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

How the Widow Velma Learned to Dance

I must apologize for all the tarps
and cans of paint I’ve strewn around the room
while painting Velma’s ceiling to improve
the vista from her bed of suffering,
where she’s lain, prostrate and staring upward,
since they carted Alfred in. I watched
her barking, I surprised myself by noting,
Velma with her white hair barking
as they carted Alfred in, dead
as meat. She levitated purely out
of anguish, bumping like a zeppelin
about the room, and up the stairwell before
our sense of peril was aroused, and she
nearly had transcended to the attic when
I finally caught her by the weights
of human nature. That was close.  Afterwards,
dressed in her bed things, she rode the unbridled
horse of hysterics. The spectacle has all but killed
the little shell of Evelyn, the eldest daughter,
who arranged the sweet peas in a vase,
and weeps beneath the rainy constellations
of her feelings. She isn’t being very
photogenic, and genuinely cringes
at her mother’s hydrophobias.
Ho, but Velma often battered Alfred’s
sentiments: Fat boy! she had yelled
in Evelyn’s hearing, and then denied him roasted
apples as he liked them most. Oh,
she bellowed, holding Evelyn by the cuff,
Oh she thought his love lubricious, physical
as it was, and for years refused
to touch his dick

                             My guess is Evelyn never
will forget the dreadful revelations
gibbered in her ear, and on the whole
remembers more about the funeral
than she wants–especially the bloat
man himself exposing what is mortal
in his box. Pray for a huge pity
on this woman, on us all, whose fantasies
and tricks of mind proved morbid as her father’s
body–which we viewed at last, to my
surprise, before the pageant minister,
robed in shreds and patches, bespoke himself,
closed the coffin lid, and sealed my friend
apart inside a distant and inhospitable
land. I wasn’t ready. In a lifetime
when the ozone layer is penetrated
by a mother’s can of hairspray, I’m humbled
by the victory of causes and
their preposterous effects, chased by lunacies
and wonders, in which I place all hope. The ceremony
grated harshly to its end, and then
we scattered from the graveside, green and drowned,
into the civil streets of the remaining
world, leaving Alfred to be stuffed
discreetly, and behind our backs into
a dirty hole. No one stayed to see
it closed, or watch the tanagers among
the starry bushes. Troupials were blowing
airs into the emptiness blue
as ink, and Elam could be overheard
to sing his sea chanteys, Sarah could
be humming something typically obscure,
but reminiscent of the fiddler birds
remembered from her youth. To hear them sing
like this across the gross diameter
of our experience, theirs and mine,
reminds me of psychotic processes,
or the ecstasies and revels of
medieval saints, friars summoning
through the gorgeous armories of prayer
their own seraphic messages from heaven.
If I had a rocket launcher, I’d maybe
stand a chance of pressuring important
messages from someone big, but otherwise
I’m used to the illumination from
the massive, dazzling static of the pulsars,
binary suns, and singularities
exploding overhead. In this century,
a body’s gotten cynical about
the salesmen seeing aliens, or postal
workers answering command hallucinations.

So the evolution of my jealousy
has seemed occult and melancholy, my brain
has held by night, in unknown places, an
ungodly envy of the Raleigh Baptist
women on the church committee who
communed in Velma’s parlor with their layer
cakes, and minced meat pies, to tranquilize
the seething widow with ancestral empathies,
at a time when I was drawing breath in pain,
but trying to be manly. Evelyn catered
to them sweetly from the hoard of pastries,
and each was growing sleepy at the moment
Velma hitched her afghan up, and ventured
into memory to ramble on
regarding Alfred’s manic appetite
for minced meat pie. Sisters, she had started,
and recalled incendiary chickens,
the cremated harrows and plows that happened when
the barn combusted, and there was Alfred, famed
among his neighbors as he extricated
their Barbary mare and foal, leading both
into the archetypal fields of sugar

           A minute later she lamented
her inner life, stuffed with history,
its revelations awful, the wind in it cold–
but that was after she remembered Alfred
in the ballroom, in the middle of
the rhapsody, had whisked the linen table
cloth from off a vacant table, and laid
it like a cape across her naked shoulders,
damp from the preceding waltz. There
she sat amid the sore-footed dancers at
the Peabody Hotel, no less, the shoeblacks
grinning in the halls.

                                    Forty years
of marriage passed before we had to gather
as a family for Alfred’s funeral,
with Evelyn pointing out the goldfish half
the size of boulders, Calypso blooms like dualisms,
and other universals of the Elams’
garden. We tried to keep our chatter to
a minimum.  New mothers washed
their boobs and red nipples: Keep an eye
on the toddlers, they called to husbands sitting
under the perpetual umbrellas,
sipping beers. Baseball featured the
St. Louis Cardinals losing to L.A.,
and all the kids had trooped into the kitchen
where, as usual, Sarah was bending
spoons with her telepathy: it was
a moving spectacle, and kept the children
out of mischief in the darker parts
of Elam’s woods, in which the lion plants
might eat them. It could haven gotten ugly, and turned
the public off. But our precipitation
there had been to bury Alfred, and
to smother Velma with our Southern over-
compensated love. You surely are
a comfort, Velma told the few of us
to bring her pomegranates, mow her lawn,
and Uncle Eddie Seymour–one of our
dear ethnic Catholics, along with Uncle
Anton–mornings in the shower said
novenas for her better health. Even
the gangsters of the family were reigning
in their hyperactive noise, and trying
to be tender,

                       but nothing of our physic
worked. Help. We had to be a little
smarter than we were. Eventually
we left the suffocating flowers, and
dispersed for home, nursing gingerly
our aching tennis elbows, and soothing our
pubescent sons and daughters, who developed
crushes on their cousins, and were then
bereft and humid in the separate backs
of each of our departing cars. What
had we accomplished? A unity of errors.
Velma’s grief, like solar heating, was still
in infancy. Alfred had been newly
and forever plowed beneath the Judas
trees when we reentered our abiding
cities, stepped off planes, and in walking
to the baggage claims admitted we
were irritated by the Krishna beggars
and the other vegetarians
displayed at airports. We assumed routines,
returned to copulations on our water
beds, how momentarily angelic,
and meant to be. We pulled the drapes. Incense
flamed in ashtrays,

                               and afterwards at malls
the charlatans had tossed us caramels
as some promotion–and so again
our metamorphosis into consumers
had us deftly waddling after sales,
and our way of life had fallen into
days of golf, and nights of agonizing
on our backswings with their unintended
circles. Velma, on the other hand,
remained depressed, and deviled by the malice
of her history. The contradictions
made no sense to her, for instance, once
when she was lost among the parlous streets
of Memphis, cabined in her huge Dodge,
and then a neatly groomed, a beautifully,
uh, rouged and tailored–in short a gorgeous
pederast kindly showed her home.
Travel seemed to be for liberals,
or other widows better suited to
it. She commuted in between the supermarkets,
armed with coupons, and on the loose among
her former incarnations as a cook
when she was young, and when her mother was
tubercular. The angers that had famished
Alfred’s appetites originated
in the sloughs of childhood as she stood
on top of orange crates to reach the stove,
and turn the rabbit quarters over with
a wooden spatula. And now, as then,
she gathered all her skillets, and attacked
the human drives for comfort, food and drink
by searing fatty meats, lubricating
everything with bacon grease, and acting
altogether like she never heard
the word cholesterol. Sunday brunch
became a terror to the delicate,
clogging the metabolism so
that afterwards, for days, my colon was
inflamed. Alfred was a bigger man,
however, and would have busted through the finicky
adjustments I required on Velma’s noxious
paradise: her mustang green grape
pie inside a milken crust was all
I’d touch, plus chicken, plus grits and pig’s feet. It
was clear to me, or should have been, the way
the flight of our desire was not between
our pleasures and their remedies, but
from hope to hope. I’ve been a slow learner.
One of Elam’s hopes was sighting whales
when he was on his polar expedition,
but it failed in its anticipated
greatness. One of ours turned out to be
that Velma journey to the Holy Lands
with Mrs. Usdan. Even I applauded
that. Like Solomon, let her be rich
in points of view, great in diction–haimisha,
a beauty if I’ve ever seen one, her hair
like a flock of goats.

                                  But she only
got as far as Nova Scotia where
she haunted fishing villages, and at
a minimum was drenched in all the rain.
She never did recuperate. When people
speak of it, they have to deal with Velma’s
losses, which are real. Once the brains
went out of Alfred, she never could recoup
the difference, never could recover,
never marry any of her ancient
suitors, who came replete with condominiums,
two physicians each who could not heal,
and simply chests of medicines.

                                                      And yet,
and by degrees, she stopped apologizing
for vitality. Several years
enwheeled around before I heard the joggers
trot aerobically across the lawns
as Velma roused the street at 6 a.m.
the stereo, to which she pirouetted
in her self-expression, deceived herself
in waltzing joyously at doctor’s orders:
to improve her heart, increase her circulation,
Dr. Rosen effectively prescribed
the studio at Fred Astaire’s Emporium
of Dancing, where Velma celebrated for
a fee the measured steps of tangos, danced
the sacred rumba, and participated
in the group emotions of a set of friends,
who, eventually, would take or leave
her. Each of us must love a special form
of violence. Velma found that dancing
was a multiplicity of social
fun, and soon discovered further that
the end of competition was in winning.
She has a cabinet packed in loving cups
she garnered at the national cotillions
held for ballroom dancers. I was at
the one in Memphis, watching Velma come
in second best because she rushed her entrance,
having gotten caught in traffic. Having
thought of strong language, and indicating
the dang weather, she nosed her Dodge through acid
rain that strangulated the mid-South,
not to mention Memphis, where it washed
the bridges out, polluted aquifers,
and mildewed everything that didn’t move:
closets full of linen, expensive winter
furs, shag carpets. Aquatic plants
were rooting in the living rooms, suspended
from the draperies, and catfish centralized
in kitchens, gluing luminescent eggs
in clutches to the bottom rungs of chairs.
It was one of our most famous hurricanes
for damage, calling forth the nation’s soldiers,
who resurrected barges sunk by the
deluge and scattered through suburbia–
bodies in the flower beds, and pools
of oil that oozed into the ritzy bedrooms,
where they emanated a prehistoric
stench. Velma scraped the killer mushrooms
from her walls before she dressed, and floated
to the Peabody Hotel, arriving
as the concierge conveyed the celebrated
ducks out of the lobby pond and fountain,
and in single file escorted them
through coteries of dazzling blondes in diamonds,
veered around bohemians, and cliques
of movie critics, then negotiated
plutocrats puffing on cigars
before he finally commandeered the elevator
to the basement, where they roost. Velma
paid them no attention as she trotted
every bit like Ginger Rogers to
the ballroom. It’s the end of speeches, the contest
will begin. Hurry. On the podium,
the maestro waved, and instruments combusted,
honest men huffed on saxophones
and trumpeters cut loose, but the truly
hyperbolic notes ballooned above
the tubas, while the treble violins
were sawing at their scores, the cellists waiting
for an entrance into music that
compelled the dancers to commence their risky
flapping, their whirling on the floor like Turkish
houris. They appeared and disappeared
as the ephemerae they are, infernal
beauties stomping toward the asymptotes
to strut in front of judges, each of whom
was buttoned in a tux, and stunned by the
insomnia of love. Velma hoofed
it with her gigolo–and it wasn’t
anybody’s business if she did–
and everywhere the elderly women with rubious
cheeks exuded their enthusiasm–
I said, were enthusiastic as
they sashayed, inspired by venery and sweet
cooperation. No one’s heart is ever
broken, though I find unspeakably
I have the urge to break them. I’m not the man
I was. And though there were no saxophones
and tubas, no treble violins precisely
as I saw them in the case of Velma’s
grief, still I wouldn’t either want
to say it didn’t happen just this way,
nor claim that, even if you wanted to,
you couldn’t see what looked like frolic in
the ballroom, or detect the signs of transport
in the many detours of exaggerated
waltzes–played by friends of mine beyond
all reason, and on toy horns and winds
in which suspend the deaths of Velma, me
and them

In The Wild


Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vital Signs


     In a memorable volume of Parnassus, Annie Dillard writes about contemporary poetry that “it is the native tongue of nobody. As a language it is useless for important messages. It is arcane and luxurious. It amounts to a secret code. Only the people who speak it think it can save the world.” Part of her observation–the incomprehensibility of poetry– is by now a commonplace among critics and readers alike. But I’m interested in the discrepancy she indicates between this obscuring secrecy and the social power that poetry is expected to wield. There is a remarkable disparity between the modest aims of individual lyric poems–they capture the ineffable, the momentary illumination, the fragile beauty–and the grandiose ambitions of poetry and poets in general. Shelley claimed that poets were “the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life.” Whitman maintained he was the voice of the people (who preferred Longfellow), and Pound was nearly shot for elevating poetry and the arts over the economic interests he thought were at the root of war and of the universal dissolution of culture. Of course, he was broadcasting his opinions over the Italian radio at the time. If he had been anything other than a poet, which is to say if his prosecutors had taken either him or his ideas seriously, he would certainly have been executed as an example to the nation. Instead, they locked him up in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital–the “bug house,” as he called it. So much for power. Continue reading “Vital Signs”

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.


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.