31 August 2006

Kirk Varnedoe

[from Kirk Varnedoe’s A Fine Disregard, 1990]

To recover a truer sense of the secular miracle in modern art, we have to replace its conventional genesis accounts with a genuinely Darwinian notion of evolutionary origins and growth. The record of its history so far—the succession of fault lines and fissures, the mix of extinctions and expansions of new family trees—doesn’t present just a roster of forms developed to fit changing conditions, any more than it reveals the playing out of some predestined design. It is a powerful demonstration of the creative force of contingency—the interaction of multiple mutations with special environments that started with a few basic reshufflings of the existing gene pool, and has yielded an amazing, diverse world of thriving new forms of life.

The signal difference, of course, is that this evolution has nothing to do with universal, natural law. Its unfolding depends on (though its results are not determined by) the conditions of specific cultures at a distinctive moment in history. The shaping “environment” is a shifting cast of people who have decided, for a panoply of reasons noble and ignoble, to tolerate, pay attention to, or actively support, an unprecendented expansion of artists’ prerogatives to create what a biologist might call “hopeful monsters”—variations, hybrids, and mutations that altered inherited definitions of what could be. The profligacy modern art needed in order to grow—the seemingly gratuitous attempts to adapt familiar things to unexpected purposes, the promiscuous couplings of disparate worlds of convention—could not survive outside this climate. And the raw material here is not random change, but personal initiative; the individual decisions to be an outsider within one’s own world, to try new meanings for old forms, and attack old tasks with new means, to accept the strange as useful and to reconsider the familiar as fraught with possibility. . . .

a seemingly gratuitous rearrangement within a fluid set of established conventions, that finds its possibilities and purposes as its ripples spread. The act focuses our attention on the indispensable role of personal will and initiative, certainly. But precisely because this act was so simple, human, and willfully contrary, it illuminates the creative power that lay around it, in the interplay between the possibilities a culture offered, and those it proved willing to accept. . . . individual acts of conviction deflect known but neglected potentials to meet a field of latent but undefined opportunities, and thereby empower whole new systems of unpredictable complexity

29 August 2006

more Elaine Scarry

[from Elaine Scarry's On Beauty and Being Just]

At the moment we see something beautiful, we undergo a radical decentering. Beauty, according to [Simone] Weil, requires us “to give up our imaginary position at the center. . . . A transformation then takes place at the very roots of our sensibility, in our immediate reception of sense impressions and psychological impressions.” . . . Her account is always deeply somatic: what happens, happens to our bodies. When we come upon beautiful things . . . they act like small tears in the surface of the world that pull us through to some vaster space; or they form “ladders reaching toward the beauty of the world,” or they lift us (as though by the air currents of someone else’s sweeping), letting the ground rotate beneath us several inches, so that when we land, we find we are standing in a different relation to the world than we were a moment before. It is not that we cease to stand at the center of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the center of our own world. We willingly cede our ground to the thing that stands before us.

28 August 2006

in a perfect world

the name of that Ramsay child would never again be uttered by a media person, ever, for any reason, so help me

Elaine Scarry

[from Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, Princeton University Press, 1999, delivered as a Tanner Lecture on Human Values at Yale University, 1998]

When I used to say the sentence (softly and to myself) “I hate palms” or “Palms are not beautiful; possibly they are not even trees,” it was a composite palm that I had somehow succeeded in making without even ever having seen, close up, many particular instances. Conversely, when I now say, “Palms are beautiful,” or “I love palms,” it is really individual palms that I have in mind. Once when I was under a high palm looking up at its canopy sixty feet above me, its leaves barely moving, just opening and closing slightly as though breathing, I gradually realized it was looking back down at me. Stationed in the fronds, woven into them, was a large owl whose whole front surface, face and torso, was already angled toward the ground. To stare down at me, all she had to do was slowly open her eyes. There was no sudden readjustment of her body, no alarmed turning of her head—her sleeping posture, assumed when she arrived each dawn in her palm canopy, already positioned her to stare down at anyone below, simply by rolling open her eyes in a gesture as pacific as the breezy breathings of the canopy in which she was nesting. I normally think of birds nesting in cuplike shapes where the cup is upwards, open to the sky, but this owl (and I later found other owls entering other palms at dawn) had discovered that the canopy was itself a magnified nest, only it happened to be inverted so that it cupped downward. By interleaving her own plumage with the palm’s, latching herself into the leaves, she could hold herself out over the sixty-foot column of air as though she were still flying. It was as though she had stopped to sleep in midair, letting the giant arching palm leaves take over the work of her wings, so that she could soar there in the shaded sunshine until night came and she was ready to fly on her own again.

18 August 2006

Sandra Alcosser

[from Sandra Alcosser’s Except by Nature, 1998]

Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel

Obsequious. You come begging
outside my screen. Sidelong
you stare all morning.
I know that greeting.
It’s the same as mine.

You can’t make up your flimsy mind.
Do you like the world better—
distant or direct? Little Beckett
shifting chicles from one nervous cheek
to the other, will you never seek more

than safe passage? If I so much as breathe,
you convulse like water on hot grease.
Relax, no one cares about you.
If you left the territory next Friday
for good, there’d be no party.

That’s the privilege of being discreet.
You know the warm dens,
the sound of your solitary beat
against the walls,
and those strawberries

ripening under my porch,
the ones no hand can reach?
They’re yours—
deep maroon, reclusive,
they smell so sweet.

Because the Body Is Not a Weapon

In this town of date palms
and expensive pastry
everyone wears pastels.
Everyone owns a sports car
and speeds, I leap with blondes
in a gymnasium of steel leotards.
No one speaks to me.
No one catches my eye.
I eat ill-conceived
Mexican takeout—
pasty beans with
chopped beef.
In my dreams
all the creeps of my life
call me. I swear the only person
who spoke last week
had three-inch toenails
curled over his sandals.
Oh yes, and at the grocery
a little girl in coveralls
studies me when I smile.
You’re not my mother,
she kicks her thick legs
through the cart rails.
You’re    not    my    mother.
Still I pass lightly
as a dust diamond
through my pink sea cottage.
And how should I take this omen:
stalled in traffic, a van of boys
barks at me. Twelve years old,
they lick the windows.
They moon their half-formed buttocks.
They wiggle their shell-like genitals.
Do I laugh?
Have I become a foreign country?

15 August 2006

Mary Rose O'Reilley

[from Mary Rose O’Reilley’s Half Wild, 2006, winner of the 2005 Walt Whitman Award]

The Girl They Caught

Sometime after midnight
they cut the 12-horse Evinrude,
their boat bumps at the dock.

Your kitchen lamp
defines a cribbage game.
Everything dark is holding.

I hear them come in
without knocking.
They carry the girl in a quilt.

You twist the lure
caught in her lip, snip the barb,
and back it out of her mouth.

I hear their boots on the dock,
their coddling way with the girl,
whimpering now.

13 August 2006

Charles Harper Webb

Thank you Susan Meyers and Richard Garcia for directing me to The Pleasure Of Their Company: Voice And Poetry from The Cortland Review.

11 August 2006

George Oppen

[from George Oppen's This In Which, 1965]


In the small beauty of the forest
The wild deer bedding down—
That they are there!

                                  Their eyes
Effortless, the soft lips
Nuzzle and the alien small teeth
Tear the grass

                                  The roots of it
Dangle from their mouths
Scattering earth in the strange woods.
They who are there.

                                  Their paths
Nibbled thru the fields, the leaves that shade them
Hang in the distances
Of sun

                                  The small nouns
Crying faith
In this in which the wild deer
Startle, and stare out.

10 August 2006

09 August 2006

Olena Kalytiak Davis

[from Olena Kalytiak Davis’s shattered sonnets love cards and other off and back handed importunities, 2003]

in the clear long after

Spring is cheap, but clean of sky. Long after she used to
meet him on the sly. He didn’t say much, because to
speak you need a voice, need lead. Among the dead there were
such fresh ghosts, they were still breathing. Through their
mouths. Time, time, to adjust to an other. An ether
O so—No—too sweet. Intox-icated with permeability. ’Tis nox-
ious, to eat evanescence. However steadily, however slowly.
They stemmed into heady blows.
They missed
the stain. Of blue berries and argument. They missed
their lips. The yew and the thorns. They missed.
Their flaws.

O, to be stung by an errant bee. O, to sting.
O, to see you again. Covered in spring.

Frank Bidart

[from Frank Bidart's Star Dust, 2006]


You know that it is there, lair
where the bear ceases
for a time even to exist.

Crawl in. You have at last killed
enough and eaten enough to be fat
enough to cease for a time to exist.

Crawl in. It takes talent to live at night, and scorning
others you had that talent, but now you sniff
the season when you must cease to exist.

Crawl in. Whatever for good or ill
grows within you needs
you for a time to cease to exist.

It is not raining inside
tonight. You know that it is there. Crawl in.

07 August 2006

Ellen Doré Watson

[from Ellen Doré Watson’s This Sharpening, 2006]

Ever Since

Ever since the alarm went off, inconvenient feelings stirring,
outsized, unruly, trying to elbow their way in or out, restless
over the map of the day, trying the hang-dog, downcast eyes
routing, storming through your body, just like Della said
last week, sister in malady, pointing to her chest: there’s
too much in here,
and for as long as you keep your hands, legs,
mouth, and feet busy, ticker-tape brain ticking, they remain
a lozenge, a sourness pushing out an odor only you can smell,
refusing to dissolve — but just try to slip into the tub or behind
the wheel and you’ll need more than the radio to beat back
the take-over, imminent domain, white line through wet lashes,
overblown heart blown open, floodgates and warning lights
and day-glo bumper stickers: emotion the size of a moose
planted in our path — ridiculous, undeniable, locally fatal.

06 August 2006

W. S. Merwin

[from W. S. Merwin's The Lice, 1967]

The Child

Sometimes it is inconceivable that I should be the age I am
Almost always it is at a dry point in the afternoon
I cannot remember what
I am waiting for and in my astonishment I
Can hear the blood crawling over the plains
Hurrying on to arrive before dark
I try to remember my faults to make sure
One after the other but it is never
Satisfactory the list is never complete

At times night occurs to me so that I think I have been
Struck from behind I remain perfectly
Still feigning death listening for the
Assailant perhaps at last
I even sleep a little for later I have moved
I open my eyes the lanternfish have gone home in darkness
On all sides the silence is unharmed
I remember but I feel no bruise

Then there are the stories and after a while I think something
Else must connect them besides just this me
I regard myself starting the search turning
Corners in remembered metropoli
I pass skins withering in gardens that I see now
Are not familiar
And I have lost even the thread I thought I had

If I could be consistent even in destitution
The world would be revealed
While I can I try to repeat what I believe
Creatures spirits not this posture
I do not believe in knowledge as we know it
But I forget

This silence coming at intervals out of the shell of names
It must be all one person really coming at
Different hours for the same thing
If I could learn the word for yes it could teach me questions
I would see that it was itself every time and I would
Remember to say take it up like a hand
And go with it this is at last

The child that will lead you

05 August 2006

Louis Simpson

[from Louis Simpson's At the End of the Open Road, 1960]

The Redwoods

Mountains are moving, rivers
are hurrying. But we
are still.

We have the thoughts of giants—
clouds, and at night the stars.

And we have names — gutteral, grotesque —
Hamet, Og — names with no syllables.

And perish, one by one, our roots
gnawed by the mice. And fall.

And are too slow for death, and change
to stone. Or else too quick,

like candles in a fire. Giants
are lonely. We have waited long

for someone. By our waiting, surely
there must be someone at whose touch

our boughs would bend; and hands
to gather us; a spirit

to whom we are light as the hawthorn tree.
O if there is a poet

let him come now! We stand at the Pacific
like great unmarried girls,

turning in our heads the stars and clouds,
considering whom to please.


The storm broke, and it rained,
And water rose in the pool,
And frogs hopped into the gutter,

With their skins of yellow and green,
And just their eyes shining above the surface
Of the warm solution of shine.

At night, when fireflies trace
Light-lines between the trees and flowers
Exhaling perfume,

The frogs speak to each other
In rhythm. The sound is monstrous,
But their voices are filled with satisfaction.

In the city I pine for the country;
In the country I long for conversation—
Our happy croaking.

03 August 2006

Zbigniew Machej

[from A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry, edited by Czeslaw Milosz, 1996]

Orchards in July

Waters from cold springs
and glittering minerals
tirelessly wander.
Patient, unceasing,
they overcome granite, layers
of hungry gravel, iridescent
precincts of clay. If they abandon
themselves to the black
roots it’s only to go
up, as high as possible
through wells hidden
under the bark of fruit trees. Through
the green touched with gray, of leaves,
fallen petals of white
flowers with rosy edges,
apples heavy with sweet redness
and their bitterish seeds.
O, waters from cold
springs and glittering
minerals! You are awaited
by a cirrus with a fluid,
sunny outline
and by an abyss of blue
which has been rinsed
in the just wind.

Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass