Sunday, April 27, 2008

DIR at DailyKos

I’ve long been a regular visitor to DailyKos, the website for the activist Democrat, chock-full of analysis & news & carping & so on, but I haven’t left comments on any of the articles in ages – years? I checked to see if my registration was still active -- a little surprised to find it was.

Then I thought, well, since I hang out there so much and DailyKos gets a zillion visitors and people can post their own “diaries” about nearly anything why don’t I repost a thing or two I’ve written for DIR? I say things about stuff. I use a bit of substance in the making. They’d hold up to a Sunday morning skim.

In the last few days I’ve posted two diaries. Each got a few comments. If you’re curious, check out my LuvSet diaries.

Friday, April 25, 2008

sex in “Boundaries” by D.L. Emblen

“I saw the new lands / through the opening between those legs.”

Need I say more?

There’s also a transgender aspect, you know. Antlers are a sex-linked characteristic. Male deer are the ones with antlers. The “opening between [human] legs” needn’t be vaginal, of course. Human legs aren’t fused, besides which there’s the anal opening.

Iowa. Starts with that big I so maybe it’s a stand-in for the ego. Has a very nice visual rhyme with “I know”. I know Iowa. Remove the consonants from “I know that Iowa” and you get “I ow a Iowa”. No wonder they get first shot at the president.

“very square”? The poem snatches back the human aspects of the legs. “mahogany” could be referring to the color rather than the substance, but after “very square” you’re not thinking mahogany hottie, are you?

Do cars have gunnels? A gunnel is the “rail around the edge of a boat”. The poet is being poetic we know. He just means “filled to the brim” … although one suspects packages were tied to the roof, a vision which overspills the metaphor. Don’t pay too much attention.

If you take a spindly little stand on an issue, I suppose your resistance is not difficult to overwhelm. Especially if it’s tied upside down, eh?

Is the top of the telephone stand round? Then it could be wheel-like and help transport us to the steering wheel the poet was leaning over, the one that guided his turns across the continent to the great West. Fuck Iowa. California is the place you wanna be. Go West! Life is peaceful there! Go West! In the open air!

Back to antlers and sex a mo’, that being tied to the bonnet does double duty, don’t it? Hunter? Seducer?

If a boat is loaded to the gunnels, isn’t it in danger of foundering?

In mythology the sky is often male. Mother Earth’s opposite.

What did I miss?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

“Boundaries” by D.L. Emblen


The old telephone stand in the corner
takes me away, behind the wheel again:
all the way across the continent
when we came West,
the car loaded to the gunnels
and the spindly little stand
tied upsidedown on the front bumper,
its turned legs sticking up like antlers.
Day after day, I saw the new lands
through the opening between those legs.
Even now, I know that Iowa is very square,
bounded on the north and south by mahogany
and open to the sky.

-- D.L. Emblen


Don’s books have only ever been small editions. And he rarely has poems in magazines. I wanted there to be a Don Emblen poem on the web somewhere. Just so someone could see one who might want to.

“Boundaries” is from Notes from Travels.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

all the suffering in the universe

Amory Lovins, author of Winning the Oil Endgame which prophesies various ways we will escape dependence on Big Oil, is an optimist.

”Sometimes after I give a talk, some folks get irked that I talk only about solutions and not about problems,” [Lovins told The New Yorker] “And typically someone will get up and give a long riff about all the bad things happening and all the suffering in the universe, which is basically true.”

How does Lovins respond?

He asks, How’s that workin’ for you? “As gently as [he] can [he asks] whether feeling that way makes them more effective.”

What, dwelling on the suffering of the world doesn’t goose you toward solutions? Everybody tells me how much better I’ll feel when I consider how much worse off others are.

source: The New Yorker, January 22, 2007

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

man vs. ‘beest

In Innocent Killers, a book Jane Goodall wrote with her then-husband, the nature photographer Hugo van Lawick, Jane engages in a little activism via grammar:

“It may seem strange, to some, that I write wildebeests, using the plural. Most people will talk about a herd of wildebeest, or zebra, a pride of lion, and so forth. But to us [meaning herself and Hugo], this use of the singular suggests that the individuality of each animal in the group is being ignored. It implies, to us, that every lion is just a lion. After all, who would dream of talking about a boatload of Italian, a classroom of German, or even a gathering of man?”

My brow crinkled up. I flipped back three pages. There I found a paragraph in which Jane discusses possible lifeways of early humans:

“Let us consider early man in the role of a scavenger. He may have been a reasonably fast runner, although, as he had not long adopted an upright posture, we cannot be sure. Undoubtedly he … his ears were much sharper than those of man today, at least of ‘civilized’ man … Early man … If he … he might have been able to … his weapons …”

Considering that I’ve never heard anyone say “pride of lion” Jane’s grammatical line in the sand must’ve stopped that particular travesty from crossing to my American ears. I haven’t read her most recent book, Reason for Hope -- do you know if she’s taken her own advice when referring to her home species?

Monday, April 21, 2008

notes toward an autobiography by others, part 7

source: Too Much Coffee Man: How to Be Happy, by Shannon Wheeler

although I found the gif at

Sunday, April 20, 2008

notes toward an autobiography by others, part 6

source: Too Much Coffee Man: How to Be Happy, by Shannon Wheeler

although I found the gif at

Saturday, April 19, 2008

the mistake will not be repeated

Kyoko Mori was born and raised in Japan but she has lived her adult life in America. On her first return to Japan she visits the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima. She wonders, are the horrors in the pictures of the atomic bomb aftermath really making an anti-war argument?

Mori thinks about her stepmother. “To her, the war was like some natural disaster that inconvenienced her family; it had no other implications.”

No one in the stepmother’s family lived in Hiroshima but, Mori says, “In a way, the displays in the museum are no different, however noble their intention. The atomic bomb is still portrayed as a cosmic disaster that befell an innocent people, burning them and destroying their homes. Even the inscription outside, on the memorial stone, is too vague: ‘Please rest in peace. The mistake will not be repeated.’ What mistake? Does the word refer only to the bomb, or the Second World War, or all war? And why does the inscription use the passive voice, ‘will not be repeated,’ as though we had no control over the outcome? Exactly who or what is accountable for the ‘mistake’ that ended up in the tragedy of Hiroshima?”

Mori wonders about the character of the Japanese. “Maybe this exhibit shows a typically Japanese attempt to save face all around, a desire to be polite: by treating the bomb as a cosmic disaster, we eliminate human responsibility – it’s as if the bomb caused itself to be dropped.”

How is war like a natural disaster? How is it unlike a natural disaster?

source: The Dream of Water: a memoir, by Kyoko Mori

Friday, April 18, 2008

a senryu by Alan Bern

the dogs bark louder
as someone passes by
we fuck faster


A haiku is about nature. The “plastic letters” haiku I quoted took place in nature (despite its focus on a human artifact) so I figured I might as well call it haiku. Senryu is about human beings and is frequently humorous. So I’ll call “the dogs bark louder” a senryu. Both forms have the same three line, syllable-counting characteristics.

Offering up a reading for “the dogs bark louder” seems superfluous. So let’s look at something not there – the punctuation.

How is the reading affected if you place a period after “louder”? Put the period after “by” instead? I think the second reads most naturally. But the line break (and reading that first line as a complete sentence, full stop) makes more independent the barking of the dogs; one doesn’t hear them as responding to the person passing. Rather, the dogs are merely background noise. Not that the beat can’t affect the motion.

source: “Secondi Passi” in Waterwalking in Berkeley, by Alan Bern

Thursday, April 17, 2008

another haiku by Alan Bern

another haiku by Alan Bern

plastic letters
left on the hard dirt
spelling baby sounds


This one’s so clever it’s a bit cute. Yet I find a lot of charm in the small space of it. The toy plastic letters trying to make words, trying out combos that remain meaningless. Fun metaphor for the infant’s experiments in speech. The “hard” dirt … this language work is hard! The letters were abandoned – like many a toy – the additional metaphorical work of being abandoned projects, noises that refused to achieve meaning so were left behind. These letters, not just toys, but tools, but treated with the carelessness of the easily replaced, the quickly passed beyond. And they are outside, not scattered on the carpet, but in some yard or park, out of context of the particular child, almost natural, as though they are not language, but just random sounds.

source: “First Steps” in Waterwalking in Berkeley, by Alan Bern

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Zombie Language, part 3

“Native American languages spoken north of Mexico constituted at the very least two dozen families, with a range of variation across the continent as broad as that on the entire Eurasian landmass, taking in Indo-European, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, and others.”

Few of those Native American languages survive, and fewer yet will make it another hundred years. “Generally, the last generation of fluent speakers has learned it only partly, never truly living in the language, using it only in the corners of their lives. As a result the language is slightly pidginized.” By pidginized, John McWhorter means simplified. The more complicated aspects of the language, especially those most dissimilar to the replacing language, are forgotten or disregarded. Vocabulary, too, falls away.

So even if there are people alive who know how to speak a language the language may be a shadow of itself, may more truly thought of as dead or, at least, undead, a shambling, half-alive creature that can be pushed to the stage to perform (poorly) on ceremonial occasions.

source: The Power of Babel: a natural history of language, by John McWhorter

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Julia Vinograd’s God

In “God’s Violin” Julia Vinograd imagines reality as a tune God plays on his violin.

Good and evil are only high and low
on one string of god’s violin.
There are other strings being played
stretching from our guts to the end of the world.

Like Annie Dillard Vinograd involves God in the business of silence. Unlike Dillard we are the ones whose silence is part of the music, not everything non-us.

Our silences wail under god’s fingers.

We don’t hear the song God’s playing, Vinograd says, being as we’re part of the song. Except sometimes. The mystic’s sudden apprehension of an extra reality –

sometimes … / an echo sweeps us up like a tidal wave / scattering everything we clutch and fight for / out of our hands like spilled popcorn / and we stand in the ruins and laugh. / Afterwards we don’t remember …

Then, and this was my favorite part of the poem, Vinograd admits her metaphor (or perhaps the existence of God?) is irrelevant.

God’s violin doesn’t help anything,
the world’s wounds are part of the music
and anyway, it’s too big.

She concludes the poem by saying the music is for us.

God’s violin is for us

We are such an inseparable ingredient in the tune that we can’t hear it? Except once in a crazy while when everything falls apart? When the tune is at its most dissonant? Then we hear – what? The symphony crashing down on our heads?

I find this sort of God more appealing than most, the God of paradox. Because God just doesn’t make sense. God is not capable of making sense. He is powerless before it. I’m okay with crazy God. But nobody much wants you to open your heart to crazy God and let him be your savior. He doesn’t seem to be in the saving business.

source: Cannibal Casserole: new & selected poems, 1996-2006, by Julia Vinograd

Monday, April 14, 2008

poem or New Yorker poem?

Last year I read a New Yorker article about the troubled public schools of Boston (the Oct 18, 2004 issue). One of the students profiled also wrote poetry and lines were included in the article. (I quote them myself here.)

Katherine Boo, the same person who wrote that troubled schools article, has written another, this time about Denver for the January 15, 2007 issue of The New Yorker, and, whattayano, she found another high schooler poet.

Go home be ashamed
foodstamps to medicaid
poor slang hustlas
we are all each other customers
boys go from apple jacks to weed sacks

The lines are by Julissa Torrez. Whether one might say this is hip hop without the beat box – lyrics, in other words – the piece certainly strongly suggests rap. Occasionally I’ve come across rap lyrics and these are tighter than most. Interesting that not one of the couplets is a natural rhyme. ashamed/medicaid, hustlas/customers, sacks/fast – all are slant rhymes. If “rapped” (rather than read) the voice will typically force the rhyme – you’ll really hear that A in the final syllable of ashamed/medicaid. It’s also interesting to me that Torrez chose such varying line lengths – 5 sylllables, 6, 4, 9, 9, 1. This is no metronome, the sort of formalist poem that puts one to sleep with its tedious regularity, its drowsy pulse. Yet it’s obviously crafted for sound, and for that end rhyme, however balky (one could make an argument for it being intentionally balky – this is not a song about harmony). It’s adventurous writing. I can see why it caught Boo’s eye. It might be interesting to see this sort of thing featured in The New Yorker as a poem rather than a piece of testimony.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

He liked us so much that he killed anyone who didn’t like us

This is the opening of Shalom Auslander’s personal essay “Playoffs”:

When I was a child, my parents and teachers told me about a man who was very strong. They told me that he could part the sea. They told me that it was important to keep this man happy; when we obeyed what the man had commanded, he liked us. He liked us so much that he killed anyone who didn’t like us. But when we didn’t obey what he commanded the man didn’t like us at all. He hated us. Some days he hated us so much that he killed us; other days he let other people kill us. We call these days “holidays.” On Purim, we remember how the Persians tried to kill us. On Passover, we remember how the Egyptians tried to kill us. On Hanukkah, we remember how the Greeks tried to kill us.

“Blessed is He,” we prayed.

As bad as these punishments could be, they were as nothing compared with the vengeance the man himself meted out: plagues, famines, floods. Hitler may have killed the Jews, but this man drowned the world.

Good ol’ God, that monstrosity.

I’ve posted a few times just lately on God and evangelists, haven’t I? I’m vaguely interested in the topic, partly because, being gay, I am a target of the god-infected, those who hope to hurt my life in order to something their own, that something being, I don’t know, distract themselves from? Distract themselves from their own awful sinning? I don’t know, frankly. The power they claim they claim to take from faith, as though, having no idea how one comes to do something, one claims power trimphantly from not knowing how the doing came to be. I find this puzzling, usually, and appalling, sometimes.

Faith and God are two terms that can be used in non-noxious, non-invasive, non-violent ways. Probably you could say that they most typically are used that way, just as one could say poisons are most typically used in ways that don’t hurt anyone. One may say our medicines are poisons used judiciously. So it may be with ol’ God, that monstrosity. Like holding a carefully diluted dose of evil under the tongue. Maybe it inoculates you against the worst. I hold that out there. It’s something.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

no one reads poetry, right?

In revisiting the life of Thomas Hardy, Adam Hirsch quotes Hardy thus, “If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the Inquisition might have left him alone.”

The suggestion is, I suppose, since no one reads poetry (or takes it seriously, or, maybe, having let the eyes roam the text, actually gets it), the consequences of expressing dangerous thoughts in poetry are few. Judging by Hardy’s lionization upon his death by people whose beliefs Hardy largely disdained (or savaged) in his verse, Hirsch considers the point proved.

source: The New Yorker, January 15, 2007

Friday, April 11, 2008

How to Speak to an Evangelist, by Paul Theroux, another

On a train in Africa Paul Theroux finds a “white woman … She greeted me in so friendly a way that I paused and chitchatted until the swaying of the train on the curves swung me and had me grasping seat backs to keep my balance. That sudden motion was helpful, for it seemed natural for me to avoid it by sitting down across the aisle from this sweet-looking woman.”

Susanna is a missionary, from Ohio, here to bring the sinners to God. After some more chitchat Theroux is warmed up:

“’What about homosexuals? Do you have any views on them?’

“’Homosexuality is an abomination. It says so in Leviticus.’”

What else to do, bored on the Limpopo Line in Mozambique? Theroux asks himself and carries on.

“’The Mosaic law is full of weird prejudices. Chapter fifteen is all about a woman being an unclean abomination when she’s menstruating and how she has to sleep alone then. I wonder how many Christians obey that one? Chapter eleven says fish without fins and scales, like shark and eel, are an abomination.’”

As with the typical idiot Christian Susanna abandons her first support, evidently unwilling to stand up for abominating eel or insisting that rabbits really really do chew their cud, cuz the Bible tells her so, and runs over to Paul. He says it’s a sin!

“’The Bible says that women are forbidden to wear men’s clothes.’

“’Sometimes you have to interpret scripture,’ Susanna said.”

This means she gets to wear trousers and not endanger her soul thereby. “’I don’t hate homosexuals, but they’re committing a sin.’”

“’And if you eat shrimp and wear men’s clothes, you are committing a sin, too, aren’t you?’

“’I know I’m a sinner,’ she said cheerfully. ‘We’re all sinners saved by grace.’”

When unable to marshal its resources for an effective defense the missionary blithely uses the Bible as a doorstop – that is blocking anyone from opening it. “’I believe in the Bible,’” Joanna contradicts herself. “’It’s in the Bible.’”

When they get to her stop Susanna says, “’I’m going to pray for you. For your happiness and health, your family, and your safe travels.’

“’I’m going to pray you stop using the word “abomination” for gay people,’ I said.” Then he adds, of Africans, “’I’m going to pray … that you stop calling these poor people sinners. As if they haven’t got enough to worry about.’”

source: Dark Star Safari, by Paul Theroux

Thursday, April 10, 2008

notes toward an autobiography by others, part 5

“You are young, you are on your way up, when you cannot imagine how you will save yourself from death by boredom until dinner, until bed, until the next day arrives to be outwaited, and then, slow slap, the next. You read in despair all the titles of the books on the bookshelf; you play with your fingers; you revolve in your upholstered chair, slide out of the chair upside down onto your head, hope you will somehow damage your heart by waiting for dinner in that position, and think that life by its mere appalling length is a feat of endurance for which you haven’t the strength.”

This sounds familiar. Boredom that was painful. The life to be lived had yet to come, the life when one was someone, could do something.

Never had an upholstered chair that would revolve. Though I would spin in upholstered chairs I found in other houses, sometimes bored to tears there.

I haven’t this awful of a boredom as an adult. Time seems to go faster. Even staring off into space the space between now and dinner has contracted. Even standing in line at the grocery store or for the amusement park ride that is “momentarily” out of order, waits aren’t the endless they used to be.

Maybe part of it is the agency. I don’t have to wait. I can walk away. I can fix myself a snack; I make my dinner myself. I’m not waiting for some other life to begin, at last. I am what I’m going to be when I grow up.

source of quote: Teaching a Stone to Talk, by Annie Dillard

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Annie Dillard’s theology, part 3: the victim apologizes

In the last post I quoted a passage wherein Annie Dillard put a few words in God’s mouth. Today she meets up with him.

Dillard remembers as a child a supposedly kindly neighbor once “showed me a magnifying glass. It was a large, strong hand lens. She lifted my hand and, holding it very still, focused a dab of sunshine on my palm.” SHE DID WHAT? Let’s read that again. “She lifted my hand and, holding it very still, focused a dab of sunshine on my palm. The glowing crescent wobbled, spread, and finally contracted to a point.” I bet it did. “It burned.” Yeah? “I was burned; I ripped my hand away and ran home crying.” Did you now? “Miss White called after me, sorry, explaining …” Here, see this shiny needle? Now I jab you with it! Wait, don’t run away, I just meant to show you the pretty bead of blood!

Dillard, now all grown up, says she wonders: “If I meet God, will he take and hold my bare hand in his, and focus his eye on my palm and kindle that spot and let me burn?” Then she apologizes to the sweet, kindly neighbor lady who knew exactly what she was doing, burning the skin of a child who had no idea this nice lady who gave her cookies and lemonade was about to burn her flesh. “I am sorry I ran from you,” Dillard gushes. “I am still running, running from that knowledge, that eye, that love from which there is no refuge. For you meant only love, and love, and I felt only fear, and pain.” Then she invokes Jesus: “Once in Israel love came to us incarnate, stood in the doorway between two worlds, and we were all afraid.”

I’m sorry, is there anything about this metaphor that works for you?

source: Teaching a Stone to Talk, by Annie Dillard

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Annie Dillard’s theology, part 2: silence & loneliness

“We are here to witness. There is nothing else to do with those mute materials we do not need.” Annie Dillard has been talking in the essay, “Teaching a Stone to Talk,” about what she calls “silence.” Listen to the world and what you hear is “things …. being rained on or raining, held, flooding or ebbing, standing, or spread. You feel the world’s word as a tension, a hum … This is it: this hum is the silence. The birds and insects, the meadows and swamps and rivers and stones and mountains and clouds: they all do it, they all don’t do it. … The silence is … all there is.”

“We can stage our own act on the planet – build our cities on its plains, dam its rivers, plant its topsoils – but our meaningful activity scarcely covers the terrain. We do not use the songbirds, for instance. … We can only witness them. … If we were not here, material events like the passage of seasons would lack even the meager meanings we are able to muster for them.”

In another essay Dillard describes standing in a field. “There were flies buzzing over the dirt by the henhouse, moving in circles and buzzing, black dreams in chips off the one long dream, the dream of the regular world. But the silent fields were the real world, eternity’s outpost in time.” She listens, frozen, listening for something, a “music ringing the air like a stone bell”? Or is that silence again? “The notes [of a woman whistling as passes pushing a wheelbarrow] spread into the general air and became the weightier part of silence … It was as if God had said, ‘I am here, but not as you have known me. This is the look of silence, and of loneliness unendurable; it too has always been mine, and now will be yours.’” She later refers to this epiphany as a presence of angels.

source: Teaching a Stone to Talk, by Annie Dillard

Monday, April 07, 2008

Annie Dillard’s theology, part 1: ridiculous

In the essay on the captive deer (the one supposedly making itself tastier through its fear fraught struggles) Annie Dillard compares the suffering of the deer (destined for the cooking pot!) with a man in a burn ward. This is the man’s second stay in the burn ward. “’Why does God hate me?’ [the man] asked from his hospital bed. … He had been burned … thirteen years previously, by flaming gasoline. For years he had been having his body restored and his face remade in dozens of operations. … This time a bowl of gunpowder had exploded … ‘I was burning. I rolled to put the fire out and I thought, “Oh God, not again.”’”

“Will someone please explain to [him] … what is going on?” Dillard says. “And mail me the carbon.” She reflects back on the little deer, exhausted and doomed. As she left the village where it was tied up she said, “’Pobrecito -- ‘poor little thing.’ But I was trying out Spanish. I knew at the time it was a ridiculous thing to say.”

In the DIR post of Feb 23 I quoted Dillard, “If you were to glance out one day and see a row of mushroom clouds rising on the horizon, you would know at once that what you were seeing, remarkable as it was, was intrinsically not worth remarking. No use running to tell anyone. Significant as it was, it did not matter a whit. For what is significance? It is significance for people. No people, no significance.”

In that post I puzzled over what she meant. No significance? And in the above quote about sympathy for the deer, what was ridiculous?

source: Teaching a Stone to Talk, by Annie Dillard

Sunday, April 06, 2008

something was wrong with that whale

In the last post I quoted Susan Casey on the stinkiness of whale spout. From personal testimony I can tell you whale spout has no or only faint smell. Casey says it was a young whale and she never saw a mother. I suspect the calf had been separated from its mother (orphaned?) and was sick or starving. You know how your breath gets foul when you're sick ... hopefully you don't know how your breath smells when you're starving but I've read those undergoing extended fasts manifest a stinky exhale.

I wonder if the whale was hanging out beside Casey's boat because it had positive experience with boats, perhaps back in the nursery of San Ignacio Lagoon where whale mothers present their babies to the tourist-filled pangas for oohing, ahing and pats & strokes. One could, theoretically, take an orphaned seal pup to a marine mammal rescue center where it would be fostered. With a whale calf, however, is there any practical way? How would you mount a rescue for an animal so large?