Shadow of a Cloud, But No Cloud

What follows is the text of a recent review of Killarney Clary’s new book, ‘Shadow of a Cloud, But No Cloud‘, published by the University of Chicago Press. The review appeared this Friday, October 17th,  in the Los Angeles Times by Stephen Burt. This is a lovely review about a fabulous poet’s newest collection.




Twenty-five years ago, Killarney Clary’s first collection made an international splash: The prose poems of “Who Whispered Near Me” wove evanescent description of Clary’s native Los Angeles, from her childhood’s backyards to her office mates’ cubicles, together with pithy regrets and vivid advice. The mysterious, teasing results — not quite short stories, not quite memoir; friendly and yet reserved — got Clary anthologized, imitated and even attacked by critics as far off as London. (Last year it was brought back into print by Tavern Books.)

“Shadow of a Cloud but No Cloud,” the fourth collection from Clary, who now lives in Aptos, Calif., refines and returns to her initial strength: It’s wiser, terser, sadder, never resigned, but alert to the years of a poet who has lost a parent, survived her first fame and kept her insight acute through middle age.

Clary’s prose poems depend on the melodies of their sentences, connecting phrase to phrase without the interruptions of line breaks. Their unpredictable paths cross the inland desert (“blooms of Styrofoam in the tumbleweed”) or head indoors through moments of recollection, as when the young poet painted with watercolors, probably for the first time: ‘Worry touches the loaded brush tip to the wetted paper and the color floods into a sharp-edged shape, darkens to be a thing, my own.” Such close observations recall the poet’s own training in studio art: When a child plays with a marble, “the game he plays he plays with his weight on one knee, on the press of a few toes,” with “beads of rain heavy on the leaves between his nape and the sky.” Other pages include single phrases that could be short stories on their own: “From the warehouse in Sparks, Nevada to fill a catalog order in Emmett Idaho, a blouse for a woman who will be better when the parcel has arrived.”

Such sketches, on their own, could make a beautiful book, but Clary has more. Midway through the volume, her single scenes, interiors and portraits give way to sequences about her parents: her mother’s illness and death, her trip to Ireland with her father (and her mother’s ashes) and then her father’s apparent decline. Dementia renders cruel the echoes and similes, the likenesses and paradoxes, presented in happier days by the art of poetry: “You want to introduce me to Killarney, then, puzzled, you stop. … I can’t imagine a kind way to tell you who I am.”

Stitching together such remembered moments, Clary sets up ironic pairings between her girlhood and her present self, her mother as powerful giant and her mother as an absence or a ghost: “I sit on the sunny pantry floor and read repeatedly the label on a can of mandarin oranges, its best-by date years past. There will be noise; they will need me. My hands are exactly as I remember my mother’s hands, now gone.” To listen to Clary carefully is to detect ever more intricate echoes, both in her psyche and in the sentences’ sounds: The passage above, for example, descends into 16 consecutive sharp monosyllables, from “its best-by date” all the way to “my hands,” before — in a cascade of Rs and S’s (“are exactly as I remember”) — it softens again.

Her volume finds ways out of sadness, not only in shining moments but also in present-day connections: She is, among many other things, a subtle poet of domestic affection, and it is in that key that the volume ends. “We hear leaves stir under the bamboo, the progress of our different pictures — fall wind or possum — and I lie against you. One of us is warmer. One will die first.” Is that a melancholy claim? Perhaps, but it should not undermine a pair bond, neither for people nor for the hawks that Clary and her partner observe. “Two shapes lift over the canyon, their prey hidden or scattering. I smooth your hair.”

Clary works in the tradition of modern novelists (Virginia Woolf, for example), who ask us to trust their characters’ streams of consciousness, but also in a tradition of prose poetry stretching back to Baudelaire. Fans of today’s short-short fiction — say, Lydia Davis — should check her out too. She may never be wildly popular: She’s too strange for that, and she leaves too many things out; nor is she the kind of experimenter who makes readers angry by what she refuses to do. Instead, she invites us into her shifting scrims and absences, her curtains of sentences, showing us slices and glimpses of her own experience, “waiting here where bees were once kept,” or writing graffiti “with the dry cleaner’s clear wax zipper crayon on the flat blue-gray paint on the closet wall,” or swimming with her mother’s “swirl of pale hair in the bay.”

Few writers have shown at once the vividness and the evasions of memory so well. And Clary explains — within her poems — the workings of her poems, which resemble parties (people move around, trying to listen to one another), optical illusions and party games: “there is a pattern, not a story, repetition of shape, change of scale and/or direction, a game of perception: find the hidden hat in the picture: it may be inverted. Shown for only a moment, the tray is taken into another room.”

As in life, so in her poems, the pieces are moving; Clary challenges us to figure out what we can.


I Remember It Well

Most of us in our post-industrial world spend a remarkable fraction of our mental powers just trying to stay organized. I wake up in the morning, and before I throw the covers off I’m already starting to reconstruct my schedule. Who am I supposed to see today? What am I doing for lunch? Where did I put my beeper? What are my afternoon meetings? Do I have time to get gas in the car? What is the name of the security guard who buzzes me onto the in-patient unit?  What is my password to the ATM? What was I supposed to tell the Volvo mechanic about that leak? What’s my password to my work computer? Wait, do I have change for the tolls? What’s my iTunes password? What’s my email password? None of this stuff is particularly fun to remember–just required learning that has to be exercised a hundred times a day to allow access to what we actually do for work.

That sort of instrumental retrieval is different than those unpredicted events of recall–like when the name abruptly pops into my mind of that song I woke up hearing in my head this morning: “A Good Woman’s Love.” I haven’t thought of that song in two decades until this morning, and who knows why I thought of it then. I can randomly pull other things out of my memory–for instance, where we buried our dog Amos in the back yard. I recall breakfast with my father, who always ate two runny poached eggs, with black pepper,  and two pieces of toast that my mother made for him. I can still smell that pepper. He would be wearing his khaki Marine uniform, and a brown tie with a Windsor knot. At the dinner table, once in a while, something would prompt him, and he would start reciting the first 100 lines or so from the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales–in Middle English–because that was the sort of thing he was asked in high school to learn. That was his memory task in his day, which–given who my father was–provided him with about as much intrinsic satisfaction as I am provided by recalling my computer passwords: just stuff he put into his head that stayed there.

My beautiful picture

I also remember how he enjoyed watching John Wayne westerns–‘Oat Operas’–, which later was another thing that popped into my head that morning as I strolled into a nursing home I consulted to. I was there to evaluate the mental status of an elderly man–let’s name him Paul– who had fallen down his basement stairs. His wife had found him unconscious at the bottom of the steps, called Emergency Services, and he was taken to the Medical Center to be evaluated for fractures and bleeds. Once he was cleared, and determined to be medically stable, he was then discharged to a sub-acute setting to provide some supervision and careful medical attention before he was sent home again.  I was part of that careful medical attention. We wanted to be sure that the confusion he displayed upon regaining consciousness did indeed resolve as anticipated before we let him go.

In real life Paul had been a high school teacher, and I was anticipating a relatively benign interview with an educated, articulate adult who had spent his professional life trying to instill in others a respect, if not a regard, for the intellectual qualities of mental life. My kind of guy. As I stepped into his room, where I expected to find him, several things happened at once. I was startled to see that he was in fact not laying in his bed at all, but was crouching down behind it, sandwiched between the bed and the wall. This was unique in my experience. I have had people try to elope from hospital rooms, and even a few who have fought with whoever tried to come in, but I had not ever–either then or later–walked in and found someone who was trying to hide. And then I heard him start hissing at me, “Get down! Get down!” 

Well, I’m no fool, there was space enough beside him behind the bed, so I bent down and scurried over to join him. He was still in his pajamas, and was sporting a huge bruise that engulfed his right eye and cheekbone, and extended to his forehead and toward his temple. I could see why he had been evaluated for a skull fracture: he had evidently hit his head really hard. When he saw me coming, he made room for me, so I squeezed down beside him, the two of us peering cautiously over the bedspread, and back out into the room. This could have been awfully silly, if anyone happened to see us. But he was so obviously terrified. You have to respect that sort of terror.

Or at least I do. I spent the next few heartbeats getting comfortable–I mean, I didn’t know how long we were going to be hiding behind the bed–, and also trying to get oriented to my new friend.  I had elected instinctively to join him in his universe: I did not take him to be assaultive, or in any way dangerous.  He was organized in his behavior,  and inhabiting a legible, consensual world–even if I could not yet identify it. After all, he invited me into his place, and fully expected me to grasp what was at stake. He was also openly concerned for my safety–which prompted all that frantic hissing when I entered the room. He wanted to convey a sense of urgency without giving his position away. But I still didn’t know what was going on his mind. Was he psychotic? I didn’t really think so, but I also didn’t know what could have instilled such fear in this peaceful nursing home, full of old people in wheel chairs.

The bed was meant to protect us from someone or something that was roaming just  outside our line of sight. So I quietly asked, “Where did they go?” Seemed like a logic thing to want to know.

He thought so too. “Indians,” he told me as he scanned the horizon with his one good eye. They woke him up, he told me, and had been shooting at him. 

I have to admit that I was surprised by his answer–non-plussed, in fact, and almost speechless. I think partly because I’d joined him in his place of terror, I was just naturally expecting something closer to the sources of my own nightmares than Indians–like some creature out of Predator or Alien, some hideous being that would tear my arms off at the shoulder, and then start eating them in front of me. But I mean, Indians are just people, like all the rest of us. I can deal with people.

But his answer also meant that I had a glimmer of where he was, not only what planet he was hiding on, but which landscape on that planet. I was settling in.

Where are the arrows?” I asked, pretending to look around us. My aim was to see if Paul could be redirected to his literal surroundings, enticed by the observable things around him into a physical environment other than, and in competition with, the mental place he was hiding in. As he glanced around to find them, his expression changed from fear to a puzzled, suspended look as he noticed the dresser, the tray table with the pills and magazines on it, and so on. As he saw these things, he also recognized that they were incongruous with the landscape he thought he was inhabiting.  It began to feel like that scene in The Matrix, when Neo is given the red pill, and is then sucked out of the world he truly thought was real, into a world he definitely did not expect to exist. I was sitting right beside this guy, watching as he was swept from a Southwestern desert landscape in the 19th Century, and into a 21st Century New England nursing home.

As he sat there, holding his breath and trying to figure out what was going on, a nurse walked down the hallway outside the room, clearly visible from where we were behind the bed.

Should we warn the nurses? I asked–but by that time I was aware he had come with me all the way back into the material world of the nursing home, and that he, too, was aware of the remarkable discrepancy between what had been so persuasively real–all those arrows whistling by his head, the  burning Conestoga wagons, the horses and the sounds of war–and the here-and-now noises of the nursing home with the chair alarms going off as an ancient person tried to stand up, who wasn’t supposed to because of the risk of falling.

My task at that point was, first, to cushion his panic, because he wasn’t all that sure he belonged in a nursing home any more than he belonged in a wagon train somewhere.  And then, as he assimilated his surroundings with what he was beginning to remember about his accident and his several days in the hospital, his fear changed into a grave anxiety regarding what was happening to him. It was no longer a matter of one outer world morphing into a different one, but rather a question of his own interior sanity. Because he was aware that his mind was playing tricks on him.

The nature of those tricks was precisely what I was there to determine, in which he was as invested as I was. He began telling me how he came to hit his head: he had been going into the basement to start the laundry, and slipped on his wife’s bra, which had been tossed down the stairs to be washed, but had landed on one of the steps. He hadn’t seen it, and his feet went out from under him. He recalled some of his time in the hospital, though many of the details remained discontinuous. He couldn’t account for all the days intervening between when he fell, and when he started to clear in his mind. He remembered the trip in the ambulance from the hospital to the nursing home, which was embarrassing, because he had been so self-conscious as the attendants strapped him onto the wheeled gurney, maneuvered him through the public hallways of the hospital, out of the double doors of the Emergency Room with everyone watching, and into the waiting ambulance–and then performed a similar task in reverse to get him into his present room. Everybody remembers that trip, if they have ever had to take it.

What he could not figure out, however, was why he thought he had been participating in the Indian Wars in the American Southwest. And he was terribly afraid he would have further instances of these intrusive experiences. So was I, for that matter, because I could not determine from the way the evaluation was proceeding why he should have had that experience. His intellect was sound: cogent and reasonable. He was fluent in his verbal production, and he readily devised strategies to organize novel information, both verbal and visual. His attention span was variable, but that was to be expected given the head injury

And then we tested his memory, which was remarkable in its presentation. The volume itself of what he could recall was a little bit low for his age, but still within normative limits. However, he was experiencing a startling number of intrusions. He could not tell the difference between what he was formally asked to learn, and these extraneous details that would insert themselves in his memory, so that he thought he was recalling information that in fact he was making up without knowing it.

Here’s the way it works. Read a list of words to a person: sixteen words selected from four categories, four words to each category. There are fruits, items of clothing, vehicles and tools. But you do not mention to the person that there are any categories–just read the words in a random order. During the third of five trials, Paul recognized that the words could be grouped into categories; he perceived conceptual relationships, in other words, that would allow him to group similar words, and exclude those that were dissimilar. He was appropriately using his intellect.

However, after a delay, I read him a recognition list of words–about 50 of them. All of the words on the original list were included, but so were other unrelated words (birds, household appliances), as well as words that could be in one of those four original categories, but in fact were not on that list. There simply were other fruits and tools—none of which could he have learned since they in fact were never presented to him. His task now was to say whether any given word on this second list was also one of the words he had learned on that first list of 16 words. If it wasn’t on that first list, he was to say so.

The trouble was that Paul ‘remembered’ everything. Anytime he encountered a word that was within a category on that first list, he believed that he remembered it being present. That is, even though I never mentioned the word ‘apple’, he thought he remembered me saying that word simply because I did say ‘watermelon.’ Both are fruits. This is a major problem. He wasn’t mixing up categories, but he could not keep straight the different sources of the information that he was newly learning: when I happened to say one thing, and when I said something different. This meant that any given detail of information in his mind could be combined with any other bit of mental information to make a new experience–entirely new, a completely made-up story of events that he had no idea he was fabricating, but which he absolutely believed to be accurate.  He was jumbling together information that he knew, regardless of the source from which he learned about it.

Just think about the implications here. If I cannot identify the source of my memory of velociraptors, then I’m going to be terrified to venture outside my house, because I do not want to be seen by roaming dinosaurs that will treat me as a slow-moving prey animal. I will know that I am in my own house, but also remember those velociraptors sprinting around outside, and so will keep indoors, and play it safe. In this way I change my behavior according to information that I have cobbled together from different sources of knowledge: my lived experience in my house, and my memories of dinosaurs that I have extracted from their fictional source (Jurassic Park), and inserted into a category of experiential information to which they do not belong.

In Paul’s case, just before he went to bed he had been shown a 1950’s movie about the Wild West, and when he woke the next morning, the events of the movie were mixed in among the compendium of his mental details, all assimilated into the particulars of his experience at large. He had vivid memories of the battle, the excited noises, people shooting and being shot, some of whom he now thought he knew. He remembered everything he saw–except the part about the source of what he was seeing: it was a movie, and not his lived experience.

The formal term for this sort of memory impairment is ‘confabulation,’ which at times can be very difficult to distinguish from psychosis. The most common problem with it, however, is to distinguish it at all. The person who is struggling with a confabulated memory does not know that he has a problem: he ‘feels’ his recall is clear and reliable, he relates his experience with notable confidence–indeed, with exactly the same confidence that your or I might tell about our time at work today, or who we met over lunch, and what we said. There is no intrinsic difference in the details of the memory; the difference lies in the various sources from which those details were extracted.

Paul recognized that he had a problem because the memories he had upon waking were so out of keeping with his room in the nursing home. And in this instance was he lucky. If he had been shown a different movie–say, a spy movie to keep him entertained that night–, then the presence of his fabrications would have been far less obvious, and perhaps impossible to trace. Who would ever know whether he had in fact worked under cover during World War II to aid escaping Jews? How would you test that out? You probably would want to interview family members, but that is not necessarily a reliable source. I know, for instance, that my own father was an officer in the European theater during WWII, but I don’t know much about what his actual duties were, or whether he also had unwritten orders he carried out under cover. He never told me his military secrets, and so I would be of no help to an inquisitive doctor asking me about the truth value of my father’s memories, if my father ever wound up in a nursing home with a head injury, which he never did.

In Paul’s instance, however, his memory complaints were evident, and so were the improvements he demonstrated over time, although truth requires me to admit he remained vulnerable to confusing combinations of memories for as long as I knew him. And indeed there were times when he again lapsed into his life in the great southwest, and regaled his grandchildren with tales of adventure. They spiced everyone’s life up, which isn’t always, you know, a bad thing.

Southern Man




I. Apologia

     Charles Wright, as many of you possibly know already, has been recently installed as  our national Poet Laureate, which has suggested—to me, at least—that it might be fun to look at events early in his career when he was just sculpting his poetic voice, and just growing into his vision. Inevitably, by the time any given artist has ascended to the national stage, he or she has long since established their creative persona, finalized aesthetic decisions, refined their set of themes, polished  their style—and in many instances left their best work behind them in the formative, early periods of private struggle with their craft.

     What I have here is an article I wrote in 1981 for an encyclopedia of contemporary poets, which as far as I know is long out of print. The Southern Cross had just been published—and had yet to be named as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize—so my critical view was limited to Wright’s first five books: The Grave of the Right Hand; Hard Freight; Bloodlines; China Trace; and The Southern Cross. He published these collections—along with a translation of Eugenio Montale’s La Bufera e altro—in the 11 years between 1970 and 1981. This is a remarkable body of work produced within a constrained period of creative ferment.

     During those years he was on the faculty in the English Department at the University of California, Irvine, where he directed the budding MFA program with another terrific poet, James McMichael—along with occasional interference by the late Robert Peters. In his free time he liked to golf. Wright was in fact a very good golfer, and so was Jim McMichael, and on one occasion I was invited to form a threesome with them to play 9 holes on a local course one late summer afternoon.

     On one occasion only was I so invited, because I was awful at golf, just awful, and they did not play friendly games. Their genuine collegial cooperation in the English Department, their united front against the haughty English profs (who looked down upon the tasteless poets, neither of whom taught Critical Theory), their sincere friendship of years duration—all were suspended as they focused like crazy on their next shot. Because each wanted to beat the other. Each fucking wanted to fucking win.  Whoa. At the second hole, I picked my ball out of the rough, again, and walked discreetly behind them in the intense California sunlight. I would have shown even further discretion and left for home, except I needed to ride back to campus with Jim in his Volkswagen bus.

     I mention this before anyone reads Wright’s poetry of transcendence and concludes, erroneously, that he did not also have his rooted competitions, his commitments and social passions.

II. The Right Transcendence: The Romanticism of Charles Wright

     Charles Wright’s most recent book of poetry, The Southern Cross, throws in relief the postures toward transcendence that he has held throughout five collections now. The possibilities of escape from temporality continue to work his imagination as he measures the security of his individual being against a final freedom from the natural world. The incentives for that freedom are legible enough, even if the nature and means of it are not: he often announces a weariness or impatience with the quotidian debris of his life; he is discomfited by his evident lack of place in an earthly community where even “the spider has received her instructions.” (The social world of human politics, history, economics and ideologies he excludes from his imaginative interests.) Finally, he laments his absence from a grace that he persistently envisages above him in the physical heavens among “the cold stars of the Virgin,” the “rapturous windows” of the stellar bodies. There, he claims, the “business is radiance.” By dialectical implication, “here” is the province of gloom and obscurity.

     Although his endemic malease amid earthly contingency aligns him with such notable modernists as Eliot and Stevens, Wright’s truer allegiance is to Williams, Pound and the Imagists: those who, in fleeing Victorian embellishments, rooted their poetry in the things of this world. Their technique, biased against abstract statement, places the burden of meaning on description: it seeks to condition language with an objective reality. Wright shares in this aesthetic, at times so thoroughly that he reduces cognition to the aphorisms that introduce his displays of memorable imagery. But unlike his predecessors, he does not harness his descriptive gifts to the stipulations of a factual landscape. He is no realist content to disclose dependable wheelbarrows, but rather is a romantic who attempts to locate beneath the veil of the particular the vital principle that is withdrawn from him. His special transcendence, then, is not an escape per se into a Christianized apotheosis, but instead is a flight into the ineffable core of materiality. His religious diction, lifted from his Episcopal childhood, directs him away from the spiritual realms–about the existence of which he is ambivalent–and toward the proper, nourishing relations between an essential self and an essential nature.

     The means of this escape from the dispersions of history into infinite essence is the poetic medium itself, language, the inadequacies of which Wright typically hopes to remedy by concentrating on the concrete. His imagist technique is yoked to his metaphysics, banning such mental activities as reflection and argument because they betray the program of his aesthetic. They disclose the imperialism of the imagination by expressing human desire, by declaring human reason, both of which falsify the world he wants to fathom, whose order he longs to articulate: what we want or think may not be what is there. Yet even by excluding the discursive from the appropriate realm of the poetic, Wright can only disguise the separation between word and thing, self and object. The so-called concrete language of the image defers, rather than gathers, the presence of the object he wants to name. The relation between noun and its material referent is an arbitrary one established by nothing more than our systems of linguistic and cultural traditions. As Paul Valery has pointed out, the word “horse” no better signifies the animal to which it refers than does “equus.” Consequently, the word does not summon the animal’s being, as is hoped, but in fact by offering itself as an incidental substitute calls our attention to the absence of being.

     Such inessential connections doom the attempt to secure material essence–a fact that has not escaped Wright: hence the bereaved voice we hear in the poems. Words, he writes in “Definitions,” are the “Disjunctive edges of things,” which is to say they are of little real use to him not only because they are merely the periphery of things, but especially because they are severed (“Disjunctive”) from their objects. His aesthetic, which first led him to dissociate his poetry from the continuities of logical structure, also leads him to remark the separation that still inheres between his silent images and the unknown to which they allude. The new poem, he repeatedly tells us in Hard Freight, “will not be able to help us.” The imaginative act is a tragic one, spurred on by his sense of personal loss and, on occasion, by love. He wonders at the birth of his first child, “What can one say to a son?”, and offers only his recognition of the privileges denied to him but possessed by an impersonal nature. “Indenture yourself to the land,” he counsels, “Imagine you touch its raw edges/In all weather…” but do not delude yourself–we can complete the ellipsis–by thinking you actually do touch them. If the poem at all draws the object nearer, it does so only by spreading out human being toward it like Whitman’s spider launching forth filaments out of itself.

     To privilege reality with a presence that is outside of common experience, and then to counsel an imaginative servitude to it, is to define the self outside of history and its temporal determinants. In this Wright revises Pound’s personalized historicism in which the poet construes the fragments of past cultures less as a repressive disintegration than as the occasion to rummage among the debris for untried possibilities. For Pound, the self was to find its freedom in the heterodoxy of time and its opportunities. Wright, on the other hand, even in so recent a poem as “Ars Poetica” in The Southern Cross, prefers to treat that debris as debris: something to be rooted out, or rooted under. Though he begins the poem by stating “I like it back here” (“here” signifying the commonplaces “under the green swatch of the pepper tree”), and though he admits he is “better here than he is there” where “The spirits are everywhere,” yet he is still pressed to ask, “What will it satisfy?” To pose the question is to furnish the answer: nothing much. He still has, he concludes, “this business I waste my heart on./And nothing stops that.”

     By discarding the “business” of experience, Wright treats the past neither as a locus of times nor as a succession of events, but as an unhistorical condition for being. History is simply Time, the principle of duration that precedes and makes possible all social content. Consequently, in his poetry seldom do people or localities or events appear in their individuating particularity. Even so intimate a past as his childhood and adolescence, imagined with singleness of purpose in Bloodlines, discloses a home that is not a place but an essential origin, and parents that are recognizable chiefly as fellow victims of emotional and material closures. Mother and father both are significant in this collection for their deaths, which clear away what is incidental and contingent, and leave what is indelible in experience. These ineradicable patterns Wright calls “Tattoos”: the metaphor entitling the the twenty remembrances he has selected from an intermittent span of thirty-three years. What unifies his memories is the stitching of self-consciousness as the poet seeks to defeat the dualism that separates him from an objective, original presence. This has not been a chronological quest: the poems do not disclose an optimistic youth that experience gradually sours. Indeed, no such continuities are biographically pertinent. Because Wright has dated each incident and in an endnote identified the local circumstances of each, we learn that he has been buoyed by optimism as late as 1973 (the present of the poem) and scarred by despondency as early as 1940. So the tattoos are arranged according to dramatic proprieties that, in following a thematic decline from optimism to defeat, preempt the temporal flow of the poet’s life. They are not subject to the erasures of time and subsequent experience.

     The thematic continuity on which he strings the disparate beads of his experience has itself two strands. The first (sections 1-10) comprises those epiphanies that disclose, across the abrupt fact of his separation from it, a “Nameless, invisible” presence that “pulls the vine and the ringing tide.” “And what pulls them,” he concludes, “pulls me.” The baldness of that conclusion equates dissimilar experiences–varying from an hallucination induced by blood-poisoning (#6) to his father’s death (#2) to his critique of Piero della Francesca’s The Resurrection (#7)–without assaying the differing weights of the poet’s “temporary evangelical certainty” to which they contribute. We are left to wonder what he thinks about those differences, particularly since the sources of his visions often have occasions that abrade his physical and psychological well-being. The puzzle is not fruitful. When, for example, he addresses his dead father, “Between us again there is nothing,” two distinct readings are available, but their contradictions arrest significance rather than usefully double its conviction. One the one hand, the line has idiomatic resonance, everywhere consistent with the poet’s diction and voice, that suggests that differences have been reconciled between two previously hostile contenders. They are “even,” mutually offended and now mutually satisfied. Their presence before each other is purified of their divisive history. On the other hand, the line emphasizes their absolute difference: not a reconciliation but a silence inheres between father and son, who have no means of relating to each other since they now inhabit separate realities. They are absolved of relations, sundered, as Stevens might say, by “the nothing that is.”

The latter reading is more appropriate chiefly because it introduces tonally and intellectually the themes that close the poem. The second thematic strand (sections 11-20) compromises the first not by attacking the hope of presence, but by frustrating its attractions. In section 11 he cringes from his near death in a car wreck that would have fed him, as his father was fed before him, into the natural cycle: “The pin oak has found new meat,/ The linkworm a bone to pick.” It is unclear why, in Wright’s present scheme of things, this brush with death “Trails into the cracked lights of oblivion” while the earlier danger of his blood poisoning produces the visionary “face…at the window.” Why should one trauma offer a different metaphysical insight than a prior though similar threat? The disparity here suggests the beginnings of revised vision that wait for their development in the companion poem, “Skins.” But in “Tattoos,” the different conclusions appear relegated, somewhat inconsistently, to differing intellectual maturities: in 1941 when he was poisoned, he was six years old; by 1958 at the time of the accident, the poet has had an addition seventeen years to consider his severances and decide to inhabit this side of his losses. “We stand fast, friend,” he writes, “we stand fast.”

     He believes that he is penalized for this sturdy habit. “Regret is what anchors me,” he writes in the penultimate section, and if we observe the remorse that he voices, we should note as well that he is anchored, or thinks he is anchored, amid his historical being. He is not pitying his life–the quickest solution to which would be his death, an easy remedy–but lamenting the many absences in it: those of his parents, of his own innocence, and of his sensation of authentic presence underlying human structures. His regret moves him to save these losses, if he can, from the dispersions of time, and so situates him in their fragmenting midst. Memory provides the inventory on which his regret works. It acts as a conscience that tattoos the self with its lists of his deprivations. As he regrettably works his rescues, memory reveals his deteriorations, testifies to his failures, and exhorts him to shore things up against the disconnections and accidents of daily life.

     Though he is moved to unify, after recognizing the compromises of historical being, “Tattoos” yet ends with no inkling of how he is to begin. That is reserved for the subject of its companion in the collection, “Skins,” which takes up the search, amid the provisional debris of time, for a principle of unity by which the self might regather its world. Central to this quest is the Gnostic belief that the self already embodies the needed means of emancipation from a fragmenting temporality. The initiate properly vaults over the dualism alienating him from authentic presence not by an outward expression of the ego, but by an inward journey toward his own essential center: “You try for the get-away by the light of yourself,” Wright explains. The act of centering the self is a metamorphosis or a series of metamorphoses, a repeated casting off of the temporal skins: all those selves conditioned by exteriority, constrained by its accidental, inevitable bereavements. What will be uncovered, the poet tells us in the tenth and pivotal section, is the “Androgynous tincture, prima materia” that is purged of historical distractions and even of its sexual identity. In this pristine circumstance can the elect discover “one glint of the golden stitch,/The thread that will lead you home” out of the labyrinth of a dark and devouring time into the Plantonic safety of the sun.

     The light from that star illuminates an apocalyptic place “Upriver…past landfall and watertrace,/Past wheels, past time and its bufferings….” There the purified self will greet its companions in the neighborhood: “Two men with their six-foot flutes, two women behind them,/Their dance, their song ascending like smoke and light/Back to the sky, back to the place it came from….” As Wright immediately confesses, this is a disappointing vision: “Of course,” he says, “it’s unworkable.” That is an unusual word in this context, “unworkable”; we would expect something other than the diction of pragmatism. But his choice introduces an empirical element in the midst of his idealism, and with it recalls the contemporary world of his day. Indeed, for a great variety of reasons such a primitivist vision will not bring the self into its essential condition. Wright is not so nostalgic for an origin that he can long delude himself to the distinction between the metaphorical value of those aboriginal lives–the mythology of intuitive being unpatterned and unfenced by a civil reason–and the real injuries endemic to those who live in technologically primitive circumstances. The poet has simply uncovered another “skin,” another contemporary fiction of presence that misconstrues the temporality (“Past wheels, past time”) of the political and social structures present in even so-called primitive, tribal societies: those two men and two women inhabit the same world as the poet does, though perhaps in a less temperate corner of it.

     The lesson that “Skins” teaches is the futility of the imaginative act, a moral that also resounds throughout Hard Freight. The poet is a fellow sufferer of Sisyphus, rolling his stone: “Go up and go down, what other work is there/ For you to do, what other work in this world?” Or like another mythical inhabitant of Hades, Tantalus, the poet is teased by the sweetest objects of his desire: “Phrases, half-parsed, ellipses and scratches across the dirt.” We behold, he claims, the goal of our quest–the indications of cosmic significance everywhere associated with presence–but its meaning is withheld. Unlike either of the two mythical victims, though, Wright is not necessarily damned to the endless repetition of his discontent. He has imagined two divergent strategies for his escape: he can either try to perfect the purification of the self by inducing an orphic certainty; or he can retreat from purity entirely and instead inform his lagging historical sense by examining the continuing options of human being that the past defines for him.

     The first alternative is taken up in China Trace, which completes Wright’s trilogy by bringing to their logical conclusions the themes introduced in Hard Freight and elaborated in Bloodlines. The collection, therefore, has much the nature of summary. In it we detect the familiar privileging of the natural, at the expense of the human, world and the poet’s remorse at his inability to penetrate the veils of multiplicity. “And I turn in the wind,” he complains, “Not knowing what sign to make, or where I should kneel.” “I’ll never know what the clouds promised,” he writes in “Nerval’s Mirror,” “Or what the stars intended to say.” Sentiments such as these beg the question of cosmic significance. The poet cannot lament his ignorance of a particular promise without challenging his grounds for thinking that there is a promise or intent of which he remains ignorant. How can he know? Its presence would manifest itself through its expression, which he finds unintelligible: precisely the state of things we would expect if the stars intended nothing at all. Strictly speaking, there is no promise, hidden or otherwise, save that which he himself has posited there beyond his apprehension of it. His is a self-defeat, then, one that illogically frees him to locate the ground of the sacred outside of the place of human working and willing. There in its transcendent, physically indeterminate being, it is liberated from the contaminations of the marketplace, the unlovely workshops of politics.

     Once he has infused the natural ground with this holy presence, it then repays the privilege by enticing the poet to submit himself to its universals. “The dirt is a comforting,” he explains, and wants “to be bruised by God./I want to be strung up in a strong light and singled out/…I want to be entered and picked clean.” He is “Waiting for something immense and unspeakable to uncover its face,” We cannot be insensible to the malignancy sugared by this mysticism, or by the many other examples of it in China Trace. The Godly immensity is bruising and unspeakable not only because its size transcends conception but particularly because it is antithetical to human being. It twice silences the poet, once by its sundering magnitude, and once by its alien senselessness. This quietude has the earmarks of intellectual impotence. As Wright has warned us from the beginning, vision is of no use to anyone; poetry, he insists, “will not be able to help us.” The insights gained from it are not sayable, and are therefore–if we are to take him at his word–non-sense; nor are they redemptive since they do not amend human error or sin: “There’s something I want to say,/ But not here…/I don’t move. I let the wind speak.” What it might howl, of course, can have little bearing on human promise as it withers or flowers in time.

     What poetry can do, at least in China Trace, is rescue him from the temporal world and the responsibilities of those who abide in it. He is “Released in his suit of lights/lifted and laid clear.” Wright’s flight from responsibility, though mollified by the flourishes of his arresting and nostalgic imagery, is nevertheless a personal impasse. He himself has hidden in the natural ground the values that he retrieves by sacrificing his will and his wisdom. This is a singularly barren field to till, promising only the bitter yield of frustration. For all the obvious attraction the evangelized, hermetic self-exercises over Wright, his most compelling poetry is made not of his purifications, but of his interest in the contingencies that in other moments he refuses willingly to divest.

     A handful of poems in the poet’s latest collection, The Southern  Cross, discloses a rekindled attention to what is valuable–if perishable–within experience. “Homage to Paul Cezanne” in particular promises to resurrect him from his intellectual defeatism. The debt to the painter that he voices in the title is not thematic, but stylistic. In an interview given in FIELD, the poet explains that “I’ve been trying to write poems…using stanzas in the way a painter will build up blocks of color, each disparate and often discrete, to make an overall representation that, taken in its pieces,…seems to have no coherence, but seen in its totality…turns out to be a very recognizable landscape, or whatever.” The aesthetic described here is adapted from Wright’s earlier homage to the Imagists’ dedication to the sensual object. Indeed, it refines certain strategies that the poet has already developed, particularly those aimed at minimizing the dualism inhering between his poetic language and his poetic subjects. His stanzaic pointillism retreats from the falsifications of narrative: the subordination of the paragraph to the generalized purposes of the whole, the necessary cognitive voice of the narrator who orchestrates transitions and adjusts perspectives. Rather, in his painterly technique, vision becomes architectural, not verbal, and depends upon the purposeful arrangement of those “blocks of color.” The simultaneity of the structure creates a present that, though vitiated by the linear act of reading, is nevertheless central to the poem’s theme: the contemporaneity of all human life whose modes of being are informed by and repeat those of our predecessors.

     That we have predecessors, that, in other words, individuals die and so enter the past does not violate Wright’s sense of the contemporaneity of human being, for as “the dead” these individuals continue to exist in an atemporal conglomerate of possibilities by which the human present is continually shaped. We the living inherit and, to a certain degree, choose from the past: in this way is history “present-ed,” introduced into a contemporary household of opportunity. “They carry their colored threads and baskets of silk,” the poet explains, “To mend our clothes, making us look right,/,..they hold us together.” We are hemmed (“they hold us together”) by what has passed before us, which can disadvantage our freedom since not all ancestral decisions benefit, morally or materially, those who derive the consequences. But the dead also extend to living souls the privilege of closure: the cessation of the train of consequences, the presentation of finitude that admits qualitative judgments. To redirect Santayana’s words, if we are domed to repeat history, however a select one, then Wright would have us able to distinguish authentic from inauthentic repetition.

“The dead are with us to say,” he claims, but only as limited partners. Their attendance on the living is conditioned by their rival allegiance to the insentience into which they have perished. They are part of our landscapes, not only our moral ones, but our material ones as well: “Over our heads they’re huge in the night sky./In the tall grass they turn with the zodiac.”

     Therein lies their fear (as Wright attributes it to them), that having vanished from the volitional, living present they be absorbed by the natural world: “through clenched teeth, they tell/Their story, the story each knows by heart:/Remember me, speak my name.” Only through remembrance, the burden of present generations, can the members of the past be recalled into the temporal community, dredged from the obliterating universals of existential being. There is justification for their apprehension since the means of the recollection, language, is incompletely able to retrieve the dead from their darkness: “Whose unction can intercede for the dead?/Whose tongue is toothless enough to speak their piece?” These are rhetorical questions that imply their own answers. Wright expects no one to be savior enough to redeem the dead into other selves. What they are saved for is the self-interest of the living, who retrieve from the attic of history the old clothes of preceding generations. In so doing, we multiply our present options, fecundate our current potentials, but as always in Wright’s vision, fail to exorcise the sorrow of our condition.

Even My Bad Ideas Are Good


     For the last three-plus years, Gary Young has been working on a limited fine press edition of the late Zen priest Kobun Otogowa—who is probably best known in the United States as the spiritual advisor of the equally late Steve Jobs.* As news of the project spread, an invitation was extended to Young to come to Japan itself, where he could work as well on a poetry translation of that calligraphy. And so in the summer of 2011, immediately prior to the publication of his book, Even So, Gary Young journeyed to the mountains above Ono, Japan, where in the Hokyoji Temple he sat ZaZen for weeks, participated in general temple life, and met with multiple Buddhist scholars, who together explained some of the textual origins and metaphorical meanings embedded within the calligraphy as Young worked out his translations.

     I offer this biographical tidbit to introduce you to the respect that Young has gathered in far-reaching communities that are at once outside the traditional academic centers in which poetry is largely embedded these days, and beyond the national confines of English-speaking poets. In Japan, in the esteemed environment of an ancient Buddhist temple, Tanaka Shinkai Roshi declared that Young was “a Bodhisattva, whether he wanted to be or not.”

     And indeed to read the poems of Young’s latest collected works, entitled Even So, is to be introduced to a natural affinity between Young’s contemporary prose epiphanies (certainly in his last five books), and the elaborate, wonderful millennium of Buddhist poets writing haiku and other, later forms, whose tonal spirit hovers within and behind Young’s poetic efforts. When Young writes, for instance–

Queen Anne’s lace crowds the air; cicadas call from beyond the stream. Monkeyflowers rouge the hill below a pasture where six horses crop sage; and beside the road, between riprap at the river mouth, down gullies and the wasted ravines, thistles are showing us their hearts again.

–the East/West interpenetration is self-conscious, almost an homage. As a benchmark, here is the Monk Jakuren’s poem, written sometime near the end of the Twelfth Century:

The hanging raindrops
Have not dried from the needles
Of the fir forest
Before the evening mist
Of autumn rises.

Young is characteristically honest regarding his influences, in which he delights rather than broods resentfully. Nevertheless, he is using his distinctly American hand to point to those past masters. Notice that both poems are written as one sentence, but Young in that last clause employs a syntactical mimesis which the Zen monk would never imagine because there is too much rhetorical effect. Young’s winding sequence of prepositional phrases leads us to the end of ravines, where the metaphor is blooming: “thistles are showing us their hearts again.” This syntax, and the use of metaphor, distinguishes Young’s work from the Japanese. In both poems we find that simple, focused, direct  natural observation, but there is less a delight in metaphor in the monk’s verse, less device. Instead, there is the intent to create a sensibility whose simplicity allows experience to register at once delicately, but indelibly. Young, on the other hand, uses the quiet Zen-like attention to arrive at a definition, a declarative statement, a captured truth. There are revelations in his poetry, but you have the sense that he set about to capture them, a silent predator after an elusive prey.

     And that, I think, represents the essence, the essential characterologic friction Tanaka Shinkai Roshi is indicating, as he observes that Young is an enlightened being (Bodhisatva) “whether he wanted to be or not.” Because Young would not necessarily prefer to know what he has learned, or choose to feel what he has experienced. He is not benignly tolerant.  Many of Young’s empathies are disagreeable to him: he doesn’t want to like these hateful people he often portrays. Similarly, his clarities are ambiguous, his loves are dying, his loyalties make him angry, his persistence is as much resignation as courage. He is full of surprises when you least expect them—which of course is what constitutes the surprise. For instance, I suspect that most of his many students in general (not to mention this reviewer in particular) would admit it is hard to imagine Gary Young sitting still for hours at a time with an empty mind. I don’t see it happening—even in the Hokyoji Temple. He is the kind of poet who does not empty his mind, so much as clear away a bit of space in his perception for yet another insight, one further observation, a second look. Nothing is lost on him.

     In this he reminds me of a resolutely American poet, Emily Dickinson, who also spent her time crafting finely wrought moments of perception, paring away the inessentials to capture a necessary truth. “I like the look of agony,” she writes, “because I know it’s true./Men do not sham convulsion”. Well, actually they do—at least in contemporary mass civilization, pseudo pathologies have arisen—, but her point, really, is that you do whatever it takes to arrive at conviction, which is pleasing even when it is unpleasant. Young writes in a poem I will fully quote later “Even my bad ideas are good,” and both poets agree—over a century and a half apart—that life is built upon contradictions, that empathy is hard to reach, that truths are not self-consistent, that pleasure may contain horrors. Insight is a bitch—but it is also to the purpose, the heart of the poetic act. Both poets as they write concentrate each poem upon one act of clarity, a sole idea realized, a single event captured. Accordingly, each instance of imagination is encapsulated; there is no narrative provision made to connect one poem with another.

     With that said, because he himself organized the sequence of poems in the individual volumes comprising this generous selection he has entitled Even So, Young can create a sense of thematic connection that may generalize over his untitled prose poems—an opportunity that Dickinson’s lack of publication denied her.  Young’s early work is a bit more traditional than his subsequent prose poems, and offers an early  taxonomy of themes that Young explores in more detail, in layers of nuance–and as the mood strikes him–, in his later poems.  Open the book, and we first encounter  “Walking Home From Work,” which introduces the cardinal points, the coordinates of Young’s poetic world.

Asphalt and gravel flex with my shoes as the heel
hits and pulls the rest of my body forward.
Ahead of me, twilight is ending
and the ragged outline of the mountain
is glazed with iridescence, each tree
singular and sure.
Each night the same. Or if not
the same,  then part of one long night
that leads me to my house, there
on the high ground of the foothills.
A thin streak of gray smoke
rises from the chimney,
a string from which the house
is suspended in the darkness.
I am a block away before shadows appear
moving against the fogged
windows in the kitchen.
My wife is baking bread. A hand
reaches up and wipes away the steam.
Light spills out of the kitchen
and begins to fill the world.

Work, we are to gather from the title, is important: it is the source of material well-being, the means to keep the wolf from the door, the opportunity to insure the basis of Maslow’s hierarchy of human necessities.  We have food, water and shelter, possibly bread—and there Young draws his imaginary line in the civilized gravel. On his side we find the means of life; on the other there are hazards.


     What exactly constitutes the nature of those threats to the domestic image is left  to be explored in many subsequent poems of this volume. But for now, the quiet, lovely tone of the poet in “Walking Home from Work,” focuses on the positive things—once the possibility of menace is acknowledged. We are to notice, as he does, that there is an inchoate pressure of darkness: the impenetrable stuff that remains opaque and inhospitable. In the midst of this unlit gloom, the house—his native place–is suspended on a thread, a sort of inverse Sword of Damocles. Cut the thread, and vitality is swallowed once again into the inessential night. This time, however, he makes it home to the promise of sensual intimacy. The house is warm. His wife is beckoning through the window, bread is baking, the windows are steamed with the aroma, and the light of all this affection spills into the Biblical darkness. We sense at once the immense importance of Young’s protected space—which is a shared territory. The scale is not sublime, but human and individual, because it is within domestic rooms that personal identity is made possible. Indeed, domesticity is the very horizon of identity. It provides the setting, and the opportunity, for intimate knowledge: of one’s self, and of others. It allows a person to enjoy sensual pleasures, to form friendships, build habitual associates, establish a familiar network, create a social status, enjoy a civic stature.

     Young is systematic in his exploration of these themes, and their corollaries, in his subsequent quartet of books– Days, Braver Deeds, If He Had, and Pleasure—though he does so by intensifying his thematic focus to a degree that omits history, with its material clutter of specific dates, different names, separate places. None of the poems are titled in any of these four books, and so there are no identifiable places or grounds, no generic frame of reference, no executive authorial contextualization. Indeed, to take Days as an example, we immediately observe that we are given no information to identify the people appearing in the book, whose lives and conditions nonetheless comprise the book’s material.  Days in poem after poem elaborates the scope of social possibilities: marriage, separation, health and illness, mothers and fathers, wives, friends both male and female, life and death,  babies, infants who are acquiring language, and elderly stroke victims who are losing theirs. An unnamed stranger accosts him in the street to request that she hold his infant son:

I’m a mother, too, she said, and took the child in her arms. She closed her eyes, kissed his head, smelled his neck. My baby is twenty-nine, she said, and she handed him back.

That is the whole poem. Because there are no stated identities (and indeed, Young’s wife, who is holding the baby, is not even specified, her presence merely indicated  by that inclusive adverb “too”), we are able to concentrate on the ways available to us to connect our communities. A stranger can assert primal identifying events that survive temporal changes (her baby is twenty-nine—i.e. an adult), and collapse over individual differences. The two women have intimate connections, a shared experience, a common body of knowledge, similar loves and commitments, even though they do not know each other. And, we should notice, it is an act of kindness to allow these communal ties to be acknowledged: presumably Young’s wife does not need to hand her baby over to a stranger.

     Acts of trust and kindness are part of the privilege of living in a related body of other human beings, part of the means by which the scope of personal life is magnified. Vitality itself is a privilege—a miracle, not a right:

Two girls were struck by lightning at the harbor mouth. An orange flame lifted them up and laid them down again. Their thin suits had been melted away. It’s a miracle they survived. It’s a miracle they were born at all.

When they were lifted and laid down again, unclothed and baptized by fire, their status reveals the essential wonder of things inhering beneath the illusion of human control. Their survival in the wake of the atmospheric random blast is a miracle because unpredicted—both in the sense that they were the ones stricken by the lightning, and not someone else, and in the sense that their survival defeated the odds for such a thing.  Nothing about their lives is in fact predictable. No biological law will create an individual personality, no social authority will control lightning, no government will legislate consequences to random natural acts. Most people do not get hit by lightning (though these girls do), and those who are so stricken commonly do not survive it (though these girls did).

     The nature of miracles is a continual theme running through all four of his books of prose poems. In the instance above, the miraculous is to be understood as an event that is at once statistically unlikely and also (unexpectedly) beneficial. Its occurrence operates within the perceived laws of nature, but it nevertheless discloses values obscured by quotidian oversight or inattention, until they are illuminated by the extraordinary persuasive event itself. Whether lightning strikes you or not, just to be young, just to be able to stand in the sunshine in your bathing suit is a miracle—an opportunity that is temporary, and that is not given to everyone to enjoy (check out the burn units, the neurology floors, the ERs in any given medical center, or the battle field of any theater of war. There are lots of them.). Nor is it an opportunity that is guaranteed to be given twice. You never know when or where lightning may next strike—or in what form, or with what force.

The bodies of men and women sometimes ignite from within, and burn from the inside out. Nothing remains but a pile of ash where only minutes before a girl had been lying on the beach, or a young man had complained of the heat and then burst into flame. How can we explain the world? My heart is beating, I can feel it. God loves us more than we can stand.

In one sense, this poem is a revisitation of the lightning, occurring in another book—Braver Deeds–, in another mood with a darker cast to the advent of miracle. Again we have the abrupt arrival of unexpected revelation, but the violence of the disclosure is not to be withstood. It is, to say the least, a mixed blessing to be the recipient of so much affection.

     Indeed, in Braver Deeds, as well as in If He Had, Young explores just how various the qualities of his experience can be within this miraculous life. I should probably mention here at the outset that Young can write more bluntly about the presence of God than I, for one, am quite comfortable with. But then again, Young also writes bluntly about the pleasure he takes in looking down the blouse at the exposed breasts of an unaware young woman, and about how many times his wife orgasms–which for my part I would not openly discuss either. You know these events are sure to have happened; it’s just that there is often a decorum about admitting it. But Young won’t have any of that. He is kindly enough, generous in his empathy, but nonetheless unsparing about what he does, what he values, what he believes. Because he is equally direct regarding what he presents in each of his poems, regardless of the niceties of his reputation, he is all the more persuasive about the mixtures he imagines, the inescapable paradoxes by which people are at once redeemed and gravely tested, saved but pretty much left without gratification.

Tom Bone fell from deck, and watched as the ship sailed on without him. He tried, at first, to convince himself that he wasn’t there, then he swam all night. He drifted with the current, and in the morning saw an island, and swam to it, and was saved. There’d been a moment, before dawn, when he’d lost all hope and lowered his head into the water. He was about to take a breath, when he heard a voice say, you’re going to live, don’t give up, you’re going to make it. I have listened to that voice all my life.

The voice that tells Tom Bone ‘don’t give up’ says nothing at all about happiness that might accrue if he perseveres, nor are there promised satisfactions, no guaranteed rewards, no escape from pain, no immunity from fear and terror, no assurance that he will survive the next challenge. This is an old-time–an Old Testament  poem that critiques the orthodox conviction extending from our original Puritan fanatics to our contemporary evangelists, who expect privileges to attend to their religious conviction.  You are saved, therefore you can expect happiness and wealth. The corollary is also professed: if you are not happy and wealthy, then you are a sinner who deserves to burn at the hands of an angry god.

     Tell that to the Apostles, each of whom died violently: some crucified, some stoned to death, some flayed alive. Young insists that love—divine or human—does not protect from the malevolence of pain, the injustice of circumstances, the trauma of disease, the extreme conflicts of interest.

I discovered a journal in the children’s ward, and read, I’m a mother, my little boy has cancer. Further on, a girl has written, this is my nineteenth operation. She says, sometimes it’s easier to write than to talk, and I’m so afraid. She’s left me a page in the book. My son is sleeping in the room next door. This afternoon, I held my whole weight to his body while a doctor drove needles deep into his leg. My son screamed, Daddy, they’re hurting me, don’t let them hurt me, make them stop. I want to write, how brave you are, but I need a little courage of my own, so I write, forgive me, I know I let them hurt you, please don’t worry. If I have to, I can do it again.

None of the reassurances in this poem actually relieve anyone. That nineteenth operation does not signal a freedom from the girl’s fright, or her release into confident health, but—as with Tom Bone’s certain voice—it testifies only that she will make it to the next island: the twentieth operation. Young ‘s reassurance to his son—‘please don’t worry’—is not likely to put his son’s mind at rest. Nor isYoung reassured against his own guilt and remorse, because he knows he may be called upon to hold his son down again to allow further torment. That’s why he needs his own courage: it is the case with all survivors that they live in order to face further shocks and challenges. Risks are never taken from them, and what they are given is the opportunity to keep swimming against despair.

     There is, in short, nothing sentimental about Young’s belief in revelation, or in his conviction regarding the essential value of life over death. Even during casual promises that arise during any given day, the occasional satisfactions, the momentary bursts of small joys—nothing grandiose–, even then Young prefers to acknowledge the thrill of coequal sorrow.

Every Wednesday, Fidel brings oysters to market. I like to eat them with salsa, cilantro and lime. I like to run my tongue along the slick lip of the inner shell and suck them into my mouth. I love knowing they’re alive. Fidel wants to know, how many? And when I tell him, I’ll start with two, he taps his blunt knife against a block of ice, and shucks three.

The Epicure confesses here, ‘I love knowing they’re alive,’ as he consumes the material of living things. Whether you enjoy oysters as much as he does, Young nevertheless conveys his relish in unabashed, thoughtful detail. He means us to admire, as much as he himself admires, Fidel for knowing him so well, who is not fooled by Young’s initial profession of modest enthusiasm. Neither man is to be mistaken for half-hearted, tepid creatures insecure in their pleasures. We are meant to respect—as Young himself respects—Fidel’s confident pride in the quality of what he has to offer, the source of a pagan delight.

     At this point I think we ought to return to Tanaka Shinkai Roshi’s summer observation regarding Young’s status as a Bodhisattva—which is to say, one who has attained enlightenment, but who postpones his entrance into Nirvana in order to remain among the confused, blundering souls on earth, so that  he might assist them in attaining enlightenment for themselves. There is a benign heroism in a Bodhisattva, but Roshi’s observation—‘whether he wanted to be or not’—indicates a double meaning. The first, of course, refers to the understandable reluctance to renounce Nirvana. But the second meaning, I think, acknowledges Young’s unseemly pleasure in the mixed blessings of sublime, ugly struggles. Here is that poem I promised you earlier:

The world is at home in my mind. I can spell Detroit. I know where my cats are buried in the orchard. I know the quadratic equation, my mother’s maiden name and the  suicide squeeze. I know all the words to A Good Woman’s Love and I can hear them in my head at will. Every thought is like a sweet rolled over the tongue. Even my bad ideas are good.

To many of us, it may seem unusual, if not outright quirky, to renounce Nirvana in order to learn the quadratic equation, of all things. But fortunately we have an entire, generous, persuasive  book of poetry—Even So—in the course of which Young produces for us his many reasons why this is his free choice.

* Just so you know, an edition of this book is forthcoming from White Pine Press.

Summer Gardens Somewhere Else, With Gardeners


Elam picked among his clarities

to find the first black apples oozing

out their mutant blooms inside his nervous

garden. Rows of brainflowers, fat as cabbages,

were throbbing on their stems in full sun

beside grotesqueries like rosewood skeletons,

the pulmonary shrubs, and venous orchids

gorgeous as stained glass.



he must have thought that sanity would bring

him peace of mind, because he never did

prepare for instinct in his enterprise.

Few if any knew about his creatures,

starting with the birds: out of uncountable

panicles of some forgotten bloom,


he cloned a pigeon that would flit erratically

amid the equinoctial fogs on lobed,

primitive wings he fledged in tendrils and leaves.

That was his baptismal try at flight.

Pigeons. Afterwards he rooted his

Cerulean warblers in the combs of grasses

edging every patio–where musically

they classified as news, though ecologically

they were unsound, like his cranes before

he got the hang of it, painted like

Max Factor, cloned from water plants

as pink as harlots, as carnivals, and floating

over goldfish. Loons in the long canals

crooned their funeral songs.


One morning

while he stoked the nursery stove, his hunger

spoke for a time, and noted that he hadn’t

seen the end of his manipulations–

and though he later brought his wolves to birth,

and jimmied bears from various and insectivorous



and had the nightly fruit bats depending

from prodigious fuchsia, and suspended his

amphibians within elusive tubers–

all of which signaled a crescendo–,

yet what he’d understood of his desire

was meant as fair warning. Let us walk

a little while together, he would say

to Sarah as the wasps would carry on

around the apricots, and serpents were,

like subways, hissing beneath them among

the mushrooms. Everything is still dying.

My Girl Wears Long Skirts

A long time ago, now, in 1991, I was on rotation in an adult psychiatric inpatient unit in a far away medical center, where I met a young woman—Wanda—who had several monstrous knife wounds to her throat and face. She was stitched up with black surgical thread, and resembled one of the female golems in a Frankenstein movie. Part of the fascination in seeing her, and noting the wounds, was to imagine how on earth she had managed to survive. She had tried to cut her own throat with one of her mother’s butcher knives, but it wasn’t sharp enough, so she started stabbing herself instead, and almost succeeded in hitting her right carotid artery before someone nearby—maybe her mother or another family member—was able to wrench the knife away from her, and call 911.

When I met her, she had just been admitted onto the unit, and was being watched 24/7 by an aide hovering nearby, but she nevertheless one afternoon, with no warning whatsoever, leapt out of her chair, sprinted as fast as she could run, and threw herself head-first through the window at the end of the second-floor hallway. However, because the window was fitted with unbreakable plexiglass, she didn’t go through it to plunge to her death, though she did break her nose and further bruise her poor face. Hospital staff got to be pretty twitchy around her, until the shit-load of Haldol she was given began to have an effect, and she was sedated enough to allow less impulsive people to keep up with her.

She was serious about her self-harm. From her own point of view, she felt she had reason to be so deadly in her attempted suicide: she had caused the Second World War, and she was simply unable to bear the excruciating pain of her grief and guilt. Those terrible years of wartime anguish and physical suffering were entirely her fault: 60 million soldiers killed, 4.5 million Jewish people—and uncounted gypsies—sent to the death camps, Japan bombed with nuclear warheads. Most of the northern hemisphere ran thick with blood, and fried in a radioactive fire because of her.

Her diagnosis was schizoaffective disorder, and she was heart-breaking to be with, when she didn’t terrify you with her potential for another lethal gesture, so staff bound up their anxieties as best they could and tried to alleviate, somehow, her mortal sorrow. In 1991 she was 22 years old, having been born in 1969, which—if you do the math—was 24 years after the conclusion of the war in 1945, and 30 years before it began in 1939. The favorite strategy among us, therefore, was to choose a time when she seemed receptive, and point out in a kindly way that, since she wasn’t yet alive when the war began, she could not have been the origin of it. This seemed to be an unanswerable refutation to the basis of her emotional torment. She could not possibly have caused the war, so be of good cheer.

Although I don’t know that any of us actually thought about it this way, we all in fact shared a two-fold assumption common to well-meaning people the world over: a. that emotional turmoil was refutable (i.e. that we could talk Wanda out of it); and that, b. common sense would be the source by which the refutation prevailed. Neither assumption proved to be true. Despite her long stay on the inpatient unit, Wanda never was reconciled to happiness, but simply became less violent in trying to relieve herself of her psychic pain. She became more stoical, or at least became used to living with her sense of personal responsibility, and inured to everyone else trying to cheer her up.

Our argument was never persuasive either. I was, of course, one of those compulsive explainers trying to set her right. I was fully committed, I admit it: her passion was supported by no more than the merest bubble, it seemed to me, just the frailest sense drifting away from humane connection, and so I talked with her. I listened as hard as I could when she tried to convey her deep conviction of her causal guilt. She had started walking, she told me, on Church Street when she saw the foil wrapper of a piece of gum, and she knew that the foil was reflecting God’s thoughts to her about cast off people because the wrapper was in the gutter near a mailbox with the American eagle on it which meant war, and war was WWII, and so she caused it because there she was.

Actually she said a considerable amount more than this, but I couldn’t follow it all. I was in truth able to follow hardly any of it. What I have represented here are only the few details I could remember long enough to write them down, and I remembered them that long chiefly because, out of the welter of things she said, these items were those that I could make sense of for her. That is, because I thought I saw coherence in the sea of verbal production, I was able to remember these details, but not any of the others.

In its actual presentation, none of her thinking was coherent. She was far less organized than what I have represented in her tangential logic because I cannot disorganize my mind enough to reconstruct the brute chaos of hers. She could not sequence her thoughts, could not put them in an order that made sense, even to her. She was over whelmed, prostrate before fragments and huge ungated emotions, and therefore she was terrified: there were no conventions of meaning, all mental structure was sundered, she had no fundamental recognition of cause and effect, or even temporal series. She couldn’t tie her shoes, couldn’t manage her hygiene, would eat only sometimes if food happened to be placed in front of her. Like I said, she was heart-breaking.

Lately among scientists studying the human mind, there is a temptation to see in this mental place of Wanda’s a freedom from conventional restraints of thought that is promoted as a model of the creative process. Dr. Nancy Andreasen’s article in the current July/August Atlantic Monthly is a case in point. Science is always interested in isolating the important variables (and as a corollary, ignoring those that it construes as unimportant to its theory), and in studies of creativity, the favored candidate is a concept of freedom, an escape from conventional thought, the ability to avoid the usual grind of daily associations, to make something new, and thereby elude the standard conclusions of a “average mind—with one thought less each year,” as Ezra Pound imagined it. From this point of view, Wanda represents a class of people who are about as free from conventional standards of thought as anyone science could hope for. If you want a group of people whose thought lacks customary, middle-class organization, then schizophrenia will do.

Accordingly, once exemplars of freedom have thus been identified, the interest then is to discover whether creative people have a higher incidence of mental illness among their families than the average banker has occurring in his. The general logic is that creative people find their creativity because they are just a little mentally ill–not entirely whacked out like Wanda, but just weird, a-typical, eccentric, flaky but not funky. They “think different”, like Steve Jobs. They had rather spend their time playing with words, or drawing pictures, or like Georgia O’Keeffe painting large images of flowers that look like female genitalia—all instead of making money the way rational, non-weird people prefer to do. This theory works best if you do not really know the details of psychotic life–which science gets around nicely by preferring to ignore individuals, and instead to look at the class as a whole to isolate apparent similarities among them as a group. It is easier to construe mental illness as a model for imaginative freedom if you do not actually listen to individuals like Wanda, do not spend time with them to uncover how their minds are actually working, or failing to work–and do not bother much with empathy.

It is also easier to generalize across individuals to reach group commonalities if you do not have a concept for creativity itself. Why bother to define creativity, Dr. Andreasen reasons, if you can just look instead at people who are supposed to embody creativity, whatever that is? As she points out, “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck.” And besides, if you accept analogies about ducks in place of logical argument, then her problem is now much easier: she just needs to identify who the creative people are among us. Fortunately for Dr. Andreasen, there are various literary awards that do this work for her. Creative people, she tells us, are those whom academic professors have given prizes to.

I am going to assume that the naiveté of this reasoning is self-evident to everyone who is not a tone-deaf neuroscientist–though I will permit myself to point out, irritably, how this ceremonial process has somehow failed to recognize the likes of Emily Dickinson, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and virtually every person of color writing before 1993–none of whom were awarded anything, certainly nothing like what Pearl S. Buck received (Nobel Prize), or even Antonio Egas Moniz (another Nobel laureate), who ‘invented’ lobotomy, which was understood to cure mental illness. Dickinson, of course, couldn’t even manage to get published in her lifetime.

And though I am sorely tempted, I do not want to spend too much time here with the weaseling details of Dr. Andreasen’s peculiar argument. I am after much bigger game: the impulse itself to romanticize mental illness as a prodromal feature of creativity–which is at once an unfeeling injustice to people suffering with psychotic spectrum psychosis, and a cynical misunderstanding of the nature of creative activity. Wanda’s mental flights out of organized thinking were not redeemed by imaginative insight into the nature of war, nor into the trauma of violent death, nor the social tragedy of senseless slaughter. Nor was there insight into her own mental processes, no exposure of underlying psychic conflicts, no understanding regarding the nature of her sense of guilt and responsibility. Nor did she produce anything that an outside audience might find edifying. She was, in short, not creative. She was psychotic. Big difference.

I suppose it could be argued that we should not be too hard on Wanda for failing to create anything memorable since she was not an artist to begin with. But I want to mention an occasion I had to study the transcript of a Rorschach that had been given to a famous writer (whom I shall not name) when The Famous Writer (TFW) had been hospitalized psychiatrically in an institution that I shall also avoid naming. (I do not want to be publishing protected medical information). Unlike Wanda, who was not and never will be considered a creative person by Dr Andreasen’s standards, TFW would fit her definition. So I read the Rorschach transcript with fascination. The Rorschach is a test designed something like Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings: the ambiguous image encourages the subject to project whatever structures are inside his or her mind to organize that visual ambiguity into a coherent percept. Some things may be more common than others to see.


There are ten cards, and to my surprise at the time, there was nothing in any of TFW’s responses that was artistic: no startling imagery, nothing of intelligent word magic, little that was coherent, and even less that was memorable–apart from the one line that I happen to recall, with which I have titled this article: My girl wears long skirts. And in its context, that one sentence wasn’t even a pertinent response, but represented a moment of tangential thinking–the mind drifting away from its subject. Upon recovery, TFW also said the same thing that I am saying: there was nothing redemptive about the episodes of mental disorganization that was suffered, no depths plumbed that were useful to subsequent creative projects, no lines resurrected from the chaos that were ever used in subsequent written products. The periods of illness were life wasted. What TFW created when he wrote was of an order entirely different than what his mind did when it disintegrated. There was no lesson to be learned from his own mental illness, certainly no general theme to be promoted about creativity at large.

The creative act does not arise out of a freedom from restraint, or an escape per se from conventions. As my instance of Wanda can attest, psychotic escape both throws away conventional meaning, and in fact destroys the principles of meaning itself. Creativity, on the other hand, is better understood as a freedom to perform among a multiplicity of choices. It is the mental compass to digest the whole range of worldly features, the discretion to select among the play of cultural, social, and natural fragments, the comfort with randomness within shapeless substances. Creativity invents out of chaos, not out of the void–as Mary Shelley noticed in her Introduction to Frankenstein: Invention, she writes, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself.

Creativity is no more associated with psychotic illness than it is with alcoholism (which also disinhibits the mind), or personality disorders (which filter social data through a non-standard perspective) or lung cancer (because creative people smoke) or congestive heart failure (because writers, at least, sit at their desks all day and get fat). There may be correlations among all these things, but of course correlations are cheap. Did you know, for example, that when I was born, there were earthquakes in Chile and 40 people died in China?—which, sad to say, do not attest to the worldwide influence of my birth. Three things (my birth, earthquakes, the death of 40 people) just happened somewhere at the same time. But there is nothing causative here.

The impulse to pathologize creativity is part of the present cultural drive to find pathology everywhere within our daily, usual, precious mental life–so that sorrow is now depression, physical energy is now hyperactivity, mental energy is now mania, flights of imagination are now psychoses, shyness is now social anxiety, individual differences are now personality disorders. The collusion between science, medicine, and money makes a compelling horror story, but that narrative is beyond the scope of my work here. Let me suggest that, if you want to be frightened, don’t watch Shark Week, but instead read Blaming the Brain, by Elliot Valenstein, or Anatomy of an Epidemic, by Robert Whitaker. Both will disturb your sleep.

You Are the Only Thing in My Life

So here’s a question: Do you know how old your soul is? Mine, evidently, is 28–which for obscure reasons I am glad to have learned. I have in fact been happy to learn the answers to other intriguing puzzles this summer, too, simply by going on Facebook and participating in the convenient quizzes offered there. For instance, What City Are You? (I’m Barcelona). Who Were You in a Past Life (Buddhist Monk). What 60’s Stereotype Are You? (Vietnam Protester). Which Mythical Creature Describes Your Personality? (Unicorn. Go figure).

It has occurred to me to wonder whether these quizzes are further instances of those unethical, sly manipulations the brainiacs at Facebook have introduced to learn secret things about those who participate. Accordingly I have been careful about the questions I have answered, and misleading about some of my responses. I think that I am much more likely to have been a Hippie in my past life than a Buddhist Monk, but I don’t necessarily want some unprincipled researcher to know that.

Nonetheless, I’m waiting for the quizzes to raise further important questions–or at least questions that I am in need of understanding. When Are You Going to Die? might be a good one, assuming the future is not irrevocably set, and I might therefore alter bad outcomes. The newest X-Men movie suggests the time ahead of us is indeed malleable and plastic, and since that vehicle is about as scientific as Facebook, I’ll consider the question settled. Fate can be changed, if you know what you’re doing.

I bring this up in part because the question of past events, and their potential to influence the future of things that matter most to us, are particular interests in Robin Becker’s new collection of poetry, Tiger Heron, which I want to spend some time praising. Becker has always been a poet interested in understanding intimacies, broadly conceived: why one person is erotically enticing, but not another; how to cultivate friendships and sustain them; how to appreciate the time spent with other people in all their variabilities. In this new collection she once again explores the ways in which past decisions continue to influence the future of her personal life, and how old patterns contribute to the scope of psychological change. What is now at stake for her, however, is whether redemption is possible, whether she can revisit the past–with parents, with friends and lovers–and alter outcomes. It’s the difference between reviewing your life with regret, or with hope.

The stakes are especially high because, as she admits in “The Middle Path,” she is now of a “certain age”:

all my friends had sons, of the sort
we couldn’t find to save our lives.
We saved ourselves instead.
Which brings me to
this certain age, this mortgage application,
this recycling bin, this ferry reservation.

The details to which she is brought at her age are selected here with particular resonance: the responsibilities of mortgaging one’s present to insure a future (You’d have to own a house to know what that feels like. Try reading V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas), a vision of being ‘recycled’ (She is in this poem “brooding about running out of time”), and my favorite: the ferry reservation. In this context, the ferry for which she is making reservations is as likely to be Charon’s as any other, waiting to convey her across the Styx, whether she likes it or not.

Because “The Middle Path” situates the poet in the midst of a life that has started some time ago. Becker is not at the beginning of her journey, she is not verging at the innocent spring of miracle and discovery, but instead she has advanced some considerable distance in the temporal exploration of her vital, psychological landscapes. Accordingly, we as readers are dropped whole into the activity of her established circles: friends and their children, lovers past and present, parents. Like a good Greek tragedy, the subjects she writes about begin In Medias Res–in the midst of things–where events are already structured. The players are established, we know who everyone is: indeed, one out of every four poems in the book is dedicated to a specific, actual person in Becker’s life.

The web of interconnecting roles and relational identities is likewise well-known, which means that Becker’s reconnaissance of her affections is a matter of deepening insights, the pleasures of long affinity, and of established warmths. In “Listening to Bach on Rt. 89”, she celebrates the scope of her varied community of beloveds:

In a humidity of Baroque proportions
I compose the faces of my friends,
the interweaving themes of our lives.

Banked barn, borscht garden beets,
the dogs’ extravagant greetings
play in counterpoint

to highway berm, median strip, loosestrife–
classic elements of a summer’s drive
to visit. Such joyful improvisations!

‘Improvisations’ is a lovely concept here, a resonant metaphor that captures her range of responses to the histories of her variable pleasures and shifting intimacies. Her friends have independent themes, and interweave among themselves.

All that motion–the separations and realignments–requires a continued poise to negotiate the passions, as well as the comforts, of intimacy. We learn in “Threesome Interval” that her one-time lover now has “a new man,” but the poet nevertheless reports that together the three of them have kept their ‘composure’:

In Shelburne Falls, from the viewing platform
we admired the glacial potholes

ground from granite by snowmelt and gyrating
stone. Swirls marbled
the rock with a natural patina. We kept
our composure,

despite hundreds of millions of years’
of whirlpooling abrasions.
Arriving at the Walt Whitman party, in great spirits,
I wondered: might we try a trip to Rome?

There is a practical virtue in remaining composed, instead of sundering in the rash fire of disappointed possession. There are other communions to be shared, such as pilgrimages together to Rome, or a joint reading of “Song of Myself” at the July 4th Walt Whitman party each year, amid their membership in a thriving, supportive community.

Becker has other poems as well in her collection in which she examines her preference for composure over the risks taken in youth–in which there are terminal break-ups with lovers and partners, discomposed scenes and impassioned chaos, all because there remains the expanse of a lifetime to remedy mistakes, find alternative partners, or trade up for intensities if familiarity blunts erotic excitement. As Becker observes, this is a very privileged–and temporary–attitude in which to hazard everything of value. The poet observes in “Our Best Selves,” that there are other losses in life besides those relational subtractions and additions we choose to play with. The poem is dedicated to a friend, Miriam Goodman, just before her death:

Miriam hailed
and embraced summer
and winter people
in the annual

June convocation
at the beach, updates
and invitations

all around:
they could see
she was sick, bewigged,

but she was here,
now, steadying herself
against the piling,

going in slowly ,
the burning chill
on her thighs,

on her hips, her waist,
as she studied the familiar
lake,…the cabin’s manifest,

the list of essential linens
and batteries and cast iron
pots passed on each year

for her beloveds.

Miriam is not the only one immersed in the flux of elements. Everyone has assembled, not because Miriam is ill, but because this is the ecology of friends, the divine family that meets at the cabin every year to reconvene the holy rule of their society. Paula, we are told, plays Bach suites on her cello, fathers are off teaching sons how to cast for the lake trout, Leslie is swimming with “a rhythmic voluptuousness”, and when it is time to eat, the nine of them grill vegetables to go with the corn and beet soup, then sit around the last supper table playing Scrabble. Look off into the yard where

the boys undress,
and we see their limbs–
animated cave paintings

against the tent fabric.

The poet wants us to understand that this is the archetypal affiliation, the principle society illuminated here against a backdrop of lost time, life lived, irretrievable chances–all of which is both finite and precious.

The understory weaving through the individual poems in Tiger Heron is twofold: the poet is “running out of time” (“The Middle Path”), and she needs a vision to sustain her through the forthcoming poverty, the absolute loss of love and value. In her poetic tribute to Maxine Kumin (“To a Poet”), Becker imagines another supper, another illness, another friend recently deceased:

a gorgeous May

afternoon enters every window of the house
where someone is sick
and someone is reading to the sick

and someone makes supper using
every language available to say nourishment,                                                                                mystery, wisdom,

and I will sleep on the floor in your room.

Here is a compelling vision for a poet: we need every language available–all vocabularies, tones of voice, gestures and affective demonstrations to express the continuities of value. Becker does not find a sufficient range of speech among the abrasions of erotic irritability. It is not the climactic highs that sustain a person over her life, but the steady loving nourishment given daily, quietly in love for a long time.



Gender Differences

photo 1-2


photo 2-2


I’d like to be unorthodox, and propose a choice: you can bear with me for a minute and let me explain what these pictures are about, or you can skip to the George Carlin quote in paragraph 7, whereupon this article might appear more overtly crafty. Or at least more conventionally organized.

But if you do that, you’ll want to come back to these photographs anyway: they display a region in the brain called the medial pre-optic area, which is a locality involved in, among other things, the expression and regulation of various important hormones— which in turn regulate various important behaviors you’ll probably want to know about. The brain sections shown here are from a gerbil–actually, two gerbils: a male and female. I took these pictures during my years in training in a neuroscience laboratory, where my lab mates and I were pursuing neuroanatomical differences between the two genders. The top picture depicts the medial Sexually Dimorphic Area (mSDA) of a male (on the left) and female (on the right) brain. The bottom picture depicts the SDA pars compacta (SDApc) of a male (on the left) and a female (on the right) brain. At the time they appeared some 22 years ago in The Journal of Comparative Neurology, these pictures and others like them caused discrete but obvious excitement among neuroscientists–who as a group are turned on by the most unlikely things.

The source of the excitement were those differences visible in the neuroanatomy between the two brains–the male and the female. Anyone can see them, which is the point of these pictures. The black irregular dots, lines and smudges densely evident in the male brain are neurons and interconnecting tracts full of vasopressin. Males have a considerable amount of these neurons in these brain areas, and females have comparatively little. Such differences were first discovered by my lab director in a set of studies in 1982–and so for the first time evidence was found to indicate that there were structural differences between male and female neurology.

This was a big deal. Given the materialist way that scientists think, to locate a difference in the brain meant that they could locate the source of differences in behavior. This is of course an axiomatic belief in science and medicine. The great longing is to connect an underlying neurological structure (basal ganglia, let’s say) and its resulting behavior (Parkinson’s disease, for example). Once a correlation can be established, then the next step is to create a technology that can repair the brain, and thereby change, in this case, the deteriorations of the Parkinson symptoms. We could save Michael J. Fox (among all the other people suffering with the disease). There are many diseases we are all familiar with–Alzheimer’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Schizophrenia–that are studied under this primary conceptual model of brain/behavior research.

Now with that in mind, the pictures above show a brain area that is involved in other pretty interesting behaviors, among them aggression, stress responses, parental behavior, and the really big one: sexual behaviors. And not too long after the work in our lab was published, a gentleman in a lab in San Diego claimed to have found an analogous structure in human brains, which he pronounced as the source for homosexual behaviors. You maybe can grasp the initial excitement of that discovery. All sorts of godly people were clamoring for follow-up research that would allow surgical interventions in the brains of gay men to relieve them of their unChristian urges–techniques that would allow that nucleus to be ablated without actually killing the poor sinner whose brain they wanted to tweak so they could control the nature of his desire.

In the nick of time, it was discovered that the brain area found in the human beings studied in that one lab could not be found in other human brains by other scientists in other labs, which suggested that this purported homosexual nucleus was merely an artifact of the immunocytochemistry used to stain for it in San Diego. Much of the Republican world wept in consternation. About this same time, other scientists announced related findings that somehow had, until that time, escaped their detection: human sexual behavior is really really complicated. Naturally, other corollary discoveries soon followed: there is no end to the number of brain areas involved in sexual behavior, including those also involved in violence and aggression, and there certainly is not one tiny nucleus hidden somewhere that governs everything.

There was at that time at least one young scientist (i.e. me) who thought that this hope for a solitary place in the brain that governed everything should have passed out of common belief after Descartes picked the pituitary gland as the resident palace of the soul. That was in the 17th Century, after all, and I had thought the whole project would have been abandoned after 3 futile centuries. But, no, there remains an interest in material explanations to account for the differences between genders–an abiding fevered energy pursuing why, as George Carlin observed, “Women are crazy, and men are stupid.”

Carlin has, to my way of thinking, an especially poignant way of articulating the observed differences, and he is equally memorable regarding the conclusions he reached about the source of those differences: “Women are crazy because men are stupid“. Well, yeah, he was on to something, though I suspect that he derived his hypothesis by taking into account other sources of evidence than looking at the brain cells of gerbils.

There are plenty of them–other sources, I mean. And in the spirit of George Carlin, let’s look at, oh, maybe one random example: the recent movie Her. In this film, for those of you who may not have seen it, we follow a sensitive male in the person of Theodore Twombly, who makes his living writing love letters for other less articulate males–those who are tongue-tied, who are less in touch with their sensitivities, and need help. Theo is a contemporary Cyrano de Bergerac, eloquently seducing women for the pleasure of dumb, under-socialized, but physically attractive men. He himself has had his own successes with at least one woman, which regrettably proved temporary: his marriage to her failed. And therefore, with the logic of a precocious fifteen-year-old, he decides to have telephone relationships with other women, with whom he does not actually need to talk, except insofar as they try to bring each other to sexual climax by referring to their dead cat fetishes.

In the end, that doesn’t work for him any better than his marriage did, though the cause of the failure did not turn out to be what I expected. His problem is not that the whole relationship is a fantasy conducted over a telephone, but rather that it is still engaging, however weirdly, with an actual person. Even on the telephone Theo is constrained to interact with an individual different than he is, with likes and sources of satisfaction other than those he would prefer.

Therefore, with movie wisdom he discovers his true love in Samantha, who is a virtual intelligence that sounds like Scarlett Johansson (and not like Phyllis Diller, which is lucky), and is constructed to fulfill his every wish. She is smart, entertaining, subservient to the nature of his interests, available at all hours of the day and night, adjusts to his sleep and work schedules, and admires the way he thinks. She even concocts a considerate plan for sex, using a physical woman hooked up through ingenious blue tooth devices to the computer, so that Theo might have an actual consummation with an actual physical being, who in turn is electrically connected to the cyberlife of Samantha. What could go wrong?

Well, let me tell you I have yet to find a single woman I know who has been remotely seduced by the premises of this ideal. Of course, from the point of view of science, my female sample is merely anecdotal evidence, but the logic of their friendly complaint seems to me to bear the weight of generalization. The guy in the movie wants his own romantic illusion, which is too much of a mirage even to allow the electronic succubus as a possible erotic evolution to his connection to Samantha. He only wants exactly what he wants, and only by his own terms. No blemishes, no human smells or fluids, no hair, no independence. Eventually, even the artificial intelligence is smart enough to leave him before things go too far, and he imagines some coercive means to compel her to fit his ideas of a soul mate. Fidelity appears to be one of them, since he is crushed by the disclosure that Samantha has been ‘mating’ 600-and-something other men. We can almost hear Othello lamenting in the background “that we can call these delicate creatures ours, and not their appetites.

Theo as Everyman prefers to keep his ideals remote, and unhampered by materials he cannot control. Which is a problem in real life, where most of us have to reside, since any attempt to import them into the daily round of experience is bound to be frustrating, disappointing, aggravating. They have no relationship to reality, which simply refuses to behave according the way men have wanted it to act. Naturally, a certain percent of males will want to do something about that–say, for example, drive through parts of the UC Santa Barbara campus and shoot all the blonde women who wouldn’t have sex with them–whom they didn’t actually know, never actually tried to relate to, but only stood in for their ideal. The male preference has always been to prefer the idea, and compel the material world to accommodate to it. And the social world, the political world, the religious world, and every other world that males have populated. Hence the truth value of Carlin’s category, “Men are stupid.”

I won’t presume to indicate what crazy thing women might prefer, except to note that thus far it has not included shooting all the blonde men they know, or taking assault weapons into elementary schools to massacre all the children, or even making bombs out of horse manure and use them to blow up Oklahoma day care centers. Those decisions remain the province of masculine choice and action, guided by a masculine version of idealism. As our generals told us during the Vietnam War, we have to destroy the village to save it. These separations in behavior between men and women are startling, or at least I find them startling. Here we have a set of behaviors—or perhaps a proclivity for a set of behaviors—that distinguishes the members of the stupid group from those in the crazy group.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to identify the basis for those differences? Doesn’t it seem important? That’s what led me into the laboratory in the first place, where I took those photographs. Just like any other male, I was inclined to pursue an ideal to its logical conclusion—though in my case I neither had an interest in virtual women like Theo, nor a desire to change someone’s brain surgically to alter his sexual orientation, to alter his concept of beauty. Instead, I had my own proclivities—let’s call it my own inclination to look into the male brain, identify the region of violent sociopathy, and remove it. It sounds like such a good idea on paper, at least from the point of view of a masculine call to direct intervention. Ideas like this always look good in theory to somebody hunting after the definitive remedy, the perfect fix, the final solution.

I probably at this point should confess that I am still male, and still can be fooled by my logical extremities. So you probably shouldn’t take everything I say to heart. Besides, I am not the materialist I used to be. I’ve given up the idea that we can fix evil by materially removing the source of it from the brain. Some new pill won’t work either, though that isn’t stopping the pharmaceutical industry from imagining further expensive medicines to try on our children. It’s not going to go away.

Evil isn’t, I mean, evil won’t be going away any time soon–though maybe our unarmed, idealistic women have counsels to offer, or proposals to counter male ideas about material domination. It’s possible. Let’s go ask them.

My Life With Skunks

A friend of mine–Bruce–had a pet skunk that he kept in his apartment, where it was about as house-trained as a cat. It had its own kitty litter thing in the bathroom, and we would feed it raw hamburger and eggs, and it was relatively affectionate like cats sometimes are. Occasionally at night, though, it would get territorial with Bruce’s new friends coming over to visit, and at such times it would stamp its little feet in a cute way, then spray you in the face with this incredibly foul, noxious fluid that would burn your eyeballs out. Then we would all live on the beach for a couple of weeks until the apartment aired out. That’s how we rolled in Southern California in those days. We were pretty laid back.

I mention this as prologue to the afternoon years later, when my beeper went off, and I was paged to the ER to evaluate an adult who had just been brought in by ambulance. My office was in another part of the hospital, and while I was walking through the corridors I was reminded of my sunny adolescence as I met the unmistakable essence of skunk rolling like an awful fog up the hallway. Once I arrived in the ER, I didn’t need anyone to point out who I was supposed to be evaluating–which was a good thing, really, since the place was pretty much empty: patients, doctors, family members, nurses, social workers, orderlies, receptionists–everybody had cleared out.

Except two unhappy EMT’s from the ambulance, and this emaciated guy wearing a sort of breech clout and vest that he obviously made himself out of maybe a dozen skunk skins. He hadn’t tanned them, so of course they were rotting (this was September, the end of summer), which only added to the flavor of the encounter. It was memorable. The first thing I did was order the three of them outside into the courtyard, and tried to get up wind of him. I wasn’t worried that he would try to escape: there was no place on earth he could hide, and besides, you could see he was starving. It’s true he was also floridly psychotic and paranoid, but he was tamed by the lethargy induced from his long want of food. He was actually in a bad way.

He had spent months out in the woods, and the woody terrain bordering the farmland of a nearby town. It turned out that everybody knew he was out there: farmers spend a lot of time outside in the summer looking at their crops, the weeds, the weather, rain clouds and so on, and folks noticed this young man in various stages of nakedness roaming around in the miles and miles of forested countryside. He wasn’t harming anyone, and so in the egalitarian way of stoic New Englanders ever since Robert Frost, they let him do his thing. Also, they were really busy this time of year.

Whatever crazy, fearful thinking first led him out into the woods, after he was there a while the most important thing on his mind became food. It is hard for a person in a disorganized, disheveled mental state to find and capture enough edible materials–whether animal or vegetable–to keep his body sound for months on end. The only things that he could find to eat, and that would not try to run from him, were the skunks. They don’t run: they stand their ground and warn everything else to get away, fast. So he could kill and eat skunks–and then after his fashion, he made clothing from their hides once he lost whatever he was wearing when he first left his civilized mind in whatever place he once called home.

I suppose it’s true everywhere, when you think about it, but in the part of New England I’m talking about, skunks are in finite supply. There’s just not that many of them,
not enough to support a large and clumsy predator forever. So after he had killed and eaten all the skunks he could find, the only other thing that wouldn’t run away were the cows out in the pastures. It must have taken a while for him to figure out how to attack a cow, or to get hungry enough to try, but he eventually shot one with a bow and arrow he got somewhere, and that was too much for the area dairymen, who had a tough enough time trying to make a living without having people shoot their best milkers with toy arrows. One of them called the police, and that in the due course of events led to my chance to meet him. It was as natural as breathing: find someone in skins shooting arrows at cows, and bring him to the Emergency Room to see me. I’ll sort things out.

This time, however, I wasn’t given a chance. No community can afford to have its ER shut down, so while I was outside with him, a team of people with a large van came to collect him and bring him to New Haven, where there were facilities that could handle the particular challenges my guy presented. They bundled him up in some sort of cloaking fabrics, and off they went. I never saw him again.

Over dinner one night I mentioned the encounter to a friend of mine, Gary Young, who was as moved as I have been by the passions stirring my scared hunter. So Gary wrote a poem, which is published on page 225 of his book, Even So: New and Selected Poems. You can also read it here (It is a prose poem):

In Western Massachusetts, a man wandered into the woods to live alone. He tried hunting, but the only animals that stood their ground, the only animals he could catch were skunks. The man was sprayed, of course, but he caught them, ate them, and dressed in a cloak of rancid pelts. When he was found, the scent was on his breath, his skin, and when I heard his story, I thought, comrade.

The Death of Garcia Marquez


When Garcia Marquez died recently, he took with him not only the whole of his life, but a major portion of my own life as well into whatever absent world he entered in death. If I had known in time that his dying was imminent, I would have given him letters to bring with him, as Amaranta Buendia brought letters with her to distribute among her friends and relatives in the underworld when she died—except my letters would have been those to Marquez himself that I never wrote when he was still among us.

Because, I mean, if people are now having sex with ghosts—the pleasures of which movie stars and pop singers are now proclaiming—then why not start something a bit more modest, like a literary correspondence? In this way nothing may ever be too late.

In particular I’m curious about the life of his characters—their unique verisimilitude—which he used to explain by saying that what he wrote in his novels and stories was not so different from other events occurring in Aracataca Columbia in his childhood. I get that. I can imagine the     similarities between the Biblical rains that cascaded on both Macondo and his own home town, and how flower petals may fall from the heavens to carpet the roads, and commemorate an    especially important funeral. Melquiades’ youthful appearance is restored by a good set of false teeth, I can see that, and ice is indeed a miracle in the tropics before refrigeration—which is a recent invention, just like the invention of the magnifying glass, and the miracle of the     player piano.

So what did it take out of him to destroy those fabulous people, inhabiting worlds of remarkable beauty, vitality and color? That’s what I want to know. There was a time when I was dead certain it would destroy me to finish One Hundred Years of Solitude. I was an undergraduate when I discovered the book. I always parked my VW camper under the eucalyptus trees in a  distant parking lot on the UC Irvine campus, and between classes I’d lie on the bed there with the door open to the Southern California light, and shriek with laughter when Jose Arcadio       explained that the gold ingots fused to the bottom of Ursula’s cooking pot looked like dog shit. All of you who own a dog know exactly how apt that description is.

I’d be hooting over the disassembled player piano, taken apart to discover the ghostly pianist making all that music, and the photographs taken surreptitiously to capture the image of God. Other students would be coming out to reclaim their cars, also parked there in the lot, and a part of my mind would register the bizarre looks I’d get as they peered into my van, hoping to avoid the madman howling in there, and just get to their own car without incident. But I was transported: they weren’t as real or nearly as compelling to me as the time Remedios the    Beauty was lifted body and soul away with the Percale sheets, or when all the ants in the world carried off the newborn Aureliano into their nest to feast on.

So when that Old Testament wind started, and blew off the first of Macondo’s roof tiles, I couldn’t stand it. I had the same premonition that Aureliano did, and whereas he raced ahead to finish translating the encyclicals written by Melquiades, which were the text of the novel itself, I couldn’t bear it, and closed the book. I also closed the van door because I didn’t want anyone to see me sobbing and call the police.

And, well, yes, since you asked, I know I get carried away by fictions: novels, poems, in the theater, in the movie house. I’m the kind of guy that Plato wanted to protect by banishing all artists from the Republic so they would not seduce people like me into believing in illusions. In general, he didn’t much approve of illusions, particularly persuasive ones, which he believed just led people further into material error. I was in error to be so upset.

Aristotle, on the other hand, as Plato’s student, found the fictional actions of art—and drama especially—to be much more useful. He argued that we get sucked into imaginary pains and distresses in order to purge ourselves of our own real ones—the term for which is catharsis, as I’m sure everyone already knows. So okay, that was it: I was purged of my extreme feelings.

Saint Augustine sided with Plato, and thought that the figments of imagination led a person away from God to contemplate worldly affairs, especially sex, which was bad, bad, bad, bad. Freud, let it be said, thought sex was pretty good, certainly influential, and found the           phantasmagoria of art to be restorative, repairing psychic traumas.

I could go on about this, but already the topic is getting boring. All kinds of writers, philosophers, Church fathers, poets, psychologists, and movie producers have at various times weighed in on the nature of artistic agency—the take home message for which is, probably, that it is a personal matter. One’s relationship to the artistic world is intimate, unique, yours.

For my part, I think I am often beguiled by stories because they play upon my empathy. For instance, although neither of my babies was ever eaten by ants, I can readily imagine the horror if they were. I cringe along with Don Apolinar Moscote when the tall, solemn Aureliano Buendia asks to marry his 13-year-old daughter, who has in fact yet to reach puberty. O man, I have all kinds of misgivings about that one—even though, in truth, no such event ever occurred in my life, or in my daughter’s. So why am I cringing?

Good question. I am moved beyond expression by the chimeras in Marquez’s novel, but am left cold by the actual dramas unfolding everywhere around me. It’s final week, and my wife’s crazy students are turning their papers in late, each excuse more inane than the last. One of my     colleagues at work goes on and on about her son’s latest piercing, this one through his eyebrow, while I try to extricate myself from the break room: I don’t want to hear about it. Unfortunately, I can’t help but hear the neighbors shouting at each other, arguing over a bounced check, it sounds like, so I discreetly close the windows that I just opened after the long, long winter. God dammit. Someone from work has called again to ask if I can give him a ride in the morning, for the second day in a row, because his car still isn’t running. It should be no big deal, but I’m   irritated nonetheless because I’ll have to talk to him on the drive in, rather than listen to one of my audiobooks—this one Jacob’s Room, read by Nadia May in a truly lovely performance.

What does it mean to prefer the theoretical lives of a novel to the actual mess people create around me? To favor the idea of people having phantasmal problems, over the bulky, every-day persons around me inhabiting their tangible dismay? Well, for one thing, I have more control over the imaginary passions because I can always just close the book, or turn off the iPod. It also occurs to me that I appreciate the presence of meaning in the fictional events, which is not evident in the surprise of real life. In literature there is the idea of the story, the narrative theme, the way sense is made.

Marquez punishes those who like structure to their contemplations, because he ties up the loose ends of his plot with a brutality that runs like a bloody thread throughout the course of his family chronicle. Melquiades doesn’t just die, he is washed down river, and is found 3 days later with a vulture perched on his stomach. The 17 sons of Colonel Aureliano Buendia are all executed in one single night, the last by an ice pick driven through the cross of ashes smeared during Holy Mass on his forehead. The last in the line of the Buendia’s is eaten by ants—whose mother hemorrhages to death immediately after childbirth. No one is given a second chance.

That is such a harsh judgment on a marvelous world—an unforgiving sentence passed upon his unforgettable creation. It has weighed on my mind all these many years, and with renewed   emphasis in light of Marquez’s own death after the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. I wonder if he would have approved of his death: the relentless disassembly of his mind, the tortuous       collapse into indignity and oblivion. That’s hard to face. I think I’d rather drown in the river with Melquiades, even with that vulture. I think I’d prefer a clear threat, an obvious deadly chance, a fatal moment. But I wouldn’t want to be lost, so hunt for me.

Please hunt, just like I am for Garcia Marquez. That is, after all, what my letters to him would constitute: a link to a distant faint voice, a bond against bereavement, the preservation of value. We may have a chance yet.


%d bloggers like this: