Wednesday, March 19, 2008

more encouragement

While hanging out at the Farallones Susan Casey is visited by a “baby gray whale who seemed to materialize every time I stood on deck. Its prehistoric-looking, knuckled back arched above the surface; her elegant barnacled tail waved playfully. Occasionally we made eye contact. …

“My whale, as I had come to think of her, was clearly interested in the sailboat. Maybe it had to do with the smell.” The sailboat, Casey says, was getting stinky. But the little whale didn’t mind? Or liked it? “One little known fact: The water that spouts out of a whale’s blowhole in such a picturesque way reeks like the most toxic fart imaginable.”

Hm. I’ve read that it’s not unusual for a whale at San Ignacio Lagoon to wait till a visitor is leaning out of her boat to give a tickle – and whoosh – give back a big blow, right in the face. Something to look forward to, eh?

source: The Devil’s Teeth, by Susan Casey

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

How to Speak to an Evangelist, by Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard has gone for a ramble. She is crossing a field when she sees a “little boy … He looked to be about eight, thin, wearing a brown corduroy jacket … and a matching beaked corduroy cap with big earflaps … The boy and I talked over the barbed wire.” They talked about the boy’s dogs, the horses (one had a new foal). “Then he paused. He looked miserably at his shoetops, and I looked at his brown corduroy cap. Suddenly the cap lifted, and the little face said in a rush, ‘Do you know the Lord as your personal savior?’

“’Not only that,’ I said, ‘I know your mother.’ … She had asked me the same question.”

Dillard remembers stopping at the front of the house to ask permission to walk across the field. “That was a year ago. … The driveway made a circle in front of the house, and in the circle stood an eight-foot aluminum cross with a sign underneath it reading CHRIST THE LORD IS OUR SALVATION. Spotlights in the circle’s honeysuckle were trained up at the cross and the sign. I rang the bell.

“The woman was very nervous. She was dark, pretty, hard, with the same trembling lashes as the boy. She wore a black dress and one brush roller in the front of her hair. She did not ask me in.” At first she seemed confused by Dillard’s request, then granted it, but “she was worried about something else. She worked her hands … ‘Do you know the Lord as your personal savior?’

“My heart went out to her. … She must have to ask this of everyone, absolutely everyone, she meets. That is Christian witness. It makes sense, given its premises. I wanted to make her as happy as possible, reward her courage, and run.

“She was stunned that I knew the Lord, and clearly uncertain whether we were referring to the same third party.”

I have the same uncertainty. Dillard’s version of God, despite her suggestion that it’s the Christian one, strikes me as a good deal odder and colder than the one “the Reverend Jerry Falwell’s congregation” would feel cozy with. “She drove, I inferred, 120 miles round trip to go to church.” Despite her doubts about Dillard, the perpetual evangelist relaxed on assurance of the safety of another soul, Dillard says. Of course she had to press into Dillard’s hands a few educational pamphlets. Dillard claims to believe, “the one on the Holy Spirit … was good.”

source: “On a Hill Far Away” in Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk

Monday, March 17, 2008

earth pig born

In The Devil’s Teeth, her book about great white sharks, Susan Casey describes approaching the “North Farallones[,] a knife-edged set of spires that … erupted out of nowhere, five sheer rock pinnacles ranging in a tight circle like a clawed hand. Fierce surge channels poured between them. Seals and sea lions had scaled their steep sides and they sat lodged in the gloom, barking like a Cerebus choir.”

I wasn’t aware aardvarks barked, although maybe Cerebus put together an atonal choir when he was Pope.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

How to Speak to an Evangelist, by Paul Theroux

Riding a bus in Zimbabwe Paul Theroux is confronted by his seatmate: “’Are you a Christian?’ he asked.

“This impertinence I found to be a frequent inquiry in Africa.

“’Let’s say I have a lot of questions.’

“’I was like you once,’ he said.

“Where do people learn to talk like this? … The African man next to me was smiling the triumphant patronizing smile of the true believer.

“’What sort of questions?’ he asked.

“’Like, do you eat crows?’ I said, and I quoted Deuteronomy, chapter and verse, and added a few more inedible abominations of the Mosaic law that most people in Zimbabwe would have been delighted to eat in a stew with their evening sadza porridge.

“The man equivocated.

“I said, ‘How do you interpret chapter ten in the Acts of the Apostles, when Peter has the vision of the unclean animals in the house of Cornelius?’

“’I asked you a simple question and you are asking me ones that are not simple.’”

After some discussion of indigenous Zimbabwean customs the evangelist brushes all aside with: “’If you trust in the Almighty God you will be saved.’

“’And if Almighty God had been an immense duck capable of emitting an eternal quack, we would all have been born web-footed, each as infallible as the pope. And we would have never had to learn to swim.’”

How do you respond to that? Theroux says it was a conversation ender.

source: Dark Star Safari, Theroux’s journal of African travel

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Alan Bern

Alan Bern is a librarian at Berkeley Public Library. He’s also been coming to my house for the past year to participate in a poetry group. I have both his books of poetry, No no the saddest and Waterwalking in Berkeley (waterwalking is a form of swimming pool aerobics).

I’m finally reading Waterwalking in Berkeley. Like it.

Perhaps because haiku is so very short Alan collects sets of them under a single title. “First Steps”, a batch of ten haiku, concludes with this one:

only the sound
of creekwater


When I said to Kent I thought it a good Northern California drought poem, Kent wrinkled up his brow. A lot to read into six words? And so little context! If I didn’t know Alan lived in NorCal? I don’t know, but it’s a reading that feels right to me. Every winter we wonder, will the rains come? If they don’t the creeks dwindle away and many disappear altogether. Thus the creek visitor hears the creek and, fully aware that there have been no recent rains, peers into the creekbed yet is still disappointed to see the winter creek not rising. Before getting a good look he hears the creek and imagines it more vigorous than it turns out to be. It is only the sound that rises, the water level fading, silence, perhaps, not weeks away.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Zombie Language, part 2

John McWhorter devotes one of the chapters of The Power of Babel to language extinction.

“[I]n the past languages have usually gone extinct when one group conquers another or when a group opts for a language that it perceives as affording it greater access to resources it perceives as necessary to survival. Typically, a generation of speakers of a language becomes bilingual in one spoken by a group that is politically dominant or endowed with valuable goods or access to same. … Usually, through time new generations come to associate the outside language with status and upward mobility and indigenous one with ‘backwardness.’ …

“A point arrives when one generation speaks the outside language better than the indigenous language, largely using the latter to speak with older relatives and in ritual functions. As such, these people do not speak the indigenous language much better than many Americans might speak French or Spanish after a few years of lessons in high school. One is unlikely to speak to one’s child in a language one is not fully comfortable in and does not consider an expression of oneself. It is here that a language dies, because a language can only be passed on intact as a mother tongue to children.”

But a language can be saved if it is written down, can’t it? No, says McWhorter. “Most of us can attest to this from our exposure to Latin – no matter how good you may have gotten at those declensions, conjugations, and ablative absolutes, even this was a long way from speaking the language fluently … Languages die when others take their place – we don’t need Latin or any dead language, because we’ve got languages of our own. As often as not, a revived language hovers in the realm of the ‘undead’ – part of the revivification effort entails gamely making space for the language in lives already quite full without it and sometimes even vaguely discomfitted by its return.”

Thursday, March 13, 2008

rocks v. tortillas

The name a people choose for themselves would, ideally, be the one by which they are known. Such is often not the case. The American Indian tribe known as the Sioux, for instance, call themselves, mainly, Lakota (though there are other names for “Sioux” tribelets). Sioux is a corruption of a name given the tribe by people to their east – who were encountered first by the Europeans traveling west; Sioux in its first form basically meant “enemy.” (“What do you call the next tribe over?” “The bad guys.”)

In Miguel Leon-Portilla’s collection of early native testimony on the arrival of the Spaniards in Mexico there’s an explanatory footnote about the origin of the word Tlaxcala. Tlaxcala was a city state near Mexico City (or Tenochtitlan); they were no friends of the Aztecs and allied with Cortez. The footnote goes: “The Aztecs explained the origin of the word Tlaxcala [as from] Texcala, ‘where there are many rocks’ [whereas] to the Tlaxcaltecas it means ‘where there are corn tortillas.’”

Hm. I wonder who had that right?

source: The Broken Spears: the Aztec account of the conquest of Mexico edited by Miguel Leon-Portilla

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

bite me

In a book about great white sharks the author says, Remember “the impressive truth that sharks are so old they predate trees[!]

Which is not to say they are tree predators.

source: The Devil’s Teeth: a true story of obsession and survival among America’s great white sharks by Susan Casey

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

mourning dress

As Mexico’s Copper Canyon is Tarahumara territory, when a book on the Tarahumara crossed the desk at work I brought it home. We’re going to miss the Easter celebrations – the highlight of the Tarahumara event calendar – but all the guidebooks say there will be Tarahumara craftspeople offering baskets and blankets for sale at rail stops. Why not read a bit about them?

In a description of funerary rites the author says there are differences depending on the gender of the deceased. You should know that the best way to get around the canyons is on foot; the Tarahumara are famed for their tireless running (& races typically bring hot betting action).

“Three weeks after the death of [a] man, a large fiesta is given. … If the deceased had been a runner, there might also be a ceremonial race held in his honor. If the deceased had been a woman who had also been a runner, the ceremonial race will involve men dressed as women. In some places, men wear women’s clothing as a regular part of the observances at a woman’s death fiesta.”

Men cross-dress as a way to honor women. There’s a cultural difference, eh?

source: Tarahumara: where night is the day of the moon by Bernard L. Fontana

Monday, March 10, 2008

the homos organized

Yesterday the homos stopped turning tricks and organized for prison reform. By noon an asshole bandit – as aggressive homo-chasers are called – who was turned down by a prison queen, was knifed by a scared-eyed boy who was protecting his manhood from assault. And two guards were K.O.’d when a pussy hungry weightlifter took their night sticks and went berserk.

The warden, panicked by the sudden violence, agreed on first request to allow TVs in the cells and other reforms if the queens would call off their strike and de-organize. Within an hour the prison was back to “normal” and the warden walked easy.

His only other alternative was to drop his pants and stop the violence himself.

There are a few references to homosexuality in Jerome Washington’s Iron House: stories from the yard. The above passage is the one that made me most curious about the stories Washington doesn’t tell. In his afterword ex-con Washington says, “Although homosexuality and drug abuse are realities in prison, neither appealed to me.” He does describe instances of rape and there are a couple other stories where gay men stand up for themselves but Washinton seems to view gay men from a distance (rather than actively dislike them). The story about the “queens” organizing piqued my interest. We all know the don’t-drop-the-soap joke – that prison sex is mainly rape or, conversely, that it’s paradise for the girlish gay, the boys who, yeah we know, really want to be chicks. I’d like to learn more about gay men. What is prison like for them?

Sunday, March 09, 2008

a reading list for South Africa

On the last leg of his trip from Cairo to Cape Town Paul Theroux stops to visit South African novelist Nadine Gordimer at her house in Johannesburg. Making dinner conversation Theroux asks, “’What should I read to understand South Africa better?’”

Nadine and dinner guests Raks Seakhoa, a poet, and Maureen Isaacson, literary editor of the local newspaper “suggested, among others, The Peasants’ Revolt by Govan Mbeki, Hugh Lewin’s Bandiet, Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda, The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter by Albie Sachs, and poems by Don Mattera and Jeremy Cronin.”

source: Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux

Saturday, March 08, 2008

terror tenderizes?

When I came across “The Deer at Providencia” reading Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk I remembered it immediately. I don’t know where I first read it. For a class? I don’t think so; no memory of having to write about it. Maybe it was some anthology.

[H]igh levels of lactic acid, which builds up in muscle tissues during exertion, tenderizes.

The assertion stuck with me. Basically, Annie Dillard describes a situation in an Indian village (Ecuadorian Amazon) wherein a tiny deer has been captured alive (having been hunted down by dogs) and is tethered to a tree at the edge of the village. The deer struggles to escape, the strap wearing a wound around its neck. But it hasn’t the strength to free itself so in the exhaustion of its fear and effort, ends up tangled in the tether, gasping on the ground. Torture improves the taste of the meat, Dillard suggests.

Describing the stew made from a deer that had been slaughtered the day before Dillard says, “It was good. I was surprised at its tenderness.” This is when she lets drop the lactic acid as tenderizer idea.

I don’t know whether she’s right. I recently read a book by Temple Grandin, the high-functioning autistic who has designed a large number of modern slaughterhouses. She does her best to design the killing system so the animal enters it without fear. At one point she describes a kosher slaughterhouse where the animal is restrained via a pneumatic device that holds it firmly (& comfortably) while the Rabbi nicks the vein in the animal’s neck and it peacefully bleeds out. Tough steak?

Friday, March 07, 2008

Zombie Language, part 1

“’Ah wee-e-bee, we-e bit,’ she said quietly. ‘Fac-ma, fa-a-kepkin. Aquichin wa mit.’ The words of the old ways rolled on for several minutes, and as they came, Kelsey fixed her gaze on the ground.”

Last September SFGate featured an article on Loretta Kelsey, the “only living Elem Pomo speaker.” The dialect, says the article, is “8,000 years old … Kelsey, a quiet, almost demure woman with a steely gaze, is doing everything she can to make sure the ancient words do not die with her.” She is trying to pass on what she knows.

Speaking the native tongue only got in the way of trying to fit in, the thinking went.

"’It's a difficult language, and my dad never taught it to us because he didn't want the white kids to make fun of us,’ said Elem Pomo Tribal Chairman Ray Brown. ‘It's a real shame, now that we all look back on it, because you don't really learn it unless you grow up with it.’”

Leanne Hinton was one of my professors at Cal (though the class itself, a course in the variety of language experience in the U.S., had its bad points as well as its good), and it was to her that Elem Pomo revivalists turned.

“Remembering that UC Berkeley linguistic students had recorded tribal members speaking Elem Pomo between the 1940s and '60s …
[t]hey wound up with one of the nation's pre-eminent Pomo language researchers, Professor Emeritus Leanne Hinton.

“Together, Hinton and Kelsey dug into the campus archives and found recordings in Elem Pomo on old reel-to-reel tapes - and they included Kelsey's father telling stories, and Ray Brown's father singing.

"’California's tribes have been so fractured over the years that it's very hard to tell how many languages are still alive,’ said Hinton, who co-founded the statewide Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival. "What Loretta is doing is special. And for the last speaker of a language, she's amazingly young.’"

Ironically (or, perhaps, appropriately, considering the history of the assimilationist program), “The Elem Pomo, like many tribes around California, is also reassessing its tribal enrollment lists, and many members - including Kelsey - are being considered for disenrollment based on historical family records.”

Is Loretta Kelsey’s a zombie language, effectively dead, though it retains a twilight existence? Is it revivable? Can the light of life flicker back into its fixed & dilated eyes? Is dezombification possible before Elem Pomo dies away entirely, before all that remains of it be a mysterious residue in an archive like Berkeley’s?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

City Walks

I do have a chapbook. I said yesterday, if I had a chapbook I would send it to writers I admire. I have a chapbook and I haven’t sent it to writers I admire. I don’t have copies sitting around but I have the pdf created by Broken Boulder Press, the guys who put the thing out in the first place. You can even download it yourself, if you’re of the mind. Follow the Broken Boulder link.

So why haven’t I followed my own advice? Why haven’t I sent it out to writers I admire? Part of it is that I don’t have physical copies – although that could be fixed with a trip to the copy shop, couldn’t it? I’ll have to review the pdf and see how easy it would be to have it printed. Part of it is a variant on what David said in Comments yesterday. He said, “The trouble with mailing out [Misspent Youths] now is that it's not representative of me now. I'm quite proud of it for what it was. I'm happy to give it to anyone who might like it.” City Walks is a particular project and I’d prefer to mail off a book that contains a greater variety, so if the reader doesn’t like one poem, there’s another chance with the next. Yet I’m not ashamed of City Walks; I think it’s good. I suppose part of that is just the feeling that I’m afraid my heroes won’t like anything I write. Then there’s the idea that I will write some amazing fan letter that has to go with whatever I send. Such obstacles I find hulking before me, monsters mainly vaporous.

So it goes. Sending the work out to people you like – it’s such a good idea that David has already done it. Someday maybe me.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Large circulation is pleasant

from “Early History of a Writer” by Charles Reznikoff:

“[T]he impulse to write …
would be, perhaps would have to be, stimulated
by regular publication.

[S]ince I did not hope for a publisher
to print my verse soon at his own risk
and I did not have the money to pay for a publisher’s imprint –
nor did I relish the pretence –
why, I thought, I should print privately,
that is, pay the printer and make no pretence of having a publisher at all.
There was little notice to be had that way, I knew,
among the crowd of new books;
but, besides the stimulation to write and revise,
I would clear my head and heart
for new work. Yes, the work was the thing.
Large circulation is pleasant, of course,
but I did not find it necessary:
if one has seen something exciting in the street
he must tell it –
perhaps because man is communicative –
but, after he has told his vision
once or twice,
handed on his knowledge to two or three,
he is free to go about his other business.”

So here I am, self-publishing. It doesn’t cost you anything. It doesn’t cost me anything. People around the world could be reading. I still hope to get my poems in other people’s books & magazines (this past Saturday I got a rejection from Slipstream) so I hold back from posting poem after poem on my blog(s). A magazine wants to be a poem’s first publisher!

If you see a poem posted on a blog, do you skip over it? I tend to, I’ll have to admit. So that would be one reason I refrain from posting my own. I sit down with magazines and fat anthologies and read page after page of poems, but something about the computer screen reduces my patience?

I’ve thought when reflecting on the price of postage that I’m buying an audience for my poems one editor at a time. Even if they choose not to publish it – somebody’s read it!

It seems to me a chapbook, a little book of my poems, would be a good thing to give away. I could send a copy to every poet whose poems I’ve liked! Some would even read it. Especially the ones who’ve never gotten a fan letter in their lives. But maybe I’d get an occasional thank you from the famous ones, too. My brother has boxes of a comic which his publisher passed back to him. (The first issue of Misspent Youths is available online; you can buy copies of the next four issues, too.) He hasn’t sold any in a long time, I think he said. I wonder if he’s filled up envelopes and mailed them off to the writers & artists he admires? If you do it over the course of years it wouldn’t be a big expense. It seems like a good idea. It seems like something I should do. If I only had a little chapbook, I say to myself.

source of poem: Another World: a second anthology of work from the St Mark’s poetry project, edited by Anne Waldman

Monday, March 03, 2008


Some lines by Jonathan Kundra remind me of the Tony Towle piece I posted a couple days ago:

a man comes out of nowhere and causes great joy and sorrow. He becomes too big to behold. To be held.
In the end, he is all alone again.

The lines may be ending a poem called “California,” or they may be a separate untitled work. They are divided from “California” by a bullet in the middle of the page. I love the word play of “too big to behold. To be held.” The poet makes a tiny change in the physical nature of the words and a major change in the perspective. One is looking out on the godlike being – behold! – and the viewer recognizes that distance makes the being untouchable. Yet the man who came “out of nowhere” is a man, has human needs, needs to be held; his great feats have made him alone – and small, as one person alone, lonesome, is small.

source of poem: Another World: a second anthology of work from the St Mark’s poetry project, edited by Anne Waldman

Sunday, March 02, 2008

a nice beat you can dance to

Yesterday I was talking about criticism, I guess. In that issue of The New Yorker I’ve been reading (Dec 25, 2006) there’s an article about rap and cocaine. Cocaine, it seems, is back. But you know how yesterday I said the critic I prefer is the one who gives examples? Well, here’s Sasha Frere-Jones:

“If you were teaching a high-school English class and looking for examples of metaphor and simile, ‘Go Crazy’ [a song by Young Jeezy] would do nicely. The act of processing uncut cocaine inspires a riff on O-shaped objects: ‘Like Krispy Kremes, I was cookin’ them o’s. Like horseshoes, I was tossin’ them o’s.’”

Krispy Kremes are O-shaped. Mostly. But an O-shaped horseshoe? To be fair, Young Jeezy isn’t explicitly saying a horseshoe is O-shaped but that he is “tossin’” his cocaine like horseshoes. It’s Frere-Jones who set me up to think I was going to be reading “a riff on O-shaped objects”. Were I an English teacher I wouldn’t be offerin’ up these tired metaphors though either. Please. Think O-shape and all you can come up with is a Krispy Kreme donut? And unless ol’ Young Jeezy was tossing his coke twenty feet or so I doubt he was tossing them like horseshoes. This is weak writing and having the critic offer it up as exemplary (and for classroom use!) leads me to a low opinion of his tastes.

I’m remembering reading the liner notes for the Bob Marley collection Legend. The notes extoll Marley five ways from Sunday, as you would expect, but I had to guffaw when the writer pointed at a Marley lyric with that-really-says-it awe – Marley was praising his girl, she makes him feel so good, “like a sweepstakes winner.” Like a sweepstakes winner? That’s not a lyric you highlight. That’s a lyric you hide. Hide it in a nice beat you can dance to. And sing it in a Jamaican patois. I’ve sung along with plenty of dumb lyrics as though they were good because, although the song would have been better if they were good, it can be a fun song anyway.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

life has forced me

Here’s another piece I like; it’s by Tony Towle:


I am the friend of South America,
I grew to like it enormously;
and then reached out across the oceans
to the rest of the continents,
getting to know many more places and people.

I had the best sense of humor in South America,
but life has forced me with its disappointments
into bitterness and idiocy.


Do you like it, too?

Why would one like it?

Do you ask yourself that question much? It brings to mind the standard American Bandstand answer to the rate-a-record question (you’ve just heard snippets of two songs, and you announce which one you prefer, then comes Dick Clark asking, Why do you like that one?): “It’s got a nice beat. You can dance to it.”

I sympathize with the speaker’s journey in this poem – from optimism to bitterness. I like the simple abbreviation of a life’s experience, a few lines. I like the absurdity of the personification of continents, the reduction of their people to an epithet (not in the insulting sense). It feels like testimony and like a goof on testimony, a memoir full of heartache but circumspect on the details.

Are there other works with similar characteristics, yet which I would dislike? I suspect so. This is one of the things about criticism -- when you say, “Ah! This is good work!” – you think it’s good because you like it. That’s fine, isn’t it? The notion that there are objective criteria by which any random piece of art could be judged and found great or inadequate is an unfortunate one. Yet we don’t want to just say, “I like it.” Because that isn’t very interesting either. A good critic talks about the work in a manner interesting independent of whether you agree with his opinion. Can you respect a critic whose writing you enjoy but whose opinions you find ridiculous? I doubt it. Some agreement must be necessary. I like it best when a critic presents samples – first the praise (or condemnation) then the excerpt with which the critic has engaged. A convincing argument – followed by the proof.

That, there, isn’t that wonderful? Um. Tell me again why you think so?

source of poem: Another World: a second anthology of work from the St Mark’s poetry project, edited by Anne Waldman