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Friday, September 15, 2017

A Low “Ha”


O, river Derchi,
O, wider Seine,
A river
Has to love vistas,
Sigh a narrow
Farewell.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Continued Trump Support

At this point, my instinct is to believe that anyone who persists in their support of Trump, if they’re not simply idiots, is doing it out of some petulant stubbornness that prevents them from admitting they were wrong, perhaps for fear of looking stupid. Clearly, the man has demonstrated again and again how unqualified he is for the job, intellectually, morally, and temperamentally. He’s an idiot, a buffoon, and a toddler. But the supporters keep cheering, “Go, go, go, you lying, pussy-grabbing, racist.” Whenever I’ve asked them for some explanation of how they could support this thug, they provide no shred of thought beyond the idea that “millions of people support him, so it must not be irrational for me to do so.” They throw their responsibility to think onto the crowd, which doesn't. Millions of people believe global warming is a hoax, that Hillary Clinton is a murderer, that Obama is a Muslim, that Rush Limbaugh is a human being, that the earth is only 6000 years old, that the holocaust never happened, that the moon landing never happened, that owning a gun makes you safe, that vaccines cause autism... and on and on. Idiocy that draws comfort from the idiocy of mass numbers is still idiocy. Well, we’re stuck with the dangerous and dysfunctional ape for the time being. But we are not obligated to cheer. He watches his approval ratings closely. He has responded recently by slowing down the shit show on Twitter. If you voted for Trump, you made a mistake. If you’re not a moron, you know that. Get over it.

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Caulk of Arrogance: Nature and Supernature

In the universe of shifting lines and of concepts which are neither arbitrary nor predetermined or absolute, where is the line between the natural and the supernatural? Where does it get drawn?

It gets drawn at the border of human sense and understanding. We’ve pushed it back considerably as our understanding as grown and as our senses have been mechanically extended, but the principle by which it is drawn remains the same: what we know or can know is the place of the border.
What’s changed is that we by and large no longer believe there is anything outside that border. Yes there are things we don’t yet know—what so called “dark” matter and dark energy are, how the universe reconciles general and specific relativity that defy our math. But the belief is that these things are in principle knowable. They are not supernatural. We may never know them due to the limitations of our brains or our senses. But they are natural.

There’s no point in arguing that they are not.

Nonetheless there seems to be a strange and frankly unscientific and unphilosophical arrogance to the idea that the natural coincides with us. We still seem to be believe we are at the center of the universe, of being itself. We know of no other creature whose apprehensions are adequate to its reality. And ours have not been so until very recently, a fact that this has led this historically new sensibility to conclude that what has always been called the supernatural is nothing more than the part of being we could not bring into concert with our understanding. The God of the gaps, the caulk of our ignorance.

It seems to me this is unlikely. I do not presume to know what else is part of being. I likewise do not presume that there is no access to being which lies outside of what we call science. Conspicuous religious practice is clearly a sham, however sincere the practitioner may be. And most of any religion is at best contaminated, a sooted fresco. But there are actually few people on earth that believe all spiritual practice is a waste of time. Nor is it certain that what good spiritual practice manages to access is not some part of being that will never be subject to science.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Backed like a Camel

Like naming the shape of a cloud so rapidly changing
that the thing you thought it looked like it no longer looks like
when you say the word, say the word “whale,” the people
in the crowded room spend their days trying to name
the room, to call it what it is—or if there is no name
that corresponds to describe it in well defined terms
or if there are no such terms to make new ones
but the room itself is constantly changing and it’s their names
doing that, the thing that cannot be what it is
until you name it and that cannot be that
once you do.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Something to work on

What I’m walling in is the flowers
What I’m walling out is the grass
of the paths between the beds.

I know frost does not love my walls.
Each spring I am compelled
to plop tumbled rocks
upon rocks that haven’t tumbled.

It’s not hard to undo the work of frost.

In summer too the top rocks fall
when deer jump the paths
to eat the hosta, or when, I guess,
the world spins just a hair too fast.

I don’t know. The rain, perhaps. Rocks fall.
Rocks are put on rocks because
You need a line between the flowers
that draw you out of doors to care for them
and the grass

whose only good is the good of negative space
between the beds
like that space between Fred

and Ethel, Rob and

Laura. The frozen groundswell doesn’t care
one way or another for walls.
The dead mechanical earth,
water responding to temperature, I guess

the mindless plants
don’t care either,
but that’s harder to be sure of, the grass
climbs the little wall,
like a company of thin green Romeos
ascending the balcony to the beds
of all those Juliets,

or it insinuates
itself between the spaces
pulling away from the blow
of the mower
like a thief
darting for cover.

The flowers seem to despise the wall.
They leap over it to their deaths
or throw their children down
to pop up in the grass
like immigrants:
If you can’t save us save our babies,
raised in the country of grass.

Maybe I don't love a wall.

Maybe I can't love without one.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

A Better World without FOX

For decades now so-called Fox News has been pushing the absurd proposition that the “mainstream” media in this country is covertly liberal and the equally absurd corollary that therefore people who want to know the truth should stop listening to the “mainstream” which pretends not to be biased and instead listen only to those who wear their bias on their sleeve. If the first were the case, which it is not, the solution would not be to listen instead to the right-wing response but to listen to both the mainstream and the conservative media and make up your own mind. But they would never say this. There is a liberal media in this country, most obviously represented by in MSNBC. But neither the NY Times nor the Washington Post nor the major networks other than Fox nor NPR nor the major papers in this country—whatever their editorial stance—is pushing a liberal agenda in their news coverage. All responsible news organizations fight against their prejudices. They often fail. There are a great number of legitimate criticisms to be made of the media, but a clandestine liberal bias is not one of them.

Fox “News” has pushed the two absurdities so hard for so long that many Americans simply accept them. Thus Fox “News” has made significant steps toward raising the stupidity level of the country. If you base your network on brace of lies, if you invite your viewers to accept the irrational conclusion that only an avowedly partisan agenda can present the truth, you teach them to see everything through the clouded lens of unreason. If you want to get people to make irrational choices you have to work very hard and very long to make them stupid—not completely stupid, because that leads to chaos—but just stupid enough so that the starting point of their thought is inside your bubble. It’s working very well.

Fox can’t be given sole credit for the raise of the most mendacious candidate probably in the history of the country to the presidency, a grandiose and mentally unstable egomaniac, but I doubt it could have happened without the softening up of the territory that has been going on all these years. Irrationality and prejudice are not new to our culture. They have always been there. But I wonder if we ever had a machine as powerful for promoting them before this. If you can be sucked in by the founding absurdities of Fox “News,” you can be taught to accept any number of easily disprovable things: the Climate Change is a hoax, that immigrants are a threat, that Muslims are all extremists, that socialism is evil, that the promotion of so-called American values of capitalism and democracy throughout the world is benign, that higher education is a form of liberal indoctrination. That a dangerous monomaniac has any business being in power.

And on and on.

As with any multivariable and constantly changing system, it will never be possible to weigh the particular effect of any one element. We’ll never know with precision what the world would have been like if not for Fox “News.” But we can be pretty sure it would have been a whole lot better.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

What I learned on my China Vacation



1. The length of a day depends on how far you stray from your bed.

2. Water and oxygen are among the most destructive elements in the universe. So is love.

3. The Chinese man pushing his invalid mother behind me in a wheelchair proves by his “Hello” the emptiness of the proposition that words have meaning.

4. Language is rife with superfluous precision.

Regarding number 1, I've often been struck by this quasi-arbitrary notion of a day. We may be trained to assume or believe that before you can measure something, it has to exist. But this apparently is not the case. The measurement of the day creates the day, as becomes more and more apparent the more closely you try to measure it. In its grossest measure, it's pretty simple, a day is the interval of light between darknesses. There are latitudes where this causes problems, but few people live in those latitudes, relatively speaking. But when you want to mark where one day turns into another, you have a problem. But it's not a big problem. You create a ruler (love that word!) and break the intervals up into sections. What matters is the hours. The number 24 is arbitrary, but useful. If take the total expanse from the middle of one dark period to the middle of the next and break it into 24 equal units--voila, a day. When clocks aren't all that precise, the fact that the units themselves lack perfect precision doesn't raise a noticeable problem. But as you try to measure more precisely, into minutes and seconds, then you come into the wobble problem. Days are not exactly equal. They're astonishingly close. But clocks have become more precise than the thing they were created to measure. The brilliant solution to this problem is to announce or pronounce that our clocks no longer measure the temporal distance from the middle of one dark to the middle of the next (or from noon to noon). What do they measure? A period of 24 hours. This can be done very precisely because the thing being measured is created by the ruler itself. It's true by definition. Days do not exist as such. But that doesn't mean we can't measure them.

The problem becomes even more complicated when you think about the 24 hour period itself. Plane travel makes it apparent that from an experiential standpoint, a day can be much longer or much shorter than 24 hours. "Experiential" is the key word here. For a day to be 24 hours long you have to define is from a spot, the spot where you place your clock. As soon as a human gets out of bed, she changes the length of her day, and constantly changes it as she crosses the longitude of her bed or moves along it. No one experiences a day as 24 hours except invalids or other sick people.

So there's no such thing as a day. Days aren't 24 hours long. And yet we can measure them.

As for number 3, the prejudice that words have meaning is so ingrained that at first it seems difficult to comprehend that in fact they don't "have" meaning. A word does not have to "have" a meaning for it to be used in a meaningful way (or if not meaning-full, since meaning is never full, certainly in a meaning-generative way). In short, the man behind me was asking me politely to get out of his way so that he could move past me with the wheelchair. He was using his only English in order to inform me that I was the object of his speech. His intention was to get me to direct my intention toward him so that I could infer what he wanted. If you look up "Hello" in the dictionary, it won't list, "Please get out of my way, foreigner" as one of the definitions. But that was the meaning of "hello" in this case, and I would argue that the word was properly used. Words have uses and histories of uses, not meanings. Words normalize and regulate situations or events. This gives us the illusion that the "signified" is tied to the "signifier." (This is part of a discussion that has been going on for over a century now, which you learn all about and also enter in graduate schools in many disciplines. I'm fascinated by it and always on the look out for examples that illustrate this.)

As for number 4, many times each day in this crowded city I found myself impeding the progress of someone, usually someone on a bike. To move me out of their way, most of them rang a bell which sounded a lot like the bells they attached to children's bikes when I was a child, fifty years ago. But when the biker or pedestrian didn't have a bell, they used various phrases in English or Mandarin to serve the function of the bell, not just "hello," but "good morning," "excuse me," and others. It occurred to me that there are a lot of ways to ask people to get our of your way, but they all come down to the ringing of a bell. Some just grunted. The words are all associated with various other meanings than "please, I'm in a hurry, let me pass." And the possibility of processing those associated meanings is always present. But the "good morning" was never really a wish for me to have a good morning any more than the "hello" was a greeting. Those meanings in fact could only interfere with the intention, which is inferred from the fact of a sound. The advantage of a voice over a bell is the greater precision it renders for emotion. But even a bell can be polite, sympathetic, or angry.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Knowing v Understanding

Proposition: A small child knows language, but does not understand language. The child knows language the way an animal knows its way around the forest, the way you know how to walk or run. The learning is both deep and shallow—because these words are metaphors and depend on the perspective of the observer on the phenomenon not the phenomenon itself. The child knows how to use words the way it knows how to move its arms and practices, regularizing situations via repeating the sounds (we could at this point call them sounds rather than words) that get uttered in this situation. “Now we use the soap.” “Now we open the door.” “Now we say goodnight.” The child goes through a well documented phase in which it uses irregular verbs correctly and then a phase when it no longer uses them correctly, when “we went to the store” turns into “we goed to the store.” That’s the moment when understanding begins. The next phase is to return to correct use of irregular verbs but it’s not a return, but an advance, a sign of a yet more sophisticated understanding.

We never lose this instinctive relationship to our first language. It develops into understanding, but understanding doesn’t erase the instinctive origin and basis of our knowing. Language habits that never rise to understanding are hard to break.

As we grow older we gradually those this instinctive way of learning. It’s obvious with language, but it is true of everything we learn. We turn from “picking it up” (it could be an instrument or sport for example) to funneling it through our understanding. We learn the rules of cases and declensions and genders, we learn scales, and roots, and sevenths, and tunnel a path from understanding through the hard crust of the understanding. But we have to get there. You can’t think of what you’re doing on the soccer field. You can’t think about the right way to say, “The way your eyes reflect the sun is just wonderful.”

The goal is knowing. Understanding is not the only path.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Lost, Love

I've written a bunch of sonnets in my life, none of which I've thought was any good. I was reading Hass's "Little Book on Form" last night and thought I'd give the form another chance. What if a sonnet recapitulated the history of the form, however vaguely? Quatrain on forbidden love; quatrain on God, post-volta resolution of the two as the form itself slowly dissolves.


If it is true that we should not have kissed
Because we know how sad life is and cruel
If I should never’ve pressed my fingers to your breast
My silent, protest rage, beloved, well, then to be a fool—
Who could not help but hope God dropped a sign,
Before, befuddlededly, he wandered off,
Forgetfulness, read upon your skin,
Or momentary blindness,—then such a sin
Is just the entrance fee. Love does not last—
We slid into our clothes and closed the door,
Turned on the light, resumed the souls we’d been.
We must have known we would. And yet we were surprised
Like thirsty hikers lost on foreign hills
Who despair to find a stream—and there it is.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

A Clever Observation on a Trivial Fact Followed by an Enigmatic Image that Might Be Profound


For Billy Collins

At 60 my mother was no spring chicken
But then a spring chicken is something no one ever is
Not even spring chickens.
It’s only something you can not be
Like so many other things, even things for which we have certain names,
Like certain.
They say he has a certain charm,
By which we indicate that we don’t know what that charm is
Which makes it anything but certain.

I like the idea that we can now throw shade.
Years ago we could only cast it, as we cast a fly rod
Which provides very little shade. Now we can throw it
Like a baseball, which has more surface area,
Though now that I think of it, perhaps we should learn to unfurl shade.

Which brings me back to my mother, in her rocking chair,
Reading this poem
With a certain enigmatic expression.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

River God

Those long ago laborers hauling fish
From the Nile, the Euphrates, the Huang Se,
Cursing and trembling by turns when the river
Over which the sun set
Offered no fish for their nets,
They thought the river was a god
Because It rose and fell, grew angry or lay peaceful,
Because of the blessings it bestowed and its curses,
Because it sought revenge and gave love by turns,
Because it mirrored the universe.
And does it matter whether the river is a god
Or a metaphor fished from the other shore
By those who had no notion of metaphor?


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

I Should Probably Get Back to the Poems of David Kirby



The poems are really great
If you concentrate
And take in every word
And the meaning of every word
And the sound of every word
And the rhythm of every word
And if you connect every word to every other word
And all the lines to the other lines and listen
To the play of the lines against the sentences and the play
Of the lines and the sentences against the stanzas
Which are like fences with surprising holes in them
Through which you can watch the Babe hit one of his 714 or one of his 60
For absolutely nothing and be one of the silent spectators of a genuine moment of history
And if you pause at the pauses and run with the alliterations and skid with the
Enjambments around the sudden turns without losing your braces. Otherwise—
If you let your mind wander if you just meander through the thing
Like it’s a joke or a corn maze (a maize maze, amazing, amazing maize maze, amusing,
An amusing amazing maize maze—where was I?) that you’ll eventually wander out of
Whether you put any effort or interest in it or not, like a homework assignment
In a class you didn’t really want to take in the first place—well then,
Whose problem is that?

Friday, June 9, 2017

What is Left to Say


By Lisel Mueller
(1924 - )

The self steps out of the circle;
it stops wanting to be
the farmer, the wife, and the child.

It stops trying to please
by learning everyone's dialect;
it finds it can live, after all,
in a world of strangers.

It sends itself fewer flowers;
it stops preserving its tears in amber.

How splendidly arrogant it was
when it believed the gold-filled tomb
of language awaited its raids!
Now it frequents the junkyards
knowing all words are secondhand.

It has not chosen its poverty,
this new frugality.
It did not want to fall out of love
with itself. Young,
it celebrated itself
and richly sang itself,
seeing only itself
in the mirror of the world.

It cannot return. It assumes
its place in the universe of stars
that do not see it. Even the dead
no longer need it to be at peace.
Its function is to applaud.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

On Winning or Losing in Battle

We like to say that battles are lost or won. Even our best respected historians provide the final score whenever they can. Some battles are ties; some have ambiguous outcomes. Most are won or lost. We have ways of determining such things. We like neat dichotomies, binary oppositions. It’s in the language, but it’s in the language because it’s in the being, our being. Win and lose are easy to understand.

The borderlines we put on battles are not arbitrary. But they’re not real either. They are conceptual. They could be put in other places, both the starting point then the first shot is fired and the end point when the last effective shot is fired are placed there for convenience, so we will be able to give a name to when the thing started and ended. The name is everything. It’s the folder that allows us to catalog the battle, that allows us to have had a battle at all. There is no knowledge without the name on the folder. But we all know too that the battle started long before the fighting and continued long after and may never have ended. We all know that the most decisive victories are provisional and momentary. Many conquered people have eventually won the war—or anyway have had moment in which the victory had shifted their way, had conquered the conqueror from beneath.

The Unconscious Is More than That

Freud was interested in the ego/id/superego trinity of the unconscious to the exclusion of anything else that might have been happening in the mind that the mind was unaware of. With great verbal dexterity he made sure that all facts could be hung on this increasingly articulated model. Girard does the same thing with his model of mimesis. Both systems are brilliant, and certainly contain some important correspondence to reality. But they are also cautionary tales about trying too hard to make a single insight conquer the whole territory.

Being animals human beings are always attempting to organize themselves into the “proper” social structure for human beings. Mapped in the genes (as it were) of all animals is the way that those animals are supposed to be organized. This is why middle school students are so notoriously hard to teach. Their bodies are telling them to form themselves into a nation. The kings are trying to emerge. Everyone is trying to align themselves with power, not the foreign invasive power of the teacher-class, but the real structure of the student-class. Rivalries emerge. School is contrary to nature.

Monday, May 29, 2017

"How about We Just Give Trump a Chance?"

As for “giving Trump a chance,” there are as far as I can see only two possible justifications for doing so. The first is that he has personally earned a chance. I think that whatever your stance on the man’s policies or positions, someone who spent the last eight years trying, without a shred of evidence, to undermine the legitimacy of his predecessor by claiming he was a Muslim from Africa, has not personally earned the chance. Personally he’s earned scorn and derision and the constant whining of Trump and his supporters about how “unfairly” he’s been treated deserves nothing better than maniacal laughter. Despite his claim of “great surety” that no politician in history has been treated worse or more unfairly, in fact no one is seriously denying the legitimacy of his victory. He hasn’t been treated worse than he himself treated President Obama.

The second reason to “give him a chance” is that it would be for the good of the country. That claim has a little more weight. Even Obama himself—a man infinitely more gracious, patriotic, and civil minded than the current president, said we should wish Trump success. It sounds good. One should, if possible, set aside the well-earned scorn Trump has worked so hard for and wish him well if not doing so is harmful to the country. However hard it may be to swallow the anger and let this man off the hook for his myriad sins against pretty much everything an American should hold dear, we should let him off the hook indeed if that serves the greater good.

But what does it actually mean to do so? Does it mean sitting back quietly while he tries to implement policies that go against one’s values? Does it mean staying silent when he delegitimizes the press (and therefore the Constitution)? Should we shush ourselves when he insults the world’s billion Muslims? Does it mean giving him no opposition when he tries to funnel more and more of the nation’s wealth away from the poor and middle class up to his billionaire cronies? If that’s what it means to “give him a chance,” then no. No American should for one moment let him off the hook. We could forgive or at least ignore for now the lying, divisive, bullying, ignorant, hate-filled rise to the presidency if doing so would be good for the country. But—and this is not exactly surprising—the perverse values of the disgusting campaign that led this disgusting lard ass to the job are the same values that guide his presidency. If he ever deserved a chance, he’s already warn that deserving out. He wore it out the moment he first tried to ban all Muslims from the country. And he’s shown again and again since how little he deserves a chance and how dangerous it would be act in any way other than in the strictest opposition.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Memory

It turns out that Plato was almost right when (was it in the Timeaus?) he had Socrates condemn writing for the inevitable ruin of memory it boded. But the problem is not that it made remembering unnecessary. The problem was that it made forgetting impossible. We’ve been collectively accumulating memories, and at an ever increasing rate, since that first stylus scored that first clay tablet. Now, every day, more memories are uploaded to Youtube than an individual could view in a lifetime. We're overburdened by memory. By Shakespeare's time it had become the goal of writers and the nobility to become immortalized in print. We turned away from the world when we turned to the tablet. Many great things have come from writing. But in the end, we will die because of writing. Global Warming is likely to do it. So far we've escaped nuclear holocaust, but that threat is still out there. These things could never have happened without writing. True, writing could save us from a world-ending asteroid. That would be good. But it's more likely to be the first step in a chain many thousands of years long that will terminate us. How much better it would have been if we had not figured out writing until we were ready for it. But then again, how without writing could we ever have become ready for it? And now we are in the territory of tragedy.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Beyond Dualisms

Words like “skepticism” pose such obvious problems. Skeptics are always so sure of themselves. They have to be. How could you be a skeptic if you doubted your skepticism? There’s then no point in deconstructing them. Nor can you fall back on the old saw—the logical impasse of contradiction—to take them apart. You must be able to know something if you know your ignorance. And if you can know that why can’t you know other things?

Because you can’t. And this is why….

And then the skeptic like Finnegan goes back to the riverrun and starts over.

Only in time is time overcome. Fortunately, we are only in time. So if I have one belief left, I suppose it is this, and it is as much a religious as a philosophical (which is to say logical conclusion) belief, which is to say something I understand intuitively as true as well as logically as valid, insofar as it can be logically validated: set aside all conclusions. I suppose it’s a mildly Hegelian position. Setting aside all that math or the scientific method can attain (I don’t want to get into the absurdity of an earth that is other than metaphorically flat), in areas that actually matter, where science and math are of negligible service, come to whatever conclusions you will, and then set them aside. Don’t fail to arrive at these conclusions, which we could just as easily call propositions because we are at the place where language’s fundamental dualism betrays us (that statement too will have to be taken in, then set aside).

This matters most where most is at stake. Starting with God, God who is absolute otherness and absolute presence. Unattainable, incomprehensible, but also here, and inescapable, the radiance of love. It’s all true and therefore all not-true. And the biggest sin is to think you have it. And the other biggest sin is to proclaim that you don’t. Did I say Hegelian-ish? Also Hinduish. Sufish. Part of all mysticisms, secular or religious, but only where mysticism marries the dull quotidian, where secular and religious don’t signify different realms.


Sign Language

My students tell me all poems are open
for interpretation.
I tell them I do not dispute that statement,
adding just that this not only doesn’t define,
it doesn’t even distinguish
poems from any other deployment
of words. Not from these
You’re now reading (did you really
think this was a poem?) but neither
from the most carefully crafted contracts
or laws, nor from your mother’s
hello, your uncle’s be careful, or your fumbling
attempt to go out with a girl
or to lure her to bed.

Signs are signs
even when they stand high above the parking lot
of the store
that was never built.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Fixing the Rose

He knows the beauty of the rose
Painfully intense as it can be
Is not enough.
And so he fixes it
on canvas sacrificing
nearly every part of it
to give it what it lacks:
permanence.
It gets to stay.
It gets to be what it appears to be--
As though the lack of permanence were not what made it
Beautiful. Beautiful
to begin with.
Sine qua non.

And so the painting calms the rose
But does not fix it.

Let's begin.