Saturday, August 28, 2004

Panicked Virgin

What drew me to the river time and time again was grass. A beautiful clump of late-summer blooming grass I first noticed last August, when this blog was just a twinkle in my inner eye, and the forces in the universe were still lining up to bring about my eventual, ill-starred intersection with the Floridian pick-up truck of cell-phone-distracted Ponytail Man.

What is it called when the heroine shambles about onstage, seemingly oblivious to what the audience knows is a gathering catastrophe ? Dramatic irony ?

My eye was drawn, I suspect, by the tall, graceful leaves. And further drawn by tiny soupcons of color stippling the airy seedhead. I peered more closely and saw the most outrageous, miniature details: little orange nubbins and feathery purple tongues emerging from each tiny seed. I never knew grass capable of such sexy extravagance. I spent months searching for the name of this marvelous plant, to no avail. I came to call it "Beautiful Nameless Grass," even bng, good enough names, I suppose, but not the name.

By the time Ponytail Man had wrecked his havoc with my poor second cervical vertebra, and left me derailed and ensconced for three months in Albert's's sticky stranglehold, it was fall. By the time I returned to the river, with Albert and camera, it was November. But by then I had a mission. I would photograph the BNG, and continue my researches through the long, dark winter.

I searched and searched for the name of the beautiful grass. Weeds of the Northeast failed me. The internet led me farther and farther afield, as it often does, into confusing taxonomies and geographic impossibilities.

So I laid in some botanical manuals, and settled in to await the re-emergence of the extravagant seedheads. And this week my patience was rewarded.

So I retrieved my grass manuals from the dusty floor by the bed and refreshed my high school botany. The yellow pendants are stamens, pollen-producing anther at the end of the slender filament. The purple feathery stigmata radiate from the central style, and connect to the ovary, forming, together, the pistil.

And there it was. Right there on page 25 of Knobel's little field guide.

Panicum Virgatum.

USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. Illustrated flora of the northern states and Canada. Vol. 1: 141.

Now it would be most excellent if that meant panicked virgin, given that my patron saint is St Paula the Bearded, the untouched, pious maiden who, pursued by a wastrel through the forest, ducked into a church and prayed that her purity be preserved. God, impressed by her chastity and devotion, took pity on her, and caused a beard to spring from her face. Her would-be rapist, repulsed by the facial hair, fled.

From what fate have my little chin hairs saved me ?

But "panicum virgatum" actually means millet that resembles a whip or switch.

Switchgrass is its common name.

So, then, how is naming knowing ? Kurt riffs on Siona's tongue-in-cheek phrase "nomen est numen," a phrase even Mandelbrot translates as "to name is to know."

I knew switchgrass before I knew its name. But I like knowing its name,malapropped panicked virgin, millet whips and all. Writers tend to like everything about words, from the shapes of their letters on the page, to their sounds, to how they choreograph the tongue and throat and teeth. We like their genealogies, and their faux-genealogies. We like how they behave in the midst of other words, reflecting and refracting, blocking and amplifying. We like the interface between words -- signs -- and their shadowy back-story, the "signified." We like how words strain toward precision, and skitter off into obfuscation. We like their baggage. We even like their lies and their little accidents, their bubble-chamber collisions, their splits and decay. All the arcana and quotidiana.

Nomen est numen ? I retranslate the phrase, and beg to differ. A name is not the numinous spirit of a thing, its divinity.

What do you know, then, when you know something's name ?

Its name. And that's something.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Pray Tell

Late afternoon. She squats in a small west-facing clearing at the margins of the wooded river bank, a tangled scrim of weed and vine between her and the bright meadow. Another universe fills the camera lens, black shadows threading through a world of green. She thinks of the pink and blue cellular geographies that she scanned through her microscope lens in school, the same geographies that she seemed to see palisade through autumn sky at sunset after her long hours in the lab. She thinks of prayer flags on isolated mountaintops. Worlds within worlds, within and without.

The long pods in the tree overhead wave in the wind. Their movement reminds her of laundry hung out to dry, or curtains blown inward. Or prayer flags. What is prayer ? Wind inspiriting fabric. Breath moving through creature, the made thing. Breath animating dust. Homely as now I lay me down to sleep. Words for perilous junctures: wakefulness and sleep, health and sickness, being and non-being. The first prayer, the child's prayer, is a petition of the kindly parent, of the fierce protective father. It is the prayer that springs to the lips in all subsequent moments of peril.

Hanging things, seed filled, made for wind. For disseminating. Any text or speech is like a seed, taking root in the recipient's mind. And a prayer ? Where does it take root ? In a desert, on a lonely mountaintop. If a tree falls in a forest and there's no one there, does it still make a sound ? She'd always found that question absurd, sophomoric, based on ill-stated assumptions. And prayer ? It is not so simple as mouth and ear.

So is prayer a soliloquoy ? She peers at the seedhead, astonished at its beauty and intricacy. No soliloquoy, this. It is pure colloquoy. She lowers the camera. The grass field undulates in the wind. Pollen scatters. Seeds fall to the ground. The field browns, dies, lies fallow under snow. Regrows in spring. Chorale, not solo. Multiple chorales, assonant, dissonant, infinitely polyphonic. Field, ocean, planet, galaxy, universe. The many turned to one. The one turned to many.

Who can separate the eye from the vivid purple of the vetch ? They are co-conspirators in prayer, made for one another. What was that Buddhist phrase ? Dependant origination. Arising in tandem. Light moves between them, Holy Spirit.

And light invades the substance of the leaf. The leaf's prayer ? Green. The eye replies: Amen

Ailanthus. Tree of life. Hardy, urban, ubiquitous. She loves its seeds, the bunched samaras, each with its cyclops eye, each ending in a twisty little dollop. A lumbering metaphor, a compendium of stories. A pantheon, a bible.

Nature bristles. Earlier, she'd stood by the small inlet, watching ducks. A man and woman approached, with a plastic bag full of bread. The ducks, keen for a handout, swarmed close. The man and woman threw bread and smiled, happy to be feeding, happy to be engaging the birds. Generous, eager for connection. The woman turned to her, shy, and said Nature can be so beautiful sometimes . Nature bristles. We bristle back.

There's something nuptial about this whole enterprise, she thinks. Pale green, dangling ribbon. A big bridal bouquet, a wedding night, a charivari. How is a prayer like a wedding ? That sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. I do meets Thy will be done. Not so much a consent to what is, but a vow to clearly see what is.

Even the smallest twig hangs, anchored. Gravity, the ground bass of creation. Tufted seeds fly aloft, then land.

Here green and dun coexist. There are no nursing homes in nature. A bud and a bone make equal claims on beauty. In the psalms, the sublimest adoration follows the most anguished, outraged curse.

Humans were swift to harness gravity. The gibbet, the gallows: tree as prototype. Archetype. She thinks of how the hanged seem to cock their heads, as if curious, incredulous. An accident of gravity and biomechanics, to be sure. But still. How could you ?

How could we ? Images, each worse than the next, arise in her mind, as if from graves that open at midnight and disgorge ghouls. She thinks of leaders, powerful men. Her president, whose discourse always bring the psalmist's words to mind: His throat is an open grave. Arms dealers, jailers, warlords, profiteers. It is a dark age. Has it always been so ? No wonder she sees hanged people on a dead branch. It has already been noted: Strange fruit. Pity us, forgive us, she prays (prays?) our estrangement.

And further prays Forgive me for seeing hanged men's twitching legs in these back-lit maple samaras, a literary and metaphysical transgression. They are not keyholes, either. Or eyes.

Help me simply to see curve, and color. Pattern and structure. Light, shadow, delicacy, intricacy. Then I'll ask: what is that ? Speech fails. Prayer begins.

But who could live within such a wordless prayer ? Who would want to ? The dry, faded grass forms graceful banners against a background of straight twigs. Intrinsically beautiful to the eye, she thinks, and beautiful in the evocation of flags, those valiant human attempts to write text on wind. But these banners remind her of crusaders' flags. The banners of war, religious war.

Then what about berries, silhouetted against snow ? Round, discrete, engaging. More Basho than Donne or Herbert. More koan than credo.

But, being human, she can't forego the stories, the metaphors, the associations. They're hardwired. Delicious. Seductive as a candy house in the forest. Who's that looking out the window ? Kindly crone ? Hungry witch ? River serpent ?

Through the fence she sees the used car lot. A man is grilling meat. Plastic flags in red white and blue flap above him. Red white and blue balloons sway like showy flower spikes among the cars. A plume of smoke ascends, savory, propitiating, petitioning. We will give them this day, it announces, that which is fully loaded. The absurdities of dailiness, always grinning just beyond the hedge.

She thinks back. It was an early, cloudy Sunday morning in June. The playground was empty. School was out, and the children's garden was a fallow mess of blackened tomato plants and smashed gourds. A small sundial stood in the middle. It was a sunless, timeless morning. Two rows of pendant thetas dangled from a crossbar on the gymn. She listened and heard kindertotenlied. One of the most anguished prayers possible.

She could try, next time, to fashion her prayer from ascent.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Stink Memory

As if offering proof, my brain directs me to the bookshelf toward what I thought was Nabokov's Speak Memory but what turns out to be his Strong Opinions. What, then, was Speak, Memory ? Sartre's memoir ? I turn to Google, my 50-something's indispensible aide-memoire. Turns out that title is, appropriately enough, Les Mots, or The Words, the first things to leak out of the aging brain, as other things remain, seemingly indelible -- like the fact that I had a copy of The Words with me on the day my light blue VW bug ran out of gas as I drove home, one late morning, post-call, from my internship. Circa 1977.

An eidetic image of that wide, deserted suburban street in Framingham, Massachusetts remains, which I can embellish with the arrival of my husband/ex-husband-to-be, PMS, his camping trip delayed by having to rescue the absent-minded PT, who had failed to get her defunct gas gauge fixed. Les Mots bakes in the hot sun of the front seat of the little beached car.

I move the little magic figures around the stage.

PMS, short for Philip My Sparrow, pours gas into the little car and waxes eloquent on the topic of PT's selfishness, incompetence and improvidence.

"Fuck you, then," PT snarls. She grabs Sartre from the car, and stalks off, dumping the now never-to-be husband or ex husband, and, while we're at it, let's go for broke, quitting the internship.

Poof ! Everything vanishes, dissolving into an unbounded pea-soup fog of indeterminacy. Goodbye walk-in clinic ! Goodbye kitties ! Goodbye wonderful son and magnificent second husband ! Whoops ! There goes my computer ! And my backpack ! And my slippers, cell phone, stethoscope, wheee ! Good-bye ! Good-bye !

And hello what ?

Nevermind. That's the stuff of bad movies. Whose titles I forget. Was Tom Hanks in any of them ?

Have I even read Nabokov-it-turns-out's Speak, Memory for that matter ? A quick scan of the most likely bookshelves comes up empty. The bookshelves that, two decades and one move since their last methodical arrangement by genre, retain only small pockets of order. A cluster of modern novels here, a little knot of existentialists there beside a shadowy conspiracy of hard-boiled mysteries.

Entropy. The same thing that's addled my bookshelves is invading my brain. That thing, kindly called by neurologists benign senescent forgetfulness, that leads us to ask such burning questions as:

Remember that movie, the one starring what's his name ? You know, that guy ?

Cue James Merrill's "Losing The Marbles."

We've just returned from vacation. We stayed at a little resort in Falmouth where we've stayed several times over the past decade. It's got a pleasant little beach on the west facing side of the little oceanic armpit-of-Cape-Cod known as Buzzard's Bay. The sand is clean and white, and the beach is covered with white chaise longues, and blue and white umbrellas. The water is blue and tame. As we walked on the beach one night I reflected on how my experience of the beach was colored by my memories of it, and how my memories of it were in turn influenced by the several poems I'd written about it.

Now what was that Nabokov said on the topic of memory and experience and place ?

Never mind.

One night this past week we walked a bit down a Falmouth Center side street after dinner. It was peaceful and warm and quiet and suddenly some kind of creature appeared, running down the sidewalk across the street. It was too large to be a cat, and its gait -- a kind of skipping or mincing lope -- was not quite dog. It was slender, long-legged and it's tail was oddly cantilevered -- a somewhat bushy inverted U -- in a way that seemed neither feline nor canine. What was it ? A fox ? A coyote ? For several days we laced our laconic, vacation conversations with speculation. Then, one night, a small, ruddy creature dashed across the road in front of our car, unmistakably fox. Unmistakably different from the ghostly, loping quadruped in Falmouth center.

All of which led us back to the skunk we'd seen waddling across the hotel beach almost ten years ago.

Which in turn led me to the poem below. Which I hadn't read in years. Did I write this ? Or these ? They hover in a limbo between familiarity and strangeness, like a dubious memory, like lost sloughed-off bits of self.

Sea Skunk

He pads across the beach at midnight
weaving through regiments of chaises longues,
skirting the sea’s desultory recruitments,
as if following something delicious and precise.
One ripe tendril seems to tease him onward.

Behind him extravagant volumes billow on the wind
like an invisible columbine whose bells and spurs
nod, sway, insinuate through the ranks of salt,
flowering, lingering aloft
between the dipper and the channel buoy.

From here he is all black waddle
a fat soul slung between nose and plume,
a pilgrim, practically a poet,
a creature of generosity
and taste. I pause to read the air

while Pharos smoulders in disapprobation
against the studded wall of the horizon,
glowering between tense, paced drags of light:
he has seen it, seen it all before,
and smelled it, too, St. Elmo’s Fire,

sizzling along the yardarm, the ozone
wafting off the blue-edged corposant,
wet pitch, rum and shipwreck,
as delirium drenches the rigging
and True North cedes to siren. Yes,

the oldest spells are taken by the nose.
One drop of musk distilled from a hanged gob’s sweat,
a pinch of ash from an immolated virgin,
and voila, ave ignis stella ravishes everything
from the sea lanes, to the sky’s dot-to-dot.

Poor Skunk, do you ever tire
of pouring out your soulful redolence ? Or envy
your namesake cabbage, the cowled and foetid one
who squats in the swamp ? Only the palest ignis fatuus
ever limns his leaves, and, most of the time, he scans.


I was that poet, once, that skunk, following delicious tendrils of scent everywhere, slung between my nose and the trailing plume of my poems. Poor skunk. I fear she's gone. Was she roadkill ? Did she finally heed the sea's desultory, malign recruitments and dive into the pre-verbal drink ? I miss her fluency and extravagance. Her wordy generosity.

What's left ?

A little beach covered in me-wrack. And the drip drip drip of words as they leak out, one by one, and stream, first in a rivulet and then a torrent, toward the sea.

Monday, August 16, 2004

The Water Mill

Her name -- Fredegond Shove -- is right out of Tolkein. An obscure Georgian poet, cousin of Virginia Woolf, she was, according to the CD liner notes, a friend of Ralph Vaughn Williams' first wife.

I'd been listening to Vaughn Williams' song "The Water Mill" for some time before I began to pay attention to the lyrics. (There's an excerpt at the link if you're curious.) It's a quiet, compelling little song, with the perpetuum mobile piano accompaniment obviously representing the non-stop turning of the mill wheel in the stream. The text is strangely detailed, a pleasant, rustic catalogue of aspects of the miller's life in pretty, conventional images such as "...swallows flit/ ...willows toss their silver heads..." short clauses often spilling over line breaks in a clever mimesis, again, of the turning wheel.

But there is, I soon realized, a dark undercurrent to this bucolic little song. The mill is "an ancient one,/Brown with rain and dark with sun." It is wizened and worn by the elements, brown, dark and ancient. Images of brightness and darkness alternate, like day and night, emblems, like the turning wheel, of the inexorable passage of time. The powerful, overwhelming passage, in fact --

"the waters roar/Out of the dark arch by the door."

It's hard not to hear death roaring out of that dark arch, darkness roaring into the sunlight.

In the miller's yard, the same drama plays out, death mentioned explicitly now.

"the phloxes in the garden beds/ turn red,turn gray with the time of day,/And smell sweet in the rain, then die away."

In a stanza about the mill loft, she writes

"The miller's cat is a tabby, she/Is as lean as a healthy cat can be."

implying that there are lean, unhealthy cats that prowl somewhere outside the poem. The beetles in the loft fare less well -- they "choke in the floury dust" -- a strangely awful, death-laden image, that leads to these two lines:

"The wheel goes round/and the miller's wife sleeps fast and sound."

Following the dust-choked beetles, this fast and sound sleep implies death, just as the lean but healthy cat implies illness and wasting. Next, the poet makes time explicit:

"There is a clock inside the house/Very tall and very bright/ It strikes the hour when shadows drowse/ Or showers make the windows white;"

I love this tall, bright clock and how tall brightness -- and artifice -- presides over the alternating darkness and light of passing time.

She mentions death explicitly a second time, in a stanza about the miller's children. They play "Barefoot, barehead, till the day is dead/and their mother calls them in to bed." The head/dead/bed rhyme seems to encircle the "children" in a complex image of the death/sleep to which their "mother" (who we previously encountered sleeping "fast and sound") summons them. This combination of end rhyme and internal rhyme adds to the poem's millwheel velocity. She employs this device several times -- gray-day-away in the passage about the phloxes, and the more occulted house-hour-drowse-shower in the clock stanza.

Finally, the tired miller eats at his "well scrubbed board" and drinks "like a thirsty lord," while streams of suitors come for his daughter --

"But she never knows which one to take: / She drives her needle and pins her stuff,/While the moon shines gold, and the lamps shines buff."

And on that odd note, it ends, with dangerously sharp pins and needles, "stuff" that seems more shroud than wedding dress, a distant golden moon, and intimate lamplight that's strange, muted, brown.

It is a song about ordinary life -- work, family, day, night, rain, sun -- and inexorable transience. The poem, like its clock, shines "tall and bright" over everything, taking its measure, also bound to fail.

Saturday, August 14, 2004



Grace once saw a night-blooming cereus bloom.
It seemed to follow the moon or the stars, she said,
pursing her hand into a bud, fingers up,
to show me how it inched night after night,
nondescript and blind, around her yard.

She’d grown impatient and almost yanked it,
convinced it pined, homesick, for Florida.
It was worse than a weed. Brown. Strange. Morose.
But at last it opened. She showed me with her hand:
palm up, it quivered in the morning air.

And, in the darkness, oh, the sight, the smell --
Her eyes fell shut. Her hand sunk to her side.
Startled by sudden nightfall, words dispersed,
as, in her darkness, the cereus rebloomed.
I watched, impatient, squinting in the sun.


From The Midden

Tree Doctor

Pastoral Kitsch

I Can't Believe It's Not A Lily Pad

Apportez-moi La Poussiere De Pingouin !

Wednesday, August 11, 2004


Ever the obedient consumer, the river path pedestrian took the message in the bottle seriously: DO NOT EAT. THROW AWAY.

Was he tempted, just for a second, to tear open the little packet and squeeze the forbidden substance onto his tongue ?

What's this ? Maybe I can get a buzz offa it. "Si-li-ca gel." What wuzzit I read about silica -- is that the stuff you can make speed outta ? No, wait. That's sudafed. Oh yeah. Tits. It's the stuff they shoot into tits to make 'em bigger. Better chuck it. I don't need no big tits.

Sand. Silicon dioxide.

I worked in a diode factory for six months before I began medical school. The company was called American Power Devices and it was down a winding, tree-lined road from my parents' house in northern Massachusetts. It was 1973. Silicon Valley was still a twinkle in capitalism's eye. IBM punch cards and Univac were household words emeriti.

I guess that would put me in on the ground floor of the microchip revolution.

It was a fascinating place and I had a fascinating job. There were long, tubular furnaces into which I had to slide trays of silicon wafers, thin and perfect as communion hosts, to imbue them with boron and phosphorous and turn them into semiconductors. Then there was the little plexiglass hood, bigger than a breadbox, smaller than a coffin, under which I scoured the wafers with a waterpik-like sand jet. It seemed far too delicate an operation for its name: sandblasting. The radio played Killing Me Softly over and over that summer. To this day the song reminds me of sandblasting silicon wafers -- the hiss of sand on silicon, the slowly burnishing surfaces.

There was another machine -- a bell jar the size of a juke box -- that vaporized little corkscrews of gold wire and gold plated the silicon wafers. I remember the gutteral glug glug glug of its vacuum pump. Then there was a cold, windowless room where I'd coat the wafers with a purplish gel to prepare them for etching. I don't remember the details of the process, but I remember how peaceful it was in that little room with its humming ventilators, precise little instruments and aromatic reagents. It was like a hermitage. I loved it in there. I loved performing the meticulous little chemical liturgies. Like saying mass. Sand from sand, light from light. I felt safe in there, protected from the unruly, impinging world.

Out back, across a narrow, empty meadow, freight trains passed several times a day . I'd stop and sneak a long look at them as they went by. Cows used to graze that field, and in its previous incarnation, the factory had been their barn. I'd visited it as a child after buying ice cream from the dairy stand next door. I loved the hot, shadowy, redolent barn and the placid animals, languidly swishing their tails against the fat, lazy flies. How odd to be there , fifteen years later, in an ultra-clean, chilly room anointing little wafers with purple resin. Burnishing them under a plastic hood. Blasting boron atoms into silicon. Vaporizing gold in a big bell jar.

And how odd to be revisiting these places thirty years later, led back by a bright trail of silicon crumbs. What if I'd heeded the alchemical seductions of these magnificent substances and become a chemist instead of a physician ? Listened to my deepest, most reclusive inclinations and spent three decades in the clean, lonely space of a lab (or hermitage or library or writer's garret) instead of the thronged, malodorous and messy cowbarn of the clinic ?

The smells of manure and xylene mingle, contrapuntal, in memory. Killing me softly with their song.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

Gloria Mundi

The river path gives many profound teachings in transience.

In early June, campion resemble blousy, leg-o-mutton sleeves. They seem fresh, girlish, even virginal.

Now, in August, they have become little burnished urns

full of tiny, ash-gray seeds.

I find this oddly exhiliarating. The summer, having reached its blaring crescendo of green, prepares for death. It's about time. As things senesce and die they become deeply interesting. Of course first there's the whole going to seed thing. August is one big late-term pregnancy.

Consider, as a thematically appropriate example, milkweed.

From a fuzzy morula of pale green nubbins

spring stalked, rosy buds

which open, one by one,

to form a hemispheric cluster of intricate, pink, star-like blossoms

each elaborate and complex;

each stalk elongates, sagging with its heavy, blanching flower,

as the whole flowerhead attenuates and wilts

shrivels and browns

and dies -- as a fresh green pod emerges from its base

and burgeons

and bulges

and splits -- its bright, tufted, seeds taking to the air --

leaving behind a graceful, gray shell, and emptiness --

how grateful I am to witness all this.