Dusting the Piano

The spring again to song has come
Rooms swept in busy hum
It's now my bones most feel the sound
The music of my children gone.

Extinction and Bison in the Dirt

Ignoring bacteria, the current assessment of the world's biodiversity is 8.7 million species. The majority remain unidentified and will remain so, given the estimated human-caused extinction of half of all plant and animal species by 2100. We'll lose almost all the mammals sometime before the next ice age, including the descendents of the bison I watched in North Dakota that comically rolled in a depression of clay that was ash-spewn by the Rockies 50 million years ago.

In the remote arm of an obscure galaxy teaming with an estimated 500 million inhabitable planets, we humans are substantially sacks of incubated bacteria and have no reason to be overly proud of our tenure. Entropy dictates that we go from bad to worse and someday an extra-terrestrial storm will erase our computer records and set us back a thousand years. Some paper books have survived over a millennium, so hopefully the books we're putting into dark storage in abandoned salt mines will survive the interregnum. Perhaps not my literary efforts, Shakespeare certainly, but by then we'll be sounding his words like Etruscan, the meaning all but gone.

When I saw the bison I didn't think of the sadness. Of a passing more final than the cherry blossom's fall. A.E. Houseman's poem says of his years to regard that loveliest of trees, only "fifty more." I'd say in my case less than thirty, which is unquestionably a sorrowful thought.

An Author’s Lot: Guilt and Jealousy

I should be writing, but lately I've been researching my family genealogy. I'm 7/8ths Irish by heritage and sorrowful that my Anglo-Australian-US tongue has no portion of lilting Irish, remindful of the bee-loud glade and the linnet's wings. I should be writing, and my catholic guilt reviles me too, for purchasing vital records with scarce dollars when my novel's underwater, the expense of my sending review copies and prize submissions swamping the meager commercial value of the book.

Guilt, purportedly a useless emotion, we readily impose on others, "buck up," "get a move on," and the like, and my publisher has no problem telling me to get out and market. I'd like to say, "I wrote a fine book, what more do you want?" but a whiny author is an embarrassment to more than his children.

In the five languages of love, I'm a touchy person (sensual despite my craggy English restraint), but you don’t make a cake with only one ingredient and words of affirmation are evidently my spice. I know because I get het up about caring that it shouldn't matter what others think. Writers are notoriously insecure about evaluating their own work, but their opinions of others come easily. I read The Finkler Question when it won the Man Booker Prize and admired Jacobson's ability to keep interesting not much of anything, but I got tired and stopped reading 2/3rds of the way through. That was fun. I got to (not unkindly) denigrate a well respected author, but it's a bit Monty Pythonish, a wannabe Israelite prophet deriding the tablets, "What’s this?" he asks, "'Six days thou shalt labor'? If that's all you'll work you'll never be a writer!"

Deluged by a commercial system determined to make the rich richer and the popular more popular, we poor novelists, trafficking in lies, are disposed to insincerity. My work of genius unread. Unfair! When so much is random, we can only hope that all books, like men, are created equal (given the same opportunity to rise) even if the result is disparagement. But then philosophizing is such thin gruel. I envy my distant neighbor his lake house, although thinking about it too often isn't healthy.

It's uncomplicated truths that we aspire to shine forth in our work, but the business of a novelist is passionate plotting, which ill accords with childlike innocence. Both genealogy and my guilty envy suggest to me a Wordsworth poem. In, We Are Seven, a young girl says that she is one of seven, and the poet, finding that two of her counted siblings are dead, says:
"You run about, my little Maid,
Your limbs they are alive;
If two are in the church-yard laid,
Then ye are only five."
And she replies: "Their graves are green, they may be seen ... Twelve steps or more from my mother's door."
A novelist is to be envied, who with the certainty of that ragged child, regards no Roth or Hollinghurst or Barnes or any authority of mature genius, and maintaining his independent view, can quick reply, "O Master! We are seven."

Praying Mantis

We lie together in the autumn sun
Our bellies on the radiant porch

Had I your stillness what a soul
Be mine

I am the penciled creature
And you the artist of supple grace

I cannot understand you
Yet we have lived the same silence.

Crabtree Falls

Dashing Blue Ridge Mountain's forest tangles
Crabtree Falls immensely slides and angles.

Where many sportive youth, lone cry appalling
Have broke with fragile life in falling
We pass red-berries bedding in the mossy walls
Down switchback trails beside the jagged falls.

Not far ahead, a spritely old pair
Are deliciously holding hands in the air
Their fingers of care, twining and veined
In a balancing arch, both needed and feigned.

I’d like to think we stay that rare in heart
As only in the end by force to part.

But Who Am I

My potted daffodils perversely spurn
Onto the floor their miffed-noses careen
Nature's affronted and my knowledge awry
I’m helpless to know why
Why does the ivy wilt and each clay urn
About the house drop in dejected green?

Outside, beyond the patch of crabgrass lawn
Live the unkempt cousins, vine and thorn
Who burst like vibrant antelope
Excrescently leaping over the slope
In gustos of inebriate tangled bouts
They clamber and spread their choking routs.

More years than I have mazed that yard
To its wild extravagant disregard
But who am I to slaughter strife
That cannot to a pot give life?

Peeping-Tom at the Window

Are you one of the three-out-of-five Americans who have seen, heard or intuited a peeping-Tom (hereinafter referred to as PT)? PTs get as much respect as atheists (who’ll tell you that morality needs no God and, if you stand still too long, will further impart that God’s perpetual watching makes your religious morality less impressive than their might-get-away-with-it morality). And who wants their daughter bringing home to the parents a PETA vigilante who grimly informs them over Coq au Vin that horrifically-farmed chickens are shackled and conveyed upside-down and terrified to the circular saw. PTs, then, are easily bettered in evil, their circle of Hell no more than a daily cold dousing, one assumes not unlike the English weather, and they are to be pitied their risky endeavors when far more graphic stuff (I’m told) freely abounds on the Internet. Paul Kirk, a librarian PT is the doubtful hero of my novel, Boiled Peanuts and is a likeable guy, once you abandon your PT scruples. While he is too modest to consider himself a paragon, the truth is that, some have benefited from his night-time vigilant citizenry. I urge you to read this book if you think your daughter might bring home a PT.
Not that I advocate rushing outside to drag in a PT to meet your bookish daughter, almost always it’s nothing but a skunk in the garbage or a stink-bug scratching at the window-screen.

The Toothbrush

The toothbrush stands erect within its jar
It wears its life in skirmishing so far
Among the detritus the spittle and catarrh
In hope some breath of lustre will dignify its works
With stiffness availing, the toil it never shirks
But, solid-functioning, liquefaction lurks.

Alone upon the shelf it dreams
Of slender neck and dainty-colored themes
A mate on whom its bristled beams
Might shine, but none appears to fondly brace
To lean together touching for a space
Finally, sad-faced, to its resting-place.

The Sex of One is the Half Dozen of Another

It’s just my two sense, but when I hear from guys who can do it half-a-dozen times I want to say it’s all in the I of the beholder, and there’s no I in beholder. It’s quality that counts, and now that I’m older than I was, quality’s up and quantity’s down. But for all intensive purposes, my writing this year’s on a different plain altogether, as my first novel came out (which is 100% more than nothing) and I’m working on the next, which writers on writing universally agree will be less inspired than my first (though saying it’s cutting off my nose despite my face). But it’s all a right of passage to craftsmanship, which takes (the wisdom is) 10,000 hours. I’d be a bold faced liar if I told you that wasn’t a sentence, and a bunch of consecutive sentences, too.

Sexual Orientation: How Do Gays Play the Scene?

The great and powerful Google, ubiquitous in my blog, browser, calendar, e-mail and research, is apparently allowing me to forget to remember, so reliably does Google know my needs. So, when I see that omniscient Google has targeted an ad atop my gmail inbox that says, “Considering Bankruptcy? - Get a free consultation at our law offices in downtown Charlottesville,” well, it makes one pause. Am I? Like Google, Christopher Isherwood has that quality of restrained authority, with the slight English crankiness of an irritated GPS when you take the wrong turn off the traffic circle. In Isherwood’s A Single Man, George thinks that he “would like to abandon his shopping-cart, although it’s already full of provisions. But that would make extra work for the clerks, and one of them is cute.” George is gay, as was Isherwood. I do a double-take on “cute”, not one of surprise, but reinterpretation. With the unreliable assurance of one who spoke British-English in his youth, I relay BBC idioms to my wife, “banger’s a sausage, Dear.” It’s not the same with “cute,” we all know “cute” when we see it, except I see Audrey Hepburn (apologies, Dear), and George has (we’ll say) Cary Grant in mind. In my novel, Boiled Peanuts, Paul is a young heterosexual man who’s a peeping Tom. There’s some titillation in Paul watching a woman (I think), but what does a gay person feel who reads the scene? What gets reinterpreted? Does the reader alter a character’s sex, so that what’s cute to Paul will feel cute to the reader, or does the scene rely on its humor or drama and the sex is a bore? I’d be interested in hearing from gay or lesbian readers.

Gritty, or the Place I Grew Up?

I grew up in Tottenham, a northern suburb of London, which, according to several news reports of the August riots, is a “gritty” and “disadvantaged” neighborhood of the English capital. From London, my family migrated to Sydney, and I moved on to Denver, Lansing, and Lexington, each move, to a smaller city. The U.S. cities came, it seems, through little of my own volition, as is surely often true of big decisions. I’ve expended more thought over omelette or waffle than in deciding my final move (to Lexington, Virginia, following a job that randomly occurred.) Being only a jot, I had no choice with Tottenham, but I thought it a good place, to the extent I thought of it at all. It was the park with my best climbing tree; the slope for the makeshift skateboard (a loose board on a single skate); the field where we boys sieved sandy soil into buckets for an important reason I no longer remember. So it’s a shock to me, that Tottenham is gritty, but I’d left by the age of twelve and, in childhood, the sharp whiff of gritty dust on the tongue is more precious than gold.

On Marketing Books

Okay, the people are interesting in this picture of my booksigning for Boiled Peanuts, but it's the background that captures your attention. All those books! Granted, without anyone in the foreground (a reader), the books would be pointless. You remember the Twilight Zone episode with the solo super-short-sighted survivor smashing his spectacles. All books became instantly worthless. Taking up space is evidently not enough, some kind of interaction is needed to be non-pointless, which makes me nervous as I tap for hours alone in my study where I'm theoretically interacting with future readers. It's potentially comforting that in theory I'll have more point in the future. Even with his thick lenses intact, how many books could the Twilight Zone reader have consumed in his lifetime? Not enough to save the N.Y. Public Library from almost total worthlessness. I'm guessing your average author feels like the N.Y. Public Library. Over a million books a year are published in the U.S. Yours may be the most exquisite leaf in the woods but it's destined for compost unless it's noticed. It's dark down here on the forest floor and my Boiled Peanuts novel is already leaf litter turning to humus. I received my first print copy on June 15th. On June 24th one reviewer told me my book might be too "old" to review. Won't anyone save me from worthlessness and buy a book? Even better, read it and recommend it. That wasn't too begging, was it?

Killing the Mockingbirds

If it wasn't a sin, I'd cheerfully kill the mockingbirds. For all of June they've tyrannized our innocent cats: Willie, our old tabby, who doesn't even have front claws, and Callie, our calico, who's scared if her whiskers twitch. The cats can't rest in the shade of their own porch without harassment. I stepped outside at sunrise, the sky on fire behind the mimosa tree, to admire a shimmering spider's web. Callie ran up the tree and stood eight feet up, in the cleft where the trunk branches, godlike in her majesty. One of the pernicious mockingbirds swooped, squawked and dive-bombed Callie home. Chased by a bird, a cat can’t keep her self-respect, and she was already neurotic. The pair of mockingbirds must have a nest to protect, and, if they aren’t just xenophobic, I admire their guts. The birds teach an indeterminate lesson in passion or in pugnacity. I don't know either, about the army of chittering swifts in our chimney.

What Does the Birdfeeder Mean?

Distracting me, rocking in the breeze, the birdfeeder hangs from a horizontal wire a foot outside my study window. It’s a vertical structure with three levels of four feeding stations and a cage that protects it from the undesirable squirrels. Distracting, is a quality I endow the feeder with, despite the distraction being obviously my own. The feeder is only an artifact, utilitarian, no Grecian urn to fill one’s thoughts with frolicsome marble men and maidens. Yet, the feeder reflects a meaning back at me. The chickadees are cute, like little maids from school, pert as a school-girl well can be in tidy black and white uniform. The freeloading purple finches, rose-coated men and their drab wives, swarm the feeder, a squabbling family of idlers living off handouts. I calculate the costs. It’s small, but real. The tragedy of the commons. Can I go on, being liberal, if they take more? The greedy blue jay, raucous, bold and pretty, stuffs her maw until she’s removed all she can. And then, the goldfinches come. I’m counting … if I get to seven I’ll post the picture on Facebook. Summer yellow, orange beak, black cap, white undertail--I’m the landlord, with the sign, “goldfinches only need apply.” How superficial--those fascinating wild canaries are no worthier than the dullest sparrow. Can beauty be truth if it deceives so? Being human, I react to my reacting, asking what it means. The birds have flown, and when there are no birds, the birdfeeder’s idle, full with potential energy, like a distracted author.

Guy Fawkes Night

The rocket's in the bottle on a cold night street
The match flares wick to hiss, we give a half-retreat
We're sizzled by our thrilling and nothing more we need
But to feel the rocket flying and to know we did the deed.
The bottle's always rocking as a vessel much too small
To hold the firing rocket that's many times too tall
But there's the sport - to see ahead's no fun
We glory in chancing the outcome of the run.
A few are duds, a few roar up the town
As straight a stick as we can throw to knock the chestnuts down
But the wild-ones are our love to yell
That shriek as a blazing infidel
Erupting on the slate-roofs glare
Gushing in cinders down the cold night air.

Houses and Novel Writing

Anne Trubek, A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses (2011) got me thinking about my house. I’ve written one novel (Boiled Peanuts) and, like the stink bugs that have Biblically plagued the house since last autumn, when one pops up you know more are nesting in the crevices eager to emerge. I really should invest in an oriental rug for the office (study), donate my old sci-fi novels to the public library and upgrade to some George Eliot and Thomas Hardy. Ultimately, literary tourists will want to see where I sat staring at my laptop with occasional flurries of finger movements, not this armchair, because the cats have shredded one corner, but a better one.

In a small way, I’m a house peeper (coincidentally the topic of Boiled Peanuts); I was thrilled to see the Dickens house, hoping some essence from the great old man (he’d be 200 next February, had he lived) would invade me from the ether. I’ve added Shakespeare, Longfellow and Hemingway to my limited catalog, and, I think, Poe. I remember his grave but I’m a blank on the house. Conveniently, there’s a cemetery across the street from my house, it’s an African-American cemetery, but I presume my etiolated (sun denied) writer’s skin will not debar me, and those pilgrims who pay $20 to peek around the house can freely traipse across the road to kiss my tombstone. First, I have to die, but before that I have to find some readers and, darn it, I’ve got to write the books.

Defect of the Heart

The wild phlox grows a goodly height
As tall as ever it can tower
Amid the high grass splurging light
A simple graceful forest flower
Propelled to grow as any child
By forces kind indifferent and wild
That flourish only as they please
Forsaking with unfavored ease.

Night Frost

Night frost creeps on thicket mist
And crystalline the brambles bind
Now hard and stickled casuist
Discomfit by thy sullen tines
But tell me not your heart is mine
That breaks upon a brittle line
For warmth I hold so bitterly
Cold red bird in the cup of me.

A Folksy Poem

How can she be sleeping
All through the bright day
With woodpecker rapping
A-rapping away?

I've got my one suit on
And come far to court
The girl of my dreaming
And every dear thought.

How can she be sleeping
When sounds at the door
My heart-beats so loudly
So loud an uproar?

I fear she'll not hear me
Not hear me this day
But while she keeps sleeping
I'll by her door stay.