Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Mountain Misery and Skunk Cabbage

(image: the plant commonly known as "Mountain Misery," or
Chamaebatia Species: foliolosa)

In the High Sierra, there are at least two plants with over-powering aromas: skunk cabbage (often found in marsh-like conditions but at high altitude) and mountain misery, which seems to grow in the shade and is most drought-tolerant. These plants are serious about the way they smell. They also cause arguments. Some people, like me, like the way they smell. Other people don't. I think people from the latter group gave the plants their common (as opposed to Latin) names.

Plants, Too

Of course creatures fascinated us. Like us
they'd ended up not in Paris or Perth but
in the High Sierra--by accident; or maybe
it was a career-move; who knows? Rattlesnakes,
skinks, lizards, ouzels, kildeers, owls, potato-bugs,
scorpions, deer, periwinkles, bears, raccoons,
bobcats, cougars, water-snakes, hawks,
and company charmed us like wizards.

The plants, too, cast a magic, though, rooted,
they were easier to ignore and less dramatic.
The way milkweed actually bled milk when
snapped, every time: so cool. How skunk-cabbage
(Lysichiton americanus) and mountain misery
embraced you with their odors like a boozy,
perfumed, vivid aunt: wow. Anis-stalks tasted like
licorice. Pine-sap softened by saliva turned
into gum. Take your chances with wild berries:
elderberries, yes; inkberries, no. We climbed

pines and firs, rode them as they
bent with the wind as flexibly as
grass-blades. What was the strangest
vegetation of all? I will say the snow plant,
Sarcodes sanguinea, bereft of chlorphyll.
It was less than creature but more
than plant. One day it would simply arise
beneath a tree in snow, bright red in Winter,
broadcasting a mute allure that suggested
it might not be a part of any timely scheme.
Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


(image: two geese [I bet you guessed that], which allegedly
mate for life, although there are probably goose pre-nuptials)

My goodness, a "marriage-tetrameter" sounds like some kind of medical device. Eek.

In class the other day, a student asked whether I were a doctor. I said,"Technically, yes, as I earned a Ph.D. in English." I should pause here and explain that, in the academic world, there are those who like and want to called "Doctor," as opposed to professor or Mr. or Ms. or by their first name. Then there are those who do not want to be called Doctor. I don't know what the percentages are, nor do I know what the sociological correlatives are, but I do think it's based on something more than whim.

At any rate, I went on to say that I am not licensed to practice medicine but that, if someone on an airplane flight were to have trouble scanning a poem written in a traditional meter, the flight attendant could get on the intercom and ask, "Ladies and gentlemen, remain calm, but we have an emergency; a passenger in 24-D is having some difficulty with a 17th-century sonnet. Is there a doctor of literature on board?"

At another any rate, we have plunged into formal verse in the poetry class--meter, rhyme, traditional forms, scansion, enjambment, full rhymes, half rhymes, sprung rhythm, blank verse --the whole prosodic enchilada (a word that has two trochees, I think.)

I have great fun teaching this "unit" because I get the students writing in meter first by encourageing them not to make sense. In a way they're just writing "sound poems." Ironically, because they're concentrating just on meter, they come up with some wild, unpredictable lines--which can serve as the seed for a "real" poem. There's also a bit of groaning, of course, because some of them had a bad time with "iambic pentameter," etc., in high school.

Physician of prosody, heal thyself.

Because I'm having my students work through some prosodic exercises, I thought I should do one myself. The assignment is simply to write some modified blank verse on any subject. By "modified," I mean iambic tetrameter (8 syllables, 4 beats, with the or stresses occuring on the even-numbered syllables), unrhymed. Rather arbitrarily, I chose marriage as the topic, but really "tetrameter" is the implicit purpose of the, ahem, "poem."

No doubt I committed some "inversions" (a trochee in place of an iamb). In two places, I got too cute and split words at the end of lines, and in one place, I rhymed without intending to. In other words, it's pretty rough tetrametric road.

Tetrameter for Marriage

It seems that marriage is a kind
Of complicated puzzle that's
Constructed slowly but not solved.
One part is lust. It's there and not.
Lust is mercurial. We all
Know that. Another part is love--
I said it; there it is, plain sight--
A deep appreciation of
The other, and of what the other is
In fact, not what one wants him/her
To be. The person will be dear.
Bourgeois, the "institution?" I guess.
If you say so, though that sounds like
Pretentious babble to two ones
Who have been married, gay or straight,
Transgendered. Well, another part
Is laughter, running jokes, and irony.
It is a comedy-routine,
Is marriage. It's improved, a schtick.
I'll tell you, money helps as well--
Enough so that you have enough
To eat, to keep a place, to live.
A certain discipline's required--
No, not that kind, but if you are
Interested in that kind, you go.
Let's see. What was the topic? Oh:
A certain discipline's required,
Some self-control, especially when
Temptation cruises by, or times
Are tough. A lot of independence,
Personal space: Yes, these two help
A lot. But in the end, if mar-
Riage works, luck has to be involved.
You just keep going, laughing; work.
Link love and lust and like and laugh.
You share. You are adults, and you
Are friends. Your marriage is a puz-
Zle--that's for sure. Be sure to live
It well. It's not something to solve.
Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Quick Updates!

Regarding poets who paint, etc., my colleague Professor Nimura has reminded me that, yes, indeed, e.e. cummings painted as well as wrote, and she has sent along a link:

And another blogger (regarding "Out Here") noted that, yes, we may or may not be meant to work in relative obscurity, but it's still nice to share. Indeed. It did make me think of Dickinson, among others, however, who seemed to have an inkling that her work would be shared--except later, when she was Elsewhere. I think she might have capitalized Elsewhere, too.

(How great would it be if Dickinson returned and wrote a blog? The posts would be terse and completely original. She'd make the genre her own.)

I may have to get serious about this and develop a real list of poet/painters and painter/poets.

But not tonight. I have sleeping to do before I go more miles.

Anyway, thanks for the info/input.

Out Here

(image: gray fox)

Out Here

If you hang back like a fox, pacing
at the edge of a copse at dusk, always
reticent to enter the meadow, then you
shouldn't complain about never having
been embraced by those in the know
and the power and the glory. If you are

literally eccentric, sir or madame, you will
be stuck in circumfrantic, extra-circular
conditions. The thing is, the fox not only
loves, knows, and trusts the woods, but
the fox also likes being in the company
of few or fewer. If, like the fox, you stayed

out there, out here, then cease your pining
for the center. In fact, go back into the woods
and pursue the work you love. If few or fewer
people see it, so be it; it's still work. You're
still you. And maybe this work was what
you were meant to do.
Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Monday, February 23, 2009

Poets Who Paint, Painters Who Write

(image: painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti)

I've never had an art-lesson, and it shows. But I've been trying to paint and/or draw for decades. A few things have turned out okay, including an acrylic painting of a doe and a fawn, wherein the doe's backside faces the viewer. People seemed amused by that choice. I did some really weird facial caricatures in chalk-on-paper that make me laugh. I show them to almost no one. Then I did this big smear-paint-on-canvas thing, dominated by red, and I didn't think much of it (and still don't) and would have kept it in hiding except people with whom I live liked it enough to hang it--on the wall, I mean. This comes under the category of "go figure." I'm also an inveterate doodler, especially in meetings, and especially if I know where the meeting is heading. While I'm waiting for it to get there, I doodle, mostly faces, not faces I'm looking at, just faces.

Karl Shapiro painted a bit, I think, and so did John Betjeman. Kenneth Patchen actually made drawings to accompany his poems. I don't think they're very good, but what do I know? Blake, I guess, is the all-time champion, creating stupendous illuminations and engravings connected to his work. Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted very well and wrote very well.

So here's a shout-out to three bloggers who are poets who paint and painters who write. In some ways, blogging is a great medium for the writer/painter or painter/writer (and "painter" is kind of a place-holder for all sorts of visual art, including digital collages, photography, videography, etc.). In a weird way, the Internet is helping us loop back to medieval times, when texts were routinely illuminated and the visual & textual got on quite well. The bloggers: and on this one there is a link to another site with images of the blogger's paintings

And here's a link to Deb Richardson's site. She does quilts and visual collages (including the Emily/Elvis one up top):

Seen and Overheard

Seen and Overheard

A man walked his dog near
fir trees and spoke into a mobile
phone. He said, "How's your puppy?"
Then louder, "How's your puppy?"
Louder: "How's . . . your . . .pup-py?!"
Finally he said, "HOW'S YOUR DOG?"

This question worked. He listened
to the answer. His dog urinated on
a fir tree, lifted its nose, sampled
air. "My dog is good, too," the man
said into the phone. Then he said,
"It has been great talking to you."
Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

The Ambitionator

The Ambitionator

Climb into the Ambitionator. Hear it
power up. Strap yourself in. Adjust
the goggles. On the screen, see your
dreams come true. Feel the force
of being in charge. Hear the acclaim.

Oops, time to power down. No,
I'm afraid it's just a ride. Yes,
you have to get out. No, you're
not anyone special. That's why
the ride feels so good. Yes,
you'd have to get in line again,
buy a ticket. If I were you, I'd
find a cafe, sit down, and be
obscure and you. The Ambitionator

is just a ride, my friend. You're
nobody in a carnival. I'm nobody
who works in one. This, my friend,
is the strangest ride of all, our lives.
Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Sunday, February 22, 2009


I'm almost two seasons off with this poem, as it chiefly concerns the seeds and seeding of Fall. However, one could argue, if one were making excuses, that Fall's payoff is about to occur. All those seeds, etc., have been biding their time, waiting for the Earth, Sun, and even the Moon to do their gravitational dance and bring on just enough sunlight, warmth, and moisture. I also allude to Darwin indirectly by mentioning Evolution, and (as I'm sure you know) it's the 150th birthday of Chuck's Origin of Species, which I read in a graduate course that was dedicated to the year 1859 in England. We red a Dickens novel and an Eliot one and lots of poetry (including Meredith's Modern Love) and essays. My particular task was to "follow" the London Times month by month in 1859--on microfilm. Oy.

The course was taught by the late Elliot Gilbert, Kipling specialist (oddly enough) but also one of the first academics to take detective literature seriously. He published a nice anthology with critical commentary with Bowling Green State University. . . .

I also mention God in the poem. I didn't ever see a particular conflict between God and Evolution, but I'm probably missing something, as usual.


Out of the orange smoke
of California poppies materialize
thin sage-green scrolls, in which
tiny prophecies of next year's
poppies harden, darken. Lupine-
pods go black-grey, too. They bulge
and stiffen, bags of loot. Dill
supports its canopy of seeds with
spindly architecture. Hollow-boned
sparrows perch on these green, frail
stalks, gorge. They will defecate
seeds later, encasing them in
hot, effective nitrogen, part of
a plan Evolution stumbled on
way back when When didn't
exist yet. Earth backs off a bit
from Sun, tells a hemisphere
of vegetation to go to seed. A
deluge of cones, pods, hips, sacs,
fronds, and fruits surges across
one terrestrial moment in space,
predicting vegetation's recurrence
and able to deliver the goods, already
outlasting Winter yet to come.
Seeding is a vast, well organized,
ordinary miracle. Seeding is God
at God's most professional. It is a
counter-apocalypse of indetermination.
Fall concerns ferocious patience
and thinks several moves ahead.

first published in Sierra Journal 2006, Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Friday, February 20, 2009

Fallability Sonnet

I think I already posted this sonnet once, but it couldn't hurt to post it again, as even more imperfections have piled up in the meantime.

The Fallability Sonnet

My fallability has tripped me up
Again. I've fallen on the gravelly ground
Of imperfection. I would like to cut
This nonsense out, but no; my flaws have found

A way to find me even when I seem
To have evaded them successfully.
They just show up. They are a well trained team--
And venerable. Yes, some have been with me

So long, I look at them with a strange mix
Of loathing, dread, familiarity.
Of course I have some antidotal tricks
And textual guides. Spirituality

Assists. Self-admonition, too.
Regret. I sigh. But still: what's one to do?


Copyright Hans Ostrom 2009

Important Contacts







Important Contacts


Talk to the wind, the perfect listener. It

will carry your words with it gladly. Rant

your rage at fire, the perfect anger. Fire

consumes even itself. Worry with Winter,

the perfect concern, the chill-factor. It

will fold your fears into its cold clouds sadly.

Connive with the sun, which loves news

and gossip and tries to get around to visiting

with everyone at some point every day.


Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Punctuation Meditation

Punctuation Meditation
The exclamation point isn't a point. It's a line and
a point together--a verticle board photographed
in air just above a soccer ball. The period is a
point, but a point's not a period any more than
a day is an era. A dash doesn't move, so it should
change its name. "Super-comma" is a
more marketable name for the semi-colon,
especially since a period is half a colon, whereas
a semi-colon is a leaking point. What
does a sickle hanging above a dot have to do
with questions? When words want to pretend
they're not there, they hide between brackets,
but nobody's fooled. When they want to whisper,
they pull parentheses close like curtains, but
everybody can hear. The slash lived in obscurity
for centuries. Lots of marks did. Then came
computers. Now every squiggle and scratch
is a celebrity living in hypertext. How weird, period.
Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Titles of New James Bond Films

It appears as if the James Bond cinematic franchise is as permanent as the McDonalds beef, chicken, spuds, and sugar franchise. I'm not a real Bond fanatic, but I've seen most if not all the movies, and there is a certain campy, ritualistic pleasure to be had, regardless of how good or bad the films actually are. Bond films seem to come around in Winter, like a wee pretty snowstorm. So we watch.

I was pleasantly surprised by Daniel Craig's performances, but I probably shouldn't have been. Craig seems to be a talented, well trained, experienced actor. So much so that the execrable script of his second Bond film made me wince. The way I found to get through this film (what is it called--Quantum of Solace, Mountain of Lettuce?) is, for me, a well worn one: watch fine actors try to make the most of a bad script and muddled direction. So I watched Dame Judy Densch, Daniel Craig, Jeffrey Wright (from Basquiat, remember?), and Giancarlo Giannini get through as best they could, although Giannini seemed to let his boredom show occasionally.

Just in case the Bond franchise runs out of titles for the new films, I am here to help:

1. Never Say "Thunderball" Again

2. The Spy Who Spied On Me Without a Warrant

3. Golden Finger in the Eye

4. On His Majesty's Secret Elliptical Trainer

5. Dr. Maybe

6. From North Dakota, With Corn

7. A View To a Nap

8. Diamonds Are On Sale At The Mall

9. The Man With the Golden Gold

10. Octofussy

11. When Is Bond Not On Vacation?

12. M, Q, F, and U

13. Enough Already Forever Tomorrow

14. License To Snack

I do not expect to hear from Cubby Broccoli's family soon.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

I Dropped Keats's Grecian Urn

Dropping Keats's Grecian Urn

I dropped Keats's Grecian Urn
on a tile floor today. Luckily
the thing existed only on paper
in the weighty anthology that
slipped from my hands. Still
the imaginary sound of ancient
pottery hitting mass-produced
tile was terrible and beautiful.
It made me feel guilty and thrilled.
I picked up the book and made
sure Keats's poem was all right.
Not a scratch.

"Beauty is Truth, and Truth,
Beauty": great phrasing, the kind
that gets a poem anthologized.
I like the sound of it, but I never
knew what it meant because it
went in a circle like a toy-train,
and a lot of truth is damned
ugly, and some beauty is an
illusion, which some people
consider to be different from truth.

--Like my opinion matters to Keats
or anyone else, though. Anyway,
the timeless urn is timelessly encased
in Keats's oft-reprinted words, which
are always awake and ready to conjure
images and thoughts. One way to make
your pottery unbreakable is to put it
in poetry. Pottery/poetry. That's one thing
I got out of the poem a long time ago.

True, in words, the pottery's less
beautiful, and it won't hold much liquid, but
you can always pick it up with your
eyes or your ears and hold it in
your mind's hands, never pay to
insure it, and not worry about dropping it.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

How To Write An Essay (A Poem)

Amongst English teachers--middle school, high school, college--there is something of an eternal disagreement about whether to teach students to write papers in the venerable form known as the five-paragraph essay: introduction, three "body" paragraphs, conclusion, and Bob's-your-uncle. (There's no doubt a lesser debate about whether to write "amongst" or "among." I simply like the look and sound of "amongst." I have no doubt that copy-editors have changed it to "among" in pieces I've written that were headed to publication. And may I say that copy-editors are unsung heroes?)
I won't rehearse all the arguments here, but even if you're far from the madding crowd of English teachers (and liking the distance), you may have already deduced that the basic disagreement is about whether to teach students an alleged formula (or "mold" in which to pour words) or to teach them how to write in a more process-oriented, organic way. By "organic" I don't mean pesticide-free, although I do like students to turn in essays that aren't sprayed with pesticides. I mean that the the shape of the essays springs from the writing and thinking itself, even as the student has absorbed many conventions of thinking, analysis, expression, and yes, even form (such as "the paragraph").
A while back I decided to write a poem about the subject, not really to take sides (although my attitude, in a nutshell, has always been, "But what if the essay needs a sixth paragraph to be successful?"), but just to play with and perhaps release some of the pent-up professional frustration that attaches itself to this debate, which must seem to have extremely low stakes indeed.
The poem was published in a journal called Writing on the Edge--right beside an essay that actually made a compelling case for a "product-oriented" approach to teaching composition if not for the five-paragraph essay, per se, although I believe the author did mention the venerable form. He emailed me later and said the poem made him laugh, and I emailed him back and said his essay made a lot of sense. So much for debate.
The poem features examples of what's known as a mondegreen, which is a word (or phrase) that results from somehow mis-hearing or mis-understanding another word (or phrase). An example might be "[Ex]cuse me while I kiss this guy" in place of "[Ex]cuse me while I kiss the sky," from the Hendrix song. My poem features a speaker who has, and who can blame him or her, misheard or misunderstood the English teacher.

Notes in Five Paragraphs on How to Write an Essay

According to my notes, an essay
should have a niece’s statement,
which is different from a tropical
sentence. An essay should have a
beginning (how could it not?), a
middle (seems easy enough), and
an end (unlike time, which is infinite).

An essay needs evidence. Otherwise,
the perp walks. The essay’s exertions,
if my notes are right, need supporting
retail. Paragraphs require transmissions,
and the paragraph-brakes need to work.

An essay should have an interesting title,
such as “The Duke of Windsor” or
“Vampire Vixen.” The essay should not
include any logical phalluses. It should have
a good sense of its audience, even though
no one will ever actually pay to see the essay
perform in public. Oh—and it should be

grammatically erect, I am told, and it should
impose a sin-tax on its sentences. There
shouldn’t be any coma-splices or
spit-infinitives. Obviously, nobody wants
an essay to induce a coma or project saliva.

An essay must sight its sources on a
“Works Sighted” page. The essay should
be engaged to its reader, but that sounds
kind of creepy to me. In conclusion, these
are my notes on how to write an essay.

(published in Writing on the Edge, Spring 2008) Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Monday, February 16, 2009

Quotable Men

I've been browsing this book called Quotable Men of the Twentieth Century, edited by Jessica Allen (William Morrow, 1999). Oddly enough, Allen includes no preface or introduction that might have suggested the rationale for limiting the quotations to men.

Here are some quotations about government:

"Voters don't decide issues, they decide who will decide issues." --George F. Will. They may also decide when or when not to use a comma splice, apparently, too. Will's sentiment is the old hard-line Republican or republican (vs. small-d "democratic") one; institutions like the U.S. Senate are there to slow down the alleged will of the people. Wasn't James Madison a proponent of this idea? Given how the political spectacle operates and the money involved in politics, I wonder to what extent voters still decide who will decide, but perhaps I'm being too cynical. This was on page 115, by the way.

So was this, from Milton Friedman: "Governments never learn. Only people learn." Rhetorically, this is slippery, as governments are composed of people, so if people can learn, so can governments. However, some people don't learn, including Friedman, who helped get us in this financial mess, but perhaps I'm being too critical of Milt.

Also on p. 115: "Giving money and power to the government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys." P.J. O'Rourke. That one brought a grin. Actually, however, I think giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to U.S. Senators. Also, we must remember that O'Rourke is something of a Reaganite, and the Reaganites always railed aginst "big guv'ment," except that they made exceptions for military-spending (which looks an awful lot like money and power) and massive deficits (which look an awful lot like money). Reagan's deficits were bigger than Carter's.

And finally, from p. 116, this from Robin Williams: "It's a wonderful feeling when your father becomes not a god but a man to you--when he comes down from the mountain and you see he's this man with weaknesses. And you love him as this whole being, not as a figurehead." Most wise indeed. I think it's a wonderful feeling for the father, too, to shed some of that figure-head status.

Time to go check on what the deciders "we" allegedly decided should decide for us decided for us.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Wilde Thoughts

I've retreated to "the library," three walls of books, one of which (books) I pulled down: The Importance of Being A Wit: The Insults of Oscar Wilde, edited by Maria Leach and published in Oxford in 1997.

From p. 54 and, originally, The American Invasion:

"The cities of America are inexpressibly tedious. The Bostonians take their learning too sadly; culture with them is an accomplishment rather than an atmosphere, their 'Hub' as they call it, is the paradise of prigs. Chicago is a sort of monster-shop, full of bustle and bores. Political life at Washington is like political life in a suburban vestry."

Take that, America! Although Wilde claimed the cities of America are inexpressibly tedious, he seems to have expressed the tediousness well enough. I think there's still a sense in which Americans learn sadly, or think they should learn sadly, especially at colleges that position themselves as "traditional" in one sense or another. Of course, there are some colleges where learning seems to be taken not at all, so I guess things could be worse. . . . I do imagine that Wilde might have a better time in Chicago nowadays. It must have been a pretty rough "town" back then, certainly not up to his refined expectations. (Ironically, the great iconoclast comes across as a bit of a snob in this quotation.)

From p. 150 and, originally, The Critic As Artist: "Ah! It is so easy to convert others. It is so difficult to convert oneself." That's a wise one.

From p. 48 and, originally, A Woman of No Importance: "The youth of America is their oldest tradition. It has been going on now for three hundred years." Still true, yes? Americans, the eternal teenagers.

From p. 49 and, originally, An Ideal Husband: "If one could only teach the English how to talk, and the Irish how to listen, society here would be quite civilised." I think he meant the English need to be more interesting and the Irish less self-consumed, but I'm not sure. Of course, almost all Americans still equate "talking well" (whatever that may mean) with the English and "the gift of gab" (whatever tha may mean) with the Irish. So from this side of the Atlantic, it's call good, Oscar.

And from 106, originally The Decay of Lying: "Lying and poetry are arts--arts, as Plato saw, not unconnected with each other--and they require the most careful study, the most disinterested devotion." Indeed, poets and fiction-writers sometimes forget to "lie," to change "what really happened. " Poetry isn't journalism--or autobiography, although Wordsworth really tried to make it the latter, when he wasn't trying to make it philosophy. Both philosophers and poets like to play with words, however. I think that's why Plato was so suspicious of poetry and why the early Wittgenstein was so suspicious of philosophy, why he tried to reduce it to wordless math. Auden, a most philosophical poet (at times), liked "to play with words," his chief definition of poetry.


Wasn't Stephen Fry superb in the "biopic" about Oscar Wilde? Great casting, but also a great performance. We've been watching him and Hugh Laurie (who is now "House") in the old Jeeves and Wooster BBC show. "Just as you say, sir."


Saturday, February 14, 2009

Poem In The Air

Poem In The Air

Oh, Lord, no--not another moon-poem. Oh,
yes, poetry's tethered invisibly to the moon,
which is invisibly tethered to this terrain.
Technically, the moon's not permanent,
but compared to me, it is. I walked under it

tonight--my only option, really. The moon
wasn't quite full, so it looked pinched, and
while I stared, an impulse stole my pen
and notebook and sent another moon-poem
into bright, brief, bulbous orbit. I should

have known better than to look up and stare.
I should have had my eye on the poem in the air.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Names of the Obscure

Names of the Obscure

Mr. Jiggs ran the grocery store in town. He never used
his name as an excuse for not being famous. No one ever
asked, "Hey, Jiggs, did you want to be famous?" It was
out of the question. Not so with Johnny, local mischief-artist:
A thief by age 15, in the Marines by 18, back home at 24
starting fights. He wanted fame and settled for trouble.

Meanwhile, Claude Munkerz became ever more reclusive.
With a name like that, what else was he supposed to do?
Where were "his people" from? someone once asked, not
looking for an answer. Those who made it inside Claude's
shack came back with tales of smells, guns, and incongruously
exquisite furniture. Johnny robbed Clyde (guns and cash),

left town, never came back or found fame. Jiggs let Munkerz
run a tab at the grocery. Claude paid in cash at first, then
in barter (walnut table, mahogany chair), then not at all.
He died. So did Jiggs, in Florida, after retirement. On his
lap when he had the heart attack lay People magazine--
all about famous people.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Thursday, February 12, 2009


(photo: author John Le Carre)


If anyone should inquire, I'll tell them
you were summoned to Paraguay to finalize
a business deal or pursue diplomacy, or
to pulverize a a business deal and decontaminate
diplomacy. The verbs are still en route.

This ploy should give you plenty of time
to carry out your plan. --No, it's better that
I know nothing about it. I trust you. I'm sure
the plan concerns peace, healing, romance,
or collectibles. Contact me through an
intermediary. The code-word will be "code."

We'll all be praying for you but in quite
a range of different religions. Here.
Take this. It will bring you luck.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Full-Figured Ancient Animals

(image: artist's rendering of Titanoboa cerrejonensia)

I've been preoccupied by the news story concerning the discovery of a skeleton in Colombia that appears to have belonged, perhaps to belong still (a difficult legal question), to an enormous snake--as big as a bus, according to Slate, and as heavy as a Volkswagen.

The article is by Nina Shen Rastogi.

Apparently this species of snake lived even before those creatures we call dinosaurs did. It lived in the Paleocene Era, although you couldn't prove it by me. Of course, scientists have already named the snake even though no one formally introduced them it/him/her: Titanoboa cerrejonensis. Scientists are not only presumptuous but also enamored of syllables, apparently. Let's call the thing Bo, pretending we're on a one-syllable basis with the snake.

Anyway, the article asks, not rhetorically, why pre-historic animals were so large. (I also want to know why we use the term "pre-historic" and simultaneously speak of eras, which imply a scheme of history.) One answer, of course, is not all of them were enormous.

Another answer, apparently, is that they had more time to grow. I wasn't reading the article that carefully, so I'm not sure what this means. Maybe it means the animals started school really late. On the radio, in relation to the same story, I heard that another reason may have been the average temperatures, which were higher than those now, and an even greater abundance of "fuel" to eat.

For self-centered reasons, I prefer to call these animals "full-figured" rather than "enormous" or "gigantic." Also, I think other reasons may explain their size:

1. The heretofore unknown existence of prehistoric pasta.

2. Prehistoric couches and large-screen televisions, featuring, as television must, shows about dinosaurs, even though dinosaurs didn't exist yet.

3. Prehistoric body-building. Some of the animals may have belonged to gyms, were young and single, wanted to look buff, and after a good work-out (and a shower, one hopes), they hit the prehistoric clubs.

4. Absence of humans. Just think about how much space we take up. (All of it.) Without us, there was plently of room for full-figured prehistoric animals. Individual animals could think of a meadow as a twin-bed, for example.

5. This one springs from even more radical speculation and derives from B-movies: The individuals whose skeletons we have discovered were full-figured, but they were mutants, preferably from outer space. What I'm getting at is this: Is there any proof that there was more than one of these massive (sorry, full-figured) snakes in prehistoric Colombia? No. Pure extrapolation. Full-figured speculation, if you ask me, and you didn't.



She runs a small symbol-rescue operation

funded by donations. She takes in such words as

Africa, eagle, blood, sunset, heart, peak, sword,

and desert. Sometimes readers and writers

drop off wounded symbols secretly at night.

Her voluntary staff scrapes off encrusted layers

of meaning. The words are then allowed to rest.

In group-sessions, they talk about the abuse

they've suffered over centuries of literature,

politics, journalism, law, religion, and parenting.

They converse about simpler, denotative times.

Eventually, carefully screened users of language

are allowed to adopt the words, to speak and write

them only as needed, to avoid the old corrupt

symbolic forced-labor. The words seem glad

to have a second chance at meaning. They know

they'll get covered with connotative barnacles,

muck, and fungi again. They know they'll get

asked to signify awfully once more. In the

meantime, the symbols have been recovered.

Africa, for example, may mean in ways both

multititudinous and rare, like air.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Murray Edelman and President Obama

A colleague introduced me to Murray Edelman's book, Constructing the Political Spectacle, a while back. I wish I'd read it when it came out, in 1988, U. of Chicago Press. It is superbly written, well argued, terse, and just plain smart. As the title suggests, Edelman applies social-constructivist theory to the political spectacle, the highly complex social performance we call politics or government.

Here's one paragraph:

"Whatever its current connotation, talk about a leader is an ideological text. Like all terms that appear often in discussions of politics, 'leadership' introduces diverse language games that vary with the social context. References to leaders of one's own country, interest groups, friendly or hostile foreign countries, bureaucratic organizations, riots, or revolutions initiate disparate chains of associations that vary with the current situations of observers and are often multifaceted and contradictory. In each case the leader personifies a range of fears of hopes. As a sign, 'leadership' combines wide ambiguity and strong affect" (p. 37)

I thought of President Obama's first formal, official press conference when I re-read this paragraph. What did Obama do to that piece of the spectacle, "the presidential White House press conference"? Well, as Edelman suggests, that depends on whom you talk to. ("Wide ambiguity and strong affect"). I'm guessing that among the first responses from most of those who voted for Obama and some who didn't was one of curiosity ("how will he 'do'?"), and/or one of relief or celebration ("our guy won"; "he's more articulate than Bush"); and/or one of advocacy, inwardly cheering on the President.

My first response to the press conference was that it seemed staged pretty much like the old ones. The staging and lighting look the same as they did for Bush II and Clinton. The press sits well below the president, who stands in front of "the inner sanctum," as it were, of the White House. The effect is that the press is "let in," but not too far, and in an inferior (physically) position.

My second response was that Obama seemed so professorial. He answered only 13 questions in about an hour, and he often spoke in paragraphs, the way Clinton did, but mostly without Clinton's wide-ranging diction, which was sometimes quite folksy (at calculated moments), sometimes not. Obama didn't sound all that different from people I've learned from and worked with for a long time. --A bit long-winded, truth to tell--and it's an occupational hazard of professors to which almost none are immune. After all, in a basic sense, we're paid to profess, just as a plumber is paid to fix pipes.

In the front row, next to Helen Thomas, sat talk-show guy Ed Schultz, a former Division II football player who led the nation in passing yardage one year. Schultz occupies an upper-Midwest, centrist, good-old-boy, union-friendly niche on Air America, although his show is actually distributed by the Jones Network, if memory serves. But he still has "the jock" about him, and I caught him looking down an awful lot, as if he were thinking, "Wow, when is this answer going to be over?"

My third response was that I felt Obama did what all presidents do in such situations: not answer direct questions, pivot, and then launch into answers that are mostly general, predictable, safe, and only specific when specific unilaterally useful. One difference from Bush II, perhaps, is that the rhetoric is still essentially argumentative (as in making arguments, not bickering), while Bush II just seemed to toss out talking-points; he rarely constructed answers, as it were. Bush provided mostly morsels. Obama seems to build answers with well considered parts.

Obama is certainly different from Bush II, Clinton, and others, but this small part of the spectacle has hardly changed at all. Whereas Bush used blunt talking points and a kind of twitchy nervousness to avoid answering questions, Obama essentially filibustered as a way of controlling the situation. When Helen Thomas asked him whether he knew of any Middle East countries that possessed nuclear weapons, he, like presidents before him, didn't get within a hundred miles of answering the question, even though Israel's possession of nuclear weapons is common knowledge. She was playing by press rules; he was playing by old presidential rules. One simply doesn't answer that question. When she pressed him, he moved on to another questioner, just as presidents have done before him.

But as Edelman might have noted, others "constructed" this part of the spectacle each in their own ways, although of course there are large patterns of response. I've enjoyed hearing how others responded to the press conference, just sort of to observe the construction, to to speak. Like poems, political spectacles are built, in a way, but their scale is so much larger, and there's obviously more at stake, at least in worldly terms.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Combination of Factors

(image: Keystone Kops)

If a "mower" is something that mows, is a "factor" something that facts? For better or worse, language is never that logical, although there's an argument to be made that German is more predictable, if not "logical," than English. I'm not going to make that argument, partly because I'm unprepared to do so. Discretion is the better part of not getting trounced in a linguistic argument.

As one might imagine, the OED online is bursting with defintions of factor, used in a variety of parts of speech. Here is one especially interesting (to me), if obsolete, one:

b. One of the third class of the East India Company's servants. Obs. exc. Hist.
[1600 Min. Crt. Adventurers 23 Oct. in Cal. State Papers, E. Indies (1862) 109 Thos. Wasse to be employed as factor. Ibid. 18 Nov. ibid. 111 Three principal factors to have each 100l. for equipment..four of the second sort to be allowed 50l...four of the third sort 50l...and four of the fourth and last sort 20l. each.] 1675-6 in J. Bruce Ann. East-India Co. (1810) II. 375 We do order, that..when the Writers have served their times they be stiled Factors. 1781 LD. CORNWALLIS Corr. (1859) I. 378 We..have a council and senior and junior merchants, factors and writers, to load one ship in the year. 1800 WELLINGTON in Owen Desp. 719 Writers or factors filling the stations of registers.

In mathematics, a factor is a mode of simplification, isn't it? I am so distant from my days with algebra, alas, and algebra is the better for it.

It might be nice, however, if a "factor" were a machine that facted. "Bob, I'm telling you, if you want to make facts in a hurry, you're going to have to upgrade to the Black and Decker Factor-500."

For better or worse, the following small poem uses "factor" in the more customary and therefore vague sense.

A Combination of Factors

"A combination of factors"--such

a fine phrase, a wave of the hand

in the general direction of cause,

correlation, complexity, effect.

It's more droll than "I'm confused,"

less folksy than "Who knows?" It's

a nice place in phraseology to escape

to when the combination of factors

gets to be too much out there, or in here--

they appear to be ubiquitous, not to mention

multisyllabic, those factors, and

they do seem to prefer to combine.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Walk In the Sunshine

Walk in the Sunshine

How should I walk in the sunshine?
--Winter's been so long, the sun
so seemingly distracted.
My shadow will come back
and stick to my feet. Also,
I'll need to get used to moving
and being glad at the same time.

"It will come back to you," people
say. They say, "You'll remember how
to walk in the sunshine." They don't
know this. Nothing comes back. We
make up memories, ask questions,
and behave as if we're points of reference.
And did I tell you about the avalanche?

That's re-routed everything around here.
Anyway, the upcoming interval doesn't
know some people call it Spring and everybody
calls it something or other. Time reflects
not on its own situation. Time is completely
unselfconscious, unaware that it seems
to stalk us constantly. Time's always constant,
in spite of Relativity. No questions occur to
time. Nothing. It knows how to walk
in the light of every star.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Stafford and Yevtushenko

An oddly matched pair--William Stafford and Yevgeny Yevtushenko: the former a conversational, modest American, in favor of low-key rhetoric; the latter in a tradition of more public, declamatory poetic rhetoric, and also in possession of a robust personality.

I've convinced myself I perceived an intersection in their work, however, specifically in a couple of stanzas. The first is from the opening of Stafford's poem, "Next Time":

Next time what I'd do is look at
the earth before saying anything. I'd stop
just before going into a house
and be an emperor for a minute
and listen better to the wind
or to the air being still.

The poem is from An Oregon Message, and the last line of the stanza is supposed to be indented 5 spaces, but the blog-machinery doesn't want to cooperate.

I like the matter-of-fact whimsicality of the lines but also the way they and the whole poem suggest a wish to do and to be better.

In "Requiem for Challenger," a poem from Almost At the End and, as the title states, a poem concerning a space-shuttle explosion, Yevtushenko begins with a great dramatic image: "This white tragic swan/of farewell explosion," and then, with his panoramic view, manages to take in Arlington Cemetery, the Kremlin, the Pyrenees, the Caucasus, Mt. Everest, and the Statue of Liberty. --Broad, bold strokes: what one has come to expect from this poet. But here is how the poem concludes (and again, the indentation of lines is off; my apologies):

Our life is a challenge.
Our planet is our common Challenger.
We humiliate her,
frightening each other with bombs.
But could we explode her?
Even by mistake?
Even by accident?
That would be the final error
never to be undone.

Like Stafford, Yevtushenko is interested in one's, in everyone's, doing and being better, and, in my opinion, he makes a nice choice when yoking one kind of technological disaster with another one--the nuclear one. Probably some will see "our common Challenger" as trite--a repetition of the "spaceship Earth" analogy, but Yevtushenko is never afraid to err in the direction of big plain statements, large-hearted emotion from which he probably knows some readers will recoil.

Perhaps the intersection between these poems and poets, if it exists, concerns something as simple (but difficult) as wisdom.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Oakland's Okay By Me, There, Gertrude

(image: vintage photo of Jack London Square, Oakland,
California [with vintage automobiles])

It seems as if I've had more students hailing from the East Bay Area of California in general and Oakland/Berkeley specifically in classes than I used to. I enjoy talkling with them about that region.
I went to college at U.C. Davis, not Berkeley, but I still spent a lot of time in the East Bay, and I have good memories of Oakland. There's a sense in which one is supposed to be more fond of San Francisco than of Oakland. --Nothing against San Francisco (except the baseball team perpetually breaks my heart), but I happen to be more fond of Oakland. I'm not entirely sure why.
As noted, memories of friends, events, and places play a role, of course. Also, I became a fan of the professional football team, the Raiders, by happenstance: the only television-signal we could receive in the Sierra Nevada canyon I grew up in was from an NBC affiliate in Sacramento, and NBC broadcast the American Football League games, whereas CBS broadcast the venerable NFL games. Essentially, the TV signals at the time had to carom off peaks; why one signal from Sacramento arrived at our aluminum antenna and the other didn't remains a mystery, but the mystery led to my "following" the Raiders.
Let's see: I accepted a prize in a statewide poetry-contest in Oakland. That was a good night. The first poem I ever read on the radio was for a recorded show on KPFA, whose home is technically Berkeley, I think, but that's close enough for poetry, radio, and horse-shoes. . . .I knew some people in Oakland-proper, in the Oakland hills, in Berkeley, and in nearby El Cerrito. . . . .As far as I know, I was probably the only white person in a movie theater in Oakland one afternoon, long ago; most of the rest of the audience was African American; it was an instructive, valuable, valued, pleasant experience. . . . . The Oakland Museum is splendid. . . . .Trees, birds, people, bookstores, water, places to eat, places to listen to music. . . . .All of these things count. . . .
As to Oakland itself, whatever that means, I just feel a certain connection to it that I don't feel to some other cities. Gertrude Stein, who lived in Oakland for a while, apparently felt little or no connection to it because she observed, famously, of Oakland, "There's no there there." Well, there you have it. Or maybe not.
Oakland Is There

Gertrude Stein famously said a lot of famous
things fashioned to be famously remembered
tenderly such as, of Oakland, California, U.S.A.,
"there's no there there," but after she left
and eventually went to Thereville, France,
the There of Oakland that had actually always
been There remained There in her absence.
See, Oakland had and has persons, places,
and things--the stuff that composes the There
of any place from Paris to Bangkok, Vladivostok
to Lesotho, Aberdeen to Montevideo. Gertrude
wanted more, or less (who knows?) from Oakland.
--Some irony to that since she possessed the
Oaklandish visage of a stevedore or boxing promoter,
a face with angles and planes in which Picasso
found a lot of There to paint in the portrait he painted.
Gertrude wrote some inlandish Oaklandese
sentences and hit some of them right on the
button, and then she died. Oakland's still there.
So is its There, which was there all along, and
will be, and is, and is there, and so there.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Yo, Poe

Thanks to the incalcuable effort, energy, and imagination of some colleagues, the college at which I teach is about to host "SymPOEsyium," celebrating Edgar's 200th birthday, which actually occurred about a month ago, but after 200 years, well--close enough. The celebration will feature lectures, informal discussions, a parody-contest, performances, screenings of films, the serious, the campy, and the in-between. And Lord knows Edgar was in between--serious writer; writer for pay; "Southern Gentleman"; impoverished, feckless roustabout; considered by some to be an indelibly influential writer and critic; considered by others to be juvenile and excessive. Poe was most American, perhaps, in his desperate need for acceptance, in his attempt to try on different identities, in is manic drive, and in his raging inventiveness.

The poetry captivated me for a brief "moment" when I was in my early teens, and "The Raven" is still quite a performance, a grand entertainment. Poe also had a way with lyricism. Like Auden, he liked to play with words.

Many of the stories still work for me. They aren't especially subtle (ya think?), but that trait mostly springs from Poe's idea of what a story (and, indeed, a poem) should do: go for that one effect. In many instances, the stories achieve multiple effects, and the personae that narrate many of the tales fascinate, are more complex than one might first realize.

It's great to watch a writer essentially invent sub-genres that we now call "horror," "thriller," and "detective story." It's fun to watch a writer have fun. Poe's pleasure in entertaining comes through especially, I think, in "The Cask of Amontillado." (Unfortunately, my having worked as a stone-mason's assistant almost ruins the story for me because I know how long it takes to mix mortar, build a wall, etc. Poe glides over the details; more power to him.) "The Fall of the House of Usher" still holds great appeal, and Poe achieved so much in such a small space (so to speak) in "Murders in the Rue Morgue": genius-detective (half-amateur, half-pro); wacky crime; grisly crime-scene; the "locked-room" puzzle; the flummoxed police; the surprise ending.

Writers and readers should probably not underestimate how well Poe tended to start his stories. Some great openers.

In college I read and studied The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. A wild book, and not a bad novel, really.

For SymPOEsium, I'm going to get off my duff and, with a colleague, talk about "The Philosophy of Composition" and the famous review of Hawthorne's tales. I'll be giving Edgar an imaginary fist-bump. I hope his spirit takes it in the right spirit and doesn't try to brick me up in the catacombs. Yo, Poe: Happy Birthday.

A Way Out of the Financial Crisis

In these tough economic times, we must all brainstorm ideas to help improve the situation, even if we are poets and our financial brainstorms look like tiny dust-whirlwinds on the prairie.

Obviously, if we have just a wee bit of extra money, clothes, or food, we ought to give it/them to somebody who can get it/them to those in need. That's a small-scale idea.

My bigger idea is this: The U.S. should declare its dependence on Great Britain. I know this sounds terribly counterintuitive, especially since so much of our history and identity, not to mention our status as a nation, depends on certain colonists' having declared independence from Great Britain. Then the whole founding fathers thing--you know the story.

In terms of age, however, the U.S. is essentially a teenager, and Great Britain is . . . of advanced years. If we work with this analogy a bit, we might think of ourselves as teenagers or 20-somethings who need to move back in with their parents--just until we get our finances organized, get back on our feet. No doubt from Great Britain's point of view, this maneuver will seem cheeky, to say almost the least. Also, there may be some legal hurdles to jump. Is it possible for a nation to undeclare independence? We must get a team of lawyers, I mean solicitors, working on this, and we should encourage them to wear white wigs, just to send a subtextual message.

If Great Britain goes for the idea, we could ask it to pay some of our bills. One problem, of course, is that I can already imagine people from England shouting, "We already do! You got us into Iraq, Afghanistan, and the banking crisis! You ruined our language! You stole The Office. George Bush hypnotized Tony Blair! What more do you want from us?" It's hard to know how to respond to such points, although one tradition in Parliament (I gather, from watching it on BBC America) is that you can grumble and mumble. I really like how members of Parliament do that. It's impolite and civilized both at once.

"When, in the course of human events, a certain country goes broke and needs to move in with another country, declaring dependence seems like a good idea."

That doesn't quite have the same noble ring, I grant. But it's just a first draft, and I'm just brainstorming, as a poet and a patriot; in a weird sort of way, would undeclaring independence be patriotic? Jeez, I don't know. It's hard to follow the carom-shots. But it seems less complicated than these so-called bail-out packages.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Still Surprised

(image: Lucille Ball)

Still Surprised

I'm still surprised crickets can make
that noise. With their legs. Still surprised
by literature, by love, by eyes. Still
surprised when societies function.
Astonished still by cruelty. Mystified
yet by existence's existence. Always
shocked by violence. I'm still surprised

by the pull of words. Still puzzled that
a part of me imagines it can bring back
those who died: magical thinking. Still
flummoxed by what, exactly, the roles
of child and parent require. Remain

wounded, permanently altered, by
the murders of JFK, Malcolm X, MLK,
RFK, Allende, Palme, Till, and all
the so-called nameless ones. Still
stunned by numbers attached
to people killed. One. Ten. One
hundred thousand. Forty-five thousand.
Six million. Twenty-five million. I'm still
here, so it seems, surprisingly. I'm
still surprised I'm surprised by
cynicism and lies.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

For Cafeteria Workers

According to the OED online, "cafeteria" used to, more or less, refer simply to a coffee house:

1839 J. L. STEPHENS Trav. Russian & Turkish Emp. I. 157 Every third shop, almost, being a cafteria [sic] where a parcel of huge turbanded fellows were at their daily labours of smoking pipes and drinking coffee. 1894 Lakeside Directory Chicago 2188 Cafetiria Catering Co. 45 Lake. 1895 Ibid. 2231 ‘Cafetiria’, 46 Lake, 80 Adams, 108 Quincy and 93 Vanburen. 1896 Chicago Tribune 28 June 4/1 Gerbach used to be a waiter in a West Side restaurant subsequent to his employment by the cafeteria company.

I especially like the reportage concerning one "Gerbach." I mean, the quotation sounds matter-of-fact, but there also seems to be a menacing undertone.

At any rate, "cafeteria" now seems to refer to any large semi-self-serve place to get food, often connected to institutions like hospitals or universities. Of course, the "self-serve" aspect is mostly illusory. A lot of people put in a lot of work to get that food to where you serve it to yourself, but not really; mainly you just carry that tray or fill that glass. I worked in a cafeteria once, almost entirely behind the scenes as a dish-room worker, po-washer, and grill-cleaner, but also as a "runner" tasked with filling those odd milk-dispensers and replacing silverware, etc.

For Cafeteria Workers

The task of cafeterias is to feed large
numbers of people quickly. They are
not so different, then, from farms and
ranches, except the clientele is often
less polite than cattle, horses, and pigs.
Back there in the kitchen, they get it
done, the workers: Soup for thousands,
noodles for hundreds, protein and starch--
all timed to be there when the herd arrives
with bad moods and lots of opinions.
The dishroom is a symphony of clash,
a humidity of food-smell, steam, and sweat,
a silver cacaphony. The conveyor-belt's
the boss. Each tray brings a catastrophe.
The automatic dishwasher--a tunnel of water
and soap--disgorges disinfected implements
eaters will soon stuff in their mouths again.
The pot-washer is a lonely figure. Once I was
he. Heaps of stainless steel arise, food welded
to metal, grease smeared on every plane. Alone,
you work your way through the mountain 'til
nothing's left but you, your soaked shirt, and
clocking-out. Out front, the servers smile.
They remember names and endure whiners
and would-be gourmands. Runners fill machines
that distribute fizz and syrup. Cashiers stand on
weary feet and process armies packing trays,
hunger, haste, and attitude. Bless the cafeteria
workers, who are better than we deserve.
Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Civil Liberties in Bloom?

(image of interned American citizens)

Here is a poem from Mitsuye Yamada's book Camp Notes and Other Poems:


As we boarded the bus
bags on both sides
(I had never packed
two bags before
on a vacation
lasting forever)
the Seattle Times
photographer said
so obediently I smiled
and the caption the next day

Note smiling faces
a lesson to Tokyo.
Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1992, p. 13.
Yamada and family were removed from Seattle and interned in Idaho during WWII. The same thing happened to American families of Japanese background up and down the West Coast.

One of the best designed memorials I've seen regarding the internment happens to be on "my" campus. Alongside sidewalks are planted cherry trees that blossom twice a year. At the base of each cherry tree is a small plaque. On each plaque are the names of the college students on campus who were removed from said campus and sent to interment camps. Probably many of them were sent first to the Puyallup Fairgrounds and held in animal-stalls before being shipped elsewhere. Imagine having grown up in the U.S., being a an American college student, going to class, living your life, and then being removed and interned one day. Of course, property (farms, grocery stores) was stolen and never returned to the families as well. (A Japanese-American alum of the university was chiefly responsible for getting this modest but effective memorial established. A "well done" to him.

Yes, of course I've heard the alleged ways in which the issue was "complicated" and so forth, but the plain facts don't seem to want to budge. Persons of German background were not arrested and interned (nor should they have been). The persons interned were American citizens, not Japanese citizens, so this thing called the Constitution: where was it? Also, where was an inkling of evidence, not to mention due process? Legal representation? To stack irony upon irony, many interned Japanese American men were offered the chance to join the American military and fight--and they took that opportunity and comported themselves well.

Where were the newspapers: Apparently the Seattle Times behaved simply as a cheerleader, rather like Judith Miller, the New York Times, and Bush's crew recently. Newspapers and other journalistic media are supposed to have a contrarian attitude toward who's in power, no matter who's in power. It says so, right there in Contrarianism for Dummies. :-)

I have a colleague who teaches Civil Liberties. He is planning to save 15 minutes in class one day so that he can take the class to the trees and the plaques and suggest that this is one of many reasons why such concepts as civil liberties (and due process, and evidence, and so on) matter.


Nobody wants to hear his stories:
what a relief. It's refreshing to him
not to be of interest, not to try to
entertain, not to inflate the value
of his experience. Obscurity is
a dear state to occupy. It is spacious
and undemanding, like a meadow
that wasn't on the map. Still, sometimes
people ask questions, maybe out of
politeness, hard to say. So then he talks
quickly about himself but changes
the subject as soon as possible. Silence
is his memoir. A blank page encompasses
that life nicely. He used to want people
to be interested in is stories. What,
he wonders, was he thinking? He
doesn't care about his life-story,
aside from the fact that it appears
to exist. His life-story is boring, partly
because he knows it too well. He wonders:
Is autobiography a kind of sin?
Hans Ostrom Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Performance-Enhancing Drugs

(image: Roger Clemens, unamused)

The recent hubbub over performance-enhancing drugs has made many a sports-fan morose. If we take the long view, however, athletes have always probably been looking for an edge of some sort, and one wonders about the extent to which some of the drugs have a placebo effect. Also, think about all the bad and mediocre athletes who tried the drugs, only to find out they (the drug-takers) were still bad or mediocre athletes, except that they'd expended cash and ingested something awful.

I do remember with some amusement the Cold War Sports-Era, when some of the East Bloc athletes, especially some women, looked, well, unusual, but I reckon some athletes from the West were mischievous, too. Ya think?

As usual, I tend to focus on peripheral questions. For example, with regard to Barry Bonds, I always wondered why more players didn't imitate him by choking up on the bat, not by taking (allegedly!) performance-enhancing thingamabobs. Bat-speed seemed to be one key to Bonds's success. I don't know of another major league player who chokes up on the bat. In fact, most to the opposite. They get their hands on the knob of the bat itself.

At any rate, I decided to apply the contours of this sports-scandal to literature:

Performance-Enhancing Literary Scandal

Reports from Greece today allege Socrates
may have take the human growth-hormone,
HGH (not an inventive abbreviation). Owing
to an allergic reaction (the report continues),
Socrates may have had to employ Plato to
write the philosophy for which Socrates is
famous. Socrates, having also ingested hemlock
long ago, was not available for comment.

Meanwhile, communiques out of St. Petersburg
and Moscow suggest Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy
may have ingested steroids that helped them
double and triple the size of their novels. Elsewhere,
Faulkner and Joyce scholars are vehemently
denying that the impenetrable sentences of these
two Modern titans are the result of performance-
enhancing chemicals and not merely showing off.

Spokespersons for Thomas De Quincey and Charles
Bukowski said, "Read the books; then decide whether
the stuff we ingested enhanced or not. Also, shut up."
F. Scott Fitzgerald, speaking from West Egg in Heaven,
repeated his oft-quoted line: "First you take a drink, then
the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you."*

*Quotable Men of the Twentieth Century, edited by Jessica Allen. New York: William Morrow, 1999, p. 13.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Foggy Couplets

Couplets in the Fog

Fog's a species of weather--
gray, like a pigeon's feather.
Auden once wrote, "Thank you, fog."
Sandburg thought of cat, not dog.
Fog's in Eliot's Unreal City--
yellow fog, what a pity.
Call it mist, call it fog:
Still you tripped over that log.
If you can, take off work.
No sense traveling in that murk.
Anything you try to say
will come out mumbled, foggy gray.
The fog is subtler than the snow.
And so it's the more dangerous foe.

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Last People on Earth

I saw this film, I Am Legend, a while back. It was okay. Thrills, chills--that sort of thing. It reminded me a lot of The Omega Man, with Charlton Heston. These "last person(s) on Earth" movies are mildly entertaining. The material might actually be better suited to the small screen, as in the old Twilight Zone series, because the story doesn't need to be drawn out and padded so much.
The rest of the world must figuratively roll their eyes when they see cinematically that, yet again, the last person on Earth is an American guy living in a high-rise with lots of guns and groceries.

The Last People on Earth

If you and I were the last persons left
on Earth, someting in excess of terrible
shall have occurred. (Please note my
powers of deduction.) I assume we'd
be living like rats and have the cognitive
coherence of rabid skunks. That said,

I'd still be willing to celebrate your birthday
and nominate you for offices and awards of
your choosing. I might propose a moratorium
on strong opinions. As we tried to keep warm
(or cool), hide from predators, manage
hydration, sustenance, and hygeine, we might
eventually decide whether to revive the arts
in such forms as dancing, singing, and storytelling.

If you and I were the last persons left on Earth,
I'd be both the last and the first person to come to
for advice. Nothing personal, but I'd assume you'd
try to kill me eventually over something trivial.
Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Monday, February 2, 2009

Zen Golf

I had the very good fortune of having dinner with Sherman Alexie and a few other people tonight. Mr. Alexie is an enormously talented, funny, humane, intelligent man, who also likes basketball and big laughter.

I was talking with a friend after the dinner, and he said, "You write--a lot"--referring to my blog, etc. I told him, "Yes, but unlike you, I'm unimpeded by being smart."(This fellow won a MacArthur "Genius" Grant, so I wasn't indulging in flattery.) I thought that was a pretty good line: If I were smarter, I probably wouldn't write as much. Reflection might get in the way.

Back to Alexie: what impresses me about his intelligence is its flexibility. He's interested in . . . everything. That's actually more a characteristic of a poet than a novelist, in my opinion. Novelists tend to ge most interested in things that follow a certain deep channel. Poets will go up and down any creek.

Back to the friend: He has a great idea for a Zen-related novel set in Seattle. I shall try to induce him to write it.

In the meantime, a wee Zen poem:

Zen Golf
Bow to the ball. Apologize
in advance for striking it.
Hit it with your favorite
club in any direction.
It's all a Hole out there--
the course, the world,
reality. Therefore, you
can't not hit a hole in one.
Going dualistic for a moment,
the bad news is that no one
keeps score. Even if someone
did count the strokes, there's
nothing to win. Good news
on the dualistic scale: You're
outside, the club in your hand
gleams, a bird craps on a
rich man's head, and . . . .

Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

A Visit From a Sage

(image: W.C. Fields)
Say You're a Failure
Best just to blurt it out: "I'm a failure."
Other losing phrases will congregate
right away and get too close to you
as they announce themselves:
"I fell a bit short." "It just didn't
work out." "These things happen."
"It wasn't for want of trying." "If
that's what success is, I'd rather
fail." This last one engenders
many look-away glances and
urgent small-talk in the group.
Now the place is empty again.
You invite a sage over. He takes
his bourbon neat. You ask,
"Is continuing to try and to fail
any better than giving up,
surrendering to failure?" "No,"
says the sage. "True, one gives
the impression of dignity or
perseverence by continuing
to try, but whom is one attempting
to impress, and why?"
"I'm a failure. I failed," you say.
"Indeed," says the sage, now drunk.
He continues: "Saying so--the
proclamation, the confession--
that's what hurts. Otherwise,
failure is quite manageable.
You know, I really must bring
you a bottle sometime. I see
I've drunk up all your whiskey."
Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom

Poet's Political Questions

(pie chart from
Time now for another highly infrequent (thank goodness) installment of "A Poet's Political Questions."
1. When will a cut-to-the-chase discussion of the federal budget finally occur? Almost all the money goes to the military, health-care (Medicare), and interest on the debt. Of course, we can get in pie-chart wars (one imagines the pie-throwing denouement of a Three Stooges move), and we can put in or take out such things as interest on the debut and money for Social Security, but even so, the pies look roughly the same, even when you account for pie-chart bias. Arguably the biggest decision facing Americans (to the extent Americans make such decisions) is how much to keep spending on the military.
Yes, I'm aware of the arguments in favor of a "strong military." Even if some of those are granted, however, we still have confront the fact that military-spending is sucking the federal budget dry. We could also debate the health-services and Social Security part of the pie, but I don't think people are going to stop getting sick and old. Let's put the question this way: How much of the military-budget is discretionary? Let's also ignore debates about whether to cut the Dept. of Education (or whatever). The filling in the pie is composed almost entirely of health services, the military, and interest on the debt. Debates about other stuff are merely distractions.
2. Why don't the media cover in greater detail those companies and corporations which make weapons and therefore profit from war? Even if you support the wars in which the U.S. is engage, you would probably have some interest in who makes what and how much they make. Is G.E. the parent-company of NBC? Does G.E. make weapons? I don't know the answer to these questions.
3. Not to throw cold water on the election of Obama (for many reasons, that was a good day for the U.S.), but will he retract the almost unprecedented expansion of the Executive-Branch powers achieved by Bush and Cheney (signing statements; refusal to turn over any documents; governing by fiat)? Oddly enough, when Obama was, during the campaign, chatting with the pastor from Saddleback Church, and when Pastor Rick asked him about Supreme Court appointments, Obama (without being prompted) said he disagreed with some of Roberts' rulings about what he, Obama, thought were excessive Executive powers that didn't seem supported by the Constitution. Now that he's president, will he retract some of those powers? I don't think he will. Why is it in his interest to do so?
4. Now that Obama is president, will the U.S. stop "renditions," a euphemism that would have made even Orwell gag? It refers to the CIA's kidnapping suspects and transporting them to other nations. A rendition is a version of a song. This is kidnapping, false imprisonment, and--once the kidnapped area abroad--torture, no doubt. This morning newspaper had an answer to this question: No. No, the U.S. will not stop "renditions." Close Guantanamo? Yes. Return to previous rules and treaties regarding torture? Yes. Stop renditions? No. Should we stop renditions? Yes: that's my opinion. I'm willing to hear opposing views. I think I know one of them, which can be phrased as a rhetorical question, "What is the CIA supposed to do when it discovers a person who is clearly a potential terrorist--let him or her walk around free?" My rhetorical response is, "If the evidence is clear, why not prosecute him or her as a criminal, in a court?" Another retort I ofen hear is this: "You're naive." I agree. In many regards, I'm naive. Does my naivete justify "rendition"?
5. I think that's more than enough political questioning from a poet, and I'm sure you'll agree. I would, however, like to ask why pie-charts never represent a pie-crust. I understand the crust is not crucial to the visual representation of data, but in the spirit of verisimilitude, I think there should be a crust. I might also add that my financial advisor made some pie-charts for me. They represented our personal finances. What was missing (in addition to a crust) was the filling. Cut up the pie as you will, but if there's no filling, you're just playing with percentages of almost nothing. You have dough, but you have no dough (nyuk, nyuk). Don't kill the messenger (in this case, the financial advisor), and don't blame the pie chart.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

William Stafford and the Super Bowl

I wonder if poet William Stafford ever watched the Super Bowl. I doubt it. I also doubt that he believed himself to be superior to such mass entertainment. I suspect he might have simply not been interested in the game.

I've been reading his book, An Oregon Message, a book of poems published in 1987. Somehow I ended up with an autographed copy. I'm no handwriting expert, but my wild guess is that Stafford was left-handed. At any rate, he was roughly 73 years old when he published this book, and he prefaced it with this note, which I think I'll reproduce in full:

"My poems are organically grown, and it is my habit to allow language its own freedom and confidence. The results will sometimes bewilder conservative readers and hearers, especially those who try to control all emergent elements in discourse for the service of predetermined ends.

Each poem is a miracle that has been invited to happen. But these words, after they come, you look at what's there. Why these? Why not some calculated careful contenders? Because these chosen ones must survive as they were made, by the reckless impulse of a fallible but susceptible person. I must be willingly fallible in order to deserve a place in the realm where miracles happen.

Writing poems is living in that realm. Each poem is a gift, a surprise that emerges as itself and is only later subjected to order and evaluation." (page 10 of the paperback).

As always, Stafford is sly--even in this preface. "Organically grown" not only alludes to a Romantic (as in British Romantic, Wordsworth, et al. ) point of view, but also to the term "organically grown," which had become ubiquitous in American marketing of food in the 1980s. With regard to art and poetry, "organic" doesn't have the "granola" connotation many people immediately think of. It's not a "touchy-feely" term. It simply refers to the way in which a poem or another kind of art finds its form, as opposed to filling up a predetermined form like a mold. You might think of "organic" in this context as the opposite of "formulaic."

I observe with pleasure the Christian--in the broadest sense of the term--note in the preface: a poet or a person has to be willingly fallible, as opposed to willful or arrogant, to receive poems. Of course, one need not be a Christian or even necessarily a person of faith to approach art this way. One need only be receptive in a certain way. Patient.

In Stafford's view of writing, one receives the language. This point of view does not, of course, mean that whatever one receives is good. It simply means that whatever one receives, one receives--a gift to consider. Then you take a look at it. Maybe you put it in a bit more order. Maybe you evaluate it. Maybe you decide you don't quite know what to make of this gift, so you put it on a shelf for a while.

This is the kind of "theory" of creativity that most literary critics don't get because they need something either more outlandlandish and grandiose or more logical. Stafford's way is too "in between." Perhaps it's too simple.

But to think of a poem as a gift, perhaps a modest gift indeed (who knows?), is a nice way of looking at poetry. Wait for the words. They usually arrive. After they arrive, take a look at them and see what you have. It's a bit like panning for gold. And almost no one pans for gold to get rich. One pans for gold because one enjoys panning for gold.

But what really astonishes me is that, at 73, Stafford apparently still felt he had to explain himself, his way of writing. True, it's not as if he were insecure or revealed insecurity in the preface. And there's some wry humor in these paragraphs of his. (In another book, in reference to critics, he says simply, "Thanks anyway."). Nonetheless, by age 73 Stafford had produced so much interesting poetry that one would think he wouldn't need to "explain" himself. It makes me a wee bit sad that he felt that way.

I met him once, in 1974 or 1975, when he came to read at U.C. Davis. He wore a simple "dress" shirt without a tie. I liked his laconic, clear way of reading. As was the routine then, we all gathered in a small classroom in Olson Hall. Maybe there were 20 of us. Ridiculous. He deserved an audience of hundreds. But so it goes with poetry. After the reading, we gathered at Karl Shapiro's house for a reception, and I asked Stafford about imagery. Shapiro rather liked poems to be overloaded with imagery, whereas (it seemed to me, a mere youth), Stafford was a little more comfortable with conversation in his poems, even as they included fine imagery. I forget his answer to my question, which probably wasn't phrased very well. I had to leave soon after that because, of all things, I was horrifically allergic to Shapir's cat. So it goes.

But oh my goodness am I enjoying the poems in An Oregon Message, poems Stafford waited for and received.