Monday, August 29, 2016

The Relief of Day

The day will be over with soon.
First the sun lets go of the green
and then the shapes of leaves.
It even lets go of the trees.
They edge back from the light.
See the last thing now,
the smokestack, how it slits
the sky to let night slip through.

Maybe some day we will ask
who we were, what part of your face
vanished when I knew you'd leave.
We let history take over everything
that seemed livable, let it
forget the fabric of you slipping
from my hands, now,
when the night starts to cool
from a day of fire
into a meteor's quick gesture.

Maybe tomorrow's new heat
will color everything
like a memory.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

An Interrupted Day

For two whole hours it rained
so hard cars failed in the washes,
and drivers waded out clinging
to tiny, smart phones
that still called out over waves.
Clouds hung on to the city's
rising heat and ruined plans
for a mass gathering in the park,
where children would light fifteen hundred
sparklers to set some record,
to hold them up for judges to  count:
a kind of offering to a storm
that arrived early.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Nephrite Jade

Mountain Travelers, nephrite,
Qing Dynasty at the Indianapolis Museum of Art
inspired this poem. (Photo from IMA)
after Yeats

The sky is white because it burns.
The sea rises, and business carries on.
Who would keep making this dust
that clings to us and is so easily tracked?

All things fall, including clouds
that descend with chaos and flood.
Who would rebuild a broken chimney
or the slightest wonder when the need's
a boatwright or a steady hammer
joining a vast and desolate wall?

I've looked around and failed
to find the depth of lapis lazuli,
but here's cheap nephrite jade
bleached in centuries of oxygen,
a tiny cliff upon which
stout, carved shrubs survive
the sun's constant radiation.
Balanced on a chiseled path
three mounted figures pass
across an unforgiving incline.
I imagine across the mountain
they'll trade what's in their packs.

In the heat of that slope
one rider fingers and fingers an abacus.
In the center one nods
so dangerously with sleep.
Last of all a driver watches
the atmosphere and his friends.

He lightly taps his donkey's shoulders
with bamboo cut from the valley.
He rests knowing his work
does what needs to be done,
and will be done as long
as there's light.
Let it be a hard day
with harder days to come;
he sits tall in the task,
and his eyes, his wakeful,
glistening eyes discern
it all and smile.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Arrrrrgh! And Stay Tuned Indefinitely to The Cage

The guy on the right along with Longfellow have beaten me. I will no longer attempt erasure poems from the translation of Inferno. I've discovered that erasure itself probably isn't my strong suit, and the peculiarities of terza rima translated into English along with the lexicon in a poem about Hell make erasure especially difficult.

That's STILL not the end of the Dante matter, however. I plan and look forward to a revision of the 20 cantos so far erased, a revision liberated from the straitening form of Longfellow's text. With luck the individual cantos will smooth out and clarify. A couple might escape change, but I doubt it. The revised result will appear as a tab along with my old haiku project.

An earlier post said that The Cage would end once the Dante project ended, but I no longer plan to launch a new blog. The Cage will go on under its current name. After all, I have three or four loyal readers and I don't want to lose them due to any confusion from rebranding. Also, I can change the mission of this blog and keep its title. The work that has appeared here lately has been less driven by form and more by sense, or, to lean on the blog's metaphor, the bird has taken precedence over the cage.

Publishing here has been fun, but I'm planning to restart a campaign into the dark forest of magazine publishing. My last mag pub was a couple of years ago, and it has been over a decade since I've pestered editors in a determined way. Asking others to publish you is a dreary activity, but self publishing does not provide all the satisfactions. I doubt there's much of a market for my poetry, but I know it can find print.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Meditation Morass

A truism for meditators says that practice has peaks and valleys, times when one eagerly sits on the
cushion and when just about any activity seems preferable to sitting quietly doing nothing. Most certainly l have wandered for the last six months in a contemplative valley, one containing cattails and pesky mosquitoes.

This doldrum is no minor dip in the road. I've meditated regularly for about sixteen years and have seen many times when the routine ran ragged, but could always count on smooth sessions of meditation. Even if concentration frequently gave way to daydreaming, rumination or sleepiness,--those mild bugbears of the meditator--I could count on sessions of Zen that proceeded calmly and systematically. That's not so today.

Paying attention to the senses itself is like listening to someone claw a rusted nail out of rotten wood. Counting breaths is like hearing "1000 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" sung on a grade school bus. Each bead counted on the rosary makes me think of tooth extraction. Daydreaming, instead of being an incidental distraction is a vast oasis of relief l run to in my mind, and I virtually sigh upon arrival at its shimmering vision of anywhere but where and when I am.

The good news is that my meditation schedule remains the same, though stolen moments of mindfulness while waiting or walking somewhere no longer happen. This morning meditation started so roughly it brought on feelings of grief for a lost sense of peace.

Inevitably the question comes as to why this happens. My first inclination, which just happens to be the Zen response, is not to think about it and plow ahead attempting to meditate. Simply continuing is the first and most practical action to take, after all. And yet, such a profound change in my contemplative life calls out for reflection. Might there be some subtle cause of all this difficulty?

There are several responsibilities and conflicts unresolved in my life right now, and though thoughts of these don't intrude on my meditation, that unfinished business might be the hidden cause of my discomfort. Time spent tidying my life may get me out of this contemplative marshland, and the sooner the better for myself and others.

What keeps me buoyed, what keeps me on schedule, is a long and varied experience with meditation. l already Know valleys come with peaks from traversing them. Things change. Tomorrow is another day. A host of bromides come to mind. But the most useful thing may be to take mundane, responsible actions and to keep this old, prophetic, verse in mind:

Nine-hundred ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall,
Nine-hundred ninety-nine bottles of beer ...

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Winter Landscape, Oil on Canvas, Rockwell Kent, 1909

On the other side of the ridge,
where it's still daylight
and tense, stratus clouds travel
to the Great Salt Lake.
Who wouldn't ask them
to stay a little long so we
could keep watching thin snow
on the slope and that lost
caravan of trees upon it?
We'll cross that rise too but not
before dark. We'll pitch tents
and start cook fires on this plain
and sleep well tonight.

link to the painting

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Vase With Loop Handles, Sui Dynasty

Not a glaze but a stain
covers from the neck to the expansion,
what rings if rapped,
to the equator where it unfurls
in even, wide runs
from a darker to a lighter taupe.
The thin base sits most noble,
that raw, fired clay almost the same
color as the crown.

The handles, well, they seem a joke.
No hand or thumb could grip them.
This jug, like a world, owns
its place and will move
but slowly.

If I had to be anything so simple
I would be this vase in two coats of glaze
standing on any shelf as my own....
Except at a closer look, see how centuries
have crazed this patina
like waves rippled in crosswind.

link to the exhibit

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Continued and Dark Career of a Writer: A Tale of Revenge

l can hear them from far away in my cell at St. M_______'s, can almost chill to the cacophony of whippoorwills a hundred miles off in ____ville. Soon all their tremulous autumnal screeches will end in concerted silence and engrave that town's fate into the unreviseable but completely forgettable tablet of time.

Long ago I had ended my apprenticeship in writing under the tutelage of certain nameless societies in Bloomington to resume residence in ____ville, where I had grown up as as a thin shadow haunting the paper-smelling grocery stores, the dog-patrolled alleys and the schools dank with the unending sweat of students ambitious, moronic and perverse.  I took up residence in the garret apartment of a turreted house where I glued black card to the solitary window's panes and slept days. I plied my abhorred trade by night, reliving my childhood by darting between lightless spaces in the old neighborhoods, sometimes visiting sleepy coffee shops--those happy inventions that commonly cropped up since my boyhood--but I usually remained holed up with my books and retorts, my inks and alkaloids that aided me in writing.

The first years brought their challenges. There were other nocturnal wanderers, lowlifes, peepers, burglars who crossed my path. l remember particularly an inebriate who stank up an alleyway near the piled stone ledges and sills of the courthouse, one who turned out to be a delicious fellow. In his cups could sing the Egyptian Book of the Dead. But it was the gendarmerie that proved the most troublesome, discovering my shade behind abandoned churches, questioning me in the fields next to the library, shining spotlights as I jumped spiked fences, my grey duffel weighted with crowbar and mallet. But any writer can dispense quickly enough with the constabulary--a story's all police really need and they're back asleep in their cruisers--then it's again to the writer's unholy struggle to author that first masterpiece.

| had mine on a night of much like this in 1992. I could hear the rattle of maple leaves on my apartment's slate and conical roof. The whippoorwills frantically called from the black shrubs below. l applied the appropriate salts and drew the proper sigils in powders of base metals. In my meagre dwelling I performed the master stroke on my hideous masterpiece--silencing the infernal birds at once--by breathing life into my namesake's milk-eyed corpse recently disinterred from Crownview. I had at long last become an artist in my own right. Do I regret meddling with my own dead cousin? We all have our undoing.

One might lead such a lugubrious and clandestine existence for two, maybe three years in a small city without discovery, but eventually one is shown to be a writer. From then on survival depends upon the aura of fear the writer can conjure. Without it one is the object of pity, considered no better than those other denizens of the witching hours who normally wind up incarcerated. How often an author shares their fate! However a writer survives it is a dreary existence of cloudy nights and sidelong glances from respected members of the community. That existence suited me just fine, especially in _____ville, where I had even greater works planned than my inaugural masterpiece. No, I might have lived much longer there--though not, in this mortal world forever--had it not been for my local graverobbing... and for The Hand.

The Hand was a monster that took up residence in my favorite coffee shop, a dreary, shambling bit of would-be satire that barely rose to the level of grotesque farce. Once, I was entertaining an old friend, when Bertha, one of _____ville's multi-chinned common scolds, shoved The Hand over to me stiffly by his shoulders, and she scowled, "Are you responsible for this, this thing?" Why I would necessarily be responsible, I'll never know; after all, I wasn't the only writer in town. And the insult! This contemptible insinuation that I authored such a hackneyed figure: potbellied, in denim bib overalls and a straw sombrero, teeth stained by Mail Pouch, and expression of stupidity that was an idiot's impression of stupidity! As if any ill will I had for my small town roots would be wasted in this trite conceit! And couldn't Bertha tell I was seated with none other than Tennessee Williams, whom I had just reanimated? Didn't she at least find it remarkable that my ice-cream-suited companion drank a large tumbler of gin and not Brazilian bayberry or whatever the hell was that night's grind?

"No," l rejoined, "and I don't know who made this," though I had immediately suspected that R_____ was the culprit: R_____, a poseur, a mere illusionist, a plagiarist, a pretender at things stygian. Once a high school simpleton but now a braggart about town, I had some vague memory of offending him during our junior year. Who keeps track of such things? I could prove nothing of R_____'s culpability though, and gossip pasted me with responsibility for this ridiculous spectre from that moment on. Even Tennessee slowly shook his head in sloshed admonishment. From then on my aura of fear, my very means of survival as a writer lay in jeopardy.

Insults, no stranger to any writer, heaped upon me more frequently. There were the raps at my apartment door at odd ours of the day that discovered only the hurried escape of footsteps. Then came the hangup calls. One day, after a knocking at my door, I discovered a crudely-wrapped package on my welcome mat: within it something unspeakable.

The Hand persisted for years in its oafish existence, and the pathetic rumor my authorship spread from high school to graveyard. At this sad chapter of my career | might have been well advised to leave town, but I had more work to do and the internet provided easier access to salts, shavings and various organic fixings I needed to continue my writing, even under the glare of the moral indignity and between the laughter of cretins. No, popular disgust could not bar me from completion of my crowning masterpiece.

It is never what we see that undoes us, but the invisible strikes its blow. The Hand drew extra suspicion and hatred toward me, but it was my first true work that set in motion my final departure from _____ville. Certain citizens, the ubiquitous Bertha and the eternally inept R______ among them, snooped around and found the grave of one John Melvin disturbed and put two and two clumsily together. Their evidence caused even the sleepy police to wake up when they remembered my nighttime visits to the cemetery, and at last I was afoul of the local law. Writing is a moral offense. Creating bad satire is a disgrace. Reanimating the famous is incomprehensible to the uncultured. But digging up a town ancestor causes offense requiring legal action.

I heard them stumbling up the stairs, the police and the inflamed citizenry. I'm shocked they didn't arrive with torches and pitchforks. In any event they gave me time. No sooner than you can yell "POLICE! SEARCH WARRANT!" I had smashed a vial of metal tinctures into the center of a chalked circle of summoning just etched on my garret floor. The door burst in under the blow of a battering ram. It was more than a rising mephitic cloud of gas they found upon intruding that night. The remains of literary experiments stashed in my apartment, some fresh, some preserved, most unknown to anyone, were enough to put their author away for a quarter century.

The staff at St. M_______'s are very congenial. They let me dabble in literature. They even smile sweet smiles and let me mix Epsom and table salts together, though they would probably frown at the mummified hand of a playwright I keep under my bed, if they ever thought to look.

Tonight is Halloween, and the work of art set in motion on the night of my arrest a year ago is about to come to fruition. Tonight, amid the ululation of whippoorwills, a door will open between this world and another, one full of great and malevolent beings older than the Milky Way. The whippoorwills will cease chiming at that final opening when the old ones return and set to work on _____ville. They will destroy everything and dispense with all life there.

Here, in my cozy little cell, the screams of the guilty and the innocent will reach my ears--and the screams of R_____ and the screams of Bertha--and, oh, I will hear all their terror, and I will fly, fly, fly!