Category Archives: Vernon Peterson

All the news that’s fit to stink

“My breakfast over, I paid a visit to Professor Jameson and proposed to him to give an account of the habits of the Turkey Buzzard instead of the Wild Turkey. He appeared anxious to have either.”
-John James Audubon in his London journal (mid 1820s)

I finished the last book I carried with me on this trip to the Midwest and with nothing else to occupy my mind I scatter-shot the internet. (Nothing in the way I swim or compute could ever be mistaken for “surfing.”) Hereâ’s what I found in 30 minutes, give or take.

mg913Who would have thought? Google “smelly boys” and in the first dozen entries you will find adverts for scents and refrigerator magnets, videos of boys smelling their socks, and an article about the protest over smelly boy products such as tees and magnets, etc., as demeaning to boys. “Harmless fun or a fashion faux pas?”

Here’s a site new to me, The Art & Crime Gazette, which explores the intersection between art and crime, featuring a quotation from the 2003 book, Crimes of Art + Terror, by Frank Lentricchia and Jody McAuliffe, professors at Duke University: “There is a small dark place in Western Civilization where great art stands side-by-side with terrorists and petty felons.” The book, reviewed here last year, argues at its most extreme that the impulse to create art and the impulse to commit violence “lie perilously close to each other.” L + M compare “literary explosives” and “actual explosives,” equate “imaginative acts” to “bloody deeds.” The Gazette is more balanced, and is very interesting. In the blog section they note a Barry Johnson Art Scatter post about bronze statues stolen and sold as scrap metal. Check out the Gazette and see what you think.

Conservative and liberal are meaningless terms in American thought. That limp mind on the Right, Rush Limbaugh, apparently claims that President Obama is doing such a good job of destroying the country that: “If al-Qaeda wants to demolish the America we know and love, they better hurry, because Obama is beating them to it.” The America he loves has no substance. He has a thought and it must be Good. Confidence of opinion based on total absence of fact. It reminds me of Ted Hughes’ poems about Crow, especially “Crow’s Theology”:

Crow realized God loved him-
Otherwise, he would have dropped dead.
So that was proved.

Crow reclined, marvelling, on his heart-beat.
And he realized that God spoke Crow-
Just existing was His revelation.

But what Loved the stones and spoke stone?
They seemed to exist too.

And what spoke that strange silence
After his clamour of caws faded?

And what loved the shot-pellets
That dribbled from those strung-up mummifying crows?
What spoke the silence of lead?

Crow realized there were two Gods-
One of them much bigger than the other
Loving his enemies
And having all the weapons.

Plains speaking: POET in the corn rows

grassssdateline willow lakeKum ‘N Go is gone, replaced (in name sign only) by Super X. In my South Dakota hometown the once “Ye Olde … Whatever” signs have been replaced by vintage-script “Whatever . . . Shoppe” ones. And I forget how delightful it is to name the surrounding towns: Letcher, Loomis, Woonsocket, Ree Heights, Yale, Carthage, Carpenter and Iroquois, and the still barely 300+ Willow Lake, where I spent most of my first fourteen years, and where today I visit my Aunts Gloria and Rose, my only remaining relatives of my parents’ generation, who live a block apart, or, almost across town from each other.

I got here via Rapid City, with a detour to climb to the face of Crazy Horse Memorial, part of a 6.2 mile “Volksmarch” allowed two days a year in early June, and a quick jaunt across the state, with a detour to touch a corner of the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands (above) and then drive through Badlands National Monument to Interior, S.D. (listening to Kronos Quartet’s new album Floodplain), and then through Mitchell, S.D., and a quick circuit around its claim to fame, the Corn Palace, and finally directly north to the James River Valley, an area of the state that is as flat as anything I’ve ever seen, so that you wonder what meaning the word “valley” can have in this context, and where grasslands have been replaced by corn. In other words, all things familiar to me from infancy and revisited perhaps twenty times since 1975 when my wife and I picked up and moved to Oregon.

So many Strong Words, so many Memories.

But then, what is this?, short of our hometown, a new sign:


cornfieldA website away, I find that POET, LLC has spent twenty years “defining the art of biorefining,” that is, the production of ethanol from corn. POET began as a family farm operation in Wanamingo, Minnesota, in 1983, turned commercial operation in Scotland, South Dakota in 1986, and now has some two dozen plants in seven states throughout the Midwest. How have I missed this?

POET brings together disparate politicos such as General Wesley Clark and Newt Gingrich to support agriculture + ethanol and, in the words of General Clark, a “moral purpose” organization like POET, which is set to redefine our country’s freedom (from petroleum products). POET’s new venture, project LIBERTY, marks the transformation of the industry from corn as the primary ingredient of ethanol to “cellulosic” ethanol, a “new frontier,” involving the use of corn cobs, switch grass, wood chips and refuse.

But enough; or, my Words are not enough.

You really must meet POET.

So this is the Prairie POET.

And it is the dream of POET to leave a lasting impression. If I dare summarize such a breathtaking combination of “energy inspired” classic photos, Muzak, Plains-speak language and frog-throated narration: “Just as a poet can take simple every day words and give them new meaning,” POET fuses the energy and inspiration of the “creators,” those who “blend soil, sun and sky,” the “cultivators,” those who use “hearts, minds and hands,” and the “composers,” those who build “harmony between nature and invention,” all in the name of keeping new fuels flowing.

American poets from Emerson to Whitman to Ginsburg have been about new namings, I guess, so why not POET, too.

“It is difficult to get the news from poems,” said William Carlos Williams, yet women and men “die every day for lack of what is found there.” Difficult to get commerce from poems, too?

There’s a word for this sort of thing

“I stare at the gleaming black surface, at the red soil beneath my feet, at the dry eucalyptus leaves, curled into the shapes of letters as if they had been shaken from a tray of type.”
– Cees Nooteboom, Lost Paradise

This is a story without pictures. So it must be a story about Paradise.

It is a retreat, a refuge, a quiet place of natural beauty and extended view, where victims of the “modern madness, mere maniacal extension and motion,” find a place to nurture the “inner life,” to regain “the uncontested possession of the long, sweet, stupid day.”

Seated at a bench above a “wide, far-reaching garden,” comfortable in the good place of serenity and peace, the old man recalls his former life, outside in the world, where he had “lost possession” of his soul, “surrounded only with the affairs of other people, and the irrelevant, destructive, brutalising sides of life.” Out there, he tells his sympathetic bench mate, he thought he would never recover: “The wild waters would close over me, and I should drop straight to the bottom where the vanquished dead lie.” That thought precipitates this exchange:

“I follow you every step of your way,” said the friendly Brother. “The wild waters, you mean, of our horrible time.”

“Of our horrible time – precisely. Not, of course – as we sometimes dream – of any other.”

“Yes, any other is only a dream. We really know none but our own.”

You suspect those are not the words of our time? They are from Henry James’ story “The Great Good Place” published in 1900. It could have been another story from any century running back to much earlier times. This, the one at hand, because I read it yesterday.

A couple of ideas about Paradise.

We envision it behind us or in front of us. Even in the best of times, the blest of times, Paradise is some place or time other than ours. It is the place we left or the one we are headed to. Meaning the Garden we were thrust from, or the crystalline palace beyond the abstract gate of the unknown. In the Pacific Northwest the idea of Paradise tumbles like a stream out of the Cascades. Our natural world is Eden if unspoiled or Heaven if it is transformed into a rose garden. Rivers, wild or flood-controlled. Notice that the bench mates look out over a peaceful garden and shiver at the thought of drowning in wild waters. Metaphorical experience, of course.

Paradise is lost or not yet found. Paradise misplaced, mistranslated. That’s it. Paradise is words. Words we’ve fumbled, or lost. A place of words within words. We read a landscape the way we read a book, though perhaps no as literally as the woman in Lost Paradise reads the eucalyptus leaves. All we do is read. Unlike the animals in James Dickey’s poem, “The Heaven of Animals,” the place at which they arrive, “beyond their knowing,” where “Their instincts wholly bloom / and they rise”:

For some of these,
It could not be the place
It is, without blood.
These hunt as they have done,
But with claws and teeth grown perfect,

More deadly than they can believe.
They stalk more silently,
And crouch on the limbs of trees,
And their descent
Upon the bright backs of their prey

May take years
In a sovereign floating of joy.
And those that are hunted
Know this as their life,
Their reward: to walk

Under such trees in full knowledge
Of what is in glory above them,
And to feel no fear,
But acceptance, compliance.
Fulfilling themselves without pain

At the cycle’s center,
They tremble, they walk
Under the tree,
They fall, they are torn,
They rise, they walk again.

We’ve all been there! – In metaphorical exhalations. Now is the heaven of animals. Now for us is before or after as we think about it.

Home is where the words are, and they are buried deep. Ronald Johnson found his book Radi Os (1977) by digging words out from words. He picked up an 1892 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost in a Seattle bookstore and erased or “etched” away most lines and words on each page, leaving a core of images, in the same place on the page of his published book: PARADISE LOST.

Radiating out. A book, a Paradise, a place of words within words.

Choose your words carefully.

Bathroom reading: What’s in your wallet?

Japan Scary Toilet PaperBooks come in all shapes and sizes and perform all sorts of functions, in addition to acting as containment vessel for reading “matter.” And almost anything can function as bathroom reading. Where else memorize your credit card numbers? Now, it turns out, almost everything is worth the paper it’s printed on.

Japanese horrorist Koji Suzuki has a new short novella called Drop printed on toilet paper.

The cult film The Ring is based on one of his scary stories, so there is a certain inevitability to his penning a toilet bowl tale. As bathroom reading goes, that may take the cake. I’ve seen dollar bills printed on t.p., filthy lucre, and I can guess the face of Mona Lisa has been printed there to.

Bathroom reading does have its horrors, its downsides, its backsides. Remember the Seinfeld episode where George hauls an expensive art book, French Impressionist Paintings, off to the toilet at Bretano’s, is forced to buy it, and then can’t get rid of the contaminated book?

Careful what you borrow. Not to worry reading a post, of course. Though “blog” is suggestive, as is the “upload” function necessary to feature the photo of Suzuki, above.

Back in my day on the Great Plains (this would have been the early 1950s) most of my farmer relatives had outhouses where the reading fare there was last year’s Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog, also the t.p. Wishes and dreams gone down well.

Drop, apparently, is a scary thriller set in a public restroom, takes up about three feet of paper, and can be read in a few minutes or strung out over the course of several sittings.


A requiem (com)post: “bore the Garden in the Brain / This Curiosity-”


“This ‘Arth.”
-Natty Bumppo

This is a made-up life in all meridians. Made up of dirt, moved by water and air, refined in fire, per ignem. Scattered about, and everything’s comin’ up roses.

In the print edition of Times Literary Supplement (May 1, 2009), Kelly Grovier writes about Cy Twombly’s paintings currently on display at Gagosian’s Gallery in London. (Unfortunately, the article is not accessible online.) Five paintings, each with four wood panels, three with full bloom roses, and one with scrawled fragments from “Les Roses” by German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Probably most recognized for his “blackboard” paintings, which look like, well, blackboards, filled with student cursive handwriting exercises, Twombly has a gallery dedicated to him at the Menil Collection in Houston. I have wandered through it twice. It is an exquisite building, each room devoted to a different period of the artist’s work, many of the paintings including poetry integrated in the image, in what Grovier describes as a “blurring of boundaries between the visually unrefined and the verbally incoherent.” The effect is remarkable; I’ve wept in joyful melancholy thinking about them. The untitled “Green” paintings that fill one room are to my mind Pacific Northwest landscapes; or, rather, small west slope Cascades streamscapes.

6_twombly_int4Painting is reading is gardening. Weeds everywhere.

My favorite professor called it “the study of litter – ah – tour,” to rhyme with manure. He also told one of the best literary anecdotes I’ve heard. Teaching one evening class a week at the University of Minnesota, he had the habit of stoping for a drink after in a near-campus bar. Chatting with the new bartender one night, a Persian pre-med student, he said, “By the way, I’m Bill Lemons,” to which the bar-keep replied, “Call me Ishmael.”
Continue reading A requiem (com)post: “bore the Garden in the Brain / This Curiosity-”

Call me anthological


“Anthologies of contemporary poetry, like new cars, run the risk of being obsolete within a couple years. My hope is that this one will have the lasting power of a Volkswagen at least.”
-A. Poulin, Jr., Contemporary American Poetry (1971)

9780520072275As anthologies go, the monstrous Poems for the Millennium, Volume Three: The University of California Book of Romantic and Postromantic Poetry (2009), edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Jeffrey Robinson, is a Hummer pretending to be a hybrid. Combined with its sturdy predecessors, Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry, Volume One: From Fin-de-Siecle to Negritude (1996), and Volume Two: From Postwar to Millennium (1998), edited by Rothenberg and Pierre Joris, with 2600 combined pages, they are a fully-loaded triple trailer.

A carrier we can use for the long haul, or a threat to others on the road? At the beginning of the new millennium, we have some time to sort it out. This is my shakedown run.

I love poetry anthologies, for reasons that can’t be duplicated with anthologies of fiction or essays. A lyric poem, after all, is itself a work of assemblage, each line a careful choice of image and word held in balance for a breath, framed in tension or in harmony with lines before and after, rounded swiftly to the close. The poetic line is a product of selection; the poem an anthology of lines. In a good anthology, we sense, in the swift space of a few poems, the range or depth of the poet, the clash or harmony of theme and emotion. In half an hour we explore the unique geography and weather of two, four or half a dozen poets, landscapes wild or domestic, an experience that can be over- or underwhelming depending on the curatorial skill of the anthologist.

No other anthology offers the same sense of immediacy or range. I very seldom read fragments or segments of novels in progress. I don’t even like isolated short stories; I need to read several at a go to feel connected to any one. So I wait for new collections by Alice Munro and T.C. Boyle, rather than read their stories singly in The New Yorker or Harper’s.

Anthologies have been the lifeblood of American poetry, the venerable Mississippi of American poetry, though poets and readers may not realize it fishing the thousands of miles of the hundreds of tributaries, pulling up sunfish and an occasional trout. Though the internet may have changed that somewhat, providing broad access to poetry and poets, there is nothing like the compact, well-thumbed anthology to provide the casual intimacy that precipitates the shock of recognition – a new poet! The discovery of good poetry is incidental to that kind of casual exploration.

Poetry also has fewer readers and wider diversity, and needs the cross-fertilization an anthology provides. I’m guessing wildly here, but if you ask 25 readers to name the top 25 fiction writers in America, I’d expect two-thirds of those named would be the same but in a different order. Ask 25 poetry readers to name the top 25 American poets and perhaps only half a dozen would be the same, and some lists might have no common names.

There are all kinds of anthologies. Some explore eternal themes such as love and anti-war. Some are gender or ethnic collections. Others are simply the 101 “best loved” poems of the last year, decade or century. Some are designed for college classroom use, providing surveys of canonical poets and representative poems, often winding a poet’s reputation tightly to a few poems before they’ve hit their stride. Some anthologies are school or movement oriented, both recognized and obscure: Futurists, Surrealists, Objectivists, Beats, confessional, or language poets. Most – and, interestingly, some of the best – are very polemical, arguing for a certain kind of poetry. Classrooms never do justice to this volatile aspect of contemporary poetry. I’m not sure how you can educate yourself in the broad landscape of American poetry, all its streams, other than through the anthologies of the day, serially “new” and “recent,” and then old and dusty and obscure in all their wild diversity.

I’m seldom more than a few feet from a poetry anthology (or a battered copy of Four Quartets, an anthology of sorts). How else to fill the time when you have a minute or two to spare, waiting for something or someone, and you crave intellectual nourishment, but a novel is too much and a Luna bar wrapper too little?
Continue reading Call me anthological

Scattered thoughts reading turning 61


“I am ruminating,” said Mr. Pickwick, “on the strange mutability of human affairs.”
– Charles Dickens

Death is secondary to the reality of absence engrained in me as a child, I’ve come to believe. To the child seeing out (yes, seeing, not looking), when you are gone (or not visible) you do not exist. Simple as that. After a certain age (at what age I can’t say, although if I’d tuned to this notion earlier, observing our first grandchild the past several months, I could have established it almost to the day) the child loves peek-a-boo only because absence and return are as quick and as certain as the game is over before the sharp intake of breath registers as deep fear or dread.

And what is absence but recognition of the Other in a different key? Other begins as differentiation from self – mother, family and friends, as the child’s remembered world expands. Eventually, Other is everything other than this: this moment, this place, this Other we call our own body (although, okay, mind/body is convention too). We stand outside all nature as Other, which becomes God, or, outside God (the concept of creator), the endless cosmos/universe, logical or chaotic or chaotically-logical, depending.

To think that reading a book titled The Other, conjoined with the turn to my 62d year, would release distillations running in all directions: personal, political, existential. (As I write this Time magazine’s headline is “The Decline and Fall of Christian America,” while that of Newsweek reads “Vanishing Act: How Climate Change is Causing a New Age of Extinction.” Our own little corner of this moment in infinity divided between judgmental gods and selection of a different sort.)

To sense that the space between the “this now and that then” of thought, is where love takes root, and where we find the related extensions of tolerance, acceptance, or ties to family, community, family of man. We love because the Other leaves; we are bound to others already in memory because they will have left. Permutations of this theme abound in Gabriel Josipovici’s intriguing novel Goldberg: Variations. In it an 18th century scholar parses John Donne’s poem “A Nocturnal Upon S. Lucy’s Day,” which is about love as the opposite of un-being and extinction. Love of Lucy called the poet into being and her death leaves him “re-begot / Of absence, darkness, death; things which are not.” In another passage in the novel the scholar describes marriage as a dance – not two become one, but two in accord, “well-being in reciprocity,” recognition of space between one and the other, “the mutual respect of the one for the other, and into the physical pleasure of each in its own being, which is that of the other.” Love is thus absence in place.

The scholar’s wife addresses him in her diary while he is distant on business: absent. “I have grown used to your presence in the house and it is hard to be alone.” Or, again: “I do not really grieve at your absence. I merely miss your presence.” And then she makes a remarkable observation about her private writing in the diary:

I had never thought of any of this till I sat down half and hour ago filled with the need to write about you. That is what writing is like. The sheet of paper before one and the pen in one’s hand seem to allow those things to emerge which one knew but didn’t know one knew. It may not be very interesting or very profound, but it brings relief. Like hugging you. But why is it not sufficient to sit in my chair and imagine myself hugging you? After all, when I write here in my notebook you are no more present than if I closed my eyes and thought of you. Indeed, less so perhaps, since if I close my eyes I can see you, whereas when I write I certainly do not. But then when I hug you I do not see you, I feel you. And that is what seems to happen with writing. But why should that be so? To feel you, you have to be present and close to me, and now you are neither. Yet I am sure this is the truth, that when I close my eyes I see you but when I write I feel you.”

“How can one touch that which is absent?” Her answer is writing; that is, the thing written: the book, is other than the Other, the Other in yet another key! But is it not also a bridge to the Other; a thread of something that in fact binds us to the Other?

Writing and reading, the book and the Other. And writing and reading is why we are here, at this moment, in this place, in the first place, isn’t it?
Continue reading Scattered thoughts reading turning 61

Bad Day at Black Rock: The far post

200px-bad_day_at_black_rockStop me if you’ve heard this one before. There are two plots, it is said: Someone Goes On A Trip and Stranger Comes To Town. That’s one plot, actually, with two points of view. Stranger must go on trip from some other town in order to come to ours.

Why then so many stories? Subplot and denouement.

For example, Kid comes to town and wants to play ball. Say Kid is poor and lives on the flats (the poor kid is always from the flats). When Kid shows up on the field, he’s picked on and stuffed in the trash can. Or, Kid shows up on the field with immense talent, becomes a hero, and gets a scholarship to State.

Or, say, Kid is rich, and when he comes down off the hill (the rich kid always lives on the hill), he brings a shiny new ball and a couple extra pairs of shin guards, to share. Many options here. Say Kid’s dad builds town a Carnegie library and moves on to next town (Kid leaves ball with team).

Or, Kid says, “We play by my rules or I take my ball and go home.”

Or, Kid says, “Give me your lunch money and I’ll let you clean up and mow Mr. Wilson’s vacant lot for a new pitch, and I’ll let you paint the fence. And, if you promise me your kid’s lunch money 20 years from now, I’ll give you free tickets on promo night.”

Moral of story: Some kids teach their parents about Stranger Danger. Some don’t.

Stanley Crawford: the definite article has its “the day”

“He had learned to step to the side of the day.”
Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day

“And I’m pretending that it’s paradise”
Van Morrison, “Golden autumn Day”

This was back before “back in my day” turned into “back in the day” (which, according to Nathan Bierma, occurred in the mid-90s); that is, before our personal nostalgia had to be the best nostalgia ever. In any event, it was back then that we almost rented a farm. Well, a rundown farmhouse and garden plot, not the 40-acre alfalfa field out back, or any of the outbuildings either. This was 1973. We passed on the farm, passed on paradise. And I now learn, via the “back in the day calculator,” that this time was smack into my the day, which rolled through between 1972 and 1978. Fortunately, I don’t have to wonder what I missed.

asset_medium1972, it turns out, was the year Stanley Crawford published his short novel, Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine, revived now by the Dalkey Archive Press. I did not know the book then, but its spirit animated our discussion of the farm, a daydream of paradise that spiraled through the what-ifs and why-nots of post-original innocence, though not to the extent of imagining tying our marriage to an ocean-bound garbage scow, purchased “for a song, garbage and all, rot, stink and a flock of squabbling seagulls,” this rich compost layered with soil and planted with trees, flowers and vegetables, a new Garden of Eden, stocked with goats, birds and bees, and for forty years a home to a new Adam and a new Eve, afloat across the earth’s seas’ temperate zone, free from country, cant and commerce, and called the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine.

This dream of dropping out and staying out might ring bells with those who had time on their hands back in that day, as will the tension between the sexes memorialized in the Mrs Unguentine’s memoir, written after her husband drops drunk over the side of the barge for the last time. She isn’t to be trusted in everything she says about her old man, alternately drawn to and repelled by him, as she’s alternately worn out and invigorated by the alternative lifestyle. It’s one thing contemplating the miracle of the egg; it’s another mucking out the chicken coop.
Continue reading Stanley Crawford: the definite article has its “the day”

Being in song: to be born again just in time

“I’m mumbling mumbling
And I can’t remember the last thing that ran
straight through my head”

Van Morrison, “Ballerina”

flyerEvery Monday, new music lightens our dreary drive to Eugene and back. New releases come Tuesday so there’s a week’s delay and anticipation that figures into the mix, too. Yesterday it was “Sweet Thing,” the fourth song on Van Morrison’s new Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl, before he was clearly mumbling – clearly mumbling, words as sounds tumbling and rolling out of his chest and throat — and we knew it was going to be a great drive. Astral Weeks (1968) has tracked this Scatter’s nearly forty year marriage and yesterday as the music washed over us, in scat-time to occasional shower, we were driving South Dakota back roads, not down I-5 and back. We didn’t even get to Keith Jarrett’s new Yesterday, which will now be next Monday or later.

Recorded last November, all the Astral Weeks songs are here, in different order and with some improvisations: Astral Weeks Beside You Sweet Thing Cyprus Avenue The Way Young Lovers Do Madam George Ballerina Slim Slower Slider – play them in your head — plus “Listen to the Lion” from Saint Dominic’s Preview (we listen to that every July 4) and “Common One,” one of those mystic church-Swendenborgian things we put up with to have the rest of Morrison.

So when we got back to Portland I opened Austrian novelist Peter Handke’s My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay, to read the part about the singer, Morrison in disguise. Morrison sang one of Handke’s lyrics on The Philosopher’s Stone and one of the photos of Morrison on his Back on Top (another great album with those chilling, barely registered, barely mistimed backing vocals by Brian Kennedy) is on the jacket of My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay. (Connectedness is all.) But long story short, “Being in song was the original condition for him,” says the narrator of the singer. Being in song. And: “It seemed to the singer as if something in him was beginning to heal, something which, although he had sung about it again and again, he had not even wanted to have healed.”

It’s that perpetual “beginning to heal” we listen for in Morrison, and if someday his voice sounds healed I don’t know what we’ll do.

My wife, this morning, mumbling “To be born again . . .”