Saturday, April 23, 2016


for Jay Lake

We've been to the Waterfront Blues Festival twice since you died

The second time, I wore a black dress and a long string of white polythene beads

You would like the new Pope-- he has a great sense of humor

I have a collection of your short stories but I haven't read it yet

George R. R. Martin hasn't gotten any further with Game of Thrones and now the TV series is off book

I got the white beads at the first Waterfront Festival after you died

Google's come up with a self-driving car but people don't trust it

Marijuana is legal now and not just for dying people

Flying Pie Pizza is still on Stark Street

I didn't want the beads but the man giving them away looked just like you.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Uncute Animals and unhelpful comments

(This is an update of a 2005 post.)

A quote from Tolkien is usually a good place to start:

Beasts and birds and other creatures often talk like men in real fairy-stories. In some part (often small) this marvel derives from one of the primal “desires” that lie near the heart of Faerie: the desire of men to hold communion with other living things... But in stories in which no human being is concerned; or in which the animals are the heroes and heroines, and men and women, if they appear, are mere adjuncts; and above all those in which the animal form is only a mask upon a human face, a device of the satirist or the preacher, in these we have beast-fable and not fairy-story.”

--from “On Fairy-stories”.

Beast-fables are the subject of this post. In SF/fantasy, I think the aim of a beast-fable should be to present the world as we think an animal would experience it, uniquely and differently than how a human would experience it. (I wrote that sentence originally with “see” instead of “experience”, which immediately reveals my human bias towards visual perception. My dog would have written “smell” instead of “see”.) Ultimately, the reader should come away thinking “That story could only have been told by a (mole, rabbit, dog, dolphin). Not by a human, not even by any other kind of animal.”

But animal stories, or beast-fables, commonly suffer from two faults that get in the way of this goal: first, the tendency Tolkien alludes to in the last part of the above quote. All too often, animal characters are merely humans dressed up in animal suits; they don’t offer any insight you couldn’t get from a human. Second, animal stories tend in our culture to be dismissed as “cute”. (I blame Disney. I blame Disney for a lot of things.) A writer who accepts this judgement will tend to dumb down the story, perhaps assuming it’ll be marketed to children. (Kids hate being talked down to; doesn’t anyone notice that?)

Of course, in writing from an animal’s point of view (another visual), one has to create perceptions and thoughts which one’s (human) readers can relate to. There’s a necessary compromise between accessibility and realism. “Realism” here means, of course, adhering to what we imagine an animal’s point of view would really be like; something of which we have no first-hand knowledge.


Much as I love it, Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows is not really about animals; it’s about English country gentlemen who wear waistcoats, consult pocket-watches, and drive motor-cars (poorly). On the other hand, William Horwood’s Duncton books (Horwood is also the author of the authorized sequels to Wind in the Willows) are much more succesful as beast-fables. I really like the use of sound-art by the Duncton moles. (You heard that right, moles.) Being mostly sightless, moles “scribe” instead of writing, which is something like Braille, and they also create extremely elaborate and emotionally affecting sonic sculptures. The second Duncton trilogy rings much truer than the first, by the way; I found the wandering mole master martial artist kind of unconvincing...

Then there’s Richard Adams, best known as the author of Watership Down. I like WD a lot, but think it suffers from the second flaw above: it’s a little talk-downy in tone compared to his later books, much like The Hobbit compared to Lord of the Rings. Well, it was his first book. For a more serious look at the world through animal eyes (there I go again), try Plague Dogs. Be warned: it is both intensely evocative and appallingly grim.

I consider Adams to be a terribly underrated author, and in large part it’s because of the success of Watership Down. People expected him to write more cute-animal stories, and were shocked and dumbfounded by the likes of Plague Dogs and Shardik. (Or they dismissed WD as “kid stuff” and didn’t bother with the rest of his books.) By the way, Shardik is not an animal story at all. The bear Shardik is the focus of the story, but he doesn’t talk. Both Shardik and the Duncton books should really have been on the list of religious fantasy in an earlier post.

SF authors have it a little easier, because they get to posit animals whose intelligence has been technologically enhanced to near-human levels, but who retain many of their original characteristics. (Of course SF also gets to posit aliens as intelligent as, but vastly different from, humans. I’m going to leave that subject aside (maybe for a later post).) David Brin’s Uplift books do very nicely here, with the intelligent chimps and dolphins having a different outlook (damn! Can’t get away from those visuals!) from humans. Especially the dolphins; chimps apparently feel quite a bit like humans, but what would you expect?


So apparently the BBC aired WD as an Easter special. And some parents are upset that it was "too violent."

Unhelpful comment #1: "Yeah. They should have aired Shardik instead. It's religious."
Unhelpful comment #2: "Should have read the book."

Wednesday, March 30, 2016


This dawn light, lying warm, horizon-low
This stack of slices, processed-flour snow
A plastic pitcher full of purple juice
This jug of wine, this loaf of bread, and Thou.

--image courtesy of Magpie Tales

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

More word power

I found a few more. I had forgotten that both Writer's Island and Cafe Writing (the site is gone now) sometimes had lists of words.

Also I should note that I'm not including single word prompts, which there used to be a lot of...

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Friday, March 25, 2016

Word power

I've done a weird thing. I went back and looked at all the poems I've written based on random lists of words.

You can of course find several of these in my little book salad days and knights which is made up entirely of "word salad" poems. But before I started going to Steve and Constance's reading series, and writing to her word salad prompts, I did the same thing with a number of online prompt sites. The difference, of course, was that the poems weren't written "on the spot."

Alas, I was not always diligent about recording the words alongside the poem.

I did go back to the Read Write Poem site, and was able to find all the Wordles I had used as prompts. Big Tent is gone, the link now points to something else entirely, but it looks like I did identify the words I used in all my Big Tent Wordle prompt poems.

The real loss is Poefusion. Poefusion was a blog, and is apparently gone forever. I only identified the words in a few of those poems; there are at least a dozen more linked to Poefusion, that I remember writing to a list of words, but can only identify one or two of the words for sure. (There were typically 5 in the Friday 5 prompt.)

Some time in the near future I hope to go back and highlight the words in all the poems I was able to reconstruct. Then I'll put up a post that lists them all, with links and maybe with the words. Just for fun, and in case people want to increase their vocabulary.


It's a bit of a party trick. Not that some of the poems aren't good. But I've been thinking about one of the writers I admire most, Gene Wolfe. If you remember his early books, like the New Sun books and Fifth Head of Cerberus, you probably associate him with lush, dense prose, lots of description, intricate plots. In fact, the second sentence in the Wiki above starts: "He is noted for his dense, allusive prose..."

Well, the plots are still just as intricate. But in many of his more recent books, the language is so pared-down that it almost disappears. He's used a couple of plot devices to make this happen: the viewpoint character in Soldier in the Mist/Soldier of Arete has memory issues due to traumatic brain injury, the viewpoint character in the Wizard Knight books is mentally a teenaged boy (well, not exactly, but...), and the viewpoint in The Sorcerer's House is adult but has very little formal education. Baroque and mysterious things happen to these characters; they write about them using simple words, and they tend to describe only what's necessary for the reader to grasp the action at hand.

Is it working?

Well, it always intrigues me when people make "doing more with less" work. I regard it as a valid esthetic principle (though not the only valid esthetic principle) in its own right. And though I love strange and gorgeous words, and I revel in the extravagance of a poem like "Ingénue" (wait until you see the list of words for that one!)... I keep thinking about "doing more with less."

One other thing I found in the course of doing this was an exercise proposed by Read Write Poem, which involved snarfing the text of several recent poems and doing some word use stats. (The post is here if you're interested.) What I found based on 16 poems: "out of about 800 distinct words in these poems, almost 600 were used only once."

There were some problems with the way I counted words (mostly, I didn't collapse different forms of the same word into one, e.g.I counted "bridge" and "bridges" as separate words). But still-- 800 distinct words out of 16 poems seems like a lot considering most of my poems are well under a page. And, 600 out of 800 used only once seems like also a lot. I have no idea what sort of stats would be typical for poetry, or for English writing in general-- but I am damn sure the Gene Wolfe novels mentioned above would return much lower numbers for comparable pieces of text.

And, for my money, they're some of his best writing. Your mileage may vary.

I should redo the exercise with some of my more recent poems, and see how the numbers stack up...

Update: So I did go back and add the list of words to all the Read Write Poem Wordle poems, and a couple of others that I found the lists for. I also added the "wordpower" tag to all the poems I could find that I'm sure are from word list prompts. Most have the words either listed, or highlighted in some color.

Two hundred and twenty-seven? Seriously? Although the 3 Word Wednesday haikus do account for more than half.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Work in Progress

First there’s the skeleton,
framework of steel struts, form only hinting at function.
Then the skin, walls and windows—
suddenly it’s a building instead of just a construction project,
suddenly it has a face.
Frowny, with heavy horizontal elements
or aspirational, with strong vertical lines.
Blank concrete brooding on secrets
or smiling glass, shiny but just as concealing.
Still, you can tell the building’s character-to-be:
all windows means expensive office/retail,
more solid walls, residential. Frosted glass
for bathrooms, and those vertical slit-windows for stairwells.
Maybe the roof will sprout a garden. Maybe it’ll dangle
hip, dreadlocked vines to scandalize
older buildings in conservative granite.
Unlike babies, buildings rarely grow taller
but they do grow older
like all of us.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Shunpike Sestina

The troll-kid was only in kindergarten
(in troll years.) He’d be shunned
by my city’s schools, turned away with silky
smiles: “Come back when you turn six.”
No naps, no waking up with milk and Toll-
House cookies. More likely a Ritalin-spiked

cocktail. Toy soldiers, carrying pikes
and muskets, shattered all over the garden:
raising a changeling takes a high toll
on movables. A troll-child’s imagination
diagnosed as illness and cursed at least six
ways from Sunday; a tongue fatherly but not at all silken.

After that, Fairyland went down smooth as silk,
smooth as an Olympic high-platform half-pike
charming the judges into a perfect six.
But oh troll-muffin, it’s not all a garden
of delights. There are darknesses to shun,
bridges with no trolls may still have tolls

and you can have phantoms without a tollbooth.
That glamorous woman in carmine silk
has her own agenda, and she may shunt
you onto a byway where giant, toothy pike
devour minnows like you. No friendly gardener
to rescue you, petal. Every spawn of the sixth

day of creation needs food; any child of six
knows how to keep a pet, the toll
that feeding a rabbit takes on a garden,
a whole grove of mulberry devoured for one yard of silk.
So watch out for the Crab King’s pikemen,
beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

the frumious—ah, but I’ve shunted
into the wrong poem, my head stuffed with a stanza or six.
I couldn’t make it all the way up Pike’s
Peak, couldn’t pay the ski-lift toll
although the snow lay out like clean silk
sheets sloping down, down to the ice-garden.

In Pandemonium’s gardens, all the flowers are silk.
The Queen comes riding down the Sestina Shunpike
when the bells toll, at seventeen past six.

Don't ask me anything. Just buy these books and read them. That's all.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Tail Full of Leaves

rain spatters like sweat
wind gallops, tail full of leaves
hard to stand still

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Friday, February 12, 2016

Paper Birches

There are white birches on the west side of my building. On a clear afternoon, the west sides of the slender trunks blaze with sunlight; the east sides glow with soft light reflected from the building windows. There is no darkness around these trees. Moss will never grow on them.

I hold up a sheet of paper and it kindles bright on both sides.

I hold up a poem and one side is lit by reflection from the faces of listeners. The other side is brilliant with divine radiance. In this transaction I illuminate nothing. My fingerprint on the paper is only a shadow. The poem is a white birch.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


when I was young
came in only one shape--
classic diamond, Charlie Brown's kite
perpetually devoured by that evil tree! Now,

any week at Cannon Beach, the sky is filled with
dragons, box kites, bats, mantas, castle towers, mini-parasails--
strange, ungainly forms you wouldn't believe
could fly. All colors of the rainbow
ride the wind. Combat kites slice each other's strings
among banners, birds, and monster silhouettes.

In my heart
four white stars on a ground of black
swing low in the southern sky. The Southern Cross
unlike its swan-winged northern counterpart
has no center point, looks just like
Charlie Brown's kite flown from God's hand
above a world full of star-eating trees.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

can you hear me, Major Tom?

RIP, David Bowie

Collection available! Knocking from Inside

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Skeleton Fingers

Summer foliage makes soft shadow-dances
on the wall all night, like the figures
your father taught you: duck, alligator, butterfly. Winter
shows the skeleton fingers inside the green glove.

Last night on my street
trees thrashed naked under the lights:
arboreal ecdysiasts shining wet against darkness
accompanied by rain drumming
louder than thunder. In my sleep they marched and menaced,
gaunt shadows sliding over parked cars, distant sounds

of glass smashing. They heaved pavement, choked drains,
lifted grates from storm sewers, scooped out clots of half-rotted leaves
and scattered them on sidewalks in vegetal calligraphy
I could not read. They dragged down power lines, crushed houses
and the sleepers in them.

They turned to me no features of gnarled bark,
nothing so friendly as a jack o’lantern skull. They wore storm
like wings of darkness. They had no faces, but plucked at me
with twiggy hands, bony fingers

and inhuman, wooden curiosity.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

One of Our Camellias is Blooming

Not the whole tree. A couple of blossoms on a lower branch.

Every January, I check the camellia buds. If they're still clenched tight and green, there's more freezing weather ahead. If they're cracking open, showing red or pink, then there's still plenty of rain and dreary weather to come, but the killing cold is past. I've never known them wrong.

This year I saw leaves turn early, because of the heat-scorch and the drought; I saw leaves turn late, because October and November, and even December so far, were warmer than usual. Then the windstorms started, and leaves both green and red were stripped from trees, reduced to sodden rags, and heaped into the mouths of storm drains.

I heard people say the fall bulbs had come on early. I heard people blame global warming. I heard people blame El Niño.

The maples thrash bare branches against a liquid sky. The camellias blaze pink in the pre-solstice gloom, engimatic and offering no clues about what's coming. I watch and wait.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

2015 in Review

Storm runoff fountains from manholes—
wind throws fists of water against my window.
I remember a smoke-filled sky.

A torrent rushes past in the gutter where
crisp dry leaves blew on a hot breeze.
My lawn gleams, a sheet of standing water.

The rosebush is still blooming.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Wednesday, December 02, 2015


marshy ground
standing dead trees
one hawk

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside