Saturday, January 29, 2011


I saw a headline in the local free daily newspaper the other day that said that children today are better at playing computer games than they are at tying their shoes. I did not read the article (I saw the headline over someone's shoulder on the bus), but I can imagine someone saying that this is another sign of how things are going downhill. But frankly, it's no surprise at all: children know how to play computer games because they play computer games, and they don't know how to tie their shoes because they have velcro shoes. If a skill disappears, it might just mean that people don't need that skill anymore.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Horizon Review, Issue 5

Issue Five of Horizon Review is up, and it's a pleasure to have four poems of mine featured alongside the work of such a strong line-up of poets, including Mark Granier, Alison Brackenbury, Ian Duhig, and Rob A. Mackenzie.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Land of Marvels

The main character of Barry Unsworth's 2009 novel Land of Marvels (reviewed in the New York Times here) is John Somerville, an archaeologist doing an Assyrian dig shortly before World War One begins. At one point, he ponders the reign of Ashurnasirpal II, in a passage that makes clear what contemporary issues were on Unsworth's mind as he embarked on a novel set in what would one day become Iraq (which, it turns out, is the novel's last word):

Some change in the human spirit here, not in the doing but in the telling, the pride, some ugly twist of soul towards a new idea of supremacy. How? From where? Why among these people at this time? Bred by conquest, like an appetite that grows from feeding? With the blessing of their god Ashur to lend them a sense of mission, bloodshed would become a form of devotion. Since Ashur was above all other gods and the king was his earthly embodiment, there would be a duty to impose his cult, carry light into dark places. The light they had carried had been cast by the flames of devastation. They too, the light bearers, had ended in that same fire.

A later passage returns to the same considerations:

This story began with the second king called Ashurnasirpal, the first of them all to boast of his power to inflict suffering, the first to make this power the symbol and test of kingship, the first to aim not merely at conquest and plunder, as had his forebears, but at the permanent subjection of the conquered peoples, changing the very nature of the state, from one rich and strong within its borders and content to be so to one that gloried in dominion, ruthless in its greed for territory and vassalage, a policy that was to be followed by all his successors down to the last days, down to the fires in which the empire perished.

On the basis of these two passages, one of the concerns of Unsworth's novel is a variant of "those who don't know the past are doomed to repeat it," and the doomed party here would be today's United States, doomed to burn in the very fires of devastation that have been dominating its policies over the last nine-plus years.

But a novel that leaves it at that would hardly be worth commenting on. There is an American character in the novel, Alex Elliott, a geologist who, for strategic reasons involving oil, is pretending to be an archaeologist attached to Somerville's working party. This is a character who is marked in many ways as untrustworthy; in fact, he is even apparently selling his services as a geologist to the Americans, the British, and the Germans all at the same time. And this ambiguous figure is the one who actually states the principle of history: "As someone wiser than I has said, if we ignore the lessons of the past, we will be condemned to repeat our mistakes." He says this at the end of a dinner-table soliloquy about the Hittites—but of course he is not really an archaeologist at all, but a geologist who has boned up on archaeology in order to be able to pass as an archeologist, and he is not interested in the mistakes of the past but in the possibilities of the future, a future that, as he foresees, will be dominated by oil. This quotable quote from "someone wiser than" Elliott is thus deeply ironized in the novel, and any straightforward reading of Unsworth's implicit comparison of the Assyrians and the Americans is called into question by the novel as a whole. The comparison stands, of course, but Unsworth is both establishing the parallel and fictionally exploring its implications and imprecisions.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

August Peonies

There's a good study to be written about one-sentence poems (or perhaps it has been written already). Here's the one-sentence poem on Poetry Daily today:


Lallygagging on bent stems, late
this year because of the snow
in May, their rag-tag magenta
cluster-heads freshen the still heat
like a rush of wind in the leaves
or the cool brush of deep sea
crinolines as the ripple kiss
of a breeze opens their bunched petals
just enough to let them breathe
before they ease back
into light repose, poised
at the edge of time-lapse
attention, like us, who lose
momentum in the heavy air
rich with the scent of ripening
wheat that drifts in from the fields
over the slow-moving river
as the afternoon nods and lengthens
into shade, into thoughtfulness,
and the sky deploys an argosy
of softly tinted clouds, fresh
blooms without stems
that sail where we cannot
go, all the way to the edge
of everything where daylight looks
back, once, then disappears.

George Amabile
The Malahat Review
Fall 2010

And here's a favorite one-sentence poem of mine, by a poet, Sarah Wardle, who is particularly good at one-sentence poems:


When I'm walking in the city

past banks of offices and shop windows,

noticing the leaf-fall of litter,

as I'm swept along by a stream of feet,

I imagine I'm strolling in the country

past crowds of trees and parked hedgerows,

hearing the breeze change up a year

and the river roar, like a main street.

Friday, January 07, 2011

I See Alps

In the summer of 2003, we took Miles, then three and a half, on a boat tour of the Seattle harbor. As the boat turned back towards the harbor and gave us a great view of Mount Rainier, Miles exclaimed, "Look, Mommy! I see Alps!" This amused not only his parents but also all the people within earshot. The others probably did not know that he is a resident of Switzerland.

I found this photo the other day while going through old photos to put them on a memory stick for our new digital picture frame. It reminded me of Miles's exclamation, of course, but it also reminded of the gigantic cranes that can be seen in the photograph, which were designed and built in order to be able to load and unload the gigantic container ships that the Seattle harbor specializes in serving.

Seen up close from the tour boat, they were huge; from this perspective, they are dwarfed by the mountain in the distance. Someday, the Seattle skyline will surely be gone, and with it the cranes, but the mountain will remain.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Werner Herzog reads

It's a bit late for the season, but I just came across this rendition/adaptation of "Twas the Night Before Christmas" by Werner Herzog:

And there's a whole bunch of other "Werner Herzog reads" videos to watch, too, including "Madeline" and "Winnie the Pooh."

(There's a footnote somewhere that says it is not really Werner Herzog ...)

A wonderful curse poem

The first of today's three poems on Poetry Daily is a wonderful curse poem by Paul Zimmer:

Zimmer's Head Thudding Against the Blackboard

At the blackboard I had missed
Five number problems in a row,
And was about to foul a sixth
When the old, exasperated nun
Began to pound my head against
My six mistakes. When I wept,
She threw me back into my seat,
Where I hid my head and swore
That very day I'd be a poet,
And curse her yellow teeth with this.

A curse poem that is also a bit of an ars poetica, in fact: here's why I became a poet, and here's what poetry is for.