Thursday, December 29, 2005

Buffering Rage

When we went to Powell's on Christmas Day (a tradition for writers in Portland) I only ended up buying two magazines, one called CameraArts and the January issue of Vanity Fair. I have decided Naomi Watts is my current hero. Persistent against all odds, I'd say. Sometimes talent just doesn't get recognized until it is long overdue.

Last night I read the long article about Natalee Holloway and her mother, and her media extravaganza to fundamentally destroy Aruba for not having found her missing daughter. As I don't watch or read or listen to any of the cable news stations I have not heard anything more than buzz about this story. I am certain that Beth Twitty's suffering is huge. I don't wish to imply that it is not. I imagine her holidays have been almost unbearable.

The case shows an underside of the present day American character. We are over-privileged and angry and this does not become us at all! When I was 15, something bad happened to me, it was all those things you imagine happening to your precious beautiful child alone and unprotected in the big bad world.

One of the things I have never really processed completely is how painful, incredibly painful the self-righteous anger of those who felt they failed to protect me was. Even then, so young I understood that their anger had nothing to do with me. It was all about them and their guilt. I knew that their rage was a force for continued suffering, to externalize their discomfort, get it away from them.

I see this tendency in myself. I get angry when I don't get what I want. I get angry when I feel like I let myself, or someone I care for down. I get angry when I feel that someone is acting in an irresponsible manner that puts themselves, or others, in harm's way.

The anger swells up like a huge wave and engulfed by it I forget that I am part of a whole, part of a family, a culture, a society, a world. I could care less about anything but my anger. In that place I am a danger to everyone. I feel nothing for anyone. I am swaddled in my buffering rage, deaf to nuance, to gray areas, to a sense of connection to anything but the overwhelming impulse to do something.

Anger is extraordinarily unattractive (and yes of course it can be a force for change, at least rage can, to fire us to do what needs to be done). I certainly don't get up in the morning and go…"Oh. boy! I am looking forward to spending today out and about encountering angry people! I can't wait!"

I didn't hear about the shootings in Toronto on the news. I heard about them on a friend’s blog and then on a bunch of blogs I was reading later when looking at photos. (Check this web hub out Photoblogs for some inspiring shots.)

Those self-righteous angry people in my life blessedly did not do much damage, people were not shot, a culture was not attacked, in a fairly short time life returned to some semblance of order and I was able to begin to imagine a return to a comforting "normalcy".

Last night I watched the second episode in the second season of Highlander. An immortal, Gregor, is a field doctor during a cholera epidemic and a boy dies. The doctor is devastated that he couldn't save the boy. The father is mad with grief and shoots the doctor.

In this case the doctor goes on to live (being immortal) but is forever changed and becomes a nihilist after this.

This morning I am hoping that if we are changed by the terrible tragedies in our lives, and in the news, and of course we are, we can remember that how we react when something or someone hurts us or makes us mad has the power to transform our world forever.

May we remember to pause a moment before we act.


Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Virginia Woolf

Question: Does any good book begin like this?

"The sun had not yet risen. The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it. Gradually as the sky whitened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the sea from the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually…"

Answer: no.

One, of course, really SEES nothing and learns nothing - typical result of the highly introspective "close inspection of things" which was a byword of Early Modernism, and connects with NOTHING that might draw a reader to a novel - but, after perhaps another thousand words, this section climaxes with:

"The light struck upon the trees in the garden, making one leaf transparent and then another. One bird chirped high up; there was a pause; another chirped lower down. The sun sharpened the walls of the house, and rested like the tip of a fan upon a white blind and made a blue finger-print of shadow under the leaf by the bedroom window. The blind stirred slightly, but all within was dim and unsubstantial. The birds sang their blank melody outside."

Now we are onto something! One leaf becomes transparent. Then another, A bird chirps. A second bird chirps. This only requires about a hundred words (including a lazy, hazy and commonplace figure of speech - light does not "strike" trees).

Virginia Woolf was, I am assured, abused as a child. You have to wonder whether the abuse took the form of dialogues such as this:

‘I see a ring,’ said Bernard, ‘hanging above me. It quivers and hangs in a loop of light.’

‘I see a slab of pale yellow,’ said Susan, ‘spreading away until it meets a purple stripe.’

‘I hear a sound,’ said Rhoda, ‘cheep, chirp; cheep chirp; going up and down.’

‘I see a globe,’ said Neville, ‘hanging down in a drop against the enormous flanks of some hill.’

‘I see a crimson tassel,’ said Jinny, ‘twisted with gold threads.’

I mean…I believe it about the abuse - children who talk this way either have been abused, or should be.

Virginia Woolf has long been an icon of Early Modernism and remains, more than many, sorta popular. There IS a certain way to like this kinda thing:

You are nineteen, and in your second year at university, and holding your own in the English curriculum. It is five in the afternoon, in spring or in fall, and after forcing down a chapter or two of this twaddle (as much, or as little, as you can stand) you gaze out the window on a landscape of secure employment with laid-back managers, lawns well-kept by the grounds crew, and an endless supply of willowy coeds as anorexic and beautiful as Virginia herself in the Author Portrait…and you feel you are a part of Something!

And you are - an Academia as removed and artificial as anything since the peasants marched on Versailles.

Sure, 19th Century ladies used to swoon over Shelley…and not even the good Shelley (there is some), but the blowsiest bullshit he ever put his pen to.

But, what the hell, this Academy is a wordy sort of place and, in a sense, you get paid by the word.

And you are only nineteen this once, and this might be the year you have your best love affair. You are going to cling to that, just as a struggling family will remember the one trip abroad fondly…even if everything went wrong.

Believe me, when your Prof switched you onto Virginia Woolf, something went wrong.


Monday, December 26, 2005

The Power of Gesture

My holiday treat yesterday was to watch the DVD, Paul Taylor: Dancemaker. I am happy these American Masters shows are available through NetFlix.

I have seen the Paul Taylor Dance Company live a number of times and have always enjoyed the performances but I'm not a huge fan. Not say… like Mark Morris where I have been known to (when I could afford it, or was given tickets) go to all the performances of a tour visit.

I took a short series of Argentine Tango classes this summer and had so much fun feeling the attitude that the movements convey in my body.

This 1998 documentary takes us from early development to finished performance of the spirited Piazzolla Caldera in which the movements are based on Tango and then extrapolated. It is passionate and full of an American sort of energy.

I have to admit that I watched the finished dance more than once last night and the cats were a bit concerned when I started dancing in the kitchen.

The documentary follows the company on a trip to India and through the vicissitudes of a period where a company member didn't make the cut and dealing with the musicians union. I liked it much better than the fictionalized Altman film on the Joffrey Ballet Andrew and I saw here last year.

According to The Great Dance Weblog there is a paucity (love that word) of decent serious blogs about dance out there now. This documentary makes abundantly clear how all consuming a life it is.

Dance is such a punishing art; one’s medium the body…

There are so many ways to be articulate without words. I enjoyed seeing (the old guard of) modern dance honored and examined in this way.


Friday, December 23, 2005


Heads up to Harry Rutherford, at the amazing poetry blog Heralitean Fire, for putting me on to the blog of George Szirtes George Szirtes poet and translator.

Harry was about the post of the 20th concerning the difference between poet and novelist. ALL the entries are good. Here was a translation from the contemporary Hungarian Szabolcs Várady:


You should have stopped existing years ago.
Though one couldn’t say: you are. Not quite.
You only seem, you servile ghost. Now go!
Get on your bike!

Those hungry for you only received a part.
You can’t give - since there isn’t - a whole.
Who tastes you throws you up, is sick at heart,
from hole to hole.

Here you appear, then sneak off somewhere else.
Iron filings, weightless stuff.
Cheese in the trap to tempt a greedy mouse?
No more, enough.

Well go then. There’s the door. Why hang about?
He gawps, a fish stuck in the silt.
Good intentions, words not found, spat out,
the bottle spilt.

Catch both sites!


Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Aswoon in Color

Happy Solstice! The prospect of more light to come always cheers me up, as does a good movie.

A core sense that informs every creative endeavor I attempt, would be color as well as light.

As far as I am concerned if the colors aren't "right" the rest doesn't matter, say in a fabulous ballet danced beautifully, if the costumes are off I can barely enjoy the performance, this sense is that strong in me.

I watched the DVD of the movie Hero this last week and was positively swooning at the use of color, as if it were the narrative line, as if it were the protagonist.

Andrew, who I dragged to see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the theater after having seen a trailer of the fight scenes didn't quite get the movie, a friend's wife also found it dull and uninteresting.

Maybe it was those pivotal teenage years in Seattle where Bruce Lee worship was rampant, or my background in dance and the wire flying but I felt like the visual part of Hero was made just for me. Stunningly beautiful.

(I do think Andrew would have like the fight scene in the chess house in the rain; he certainly has played enough coffeehouse chess in the rain to appreciate the finer points of that scene.)

The story, however, particularly at the end, I found profoundly disturbing. Echoes of a grand scheme of consolidation and unification for the greater good, gone bad, with cultures destroyed and a world of suffering echo through into today's headlines.

Two days later I watched The House of Flying Daggers made by the same director Yimou Zhang. It also beautiful but a very different movie. This is a classic tragic love story with much intense horse riding through the woods back towards what might have been. While Hero was made with a Western release in mind this movie is more deeply and traditionally Chinese.

I liked Hero more, thought it had a freshness, an energy about it and also it took risks and allowed itself to be huge and disturbing.

Art does that.

The acting (and fighting) is great in both movies, everybody is interesting to look at. I'd say the eye candy factor with the half Japanese, half Chinese and multilingual Takeshi Kaneshiro in The House of Flying Daggers is off the map. Excellent romantic entertainment.


Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Endlessly Connected

A long time ago Andrew picked up a bumper sticker in the Bay Area from Snow Lion Publications with two beautiful symbols on it. Turned out they were Meander Knots. This is a sacred symbol seen most often these days as a design in Turkish rugs and in Tibetan Buddhism. It is used daily in the Shambhala tradition here in the States.

He has read extensively in the cannon and knows his demons and his deities. As I am a Buddhist, practicing currently in the Zen tradition but drawn towards the Tibetan way of doing things, when we each decided to get a tattoo a few years back it was an easy choice to go with this elegant simple one color design.

This Sunday I read the thoughtful and disturbing article in the New York Times about the "problem" of Tibet and about the poet and activist Tenzin Tsundue.

I had seen the remarkable interview with Charlie Rose and the Dalai Lama a few weeks back where he talked about the autonomous region of Tibet as opposed to a free Tibet.

The terrible and disturbing history of Tibet in the last century is chronicled in a most engaging series of books by the mystery thriller writer Eliot Pattison; starting with his book The Skull Mantra.

It follows the Han Chinese investigator Shan as his life begins again in a Tibetan prison camp for exposing corruption at home. He's lost everything and is cared for by the monks and Lamas he is housed with.

Except for some poetry books and a few other things we read very different books but we both have enjoyed, thought and talked endlessly about these books and the "problem" of Tibet.

We encourage you to do the same.


Monday, December 19, 2005

Jee Leong Koh

So, I have been aimlessly blogging around on a snow-bound Sunday evening, and I try some of the links on Rob Mackenzie's estimable poetry site Surroundings and I run across this guy again - Jee Leong Koh, at his personal poetry blog Song of the Reformed Headhunter, an ex-pat from Singapore, who now lives in Queens, after surviving a poetry MFA program.

I know Jee from Poetry Free-for-all, an online poetry critique site (which, however, I DON'T recommend - clunky site design, and lame critique - Eratosphere, for Formal Verse, and The Gazebo, for Free Verse, are much better!)

From the blog I learn that Jee has done two, out of three, very cool things for a writing MFA. He has posted drafts in online critique sites (and his blog) - which I already knew - and he "regularly" reads at a local Open Mic.

The third cool thing he didn't do, when I asked him last year, was submit to our now-moribund poetry journal, Ephemeris.

Alas! Because Jee is very good - stronger now than when I encountered him PFFA…just hit the link, will'ya?


Sunday, December 18, 2005

Ted Hughes

On the online site for formal poetry Able Muse in the discussion forum Musing on Mastery Alicia Stallings Homepage is moderating a discussion on "nature poetry"…and mostly on the late English poet, Ted Hughes.

Here is one piece Stallings fancies:


I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

I recall this was the lead off poem in Hughes' own selected, so he must have liked it too.

Hughes is a poet I don't quite trust…that is, I don't trust my own taste when I like him. I'm not altogether sure why that is - it may be that his most effective poems are generally short, and fairly direct, and don't seem to tackle anything much beyond "nature - red in tooth and claw"…or something.

A joke, which circulates about Hughes, is that he couldn't write a good poem longer than ten lines…and the above may be no exception.

The fox in the poem above is a symbol for mysterious Inspiration, but in the heart of the poem the fox seems eerily real…and the "point" about inspiration (whatever the point is) is well worth losing.


Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about it’s own business.

Now it is a poem about a fox, rather more interesting than Hughes' Creative Process. And just a little over ten lines!


Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Lily and the Rose

Scott McCormick, at Northern Exposure links to this article in Grist, an online environmental journal

…about falling population. Kinda. The UN still expects to see world population peak at 10 billion by mid-century, but birthrates have plunged nearly everywhere on earth, often well below replacement levels. So world population can be expected to decline, and already has in many places. Even immigration will not offset population declines in North America, Western Europe and Australia/NZ.

I recall reading an article once by an economist invoking a Thought Experiment - take Australia, divide it on a meridian that leaves roughly half of all resources in each half, consign the population to each half according to Under 35 or 35 and Older, and thereafter shift each person who attains the age of 35 to the latter half.

The Young half assumes the entire burden for raising children - the Old half takes on care for the elderly. Within five years, the economist contends, the Young half would enjoy a standard of living half again that of the elderly cohort…thereafter the gap would continue to widen exponentially.

Age and experience do NOT offset youthful energy. And raising kids isn't near as expensive as sustaining the aged.

I enjoy no competence in these matters, but I suspect the economist was right. Life is like that…unfair.

From Donald Justice:

In Bertram's Garden

Jane looks down at her organdy skirt
As if it somehow were the thing disgraced,
For being there, on the floor, in the dirt,
And she catches it up about her waist,
Smooths it out along one hip,
And pulls it over the crumpled slip.

On the porch, green-shuttered, cool,
Asleep is Bertram that bronze boy,
Who, having wound her around a spool,
Sends her spinning like a toy
Out to the garden, all alone,
To sit and weep on a bench of stone.

Soon the purple dark must bruise
Lily and bleeding-heart and rose,
And the little cupid lose
Eyes and ears and chin and nose,
And Jane lie down with others soon,
Naked to the naked moon


Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Satire 1: Byron

Bob Southey! You’re a poet--Poet Laureate…

So begins Byron's "Dedication" to Don Juan, which he continues by lancing most of the literary lights of the period, and establishes Byron as the master satirist of his era - and, perhaps ever.

…and representative of all the race;
although 'tis true that you turned out a Tory at
last--yours has lately been a common case

…and Coleridge, too, has lately taken wing,
but like a hawk encumbered with his hood,
explaining Metaphysics to the nation--
I wish he would explain his Explanation.

And Wordsworth, in a rather long "Excursion"
(I think the quarto holds five hundred pages),
has given a sample from the vasty version
of his new system to perplex the sages;
'Tis poetry--at least by his assertion,
and may appear so when the dog-star rages--
and he who understands it would be able
to add a story to the Tower of Babel.

Some would say that this is not poetry, but versified prose - if so; it is at least excellent verse, masterful prose…and unmatched satire.

It is a critical commonplace to opine that Byron suffered for lacking the integral vision of the immediately preceding Augustan generation…that he lacks something obtained in Dryden and Pope.

Bullshit, mostly, I think.

Dryden was a social climber and chameleon. He changed his religion three times in a lifetime, and his politics at least twice as often. If Dryden represented the emerging Augustan epoch, it was in the sense that he was a habitual parasite, and necessarily a cultural sponge.

Pope was a non-practicing Catholic in a low-church England, a tradesmen's son with all the bad habits and bad manners of the Well Born, a Tory when the kings were Whigs, and without the nerve to back a Stuart pretender. He was "integrated" to a socially-avoidant and nearly solipsistic genius.

But Byron was a Radical born to all the advantages…and temperamentally incapable of being alien to the human heart.

The Augustans were conservatives who; in the wake of the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (mistakenly) thought their world was changing.

Byron was a revolutionist who, in the wake of Wellington's victory and Castlereigh's triumphalist European System (mistakenly) thought his world was staying the same.

Mistaken premises - but which made for the better satire?

Where is Lord This? And where my Lady That?
the Honourable Mistresses and Misses?
Some laid aside like an old opera hat,
married, unmarried, and remarried (this is
an evolution oft' performed of late).
Where are the Dublin shouts--and London hisses?
Where are the Grenvilles? turned, as usual. Where
my friends the Whigs? exactly where they were.


Tuesday, December 13, 2005

In a Moonlit Field

Today was one of those days where I was consumed with fretting about if it was better to wear plain skin colored stockings to a big job interview I had this morning or sheer winter black.

Later, when trying to decide what to read when I had a few spare moments the choice was between the gossipy but delightful The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt or Are Men Necessary? by Maureen Dowd.

I am never in any doubt, however, when I want to look at some poems that I know will inspire me, because I pick up Opened Ground Selected Poems 1966 -1996 by Seamus Heaney. This is a favorite of his.

An August Night

His hands were warm and small and knowledgeable,
When I saw them again last night, they were two ferrets,
Playing all by themselves in a moonlit field.


Monday, December 12, 2005

Dragons of the Night

David, at Memo From the Fringes likes to set aside time each winter to re-read some part of Dostoyevsky.

I prefer Shakespeare. One year I read it all, though the experience was ultimately fatiguing and self-defeating. This year I thought I would tackle the late Romances - Pericles, A Winter's Tale, Cymbeline and The Tempest. Perhaps I could toss in The Merchant of Venice, and A Midsummer Night's Dream… which I take to be Romances, mostly. Maybe Measure For Measure due to its verse affinities with Cymbeline.

I began with Cymbeline, after watching the DVD of the BBC version available at the library.

The BBC version is perhaps as good as could be. For, as a play, Cymbeline is a mess - filled with every Shakespearean contrivance of coincidence and improbable artifice; misdirected letters, sleeping potions, perfect disguises (two shepherd boys can't tell a girl when they are handling one…as neither can her father or her husband) and a misidentified body. The only thing missing was a shipwreck…I think - the story line is so confusing I may have missed one.

Also a fairly un-Shakepearean intervention by interacting ghosts and gods.

And sadly Shakespeare in his late play seems to have regressed to the approach of, say, the first cycle of Chronicles…with more speeches and asides than natural dialogue or soliloquy. Still… the Blank Verse is as fluent as any Shakespeare crafted (some say his best) and can still dazzle in its brilliance.

“Swift, swift, you dragons of the night, that dawning
May bare the raven's eye! I lodge in fear;
Though this a heavenly angel, hell is here.
(Clock strikes)
One, two, three: time, time!”

Here is the most popular site for Shakespeare's canonical plays: for disputed plays, the sonnets, the narratives and miscellaneous poetry you have to look elsewhere. The editing seems pretty solid, with relatively few typos or formatting errors.


Thursday, December 08, 2005


So what was I doing the other night watching a 21 year old movie about a bunch of unruly sailors on a doomed quest to trade for breadfruit in the South Pacific as a cheap way to feed Jamaican slaves?

I'd recommend the movie on the eye candy factor alone. (Liam Neeson as a hulking early mutineer?)

I was watching The Bounty because it was filmed on the Tahitian Island of Moorea. An island I didn't know much about until this last August when I had a chance to go there.

I've a friend who I met years ago when we both worked together at an architectural firm in San Francisco, who has a thing about islands and the resources to travel to them. She and her husband fell in love with Moorea and bought a timeshare there over 20 years ago. It is one of those things that one is always secretly jealous of, but too polite to ever say a word about.

In an email to her after a particularly rough winter last year, I flippantly said that what I needed was a week alone on a beautiful beach somewhere… and a few hours later she sent me a response… well, if you were serious about that, we will let you have the timeshare week if you can get yourself there.

It was a test in a way. She wanted to see if I would fall in love with it as she had. Tahiti has that effect on certain people. It gets into you and never ever lets you go.

When I arrived, the friendly young man that picked me up at the tiny open air airport asked how many times I had visited. Everybody asks you that because if you have fallen in love, you go back…

From loud hip hop competing with island drumming just after sunset to the acrid smell of the open fires everyone uses to cook and burn trash, from the roar of cars on the one road that completely circles the island to the sound of children laughing everywhere… to the ever changing vistas of shadow on the Volcanic peaks, Moorea is simply heart stoppingly beautiful. The light is like nowhere else.

And yes, I'm going back next year.


Wednesday, December 07, 2005

An Accordion?

Mama's got a squeezebox -
Daddy never sleeps at night!"

"There is that slight pause followed by a snicker when you tell a friend that you are going to an accordion recital …” writes Jens Laurson over at Ionarts

I am not surprised…I couldn't vouch for my own reactions.

Partly I would be wondering at the quality of the musicianship - is the world's best banjo-plucker as good at what he does as the world's best cellist?

Evidently Geir Draugsvoll is no slouch, however. The concert reviewed included some pieces transcribed to squeeze-box from compositions meant for other instruments - including the Tocatta and Fugue for Organ commonly (and, almost certainly, mistakenly) attributed to Bach (a real showstopper, reports Jens) and a suite by Grieg (not Peer Gynt) which I'm guessing would have featured a piano - and works by serious composers intended for some variety of accordion.

There are quite a few of these compositions, it seems. Apart from Modernist stunts ala John Cage involving rubber bands, spoons, bottlecaps and such, I know serious composers have taken passes at a whole variety of low-rent instruments - harmonica, Jew's harp, kazoo, cow bells and that didgeridoo thing that makes Australian natives sound like Tibetan monks. Accordion?…Sure!

The review was fun, and the blog is pure quality.

Still, in the concert hall I wonder whether I could have suppressed the giggles whenever I saw - superimposed over poor Geir - the image of some robustly middle aged fellow called Grigio bellowing out

"When the moon hits your eye
Like a big pizza pie -
That’s Amoré!"


Monday, December 05, 2005

Wasted Grace

Andrew said something in a post a few days ago about art being useless. This threw me for a loop.

I am one of those dreary romantics that believe art gives meaning to life, has the power to transform and is a way of expressing the divine.

I was wondering if he really meant what he said when I remembered a small poem he wrote almost exactly five years ago. I carry it around in the folder of my own poems I take to readings and when I go someplace new I usually start with it.

Free Verse

I have often thought when God first worked
the coarse matter of this earth
He created no beauty. It began among us
in the silver flutter on an insect's wings,
or the dim life in an earthworm's mind —
Light drawn to Light! He neither wanted
nor cares that fish dance in schools,
or the red cherry taunts the fox —
that all our poetry is a wasted and useless grace,
like the charming bells drawing me back to Mass.



Awake At Dawn on Someone's Couch is a personal poetry blog, and I know next to nothing about the author, save that from some pronouns I would guess that she is a woman, and I am impressed both by her own poetry and her remarks on poetry.

In this post Ted Kooser she ponders why Kooser's poetry " is not something that I can usually endure for an entire book".

I can commiserate. "Awake" attributes it to Kooser's homespun sensibility and rural topics, but elsewhere makes a (I think) telling comment "You use an awful lot of similes, though. They’re good, mostly. Just a lot of them."

Indeed! Here is a Kooser poem included in an appreciation by Dana Gioia :

The Blind Always Come as Such a Surprise

The blind always come as such a surprise,
suddenly filling an elevator
with a great white porcupine of canes,
or coming down upon us in a noisy crowd
like the eye of a hurricane.
The dashboards of cars stopped at crosswalks
and the shoes of commuters on trains
are covered with sentences
struck down in mid-flight by the canes of the blind.
Each of them changes our lives,
tapping across the bright circles of our ambitions
like cracks traversing the favorite china.

Here is the typical Kooser patter - the footfalls of small clever similes leading up to the final simile containing the punchline/conclusion.

And the similes - every one - are clever, or at least decent. I get one decent image in four poems…Kooser gets four or five in one piece! I feel like Salieri getting the measure of his mediocrity by comparison to Mozart - "Twenty bars…five melodies!"

But after one of these poems, then many more, it becomes irritating…and doubts surface. The similes of surprise tell us nothing more than that cripples take us up short, and they don't really support what I take to be the "there but for the grace of God…" conclusion, which - although wrapped in its own simile of the cracked plate - is flipped at us like the obvious truism it is.

And if that commonplace is the whole significance of the piece, you have to wonder at all the artillery mustered to support it.

Maybe you could just enjoy the exercise, of course. A reasonable theory of poetry is that all of its devices (sonics and word-pictures) are designed to reach some part of the imagination, and "exercise" it.

But there are many types of exercise - the exercise of games, the exercise of good hard tasks, the mastery of skills in say a Yoga practice, the encounters with nature and human limitation in the outdoors, and the exercise involved in life-changing experiences - escape from prison or a battlefield, a desert waste or a sinking ship.

And also there is the banal exercise of hitting the local Fitness Center for regular rounds on the treadmill, to stay young and beautiful.

Poems can and should cover the entire range, but Kooser's poetry may include too many of this last.

Kooser can do better. "Awake" draws attention to:


The young of the mole
are born in the skull of a mayor.
They learn footfall
and rain. In the Season
of Falling Pinecones, they gather
in churches of ribs,
whining and puking.
When one of the old moles dies,
the young push him out of his tunnel
and set him afloat on the light.
This is the way we find them
out in the garden,
their little oars
pulled up and drying.

"Awake" rightly notes the similarity to anthropologist's reports - "these" people, so strange, yet so like ourselves. I would go further: the moles are inside our heads, and Kooser's point is the same as Buddha's…the One personality is a fiction, and the rejected sides of ourselves are legion.

The example is as homespun and Midwestern as anything else Kooser has employed and the technique is pure imagery.

For Kooser is an Imagist. Compare him to an acknowledged Imagist, the great poet of Ecuador, Jorge Andrade:

Song Of The Apple

Miniature evening sky:
Yellow, green, flesh color
With stars of sugar
Cloudlets of satin.

Apple with the hard breast
Gradual snow to the touch,
Sweet rivers to the taste,
Clear sky to the nose.

Emblem of knowledge.
Bearer of the supreme message:
Law of gravitation
Or that of sexual love.

In our hands the apple
Is a memory of paradise.
A tiny heaven: an angel of fragrance
Flies in its orbit.

This is marvelous…and no more than the evocation of the apple. Likewise, the same issue of Jacket contains similar evocations of a rural Sunday morning and the Eiffel Tower.

But also this…

Indian Rebellion

Refracted into brilliance,
last candles hiss
in the mountain’s rainy mist.

Village Indians carry sunrise
on the blades of their sickles
into the lowlands.

In steam from mountain ponchos,
the color of apples,
flutter birds and voices.

Wind from the highlands
descends in concave brims of hats
toward the lowlands, fat with sheaves.

In carts of air
mule driver roads carry clusters of songs
through the night.

The Indian rebellion carries morning
in the protest of their shovels.

A great poem! The wonderful similes strung around the details of mountain Indians descending to the lowlands for work could suggest an exploitation, or something else - even a liberation. A revolt - or a surrender. Conclusions are not supplied, but rather made available. The awakened imagination is bid to wonder.

Poetry can do nothing more… needs to do nothing more. It is enough.


Sunday, December 04, 2005

Capitalist Realism

"Why would we be drawn to return to those novels every several years as if we needed a recharge of Rand's certainty and energy?"

So writes Mitch at Anteroom with a further link to an extended review (more of Rand's life, rather than her fiction) by Jenny Turner at The London Review of Books.

It's good reading, but neither of them can answer the question. I think the answer comes in two parts:

Rand was a superior entertainment author. And she discovered a secret of genre fiction - combine TWO genres for a "crossover hit". In her case it was Romance Novel and Science Fiction.

Her two early novels were pure examples: "We the Living" is a Romance love triangle (one woman, two men) set against the historical backdrop of the early Soviet experiment - much like Margaret Mitchell's "Gone with the Wind" (same triangle…also a civil war), and "Anthem" is a dystopia in the vein of "1984" and "Brave New World". Neither is altogether a bad book, but wouldn't remotely command our attention today.

Both the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged combine great dollops of steamy Romance (along with numerous cartoon character sketches) and thick layers of Sci-Fi - a sort of Neapolitan ice cream. In Atlas Shrugged this is more obvious: zany inventions - a wonder-metal, a generator which converts static electricity into useable power, a sonic weapon - drive much of the storyline.

But the Fountainhead is a sort of Alternative History, also - set in a 1930's American unvisited by the Great Depression or crises overseas…and doting on a mid-industrial civilization, quaint and extinct today.

Rand's strident philosophy assaults many readers, but could be seen as a fictional premise, a plot-device…sorta like Kurt Vonnegut's "Tralmalfadorian" maunderings. Rand's kind of Sci-Fi is squarely in the tradition of Harry Turtledove's alternative histories of the 19th and 20th centuries.

And just as harmless.

Rand may well have been influenced by Socialist Realism in her teen years - the early Soviets under Lenin and Trotsky were nothing if not Westernizes and modernizers, dragging the peasants into the 20th century "kicking and screaming, if need be". And her own Capitalist Realism resembles nothing so much as a Roosevelt-era mural in some post office - In the Glare of Welding Torches, and the Shadows of Steel Girders, Hard-muscled Engineers Gaze Fearlessly Into the Future!

But the future isn't what it used to be. The 20th century has passed, socialism is dead, and the climax civilization emerging today resembles mid-century industrialism very little, if at all. Even the production areas of Viet Nam and Sri Lanka (still less, New Delhi or Shanghai) don't hazily accord with Marxist or Randian visions.

Still everyone who enjoys literature should read a fair amount of entertainment fiction…for the pace, the energy, the tempo and verve that more ambitious and thoughtful types of literature almost necessarily must forgo. To be too abstemious risks hatching a sensibility as jaundiced and lifeless as Proust and Kafka, Joyce or Virginia Woolf.

And besides, Ayn Rands Capitalist Realism is a lot more fun than Socialist Realism…for all the reasons capitalism is a lot more fun than socialism!


Saturday, December 03, 2005

Response to Sartre

For a spirited response to Andrew’s musings on Sartre the other day do stop by Memo from the Fringes and take a look.

For the sake of full disclosure, we know David. I met him seven years ago just after moving to Portland at a Barnes and Noble open mic type reading for which our work, collectively, was more than a tad bit too good.


The River

Back last February I had some dental surgery that was going to leave me incapacitated for a time and I sent an email off to my most artistically oriented ex to ask his advice about movies I might want to watch on DVD.

His reply back included many suggestions for classics I had not seen. The two I found right away on Netflix were The Leopard and Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game. Boy, were there a lot of dead rabbits in the latter!

Andrew and I had many interesting conversations about both movies. He knew the historical events surrounding both stories.

When looking around for more movies like those I found Renoir's later movie from 1951 The River has just been restored and re-released. I watched it last night.

No small challenge, this was the first movie Renoir made in Technicolor. He was inspired by a book review of the novel by Rumer Godden by the same title in The New Yorker magazine to read the book and then to obtain the rights.

This Criterion edition has not only an interview with Renoir but also one with Martin Scorsece and a long rambling audio interview with the producer who was a florist but thought he could make a better movie than Metro Goldwyn Meyer.

I must have seen this movie when I was a kid, or perhaps in a recent lifetime. I experienced an easy familiarity with it. Even if you have seen it before this restoration is fantastic if for nothing else then the magnificent dream dance sequence by Radha Shri Ram.



This is a Peregrine Falcon, which is a species that likely doesn't figure in this story. Still it is a raptor - raptor, I take it, is what I would think of as "a bird of prey"…eagles, falcons, owls and such.

Raptors are airborne predators, and perched precariously at the top of a thin food chain, predictably, always at the top of the Endangered Species List.

(Raptors, like all predators, are beautiful, useless and uneatable…much like Art itself).

Raptors fancy waste locales, where they are advantaged against their prey; a lot of space, and you can fly faster than anything runs.

Did I say "precarious"? Raptors come and go. In the natural Cycle of Extinctions raptors, and all predators, chronically pull up the short number, and most of the raptors familiar to humans during the brief time humans have inhabited this planet were due to check out soon…even if humans had never arrived.

Oh, as long as runty little things scurry on desert floors the niche will be filled - variously by insects, reptiles, birds or flying mammals - but particular species rise and fall with (by Darwinian standards) blinding speed, a turnover rate like a hot-sheet motel.

A story going around many Nature and Science blogs - if I understand it, which I probably don't - goes something like this…

Arabs (Saudis and Emiraters) like to hunt with falcons. Understandable, if you need to fetch things on the world's largest parking lot. They like it so much they have created a demand greater than the local selection of raptors can support, and have taken to importing exotics from Mongolia and Siberia.

The international trade in birds is heavily regulated, and the legal availability of birds for export depends on UN determinations of what is "endangered", and what isn't. Some environmental groups claim that raptors in Central Asia are too scarce to support this export demand. Scientists from China, Mongolia, and the former Soviet Republics say different…but then these cash-hungry orphans of bankrupt communism might say that, wouldn't they?

But before you jump in, beware: an illegal trade in birds has been flourishing for decades, and thrives on periodic international embargoes - the price goes up on "black" markets. It is apparent that at least some "environmental" groups have been little more than web addresses for bird-traffickers.

It may well be that a legal trade in falcons could more easily be regulated than an absolute ban.

It may well be also, that avian raptors are doomed in any case, and will only endure as human pets…like dogs, cats, and the prehistoric Gingko trees in Chinese monasteries. Who knows?

Here is one link, to part of the story, which leads to others: Stephen Bodio Blog

Falcons are traditional to the Arabian peninsula and figure, as I recall, here and there in the Quran - NOT recommended…I agree with Carlyle "the most tedious task of reading ever I put myself to" - and another predator/scavenger figures in this charming Manichean hymn from the Old Turkic:

Salvation of the Soul

Like the gray wolf I will follow you;
like the black raven circling the earth.
Like charcoal to the disease,
like the spittle to the whetstone I will be.

You are our powerful and great ruler.
Like gold rounded, like a ball rounded,
you are our glorious wise lord.

And your numerous people
at your wide breast, at your long seam,
you keep and protect, you nurse, take care of.

Raptors - whatever becomes of them - will cast a long shadow over our imaginations.

A version of the above hymn is available at the awesome site Extra Biblical Writings


Thursday, December 01, 2005

Sartre Wrote Plays

Does anyone remember that Jean-Paul Sartre wrote plays?

Perhaps a better question might be "Does anyone remember Jean-Paul Sartre?"

You do, and you don't want to…because Sartre was a conspicuous, and very public, fool - and his relentless foolishness makes him especially and wincingly painful to those most apt to share some part of that foolishness.

Sartre was ever and always a Man of the Left; which is to say that throughout the Cold War he was a perfect Stalinist "fellow traveler" and into his doddering old age continued to travel, even when there was no Soviet empire left to travel with.

In a long career he managed to argue that the West forced Stalin to gobble up eastern Europe, defended the Soviet crackdown in Hungary, chinned with Castro, and peddled bizarre conspiracy theories to the effect that South Korea attacked the North, and the US used "germ warfare" on the Chinese hordes. Late in life he essentially turned his once-respected journal over to student Maoists from Nanterre.

These are merely highlights in the journey of a perpetually naïve clown - traffic with a stupid, morally repugnant, leftism which makes anything Ezra Pound got up to pale by comparison.

If Sartre makes his contemporary cognates wince at seeing their own predilections danced by such an earnest buffoon, we should allow as his gullibility included a great deal of genuine courage. Sartre, all but alone, instantly opposed the Algerian War, at a time when even the French Communist party was l'Algerie Francaise…and became the second French intellectual - after Zola - to have mobs marching in Paris howling for the guillotine.

I could forgive Sartre almost anything for being the only prominent Frenchman to question the need for France to pack nuclear weapons!

But anyway, Sartre wrote…lots of things.

He wrote philosophy - numerous essays and interviews, and several big books. It all sucks, because he was cribbing from Kierkegaard and Nietchze, Heidegger and Marx…and those guys were full of shit. Indeed, the only way one could prescribe Sartre is as a short path to concluding the Continental Philosophy Tradition is full of shit.

"What is Literature?" might fall in this category, and might be worth a read.

Political tracts in various forms. None memorable, save perhaps "Anti-Semite and Jew".

Novels and stories. La Nausee is a non-narrative nightmare, and unreadable. The three and a half novels in "Ways to Freedom" are better, but not good. The second - Troubled Sleep - almost captures a John Dos Passos feel…and the vignettes demonstrate Sartre's growing narrative competence. The stories, I am told, are better…but I can't vouch for this. I wouldn't be surprised.

Pseudo-biographies: "Saint Genet" is the worst, because the "saintly" and boring playwright Jean Genet was right at Sartre's elbow, telling lies. The Flaubert and Baudelaire attempts are better. And the auto-pseudo-biography The Words is worth reading.

Really good are the personal memoirs collected in Situations - Albert Camus, Paul Nizan and Merleau-Ponty.

Then there were the plays…lots, I guess.

No Exit is dull to read, and stupefying in performance: "Hell is other Frenchman!" is the legitimate conclusion. But this was an early attempt. Sartre was like every product of the Lycee/University system - graduated incompetent at anything.

But he learned. Three remain in my memory three decades later. "Nekrassov" is a genuinely amusing farce, and as good as any other warning on war propaganda. "Dirty Hands" is a compact Ibsen Idea-and-Action drama, and "The Devil and the Good Lord" is the legitimate philosophical exploration "No Exit" wanted to be.

I would cheerfully trade all of the tedious Giradoux, Anouilh and Brecht for just these.

Try 'em, and see if Sartre deserves to be remembered, at least for his theater.


The Sheer Poetry of it All

Have you noticed that when you do a search, particularly of the news media with the words poet, or poetry that you find that usually they are used to describe something other than poetry?

Very few people seem to be willing to admit what is or isn't poetry these days, but folks sure appear to know what it is when talking about … say a dancer or a sports figure in action, our even that adorable baby panda at the zoo in Washington.

We share a belief, Andrew and I, in the importance of being able to read our poems in public well. At our local Oregon Book Awards Ceremony they hire professional actors to read out an excerpt of a signature poem to the audience to let the poet know she or he has won the award.

A few years back we had a weekly open mic reading in a coffeehouse in which by creating and fostering a respectful and engaged audience we encouraged our poets to read as well as they were capable.

One of the ways we did that was by relentlessly inviting actors to come read. And it worked.

Andrew encouraged me to take a risk and read Daddy by Sylvia Plath on a night when we were featuring The Beats. (Radical idea that, but Plath has one awesome beat.) In practicing the poem and then reading it to a large room of people I understood in a deep way, in my bones, not only how technically brilliant Plath was but how much courage she had.

That experience led me to take a conservatory acting class this last spring in which I had to take all sorts of risks I never could have imagined before.

On Charlie Rose on Tuesday night, his second guest was Michael Boyd, the Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and at last I felt comfortable listening to a non poet talk about the sheer poetry of it all!