An Industrious Enchantment

You open your late Aunt Charlotte’s bottom desk drawer and find there two sheaves of manuscript, one her unpublished novel or collection of verse, the other her journal. Which would you read first? And which would you read if you only had time or opportunity for one?   
Most of us would choose the latter, I think, for good literary, and non-literary, reasons. Ask anyone what makes a diary, or journal, literature and most likely you’ll be told . . . well, the quality of the writing . . . and perhaps as an afterthought: The writer. And most of the literary criteria then offered in elaboration will serve equally well for describing the aesthetic virtues of fiction or poetry. That’s because those aesthetic qualities originate in those genres, which have no other things to purvey in the pleasure trade, no other means to claim our attention and justify their existence. 

But a journal—and letters, too, in their own way—comes into being under an altogether different, and crucial, understanding with contingency. It starts anywhere, commencing from the brink of ‘never having been,’ and it remains on the cusp of ‘nothing more’—until it founders at any moment or halts, most often without conclusion. It’s unjustified, formally organic, if not technically boundless then potentially vast and inchoate by powers of ten and, despite the classification systems of scholarly explainers, a singular artifact; and it’s first of all not a ‘work”. . . but an apparatus, an instrument for an outpouring of occasions, for a faith (or faithlessness) enacted and a betrayal inscribed. Home to the crux, the crisis, the reversal . . . to the vision, the reckoning, the search . . . habit, subterfuge, practice, refuge, workshop, playground, deception; it’s a display of stamina and urge, perhaps a type of substance abuse, spurred by an industrious enchantment. 


A journal is automatically authentic, even if it seems a strained attempt to present an idealized or desired self.  It demonstrates being in time. The life is made into an emblem (a pageant of emblems) to gain standing, separated for awhile, from the general vanishing. The manuscript is the object of this activity, and its form arises, if anywhere, in the cadence of its maker’s application. The writing itself is always an event, a train of events, as it is not in fiction and very rarely in poetry. Thus, the poignancies of the journal’s white spaces. And the preeminent business of the journal’s focus, its patterns ofpreoccupation, what it notices (which is how we presume to know its author). The journal may have revisions but no drafts, and it cannot help but reveal. Its openings haunt. It lets anything in—and almost nothing. Nearly everything escapes it, and it gives as many second chances as the writer is willing to pursue. It always plots against its maker—it’s only plot, really—and no more than when she has something to hide. It shows how she enslaves herself and her imagination. Sooner or later it must mortify her.  

By these lights, a fiction is flat. Even if composed over twenty years, it seems to have written itself in a moment. It doesn’t occur, doesn’t allow us to witness the phrases instructing the writer about the plenitude of existence, nor the sentences, in their shapes, becoming relics of motions and the paragraphs, bits of chronological bone. How much a vividly rendered scene or reflection provide the illusion that the journal is capturing reality!—as though details compel existence to crowd in and pay attention to the enormities between entries. If fiction or the poem can make us feel less alone in time, the journal, or diary, invite us to feel even more admitted to otherness, to the reputed privacy of one. 


Aunt Charlotte’s journal, your parent’s, your lover’s. The tender little books begun by a child. . . or those taken on by dark days, going finally blank with the mustering out of the army, returning from mission, coming at last ashore, getting well and checking out. The great artist’s diary, the public figure’s, the criminal’s. Each is a performance—a performed privacy, perhaps—for no more than the immediate audience, the diarist herself . . . and maybe her future self. Perhaps her future self and another. 

How much does she reread as he goes, how much does she add or delete? She talks to herself, to another, to no one in particular; she plays with words, enjoys a tone. Typically mentioned are the maladies and bodily functions, moods (usually dire), quick exchanges of dialogue (witty, one hopes), audacious generalizations about places and people (again, witty, one hopes) and gossip. Perhaps she‘s trying to make herself enviable to herself or, like those Puritans of old, trying to elect herself behind her own back. But even in chronicling her creative struggles, she’s documenting more and other.

We readers seek in this the tang of the real and the confirmation of an illusion. We’re delighted by a journal’s prescience and its reassurances that others are extraordinary, or banal and twee. By instructing us in another’s solitude, it confirms our bereftness and the glory of our self-absorption. We can also forget ourselves in someone else’s suffering, in their incredible historic circumstances. We can ask ourselves what we would do in their shoes, which may be like asking no one. 

Or perhaps we read on because the journal doesn’t ask much of us, ostensibly—only that we pay more attention to its silences and leaps. How little a person changes in a year or two, or three—yet there’s room for the sudden conversion and for contradiction. 

That said, the journal with literary qualities urges us to rehearse better the dress of our thought, to perceive more and consider these perceptions for the register, and abjure petite problem-making and solving, flower-sniffing despair, the Me poisoned by uninspired leisure, polisher of official feelings.

These are confidences, but also confidences from the language to us, that may well exclude the author.


Intrusion is inherent in all this, built into the journal’s very nature. Its maker knows that its originating exclusivity, and the purposes stemming therefrom, will be violated, if it survives. And that’s where the literary comes in, if it comes in at all. Literature is determined by strangers. In the end, it’s their possession, if anyone’s. The “violation” of making the journal public leads to the possible transmutation of its status into literature. Its intimate functions must be superseded by helping strangers abide in the credible while partaking of those literary qualities we all know so well. By definition, such private operations and agendas don't exist in fiction and poetry. When reading a diary we are always reading invaded text (and, if published, one that has been dispossessed of its original integrity and character through editing, excerpting, the elimination of dates and such). The reader’s incursion (even if sought out—hired out, as it were, by an author publishing multiple volumes while alive) is part of the native interest. Such never occurs in fiction and poetry. These genres have no contingency to witness. There’s no outside to the text, of which we, the readers, are a part and a participant. 

So back to that drawer. Whatever your choice, Aunt Charlotte’s journal has always had a future, a potential doubled life. Her novel or poetry book—no. Even more than the journal, fiction and poetry are unjustifiable. A diary has existential standing; Aunt Charlotte was here, and if it is boring, well then, that’s that. But a dull novel or poem insults everyone’s interest. Her fiction may find its way to publication, or not. It may be forgotten; it may be mislaid, tossed out, even destroyed, but that journal—almost never! Not knowingly. By its very nature, it’s always been waiting—even in fear—for its second reader, the invader. However circumscribed, however neglected or obscure, its afterlife is a public life. It waits for that, just as its blank page once sat before dear Aunt Charlotte, waiting for her to explain herself, imperious as the unburdened can be. Just as it could be nothing, in the end, without her.

Published by Assay Journal

Nonfiction Fact and Poetic Fact

In December 2002, a justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was castigated by his colleagues for delivering a legal opinion in quatrains.*

The case involved a woman who sought damages from her estranged, much older fiancé because he had lied to her about the nature of her engagement ring (not to mention its value). The majority of the court denied her claim, declaring that she, given the difference in their ages, had relied foolishly on his assurances.

The One Strong Flower I Am

They are runaways, throwaways, “problem” teens; culls from meager schools and emissaries from questionable homes; bearers of “emotional disabilities” and lurid autobiographies for which they are medicated elaborately and counseled when possible; products of biology, family, community–of fate, impure and hardly simple.

They have landed here, in the group home school–where Sarah, their instructor, and Bob, her assistant, try to give them enough structure and knowledge to function in the working world beyond graduation. In the middle of this task, for two hours each week, I am to teach them to write poetry.

Surprise Parties

The essential character of most adult surprise parties is that they rarely result in the intended surprise. By design or blundering, the guest of honor almost always discovers the plot in advance. He then faces the diplomatic challenge of ignoring the signs that something is afoot and feigning astonishment when all is sprung. If he’s learned of the plot without the planner’s apparent knowledge, and if the planner is his intimate, his situation grows elaborate. Perhaps, his friend, or lover, has intended that he find out about the impending party, with the notion that he will savor the anticipation. Or perhaps the proud contriver wishes him to be extra touched by how much has gone into the contrivance.

Distances of the Afternoon

A pencil moves across a page, the line trailing from it perhaps a horizon, though it’s too early to tell. Monteverde, Costa Rica, surrounds the line, and me, who happens to be holding the pencil while somehow also being held by it. In our current age of statistical enthusiasms, you’ll find it asserted that the average pencil contains a line thirty-five miles long, or of about forty-five thousand scrawled words. But it’s also too early to tell how average this pencil might be—or so I hope. I’d purchased it at the village co-op, with a small box of even cheaper colored ones—student pencils—and I brim with the elation of a rank beginner.


One day, a Shetland pony appeared in our back lot, by the fence where the woods once stood. My father, no animal man, tethered it there. I’d heard that other children craved such a creature to the point of tears, and a beating.

It was beautiful, with its blond bangs and thick back.

I watched it for awhile, after coming home from school, where I’d used to hide in the trees when we played Ghost.

In three days, a man in a pick-up hauled it off.

Thirty years later, I tell this story at the shelter, to a girl who’s run away, like that pony. I tell it to get close to her as she rolls damp clay from “art hour” over the poem she’s penciled out but will not read.

She doesn’t care how many “participation points” the staffer on duty might take away. Her poem, imprinted on the clay, rolls over itself, jumbling.

“You ain’t lyin’, are you?” she asks, looking at me at last, her voice pathetic without its kicking.

I want her to hear her poem.

I see the panicked whites of the pony’s eyes as the man approached it with sugar and a bridle, the man with a whip in his cab.

Published online at Superstition Review


Aphorisms seem meant to prepare us. But what are we being prepared for, if not the past (which the present may resemble if the aphorist is wise, or his admirers believe well enough)?

Aphorisms are thus secret farces of influence—for how can anything prepare us for the future we cannot know (unless we insist on resemblances and mistake them for knowing)?

The older the aphorism—and the more handled (the more revered)—the more pedagogical it becomes, and the more its rueful, unspoken warning becomes We fail so much alike.

We adore them most when they instruct us on shortcomings to which we have not yet been introduced. We are invited to witness how eloquence might console a grave error.

But, alas, aphorisms have almost no poetry to protect them—which is the greater part of their bravado. When we no longer feel the aphorism can make us into its callow charge, it is murdered by its own humiliated cunning. At the very least (which is to say, most often) the puissant aphorism will tuck in the shirt-tail of one’s style—only to show that neither tailoring nor nakedness makes the person.

Though quotable, an aphorism is better whispered to oneself—and even more effective when it becomes merely a tone that unsettles one’s incitement. (The second instance is probably a cumulative effect—hammer blows on a lock that secures, perhaps, nothing.)

The great aphorisms are absorbed finally—and made companionable—on the tenth encounter. Prior to that, we merely nod yes. Perhaps aphorisms engage experience we can only recognize by repetition. Their subject might then be what we forget because it is most crucial.

One tries until one is tried and has no defense: We are gathered by our truths, which convene, at last, to smite us.

Published online at Superstition Review

You, There, Listening

You, there, listening
For the poem to speak a truth
Useful for the nights when one, surprised by a diagnosis,
Lies planning his funeral through vengeful tears—
Forgive it if it speaks of the gold dust of spring
Seeding the laces of boots.
Poems are as impolite
As they are perceptive, as beside the point
As the actual. Their gold sticks to unsuspecting hands
Tying and untying two ordinary knots
Then grasping other hands and objects.
What else can we offer
But our secrets and their failed understanding?
The surprised one lies alone with his vision—forever.
He craves comfort, while the poem strives to imagine him
Laboring to realize those knots will outlast him.
A poem’s wilderness can make you mad that way.
So that, stuck with it,
You go to him, maybe,
And try to give what no poem can.

Love Might Utter the Only Verse That Wouldn’t Insult the Dying

With each other, let’s be simple.
Place a blossom on the tongue.

With each other, let’s be ample.
Shut that history without a mark.

Let’s be humbled like all temples.
Fire tugs the air around us.

With each other, let’s not gamble.
Let’s hold back, this time, from Fairness.

A tangled string of keys. And their locks? The ants ignore the stale trap, streaming toward some cryptic sweet.

Don’t sit with me. Don’t let me argue further. Leave me to the ink bottle and the morning mowing men, their necks studded with sweat-fed pimples, barking instructions over full-throttled motors.

Leave me to the stratagems of sinister confessors—self-improvement!

Get on through your best work and forget us until nightfall.

The gladioli droop.
Out they go!
And their murky, malodorous water!

No mourning our transience in theirs
(Sorrow would be inescapable)
Though they nonplussed us,
Blazing in the farmers’ market bin.

Remember when doubting my love for you,
For anything, proved to you
Our passion was intelligent?

Your face withdrew into unbroachable darkness—
As though down a well, or mythic cave—
Yet remained
Untroubled as we spoke.

We must take our nerve elsewhere.

That man on the beach flying the two-inch kite
Pulled from a cigar tube:
He’s our muse.

And that tire tread along the sand
Like the spine of an ancient fish:
A fossil
Until the next wave.

The hour can’t say how it becomes a day, a day a life, those gestures that are ours, not ours to observe only.

Love might countenance our gift, if we have one. We might hold its body in the night and thus the darkness. We might turn around at last and see that this is what the forgotten looks like, though we are not yet forgotten—ever taught, ever groping, crowd of ourselves in the gold wind.

The rose opens to our room tossed by loving.
It forgives us jobs we’ve had to part for.
What does it know about care before clippings?
Beneath the slot, mail sprawls—silence without us.
We’ve caressed the python at the children’s zoo.
We’ve swum in rain, the old us.
We keep our dalliance with perfect solutions.
The rose craves tact, its radical priest
Executed by partisans and resurrected by rhetoric.
We overthrow its piety, overthrowing ourselves.
Who can tell it? We dressed like mortals and drove away.

You Get to Hold

You get to hold Lisa twitching through dream, you
Get to hold what she can’t remember—no matter
How many fly-bitten acolytes, borne
To ancient teachings sequestered in sorrow,
Try to cure disillusionment with greater
Disillusionment. The courageous murderer
May burn his way into the future
Nightmares of survivors, but you’re allowed to leave
The gifts given in rage, the yellowed pities,
Beside the charred walls of just causes;
You’re allowed to forget true and false still exist
And that life isn’t simpler then but labors differently.
Fear may be the oldest part of us, lonely
With the dogma claiming now is Monday, 3:14 a.m.,
But you—you’re also possessed of as much peace
As the generations in an inch of limestone,
And might be a little thankful not to see
A pieta in each kindness, and to think no question
Beauty stays though every beauty fades. Stay awake
A while longer, then, to her hip against your hand;
Hear the obscure summary in her next breath—
Only a god suffers with understanding,
And you’re spared that trouble now. Be still.


A blossom spirals outward over the meditating eye. Dog licks himself. Forgive. Dog sneaks onto his master’s chair.

Purple rabbit’s foot, why is there thought? Wind leans back in a rocker. No symbol fits a life.

The futility of houses simply passing for houses . . .

The clock speaks to the horizon, the pigment to the keening, the ocean to the footprint, the reckless window to the stone—

of the wilderness in law, of the casting off of futures, of the flowing in the granite, of the virgin deck of cards.

Now ten thousand time capsules lie buried worldwide. We walk between ourselves, with our bitter teachers and their wisdom. Love,

your letters never finish me. That’s our correspondence. Anything is possible but not everything.

Beneath the tripped-over, dislodged stone: a socket of black earth. A man repeats himself in different ways. Hear? On the other side of the wall, the rake-rake of a skater working up the hill toward Big View.

Is there a thinner, emptier thing than I

when I crave to be the brightness defining my shadow?

Pebble and moss on a bed of blued deadwood: each thing intricate, unique and general, combined admiringly—

yet a graceless wish,
missing sun and cloud, the god arrangement (mountainside).

Beauty comes to ash, morning light to ferns. Night teems with “What if?” Are you, too, stuck awake?

I split a green walnut: clear juice and milky meat, the odor of citrus. My love rolls on her back, her soles to the sky, black with earth.

Her talk draws talk from me I can’t draw from myself: When such wings are torn off, friend, wings are granted.

Falling asleep, I startle awake—to stop my fall from the first tree. A million years pass in my opening eyes, though I see now my dead father’s face.

Days without my lips touching hers, though we talk, we tease and argue. Loveseats in the park speckled with bird droppings. A girl kneeling on a skateboard in the street.

Where are you now, who lay across my shoulders like a plush fallen arras? You,

catastrophe. The elm doesn’t mourn the grove that once surrounded it. In the channel, anchored ships are still leaves in the current.

We must treat each other lightly, lightly,one thinks, alone, under island pines, We must, we are such weight.

Now the candle flames all lean one way.

That hat. That lamp. That hidden ticket. Each object has its moment to cry out: You’ve aged while I’ve aged, you’ve forgotten while I’ve remained, you don’t know about knowing. Come back, dust, to me, the one thing!

The tombs in the ground where archeologists sought gold . . . now refilled, brimming with gravel . . . And I have all these fine emotions!

So puzzling and remote, the beauty of wisdom—the offered kiss ignored on the landing . . . and at the Truth Commission hearing: laughter in the spokesman’s gravity. See the bottomless record, the plummet of our funding . . .

Climb higher, says the moment. Descend, replies the watch, and pack your things to leave.

A speedboat in the pasture. Birds mating in freefall. Every god weaves.

Pity the poet whose poems have been loyal.

It’s not your death I carry, love, but my idea of your death—which your death will strip from me should I live to meet it.

Twins greet a man between planes. One gets a kiss. The river, gray with filings, glitters in the clear morning. How can we not trust appearances?

Most of us is here in memory: the hurricane in a forest leveled, sawed for logs, cured or burned green.

Satisfaction? The tender hand loyal to here and here, the third superfluous coin, three peers and one superior acknowledging . . . Then comes sweet renunciation . . . and the hearts that could be ours: black, unquarried granite; an opened safety pin sewn into a jacket lining . . .

Says the roar in the cells, the baton in the mountain, the gold dust in the rampart, the hammock laced by vines:

Dignity should possess you like the wind, its cherry blossoms falling into litter, lifting.

They throw their mattress into the pool. Out with old sex! They watch it undulate seductively, sinking, sinking . . . too still on the bottom.

I write a reasonable verse to acknowledge the unreasonable—the evil that flatters me in this ambition, the truths I miss to make my point.

Hear the voice from under the rubble? May it interrupt the muse.

The alchemists believed metal came from a seed, the desire for one thing to come from another.

A bare branch blocks no view with character. Four crows then perch suddenly upon it.

Slow-flying moth, so small, insistent—my fierce clap blows you free of harm.

Someone’s talk and someone’s silence: the shadow where the campfire stopped
crawling along a twig.

Of the graft of me to you, of now to there, we believe you know all and try to tell. Thus
your light, moon, and these balconies.

Published online in Blackbird.

To L

”This morning will take some song.”

Long ago, life wrecked the dark’s perfection. Yet that perfection can return,

though words pass through us now like light through a leaf,

and one has to imagine each thing

like a kissed face. Butterfly wings: eyelids of the dead

that flutter open

in a daydream—

a flight that makes one wince . . . .Vanishing doesn’t tell the truth longer. Nor

the next day with its wobbly table at the filling station where self-servers

pump their own. The lover’s sorrow hovers

like a glass globe above a spike, treasuring within it a fragrance. Does

anybody really think their touch will send it plummeting,

shattering a prison? On the other side of an opened window, night is smaller

than the fear of those who veer among its corners. Time rains on each place

and the moments run off and pool where? If we could understand the

existence, say,

of just nine frogs staring from a rose . . . we who ruin the body’s limits (so

lamented and inspiring) . . .

The waters rise through waters, sink through waters . . .

It’s not accurate to say we take the fury that diminishes us, or that it’s mixed

with the daily dirt caking the fingers stuck in childhood’s mouth. The

meanings of human life are never disappearing,

only disappearing for us who can’t change with them.

We’ve studied, but who can prepare for the cores turned inside out, for our

own shadows

plunged into rapids yet remaining?

Published online in Ascent.

Enemy Infant

The red coals pouring into the infant’s mouth
The infant’s mouth in the raider who pours

Nothe mother gagged and forced to witness it
Then raped and shot the milk of her murder

The coals of revenge and the clans of clarity
The separatists the occupiers the old seeking wise silence

The infant’s father staring out from whetted blades
The widower waiting tables for the nation of his exile

The infant grown up see how tall the night marching
See the gangs ground into rebels to season distant headlines
Azaleas bursting from palace barricadesNo

Noonly the infant
The infant and its wail was there ever such a peace

Published online in The Poetry Center at Smith College.

Character in Nonfiction

You can renounce food, shelter, sex—but you cannot renounce character because, at the very least, it is the expression of the body in time. This is why, in the most immediate sense, character is destiny (as the Greeks thought) or character is the threat of fate (as the more optimistic contemporary social scientists assert).

The word “character” derives from the notion of the memorable, what impresses itself on memory. You cannot renounce making an impression on others if your living flesh is present. You cannot flee presence, however much you may travel out of the body. And neither can a character in prose avoid making an impression (if a character in prose would ever have such an aspiration) because character’s presence begins with the first word put down: that incarnation.

Books Beside Themselves (Nonfiction and the Double Life of Facts)

The human mind is by nature spiritually responsive, but since it is unavoidably burdened, one must, in order to gain access to it, use as a substitute something that does not have a mind.
—Shen Gua (11th century), commentary on The Book of Changes

The poet manifests his personality, first of all, by his choice of subject.
—Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel

A. L. Kennedy’s On Bullfighting, Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire, and J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine take up quite literal—and not overly eccentric—nonfiction topics: the lore and logic of a cultural institution, the mystery imbuing a terrible misadventure, the doings of creatures in the wild. Each book reports brilliantly, in exemplary detail. But each is driven to its compelling engagement with the facts (or the putative facts, as some would have it) by an ongoing, intimate crisis its narrator suffers. This traumatic state is explicitly revealed to varying degrees, with Kennedy’s book being the most forthcoming and Baker’s the least. But it is most fully and compelling manifest in the factual content’s becoming a metaphor for the narrator’s quandary. Thus, the nature of these books is doubled. Each is nonfiction report and memoir by inference. The latter is not so much subtext as “side-text,” if you will—personal narrative of distress, in distress.