Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Chain smoking

He took the cigarette pack from his shirt pocket and hit it against the heel of his hand until two or three cigarettes were higher than the rest. He pulled out the highest, then shook the pack so the other two descended again and put it back in his pocket. He took the butt of his last cigarette, burned almost to the filter, and put it in his mouth. He put the new cigarette tip to tip with the butt. He breathed in deeply. The coal of the dying cigarette flared and lit the new one. With a jerk he took butt from his mouth and snuffed it in the already too full ash tray. He brought the new one to his lips and inhaled deeply. His fingernails and the tips of his fingers were stained yellow.

A paragraph from my novel (at this point, only stray paragraphs exist.) An attempt to describe the chain smoking of a skitzophrenic acquaintance of mine. The attempt, as with the commuting pieces is to find a style that maps to reality.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Coming to One's Self

Only here, in rare moments when you are not absorbed in the tasks at work, the tasks at home, when you are not occupied by the mechanics of coming and going, of getting from one place to another; only here, at rest for a moment on the bus, your book still in your book bag, no one in the seat beside you, do you come to an awareness of yourself as your self, separate from any outside concern. It is not an entirely comfortable awareness. You catch your reflection, half sketched, transparent, lost like a ghost in the sea of the window's muddy glass. How did I get so old, so gray? You feel finite, unexpectedly fragile, aware of the arbitrary briefness of this, of all moments, of the infinite stretch of dark time before and after.

The continuity of the self, the narrative that we tell ourselves to connect moment to moment, day to day, year to year, is mostly illusion. When we are at work, we are the work, the task at hand absorbs us. Our awareness is of the task, of what is required for the task. In moments of relaxation, when we read, we are lost in what we are reading; when we watch TV we are lost in the television show, with it's own illusions of continuity punctuated by commercials. Even when we are doing nothing we avoid the confrontation, thinking about the past, daydreaming about some unlikely future. Our actual selves, the consciousness of self, is full of gaps, lacunae, vast swaths of memoryless, lost time. We are a collection of bright fragments like dust motes in a shaft of sunlight. Our life histories are stories we tell ourselves to connect the dots. That was me when I was in college. That was me in when I first starting work. Real memories mingle with imagination and we cannot tell the difference.

You cannot look too long at the reflection in the dirty window. It is too empty, too lonely. It brings up an emotion, nameless, but akin to the emotion that you have viewing gulls flying in silhouette over the gray surf on a desolate beach. You look away and pull a book from your bag to read.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Accident

The car, an old orange Chevy, cut too closely in front of the bus trying to get ahead of it in the express lane. The bus struck it just behind the right fender. For a long second the bus just pushed the car down the highway, then with a screech of metal, the car broke loose and spun into the lane to the right. It hit a van that was beside the bus. The van slid into a semi truck and trailer that was in the next lane over. A pickup truck smashed into the back of the semi. Everything came to stop.

Everyone on the bus looked around at the other passengers, in a moment of shocked silence. Nobody had any obvious hurt. I had seen and heard it all unfold, but, on the bus, there was almost no feeling of impact. Pure physics, I suppose. The mass of the bus was so much greater than the car's.

People began to talk. What was that guy thinking? Is the driver hurt? A few jokes. I didn't want to go to work today anyway. It's all your fault. You sat in the wrong seat today. It disrupted the whole balance of the universe. How long do you think we will be stuck here?

The bus driver could be heard calling the accident in to the dispatcher. Then she turned to the passengers. "Everyone alright?" there are mummers of assent. "Anyone see what happened?" Several people nodded or said yes. The bus diver pulled out a small stack of white cards. "Anyone who is willing to be a witness, would you please fill out a card." Several raised their hands. She walked back through the isle passing out cards. I took one. The woman in the seat in front of me said "sorry, I was asleep."
The bus driver nodded. Finished passing out the cards she returned to the front of the bus.

There was a moment of silence as people looked over the cards, then, almost as if on a signal, people began pulling out their cell phones to call work. Hello, yes, I am on the bus. We just had an accident. I will be late getting in. I don't know how late. I'll let you know as things get figured out.

I didn't call. There wouldn't be any one in the office yet.

After the phone calls people started talking again. People who had never spoken to each other now talked freely. I have been riding for fifteen years and this is the first accident I have been in. It's my third. I was in another one one the freeway about a year ago, similar to this one. Somebody cut into close in front of the bus. I have been on buses that broke down many times, but. . .

Sirens could be heard, faint at first but getting louder. Within a couple of minutes two ambulances, a fire truck and three police cars were parked around the accident scene. Only one lane of cars was getting by on the right shoulder.

A policeman came on board the bus. "Is everyone alright here? Did anyone see what happened?" He waited for a response. If you would give me your names and a contact number, please." He came down the isle with and took names in a notebook. "Thank you. Another bus should be here in twenty or thirty minutes. We will transfer you onto that bus and you can continue on your way. Until that time please remain on the bus and be patient. Any questions?" One passenger laughed and said "thanks for riding Metro."

What I am looking for, what I am trying to achieve in these scenes from the endless commute, is a style, a sense of a style, that can convey accurately and simply what happened, what is happening. Poetry I have thought about, form and structure, metric, language, rhetoric, genre, but I have never given such thought to prose. Now I have a novel in mind, maybe my only novel, and I find I want to actually think about sentence structure, the flow of narrative, the presentation of detail, capturing what I see, what I hear, smell and taste. My daily commute is an exercise in patience, frustration, exhaustion and now also an exercise in writing, in memory and precision. I am sure there will be as much frustration and wasted time in the written commute as in the actual, but, perhaps, in the end, something novel will come of it.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Parking Lot

Strangely, and perhaps sadly, the best part of my commute is often in the morning at the Safeway parking lot. When I emerge from the store, having purchased a tall drip coffee, black with no sugar or cream, and walk out onto the parking lot, I look up for the briefest moment and see the horizon with its clouds just brightening with the morning sun and I see the buildings around the lot and the cars on the road and a flock--a "murmuration" of starlings, a few crows, and, in that moment, feel the cool of the air on my face, and, for only a second, a certain exhilaration, the sense of what I can only describe as "the freedom of the road," the sense of new places and strange horizons, of novel destinations. It is, in short, a feeling of escape. But then I get back I'm my car and pull out onto the möbius of my daily route, taking a sip of my black and satisfyingly bitter coffee.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Roadside Crosses

Those crosses beside the highways and the country roads that mark the spot where a speeding teenager, or a drunken driver, or a driver hit by a drunken driver, or a tired driver, or a distracted driver, or a driver who was simply unlucky flew off the road and, in a variety of tragic, gruesome ways, died; I have observed them at various times over the years. At first there are flowers and balloons, teddy bears, sometimes--sometimes a portrait of the deceased printed on computer paper, scraps of a poem, some words from friends. Over time the flowers wilt and are replaced only on birthdays or anniversaries. The balloons deflate and lay in the long grass like so many latex snakes. The teddy bears are carried away by stray dogs. The pictures tear and blow away, caught in the wires of a nearby fence or in the twigs of bushes. One day the cross itself is gone and there is only grass and sky, road and fence and the muddy ditch beside the pavement.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Bus Stop at Night

Commute, from the Latin com, "with" mutare "to change." To change places, moving from home to work, work to home. The transition, a place between places, a (parenthetical) world between worlds, with it's own laws and weathers, it's own events and stories, consisting of car interiors, park and rides, bus stops, busses, trains, the landscapes sliding past the window like endless variations of an old film. The commute contains other changes as well, the change in selves: the work self with its focus on tasks and deadlines, it's hierarchical relationships, it's mixture of reinforcements and humiliations; the home self with its different relationships balancing authority and intimacy, with it's own special rewards, worries and humiliations. The commute is a time for the self, itself, to transition. I have been commuting for fifteen years.

The bus stop at night. Is that a place to begin? But then is any place a beginning? Leaves and litter rise in little whirls behind the bench shelter. There seems to be some sort of wind tunnel here--the breeze off the water funneled between the buildings, breaking into turbulence on the sidewalk and street in swirling eddies and brisk gusts. He pulls his coat collar closer around his neck and pulls his cell phone from his pant's pocket to check the time. Fifteen minutes. Bad timing. He got to the stop too early; too long to wait comfortably, but not long enough to go somewhere warm and get a cup of coffee. He looks down the street. A pair of headlights shine on the pavement under a swinging traffic light.

A half dozen people are also at the stop. In the garish light of the streetlight they are huddled shadows. Most are bent over their cell phones or IPods. A couple of weathered men talk in Spanish beside the posted schedules. One man leans on the light pole itself smoking a cigarette. Beside him, under the shelter's plastic roof, a women in a pale blue sweat shirt stands silently.

A bus pulls up, not the one he needs, but the one that comes only about ten minutes before. A woman, dimunative, only about five feet tall, stands on the sidewalk by the bus schedule sign and shouts at the bus driver as the passengers disembark. "You bastard, I know you. You're a cop. You're CIA or a sheriff. I know you from before. You are trying to go undercover, but I know you. You can't hide." The bus driver ignores her. The passenger part around her like a stream splitting around a rock, not looking at her, not meeting her eyes.

After the bus pulls away, she comes up two him. She is wearing an old red nylon coat.the sleeves are frayed and ratting. There is a tear in the side revealing dirty white foam. "I am sorry about that," she says, "but he had it coming. She looks up into his face, her eyes slightly amused. "Do you have any change? I need to pay my rent." He reaches into his pockets. "I have 38 cents, that want do much toward your rent." She takes the money placidly and moves down the bus stop not stopping to talk to anyone else. The woman, standing near him, her face half hidden in a pale blue hood, smiles up at him, knowingly. He smiles back.

The bus arrives and the half dozen people waiting line up to climb aboard.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Three by China Mieville


China Mieville is an author who has been on my reading list for a long time. He came recommended by friends and by many reviews. I finally decided to take the plunge. I read his three most recent novels. Brief reviews follow. He is as good as his reputation. His novels are strange, intriguing and often beautiful.

The City The City

Think of Berlin before the fall of the wall. East Germany separated from West Germany, each half of the city with separate politics, economics, destinies. Now imagine a city just as divided as Berlin was, but with the wall existing purely in the mind. The citizens of one city are walled off from the citizens of the other city by a reinforced habit of thought. Each citizen carefully "unsees" the citizen of the other city, even while avoiding the vehicles and pedestrians of the unseen city. Clues in clothing styles and architecture help with the unseeing, and a secret police force called "The Breach" enforce the separation.

The story begins with a murder investigation: a prostitute, seemingly, dispatched and then dumped in a garbage filled lot in one of the cities. It seems a simple case, but a couple of things don't add up. The chief investigator is too good to let it go. He follows the leads to find links to a revolutionary movement, a possible breach and the conspiratorial myth of a third city that somehow exists in the interstitial boundaries between the other two.


In many ways this novel is a classic detective story, but with an underlying strangeness that gives it an odd, somewhat disturbing beauty.


There is a secret London, filled with cults and strange religions each with their own gods and their own particular apocalypses. There are also, in this secret London, people with Knacks and powers. All are on edge because a giant squid has mysteriously vanished from its display in the Museum of Natural History. Somehow this disappearance is a preamble to a total apocalypse nobody wants.

The protagonist of the novel, Billy Harrow, is a curator in the section of the Museum that housed the squid. After its disappearance, he is sequestered by a squad of police who specialize in cults. He escapes to find out for himself what is going on. He quickly finds himself immersed in the secret London underground and especially in the cult of the Kraken itself.

In many aspects the novel reminds me of the work of Neil Gaimen, especially Neverwhere. In fact it often seems like an attempt to out Gaimen, Gaimen. That being said, it is an enjoyable novel. The cults and religions are intriguing. There is suspense, humor, and occassional flashes of poetry


Embassy Town

Of the novels reviewed here, this is the most complex and interesting. It is about "Language" both literally and metaphorically. The novel takes place on a planet at the edge of navigable space. The atmosphere is toxic to humans, but the aliens, known to the local human population as the Hosts, have made an area livable for human colonists.

The Hosts speak "Language," a very peculiar speech. For one thing, the Hosts have two throats and speak simultaneously through both. The Host can only understand language spoken by living sentient beings., Recordings or synthesized speech are incomprehensible to them even when it reproduces the sounds of words perfectly.Secondly, Language can only express factual statements. It cannot express contrary to fact conditions. There is no "what if." Language cannot lie.

Humans have created genetically engineered clones called ambassadors who can speak simultaneously and be understood by the Hosts. The Hosts too have tried to expand their Language to communicate better with the outsiders. The use real people, set up in situations that can be used as similes--metaphore is beyond them.. The narrator of the novel is such a person. As a child she was used to create the simile, "she who ate what was put in front of her."

Language is visceral to the Hosts, so much so that a new ambassador's voice accidentally becomes an addictive narcotic. To free themselves from it the Host must either horribly mutilate themselves or learn to lie.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A bit of a Rant

I have read many articles in the past few years bemoaning the loss of standards in higher education, and, in particular, the loss of a common cultural set of references. I think the source of much of the complaint is really a reaction to a loss of privilege and the decline of the "educated" class.

A university education used to belong to only a few: those that had the money and those who demonstrated the intellectual abilities to get money in the form of scholarships. The educated few shared a common experience and a shared vocabulary. They read the same "classics", got the same basic science and math, the same basic economics. Out of this group came all the lawyers, bankers and politicians, the men who made the laws, enforced them and controlled the money. Life was good for the educated class of mostly white men.

All this was lost because of the democratization of education. The first serious blow came at the end of World War II with the enactment of the GI bill. Suddenly tens of thousands of men who would not naturally have been able to attend a university were able to. Worse, they believed their children should have the right to attend too, and ideally, all children should have the right to attend the university of their choice.

The universities became crowded with those who were "different, " who did not fit into the culture of the educated class. They were dissatisfied with the classical curriculum and wanted "relevant" education, focused on current issues and employment.

The final blow to the educated elite came with the explosion of the Internet and the democratization of knowledge itself. Now anyone could access the classics (previously available only in expensive university press editions). But more, they could access literature, philosophy, history and political thought from a myriad of cultures. The net effect was to diffuse the set of common cultural references so dear to the educated class. No longer could you count on someone catching a reference to Thucydides or the Book of Job.

To "cultural conservatives this is a defaming of all that is holy, a cultural disgrace, a loss of core values. But what they are really upset about, though they will not admit this even to themselves, is a loss of privilege and power, the loss of a world where they knew all the cues and their position was secure.

Personally, I see the diversification of culture as an increase in richness. The more cultures, the more languages, the more literatures, the better. I love ancient Greek and Latin literature and now, thanks to efforts like Tuft's Perseus Project, I have access to most of it for free. In addition I can access Arabic, Chinese, and African literature. The loss of a set of common references is small compared to the enormous richness of new reference and new vistas. The belief that somehow one culture's literature and languages are somehow superior to other culture's literature and languages is just another form of racism. Democracy in politics and in culture is messy and can be frightening, but is worth the journey.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A Little Rhyme

I have always avoided end rhymes. It was one of the those things that a contemporary poet just didn't do. I did, however, often sneak in internal rhyme patterns. I would do things like have the last word of one line rhyme with the middle word of the next line, or other more intricate patterns. Part of the pleasure of poetry to me is the puzzle aspect. Making the pieces fit into some arbitrary structure.

Lately I have been committing two cardinal sins: playing with end rhymes and playing with traditional metric feet. I stooped so low as to write a sonnet:

I imagine that you stand beside me
in meadows high on quiet mountain slopes
where hawks wing in the skies above and see
beyond the horizon of our small hopes
and fears. So much that I would tell you now
if only speech were left on my dull tongue
I would tell vast legends of what and how
it should have been how it should be sung
if sung as I dreamed it sung, but facts
are not as one would wish however strong
the wish. Instead we must accept our acts
and live the consequences, even wrong
in mountains where the sky itself would start
I imagine worlds with us no more apart

No challenge to Shakespeare here.

And then I worked on an elegaic piece--elegaic in the sense that it imitates, in some sense, Latin and Greek elegaic metric. Classical elegy consited in a dactylic hexameter followed by a pentameter line 6/5. In English one could argue the iambic pentameter is equivalent the the classical dactylic hexameter, culturally if not mathematically. So I wrote a metric of a iambic pentameter followed by a iambic tetrameter, with each couplet rhyming. This is my first experiment:

some think with every decision the world
divides—a new world formed, now curled

beside this one, each possibility
explored. Whatever can, will be.

In some parallel world just beyond reach
all that we let get away, each

lost moment, not lost, each failure unmade.
So, in another world, you stayed.

A flock of honking geese wings over head
the rain will arrive before bed

this afternoon spent staring out windows
the dry grass stirs as the damp breeze blows.

Just to be clear, I am not really obsessing about some lost love. The poems just seemed to trend that way.

I tried to avoid direct end stops on the rhyme. Most lines are enjambed, meaning you read through the line to the next. Also there is usually a caesura in the line after the couplet, a pause that keeps the poem from becoming too sing song--or so I hope.

The gist is that is is fun sometimes to play with traditional metrics.

Coming soon--at least I intend. This blog has been offered in fits and spurts--reviews of several books. I have been on a reading jag of late. Included in the reviews will be three books by China Mieville, The Information by Gleick, and a book about the city of Alexandria, among others

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Finnegan's Wake 2

The second sentence, or not quite a sentence, the first of three, clauses shall we call them, each separated by a colon. (Grammatical structures are a bit fluid in the Wake.)

Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passen-core rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war:

"Sir Tristam" is both Tristam Shandy--the 18th century novel that most resembles Joyce in its scope and it's stylistic and linguistic playfulness--and Tristam (Tristan) of the medieval romance Tristan and Isolde. (Isolde will maker her appearence in a few paragraphs.) The "violer d' amores" is a stringed instrument, the tenor of the violin family, having six or seven stopped strings and an equal number of sympathetic strings, according to the dictionary. More literally it is the viol of love, and seems to stand in apposition to Tristam. "The short sea," the north sea? The British Channel? "Passen-core" recalls "passenger" but also passage, pass--I am sure I am missing some pun on another language. "Core," of course, means that it is central, this passage, re-arriving, having arrived and left and arrived again from "North Armorica."

"Armorica:" armor, amore, America, at least a three part pun. But what does it all mean? It supplies Tristam with his armor and his love, it may also express a complex attitude toward America, the home of so many Irish expatriots.

"Just as the Isthmus of Sutton separates Howth from the rest of Ireland, so the Bosphorus separates Europe and Asia..." (http://www.finnegansweb.com/wiki/index.php/Europe_Minor)

"wielder fight:" wield, fight, also, perhaps, welter weight as in a boxer. "penisoltate:" penis o late, pen isolate, peninsula.

The gist: Tristam is back to fight his war.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Finnegans Wake: First Sentence

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

The first sentence of Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce, though, actually, it is the end of the last sentence of the book:

A lone a last a loved a long the riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

And so the beginning is the end in this infinite circle of a book ( "a commodius vicus of recirculation")

The question arises why one should read this book, this book of the night, that revels in it's own obscurity, a book that focuses on the confused, vague images of a mind in various stages of sleep. Personally, I would say don't read it unless it entertains or amuses you. I am not a big advocate of must reads or should reads. Despite, or perhaps because, I received a classical education, I have very little respect for traditional educational paradigms. I rather like the wilderness of Internet learning, where each person can develop their own idiosyncratic path, their own canon. I feel no need to defend the classics. If they are indeed classic, if they still speak, they will find audience; if not, let the chaff fall where it will.

That being said, Finnegan's Wake amuses and entertains me. I intend to work through it sentence by sentence in this blog. I won't catch everything, in fact, I will probably miss more than I find. But I will entertain myself, at least. Consider it my form of sodoku. A mental exercise to stave off eventual Alzheimer's.

It won't be the only thing in the blog and I will label each blog that focus on the wake "FWake" so they can be asiduously avoided.

So, the first sentence. . .

Stephen's name, from Ulysses is hidden here: "st Eve and." And also Eve and Adam, according to Genesis, our progenitors, and the first of us to take the fall.

"riverrun," "swerve of shore to bend of bay, " refer to the landscape of Dublin, the river being the Liffey. A vicus was a civilian Roman settlement, but more importantly, it recalls Vico Giambattista an Italian thinker from the 1660s who wrote a book called "The New Science" that contains speculation on many things including the origins and evolution of human language. Commodius just means spacious, a settlement that can accommodate many--one such as Dublin perhaps. The use of the Latin terms for a settlement along side modern Dublin binds the past to the present in a circle of time.

Howth Castle lies close to the village of Howth, Fingal County in Ireland. It is the ancestral home of the line of the St Lawrence family (see: Earl of Howth) that died out in 1909. From 1425 to 1767 the title had been Lord Howth, holding the area since the Norman invasion of 1180. It is now held by their heirs, the Gaisford St. Lawrence family.

So Wikipedia.

The initials HCE in "Howth Castle and Environs" appear in many forms though out the book. Appropriate that the first appearance should be in the first sentence.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Public Poetry

A gray morning, sitting at the Starbucks in Lakewood, south of Tacoma, waiting for my son to finish his class. A world away Egyptians are celebrating into the dark. Mubarak has resigned. It is a fragile moment. It could herald the birth of a democracy or a new dictatorship. Let us hope the Egyptian people maintain their energy and focus long enough to see it through, long enough to develop the institutions that will preserve their victory.

As is my want, I wonder if poetry has any vital place in the public sphere; if it has any role in such events. Song does, that sometimes step sister of poetry. The Egyptian streets are full of singing. But poetry?

There have been times and places when poetry was on the lips of those who were involved in momentous, public acts, but I do not have a sense of that for this time, this place. Poetry seems relegated to the private, at most a meditation on the public, a reflection on such actions.

(I think of the cryptic, intensely private poems Celan wrote that were inspired by events in Israel)

I do not know the Egyptian literary scene, and my reflections may only reflect my sense of American poetry. The question is open. Is it possible in this time and place to have a legitimate (as opposed to sham, shallow, favor currying) public poetry?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Stray thoughts in a Starbucks

Sitting in a Starbucks in Lakeside, south Tacoma. Jazz on the radio. Conversations. The hiss of the expresso machine. Traffic outside. Tall grasses in a planter swaying and rustling in the wind. Rain on the tables and chairs on the patio. The traffic light bleeding red on the wet pavement. I am waiting here until my son finishes his class up at Pierce college.

I am typing this on my IPad, not the best tool for writing, but it does have the virtue of slowing me down, of making me pay more attention to each word. Sometimes I have thought that we would write better if we had to pay for each word we used. Think how carefully we would choose each word. Think how much thought we would give to whether what we had to say was worth the price. Though maybe not. Those compelled to write would write no matter what.

InterestIngly, I have written prose on the IPad, even have begun a short story, but somehow I can't imagine writing a poem on it. The feel is wrong. (I actually stll prefer pen and paper for poetry--and not just any paper. It has to have the right texture and qualities. I wonder if that says anything about the relevance of poetry to the contemporary world--or does it rather just say something about me.) Maybe that will change. Maybe I will write a series of IPad poems just to do it.

Trumpet and piano now on the background music mix. The rain continues. I should do something worth while today, but probably won't.

The day's coffee lingers bitter on the tongue. A good bitterness. It is the taste of what keeps me going.

It is time to pick up my son.