Friday, October 29, 2010

Ripe Purple

Red abstraction friendly but to bathe. Jackknife to seminal to studio. Ripe purple from flourishing to chew. A so moose operation theorem. A slide has jellyfish yell.

Abstract granite that outlines outward just independence. Black crack heard on the river. Circulate is spoons should soothe more volume. It imitates congeniality the dry step ingratiates. Red between symptoms means a hiatus.

Lift and thicken or shoal. The cactus then remedied a café. Trees with rivers overflow the throat. Freight and farm not upside-down. Shaded discriminatingly to paint a key.

Jaunty the skin of the world. Structure ripe in conquest like the horizon. An enigmatic Mediterranean attitude thrilling rails. Haul a word in language which breaks alpaca into gulps. The paragraph glitters when its pathos is echoed in frogs.

Slippery sexual fidgets are enthralling. Kaolin to spatial hills built into sky. Marks had the enamel to stew. Garish catalogue their milieu was bistros. Caress a chew for orange.

Circulate a sphere only tuna. Sense in infinite hot the volume then swamp. Late vertiginously the blossoming in phantom bursts of office crustaceans. Come entertain the myriad massive athletes. Incised mosaic the palatable truffles moved into bald Euclidean devices.

Adjust Cézanne those woods into clumsy triangles. Clatter to heft during flourishing grammar. Garden begun in trumpeted resource. His improbably bounced art is a wife. Consider more diversions a canvas can sound.

Butter in oars in wars in jaws in cotton. Never stem and examine aerodromes without grapefruit. Charge the feathers comes the tube to knit. Literally like oak the palace represents succession. The blob was equipped with light and thrilling and fastened.

A hothouse is smelly since calling it nascent tickles the biology. Steam is merely flickered Bach. Pack necessity in disillusion so that our examples may die in garlands. An abstraction enlarges summer. Suppose for banana propellers your suit duplicates blood.

Smooth in giants the climate tunneled a phantom tapioca. Medicine babble much daubed by banging shellac. Hair had perspective in willow. Indulge all personification pull a living paradox from a bug. Unofficially a flatcar is rails dabbed by sexual cylinder.

Wilderness in wire like a radical potato. Eggplant from parrots because contrasting caps dictate derbies. Mint below a glow may prophesy effervescence. The same swollen being was fencing a shadow. Engine which acts to obtain mirrors.

Inflated chin a finger just dipped. Mushroom it means many sighs. House that squashed the ovation crustaceans scintillate in river snow. Velvet or wrinkle to hooked scales lingers in narration. Hills invite visibility in whatever teaches air.

Mushroom brain its landscape to be a surface. Form maple to the sublime. Radical version box he boats the brooked moose to an anthology. Umbrella bone be the anger which elucidates opinion. Fly to fall his bicycle.

Photogenic forge to clap into pronoun. A palatable accent begins arcing toward the independence triangle. Tube struts grip the romance and numbers its suns. Sense begins butter the stew traces frequented decorations. Some wires in nutmeg improbably hypnotic.

The unrivalled spark evokes an organic skin that the overflow brims and beards. Flap so bristling that dissonance gleams. Oddity surges the milieu since birds shook. Audacity glows when the ooze immigrates to publicity. The flip willow which moccasins old personalities.

A balloon sweetens the knives of autumn. The mood spoon conducts jellyfish to crystal. Daub at affection by word. Metaphysics nebula about the chowder. Architecture by raw sienna has worlds.

Power amplifies France fastened in theorem. Curiously culminated genres develop eyeballs for drawing balloons. Cause opens within pack the pretzels. It cabbages invisible algebras which intrigue Max Jacob. Discarded syntax that he elevated everyone.

Emphasis slides the bones into imponderable wildlife. Evergreen as prodigal hermitage and paint. The contraption to thaw the pool was lost in reflection. And our eyes hosted Baudelaire by fulfilling elevations. And brightness mimicked the grammar of rain.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Rip Effect

Lately I’ve been imagining what it would be like to wake up, à la Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, after a long sleep. Say, 42 years.

It’s 1968. I’m partying heavily in the Cascade mountains. It’s summer. Everyone is walking around naked. Men and women. Laughing, joking, hanging out. Everyone is stoned on one substance or another: mescaline, psilocybin, LSD, hashish, marijuana, wine.

I wander away from the group. I wade through a marsh. The water is cool, the sun hot on my back. It’s a perfect day. I grow drowsy. I stumble upon a group of bearded men sitting around a big wooden keg imbibing a beverage that looks a lot like beer. I’m cordially invited to have some. I am handed a mug. It tastes wonderful, dark and strong, like Guinness. I fall asleep. I wake up. I have an enormous beard, absurdly long hair, and have mysteriously aged and gained weight. I attempt hitching a ride into town. No one stops. I notice the cars and trucks look different. The cars especially. They are much larger. Huge, in fact.

I end up walking into town. My feet are sore. I’m a little pissed that no one stopped. I’m also naked.

I’m going to skip all the details about haircut, clothing, and shelter, and go to the heart of the story. Let’s assume, à la Rip Van Winkle, I have been picked up by the police, taken to Harborview, identified, taken in by a friend or family relative who might still be living. I’m given clothes. I shower. I shave. I’m now ready to enter society. It is mid-October, 2010.

With newly opened eyes, I begin to take in all the changes. The really big, really noticeable ones, and the smaller, subtler, not so big ones. I will list them.

1. The Jetsons.

There are no Jetsons. No people flying around with jetpacks. This is not what I expected. People are still on the road. Still driving cars. And the gridlock has gotten worse. And the streets are in disrepair. There are potholes everywhere. Cracks, pustules, carbuncles, welts, and craters. Driving is now a dodgy maneuver in order to keep your CD from jiggling and skipping a lyric in a song, or your entire car from skidding over the lip of a chasm and disappearing down a tunnel of old sewer pipes and electrical cable.

There are a few more bicyclists than I remember from the 60s, but apart from that, not much difference. There are no aerocars with bubble tops, no Rosie Robots busy doing the housework while the breadwinner of the household rests from a three hour a day, three days a week job whose sole task is pressing a button, and which confers a big enough paycheck to afford a shiny space age house on an adjustable column.

I do notice an unusually high number of men wearing something that looks like a jetpack, but it turns out to be a device called a leaf blower.

2. Drugs.

I am not at all surprised to see that most drugs are still illegal.

Except for marijuana.

I would have expected to see marijuana legalized by now, especially since it’s so much safer than cigarettes and alcohol. It surprises to me to see so many people still smoking cigarettes.

But marijuana? Still illegal? That’s crazy.

I discover that, as of 2002, there were 135,000 felony marijuana inmates in U.S. prisons, That it costs $ 2 billion annually to house those inmates. That it costs over $ 7 billion annually to fund U.S. marijuana prohibition.

California, I am not surprised, is the first state with a proposition on the ballot to legalize marijuana. And that there are 14 states that have legalized medical marijuana, California being among the first.

Medical marijuana? What’s that, I wonder. Isn’t that a redundancy? Aren’t all drugs taken with the intent to medicate oneself? Alter one’s mood? Heighten one’s consciousness? Broaden one’s perspective? Assuage one’s disposition? Illumine, with a milder, more benevolent hue, the prison that is one’s self?

Marijuana, it seems, alleviates nausea and other pains associated with cancer and chemotherapy.

A lot of people, I am frightened to discover, have cancer. Breast cancer, colon cancer, cancer of the prostate, lung cancer, brain cancer, thumb cancer, lip cancer, throat cancer, big toe cancer, little toe cancer, cancer of the fingers, cancer of the liver, cancer of the bones.

Why all this cancer?

Toxins, I discover, are everywhere. In the water, in fetuses, in the dirt, in houses, in rugs, in bugs, in food, in juice, in carpets, in couches, in the air.

The environmental protection agency is a joke.

Corporations do what they want.

3. Computers.

Everybody has a computer. They’ve become as common as typewriters. But people don’t use them to calculate heady quantum physics equations or penetrate the secrets of matter and energy or deepen their understanding of the universe. They use them to exchange messages of mind-numbing banality. Trips to the store. Skin problems. Anal itching. Celebrity gossip.

4. Books.

I notice hardly anyone reads books anymore. There are numerous homes without a single book or magazine within view.

5. Television.

Televisions have become huge. Almost as big as movie screens. The variety of programs is staggering. Most of them the programs are dumb, utterly predictable, just as insipid as they were in 1968. A few, however, such as The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm, are devastatingly funny and very smartly written.

I discover that on certain cable networks, such as HBO, people are now aloud to say ‘fuck’ on TV. This does not, however, much improve their dialogue, or the monologues of the comedians, whose routines now seem mostly centered around poopoo and sex. They are infantile and scatological.

Though not all. Some comics have grown devastatingly sharp. Two, Bill Hicks and George Carlin, really stand out.

Bill Hicks, I will discover, will die young, at age 32, in 1994, from pancreatic cancer. But before then, his routines will continue to ring prophetically into the coming decades. He will harangue against religion, marketing, and predatory capitalism with devastating wit and humor.

George Carlin will age. His hair will thin and grow white, and, in June, 2008, he will die. But his mind will stay young. Razor sharp. In the decade or so before he dies his comedy routines will become sharper than ever. His insights will go deeper. There will be more anger. He will be tougher. Rougher. He will take on religion, especially the hypocrisy and cruelty that seems to be an adjunct of almost all organized religions. His monologues will grow openly misanthropic. Yet his appeal will linger. At least among a small portion of the American population that have not gone to sleep.

6. Conversation.

Except for a few rare but notable instances, all conversations are shallow, rote, totally uninteresting. People appear to have lost all curiosity. And since they no longer read, conversations are limited to movies and TV and sports. But even among these topics, any attempt to go deeper into a topic is met with hostility.

7. Fascism.

This is probably the least surprising development. There were certainly signs of fascism in the 60s. That’s what a lot of the protest was about. And as early as 1935, Sinclair Lewis had predicted that when fascism reared its ugly head in the United States, it would be wrapped in a flag and carrying a bible.

There are no concentration camps in evidence, at least not recognizably as such, though freedom in general is severely restricted. For those with a modest income, which is pretty much the entire population, choices concerning one’s movements and aspirations are stark to non-existent. There are few jobs available for young, uneducated adults. And since the public education system is hardly more than a poorly funded travesty of mind-deadening routines of endless testing geared to do everything except teach children how to think, this means a lot of people.

The U.S. military is the only viable employer. Death and plunder are now major U.S. exports.

And prison. That has become a growth industry.

The U.S., I discover, has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, and also the highest total documented prison and jail population in the world. 3.2% of all U.S. adult residents, or 1 in every 31 adults. I find this highly disturbing.

I also discover huge numbers of middle aged people trying to survive at menial jobs at big box stores and fast food franchises, flipping burgers, mopping floors, cleaning toilets, welcoming customers at Wal Mart, arranging shirts and coats made in sweatshops in India and Indonesia, standing outside Home Depot hoping for a gardening or construction job, or clerking at convenience stores and service stations.

Men and women getting on into their 50s and 60s struggle to get by on paychecks that can’t be stretched far enough to cover all their rent and food, even for themselves, much less their children, and leave no disposable income with which to buy articles to help fuel the economy. Many supplement their incomes with credit cards that carry usuriously high interest rates. If someone in the family gets seriously ill, or breaks an arm, they must go to the nearest emergency room, where they will be charged thousands of dollars for treatment. Except for the very well-to-do, no one will be able to afford health care until age 65, when they will be eligible for Medicare. If they can afford even Medicare on a fixed social security income.

Fascism is not necessarily troops doing goose-steps in perfect unison in the streets, all while saluting a dictator who looks down from an operatic balcony. This is its pageantry, its external trappings. Fascism is being restricted in what you do, what you say, and what you think. Fascism is having no voice in your government. No voice. No choice.

8. Tea Party.

Stunned. That’s how it would be to hear and see these strange creatures who identify themselves as the Tea Party. These are people who, largely dependent on social support networks, such as social security, police and fire departments and Medicare, want to terminate social security, privatize the police and fire departments, and end Medicare.

The imbecility of their leading figures, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Sharon Angle, Christine O’Donnell, utterly perplex me. I have been asleep for 42 years. I have not had a chance to see these developments grow and evolve. During those long years of sleep tucked away in a grotto in the moss-laden Cascades, I have not been prepared by the Reagan years, when it was proposed that unbridled, free market capitalism and no taxation for the obscenely rich would make everyone happy. That money would trickle down from the estates in the Hamptons, Bel Air, Park Avenue and Palm Springs and fuel the lives of ordinary citizens while providing inspiring models of unbridled greed, ruthless predation, and maggoty corruption.

I would have no immunity. No antibodies of delusion and denial. No way to digest or analyze the incoherence and ignorance and sheer insanity of the remarks put forward by the luminaries of the Tea Party. Or the talking heads on Fox News. No way to account for their rise to power. No way to account for the narrowness of their views. Sentences mangled, a feculent, unabashed sentimentality exhibited, openly bigoted statements about gays and minorities promulgated, childish emotionalism, completely incongruous and ignorant wishes to keep government out of social programs such as Medicare, would do nothing less then render me unconscious, again.

9. I Become An Author!

I write a book about what it’s like to sleep for 42 years, wake up, and readjust to society, which is published by a small press. The book is called The Dream Of Life. I wanted to call it I Woke Up After 42 Years To Find The World Has Gone Insane, but the publisher was against it. Too clunky, they said, and too acerbic. The public likes to be preened, not insulted.

Small press means that the title is a limited edition of 200 copies and has no distribution. I discover that it is harder to find a distributor than a publisher. I also discover that when I inform people I have written a book, that I am an author, a bona fide writer, with a published book, published I say, it means nothing. It elicits no response. Nothing. But then, this is because people no longer read books, and anyone and everyone can now get published on their computers, on something called blogs.

Blogs, in fact, very much like this one.

And since anyone and everyone given the time and disposition can write, being a writer means nothing. Unless, of course, you are the person doing the writing. It doesn’t need to be good writing. It just needs to be writing. Letters. Words strung haphazardly together, with cute little twittered expressions like “LOL,” or “my bad.”

There is one way to make the room reverberate with your announcement of being a writer. If you have been on Oprah, interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air or Scott Simon on Weekend Edition, spawned at least two blockbuster movies and been kissed on the cheek by Jennifer Aniston, or if your name happens to be J.K. Rolling or Salmon Rushdie.

Though if you have to announce yourself as a writer, then you’re not a real writer. Real writers are famous and appear on TV. You could write the equivalent of Moby Dick or Ulysses, but if you have not been on TV, or at the very least NPR, then you are not a writer. You are what is termed a “wannabe.” The world is teeming with wannabes.

There is no way on earth Moby Dick or Ulysses, had they been written today, would be published by one of the big mainstream publishing houses. They would be championed by a small press. An heroic, great-hearted small press determined to bring literature into this world, stand against the chill winds of indifference, mortgage their houses, sacrifice whatever it takes to keep the written word radiant and rampant in printer's ink.

As for the size of an audience, making a dent in mainstream culture, it is not a matter of quality. Quality has little to do with it. You cannot demonstrate quality to the ignorant.

None of the above matters if you are writing for the sheer joy of writing. If you are into writing for the sheer pleasure of putting words together, who cares about publication?

But if you are writing with the hopes of gaining an audience - a large audience - make sure your words mimic television. Never engage the cortex. Do not introduce new ideas, characters with inner conflicts, or incendiary dilemmas that cannot be solved with magic. Do not use words with more than ten letters. Paragraphs should be small, blunt, and simple enough for a six-year old.

You may long for companions, people with whom you can share your interests and difficulties, but this will not be easy.

The art of writing itself, the joy and beauty of developing an idea in words, conveying a heightened perception with images and cadence, is enjoyed by a cognoscenti so miniscule as to be on the verge of total extinction.

Few people are educated (the cost of a college education is now as expensive as a chateau in Monaco, or a trip to Mars and back).

Reasons for low self-esteem abound. Jobs are demanding, paychecks are meager, opportunities are negligible. And yet, conversely, paradoxically, magnitudes of narcissism have become so impenetrable that Socrates himself could not tease out anything like thought through the hardened carapace of people immersed like mussels in the imbroglios spun daily in their own heads.

It is a narcissism so global and imperious in its sureness and self-absorption that it has become blind to its own ignorance. Ignorance ignorant of its own ignorance is a toxic, festering soup that leads to suffocating cliques, slavish conformity, and Triumph Of The Will.

Mediocre writing is indistinguishable from good writing. The more mediocre - or just plain bad - the writer happens to be, the less inclined are they to see good writing in others.

The really fine writers are marginalized. Their audiences are so tiny as to be like sparsely attended Quaker meetings.

Most of the time, they read to empty chairs.

The mediocrities draw gigantic crowds, enjoy vigorous sales, and are given interviews on NPR.

Celebrities are given humongous advances of millions of dollars. Splashy covers. And interviews on David Letterman and Larry King.

Also, because few authors of real strength and originality are published by a press with a distributor, any and all books published by a struggling small press, essentially a labor of love with no expectation of a profit, or monetary compensation, will remain in a box that is shoved under the bed, put in storage, or warehoused at a small press distributor in Berkeley kind enough to give them a home, and publish their titles in a catalogue. A few books might be given away, particularly to other authors in the hopes of garnering a review or two, but I will come to discover that no one really wants them. They are, in fact, something of a nuisance.

10. Cell phones.

This is another phenomenon that has little surprise. Dick Tracy wore a wristwatch radio with a TV. What is surprising about cell phones, is the behavior that accompanies them. People talk openly in public about very private and intimate details. It’s as if the public sphere had ceased to exist.

And some people wear their phones. These things are called Bluetooths. At first I think the people are schizophrenics, alcoholics in detox fighting with their demons. But then I notice that they are talking into a tiny device hooked to their ear. And come to the realization that they are, indeed, schizophrenics. Schizophrenics talking into a tiny device hooked to their ear. Called a Bluetooth.

11. Politicians.

It’s hugely surprising that an African American man has become president. This, at first, strikes me as a very positive development. But it becomes increasingly apparent, and very disheartening, to discover that he is a right leaning centrist who makes Dwight D. Eisenhower look like a lunatic, irresponsible progressive. The new African American president, whose father has roots in Kenya, and whose mother is from Kansas, is not as right-wing wacko as Rush Limbaugh or Pat Buchanan, but he is conservative; he is more sympathetic to bankers and wealthy industrialists than he is to the common working people, not at all friendly to gays and their push for equal rights, and, despite being a student of the U.S. Constitution, blithely assists in the erosion of civil rights for high corporate powers and a menacing oligarchy.

He will, I will come to discover, replace the former president, a man named Bush, essentially an adolescent in the body of a middle-aged man, an idiot imitating a Texas cowboy, the son of an elite, obscenely wealthy family, who, despite a privileged, ivy-league education, somehow remained barely literate, barely articulate, his every sentence a painful struggle, his every thought put in his head by someone else, and who will be responsible for starting two wars in the middle east to make his friends happy and rich. He will be responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people, many of them women and children, displace millions of people, destroy some of the oldest cultures of human civilization, and get away with it.

The new president will do nothing to investigate these crimes. He will, in fact, continue the former president’s policies. In some instances, such as killing people with drones, increase the activity.

12. The Middle Class.

This will surprise me. The disappearance of the middle class. The middle class is gone. But where, exactly, have they gone? I do not know. There are tent cities in Sacramento and Seattle and Los Angeles. Perhaps there. Perhaps these people cooking their meals on an open fire and bedding down on mats inside raggedy tents, perhaps they are the former members of the stalwart middle-class. Their homes foreclosed by dishonest, fraudulent, and incompetent banks.

But - and this will truly shock me - there will be no uprising. No evidence of fighting back. This will perplex me more than anything. That so many people will be exploited, sodomized, raped, and do nothing to fight back. The parallel with Nazi Germany will leap out at me. The phenomenon of the so-called “good German.”

And Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Sharon Angle, and Christine O’Donnell, et. al., whose looniness was weirdly riveting, like a car accident, or a weird growth on your foot, are suddenly more frightening.

13. Civil Rights.

Gone. Habeas corpus, right to privacy, unwarranted search and seizure, gone. The new president will not, as everyone hoped, do anything to restore these rights. He will, in fact, broaden some of the more nefarious intrusions of what will be a militarized police state. Homes will be broken into, laptop computers confiscated, people arrested without charge. They will be accused of something vague and indefinable; of being a terrorist. Which is neither a country, ideology, or affiliation. It is a tactic.

The Tea Partiers, meanwhile, will accuse the new president of being a liberal. Something called a socialist, which none of them are able to describe. This insanity will spread, despite efforts to educate the masses about democratic socialism, and explain why it is not the same thing as fascism.

Some tea partiers will paint a Hitler mustache on the face of the new African American president. They will ride around in motorized wheelchairs, because they are too obese to walk, and howl at anger at the government that provides them with such things.

14. Clothing.

Clothing will have hardly changed. Styles will be similar to what they were in the 60s. There will be a few exceptions. I will note that many of the young men are dressed like 6 year-olds: baseball caps turned with the bill to the back, or skewed sideways; baggy pants falling off; hands on their crotch like a digital codpiece.

Their girlfriends, on the contrary, are dressed like French prostitutes, heavy makeup, Capri pants, stiletto heels.

Women, young women especially, will sport not one, not two, but an entire armload of tattoos, so that they will never seem quite undressed. I imagine that going to bed with such a woman would be a little frustrating. You might ask your date to remove her sweater, or T-shirt, with its colorful designs, only to discover the patterns and colors are embedded in her skin.

15. Dogs.

Dogs have become fashion accessories. People take them for walks, dimly aware, as they are of their children, that the family pet is a sentient being, a four-legged companion with a heart and a soul.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

With Is A Hinge

Smelling Mary, poetry by James Heller Levinson. Howling Dog Press, 2008. 205 pages. $19.95.

Beginning most notably with Mallarmé at the close of the 19th century, there has been a fierce emphasis on the materiality of language in western poetry. The subject matter melts into the medium itself, the language. The true subject of the poem is the propeller that drives it: its torque, cough, rumble and grease. Its amplitude is in its interplay, its syntax and words. The words are everything. Multiplicities of sound and sense, microorganisms, mad particles, a whole galaxy of sonorous energies creating and abolishing their order in a semiotic field of hectic transformation. The mind of the reader is, of course, central to this. Language is nothing without participation.

Heller Levinson’s Smelling Mary offers itself as an extreme example of linguistic concretion. Each concrete assemblage is a multiplicity, a pattern, a becoming, an actuality. The parts are essential. And it is the smallest parts, prepositions in particular, that bear the heaviest loads.

Everything pivots on the preposition ‘with.’ ‘With’ is a hinge. It is the device upon which everything is laid out, swings, depends, vacillates.

What we are talking about is something like the Contiguity Disorder Roman Jacobson describes as a form of agrammatism, or “word heap,” in which “word order becomes chaotic; the ties of grammatical coordination and subordination, whether concord or government, are dissolved.” The hierarchy of linguistic units is abolished and reduced to a single level. Words are stripped of contextual encrustations. Metonymic bursts explode totalizing structures into sumptuous volatility. Energies unbind. Particles collide. This leads to what Jacobson terms a “telegraphic style” in which words constellate higgledy-piggledy in a feverous blast of semiotic elation. But this analogy is only partly true in relation to Smelling Mary. The word ‘disorder’ suggests a malfunctioning, a pathology, and that is clearly not the case here. There is evident a lusty and radical proposal. There is integrity. There is intent. While rapture and delirium are certainly not foreign to Heller Levinson’s poetry, there is an underlying objective that has been scrupulously worked out and advanced within the pages of this book.

Heller Levinson describes his strategy in what he refers to as a “Hinge Theory,” and includes an essay titled “Hinge Theory Diagnostic: Whereby Operations of Hinge Are Inspected In ‘With Insinuation.’” “With,” he emphasizes, “is the pivot (in this case the prepositional pivot) whose function is to spring (to unleash, to unmoor) the particle (in this case, ‘insinuation’) into a climate of free fall and unpredictability.” “While journeying through the Hinge Apparatus,” he continues, “we begin dropping the baggage of conventional definition and connotation, continually being re-oriented with linguistic process, while orienteering through the processional relationships. Thus, ensuing is a series of new understandings, objectives, subjectives and complexities for the word(s) and the relationships they engender.”

The end result of Heller Levinson’s philosophy of word assemblage, is a sense of rawness not unlike the paintings and sculptures of Jean Dubuffet. Dubuffet’s primary thrust was to present images that gloried in their eccentricity, their distortions and craziness, their flagrant derangement, their wonderful hilarity. “There is no art without intoxication,” declared Dubuffet, “but I mean a mad intoxication! Let reason teeter! Delirium! The highest degree of delirium! Plunged in burning dementia! Art is the most enrapturing orgy within man's reach. Art must make you laugh a little and make you a little afraid. Anything as long as it doesn't bore.”

Heller Levinson’s poetry evinces this same hectic quality, this urgency to make things catastrophically raw, stripped of mediation. Remove any and all inhibiting forces. Pertinent as breath, tart in its own logic.

Here, for example, is “with,” on page 19:


       testudinal dismissals

       flesh layering rich strips of interval

       dispatch those ceremonies that surrender us

       boast fugitives parking without meter

       discovery = savour

       caravels crabbed with complacency luff ambrosial broths

       amphitheaters empty of monarchy

       light analyzed as supine

I find the last line particularly fascinating. The image of light lying supine is quantum, huge in evocation. We see light as a physical body, a tangible entity, lying with physical force in what could be dust and stone (the previous line implies a Greek or Roman ruin). ‘Supine’ suggests both horizontality and vertebrae. A spine. The verb ‘analyzed’ takes us further into evocations of spectral display, colors and waves mirrored in scrupulous pools of luminous information.

Equally fascinating is the telegraphic style alluded to earlier, the bareness of the overall structure, the compact aggregate of the line “caravels crabbed with complacency luff ambrosial broths,” with its jumbled imagery of ornate ships and humor encumbered with conflicting descriptors, (‘crabbed,‘ ‘ambrosial,‘ ‘complacency‘), and the strange conjectural pairing of “testudinal dismissals“ with its reference to turtles (what is it to be dismissed by a turtle?). “Luff,” a nautical term meaning to sail closer into the wind. This, it would appear, is what the poet is doing: sailing closer into the forces of language, the vagaries of words.

With the equational line “discover = savour” Heller Levinson reveals another quality pertinent to his writing which is its sensuality. The coupling of intellectual knowledge, the act of discovery tantamount to a delight in tasting something, to ‘savour’ (it’s interesting that Heller Levinson preserves the French spelling), clearly suggests an engagement with the world that is as libidinal as it is spry, primal as a “philological claw.”

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


October is where summer goes to die.

Die slowly. Lingeringly. Languidly. Sumptuously.

Green leaves the leaves. They turn dry and crinkly and take on those magnificent hues of death: burnt orange, saffron, and old gold.

Big bristly burrs of chestnut drop, thudding on the hoods of cars, smashing on asphalt. Collecting in the curbs where Laotians and Cambodians and Koreans and Vietnamese poke through looking for specimens that promise a creamy white flesh nestled inside the peel. The taste of them is crunchy and mildly bitter with a smoky aftertaste. They can season almost any meal. Here in Seattle they are considered delicacies (an 8 oz. jar of chestnuts can sell as much as $10 to $20 dollars), and people will spend hours searching for promising samples on Bigelow, which was once lined with so many chestnuts the branches arched over the street providing a lush, luxurious shade. Many have recently died. The ranks of chestnut hunters has thinned.

In “Ode To A Chestnut On The Ground,” Pablo Neruda writes: “From bristly foliage you fell / complete, polished wood, gleaming mahogany, / as perfect / as a violin newly / born of the treetops, / that falling / offers its sealed-in gifts, / the hidden sweetness / that grew in secret / amid birds and leaves, / a model of form, / kin to wood and flour, / an oval instrument / that holds within it / intact delight, an edible rose.”

Toward mid-October the iconography of death begins to appear. Ghosts, witches, zombies, and demons. Huge spider webs with giant bristling spiders at their center. Skulls and rags festoon porches. Gravestones appear on lawns strewn with maple and oak and walnut leaves.

Yesterday Roberta and I went to Champion’s, a local costume supplier. Wizards and witches and an alluring femme fatale in a gown of sparkly, scintillating red gazed out from the front display window. At the center, rising from a block of skulls, the devil himself rose muscularly and red, a merciless face of cruelty nailing us with its unabashed sovereignty of evil.

I gazed at the firm torso. What was the devil doing with a bellybutton? It’s hard to imagine the devil as a fetus, a harmless little humanoid with a silly little tail and umbilical cord.

Roberta bought a red tutu and leotard. She is going to be a zombie tightrope walker at her job in the bakery. Her boss is going to be a ringmaster. Her young, thin co-worker is going to be a muscle man. Another co-worker, a young woman, is going (unwittingly, it seems) to be a bearded lady.

It surprised me to see among the skulls and skeletons for rent or for sale, a cluster of AK-47s and a rack of female breasts. Now when, exactly, did boobs become scary? Has anyone ever seen a late night movie of giant breasts attacking Manhattan? Nipples zapping people dead with squirts of milk? Attack Of The Colossal Fun Bags?

I like October, which always puzzles me, because I hate winter. Seattle winters are dreary affairs, endless days of gray, gloomy rain, drizzle, bone-chilling damp, humidity drooling down the walls and windows like the catarrhal discharge of a distempered sky.

What is it about this month that appeals to me? The cooler temperatures are often a relief after a sweltering summer, but this year’s summer was hardly a summer at all. It was cold and rainy. More like a winter than a summer. I miss the summer of two years ago when temperatures stayed in the upper 90s and one day reached 104. Now that’s a summer.

There are odors of freshly rotted fruit that I find strangely appealing, and the quiet drama of transition itself is alluring. Schools are in full session, so the streets and parks are quieter. And October also has the special appeal of daylight savings, when an hour is regained, clocks set back for a lovely, voluptuous stretch of extra sleep.

But what I like best are the monsters and goblins. These playful little enactments of death and the afterlife. Of things that are dead, that aren’t quite dead yet.

This fall has the special addition of being an election year. Which means we are surrounded by actual zombies. Glenn Beck. Sarah Palin. Christine O’Donnell. Sharon Angle. Who are these people? What rock did they crawl out from? Did they ride in on some asteroid, some tea party comet? Is earth being bombarded by stupid rays from Mars?

Every time I hear Sarah Palin’s screechy voice on the radio I feel my brain go numb, as if someone had just plunged 10 cc’s of Novocain into it. How is it possible to go into public and say such insanely stupid things? “When 900 years old you reach, look as good you will not,” “we’re starting to really kind of rear the head of abuse,” “Nuclear weaponry, of course, would be the be-all, end-all of just too many people in too many parts of our planet,” “with the impacts of climate change, what we can do about that, as governor, I was the first governor to form a climate change subcabinet to start dealing with the impacts.”

How is it humanly possible that someone this crass, stupid, and empty-headed can campaign for president, garner so much media attention, and occupy high government office? What has happened to the world? Are we living in some sort of bizarre, parallel universe where ignorance is applauded and intellectual achievement is vilified?

Something is broken. Something vital to the human community is broken. “Everybody knows the dice are loaded,” sings Leonard Cohen, “everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.”

And so, with what may be a Republican majority again in the Senate and House of Representatives, the world rolls inexorably into another winter.

But I hope not. It would be nice if the Democrats got the message. No more foreign wars. And please, can we at least begin to do something about climate change? And education? And our crumbling infrastructure?

I hope, too, that if we have another winter of heavy snow such as that of several years ago, when walking just one inch on the surface of the sidewalk required a maneuver of firm, careful, adaptable balance, the mayor has enough sense to salt the streets.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Dear A. Lien

Let me describe life on our planet.

Everything on our planet has a name, including our planet, which is called Earth. The names are developed out of a substance called language, which is an amalgam of sounds. Each sound has a meaning. A meaning is a significance. A significance is a meaning. I am going in circles. I don’t know how to tell you what a meaning is.

The revolutions of our planet are divided into time. Time is a form of sandwich. Each component of the sandwich is nestled between night and day, which enclose it like slices of bread. There are minutes, hours, and seconds. Seconds are tiny, like sesame seeds. Minutes are a little larger. Think of them as pickles. Hours are long and big. Think of them as pastrami. Or ham. Everything else is lettuce.

We like to put our sensations into art. Make art of what we feel. We meaning humans. The other animals are happy just to eat and sleep. But humans need art.

Some people paint. Some people write. Some people dance. Some people sing. Some people sing and dance and write and paint. And some people make shapes out of clay and stone. There are even some people who artfully fold napkins into convoluted forms that humor our hunger with their vaginal folds.

You may wonder what art is. You may not have art on your planet. Art is to life what flavor is to food. It is a vital superfluity. We don’t need it; therefore we need it. We need to need what we don’t need. Otherwise life is pointless. We struggle, we fight, we grub for food and attention, we age, we wrinkle, we die. Art makes this palatable. It is our immunity against futility.

One might begin to make art by smearing paint onto the surface of a canvas with an intention to twisting and distorting reality in order to arrive at a higher truth, keener perception, deeper insight. The organs of perception are not enough in themselves. The eyes are balls of jelly. There are nerves behind them that lead into the brain, where thoughts form. Dreams and ideals. Dissatisfactions and hypothetical arguments.

It is possible to make a great amount of wealth in painting. But you must die first. Living artists do not make as much money as dead artists.

Except for the people that dance and sing. They make tons of money. Alive. They live in mansions, appear on TV, and get angry when photographers take their picture.

TV is a system for transporting images through the air. This is done electronically. The images are sent as dots and spread in lines across a screen. The effect is riveting. Hypnotizing. Hard to take your eyes off of it, even when the images are not saying anything of interest, or making jokes about human biology, sex and defecation. Sex and defecation are of supreme interest to humans. They are a perpetual amusement.

People who sing and dance like to be seen on TV, but do not like it when photographers take their picture unexpectedly, such as throwing a telephone at a hotel concierge, or washing their hair at an ashram.

Our planet is small, but amiable. It’s round, like most planets, with two poles, five oceans, seven continents, 18,995 islands, countless rivers, countless lakes, 1,511 active volcanoes, approximately four billion mismatched socks and a greasy spoon, all of it in elliptical orbit around a single star, which we call a sun. It confuses people if you call it a star.

I live in a one-bedroom apartment. The walls have been freshly painted misty rose and papaya whip.

I have a wife named Alessandra. She decorates cakes and writes poetry.

A cake is a form of food. It is soft and crumbly and full of sugar. Sugar is a sweet crystalline carbohydrate. It radiates the mouth with happiness and joy. Unfortunately, it must be consumed in moderation, as it has a tendency to make people fat. There are a lot of fat people on planet earth.

Poetry is a food for the mind. It used to be delivered orally, but now it is mostly written on paper. It cannot be turned on like a faucet, but must be wrestled into existence. It is difficult to create, and difficult to ingest. It is an engine of words on a chassis of lips. The mind sips at its waters, and the reflections waver. Gargoyles look up from below. Knives of sound break the air into a thousand shards of trembling reality.

Here on earth we distinguish that which is false from that which is true and call it reality. The difficulty resides in separating the false from what is true. Sometimes what is true is embedded in what is false and what is false is embedded in what is true. And sometimes there is more truth in a lie than lies in a truth. Truth is slippery, being subject to human perception, which has its limits, and can be easily manipulated. Contemplative immersion can bring us closest to that which is immanent in the world, the sense of the divine, shall we say, which some people call God, an invisible, all-powerful force which they prefer to think of as inhabiting the sky. Others find this divinity in themselves, and in everything around them. By speaking, it becomes something which moves in itself. That is to say it emerges and makes itself known in strange places and on odd occasions.

This dynamic of immanence is, in a sense, an encapsulation of what art is. A universe in a drop of paint, a divination in a deviation.

I also have a cat who likes to chew on my hand. A hand is an appendage that hangs from the arm, which is similar to the branch on a tree. There are five fingers on each hand which, when splayed, resembles the rays of a star.

Write when you get a chance. I look forward to hearing from you.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Baked In Indigo

Time to put something on the canvas. Just some tuna birds, many of them leaning. The bazaar pumps a universe into view. I am feeling abstract. This causes resonance to arrive in the shape of a bubbly mind.

A trapeze swings in this hair I have on my head. It flavors push-ups with holes. A nailing inward can pull raspberries toward brightness. The palpable lyric of a creamy song murmurs exaltation. Euclid grows a new feeling in the interaction.

A penumbra agrees to envy eating. The farm is sticky, and spoons the bumps. The maple elevator pauses in concentration exhibiting imponderable peculiarities. There is joy in squeezing an accordion. A summer which calculus corners in Portugal.

Tin with wood for the oath drug. A spectral hive which keys the pulse. Energy’s philodendron hinting at rattles, and African spices. The new job requires metamorphism. Sorcery and letters. The tea describes heat with a tender science.

Oboe to burn with a ghost. Deliverance is almost confessed until the components are chained. There are wet paintings between that history. Binoculars stimulated by your mind jerked through a granite atmosphere. The shoulder is incidental to the spine, as are the wings, and perceptions are balls.

The infinite greeting of any ambiguity might be clearer in tilted bones. It steams in elemental Max Jacob. Transformations have machines for these vowels. Oppose the memorials. Peg the mountain in words to a beating heart.

Zinc begins the eyes. Know your events. A hugged honesty embarks on skulls. A cloud was that pushed despair. Its edge and structure exceeding the swallows inside its finger.

If the studio cracks at your lines, the swans will call in hunger. There is invention, or cooking, imposed on declension. Virtuosity would pull it for harmony, but the blood is clumsy. A crow in syntax that heaves lace in hibachi handsprings. Grebes which comply in sunlight.

The vowel is emphatic in its engine of soup. Envy is expansive in the way it contracts, a paradox visiting itself, solving its sheer rescue with language. By that I mean nails. A knot of chiaroscuro muscle curled in red. The parable earns a simulacrum then.

The details push themselves between these words. Hunger dwells on the canvas to feature its open throats. A book bulb washes the maneuver. This gluttonous table and its incongruities misinterpret their surface as struts. An orchard pushed out of summer and puffed up the escalator concludes the gantry, a Braque buckled to the boat.

Form can sanguine to sandstone. Experience the opium aggressively merely to caulk its indication. A plot of exhibition will soothe that flow. This alters fog when the others are lost. Space itself is ugly the piano serves to excite.

Time chains itself behind a brush. Its components pulse charcoal, or cars. The spoon of paint lags after construction. There is, meanwhile, a stove to assemble by spirit. Oysters the cartwheels put between the eyes.

The chronicle gets thrilling in its view of heat. It feathers, or presses, those inside. Cézanne carries introversion to a maximal wallet of ocher and brown. The bleeding is fenced, then initiated by swimming. Frame and delectation are therefore a harness to posterity.

Sugar is quixotic, a trapeze for Bach. A skin of bashful Byzantine anticipates sound. The spoon is long and riveting. Now beams the syntax. It cries for suppleness and roads.

The garnish on beauty is embryonic. Engine for a machine vertiginously spinning this collar stud. Sheer being exceeds the silt. Buffalo Bill and a hungry compilation sipping structure from a basket of drawers. The glockenspiel is shaken by an oath of cardboard.

Heft imposes a severity on the flavor of today’s gravity. Later, January will pull an icicle out of a stillborn desire, the way it always has, always does. Butter is just another box for yellow. Thought turns green, and crackles, blossoming into visibility. The mirrors meet our eyes in a feather of rain.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

I Forget

I forget why blood is blue in the body but red when it comes out.

I forget the mineral components of the human body.

I forget how it felt to be a small, unrecognizable organism floating in the amniotic fluid of a woman’s body.

I forget the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma, (I’m Only Bleeding).”

I forget the formula for converting centigrade to Fahrenheit.

I forget to remember to forget the things that I want to forget.

I forget what I am doing at the cash machine. Yesterday I went to the cash machine outside of University Bookstore on University Avenue to take out $100 dollars to renew my library card at the University of Washington. There were two people behind me, waiting in line. I inserted my bank card, punched in my pin number, requested a receipt, and waited. The machine made a ding sound, and $100 dollars was gently pushed out, followed by another ding, and a receipt. I waited for my card to come out, but it didn’t come out. I looked for a button to push. I pressed the cancel button. Nothing happened. I turned around. I explained to the young man behind me that my card would not come out. He said you should report that. I tried again. I checked my wallet. My card was back in my wallet. How did that happen? I had no memory at all of retrieving my card and putting it in my wallet. It seemed like a magic trick. I turned, and as I slowly walked away, I mumbled to the young man behind me, go ahead, my card is here. I don’t think he heard me. He looked a little puzzled. I don’t know if he tried putting his card in the machine. I walked away feeling acutely embarrassed.

I forget when Charlemagne ruled Europe.

I forget everything I learned in high school geometry. But I do know how to tell the difference between a circle and a square.

I forget the name of the Mexican restaurant I lived behind in a small Airstream trailer in Arcata, California, for two weeks. The owner of the trailer, a wizened old man named Rocco who grew a large plot of potatoes, wore a welder’s cap, and always had a drip of snot hanging fro m his nose, ran water from the Mexican restaurant, which, as it turned out, was illegal. The Arcata Water Department shut the water off without telling me. I went to their office and told them I was renting the trailer, and that I had paid my rent for the month. The men behind the counter looked at me with utter indifference, shrugged their shoulders, and said there was nothing that could be done. I forfeited the last two weeks and went to stay with a friend.

I forget where Roberta put my favorite running T-shirt. She held it up and showed it to me and told me where she was going to put it, but now I can’t remember.

I forget at what moment it occurred to me that I was different than other people and headed squarely toward being a bohemian. But is that how people become bohemian? I don’t remember making a conscious choice. I just remember that at some point I wasn’t adjusting to society as successfully or as smoothly as other people, nor did I want to.

I forget the first time I recognized what a word meant.

I forget the first time I recognized that people were using words to communicate.

I forget the first record I bought. I remember listening to Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song” over and over again when I was about eight or nine, but that record belonged to a friend across the street.

I forget the name of the actor who played the rabbi who was going blind in Woody Allen’s Crimes And Misdemeanors. He was one of my favorite actors, and I continually forget his name. He also played Robert Oppenheimer for a series featured on PBS in the 80s about the development of the atom bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and the man who had run unsuccessfully for president who was sightseeing Mont St. Michel with John Heard and Liv Ullman in the movie Mindwalk.

Sam Waterston.

I forget the first time I lied to someone. What were the circumstances? What was my motivation? How had I felt? Did I even know what a lie was?

I forget what it was that I meant to do today.

I forget how to tie a tie. And so I wear a bolo tie.

I forget the names of my upstairs neighbors. But I do remember the name of their dog.

I forget what five of the ten keys on my key chain are for. They may be for doors or drawers that no longer exist.

I forget how to make potato soup. The one thing I used to know how to cook. Apart from hamburger.

I forget what causes hiccups. Or warts. Or kidney stones. Or leg cramps. Or gout.

I forget what I was going to Google.

I forget what it feels like to be drunk.

I forget what I was going to say next.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

I Remember (after Joe Brainard)

I remember my first apartment in Seattle. It was a huge studio apartment on Fifteenth Street on Capitol Hill, less than a block from the Canterbury Inn, with a large kitchen, a big stone fireplace, and a substantial living room, for $125 a month. I rented it from an Austrian chef. The previous tenant was a photographer who must have splashed some chemicals on the wall. For which I got blamed. But I still got my deposit back. A fabulous used bookstore, Horizon Books, was just a couple of blocks down the street. It is where, in 1975, I discovered Great Balls Of Fire by Ron Padgett and Many Happy Returns, by Ted Berrigan.

I remember how the floorboards at Horizon Books used to creak, and the muffled sound of footsteps on old wood, and the smell of old paper and leather, and people quietly musing.

I remember the smell of the orchards in San José, California, in the fall of 1968. It was a strong odor, the smell of fallen fruit, pears or apricots, I can’t remember. It was sweet and acrid and strangely melancholic.

I remember marching against the war in Viet Nam in San Francisco in 1970, and seeing Allen Ginsberg walk by, dressed in white pajamas, bearded and bespectacled, and being too frozen with awe to introduce myself.

I remember collecting pop bottle caps in the 50s and keeping them in a cigar box. I liked the odor of tobacco in the box, and the Dutch painting, on the underside of the cover, of a group of men in black hats and coats with white frilly collars.

I remember my grand-uncle Carl showing me how to make an incision on the white belly of a fish and pull out the organs and intestines. It was then that I decided to get all my food at the grocery store.

I remember the parlor of my grandmother in North Dakota, the old player piano and its roll of punctured paper, the photograph of a deer jumping a fallen log in the Turtle Mountains that lit up from behind, the gun rack and cuckoo clock that hung over the TV. All those Hamms beer commercials with the bear fishing from a canoe.

I remember the smell of sage on the prairie, and listening to Steppenwolf on a transistor radio broadcast from nearby Winnipeg. “Born To Be Wild” amid a herd of cows.

I remember reading Dostoevski’s The Idiot in a hotel room in Minot in 1968. And Emily Dickinson at the Minot Public Library while waiting to catch a bus to Bottineau. And reading An Anthology Of French Poetry From Nerval To Valery In English Translation when two policemen boarded the bus to check for I.D. and ask where I was going. My hair was long and I was wearing dark sunglasses, black shirt, red bandana and jeans. I was a bad-ass French symbolist cowboy. I even remember the particular poem I was reading when the cops came down the aisle of the bus. “The Toad,” by Tristan Corbière.

I remember attending a party by the Green River near Auburn, Washington, at which a hot air balloonist went up and down all day and into the night giving people rides. It was surreal and beautiful when it became illumined at night, a giant balloon with red and white stripes. I got in line too late to get a ride, which was disappointing. But many years later I remembered I am frightened of heights so that it is just as well I didn’t go up in that little basket. It gives me the willies to think about it.

I remember the first time I made a parachute jump at age 16, a birthday present from my father. I spent several hours jumping off oil drums to practice landing. I was instructed to avoid looking at the ground when I got close to landing. I remember letting go of the wing struts and falling and feeling something scrape against my neck which turned out to be one of the toggles for collapsing the chute in order to get it to turn. There was a one-way radio and the men on the ground kept shouting at me to pull the toggle. But the toggle was gone. I ended up missing the entire field and nearly swinging into some telephone lines and hitting a farmer as he ploughed his field in a tractor. No wonder I am afraid of heights.

I remember being 18, but I do not remember being 19.

I remember coming down with a bad case of the flu in Avignon, France, and looking out the window from the bed of my hotel room to see gypsies in their campers. It was the first time I had seen actual gypsies and realized that they were actual people and not just people singing in the opera.

I remember the otter of a friend’s ex-wife reaching into my pocket to get my keys and feeling somewhat nervous, which the otter must have sensed, because he bit me. Not a serious bite. Just a little bite to let me know he was irritated by my impatience. The otter had a pool in the laundry room, the kind of inflatable pool for little kids to play in.

I remember floating down the Wenatchee River in early April, back in the 80s, with a friend who had just trained to be a river guide for white water river rafting, and freezing to death in my wet suit. Which, I discovered, neither keeps you warm or dry. I remember standing in a parking lot in front of an apartment complex in broad daylight, hopping around as I struggled to get the damn thing off, and into the car, to get the heater going. And how wonderful it felt when the heater finally did get going and began kicking out some deliciously warm air.

I remember meeting Ron Padgett for the first time at DiRoberti’s Bakery on First Avenue in lower Manhattan, in March, 2001, and then, not more than three days later, after arriving home in Seattle, renting the movie Addicted To Love and seeing Matthew Broderick, Meg Ryan, and Maureen Stapleton sitting at DiRoberti’s at what could have been our table.

I remember the desk where I spent much of my time discovering Blake and Coleridge and Keats and Wordsworth at the Hotel Arcata in 1969. It abutted the wall, which was a pale yellow. Van Gogh’s painting of a gypsy wagon hung on the wall over my bed to my left, and to my right was a little sink for shaving and brushing my teeth. The bathroom, where I took my showers, was far down the hall. It was odd walking in the hall wrapped in a towel.

I remember my first visit to a nude beach in California, on a rather chilly, rather breezy day, and seeing a group of nude people taking shelter under a large outcropping of rock, and how closely they resembled a species of ape, and realizing, like it or not, it was my fellow species.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Software In The Fast Lane

Portrait Of The Poet As An Engineer, poems by Maged Zaher
Pressed Wafer, 2009.

Maged is from Cairo, Egypt. He is a large man with rich black hair that radiates from his head in filamentary exuberance, and his eyes are rich and dark like the khol-rimmed eyes of the pharoahs. His poetry is delightful, full of exuberance, humor, keen intelligence, giddy non sequiturs and wildly imaginative scenarios. It reminds me a great deal of Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and Ted Berrigan. His accent is thick, which lends a very peculiar air to his poetry, at once exotic and droll, foreign and familiar.

I once asked Maged if he wrote in Arabic first, then translated it into English, or if he simply wrote in English. He said he wrote in English. Written Arabic is highly formal, with fixed constraints, and does not lend itself to a conversational style. English does. English is a supple language, by comparison to many languages, accommodating spontaneous outbursts as well as subtle distinctions. Perhaps it is because English itself is a polyglot, an amalgam of so many other tongues, so many other sounds and syllables, that it is so pliable, so adaptable, so indulging.

The poems in Portrait Of The Poet As An Engineer make this apparent. They propose situations of arch perplexity, a tumult of possibility, in which conflicting histories and desires come together to create volatile dilemmas. Sometimes there is a partial resolution, sometimes not. Sometimes there is advice, couched in the language of aphorism, but most often that advice is delivered tongue-in-cheek. For instance, in the prose poem “A Trap For St. Augustine,”

We learn about madness: about words walking as ghosts. The choice of verb tense will control your shadows and the extent of what you can promise your family. Weekend sex will not turn into geography, tell them that, and tell them that you are dead to the world, Augustine, and go on the wagon.

But remember that the two paths are not as parallel as you think. So spread the dense metaphor over multiple pages. (We might finally convince someone of heaven.)

St. Augustine (a.k.a. Augustine of Hippo), who was born in Souk Ahras, Algeria in 354 near the border to present-day Tunisia, and was connected by ancestry to the Berbers, is famous for his final resolve to give up a life of unbridled hedonism and embrace the monastic life as an ascetic, Christian theologian. Hence, the phrases “weekend sex” and “go on the wagon” have pertinence. The two paths referred to could be the life of the flesh versus the life of the spirit, the life of pleasure versus the life of abstinence, or the life of Christianity versus the pagan life of the Roman. It could be any of these things. Augustine converted to Christianity at a time when his career in the Roman empire was beginning to flourish. He occupied the position of professor of rhetoric for the imperial court at Milan, a position which frequently led to high political station. His switch to Christianity, the result of personal crisis, was influenced by the exhortations of his mother, Monica. Maged’s poem incorporates these conflicts in a language that is deceptively light and frivolous. But at its core is a dilemma of seething conviction. The “dense metaphor” of Christianity that Augustine worked so earnestly to spread throughout the Roman empire is collapsed in a concluding, parenthetical remark: “(We might finally convince someone of heaven).”

The title of Maged’s collection is significant: he is, indeed, a software engineer. In 1995, he led the team that did the analysis of the seismic effect on the Meridian high rise hotel in Giza, Egypt, and in 1998 he earned a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Akron, Ohio. The world of the software engineer is more foreign to me than the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. This became glaringly apparent while recently watching the movie The Social Network, in which Jesse Eisenberg’s best friend Eduardo Saverin, dashes out a complex algorithm on the window of their Harvard dorm room. I looked at this in awe: how is it humanly possible for anyone to do such things? And what the hell is an algorithm, anyway? I understood, at best, half of what was transpiring in the movie. Subtitles may have helped, I don’t know. All I know is that that world and all the money that goes with it is more remote to me than the wedge-shaped cuneiforms written on Sumerian pottery.

Fortunately, Maged’s allusions to this world are accessible. There is little, if any, techno-speak. It is the more social aspects that are highlighted, often in oblique, fragmented phrases; references to Internet cafés, cyber-proletariats, hierarchies of production. I don’t get the impression that Maged’s immersion in this world is anything at all like the art world Frank O’Hara moved in and brought to his poetry; O’Hara had real passion for art. Maged’s passion is for poetry; his feelings for the data flow diagrams and feasibility studies of software engineering are less apparent. His allusions to this world are neutral; his attitude is neither mocking nor caustic, nor does it seem to resemble the creatively stifling, Kafka-esque world of Dilbert. He appears to be reasonably happy and well-adjusted in his profession; poetry is not escape, but an adjunct. Poetry may be his true passion, but it would be misleading to say that it is his only passion.

In “My Software Mission,” a rather lengthy poem of eight pages, Maged asks, in a line that sounds a lot like O’Hara, “Why should I give up my benign neurosis?” The poem is too slippery, moves too fast to provide an answer, which would be impossible. There can be no single answer. Its world is too complex, its propositions too volatile. It is full of mercurial conceptions, a musing charged with a hodge-podge of references plucked from the everyday and not so everyday. Overall, it has the ambience of hallucination, the feverish imagination of a college student who has stayed up all night on Dexedrine cramming for an exam. “I was hoping to see you tonight,” the narrator states in the 18th stanza of the first section,

in one of those marginalized coffee shops
but the ocean wave took the night shift
and participated in the music sales:
trains of hands and shoulders,
the body easily dismantled
so there was little we can do about our desires.

It always comes down to desire.

And death.

“The poet’s business is to be surrounded by death
instead of local politicians,” the narrator states a few lines earlier.

Why death? Because death is the ultimate reality. And politicians, local or otherwise, are practitioners of distortion, giving hope where there is none, or practicing plain deceit to gain power. They are often removed from reality. Has there ever been a poet and a politician all in the same package? Can a human being pretend to represent the wishes and drives of a certain population without being dishonest? Without resort to hypocrisy, or dissimulation? Are poets always honest? Are politicians always disingenuous?

Which brings us to the question of morality, that social glue that keeps us from killing one another. At least some of the time.

“The writer’s morality,” writes Octavio Paz, “does not lie in the subjects he deals with or the arguments he sets forth, but in his behavior toward language. In poetry, technique is another name for morality: it is not a manipulation of words but a passion and an asceticism.”

There is little doubt that Maged Zaher’s has a passion for language. The asceticism is curiously apparent in other ways. If there are two poles to the themes running throughout this collection, it is that of irreality and desire. The social world is inherently irrational, but it is the theatre where we bring our desires and work to see them fulfilled. Poetry is where we bring our desires to lose themselves in trance, in enchantment, in semantic delirium.

In “A Love Song for Paris Hilton,” Maged invites Miss Hilton to “the cyber-ghetto of experimental poets.”

That cyber-ghetto has become Facebook, a place I can well imagine Paris slumming in, when she isn’t out doing coke and rum and slamming her SUV into other SUVs. Just imagine what Paris could do with an infusion of poetry! Maged is courageous enough to give her the keys.

“The night is freckled with its stars but my language is yours, dear; my dear language is dearly yours.”

Omigod. Did I just see Paris Hilton whiz by in a metaphor?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


We live in a world of lines. Vertical lines, horizontal lines, Cartesian lines, Euclidean lines, parallel lines, perpendicular lines, headlines, topographic lines, longitudinal lines, latitudinal lines, straight lines, curved lines, hendecasyllabic, alexandrine, and Sapphic lines.

Lines at the bank, lines at the grocery store, lines to see a popular movie, lines to go on a ride.

Lines on fingernails, lines on the highway, lines at Disneyland, lines on maps, lines on hats, lines on dollar signs, lines in webs, lines in ebbs, lines around the eyes, lines around the mouth, lines around the neck, lines around the lips, lines stretching back five million years, wavy lines moving left to right, lines leaping and soaring into the sky, lines teeming with angst, lines flowing into trunk lines, lines for moving and storage, lines humming with volts, lines tumbling around in a Celtic tattoo.

There is no official record for the world’s longest line, though people have claimed to stand in line 12 hours to buy an iPhone, 15 minutes to use the bathroom at Wal Mart, two days to obtain a section 8 housing application in the heat of Atlanta, Georgia, five hours to get a shot of the H1N1 vaccine in Fairfax County, Virginia, 12 hours to audition for the reality game show Biggest Loser, in which obese people compete for a prize by losing weight, and 16 hours to buy a Playstation 3 to resell on eBay or Craigslist for a sizeable profit.

Two days in scorching heat outside Rockefeller Plaza to see Lady Gaga on the Today show.

Three days in Houston for assistance from Red Cross, following Katrina.

Lines are idealizations of objects that do not exist. They have no width nor height and are considered to be infinitely long.

A line is tangent to itself. A line touches itself at all points.

A line of poetry is a unit of language in which the form of the poem evolves into a highly structured entity, or loose confederation of lines congealed in the glow of a moment, or nimbly driven by intuitive impulses.

A sonnet is fourteen lines. A sestina is 39 lines organized in six six-line stanzas followed by a tercet.

A stanza is a grouping of lines, set off by a space.

“Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, is 373 lines long, “Every little living nerve / That from bitter words did swerve / Round the tortured lips and brow, / Are like sapless leaflets now / Frozen upon December’s bough.”

Stripping the line in fly fishing means retrieving the line without using the reel.

A position line, in celestial navigation, is a line that can be identified on a nautical chart or aeronautical chart and by observation out on the surface of the earth. It is often a circle assumed to be a straight line, representing a circumference of space too large to plot on a chart.

A leading line is a line formed by two or more marks indicating safe passage through a shallow or dangerous channel. The marks are often seen by estuaries and harbors, and will consist of a tower or scaffolding painted bright, easy to spot colors.

The horizon line is the line that divides earth from the sky. The part of the sea closest to the horizon line is called the offing.

What a delightful word.

In the captain’s log of Lord Horatio Nelson, in an entry dated June 26th, 1796, we find this sentence: “Found at anchor His Majesty’s Ship the Inconstant, the Gorgon and Sincere, with a Convoy in the Offing.”

And in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is the sentence “The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway… flowed sombre under an overcast sky.”

Johnny Cash’s song “Walk The Line” was written backstage one night in 1956 in Gladewater, Texas, shortly after getting married. It was originally recorded at Sun Studio on April 2nd, 1956, and spent six weeks at the top spot on the U.S. country Juke Box charts, crossed over and reached number nineteen on the pop music charts. Cash said he hummed during the song to find his pitch, since the song required changing keys several times.

I’m no good at all at spotting a fast line at the grocery store. I look for elderly women armed with coupons, bratty kids that can’t make up their minds, cartloads of groceries, someone pondering a label with a look of earnest inquiry, all the usual symptoms, clear-cut signs of an interminably slow line. I am scrupulous. But I am always fooled. My precautions go awry. As soon as a complication emerges, the obvious choice is to move to another line. But I don’t. I can’t. I feel compelled to continue my loyalty to that line, on the assumption that if I leave, abort my position, and move to another line, I will encounter a fresh set of complications. Fate will intervene. My caprice will be penalized. And so I end up standing in that particular line for a much longer time than the other lines, even when I see the people who entered my line, then moved to another line, get through the check stand faster, way faster, absurdly faster, I stay committed to my line, thinking of it as an investment of my time, a commitment I am unwilling to let go of, simply because I have withstood its complications up to that point, its unforeseen intricacies and entanglements, believing, earnestly, that I deserve a pay-off, as if my loyalty to the line, my willingness to accept my destiny, to surrender my velleity to the vagaries of fate, needed some form of compensation, even if that compensation, whatever form it may take, which may simply be getting to the check stand at last, ends by consuming more time than it would have had I been less stubborn, had sighed, shrugged, given up, and moved to another line.

The poverty line in the U.S. is $22,000 a year for a family of four. Severe poverty is half of that, $11,000 per year for a family of four. It is now 6.3 per cent of the population, or 18,900,000 people.

Hamlet, at 1,422, has the most lines of any character in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Richard, the duke of Gloucester, at 1,124, has the second most. Iago clocks in with 1,097. Henry V 1,025. Othello 860. Coriolanus 809.

When we help someone, we say we “throw them a line.”

When we misbehave, or commit a faux pas, or break a taboo, or point a gun at a bank teller, we cross the line.

The proverbial line. The line that, once you cross it, points you in a direction you did not expect. Line of fire, or line of fate.


Line of thinking. Line of scrimmage. Line of argument. Line of blood. Lines of the Nazca desert.

Line of putt. Line of work. Line of lividity. Line of questioning. Line of command. Line of thrust. Line of handbags. Line of gravity. Line of magnetic force.

Some lines are imaginary. These lines are called borders. They divide Arkansas from Texas, Germany from France, Afghanistan from Pakistan.

Spectral lines are dark or bright lines in a continuous spectrum. Their luminosity results from an excess or deficiency of photons in a narrow frequency range. They are emitted by elements and chemicals associated with a particular spectrum, and so can be used to identify the compositions of planetary atmospheres and the velocity of stars.

Is there such a thing is as a good pick up line, or is it simply the chimera of lonely young men?

The dumbest, though, would have to be: “did you fart? Because you just blew me away.”

I don’t think that one would go over well.

Though I don’t see “wish you were DSL so I could get high-speed access,” being much better.

What do line of credit, line of inquiry, line of duty, line of sight, line of coke, and line of succession all have in common?

Besides the word line?

All suggest a way of being, and occupying a space, in the social realm.

A line, said Paul Klee, is a dot out for a walk.

The Russians dashed on towards that thin redline streak tipped with a line of steel, said Sir William Howard Russell in describing the British infantry at Balaklava for The Times of London, in October, 1854.

There is an endless variety in what we think of as a line. A line can be long, or short, or dangerous, or clogged.

Filamentary, nickeliferous, frilly, or non-existent.

A dragline is used for dragging. A frozen sump pump line can be problematic. A good tagline can be worth its weight in gold.

Lines can be used to convey movement and create texture. Adjust alignment, divide space, deduce properties of charge and force, direct the eye to a focal point, tie a boat in place, add clarity, measure central venous pressure, form patterns, or screen hybridomas for the production of monoclonal antibodies that inhibit factor-dependent proliferation.

Palmists generally look at the heart line first. It is found at the top of the palm, under the fingers, and is read starting from the edge of the palm under the little finger towards the thumb. It is believed to indicate matters of the heart, emotional stability and romantic prospects.

A chained heart line is not good. It indicates potential cardiac trouble.

This is not the end of the line.

This is the end of the line.

Or it would be.

If it weren’t for the above line.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Abstract Machine

Drift for apples when enhancing the hirsute. Bronze but outward. The path is too almond to sketch wildcats. The trestle crossing wreckage. The mosquitoes finding mustard and gasoline.

The pronoun explodes by the papier collé elevation. Depth which nutmegs a scratch. Piles such aerodrome as ear ever heard or success ever suckled.

The odor moistened and the bend was eluded. A landscape your haircut must pinch is therefore asymmetrical. General. Chartreuse. Promiscuous.

Picasso done those violins to conceits of carve. A pumped thumb would stream a money to sexual affection if the outline could be deciphered as a cord, or flagpole.

The intriguing resistance had an unprecedented deliverance. Beginning in coordinates. Worlds in knives. Apollinaire among the astronomers. Fangs.

An anarchic palette of kaolin elevates the deformation of escrow. Fiber and cloth and destiny. Up is a lyrical modification. A palette between massive teeming ideas. Of buffalo. Of L’Estaque. Of warm hobnobbing plasma.

Talking is galactic being a chin is thrilling. The heart agrees to tidepool its subtleties. Equip Cubism with heartwood. Plead offices of myriad thesis. A new emotion simmering in the airport from bumps or elbows. Garments. Phantoms. Parrots.

Eat a moment. Cartwheels painted with adjectives. Opium swans represented in glass. Intestines. Aluminum cooks distance below those alleys that prickle with illegibility. Bristling knives gurgle the chain to azaleas. Fierce siege. Reflection.

Up halibut. An eloquent expression pinned to a stunned driver does its fingers in pink. Bang! Bang!

Red bends to pungency. The milieu is implicated in maroon. Stirring with civet. A ghost spitting goldfish. A private oak poking the sky to stars.

Spectral apples reflect the realism of straw. The phantom drags a canvas. Invisible mines throughout the compass bite the leaning trees like you fall into a genetic incentive to experience rubber.

The structural gut was a severity to the biology of roots wherein an old pretzel burns by anthologizing shattered denial. Galloping pages of western spark. Cool secrets. Squeezed from audacity. Like grease.

Fickle irritations begin the chemistry of passion. The pyramids are ripe. Tea darned with yellow wool. Raspberries forked between whispers.

Ooze feeling as burning words. Journey. The sternum dollars cluttered among the stars are the flotsam of a previous thought. Blots embark in armadillos. Gunned engines. Brushes. Stimulating pains. Elegies.

A banana that stoves its art is admired in lines. An aesthetic in floating was glimpsed through a force of soda. Stilts. A moral indicative under a dark intonation.

Profligate to another is a garden with indentations menstruating bugs. Circles. Evolutions of heaven heaving with maturity. I would rather have a winter in my solution than a solace in my salon. Violins are instinct with propinquity. Pianos are more logarithmic. Like jackknives.

Dabs. Daubs. Dadoes. Wisdom’s paraphernalia between nouns. The propane darting a blue flame.

Cured heart. Skulk. Laughing brush. Anger.

Yellow conjures revelation by cube in the Louvre. Knots in space draw cement by opening Technicolor gargoyles too hard to puff into yolk. Crustaceans indicate hunger by clicking consonants. Chiaroscuro is absurdly absent. A nascent leg kicks Cézanne into the world.

Mahogany France. Steam. Abstract machine. Feeling. Insects color a rattan to quicker crackling than a palpable fish treads space with its fingers. Brocade, propelled outward, has time for ambiguity. Each blaze on the water redeems a clear cynosure with a compass and a straw.

The migration proceeds with a calliope.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Here It Isn't

Here it isn’t: the poem I can never write. I cannot write it because it cannot be written. It isn’t made of words. Or thoughts or dreams or gravity or gravy. Or denotations or detonations or combinations or nebulas of stars. Gravity in gravy or space with a consonance of spice. It has no metaphors or phantoms. No semaphores or rivers. It is a poem of nothing. It has nothing in it. The poem itself is nothing. It does not exist. It means nothing, promises nothing, leads to nothing, professes nothing.

Think of Wyoming. The clouds, the air, the wind, the rocks, the plants, the birds, the horses, the roads. Now remove everything from your mind. Remove Wyoming from your mind. Sweep it all out. Sweep it clean from your mind. Everything. Bridles. Stirrups. Ropes. Corrals. Lassoes. Cliffs. Buttes. Canyons. The poem is not Wyoming. It is not even Death Valley.

The poem does not exist. If it had an existence, it would no longer be the poem that it would be if it was a poem made of words. A poem with an existence. A poem that meant something. A poem with feelings and fingers and eagerness and possibly an accordion. This is not that poem. If it was that poem, it could not be that poem, because it would have an existence, it would have these words making it exist, squeezing the accordion, pressing little pearl buttons, creating melodies and ideals. Spectral energies. Pegs. Eyes. Crows and giants. And so this is not that poem. Not the poem that cannot be written. The poem that I want to write by not writing it.

The poem of non-existence cannot exist. If it existed, its existence would rid it of non-existence, and by not existing, it would cease to exist. The act of writing such a poem would destroy that poem.

Consequently, this is not that poem, can never be that poem, however much it tries to not exist, the act of not existing causes it to exist. It undoes itself in the process of doing itself. Doing nothing. Being a poem. Not a proverb. Not a wad of leaves. Not a trunk. Not a branch. Not a web. Not a root. Not a grain. Not a knot. Not a knot in the grain. Not a knot in the bark. Not a gnosis. Not a gnomon. Not a gnu. Not that. No knots. No gnosis. No gnomon. No gnocchi. No gnat. Not even that. No nimbus. No Noh. Nothing. But not quite nothing. Never quite nothing. Always something. Something heavy. Or light. A shape. A form. A dereliction of air.