It’s like a scene from a satirical movie about the 21st century. Our phones have conflicting but equally mistaken ideas about how to get where we’re going; in their incompatible eerie voices they instruct us in ever firmer tones to take more and more wrong turns. We don’t want to silence them because who knows, maybe they’ll figure out where they’re going after a while, and anyway neither of us wants to be the first to admit that their phone is wrong, so we just yell at each other over the voices, adding two more layers of navigational confusion to the general chaos.

Still I feel no nostalgia for the previous millennium; for its unwieldy paper maps that obscured the forward view; for the necessity of squinting at the trickily intersecting lines representing our path; for the infinitesimal print that silently explained everything; for the way the driver–it was a different driver then–yelled at me to hurry up, to figure out where we were going, before it was too late, which it always, always was.

longer days
objects are closer
than they appear

what I read, what I didn’t

Chapter One.

The doctor’s habit is to hold his hand in front of his face
when he’s delivering bad news. He looks like he’s about to
cough but he’s about to tell you that he saw a shadow in your
lungs. “That’s a great metaphor,” you don’t say. You don’t say,
“Wow, and then what happened?” He’s not that kind of doctor.
You probably need a new doctor, one with a literary sensibility,
the hell with how he did in med school. You take notes in your
private shorthand while wondering what part of town they keep
those doctors in.

and out of nowhere it dawns on you that blossoms are fruit


Chapter Two.

The Man Who’s Sometimes There asks you if you need anything.
This is a signal he’s about to not be there for a while. He needs
something to bring back with him when he returns. “Something to read,”
you tell him. The Man looks worried. He doesn’t understand what
you like to read. You can’t blame him, you don’t really understand
either. Now that you think of it, you don’t even want anything to read.
Reading makes you feel like throwing up. You tell him to bring pudding,
because he loves pudding. Then you lie on the couch for six hours not
reading. It’s the only thing you can think of to do.

all summer all the voices on the radio


Chapter Three.

Each Thursday from two to five, while tethered to the most insidiously
comfortable chair in the world, you spend way too long wondering
things: whether the cactus in the waiting room is real, whether your
brain will survive being poisoned, whether the nurse with the blue
fingernails would ever be your friend. Is there some kind of
professional taboo against that? What does the nurse with the blue
fingernails do with her friends? You suspect it’s something lighthearted
and wonder whether you could ever hack that. You go to sleep and
wonder things in your dreams, things too vague and terrifying and
beautiful to put into words, and when you wake up the nurse with the
blue fingernails is laughing at you. Or no, wait, she’s just laughing at
something the other nurse said, but it’s too late, you kind of hate
the blue-fingernailed nurse now. Well, it was nice while it lasted.

a sharp distinction between apples and alone


Chapter Four.

The new doctor, who by now is the old doctor, asks you if you saw
that new Haruki Murakami book that’s more pictures than words.
The new doctor’s got you wrapped around his little finger. That’s a
great metaphor, you don’t tell yourself. You only ever read anymore
to have something to talk about with the new doctor. You say
something about Haruki Murakami that only makes sense to somebody
with a poisoned brain and the new doctor nods the way he nods
when you’re being crazy. I’m not sure, he says, that it was a very
successful experiment. He looks at the computer where he stores
everything he knows about you and sighs, and frowns, and opens his
mouth to speak again. Opens his mouth and says some words, but
words are just words to you now. What’s real out in the waiting room?
What will someone bring you next?

listening very closely to frostbite

character study

She wakes up sometimes, thinking about her dilemma. It always takes a minute to remember what the dilemma is because it’s always a different dilemma than the last time she woke up. It’s that kind of story. The solution to her dilemma is often obvious to her, as it is to every reader of that kind of story, but she knows her own judgment makes no difference to the resolution of the dilemma. She’s made efforts in the past–to leave the man, to save the child, to cross the street, to pursue her ambition–but whether she succeeds or not is entirely up to the storyteller. He might be trying to write a cautionary tale, or make his readers cry, or make the heroine of the story look good in contrast to her, in which case she will surely make the wrong choice, do the foolish thing, die in poverty, be shunned by the townsfolk. By now she’s used to failure. By now she’s used to contempt. By now she’s used to losing things that seemed impossible to lose. It’s almost exhilarating to her now, that kind of loss. She knows it doesn’t really matter. The next time she wakes up, she’ll be a character in a new story. There’s always the possibility that this time, she’ll have magical powers, or a mighty army, or an uncanny ability to bend people to her will. There’s always the possibility that by the end of the story, she’ll be ruling the world.

these damn cicadas
with their confessional tone
I promise myself
I’ll admit everything
when nothing’s left to admit

(Prose: here, now. Tanka: Eucalypt, November 2011.)

(the only warm things)

It’s a Saturday night around the Ides of March and you’re in bed at nine o’clock, wearing an old T-shirt you would never let anyone see you wearing, listening to the clothes dryer in the basement, which has all the good clothes in it, tumble them dry in its usual reliable way. The dryer is 25 years old or more and you’ve owned it for 22 of those years. You’re that old now. The more you think about the dryer the more you love it, the way you push a single button and in response the dryer grows hot and does its sturdy mechanical dance and eventually buzzes to respectfully inform you that its work is complete, and when you open the door the release of the latch makes that satisfying thump and the pile of warm cloth inside is warmer than anything else you touch all week. It makes you want a baby so you could put the baby to sleep in a pile of warm laundry and watch its little chest rise and fall as it slept, as efficient and reliable as the dryer. Why didn’t you ever do that when you had a baby? What was stopping you? Who was stopping you? Why did you always obey the wrong instructions and disregard the right ones? Why are you and the dryer the only warm things in the house tonight?

midnight snack
the clock with no hands
still ticking

office. poetry.

People don’t often write poems about offices, places of white-collar business and the ordinary business activities that take place in them. Just as one example, I don’t think Wallace Stevens wrote a single poem about the insurance industry, in which he made all the money that enabled him to be a poet (please correct me if I’m wrong because I’d love to read that poem), but he wrote plenty of poems about blackbirds and rabbits and harmoniums and snowmen and the glass knobs on deal dressers. They were ridiculously good poems too, but, I query skeptically, was there not a single word that could be said poetically in the Stevensian manner about underwriters or risk adjustment? Hmmm, I answer myself, and how about you, do you write poems about the medical software industry, the sector of the economy that is supporting your poetic habit (admittedly on a far less grand scale than Stevens’s)? I do not, I admit to myself. But don’t think I haven’t tried.

In theory nothing should lie outside the purview of poetry but in practice, instructions for the proper configuration of the software your doctor uses to record your cholesterol levels and take notes on your gall bladder attacks seem to be pretty unpoetizable. (That’s a word now.) Frankly I find this state of affairs frustrating and embarrassing. Real poets, I think, should be able to make a poem of a conference room full of earnest young software company employees discussing the new install methodology. Real poets are apparently not me, Wallace Stevens, or any other poet I’ve ever heard of.*

There are certainly plenty of blue-collar poets, like the late great Philip Levine of the late great Detroit, and maybe this is because blue-collar work is concrete and describable in a way that white-collar work is not–you can write about blue-collar work using words like rust and grease and steel and dirt and bulldozer and incinerator and all kinds of other vivid, solid, vigorous English words, the kind that poems need to breathe freely. White-collar work, especially these days, takes place physically in clean, smooth, antiseptic offices, and mentally largely inside the tidily closed metal boxes in which we organize, express, and communicate our thoughts. There’s hardly even any paper left, as there would have been in Stevens’s day, meaning no concrete things like ledger books, no inkwells, no blotters, no letter openers because no letters. I have no problem keeping my desk at work tidy and rust-, grease-, and dirt-free because the only thing on it is a computer. And two giant monitors, though I often wish I had three, so I could see more of what I was thinking at one time. And also a telephone, but I don’t use it very often. It’s easier to send email.

So the physical environment of office workers is somewhat impoverished, for poetic purposes. Still I think it’s a failure of our imagination, not to be able to write poems about it. Is it just because it’s all so new and we have no models for it that it’s so difficult to figure out how to write poems about sitting in a climate-controlled box in front of a computer thinking and writing about things that happen inside other computers? Or is there something inherently unpoetic about doing these things? And if we don’t write those poems, do we risk giving the impression that there’s something wrong with what we’re doing, or that it isn’t an important part of our lives? I don’t think either of those things is true but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the fact that it’s so hard to write poetry about means that there’s something wrong with it or that it isn’t an important part of my life, not at the deepest level of me. Or maybe I should just give up and write prose if I need to convey some information about what’s going on at the office these days.

I’m still staring
at the error message

*In case I was just ignorant of a vast trove of stellar office poetry I did a little search over at the Poetry Foundation for poems containing the word “office” and after sifting through the results for a while came up with a couple that could arguably be considered white-collar poetry, although they’re older poems and neither of them reflect the kind of highly computerized office environment I work in. But they’re pretty great. Enjoy.

To My Father’s Business, by Kenneth Koch
My Office, by Lorenzo Thomas

(somewhere else)

swingset / into / and out of / thin / air


It’s the edge of spring, the sky is suddenly, somehow, much bigger, and the construction crane that perennially looms over the place I work begins to swing. I’ve never seen anything non-sentient move so lightheartedly. Halfway through its arc a flock of birds appears from somewhere else in the cloudless sky and begins to dance with the machine. These are the kinds of things that happen after you decide you’re glad that you’re alive.

…..and out of

Prose: here, now. Haiku: DailyHaiku, Cycle 11, May 29, 2011.

More Things Fall Out of the Sky and Disturb My Hair

and the snow (crystalline) makes it shine
and the rain makes it smell more like hair
and the wind proves that everything we do can be undone
and the sun burns light into it (the operative word being


and the leaves that have died
and been reborn as memento mori entangle themselves in it
and crumble into dust as I take out my comb

— teeth and all —

and stare at it, wondering how
the clouds get so close to earth that they’re fog
and my hair and I walk sideways

into it


I’d offer you everything but the barometer’s falling

The Tools

blue moon / I isolate the remaining variable


I’m great at mental arithmetic which they say is a strange thing for a writer to be but to me it’s all the same thing. Words and numbers: underneath them both there’s an invisible foundation of pictures.

blue moon I isolate the remaining variable

10 years without fire
1,000,000 tragedies
no less

full two hours
the compass in view
the sky lost

over 50 percent of these mountains
you carry face upward

in the morning one live deer
such injuries are called wounds

two voices,
this imagined world.

curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth

I don’t know where we came from or how we got to the point where we could wonder where we came from. I don’t know where we’re going but it seems clear we did not evolve for optimal longevity as a species. It’s our imaginations that will do us in, I think. We want so much, so heartbreakingly more than we can have. The thing right in front of us is never the right thing. What we possess is hardly enough to take the edge off our desire. We talk, therefore we deceive. We understand, therefore we misunderstand. I could think all night. I could talk all day. It’s not even our faults that are the worst thing about us. The disasters caused by love are the ones you never see coming.

after I finish
describing what I want…

what happened in February

So I’m not sure how I never quite knew this before but it turns out that if you decide you have to write you actually can. I told myself I had to write something on the blog every day in February and every. single. day. in February I opened up my laptop and felt utterly barren. I mean I had NOTHING TO SAY. Every single day I thought, damn, this is it, the day I fail completely to write because there is absolutely nothing in my head, I have no ideas, I’m a creative failure and also probably any day now I’ll become an alcoholic even though I can hardly stand the taste of any form of alcohol. It was the most horrible feeling, EVERY SINGLE DAY.

I’m sorry to be yelling but really I cannot emphasize this enough. There was nothing, nada, zilch in my head and I felt blah and dead and worthless and then…I mean sometimes after a couple of hours of sitting there in front of the blankity-blank laptop feeling like that, but refusing, like a moron, to go do something more socially productive, some kind of tiny little idea would come to me. Like an idea the size of a word, sometimes. I would take that word and I would bleed it dry, man. I had no choice. I had to write. So I did. And it was one of the MOST FUN MONTHS of writing I’ve ever had in my life. I wrote all kinds of completely crazy things, purely because I absolutely had to, and I found so many exciting things in my brain that I had no idea whatsoever were there until I made myself find them out of desperation.

It was like when you finally clean out a closet for the first time in ten years and you find your favorite old pair of jeans, a packet of love letters from your favorite old boyfriend, and five hundred dollars you knew you hid somewhere but you couldn’t remember where. Not that that exact thing has ever happened to me but I can just imagine if it did. It turns out I can imagine quite a lot. And I’m here to tell you, you almost certainly can as well, if you’re willing to sit around like an idiot for a few hours every day, gently weeping from frustration, and then write something utterly insane. I’m just sayin’. 

I don’t know what I’m going to do now but it should probably be something else super fun that involves writing. First I’m just going to take, like, one day off, though. I feel I owe myself that much. Man. What a month. February. Thanks for sticking with me. 

research reveals

I’m an Aquarius, not that that matters, I don’t believe in that stuff. I’m not good at believing in stuff in general. This is not, as some people believe, a depressing way to live. It’s an exhilarating one, especially in February. You get to dig past the frozen earth on the surface, past the frost-heaved rocks, deep, deep, deeper, deeper still, until finally you fall into a cave where the temperature year-round is fifty-four degrees and thirty thousand years ago someone drew a picture on the wall to let everyone know what he had killed. You can just stay there for a while, breathing air that’s not frozen and believing devoutly in the evidence of your own eyes. It’s not a trick of the light. It’s not a possibly spurious argument. It’s not the deception of a charlatan or the ranting of a madman. It’s a buffalo and the paint—my God!—the paint is still wet.

an abandoned footnote at the edge of the canyon

haibun. today.

Hey, so that issue of Haibun Today that I’ve been editing for the last few months is on newsstands now. Um, I mean, of course, it’s on the Internet free of charge, right here

I read something like 180 haibun in the process of making selections for this issue and I found some amazing work, really some of my favorite haibun ever, so thanks to all of you who made it very difficult for me to make decisions this winter.

As you might have noticed, I’ve also been writing a ton of haibun myself lately. All in all I’ve probably thought more about haibun in the last three months than I did in the previous 4.5 years, which is about how long I’ve been aware that haibun existed. I’m not completely sure I understand what it is and how it works any better than I ever did, but I have many swirling and complicated thoughts about it, which I might even write down some day. 

In the meantime, you should head over to Haibun Today and read all the great haibun, as well as all the great tanka prose (edited by Claire Everett).

And then maybe try writing some of your own, because we all have some stories that are waiting around impatiently to be turned into something rare, and valuable, and poetic. You’re welcome, and thanks.


by the time

We show up in Moscow three months after the first gap appears in the Berlin Wall. Is the Cold War still on, or is it over? No one’s sure, but the Russians are playing it safe. This isn’t like studying abroad in France or Spain, where they find a nice family to stash you with and you learn to speak the language over leisurely European dinners. Here we have our own separate-but-equal American wing in a fourteen-story dormitory for foreign students, most of the rest of whom are from the Eastern Bloc. The wing opposite us is full of Bulgarians who are always burning their food in the kitchen we share and won’t talk to us. None of the other students will talk to us. Only the black-market dealers and illegal-currency traders are interested in being our friends. They speak perfect English and have great clothes, so we feel right at home with them. They cheat us constantly, of course, and cast a wolfish eye over our piles of amazing American stuff, but that, too, feels familiar. We came from lives that—we now realize—were mostly about wanting, and shortly thereafter acquiring, stuff. Life here is different. Life here has the slightly tinny sound of a five-kopeck piece dropping into the fare box on the tram, and the thin, fragile texture of the paper ticket you tear off with a mittened hand to prove you paid.

by the time
another war
harvest moon

prose: here, now. haiku: Frogpond 38.1.


I was told that nowhere was the place to go so I Googled it and found cheap tickets. A cruise on a tramp steamer, followed by a balloon ride, followed by a stint on a rickshaw, ending up, naturally, with a five-hundred-mile walk into the interior of nothing. That’s not nothing. I spent six months getting into shape for it because sometimes we just have to challenge ourselves and push beyond our limits if only to have something to talk about at parties. The website mentioned packing light. I emailed them and asked, Wave or particle? No one answered, because that’s how customer service works on the Internet, am I right, so I rounded up half a dozen candles, a flashlight, a box of matches, a lighter, and a flint and steel, and I put them in my rucksack and then I took them out and packed three novels and my two favorite T-shirts and don’t tell anyone but this very tiny carved rabbit I’ve had since I was little, I get anxious if I’m away from it for too long. Who am I kidding, if it gets down to needing a flint and steel I’m going to die anyway so I might as well have something to read while I’m waiting to do it.

even this cell phone
may be transformed
into a passenger pigeon

I printed out the tickets, took them down to the dock, got on the ship and first thing I met someone else who was going nowhere so we decided to go together. He had a pocket knife with a million attachments (hyperbole, hello) which he spent three days demonstrating to me, carving things and measuring them and unscrewing them and taking corks out of them. Now we’re on the rickshaw, I’m still feeling airsick from the balloon, it’s getting darker and the rickshaw driver gets very winded going up hills. I’m wondering if we should get out and walk to spell him but it’s not time to walk yet, my companion tells me. How will we know, I ask him. We’ll know, he says, when we’re exactly five hundred miles from nowhere. I ask him if he wants me to read to him from one of my novels and he shrugs. Is this not enough of a story for you, he asks. Nothing is enough of a story for me, I say, and I take out my tiny rabbit and hold it cupped carefully in my hands, facing forward, so it can see where we’re going.

narrow road
and the journey itself
is home

in a quiet corner of the detective show…

…the detective’s wife is knitting. Because no one notices her sitting in the corner knitting, she’s picked up on a number of clues that the detective himself missed. He’s running all over town interviewing people and occasionally becoming needlessly involved in gunfights. The killer, whenever he sees the detective coming, either puts on his smoothest and most innocent face or slips out the back door and heads down to the river to dispose of the evidence. The detective is pretty sure that the guy with the naturally guilty face is the killer, but naturally, the detective is wrong. The detective’s wife wonders how it is that the detective has managed to be a detective all these years without learning how to sit down and think once in a while instead of spending all day riding around recklessly in the squad car or lecturing his subordinates on how to conduct a proper investigation. She knits the clues she’s found into the sweater she’s knitting for the detective, but when she gives it to him for his birthday he glances at it pityingly–doesn’t she have anything better to do with her time than knit odd sweaters–and says he’s sorry he can’t stay for cake. He’s just gotten an important call about the movements of the innocent man with the guilty face. He says he’ll be back later but the detective’s wife looks at the sweater, finally sees how all of the clues fit together, and knows he won’t ever be back at all. 

longest night
three new flies
in the cobweb


When the world ended I didn’t get worked up, because who was around any more to be impressed by my getting worked up? Nobody, that’s who. I’m not actually positive I’m the last person left on Earth but I am positive I haven’t seen any evidence that I’m not. As I say, though, I’m not entirely downhearted about it. For the first six months I commandeered a series of really lovely cars and road-tripped around the country, sleeping in the kinds of houses that could comfortably accommodate an entire African village or two American hedge fund managers. Took picnic lunches to museums; touched everything; removed paintings from the wall to examine them more closely; stroked the flesh of statues and set mobiles spinning; walked off with a number of the smaller works of art, which, there’s a good case to be made, are all mine now. I’ve inherited everything. Now that the roads are starting to crumble I’ve settled down in a conveniently located neighborhood of a major metropolitan area. There’s still plenty to eat–half the food we invented never really goes bad. I have time, finally, to read everything. I run in ever-widening circles, ten or twenty miles a day. They say human beings evolved to run long distances and I feel that to be true, but I also feel it to be true that we evolved to destroy ourselves. And, of course, to talk, even when there’s no one around to talk to. I assume you agree. You always do. The lack of argument is what might kill me in the end.

divine wind
my end
of the tin-can telephone