Sunday, January 27, 2008


Dusk in a city street. Down the belly of the hot dog, the zigzag of mustard was a yellow scar, a zipper, a blueprint for a vagina. I was imagining the delicate lifting of sand as the wind caressed the desert floor. I remembered a new word that I’d read. ‘Benthic’: the lowest level of a body of water. Are there names for the layers of sand?

I had a newspaper under my arm. I carried a plastic bag filled with convenience store groceries and a lottery ticket. The hot dog was seven feet tall and held a gun to my face. Its eyes were innocent, googly like those little eyes you can buy to stick on things. “Help me,’ it said. “—by dying. I want to know what it is like. We hotdogs are not mortal but yet we also do not live forever. We do not really ever live. This gun, it is a hot bird, a quick breath, a jump across a river, a flash of love. I have never felt so much like I have a heart. I remember the pig, or the cow that was my early years. I give you your death so that you can give it to me. One part of the life – the end – that I can never live.”

From down the grey throat of the sidewalk, the wind scuffling garbage. Dust from the gutters. Flocks of birds over the flat tar roofs. A star, a bright bullet hole, visible in the terry cloth of the approaching night.

Image by Will Sweeney

Saturday, January 26, 2008


We were sitting by the fire. Father was in his usual chair, remembering stories. He was a wave separated from the ocean, a bent horse with a foamy mane. Then the fire grew big and Father disappeared, nothing but the taste of salt in our mouths.

Even the shadows shouted and wore boots. Even the doors shrugged, the windows broken and they too, becoming like salt.

The exhausted waves crawled from one shore to another, pretending to be rivers or rain. But Father, we believed, was an underground stream, alive with blind fish.

In the forest, we were leaves trying not to be noticed as the trees were cut and the sky became crowded with music.

The animals went over the edge of the world. The people went over the edge of the world. The countries became dark pools on an edgeless map.

The snow had melted. There were the tiny rebellions of the grass, the tips of Father’s fingers waving. There were the stories. ‘This is what happened during the war,’ they said.

(see more brilliant images by Marion Peck)

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Ancient Baby


The phrase I quoted from Basho in yesterday's post has been running through my mind. Basho said that he "felt the breezes from the afterlife cross [his] face.” It's certainly a haunting image of mortality, but what I've really being trying to get my head around is how the words of people from past times seem to reflect that our sense of reality hasn't changed. Am I 'contemporamorphizing' it? When I read a passage from an ancient Greek, many times it seems that our sensibilities aren't that different, despite mortgages, space travel, nanotechnology, and the human genome project. Could that be true? We'd certainly have a completely different notion of human rights (race, and gender for example) and many many other things, but is there something fundamental that we'd share? It seems obvious to state this, but it is mindboggling that while culture and human experience have changed, some fundamentals seem not to have, the 'what it is to be human' cliche. Or is our difference sense of ourselves, of being, masked by our language traditions, our cultural assumptions?

However, I'd expect that if I raised an ancient baby in the modern world, they'd be indistinguishable from a modern baby. As long as they have modern diapers, I'd say to myself, as long as they have modern diapers.


This is a fascinating discussion of the origin, symbolism, and function of the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the silent Aleph. Here are some passages from this site:

There is a midrash (fable) that asks why Aleph was not selected to be the first letter of the Torah (the Hebrew Bible). In the story, all of the letters come before the LORD giving reasons why they should be the first letter - all, that is, except for the letter Aleph. When the LORD asked why, Aleph explained that since he was silent, he had nothing to say. But the LORD honored Aleph’s humility and declared him to be the first of all the letters -- and to be honored as the letter of the first word of the Ten Commandments.

Mysteries of Aleph
In Kabbalistic literature, the upper Yod (meaning an arm) represents the hidden aspect of YHVH, (ein sof - “without end”), whereas the lower Yod represents the revelation of YHVH to mankind. The Vav, whose meaning is “hook,” shows connectedness between the two realms. Vav is also thought to represent humanity, since Adam was created on the sixth day. Vav is diagonal since it is humbled in the face of God’s mystery and His revelation. The two Yods also indicate the paradox of experiencing God as both hidden and close, far and near.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

“a conversation with ghost and ghost-to-be.”

February's National Geographic has a feature on Basho and his haibun (combined prose / haiku travelogue form)"Narrow Road to the Deep North." Like a 17th century deriveur, Basho, became a hyohakusha—“one who moves without direction," and wandered along a route of over a thousand miles. This kind of journey was completely different than a Europe Grand Tour. It reminds me more of some kind of Beat travel.

He was exhausted emotionally and said that he "felt the breezes from the afterlife cross his face.” His text documents a spiritual as well as a viscerally experienced physical journey.

The National Geographic has photographs from along Basho's path, evidently a route which has become popular for tourists.

I'd love to leave the casseroles, tax payments, and pile of student work to mark, and set off with a backpack to thatched-roofed huts in the distant country to wander without aim and only intuition and an openness to discovery. Of course, as the National Geographic quotes, I guess I'd be like Soryu, the famed calligrapher, who wrote in 1694, in an epilogue to the Narrow Road: “Once had my raincoat on, eager to go on a like journey, and then again content to sit imagining those rare sights. What a hoard of feelings, Kojin jewels, has his brush depicted! Such a journey!"

Really, I'd have to be open to a different kind of journey if I went on an actual wander, and not relive Basho's. Would it be like David W. McFadden's trips around the Great Lakes?

Once, when I was about 15, I wrote a children's story entitled 'The Adventures of a Pawn Off the Chessboard." I guess that's it. I'm looking for a journey without the usual checkered squares of daily life.







Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Videos in the Virtual World

My daughter showed me these fascinating videos on YouTube. The visuals (including the representation of the leader singer/rapper) are taken from action clips from within the game Runescape. Runescape is a vast interactive game set in an imaginary quasi-medieval virtual space. The hundreds of thousands of people who are playing at any time can interact with game elements as well as with each other. My daughter arranges to meet her friends (and their avatars) within the game. They can accomplish game tasks, talk freely with each other, and so on.

In order to create these videos, the directors of the game have to have their avatars say the lyrics (or the responses) to the songs. They need to coordinate groups of people to go along with them (the “back-up singers” need to be asked to walk beside them, sing, or otherwise play their video part.) The avatar ‘director’ has to direct from within the game in the virtual space. The avatars have to venture to all the different virtual locales which appear in the video. The videos aren’t real time though – they’ve had to be assembled from clips of the avatars movements within the game.

These videos are a fascinating mapping of one set of limits (the song) onto another (the restrictions of the Runescape game.) It’s an intriguing kind of specialized constraint-based art creation. Blue? I can’t paint the sea using blue. I don’t have blue. I’ve have to make it red.

This video is "Diary of Jane" by Breaking Benjamin.

Here's Eminem in Runscape:

Sunday, January 20, 2008


Reading Toronto has published an article by Amy Lavender Harris on the current Toronto Small Press Fair controversy. It is a much needed recounting and excellent clear-eyed discussion as well as a completely necessary explanation of why an unfounded smear campaign against Stuart Ross has been outrageously unfair.

But don't take it from me. Read it here.

The ability to engage in open dialogue is critically important in a cultural community.


There was a white bull and a brown bull engaged in battle. Both animals were vast as the suffering and riches of the king’s own country. They climbed a high hill and fought without cease or mercy through many risings of the moon and of the dead, the white bull, the closed fist of the sea roaring through the warriors’ death nursery, the brown the furious taxi of giants in the matted panic of war.

Finally, a bellow like magma from the quaking mouth of the white bull marked victory upon the mountaintop. The white bull bent before the brown bull, then stuck its horns through the fallen body. Across fields and castle lawns, the white bull ran, the brown held high in its horns, the moon in the arms of a storm cloud.

Meanwhile in the city, lawyers rustled papers, closed files, billed their clients.

a retelling of a portion of the great Irish epic The Tain

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


|| : ) |||||||||<

Let's Shtetl it Once and For All

what is my mouth
the diaspora of?

(inspired for Geof Huth)


r : brth



irony is ours

a single burning TV

Monday, January 14, 2008

Not Quantum Auto Mechanics

I have had my car repaired enough times to believe in Quantum Auto Mechanics, however:

Just learned about a fascinating new blog by Daniel Chacón, who writes that he is "a professor in the bilingual (English-Spanish)MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Texas, El Paso, where I live on the US-Mexico border with my wife, the poet Sasha Pimentel Chacón and our old dog Felix."

He writes about imaginary fiction; about how the split between fiction and poetry is like the earlier split between philosophy and physics; about wormholes and art; and about how the concepts and imagery of science relates to metaphor.

His blog is At Play in the Quantum Field

Sunday, January 13, 2008


there is a man covered in glass on the lawn of a burning house. soon there are sirens and then ambulances, police, and firefighters. inside the house, three children, a wife, a dog, covered in knife slits.

they take the family into the forest and turn them into trees. they have dark branches with deep green leaves, even the dog. the man becomes a blue river, its cool water flowing over the twisted brown roots of the family.

there’s a bird, a bird with messy black feathers. it flies into town and into the office of the newspaper reporter. make all stories like this one, it says.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Twelve or Twenty Questions

rob mclennan's has a very interesting interview series entitled 12 or 20 questions on his blog. He recently invited me to contribute. I found it challenging to answer the big questions (For example, how does geography, race, and gender affect your writing?) as well as to answer the trivial ones non-trivially (When was the last time you ate a pear?)It's a great idea for an interview series to ask many different writers the same questions. One of my favourites, was the very laconic Steve Venright. That's his picture posted above.

Here's mine just posted: 12 or 20 questions with Gary Barwin

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Famous Words Last

I was trying to write a New Year's poem. Stuart Ross always writes and sends out a marvellous one. Here's this year's. This is the first occasion that I've had to try to write one, though I'm supposed to be working on a new children's story for chickaDEE magazine about the Olympics. (Did you know that the Olympic torch is going to be carried up Mt. Everest? I guess to mark human achievement, but also China's claim on Tibet. Still pretty cool. Also the main stadium is going to look like an abstract robotic bird's nest. The water sports will take place in a building that looks like a block of water. Amazing.)

I could only come up with glib, cheesy poems. Like:



stale bread.


Then I got to thinking about looking back, and ultimately, to last words on gravestones. (My last post was about my grandfather's home town in the old country. We are planning a trip through Eastern Europe to visit the sites of our families' heritage. There are some graves that have never been visited by family. I rarely have visited gravesites, except for this past summer when we were in Westminster Abbey and saw the many grave stones and markers for a many famous aristocrats, artists, musicians, and other sundry famous people. We also saw Yeats' grave in Sligo on which is written is famous epitaph. I wondered about what I might have as mine, keeping in mind who might read it -- my children and family.

Here is what I was thinking, one of these two variations:

Finally, loss teaches that all is not loss.

What do we gain by loss? That all is not loss.


I'm truly not anticipating needing either of these any time soon, however it's better than croutons. Or what my mom always suggested for my hypochondriac Grandfather. "See, I told you so!"

Friday, January 04, 2008

Walking the Length of a Name

My mother just told me this: my grandfather used to say that the town he came from, Krakanova in Lithuania, was so small that if you began to say its name as you walked into town, you'd have walked out of town before you'd finished.

My grandfather, Percy Zelikow (Pesach Zelikowitz originally) also marvelled, when he first met my son Ryan, that he'd known six generations of his family. He had known his grandfather and he had met his great-grandson. That's a birth date range from 1860something to 1993.

My grandfather left the town in his late teens in the late 1920s for South Africa. He always felt deeply bitter about the treatment of the Jews of Lithuania.


From Shtetl Research: Krekenova by James Gross:

(Krakanova, Krakenovo, Krakinava, Krakinova)population 300
Approximately 18 miles from Kedaniai & Panevezys on the Neviazha River
Map coordinates are: 55 33'/24 06'

Krekenova, Lithuania is located on the Neviasza River. It is 30 kilometers from Kedainiai, Lithuania and Panevezys, Lithuania. Before WWI there were 300 Jewish families. During the war (1915) they were expelled to central Russia and the town was burned down. After the war (1921) there were 150 families living there. In 1939 there were 60 families.

The Jews earned their living in the linen trade. There were also a few artisans. Two large flour mills were owned by Jews and the towns marketing days were Monday and Thursday. The town had a synagogue, study house (Beit Midrash), a small synagogue (kloiz), and a large yeshiva that was founded and headed by Rabbi Moshe Cheskin. The Tarbut school had some 170 students. There was also a 2000 volume library. There were charitable institutions and social welfare was provided to the needy. Its youth organizations were Maccabi,Hehalutz Hatzair, and Hashomer Hatzair.

The town was noted for its scholors. Many of its leading figues had rabbinic ordination, but they did not earn their living from their rabbinic training. In the study house (Beit Midrash) the study of torah continued uninterrupted day and night.


My grandfather, pictured reading above, maintained a deep love of reading, books, and study all of his life, despite having no formal academic training. He studied as an ornate metalworker. His father was a blacksmith. My family recently donated many of his extensive collection of Yiddish books to a university Jewish studies collection in Ottawa.