...the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life...

Monday, April 28, 2014

C.S. Lewis

“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions.

"We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that?’ – lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H.G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books”

- in his introduction to Saint Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. [I borrowed this from Andrew Sullivan, who posted it yesterday.]

Friday, April 25, 2014


'My tread scares the wood-drake and wood-duck 
          on my distant and day-long ramble,
They rise together, they slowly circle around.
I believe in those wing’d purposes,
And acknowledge red, yellow, white, playing 
          within me,
And consider green and violet and tufted crown 
And do not call the tortoise unworthy because 
          she is not something else,
And the jay in the woods never studied the gamut, 
          yet trills pretty well to me,
And the look of the bay mare shames silliness out of me.'

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Andy Crouch

"What is the ultimate thing an idol can ask of you? Your life. Actually not your life--your child's life. The ultimate demand an idol can ask is not, 'Sacrifice your life.' It's, 'Sacrifice the life of your children.'"

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

I'll Stop if You Stop

Part of an ongoing collaborative project. More here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

WH Auden

"In our age, the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act. So long as artists exist, making what they please and think they ought to make, even if it is not terribly good, even if it appeals to only a handful of people, they remind the Management of something managers need to be reminded of, namely, that the managed are people with faces, not anonymous numbers, that Homo Laborans is also Homo Ludens."

from "The Poet & The City" (1962)

"Common People" and "Capital"

I'd heard recently that Pulp's "Common People" was voted by the UK public the best pop song ever, or somesuch, though it turns out I was a bit off: Best Britpop Song ever, as voted by BBC listeners. [Full version here, but with bad audio.] These listeners are on to something. The song builds in sound and dance-ability as it builds in outrage. I remember, back in the 90s, the story being that Britpop, specifically acts like Pulp & Blur, couldn't make it in the States because their concerns were too provincial, particularly when they turned to issues like class. We Americans live in a classless society, the thinking goes. Anyone can make it if they work hard enough.

Since I've never had to put that last sentence to the test in any real way, I can't attest to its truth. But reading all the press about Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century, currently the #1 book on Amazon, has made me think about the song again. One main gist of the book, as far as I can tell (I haven't read it yet), is that since the rate of return (r) on capital greatly outperforms the growth of economies (g), the already staggering gap between rich and poor will continue to grow, unless something is done about it:
Mr Piketty is not arguing that r>g means that rising inequality is inevitable. Indeed, that is close to the precise opposite of his argument, which is that r>g is a force for divergence in the economy which has at times been countered by external forces, and which can and should be similarly countered in [the] future.
This means that, as things are now, those who have or inherit money make more money than those who work hard, even if they work much harder than the haves do. I don't know how accurate Piketty's analysis is, but one recent study about wealth disparity in the U.S. concludes the following:
Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.
Little or no independent influence: i.e., common people.

[A live version of the song is here.]

READING: Wednesday, 4/29

I'm reading with four tremendous poets--Allison Benis White, Lorene Delany-Ullman, Patty Seyburn, and Victoria Chang--on Wednesday, April 29th, in Irvine. I invite anyone reading this blog to come on out. More information about the reading can be found here.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Every Grain of Sand

a song to play at my funeral:

Sunday, April 20, 2014

47. Fin

46. Poem Made on Holy Saturday

The blasts of daisies on the bank
of the San Gabriel River dignify
the marred river, as does the line
of yellow mustard stretching along
the bike path. The Great Blue Heron
rising from water to rest above concrete
walls that hem in the water’s course,
and cormorants standing, drying their wings
on a rusted pipe bridge, make one forget
almost trash floating beneath them and
the smell of detergent the water plumes forth.
The people on bikes are incidental
to all of this, except that they sustain
and increase the blasted-out background
before which flowers and creatures
appear and reappear, somehow, in relief.

Saturday, April 19, 2014


I'm reading poetry at this opening. Come on out!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

43. "What I want to see"

your legs, those same jeans,
a bear in the wild, a mountain lion,
whale, spectacular car crash,
UFO, beers, my house, that 
pile there gone, my kids' 
report cards, people glad 
to see me, rain, pyramids, 
catacombs, the playoffs
clearly without glasses,
Cheap Trick in their heydey,
the Los Angeles Basin before
the Spaniards' arrival, Owens
Lake when it was full of water,

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

42. Lectionary

What is foolish shames the wise, what is weak
Shames the strong. What’s been chosen is what’s
Low & despised, including what is not, in order to
Erase what is, so that no one may boast. Boast in God.
This is the reading for today. This is what is
Read by me on the day I’m reading it, as posted
Online in the lectionary I found by means
Inchoate to me as the source of the scriptures
I found them by. Inchoate, not mysterious.
I entered a search for lenten lectionary 2014,
And I clicked on the top unadvertised link.
A student from China yesterday prayed for me in Chinese.
We were standing on a lawn under humid, bright air.
He said you are a blessing already to those people
You say you want to be a blessing to. He said your life
Is what needs to change. And you can’t do it.
He then asked if he could pray for me, I said yes.
I put this down here, this is no put-on, to read again
Someday, since my memory, and my cares…

41. Broadcast News

While in previous weeks I’ve tried to express something about the grammar, or the structure, of movies, this post is more narrowly focused--in this case, on a particularly good sentence in a movie full of good sentences. Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) resigns from his news network, partly b/c it’s becoming ever more soullessly corporate, partly because he knows he's lost the heart of Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) to the pretty boy on-air talent, Tom Grunick (William Hurt). Aaron decides to leave D.C. for a job on the West Coast, and when she hears about it, Jane calls him up and greets him, thusly: 
“Bastard! Sneak! Quitter!”
“Speaking!” he replies, cheerfully. She tells him she wants to see him, like right now, and he says he can’t—he’s getting ready to move, he’s got things to take care of, etc., etc. She demands he meet her, and finally he relents, ending the scene with the following exchange:
“Ok, I’ll meet you at the place near the thing where we went that time.”
This makes us laugh by confirming what we already know about these two: they are best friends. I return to a quotation from Stanley Hauerwas I included in the first movie post I made for this project, here slightly modified (in subject) to apply to Aaron & Jane, as well as to the movie & audience watching it: “What we need to say [relationally] is that the truth is in the details, and it is the details that produce sentences that matter." This sentence (Aaron's sentence) is beautiful because it testifies by its vagueness to the particularity of the friendship we've watched unfold the previous two hours. You'd have to know someone really well to know what he means by "the place near the thing where we went that time." And it's sad because we know it's not enough.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

40. Song

Late on this one, too. It's on its way...

Saturday, April 12, 2014

39. Two Poems

From the current issue of Poetry:

"On Hierophany," by Karen An-Hwei Lee

"Lives of the Poets," by Kim Addonizio

38. "Okinawa, 1960, a woman named Marilyn"

Okinawa, 1960, a woman named Marilyn
pets her new dog Skoshi. She drives an MG.
Her husband’s an aviator, away
whenever typhoons come, to keep
the airplanes safe. They live in beige
government housing, perched above
a rice paddy. Beyond it is the East
China Sea, then China, invisible.
She is two years
from bearing their first child.
The couple have known each other
about four months. The flight
from the States took thirty hours
and when she leaves the island
with son and husband in 1962
she’ll leave the car and dog behind.
She goes by Kay and will be ten years hence
my mother, and I might not be getting all
details right, but this is a story I’ve learned
casually, repeatedly, over years
that have peeled off patiently,
but which have lately lost that virtue.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

36. Poem Conceived During a Commute

Over the road the gray arm reaches out
to speak to me in colors, like paddles
at auction telling the caller to keep bids 
coming. Even if the brake pedal could be, 
without harm, thought of as a gavel, 
the foot resists the current lot’s appraisal.

Monday, April 7, 2014

34. The Cameraman

When I first started reading novels to to my older kid, he'd often interrupt me to ask what was going to happen, esp. when a character was in jeopardy. When Jim, in Treasure Island, is getting pushed out to sea in the little coracle, my son asked, "Dad, what's going to happen to Jim?" My answer to these questions was always the same: "Be patient, buddy. The story raises questions that it itself will answer."

He was a quick study, as anyone who pays attention is. You don't need to know Chekov's famous dictum to know that certain elements in a story precede (and precipitate) certain outcomes. The structure of a sentence, for example, limits its options. This is most apparent in sentences that rhyme. I was scanning the dial in the car recently and came across "Ramblin' Man," a song I've heard a million times but never paid much attention to.
Lord, I was born a ramblin' man,
Tryin' to make a livin' and doin' the best I can.
And when it's time for leavin',
I hope you'll understand,
That I was born a ramblin' man. 
"Man," "can," "understand," "man." It all fits together easily and predictably, like the well-worn shoe that song is. Such predictability is what makes its violation so much fun. That violation is the engine of comedy, but it's also the revealer of pathos. Take this pretty obscure song, "Strobe," by the band Adam Again. [Better to listen to it than read it, esp. because its vowel rhymes would not be considered by someone like Stephen Sondheim to be rhymes at all.]
Remember when you laughed in my ear three times
I was waiting for more you said "who am I"
Now you're waiting in the shopping line
Saying here's two nickels will you give me a quarter
I like the song ok, but I love that last line. Even though I know what's coming, I'm still caught off-guard. My ear wants to hear "dime."
Years ago I had a friend read a bunch of my poems, and he put them into three or four categories. The best--what he called the "haymakers"--were those he said that surprised him. I was pleased by this description. Who wants to be predictable? (I guess I do, on some level. Predictably reliable, say. Predictably bitchin'.)
I've been watching a lot of Buster Keaton's silent-era movies with my kids. They are, at their best, "news that stays news." Last spring I set up a projector in the backyard for my son's birthday party and showed to his friends, at his insistence, the short One Week before we watched Super 8. One of his friends (the "cool" one), asked me, incredulous, "This was made almost a 100 years ago?" He left before Super 8 ended.

Running out of new Buster Keaton movies, or at least running out of those that are a) silent and b) available via Netflix, we watched this past weekend The Cameraman, from 1928. Not a bad movie, but nowhere near his best. Scenes went on too long, for one thing. But you might also say that too many of its "sentences" were predictably structured, a la "Ramblin' Man."

An example: A poor Buster Keaton buys from a pawn shop a lousy movie camera in hopes of working as a newsreeler and impressing the woman who works at the news agency. At the entrance of the agency, right in front of his (potential, but really, inevitable) girl's desk, is a glass-paned door. Buster, in his clumsiness, knocks the pane out with his tripod. Next time he's in the office carrying his unwieldy rig, there's that door again, all fixed with a new pane, like a straight man about to get hit in the face with a pie. My son said, "That glass is going to break again." And sure enough, it did. A few scenes later it happened a third time. There were funny bits in the movie, but this was not one of them. One Week, on the other hand, ends with a climactic "sentence" that is structurally predictable--you can literally "see" what's coming--yet which, miraculously, ends in surprise.

My undergrad poetry teacher, Kevin Clark, first introduced me to that idea--who said it? Paul Valéry?--that a poem's ending should be "surprising yet inevitable." I've held onto and disseminated this idea lo these past twenty years. Here it is in Charles Simic's words: "[The kinds of poems I write] depend for their success on word and image being placed in proper order and their endings must have the inevitability and surprise of an elegantly executed checkmate."

This is not the only way to conceive of "endings," of course. But give me a "Strobe" over a "Ramblin' Man" any day.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

33. Song

In better shape this week. Last Sunday's song just got posted last night, and this one is mostly recorded, but it's lacking some pieces. Tomorrow, I hope.

I'm also seeing that my numbering is all off. My day of "rest" (Saturday) should be numberless, though the more conventional Lenten rest day is Sunday. So, yeah.

Friday, April 4, 2014

31. What It's Like

Like the 5,000 ground forces and
164 APCs of the Moldovan Army,
my love provides security
appropriate to the size and geography
of its borders and interests.

Like the russet potatoes on the kitchen counter,
bought for when cooking anything else 
is just too much work, my love
is practical and satisfying.

The bowsprit rising and falling
on unsubtle seas, pointing
the way of the vessel it leads
also aptly describes my love.

When you rent a movie from Redbox
you bring to an unplanned evening
comfortable, affordable entertainment.
My love is like that more often than like
the unbroken horse raging at
the hackamore it feels but cannot shake off.

What else: stars over the desert
blocked by clouds, dirty socks
scenting a tent with decay,
a dog begging for people food,
an earthquake that rolls instead
of shakes, a run in a hand of pinochle
encouraging a risky bid.

A paper towel: transformed, refined,
seemingly inexhaustible, marvel
disguised as common thing.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Poems up

I have four poems in Wild, a new venture some friends of mine put together. I had forgotten I had sent these over, so it was a nice surprise to see them. There's art, fiction, and other stuff to look at, too, including a great site epigraph taken from Charlotte Brontë. Check it out.

30. propeller

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

29. There was a color, there was a swatch.

The color on the swatch did not match
The color on the wall. The swatch meant
To tell us what would be, saying, This
Is the color beneath the lid, and this
Is what your wall will look like soon.
But small color, perhaps, means
Differently than when expanded onto
The wall of a room, a house, that dresser
Near the window. Your eyes are blue.
Lovely. Too much when coloring all things.

28. Around the World

Sidewalk chalk marks Around the World, written worold 
by the boy who wrote it after Around the beneath
chalk-drawn cars adjacent to marks we shoot by.

He also outlined USA, with outsized California and HI
& AK. The boy’s your brother, you are my opponent.
I shoot with my left hand only. You don't use your legs

like I’ve taught but cannot enforce with punishment 

because that would be weird. Your brother came out after
homework to join us. He has no game so instead 

drew with what I used to make x's for each shot stop. 
You marked his shirt with it, too. He shouted,
What the hey!! You do that kind of thing. 

You will again, which do, present tense, implies, 
fact you would mention if I were speaking this.
You win. I remind you I shot left-handed.