Saturday, September 30, 2006

Bookstealing Teenagers of the Apocalypse

Tomorrow night begins the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. It's a time to 'atone' for one's trangressions. It would be like an all-day once-a-year Catholic confession, except that you don't confess to anyone, but acknowledge within yourself the deeds that you wish to atone for. I really like the opening service (Kol Nidrei) mostly for its seriousness and the solemn beauty of the music/chanting. I don't resonate with the idea of asking for forgiveness before God, but acknowledge that it is a healthy thing to take stock of one's deeds of the past year and consider them in a reflective light.

In the last couple of days, a book appeared in our downstairs bathroom. I guess my eldest son put it there. I recognized it as one of the books that I stole when I was about 14 from people whose kids I was babysitting. There are four books I remember stealing when I was a young teenager. To wit:

1. The Existential Imagination. A great anthology of short stories, including work by Kafka and Beckett.
2. Psychoanalysis and the Existential Imagination.
3. & 4. The Collection Works of Shakespeare (two volume edition). This I especially liked because of the etching of a pastoral English scene on the front, all those puffy clouds, stone buildings, and rivers running through millwheels.

From almost thirty years after the event, its fascinating my choice to steal these books. Firstly, it reveals that I was a strangely precocious, nerdy, and serious 14-year old. I also remember buying Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite on cassette using a handful of silver dollars. Secondly, the idea of stealing two books on existentialism is mesmerizingly ironic. It begs the question of how I conceived of my personal moral code. I do remember thinking of all those books in these houses as a beguiling array of worlds of thought and fiction for me to discover. As far as I recall, I didn't steal anything else from any other houses. Once I did try a drink of "mead" from a bottle. Again, that was because it seemed so redolent an entry into another world, mead recalling to me probably the same time in England that the Shakespeare illustrations did.

If a kid stole a book from my shelves, would I be upset?


tree forgive me

shoehorn forgive me

five forgive me

blue sky forgive

forgive noun

forgive verb

forgive tonsillectomy of sky

replace my bones with words

& walk

replace sounds with sky




the open mouth of my sorrow

is sorrow

the closed dime of my spent troubles

is raingear when the rain

has stopped falling

instead has absolved my worry

has allowed me to dance

endowed the buckwheat of my bones

with new numbers in the lawn of peachy certitude

the certificate of silent deer

the war of the day

an amnesty of quiet

Saturday, September 16, 2006


This past week, our old poodle got sicker and sicker. It had been suffering from lymphoma. By mid-week, it was gasping for breath and its heart was beating frantically. At about 2am on Wednesday, we made the decision that we had to put it to sleep. We woke one of our sons – the one we knew would want to be there and could cope with it – and went to the vets.

The dog was my old friend, and of course I felt sad, but I was aware of all the humans I know who have suffered and are suffering. And, frankly, I was relieved that it was our dog and not my wife or children. I felt lucky that I have known little loss or grief in my life. I didn’t cry until my son started weeping, holding the dog and whispering to it.

We carried the dog home in a large coffin-like box that the vet provided for us and stowed her downstairs. As soon as she woke, Rudi, my 9 year old daughter wanted to know where the dog was, and was distressed to think that Pepper had died in the night without her. And that we didn’t take her with to be there.

The next day it rained all morning and afternoon, but by suppertime, it stopped. Ryan, my eldest son, went out back with a shovel and dug a hole. Then my younger two, Aaron and Rudi went back to enlarge the hole. They wanted to make sure that it was right.

My wife opened the box and let Rudi see the dog. They both spoke to her and patted her. We carried it out to the hole and lowered her in. Then –as is done in Jewish burials—slowly put spadefuls of earth on top of her. There is that sound of the earth falling on top of the coffin, or in this case, the dog.

All that day, I wanted to write a poem for the funeral, something that would make meaning, something that would speak for us, help my kids, and I guess make sacred this scene: my family gathered around the grave of this sort of member of the family. Or reflect how any passage from life to death is big, is connected with something completely fundamental. Of course it is. At the same time, I felt that the impulse to write something, to involve pet-loss solemnity was ridiculous.

I had once been asked to write – by Aaron when he was five and dealing with his first loss, that of his goldfish “Sharky” – a funeral poem. It was very important to him that we do something ceremonial, something ritualistic, something that would give appropriate meaning to his loss. “Dad, you’re a writer. And you play music. Please do something,” he pleaded. I wrote a poem, a blessing really, for his fish and I stood in the backyard and played something elegiac on a flute for his fish. Soon after, my grandfather died and we gathered again in nearly the same spot to plant a fruit tree in his memory.

I am ambivalent about how language, about how ceremony can express our feelings, but, particularly when standing with my family, and enacting our own family rituals, it seems right, if a bit ridiculous. At the unveiling for my grandmother (in Jewish custom, the mourners gather at the grave a year after the funeral and ‘unveil’ the headstone; until then the grave has no stone) my mother asked me to read a poem/story (“Freezer,” in my Doctor Weep) that I had written when she died. It was one of the few times when I felt that my writing spoke for others about something important and without calling attention to itself. It performed a function, it was ‘useful’ and meaningfully right for the ritual moment.

I looked at Mark Strand’s wonderful “Five Dogs” sequence from his A Blizzard of One book. Some beautiful dog-centric writing there.

For instance, here’s the first poem

I, the dog they call Spot, was about to sing. Autumn
Had come, the walks were freckled with leaves, and a tarnished
Moonlit emptiness crept over the valley floor.
I wanted to climb the poets' hill before the winter settled in;
I wanted praise the soul. My neighbor told me
Not to waste my time. Already the frost had deepened
And the north wind, trailing the whip of its own scream,
Pressed against the house, "A dog's sublimity is never news,"
He said, "what's another poet in the end?"
And I stood in the midnight valley, watching the great starfields
Flash and flower in the wished-for reaches of heaven.
That's when I, the dog they call Spot, began to sing

Still I didn’t find anything appropriate to read and instead we just shared memories of our dog. I remembered Ryan at age 3 ½ sitting beside the dog, reading him stories. And all those walks. Losing the dog was also a reminder of how we have lost those times in the life of our family. My boys aren’t little 3 and 5 anymore using plates to be the steering wheels of imaginary airplanes. It’s ten years later, and though I delight in what they are now, I have lost what they were, except to memory.


I dug a hole in the grass

my son took the spade
and dug the hole deeper
big enough for his sister

then she made the hole
big enough for him

we gathered around it
unsure of what to say
but we spoke anyway

the hole said nothing
it listened


It is interesting to observe how different elements in a poem can alter the speed at which it reads. The tempo of the poem changes, the style of movement. A processional changes into a jitterbug. Certain notational, grammatical, semantic, formal or thematic gambits can influence the rate at which the poem draws you through it. Here are two versions of a draft poem (all the poems I post on this blog are draft poems!). The second version is diverges from the first by its non-standard grammar – many of the subject/object agreements don’t. This deviant grammar (OK, it’s not too deviant) slows down the reading and creates a toothsome effect.


Chickens have no arms
Neither do chicklets

But when the moon is bright
The fingers of the ancient beaks

Revise their flickering mattress
And wisk the fearless lottery

In the swampy dust.
O arms of doubt

Jawlight of twine
Dollar signs jitter in the eyes of the thrush

We are happy here in our Beowulf helmets
Making sparks from toast

A television from an overbite.
A no-see-em in the loaf of brain

Exits from our left nostril
And hurrah we shout hurrah

We have honour in the meadhall
And the biceps of fire

Punch the air like a touchdown.
O love, joy, peace, nouns

The remembering ducks
When we have dead.


Chickens has no arms
Neither does chicklets

But when the moon are bright
The finger of the ancient beaks

Revise their flickering mattress
And wisks their fearless lotteries

In the swampy dusts.
O arms of doubt

Jawlights of twine
Dollar signs jitters in the eye of the thrush

We is happy here in our Beowulf’s helmet
Make spark from toast

television from an overbite.
Some no-see-em in the loaves of brain

Exit from our left nostril
And hurrah we shout hurrah

We honours in the meadhall
And the biceps of fire

Punches the airs like a touchdown
O love, joy, peace, noun

The remembering ducks
When we have dead.

Sunday, September 10, 2006


I wrote three little poems shortly after 9/11 and posted them to I was responding to posts by an American who felt that we shouldn’t be talking about or writing about anything else, that this single event should recontextualize everything. Of course I understood (or could only attempt to imagine) people’s horror, grief, and trauma of both the many individuals and their families who suffered and the people of NYC and the US. However, I also responded to the notion that America’s issues necessarily should define the paradigm for the rest of us. We are free to choose our paradigms. Indeed, I think we must insist on it. That doesn’t preclude compassion and understanding for others.

Where is the centre (or center) of the world? It is where each of us is standing.

As far as I understand it, the American writer was so offended by my poems (as well as posts by some others) that he left the list.

Here are the poems:

the twin towers fall

I still cannot find my sock


the trade center crumbles

people who were already dead

or will be dead

are still dead


what comes after 9/11



The meaning of the second poem has shifted as time as passed.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The Big Noise, Nations! (Psalm 2) is a fascinating site, whether the Bible is your book or not. It is a completely searchable site which has about 100 different translations of the Bible, including 21 different English versions. It is extremely interesting to compare different English versions of the text, from the modern freeverse breezy "The Message" translation to the lovely knobbly old King James. "Young's Literal Translation" makes for some intriguing circumlocutions and whatever the grammatical equivalent of neologism is.

Here's Psalm 2 in "The Message" version:

Why the big noise, nations? Why the mean plots, peoples?
Earth-leaders push for position,
Demagogues and delegates meet for summit talks,
The God-deniers, the Messiah-defiers:
"Let's get free of God!
Cast loose from Messiah!"

Here it is in King James:

1Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?

2The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed, saying,

3Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us.

4He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the LORD shall have them in derision.

5Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure.

6Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion.

And finally, in the literal translation:

1Why have nations tumultuously assembled? And do peoples meditate vanity?

2Station themselves do kings of the earth, And princes have been united together, Against Jehovah, and against His Messiah:

3`Let us draw off Their cords, And cast from us Their thick bands.'

4He who is sitting in the heavens doth laugh, The Lord doth mock at them.

5Then doth He speak unto them in His anger, And in His wrath He doth trouble them:

6`And I -- I have anointed My King, Upon Zion -- My holy hill.'

It's possible to flip between versions (there's a drop down menu) to compare meanings, tones, choices of form, etc. It makes for a fascinating lesson in the use of language -- what do the non-semantic elements of language convey? What constitutes "translation"? etc.

My grandfather was a polyglot. (Man, he was hard to clean up after -- ask my grandmother.) He was not a religious man, but was fascinated by religious texts and knew Hebrew, Afrikaans, English, Yiddish, French, Russian, some German, and bits of other languages. I remember arriving one night late and seeing him have about five different bibles open in front of him, comparing the texts. He would have loved

Wednesday, September 06, 2006


O Dark Warp of Back Pain, the Control Cheese Golem has once again performed an astonishing evocation of lost islands, all the while concealing from the brash accountant the blood red cowlicks of the Clown.

O dread Banjo Guardian, make the ballpoint phantasm of the lemonade stand appear to sign the deaf warrant on at least one of the triplets. Their feet are mired in escape breath, their lips are Aunt Alice’s sandwich shield. O Death Anteater, Devil Sheep, you are the Ethereal Ritalin Colossus gibbering Koala in the Homunculus Theatre of Miniature Thespians. The corn sheds its brazen husks, brandishing keen niblets of fear for the balsa milkmaid. Hear now! The flatulent beam of the Lounge Singer is bereft of warts. Beware the detergent wall!

But wait! The Kleptomaniac Jazz Djinn rises from my Underworld Drawer, mimicking a Manic-Depressive Succubus, the Spoon Ghost sinking deep into the staircase moon. By the Oubliette of Grammar, I call upon the Mighty Brain Peacock! O baths and feathers, O intoxication of pants! How can the Perfected Breakfast Monument halt the Pig-slop Jewel?

By The Five-fisted Toothbrush Grail, I call upon the Crowns surrounded in a nimbus of plastic teeth. I invoke the Evil Road where toes can find a finger, where a finger finds the flaming torus of noise. May the head flakes of the chimney sweep dispel the grim babysitters of the Coffee Blob, the Vaseline maelstrom of the Meat Giant. May the illuminated ooze of the clever dead absorb your thieving adulation, abjure your compassionate wolf toast in its sinuses. The mattress of ectoplasmic tartan shall lose itself in the howling milkshake mailbox, the used-car fantasy of your nomadic lungs. You shall find pinstripe famine in the grisly prismatic snail of your own nylon misery, while I, in the dark prehensile spats of my bean-jeweled flowchart shall return home, the litigious scudding of military rugburn turning my flagpoles to chariots, my fingers into the magnetic antennae of morose gymnastic nametags waving aside the glorious parade of firechiefs igniting their scrotal placentas in inclement victory.

Saturday, September 02, 2006


Grandpa was standing outside the barn, his arms spread, his tongue poking out. The snow fell around him. His loose dressing gown blew behind him like an open road. His eyes were shut. His hair was crows.

All of us were there. Billy, Sandy, all the uncles, cousins, aunts, the whole family. A fire blazed in the fireplace, a bustling in and out of the kitchen brought cakes, cookies, coffee to the table. Becky and Matt, my niece and nephew played a board game on the rug. Will and Ricky ran through the house playing some unintelligible chase game. My wife and her sister sat in the kitchen laughing over the story of a family camping trip when they were kids.

We looked all over the house, in the bedrooms, and the basement bathroom, even the garage where he kept his tools, but we couldn't find him.

It was Becky who noticed. "Grandpa's outside!" she said, her hands cupped around her eyes, face pressed to the back window. By this time, only the wet shine of grandpa's head was visible, the tips of his fingers held up towards the dark sky. We ran to the back door, opened it wide. "Grandpa, grandpa!" Becky shouted. And then he began to move. Arm over arm, Grandpa began to swim first toward the house, then out into the fields, the forgotten cornstalks buried deep in snow, raised arms appearing above the drifts. “Those who are dead will still be dead. Those who will die, still will die,” Becky said, her breath making mist as she spoke.