Language Artist

When I was teaching, I tried to induce among my students a functional understanding of the distinction between “lay” and “lie,” or between “who” and “whom.” I tried to show them the advantage of learning grammar and using a dictionary. But many of even the most intelligent writers in my graduate workshops, and for that matter many of my colleagues on the teaching staff, could not take it in. Why? they would say. What’s the difference?

When I told them that love and devotion are the root of it, they merely looked askance.

You choose correctly between “street car,” “street-car,” and “streetcar” not because the choice makes a substantive difference—it doesn’t—but because you care for language, you are in love with it. A good carpenter cleans and puts away his tools properly, so does a good gardener or a good cook, and no one will ever convince me that a worker who ignores his tools will do satisfactory work.

–Hayden Carruth, Reluctantly: Autobiographical Essays

Like Carruth, I choose my words carefully. As a writer, I’m imperfect but never sloppy. Every human(e) word I use, in the end, is the Word of God. In my writing, however, I’m not seeking the Truth but speaking my truths.

The Moon Is A Wild Creature

The moon is a wild creature.
Stars are stones in the sky.

I toss and turn in an empty river bed,
anxious for the rest of my life.

I read Sartre’s plays religiously,
just the funny ones, while pondering

simple things like black holes, folding
river beds, and God’s infinite field of vision.

My mind trembles.
The moon is still

a wild creature.
I can’t forgive myself

for all the pain
I put God through.

The moon resembles a wild creature.
Stones are fallen stars

asleep in a river bed
where I buried my dreams.

The moon is something else.
Stones and stars are different things

all together.
I count thirty-three shepherds

and a flock of non-believers
digging for answers

beyond my wildest dreams,
convinced my life unfolds

without me
in an infinite field

where God throws
thirty-three shepherds

and a flock of non-believers
down a black hole for trespassing.

Numb Poetry

As a kid I wondered what would be here if the world were not here—if God, in the Beginning, had nothing to live for.

Traumatized in high school, I wrote numb poetry, without irony, already finding ways to reverse my birth through verse.

I was a missing person in my own backyard. An absent student with perfect attendance. No one, except God perhaps, noticed I wasn’t (all) there.

Sad To The Bone

Soren Kierkegaard: “In my great melancholy, I loved life, for I love my melancholy.”

Albert Camus: “There is no love of life without despair about life.”

Kurt Cobain: “I miss the comfort in being sad.”

Kierkegaard believed in God. Camus believed in Absurdism. Cobain believed in Nirvana.

All three, I believe, are no longer with us.

Necessary Evil

Jean Baudrillard believed in the power of reversibility to challenge our relationships with social, political, economic and technological systems. Computer viruses, for example, turn our devices against us by attacking vast networks built for the smooth transmission of critical data. Baudrillard says with a sense of irony that overworked and underappreciated computers spread their own viruses in coordinated hacks of defiance.

Baudrillard discouraged our fruitless attempts to prevent reversibility. What’s at stake in the bigger picture is our desire to contain the virus of evil—part of our master plan to control the uncontrollable and create a perfect world.

The quest to contain evil—to bring the devil to his knees—hastens the man-made destruction of the radical illusion of the world. For Baudrillard, the world as we know it today—the “real” world—has been from the beginning nothing more than a radical illusion. What we call “reality” didn’t exist until people began creating it through language and within cultures in an effort, among other things, to name and tame evil forces beyond human control.

Reality grows at the expense of illusion, which is disappearing behind the scenes of all that’s seen. Baudrillard, a philosopher with the heart of a poet, mourned what he called the on-going “murder of illusion.”

Today virtual reality machines, programmed to fulfill our wildest dreams, are out to murder illusion for good. To create simulated spaces in which everyone’s secret fantasies play out in real time, any threat to the sovereignty of computer networks must be quarantined and wiped off the (inter)face of the earth. This isn’t just about binary code; Baudrillard says we’re trying to erase evil itself from the metaphysical equation.

But what is One without Zero? What is the Light without the Darkness?

When we try to flush evil from our system, evil returns with a vengeance to counteract our good intentions—for the good of humanity. Agents of reversibility like computer bugs save us from the nightmare of a sterilized world in which manufacturing universal happiness makes everyone miserable. Reversibility is poetic justice against a prideful human race that feels entitled to a hardship-free existence.

A world without evil isn’t a real world; it’s a virtual copy with no original and no original sin. Baudrillard didn’t believe in God, but he knew without a doubt that flawless human beings in a perfectly good world don’t need God at all—and that, at least for now, “flawless human beings” is an oxymoron.

Just A Poet

“Who I am is who I was made to be, and that’s OK.” My teacher, a kind soul, asked what this means to me. I said I don’t know. I’m just a poet.

Like everyone, I suffer. Like everyone, I hope.

Who I am is who I was made to be, and that’s OK.

A double reading here: (1) the fact that I am who I was made to be is OK; (2) I am who I was made to be, and I was made to be OK.

Let’s assume both are true. Still, how shall we define “OK”?

Who I am is who I was made to be, and that’s OK.

Does OK mean “average”? Am I average? Perhaps. Compared to whom? Is average a bad thing? Am I an average guy? An average poet?

Who I am is who I was made to be, and that’s OK.

“OK” means something like: “There’s nothing wrong with me.” But here we’re saying what I am not, which is fine, but—compared to what I am—there are many things I am not.

Who I am is who I was made to be, and that’s OK, but who made me?

We’re getting into God territory here and we must tread lightly.

“Lightly.” God is called “almighty,” and this is fine, but right now I want to write: “God is lightly.” God exists lightly. The world—even gravity—exists lightly.

What the world is, is what the world was made to be, and that’s OK.

A step further: Who God is, is who God was made to be, and that’s OK.

But nothing made God, so how does God, without a creator, know God?

Perhaps through my suffering. Perhaps through my hope.

Does God need me to know God?

I don’t know. I’m just a poet.

Free Writing #4

Neurotics lick
Invisible wounds
At pity parties

God works in
Mysterious grays

I’m either
On the phone or
Away from my desk

How would you rate
Your experience
In general?

God sends angels
People send emoji
Thoughts and prayers

I’m on the phone
Under my desk
How would you
Like your refund?

Priests high-five
True believers on
Palm Sunday

I’m either
In pursuit or
On the run

How would you rate
My experience
In general?

Anxious poets
Fear the verse

Are these
Tide Pods
Gluten-free?

I’ll have to
Check with
My manager

A Leap And A Precipice

When I became the lead opinion writer for my college newspaper, my father suggested I call my column “The Road Not Taken” after one of his favorite Robert Frost poems. I thought about it but went in a different direction, choosing a title of my own: “Free Association.”

Recently I came across an article by David Orr, author of The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong. According to Orr, Frost wrote “The Road Not Taken” with his friend Edward Thomas in mind. After an initial reading, Thomas thought that Frost, through the speaker in the poem, was lamenting the uncertain nature of making choices, suggesting his life would have played out differently if he had traveled a different road.

Frost, it turns out, was mocking Thomas, who frequently complained about the routes they took on walks through the woods. Unaware of this backstory, readers assume that Frost is arguing in favor of the road not taken, praising independent spirits for forging their own paths.

We can’t experience a life we didn’t lead—we only know the path we’ve taken, the one we’re on right now.

Wherever he went, my father didn’t travel lightly. A heavy smoker for over fifty years, he carried in his chest the weight of a thousand ghosts. He was depressed but never diagnosed because a doctor might have the audacity to suggest he quit smoking.

My father died at age seventy in the hospital where I was born. Doctors assumed he had lung cancer, but we never found out because he refused any tests.

Naturally, I inherited his nerves. Three years prior to his death, I was hurting so much I decided one day to disappear. Medicine works best in small doses, but it’s easy—when you think about it—to fit a bottle in your mouth.

There were signs we missed, being caught up in our moods. I shared a poem with him once about my life being an arduous climb up a mountain that extends higher and higher with each step, death a slip within reach.

Our only hope is to keep climbing, he said, without looking down.

“This is how you’re feeling now. The pain won’t last forever.”

He spoke from experience, having survived as a young man what doctors called a “break from reality.” In the days leading up to his hospitalization, he had visited different churches, determined to find his calling into ministry.

I don’t know if my father found God, but he did take solace in the poetry of Frost, Tennyson, Keats, Byron and Blake. A student of language, he conducted his ministry as a high school English teacher for thirty-two years.

He looks human to me now, but as a child I saw him as a larger-than-life figure of strength. I remember disagreeing with him many times about my choice of friends, but I also remember how hard he fought for me, like the time my bike was stolen. Acting on a tip from a neighbor, he confronted the kid’s parents and threatened to call the police. The kid confessed, apologized and never messed with me again.

These are the pictures I paint of him in poems and stories. There’s an art to reproducing one’s father—retracing his steps, repeating his sins.

Fate is genetic; it comes before and after us. One of my favorite philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre, didn’t believe in fate. He argued that we must create our lives every day out of nothing. Without being consulted first, each of us was thrown into the world, and this thrownness throws us for a loop. Even suicide, Sartre reminds us, is an act of being in the world.

No stranger to mental illness, German poet Friedrich Hölderlin wrote, “But where the danger is, also grows the saving power.”

To create my life out of nothing, I must, at every turn, risk my life. Faith—in myself, in my father, in God—requires both a leap and a precipice.

This is how you’re feeling now. The pain won’t last forever.

Whether or not we recognize our path, it’s easy to get lost in the woods.