Archive for December, 2007

Notes on the Spring Holidays (excerpt)


In a world where each man must be of use
and each thing useful, the rebellious Jews
light not one light but eight–
not to see by but to look at.

-Charles Reznikoff

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Meditations on the Fall and Winter Holidays
New Year’s

The solid houses in the mist
are thin as tissue paper;
the water laps slowly at the rocks;
and the ducks from the north are here
at rest on the grey ripples.

The company in which we went
so free of care, so carelessly,
has scattered. Good-bye,
to you who lie behind in graves,
to you who galloped proudly off!
Pockets and heart are empty.

This is the autumn and our harvest–
such as it is, such as it is–
the beginnings of the end, bare trees and barren ground;
but for us only the beginning:
let the wild goat’s horn and the silver trumpet sound!

Reason upon reason
to be thankful:
for the fruit of the earth,
for the fruit of the tree,
for the light of the fire,
and to have come to this season.

The work of our hearts is dust
to be blown about in the winds
by the God of our dead in the dust
but our Lord delighting in life
(let the wild goat’s horn
and the silver trumpet sound!)
our God Who imprisons in coffin and grave
and unbinds the bound.

You have loved us greatly and given us
Your laws
for an inheritance,
Your sabbaths, holidays, and seasons of gladness,
distinguishing Israel
from other nations–
distinguishing us
above the shoals of men.
And yet why should we be remembered–
if at all–only for peace, if grief
is also for all? Our hopes,
if they blossom, if they blossom at all, the petals
and fruit fall.

You have given us the strength
to serve You,
but we may serve or not
as we please;
not for peace nor for prosperity,
not even for length of life, have we merited
remembrance; remember us
as the servants
You have inherited.

Day of Atonement

The great Giver has ended His disposing;
the long day
is over and the gates are closing.
How badly all that has been read
was read by us,
how poorly all that should be said.

All wickedness shall go in smoke.
It must, it must!
The just shall see and be glad.
The sentence is sweet and sustaining;
for we, I suppose, are the just;
and we, the remaining.

If only I could write with four pens between five fingers
and with each pen a different sentence at the same time–
but the rabbis say it is a lost art, a lost art.
I well believe it. And at that of the first twenty sins that we confess,
five are by speech alone;
little wonder that I must ask the Lord to bless
the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart.

Now, as from the dead, I revisit the earth and delight
in the sky, and hear again
the noise of the city and see
earth’s marvelous creatures–men.
Out of nothing I became a being,
and from a being I shall be
nothing–but until then
I rejoice, a mote in Your world,
a spark in Your seeing.

Feast of Booths

This was a season of our fathers’ joy:
not only when they gathered grapes and the fruit of trees
in Israel, but when, locked in the dark and stony streets,
they held–symbols of a life from which they were banished
but to which they would surely return–
the branches of palm trees and of willows, the twigs of the myrtle,
and the bright odorous citrons.

This was the grove of palms with its deep well
in the stony ghetto in the blaze of noon;
this the living stream lined with willows;
and this the thick-leaved myrtles and trees heavy with fruit
in the barren ghetto–a garden
where the unjustly hated were justly safe at last.

In booths this week of holiday
as those who gathered grapes in Israel lived
and also to remember we were cared for
in the wilderness–
I remember how frail my present dwelling is
even if of stones and steel.

I know this is the season of our joy:
we have completed the readings of the Law
and we begin again;
but I remember how slowly I have learnt, how little,
how fast the year went by, the years–how few.


The swollen dead fish float on the water;
the dead birds lie in the dust trampled to feathers;
the lights have been out a long time and the quick gentle hands that lit them —
rosy in the yellow tapers’ glow–
have long ago become merely nails and little bones,
and of the mouths that said the blessing and the minds that thought it
only teeth are left and skulls, shards of skulls.
By all means, then, let us have psalms
and days of dedication anew to the old causes.

Penniless, penniless, I have come with less and still less
to this place of my need and the lack of this hour.
That was a comforting word the prophet spoke:
Not by might nor by power but by My spirit, said the Lord;
comforting, indeed, for those who have neither might nor power–
for a blade of grass, for a reed.

The miracle, of course, was not that the oil for the sacred light–
in a little cruse–lasted as long as they say;
but that the courage of the Maccabees lasted to this day:
let that nourish my flickering spirit.

Go swiftly in your chariot, my fellow Jew,
you who are blessed with horses;
and I will follow as best I can afoot,
bringing with me perhaps a word or two.
Speak your learned and witty discourses
and I will utter my word or two–
not by might not by power
but by Your Spirit, Lord.

-Charles Reznikoff


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A Christmas Carol

So now is come our joyful feast,

Let every man be jolly;

Each room with ivy leaves is dressed,

And every post with holly.

Though some churls at our mirth repine,

Round your foreheads garlands twine,

Drown sorrow in a cup of wine,

And let us all be merry.

Now all our neighbors’ chimnies smoke,

And Christmas blocks are burning;

Their ovens they with baked meats choke,

And all their spits are turning.

Without the door let sorrow lie,

And if for cold it hap to die,

We’ll bury it in a Christmas pie,

And evermore be merry.

Now every lad is wondrous trim,

And no man minds his labor;

Our lasses have provided them

A bagpipe and a tabor.

Young men and maids, and girls and boys,

Give life to one another’s joys;

And you anon shall by their noise

Perceive that they are merry.

Rank misers now do sparing shun,

Their hall of music soundeth;

And dogs thence with whole shoulders run,

So all things aboundeth.

The country-folk themselves advance,

For crowdy-mutton’s come out of France;

And Jack shall pipe and Jill shall dance,

And all the town be merry.

Ned Swatch hath fetched his bands from pawn,

And all his best apparel;

Brisk Nell hath bought a ruff of lawn

With droppings of the barrel.

And those that hardly all the year

Had bread to eat or rags to wear,

Will have both clothes and dainty fare,

And all the day be merry.

Now poor men to the justices

With capons make their errands;

And if they hap to fail of these,

They plague them with their warrants.

But now they feed them with good cheer,

And what they want they take in beer,

For Christmas comes but once a year,

And then they shall be merry.

Good farmers in the country nurse

The poor, that else were undone;

Some landlords spend their money worse,

On lust and pride at London.

There the roisters they do play,

Drab and dice their land away,

Which may be ours another day;

And therefore let’s be merry.

The client now his suit forbears,

The prisoner’s heart is eased;

The debtor drinks away his cares,

And for the time is pleased.

Though others’ purses be more fat,

Why should we pine or grieve at that;

Hang sorrow, care will kill a cat,

And therefore let’s be merry.

Hark how the wags abroad do call

Each other forth to rambling;

Anon you’ll see them in the hall,

For nuts and apples scrambling;

Hark how the roofs with laughters sound,

Anon they’ll think the house goes round;

For they the cellar’s depths have found,

And there they will be merry.

The wenches with their wassail-bowls

About the streets are singing;

The boys are come to catch the owls,

The wild mare in is bringing.

Our kitchen boy hath broke his box,

And to the dealing of the ox

Our honest neighbors come by flocks,

And here they will be merry.

Now kings and queens poor sheep-cotes have,

And mate with everybody;

The honest now may play the knave,

And wise men play at noddy.

Some youths will now a mumming go,

Some others play at rowland-hoe,

And twenty other gameboys moe;

Because they will be merry.

Then wherefore in these merry days

Should we, I pray, be duller?

No, let us sing some roundelays

To make our mirth the fuller.

And whilst we thus inspired sing,

Let all the streets with echoes ring;

Woods, and hills, and everything

Bear witness we are merry.

-George Wither

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The Shivering Beggar
Near Clapham village, where fields began,
Saint Edward met a beggar man.
It was Christmas morning, the church bells tolled,
The old man trembled for the fierce cold.

Saint Edward cried, “It is monstrous sin
A beggar to lie in rags so thin!
An old gray-beard and the frost so keen:
I shall give him my fur-lined gaberdine.”

He stripped off his gaberdine of scarlet
And wrapped it round the aged varlet,
Who clutched at the folds with a muttered curse,
Quaking and chattering seven times worse.

Said Edward, “Sir, it would seem you freeze
Most bitter at your extremities.
Here are gloves and shoes and stockings also,
That warm upon your way you may go.”

The man took stocking and shoe and glove,
Blaspheming Christ our Saviour’s love,
Yet seemed to find but little relief,
Shaking and shivering like a leaf.

Said the saint again, “I have no great riches,
Yet take this tunic, take these breeches,
My shirt and my vest, take everything,
And give due thanks to Jesus the King.”

The saint stood naked upon the snow
Long miles from where he was lodged at Bowe,
Praying, “O God! my faith, it grows faint!
This would try the temper of any saint.

“Make clean my heart, Almighty, I pray,
And drive these sinful thoughts away.
Make clean my heart if it be Thy will,
This damned old rascal’s shivering still!”

He stooped, he touched the beggar man’s shoulder;
He asked him did the frost nip colder?
“Frost!” said the beggar, “no, stupid lad!
’Tis the palsy makes me shiver so bad.”

-Robert Graves

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How like a winter hath my absence been (Sonnet 97)

How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
What old December’s bareness every where!
And yet this time remov’d was summer’s time;
The teeming autumn, big with rich increase,
Bearing the wanton burden of the prime,
Like widow’d wombs after their lords’ decease:
Yet this abundant issue seem’d to me
But hope of orphans and unfather’d fruit;
For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,
And, thou away, the very birds are mute:
Or, if they sing, ’tis with so dull a cheer,
That leaves look pale, dreading the winter’s near.

-William Shakespeare

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Now Winter Nights Enlarge

Now winter nights enlarge
This number of their hours;
And clouds their storms discharge
Upon the airy towers.
Let now the chimneys blaze
And cups o’erflow with wine,
Let well-tuned words amaze
With harmony divine.
Now yellow waxen lights
Shall wait on honey love
While youthful revels, masques, and courtly sights
Sleep’s leaden spells remove.

This time doth well dispense
With lovers’ long discourse;
Much speech hath some defense,
Though beauty no remorse.
All do not all things well:
Some measures comely tread,
Some knotted riddles tell,
Some poems smoothly read.
The summer hath his joys,
And winter his delights;
Though love and all his pleasures are but toys
They shorten tedious nights.

-Thomas Campion

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The Visionary
Silent is the house: all are laid asleep:
One alone looks out o’er the snow-wreaths deep,
Watching every cloud, dreading every breeze
That whirls the wildering drift, and bends the groaning trees.

Cheerful is the hearth, soft the matted floor;
Not one shivering gust creeps through pane or door;
The little lamp burns straight, its rays shoot strong and far:
I trim it well, to be the wanderer’s guiding-star.

Frown, my haughty sire! chide, my angry dame!
Set your slaves to spy; threaten me with shame:
But neither sire nor dame nor prying serf shall know,
What angel nightly tracks that waste of frozen snow.

What I love shall come like visitant of air,
Safe in secret power from lurking human snare;
What loves me, no word of mine shall e’er betray,
Though for faith unstained my life must forfeit pay.

Burn, then, little lamp; glimmer straight and clear—
Hush! a rustling wing stirs, methinks, the air:
He for whom I wait, thus ever comes to me;
Strange Power! I trust thy might; trust thou my constancy.

-Emily Brontë

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The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

-Wallace Stevens

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Submitted with my application to a 7-month writing fellowship in Provincetown. Will know by April if I got in! Will keep you guys posted.

Sketch of Myself as a Writer

I don’t think of myself as a good writer. I’ve tried, but it is just too hard to compare myself to other writers and decide on a proper adjective. I do know this: there are many times a month when I must write, and so I do.

I studied writing as an undergraduate. I flaunted my incomprehensible poetry at smoky readings and even won a departmental award for a poem with anachronistic words in it like “discomfit.” The rewards for writing things I don’t really mean have been great, especially this last year in the business sector.

The real writing I do seems to be a cry to myself, or to the silence. It comes in metered verse sometimes, and other times in passages of lyrical prose that somehow miraculously appear with a plot. Sometimes these short stories want to become longer and longer until I think they should be called novellas, or even novels. But it’s when I start with the naming that things go bad.

How does a person talk about their writing?

Once I had a meeting with Douglas Glover, the Canadian author, during his office hours. I was taking a graduate fiction writing course with him. He liked my story. That alone felt like something to base a future on. He asked me about a certain moment when the main character has come home and finds his depressed friend on the roof in the icy rain. He wanted to know how I come up with that decision.

I didn’t know. I was 23.

But even now, six years later, what can I say? A story opens before me like an unfolding picture book. My eyes see it and my brain and heart make words for the seeing and the feeling of the seeing. Jack was on the roof when Phil got home. There was just no other way it could have been. It had inevitability.

But it is easy to write a 20-page short story for a class and follow the muse from the first word to the last.

What has been hard is writing a novel. A serious novel that is going to be “my” novel, that I will ostensibly finally write to begin my real career as a real novelist.

It has been hard to make choices. To write out of reason, out of a disciplined structure, to write with a mind to my audience and not just my self-indulgence. It is hard to know when to bob and when to weave, when to let the mind slope sideways and let the roll of language chug you forward from sheer momentum…or when you must choose every word with care, like someone with a new language.

I am on my lap top every day. I don’t write creatively every day, but I write something almost every day. I have 1,500 poems tucked away in numbered folders and dozens of short stories, a handful of which have been published…mostly because I traded them for nothing but contributors copies. It doesn’t matter to me. I am going to write today and tomorrow no matter if I make some honorarium or not for it.

But the problem is just the way I see it, turning back on myself too often, alone, working in offices, seeing the slush pile at amazon.com grow higher and higher. Going back to Morrison and Tolstoy and Winterson and Foster Wallace and Faulkner and asking in my heart what it is I must do to access the parts of me that are fearless and wild, and then corral them into something resembling a novel. Linear or nonlinear, a part of the story is told through the structure. The structure must have its own logic. That’s where I get sweaty.

But, despite this, I believe I have the potential to be a good writer. I need only a few things, really:

I need to not have a TV.

I need to have limited access to internet.

I need books that are real books.

I need to believe, even amid absurdity, even the many days when I hate this thing I am writing, that it is imperative. Even the days I tell myself this is the best I have done so far and is still so lacking, I need encouragement from others who know what it means to struggle in this way. I have a couple friends who understand this need.

I write alone and do my best thinking alone. At the same time, I like having a sense of camaraderie, of setting, even if there is little communication, I like just knowing that the people around me are on similar treks. That’s why I like to do some of my work in cafes.

Ultimately, though, I do my best writing after midnight, when I have exhausted the easy excuses and noises and need to see if out in all the chaos, some words are emerging.

…check out my SPEAK page and THINK page for more blogs like this

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On the Road Home

It was when I said,
“There is no such thing as the truth,”
That the grapes seemed fatter.
The fox ran out of his hole.

You . . . You said
“There are many truths,
But they are not parts of a truth.”
Then the tree, at night, began to change,

Smoking through green and smoking blue.
We were two figures in a wood.
We said we stood alone.

It was when I said,
“Words are not forms of a single word.
In the sum of the parts, there are only the parts.
The world must be measured by eye”;

It was when you said,
“The idols have seen lots of poverty,
Snakes and gold and lice,
But not the truth”;

It was at that time, that the silence was largest
And longest, the night was roundest,
The fragrance of the autumn warmest,
Closest and strongest.

-Wallace Stevens

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