Sunday, August 31, 2008

How 'bout a Little Something, You Know, For the Effort?

Whenever I have an attack of gout I am cranky a day or-two before and then depressed and have headaches afterwards. I am just coming out of the latter phase.

But my ankle feels much better, thank you.

One good thing, though. Elevated uric acid levels cause gout, and low uric acid levels are associated with Alzheimer's.

I won't lose my mind later in life.

And I will have total consciousness on my deathbed.

So I've got that going for me. Which is nice.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Michigan Loses

We didn't exactly smell the genius in Ann Arbor this afternoon.

Utah 25

Michigan 23

Passing Thought...

Before I check out, I want to go to "Burning Man."

People, Get Ready

Keep everyone in the path of Hurricane Gustav in your thoughts and prayers.

The word is that Gustav will soon become a Category 4 storm.

It has occurred to me more than once that I would not want to be planning the Republican National Convention this weekend.

"...Heckuva job, Brownie!"

Friday, August 29, 2008

So I Said, "Huh?"

Yes, I am astonished. I thought Michigan was a "battleground state." I expected John McCain to pick Mitt Romney as his Vice Presidential running mate. Sarah Palin won't help in Michigan, or anywhere else in the rustbelt. Her issues--as far as I know; I must admit, I know almost nothing about her--are the Second Amendment and drilling for oil in Alaska. Thanks, but we already have shot guns, deer rifles and hand guns. We are, in fact, quite heavily armed.* We also have gas stations in Michigan. Our problems are, we can't afford ammo and we can't afford gasoline. What we need and don't have are J-O-B-S. When McCain was campaigning in the Michigan primary, he basically--in fact, almost literally--said, "Tough luck, Michigan. Your jobs are gone and they aren't coming back."

That was not a popular message.**

Mitt Romney, son of former Michigan governor and one-time auto executive George Romney, at least talked about bringing J-O-B-S to Michigan.

Mitt was animated. He at least acted enthused.


*The phrase, "More bullet holes than a Michigan stop sign" is not hyperbole. Ohio State may beat us in football; they would never dare invade.

**Times are tough. This is a photo of Carlos, me and Liam, racing to see who'll get the biggest slice of welfare cheese.

Poor little Liam. He always loses.

Just in Time for the Holiday Weekend...

Thursday, August 28, 2008


From a cardio-vascular standpoint, the jelly-filled donut this morning was contra-indicated. From a psychological perspective, it was tres bon.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

First Day of Class

The syllabus is finished and I am ready to roll.

This will be fun.

I have a "wait list" of 50.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Department of Wildly Disproportionate Comparisons

6:20 A.M.:

Why is this comparison so profoundly, over the top, flat-assed... wrong?

With a fresh, wry voice, Meghan O'Rourke can make the quotidian sound strange, the same way Joseph Cornell could assemble a magical collage by pasting magazine clippings into out-of-context compositions.


6:20 P.M. :



7:20 P.M:

Okay; let's set aside the fatuousness of comparing Meghan O'Rourke to Joseph Cornell, and look at one of the two poems Mary Karr relies upon to make her little point.

Open your copies of Halflife to page 77:


Bring me to your childhood room, where
the old captains never flinched, and push me to the floor.
The arrows of the Persians flew so thick
and came so fast they blotted out the sun.
All the better, the captains said; we will fight in the shade.
A far cry from the aunt's needlepoint by the door--
Bless this home and all who visit.
Downstairs the family sleeps like a tapestry;
the soldiers stood until noon, when the clouds parted
and sun drenched the battlefield.
Tiger shadows stripe or twisted legs, and even the books
seemed to pull from the sight
of my being stitiched to your sleeping limbs,
as if beyond the arrows of leaves
they spot a sun unhorsed from its chariot,
head to your breakable head, the shapes
across the pass at first indistinct,
then stiffened into bodies, limbs, thumbs.
One hand running over the bruised ridges of the wound,
the other tugging at the stiff black thread.

I summarize the poem as follows: the boyfriend brings the girlfriend (who is the speaker of the poem) home for the weekend to meet the parents and while there, he pulls her into his bedroom on Sunday morning for sex before Ol' Dad and Mumsy are awake. While in the act and (apparently) afterwards, the speaker of the poem thinks--at considerable length--about the Battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans and assorted hangers-on delayed the Persian armies of Xerxes I and thereby saved Greece (and perhaps, all of what was to be Western civilization) from extinction. *

Do you believe that scenario? I don't. Yes, I've read Herodotus and I've read Michael Ondaatje. I also remember sneaking various girlfriends into my teenaged bedroom--a few of them quite poetic--and I don't recall anyone comparing the experience to the Battle of Thermopylae. Or, for that matter, to the Second Battle of Bull Run. Had the speaker looked at the bedroom ceiling and thought about the boyfriend's model airplane collection, or worried that, were they caught, the boyfriend's trust fund payout might have been adversely affected, I would believe this poem, but how, in any sense, is sneaking sex on the floor of the boyfriend's room while the parental units snooze downstairs metaphorically akin to a legendary, ancient battle to save Western civilization?

The metaphor--and by extension, the poem, since the metaphor is the poem (other than the fact of sex and its location, there is little else here** ), is a V-8 engine strapped with bunji cords across an orange crate experience. The central conceit is beyond grandiose, it is entirely out of scale.

No, I don't think O'Rourke is making "the quotidian sound strange" in this poem (at least, not in any sense I find admirable). I think she is way over her head in this poem and--too often--elsewhere in Halflife. I am not saying that Meghan O'Rourke is untalented; she is a poet to watch and to read. But I am willing to bet that twenty first collections were published in America last year that were better than Halflife, and surely some of them deserve a bit of the critical attention and praise that have instead been lavished on Meghan O'Rourke.


*I choose not to speculate on the "bruised ridges of the wound" or the "stiff black thread."

**On second thought, do we need more in a 20-line poem about a Sunday morning romp than Muffy, the Biffer, Herodotus, the entire Persian Army and 300 Spartans?

Reb Livingston Has Some Interesting Thoughts

Monday, August 25, 2008

Thought for the Day

Hannah and I have been talking about a short story she is working on; oddly enough, one involving a deer. And then at lunch I ran across this, which says everything I meant to say, but could not articulate:

"How lovely the simplicity with which Chekhov, deep inside his character's mind, does not say, 'He thought of the deer he had been reading about' or even 'He saw in his mind the deer he had been reading about,' but just calmly asserts that the deer 'ran past him.' "

-James Wood, How Fiction Works, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (2008), p. 61



As we head into the fall submission period, you may want to keep in mind Stacey Lynn Brown's comments at "Ten Fingers Typing."

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Poem of the Day 2


Wall-eyed, punch-drunk, pistol-whipped
by age--eight seasons plus re-runs,
blow after blow to the head--ran a tab.
His trailer, where every Friday night
hoods came busting through the door,
smells of bacon grease and cigarettes.
The files got packed away,
but were never closed. Sometimes
he looks at one and tries to guess
who was the suspect and who was the client.
He wanders through the pickleweed
and marsh dodder, trousers rolled,
torso lost in the polyester
of his coat. Malibu is a sunny place.
The waves turn gently and
sea lions call from the navigation buoys.
At night, he sleeps and does not sleep,
as morning builds slowly in the dark.
Sgt. Becker retired in '86
and sends a card at Christmas.
Rockford thinks of writing back,
but what would he say? I walk
to the pier and nap in the afternoon.
I catch sand dabs when the kelp is in
and hum snatches of my theme.
My kidneys ache. The past is a mystery
I'm still trying to solve.

He heads for the pier, buys some bait,
steadies himself against a picnic table,
dodging terns and cormorants.
When he squints, their shadows come at him,
like blackjacks and gun handles,
falling from the sky.

-Greg Rappleye

Poem of the Day


It's the story no one talks about––
how he came to love the nymph--
her tangled braids and open thighs,
the aroma of partridge, roasting
over sweetwood. Ten years
against Troy and the endless journey home.
His men consumed by monsters and the sea.
Then Calypso's island--the grapes
ambered by a noble rot,
and goats bleating on the hillside.
Day after day, the sea rises
and falls. Calypso trills her little song
and Ithaca seems more distant.
Until Homer must go to him,
meet Odysseus on the beach
and explain the narrative--
that he, as author, is a god
who must be obeyed.
It's why the plot stalls out
at the start of Book 5.
Calypso's change of heart
is Homer strumming and chanting
for time, until Odysseus
picks up his ax and walks toward the trees,
cursing the poet's blindness.

-Greg Rappleye


Shown is “Ulysses and Calypso” (1882), by Arnold Böcklin.

Friday, August 22, 2008

What Do You Need, and Why?

Mary Biddinger asks about "poem writing essentials." I have a few simple requirements:

1. Dogs and Black Coffee: I need my dogs (two black labs and a border collie) to wake me up in the morning. After I bring the dogs back in, I need a cup of black coffee as I sit down to write.

2. A Triggering Device: A poem will always begin to organize itself around a particular line, figure, or image. It may be a place, a small scene, a phrase--but something gets into my head and I can't get that something out until I begin to write. I can force myself to sit down and attend, but I cannot force the triggering device. Being at attention, of course, makes it more likely that a poem will be written.

3. A Last Line: For some reason, in a poem that works, I almost always know how the poem will end soon after I begin writing. It's the business in between that becomes problematic. If a poem fails, it is often because I did not see a way through to the end as I began writing. I don't think the necessity of knowing the ending is a good thing.

4. Good Paper: I write on long yellow legal pads (gee, what a surprise!) but print typed drafts onto 32 lb. paper. My thinking here is that good poems (one hopes that's what they are) are art objects and deserve to be on good paper. I print in 12-point Times New Roman with 18 point titles. My goal is to always have the poem print as it might appear on the page of a top flight journal.

5.Pens: For the initial drafts and for correcting printed drafts, I use only Uni-ball Gel Impact or Pilot Precise V7 pens, in red, black and blue. Yes, all three colors. Yes, this is weird.

6. A Fugue State: When a draft is "working," several hours will pass during which I have no sense of time. This doesn't always happen (some deliveries are more difficult than others) but the poems that come out of this mental state have something--a quality--that the others do not have.

7. Books: The idea for a poem often leads me in several directions. I am always looking for specifics to inform, open, and provide texture for the poem: the names of constellations, information on how birds shape their nests, the names of wild flowers, snippets of history. Most of these details--gathered from field guides and more esoteric sources--do not make it into the final draft, but they deeply inform the final version of the poem. Annie Dillard says that access to a library is necessary to write a sonnet. I believe this to be true.

8. My Computers: I have a 24" iMac desktop and a 17" MacBook Pro, along with a big HP laser printer. I consider them essential. I love to shift drafts back and forth, and the MacBook--a beast--permits me to carry the poems out into the world (see #10, below) without loss of firepower. I cannot imagine trying to create art on a Microsoft-based system.

9. Setting: I have insomnia. When I get going on a poem, I go outside and walk in loopy circles, in any weather, day or night. I need my trees to stare into and my driveway to pace. My right arm must move as I walk, counting beats to words I cannot yet fully articulate.

10. An Empty Table: At some point in the drafting process (at several times, if I get stuck) I need a big empty table. Onto that table goes the poem and whatever books or other materials I will use to solve a specific, intractable problem in the poem. When I arrive at another problem, I find another empty table, lay out the poem, and surround it with different books and objects.

11. Other People's Poetry: I have a good memory, and an eye for where a poet went in a poem and how they got back home. I often refer to the work of others when I am in a jam. I am interested in how a poet problem-solved--how she structured the poem; how she went off on a riff and how she found her way back to the melody.

12. Cigars: Forgive me, but I have surrendered every other personal vice. Anyone who'd like to send me a box or two of Bolivar Cofradia 654's, El Rey del Mundo Robusto Zavalas, or Montecristo Series C's, will receive a poem in return. I promise to give up cigars as soon as this manuscript is finished.


What do you need in order to write? Why do you need it?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

James Wood on Fiction

Despite the somewhat snarky comments of Walter Kirn in last Sunday's New York Times Book Review,* I am looking forward to reading How Fiction Works by James Wood (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008). Not half so clever as Kirn, I am perfectly willing to be educated. Perhaps Wood can supply six or eight good ideas to carry into my next project.

But first, of course, poetry.


*"A Not So Common Reader," by Walter Kirn, New York Times Book Review, Sunday, August 15, 2008.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Weekend Update

The rooms are painted. Marcia described the results as "The Donner Party goes to Taco Bell," but we are finished.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Progress Note: Home-Improvement Weekend

Our living room is painted and the grass is mowed. We should be able to finish the dining room today without too many problems.

I rode my bicycle into town this morning for coffee, the papers, and groceries. I have the bike rigged with two side baskets and a plastic milk crate. With a little planning--which I haven't mastered yet––I could go the entire weekend without driving the car. I can also use the exercise, and enjoy riding the bike.

Am I the only one who noticed that as soon as Barack Obama started talking about a windfall profits tax on the oil companies, $4.15 per gallon gas became $3.85 gas? Last week when he went on vacation, gasoline went back up to $3.95.

Why do I think we'll all save a lot of money once Barack gets back on the campaign trail?

In other news, the Bigfoot hoaxsters owe me two good nights of sleep. My six year-old is convinced that Bigfoot is going to come strolling out of the wood lot any minute now.

More (of a literary bent--I promise) later.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


We are painting the living room and the dining room this weekend. I must also mow the grass, which (the Constant Reader knows) is my perpetual bitch.

At least when we are finished, the homestead will look less like a semi-rural crack house.


Friday, August 15, 2008

Good News

I took today off, but had to stop at work. I'm glad that I did. Had some good writing news, though I can't go public with it yet.

Today, I'm taking a poem I've been working on to my writing group. Yes, I feel like a Christian holding the proverbial four aces.

Must hold cards close to white linen vest.

L. Rust Hills, Author and Former Esquire Fiction Editor, is Dead at 83

Here's a link.

I met Hills (and his wife, the writer Joy Williams) through Dan Gerber back in the late '80's. I liked his book on writing, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, and certainly admired his taste in fiction.

Sad to see him go.

Thursday, August 14, 2008



Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Olympics Update

Despite my pledge, for those who absolutely must know:

Dionysus 6
Apollo 2

Dionysus will advance to the medal round.

Draft of a New Poem


Another Blackberry Poem

In celebration of August...


by Robert Hass

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you
and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

Senior Discount?

So last night I was at the grocery store buying the pitiful ingredients for tuna noodle casserole. As I was checking out, the clerk insisted on giving me the "Senior Citizen Discount" of 5%. Unable to persuade her that I was not, in fact, one of the elders, I took the discount.

Okay, maybe I am a gome. I mean, some hapless old guy shuffling up to the check-out, buying the ingredients for tuna noodle casserole and a $1 easy pick on the Lotto?

What else would she think?

The days are stacked against what we think we are.


NOTE: I actually LIKE tuna noodle casserole, which may be another sign.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Better, but there may be too many "hearts" in the poem. Must think about that. The episodic organization of the poem cuts against that concern--a bit.

Cut the cicadas.

Cut the salad and a heart.

Red wine to white wine, though I had a legendary preference for red.

Add a "Love."

Adjust lineation of final couplet.


8/13/08: Wine back to "red."


The Poem, Redux & Un-Poofed; Re-Poofed


Sunday, August 10, 2008

Vegetarians, Beware!

It is a very September-like Sunday afternoon: partly cloudy, breezy, cool. I have three racks of ribs on the grill that should take most of the day to cook.

There wasn't much in the paper today. Once again, The New York Times has reviewed a book--two, actually*--by a poet (Juan Felipe Herrera) I've never heard of. In this instance, however, I am willing to agree --I just don't know enough about what is going on. After reading the review, I am eager to become familiar with Herrera's work. The fact that Stephen Burt doesn't quite know what to make of the poet is recommendation enough.

Having nothing better to do today than tend the ribs, scribble a bit, and use the big hemlock as the "still point of the turning world," I think I will make this post a running commentary.

Dinner will be about 6, if you are feeling carnivorous. If not, we also have corn on the cob, salad, and pecan pie.

More later.


3:52: I had to put a little orange juice on the ribs to keep them moist. Otherwise, all is well.


4:12: Were there a contest for the (consistently) worst Sunday book section** in a metropolitan American newspaper, I would pronounce it a tie between The Detroit Free Press and The Grand Rapids Press.

No wonder newspapers are going out of business.


4:36: The ribs will be finished a bit more quickly than I anticipated. I am putting the secret sauce on now.


See the results, above.


*" 'Punk Half Panther' : For Juan Felipe Herrera, poetry is all about breaking down barriers," The New York Times Book Review, August 10, 2008, p. 20.


**I don't want to be unfair to the word "section." In neither case (Detroit Free Press or GR Press) is the book section a "section." They are both half-to-three-quarter pages of crap.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Declaration of an Olympics-Free Zone

Although I follow a few teams and have a general interest in sports, I am not a big fan of the Olympics. In fact, I haven't actually watched the games (winter or summer) since Munich in 1972. There are any number of reasons for this––the horrible events of that year, and the continuing politicization of the Games among them. I never much cared whether we or the dreaded Rooskies won the most medals; I could care less how we do against the now-dreaded Chinese. I also object to the "secular religiosity" of the Olympics and to their overt reliance upon meaningless symbols and empty spectacle.

Worse, in this country at least, is the way the Olympics are broadcast; all those weird "human interest" pieces about Little Tommy's dead gerbil and how the gerbil's brave but losing fight against the urge to chew its own itty bitty legs inspired Tommy to become the captain of the American curling team.


So, for the duration, I am declaring S@4A.M. an "Olympics-Free Zone" for all who feel as oppressed as I do by the omnipresent, pointless spectacle of the 2008 Summer Games.

There was an article in today's New York Times which suggests that the Chinese literati are also sitting this one out. You can read it here.


This is a re-draft of an earlier poem. Even though I had my doubts about the earlier version--and continue to have doubts--I am still working on it.


Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Aimless Draft

I have no idea where this is going, aside from the trash pile.


Upon reflection, I couldn't stand to look at it.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

POEM-After Frank O'Hara

Poem (Brett Favre Leaves Camp!)

Brett Favre Leaves Camp!
I was trotting along in Green Bay
and suddenly it started raining
and blowing and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really raining and
blowing and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the reporters
were acting exactly like the fans
and suddenly I heard ESPN Radio say
there is no snow in Miami
there is no rain in Phoenix
I have been to lots of Super Bowl parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually LEFT CAMP!
oh Brett Favre we don't love you
so much anymore. Go home.


UPDATE: As of August 7, 2008, Brett Favre is a member of the New York Jets. Since "Broadway Joe" is already taken as a nickname, and since the Jets actually play their home games in East Rutherford, New Jersey, I suggest we call His Greatness, "Bayonne Brett."

A Passing Thought

I am not sure that I have enemies, but there are any number of people whom I either frustrate or, frankly, baffle. It might be interesting to get all of them together in a room before I die and ask, "Any questions?"

Monday, August 04, 2008

Because I Love This Poem

And because it is that time, and because.

By Sylvia Plath

Nobody in the lane, and nothing, nothing but blackberries,
Blackberries on either side, though on the right mainly,
A blackberry alley, going down in hooks, and a sea
Somewhere at the end of it, heaving. Blackberries
Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes
Ebon in the hedges, fat
With blue-red juices. These they squander on my fingers.
I had not asked for such a blood sisterhood; they must love me.
They accommodate themselves to my milkbottle, flattening their sides.

Overhead go the choughs in black, cacophonous flocks—
Bits of burnt paper wheeling in a blown sky.
Theirs is the only voice, protesting, protesting.
I do not think the sea will appear at all.
The high, green meadows are glowing, as if lit from within.
I come to one bush of berries so ripe it is a bush of flies,
Hanging their bluegreen bellies and their wing panes in a Chinese screen.
The honey-feast of the berries has stunned them; they believe in heaven.
One more hook, and the berries and bushes end.

The only thing to come now is the sea.
From between two hills a sudden wind funnels at me,
Slapping its phantom laundry in my face.
These hills are too green and sweet to have tasted salt.
I follow the sheep path between them. A last hook brings me
To the hills’ northern face, and the face is orange rock
That looks out on nothing, nothing but a great space
Of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths
Beating and beating at an intractable metal.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Unwritten Poetry Rules

Mary Biddinger asks whether we have any "unwritten" poetry rules we either always adhere to or think very carefully about before transgressing. Here are a few thoughts about my own work:

1. I find overt rhyme annoying, and think that it seldom works in contemporary poetry. Too often, linguistic nuances are lost and rhymes are strained; reliant from inapt similes to which a complete response is "No, it's not like that at all" (e.g., the work of Joshua Mehigan and Adam Kirsch). But the more I work on a poem, the more I am likely to find slant rhymes, near rhymes and the like in my own poems. This is never intentional.

2. I rarely write in strict forms, but admire many of the conventions of forms, and use them in my work. For example, if I write a twelve-line poem or an eighteen-line poem, I will almost always attempt to expand or contract that poem into a fourteen-line proto-sonnet. I will also attempt to "turn" the poem at line 8. The poem is almost always better when I push it against these (and similar) formal constraints.

3. I am a poet of place, and can write knowledgeably about very few places--the upper Midwest, certain rivers, parts of Florida, the kitchen, my wood lot, abandoned factories, marginal fields, the landscape of weather, the interiors of a few big-city museums.

4. I am wary of portraying myself as the "hero" or the "victim" in my poetry. I am neither. I am most often a fool. A poet who chooses to disclose the self has an obligation (at least when writing about an adult life) to implicate the self.

5. I am more naturally a narrative-lyric poet than a true lyric poet. My reader will almost always get a story from me--sometimes more than one.

6. I like nouns and details--the names of animals, birds, trees, flowers, rock formations, soil types, etc. I spend a lot of time researching my work. Many of the details I work out do not make it into the final draft, but the poem is (or to me, seems) far more satisfying, confident and informed by my research. With that said, I often change--or make up--facts if doing so is in service to the poem.

7. I believe in the flush-left margin. I love the look of those slab-like poems that Philip Levine writes. I revise away from that structure in my own work (if at all) only toward the end of the drafting process, and with reluctance.

8. I revise from complexity into mono-syllables. My poetic vocabulary is more anglo-saxon than latinate.

9. My poems are too often linear and I work hard to make them elliptical.

10. I would rather revise than write a first draft, and I can always tell whether a first draft can be revised into a real poem. I rarely write a good poem without already knowing the end of the poem. I do not think this is necessarily a good thing.

And you?

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Girls of Treeshade Primary School

Here's a photograph Hannah took in Africa.

I think this is in Uganda.

More later!

Rebound Poem

When I spend a couple of weeks working intently on a longer piece, I often get what I call a "rebound poem," a short, good lyric that comes all at once. I am grateful for them.

Yes, I have one now.

I took the day off, but duty (in the form of mowing the over-long grass) is calling.