The Lyric Narrative

This afternoon, Thursday the 9th of February, at 3:00pm, I  was to participate on a panel entitled The Lyric Narrative. If you see this post in time, and happen to be at the Associated Writer’s Program Conference in Washington D.C., you may jog over the Marquis Salon 7 & 8 at the Marriott Marquis Hotel and attend the presentation. I am myself unable to attend, having succumbed to the flu, so I have remained in New England under the blanketing fury of a blizzard. Here is the Introduction I would have presented, if I could be there:

A Brief Apology for Narrative

It’s a simple truth that contemporary poetry is devoted to the personal lyric—one test of which might be to find a book of narrative poetry among the hundreds and hundreds of lyric volumes downstairs in the Book Fair. There won’t be many—because the personal lyric is what we have all been taught in our workshops to write: poems comprised by a momentary personal revelation, an individual truth spoken by a sole voice usually taken to be the voice of the poet. What is revealed can vary, the language of the revelation may differ from poet to poet, but that revelation nevertheless occurs to a private speaker inhabiting an individual moment.

But this poetics ignores a multitude of subjects that simply do not lend themselves to momentary expression. Important subjects that command our attention in other daily contexts. The present battles at Standing Rock, to choose just one example, cannot be fully appreciated unless the history of conflict and genocide of native American peoples is acknowledged. Here we again have armed white people invading the sacred territory of indigenous populations. More than one person is involved, and multiple events are elaborated over time. In short, the scope of this conflict is much larger than a personal response to it: the tragedies are not there for personal edification or the poet’s moral improvement. The complexities require narrative sequences to connect the parts, and to recognize characters other than the one lyric point of view

With this said by way of introduction, each of our panelists has written poetry that blends poetic intimacy and public discourse. The panelists each write about that interplay: how lesbian partnership invokes both private feeling and public comment, for instance, or how the public shame of political internment mixes with personal trauma. Such topics require extended emotional scope. Our five poets each have imagined hybrid solutions in long sustained poetic sequences. Two have written book-length chronicles; others write extended prose poems. Together the poets will discuss how they build sustained forms, and will read from their work to illustrate the shape of their thought.

In The Wild


Part I

The speed with which medical conventions can domesticate the most outlandish requests, or re-frame even grotesquely violent behaviors, is an under-appreciated marvel of modern social life. In virtually every other setting—for instance, at your workplace—, it remains inappropriate for me to approach you, hand you a Dixie cup, and request that you fill it with your excrement. Work conventions rightly disallow this behavior, which would appear out of place, out of bounds, and downright weird.

However, if I approached you in my hospital office, handed you a paper cup with a wooden spatula, and there asked you to fill it with a stool sample, the request would be rendered perfectly normal because the conventions in that setting make it okay to require unacceptable things of you. In the right context, one of my colleagues might insert his finger into your anus, peer wisely into your vagina, thread a camera up into your colon to take pictures–or even cut you open from your collarbone to your pubic mound, slice out your heart, and put it in an ice chest. Only temporarily, mind you, because the promise is that someone will put it back when the time comes.

Although hospitals do their best to disguise the fact by building routinized, institutional facades (look at the architecture of the hospital pictured with this article), they are nonetheless the wildest places I can think of—far crazier than prisons, science laboratories, or military compounds, though they may share aspects of each of these establishments. Hospitals are the licensed institutions in which we hide the uncanny things of the world, chiefly by erecting conventions that suspend our incredulity. Hospitals assert the commonplace, affirm routines, profess the customary, declare humane incentives: just mundane practice going on in here, another ordinary day of saving lives, move along, nothing to look at. And in fact, you will not be allowed to look behind the closed doors.

But let me tell you, if at some point in your life, you discover that you need to be frightened–that you want to challenge your complacencies in ways you do not control beforehand–then hospitals are where you want to be. Nowhere else have I routinely touched people, circumstances, fates that otherwise I never would have imagined.

I never would have thought, for example, if left on my own—never thought to step behind the Senator showing me and my friends around the White House, and try to give him a bear hug. I am just too inhibited that way, and I don’t like Republicans. But Andrew, an adolescent high school student from one of the blue New England states, was comfortable with open displays of good feeling, and felt obliged to make a public declaration of his patriotism by embracing the natty senator addressing the New England Debate Club.

Naturally, Andrew called down upon himself the hordes of Secret Servicemen positioned throughout the building. The event I am writing about happened years ago at this point, well before 911, but even then the Secret Servicemen didn’t take chances–and given the initial urgency, it is to their credit that they pretty quickly recognized this was not a criminal assault, there were no bombs involved, and that everybody was safe, after a fashion. They had no idea what was really going on, but their expertise was with threats and violence, which they were trained to recognize when they saw them, and Andrew’s behaviors fit neither category.

For one thing, he was pretty disorganized in his attempt–not hesitant so much as uncoordinated in a weird way. He was also spouting a sort of ‘word salad’ that might have been mistaken at first for an unknown foreign language–except recognizable, though misused, words in English were mixed in. He wasn’t hard to deter from his intended purpose, the teacher-chaperones intervened with the government men, and eventually one of them took him back to his hotel room.

By report, he seemed to improve over the course of the afternoon, though his parents were called nonetheless, and arrangements were made to whisk him back home–in the course of which, however, he suffered another, more severe and persisting disturbance to his language production and his mental organization. He never made it home per se, but was taken directly to my Medical Center and admitted through the ER, where he was taken for a CAT scan. He had an aneurism in his left middle cerebral artery, which had begun to leak, causing disturbances in his language and motor control over parts of his right bodily extremities.

If he had been 75 years old, I think the symptoms would have been recognized more quickly than his were, because mid-adolescence is not typically an age at which to develop strokes. Though no one said anything, my sense at the time was that the adults around him all were assuming he had been taking some recreational drug, and his goofiness was the result. In truth, he would have been better off if he had simply been wasted on something fun, the effects of which were temporary. But instead of merely needing de-tox, he was awaiting brain surgery to clip the artery.

I was enlisted to evaluate him to establish a portrait of his current level of cognitive performance, which would provide a baseline for his post-surgical therapies. Accordingly, I visited over two afternoons as arrangements were made for his surgery. There were the formal portions of the evaluation, which mapped out memory, attention span, visual-spatial organization, executive planning, and of course his linguistic functioning, which looked pretty decent even with the aneurism. There were also the informal parts of our interaction that let him tell me, off and on, that he liked political science, that he was an only child, and that his favorite band was Tool or Nirvana, depending. I preferred Alice in Chains to either one of them–which no way could he believe, man, because Cobain was such a great guitarist, and the best writer. And besides, Courtney Love was hot.

This could be a fun job. For two days we definitely had the best music going on the floor.

Part II

Other days, on other units, were less musical. On Thursdays we had neuropathology rounds at 7 a.m. in a group of inter-connecting rooms in the basement sub-floor near the morgue. There the neurosurgeons, the radiologists and the neuropsychologists (i.e. me and two others) would assemble among the pathologists to engage in Brain Cuttings: an instructive event during which the brains of persons who had died would be sliced in coronal sections to allow the group of us to examine the gross pathologies, before the sections would be given to other pathologists in other rooms to stain and photograph. Often there would be two or sometimes three brains trussed up in a vat of formalin, where they had been immersed in order to solidify and preserve them for the cutting.

In themselves, brains are remarkably fragile–which is the reason they each float in the cerebrospinal fluid inside each of our respective skulls. Suspended in that salty fluid, they weigh about one fifty-sixth of what they would on land, so to speak. The brain’s own weight would be lethal otherwise; it would collapse fatally on itself simply by the pull of gravity, squashing the life out. So it is a delicate thing to remove the brain from the braincase, and slide it into the fixative that will solidify it enough to allow manipulation. It takes a sensitive and dexterous hand–governed by the attentive mind of a sociopath. Here we’d be standing by this large butcher’s block, on which the pathologist would set the brain he just fished out of the formalin tank, and in the adjoining room, separated by a kind of shower curtain, we could hear the whirr of the diamond saw as the other pathologist was cutting off the top of a recently-deceased-person’s head. It took some getting used to. Hannibal Lecter might have trained in a place like this.

There were two pathologists: a male and female team. The man–call him Dr. Taft–always chose to cut the brains; the woman–call her Dr. Adler–had the knack of extricating the slippery cerebral mass from its protective layers of skin, bone and meninges without brutalizing it, and getting it into the formalin with minimal damage. I don’t know if she ever knew whose forehead it was into which she pressed that whirling saw blade, but the rest of us had to know. Otherwise we could not relate whatever pathologies we saw in the fixed brains to the particular medical histories that proved so fatal to our patients. That meant that each brain, which was labeled by the kind of tag you might find dangling on an appliance in Sears, could be connected to a clinical history, which one of us would read to the group while Dr. Taft prepared to start cutting slices.

You cannot believe some of the stories. One brain I remember looked as if it had been shot with a spray of ice. This had been a young pregnant woman who, some time during her third trimester, had been engaged in love-making with her husband. Given the size of her huge gravid womb, the couple had chosen to have oral sex. Unbeknown to either of them, as the poor guy was going down on his wife, his excited heavy breathing was introducing air into her vagina, up the birth canal, through the dilating cervix, and into the placenta, where it was absorbed through the immense plexus of blood vessels there. Their sexual excitement, in other words, fed multiple air bubbles into her blood stream, which abruptly killed her when her pumping heart shot all those emboli into her brain. She never knew what hit her.

You can imagine what it must have been like. For one second or so he thought he had brought his wife to climax, only to realize that, no, something was stunningly wrong. By the time he had called 911, she was already dead, and by the time the EMT’s arrived, they had lost the baby too. The group of us stood there in numbed silence, not making eye contact, and waiting just to get the session over with.

I never went to neuropathology rounds without preparing for them. The fundamental premise was, of course, that someone had died–which, naturally enough, occurs with some frequency in hospitals. But it nonetheless required a sort of steeliness, a resolve to take it all on, to walk into that room and slice up someone’s brain. It wasn’t for everyone. We strolled down unadorned corridors toward restricted rooms where, like it or not, our Thursday exercises assumed religious proportions. After all, our rituals required human sacrifice. With the permission of the deceased, whose organs we were using, we called up the gods of science, and retrieved truths as we found them in the literal world of the dead. We had mortality itself on the cutting block, and took the opportunity to dissect the accidents of disease and infirmity, tease out vital membranes, and prepare as best we could against the onslaughts waiting for every last one of us.

These were perilous ceremonies, requiring perhaps a sort of ancient Mayan sensibility. Mercy wasn’t in it. Dr. Taft accidentally inflicted a vicious wound in his hand with the knife he was using to transect one of those brains, and though he survived the resulting systemic infection, it was a very near thing. He was ill for a prolonged time, and he wound up losing some of the function in that hand.

My own changes came some months before Taft’s injury, and had a different provenance all together. As we gathered around the ceremonial block that Thursday, and as Taft prepared to make his first cut at the frontal pole of a male brain, I heard someone–one of the interns, probably–begin reading the clinical history of the specimen we were about to study: The patient was a 17-year-old adolescent male named Andrew, the voice intoned,  a neurosurgery patient with an aneurism, who post-surgically bled out in the recovery room. Oh man. Oh man. I could see the extensive, black irregular pool of blood that had guttered into the left parietal lobe, the left anterior temporal lobe. I didn’t want to see the rest of the ugly stuff in the lateral ventricles, once Taft cut back to them.

I was looking instead for the place where Andrew kept Kurt Cobain’s music, the place where he knew the words to Lithium, Aneurysm, Heart-Shaped Box–the secret area where he stored his version of Nirvana. Everyone would have, if they had known him.

What Did You Think?

Current events lately have vividly published the persistence of human violence against other human beings, which in turn has raised conversations everywhere around me in my particular circle of friends regarding issues of social justice and free will. You might be engaging in them yourself in response to Trump’s latest transgression, or the last atrocity in Orlando, or in remembrance of the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, or the most recent instance of a collegiate man drugging a woman to rape her in peace. Take your pick: there are ample occasions to goad you toward thoughtful formulations of behavior.

Among my friendly conversations, the question arises whether these aggressions are necessary. Do people who want to hurt other people have any real choice in the matter, or are they compelled to aggress against others by deterministic forces–by environmental conditions and pressures, let’s say, or by genetic, hard-wired proclivities? Social violence is clearly both frequent and widespread enough to prompt outcries for just legal responses and political solutions. However, behavioral formulations are compelling not merely to political consciousness, but also to science itself with its outright investment in material causation. The aim in science, of whatever category, is to think preferentially about what determinism means: how one material entity effects another created thing: how atoms conglomerate to cause material substances, for instance, how gravity sticks us to our places, and so on. If any given person is determined to behave in a certain way–perhaps especially, though not exclusively, if the behavior is violent–, then we may want to understand the mechanisms responsible for the outburst.

Recently there have been a couple of articles in the scientific news that have introduced uncertainty into the accepted model of causative instrumentation. Historically the primary axiom has been that no effect can be created without a cause—which, on the face of it, seems a reasonable axiom to believe in. A material effect must be determined by a material cause. If something can be created without a cause, then we are in realms other than science–religion, for instance, or the paranormal, in which scientists would be admitting to the efficacy of ghosts haunting the world, miracles arising out of nowhere, and magic affecting the substrate of reality. Gandalf could be real, Harry Potter is roaming somewhere in London, and the Loch Ness Monster is still eating Scotsmen.

The trouble is, at no level has causality been determined, even as the degree of analysis sharpens, and so thus far there are no solutions to be had. Science keeps telling us that it really should be simple: every action has an equal and opposite reaction, that sort of thing. It seems an easy matter to conclude that I throw a brick because the mechanical action of my arm is caused by thoughts, ideas and emotions directing me to throw it. The arm must be caused to throw, or it won’t move. Or, to be more provocative, if someone goes into a family planning clinic in Colorado to shoot the doctors, he must have motivations and ideas that caused his behavior. He is not a computer that can be taken over and controlled from without–like aliens directing his actions using bluetooth devices from their starship. (Of course, he might presumably be psychotic, but even then science would still say that the lack of reason is caused by material malfunctions among the dopaminergic neurons—but that is another conversation).

Hence brain functioning is itself laid out for exploration. The presumption is that brains are biological mechanisms that operate along recognized mechanistic principles. Thoughts arise within our minds according to functions that can be assayed: vision is intact, recognition of consensual reality is intact, and the aims of the behavior are programmed by cultural heritage, using language as its primary means of indoctrination. The programming must act upon the material substrate–we learn things–in the same way that programming a computer must act on the electrical components inside it. In examining the brain, we analyze its functions into its causative units. The mechanistic features of brain function derive from the neuronal components: a neuron releases a chemical neurotransmitter, which crosses a synaptic gap to bathe receptors on another neuron, which absorbs the flow of ions that— according to the electrical charge of the ions—then potentiates either an excited neuronal discharge, or an inhibition to excitation. The neuron is turned on or off.

Pursuing the analysis further, we have to descend another level into the neuron itself, because its functional mechanisms must be characterized too. If we want to influence brain activity, we have to know how to influence the neurons that purportedly create it. This is the basis, for instance, of the proliferation of psychoactive medications: SSRI’s to alter mood, neuroleptics to alter psychotic disturbances, anti-seizure meds to decrease kindling, neuronal hormonal function to influence sex and appetite, mood stabilizers, major sedatives, and so on.

So how do neurons manufacture their neurochemicals? How transport them? How create energy to fuel their activities? This is the level of scientific inquiry into cause and effect addressed by those articles to which I alluded above, the links to which I give here:



In them we have research—pure, hard, materialistic research published within refereed journals—that is concluding there is no simplistic determinism of the nature that science presumes to be seeking.

This new research is revealing the hidden, underlying premise of all previous brain research, which was taking as its axiomatic model the theories of classical chemistry and physics. But suddenly those deterministic models are surmounted by the non-deterministic activities of quantum mechanics. The revelation of those articles is that the classical models no longer explain neuronal function—upon which brain activity depends. This is the same theoretic disagreement to be found between Einstein (who famously states the ‘God does not play dice with the universe’) and Niels Bohr, whose work in quantum theory discovered the indeterminacy at the essence of atomic activity. Chance is at the heart of the universe, not material control.

It appears, in other words, that determinism may be a matter of the level of inquiry. I can build a car engine that–when an air/fuel mixture is introduced into the cylinder at the correctly determined time–will cause an explosion, which in turn will cause a piston to move that is connected to a drive shaft that, in its turn, is connected to a wheel. All those material things and activities derive from a use of materials at the daily level of human visibility. We can’t ask too many questions about the actual nature of those events and materials, however. We just use them. If you do keep asking, causality fades away in the process of continued analysis. It’s the difference between mechanical engineering and theoretical physics.

If brains cannot be constrained by classically deterministic models, then we at least approach another conversation about freedom of thought, and the relation between brain activity and cultural education. We need new models of brain function and its relationship to behavior; these two articles, and the world of research they imply, are opening up a theoretical space in which such models can be imagined and researched. In particular, the possibility arises for a model that escapes the simple dualism between material being and spiritual ectoplasm–between science and religion, normal and paranormal, matter and mind.

There is some urgency for such a defining conversation, given the brutalities arising daily within an interconnected world of faults and problems. There is no persuasive materialist explanation that proves, for instance, that a person is physically determined to take an automatic weapon and preferentially train it on other people—let’s say (because I think the stakes are very high here) people of color worshipping in a church, people who also happened to befriend the appalling man in their Bible study class before he pulled out his handgun. Dylann Roof was not constrained to act as he did. There was no locus of control originating outside of his own volition: no chemical imbalance, no cultural programming, no poverty, no ignorance, no aliens directing him.

Nevertheless, he did shoot those people anyway, of his own choice and planning. He was personally accountable, and the possibility of individual freedom and responsibility are perhaps not terrible concepts to reconsider in general within our culture of proliferating virtual realities and fantasy escapes. People–and the governments they populate–can do better.



The California Prose Poem


This Saturday, April 2nd, I participated in a panel on the prose poem that was hosted at the Associated Writer’s Program Conference in Los Angeles. Accompanying me were three other poets, each of whom also write prose poems. Moving from the left of the photograph to the right, they are: Gary Young, Stephen Kessler, and Christine Kitano. The format was to have each of us explain why we write in this poetic form, and then read a handful of our poems to illustrate our various perspectives and philosophies. What followed was a discussion with the audience, during the course of which this photograph was taken: candid and live-action. I read from my book, My Gargantuan Desire. The text of my introductory remarks is as follows:

Apologia: Why Write Prose Poems?

I think of poetry as first a voice, an utterance that is temporal, sequential and dramatic. It is also inherently rhythmic and composed quite literally of sounds: rhyme, assonance, consonance are integral to the voice. Before they were ever written down, poems have existed for millennia as oral traditions in the fabulous Homeric epics, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, the religious stories of the Navaho, and on and on the list goes. For the convenience of preservation these voices can be codified by the tools of our notation: the alphabet, marks of punctuation, even line breaks. But I do not think of poetry as essentially a visual thing, anymore than I would grant the score of Bach’s cantatas the primacy of place over, for instance, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson singing them. Languages like music are auditory, and they too like poetry have existed for whole eras before written forms were created to represent them.
I know there are languages that are not auditory–American Sign Language for one–but I am not composing poems in them. And let me admit I have nothing truly against the written word–I’m actually glad to have the alphabet. But I don’t choose to accentuate its visual presence over the auditory being of language, and so I present my poems as prose: the invisible format. I have conceived of my poems here in my first book as spoken aloud to someone dear to me. It could be you. I have also composed these poems as formal Shakespearean sonnets, after which I then dissolved the lines into their basic sentences. As I‘ve said before, the rhythms and aural characteristics of language are integral. Visually breaking the flow of speech into lines is not. As prose, I am presenting poems with the metrical and auditory sophistication of the sonnet but embedded within the sinuous poetry of personal utterance.


The Next Big Thing


What is the title of your book?


Where did the idea come from for the book?

First, growing up in Southern California, among the Spanish Missions (at San Juan Capistrano, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo), I began to wonder where all the indigenous peoples were–for whose conversion these missions were built.

Second, I wrote a lyric poem entitled The Husbandman, in which a gentleman was genetically sequencing animals out of plants: brains in garden rows like cabbages, cranes opening their wings out of pink aquatic plants. That sort of thing. And I felt like I had more to say about the subject.

Genealogies is the marriage of these two impulses.

What genre does your book fall under?

It depends on how you want to approach it. Formally,  the poem is a Romance, the essential element of which is adventure: a sequential and processional narrative involving human characters who have extraordinary abilities, which they exercise in extraordinary circumstances.

In contemporary terms, think of the X-Men and their heroic battles. Historically, think of Noah in the Old Testament.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Since the poem is an adventure tale, there are multiple characters involved:

John Elam:  Dustin Hoffman in The Little Big Man.
Sarah:  Roseanne Supernault in Into the West.
Alfred Ison:  Michael Gambon in The Singing Detective.
Velma Ison: the imperial Helen Mirren in The Queen
Evelyn Weatherly:  Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind.
Osgood Weatherly:  Glenn Ford in Is Paris Burning?
Nate Weatherly: Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands (minus the scissors)
Mae Pinson:  Cate Blanchett in Notes on a Scandal.
Bartlett Smith:  James Earl Jones in The Great White Hope.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

The chronicle involves a Native American woman who, having fallen through a bad patch of time, lands in Berkeley in 1968, where she learns that her people and many, many other indigenous New World inhabitants were exterminated by then, and resolves to return to her own era and enlist the aid of a ship-wrecked English adventurer to assassinate Cortez before he succeeds in his decimating conquest–failing in which, the two of them return to Florida and travel through time in the usual sequential way, discovering in the quotidian process that they have been immortalized in body if not soul, and therefore that they cannot escape history. It’s sad, man.

Who has published your book?

The book is published by Greenhouse Review Press. Copies can be found on Amazon, and at your local independent bookseller.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your book?

Longer than usual, I think, for a book. I had to research the needs of sea-going explorers, and so embraced ocean kayaking–which took a lot out of me. Also, to commit to the project, I needed tattoos: 


What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The best examples are (in this order): Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Books IX-XI in The Odyssey; The Parliament of Fowles; Jonah.

What else might pique our interest?

Tattoos don’t hurt so much, really. Many of you probably knew that already, but I was gratified.

Planets Dressed as Girls, Running Home



I. Preliminary Matters We Need to Address Before We Bask in the Enduring Radiance of Aracelis Girmay’s Poetry

As practical, contemporary Americans, we have gotten used to science in our lives, with all its quite remarkable ambitions. Just think about it. Everywhere in the media, we have men and women attempting to predict the future climate of the whole planet. In other laboratories, physicists are working to define the nature of the particles that make the particles that make atoms—which make every physical thing in the universe. Astronomers peer backward toward the very beginning of the creation, and calculate the temperatures that existed at something like 10 to the -10,000,000th of a second after the very instant of the Big Bang. Continue reading “Planets Dressed as Girls, Running Home”

It Occurs To Me That

a particular friend of mine, who has just lost her father, might appreciate this statement of grief and celebration from a fellow traveler, who is mourning his own father’s death. We might all appreciate such resilient, joyous gratitude. Here is a poem by the poet Ross Gay: Continue reading “It Occurs To Me That”