Shake the Dust

Sometimes beauty hides in the magic of a URL. The nearly indecipherable strings of letters and numbers that only make sense when fed into a machine.

Anis Mojgani performs Shake the Dust at HEAVY AND LIGHT

Sometimes beauty hides in the magic of a URL. The nearly indecipherable strings of letters and numbers that only make sense when fed into a machine. But the code and the sound and the light the machine spits back is pure beauty. Pure magic. Pure love.

And sometimes this gift is delivered with the simple chime of the arrival of a new text message. Cutting through haze and blur of just another day. Landing like a burning ember, glowing red hot, right in the crotch of our day causing us to jump and slap wildly, dancing, flailing.  Trying in vain to maintain the shroud of an ordinary day.

The spark sets us alight. And for a few minutes, as the flames consume us, feeding off the tinder we pull over ourselves to keep out the cold, we can see in the light a different world. A place flickering with hope. Shining with love. Radiant with life.

Shake the Dust came to me today. Sent unheralded, unannounced. A flaming cannonball shot over my wall. And my kingdom is ablaze.

May the fire spread to your heart. The amazing and incomparable Anis Mojgani.

For Japan

A community I visited north of Tokyo, the Asian Rural Institute, sent a message to its friends about shattered glass, structural damage, no electricity, and lots of aftershocks, but no fatalities. My friends and family in Japan are safe, as far as I know. But no one is OK. It will take more than one lifetime for people to recover.

Unless you’ve been to Japan, it’s hard to imagine the destructive force of the tsumami that raced as far as 6 miles inland. You have to imagine half the population of the U.S.–150 million people–living in an area about 20% of the size of California, most of that area on the coastal plains that hug the seacoast. Now, massive, sprawling garbage heaps have replaced the towns and villages that once were squeezed along the northeast coast. Profoundly worse, however, for the only country to survive two nuclear bomb attacks, is the threat of a nuclear explosion at Fukushima’s reactor.

I haven’t got words for how I feel. My friend Tyler Boudreau, a Marine veteran of Iraq and author of Packing Inferno, thought of me and sent me this song, “Requiem,” by Austin musician, Eliza Gilkyson. It’s from her album, “Paradise Hotel.” The Mother Mary reference may seem culturally out of place, but the primary deity of Shinto is the goddess Amaterasu. And during the 250 years of hidden Christianity during the Shogunate, Christians used statues of Kannon, the female Buddhist saint of mercy as a stand in for Mary (Kannon as the Madonna). Here are the lyrics. Amen.

Requiem by Eliza Gilkyson

mother mary, full of grace, awaken
all our homes are gone, our loved ones taken
taken by the sea
mother mary, calm our fears, have mercy
drowning in a sea of tears, have mercy
hear our mournful plea
our world has been shaken,
we wander our homelands forsaken
in the dark night of the soul
bring some comfort to us all,
o mother mary come and carry us in your embrace
that our sorrows may be faced
mary, fill the glass to overflowing
illuminate the path where we are going
have mercy on us all
in fun’ral fires burning
each flame to your myst’ry returning
in the dark night of the soul
your shattered dreamers, make them whole,
o mother mary find us where we’ve fallen out of grace,
lead us to a higher place
in the dark night of the soul
our broken hearts you can make whole,
o mother mary come and carry us in your embrace,
let us see your gentle face, mary

On Writing: The Hunchers, the Librarians and War

The enduring conceptions of what we nowadays call the “writing process” come from two camps: the Ugly Hunchers and the Mincing Librarians.

Hunchers are characterized not only by their grotesque facial features and typically poor posture but also by their gnomic pronouncements on the composition process. The chief Ugly Huncher of our time is no doubt John Ashbery, who in the early Nineteen Seventies renewed the Huncher philosophy with remarkable pith. “Poetry,” he said, “is mostly hunches.”

Plato, despite his relative talkiness and reputed beauty, is the most famous of the Hunchers.  All Huncher Pronouncements are considered merely afterwords to his. He said, speaking of the poet: “…he is a manufacturer of images and is very far removed from the truth….” There have been many Hunchers and many Huncher pronouncements since, of course, but I give Plato pride of place not only for his thorough-going Hunchiness, but also for his figurative bleakness. Reading his words, I am always persuaded he is right: the poor poet toils away in the dark, creaking image factory, way out in there in boring suburbs of truth, far from the vibrant metropolis where the philosopher kings whoop it up every night. And there he has stood for millennia, poor, benighted, stooped and weary on the assembly line, forever stitching together his dank bolus of falsifying imagery. Plato always convinces me, for awhile,  that whatever it is we do when we write cannot be discussed–and certainly not in the open air and the strong, cleansing light of the sun, as one would discuss, say, the progress of a garden vine or the habits of a charming pet.

Plato inhabits what we might call the First Huncher Position. The idea, perhaps also implicit in the comment by Mr. Ashbery, is that Poets Are Idiots. But there is also a Second Huncher Position, one that dwells not on the simplicity of the poet’s mind, but the complexity of the poetic product. I call this the Hideous Mongrel Theory of Poetry. It goes like this. No story, no poem is purely blooded. No one has worked for years, as people do with dogs or racehorses, to establish a clean, predictable line of descendants from a single source of good genes. Each poem has many fathers and mothers. Each poem is mongrel. And each poem is two-headed, three-headed, four-headed. What seems to be a singular poem is actually two or three poems or plays fighting it out like cats in a bag (or like mongrels in the trailer courts of language). Look closely at any poem, even the simplest, and you will see several poems, even many poems, each with its own dubious heritage. It is the same with stories and plays and certainly with novels. A piece of writing is not a singular creature. It is a colony. And each member of the colony, each sentence, each word, has its own lineage, its own strange face, its own gait, its own inclinations.

T. S. Eliot, a Closet Huncher, sums up the Hideous Mongrel theory elegantly, but with great discretion. Always decorous, he does his best to disguise with a euphemism the genetics of the monstrous, three-headed pup dropped with a plop into the proper workshop or literary journal:

“It is not in the nature of things that there should be a point-for-point correspondence between the mental processes of any two poets. Not only do poems come into being in as many ways as there are poets; for the same poet… the process may vary from poem to poem. Every poem has its own embryological pattern…” (emphasis added)

Embryological pattern? We know to what he alludes: bastardy, monstrosity, excess digits, random mutation.

Whitman is perhaps more to the point.  “Something long preparing and formless,” he says, “is arrived and form’d in you.” Whatever it is that like the Alien has built up in us from the digestive gases or the ethers, we cannot know. We may have a hunch about it. We may figger it’s probably its own singular monster, one unlike any other monster that grinds through the ribs of any other poet. But what it is and how it forms, where it comes from and how it arrives, we don’t know. We hunch around our hunches and sometimes we splat out a poem. This is the Basic Huncher Position.

Opposed to the Hunchers and their ridiculous, though picturesque theories, are the Mincing Librarians. The Librarians believe in metonymy. In Mincing. That is, they believe in division by parts. The Librarians are the ones who take swords to the quaint metaphors nurtured with such care by the Hunchers. The most influential, though least recognized, of the contemporary Librarians is Janet Emig. Haven’t heard of her? You only think you haven’t heard of her. Janet Emig coined the Librarian’s Big Sneaky Term. That term is “writing process.”

According to Emig, who developed her theory while studying the composition process of high-school students, writing consists in:

  • · “Pre-writing,” which consists of planning, research and outlining
  • · Drafting, which is the initial composition
  • · Revision, which is review, modification and organization by the writer
  • · Editing, which is proofreading for clarity, conventions, style, whether by the writer or another
  • · Submittal, which is sharing the sharing the writing, possibly through performance, printing, or distribution of written material

(I have quoted here extensively from the Wikipedia entry on “writing process.”)

When you become sickened, if you are not sick already, by seminars, colloquia, talks, discussions and papers, like this one, on the “writing process,” you will know who to blame: Janet Emig, who, bless her heart, was only trying to figure out how to teach idiot high-school students to write five-paragraph essays. That her Big Sneaky Term became big at all is a testament to the littleness of contemporary thinking about whatever it is that we do when we write.

But the Librarian model has always suffered from a certain sketchiness. Emig’s model obviously follows from Aristotle, our first great classifier, who also analyzed the writing process as consisting of steps. For Aristotle, of course, there were but two steps: figuring out what to say and then saying it. Falling from a chair might require fewer steps, and less analysis, but otherwise creative composition seems to be among the simpler phenomena ever analyzed by the Great Classifier. Emig’s model is Steppier than Aristotle’s (it could hardly contain less) but her method obviously devolves from his.

The problem with the Librarian’s model is that whether it contains five steps or two, none of the Steps, and certainly none of the “analysis,” teaches us much about the creative act of composition. It is all very well to include a step called “Drafting” in a model of a writing process, but what does “Drafting” tell us about how poems and stories really get made?

This difficulty becomes most apparent when we look at the Librarian explanation in its purest form. For this most elegant and generally applicable model, we turn to Elder Olson, who has described The Librarian’s essential sense of the “writing process” as well as anyone has:

“… the poet… is operating as a poet only insofar as he is constructing constitutive parts and assembling them into a whole; in those operations only does the poetic process exist…”

And this process, making parts and arranging them into wholes, is, I hasten to add, the same one used by the fiction writer, the playwright, the ad man, the architect, the house-builder. Olson’s definition has the virtues of clarity and relevance; unfortunately, it tells us nothing about the writing process as a process unique to writing. Writing is another of those things humans do and humans do it they way they do most things–with some focus, many distractions, with love, or boredom, or maybe with genius (as if we could define that!) and with no particular understanding of the process itself. No one knows what Olson’s “parts” are. Nor his “wholes.” The writer works with words and sentences, but they are not really the parts. The parts are both smaller and more subtle and larger and more powerful than words and sentences. And what are the “wholes?” Unless the writer strictly imitates a piece of writing already written, who knows? The whole is what the writer is trying to get to, and she stops when she gets there, maybe, if she doesn’t run out of energy or inspiration first. But what is the “whole”? Define it at your peril.

In short, the working writer trying to understand her process must read any Librarian’s account as a soldier reads Caesar: with interest, but remembering that the battle itself is altogether muddier, bloodier and rattier than Caesar ever knew. And that what happens in the trenches when the Barbarians begin their howling charge is probably explicable, but perhaps only by old, battle-scarred soldiers, who can generalize based on their experience of many battles with Barbarians. The younger soldiers, and perhaps even the earnest Librarian, may, in the event of an actual battle, be altogether too preoccupied with the festivities to take many notes.

I do not assume that I am yet a soldier with enough experience to say what the battle is truly like. And, of course, writing is only like a battle in a rather florid figurative sense. But it is useful, if only as an exercise in imagination, to imagine one of these old soldiers, probably now a limping, drunken grandfather, and to listen to what he says as he rattles around in his cups late at night. I often hear him, or someone like him, when I write. Sometimes he speaks faintly, sometimes more strongly. Sometimes he is full of folly and I listen as a dutiful grandson listens, half-aware, sunk in the muds of my own dreams and worries, lulled by his voice yet eager to be on my way. Other times, what I hear from him seems to shine in the air like a star.

What he tells me is always a story. He is not an abstract talker. He cannot tell me what battle was. He cannot even tell me what battle is. But he can spin a tale, sometimes, that I cannot forget. He always talks of war–he has never known anything else–but never as “war.” It is always a battle, this one, that one, always the particular siege or rout or enfilade. He talks as well as he can. It is important to him to get the details right. And over time, if I listen carefully, these details seem stack up into a kind of truth–a small truth, a battered one.

What do we learn from the old soldier? First, that there are few useful general truths about war. The battles are various, their outcomes always different. What worked this time might work next time, but then again, it might not. And second, that luck plays a bigger part than any general is willing to admit. Often the battle is decided by weather, or by a flock of birds that signals the arrival of flankers, or by the presence of a single ditch that no one saw until a clumsy corporal fell in. But the main thing? It’s a fight. He is emphatic about this. What you gain you must take.

This is the crux of it, right here, the question I most want to ask. How do you do it, how do you take it, seize the day, stand your ground, rout the enemy?  How do you win?

Here the old man smiles, and takes another drink. Here, he knows, he is telling me a Big Secret. “Ambush,” he says. “Ambush is always best. Know the terrain. Set up in the best spot, on the best ground, the high ground, and wait with cool patience.”

And then?

“Well,” he says, grinning, “You must kill like a champion. You must be fast and ruthless and cold. You must love to fight.”

But there must be more to say. Some secret behind the secret. It’s difficult to believe this is all there is to war, about which so much has been written, so much lore, so much romance, such strategy. I tell him this. He seems offended. I wait. He settles down, takes another drink.

“Look,” he says, finally, staring right at me, trying to make me understand, “Peace is for dogs.”

“That life I had,” he says, “It’s the only life.”

He gets up to leave. He has said all he’s going to.

References

Arrington, Phillip K. “Tropes of the Composing Process.” College English. Vol. 48, No. 4 (April, 1986). 325-338.

Ashbery, John. “Craft Interview with John Ashbery.” The Craft of Poetry. Ed. William Packard. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1974. 111-132.

Olson, Elder. “The Poetic Process.” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Autumn 1975), pp. 69-74.

Plato. “The Republic.” Book X. The Dialogues of Plato translated into English with Analyses and Introductions. Trans. B. Jowett. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1892. 13 February 2009. <http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/767/93816>.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. New York: The Library of America, 1982.

“Writing process.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 10 Feb 2009,06:11UTC.14Feb 2009<http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Writing_process&oldid=269715645

Sisyphus Happy

In the pre-dawn darkness of Thanksgiving morning, I’m gazing out my New Orleans hotel window at the Mississippi River below. A ship’s horn sounds close by, but I see neither ship nor barge and figure it is just America moaning in its sleep.

Business brought me here and away from family this Thanksgiving, so I can be forgiven for romanticizing the errand a bit. I have on my iPod Folkways’ wondrous 1957 release of the University Players’ Walt Whitman readings. Still at the window, I listen to “Song of the Open Road.”

To know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling souls.
All parts away for the progress of souls,
All religion, all solid things, arts, governments – all that was or is apparent upon this globe or any globe, falls into niches and
corners before the procession of souls along the grand roads
of the universe.

Forever alive, forever forward,
Stately, solemn, sad, withdrawn, baffled, mad, turbulent, feeble, dissatisfied,
Desperate, proud, fond, sick, accepted by men, rejected by men,
They go! they go! I know that they go, but I know not where they go,
But I know that they go toward the best – toward something great.

Tempted by a post-modern savvy I didn’t order, I sometimes consider Whitman’s grand optimism embarrassingly naïve. Then I double-back on his time of Civil War, industrial madness and the shooting death of his beloved Abraham Lincoln. Whitman’s resilience becomes awe-inspiring and it makes it a little harder to feel sorry for myself.

Continue reading “Sisyphus Happy”

Dinosaurs Among Us

Standing over the makings of a new compost pile,
hose in hand,
I was surprised to see a little head pop up.
Tiny nose, whiskers, beady eyes emerged
surprised by the unrequested bath (soaking really)
disturbed from its nest.
Out popped a mouse from the jumble of wood shavings,
pulled weeds, branches, leaves.
Apparently a home.
And then another. And another. And another. And another.
Like furry popcorn dashing out of the pile, wet and quivering
and in need of a new place to rest, to hide, to build a nest.

For want of a cat I turned, hose in hand, toward the house
and called,
“Come here dogs. Come get some treats! Animas. Piedra. Come!”
The black dog and the yellow dog looked up from their resting spots
in the shade of the porch, ears back, squinty eyes,
tails wagging in short, nervous sweeps.
Unmoving.
“Come on girls! I have some treats for you!”
They eyed me and the hose and my excited voice,
and turned and slunk up the back steps into the house
sure of a soaking.
“Animas! Piedra! Come! Treats! Damn dogs.”

“Useless dogs. Where am I going to find a cat?”
And soon. Two turned to ten turned to twenty with me standing over them
with my cold, drowning eviction notice drenching the neighborhood
turning them out on the town.
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed one of our black australorp nearby.
“Here chick, chick, chick.”
She wandered toward me in her attentive, waddley way.
And noticed a mouse.
In feathery flash she was on the evictee, grabbed it in her beak,
smashed it to the ground a few times, stood up tall with the carcass dangling,
walked a few proud steps and swallowed it whole.
Just the tip of the tail sticking out of her mouth as the only reminder it had every existed
and then it was gone.

Goldie Hen Helps

In moments, the rest of the flock arrived,
heads low and stretched out in front of them, wings out to their sides with their powerful legs
driving them like a squadron of fighters on a strafing run.
And in a few seconds nine more mice became nothing more than tail tips between cruel beaks.
But the flood continued and so did the evacuees.
The hens were ready.
They hunted in teams. Some would pair up and push mice to one another.
Other battlefield tactics emerged.
I saw flanking formations, pressure lines, pincer movements.
Some would flush while others killed and when the killers consumed they flushed for the others.
One of the silver laced wyandottes was especially good at knocking off the mice
that tried to escape by climbing a piece of fence. I saw her do it at least three times
while her killing partner, Raggedy Anne a disheveled araucana, pounced on the fallen mice.

I lost track counting in those ten or fifteen minutes. More than fifty young mice,
damp victims of a soggy eviction were greeted by ten hens
without a survivor.
Like falling out of a boat into a shark feeding frenzy,
crawling out of your overturned jeep and being met by a pack of velociraptors
or getting kicked out of your home and running into a pack of loan collectors,
bankers and debt repayment officers.
There are dinosaurs among us. They didn’t die out.
We pluck them and grill them or fry them. We collect their eggs and eat them scrambled, over easy,
hard boiled or deviled.
Too bad bankers aren’t as useful or delicious.

Haiku Friday: I Square Donald Judd

 

(L-R) Mary Lowry, Ray Souder at The Chinati Foundation in Marfa. Photo by Ray Souder.

glorious boxes

shine in the shadow and sunlight

breeze bends the brown grass

Now it’s your turn, beloved DogCanyon readers. Write us a Friday Haiku about art and life. You remember the rules:

Three lines.

First line five syllables.

Second line seven syllables.

Third line five syllables.

Haiku Friday: My America

It’s Haiku Friday, a day when any DogCanyon reader can be a poet. Because here at DogCanyon, we love populism and art.

With haiku there are just a few simple rules to remember.

Every haiku has three lines. The first line has five syllables. The second line has seven syllables. The third line has five syllables, and often contains a little something unexpected.

It’s Friday so take five minutes to write a little haiku and post it here in the comments section.

photo by Mary Lowry

sunlight sand big waves
afternoon on Venice Beach
golden man dancing
Continue reading “Haiku Friday: My America”

Two Wheels

The pure simplicity
And power
of travel over land
On two wheels

More trust placed
In an inch of rubber
Than years of friendship
Or love
Or blood

And seldom betrayed
Save an occassional flat
Easily repaired with three little tools
That fit in a pocket
Unlike friendship
Or love
Or blood

There are no tools
To fill a flat friendship
Patch love
Change out blood

So I sit astraddle
With beating heart
And pumping legs
On two wheels