Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

In the evening haze heroes are coming home

February 13, 2009


  Edgar Snow was, I think, the first westerner to interview Mao.  He met with him in the old fortified stronghold of Pao An in northwestern China in 1936.  By that time Mao had already been fighting the Nationalists for 10 years.  Snow recounted this visit and much much more in his classic Red Star Over China which the Economist called “An exciting and vivid account of one of the world’s most important events…”

  His take squared with neither Warhol’s nor my facile conception.  Snow found Mao “gaunt” and “Lincolnesque”.  He sensed a “force of destiny” and was impressed with his breadth of knowledge.  Mao’s reading list included: Ghandi, Nehru, Spinoza, Kant, Goethe, Hegel, Rousseau, Darwin, Adam Smith, not to mention of course the Confucian analects etc and the Marxist philosophers.

  He had knowledge of the “negro problem” in American which he compared unfavorably with the treatment of minorities in the USSR.  He thought little of Mussolini or Hitler, but believed that FDR was anti-fascist and that they’d be able to work together. 

  Interestingly, Snow didn’t think Mao’d fit in with the intellectual elite because he could be found coarse and vulgar.  For example, during a meeting once, he took off his pants to attenuate the effects of the intense summer heat.

  Some thirty-six years later the image registered by Henry Kissinger was much more fully formed:  “I have met no one…who so distilled raw concentrated willpower… His very presence testified to an act of will.  His was the extraordinary saga of a peasant’s son… who conceived the goal of taking over the Kingdom of Heaven, attracted followers, led them on the Long March of six thousand miles, which less than a third survived, and from a totally unfamiliar territory fought first the Japanese and then the Nationalist government, until finally he was ensconced in the Imperial City, bearing witness that the mystery and majesty of the eternal China endured even amidst a revolution that professed to destroy all established forms.”

  Whoa.  Certainly the Chairman was also responsible for untold hardship, starvation, cruelty, misery, and death.  Those did loom largest in the memory formed by my early schooling.  Just as certainly however he was indeed the ‘Great Helmsman’ at the launch and early voyage of what has become modern China.  (Even though if back on the scene today he’d do a double take)

  Mao is on my mind because oldest daughter gave me a book of his poetry for Christmas.  Of interesting insights it is full.  Nixon recounts Zhou Enlai commending a verse of Mao’s: “The beauty lies at the top of the mountain”.  I agree with Mao, Zhou, and our former president, but probably with a far more literal interpretation than might have been theirs.

  In the spring of 1927 (the year my father was born…) Mao wrote The Tower of the Yellow Crane

China is vague and immense where the nine rivers pour.
The horizon is a deep line threading north and south.
Blue haze and rain.
Hills like a snake or tortoise guard the river. 
The yellow crane is gone.  Where?
Now this tower and region are for the wanderer.
I drink wine to the bubbling water – the heroes are gone.
Like a tidal wave a wonder rises in my heart. 

  Thirty two years later he wrote Return to Shaoshan*: 

I regret the passing, the dying, of the vague dream:
my native orchards thirty-two years ago.
Yet red banners roused the serfs, who seized three-pronged lances
when the warlords raised whips in their black hands.
We were brave and sacrifice was easy
and we asked the sun, the moon, to alter the sky.
Now I see a thousand waves of beans and rice
  and am happy.
In the evening haze heroes are coming home. 

  Clothes (or the lack thereof) don’t make the man I guess.  At least not less inscrutable.  Or two dimensional. 

*Shaoshan was Mao’s native village.


December 12, 2008

 Several days ago I listened to the husband/wife team of Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth discuss their book Baboon Metaphysics on NPR’s Fresh Air.  (Terry Gross is the interviewer nonpareil!)  It was a fascinating discussion of the incredibly complex fabric of baboon society. 

  The title was taken from words of Charles Darwin: “Origin of man now proved.  Metaphysic must flourish.  He who understands baboon would do more toward metaphysics than Locke.”  Darwin therewith asserts a greater complexity to the mind than Locke’s (and later BF Skinner et al’s) tabla rasa.

  From the book: “Darwin disagreed – both with the conclusion that animals’ thoughts and behavior are entirely based on instinct and with the view that human thought and behavior are governed entirely by reason”.

  For example, brains scans of two day old humans show that they pay more attention to faces than other visual stimuli and focus more intently on speech than other auditory stimuli.  Had to have been in the recipe.

  On the program Ms. Gross played recordings of a variety of baboon vocalizations described as “grunts, screams, and wahoos”.  It was interesting to listen to several different ‘speakers’ in succession.  The voices are distinctly each their own. 

  The information transmitted by the grunts and other utterings is complex and structured.  There is a matriarchic hierarchy to baboon society which can be divined by careful observation of the patterns of the vocalizations. 

  To test their theory the researchers recorded the grunt of a higher ranking female followed by the scream of a subordinate and then played them back in reverse order.  The whole troop was dumbfounded.  Apparently there is no place for an uppity baboon.

  Another interesting aspect of their research was based scatological evidence.  Collecting poop was easier and less intrusive than drawing blood as a means to obtain and evaluate glucocorticoid levels which rise and fall with stress.  When a particular baboon falls victim to a predator those hormone levels rise in each member of the group, but more greatly the closer the relation.  Stress is also evidenced in the friendless.  And furthermore the hormone levels fell when estranged family members were observed to be reintegrated as apparent acts of compassion.

  From their research, Cheney and Seyfarth extrapolated two conclusions regarding baboon metaphysics, brains, and evolution.  “First, natural selection often creates brains that are highly specialized.  Arctic terns migrate each year from one end of the earth to another, ants navigate across the Sahara, bees dance to signal the location of food….Yet… there is no evidence that [they] are generally more intelligent than other species…. they are more like nature’s idiots savants…”

  Secondly that “The domain of expertise for baboons – and indeed all monkeys and apes – is social life”.  And it sure sounds like the grunts, screams, and wahoos hold it together.

  Which, uh, brings me to Robert Frost.  In the December 4 New York Review of Books an article about Frost shows that he too thought that: “the brute noises of our human throat…were all our meaning before words stole in”.

  In fact, his theory was that the essence of effective poetry is to be found in “sentence sounds”. * “It is everything in the sound of poetry; but not as inventor or creator – simply as summoner”.**

  The author of one of the reviewed books, Mark Richardson, “notes the Darwinian drift” of Frost’s thinking.  He also mentioned that Frost had been influenced by Herbert Spencer’s observation: “variations of voice are the physiological results of variations in feeling”. 

  My wife knows just what is going on (and what course of action to take) by noticing if I’m grunting, or screaming, or wahooing.  Heck, so did my dog.  She would hide whenever she heard me grab my tool belt.

  Baboons are very distant relatives.  We humans took the path less traveled by – left the jungle long ago.  Lived in caves for a while.  Learned how to emote in many different languages.  Still are social creatures.  Sure will be interesting to see how, having added nuance to our grunting and howling, our “sentence sounds” will evolve through keyboards, flat screens, and emoticons.

NB It dawned on me that I had hidden (well, lost) somewhere at home a recording of Robert Frost reading some of his own poetry.  Took me a while to find it.  Longer still (and a few grunts) to coax the turntable into cooperation.   Compelling to listen to his intonation of Fire and Ice.  And to remember Kennedy’s inauguration while listening to Frost read his The Gift Outright: 

The land was ours before we were the land’s
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people.  She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright.
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward.
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become. 

* In the 12/11 Economist Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney describes his own speech patterns as “Phonetic grunting”.

**cf “The repetitive pattern of his picking seems to procure the rasp of his voice like hot firing synapses do obsessive thought” in Freewheelin’ above: 6-6-08




October 31, 2008

  Hemingway wrote: “… a thing is true at first light and a lie by noon and you have no more respect for it than for the lovely, perfect weedfringed lake you see across the sun-baked salt plain.  You have walked across that plain in the morning and you know that no such lake is there.  But now it is there absolutely true, beautiful and believable.”

  What a way to go through life.  If something is beautiful one should simply allow it to be so.  There is beauty all around if you’re open to it – especially if out in nature’s throes.  Your choice. 

  The river flows east and west here, a geographical anomaly with which I’ve never really become comfortable. (I guess it’s probably the reason I always carry a compass.) Rivers flow north to south in this hemisphere, right?

  Anyway, at sunrise, over these particular few days of fall, this orientation of the landscape makes for an incredible display on my drive to work in the morning.  Traveling west along its northern bank, the sun flames up over the horizon behind me and spectacularly engulfs our downtown some distance ahead as the river bends a bit southward – windows cracklingly ablaze and masonry all coppered up.

  Each year, for a moment, I ask myself if it is that time of year, or might there really be a fire?  I’m forced to turn off my radio and concentrate.  Soon, I realize that it’s my bit of autumnal bliss and relax and sometimes even pull over.  As I’ve said above, I’ve always enjoyed pyrotechnics.

  Further along, just before my office, a wooded island blocks view of the river (as long as limbs are leafed).  During these few days, by now several minutes past dawn, its canopy is burst ablaze, flames blowing about wildly, and spreading ever eastward.

  These are events of existential relativity just like rainbows and, uh, the proverbial tree falling in the forest.  You’re not there, they are fundamentally not seen or heard.  The rainbow only occurs in the brain of one with vision and in the right place at the right time.  Similarly, the tree may fall in the forest, but there is no sound if there is no tympanum upon which the sound wave for to fall.

  Shame, crime, sin to miss or dismiss or – more – not to enjoy any such sweet “spot of time”. 

Tip tops of trees
At dawn – peak autumn color
Like flames in a breeze

Poetry for Physicists

October 24, 2008

  I don’t like to revisit the same issue – at least not directly – but, well, in an entry level undergraduate physics course I read a book entitled: Physics for Poets  and I’ve thought ever since that there should also be something called Poetry for Physicists

  This came to mind recently while reading reviews of a new production of the opera Doctor Atomic which follows events leading up to the explosion of the first nuclear weapon in 1945.  The libretto was assembled from historical documents by Peter Sellars.  The end of the opening chorus goes like this:

A weapon has been developed
that is potentially destructive
beyond the wildest nightmares
of the imagination;
a weapon so ideally suited
to sudden attack
that a country’s major cities
might be destroyed overnight
by an ostensibly friendly power.
This weapon has been created
not by the devilish inspiration
of some warped genius
but by the arduous labor
of thousands of normal men and women
working for the safety of their country.

  Certainly I am glad Hitler didn’t cook it up before we did and the several hundred thousand Japanese who perished probably did substitute for many thousands of Allied deaths.  Somebody was going to figure it out and we’re lucky it was us.

  What did take me aback though was that during a recent dress rehearsal the composer, John Adams, met with one of original scientists who told him: “I didn’t know a single person at Los Alamos who wasn’t enthusiastic about using it.  Not a single person.”

  I’m no military strategist and won’t attempt to suggest what better course of action might have been taken, but will state the obvious: with such terrible power must come responsibility and perspective.  I wonder how that responsibility would have been managed if those with even the vaguest notions of what the ramifications of E = MC2 might be were versed in, say, ancient Greek literature.

  For example, in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King the title character meets King Laius on the road to Thebes and kills him due to a prideful perception of disrespect.  Only later does he find that Laius was his biological father.  Or the Odyssey in which that title character lands himself a ten year detour by haughtily mocking the Cyclops who was able to use information contained in the taunt to exact revenge.

  It isn’t a lack of knowledge or information that got those fellows into trouble, it was arrogance and a lack of humility.  There is actually a name for the concept – hubris – and it is well to keep in mind.  (Like every time I open my mouth!)

  Perhaps those scientists would have been chastened by knowledge of the myth of Prometheus.  He was the Greek god who gave fire to our ancestors and was punished by Zeus for having done so.  Chained to a rock, his liver was torn out and eaten by eagles, only to have it grow back and torn out again day after day. 

  Or how about something more recent:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.   Robert Frost

  As the pace of change ever increases discerning vision will only become more critical and as Nathalie Sarraute wrote: “Poetry is what makes the invisible appear”.

October 17, 2008


  Ever read or see A River Runs Through it?  Rare case of a wonderful book and movie both of which came to mind when I noticed that a new Norman Maclean Reader just came out.  River Runs Through It is the achingly beautiful autobiographical story of a Scottish Presbyterian minister father, two sons – one turbulent and one well grounded, and fly fishing on the Blackfoot River in Montana.  “In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”

  Mr. Maclean wrote that his purpose was to explore the “topography of certain exposed portions of the surface of the soul”.  It is the soul of the tumultuous one, Paul, which lacks the sheltering layers most humans are able to maintain.  The exposure causes him to fall in with the rhythms of nature both harmonious and discordant.  He is a masterful fisherman, but also drawn to gambling and drinking and fighting.   

    “A river, though, has so many things to say that it is hard to know what it says to each of us.”  Norman listens attentively.  At one the two brothers are fishing together and a big one gets away.  “Poets talk about ‘spots of time’, but it is really fishermen who experience eternity compressed into a moment.  No one can tell what a spot of time is until suddenly the whole world is a fish and the fish is gone.  I shall remember that son of a bitch forever.”

  The ‘poet’ Maclean invoked was Wordsworth:

There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence-depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse-our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.

  Paul (played by Brad Pitt in the flic) had no capacity for reflection or introspection.  The river carries him wherever it goes.  At the end, after he is found beaten to death, there is an exchange between the father and Norman.  Father: “Do you think I could have helped him?”  Son: “Do you think I could have helped him?”  “How could a question be answered that asks a lifetime of questions?”  Maclean asks the reader.  He concludes: “I am haunted by waters.”

  Paul reminded me of Meriwether Lewis who, like he, apparently reveled and managed well in the dangers and difficulties that filled the expedition he led with William Clark, but once back in civilization and society floundered.  Easy street was his most difficult traverse.  He was found dead of gunshot wounds two years later.  It’s disputed, but most thought it suicide.

  Huck Finn bore some resemblance to both Lewis and Paul Maclean, but knew himself well enough to say: “But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it.  I been there before.”

  I can’t stand it either.  I’ve been there before too. 

Note 1: At the movie’s end, at the last light of day while we watch a now nearly ancient Maclean cast his fly towards a cliff on the far side of a rushing river, the reading of the final lines by director/narrator Robert Redford is a coda more perfect than any other I can recall:  “Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.  The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.  On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops.  Under the rocks are the words.  And some of the words are theirs.  I am haunted by waters.” 

Note 2:  Perhaps I’m in luck.  Maclean didn’t start writing until his “biblical allotment of three score years and ten” after being prodded/encouraged by his children who had long listened to his story telling.  I remember driving a blue Ford pick up with a manual transmission talking about the Genius (aka Genii) in the bottle while one kid or another would shift when I’d push in the clutch…  And it was they who organized this space for me…

October 3, 2008


  The Stranger by Christopher Van Allsburg is a book I wanted badly to buy, but did not.  Why not?  Sticker shock.  It was autographed and priced at $250.  Our well worn copy at home will have to do.

  It came out in 1986 and ranked right up there with the Polar Express for at least two of our kids and perhaps even a bit ahead with the one born in 1985.  It is, for me, the ne plus ultra of children’s picture books.  Perfect combination of colorful, compelling artwork, spare yet fruitful prose, and prescient allegory woven discreetly into the fabric of the narrative.

  To a kid it reads as the story of an enigmatic stranger knocked temporarily into amnesia by an auto on a dark country road.  By this adult, now some twenty years after publication, on its pages can be seen hopeful resolution of careless interaction of man and nature.

  “It was the time farmer Bailey liked best, when summer turned to fall”.  Driving home, thinking he’d hit a deer, Farmer Bailey finds a strangely clad itinerant lying in front of his vehicle.  Taken to the Bailey home he is doctored and fed.  This is the caption to the cover picture above:

  – Mr. Bailey lent the stranger some clean clothes.  The fellow seemed confused about buttonholes and buttons.  In the evening he joined the Baileys for dinner.  The steam that rose from the food fascinated him.  He watched Katy take a spoonful of soup and blow gently across it.  Then he did exactly the same.  Mrs. Bailey shivered.  “Brr” she said.  “There’s a draft in here tonight”. –

  The stranger seems able to communicate non-verbally with the wildlife and stays with the Baileys for a while working tirelessly in the fields.  Until, that is, he notices that the autumn hues in the distance are not shared with the still verdant deciduous trees of the Bailey farm.

  After putting back on his own clothes, off he hurries leaving fresh frost and fall colors not far behind.  In the frost on the Bailey’s window is written “see you next fall”.

  It’d be terrible if fall didn’t come.  I can’t imagine living in a place where the seasons do not change.  Whether it be the luxuriant transformation of bean fields from green to golden or maples from green to orange to red, one can hardly not be filled with wonder or reverence as witness. It’s like the slap in the face by a zen master to make sure you’re paying attention.

  It’s an amazing process.

  The green energy producing chemical chlorophyll is unstable and rapidly decomposes in sunlight.  Thus, obviously, plants must continuously synthesize it.  Come shorter days and cooler nights a corky membrane grows between stems and leaves constricting the flow of nutrients and the chlorophyll disintegrates.  Green gone.

  Other more stable compounds are left behind.  Carotene (which helped transfer light energy to the chlorophyll) absorbs blue-green and blue light thus appearing yellow.  Leaves containing it, (aspen, soybeans) will thus turn bright yellow as the chlorophyll disappears. 

  Some leaves contain anthocyanins which absorb blue, blue-green, and green light thus reflecting red.   Unlike chlorophyll and carotone this is a component of cell sap and not part of the cell membranes.  As the concentration of sugar in the sap increases the yellowing leaves turn red.  The more sugar, the brighter the red.  Maple syrup.  Forty gallons of sap = one gallon of syrup.

  Best colors come with dry sun filled days coupled with dry cool but not freezing nights. 

Autumn morning sun
Hallows the dirt and stuble
Noble shades of brown

Dang, I guess that makes me a rainmaker…

June 27, 2008

  Amazing.  After just having remarked about what a great magazine is the Economist, the very next issue carried a short bit about my father’s first cousin!  The interview was shorter than a haiku, but cool just the same. 

  It had to do with the terrible flooding here in Iowa.  “Surveying his farm [with the reporter, he] saw glistening pools where corn stalks should have been.  Where the water had receded the earth was muddy, dotted by feeble plants.  ‘I consider us lucky’…  Much of his farm has survived.  Others have seen their land almost totally submerged.” 

  When I called out to ask if he was signing autographs, his wife answered and paused at first.  She hadn’t seen the article.  But, someone had called from town a few days back and asked if it’d be ok for a reporter from NYC to stop out…  

  They’d agreed to help, but with some concern.  They’d been interviewed before about life on the farm and the experience had done little but reinforce their innate reticence.  One’s life should speak for itself. 

  I read the bit to her.  She said they had been lucky, that the Lord had always been good to them. 

  Doesn’t all that make you wish your were a farmer? Had an intimate and interactive relationship with the earth?  No BS, no whining, no spray, no bling. 

  Reminds me of a poem (and source of the name of this little digital acreage): 

Subtle Signs

by Michael Carey – from his book The Noise The Earth Makes 

Although they had worked for days
hardly a word was spoken between them –
just hand gestures and a waving
of arms.  From tractor to truck,
from hillside to house,
these said what was needed.
His father, once, had called his uncle
a “terrible talker.”  he knew, now, what
he meant; that sometimes over dinner
and beer, Uncle Al found a use
for words, making them dance
around the pudding and cranberry sauce
and fall down upon them
like a crazy invisible rain.
Helping his father and brother with harvest,
he learned to read the subtle
signs in the subtle landscape:
how nature speaks to those who listen,
and those who listen when she speaks
hardly speak at all.

Also just like last time, I am reminded of something Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard once said: 

“You don’t see farmers as climbers.  You see city people.  Farmers don’t need to climb”

Everybody’s Gonna Go Sometime

April 19, 2008

At that last moment

Her eyes were blue as the sky

As deep as the sea

The Marvelous

March 13, 2008

   But, shoot, look where Galileo got us: “There is a straight line from the physics of Bacon and Galileo to the atom bomb” (German physicist Carl Friedrich von Weizacker).  Funny thing about science – just like religion – it’s yielded some really bad shit.

  Several interesting books (the exhortatory End of Religion by Sam Hamill and God Is Not Great, How Religion Spoils Everything by Christopher Hitchens) have been published recently about the terrors of religion.  Gotta remember that there is also the continuing tragic paradox of the Enlightenment.  Without the miracles of modern technology, the nuts and crackpots and despots about would be little more than babbling idiots – you know, sans WMD.

  Several years ago author Michael Frayn wrote a play called Copenhagen. It centered on his fictional account of the wartime discussions between Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr which may or may not have helped stop a Nazi bomb.  The morality of any atomic research in all of its historical permutations is the larger background issue.

  During a discussion of the play on NPR, a physicist savored the “sweet technological problems” that were and are attendant to nuclear weapon research. He even giggled in so doing.  Later, on the same program, Werner von Braun was quoted: “we were only charged with getting the rockets up in the air…”  

  Here though, is what went through Robert Oppenheimer’s mind while watching the first mushroom cloud at Los Alamos:

       I am become death, the shatterer of worlds;
      Waiting that hour that ripens to their doom. – Bhagavad-Gita     

  Nothing like a slap in the face, eh?

  Frayn ends his play talking about “that final core of uncertainty at the heart of things”. Can’t put the genie back in the bottle, but can Pascal* leave his room without sowing seeds of destruction?

  Perhaps best after first having found a way to be comfortable there.

  Here’s the koan, courtesy of Seamus Heaney:

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air. 
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it.  But in vain.
“This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,”
The abbot said, “unless we help him.” So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvelous as he had known it.

*”All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone”  Blaise Pascal 1623-1662