Tuesday, January 26, 2010

St. James Infirmary

I didn't know, then, that I was standing in a Louis Armstrong song, a life expiring on a slab. I didn't know where the boomerang of the circular drive would land the body, the procession to the next life.

I did know atonement. Or knew that it was coming.

And then rebirth.

At the same time, a calm. A change. A shudder to slough off the ashes. To make something of my fuck up, if that's what it was.

Standing inside the St. James Infirmary, looking toward the steps I wouldn't walk up again, the blues song had already been written and well trod.

But blue wasn't the mind's mood. I wasn't looking back at the miles on my running shoes. Or the Old Testament. I wasn't thinking about the rock in the woods where I sat reading Beowulf. I wasn't worried about conjugating verbs or dress code or hair length.

I wasn't looking back at the life ending..."Let her go! Let her go! God Bless her...where ever she may be..."

I was looking forward. Consoled now by Satchmo.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Saturday Morning


I can see out two windows from my favorite seat in the house,
the corner of a room we put laminate flooring in,
on the corner of a couch with a reading light.

It is generally dark, between 4:30 and 6am, winter, and
there is steam rising off a cup of coffee in one hand
with a book in the other. I'm the only one up and there is
a short stack of books on a makeshift bench of a coffee table.

The books determine the view out the windows. They propel
the mind, the couch, the house, often times so much that
I have to put them down, and the coffee,
and pick up a notebook and pen and scribble
thoughts that I didn't have yesterday or this morning
when I woke up and that I won't have tomorrow
or any other time but right now.


This morning it is light out. Anna is up with me, bouncing back
and forth between writing or working in her reading practice books
and creating a tyrannical funhouse world for the cats.

"When did Pop die?" she asks, remembering my grandfather
who died a couple years ago.

Her memory of him is as an old man with a great heart and laugh
who couldn't see or hear or walk well.

My memories of him span thirty-some years--as chauffeur,
as recovered alcoholic, as lover of the Baltimore Colts and
the Evening Sun paper and Robert Service poetry.

I remember him with me on the ice of Town Creek in Oxford,
with most of the town after a winter storm from the late 1970s.
It's a view of Town Creek I'll hold as long as my memory allows,
one of my favorites, though I've only seen it that way once
and not again since. He helped make that memory for me.

Thirty-some years of memories I have of Pop. And yet
he lived to be ninety. My time with him was a fraction of his life lived.
A part of my life that I haven't even come to yet.

Anna has turned the TV on and asked for a drink.
She has moved on with her morning.
Mine is still with Pop.

Photo by David Stevens, taken at our wedding, June, 1999, Holy Trinity Church in Oxford, Md.

Friday, January 22, 2010


I was running along the Strand, the river, in Oxford, watching a plane fly over. Something about how I saw it--the act of perception--stuck with me and played out over the remaining miles to be a central thought in a philosophy paper I was writing at Washington College. I don't remember whether the paper was about Locke and Hume and idealism or Aristotle's metaphysics, but I remember coming inside, short-breathed and jotting down thoughts so I wouldn't forget.

I didn't bust my ass running that day and don't normally, but I completely understand the adage that Heraclitus (an old school Greek philosopher before Socrates--pronounced SOE-CRATES like Bill and Ted's) was known to step into a well for looking at the stars while he walked.

I think we know when we find those activities/engagements/passions that are inspiring and life affirming for us. Running and philosophy have always been two of those passions for me; those things that seem to pull and charge every aspect of my being.

I remember lying back on my bed at 14 or 15 and looking at the walls and ceilings of my room, which were invisible beneath 100+ posters and pages cut out of skateboarding magazines. Skateboarding defined my life and was my most active pursuit for a number of formative years. And that day, in my room, I was thinking how cool it would be to be still skating in my 30s, 40s, 50s. To not lose touch with who I was in the world at that time. So there's skateboarding.

We've gone over the advent of poetry and writing here, with history class and Carl Sandburg, saying simply now that writing and poetry more than meet the criteria.

When our daughter Anna was born, her left arm was a little slow to get moving. The doctors weren't overly concerned--this can happen to a C-Section born baby--but they noted it, and I went with them as they rolled her down the hospital hallway into a room to check her vitals and her arm. She didn't care for being prodded and was screaming (those who know her can attest to her lung capacity) over the doctors and nurses, until I talked to calm her. When I spoke she fell immediately quiet and moved her head and unfocusing eyes toward my voice. She stayed quiet while I spoke and the nurse commented that she knew and responded to my voice (read to your babies in bellies). Homegirl (Anna, not the nurse) had the keys to the car from there. I knew from that second, and holding her looking out our hospital room window that night as she slept that there was nothing cooler than being a dad. I've thought so countless times since.

If you read Gary Snyder you know his fascination with the "tribe." Those folks who seek you out and you seek out to surround yourself with and grow tight with who are like you. I've been a tribesman for some time. For seeking out the other kids in a small town. For making your way through school and being rooted in a place like the Eastern Shore. For finding that crew at boarding school or college. And since living and working in Easton, I've found that same step with the Rise Up Runners, who have shaped my life now in so many ways beyond just running. With writers' groups that seem to come together organically. With a beer club recently begot. Given time and being open and responsive, groups or tribes of kinsmen and kinswomen of people like me (like you) seem to come together of their own accord. The "Field of Dreams" build it and they will come idea, maybe.

So that's my spewing, semi-articulate rant of some of those things/activities/passions that are life affirming for me. Running, philosophy, skateboarding, writing and poetry, being a dad, finding and hanging with tribes. What are they for you?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Reading Merwin & Small Towns

I have to read Merwin in the mornings
when my mind is clear and there are no noises.

Reading him is like driving through a small town:
blink and you'll miss the universe.
No pressure.

I know from small towns, growing up in one
sans stoplights. Bike or skateboard could traverse
the town we knew by land and water.

What I learned about art came from
a fast-talking black man in the park
while we sat eating a box of Pop Tarts.

He expounded on photography and frames
and perspective. He poured himself into
a garage sale guitar, but had no business
or time for cars.

There was no school in the town where
I learned everything (not that I know anything).

Small towns and Merwin are maybe the same.
They contain everything. They hold the universe.
Blink at your own risk.

Monday, January 18, 2010


You know what's a funny word? ...'Bush,'
says our four-year-old who's been up since before 5 am.

It was supposed to be a morning for the body,
of endorphins, out the door at 5:40 for a run.

Instead, it's been a morning of the mind, as I'm carried
with Komunyakaa through his coming of age
and hear the restless city speak through Paz.

It's been a morning of the heart
as Ava grows tired again, and says so,
and falls asleep against me, hugging her baby
and blanket, the only sound in the room,
her quiet breathing
filling my soul.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Billy Collins, Poet as Crack Dealer

I see you Billy Collins. Standing alone in your room. You, the plainest named of all poets.

I have been meaning to sit down with you. To chat. I know you dig jazz. But I've been busy. You understand. And there are writers with fancier clothes and shinier cars. And then I heard you called the "Oprah of poetry."

Dude. I'm a guy. I'm walking a tightrope of toughness with poetry as it is, which I've got to balance with bare-knuckle boxing, raw eggs with meals, and driving a Ford pick-up. I can't consort with any kind of Oprah, for crissakes!

So you sat. And I wasn't looking for you. Then I was exchanging some winter-inspired poems back and forth with folks and an old friend sends over, "Shoveling Snow with Buddha." And that opened the door.

Zen. In the momentness, clothed in the everyday. The infinite revealed in the mundane. Collins' pyrotechnics take place beneath and above simple words and form that ambles through the room with its feet slightly above the floor.

Damn you Billy Collins and your wry, easy smile, knowing you're peddling aesthetic and philosophical crack rock, inviting us in easily and then spinning the room like a bottle.

Have you seen the stack of books I've got going? I don't need another poet to read. And an oxy-moron like a "best-selling poet?" Nothing against best-sellers, I generally just try to find my own way, slightly off-center.

Well, if you can't beat 'em, to hell with it, I suppose. What time does Oprah come on?

Monday, January 11, 2010

First Questions

The car locked in a parking garage, walking now, the sidewalk cracks tick by under the stroller. The grown up minds are focused on the mall.

"Why did God make us?" Anna pulls from the air or her heart
since there is no graffiti anywhere to that effect. She is five.

"You mean like us--you, me, mama and Ava? Or us like people
and the world?"

It is important to understand the question.

"You know why I think?" She offers up.

"Why Anna?"

"I think God made us because he was lonely."

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Of Trees and Caves

"When the Bough Bends," oil on canvas, by Susan Applegate, used with permission.

Maybe the artist lives his or her life seated out on a limb. They are at risk. Not safe necessarily, it can get dicey. But that's part of it. The risk is worth the perspective. Or it isn't and you move closer to the trunk, so the bow doesn't break and baby won't need therapy.

Maybe the artist turns Plato's cave on its ass. Calls bullshit on the shadows and walks into the sunlight. Where does he or she buy shades for that kind of trip?

Maybe the artist stands to the side. Outside. At the edge. Whether it's in a tree or a cave. It's not a privileged perspective, just different. The distance. A key to sanity is being able to traverse it. Bridge it. And to realize that, though you're paying dues, a different perspective doesn't put you in an exclusive club. You're still accountable.

A jazz writer wondered why up-and-comers aren't smitten by Charlie Parker the way they used to do. He blames sound and technology. He's probably right (though I still dig your licks, Bird).

Maybe though, history teaches lessons like people do. Neither tolerate egos greater than or equal to talent. Maybe the moral of the Bird is don't be a dick or people will leave you on your branch or roll a boulder in front of the cave and there you'll sit.

Maybe perspective isn't enough on its own. Maybe you still need a kinship. A connection with others and all. A sense of play. Love, but that's another rant.

Maybe the key to branch-sitting or sun-staring is having a way to deal with the wind blowing a gale or the light full on in the face. Being able to move freely about the branch, allowing it to bend but not break. Or finding a shady spot to scope the sun. I don't know. But sunscreen and a hat are always a good call.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

"I Can Eat 50 Eggs." or Touchstones

"Sometimes nothin' is a real cool hand." I knew I would remember that line as soon as I heard it. The line where the title of the Paul Newman film, "Cool Hand Luke," comes from. Luke is playing cards, and wins the pot, with nothing in his hand, and when he is ball-beaten for it, that's his response.

We've all got personal touchstones that we come across. Things that when we see, hear, read, experience, we know are going to stick with us, become part of us, make us better, or in some way help define us. I've been thinking about some personal touchstones of late, and thought I'd throw some out there. The list is incomplete, non-exhaustive, not in order of importance, or alphabetical order, or any real kind of order for that matter, but here are some:

1. Cool Hand Luke - as mentioned above. A film where Newman makes life interesting on his own terms, in any situation or circumstance, and rises above with grit, moxie, imagination, a sense of play, and perseverance. Never mind the ending, etc., this isn't a film review, just some of the things that make the movie a touchstone for me. I dig a character who will come out of nowhere with a statement like, "I can eat 50 eggs."

2. "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" - At present, I only have three tattoos. One of which is an engraving originally by William Blake (though he didn't do the ink on my shoulder). Blake's poem blew the doors off what I thought poetry was or was supposed to be. There was verse, there was prose, there were the "Proverbs of Hell"--this was substance, questioning, free form. This was life-changing. And after suffering through the strict and sterile (for me) Neoclassicism movement in Gillin's Washington College class, to have Gillin lead Romanticism with Blake, and coming into The Marriage, signaled to me that this was the proverbial shiznit. And Blake set me up for Wordsworth and his Prelude, which I sat alone reading and re-reading in awe. But Blake and The Marriage were the game changers.

3. "Paul's Boutique" by the Beastie Boys - This was the first album (cassette, actually) that I ever went to the record shop (Records Plus in Easton at the time) and bought the day it came out. I was more into punk, hardcore/skate music, and reggae when "Licensed to Ill" came out and never really caught that album the same. But I distinctly remember Eric Abell and I rolling into Records Plus, buying Paul's Boutique, then playing it while working on a painting job, an Ocean City trip to the Econo Lodge, and then that album becoming one of the backbones of our high school soundtrack, and indeed the soundtrack of my life. The pop-culture allusions, historical/Biblical references (Shadrach, et al), diversity of musical styles, this album never gets old for me, I still catch new stuff after 20 years of listening, and it works on so many levels.

4. Fallingwater - I took art history at Chesapeake College. Sitting in the dark, as Professor Plumb (Clue, anyone) flipped through and lectured about various paintings and artists, it was all blurry. Until Fallingwater took the screen. Blending a man-made structure with the natural surroundings intrigued me. But the idea that the family really dug this stream and that Frank Lloyd Wright turned around and built the house over top of it, so that it flowed through and then out of the house, completely thrilled me. I had never given much thought to architecture, and seeing those slides led me into Wright and his work and sparked a new interest. I have had subsequent discussions with artists about his work and its lacking humanity or a human touch (can't say I'd want to live in his houses), which has also been a point of departure on what I hope to do with my own chosen art form, but again, Fallingwater is a touchstone for my thinking here.

5. The Transcendentalists - I didn't accomplish much of anything at N.C. State, academically speaking. Just stringing together enough credits to help me towards an associate's degree and lead me to Washington College. But it was in Raleigh, while I should have been at class, that I really dug into Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman. Straight spirit-chargers all three. You can't read "Walden," Civil Disobedience," or "Song of Myself/"Leaves of Grass," and not be amped. But one that hit me hardest is Emerson's essay, "Self-Reliance." Here's a taste:

"Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind."

Soul food for anyone who considers themselves "a loner, a rebel, Dottie."

6. "Kind of Blue," by Miles Davis - I put this on in the truck a few days back and let it play for a few days. That is a ritual that can accompany any mood, mode, or muse. It's an album that can fill or empty me, inspire, relax, and invigorate. I won't carry on, but it's an album that's downloaded onto every computer I work on, ipod, and vehicle. Indispensable, aesthetically and spiritually.

7. Buddhism - I grew up Episcopal. Spent some time studying the Old Testament at St. James, but was never able to get any organized religion to really resonate with my being, soul, whatever-phrase-you'd-like-here. I've always leaned more toward philosophy than religion for Life questions and searching, but studying Buddhism at Washington College gave me a deep insight as to how to synthesize those two disciplines. Authors/thinkers like Thich Nhat Hahn and Chogyam Trungpa have been worldview changers for me; and the (not frequent enough) practice of meditation is both a sanctuary and a thing of beauty. If only I could be better about regular practice ;) Either way, Buddhism has been a big touchstone for me, even giving me new eyes with which to look at Christianity and other world religions. It has also given me a better lens through which to encounter East-meets-West writers, including Robert Hass and Gary Snyder.

8. Tom Robbins - leaving Washington College, I was set for graduate school in Philosophy, phenomenology and continental philosophy, specifically. When we opted out of that plan, I found a job working at an art museum. Higher learning and art both lend themselves to a high seriousness. Through a writer's group, I got turned on to Tom Robbins as a writer I would dig. Dig I did. I tore through every one of this books, in random succession. His stirring of great story telling, philosophy, history, religion, art, sex, cultural taboos, into a pot with heavy doses of humor and idiosyncrasies, was exactly the slap on the ass of high seriousness I needed at the time. I didn't realize you could laugh out loud while spooning down your existentialism. My voice and aesthetic and what I look for and expect out of my favorite writing was changed. Period. "Jitterbug Perfume" is likely my favorite TR novel, but all of them together form the touchstone for me here.

9. Paul Rand - You've gotta love anyone who busts out the Color Forms logo. I've always been a visual learner. To ace French vocabulary tests, I would write out the list of words a few times and then be set. If I hear something important, probably gone. I've got to take it in visually. Working at an art museum, in visual communications and design, and with great graphic designers has made me look at the world altogether differently. Logos and branding, sure, but also the way information appears on a page or website, the concept of negative space, the impact of words from what is not around them, or in relation to an image, illustration, or placement on the page. And one of the first graphic designers and writers that hooked me was Paul Rand. If you don't know design, you still know Paul Rand. From the IBM logo, to Ford, go look at the website dedicated to his life and work and it is unreal how many cultural icons he has had a hand in creating. And if the subject grabs you, his writing on design is equally illuminating.

10. Robert Hass - Hass built the house that Blake laid the foundation for. He's the guy still writing today, that I come back to again. And again. His books "Sun Under Wood" and "Human Wishes" I read and re-read. And when I try to think I am giving him too much credit and building him up in my mind, when I go back and check those out again, he pulls it off all over again. He pulls off East-meets-West, nature writing, prose, poetry, self-reflection, and there is always something deep there, along with the form and language itself. Hass received some recent props, winning the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his book "Time and Materials." Every book I have of his has a prominent place on my book shelf and inclusion on my short list of aesthetic shaping works.

So there's ten, since that's a nice number for lists. I can't call it a TOP ten, but I couldn't build a top ten list without including a whole lot of those as touchstones. But The Clash's album, "London Calling," a cat I am reading a lot lately, Franz Wright, Bob Marley's album "Exodus," William Carlos Williams, Gary Snyder--I'd have a hard time making a definitive ten. In part because touchstones are added and sometimes shifted for me over time. But you know them by the fact that they help define who you are, they affect or change you in some way. They are a part of you. So what are your touchstones?