Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Travelogue -- In Sardinia

People were lining the streets of a town in the interior of Sardinia.

"Quid es la festa?" I asked a woman in her twenties seated on the curb in my best Hispano-Latinate pidgin.

She blinked up at me. "La festa è l'assunzione di Maria."

So we ordered drinks at a sidewalk cafe and waited with everyone else. Soon, there was singing and women in dresses and men in old-style suits processed by carrying crosses. Then tractors and oxen festooned with garlands. I watched a little girl of four or five amble around in her traditional costume dress and hop up in the scoop of a slow-moving earth mover turned float.

Afterward, driving back to Cagliari, the road narrowed into open country. On an anonymous dirt crossroad, we saw a group of people in costume dress. They were waiting to process, maybe to the tiny village's steeple I could see a mile distant through the hills and dry chapparal. I pulled over and hopped out and snapped two pictures with my old iPhone 5S. Then we drove on.



Say mountains. Say winter. Say the other houses
recede into weather and the sharp edges of the forest

blur. Say thin atmosphere. Say altitude
which is the same thing as saying nearer to heaven,

a mile closer to the moon. Say whitening. Say silvering.
Say the sunset is cliché. Say the future falls slowly,

an endless layering, driven, plowed, blown into banks.
Say gut feeling. Say benison. Say we could go out searching

amid the pines and suburban houses for hours on end
and come home to find life waiting for us

on the living room couch. Say we are God’s sterling clasp,
senses crafted to hold the jeweled snow.

Denver means a breath away from breathlessness.
Say that love is not only possible but inevitable,

that it alights around us, freely given, equally shed.
Say the forecast shows things clearing 

by the week’s end. I might just believe you.

(originally appeared in Ambit)

Monday, December 25, 2017

After Machado

Last night, I slept and dreamed
that my heart was a beehive ––
inside golden bees worked busily,
sipping at the astringent nectar
of past bitterness, transforming it
into pale wax and sweet honey.


Merry Christmas, Dear Reader.

May peace be upon you and the joy of Christ's nativity. Whether close or distant, in touch or silent,  I wish you -- yes you -- love and joy that will see you through into the new year and hope to see you in it. A poem from A.E. Housman for the day.


Christmas Carol

Bells at sunrise making babel:
Christ is born, I hear men say.
Shepherds, bring me to the stable,
That I may give my Lord good-day.
For you heard fall the angels' warning,
Keeping of the starlit fold,
All in the dark midwinter morning
Amongst the pearly rime so cold.

Lully, lully, lully, humming:
Shepherds, say, is this the door?
Oh, Kings out of the east are coming,
But I have brought my gifts before.
Over the frail star-travelled stranger
With tears and smiles his mother bows,
And all about the misty manager
Steams the sweet breath of the cows.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Peace on Earth

It's snowing in Detroit. Traffic crawled along 10 past accidents and spin-offs. There'll probably be a snow day tomorrow. I'm planning for a carol sing party Sunday and picking hymns I've been reflecting on the idea of peace on earth, something that seems so far and unimaginable with bad events on the news and tragedy in lives I hold dear. It's usually easy to feel it in the cheer of the season with time spent slowly with loved ones -- tree cutting, long sing-alongs, and sipping hilariously large novelty bottles of Trader Joe champagne. But it harder to see this year as scandal and brutality riffle through our country, as political policy further disenfranchises the most vulnerable parts of society, as my extended family reels from a sudden death. How can a season, a day, even one where we commemorate a savior, bring peace?

My friend C suggested we sing I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day at the party. It's a lovely song by a favorite childhood poet. In it, the narrator hears the tolling of Christmas bells calling "peace on earth, goodwill to men." At first they sound sweet but as they roll on something inside him blanches at their message. "Wrong is strong and mocks the song of 'peace on earth, goodwill to men,'" he says to himself. But the bells continue and call him back to rememrance of the day, that Christ has come to set right the gross and incalculable pain and discord and fragmentation of individuals, relationships, societies.

"The wrong shall fail, the right prevail." Easy to say, right?

I don't think it was for Longfellow. I studied him in college and wrote a biographical sketch. I remember reading about his wife and young daughter sealing letters in the family library and a drop of flaming wax falling onto a crinoline skirt. Longfellow tried to save them but couldn't and was so badly burned in the face that he couldn't shave. His beard became his signature look but it hid a deep and terrible pain. He fought crippling depression for years. Later, his only son was terribly wounded fighting for abolition in the American Civil War.

And yet, he writes, "God is not dead nor does he sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail."

That is the truth I'm turning my heart to this advent, opening it -- however heavy it can feel on some days -- to make room for a tiny child come to set in motion the healing of the world. Through this present time and even its turmoil, God is working. Love will have the last word. It's not some future promise of bliss and it-will-all-be-okay but a call to walk forward in love and faith and prayer that I may be a peacemaker in whatever way I can to whomever I encounter today.

May peace prevail on earth and our hearts -- yours and mine -- this Advent.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Unincorporated Lines

The first real snow last night. Everywhere I went today -- the Greek food store, Stella Coffee in The Fisher Building, the library -- people were cheery. I felt cheery too, something about the detritus of the year covered over, the hard lines of brick softening with a collar of white, the bracing air.

I've been writing a lot lately. For me, the practice for both life and writing -- because we bring the same mindsets to bear on creation and living -- is to walk forward with a joyful expectancy of the unknown, to see what happens. A few things from my notebook...


Shots fired outside the Institute of Arts -- 
panic's animal understanding touched one 
and then another and the crowd broke,
streaming along Farnsworth Avenue.
A crackling in the night, shouts, sirens,
and the whump, whump, whump
of a distant police helicopter.


We love only the specific form
but long toward the place all beauty points -- 
the lines on your face...


I made a space for you in my arms, 
small because you were small. 
I have carried your absence ever since.


The life you took off like a jacket
forgotten on a chair-back 
of some sidewalk cafe -- the loss 
you didn't realize until one day 
you went looking for it.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Untitled by Yves Bonnefoy (trans. Emily Grosholz)

Inconsequential mistakes of light.
One follows on another, on others still, as if
Understanding no longer counted, only laughter.

And Aristotle said it well,
Somewhere in his Poetics that we read so poorly,
Transparency is what matters,
In sentences that should be like the rumor of bees
Or like clear water.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

New York by Saint Vincent

Sometimes I hear a piece of music and can tell that years from now it will make me think of this time and this season. Saint Vincent's New York is that for me right now with its wistfulness and self-realization, the knowledge-too-late of it all, how people define our places. The tender and profane blend perfectly too (though I'm using her edit "other sucker" when I play it live this Saturday at Avalon). I can't stop listening.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

from On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

This is how the entire course of life can be changed – by doing nothing. On Chesil beach he could have called out to Florence, he could have gone after her. He did not know, or would not have cared to know, that as she ran away from him, certain in her distress that she was about to lose him, she had never loved him more, or more hopelessly, and that the sound of his voice would have been a deliverance, and she would have turned back. Instead, he stood in cold and righteous silence in the summer’s dusk, watching her hurry along the shore, the sound of her difficult progress lost to the breaking of small waves, until she was blurred, receding against the immense straight road of shingle gleaming in the pallid light.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Live Patiently with the "Not Yet"

Last night, I sat with my friends L and J in J's apartment and talked and had chartreuse. L pulled a Henri Nouwen book off the shelf -- one I've read before -- and read this section out loud. Waiting, being patient, living in tension -- it's all the opposite of my usual instinct to go solve, fix, or answer problem or question. It's a beautiful thought though. L's lilting voice reminded me of good truths. It's a season of not yet for some things and as we near advent, I think too how the world is caught in expectant waiting.


“A part of you was left behind very early in your life: the part that never felt completely received. It is full of fears. Meanwhile, you grew up with many survival skills. But you want your self to be one. So you have to bring home the part of you that was left behind. That is not easy, because you have become quite a formidable person, and your fearful part foes not know if it can safely dwell with you. Your grown-up self has to become very childlike – hospitable, gentle, and caring – so your anxious self can return and feel safe.

You complain that it is hard for you to pray, to experience the love of Jesus. But Jesus dwells in your fearful, never fully received self. When you befriend your true self and discover that it is good and beautiful, you will see Jesus there. Where you are most human, most yourself, weakest, there Jesus lives. Bringing your fearful self home is bringing Jesus home.

As long as your vulnerable self does not feel welcomed by you, it keeps so distant that it cannot show you its true beauty and wisdom. Thus, you survive without really living.

Try to keep your small, fearful self close to you. This is going to be a struggle, because you have to live for a while with the “not yet.” Your deepest, truest self is not yet home. It quickly gets scared. Since your intimate self does not feel safe with you, it continues to look for others, especially those who offer it some real, though temporary, consolation. But when you become more childlike, it will no longer feel the need to dwell elsewhere. It will begin to look to you as home.

Be patient. When you feel lonely, stay with your loneliness. Avoid the temptation to let your fearful self run off. Let it teach you its wisdom; let it tell you that you can live instead of just surviving. Gradually you will become one, and you will find that Jesus is living in your heart and offering you all you need.”

Thursday, October 26, 2017

More European Street Signs I Woefully Misread

It's not easy being an American abroad. Between being peppered with questions about politics and having your feet stick off the end of the bed in every airbnb, it's hard to relax while on vacation. But most confusing is the signage on streets, ferries, and in public buildings. I chronicled my puzzlement at cryptic street signs in the Baltic a few years ago. This summer I went to Italy, France, and Belgium. Though my tan from my Mediterranean summer is fading, my confusion over a slew of subtle signage persists.

Demon goats are prohibited.

Slow clap.

But first, let me take a selfie.

Commence nose picking.

There is a correct way and an incorrect way
 to hold hands -- I can only say I agree.

Níðhöggr, the wyrm of Ragnarok, lieth within.

When your hair is so thicc small children get trapped in it.

Enter the Thunderdome.

This is the anthem, throw your damn hands up!

High five, bro!

No matter how close we become, we can never truly connect
with another human being.

Please refrain from decapitating people
with steam shovels.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Stanzas for My Son

Stanzas for My Son by Douwe A. Tamminga (translated from the Frisian by Rod Jellema)

Don't curse with your mouth
if you suddenly come across an owl
lamenting above the overgrown yard
of Europe's nighttime rubble.

If you sometimes have to dip your bread
in tears, still stand faithful watch
through the night over this old land:
grieve over our grave, but not without hope.

Keep silent often and share your blanket
with those who can take the world's sorrow —
but don't dress yourself in scarlet clothes,
in the glaring costume of a fool.

Don't get caught up in every crowd
that scowls or looks askance at the spoils
the good earth gives. And if they hoist 
stormflags above the Tiber or Seine or Thames,

tighten the black crepe to muffle your drum.
Don't march along with the swelling music.
Son, follow no other way than this: 
accept being a stranger.

Advice to a Son by David Landrum

Advice to a Son

If you would marry, marry a dryad—
one with dark green skin and nappy hair.
She will be amazed at many things: the taste of tea,
soft beds, bouquet of bottled wine,
music and oranges, the sure rise of bread.
She will show you wonders too: how she can weave
a blanket or a garment out of leaves or build
a nest in boughs where you two may safely
spend the night; how she will disappear into a wood
and come back laden with wild radishes,
mushrooms, nuts, and apples.
When enemies attack she will disappear up a tree.
You will think yourself betrayed, but then
vine-lassos will descend. Your enemies
will disappear, jerked upward
kicking in astonishment. And you will listen
in the dead of night, after warm love,
as she tells what it is when arms transform
to branches, fingers to leaves, feet to roots
drinking the wetted earth—of seeing without eyes,
breathing at every pore of bark, feeling
the sunlight shape the rings that are your years,
and of the fronds that reach
to breezes bearing bundles of fresh rain
of softly singing lullabies of snow.

Monday, October 16, 2017

from A Lover's Discourse by Roland Barthes

Like desire, the love letter waits for an answer; it implicitly enjoins the other to reply, for without a reply the other’s image changes, becomes other. Perpetual monologues apropos of a loved being, which are neither corrected nor nourished by that being, lead to erroneous notions concerning mutual relations, and make us strangers to each other when we meet again, so that we find things different from what, without realizing it, we imagined.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

from A Lover's Discourse by Roland Barthes

"A mandarin fell in love with a courtesan. 'I shall be yours,' she told him, 'when you have spent a hundred nights waiting for me, sitting on a stool, in my garden, beneath my window.' But on the ninety-ninth night, the mandarin stood up, put his stool under his arm, and went away."

Sunday, October 1, 2017


This morning, a Catalan friend sent me several videos, all scenes from today's referendum for Catalonian independence from Spain. I was shocked and horrified to see civil guards shutting down streets and polls, even in her small town of 14000, and attacking peaceful voters to stop them voting.

"If they just let us," my friend wrote, "the result would have been no. That's Spanish democracy."

Violence is its own referendum. The central government preemptively turning military force on civilians to prevent the democratic process is a greater call to independence than any vote.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Homage to Catalonia

Two years ago I sat with my Catalonian friends in La Plaza Del Revolution in Barcelona.

"When was the revolution?" I asked.

C sat up straight, and looked at me, her eyes going steely. "The revolution is always," she said.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Saint Christopher

After graduation, Christopher and I left Chicago in the van from our recently defunct band and set out on the ghost road to California -- two weeks chasing the illusory American dream of diners and neon and getting kicks on Route 66. I saw deserts and The Pacific for the first time. We saw each other clearly for the first time in a long time of band business and concerts getting in the way of actually spending time. We sang for our supper in Santa Fe. We got hopelessly lost in Arizona and ended up driving down a dry wash. Followed a faded section of 66 in Missouri until it narrowed into a forest and branches slapped at the windshield. We watched a high school ballgame in North Platte, Nebraska.

We moved to separate cities afterward, started careers and families. And we saw each other and spoke on the phone. But we also spoke to each other in music, a joint venture of songwriting. We never talked about it or planned anything but we both started writing, influencing each other back and forth as we went. They were songs about a lonely wanderer, torn between the possibility of a home and his restless heart that calls him on to roam under the endless American sky. The only certainty he has is finding his home in heaven.

We both wrote a dozen or so songs in the vein -- Chris' Hard Day to Be a Cowboy and Goodbye to the Highway, my Texarkana and Never Been in Love. This song below, Saint Christopher is my tribute to my friend, to our friendship. Saint Christopher is the conveniently named patron saint of travelers. The song is our classic motif -- wanderer going forth to shed the past and finding the road weary but also finding hope and endurance. I wrote it for female vocals and this is Melody Dotson on lead. I recorded it seven years ago before leaving Grand Rapids for Detroit. I don't pray to saints myself but I do find hope and strength in heaven and sustaining joy in friendship. I count myself a man lucky in his friends.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Physics of Hope

Illustration by Hope Coulter

Remember lessons in displacement, how water is pushed aside
by the hollow of a boat, the way a heart is held in suspension
by absence. Time spent waiting for a ferry to arrive is the same
as other time, even if it seems to pass more slowly. Its derivative
will show the rate of change of the prow cutting through the chop
of a grey Sunday. For every action, an equal and opposite reaction.
You pushed, he ran, a body in motion. Now there are questions
only observation can decide: whether the boxed cat is alive or dead,
whether the boy shows up to a meeting arranged months before
or steps off the gangway with a fistful of drugstore carnations
clutched in hand. Consider the factors at play –– friction, momentum,
tension, gravity, trajectory, entanglement. It’s hard to calculate
the physics of hope against hope. If energy is not created or destroyed,
perhaps love too could be enduring. The equation will soon solve itself
and the future resolve into the facts that eventually make up life.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Late Summer Honey

We will awake to chill and the scent of leaves
some crisp morning and realize summer has left us,
irrevocably, in the night. What will we have then ––
a rumbling of apples on the roof, frost-tinged roses,
sweaters and jean jackets, afternoons of white wine
and tea sandwiches? In the last failings of the gardens,
the sleepy susurration of bees will lull us to sleep
beneath the sly warmth of the mid-day sun.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Rilke -- Autumn Day

Autumn Day

Lord: it is time. The summer was immense.
Lay your shadow on the sundials
and let loose the wind in the fields.
Bid the last fruits to be full;
give them another two more southerly days,
press them to ripeness, and chase
the last sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now will not build one anymore.
Whoever is alone now will remain so for a long time,
will stay up, read, write long letters,
and wander the avenues, up and down,
restlessly, while the leaves are blowing.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Disney and Eating My Words

At church one Sunday, I told J my life goal was to never go to Disney. He takes his family every year and loves it but it seemed like the worst thing ever to me -- scripted adventure, long lines, a cookie-cutter experience. Within two weeks I would have to eat my words. I booked a trip to Disney.

I went on a whim with my friend B, her two kids, and her mom. I had some airline tickets to comp and she had an extra pass for the park. So, why not? I needed to get away from a glouring November sky and to clear my head of a difficult fall.

So I did, and it was like I thought -- endless lines and pre-packaged fun -- but the kids liked it and having fun with them made it fun. The rides were okay too. And it did clear my head. Nights were full of wine and food, swimming in the pool, and good conversations -- a reset to demarcate a new season of life.

And we managed to find unscripted fun too. Our last night there, B and I went back to the park alone. There was a supermoon that night and we wanted a picture of it over the shoulder of the princess castle. We scouted the park, tracking the progress of the moon as it climbed behind the curve of the earth and the treeline and caught it just at the moment it peaked its pocked face of the spindly parapets of the castle. A picture can't capture the magnificence of a reality or feeling but being there in that balmy night, it felt magical and not in the pre-packaged Disney way. A year ago tonight.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Loves of Achilles

A single sentence survives from Sophocles' play The Loves of Achilles, preserved in a grammar book after the play was lost. In Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love, it's given as love is like ice in the hands of children. The full version is when ice appears out of doors, and boys seize it up while it is solid, at first they experience new pleasures. But in the end their pride will not agree to let it go, but their acquisition is not good for them if it stays in their hands. In the same way an identical desire drives lovers to act and not to act. It's all we have. It's enough.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

What I Didn't Say

It's summer in Detroit. Yesterday after bible study, I sat and read The Virgin Suicides (about Detroit) in fading downtown light. I love it here -- the million dollar mansions of a gilded age long past, the dream houses moldering in gorgeous dilapidation, a new running route to the Fisher Building, new friends, bustling farmers markets, music and music, the sleepy bells of my cathedral informing on times sneaky passage. I'm cleaning, paring down, trying to simplify the complicated as the school year winds to a close and summer opens up with its Detroit and tiny house days and trips to Canada and Europe. Weeding out old blog entries, I found unfinished entries in my drafts folder. Here are a few.


Life sometimes resembles the narrative thread of a novel. In the middle, all is unresolved, unrequited, unsettled. Out of the strange winter soil, tropical fruits grow. What's done is not done.


All the planes I could have taken back to you have turned to paper.


Love is an act of memory.


Rage is the truest sense of the present tense.


An ending... The curtain closes. The conversation stops. The phone-line goes dead. Last words. Last tears. Last rites. All has been said, shed, read. Some poems manage what life can't: an end the opens up, sustaining a feeling and music. Take William Butler Yeats -- that man could stick an ending.

In the "Song of the Wandering Aengus." The narrator has been searching his whole life in vain to recapture of vision of beauty that came to him as a youth. The poem closes with an avowal that he will keep searching, that a lifetime in pursuit of the chance of real beauty isn't in vain:

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;

And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Unincorporated Lines

Close to the water, close yours eyes -- there's no difference
in spelling, only pronunciation, the way silence sounds different
waiting on the platform for a scheduled train than waiting for life
to change as the first breath of spring greens the dormant city.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Olives - Modal Verbs

Excerpts from my notebooks

In the late Latin period, speakers began saying amare habeoI have (to) love instead of amaviI loved. This grammar of possession in the past or a future is present in English too—I have loved or I've got to go. On some subconscious level, we must feel we own our actions in the past and intentions for the future

Friday, January 6, 2017

A line from Blanca Castellon

I'm reviewing Water for Days of Thirst by Blanca Castellon, translated by Roger Hickin. I read this line going to sleep last night and have carried it with me all day long.

Atravesamos el verano con el otano a cuestas.

We go through summer with autumn on our shoulders.

Sigh No More