Monthly Archives: August 2010


My autistic sons struggle with language. What they hear enters the skull and is butter-churned to a partly-made comprehension. What they communicate is clumped together by chance and necessity. So, particularly for the less verbal boy, adolescence is an age of daily and daunting demands on a limited vocabulary. He has adopted new expletives (“bitsch” and “funk”) and he has new things to name. He recently identified the acne on his face as an “alien rash”. His erections (clothed) are simply “tight”, but in the shower he has a “penisaur”. For a teenager who can not tell you his address or even his age, these namings are purchased with the labor others might give to their best sentence, to their most clever conceit. When these geniuses are finished with their master pieces, they hope their “creativity” wins them an audience. “Creative” is a word my autistic son may never use. His “penisaur” doesn’t give a “funk” about your “creativity”. I don’t either.

What is “creativity”, anyway? A creative person, it seems, as commonly named, pursues interests of little immediate or apparent value. Visual artists are creative. Musicians, perhaps. Comedians, I guess so. Sculptors, certainly. Poets, yes. A whole host of others are “creative” in that they walk at odds with prevailing social norms. Some people dress themselves in oddities to communicate their aspirations to “creativity”. And so, a young writer might shy away from the habits of ordinary existence in hopes that the genius of the writing would likewise become obnoxious. If the costume of “creativity” ever works, it is surely by coincidence.

Most “creative” people might be better described as “arrogant”. These folk are (at least sometimes) self-persuaded that their inventive contrariness is worth of exploration and display. These writers must share their thoughts because they know themselves to be deserving of an audience. Arrogance and narcissism are not guarantors of good writing. I am arrogant enough, obviously, but my contorted prose (here) testifies to the abilities of another (hardly enviable) talent.

My autistic sons are not poets, I am not autistic, and we are not “creative”. What I write, however, is born of disability. I wield words like brooms for crutches. In the process of writing, I find a word that will do the job … the best word (given the circumstances and limitations) I can find will have to do the job, the work of communicating. Often, I fail. This reaching for the make-shift crutch is not “creative”. This is difference. This is disability and compensation, not genius. Here is where the words come in. That’s all.

Public Grief is a Rare Beast

Frank Kermode, the author of one my first critical readings of Shakespeare, died on Tuesday, the 17th.

A theologian I’ve never read, but should have, Clark Pinnock, died this week too, the 15th.

Abbey Lincoln died on the 14th. In only the last couple of years, I have begun to listen to her music. Really only a couple of songs. “Throw it Away” is nice; although, honestly, I’ve never bothered to more than hum along. Ask me “throw what away?” and I’m stumped. The truth is: I have found more in Abbey Lincoln’s death than I have lost.

I discovered, a year late, that Michael Mazur had died (August 18, 2009). Reading about it, I thought: “Hey, I met that guy … and now he’s gone”. He was a kind and patient teacher (for an afternoon) as he made the Inferno tour rounds with his collaborator, Robert Pinsky.

When Czeslaw Milosz died (August 14, 2004), I had been waiting for it. I went to my shelves, looked at his books and thought, forlornly: “Well, there will be no more of these”.

I remember feeling disappointed when Denise Levertov died (December 20, 1997). I had assumed we would meet, first. We did not. As it turns out, as with most people I meet, we would have had little to say. She would have been one more boyhood favorite for me to find (at no fault of her own) less gracious than I had imagined. Having read only a handful of her poems, what place would I have had in her life?

When Donald Davie left (September 18, 1995), I figured he was glad enough to go. I turned to his “The Thirty-ninth Psalm, Adapted” and reread, as I do many times a year, this poem … which I have absorbed, if not wholly memorized.

Public grief is a strange phenomenon. To call it “grief” is to err. “Mourning” is a better word. Grief hollows out, ties up the gut and unmarrows the bones. For most of us, Frank Kermode’s death is nothing more than a tick on the clock, a passing interest. But mourning, great or small, is a spectacle. The greater known the person, the closer it ranks to public execution. James Brown, Ted Kennedy, Michael Jackson.

Spectacle too, these eulogies of the writers and artists I did and did not meet. Mourning is a public performance in any size. I suppose (although, for the most part, I lack experience) family funerals are also spectacles. They serve a communal function. They’re roll calls; not merely a visual check of who’s still alive or who was recently born or married or divorced, but an indicator of clan cohesiveness.

When my uncle died, I hardly knew him. I can remember maybe five visits. My mother made no effort to insist I attend the funeral. Perhaps she said I didn’t need to go, but I can’t remember. Encumbered and fourteen hours away, I did not it make to the spectacle. This was a mistake. It confirmed family suspicions that I am the son who doesn’t care. I missed the roll call. Mourning serves a function with or without grief.

When is it that the public grieves? Are we not, even in calamities (I’ve lamented the BP oil spill) merely expressing our anger and fear? I’m no good at mourning; I blame this sole self, this distant watching, ever a half step outside the common body?

Who flees from Wyatt?

As a way to keep up with and revisit meaningful poems, I sometimes grab poetry anthologies, willy-nilly, and dip through them, reading to remember. I have on my desk, now, eight of these. There’s nothing special about this impromptu collection; they were at hand:

Amis, Kingsley. 1978. The Faber popular reciter. London: Faber and Faber.
Baumgaertner, Jill P. 1990. Poetry. San Diego, [Calif.]: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Harmon, William. 1998. The classic hundred poems: all-time favorites. New York: Columbia University Press.
Hollander, John. 1996. Committed to memory: 100 best poems to memorize. New York: Academy of American Poets.
McClatchy, J. D. 1990. The Vintage book of contemporary American poetry. New York: Vintage Books.
Nims, John Frederick. 1992. Western wind: an introduction to poetry. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Pound, Ezra, and Marcella Spann. 1964. Confucius to Cummings, an anthology of poetry. New York: New Directions Pub. Corp.
Williams, Oscar. 1958. The pocket book of modern verse; English and American poetry of the last hundred years from Walt Whitman to Dylan Thomas. New York: Washington Square Press.

Three of these (Amis, Harmon, and Hollander) include Sir Thomas Wyatt‘s “They flee from me”, a poem I have read many, many times. I know that it is great; but it has, however, shaped both my “ear” and my poetics–my notions of what a good poem should do, how it should work, and how it should sound. That is, “They flee from me” is a standard of English verse.

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.

Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithall sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”

It was no dream: I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also, to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served
I would fain know what she hath deserved.

Having always thought of it as a great poem, I was surprised, this time, therefore, to discover that the poem is not my friend. In fact, I have for it a kind of animosity. I think this animosity has always been there … at least, it must have begun no later than my first dozen-or-so readings of the poem. Today, I read the poem as if encountering some kind of hostile agent. Why should it take so long for me to realize this? After twenty-five years of reading “They flee from me”, I now discover this growing discomfort for Wyatt’s little poem? The mind says “great poem” (and it is), but the instincts say “bastard!” Have I come to an age in which I am willing to concede to affections? Or have I merely been a slow reader and a poor listener? I do not know. I doubt that I have the machinery to know.

But, “They flee from me” is a great poem. Like everyone else, I marvel at the internal and slant rhyming, the irregular meter, the ironies and the puns. I appreciate the captor taken captive, emancipated unwillingly; the progressive betrayals, each stage grown worse (how was it ever “twenty times better”?); but most of all, the puns … heart, kindly, served, fain. And I’m all for the nudity; perhaps, only Robert Herrick writes a striptease better.

As artful as “They flee from me” may be, a great poem of a jilted courtier, Wyatt nonetheless, got exactly what he deserved–scorned. I don’t feel sorry for him at all. In this poem, he’s nothing more than a pervy stalker. And what’s worse, he whined when his mistress grew tired of his infantile neediness. “Dear heart, how like you this?”: Yuck.

Perhaps I will change my mind and read the poem newly in decades to come–read it with “newfangleness”; but the whole experience (an awakening to a distaste for a standard) has me wondering about what other great poems I might truthfully dislike. Making the list: probably much of Shakespeare, there’s a meanness to the bard; plenty of Yeats; Frost, yes; and all of Wallace Stevens, perhaps. On the other side, I’d guess there are poets and poems I thought I didn’t like, but indeed I do. Where are these poems? And how will I know to reread (since I once so kindly served) them, now, for their goodness?

Sir Thomas Wyatt

Portrait of Sir Thomas Wyatt. Hans Holbein the Younger. 1535-37.

Shiners, Darts and Daces

Eastern Blacknose Dace

Eastern Blacknose Dace (Rhinichthys atratulus). Ellen Edmonson. (1926-1939) from The Freshwater Fishes of New York.

“Minnows” (not just the Cypriniformes, but any finger-sized and smaller, fresh water fish) exist in fascinating micro-cultures. I have spent hours watching them flit in creek pools no larger than a kitchen sink. And, when the sun hits them, some (particularly the daces and darters) display color patterns (reds, greens, blues, browns, gold, silver and black) seldom seen on a single living organism. One can be so near a minnow, a hand’s depth, and yet separated (by water, size and speed) at a great distance from knowing. This gap bothered me less when I was younger–time was ahead of me and the eyes were sharp. Of all the losses gained in middle age, deteriorating vision is a dull one. I miss the minute differences, the flights of small birds, the progress of moss and fern, the endless throats of tiny flowers. At forty, I now need to hold my minnows up at eye level, in good light, 18 inches from the face. It was for this reason that I finally purchased a minnow trap.

Minnow and crawfish traps consist of wired with one or two funnel-shaped entrances. The minnows swim into the trap through the fat end of the funnel, but struggle to find their way out; their chances of slipping through the narrow neck are … slim. Traps are easy enough to make, and I had planned to build my own, but a moment of honesty about my laziness prompted an impulse buy. (Buying the materials would cost roughly the same.) The trap I purchased appears to be useless for crawfish; so, I have cause to keep “building a crawfish trap” on my to-do list.

I took my store bought trap to Dale Hollow in July. When it was not serving as an impromptu fish basket for our catch of bluegill, I baited it with bread and leftover meats. The oils from the meat attracted a dozen-or-so mid-sized sunfish, all too large for the trap. I suspect that any minnows in the area would have been readily snatched by the sunfish long before finding their way into my basket.

A week later, I had more success at a family reunion. My in-laws own a piece of land with a small creek running through a low pasture. After baiting the trap with a fried biscuit and some fried chicken skins, I lowered the basket near the upstream lip of a culvert pipe. Thirty minutes later (escaping the family chit-chat), I pulled up a half-dozen, flapping little fish. After they stopped jumping (a few seconds), I could see that I had trapped juvenile sunfish, mostly rocks bass, but also a couple of pumpkin seeds.

Adding another fried chicken skin (with a history of heart disease, my in-laws have no business eating the stuff), I moved the trap to the downstream end of the culvert pipe. There, an hour later, the rock bass had escaped. (How?) They were replaced, however, by five, two-inch cyprinids. They were probably common shiners, but I did not have my glasses, guide book, or camera. I think that they were too far upstream to have been (my second guess) juvenile common carp. Do carp hatch in slow, warm and weedy waters only to swim upstream against pencil thin currents?

Moving the trap 50 meters downstream to a deeper, shaded pool proved even more productive. In minutes, the trap collected well over two dozen small fish. A few rock bass again, but most of these were cyprinids, predominately daces. Many looked similar to (and might have been) Eastern Blacknosed Daces; others had red sides and/or irregular black markings–I remember a blot about a third of the way from the head. The trap (loaded with chicken skins and live fish) also attracted other creatures. Crawfish picked at the skins through the wires, but avoided the funneled entrances. I could also see that a few, tiny darters were resting on nearby rocks. Darters are both still and too fast; they perch without moving, but suddenly dart away when disturbed. Near the end of the evening, a small snake arrived and tried its luck at catching minnows near the trap. It seemed frustrated and rose to the surface and did not move for at least twenty minutes; I felt watched.

At dusk the mosquitoes arrived and I pulled in the trap and dumped the whole lot (minnows and chicken skins) in the creek. If they had been crawfish, it would have been time for a small meal.