Tuesday, January 31, 2012


I've reconsidered a few things with the first piece of the zinc factory series. A new take:

The Splasher Floor

On the splasher floor no one spoke. We worked
together by the smidgy light of furnace vents,
the molten metal and the cherry tips
of cigarettes. Each day a hustle of steam
and sweat: break the clay, pour the zinc, haul
the chains, dam the trough in time. Hoist the buckets,
mind the flames, pour each ingot down the line.
Soiled clouds rose from each of us and the dust
of the floor became greasy with fat.
A body is ¾ water and by the hour
we evaporated, the rivets in our jeans
burning like hornets. And the old guys had it worse,
hauling the extra pounds, those extra years
darkly, tasting zinc at the back of the throat,
leering, half choking, and proud of simply surviving
second shift, dangling out the 4th floor window
breathing dead light between smokes before dawn.
Hot as hell before the sun was even up.  And what
did I know of hell then, all of twenty,
working the college summer break for beers?
Those men had given years, hefting Vulcan loads
in sync, hauling fire, making shadows. And still
they danced circles around me on the slippery floor.
Perspiration mingling in the air—Gonzalez,
Menendez, Shingleton and the rest—was what
we breathed for three and a quarter an hour.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Mast-Head

I am reading Moby-Dick again (third full voyage, though it's been nearly five years since the last). This morning, I came across this gem in "The Mast-Head" chapter, where Ishmael explains the dreamy mindset one gets in the lofty heights above both ship and sea. A harpooneer scoffs that whales "are scarce as hen's teeth whenever thou art up here."  Ishmael's response follows:

Perhaps they were; or perhaps there might have been shoals of them in the far horizon; but lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean as his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it.  In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Wickliff's sprinkled Pantheist ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over.
First of all, that's some marvelous praise of indolence! And it's a fantastic couple of sentences, as mesmerizing in their imagery and language as the scene they seek to render. This passage reminds me of the ideas in John Haines' essay "The Creative Spirit in Art and Literature," which I have also recently re-read. In the essay (which appears in his collection Fables and Distances), Haines claims that in nature lie all our original artistic and literary forms. He also states that time spent in close observation of the natural world can translate into rich imaginative metaphor, creative leaps.

That's what Ishmael (Melville) is doing here, allowing the sea to become the externalized world of thought within the speaker, with actual whales that are swimming in the dark water transformed as metaphorized thoughts scuddling through the subconscious. At the same time, we can't overlook what is so obvious--namely that it is the powerful, wide, encompassing ocean itself that transports the idle watchman into his state of reverie in the first place. Nature here is both inspiration and form (in this case, extended metaphor). This isn't exactly earth-shattering stuff, but I find it a useful reminder. And I think the passage from Moby-Dick, like so much of the novel, is beautifully written.

(Side note fantasy: I've just concluded my fourth run through the HBO series Deadwood, which to my mind remains the greatest artistic achievement in television, and I see that David Milch's next project, Luck (directed by Michael Mann), premieres tomorrow night. Imagine what Milch could do with Moby-Dick, especially if he enlisted Ian McShane as "moody stricken Ahab...with a crucifixion in his face; in all the nameless regal overbearing dignity of some mighty woe.")

Of course, paying attention to the actual world is always a good idea. Out skiing through the woods behind my house today, I had no such revelation as Ishmael finds in the crow's nest, but I was pleased to find a number of tracks in the fresh snow--human (previous skiers, a snowmobile, bootprints), deer, raccoon, mouse or vole, something I couldn't identify, and a few birds. Though I never encountered one of these creatures, the records of their presence were scribbled all over the landscape. Similar to the "half-seen...uprising fin" in Melville's passage, these strings of tracks and little mouse-burrowed chutes remind me of the flitting paths my own mind followed as I skied, shifting attention from the physical realities of my heart beat and breath to the sounds of birds to thoughts of a poem I am writing to wondering about lunch and how badass it might be if David Milch ever were to adapt Moby-Dick into an HBO series. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


John Berryman's Dream Song 29 ends:

But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody's missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.

A friend has toyed with the notion of inking those last two lines on his forearm, walking into Capitol City Tattoo and anointing himself with Basil Hayden while the words are made indelible. Yes, tonight I am missing Madison and the friends and words I found there. Reading Berryman makes me think of the Upper Midwest and those unflinching Minnesota winds that rip through the thickest layers, blindly fingering into every crevice of your down parka, your wool cruiser, your polypropylene thermals. And I think of frozen lakes and others, a lake I love and cannot fathom my heart from its pineneedled bottom. I think of Berryman's body pulled from waters. I-94 rivers. Self-enders. Jumpers. Peelers. Floaters. Sinkers. 

What else? I was thinking of externalized systems of emotion, of emoticons and Facebook, of storing numbers in your phone instead of memorizing them or keeping a book. Systems of not having to remember, letting machines do it for us. And of these technologies some kind of body that holds us, drowns us, makes us invisible to one another. Though that's not really it. A feeling too, like when I was on Facebook some years ago, I started to lose touch with some of my friends who weren't on there, like I had been swimming in some warm pool of un-thinking-ness, slowly dissolving in the newsfeed bath of reinforced world-view and triviality, caught in the screen and floating, forgetting. That's the atmosphere, how it felt to me anyway....

If you haven't already purchased and devoured a copy of Adam Fell's I Am Not a Pioneer, please do. It's the most remarkable poetry debut of the past year and a true grit heartsong of a collection. I could go on and on, but he's a dear friend and it would just be embarrassing. Trust me. Read it. Plus here's a well-written review in praise of the book. One of the first poems is titled "Reckoner." This is a response to that-- tributary, secondary, derivative. So go read his first. I'll wait. This'll be here in the morning. And what follows is a mess, but by putting it up here, I'll make myself want to go to work on it more. And soon. Blog as studio wall. Blog as pea soup in the pot needing more flavor.

reckon: v. 1. To count or compute; 2. to regard as; 3. to think or assume; 4. to settle accounts; 5. to figure, recall, remember. 


After the reclaiming and the dredgings,
the new pilings and the shovelings, 

we bathe in its shades: gin clear,
fluorescent grey, screensaver blue.

But overnight the lake hides itself
slides its manhole cover over

and it’s over.  Shunk


Each heart-warm friend you reckon
them up in rosy dawn

Each name a bead in the bracelet
Each name a thanksgiving 
and a remembering
Reckoner, saw us from the ice.
Unglaze our eyes, thaw us
on the shores by a fire made to you.


If you’re not on the lake
where are you?

You know our faces making light
echoes below the ripples

Seen and unseen
like the black current beneath the ice

like a Ghost Man on second.


Since we uploaded into the cloud
the earth misses us.

It hasn’t rained for months.

All your campfire girls
All your drowned fuselages and kelped wrecks
All your pine pollen parades
Your mouthfuls, your gulped breaths

How many gigabytes is that?


Somewhere Midwestern boys
are palm-piloting flat rocks

across your skin sending telegraphs
to the future. And where are you going?

Come back. Echo back.


A mother mallard nestles into soft needles
to make her home above rocks
where a boy with a stick is sure to find her.

If you are grateful that you’re not a body
recovered from a winter river
raise your hand

If you can distinguish the thrills of joy and the thrills of pain
raise both hands and thrash around a bit.


I want to stand here a little longer.

In the face of the water at night
stars make replicas of themselves
to replace us.

How many of us can you hold
before the memory is full?
It is starting to rain.

Where is your warm hand for my hand?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

High Lonesome (Duende)

I have been thinking about the duende. It flared up out of the dark of the past recently like an oil lamp and has flickered at the periphery of my attention for many years. But only recently have I gotten around to actually reading Frederico Garcia Lorca's In Search of Duende, a slim brilliant collection of essays and poems on Lorca's theory of poetics, his love of Spanish folk culture, and the darkness of creation. I recommend it as an essential volume in any poet's library.
Lorca defines the duende as a demonic spirit embodying irrationality, earthiness, and a heightened awareness of death. It is not to be confused with the angel or the muse, which come from outside us, but rather, "The duende...is a power not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, 'The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you from the soles of the feet,' Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation." Later he writes, "There are neither maps nor exercises to help us find the duende. We only know that he burns the blood like a poultice of broken glass, that he exhausts, that he rejects all the sweet geometry we have learned..."

When Lorca refers to duende in "deep song," Andalusian cante jondo, it sets me wondering about the songs and folk culture closer to home, namely the high lonesome sounds of Appalachian mountain music (bluegrass, old-time, gospel, and blues) and the deep threads of fatalism in the culture there. Examples are numerous, for it is a rich and storied tradition. Just give a listen to Roscoe Holcomb, for one, and see if there is not some kind of duende at work in his voice, the lyrics, and tone.

The language, terrain, traditions, and songs of the region have always had a hand in shaping my poems, as well as no small amount of who I am and how I live. But it is a recent development to see just how (if at all) I might reckon up from my Appalachian roots, some of the duende of my people (taking cues from Lorca, who so masterfully drew from the "deep song" of Andalusia).

"'All that has black sounds has duende'...these 'black sounds' are the mystery, the roots fastened in the mire that we all know and all ignore, the fertile silt that gives us the very substance of art." Lorca found duende in the folk songs of his own country, as when examining a 17th-century ballad in which it is sung:

The blood of my womb
is covering the horse.
Your horse's hoofs
throw off black fire...

Here is a section from Lorca's poem, "Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias":
But now he sleeps without end.
Now the moss and the grass
open with sure fingers
the flower of his skull.
And now his blood comes out singing;
singing along marshes and meadows,
sliding on frozen horns
faltering soulless in the mist,
stumbling over a thousand hoofs
like a long, dark, sad tongue,
to form a pool of agony
close to the starry Guadalquivir.

"Black sounds" run rampant in the murder ballads, laments, spirituals, and protest songs of southern Appalachia. Beneath it all is a strong current of fatalism that nevertheless yields to the human will to persevere through the making of song, art, death-defying creativity.  What I am struggling to do, then, is to draw upon the coal-dark deep song of this culture I come from and somehow shape it into another kind of poetry.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Poetry Game

When I get together with my friends Michael and Phoebe, we often find ourselves playing the Poetry Game (which Michael picked up from his Aunt Sharon, a pastime she acquired from the late poet Ruth Stone one Christmas in Vermont). Like the best games, it's simple but inexhaustible. Everyone chooses a word or devises a rule (we call them shoves) that all must incorporate into their own poem. We write for about a half hour, usually over a second round of coffee, then re-assemble to share what we've come up with. Not a bad way to spend a morning with friends.

On their last visit, we played and came up with these three shoves:
1. no abstractions
2. address the poem to a "you"
3. the second word of each line should rhyme with the last word of the line before it.

A Dream is Not an Abstraction

You were here again with me on the road
we strode up the hill past wormy fox-nibbled
apples dribbled in dew wind-fallen embrowned
above town along the shoulder walking the loop
you stooped and lifted a spotted yellow apple
a sun-dappled rotten orb to your mouth your teeth
and breath were poised like road crews
shoveling bruised heaps of land
pouring sand and hot asphalt over bodies
broken bodies buried beneath the intersection of tongue
and hunger you looked at me and it was night
dogs bright with cidery bellies howled moonward
without words you held my hand and pointed
at disconjointed stars and said you’d like to gather
them rather than see their diminished blue specks ball them
up then form a fist of light like a bunch of grapes
to place in one of your paintings to dangle there
like a chandelier against the dark hill and you and I
became like that painting so much scraped oil
the howling dogs there too with blue
and a few touches of grey at the edge like a Chinese scroll
landscape rolled into sky and you looked at me and asked why
then I turned to you and stood alone under stars that
had scattered back into their original places
the face of the moon was like a yellowing apple again
and then you were here as you had been beside me on the road

While I don't consider this a "poem" yet and perhaps it won't ever be, it was useful play. What I came up with is still too shackled within the shoves, kind of trapped within the occasion of the game itself, and language has yet to burst free and grow in its own direction. Plus, I'm not really sure why I didn't include punctuation. Still, I'm glad to have made some of these images that may be useful in other attempts down the road. Who knows? Essentially, it's a reminder that exercises can be fun and practical and maybe I should do this sort of thing more often.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Snowy Owl

The first snow storm of the year is here, as well as visiting writer Howard Norman. On the drive to Johnson, Howard spotted a snowy owl on a covered bridge near Wolcott, VT. A snowy owl! Apparently, it is an irruption year for the species due to an increased lemming population. This boost in survival rate and food supply has sent the snowy owls further afield, south into the United States (with sightings this winter from Seattle to Boston with snowy owls spotted as far south as parts of Missouri and eastern Pennsylvania).

This snowy owl was spotted in the Indian Springs Metropark outside Detroit two weeks ago.

Now that I know, I hope to see one, too. (I hear the common in Craftsbury village may be a choice location.) In the meantime, I want to share this awesome John Haines poem:

Prayer to the Snowy Owl 

Descend, silent spirit;

you whose golden eyes
pierce the grey
shroud of the world—

Marvelous ghost!

Drifter of the arctic night,
destroyer of those
who gnaw in the dark—

preserver of whiteness.

--John Haines, from Winter News (Wesleyan University Press)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Object Lesson

Sometimes I find it useful to look at a common object, meditate on it, and let it take me into a language and history and life of its own. It doesn't always lead to a "poem," but it's all part of getting out into the field to spread fertilizer, to till ground, to make attempts. Here's something that's obviously not a finished poem, but it has taken me somewhere interesting this morning. Something I may revisit.



In the common dark of my kitchen,
I cut into an orange with my thumbnail.
It is what it is: orange.
A simple fruit, small globe of juice
that sends a light spray when I rip it.
A tangy scent I'll wear on my hands all morning.

I'd like to believe the sticker
that claims the fruit is sun-kissed,
as if it hasn't known the dark Florida nights,
the gators and highway bars, the satellite dishes and blue
light of the TV in the sleepless orchard keeper's trailer.

Snow falls here like the petals there in May
from the flowering branches, where he prays
for no killing frosts. In December, they shake the limbs
in a riot of color.  The green unready ones
will mature in the mute black cold
of the refrigerated truck somewhere in Ohio
on their way to market, kissed more surely
by fluorescent bulbs above the produce department

where I pushed my wobbly cart, searching 
for what I don’t remember. I once loved
a woman with breasts like two winter oranges.
How we wore each other's scent into the day
after eggs and coffee, the paper, and a bowl of citrus.

Ten summers and warm winters pass
from pip to fruiting tree. This orange
in my hands, plucked by a man, 
whose history I cannot guess
except that he, like the orange,
may have ridden in the back of a truck
across borders through a darkness. 
How many brothers and sisters
grew on this same tree, were plucked
in the harvesting time?
Where are they now?

Saturday, January 7, 2012

M+H Zinc, Spelter, West Virginia

The smelter plant before its demise.

This time last year (when I was in residence at the Vermont Studio Center and had no inkling that I would be returning to work full time within a matter of months), I began to write about the zinc-smelting plant in Spelter, WV. I grew up there in the plant's shadow, though it had been derelict for years. My grandfather John Walsh worked there for more than 20 years before the factory abruptly closed in 1971 when so many zinc operations in the U.S. were outsourced overseas.

DuPont demolished the factory in Spelter and capped the site in 2002-03. And in 2007 a group of residents successfully sued DuPont for corporate negligence that had exposed thousands of area residents to dangerous levels of arsenic, lead, and cadmium. For decades factory waste had been dumped in a towering pile, seeping into the soil and the West Fork River. Because of the court settlement, most of my family and I will receive medical monitoring for the next 40 years for particular cancers and other conditions that may be linked with this prolonged heavy metal contamination in the water table.

It's an issue that hits close to home with me on many levels (environmental degradation, corporate barbarism in Appalachia, grassroots resistance, family history, labor, etc). And it presents the all too common challenge of making the political personal, the personal political, and making both into art.

For several months, I have flailed about looking for a structure, the right form, for this work that centers on the zinc plant. The current draft occupies some dozen pages in my yellow legal pad. Will it be a long poem of many parts? A linked sequence? A series of related poems? Right now I am taking my cues from Diego Rivera's mind-blowing Detroit Industry fresco cycle in Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Art. I've spent many hours in that room lost in the machinations and colors, the play between nature and industry and indigenous and industrial myth.  Here's a piece of the North Wall's largest section:

I appreciate the feeling that my eye is directed within each segment of the mural but that I am also free to perceive the whole of the composition in any order. The segments each stand alone and work together to form a grander narrative. Here then is the first panel in this assembled cycle I am continuing to work on:

   The Splasher Floor

   On the splasher floor no one spoke. We worked

   together by the smidgy light of furnace vents,

   the molten metal and cherry tips of cigarettes.

   Each day a choreography of shadows: break

   the clay, pour the zinc, haul the chains, dam

   the trough in time. Hoist the bucket, don’t get

   burnt. Pour each ingot down the line. The heat

   was suffocating. Clouds rose from each soiled man—

   the stink of caged animals sweating through their bars.

   The dust of the floor became greasy with fat. A body is ¾

   water and we evaporated one cupful at a time.

   The rivets in our jeans burning like hornets.

   And the old guys had it worse, hauling the extra

   pounds those extra years darkly, tasting zinc

   at the back of the throat, half choking,

   they’d say, “Made in Hell, more like it.” Leering and

   half-proud of simply surviving the shift, dangling

   out the 4th floor window breathing dead light between

   smokes. And what did I know of hell then, all of twenty

   wet behind the ears working the college summer break

   for beers? Those men had given years, hefted Vulcan loads

   in sync, exhaled heat and steam and hope

   of anything, any other life. And still they danced  

   circles around me on the slippery floor.  Perspiration

   mingling in the air—Gonzalez, Menendez,

   Shingleton and the rest—was what we breathed

   for three and a quarter an hour.

Yay for Poetry!

My friend Emmylou has declared that tomorrow is something called Yay for Poetry! Do you love poems? I bet you do. Mark this occasion by reciting a poem to a friend and/or taking a crack at writing one yourself.

Emmylou plans to write some haiku and offers this list of subjects to explore:
the back yard

Night Walk

Back around Thanksgiving I took a walk with my camera (a little Olympus Stylus) trying to keep my eyes open. The painter Stuart Shils was here visiting the Studio Center and we talked about the importance of recording what we see, of keeping what amounts to a visual journal.

These were the first photos I had taken in months. The sky that night was eerily orange due to low, snow-filled clouds reflecting the village and college lights. But it looked as if something more might have been at work. This is rural northern Vermont and the glow was more like what I've seen at night in more urban places like Madison and Ann Arbor. Anyway, I like how it also brought a green glow out in the white buildings against the snow.

Friday, January 6, 2012

2012: Get Rich or Die Mayan

I've been feeling a little pressure lately (somewhere between my shoulder blades and skull house) to start a blog. Not for the usual reasons--if there are usual reasons for "blogging," a ridiculous verb that with any luck won't outlive some of my houseplants.

Two factors conspired to find me (us?) here: 1) the painter Stuart Shils' visit to the Studio Center in November in which he talked about his photo blog as a conversation of images among friends and 2) feeling the double whammy of losing touch with some good friends after my recent move to rural northern Vermont coupled with my decision in 2010 to no longer participate in Facebook. (Righteous side note: I urge you to read Tom Hodgkinson's essay about who owns Facebook and thus all the information you upload to it. Plus, let's be honest, bad grammar is often a sign of bad thinking).

Thus this blog for those who care to check in on it. I am thinking of it as an external copy of my own journal, slightly refined and reformatted to fit the screen. You're welcome to visit here as often as you wish for what I intend to be a steady-ish stream of thoughts in response to what I am reading, what happens between poems, what I am looking at, life in Vermont, the world at large, conversations with painters and sculptors and poets over lunch, etc.