Friday, April 21, 2006

Life by Cliche

Outside, torrential spring rain is spattering against the new leaves of the sweet gum tree near our kitchen door—its branches tap against the windowpane. Thunder sounds in the distance, rolling closer and closer. And if life were indeed like a novel, the sound, punctuated by birdsong, would foreshadow an ominous evening. Instead, the puppies are curled beside me, smelling of damp fur from a quick trip outside. Archie is twisted in on himself, like a roly-poly—his muzzle perched on his haunches. Dixie is sprawled on her back, pressing against my hip, her legs lifted in the air above her and her eyes half-open as she drifts closer and closer to sleep. When they are here, at home with me, these tiny beings siphon my time. It is time I could use sketching outlines for a novel, penning feature stories, or jotting rhythmic lines with the intent of forming something like a poem. But when they are here, I am the provider of carrots, the opener of doors, the mitigator of conflict, the bringer of water, and the prison guard that tracks down escapees. And I love them for it.

I’ve spent much of the day making preparations for a trek to a small town in eastern Ohio that borders West Virginia. I gathered basketfuls of laundry, ran the dishwasher, and made myself enough coffee to last the day. There are endless variations on the minutiae of the everyday. The morning, though, was consumed by the Internet, by email, and by job searches. Sadly, much of the job searching has been mere pissing in the wind. Thus far, I’ve been contacted by two 419 scammers from Nigeria, a corporation that takes advantage of a name similar to IBM to defraud jobseekers into signing up for non-existent courses, and a website that apparently doesn’t exist. Greed knows no bounds.

During my freshman year of college, after I “discovered” myself, I wrote a letter to my mother explaining my decision to study poetry. I can’t remember much of the text—although I suspect she has kept that letter, protected it with plastic, and stored it in a three-ring binder on a shelf near her sewing station. What I do remember about the letter is that it was more melodramatic than a daytime soap opera. I told my mom that I had to follow my heart and that I did not care if this meant a life of poverty or if it meant that I would end up face down and drunk in a gutter, like Edgar Allen Poe. I would be a poet.

Of course, last week, my wife reminded me that Mr. Poe was not, in fact, an alcoholic. Rather, he had fallen ill and was actually allergic to alcohol. And tragically, his physician made a horrid mistake in treating his illness. But look at the history of poetry and the curious lure of those who have died young. Even if the facts of Poe’s death have been verified and re-verified through scientific scrutiny, the odds are that we will likely always remember the myth. Such a narrative arc dovetails nicely with a tradition of idiocy: Shelley sailed into a storm; Hart Crane tumbled from the side of a ferry; Weldon Kees vanished, leaving his car idling on the Golden Gate bridge; Sylvia Plath fulfilled the prophecies of her novels; and Anne Sexton finally twisted the cap from her kill-me pills.

I know this allure is there. I cannot explain it. I felt that draw in my youth, mentioning off-hand to friends how pleasant it seemed to disappear, simply and quietly, like Weldon Kees. Yet, here I am 10 years later, occasionally turning to a blank page to scratch out an ode, contemplate—in accentual syllabic lines—the nature of sleep, or narrate a small moment of ineffable clarity. I do not make my living as a poet, nor do I expect ever to have that luxury. I am not, like James Merrill was, blessed with the financial security to while away all of my time with eclectic reading and contemplation of verse. I am not, like many who write poems now, associated with a university and free to consider the composition of a poem as part of my research. Instead, I have to make sacrifices each day. I need to give up a television show or time with my wife. I must accept a lower standard of living or turn my attention to more lucrative forms of writing. Nevertheless, I’ll always consider myself a poet. And perhaps, if I’m lucky, history might agree.

You see, poets write poetry. That’s all there is to it. If you write poetry, and people will read it, feel free to take the mantle and wrap it around you. Just remember, there’s no point bringing the baggage with you. The journey isn’t that far. Just click over to Word or open your journal and you will be there. You don’t even need to wear black—unless you just like wearing black. After all, in a couple of hours this thunderstorm will break. The sun will burn through the clouds, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll have a few moments to play outside with my dogs.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Expecting the Unexpected

A brief spring rain just drizzled across the city. Now, the sparrows are gliding from tree to tree, flitting up and down fences, and picking at shredded paper in the warm sun. Before the rain, I stood outside on our porch, surveying the numerous varieties of flourishing grass that need mowed. A jay glided upwards to perch in the towering canopy of the old oak tree across the street. A pair of cardinals dashed through my vision, one after the other, toward a blossoming magnolia tree in what seemed the ritual precursor to mating. A robin alighted on the chain-link fence near the catwalk I take to the gas station. Then in the neighbor’s front yard, among the dandelions and sparrows pecking at blades of grass, I spotted a bird I’d never seen before. Its throat and belly were both the yellow of tulips in full bloom, its eyes were banded by black, and its crown was the same soft brown as the common sparrows that fill the trees and skies in our neighborhood. After twittering about for a moment or two, it took wing. Now, it’s long gone.

I think, after consulting Google, that it was a common yellowthroat that perhaps had strayed from one of the densely wooded areas that spot the Cincinnati metro area. I’m certain that it’s a possibility, but it may have been a yellow-breasted chat, or perhaps a yellow warbler. But, I’m not certain, and to me, this is crucial—even if this admission gives you a bit of skepticism about my ability to identify birds.

You see, I no longer know what will ignite the next poem, and I never know if I’ll need a fire extinguisher. It could easily be the image of that bird blending in with the dandelions or its sudden absence or simply the sounds of the words “yellow-breasted chat.” Better, to my mind, are the unreasonable notions that swirled, ever so briefly, around my head before I strolled inside to sate my curiosity and find out what type of bird that tiny thing was. At first, I assumed it was some sort of finch I’d never seen. Or perhaps it was simply a sparrow that had wondered too near the nuclear power plants near Lake Erie whilst migrating. Or, in an even less likely turn of events, the sparrow might have been kidnapped by garden gnomes who had painted it the color of daffodils with the intention of keeping it as a mascot. Luckily, that sparrow escaped to lounge among the dandelions of the neighbor’s lawn. Finally, since it is spring, it could be the result of genetic mutation, and that bird could simply be the luckiest male sparrow in the world.

So how many potential poems is that? No matter. I won’t write one of them. The point, however, remains the same. To write, you have to pay attention. Keep your mind (and your imagination) open. When it’s safe, try saying hello to strangers. Listen to both far-right Republicans and unwashed leftists in Che Guevara t-shirts. And carry a notebook wherever you go. Just think, the entire world—no, the entire universe—is soil for your poems! Your pen is the plow that breaks through the hard ground of the ordinary, and your imagination is the rain that tumbles down with a bolt of lightening, a roar of thunder.


Today was lousy. I don’t have lice, but I may as well. I woke with high hopes, like an ant set to lug around a rubber tree plant, but at this point, I doubt I could lift a dandelion. Last night, I was up late trying to face the inevitable dwindling of savings as my wife and I attempt to re-establish my freelancing career. I posted my resume to two job boards and started reading yet another book on commercial writing. I twirled idea after idea around my head and vowed to throw myself into all of those projects with the vigor of a valkyrie.

Unfortunately, I woke this morning to a nightmare. I was floating in seawater, surrounded by what may have been my family, and as we treaded through turbulent waves, we looked toward the horizon. Instead of a sunset burning a hazy violet-red, there was only water. A great wall of water crept closer to us until the inevitable crash. And then we were submerged. We were drowning, and I thought, vaguely, that this was Katrina. But it was only a nightmare, and I already know what frightens me.

Before I flew, shrieking, into my writing, I decided to try a little maintenance on my computer. My antivirus program had gotten as flaky as a pothead at 1 AM on a Saturday. By the time I finished dealing with a fine example of the globalization of technical support, I was almost certain my head would explode. Since I couldn’t stand for such a mess in my office, I collapsed onto the sofa. Then, stirred awake from the most restful sleep thus far this week, I looked up to see my wife smiling. She said hello and wandered upstairs to nap. We quite like naps in this house. And then, I was off to recover the dogs from daycare and later venture into the wilderness of Cincinnati to procure coffee for my wife.

When I returned home, more work on the computer, a little web surfing to relax, and a quick look at my email. There’s been a nibble on my resume! But it’s a 419 scam! And now, it’s nearing midnight. There is no time to read, no time to write. And if I don’t swim, that wave will crash over me.

Yet, as you should know, this is only one narrative that could have been teased from today. I could have chosen to focus on my latest music obsession, and how the keyboards tickled my eardrums all day. I could have written about the soprasetta and capicola that Michelle’s mom brought all the way from the other side of Ohio. I could have focused on the way the tulips on the side of my house capture light. I could have told you how comfortable our old sofas are for afternoon naps.

Even in a novel, it’s impossible to relay every last detail of a scene. And even if you could, such a list would drag the characters down as if they’d been fitted with cement shoes. The action would stall. The thought would be replaced by inventory.

In poetry, the space is so limited that the selection of detail becomes even more crucial than in prose. A detail that doesn’t seem right or plausible or genuine to a reader can instantly ruin the entirety of the poem. It’s like finding a hair in a salad that you had thought was exquisite. So choose your details wisely. And with that advice, I’ll leave you with a final, brief story:

The night before my wife and I moved from Oakland, California, a man was mugged on the street outside our apartment. A friend and I ran down to help as much as we could. He was laying, face down in the middle of the street, stirring ever so slightly. A chihuahua ran furiously around him, its tail tucked between its legs as it barked at us. Then the dog scurried back to its owner, licking at his bruised and bloodied face. We tried to keep the man awake, to find out his name, to learn who did this. But he wouldn’t respond to a single word until my friend asked, what’s your dog’s name?

Beauty, he said, her name is Beauty.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Mnemonic Phonics

I just went down into the basement and lugged two filing boxes up the stairs. One box is filled with volumes of poetry to be stacked on my desk. The other is half-full of compact disks. I open the CDs first, scavenging for background music while I write. I find a fairly recent recording by an indie band and pop it into my stereo. Since Michelle is at work and the puppies are gallivanting around their daycare, I’m likely to sing along. Be glad you can’t hear it.

As I peer down into this box of CDs, I think again of how pop music weaves its way into our lives. This album, for example, is my favorite for driving. When I still lived in
Texas, I would turn the volume to airplane crash levels and weave across the desert buttes and stone hillsides on 180 as I drove the 130 miles to my father’s house. This CD, on the other hand, with its raspy vocals and churning guitars reminds me of an ex-girlfriend and 9/11. And this record, with its lazy vocals and elegant guitar melodies, reminds me of the first week my wife and I spent together as lovers. We all associate music with moments in our lives and tend, often enough, to think of our existence as a narrative that is threaded with song.

About a year after graduate school, I found a job in
Dallas as a proofreader at a publisher of Continuing Medical Education materials. Basically, I made certain that brief essays on recent clinical trials in cancer research did not mangle the English language too badly or contain obvious mistakes. The work was mind numbing, even though the office was full of vibrant, creative people, and I did somehow learn a great deal about medicine. One Friday afternoon, as the minute hand inched closer and closer to the weekend, a graphic designer suddenly started singing. Everybody’s working for the weekend…

Someone else belted out the next line of the chorus, and soon, we were all singing a seemingly forgotten song from the 80s. And as I sang that song, I wondered just how many songs like this I knew. How many pop songs can the average person sing? What would the world be like if we could all channel the energy and intellect needed to store countless silly love songs into something more productive? Would we already have our flying cars?

The problem is that pop songs are marvelously easy to remember. They can spread, from person to person, like a virus, insidiously infecting the intellect of a victim. Indeed, unless you still want to be a rock star, how often do you intentionally try to memorize song lyrics? And yet, you do.

Popular songs are chockfull of techniques for easy memorization—from choruses to rhymes to alliteration to refrains. Plus, when you encounter a song that you adore, you might find yourself listening to it again and again (and again). How could you not remember a song for 20 years under such circumstances?

Yet, if you stroll into a bookstore and pick out any volume of poetry written in the last 100 years and read a single poem, I doubt you will remember that poem for more than a week. And even if you do remember it, you will be left only with impressions, images, and perhaps a general notion of the poem. Poems, unlike popular songs, no longer use the variety of mnemonic devices available to them, and unless you are reading an excellent poet, such memorization will likely be a painful experience—nothing at all like the absent-minded excitement of singing to yourself on your drive home from work.

I can’t help but wonder, would my life be better in any way, if the soundtrack was dotted with the quiet attentiveness of excellent poetry? I do know that if it were possible to slip through a wormhole that landed me back in 1996, I’d thankfully remember not to spend many thousands of dollars on pop music. And even though I’ve thrown a few slim volumes of poetry across the length of one apartment or another to protest their mediocrity, I would not give up those books as easily. I do, however, wish that I could remember their contents as easily as I can remember this CD or that one. And, I know that such poetry is possible.

Playing with Blocks

It’s nearly eleven. My wife sent me into my office around 9:30 or 10 after I wavered about whether or not to watch a movie. She’s relaxing on the sofa between our two tiny dogs. Sadly, it’s now 11. The film she is watching is nearing its denouement, and I have yet to complete a single paragraph. Until now.

In my reveries about this blog, writer’s block is not an issue. The ideas, like the tulips that edge our house, should simply push through the soil and stretch toward some source of light. But that simile, like all similes, will break down if you examine it closely enough.

In fact, sometimes, there is absolutely nothing organic about the writing process. Instead, you find yourself staring at a blank page. You might be overwhelmed by the possibilities as endless as the varieties of avian song. Or worse, you could imagine that your flock of possibilities has migrated south for the winter. The words aren't written, and if you’re anything like me, that’s when the anxiety sets in. Perhaps, all I need is a little inspiration…

In college, much of my time was devoted to the search for such inspiration. It was a haphazard quest that took me, in wee hours of the night, to dive bars, basements filled with heat lamps, and the deep woods of a park that bordered campus. I imagined myself and my friends to be on the cusp of a neo-hippy movement. I even fantasized that our generation, with our more enlightened education, could somehow fulfill the visions that were first espoused by that hippie underground. I could be a poet who changed the world. Man, was I naive.

In retrospect, that period in my life could easily be described by the building action of an after-school special. If I’d kept following that path (in this imaginary Hallmark film), I would have been slain by gang violence, gotten arrested by campus police, or been convinced by a certain psychotropic substance that I really could fly. Of course, if I were a woman, the script would have called for an unwanted pregnancy. But that’s the problem with melodrama: we rarely experience such worst-case scenarios. Those dilemmas are for those less fortunate than us. We imagine such circumstances are the domain of the poor, the deranged, or the idiots among us. Sometimes, I think naivety is contagious.

For me, I realized I had problems the day that I checked my bank balance at an ATM, saw 7 dollars, took out a 5-dollar bill, and walked across the street to buy a drink. I sat in a booth by myself that afternoon, wondering what I’d just done, and what I’d do next. Somehow, I made it to my next loan check without skipping a meal, but after that drink, I swore to change.

But change, like writing, is a process. Later that year, I came across a poem that detailed the delicate movements of a water bug with such precision that it was actually moving. I compared the poem to my own poetry and could not find that kind of attention. And my writing suffered from this ridiculous comparison. Worse, I found myself thinking that certain illicit substances could help one replicate that kind of attention by convincing one to stare for very long periods at vegetation and walls. I succumbed to the temptation, while rationalizing the decision with the notion that this was for my writing. Luckily, I had a few bad experiences generated by my psyche, and by summertime, I drank occasionally but no longer sampled illicit substances.

Of course, I kept writing. Every once in a while, I think about searching out inspiration like a beat poet who is lost in time, but such thoughts are fleeting. I was never a huge fan of the beats, and I’ve learned a thing or two about writer’s block. Now, I accept such long moments of indecision. They come and they go, often leading a writer’s mind into an unexplored thicket of thought. In fact, I’ll say it: writer’s block is a blessing. It belies the notion that anyone can be a writer. If, one morning, a bout of writer’s block convinces me I have nothing to say, I’ll gladly hang up my figurative pen. After all, I can still earn a decent living and enjoy the life I have with my family. But until I run into the block that I can’t break, I know that inspiration is everywhere—as long as you remember to sit down with your writing implements whenever you can.

Monday, April 17, 2006


To me, the best thing about Easter is finally being able to eat eggs. Most of the year, eggs are my nemeses. Morning meals outside of the house are an ordeal. I confront them on every breakfast menu and force myself to look away. Often enough, I’m tempted by sonorous words like hollandaise and benedict, but after countless days filled with cramps and dreams of a new stomach, I’ve come to accept the fact that eggs conspire against me.

On Easter, however, things are different. Chocolate eggs, peanut butter eggs, candy eggs, and malted eggs are everywhere. The tapered oval shape is no longer an anathema to me. Instead, it is a temptation to be indulged. It is a symbol of joy.


My wife is Catholic. I guess. So, this morning, the visiting family piled into their mini-van, and we drove down to Price Hill for Easter mass. During his homily, the priest stood at a lectern to the right of the altar—which was festooned with tulips, marigolds, and roses—and reminded his flock that the egg symbolizes rebirth, the resurrection.

If you pause for a moment, I do not doubt you could name any number of other notions that an egg represents. The word, tiny as it is, echoes with multitude meanings: fertility, causality, embarrassment. Such a word is a kind of poetry in and of itself. I think.


In the midst of an all-nighter during my senior year college, I sat at a chain diner in Pittsburgh beside a friend who also studied poetry. Although she was actually a few months older than me, she seemed to look up to me as someone wiser and more experienced—in poetry. So that morning, as dawn replaced the glow of streetlights and sparrows twittered in pairs into still bare maple branches, I sketched an inverted pyramid on the back of poem and inked four layers of sediment across the figure. In the top layer, I scratched the word “prose” to signify the most common of all languages. The next layer, which was slightly narrower, I labeled “simile.” Next came “metaphor.” Finally, I named the deepest layer “symbol.”

Part of me still thinks that this image is an apt description of figurative language. Part of me hopes that, as she listened intently, my friend wondered which layer would include bullshit. Part of me wonders if I had eggs for breakfast that morning.


My poetry has always flirted with symbolism. I’m intrigued by the participation symbols require. I’m also intrigued by the way such things accrue meaning. How, after all, could something as simple as an egg carry so much cultural currency? How can a word itself become a kind of metaphor with its own built in variances of meaning? And how can a priest use such tools of communication so much more effectively than any poet I’ve ever read? Personally, I don’t believe in absolutes, but I do believe they can be expressed, and I’d like to try.

At the risk of a hasty generalization, I think the history of American poetry shows a slow attrition of the symbol as a means to communicate. The modernists—notably Eliot—enjoyed their symbols, but since then, our poets have shied from such techniques. I can think of only five or six contemporary poets who seem to think of symbols as a method to communicate. And at least one of these poets infuses far too much of Derrida’s thought into her poems for her symbols to mean anything to anyone who isn’t a graduate student or Helen Vendler. And one can only be read with a tacit agreement that one doesn’t necessarily need to understand a poem. I think I’ll blame this state of affairs on Marcel Duchamp.


It is late, and I long to join my wife, who is already asleep upstairs. I step away from words for a moment and wander into the kitchen. A single light burns over the sink, but I can still find the candy dish in the semi-dark. I take out a chocolate egg, remove the foil, and bite into it. Caramel oozes from the center and into my mouth.

I stand there eating, thinking how good it is to eat an egg without the expectation of pain, and soon, the egg is gone.

Sunday, April 16, 2006


Taxes are mailed. The dogs are stretched out on the living room floor. My wife’s side of the family has made a pilgrimage of sorts to celebrate Easter with us. Michelle, her sister and both of our nephews are gathered before the television daring each other with Harry Potter trivia as my mother-in-law relaxes and watches on the sofa. Our niece, who is a surprisingly astute 5-year-old, is upstairs—hopefully playing video games. And I’ve retreated to the sanctity of my office to be surrounded by the oddly melodic tones of a Stephen Malkmus recording.

A ceiling fan spins shadows across the patched cracks above my head. The shrunken suit of armor atop my file cabinet stands watch. He’s draped, as if for Mardi Gras, with gold-painted beads. And now I’m exhausted. My knee aches and blisters on my fingers are stinging.

Last night a storm crossed the Ohio valley area, with thunder rumbling, lightening dividing the sky with pure white strikes in the distant hills followed by violet flashes that filled the whole of my vision for a moment before the black of rain-soaked streets returned.

Today, since the ground was moist and the weather sun-drenched, Michelle, her sister, and her mother spent the morning and afternoon in the backyard pulling out weeds, pruning back overgrowth, and shaping the small shade trees that line our fence. I drove for coffee with my wife, played with the puppies, finished local taxes, grilled hotdogs, mettwurst, and hamburger for the family, and yanked Rose of Sharon sprouts from the damp soil. I cut occasional dead branches from fence-entwined trees with a reciprocating saw. I watched the puppies for a while, and then contemplated a nap, before driving for more coffee, and a jaunt around a discount department store with my wife and her mother, discussing possibilities for patio furniture. We returned home to find the puppies wagging their tails as if with every ounce of energy they possessed.

Now, if I walk out into the backyard, I can look into the past of this tiny landscape and see the care that was once cut into it. I can see the tulips in bloom, the daffodils wilting, the dogwood gathering sun, the bamboo breaking through the sod, and the grass thickening across patches that we’d presumed were dead. There is still work to be done; there always is. But, now, I can imagine how this swath of land might look one day. I can plan a tiny pond, brimming with koi. I can see the lilies blooming in summer sun. I can picture the hummingbirds flitting from blossom to blossom. I can visualize tilled rows of vegetables edged up against the east-facing fence. We have imposed an idea of order upon our slovenly yard, and it is beautiful.

And today was beautiful.

And what have I done to deserve a day like this?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

And this too is beautiful.