Thursday, December 17, 2009

JIgsaw Puzzle

There's the Stones song, of course, and then there's this new poem by A. E. Stallings on Poetry Daily today:


First, the four corners,
Then the flat edges.
Assemble the lost borders,
Walk the dizzy ledges,

Hoard one color—try
To make it all connected—
The water and the deep sky
And the sky reflected.

Absences align
And lock shapes into place,
And random forms combine
To make a tree, a face.

Slowly you restore
The fractured world and start
To recreate an afternoon before
It fell apart:

Here is summer, here is blue,
Here two lovers kissing,
And here the nothingness shows through
Where one piece is missing.


"I'm just trying to do this jigsaw puzzle ..." (No live version on You Tube, unfortunately! At least that I could find with a quick search.)

[Breaking my blogging silence for a moment. A stressful semester is almost over: lots of grading, lots of illness in the family, including me. Much to blog about come January: lots of poems have crossed my path recently that I would like to post comments on!]

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Free Holiday Hullabaloo

Hullabaloo, from San Diego, is my kids' current favorite children's music band—and mine, too.

Hullabaloo singer and songwriter Steve Denyes has just put out a free download of Christmas songs: 15 minutes of fun. Check it out, and once you're hooked, buy one or more (or all) of Hullabaloo's five CDs!

You can get Holiday Hullabaloo here.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Do the Right Thing

I love the last image in this poem by Adrian Matejka, "Do the Right Thing": "... the missed / free throw feeling in my chest." Something that was not your fault but feels like it was, like you missed the free throw and lost the game, when in fact, it was the star's terrible performance that blew it for your team.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Human Shields play Rumpus with Miles Delpho

Here's my band Human Shields in its first "plugged" appearance, with my nine-year-old son Miles Delpho on drums. Miles is a student of Lorenz Hunziker at the Drum School Basel, and this event was the Open House of the Drum School.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Waste their presence in New York

Here's something fun (hat tip to Karin): Translation Party.

Here's what it gave me when I entered the first lines of "Homeward Bound":

But I'm really just a poor boy, I'm not talking a little about it. New York, has pledged the money to waste their presence in New York.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

2010 Alhambra Poetry Calendars

The 2010 Alhambra Poetry Calendars are now available. I'm honored to have a poem of mine in the English edition yet again, but I'd also like to recommend that those who read other languages pick up one of the other editions as well; I got the German and French editions for 2009 and have been enjoying them immensely.

Monday, October 12, 2009


In this passage from Don Paterson's "Phantom" (from his collection Rain), the "it" at the beginning refers to "matter":

It made an eye to look at its fine home,
but there, within its home, it saw its death;

and so it made a self to look at death,

but then within the self it saw its death;

and so it made a soul to look at self,

but then within the soul it saw its death;

and so it made a god to look at soul,

and god could not see death within the soul,

for god
was death. In making death its god
the eye had lost its home in finding it.

We find this everywhere the eye appears.

Were this design, this would have been the flaw. (57)

For proponents of "intelligent design," the eye is evidence of design in nature; they argue that the eye's "irreducible complexity" is proof that it cannot be the product of a process of natural selection of random mutations. This passage from Paterson, then, provides both a narrative of the evolution of religious belief (eye-home-self-soul-god; a sequence motivated by the eye's awareness of death) and a critique of intelligent design: "Were this design ..." The eye is not evidence of design but counterevidence. (Before I go on about the poem, I should add that the eye is a bad example as evidence of "intelligent design": the evolutionary steps that lead to the eye are well-documented.)

Now the fact that this argument or narrative appears in a poem (and not an essay) is enough to make its claims a little bit unstable; claims made in literary texts are of a different order than those made in scientific or philosophical texts (Literary Theory 101). But this passage is rendered even more unstable than usual by the context it appears in: it is the third of three italicized stanzas that conclude the sixth section of Paterson's seven-part "Phantom." The first stanza of the section introduces the speaker of the italicized material (I am italicizing this because that's what I do with quotations in blog posts):

For one whole year, when I lay down, the eye
looked through my mind uninterruptedly

and I knew a peace like nothing breathing should.

I was the no one that I was in the dark womb.

One night when I was lying in dark meditation

the I-Am-That-I-Am-Not spoke to me

in silence from its black and ashless blaze

in the voice of Michael Donaghy the poet.

It had lost his lightness and his gentleness

and took on that plain cadence he would use

when he read out from the
Iliad or the Táin. (56)

In the poem's overall arc, then, the passage I began with is spoken by "the I-Am-That-I-Am-Not" "in the voice of Michael Donaghy" to the speaker of the whole sequence. Donaghy's voice continues to speak in the poem's next (and final) section, where that voice refers to the poem's overall speaker as "Donno." Thus, the poem's conceit is that the italicized passages are spoken by a version of God (not "I Am That I Am" but "I Am That I Am Not") in the voice of a deceased poet (Donaghy) to the poet who is writing the poem ("Donno," presumably meant to be Paterson himself, in spite of Literary Theory 101).

Beyond that, the passage I began with is dismissed both by the voice of Donaghy and by "Donno." Donaghy's voice begins the final section by saying, "Donno, I can't keep this bullshit up" (58). And after the italics have gone on for another two pages, "Donno" interrupts the speech (again, these italics are mine, to mark the quotation):

He went on with his speech, but soon the eye
had turned on him once more, and I'd no wish

to hear him take that tone with me again. (59)

Thus, the wonderful passage on the eye's metaphorical evolution into a godhead is implicitly called into question (or even repudiated) in at least three ways: first, it is spoken by a godlike figure, the "I-Am-That-I-Am-Not," who, in keeping with the negation in his name, denies himself while also asserting himself at the same time (in the "I Am" and in the very presence of his words). Secondly, the voice of Donaghy dismisses the eye passage as "bullshit." Finally, "Donno" refuses to listen further when Donaghy's voice returns to that tone later in his speech.

As a result, the poem cannot be reduced to a contribution to a critique of intelligent design. Instead, it presents an expository argument in a context that allows it to be fully developed in an extended conceit, while also not allowing the argument to take over the poem. I love that poetic negation of intelligent design, but I also have to finally admit that what makes the poem compelling is not this vivid, rhetorically powerful passage but how it problematizes its own power by framing the passage so intriguingly. As an evolutionist, I want that argument to be made, but as a reader of poetry, I revel in how that argument becomes one facet of the whole poem's exploration (not resolution) of the issues it raises.

Friday, October 09, 2009

10 years of lyrikline

Here's a press release from the wonderful Berlin-based poetry website lyrikline:

26 – 31 October

world wide poetry: 10 years of

Week of events in Berlin

We are celebrating, come and celebrate with us! For ten years now, the website for poetry has been seeing to it that international poetry is freely available and accessible everywhere. Reason enough to celebrate with a whole week of events opened by German President Horst Köhler. Sixteen Embassies and cultural institutions are joining the Literaturwerkstatt Berlin in organising a week of poetry readings throughout Berlin to mark this occasion. And if you can’t get to Berlin, never mind. You can listen to the final event of the week on 31 October 2009 at 20 hours CET in a live streaming in the Internet, as well as having the opportunity to take part in a special chat. Berlin-based poet Steffen Popp will be commentating the event live on Twitter. has been an ongoing success story since its inception in 1999. There is a huge audience for poetry, even if book publications and sales are in a world-wide decline and publishers are ever more wary of it. There are now 600 poets online on with 5,500 poems in 50 languages, with translations into 48 languages. Partners in 40 countries collaborate in, which began as an initiative by the Literaturwerkstatt Berlin.

The week of events to mark “10 years of” is under the patronage of the EU Commissioner for Multilingualism, Leonard Orban.

The week of events is taking place in cooperation with: the Embassy of the Republic of Argentina, the Embassy of the Republic of Estonia, the Embassy of the Republic of Finland, the Embassy of the Republic of Iceland, the Embassy of the Republic of Croatia, the Embassy of the Republic of Macedonia, the Embassy of the Republic of Slovenia, the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the Flemish Representation, the Greek Culture Foundation, Berlin branch, the Ramon Llull Institute – Berlin, the Italian Cultural Institute, Berlin, The Royal Norwegian Embassy, the Titu Maiorescu Romanian Cultural Institute, Berlin, the Slovakian Institute, Berlin and the Québec Government Office in Berlin.

With kind support from:

The Working Group of Literary Societies, Foreign Office, Senate Chancellery – Cultural Affairs, Prussian Maritime Foundation, the Representation of the European Commission in the FRG, The Heinrich-Böll Foundation, the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media and the Mandala Hotel

Programme of the week of events to mark 10 years of

Mon. 26 October

Password: Poetry


7,30 pm, Palais, Kulturbrauerei, Schönhauser Allee 36, 10435 Berlin, Entrance free, Advance reservation required at till 21th October

Featuring Lebogang Mashile (South Africa), Monika Rinck (Germany) Music: Aki Takase (Japan)
In the presence of German President Horst Köhler

Tues. 27 October

Greece: The Blast of Time

6.30 pm Greek Culture Foundation, Wittenbergplatz 3a, 10789 Berlin, Entrance free

Featuring Dionýsis Kapsális (Greece), Moderated by: Anna Lazaridou


North-North-East: a Nordic-Baltic evening

8 pm Nordic Embassies, Felleshus, Rauchstrasse 1, 10787 Berlin, Entrance free, please reserve a seat at

Featuring Simen Hagerup (Norway), Lauri Otonkoski (Finland), Steinunn Sigurðardóttir (Iceland) Elo Viiding (Estonia)

Weds. 28 October

Croatia: Mirrored Words

6 pm Embassy of the Republic of Croatia, Ahornstrasse. 4, 10787 Berlin

Entrance free. Please reserve a seat on 030-2192-5514

Featuring Branko Cegec (Croatia),: Dieter M. Gräf (Germany), Karen Kiwus (Germany), Zvonko Maković (Croatia) and Andriana Škunca (Croatia)

Moderated by: Alida Bremer


Poetry Below Sea-Level

8 pm Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Klosterstrasse 50, 10179 Berlin

Entry free, please reserve a seat at:

Featuring: Luuk Gruwez (Flanders), Ramsey Nasr (The Netherlands), Victor Schiferli (The Netherlands) and Mark van Tongele (Flanders)

Music: Ma Rain (The Netherlands)

Thurs. 29 October

Slovakia: Electromagnet Love

6 pm Berlin Slovakian Institute, Zimmerstrasse 27, 10969 Berlin. Entrance free

Featuring Martin Solotruk (Slovakia) Music: David Kollar (Slovakia) Moderated by: Angela Repka


The Poetry of Obstinacy: reading and discussion
8 pm
Literaturwerkstatt Berlin, Knaackstrasse 97, 10435 Berlin, Entrance free
Featuring Nicole Brossard (Québec), Teresa Pascual (València) Translators: Juana Burghardt (Argentina), Tobias Burghardt (Germany), Odile Kennel (Germany)
Moderated by: Frank Heibert

Fri. 30 October
Macedonia: On the borders of poetry
5 pm Embassy of the Republic of Macedonia, Koenigsallee 2, 14193 Berlin
Entrance free
Featuring: Claudia Keelan (USA), Nikola Madzirov (Macedonia), Zvonko Maković (Croatia) and Uljana Wolf (Germany / USA)

Slovenia: The Magic of Slovenian Poetry

6.30 pm Embassy of the Republic of Slovenia, Hausvogteiplatz 3-4, 10117 Berlin

Entrance free

Featuring: Milan Dekleva (Slovenia), Gregor Podlogar (Slovenia)

Argentina / Italy:

Transeurope Hotel & Argentinian Visions

8 pm Instituto Cervantes, Rosenstrasse 18, 10178 Berlin, 2576180

Entrance free

Featuring: Bruno Capezzuoli (Italy), Luigi Cinque (Italy), Silvana Franzetti (Argentina), Daniel Samoilovich (Argentina)

Moderated by Timo Berger & Rike Bolte

Romania: POETRY LIVE – The Long Night of Young Romanian Poetry

10 pm (expected to last until 3 am), Literaturwerkstatt Berlin, Knaackstr. 97, 10435 Berlin

Entrance free

Featuring: Constantin Acosmei (Romania), Svetlana Carstean (Romania), Rita Chirian (Romania), Gabi Eftimie (Romania), Sorin Gherguţ (Romania), Vasile Leac (Romania), Stefan Manasia (Romania), Vlad Moldovan (Romania), Ioana Nicolae (Romania), Olga Stefan (Romania) Moderated by Răzvan Ţupa

Sat. 31 October
world wide poetry


8 pm Tape Club, Heidestrasse 14, 10557 Berlin (Near main station and Hamburger Bahnhof gallery), Entrance EUR 5/3 with conceesions, tickets on the door
Featuring Nicole Brossard (Québec), Babangoni wawa Chisale (Malawi), Elke Erb (Germany), Claudia Keelan (USA), Nikola Madzirov (Macedonia), Thomas Möhlmann (Netherlands), Joseph Molapong (Namibia), Remi Raji (Nigeria), Daniel Samoilovich (Argentina), Lutz Seiler (Germany)
Moderated by: Knut Elstermann (journalist based in Berlin)

Meeting a Man from the Motor Trade

I've long loved the Beatles song "She's Leaving Home," but I've also long been puzzled by the line "waiting to keep the appointment she'd made, meeting a man from the motor trade." The Wikipedia page on the song has lots of information about how it was written, but it does not saying anything about the significance of "the motor trade." Does "the motor trade" have any significance here? (Perhaps, as an American, I am missing some British slang?)

Here's Brad Mehldau's version of the song, in any case:

Thursday, October 08, 2009

A riddle

Miles and I just wrote this riddle.


The first will bring you messages
from someone up above.

The second always finds a way
to make you fall in love.

The third's the only one of us
with but a single friend.

The fourth would like to start a war
that will never end.

The fifth killed number six
in order to be king,

while number six, his father,
has more than just one ring.

Number seven is as green
as number three is blue,

while number eight lives in the sea,
far away from you.

Nine's the devil, by the way,
and now we've nothing more to say.

Saturday, October 03, 2009


I've been enjoying Born in a Barn, by The Scaremongers, which is a British band whose singer is none other than poet Simon Armitage. I picked it up because I'll be teaching a seminar on Armitage next term, and I thought it would be fun to have some of his lyrics/songs to consider, too.

Of the songs on the CD, I particularly like "From the Shorelines of Venus," which as far as I can tell you can only listen to by buying the CD, but if you want to check out some of the tunes, a few can be heard on the band's MySpace page.

Perhaps I'll soon get around to ordering a CD by Rackett, too (Paul Muldoon's band).

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Upcoming events

More info to follow on all of these, but I thought I'd get them out there.

My band Human Shields will go electric on Saturday, October 24, at the drum school Basel's annual Open House—with my son Miles Delpho (9), a drum school student, on the drums. Time TBA.

Human Shields will then shrink back to its normal, trio size and go back to being acoustic at the Offene Bühne in Basel on November 1. Showtime is 8:00 p.m. (And we have another show scheduled for Sissy's Place in Birsfelden on January 22, 2009.)

Matthew Sweeney and Tim Turnbull will be reading at the Literaturhaus Basel on November 4 at 7:00 p.m as part of ESP, the English Seminar Poetry Series. The reading will be bilingual, with translator Jan Wagner reading the poems in German. I'll be introducing the readers.

I'll be reading my own poetry at the Poetry Hearings in Berlin on November 21. I have the pleasure of sharing the bill again with Matthew Sweeney and Tim Turnbull, as well as with Donna Stonecipher, Alistair Noon, Ivy Alvarez, Tom Chivers, Mary Noonan, Hannah Silva, and Maurice Scully.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Crème de la crème

In 9th grade, in the late 70s, my sisters Sara and Ruth went to France for a month of French language immersion school with our Great Aunt Betty and Great Uncle Bill. Here's Ruth's funny story about that trip (remembered on the sad occasion of Bill's death this week):
The best France story was the last night when we went to a restaurant and Betty and Bill ordered coffee at the end. Betty mistakenly asked for de la crème, s'il vous plait, and the waiter and Bill (whose French was BAD) asked her several times if that's what she wanted, and she kept assuring them she wanted crème, so they brought her a vat of sour cream, and hovered around watching if she would really put it in her coffee, and Bill kept shaking his head and saying "Mom" (cause they called each other Mom and Dad) and she with nerves of steel scooped a dollop of the sour cream and plunked it in her coffee and we all watched aghast as she drank it down. We rolled on the floor with laughter as we fell out the doors into the street!

Thursday, September 17, 2009


I was surprised to see J. M. Coetzee's Summertime shortlisted for the Booker Prize—not because I did not enjoy the book, but because I did not read it as a novel. The book's subtitle is "Scenes from Provincial Life," which is also the subtitle of Coetzee's memoir Boyhood, so I read Summertime as a memoir. (Note that the Wikipedia page on Coetzee lists it under his memoirs.)

Granted, as a memoir, Summertime is even more singular than Boyhood (and than the similar Youth, Coetzee's second memoir). As I have noted before, in Boyhood and Youth, Coetzee takes an unusual approach to autobiographical writing: the books are in the third person and the present tense.

Summertime begins with a section called "Notebooks 1972-1975," and at first it appears to be a memoir like the other two: third person and present tense are used again. A small difference is that these selections from "Notebooks" are dated, whereas Boyhood and Youth are both largely vague about dates (and about how old the protagonist actually is at any given time).

In addition, these notebook entries are followed by italicized comments on them, like this one (the first): "To be expanded on: his father's response to the times as compared to his own; their differences, their (overriding) similarities" (6). To all appearances, then, Summertime is like Boyhood and Youth, but with a few little twists.

What follows, though, is utterly different. The next section is called "Julia," and it is an interview with a woman who had an affair with one John Coetzee in the early 1970s in South Africa. The interviewer (at first anonymous, but later identified by the interviewee, Julia Frankl, as "Mr. Vincent" [43]) begins by referring to "the pages I sent you from John Coetzee's notebooks for the years 1972-1975," and on the next page a question from Frankl to Vincent leads to the clarification that the italicized passages after the entries were by Coetzee, "notes to himself, written in 1999 or 2000, when he was thinking of adapting these particular entries for a book" (20).

Julia then tells Mr. Vincent about her affair with Coetzee. At one point, she says, "And John was not a great talker, as you know" (34). If this implies that this John Coetzee is dead (which J. M. Coetzee is emphatically not), then Mr. Vincent's reply confirms it: "I don't know. I never met him in the flesh" (34). Not "I have never met him," but "I never met him": so this interview is about the late John Coetzee.

At this point, I could have stopped for a moment and thought, "Okay, this is not a memoir!" But this is Coetzee we're talking about, and Boyhood and Youth had already rewritten the rules about memoirs, so I just took this as a much more extreme variation on the memoir: Coetzee writing as if he were dead and a biographer, Mr. Vincent, was working on a book by interviewing people for it.

Five interviews appear in the book, followed by a last section called "Notebooks: undated fragments." In the fourth interview, with Martin, an academic colleague of Coetzee's in the 1970s, Mr. Vincent begins by reading "an account of his [Coetzee's] first meeting with you" (with Martin, that is), which Coetzee had written "in one of his late notebooks." Mr. Vincent goes on to add that he suspects "it was intended to fit into the third memoir, the one that never saw the light of day. As you will hear, he follows the same convention as in Boyhood and Youth, where the subject is called 'he' rather than 'I'" (205). A few pages later, Mr. Vincent then asks a question about what Coetzee might have said "if he had gone on with the memoir, if he had not stopped writing" (210).

Within the world of Summertime, then, John Coetzee worked on a third memoir after Boyhood and Youth, but he did not finish it—not because he died, but because he had stopped writing before he died. In the real world, J. M. Coetzee has continued writing, of course—but he has not published the third memoir. Instead, he has published Summertime.

One can speculate about what this might mean. Coetzee might have started writing a third memoir and decided that it would be boring to just write a third book like the first two. Then the form of Summertime would be an experiment by a writer who does not like to repeat himself. But it's also possible that Coetzee began the third memoir and stopped writing it—not because he stopped writing entirely, like Summertime's John Coetzee, but because he failed to pull it off for one reason or another. Somewhere between failure and experimentation lies the somewhat more down-to-earth alternative that J. M. Coetzee (not John Coetzee) simply decided that this material called for a different approach, an entirely new form, neither memoir nor novel, but a mixture of the two.

But what of these interviews? The strangest possibility of all is that Coetzee conducted the interviews himself! A slightly less strange variation would be that he had somebody else conduct them. A third possibility, odd in an entirely different way, would be that he imagined interviews with these people he had once known. A fourth possibility is that he invented the interviewees, and then I would finally have to admit that the book is an unusual novel, and not a memoir.

But that third alternative is intriguing: if Coetzee conducted imaginary interviews with five people he knew from the 1970s, then one has to grant him a capacity that he ahs not generally been seen as having (either by critics or even by himself—although perhaps his self-criticism in this respect is an ironic mocking of his critics): empathy. Even though the interviews are about John Coetzee, they are as much or even more about the interviewees themselves, and as musings about how others might have seen him, they demonstrate that Coetzee does have a good feel for his own weaknesses and their effects on others.

In the end, then, I find Summertime most interesting when I read it as an experimental memoir, as it were, much more then when I read it as a novel. As a novel, it fits nicely with his last two, Slow Man and Diary of a Bad Year (though I would then say the latter is a much better book), while as a memoir, it is a unique and compelling book.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Coetzee on Prose and Poetry

Here's one way the young J. M. Coetzee thought about the difference between prose and poetry (from his memoir Youth):
In poetry, the action can take place everywhere and nowhere: it does not matter whether the lonely wives of the fishermen live in Kalk Bay or Portugal or Maine. Prose, on the other hand, seems naggingly to demand a specific setting. (62-63)
He goes on to say that he cannot write about London (where he is living at the time) because he does not know it well enough yet—and thus implies that he can only write about South Africa, where he grew up.

This could be a commentary on Coetzee's own work, for at the time when Youth was published (2002), he had published eight novels, only one of which does not have "a specific setting": Waiting for the Barbarians is set in an imaginary, unnamed "Empire." Foe and The Master of Petersburg complicate the point, but neither fully contradicts it: Foe might even be the London novel that the younger Coetzee feared he could not write, while imagines a Petersburg that Coetzee the author fully inhabited, in a sense, in his extensive reading of and about Dostoevsky. — The rest of those previous novels are set in South Africa, and the three he has published since are very specific about setting (except perhaps for one or two sections of Elizabeth Costello).

Still, a statement like the above in a memoir is somewhat unstable (even if it is not as unstable as it might be if uttered by a character in a novel). A memoirist might be asserting this position as his own, but he might also be saying that the position is one he once held but now finds mistaken. A more straightforward memoirist than Coetzee would probably make explicit whether he agreed or disagreed with his younger self on this point, but Coetzee never says anything like "what a fool I was" or "I already knew that." He establishes distance from his younger self by writing about himself in the third person and the present tense, but it is not always clear whether that distance is ironic or not. (See my thoughts on this in Boyhood from 2007 here.)

Finally, though, it is worth considering the truth of the claim that prose demands a specific setting while poetry does not. One should be more precise: novels demand a specific setting while lyric poems don't. Put that bluntly, it's surely not true (Kafka, anyone?), but as a rule of thumb it seems accurate to me: lyric poetry can be very unspecific about setting in a way that most novels could never get away with being.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

A recommendation for poets and readers of poetry

I highly recommend Don Brown's fascinating post on "Lyric Occasions":

There are so many ways that language -- as rhetoric -- fails to achieve its intentions, it’s a wonder any poems succeed at all.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Two Trees

"Two Trees," the first poem in Don Paterson's Rain, begins with a stanza describing how one Don Miguel grafts an orange tree and a lemon tree together. Then, in a second stanza, "the man who bought the house" splits the two grafted trees apart. A series of negatives follows, climaxing with how the two separated trees did not "strain ... to face / the other's empty, intricate embrace." The poem the explains these negations in the couplet that concludes the second stanza and, with it, the poem itself:

They were trees, and trees don't weep or ache or shout.
And trees are all this poem is about.

If that's the case, then the attraction of this poem lies not in how it extends a potential metaphor for the reader to play around with, but rather in how it teases the reader by apparently offering an extended metaphor before taking it back. This is not the expansion of the usual extended metaphor, which seems to offer such a tremendous range of interpretations, all of them plausible—with the pleasure lying in the poem's surplus of possibilities. Instead, this poem's effect is a matter of diminuition, a playful retreat from the extravagance and excess of extended metaphor (while still partaking of the pleasures of that excess before retreating from them).


One morning, Don Miguel got out of bed
with one idea rooted in his head:
to graft his orange to his lemon tree.
It took him the whole day to work them free,
lay open their sides, and lash them tight.
For twelve months, from the shame or from the fright
they put forth nothing; but one day there appeared
two lights in the dark leaves. Over the years
the limbs would get themselves so tangled up
each bough looked like it gave a double crop,
and not one kid in the village didn't know
the magic tree in Miguel's patio.

The man who bought the house had had no dream
so who can say what dark malicious whim
led him to take his axe and split the bole
along its fused seam, then dig two holes.
And no, they did not die from solitude;
nor did their branches bear a sterile fruit;
nor did their unhealed flanks weep every spring
for those four yards that lost them everything,
as each strained on its shackled roots to face
the other's empty, intricate embrace.
They were trees, and trees don't weep or ache or shout.
And trees are all this poem is about.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Wanting to be normal

Rereading Coetzee's Boyhood, I was struck by the issue of being "normal." The issue is raised in a disturbing way, in a discussion of the beating of children in school: if John, the third-person Coetzee in this memoir, is finally beaten by a teacher, then "he will be able to come out on the other side a normal boy" (7). A few pages later, then, it is no longer just a matter of beatings at school: "He wants his father to beat him and turn him into a normal boy" (13).

What would be beaten out of him so that he would be normal?

Once, during their early months in Worcester, a boy from his class had wandered in through the open front door and found him lying on his back under a chair. 'What are you doing there?' he had asked. 'Thinking,' he had replied unthinkingly: 'I like thinking.' Soon everyone in his class knew about it: the new boy was odd, he wasn't normal. (29)

Thinking, then, is not normal, and the irony is brutal: when he speaks "unthinkingly," his inner world of thinking is exposed. Implicitly, then, "thinking" is what needs to be beaten out of him for him to become "normal."

This is connected to lying:

If he stopped lying he would have to polish his shoes and talk politely and do everything that normal boys do. In that case he would no longer be himself. If he were no longer himself, what point would there be in living? (35)

This reveals the other perspective on normalcy: John wants to be normal, but he also wants to be himself, the thinker and, here, the liar. If thinking and lying make him feel guilty, they still make him who he is: the boy who is different.

His mother is also responsible for his difference: "He wishes she would be normal. If she were normal, he could be normal" (38). Does she create the thinker and liar? Perhaps in part, John thinks, because she does not let his father beat him.

One odd effect of Boyhood is that it is in the present tense, so everything seems to happen at the same time. The boy's development is thus obscured. But his perspectives do change, as do his ability to articulate them:

He is just a boy walking beside his mother: from the outside he probably looks quite normal. But he thinks of himself as scuttling around her like a beetle, scuttling in fussy circles with his nose to the ground and his legs and arms pumping. In fact he can think of nothing about himself that is still. His mind in particular darts about here and there all the time, with an impatient will of its own. (59)

Here, his external perspective on himself grants an apparent normalcy that could not be articulated earlier in the book, and the internal depiction of thinking is much more complex.

And a while later, he rejects normalcy entirely—at least temporarily:

'Can't you just be normal?' asks his mother.
'I hate normal people,' he replies hotly. (78)

His mother, previously seen as partially responsible for his failure to be normal, now wants him to be normal, but now he rejects what, as a younger boy, he so vehemently desired. Still, it is better to be on his mother's side:

He is chilled by the thought of the life he would face if his father ran the household, a life of dull, stupid formulas, of being like everyone else. His mother is the only who stands between him and an existence he could not endure. (79)

Once, his father's failure to beat him was a lack that contributed to his difference; now, the father is a representation of the normalcy he rejects.

John's sense of his difference, then, gradually turns positive, until he can finally feel "convinced that he is different, special" (108). But this cannot be a stable, positive feeling, as this frightening passage makes all too clear:

... if all the stories that have been built up around him, built by himself, built by years of normal behavior, at least in public, were to collapse, and the ugly, black, crying, babyish core of him were to emerge for all to see and laugh at, would there be any way to go on living? Would he not have become as bad as one of those deformed, stunted, mongol children with hoarse voices and slavering lips that might as well be given sleeping pills or strangled? (112)

His outward appearance, as when he was walking with his mother, is "normal," but the restless "thinker" disappears here in a maelstrom of feelings. The move toward a positive sense of "abnormality" can never be permanent and ends in the horrifying image of the strangling of children with Down's Syndrome. (An image that deserves lengthy discussion in the context of Coetzee's work as a whole!)

So a dialectic remains (inevitably?), between normalcy and difference: "Though he blames his parents because they have not brought him up as a normal child, he is proud of their education" (124). Education (thinking?) is something to be proud of even if it does not make one "normal"—and one's "normalcy" remains, always, it seems, the responsibility of one's parents. (Is this a theme in the life of many writers? — Educated parents who have come down in the world? Certainly, mothers who gave up a "creative" side to raise children are a theme in artists' lives.)

"Thinking," as the source of difference, is expressed through education, and most of all, through examinations:

He is good at examinations; if there were no examinations for him to be good at there would be little special about him. Examinations create in him a heady, trembling state of excitement during which he writes quickly and confidently. He does not like the state in itself but it is reassuring to know it is there to be tapped. (131)

Here, his difference from others, what makes him special, is reduced to his good performance in school. The problem with this does not appear in Boyhood, but only in Youth: what do you do when you stop doing well in examinations, or when there are no more examinations to take? ["Never in his life has he been forced to call on his utmost powers. Less than his best has always been good enough"—Youth, 13]

Near the end of the book, a new claim is made about John:

Once upon a time he used to be full of ideas, ideas for places to go, things to talk about, things to do. He was always a step ahead of everyone: he was the leader, the others followed. Now the energy that he used to feel streaming out of him is gone. At the age of thirteen he is becoming surly, scowling, dark. (151)

This is quite surprising, given that the book contains no evidence at all of John, the leader. His energy has only appeared as the energy of thinking about himself and normalcy, and he has largely seemed "surly, scowling, dark." Has Coetzee's older self colored his sense of his younger self? As he says in Youth, "ruthless honesty is not a hard trick to learn" (Youth, 164). Perhaps Coetzee's desire to be "ruthlessly honest" has led him to avoid depicting himself as a leader, for fear of glamorizing himself. In any case, Boyhood is not self-aggrandizing—and Youth, with its scathingly ironic self-portrait of the artist as a young man, is even less so.

Amicable Numbers

Mike Barlow's "Twenty Something Going On Immortal" (from his pamphlet Amicable Numbers, Templar Poetry, 2008) describes one moment in the climbing of a cliff, and concludes:

When I'm gone the same piece of rib
will jut against the sky, and a line of rope
mark out a sequence of inevitable moves.

The eighteen lines before this conclusion, though, make it clear that the "line of rope" was not at all inevitable from the perspective of the climber. Poems are like this, too: a series of choices and decisions that, in the end, must look like "a sequence of inevitable moves."— With the advantage, of course, that a misstep in a poem does not lead to a dangerous fall.

Barlow's "Out of My Body" describes what the speaker sees after "God knows who put what in my drink": From "high above the town," the squares, the river, the cathedral, but not the people: "I can't see how / we touch or hear what we say to one another." The description of being "out of my body" ends with this implicit rejection of the experience of being high in favor of a less self-centered view of the world, and hence makes a claim about what poetry is for: "how we touch" and "what we say to one another."

There's a lovely irony, then, in "Cauliflower Cheese," a descriptio of the making of a meal. It begins: "Don't speak. Don't interrupt. Whatever / you're bursting to say, save it." Here, "what we say to another" is nothing, and the speaker does not touch the addressee, who is sent to drink a glass of wine and walk barefoot on the lawn: "I'll call when it's ready. You can come in then / with all you have to say." But even, no conversation takes place; instead, the meal is eaten:

We'll help each other to seconds,
trying to leave a little for cold, tomorrow.
But we won't. We'll finish the lot.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Meta Haiku

Check out the very cool "meta haiku" by Heather McDougal. Happy clicking!

If a Clown

I don't think I've ever read a Stephen Dunn poem before that I really, truly liked (and many of them I really, truly dislike)—but I like this one, from the August 24, 2009, issue of The New Yorker: "If a Clown."

Ordinarily, I don't like poems that overflow with questions like this, but here, the shift to the kid at the end gives the poem the extra propulsion it needs to lift off.

Basel Lyrikfestival

The 7th Basel Poetry Festival will take place on September 5 and 6 at the Literaturhaus Basel. It includes readings by Peter Waterhouse and Ron Winkler, among others, and the awarding of the Basel Lyrikpreis. The full program is here.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Advertisement in Basel

This poster is an ad campaign in Basel to get people to use sunscreen. It's also a lesson German modal verbs:

"I know how little I should."

"I know how much I can."

"I know how much I may."


By the way, I noticed that people generally say "sunscreen" these days, rather than "suntan lotion," as people said when I was growing up in the 70s. A sign that the reason to use the stuff has changed ...

Jazz artists I have heard live

So my concert list was just about pop-rock-folk-reggae-country-bluegrass bands. Here's a list of jazz artists I have heard:

1. Ralph Towner
2. John Abercrombie (those two as a duo: my first jazz concert; JA also in various other formats)
3. Oregon (1984 was a Towner-intensive year!)
4. Miles Davis (twice, once with Scofield)
5. World Saxophone Quartet (several times)
6. David Murray (with WSQ, with Jack DeJohnette, as a leader of quartet and octet)
7. Dave Holland (with the Wheeler-Coleman quintet, with the Potter-Eubanks-Nelson quintet, solo, and in various other groupings)
8. Sonny Rollins
9. Dizzy Gillespie
10. Max Roach
11. Sun Ra (twice, perhaps even three times?)
12. Cecil Taylor
13. Mark Feldman (with New and Used, with Sylvie Courvoisier, with Zorn)
14. Dave Douglas (as leader, with New and Used)
15. Bill Frisell (in all sorts of settings)
16. Paul Motian (with the Frisell-Lovano trio, and with Konitz-Swallow)
17. Joe Lovano (with Motian, as a leader with Hank Jones)
18. Lee Konitz
19. Steve Swallow
20. Charlie Mariano
21. Jasper Van't Hof
22. Hank Jones
23. George Mraz
24. Marc Ribot (in all kinds of settings, and with Tom Waits and Elvis Costello)
25. Julius Hemphill (with WSQ, with his Sextet)
26. Charlie Haden (with Quartet West, with Metheny, with Kenny Barron)
27. Pat Metheny (with the Group, with the Grenadier-Stewart trio, with Hancock-Holland-DeJohnette)
28. Herbie Hancock
29. Jack DeJohnette (in all sorts of settings)
30. John Surman (with DeJohnette, with Anouar Brahem and Holland)
31. Anouar Brahem
32. Kenny Wheeler (with Holland)
33. Robin Eubanks (with Holland)
34. Chris Potter (with Holland)
35. Steve Coleman (with Holland)
36. Steve Nelson (with Holland)
37. John Purcell (with DeJohnette)
38. Howard Johnson (with DeJohnette)
39. Cecil McBee (with DeJohnette)
40. Billy Hart (in various settings)
41. Larry Coryell
42. John Scofield (with Miles, as a leader)
43. Tom Harrell
44. Larry Grenadier (with Harrell, Henderson, Metheny, Mehldau)
45. Joshua Redman
46. Brad Mehldau
47. Jorge Rossy
48. Jeff Ballard (Mehldau's drummers)
49. Bill Stewart (with Scofield, Metheny)
50. Paquito D'Rivera
51. Mark Walker (with D'Rivera)
52. Billy Cobham
53. Denny Zeitlin (duo with Haden)
54. John Zorn (with Naked City, Cobra, Bar Kokhba)
55. Fred Frith (with Naked City, as a leader)
56. Wayne Horvitz (with Naked City, as a leader)
57. Joey Baron (with Naked City and elsewhere)
58. Kermit Driscoll (with New and Used, with Frisell)
59. Jan Garbarek
60. Eberhard Weber
61. Rainer Brüninghaus
62. Marilyn Mazur (the last three with Garbarek)
63. Marc Copland (duo with Abercrombie)
64. Philip Catherine
65. Richard Galliano
66. Bireli Lagrene
67. James Blood Ulmer
68. Hans Feigenwinter
69. Art Ensemble of Chicago
70. The Leaders (Lester Bowie, Chico Freeman, Kenny Barron, etc.)
71. Ornette Coleman
72. Barbara Hendricks (singing Gershwin with a jazz quartet)
73. Wayne Shorter (as a leader, with Santana)
74. Brian Blade (with Redman, Shorter)
75. McCoy Tyner
76. Michael Brecker (with Tyner)
77. Dave Liebman (with Lovano, would have been with Brecker but he was sick)
78. Billy Higgins (with Haden)
79. Alan Broadbent (with Haden)
80. Ernie Watts (with Haden)
81. Ron Carter
82. Don Pullen
83. George Adams
84. Cameron Brown
85. Dannie Richmond (the last four = the Pullen-Adams Quartet; Richmond died a week or ten days after the show I saw at Yoshi's)
86. Leroy Jenkins (another Yoshi's show)
87. Phil Woods (in Santa Cruz)
88. John Carter
89. Bobby Bradford
90. Richard Davis
91. Andrew Cyrille (the last four as a quartet in Santa Cruz)
92. Wynton Marsalis (with the Lincoln Center Orchestra, and maybe once with a sextet with Marcus Roberts?)
93. David Torn (with Bill Bruford on drums!)
94. Adam Nussbaum (several times)
95. Marc Johnson (in a nonce band with Sco and Nussbaum and Lovano and Jim McNeely)
96. Jim McNeely
97. Geri Allen
98. Roy Anderson
99. Steve Lacy (solo and as leader)
100. Steve Potts (with Lacy)
101. Bobby Few (with Lacy)
102. Henry Threadgill (Sextett)
103. Fred Hopkins (with Threadgill)
104. Don Cherry
105. Steve Morse (solo, opening for ...)
106. John McLaughlin
107. Al DiMeola
108. Paco DeLucia
109. Louis Sclavis
110. George Gruntz
111. Fritz Hauser (solo, in a concert for kids!)
112. Rory Stuart
113. Lounge Lizards
114. Colin Vallon
115. Egberto Gismonti (solo)
116. Evan Parker (solo)
117. Joe Henderson (at Pearl's in San Fran with a very young Grenadier on bass)
118. Abdullah Ibrahim
119. Diana Krall
120. Russel Malone (with Krall, Ron Carter)
121. James Carter
122. Jazz Passengers (with Debbie Harry)
123. Curtis Fowlkes (with JP, Frisell)
124. Ron Miles (with Frisell)
125. Eyvand Kang (with Frisell)
126. Stanley Jordan
127. Koch-Schütz-Studer
128. Charlie Hunter (duo with Previte)
129. Bobby Previte
130. Greg Osby (with DeJohnette, with Hunter and Previte as special guest)
131. Gary Thomas (with DeJohnette)
132. Mick Goodrick (with DeJohnette)

I'm sure I'm forgetting at least a couple of dozen more (sidemen for the above at least), but that'll do as my second bit of self-exposure.

Concerts I've attended

So there have been some lists being posted in various places about concerts you've attended. Here's my contribution to this bit of self-exposure.

1. The Grateful Dead (80+ shows)
2. Jerry Garcia Band (dozens more, including the acoustic band and the acoustic duo with John Kahn)
3. Linda Ronstadt (my first concert)
4. Livingston Taylor (opened for Linda)
5. James Taylor (years after Livingston)
6. Kansas
7. Boston
8. Billy Joel
9. Sammy Hager (opening for Boston; 3-9 are still in the 70s)
10. The Police (now we're in the 80s)
11. Laurie Anderson
12. The Who
13. The Clash (opened for The Who and blew them away)
14. T-Bone Burnett (opened for The Who)
15. Santana (five or six times)
16. The Fabulous Thunderbirds (opened for Santana once)
17. Stevie Ray Vaughan (four or five times)
18. Talking Heads (twice)
19. B-52s
20. English Beat
21. The Blasters
22. The Bangles
23. Los Lobos
24. Asleep at the Wheel
25. John Hartford
26. The Seldom Scene
27. Sweet Honey in the Rock
28. David Lindley (opened for Santana and the Grateful Dead at Angel's Camp)
29. The Neville Bros. (opening for the Grateful Dead a few times)
30. Penelope Houston (a few times in Germany)
31. Lou Reed (in Berlin, but not performing Berlin)
32. Bonnie Raitt (opening for Lou and once for Jerry Garcia)
33. Violent Femmes (opening for Lou; Gordon Gano and Bonnie did the "colored girls" bit on "Walk on the Wild Side")
34. Lyle Lovett (also opening for Lou)
35. 17 Hippies
36. Oingo Boingo
37. The Vapors
38. Bob Dylan (eight or nine times)
39. Neil Young (about the same)
40. The Minutemen
41. The Meat Puppets
42. Van Morrison
43. Joni Mitchell
44. Leonard Cohen
45. Tom Waits (just before Big Time was filmed in LA)
46. Elvis Costello
47. Michelle Shocked
48. Billy Bragg (with Michelle opening for him)
49. Richard Thompson ("Pump It Up" on solo acoustic, rocking as hard as the Attractions)
50. Greg Brown (sadly, only twice)
51. Chris Smither
52. Alison Brown
53. David-Jacobs Strain
54. Northern Lights (the last four all at a festival where I went to see Greg Brown)
55. Arlo Guthrie
56. Wenzel
57. Al Stewart
58. Doc Watson
59. The Dinosaurs (not Dinosaur, Jr., but a band with Barry Melton, John Cipollina, and Robert Hunter)
60. Black Uhuru
61. King Sunny Adé (with Black Uhuru opening)
62. Bob Weir and Rob Wasserman
63. Tuck and Patti
64. Michael Hedges
65. Eric Clapton
66. Joe Cocker
67. Jimmy Page and Paul Rodgers
68. Ronnie Lane (these last four at the Cow Palace)
69. Pink Floyd (in Hannover in the post-Roger Waters era)
70. Phish (sadly, only twice, in Paris and Strasbourg)
71. Henry Kaiser
72. Peter Gabriel
73. Glass Eye
74. John Wesley Harding (opening for somebody, but I don't remember who it was)
75. Varmint (Wayne Horvitz's cover band)
76. Jefferson Starship
77. Kaki King
78. Dream Syndicate
79. Dave Matthews (opening for Dylan once)

Then I'll add in local bands in places I have lived (and post a separate list of jazz artists I have heard):

80. Union Soul
81. The Verre Perdu
82. The Druids
83. Phil Dolby
84. Zsa Zsa House
85. The Heptiles
86. Missy and the Boogiemen
87. Walking Down Brenton Road
88. Natterjack and the Lost Passengers
89. Fucking Beautiful
90. Pseudo Boys
91. Robert Rich
92. Eliana Burki
93. Markus Bachmann
94. Basement Bros.
95. Blues Nettwork
96. Debonair
97. Handsome Hank and His Lonesome Boys
98. Seraina
99. Leonti
100. Arf
101. Cloudride
102. Mañana
103. Crop Circles

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Idleness, defiance

Somewhere (where? I don't remember, and my internet searches have not been successful; perhaps in his diaries?), Franz Kafka wrote that it is only our moments of idleness that count.

That crossed my mind when I started re-reading Mark Rowlands's The Philosopher and the Wolf and noticed the clear statement of the book's thesis that appears at the end of the acknowledgments: "... it is only our defiance that redeems us."

When I first read the book, I even read the acknowledgments, but the thesis did not jump out at me—perhaps because it is only the whole book that makes it seem like a general statement, and not Rowlands's own peculiar take on things.

But which is it that redeems us: idleness or defiance?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

It says here you're 27

Here's the song going through my head today (my 45th birthday):

Dig David Lindley's finger-picked violin solo!

It says here you're 27, but that's impossible.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

1952 Vincent Black Lightning

A wonderful view of Richard Thompson's fingers as he plays one of his most brilliant songs:

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Philosopher and the Wolf

I'm reading The Philosopher and the Wolf, by Mark Rowlands. A truly exhilarating book, sort of a cross between J. M. Coetzee on animals and Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals. I'll probably say something more explicit about it later, but right now I am reading it with the Cartesian approach: read it first like a novel, then read it again and start really thinking about it. (For the full description of his reading method, see the end of my post from February about Descartes.)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Sugar Snow

It's amazing how vivid a 30-plus-year-old memory of something I read can be:

"It's a sugar snow," he said.

Laura put her tongue quickly to a little bit of the white snow that lay in a fold of his sleeve. It was nothing but wet on her tongue, like any snow. She was glad that nobody had seen her taste it.

What was even more remarkable about my memory of this passage from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods, which I have been reading to Miles and (mostly) to Luisa bit by bit over the past few weeks, is that I felt it coming: as the passage came closer, I knew that something was about to be described that I had been fascinated by as a child, even though I had never thought of it in the meantime.

Subway Moon

I saw Roy Nathanson's book Subway Moon in the "new arrivals" list on Poetry Daily, and as I am a fan of his music, I thought I'd check out his poetry. It's a beautifully done book (apart from the sans serif font), with lots of photos, and the poems are worth a look, especially if you're into a more relaxed, "improvisational" free verse. But the prose piece at the end is what really moved me, a recollection of Roy's father in the nursing home, still (or again) playing his sax, all the old beautiful tunes he used to play in all-white bands in the 20s and 30s. (It hit close to home, as my father recently moved into assisted living.)

What I did not know until I just did a search for Subway Moon is that it is also a CD.

I know of a few rock and pop and folk musicians who also publish poetry, but Nathanson is the first jazz musician I've come across who does. Or have I missed someone?

Origin of Species

The absolutely spectacular Chris Smither. A very funny song with utterly brilliant guitar playing!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Miles on his favorite bands

While we were on vacation in the U.S., Miles told someone about his favorite bands: The Who for something violent, XTC for something cool, and Phish for something beautiful.


Why should poets try to find a "voice" when there are so many voices in our heads? And mostly it is the welter of other people's voices that speaks to us most truly. (Insert Borges reference here.) Something overheard in a bar, something murmured and misunderstood, something someone didn't mean to say. — Just a few thoughts after re-reading this poem, "Voices," (the first of the two at the link). It's from Rob A. Mackenzie's The Opposite of Cabbage.

(And once you've read it, too, get yourself a copy of Rob's book here!)

Six Fragments from Johannes Kepler's Last Letter to Galileo

The last of George Keithley's "Six Fragments from Johannes Kepler's Last Letter to Galileo" begins as follows:

Like all men who think, I struggle
against my nature.

The enjambment gives this an extra twist, allowing for two readings of Kepler's struggle, one general, the second a more specific "struggle / against my nature."

But I disagree with the more specific reading: for me, thinking can be a struggle, but not one "against my nature"!

Keithley does not leave it at that, of course. Here's the whole sixth "fragment":

Like all men who think, I struggle
against my nature. Wherein
I acknowledge what I hear
or dream is but the ghost
of those heavenly harmonics
that move the mind to dance:
Why not, then, call it music
and admit our souls are lost?

I struggle to think about those lines, about how to comment on them—but I don't struggle to feel them.

(Still, "just because you feel it doesn't mean it's there," as the Radiohead song goes ...)

What the Mind's Eye Sees

In Der fliegende Berg, Christoph Ransmayr juxtaposes two different ways of looking at the things of this world:

Was bedeute eine Gestalt denn schon?
Es könne doch auch eine Nebelkrähe
bloß als kluger Vogel erscheinen
und zugleich ein Bote des Himmels sein—

ebenso wie das über einen Grat ins Tal einfallende

Morgenlicht zugleich den Sonnenstand
den Lidschlag eines Gottes anzeigen könne,

und erst recht erscheine etwa ein Firnfeld,
das hoch oben unter den Gletschern den Mondschein spiegele,
einem schlaflosen Hirten als ein silbernes Tor in den Felsen
oder als ein Stück offenen Himmels!

und sei
in Wahrheit? eben doch nur Schnee,
Schnee vom vergangenen Jahr. (198)

A crow can be just a clever bird as well as a messenger from heaven; the morning light on a ridge can tell you where the sun is and also be the blinking of a God; a field of snow in the moonlight can be a silver gate in the cliffs or, "in truth?", just snow from last year. (See here for a discussion of this passage in German.)

For the narrator's brother Liam, only one of these perspectives is valid, while Ransmayr's Tibetan nomads are able to accept both of them at the same time.

George Keithley's The Starry Messenger, his sequence of poems about Galileo Galilei, makes clear, in the poem "What the Mind's Eye Sees," that Liam's perspective can be called "scientific." Keithley's Galileo determines what the Milky Way is (a huge swathe of invididual stars) to the exclusion of other understandings of it:

He reports the Milky Way is not a vaporous river.
Nor is it a stream of milk from Hera's breast.

Nor is it the spine of the sky—the pale backbone

of the black beast whose belly is our home.

Nor is it the ancient route of a raven's flight
through a night of snow.

Nor is it the path of souls descending from heaven to earth.

Nor the spirits of the dead departing to the other world.

The poet in me is inclined to accept the double perspective of Ransmayr's nomads and to defend the images that Keithley's Galileo refutes. But the materialist in me protests that metaphors and symbolism do not describe the world. Then the poet in me asks, "What do metaphors and symbols do to the world then?"

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Chimes (Adam Fieled)

The relationship between words and music is something I ponder often, as someone who writes both poems and songs. John Gallaher wrote sometime on his blog that "poetry is as good as music," and of course I agree. Here's the beginning of #26 in Adam Fieled's prose-poem sequence Chimes, capturing beautifully how the words associated with music can provide motivation for hearing words on their own as an art form:

Through music, words emerged in my consciousness as another thing. There were musicians who used words and they showed me. I saw that combinations of words could be molten and that the fires they ignited could be contagious. They could be a door that one could break through into another reality: a place hyper-real, full of things that had the palpable reality of what is called real, but were nonetheless better than real: voices channeled from ether, expounding heroic worlds of oceanic expansive experience.

Songs that did that for me when I was in my early teens: Bob Seger, "Turn the Page" (though I never owned it); Aerosmith, "Dream On"; Queen, "Bohemian Rhapsody"; Dire Straits, "In the Gallery" (starting to move away from singles here!); Steely Dan, "Home at Last." I'd say it's when I started getting more into the last two that I began to move from pop to poetry.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Toe of Human Understanding

A trait I admire in poets (and other writers) is the ability to hear the poetry in the speech of people who would probably reach for their guns (metaphorical or literal) if you said they sound poetic. As in this poem by Dilys Rose, from Twinset, her collaboration with Karen Knight, published by Knucker Press (there's a telling illustration by Polly Thelwall, but you'll have to buy the book in order to see that!):


Here's me, out by the courthouse for a fag,
in the wedding suit, tattoos mostly under the cuffs
of the jacket. It's pissing down. Nobody's about. Not even
a piper to nip the heid with Wha Haes and dirges.
My legal rep's off round the corner for a latte
with the Filth. Just me and Maister Enlightenment
up on his plinth, a traffic cone on the brainy conk,
pigeon on the neb, rain dripping from his chin
onto the Spartan—no the neo-Classical gear.
What would any self-respecting empirical philosopher
be thinking, posing in some eighteenth century
town house studio, barefoot, near enough bare-arsed,
kitted out in a low-slung toga? No central heating then:
even in the height of summer, it could have been Baltic.
Psshht. No joy in soggy tobacco. If only the boy
had been here in the flesh to gen me up on how to frame
a foolproof argument, plead my case for the fallibility
of human understanding. But no. Only his likeness
for company, gazing into the middle distance.
I rub his toe, his big green toe—verdigris—and hope
some wisdom will rub off on me. And on my legal rep.
(If he hasn't a clue it follows that I haven't a chance in hell.)
Read about this nonsense in The News. Folk say the toe
of David Hume is wearing thin from all the rubbing.
What would he think about his countryfolk resortimg—still—
to such irrational carry on? Right. Time for the verdict.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Andrew Philip's Virtual Tour

An interview with Andrew Philip as part of his virtual book tour on the publication of his collection The Ambulance Box.


AS: Nobody would fail to notice the presence of Scots words in your poems. But as an English-language poet living in a German-speaking city (Basel), I was also quite struck by the presence of German words and phrases in several poems.

AP: I spent a very formative 20 months living in Berlin before I went to university in Edinburgh, during which my German became quite fluent. That was 15 plus years ago and those skills have undoubtedly atrophied to an extent, but the experience still exerts an influence on me.

The German words and phrases are there for different reasons in different poems, but I suppose they all function to give the work a more international — or at least a more European — context. They also serve one of the functions that using Scots and Gaelic serves: as a playful resistance to the international weight of English.

AS: German and Scots intersect in "Berlin / Berlin / Berlin," but also in your Scots versions of Rilke poems.

AP: I first encountered Rilke when I was in Berlin. The tutor of the German class I went to gave me a gorgeous Insel Verlag edition of his collected poems, so my first experience of a Rilke poem has almost always been in the original, not in translation.

My first attempt at translating Rilke was a Scots translation of "Der Panther" when I was a student. However, I was kicked into translating him more seriously when a couple of friends set about a version of "Herbsttag". Their first draft rendered "Der Sommer war sehr gross" as "Summer was opulent." It just made me think no, no, no! Too high.

I began by translating into English but soon thought that it might be more effective putting Rilke into Scots because the sound of the language is generally closer to German than English is. I soon came to feel that I'd be doing my fellow Scots a service if I could provide them with strong Scots translations of Rilke and am very pleased that even non-Scots seem to enjoy the pieces in the book hugely.

Another great German poet I came across in Berlin is Celan. I translated some of his poems into Scots when I was a student, but those versions have stayed in a virtual drawer for a long time. I might return to him at some point, but David Kinloch has some good Scots versions in his collection In My Father's House.


AS: "Not everything / is as simple as it might seem." Is it safe to read the last sentence of "Wilderness with Two Figures" as a summary of Andrew Philip's poetics?

AP: It is, though you should probably wear a hard hat. I'm certainly not interested in writing poetry in which everything is on the surface and straightforward. I'm not terribly interested in reading that kind of poetry either. I hope that the reader enjoys my poems enough and/or is intrigued enough to revisit them.

AS: Given that, what about these lines from "To Bake the Bread"?

Perhaps you call us 'simple' for our ways—

I have heard it said the educated do.

Why wish for a life more complicated

When each day here is difficult enough?

AP: I did say to wear a hard hat! "Not everything" is not the same as "nothing", of course, but I think there's an emotional complexity to that poem that belies the surface simplicity. Those lines are about investing the speaker with a dignity we can ignore all too easily in our seemingly more sophisticated culture. For that character, there's a lot going on under the surface, some of which comes out in the dream he recounts in the poem.


AS: "In Answer to the Question" provides a numbered list of sentences and sentence fragments. I enjoy the oblique connections between the parts, but am I supposed to be able to make the same connections you intended?

AP: There is a question to which all those lines are oblique answers, very oblique in some cases. It was part of a writing exercise on an Arvon course I attended back in 2003. However, I think the poem has grown away from that initial impulse to an extent. Every reader brings to the poem — any poem — their own experiences and understanding, so they might well make connections other than the ones I initially intended. I'm comfortable with that, especially in relation to a somewhat cryptic list poem such as that one.

AS: "In Question to the Answers?" is more immediately coherent, because of the many repetitions of phrases. But that also makes me think about the individual questions less than I thought about the individual statements in "In Answer to the Question."

AP: Yes, I can see why that would be so. To my mind, "In Question to the Answers?" is, in a sense, less coherent in that the play with language, rather than a programme imposed from outside, is the driving force. It may not be programmatic in the way that "In Answer to the Question" is, but I certainly feel it to be trying to express something — ettling at something, as we say in Scots — something about unease and fear, primarily. Perhaps the underlying inchoateness of what it's saying also enacts the nature of that unease and fear.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Luisa's shopping list

Luisa (5) wrote this shopping list the other day. It's in lovely phonetic German and English:


That's Brot = bread; Bota = butter; Gus = juice; Bläzle = Plätzle (cookies)!

Sara on English

Luisa, Sara, and I were in the pool at my sister Sara's house in Massachusetts, and we'd all been chattering away in English for a while (which does not go without saying in my daughters' cases, as they both are quite happy to talk German to me when I talk English to them), and Sara suddenly said:

"Ich alles English say."

Hysterical laughter on her father and her sister's parts!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Box of Rain

Maybe you're tired and broken
Your tongue is twisted
with words half spoken
and thoughts unclear

The lines that made me think of my Dad today, while driving to the supermarket.

On the video below, the song starts about two minutes in.

Radiohead, Phish, Wilco

Three bands that many people may not associate with each other, but I love 'em all, because they all write great songs.

Thursday, July 02, 2009


At the Discovery Museum in Acton, MA, today:

How Learning Occurs: "Building a robot that works involves building a robot that doesn't work and then figuring out what is wrong with it." (Benjamin Erwin)

[As I like to do, I googled to find out who Erwin is. He has something to do with LEGO!]

On the road on the way there and back:

Thickly settled.

Hidden driveway.

Whistles not blown. [Before a train crossing.]


Not a sign, but what Andrea said as we were trying to get the kids organized to leave the museum:

"We never get anywhere, and when we are somewhere, we never get back from there."