Saturday, January 13, 2018

Jan 11 2018

Why is the sky blue
when we really mean how;
the size of molecules
the scattering of light.

Because to ask why
is too metaphysical for science.
It implies that we
are at the centre  –
         that there is intention;
               that the sky is meant for us;
                     that our perception of colour
                     is absolute.

And so many shades of blue,
not to mention the leaden skies
the twilight greys
the milky light of dawn.
How it changes, as I watch.
And how, at night
the warm blanket of air
       –  eggshell thin
   around an embryonic earth   –
becomes invisible
clear out to the stars
as fast as light can go.

Transparent air
on which birds seem to levitate,
buoyant, and hollow-boned.
Too far for us to see
the powerful wings
clawing them higher,
the strain of muscles
flushed with blood,
enormous lungs
like glistening bellows
pumping deeply in-and-out.

All we see
are their slowly circling forms;
wings extended
on thermals of sun-warmed air.

From where they look down on earth
oblivious to us;
who are too small to notice,
too incidental
to the fugitive life of birds.

This poem touches on so many familiar tropes, I feel I'm becoming tiresome, repetitive, boring. There are animals, of course. There is insignificant man, set against the magnificence of nature. There is close observation and microcosm. And there is also imagery I seem to return to again and again: the image of the earth's atmosphere, the transparent night sky, the telescoping and sudden reversal of perspective.

On the other hand, I think this poem puts all my old tricks to use in a new and interesting way. And I'm pleased with the distillation and compression; especially the opening, where a relatively complex philosophical idea – one that could easily merit an entire essay – is neatly encapsulated in a few lines.

I'm generally reluctant to take on a poem like this: a poem of ideas; a poem with no narrative structure; and poem that is more intellectual than visceral, more detached than personal. It's hard to make that kind of poem work. Mostly because there isn't enough emotion or sensation to grip the reader. So I hope I rose to the challenge here.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Terminal Velocity
Jan 8 2018

The urge to jump.

The fear, peering over the edge
that my body will act without me.

An irrational compulsion, I know.
Yet I take another step back
or tighten my grip,
the crawling sensation
of my clammy palms
against the metal bar.

The compact car
halfway across
the narrow wind-whipped bridge,
wildly rocking
as if about to lift-off.

The apocryphal man
impelled from the ledge
into the subway pit,
power pulsing
in its dingy depths.

That vertiginous look
over the edge.
The dread
of the momentary lapse, subversive thought.
The minor intent,
and the fatal consequence
it irrevocably starts,
as out of proportion
as chaos theory.
Yet I'm not sure the end
would be so painful;
the abruptness of death,
the clever brain, protecting itself
in the mind's terminal blink.

So mostly, it's the gut-wrenching plunge,
so final
so full of banal regret.
Too quick
for even the steady state of constant speed,
suspended in free-fall
feeling time had actually stopped.

I've read how many suicides
would have wished for a second chance
half-way down.
We know this from the survivors
and think about the rest,
the fateful step
that was one too many.

But still, the ancestral fear
of snakes
                   ... height
                                      ... death
exacts its strange fascination.
How we are drawn, and repelled.
The presumption
of free will,
the mad compulsion to jump.

The crowd at my back
on the subway platform
as bodies press toward the track.
And here
on the skyscraper balcony,
a waist-high balustrade
brittle with rust.

Where I stand alone;
my fugue-like body
automaton legs.

Someone read  this poem, and came away with the impression it was about suicidal ideation. Which it isn't at all. Rather, it's about a common phenomenon called "the urge to jump from high places". I thought this would be immediately and universally recognized, and that the poem would not only make sense, but reassure readers --  as they read along and identified with the feeling -- that  they were far from alone in experiencing this fascinating and paradoxical urge.

The inspiration for Terminal Velocity was this piece, which appeared in Nautilus, a science/culture magazine (which appears both on-line and in print). I've recently begun to read Nautilus, and highly recommend it.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Shared Silences
Jan 7 2018

In silence, we're most often alone;
letting the mind wander
listening to our own thoughts.

But I see the old couple
dining together
who haven't said a word.
Do they enjoy the shared silence?
Or after all these years
have they run out of things to say?

Either way
they seem at ease with this;
where most of us
would feel the awkward heat
of social expectation
burning ears and tongues.
An older couple
who are still in love,
but whose infatuation
has naturally given way
to the quiet attachment of age.

I envy their comfort,
even if it's only the residue
of resigned familiarity.
Because the pressure of speech
builds in us like steam
in a closed vessel
testing its strength;
the social grooming, polite inanities,
the need to display
find meaning

We may be visual creatures,
but hearing is the most powerful sense;
setting-off alarms
that make the pulse quicken, muscles tense,
acting at a distance
in spite of walls
And most of all, the spoken voice;
because the power of speech
is the fundamental thing
that makes us human,
even a simple conversation
about the day's weather
idle gossip
or nothing at all.

He glances up, she passes the salt.
Who knows
If under the table
their feet surreptitiously touch?
If in the exchange
their fingers briefly brushed?

Man and wife, I assume
for no good reason at all.
An indifferent pair
seated across a table,
blank looks, and distant gazes
as they dully chew their food?
Or a constant couple
who feel no urge to talk,
sitting together
in contented calm?

to the clatter of plates
the buzz of the crowd.
A sentimental song
from when they were young
filling in the lulls.

The Demolition of Sandy Hook
Jan 5 2018

The demolition of Sandy Hook
included kindergarten chairs
and cute little desks,
blackboards, still covered in chalk.
Terrazzo floors
unlocked doors
shards of shattered glass.
The entire place
levelled, bulldozed, razed;
then its flag folded
its pole dismantled
its rubble carted away.

The elementary school
where 20 small children were shot
on the alter of guns
in a country that kills too much
and doesn't spare its young.

And now, many years later
while the shooter is dead
and the children are mourned
and the families crushed,
the guns persist
the laws still stand.

But the building was deemed unbearable,
too painful
to even look at.
An act of forgetting
that reminds me of the dull grey men
saluting from the Kremlin's steps,
air-brushed out
by the new regime.
Reminds me of the elementary texts
that sanitize the sins of the past
excuse our moral blind-spots;
simplifying history,
omitting the unthinkable.

Another decade of carnage,
and all the names
will have coalesced
into hazy numb acceptance.
Another decade
of daily death
and words like Newtown, Sandy Hook
SIG Saur, Bushmaster, Glock
will have all lost their meaning;
the subject changed
the shooter expunged
the school utterly gone.

The bodies buried.
The small headstones
atop their graves.

I don't write political poetry. (By “political”, I mean public policy and advocacy, not partisan politics – which not even the most ideological would submit to poetry!) But sometimes, I think emotion is all we're left with: that on some issues, we are way past the cool detachment of analysis, the carefully considered exercise of balanced fair objective thought; that on some issues, we're in a place where all that argument and essay and debate have to offer has been exhausted.

There was a piece in this month's National Geographic (Jan 2018) called The Science of Good and Evil (by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee), and it opened with a picture of Sandy Hook Elementary. I was impressed by its attractive curved facade of wood and river-stone. I was surprised when the caption informed me that this was all new: that the original had been torn down, as if even the sight of the building where the massacre took place was too much to bear. Down to the flagpole, the caption was careful to say. So, was this an act of reverence and honouring? ...or was it an act of intentional forgetting, where history is sanitized and bad memories expunged? How ironic: the school was demolished, but the gun laws were never changed.

(I very intentionally left out the name of the shooter. He (yes, as usual, a “he”) deserves to be forgotten. We should never risk allowing the notoriety and perverse celebrity of mass killers to become an inducement to other alienated and deluded misfits.)

(The litany of guns is taken from an actually account of his arsenal (as a cursory review on Google has it).)

(There were also 6 adults gunned down. I'm sorry if the poem diminishes this loss, but my intention was to emphasize the killing of the children: if such a depraved act was not sufficient to push legislators into reforming gun laws, than nothing will.)

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

A Single Thin Wire
Jan 2 2018

So cold
you wonder if eyeballs can freeze.
And recall stories of hypothermia,
where men strip off their clothes
in some bizarre illusion of heat;
not such a bad end, we're told
if you had your choice of deaths.

A single hydro line
spans 2 toothpick poles
a hundred feet apart;
one leaning, where the ground has settled,
the other anchored
in a barrel of rocks.

A thin black wire,
tethered to the house
like an insubstantial thread;
an umbilicus
feeding the fridge, the stove
the heat, the lights
the water pump
the phone,
a life-line
keeping out the cold.

In a bitter wind
it swings sharply back and forth,
weighed down
by a brittle crust of ice.
A single thin wire
all that's connecting me
to the warm civilized world,
at the distant end
of an intricate journey
that begins in a turbine or boiler
then runs a through a high-voltage corridor
sub-station, hub, transformer
branch-line, breaker, fork.
An arithmetic of failure
I can't help but add in my head;
a truck, plowing into a pole
a momentary overload.

the electricity flows, the furnace rumbles.
And my eyeballs have yet to freeze,
that shock-wave of cold
give way to numbness.

So much we take for granted.
A single wire, thinner than my thumb.
The thickness of a wall
in a small cerebral artery.
A fist-sized heart
that beats-and-beats-and-beats
for 90 years

Hoping that the ground has fully settled
and the wind subsides
and there are no bald tires
or drowsy drivers
or slick black ice.
. . . For tonight, at least.

The cold snap is over. But I think it was deep and prolonged enough to justify a second poem in a row that begins So cold ... !

This piece was inspired by a terrific piece in this week's New Yorker (the Jan 8, 2018 edition) by Siddhartha Mukherjee: My Father's Body, at Rest and in Motion (here's the link: The connection is almost incidental – one of the analogies he uses – and the only thing it has to do with the theme of Mukherjee's article is the idea of the “cascade of failure”. Nevertheless, I always find it worthwhile documenting the origin story of a poem, while I still remember it.

Monday, January 1, 2018

One Remove
Dec 31 2017

So cold
sound carries through the densely settled air
with cat-like acuity.
And in the stillness
I swear I can hear the mice
in their dim subnivean city,
a scurry
of naked pink feet
under dry crystalline snow,
the rustle of dead grass.
And when they stop, the sound of silence
huddling for warmth.

One often feels small in nature.
But looking up
on a moonless night
under cloudless sky
through rarefied arctic air
        –   as black as space
   and cleansed of all impurity   –
I am insignificant,
a tiny speck
on a minor planet
beneath the vast sweep of the cosmos.

And the insistent cold
penetrating seams, congealing flesh
is a sobering reminder
we are but one remove from death,
a single false step
one inattentive stumble.
In an unforgiving climate
where existence cuts close to the bone
the conceit of self-importance ebbs
mortality brooks no denial.

I feel more invisible than usual
but like feeling small,
trudging through the woods
under the vast expanse of night.
Where the only sounds
are the steady squeak-squeak-squeak
of snow underfoot
and my flash-frozen breath;
eye-lids, freezing shut
beard white with frost.
A bit of precious heat
lost with every step.

Really, what can one say about freezing cold that hasn't been said before? And how to say it that makes someone want to read? And anyway, who could possibly be asking for one more tiresome “weather” poem? ...Yet it's hard not to write about the weather when it's this cold for this long.

I like the way the poem looks down, and then up; focuses in on the small, then abruptly expands to take in the universe. There is actually a full moon, and it's breathtakingly beautiful. But I preferred the confluence of a clear black sky with that cold dense air cleansed of impurities: the perfect conditions to see beyond the warm blanket of atmosphere that restricts our gaze to small and inward.

In the end, I think the writer becomes as insignificant as that mouse. Which is a nice call-back (and made even clearer when the warren of nests and tunnels under the ice is referred to as a city), and gives the poem a sense of completion. (The appeal to sound similarly runs through the poem, and gives it a sort of coherence.) But mostly, I wanted to convey a feeling of peril and marginality: where existence cuts close to the bone, and where mortality brooks no denial.

(And yes, I always do feel invisible. In that parlour game of which super-power you'd rather have – the power of flight, or being invisible – all I can do is ruefully laugh. Because I am already the master of invisibility: of all things, what kind of super-power is that?!! ...and who wouldn't rather fly?)

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Dec 25 2017

The Japanese have a word
for the beauty to be found
in imperfection;
its artlessness,
its unaffected truth.

Because it's the needy
who bring out our best,
the cracks
that let in the light.
Because symmetry is boring,
and perfection
leaves nothing to chance.

Because if DNA were infallible,
we would still be single-celled creatures
in a warm primordial sea.

And because of all the mistakes
I couldn't help but make
to bother keeping score,
the many more
I will.

The curious object
odd, and flawed, and homely
I circle, and circle again,
compelled to observe
from every angle possible.
The broken, the quirky, the hurting
that draw me in,
the outrageous character
I cannot resist.

Like the stunted tree
that has struggled to grow
in parched depleted soil,
its rings compressed
wood dense
twisted branches bent,
I find myself circling
and circling again.
So much to see
in its imperfection;
the singular beauty
of nature's testing
in every crook, and burr, and break,
each scarred and gnarled limb.

There is the blank slate
of a newborn babe
cooing in its cradle.
While the stories written
in the parchment skin, and haggard face
of the old man on his deathbed
show the worth
of a consequential life.

How suffering, overcome
becomes us.
How transcendence emerges
beneath the glossy surface
we so artfully construct.