August 2007 Archives

Another Theory About Poetry


Sometimes I wonder if any great work of poetry actually sprang from a poet who wrote with intention rather that wrote from his or her own experience. That is not to say that there is no meaning in poetry, but those poems most fraught with meaning, most bound up in intention may be only secondarily so. That is, the poet in the composition of them followed the muse (inspiration, the Holy Spirit--you name the mysterious element that gives birth to art).

I ask because when I look around at all the earnest young artists today whose intent is to jolt, shock, and pull us out of our blase day-to-day plumbing of reality, their work is mostly of a moment. The shock wears off and the work becomes an artifact--a remnant of an era.

I look at some of the great poetry of the past and I see story telling, and yes, some kernel of a notion, some idea that gave birth to the whole--but I don't necessarily buy that the whole poem was constructed toward the end represented by the kernel. It may have been refined and perfected with the end in mind--but as I think about my poetry, I realize I don't think, "I'm going to bring this symbol and that symbol into conjunction and by their juxtaposition undermine this linguistic element. I think instead of a moment--real or imagined--a moment that means something--not in the sense of universal meaning, but in the sense of having importance in my understanding of how the world works. And thinking of that moment, I attempt to convey that understanding as best I can. There is no intent for this or that meaning. The words lead, I follow them.

And because that is the pattern, I often wonder whether all that is made of Eliot is purposive, or if rather he composed what made sense to him in all the complexity that is Eliot and we are left to divine purpose and intent where indeed the only purpose may have been to expel the irritant. When it happens we sometimes have pearls--but mostly we have dross--even in the works of the greatest poets--the discards more than likely greatly outnumber the poems that are worked to completion.

Just some thoughts, with no proof behind them.

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A Theory of Poetry


Not really. Theories of poetry are bloated, self-referential, and filled with all sorts of erroneous assumptions. Let's call this more self-referential revelations about one poet.

And there won't be many of those. I just wanted to note that while I greatly appreciate those poets who are able to use rhyme naturally and fluidly--Eliot and Frost come to mind, my own poetry doesnt' fit well into that schema. I have found over the years that I tend to prefer alliterative, assonant, and resonant poetry. I like the internal and external sounds of the words to work in more intricate ways than rhyme. I like the complexity of the music of words. And it was hammered home to me more and more as I wrote the following:

These Woods

How very easy it is to become
lost, to wonder down the wrong trail looking
for some sign of having passed by this way,
forgetting that the only motion is
forward, even when it seems like standing
still or continuous circling. Shadow
and light, the sound of leaves in wind, perhaps
a nearby stream trickling over rocks in
the late summer heat. Or, if these trees were
mangroves and the scuttling black ghosts were
crabs, the vision beyond the tangled limbs
would be the sea--blue-green immensity
stretching out to a sky that thins, becomes
transparent and lingers on the distant
[_____] Or, these woods are a muddle
a confusion of all forests, all lands,
all times. Whatever they are, I am lost
in them, stopped by a pebble from moving
forward, transfixed by a shadow, caught out
by the sudden unsearched for splash of sun--
light in eyes more blinding than the dimness
of the domain in which I wander. Where
am I? I want to call out shattering
a sylvan stillness, thoughtless blind silence.
And within me, the echo, "Where indeed?"
Still stopped, now I stoop to touch the pebble
that seemed to bar my way and feel its cool
damp surface and it's sun-stored warmth all at
[__] When will I want to move on? Is it
even a question I should ask? Still here
touching the smooth white that first distracted
me in my headstrong stomping through the gloom,
I dare now to ask what I would not know.

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The Monk Downstairs


In this novel by Tim Farrington, a monk, Michael Christopher, comes to live with Rebecca and her daughter Mary Martha in an in-law apartment that Rebecca has just refurbished.

The novel is beautifully written and seems to have moments of real insight into deep prayer. I've noted some of the here.

Alas, for those strengths, I'm afraid that what I expected did happen all too readily. Being a novel for larger public consumption, it catered to that whim. Mr. Farrington falls into the all-too-male habit of confusing satisfied lust with love and the couple no sooner brush hands with one another than they are entangled in bed.

If Michael is exemplary of the modern Catholic conscience, it is little wonder that we are facing the crisis we are in the Church today. He performs a baptism that does little more than mock the sacrament (a point he acknowledges later when he is reluctant to perform a more somber sacrament).

Rebecca, on the other hand is nearly schizophrenic in back-and-forthing regarding religion and faith. We're told she's lukewarm and seeking, and then she turns maniacal with Michael takes her daughter to a church to pray. And then she's back again asking him to perform a sacrament, although he claims to have no ability to do so (even though there is no indication that leaving the monastery has deprived him of his faculties as Priest).

Add to this various subtle errors regarding Catholicism that should not come from the mind and pen of a monk--for example, at one point, Michael speaks of "leaving celibacy" when, in fact, he has left chastity. Leaving celibacy is not a sin in itself, if the vow has been lifted; however, leaving chastity is always a sin. But then Mike isn't too clear on the notion of sin.

One is led to wonder whether Michael's dark night of prayer might not be more a result of his sinful and overweening pride and self-assurance rather than deep immersion in the life of prayer. All indications seem to point that way. I don't think it's possible to experience a dark night of deep prayer while one is in the midst of major sins. Although St. John of the Cross points out that we can't know and that God's grace is mysterious and makes all things possible.

At any rate, the writing is fine, many of the points about prayer are good, and the story was interesting if more than a little off-putting. It does show me that many male writers seem to have no notion of romance that does not center on the genitalia. A shame, this could have been a superb witness. As it stands, it is possible that someone who is not aware of Christianity or the power of prayer or the depths to which prayer can go may pick this up and derive from it an impetus to move further into prayer. Others will have a greater acquaintance with some good aspects of Christianity from it--so it is possible to have a good effect. Unfortunately, from point of view of faith, the novel is gravely flawed and so I can only give a half-hearted recommendation to it.

What a shame--it was building up to a superb novel--and had our main characters one iota of restraint, one moment of holding back, this novel could easily have flowed into the next in which the two get married. I've started reading that one and I only hope that it is better in matters of morals than this one.

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Morning Thoughts


You know, poetry really says it all. If you bother to listen to the voice under the voice, if you read between the lines, or if you just enjoy for the moment and let the moment linger--poetry says it all. I suppose that is one reason, one very good reason for praying the psalms. Poetry is, by its nature, closer to God. Which is not to imply that God is a poem--but God is at the heart of every good poem--just as He is waiting to surprise you in every work of art and nature, if only you are willing to be surprised.

It's amazing to me how the night
passes and the morning thoughts
born of dreams pass silently away,
unencumbered by the obligation
to teach, unaffected by the need
to nurture. They present and then fold
passing briefly into the light of memory
and fading with the stronger morning.

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Stumbling into the Light


Time has always intrigued me, and the experience of time is even more fascinating. I have nothing deep or insightful to say about it. Nevertheless, to attempt to say it I shall because I have ever learned that discretion is the bitter part of valor. [No, that wasn't a typo.]

The Mystery of Time

A clock ticks, arbitrary measure
of a moment--a waterclock drips
and each tiny splash gives weight to now:
but what is now? And even as I
think the word the now of that moment
passes and the thought became memory
of what slipped by.
[______________] There is no now, each
now is gone before it can be named.
A chronic waterfall, the seconds
wash over the rock ledge and vanish
with a tumble and turn; at this joint,
poised on the brink, I can see but can't
move the water flowing to, water
cascading away; no more can I
halt it, stop it on the brink, study
it, name it, and then let it flood pst.
One moment it is the unspoken
future, trips over the rocky juncture
and then is past, but no held, not owned
not ever my present, but always

In some sense now is never. That is, by the time you recognize NOW it has already slipped by. By the time you think NOW, that now is an instant in the past. In a sense all though is memory. It happens in the moment, and people constrained to our linear experience of it, it seems like now.

The Buddhists seek to plumb this mystery by mindfulness--living in the now. And if one could truly live in the NOW one would actually be living in eternity where all the chained together nows have a meaning the transcends the sequential NOW of our experience.

Or something like that.

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The Emptiness of Prayer


We have long known that Blessed Mother Teresa went through a long dark night of the soul. I don't know that anyone knew its extent or depth, and shortly we should all be privileged to be able to find out. Privileged, I say, because such things are the substance of the life of faith and if we ignore them, we do so at our peril. More importantly, they are things that any person of deep faith is likely to experience. Likewise, they are things that ordinary sinners experience all the time. The two have different causes and sources, but the end result is similar. In the case of the sinner, the darkness is troublesome and not peaceful--something fought against, struggled against. In the case of the Saint--well, I wouldn't know that yet.

All of this in preface to a marvelous little passage that says it quite succinctly.

from The Monk Downstairs
Tim Farrington

My mind is a stretch of barren country and swirling dust; my heart has shriveled to the size of a dried pea. But this is all my private comedy. The emptiness of prayer is deeper than mere despair. Preparing us for a love we cannot conceive, God takes our lesser notions of love from us one by one.

Have you really never seen it, Brother James, somewhere in the grim efficiency of your industrial meditation? Have you never once seen all your goodness turn to dust? I tell you that until you do, all your prayer is worse than useless. It is gears of greed, grinding. Love is not fuel for the usual machinery.

What is remarkable is that this is in a work of "light" fiction-- something little more than a romance--what is it doing there? How did the author get it there without sounding preachy and overbearing? What is his point?

I suppose if I sustain my reading, I shall find out the answer and I hope I'll be pleased with it. Either way, I'll let you know.

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The Way Words Shape Themselves


This poem started off going one direction and ended up in another entirely. It isn't particularly good and isn't presented as a sterling example of the poetic art, but rather as what happens when poetry begins to take over prose. These are essentially stray thoughts from a journal--although that wasn't the intent upon composition.

And so we're back to the observation made the other day regarding authorial intent with particular reference to William Butler Yeats. It doesn't much matter what an author intends, means, or even overtly states as he writes because meaning is, in some sense, collaborative--it is the work of the artist that brings it forth, but the work of the reader and the place of the reader at that time that gives it force. If the reader intends differently from the author, the work can likely be interpreted in that light. I often wonder about the many works of scholarship surrounding written work. I suspect there are darn few authors who would admit it, but the object of composition is not necessarily deep meaning--in fact, there may be no object at all--it may simply be that the artist cannot do otherwise; it is in the nature of the beast.


The actions put in place today
spring from seeds planted in the past.
The actions taken today
set seeds that form the future.
In the moment of movement the past
and the future are fused
to become the present.
We cannot see the present come
into being, the bridges between
seconds are burned as one
instant ticks over into another.
But in some shared space
we enter together the only
time any of us have.

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More Crossover Wisdom


More derived from reading Buddhist books. I should note a caution here--Buddhism is not something that everyone should approach or that the person young in his or her Christian vocation should look into extensively. There is a seductiveness to doctrine and idea, and particularly to the very appealing notions in Buddhism that allow us to overlook certain intrinsic difficulties with the dogmatic side of the religion.

I present here parallels in Buddhism. They are parallels. Buddhists and Christians do not share the same faith structure nor even, in any meaningful sense, the same cosmology. Nevertheless, we are adjured to take what is good among all the good things in the world, and Buddhism has much in it that could strengthen a Christian vocation. For example:

from Cultivating Compassion
Jeffrey Hopkins

In order to value the time we have--to cherish it--it is important to reflect on the certainty of death and the uncertainty of when death will be. In meditation, contemplate: "I will definitely die--as will all of us--but I don't know when I'm going to die. It could be at any time!" Such reflection puts a value--a premium--on the present, on the time you have.

Be prepared and aware of death which comes as the end. An awareness (though not a constant fear) of the end can inform the entire life in ways that bring forth the potential for sanctity. St. Therese of Lisieux has a passage that parallels the above, though not in its memento mori aspects. She notes that all our sorrows are in the past which cannot be rectified or in the future, which we have not seen, but the authentic Christian life is lived mindful of the present, which is all that we have. That is the "premium" of focusing on the end--a realization that every moment is precious, valuable, and important. God blesses us with time--we don't know how much--so it is better to count all the time in the moment and not to look into far futures that may not exist. Not to worry oneself over things that cannot be controlled, but to focus attention on those things which are within our control.

Before continuing to a final point, it is useful to reflect for a moment on a passage immediately preceding the one quoted above.

The actuarial tables say that males as a whole will live so many years and females as a whole will live so many more years, but such figures are irrelevant with respect to any specific individual; if you're going to die next week, it's a hundred percent chance you're going to die then. It's not a such and such percentage that you might live to be seventy-eight. If you are to die on the road today, it's a hundred percent certain you'll die on the road today.

Having quoted the first passage, in which there is nothing objectionable to Christianity, I deftly ignored the sentence that begins an exposition immediately following. I will note it below:

"Since it is obvious that the body and possessions are left behind, on need to put more emphasis on consciousness."

I'm intrigued by this statement as it seems to imply that consciousness does not pass away and if consciousness is the Buddhist equivalent of a soul, that goes without saying. But nothing I've read suggests this to be true. Consciousness is incredibly important in Buddhist thought because of karma. Every conscious act is at once the ripening of one of the potentialities of karma and the setting of new potentialities. And again, we can draw parallels, but this emphasis on what we would lightly read as aspects of the self can be misleading.

Now, to do justice, we must recognize that Buddhists do not think that Mind (consciousness) is equivalent to "self." And so to assume that what is meant by the common usage of the word consciousness is what is meant when discussing Buddhism is an error. However, it is an easy error that can easily lead astray. Hence my recommendation that Buddhist texts are not for everyone. There's too much there when read with the literalist, rational, western mind can be misread or mistaken for something other than what is actually meant. Better, if one is likely to stumble into this trap, to stay out of that forest entirely.

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The Wonders of Waiting


Sam has three hours of dance classes on Monday night. As a result there is much waiting. Last night as I was pacing up and down in front of the strip mall where the dance classes occur, a middle aged, probably Vietnamese lady emerged from a nail salon. As she opened the door and turned to lock it, I caught a whiff of acetone and it resulted in this:

Nail Salon

A life of volatile organics--of
making life better by painting the stuff
of beetle wings bright red, soft pink, polished
orange, dusty cherry, hot brick, beryllium
blue, cobalt, aster, seafoam, or buffing
them to high gloss shine and making them as
nature intended, flesh and pale off-white.
Who's to say if it could be lived better?

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The Next to Last for the Day


Study in Red

Not a shred of it--
not in the rolling river
or mid-day sun-drenched
sky or trees limned against
the etched and eerie never-ending horizon,
or in the grass-bleached, burnt brown
by rainless days and dewless evenings
nor in the road that threads
the landscape, nor in the wildflowers
relentlessly blue, so blue, so sky-blue deep
blue they tip the scales
and roll into purple.

There in purple petaled blossom
splendor it hides, the only tinge
the only suggestion of it in
the whole world.

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Another Observation



To stand for just an evening moment
and see the oak, spanish-moss tufted, pinned
against a still blue but fading sky, scraggly,
mostly naked branches, knobbed and curled, spiky
balls of bromeliad, pierced through on twigs--
sea urchins on a thread--is to know with
some assurance how strange we really are.

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Providing Insight


Praying the Psalms

Words on paper, meaning in black and white
and I wonder how to transform static
image into heartfelt prayer.
[--------------------------------] A pause
a silent moment thickening into
a knot that hardens in the throat. What once
I prayed eagerly, I pray now as dust.
The overfamiliar words stumble out
of my mouth, overflow my lips, and when
they mean, they mean lightly, barely denting
the lips, barely weighing on the tongue, now
falling off, vanishing in weeds that choke
what wheat sprouts.
[----------------]And yet isn't there something
in obedience? Is there no merit
in doing what you've been charged to do? In
saying the words and joining the torrent
that flows through the centuries, baptising
the world anew in each generation? But
beautiful words and bright blossoms don't change
a landscape of ash--the bitter ashes
of obedience, humility, and
{----} The good that is done is buried
with us, words not ours have refreshed the world
and borne us to the grave with no sign of
any difference. We're told that our words do
untold good, sanctifying the hours and
redeeming the unredeemed day. Weary
and tired of prayer's trying toil, I try
to remember how much worse all might be
if I did not pray, and for a brief time
I'm on fire again. This moment dies in
an ashy sirocco, a dust-devil
through the solitary inner desert
landscape of prayer when the wadi's dry.

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Another Poem


Writ in Water

Who you are changes
with the day.
Yesterday's poet is long gone
replaced now
by the accountant, husband,
father, unquiet man,
disturbed soul, unrested in his
rest with all this change.
Changed and changeable
look around
for the person you remember.

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Another, with a couple to come


[as yet untitled]

Words have no weight
no heft, no meaning
unless you are there
to make them mean.

They say what others
say they say and so
they say nothing at all
of what you intended.

But should that stop you
from saying at the start?
Should the novel rest unwritten
the poem unpenned?

What weight words have
will gives them, intent
imbues with purpose;
a sentence unsaid

for fear it will be
resaid, misunderstood
is a tragedy and a selfishness--
depriving all.

I wrote this upon reading Harold Bloom's comments on W.B. Yeats. He typified Yeats as "virulently anti-Christian," and yet, one can read Yeats very much within a Christian context and have it make perfect sense. In a sense, this must be enormously frustrating (for Yeats, who is in a position to no longer care). But for me it is one of the great wonders of the written world. What I write will mean differently as it is encountered by different people who read the poem from the poem they are.

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Another Moment


Another quotation from a book I continue to enjoy.

from The Monk Downstairs
Tim Farrington

Rory, at least, had faith in UFOs. What sort of spiritual sustenance was she offering her daughter? What cosmic certainties? The tepid Catholicism of her own childhood was more like a lingering headache than a source of strength. She had picked for years at the smorgasbord of Californian spirituality and come away hungry. She felt her frustrated need for ardor as a burden and her longing for depth as a kind of dull pain.

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Buddhist Compassion

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Go to this link for a further link to a very, very interesting short video about the Dalai Lama and the Pope.

One of the central ideas of Buddhism is compassion, which is equated with mercy. Jeffrey Hopkins explains it this way:

from Cultivating Compassion
Jeffrey Hopkins

Chandrakirti pays homage to three particular kinds of compassion. The first is called compassion seeing suffering beings, because prior to cultivating wishes for person to be free from suffering and the causes of suffering, you need to reflect on the dire condition of beings trapped in cyclic existence.

He describes the process of cyclic existence-birth, aging, sickness, and death--as stemming from ignorance and nourished with attachment and grasping. This means that our sense of self is exaggerated beyond what actually exists, and based on the exaggeration, we are drawn into many problems. Once the "I" is exaggerated, the "mine"--things that are owned by the I, mind and body--also becomes exaggerated overblown. . . . It is true that mind, body, hand, head, house, clothing are "mine"; they do belong to us, but we have an exaggerated sense of owning them.

In a word, the deplorable condition of humankind is a result of sinful pride. Buddhism wants to see an end to the deplorable condition of humankind and thus to its causes--sin. Buddhist compassion is not simply about alleviating suffering, but the causes of suffering. The difficulty with Buddhism is not what it wants at the root, but how one proposes to get to this end.

Compassion in Buddhism is a laudable quality. It is laudable in a Buddhist, it is laudable in a Christian. A Christian should desire to see the end of suffering and its causes, and ultimately hopes for this in the beatific vision. The ends are not so different--the means are a world apart.

Cultivating compassion is not an exercise in alleviating suffering--at least not at first. It is an exercise in becoming aware of the suffering of humanity that is directly caused by the fault of humankind--pride and attachment. Only secondarily does one enter a phase that desires to do something about it. Each of the great Christian Saints showed this compassion differently. Some showed compassion by combating the errors about God and Christ that led people into practices that were not pleasing to God. Some showed compassion by remaining in the cloister and praying for all humanity. Some showed compassion by feeding the poor, tending the sick, visiting those in prison.

A desire to see the end of suffering is not incompatible with Christianity. That Christianity recognizes that some good can come out of suffering is an artifact of the reality that whatever is our present condition, God has willed it for His own purposes and "all things work to the good of those who love Him and work according to His purposes." But even the great saints recognize physical suffering as a natural evil--not a good in itself, but good in its possible effects on the receptive soul.

To suggest then this wide gap between the two is to make a distinction where one is not so clearly made. I think part of the popular appeal of Buddhism, a great part, are Buddhists themselves. They are their own best advertisement. When one sees the peace, equanimity and calm that tends to surround a Buddhist who has long been tending to his or her practice, there is a tremendous appeal there. Even the best Christians seem to be washed around by the tide of circumstance--on again and off again. But this apparent imperturbability suggests a great well of calm, peace.

Of course, we don't live with the Buddhists we see in the news 24 hours a day. Few of us know any Buddhists who have come far in their practice. The reality is probably quite different than the appearance, but being one of the many not personally acquainted with a Buddhist deep into practice, I hesitate to say more than that.

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I hope the rest of this novel continues to be as inspiring and lovely.

from The Monk Downstairs
Tim Farrington

We expect God's presence to be thunderous, spectacular, monumental; but it is our need that is so large. The real presence slips past our demands for spectacle. It slips past our despair. Not just like a child--sometimes it is a child. She walks down the blistered steps to where you kneel and says the simplest things. She is entertained by butterflies. She has opinions about unicorns. She does not seem to care that you are ruined and lost. She does not even seem to notice. Find an earthworm in the neglected loam and she will make you feel for a moment that your life has not been wasted. Name a flower and she will make you feel that you have begun to learn to speak.

I don't know why I'm so bowled over by this, but I am. It is gorgeous and it is true and it is something I suppose I need at this moment--something that we all may need from time to time--indication as to where to listen to hear the still, small voice.

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The Seventeen Traditions


Previously, I posted a brief excerpt from the book. Those who have followed the career of Ralph Nader from consumer advocate to presidential candidate will probably relish much of what is here; it gives clear insight into the political thought of Ralph Nader and by extension the Green Party he nurtured and which in true schismatic fashion rejected him.

I'm not keen on some of Mr. Nader's political thought. I think he has an acute eye for the plight of the weak, except for the weakest among us and then he falls into the trap that all too many seem to accept: compassionate tyranny of the visible.

Now that I've made something of full disclosure, I can say more about the book. I loved it. There is a warmth, a humanity, a passionate and compassionate interest in people and in things that informs the whole books. Above all there is a sense of a strong and loving family, a tightly knit family that allowed for solid structure and complete freedom within the structure. Parent encouraged the children to reasonable disagreement and argumentation on major issues of the day. Ideas were proposed, discussed and debated, and children were asked to think and consider not only their opinions but the consequences of their actions and the effect of their actions on others.

In this autobiographical advice book, Ralph Nader exposes seventeen traditions that informed him as a person and kept his family functioning as a family. These range from "The Tradition of Listening" to "The Tradition of Scarcity" through to "The Tradition of Civics." In each section the involved reader can learn from the experiences of Mr. Nader within his family life and perhaps adapt some of these laudable traditions into his or her own family life.

What I derive from this is a picture of parents that loved and respected their children and their society enough to conscientiously and deliberately raise those children to be thoughtful, considerate, kind, and well-meaning people. They raised children of strong opinions with strong wills to stand behind those opinions and a no-nonsense approach to politics, society, and life. Respect and love, love and respect: these abound in the book, and the warmth that exudes from these moments is considerable, deep, and full of abiding compassion.

In other words, I enjoyed the book, a quick but memorable read and a thought provoking work for any person who is raising a child. While I often disagree with Mr. Nader, I respect him and I respect the thought he has put into his opinions. I think there is a strain of unalloyed idealism that is probably errant--the neo-rousseauian affliction of the modern liberal climate, but sometimes that can be a breath of fresh air. Erroneous, but not any more so that the Calvinist condemnation of humanity that is sometimes the legacy of the cultural right. We are neither nobel savages nor "utterly depraved," but beautiful, broken children of God--capable of tremendous good and horrendous evil--sometimes in the same person.

Highly recommended for all audiences.

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A New Poem

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In the Sequence:


Can we count the branches of the tree
from the oak's catkin?
The needles on the branches
from the pine cone?

Can we tell how well
it will winter? What burden of snow it will
shed? What summer's heat will wilt
and burn--all from a seed?

And from this one, how many others?
Can we know whether from this one
a whole forest springs or the sapling fails?

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Does Dark Matter Matter?

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One more


A draft.

Dark Swimming

An everyday mystery
enmeshed in flesh,
the dark swimming
from one to another
that results in a third;

a third so small she
can be held in the crook
of an arm, cradled
and rocked, this small
sighing and crying

image of the two of us,
mirror in the flesh
who came from nowhere,
who came from a moment,
who makes real what isn't

seen. An everyday mystery
no less deep because we
make it happen; in the stillness
of the night of who we are,
another life comes to be

out of air, out of nowhere
or even out of us,
it doesn't matter because
the mystery is darker
than that dark, dark swimming

that brought her home to us.

Very different in mood and tone from the one below, and possibly one of a series. Will depend upon what it is upon redraft.

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A New Poem


Something relatively new both in content and style

Impression: Sunrise, 2007


I cannot breathe
the air here stinks
of rotted root and sawdust

Where the end was
it still is sharp
and deeply visible
limned against the sky
a ragged wound

You wish
you could
speak to

who thought the ice flowed
who knew the cracking song
of water shattering

the red eyes
do not see
and light up the red night
each time my eyes
snatch open

suddenly the one I knew
I thought blind
and stood him naked
on the shore
for the breeze

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Mira at Mira


A star with a tail


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True Humanity


from The Seventeen Traditions
Ralph Nader

"What is the true value of ethnic identity?" I remember him observing once. "Culture, humor, variety and a common sociability facing life. And, of course, the pleasure of having one's own cuisine. When it come to politics, though, a broader humanity should replace ethnicity."

When it comes to politics do we allow a broader humanity to replace ethnicity, or do we rather focus on the differences, the exclusions, the us v. them syndrome? Loving people is the first requirement of those who would serve God, loving them as they are, where they are, in their present circumstances without regard as to how they came by these circumstances. Loving without judgment, without intent to place ourselves over them by our love. Loving them with Christ's love, not the feeble thing we humans sometimes put in place of it.

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Compassion and Christianity


One of my frequent frustration with Christianity (although not especially with the Catholic Church, which as a teaching body does much better than the Body of Christ tends to do) is the lack of focus on the duty of love and on compassion in general. Too often different Christian groups are so busy arguing the merits or faults of their doctrines that they tend not to put those doctrines into practice. Try finding a Christian book about compassion and compassionate treatment of others. This tends to be left to the Buddhists, and so, for refuge, I sometime find myself turning there to learn what their great teachers taught.

Reading Cultivating Compassion by Jeffrey Hopkins, I stumbled across this "daily exercise" in compassion. The following prayer, mantra, reminder (call it what you will) is to be brought to mind six times a day:

I go for refuge to Buddha, his doctrine, and the spiritual community until I am enlightened. Through the merit of my charity, ethics, patience, effort, concentration, and wisdom, may I achieve Buddhahood for the sake of all beings.

This has few parallels in Christian prayer--although the Prayer of St. Francis comes to mind. And because I don't find myself taking refuge in Buddha, I would need to change the prayer:

I go for refuge to Jesus, his doctrine, and the mystical body until I am made holy. Through the merits of charity, ethics, patience, effort, concentration, and wisdom, may I achieve holiness (Saintliness) for the sake of all beings.

What good is personal sanctity if it does not better the lives of those with whom we have the closest relationships?

The Church hits this theme time and time again, but because we are the people we are we tend to regard these teachings with suspicion. Mention Social Justice and see how many good and faithful Catholics look at you askance. If you hear talk about a preferential option for the poor, it is likely to remain just that--talk. How often have we been stirred by understanding these teachings to actually make the lives of some other person better? Often the preferential option for the poor is left at the foot of the altar as the congregation goes out to play parking lot derby. Not only do we not internalize the teachings, much of our behavior suggests that we reject them entirely.

I was musing this morning as I drove my car in to work how much better things might be if every car was equipped as mine is. I have a hybrid civic, and one of the ways you can configure the instrument panel is to give you feedback on your driving to see how certain behaviors help to conserve gasoline and increase milage. As a result of these readouts, I have seen large changes in my behaviors behind the wheel, and coming with those changes, I have experienced a completely different attitude most of the time when I drive. Other drivers don't become obstacles or problems, but people in their cars, just like me, just as scatter-brained as I sometimes am, just as courteous as I can sometimes be. When I see a person driving foolishly, sudden starts, screeching stops, I think about how they might be different if they understood the effects of their actions.

Compassion, understanding that all people at heart want the same things we want for themselves and for their children. Compassion is one of the roots of charity--when we look at people in all their strengths and weaknesses and see ourselves.

Jesus taught compassion through His words and works. The Church extols and sets up institutions and groups to cultivate compassion. Dorothy Day's Catholic Workers are one such group, but far less radical and far quieter are the innumerable Martin de Porres or Vincent de Paul societies that are part and parcel of our Church.

But compassion isn't just for the church or just for a meeting--it is part of a way of life--living in Christ's love, being Christ's heart for the salvation and redemption of a world gone astray. That is part of the imitation of Christ to which we all are called. That is the root and source of sustenance for Christian compassion.

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I've always liked John Waters's films. I don't know why--perhaps because I haven't seen the earliest--perhaps because I have seen that he has an extraordinary penchant for puncturing the worst of human foibles with a smile. He looks at the insanity of the world around him, grins, and holds up a mirror.

The original Hairspray was a film in this genre. The new one, secondarily derived from the original via a Broadway Musical has a lot to offer and a lot to think about. I enjoyed it tremendously after I got over a few deep-seated reservations. The reservations were not about the film itself--although there are some of those that I'll get to in a moment. They were about how I felt about the subject matter and how difficult it is to explain to a young man why some people used to treat people with brown skin differently from the way they treated people with white skin and why that still happens too often in the world today.

But the movie takes on the old view of prejudice and thereby introduces a new one that is both subtle and starkly disturbing. Taking on the purity of the late fifties/early sixties, the movie producers end up equating the liberation of the civil rights movement with the liberation of the sexual freedom movement. Throughout the film there are subtle but clear messages that those more in touch with the sexual nature of human beings (people of color) were repressed for this very earthiness which is clearly next to godliness. This was the one element of the film that kept bothering me. We've replaced the old prejudice of inferiority due to skin color with the new prejudice of superiority due to lack of moral inhibition. Neither are true for an entire group of people--both are prejudices, and both are harmful.

Okay, now that I have my preaching over with, on with the show. The movie is delightful--the songs, the message (with the exception of the caveat above), the fact that the heroes triumph in a completely nonviolent fashion and that the whole film resolves itself neatly without undue angst, trauma, bodily injury, or profanity. In addition, it has Queen Latifah. I don't know what this woman is like in real life, but every time I see her on the screen, I think, "Now there's a woman I'd really like to know in person." There is a warmth and a genuineness about her that gives a punch to lines like, "If we get any more white people in here, this will be a suburb."

John Travolta is amusing in Divine's role. Does he do as well? I couldn't really say--he brings something different to the role and the difference is amusing and entertaining in itself--so I suppose one might say that he does as well in his own right.

The movie is delightful, insightful, genuine, and warm. It has the single flaw I noted above, and perhaps that was a flaw resulting from too close a "reading" of the film. I can recommend this to all and it would serve as a good place to start talking to children about how we need to let people be people and love them where they are and as they are. After all, that's what God does isn't it? And that's what we, as the bearers of God to those in the world need to learn to do better. I think this movie helps to teach that a little bit.

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Philippians Again


William Barclay tended toward universalism; that comes through clearly in the passages that follow. His universalism was of the sort that was taught and accepted by the Eastern Church and still has strong undercurrents in the Orthodox Churches. However, the universalist perspective, the underpinning of hope for all sinners, provides a unique and useful perspective on Philippians, the most hopeful, the most truly joyous of all of Paul's letters. There is in the text an undercurrent of such incredible intensity and joy that it's hard to rephrase it to make it more clear.

From William Barclay's Commentary of Philippians

It made certain that some day, soon or late, every living creature in all the universe, in heaven, in earth and even in hell, would worship him. It is to be carefully noted whence that worship comes. It comes from love. Jesus won the hearts of men, not by blasting them with power, but by showing them a love they could not resist. At the sight of this person who laid his glory by for men and loved them to the extent of dying for them on a cross, men's hearts are melted and their resistance is broken down. When men worship Jesus Christ, they fall at his feet in wondering love. They do not say "I cannot resist a might like that," but, "Love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all." Worship is founded, not on fear, but on love. . . .

Php.2:11 is one of the most important verses in the New Testament. In it we read that the aim of God, is a day when every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. These four words were the first creed that the Christian Church ever had. To be a Christian was to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (compare Rom.10:9). This was a simple creed, yet all-embracing. Perhaps we would do well to go back to it. Later men tried to define more closely what it meant and argued and quarrelled about it, calling each other heretics and fools. But it is still true that if man can say, "For me Jesus Christ is Lord," he is a Christian. If he can say that, he means that for him Jesus Christ is unique and that he is prepared to give him an obedience he is prepared to give no one else. He may not be able to put into words who and what he believes Jesus to be; but, so long as there is in his heart this wondering love and in his life this unquestioning obedience, he is a Christian, because Christianity consists less in the mind's understanding than it does in the heart's love.

Christianity consists less in the mind's understanding that it does in the heart's love. Doctrine will all be blown away when we stand in the presence--the need for understanding will be gone because we will stand in His presence. And who among us really understands any other human being, much less God? Why do we presume to think that we can better understand God and His commandments than we can understand the person whom we are supposed to love, cherish, and help through life?

And, "Worship is founded, not on fear, but on love." Too often we seem to think the two are somehow related. And yet are we not told, "Perfect love driveth out fear." Fear as we understand it apart from such scriptures as "Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. . ." is a negative predecessor to generally even more negative descendant emotions. Next to anger, I would suggest that the fear is one of the principle fountainheads of sin. Fear tends to drive people to despair and to desperate acts born of unreason.

But Worship is born out of love, not fear. Worship is the perfection of love. The adoration and whole-hearted devotion that is the essence of worship is a perfection of love--love unbounded. And Paul, in Philippians, clearly teaches the loosing of love on the world.

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Some time back I reviewed Break, Blow, Burn by Camille Paglia and remember being put off by some of her idiosyncratic choices for modern poetry. Perhaps I focused too much attention on that.

Ms. Paglia has a distinct voice, self-assured, self-assertive, urbane, and elegant. Her personal opinions have the solidity of the throne of God and she expresses them as though they were edicts passed down from the time of Moses. She triumphs the artistry of Stevie Nix while decrying the depredations of the European post-structuralists.

What she says deserves attention, not because she says it does, but because her voice has an authority that comes from deep engagement with the materials she studies. Agree or disagree as you will, one thing will be certain--you will be perfectly clear on what you are agreeing or disagreeing with. Ms. Paglia's prose is bereft of the academic apparatus of most critics. And for good reason, "Good writing comes from good reading. Humanists must set an example: all literary criticism should be accessible to the general reader. Criticism at its best is re-creative, not spirit-killing." And so the criticism she tenders in this book fits that pattern she assumes for criticism in general.

One might argue with some of the re-creations--for example, the excessive rhapsodic waxings on William Carlos Williams and on Joni Mitchell's "Woodstock," can strike one as overwrought and grasping at straws. But then, her passionate enthusiasm for these works deserves our attention. Perhaps we overlook something that might well be worth consideration. Perhaps there is something here that we must learn from an enthusiast disguised as a critic.

But I picked up the book , once again charmed into reading by the beautifully fashioned introduction in which Ms. Paglia sets herself up as pedant and tour-guide in a whirlwind cruise through English poetry from Shakespeare to Joni Mitchell. And her first stop is what gave me pause and begged for a more gentle reconsideration of the book:

Sonnet 73
William Shakespeare

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Of the great bard's sonnets, one of the more melancholy and searching--bleak as a desert and therefore refreshing in a way that only truth and emptiness can be.

Ms. Paglia goes on to point out matters structural: The three quatrains are single sentence-metaphors each applied to is subject and accumulating into the final couplet. Matters linguistic: you can identify each by the presence of the phrase "in me." And matters symbolic--"bare ruined choirs" being both the life of the poet and the destruction of Henry VIII. Here, perhaps because of her own attempt at making a secular scripture, she may not have as full a reading as might be possible were she to plumb the depths of Shakespeare's faith. She asserts that, "There is no reference to God or an afterlife. Consciousness itself is elemental, an effect of light and heat that dissipates when our bodies are reabsorbed by nature." Here she follows the fatal flaw of her mentor Harold Bloom, who cannot seem to see that Shakespeare, far from being a secularist, was deeply spiritual, and the threads of this poem speak both to the fate of the human person, but also to the fate of that subject to the human person. "Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang," is indeed the work of man--the attempt to drive out God and replace Him with what man hath wrought--the Reformation religion.

But enough. The point here was two-fold--to present a kind of apology for the first review and to present this lovely sonnet. And it was slanted more to the second. When I opened the book and saw it there I read it. Then I read it again. Then I read it aloud. Then I read it again. Then I read Ms. Paglia's enlightening gloss of it. And then I read it again, recognize the partial truth of Ms. Paglia's interpretation. But also realizing that in three pages she could hardly do justice to the tight compression of this gem of the English language.

So do yourself a favor. Go back up to the poem and read it. Really read it. Don't let your eyes cascade down it. Stop at each word. Say it out loud. Say it slowly. Then read it quickly. Then force it into it's iambic pentameter and see where the stresses fall (this indeed is part of the amazing genius of Shakespeare--not only did he use Iambic pentameter, he also used the meter to undercut or enhance the message and meaning of the words resting upon that base. And if you don't think this is any big deal, try it yourself.)

Shakespeare is a place to start. But as I thought about it, what if one were to approach scripture in the same way. Read it, read it again. Read it out loud. If it's poetry try singing it, or letting it roll in a rhythm of poetry. Try rephrasing it. Listen to it in all those ways and you will be astonished at what may come through for you. Words you've heard more times than you can count come alive--they breathe and make new strong-fashioned art. No wonder Shakespeare so easily confuses atheist academics who wish to make of him a secular scripture. He had himself internalized these rhythms of the language and used them in a way that at that crossroads of time and art turned him into an archetype. No wonder George Bernard Shaw spent all of his time despising Shakespeare, always concerned that he would never escape the Bard's long shadow. And indeed, he did not.

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Anomalocaris Plush

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I need one of these.

You can find it here:.

Could some kind soul first translate the Japanese to tell me how I might get it. And then, would another kind soul volunteer to get it for me?

This is one of those sine qua non of the invertebrate palaeontologist. And no wisecracks about how those words are used together. I haven't been spineless for weeks, or at least days. . .well hours. . . okay, still no wise cracks.

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For the Poets Among Us

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Perhaps you all can advise.

When I write and let the words flow as they naturally flow and follow carefully their internal rhythms and mechanics, I almost always wind up with lines of 9 or 11 syllables.

For example, this line,

and richly has delivered on that promise.

I can change it and make it conform to "standard" prosody, and yet to do so changes the meaning, rhythm, and meter to such an extent that the poem, while it may be technically perfect thuds and limps.

Some poetic voices conform nicely to iambic pentameter, but I'll be honest, I've never thought it the rhythm of English speech, though many will swear that it is the "natural rhythm of English." To me it always sounds a little stilted, a little forced, a little off. Not badly so, but enough so that you can tell you're hearing a line of poetry--and while that isn't bad, it seems rather like letting the audience know how you made the penny vanish.

Any opinions, ideas, suggestions, notions, or . . . I don't know. I'd love to hear any feedback.

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This page is an archive of entries from August 2007 listed from newest to oldest.

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