Outside Willow Bell Pub

In the far backyard
a patch of wildflowers
spreads perennially –
Bellflowers, I think,
Peach-Leaved Fairy Bells
(I looked them up),
but they don’t come
when I call them in.

I suppose some scrub-jay
dropped them here
to bring me a bit of cheer
giving up beer beyond Lent.

The flowers don’t need me
to tend or water them,
in June, tall and prolific,
invulnerable. Late Fall,
they’ll droop adrunk,
in the pubside gutter.

Wilderness inspired,
I buy a big bag of seeds
at Bi-Mart in early Spring,
but of a google broadcast,
only a few sprouted,
and not as proudly
as the Petticoat Bellflowers.

Maybe the bluebirds
picked up those seeds,
and even now drop them,
one by one, somewhere
over a distant biege sea.

Tales of Summer

Summer creeps up 
on us a dusty
horny toad
nowhere to go.

The squirrel
of spring pool
ball path
soon still.

The mellow hibiscus
the rose of Susan
afternoon cold tea
winter up in the air.

A California scrub
jay scolds a crow
as I put marigolds
out on the porch.

Kevin tinker off
and me hitchhiking
Vista del Mar home
from Junior Lifeguards.

At Refugio Beach
Bruce catching
lizards in the rocks
along the creek bed.

Seems odd to fall
asleep still light
out and wake up
still in light.

Soon too hot
to hold this
device for words
of summer morns.

Notes on Sebastian Barry’s “A Long Long Way”

It was sometime over the recent long Memorial Day weekend I received a worn copy of Sebastian Barry’s “A Long Long Way” (2005), a gift from my old friend Dan, first person blogger at Tangential Meanderings at WordPress. I had mentioned Barry to Dan after reading a New Yorker piece about the Irish author’s writing (March 20, 2023). I had never read Barry.

I dug into “A Long Long Way” as into a trench somewhere along the Western Front. Barry in his technique seems to take the encyclopedia entries that summarize events and rewrites them using imagined characters, though apparently the Dunnes were part of his own family. My interest in WWI grew, and I read that a few years ago a trove of diaries written by soldiers during the war was digitized:

Many older people in Britain knew veterans of World War I. But the diaries provide a different level of detail, says Michael Brookbank, 84. On a recent day, he was drinking a coffee in the archives cafeteria. He had come to learn more about his father.

“My father very rarely talked about the war, and I think that is common with most of the veterans of the war,” says Brookbank. “The experiences that they went through and the conditions that they lived in were just something that, unless you were actually there, nobody could really comprehend.”

“From The Trenches To The Web: British WWI Diaries Digitized.” Heard on Morning Edition, 23 Jan, 2014. Ari Shapiro. Read here.

That idea of what it might take to comprehend, and of what point there might be to talk about it, about anything, one might add, incomprehensible to another, plagues many veterans. And in the Army, one does not step out of place, let alone speak out of place. Who does tell the stories then? And who will listen with comprehension?

The reader has no privileges. He must, it seems, take his place in the ranks, and stand in the mud, wade in the river, fight, yell, swear, and sweat with the men. He has some sort of feeling, when it is all over, that he has been doing just these things. This sort of writing needs no praise. It will make its way to the hearts of men without praise.

New York Times book review of “The Red Badge of Courage,” 31 October, 1896.

Crane, like Barry must have, had read accounts of those who had experienced the war in some way (Crane had not), and used them to create a truthful but fictional (a psychological rendering) account. The danger here, for most writers, is the chance the result will sound like a second hand telling. Also that it might affront those who actually did the fighting, or who in some way, psychologically, if not physically, experienced the war. But that begs the question: does a distant war not create an experience for the moms and dads, the girlfriends, the boyfriends, the folks back home, reading the headlines, the news, the letters from the front? And does not that experience test the dichotomy of mind and body – the psychological is physical.

In his blog “Time Now: The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in Art, Film, and Literature,” Peter Molin, himself a veteran and writer, furthers the discussion of who can write what with what authority:

The question of whether a writer who hasn’t been to war can write well about war also intrigues me. Gallagher cites Ben Fountain as the example par excellence of an author who never served in the military, let alone saw combat, but who can still convey what it is like to be a soldier. I love Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, too, but have noted that Fountain evades extended description of battle. Is that a place he just didn’t feel comfortable going? Brian Van Reet, a decorated vet, portrays two horribly mangled veterans in comic-grotesque terms in “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek.” Would a civilian feel as comfortable doing so? Is there something wrong with someone who isn’t disabled portraying characters who are? Both these cases reflect the issues of credibility and authority that permeate discussions of war writing.

“Veterans Writing,” Peter Molin, 29 September 3013.

Sebastian Barry, in “A Long Long Way,” gives all his characters the credibility of war experience, even those who have no comprehension of what they’re going through, of the dehumanizing effects war tattoos on one’s memory, and a tattoo becomes a story:

‘And what happened to her, Pete?
‘That Belgian woman, Pete, that you – just like the sainted Germans did, just like all those stories we were told, Pete, what they did to the women.’
‘Don’t be so holier than thou, Willie. You’d’ve done the same.’
‘What happened to her, what happened to her?’
O’Hara said nothing for a moment.
‘All right, all right.’ But he didn’t seem able to say it for another few moments yet. Then he nodded his punched face. ‘She died of what had happened to her. She was bleeding all those hours. She was not treated right. She was fucking torn to pieces, wasn’t she? And she died. And we tried to save her.”
‘You think so?’
‘It’s just a story, Willie, a story of the war.’
‘You can keep your story, Pete. You can keep it.’


Willie’s girlfriend’s (Gretta) father shares a test he uses to qualify one’s experience. It has to do with knowing one’s own mind. Gretta repeats it:

‘We have to wait, Willie.’
‘For what’ he said, a touch desperately.
‘For the war to be over and you to be home and you to know your own mind. There’s never any sense in a soldier’s wedding, Willie.’


If Barry’s characters and scenes seem stereotyped it’s because we’ve seen them so often. There’s not much of a plot. Boy goes to war, not really understanding why, maybe comes back, maybe not, still not understanding why. All the arguments are pandered down the ranks, where, in the end, they don’t hold water. The grunts do the work, the dirty work, for which they receive insult and despair. Barry’s approach gives the reader a kind of historical fiction without the overt history, such that the Easter Rising happens real time, with Willie and his cohort working laboriously trying to figure out what’s going on and why and how they should feel about it, what side they should side on, a process of getting to know one’s mind.

Who is the narrator? Not exactly Willie, neither can it be Barry. Some figure hovering over the gas clouds, looking through, picking out a figure here or there to zone in on. There are many to choose from. But the main characters are Willie, his sergeant-major Christy Moran, Willie’s father, Willie’s girlfriend, Gretta, Willie’s sisters, a few of Willie’s platoon members, Father Buckley, a Catholic priest who makes the rounds through the trenches trying to clean the spiritual and mental messes (which he does a fair enough job of). And Pete O’Hara whose single act of betrayal does more damage to Willie than anything the other side may have thrown at him.

The theme is irony, though it might seem somewhat backwards – the characters seeming to know something the reader does not, in spite of the reader’s armchair advantages. The book is composed of set pieces (gas attack, up and over charge, furlough – and the results thereof, field boxing match) and the action is described in realistic detail, too much detail some readers may feel. There’s humor, the excellent cussing of the sergeant-major, sarcasm and wit. On the whole, maybe it’s all a bit romantic, though, so full of purple vestment, not maudlin, but still sentimental, like the customs of Memorial Day, even if that day has yet to come anywhere in the novel. The dialog is brisk and easy and rings true. The point of the novel, if the reader must have one, is probably the Irish need and desire to have and know its own mind, which might also explain the need for every narrative trick, the deceit and betrayal writ large and small, the pawn-like movements that when stacked one upon the other make up the family histories that add up to a country’s history.

The title comes of course from the song, used to march by:

Up to mighty London
Came an Irishman one day.
As the streets are paved with gold
Sure, everyone was gay,
Singing songs of Piccadilly,
Strand and Leicester Square,
Till Paddy got excited,
Then he shouted to them there:

It’s a long way to Tipperary,
It’s a long way to go.
It’s a long way to Tipperary,
To the sweetest girl I know!
Goodbye, Piccadilly,
Farewell, Leicester Square!
It’s a long long way to Tipperary,
But my heart’s right there.

Paddy wrote a letter
To his Irish Molly-O,
Saying, “Should you not receive it,
Write and let me know!”
“If I make mistakes in spelling,
Molly, dear,” said he,
“Remember, it’s the pen that’s bad,
Don’t lay the blame on me!”

Molly wrote a neat reply
To Irish Paddy-O,
Saying “Mike Maloney
Wants to marry me, and so
Leave the Strand and Piccadilly
Or you’ll be to blame,
For love has fairly drove me silly:
Hoping you’re the same!”

Jack Judge, 1912.

A Light Touch

Light illuminates nouns 
brings persons places
and things into the field -
light is a verb that creates.

Too little light we see
ghosts waddling to and fro -
whole life on the sun
is a bath in orange juice.

Light her touch when she
lits down and makes light
work of your worries and woe -
light she comes light she goes.

Wheels within Wheels

Thomas Merton, in his preface to his collection of essays titled “Mystics and Zen Masters” (1961-1967, The Abbey of Gethsemani, 1967 FS&G), suggests a closeness in claims of those across cultures attempting contemplative lives:

The great contemplative traditions of East and West, while differing sometimes quite radically in their formulation of their aims and in their understanding of their methods, agree in thinking that by spiritual disciplines a man can radically change his life and attain a deeper meaning, a more perfect integration, a more complete fulfillment, a more total liberty of spirit than are possible in the routines of a purely active existence centered on money-making. There is more to human life than just ‘getting somewhere” in war, politics, business – or “The Church” (viii).

Entering the Church, apparently, does not guarantee a contemplative future. And when Merton asks, “What, exactly, is Zen?” (12), he already knows there can be no satisfactory answer. Writing in the 1960s, Merton was in tune with his Catholic audience under the influence of John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council, which called for an aggiornamento, a modernization, bringing the church up to date.

Merton even suggests Zen, having lost, like Christianity, its Medieval “living power” (254), is in need of an updating. Today, we might ask, What, exactly, is Christianity?

In Christianity the revelation of a salvific will and grace is simple and clear. The insight implicit in faith, while being deepened and expanded by the mysticism of the Fathers and of a St. John of the Cross, remains obscure and difficult of access. It is, in fact, ignored by most Christians (254).

Write with Calmness

Recently, I’ve been writing on WordPress using the Jetpack application installed on my cell phone and tablet, deprived of a real keyboard and downsized to essentials, but able to pull out the tool and continue playing around with a post throughout the day, adding, subtracting, dividing, etc., on the go (to the extent I ever am on the go these days, where go might look very much like stop). Writing is a disappearing act.

The laptop, my usual tool for developing and publishing posts, as get up and go as the laptop is, is not as flexible and doesn’t travel as easily as the phone or tablet (for one thing, the laptop batteries are down to a trickle, and it must be left plugged in to work). I thought the recent posts from the cell and tablet were displaying wysiwyg (what you see is what you get), but a couple of faithful readers let me know not so. Yesterday’s post, for example, a short poem titled “A Bout,” apparently appeared on their reading devices in a pale white font on a fog colored background, difficult, but not quite impossible, to read. By Jove, I thought, that format (if that’s what it’s called) accurately describes the theme of the poem, but it was unintentional. And the pale white font on fog colored paper was an improvement – posts previous to that one had not appeared at all, those same readers had informed me; under the title, on their devices, the post was blank.

I assumed the problem was user error, and set out to discover how I’d messed things up so, and in the process found (under a three dot dropdown menu at the far top right of the WordPress screen) “Options,” one of which is labeled “Distraction free: write with calmness.” In other words, we have a choice: write, and consider yourself a writer, or fall down the convoluted rabbit hole of blocks, styles, editor this and that, and things Jetpack related – a dichotomy that is of course distorted, unfair, and entirely inaccurate. Well, maybe not entirely. Like the guitarist who trades in the acoustic classical guitar for an electric guitar and a panel of guitar pedals, the writer who incorporates a full spectrum of technological gimmicks or tools, as opposed, say, to simply using pencil on paper – um, one senses a loss of calmness. And yes, I know I just split an infinitive, but I do so in perfect calmness. It’s impossible to split an infinitive in Latin, which is where the absurd rule comes from, but this isn’t Latin class. Well, maybe that last bit is not so calm, after all.

And the point of writing is to becalm. If you find writing does not invite calmness, you may not be actually writing, but are engaged in some other method of spending time – not to say any one way has more value than another. Writing usually has some purpose, which is to say occasion, argument, intended audience, none of which would seem to invite calmness. Still, the act of writing, if one is to find the sweet spot, is a path toward calmness, invites calmness – because once under way, all else falls off. One becomes, indeed, free from distraction.

Swā, this post is being written on the laptop, as an experiment to see if the problems don’t correct themselves on the readers’ devices, thus isolating the cause to Jetpack on the cell and tablet. Let me know in comments below, if you’d like, what you see, or don’t see. But remain clam. I mean, calm.

A Bout

From boutique of night 
blooming flowers
warm vase water becalm
deep dank well
emerges the princess
of night pale white
speechless as the moon
rose petal full

Not alone her soul
attached to a host
epiphytic life dangling
from an oblong root
where the frog appears.

In Line at the Store

Several lines form, 
one circles
round the roasted chickens,
always seems faster,
the line and the fowl.
A young woman juggles
a basket full:
apples, milk, Cheerios,
snacks, beer;
her kid giggles jiggling
the magazine rack:
Harry and Charles, UFO's,
AI, and Elvis alive
up in a penthouse in Las Vegas.
The unharried clerk
tells of his night
at the opera,
in no particular hurry.
It seems some nut
upstaged Rodolpho,
running down an aisle
reciting some politico
manifesto about
what who knew? I mean, I'm like,
the clerk says in a sing-song
Mimi, she's vulnerable,
this last with musicality
with a grimace,
and this crazy cat wants
all the attention.
You know what I mean?
I mean, we're all wounded,
but this is Mimi's moment.
Know what I mean?
And all in his line nod yes.

Horseradish and Bullpucky

Finally, something that seems to make sense, 
a fan on a steaming simmering summer eve.

The end of poem taste is nigh as books go
bye-bye; words are for the ear, not the eye.

Something stinks under the high court cloak;
politics as usual, they say with a grimace,

In Hell, guests gather around a diamond
water chalice and pray to an abominable

snowman holding a bident for catching fish,
and talk about changes in the weather.

Umbrellas at the beach make sense, but
the wind sometimes turns them into kites.

The dissolution of cities and foot shopping,
uncollecting things, faster baseball games.

The idea of a university wants refreshing;
it was never all-for-one one-for-all anyway.

When your politicos, priests, and professors
are too full of horseradish and bullpucky,

time to restore the toolbox, relax, wait
out the set, and keep watch for the outsider.

Unplug the guitar, walk, skip the commercials.
Listen to the song sparrow building its nest.

Learn to note and trill and adapt at will,
take advice with a grain of salt, not a pill.

Life is not a brand played to a jingle;
it wants not bleach to wash, but a bit

of white vinegar, not to denature critters,
but let hair down and smell the oils.

But don't dichotomize or literary like
criticize. Be as natural as horseradish,

but learn to spot bullpuck before you
step into a pile of it.

Out Comes Dad

occasionally counting daughters 
before work in the basin,
new construction, often the sun
splinters boulevards - ocean
calming down

wave objects chess dadas
moving to and fro across
the orange continental divide

oakum cold drink drizzle
obloquy causes distress
a drooping doubt befalls
and he turns around-the-clock
to return repeatedly again
and also a loss alas against
all odds closed doors

outside claustrophobia dwells
went looking for him doodle
circled the divine deforestation
of the three carob trees

what opportunity California
5th Degree Knight
in his off hour dandy dress
origin of the ritual lost
on his sons

obviously the office cabana
dude suffered outrageous
cactus disconnect.

But it was Mother's Day
oasis came dear
angels sisters and mermaids
all paused as out comes Dad
bestowing flowers fruit
and yum tum hugs and kisses.

Seven-spot Ladybird

I suppose most thought I wasn’t worth
attacking or eating, little did I advertise
my wares, my curly hair neither surfer
nor hodad coifed, but you found
my blue eyes and scarlet climbing
blaze secret, and up you came,
up the bridle path of my ways
and means, touching lightly
the joys of my trips, the sorrows
of my passes and losses.

My father was a shipbuilder beetle,
my mother a washerwoman.
They met on a seaside wharf,
watching a parade of schooners
pass. He was an expert stone
skipper. She was as quiet
as a sail in a doldrum.
Any more about them
is but weakly supported,
but they both loved aphids.

We came of age in a time
of flowers, and we learned
to imitate the tactics of fight
and flight, neither voracious
nor temperate, rode tides
and winds, and though we
grew hungry, we did not eat
one another, but signaled
warnings and hopes, lights
and loves, reasons of being.

You came up my legs crawling,
spreading your wings, tickling,
the crops ripe, the weather warm,
the music in the distance
peaceful, the guitar strings silk
wound. And you taught me
the rhyme can be changed,
and anyway most ladybirds
went unpublished, the more
sweet this one I saved for you.