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Friday, November 10, 2017

As You May

Although you know the winter’s coming
You plant the marigolds.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Post-Darwinian Evolution

I'm sure I'm by no means the first to speculate along these lines. Still...

Do we have the right to say that intelligence is not the programmed outcome of certain species? Though the level achieved by humans has not been matched by any other species, does that mean that, as we’ve been led to believe, intelligent self-awareness, does not have, as it were, a gene or genic component? We think in genetics only of what the individual has been programmed to become, all of that information encoded before birth waiting for the right environmental conditions to obtain in order for it to become what it was “meant to be.” But is this a prejudice born of our limited perspective?

I am not saying that the “gene” I’m looking for is in the double helix. I know no more about genetics than the average citizen, which is to say virtually nothing. The gene is almost certainly an analogy. Moreover I don’t know where one would look for this piece of coding if it exists, whether it might somehow exist outside of the physical being, somewhere in the universe as yet unrecognized by science. The question really is whether the prefrontal cortex was an evolutionary chance or whether, the right conditions being found, the final realization of the programming which was, as it were, designed to grow in that direction all along.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Unspent Rounds


He’s out there now, and you know it,
A man (it’s always a man), disgruntled, in love,
Some dreamer whom riches and women and fame
Dear Johnned. He has amassed an arsenal.
A Ruger AR-556, a Glock Pistol,
Smith and Wesson M & P AR-15, SKS automatic,
.223-caliber Sig Sauer MCX semi-automatic,
Remington 870 express, 9mm Springfield Army XDM,
Pistol grip shotgun, .45-caliber Springfield, Lever-action
Winchester, 12-gauge Remington Sportsman 48,
9mm Kurz Sig Sauer P232, WASR-10 Century Arms semiautomatic,
.38-caliber Smith & Wesson M36, Springfield 9mm,
.40-caliber Ruger, 9mm Glock 19,
.223-caliber Bushmaster XM16, .44 Magnum Smith & Wesson
Model 29, .45-caliber Hi-Point, Winchester
1300 pump-action, .357 Magnum, 9mm Beretta,
AK-47 Romarm Cugir, Izhmash Salga-12 semiautomatic—
And he has all the special bullets each particular clip or magazine
can hold, and all the modifications, the bump stocks, the silencers.
His frustration is tied, tight as a wet knot,
around the scapegoat of his hate. He will snap. Soon.
Any day. And everyone who knows him will be shocked.
When they hose the blood from the concrete and it runs
A second time, in cold water, into the sewer drain.
He was so normal.
After the globs of flesh are cleaned from the tiles or the tiles replaced
After the building itself is demolished to try to erase
what cannot be
erased
in proxy the memory of slaughtered innocents. Meanwhile
Both sides of gun debate debate about guns
nailing dry rot over mold, gluing toast on walls sprayed with holes
to cover the holes that won’t be covered.
You’ll never know why.
But you could have stopped it. Though now you can’t.
Not the next one. It's too late for that.
Though it has not yet happened
It is already too late. It’s coming.
Yes, you could have stopped it. Years ago you could have
Stopped standing by, flinging words.
But not now. He has his guns and his hate all ready.
The next one’s guaranteed. We don’t know precisely where,
(two more have occurred since I started this poem).
Maybe your own small town, maybe your little neighborhood, maybe your city.
Probably not. Probably the next will be in someone else’s town
Like all the last ones were. They’ll get around to yours eventually.
No, we don’t know when exactly. But it’s happening so
Regularly, we can use the past to plot a graph
That brings us pretty close.
About two months from now. No more than that.
And then one after that—about two months further hence.
It’s too late for that one too.
The guns you did not stop before are out there now,
and the silencers and the rounds.
and the hate.
All these neighbors just waiting to die.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Initial Thoughts on Rereading Miracles

To explore C.S. Lewis’ notion, in Miracles, that miracles are not interventions in reality of something outside of it, that they don’t in fact disrupt the natural order (hard claims to which to give assent), and particularly the far more intriguing claim that they amount to God’s signature on his creation (to borrow a word from Whitman that expresses much the same notion) or his characteristic artistic flourish—this is worth a moment’s pause. What miracles would not be, then, would be the get out of jail free card touted by virtually everyone who promotes them—the quack television and mega-church evangelists peddling false hope and false religion and reaping for this personal fortunes from the easily duped. Miracles are not the way around cancer or kidney disease. Though a miraculous cure is not out of the realm of the possible with a God who actually does miracles, it would have the status of a random event from nearly every perspective—not a cure earned by a good life or fervent prayer or a prayer chain set up around the globe, like a power boost in a video game (which would make God the champion of the popular or well-resourced, the God whom the New Testament insists would prefer to bless the lonely woman, homeless and friendless, than the pope, who ought to have faith enough anyway to endure not just cancer but an actual cross if need be. The miracle is a phenomenon, strategically deployed, as it were, to say, in effect, “I am God,” (the signature) and, “If I had it my way you would not have to endure this suffering.”

Why God can’t have it his way is a separate question, addressed, at great length though not necessarily with great success by that other Pope, Alexander, in his “Essay on Man.”

Miracles then in a curious way align the Christian world with the Greek world of Tragedy. The union of Judaism with Platonism produced Christianity, as is well attested, but the connection of Judaism with that other, and rival, Greek notion of Tragedy has been, as far as I know, a lot less explored. But here there is a connection.

The most fundamental aspect of tragedy, to my mind, one which Aristotle himself never quite hit upon, is this: It should not have to have been. Any muthos (is that Ricoeur’s word?) that leads the reader to this understanding of the absolute necessity of a resolution that should have been able to have been stopped, that heady glot of countervailing forces—that is tragedy. There should have been a way to prevent the tragedy of Oedipus. But there could not have been any way and nothing could have stopped it. If only we’d known what we could not possibly have known we could have done the thing that there was no possibility of doing. This must be the position in which a Christian, though he does not ever articulate it as such, must believe God sits. The miracles show that God does not want the world to suffer its way back to the lost paradise. But there is no other way. And what ties the omniscient God’s hands we can’t know. For whatever reason. (Lewis does an excellent and I think important job of laying out the necessity of the fundamental ignorance we must have of what we can only call “being itself,” the universe as God “sees” it, the universe as it is. We can know neither it nor our ignorance of it any more than our beloved dog and can know what we people are up to in any way that does not involve her. No need to go into all that again.)

Miracles then have an element of sadness to them, the “wish I could do more,” of a doctor who instead of curing the patient gives her an aspirin, the fireman who in lieu of saving the house rescues a teddy bear.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Thoughts Inspired by a Cosmologist, Hooray

Science is a discourse and a method. There is nothing else like it. Its fundamental premise is that we humans can understand the physical universe through observation with the help of math. It has made marvelous progress. There is nothing humans have ever done that is more exciting. But let’s not let our enthusiasm run away with us. That essential premise has never been proved. The progress is phenomenal. We’ve gone so much farther than it seems we could have hoped when the enterprise began (though we did have that comprehensive hope). And there have been times when we thought were almost there, with Newton, with Einstein. But the scope of what we do not know keeps getting clearer and larger. The real likelihood of vast realms of being that we cannot understand grows, so that now we instead of saying “we’ll get there some day,” say “how amazing it is that we can know as much as we can.” What banged in the big bang? What exactly is this dark matter? How will we ever know anything that cannot be described by math?
Science is a discourse and a method. It should not be an ideology or a religion. It excludes a priori what cannot be brought into its orbit, God and spirit and soul. It gives no testimony against these concepts. I heard a Harvard cosmologist become verbally entangled when she attempted to exclude beauty as a principle of truth. She was right to exclude beauty, since beauty comes from a realm of being outside the realm of science. It is a religious or a purely evolutionary concept. There may be no such thing as beauty is science understands “thing.”
But there also may be. This cosmologist dismissed what (it seems to me) she has no time for. The demands of science are enormous both professionally and personally. Every scientist knows the breakthrough he/she is working for, dedicated to, may not happen in his/her lifetime. May not happen at all. Every scientist knows his/her theories may be dead ends or may lead where experiment and observation cannot go. It is necessary then to dismiss God and beauty with a wave. Wave them off. We all benefit from this work, though in waving off these things it seems to me the scientist reduces the quest to the status of a game, a very expensive way to satisfy nothing more profound than curiosity. (Yes, we know there will be effects, from GPS to nuclear weapons, and the discoveries will change the world, but it is quest is never for the effects. The opening of Pandora’s box, the revelation of Goddes privetee, it’s done to find out what’s inside.) Of course, this too must be accepted if the ideology of science, which would require that humans in their brief lives find something interesting to do. To while away the time.

A Good Right-Wing Response to the Football Protests


Mike Pence went to a Colts-49ers game today with the single intention of walking out with great hue and cry in order to stoke the anger of what’s called the Republican base.

It was a dumb move.

But it makes one think about what a good right wing move would be. And that’s neither hard to see nor difficult to do. A good right wing response to the protests would go like this:

I understand the motive behind this protests. And I agree that too many black men are being shot and jailed in America, and I realize that too often the law makes the situation worse. More needs to be done to solve that problem. And it’s good and proper to bring attention to the problem.

However, this particular form of protest strikes a number of good and loyal Americans as unpatriotic. That may not have been the intention, but it has been amply shown that to many people this appears to be a protest against the nation and the flag. To many it dishonors the sacrifice of the military while doing nothing to advance the cause for which it was begun. I therefore believe is not a suitable way to protest the injustice it was designed to protest. Let’s come together and find another way.


It happens that I disagree strongly with that second paragraph. But I know there are good people, good Americans who cannot see past the perceived affront to patriotism. And I could respect anyone who, while maintaining his dignity and seeking common ground, refuses to sanction what he/she sees as an affront to the country.

What I cannot stand is the divisive grandstanding of party hacks like Mike Pence, whose view of the protest is deliberately divisive and belligerently blinkered. He ignores the legitimate complaint that underlies the protest while painting in the bright colors of his cartoonish logic—all to score political points. (I say that assuming his not really stupid enough to believe his own rhetoric, though I have to say I haven’t seen a whole lot of evidence to support that generous allowance.)

Mike Pence is under the delusion that his presence at an NFL game lends dignity to the event merely (I guess) because he is Vice President. This would perhaps be true if he were doing his actual job. He’s not. Pence’s actions as well as his rhetoric paint the issue in provocatively black and white terms, both logically and racially. That is the worst possible reaction particularly from the White House whose job is unite.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

If Not Exactly Silver

Though I don’t want to seem to be making light
of serious things, I can’t help but recall the couple
who, as Murphy’s law predicts, came down with Alzheimer’s
at the same time,
which progressed at the same rate
and, though they did die together
in the fire that consumed their house,
they spent most of the time between the onset and the blaze
falling in love.

If God Speaks in the Thunder


God can only say
Life is brief, life is precarious,
Do not look for what is not there
Do not look to me to save you
When the dog quivers and hides,
When the trees flash in the ominous dark
When the lightening sets your house afire.
I will not calm the earthquake
I will not plug the volcano.
Take refuge where and when and as you can.
I will not stay the hungry fist
I will not stick my finger in the muzzle of the gun.
And even if I did, you would die.
I will not spare you loneliness
Nor lengthen your days of love.
I will not halt the spread of sickness in your bones.
I will neither warm the sun in winter on the homeless streets
Nor cool it in summer between Sonoyta and Phoenix.
I am the lord, the God almighty. My love is like a mighty river
Behind a broken dam.
I will not hold back its waters.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Aardvark and the Snake

The snake twists across the desert sand. There’s
No other animal in sight,
And it’s a fast snake, sashaying over the dry land
In the shade of the rocks, leaving behind
Not even a blade of bent grass as a sign
It was here, a curling wave that erases itself
Like a wave in a pool after a splash. Nothing left
But a scent so faint you’d need a nose as big as an
Aarkvark’s pressed into the ground to pick it up.

An aardvark appears.
Half hour later in search of water
She wanders by, nose to the ground. By that time the fat
Muscled venomous rope has crossed three outcrops
And more scrub than a passing man
Could keep track of on its way to its lair in this one particular
Pile of stones miles and miles from the thirsty
Aardvark.

The aardvark follows the scent, faint, but strong enough.
The aardvark is not half as fast as the snake. By the time it passes
That first outcrop, the snake is safely curled
In the cool and sleepy shade of its home under the rocks,
Whose entrance is a hole so small that nothing
larger than a snake could pass through.

The slow thirsty aarkvark saunters over the sands.
The sun climbs, and then begins to slide down the cloudless sky.
The aardvark rocks on its hips like a delivery truck with bad suspension
On an unpaved country road. The snake tastes the air continually,
Snakishly. Before the sun
Falls half way to the horizon, the aardvark, its nose never leaving the sand
Bumps into the rock by the entrance to the tiny hole high above the snake.
The vigilant snake tastes its enemy in the air with its nervous tongue.
The aardvark forces her thick proboscis into the narrow hole until she
Knows for sure: this is the place. The snake feels the dim light disappear and
Tastes the strong aardvark taste it hates. Thick as the smell of sweat.
The aardvark digs. The aardvark widens the hole left and right, grunting
And snorting, minute by minute. The snake circles in the cul de sac of its safety.
The aardvark pushes her head into the widening hole. Pulls back and digs some more.
Pushes her shoulders into the hole. Pulls back and digs some more.
The snake pools his venom in the sacks behind the fangs like gagging spit.
The aardvark reaches her forepaws, head, and shoulders into the pit.
The snake strikes, hurls his long body through the smoky tunnel. He
Sinks his razor jaws into the aardvark’s shoulder, drains two deep reservoirs
Of venom into the aardvark’s blood. His enemy, the aardvark, immune, blocking
The exit, pushes her whole body into the chamber and feasts.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

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.

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.

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.