Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Breeze from the sun on Ho
Plaza high above Ithaca on the Cornell
campus: I think eastward ho:
there’s something vaguely Maoist
about that name, a gathering place
hardly revolutionary, a concrete
climb past chapel and student center
to the two big libraries
and beyond them the Arts and Sciences
quad: strangely unstrange
to be back here where I was a student
for the last time—now I’m a prof
(E. Bishop: you are one of them) and life
has moved more or less smoothly
along a gentle arc whose fierceness
is mine to discover probably too late
the first time my back goes out or
my daughter screams she hates me
or I come to feel, as now I could never feel,
that I’ve read all the books. Youth
yet obtains perched here on a rock wall
watching people in their early to mid twenties
pass by on the way to summer classes
or to study or otherwise to maintain fidelity
to some idea of themselves as exceptional
in this little city on a hill
above the other little city
in the raked declivities of these lakes
where the collective gravity seems to flow
ineluctably southeast toward the Hudson
and New York, where history or at least fashion
work hard at being visible. Birds
call to each other and whole branches
of trees disclose a sense of idyllic
height, above earthly concerns and yet
so clearly of the earth, the worked harmony
of ivy and stone, lawns left a little ragged,
clear isolate shadows cast by a sun
that makes itself scarce in the winter months
when the real grind happens and the mental
and actual bodies pause
before hurling or not hurling themselves over bridges
into the famous gorges. A few days
remain, we won’t quite outlast the month
before packing into the car
and returning to Chicago. What
will I miss but this moment
if I go on thinking about moments
to come, split from the seeming unity
of being and typing without looking
so I can see how still the Victorian
lamppost there is against the motile
background of shrubbery: BAM
the chime just sounded from the clock tower
to my right: it’s suffocatingly loud, always
vexed me as a student how a supposed shrine
to learning insists on disrupting your concentration
with hellish peals on the quarter-hour
and that’s not even to mention
the childish songs played childishly every day
which go on for endless minutes, one
off key note at a time:
“Here Comes the Sun” and the alma mater
busting open your book of theory
till there’s nothing left to do
but start the long downhill home.
In a bit I’ll disappear into the archives
to get a taste of Archie’s materialism:
they’ve got the tape for the turn of the year
down there and innumerable other documents
typed and handwritten and crisping
under the effects of oxygen in spite
of the archivists’ efforts: I’ll behold
one of the last generations
to leave an authentic paper trail: if
someone ever wants to study my work
they’ll have to somehow simulate conditions
of digitality no doubt more ephemeral
than the letters and manuscripts that await me:
I envision powerful simulators
of different decades in digital evolution
to render environments of information
as they appeared to the ancients, us.
Will the sky I feel above me
or the view I know’s behind that tower
of the lake be any more durable?
Both feet falling asleep
and the morning has passed me by.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


Sunset: red eye peering
through the maple branches that blinks
and winks with the subtle movements
of my own eyes, the air weighing
on the leaves. Another shining morning
spent with Sadie walking up and down
the streets of Fall Creek, marred only
by intense allergies that made my eyes
itch and my nose drip. They itch, drip
still. Lunch at Chilis, of all places—it’s
the secret getaway of Jonathan Monroe,
comp lit prof and prose poet, author of
the just released Demosthenes’ Legacy
from Ahadada Books in Canada: his first
book of poems, he’s pleased as punch.
(Or is that Punch, as in Punch and
Judy? My mother’s name was Judy
but if anyone had a punch in that house,
it was her. End of digression.) We
talked about teaching, Cornell’s
financial troubles, and such: it’s
strange to see how completely we’ve shifted
out from the mentor-mentee relationship
into something like simple friendship
and respect. Still shocked
at times to discover myself a grown-up
with gray hairs sneaking in like silver
tendrils. Up to campus afterward
to spend a fortuitous gift card
at the bookstore I received
for purchasing ten books during my time there:
a new book of poems by Roubaud, Exchanges
on Light, translated by Eleni
Sikelianos; a novel I’ve long wanted to read,
especially because my own is partly set
in Trieste, Zeno’s Conscience; and a vade
mecum to swim in and object to, James
Wood’s How Fiction Works. Isn’t he
a Brit after all, isn’t he going fundamentally
to have a conservative if not theologically
possessive take on a genre his countrymen
pretend they invented (c.f. Cervantes,
fella): still I glanced into it and fell
a bit in love with his prose and
his own honesty about his two favorite critics,
Jakobson and Barthes, whose work cuts
entirely against his own grain as he joyfully
admits: so I can do him the same favor
and maybe learn something. But when
I’m going to read all that when I’m
still slogging through The Great Fire
of London and half-a-dozen other books,
plus my review of The Cosmopolitan,
and only a few days left to dig
whatever I can of Ammons on Ammons’
own turf, I just don’t know. A little
time’s left to me tonight before sleep:
for a change I already did my half-
an-hour’s labor on the novel instead of
procrastinating it like usual: it’s
such a pleasure to write and yet every day
feels like raw beginning with all the pain
of breaking new: speaking of beginnings
I was charmed by Susan Stewart’s lecture
which touched on the question of beginning
and on the relationship of creation
to the two freedoms, negative (freedom from)
and positive (freedom to): making
the point that so often when we create
we begin with negation: if we aren’t captured whole
by some tradition we look at tradition
and say that’s not what I shall do
and like Hegel’s slave we empty ourselves out
laboring in someone else’s rebellious vineyard:
positive freedom from the artist is easily mistaken
for ignorance, as in the case of certain students
who say they don’t want to read other poets
for fear of being influenced: they’re dumb
like foxes crazy to preserve
their sense of liberty, so they’re not wrong
but what’s right is to know, to lose your innocence
of what’s come before in art and what’s expected
and yet somehow to begin anywhere as Stewart said
so that the new must be a wager, an act
of faith based on imperfect information, or rather
on the setting aside of such information,
not the same as rejecting information and wallowing
in ignorance. I think Badiou
would agree, but I didn’t ask her
about it: the Q&A was dragging on
and I had to get home to give a bath to my little girl
and sit on the bed with her and Emily
and sing about the mighty jungle
and be here alone now while Emily’s out with a friend
having made spaghetti for dinner having written
what I need to write to feel free
to read or stare out the window or even
to be. Write some more.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


A pink cloud lent dignity by purple shadows
rises serenely behind the red maple, turned black,
that I can see from this window, and that maple
I now realize has a brother: two fine wine-
colored trees that dignify the facade
of the crumpled white firetrap of a house
they stand in front of. Spent the morning
with Sadie, trundling down the hill after breakfast
to get me a coffee and her some time
in the park, getting the cuffs and butt
of her pants wet with yesterday’s rain:
then to visit my old employer, Buffalo
Street Books née Bookery II, where Sadie
was hoping to see Gary’s old white Lab Harry
but Harry, it seems, though ever docile
and sleepy to my remembrance has
a record of snapping at smaller dogs
and so he’s been banned from the store and needs
a new home: anyone in the area who can love
a generous old dog with some quirks
can call the store and ask about it
during business hours. Sadie had herself a poop
so I changed her diaper and then we looked in
at Pastimes the antique store/junk shop
where she was properly ravished by a box of seashells
and an even bigger box of buttons of all descriptions:
blue plastic, brass, pewter, black with rhinestones:
the physical world is more than enough for her
and me too while I’m with her, all that appears
seems to withhold nothing of being
worth grasping, and yet there are basic things
available only to reason, like the sun
as source of all light, not just the light in the sky
but the light from fossil fuels and from wood burning
and of course the eye itself as Ronald Johnson
so beautifully puts it in BEAM 4 of ARK “may
be said to be the sun in other form”:
Sadie just looks, standing in DeWitt Park
as the tree shadows appear and disappear
as the sun makes itself felt and fades again
behind slowly dispersing cloud cover
and she says simply Sun, Sun. So the sun
I see insists on present tense, but it was later
that we got a truly beautiful day going
with high fleets of clouds parading without interrupting
the strong light that warmed everything
and made a kind of invisible steam come up
that made me want to change into shorts, which I did.
Home for lunch and a good bit of tickling
(not too soon after eating) before it was time
for a nap for both of us: funny how kids show they’re tired
by manifesting more energy than ever, like the sun
will at the moment it exhausts its hydrogen fuel
and expand into a red giant that obliterates
everything we’ve thought possible up to now
except for a few science fiction writers, hack
conservators of ultimate hope beyond theology:
Sadie doesn’t explode but she does become uncontainable
by anything except sleep, which comes swiftly
after reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar
and being laid down in the crib with the sound machine going:
me by contrast being what’s called a grown-up
moving slower and more heavily as I run out of gas
and yet when I’m horizontal with eyes closed
that’s when my own giant comes to visit
and thoughts big or just persistent
fend sleep off for a while: but I got a few Zs
and some time in the afternoon to read
a book I’m reviewing that I like quite a bit,
Donna Stonecipher’s The Cosmopolitan:
won’t do that here but I’d love to review her name
which seems made up practically and I’ve even
appropriated it for my D&D character: practically
synonymous with lithograph, but with a secret
grafted, and the all-American Donna in front
is just too much: plus her bio says she grew up
“in Seattle and Teheran,” so talk about
cosmopolitan: does she have friends in Teheran
where today there was an enforced calm
that’s likely to bust wide open later in the week:
they’re carrying photos of murdered Neda
where they can and dodging Basiji (sounds
just like the English besieger)
but the regular cops are hesitant and even the
Revolutionary Guard seems split in spite of threats:
I’ll keep watching and hoping from my helpless
distance. Just got an e-mail from Roger
telling me Susan Stewart’s scheduled to speak
tomorrow: I’ll check that out: as a poet-scholar
she interests me though her verse
is a bit too laboriously beautifu:
the lecture’s called “The Freedom of the Poet”
which is the title of a book of John Berryman’s
essays: I certainly like the idea of my freedom
like my freedom to write or to not write
which is the freedom to not be a poet and
the freedom to be confusingly intermixed:
maybe she can clarify that for me
and it will be interesting too to be a student again
however briefly in good old Goldwin Smith.
Also having lunch with Jonathan
Monroe tomorrow, the most rigorous
of my old poetry profs and a prose poet to boot:
we have a long chat maybe once a year
and it always gives me something to think about
that subtly or even drastically
realigns the place I give to poetry and its opposites.
What those are I’ll leave for you
to imagine: it’s getting dark and there’s still a novel
to tap at and my wife I’d like to talk to
before the red sun grows
and sleep arrests us at last.

Friday, June 26, 2009


for Neda

“I will
participate in the demonstrations
tomorrow. Maybe they
will turn violent. Maybe I will be one
of the people who
is going
to get killed. I’m listening
to all my favorite music. I even
want to dance to a few songs. I
always wanted to have very narrow
eyebrows. Yes, maybe
I will go to the salon before I go tomorrow!
There are a few great movie scenes
that I also have to see. I should
drop by the library, too. It’s worth to read
the poems of Forough and Shamloo
again. All family pictures
have to be reviewed, too. I have
to call my friends as well
to say goodbye.
All I have are two bookshelves
which I told my family who should
receive them. I’m two units away
from getting my bachelors degree
but who cares about that. My mind
is very chaotic. I wrote
these random sentences
the next generation
so they know
we were not just emotional
and under peer pressure. So they know
that we did everything we could
to create a better future for them.
So they know that our ancestors surrendered
to Arabs and Mongols but did not surrender
to despotism. This note
is dedicated
to tomorrow’s children.”

Thursday, June 25, 2009


Rain today, from morning’s drizzle
to downpour on the tin roof over the stalls
at the farmers market to mist and damp
all afternoon long to the steady trickle
I see now out the downstairs living
room window. Kids are asleep
while Emily and her friends Jen and
Rachel go out to dinner, try
to reconnect across time, space:
friends from her New York City days,
when I didn’t know her, when I scarcely
knew myself: those fog-sopped years, the
Nineties—can barely resist the urge
to quote Auden on the Thirties, let
it go, low in the sense of ignoble for sure
and innocent in that word’s darkest sense
of willful blindness to what’s real.
Bad day in Tehran, with security forces
in huge numbers preventing protestors
from massing, yet all those ordinary people
are still afire, a green fire
that just might yet consume
an unjust regime: here’s hoping
and here’s to the e-mail
of one brave young woman that
I read this morning
who was preparing for today, possibly
the last day of her life, by
watching scenes from favorite movies
and reading Persian poetry: how young
she must be and I hope still is
but they’re shooting people now:
I saw a photo of another young woman in her chador
bleeding to death on the street: what
does it mean to give your life
for what you believe: Badiou
might say at that moment, not the moment of death
but of decision, you are a person for the first time
in the fullest and only truthful sense:
in politics art science and love
for Badiou those are the conditions of truth
and the only realms in which the novum
can happen: well, French philosophers
like to say things like that but it’s compelling
all the same to sit for a while
with a rigorous schema
that proposes access to the real
via thought and form: in that sense
my rediscovery here of content
is untimely: I should go back
to language happening for its own sake
and pursue the naked forms
through which contact is made (contact!
wrote Thoreau: what are we? Where are we?)
with something appearances no matter how beautiful
only serve to conceal. I don’t understand
yet what this has to do with Ammons
or the set theory I’m painfully teaching myself
but I’m starting to glimpse sublimities
like those of the power set: take a set
of anything, prime numbers say
and then propose the power set, which includes
all possible subsets of the main set S
and therefore is necessarily larger than S
though as you’ve perhaps noticed, S,
the set of all prime numbers, is infinite: that’s
how we end up pluralizing infinity
and can say with confidence and wonder
that one infinity, called S, can be larger than
another: p(S). No doubt I’m learning just
enough to make a fool of myself, but
I’m still stunned by the elegance
of what I think I understand: I think
for example that there’s a set, call it W
that includes everything in the world
that we humans call the world (nations,
bees, sex, ideologies, cockroaches,
elms and birches and snow and vacancy): what
would the power set of W be then
if not the earth itself, ultimate horizon
of any human order or disorder
and of the rocks and animals and plants too:
so E = p(W) and adds unthought combinations
to already infinite possibilities
of life larger than life as it’s lived.
The theme is creative and has vista,
as Whitman said. So I’ll plunge ahead:
a tripper, an asker, searching unsolvable X
and when I find that X and make it my own
some new thing may arise. The
green tree at night makes a negative
image of itself against the enameling
sky, and my room that was a place to look from
becomes a theater for the passerby.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Today Khameni threatened full wrath of
his regime in a Friday prayer service, but
the people will I think come out tomorrow
anyway: everyone’s on point, riding the
inheld breath, wondering which 1989
Tehran 2009 will turn out to be: Berlin
or Tiannenmen. Off to one side
our own incomplete revolution: Obama’s
cautiousness threatens to embitter
the gays and lesbians at the core
of his coalition: time to wipe out
such antediluvian measures
as the Defense of Marriage Act and
don’t-ask-don’t-tell, the leaders are behind
the people on this one, as they are in Iran—
I’m sure Mousavi can’t quite believe
that he’s become the symbol of freedom, his face
limned in green and carried by masses
yearning to breathe free: let them unhuddle,
let them bloom. To my locality: the
Carriage House Cafe on Stewart Ave., across
from ABC Cafe, famed vegetarian joint
virtually synonymous with Ithaca that’s closing
at the end of the month, in the hole
with so much else. Still open but I chose
the more chi-chi joint with the beautiful
stone walls and overpriced scones and
glass tables, which I don’t like, but
they bake good bread here and it’s one
of the several coffee-serving joints
where I whiled away my seven years
writing poems and papers and a big honking
dissertation, an exercise in prolonged and steady
meditation that I very much enjoyed but
don’t quite miss: still when I start writing
my Ammons article I’ll be back in that mode
for a while. Emily’s New York friends Rachel
and Jen and their kids Delilah and Isaac
are here (the husbands stayed home) so they’re
out in the gray shine looking for adventure:
Isaac, who’s five, has a crush on Sadie,
often taking her hand, and she looks up at him
with a face somehow open and mistrustful
at the same time: she’s a pistol, as Emily
says, getting more and more confident
on her feet, starting to run a little, to hurtle
herself toward ledges and curbs in a way
to stop the heart: how put into words
her charm, her spirit of independent
insatiability: don’t try, let her run
through these poems as she runs
across floors and grasses
to her own sweet will yet invisibly
tethered still to us, at some perihelion
she turns, comes running, presses her face
into our knees and says Up, up
and while she’s small enough and I’m
strong enough I’ll swoop her up
to shoulder height and she’ll cling there
with complete naturalness and without shedding
curiosity about street musicians and gravel
and my glasses, which she sometimes commands
me to remove, and I do quite dutifully
and she’s enraptured by this as she is by many
simple acts: I wouldn’t have thought
myself so very far from childhood, I can still
look through eyes near to the ground,
but her elemental being gives me pause:
crossing the bridge over the gorge that separates
South Hill from East Hill this morning I was plodding
with eyes on my phone reading something
on a blog, had to stop myself and go back
to take in the two views, the creek leading out
toward the town, the creek winding into
the forest and out of sight
to where the gorge cuts more deeply and narrowly
vanishing somewhere east of campus.
My time here is vanishing so
better get to it: Ammons’ “Essay on Poetics”
and some more musing on possible intersections
between his one:many obsession and Russell’s
Paradox, which Badiou has put me in mind of:
kids, stay in school, take that calculus
class, I never thought I’d regret not studying
higher mathematics but I’m regretting it now:
an online quiz tells me I use my left and
right brains equally but still I sometimes feel
the left side’s underdeveloped and the pleasures
of truly abstract thought elude me
or come only in flashes, as the ceiling fan
makes the light flash on this table, unsteady
illumination of a solid surface. I’ll say
peace be unto the Iranian protestors
and to the rain that’s promising to fall.

Monday, June 22, 2009


Rain and more rain last night and into
the morning: it’s early afternoon, Sadie’s
napping, gray skies promise nothing
except more grayness. Back to Ammons
this morning, formulating some ideas
about his relationship to space, his
desire to think through classic philosophical
problems such as one:many or transience:
permanence can perhaps be subordinated
to a desire to get oriented, to think the world
without abstracting it to nothingness
or getting lost in the details: it is a
mark, I think, of his postmodernity, though
that’s not a buzzword we tend to associate
with old Archie and his backwoods
persona: what I’m driving at is that
there’s a trend in American poetry
from romanticism toward materialism,
a materialism that in the living mode tends
to take social if not socialistic form, viz
the Language poets in the 1980s: younger
poets now often straddle or work a seam
between some notion of identity confronting a
real world (residual romance or a romance
of the residual) and the social materialism that
preoccupies itself with an indefinite multiple
of discourses political, economic, advertorial,
pop cultural, scatological, ecological, etc.: the
wriggly line that Ashbery’s career has inscribed
on the American language which we ignore
or follow at our peril. Ammons challenges the
romantic (and the self) without quite leaving
its bounds, but it’s not Marx or Debord
that renders his materialism but birds, beasts
and flowers: yet his strategy
can seem surprisingly similar to Ashbery’s
given that he too can interweave interpolating
voices: it’s just that he’s outside (Ashbery
always seems to be writing from a Victorian parlor
filled with post-1945 art and a TV set permanently
at 4 in the morning, screening old movies or
ads or Warner Bros. cartoons—there’s a window
but it never has the same view twice) or
looking into his backyard and involving
the languages of physics and biology and
mathematics with dirty old man talk and
the naive speech of mountains and academic
meeting-speak: social materialism for Ammons
is one not particularly important (but not
discarded either) strand in the warp
and woof of materialism writ large, the
perspective, rare in academia, of a man
who really believes the world of seasons
and plants and animals contains and compels
the more worldly world most poets (including
this one) say signifies most. Yet his language
can be as playful, as slippery, as excessive
as Ashbery’s, so that I wouldn’t be too
surprised to encounter Daffy Duck
as well as living mallards paddling
through one of Ammons’ longer poems.
So as usual I find however hard
I pitch the ball from my usual concerns
it falls back into my well: how to write
pretty well believing that my I exists
but that language, that world I never made
(see another Duck, Howard the) is
more labile and connected, hook-and-eye style,
into any world we can construct with our eyes
up to and including the so-called natural world
with which I have a push-pull relationship.
Sadie won’t sleep much longer, I’ll
pull the plug here, a parenthesis
between rainstorms and the coming evening,
a break in what my neighbor Brad
calls the delirium of rhetoric.

Friday, June 19, 2009


An anonymous witness tells Juan Cole
about the silent marchers in Tehran: “the
most elegant scene I had ever witnessed
in my life.” Increasingly feeling
on the margins of history here in Ithaca,
and it’s not a bad feeling: we make
too many things about us, a big and noisy
country with asshole opinions
that turn too quickly into bombs: still
it’s hard not to be a little jealous
of all that revolutionary energy and love.
The closest I’ve ever come to that
experience (not very close) was volunteering
for Kerry in 2004 in Pennsylvania: in the crowd
among others united solely by our desire
for change I felt something like love, pure
agape, a rising feeling that left
a space for despair to rush in
that night when the early polls for Kerry
proved wrong. It’s gray and slightly
humid today, my parents are heading back
to New Jersey: it was a sweet morning
at their B&B with a view of the lake: Diane
the owner, a kooky and generous woman
who scatters New Age books and games
around the place, invited Emily and me
to use the hot tub in the back yard: I
congratulate myself on having the good sense
not to say no, as was my first instinct,
but to follow Emily naked into hot bubbles
in the cool of the morning, a little romance
while Poppy and Mimi (that’s what Sadie
calls them) and the little girl were out
of sight. A look afterward at Ithaca Falls, a
surprisingly impressive tower of white water
behind the high school, then lunch
downtown: now they’re on the road and
we’re home, Sadie’s napping and Emily’s
on the phone, I write this, wind gently whipping
the maple leaves to my right: rain’s predicted
for tonight and for many days after but
the idyll persists into my need to get some work
done: feeling very relaxed, inclined more
toward a run on the trail than to reading
Ammons but maybe both things are possible:
it will be my last chance to run and stay dry
but poetry is only slightly less well suited to rain
than a good thick novel: with poetry
there are more pauses, more moments between
units of meaning during which the eye might be caught
by something else: someone hurrying by
on the street under a broken umbrella, cars
splashing puddles: I’m making this up, visualizing
rain from the living room window
at home in Evanston, the view of Sherman Avenue
that I miss a little, as comfortable as Ithaca,
old home, feels right now. Middle
of the afternoon, slack as a dog’s belly—
a country sort of expression—I’m impelled in mind
back to Diane’s place, the indoor hammock there,
a great place to lie and watch a storm come in
across Cayuga in gray streaked lines: I can
imagine, and do, though the view
here will be less clearly in the eye, a gift
the mind gives to itself.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


Another evening, this time
on the back screen porch, where I can see
to my left a neighbor’s garage roof
and just beyond that the red peaked wall
of another neighbor’s house, blue sky,
a couple of trees refracted through
the metal screen so that they have a
textured look: the deciduous leaves look
like pine needles and the pine clusters
are smoothed out like leaves. Further
to the right a more unruly (less ruly)
bunch of leaves from bushes including
a tangle of bare sticks and twigs
that hang down like the armature
of a witch’s head: I can sort of see
the hat, the long nose, the hairs
pointing from her pointy chin. Emily
just left for a walk: she had Sadie
all day while I golfed with my parents
and is feeling burned out: I wish I
could go with her but that would
probably defeat the purpose of regrouping
and regathering her energies: so I
listen to the soughing of Sadie’s sleep machine
(every night of her life she falls asleep to
the poorly simulated sound of waves crashing
against an imaginary shore: it blocks noise
but I have to wonder how it may be altering
the landscape of her dreams) on the monitor
and type this while somewhere a woman
speaks Spanish, cars rough by (I need a verb
that sounds like and almost means that,
rough), birds tweet their evening songs (almost
wrote twitter but that word has been co-opted
by Twitter, currently playing a heroic role
in what I hope we’ll call the Second Iranian
Revolution, lines of brutal hopeful poetry
about the protests and the crackdown
live from the streets of Tehran), the very
old yellow Lab from the house with the garage
(where also live two women in early middle
age and their young son) barks a couple times,
a siren stitches in the backgroud and leaves
simmer in a breath of wind, one of the women
claps for the dog, something with a deep
guttural engine climbs the hill: I could
go on, sound never stops, as John Cage
taught us: there’s a piano downstairs
that Sadie likes to pound on and it’s untuned
so she’s pretty avant-garde and also
in the sense that as yet for her there’s no separation
between art and life, there’s nothing she can do
that doesn’t express being, hers in particular
and the life of myself and the species she re-enacts
(ontogenesis meet phylogenesis, shake hands):
a squirrel just leapt with a considerable thump
on the roof of the studio apartment
attached to our house where until recently
a young black man was living: he’s gone now,
the place is spotless and cold. While I
was typing that the squirrel got away: that’s
the nature of writing, even verse like this
stacking lines atop each other as discrete
moments can’t keep up with actual
moments. In my novel, a Holocaust
survivor is about to say something, based
upon my maternal grandfather: what
will he say, who had so little to say
to me? Scared to find out, would rather
eat an Oreo: maybe compromise
is possible.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Sadie’s had her breakfast, Emily’s in
the shower, in a little while we’ll pile
into the car and head up the eastern shore
of Cayuga Lake to the bed and breakfast
where my parents are staying for breakfast.
Then a little hike in Treman State
Park, and my father, a great gourmand and
pretty serious cook, is going to make us
short ribs tonight. Same view as yesterday
evening but no direct sunlight—a lid
of clouds over the red maple and a band of blue
underneath, a quiet combination
of colors—except now as I resume this
many hours later the same colors
nearly preside, joined by an orange-pink band
like a cummerbund at the big tree’s waist.
The day’s slipped past, not exactly orthodox
for this poem, but really its sole constraint
is that I write it each day so I’m still
under the line. We had a lovely breakfast
with my folks and many photos
of Sadie stuffing herself with berries
and bits of pancake, then a drive
to Aurora, spooky made-up town,
the personal property of one Pleasant
Rowland, creator of the American Girls franchise
(for more on this subject see J. Robert
Lennon’s novel Happyland as serialized
in Harper’s in 2006, a true story told
as only fiction can tell it): a professionally
picturesque little burg, headquarters of Mackenzie-
Childs, a freakish little tchotchke franchise
with an Alice-in-Wonderland aesthetic
but lovely grounds: wandered there for a while,
then lunch at the Aurora Inn, rehabbed
within an inch of its life: I kind of miss
the old car that used to be parked out front
with various imprecations against Pleasant
and all she’d done to destroy the town’s character
in her quest for something like unto
Bedford Falls: long screeds that covered every
available glass surface except for the
windshield, a mobile taunt made semi-permanent
that I’m sure accumulated a heroic number
of parking tickets. I don’t know who
might be left to fight the good fight
in Aurora, but anyway we had a very decent lunch
out on the deck overlooking the lake
and then back home where I turned unaccountably
grumpy after a failed nap, but bucked up
enough for take-out Thai with everyone
once again outside on our rental’s deck
surrounded by high green trees made higher
by the low sun and a crystalline sky
that’s deepening now in the west
and I can now see light from a single window
of one of the houses down the street
where some unknowable summer life
goes on: this part of town gets real quiet
when school’s out, a blessing I remember
after all the drunken hooting echoing
up and down South Hill between finals
and IC’s commencement ceremony. Things
are turning ugly in Iran: I’m fascinated,
keep checking Juan Cole and CNN
on my iPhone, looking for hints that the stolen election
might get itself unstolen, there’s a crack
in the facade of the regime there, I’m naive
enough still to be thrilled at the thought
of a people asserting their rights of self-determination
a spectacle that I met with dumbfounded uncomprehension
back in 1989 when I was a failing sophomore
in college, torn through and through
by private griefs: ain’t that always the way.
Tomorrow the grief of golf with my folks
while Emily and Sadie visit friends
and our idyll continues nearly unwavering
in the face of history’s unpredictable momentum.
Full dark now on the ground, but
in the sky degrees of light hold a bit longer
their scattering dominion.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Latest start yet: it’s quarter to eight in the PM
and I can see light from the sinking sun
reflecting off of high cumulus
putting my neighbor’s red maple
into chiarascuro, while a single shaft
of sun from somewhere lights a high patch
of green bushes, translucent leaves
making themselves known. Sadie’s down,
Emily’s walking with a friend, my parents
are off to their B&B after a tasty dinner
at Just a Taste, the downtown tapas place
that even Chicago’s wealth of kitchens
has yet to replace in my heart (try the
Thai-style spicy chicken wings, sweet
and sour with basil, yum). Breaking
news: the sun must have been behind
a cloud because the dark leaves
of the maples furthest from the trunk
are suddenly edged with green light
splashing the red, and one white cloud
is fully illuminated through the gaps.
The weather was perfect today, low
seventies, blue skies with just a few clouds
to keep it interesting, warm in the sun
and not too cool in the shade. It’s
different to write like this at night
in anticipation of just a few hours
before sleep rather than a day’s work.
Finding time to write
will be harder while my parents are here:
I don’t expect much progress on the novel:
my best hope is just to stay in touch with it,
to revisit the manuscript and characters
so that when I do have a little more time
there won’t be as much chance of burning
up on re-entry like the astronaut
in that Ray Bradbury story, the one jealous
of everybody else’s good memories, adrift
in the sky, talking on the radio
with his camerados while waiting
for earth’s gravitational pull
to take hold of him and skate his dissolving body
across the troposphere like a smooth flat stone:
it’s a sentimental story but it’s stayed
in my mind for decades now, along with
the really chilling one about the automatic house
in the wake of a nuclear war, carrying on
an idealized bourgeois domestic routine
in the total absence of humans or life
beyond a radiation-burned dog who dies and is removed
by ever-watchful cleaning robots.
That’s a keeper: I’m part of the last generation
to grow up believing that at any moment, at
school or in the park or listening to my parents fight
that the sky could go white
and everything be blown away: is it because
of that memory or in spite of it that we all
went apeshit after 9/11: even the worst scenario
anyone’s ever thought of, a nuclear attack
on a major city, can’t measure up
to the total annihilation of history and life.
A little apocalypse to define the edges
of an idyllic family day, though we got
little sleep last night and were grumpy with each other
until after the afternoon nap we got: Sadie
slept for one hour and then woke up crying
I went into her room and picked her up and lay down
on the mattress there with her on my chest
and she slept and I dozed a little: sweet
but destined to be infinitely sweeter in memory
with just a tang of bitterness: I saw a book
reviewed in the Times that apparently includes
the sentence, “I felt nostalgic for the present”:
if that doesn’t define both happiness and our limited
capacity for being in the moment
(the root of happy, happenstance, which gets at
the luck factor and the temporality as well)
I don’t know what does beyond
actual immersion in the senses, preferably
the ones that drag earthy roots behind them,
taste and smell, the radicals: at this moment
I’ll settle for sight, the overcast curtain
now settling over the top of the tree, the sun
still not down at 8:01 PM but no longer
shooting even blanks, just a diffusion
that captures my tired and somewhat satisfied
state of mind, in spite of the stolen Iranian
election which may yet be a crack
in the wall of the mullahs: I’ll say now
a simple and contradictory prayer
for enlightenment in all its forms
and go down now to my novel or maybe
Jacques Roubaud’s Great Fire of London
a fascinating book about the failure to write
a subject that deserves and demands
the attention paid only by great success.

Monday, June 15, 2009


Slowest start yet: not to the day, for
Sadie’s a dread and reliable
alarm clock, but to this writing,
what with the farmers market this
morning, then being in charge
of parenting while Emily has things to do
until around 3, and then we’re going
to dinner with friends in half-an-hour
and tonight’s devoted to D&D—yes,
still pretending to be an elf or a sorcerer
after all these years. But the colonization
of my imagination by Tolkien and Gygax and
their epigones is a meditation for another day.
One false start later, and with no novel-
writing in prospect, I’m here
in what I’m pleased to call my office
in this run-down rental on Pleasant St.
watching rain drip from the gutters
before the high wall of bushes that separates
us from our neighbor, the aforementioned
Elmer, afflicted by his loneliness and crabbed
speech: was it yesterday
passing with Sadie that he stopped us
to tell me that his own daughter had died of cancer
when she was 57? Incalculably old,
with white stubble and thick-framed glasses,
filthy white jeans (memory of white), red
flannel lumberjack shirt in cold weather, white
(memory of) wifebeater when it’s hot.
Before I can round this anecdote off
Sadie comes in to where I’m typing with
a Curious George jack-in-the-box someone
gave us demanding back back by which she means
put George back into his place so she can pop
him out again: she won’t get tired of this and
I’m feeling a little guilty for the moments
I’m typing while she’s crying, just a little,
perfecting entreaty: it’s probably
good for her to know her every whim
won’t be attended to immediately
(a quarter past immediately)
but now she’s lost interest and skated off
to find her mother and her mother’s friend Amy
chatting about knitting in the bedroom.
Emily works hard to protect
my time to write but I haven’t worked
as hard to protect her time
to write, sing, dream, what have you:
I was asked recently what kind of family
I want and said without having to think about it
A family of artists, and that’s true: what
that must mean is that art and life must lose
distinction, in the style of an avant-garde:
more seriously, that making a family is
part of making art, that for me to be an artist
Emily and Sadie must be artists too: I
love this idea though I haven’t thought it through:
the demands upon me could be large
and I’ve had things pretty simple up to now.
Daddy Daddy Sadie says to Amy and Amy says,
Is he typing? Yes he is, but he’s got to stop,
it’s dinnertime and after that
my comrades and I have a dungeon to raid
and liberate from its subterranean evil:
D&D is like any adventure story but void
of allegory, unlike I suppose life as we
know it. It’s not a real rain.
Tomorrow my parents are coming and
it will be even more difficult to find corners
to write in, unoccupied times
in which to hide and confront
my monsters.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


Running on the trail this morning saw
a lone cardinal leveling his or her way
directly across and deep into the woods
from left to right like a spear in flight
then up the hill into fog dissolving verdancy.
Ithaca really does have a kind of rainforest
climate, something to do no doubt
with the deep vertical cut of Cayuga Lake
channeling moisture from the north and
the various creeks and gorges bearing water
down from the hills, but I won’t pretend
to much knowledge or authority
when it comes to the natural world: I realized
talking to Emily last night that my first allegiance
has always been to fantasy, whether Tolkien
or Las Vegas, Arcadia or Disney World or even
the local mall, I’m drawn to evidence
of the human will to create nothing from something,
simulacra the painstaking detail of which
are further evidence of their fakeness:
in that sense the pleasure I derive from nature
running on that trail for instance
is pure Wordsworth: I value such spaces
for the freedom they offer the imagination
different in quantity and not in quality
from the freedom I feel on the streets of New York
or a Chicago neighborhood where lots
is going on: Chicago particularly appeals
thanks to the Burnham Plan, itself a great fantasy
of a city whose shoreline has been preserved
for purely aesthetic purposes, so all that steel
meets green meeting water, the environment
in the ecological sense is at best an afterthought
to that unless we are to trust
that whatever in us turns space into place, terrain
into landscape, is some intuition in tune
with the greater needs of the organismic network
we are part of with microbes and invasive species
of fish and birds like that cardinal arrowing
so unwaveringly through ramifying obstacles
presented by branches, leaves, cobwebs,
and the invisible territorial demarcations
of other birds and animals, not to mention me
huffing and blundering my way through
with NPR on my headphones
listening to news about Iran’s election, taking place
this moment, will Moussavi win and will the clerics
let him win, will we be able to see more clearly
the whole of the Islamic Republic, two words
that repel each other in the whitebread mind
but we’re not terribly good at understanding
how people might vote in their own interests
as opposed to ours, even in this country. So
I’m braced for more insanity, more anti-
Semite bastards breaking loose with guns
even as I hope that the grown-ups finally in charge
have a strategy to meet that insanity.
As usual it all seems far away in Ithaca’s
ten square miles surrounded by reality
upstairs at the cafe of Autumn Leaves on the Commons
a soft-anarchist used bookstore in the biography
section, where on display I see lives of Louis
XIV, Lloyd George, Lytton Strachey, Princess
Di, Cromwell the Lord Protector by Antonia
Fraser, that’s the Brits: behind me it’s Africa-Asia:
the Mandelas, Nelson and Winnie, Theresa
Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee in the old California
edition, Miyamoto Musashi, Mao, the Gandhis:
the American wall’s in front of me and far away
but I can make out Lyndon Johnson and John Glenn
weirdly in a spacesuit though his face in the photo’s old,
Eisenhower, Lincoln, Thos. Jefferson,
Colin Powell’s autobiography (shame
forever upon him, I haven’t forgiven him
his part in ginning up the war, never mind
his late and probably crucial endorsement
of Obama), Nixon, and Dan Rather (huh).
Tempted to abandon the morning’s (really
the afternoon’s) work for the complete set
of Pepys’ diary I just spied, and I’m even
a bit interested in Maxine Kumin’s memoir
anything’s more attractive than what you’re s’posed
to do, even if you yourself are doing
the supposing. A little more coffee
won’t hurt, then, the next thing.

Saturday, June 13, 2009


It seems every morning Sadie gets up
earlier but really we’re just too dumb
to go to bed earlier so I’m a little dazey
even after the caffeine’s had a chance
to kick in: nine coffees at Gimme! means
the tenth one is free, so I’ve got a latte
and outside it’s humid and cool, the sky
as per usual lately gray with hints of slate
in it that might become genuine blue
this afternoon if it doesn’t rain, which
it probably will. The novel is taking
an autobiographical turn: not only
have I permitted the authorial I
to say a thing or two but my other protagonist
a woman named Ruth
has a grandfather with my own grandfather’s
history, which I have the sketchiest
knowledge of: an enabling condition for fiction,
in a sense I can expect to learn much more
about him from writing about him in this way
though it won’t really be him, it will be the him
that’s in me—I still like Kundera’s term
for fictional characters, experimental selves:
that gets at an essential fact without being
too Jungian about it, and is also suggestive
of the goal of truth. A woman with gray
in her hair and her daughter, maybe five
years old, just entered and exited Gimme!
State St. to remind me once again
how old Emily and I are to be parents and
how widespread that phenomenon is among
people of our generation and class: when
my father was my age I was already twelve
years old, a fact that ought to incline me
to forgive him much. I write every day
except yesterday, for which I feel quite guilty:
I do believe to write something like a novel
you need to put in your time every day
even if it’s only half an hour, which is all
I can manage during the school year and
I don’t seem able to manage much more than that
even now during the summer given other
projects. That’s a lot of I’s, I try
to keep them out of the left margin
for the most part, I
believe hanging right is the right place
for that minimal marker of first-
person inscription, this poem is by me
and a little bit about me but how much
will you learn about me really? you
who care, as another writer’s somewhat bitter
formulation has it. Upsetting news yesterday
about that octogenerian white supremacist
who went postal at the U.S. Holocaust Museum:
an aberration that speaks to the terrible
norm: the essential american soul
is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer:
D.H. Lawrence wrote that:
at least this particular batshit example
chose a relatively hard target, well guarded,
but now one of the guards is dead
and they’ve closed the museum for today
in his honor: his name was Stephen T. Johns.
On the other hand, clicking on the NYTimes site
just now to get that name I am refreshed
by a whimsical photo of something like an art
project in Times Square: 376 rubber chairs
and loungers placed for the recreation
of passers-by: “A Herd of Lawn Chairs
for Weary Tourists” is the headline, I rather like
herd and the image of the little girl sitting
between her parents looking up
at the dazzling implicit skyline, true mark
of the tourist or the child in New York. Isn’t
this as essential an American character, my
ability to swerve from atrocity to whimsy?
Thinking suddenly of Vonnegut’s
Tralfamordians, who have wars and so forth
but, they tell Billy Pilgrim, they choose not
to look at those moments, they prefer
pleasant moments: so I too am unstuck in time
like a toilet plunger with a hand on the end
with an eye in the palm, very one-dollar-bill
that image, thoroughly Masonic. Part
and parcel of the secret society of mental
midgets, hammered up on caffeine,
I plunge back to reality via fiction, Ammons
(thanks for the colons) and the undifferentiated
multiple that promises me if not enlightenment
some new enameled handle or hand
for mine to shake.

Friday, June 12, 2009


Here’s how we do: Sadie’s up
at 6 on the dot and she sings and cackles
for a while: I lie there until
she starts to cry and then heave up,
fetch her from the crib (“Nurse?”
she asks) and take her back to bed
where she and Emily cocoon for a while
and I sink back from waking
when they’re done and everyone
has visited the bathroom or
had her diaper changed, I take Sadie
downstairs for breakfast giving Emily
an hour to write and meditate:
this morning I was hungry so made bacon
and eggs, Sadie had half a scrambled
egg and a hundred strawberries and a scrap
of bacon (we’re being slow to introduce
meat) and we ate together pretty companionably:
then dishes while she stumped around
the kitchen and upstairs again
to play: she’s into pretending
to feed her dolls, I’m not sure but
that seems pretty advanced, let’s pretend at
16 months, I may be permitted a bit
of fatherly pride though I can’t expect
much of a role in the growth of her imagination
I can at least not impede it: no part
of her is more sacred to me than that but
it’s built in I don’t have to worry wonder
will take root: only I’m amazed
that her experiences now will become numinous
memories later on, that she’ll retain images
I can’t predict as I retain images of Maine
summers that for me consecrate a kind of country
of the mind to which I always return
and which colors every fresh wonder, Paris
or sex or the terror of responsibility
that has imperceptibly relaxed its hold
here in Ithaca and certainly here at Gimme!
(on Cayuga Street today) with eyes
itching from allergies and more Ammons
to read. Haven’t even ordered coffee yet,
must get to it and to some kind of pastry
didn’t eat dinner yesterday stomach was off
but I don’t know the cause: Sadie
running naked in Stewart Park (her leg
seems totally better) in the sunshine image
of paradise a light chop blowing
off the lake turning down incipient summer
temperatures: today it’s cool and gray and
thoroughly uninspiring but I carry a black
caffeinated sun from counter to table
and consciousness of luxury will
no doubt see me through.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


The notebook again, the bagel place
again. Mail call: after weeks without
a few items have found their way
to me: a Wegmans Shoppers Club
card (a bit of fiction, suggests
I’ve returned for good) and two books:
Mark Yakich has sent me his The
Importance of Peeling Potatoes
in Ukraine, and a little blue book
I ordered by Vanessa Place and Rob
Fitterman, Notes on Conceptualisms
that’s pretty hot right now. I’ve
glanced into Mark’s book: it
reminds me a little of Gabe Gudding’s
A Defense of Poetry (and Gabe has
a blurb on Mark’s back cover) in
its spirit of Menippean satire—savage,
wry, anguished, inverted romantic
attacks on poetry that so desperately
need poetry to fulfill something for
once: a down-in-the dirt hilarious and awful
ironic idealism prevails: but
I’ve only read a few poems, there could be more
or less to it. The other book’s
as compact and neat as its authors’ collective moniker
(Place-Fitterman, Fitterman-Place) is ungainly:
as an intervention into poetry and thinking
about poetry it seems useful and provoking
but even an art illiterate like myself can see
that once again the visual artists are far
in the vanguard of the poets and
conceptual poetry is just conceptual art that no one
wants to pay for (F-P/P-F all too conscious
of this): I paid for the book, though, cash money
for a little blue book
to help me find my place in the continuum
it proposes between the baroque (where
my love for Stevens left me marooned at
age 15) and pure appropriation (c.f.
Kenny Goldsmith—does he mind
if I call him Kenny?) plus sortes virgilianae
at random I see a Badiou reference so
this book might also help me across the street
from the median line where I dance perilously
(what did Mr. Miyagi say: walk on left
side, okay, walk on right side, okay, walk
in middle sooner or latter squish, just
like grape) to the gutter or the stars: if
as P-F/F-P seem to suggest the heaven
of the signifier (that’s Mark Scroggins
talking Ulysses) is like unto the being-
that-is-multiple, the unrestricted chora
of the Real that conditions subjectivity
that confirms my old intuition phrased
my language is smarter than I am and if
given free rein will lead to fuller participation
a subjectivity for which collectivity
is possible—but if I orient on that I
haven’t escaped romanticism’s will to transcendence:
God-nature-history-proletariat: it hardly
matters which gold star you paste
to your forehead to steer by:
a mug’s game and the only game in town.
Early morning thunderstorms have left slick streets
and a humid funk outside: in here the a/c huffs
over the door and classic rock at its most anonymous
occupies some space above my head. I
want to end with something Eli Wiesel
said this weekend at a WWII commemoration
at Buchenwald, for unlike Auschwitz “the big camp
was a kind of international community. People
came there from all horizons—political,
economic, culture. The first
globalization essay, experiment
were made in Buchenwald. And all taht
was meant to diminish the humanity of
human beings.” Touched first simply
by the small errors, but the big shiver
comes with that “essay”: is Wiesel
really saying Buchenwald was globalization thus implying
that globalization is Buchenwald? Surely
not yet the impression lingers, proof
at least that ideas of the one, of unity,
the global, bring no intrinsic morality
with them: think globally can be altruistic
or murderous: the heaven of theory is
the hell of embedment, embodiment
in a local that I and many Americans
scarcely inhabit which is why the prosaic question
Ithaca or Chicago should preoccupy me:
neither guarantees righteousness or enforces
the removal of blinders but place
that has placeness still counts.
I fled New Jersey as a young man
because it was too much like America
and now I can accept there was never a real choice:
I’m here, in it, of it, a citizen of the empire:
sooner I act accordingly the better:
commit at least to this pen and paper
on a table in Collegetown Bagels in Aurora
Street in Ithaca with work that calls me
to keep ass planted on chair and head
rooted where it’s always been, in the clean noise
of the worst and best of times.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


At red Gimme! once again, off to
the slowest of starts. No news catches
my eye, I haven’t been moved to crack
any books, the novel hangs fire. How
about the weather: cool but getting warmer
and better than Chicago where they’ve got
lots of rain: I know this because I can now
listen to Chicago Public Radio on my phone
and so walking in Ithaca I’m hearing about
traffic jams on the Edens and Eisenhower
Expressways, feeling pleasantly bifurcated
and also more sure than last year
that my center of gravity is now Chicago,
that’s home, whereas Ithaca
is a summer place (cue “A Summer Place,”
for some reason I listened to that song
over and over on the portable record
player I had as a kid, that and an unfortunate
recording of the Star Wars soundtrack
on a Moog synthesizer, glorious seventies
don’t come back too soon) with more
traffic than I remember and some old
friends: a little while ago sitting at
the next table was my old prof Tracy
McCabe, she teaches French theory
and has undergone Lacanian analysis
and has had a baby since we left:
what kind of parent is a Lacanian it
sounds like the preamble to a joke
but she’s a normal mom by all appearances
maybe a little better dressed. A guy
I used to see all the time just
crept in, I don’t know if he’s homeless
but he always looks so unwell with a nasty
sore or lesion on his forehead he used
to come into the bookstore when I
worked there and change pennies for nickels
I’m surprised he’s still alive like
I’m surprised my old neighbor Elmer
keeps hanging on, a guy for whom the phrase
old coot is a perfect descriptor and
who speaks almost unintelligibly
like a Warner Bros. cartoon character, Yosemite
Sam maybe: harmless old sticks
that spook me a little so clearly shrouded
by mortality and yet obviously still
kicking might outlast me even will
certainly outlast this time in Ithaca, one
month max to dream at the keyboard
and take Sadie to the park (her leg’s
better today) now the old man
is just one table away from me there’s
a certain human dignity to his profile
I never noticed before, maybe because
the open lesion isn’t as visible
sipping a big coffee hunched in a
surprisingly natty striped blue dress shirt
and now putting on a ratty jacket
removing himself again to the back of the cafe
like he’s hiding how terrible to be so visible
and have so little he’s leaving now
in a hurry like he’s got an appointment perhaps
he does. Places change but more slowly
than I’d expect, same goes for me
you can’t easily detect your own process
of aging without studying your face
in merciless mirrors closely, something I
don’t often do and I’ve always looked young
could still pass for a man in his late
twenties but that won’t last there’s a gray
hair or two and I’m 38, in
the middle of life’s wood that’s for sure
when Sadie’s 18 I’ll be 55
when she’s my age now I’ll be 76
crotchety but I hope still reading books
alive in my mind and in reasonable health
and Emily and I will live someplace warm
if everyplace isn’t warm
maybe retire to New York City and go
to lots of plays and concerts, don’t need
a car. The old sad man is visible
again through the window, smoking a cigarette
and rubbing his forehead, he can’t leave it alone
a wound marking him as untouchable
and sacred (what’s the difference) and a man
with real problems: meanwhile I’m inside
with coffee and Abba on the stereo, “Super
Troopers,” it will make you smile
sometime to be so alone
with others and your thoughts.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009


Yesterday at Stewart Park Sadie
slipped off a little merry-go-round and
caught her heel on the stirrup: she seems
fine but she’s not walking much so now
she’s with Emily being looked at by Fred
the chiropractor we’re hoping nothing serious
but it could be a hairline fracture or inflammation
and Emily who was watching her feels
terrible about it: kids fall down
get bruises scrapes bump their heads even
break limbs we have to figure for ourselves
the boundary between proper care
and a wild or subtle exaggeration of the world’s dangers
which could as they say scar her for life
transfer wholesale our own timidities remnants
of our own sheltered suburban childhoods:
sure we turned out okay but you
always want better for your kids, so I
want her to be braver stronger smarter
than me, more adventurous, a real xeno-
philiac, and yet if I get my wish
I’ll spend the rest of my life wincing
as she climbs trees and rocks, kisses
girls and boys, gets a tattoo and moves
to Shanghai to work on the stock exchange
there or studies ballet or becomes a singer-
songwriter, I can’t decide which
would be worse or more glorious proof
that she’s alive, a human life, owing more
than I’ll feel and less than I’ll believe
to my own life, our lives. In Gimme!
on State Street this Sunday morning
with its orange-red color scheme, I wrote
most of my dissertation here, I’ve got
a couple of hours to fiddle with my novel
and read a little more Badiou or Ammons
before meeting E and S for lunch:
got my protagonist to the next step finally
but one thing I’m mulling is how to convey
that a protagonist is all he is: I’m trying
to write his sections like watching a film
underscoring how minimal an audience’s needs
can be in terms of identification how little
they/we need “character”; yet realism I find
is a constant temptation to be resisted
with all my powers and yet realism
intrudes constantly, governs my sense of space
and how people should talk to each other
and what motivates them, I may not have
the tools of experimental fiction ready to hand:
poetry has trained me primarily to be receptive
and my flaw as a reader has been a too-
ready acceptance of whatever’s before me:
I just like words, especially words that have the property
of remaining words and not fading
to transparent meaning, which means I’ll happily indulge
almost any sort of nonsense, saving my most scathing
criticism and revulsion
for what seems trite, overfamiliar, sentimental, innocent
of competing discourses or even its own traditions
so I’m attracted to what most people wouldn’t even
consider to be literature and repelled
by what most people do consider
which etymologically and incidentally
has the literal meaning of “with
the stars”: consider is a remnant astronomy
a willingness to discover constellations,
human patterns of meaning in a sky
which conditions the human without itself
being so conditioned: imaginary reciprocity
is nine-tenths of the law, I’d like to say,
that determines how most of us feel
on the planet, like we belong here, there’s some history
to our being here that makes it hard to consider
our not being here: some part carries on,
that seems so reasonable even though it’s not.
Posters on the wall here for plays: Dirty
Blonde by Claudia Shear and He Who
Says Yes / He Who Says No by Bertoldt
Brecht to be performed at a middle school apparently:
that’s Ithaca all over, as are these band
names: Baby Gramps, The Pacemaker, Dufus,
Djug Django’s “Acoustic Gypsy Swing,”
Lost Sailors, The Horse Flies, Madd
Daddy, Honey Tribe. Used to go hear Djug
Django with Emily down at Moosewood (don’t
eat there, stick with the cookbooks)
on Monday evenings: have a glass of wine
and listen, our lives were just as preoccupying
then but in retrospect much simpler is that
how it’s gonna be, an endless ramifying
and more complicated life, always moving
away from simplicity toward an immersion
in multiple chaotic systems
that we can hardly discover our own position in
or will there be a corresponding breakdown
and simplification as we approach the finish line
alone in a room waiting for the phone
to ring or just sitting in a warm place in a chair
with eyes closed sun on face breathing the air
by water I hope air’s always better by water
I’ve lived by the Mississippi River and San
Francisco Bay, Lakes Michigan and Cayuga,
the Clark Fork of the Missouri and little streams
of New Jersey I never learned the names of:
ignorance keeps it simple but choosing
simplicity is another matter, takes great wisdom
or audacity to be thoroughly Thoreau: sometimes
I think my life’s mission is to become more comfortable with messiness, no
shortage of that, I spilled my coffee when I sat down
and Sadie’s probably fine still I worry a little
will call Emily to hear about the appointment
and then crack my skull again against philosophy
which by comparison makes poetry
seem as it should be almost as easy as prose.

And let me here addend
the morning’s run
up the South Hill Trail where
a deer and a hare were seen
getting the hell off the path
on the downslope
and small flowers I can’t identify
white to the right and
white-violet to the left.
Continued mild coolness,
sky an ambivalent gray-blue.

Monday, June 08, 2009


Pewter pewter Sadie cries meaning the
computer sitting on my lap but she’s
off now with her mother straightening
the apartment before we all head off
to the Ithaca Farmer’s Market
like we used to do most Saturday mornings
when we lived here. To market to market
to buy a fat pig, home again home
again jiggety jig, Emily sings that in what’s
become my background, while the foreground
is a blurry view of green bushes, a red maple,
and a white house in front of the window
where I type this. That spatial diagram
makes this screen the center, but how
can a two-dimensional space be the center
of anything? Viewed from the side
it vanishes: that’s the present moment for you,
inescapable yet substanceless, or
probably it’s the other way around, elusive
and constantly slipping through our fingers
yet it’s everything we can touch
everything that’s not purely mental
and yet it’s mental too. The past
isn’t even past, Faulkner said that,
referring to the bloody bloody
history of the American South, original sin
and all that but even without such theological
hooks it’s easy to feel the truth of
that statement sitting here in Ithaca once again
feeling its simultaneous remoteness
and immersion in the world, the motivating
atmosphere that pervades Severance
Songs and which apparently isn’t done
with me yet. Sadie says piggy to mean pretty
which has me singing to market to market
again, I’m going to keep this short
but that experience that awaits us is also
in the past, a spot of time
by the inlet to the lake, I can see
the people already the predominating
post-hippie aesthetic, the organic vegetable
stalls, the amateur musicians that play
by the dock, the sun streaming
beneath the awning’s edge onto the wide
wooden floor where we all promenade
a space that always felt like the real Ithaca
anchoring this peripatetic graduate student
in a place for really the first time
in his adult life: I’ve lived in New Orleans,
Montana, the San Francisco Bay Area
and am now sinking tentative roots
in Chicago (but they’re already there: we live
ten minutes from the house where my father
and his sisters grew up, where my grandfather
still lives but only for another month or two:
after July he’ll split the difference
between Buffalo Grove and Phoenix,
Arizona, at eighty-seven still a mover) but
Ithaca was home for seven years
increasingly a place of attachments
until suddenly it wasn’t and I’m a stranger here
again. But maybe the market will change
or confirm some things: at least there’s coffee
to look forward to and a great breakfast
burrito and an apple cider donut
for dessert, these things matter
I didn’t want to mention Proust but
he’d surely back me up when I say
that what we taste and smell comes closest
to guaranteeing the reality of our past
as something we feel, I’ll bite that donut
and bite into a month of Saturdays
when sunshine and Ithaca and Emily and I
were at home with each other, and Sadie
from this vantage the inevitable
coming product of that, we gave birth
to our own home and that connection
has to do with what we do and what
we do it with, sit by the water
surrounded by men women and babies
it’s not a bad life if it’s not life
turning to memory before my eyes.

Sunday, June 07, 2009


At home this morning or what passes for
home, a grotty little student place we’re subletting
just two houses down from where we used to live
on Pleasant Street on South Hill in Ithaca.
Sadie, little light, is running around
behind me, just came in saying “I see you!”
though in her babyspeak it’s somehow more
like a rebus, I C U, though of course she has
no letters yet. Now she’s gone out and come in again
with a penny to show me—“Daddy! Daddy!”—that
she’s not supposed to have, and now Emily’s
deciding to skip the shower and get dressed, it’s
easier that way. Turns out none of the debris
that the Brazilians found belongs to Air France
Flight 447 so the mystery deepens, it may be a real
Lost situation after all—the deeper the mystery for a
bystander the less pathos, it can’t be that way
for those who’ve lost loved ones, not to mention
the passengers themselves, who know
or rather no longer have need of knowing
that’s why murder mysteries remain so popular
in books and on TV, we want to know whodunnit
and the it that’s dun is a pretext, maguffin,
hardly the locus of more than prurient interest
which is of course part of it. So I’m a little ashamed
of my human interest in this story
and will try to resist Googling it throughout the day.
Emily has closed the door, telling Sadie “Daddy’s typing,”
by which I don’t think she means Capote’s critique
of Kerouac, something Ammons incidentally
refers to at least twice in a validation of typing
and I too want to validate it though yesterday
I went out without a computer and so the typing was
(will be, haven’t done it yet) transcribing, purer
pleasure perhaps, reminding me of my temp days
when I would flaunt what seemed my sole marketable skill
a typing speed of 90+ words per minute less remarkable
now I imagine in an era of universal keyboarding
but there’s so little of my life that’s quantifiable I still
take a secret pride in it. I should
tell Emily to open the door or open it myself
since it’s hardly the point of this journal
to screen myself from what’s happening
as I write it, and just now Sadie pressed herself
endearingly against the closed door murmuring
Daddy, is the door now daddy for her as other objects
seem to take on life—there’s a closet to my left
she calls Mommy and when Emily’s cell phone rings
she says Daddy even if I’m standing right there.
But I think I’ll just keep listening.
Cracked open Badiou for much of yesterday morning
and could hardly make head or tail of it: I am double
daunted by the mathematical demands he makes
on his reader and by my generally lackadaisical
philosophical background: it’s been a long time
since I tried to wrap my head around high
theory as I said to Roger at lunch yesterday I
never would have realized before how little hard
thinking being a professor would demand of me:
my role has been more destructive than creative
especially in writing classes where I put so much energy
into helping students realize the limits they’ve imposed
on what’s proper to writing: in other words
I teach decorum, that’s a laugh, but seriously
decorum means propriety which refers
to what really belongs to us and so students
need to hear that what they think they have
(a self, opinions) isn’t really theirs:
what’s theirs is for the most part yet
to be discovered: not unlike my novel
stalled on a scene in Venice where my protagonist
is attending a fancy party to make some
sort of contact but with whom and for what purpose I
have no idea, I’m waiting for the words
to tell me since I have nothing else resembling
knowledge: that distinction between knowledge
and truth that Badiou seems to be talking about
and Ammons too: matter of fact
they’re both very interested in the one:many
problem and I even fantasize
one might help me read the other this
afternoon maybe settled in again at Gimme!
so that today shall be upside-down
to the others. This morning
we will go out together en famille
to the Cornell Plantations probably though it’s chilly
I’ll get some coffee on the way and
we’ll have the pleasure of seeing Sadie toddle
across acres of grass and on paths
that wind ponds, most likely get lunch after
and this evening see our dear friends Chris
and Jen and their son Elijah, a month younger
than Sadie but half again as big: Sadie’s
calling on the other side of the thin door
and it’s time to answer the call and
be a dad which is not quite the same as being
a father, will I be that to her, some name or no,
I’m somebody’s daddy ain’t
that a kick in my allegy-swollen head
someone for now I can still pick up
and swing into the air and she’ll shriek
our moment of mutual being.

Saturday, June 06, 2009


Continuing unseasonable coolness but
sunny this morning—glanced right
coming down South Hill and the creek was blazing
like the horse turds in a James Wright
poem. Left the computer at home so
doing this the old-fashioned way in a
notebook, which helps me keep the lines
the right length, having about five
and a half inches to work with. Most
poems I write this way: first
the notebook, then they sit there for a while
(baking? braising?) until I
remember them and type them out
on the computer, doing revisions then.
Then they won’t change again until or unless
they wind up in a manuscript or
I read one to an audience and decide to swap
“under” for “beneath” (differently sinister
prepositions) or add or subtract
a few lines. But rewriting’s a bit foreign
to the spirit of this diary so I’ll challenge myself
simply to transcribe this later today
and a couple days later it will go on the blog
and that will be the end of it. They found
more plane wreckage off the Brazilian coast
and Obama made his speech to the Muslim world
in Cairo while we in the western hemisphere slept—
his listeners want deeds not words, so
sayeth the Times, but that’s not true
of everybody, some of us have been waiting
for the right words an awfully long time
so that a speech can be a deed in the sense
of staking a claim, lighting out for territory—
not in an imperialist way but in a shared
discursive domain. Yesterday I got
more interested in Ammons and his Whitmanic inclusivity
in longer works like The Snow Poems and Garbage—
I’ll read those and see where I stand—
also having lunch today with my old prof
Roger Gilbert, Ammons’ biographer
and friend. He’ll have some ideas for me
and will likely seek to bridle or at least point out
my avant-gardiste impetuosity—he likes
poets I find dull but can also read and appreciate
a pretty wide aesthetic swath much to his credit
plus I hear he plays a mean jazz piano
though I’ve never heard him. We’re
meeting at Asia Cuisine, which makes divine
garlic chicken—I haven’t found its like
in Chicago, which in so many other ways
has Ithaca beat for culture, energy, diversity, even
beauty—for some may say that a gorge split
by a waterfall adorned with emerald greenery
is the most beautiful sight that dark
earth offers, yet I say
the Chicago skyline like the bristles of a
fabulous silver hairbrush or
the cerulean sea-like shores
of Lake Michigan are as beautiful—whatever
it is one doth love most. My wife’s long fingers
and toes, Sadie Gray’s serious gray eyes
breaking into delight when struck funny—
something usually does—shall these things
be reft from me? You know some things
but are too shy to make a sign, even to yourself.
The sun is bright and texturing the ivy
on the garage, that yesterday seemed made
of iron. Ammons awaits, but—my idea of a good time—
I’ve also got Badiou’s Being and Event
to puzzle on, purchased yesterday at the Cornell Store
along with some bargain books—one on Bookchin
and social ecology, a selected Muriel Rukeyeser,
and an unclassifiable tome by Jacques Roubaud,
The Great Fire of London, which perhaps
stands in the same relation to his heart-
rending poems for his dead wife, Some
Thing Black as Juliana Spahr’s The
Transformation stands to This Connection
of Everyone with Lungs. What does it take
to convert elegy into action, if not
consolation? Badiou might say, fidelity
to the event. In this case I try
to show fidelity to the accident of Ithaca,
of time-traveling back each morning to
a time before Emily, before Sadie, before
my own identity beyond a mania
for the page and its inclusions.

Friday, June 05, 2009


The bagel place again, one table further back
from the window than yesterday. Sadie
woke up extra early this morning so I’m
extra bleary till the coffee does its work.
Just heard The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,”
next up sounds like a Joe Walsh song. Hard
to believe I ever liked this music—such
terrible taste in high school, oblivious to everything
my peers knew about The Cure and R.E.M.,
listening instead to Foreigner and Led Zeppelin over
and over again, and let’s not forget my prog rock
obsession: Yes and Kansas and Jethro Tull, ye
gods. I still like Zeppelin.
Can’t stop thinking about that Air France flight—
they found debris in the south Atlantic,
there were more than two hundred people aboard
and some of them were kids. I’m sentimental about kids
since having one of my own, can scarcely bear
to think of one being hurt or frightened, and a plane
crash remains I think the iconic terror of our times—
9/11 of course but even before that—and there’s Lost,
of course, which finished a strong fifth season
a few weeks back. Plane crashes hit us
where we live, in our idea of ourselves as cosmopolitans,
more at home everywhere than we are anywhere,
riding great beasts of capital that any child can see
oughtn’t to fly, but they do, big bellies on stubby wings
with us inside, our fates handed over
to impersonal and terrifying forces
as they are of course every day, but we don’t have to realize it
even and especially in our cars which are of course more dangerous.
But it’s too easy to envision myself on such a flight
and the sick plunge in our skins
and my baby in terror—but this is indulging something
that has, I’m not sure, very little to teach me
or you. Still it’s haunting, the way the plane vanished
without so much as a peep from the pilots, and
if it weren’t for the found wreckage we could imagine
an adventure for the passengers, lost in horse latitudes
with handsome protagonists unraveling an existential mystery
over successive seasons in prime time. Ammons
yesterday, quite a bit of him, he’s rather boring
in bulk, but he’s my excuse for being here
so I’d better get interested—thinking the longer and later
poems might have more to offer than the early lyrics,
which are either straight nature poems and very boring
or labor through dialectical questions with a bit of a plod
a little like Stevens if Stevens weren’t a dandy
in language and more concerned with the thingliness
of things other than words—so early Ammons
like late Stevens but he’s just not a charmer
and I like charm in poems I like deceptive casualness
and undeceptive casualness
or else I like what Juliana Spahr characterizes in her
memoir The Transformation as “an avant-garde
that used fragmentation, quotation, disruption, disjunction,
agrammatical syntax, and so on,” a word cluster
that recurs again and again in that book until it ironizes
itself, puts itself into question, but still that’s home
for her, that’s her home poetic language, and if
it’s not quite home for me it’s nevertheless become
a comfortable idiom, more comfortable in some ways
than that other mode of non-syntactic difficulty
that has to do with deep and profuse cultural allusiveness
a la The Waste Land and with piles of metaphors
intended to get the speaker/reader through
the words and the things into something higher and purer.
Ammons does neither really though he’s an American
Transcendentalist for sure in the early poems
albeit one for whom Nature is sufficient without being
a stand-in for God—I think I’ll like his long
poems better, the ones with more stuff in them, people
as well as things and signs of life and culture I
sure get tired of a lone speaker confronted by mountains
or rhododendrons or wind or thoroughly abstract people
without names and histories. Wonder who I’ll see
today that I know, already saw my old neighbor Gary
getting my coffee, we looked into each other’s eyes
for just a moment and offered each other no sign
of recognition—not that we knew each other well
but once at least I recall having a half-hour’s
conversation with him at Juna’s, yet another coffee
shop and one that no longer exists—and I see
many other faces without names that I know,
this man in a careful cardigan and glasses and
cropped hair sitting down now at the table in front of me
so now I can se the collar of his blue denim shirt—
he was one of the occasional fixtures of my life here
but a stranger then and a stranger still
nobody’s stranger than me here in this town
named for our ultimate idea of a home
accessible only through long trials and suffering
dumb idea to have left it in the first place
unless the journey is your true home whether or not
you’re cosmopolitan anyway it’s time
for work now or maybe not.

Thursday, June 04, 2009


Today a leveling grayness over the hills.
Collegetown Bagels this morning, looking out
the window at the corner of the parking garage,
a brutalist slab softened by proliferating ivy.
Murky blue minivan. Ceiling fan forces
a breeze. I forgot yesterday the news,
and lots of it: GM gone bankrupt, a missing
Air France plane, and the diminishing intelligence
of the discourse around the Sotomayor nomination.
The Obamas flew to New York over the weekend
to see Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and now ticket sales
are way up. How unsettling their charm and glamor—
can it last? and can it somehow contribute
to genuine progressivism? Not holding my breath:
national security Obama’s not much different
from national security Bush, though at least
he’s holding Israel’s feet to the fire on the settlements—
how long, Lord, how long? did I mention I’m
a Jew, a bad Jew, not so much as bar mitzvahed
and I love bacon and eat it too, but by Nuremberg
standards I’m a super-Jew, four Jewish grandparents
and so I stake my uneasy claim to an opinion
which is that my brothers the Israelis do awful things
in the name of national security. Which makes them
from us, how different? Ammons for sure today:
read the early I-am-Ezra poems yesterday, pretty
straightforward stark romanticism, bearded prophet
in the desert postponing prophecy stuff. What a relief
to get to the first poem of the next phase,
“Batsto,” which has words in it like “Route 9,”
“Pleasantville,” “Seaview Country Club,” “Garden
State Parkway” and is a driving poem of the sort
Dr. Williams might have written.
Feeling a little guilty now about the news I notice
or don’t: nothing much about Indonesia crosses my ken,
or even the civil war in Sri Lanka, over now
supposedly: though in Asia as they say they’re the
rising powers, and facing some big danger from
rising sea levels too. It’s pretty horribly depressing
thinking globally without so much as a theory
of sufficient nuance and complexity by which
to grasp it all, some big handle like history, or
the universal, or even capitalism. But I’m reading
a book, Friction, by the anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt
Tsing, loaned to me by my anthropologist buddy Alex,
a colleague at Lake Forest where I teach—a fortuitous
friendship that, he has acres of curiosity that cover
huge neglected swathes of the globe (neglected by me)
and so I’m learning a thing or too about Indonesia
and its history of environmental degradation and the complex friction
between local and global capitalisms, which offers me
something like a grippable surface, some beginning
of understanding of the political-historical-ecological phenomena
of my times that goes beyond the crippled worldview
of The New York Times or, God help us, The Washington Post.
Yes there’s room for all this in poetry, and much else,
and if I have some atavistic pull myself toward the romantic,
the singular self encountering the world with an aim
toward transcending it, if not spiritualizing the thing itself
completely out of existence, here’s not the place
to scratch that itch. Foregoing habits of epiphany
like quitting smoking you’ve just got to do it.
A woman in a blue straw hat just went past the window,
a man with glasses and a mustache and goatee
is reading the local (local!) rag two tables over,
a girl says to her mother “It was horrible Mom”
behind me, by which she means nothing all that horrible,
and my allergies have got me good, the ceiling fan
doesn’t help. Think I’ll relocate to the public
library where there’s cushy chairs
and no speakers mumbling classic rock
and read Ammons pen in hand
on the lookout for news I can use.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Ithaca 6/1

It’s a Monday out of context. Bus rolls by.
Looking across the room I see a Mac,
a clunky-looking off-brand piloted
by a man with curly-gray hair and glasses,
a little VAIO, a guy with something that looks
like a portable TV, and a Dell. The woman at the Dell
has a worried expression intensified by the paleness
of her pale-blue eyes. Everyone has coffees,
espressos, lattes, or empty cups of same
marking their purchased right
to temporary autonomous zones
known as tables. And the guy
at the window wearing big headphones, expressing
the greatest possible will toward autonomy,
separation, in public. And the very old man
with white beard and glasses down his noses
and a frowsy ponytail, shoulders hunched,
peering deep into his screen past
mysteries of the grave. Sunny outside, cool,
breezy. The creek was burbling when I walked
alongside it, no doubt is burbling still, kept burbling—
silly word!—all this time I’ve been gone, two years
in the big city being something other than what I was
and temporarily am again—a lone man with a computer
and a coffee cup, writing. Now the woman at the Dell
has taken off her red scarf and put on fashionably dark
red-framed glasses, transforming her otherwise
unchanged expression from anxiety to pure
washed intensity, intentness, focus on the goal.
Or on the process, which is more spiritual, I’ve heard,
which makes me, what? not terribly spiritual
in my thinking since I’m always thinking about goals,
things I ought to be writing or at least reading.
This morning, for example, is supposed to be for
Ammons, A.R., a man I never met—he died the year I arrived here—
whose poetry I’m only capable of approaching
now that I no longer live in his shadow, that long Carolina shadow
that stretches down from East Hill and Goldwin Smith Hall
to incorporate Cayuga Lake’s long profile (and the woman
across from me has now taken her brown jacket off, it’s
a kind of striptease, rendering her less scholarly
in affect, narrower across the shoulders, causing
her pale skin to blend more with her pale sweater).
Or I ought to be writing my novel—yes, at long last
I’m a traitor to poetry, every day I hack away at it,
remembering a long-ago reading I attended in New
Orleans by Andrei Codrescu, in which he read
his surrealist-informed poems, and during the Q&A I
aspiring novelist raised my hand and asked,
“Mr. Codrescu, what about the novel?” and he
said glibly, “The novel is dead, I only write novels
for money.” And he was right, I almost typed write,
like Dr. Johnson was right (if Andrei’d preceded
his answer with a “Sir,”), the novel is dead, undead,
and I’m alive with writing one, while looking too
for a new path to poems, a new path to about,
my bugbear: if someone asks you what your poem
is about, that just shows they’re naive, if not stupid,
and you can smile condescendingly and say,
“Well, it’s not exactly about anything
but itself,” and make them feel their stupidity,
push them back into a defensive dismissal of you
and the genre you represent, thus restoring
your precious and temporary autonomy. But
with novels there’s always an about, and some
poems too, I’ll admit it, like this poem, which purports
to be or become a kind of diary of this temporary time
in a town I once called home, in the mornings
stolen from my wife and daughter for the purposes
of work I’m not doing, my Ammons article
or my novel or blogging, which I hardly do any more
unless this poem is a kind of blog, or slog
whose modest pleasures lie in sheer dailiness
and the subtly directed emphasis
of the line. A man in a checked shirt and Big Red
baseball cap has joined the intense woman,
he’s going to buy coffee and sit with her,
and flirt or commiserate over what she’s writing,
which is a writer’s form of flirting, a strip tease,
a fan dance, one more mask
to hide that vulnerable and beautiful and temporary
becoming, that process which is so difficult to begin,
so uncertain in knowing when to stop, but to be in it
as writer or reader is its own little bliss,
happy for a time and interested, a little plagiarism
goes a long way and a lot goes a long way,
look for more of it, look for being and becoming
in happy tension with each other, a poem
of ordinary syntax, in ordinary time,
measured out for hours of bordeom and delight
whilst I tell my complaint.

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