Monday, June 30, 2008

What do Ashurbanipal, Hadrian, Queen Elizabeth I, and Mao have in common?

Ashurbanipal was the ancient king in whose library was discovered the Epic of Gilagamesh. The king was literate, a rarity for the time, even for kings, who didn’t need to read, after all, they had scribes to do that. But as a literate man Ashurbanipal liked to have books around him and collected what was probably the greatest library of the age. Plus he wrote poems. You know he did!

In The Buried Book David Damrosch quotes a few lines attributed to Ashurbanipal:

Often I go up to the roof in order to plunge down,
but my life is too precious, it turns me back.
I would hearten myself, but what heart do I have to give?
I would make up my mind, but what mind do I have to make up?
O Nabu, where is your forgiveness,
O son of Bel, where is your guidance?

Unusual exposure of self-doubt & vulnerability for a king. Glorifying was more the order of the day in kingly lit. Even when it were self-glorifying.

Damrosch lines Ashurbanipal up with his peers: “Ashurbanipal’s poems can be compared to the verses of the Roman emperor Hadrian or, much later, England’s Queen Elizabeth I and China’s Chairman Mao, all of whom wrote some excellent stanzas and a larger output of lesser quality. All four leaders can best be described as talented amateurs, and more specifically as talented amateurs whose audience was not going to risk offering much in the way of constructive criticism.”

Friday, June 20, 2008


David Damrosch’s The Buried Book is a lively account of the early archaeological triumphs and shenanigans in and about Iraq & the British Museum, particularly in regards the rediscovery of the “Great Epic of Gilgamesh.”

In a section talking about the decoding of the cuneiform in which the poem was written Damrosch says, A “major complication in the process … was that cuneiform had originally been developed in southern Mesopotamia by people who spoke Sumerian, an ancient language completely unrelated to any other known language. The script had then been taken over by speakers of Akkadian, which became the most commonly written language for much of Mesopotamian history. Yet the Akkadian scribes continued to learn Sumerian as they mastered the script, and they often employed Sumerian loan words amid their Akkadian texts. It is as though, in reading an English text we would often have to pause and determine whether pain meant ‘suffering,’ as in English, or ‘bread,’ as in French.

“Conversely, a sign might have the same meaning in Akkadian as in Sumerian but a completely different sound: when used to mean ‘sky,’ the star symbol is pronounced an in Sumerian, but shamu in Akkadian. Names in particular could be tricky, for Assyrian names often included Sumerian elements, along with Akkadian symbols. This would lead George Smith [a self-taught linguist responsible for the first translation of Gilgamesh], for example, to misread the name Gilgamesh as ‘Izdubar’; he didn’t realize that what looked like two Akkadian characters, iz and du, were actually Sumerian signs pronounced ‘giz-ga’ or ‘gil-ga.’ He then guessed incorrectly on the final syllable, which was Akkadian as he assumed, but which can be pronounced either ‘bar’ or ‘mesh.’ … The reading of ‘Gilgamesh’ was finally established twenty-five years later by Smith’s friend and successor Theophilus G. Pinches, in an article triumphantly entitled ‘EXIT GISTUBAR!’”

Monday, June 16, 2008

the only way to divert criminal desire

The usual theory of parent/teenager conflict has it that the teenager is testing boundaries, seeking autonomy, differentiating from the family unit, full of hormones, acting out. It’s the teenager who has changed.

That’s obvious. The child is changing into an adult. Both parent and child are new at this.

In his My Lives Edmund White puts more of the onus on the parents:

“Through friends my age I have noticed that as teenage boys and girls become more and more beautiful their parents are reduced to continual spluttering rages against them. It’s enough for a slim-waisted, broad-shouldered lad to come skateboarding up to the curb with a flick of his full black hair and two dark red roses surfacing in his white cheeks to make his balding, stooped father yelp with hate-heavy vituperation. I suppose hate is the only way to divert criminal desire – or an equally disagreeable acknowledgment of envy and spite.”

Sunday, June 15, 2008

“I don’t want that slimy shit on me.”

Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzalez’s investigation into what leads people in extreme situations to an outcome other than death, includes a number of dramatic survival stories. In one a sailboat founders. The crew manages to inflate a life raft, but the sea is rough, and the wind chilling.

“At last, Kiley hit on the idea that they could cover themselves with seaweed for warmth. An inventive approach to using the materials at hand is a hallmark of survivor thinking. Although it was a good idea and eventually worked, Mark’s initial response was, ‘I don’t want that slimy shit on me.’ You can often tell early on who is going to make it and who is not. If Kiley’s story had been a Hollywood movie, everyone in the audience would know by now that Mark was going to die.”

Partly cuz, you know, it wasn’t the first clue.

Monday, June 09, 2008

pile of reading

My Song Is the Light: the California Poets in the Schools Statewide Anthology 2007, edited by Mary Lee Gowland
… We had four poets who teach under CPITS auspices read for Poetry & Pizza last Friday. It was a good reading, a little long, what with four poets each getting feature treatment. I told Susan Herron Sibbet that I’d had a poem in the CPITS state anthology back in … 1982? Maureen Hurley and Zara Altair had taught an after school CPITS class at my high school and it opened my world to poetry. Poetry as freedom, rather than restriction. Invention rather than convention. Excitement rather than moderation. The other poets at P&P were Cathy Barber, Tobey Kaplan, and Emmanuel Williams.

Circus World, by Barry B. Longyear … Back in 1978 and ’79 I was buying every new issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. I would read Isaac Asimov’s introductory essay, and typically read other nonfiction, like book reviews, but I wasn’t reading many of the stories. I remember seeing Longyear’s Circus World stories. The only Longyear story I actually recall reading, however, was “Enemy Mine”, a novella which, coincidentally, had a dual-sex alien, thus might be said to be of gay interest. Some years later I saw a paperback of Circus World selling for cheap so picked it up, thinking it a novel sequel to the stories. When clearing out the house after my mother died I threw all the old IAsfms into the recycle bin. But I brought back to Berkeley boxes of paperbacks. Circus World, the book, is not a novel but a collection of the short stories that appeared in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine (Barry Longyear calls it, “a series of stories that … constitute an episodic novel”). I’ve now read my first Circus World story. Not bad. Well, now I’ll know what I was missing all those years ago.

Tender Is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald … I started reading this Fitzgerald novel before going on our last trip but I didn’t take it with me. I haven’t gotten back into it. I prefer to read only one novel at a time (Proust excepted), but I’ve lately been reading short stories, and I started Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting at Hill House as my breaktime book, so the space for fiction is crowded. I note that I began reading this because I feel like I ought to read Fitzgerald again and, perhaps oddly, because I like “Tender Is the Night”, the song by Jackson Browne.

Otherhood, by Reginald Shepherd … I summoned this book of poems from another of Berkeley’s branch libraries after I read Reginald Shepherd’s account of a recent hospitalization. In comments I said, “I understand when somebody's reading a poem strength flows to the poet. So I'll go get one of your books and sit down and read.”

The New Yorker, February 5, 2007 issue … At my library we have a box where people can drop off (& pick up) recent magazines. Issues of The New Yorker appear there frequently and earlier this year a fairly complete run of 2007 enticed me. The last piece I read was a rather discouraging account of the damage inflicted on Sublette County, Wyoming via increased natural gas drilling there. The more development the greater the damage to the environment, yes, but it seems violence and drug abuse increase hand in glove with the drilling, too.

Crashing the Gate: netroots, grassroots, and the rise of people-powered politics, by Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga … Jerome Armstrong founded and still runs the Democratic activist blog MyDD. Markos is the “Kos” of DailyKos, the Big political blog, which I discovered when it wasn’t nearly so big about five years ago. I was interested in reading their Crashing the Gate, so when the Friends of the Library got a copy I snapped it up. “Those of us who became energized ever since Bush and his circle of fiends took over in 2000 … must now act to take back our party and our country.” Fiends! Aw. I like this book already.

The Ten Cent Plague: the great comic-book scare and how it changed America, by David Hajdu … I like the cover illustration by Charles Burns. Hajdu starts the book with a sympathetic portrait of an artist, Janice Valleau, whose career was cut short (destroyed?) by the anti-comics hysteria of the 50s. In an appendix Hajdu lists 15 pages of “artists, writers, and others” whose careers were hurt in this particular subwar of the greater War on Culture in the United States.

Welcome to the Monkey House, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr … Perhaps it was Vonnegut’s recent death that made me decide to reread old Vonneguts. I decided to start with this collection of short stories, partly because it contains some of Vonnegut’s earliest fiction. (I don’t think I will reread Vonnegut’s first novel, however. I did not like Player Piano.)

Ploughshares, Spring 2002, edited by Cornelius Eady … I added this to the browsing paperbacks collection at Claremont. After two years spinning on the rack (and 3 check-outs) it was time for it to retire. So I brought it home.

Fence, Spring/Summer 2004, edited by Rebecca Wolff … Remember a few days ago I said, “When I look through a long list of a literary magazine’s contributors, it surprises me that after 25 years of regular poetry reading so few are names I recognize. It is true that I’ve been delighted by a poem then discovered that the poet who wrote it had work in other magazines or anthologies that I’ve read. Suddenly the name sticks out.” That was when I was talking about Sorry for Snake, remember? Well, glancing at the editorial staff of Fence a name suddenly sticks out. One of the Sorry for Snake poets I quoted is Poetry Editor of Fence. Funny.

Tristes Tropiques, by Claude Levi-Strauss … I was assigned a section of this book in an Amazonia class in college. I read that section but kept the book figuring one day I would read it through. Last night I was charmed by the opening: “I hate travelling and explorers. Yet here I am proposing to tell the story of my expeditions.”

The Buried book: the loss and rediscovery of the great Epic of Gilgamesh, by David Damrosch … In his introductio Damrosch describes some of his research, including this trip to the British Museum’s misleadingly named Central Archive: “I made my way to the Central Archive, which is reached, oddly, through an unmarked door at the back of the British Museum gift shop. Once through that door, I walked through a series of darkened, echoing rooms filled with empty bookshelves (the books having been transferred to the recently constructed British Library), then came to a warren of small offices, among which is the Central Archive. Of the seven days of the week, it is open to the public for five hours on Tuesdays.”

Sunday, June 08, 2008

you gotta have hope

More and more over the years I’ve come to recognize that “hope” is another one of those words that actually means a buncha things, maybe some not quite compatible. When I was struggling, miserable and feeling trapped, I kept hoping things would somehow get better. My hopes would stand in the square and everybody would give them space, a lot of space, as though my poor little hopes standing out there pressed together for comfort, were at best embarrassing, at worst a bit revolting. Unmet, they would stand there till the evening gathered and brought the indifferent darkness. I grew to loathe them myself.

Finally, desperately, I rejected them. A relief! Truly. A relief. My hopes had taken so much energy. It was better not to have any. Just do whatever, what needed to be done now. Hungry? Eat until the emptiness doesn’t hurt. Don’t feel like getting out of bed? Lie there.

“One of the toughest steps a survivor has to take is to discard the hope of rescue … There is no other way for his brain to settle down.”

That’s a quote from Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzalez.

He continues: “Dougal Robertson, who was cast away at sea for thirty-eight days, advised thinking of it this way: ‘Rescue will come as a welcome interruption of … the suvival voyage.’” [ellipsis in orig.]

I generalize from “hope of rescue” to “hope of change” or “hope of something better.”

For some time I kept a button affixed to my backpack that said, “I feel so much better since I have given up hope.” But I tired of it catching on things. So I took it off.

Lately I’ve been wondering if there might be a sweeter form of hope, a non-virulent strain. Perhaps if mild enough it might be good for you, like an inoculation. Or might be a stimulant, like strychnine.

Saturday, June 07, 2008


I’m always reading several books at once. I like to have one of them be a naturalist’s account of watching animals.

In a chapter on hyenas in her Innocent Killers Jane Goodall describes a play session between two pups:

“Master Beige … was full grown, whilst Brindle was still only about three months old. The game began when Brindle pounced on a rather large and very smooth roundish stone. Opening his mouth as wide as it would go, he struggled to pick it up, but it was just too big and his teeth kept slipping. Just as it seemed that he had, at last, managed to get a grip, Master Beige ambled up, seized hold of his small sibling’s ear, and pulled. Brindle sprawled on the ground, but in a flash he was up and again trying to pick up his stone. But Master Beige, by worrying the scruff of Brindle’s neck, yanking at his ears and pulling at his cheek hairs, made it impossible for Brindle to get a grip on his plaything.

“Suddenly, Brindle left the stone and darted to seize his tormentor by the tail, hanging on tight with his sturdy legs braced as Master Beige turned to bite at him. Gradually they moved farther back, Brindle still gripping his brother’s tail. And then, as fast as his short legs would go, Brindle ran back to the unguarded stone. But Master Beige was too quick for him and grabbed the toy himself, running off in the moonlight with his head turned back over his shoulder, inviting pursuit. Brindle lumbered along behind. Master Beige slowed his gait until his sibling could bite at the stone in his mouth, and then he dropped it on the ground. Brindle once more tried to get a grip on it, but always, if it seemed he might actually pick it up, Master Beige pounced, picked up the stone himself and loped off with it for a few yards. Brindle followed, Master Beige dropped the stone again, and so it went on.

“After a while Brindle, it seemed, gave up. He wandered away until he reached a thorny plant and pulled on a twig until it broke off. Master Beige watched him. Brindle shook his twig, dropped it and pounced on it. Master Beige could resist no longer. He loped across to join his sibling in a tug-of-war. But the moment one end of the twig was firmly in Master Beige’s mouth, Brindle dropped his end and raced back to the stone. Still, of course, he could not pick it up, but this time, as his big brother bounced back to grab the toy, Brindle firmly sat on it.”

Friday, June 06, 2008

my hero

Toward the back of a generally favorable chronicle of Madonna’s life and work Lucy O’Brien covers some pages with “celebrity moments.” Bad diva.

This one is my favorite:

“Madonna went with Sean Penn to Helena’s, an exclusive club in Los Angeles. Sean didn’t dance, so she brought her choreographer along just in case she wanted to hit the floor. The only snag was, he had to leave his gay lover outside. Witness to this event was Dennis Fanning, a no-nonsense policeman who was helping Sean with research for his role as a cop in Colors. Fanning went to the door and pulled the man in, telling security he was with Madonna’s party. ‘I sit his ass down next to his boyfriend, turn to [Madonna], and go, “C’mon, you want to dance with him? Dance. But why should his boyfriend be outside on New Year’s Eve? The fuck is that all about?” She’s looking at me like she hasn’t been talked to like that in years.’”

My hero! Butch police officer stands up to diva over her mistreatment of little gay boy. Now dance.

source: Madonna: Like an Icon, by Lucy O’Brien

Thursday, June 05, 2008

the heterosexual assumption

One thing that has noticeably degraded in my lifetime is the hetersexual assumption. It’s nice. Sure, most people most of the time figure if you have a sweetie she’s a girl, if you’re a boy, and vice versa. But once in awhile comes the realization that there is another option. Boy could be with boy?

Usually when I hear someone refer to her “partner” I figure she’s referring to a same-sex partner. But aware straights have picked up the term, too. I like the ambiguity. When Lucy O’Brien in her Madonna: Like an Icon recounts how she came around to appreciation of the pop star as artist she says: “We are from the same generation. Like her, I was a lapsed Catholic girl fired up by feminism. I played in an all-girl band and knew the thrill of performing. Like her, I was drawn to punk and the underground club scene. Like her, I focused on my career until I met and married my partner later in life. Like her, I had two children (a boy and a girl) after I turned forty.”

Married. Partner. Is this partner male or female? As O’Brien uses the word “married” I suspected the partner is male as gay people don’t yet get to toss off that word so easily. There are places where we can marry, however, and some claim the word even when the marriage is not state-recognized. Further explanation is typically forthcoming in such cases. As “husband” could easily be switched out with “partner” the easiest guess is that is what O’Brien means. But from what she’s said so far you can’t know. I like that.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Sorry for Snake

I found issue #3 of Sorry for Snake, a digest-sized, saddle-staple lit zine, on the poetry shelf at Pegasus. The editors are Sara Mumolo and Jack Morgan, both former members of the Trainwreck Union. My post about the Trainwreck Union still has the DIR record for number of responses – not to mention kerfuffle! Not long after the Union fissioned, it seems.

Jack Morgan has gone on using the Trainwreck blog, though it’s his personal blog now. He started a press, Stormy Petrel, and it’s under that aegis he’s produced Sorry for Snake. I’m guessing all the work is solicited as no “writers guidelines” appear in the magazine or on the Stormy Petrel site. But it looks like it’s gonna come out pretty regular, as Jack’s now offering subscriptions.

There are 9 poets in the issue: Matthew Rohrer, Feliz Molina, Jared White, Mark Cunningham, Trevor Calvert, Gillian Hamel, K. Silem Mohammad, Juliet Cook, and Erika Staiti. Only K. Silem Mohammad is a name familiar to me. When I look through a long list of a literary magazine’s contributors, it surprises me that after 25 years of regular poetry reading so few are names I recognize. It is true that I’ve been delighted by a poem then discovered that the poet who wrote it had work in other magazines or anthologies that I’ve read. Suddenly the name sticks out. When the poem was just one of many that made only a glancing impression its author remained unseen. Of course I become familiar with names for reasons other than delight – could be that they just appear over & over such that even the tired eye begins to see. Or the poet is also an essayist or publisher or vigorous self-promoter.

K. Silem Mohammad is one of the flarf poets. Flarf, if I understand it right, is a method of composition wherein the poet generates text using Google. Not sure if there are rules other than that.

Here are some lines from Mohammad’s “Heavy Horses”:

Matthew Broderick breaks his collarbone after falling off
this unknown German No-Wave project with no foundation
he states that it is obvious how humans reproduce
this oblique reference to screwing is an attempt
to protest about the type of horse he used to fix the lightbulb


I found a performance on youtube that Mohammad gave at a 2006 Flarf Festival. He has good timing.

And in the interest of future remembering here are some random lines by other Sorry for Snake poets:

Matthew Rohrer: “Don’t let them / turn me into a song / ok? I only drip / like the rain.”

Jared White: “But eventually everything becomes community service and / Abstentions. I have a habit of getting big when I feel small / And pulling muscles in the legs. My liver doesn’t ever strain // But the eyes do.”

Gillian Hamel: “there is a figure skatingness about the overbright lights and slick / surfaces, / half of you changed colour due to rain.”

Tuesday, June 03, 2008


Miekal And and Maria Damon coin some words in a poem, “Inbetween Detritus”, that appears in the second issue of UR*VOX:






Monday, June 02, 2008

Emily Dickinson’s God

Those -- dying then,
Knew where they went --
They went to God's Right Hand --
That Hand is amputated now
And God cannot be found.

The abdication of Belief
Makes the Behavior small --
Better an ignis fatuus
Than no illume at all.

This one, numbered 1551 by editor Johnson in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, struck me for a few reasons. It’s easy to parse -- I didn’t know what an “ignis fatuus” was but got the sense of it from context (it’s a will-o’-the-wisp, the ghostly light that seems to flicker over a bog at night). It’s fierce. God is not just missing – his hand’s been amputated! Not sure what “Behavior” it is that “abdication of Belief” makes “small”, but considering the way the poem starts, “Those – dying then”, one may presume the “Behavior” has something to do with dying, whether something done by the dying one herself or by those who remain alive. Better a flicker over the bog than the pure darkness of unbelief? It’s hard to credit this. Is Dickinson being a mite ironic?

Jay Laden in an essay originally published in Cross Currents, describes the reaction his class had during a discussion of selected Dickinson poems about God. Laden says his students were Orthodox Jews. Rather than suggesting that God does not exist, Laden’s students insisted, this poem is proof that Dickinson takes God’s existence for granted: “Dickinson's poetry evinced a passionate engagement with God, an engagement that affirmed God's existence and importance even as it fretted or raged over God's inaccessibility.”