tolerable. If I have the money, I’ll be in Chicago this time next year doing it all again.

Grammar didn’t come natural to me. The first time, when I learned there was such a thing as grammar, when we were introduced — like, “Daniel, meet grammar,” “Grammar, Daniel” — things did not go smoothly.

It was more like sliding bare-bottomed down a sandpaper hill.

I was in first grade, and we had “writing time.” The teacher was young and teaching a split, first-and-second grade class. There were too many students, and even at 6, 7, 8 and 9, we knew her control was kind of tenuous. The class was always on the edge of anarchy. As the year went on, the teacher, Miss Lane, added an increasing number of “quiet times” into her lesson plan. We had story time, where all of us were supposed to put our heads down and listen to the story. We had writing time, where you could go anywhere in the class room, sit anywhere, lay anywhere, as long as you were quiet and turned something in at the end of the hour that looked like writing.

I loved writing time. I went to the little side room where the assorted recess equipment was kept and spread out on the floor and chewed my pencil and wrote. I remember the first story was about a saber-toothed man. It was awesome. He was part superhero, part prehistoric creature, and he was walking through the woods, a saber-toothed man.

I’m pretty sure that was the whole story. My strong suit was description, not narrative arc.

I got it back about a week later. Maybe it was two weeks. Miss Lane had, in that time, very carefully murdered my story. As far as I could tell, she hadn’t paid attention to the story part of the story, which was awesome, but she had marked each and every sentence as wrong. That’s how I learned what grammar was. She’d written “GRAMMAR” on the top, in the same bleedy, red, felt-tip pen she’d used to draw angry squiggles all over my story.

I felt kind of like I’d just been criticized for walking. Or breathing. Like, this was something I felt I knew how to do. It seemed like it was just natural, I’d been doing it and everything had been fine, and now someone stops me to tell me there are rules. And I’m doing it wrong. I was walking along just fine, and now I’m getting yelled at.

“STOOOOOP! That’s NOT how you walk!”

“Wait, what?”

“Are you ignorant? Are you from a bad family? Is your family poor?”

“I don’t understand.”

“There are rules. And everyone knows them except you. It’s called GRAMMAR. Now everyone thinks you’re stupid.”

This was how I became a descriptivist. I have since learned that there are some really good reasons to be a descriptivist. At the time, though, it was purely defensive. I was a descriptivist in exactly the same way I was a put-your-arms-around-your-head-and-duck-tivist when the 6th graders yelled “faggot” and threw rocks. It wasn’t exactly a philosophical decision.
The one grammatical correction I remember, from that murdered story, was about how you shouldn’t start sentences with conjunctions.

“What’s ‘conjunctions’?” I said.

“Like ‘and,’” she said, “or ‘but.’”

“You can’t start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“It’s against the rules. It’s GRAMMAR.”

The whole idea that there were rules, out there somewhere, was a little disturbing. How was I supposed to know what they were? Who decided the rules were the rules? Also, they seemed kind of arbitrary. What was wrong with conjunctions? Was I the only one who was starting sentences with conjunctions and I just never noticed that no one else did it?

This is a little like wondering if you are retarded, and everyone’s just been too nice to tell you. Or maybe they tried to tell you, and you were just too slow to actually get what they were saying.

But wait — I wasn’t the only one who started sentences with “but” or “and.” The Bible has sentences that stat with “but” and “and,” which meant that my grammar was like the same as God’s.

I tried that defense with Miss Lane, but she said I was still wrong. She didn’t say so, but apparently she would’ve marked up God’s writing too.

Which didn’t really make me feel better. And I still didn’t like grammar.

I did learn grammar, eventually, though not from Miss Lane. A whole slew of copy editors and editors taught it to me during my time as a journalist, and I took several years of Latin in college, where I got poor grades but finally figured out what “dative” meant and what an adjective was. I figuring out how clauses worked in the middle of an Episcopalian morning prayer service, where they used the old prayer book, which has a lot of archaically-constructed sentences. I’ve actually spent a lot of time with grammar in the last few years, as I’ve been working as a grammar teacher, teaching German university students who want to study English, and as a freelance proofreader and line editor. I think about that first experience I had, though, that slide down a sandpaper hill, when I hand back papers I’ve marred with my markings.

I try to remind them and to remind myself what grammar’s good for. Besides beating people over the head, besides flaunting one’s class or excellent education, besides pedantry and dickishness, what grammar does, what grammar can do, is give one excellent control over language. I am still a descriptivist — I believe usage is paramount, that there are no rules, really, only use — so grammar is not, for me, about being right, but about breaking down the language and taking it apart, so that one can know how it works and can make it work most effectively. I try to teach it the way I would teach mechanics.

It’s like, I sometimes tell my students, I know you know how to breathe, but I want to teach you how to breathe so you can run for hours.

What grammar did for me was enable me to analyze sentences. This has made me a better writer, but also — and this is something I’ve never seen promoted in a grammar book, never heard in a grammar rules rant — it made me a better reader. I am able, now, in a way I wasn’t before, to analyze a writer’s writing by looking at the writing itself. I can dig in, on the sentence level, and see what’s happening.

Consider a few examples, just looking at how independent and dependant clauses are used. I teach clauses to my students so they’ll know how to avoid sentence fragments and comma splices in their academic writing. I want them to be able to identify simple, compound and complex sentences, and use a variety of sentences to write with a more sophisticated rhythm. Too often, beginning writers, especially those, like my students, who are writing in their second or third language, write with the rhythm of a Dick and Jane book. It’s just DUM dum dum, DUM dum dum, forever and ever. I teach it for the sake of their writing, but it’s also helped me be a better reader.

For example, Joan Didion opens her novel Democracy with a single complex sentence, followed by fragmentary rephrasings, followed by a simple sentence that’s repeated with increasing complexity, increasing specificity. It’s structured as a struggle to find the right phrase, and the altered iterations expand outwards like ripples:

“The light at dawn during those Pacific tests was something to see.

Something to behold.

Something that could almost make you think you saw God, he said.

He said to her.

Jack Lovett said to Inez Victor.

Inez Victor who was born Inez Christian.

He said: The sky was this pink … ”

Then, in crescendo, Didion lets this sentence that’s the sentence of a writer trying to write, trying to find the right words, take off and just go. It’s a description of the pink of the Pacific island sky after the blast of a test bomb and it starts with a banality and unfurls from there, a description that tells us more about the man than the sky described, and then as it almost falls apart she puts in a comma and a complete sentence — a comma splice, technically an error — as if everything should be ignored and this is the thing, the sentence has resolved with the phrase the narrator wants:

“The sky was this pink and the air was wet from the night rain, soft and wet and smelling like flowers, smelling like those flowers you used to pin in your hair when you drove out to Schofield, gardenias, the air in the morning smelled like gardenias, never mind there were not too many flowers around those shot islands.”

Her comma splice communicates this need to re-state or re-phrase, which captures both the problem of the moment of these two characters and the whole novel’s expression of an ennui that isn’t boredom but an inability to exactly say. The whole problem or project of the novel is expressed, actually, in that comma splice, which is brilliant, I think, and which I wouldn’t have known except that I’ve been focusing on clauses.

Or consider, for another example, Walt Whitman’s poem, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” Almost the whole first stanza is dependent clauses — “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking, / Out of the mocking-bird’s throat,” — cascading down in one long sentence without a subject until, finally, in the 20th line, we get the subject “I.” There’s a missing “what” for 19 lines, and an ambiguity about the subject of the poem that is sustained by the structure of the sentence.

A lot of times people talk about Whitman like he was just wild, like his free verse had all the structure of a kite-high hippie dance. If you look at it, though, if you look at the grammar of it, this is a very carefully constructed sentence that very carefully puts the “I” of the poem in a very specific relationship to the world around it. The grammar isn’t incidental to Whitman’s poem; it is the working out of a major part of Whitman’s project.

One doesn’t need grammar to read Whitman or Didion or anyone else, of course. It’s not even necessary to read them well. Part of what makes good writers good, though, is their ability to sometimes, somehow, do everything they’re trying to do with the placement of a single comma. I want to be able to read that comma, to see what’s happening when the subject of a sentence turns up in a place you wouldn’t usually find it.

I know that’s not the point of grammar, and it certainly wasn’t what Miss Lane was trying to teach me when she wrote GRAMMAR on the top of my paper, but this is the other thing that grammar’s good for.

For most of us, I think, grammar is a brutal, brutal thing. It doesn’t come natural. Most of the time, even the word signals a fear, a panic even, at being embarrassed about being wrong. There’s something about it that can evoke deep shame. We imagine our mothers’ being embarrassed for us, as embarrassed as if we’d went out in shit-stained pants. We’re afraid of grammar because “grammar” means making stupid mistakes — there, their or they’re, or something like that — and we imagine stupid mistakes being taken as evidence of our real intelligence and value. That’s too bad, though, because it doesn’t have to be that way.

Grammar can be empowering. It can be about being a better writer and a better reader. It was, eventually, for me. I now know that it can be about knowing how the language works, instead of just driving along, listening to the rattle and choke under the hood, waiting, clenched up tense inside and waiting, until the whole thing breaks down.

The history of my reading life (and I consider it a life, somewhat independent of my so-called “real” life) has been littered with strange and utterly intuitive encounters with what now seem, in retrospect, the very things I needed. And so, when I had just turned fourteen, and was well-built and morose, and spent long hours staring in moody silence at nothing in particular (perhaps a pimple), I came upon a poem by a dead French man (or maybe he was Polish, or a gypsy, or an alien come down from the stars) named Apollinaire. A cousin had left it on our kitchen table. She was “in college” and planning to be a nurse. She came back for it only at exam time– such was her disdain. By then, I had cached it away in my underwear drawer, and the pain of giving it back to this nurse pending was palpable. The book contained Apollinaire, and George Trakl and Rilke, and I think it was an anthology of 20th century European poetry, but that detail is lost. What caught me first, and last, and has stayed with me for 38 years is a poem by Apollinaire called Le Pont Mirabeau (Mirabeau Bridge):

Under the pont Mirabeau flows the Seine
Our loves flow too
Must it recall them so
Joy came to us always after pain

May night come and the hours ring
The days go by and I remain

Facing each other hand in hand
Thus we will stand
While under our arms’ bridge
Our longing looks pass in a weary band

May night come and the hours ring
The days go by and I remain

Love leaves us like this flowing stream
Love flows away
How slow life is and mild
And oh how hope can suddenly run wild

May night come and the hours ring
The days go by and I remain

May the long days and the weeks go by
neither the past
Nor former loves return
Under the pont Mirabeau flows the Seine

May night come and the hours ring
The days go by and I remain

I must describe the physical sensation this poem had on me. It was a hot and humid day, and the house was full of fans whirring, and flies buzzing, and no one was home. My mother and father were out shopping. My sister was with them. My brother was off somewhere putting hickies on the neck of his girlfriend. I lay on my bed, trying to find the cool spot on the pillow, sun burned, a little feverish, and goose bumps rose on my skin because I knew this poem was true. I did not know what the particular truth was, but there it was–in all its sad and whimsical, and undeniable glory–light, and yet heavy as a stone you have just plucked from the bottom of a river. What grabbed me was the way that, each time the refrain returned, everything had somehow changed, as if the laws of repetition led not to regularity, but had, instead, provided the pulse, the throb of what can never be fixed, made stable, made “whole.” I read it again, and on the second reading, I was even more excited. As is my habit, I just kept reading it until my mother yelled up the stairs for me to come down and help bring in the groceries. It was now as if I had a mistress upstairs, and everything in the universe was interfering with my hidden love. I knew I must behave myself, and the attempt to “behave” myself, triggered my mother’s intuition: “What’s wrong, Joseph? Are you sick?”

I guess I had that startled look, as if I had been caught at something (masturbation, grand theft auto, making moody faces in the mirror), I said: “I feel a little weird.” She said: “Lay down for a few hours. Don’t go in the pool. Rest up, Joseph.”

And so I had more time with the poem, all the time I wanted. I memorized it. I took it with me on my bike. I brought it with me down to the deserted train tracks glutted with chicory weed and Queen Ann’s lace, and old shoes, and used condoms. It seemed at home there. I waited for the Angelus to ring at six o’clock, from all the churches of Elizabeth, and I said the poem aloud. Poetic truth can not be pinned down, and I already knew that. It is a pulse under things– not the things themselves. Years later, when I spoke to my students about the use of refrain, I said it was all about “circular transformatives”– circling back to see how everything has changed, how the repetition gives a pulse to movement– not a stop, but a pulse. This is the power of song, and music. The return, if justified, creates rather than impedes suspense. I used this poem as an example, and I also used a song I first heard done by Johnny Cash called Long Black Veil:

Ten years ago, on a cold dark night
Someone was killed ‘neath the town hall light.
I wasn’t there, but they all agreed that the slayer who ran
Looked a lot like me.

And she walks these hills in a long dark veil,
She visits my grave when the night winds wail.
Nobody knows, nobody sees, nobody knows but me.

The judge said son, what’s your alibi?
If you were somewhere else, then you won’t have to die.
I spoke not a word, though it meant my life.
I’d been in the arms of my best friend’s wife,

And she…

Every time the refrain returns, it has a new significance. This is the true value of repetition in a poem. So here’s my assignment: Write a poem with a refrain. Don’t just repeat it for the sake of refrain, but use it for its force of suspense. Listen to Long Black Veil, or read this wonderful poem by Apollinaire, and keep reading it until you soak in how the same words can have a slightly different, yet profound effect each time they return. Good luck.

When I die, I want to be buried under the ground under the floor of a library. I want the musty smell of turned-over pages to seep down through the wood floor, through where the wood turns black around the nails. I want to dream of ink, through the stone-scattered earth and a plain pine coffin, of ink pressed as words into the pulp of paper, of the way the afternoon light comes yellow through the high windows sprinkling down on floating flecks of dust. I want to hear the footsteps of a kid looking for the first time for a particular author as the joists creak. I want to feel the shift in the weight as a girl stands on her toes to find the place her books will be on the shelf, when she writes them. I want to see the sigh escaping a man who’s finally found a book he once loved, once lost.

I bought my first book shelf at an estate sale, after they’d sold everything worth something, everything but the clothes and the cat and the press board shelf. My granddad, the girl said, as an answer. He was 74. It had five shelves, the top shelf too small and the bottom one too large so the books had to be arranged by size. I set it by the head of my bed, and stacked my books all there, with only a few left on the floor unshelved. I lined the top shelf in paperbacks, pushing in the penguins and the signets, the bantams and the ballentines, until there wasn’t room for another full book. The last one I pried in, trying to keep the cover from crushing back. At night, trying to see the shelf in the dark light of the alarm clock, I smelled the old owner’s cigar smoke seeping out of the pressed particle wood. For weeks or maybe longer it hung there, in the dark, the soft scent of hours spent smoking and reading, paper turned and leaves burned and a life spent rocking quietly into the night.

The books you read, as a boy, they’re about men of action. Knights and cowboys and heroes and adventurers. Men who went over the horizon, into the next day, and if they die they die gloriously as a testament to things accomplished, to deeds done and victories claimed. You never read, when you read the books of a boy, about men who die wearing a bathrobe and reading until the end finds them half way through a cigar, half way through another book. But you read, when you’re a boy like I was a boy, with glasses and a book shelf and a penchant for words that aren’t usually used, you read and you see things in books like you’re the first one to see. You read and, as word follows word follows page follows cover, you see that specter. You get a glimpse of the outer limit, of your mortality.

In books, the man said, in books rowed up on the shelf you see, for the first time, your own death. You begin to measure the time this way. To come to feel the passing of life in titles. You come to look at a library the way the alchemists kept skulls on their desks, as a time check. Remember death, reads the space of every shelf, remember the limitations. I read 47 books, this last year. And 43, the year before, and 40 the year before that.

If a year of my life means 45 books, then I’ll read 270 by the time I’m 34. A few more than 2,000 when I’m 74. Two thousand titles I’ve yet to choose that will mark my accomplishments. Two thousand titles that could be any titles but whatever titles will pass, will pass shelf by shelf, author by author, passing my time. All of them could be bound together as the book of my days, the record of my lamp-lit nights.

I’m sitting up in bed, or on the couch, as it were, where I have been trying to sleep off the slew of vodka-and-tonics I downed last night at our Sand Paper Press reading here in Portland.  Shawn Vandor, whose Fire at the end of the rainbow was just reviewed over at Dossier, and I read at 220 Salon.  Happily I had the chance to meet and fraternize with thethe’s own Evan Hansen.

Happily too I have had the chance to experience a temperate spring.  In my new adopted home we have a desert spring, which is an entirely different beast.   Anyway, it’s been good to see green grass against mud and cherry trees in blossom.  All of this reminds me of the wonderful lineage of cold muddy spring poems.  There’s ‘Spring and All’

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast—a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines—

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches—

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind—

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

One by one objects are defined—
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance—Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted they
grip down and begin to awaken

And then there’s ‘A Cold Spring,’ poem that adds its title to the marquee of Elizabeth Bishop’s 1955 updated North & South.  Unfortunately the wintereb is not obliging me, and I cannot find a text of said poem to paste and copy, nor can I manage to get myself out of bed, or off the couch rather, to open the actual book, which is about five feet away from me on one of Shawn’s shelves.  Truth be said, I have been consumed with convalescence lately; well, not consumed with it actually, more consumed by the idea of it.  But you never know when the time will come.   In fact, several people have been recommending Denton Welch’s In Youth Is Pleasure to me lately.

Anyhow, I’m still stuck in this rhyming couplet thing; I can’t tell whether or not it’s a good idea to post my own poems here; especially this one, which I literally just wrote; but nor can I see why this can’t be a forum for, eh, I hate to call it experimentation, or even worse, abusing the reader, but rather using and misusing this poetry stuff in our fraught digital kingdom.

Oh yes, back to the couplets.  Here are some more.  And to further dispel the mystery, I tried to do these while cycling through the vowel-sounds, or vowel-name sounds: ae, ee, aye, oh, you.  A little like Rimbaud, I guess, but without the intimidation.  So, throat cleared, couplets, voyelles, et le printemps froid:

Here in Portland another day
begins, the sky is the color of spring clay
and in fact it is spring, see
the blossoming tree
outside the window?  The sky
is the color of a sigh.
The blossoms show
that flowers too can mimic snow,
and fall, powdering the air they fall through.
The birds seem to have no clue:
can it be said that they pray
for wings they use to flay
the air and so are free?
Their wings must act the key
to a door locked to the sky,
locked no matter how hard humans try
to stick an intrepid toe
through it.  Unlike the winterland show
of crystallized precipitation, the blue
provides no backdrop to our dreams, who
dance against open black highway
of orbits at rushing play.
Their flight is galaxy,
not of this world; while the birds are free
to roost and be shy,
and only when they die
do they understand how gravity is foe.
One falls lifeless to the petals––or are they snow?
Armies of gust, the white specks form a crew.
Clouds retreat.  The Portland sky is blue.

On our way back from the Sand Paper Press reading at Adobe Books in San Francisco, Arlo Haskell and I drove through Big Sur on our way back to Los Angeles.  Arlo had never been before; this was my fourth visit, my third in six months.  I never stay longer than twenty-four hours.  I don’t know why.  As someone who doesn’t normally feel a primal connection to a place, I ought to take advantage of the stirrings when they occur.  Certainly I wouldn’t have been the first to feel them in this place.  Robinson Jeffers, Henry Miller,

Jack Kerouac, California pioneers, assorted Hollywood moguls, and migratory whales have all experienced Big Sur’s poweful pull.

The other day the ambience at Big Sur was particularly dramatic.  There was mist in the air from everywhere – from the mountains to the west, where fog was stuck; from the ocean, which was pounding the rocks with particular force.   And the sun stuck the mist similarly everywhere, so that the air glowed yellow, the fabled gold of California.

When you drive south through Big Sur, you must stop and see the elephant seals at Piedras Blancas.  There were huge males on the beach on Tuesday, maybe 15 feet long, with doe-like black eyes and crumpled snouts  that look like a baby bird has perched on their faces.

This reminds me of a poem by the wonderful Argentinian poet Hector Viel Temperley, whose work I have been translating for some years.  It’s from Legión extranjera (1978), a breakthrough volume in which Viel’s surrealist and visionary Christian impulses begin to catapult one another, and the reader, into vertiginous orbit.  The poem is ‘El verde claro’ (The Luminous Green), and in it the poet listens to a woman (perhaps a naturalist?) as he stands on the shore: ‘Between the lighthouse and the spray and the green crags / one of the women explained it all: / She explained how old elephant seals / are forced to stop pursuing the females and so / They rub their penises on the baby / elephant seals / and with their flippers keep them still // I told her a different story : / Not so long ago I met a young monk fresh from the cloister / who writes hymns for the services / And not only does he write music and lyrics / But he signs his name and sings them / He’s got a good voice / and can play the guitar / But this isn’t getting us anywhere! / I dreamed about closer, more likely things / My other and I are two bags of luminous green / connected by an umbilical cord / And sharks flee from our luminous / green shadows / while we tread water in a luminous green sea / in the luminous / Green breath of an African sea.’

Viel deserves to be better known even in his native country, and certainly in this one as well, a situation I am hoping to soon improve.

I have nothing to say today, or nothing specific, only miscellany, no fashion thing has occurred to me.  Here you have an image of Ferula scorodosma, the plant whose dried sap is used to make asafoetida, a rather pungent spice.  I received a packet of asafoetida in a box of spices given to me as a gift on my recent birthday – it tasted quite good in a stew of lamb’s neck and potatoes, simmered with orange juice and zest and some milk that had been heated up for coffee earlier in the day and left on the stove.

Speaking of nothing to say, I have been thinking this week about ‘Nothing To Say,’ an intensely sprawling poem from Ann Lauterbach‘s latest collection, Or To Begin Again.  The poem takes its title from the opening of John Cage’s ‘Lecture on Nothing.’

But where Cage seems to calmly meditate his absent predicament, Lauterbach tears into hers, into the failings and possibilities of language, deeply felt failings and possibilities.

I have long been a fan of Lauterbach in this mode.  ‘N/est,’ an overlooked poem in On a Stair, moves through variations and meditations on finding a home in the world, and preparing one’s body to be a home, i.e. pregnancy, abortion, figuring out how to speak, figuring out how to write.  Ethical considerations.

These texts, with their prose-like presence on the page, but broken, or rather with verse breaking into them, breaking the prose apart, approach poetry from the outside, expecting everything of it formally, emotionally, musically.  They are not easy to grasp, and are perhaps not meant  to be fully grasped, rather read, and deeply felt.

Enough from me, now some ‘Nothing to Say,’ after this 1977 portrait of Ann Lauterbach by Alex Katz:

the excess of a dream, we who had been speaking mildly to each other following collapse, sipping tea in the tearoom, there, sequestered against those others and their meridians on the char, it was difficult in this setting to notice, although the waitress was an actress, her lips scarlet, but this was only the lure of

glamour, toned muscles of the arm, cleft above the thigh.  Found her there again, walking the horizon, where what was alive and what not alive almost touched, as moments touch, walking now with her sister on the other side of the line which is an illusion, the line, not the sister, she was there, among all the sisters, their chorale in the meadow, now turning now following the path

*******

I also couldn’t resist posting this wonderful footage of Lauterbach in conversation with Grace Paley in 1975.

I don’t much care for flarfing, spoetry, or any of the pedantic ballyhoo and giggling that attend these “avant-garde” or rather more absurd, “post-avant-garde” little poetry-world eddies, but I am interested in the arrival of a message in my “Spam” folder that does not clearly connect to a commercial aim—text that is literary, in some sense, but displaced from its usual context in a way that makes my thoughts teeter and bend toward sublime confusion for a moment.  For example, on a whim I recently checked an email address I’d abandoned to find an inbox full of Spam messages advertising prescription drugs, West African swindles, on-line casinos, virility aids, etc., yet also the following, without any immediately transparent commercial purpose:

Says that the Russians once anchored here and hunted sea-otter before the first Yankee trader rounded the Horn, or the first Rocky Mountain trapper thirsted across the “Great American Desert” and trickled down the snowy Sierras to the sun-kissed land. No; we are not resting our horses here on Humboldt Bay. We are writing this article, gorging on abalones and mussels, digging clams, and catching record-breaking sea-trout and rock-cod in the intervals in which we are not sailing, motor-boating, and swimming in the most temperately equable climate we have ever experienced. These comfortably large counties! They are veritable empires. Take Humboldt, for instance. It is three times as large as Rhode Island, one and a half times as large as Delaware, almost as large as Connecticut, and half as large as Massachusetts. The pioneer has done his work in this north of the bay region, the foundations are laid, and all is ready for the inevitable inrush of population and adequate development of resources which so far have been no more than skimmed, and casually and carelessly skimmed at that. This region of the six counties alone will some day support a population of millions. In the meanwhile, O you home- seekers, you wealth-seekers, and, above all, you climate-seekers, now is the time to get in on the ground floor. Robert Ingersoll once said that the genial climate of California would in a fairly brief time evolve a race resembling the Mexicans, and that in two or three generations the Californians would be seen of a Sunday morning on their way to a cockfight with a rooster under each arm. Never was made a rasher generalisation, based on so absolute an ignorance of facts. It is to laugh. Here is a climate that breeds vi

This message’s subject was “, who has started to g,” and it was sent by “Allcock” <[email protected]>.  A quick Googling of the first line suggests it was culled from Jack London’s story “The Human Drift,” available in ebook form at Project Gutenberg.  The attached file, which I have not opened, is probably a virally infected advertisement for something related to the moniker, “Allcock,” but we will never know, as it has been permanently deleted.

In this same scan of spam missives, I noticed that “Jerome Alford” sent me the following message, attached to an ad to get Cialis on-line without a prescription:

He had heard that before. This is a dream bridge. The orders on this are very clear. Pilar has got in trouble there. There is bound to be much firing. He put his hand on her shoulder.
But why should they bring planes? You couldn’t do it. Maria is with thy material. El Sordo did not hear them. That is for a doctor to say. No one should ask him anything. No matter what. But you can’t take them both. I’m very proud of your family.
Much more than likely. There is where the true evil lies. It irritated him a good deal. It is very simple. Daughter of the great whore of whores. Their reward was at hand. Who is ready now? Have you heard aught of this? It is not true?
Open at All Hours. That it should start. That is _really_ nonsense. Take care not to vomit. Is not this manifest? The _civiles_ looked at one another. Gredos is safer country than this. Floyd do next? Pablo for that. That is all. We go when he comes. He is very smart.

It appears to be chopped up bits of text readily available on the Internet, a collage of verb tenses, registers of diction, and so on.  Now, I’m no flarfer, no spoet, certainly not a part of any ridiculously dubbed “post-avant” or “post-avant-garde” or “avant-post” movement, but I’m fascinated by the mind’s process when facing such unconventional texts in unconventional contexts.  As opposed to the new best-selling novel, the predictable, measured sentences of a fine memoir, the easy pleasures of most poems in the New Yorker, sometimes the textual composition without commercial aim is just what I need to revive me from the narcotic effect of conventional language.  Really, is it possible that there is joy in the struggle to make meaning of language that perhaps has practically no meaning at all?  I can’t wait to check my Spam folder again in a month in order to ask myself this question again.

Friends, please post any good Spam you’ve received below, and please resist flarfing.

On fourth of July, alone in my kitchen and the sound of distant fireworks. I drink cheap Merlot, watch the dark break and enter through the windows. I am all over the Internet, but would rather be all over someone else: a tangent. A tanager. Today, by the river I saw a scarlet tanager. Had only seen them in bird books before, and for a minute all doom lifted. my mood is so easily healed, and then so easily thrashed back against the shoal of its wounding: rocks, jetties. If there were a sea I would calm it with the palm of my hand, and walk across the waves.

But there is no sea

only its sound inside me.

Part the red Merlot! Open the wounds!

Every Easter we would watch Moses and the Ten Commandments, and the sea was jello I heard. They did that effect with jello. Oh me, Oh my… the sigh of an ancient night breaking and entering through my windows.

There is no sea, though I might wish one into being—a red sea, like the

Scarlett tanager.

We open. We close. A series of bivalves, of binaries. Zeros and ones painting the ceiling!

She once laughed because the sound of the word computer turned her on. Odd co-ordinates of language and sky.

I would kill to be the sound of someone’s thoughts, the color of their dreams. Part one. Part two.

It is the fourth, and the sound of the fireworks makes me think of Beethoven composing as the french approached the city of vienna, and he crossing out the name of Napoleon from the Eroica.

Do you bury your dead, Mr. Weil, or do you set them off as fire works?

The scarlet tanager was in the thickets by the river. I thought it was a cardinal at first, or some other red bird, and my eyes finally admitted it was a tanager. The first of my life, and maybe the last.

I draw the sun reversed: things at dusk. The glow of what has already faded. it’s sweet aftermath.

My Aunt Mary died on a day I was supposed to read at Yale, and I was heading back to Binghamton to hand in the grades: ninety miles an hour and tears. And I was supposed to go with a beautiful Polish woman from my church. All the way to Yale! And I thought how I would give anything to be in the living room late at night watching re-runs of Frazier, my aunt wheezing gently on the sofa, me on the floor, my head cradled in my arms. And Yale did not seem very important.

Oh but this bird? It may save my life, and if not my life, then some small part of me that is gone forever—

the sound. What sound does red make? It is color, and frequency, and it must have a sound.

I think of a young women with browned arms playing a ukulele. It is not very lyrical, or like a Scarlett tanager. I think of her often. Could she be my death? She is often morose just to try something different. No emotion has dropped like a mask to permanently fit her soft angelic face. She is singing: “There is a sea, whether you believe it or not. There is a sea Mr. Weil, Mr. Joe, my Joseph. I can not be the sea. I can be the young girl playing the ukulele! In the sun dress. Light splashes. Her finger nail polish is bright, easter egg blue.

But she is the sea, too, and the scarlet tanager, and the sound of the distant fireworks. She is Beethoven crossing out the name of the liberator turned tyrant.

I must claim my death. it is very likely a while from now—perhaps while I am down by the river. And it is dusk. And it is more than dusk. And I am scratchy, and morose. And I feel no one feeling me.