Saturday, February 27, 2010

"Let's Go for a Walk", she said.


Arm in arm in the bone-chilling cold
two old friends walk the icy paths,
watch the sun retreating,
nod hi to a man and his son gliding by with the wind.

Then we sat on a bench
and talked about our summer


*Photos by awyn, two and a half weeks ago with JB on the grounds of the Montréal Botanical Garden

Friday, February 26, 2010

Poems are like batteries...

Thanks to Joe Hutchison over at The Perpetual Bird for his excellent posting at Suite 101 on the writing of metaphors.

How many poets do you know who would use the lines of one of their own, unpublished poems to give an example of a tortured metaphor, much less deem it "bizarre" and possibly even "grotesque"? (Yes, we all do that, I suppose, or at least some of us do, in re-reading something we've written years ago that in the light of now seems hopelessly naive, embarrassingly trite, or pompously pedantic (referring to fiction here) or just blatantly bad (referring to poetry) and the last thing one wants to do is showcase those words--except perhaps among trusted friends in moments of mutual hilarity, as in a  "You think YOUR early stuff is awful--bet you can't top THIS one!" kind of way.)

But Joseph Hutchison is a fine poet and I wish I had had someone like him as a mentor when I was first being introduced to poetry. I think I've learned more from his insightful explanations (in this type essay) and discussions about poetry (on his regular blog) than I ever did in academia.

"Poems are like batteries," he says, "they store imaginative energy and release it in moments of illumination." A poem's force is felt in its metaphors. And not just any old metaphor will reach the reader in a way that "shines a light into the dark that surrounds us".

Poems as batteries ... this metaphor itself illuminated another realization--that batteries don't work forever, they have to be frequently recharged, that imaginative energy can be in short supply, and that poems, like their authors, come and go. But the creative force behind the delicate job of the finding of words to construct a meaningful poem somehow remains. That it comes easily to some and is enormously difficult for others is not the point.  I guess I'm interested more in the fact that poems continue to be created at all, that countless individuals are still compelled, century after century,  to sit down, put pen to paper and attempt to express things that cannot be expressed in quite the same way in any other way except in a poem.

Poems need to be re-read [recharged]to release their illumination to new generations of readers. Poets want readers to see what they see: Stop a minute. Look. Can you see where these words are taking you? Can you feel their effect?

The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay talked of her candle burning "at both ends"[1], not lasting the night, and she invited friends and foes alike to just look and see its "lovely light".  That little poem, for me, expresses the sheer strength of this force, the power of mere words on a page to enable the reader to see and understand what a poet sees and strives to describe without actually describing it.  This just to say that for some of us, poetry is indeed sometimes a connection ... to that light in the dark "that surrounds us."

"Metaphors Gone Amuck"

Words are like threads           [cliché in need of a fresh likeness]
that we weave to connect
the fibres of being,
the eyes of our seeing,
that others unravel, restitch
or preserve
but preserved, are forgotten;
destroyed, are remembered.
a tapestry forever
in progress.

Poetry:  an unfinished portrait of words
seeking other words
that bring the light
to light.

Or something like that....

Thanks to Joe Hutchison for a fine article on metaphors.   [I actually cringed when I saw his reference to writers who have this inexplicable "urge to be ostantatiously inventive".  Dang.  There goes my bloggy wordplay plans for the week.  I never met a 4 I didn't like.  On the other hand, meta 4s are so uppity, so beyond the beyond, so to speak.   That kind of thing.  OID:  Ostantatious Inventive Disorder.  (Or is it Overly Idiotic Digressionamblia?   Obviously Intentionally Delusional?) ("Can I ask a rhetorical question? Well, can I?" -- Ambrose Bierce)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Missing You

To Alamor

First mate
there for me, even when I'm not


I don't dance,
you said.
But oh, you
in your eyes and gentle
in the warmth of your smile
in the music of your laughter,
in that soft, familiar
voice that joins
my own heartbeat.

Missin' ya, Love.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Who was it, really?

Am in Boston again, a different journey, a different year. But this morning, while everyone else in the house is still asleep, I'm up early, having a cup of green tea, watching the sun rise and remembering another trip from some years ago when I was returning to my then home in Vermont back from a trip to Boston, where I had left far later than I'd intended. It was close to midnight and I still had an hour's more driving left to go. It was a cold winter night and there were no other cars on the highway; it was pitch black outside, the only lights being the headlights of my car. In front of me, sheer darkness; behind me, sheer darkness; to the right of me, the dark stone walls of a craggy mountainside caked in ice.

I was really tired and trying to stay awake. The darkness, the silence, the monotony of the ribbon of highway, my fatigue, all contributed to my beginning to fall asleep at the wheel. My eyelids closed, I began nodding off and the car careened rightward, heading off the road directly into the wall of rock to the right.

All of a sudden I heard someone loudly shout my name--twice. I jerked awake, just in time to see what was happening, quickly grabbed the wheel and steered it away seconds from impact. I pulled to a stop, shocked and horrified at what had just happened, or was about to happen. After a few moments I pulled myself together, turned the radio on, to some loud, lively music. I popped a stick of gum into my mouth, as if the chewing action would help me concentrate. The rest of the way home I sang along with the radio, forcing myself to focus and be alert, and above all, stay awake. It was only the next day, after arriving safely home and having had a good night's sleep, that I remembered that loud voice in the car that woke me up.

It had come from my own throat.

Talk about uncanny. The person who shouted my name so loudly that it woke me up--was me. Think about it. You're in a car, alone on a highway, not another human being around for miles and miles, and you're falling asleep at the wheel, driving headlong into a rocky mountainside. If you're going to be saved at all, someone, or something, has to get your attention. Someone has to warn you but the only person there is you. If you could somehow alert yourself sufficiently forcefully enough to wake yourself up, you might stand a chance. And that's exactly what happened. Except it wasn't one of those mysterious "little voices" in one's head which are really more like nagging little suggestive thoughts--this was actually vocal, and LOUD, and it called me by name, and it came from my own throat.

I puzzled about this for a long time afterward. It was God, some might say. God saved you. Or, "It was your guardian angel." Or was it maybe some part of myself observing what was happening and making the decision to alert the part of me that was slowly becoming unconscious? How to reach 'me', though? By using the only thing available--my very own vocal chords.

Whoever, or whatever it was, I thank them. Or if it was truly just me, this tells me there is more to life and consciousness and being than I have ever imagined or may ever understand. I suspect this happens often, these odd experiences, however we choose to explain them, label them.

I'm re-reading Kurt Vonnegut slouching through the slaughterhouse with Billy Pilgrim, "Earthlings are the great explainers," he writes, "explaining why this event is structured as it is ... All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I've said before, bugs in amber."

When I consider certain world events--or even certain inexplicably heart-rending personal events (something happens and you can see the direction it's going and you can't do a thing about it, you can't "save" a loved one, for example, or keep them from suffering, etc.)--you're tempted to think, with 'ol Kurt here, that we're truly only, in the end, just a bunch of bugs in amber. Like a ladybug stuck in tar, wings flapping and flapping, to no avail. Yes, we have that. Some manage to get "out". Many don't. Who or what decides which ones get more time? And why?

It doesn't do one good to dwell too long on such questions. Because we'll likely come to the end of life without having ever found an answer. And yet ...

What a journey life is. The good, the bad, the ugly, the exquisite, the unbearable ... and the absurdly mystifying. (Not to mention the weirdly ironic or downright comical)

I kind of don't care if I ever know. I wouldn't have said that years earlier, when "knowing" was a kind of obsession. It no longer seems important. I'm just glad I got another chance.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Rideshare People

I have become a rideshare addict. I am not talking about local commutes to and from work but long-distance rideshare, through the border and across the states. It is how I arrived in Massachusetts this week from la belle province, Quebec.

Why would anyone make arrangements to travel with a complete stranger in an unknown vehicle for hours at a time, to a faraway destination with no guarantees of safe arrival? And yet it happens, all the time and everywhere, in the world of rideshare.  And if you do it often enough, you get to know the best and most trustworthy drivers, saving yourself time and money and needless inconvenience.   The particular rideshare driver I normally go with has become so popular he now has a waiting list.  He offers a comfortable ride in a large, roomy car with heated seats, plenty of room for luggage, choice of music, and captivating conversation. One meets the most interesting people on these rideshares and we exchange books and emails and food.   Plus you only pay a third of what it would cost by bus, and even with three rest stops we still get there in record time.

Ridesharers also often tend to be WWOOFers and Couch Surfers as well.  A WOOFer is a person who signs up to voluntarily work on an organic farm anywhere in the world to gain experience in farming and experience working and living in another culture.  Couch surfers exchange free housing accommodations among members traveling in 230 countries. 

How does one find a rideshare and how safe is it really?  One popular source is  Craig's List, a site for classified ads worldwide.  If you want to sell a refrigerator, rent an apartment, find a job, etc., you can look here first.  There are, of course, the usual risks re: scammers and one should definitely be cautious.  I found my regular rideshare driver on this list and have used several others as well and have never had a problem. 

An unusual thing did happen, however, when we crossed from Quebec into the U.S. at the Vermont border.  I presented my new Canadian passport and the border guard asked me how long I planned to stay in the U.S. and how I planned to return to Canada.  I said "one week or so" and that I didn't yet know exactly how I was going to return--by rideshare if I could get a ride, and if not, by bus.  This answer, however, was not acceptable.  I was informed that I could not enter the U.S. without proof that I wasn't going to stay there forever.  In other words, I'd have had to have had a return bus ticket back to Canada or a definite, verifiable plan of exit from the U.S. before I was allowed to proceed.  All foreign nationals have to be able to prove they're not coming to stay permanently.  But I'm an American citizen, I said.  "Prove it!" the guard glared at me.  I had presented a Canadian passport and so I fell under the "foreign national" category.  Luckily I had also brought along my American passport.  I was almost tempted to remark to him that there may actually be more people trying to leave the U.S. these days than those wanting to get in, but the border is no place to express one's personal viewpoint.  Trust me on this.

I was given a lecture by the border guard on making sure I had that American passport with me on any future trips because only Americans with "red, white and blue blood" (he actually said this) could be allowed in to stay indefinitely.   A student rider in the seat behind me, who was from Alberta, who also did not have a return ticket by bus, was told to come inside for further questioning.  She was finally allowed to proceed into the U.S., with a warning that next time, please be able to show proof of your intent to return back to Canada. As many times as I've crossed this particular border, this is the first time I've ever experienced such an intimidating encounter.  There are two ways to ask for documentation at a border: one in which you ask politely, and another in which your tone screams "PROVE to me you're not a terrorist". The latter tone insures that persons might think twice about visiting the U.S. to go shopping or to see the sights. So much for winning the hearts and minds of future tourists.

Some officials seem puzzled by the concept of rideshare, finding it bizarre that a group of people who don't really know one another, are all traveling together--A Swiss, an American, an African, a Chinese, all in the car together, complete strangers.  It's downright--subversive.  Or that is the impression one gets from the expressions on their face when they ask: "How are you people related to one another?" and you say "We're ridesharers."

So I don't know, at this point, how or when I'm getting back to Canada next week and it may end up being by bus, which is a minor hassle as they make everyone get off the bus at the border and go in, one by one, to be identified and the luggage searched.  I find it amazing that there is no one who speaks French at this particular Vermont border, which sits right next door to a French-speaking province.  Everybody on the French side is bilingual.  One would think they could hire at least one person who speaks French on the American side but I guess that's just too difficult to find and employ such a person.  I'm just saying. 

We had a mini snow storm yesterday.  Everything outside is all white and beautiful.  Only about a half foot of snow but the trees are thick with it.  Back home we have four times as much and it is permanent, till April.  This will all turn to mush and slush probably in a few days, then disappear.  Today we are taking the bubs to the Science Museum to look at dinosaur bones and tomorrow we will go see Alvin and the Chipmunks. 

Oh to be a kid again, ha ha.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Write Like It's Your Last One

What do you do when you want to interview a poet who is dying, unavailable and/or unable to respond to your questions?   Iranian poet Farideh Hassanzadeh-Mostafavi faced such a dilemna.  She wanted to interview her favorite poet, Bloga Dimitrova, a Bulgarian poet whose poems she had translated into Farsi, but Dimitrova, who was "in her last days", sent along her books instead, letting her published words speak for her.

Farideh decided to structure the interview around those printed words, found in four of Dimitrova's books of poetry.  Farideh asked the questions, then looked to Dimitrova's poetry for the answers.

"What is your interpretation of the word 'poet'"?

Prometheus who dared to steal
from the Gods,
not fire
but the word.

"What would you ever do, if there was no poetry?"

Without words, I am without hands –
touch nothing, I reach no one else.
and if I am also forbidden words
how shall I slake my thirst?

"What is your message for today's poet?"

Write each of your poems
as if it were your last.
In this century, saturated with strontium,
charged with terrorism,
flying with supersonic speed,
death comes with terrifying suddenness.
send each of your words
like a last letter before execution,
a call carved on a prison wall.
You have no right to lie,
no right to play pretty little games.
You simply won’t have time
to correct your mistakes.

Write each of your poems,
tersely, mercilessly,
with blood — as if it were your last.


You can read the interview in its entirety here.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Parlez-vous Kerouac?


Beat, crushed
béatifique parasitic bohemians
in beards and sandals ...

and devils
turned hermit

weird that we don't
say "Verses"

I'm sick of myself
But I'm a good

You tell 'em,

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Boggles the Mind

Having my morning coffee, reading the news and up comes an item that just, well, kind of boggles the mind.

Two, actually, and they both fall under the category of, "Say WHAT??!!!"

Item No. 1:
Meetings were held in a school district in Riverside County, California recently to consider banning the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary because it contains a number of referenced words that were thought to be "age-inappropriate" and which some parents found highly offensive.[1]   After due deliberation, it was finally decided that said dictionary could remain on the shelves and those parents who objected, could  "opt to have their kids use an alternative dictionary...."[2]

Perhaps they should have slapped a warning sticker on that dictionary, saying "For college-age students only" (like the title says, it's a "collegiate" dictionary), alerting users under the age of 18 that:  "This book contains certain words that may be offensive and parental permission is required to consult it."  (I notice it didn't mention any of the offended parties offering to substitute an "alternative" dictionary that did not contain any offending words.)

If they want to ban a dictionary in a school library because it contains the words "oral sex", because those are not  "age-appropriate"  words for an elementary school child, why stop there?  Why not also ban the Bible, which contains words such as "sodomy", "lust" "naked", "whoremongers" "adulterer" and  "harlot", which terms are also not "age-appropriate" for a child? I'm just saying ...

And maybe, by extension, children should not be allowed to attend religious services in which the word "hell" and "damn" (as in, you will be damned to hell if you don't stop sinning) are shouted out from the pulpit.  But that was in context.  You must always take things in context.  A minister can say hell or damn in a sermon but if you're a kid and you try it, chances are you'll get your mouth washed out with soap.  (If you accidently hit your thumb with a hammer, for example, you still can't say hell or damn.  Only adults are allowed to do that.  You have to say heck or dang or gosh.) 

Today dictionaries, tomorrow school textbooks.  Wait, that's already happening ...  Don't like school textbooks teaching your kids about evolution?  Some parents have succeeded in getting those books replaced with 'alternative' ones, more in line with the creationist point of view.   There are alternative views on every subject.  Even documented history is revisable. You can sometimes influence which 'truth' gets promulgated; and you can control how a person--child or adult--perceives a thing, to a certain extent, by limiting access to information that supports or contradicts a particular point of view.  With young children, it's a pre-emptive thing:  in the good sense--you don't want to deliberately expose them to things that will frighten, upset or radically confuse them.  But there's a negative side:  too restrictive a control can also serve to squelch curiosity (or, conversely, fuel it, setting the stage for future rebellion).

Organizations sometimes attempt to control a member's reading choices so as not to lose their membership.  Several decades ago Roman Catholics were forbidden to read certain books appearing on an Index of banned books. Only those officially sanctioned with the nihil obstat (i.e., containing nothing damaging to their faith or morals) were safe to read. Voltaire, Descartes, Galileo, Rousseau, Gide, Pascal--were all on the Church's list of forbidden books. What the Church feared, of course, happened.  Scores of members eventually abandoned their unquestioning adherence to certain previously accepted dogmas and went swimming instead with the dreaded secular fishes. Censorship sometimes backfires.

Item No. 2:
South Carolina now requires 'subversives' to register (and pay a $5 fine) if they intend to overthrow the government.[3]   Failure to comply will result in a fine of up to $25,000 and up to ten years in prison.   (Say what?!!)  I kid you not.  The state's "Subversive Activities Registration Act," passed last year and now officially on the books, states that "every member of a subversive organization, or an organization subject to foreign control, every foreign agent and every person who advocates, teaches, advises or practices the duty, necessity or propriety of controlling, conducting, seizing or overthrowing the government of the United States ... shall register with the Secretary of State." Good luck with that, guys. 

Take out the "or's" in the above quotation, condense it, and it now reads:   Every person who advocates the necessity of conducting the U.S. government has to register with the Secretary of State. 

Who do they consider subversives? Because they include persons who "reside" or "transact business"  in South Carolina who might, among other unspeakable deeds, "attempt to influence political action by unlawful means".   Somebody better tell the lobbyists and certain corporations and certain politicians used to taking bribes.

 The law here says this doesn't apply to free speech, by the way.   "The terms of this chapter do not apply to any labor union or religious, fraternal or patriotic organization, society or association, or their members, whose objectives and aims do not contemplate the overthrow of the government of the United States, of this State or of any political subdivision thereof by force or violence or other unlawful means" says section 23-29-40.   You're apparently okay if you "do NOT contemplate" overthrowing a political subdivision by unlawful means.   Wait, but are they saying that if you merely "contemplate" (i.e., ponder, think about, etc.) a regime change in the U.S. or South Carolina by "unlawful means" (like manipulation of electronic voting machines), that according to them you are a 'subversive' and must notify the Secretary of State of your contemplations? I mean, that's what the wording says.  (Diebold, are you listening?)

This is hilarious.  No terrorist planning a violent act is going to trot down to City Hall, fork over $5.00 and inform the Secretary of State of South Carolina of their intent.   And no lobbyist or corporation or politican bent on "influencing politics" is going to, either.  Get real.   How, one might ask, would such a law be even enforceable?  It would be interesting to know, since the law's been enacted, just how many subversive entities have actually registered.  Where would one find out that information--or is that, too, a "matter of national security"?


$5.00 fee required

Not to harp on this, but one should really pay attention to how a thing is worded, especially new laws that are enacted.  Lawyers do.  Just look at the number of criminals who never get prosecuted because of mere "technicalities." 

Now if you check that South Carolina state website you will find right away a disclaimer stating that the "Subversive Activities Registration Act", a copy of which they have provided there on the web page, is the "unannotated" version.  To read the "official", annotated version you have to go find and read the published volumes.  You probably have to make an appointment to do so.  What's the difference between the unannotated and the annotated version?  Well, just that the annotated version includes a brief summary of the law and demonstrates how it is interpreted and applied. The unannotated version on their web page, does not.  The legislative staff says it won't respond to any questions as to the application of this law to any facts, by the way.  They suggest you retain a lawyer for help with that.

Words are so important and people find them so boring sometimes, they barely notice them. Others obsess over them to the point of unbalanace.  And if there are too many of them--as in this absurdly long posting today on my blog--some readers will have left long before the article is concluded.

Words contained in dictionaries, words embedded in legalese, words that incite, titillate, confuse, threaten, or deceive. Words in tiny print and unfamiliar jargon are particularly uninviting--one barely manages a perfunctory skimming.  People routinely sign contracts without understanding the terms, the interpretation of which is assumed but not ever verified.

If one wants to include something in a contract that if spelled out and thoroughly described would invite further scrutiny and possibly result in cancellation, one might include the words "and for other purposes".  This particular phrase is especially useful if one is later required to justify certain expenses incurred when the contract doesn't specifically mention such items, such as millions of dollars earmarked for one program that finds its way instead into a senator's local pork project, the "other purpose" alluded to but not defined.  Despite attention continually being called to this deceptive practice, it remains alive and popular and well-exercised.

The inclusion--or absence--of a single word or phrase in an official document,  poem, or personal correspondence, can make all the difference in the world.

So these two news items above are making the rounds of the Internet this week, eliciting whoops of incredulity or howls of laughter.  People wanting to ban a dictionary because it contains a few words felt to be morally repugnant; a state enacting a bizarre, ambiguous law that appears ludicrous and unenforceable. I saw these stories in a slightly different light, more akin to the image of an old, familiar tapestry, slowly becoming unravelled, thread by tiny thread. Yeats came to mind:

    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold ...
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

Words bandied about, daily, that mean absolutely nothing to the hearers.  Legal loopholes met with a yawn and "business as usual."  "Falcons that cannot hear the falconer".  Maybe this blog posting was, in the end, less about two random news items that initially evoked a chuckle and more about the state of the times in which we live.  I don't know, sometimes it feels like a soap opera:  The Beastly, the Beautiful and the Bizarre.  Poets in chains, babies starving, billionnaire bankers, $700 designer shoes, War is Peace, silence about "the other purposes."

I'll take some peace and beautifuls, you can keep the beasties.  :)

Words! Gotta love 'em!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Orange Sisyphus

Carrying what's inside
on your back

separation inevitable
but only if

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Oarless in the Plaza

Mankind owns four things
That are no good at sea:
Rudder, anchor, oars
And the fear of going down

–Antonio Machado (trans. Robert Bly)

Promise was that if you ask
delivery from that yoke you'd find
the answer, just keep going
they say.

Got the vessel, not enough, fear I''ll
end up, stylus lost, sans the will, 
a voiceless bard put out to see,

*Artwork with the kind permission of  Kinnon Elliott of Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Whistles from the Elsewhere

returning there it
takes you


I should have been

and yet ...


Photo of train coming out of the fog in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, with the kind permission of D. L. Ennis over at  Visual Thoughts Photography, 2007, all rights reserved.