The River That Washes the World

painting of a river

Painting by Galya Velkova

In the last couple of months or so, the muse of poetry has not come by my house, even though I left the porch light on. I think I saw her down the street one day. She looked like she was going somewhere else, maybe waiting for Uber, because she kept checking her phone and then looking around.

So I haven’t written any poetry in weeks, nor do I feel any urge to do so. Fortunately, I’m not a poet, so it’s OK if I don’t write poems. The last one I wrote was about two months ago, and I thought I’d post it here, because: 1) I’m lazy, 2) it’s easy to do this, and 3) I’m…oh, I already mentioned lazy.

I also want to say something about the technique on this poem. When I wrote the first verse (which is now the fourth verse, revised), I discovered that the second and fourth lines didn’t exactly rhyme, but they did have a slight echo of sound (“dreams” and “rain”). That struck me as interesting, so I decided with every verse to intentionally use a semi-rhyme like that, a process that was just as much work as rhyming, maybe more.

Lucky for you, I changed my mind about going into more detail, talking about internal rhymes and voiced or voiceless consonants, blah blah blah. Who cares? Here’s a poem that strides gladly into the welcome darkness, and I offer my thanks to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen for creating the space for me to write this poem.

Now Drink

Sit down in the place where all the kings died,
and the new kings will die in their turn,
amid luxury, grace, and elegant meals,
in the hall where the plotting occurs.

Sit down in the room where the Quakers once met
in the city that lived on its slaves,
where everyone knew who wore silk and who chains
and that time when the rope grew too frayed.

Sit down on the shore where people once sailed
far away and they never came back,
though their luggage still sits untouched in the sun,
with an old folded nautical map.

Sit down by the light of the fateful sunset,
in the meadow where hopes fade to dreams
of wolves that stand still at the edge of the dark,
or gray gods who appear in the rain.

Sit down by the river that washes the world,
with currents of good and bad luck.
Sit down by the water and hold out your hands,
and we’ll give you your own silver cup.

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Poetry at a Higher Elevation

Young Harris College

Young Harris College

Though it is hard for me to imagine my grandmother as a young girl just out of high school, no doubt she was once. It is even harder for me to imagine that my farmworking grandmother, who I remember in a print cotton dress and sunbonnet working in the fields, who filled baskets with fresh tomatoes and corn and strawberries, went to college for one year when she got out of high school.

The college my grandmother attended was in the north Georgia mountains, in a town with the very strange name of Young Harris. From picking cotton, she earned enough money to buy a large trunk to carry her belongings, and off she went to Young Harris College. After one year, however, she was too homesick and never went back.

Last Saturday I went to the town of Young Harris myself, the first time I’ve ever been there, to the very school my grandmother attended. I went with my girlfriend to a meeting of the Georgia Poetry Society, which she belongs to (and which my father used to belong to). I didn’t mind going to a poetry meeting, but I really just went to spend the day with her in the mountains. I got up at 6:00 in the morning, which is still the middle of the night, in my opinion, as we had a two-hour drive to get there and needed to get on the road.

I find the mountains of north Georgia peacefully beautiful, and the road we followed for a while writhes back and forth like a frantic snake. That contorted road led us up Blood Mountain, up and up for miles, with no hint of descent, and all that way we passed thin muscular bicyclists, in tight cycling outfits, pushing hard on the pedals, to work their way maniacally up the mountain.

On our drive, we also passed the farmstead home of the poet Byron Herbert Reece, an Appalachia boy who published novels and poetry, and who was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, earned Guggenheim Awards, and was a writer-in-residence at UCLA and Emory. When we finally reached Young Harris College, where the meeting was being held, I was a bit astonished by what a pretty campus it is. The view takes in those wonderful low mountains, and the campus itself is an interesting mix of new and old architecture, incorporating some pleasant landscaping.

We met in the faculty and staff dining room of the student center, where one wall was lined with bookshelves filled with bound volumes of old magazines (I know because I checked to see what they were), and with framed black and white photographs. Along the other side of the room were glass doors looking out at the mountains.

The meeting began with an open mic, which I signed up for and read a poem about sailing to Saturn while drinking wine with friends. We also had a longer reading by a featured poet, Karen Paul Holmes, who read from a new book, and she did some quite nice pieces. I had seen her before in Atlanta at the Callanwolde Arts Center, so we recognized one another.

The events for the day were scheduled to have two workshops run by poetry professors from the college, but instead of workshops we ended up having lectures. I didn’t really mind, as I have little interest in poetry workshops (i.e., no interest). I don’t wish to write poetry when someone says “write”, nor do I have any great interest in studying how to write poetry. Unconsciously, perhaps I do study poetry, as I’ve thought quite a bit about how to write it, but if someone were to ask me to study the topic, it would grow dismal for me and lose all interest.

While we were in that room, those words that had taken their place in line for history sat on the shelf in bound volumes. The words that were still participating in the messy chaos of life were moving about in the air around us.

Here is a bit of poetry by Byron Herbert Reece:

My heart’s contracted to a stone.
Therefore whatever roads repair
To cities on the plain, my own
Lead upward to the peaks; and there
I feel, pushing my ribs apart,
The wide sky entering my heart.

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We Have Tongues As Pure As Snow

Vladimir Putin on screen

I heard what you said

This evening I read an article on the BBC Russian language website, and I have to tell you a quote in that article from a Senator in the Russian government. He was referring to the fact that the head of the government youth organization (they have such a thing), who was talking about how to raise a child to be patriotic, used the word “quest”, apparently from English (spelled квест in Russian).

The Senator said (my translation from the Russian):

“If we don’t raise our young people, someone else will. If we use phrases, words, and expressions imported from other languages, we’re not raising our children to be dedicated to our Russia. Instead, they will will live according to the formulas, interests, standards, and models of other countries.”

In the article I read, three different senators were quoted as objecting to this word. We can draw two conclusions from this incident. (1) There are no actual problems in Russia that Senators need to spend their time on. (2) Just like the United States, Russia has some really fucking stupid politicians.

Given the behavior of one of our political parties here in the U.S., we can now say that there are politicians in both countries who see their main function as not doing anything that might upset Vladimir Putin.

Look at that translated quote again. That’s a pretty heavy bag for one word to carry, but “quest”—I bet that word is up to it. Notice that the Senator used not one, or two, or three, but four nouns (“formulas, interests, standards, and models”) to emphasize the perniciousness of foreign words, like . . . um, Senator (spelled сенатор in Russian).

Of those four Russian nouns, by the way, the first three are very obviously borrowed from English or French. But this blog entry is not just about ignorance. Every country on earth has plenty of people who firmly believe that patriotism and stupidity are the same thing. A more interesting point is why purity of language is seen as a sign of patriotism.

You can find this attitude everywhere. The French even have an Academy that most people ignore, which tells them how to speak proper French. Here in America we have no Academy, but we’ve had plenty of politicians propose laws we don’t need to make English our official language, not because we need to communicate better—we already speak English here—but from xenophobia and distrust of other languages.

If we were to take the cynical point of view, we could say that every single thing human beings touch, they will find a way to turn into a howling mob and break it. Naturally, I’m not going to take the cynical point of view. Instead, I’ll say that this obsession with imaginary purity of language, and how important that is, is a sign of the great importance of language. Even people what don’t know no rules in English and ain’t got no reason to learn none, even those people will insist on how important English is here in America, by God.

I just look at them and say, “Moi? I’m not arguing.”

If you read Russian and want to see the original that I quoted up above, here it is: “Если не мы воспитываем нашу молодежь, ее воспитывает кто-то другой. Если мы вводим формулировки, термины и формулы на импортных языках, мы воспитываем не людей, преданных нашей Родине, а живущих формулами, интересами, стандартами, шаблонами других государств”, – заявил сенатор Алексей Кондратьев (Тамбовская область).

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You Can Imagine an Angel

forestWe drift through a physical existence composed of incomprehensibly small particles, separated by spaces that are filled with energy. It seems, though, as we perceive the world, that we see shadows moving on the ground, light and dark exchanging, and we can look up to see leaves moving on the trees that appear so solid and substantial. There appears to be no escape from the illusion of reality, and at times how heavy, how grim, and how hopeless that illusion can be.

The spirit has ways to try to find itself, however, and one of those ways is with words, which are themselves so insubstantial, almost as if they don’t exist, but how powerful they are. To give an oversimplified example, if a woman falls in love with someone who is not interested, and she is then turned down for a job she wants, the woman can write a story about a character who struggles and then gets hired, and who later finds romance. With writing, the unhappy woman can at least imagine a better reality.

More profoundly, I was shown an article this week by a writer who described the ability of writing to help the writer make sense of chaotic and disturbing events. For events of chaotic incoherence, such as experiencing a war or becoming a refugee, a writer might find or create some kind of narrative, presenting events that lead to one another. In that piece of writing, crazy unconnected things will happen, but in the writer’s narrative, events will also move in some logical direction.

Writing can not change what happened, but the creation of a narrative structure allows the writer to mentally process the disturbing event with some feeling that at least a bit of logic is moving through the madness. It may just be a mental trick, but given that our spirits are trapped in a world of physical illusion anyway, it works.

At other times, events may not be chaotic but nevertheless disturbing, such as violence against a person, or even something more long-term, such as ongoing racism. In such a case, one approach a writer might take is to create a story in which the events become controlled by the writer, as in my oversimplification above. The writing allows the writer to write the world as it should have happened.

I also just read an article in the Washington Post about a class teaching Tolstoy and Russian literature to young prisoners in Virginia, with the powerful effect the writing had on people who felt helpless and lost. The article made it clear that for some of the prisoners, the experience was deeply affirming, helping them to recover some of the hope in life that they had lost.

The power of literature is perhaps an indirect indication of the power of the human mind and spirit. In the most basic conception of writing, it is nothing but symbols, and those symbols are arbitrary inventions. Compare, for instance, how the word “angel” is written in Russian (ангел) or Japanese (天使).

Once in a while, I used to tell my own students that a page of writing does not say anything. It is nothing more than spots of ink on paper. When we read it, however, the words form and the ideas happen inside the mind of the reader. The reader helps to create what is happening with a piece of writing, and when a reader is moved by writing, when the reader is inspired, finds affirmation, finds hope, connects with life—the reader is touching things that in some sense were there all along.

We say that writing is powerful, and it is, for both writers and readers. At the same time, writing is a tool we have invented to touch the power that we all have inherently.

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How Can I Read Your Book If I Don’t See Your Photograph?

fox sitting at a typewriter

I just really don’t want to write about hen houses.

Last Saturday I bought four Irish novels. I read one of them this week, a book that is very modern in the sense that it pushes the boundaries of narrative, so after a while it becomes so strange you just read it knowing that it will be strange, or you quit reading. When I went looking for Irish novels, however, what did I mean by “Irish”? Does Irish literature have to focus on small stone cottages set on green hillsides, with people who drink Guinness and say, “How’s your Da?”

It’s fairly common to describe literature, as I did, based on the writers (who they are, where they come from), rather than based on the writing itself. This can make for some strange classifications. The short Irish novel I just read, for instance mentions Irish place names and makes a few Irish cultural references, but in fact, with very few changes, the book could take place in Los Angeles or Buenos Aires or Tokyo. Is this an “Irish” novel or just a novel by an Irish writer. Or are they exactly the same thing?

Years ago I gave myself an ambitious goal of reading a novel from every country on the earth (I never came close). I thought I had Ireland covered at the time because I’d read Gulliver’s Travels, but someone pointed out that Jonathan Swift was actually Anglo-Irish (I note that Wikipedia also refers to him as Anglo-Irish). He was born in Dublin, mostly grew up in Dublin, went to college in Dublin, died in Dublin, and is buried there. But according to this point of view, he’s not exactly Irish.

Trying to define Irish literature is an example of a broader question of defining any kind of literary group. As one example, writers are routinely identified as belonging to particular countries. Here is the U.S., we also categorize writers based on groups that have traditionally lacked power. There’s a logic to this, as people in those groups can describe a reality and life that people in the power group would not know. Thus we talk about women writers, black writers, American-Indian writers, and so on.

How many writers like these labels? Probably almost none. Philip Roth, who just died and who repeatedly wrote books using Jewish characters, did not want to be known as a “Jewish” writer but as a good writer, regardless of his subject matter. And does being a member of one of these groups imply a certain type of subject matter? Did the black writer Octavia Butler, who wrote science fiction, write “black” literature? Was she not a real black writer?

From a literary point of view, what is Irish? Before I visited Limerick, Ireland, a woman who lives there recommended that I read Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt, to get a feeling of Limerick, so I read it. There is even a museum to McCourt in the city of Limerick, yet he was born in New York and spent almost his entire life in America. Is he more Irish than Jonathan Swift, who lived all his life in Ireland?

The labels we use for writers and writing can sometimes be handy, because those labels might indicate cultural differences or ways of living, history, language, and so on. But as with so much, we can also use these labels in a stupid lazy way, as if a writer is supposed to write certain things based on country of origin, or skin color, or culture, and so on.

It’s no wonder writers don’t like the labels. As dictators around the world know, there are writers willing to go to prison rather be told what they are allowed to write.

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Huh? What Did You Say?

statue of boy peeingDo you know we have a word in English that means “to piss at night”? Or rather, that would be a verb. I guess it just means “pissing at night”. A noun. I was quite surprised to find this word, which I did in the last week or so in one of the articles I was editing for the medical journal. The word is “nocturia”. Given the medical context, I suppose the more proper meaning is probably something like “getting up at night to urinate”.

Why is there a word like that? My theory is that it’s because men complain about having to do it. Maybe it’s not just men complaining, though when a man reaches a certain age, like…um, mine, that’s just how it is. In any case, it’s the complaining that created the word. I’m pretty sure there are no medical articles about people going to the doctor saying, “Doc, can you help me? I have to pee during the day.”

Down the hall on the right.

From editing that same article, I also discovered the word “alguria”, which means “painful urination”. OK, I see a need for that one, if you’ve been places you shouldn’t have been.

Cheerful words about urination aside, an interesting word I’ve learned on this job is “catastrophize”. I had never heard it before, but it’s actually fairly common in the articles I read. The word is used to mean a patient who takes whatever medical condition they have, focuses on it, and exaggerates how awful it is. Catastrophizing is actually considered to make some patients worse, like the opposite of the famous placebo effect that makes people get better even without treatment, just because they believe they’re getting treated. When a person is catastrophizing, they get worse because they believe it.

But of the grim medical words I’ve learned, the one I like best is “claudication”, with the meaning “pain in the legs from limited blood flow”. It comes from Latin claudicare meaning “to limp”. What makes this a cool word, however, is not its strangely narrow medical meaning. What makes it cool is that the word is connected, at least by Latin etymology, with the Roman Emperor Claudius, who reigned in the years 41 to 54. The connection is that Claudius had a medical condition that made him limp, so we can see the connection in his name.

Since humans first grunted a loud exclamation, several hundred thousand years ago, meaning “danger”, we’ve done amazing things with the noises our mouths can make. First, we probably worked up some specialized danger exclamations meaning “tiger” or “snake” or “big hole”. Now look at the kind of subtle words we’ve got: carburetor, sautée, piddle, indubitably. It’s a plethora, a veritable surfeit, an expansive cornucopia of words.

We have far more words in English than anyone could ever come close to knowing, but many of them are technical words, like alguria. Then again, why not just say “painful urination”? Is that too clear? As a matter of fact, probably yes. I’ve read that as modern medicine developed, doctors wanted to set themselves off as professionals, and having a special language that only they could understand would help to do that. Given what I know of human nature, that explanation makes sense to me.

I have a special language that sets me off as a professional, too. I can’t tell you what it is, though, because if anyone else knew it, then it wouldn’t be special.

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Yes, But From Where…?

sculpture of man with his head in a wallA week ago, I saw a painting of a giant hand with a snow leopard standing on the palm (or perhaps it was a normal hand with a really tiny snow leopard). The painter was nearby, and when my girlfriend commented on the painting, he said the idea for it came from waking up in the Himalayas to find that a snow leopard had been walking around outside their tents.

Yet even if you woke up and stepped out of a tent on a chilly morning in the Himalayas to see footprints of a large cat, how would you go from that to the idea of such a painting?

For almost a week I didn’t write anything on the current novel, in large part because I was gone for several days last week to Charleston, South Carolina, to the Spoleto festival. When I don’t write for a while, I find that it takes more effort to get into the flow of it again, so one night this week I was looking at notes I had previously made. Puttering with the notes is less effort than actually creating a text, but it gives me the feeling I’m somehow working.

After a bit (I do this all the time), I thought, “Enough putzing around. Time to face that demanding void and write something.” I always approach the writing process with the idea that what I write doesn’t entirely matter, because it will be revised anyway, and no one has to see it. Just write something, I tell myself, even something stupid.

So I did. Slowly, I described my character in a yoga class, then on his way home he stopped to talk to neighbors and learned that the woman had made a banana pudding. Gradually, a piece of the world came out of nowhere. I often find that once a scene is written, though I will probably revise it, what is there begins to seem like a real place, with real events. I get a feeling as if I’ve gone from a demanding blank void, where there is nothing, to a place that truly exists. Everything ahead continues to be a void, but what has been written now exists for me as if it was always there.

Sometimes I wonder how this is possible. I know I wrote it, obviously, yet after it’s done, there’s a kind of magic about it, as if I merely uncovered what was simply hidden. Where do these creations come from?

It was in Charleston last week that I went to an art gallery and saw the leopard painting, and while we were there at Spoleto we also attended a modern dance performance by Dorrance Dance. The show was partially tap dance, but combined with very modern choreography, to make a performance that was fascinating and at times strange.

If you have an idea to write about a man talking to his neighbors about banana pudding, or you decide to paint a hand holding a snow leopard, or you want the legs to move in a certain way as the foot rhythmically taps the floor, where does all this come from? From about 30,000 years ago we have examples of both carved objects and wall paintings, so humans have been imagining and creating for a very long time. Even though I am one of the creators, even as I’m inside that process doing it, it still mystifies me.

I also think not only about where acts of creation come from, but why are we compelled by that demanding void to fill it?

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