Poem for my dad

If you have been reading this blog for the past year, you may recall my posts concerning the 50th year celebration of the March on Montgomery and the Voting Rights Act. (Click on the links below if you want to read them). I mentioned in the first post that I was trying to write a poem about my father’s memories of the event.

January 14: Trying to write (Selma)

January 18: Guest blogger–My dad’s memoir

After much struggle and revision (and many thanks to my writing critique group), I did manage to write that poem.

And: the poem has been published! Here it is, in One – volume 7. Richard Krawiec of Jacar Press has placed the poems, one by each poet (hence the journal name) so that the readers can scroll one by one, taking their time through the pieces. There’s a feel of development in this form of editing. It reminds me a little of how a good record album–if you recall those days–worked song by song to create an album experience that differed from just hearing the tunes randomly. The result was not always thematic, but a sense of mood or tone arose. I guess it’s similar to what poetry reviewers call the “arc” of a book of poetry. An arc is not necessary, but sometimes a feeling of synthesis does enhance the poems.

“Arc” is particularly apt here, given the title of my poem–taken from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous speech on that day.

Arc of the Moral Universe, Bending toward Justice


Thanks for reading.


About that death/writing thing

Driving the road that clings to the south side of our hill I notice the round bright moon over newly-gleaned cornfields and find myself thinking about the last essay in Margaret Atwood‘s book Negotiating with the Dead. I finished reading the book some days back, but the title essay worries at me somehow; I can’t let it go. Maybe it is because I perceive connections between her ideas on the ontology of story-making and Boyd’s evolutionary premise for narrative, or between conscious mind and story-making arising from the cthonic, the deeps, the under-earth “hells” to which our myth-makers and shamans, goddesses, musicians, poets and heroes journeyed in order to bring back–if nothing else–the story of the trek and the resulting wisdom. Maybe it is because “negotiating” with the dead raises the problem of consciousness in peculiar and challenging ways as well as the problem of communicating with people of the past and of the future. Or maybe because of that bogeyman that awaits us all: Death.

When I was quite a young child, age seven or perhaps earlier, I was seized with an insomnia-inducing fear of death that kept me in agonies as soon as darkness fell. I wonder if that had anything to do with my later need to “be a writer.”

Atwood suggests that all writers truck with the dead. We read the work of our ancestors-in-the-craft; they are often our first teachers. That important aspect of craft so many of us struggle to attain–the ever-illusive quality of “voice”–is what we notice in many of our beloved writers. Voice, perfect example of metonymy. It stands in for the departed body, the dispersed consciousness.

Here is Atwood holding forth at a dinner party of fellow writers:

Gilgamesh was the first writer…He wants the secret of life and death, he goes through hell, he comes back, but he hasn’t got immortality, all he’s got is two stories–the one about his trip, and the other, extra one about the flood. So the only thing he really brings back with him is a couple of stories…and then he writes the whole thing down on a stone.

She adds that going “into the narrative process–is a dark road. The poets know this too.” So inspiration is not so much a clearing in the clouds but a kind of rappelling into a cave. At any rate, darkness, even with a full moon to light the road, seems as likely as a bolt of lightning to produce emotionally-resonant work. Maybe more so, because it’s harder work and more ambiguous (Lord knows, writing is both of those!). Darkness requires more interpretation. The audience has to listen, not simply see; the darker path gets traversed by both writer and reader.

The Flood

The Flood

Atwood also makes note of the threshold concept, that edge or invisible boundary line between the realms, any pair of realms. Life/death, yin/yang, heaven/earth, day/night. The one who seeks knowledge or magic or treasure (or lost love, viz Orpheus) at some point crosses the threshold, and then nothing is certain. He or she may not be able to return, for example. Edges are the interesting places, where all manner of things mesh and overlap–good spots for inspiration even if one opts not to take the stairway to the underworld; but they also pose danger. We humans, with our need for communities, invent parallel communities for our dead, not just physical cemeteries but supernatural abodes, and create all manner of “rules and procedures…for ensuring that the dead stay in their place and the living in theirs, and that communication between the two spheres will take place only when we want it to,” says Atwood.

I wonder if that is one reason I felt so unsettled by the idea of death when I was seven. I did not personally know anyone who had died (yet), but I knew the stories; certainly, I’d been taught about Jesus, though I was told he had defeated death. So why the early-onset angst? Did I fear that edge between the realms, being too inexperienced either to navigate it or to allow communication on my own terms? And maybe the fear is precisely what has led me to my ongoing inquiries into philosophy, consciousness, art, and mind.

Or was I precociously aware that I would have to venture into the darkness, into the coffin-holes and the caves and the seas’ depths, if I wanted to come back with a story to tell?



Slightly less difficult books

photo ann e. michaelI recently read Paul Bloom’s book Descartes’ Baby while simultaneously reading Daniel Dennett’s Content & Consciousness. Of these two, the latter falls a bit under the “difficult books” category, but it is not too hard to follow as philosophy goes. Dennett’s book is his first–the ideas that evolved as his PhD thesis–and in these arguments it is easy to see his trademark humor and his deep interest in the ways neurology and psychology have aspects useful to philosophy. Bloom’s book, a somewhat easier read, suggests that the mind-body problem evolved naturally from human development: young children are “essentialists” for whom dualism is innate; Descartes simply managed to write particularly well about the evolutionary project (with which, I should note, Bloom disagrees; as a cognitive psychologist, he maintains a more materialist stance).

It turns out that because I have read widely if shallowly in the areas of philosophy, cognitive psychology, evolution, art, aesthetics, and story-making, I find myself able to recognize the sources and allusions in texts such as these. Quine, Popper, Darwin, Pinker, and Wittgenstein; Schubert, Kant, Keats, Dostoevsky, Rilke…years of learning what to read next based on what I am currently reading have prepared me for potentially difficult books. [Next up, Gilbert Ryle and possibly Berkeley.] I don’t know why I feel so surprised and happy about this. It’s as though I finally realized I am a grownup!

And I am glad to discover I am not yet too old to learn new things, young enough to remember things I know, and intellectually flexible enough to apply the information to other topic areas. Synthesis! Building upon previously-laid foundations! Maslow’s theory of humanistic education! Bloom’s taxonomy! The autodidact at work in her solitary effort at a personal pedagogy.

If I ever really discover what consciousness is, I’ll let you know.






Goldfinches in winter attire

Two kinds of chickadees (black-capped and Carolina). White-breasted nuthatches. A tufted titmouse, bluejays, goldfinches in their brown-ish phase. The winter birds have arrived; despite a strangely warm November, the birds molt into dull plumage or migrate on schedule. I try to remember that when I feel worried about climate change: some forms of life are adaptable, change is normal, anxiety accomplishes nothing, and right action is possible.

I do not mean that we ought to ignore changes, especially those for which we have been responsible. When human beings get concerned enough to act, there’s a great deal of harm we can undo.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, people in the USA became anxious about pollution. I am old enough to recall when New York City’s famous skyline was obscured by a yellowish-gray haze almost every day. Days we could see the Empire State Building shining in sunlight without smog were rare.The problems Chinese cities today are having with polluted air were happening for the citizens of Los Angeles and New York fifty years ago, but we took action–surprisingly enough–and eventually state and federal regulations required that technology be implemented to ease the problems technology had created.

This process was not speedy or easy, but it worked. I visit New York fairly frequently, and the sky is almost always smog-free. My now-grown children have never seen the skyline hidden under layers of air pollution.

Things changed.

Can humans undo the damages we have wrought to our oceans, air, rain forests, mountains, deserts, rivers, planet and its climate? Probably not–not all of it, certainly–and I doubt there is much we can do to stave off the “sixth extinction.” We have to accept we are part of the change, for good or ill, and to find ways to do less harm in whatever time remains to us–to activate compassion.


Meanwhile, I await the juncos. They usually arrive around the first week of December.


Dozens of views

No one has ever found the traces of memory in a brain cell. Nor are your imagination, your desires, your intentions in a brain cell. Nothing that makes us human is there.

Deeprak Chopra

Chopra is not my favorite writer on consciousness, but he does an adequate job of explaining complicated concepts to people who are just getting accustomed to questioning experience and who are beginning to be open-minded about the mind, the body, and beyond. So often, we have been raised not to doubt, told what God is and is not, and trained into beliefs about the truth. This, in spite of the common human trait of curiosity that asks: who and where are we in the world? What makes me me? What happens when I die? Chopra, with his medical background and his experience spanning several major cultures, can offer both a great deal of information and pose provocative questions to his readers.

In our technologically-obsessed culture, it is easy to turn to science as foremost authority; I happen to be fascinated by neurology and neuropsychology when it comes to consciousness, for example, but I never rule out so-called spiritual insights. Chopra’s writing often falls into the fallacy of stating “there are two views,” when in fact there are dozens of views, even among scientists. My guess (it is but a guess) is that the either/or form of presenting perspective is simpler for the “average reader”–as defined by his editor–to understand. Yet it seems to me a slight to the average reader to narrow these big questions down to “two views.”

Here’s an example, just one of many in his writing:

There are two views about consciousness in science today. One is that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain and. therefore, also an emergent property of evolution. That’s the materialist, reductionist view. There’s another view…[that] holds that consciousness is not an emergent property but inherent in the universe.

Now, I genuinely prefer what Chopra calls the “mind first” argument in which consciousness is a kind of field effect. I would not, however, suggest that matter first and mind first are the only two views today’s scientists hold; and neither would anyone else who has read a number of the elegantly-argued, well-researched, thoughtful, passionate blogs of today’s science researchers. The majority of them are atheists, but some are agnostics and some are inclined toward non-theist teachings such as Zen. Even among the ranks of non-believers (in terms of an anchoring eternal presence or god), the question of consciousness leads to intriguing inquiries.

The philosophers of today cannot ignore scientific advances any more than Maimonides could in the 12th century. Physics is a thing! as my students might put it. For the ways in which this relates to the science of neurology, I return to the framework on consciousness proposed by Douglas Hofstadter in his book I Am a Strange Loop.

What is the world but consciousness? Or illusion, in Hindu and Buddhist teachings (Maya) and, in a slightly different but related way, in Plato. And how many perspectives are there on that consciousness?

Chopra would probably say that each of us has to experience a state of awareness and interaction with whatever deep potential “god” or the creating principle offers for us. Which basically admits of not merely dozens but billions of unique interactions or perspectives…if we even agree to the schema.

goldenrod (solidago) going to seed

goldenrod (solidago) going to seed

Work vs. work

Untitled-writerOutside Academia: The Writer…


Lately, I have felt overly-occupied with my so-called day job. The work I do at the college is personally rewarding and pays my bills; I love the challenges it offers and the people with whom I work, but I am not what one would term career-driven. Even though I am employed by a university, and even though I teach (just one class a semester), in many ways–as far as scholarship, research, and poetry go–I remain “outside academia.” An interesting paradox. But if I over-extend at my office, I find less to say at my writing desk at home.

Poets Mary Oliver and Kay Ryan also spent most of their careers working at colleges without climbing the spiral stairway of academia’s ivory tower. Well-received, excellent writers–and Oliver even sells quite well for a poet–they aren’t “academics.” It is heartening to know that such poetry luminaries are, like me, not academics. I often wonder how they managed to balance teaching with writing poetry.


What I do “at work” where I earn a salary, and what I do when I “work” on poetry, seem quite separate to me, and I question whether one informs the other. I feel that being a poet does influence, though subtly, the way I approach teaching and tutoring. (It does not seem to have any influence on the way I do record-keeping, spreadsheets, or paperwork.)

By contrast, my day job at the college seems not to have much sway over my poetry; I write prose about teaching and tutoring, but my career work does not often appear as topic or substance in my poems. I notice, too, that Oliver and Ryan do not often write poems about their day jobs (both of them have retired by now–but still). In fact, I would venture that the way my day job affects my poetry is mostly as a time and energy drain.


I have challenged myself to write at least two poems a month that in some respect relate to my work with students. That prompt forces me to remember that I am not two separate beings, one at the college desk and one, pen in hand, on the back porch at home. I remain my whole self, and I place my whole self into both endeavors. I can work with that.

Clouds & trees

One benefit to living where I do is the way the sky looks in early autumn. Another is the brilliancy of leaves as they change color.

This time of year, even my commute to and from work offers moments of beauty. There are sunrises as I get ready for work, sunsets as I drive home each evening. The skies have been so glorious lately that a friend of mine posts photos on his social media account every day. Autumn arrives, and I wish I were a painter.

Cloud textures: yesterday morning, stippled so densely I could easily imagine ice crystals clustering together in the atmosphere a thousand feet above me. Bouncy puffs, striations, streaks. Today, a more consistent palette of repeated half-rounds. A stream of grey, white, and slate blue overhead, highlighted with thin bands of yellow.

Meanwhile, the trees–first the hickories going golden, then other tints. Today, I noticed the scarlet of a tupelo aflame at the edge of a field and the first big sugar maple shifting to orange. Many of the smaller ornamental trees take on burgundy hues. I can’t describe these landscapes in words! I want words to be pigments. I feel stalled. Maybe I am just making excuses for why I have not been writing poetry lately–(I don’t want to confess to writer’s block, as obviously I am writing!)


Here’s a nice video from Slate that speculates, based on recent science, about why there are more red colors in North American trees than in European trees. Click here!