Vena Cava

in my vena cava
the surgeon found nanoscopic
relics of Portland

a tiny Victorian house
surrounded by roses

two rotting piers
encrusted in barnacles

and a rusted English Raleigh
bicycle circa 1940

in my atman
the nun found closets
filled with black vintage dresses

a wandering band of
Tuvan throat singers

an athenaeum of
illegible journals

and a wildflower meadow
humming with bumblebees

in my corpus
the oneironaut found the
ocean shore in summer

tinkled by
the bobbing music of masts

embroidered by seaweed
printed by paws

awash with the blue air
of distant tides

soon everything will change —
soft things collapse and die

soon only everything hard will remain
and skeletons emerge from frost

Willard Tidal Pool 4.28.19

The Difficulty of Writing


D.H. Lawrence


The Thinker by Rodin


Geoff Dyer

“A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”  — Thomas Mann

I first came across this quote in my early 20s.  The first time I read it, I was astonished!  How could writing be more difficult for a writer than for other people?  But it is.  It is, almost to the point of rendering the writer unable to write. For a writer, the stakes are sky-high.  Writing is a cerebral, exacting, daunting task, made even more formidable by the omnipotence of the words and the language that we use to communicate with all the time.

A friend of mine recently lent me a book called Out of Sheer Rage:  Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence by Geoff Dyer.  It was described to me as a book about D. H. Lawrence, “and so much more.”  It is a novel about the author’s inability to write a study of D.H. Lawrence, mixed in betwixt the facets of his life (such as his peripatetic nature) that keep him from reaching his most primal ambitions, with D.H. Lawrence leaking in intermittently.  In the end it is indeed a study of D.H. Lawrence, as well as a memoir, a travelogue, and a critique on literature and philosophy.  It is also about the difficulty of writing.

At first I was taken aback by Dyer’s stylistic echoes of the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard (an homage – or offense, depending on how you look at it) acknowledged as early as Page 3:  “As soon as I started making notes on Lawrence I realized I was probably sabotaging forever any chance of writing my novel which, more than any other book I had written, had to be written immediately, before another protracted bout of labour came between me and the idea for what I perceived as a rambling, sub-Bernhardian rant of a novel.  It was now or never.” 

Ben Marcus, who wrote about Thomas Bernhard in Harper’s magazine, is my least favorite writer for the same reasons I was initially apprehensive about Dyer.  Bernhard is one of my most revered authors, starting with Corrections, which I read about the same time I came across the Thomas Mann quote.  Corrections is the dark-edged paragraph-less narration of a project that is continually being “corrected” to the point of oblivion.  Bernhard is a genius.  When someone tries to imitate him it gives me pause.  Copying a Picasso might not be such a difficult task, but it doesn’t make you Picasso.

But as I read deeper into Out of Sheer Rage I was drawn into its meandering melanges, and Dyer’s  looping novel/memoir/literary critique entertained and fascinated me in a way that Marcus’ hollow post-postmodern babblings never have.  I loved Dyer’s commentaries on Rilke, Italian society, Camus, and Oxford, aka “Dullsford,” a place where “dim-wit academics [are] shoveling away at their research, digging the grave of literature.”

What does it require to write?  The right time, the right mood, the right energy, the right place, a fancy studio, the cabin in the woods?  All of those things and none of those things.  What are the great enemies of writing?  Distraction, procrastination, insecurity, atychiphobia (fear of failure), cynicism, depression, illness, exhaustion. . . the list goes on.

Dyer is haunted by the constant feeling he should be doing something other than what he is doing, or living somewhere other than where he is living.  This torturous sense of indecision haunts me as well.  Do I write now or go to the gym?  Do I go to the gym and write later?  If I write I will wish I had gone to the gym; if I go to the gym I will wish I was writing.  Later I am highly likely to be too tired for either, having stayed up very late reading.  But it’s the weekend, goddamnit.  In the end I decide to clean out the blankets of dust from behind my refrigerator.  I also have to go to the store.  And do yoga.  Check Email.  It is just like at the office:  death by a thousand paper cuts, though I accomplish a lot more there.  At times I am so driven, I become paralyzed; hence the difficulty of writing.  Of course there are larger issues at play here, mostly related to fear of writing itself (graphophobia!).

There are so many sources of inspiration:  books, the Internet, conferences, workshops, classes, writing groups.  They are all so helpful and yet so potentially distracting from the central difficulty, which is expressed so succinctly in that brilliant Nike slogan:  Just Do It. However we may cajole, reward, pressure, manipulate or encourage ourselves, it all boils down to those three silly words.  Of course it’s true for everything from exercise to cooking, whether you love doing it or not.  There is that constant battle with malaise.  Artistic creation, however, is so ensnared with ego, hope and desire, that traction is even harder to gain.

“The more I ponder these questions the more I am persuaded that the real subject of this book, the one that writing it was an attempt to evade, is despair.”— Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage, p226.  One could easily say the same of Bernhardt.

Then there is the “what if” factor, i.e. “what if I didn’t have to work; what if I didn’t have to go to that meeting; what if I didn’t have to volunteer for that worthy cause?”  And this is what Dyer has to say about that:  “The perfect life, the perfect lie, I realized after Christmas, is one which prevents you from doing that which you would ideally have done (painted, say, or written unpublishable poetry) but which, in fact, you have no wish to do.  People need to feel that they have been thwarted by circumstances from pursuing the life which, had they led it, they would not have wanted.”

Suddenly it is after midnight.  I should have been asleep two hours ago.  I have to be up in six hours for work.  A kind of sudden brilliance suddenly crackles through my mind.  Ideas for stories, poems, essays – the blog – well up in phrases and sentences that long to be captured.  This occurs at precisely the moment when I am most exhausted (and, perhaps, finally, my brain is most relaxed).  The irony of this is not lost on me.

Between the great devouring maw of time and the endless tasks (real and imagined), the magic kingdom represented by those three little Nike-ian words continue to propel us to put pen to page.

As Dyer says, “One way or another we all have to write our studies of D.H. Lawrence.  Even if they will never be published, even if we will never complete them, even if all we are left with after years and years of effort is an unfinished, unfinishable record of how we failed to live up to our own earlier ambitions, still we all have to try to make some progress with our books about D.H. Lawrence.  The world over, from Taos to Taormina, from the places we have visited to countries we will never set in, the best we can do is to try to make some progress with our studies of D.H. Lawrence.”

The Chemistry of Tears

The Canard Digérateur, or Digesting Duck, by Jacques de Vaucanson, 1739

The “Canard Digérateur,” or Digesting Duck, by Jacques de Vaucanson, 1739

I recently read Peter Carey’s latest novel, The Chemistry of Tears. What drew my attention was the automaton at the heart of the story. Automatons, puppets, magicians and dolls fascinate me, as they have the fiction writer Stephen Millhauser, who has devoted a great deal of prose to them (the movie The Illusionist is based on one of his stories). A few years ago, I read Edison’s Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life by British journalist Gaby Wood. It is a cultural account of the history of robotics, from ingenious inventions to outlandish hoaxes, including observations on film and cinema and a talking doll invented by Edison. It also goes a bit off-topic in its chronicle of the Doll Family, a group of circus midgets (or living dolls) who toured in a circus and appeared in The Wizard of Oz. The popularity of the fantasy life of hobbits comes to mind as well.

The German poet Heinrich von Kleist wrote eloquently about the poignancy of artifice in his famous essay “About Marionettes”:

“ ‘ We have seen that in proportion as reflection dims and weakens in the organic world the more radiant and commanding grace emerges. As the line which intersects another will continue through infinity only to find itself back before its starting point, on the other side of the line intersected, and the concave mirror after casting an image through infinity suddenly displays it immediately before us, just so knowledge must traverse an infinity before grace reappears. And for this reason grace is greatest in those whose bodies are totally devoid of self-consciousness or where it is infinite, that is, in the mannequin or the god.’ ”

Rainer Maria Rilke was famously disquieted by dolls. (“Are we not strange creatures to let ourselves go and indeed to place our earliest affections where they remain hopeless?”) For Baudelaire, toys were pathways to imagination and art.

In Carey’s braided novel, the heroine Catherine Gehrig, an horologist at the Swinburne museum in England, is tasked with restoring a 19th century duck (which winds up becoming a swan) that was originally commissioned by a wealthy Englishman named Henry Brandling, who travels to Germany in search of an artisan who can reconstruct the original plan invented by M. Vaucanson (such a duck by such a personage actually existed). The duck is meant as a gift for his consumptive son. Brandling magically believes the project will ensure his son’s mortality. The narrative is braided between Catherine’s raging grief over the death of her long-time married lover, a fellow conservator at the museum, and colorful excerpts from Brandling’s journals. The name Brandling sumptuously evokes “candling” and “brandy,” a name perfect for a patron who sets in motion (animates) an exploration into the mysterious territories of life, love and illusion.

It is thrilling novel; sadly the descriptions of the relationship between Catherine and her recently deceased love, Matthew, a coupling that runs like an artery through the narrative, ring false, and is the novel’s greatest flaw. The 13-year tryst is meant to evoke the heights of passion, a once-in-a-lifetime, soul-mate bonding. Unfortunately, the cloying renderings of this great love sound adolescent at best. Perhaps such Edenic renderings are meant to express how love is another kind of illusion, but in this context they sound hopelessly naïve and sadly unrealistic, somewhat dulling the power of the story.

Still, the tale compelled me. There is something both sacrilegious and riveting about the animation of inanimate objects, the melding of art, science and craftsmanship reflected in clocks, puppets and automatons, not to mention computers and robots. This theme is echoed in The Chemistry of Tears, with its occasional hints of the dark side of inventive genius – the internal combustion engine, for example, which has meant liberation of one kind, destruction of another. The book is framed against the backdrop of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico (“an ‘accident’ that seemed the end of history itself.’ ”). A lesser but notable exegesis can be made of the ways in which bureaucracies are infiltrated by personal emotions and agendas.

An aside, excerpted from Norbert Weiner’s Cybernetics, published in 1948: “At every stage of technique…the ability of the artificer to produce a working simulacrum of a living organism has always intrigued people. This desire to produce and study automata has always been expressed in the living technique of the age. In the days of magic, we have the bizarre and sinister concept of the Golem, that figure of clay into which the rabbi of Prague breathed life with the blasphemy of the Ineffable Name of God. In the time of Newton, the automaton becomes the clockwork music box, with the little effigies pirouetting stiffly on top. In the nineteenth century, the automaton is a glorified heat engine, burning some combustible fuel instead of the glycogen of the human muscles. Finally, the present automaton opens doors by means of photocells, (see intelligent building) or points guns to the place at which a radar beam picks up an airplane, or computes the solution of a differential equation.” Weinder is widely regarded as the originator of cybernetics:

Back to the novel. Cat’s assistant, Amanda, is brilliant, and somewhat insane (or is she?), as a result of dabbling in these confluences of science, magic and technology. “Lucifer is very beautiful,” she observes. Add an obsessive 19th century genius named Sumper and a child-prodigy named Carl (who may or may not be Karl Benz, the German engineer who invented the world’s first practical automobile), and you have a rousing tale combined with a philosophical meditation on the nature of the universe:

“I saw below me lakes and seas on the surface of which I beheld living beings which I cannot properly describe. They had systems for locomotion similar to those of the sea horse. They moved from place to place by six extremely thin membranes, which they used as wings.”

“You are wholly unable to associate what you see with what your life has taught you.”

And best of all: “Those beings who are before you now, who appear to you almost as imperfect as the lowly zoophytes, have a sphere of sensibility and intellect far superior to the inhabitants of this earth.”

“. . . there were mechanisms beyond human knowledge. . . systems we could never know, worlds we had seen and forgotten. If animals possessed senses of a different nature from our own, how would we know? Those creatures, despised by us, might have sources of information we cannot dream exist.”

Modern instruments of technology such as the Mac, the thumb drive, digital photography, MP3 files, and a “Frankenpod” are contrasted with the riveting of seven hundred pieces of metal into five chains that animate the swan. The final motto (of the commission, the restoration, and the novel itself), inscribed in Latin on the swan’s silver beak, is, fittingly, “Illud aspicis non vides: You cannot see what you see.” How does technology improve or impair us? What have we sacrificed to achieve it? It is timely to read and write of these things, especially given the recent viral obsession with the latest end-of-the-world prophesy. The truth is that the world begins and ends every day. Therein lies our tragedy, and our hope.

Automaton Writing a Letter in the Swiss Museum CIMA (Centre International de la Mécanique d'Art)

“Automaton Writing a Letter,” Swiss Museum CIMA (Centre International de la Mécanique d’Art), 

A Child’s Christmas In Wales

Child'sXmasinWalesCoverA Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas is a deep exercise in nostalgia, one of the great evocations of childhood as idyll.  Originally inspired by a sketch written for the BBC in 1945 called “Memories of Christmas,” five years later Thomas expanded it, incorporating some sections of a 1947 essay, which resulted in its current form, published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1950.  During his 1952 tour of America, while staying at the infamous Chelsea Hotel, he was approached by two recent graduates who believed there was a market for recorded poetry.  Unable to find backers, the two women funded the project themselves, under their new company, Caedmon Audio.  Thomas appeared drunk and unprepared for the reading, but over time the record became popular, and is credited with launching the audiobook industry.  A Child’s Christmas in Wales became one of Thomas’ most popular works.

Last weekend I heard the book read aloud by Abraham Schechter in the cozy library of the Irish Heritage Center in Portland.  Abraham is a photographer, poet, speculator and librarian who maintains a picturesque and thoughtful blog called La Vie Graphite.  It was delightful, and authentic Welsh pastries were served.  The presentation included Abraham singing a lovely Welsh lullaby, accompanied by guitar, and a slideshow of Abraham’s trip to Wales, where he and his wife had the good fortune to stay in Dylan Thomas’ house.  Happily, Abraham is the kind of writer who brings his own portable typewriter with him on a trip to Wales.

I am enthralled by Dylan’s poetry, which resonates throughout this short fictional memoir, rescuing it from schmaltz through such airborne passages as:

“Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed.”


Hearing the work read aloud brought the rhythms and descriptiveness into rich and pleasurable focus.  As new snow billowed through the frozen air outside the historic church, the past and present merged and blurred as we sat quietly receiving a great gift of  imagination and artistry, transmitted across the decades to us.

“And on Christmas morning, with dog-disturbing whistle and sugar fags, I would scour the swatched town for the news of the little world, and find always a dead bird by the Post Office or by the white deserted swings; perhaps a robin, all but one of his fires out. Men and women wading or scooping back from chapel, with taproom noses and wind-bussed cheeks, all albinos, huddles their stiff black jarring feathers against the irreligious snow. Mistletoe hung from the gas brackets in all the front parlors; there was sherry and walnuts and bottled beer and crackers by the dessertspoons; and cats in their fur-abouts watched the fires; and the high-heaped fire spat, all ready for the chestnuts and the mulling pokers.”