Sunday, June 28, 2009


Even his fingerprints vanished. His skin smoothed like river stone; his grip on the world diminished. He was sliding someplace frictionless.


Lovers had become landscape--the woman he knew that ancient summer was lost in a hedgerow, flowering, leaving, framing what could be seen.


What he touched penetrated skin and clung, but he did not want to release the pen, sofa, wallet: they defined him as the boundaries faded.


The walls of the house have thickened, the rooms grown smaller; the foyer is just the size of a mailbox, and he gropes there for his bills.


Part of him was lost,two fingers from the right hand. His music suffered. When he played the piano, there was a shadow in the treble, a deadness.


Human emotion reduced him; every passion wore off a layer of skin, every rage took a subsection of organ. Eroded, he walked through walls.


He now remembers the path forgotten all his life: it leads to a ruined door through which everything vanishes, even the key that opens it.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


Clear night sky scribbled to the margin with stars--that's the problem: everything is written, no room even for a black hole. And God reads.


A bountiful harvest season, everything ripening at the decisive moment, whole galaxies tipped like so many apples beyond the event horizon.


We lifted the brass tube: moons came into being, planetary rings, such distances that our bodies faded to shadows in the obliterating lens.


Tiny figure against the expanse of firmament, seen through the magnifying gaze of something godlike with a cross-hair and an ounce of lead.


Safe in the great dome, at the end of the tube, she watched her lover at a great distance enter the black hole, and the universe imploding.


Two lenses moved randomly in her mind until they fell into the right relation. She saw him clearly then, and cursed the perfection of focus.


Light gathers in the perfect lens. Its restlessness is such that it cannot remain there, even in perfection: it moves to clarify or destroy.


Over great distance, the mechanism flattens what it reveals: dark matter, an arc of stars, under an arch of oak limbs the lovers, made one.

Monday, June 8, 2009


Silence in the house, people gone out, cats sleeping, leafblowers put away, the half life of the crawl space ticking down toward zero.


A wind in the desolation of the closet, incremental movement like the shifting of tectonic plates, while in the wall a mouse skull settles.


In a bathroom drawer there are artifacts: molecules of talcum, dried smear of cat's blood, a lingering odor of unidentifiable ointment.


After the journey, months of wandering through landscapes of bone and salt, we came at last to prairie, a rotting expanse of Persian carpet.


The cleaning finally ended. If there were beds, they would never be made; dishes would stay stained in eternity, and gravity be abolished.


A crack at the center, where even the intelligence of cockroaches was tested: rain eroded the foundation and a simple domesticity entered.


That characteristic turbulence, elemental disturbance in the aether, the tureen vibrating on the sideboard invisibly in the vacant hallway.


Soon, but not yet, the incremental creaking of hinges, the end of molecular bonding, release of form: shapelessness in the door frame, soon.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The "Education" of This Poet (5): Impermanent Earth

Mark Bryan - The Tornado Man
Mark Bryan - The Tornado Man

For the past few days, at the invitation of the editors of the online journal Linebreak, I've been a guest blogger; the work I did for that very welcome gig was inevitably connected with writing I've been doing for Mindbook for the past several months. Therefore, with the permission of Linebreak,I'm reproducing those entries. Be sure to visit Linebreak to see the excellent work they're publishing.

Dirt mattered. It made a difference that my family owned land, and that it was good fertile land; it supported crops, it supported grassland for cattle, it supported trees of many kinds. It supported everything that we were about. When I was small, I realized that the land supported our house, held it up from—what? What would happen to the house if the soil beneath it suddenly melted away? What was underneath it?

In the little Methodist church we went to every Sunday, I heard the word firmament, I learned the importance of a good foundation: You have built your house upon the sand. I could imagine the consequences: one good rain and the sand would wash away; the house would fall down, an idea inevitably invoking images of wolves and pigs. Build your house upon a rock. And build it of brick, lest there be a storm of wolf breath.

I had dreams, when I was a small boy, of tornadoes. They came near us sometimes in reality, and those black storm-cones invaded my sleep. Sometimes our old farmhouse, which usually felt so safe and permanent to me, seemed built of straw. When the oak trees in our yard were storm-whipped, and hail pounded the windows, I could imagine it all coming unstuck, blowing in a cloud of dust (including all my toys and the family dog) into the unknown horizon. The Wizard of Oz was an ordeal for me the first time I saw it (on our old black and white television on which the famous transformation into color never happened); I identified too strongly with the people in Kansas, who, for all their flatness, were like us. We, too, were flat characters compared with witches, wizards, and munchkins; we were simple and stupid, we trusted the walls of our house, we presented our two-dimensional sail-like surfaces to any fierce wind.

In that same church, I heard of the Apocalypse, the End of Time. How would it happen? By fire, some said, since there was a promise it would not be by flood. The world had already been virtually erased once that way. We children loved the story of Noah’s Ark. Why? It was a horrifying tale, but the Bible’s account did not dwell on so many deaths. While the animals made their way up Noah’s ramp, I imagined what it would be like to be one of those not chosen, which was just about everyone. If I had been alive then, doubtless I would have been left to drown. 40 days of rain and the water rising: your mother, your father, your brothers and sisters and neighbors one by one going down. At the End of Time it would happen again some other way, we were told. Worlds could be destroyed again and again. Everything could be swept away. And yet, it seemed, there was always something else.

My father was a gardener. The distinction between a farmer and a gardener is one of degree, not kind, and yet there is a distinction. The gardener has his eye out for every plant, and worries differently about the quality of his soil. The farmer, generally, applies chemistry en masse; the gardener scavenges manure, crafts his tilth, turns over individual leaves looking for blight and pests. My father lived in both those roles, and they often contradicted one another in his thinking about crops and land, but he was untroubled by such considerations, understanding that he had different jobs and those jobs had distinct parameters.

Once, while he was breaking up land for a new vegetable annex, my father’s plow turned up several objects that first appeared to be round white stones, but on closer inspection proved to be fossils of seashells. He brought them home and lined them up on the porch.

“Where did they come from?” I said.

“Out of the ground.”

“But before that. How’d they get into our dirt?”

“From when this was an ocean.”

“This was an ocean?”

“Yes; everything here was under water long ago.”

“Was that Noah’s flood?”

My father, no great churchgoer, paused. “No,” he said. “I don’t think so.”

So the water had come more than once. The promise meant nothing. I was five years old; I felt the earth I was standing on turn to water, felt everything familiar, everything I loved, everything I was, flow away. The limestone fossils lay quietly on the porch, witness to the fact that something else, something utterly different, had been in this place once. If I squint through the warped lens of my memory, they look like a row of skulls: memento mori, not for me or for any human individual, but for all worlds destroyed in any past and for all future worlds and their destruction.

The "Education" of This Poet (4): Brain Wave and the End of Science Fiction


For the past few days, at the invitation of the editors of the online journal Linebreak, I've been a guest blogger; the work I did for that very welcome gig was inevitably connected with writing I've been doing for Mindbook for the past several months. Therefore, with the permission of Linebreak, I'm reproducing those entries. Be sure to visit Linebreak to see the excellent work they're publishing.

Mr. G. handed out an assignment: something mimeographed. The odor of fresh mimeograph ink is still a tangible presence in my memory, indelible. The assignment had that reek, part chemical and part sexual. But we were juniors in high school; everything was sexual.

In a school full of abysmally bad teachers, Mr. G. stood out. It was not that he was a better teacher than any of the others; he wasn’t. He was lazy and often ill-informed. But he was younger than the others. He had just turned 30 a couple of months before, and that had been a shocking day; it was 1966 and our trust, rumor had it, was not to extend to anyone over 30 years of age. Not trust Mr. G.? Not trust him to do what? The truth is that, having turned 30, Mr. G. suddenly seemed unspeakably ancient, like all his colleagues. Before that, he had been ours somehow; now he was theirs.

What Mr. G. had that the others lacked was an element of hipness. He was blandly handsome, slightly moon-faced but clear-eyed, with a sort of transparency about him: very white skin, blond hair kept close-clipped but not buzz cut like a coach’s. He cultivated a blasé irony that eleventh graders recognized and appreciated. He wore his own mediocrity lightly and forgave mediocrity in others, but he abhorred outright stupidity and was merciless in hostile pursuit of it. He was, in short, a sort of meta-highschooler himself, a big man on a small campus who has outlived his time.

About the high school I attended, I want here to say as little as possible. It was wretched in and of itself, and its wretchedness compound by the fact that during the eon I attended it (1964-1968) it was completely and adamantly segregated—was, in effect, locked down where African Americans were concerned. In Mississippi, there was a war going on. Nobody said so, but that is the truth. Our school was a citadel in the conflict; we had our battlements and our cannonade. Enormous mental and spiritual energy that might otherwise have been expended on our education went to the war effort. Enormous resources also went to the maintenance of two “separate but equal” school systems in a community that could scarcely support one. It is not surprising that the school was, as I have said, abysmally bad. For me, though, in ways I would spend years coming to comprehend, it was a disaster.

The science fiction writer Poul Anderson wrote a novel called Brain Wave, which I somehow encountered in the tenth grade, in the course of living through a serious obsession with science fiction novels that was thoroughly and nakedly escapist. The thesis of Brain Wave (I recently re-read the novel out of curiosity, and it holds up reasonably well) is that millennia ago the earth drifted into a region of space where a huge force field was located. The force field was fundamentally harmless, but it turned out to affect all earthly intelligence. As life evolved, intelligence was damped down by the action of the force field: every brain was 1/3 as intelligent as it might have been otherwise. None of this caused any noticeable effect on the planet, of course, as every intelligence was equally reduced, and no mind had experienced any other condition. But then one night in the early 1960s the planet finally exited the force field, and in seconds the intelligence of every remotely thinking entity on Earth—human, animal, bird, fish, insect—was tripled.

The majority of the novel is given over to the consequences of this radical alteration in mentality. Anderson cleverly and densely imagines how the world changes for people as well as, oh, say, pigs (pigs become very smart and very dangerous). Looking back on my teenaged self, I realize that what I was obsessed by (I probably read this little book half a dozen times) was the unconscious sadness of things before the change. I identified with the characters whose intelligences had a governor on. The world inside the force field: that was my world; indeed, that was the school I attended. Later on, through my 20s, I would live the other part of the book, the lifting of the inhibitor. But that was in the future, and I had no way of knowing that liberation would ever arrive.

Science fiction was a good secret of mine in those years; some of the books I read in order to feel I was someone else in another universe or dimension actually addressed my condition, as Anderson’s did; others exercised, or exorcised, my stultified and stunted intelligence, like much of Asimov. But, truth to tell, sci fi was a dead end for me. Much as I enjoyed a certain implicit and possibly unintended satire in the depiction of the dampened souls inBrain Wave, the fact is my problem was not stupidity but depression. The force field that enveloped me from the time I was 11 until I was 22 or so—half a 22-year-old’s lifetime—was a situational depression produced by the place and time in which I was living. The only salvation for me was the one I finally chose for myself—removing myself physically and mentally from the source of the problem. But when I was in the eleventh grade, that removal was still nearly a decade in the future, and I could not even begin to imagine it. For me, science fiction was self-medication, the way alcohol may be for depressed adults. It was insufficient, but it helped me get by from day to day.

Mr. G. was hip to sci fi; he read it himself (he also had, I learned years later, a rather serious drinking problem). It was from him that I first heard the fatal title Lord of the Rings—Mr. G. was writing a master’s thesis on it. In retrospect, that fact alone reveals the quality and range of his mind, but for me at that time the thought of such work was astonishing. On Mr. G’s recommendation I ordered Tolkien from the only real bookstore in the area, a tiny establishment in the next town 30 miles up the highway; my order was weeks being filled. It’s hard to imagine, now, a universe before Borders and the internet, when there were still arcane tomes (not to mention musical recordings) one virtually had to scour the earth to locate and obtain. The town I lived in was a mental black hole, the epicenter of Anderson’s force field. I gathered my little trove of secrets and built a life raft of them.


Mr. G. faced the class. It was 11:45 on a Friday, almost the end of the period, late in the school year. The high school principal had just completed 10 minutes of “announcements” on the school’s new intercom system, a device that allowed Mr. K., the principal, not only to speak his mind to all of us at will, but at the flip of a switch to listen in to any classroom any time he chose. Mr. K. had at his disposal a calendar of famous events in history, and every day we would be treated to at least one historic event that had occurred on the date at which we were cursed to have arrived. “Chirren,” he would intone in his deep rural southern drawl, an accent so intense that even though all of us had similar accents, Mr. K.’s was unusual, “today is the birthday of Sir Thomas More. Now, as you know, chirren, Sir Thomas More was a great American statesman. . . .”

Mr. G.’s eyes rolled back in his head as if he were having an epileptic seizure. He shook himself all over like a dog shaking water off its back. We all laughed and the intercom finally went silent.

Chirren,” said Mr. G. in a crass and accurate imitation of the principal, “I have something for you.” He began passing out the mimeographed material; the incense of mimeo ink suffused the room.

“I’m giving you this to read,” he said as he passed the thin stapled packet around, “because I trust you, OK? But you have to promise me something.” He paused and gave us a melodramatic Steve McQueen stare. “You have to promise not to tell anyone—anyone—by which I mean your parents, your minister, or your other teachers—that I gave you this. If you can’t promise me that, give the material back to me immediately.” He waited; nobody moved. “Good. I take your silence as acceptance of my terms. You must not tell, because if you do—“ another pause, this one with a more serious tone—“if you do, I will get in seriously deep doo-doo. OK? Seriously. So read this, but keep it to yourself. Do not, repeat, do not let it fall into enemy hands! Return with it tomorrow; I will take it up again; if you do not return it tomorrow, I will give you an F not only in this class but for your entire miserable life! Do I make myself clear, peons? Return it, and we will discuss it tomorrow. You have 24 hours to live with this secret document. Class dismissed!”

Lunch time. We began to gather our notebooks.

“Oh, wait!” Mr. G. shouted, as he had to in order to make himself heard above the din. “Wait wait wait. One other thing you need to know: the wordnada—n-a-d-a—is a Spanish word. It means nothing. By which I do not mean it means nothing. I mean it is the Spanish word for nothing. Now begone with you, you orcs!”


I do not know how the others in the class felt; I never discussed it with any of them. I, however, was riveted, so much so that I skipped lunch (not so unusual for me, since eating lunch in our school cafeteria was an ordeal scarcely to be contemplated). I went as quickly as I could to my usual refuge: the band hall, a place that, by virtue of my so-called musicianship, was virtually my personal fiefdom. There were a few other students there; a fierce game of ping-pong was in progress and several students were watching. (A ping-pong table in the band hall, you ask? Yes: there was a ping-pong table in our band hall. But that is another story, chirren.) I circumvented them, entered an empty practice room, and took out my mimeographed sheets.

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

Ernest Hemingway

It was very late and everyone had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. The two waiters inside the cafe knew that the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good client they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave without paying, so they kept watch on him.

"Last week he tried to commit suicide," one waiter said.


"He was in despair."

"What about?"


"How do you know it was nothing?"

"He has plenty of money."

Feeling a little drunk on mimeograph ink, I read these words. What had I expected? What could be so dangerous that Mr. G. swore us all to secrecy? This? I read on, all the way through the 3 sheets; it took hardly any time at all.

Turning off the electric light he continued the conversation with himself. It was the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music. Nor can you stand before a bar with dignity although that is all that is provided for these hours. What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread, It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine.

The next day, in Mr. G.’s class, there was a discussion. Of that, I have absolutely no shred of a memory. Nothing was said there that made a difference to me, to my understanding (or lack thereof) of Hemingway’s great story. What I remember was my naked encounter with the forbidden document, the sheer strangeness of it. I did not have the equipment to understand it. I had never stood before a bar—a bar of any kind—with dignity or without. But there was a tone here that spoke to me, there was a black hole at the heart of the story that I knew and that terrified me, familiar though it may be: “It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too . . . Some lived in it and never felt it, but he knew it was all nada. . . .” This was it. This was the problem, the force field, the heart of darkness. Alien though it was, this was my life.

I gave back Mr. G.’s copy of the story at the end of class, like everyone else. If anyone else in the class felt anything unusual had happened, they didn’t show it. But on my way out of the room, I paused by Mr. G.’s desk.

“Mr. G.,” I said, and stopped.

Mr. G. assumed his faux priesthood. “Yes, my son.”

“This prayer to nothing. . . .”


“What does it mean?”

He signed and dropped his act for a moment. “I can’t tell you that,” he said.

I paused at that. It seemed like a teacher trick, like telling someone if you can't spell it go look it up. "You want me to figure it out on my own?"

He laughed. “No,” he said. “I can’t tell you because I don’t know.”

I didn’t know what to say. If he didn’t know what the story meant, why had he given it to us?

He paused a moment, looking bemused. Then he snapped his fingers and nodded. “Let me give you something else,” he said. “But you have to promise to be careful with it.”

“Why,” I said, taking on some of his irony. “Because it’ll get you into trouble?”

“No,” he said, “because it’s a library book, and if you lose it you’ll have to pay for it.”

Out of his briefcase he brought a slender book. “You won’t understand this either,” he said, “any more than I do. But read it anyway.”

I picked it up and looked at the spine.

Hamlet?" I said.

The "Education" of This Poet (3): The Hive


For the past few days, at the invitation of the editors of the online journal Linebreak, I've been a guest blogger; the work I did for that very welcome gig was inevitably connected with writing I've been doing for Mindbook for the past several months. Therefore, with the permission of Linebreak,I'm reproducing those entries. Be sure to visit Linebreak to see the excellent work they're publishing.

They put the big gloves on my hands. They covered my head with the veil. They lit the necessary incense, and the aura of pine surrounded me.

Everything we needed was abandoned there, like theater props left backstage after the play’s run ends. It was as though the Rapture had come, and the inhabitants of a world had suddenly disappeared, leaving behind not less than everything:

I saw an arbour with a drooping roof
Of trellis vines, and bells, and larger blooms,
Like floral censers swinging light in air;
Before its wreathed doorway, on a mound
Of moss, was spread a feast of summer fruits,
Which, nearer seen, seem'd refuse of a meal
By angel tasted or our Mother Eve;
For empty shells were scattered on the grass,
And grape stalks but half bare, and remnants more,
Sweet smelling, whose pure kinds I could not know.
Still was more plenty than the fabled horn
Thrice emptied could pour forth, at banqueting
For Proserpine return'd to her own fields,
Where the white heifers low.

Years later, when I read these lines from Keats’s “The Fall of Hyperion,” the scene was familiar to me, curiously homelike for all its alien imagery and antiquated diction.

But that was in the future. Now, my brother and my cousin were arraying me for the quest they had conceived for me. We were in an old shed on the family farm; it was full of the smell of dust and rotted wood, and another, overpoweringly sweet smell which was not new to me but which I could not identify; shortly it would be forever etched in my olfactory brain: the perfume of beeswax.“He’s ready,” my cousin said to my brother, and then to me, “Out.”

We left the dark shed and entered a perfect day in early June, late morning, sunlight filtered by the leaves of ancient oaks. The armor I was wearing smelled strange to me: mildew and dust and beeswax mixed. The canvas of the bee veil was stiff with disuse; I was wearing blinders. My cousin, from behind me, steered me by the shoulders.

“Which one?” my brother said.

“It don’t matter,” said my cousin. “This one here: the first one.”

The old beehives stood abandoned in the grove, like neglected tenements, a failed housing project in an inner city that Homer would have understood. Some of the hives were empty. Some had abandoned boxes, whole floors of the high-rise gone dark. Others were fully occupied, almost as if they had been tended for the six or seven years that had passed since anyone had paid attention to them. It was toward one of these that my cousin steered me.

“That’s the one right there,” he said, suddenly at some distance behind me. “Do it.”

The hive in question was illuminated by a single shaft of sunlight that slipped in through the canopy of leaves high above me (a perfect cinematic set-up, O Muse of Memory). Its old white paint seemed suddenly blinding. I stood before it utterly strange to myself, like an image of a diver from my Classics Comics version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The decrepit smoker in my hand leaked a little pine-fog. “Pump the smoker,” my brother said. He seemed to be a thousand miles away.

This adventure was my cousin’s idea. He was, stated bluntly, a bully, and I was the primary target of his aggression, being young enough for him to dominate but old enough to be a challenge, unlike his own younger siblings. My brother was not a bully, but he was the B Male in this particular pack; he did not generally oppose my cousin’s will. Furthermore, the Teutonic genes in him, which were leading him toward a career as an engineer even as they were nudging me to become a poet, made him interested in the inner workings of things. Just what was inside a beehive? How did the whole deal work?

It had begun as a dare, which I took because I was defiant, obstinate, and stupid in the face of a challenge, especially from a bully. But as I stood there at the bottom of the grove’s ocean of shadow and light, all of that dropped away. The hive hummed, a mystery. It was my job to take off the lid.

Beyond that, there was really no goal. We knew there was honey in the hive, but none of us had even the glimmering of a clue how to extract it. There were also bees in the hive, and all of us knew what that meant. “You’ll be OK,” my brother said. “These are the things beekeepers use to keep the bees from stinging them. And when you smoke the hive they’ll all go to sleep anyway.”

That was the dare: just take the lid off a three-foot-tall skyscraper full of bees. It was a dare and not a wager; if I did this thing, I gained nothing except the doing. Obstinate and stupid: at least I could have wagered a month’s free passage from bullying. But it never crossed my mind. Did anything cross my mind, ever, in those years? I was seven years old; my brother and my cousin were eleven. What were we even doing in the world? Why did we exist?

I pumped the bellows of the smoker; the smoldering pine straw inside flared and released a dense aromatic fog.

The day receded. I stepped across a boundary between worlds.

When the smoke entered the hive, its pitch and volume changed, but it did not fall silent. I pumped for what seemed hours, until a voice from outside the cloud commanded me: Enough. Open the hive.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear the water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

Years later I found my way to Yeats. There was much in poetry that I was slow to understand when I first encountered it, but this poem of Yeats’s, like so much in Keats, revealed itself immediately. He spoke not so much of a life I knew as of one that I had glimpsed between the lines of the clumsy poem that was the life I was trying to live. There was a power in certain poems that I intuited long before I grasped its sources; it was the golden lightning not of the gods but of the world, the force that lived, for instance, in the core of a beehive. It could hurt you; it could even kill you. But if you were lucky, if you stood still enough, if you wore the veil, it was a gnosis, a pure illumination.

I did not know that the lid of the hive would be sealed shut from within by beeswax. I expected it to open like an unlocked treasure chest, or a Christmas present. When I pulled on the edge it resisted; I tugged and the rotten wood gave way; the whole hive began to disintegrate. As it fell apart, the lid skewed off in my hands.

They revealed themselves in the hundreds, clustered on their comb. I had not known there would be so many, or that they would be so golden there in the light of that summer morning. I had not known how the music of the hive would modulate in the light, how the swarm would undulate as I watched them through the cloud that rose from my hand. I had not known that lightning lived in the darkness, or what it meant when it came into the light.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The "Education" of This Poet (2): A Length of Hemp Rope


Nathan Simpson

For the past few days, at the invitation of the editors of the online journal Linebreak, I've been a guest blogger; the work I did for that very welcome gig was inevitably connected with writing I've been doing for Mindbook for the past several months. Therefore, with the permission of Linebreak, I'm reproducing those entries. Be sure to visit Linebreak to see the excellent work they're publishing.

Begin with a human figure—a silhouette of a human figure, for the moment, backlit by sunset—a human figure walking down a road. The road is a dirt road, hard-packed reddish-beige earth. Down its center a pair of bare ruts run, where passing cars and trucks and tractors have flattened, hardened, and buffed it to a kind of ceramic sheen. The person in view, however, does not walk in the rutted center of the road, but in the gravel on its narrow shoulder. One’s first interpretation of this fact might be that he—for let us now deploy the masculine pronoun—walks as he does for safety’s sake; but any traffic in a place as remote as this would be obvious even from a great distance, and if he so chose, he could walk the center of the road without danger either to himself or to the animal he leads on a length of hemp rope. It is more likely that his position is a concession to the animal than to any merely human consideration. The old brown mule follows the man at a distance of about six feet, walking entirely off the road, from where it stops often to snatch a mouthful; when the mule stops, the man stops, in a sort of enforced symbiosis of which the mule most often appears the dominant component. Still, the rope is long enough that the man could, if he chose, walk the center, and let the mule still graze the shoulder. Surely it would be easier to walk along one of the ruts, flat and hard as a sidewalk, than in the gravel along the road’s edge; yet surely walking as he does is a choice—dictated perhaps by a deference that precludes his seizing the center.

Though more than fifty years have passed since the time of which I write, if you stood today in the place where I locate the lens of my memory, the scene would be remarkably similar. Both man and mule are decades dead, the road remains still unpaved and fundamentally unaltered though likely now it is in worse repair than it was then.

About the length of hemp rope, who knows?


There are questions about everything I have described here. About the road, for instance, it is worth wondering when it came to be here, and how, and especially why. It is a rural road maintained—however intermittently and poorly—by the county board of supervisors, and yet is serves, almost entirely, a single farm. The road is an ovoid loop appended to a slightly wider main road that runs several miles before terminating in a blacktop road that extends another fifteen miles to the nearest (tiny) town. The loop was a three-mile detour, so to speak, through the farm, and was used by almost no one other than those who lived there—all members of one extended family plus their employees. Is it usual for county governments to build and maintain roads for such constituencies and narrow purposes?

And the mule: how old is it? In my memory the mule is about as old, in mule years, as the man in human ones; but is that an accurate recollection or an embellishment? And, objectively, just what is the ratio of mule to human years? The mule could be a sort of litmus test of memory if it were possible, now, to retrieve any real information concerning this particular animal. What is the story of a mule’s life? Has it known the work of the plow? Can I see, through my well-placed lens, bare patches on its shoulders where years of a rubbing harness would have worn the hair away? Or is that one of memory’s appended footnotes, phrased in the subjunctive?

This particular animal, in truth, is generations dead. And what is done with a mule, on this particular farm, when it dies? Most likely it is left in the field where it falls—or if it collapses near a house, it is dragged to some more remote spot—and becomes client to the good undertaking of the earth and its assistants, the beetle and the buzzard. The pastures of this farm are littered with bones—bones of cattle, or horses, the delicate bones of cattle egrets, the once quick bones of rabbit, squirrel, fox. Bones from fresh deaths are found all together, waiting for a naturalist to wire them back together; older, dryer bones are scattered—rib here, skull there. Nobody bothers to bury animals here, not even the “noble” species. I once found, in a grove a mile behind a house, the skull of a dog with a clean bullet-hole in its skull, and understood that here lay our English pointer Daisy; she had grown old and infirm and was assisted to her end. Another day, walking a farther field, I found the body of a black Angus heifer, dead of unknown causes, swollen to half again her normal size. Approaching her from the back, I noticed armies of insects coming and going, those leaving burdened with imponderable bits of matter. I circled her at some distance and saw a gaping cavity in her belly, out of which stepped, as I stood there, one of the lords of the underworld at his leisure: a huge turkey vulture who had been entirely hidden inside her and came forth now to my view like the issue of a Caesarian birth: grand and otherworldly, as Elizabeth Bishop writes of her hierophant moose, one of the royal family of Otherness.

And the hemp rope? Long gone to dust, one might be tempted to think, thrown on some trash heap, dropped in a ditch, exposed to the action of water and light, the moral equivalent of vultures to a piece of rope. But in other circumstances—left in a barn, or even the ruin of an abandoned house—it might well endure, might still exist, unknown, unused, unrecognized, an Ariadne’s thread for memory if memory could only locate it.


But now the children are coming. From the west side of the road, invoked from pecan tree shade by the figure of the man and mule, two come; from the east side of the road, drawn from oak shade, two others, all of them running. The western two are blond, the eastern two dark-haired, and if one could trust to the evidence of narrative juxtaposition, one would conclude that the influence of pecan trees generates blondness, that of oak the opposite—a train of reasoning that does not trouble the man or the mule. The man sees them coming as he rounds the bend in the road, or more likely hears them coming—for all are shouting his name—and he stops for them.

The first child to reach him is the oldest of the four, the taller of the blond pair, a boy who is on this particular afternoon nine years old, a boy thin as bee-wire, almost painfully thin, each of his ribs clearly etched on his torso. He is not thin from any scarcity of food in his parents’ tiny house, which always smells overpoweringly of something cooking—it is from pure disposition. There is a tension in him, an energy apparent usually as some degree of anger, which propels his every step, every gesture, every expression. So driven, he reaches the man with the mule well in advance of the other three children. He stops, wordless and scowling. The others, still yards away and charging, are shouting the man’s name, but this boy stands silent, wearing nothing but a pair of dirty shorts, staring up with his clear blue eyes, his anger hovering like an aura, his very being a silent demand: an order.

And the man obeys. He stoops and scoops the boy up, his hands under the boy’s armpits; he swings him up and sets him squarely on the mule’s back. By the time the other three children arrive, this boy’s mule ride is already half over.


I wrote of the lens of memory, the lens of my memory, creating a simultaneous lapse and overlay of time. Placing the lens on its tripod of ganglia, I observe what it reveals and I record it, one might assume. It would be pretty to think so. So much is swept away in fifty years, not only from the world but from memory as well—and there is so little correspondence between what is swept away from the world on the one hand and from memory on the other—that the relationship between what I remember and anything we might call “fact” is profoundly problematic. The problem, of course, is both commonplace and insoluble, and I do not propose to solve it or even more than glancingly address it here. Better minds than mine have foundered on this issue, and I have nothing original or incisive to add to the account that has run at least from Augustine’s Confessions through Wordsworth, Freud, and Proust down to our own moment, whatever a moment may be. Memory is not my subject, but it is inevitably my medium. Just as a filmmaker cannot escape the fact that—do what he or she may to disguise it—the camera is always and forever a filmmaker’s point of view, so mine is the lens of memory. Each has its power, its virtue, its flaws, its fatal limit. The camera is relentlessly external; however much it may “desire” to penetrate a consciousness, it is by definition left outside. For memory, obviously, the situation is the opposite. Facts are no more the business of memory than they are the business of poetry. Memory, indeed, is the original poetry.

As to fact: there are certain sources that might verify or deny some aspects of the poem of the past I embody: research that could still be done, interviews that could be carried out. The “facts” I might discover thereby would in reality be nothing more than the contents of other peoples’ memories, compounding my own illusions with the illusion of corroboration or correction.

The shameful truth is that I am not interested in facts. What concerns me is the traces left in me at the remove of half a century of the world in which I then lived, a world which now—no matter how similar it may appear to a carefully framing, squinting observer seeking out the appearance of identity and just as carefully screening out difference—is completely and irrevocably vanished.

What to make of this disappearance—and not its causes but its effects—is my true subject. Czeslaw Milosz has written repeatedly of his native Lithuania, which, when he was born there in 1911, was still, he says, medieval, and which he saw destroyed several times over in the course of his lifetime by successive invasions, both military and ideological. For him, the destruction of this “native realm” was a disaster, or a series of disasters, and an irrevocable loss. There is a considerable portion of his vast canon given over to a passionate and thoroughly convincing nostalgia for that destroyed place, that inundated time. It is a nostalgia which is utterly unsentimental, charged with emotion though it may be. The condition is imperative, and it carries a vital duty. Milosz serves it encyclopedically. He is required, like a sort of anti-Adam, to name all the creatures of a vanished Eden—or, a better metaphor, he unpacks himself like the ark of Noah, disgorging everything that has survived the Flood by being inside him. It is a monumental exercise, dependent on an impervious being and an infallible faith in his own memory—for if memory is suspect here, then the exercise is useless. The vessel must be perfect, numinous, in a sense divine. However earthly, twisted, and corrupt the materials of which it is made—and Milosz takes a certain delight in recording this side of himself—the vessel as such must float, upheld by a transcendent spirit. Otherwise, when they come down off the ramp onto dry land—these landscapes, these villas, these rivers, these beautiful young women and eccentric brilliant men, these lapdogs, these peasants, these mountains, these victims—they will have been merely made up, not saved.

My situation is different from the one with which Milosz was fated to contend—is, in many respects, its polar opposite—and the nature of selfhood therein, and hence the nature and role of memory, while equally crucial, is likewise wholly other. I evoke a world whose disappearance I must not merely approve but celebrate: it is gone, it needed and deserved to go, good riddance to it, to every human shred of it good riddance. It was a world that was corrupted by its fundamental principles, and that corruption extended to all its creation, including its children: including the child I was. I am not the safe miraculous vehicle that rescues the things of that world; I am rather, in a sense more than metaphorical, their destroyer.


That man with a mule was a black man. He was a tenant farmer who had given his entire life to working for a family of white people, being rewarded for his labor with very little money and less respect. Or so I assume. The truth of the matter is that I know almost nothing about him. All I have at first hand is this memory of his apparently endless circuit of the farm, and his encounters with us children. Even his appearance is lost to me: when I try to see him, I see a blur, not really a face.

Even the day that I have evoked here is not really a singular memory but a composite: it must have been more or less so because it was more or less so many times in those years. How many times? I haven’t a clue. The man with the mule would walk past our house; we would run out expecting—indeed demanding, albeit little demanding was needed—to be given a ride. Each of us would be lifted up, would ride the mule perhaps ten yards, and be set down, replaced by another child until everyone had been given a turn. Then the man and the mule would walk on, disappearing around the next bend in the road; but by then we children would have forgotten them.


How often did I ride that mule? I have absolutely no idea. All such instances have been compressed in my recollection, by the sedimentary weight of 50 years, into a single fossil. I rode the mule once. That can’t be true: I must have ridden it many times. But I can reconstitute only one ride, undoubtedly a composite of—how many? Six, a dozen, twenty, a hundred? On the day I have invented, I was five years old, the youngest of the four boys who ran out. I was the smallest of the dark-haired, oak-stained ones. The oldest, the blond boy, was my cousin from across the road. He lived in a pecan tree. No, he lived in a tiny cinderblock house full of jealousies and angers which he internalized seemingly at birth, and continues to embody to this day. No, he died in Vietnam. No, he died of polio. No. No. No.

And who was I? What house did I live in? Did I go to a war? Was I ill? Did I live or die?

The mule is generations dead: mule generations certainly. The black man with whom he walked is dead; his bones no doubt lie in some graveyard, unlike those of the mule, though what graveyard I have no idea. Even his name is lost to me—his real name. I remember the name by which he was known: we called him Stump. Everyone did. Old Stump and his mule. Not Mr. Stump. Stump. We children came shouting, Stump, Stump! Our shouts were a presumption and a demand. Did we ever ask politely for a ride? Did we ever say thank you when he set us down? I don’t remember, but I doubt it. We were white children. We were the children of Mr. Glenn and Cap, one of the names by which my father was known: not cap as in hat, but cap as in Captain. Did we want a ride on the black man’s mule? The black man would give us a ride. My cousin was our leader; I did not have the courage or the presumption or the angers that drove him, but I followed. I followed in his demand, and I, as Whitman put it, assumed what he assumed. This is who you are: you are a white boy.

The man with the mule never hurried. He never seemed either out of sorts or happy; he never seemed either glad or angry to see us. Such, in any case, is the memory I make of him. Is that true? I don’t know. It is the trace of him that survives in me: patience, at least the appearance of a disinterested kindness, regularity. In fact, his life was obviously complicated, full of trouble and joy, pain and need and passion, everything. I knew, and know, nothing of that. He was Stump. He lived on our farm. He walked with a mule. Whose mule? Did he own the mule, or was he its caretaker or simply its companion? He did not own the fabled forty acres; did he at least own the mule? And what about the piece of rope: did he at least own that?

I do not know who he was. Not knowing who he was, I do not know myself. I am forever destabilized by that ignorance, which was willed. He was there to be used, not known. He was there to be a flat character in the narrative of the round characters. The world that used him that way no longer exists except in the memories of those of us who were there and who want to remember. For the most part, in my experience, the people who were there have no stomach for remembering it—or they are incapable of it. But then, who is capable? Certainly I am not. What remains most true for me from that time is the culpability I first inherited, and then the ideas I embraced, at least for awhile. We were the masters of a world other people built on our behalf. Our happiness was based on their sweat. We know that. Our knowledge of that has become one of the clichés of Southernness. But it is important not to let it sink entirely to the level of the cliché. What we did because of who we thought we were had real consequences, however difficult they may be to recover.

A piece of rope. It’s something: something concrete. Used properly, a piece of rope is a little length of power: it can control, it can possess, it can capture, torture, kill. Rope is the weapon of the lynch mob. In the Japanese art of rope bondage, kinbaru, rope is an aesthetic medium and a tool for ecstasy. Rope connects things. It holds things. It can sustain and it can destroy.

I am not an ark. I am a piece of hemp rope, one end tied to what I know of myself, the other end lost in a cloud of ignorance.

The piper plays; the rope uncoils and rises into the air; the piper climbs the rope and vanishes. That vanishing is my destiny.

Hence, my friends, poetry.

The "Education" of This Poet (1): Primer


For the past few days, at the invitation of the editors of the online journal Linebreak, I've been a guest blogger; the work I did for that very welcome gig was inevitably connected with writing I've been doing for Mindbook for the past several months. Therefore, with the permission of Linebreak, I'm reproducing those entries. Be sure to visit Linebreak to see the excellent work they're publishing.

Certain kinds of introspection are less like meditative journeys and more like putting one’s hand into an ant colony. For me, thinking about my early experiences with the official educational process is an exercise in ant excavation: painful, revelatory of ugly inhuman things, and generally uncanny. To revisit there, for me, is to reenter a narrative that has the dark numinousity of a primal scene, simultaneously repellant and fascinating.

It’s impossible for me to know how I would be different had I grown up in another place (for present purposes I leave out of account the possibilities in growing up in other times)—or whether I would be different, in any fundamental way, at all. I have grown, over subsequent decades, into a selfhood that I experience less as a unitary thing (like a potato or a stone) than as a semi-random composite, like a coral reef. This composite has turned out to be a reasonably fertile medium for poetry and other kinds of writing. To what extent poetry is its necessary product I can’t say; whether I would be a poet had I not undergone the education that was given me I can’t know. All I know is how it was and how it is. For other writers, the “education of the poet” as a subject has been mostly either prescriptive or descriptive; in my own case, it takes the form of a cautionary tale, and the majority of the caution is directed at me and me alone.


I have written elsewhere, at some length, in poems as well as prose, about the place that was my jumping-off point from nonbeing: eastern Mississippi, a farming community, from 1950 onward. My family was sufficiently typical there to be virtually invisible by reason of protective coloring—literally coloring, given the state of race relations in that place and in those days. Basic facts: 1. we were white folk; 2. white people owned, and controlled, just about everything there was in that place; 3. white people were a distinct minority of the population, which was approximately 70-30 black to white. These three simple facts give rise to wide-reaching and, to say the least, unpleasant social dynamics.

For present purposes it is not necessary to rehearse the whole history of race relations in America. Suffice it to say that I lived through a vital transition point in our history—the Civil Rights Movement—beginning on the wrong side of it, and I lived through it first in my nerves and muscles and belly and bowels more than in my mind. Institutional education, never completely disinterested or impersonal in the good sense, never “objective,” was complicit in the maintenance of the status quo. This too I have written about elsewhere, limning out the basic principle of education in the context of institutional racism from the side of the racists: that the process centers on mentally blinding one’s children. If African Americans were, in that particular version of the weird old America, invisible, they were only so by reason of the blindness of white people. Therefore it was the “God-given duty,” as it was perceived in that place, to pluck out one’s children’s eyes.

This process was never explicit, and for the most part was not conscious. If one had said to my fifth-grade teacher, “You are blinding these children,” she would have been shocked and outraged, and would have denied it—in perfectly good faith, in terms of her own consciousness. She was not blinding anyone, as far as she knew—she was teaching us math, English, history. The power of Jim Crow was rarely exercised (on us) personally: it was a collective phenomenon pressing itself on us not from any center, but from every periphery. Foucault would have understood it perfectly as a situation in which

Power relations are both intentional and nonsubjective. If in fact they are intelligible, this is not because they are the effect of another instance that “explains” them, but rather because they are imbued, through and through, with calculation: there is no power that is exercised without a series of aims and objectives. But this does not mean that it results from the choice or decision of an individual subject; let us not look for the headquarters that presides over its rationality; neither the caste which governs, nor the groups which control the state apparatus, nor those who make the most important economic decisions direct the entire network of power that functions in a society (and makes it function); the rationality of power is characterized by tactics that are quite often explicit at the restricted level where they are inscribed (the local cynicism of power). . . . [T]he logic is perfectly clear, the aims decipherable, and yet it is often the case that no one is there to have invented them, and few who can be said to have formulated them: an implicit characteristic of the great anonymous, almost unspoken strategies which coordinate the loquacious tactics whose “inventors” or decision-makers are often without hypocrisy. . . . (The History of Sexuality, volume 1, 94-95).

I have spent most of my adult life—while in the midst of other, at least apparently unrelated activities, far from my point of origin—thinking through the ramifications of the initiation my elders gave me into the world, how I had to reject the world I was given and the self that went along with it, and build a “new” one. There is a great deal to be said about that process, and I have already said a great deal about it. For the most part, the journey was negative and the process painful. I have detailed that via negativa elsewhere, because it seemed important to me to cast light on a subterranean journey so that others could see a largely unexplored cost of racism—the cost to the children of the racist.

For now, I want to do something different: I want to revisit positive moments in my early mental formation, the things, people, events, accidents, that gave me windows into a different way of thought, signposts toward an unimagined future. In particular I want to tease out, as best I can, the materials that amounted to my early education as a poet, however far I may have been from understanding that I was in fact becoming a poet.

It is my plan to write a series of posts, each taking up a different thread in each post, exploring a different avenue, or facet, or strand, or element of an inchoate, unreasonable, feckless process. As far as I can tell, I am who I am by accident, and the temptation to impose order on accident is as unavoidably human as it is mistaken, but I can at the very least pay tribute, and give thanks, to those well-nigh imponderable and ghostly forces that came to my aid where I lived so beautifully disguised to myself as a blind child.