Saturday, June 27, 2015


A wisdom to embrace, a courage not to forsake: grace is what we don't deserve. Vows are not vows until they're spoken; even the music was from Austin. Through the narrow valley we saw a single white windmill turning. The bank of lipstick ginger in an orange light is best recalled; a photograph betrays its light as lack, not the slowly closing lens of sunset. The tender ecology of love has drawn us together, tests us with its empty geometries. Put down your pencil: this test is done. We have so short a time, the president says, “we just try to get our paragraph right.”

--27 June 2015

Wednesday, June 24, 2015


Then indeed are we . . . a peculiar people. A gecko walks across the back of a shoji screen, looking like the afterlife of itself. Families excoriate or forgive; the bomber expresses remorse. Our narratives are clean, even where they angle off and drop like half-built bridges. Look close enough at the calligraphy of fern on your palm and you can harm no one. It's the ordinary that absolves us. Yourself excludes only what it cannot see through. What distinguishes us from him is the dropping of the “y” before “our.” We look for signs, but that's a language covered by spider webs and flies. There's no reader and nothing to be read, only soul's mystery, his and ours. The soul sends out its politics in thin and sticky lines, forgiving its victims before it eats.

--24 June 2015

Tuesday, June 23, 2015


O let the spirit of truth dwell with me, and then little matter for any other comforter. What finally matters is what is not matter. To describe what I hear--thrush and weed-whacker--is to de-matter this morning's minions. Minions! the little boy on a boat sang out. Is she your minion? my daughter asked. Don't give us dominion over. Reduce us to the dust that stands in as last matter. Mother. To mend is to matter. Nell would rhyme mend with rend, but the rending always came first. After her death, we're left to remember, re-mend. What remains is ardor's aura, a difficult wake. Her Ireland need not be ours, but it is unimpeachably green. To meditate on matter in your tradition, Tom, makes for an awkward fit. But the awkwardness is material, brown plastic wedge under a door that props it open. Don't kick it out; the slamming shut is loud sound.

i.m. N.A.
--23 June 2015

Sunday, June 21, 2015


What perfect lovers! How wise! How sweet and delightful! A bare point marks warning, indicates high volume without content. “We enjoyed you,” the woman said to her mother's killer. What's the mark for that? A mark is not a symbol, like a flag, but an invitation to act, or pause, or stop. We advise against exclamations as too full of sentiment, preferring full stops, or semis. Yet “take down that flag!” marks time; stop history, revise and reclaim it. To forgive is to mark time as release, leave the burden of hate to himself alone. To forgive is to stick a pin in the balloon, pull air into one's lungs and breathe. Let him who is without breath know what it means to have it. Let air be the mark of solace we cannot see or hear past the still opening door of the church.

--21 June 2015

Saturday, June 20, 2015


Thou hast commanded all men, so to love me, as to lay down their lives for my peace and welfare. There's a moment when speech enters the fitting room, slips out of its quotations, and recovers the mirror stage in quadruple form. His command becomes mine, as my clothes become me. We're seeing the misfit room, where a boy poses for his own shots, then shoots parishioners while parroting sentences he couldn't invent. Appropriation's a buzz word, buzz saw: you can escape maximum security with a saw, but you can't repeat what I said without the ear's panopticon rehearsing it. It's what gives narcissism a bad name, this self-hatred suited up as echo chamber. They did as you asked: the rest passeth all understanding.

--20 June 201

Friday, June 19, 2015

95 (2)

Let me see them all, let me feel them all, let me enjoy them all. For weeks now, I've resisted your narrative of blood and love, Tom, teasing phrases from your paragraphs as if they weren't connected, by ligament and flesh, to the broken body and blood of your lord. I don't want meditations on compassion mixed in your blood soup. I prefer my details clean as a monk's robe. You're all detail when it comes to thorns and wounds, all concept when it comes to love. That might be a problem for us, dear Tom, as these shadow paragraphs approach their end. Or it might be symptom: the nine of them in their sanctuary, contained in your lord's presence, their blood soaking the floor, soaking the city's streets, soaking our televisions, soaking our souls--if we still had them. Was he with the empty dull stare the agent of your story, Tom? That hateful lost fuck-up of a boy? Is he our Judas? Really, Tom? Must we love him, too?

--19 June 2015
RIP the Charleston 9

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

RIP-tides: on the poetry of Steven Curry and Nell Altizer


When you hear the midnight shutter
Rattle against an autumn wind,
Make haste to rise and throw it wide,
And, lovely, let the darkness in.

--Steven Curry, "The Man Who Heard the World,"
from Waxing the Lunar Mountain Apple, 1997

                                            Each foot I put unearths

a thin place and green fear I will recall
earth long after it ends, keep remembering
water on rankled stone, whippoorwills, owls,
the lumber and listing color of howled
flesh, cow eyes, dung, how the peregrine's wing
sickles the stinkhorn mushrooms where we dwell.

--Nell Altizer, from Thin Place sonnet sequence, 1999

Three former colleagues have died since this Spring semester ended. Bob McHenry had just retired; Steve Curry and Nell Altizer, had retired some years ago. Steve and Nell were both poets and teachers of poetry, so their deaths have sent me back to their books to hear their voices again. They join Norman Hindley in the chronicle of recent poet deaths on O`ahu. Both had strongly spiritual sides. Steve was a Jungian whose dream life features prominently in his poems, along with quotations from Rumi. Nell--who wrote of an Irish tern, "The great Cloud of Unknowing on the prowl"--was involved with the mystery and mysticism that the lyric poem offers. Little in her life seemed closed except these beautiful poems, collected in The Man Who Died en Route, published in 1989 by the University of Massachusetts Press (selected by Amy Clampitt) and in Thin Place, a chapbook of 15 sonnets published by Tinfish Press in 1999. Steve left behind two books published by Anoai Press in Honolulu, namely Waxing the Lunar Mountain Apple (1997) and Dancing the Waves and Other Poems (1998).

Steve was in the Marriott Hotel room in Washington, DC with Rob Wilson when I interviewed for a job at the University of Hawai`i-Mānoa in 1989. He was the one who picked me up at the airport when I arrived on August 1, 1990 to assume my position as assistant professor. I later came to think of that long ride to faculty housing as a tour of Hawai`i's "dark side." Steve himself had a dark side, sometimes awkwardly combined with his wit, and so--when I mentioned that my parents had bought me Amelia Earhardt luggage (of all things! didn't they know what happened to her over the Pacific!) for my trip, he took me to the lookout at Diamond Head where her plane had been spotted, soon before she disappeared in the South Pacific. His wit is evident in the inscription in Dancing the Waves, where he writes "For Susan -- Another who dances the waves / (in her own peculiar fashion) / Best wishes, / Steve Curry." For a year or two, early on, he'd taken a small group of us junior faculty nearly every weekend to Makapu`u to boogie board. Those were hardly learners' waves, but Makapu`u was Steve's favorite spot on the island, even though he'd lost most of his teeth to someone's surfboard there. It remains mine, too, though I've not been in the water there since the ocean nearly swallowed me in the late 90s. His darkness can be found in "Sometimes":

When sometime, despite the fine insulation
Of these walls, I can hear myself in the other room;

When sometimes I can no longer lie,
And then find there's nothing left to say;

And when sometimes my own masks
Leave even me unconvinced;

Sometimes I try to climb out of now
And sleep, like the rock-horse child
Urgently rides in a dream to serious places.

But as one who loves rain and the painful
Beauty of the many-colored earth, I
Long to awaken, although sometimes it
Takes days to fight my way back through slumber. (Waxing, 86)

The pathos of the first three sections gives way to an awkwardly written final four lines. Awkward perhaps because they represent such difficulty, that of knowing that he is asleep to himself, but wanting--and likely not wanting--to awaken from that place.

In "Fool, Said My Muse," Nell (who knew her Sidney) writes a passionate sequence of sonnets to an adulterous lover, one that attacks him and also the masculine tradition of the sonnet ("William," she calls out Wordsworth, "old nut, what do you know of fret? / or convent rooms, or, for that matter, nuns?"). But her own version of the "hard lie" comes in sonnet 5, where she turns her attack on herself for not seeing the disconnect between her and her lover:

And you, my dear friend, sitting on the fence
of a dilapidated marriage, write
to me of the transparencies of peace. Fight-
ing the hard lie, fighting the ten-year wrench
of word from deed, calling your wife pigwench,
mouth upside down, you say we must not bite
each time we kiss. Love is a sheer (not recondite)
vocabulary, you say. Priests, poets kiss peace. Hence,

Nell, this kiss of war, opaque, not see-through,
mucked, will strike the night out with its bitter wish
that rather the man would grab his sword than shoes
and fuck appearances. God, do we just appear?
What is apparent and transparent? This:
the guileless, flimsy, obvious, and clear.  (TMWDeR, 27)

This ugly war between lovers becomes a gorgeous poem, one that gestures past the human drama, the sexual war, to the larger question: "God, do we just appear?" The "obvious, and clear" of a dying relationship is also its inverse property, a way of seeing through the world as "obvious, and clear."

Poetry was Nell's refuge. The sonnet sequence continues its passionate, turbulent way, until the pause in sonnet 8, which signals poetry's utter significance to this poet. Late in her career, she taught a course on formalist poetry and had her students perform their sestinas, their villanelles, their sonnets. She was completely wedded to form: "Mad, I'm not. Some-

times. Not now. The sestet is serene.
Beyond the troubling two-rhyme, the frame settles
into the composition of three plums.
Cities of refuge, possible as rain,
appear above the traffic. Language is
the House of Being, the sane say. And the poem comes. (30)

The sequence ends after loss. The poet picks up her daughter's homework from the table and is suddenly thrown into grief over her lover, now gone. She describes his body as "resolute as ironwood, limber" and then ushers in the pathetic fallacy of storm. But this is not any storm, it's a storm whose locus is Hawai`i:

The trades are out of line over the entire
island tonight. Koa trunks and fallen jacaranda
uproot the volcanic earth between. An edgy
weather muddies the ground from the remembered
to the real. And the squall-lined wind of desire
blows out of its six-inch pot the Tree of Knowledge. (32)

Her shifts between the remembered and the real, the actual and emotional weather are swift, and they bite (as the apple off that Tree was bitten). Only her keen sense of form, her devotion to working the poem into form, salves her inner squalls, for a time.

If this is loss, then anger at violent death threatens to upend the poem; in her clearest rage, Nell approaches Hart Crane's high octane verbal agility. Her poem, "This Day in Paradise," is about the murder of a young girl, Maile Gilbert, in 1985; the girl was kidnapped, taken to a remote location on O`ahu, and killed viciously. You can find some details of this murder here. Nell begins, again, from Biblical symbology: "The snake is cool and green, purled with desire," then finds its location in the West Virginia of her childhood. Her use of detail is nearly desperate, holding off memories of an encounter with a "tramp" in the woods, one whose "nails [are] on my shoulder." She goes home, punished (in the woods, at home, or both, I'm not sure), and curses the God of her youth. And then she turns her attention to the dead child: this attention is at once loving and keenly aware of the violence wrought by man on girl:

O holy and minute particulars,
this opening, wet earth, lochia, located,
placenta, placed, I say, our world, not shat,
its blue, uncut umbilical of stars!--
twisting and twisting out of the northeasterly
air over the deltas, over the lowered savannas,
over the slow, sidewinding slough of the surf
at Mokole'ia where his young and white and strapping
fingers bind her throat, filled with his semen,
yelling for her father yelling for her father,
seeing in the southern sky, child-wide and
yelling for her father, that half-cocked crux,
one star yanked up and sucking blackness as far away
as the hand of salvation from her forehead.

This poem is about rape, about murder, and about the failure of religion (Father) and family (father) to save an innocent girl. It is also (dare I say) an amazing piece of writing. There are lines where nearly every word is separated by a comma from the next, spat forth by this surrogate mother-poet. And there is the repetition of "yelling . . . yelling . . . yelling . . . " until the poem itself begins to scream, the poet-child helpless against the forces of the patriarchy she disdains and fears.

Both Nell and Steve were Euro-American poets who moved to Hawai`i as adults; they were part of an unmarked diaspora that ended in their being marked as white poets. Nell said to me once in a car driving through Kāne`ohe, where she lived at the time, as I do now, that she had never felt welcomed by other poets in Hawai`i. One of our local students was startled to hear Nell repeat that sentiment in the middle of an honors thesis conversation. I'm not sure Nell would have felt at home anywhere, but Hawai`i was her particular challenge. Steve seemed more of the place; he spent his weekends boogie boarding and body surfing, other days flying kites in the park. He married a local woman after his first marriage fell apart. But, in "Sufi Anger in the Late 20th Century," his own sense of dislocation cuts through:

Sometimes it's just too difficult living in a place
where the trees do not have the decency to shed
their leaves and where the birds nest in every season.

So why, especially on a warm night with a batik moon,
full and streaked with cloud, when even the insects are still,
and the ocean at rest laps languidly at every shore,

Why is this night, of all nights, the night you choose
to call me, like a nightmare, offering me a hole to fall into?
Oh, my Soul, or is it fearing your silence, I've called you? (DTW, 45)

Nature is echo chamber, as the headnote from Rumi tells us, "I've been knocking from the inside," writes the poet who came before telephones. But it was also, for Steve, a place so beautiful as to be indescribable: "There is no way to describe the crystalline water / On a sunlit Makapu`u morning" (25), which comes after a poem of directions on how to body surf the Makapu`u shorebreak. From the earlier book: "It's a perfect day at Makapu`u." That book has a photograph of Makapu`u on the cover. Many of Steve's poems tell more than they ought, show less. But he moves inevitably from the real shore break at Makapu`u to a sensation of transcending the moments he so often finds painful. There's Rumi, there's tai chi, and there's the ocean. The ocean at Makapu`u seems to win every time.

I remember Nell's description of Diamond Head / Leahi as resembling a dreadnaught. Her reference to the "cities of refuge" in her "Fool" poem was also about the Pu`uhonua, or Hawaiian place of refuge. Ever the keen eye and ear. But her real work was about sudden widowhood, love affairs, God, and--in later poems--about Ireland'; as I noted, she didn't seem to find this sense of place in Hawai`i, either as poet or as person. Her poems were more about relationships than about places, even if those relationships took "place." Most of all, her poems speak of and to loss. The West Virginia of her childhood was never Wordsworthian. And she brought that trauma to Hawai`i with her, wrote it out in her poems. If, as one of our visiting writers put it, "you write and write and write about pain and then wake up the next morning and it's still there," Nell tried to write it out. That she didn't write much over a long career speaks to the pain of confronting trauma, as well as to the difficulty of writing.

One of the best times I ever had in a classroom was when Nell came in the early 90s to a grad class I was teaching and improvised a reading of Susan Howe's Singularities with me and the students. It was then I realized she was one of the best readers of poetry I had ever encountered (and I audited a class with Harold Bloom in college). She was passionate about poetry, about her students, she was passionate as a friend and passionate as an adversary. She could be utterly exhausting. We all loved her for it, even if and when we pulled away. Steve also loved poetry. He didn't come out of Nell's Renaissance and British Romantic tradition so much as that of Gary Snyder and the Beats. He'd often stop in the hall to ask me what the status of his Tinfish subscription was (when we still published a journal). I never knew, but always said I'd look it up. From what I've heard from his former students, including Father Robert Phelps, a retired priest who was also my student, Steve was a great teacher before his illnesses (and there were many) got in the way.

Finally, some thoughts on having colleagues. My department, which had over 80 full-time faculty members when I arrived in 1990, now has fewer than 40, with more retirements coming soon. My department, which was nearly all-white when I arrived, is not all-white now. That took battles that cost many of us friends. My department, which was mostly male when I arrived, is not now. That also took battles that began before I arrived. Nell and Steve played ambivalent roles in these battles; sometimes I agreed with them, often I did not. God knows over the years I've burned some bridges and had them burned in front of me. But what seems clear in losing Nell and Steve and Bob McHenry is that the high drama of departmental battles, no matter how necessary they are when they happen, needs later to be let go. There's something more final than a bad department meeting. Perhaps these deaths will offer an opening to us. In the elegy, after all, loss becomes gain, even if it's just poem. But a poem can also be a life.


Altizer, Nell. The Man Who Died en Route. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.

--. Thin Place. Kāne'ohe: Tinfish Press, 1999.

Curry, Steven. Dancing the Waves and Other Poems. Honolulu: Anoai Press, 1998.

--. Waxing the Lunar Mountain Apple. Honolulu: Anoai Press, 1997.

Sunday, June 14, 2015


It is all light and life and love. The black and white kitten charges toward doves, splays himself on the screen door. Doves disappear, leaving behind a shallow puddle on the tan lanai. Four years ago today, my mother died. Death is all occasion, or it is none. An occasional poem returns to her more as concept than as mother. Concept begins with con. She told me the story of the invented spy whose “body” was left on a beach for Germans to find. It's the body that's fictive, once the spirit's gone. Dull container of nothing contained. Our witness is hollow, clues that come after fact, not redeeming but merely resurrecting it. That doesn’t mean there is no racism,” says Derrida, “but one is obliged to conceal it to the extent possible.”

--14 June 2015
Derrida's words come from an interview he did with Ornette Coleman in 1997.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

_Breezeway_: John Ashbery and All the News That's Fit


Yesterday I was at the pool with my daughter. As I sat close to the shower, a mother and daughter accidentally sprayed me. I looked down at Breezeway, John Ashbery's newest, and glanced at the opening of "Bunch of Stuff":

To all events I squirted you
knowing this not to be this came to pass
when we were out and it looked good. (34)

If, as Dan Chiasson writes in his New Yorker review of the book, Ashbery "has gone farther from literature within literature than any poet alive," it seems to me that that farther place is often my life as I read his work. Donald Revell has written in "Purists Will Object: Some Meditations about Influence," about the way his memories of reading Ashbery involve the place he sat reading more than the poems themselves. This quality of being inside and outside the literary game at the same time can prove seductive as a reading strategy. For, if Ashbery's work seems random in ways that precede the current use of that word, part of its chance quality involves the reader as a kind of textual palm reader. (As I live within sight of palms, I like this metaphor even more than I might otherwise.)

It's always been hard to write about Ashbery. The richness of his language meets the flatness of surfaces more quickly than for most poets. Just when you think you're reaching altitude, you've crash-landed back where you started (if you factor in the instructions to the jury not to remember your ascent). One of the fall-back positions of the critic is to talk about Ashbery's use of language, his American vocabulary, his uses of colloquial, nay cliched, phrases. As Chiasson notes, "As with most of Ashbery’s work, its medium is composed partly of language foraged from everyday American speech. The effect is sometimes unnerving, as though somebody had given you your own garbage back as a gift, cheerfully wrapped."

Not sure if he intended to call American speech "garbage," but there you have it, "cheerfully wrapped" we presume, before it begins to smell. Yes, Ashbery is like a baleine through which American words flow and become grist for his mill (he also likes mixed metaphors). One of my favorite lines in this book, under the very American title, "Heading Out," reads: "Your napkin ring is bitch-slapping America."  I have no idea why I like that, or why it makes me laugh, but like many lines in this book, it does.

And there are the "crypt words" that John Shoptaw writes about and that Chiasson invokes in his review: "the verb 'to bark down' is almost 'to back down' or 'to break down,' which I suppose you might do when hit with a storm’s debris; the meaningless adverb 'jugularly' might be 'jocularly' or 'muscularly,' misheard through the storm’s strong winds. You’d rather have a 'winch' than a 'wench' in a storm: the context implies the former, the tone the latter. These poems conjure a massive mental errata slip made up of what they almost say and nearly mean." OK, so that last sentence offers up the positive spin on the Ashbery-haters' "it doesn't make any sense so why should I bother." But where is Ashbery's American English located? What is the landscape of his lexicon? If we were to look into what kinds of words he hears, might that lead us somewhere?

So what do the following titles have in common? "Listening Tour"? "Andante and Filibuster"? "Botched Rollout"? "Separate Hearings"? Recent American politics is what. "Listening Tour" begins with an argument between the poet and someone else about the relative value of NBC and CBS and ends with a bizarre take on revolutions put down by farmers, peasants, and "the enlightened classes." Hillary Clinton's run for Senate in New York, an office she won in 2000, featured a "listening tour." I just found an article on that listening tour in a journal called International Journal of Listening (2005). While listening involves the sense of hearing, the journal still has a "vision statement": "The Vision of the Association is to be the international leader of listening practices, teaching, and research." Your purpose in joining the organization would involve your desire to "Access cutting-edge research you can use professionally and personally to give you a better understanding of how listening affects all areas in your life."And, as I write this, Hillary Clinton has started another listening tour, this one toward nomination and election as President. 

If running for office involves listening, especially I suspect if the candidate is female, then the post-election process involves "filibustering." "To filibuster" is the opposite of "to listen"; to filibuster is to speak without expectation that anyone will listen. To filibuster is to fill time with your voice; sound is more important than sense. The word "filibuster," according to the US Senate site, derives from the Dutch word for "pirate." To filibuster is to force a temporal delay. The first stanza of Ashbery's poem mentions "the vote," but the rest of the poem is about a house in decay, a house that needs repair. ""We got a small grant to have the house inspected and / as a result of that discovered a small crack / leading from the front door to the basement." A house divided against itself cannot stand, said Abraham Lincoln. A house in decay needs to be "hosed down," as Ashbery puts it. The poem comes to an inconclusive but sharp conclusion:

No bricks. Just mortar. Ready. Ready for a takeover.
The catalpas of reconciliation wilt,
proving, if little else,
why a good presentation matters. 

Walt Whitman spent time at a Union hospital in Virginia. In his "Memoranda during the War," he writes: "Out doors, at the foot of a tree, within ten yards of the front of the house, I notice a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands, &c., a full load for a one-horse cart. Several dead bodies lie near, each cover’d with its brown woolen blanket…." That was a catalpa tree. So, after the failures of reconciliation, from the Civil War to the current House and Senate, have wilted, all that's left is "a good presentation." To filibuster is a mode of public relations, as Rand Paul and Wendy Davis have shown in recent years. It's a making something happen so as to avoid anything happening. Is there a better description of our current political climate?

The next poem in Breezeway--note that a breezeway is not a bridge, but serves much the same purpose, linking buildings via a covered walkway--returns us to the language of legislation. "The Ritz Brothers on Moonlight Bay" begins with a vague if grand-ish statement: "We talked about the great error / that you can live with / and really can't afford to get." But it moves quickly back into Congress: "The stalled investigation proved otherwise. / And give back the taxpayers' money. / The space program cost too much anyway." The rest of the poem plays with the notion of "universe" and universal questions: "Oblivion swiftly followed, the universe / playing catch-up"; "A fistful of s'mores / put death itself on the agenda / for future discussion."

If the Obama years have been dominated by Republican obstructionism, exemplified by constant filibustering of legislation and nominees for office, then Obama's prime accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, was presented to the country in a "Botched Rollout," the title of another poem in the book. In 2013, Obama was attacked for the snarl that ensued when Obamacare went live on the internet: headlines like "Botched ACA Rollout Hammers Obama: Job Disapproval Reaches a Career High" flashed on televisions and computer screens. As Lucia Graves pointed out in one article, the botched rollout was compared to disasters far worse than it could ever be: the sinking of the Titanic, Iraq, the explosion of the Challenger, Waterloo. The poem-vessel fills with words associated with insurance: "claims" (albeit as verb), "estate"; "estimate / / bill"; "repositioning downward." "Why stop to tell the president?" the speaker asks, then wanders into a dark wood: "If one is halfway lost in a demented woodland, / what about the new book?" The new book is what? Is it what's being rolled out? I'm not sure; nor am I sure who "Mr. Wrigley" might be, who "appreciates that," as the poem ends. Though if Mr. Wrigley is heir to a chewing gum fortune, surely he knows something about appreciating values.

I've written elsewhere about the poem "Breezeway," which was published in the New Yorker in the middle of a long essay about dementia care. Now that I have Ashbery's book in front of me, I see that it ends with a poem about dementia, "A Sweet Disorder." This is an old age poem such as none I've ever encountered; neither Yeats's rage, nor Bishop's melancholy (& etc.) allude to the disease of our time, Alzheimer's. This poem is paradoxically the most clear in the volume; I'll quote it in its entirety:

Pardon my sarong, I'll have a Shirley Temple.
Certainly, sir. Do you want a cherry with that?
I guess so. It's part of it, isn't it?
Strictly speaking, yes. Some of them likes it,
others not so much. Well, I'll have a cherry.
I can be forgiven for not knowing it's de rigueur.
In my commuter mug, please. Certainly.

He doesn't even remember me.
It was a nice, beautiful day.
One of your favorite foxtrots was on,
neckties they used to wear.
You could rely on that.

My gosh, it's already 7:30.
Are these our containers?
Pardon my past, because, you know,
it was like all one piece.
It can't have escaped your escaped your attention
that I would argue.
How was it supposed to look?
Do I wake or sleep?

The Shirley Temple, a child's drink, ushers in notions of old age as a second childhood. The bartender's question, "It's a part of it, isn't it?" means one thing in the first stanza, quite another in the second, where the question of forgetting enters. The speaker remembers the past his friend forgets, full of foxtrots and neckties. The third stanza may or may not be in the voice of a demented speaker. But his surprise over time, his asking pardon for his past, and especially his repeated words in the line, "It can't have escaped your escaped your attention," point to dementia, as does the confession of irritability ("that I would argue.") This recasts the final line as much more literal than Keats's (repeated here) last line: "Do I wake or sleep?" "Ode to a Nightingale" is also a poem about forgetting; its speaker feels himself pulled "Lethe-ward." He contrasts his own keen awareness of mortality to that of the nightingale, who sings across the generations without ceasing. Ashbery is a Keatsian poet, but the nightingale is his demented friend, singing the refrain of "escaped your escaped your attention." That dementia is a kind of immortality will seem a perversion of Romanticism, but it's the Romanticism of our time, as more and more people get Alzheimer's and fade into waking sleep. And as our politics depends on a metaphorical version of dementia, lurching from one election cycle to the next without the continuity that memory offers. We are listeners trapped in a filibuster of life itself.

Ashbery pulls us away from the poetry of a correspondent breeze into one that fails to correspond, that is more breezeway than breeze. The breezeway protects us against the elements but also takes us away from them. That "nice, beautiful day" of the past cedes to "our containers." We have left our house and moved into a home. 

John Ashbery, Breezeway. New York: Ecco, 2015.

Dan Chiasson, "American Snipper: New Poems from John Ashbery," The New Yorker, June 1, 2015.  

Susan M. Schultz, Ed., The Tribe of John: Ashbery and Contemporary Poetry, Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1995.

Friday, June 12, 2015


Having eyes I see not, having eyes I hear not, having an heart I understand not what the flatness of my prose lends to the complexity of sound this morning: dove song, military plane, my husband's fingers on his keyboard. The simplicity of these sentences doesn't—perhaps—pose difficulty enough for a reader-cum-thinker. What lure is there to enter into this Newport News of the paragraph, straight flat road after straight flat road, as you go to see Driving Miss Daisy in the late 80s? Difficulty is invitation, after all, hardly the bouncer you've taken it to be, standing outside the club door in Raleigh to turn away a man with Semitic features. We rent only to Christians, his friend was told. We're not from these parts, our sentences all but declare, and our disdain for local forms mandates rejection. I hate this paragraph, one says, for lacking grace notes. Nell hated “Amazing Grace” for its “wretch like me.” But you can sneak that in, if the song's pretty enough.

--12 June 2015

Wednesday, June 10, 2015


All things immediately near: washing machine churn; weed whacker buzz; thud of dirty clothes thrown down the stairs; a worker's KSSK music; mosquito itch. An apology for mis-communication that is mis-communication. The moment teasing cedes to gut-punch. You're not my real mother. Nor is mine any more. When text re-becomes image, you're in the process of cropping a life. Grief's are not safety scissors. Our kittens kick a ping pong ball against the walls of the nook. One lies under the couch, while the other waits beside it. To compose grief is to add to it, after a feeling interval of sound. It's an orphan thing, my friend says. Kitten kicks to kitten; she kicks back through electrical cord tangle. An artist finds sound in the running of sap, guitars and zebra finches. Listen through the voice-over to the pinging of water in porcelain bowls.

--9 June 2015

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

91 (3)

Let it be more abundant than the sea. What thou lovest well remains only as text. Her breath is the image of a sound on a narrow bed. To take one sport on top of the other makes no sense in this world, only in the preposition of it. She was on the bed and I beside it. We were past knowing each another, but not our breathing. This poem threatens you with sentiment, but I do not. Evacuate the reader's room, if need be, and empty the lawn of everything that is not green. An old woman sits on a low bench clipping grass with her scissors. A man walks the highway's shoulder in slippers. Two pitbulls pull another man forward, leashes attached to a hook in his belt. He's thick set, but we've seen him do the splits beside his truck. Detail is memory's refuge and its scoundrel. That's a word she liked, like eleemosynary.

--7 June 2015

Friday, June 5, 2015


This body is not the cloud, but the pillar assumed to manifest his love unto us. I found a notebook of Radhika's early English phrases. In it, I said the word, “Buddha,” pointed out Buddha's head, and she said “mouth!” She pushed a toy car towards me, said “Buddha!” The “e” changes “a” from car to care. Compassion's a machine that sounds our voice, pre-linguistic and post-industrial. To hand out is to act. I took the styrofoam box in my two hands and placed it beside a man sitting on the sidewalk. It felt like ritual, like obeisance, too little too late and yet. If he sits in front of a business, he can be arrested. If he sits across the street from a business, he's subject to a sweep. A subject is agent to an action. In the past tense, it's disabled, swept. Oh grandfather Joseph, was that you on Hotel Street, or do you still somewhere walk the streets of Pittsburgh? Your signed copy of Hamlet sits on my shelves. I knew you only through my mother's words, which were not kind.

--5 June 2015

Thursday, June 4, 2015


ll his joints are dissolved, all his blood is shed. I entered a museum in Munich expecting to see Jesus tending the poor; instead, he hung on his cross a thousand times, sad and mutilated. Such cogent narratives come of suffering. I stutter at my happiness, thinking it so unlikely. I killed myself, but left my body out of it. Dissolution heals, like flows of ice or money through pipes or diagrams. Compassion's a dull thing; it offers us only a two by four and a dream kit. Take out the directions out, only to find there are none. The catcher, he says, doesn't even signal pitch or location. He'll save the cutter for when he needs it.

--4 June 2015

Tuesday, June 2, 2015


Those cheeks are shades, those limbs and members clouds, that hide the glory of Thy mind. I wrote a book that no one wants to read. One's too young to read it; another just moved and can't find the box; a third walked out of the reading before it started. My mother, she explained. It's too sentimental, a critic asserts, who admits she couldn't read it. Her husband, you know. The book is a form of knowing that none of us wants to claim. The book stands in for illness like sail for boat. The book is the material space of a suffering you don't want to live. It was easier to write than to edit. Something about addition rather than reduction, about being there instead of visiting. This is not tourism, this guidebook to unraveling. There's no sea wall you can build to keep the shore intact. The closer you get to the break, the more you want to beat it with your paddle. Don't resist, Pema writes. But that's what makes the world better, a commenter responds.

--2 June 2015