Monthly Archives: March 2008

Threshold

A shift, someone called it once. The polarizing filter on my heart has spun, and all is cast into sharper relief. The colors more intense. My path less glaring.

The more I lose, the richer my possibilities become.

The more I risk, the safer this all feels.

Regret and loss remain, of course, and the pipevine I planted six years ago picked this week to grow exuberant at last. The swallowtails will feed on it when I am gone. I had hoped to watch them from my porch, and yet the desert has swallowtails enough.

How many more spins of this grand illuminated speck? One? Another fifty? I cannot know, and there is no sense in delaying my pursuit of beauty any longer. Life is short, too short. It is a terrifying beauty, as is most beauty when viewed correctly, and to face its full brunt is a task too daunting for most of us.

It is too daunting for me as well, but I have sought the secure my whole life, and eventually found it, and found it gratifying, and it is enough. It is enough. I have slaked my thirst for safety. It is time to rock my shoulders into position, flick my tail and flash my eyes, and leap.

Frontiers in completely non-ADA-compliant web authoring

Below the fold, a scan of the first story I ever sold, a piece I wrote under the title “Carving The Pelican.”

I sold it to the Japanese magazine Jidaijin for a hundred bucks.

They paid promptly, printed it in English and Japanese, misspelled my name three times in three different ways, and changed the title to “Incomoplete [sic] Sculpture of Pelican.”

I changed it back when I printed it in Terrain a year or so later, in February 1993.

Large jpg below the fold. Terry Karney offers a short observation on the piece here.

Continue reading

Exhortation

Stop up my ears with willow wands. Sage for my eyes: its seeds will send out roots into the wet and vitreous. Its thick, soft leaves will billow from beneath my brow.

For my heart, a stout angelica, a stem four inches wide, broad leaves like canopies sheathed fast to it.

Let my fingertips sprout basil leaves, my nails fast-rooted to the soil, a sweep of anise succulence where my hands had been.

My head ablaze in borage, my soul in mint’s insistent tendrils.  Let me fade each season into the earth and sprout up new-restored.

Familiars

Shed your skin. Allow the talons there
within your fingertips to pierce the air,
to slash at it and make the heavens bleed.
Fix the horizon with a felid stare,
your new-grown pupils black, as thin as reeds.
Your new-furred, padded hands to grasp with. Knead
the earth before you, kitten at her teat.
She will awaken. She will let the sweet
and slaking flesh come to you. Rock your sleek
and supple shoulders in position, seek
the perfect leaping moment and then: fly.
This human world no longer rules you. Shriek
your passion-ravaged hunger. Bid goodbye
their cages. Cast your newly-feral eye
upon the red-faced land, your muzzle red,
your talons dripping sanguinary threads
to mark your liquid track. She who became
your ebon sinewed fur, her words now said
in howling, she who shed her human frame
once summoned beasts like me to her to tame.
I bear sweet marks of her captivity
beneath this fur, beneath my skin, a free
familiar bound, my heart engraved in script
I know but cannot read. Once we have slipped
their fences, left our shed skins on the wire,
regrown our languorous tails, fully transshipped,
our eyes shall radiate as if on fire:
the ember-lit tapetum of desire.

Self-promoting myself

CRN readers have begun to weigh in on the merits of my book Walking with Zeke, and as I am going to have to get into the habit of selling my writing if I want to eat, I thought I’d share some of their kind remarks with those of you who have not yet bought all the copies of WWZ you can afford. It’s all about persuasion!

First, there’s your friend and mine kathy a, who says

i finished the book last night….  thank you!  your story of Zeke is so powerful.

Joy delurked (sort of) to offer this kind note:

I got your book yesterday and have already read it (I’m a fast reader and didn’t put it down).  It’s a wonderful tribute to your best buddy.  I found your site just about the time Zeke died and I cried along with you then as my own dog had died not too long before that.  It’s a moving and beautifully written tale and I’m glad that you decided to write it.

CRN stalwart jmartin pulled out the stops in her feedback, in a very flattering and detailed review. I’ve pasted it below. Enjoy reading, and if you find yourself curious as to whether the praise for Walking With Zeke is warranted, please consider buying your very own copy.

I here swallow the last remnants of my false modesty and turn this post over to jmartin. Thank you.

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Walking with Zeke

I admittedly had two worries about the book. How could the last years of a dog, no matter how cherished, fail to seem slight in comparison to Clarke’s masterful CRN essays?  How could material initially contained in blog posts be ordered or shaped?

Both concerns were unfounded: I love this book, unalloyed.

I.

First and perhaps shockingly: this is not a dog book. Rather, Clarke has written a memoir on his enmeshment, his overlapping boundaries with the natural world. Clarke himself admits only that he writes “about wildlife, family, paleontology and Zeke through the lens of how I feel about my relationship with myself.” I submit that Zeke is not truly a subject at all, but rather a joint-venturer and co-author. His royalties, one presumes, were paid in advance, in filet tender.

Clarke (with Zeke) walks through landscapes—the Bay Area, the Mojave, Northern New York State—with an unmatched ability to inhabit the growing and the breathing, the fossil and its stone. His writing is umami, and so triggers those newly-discovered receptors. The reader tastes the savory, the yum.

There are the careful observations, which you want to carry away and sleep with, as Freda the rat does with dollar bills from Clarke’s wallet. After a Christmas tree is sacrificed, “[t]he shredder smells of conifer sachet.” A fire in the Oakland Hills spews “[l]ive embers the size of chickpeas.” Soaproot leaves are “frozen splashes around imagined points of impact.” Gardening on a hill of diatomite (fossil Miocene plankton) is like “walking on very stale halvah.”

There are the pervasive seams of esoteric knowledge: botany, gardening, corvid behaviors, paleontology, geology. Clarke displays the world’s workings: the mechanism of cholla barbs; co-evolution of dogs and humans; how soaproot’s saponin-filled leaves suggest assignment to the Agave family; Mayan legends of the coyote; the altitudinal range of the Joshua Tree. Clarke obviously loves the physical world with his head as well as his heart. Each detail flows seamlessly from the narrative, yet lends freight and authority. 

There is throughout, one must note, a witty, inimitable authorial voice for which Zeke is blameless. A vet suggests opiates for pain. The author fears that Zeke will write “senseless fever dream poetry,” and riffs a “Kibble Khan” Coleridge parody. Clarke finds a tail shed by a Western Fence lizard, likely under feline duress. He uses it to boost the growth of a potted cactus, in hopes that the plant someday will fall on a cat and effect “the revenge of the tail.”

Musing on a Buddhist approach to environmental protection, Clarke opines: “I want no part of any enlightenment posited on the nonexistence of bird song, of capsicum, of salt water or libido or tooth enamel.”

Do we hear Clarke speak about his dog? Absolutely, his book sings just as he sang to Zeke on every walk:  “nonsense, mainly, about the squirrels as we walk past them or about his bad breath or dirty feet or general fuzziness”. But Zeke is but one strand of Clarke’s braided love of the physical world. On hands and knees in January, Clarke grazes the miner’s lettuce of the California hills: it “tastes like home, and spinach.”

II.

We also read, of course, of Zeke’s decline and Clarke’s grief.  At book’s end, Zeke’s world is his bed; the author’s world-gaze is similarly blindered. This is exactly where Clarke made an unerring decision: to maintain blog-post order.

The posts themselves had not been journal snippets, but rather had knit past, present and future. Posts meditated on memories, current events and anticipation of loss—“[a] long life is a landscape of holes where things once grew.” Clarke marries these layers of the human temporal with observations on geologic time. The result is a deep earth perspective of aging, death and grief.

This perspective wrings out tears and self-pity, and instead impresses a dry but detailed story into the land. The sorrows of life on earth are the earth. Passages like this preserve our brief human lives, and the even shorter lives of the dogs who leave us behind:

“Green serpentine from the earth’s mantle, sand laid down on the bed of a Miocene sea, shale made of silt washed down from the Sierra, diatomite from a deep trench off Monterey: all mix as pebbles in the bed of Pinole Creek. All of them will wash out to the bay, eventually. A gravel delta runs fifty yards out from the creek mouth now. It was not there last year. At quarter to three tomorrow morning, the tide will wash over it again.”

 

Blue light

Blue light, then red, then blue again.
The street looks wet,
fair slicked in darkness,
but my bare feet kick up dry stones.
Pebbles skitter over curbs,
implant themselves in callus,
and I flick them clumsily away
with forefinger.

They have splinted his left leg.
Clotted traffic pools uphill and down.

Just yesterday I ran a mile, then two,
and then another,
the longest run in months,
and mourned a bit
at the run’s end.
Best not to push one’s self.
This sense of splintered shin a sign,
these aching femurs,
impact upon jolt,
Earth rising up to strike.
It is the final blow that does the harm.
A love fractures;
the shards hit the street.

How many such blows can a heart take?
They push their hands, heels down,
into his chest.
A formality.
There is no urgency, and
the ambulance rolls slow away and silent.
Tomorrow I will run in daylight,
will run as Egret hunts the creek,
as White-Tailed Kite
hunts motionless above the marsh,
but tonight the owl
hunts souls above the street.
Her silent breast
reflects blue light, then red,
then blue again.

The speech

It was a stirring bit of oratory. It was a remarkable speech. I am a cynic, and I wept. If, as seems likely, our choice will be between Obama and McCain in November, for the first time in my life I will pull the lever to vote for a Presidential candidate rather than against one.

And yet I said, in email to a friend this morning, that I felt as though this call for reconciliation, for discussion and for unity, was based on the exclusion of a whole subset of society, a group of people with which I identify myself. She asked me to explain.

It was that rarest of things: a speech that was both stirring and largely honest, written on the assumption that its audience consisted of reasoning adults. It did not avoid complexity overmuch, nor did it pander to the worst in us. Perhaps that bar is unnecessarily low. It could have been a much lower bar. The right is outraged that a politician would have the temerity to speak in measured tones of historic grievances, of current injustices. That in itself is a measure of the speech’s worth. No political statement can be both useful and honest if it does not provoke incoherent outrage from The Corner.

This useful, moving, honest speech is still a tool of division.

It may be that most of the people the speech quietly deems not to count will forgive the speaker. I do. There are political realities to consider. A national election is a process of rough consensus. When the vast majority of citizens believe in lies, deflating the lies too forcefully will lose you the race. When the truth hurts, people turn their backs on the truth tellers. Do we want to be right, or do we want to get work done? My answer flits, from day to day, around the gray area between the two.

It would not do, for instance, to point out that the whole bitter, complex, intransigent conflict between Black and White has taken place, for centuries, on land stolen from people neither Black nor White. I do not wish to risk comparison of atrocity. It may be that there is someone qualified to rank Slavery and Manifest Destiny on a scale to indicate which was the greater evil. I am not that person. I suspect all such comparisons would be spurious. Still, the phrase “stained by the Original Sin of Slavery” is apt. There is not a thread of American life that is not still tinged with the blood of slaves. And yet Obama is right to imply that America could have existed if slavery had not. It would have been a very different country. The Constitution might have been stronger from the outset. Civil rights for US citizens would have followed a different path. I will leave it to the writers of speculative fiction to guess, for instance, whether the cause of women’s rights would have been advanced by a more universal context of freedom or delayed by the absence of an abolitionist movement to provide the social networks the suffragists then used. It would have been a different United States, but it would have been a United States.

Imagining a United States without the displacement, swindling, and murder of millions of Native people is harder. It would have been harder to argue against intemperate sermons if that subject had been included. To point out that Americans live on land acquired at best by guile, at worst by torture and mass murder, would have been… what is the phrase I’m looking for?

not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems – two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.

They are a problem neither black nor white nor Latino nor Asian, those Natives. They are the apparent exception to American Exceptionalism. One cannot, of course, mention every person’s pet issue in a campaign speech. To insist on inclusion of the entire laundry list of sins is, clearly, to pose the perfect in opposition to the good. It is nit-picking, I know. What can I say? Nits make lice.

Still, let’s leave this side issue aside. More important examples of the people who are divisive and wrong, examples actually important enough to have been mentioned in the speech:

Those who see white racism as endemic.

Those who fail to blame radical Islam for the military excesses of our stalwart Middle Eastern ally.

Those who look at America honestly and in good faith, and come to the conclusion that America causes more harm than good.

I have done well in this country, you might point out, and you would be right. I have been well educated, despite obstacles internal and external. I am comfortable enough. I have a voice. I am not one of those people the speech tolerantly excused, who arrived at their divisive and unpleasant political opinions as a result of personal suffering and the subsequent and understandable and pitiable resentment that results. Life may not have been uniformly good to me, but America has, by and large.

Women go blind in Saipan sewing my clothing, armed guards enforcing bathroom break policies. A farmer made seven cents on the two weeks’ supply of coffee I just bought, the remaining several dollars feeding a diversified firm that dumps subsidized corn in Mexico. Mexican farmers would mow my lawn, had I a lawn. I dutifully put a plastic bottle in the recycling bin, and it ends up on a Chinese riverbank sheltering Anopheles mosquitoes.

The world pays for our comforts against its will.

To call it imperialism would be divisive in a time when we need unity. To suggest the US border is no gated community, that our ethical responsibility is not fully contained within it, would be to elevate what is wrong with America above all we know that is right with America. What is right with America? A promise of future justice expressed in ringing tones, and a beleaguered Constitution whose scant protections would be baseline assumptions in a sane society rather than unrealistic ideals. Those of us who appreciate those laws, those promises, and merely wish to see them implemented somewhere other than on the backs of the rest of the world? We are the divisive, the hateful, the counterproductive.

It is, still, a welcome change merely to be patronized rather than vilified.  And to be spoken to as an adult — that is precious. That is far too rare.