moving out, moving on

April 22, 2009

the roll has lifted
from the floor &
our journey is done:
thank you
for coming: thank
you for coming along:

the sun’s bright:
the wind rocks the
   naked trees:
   so long:

at the hotel california

March 21, 2009

“Then came spring, the great time of traveling, and everybody in the scattered gang was getting ready to make one trip or another.”

What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!–and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?

March 14, 2009

Life was so easy–
Suddenly hatred broke out–
A grave situation was created–
But life goes on

I’m left picking up shards of glass off my floor. But amidst the devastation of my love I wake to a sky bright and blue — one of the first days of spring — and the wind sweeps through my room like a faint memory of something beautiful.  Set against our failures is the splendid plain calmness of a crisp, cool March afternoon.

though the incompletions
(& completions) burn out
standing in the flash high-burn
momentary structure of ash, still it
is a picture-book, letter-perfect
Easter morning: I have been for a
walk: the wind is tranquil: the brook
works without flashing in an abundant
tranquility: the birds are lively with
voice: I saw something I had
never seen before: two great birds,
maybe eagles, blackwinged, whitenecked
and -headed, came from the south oaring
the great wings steadily; they went
directly over me, high up, and kept on
due north: but then one bird,
the one behind, veered a little to the
left and the other bird kept on seeming
not to notice for a minute: the first
began to circle as if looking for
something, coasting, resting its wings
on the down side of some of the circles:
the other bird came back and they both
circled, looking perhaps for a draft;
they turned a few more times, possibly
rising — at least, clearly resting —
then flew on falling into distance till
they broke across the local bush and
trees: it was a sight of bountiful
majesty and integrity: the having
patterns and routes, breaking
from them to explore other patterns or
better ways to routes, and then the
return: a dance sacred as the sap in
the trees, permanent in its descriptions
as the ripples round the brook’s
ripplestone: fresh as this particular
flood of burn breaking across us now
from the sun.

March 6, 2009

And, proud sufferer, who art thou?

The compensation of growing old, Peter Walsh thought, coming out of Regent’s Park, and holding his hat in hand, was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained — at last! — the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence, — the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.

you–who are you? how do
I feel about you?
do I hate it that I love
to be tied to you by love?
untied, wd I be free
or lost?

but for
your own sake: who
are you?
can I help? is there any
thing I can do:
are things
working out
all right for you? what
are those black areas?
are they parts
of you that can’t
fall into place,
come into light?
are they longings &
fears only dreams whisper?

I love you the best
I know how:
encounter me with

are you getting yours?
getting & giving
yours, mine, & ours,
are we resolving most of
the areas, are we touching
on elation
do I love you mostly, or
the thought of us

are you hoping that
giving will make up for
not getting? that wd
be the course of saints:
get, too: get it
from me: I have it
and having
it for you, I get mine:

the readiness is all

February 1, 2009

How I’ve not made this quip before, waiting for the T, I don’t know:


in defense of uselessness

January 30, 2009

I must admit that now, a day later, the categorical definiteness with which I concluded the last post — “writing is a leap across the otherwise unbridgeable gulf between thought and act” — rings with the grating simplicity of a journalistic slogan. But what can I say? — I had to leap back into this somehow, I suppose, and all the more appropriate if it was with rash indiscretion.

Stanley Fish, perennial provocateur, has written recently in his blog at the New York Times on the precarious fate of the university in these most utilitarian of times. Over in a Livejournal math community I occasionally read, I stumbled onto this penetrating commentary:

There seem to be two different things going on. One of which is the phasing out of useless (i.e. liberal arts) education in favor of skills training at universities, which mathematicians don’t have to worry about because math is incredibly useful! The other, however, worries me a lot – the phasing out of tenured and tenure-track positions at universities in favor of cheaper adjuncts who can teach more students. This seems like it could affect even useful fields like mathematics.

I won’t begrudge the self-flattery of “which mathematicians don’t have to worry about because math is incredibly useful!”, which only lacks a sly smile and nudge to a neighbor; she posted, after all, in a math community. But I will — did — begrudge its speciousness:

I’ll just say that a liberal arts education is useful not least of all because it teaches you to be wary of repeating facile claims about what is useful and useless.

The irony residing, of course, in your phrase “even useful fields like mathematics”: a lot of research-level mathematics is no more useful, in the standard sense, than work in the humanities. Proving the Geometrization Conjecture does not help doctors cure cancer, or structural engineers build better bridges. And before someone says it might wind up having important consequences for revising our understanding of the standard model, there are plenty of people who would argue theoretical physics isn’t useful either. Discovering the Higgs boson might lead to practical consequences way on down the road; number theorists might unwittingly stumble onto a theorem to help along quantum computing; but doing mathematics for its own sake, and trying to understand our cosmological place in the grand scheme of things: those are activities no more useful, even in the long run, than the study of poems and cultures. No one studies étale cohomology because they think it’s useful, or because they hope their results might trickle down into the realm of science. We should relish in the uselessness of mathematics, not conceal it.

and then the return

January 28, 2009

it was a sight of bountiful
majesty and integrity: the having
patterns and routes, breaking
from them to explore other patterns or
better ways to routes, and then the

So many months have passed since I’ve written a proper post: since I’ve written, properly, at all, for anyone but professors. All that is left here is a Benjamin-like conglomeration of quotations, a cryptic chronicle of a concealed life. It is strange, now, to think I have been able to go so long without doing what I so used to love. And it is not as though I have not felt that strangeness over these months, perhaps even less as a symptom than its source. But with the turn of the year and the start of spring classes, it is as good a time as any — what is a ritual but the sacrifice of arbitrariness to absolve us of the sin of sloth — to hoist my burdens, as Ammons has urged, and get on down the road.

I inaugurated this blog two years ago this month hoping it would be “something of a forgetting of myself.” I had just read T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein on impersonality. But if that desire to forget myself led me to quit writing — never a decision I made, merely a state I found myself in — I had not understood them. For as Stein wrote: “The thing one gradually comes to find out is that one has no identity that is when one is in the act of doing anything” — even, as I understand now, what we, or maybe it’s always only been what I, might otherwise be wont to call the self-centered act of journaling about oneself. If I came to equate Eliot’s “escape from personality” with the escape from writing tout court, I did so only ironically, since it was precisely to writing that Eliot turned for that purpose; whereas I wound up receding these last few months — and what could have been further from my intention — into the dusky depths of debilitating self-consciousness, where I forgot, not least of all, the writerly side of le plaisir du texte. (Reading is just another form of introspection; it takes writing to break the spell of inwardness.)

It is from the dusky depths of debilitating self-consciousness that Hamlet himself finally emerges in his famous “fall to play,” when — after four hesitant acts of meditation in that most self-conscious of modes, the soliloquy — we hear him resolve:

Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting,
That would not let me sleep: methought I lay
Worse than the mutinies in the bilboes. Rashly,
And praised be rashness for it, let us know,
Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well,
When our deep plots do pall.

It is “indiscretion” that Hamlet, with all his philosophical prudence, has done his best to avoid. But, as prefigured by that morbid comedy which opens the fifth act, it is “rashness” in the end that prevails:

I embrace it freely;
And will this brother’s wager frankly play.
Give us the foils. Come on.

Writing, too, I have learned, is its own kind of rashness, its own kind of wager, its own kind of play, a leap one must take across the wide — perhaps otherwise unbridgeable — gulf between thought and act. (For what could be a more decisive act than this: this compulsion to write, the decision to return.) Thus, for Heidegger: “A curious, indeed unearthly thing that we must first leap onto the soil on which we really stand.” And for Penn Warren:

That is the only purity — to leave

The husk behind, and leap
Into the blind and antiseptic anger of air.

Edit: Edward Strachey — related, perhaps, to Lytton Strachey, though I haven’t been able to tell — sums up the matter more nicely, if more conservatively (though in that vein more in line with the play), than I have, in his Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

That is to say, that when we have exhausted all our powers of thought and reasoning upon the consideration of the course we should pursue, and when it yet remains dark to us — “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” — then a higher wisdom and providence then our own will assuredly come to our aid, and employ some apparently unimportant accident — something which to us seems merely a rashness or indiscretion — to strike the hour, and give the command for action. This is Hamlet’s final, crowning discovery: a discovery which every man of Hamlet’s tendency of mind must make for himself, before it is possible for him to turn his intellectual powers to practical account, and to make his philosophical speculations available in the every day-service of God and man. Till such a man has learnt the value of accidents, in breaking the thread of his meditations when it has spun long enough, and has formed the habit of seizing and using these accidents, he must remain an unpractical visionary.

May this be the emblem of my thread-breaking —