Friday, May 25, 2007

Five Senses?

Feeling drowsy and slightly dizzy, I stepped outside onto the porch, and sat in the wooden swing we were given last Christmas. The soft hum of the streetlamps pouring amber light onto the sidewalks, the chirruping din of crickets, and the creak of the swing’s spring were the only sounds. I rocked back and forth, gazing at the seemingly arranged shapes of an old oak's canopy. I thought, intermittently, of poetry, of John Ashbery's singular take on language and the dialogic interplay of voice that informs his poems, of his (difficult) influence on my own poetry, of the manuscript that I reordered today, and of the near-infinite possibilities for misinterpretation our language allows. I though, too, of climbing upstairs and tumbling under the comforter to sleep, as the dogs have already done.

A black shape flew towards my face, as I sat swinging, and then veered left, its wings splayed like a butterfly, off the porch and over the driveway. It was fist-sized. It bristled the thin hairs on the nape of my neck. It was a bat.

I imagine now that the bat had pinged me with its sonar, mapped out its world of obstacles, as it circled sources of light, sounding for the buzzing insects on which it preys.


This afternoon, as I sat outside on the patio, moving this poem or that poem hither and thither, our dog Dixie barreled around the corner of the house, batting a prune-sized blur of gray fur between her muzzle and her paws. It was a mole. The mole, in what must have been a furious burst of adrenaline, dodged the last of Dixie's deadly blows and scurried into a gap between our air conditioner and flowerbed gravel. Dixie, aided now by Archie, the ever-loyal Italian greyhound, snorted into cracked earth, plowing her paws through yellowed grass and fallen spring leaves.

I imagine now that the she was sniffing out the crevices and gradations of soil, mapping the flight of the mole through corridors of its own burrowing.


Many times before today, I've stared at a manuscript contemplating the appropriate order. As a senior in college, I organized my one section of my senior thesis by focusing on the narrative arc of a first-person speaker. The second section was a very long poem (long enough for its own manuscript), and the third section was simply a handful of persona poems. At least, that's how I remember it now.

At the University of Miami, I don't recall having any trouble with organization. Like Dixie and that bat, I must have relied on some intuitive sense of order, some way to map a progression of thought.

Last year, when I attempted to gather two manuscripts worth of work, one was organized through a thematic notion of opposition, and the other was organized by the increasing potency of the pharmaceuticals from which each poem took its title. Since deciding that both manuscripts would take an enormous amount of work to complete, I decided to take my best work, and organize that, with significant rewriting into a manuscript. The initial attempt at establishing an order went well enough, but never felt quite right. I was like a bat without its sonar or a dog without its scent. I couldn't seem to map the contours of the world I wanted to convey.

In the manuscript, myriad shifts in tone, point of view, setting, and technique made the manuscript seem clumsy. Luckily, I found this article ( on the AWP website. Although I tend to chafe at generalized pronouncements like "no adverbs," I found Levine's article immensely useful. Unfortunately, I noticed a few common phrases for closing poems and a tad more redundancy in imagery than I otherwise might have noticed.

But now, the cartography has begun in earnest. Perhaps, after all, being lost, at this moment, was a good thing for me. Rather than trusting my instincts completely, as Dixie would if she ever got her teeth on my manuscript, I've actually begun to think of this task as an extension of the poetic process. Here, I have the opportunity to let words interact through proximity, to echo themes, and skew them through the correlation (and occasional conflation) of the next poem's intent. Now, this is more than a mere manuscript to occupy my time, more than a thesis. It is, I hope, the prodromal phase of a work of art. Now, I am mapping the connections I see in my own work, to chart my own definition of what a volume of verse might be.


The bat escaped. The mole escaped. Now, I will make my escape.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A Not-So Freudian Slip

A breeze too light to cool sways leafy shadows across the patio. The sun is high, stifling, even though the sky is thick with cauliflower-shaped clouds. The dogs circle the yard, fresh-cut, slowly. The air conditioner pants, as if needing a sup from a cool spring. I walk to the edge of the patio, filling their blue plastic dish with water. The robins, all around me, twitter call and response.

I’ve accomplished much today, but little writing—yet. A thick sweetgum branch that collapsed onto the patio under the weight of icicles earlier this year has been quartered into logs. The kitchen is, at last, relatively clean. A good friend in the Czech Republic has been sent a long, rambling letter with advice on publishing (persevere). And I have slept in the muggy heat while listening to Liverpool fall behind AC Milan in the European Cup.

I love football.

Soon, my wife will be home. Soon, the garage door will swing up and open, and she will ascend the steps from the basement, clutching an iced mocha from Starbucks, to meet me, and the dogs, outside. The dogs will swarm her like hornets. Dixie's stub of a tail will beat furiously as she thrust her dust-covered paws up onto her momma's legs, leaving silver-dollar-sized prints on Michelle's slacks. Archie will prance at the edge of the fray, waiting his turn for attention, as his question-mark-shaped tail waggles back and forth with the fury of a conductor coaxing the ferocious notes of a Beethoven symphony from his orchestra. And when Michelle has settled Dixie down, my wife will lift Archie into her arms cradling him like the Madonna with Child.

I adore my dogs.

For Michelle and me, personifying our dogs is easy. Perhaps too easy. Archie, the Italian greyhound, is a mere 10 pounds. Many human infants weigh more than him at birth. Dixie, likewise, weighs about 17 pounds, maybe a little more. At the height of winter, I even torture Archie with disturbingly adorable sweaters because his fur is so thin. More, we often refer to them, jokingly, as our children, and familial terms like "Momma" and "Daddy" pepper our references to and about the dogs. We think of them as part of our family—an integral part.

Nevertheless, at times I suspect I can see that ineffable otherness in Archie’s tiny brown eyes. I'll see Dixie leap three feet into the air trying to maul a sparrow from the sky. I'll catch Archie burrowing his head into a patch of dust from which a tulip once sprouted, sniffing and snorting at the lingering scent of a mole or a chipmunk. They are, unmistakably, dogs.

Every day, I do my best to allow them access to that nature, within reason. It's why I spend so much time outside when the weather allows, and more, it's why, in this space, I've described my dogs as tiny gladiators and described their games of chase and their "fights" at length. As long as nothing is killed, neither dog is hurt, and the yard stays relatively manageable, why should I worry if their behavior diverges immensely from what I would expect of actual "children"?

Yet, yesterday, as I watched Archie bow to Dixie, I found describing their play absurdly difficult. Easy tropes like "fighting" or my teasing association of my tiny dogs with "gladiators," which I've used before, seemed contaminated by the recent news of Michael Vick's potential involvement in dog fighting. I actually wondered whether someone who doesn't know me and hasn't seen the full context of this project might misread a previous description as something similar to the felonious and deeply disturbing activities associated with Vick.

Today, such a notion disturbs me immensely, although a month ago, I wouldn't have thought twice about the language I used.

More, although I won't indulge a peculiar temptation to invoke Derrida, such concerns about the way in which meaning can shift or be interpreted differently by different readers are crucial to writing. Indeed, to my mind, poetry often functions on a connotative level, working with the penumbra of a word's meaning, the variety of associations attached to any single word, or the (de)stabilization of meaning that context makes possible. And finally, consider the power of connotation: The dogs on the Vick property fought like soldiers on a battlefield, charging toward death; my dogs fight as children at play do, meaning no harm whatsoever to the other member of their pack. I find the lack of concern over the well-being of the dogs on Vick's property reprehensible and hope those responsible face the jail time their due; whereas, my actions are based solely on concern for the well-being of my dogs.

And the word "fight" contains, in some ways, both notions.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Dixie, our snarling Jack Russell has just rolled Archie, our prancing Italian greyhound in a patch of dust. His once off-white fur is speckled with patches of grey-tan filth. After I shout “Easy!” in an effort to protect him from her occasionally overzealous play, both dogs speed across the tall grass, veering down the slightly sloped yard into the open, spotted with morning sun, before circling back to the patio, where I am sipping weaker than normal coffee, trying to organize my day in my head.

Inside, the dishwasher is running—hot water and dish soap splashing away the crumbs of our recent lives. My wife, having woken me early because the car was low on gas, has already begun a day staving off clients who fail to read directions.

I catch myself yawning, again. Trying to take in as much air as my body will allow. No reason for such weariness.

Dixie howls a taunt at Archie. They prance about the yard again, Archie trailing Dixie by several lengths in a race he'll never come close to winning.


In the middle of last week, we drove four hours to the Eastern edge of Ohio, where my nephew, at the age of 10, was confirmed into the Catholic Church. Michelle was his sponsor. And although I should know better, as the bishop anointed the boy with oil, I could not help but hope for some visible, marked change. I could not help but long for the form of the ritual to enact upon him and the 60 other children who partook in this rite of passage.

Perhaps, when the Bishop placed his hand upon the boy's forehead, something more than mere formalities spoke to him. Perhaps something ineffable in him changed. But, he was still a 10-year-old boy, and at the reception that followed, he made that fact clear.


On Thursday, after my nephew and his siblings had long since departed for school, my wife, her sister, and I left the dogs in the care of my father-in-law, and ventured back to Pittsburgh. We began the day with coffee at an old haunt on Craig Street and ventured through several of the small shops while I waited for an appointment with Jim Daniels, a professor at Carnegie Mellon who helped with my senior thesis nearly ten years ago. It was good to be back.

After dropping me off between Schenley Park and the edge of campus, Michelle and her sister continued their tour of Pittsburgh with a jaunt to Shadyside, another series of small shops, and yet more coffee at another old haunt. Whereas I walked back into the halls where I'd studied for my undergraduate degree and explored the new facilities my alma mater has for Creative Writing.


Perhaps unwisely, my wife and I drove back home that night, making it to the Western Hills of Cincinnati around 1 AM the next day. Since then, I've not been sleeping well. My legs have been aching as if I had the flu. The peculiar buildup of lactic acid has finally subsided. The world is returning to normalcy after a long and lazy weekend. More chores. More writing. A single cloud in a pale blue sky.


While I was eating lunch with Jim last week, the conversation sprawled across topics, pausing now and then to linger on an anecdote, a snippet of work, or reflection. At one point, the conversation veered into discussions of very long poems, and he mentioned his continued interest in simultaneous narratives as a technique he'd used to compensate for a lack of metaphor in his poetry.

To me, this raises an interesting question: what, precisely, do you think of when you think of poetry? Do you think of a poet as someone who gushes similes and metaphors the way a teenage boy might gush about his girlfriend? Or do you think of someone attuned to craft, chiseling away with every technique she can muster—all to find the precise few words that make a poem? Did Basho ever use a metaphor?


This morning, after pumping gas, I drove my wife on her morning ritual to the nearest Starbucks. I think, though she normally uses that drive as quiet time to herself, my wife enjoyed having me along as her day began. As we approached our destination, the sun, bright orange, floated just above the horizon. I tried to point to it, hovering between two fast-food restaurants, but by the time my wife looked, a building had already obscured it from view, as happens every day, at sunrise.

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