-- Gary Snyder, final lines of Earth House Hold
“It is possible at last for Masa and me to imagine a little of what the ancient – archaic -- mind and life of Japan were. And to see what could be restored to the life today. A lot of it is simply in being aware of clouds and wind.”
-- Gary Snyder, final lines of Earth House Hold
"I don't know why I need to fish so much. For the good of my soul? The question makes me skittish. I prefer to think of fishing as a restorative to some vital thing -- maybe soul, maybe heart, maybe vitality itself – that dwindles when we spend too much time working, attending to family and fiscal emergencies, driving in traffic, and watching television. I don't know much about the soul, but I know that the twin benefits of fishing – the combination of physical activity with cerebral engagement -- serve to flush impurities from my system. When I haven't been out for a few days I suffer from a buildup of hideous poisons. My joints ache. My muscles cramp. My fingernails get brittle. If I sleep, I dream of forest fires and exploding trains. Tears stream down my cheeks, leaving trails of toxic salts. I pace the floor and sigh until Gail kicks me out of the house, which is all I needed in the first place."
Writer’s block is your body’s way of telling you to go fishing*.
But if you’re in a northern latitude in March and it’s 19 degrees outside and the wind is gusting at 25 mph and snowdrifts are thigh-deep across your driveway, your body is telling you to cook. So pour a glass of wine, turn up the music, and get at it.
Yesterday’s cure: Spring Fever Chicken and Bean Soup
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place a pound of dry northern beans in a cast-iron kettle and cover with water an inch or so above the beans. Cover with a loose lid and place in center of oven. Cook for one hour.
Brown a pound or more of chicken thighs (or breasts; but thighs are better) in a tablespoon of olive oil. Add as much chopped garlic as you’re comfortable with, then add fifty percent more. Stir frequently to prevent garlic from burning. When cooked through dice or shred the chicken and set aside.
Chop onions, carrots, celery, and any favorite vegetables. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large soup kettle and add chopped veggies. Saute until the carrots begin to soften.
Add small mountain of rough-chopped kale or spinach, stems and all. Saute until the greens shrink down and soften. (If necessary add a quarter cup of water or chicken broth to keep veggies from burning.)
Add 32 oz of chicken broth, crushed or diced tomatoes (with liquid), and the chicken. Bring to soft boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 10 to 20 minutes.
Add beans. Cover and simmer 20 to 30 minutes or until perfect.
Serve with grated cheddar and fresh cilantro or parsley to defeat scurvy. Add salt and pepper to taste and a dash of your favorite hot sauce. You want your tongue to shout, “I’m alive!”
Serve with red wine or hearty beer and a loaf of artisan bread. Enjoy the adoration of your loves ones.
After dinner retire to a comfortable chair or couch and read something beautiful for two hours. Go to bed early. Dream of tropical birds and waterfalls.
In the morning, presto! Writer's block cured.
*or go skiing, snowshoeing, hunting, kayaking, photographing, dancing, or searching for lost civilizations. My body usually wants to fish.
"I'm really trying to make people's minds move, you know, which is not something they're naturally inclined to do," she told me. "We have a kind of inertia, sitting and listening. But it's really important to get somehow into the mind and make it move somewhere it has never moved before. That happens partly because the material is mysterious or unknown but mostly because of the way you push the material around from word to word in a sentence. And it's that that I'm more interested in doing, generally, than mystifying by having unexpected content or bizarre forms. It's more like: Given whatever material we're going to talk about, and we all know what it is, how can we move within it in a way we've never moved before, mentally? That seems like the most exciting thing to do with your head. I think it's a weakness to fall back into merely mystifying the audience, which anybody can do. You know, throw in a bit of Hegel. Who knows what that means? But to actually take a piece of Hegel and move it around in a way that shows you something about Hegel is a satisfying challenge."
-- from "The Inscrutable Brilliance of Anne Carson," by Sam Anderson , New York Times Magazine, March 17, 2013
“Writers are greatly respected. The intelligent public is wonderfully patient with them, continues to read them, and endures disappointment after disappointment, waiting to hear from art what it does not hear from theology, philosophy, social theory, and what it cannot hear from pure science. Out of the struggle at the center has come an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are, and what this life is for.”
Cabin Fever Days in northwestern Montana
Alaska’s shotgun divorces are rare here in northern Michigan, but our fever can still take alarming forms. Now that we’ve passed February and begun the brutal home stretch, my friends and neighbors have begun exhibiting a variety of symptoms:
-- dragging the canoe into the living room, setting it on sawhorses, and spray-painting it yellow.
-- signing up for intensive but ultimately fruitless online courses in The Great Books, Spanish, and astronomy.
-- engaging in all-night internet and Facebook searches for people not seen in 30 years.
-- cooking nonstop all weekend to produce, package, and freeze fifteen gallons of white chili, forty stuffed peppers, a stack of personal-pan pizzas, and a dozen batches of chocolate brownies with walnuts, then going to bed Sunday night with an intense sugar buzz and dreaming about trains going over cliffs.
Cabin Fever, the Movie
-- reviving hobbies abandoned in childhood: Ham radio, soapbox derby, clipping clothes for paper dolls from magazines, hand-painting toy soldiers organized by the wars they fought in, Monkeys trading cards arranged artfully around perimeter of bedroom mirror. Then abruptly abandoning them again.
-- inventing deadly new cocktails like the Bloody Monday, Instantaneous Annihilation, Gut Bomb, and What, Me Worry?
-- drinking the above-mentioned cocktails while sending emails of apology to everyone they ever wronged.
-- dressing the dog in sweaters and socks and filming its hilarious antics for distribution via YouTube.
How about you? Any symptoms yet?
I’ve been studying the history of taxonomy lately and reading Aristotle, Pliny, Linnaeus, and others who have labored mightily to make order in the universe.
But no study of the systems of classification would be complete without mentioning the Jorge Luis Borges story posing as an essay, “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins.” In it Borges mentions a taxonomy of animals that he claims can be found in an old Chinese encyclopedia called The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. If you know Borges you know this encyclopedia is (probably) whimsical, was discovered by a (perhaps) imaginary scholar, and that the list is as much a commentary on our urge to classify the things of the world as it is a playful exercise in the combinatory agility of words:
According to Borges’ Chinese encyclopedia, animals are divided into:
a) those belonging to the emporer
b) those that are embalmed
c) tame or trained ones
d) suckling pigs
e) mermaids and sirens
f) those that are fabulous
g) stray dogs
h) those included in the present classification
i) frenzied ones
j) innumerable ones
k) those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush
l) other ones
m) those that have recently broken a water pitcher
n) those that from a long way off look like flies
The Best Thing I Read Today
This morning I grabbed a favorite book, Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme, opened it at random (my favorite way to read Barthelme), and read the story “Rebecca.” It is about a woman who petitions the court to change her last name from “Lizard,” then visits a dermatologist to see if he can do anything about the slight greenish color of her skin. When both efforts fail she goes home and takes out her anger and frustration on her female lover. Her lover punishes her in turn, saying that she does not find Rebecca’s green skin as beautiful as she once did. They argue, they push each other away, they begin to regret the argument, and they finally make up. This strange and strangely beautiful story ends this way:
"The story ends. It was written for several reasons. Nine of them are secrets. The tenth is that one should never cease considering human love, which remains as grisly and golden as ever, no matter what is tattooed upon the warm tympanic page."
Every writer has such a drawer. A repository of miscellaneous fragments, discarded first drafts, odd midnight jottings. A seed bin. A garden plot starting to sprout. A cabinet of literary curiosities.
I have many such drawers. One is an actual drawer. Another is a wire in-box tray stacked high with hand-written and printed pages stratified like a geological record, with 21st-century layers near the surface and those from the Pleistocene at the bottom. Another is a pile of pages on the floor next to my desk. Half a dozen others are in electronic files with names like NOTES/IDEAS.doc and MISC-ESS.doc.
Why so many junk drawers? Only one reason I can think of: so I can dig into them now and then and discover something surprising.
Today I pawed around a little and found a few items in storage that will probably never make it into print yet give off some faint scent of promise:
…He nurtures heat and rapture. Exults. Sits smugly in his corner. Wolfs, devours, consumes, splays his bird-of-prey shadow over the earth. Carries his urgency with him like a warm pie or a gift.
…I was having recurring malarial dreams of exploding boxcars and talking animals and daylong sleepwalks punctuated by glimpses of distant mountains so clear and intense that I shuddered as if from electric shocks. Much of that year I didn’t know if I was suffering a profound depression or had been graced with a state of purifying clarity. I remember grasping the hands of strangers at the bus station and being instantly aware of the hidden interconnectedness of us all and of everything around us. We are made of the same molecules that once made maple trees and beachstones and snowflakes and snapdragons and will again. The words we speak today will echo in the ears of a child in Zambia a hundred years from now.
…write an essay on the subject of something situated precariously in an infinity of nothing…
…Researchers studying the stages of sleep labeled 3 and 4, or “deep sleep,” say that electrical waves in the brain “roll as slow as mid-ocean waves.”
…What a young writer at the conference told me: “My dad discovered eBay, and, bye-bye my kid brother’s college fund. If you ever need it we have Marilyn Monroe’s driver’s license, a lock of Mick Jagger’s hair, and a signed copy of every album ever made by Abba.”
…The particular is composed of particles that prove, upon examination, to be general.
…We sat on the riverbank and watched a barge heaped with old trombones and tubas go past. The potential for clamor was great. Then it began raining cast-iron skillets and we ran for our lives.
…They’ll try to convince you that you aren’t smart enough to grasp their mighty explanations, not educated in the proper universities, not read in the officially sanctioned books, not conversant in the consensually accepted vocabulary. In short, that you are a subject of the king’s culture. Tell them to fuck off. We’re the cognoscenti of existence.
…Often I would jerk awake in the night or break off during meals or in the middle of a conversation and rush to write sentences that announced themselves urgently, insistently, unbidden…
…Make a patchwork of words & images. Start with strong subject, place/activity, story, compose companion list of associated or random words, ideas, images. Thus: the arch, a trail as an invitation to a destination, the barred owl’s call, the wind breaking through, the surprise around the corner, the destination and what that means. Now weave it into whole cloth…
But where is the flow? Where is the river of words carving a channel through the world?
The Blizzard of '88 in New York City
As the Northeast digs out from last night's blizzard, maybe it's a good time to share an excerpt from It's Raining Frogs and Fishes about the mega-storm of 1888 and the rather obscure origins of our word "blizzard":
One of the worst winter storms in United States history came to be known as the Blizzard of '88 after it struck the eastern U.S. on Monday, March 12, 1888 and lasted through Wednesday, March 14, affecting one-quarter of the nation's population of the time, and isolating hundreds of cities from Maryland to Maine. The storm halted New York and over a dozen other major cities in their tracks, cutting off virtually all transportation and communication. Winds reached 48 miles per hour in New York City, and snowfall averaged 40 to 50 inches over southern New England and southeastern New York State, with drifts 30 to 40 feet high.
Snowdrifts in Middletown, New York covered three-story houses; townspeople tunneled through, shoring up the tunnels with timbers. At sea, where mariners called the storm the "Great White Hurricane," winds up to 90 miles per hour and waves up to three stories high were reported. At least 198 ships were lost, sunk or grounded, with the loss of about 100 seamen. On land, the death rate from freezing or storm-related accidents and illnesses approached 300, with 200 dead in New York City alone. For years people gathered on the anniversary of the blizzard to recall the storm. Others would never be able to forget it, even if they wanted to: Dozens of babies born during the storm and shortly after it were named "Blizzard," "Storm," "Tempest," "Snowdrift," "Snowflake," and "Snowdrop."
The origin of the word "blizzard" is a bit hazy. Some etymologies link it to “blizz,” which was in use in New England as early as 1770 to refer to violent rainstorms. Other sources suggest a connection with “blaze.” Still others say it was used to denote a “hail of gunfire.” After the Blizzard of ’88 hammered the east coast of the United States then hopped the Atlantic and struck England, the London Times reported the word had long been in used in the English Midlands, where "May I be blizzered" meant to be "bowled over, or knocked off [one’s] feet.” The New York Times responded indignantly that the word was of American origin and was simply "a bit of onomatopoeia. Like the hoof-beats in Virgil's poetry...the word is supposed to sound more or less like the thing it denotes." This notion is supported in our day by The Oxford English Dictionary, which reports the word is probably “more or less onomatopoeic.”
When the big storm of 1888 finally reached Germany it was already widely referred to as the “American Blizzard.” German newspapers reported the word originated from the German "blitz." The contemporary American author Gary Lockhart corroborated the German claim (in his book The Weather Companion) with what he claims is the first printed mention of "blizzard," in a newspaper in Esterville, Iowa, in 1870: "Many of the early settlers in this area were from Germany, and when witnessing the severe winter storms, would use the German expression 'Der Sturm kommt blitzartig,' meaning 'the storm comes lightning-like.' The transition from blitzartig to blizzard was a natural language progression."
Among my greatest pleasures in a long and pleasurable career has been collaborating with artists Glenn Wolff and Chad Pastotnik. Working together in the hemlock and cedar woods along the Cedar River at Chad's Deep Wood Press, we've done three projects together: a limited-edition book (Winter Walks) and, now, our second limited-edition broadside.
This broadside, "The Trout in Winter," is actually a second edition, with some significant changes. The first edition, published in a signed and numbered edition of 60 in December 2000, sold out soon after it was released and has grown steadily in value ever since. Glenn's magnificent image of a brown trout against a cosmic river bottom is the same engraving on the same copper plate but with the addition of an exquisite stonefly nymph in the lower right corner. Chad made some interesting changes as well. He re-inked caps with gold ink, tightened up the line and letter spacing, and made a few other tweaks to produce an even lovelier presentation of my words. We've kept the words as they appeared in the first edition, including the emergency edit that changed the text slightly from the way I originally drafted it. As we were setting type we realized that Chad was running short of lowercase "e's," creating an interesting dilemma. We could have reset the type in a different font but we had fallen in love with the Baskerville 24 pt Chad had selected. So instead we reset some of the words and lines in italic, creating visual interest and variations in tone and emphasis that I now consider essential to the meaning of the text. To save a few additional "e's" I also edited the poem slightly. I'll never forget the three of us cheering spontaneously when we saved two "e's" by changing the last word from "leave" to "go."
So here it is, in a new edition of 65, signed and numbered. Price is $225 plus shipping. Anyone interested should drop me an email at jcdennis(at)charter(dot)net.
And, yes, this is the final edition: Glenn plans to coat the copper plate in varnish and mount it for permanent archiving.