Saturday, November 02, 2019

Paradise

--first and last lines by Mevlana Jelalludin Rumi

How does part of the world leave the world?

It starts with a spark,
a branch, thrown against power lines by a dry wind.
Then flames, in brush, tall grass, drought-killed trees.
Leaping from ridgetop to ridgetop faster than a car can drive.
Swallowing whole towns. Spitting out acres of smoking ash.
Spawning the language of disaster:
Firestorm. Fire-tornado.
Evacuate. Shelter in place.
It sounded like a freight train. It sounded like the end of the world.

Then the news coverage. The clatter of helicopters.
The roar of the fire crews’ chainsaws. The names of the dead.
The whine of the camera drones. The drone of the talking heads.
All hang like smoke over this place that is no longer a place.
Every day the sun rises out of low word-clouds
into a burning silence.


Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Spellbound

A dentist’s foyer, lacking magazines
to soothe impatience. Bored, I eye askance
the muted television. A casual glance
at scrolling newscasts on a silent screen—
in wobbling hand-held frames of dreadful light
figures drag a hose, steer their machine
to spray a fan of water, fragile stream.
Soundless terror stalks the burning night.

Exploding trees surround the struggling crew
with lethal brilliance. There’s no way through.
The blinding light has jumped the firebreak.
This firestorm’s hypnotic cobra dance
still holds me swaying in its fatal trance.
I am frozen, cannot move or speak.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Monday, October 21, 2019

Three Bright Threads

This is what I was told happened.

My great-grandfather was an intellectual,
had worked for the previous government,
wasn’t politically reliable. He was arrested.
The whole family was under suspicion.

My grandfather dreams of Bodhisattva Kuan Yin,
compassionate lady. “America,” she tells him.
“Take your family there. For freedom. For safety.”

This is what I was told.

My great-grandfather died in jail
and the authorities would not release his body.
Traveling together would excite suspicion

so my grandfather unwound the cord of his family
into three bright threads.

My mother was sent with friends to England.
Just a girl child. No matter.
My grandmother and the other two girls went to Hong Kong
to visit family: perfectly acceptable.
My grandfather and my uncle went on a business trip to Germany. After all
a Chinese man must teach his son the family business. Six years old
is not too young to start.

Three bright threads
unspooled across continents, oceans.
Three strands of hope
gathered together, at last, in New York,
the Empire State, not far from where the statue stands,
the lady with a lamp, head bowed in pity
just like Kuan Yin.

Bodhisattva, Compassionate One,
if my grandfather dreamed you now
what would you tell him?


Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Green Sharpies for NOAA


Second time in a few weeks I've seen a hurricane prediction cone cut off like this. Is it because recent hurricanes are traveling outside the usual bounds of prediction? Or have funding cuts hit NOAA so hard they can't afford enough green Sharpies to finish their maps?

Someone should set up a GoFundMe for them.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Almost Underground

is where my office is, beside
a big picture window in a daylight basement.

Almost underground
hidden in the rhododendron jungle
between the building and the garage

we see a slice of sky
in a concrete sandwich
seasoned with bird flight.

In a season of lowering light
the air’s full of bad news
and hope feels distant—

almost underground.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Last Azaleas

My office is almost underground. Outside the window, pink azaleas have opened. They're the last ones of the season, buried here far from sunlight.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Monday, April 15, 2019

When You Said

That the story doesn't exist without the reader
That every story you wrote was for me
That because I had sought and not found, you wrote "The Map"
That because, though I am not a child, there is a child alive in me, you wrote "War Beneath the Tree"
That because I have loved and lost, you wrote "The Cabin on the Coast"

When you said you were a practicing religious man, which tells me both more and less about your writing than I think
When you told me without ever saying it that the hero of your latest novel was dead and in the afterlife although he didn't know it
When you started to write in a way that conveyed more and more with fewer and simpler words
When I understood, really understood, that you would never fully, completely explain anything that happens in your books and I would never be able to trust your narrators and I shouldn't pick up your books unless I was prepared to accept the challenge--

well,
that's when I fell in love.


Gene Wolfe
1931 - 2019

One of the last of the true giants



Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Angelo Stew

Allan Cole, who co-authored the Sten series with the late Chris Bunch, has published a cookbook. It includes all the recipes featured in the Sten books (if you read them, you may remember some of them).

My husband made Angelo stew. It really is that good.


It cures the cancer, it cures the flu
You know I’m talking ‘bout Angelo stew.

The Emperor’s clone was a copy untrue,
but could have been saved by some Angelo stew.

You had to suspect he was bad through and through
when he showed his disdain for Angelo stew.

So Sten and his friends had to whip up a brew
of rebellion hotter than Angelo stew.

“Destroy all the ships, but rescue the crew,
they’ll turn to our cause for some Angelo stew.”

Recruiting some allies is easy to do
when your secret weapon is Angelo stew.

The Empire fell, and everyone knew
it was all on account of the Angelo stew.


Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Friday, January 04, 2019

Six Plots, or, Everything is Up or Down

Some ideas just don't seem to go away.

I wrote earlier about the idea that all stories seem to fall into one of a small number of basic plot types. Depending on your source, the number is anywhere from half a dozen to a dozen. The best list I could find gave seven.

Lately, some researchers have been trying to classify plots quantitatively, in fiction and in movies. The fiction project was carried out at Washington State U. and later at U. of Vermont, while the film project is out of the Turing Institute. However, they used a similar, and in my opinion similarly misleading, methodology.

The technique is called sentiment analysis. A unit of analysis is chosen: the fiction project used individual words, while the film project used sentences. Each word or sentence is scored as emotionally "positive" or "negative." An emotional score can then be calculated for each page, chapter, scene, or X-minute interval, and these can be used to generate a graph or trajectory for the whole work. The fiction article shows several example graphs based on classic novels or stories. The movie article also attempts to measure "success" of the different story types, financially (box office returns) and artistically (Oscars won).

I respect the attempt to impose some sort of quantitative rigor on this subject. I particularly liked that the movie article thought it was important to evaluate success of the different plot types-- although, in the capitalistic and cultural framework of modern movie-making, I don't find the measures they used at all convincing. (And no, I don't have a better suggestion.)

However-- Speaking as a professional quantitative scientist, this is one of the most ridiculous pieces of reductionism I have ever seen. Critique from the bottom up...

Context-free scoring. Words may be positive, negative, or neutral, in different people's opinions. I remember being dumbfounded that apparently the word "moist" is considered disgusting by a majority of English-speakers. I find it mostly neutral, and in some contexts positive: a "moist, fluffy cake" beats a "dry, crumbly cake" every time.

I have a very hard time evaluating words or phrases out of context. Consider: "The test was positive." For what? Cancer? Pregnancy? A planned pregnancy, or an unwanted one? Or were we testing for alien life on an unexplored planet?

Words aren't everything. In movies particularly, there can be a lot of emotional input that features no words at all. Jurassic Park, the first and best of the series: The male biologist almost fainting at his first glimpse of living dinosaurs. Or watch the last couple minutes of the first Hobbit movie.

It's particularly weird to apply this assumption to a play such as Romeo and Juliet (featured in the fiction article linked above). Play scripts as we know them from Shakespeare are made up almost entirely of dialogue, since his stage directions were minimal and optional. But a real stage production, or film adaptation for that matter, is much, much more than just words. Hamlet's famous monologue took on a whole different life in Branagh's film production: Hamlet knew or suspected that he was being watched, which made the whole thing a performance for the benefit of his enemies and not the piece of morbid introspection it's usually seen as.

Words can conflict. Let's say we (characters in a novel or film) did just discover alien, sentient life for the first time ever. One of us is delighted: I get to use my hitherto completely theoretical xenolinguistic skills! Another is horrified: My humano-centric universe view is shattered! Another responds with a calm assessment of possible threat.

Any way you look at it, this discovery represents a major turning point in the story, one that creates excitement and anticipation in the reader. But as the different characters each use words or sentences reflecting their own response, the overall score may end up being emotionally close to neutral. In fact, much of the interest for the reader/viewer may be in the conflict or contrast among the characters as much as the excitement of the discovery itself. Back to Jurassic Park: Jeff Goldblum's character was using a lot of downer words about the whole idea, yet the two biologists were ecstatic. Wonder how those scenes would score?

Emotions don't just go up or down. What if we applied this kind of analysis to more than one dimension? For example, if the graph for Shelley's Frankenstein had a second emotional axis representing Frankenstein's scientific curiosity-- which intensifies and diminishes throughout the novel, but not necessarily in step with his fears and griefs around his relationship with the Creature. Wouldn't that create a much more complex and interesting view of the story?

Emotion is an emergent property. A story or scene induces an emotional response in the reader or viewer. (Or not. But let's assume there's some effect, otherwise the whole exercise becomes pretty pointless.) This response may or may not be the same as the emotion or emotions portrayed in the scene, or experienced by the characters in the scene. For example, the Jewish characters in Schindler's List express hope and confidence at points that can only strike a viewer as horrifying: as they're being shipped off to the camp, one woman remarks happily "The war is over for us, we are workers now!"

Plot is more than just emotional movement. Referring to the seven-plot list from Wikipedia: at least four out of the seven fall into the sentiment-analysis category of "rags to riches," i.e. generally an upward movement. Yet, "Overcoming the Monster" stories feel definitely different to us than "Quest" stories. The Monster and the Journey are culturally important symbols, or symbol-packages, that influence how we perceive and respond to a story, beyond the emotional rise and fall.

Certainly the emotional arc of a story or movie is an important part of the plot. But there's so much more to a plot: The sequence of events, character interaction and the development of relationships, settings and scenery, moral or philosophical themes: that's just off the top of my head. Make your own list: what do you think is important in a story?

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Friday, December 28, 2018

Happy Birthday, Stan

“A… definition of a hero is someone who is concerned about other people’s well-being, and will go out of his or her way to help them—even if there is no chance of a reward. That person who helps others simply because it should or must be done, and because it is the right thing to do, is indeed without a doubt, a real superhero.”

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Monday, December 24, 2018

The Devil as Imagined by Poul Anderson and Peter Jackson

"I was under the regard of the Solipsist...that egotism so ultimate that it would yield no room even to hope." --Operation Chaos, Poul Anderson

They say the Devil is a Solipsist.
A self-regard intense and absolute
enough to claim that no-one else exists
how many evils show this at the root.
What need for empathy, for common care
for conscience or responsibility
to people who aren’t really, really, there?
Thou shalt have no existence before Me.

An image seen on-screen: a Lidless Eye,
a flaming man-shape calling itself “I,”
the Eye, the “I”, the endless nested layers
of infinite denial, the barren stare
of Solipsism from an empty well
receding into flaming fractal hell.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Friday, December 21, 2018

Daffodils, Too Early

On solstice, I weed the flowerbeds
and see the daffodils are up.

Deep in December and fifty-eight degrees:
we’ve had no winter, barely even fall.

If there’s a hard freeze, in January, say,
it might kill the shoots, abort

the unformed flowers, cripple new growth.
Even so, the bulbs will survive.

After the shootings, the fires, and the floods last year
young men and women criss-crossed the nation

in buses, signing up voters. They swore
to vote out those who would not protect them.

They’ll save themselves. They’ll be
the grownups we failed to be.

Daffodils forced into early maturity
into a blighted spring—

but grown from strong roots.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Thursday, December 20, 2018

KBOO: Wider Window Poetry

I'm excited to announce that I'll be hosting a poetry show on our community radio station, KBOO!

The program will be called Wider Window Poetry, airing first Monday of every month from 10 PM - 11 PM. First episode to air Jan. 7th.

Episodes will be posted to the program page as well.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Saturday, December 08, 2018

I Look Up From My Book of Poetry

and we’re on the Tillikum bridge
train rocking slow and stately under us
and downtown spread out blazing
against a dry December night

lights doubled on the dark water below.
I’m on the wrong side now,
the west side. To get home, I’ll have to cross
the river again toward the Rose Quarter,

the sports arena whose lighted dome
I can see in the distance. By then
I’ll be on a bus, looking back toward
the glowing towers of the Tillikum

reflected in the same river.
It seems like a long way home in the dark.
But what a privilege, what a gift
to cross and recross, on this dark night.

this river of light.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside