Friday, April 14, 2006


Upstairs, the dogs are curled in their own beds and my wife is clutching the comforter as she twitches her eyes in her own ineffable dreams. I’m sitting here on the sofa, half-listening to The Gospel of Judas and half-distracted by the thoughts of spring cleaning and taxes.

It’s just past midnight on Good Friday. Taxes are due on Saturday. I find this coincidence of the calendar oddly pleasing. Just as many in the country finally can succumb to their Lenten temptations, a government deadline looms. And then, on the next day, those who are so inclined can celebrate a seminal aspect of Christian faith—the resurrection.

Since it is Easter weekend, a brief discussion of the sprung rhythms of Gerard Manley Hopkins or the vivid visions of William Blake or even the heart-rending doubt of Thomas Hardy might make sense, but most of my library is still boxed in the basement. Worse, what could I say that would not be boring or redundant?

Instead, I’ll tell you about a brief conversation in a bar with a dear friend. It was my senior year of college, and being of a certain age and of a certain disposition, I was blustering prophetic poppycock about my place in the canon of 21st-century American poetry. In retrospect, I had probably had too much coffee.

Nevertheless, I sat in that bar, nursing a beer while she poured another cup from the pitcher we shared. We had not spoken for weeks, which seemed an eternity in those days, so the conversation lolled along, ranging from topic to topic. We spoke of Janis Joplin, whose “Me and Bobby McGee” played again and again on the dive’s jukebox. We spoke of classes and our mutual friends, who we leaned on as though they were family, and of course, we spoke of writing. Now, almost 10 years later, I can’t remember most of what was said, and I strongly suspect that if I did remember any of my words I’d be too ashamed to recreate them here. I do, however, recall the echo of one phrase.

She told me that (somehow) I’d taught her that life is a kind of poetry. Even now I hesitate to take any credit for such an insight. But I do think that she is right. Life, with its bureaucracy of emotions, is an epic poem that even Virgil couldn’t replicate. And conversely, the minutiae of our lives is the earth from which poetry flowers. So, take a moment.


Now imagine a psalm—dripping with whatever surreal images would delight you most—to the oracular columns, recondite calculations, and hermetic instructions of the tax code.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Be Here Now

The doggies are asleep on the sofa in the other room, and not at school today, so I am sitting in my office, listening intently for the sound of their tags rattling. I have to make this entry quick and short. Otherwise, it could be interrupted by growls and yelping. For our dogs, puppy entertainment is not unlike a Hollywood film: the days are filled with countless confrontations, endless brouhahas, and senseless violence, but it never really amounts to anything. No one gets hurt, no real conflict is ever resolved, and no moment is without action.

Dixie, an unregistered Jack Russell Terrier, has awoken. She is a mere four-and-a-half months old and already heavier, taller, and perhaps faster than Archie, an Italian Greyhound/Rat Terrier mix, who has recently recovered from that necessary surgery that makes all male owners cringe.

I return to my laptop, outside in our backyard. The puppies are sprawled in the spring sun, gnawing at cuttings in the thick green grass of our overgrown lawn. A woman walks down the city-owned catwalk that borders our property, and the dogs leap up, snarling and then barking their warning at this unwelcome woman they view as a trespasser. I shout the “shush!” command, but it has minimal effect. The woman keeps walking, and our dogs dash back to their spots, growling briefly at each other until they are settled.

They will spend the morning sniffing out weeds and rabbit droppings, two of their favorite snacks. Perhaps not. Archie just discovered the headless corpse of a small rodent—the very prey for which these dogs were bred. I shout “Leave It!” and he backs away, but Dixie, naturally curious, walks over and lifts what might be a shrew in her jowls. I shout “Leave It!” once again, but rather than listening, she dashes into the sun-drenched stretch of grass where she had been gnashing on sticks. I shout the command again and again in staccato as I chase her part way across the yard. She drops the thing—is it a shrew—for a moment, and I stand above it like an alpha male claiming a kill. But unlike Dixie, I don’t even want to touch the dead thing with its entrails spilling out from its neck.

For a moment, I have no idea what to do. The dogs weave and circle around me, pushing their muzzles past my feet, trying to get at the rodent. There is a part of me that longs to leave them to their natures, to watch them shred into the sinewy flesh, and devour the unfortunate rodent from dangling tail to neck. But I’m protective of these animals. I adore them. And thoughts of parasites and disease from a wild rodent silence my curiosity. Instead, I think of simply grabbing it and tossing it over the fence onto the catwalk. But unlike Dixie, I don’t want to touch the miserable dead thing. At last, I grab each of dogs and lift them up, cradling their small torsos between my arms and ribs. I carry them into the backdoor and leave them in the hallway behind the kitchen while I gather the supplies: a Ziploc baggy and a handful of paper towels. I dash outside, making Archie and Dixie wait behind the storm door as I gather the tiny carcass without touching it, then bury it in our trashcan.

When the rodent is secured in the purgatory of the trash bin, I open the storm door, letting the dogs bolt into the sunshine. They search the yard, sniffing for the rodent or something equally intriguing until, minutes later, they sprawl in the sun a few feet from me and gnaw on sticks.

But what does any of this have to do with poetry? It’s simple. Dogs, unlike people, spend their waking lives in the moment. They move from enticement to enticement. They rest when they are weary. They suffer pain when it is present. They are not burdened by the past. They are not overwhelmed by the future. They simply are.

And to relate to a dog, an owner must, like the dog, stay in the moment. Likewise, much poetry, through its artifice, allows the reader to inhabit a moment. It is the moment of the poem, or it is the simulation of a moment, perhaps from centuries ago. An excellent poem encourages the reader’s attention and demands presence.

Poetry is the puppy I never knew I had.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


The doggies are off at "school," Michelle is at work, and the house is filled with quiet. And I am, well, I am contemplating poetry. I’m embarrassed to admit it. I mean, who—aside from students, teachers, and NPR hosts—actually thinks about poetry?

I can’t pinpoint the I sat down at that old tan-colored desk in my father's two-bedroom apartment and clicked away at my electrfirst moment ic Smith Corona as couplets spilled from my head, but I suspect I took that fateful step in high school. I must have labored late into the evening, with the The Wonder Years blaring on the TV. I had just read the Illuminatus! Trilogy and was no doubt flirting with the notion that I should consider myself an anarchist (ah, the logic of teenagers!) I rummaged through a book on Greek mythology trying to familiarize myself with the roles of Eros, Helen, Paris, and a golden apple in the onslaught of the Trojan War.

Now why in the world would a high school kid—who could be outside skateboarding down suburban streets or cooped in his room twiddling away at the Nintendo controller—trudge through Greek mythology and desperately rack his brain for anything that would rhyme with "apple"?

You see there was this girl.

On the school’s dance squad.

With mousy-brown hair.

So naturally, I wanted to tell her, somehow, that to me, she was the prettiest one. That poem would be my golden apple. So I typed out something maudlin and added a kind of anonymous love letter that closed by calling her lovely in German. I typed her address across the envelope, conveniently forgetting the return address. Then, before losing my nerve, I sealed the anonymous missive with a kiss, affixed a stamp, and skated to the nearest mailbox. Holding my breath, I shoved the dispatch into the slot. And skated back home, hoping the swelling regrets couldn’t catch up.

The next Monday during lunch, she pulled me aside and asked, "How do you say 'love' in German?"

I told her.

In the years since that moment, our lives have naturally diverged. With the onset of college, we tried briefly to build something across the 1500 miles that separated us. I even made her an impossible promise that Christmas: that I'd dedicate my first book to her. Of course, it wouldn’t have worked even without the extra mileage. I do know, however, that she kept that poem until a boyfriend tore the only copy to shreds.

I doubt she kept it because the poem was well-crafted, insightful, or even entertaining. I doubt she could remember a single word from it now. Instead, she kept it simply because it reminded her of me. And perhaps, it reminded her of who she had been, even amidst the furious changes of youth. And what more could you ask of bad poem?

To paraphrase (and perhaps mangle) an early poem by John Ashbery, a poem is a bit like an "unsent letter." Thousands upon thousands of them end up at tiny journals and web sites each day. Most are figuratively stamped "Return to Sender." Still, those tiny missives fly out through the post, hoping to find their mark, and once in a while, they do. Once in a while, someone will open a book, read a few meager lines, and catch their breath.

So who thinks about poetry? Anyone who has a reason to does. And so, any time I find myself contemplating a love poem, I try like hell to make sure that every syllable and every breath is for my wife’s enjoyment. I try to make tiny objects that she can tape to her monitor at work. Will you ever see one of those poems? Who knows? But I know this, my wife will see them and they will make her smile, and that’s all I really want from a great poem.

Now then, I’d like to write my wife a poem. What rhymes with apple?

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

First Steps

Hi. My name is Les and I'm a poet. I guess it started in high school with Keats, Byron, and Shelley. Sure I'd tried the gateway stuff when I was little, but neither Mother Goose nor Dr. Seuss hooked me like some poor kids. Luckily, I managed to leave all of that behind for a while in grade school and junior high. That's when, through the grace of the California Achievement Test, I was labeled as "gifted" and channeled into the surprisingly superior education system for such children. I was bussed, for a while, to another grade school once a week where Montessori principles seemed to rule. We sang foreign songs, practiced math at our own pace, recreated medieval feasts, and made our own films. (My partner and I made a commercial for the Air Force. I believe I was stranded on a desert island. Bless the logic of children.)

By Junior High, I was a sickly asthmatic who dreamed of becoming a scientist, a doctor, or maybe, a rock star. I took honors classes and found myself briefly drawn to the somnolent repetition of Edgar Allan Poe's "Annabelle Lee" and Joaquin Miller's "Columbus." Sure it's vaguely disturbing that we studied both of those poems in the midst of puberty, but the 80s was a less enlightened time, right? And I was in honors English.

It wasn't until high school, when I felt keenly aware of the enormous size of my spectacles and the conversely disappointing girth of my biceps, that the psychological conditions became such a fertile soil for things like consonance and alliteration. With hindsight, I now blame "alternative" music. Robert Smith's wail was dead on for a Texas teenager: boys don't cry. And then, I found Morrissey just before the Cold War gasped its last icy breath. I still remember the Sunday nightmares of total annihilation and hope like hell that such fears never return.

From there, it was easy. I just enjoyed "Ozymandias." A teacher even encouraged me with a photocopy of "Mont Blanc." And then, one day, I found the poetry section in the library. I read Byron's "Don Juan." I read a translation of Goethe's Faust. I even read an anthology of minor 18th century poets. I realize now that this was the end of my science career.

Yet, I persisted. I toiled through my fretful first year as a Physics major. I thought nothing of jotting occasional rhymes about girls who looked swell, even in their winter coats. Sadly, I still hadn't gotten laid, so the poetry got harder. I read the symbol-heavy stuff of the modernists: Eliot, Pound, Williams, Crane, and Rilke. There was no stopping me. I slipped into the mid-century beats and confessionals. I read Plath, and I liked it. And my own jottings took on a different life. I thought, hell, I could do this. I thought, hell, I want to do this.

So I did. The rest...well, the rest is a blur of post-modernism, of theory, of reading, and of positing my youthful insights as literature. Soon, I found myself in grad school, reading the poetry of John Ashbery, Galway Kinnell, Robert Haas, Billy Collins, and myriad other contemporary luminaries. I found myself thinking what happened? I found myself wondering, isn't there an easier way to get laid?

And then, I moved back home and got a job as the night clerk of a convenience store. Seriously.

So that's part of my story. What's your story? Remember, admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery.