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 281 4/3/14: Three Restless Obsessions

My mind keeps moving between these two ideas:

The poet John Donne said “No man is an island.

The Buddha said, “Every man has an island within.”


If separated, do two objects ever long for one another? Does the owl cookie jar miss the hollow witch with her plastic apple and pipe cleaner worm?  Why do I still mourn for those unwanted thrift store clothes, so eager and ugly that wait slump-shouldered on the rack?

I wonder if animals in the spirit world ever muse on the fates of their bodies. Does the cow ponder his skull and think: “Better my head be used as a ceremonial mask to conjure dreams than being painted turquoise and bolted to a steak house wall where it inhale through the stone canyons of its nostrils, the memory scent of its own burning flesh.”Does the turtle find wonder in the shell reborn as ceremonial rattle? Is initiation into “the sacred” preferable to being sold as an overpriced bohemian “curio”?

Or does the very concept of horn, skull and tailbone feel impossibly quaint to them
in those meadows where they move like happy shadimagesows?


Day 276 3/29/14: Waiting for the Dead



Waiting for the Dead

Once the fortune-teller shut the black curtain

wound the ticking clock and set the alarm,

assuring no revelation

spilled past the allotted hour.

He held my right wrist and traced

two broadly divergent lines on the edges of my palm.

“You have the ability to transgress boundaries

and enter the world of the dead.”

This I already knew.

The paths inscribed in the body

mirror those I walk in the wooded past—

trails marked with faded red ribbons

blurred by rotting and growing.

I pass the serenity of beaver ponds,

the crude warnings nailed to trees,

the collapsed wedding altar.

But where are the dead?

Should I watch for them

in wilderness

or  feel them

rise and fall in every step?

I hear that the dead often appear

just beyond the borders.

So I follow the cold stone walls

up and down the leaf-strewn hills.

Once I dreamed that they wait for us

at places of transition—the parting of two roads

or the benches of lonely depots.

I remain alert when traveling alone.

They’re attracted to still, late hours

and fragments of their bright voices can be heard

fleeting transmissions

in moments of our greatest joy.

But most often the dead enter through sorrow

that old forgotten gate, past the whorled trees

in a forest of undeciphered lines,

of startled clearings and ever-widening paths.

(I wrote this poem to explore the idea of having a “gift” whatever that might be, and the inescapable burdens that come with it.)

Day 274 3/27/14: Carmel Point by Robinson Jeffers

(I love Robinson Jeffers and share his reverence for Big Sur and animals and poetry)

Carmel Point

The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses—
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rock-heads—Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff.—As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

Day 251 3/3/14: “When There Were Ghosts”

popcorn18If you like poetry, sign up for the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day e-mail. It’s pretty great. I loved today’s poem by Albert Rios. It reminded me of the first time I saw “Jaws” and how all the cigarette smoke rose from the front row creating wraiths of fog around the screen.

When There Were Ghosts

On the Mexico side in the 1950s and 60s,

There were movie houses everywhere

And for the longest time people could smoke

As they pleased in the comfort of the theaters.

The smoke rose and the movie told itself

On the screen and in the air both,

The projection caught a little

In the wavering mist of the cigarettes.

In this way, every story was two stories

And every character lived near its ghost.

Looking up we knew what would happen next

Before it did, as if it the movie were dreaming

Itself, and we were part of it, part of the plot

Itself, and not just the audience.

And in that dream the actors’ faces bent

A little, hard to make out exactly in the smoke,

So that María Félix and Pedro Armendáriz

Looked a little like my aunt and one of my uncles–

And so they were, and so were we all in the movies,

Which is how I remember it: Popcorn in hand,

Smoke in the air, gum on the floor–

Those Saturday nights, we ourselves

Were the story and the stuff and the stars.

We ourselves were alive in the dance of the dream.

Day 250 3/2/14: If You’re Feeling Lost….

This is a poem by Robert Frost called “Directive.” 

Back out of all this now too much for us,

Back in a time made simple by the loss

Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off

Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,

There is a house that is no more a house

Upon a farm that is no more a farm

And in a town that is no more a town.

The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you

Who only has at heart your getting lost,

May seem as if it should have been a quarry—

Great monolithic knees the former town

Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.

And there’s a story in a book about it:

Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels

The ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest,

The chisel work of an enormous Glacier

That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.

You must not mind a certain coolness from him

Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.

Nor need you mind the serial ordeal

Of being watched from forty cellar holes

As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.

As for the woods’ excitement over you

That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,

Charge that to upstart inexperience.

Where were they all not twenty years ago?

They think too much of having shaded out

A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.

Make yourself up a cheering song of how

Someone’s road home from work this once was,

Who may be just ahead of you on foot

Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.

The height of the adventure is the height

Of country where two village cultures faded

Into each other. Both of them are lost.

And if you’re lost enough to find yourself

By now, pull in your ladder road behind you

And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.

Then make yourself at home. The only field

Now left’s no bigger than a harness gall.

First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,

Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,

The playthings in the playhouse of the children.

Weep for what little things could make them glad.

Then for the house that is no more a house,

But only a belilaced cellar hole,

Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.

This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.

Your destination and your destiny’s

A brook that was the water of the house,

Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,

Too lofty and original to rage.

(We know the valley streams that when aroused

Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)

I have kept hidden in the instep arch

Of an old cedar at the waterside

A broken drinking goblet like the Grail

Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,

So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.

(I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.)

Here are your waters and your watering place.

Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

Day 236 2/16/14: A Sad Poem by Abraham Lincoln

I’ve never read an Abe Lincoln poem before, but I found this one really moving.

If you hate poetry, take Who said it: Abraham Lincoln or a Flying shark?  a quiz from Huffington Post.


My Childhood Home I See Again

My childhood home I see again,

And sadden with the view;

And still, as memory crowds my brain,

There’s pleasure in it too.

O Memory! thou midway world

‘Twixt earth and paradise,

Where things decayed and loved ones lost

In dreamy shadows rise,

And, freed from all that’s earthly vile,

Seem hallowed, pure, and bright,

Like scenes in some enchanted isle

All bathed in liquid light.

As dusky mountains please the eye

When twilight chases day;

As bugle-notes that, passing by,

In distance die away;

As leaving some grand waterfall,

We, lingering, list its roar–

So memory will hallow all

We’ve known, but know no more.

Near twenty years have passed away

Since here I bid farewell

To woods and fields, and scenes of play,

And playmates loved so well.

Where many were, but few remain

Of old familiar things;

But seeing them, to mind again

The lost and absent brings.

The friends I left that parting day,

How changed, as time has sped!

Young childhood grown, strong manhood gray,

And half of all are dead.

I hear the loved survivors tell

How nought from death could save,

Till every sound appears a knell,

And every spot a grave.

I range the fields with pensive tread,

And pace the hollow rooms,

And feel (companion of the dead)

I’m living in the tombs.

Day 234 2/14/14: Sunshine Liquor Tae Kwon Do

minimall_01I’m not one for occasional verse, but here’s a Valentine to Los Angeles.

It was always there for me. Waiting in the dark. Three words like an incantation. A readymade poem. Each time I drove north on Western, a silent recitation: Sunshine Liquor Tae Kwon Do. Sunshine Liquor Tae Kwon Do. Not so much the contents of a mini-mall, but an ode to Los Angeles itself. I vowed to use those words somehow. I would harness their natural rhythm, though there seemed little I could add to their perfection. As I approached the corner of Western and Beverly, the old excitement gripped me. Sunshine Liquor Tae Kwon Do. My talisman. My delight. It would be soon. Past the church. Past the trophy store. Suddenly it blazed before me in the oily, starless night. The lit box of the sign had broken in places, exposing the bright tubes beneath. Oh. Liquor then Sunshine. No matter. Syntax didn’t change the purposeful march of the syllables–two and two and. I stopped at the third line.Tae Kwon Do had become a ghost, a wound. It flickered there beneath a single hand-lettered obscenity: ZUMBA.

Day 211 1/29/14: Why I Write

I wrote this as an assignment in a workshop that I’m taking & thought I would share.

It’s interesting to remind myself why I continue to  write when I bitch about it constantly.


In adolescence, I felt driven by a mania to record, an anxiety about days slipping by. No experience had been fully lived until I transcribed it in my notebook. I remember the minutiae of make-out sessions, the margins full of life. Now at middle age I’m even more aware of time passing, but I’m gathering up all those journals I’ve kept since 13, choosing only a representational sentence or two from each year and throwing them away. I want to record my feelings about time.  Will tossing piles of antique store ledgers, cheesy clothbound “nothing” books will feel like liberation, or a bandage ripped off too soon?

I will write about the experience of turning many books into one.

            Writing is a way of seeing. I’m not a painter or a scientist, although like Keats said, I’m aware of how the poet inhabits other ways of seeing. Although I love painting, I don’t see the world in terms of line or color.  I love nature, but I am far too messy to be scientific.

I write because I’m haunted by language. Lines get stuck in my head. In the summer of 2001, I could not stop thinking: “Late at night, when the signal is clear….” I don’t think I ever used it, but it led me deeper into the experience of summer. The landscape seemed to conform to it. Through its effortless repetition in my head, I saw correspondences, communion where I might have simply seen house, grass, trees, stonewall. That thin fragment unified everything.

I can’t figure out why I’m alive, so I write to justify my existence. I agree with the philosopher who said, “We all come here with sealed instructions.” Mine must have to do with writing, since it is the only skill I have. Through willed ignorance, learned helplessness and genuine indifference, I can’t do much of anything else. I’m in awe of  friends who make clothes and fix sinks, dig gardens and train dogs. I think of a certain line over and over, wearing it down in my head until the marrow shines through, or let it drift so it retains its essential lightness on the page.

My brother can build a house. I construct and dismantle shelters of words. Leaky, eccentric, or structurally unsound, but still I build and rebuild. Sometimes I inhabit one for a while, but I never get too comfortable. In writing, there’s only a fleeting sense of “home.” But if I can articulate that absence incisively, or at least beautifully on the page, then at least I’ve created a temporary refuge.