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:

a. http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/oct/26/youre-powered-by-quantum-mechanics-biology

b. http://secondnexus.com/technology-and-innovation/physicists-demonstrate-how-time-can-seem-to-run-backward-and-the-future-can-affect-the-past/?ts_pid=2

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”

It Occurs To Me That

as we try to appease the trickster spirits this Halloween weekend, when our demons and grave beings haunt us again


we might all appreciate the kindly voice of Experience. Relax, the poet Ellen Bass tells us: Continue reading “It Occurs To Me That”

Gift Horse

Because my father was a career Marine, I grew up on military bases in Southern California, where during the war years between 1967 until sometime in 1970, I watched troops of new recruits assemble for embarkation to Vietnam. They were mustered at the LTA (‘Lighter-Than-Air’) Station in Tustin, CA, on which were two immense hangers full of helicopters—except on those occasions when the new troops were to be shipped out. Continue reading “Gift Horse”