“You didn’t get a wicked forbidden thrill. . . “ (Ogden Nash)

Stay hungry. Stay foolish.

Stay hungry. Stay foolish.

American poet John Brehm was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1956. I was in 5th grade in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, at that time. One of his poems includes the stanza,

The poems I have not written
would compel all other poets
to ask of God: “Why do you
let me live? I am worthless.

American poet Ogden Nash was born in Rye, New York, in 1902. One of his poems includes the lines,

. . . about sins of omission there is one particularly painful lack of beauty,
Namely, it isn’t as though it had been a riotous red-letter day or night every time you neglected to do your duty;
You didn’t get a wicked forbidden thrill
Every time you let a policy lapse or forget to pay a bill . . .

I wish they had never happened.

That is, my six sessions of therapy (before insurance had to treat mental illness the same as physical) with a psychiatrist whose practice was exclusively with substance abusers. About 1982. Beverly, MA. The meddling in my affairs by an Episcopal priest whose wife had been in recovery from alcoholism for ten years at that time.

They got me to see the good doctor under the pretense he would help me cope with a couple of nearly disastrous situations in my life over which I had no control. The real reason, obviously, was their desire to get me to quit drinking alcoholically. (Disclaimer: You may have read or heard about some of this before. Sorry, but the demons are not yet exorcised.)

The good doctor, seeing he was getting nowhere in helping me understand the possible problems my drinking (only about a quart of vodka every day—what’s the big deal?) was causing me, gave up, and in the last of the six sessions asked me if I had any other problems to talk about. I’ve written about this before—ad nauseam—but I launched into what he thought was a classic description of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. He had been a medical school (Harvard, of course) chum of Dr. Donald Schomer, by that time heir apparent to Dr. Norman Geschwind, pioneer of work on TLE. The good doctor set up an appointment for me with Dr. Schomer, and the rest, as they say, is diagnosis.

This round of unwritten letters.  . .

This round of unwritten letters. . .

I first read Ogden Nash’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man” in high school and was particularly drawn to the lines,

You didn’t slap the lads in the tavern on the back and loudly cry Whee,
Let’s all fail to write just one more letter before we go home, and this round of unwritten letters is on me.
No, you never get any fun
Out of things you haven’t done. . . .

Perhaps that appealed to me when I was 17 or 18 years old because I was already too familiar with the sins of omission.

The real question is whether or not TLEpilepsy has (had) anything to do with my inability to follow through on much of anything in my life. (Well, there is that PhD dissertation.) TLEpileptics have certain problems of memory and focus. I’ve read a lot about us.

For example: Theodore, William H., et al. “Serotonin 1A Receptors, Depression, And Memory in Temporal Lobe Epilepsy.” Epilepsia (Series 4) 53.1 (2012): 129-133.

But the condition is so amorphous I’m never even sure I have it—I can’t be positive even though Donald Schomer said so.

My symptoms are pretty regular. Auditory hallucination (b-flat 4 ringing in my ears and exploding into white noise) followed by extreme sense of dissociation, followed by exhaustion and depression. So how would anyone know?—I’m mostly depressed anyway.

And then there’s this round of unwritten letters that’s on me. And those unwritten poems.

Is it TLEpilepsy, bipolar II disorder, or common clinical depression that has given me my sense of unfilled purpose, my absolute understanding that

. . . the other kind of sin is just the opposite and is called a sin of omission and is equally bad in the eyes of all right-thinking people, from Billy Sunday to Buddha,
And it consists of not having done something you shuddha.

My sins are most decidedly sins of omission. Nash is right. They are no fun.

Yesterday I had opportunity to talk with a couple of college football players about the commencement speech the late Steve Jobs gave at Stanford in 2005. Talk! What conversations we had. I said on Facebook they were introspective. That’s only the beginning. The athletes understood Jobs’s remarks.

. . . Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. . . . Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. . . [Quoting the last issue of The Whole Earth Catalog]:

“Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.”

A good friend is in Paris for several weeks. He has invited me to come over there and sleep on the extra bed in the apartment he’s renting. It’ll be the only time I ever have a chance to go to Paris and not have to pay for a hotel room.

I told one of the guys about it yesterday and asked him if I should take a week off from my tutoring and go.

“Hell yes,” he said. “Stay hungry. Stay foolish. Don’t worry about us.”

Can it be that TLE has nothing to do with my unwritten poems?

A lack of hunger, perhaps.

(You’re lucky today, dear reader; you get two poems.)

To attend the Paris Opera

To attend the Paris Opera

“The poems I Have Not Written,” by John Brehm (b. 1955)
I’m so wildly unprolific, the poems
I have not written would reach
from here to the California coast
if you laid them end to end.

And if you stacked them up,
the poems I have not written
would sway like a silent
Tower of Babel, saying nothing

and everything in a thousand
different tongues. So moving, so
filled with and emptied of suffering,
so steeped in the music of a voice

speechless before the truth,
the poems I have not written
would break the hearts of every
woman who’s ever left me,

make them eye their husbands
with a sharp contempt and hate
themselves for turning their backs
on the very source of beauty.

The poems I have not written
would compel all other poets
to ask of God: “Why do you
let me live? I am worthless.

please strike me dead at once,
destroy my works and cleanse
the earth of all my ghastly
imperfections.” Trees would

bow their heads before the poems
I have not written. “Take me,”
they would say, “and turn me
into your pages so that I

might live forever as the ground
from which your words arise.”
The wind itself, about which
I might have written so eloquently,

praising its slick and intersecting
rivers of air, its stately calms
and furious interrogations,
its flutelike lingerings and passionate

reproofs, would divert its course
to sweep down and then pass over
the poems I have not written,
and the life I have not lived, the life

I’ve failed even to imagine,
which they so perfectly describe.

“Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man,” by Ogden Nash (b. 1907)
It is common knowledge to every schoolboy and even every Bachelor of Arts,
That all sin is divided into two parts.
One kind of sin is called a sin of commission, and that is very important,
And it is what you are doing when you are doing something you ortant,
And the other kind of sin is just the opposite and is called a sin of omission and is equally bad in the eyes of all right-thinking people, from Billy Sunday to Buddha,
And it consists of not having done something you shuddha.
I might as well give you my opinion of these two kinds of sin as long as, in a way, against each other we are pitting them,
And that is, don’t bother your head about the sins of commission because however sinful, they must at least be fun or else you wouldn’t be committing them.
It is the sin of omission, the second kind of sin,
That lays eggs under your skin.
The way you really get painfully bitten
Is by the insurance you haven’t taken out and the checks you haven’t added up the stubs of and the appointments you haven’t kept and the bills you haven’t paid and the letters you haven’t written.
Also, about sins of omission there is one particularly painful lack of beauty,
Namely, it isn’t as though it had been a riotous red-letter day or night every time you neglected to do your duty;
You didn’t get a wicked forbidden thrill
Every time you let a policy lapse or forget to pay a bill;
You didn’t slap the lads in the tavern on the back and loudly cry Whee,
Let’s all fail to write just one more letter before we go home, and this round of unwritten letters is on me.
No, you never get any fun
Out of things you haven’t done,
But they are the things that I do not like to be amid,
Because the suitable things you didn’t do give you a lot more trouble than the unsuitable things you did.
The moral is that it is probably better not to sin at all, but if some kind of sin you must be pursuing,
Well, remember to do it by doing rather than by not doing.

“. . . we must lift the sail And catch the winds of destiny. . .” (Edgar Lee Masters)

A minority report.

To be “the man”

The Melungeons are (were) a mixed-raced ethnic group who live(d) in small communities in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. Their origins are mysterious. Conflicting theories attempt to explain how they came to reside in Appalachia.

The most widely-accepted theory is that they are the descendants of female slaves and white males, who were able to flee to the mountains where they inter-married with the Native Americans and the Anglo Americans who had begun to settle in the mountains.

In the 1990s, Brent Kennedy, who identified himself as a Melungeon, proposed the theory that the Melungeons are descendants of Muslim Arabs who, after they were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition, arrived in the New World in 1566 as part of the doomed Spanish settlement of Santa Elena in South Carolina, the settlement destroyed by the English in 1587.

I want to identify myself as Professor of the Year. I want the award as the most inspiring, most knowledgeable, most organized professor in the university.

I want to have published three or four books since my tenure appointment. I want to be a “talking head” on NPR when they need an authority in my field.

I want to be, if not a true intellectual, at least a thorough-going scholar.

On “Rate your Professor” I want high accolades from students that entice so many students to take my classes that the registrar has to turn students away.

Dear me, I forgot. It’s too late. (“Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.”)

Whatever their origins, most of the Melungeons (for reasons long forgotten) refer(red) to themselves as Portuguese (or, as they said, according to Kennedy, “Portyghee”). The thesis of Kennedy’s book is that the Melungeons were, over the centuries, so reviled that they did everything they could to blend into society and no longer exist as a subculture.

The five young men, athletes at SMU, whom I work with as tutor in my retirement had the assignment to read the Kennedy article linked above for the summer school writing class they are taking. The purpose is ultimately for them to write essays about marginalization in American society.

These guys are going to take their places as “my boys”—I know I shouldn’t call them that. They are not “boys” (or are they?), and they certainly are not “mine.” All of them are star athletes.

I’d like to file a perhaps unusual report on college athletes here.

These five guys (and all who have preceded them as “my boys”) are respectful, interesting, socially competent young men who know something most (yes, most) college students do not know: self-discipline. In the fall semester 2013 eleven members of SMU’s football and basketball teams were in my classes. Not one of them was a slacker. Several of them knew they were under-prepared for college writing, but they worked hard to overcome their disadvantage.

Now I am a paid tutor for several student athletes in the Academic Development of Student Athletes program at SMU. I know—I’d be willing to bet—more about the regulations of the NCAA than any of my jock friends. I know exactly what the limits are on what I may do for these guys. And I follow the rules. And so do they. And they work hard. (I may not, for example, put a mark their papers or put a keystroke to them if they are digital).

A couple of these guys have had great difficulty getting where they are now in many ways—ways more daunting than academic. But whatever their success as athletes might ultimately be, they will have a real education when they graduate from SMU. I’m there to help see to that.

Many years ago I blew my chance to be Professor of the Year (first by accepting a non-tenure-track position, and in many other ways as well). But I’m not like the Melungeons. I have not been ridiculed and marginalized (professionally, that is). I know something about marginalization because I am a gay man, of course.

Was Nancy Hanks a Melungeon from Kentucky?

Was Nancy Hanks a Melungeon from Kentucky?

Here’s what I do instead of being Professor of the Year. One of the young men was having difficulty getting his mind around the Kennedy article. Almost anyone would. It’s a five page condensation of myriad historical facts that require an enormous amount of background knowledge to comprehend.

The student and I were discussing it. I was trying to help him see the big picture—that the article is not about those details, but about marginalization. From somewhere (where do these ideas come from?) I thought suddenly of telling him I never shook a black person’s hand until I was in fifth grade. He was—as he might well have been—shocked. I asked him pointedly if he hadn’t felt the pain of racism. And we talked about marginalization.

He said after a few minutes I was the first white man with whom he had ever had such a conversation. “Professor Knight,” he says every time we finish an hour together, “you’re the man!” And I say to him, “No, you’re the man!” And we do a fist bump. But that’s not enough for him. He reaches out to shake my hand.

So I am the Professor of the Year. At least for “the man!” I am the Professor of the Summer.

He will never know—because I will never figure out how to tell him, and, by NCAA rules I probably am not allowed to—that I’m getting more out of our two hours a week together than he is.

George Gray, whoever he was, seems to be one of the less admirable folks in Edgar Lee Masters’ town Spoon River. I used to think he was somewhat pathetic, and feared I was like him. But one could find a much less worthy “meaning in my life” than being told by a young man who seems to be on the verge of fame and fortune (or abject failure?)—but who is still a twenty-year-old kid—that one is “the man.”

“George Gray,” by Edgar Lee Masters (1868 – 1950)
I have studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me—
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire—
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.

A Kentucky Portyghee family

A Kentucky Portyghee family

“. . . rising from the water with my black feathers wet. . .” (Brigit Pegeen Kelly)

. . . the Arab musician Plucks the lute strings With an eagle quill . . .

. . . the Arab musician
Plucks the lute strings
With an eagle quill . . .

.

.

.

.

For the last four days I have been trying to explain to myself in writing my (almost) constant preoccupation with what I suppose many people (my psychiatrist among them) would say is death. This is not a new writing struggle. No, many friends have told me that I need to stop thinking about it, that my preoccupation is not healthy, that I just need to get on with life. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Several people have reminded me that my stated purpose when I began this blog was to write in a more light-hearted vein than I write on my other blog.

A few days ago, I posted on Facebook the poem “Musical Instrument,” by Luis Cernuda (September 21, 1902 – November 5, 1963).

“Musical Instrument,” by Luis Cernuda, translated by Stephen Kessler
If the Arab musician
Plucks the lute strings
With an eagle quill
To awaken the notes,

What hand plucks
With what bird’s quill
The wound in you
That awakens the word?

(From Desolation of the Chimera, 2010)

Cernuda is one of those shadowy figures whose name—and some vague information about him—I have known for years. Heard about him in one graduate seminar or another, noted him as someone I ought to research, promptly forgot.

He was a gay Spanish Republican, living in exile

He was a gay Spanish Republican, living in exile

He was a gay Spanish Republican, living in exile from 1938 until his death. My guess is—although I have no knowledge of this—he traveled the 9 miles across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco when he was a young man in search of a kind of exoticism that Spain did not afford him (see the stories of Paul Bowles if you need an explanation). Pure speculation.

Or perhaps there is (or was) more residue of Arab music in Spain in the 1930s than I know about. More likely.

At any rate, he knew the oud, the Arab-style lute plucked traditionally with a “pick” made of eagle feathers. Oud comes from the Arabic word for “wood.” A real oud is made of a single piece of wood, carved into the shape of a lute. Cernuda was an openly gay Spanish poet, literary critic, and political activist living in exile in Mexico who wrote a poem about making music with an Arab instrument, translated by (another openly) gay California poet.

The day before I posted Cernuda’s poem, I had my six-month check-up with my neurologist. After pleasantries, the first question always is, “Have you had any seizure activity since you were here?” If I hadn’t, why would I maintain our friendship? I told him about the little incident a couple of weeks ago when a student I was tutoring left the room to print out his essay and I was surprised to find him sitting again at the table because, in my experience, he never came back into the room. If that’s ever happened to you, you know the difference between checking out and nodding off.

So, yes, I have had “seizure activity” in the past six months. Nothing to worry about, though. Maybe blacked out for30 seconds? A minute?

“I think it’s time for you to consider not driving.”

Oh, right. Living in Dallas, car and SUV capital of the world (after Beijing, of course).

Clinical observations during the past 150 years support an association between religious experiences during (ictal), after (postictal), and in between (interictal) seizures. In addition, epileptic seizures may increase, alter, or decrease religious experience especially in a small group of patients with temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE). (Devinsky, O. “Spirituality and religion in epilepsy.” Epilepsy Behavior 12.4. May 2008. nih.gov).

I don’t know if any of that medical jargon describes accurately anything that happens (or has ever happened) to me. Most of the time I’m pretty sure my TLE is made up. It never happened. My brain is just fine, thank you. Some oddities that everyone has experienced but most people simply ignore.

But then there’s this matter of religion. I don’t believe any of it. Honest. I don’t rant and rave and hate people about it the way Bill Maher does, but I don’t get it. My limited intellect simply doesn’t understand. So my sins are forgiven and I go to heaven when I die and I’m met by St. Peter at the Pearly Gates before the Streets of Gold, or I’m ushered into a Seraglio and presented with 47 virgins for my pleasure (I hope they’re men).

For eternity? Boring!

I don’t believe any of it, but I can’t shake it. Learning? Family training and heritage? Social norm? Well, no. It’s a matter of experience. I don’t mean to get all spooky here. But when I’m playing the Brahms Chorale Prelude Herzlich tut mich erfreuen (“My heart abounds with pleasure”) I experience something besides the physical act of playing and hearing or the mental act of understanding. It’s most present when I’m playing here by myself. If you’re around, it’s more present if someone else is playing. There’s a back story that I can’t quite hear or tell.

And I know I am most present to myself—it’s an order of magnitude away from self-centeredness—when, in a moment that feels remarkably like a seizure and/or a musical performance, I am absorbed (total absorption) in wondering what it is (or will be) to be dead. The absorption is overwhelming grief and joy simultaneously. It’s

the wound in [me]
That awakens the word

Or, from another poem that represents the back story I can’t quite hear or tell, but I know,

. . . What I
wished for is not as I understood it to be, I have still

not seen an angel, unless that red cloud passing beyond the trees
when my leopard went for a walk was one. And though

there are no gates here, no locks or keys, there is also no way
to leave–no way in this lion’s heart to desire to do so.

The back story haunts me daily. It’s nothing Dr. Agostini can fix.

“The Peaceable Kingdom,” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly (b. 1951)
from To the Place of the Trumpets, 1988

The leopard is mine, the snow leopard with the face
like a dinner plate, and I am the boy in blue knickers

staring as fiercely as any warrior in any sheepskin
ever stared, but I have no arrows and my leopard will scare

no one. Now, there are only the tulips and the swans unfolding
their soft wings, and the green stream along whose banks

harps are strung in the acacias, over whose waters
the sun passes like a silver hand carrying a cup of wine.

I had not thought enough of death, of entering the black canal,
of rising from the water with my black feathers wet.

and my ears open “like the mouths of babes for milk” to drums
and cymbals, gongs and horns, and that song the stars

sing just before dawn, where there is a night for them
to leave behind and the loss of it growing. Now our hearts

are lions’ hearts, golden in our breasts, and if we spit
it is Solomon and the silver of all his temples. Not Solomon

Grundy. Nothing is Grundy here. And though my sandals
do not quite fit, and though the little gray lambs will never

leave me alone, there is only Good morning in all this,
and How do you do? And how do you do again? My mind

is like the harp strings, with a breeze blowing always
and no rest in sight. It is a mind that belongs

to the four winds, and a body that is only the thought of a thought,
a reminder of something the mind tries to gather into a pile

like wheat, but the pile blows away, and I watch gold fragments
turning on the wind. Here the lilies lie down at your feet.

Here everyone wins the prize so you don’t know where to look,
whose elbow to softly touch. And there is always

in this liquid air the song my mother sang to me, but now
it is for everyone and my heart, which is a lion’s heart

no longer rolls over and weeps at the sound. What I
wished for is not as I understood it to be, I have still

not seen an angel, unless that red cloud passing beyond the trees
when my leopard went for a walk was one. And though

there are no gates here, no locks or keys, there is also no way
to leave–no way in this lion’s heart to desire to do so.

"The Peaceable Kingdom," Edward Hicks, 1848

“The Peaceable Kingdom,” Edward Hicks, 1848

“He who kisses the joy as it flies. . .” (William Blake)

Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking

Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking

Richard Chase, one of the preeminent American folklorists (how he would have disliked that kind of description of himself), owned a copy of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence. It was an early edition with the plates colored by an unknown hand. It was one of his prized possessions. I’m not being grandiose when I say there was a time (many, many years ago) I would visit him so I could look at that wondrous book.

This is not a “name-dropping” exercise. Several people who are likely to read this post knew Chase as well; we knew him as “Uncle Dick” before we had any idea of his importance to American culture. I own his copy of William Chappell’s Popular Music of the Olden Time, one of the 20th-century reprints, not valuable except that it has Uncle Dick’s notations. One of my favorite memories of Uncle Dick is walking with him, naked, at midnight one full-moon night into the surf on the beach at La Jolla while he recited Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” The next day I decided the least I could do to keep that memory alive was to memorize the section

Yes, when the stars glisten’d,
All night long on the prong of a moss-scallop’d stake,
Down almost amid the slapping waves,
Sat the lone singer wonderful causing tears.

He call’d on his mate,
He pour’d forth the meanings which I of all men know.
Yes my brother I know,
The rest might not, but I have treasur’d every note,
For more than once dimly down to the beach gliding,
Silent, avoiding the moonbeams, blending myself with the
shadows,
Recalling now the obscure shapes, the echoes, the sounds
and sights after their sorts,
The white arms out in the breakers tirelessly tossing,
I, with bare feet, a child, the wind wafting my hair,
Listen’d long and long.

Listen’d to keep, to sing, now translating the notes,
Following you my brother
.

I can’t recite it these days, but always, when I think of that night, I remember I’m basically an illiterate “bull-in-the-china-closet.” I have known true education, elegance, and kindness.

One of William Blake's visions of eternity

One of William Blake’s visions of eternity

Uncle Dick also explained to me his understanding of the poetry of William Blake. He served, Uncle Dick said, as the antidote to the Age of Enlightenment swirling around him. His poetry exists in the heart rather than in the mind. Newtonian physics and reason were fine for solving the world’s physical problems, but they were useless for understanding the human heart.

That is obviously my “spin” on Uncle Dick’s guidance and the way I remember it 40 years later. Whatever it was, in fact, that Uncle Dick said to me, what I took from it was that the life of the mind I was embarking on by going back to graduate school would serve me well only so far. Much of my life I have forgotten his wisdom.

I have not, however, forgotten the poetry of William Blake. Such wild, such odd, such emotional stuff. I came across this short poem the other day.

“Eternity,” by William Blake (1757 – 1827)

He who binds to himself a joy

Does the winged life destroy

He who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sunrise

Last night I said to a group of friends that, as I retire, I realize I am in the process of giving up perhaps the most joyful activity of my life—working with young students. At the same time I’m giving up one of the most odious of tasks—the paperwork and institutional nonsense that weighs down the academic world.

I have nothing profound or academic or, most likely, even interesting to say about Blake’s poem except that I hope, I trust, I can kiss the joy as it flies and begin living in the sunrise. Whatever that may be. Even, perhaps, another way to experience my joy.

Sunrise at Port Orford, Oregon

Sunrise at Port Orford, Oregon

“. . . to ease distance to fetch home spiritual things. . .” (Susan Howe)

My sister's art moves into my mind

Bonnie Knight Sato, 2014. My sister’s art moves into my mind

The poetry of Susan Howe is as mysterious and as obvious as any language art can be. I get it completely at the same time I have no understanding of it at all.

I suppose my intellectual life would be more satisfying and complete if I had studied the great movements in art of the 20th and now the 21st centuries. Structuralism. Post-structuralism. The imagists, the objectivists, the Harlem Renaissance, the Beat generation. I don’t know. I am ignorant of the parameters of these styles or “schools,” and a great deal of 20th –century poetry I simply can’t comprehend.

An example of the writing about this mysterious writing that is even more mysterious than the writing itself is a critique of a couple of books about Howe’s work, and of one of Susan Howe’s own books available online.

Why is there so much interest in a writer whose works are so difficult to fathom? Perhaps it’s just that. They present a challenge to the reader who has grown tired of the usual fluff that passes itself off as literature these days. In the process, the works of Susan Howe extend our concept of what poetry (and writing in general) is, creating new dimensions, new problematics and techniques to be understood and mastered by the adventurous writer (Cunningham, John Herbert. “Write Through This: The Poetry of Susan Howe.” Rain Taxi. Spring 2011. Web.)

That’s the easiest to comprehend paragraph in the critique—if you don’t already know how critics have pigeon-holed Howe’s poetry. Or, perhaps, simply the most interesting.

I don’t want to read those books about Susan Howe. What a bore. On the other hand, I might be able to arrive at some understanding of her work if I did.

Or perhaps her work is somehow “prediscursive” (a word from an article about ORLAN I had my students read). Can poetry exist before the possibility of talking about it or the ideas it represents? Of course. So, as far as I am concerned, Howe’s poetry is “prediscursive.”
Bonnie 3 blog left

I found that online critique of critiques of Howe because I came across her poem “That This” (or rather the first of five poems with that title). It’s somehow about music. Don’t ask me.

But I love the way the words go together. The poem has the lines

The way music is formed of
cloud and fire once actually

concrete now accidental as
half truth or as whole truth

Is light anything like this
stray pencil commonplace

copy as to one aberrant
onward-gliding mystery.

Mysterious. But lovely. Is light anything like this stray pencil commonplace copy? You’ll think I’m joking when I say it gives me goosebumps. I’ve read it aloud probably ten times since I began writing this little attempt to say something.

I’d give anything to be able to put together nine words like that—I wouldn’t care what they meant.

Today is my sister’s birthday. I was five when she was born, and I remember the family excitement and activities around her birth. She and I are close in a way that only a brother and sister can be. We’ve had our ups and downs over the years, perhaps, but she is, in a way that I shouldn’t have to explain to anyone, my best friend.

Are my birthday wishes for my sister connected in any way to Howe’s poetry? Well, yes. The question, “Is light anything like this stray pencil commonplace copy?” is an exact metaphor (in my mind—I have no idea what Howe means by it) for the question I ask about the love of siblings. Is light anything like the stray commonplace pleasure of a life of in-jokes no one else understands, of a life of caring for and about each other in a way one does about no one else, of bearing one another’s burdens even when separated for decades by thousands of miles, of knowing pretty much without thinking how any given thought, idea, or creation will affect the other? No, light is not “like” those things. It is those things.

So I’m off into some space where no one can follow me, I’m sure. Even my sister will scratch her head and say to herself, “What is he talking about?” It’s prediscursive. It’s before conversation. Some things are best not “understood.” Simply known.

Is one mind put into another
in us unknown to ourselves
by going about among trees
and fields in moonlight or in
a garden to ease distance to
fetch home spiritual things

I’m glad Susan Howe will never see what I have done to corrupt her meaning. But one mind (my mind, my sister’s mind, your mind, any mind?) moves into another mind without our knowledge, our minds move among trees in moonlight or gardens in the daylight, or anywhere we might be. We come together without knowing ourselves how it happens. And this easing of distance is the spiritual reality of our lives.

My sister’s spiritual reality has recently moved into painting. You don’t have to know my sister to see the beauty in her work. But it simply moves into my mind. My enjoyment of it is prediscursive. I don’t need to–I can’t explain it.

There, you see, I can write a critique of Susan Howe’s poetry. And in the process, odd and incomprehensible as it seems, wish my sister a Happy Birthday.

“That This,” by Susan Howe      

Susan Howe

Susan Howe

Day is a type when visible
objects change then put

on form but the anti-type
That thing not shadowed

The way music is formed of
cloud and fire once actually

concrete now accidental as
half truth or as whole truth

Is light anything like this
stray pencil commonplace

copy as to one aberrant
onward-gliding mystery

A secular arietta variation
Grass angels perish in this

harmonic collision because
non-being cannot be ‘this’

Not spirit not space finite
Not infinite to those fixed—

That this millstone as such
Quiet which side on which—

Is one mind put into another
in us unknown to ourselves
by going about among trees
and fields in moonlight or in
a garden to ease distance to
fetch home spiritual things

That a solitary person bears
witness to law in the ark to

an altar of snow and every
age or century for a day is

“Meaning appears on the edge of consciousness, unable to break through. This is Howe’s magic—to make you, the reader, reach for something you feel is there, and to keep you returning to the page in hopes that, at some point, the boundary will be breached” (John Herbert Cunningham).

‘Living is no laughing matter. . . “ (Nazim Hikmet)

He knows where his nuts are

He knows where his nuts are

Every morning I sit down and intend to do my work (grading papers, checking my retirement fund balance, writing that recommendation letter for a student applying to transfer—you know, those things). But then I get sidetracked because I simply have to write.

Sorry. Another rant about having to write.

Please read my explanation of that.

And I haven’t been able to for the last five days because I’ve been too sick to think. Well, thinking isn’t always a part of this writing. But this cold or whatever it is has made it pretty much impossible for me to do anything. I start something and immediately want to take a nap.

But it may be winding down, the cold, that is.

At any rate, I’m not cancelling my classes today. Let them eat cake. No, let them get sick. My gift to them. I’m sure one of them gave it to me.

Enough ranting.

One of the reasons I want to get back to the university is to check on my squirrels. A whole colony of them who live between McFarlin Auditorium and Perkins Administration Building. I watch them bury their acorns in the summer and fall and dig them up in the winter and spring. I know they remember where they are. How?

Where the family lives

Where the family lives

The most interesting mystery I know. Who cares about the Big Bang, or the New American (all-powerful) Oligarchy, or who won March Madness. I want to know how those squirrels know where their nuts are. Watch them if you don’t believe me. They bounce along over the ground, stop, dig for a couple of seconds, and come up with an acorn and start nibbling on it. How do they know?

I love this poem. I don’t know anything about Nazim Hikmet except that he was born in 1902 in what was then part of the Ottoman Empire, but which World War I turned into part of Greece (see, the Ukraine is only the continuation of European boundary changes). Hikmet may have been something of a socialist radical. So much the better. I’ll have to research. You’ll easily see at least one of the reasons I love the poem so much.

I don’t know what any of the above means or says, but I’ve written. That’s all that matters.

“On Living,” by Nazim Hikmet
translated by Mutlu Konuk and Randy Blasing

Living is no joke,
you must live with great seriousness
like a squirrel for example,
I mean expecting nothing except and beyond living,
I mean living must be your whole occupation.

You must take living seriously,
I mean to such an extent that,
for example your arms are tied from your back, your back is on the wall,
or in a laboratory with your white shirt, with your huge eye glasses,
you must be able to die for people,
even for people you have never seen,
although nobody forced you to do this,
although you know that
living is the most real, most beautiful thing.

I mean you must take living so seriously that,
even when you are seventy, you must plant olive trees,
not because you think they will be left to your children,
because you don’t believe in death although you are afraid of it
because, I mean, life weighs heavier.

II

Suppose we’re very sick, in need of surgery,
I mean, there is the possibility that
we will never get up from the white table.
although it is impossible not to feel the grief of passing away somewhat too soon
we will still laugh at the funny joke being told,
we will look out of the window to see if it’s raining,
or we will wait impatiently
for the latest news from agencies.

Suppose, for something worth fighting for,
suppose we are on the battlefield.
Over there, in the first attack, on the first day
we may fall on the ground on our face.
We will know this with a somewhat strange grudge,
but we will still wonder like crazy
the result of the war that will possibly last for years.

Suppose we are in the jail,
age is close to fifty,
supose there are still eighteen years until the iron door will open.
Still, we will live with the outer world,
with the people, animals, fights and winds
I mean, with the outer world beyond the walls.

I mean, however and wherever we are
we must live as if there is no death…

III

I hope he was a socialist radical

I hope he was a socialist radical

This earth will cool down,
a star among all the stars,
one of the tiniest,
I mean a grain of glitter in the blue velvet,
I mean this huge world of ours.

This earth will cool down one day,
not even like a pile of ice
or like a dead cloud,
it will roll like an empty walnut
in the pure endless darkness.
You must feel the pain of this now,
You must feel the grief right now.
You must love this world so much
to be able to say ‘I lived’…

“. . . A type of that twin entity which springs From matter and light . . .”

Hungary or Ukraine

Hungary or Ukraine

My students are writing this semester on my favorite class topic, “Writing about the grotesque.” Flannery O’Connor’s essay on the subject, her story “Parker’s Back,” the Robert Louis Stevenson story “The Body Snatcher,” the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the work of the French performance artist ORLAN.

It occurred to me the other day when I heard a news story from Odessa (not Texas) that I might have used Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin which I studied years ago in a graduate seminar on the language of film instead of Invasion. Could we have discussed the “grotesque” in a film based on an historic event? We might have discussed the grotesquery of propaganda. Or of the slaughter of innocents. Or of Tsarist totalitarianism. Any of those things. The over-acting of silent films?

That occurred to me for the same reason I’ve listened several times recently to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 –the “Little Russian.” A colleague at Bunker Hill Community College told me (20 years ago!) the “Little Russia” the title refers to is the Ukraine. The Symphony makes elaborate use of Ukrainian folk tunes. My colleague had relatives living in Kiev. How I’ve remembered this bit of musical trivia all these years I don’t know.

For a couple of months I’ve been trying to explain (to myself) my aversion to hearing about the events in the Ukraine. I cannot hear the news from Kiev or Crimea without cringing.

That radio piece about Odessa began with the Potemkin Stairs.

Potemkin stairs

Potemkin stairs

My thinking is circuitous at best. From classes today back to a graduate seminar in the language of film and Battleship Potemkin, forward to my teaching at BHCC, to the present and my desire to hear no more news from the Ukraine.

The “situation” in the Ukraine has taken on a significance for me far beyond what is warranted. I grew up in the ‘50s when Russia (the Soviet Union) was the arch-enemy. The Soviets sent tanks into Hungary in 1956 to quell an uprising. The Hungarians were willing to remain part of the Soviet “empire.” They simply wanted autonomy.

Right or wrong, that’s the way I remember it. My parents were particularly interested because many of the radio news reports we heard from Budapest were by a reporter with whom, I think, my dad had attended high school. Why I remember that (whether or not it is fact) after all these years is even more mysterious than my remembering Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russia.” However, some memories that seem far-fetched are, I think, too strange to be imagined.

Not long ago I rediscovered and wrote about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet “The Soul’s Expression.” The poem ends with an image I can’t get out of my mind: If I were to manage to express myself in words, just as thunder tears apart the cloud from which it comes, so my words would tear apart my body.

But if I did it,—as the thunder-roll
Breaks its own cloud, my flesh would perish there,
Before that dread apocalypse of soul
.

A student asked me the other day if, when I spoke in class—as part of my introduction to Invasion of the Body Snatchers—I spoke with some resentment about the ‘50s. I didn’t (and still don’t) know how to answer that question. It was my childhood. I was in sixth grade when Russia put down the uprising in Hungary. At almost the same time Britain and France were involved (with American support) in the “Suez crisis.”

It seemed to me our country should have helped the Hungarians who wanted freedom (a vague concept to me, but one that I had learned in school and at home was the basis of our society). I could not see what the Suez Canal had to do with that. I remember standing in our kitchen with my dad while he explained both crises to me. I don’t remember anything he said except that there was a possibility that the US would go to war in the Suez, but not in Hungary.

(Another inexplicable memory: In the background of this conversation Vic Damone was singing “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady. Neurologists who study the workings of memory might find this fascinating. The radio most likely was not on during that conversation, but “The Street Where you Live,” Hungary, and the Suez Canal are run together in my mind inextricably.)

I don’t want to hear the news about the Ukraine because my feelings about that situation mirror so closely the feelings I had about the danger of the loss of freedom in Hungary—the bedrock of everything we believed about the political world—and the inability of our country to protect the Hungarians while supporting Britain and France in a war to keep the flow of oil uninterrupted through the Suez Canal.

How much of that I put together in 1956 I don’t know. I put some of it together now. The reason to be concerned about Ukraine is the flow of natural gas through the country to Europe. The 1956 tension with the Russians is resurrected—and in some bizarre way for the same reasons.

Now the longest stretch in my thinking. In his poem “Sonnet—Silence” Edgar Allan Poe juxtaposes two qualities of humankind, the “double life.” First is the physical, that in death

. . . dwells in lonely places,
Newly with grass o’ergrown; some solemn graces,
Some human memories and tearful lore,
Render him terrorless: his name’s “No More.”

By this quality no “power hath he of evil in himself.”

The other quality, the “shadow. . . haunteth the lone regions where hath trod No foot of man.” Whatever is going on in Ukraine, whatever our response to it, we are perilously close to the lone region where has “trod no foot of man.” We are looking squarely at death.

“Sonnet—Silence” —by Edgar Allan Poe            
There are some qualities—some incorporate things,
   That have a double life, which thus is made
A type of that twin entity which springs
   From matter and light, evinced in solid and shade.
There is a two-fold Silence—sea and shore—
   Body and soul. One dwells in lonely places,
   Newly with grass o’ergrown; some solemn graces,
Some human memories and tearful lore,
Render him terrorless: his name’s “No More.”
He is the corporate Silence: dread him not!
   No power hath he of evil in himself;
But should some urgent fate (untimely lot!)
   Bring thee to meet his shadow (nameless elf,
That haunteth the lone regions where hath trod
No foot of man,) commend thyself to God!

The stairs in fiction

The stairs in fiction