Saturday, January 31, 2009


I played an exceedingly small role in a wee fundraiser yesterday (and at some point I must look up "fundraiser" on the OED online). My role was to cook a lot of minestrone soup (Marcella Hazan's receipe), which was to be eaten by women tennis players after they played a kind of round-robin tournament, the occasion of which would be used to raise money for Nativity House, a drop-in center in Tacoma that hosts about 200 persons per day.

Although Nativity House is affiliated with a Catholic parish, there's no preaching in connection with the services, and no one cares what the spiritual beliefs of the visitors are. NH plays a key role because homeless persons who sleep in the shelters usually have to be out by 6:00 a.m., and they can't go back until about 6:00 p.m. Meanwhile, they need meals, shelter, and companionship, all of which they get at Nativity House, where they can also pick up some replacement-clothing, make phone calls, pick up mail, look for work, and just hang out, enjoying each other's company. There aren't shower facilities there, but such facilities exist close by, and the NH staff can direct the guests there.

At the fundraiser, I learned that about 30 % of the homeless and the guests at NH house are chronically homeless, due largely to disabilities, addictions, and/or severe mental illness. But 70 per cent are on the streets usually because of a bad break, so to speak (not that mental illness or addiction aren't bad breaks themselves). They lost their job or their apartment. They suffered domesitic abuse. A series of calamaties beyond their control afflicted them. And so on. As one might expect, the "census" at NH and other facilities is way up because of the rotten economy.

The director of NH told an amusing story concerning a plumber who came to fix a leak at NH. The director, in addition to paying the plumber, said, "Thank you." The plumber said, "No, thank you. I was a guest here once. You helped me get back on my feet." The plumber was making 40 bucks a week, had a place to live, and so on. A basic turn-around story, the way it ought to work.

The director also said that NH and agencies like it are in need of men's clothing but tend to get more women's clothing, partly because middle-class women have more clothes to give away, and because they give them away, but also because a woman can wear a man's flannel shirt (for example) but a man can't really wear a woman's silk blouse, chiefly because of the size. So if you're a man with clothes to spare, think about giving them to a place like NH. Places like that need volunteers, too, especially during the week--to help cook a meal or just to hang out, play cards, create some society.


You know what? I might get a chance today
to stay out of someone's way, and stay out of the way
I shall. Sometimes it makes a difference. I might
get a chance to be kind. I can do that. I might be
invited to get angry. I hope to decline unless
anger's a short, quick step to appropriate action.

All over the world, people are saying, thinking,
or hoping, "Help." There's always an opportunity
to help, even on days following days when I didn't help.
Good grief! Another opportunity, and another, even
when you pass up the first or second one. Chances
to assist flow steadily like a creek. At a time and place

of your choosing, just step up and help. I think
I'll try that, too. Maybe we'll run into each other.
Maybe we'll need help, too. Why don't I end this
thing now and go help? I'll see you around.

Apostrophe's Extinction Signals Apocalypse's Arrival

(image: representation of an apostrophe, or of a tear, or of both)

One occasional reader of this blog relayed a link to a news story which reports that new or replaced street signs that once contained apostrophes will no longer contain them because "they're confusing and old fashioned"--the apostrophes, not the signs or decision-makers, apparently.

The link:,2933,486144,00.html

That this event should occur in Britain, where precise men with incendiary tempers such as A.E. Housman, Samuel Johnson, Lord Byron, and Alexander Pope once strode the earth (owing to some infirmities, Byron and Pope hobbled a bit, no worries), strikes an apostrophe-lover with a combination of punches.

Nonetheless, we who teach English and/or care about the language saw this one coming decades ago, for the apostrophe has been disappearing from college papers (for example--this is not to put the blame on college students) for a long time. We "correct" the papers, write something in the margin, perhaps even spend seconds in class discussing the apostrophe. The students, ignore our corrections, marginalia, and blather, as they should. They are college students. They have certain duties to uphold. Each has his or her role in the academy.

And having studied German, I knew that the possessive apostrophe had disappeared long ago.

Nonetheless, let me point out that the reasoning behind the decision to eliminate the apostrophe would not pass muster with Hume's (or Humes) or any philosopher's big toe, not considered the seat of logic.

The apostrophe's old-fashioned? Well, so is printing itself, which dates back to the 15th century. So is the monarchy. So are those goddamned wigs they wear in court over there. I say the wigs should go first; then maybe we'll pretend to discuss the demise of the apostrophe. The apostrophe has a clear semiotic use. The wig has a murky one, at best. The apostrophe is unobtrusive. The wig is not, and I'd (Id) be willing to bet that those wigs stink. I've never known an apostrophe to need a good cleaning or to harbor fleas.

Confusing? Imagine a sign that read St. John's Wood. Or St. John's Wood, One Kilometer. I'm just not feeling the confusion coming from either sign.

Now consider a sign that says William's Pub. Then one that says Williams Pub. The first sign is not confusing. The pub belongs to William, or at least William figures or figured in the history of the pub. Such niceties may be sorted out nicely in the pub over a pint, but they are niceties, not sources of confusion. Now consider the second sign. Is it William's Pub, singular? Williams' Pub, plural--the pub owned by the Williams family? One is so disgusted by the lack of clarity that one will go to another pub.

One might assert that the absence of an apostrophe will either have no effect (let's [or lets] be generous and say 10% of the time) or will, indeed, cause confusion, an absence of precision being more likely to create confusion than a persence of precision (that is my assumption)

Let us further assume that those in charge, or what Gogol called Persons of Consequence, are lying. They want to to save money and time, which are the same thing in their minds. It takes X amount of time to punch an apostrophe into a sign and then paint it. Multiply by Y, and you have an amount (illusory, of course) that you are saving. Read Dickens' [or I guess I should write Dickens and surrender) Hard Times for a flavor of this mentality.

Or maybe this is their revenge on English teachers!

I don't (I mean dont) like the slothful use of "old fashioned," unsupported by data, although my use of slothful begged the question, I grant. I don't like an assertion concerning "useless" when the assertion is not followed closely by reasoning, logic, or at least something dressed as good sense.

I like the apostrophe. It adds clarity. Nonetheless, I let it go long ago, even as I ritualisitically point out its absence (or should I write it's absence?) or its incorrect presence in papers.

With the impending official demise of the apostrophe in England, the apocaplyse's, I mean the apocolypses, intial phase has begun. Whats a person to do? Store a years worth of food? :-)

Listen, this is how loyal, to a fault, not just to people but apostrophes I am: In those rare instances when I use my telephone to "text" (sigh, text is a verb), I use the apostrophe. What percentage of texters use it? I would guess 1% at most. Nonetheless, all hail the corporate design-dude or design-dudette who allowed the phone to be programmed to include an apostrophe. Hes my hero or shes my hero, of sorts. I mean he's my hero or she's my hero.

National Lampoon might write the headline this way: ENGLAND BAN'S [SIC] APOSTROPHE, GOES IMMEDIATELY TO HELL'S ANTECHAMBER.

"Should all apostrophes be forgot and ne-ver come to mind . . . ." Cue tears, pull out handkerchief, head to William's Pub.

Friday, January 30, 2009


Samuel Johnson famously described a (financial) patron as one who ignores a drowning man but then, when the man has already fought his way to shore, encumbers him with assistance. I believe he was directing his lack of amusement at a person who had promised to help him pay for the great dictionary on which Johnson was working. That dictionary remains one of the quasi-miraculous achievements in scholarship. The man wrote a dictionary of the English language mostly by himself--he had a few of what we might call research-assistants--and he pulled many of the explanatory examples of definitions from his memory.

Patronizers are a different sort of creatyres, One doesn't expect money or anything else for them. One simply expects false, duplicitous "praise" or politeness that's been on the shelf way past the sell-date.

The Patronizers

I've grown to appreciate the patronizers,
who stand on an invisible wee step-ladder
and speak down. Theirs is a subtle art.
They upholster ill will with civility. They
dismiss by squeezing out an anemic compliment.

Relentlessly, they try to shrink the world
as they assume they expand. At least
the old patrons used to hand over cash
once in a while. The patronizers pilfer
superiority. They buy arrogance on credit,
spend it mincingly. They're as bold

as a spectator at a bullfight, as generous
as a dead snake, as well meaning as a rabid
skunk. They're clever and deft, though,
like old troupers. They please themselves.

Patronizers make themselves at home
in your forebearance. They're really
something. They've honed a hapless
social skill. Well done, Bravo.
Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Poet + Museum = Poem

(image: interior of Hagia Sophia)

I did write a post concerning "homeopathic treatments for writer's block" once, but otherwise I don't recall posting anything like "an English assignment," chiefly because it seems like such a nerdy, English-professory, assignmentish thing to do.

However, one of the few readers of this blog recently asked, "Where do you find your creativity?" and a) I haven't answered that question, b) I'm not sure how to answer it, but c) one way to answer it is very specifically: by suggesting a task for anyone (including oneself), any poet, in the unlikely event that person needs a task to spark the writing or the "creativity."

Before I give the task, I should probably answer the question more generally.
I like how the question is phrased, first of all--using "where" as oppposed to "how." Poets or any artists can find stuff (now there's a precise term) to interest them anywhere. So I guess one answer to the question is, "Almost everywhere." Places, situations, language (especially odd overheard phrases), conditions, new places, familiar places, strange places, work-spaces, and so on.

Another answer is that I don't feel especially more creative than other people. I think I've always just liked to write, especially poetry, and if you enjoy "doing" some kind of art, then the creativity usually arrives in a steady flow, a trickle, at least. I don't enjoy writing fiction nearly as much as poetry, so when I'm writing that, I'm aware that sometimes the creativity is running a bit low. So I guess the answer is that one finds the creativity in the making itself.

Now that that paragraph is, thankfully, done with, here is an assignment I give poetry classes. It entails visiting a gallery or a museum, although one could just as easily pick up an art- or photograph-book of some kind and go from there.

But as I almost suggested earlier, posting an "assignment" may be taken as an insult, especially by those who know quite well what they want to write about, thank-you-very-much. If you count yourself in that number, you have my apology. Then there are people who recoil from the very idea of "assigning" a poem, although I think this assignment is so loose that it almost avoids the stigma of being an assignment. Almost. Anway, if you're in the anti-assignment group, you, too, have my apology. In the unlikely event you are a poet or are wanting to write a poem and might like something new or unexpected to write about, here 'tis:

An “ekphrastic” poem is one that is in some way inspired by a work of art, usually a work from a non-literary art. W.H. Auden’s “Museé des Beaux Arts” is one of the best known examples from 20th century poetry. In the poem, Auden argues that paintings by Old Masters such as Brueghel reflected a particular view of suffering. Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” is another example; it focuses on the art in a church called Hagia Sophia in Constantinople/Istanbul. That poem seems to express a desire to live permanently in an ideal world of art. Our field-trip today takes us to [ ] Gallery, which features two exhibits, The Island and Juxtaposition, which hold especially rich possibilities for poetry. Look at the exhibits and then find a space on the floor, have a seat, and write either notes toward a poem or a poem or both. The poem might react specifically to one piece in one exhibit; or it may embody an overall reaction to the exhibit; or it may concern a topic triggered by the exhibit. The references to the art-work might be strong and obvious, subtle, or ultimately even non-existent. That is, the poem will begin as something that plays off the exhibits or a piece in the exhibits, but its real subject might be something else that springs from your memory and/or the process of writing itself.

Fine With Me

"Fine" is one of those multiply deployed words in the language that depend, obviously, on different definitions, connotations, and rhetorical situations but also on slight shifts of tone. You might ask someone, "So, how's it going?" And s/he might say, "Fine," but precisely how the person says "fine" determines the meaning. S/he can say it wearily and, without going so far as irony or sarcasm, s/he can turn the meaning of fine into "not fine." Another tone of voice might suggest that the person doesn't want to reveal how he or she is doing, how it's going, so then "Fine" means "end of inquiry." Anyway, I was thinking about some of this as I fooled around with a poem.


There's a fine line between
saying there's a fine line
between two things and refusing
to say such a thing. In this case,
"fine" means not "excellent" but
"extremely thin."

Some people say, "Fine, then!"
when they're angry and want
to bring an episode of some kind
to an end, which in Latin is "fine."

In the end, a fine is indeed an
imposition, especially if it costs
a lot of money, as opposed to
being a finely calibrated token.
A fine plus jail-time seems
almost infinitely harsh.

"Finery" refers to clothing,
"refined" to manners,
but "refinery" to petroleum
and such. It's as if at some crucial
linguistic moment, someone said,
"Fine, then!" and the denotations
went their separate ways. Go
figure. Better yet, cut a fine figure;
the latter seems to refer to beauty,
not to cutting. "She's so fine,"
I remember some men saying,

of women, in the semi-fine
decade of the 1970s. I cannot
remember the last time I heard
anyone say "fine and dandy,"
and I'm perfectly fine with that.
Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Abyss Estates

(photos: bottom, Bombay Bay, near the Salton Sea, with decaying trailer houses; and, top, an abandoned car + abode, Salton Sea)

For some reason, I've always been intrigued by places created by a reckless leap of the imagination, or of circumstances, and then abandoned, or almost so. Indeed I grew up in such a place, Sierra City, California, now population 225 but, during the Gold Rush, population 3,000. Astoundingly, people were actually considering the possibility of making nearby Downieville (population 500 now) the State Capital. All because of the Gold Rush, a spasm of history.

Therefore, the Salton Sea and environs intrigue me. It's a salty sea (or immense lake), as one might imagine, created by spillage from the Colorado River. Developers built houses around it and in nearby communities like Bombay Bay. This area is essentiallyin the desert of the far Southeast corner of California, but because a lake sprang up there, developers and promoters moved in quickly. Basically the whole thing fell apart. The area is like a bizarre modern ghost town, although some people do still live there, and bless their hearts.

Apparently, however, the Salton Sea is also home to extraordinary species of birds and other creatures, so much so that the California Legislature has attempted to provide money to save the Sea, whatever that means, and whatever that entails. Apparently one problem is that it's too salty now. There's at least one fine documentary on the place, and then a relatively recent movie was shot there. I think Val Kilmer's in it.

Abyss Estates

The salesman said, "Sir, this is a truly unique property.
People--I'm talking philosophers and poets--have talked
about it for years. Now you have a chance to buy a piece of it.
What's that? Yes, technically, you will disappear after you
take possession. Fascinating, huh? In our business, we
call it 'going all in.' It's a gambling term. But the sense

of privacy is unmatched. . . . Certainly, take your time
to decide. However--and I say this not to pressure you--
only a few parcels remain. You just don't see property
like this every day. But take your time. It's a big decision.
I can get you into Abyss Estates for 10 per cent down.
This thing's going to be an equity-machine. It's the Abyss.
I mean, there's no place like it, sir."

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Translating "Nothing"; Hounds online; cummings on blogging

(photo: e.e. cummings)

The recent post on "What Should I Say [When I Have Nothing to Say]" produced comments better than the post, as hard as that may be to comprehend. The comments deserve their own post.

A blogging colleague, Rethilbe, who happens to like poetry as much as I and who blogs on Poefrika (please check out the site), had this to write:

[About how to translate/pronounce "nothing" in other languages] "/Heetchee/ in farsi and /Leet-aw/ in Sesotho, my mother tongue. In French? "Rien", pronounced /Ree-young/"

[I knew the French one but not the others. I think I prefer "Heetchee" to "Nothing," and I know I prefer "Leet-aw" to "Nothing." Now when people ask me what I'm doing as a way of suggesting I should stop doing it, I think I'll answer, "Leet-aw; how about you, sir [or madame]?'

"Frost might have enjoyed this, and would have perhaps told us about a man who blogged his way because blogging was what he was all about, far into the reaches of his youth.
Cummings might have insisted that glee was a glad blog."

["A glee was a glad blog": how great is that?]

"I'd have loved to have heard Plath on this one. She'd have found some catastrophe linked to blogging:
Screen, you do not seem to understand the lifting of my skin."

[or "Screen, you will not do, Pixelated You."]

"lol. But we unfortunately can't hear these voices anew.

[But Rethilbe has helped us hear the improvised echoes.}

Another commenter (as opposed to commentator, which is someone who talks a lot about nothing on television), notes that Full Cry, the magazine all about "coon hounds" to which my father subscribed [Until I was about 9, I thought all families subscribed to it, kind of like TV Guide or Life magazine], now has a howling web presence. The commenter, from the great and icy upper Midwest, writes,

"Full Cry is still going strong:

Also, this:

And if you're some kind of goddamn flatlander:"

I realize these links may not appeal to a massive percentage of the population, but be careful: once your interest in hunting-dogs of this kind is piqued, you find yourself becoming more and more interested, and pretty soon, you're out in the woods, it's past midnight, the hounds are up to no good, you're freezing and waving a flashlight around, and you're interpreting the different howls, barks, and yelps that are filling the air.

A recent student of mine had an internship with a dog-related publications. She and I were trying to remember the names of hound-breeds that are officially "coon hounds."

I think they are Black and Tan, Plot, Redbone, Blue Tick, and English, but I could be wrong. They tend not to be large dogs, probably because the have to be quick, fast, and durable. They are all very excitable but not, I would say, temperamental. A Redbone has a gorgeous rust-colored, very short-haired coat. The Black and Tan is pretty much self-describing, although there is more black than tan. A shiny coat.

Blue Ticks are black and white, or white with a lot of black spots and mottling, except the black really is almost blue. Plot hounds migh well be the smallest of the breeds and are dark brown or black. The ones my father owned seemed much more composed than their hound-colleagues. They seemed to take a cool professional attitude toward hunting.

Anyway, here's a shout out and a howl out to two commenters. [Someone just asked me what I'm doing. "Leet-aw," I responded. "Why do you ask?']

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike

The nation and, to some degree, the world seems to be losing members of a novel-writing "generation" that first found a big readership in the 1950s and 1960s: Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, William Styron, Norman Mailer, and now John Updike (to name a few).

Updike was an important figure in my own reading-life because I picked up Rabbit, Run when I was a sophomore in high school, read it, liked it, and understood most of it. I liked the character and, young as I was, I understood the character. I was in high school, with classmates who were local athletic stars who were, in some cases, being set up for disappointment. Perhaps what I responded well to in that novel and other writing by Updike more than anything was its imagery. In terms of plotting, characterization, and moving things along, Updike was traditional. He knew how to construct and pace a novel. But in another way, he was a "poetic" novelist who had a great eye for imagery for conveying that imagery powerfully.

Later I read Couples, the other Rabbit books, story collections (like Pigeon Feathers), and even Midpoint, a book of poems that was more light verse than not. Later still I lost interest in Updike's writing not so much because I lost interest in his particular characters so much as I lost interest in the type of characters and situations he was writing about. I didn't find their stories especially urgent. I found what James Baldwin was writing about (to cite just one example) more pressing.

When Updike ventured beyond the world he knew well--semi-rural and suburban middle-America; Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York--his powers waned. The Coup is, in my opinion, not a good novel. It's the kind of material Gore Vidal and John Le Carre and Martin Amis can handle better. But so what? It was interesting to see what Updike would do with such material.

Even later, I came to regard Updike as a kind of insider who had been taken under the wing of The New Yorker early on and who was well connected, as it were. That's probably not entirely fair because he was an extremely hard-working writer. Maybe he had an inside track, but he also ran hard. He just kept at it. By contrast, Heller and Styron seem unproductive, or less productive, at least.

But I'll always remember reading that relatively thin paperback, Rabbit, Run, in the sun or in my room, getting myself through the novel on my own, and loving it. I knew it was good writing. It made me want to keep reading. And reading. And writing.

What Should I Say?

Once again I've been inspired by another blogger. Inter-blogging inspiration seems to be a good feature of the blogosphere, although I don't know why it has to be a sphere. Can't it be amorphous like one of those "energy fields" in the old Star Trek TV series?

A Scribble or a Sonnet wrote, "What should [or maybe it was "can"] I say when I have nothing to say?" Fabulous question. The most popular answer might be "Nothing," but we mustn't stop there. A Scribble or a Sonnet came up with the most elegant answer, arguably, which was the question itself, which was something to say.

If my father were alive, he would say, of blogging, "What a goddamned waste of time." He would need to know some practical reason for blogging. On the other hand, if there were (and I'm sure there are) bloggers that write about the sub-culture of those who keep hound dogs, especially "coon dogs," he would read that blog. It's a fascinating sub-culture that, in a way, has absolutey nothing to do with raccoons.

One of my brothers would say, "Tell them about the time you . . . ." and then he would reference some comical calamity from my past.

Queen Victoria might have said, "We do not know what blogs are. We are unimpressed."

Homer, Whitman, or Ginsberg--or some other poet who likes to catalogue items in his or her poetry--would make a list of all the reasons why s/he doesn't appear to have anything to say.

One could also make a list of the different ways there are to say nothing.

How is the equivalent of "nothing" pronounced, say, in Abrabic, Farsi, Swahili, Portuguese [close to "nada" or not?], Japanese, and so forth?

Concerning Failure

Concerning Failure
Of all the ways to fail,
trying to succeed has to be
the most interesting. You
get into a vehicle and go fast
west, stop, get out, and know
immediately you're east.
I've pursued many goals
with grim determination
and ended up in a room
that held just grim
determination, a fly, and me.
Meanwhile, success finds me,
or at least it may find you.
At first it seems too light
to be success. You test its
weight. You try to trace
its origin. You wonder what
part you played in its arrival,
exactly. You want to be sure.
Finally you acknowledge that,
yes, success arrived. That's
success for you. It's different
from failure. At least that's
the theory anyway.
Hans Ostrom 2009 Copyright 2009

Monday, January 26, 2009

Poetic License: Time to Renew?

For the first time ever, I renewed my driver's license online. I kind of missed going to the local Department of Motor Vehicles office, which is always located in an obscure strip-mall, it seems, and taking a number, and sitting there for a long time, and then going up to the counter to talk with a person who has been interacting with too many people for too long concerning the same topic. Ah, well: another one of life's small pleasures, gone. Anyway, this license-renewal business got me thinking about whether one needs to renew his or her poetic license.

Poetic-License Renewal

He received a notice telling him his
poetic license had expired. He wanted to
go down (not up, it's never up) to
the Department of Poetry to renew
the license, but he was afraid.

His eyesight was probably worse,
he reckoned. Would they test him
on imagery? Also, he knew he'd
get nervous talking to the muse
behind the counter, the one who
asks questions like "If you're turning
into oncoming poetry, should you use
a simile or a hand-signal?"

Plus he hated when they took his
picture for the license because the
photo looked exactly like him. Still he knew
he had to renew. He was afraid to write
poetry without a license. What if he
got caught? They might tow away
his notebook or make him do community
service, such as writing press-releases
for actors who are on the decline.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Beat-Memo Homage: Dig It

You don't (or I don't, or one doesn't) hear anyone say, "I dig that" or "I can dig that" in the ancient hipster or old-Beatnik sense of "I understand that" or "I'm in tune with that" much anymore--except perhaps when people are genially mocking the usage.

I still recall fondly the pop-song, "Grazing in the Grass (Is a Gas)," with its dig-related riff and refrain. Not the apogee of American music, I grant.

According the OED online, this sense of "dig" arose in English (in print, at least) around 1935:

1935 Hot News Sept. 20/2 If you listen enough, and dig him enough, you will realise that that..riff is the high-spot of the record.
1941 Life 15 Dec. 89 Dig me? 1943 M. SHULMAN Barefoot Boy with Cheek 90 Awful fine slush pump, I mean awful fine. You ought to dig that. 1944 C. CALLOWAY Hepsters Dict., Dig v.{em}(1) Meet. (2) Look, see. (3) Comprehend, understand.

Notice that Cab Calloway is featured in an early citation. This is almost purely guesswork, but my familiarity with African American origins of some American slang and of "hepster," "hipster," and jazz-related slang induces me to hypothesize that this use "dig" may have sprang from African American colloquial speech, which heavily influenced Beat slang.

With regard to the more literal use of dig, I can report that I did a lot of digging in my youth and young adulthood, much of it related to putting in water-lines, building foundations for houses, putting in fence-posts, establishing drain-fields for septic tanks, and even looking for gold. Since then I've done a lot of digging in gardens.

Strange as it may sound, my father loved to dig. (He became a professional hard-rock gold-miner at age 17, at the Empire Mine in Grass Valley California; this meant digging.) To him it was an art. Probably the best tip I can give you from the art of digging according to him is to let the pick (or pry-bar) do the work. Never swing a pick as high or higher than your head; you really don't have to swing it at all. Work with it, and let its iron point do the work, not your forearms and back. If the pick is wearing you out, something is wrong--I mean besides the fact that there you are, using a pick.

Unfortunately, my experience digging, often alongside my father, may have ruined Seamus Heaney's famous "Digging" poem for me. In it, Heaney explicitly compares his writing ("digging" with a pen) to his father's digging in the ground. I think because I saw the comparison coming a mile away (when I first read the poem), I winced. Also, because digging is a form of labor and a skill unto itself, I'd be tempted to leave it alone and not associate it with the figurative digging of writing.

True, a pick and a pen both have a point, and so, therefore, does Heaney. But for some reason I wanted him to let writing be writing and digging be digging and not go for the comparison. I'm in an extremely tiny minority with this response, however, so I think it's mostly about me and not about Heaney's poem, which many people adore.

In any event, and in honor of those old hipsters and long-ago Beats, and in homage to writers I happen to like, here's a list-poem memo (for some reason, the idea of writing a Beat "memo" amused me, probably more than it should have):

Beat-Memo Homage

I dig Basho, Dickinson, Housman,
Lagerkvist, and Gogol. I dig Kafka, Calvino,
Borges, Brautigan. Can you dig Langston
Hughes,W.C. Williams, and Sam Johnson? I can.
Oh, man. I dig Swenson (May), Valenzuela (Luisa),
Sayers, Stout, and Conan Doyle. I dig
Shapiro, Stafford, Bukowski, and Jarrell.
Leonard Cohen and Jay McPherson: I dig
them, too. Of course I dig some of those
Beats, except they're ones who were
on the fringes of Beatly fringehood: Snyder,
Baraka, Everson, Levertov. Sure,
I dig Ginsburg and Kerouac, just
not as much as other people do. I dig Camus,
who didn't believe, and Nouwen, who did.
I dig Suzuki (Zen Mind...), St. Denis
(Cloud of...), and Spinoza. Jeffers, I
dig--Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky. I dig Rumi
an Goethke: what's not to dig? I dig
O'Connor (Frank and Flannery both).
I dig Horace and the Beowulf cat,
Tolstoy, Cervantes. Let's leave it at that.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Our Own Business

Our Own Business

I saw a man carrying a ladder walking alone beside
a highway on the plains. Dusk only just
lit up the shirt on his back and the ladder's
angles. Had he climbed, or was he going
to climb, and what? There weren't any houses,
trees, or barns around. The man had that stiff,
relentless gait of a resolute person in an awkward
situation. As I drove past him,

I was about to laugh and judge him to be
"crazy," but I noticed I was driving a car alone
across the plain listening to a radio talk-show
about mysterious lights in the sky, and I'd just
decided to bypass a human hauling a ladder,
and not to talk to him or offer transportation.

I set aside judgment, looked at the speedometer
and fuel gauge, and turned on the headlights,
which made the highway mysterious.
Say what you will about that man and me. We
were minding our own business on the plains.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Friday, January 23, 2009

Head Officer

Head Officer
His head was his office. Each
day he opened an imaginary door
and entered to go to work. It was
a well appointed space, with tapestries
made of dream-threads, shelves
and cabinets full of memories,
bright synaptic lights, and windows
looking out on undulating land,
clustered skylines, and upholstered
boulders. He loved his job.
The pay, however, was sub-optimal
in the sense of nothing. So one day,
to support himself financially, he had
to get a job located outside his head.
He closed up the office in his mind. He
went to work with people on tasks
deemed socially appropriate and worth
traditional remuneration. Sometimes
he steals away to the office in his head,
that wondrous interior, and thinks what
seem to him to be marvelous thoughts,
some of which are accompanied by
unusual images: pink ferns, dolphins
broadcasting news, demitasse cups
full of melted gold. Returning makes
him wistful. The world outside the
Head Office is hard: steel, concrete,
that sort of thing. Deep sighs within these
headquarters seem to to have a salutary effect.
Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

First Day Of Class, In the First Person

I taught, or I should say met, my first classes of the semester today. First Day of Class is such a quirky ritual, no matter what the level of education. I remember that, as a student, from first grade (I did not attend kindergarten) through graduate school, I greeted the first day of classes with apprehension, wariness. I was very much an observer.
Now that I'm a professor, I really don't have the option of being an observer, per se, although of course I observe things. My main job is to try to give the students a sense of what they're getting into, what's expected of them, and what sort of professor I am (answer: quirky). Some of the students have taken classes from me before.
I recall how extraordinarily nervous I was on the first day of classes in my first years of teaching. --Trepidation that was way out of proportion to the situation. Those days seem to be gone, at least for the moment. Good riddance.
In college, one choice professors may make is whether to keep the class for the whole time on the first day. (In K-12, this isn't an option.) I usually do go the full time, and inevitably some students start to squirm, as if they preferred (and why wouldn't they?) the other alternative--get the syllabus, ask some questions, get out. I often raise the subject explicitly and say, "Well, I know you want to get out of here, but we're going to keep going." This tactic doesn't necessarily improve the response, but it might induce a grudging smile.
There were a couple of amusing surprises today. One student in a creative-writing class asked politely whether it would be possible for us not to read material meant to "inspire" us to write. She said she'd just rather read short stories (in this case), and to inspire herself, if need be. So I agreed immediately to avoid inspiring them whenever possible. :-) Actually, she had a specific book in mind that had been used in another class and that had not proved inspirational. Anyway, that discussion provided some amusing turns. I think we tentatively decided to try to occupy a middle ground between doing things that were "inspirational" and doing things that were completely counter-productive. --A happy medium, of which Horace would have approved.
Another student said that in a writing class she had once taken, the teacher had come close to prohibiting the use of the first-person point of view in writing short stories. I must say I did not see this anecdote coming, and since, for the most part, short-story writers must work with versions of either the first- or third-person, I had never imagined jettisoning one of those options. The student said she liked to use the first person because "Most people live life in the first person." What a fabulous quotation! It is one I must duly attribute to Amanda M.
I'm sure all sorts of psychologists, psychiatrists, philosophers, and neurologists would quibble with the claim, but that's beside the point, which is that Amanda M. has given us much to consider. Do people live life in the first person? If so, what does that mean? Do others live life in the third person? I know that many professional athletes refer to themselves in the third person when they are interviewed. How would you say you live your life? Would you even think in terms of first- or third-person or of "person" at all? --Maybe not, if you weren't a writer, film-maker, or reader of literature. Hard to say.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Langston Hughes and Barack Obama

(Langston Hughes 1902-1967)

Langston Hughes and Barack Obama

Let's lay down some lines for Langston Hughes

this day of news: 20 January 2009. A fine

piece of the dream's no longer deferred, though

the thought's occurred that Mr. Hughes

might focus on the people out of work or,

working, out of money. (Remember:

he gave even Roosevelt what-for.) Still I see

him in a Harlem bar, sitting next to

Jesse B., speaking in his clipped

Midwest English, having sipped

something fortified, brown eyes bright and wide.

He'd be smoking if they'd let him, saying

or thinking, "Lord, a day has come I never even

dreamed to dream in 1921." He'd go back

to the brownstone with its small garden

in front, sit down, and write a simple, profound

lyric capturing the spirit of President Obama's day.

Cross the Jordan, cross the Nile, cross the Congo--

and that Ocean, too. Cross the Harlem and

the Hudson Rivers. Cross the Mississsipi. Dear

Madame Johnson: Mr. Obama crossed the Potomac.

That's a fact, no not some dream. Think

of Mr. Hughes's rivers. The soul shivers.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Monday, January 19, 2009

Natural Rhetoric

Natural Rhetoric

After the cat goes outside, two
perched crows open black beaks
wide to release loud sounds
suggesting outrage, warning,
threat--crow-rhetoric, mechanical,
never ornate. The cat looks up,
sees birds in feline-vision, and makes
cat-noises, nothing as loud or dire
as a warning, more of a refined
complaint, really--aristocratic.

After the cat runs and hides
in shrubbery, we make human
sounds, calling her "name," making
nonsense-noises, expressing
pretend-anger, muttering real
frustration. We're convincing
ourselves of something, not sure
what. The crows leave, the cat
reappears, we pick up the cat
and carry it into the house and talk
to each other about what just happened.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Crossing the Creek

Unfortunately, one's dreams are about as interesting to other people as tales of one's socks. Or maybe "fortunately" is more apt. If we were all fascinated by one another's dreams, we might not get much work done.

Anyway, I'll keep this short: After my father died in '97, I kept dreaming that he was in the middle of a creek, wading upstream, toward me, or at least a P.O.V. that represented me. He and the creek always looked the same. He wasn't in distress, but he was laboring, and of course there's almost no occasion for anyone to wade directly upstream into the force of the water. Dreams are fiction. He had jeans and the usual workshirt on--but not the hat he always wore outdoors. (His was a hat, not a cap, generation.) In some versions of the short dream, he'd ask, calmly for assistance. In some he'd say someting like "It's okay. You go ahead." It some he said nothing. I rather liked the subtly of the dream. Significant (to me; boring to others) but subtle.

Almost simultaneously, I was musing casually about that dream and also wanting to engage in some poetic aerobics and write a poem in formal verse, so I decided to do both at once. Of course, sacred texts, vast crowds of poets, and so on, have been there before me with the basic "crossing" image, including Tennyson with "Crossing the Bar," so I viewed the poem as an exercise, but not necessarily as one in orginiality.

Crossing the Creek

They wait for me across the creek.
They look like shadows from this side.
One day I'll wade across to seek
The insubstantial. Petrified

With cold and fear, I'll stand, midstream,
And feel what's real: round, slippery stones,
The force of water in a seam
Of that ravine. My skin and bones

Will read the creek a final time,
Will feel its push and temperature.
I'll stand unsteadily, a mime
Without an audience and most unsure

About the balance of the act.
But then I'll move, make it across.
The creek will be the final fact--
Its gravel, boulders, trout, and moss.

The far side shall be near. I'll fall
Into the life of death. Will they assist,
Who've gone before, and bear the pall
When I fade into mottled mist?

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Rubber Bands

Based on the minimalist research I've done, I can write with 10% certainty that rubber bands are the product of the mid-19th century and may have been patented in Australia first.

Rubber Bands

I bought a bag of rubber bands. What a paltry
confession! The purchase paid retail homage (one
dollar) to simple binding and flexibility in this age
of monstrous, rigid packaging. I thought of all those
times we searched a whole abode like jonesing addicts
for just one thing: paper clip, shoe lace, thumb tack,
rubber band. Benedict Spinoza proved to my

satisfaction that anything which is, is an attribute
of the only substance (God), which includes
rubber bands, which in repose are lazy bracelets
and flaccid circles. I admit I bought a bag

of rubber bands because they were so much
themselves for so little money. Like cats,
rubber bands stretch profoundly and then
return to their original composure and serenity.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Financial Advice

Well, I paid a visit (so to speak) to our financial adviser. It was a nasty job, but someone . . ., etc.

Not having many finances that need advising helps to streamline such visits, I have learned. Nonetheless, our adviser was born for the business and is a pleasure to watch in action. He has four different computer-screens going at the same time, one of which I and other clients get to watch, plus an adding machine. --No abacus (pictured above), but a pad and paper as backup. He loves what he does.

Musings about the visit produced the following poem, which does not (one hopes this is obvious, but given who's in charge of U.S. finances, you never know) actually reflect the advice I got.

Financial Advice

"Mr. Debit, we advise you to put part
of yourself in stocks and part in bonds.
These punishments should occur in the
Town Square, as penance for your miserable
money-managing skills, and as an example
to all. Unfortunately, your folio seems
never to have left port. It's taking on water
and barnacles. Our projections indicate

you'll be able to retire uncomfortably
when all the mountains run into the sea.
By then, the National Economy
shall have melted, leaving a residue
of prosperity. In those far-off days,

travel by burro, but don't go near
the fortresses of the mega-rich
and super-celebrated. From bastions,
their minions will train designer-weapons
on you. You must understand that from
the wealthy's point of view, few
things drive down property-values
more than semi-retired, Quixotic
geezers sitting atop humble beasts.

Currently, your liquid assets fit
into a shot-glass and may be
downed in one gulp. Among
your liabilities is you. Please
try harder to be a credit to
yourself. Crawl low. Pray high."

Copyright Hans Ostrom 2009

Friday, January 16, 2009

Muser Wins Award

Lumpenprofessoriat has bestowed upon Poet's Musings one of several curmudgeonly awards. The bar was set high: I had to appear to be a poet. My old bones appreciate it when the high-jump bar is placed on the ground. With the award comes a grave responsibility--to bestow other awards on other bloggers. I think you see where this is headed and why Lumpenprofessoriat suspected poets, among others, might like it. The idea is not necessarily to subvert awards, awarding, and awardification, but--well, actually, I think that may be the idea, or one of them.

Here, then, are my awards, which bring with them the image above, although I may have copied the wrong image (sigh, I am a poet), but a giant squid embracing (?) a whale is better than an Oscar, if you ask me.

1. The What's Not To Like Award goes to the Hyperborean, who writes smartly about a range of political and economic topics: what's not to like about that?

2. The Get Off Your Duff and Blog On the Road award goes to KCugno , known as ms. cugno to some, and also the blogger formerly known as Island Musings. Spanning the globe from Hawaii to New Zealand and points in between, this blogger does much more than sit in the chair and blog, and this is but one reason her blog is interesting.

3. In the grand tradition of award-giving, I give an award to the awarder, Lumpenprofessoriat ,
for inventing this ironic award-scheme, and for exhibiting the correct mixture of befuddlement and grumpiness in blogging. As many of us know, befuddlement is often a mask that is as polite as a grump can be, and grumpiness often springs from not being able to understand that which is too outrageous to understand, such as the utterance, "I'm the Decider." A Decider does not say "I'm the Decider"; thus befuddled grumpiness ensues.

4. The Scrap Irony award goes to The Scrapper Poet, for writing poetry, teaching, blogging, and driving in snow--almost simultaneously! --And for just publishing a scrappy chapbook. And because I couldn't summon the discipline to resist the pun, scrap irony.

5. The e.e. cummings/Ansel Adams award goes to Waking Jonas for deployment of the lower case and wry humor, and for photo-management on a blog. If I were to receive some training, my photo-management skills might eventually reach the level of rudimentary.

6. The Poetry Diaspora Award goes to Poefrika, a blogger who posts great poetry early and often, and who also alerts readers to new books of poetry and other literature recently published. Poefrika is among the hardest working bloggers in the blog-business.

I urge you to let the award-games continue. Play anthems of your choice.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Someone We Know

Someone We Know

"He's a nobody," people sometimes say,
as a way of saying the person described
should be ignored. Overlooked. Forgotten.
The sentence raises problems.

If the person were a nobody, he or she
wouldn't have a gender, and there'd be
nothing and no one to ignore. Also,
"a" nobody implies particularity,

when indeed we must assume that all
who constitute the mythical Nobody
are indistinguishable. If, however,
"nobody" is used only in a figurative

sense, even more problems arise.
Figurative nobodies--the obscure,
the abandoned, the betrayed, the
common, the exploited, the humble--

approach heroic stature as they
persist in their lives. Think of
an obscure waitress in Canada,
Uruguay, the Ukraine, or Lesotho.

To herself she's not obscure. She
performs tasks well, keeps herself
clean, cares for others, remains
patient and energetic amidst

persistent obscurity and impending
oblivion. How extraordinary. How
utterly not in keeping with the term,
"Nobody." The unknown, exemplary

waitress embodies somebodyness--
in secret, without hope of extraordinary
reward. At a news-stand, she glimpses
a magazine's cover, on which appears

the rendered image of an officical
Somebody, a Celebrity who appears
momentarily to have slain Time and
seized immortality. The waitress, the one

who serves, alleged by some to be
a nobody, smiles. Her smile is particular.
She is herself and specific, standing there,
just like someone we know.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Of Thin Books, Mainz, Gutenberg, and Gooseflesh, etc.

Among the innumerable privileges I enjoy is a personal library, or a close facsimile thereof: three walls of custom-made bookshelves, with a mission-style oak desk roughly equidistant from each wall. Surrounded by books. It took a while, but I finally was able, and was lucky enough, to achieve this modest goal, which for others I live with bears the additional fruit of much less clutter. A place for every book, and every book in its place: well, that's the theory anyway. In practice, some clutter still breaks out.

I was glancing at one of the shelves today when I spotted that most irresistible object: the spine of a thin book. I'm not sure why, but thin books--especially cloth-bound, but also paperbacks--have always entranced me. In fact I do judge such books by their covers, at least at first.

What made this re-discovery sweeter and more symbolic was that the book is about Johannes Gutenberg, conventionally thought to be the first printer/publisher of books in the modern sense; that is, he used movable type. It had been used before in Asia, but Gutenberg used it in a way that led to, well, that led to the Gutenberg Revolution, or what Raymond Williams calls The Long Revolution--that of printing, mass production of books, and increased literacy, all of which led to or was connected to many other revolutions.

The book is called The Gutenberg Bible, and indeed it does print images of pages from various extant copies of that famous Bible, printed by Herr. G. in Mainz in the mid-1400s, although some additional handwork on the Bible(s) was done in other cities. Martin Davies wrote the book, which was published by the British Library in 1996. As usual, I can't remember where I picked it up, but it may have been on a recent trip to Berlin, or it may have been on a recent trip to a used bookstore in Tacoma.

The thin book is mis-titled, to some degree, because its content is really a pithy overview of Gutenberg's life, discussion of the interaction between guilds and the aristocracy, and description of Mainz, a city of immense historical importance, and one that sits squarely in the midst of the Rhineland, or Rheinland.

It will not come as a surprise to anyone associated with printing, publishing, and writing that Gutenberg seemed to be in financial trouble virtually his whole adult life. In fact, many biographical details spring from records of law-suits related to these difficulties.

Another privilege I've enjoyed was teaching at Gutenberg University in Mainz for a year when I was an A.B.D. ("all but dissertation), thanks to an exchange set up by an Americna professor named James Woodress and a German professor named Hans Galinsky. I still correspond with a good friend from those days who still teaches in the American Studies Department, or Amerikanistik Abteilung.

Coincidentally, I'd just talked a day or so ago with a colleague who has also spent time in Germany. We discussed one of the innumerable grim facts of World War II: that, owing to the strategy of the "Allies," some German cities were leveled by bombing, while others were left almost completely intact. Thus about 80-90 per cent of Mainz was destroyed by bombs, whereas its sister-city, just across the river, Wiesbaden, was not bombed. The lore I have heard is that Wiesbaden was spared in part because at one point the Allies thought Eisenhower's headquarters might be there, if indeed the war went a certain way. I do not know the actual historical facts about the bombing, however. Mere lore.

In any event, the architecture in Mainz looks extremely modern, whereas in Wiesbaden, numerous "layers" of different architectures are preserved. The red sandstone cathedral in Mainz was not destroyed, and a few other buildings made it through.

Anyway, all of this and more sprang to mind when I happened, by accident, to glance at one of my shelves, saw the thin book, and read it again. I've been back to Mainz once since I taught there, and I'm hoping to get back there again soon. Among other things, wine and history, including the history of publishing, converge in Mainz; that's quite a convergence. And there's a Gutenberg Museum there, too, as one might expect.

Incidentally, the book asserts that Gutenberg's full name is Johann Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg--John Gooseflesh of the Good Mountain. That's one heck of a name. You just don't hear names like that anymore. That's a product of some serious naming practices.

International Relations

International Relations

I think I'm going to threaten
myself. I'll say," If you don't
stop threatening me, I'm going
to attack you." Then I'll over-
react to myself, and things will
escalate. Attack, counter-attack.
I'll make me sorry I ever
tangled with myself. I'll seek
total victory. If this strategy
seems madly self-destructive,
then it probably is. Maybe
I'll take the diplomatic route,
go all negotiation on myself,
sling some morphemes of
outrageous nuance, get the
conflict stuck in the mud,
the cool mud, of process,
which may make me bored
but won't make me bleed.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Manor of Speaking

Manor of Speaking

A simile is like or as
it should be, attached
to the thing it purports
to describe. Thing and
simile clutch each other
and dance in front of
an apprehending audience,
cutting a fine figure
of speech indeed, while
the dance operates
as a metaphor for how
a simile performs for
an audience. Welcome
to the mirror of halls,
where this is like that
and in so many words
is, as in were, in a
fanciful Manor of Speaking.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Light a Candle

Strictly as sources of light, candles are pretty cumbersome, in my experience. When "the power" got knocked out in the Sierra Nevada, we first went for the flashlights and then the candles. We didn't have enough bona fide candle-holders, so sometimes we'd heat the bottom of a candle and stick the candle on a saucer--precariously.

No matter what kind of holder you use, you have to walk very slowly with a candle. Then: where do you place the candles in the house? How do you make sure they don't start an unwanted fire? If you use them to read by, how do you position them? It's all quite complicated in a pre-Modern way.

We go through the same thing if and when the power goes out in the Northwest.

At the same time, candles are an immense source of fascination and can be a source of comfort. I didn't take up any religion, per se, until I was pretty far along in life (the year 2000), when I converted to Catholicism at St. Leo Parish. But when I was in Europe two decades before that, I still liked visiting cathedrals, chapels, and churches. They are cavernous, built of stone, and cold, and often (as with gothic cathedrals) the architecture is, as they say, "out there." So what's not to like? The gargoyles can be awfully fascinating, too--and the stained class, obviously.

At any rate, I always lit candles (and contriuted to the candle-fund by putting coins in a box) when I visited these places. Often I lit one for Charlie Epps, or rather for my memory of him. Charlie and another guy were killed in a car wreck one week before we all graduated from high school. The event permanently marked a lot of us who knew them. Perhaps it made us grow up, in some respects, more quickly. Hard to say.

. . . What is one doing, exactly, by "lighting a candle for" someone? Opinions vary about this quesiton. Even so, there seems to be a note of comfort there, or at least a focusing of the mind, regardless of the reason why the lighter lights the candle.

In Germany, in 1981, a colleague took me to an ancient church in the town of Kiedrich, near the Rhein. The parish had received permission to continue using the Latin liturgy. The pews were made of stone. The acolytes, et al., used large incense-burners, and there were candles lit everywhere. I knew very little about Catholicism then, chiefly the historical background, so I was very much a spectator, an outsider, a tourist. But the experience was a bit like being launched just for a moment back into the Medieval era.

In Sweden, candles are a huge part of the Christmas season, and they're associated with St. Lucia. Because the sun doesn't come up for a while in Winter up there, the non-religious connection between Winter and light (candles) is obvious. But the variety of ways Swedes use candles at that time of year is impressive. . . .

. . .Apparently candles made of soy are more environmentally friendly than those made of wax. And I do hope candles made of whale tallow are 100% a thing of the past.

Nowadays aromatic candles seem to be quite the rage. I don't buy many of them, but I pick up quite a few in stores and sniff them. Technically, does this qualify as olfactory shop-lifting? I mean, my nose is taking molecules out of the store without paying for them.

Light a Candle

Sure, light a candle. Watch the wick, air,
and fire adjust to one another. Wait
as flame rights its posture. Glance at
gleaming liquid wax in a shallow pool
around the wick. Hear the nearly
inaudible sigh of oxygen as it expires.

Think your thoughts--or no thoughts:
stare. Consider someone afflicted, recall
someone gone long, say a prayer out loud
or silently, or say nothing. Flame seems
to center silence and the darkness. Light

a candle for a primitive impulse: flame
fascinates, it always has, and aromas
pique. Shadows perform. Light one
for a practical reason: to see better.

Light a candle and carry it in a silent
parade past the Power House. Or let
the candle stand. Stay home and subvert
the Power Houses simply by thinking
for yourself. Light a candle. Good idea.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Monday, January 12, 2009

Plumb Crazy or Plum Crazy

Mostly on "western" or "cowboy" TV shows, I used to hear the word "plumb" used as an adverb, as in "That feller (fellow) is plumb crazy," meaning very crazy. Or "I'm plumb full," meaning "I can't eat another bite." Only occasionally did I hear such a phrase in real life.

According to the OED online and other sources, "plumb" got to mean "very" because it was related to a level or "plumb" line--a line that is (in theory) absolutely level . So plumb = absolutely or at least very. But of course people got it confused with "plum," as in the fruit, and indeed the first citation with regard to the American colloquialism "plumb [crazy]" cites "plum":

1588 T. HUGHES Misfortunes Arthur II. iv. 21 The mounting minde that climes the hauty cliftes..Intoxicats the braine with guiddy drifts, Then rowles, and reeles, and falles at length plum ripe. 1738 J. J. BERLU Treasury Drugs Unlock'd (ed. 2) 67 The best [jujubes] are plumb-full of Pulp, and come from Italy.

There's even a blog out there called "Plum Crazy," which bills itself as the home of the Vast New York Yankee Conspiracy." It's at

As late as 2002, according to the OED online, "plum" was used to refer to "testicle" in a piece of American fiction. I didn't expect that one, but I guess it makes some sense.

More interesting to me is that "plum" (in England) used to refer to the sum of 100,000 pounds--that is, a monetary "fortune," as the OED notes. I wonder if P.G. Wodehouse, whose nickname was apparently "Plum," earned a plum from his writings. If so, he did indeed earn it with all the laughs the writing generated.

This has all been a shamefully circuitious introduction to a poem that's focused on one kind of plum, the green gauge plum, which is rather large, has a firm "meat," stays the color green even after it ripens, and happens to be my favorite plum, just in case anyone asks.


Walking on the gray road toward the place

where the yellow school-bus stopped,

I used to pause and pick a green-gauge

plum to add to my silver lunch-pail, which

I took to school every day. That had to have

been in Septembers. Nobody else seemed

to harvest the plums, which hung on trees

that no one tended to. So little pleased me

then. So much surrounded me: mountains,

water, air, and time, for instance. Also immense

pines and cedars. --Interesting how we learn

to want mostly the wrong things in great

quantities. One ripe green plum tucked into

a metal box next to a lunch my mother had wrapped

in wax-paper, a bit of wire holding the Thermos

full of milk in place: these particularities pleased

me. I picked the plum and packed it away

and had the feeling it was treasure.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Sunday, January 11, 2009

25 Detective Novels!

(Dame Agatha Christie)

Some months ago, I wrote a post about H.R.F. Keating's wonderful book about his 100 favorite detective novels. Keating was not just an avid reader and reviewer in the genre but a detective-novelist himself, and the book has a fine essay on each choice. A link to the post, which is remarkable chiefly for the great photo of Keating:

Of course, when anyone, even experts, sets out to produce such lists, he or she knows the extent s/he's engaged in folly, especially with regard to a genre so abundant and multifaceted as detective fiction.

I decided to go for a list of 25 and not really to try to represent the genre as well as Keating does. These are simply favorite detective novels of mine, although many of them qualify generally as classics.

Actually, I already lied. There are only 24 novels here. I decided to cheat and include Conan Doyle's complete Sherlock Holmes. At least it's in one volume. And although I begin with Holmes, that is to say, Doyle, the books are really in no order in particular. And while I'm at it, let me highly recommend Leslie S. Klinger's magnificent 3-volume The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes. It is to die for, so to speak. It doesn't replace Baring-Gould's two volume work of the same kind, but it adds to it splendidly--if, that is, you're an aficionado of Holmes, Watson, and Doyle.

I confess my less is awfully predictable. Staid. Preemptive apologies if you don't see some of your "faves", or is it "favs"? I must also confess that I've published a detective novel, which does not appear on this list (apparently I do have some shame), and I'm working on another (wish me luck; oy, it's a hard genre.)

And I simply MUST expand my knowledge of the genre and find out more about Canadian detective fiction, more French detective fiction (besides Simenon, and in translation), Spanish and Latin American detective fiction, and detective fiction from nations in Africa, Arabia, Persia, and so on. Recommendations gladly accepted.

1. Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes. I have the venerable Doubleday one, with the introduction by Christopher Morley. My favorite tale? I'll go with "A Scandal in Bohemia."

2. Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon. Sam Spade.

Dashiell Hammett, The Thin Man. Nick Charles. I'm tempted to add Hammett's Continental Op stories. Hammett did almost the impossible by creating three highly appealing detectives. Amazing.

4. Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep. Philip Marlowe, wise-ass.

Raymond Chandler, Farewell, My Lovely.

Dorothy Sayers, Strong Poison. Keating prefers The Nine Tailors. Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. (Harriet is not in The Nine Tailors.)

Agatha Christie, Taken at the Flood. Other novels by her are much better known, but this one, as well as The Clocks, has always impressed me. Poirot.

8. Agatha Christie, The Body in the Library. Miss Marple. Perhaps the classic "village cozy" detective novel.

9. Rudolph Fisher, The Conjure-Man Dies: A Mystery Novel of Dark Harlem.

Georges Simenon, Maigret's Revolver. There's just nothing quite like a Maigret book.

Georges Simenon, Maigret's Rival.

Henning Mankell, Sidetracked. Warning: very creepy.

Akimitsu Takagi, The Tattoo Murder Case. Warning: very creepy.

14. R. Austin Freeman, Mr. Pottermack's Overshight. (Great droll British title. Warning: unconventional).

15. Edmund Crispin (pen name of Bruce Montgomery, who also wrote music for films), The Moving Toy Shop. Warning: British eccentricity taken almost to the limit. Extremely witty, however.

16. Barbara Neely, Blanche Among the Talented Tenth. A most refreshing amateur-detective novel.

17. Rex Stout, Fer-de-Lance. One of the great debut novels in American crime fiction. Many moons ago, the owner (then) of the Seattle Mystery Book Shop told me this was his favorite mystery novel.

18. Rex Stout, The Golden Spiders.

Tony Hillerman, The Skin-Walkers. Jim Chee, Navajo.

21. Joseph Hansen, Early Deaths. Dave Brandstetter is the detective, and his, among other things, gay.

22. P.D. James, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. I think P.D. James was made a peer of the realm, so I should refer to her as Dame James--is that right? We Americans are so bad about this stuff--and so much else. Anyway, I got to interview her once--about her book, The Children of Men, on which the recent film was based. Adam Dalgleish is her detective. I just purchased her latest Dalgleish, The Lighthouse. It looks good.

23. Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress.

John D. MacDonald, The Deep Blue Goodbye. This is a nostalgic choice because I was really "into" MacDonald novels in my teens, and I thought Travis McGee, was pretty cool. The novels are a tad dated, but MacDonald's a real pro.

25. Aaron Elkins, Old Bones.

I feel terribly about leaving off books by Grafton, Paretsky, Ross MacDonald, James Elmore, Elmore Leonard, J.A. Jance--and dozens & dozens of others. But these 25 I really like.

Happy detective-novel reading to you, and remember: recommendations welcome.


If you hang around academics who teach in the humanities, then you have my condolences. Just kidding. Before that rude clause intruded, I was about to write . . . then you will eventually hear the terms "subject-position" or "positionality."

No, the words don't refer to yoga or Zen, or to grammar, or to sports, in which one may play different positions.

They refer to what used to be called something like "point of view" or "perspective."

Yesterday my point of view was pretty glum. In fact, I may have had the blues--or "the blue-devils," as Abraham Lincoln referred to the condition. But I managed to get some perspective on my perspective by evening (nice word, evening). Good grief, now the lyric, "I just dropped in to see what condition my condition is in," is in my head--Kenny Rogers and the First Edition--help!

Anyway, my perspective, a couple of close advisors, and I watched a film from the Eighties, Diva. French film, 1981. And--surprise!--it was as good as if not better than I had remembered it, and I hadn't seen it since 1981. It is visually superb without being mannered.

In part in concerns electronic recording, and although the equipment is antique and therefore potentially laughable, the writers and directors don't make too much of the technology. Recording and plot mix with the ethics of recording, so you don't focus on extinct things like cassettes. Toss in just a bit of Zen, opera (and music in general), race, gender, wit, and exploitation, and you have a terrific movie, and one that knows its limits. It's one of those films that tries just hard enough but not too hard.

I did notice how much longer scenes from Eighties movies are. There's very little manic camera-work and editing-on-speed that characterizes most feature-films today. I think the attention-span of visual-image consumers now can't span very much.

Oh, and the diva happens to be a diva in real life: Jessye Norman, American opera-singer.

But back to "positionality." Why was a funny new word like that necessary to invent? Well, that's partly what academics do. They invent new words. Also, the emphasis is placed on what a person or a character in a novel or a writer does, as opposed to what that person sees or thinks, so there's a focus on power or (wait for it) "agency." Also, one may speak of "positions" in relation to one another. (Wow. Go crazy.) Of course, there's some recent post-modern, post-Structuralist history to the shift in terminology, but we needn't go into that.


I've misplaced my subject-position. It happens.
According to the post-modernist rulebook, which
is only virtual, my default positionality is therefore
one of befuddlement, which could be a ruse, except
a ruse seems so pre-modern, even atavistic. One
thing's certain: I'm not a mystic. Positionality
is such a tricky business. If you write or speak

the word, "positionality," then you've pretty much
positioned yourself into a pretentious corner, and
the commonly insensitive Anglo-Saxon ax will fall
on your multi-syllabic Deluxe Latinate Impressor,
which comes with its two-speed abstractionator.

Cut to: a meadow. My subject-position transport-
system, a hot-air balloon, lies sideways and un-
inflated, mere fabric amidst flax-stubble. This
is Not A Problem. This is Laugh Out Loud.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Friday, January 9, 2009


If you're a poet or a visual artist, maybe you can relate to this micro-issue I've been having (and it's not the issue of having adopted the idiom, "to have issues")--namely, that I've had the image of a barge on a river stuck in my mind. That's all. Just a barge on a river--preferably on a river at night, but not necessarily. And preferably a barge that's just drifting. I saw many barges on the Rhine, decades ago, and I saw some on the Mississippi once, and I see barges and tankers in the Pacific Northwest, but all of this experience doesn't explain why the image is stuck in my mind like lint in a dryer-screen. I like that metaphor for my mind: empty, full of hot air. Apt.

I mean, it's not like this image has some overwhelming import to it--like the image of the mountain in Close Encounters or the image of the moth-man in The Moth-Man Chronicles.
What's more, or what's less, this image of the barge is demotic at best. My sense is that barges aren't regarded as glamorous or even mysterious.

Anyway, attempting to have done with the image, I tried to put it in different poems, including this one. If you're stuck with an image, I hope it's a better one than a barge, and I have faith that you can do more with your image than I've with mine.

To a Temporary One

Ah, temporary one, why do you
fret so? Why don't you let it all
go like a barge adrift on a smelly
river? Temporary one, what
do you imagine you can stop
or start in your short time
and with your granules of power?

You ride atop a transitory train.
There's no point in yelling
at the city you pass by, asking
why the city doesn't do things
differently. Get off that train.
Forget that barge. Leave

all that complicated freight
to someone else. Yo, temporary
one: Live it out as best you can,
leave it at that, as it leaves you.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Flooded Farm

When I was on the train yesterday and, to a lesser extent, when I was in my car (eyes on the road), I noticed just how much farm land gets flooded, not just when river-banks won't hold the rivers but when the ground itself simply gets saturated. Obviously, much farmland is also lowland, so it makes sense that much farmland would be vulnerable to flooding. Nonetheless, the flooding of one's farm has to register way past disappointing, even if you understand the nature of low-lying land, and the work required after the water has withdrawn must seem overwhelming.

(For the short term, if you live in Western Washington or live elsewhere and want to send a dollar or two, Associated Ministries in Tacoma is coordinating many relief-efforts for flooding in general--not just for farmers. And then of course there's also the local Red Cross chapters.)

For the longer term, I wondered to what extent state and federal government entities and/or non-governmental entities take care to preserve farmland, much of which has been paved over or built upon. Even in this post-modern age, we do need things to eat, people to grow them, and land to grow them on/in.

I did discover the American Farmland Trust online:, and I want to learn more about its work. It looks like among their work is the preservation of farmland, not dissimilar to the way the Nature Conservancy simply (or not so simply) buys land to make sure no one develops it. That direct approach appeals to me.

Flooded Farm

When water won't stop rising, when
it rises efficiently, without violence,
and inundates your farm, wrecking
field, barn, equipment, feed; when
it fills up your house and hosts boats
sent to rescue you, you let yourself
loathe the recklessness of nature,
its ruinous spasms, which knock
farm-accounts off-balance and load
your plans with mud. Oh, you'll be back--

to clean up after flood, to stand and stare
in the silted living-room, to get children
and animals resettled. The struggle's
both a losing and continuous one.
But in this flooded moment, the engine
of the rescue-boat belches blue smoke.
Your grandfather, who started the farm,
had it much worse: that's a statement
you've learned to recite automatically.
It doesn't require belief.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom