Thursday, January 25, 2007

College Conversations

I have no real memory of college conversations, the words spoken or the arguments made. But I remember the topics and the people involved, and remember -- "that was an awesome conversation." I remember those moments more vividly than the times I was "having fun." I've been trying to reconstruct some of this because I look at the bored faces of my students and try to convince them that there is something exciting about the life of the mind.

1. Everybody is beautiful. How are they beautiful. We sat in chairs on the lawn, drinking beer and describing as best we could the beauty of those who walked by. Blech, maybe, but it was eye-opening for me, a testament to how much of ourselves we betray just by walking.

2. Interfaith dating. It was a conversation about communication and cultural norms, about negotiating a relationship. I realized when I got married -- we all believe different stuff, just sometimes we're more upfront about it.

3. China. I talked my face blue about life in China. I was asking questions, other people told me how it was.

4. Race. Actually, the conversations were rather painful, and often stupid, but at least they were honest, and an honest conversation about race is hard to come by.

5. How are you going to die?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


We at august philippic wish you to know that we have not yet turned on Angelina Jolie. She has our full support for the coming season.

In other news, China shot down a satellite. We'd like to express our sympathy for the satellite, which was no doubt a symbol of budding democracy, or a special unicorn satellite, or perhaps "puppysat," tracking man's best friend. Curse you evil Chinese! How dare you shoot your own satellite? And not invite us along?

We at august philippic are feeling surly.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

some thoughts on personal jesus

1. things on your chest ('nuff said).

2. feeling unknown by the telephone.
a. lee siegel.
b. mickey kaus.
c. at least time loves us.
d. brian boitano.

3. confess.
a. too much makeup.
b. chafing.
c. meth.

4. lift up the receiver, I'll make you…
a. an underachiever.
b. a wide receiver.
c. a griever.
d. a labrador retriever.

5. i will deliver…
a. thai.
b. korean.
c. pie.
d. manichean.

6. be your own, personal…
a. publicist.
b. ad.
c. iphone.
d. boddhisatva.
e. junk bond trader.

7. someone to hear your prayers.
a. new computer.
b. mini.
c. more meth.

8. someone who's there.

9. reach out and touch...
a. thequietman.
b. themaxfischerplayers.
c. the borg.
d. bono.
e. the edge.
f. the spanish inquisition.
g. the amazing creskin.

10. ka da - da bum boom…


Dude, Pie!

A gentleman enjoys his pie, and bakes it on occasion. For those seeking pointers, Dawn Coyote dishes out the goods over at Fond Adversaria.

Can anybody deny the symbiosis between pie and religion? Think of the church supper, or the diner where people turn to pie at times of existential crisis. Er, well, I know I do. Hence my perilous flirtation with Type 2 diabetes. There's a Carson McCullers short story, "A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud," about learning to love; the idea being that a person can start small and work one's way up. I've always wanted to write a sequel: "A Ditch, A Grotto, A Pie."

The best pies are like eighties music: they make one feel alive as they wallow in angst. Is there anything that electricutes my nerves with the same anxiety as a crust? It drives me into the worst excesses of Depeche Mode. I will have pie. I will be my own personal Jesus.

Reach out and touch me.


1. Chocolate Mousse
2. Apple
3. Peach
4. Key Lime
5. Pecan
6. Cherry
7. Berry (any variety, preferably wild blue)

I should dispense an honorable mention to a coconut creme pie that I met just this weekend. I do not know from whence it came, but man did it liven up a dull party.

mrs. august would like my readership to note the following:

1. Making pie "on occasion" has not, thus far, included making pie for her
2. She is much better at making a crust
3. That I have not yet made dinner
4. That I am, therefore, not to be trusted.


Addendum Jan. 22: "Not yet made dinner" meant not made dinner last night. I frequently make dinner. Although, dinner last night was not very good. Breakfast was awesome though -- french toast with cinnamon apples.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Slowest Poet I Know

Several years ago, in one of many moments of wavering between getting a doctorate or making something of myself, I signed up for a poetry class with Marie Ponsot. She spent a good part of the first session introducing us to each other through our work : she read one of each of our submissions. It was kind of excruciating, for Marie is the slowest poet I know. A line break occasions a moment of silence and reflection; a period allows one to go out and grab a cuppa. Yet in the course of ten sessions with her and some very nice fellow-travelers, I came to appreciate her velocity.

For Marie, poetry is an art of attentiveness. In part, she means fixating on detail, as in her poem "Explorers Cry out Unheard"

What I have in mind is the last wilderness.

I sweat to learn its heights of sun, scrub, ants,
its gashes full of shadows and odd plants
as inch by inch it yields to my hard press.

Marie wanted us to take in each tuft, clod, and moss-heap and turn them into bricks of language, foundations for saying the things she believed each of us had a god-given need to say.

What she had to say usually involved the ways the things of the world held not only poetry together, but also bound her to the rest of us:

And the way behind me changes as I advance.
If interdependence shapes the biomass,
though I plot my next steps by pure chance
I can't go wrong. Even willful deviance
connects me to all the rest. The changing past
includes and can't excerpt me…

Marie's technique of teaching attentiveness was aural. She insisted that our first encounters with each other's poetry come through listening. The parts of the poem that were heard most clearly – that was the heart of what we had to say to each other. And so we spent a semester reading aloud, listening, telling each other what we heard.

Marie believed in metrics, and found cadences everywhere. One evening she arrived in class late; she'd seen a dance performance. The dancers had chanted as they moved, clapping in rhythms that Marie identified in the manner of the Greeks: anapests, iambs, troches. In the way that a certain frequency of energy can destroy a bridge, she thought these collections of stress could kick you, beautiful and terrible.

Marie's teaching seldom made individual poems better. Instead, she made us better poets. She encouraged silliness, formal bravado, improbable corralling of verbs. She could make a poem turn in on its own logical underpinnings. Take the aforementioned explorers:

… Memory grants
just the nothing it knows, and my distress
drives me toward the imagined truths I stalk,
those savages.

This interconnectedness thing may not be all it's cracked up to be. What is it that I think I'm seeking, and how will I know when I find it?

It's the kind of improbable yet logical reversal Marie loves, and she comes about it slowly, in due time, giving each vowel its luxuriant breath, until, sometimes abruptly, she stops:

… Warned by their haunting talk,
their gestures, I guess they mean no. Or yes.

And here is this thing undone. This aged lady, crossing the street at a geologic pace, has just shot herself and her readers with a dart poisoned with god knows what root, and that, of course, is the reason the explorers cry out unheard.

To undo what you have done, to take risks with words, to listen for the separate cadences of keyboards, city buses, elms, or Pop Rocks, to say precisely what you have to say: that slowness is what Marie taught. Or, summed up in a single sentence (mantra, motto, prophesy):

"English is more powerful than you are."

Thanks to islandtime for reminding me.


Shifting lanes on the New Jersey Turnpike, I'm knocked out of gear by a 747 landing at Newark airport directly in front of me. The landscape blinks like a Pachinko machine as I maneuver the gearshift back into place, drafting off of an 18 wheeler. Manhattan is on the right, the Moulin Rouge of cities. On the left: oil refineries, closed factories, and then… swamp. The landscape darkens and I know that I'm just a bridge away from home.

My apartment gets direct sunlight for about 4 hours each day (it slips in between the cracks of skyscrapers, riding a serenade of the electric sanders of roofers. We have been growing a bulb in a glass bowl, a Christmas present that is blooming on cue, pink fading to white. I have put it in our sliver of light, and rotate the bowl every once in a while to make sure it grows straight, but in fact the effect is the opposite. The two stalks bend this way and that on their way up to the blooms. I feel like a snake charmer.

In the city, I have discovered a neighborhood bar that is not crowded where I can get beers for $3.00 (thus allowing me to go out for a drink without arranging financing beforehand). Unfortunately, the local video store closed. They delivered to my door: Altman, Melville, Marx, Allen, Polanski, Renoir, and Godard. Now it's gone. No wonder I'm drinking.

Overheard: "It's not like I want to sleep with you every night." "I don't need you to tell me you're despicable. I can see it through your ways and actions." "Four inch margins, you're such a fucking princess. Grow up."

I'm reading Shopgirl, by Steve Martin. It's engrossing, and I'm lost at a glove counter, and remember the particular bite of loneliness. My wife stirs me, makes me talk about Christmas shopping. I'm to buy mixing bowls today.

On the fucking turnpike again. Southbound, we are jammed into two lanes with no margins, no room in front or behind. Lewis Thomas says we are more like ants than artists, that all this crap about the individual pales before the regularities of our collective behavior. The New Jersey Turnpike is just one part of the colony, and I am a worker, returning with my crumb. I worry that my tires are bald and may be about to blow. I worry that the truck driver in front of me is on speed. I worry that the kids in the car on my right will start laughing too hard to concentrate. I worry that the moments, the pieces, the cars add up to something totally banal, as wasteful and useless as a bad dictator. But I am breathless in this motion, the acceleration and deceleration and danger.

It's just so hard to pay attention.

Five Theses on Terror

1. For most of the twentieth century, if you really wanted to kill a lot of people, you did it with the nation-state. The great evils of the century were perpetrated by governments and their leaders: Mao, Stalin, Hitler. Inversely, the hopes of millions of people lay in nation states. The response to the Holocaust? A state. The answer to colonialism? Nationalism.

I think the shift away from states began around 1970. The Biafran War and the oil crisis showed new frontiers for big business. The Cambodian genocide showed how badly states could fail. The United States didn't get the memo until September, 2001, and it's still not clear how many people have read it.

2. The logic of the surge is the idea that the "Iraqi people" must take over. Fucking idiocy – as if the institutions and actions of so many could be summed up so neatly, as if the nation state was the primary means of identification. The phrase "Iraqi people" makes unity appear where there is none. That the United States is somehow deeply respectful of the sovereignty of the so-called Iraqi people is one of the great lies of the war, and the pipe dreams of those who believe this lie are what continue the carnage. What is happening now is a predictable and logical result of U.S. policy, and the phrase "Iraqi people" little more than a scapegoat to clear the consciences of conservatives.

The United States never had any idea what it was up against, still doesn't, and continues to ask for endorsement of what can charitably be described as malign incompetence and more accurately labeled complicity in genocide. This complicity will fuel the very movements George Bush claims he is intent on destroying.

3. Democracy begets crime. It does so because the majority will inevitably insist on laws that don't make sense, and black markets will be necessary to get things done. When ethnicity is added to this mix, when gangs divide on ethnic lines and define their enemies in ethnic terms, the possibility for horror is great. Violence is then perpetuated both by the criminals and the state, which uses the gangwar (the term is from Maximum City, a very good book about Bombay) as pretext for atrocities.

The idea that democracy will save Iraq is absurd. It's as absurd as the idea that the men who have been utterly clueless for six years have suddenly discovered the answers to everything.

4. The time to recognize mistakes would have been before Israel invaded Lebanon. The move would have been – we screwed up, and we need the help of Europe, Saudi Arabi, and Iran. We give up any claims on Iraq, let other powers take over. This course of action is now impossible.

5. The hope in early 2002 had been that the United States, by creating successful Islamic democracies, could defuse the threats to American cities. The threats are now greater than they ever were. Dealing with them will require people in power who are capable of looking beyond domestic concerns when formulating foreign polity. People who recognize that hagiographies of troops or paeans to the flag are not policy decisions.* The most dangerous of all statist nationalism in the world is that of the United States, not least of which because it leads to such rank stupidity on both the right and the left.

The world has a new geography. Until we can find leaders who recognize that geography, the threats to the United States will get much, much worse.

things that piss me off lately

1. The way you look at me funny.

2. That sound the neighbors make when cleaning their oven.

3. Hopping on my motorcycle, getting all set to leap 42 VW Beetles, and realizing in mid-air that Jeb lined up 44.

4. Tsunamis.

5. I really hate it when you wear those shoes with that outfit.

6. W. (hotel, president).

7. Tom Hanks (permanent member of this list).

8. Where's that damn hotel?

9. Constipation.

10. Indiana. But Montana rocks.