Saturday, May 27, 2006


While standing outside, smoking a cigarette (there, I’ve admitted that I still cling to this filthy habit), I noticed that, from my perspective on our front porch, the side of the house next door looks remarkably like a smiling man with a three corner hat, complete with feather. I had thought, for a moment, that this would be a remarkable way to introduce an in-depth discussion of Hart Crane because, according to the introduction in the most recent publication of The Bridge, he had a remarkable facility for seeing things in terms of something else. And there, in essence, we have a virtual paradigm of the metaphoric mind at work.

Alas, I’m not entirely sure what that last sentence means and I’d rather not write about yet another modernist poet and reveal how deeply indebted my own thinking is to early 20th-century poetry.

Clearly, it’s late. I’ve spent much of the day searching and longing for the kind of quietude that has now settled over my house. Michelle’s family—with the exception of our two nephews—are scattered about the house, each processing his or her own dreams. They arrived around 9:30 in time for a meal of pasta and sausage that my wife prepared despite the distractions of television, her father, and the dogs.

Since my routine was disturbed by Memorial Day activities of cleaning and hosting, I felt a bit lost earlier in the day, even as I sat inside under a fan, trying to convince myself to plunge—like a stone—into the icy depths of another writing project that had, ahem, grown cold. Unfortunately, this afternoon I seemed more palatable to the diversions of the Internet, television, and intermittent canine violence. For some reason, instead of sitting myself down, playing an album by some band or other, and frittering away at the keyboard until the words made sense, I grabbed a small wooden box that Michelle had bought long ago to use as storage on a desk and walked outside to stain it. I stood on the back porch for almost an hour, applying slow, considered brushstrokes along the grain of the soft wood with an oak-colored stain.

The finished product—now to my left on my desk—looks lovely. In fact, it matches the shades of my desk precisely and seems, shockingly enough, to fit seamlessly with the decor of my office.

Perhaps, in retrospect, it was a bit of fool’s errand to work on this small piece of craftsmanship with dovetail joints that highlight an inspired blending of hard and soft woods. After all, morning is approaching quickly, and I’ve stayed awake well past visiting with in-laws and the requisite hour or so on the couch worshipping our television.

More, the stain I’ve applied is uneven in places, and to my chagrin, as I worked on the drawers of this square foot storage container, I dropped one into the flower bed by the side of our house, smudging the still-wet stain with dark streaks of topsoil. Now, the piece could use a light sanding. Worse, I started that small project without realizing that there isn’t a single drop of turpentine in the house and without considering that it might be best for me to don a pair of latex gloves. Consequently, I spent the next two hours worrying over the splotches of sticky wood stain that had congealed to my fingers. I scrubbed and scrubbed with dish soap and hand soap before finally pealing the congealed stain from my raw, red hands.

Nevertheless, I don’t think I could have chosen a better way to spend a few hours this afternoon. Now, I have an object on my desk that can summon feelings of pride. I have experience enough to change the way I approach another project with paint or stain. I had the opportunity to concentrate solely on one task.

Maybe, just maybe, I found a small taste of the wonder at human achievement that suffuses Hart Crane’s epic poem. Granted, this little accessory is nothing like the Brooklyn Bridge, but I imagine dear Hart could see the similarities. And maybe, he could see how such a project is a kind of poetry unto itself. Line after line. Backwards and forwards. Concentration on each movement. Unafraid to get your hands a tad bit dirty.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Blessed Rage for Order

I have spent the last two days in a flurry of scrubbing, washing, folding, arranging, and re-arranging. For Memorial Day, Michelle’s parents, sister, and niece are once again making the trek down to Cincinnati. The arrival of guests, of course, prompted a newfound dedication to the arts of housekeeping for my wife and me. Sadly, neither of us felt much of this fealty until sometime after 7 in the evening on Wednesday night. But from that point forward—excepting limited respites for sleep, work, and the caretaking of canines—we were bleach tornados spinning through the house leaving a semblance of order where none had existed before. Yet, for some reason, unlike previous exercises in frenzied cleansing, we excised all the clutter, rearranged furniture that seemed out of place, and transferred leftover moving boxes from the living room to basement. I suppose, in our typical fashion, we had simply procrastinated, and whether consciously or not, we realized that the window for actual spring cleaning was slamming shut.

Now, although my feet hurt and my back aches, I’m pleased by our work. In fact, our house has never looked better. I’m pleased by the spare and elegant beauty throughout the house. Now, my office is the only room (not counting the basement) where the decorating theme seems to be clutter. But that’s as it should be with all these books.

Tomorrow, my father-in-law will head off for golf. Michelle will, reluctantly, return to work. I will resume the cleaning—perhaps mopping the hardwood floors—after I’ve done a fair amount of writing.


In graduate school, we read Steven’s “The Idea of Order at Key West” as supplemental instruction during a poetry workshop. I can’t remember the precise reason why we looked over this particular poem, but I do know that the subject of the poem speaks volumes about the very nature of artistic endeavor. The speaker, with her song, is a maker—just as any artist is. Plus, I’m always delighted to read the poem and spot the near onomatopoeia of alliteration describing the sea at the very moment that Stevens rejects the notion of a direct correlation between the mindless sea and the maker’s song.

Yet, despite my adoration for the poem and the number of times I’ve read this single work, I can only remember one thing that professor said. As we started reviewing the poem, he recited that first line, "She sang beyond the genius of the sea.”

Almost breathless (it seems to me now), he repeated the line then said with marked amazement that Stevens had probably written more than a hundred lines of verse simply to arrive at this starting poet. The line is that good.

Obviously, I can’t speak to the truth of this assertion, and to be frank, I can’t imagine myself writing that many lines simply before arriving at my starting point (never mind the destination). Yet, if you read the line, I think you’ll agree: it’s easy to see a poet working his way up to such a pitch perfect line.

Imagine that kind of devotion to a single set of ideas, a single work, a single form (blank verse). Imagine the lines that excised. Imagine what the task of revision would take to compose such a poem.


In college I wrote one poem in particular about the young woman who is now my wife. I remember sitting in a cafe on Fifth Avenue, mumbling the poem over and over again to myself as I scribbled in one of the many notebooks I carted around.

I wrote and re-wrote the poem, changing a line here, an image there, tweaking it ever so slightly. Perhaps I cut a line or two. By the time I felt I had a workable poem that would fit nicely in my ongoing honors project, 20 drafts of the poem clogged my notebook, leaving little room for much else to happen.

If I remember correctly, I ended up with a fairly competent narrative poem. The imagery was crisp and vivid, the turn came at precisely the right juncture, and the resolution with its hovering sense of irresolution was perfect for the poem. Of course, thematically I now find the poem embarrassing. Still, a year ago, I found that poem again, typed a soft copy onto my hard drive, and started fiddling with it once more.

I kept working on the ending, adding a line or two and then deleting the new additions altogether with the idea of keeping the staccato pace of the original. It’s still there on my hard drive, unopened.

Someday, perhaps, I’ll find the right lines and finish that poem.


With computers, revision is both easier and more difficult. On the one hand, it’s much easier to twiddle with a word or two and find—as Amy Lowell would suggest—the "right" word. Yet, it’s also tempting to stare at a poem you’ve written and conclude that it’s lovely, simply because the word processor has built something far more orderly than your own handwriting could manage.

Of course, we have to find a way toward that order.


Sometimes, I think that Stevens is my favorite poet—without exception. I like to imagine him strolling slowly to work. In my vision, his face is cast down to the sidewalk and he is noticing the cracks and occasional weeds that spot his neighbors’ lawns. He, of course, is thinking about a poem. He is whispering it to himself as his footsteps fall, marching him closer and closer to his desk. When he arrives at work, he jots down a few notes or edits the poem that currently occupies his thought. And when he has reached an impasse, he sets his notebook aside, pulls his desks forward, and opens a file, ready to sell insurance.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


I am sitting in the backyard peering out at past splotches of sun and sweet-gum shade, wondering when the puppies—Archie and Dixie—will be sleepy enough to head inside for a nap. Archie is sunbathing, and Dixie has made a bed of lilies into an actual bed. A jet, headed to Covington, roars overhead as a baby robin, perhaps, chirps into the air, its pitch descending and falling like a two-note guitar solo until its mother returns, sating its need for a moment.

From his position in the middle of the yard, Archie stares at me and then at Dixie, blinking his eyes with a heavy squint. Dixie dashes toward him, making him stir slightly before settling in the sun further up the small hill that constitutes our backyard. I, personally, am sitting on an old wooden fold-up chair that was once used in the Catholic school Michelle attended, lamenting our lack of patio furniture.

In the distance, a late-model Honda rolls past, blipping and thumping with snippets of hip-hop music that trail away from us—proving the Doppler Effect once again. A slight breeze jostles the bamboo-like stalks of a plant my wife recognizes that I can’t identify, and a caterpillar arches itself as a single leaf waves up and down in the wind. I think of phoning her in her office overlooking the Ohio to ask her again what those plants are called, but choose, instead, to relax here on the porch a while longer, as Archie sprawls prone on his back, pushing with his front paws at the tennis ball dangling by threads from his mouth.

The other night at dinner in a restaurant somewhere in Cincinnati, my wife suggested that I discuss here the way moving to the Midwest has impacted my writing. At first, I dismissed the idea, thinking that there’s no way to say how this place with its mild winters and pleasant autumns has affected my writing. I’m still not sure of the impact that San Francisco has had, even though I lived in the Bay Area for a little more than 5 years. In fact, in my work, there seems to be a peculiar tendency for me not to write about a place until after I’ve left it. Poems I wrote in Pittsburgh were suffused with the imagery of live oaks, shopping centers, and interstates that I took from Dallas. The poems I wrote in Miami echoed the autumnal chorale of colors and the brutality of winter that I took from Pittsburgh. The poems I wrote in my second stay in Dallas bristled with the vibrant subtropical flora and fauna of Miami.

And now, I seem to be writing about the paved hills and consistently temperate climes of San Francisco. Yet, even though I can’t say what impact living in Ohio will have on my writing, I do know that, one day, this place will suffuse the pages of my poems and stories, and I believe that this is important.

Nowadays, it is remarkably easy to look across the country and conclude that any two places are similar. You can eat the same fast food, order the same espresso-based coffees, shop for toiletries at the same department stores, and pick your wardrobe from the same designer regardless of where you live. Yet, I believe such generalizations, though easy to make, are faulty.

Now, I could easily lament—as I’ve heard countless critics do—the growing sameness of our culture or suggest that setting a poem in San Diego is now tantamount to setting a poem in Greenwich, and you might believe me. But, the very core of poetry is in the detail. People in South Dakota, for the most part, do different types of work than those in West Texas. They farm different crops, vote for politicians with different names, and for the most part, worship different denominations of the same religion. Granted, there are similarities, but if you focus on such things as why full-sized pickups are so popular, you’ll miss opportunities to take a reader someplace he or she has never been. Indeed, even if you compare a McDonald’s in Miami to one in Cincinnati, you’ll find differences. Patterns of speech will vary slightly. They layout of the restaurant will differ a little bit. Perhaps the interior will be lined with different photographs meant to highlight the history of one location or another. Personally, I believe that a poet must notice such differences; otherwise, you’ll just be writing about one lizard or another, calling everything by boring names. Sure, there are lizards everywhere, but where can you find a horned frog? Where can you find an anole?

In a poem, this makes all the difference in the world. I mean, who really wants to read, again and again, about that pretty nameless plant? Would it really smell so sweet?

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Center Will Not Hold

It has been a long day and only now have I found an opportunity to sit before my cracked computer screen clicking away at the keypad. I woke to the sound of my wife’s voice and the puppies clambering around on top of me wiggling their tales so hard that you might think their haunches would tumble from their bodies. Most days, there is no better way to wake. Alas, when Michelle mentioned that the car’s Check Engine light had come on and the brake lights weren’t working, I mumbled "uh-oh" to myself and realized how groggy I felt. I went downstairs, escorted the puppies into the backyard, and clambered down yet more stairs through the basement and into the garage. Down there in the low light of a dangling incandescent bulb, I fiddled with the car a little in search of a quick fix. I thumbed through the owner’s manual, and then decided to check the fuses. A burnt out fuse would have explained the brake lights' misbehavior. No luck.

Frustrated, I headed to an auto parts shop where they run free diagnostics and then replaced my gas cap. Hopefully, this will take care of the Check Engine light. The brake lights, on the other hand, need to be dealt with at a shop. Yippee.

So after I’d worked on the car, Michelle convinced me to go to Home Depot and off to a grocery store. At Home Depot, we got a new showerhead to replace one that recently cracked. We also picked up plumbing supplies to deal with a slow drain in that same bathroom. Finally, I picked out a few materials to fix the gate in the backyard and, hopefully, prevent future jailbreaks of the canine variety. While we were in Home Depot though, Michelle wandered off to look at paint. I went off to study the showerheads—initially with the idea of simply replacing the small piece of plastic that had cracked. When I realized that simply buying a new showerhead made more sense, I tried to track down Michelle. Unfortunately, Michelle had gone to look for me.

Now, my wife has a remarkable ability to disappear in stores, particularly larger stores. She isn’t the tallest woman and tends to vanish behind aisles and racks. Worse, she seems to have been involved in a secret government project to develop stealth technology for individuals. I shudder to think what will happen when this is unleashed upon the world.

Needless to say, we ended up spending far, far more time in Home Depot than we’d expected. In fact, by the time we returned from the grocery store, it was past 5 o’clock—the perfect time to retire to my office and write. But that’s not what happened.

Instead, I resolved to make the necessary repairs to the gate. Before I could start, Archie hunted down something in the dining room he clearly should not have had. He sat beneath the head chair, chewing and tearing glossy bits of blue and gold paper. When I crawled beneath the table to take it from him, I realized that an individually wrapped teabag had surreptitiously tumbled to the rug beneath the dining room table. Tea dust and shredded paper was everywhere. I chased Archie away—hoping that the caffeine might work on a high-strung Italian Greyhound the same way that Ritalin works on a child with ADD. It did not.

Before I discovered this sad fact by watching him twitch, jump, and yelp at the slightest of squirrel movements from 100 yards away, I vacuumed up the detritus of his discovery, let the dogs out, and headed into the backyard to fix that gate.

At first, the project seemed easy enough. All I had to do was a dig a hole that would be deep enough for a stable gate post and then attach two hinges to the post and the gate. Even now, this sounds easy. Unfortunately, having to use a wrench that doesn’t generate enough torque, discovering that the metal piping on the gate is likely thinner than the hinges were designed to support, and realizing that one of the crucial bolts has a severe manufacturing defect that renders it useless made the process slightly more difficult than convincing a child to eat every last piece of broccoli on his plate. Of course it took me an hour and a half worth of straining against a 9/16 wrench while the gate teetered occasionally, falling toward my squatting frame.

Ah, it was not a good day. For me, it was one of those days—thankfully rare—where everything seems to fall apart. The entire day seemed, in some ways, like some cruel spiral into despair. But there are days like that. If you ever meet Thom Yorke from Radiohead, ask him about it. I’m sure he knows. And perhaps you’ve felt those same frustrations with your writing on those days when the right word seems just beyond the bounds of your thought.

Thank goodness I’m a poet. I can let simulations of those days spiral on and on all the way down to the sulfurous crevices of despair—simply by transforming them for the page. I can allow characters with far worse problems than such minor annoyances plummet to their lowest points and then track their reemergence. I can sit in my office listening to one of the slowest pop songs I know as I sip a cup of Earl Grey tea—letting its smoky flavors wash across my tongue.