Wednesday, December 16, 2009


“’More than a crime against language or a betrayal of the reader, the rejection of meter is an act of self-castration by the author.’”

- Joseph Brodsky, as quoted by J. Kates in an essay on translation at the back of the anthology In the Grip of Strange Thoughts: Russian poetry in a new era.

I’ve tried. I’ve tried to say something in response to this. It’s one of the awfulest statements of poetics I have ever read. I try again. I erase everything. Based on the above I suspect Brodsky has never written a word worth reading.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

what $10 & a poem got me

I went to the Small Press Distribution open house today. I bought a book for a poem. Then I bought ten more for a dollar apiece. I wrote about all that on LuvSet.

But since I write about books on this blog, this is where I’ll tell you what I got.

For a poem:
The Geography of Home: California’s poetry of place, edited by Christopher Buckley & Gary Young

Each for a dollar:
The Androgyne Journal, by James Broughton
An Inn Near Kyoto: writing by American women abroad, edited by Kathleen Coskran & C.W. Truesdale
Stories in the Stepmother Tongue, edited by Josip Novakovich & Robert Shapard
The Notebooks of David Ignatow, edited by Ralph J. Mills, Jr
Sound Off, poetry by Spencer Selby
Island People, a novel by Coleman Dowell
Three Vietnamese Poets, edited & translated by Linh Dinh
The Talking of Hands: unpublished writing by New Rivers Press authors, edited by Robert Alexander, Mark Vinz, & C.W. Truesdale
The Stuttering of Wings, poetry by Sheila E. Murphy
Bite to Eat Place: an anthology of contemporary food poetry and poetic prose, edited by Andrea Andolph, Donald L. Vallis & Anne F. Walker

Friday, December 04, 2009

“a terrible Chinese”

Paisley Rekdal has a mother of Chinese heritage and a father of Scandinavian. As with many multiracial people, new meets frequently try (& fail) to name her ethnicity. Rekdal spent a year abroad, teaching English in Korea. At the end of her trip she traveled in China. Though as a child she heard her grandparents speaking Cantonese, she never spoke it herself. On her trip she finds herself speaking in a muddle of English/Cantonese/Mandarin/Korean:

“[T]he language … bubbles up out of me. Guttural or singing, a swift collection of monosyllables I recognize as the roots of the Korean I’ve been studying, this language comes to me faster and more instinctively than I would have dreamed. But my rising and falling is more Cantonese than Mandarin; I am speaking a terrible Chinese triggered in a brain part only now unearthed, taught or reconstructed by these faceless teachers. Like a resuscitated grudge this language oozes and seethes from my throat with impoliteness and anger. No one can really understand me – I can barely understand myself – but somehow the Chinese pretend to believe what I am saying is Chinese. ‘Where are you from?’ they ask, and a few even look surprised to hear it’s America.”

source: The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee: observations on not fitting in by Paisley Rekdal

Thursday, November 26, 2009

notes toward an autobiography by others, part 9

“I felt that in choosing literature as a career I’d placed all my money on a single number and it had lost.

“When I made this melodramatic declaration to a friend, he said, ‘What else were you planning to do with your life? Be an accountant? Civil engineer?’”

That’s from Edmund White’s City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and ‘70s. Ed had published his first novel but no one seemed interested in a second.

As I’m in my 40s now and I’ve yet to publish a full-length collection (o slim volume of verse!), it’s pretty clear I’m not much good at this game. I like my poems. After I’ve read books full of work by others then turn to my own I’m struck again – surprised! – by how much I like my poems. I did a year without poems – 2008. I pledged never to write another poem. After all, I’d written so many. It would take all my writing energy just to go back through them and decide which were ones I wanted others to see. A little cleaning and polishing, and some sending work to magazines and ezines, and I could have that thing that looks so stunted and faded currently in its little pot in the corner – a poetry career!

In Ed White’s case a career at least had the potential to pay the bills. He wanted to write novels.

But the friend who said to me, What else are going to do with your life?, was me. It’s not like I didn’t write any poems at all in 2008. I reworked some old ones (you can see ‘em in the LuvSet blog archives), and I must have scratched a new one out here or there. And the habit of mind that makes poetry kept going on in my head. Choosing not to write any of it down began to seem an arbitrary decision. Nobody was reading the poems I’d written? Nobody was going to read the ones that were scrawling themselves across the inner walls of my head.

What my year off poetry seems to have helped me do is unshackle myself from the worldly ambition that pushed me to very occasional success and a lot of hurt feelings. It’s not that I don’t still want people to read my poems – I sent a batch to Fence Magazine last month with my usual hopeful fatalism – but … But needing the approval of others (editors! publishers!) in order to assign value to the poems was pernicious.

Now, I’m perfectly aware that this insight is banal. Since I was a kid I told myself what other people told me, that the work had to be the thing, regardless of what other people thought of it, and the place a poem would take me, a space of concentration and engagement, was one I rarely approached otherwise, and I liked that place. But delighting in a poem included the idea that others would, too. “Poetry will publish this one, surely! It’s better than anything in the last issue. And they say they could barely find enough good work to fill the last issue.”

I learned long ago that what I think is good and what the editor of Poetry thinks is good often fail to coincide – I know they reject work I would like and were I in their place I would turn back poets long comfortable in the Poetry stable. Nothing personal.

Same goes for every other magazine in the world. Or book publisher, probably.

Yet rejection balks me, hurts me. So I avoid it. I guess what happened during the year off was that the censorious voices I’d internalized gradually quieted. I will send poems out in the future. And I will occasionally take advantage of opportunities to self-publish. Print on demand services are more affordable than ever. Whatever. I’m not betting everything on one number. I’m diversified.

Monday, November 16, 2009

“the hidden present”

“In the first week of December, 1980, [John] Lennon bought an early Christmas present for five-year-old Sean. He was never able to give the present to his son; on December 8, John was murdered. Amid the grief and chaos in the Lennons’ home that followed the unthinkable event, the hidden present – a tiny Akita puppy – was almost forgotten. When Sean was finally given the present his father had left behind, the puppy was thin and weak. Sean named her Merry [after] Merry Christmas.”

source: the liner notes for Working Class Hero: a tribute to John Lennon, a compilation of Lennon songs covered by Red Hot Chili Peppers, Screaming Trees, Blues Traveler, Collective Soul, et al.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

“’They weren’t allowed to land…’"

“’When American bombers were coming back to Thailand from runs over Vietnam and they couldn’t hit their targets, they would drop their bombs on Laos, anywhere. They weren’t allowed to land in Thailand with their bombs.’”

- quoting a member of the “Mine Advisory Group, a British aid organization attempting to clear unexploded mines and bombs from Laos.”

source: The River’s Tale: a year on the Mekong, by Edward A. Gargan

Saturday, November 07, 2009

“house built mainly of Oz books”

from a letter by Jack Spicer to his friend James Alexander, c. 1958:

“Went down to Duncan and Jess’s Friday … Their house is built mainly of Oz books, a grate to burn wood, a second story for guests, paintings, poems and miscellaneous objects of kindly magic. Cats.”

Duncan is Robert Duncan, the poet. Jess is Jess Collins the artist.

source: My Vocabulary Did This to Me: the collected poetry of Jack Spicer

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

word of the day: reredos

context: During the gold rush in Brazil “there was a proliferation of handsome churches built and decorated in the baroque style characteristic of the region. Minas Gerais attracted the best artisans of the time. Outwardly the churches looked sober and austere, but the interiors, symbolizing the divine soul, glistened with pure gold on their altars, reredoses, pillars, and bas-relief panels.”

Microsoft Word dictionary: reredos - “an artistic decoration behind the altar in a church, for example, a wood or stone screen or a wall-hanging”

source: Open Veins of Latin America: five centuries of the pillage of a continent by Eduardo Galeano

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

an attack of poetry

“A clapperless blue bell hung overhead,immense, flawless, infinitely clear. Stapled to it like the nub end of a rivet flared a white-yellow sun, naked and small. … On some hillocks, at a distance measured in exhausting hours, like a bag of spilled coffee beans on sparse carpet, herds of stoop-shouldered yaks gnawed at the touch, crew-cut grass.”

Edward Gargan has traveled to Tibet to the headwaters of the Mekong River, his plan to trace the river’s progress from Tibet down to the sea, passing through Burma, Laos, Camobia, and Vietnam in the process. Gargan’s prose otherwise rarely strays from the plain, descriptive prose of the journalist. The quoted paragraph is a spasm of metaphor that had me blinking. I like the bell-like sky. The coffee bean yaks? Less convinced.

source: The River’s Tale: a year on the Mekong by Edward A. Gargan

Saturday, October 24, 2009

“… something round the next bend …”

Gottfried Hohmann, a researcher, on trying to make scientific observations of bonobos in the dense rainforests of the Congo:

“’People think it’s entertaining, but it’s not. … It’s so slow. So hard. … You always think there’s going to be something round the next bend, but there never is.”

source: “Swingers” by Ian Parker, The New Yorker, July 30, 2007

Friday, October 23, 2009

“Librarians appreciate quiet refrigerators.”

Says Rachel Levitsky in “Definining,” a poem in her collection Neighbor.

Monday, October 12, 2009

pile of reading

Dark Banquet: blood and the curious lives of blood-feeding creatures, by Bill Schutt
Did you know that there are three kinds of vampire bat? One feeds on chickens. It crawls up to a hen and nuzzles at the breast. Apparently this is sufficiently chick-like behavior that the hen feels reassured, even comforted and settles down over the bat while it sups at her breast.

Neighbor, poetry by Rachel Levitsky
I don’t remember where I got this exactly – the Friends of the Library book sale shelf at the library? I can’t recall having heard of Levitsky before but I like to read a totally random poet of whom I know nothing, once in awhile. Plus I was curious about what sort of stuff Ugly Duckling Presse publishes. “You can use most of this / though none of it is necessary”

The Mooring of Starting Out: the first five books of poetry, by John Ashbery
I bought this a few years ago and read most of it then stalled. Lately I came across it again and am pressing forward. As with Emily Dickinson I set myself the goal of reading two pages, just enough to get past the pages that are open in front of me. “They told this throughout all time, in all cities. The shape-filled foreground: what distractions for the imagination, incitements to the copyist, yet nobody had the leisure to examine it closely.”

My Vocabulary Did This to Me: the collected poetry of Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian
Jack Spicer seems to have a towering reputation, especially surprising considering he died early and his work was published only by tiny presses. I was curious about him. “Deep in the mind there is an ocean / I would fall within it, find my sources in it. Yield to tide / And find my sources in it.”

Angkor: the hidden glories, by Michael Freeman and Roger Warner
I tried to think what would be an exotic locale, where would I want to go that I never thought I’d ever really be able to get to? Angkor! Angkor is in Cambodia. Poor Cambodia seems to be doing okay these days. The era of the Killing Fields is over. I haven’t started reading the book yet. I’ve just looked at the pictures. The book looks like it will help me imagine myself there. When I can imagine myself somewhere it seems easier to get myself there.

Cahokia: ancient America’s great city on the Mississippi, by Timothy R. Pauketat
Another old ruin I would like to visit. Much less well preserved than Angkor – much of Cahokia has been leveled for modern city and superhighway.

Monkey Food: the complete “I was Seven in ‘75” collection, by Ellen Forney
I read another collection by Forney so when I saw this for a dollar at Half Price Books I picked it up. It just entered the reading pile. So far all I’ve done is flip through it.

Mindwalking: New and Selected Poems, 1937-2007, by Edward Mycue
Edward Mycue is an SF poet who I’ve known casually for years. He handed me a copy of his newest book at the last Poetry & Pizza. “what we experience we are / much passes through us / we leave nothing behind” Ed has a chapbook available for online reading at

Tristes Tropiques, by Claude Levi-Strauss
I’ve been reading this one off & on for ages.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

doctor says, bleed

So there really are diseases that can be treated through bleeding? Yes, says Bill Schutt in Dark Banquet: blood and the curious lives of blood-feeding creatures, and he goes through a few – porphyria, for instance. “Porphyria (from the Greek word for ‘purple’) is a disease of the blood that results from the faulty production of hemoglobin, which leads to the accumulations of red and purple pigments called porphyrins.” Decrease the level of porphyrins via some draining and things improve. Things like “sudden onset of bizarre behavior and strange outbursts.” Sounds like just the sort of behavior that would suggest bleeding, don’t you think?

Anyway, other diseases mitigated by bloodletting include a form of diabetes, hepatitis C (interferon treatment is more effective when you’ve got less blood, it seems), hemochromatosis, and polycythemia.

Not that a few rare diseases explain the notion that bleeding was considered an appropriate treatment for just about everything.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

no wonder I hated the barber’s chair

The barber pole: “the red stripes signif[ied] blood, blue stripes … veins, and white stripes represented the gauze bandages [barber-surgeons] used to stem the bleeding. The pole itself was a symbol of the stick that patients would grip tightly as they were being bled and the ball atop the pole signified the blood collection basin (and the container they used to hold the leeches).”

During George Washington’s final illess he was bled – as a curiative by his doctors (& this method was standard practice at the time) – of “approximately 40 percent of [his] blood volume within a thirteen-hour period … For comparative purposes, the American Red Cross generally requires an eight-week period between blood donations of one-tenth the volume drained from the former president on what was to be his last day alive.”

So what was with all the bleeding? Illness, the prevailing orthodoxy had it, was caused (or, at least, worsened) by an excess of blood, blood being one of the humors that had to be kept in balance to maintain health. Illness was a result of an imbalance between the humors. For some reason blood was a prime suspect in imbalances – maybe because there was just so much of it and because its release can be so dramatic. Plus, you can get a little high from a bleeding, a temporary feeling of well-being.

source: Dark Banquet: blood and the curious lives of blood-feeding creatures by Bill Schutt

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

“the weekend bottles of milk that no baby will consume”

Claude Levi-Strauss’ description of Fire Island, circa 1950:

“Fire Island … is a narrow strip of sand, devoid of vegetation, off the coast of Long Island [New York]. It is literally a strip, eight kilometres long, but only two or three hundred metres wide. On the Atlantic side, the open sea is too rough for bathing. On the landward side, the sea is always calm but the water is too shallow for swimming. The oly pastime is catching non-edible fish; at regular intervals along the beaches, there are notices stating that the fish should not be left to rot but should be at once buried in the sand. The dunes on Fire Island are so shifting, and their hold on the sea so precarious, that further notices warn the public to keep off in case they should collapse into the water below. The place is like an inverted Venice, since it is the land that is fluid and the canals solid: in Cherry Grove, the village occupying the central part of the island, the inhabitants must obligatorily use a network of wooden footbridges forming a road system on stilts.

“To complete the picture, I must add that Cherry Grove is chiefly inhabited by male couples, attracted no doubt by the general pattern of inversion. Since nothing grows in the sand, apart from the broad patches of poisonous ivy, provisions are collected once a day from the one and only shop, at the end of the landing-stage. In the tiny streets, on higher ground more stable than the dunes, the sterile couples can be seen returning to their chalets pushing prams (the only vehicles suitable for the narrow paths) containing little but the weekend bottles of milk that no baby will consume.

“Fire Island gives an impression of gay farcicality …”

Hm. Should one take offense at this? Probably. But it’s an interesting picture of a gay island retreat from the standard hostility of the time.

source: Tristes Tropiques, by Claude Levi-Strauss

Monday, October 05, 2009

the guest bed at a small farm in Parana, Brazil

“[I]n the paiol, a kind of porch intended to protect the maize harvest from rain [we slept]. Surprising as it may seem, a heap of dry corn cobs with the leaves still on them makes a comfortable bed; the oblong shapes slide one against another and the mass adapts itself to the sleeper’s body. The delicate, sweet, grassy scent of dried maize is wonderfully soporific.”

source: Tristes Tropiques, by Claude Levi-Strauss

Sunday, October 04, 2009

“Any law that degrades human personality is unjust”

“[T]here are two types of laws: There are just laws and there are unjust laws. … One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that ‘An unjust law is no law at all.’

“… Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”

No wonder so many conservatives loathed and feared Martin Luther King, Jr.

source: “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” (1963), The American Reader, edited by Diane Ravitch

Saturday, October 03, 2009

“the question flies entirely outside the domain of reason”

“In the United States … we need no longer argue woman’s intellectual, moral and physical qualification for the ballot with the intelligent. The Reason of the best of our citizens has been convinced. The justice of the argument has been admitted … When a great church official exclaims petulantly, that if women are no more modest in their demands men may be obliged to take to drowning female infants again; when a renowned United States Senator declares no human being can find an answer to the argument for woman suffrage, but with all the force of his position and influence he will oppose it; when a popular woman novelist speaks of the advocates of the movement as the ‘shrieking sisterhood’; when a prominent politician says ‘to argue against woman suffrage is to repudiate the Declaration of Independence,’ yet he hopes it may never come, the question flies entirely outside the domain of reason, and retreats within the realm of sex-prejudice, where neither logic nor common sense can dislodge it …”

Another installment of Things Never Change? Yeah, okay, women got the vote – eighteen years after this speech by Carrie Chapman Catt was given in 1902. Eighteen years? Eighteen years after the argument was no longer “with the intelligent” and “Reason [had] been convinced”?

The rhetoric is about the same; ‘same sex marriage’, for example, could be switched out for ‘woman suffrage’ and readers would assume the writing was contemporary. Not that there aren’t plenty even now who wish women didn’t have the vote.

source: The American Reader, edited by Diane Ravitch

Friday, October 02, 2009

“the emblem of sacrilege”

Back in May 1902 George Frisbie Hoar, the Republican Senator from Massachusetts, delivered a speech in the Senate denouncing the U.S. invasion of the Philippines. Some of it sounds awfully contemporary. Hoar addresses himself to “my imperialistic friends”:

“You have devastated provinces. You have slain uncounted thousands of the people you desire to benefit. You have established concentration camps. Your generals are coming home from their harvest, bringing their sheaves with them, in the shape of thousands of sick and wounded and insane to drag out their miserable lives, wrecked in body and mind. You make the American flag in the eyes of numerous people the emblem of sacrilege … and of the horror of water torture … Your practical statesmanship has succeeded in converting a people who three years ago were ready to kiss the hem of the garment of the American and to welcome him as a liberator, who thronged after your men when they landed … with benediction and gratitude, into sullen and irreconcilable enemies, possessed of a hatred which centuries cannot eradicate …”

source: The American Reader, edited by Diane Ravitch

Thursday, October 01, 2009

“of no earthly account in this world”

I remember crying when my mother tried to coach me in reciting the times tables. You know, 8 times 8 is 64, 6 times 7 is … uh … 42? 42, the answer to the question, Life, the Universe and Everything. That number keeps popping up. It is the right one, isn’t it? I barely know. The times tables just seemed a torture device to me, utterly without meaning. I wasn’t any good at them. Maybe if someone had invented a song, like the Schoolhouse Rock “Three is a Magic Number.” I loved the chanting of the 3-6-9, 12-15-18, etc. But I still couldn’t get down the times table part of the song, “Three times eight is …” That would be 24? See, I gotta think about it. I’ve never memorized it.

Last week I got the latest issue of the International Wizard of Oz Club’s magazine, The Baum Bugle. In it there’s an article comparing two books that appeared around the turn of the twentieth century, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the long-assumed total knock-off, Zauberlinda, the Wise Witch. In both books a little American prairie girl, an only child, goes on an adventure in fairy land. The illustrations and the book design for Zauberlinda are clearly pastiche of The Wizard of Oz, as Annie sometimes looks like a virtual clone of W. W. Denslow’s version of Dorothy.

I had never heard of Zauberlinda when I first joined the Oz club but (to my confusion) it kept showing up at the Oz convention auction and selling for more than I cared to pay for some actual Oz books. I’ve flipped through it but never felt much urge to own it. Or read it, frankly. But I was intrigued by Phyllis Ann Karr’s compare/contrast essay and the notes to the article indicate the availability of Zauberlinda via Google Books. So I bopped on over to Google Books and called her up. And started reading.

As Phyllis Ann Karr puts it: “[P]erhaps the first difference we notice [between the texts of Zauberlinda, the Wise Witch and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz] is that, whereas Baum plunges his heroine into her adventures within the first few pages and finishes off with a three-paragraph homecoming, [Zauberlinda’s author, Eva Katharine] Gibson devotes the first eighty of her two hundred fifty-five pages to Annie’s home life …”

Indeed. I wouldn’t have liked it as a kid. In fact, I came upon a scene that would have given me the shivers. Annie’s aunt writes from the big city. “The grandmother would read these letters to Annie. … Aunt Molly used to write of what Lizzie May, Annie’s six-year-old cousin, was learning at kindergarten … Nearly always after reading one of these letters, Annie’s grandmother would push her spectacles back upon her forehead, smooth down her apron, and, looking very solemn, call the little girl to her. … The grandmother would say, ‘Annie, it is high time you were learning something. Now tell me, child, how much six times four is.’” When Annie didn’t give the right number, “if her father was sitting by, he would laugh at her and grandmother would say, ‘Oh, Annie, can’t you answer such a simple question as that?’ And Annie, in her mind, would repeat over nearly all the numbers in that old multiplication table, but somehow always seem to hit upon just the wrong answer … Then grandmother would sigh, shake her head sadly and say, ‘It’s no use, John, that child’ll never know anything until she is sent to school …’ Annie would step softly out of the room, feeling very crushed and foolish, and just of no earthly account in this world.”

Thursday, August 27, 2009


Dread = Uncontrollability + Unfamiliarity + Imaginability + Suffering + Scale of Destruction + Unfairness

source: The Unthinkable: who survives when disaster strikes and why by Amanda Ripley

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

“the height of the shelves”

Alberto Manguel remembers his “father’s largely unused library in Buenos Aires.” The boy Alberto was “always alone in the library, since [his] father used it only on the rare occasions when he had to meet someone at home rather than at his office.” The father “had instructed his secretary to furnish the library, and she had bought books by the yard and sent them to be bound to the height of the shelves, so that the titles at the page-tops were in many cases trimmed, and sometimes even the first lines were missing.”

In his History of Reading Manguel later quotes Seneca on this sort of thing. Seneca scorned the man “’who gets his pleasure from the bindings and labels’ and in whose illiterate household ‘you can see the complete works of orators and historians on shelves up to the ceiling, because, like bathrooms, a library has become an essential ornament of a rich house.’”

I confess I try to read the titles of the books on the shelves in a stage play. I look over the books propped in bookcases in uninhabited houses (the house being up for sale, handsome furnishing having briefly been imported to suggest a lifestyle).

source: A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel

Monday, August 17, 2009

Sexton and Madonna, part II

Last spring I was reading a biography of Madonna and blogged about Madonna's affinity for Anne Sexton.

Today I read that Madonna cribbed from Sexton when composing a love poem for her bodyguard.

A fax dated December 24, 1993 reads: "I was the girl of the love letter/the girl full of talk of dreams and destination... the one with her eyes half under the covers/with her large gun-metal blue eyes/with the thick vein in the crook of her neck."

In comparison, Sexton wrote: "I was the girl of the chain letter/the girl full of talk of coffins and keyholes... the one with her eyes half under her coat/with her large gun-metal blue eyes/with the thin vein at the bend of her neck."

hat tip to CDY

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Plutarch's God

“To [Plutarch] a superstition was not a mistaken belief, a kind of religious stupidity; it was an unmitigated evil, far worse than absolute disbelief. Atheism, he says, denies God, but superstition wrongs Him. It makes God evil or silly. It uses the very worst of all weapons, terror. It fills the world after death with ‘flaming fires and awful shapes and inexorable judges and horrible torments’; in this world it teaches people to practice absurd penances and self-torturing. Better far not to see God at all than see Him like that. ‘I had rather have it said that there was not and never had been such a fellow as Plutarch, than that he was fickle and vindictive and would pay you out for not calling upon him.’”

source: The Echo of Greece by Edith Hamilton

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Rambo v. Hulk

Reading a book about a family in the Bronx I came across this curious paragraph, probably evidence of a change of mind by the writer (or an editor?) about whether to use the undercover officer’s alias:

Rambo, a Bronx homicide detective, changed out of his sweat suit and into a Con Ed employee uniform. Hulk’s choice of a disguise was appropriate: gas leaks, like fires, were common in the neighborhood. That morning, a tip had come in … Hulk and the other undercovers drove to Anthony Avenue. …

Rambo, nicknamed for his pumped-up body, was known for solving cases.

So which is it? Hulk? Or Rambo? It’s pretty clear from context that we are only talking about one person. I suspect the real nickname was “Hulk” as the Hulk is known mainly for being big & beefy, whereas Rambo is known mostly for being a loner and revenge-o-phile. But who knows. Maybe we have the author to thank for both.

source: Random Family: love, drugs, trouble, and coming of age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The People’s Almanac

Over the years I’ve clung to certain ambitions. One of them was to read The People’s Almanac from cover to cover (and, presumably, The People’s Almanac #2 and The People’s Almanac #3, which have also been part of my library).

I don’t know how my family acquired The People’s Almanac, which was published in 1975; I was ten at the time. Was it a gift?

I knew kids who’d claimed to have read the dictionary and the encyclopedia (Britannica or World Book?); neither project appealed to me. OK. Yes. I did try reading a dictionary a few times. Boring! As suspected.

Something about that title fascinated me: The People’s Almanac. I didn’t know what an almanac was. The People’s Almanac was not like The Farmer’s Almanac, which included “a calendar for the year as well as astronomical information” (that’s from the Microsoft Word dictionary definition of “almanac”). Rather, The People’s Almanac was a seemingly random collection of information – a year by year history of the U.S. (1797: “In retirement, General Washington dined well. One of his favorite menus: cream of peanut soup, Smithfield ham with oyster sauce, string beans with mushrooms, Southern spoon bread, Virginia whiskey cake.”), thumbnail descriptions of all the nations (“Nauru is composed largely of phosphate-rich guano or, as it is better known, bird droppings. This unusual resource has provided Nauruans with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world …”), supposed buried treasure troves, words commonly misspelled, offbeat artists, stories of great boxing matches, and so on.

The idea of imbibing all these facts was far more fascinating the actual process – there was just so much information, I discovered, about which I did not care!

Still, wasn’t there something special about the possessive? The “People’s” … I recognize it now as particularly 70s. At the time it had an aura of rebellion, offering a fresh new take without the tired old rigidity and irrelevance of the established authorities, whoever & whatever they were. Oughtn’t something belonging to “people” also be more fun? Such seemed logical to me at the time.

When I was clearing out my mother’s house I brought The People’s Almanac and its sequels home to Berkeley (aka “The People’s Republic of Berkeley”). They sat on the floor of the library upstairs – the shelves having already been taken by other books. Now that renovations are going on the books have all been boxed up and sit once again in inaccessible stacks. I didn’t box The People’s Almanac.

Because I decided I wasn’t going to keep it anymore. That old ambition, that I was going to sit down and read the thing through? I’m letting it go.

Friday, July 17, 2009

word of the day: pyrrhuloxias

“[R]ed birds such as cardinals and pyrrhuloxias … apparently need sufficient carotene from reddish fruits to maintain their plumage colors, so they feed on red berries. Such berry specialists will pick up chile [chili?] fruits now and then, which are about the same size, hue, shape, and brightness [as] the birds’ mainstay berries. … [W]ild chiles fequently become established under wolfberries and hackberries, for they are probably dispersed beneath the canopies of these shrubs when the birds pick their berries. Once they have germinated there, they find a buffered microclimate more suitable for growth than open, barren ground.”

source: Enduring Seeds: Native American agriculture and wild plan conservation by Gary Paul Nabhan

photo from Birds as Art

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Mossberg stands up to Swisher’s mother

From a New Yorker profile of Wall Street Journal consumer technology columnist Walter Mossberg:

“Mossberg is not shy about expressing his opinions. He helped recruit Kara Swisher from the Washington Post [to the WSJ] in late 1996 … When she and Megan Smith, a Google executive, decided to marry, Swisher told [Ken Auletta], her mother ‘was troubled by the idea of a gay wedding.’ She and Smith have two children, and she recalls that when she came home with the first baby Mossberg was there, and so was her mother, who ‘really likes Walt a lot.’ Swisher went on, ‘We were having dinner and she was being difficult – she was arguing with me. I was getting really uncomfortable. Walt took her down like I’ve never seen anybody take anybody down: “How dare you talk to her like this? This is an important issue and you have to be supportive no matter what as a parent.”’”

Gay marriage as a political issue is really about straights. It seems to me straights ought to be talking to straights about it. Would Mossberg be up for a 30-second ad?

source: The New Yorker, May 14, 2007

Monday, July 06, 2009

“dared commit”

“Although the [18th Century Romantic] era’s effusive declarations of passionate friendship were long discounted as overheated formulas for merely platonic affection, the reverse is more likely: in a time of harsh public scrutiny, more went on physically than all but a few writers dared commit to paper.”

One might note that even though the kiddies danced to the hits of the Village People and the Navy considered using one of their songs in a recruiting campaign and straights still gesture to “YMCA” at ball games, the band members exemplify gay sexual fetishes. It may have been the case that lots of non-gay folks innocently adopted the language of passionate friendship but that hardly erases the passion or means it was always chaste.

source: Pictures and Passions: a history of homosexuality in the visual arts by James M. Saslow

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Christianity as “barbarous interruption”

“Renaissance thinkers recast the Christian era as the barbarous interruption of a Golden Age whose lost wisdom and erotic innocence they yearned to restore in a third, modern age.”

Them Christians, still a bunch of butt-in-skis.

source: Pictures and Passions: a history of homosexuality in the visual arts by James M. Saslow

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Life and death laundry

In a New Yorker profile of Milton Bradley and his Game of Life Jill Lepore says Life is in “a class of board games [called] ‘spiral race games.’”

“The oldest spiral race game,” she says in a parenthetical, “may be the Hyena Game, played by Arabs in Sudan, in a groove traced in the sand with a stick and involving a race between pebbles representing the players’ mothers, who leave their village and head to a well at the spiral’s center, where they must wash their clothes and return home before a hyena catches them.”

source: New Yorker, May 21, 2007

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

what Dads like

Steve Martin had a difficult father. Rare was the praise, frequent were the cold rages and seeming contempt. After more than ten years plugging away at his comedy, Martin was finally seeing success that did more than get him out of debt. His father acted unimpressed, even talking his son down around friends and colleagues. “I suppressed everything I felt about his comments because I couldn’t let him have power of my work,” Martin says.

Martin became a household name, was selling out arenas. Father “remained uncomplimentary … [W]hat I did about it still makes sense to me: I never discussed my work with him again.”

My own parents divorced when I was a toddler; I don’t remember them living together. My dad lived thousands of miles away – me, my brother & my mother in Northern California, Dad in Alaska with his new family. But Mom kept us in contact with letters and phone calls and, when we were kids, Dad usually managed two visits a year. So I had a dad – distant but existent, someone I felt a connection to, better, I suppose, than some I hear about who lived in house. Mom would have my brother & me send our creative work to Dad and he acknowledged it and tried not to say belittling things about it even when it wasn’t to his taste – mostly, it seems, it wasn’t.

When my poetry got more & more “avant-garde,” Dad responded by enthusing about cowboy poetry. “That’s what I really like,” I remember him saying.

I have nothing against cowboy poetry. It’s not something I do. It’s not something that interests me, other than in a vague academic sort of way. Oh, Dad likes that, huh? What he doesn’t like is what I do. So I stopped sending him examples. I stopped talking about it.

source: Born Standing Up: a comic’s life by Steve Martin

Monday, June 29, 2009

“I’m not sure what I meant”

Back in 1967 change in the air. Though he claims in his memoir that his studies, philosophy & ee cummings, both fascinated, excited, and baffled him, Steve Martin tried to alchemize from them a fresh new comedy. In a letter to his girlfriend he wrote, “I have decided my act is going to go avant-garde. It is the only way to do what I want.”

Commenting on that 40 year old assertion, Martin notes, “I’m not sure what I meant, but I wanted to use the lingo, and it was seductive to make these pronouncements.”

I suspect we pretend we know what we’re talking about at least as often as we really do. Sometimes that’s a problem. But mostly?

“I have learned,” Martin continues, “there is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration.”

source: Born Standing Up: a comic’s life by Steve Martin

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

monkey butts

“By the way, paying for porn is no longer unique to humans. Researchers at Duke University offered male rhesus monkeys the chance to see pictures of female monkey bottoms, but only if they paid for it by giving up their fruit juice. The monkeys paid up.”

source: How Sex Works: why we look, smell, taste, feel, and act the way we do (2009) Dr. Sharon Moalem

Monday, June 15, 2009

sex stinks

So I’m reading How Sex Works and I come across discussion of a study on how people respond to body odor, specifically how “four categories [of persons] – heterosexual men, heterosexual women, homosexual men, and homosexual women - ... indicate their preference among odors collected from ‘odor donors’ in the same four categories.”

Let’s skip over the methodology and get right to the rather queer results:

“Homosexual males, heterosexual females, and lesbians preferred odors from heterosexual males over odors from gay males,” the study stated. “Gay males preferred odors from other gay males … Heterosexual males, heterosexual females, and lesbians over the age of 15 (but not those 18-25) preferred odors from lesbians over odors from gay males … Finally, gay males preferred odors from heterosexual females over those from heterosexual males.”

Last I remember reading about odor studies like this the results were of the men-prefer-the-smell-of-women-women-prefer-the-smell-of-men variety, with zero consideration of sexual orientation. I’m glad some scientists are being more open to subtlety and variety. The study’s results, though, what can one say of them? Hm. This deserves more study?

source: How Sex Works: why we look, smell, taste, feel, and act the way we do (2009) Dr. Sharon Moalem

Thursday, June 11, 2009

pile of reading

Swallowdale (1931) Arthur Ransome
I remember a friend of the family (was it the Averas?) gave my brother and me the gift of Swallows and Amazons, the cover of which featured some kids gathered around a campfire dreaming of battling each other over rowboats, or small sailboats. I remember not finding it very attractive. But at some point our mother, who would read to us each night (she got us all the way through the Lord of the Rings trilogy), picked up Swallows and Amazons and I was surprised. I loved it! For a long time I didn’t know Arthur Ransome had written several sequels. When I did find that out enough time had passed I didn’t remember much in detail about Swallows and Amazons so figured I ought to reread it before I turned to a sequel. Well, here I am, 43 years old, and I just reread Swallows and Amazons. Can’t say whether or not I enjoyed it as much this time as the first but I did enjoy it, and the Claremont branch of the Berkeley Public Library where I work has several of the sequels. I have just begun Swallowdale.

How Sex Works: why we look, smell, taste, feel, and act the way we do (2009) Dr. Sharon Moalem
I like pop science books. Some are better than others, of course. There are times I feel like I’m reading about the behavior of middle class college students – so many studies are conducted at universities, and students are cheap and readily available experimental subjects. The more pop science books you read the more you find yourself wondering if this mish-mash of facty material actually collages into a revealing picture or we just pretend it does. I brought this one home because Moalem includes gay people (older books science books on sex either ignored gay sex or disparaged it; many contemporary books treat it rather like a footnote – yeah, gay sex exists, and it’s not sick or evil but, like, I care?). “As any woman who has explored her sexual responsiveness knows,” Moalem says, then interjects a parenthetical before preceding, “(and any man or woman who has explored it with her knows as well), female orgasms come in many different shapes and styles.” Or woman, huh?

Enduring Seeds: Native American agriculture and wild plant conservation (1989) Gary Paul Nabhan
As I push through the collection, weeding out damaged books and books that have been barely touched in the years of sun-fading residence on public racks, I do think to myself fairly often, Looks like a book worth reading. Mostly I talk myself out of checking them out – got plenty to read, thanks! But Enduring Seeds touched on more than one enduring interest – the interaction between animals and plants, traces of Native American history, and the (fragile?) foundations of what we take for granted. I’m not far into it, and already it’s depressing. Written twenty years ago the text anticipates widespread devastation of the environment. Maybe the intervening decades haven’t been as diastrous as anticipated. But I don’t think an author writing a book like this today would be optimistic.

The American Reader: words that moved a nation (2000) edited by Diane Ravitch
This is a selection of poetry, essays, and speeches from early American history to the present. Includes Benjamin Franklin aphorisms, Emily Dickinson poems, Woody Guthrie songs, etc. Just read Ravitch’s severe 4-page edit of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and liked it better than the long version.

The Complete Poems (1981) Anne Sexton
Years ago I read Sexton’s poems in the original books, then bought this complete edition. I enjoyed the first reading and wanted some day to revisit the experience. Doing that. I prefer Sexton’s later messier verse to her early tightly controlled stuff.

Tristes Tropiques (1955) Claude Levi-Strauss, translated by John & Doreen Weightman
Levi-Strauss was an influential anthopologist. I was assigned a chapter of this book in a class in college. I didn’t have time or energy to read more than that. But I hung onto the book. Reading it now, slow, though I like it. Levi-Strauss does surprising stuff like devote five pages to a description of sunset at sea: “[A]t each new stage in its fall, one or other of its rays would pierce the opaque mass [of clouds] or would find its way through along a path which, at the moment when the beam of light appeared, cut the obstacle into a pile of circular sectors, different in size and luminous intensity. At times, the light would be withdrawn, as if a fist had been clenched and the cloudy mitten would allow no more than one or two stiff and gleaming fingers to appear. Or an incandescent octopus would move out from the vaporous grottoes and then there would be a fresh withdrawal.”

The New Yorker May 21, 2007
From the Michael Ryan poem: “Watching you [ghost of dad], / aluminum softball bat drooping like a penis [in my hand], // I’m a cartoon of hurt …”

Scientific American June 2005
The search for extra solar planets continues to find ‘em!

Monday, May 11, 2009

word of the day: reptation

In the short story “Moebius Strip” the Argentine author Julio Cortazar depicts a person struggling in a sort of afterlife:

“Little by little (little by little in a condition outside of time? a manner of speaking) other states were presenting themselves, had perhaps already been presented, although already would mean before and there was no before; now (or any now either) a wind state prevailed and now a crawling state … [imagine] a caterpillar crawling over a leaf suspended in the air, passing over its faces and passing again without the slightest sight or touch or limit, infinite Moebius strip reptation to the edge of a face to arrive at or already to be on the opposite side and to return ceaselessly from one side to the other, a very slow and painful reptation there where there was no measure of slowness or suffering but where one was reptation and being reptation was slowness and suffering.”

definition: The act of creeping.


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

the typical gap

Reviewing possible causes of aging Atul Gawande drops this little statistic:

Only six per cent of how long you’ll live, compared with the average, is explained by your parents’ longevity.

So “good genes” aren’t it?

Even genetically identical twins vary widely in life span: the typical gap is more than fifteen years.

Huh? Really?

Gawande doesn’t source that one (unless it’s from the same Max Planck institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany that he attributes the 6% figure to).

15 years? What’s the “typical gap” between non-identical twins or age disparate siblings? I would have thought it much closer than 15 years. What does he mean “typical”? He doesn’t use the word “average” so does he not mean the mean? Maybe he means the median – half of all twins live 15 years longer than the dead twin, half of all twins live fewer than 15 years longer. Or the mode? Most twins who lose a twin live 15 more years. Or, rather, “more than fifteen”.

A mysterious number.

source: The New Yorker, April 30, 2007

Friday, April 17, 2009

Frank Marshall Davis

As a youth in Hawaii, Barack Obama was introduced by his grandfather to an old black intellectual, a poet. “Frank”, Obama calls him in his memoir. No last name.

Curious if anyone had done the detective work to find out who this “Frank” was (I mean, a poet!) I found, indeed, Gerald Horne in his pre-election hitpiece, The Obama Nation, had fingered Frank Marshall Davis, an old communist, as the poet in the memoir. While rebutting some of Horne’s insinuations the Obama campaign acknowledged Davis the poet.

Now I want to read his stuff. Looks like a couple collections have been published recently - Black Moods: Collected Poems (2002) and Writings of Frank Marshall Davis: A Voice of the Black Press (2007).

Saturday, April 11, 2009


Barack is still in Chicago, "hoping to convince [more black ministers] to join the organization. It was a slow process ... most black ministers were fiercely independent, secure in their congregations and with little obvious need for outside assistance. Whenever I first reached them on the phone, they would often be suspicious, uncertain as to why this Muslim - or worse yet, this Irishman, O'Bama - wanted a few minutes of their time."

source: Dreams from My Father: a story of race and inheritance by Barack Obama

Thursday, April 09, 2009


Barack is in his early 20s, learning to be a community organizer in Chicago. His sister, Auma, is visiting from Germany (she is Kenyan but is studying in Germany).

"I don't like politics much," she said.

"Why's that?"

"I don't know. People always end up disappointed."

source: Dreams from My Father: a story of race and inheritance by Barack Obama

Tuesday, April 07, 2009


I've started reading Barack Obama's memoir, Dream from My Father. The writing is good to fine, upon occasion suspiciously wise for a young man.

Not that this post is going to be about the substance of Obama's book. Instead, I want to note something else. An odd transposing of words. Talking about his grandparents growing up in Kansas. Obama says they lived "dab-smack" in the middle of the country. A few pages later he refers to the jaunty way his grandfather wore his hat -- "brim hat" folded back.

Dab-smack? Brim hat?

I had to look an extra moment at these before they resolved themselves into forms more familiar: smack-dab, hat brim

Wednesday, April 01, 2009


From a fundraising letter for Sebastopol’s small private hospital, Palm Drive:

“In Northern California, Palm Drive has become a hub for delivering medical services through robots to remote hospitals.”

Monday, March 30, 2009

‘There’s so much negativity around the male, butch mentality – they’re so uptight.’

From a Paste Magazine interview with Kevin Barnes (creative force behind the musical artists Of Montreal):

“A lot of people assume [Kevin] Barnes is gay – or at least bisexual – because, well, he wears fishnets and makeup on stage. But that’s not the case. ‘I just like acting really fruity,’ he says. ‘I guess I just don’t really have a sense of, “this is the proper way to be.”’

“When Barnes was in high school, he thought that the world would be better off if all men were gay. ‘There’s so much negativity around the male, butch mentality – they’re so uptight,’ he explains. ‘Gay men seemed more open-minded, tolerant, and just cooler. And it seemed like this magical, arty world I wanted to be a part of. I was so disappointed when I realized I wasn’t attracted to men physically!’”

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

when a parrot loves a graduate student

There were a lot things that happened socially among the humans and the parrots in Irene Pepperberg’s communication studies that were not presented in her scientific papers. Alex’s sexual orientation, for instance.

“[I]n general Alex preferred guys, especially tallish guys with longish hair, like Spencer [one of the graduate students who worked with the project]. Alex would often pad around the Tucson lab, looking for Spencer. When Spencer picked him up, Alex would run up his arm, perch on his shoulder, and perform the Grey’s mating dance. Spencer was the only person Alex called by name. He used to say, ‘Come here, Ser.’”

Among the mating behaviors of the African Grey Parrot is food sharing – or regurgitation. When besotted, Alex would barf on your shoulder – provided you were a tall hot dude with long hair.

“A favorite excursion was to a small lobby close to the lab. … Students passing on the staircase below the window were oblivious of Alex’s rapt attention to their comings and goings and to the cheerful whistles he produced for their benefit. He liked to wolf-whistle at boys who walked through the lobby, much to the consternation of the girl students tending him.”

source: Alex and Me: how a scientist and a parrot discovered a hidden world of animal intelligence – and formed a deep bond in the process by Irene M. Pepperberg

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

why do birds sing?

Is Oliver Sacks right? Is grooving to the beat a uniquely human behavior, one that no other animal approximates? When he said that I did wonder why the animals that didn’t pass the test were elephants and horses and dogs – none of them known for their native musics – when there are animals that sing. Birds, mostly. But whales, too, are known for their deep immersion in a sound world and some (humpbacks, famously) are known to sing. Yet neither birds nor whales are mentioned in Musicophilia.

Wait. Birds aren’t even mentioned in a book on music? In a book on the biological/neurological origins of music? Not even an aside?

So I’m reading Irene Pepperberg’s memoir of her life with Alex the parrot, with whom she worked during her studies of parrot language acquisition (or communicative behaviors), and I come across this casual mention of Alex’s reaction to music:

They are traveling cross country in a car. “We had left behind the endless miles of cornfields and succession of summer tornadoes … Alex had been terrified by the tornadoes. He could sense the change in air pressure long before we [humans] were aware of anything: the only thing that soothed him as the storms raged was Haydn’s cello concerto, which sometimes swept him into a trancelike state, his body moving gently, eyes squinting almost shut.”

Does this behavior fit the definition of moving to music, of synching one’s behaviors to a tune or a beat? Who knows? But I suppose it’s possible to find out. If you care. If it matters.

under discussion: Alex and Me: how a scientist and a parrot discovered a hidden world of animal intelligence – and formed a deep bond in the process by Irene M. Pepperberg

Monday, March 23, 2009

[X] = us

“For both scientists and laypersons, [X] has long been held sacrosanct as being uniquely human, a defining characteristic of what separates ‘us’ (humans) from ‘them’ (all other creatures). Too, a long-running debate exists about the more arcane issue of defining [X].”

In this case [X] = Language. For Oliver Sacks (see my post of Feb 28) it is music, or rather, moving to music’s rhythms. The habit among science writers of holding out for something “uniquely human” is deeply ingrained and shows little sign of being abandoned. Used to be, this habit was broader, however. Used to be a matter of course that the whatever-it-is being addressed was the very thing that separated us superior folks from those not-quite humans, the savages, the colored, the not-Christians, the women. That habit seems to have been moved safely to those whom everybody agrees are not human, that is, the animals.

One of science’s taboos is anthropomorphism. As a corrective to assuming that any given animal will have easily understood motives, that we can guess correctly what the cat or the bat or the rat will do because that’s what a human would do (nevermind our poor track record of human mind-reading), setting anthropomorphism aside isn’t a bad idea. A cat does what it does for cat reasons, a rat for rat reasons, etc. But, as with many a human behavior, the other extreme is just as bad.

The prevailing orthodoxy when Irene Pepperberg began her language studies with Alex the parrot (mid-70s) was still pretty much B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism, which, to put it crudely, saw animals as machines without thought or consciousness. Animals were seen as reacting to stimulus, not making decisions. Don’t even bother talking about consciousness. Consciousness can’t be proved.

I think we tend to get all wrapped up in consciousness and confuse ourselves into thinking consciousness is one of those defining characteristics of being human, and way more important than it really is. Don’t get me started on the history of the arcane debate over defining consciousness, even among humans.

When she was trying to present the first results of her studies, Pepperberg ran up against the backlash against language studies among nonhumans. Mostly it was the chimps that set people off. They’re not really talking! Anthopomorphism! shrieked the critics. How dare anybody go imputing to animals uniquely human traits! The major science magazines would return her work, Pepperberg suspected, unread.

under discussion: Alex and Me: how a scientist and a parrot discovered a hidden world of animal intelligence – and formed a deep bond in the process by Irene M. Pepperberg

Monday, March 09, 2009

leader v. martyr

“’The person who takes one step ahead of others is a leader. The person who takes three steps ahead of others is a martyr.’”

-- attributed to “a Chinese CEO” in Jianying Zha’s account of her brother Zha Jianguo’s imprisonment for political activism.

Those Chinese! What clever aphorists!

source: The New Yorker, April 23, 2007

Sunday, March 08, 2009

pet peeve

from the diary: “Wed 12/21/88

“It sez on the calendar: ‘Winter Begins.’ Maybe that’s why I’m depressed. I went to a movie at The Palace. I still had three movies left on the card David [my brother] bought me last year. Saw Punchline with Sally Field and Tom Hanks. They did okay and there were a few funny bits. But it was a very manipulative, predictable Hollywood package. Anything new? Even the stand-up routines were often cut so the audience in the movie is roaring with laughter and the audience in the cinema is sitting there, puzzled, hoping to be let in on the joke. I hate it when hey have a show in a movie – and the audience in the movie is having more fun than me.”

Saturday, March 07, 2009

RRWG potluck & Christmas reading

from the diary: “Monday 12/19/88

“Mom & I went to the RRWG [Russian River Writers Guild] potluck and open reading. I read a few of the poems I’d written in London. Not at all Christmasy as the theme was s’posed t’be. Laurie Posner was there and read a little bit. She’s taking a creative writing class from Marianne Ware. This was her first poetry reading – her first time reading in front of a group, at least. Nice t’see her. … Mom brought cornbread. Saw Marianne & Ann Erickson & Joe Pahls & Mark (sporting a rather silly-looking beard) & Don McQueen & Jayne [McPherson] (who told me Sonoma Mandala chose one of my poems this year. Am I supposed t’be grateful? Hmph. ‘Sabout time.) & others new and old … Some good work.”

Friday, March 06, 2009

Grendel by Matt Wagner

from the diary: “Saturday 12/17/88

“I’m bushed. Think I got a little jetlag. I lay around reading comics t’day. Gonnna stop buying Grendel. The latest issue has the homosexual villain – a corrupt old pope who likes boys. I’m thinking about popping it in an envelope and sending it back to Matt Wagner with a note saying how offensive I found it.”

I remember having a similar reaction to David Lynch’s movie version of Dune, in which the arch-villain, a floating, obese creature with a pustule-covered face, also has a predilection for boys.

Nothing says evil like a little boy-lovin’! (And by ‘boy’, I don’t mean ‘child.’)

Thursday, March 05, 2009

the closest I’ve ever gotten to New York City

On the flight home from London, the one on which I read Crocodilia, we changed planes in New York. I wasn’t able to visit the city – we didn’t have enough time to do anything but wait for our connection. But I did buy a postcard, which I described in the diary. I ran across it a couple days ago. So I scanned it.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

“Two problems with reading journals”

from the diary, Wednesday, 12/14/88, more thoughts on keeping a journal: “It sez in a book about the Adamses – you know, those silly revolutionaries – that John Adams was the only one [of the founding fathers] who kept a really good diary. Ben Franklin wrote years later from memory & George Washington recorded the state of the crops, generally giving short shrift to what we would consider the big events of the day. I wouldn’t mind a little crop talk, after all it was important at the time; but make those grains sound exciting.

“Two problems with reading journals. One, they are so full of chaff and before published should be edited quite ruthlessly. If some scholar wants all the dope, publish a ‘scholarly’ edition. Save me from it. Two, the prose is not very polished. It can be vibrant & interesting & fun, even. But when we write for ourselves we don’t impose much discipline on style or take as much care as we would for publication. I’m not going to do another draft of this. An autobiography, memoirs, those are never verbatim [diaries]. We fill in details from sketchy notes, leave unmentioned problems that take up pages [in the original diary, but which] later turn out to be unimportant. The same is true of published letters.”

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

a great quote, quite gruesome

from the diary, Wednesday, 12/14/88: “I been reading The Independent, my favorite London newspaper, not that I read many – they handed it out free on the plane – found a great quote, quite gruesome. Lessee, is about the Brit Rail crash of a day or three ago in which two trains go boom. Here goes: ‘Yesterday the official death toll fell from 36 to 33 as scientists matched severed limbs to torsos.’”

Monday, March 02, 2009

Crocodilia by Philip Ridley

from the diary, Sunday, 12/11/88: “I stopped at Gay’s the Word, bought a book, Crocodilia, to read on the plane.”

Wednesday, 12/14(ish), written while in flight from London to San Francisco, having changed planes in New York: “San Francisco isn’t too far off now. An hour and a half, I think. Maybe I’ll nap. I’ve been reading Crocodilia by Philip Ridley. It’s quite good. The main characters are living in Bethnal Green.” The man with whom I spent a night not long before the end of the London trip lived on Bethnal Green Road. Reflecting on that experience I said, “My real life sex scenes more resemble, well, a little of Lisa Alther’s humor, a little of Quentin Crisp’s indifference … whatever else. [ellipsis in orig] I’m more likely to describe sex as a giggle than a transcendant ecstasy. I’m too cerebral or something. Yet still, almost a week from Thursday night I feel more complete since I spent the night cuddled with him. I’m not a great lover I have the feeling. But given the opportunity & the encouragement I can love well. Sex not really being ‘love.’ I don’t know tho’, as I’ve carried an afterglow a long time. Sometimes we don’t know what we’re doing.”

I still have Crocodilia by Philip Ridley. The back cover calls it “Ridley’s sparkling debut as a novelist.” Indeed, Ridley seems to have gone on to a career as a novelist, with at least twelve to his name. He has also written stage plays and books for children. Seems he wrote the screenplay for the movie, The Krays. I saw that. The Krays were real life identical twin brothers who led a colorful criminal life in London. One was straight, one gay. Yes, the gay one’s gayness is a marker of his being the eviler of the two, but not by much. The bit that irked me most was the reveal, the scene where we see that the warm body one brother has just been shagging was male. Oh! We’re supposed to be shocked. Otherwise the brothers treat their male & female sextoys about the same – disposably. The straight brother isn’t really the good brother. There isn’t a good brother.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

elephants don’t play well together?

In his book on music and the brain Oliver Sacks quotes Aniruddh Patel: “’[T]here is not a single report of an animal being trained to tap, peck, or move in synchrony with an auditory beat.’” As prophylactic against protests – how can he make such a categorical statement! – Patel says he visited an elephant orchestra in Thailand. “[E]lephants have been trained to strike percussion instruments and play on their own. … Patel [and a collegue] made careful measurements and video recordings of the elephants’ performances. They found, as they reported in a 2006 paper, that an elephant could ‘play a percussion instrument [a large drum] with a highly stable tempo’ – indeed a tempo more stable than most humans could achieve. But the other elephants in the ‘orchestra’ struck their instruments [cymbals, gongs, etc.] in seeming disregard of each other, without any hint of synchronization to the auditory beat of the drum elephant.’”

Oliver Sacks pulls back from primates to our own order: “’[R]hythm’ – in this special sense of combining movement and sound – appears spontaneously in human children, but not in any other primate.”

I’m not interested in arguing about whether there is a nonhuman animal what’s got riddim. What annoys me is this notion that writers have to ta-da – look folks, here’s something that only humans can do. That must be the thing that distinguishes us from all other life forms – after all, it’s not toolmaking, it’s not an opposable thumb, it’s not love, it’s not even laughter. It must be, uh, “being [able to be] trained to … move in synchrony with an auditory beat,” whatever that means exactly.

Is it so hard to hold back the definitive statement? Insert a “so far as we know” or “there was no example that we were able to find” or somesuch? Is a sentence like, “We were unable to find a single report of an animal being trained to tap, peck or move in synchrony blah blah blah”, so unwieldy? I mean, all it takes is one “single report” and you got egg on your face.

source: Musicophilia: tales of music and the brain, by Oliver Sacks

Friday, February 27, 2009

Tuesday turns to the right

In a discussion of synesthesia, that is the conjoining of two or more senses, as when one associates music with flavors, say (“G-sharp minor, for example, has a different ‘flavor’ from G minor”), Oliver Sacks includes a footnote in which he describes one man’s day of the week associations:

“Monday is green, Tuesday whitish-yellow – the ‘terrain’ here, as he calls it, ascends and turns to the right, Wednesday is magenta, ‘almost old-brick color,’ Thursday a deep, almost indigo purple, Friday, almost the highest point of the terrain, a birch color, Saturday ‘drops down, to a dark, murky brown.’ Sunday is black.”

source: Musicophilia: tales of music and the brain, by Oliver Sacks

Thursday, February 26, 2009

go to jail, go to school

* 75 percent were reading somewhere between the fourth- and sixth-grade levels.
* 90 percent never had a legal job.
* 90 percent were self-identified addicts.
* 80 percent were self-identified victims of sexual or physical violence as a child.
* 65 percent had been placed in a special-education class at some point.
* 75 percent were high school dropouts.

These numbers faced Sunny Schwartz back in 1990 when she was hired to create programs for the inmates of the newly built, newly organized county jail in San Francisco. She says, “These were incredible obstacles. If I thought about it for too long, I got depressed. … I knew this population could not afford to opt out [of taking classes] or they would be right back in our jails within months. … [C]lasses would be mandatory.”

Prisoners were unhappy. So were, to Schwartz’s surprise, some of the deputies who policed the jail, convinced the requirement would be so unpopular that the inmates would riot. “Some [colleagues] thought it was unconstitutional – that we couldn’t force the inmates to learn if they didn’t want to. … Every day in the jails, we strip-searched people, forced them to spread their cheeks, squat and cough, while a deputy sheriff inspected their anal cavity. None of the staff complained about the constitutional rights of inmates because of that security measure.”

Compulsory education? They didn’t get it as kids. Isn’t education the law in this land? I had to do 13 years. It wasn’t a total waste of time, though that’s not an endorsement. Convicted criminals being required to learn the three Rs? Uh. I’m okay with that.

source: Dreams from the Monster Factory: a tale of prison, redemption, and one woman’s fight to restore justice to all, by Sunny Schwartz

Thursday, February 12, 2009


word of the day: simultagnosia

context: “Her auditory environment was split sometimes into discrete and unconnected elements: street sounds, domestic sounds, or the sounds of animals, for example, might suddenly stand out and preempt her attention because they were isolated, not integrated into the normal auditory background or landscape. Neurologists refer to this as simultagnosia, and it is more often visual than auditory.”

Further definition from “Patients can recognize objects or details in their visual field, but only one at a time. They cannot make out the scene they belong to or make ... a whole image out of the details. They literally cannot see the forest for the trees.”

An agnosia (according to is “(a-gnosis, ‘non-knowledge’, or loss of knowledge) … loss of ability to recognize objects, persons, sounds, shapes, or smells while the specific sense is not defective nor is there any significant memory loss.”

source for context quote: Musicophilia: tales of music and the brain by Oliver Sacks

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

“A multitude should gather for such an edifice.”

I’m reading Anne Sexton’s Complete Poems and I come across this charmingly irreverent praise for the erect penis:

“It is complete within seconds, that monument.
The blood runs underground yet brings forth a tower.
A multitude should gather for such an edifice.
For a miracle one stands in line and throws confetti.
Surely The Press is here looking for headlines.
Surely someone should carry a banner on the sidewalk.
If a bridge is constructed doesn’t the mayor cut a ribbon?
If a phenomenon arrives shouldn’t the Magi come bearing gifts?”

source: “That Day”, which also appeared in Sexton’s Love Poems

Monday, February 09, 2009

Steely Dan

OK, maybe you know that the rock band Steely Dan took its name from a dildo in William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. But have you ever read the passage that inspired them? Most of the sex in Naked Lunch is between men, though it’s often surreal, violent, and mucky. But in the ‘Steely Dan’ passage it’s het sex, of the pegging variety:

“Mary is strapping on a rubber penis. ‘Steely Dan III from Yokohama,’ she says, caressing the shaft. Milk spurts across the room.

“’Be sure that milk is pasteurized. Don’t go giving me some kinda awful cow disease like anthrax or glanders or aftosa …’ [ellipsis in orig.]

“’When I was a transvestite Liz in Chi used to work as an exterminator. Make advances to pretty boys for the thrill of being beaten as a man. Later I catch this one kid, overpower him with supersonic judo I learned from an old Lesbian Zen monk. I tie him up, strip off his clothes with a razor, and fuck him with Steely Dan I. He is so relieved I don’t castrate him literal he come all over my bedbug spray.’

“’What happen to Steely Dan I?’

“’He was torn in two by a bull dike. Most terrific vaginal grip I ever experienced. She could cave in a lead pipe. It was one of her parlor tricks.’

“’And Steely Dan II?’

“’Chewed to bits by a famished candiru in the Upper Baboonsasshole.’”

Then Mary works Steely Dan III into Johnny’s ass “with a series of corkscrew movements of her fluid hips.”

Pop music!

Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Best Poems of 2008

As I read I keep ready a stack of placemarks. When I read something I want to reread, I poke in a placemark. Used to be I only did this with poems. Nearly 20 years ago I started a personal anthology to answer for myself who might be my favorite poets. When asked, I couldn’t drop names with confidence because there were poems by poet X that I liked, but there were also poems by poet X that did nothing for me, or that I disliked. Could poet X be a favorite? I decided what I needed was a pool of poems that worked for me, a collection only of those poems I looked forward to returning to again & again. When a poem proves itself over a few readings – proves itself a poem I want to continue to live with – I copy it out by hand. Some years I copy out a lot of poems. This year? No.

I read 48 books & magazines in 2008 which contained poems, from these I copied a total of 18 poems* by 16 poets.

Juliette Chen … “Tao Po Mei”
Jean Yoon … “The De-Militarized Zone”
Jean Yoon … “Direct Translation”
Alicia Ostriker … “Anxiety About Dying”
Sue Owens … “Lullaby”
Gregory Corso … “Last Night I Drove a Car”
Gregory Corso … “Don’t Shoot the Warthog”
Valerie Worth … “Cat Bath”
Dean Young … “Bright Head”
Dean Young … “Noncompliant”
Marc Elihu Hofstadter … “Paris”
Joanne Kyger … “October 28, Take It Easier”
John Giorno … “Tear Gas”
Alan Bern … a senryu from “Secondi Passi”
Emily Dickinson … 1563 “by homely gift”
Darlyn Avina … “Deep Eyes”
Jerry D. Miley … “Memories”
Geof Huth & mIEKAL aND … 19 pwoerms from Texistence

The habit of placemarks has come in handy with Dare I Read, too. I have a batch of books leaning against each other near the computer, each with a marker indicating something I want to bring up. All the books currently standing by bring up difficult issues. So some of them have been waiting awhile. I wanted to talk about gay visibility, for instance – you can be out & proud but if people don’t see you as gay, you can’t influence their idea of what a gay person is; or depictions of gay people in a couple novels from the 1930s – not good, but not wholly bad? Have we come a long way or not?

Best Poems of 2007

Best Poems of 2006

Best Poems of 2005

Best Poems of 2004


* lumping all the pwoermds together

Monday, February 02, 2009

“no spiritual meaning to the Bible”

In the April 16, 2007 issue of The New Yorker there’s a profile of the linguist Dan Everett and the Amazonian Indian tribe, the Paraha. The Paraha speak a language with characteristics that seem to defy some current theories about what makes language language. Plus which it’s very difficult to learn. And the Piraha themselves aren’t much interested in anything the outside world has to offer so don’t try to learn anybody else’s words. You want to talk to them, you gotta learn their language, which they don’t seem averse to teaching if it’s not too much trouble.

Everett began his linguistic career as a missionary. He married a devout woman whose family had done missionary work. When he attended an evangelical program for learning linguistics (goal: translate Bible into every language in the world and save dem souls!) he experienced a joy akin to being born again. Everett showed so much promise he got a real tough assignment – the Paraha. Though previous missionaries had worked with the tribe, none had succeeded in getting Christianity across. In this tradition Dan Everett’s own success with the Piraha language is not matched by Piraha interest in Christianity.

Long story short: a second degree later, plus a personal crisis or two and Everett faces the Piraha with new resolve:

“He threw himself into missionary work, translating the Book of Luke into Piraha and reading it to tribe members. His zeal soon dissipated, however. Convinced that the Piraha assigned no spiritual meaning to the Bible, Everett finally admitted that he did not, either.”

One of the many things that’s long puzzled me about Christianity is the idea that you need it. Billions of people around the world don’t need it. What about all the billions over the last two thousand years who’ve never heard of it? I mean Jesus, the very son of God, the only one, the only son, the only God, pops out of a virgin in a deserty little property off the Mediterranean, a sea more like a lake than an ocean, traipses around muttering and expostulating for a few years (was it even that long?), turns a little water to wine, brings a dead guy or two back to life, then gets nailed to a couple of boards. He dies, presumably in agony. It’s a story, all right.

However great the Jesus trip was, on a global scale it looks pretty small. Get a globe. A big globe. So big it won’t fit in your lap. Touch Israel with your pinkie and you’ve covered more ground than all that Jesus saw in his lifetime. Christianity, as a global phenom, lucked out when it got adopted by the Roman Empire. So the Roman Empire was poised for Dark Ages, at least it had the dim light of Christianity to squint by. Right?

Meanwhile the rest of the world – China, Mesoamerica, India – doing just fine, thanks. Waiting for Christianity to break free of stinky ol’ dirty Europe? Dying to be swept up in the Jesus craze? No. Really not.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The War on Drugs is in essence a religious war

"The War on Drugs is in essence a religious war. That is why drug offenders get longer prison sentences than violent criminals. A drug user is worse than a criminal -- no punishment is too severe, because drug users are heretics."

That's from Dale Pendell's "Amrta: the neuropharmacology of Nirvana" which appears in The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry, edited by Andrew Schelling.

Pendell has produced books focused on psychotropic plants, Pharmako/Poeia and Pharmako/Dynamis. I have at least one of these upstairs, currently lost in the disorganization of the library.

"Drugs, as a general term, is an obfuscation of the War on Drugs. We hear the phrase 'alcohol and drugs,' as if alcohol were not a drug, and as if by drugs we all know what is being talked about. Addiction is an issue with tobacco, alcohol, and the opiates, but is not at all a property of the entheogens. Addiction to alcohol, a cellular poison, is characterized by physical and mental deterioration that is virtually absent in opiate addiction. Tobacco kills nearly half a million Americans each year, but there are no recorded deaths from marijuana. Each of these plants and substances has distinct properties, promises, and dangers. All that is served by lumping a group of them together is a government program of spiritual and political oppression aimed at cutting off all dialogue."

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

why you hate your father

Following up on yesterday’s post:

Paul Goodman describes “an underprivileged school in Harlem” where “every two years each advancing class came out ten points lower in ‘native intelligence.’” No triumph for the educational system, eh? But he says “a new principal … has reversed the trend. One method to remedy stupidity that he swears by is to invite the free expression of criticism and hostility, e.g., ‘Write a composition telling why you hate your father – why you hate school – why you hate me.’”

Use complete sentences.

source: Growing Up Absurd by Paul Goodman

Monday, January 05, 2009

hard, useful and of public concern

“Naturally the pay is low – for the work is hard, useful, and of public concern, all three of which qualities tend to bring lower pay.”

I get a sense this is right. Running a billion-dollar company into the ground is worth a $43 million bonus. I’m betting that work is relatively easy, not useful, and, although of public concern, takes place out of sight of the public.

The quote is from Paul Goodman’s critique of American, well, absence of meaning, Growing Up Absurd, which was published in 1960. 50 years on things are different but much of his critique is still spot-on.

Goodman was explicitly referring to school teachers. He goes on, “It is alleged that the low pay is why there is a shortage of teachers and why the best do not choose the profession. My guess is that the best avoid it because of the certainty of miseducating. Nor are the best wanted by the system, for they are not safe.” Not safe in that they will encourage their students to think for themselves, which, you know, is always fraught with peril for those in power.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

I still don’t like Shakespeare

Beginning of December I excerpted some comments by John McWhorter about the extent the language has changed since Shakespeare wrote. Perhaps it’s that I don’t understand his words – perhaps that’s why I don’t like Shakespeare.

Inspired himself by McWhorter’s discussion of Shakespeare, Kent Richmond has been translating Shakespeare plays into contemporary English. A nearby library has one of them, King Lear, so I requested it. I’d never read King Lear so it would be wholly fresh for me. Yes, I knew a bit of the plot – Lear divides his kingdom between his daughters but they betray him and he ends up wandering the moors raving, accompanied by his sharp-tongued fool (jester). Akira Kurosawa’s Ran is a version of King Lear and I liked that all right, except for the fool who was just annoying.

So? Now that I’ve read Shakespeare in fully comprehensible English? Well, Richmond uses contemporary vocabulary but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to figure out what’s being said, so it’s maybe not fully comprehensible, but close enough, you know, if it’s good stuff. Is it good stuff?

It’s a tragedy, right? Everybody – just about – comes to a bad end. So you gotta expect that going in.

But, you know, in order for it really to be tragic, you gotta feel like the miseries are undeserved. When we meet Lear in the very first scene he’s a total asshole, ordering his daughters to outbid each other in dishonest praise of himself. When one balks (she’s got integrity!), he abrupty disinherits her and banishes her from the kingdom – and she, supposedly, is his favorite! Even allowing that the old guy is going senile, and he seldom makes a sensible decision throughout, this behavior is pretty egregious. When the daughters who buttered him up start cutting back on his allowance and he acts like he’s been stabbed in the heart, it’s darn hard to feel sorry for him. You disinherited your daughter and threw her out of the kingdom on pain of death and now you’re sobbing about being denied a few retainers? Dude, you deserve whatever you’re going to get. And I hope it’s bad.

Sadly, it’s bad. Bad as in ridiculous. I could see staging this thing as a comedy but as a tragedy? Two different characters hide in plain sight by changing clothes. One joins Lear and the fool in a mad rave-fest on the stormy moor. Presumably the language isn’t supposed to make sense in these scenes so the original is missed because it sounded exotic not just huh? (Or so I want to allow.)

One character or another tells us Lear is a great guy, yet the assertion is contradicted by his actions. Maybe if one of his character witnesses said something like, “This is so unlike Lear! Remember when he saved the little girl from drowning? Or what about when he opened the royal granaries the year of the famine?” With this Lear it’d be easy to imagine him having a starving mother dragged in and strapped to a chair so she could watch him eat ice cream and throw darts at her bawling infant.

Kent has wondered if maybe I’m being too harsh on Shakes.

To which my reply is: one cannot be too harsh on Shakespeare. His reputation is godlike. Nothing I say will disturb it. Nor is it incumbent upon me to contort myself and betray my brain in order to love him, or tolerate him, for that matter.