One Last Thing

“But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,

All losses are restored and sorrows end.”


March 2, 2016


A dog died today. The house is empty, hollowed out. The force that filled the rooms with movement, the simple knowledge of breath, is absent. Not Death per se, too dramatic. More a gap in the air where a warm pulse used to be. Gentle diminishing like a note of music, once sounded fades in the ear. The up and down that disturbed his fur, the whorl of browns, not one color but all shades of gold, amber, fox, white to gray, burnt toast with butter. A coat fit for a prince.


These colors rose up and down beneath my hand, the flutter of his heart slowed to a faint perceptible close. Soft, soft and then still.


Color drained from the inside of his ears. Went from pink to white so fast. That was shocking, the sudden loss of pink. His dark eyes fixed on nothing. Odd how the sightless look is clear to one who sees.


The pulse that filled the rooms of my house was pulled out the door on the wind that took him. Delicate and quiet. Not a storm but a floating breeze that went to the sunny blue porch and then into the sky. He became this beautiful day.


I remember the birds sang. Like idiots they sing, over and the over, the same song, as if they’re just trying to get it right. Or they can’t remember how it ends. They had no idea why they sang. They didn’t know that Lance, grand and glorious, poet, philosopher, Prince of the Bayou died today. Yet the birds’ voices, lyrical and daft, decorating the trees, seemed to carry him into the limitless sky.


For days now, my ears have been picking up the distant call of seagulls, whenever there is a lull in the domestic choir of chirping like tatted lace around my house. Far into the upper reaches of the air, floats down the raw, harsh complaints of those white trash seagulls. The sound breaks the lace, intrudes on my orderly home.


Always a contest between aesthetics and aggression. The local birds, let’s face it, are not much more than pretty. While the seagulls sound like warriors. Or real estate agents. They are vulgar, ravenous, canny, amoral. Survivors. Spiraling way above the rest of us, seagulls take the long view on things.


It’s a contest between the Choir of Poets and the Real Estate Agents. I know who will win. And I know who will survive.



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A Birthday Is the Thing With Feathers

Today is Emily Dickinson’s birthday.  She is 182 years old.  Here is the poem that came to hand this morning.


So much of Heaven has gone from Earth
That there must be a Heaven
If only to enclose the Saints
To Affidavit given.

The Missionary to the Mole
Must prove there is a Sky
Location doubtless he would plead
But what excuse have I?

Too much of Proof affronts Belief
The Turtle will not try
Unless you leave him — then return
And he has hauled away

A birthday is the thing with feathers. So much to say now. I’ll try to encompass it all, as we move deeper into the winter dark.  First an update:  The weather is springy warm and humid.  The Saints lost yesterday.  The end of the world is nigh.  Not necessarily because the Giants killed the pants off the Saints, 52 to 27.  Yet, surely these facts must have some meaningful resonance with each other.  I couldn’t help myself.  I was depressed and declared that the dwindling days of the Mayan calendar and the Saints’ abysmal performance are energetically linked . . . somehow.  Then it was time for dinner.  Pizza and beer helped my mood.  I also had to ask Geoff, “What spiritual lesson do we take from this game?”  He hates spiritual lessons and would not answer.   He was even more depressed than I was.  After dinner, several hours after I asked the question, he did finally answer it.  I’m paraphrasing here:  The lesson is that however bad it feels when the Saints lose, it’s never so terrible that you cannot recover and look forward with some optimism, a little joy.  Of course, by “forward” we mean next season, not the next game.  This season is cooked.  And that “look” will have to draw on the deepest stores of renewal and fundamental faith in the simple ideas:  Onward, practice, figure it out, and try again.  Try again.  And then try again.

Now for the poem.  Honest, I did choose this one at random.  The Saints line jumped out on its own.  The stanza at the end holds me.  “Too much of Proof affronts Belief.”  The literalness of the physical world diminishes our capacity to strive toward the fuller development of our Self.  We won’t do it without that ever receding thing we call faith.  (Faith in what, you ask?  Oh, I don’t know—honor, dignity, fairness, goodness, that seamless connection on the long pass out of the shotgun, the poetry of beauty that works.)  If the things we want to believe in announce themselves in the world as if produced and directed by Steven Spielberg, we’d scoff at these as too literal.  Paradoxically something seems less spiritually True if we can see it as literally true.

So those things we believe in or have faith in—whatever it is, doesn’t have to be God—such ephemera make us get up in the morning and try to accomplish tasks greater than merely maintaining bodily existence.  In order to draw this effort from us, these ephemera must remain slightly unknown, just beyond the limit of the mind’s capacity to comprehend.  If these ephemera that ask for our faith appeared in concrete totality, so we could see all the sides, top and bottom, then we would not accept them as worthy of our faith.  And the engine loses its drive to exist.

Emily plays with the mind’s ability to set its own impossible tasks.  Human survival requires that we try for something that will never be realized.  That’s the job that keeps our blood circulating.  So this is not idle poetic meandering to formulate such ephemera as honor, dignity, fairness, goodness . . . the hope for that perfect long pass.  These are deliberately elusive.  Suggested without complete realization.  (It takes imagination to love the Saints; you have to be able to see things that may never exist.  Imagination feeds the human life force as much as pizza and beer.)  The power of the unproven outcome to simulate our life force is counter-intuitive, but it works.  Now, you’d want to build a house on a solid four-square foundation, such that you can see all the physical aspects and know it has structural integrity, in order to trust that foundation to hold up your house.  Conversely to build a life, you’d start with a foundation made from a concept (honor goodness dignity) that never fully reveals itself.  You must place your faith here without compete proof that it exists.  Human existence rests on the continuing puzzle of unverifiable existence.

Thank you Emily and happy birthday.  I am so happy that you exist.


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Proximity to Chaos

A few weeks ago I went to the AWP Conference in Chicago.  One of the panel discussions I attended concerned Emily Dickinson’s poems.  The panelists focused on certain themes.  One scholar discussed bird imagery.  Another examined how Emily treats the marking of time, hours, seasons, on the calendar.  David Baker said that Emily is “the most terrifying poet in the English language for sheer proximity to chaos.”

The scholars read from prepared remarks, eloquent and formal.  Then one of the readers looked up from his pages and interrupted his own erudite exegesis to blurt out: “She’s so weird.”  The words seemed to jump from his mouth of their own will.  His tone was part admiring and part exasperated.  I appreciated his honest emotional and subjective eruption.  Time and again, after all the academic wrestling with Emily’s poems, she leads us back to the beginning . . . where she is just so weird.

I notice this the most when I read a poem that I had already wrestled with sufficiently.  I thought I had gotten my arms around it and understood it, or at least some small part of it.  Then after some time passes, I read the same poem again and it appears as an entirely new animal to me.  My second reading is nothing like the first.  Somehow that “understanding” slipped through my grasp.  Hers are less like poems than smoke.

Emily the shape-shifter, she is her poems, stripped bare of any of the easy handles.  Yet in that nakedness she remains utterly cloaked.  We just have to start over again, new to the poem each time.

Here is one that I have not wrestled with yet.  At least I don’t I think I have.  Or not lately.


The Body grows without —
The more convenient way —
That if the Spirit — like to hide
Its Temple stands, alway,

Ajar — secure — inviting —
It never did betray
The Soul that asked its shelter
In solemn honesty

The Soul and the Spirit are not interchangeable terms.  These are identified separately, although both reside in the same holy place, the Body.  The Spirit may hide, while the Soul asks for shelter.

My first reaction here is to recall the Mother Superior character in The Sound of Music when she counsels the troubled Maria that the convent is not a place to hide from the world.  Women choose the cloistered life to pursue something within themselves that they can only find in solitude and isolation from the world.  A woman who is afraid of the world or needs a hiding place would do better to face the thing that frightens her.  The contemplative life is not for cowards.  Although one could be tempted to treat it as a refuge from a cracked and chaotic world.

If Mother Superior could have this conversation with Emily, the poet would have responded that her Temple, her body, is both ajar and secure.  The Body invites.  But who gets this invitation?  It’s very exclusive.  Other people?  I doubt it.  The Body invites the Soul inside to join the Spirit (present at birth, maybe) residing or hiding depending on how you look at it.  Soul comes to the Body from the rich, complicated world out there.  Soul is some non-embodied source that may join that indwelling Spirit.  The Body protects this union, offers a safe place for this marriage to take place.

I am not sure who would win the rhetorical contest between Emily and Mother Superior.  It would be an interesting debate.  I don’t think the answer to Emily’s prayers lies “out there.”  Something else in Emily’s Temple keeps her “in here.”  She isn’t saying . . .   Weirdo.


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