Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Weepies, Indeed

They don't call themselves The Weepies for nothin'. This song killed me. Literally. I'm lying in my office with an X for a right eye and evaporating tears for a left. With my soft underbelly exposed, I got stabbed to deeper death by several silvery feminine needles.

While I was dead, I had visions of the feminine principle, the flower that splits the rock, the water that wears away the rock, the wind that shears the rock, the rising and falling of tides, wind on the water, Mother Nature, breath of life....

When I caught my breath and came back to life, I vowed to stop being so goddamn obdurate and unbalanced and hardheaded, to take yoga again, to play the piano more, to love everybody more, to be more joyful and alive. Then I hit replay, and the openness of the song and the simplicity of the video killed me all over again.

Dedicated to my late great Nana, my big-hearted mom, my faithful sis, my lovely miracle of a wife, and my soon-to-be-married darling daughter. To all you Howard women who've tried to make me a better man. Someday, I swear, there'll be fruit on that tree.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

VII: Not To Sum Up

Left town before I could complete the seven-part cycle. Marooned in a small Kansas burg for three days with alleged hotel room wireless that taunted me, daunted me, then ditched me altogether. Before I left I'd been considering a few Rumi quotes to wrap all this up in a nice Sufi turban. But I happened to look up at my wall, where the following poem has been pinned since last year, when I hit 51. And it occurs to me that maybe the best credo is one that doesn't strain for a big summation, but that speaks clearly about How Life Feels Right Now, viz:

On Being Fifty-Something
after Po Chü-i

From thirty to forty, you are distracted
by the five lusts, which I don’t need to go into.
From seventy to eighty, you’re prone
to a hundred diseases or more.

Who can remember their names,
or the ones of friends who’ve gone
and died on you? But, from fifty to sixty,
you’re free of all that.

Grief doesn’t know where you live yet,
only gravity, the body starting to sag
under the weight of memories that,
like extra pounds around the middle,

you can’t seem to lose. At the theater, you doze,
your eyelids curtains that refuse to stay raised.
Suddenly, you’re the director of a play
about to begin. Time: no time like the present.

Place: a room you think you recognize.
On the desk, a typewriter squats like a toad,
waiting for a tasty word to devour.
The wall’s the wrong color, too cheerful,

but its painted muslin quivers:
from backstage someone tries the door,
which refuses to give. How young you were
when such bright shabbiness was yours,

how like a desert full of dream.

-Debora Greger

I don't quite buy all this--grief has my info in its dark little rolodex, and I've never fallen asleep at the theater. But the feeling of it seems right. I just had a vivid image of the old desk my dad made me when I got an apartment off-campus, my second year of college. The house on Normal Street, the well-lit room with two windows, the desk with detachable legs, my big ol' Royal manual typewriter, on which I wrote the first real poems of my life.

I wrote one about the old ladies who sat on the porch swing across the street. They were always out there, not swinging, just hanging, in floral dresses kind of like the peeling wallpaper in my room. If youth and old age were on either side of the street, maybe fifty-something was driving up and down it. The old ladies had been dropped off into their dotage, and sooner or later a car would pull up outside my house, waiting to pick me up. I'd be busy, but I'd hear it honking out there.

I climb in. We drive. Every time I look at the driver's face, it changes. Sometimes I'm driving. Occasionally, I have an idea where we're going. Even when I don't, we're going.

Looking over all seven, I think, OK. This I more or less believe.

PS: Scott, consider yourself tagged. You're it.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

What William Stafford Says Is Credo 6

William Stafford came to Hallmark some years ago, one of the high points of my career. I used to have dozens of his poems photocopied to wallpaper over the crummy paneling in the tiny upstairs study of the first house I owned.

He was a Quaker, a conscientious objector in World War II, and got up every morning at 4:00 to write poems. Thousands of poems, many of them as good as this, one of my all-time favorite poems for 30 years now:

Ask Me

Some time when the river is ice, ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Credo 5: Trust, Faith, Simplicity, Somethin'

I had occasion to think about faith, rehashing the story of Passover this weekend. I'm generally faith-resistant, and wonder sometimes what it really means to "believe" anything. I'd have had a hard time with Moses, I think. After the long exchanges about faith and skepticism my sis and I had re the Rev. Wright dust-up, I decided to try on a little faith to see how it feels. Faith in what? I don't know. That all will be well, I guess. It feels preposterous, is how it feels. But if I hadn't been at least trying to fake it, I wonder if I'd have been as receptive to this poem by Thomas R. Smith. I'd never heard of him. But I can hear this:


It's like so many other things in life
to which you must say no or yes.
So you take your car to the mechanic.
Sometimes the best thing to do is trust.

The package left with the disreputable-looking
clerk, the check gulped by the night deposit,
the envelope passed by dozens of strangers—
all show up at their intended destinations.

The theft that could have happened doesn't.
Wind finally gets where it was going
through the snowy trees, and the river, even
when frozen, arrives at the right place.

And sometimes you sense how faithfully your life
is delivered, even though you can't read the address.

Up against that, of course, we have the mechanic who does a crap job on your car and inflates the bill, the disreputable-looking clerk who's earned every bit of that bad rep and will make it worse by the time he's done with you, the bank error and ensuing bounced check, the mail that gets lost, the theft that might not have happened but did, with an assault thrown in as a bonus, the wind that not only gets where it was going, but wreaks havoc on the coast, leaving many dead and dispossessed, and the river that no longer arrives because of the Three Gorges Dam, or because global warming has reduced it to a trickle, or because Las Vegas diverted all the water. And all the many ways your life can feel like a square package in a round P.O. box.

Maybe trust is just the small, tenuous act that suggests a larger, more abiding faith. I don't know what I trust either, except maybe the possibility of expressing something about these ideas that's more compelling than the ideas themselves.

That bit about the river being frozen and still arriving is a nod to one of my favorite poems of all time. I was saving it for last, but now I think it'll have to be next.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Credo, III & IV

Sorry, Jen, missed yesterday. So, a two-parter today. First, a haiku, then a poem about that haiku. What about these two poems is All About Me? Well, the first suggests the union of opposites (my core aesthetic principle) and how an awareness of that union extends consciousness beyond immediate experience, out into the world, into the life of other things, forward and backward in time.

But talking about haiku is like smelling a flower with Vix inhalers jammed in your nose. Let's just have it (and remember, it's a translation, so it doesn't follow the syllabic rules for haiku in English):

on the one-ton temple bell
a moon moth, folded into sleep
sits still

That's by our 18th-century pal, Buson. It's probably one of the most well-known haiku among American readers because of Billy Collins, our most widely-read contemporary poet. Collins is funny and makes accessible poems out of everyday subjects, imbuing them with a calm philosophical depth under slangy, sometimes showily metaphorical surfaces. He's a Buddhist. I love this next poem for the connections it makes between literature and life, and for the way it shows how immediate experience can transform your ideas or beliefs. It also shows how things get stuck in your head. Right now, I've got "Hideaway" by The Weepies stuck in mine. Maybe I can dislodge it by typing up this poem. And uploading a photo...


Today I pass the time reading
a favorite haiku,
saying the few words over and over.

It feels like eating
the same small, perfect grape
again and again.

I walk through the house reciting it
and leave its letters falling
through the air of every room.

I stand by the big silence of the piano and say it.
I say it in front of a painting of the sea.
I tap out its rhythm on an empty shelf.

I listen to myself saying it,
then I say it without listening,
then I hear it without saying it.

And when the dog looks up at me,
I kneel down on the floor
and whisper it into each of his long white ears.

It's the one about the one-ton
temple bell
with the moth sleeping on its surface,

and every time I say it, I feel the excruciating
pressure of the moth
on the surface of the iron bell.

When I say it at the window,
the bell is the world
and I am the moth resting there.

When I say it into the mirror,
I am the heavy bell
and the moth is life with its papery wings.

And later, when I say it to you in the dark,
you are the bell,
and I am the tongue of the bell, ringing you,

and the moth has flown
from its line
and moves like a hinge in the air above our bed.

The first time I read that, I thought, ah, Billy Collins isn't just an entertainer. I'd long suspected that, but now I knew it in my resonating bones.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Credo, Part Deux

Remember in Oliver Stone's ridiculous biopic of Jim Morrison, when Val Kilmer says, "Gimme some death!"--how you totally identified with him, if only in the hope that you wouldn't have to see the rest of the film? No? You didn't beg for some death? Well, Stephen Dunn is going to give it to you anyway, in this, the second in our series of Poems Reflecting On Some Facet Or Other Of My Life Philosophy. This is about the importance of having an acute sense of mortality.

Choosing To Think Of It

Today, ten thousand people will die
and their small replacements will bring joy
and this will make sense to someone
removed from any sense of loss.
I, too, will die a little and carry on,
doing some paperwork, driving myself
home, the sky is simply overcast,
nothing is any less than it was
yesterday or the day before. In short,
there's no reason or every reason
why I'm choosing to think of this now.
The short-lived holiness
true lovers know, making them unaccountable
except to spirit and themselves—suddenly
I want to be that insufferable and selfish,
that sharpened and tuned.
I'm going to think of what it means
to be an animal crossing a highway,
to be a human without a useful prayer
setting off on one of those journeys
we humans take. I don't expect anything
to change. I just want to be filled up
a little more with what exists,
tipped toward the laughter which understands
I'm nothing and all there is.
By evening the promised storm
will arrive. A few in small boats
will be taken by surprise.
There will be survivors, and even they will die.

-Stephen Dunn

PS: Don't blame me for the cheerless existential yearning here. Jen Kostecki made me do it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Credo in Seven Parts

My friend Jen Kostecki tagged me, saying I now have to post seven things. Any seven things, but I must post them and then (I guess) tag someone else.

I decided on short philosophical poems, Dear Readers. Taken as a whole, they shall express my Life Credo. I have no idea yet what the other six poems will be, but the great Ron Padgett will set it off:

Ladies and Gentlemen In Outer Space

Here is my philosophy:
Everything changes (the word "everything"
has just changed as the
word "change" has: it now
means "no change") so
quickly that it literally surpasses my belief,
charges right past it
like some of the giant
ideas in this area.
I had no beginning and I shall have
no end: the beam of light
stretches out before and behind
and I cook the vegetables
for a few minutes only,
the fewer the better. Butter
and serve. Here is my
philosophy: butter and serve.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Internally Erupting Description

Today, my friend Amazon sent me an e-mail, saying that because I've ordered or reviewed books by Jean Baudrillard (who?), I might like a book by Chris Turner (who?) called "Heartfelt: Internal Eruption" (huh?).

OK. So I click the link, where I am given a pop quiz:

"Do you believe in love? Have you ever had your heart broken? Have you ever struggled with letting go? Have you ever needed a second chance? Have you ever yearned to be together, yet were forced by the circumstances of life to be apart? Has your heart ever felt hopeless and out of breath? Have you ever just wanted more? Has your heart ever played music to the memories? Have you ever lost confidence somewhere along the way? Have you ever hurt the one you love? Have you ever wrestled with relationship commitment? Have you ever given your all in hopes of happiness . only to be left undervalued, saddened, and alone?"

Yes, this is all under the Book Description. And if you pass (fail?) the test, then:

"Let the voice of Heartfelt: Internal Eruption whisper into the ears of your soul. Let the authenticity of Heartfelt: Internal Eruption assist you in always facing the reality of the situation. Let the sincerity of Heartfelt: Internal Eruption move you into a state of confidence necessary to mature and eventually become better. Finally . believe in the miracles of God . life . restoration ... healing . Love . and you."

As John Hodgman (I'm now following him on Twitter) says, That Is All. (Whew.)

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Once You Go Twitter, You Never Go Bitter

Good thing I don't have more than three deadlines this week, because I finally got around to checking out Twitter. Ye Gods. It's the social networking thang o' my dreams.

Do you loathe the chaotic sprawl of MySpace and Facebook? Does e-mailing everybody seems cumbersome? Has your own blog grown stale (I can't even scrape crumbs off this thing by now)? Why, yes, you do, it does, and yecch. And yet you feel the need to keep your hand out there flailing in cyberspace, just to make sure a few people know you're still on the planet, and vice-versa. Well, have I got a tweet deal for you.

It's simple (once you orient yourself). Quick (140 character max per update, or tweet). Austere, yet whimsical. Insert other wine-tasting terms here. And Twitter is peopled by smartypantses galore.

I'm not even snorting it, man, I'm mainlining. Finding hilarious and newsy stuff to follow, getting a profile photo (which I've never bothered to do here), pulling long people-to-people threads. Sent out a big email, mostly to workmates, but also a few friends I just haven't been able to keep up with, saying, here's how we can keep up. About a dozen or so signed on, though some have struggled with that initial sense of being out there alone, tied to the mast while sirens sing in the distance.

Or yodel. Man there's some funny out there. Two guys in particular have amused me no end. Joshua Allen spurns the quotidian "I'm just having coffee" tweet and creates goofy little scenes and character voices...

"Dawn. City Park. Five empty Manischewitz bottles. A loincloth made out of a yarmulke and dental floss. Today, I am a man. L'chaim, officers."

And Merlin Mann (host of "You Look Nice Today" on iTunes) documented the Olympic torch protests in the Bay Area this afternoon, viz:

"Hippies we spoke with say they want to fashion the torch into a 'sweet-ass lama bong,' for, quote, 'freedom and shit.' Back to you, Tom."

All this stuff fills your home page and heart with delight, once you find it and Follow.

Coolest of all (damn, I blew this as a segue from the previous post): my first follower/followee was Barack Obama. And you thought he was a mere leader.