Thursday, April 30, 2015

NPM: Axe Handles

Stol'n from Classic Home Builders

To close out National Poetry Month 2015, we have a short piece by Beat poet, environmentalist, and dharma anarchist Gary Snyder, composed in his middle age. Maybe I'm posting it as an answer to something, or an explanation. Or because I've never been able to convey the notion that the present consists of transmissions of the past reaching toward the future as vividly as Mr. Snyder.

Axe Handles
Gary Snyder (1930 – )

One afternoon the last week in April
Showing Kai how to throw a hatchet
One-half turn and it sticks in a stump.
He recalls the hatchet-head
Without a handle, in the shop
And go gets it, and wants it for his own.
A broken-off axe handle behind the door
Is long enough for a hatchet,
We cut it to length and take it
With the hatchet head
And working hatchet, to the wood block.
There I begin to shape the old handle
With the hatchet, and the phrase
First learned from Ezra Pound
Rings in my ears!
"When making an axe handle
      the pattern is not far off."
And I say this to Kai
"Look: We'll shape the handle
By checking the handle
Of the axe we cut with——"
And he sees. And I hear it again:
It's in Lu Ji's Wên Fu, fourth century
A.D. "Essay on Literature"——in the
Preface: "In making the handle
Of an axe
By cutting wood with an axe
The model is indeed near at hand."
My teacher Shih-hsiang Chen
Translated that and taught it years ago
And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

NPM: Monet Refuses the Operation

Claude Monet, La passerelle japonaise

When I was sniffing around Google Images for an image to accompany Allen Ginsberg's "Ode to Failure" a few nights ago, I came upon a page examining a Lisel Mueller poem about renowned painter Claude Monet suffering from double cataracts. Where the logic of the poem is concerned, perhaps we should put "suffering" in quote marks. (There's pretty much nothing here that isn't lifted from the aforementioned Reckonings piece, so you might as well swing by there to see the poem treated in some beautiful detail.) For my part, I will just offer Ginsberg's "Don't Grow Old" as a counterpoint and Whitman's "To Old Age" as a concurrence, and then be on my way.

Monet Refuses the Operation 
Lisel Mueller (1924 – )

Doctor, you say there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
wisteria separate
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don't know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and changes our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

NPM: Ode to Failure

Pablo Picasso, Le peintre et son modèle (unfinished)

Last night I borrowed a copy of The Portable Beat Reader from a friend's bookshelf. There's a fair chance that anything else I end up posting for National Poetry Month from here on out will come from its pages.

I've always found Beat poetry vivifying, and I suppose I need a shot of hot cider for my soul lately. I'm still a little weak in the legs from a breakup (this month would have been the three-year mark), and the spiritual anesthesia of island life has been getting me down. (It's real easy to just let go and stop giving a shit about everything in a place like this.) And while I don't want to say I'm in the thick of a forestalled quarter-life crisis, lately I find myself dwelling on the discrepancies between where my twenty-one-year-old self hoped and imagine he'd be in years, and my actual position as a thirty-one-year-old. But I think this is the rule rather than the exception where people my age are concerned.

Tonight this piece by Allen Ginsberg caught my eye. Here's the man who wrote pretty much the single greatest English-language poem of the twentieth century lamenting (in an ecstatic sort of way) how far short he fell of the mark. Maybe dissatisfaction (of some degree) is as congenital as talent and hard to escape as senescence. And maybe this poem is an admission that words might not count as much as we'd hoped.

Ode to Failure
Allen Ginsberg (1926 – 1997)

Many prophets have failed, their voices silent
ghost-shouts in basements nobody heard dusty laughter in family
nor glanced them on park benches weeping with relief under empty
Walt Whitman viva'd local losers——courage to Fat Ladies in the
     Freak Show! nervous prisoners whose mustached lips dripped
     sweat on chow lines——
Mayakovsky cried, Then die! my verse, die like the workers' rank
     & file fusilladed in Petersburg!
Prospero burned his Power books & plummeted his magic wand to the
     bottom of dragon seas
Alexander the Great failed to find more worlds to conquer!
O Failure I chant your terrifying name, accept me your 54 years old
epicking Eternal Flop! I join your Pantheon of mortal bards, &
     hasten this ode with high blood pressure
rushing to the top of my skull as I if I wouldn’t last another
     minute, like the Dying Gaul! to
You, Lord of blind Monet, deaf Beethoven, armless Venus de Milo,
     headless Winged Victory!
I failed to sleep with every bearded rosy-cheeked boy I jacked off
My tirades destroyed no Intellectual Unions of KGB & CIA in
     turtlenecks & underpants, their woolen suits and tweeds
I never dissolved Plutonium or dismantled the nuclear Bomb before
     my skull lost hair
I have not yet stopped the Armies of entire Mankind in their march
     toward World War III
I never got to Heaven, Nirvana, X, Whatchamacallit, I never left
I never learned to die.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

NPM: The Mockingbird and Mr. Frost

Mimus polyglottos

This week's episode of A Prairie Home Companion (my soft spot for Garrison Keillor is fairly well documented) was in especially fine form, particularly the musical numbers. It's five days later and I still can't get the Anonymous 4's rendition of  "Listen to the Mockingbird" out of my head. (I would link directly to it I could, but you'll have to do some scrolling and clicking here to hear it.)

Today we have the lyrics to that antebellum American classic (I'm hoping that by sharing it I can dislodge it from my inner ear), as well as a Robert Frost poem about birdsong. Variations on a theme, you see! (The Frost poem brings to my mind Madeline L'Engle's poem about the parrot, though the logic and tenor are quite different.)

Listen to the Mockingbird
Septimus Winner (1827 – 1902)

Last night I dreamed of my Hallie
Of my Hallie, my sweet Hallie
Last night I dreamed of my Hallie

For the thought of her is one that never dies

She's sleeping now in the valley
In the valley, my sweet Hallie
She's sleeping now in the valley
And the mockingbird is singing where she lies

Listen to the mockingbird, listen to the mockingbird
The mockingbird still singing oe'er her grave
Listen to the mockingbird, listen to the mockingbird
Still singing where the weeping willows wave

Ah well I yet remember
Remember, remember
Ah well I yet remember

When we gathered in the cotton side by side

'Twas in the mild September

September, September
'Twas in the mild September

And the mockingbird was singing far and wide

Listen to the mockingbird, listen to the mockingbird

The mockingbird still singing oe'er her grave
Listen to the mockingbird, listen to the mockingbird
Still singing where the weeping willows wave

When charms of spring awaken
Awaken, awaken
When charms of spring awaken

And the mockingbird is singing on the bough

I feel like one forsaken
Forsaken, forsaken
I feel like one forsaken

Since my Hallie is no longer with me now 

Listen to the mockingbird, listen to the mockingbird

The Mockingbird still singing oe'er her grave
Listen to the mockingbird, listen to the mockingbird
Still singing where the weeping willows wave

Never Again Would Bird's Song Be the Same
Robert Frost (1874 – 1963)

He would declare and could himself believe
That the birds there in all the garden round
From having heard the daylong voice of Eve
Had added to their own an oversound,
Her tone of meaning but without the words.
Admittedly an eloquence so soft
Could only have had an influence on birds
When call or laughter carried it aloft.
Be that as may be, she was in their song.
Moreover her voice upon their voices crossed
Had now persisted in the woods so long
That probably it never would be lost.
Never again would birds' song be the same.
And to do that to birds was why she came.

Monday, April 20, 2015

NPM: Millay Goes Down

Vincent Millay

Let's revisit flapper poet Edna St. Vincent Millay a moment. She's a class act, she is: one of the twentieth century's most renowned practitioners of the sonnet form, and certainly one of its most passionate. Although her poetry doesn't really broach the erotic, it pulses with a sensuality and longing that pounds against the walls of the verse in which it is framed. (If you've read more than four of her poems, you probably didn't need to glance at her biography to know she was polyamorous and bisexual.)

Today's poem isn't by Millay herself, but contemporary poet Moira Egan, who speaks for her in a piece that encompasses several of Millay's usual themes: desire, memory, and intimacy, and also oral sex. Enjoy! (The refrain at the top of each stanza is, of course, the first line and title of one of Millay's most well-known sonnets.)

Millay Goes Down
Moira Egan (b. ?)

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why?
And where? Yes, there. That summer in the barn,
he'd spread me on the hay bales, sixty-nine,
oblivious to scratches, clothes half-on,
we'd take forever. Salty, sweaty both,
and kissing back the taste, each other on

each other's avid lips. I learned a truth
perhaps more grown than I was then, so when
a lady I know says she won't do this,
that that's what whores are for, it makes me sad.
It seems a gift, devotion at the source
of all our humanness; best when, instead
of needing gesture, pressure, Please, go south,
he softly asks me, Do you want my mouth?

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why?
Why not's as good as why sometimes, why not
Seduce this boy whose face, in candlelight,
looks slightly older, almost appropriate.
Your fingertips might almost brush his hand
as you both dip bread into the oil.
You laugh and make it clear you understand
he'd rather hang out with a younger girl.
He says he's never had this wine, mourvèdre;
pronounces that he likes full-bodied,
strong and complicated wine (you think educable,
right on
) and then his hand is on

your shoulder, and he kisses you, his mouth
quite like a warm, mourvèdre fountain of youth.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Vernal Interlude

This morning I received a text message from Em, who's become my best friend on the island. "When you coming home?" she asked.

I wasn't sure how to answer. I'm returning to the rock on Monday. But coming home? That's a very different question.

I'm not sure where home is anymore. I live in the Caribbean. If I ever considered it my home, it was because the island is where she lives. But the circumstances have changed. Now the island is where I earn a paycheck, and where I live—even though I've yet to work out what to do about housing, now that our experiment in cordial cohabitation has arrived at a decidedly nonoptimal conclusion.

Seeing my friends from Maryland a few days ago was a joy; in all honesty I hadn't expected to see most of them again in this lifetime. (Maybe this will be the last time.) But revisiting Silver Spring reminded me why I can't live there anymore.

It's funny. Maryland was chosen as the setting for All the Lonely People rather arbitrarily: it wasn't Jersey, for one thing, and I lived in Columbia until I was three years old. When I wrote the first draft, I was still living in Pennsylvania, and hadn't the faintest inkling I would be moving to Maryland for love, for the sake of keeping a good thing going. By the time I was working through the last round of revisions, I was living in Silver Spring by myself, and saw All the Lonely People as my farewell and don't bother writing to the Washington, DC metro area.

Good people, but a bummer of a place. This often isn't the case: most of the time the people of a particular locale bring more to bear than the environs themselves.

On the way back to Jersey I missed 295 and continued northward up 95 out of habit, passing through Philadelphia and coming within a rosary bead's throw of the Quaker center. I lived there for two years, and for that time that place was home to me, without question. I still count this as one of the greatest privileges I've ever enjoyed. The last time I visited was in August. Even then, it was difficult to be there. My close friends, the dozen or so people with whom I overlapped during my time there—including Jason, my college buddy who brought me there, and Hannah, who I followed to Maryland when my term was up—they were the place, counted for more than the buildings, the arboretum, the institution itself. (This is a theme of Doug's book about the place, to which I'm proud to have contributed as an editor.) When I visited last August, only three of my close acquaintances remained. They've all moved on since then. There's no point in visiting now.

I only visited my alma mater once after graduating. It was ten months after I'd thrown my diploma in the trunk and drove back to Jersey. For two and a half years my buddies and I strutted and staggered about campus and smoked spliffs on the steps of the library like we owned the place. And now I was there and they were gone. The passage of ten months was enough to reduce me to an interloper, an outsider who came to sleep on a couch and had no real purpose being there. It's why I've never gone back since, and why I won't return to the Quaker center today.

It's hard finding yourself a stranger in a place that was once your home. Is it harder than finding a place you once called home becoming strange? (Is there a difference?)

During a road trip I took several years ago (which, incidentally, was directly catalyzed by an experience during that final visit to the campus) I wound up in Maryland and visited my parents' old house in Columbia, where we lived until moving up to Jersey in 1987. It was underwhelming, it was—I'm not sure I can say it was sad, but I don't know the word for the feeling of feeling nothing about a place that was your earliest home.

At what point does a waystation become a home, I wonder?

Now I'm back in Jersey, and I feel like I'm back in my element—even though Jersey is a place I'd be reluctant to call home again, for reasons which The Zeroes made patently clear. But I have friends and family here, and it's been good seeing and spending time with them again.

Today I visited the Tourne Park swamp with Jeff. This is only the first week of warm weather (I've been told), so there isn't much surface activity yet. But it's coming alive again: though it's still too early in the seasons for barn swallows and damselflies, we met some red-winged blackbirds (vocal but very secretive creatures), nuthatches, a tortoise, and heard a chorus of frogs in the distance that sang so loudly that I mistook them for a siren at first.

Jeff and I sat on a rock and listened to the chirps and trills and caught up for a while. He's still teaching history, and lately he's become a permanent member of the ska band he used to play with now and then. They've been recording some new songs lately, and sometime next month they're playing with Catch 22—not the first time he's opened for them, but the first in over ten years.

I was glad to hear it.

I picked a fine week to visit, at any rate. It's not that I haven't been impressed by spring in the past, but I feel like I've taken it somewhat for granted until the last few days. Maybe it's because I'm seeing it in an unusual light: in January I left winter to go live in summer, and five days ago I caught a flight back to spring. The perpetual viridescence of the tropics is wonderful—but the magnolia and cherry trees in full blossom, pushing out their everything for two, three weeks out of fifty-two, is astonishing an event as any I've seen.

Spring never lasted long enough for me. And on Monday it's back to summer. Wish I could say it was back home.

Would that springtime itself could be my home. To live where life is always in a state of becoming, all potential and unspent possibility.

But I suppose that's what life is, as long as life is, however much less it may appear.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

NPM: John Updike poems about vaginas

Gustave Corbet, L'Origine du monde

Yesterday I was reading through a book of John Updike's poetry (a birthday gift from the gracious and gentle-hearted C. Rogers) and came across these: a pair of poems about women and their bodies. The collection, Tossing and Turning, was published in 1982—decades after Howl and Other Poems beat the obscenity charges and expanded the range of what could be addressed by and published as mainstream poetry, but also decades before intersectionality politics became a lens (and a structuring filter) through which any thinking person must needs approach (and put forth) art and ideas. A man writing visceral poetry about women and their genitals—with the titles "Cunts" and "Pussy"—might be inescapably Problematic. Maybe. But I'm not going to cast any verdicts in that regard. In spite of (or maybe because of) the politics they're tangled with, I admire these poems for affirming that for all our civilizing, our intellects and our seething corporeal urges make strange bedfellows, and the relationship of the individual to other people, their bodies, and to the fact of copulation remains really rather complicated.

John Updike (1932 – 2009)

(Upon Receiving The Swingers Life Club
Membership Solicitation)

The Venus de Milo didn't have one, at least no pussy
that left its shadow in the marble, but Botticelli's Venus,
though we cannot see it for her sea-anemone hand,
did, no doubt——an amber-furred dear mouth we would kiss
could we enter the Arcadian plane of the painting.
We must assimilate cunts to our creed of beauty.
September Morn held her thighs tight shut, and the dolls
we grew up undressing had nothing much there, not even MADE IN USA,
but the beauties we must learn to worship now all
have spread legs, splayed in bedspreaded motel beds,
and the snowflakes that burst forth are no two alike:
convolute snapdragons, portal and tears
and T-bones of hair, lips lurid as slices of salmon,
whirlpooly wisps more ticklish than skin, black brooms
a witch could ride cackling through the spatter of stars,
assholes a-stare like monocles tiny as dimes.

"I adore French culture and can really blow your mind"
"half of an ultra-sophisticated couple prefers"
"love modeling with guys or gals and groovy parties"
"affectionate young housewife would like to meet"
"attractive broadminded funloving exotic tastes"

glory Gloria fellatio Felicia Connie your cunt
is Platonism upside down and really opens innocence
the last inch wider: I bite and I believe.

"Who put this mouse between my legs if not the Lord?
Who knocks to enter? Pigs of many stripes.
My cunt is me, it lathers and it loves
because its emptiness knows nothing else to do.
Here comes the stalwart cock, numb-headed hater,
assassin dragging behind him in a wrinkled sack
reproduction's two stooges; refrigerated in blood,
the salt sperm thrashes to mix with my lipstick.
Nibble my nipples, you fish. My eyelashes tickle your glans
while my cunt like a shark gone senile yawns for its meal.
In my prison your head will lean against the wet red wall
and beg for a pardon and my blood will beat back No.
Here is my being, my jewel, simpler than a diamond,
finer-spun than Assyrian gold and the Book of Kells,
nobler than a theorem by Euler, more darling than a dimple
in a Steuben-glass Shirley Temple——flesh-flower, riddle
of more levels than a Pyramid passageway greased with balm.

A woman once upon a bed with me
to kiss my soul went down but in addition thrust
her ass up to my face and trembled all her length
so I knew something rare was being served; of course
the lapping was an ecstasy, but such an ecstasy
I prayed her distant face grow still so I could drink
the deeper of this widening self that only lacked
the prick of stars to be a firmament.

this hole that bleeds with the moon so you can be born!"
Stretched like a howl between the feet pushing the stirrups
the poor slit yields up the bubble of a skull.
Glad tunnel of life, foretaste of resurrection,
slick applicant of appropriate friction
springing loose the critical honey from the delirious bee.

"You can meet these swinging gals" "you
can be in direct contact with these free-thinking modern people"
"if you are a Polaroid photography enthusiast"
"you can rest assured your membership"
"you will discover the most exquisite, intimate"
                    and the clitoris
like a little hurt girl turns its face to the corner.

Well, how were we to know that all you fat sweethearts
were as much the vagina's victim as the poor satyr who sells
his mother's IBM preferred to procure three whores
to have three ways at once——by land, by sea, by air?
"It was all a sacred mush of little pips to me."
Now you tell us, tell us and tell us, of a magical doorbell
crocheted of swollen nerves beneath the fur
and all the pallid moon from scalp to toes decuple
not quite this molehill of a mountain is
the Mare of Disenchantment, the Plain of No Response.
Who could have known, when you are edible all over?
So edible we gobble even your political views
As they untwist in lamplight, like lemon peel from a knife.

Tell us O tell us why is it why
the hairs on the nape of your neck say cunt
and the swirl in your laugh says cunt
and your fingernails flanking cigarette
and the red of the roof of your mouth and your mischief
and your passion for the sleeping dogs and the way
you shape hamburgers naked-handed and the way
you squat to a crying child so the labia stain
your underpants cry cunt CUNT there is almost
CUNT too much of a CUNT good thing CUNT

"And howzabout
That split banana second when
(a clouded tear in its single eye,
stiff angel stuffed with ichor)
the semen in good faith leaps
(no shadows live on marble
like these that coat my helpless hands)
and your [unmentionable]
enhouses the cosmic stranger with a pinch?"

It is true, something vital ebbs from the process
once the female is considered not a monstrous emissary
from the natural darkness but as possessing personhood
with its attendant rights, and wit.
I pulled a Tampax with my teeth and found it, darling,
not so bloody. I loved the death between your toes.

I glazed my sallow fill in motel light until
your cunt became my own, and I a girl. I lost
my hard-on quite; my consciousness stayed raised.
Your mouth became a fumble at my groin.
You would not let me buck away. I came,
and sobbed, triumphantly repentant. You said
with a smile of surprise it was warm,
warm on the back of your throat, hitting,
and not salty, but sweet.
We want to fill your cunt but are unmanned.
My sobbing felt like coming. Fond monster,
you swallowed my tears. We were plighted.
I was afraid. I adore your cunt. But why
is there only one? Is one enough? You cunt.

"I'm available . . . and so are hundreds of other
eager young girls who are ready to pose FOR YOU!"

Corinna, even your shit has something to be said for it
"avant garde of a new era of freedom" (Coronet)
"dawn of a culture phenomenon" (Playboy)
"Dr. Gilbert Bartell, the renowned culture anthropologist"
"page after page of totally rewarding sexual knowledge
that will be an invaluable asset in your search for greater
sexual understanding Only through complete understanding
can man hope" "Discretion is our middle name!"

Daphne, your fortune moistens. Stand. Bend down. Smile.


A preliminary Epithalamium 

Tendrilous cloudlet in nakedness's sheer sky:
welcome mat gathered where the flowing body forks
and makes known its crux: wave-crest upon the shoal
where exaltedness founders and foamingly sinks:
bull's-eye where even the absent-minded arrow home:

forest concealing the hunted that is itself:
lair and prey and predator at once, sly fur
and arcanum, fragrat of woodfern and mossmulch,
furtive in its underbrush, fine nerves alert
yet asleep in the fitness of whatever is heavenly made:

dark gown the cunt put on to go out walking upright
that then, redundantly, let itself be gowned
in underpants, dank girdles, G-strings, step-ins, slips
through whose weave your triangular blot like a watermark
shines in the minds of the masculine perusers:

remainder, reminder of all that is animal:
dregs at the V of the torso's white wineglass,
concentrate, essence, summary, footnote,
addendum that cancels, in Gothic black letter,
Platonic misreadings of the belly's bland text:

concealer of lips, like a mustache, netherly,
feathery, tentative, tendermost, utterly
underhand-holdable: grace, veil and tracer, mane,
vague mass, forbidding mask, dark witticism, witty touch,
Grail, doe's tail, shy signal, and mere mystery:

let man never weary of such doting denoting,
such cunnilocutions and lingual adoration.
See him rise from his knees, chin wet and abraided
but slavish heart in harmony: chords ring beyond
the muffled clitoris of which he is one note, but one

the music needs to smuggle itself from silence.
My saint, impose the jubilant penance whereby
the gateways to rest batter down: absolve my rod.
Your pussy, it is my pet, it is my alter, totaliter
aliter: unknowable, known, and wild, subdued.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

NPM: The World Is Too Much with Us

Shotei Watanabe,
Seagulls over the Waves
Woke up in a Wordsworth kind of mood today. I considered posting "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" with a spiel about how it paints the complexion of the adult's nostalgia for childhood during an era before cartoons and video games, but really: no matter how snappy a foreword I supply, nobody's going to spend twenty minutes during their lunch break reading a 200-line poem. Instead, here's the much more succinct "The World Is Too Much with Us"—a poem to which the desultory undergraduate might presume to attribute an environmentalist message, though it's really about humanity's perception of the natural world rather than its footprint upon it. (See also: A.N. Whitehead's "The Romantic Reaction," which will probably take two or three times more time to read than "Ode" would have. Oh well.)

The World Is Too Much with Us
William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850)

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;——
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

NPM: Reservation Grass

I remember reading this poem by Natalie Diaz on a sidewalk placard when I was still living in Takoma Park, Maryland. (I miss Takoma Park.) All of the italicized phrases are borrowed from various Walt Whitman poems (if you couldn't guess).

Reservation Grass
Natalie Diaz (b. ?)

I keep no account of lamentation.
                              ~Walt Whitman

We smoke more grass than we ever promise to plant.
Our front yards are green and brown, triangles of glass—
What is
     the grass?emeralds and garnets sewed like seeds in the dirt.
The shards of glass grow men bunched together
     larger than weeds and Whitmans, leaning against the sides of

     houses——dance with the dancers and drink with the drinkers
     upon dirt not lawn.
Corned beef comes on the first of every month—this the meat of
     hunger—in white cans with bold black writing.
myself and mine—toss it in a pot and wonder how it will ever
     feed us all——witness and wait—but never worry, never fret,
     never give a damn, over mowing the grass.
What have wethe red aboriginesout of hopeful green stuff woven?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

NPM: Spring

Claude Monet, Willows in Springtime

This is new. My friends and family in higher latitudes are greeting the crocuses, cherry blossoms, and robins, while I'm down in the tropics, sweating my balls off in a summer without end and periodically dreaming of melting icicles and skunk cabbage. Today I'm posting a poem called "Spring" by the illustrious Edna St. Vincent Millay (whom we've visited once or twice before) as means of self-consolation.

If the daffodils ask about me, tell them they got lucky this year.

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 – 1950)

To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

NPM: What Makes?

Yesterday I checked my inbox and found an email from my friend Amy in Maryland: You've put me much in mind, recently, of a favorite poem of mine from forever. It's Bukowski. I don't know if you love him or hate him, but this one makes me think of you.

What Makes?
Charles Bukowski (1920 – 1994)

this is hard to explain, I mean who the man was,
anyhow, it was in a large structure and he sat in
a chair in uniform, red coat and all, his job was
to examine the hand-stamp of those who left the
structure and returned, there was a lamp you put
your hand under and the stamp appeared (god that
was work) anyhow, as I put my hand under the lamp
the man asked, "listen, what's your name?"
"Hank," I answered
"listen, Hank," he asked, "what makes a man a
"well," I said, "it's simple, it's either you
get it down on paper or you jump off a
writers are desperate people and when they stop
being desperate they stop being
"are you desperate?"
"I don't know..."
I walked on through and as I took the escalator up
I saw him sitting there, probably thinking that it was possibly
bullshit, he had wanted me to suggest some special
school, some special way, like some way to get out
of that red coat, it was not an enlightening job
like designing a bridge or batting cleanup for the
Dodgers but
he wasn't desperate enough, the desperate don't ask,
they do
and at the top of the escalator I pushed through the
glass doors and as I did, I thought, son of a bitch,
I should have asked him his name, and then I felt
bad for him and for myself but a few minutes later
I had forgotten all about him
and the other way around
and he watched more hand-stamps under the lamp
and I watched the toteboard and the horses and
the desperate people
desperate in all the wrong
ways, in-

Sunday, April 5, 2015

NPM: Ocean

I had a day off at last, and finally made time to go for a long swim. It was like being born again. I thought I'd post something about the sea for NPM, but having already used my go-to ocean poem during NPM '11, I had to look around a bit. I found this piece by Jason Shinder in The Writer's Almanac archives (you can always depend on Garrison Keillor), and even though it wasn't quite what I set out looking for, it's too haunting not to share. Bear in mind that this was published in 2009, one year after Shinder's death, in a collection titled Stupid Hope.

Jason Shinder (1955–2008)

Goodbye again. Say there is a little song in my head

and because of it I can't sleep or change my mind
about the future. Now the song runs all the way down

to the beach where I sit as if the sky

were my room now. No one, not even you,
can hear me singing. Not even me.

As if the music rose from the mouth of the ocean.

No mouth. Like rain before it reaches us.
Like wind twirling dresses on the clothesline.

Who has no one has the history of the ocean.

Lord, give me two more days. So that
the last moments may be with someone.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Indiana: Hating the Haters

Obligatory pizza clip art

I realize I'm a day late, and I'm getting sick of feeling compelled to stand up for bigots, but here we go again.

You must know the story by now. A local news reporter walks into Memories Pizza in Walkerton, Indiana (pop. 2,144), and asks the proprietors how they feel about the state's contoversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Owner Kevin O'Connor and his daughter Crystal say they're a-okay with the bill, and tell ABC 57 that if asked to cater a gay couple's wedding, they would decline on the basis of their religious beliefs. As you might expect, the hivemind noticed and did not take kindly to this. And as you might expect, Memories Pizza announced a day later that it was temporarily shutting down while the owners waited for the phone calls, emails, Facebook posts, and calls for violence to stop.

I'm getting sick of saying this: harassing people for their beliefs (however screwed up or stupid) is going to ossify those beliefs in them. And this was entirely about what the O'Connors believe, not about any acts they've actually committed. Nobody was ever discriminated against at Memories, as far as anyone can tell.

It would be one thing if somebody from Indiana wrote a blog post about how they've been residents of Walkerton and customers of Memories for years, and felt betrayed when the O'Connors, members of their community, people who were a part of their lives (the part during lunchtime, I guess) told them flat out: "sorry, we like you, but something something Leviticus, you'll have to get someone else to cater your wedding." (I would hope the story might end with "we were hurt, I don't think we or our friends and family will ever be eating at Memories again, but we found a pizza parlor down the street to cater our wedding—because yes, we wanted to have the same food at our marriage ceremony that we had at our thirteenth birthday party, and that's our own business—and we said our vows, and life went on.")

But that's that's not what happened: some Huffington Post editor trawling local stations in Indiana found the news clip with Memories' owner and screamed into the bullhorn: LOOK, LOOK AT THESE PEOPLE. THEY SAID THEY WOULDN'T CATER A GAY WEDDING IN THE EVENT THAT SOMEBODY ASKED THEM TO. HOW DOES THAT MAKE YOU FEEL?

So some yokels we've never met, from some town we've never heard of and won't ever visit, state that if they were ever approached about catering a wedding between two gay persons, they would have to decline. Their business never even had the opportunity to be guilty of discrimination; the wedding they preferred to not cater never left the realm of the hypothetical. But the rod was nevertheless raised, and we dutifully (gleefully) brought the lightning down.

This shit is wearing me out.

I was disappointed to see people on my Facebook feed posting the pizzeria's number and encouraging their buddies to join them in taking time out of their day to anonymously threaten and harass some people from Indiana (people they've never met, who own a pizzeria they've never set foot in, in a town they've never even driven past) for saying stupid things about their stupid beliefs. If anyone should be having a conversation with them, it should be the members of their own community—the people in Walkerton, the people they actually live and do business with. Let the people who actually have to deal with them deal with them. They'd have a better chance at changing the O'Connors' minds than a swarm of vindictive anonymouses screeching out of the ether to terrorize and abuse them.

This story wouldn't bother me as much if it weren't for the palpable sadism we exude during these events. We're hurling stones at the heretics, and we're just beside ourselves about it. This hysteria about homophobic pizzeria owners in a flyover state ultimately wasn't about a constructive progressive social agenda: this was about singling out an ideological enemy, blasting them to pieces as a crowd, and congratulating ourselves for being so fucking justified.

I suggest we ask ourselves what was actually accomplished here. Did we help to further the social acceptance of LGBT people? Well, not really: I don't see how this spectacle softened any hearts or changed any minds. Did it give social conservatives a martyr to converge around? Absolutely. What did the O'Connors learn? Good question. Whatever the case, they have hundreds of thousands of dollars in crowdfunded cash headed their way. Maybe they actually came out ahead after all of this, and now they know they can count on the support of a network of likeminded friends across the country. Boy, we sure gave them cause to sincerely reexamine their beliefs, didn't we?

Yes, it's 2015 and we should all of us be past the kind of bigotry espoused by these podunk pizza slingers. But it's equally disappointing that in 2015 the course of our social evolution is apparently even further from carrying us beyond self-righteous mob behavior.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

NPM: Half-Hanged Mary

Happy first of April, everyone! Apropos nothing, I'd like to take a break from writing my next bestseller (I'm having such a hard time narrowing down what I want to do—so many ideas!) to announce that my girlfriend and I are moving back to the mainland, where we'll be buying a house together. It's a big step to take, but we agree it's the right one, given the stability of our finances and where we are in our relationship. It's astonishing to consider, but it really does seem like everything in my life is finally coming together.

APRIL FOOLS! Hah hah hah! I'll never pen a bestseller, I've got writer's block, my girlfriend and I broke up, I got no damn money, I'm still on this fucking island, and I still feel like the superfluous piece that got dropped into the cosmic Lego set because of some packaging error at the factory. Hee hee! Boy am I funny.

Anyway, the first of April is also the first day of National Poetry Month. I don't think our program for NPM 2015 will be anywhere near as full as previous years'; I've got a quite a bit on my plate lately, and don't forget that I already gave you The Descent of Winter last autumn. (Ingrates.) But I'd like to share at least a few poems with you all, beginning with this piece by Margaret Atwood (from her collection Morning in the Burned House). It's rather inexcusable that it took this long to include a piece of hers in one of our NPM posts.


Half-Hanged Mary
Margaret Atwood (1939 – )

("Half-hanged Mary" was Mary Webster, who was accused of witchcraft in the 1680s in a Puritan town in Massachusetts and hanged from a tree——where, according to one of the several surviving accounts, she was left all night. It is known that when she was cut down she was still alive, since she lived for another fourteen years.)

7 p.m.

Rumour was loose in the air
hunting for some neck to land on.
I was milking the cow,
the barn door open to the sunset.

I didn't feel the aimed word hit
and go in like a soft bullet.
I didn't feel the smashed flesh
closing over it like water
over a thrown stone.

I was hanged for living alone
for having blue eyes and a sunburned skin,
tattered skirts, few buttons,
a weedy farm in my own name,
and a surefire cure for warts;

Oh yes, and breasts,
and a sweet pear hidden in my body.
Whenever there's talk of demons
these come in handy.

8 p.m.

The rope was an improvisation.
With time they'd have thought of axes.

Up I go like a windfall in reverse,
a blackened apple stuck back onto the tree.

Trussed hands, rag in my mouth,
a flag raised to salute the moon,

old bone-faced goddess, old original,
who once took blood in return for food.

The men of the town stalk homeward,
excited by their show of hate,

their own evil turned inside out like a glove,
and me wearing it.

9 p.m.

The bonnets come to stare,
the dark skirts also,
the upturned faces in between,
mouths closed so tight they're lipless.
I can see down into their eyeholes
and nostrils. I can see their fear.

You were my friend, you too.
I cured your baby, Mrs.,
and flushed yours out of you,
Non-wife, to save your life.

Help me down? You don't dare.
I might rub off on you,
like soot or gossip. Birds
of a feather burn together,
though as a rule ravens are singular.

In a gathering like this one
the safe place is the background,
pretending you can't dance,
the safe stance pointing a finger.

I understand. You can't spare
anything, a hand, a piece of bread, a shawl
against the cold,
a good word. Lord
knows there isn't much
to go around. You need it all.

10 p.m.

Well God, now that I'm up here
with maybe some time to kill
away from the daily
fingerwork, legwork, work
at the hen level,
we can continue our quarrel,
the one about free will.

Is it my choice that I'm dangling
like a turkey's wattles from his
more then indifferent tree?
If Nature is Your alphabet,
what letter is this rope?

Does my twisting body spell out Grace?
I hurt, therefore I am.
Faith, Charity, and Hope
are three dead angels
falling like meteors or
burning owls across
the profound blank sky of Your face.

12 midnight

My throat is taut against the rope
choking off words and air;
I'm reduced to knotted muscle.
Blood bulges in my skull,
my clenched teeth hold it in;
I bite down on despair

Death sits on my shoulder like a crow
waiting for my squeezed beet
of a heart to burst
so he can eat my eyes

or like a judge
muttering about sluts and punishment
and licking his lips

or like a dark angel
insidious in his glossy feathers
whispering to me to be easy
on myself. To breathe out finally.
Trust me, he says, caressing
me. Why suffer?

A temptation, to sink down
into these definitions.
To become a martyr in reverse,
or food, or trash.

To give up my own words for myself,
my own refusals.

To give up knowing.
To give up pain.
To let go.

2 a.m.

Out of my mouths is coming, at some
distance from me, a thin gnawing sound
which you could confuse with prayer except that
praying is not constrained.

Or is it, Lord?
Maybe it’s more like being strangled
than I once thought. Maybe it’s
a gasp for air, prayer.
Did those men at Pentecost
want flames to shoot out of their heads?
Did they ask to be tossed
on the ground, gabbling like holy poultry,
eyeballs bulging?

As mine are, as mine are.
There is only one prayer; it is not
the knees in the clean nightgown
on the hooked rug.
I want this, I want that.
Oh far beyond.
Call it Please. Call it Mercy.
Call it Not yet, not yet,
as Heaven threatens to explode
inwards in fire and shredded flesh, and the angels caw.

3 a.m.

wind seethes in the leaves around
me the trees exude night
birds night birds yell inside
my ears like stabbed hearts my heart
stutters in my fluttering cloth
body I dangle with strength
going out of the wind seethes
in my body tattering
the words I clench
my fists hold No
talisman or silver disc my lungs
flail as if drowning I call
on you as witness I did
no crime I was born I have borne I
bear I will be born this is
a crime I will not
acknowledge leaves and wind
hold on to me
I will not give in

6 a.m.

Sun comes up, huge and blaring,
no longer a simile for God.
Wrong address. I’ve been out there.

Time is relative, let me tell you
I have lived a millennium.

I would like to say my hair turned white
overnight, but it didn’t.
Instead it was my heart;
bleached out like meat in water.

Also, I’m about three inches taller.
This is what happens when you drift in space
listening to the gospel
of the red hot stars.
Pinpoints of infinity riddle my brain,
a revelation of deafness.

At the end of my rope
I testify to silence.
Don’t say I’m not grateful.

Most will only have one death.
I will have two.

8 a.m.

When they came to harvest my corpse
(open your mouth, close your eyes)
cut my body from the rope,
surprise, surprise:

I was still alive.

Tough luck, folks,
I know the law:
you can’t execute me twice
for the same thing. How nice.

I fell to the clover, breathed it in,
and bared my teeth at them
in a filthy grin.
You can imagine how that went over.

Now I only need to look
out at them through my sky-blue eyes.
They see their own ill will
staring them in the forehead
and turn tail.

Before, I was not a witch.
But now I am one.


My body of skin waxes and wanes
around my true body,
a tender nimbus.
I skitter over the paths and fields,
mumbling to myself like crazy,
mouth full of juicy adjectives
and purple berries.
The townsfolk dive headfirst into the bushes
to get out of my way.

My first death orbits my head,
an ambiguous nimbus,
medallion of my ordeal.
No one crosses that circle.

Having been hanged for something
I never said,
I can now say anything I can say.

Holiness gleams on my dirty fingers,
I eat flowers and dung,
two forms of the same thing, I eat mice
and give thanks, blasphemies
gleam and burst in my wake
like lovely bubbles.
I speak in tongues,
my audience is owls.

My audience is God,
because who the hell else could understand me?

The words boil out of me,
coil after coil of sinuous possibility.
The cosmos unravels from my mouth,
all fullness, all vacancy.