Friday, January 30, 2009

Steven Wright Knock Knock Poems

A while ago, Geof Huth wrote a great post about the language poetry of comic Steven Wright. I wrote a few Steven Wright/poet jokes in his comments stream. I thought tonight I'd present them here:


Steven Wright trips in
the woods. Is it just me or
did the trees fall up?

Steven Wright looks into a mirror. “I think I’ve seen you here before.”

Steven Wright looks into a mirror. “Come here often?”

Steven Wright and a dictionary make a bet. “I guess it’s my word against yours.”

Steven Wright “I was reading a poem about everything. I wasn’t in it.”

Steven Wright and a visual poet walk into a.

Steven Wright and a surrealist walk into a bear

Knock Knock?
Who's there?
Damn. I was hoping you could tell me.


I was explaining to my friend, writer Greg Betts, about the various ongoing correspondences that I maintain, both here on my blog and in email. I was speaking about finding many writer friends online with whom I share common concerns and to whom I can relate. My daughter, Rudi, who is 11, injected and said, deadpan, "Dad, you know that those are just 9 year old boys posing as middle-aged writers, leading you on, trying to lure you by talking about punctuation, poetry, and visual work." "Dad," she said. "Don't agree to meet them no matter how real they seem."

Thursday, January 29, 2009


There are a few places where ‘How Poems Work’ are discussed. What do texts do? What happens when reading a text? Arc poetry magazine has a series, Sina Queyras's Lemon Hound blog, the Globe & Mail had a series, and of course, there are many blogs like Ron Silliman’s where the blogger takes apart poems and discusses some aspect of what is under the hood. This process is always fascinating to me.

So. I recently discovered a fragment of a poem on my computer. I thought it might be interesting to explore some thoughts as to how this poem fragment works (or doesn't work) and to investigate something of the process of creating a poem, of the process whereby the writer discovers how a poem might work for him or her

Here's the fragment:

the skull is a banjo
with a handle for easy

the banjo is a wolf

summer days in
the naked hippocampus
wolves in the wood

Of course, as I’m writing a poem I’m engaged in a continual process of “how does (should/might) this poem work?” I start with some fragment of text and then, as I wonder where to proceed, I’m continually speculating as to what kind of poem-physics to employ next. Is this a Newtonian poem, a Quantum poem, or something else? Each poem exists in a context of interpretation, of a tradition of reading.

When I’m driving along highways in different places, I get used to certain expectations about signage, road markings, traffic behaviour, kinds of roads and road surfaces, etc. Driving one night out of Havana along a supposedly four-lane highway, I discovered that there were no lane markings on the road. In the dim light of the headlights, I kept coming upon people and donkeys walking in the shoulder lane. I've been in taxis which have gone into the shoulder of the oncoming traffic lane just so that they can overtake the cars overtaking the cars in the lane we should have been in.

This is how the poem unfolds for me. Now, of course, I get to decide how the poem is going to behave, or at least, try out a few things and then see how it is behaving. I can explore certain avenues. Maybe the street signs will be made of jello. Maybe the cars and donkeys will stay still and the road will move. Maybe the direction of traffic road will constantly switch directions or the houses will become the form of transport. Sometimes I don’t understand what is going on but I try to maintain the same kind of ‘not-sure-what-is-going-on-edness’ throughout the poem. Sometimes I don’t know if I’m done. I’m not sure if the text has enough ‘depth’ of material, if enough traffic can drive or obfuscate along it.

So, to return to that fragment:

the skull is a banjo
with a handle for easy

the banjo is a wolf

summer days in
the naked hippocampus
woods howling in the dark wolf

I remember some things about its creation. Troy Lloyd posted a comment about banjos on my blog (“walking down the street/pursued by banjo”) so that’s the initial source. I’d been working on creating images (posted to my blog) of various things with handles. The infinity sign, briefcases with images of landscapes on them, words, exclamation marks, arms, etc. They were “things with a handle for easy carrying.”

I’d been thinking about wolves as an image. I’d read and listened to some work by Angela Rawlings with owls and wolves in it and had written a few pieces exploring wolves. I’ve always been interested in various archetypical and folkloric uses of wolves. And of course, my mother was a wolf. No, no. Only kidding: she’s an owl. No, a stapler.

And then the brain. The brain is a kind of wolf. Or owl. It too is a modern day archetype. The various regions of the brain are like regions of a country, or archetypes of place – the dark forest, the medulla oblongata, the castle, the pineal gland, and so on. I see images of the brain as a new set of archetypical images. The hippocampus regulates emotion and memory. And its name means “seahorse.” It’s one of the first regions to go in Alzheimer's' patients. Maybe it’d spike the stanza more to switch “naked hippocampus” with “naked seahorse” – but maybe that’d just be sending the reader on a bit of an arcane naked wild seahorse-chase.

There’s certainly a kind of image rhyme between the roundness of the banjo head and the skull. I could see the head as a kind of instrument that one plays. Maybe folklorically. I sit on the porch and play my head. And stereotypically: What is in the mind and is inbred. The first stanza is both sort of funny, surrealish, and waiting further development. It is the first statement of an argument, or maybe, a syllogism. We wait to see what kind of physics operate in this world.

The brain is a kind of wolf, also. That’s seems straightforward, perhaps too straightforward. It prowls. It lurks in deep forests. One can be transformed into the wild, self-creating wolf. A pack of thoughts howl on the other side of day, under the othersun. Brain and wolf: both archetypes. There’s obviously something bathetic in equating the complex and non-human image of a wolf with a banjo. Yes Deliverance, but also Steve Martin being goofy with a banjo. Dueling brainboxes. Is it the Far Side cartoon where the Maestro is surrounded by banjos? (Or are they accordions?) There’s also something plaintive, and ‘poetic’ about the simple statement that ‘a banjo is a wolf.’ There’s some kind of banjo-brained logic. The skull is a banjo. The banjo is a wolf. Now what is the wolf?

‘Summer days’ – halcyon days, a nostalgic moment of retrospection, perhaps a childhood in the country? The opposite to the more dangerous wolves. Maybe we went swimming naked in the ol’ fishing hole. Maybe we went swimming with naked seahorses in the gravel pit of the mind. Hippocampus: memory, emotion, but also: its anatomical naming has something to do with scientific knowledge, rationalism. Again, maybe this is also a bit of a cliché, a bit too simple: the naked hippocampus: raw emotion, raw memory, the unclothed thoughts from childhood.

Originally, the last line was ‘wolves in the wood,” but that seemed to further expand the cliché of raw emotion. So now, an inversion: “woods howling in the dark wolf.” It’s the woods that howl in the dark wolves rather than the expected opposite. Is this some kind of genetic/species memory, some kind of lupine collective unconscious? Did wolves read the same European folktales that I did in my childhood? The ‘dark wolf’ sound right out of Jung and out of the Grimm Brothers. Maybe ‘woods howling in the green wolf.’ The Green Man, the Green wolf?

But then again, I’m not stuck with the alliteration of woods/wolves or the assonantal relations of woods/wolves/howl. What about trees? “Trees howling”? Yet ‘howling’ seems a bit overdramatic, and slants the poem into some kind of over Deep Image, Jungian thing. What about ‘Trees smirk in the dark wolf.” Or “trees smirk at…” There’s something truly dark about smirking so. And the wolf is also a banjo. I confess. I’ve smirked at banjos, though I love them. What if the wolf was “a repentant wolf’? That might go somewhere.

That seems to have more energy to continue the poem forward. And it seems the particular physics of this poem is saying that I’m going to have to bring more into this poem, to (not that’d I’d ever mix a metaphor) further develop some of the balls that I’ve got in the air. Is the wolf going to be something? The wolf is a skull? That’d continue the “logic,” or at least the equation structure. And if the wolf was repentant? So, maybe then ‘the wolf is a banjo.’ That’s perhaps inane enough to continue with.

the skull is a banjo
with a handle for easy

the banjo is a wolf

summer days in
the naked hippocampus
trees smirk at the repentant wolf

the wolf is a banjo

How does this poem work? Does it work? Will it work? Stay tuned: Keep your fingers by the pound, your ears to the rhinestone, and always, wait for the toaster.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Two Franzlations; Two Aphorisms

Hugh Thomas and I have been working on a collection of "Kafka Franzlations" (a collection of imaginary Kafka parables.) Here are two back and forths:


Gregor Samsa awoke from uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a stuffed-animal cockroach. Now everyone wanted to pet him. He would turn up in the most unexpected places in the small apartment. His family said, "It's as if he had legs of his own, but you can see they're only printed on." Finally his sister kept him locked in her violin case. Before her concerts, she would take him out, kiss him, and tell him to listen carefully, because she would be playing especially for him.


Father woke up. We had written all over him. Maps of our childhood. A plan for our success. A wish list. The names of our lovers. Our professions. Diseases. Names of bombs. An image of a cockroach. The only things left.


Now, on another channel, two unrelated aphorisms:

Dreams are the wake of sleep.


Eyes are windows to the soul. Hands are windows to the hands.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A thought and its strange horn: semicolon and ampersand dreaming

The semicolon dreams. It isn’t one, but two. Brother and sister. Mother and child. Egg and sperm. Zygotic. X and Y.  Chromosomal. A Bicameron over the corpus callosum of the page. A greater and lesser brain, brontosaural. A thought and its strange horn. The beginning and end of sleep. A dream of dreaming and of waking. A hand and its other becoming breath and its shadows, a one eye open, a book.

The ampersand dreams. Mother & child, the primordial &, a mother’s arms around her child, the Moebius umbilical, the inside out, the turning a portrait of itself, the between one thing and another, the and other connected, the hand and its other, the breath and its shadow, the shadow's curl, the ampersand.

for Craig Conley

Monday, January 26, 2009

Elegy for a Poodle / Brave Cone Dog

My essay/memoir about the death of our poodle, my children's childhood, memory and the desire to capture the sacred in writing has just been published in Geist magazine. It is available online here.

The above image is by the brilliant Brandon Bird, and is entitled "Brave Cone Dog."

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Hitler's Gun

for Sina Queyras

I have a tooth, a tooth far back in my mouth, that is Hitler’s gun. It is a mirror. I can lick the moon without looking, take a bath in Hitler’s bath.

A breath in the cold air from the mirror’s barrel: a small tree or the pert antlers of grandmother, lost in forest.

I have a tooth, a tooth far back in my mouth, that is Hitler’s.

A mark on my thigh where the mirror waits. A curl of smoke from the lung, a shroud of the mouth.


Sina Queyras over at Lemon Hound posted a short prose piece and then, in the following post discussed its sources. Both the original piece and the subsequent discussion inspired my short text posted above.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

With radiant cool eyes hallucinating Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war...

A video by my son, Ryan Barwin.

Music by BumpHEAD (Gary Barwin, Slim Volumes, and Ryan Barwin)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

In my Pocket: Israel and Palestine

In My Pocket

what's this in my pocket?
it's a tongue
and hey
there are teeth in my other pocket
if i could get them together
like the Israelis and the Palestinians
there'd be a lot of nifty consonants
they could say together
it'd be tremendous
but then again
how'd i ever sit down?
i'd never be able to finish my dinner
or bend over to watch the little people
badmouthing me
holding festivals in my honour
and in my shoes


from my book Outside the Hat (Coach House Books) available online and in print.

Monday, January 19, 2009



I accept nothing
as true

I carry my thoughts
a long way

I divide up the difficulties

I leave nothing

unless it
recognizes me

I avoid the rain

I try to love the snow’s blank stare

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Body in the Trunk: new bumpHEAD song

bumpHEAD, the "band" that I play in with Slim Volumes and my son Ryan now has a blog. It's here.

We've posted a new song, "Body in the Trunk."

Has someone been bumped off, or is this forensic phrenology run amok?

You can find out here.


Ok, sorry. I couldn't resist...


The old things. The burnt caves, the frost-haired men, the blue owls seeping through the flight of dreams. A snake speaking its own tail, sliding from its feathered skin, becoming a lamb. The wet sky, my own mother, branches of fish spouting leaves as the twilight sleeps. The pink east. The flesh ring on the golden hand. The droplets of earth raining toward the sky. The road which is a tongue. The journey of words toward the grief-bitten mountains.

But now the morning shadow of a toaster. The garden sprinkler of the pierced heart. The cinching wings of the stapler. The kite’s breath, its taut string through the wireless air. The matte forest, its neuron trees, bitter fractals against the laser sky, squirrels like the Brothers Grimm skittering on the edge of story. A plastic honey bear, slow tears seeping from its conical head, a slurry exodus of bees.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Old Fluttering Song

darkness places the horizon on the doorstep of morning

one hand doesn’t know what the moonlight says


The Hands of the Dog's Head are its Prayer


Tuesday, January 13, 2009


I sleep
in a tree
my wrist an elegant branch that
—going nowhere—
has little pulse or wealth

I wake
at last
with the beautiful curious sense
your owl is above
the shadow of an owl


Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Splendid Hairs of the Three Bald Knights

The following is the beginning of a story that I'm working on to follow up on the picturebook The Magic Mustache, that I wrote and the brilliant illustrator Stephane Jorisch illustrated. Any ideas about where it should go would be welcomes most appreciatively!


There were once three old grandfathers who long ago had been brave and handsome knights with splendid heads of very long hair. Now they were bent, wrinkled, and old. They were also completely bald.

One had a very long hair growing out of his nose.
One had a very long hair growing out of his ear.
The oldest had a long hair growing out of a mole on his chin.

Once, they had jousted, they had rescued, they had quested. They had fought dragons, ogres, evil knights, and ugly turkey vultures. Now everyone thought they were useless.

Indeed this year, they hadn’t even been invited to the King’s ball. But they went anyway, combing their hairs over their bald heads to make themselves look younger.
“I haven’t worn this suit since we fought those brontosauruses,” said one.
“I feel like I’m two hundred and seven again,” said another.
“I don’t remember where we’re going,” said the oldest, “but when we get there, I’ll know what to do.”

Just after the second dance, the king received news that a large and evil turkey-vulture had captured a princess. The king gathered his knights around him and said, “Brave sirs, I need you to venture forth and rescue the princess.”
“I’d go,” said one, “but I just got this new hairdo.”
“I’d go,” said another, “but I, too, don’t want that turkey-vulture to mess up my hair.”
“We’ll go,” the three old grandfathers said, shuffling toward the king. “We’re bald anyway!”

And so the grandfathers took hold of their walking sticks, wrapped their very long hairs around themselves—for warmth—and set off to find the Turkey-Vulture.
“I haven’t had a good adventure since we had to discover fire,” said one grandfather.
“I feel like I’m a hundred-and-four again,” said another.
“I don’t remember we’re going,” said the oldest grandfather. “But when we get there, I’ll know what to do.”

The Turkey-Vulture lived in a dark and smelly minivan parked on the far side of a great gorge. The grandfathers scratched their bald heads for a minute, trying to come up with a plan.

“Take one very long nose hair,” said one grandfather.
“Take one very long ear hair,” said another.
“Take one very long mole hair,” said the oldest.
“Now climb across to the other side,” they said together and flung their hairs across the gorge, wrapping the ends around a massive tree.

And the three bald grandfathers pulled themselves across the gorge into the land of the Turkey-Vulture.

The doors of the minivan slid open with an ominous whoosh, and the Turkey-Vulture flew out, hissing and spitting and snickering.
“The king sends three old wrinkled, bent, and bald knights to fight me, the mighty Turkey-Vulture?” it said. “Fat chance. I am the ugliest, most frightening beast anywhere. And I have the princess locked away in the tallest basement in the kingdom.
“We may be old,” said one.
“We may be wrinkled,” said another.
“But we still remember a few things,” said the oldest. “Just wait a minute while we remember what they are and then we’ll know what to do.”

Thursday, January 08, 2009

MOLLUSKS OF JEALOUSY or The Unshaven Veranda of the Iguana's Heart

This piece was a chapbook and then part of my first book, CRUELTY TO FABULOUS ANIMALS. It's based on images from The New England Primer. One of the things that it plays with is the idea of what each image is supposed to represent for each letter of the alphabet. The fact that there aren't 26 images for the primer added to the play.