Poem Commentary

I wrote this poem in the half light of my hospital room on October 18, 2020. The day after Theo’s third year birthday. Symptoms had arisen–dizziness, nausea, fatigue. They sprang up each day around noon. I waited a week before going thru the emergency room at Saint Luke’s. After waiting for hours for a doctor, decided I had better stay the night and get scanned early (was about a month out from the scheduled scan). What—I couldn’t imagine—if not tumor growth, was I experiencing? And the hospitalist on duty reported a turn for the worse!

In Room N – The Indianapolis Review

Lili picked me up with the kids that noon. It was snowing—in October! and the deployed snowplows on I-70 taking exit after exit. I sat at the kitchen table in the house we’d moved into in July and wrote:

We ourselves are the big activity. – The Indianapolis Review

You say because I say. You were saying

because I am saying. Now that I am

dead, I am said. Already spoken.

Those lines were to be my last. It may sound melodramatic, but with a 14.6 month median life expectancy I have had lots of time to prepare mentally for my death. I do feel I occupy at times a liminal space between life and death. It makes less sense that I am alive than dead.

Nevertheless, the unimaginable has happened. Everyone agrees it’s not new growth but radiation necrosis. Over the summer I noticed an increased deficit, a definite loss in the functionality of my left hand that’s deprived me of the ability to play guitar and challenged my ability to unload the dishes, turn doorknobs, lift my daughter out of the crib, etc., but this is probably due to the scar tissue as well.  

A Question of Reputation

I have recently had to draw a clear line between A) the business of poetry (the po-biz) and B) the dynamic life I have in language when I am composing poems. An analogy from my religious upbringing would be, on the one hand, A) your relationship to your church; on the other, B) to your God. It’s really that dramatic. Churches are congregations of people who share a common belief: which, in this analogy, would be that poetry is worth reading, and therefore writing. It has value. But, for the poet, the value it has has to transcend the value we place on it. If I let every editor’s rejection of a poem inform my feelings about the poem, I would be helplessly at the mercy of editors. If, on the other hand, I let nothing outside myself inform my feelings, I would soon alienate myself from any literary world or community: a crackpot.

A friend recently suggested that I don’t care about the reputation of the journals, or magazines, where I submit. There is some truth to this. As a church member, I might care about my reputation in the church, but as a believer I must only care about my relationship to the source. When I receive the miracle of a magazine acceptance, it’s because some one else out there and I are able to share the same moment together in language, and that’s incredible! How many moments do we really share with complete strangers in the grocery store, gas station, or public library? In poetry, we have this possibility for community, or communion, quite often actualized. When there’s a disconnect, however, and an editor sees things differently, we should not be discouraged, but we should learn to appreciate more greatly and be more greatly grateful for our acceptances because they are that much rarer and more special.

As devoted as I am to my writing practice, I cannot ignore the socioeconomic conditions under which I participate in the worthy endeavor of magazine publication (as writer and editor). I am quite simply unable to afford submission the fees that are charged by a good many “reputable” magazines. My wife resents enough the amount of time and energy I allocate my literary activities and shift away from the rearing of our two small children. There may be financial support for bare necessities in the U.S. of A but spiritual necessity is not a thing. In light of this, I have had to adopt a pragmatic, democratic attitude toward my “B” life as a literary production (as opposed to my “A” life as a literary producer): Any one out there who believes, as I do, in the value of poetry enough to create a platform, as a so-called “labor of love,” and apply for grants, beg, borrow, or steal, to keep submissions free, and good poems available, is a friend of mine, and I will submit. I will support with what skill I have those magazines.

A Retrospective

As I iron out the layout and finalize the cover of my forthcoming collection of sectioned poems that derive inspiration from the stories of fellow GBM patients in the online brain tumor community, Bad Astrocyte, a poem surfaced as artifact and testimony to my long-term survival and the prolonged investment I’ve made in this personal project, this writing my way through cancer (as if there were an other end to this tunnel. There isn’t). Here’s a glimpse of the new cover:

What I want most to say about Bad Astrocyte is that I would not have been able to write it any sooner. In shock when diagnosed in 2014, I couldn’t even google glioblastoma without falling headfirst into depression.

So, here’s what I found today: Feb. 4, 2019. A hidden poem, unrecollected by me, tucked under these two that I’ve collected once or twice in books: Cameron Morse – The Poetry Village.

Ketogenic Diet

In the end, I eat nothing.
I starve myself to kill my cancer.
Closing my eyes, I listen for the cheep
of baby sparrows, eager,
insisting on new life. I could sit here
for a thousand years and never see
beyond this moment, this sweet breeze
of heaven, sunlight glancing
among the amputated branches.

In the meantime, I live by faith,
faith in the ketones I lick off my fork
and spatula, faith in the omelet
it takes two hours to slurp and swallow.

I infuse spoonfuls of olive oil into my blood.
The omelet that floats atop my plate
like a pontoon boat in the healthy natural fat
its eggs cannot absorb is my rescue.

At Chinatown Food Market,
I throw up the yellow shell, clumps
of mushroom, the leafy slime of spinach.
I retch and up comes the coconut
oil you blend into my coffee. Dumpster flies
flurry on the loading dock.

The manuscript referenced, Sinophile, I’d nearly forgotten about, too, so long ago scraped. Rejected by my first publisher, Glass Lyre Press.


Rewatched Paterson (2016) the other night. Still can’t think of another movie that does accurate justice to anything like what it’s like to be a poet. My favorite quote by Bashō bears repeating, always:

“In this mortal frame of mind, which is made of a hundred bones and nine orifices, there is something, and this something can be called, for lack of a better name, a windswept soul, for it is much like thin drapery that is torn and swept away by the slightest stirring of the wind. This something in me took to writing poetry years ago, merely to amuse itself at first, but finally making it its lifelong business. It must be admitted, however, that there were times it was almost ready to drop its pursuit, or again times when it was so puffed up with pride that it exulted in vain victories over others. Indeed, ever since it began to write poetry, it has never found peace with itself, always waving between doubts of one kind or another. At one time it wanted to gain security by entering the service of the court, or at another it wished to measure the depth of its ignorance by trying to become a scholar, but it was prevented from either by the unquenchable love of poetry. The fact is, it knows no other art than the art of writing poetry, and therefore it hangs onto it more or less blindly.”

Paterson is about a poet bus driver and the “secret notebook” in which he pens his poems. Adam Driver’s name is Paterson in the movie and like Bashō he has “taken to writing poetry,” implying a beginning, a fledgling poet. Like many newborn poets, he is infatuated with one of the old giants of the tradition: in this case, predictably, William Carlos Williams. Whose preoccupation with the everyday Paterson emulates. His poem comparing different brands of matches exemplifies this down-to-earth approach in the starkly “honest,” or plain, style of poets like Jack Gilbert. It’s astonishingly direct in a dreamy, Romantic sort of way. The poet, and his life, deeply intertwined. This blur of person and poem we find in poets like Frank O’Hara, whose name comes up in the movie.

Years ago I would have described this as “authenticity.” Alas for the dead god of the authentic. Even as far back as 2009 at Calvin I had Klatt saying artifice, it’s all artifice, and my first great love affair with a contemporary poet, Franz Wright, ended when I found out just how many drafts he had to tweak to create that slapdash spontaneity his poems are famous for.

I recently wrote a book in the Paterson mode. Well, I composed it on my iPhone reading my way through Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Suzuki Roshi. The result was probably too personal to publish, though I have been mining poems for imagery. Too personal turns out to be a thing with respect to those that are near and dear, their secret lives, the way in which you are yourself inextricably culpable.

The movie reminds me of an innocence that precedes much exposure to the work of other poets. 2010-2011 I lived and taught in Yantai with my father. I proceeded in a procedural way through the following poem: A) “There is a chair beneath the cherry tree,” B)

“Velvet red
upholstery peeling
off the yellow foam,”

C) “There are no cherries left, and no one in the chair.” D) “Two emptinesses, therefore, … (This part varies, draft by draft), E) “I would sit but, look, the seat is wet with August rain.” Like the poems in Paterson, this one of mine is minimalist and very commonsense, this is, logical. It has this inexorable logic that pulls you through the poem and there’s something very comforting about these baby steps. My own, though, lie far behind. And I want to forget. I want to get back to my notebook and the good things about today.

Feel I’ve fallen into the gulf between myself and my work.

The Sound of Metal

Last night finished The Sound of Metal on Amazon Prime and it’s been resonating more and more deeply on hindsight today: Story of a heavy metal drummer who loses his hearing, joins a deaf community against his will, and rejects his deafness by way of surgical implants.

When separated from the rest of the world as a member of the deaf community (with its vowed silence and monastic overtones), Ruben learns to sign. His sponsor Joe requires only that he learn how to be deaf by sitting each morning with a pot of coffee and writing in a notebook, a practice not unlike my own.

Despite becoming an integral member of the commune(ity), Ruben’s desire to pick up where he left off with his band leads him to the operating room for implants that bypass the ear canals and stimulate the brain producing a metallic imitation of sound. This disappointing replica lends the movie’s title its second meaning: We go from heavy metal to the scratches of neuronal frequencies that fall short of and fail to do justice to the whole throbbing beauty of natural hearing.

The crux of the movie is the following, Joe’s reaction to Ruben’s choice: “I wonder, uh, all these mornings you’ve been sitting in my study, sitting, have you had any moments of stillness? Because you’re right, Ruben. The world does keep moving, and it can be a damn cruel place. But for me, those moments of stillness, that place, that’s the kingdom of God. And that place will never abandon you.”

Hard to imagine a more eloquent description of what I have enjoyed in poetry than that. Rae Armantrout’s complaint that “the nonnarrative, declarative sentences of many language-oriented prose poems leave little room for the experience of silence” (Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, p. 429). Creeley’s idea of poetry as “that place we are finally safe in” where “understanding is not a requirement,” too, speaks to stillness as the great bounty of poems: a kingdom protected from that “damn cruel place” where we enact ourselves, a kind of sanctuary.

In the last scene, Ruben removes the staticky hearing apparatus and in total silence turns to his surroundings: A silent steeple, skateboarders, gleam of sun in the treetop among contrails. With him, we enter a stillness, Roethke’s “imperishable quiet at the heart of form,” as if subject matter had melted wholly away. And the credits roll for a moment in that imperishable quiet. What a movie.