It Occurred To Me That…


I should call attention to the project that the potter Ehren Tool has been engaged in for some time now. He has a compelling, wonderful installation at the Renwick Museum in Washington D.C., entitled  198 of Thousands, which is a collection of his ‘War Cups’ (This is my phrase, and not what he has chosen to call them). Each is made of stoneware, various glazes and decals. He is himself a veteran of the Gulf War, and his cups initially reflected his personal experience, but have grown to encompass the struggles of other soldiers, and their families. Here are links to his website, and to a recent interview with him:

The cup in these photographs reflects the traumas of Cortes’ invasion of Mexico, and the conquest of the Aztec civilization—as imagined in the last two chapters of my book Genealogies, some lines of which appear below.



Crow-headed women picked through
the battlefields in a final rally within
the heat beneath the blue mountain clouds,
the mesas emptied. Sarah didn’t wait
for the awful flocks before she gathered
Elam from reconnaissance, and
together took positions like a mist
might insinuate onto a morning
beach—by which I mean, and by occult
degrees, they faded from perception as
they neared the city common. If they were phantoms,
they’d like to be assassin phantoms as
they hefted their munitions invisibly
into abandoned rooms upstairs in view
of the proceedings in the courtyard on
the well-made work of masons, where Cortes
negotiated with ambassadors from mercenary
nations, traded promises of plunder
with his higher math, using zeros,
and with no one looking stashed the novel
treaties in the toilet of his disrespect.

Thank you, I’ll take that. Elam reached
to Sarah for the firing pin, and springs,
and reassembled the dark machine of destiny,
is how Sarah thought of it: the rifle
oiled in Elam’s hands, and ready. Get
used to it. He levered in a cartridge
for the modest shot from there, and read
the white winds. The sacred sky was blazing
with a clarifying light, allowing
him to see an end, at last, of action as
he fired. The hammer detonated the
percussion cap exactly at the moment
when the mountains shook like green robes,
closing distant roads with rocks, scattering
scarlet flocks of parrots screeching up
through rising plumes of dust. Adobe buildings
swayed, or crumbled. The tremblor shocked the audience,
rocked Cortes off the dais. Several
celebrants heard a leaden insect
missing them. In the melee, Elam
levered in another round—no
man of mercy in this mood—braced
against a rolling seismic wave, and once
he sighted grimly on Cortes. He shot
for the umbilicus exposed below
the armored chest plate. That would stop
his exclamation, and by the way, disband
the rash, inconsiderate, fiery
voluntaries left from the invading

                          Except, to begin with,
nothing happened as expected. It looked
as if the god of plagues had come
again because, before the slug could strike,
the body lice and European biome
bloomed on Cortes into a mythical
immune response protecting him from any
outside missile. The bullet simple shorted
out, with loud and visible effects.
Clouds of living powder flew in colorful
eruptions, lightning clapped about him with
its smoke and bounce, igniting little fires,
spores and alien bacteria
basically ate everything around him,
and left a circle of ancient visitation.
Whereas the implications wouldn’t register
with Elam, prodigious in testosterone,
rigid, lame in reason, slanderous
to the time, Sarah with the graceful
ankles took the hint. Get the fuck out,
she shouted in the thunder of the third
attempt as Elam made it with his non-
stop, devouring, lethal bullet clanging
off the armor-plated heart of Cortes,
glancing at an angle toward a metal
bell appearing out of nowhere from
another era in a lovely tower
full of swallows, where it never rains,
to ricochet again, and catch Sarah
fully in the chest. It took her breath
away, her lung collapsed, she staggered over
Elam on the floor, and fell.
two moons were seen outside in different
phases—full, and waning gibbous—horrid
winds ruled the superflux, but calmed
as Elam set the rifle down.
He reeled
in panic as he checked the hemorrhage
in Sarah’s chest, stuffing spider webs
into the wounds. That worked, and helped
to re-inflate her lung, which eased her breathing.
She was burning like a fallen star,
Lord Death was singing to her, and
offended decency by making private
offers that wouldn’t keep. You are my food,
He said, I love your bones, and other like
promises, while Elam bathed her, and
examined her for bites. He changed her bandages,
steeped a willow tea against fever
in the tasteless days, and soon when she
was less confused, was spooning in a rabbit
broth he stewed from rabbits left for them
in secret by the worshipful, who made
such sacrifices to defeated gods
and local deities like them—who could
be seen by now, a little. She’d lost a tooth,
and whistled as she breathed, sleeping.

                                                                        He watched
her re-compose, washed her with his tender
joy and vigilance, with no illusions,
and when she fell in moods, imperious,
subtle, full of unpleasing blots, he got
her up and walking, so when the kingdom finally
was taken in the name of Spain, she hobbled
on beside him, sometimes rode on their
improbable alpaca down the mountain
passes in a puny counter-clockwise
last push against the cosmic turning.
The jungles were abandoned, half-burned.
Press on their hearts, and they would say
they never did believe in travel. They
came down into the empty earthen world
at sea level, one of many, where they
had prospered once. Elam was afraid
to use the rifle, so they waded through
the blue-maned surf, and cast their lines,
or foraged in the tidal pools for crab
and abalone everywhere.
villages were gone. When the whale
ascended monstrous in the southern stars,
which marked their place, they started hunting for
their gig, sunk and hidden months ago,
but instead they stumbled on a lovely
cutter that Cortes had stashed for his
escape, just in case. What a weasel.
Still, they chased the boomslang and monkeys from
the hold—the latter soused on Spanish wine—,
plucked orchids, unhooked a mossy tree
sloth that dangled from the rigging near
the nesting quetzals, which they also cleared
away, wary always of goliath
spiders lying in wait. Look at you all,
Sarah thought, totally grateful. We must
be learning. With her charmed sigh, she stood
with Elam while the spring tide lurched
against the hull and keel, lifting them
from spills of silt until they floated under
light sail to slide through estuaries
into open water once again,
which Elam sometimes thought of—especially
after nights of excess in a foreign
port—as rapture. Looking back, he saw
a mauled corpse caught in the tidal swell,
rolling in the crash and drag of breakers,
until the sharks hit. Fog was ghosting
in. They needed room and blue water,
hence he hauled his wind, and bore north
by east into the pea soup obscuring
each particular beauty, all the big-
bellied sails—you wouldn’t think so—, moons
and other points of bearing on the unfixed
liquid elements transporting them



Language Isn’t What You Think


     When you think about it, the evolution of language is a compelling topic for literary folks, and ought to be required study for literary critics. People have an innate capacity for language. The neurological center—what we might by analogy call the cellular “processor”—lies in an organized nucleus of cells in that part of the brain right behind your left ear. Language is not a town-made capacity: it is hard-wired in, as are the other senses, such as eyesight, for example. Our vision has evolved to detect a useful, finite spectrum of electromagnetic radiation emanating from the outside world. Using eyesight, we can detect important things out there: I can see the prey I want to kill and eat, notice the vegetable world from which to select edibles, ogle the other members of my species with whom I long to mate. 

     There are those of us human beings, of course, who have preferred to mate with other species than our own. The example of shepherds lying with their sheep is Biblical in scope, and I myself have known a particular farmer who would have sex with one of his cows. The give-away was the animal hair and fecal matter spread all down the front of his overalls. And as I recall, Governor Winship in the Plymouth Colony hung one of the original pilgrims for having sex with a turkey. They also hung the turkey, which is sadly, grimly humorous. Those first pilgrims meant business.

     With all this acknowledged, no one would say that the interspecies sex was a consequence of poor eyesight. They could see what they were doing, make selective choices among alternative beings in the world—because their capacity for vision referred to a material world existing outside of their mental activity. 

     You can maybe imagine language acting in a similar way. Spear in hand, you and your companion are out hunting for a wooly mammoth to kill, when the guy beside you abruptly yells ‘Run!” or something similar. In this way language might be immediately useful, multiplying the scope of the other senses, which have also evolved to respond to environmental events. The immediate assumption might be that the language has expressed the need for intelligent, discriminant behavior, quickly executed in the material world, in response to changing material conditions. It wouldn’t do, for instance, to run toward the source of threat—and in fact, if your companion took the necessary time to do the thing rightly, he might yell “Run from the charging mammoth directly to our right.”

     The immediate assumption might be that the eyesight detected something in the environment to which the imperative linguistic product referred—and referred as well to the speed of the approach, to the direction from which it was advancing, and perhaps even to the intended mayhem that the advance suggested.

     Those philosophically minded hunters for whom language did not refer to any referent, for whom no real ‘signified’ existed behind the ‘sign’, might prefer to deconstruct the etymology of the verb ‘run’, to quibble with the definition of ‘mammoth,’ or to be concerned about the inaccuracy of the word “right.’ However, that misconcept of language would carry its own sad correction, and our brainy hunter would not live to reproduce either with his own species, or with any other preferred choice.

     These days, those philosophically minded hunters roam through many university literature departments—where they are also about to become extinct, I fear. But that is the subject of another conversation.


    “ If I now tell you that my old dog, with his few sad last grey hairs, is sleeping by my woodstove, I trust you would not come into my house expecting to find an elk, and that if you did, I would be justified in believing you were fucking weird and never letting you near my dog again.”

      I have already asked you to imagine yourself as a neolithic hunter roaming around, spear in hand,  and using language to negotiate dangers originating in the natural, unconstructed world. This time I’d like to imagine something a bit more probable: that we are contemporary neuroscientists. As such, we can acknowledge our incredulity at post-modern language theory—because we are starting with a different concept of evidence, and indeed with a different conceptual pedigree entirely. As scientists we are looking at the neurological bases of behavior, the source of which is an organ—the brain—that has evolved over immensities of time, in response to uncountable numbers of environmental interactions, so that its capacities are determined according to its fit in its material niche. There are other niches, but we do not fit in them: for instance, we cannot breathe too good under water, we cannot eat bamboo for any length of time and survive, we cannot in arid places go for months without water. It is up to other animals to fill those niches.

     We inhabit the niche we are designed to inhabit—which makes good tautological sense.  I have more to say about this topic, but because I am at heart a shy and modest person, and so do not want to flash my naked, unseemly nerdism, I have provided links to brief lectures: one regarding the neurological areas in the brain responsible for language (; the other regarding a neuroanatomical area that coordinates our mental and physiological rhythms—called circadian rhythms—with the cyclical presence and absence of sunlight (

     What these links will do is provide some evidence—as well as further links to the world of other related evidence—that I am not just making this shit up. The entire worldwide community of neuroscientists believes from vast experimental evidence that, down to the most intimate neurophysiological degree—down into our very cells—, we are tied to events in the natural world around us. And language, as a neurologically wired capacity, is a feature of that linkage. As thinking, speaking human beings, we are as totally synched to the events in the natural world as our iPhones, Droids and iPads are synched to our computers.

     Post Modernism has a briefer pedigree: perhaps if we stretch things we can extend it back to Kant and his belief that the noumenon cannot be understood, but we might all feel more confident with a less ambitious lineage extending from Nietzsche through Husserl and Heidegger into Levinas, Barthes and Derrida, then forward to the current intellectual heirs. This is a Continental heritage, and works most persuasively with Continental languages. The way in which Kanji, for instance,  purports to refer to its signified clearly works on principles that are not well-characterized by Western examples. 

     But even with the continental tongues, the referent to which a sign points is not commonly in question. If, for instance, I now tell you that my old dog, with his few sad last grey hairs, is sleeping by my woodstove, I trust you would not come into my house expecting to find an elk, and that if you did, I would be justified in believing you were fucking weird and never letting you near my dog again. Some of you might even catch the intentional allusion to Keats. Further, if we were honest among ourselves, we would recognize that the books and articles Derrida has written were published with the particular intent to communicate his ideas, regarding which he worked with discernible effort to convey accurately. If you happened to attend one of his lectures at the University of California, Irvine, where he taught in his later years (and from which, I blush to confess, I graduated) you could have enjoyed his personal, extended, elegant use of language as it was classically conceived—and even ask in interrogative sentences what he meant by the ‘trace’ that language unearths.

Part III

     “In which Postmodern Despair is Vanquished, and We Can Return to our Universities and Teach Poetry.”

     My point—my purpose in making my previous observations is this: there is a disconnection between language as it is now philosophically conceived in postmodern discourse, and language as it is commonly used—even among the philosophers themselves. When Derrida and the murmuration of his followers reduce meaning solely to the relationship inhering between the sign and the signified—the noun and its referent—-they are omitting the vast majority of linguistic functions. Accordingly, they have imported a reductivist platform that is being made to stand for the whole, immense range of expressive uses. Just to pick one immediate literary example, when Marc Anthony at Caesar’s funeral keeps repeating his observation, “And sure, Brutus is an honorable man,” the meaning of that phrase—understood by all who hear it—has nothing to do with the literal referent. 

     The unpublished intention, implicit in the sign/signified postulation, is to introduce an unacknowledged axiom: that the true purpose of language is to reveal the ontologically real. The postmodern formulation tacitly asserts that language is not conceived for quotidian uses (“While you’re out, will you bring me home a portabello sandwich from the Black Sheep deli?”) or for poetical, non-referential pleasures (“The world is blue like an orange.”). The essential, defining purpose of language is as a tool for the contemplative mind to extract the unknowable “ding an sich” —in the performance of which, as we are told over and over, language fails.

     Well, now, that purported failure logically follows only if we accept the reductive proposition that, first, language is merely a matter of nouns and referents, and that, second, its essential purpose lies in its philosophical discourse. However, we are not constrained, either by logic or by common usage, to accept either proposition. Shakespeare (see Marc Anthony above) along with just about every body else in the world has already discovered and published other useful propositions for language. Here, for instance, is one such provocative idea:  

From 1991 until sometime in 2000, this image/symbol is the name of the rock star ‘formerly known as Prince’. As such, it seems to me to turn postmodernism inside out, in that we have a sign connected to its signified without the medium of language at all. 

     To choose another instance, here is one of Charlie Chaplin’s famous opinions on the matter:

For Chaplin, language appears to be an expressive act—extended sequentially through time—that necessarily involves gesture, facial expression and tone of voice—all of which transcends the literal vocabulary, which in this particular instance is comprised of faux Italian*.

    Of course, the ambiguity of language might in fact not be a function of all languages, but merely a feature of the Continental ones. For example, here is just a little of the mathematical language describing the physical reality of the twenty-six dimensional flat spacetime: 

I admit that this is not a language that I find especially pertinent to how I live, but I do believe that this is the best language to be used by those men and women—those physicists—who are truly, successfully capturing the nature of the noumenon: the absolute physics of the universe.

     If we do not commonly find among physicists the despair so often present in postmodernism, we also fail to locate individual differences in their mathematical language that will allow for particular people to identify themselves. Math is a universal language. It is better able to control its meanings, but at the expense of human definition, for which French, German, English—indeed virtually every other language is far better suited, even though that individuation necessarily introduces ambiguities. What I mean when I articulate a thought is not always reliably grasped in its full import by my partner in conversation. My differences introduce ambiguity into expression. I am other than you are, and what I mean—the shades of purpose I convey, the tenor of my voice, the pacing I choose—is individually mine. 

     It is exactly this individuality against which philosophy has protested. And it is this protest that I, in my turn, would want to revalue. I am far from equating linguistic ambiguity with the despair of failed significance that we find everywhere lamented in postmodernism. I would argue instead that ambiguity—precisely because it prevents material control and the successful exercise of power—is a joyous escape from convention, the delight in play, the opportunity for humor, the wonder of the unexpected, the nature of hope.

Know what I mean?

*Here is the text of Chaplin’s Song:

 Se bella giu satore
Je notre so cafore
Je notre si cavore
Je la tu la ti la twah

La spinash o la bouchon
Cigaretto Portabello
Si rakish spaghaletto
Ti la tu la ti la twah

Senora pilasina
Voulez-vous le taximeter?
Le zionta su la seata
Tu la tu la tu la wa

Sa montia si n’amora
La sontia so gravora
La zontcha con sora
Je la possa ti la twah

Je notre so lamina
Je notre so cosina
Je le se tro savita
Je la tossa vi la twah

Se motra so la sonta
Chi vossa l’otra volta
Li zoscha si catonta
Tra la la la la la la

The Lyric Narrative

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

A Brief Apology for Narrative

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

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

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

The Next Big Thing


What is the title of your book?


Where did the idea come from for the book?

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

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

Genealogies is the marriage of these two impulses.

What genre does your book fall under?

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

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

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

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

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

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

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

Who has published your book?

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

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

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


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

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

What else might pique our interest?

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

It Occurs To Me That

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

It Occurs To Me That

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


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