Encounter by Czeslaw Milosz


We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.

A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.

One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,

Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going

The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.

I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.






Try To Praise the Mutilated World

By Adam Zagajewski         

 Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

Day 342 6/2/14: Riffing on David Foster Wallace

Every so often I have to re-experience David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon Commencement Address. It’s been a while since I’ve taught it, so I pulled it out of the mothballs today and read it to my late afternoon English 101. They really loved it. I even heard a few exclamations of  “Aww, that was good!” or “I feel like crying.”

I wish that someone had taught me early on (at age 15 or so), what David Foster Wallace tried to tell the students of Kenyon College in 2005: in order to stay sane in the face of all the heartbreak and misery that life brings, we must exercise control over “how and what we think.” We must cultivate discipline and awareness, so as not to be a slave to our thoughts.  The class talked about the forces in the world that prevent us from keeping this truth “upfront in daily consciousness.” We talked about advertisements, movies, social media, cell phones that all increase our self-obsession, isolation and craving.

(A few hours later, when I sat down to write this, I thought of putting some sort of music or radio news report or something on in the background. For “company” which is how my mother once described how  television.  But I’m glad I didn’t. The light is nearly gone The traffic sounds like some ocean hum.  I am easing into the night. I can feel my hands typing these words. I’m aware of the lengthening shadows.)

After class I gathered all of my messy papers and binders and walked out of the building. I saw an older man in a nice shirt and tie with a backpack. I knew he was a teacher, not a returning student. He looked at me and I smiled. I didn’t think my smile was particularly serious or constipated. But he said with a kind of empathetic resignation, “Another day, huh?”

I don’t know why it made me happy and reflective. I wanted to laugh. Like we were those two dogs in the Warner Brothers cartoon punching the factory time clock. And I thought it was so poignant and sort of tragic that each day of our lives no matter how dull or difficult is still “a day” and I thought how many of them I have wanted simply to end. It seems like something of a sin–not the depression so much as the mindlessness.

A few months ago, I wanted to rescue a few sentences from my diaries and burn them. I stopped keeping diaries because I got sick of all the clutter of old ledgers and notebooks and I just can’t imagine keeping one online. But I went to Skylight Books tonight and bought this blank sketchbook covered with lions that looked like lions from an old 60s kid’s book. I used to feel like I’d redeemed even the most “blah” day if I could write about it in a journal. It felt like I slowed time down a little, rescued something miraculous (and there always is) from the banal progression. Maybe keeping a diary was one way of keeping “the truth up front in daily consciousness.”

About a year ago I had a dream about David Foster Wallace. We were having a wonderfully deep conversation. Like me, DFW was obsessed with shark attacks and loved the humor of P.G.Wodehouse. In the dream we had so much to talk about, at least I thought we did, until he said not unkindly but abruptly, “Well, I’ve got to go take  a shower now.” I stood outside the bathroom door in disbelief. Maybe he just wanted me to leave. But then I heard the water.He really did need to take a shower.

The next day I sort of felt close to DFW–after all we’d shared a dream. So I went to Skylight Books and bought his biography “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story.”  D.T. Max writes about howWallace’s high school tennis team traveled around the state for tournaments. Once they were going to a Van Halen concert, but “ditched Wallace who was in the hotel room taking one of the long showers he was famous for” (10).

A couple days later, still high on this synchronicity (if that’s what you’d call it), I walked by the bookstore again. In the corner of the window I saw a little shark–almost like origami, haphazardly leaning against one of the Jeeves books by P.G. Wodehouse. In a window usually organized by theme (fire, Los Angeles, etc.) Jeeves and the shark seemed a bizarre and random pairing. But they made perfect sense to me.

Day 328 5/19/14: 58 TV Commercials from 1977

The flu + youtube= a melancholy meditation on pop culture

58 TV Commercials from 1977

When did sagging, bulbous bologna become happy baloney:

slang sung by children peeling sweaty circles from the lunch bag’s caress

Who in the schoolyard knew of crazed pigs chewing each other’s tails off?

Who had heard that the runts were slammed to death against the slaughterhouse floor?

Or that a pig that met such a fate was known by another childhood name: Thumper.

We loved the oblivion of mayonnaise.

We learned to laugh off those surreal familiars: leg, shoulder, breast, wing

as we forgot our longing for an ecstatic father

who ate Golden Grahams in a tent

or drank Nescafe from a transparent globe.

I trace the inception of pre-adolescent dread

to my inability to reconcile disco and earthiness,

transparent lip gloss and false ferns

I blame the crackling aftermath,

the lingering shot of the silent game board

or cake mix in lengthening shadow.

That tension between ultra-sheer understatement

and memory yarn,

the shame of instant milk.

Day 317 5/8/14: On Childhood & Shelter

Having become infatuated with the idea of divesting, of giving away, of selling, losing things, I find a worn and heavily annotated paperback at a book sale: The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language and the Cosmos by Gaston Bachelard. Having loved his other books The Poetics of Space and The Psychoanlysis of Fire, I buy it for 50 cents. Although the acquisition makes me queasy, I also believe that books find us when we need them. I open to a page at random:

A beautiful poem makes us pardon a very ancient grief.

I take the book to the newly clean Echo Park Lake. I have an hour or two before I go downtown to the architecture school where I will do phone interviews with incoming students. The newly clean lake is full of lotus flowers. On the surface, they are the pink flowers I’ve seen on the front of countless books on Buddhism, pink-edged metaphors for unfolding, for beauty that is possible in the muck and maya of the world. Beneath the water, in the haze of silt, the pale green roots serve a practical function. The frogs lay their eggs among the stalks, a submerged forest, a place for trout to rest.

Bachelard quotes the poet Friedrich Holderlin:

” ‘Don’t chase a man too quickly from the cabin where his childhood was spent.’ ” Isn’t this request by Holderlin addressed to the psychoanalyst, that bailiff who believes it is his duty to chase man away from the attic of memory where he would go to cry when he was a child?  The native house—lost, destroyed, razed—remains the main building for our reveries of childhood. The shelters of the past welcome and protect our reveries.”

A mother duck and eight ducklings glide into the floating lotuses. The ducklings walk across the broad, floating leaves, heads of fuzz, maniacally pecking at some invisible feast.

Later I drive aimlessly above the squalor of Sunset to a gorgeous street of trees, grand houses with broad porches, stately Victorians. One of the palatial lawns is covered with chairs. I can’t tell if the family is moving in or out of the brown shingled mansion.

On the way downtown, I think I recognize an embattled stucco house at the top of a terraced hill that should lead to a temple, not to a sad bungalow. I’m convinced that I’ve seen the house before in a movie about a gypsy with a milky eye. And that other house, the one above the faded 80s mural of the runners with their hair swept back in the wind, starred in a movie about love ending. I remember how it perched, a dark nest above the syrupy ribbon of the freeway.

As I drive to school, I think of childhood shelters and all the facades from nameless movies that have become inseparable somehow from real-life buildings, like a rain-soaked magazine I found in a ruined house, the image and text a blur and tear, a one-ness.

At school I pick up the phone, call a student in China. Just to chat. To see if he could use an extra English class before beginning his fall program.

Tell me about yourself, I ask. What are you reading these days?

Bachelard, he says. He writes about childhood and space.







Day 303 4/25/14: Dracula, Cheever & Me

Lately I’ve been thinking about how certain books become inseparable from the places we are when we read them.

When I think of Keats, I remember sitting on a train speeding through the green blur of Long Island, and a deep blue collected poems from the 1920s with toast-colored pages that fell apart as I read it. First his name flaked off the spine, then the covers dangled by a few desiccated threads. I kept trying to glue the little book together, tape it  and make it whole. But each time I tried, I thought of Keats’ epitaph, still my favorite of all time:

Here Lies One Whose Name was Writ in Water.


 Peanuts. Mad. “Lennon Remembers.” “The JAWS Log.” All the beloved books of childhood I read while reclining on a scratchy green couch with an errant spring that used to burrow into my spine. I kept having to shift my body to get comfortable, to stay in the book. In those moments when I briefly surfaced from the page, I noticed how having read seemed to have changed the world slightly. I could see a new sharpness in old things, in furniture and wallpaper. I noticed how the old colored bottles on the fireplace, the colonial figurines, seemed to become more “themselves” somehow, to assert their thing-ness with greater authority.


 Baudelaire Selected Poems: First read summer 1985 Plum Island Massachusetts. I remember putting a star next to “The Albatross” in the table of contents. Sand in the pages. Book held against the blinding, magnetic sun. Every so often I’d stop reading and stare at the cover: two sea deities joined in salty, tentacled union in the midst of a crashing wave. I’d watch the calm, dark Atlantic. No sea gods. No crashing. No ecstasy. Just a guy with a mullet and a metal detector silhouetted at the surf’s edge.


 So many times I loved a book so much I couldn’t bear to part with it. Equal parts passion and sloth. Okay, I told myself, you have to go for a walk. Bring the book if you have to, but you’re going outside. All the way up the mountain trail to the Hollywood sign, I held the fat paperback (The Collected Stories of John Cheever), but didn’t open it. Then finally, on the long way down, I couldn’t wait. I read as I walked down the trail. I knew I looked stupid, but I had no idea it would anger anyone. “Look at you,” the hiker said as he passed me, “you can’t even appreciate nature. Pathetic.” Was this true? Was reading while one walked a sign of moral weakness–a declaration: I need a constant filter, an intermediary to block or translate the world? I wondered about my innate inability to relate to nature on its own terms. Even though I grew up in the country, I still can’t identify many trees. The present always reminded me of the past. The actual seemed an echo of the fictional. New Hampshire was Narnia. When I smelled the lilacs, I loved them. When I found a cellar hole in the woods, I felt fascinated and afraid. But Frost’s line about the abandoned house that had become a “belilaced cellar hole” is more vivid to me now than either the smell of those flowers, or that dark empty place in the earth.


 In 1986, I went with my father to Walpole State Prison in Massachusetts. Dad was interviewing William Douglas, a former Tufts anatomy professor who’d become obsessed with a prostitute named Robin Benedict and eventually bludgeoned her to death with a sledge-hammer in 1983. He threw her body in a dumpster in a Rhode Island shopping mall. My father was going to interview Douglas for the Boston Herald. In the news, the story sounded like a weird fable: “The Professor and the Prostitute.” The papers used words like “obsession” and I remember thinking it was so strange that Robin Benedict had been a graphic designer and a prostitute.

I brought a copy of “Dracula” to the prison with dracula1me. I remember watching my father disappear with a prison guard behind sliding metal doors. I had to sit in the waiting room with “Dracula.” I kept trying to concentrate on the book, but all I wanted was to watch my father ask a murderer a series of questions. I remember returning over and over to a description of a carriage on a rocky road and Lucy, pale and vampiric on her deathbed, but her pale face kept giving way to William Douglas, his big professor glasses, and how rodent-like and sweaty he looked in the newspaper photos. The contempt I felt for him as a teenager seemed an indictment of his ugliness as much as his evil.  At 19, the silver-fanged monsters of imagination were more sympathetic to me—or at least more beautiful.




Day 293 4/15/14: The Way of the Animal Powers


Revisiting the work of Joseph Campbell, I came across this passage from his book “The Way of the Animal Powers”:

“The animal envoys of the Unseen Power no longer serve, as in primeval times, to teach and guide mankind. Bears, lions, elephants, ibexes and gazelles are in cages in our zoos. Man is no longer the newcomer in the world of unexplored plains and forests, and our immediate neighbors are not wild beasts but other human beings, contending for goods and space on a planet that is whirling without end around the fireball of a star. Neither in body nor in mind do we inhabit the world of those hunting races of the Paleolithic millennia, to whose lives and life ways we nevertheless owe the very forms of our bodies and structures of our minds. Memories of their animal envoys must sleep, somehow, within us; for they wake a little and stir when we venture into wilderness. They wake in terror to thunder. And again they wake, with a sense of recognition, when we enter any one of those great painted caves. Whatever the inward darkness may have been to which the shamans of those caves descended in their trances, the same must lie within ourselves, nightly visited in sleep.”


Day 286 4/8/14: Shark Gods & The Drought of Dreams

“I’ve kept a diary, writing in it virtually every day, since 1976; beginning on November 30, 2012, I started keeping instead a series of ‘Trance Notebooks,’ as a way to transform my journal into a higher pitch of ceremony, an occasion for intensified, unmoored consciousness. Now I’m distilling the results into a sequence of assemblages….”

–Wayne Koestenbaum

I love Wayne Koestenbaum, and I love the idea of transforming the records one has kept of one’s life into something larger, stranger, full of new possibilities, a way to lead multiple existences.

I have piles and piles of journals I have kept since 1980, and I want to do something inventive with them. I had an idea that I would pick a representative sentence or two from each year and then throw all the journals away. I don’t think I have summoned the courage to do this yet, although I like the idea of only a few words like gossamer threads connecting me to the blurred past.

This morning, I began sorting through this random pile of thrift store ledgers, Barnes & Noble blank books, etc.

The volumes in which I recorded my dreams are even more difficult to part with than the books that contain transcriptions of my waking life.

Here’s a shark dream from 1999:

Walking down a crowded private beach in Malibu with a guy I didn’t really know, I spotted a dead whale in the shallow water.

Though the size of a sperm whale, the flesh was black and white like an Orca.

I pointed and announced the obvious.

“Oh, look! A beached whale.”

We waded out into the shallows to take a closer look. Up close, we discovered that although the body of the whale was real, the insides had been hollowed out and converted into a research station.

“Why doesn’t it smell?” I asked.

My friend ran his hand over the whale. “It appears to be covered in some kind of shellac.”

The whale rocked a little. “A great white is feeding on the underside,” he said.

No sooner had he made this observation, than the great white shark rose from the shallows and turned into a man.

At that moment in the dream, I recalled another dream I’d had in high school in which a dolphin sped from the open sea into the tidal break where he turned into a gorgeous Greek God type—sleek and chiseled.

However, this shark-man was no Adonis, but a grinning, buck-toothed flower child with long hair, a headband with a daisy stuck in it, and a frock over his pants—basically a hippie from central casting.

We became friends.

I wondered if his sudden transformation was a kind of omen, if it meant that other sharks might come.

Sometimes sitting next to him in the research station inside the whale’s body, I’d notice from the corner of my eye that his head had turned back into a shark’s head with grinning, crooked teeth.

Eventually, my companion and I had to leave the beach, return to our inland lives, and my hippie changeling slipped back into the water and returned to his shark form as my dolphin-man had done so many years ago.

But my nameless companion and I never forgot the shark-man. In the company of friends, in the post-dinner warmth of a kitchen, as one of us dried the dishes the other might tell the story. There was always laughter, always disbelief, but we’d quietly assert the reality of what we’d seen.

“No,” we’d say. “He was real. Right out of the water. A shark, then a man, then a shark again.”

There is probably an ancient story somewhere that explains the pull of original form, the inability of the animal spirit to stay in the human body for a prolonged period of time. And that’s why I love dreaming. We get to participate in stories beyond the bounds of our memory, stories that are somehow also our birthright, our very nature. We know them without understanding them. We filter myths through weird pop culture images.

Is it any wonder during this prolonged drought of dreams, that I feel somehow less human, less animal, less alive?