Weeds in the Garden of Truth

Browsing the occasional poem or two every now and then found in a magazine or tripped over somewhere online is a different experience from reading a handheld book of poems straight through as if it were a novel. Even if most books of poems are collections of pieces previously published in magazines or journals, added to those poems a few new ones, so the purchaser of poetry feels he’s getting his money worth. Not always; some books of poems appear like a wildflower meadow suddenly erupted bloomed in one’s untended backyard.

A friend of mine, a true lover of poetry, a man of poems, who believes in transcendence by the word and the divine mystery at the heart of the rebirth of all things, but is not, therefore, make no mistake here, necessarily a poetry churchgoer, recently gave me a large bin and a bag of books, most of them poetry books. He and his wife are culling, a new pandemic leisure pastime.

Around the same time, I watched some neighbors carrying two of what appeared to be bookcases out to the curb in front of their house. In our neighborhood, such culling is a call for first come first served of items no longer of use or interest to their owners but with such value still probably somebody will swing by and pick them up.

One couldn’t, or shouldn’t, do such with an old couch or bed mattress, of course. Someone would call the local no-dumping-here police and you’d soon have a ticket for littering and who knows how many other violations of municipal ordinances one might be prey or heir to.

In any case, the neighbor’s bookcases didn’t last long at the curb. I mentioned to Susan the new development, and the next thing I knew I was carrying the two said bookcases into our house. One was temporarily temporary, because another neighbor also had had an eye on it, and it seemed only fair to share a giveaway, but it was subsequently decided she had no room for it, while Susan wanted to give it to Eric. So it sits empty, in Eric’s old, empty room, awaiting removal to his new digs, a change of venue which might have to wait out the pandemic.

The other of the two bookcases is now fitted snugly up against the back of the living room couch, waiting to see what will appear on its shelves. Not, necessarily, books. Recently, Susan asked me what she should do with my books after I die, “burn them, or bury them with you”?

I’ve another friend who claims to dislike poetry. He doesn’t understand poetry, he says, and, anyway, poems don’t do anything for him. Why anyone would feel such a statement necessary I don’t know. Something about a bad teacher he once had. Of course, only a very few like poetry. But poetry is such an easy target for the meanstruck cynic bent on pulling the weeds from the suburban lawn of literature. But such blanket statements are made with a sentiment similar to the neighbor who covers his lawn with chemicals to kill the weeds, the moss, the quackgrass. I hate weeds, he might say. Of course, only a very few like weeds. And those, not trying to cultivate a lawn.

I’ve decided to let our yard grass grow. When we moved in, but that was over thirty years ago now, the yard might still have had what might have been called a lawn. Then came the successive summers of drought when the municipality banned the watering of lawns. The grass returned to its natural habit of turning brown like hay in the late summer, dying back, but quickly recovering its green when the rains returned in the Fall. I continued to go through the motions of mowing as the green stuff reached a certain height during the Spring, but it would be presumptuous and pretentious to call what it is now a lawn.

In any case, the pandemic strikes us individually, it seems, such that some of us cull while others let stack up. Me, I’m letting my yard grass, and whatever else the yard might contain, grow. This is not to say without some thought and design. I was recently reading again about how the US suburban lawn grew into a values game, how clover came to be considered an evil, how more harmful chemicals were gradually poured annually into lawns than into agricultural hectares. And what one might do about it.

Take the lawn out, of course, as many of our neighbors have been doing for the past few years, and put in native plants, grasses that don’t need much water, fruit trees, raised beds, vegetable or flower or herb gardens. All of which we’ve done some, hit and miss, with receding lawn grass space. It’s just a yard, one of many. But I’d like to think that to a few birds and bees flying over, it’s an open invitation to a safe landing zone. And I’d like to think of the yard as a poem, inviting its critical readers, passersby, to tarry, wondering what it’s all about, what it means, looking for a design.

But like the abandoned mattress put out to a curb, there are municipal curbs on what one might do with one’s yard. To wit, locally, grass may not be let grow longer than twelve inches tall. My gardening plan is to let my yard grow (and everything else that might be in it) until around mid-July, when it begins to die back naturally, and then cut it. And cut again once or twice in the Fall, and see what comes up next Spring. Likely, more of a meadow, a wildflower kind of meadow would ensue, if properly left alone. If one applies no rules, save that of not cutting. You mean a field of weeds, the cynic replies, like in an abandoned lot.

Yards, the keeping and maintaining of yards, the cutting and trimming and reading of lawns and grasses, are, after all, like poems. Some poems are like putting greens, mowed as short and as tight and flat as the flattop of your father’s Fifties barbershop cut, with just a bit of an edge held up by a touch of jell above the forehead, a tiny wave, a ringlet no breeze will disturb, no bird or rodent will nest in. Other yards are like the beehive hairdos or the bebop poems of around the same era. We get disparate yards and poems, no two exactly alike, yet we do find types: the suburban lawn poem, all the weeds pulled or killed with poisons, really the rulebound cynic out to make a point; the wildflower meadow poem, really the lazy man’s excuse for trading in the mower for a new chaise lounge where he can kick back with a beer and read a few poems in the shade of a summer’s day, surrounded by the soft call of the wild neighborhood bugs, undisturbed by the local cat creeping through the high grass, looking for a quiet place to nap. He too will nap, this new anti-lawn man, his book of poems fallen from his lap into the tall weedy grass.

A poem, Robert Frost said, is a momentary stay against the confusion of the world. True, no doubt, for his own poems. But what of the poems that seem a momentary departure from the sanity of the manicured lawn? Or at least from the trim and clean look of the cut yard, the heads of all the weeds whacked off?

The cynic wants to understand everything, and when he comes across something he can’t seem to get, or gets no immediate pleasure or reward from, he declares it presumptuous or pretentious or fraudulent. And the casual reader begins to think, fallacy of false dichotomy, that there are but two kinds of life, two kinds of yards, two kinds of poems, and one gets by in life only by pulling weeds from the garden of truth.

But, at risk of ending the post too aphoristically, truth is weeds.

And weeds is poetry.

Sex, Catechism, and Nature

Library box books

Did He smile to make me?
The Tyger knows the answer
but waits behind the tree
while the smithy pounds
the fire to awoke cold eyes.

Did He make me to eat,
be eaten, or both, the blacksmith
beating, the heart now bleating,
dressed in cute bows,
the smithy now a ceremony?

Nature prefers wildernesses,
yet sticks to codes where one is tamed
to another, where one seems made
to ask questions, while the other
stares in doubt.

~~~

I’m in the habit of walking daily, not as committed to it as Thoreau, who said he walked eight miles through the woods daily, but most days I at least get around the block to have a peak into the neighborhood library box and see what new old stuff folks have tossed in, and this week I pull out three books, at first a delightful find, then, as I sit down back at the house to have a closer look, somewhat chilling.

I was raised on the Baltimore Catechism, and somehow I remember the first question as, “Why did God make me?” But this newer catechism reads, “Why did God make us?” A substantive change, I thought, so I looked up the Baltimore and read, “Why did God make you?” In any case, it was the answers I found somewhat chilling. Small wonder so many of us grew to question authority.

Disappointed in the catechism, I turned to Anne Hooper’s “Sexology 101,” also, I began to think, a kind of catechism in that its underlying purpose seems to be to ask and answer questions of a sexual nature, its focus though more on how we have sex rather than why we have it, and how we might disguise or diagnose or misunderstand or not even recognize our intentions from or with others. It seems humans have taken sex off nature’s grid, where there is no Q & A Following. We got to a point where no one talked about sex, but then studies were conducted, questions asked, and the rest is now academically stereotyped.

Dropping “Sexology 101,” at random I opened Michael Pollan’s “Second Nature” to page 67, where I find this: “That same scar shows up in The Great Gatsby, when Nick Carraway rents the house next to Gatsby’s and fails to maintain his lawn according to West Egg standards.” The “scar” referenced, I learn as I read backwards, is “a disgrace…where the crew-cut lawn rubs up against the shaggy one, is enough to disturb the peace of an entire neighborhood; it is a scar on the face of suburbia, an intolerable hint of trouble in paradise.” It seems someone had not read or gave no heed to their community lawn catechism: “After neighbors took it upon themselves to mow down the offending meadow, he erected a sign that said: “‘This yard is not an example of sloth. It is a natural yard, growing the way God intended.'”

I stack the new old books on the coffee table to return to the library box on the morrow. In the middle of the night I awake, a line of words in my head suggesting the three books tie together, and a kind of triptych poem emerges, which I finish off over a cup of coffee come morning.

Dictatorial Decree

Already the sun slipsSun,
filches off
at a sneaking speed.

The despot rising
declares a natural
state of emergency.

The pompous papa
prays on the instant
for a sum of leniency.

Alas, mere poet, see?
The sun protracts
your high-pitched misery.

Tonight a summer
full moon calls
a ball of lunacy.

The sun dictates the noon,
casts down dress codes
on the darling horology.

The moon denudes the day.
The night goes without
a blanket of authority.

Spring Waltz

IMG_1128The local nurseries and flower markets are loaded with starts, but I can feel the pink of the hard orange rose hips still sleeping, snoring in thorns, and hear the tiny golden broach just touching the iridescent crimson of the humming-bird’s throat.

Spring came yellowing in a green coach, wavy red-orange hair billowing out the open windows, the coarse driver spitting and spurring the horses to spirit, but the horses needed a rest already, apparently, and Spring slowed to a walk, not even a trot. Slug, slug, slug. One evening, a few weeks ago, we ate dinner outdoors – a false spring. I had lugged out the wooden table from the basement into the backyard, and we lit candles – it’s been covered with a vinyl table cloth since, to protect it from the rains.

IMG_1129And still the going is slow, the soil too wet to work, but I work it anyway, and the only birds following the hampered whirlicote, and a few Mew Gulls (never saw them before this far inland), sensing a lost trawler on restless water. Still, the apple tree is in fine form, drenched with blossoms and besotted with a few skittish bees. A little early for besotted bees, but there it is, Spring.

A Disambiguation of Living Alone

“Why are so many Americans living by themselves?” Nathan Heller asks in “The Disconnect” (New Yorker, April 16, 2012). “Today,” Heller says, “half of U.S. residents are single, and a third of all households have one occupant.” We’re in the world of the sociologist, but while this issue’s “Table of Contents,” titled “Journeys,” promises “How to be alone,” we don’t learn how to live alone: what we get is a review of books about people living alone and why, and why the number of people living alone is increasing, and we are given to reflect on what it might mean to live alone, and how living alone might relate to loneliness, and whether or not living alone really means we are alone.

I find the topic interesting for a number of reasons, but mainly because I have never lived alone. In one sense, living alone might be compared to driving alone. Rarely are we on the road alone; we are surrounded by other cars, usually bumper to bumper, and if there’s a mishap, a flat tire or a blown hose, we soon learn who our neighbors are. Likewise, unless we live alone like Jay Gatsby did, in a giant, empty mansion on acreage twenty miles out of the city, we might be able to say that we have a room of our own, but is having a room of one’s own really living alone?

In South Bay for a time we lived in a one-room studio courtyard apartment. There were six, one story apartments, connected wall to wall down one side of a lawn, shaded by a single, large pepper tree, across from six apartments down the other side of the lawn. On each side, between the lawn and the row of apartments, a small drive led down to the carports. There used to be scads of places like this in South Bay, and they were very popular. They were sometimes advertised as “efficiency apartments,” but were often referred to as “bachelor pads,” and, for a time, we were the only ones in our courtyard sharing one of the apartments.

During most South Bay “solid gold weekends,” if we were home, we might for a little while leave our door open to the courtyard, and our neighbors did, too. One day, everyone in their places with sunshiny faces, the girl in the apartment attached to our north wall let out a peace shattering scream followed by a jet like roar, “Get that thing out of here!” followed by another scream, followed by an apparition at our front door.

Her cat, the situation quickly emerging in ghastly gasps, had carried a live lizard into her apartment. Would I please help her get it out? Susan tried to explain to her that the lizard was a gift, from the cat, but the look she produced at this irrelevant and impotent suggestion quickly gave way to an aggressive look back toward me that said, “Help me, now.” Thus it was that I became for the next half hour or so an alligator wrestler, while in the end it was the cat that wound up carrying the lizard back outside.

Cats can live alone, though Susan’s never had one that would, and the lizard seemed happy enough to be scurrying back up the tree to tell his tale back home, and while I don’t think our neighbor ever left her door open again, I always felt her presence.

On Universe: A Conversation Between Thoreau and Bucky

Thoreau: “What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment!”

Fuller: “Man seems unique as the comprehensive comprehender and co-ordinator of local universe affairs.”

Thoreau: “Probably I should not consciously and deliberately forsake my particular calling to do the good which society demands of me, to save the universe from annihilation; and I believe that a like but infinitely greater steadfastness elsewhere is all that now preserves it.”

Fuller: “This is the essence of human evolution upon Spaceship Earth. If the present planting of humanity upon Spaceship Earth cannot comprehend this inexorable process and discipline itself to serve exclusively that function of metaphysical mastering of the physical it will be discontinued, and its potential mission in universe will be carried on by the metaphysically endowed capabilities of other beings on other spaceship planets of universe.”

Thoreau: “I discovered that my house actually had its site in such a withdrawn, but forever new and unprofaned, part of the universe.”

Fuller: “Coping with the totality of Spaceship Earth and universe is ahead for all of us.”

Thoreau: “The universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions.”

Fuller: “Only as he learned to generalize fundamental principles of physical universe did man learn to use his intellect effectively.”

Thoreau: “The harp is the travelling patterer for the Universe’s Insurance Company, recommending its laws, and our little goodness is all the assessment that we pay.”

Fuller: “We are faced with an entirely new relationship to the universe.”

Thoreau: “Though the youth at last grows indifferent, the laws of the universe are not indifferent, but are forever on the side of the most sensitive.”

Fuller: “Can we think of, and state adequately and incisively, what we mean by universe?”

Thoreau: “Nature puts no question and answers none which we mortals ask.”

Fuller: “But the finite physical universe did not include the metaphysical weightless experiences of universe.”

Thoreau: “The universe is wider than our views of it.”

Fuller: “The universe is the aggregate of all of humanity’s consciously-apprehended and communicated experience with the nonsimultaneous, nonidentical, and only partially overlapping, always complementary, weighable and unweighable, ever omnitransforming, event sequences.”

Thoreau: “In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

All quotes, juxtapositions around universe, taken from Thoreau’s Walden and Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth.

Fuller, R. Buckminster. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. First published, 1969. New edition, Baden/Switzerland: Lars Muller Publishers, 2008/2011 [Edited with Introduction by Jaime Snyder]. Print.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben]. Print.

Related:

Walden: From “The Pond in Winter” to “Spring”

In Samuel Beckett’s chapter of Our Exagmination Round His Factification For Incamination of Work in Progress, twelve essays looking at Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (reissued New Directions Paperbook 331, 1972), titled “Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce,” Beckett says, “Words have their progressions as well as social phases. ‘Forest-cabin-village-city-academy’ is one rough progression…And every word expands with psychological inevitability.” Thus the Latin word “Lex,” originally, Beckett says, “Crop of acorns,” progresses to “Lles = Tree that produces acorns,” to “Legere = To gather,” to “Aquilex = He that gathers waters,” to “Lex” = Gathering together of peoples, public assembly,” to “Lex = Law,” to “Legere = To gather together letters into a word, to read” (10-11).

“It is the child’s mind over again,” Beckett says. “The child extends the names of the first familiar objects to other strange objects in which he is conscious of some analogy.” It is this idea of analogy that helps inform a reading of Thoreau’s Walden.

Walden seems to move quickly toward the end when Thoreau takes us from “The Pond in Winter” chapter directly into the “Spring” chapter. But this sense of quickness evaporates in his detail of observation, for we glimpse both the speed of change, as one day he wakes up and suddenly it’s spring, and the slowness of the process revealed in the close reading he gives nature.

This close reading is found, for example, in his etymological study of leaf, which progresses in the same way of Beckett’s Lex, but with Thoreau is added an extended analogy in which man is found in and of nature, finding his voice, his language, words he needs to describe his predicament:

“The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype. Internally, whether in the globe or animal body, it is a moist thick lobe, a word especially applicable to the liver and lungs and the leaves of fat (γεἱβω, labor, lapsus, to flow or slip downward, a lapsing; λοβὁς, globus, lobe, globe; also lap, flap, and many other words); externally a dry thin leaf, even as the f and v are a pressed and dried b. The radicals of lobe are lb, the soft mass of the b (single lobed, or B, double lobed), with the liquid l behind it pressing it forward. In globe, glb, the guttural g adds to the meaning the capacity of the throat. The feathers and wings of birds are still drier and thinner leaves. Thus, also, you pass from the lumpish grub in the earth to the airy and fluttering butterfly. The very globe continually transcends and translates itself, and becomes winged in its orbit. Even ice begins with delicate crystal leaves, as if it had flowed into moulds which the fronds of waterplants have impressed on the watery mirror. The whole tree itself is but one leaf, and rivers are still vaster leaves whose pulp is intervening earth, and towns and cities are the ova of insects in their axils” (286-287).

One feels the ice melting in Thoreau’s “Spring” as an analogy for the learning of language, human language, but also the language of nature, from a frozen state of the tongue, where speech is all body language, to the cacophony of the awakened spring day, the naturalist writing it all down. Beckett says, “In its first dumb form, language was gesture. If a man wanted to say ‘sea,’ he pointed to the sea…The root of any word whatsoever can be traced back to some pre-lingual symbol” (10-11). Thus Thoreau, wanting to say spring, or nature, points to Walden.

The reading reveals much of Thoreau’s general method of explicating nature, through metaphor, analogy, personification, pun: “Is not the hand [of man] a spreading palm leaf with its lobes and veins?” (287). And the function of Thoreau’s method, its purpose, is to show interconnections, not man removed from nature, but not even man in nature, but man of nature, which allows for the view that “our human life but dies down to its root, and still puts forth its green blade to eternity” (291). This is why “There is nothing inorganic” (288), and why “We can never have enough of Nature” (297). Thoreau can trace everything back to nature because everything is nature, everything comes from nature: “The root of any word….” Recall McKibben’s questions in his introduction: “How much is enough? And How do I know what I want?” (xi). The ambiguity, if any remains, is nature’s, not Thoreau’s.

Related:

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].

Now is the Science of our Discontent: E. O. Wilson and the Sacrifice of Science

Why do humans sacrifice for one another, sometimes even giving their lives so that others may go on living? We are an exceptionally selfish species, if measured by our propensity to hoard, to covet power and control, to manipulate and coerce. Scientists appear to be part of the species. Nature published last August a new paper by E. O. Wilson, with Marin Nowak and Corina Tarnita, all of Harvard (Wilson, now 81), but we wonder what’s become of the peer review process when after publication 137 scientists see fit to call Wilson a heretic, signing a letter chastising Nature for publishing his argument. Of course there’s disagreement – no disagreement, no argument; no argument, no need to publish results. One would think the scientist would be the first to understand this. So what’s going on here?

Borrowing from the medical peer review scandal, about which we posted last October: In the Atlantic’s “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science,” David H. Freedman (November, 2010) said, “Though scientists and science journalists are constantly talking up the value of the peer-review process, researchers admit among themselves that biased, erroneous, and even blatantly fraudulent studies easily slip through it.” The motive appears to be funding. If you are a scholar at work on research on kin selection, it’s possible that Wilson’s breakaway article renders your work null and void. Yet most disturbing is the suggestion that many of the scientists signing the letter of discontent have not even read Wilson’s paper, or, if they have, have not studied the mathematics addendum, or if they have, have not understood the math. A Boston Globe interview (April 17, 2011) with Wilson, interestingly titled “Where does good come from?,” discusses the letter of discontent and his revised theory. According to the Globe, Richard Dawkins said, “It’s almost universally regarded as a disgrace that Nature published it.” That’s not a rebuttal; it’s an insult. Wired Science’s Brandon Keim summarized the support that does exist as well as opposing viewpoints: See “E. O. Wilson Proposes New Theory of Social Evolution.”

The crux of the matter was usefully stated by Robert B. Laughlin in A Different Universe (2005): “The pig-headed response of the science establishment to the emergent principles potentially present in life is, of course, a glaring symptom of its addiction to reductionist beliefs – happily abetted by the pharmaceutical industry, which greatly appreciates having minutiae relevant to its business worked out at taxpayer expense” (173). Laughlin defines emergence this way: “Emergence means complex organizational structure growing out of simple rules. Emergence means stable inevitability in the way certain things are. Emergence means unpredictability, in the sense of small events causing great and qualitative changes in larger ones. Emergence means the fundamental impossibility of control. Emergence is a law of nature to which humans are subservient” (200-201). Further, Laughlin explains, perhaps, both the medical research scandal and the dissing by so many scientists of Wilson’s paper: “A measurement that cannot be done accurately, or that cannot be reproduced even if it is accurate, can never be divorced from politics and must therefore generate mythologies” (215). What Laughlin is talking about is science that shifts in focus from explaining things based on “the behavior of parts to the behavior of the collective” (208). And that is precisely the direction taken by Wilson’s new paper.

The threat of Wilson’s change in focus is to the dominance of the individual, the single gene as well as the single person. When humans come together, the resulting behavior of the group is something different from the behavior of each individual within the group. The same may be true of genes. This is what Dawkins can’t tolerate, for the focus changes from competition, which his work is bound to, to cooperation, which is probably an emergent phenomenon. If we are to have the truth, it appears that someone in the scientific community is going to have to make a sacrifice. Perhaps E. O. Wilson already has.