Sunday, October 30, 2011

While you're waiting for me, a poem by Marcus Bales

Thank you, Marcus. Guilty as charged. Stay tuned.

Villanelle: Waiting for Hungry

"I will write here every day, and there will be only one excuse for not blogging, and that will be writing poetry" – David Weinstock,

David promised he would speak
A little every single day
But we've been waiting for a week.

He'll probably say I've got some cheek
To chide him like a child this way:
David promised he would speak.

His backlog's big -- a little tweak
Of something old would be okay
Since we've been waiting for a week.

I know he isn't really meek:
He's slashed me like a limp fillet,
When David promised he would speak.

I hope he's on a writing streak,
And too intent for mere display --
But we've been waiting for a week!

Perhaps there'll be a little leak
On Facebook -- we can only pray,
Since David promised he would speak.

Our present prospects still seem bleak:
After all, he gets no pay;
But David promised he would speak --
And we've been waiting for a week.

Friday, October 21, 2011


You can't blame the Zanesville authorities for the complete non-communicativeness of this sign. They had a real live emergency on their hands, and hardly had time to call in a team of copywriters and poets for a proper brainstorm. But now that it's over, in preparation for the next time, let's create a better message.

Don't think it's going to be easy, either. This sign is a strict form. Three lines, seven characters max per line. That's tighter than haiku. It would take six or seven of them to add up to one 140-character Twitter tweet.

So here's your assignment,which could go two ways.
1) Compose a highway sign that will actually prevent collisions and save lives with a useful warning.
or 2) Write the coolest sign imaginable.

Got it? I'll go first:




Now your turn. If my comments box gives you any trouble, email sign copy to me at

The Button List

Fifty-six men, including John Hancock, put their John Hancocks on the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Collectively they are known as The Signers. In 1833, William Buell Sprague, who was not born until nearly 20 years after the Declaration, invented a new hobby: collecting the signatures of all 56 signers. There are two things that need to be said about this.

One is that inventing a hobby for yourself is an admirable achievement. But inventing a hobby for other people to follow...I don't know. It seems like an odd and slightly sketchy act, nearly anti-social. I say this on a hunch and practically no evidence, so I could be wrong; I welcome your counterexamples.

The second is that by defining the set to be collected so precisely, Sprague set in motion a long-term rise in the price in the autographs of all the signers. Some signatures were relatively easy to find, some were less common. But the scarcest of all is that of Georgia delegate Button Gwinnett.

Why? Because Gwinnett, during his 41 years of life before the Signing, for whatever reason, happens not to have put his signature on many pieces of parchment or paper that survived. Nor could he do so afterward, as he was fatally wounded in a duel in 1777. Unlike signer Ben Franklin, who lived twice as long and seems to have spent nearly every waking minute writing letters, Signer Gwinnett didn't sign much of anything else.

That made Button Gwinnett's signature the Babe Ruth rookie card of the Signer list, the rarest and hardest to find, even if you are willing to spend a fortune. The latest Button sig changed hands for over $750,000.

Every collection of any kind that is based on a list will include one Button, one piece more rare than the others. And if very many people are clutching the same scavenger hunt list, it's just the law of supply and demand. The rare piece soars in price, because everybody's got to have it. 

In book collecting, the Button is the first edition of the first book of a very famous author before he got famous, so published in a small press run. In comic books, it's Spiderman #1, because Marvel was a fringey company and because Spidey was such a jerk. And if it is your heart's desire to own one license plate from every state, your Button is Hawaii. Nobody drives here from Hawaii.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Cover Story

Chatting with poet friends about the relative merits of different approaches to writing cover letters for manuscript submissions, I came up with the ultimate cover letter. I don't think I will be actually sending it.

Dear Editor,

Thank the man who delivers this,
he has risked his life for art.
I am being held by the Taliban,
or possibly the CIA, hard to tell,
in a tiny bamboo cage somewhere
I am not sure where but it is hot
and dusty, and I am hot and dusty
and the only thing that keeps me alive
is writing poetry and hoping
it will appear in a journal like yours.
My guards let me out of my cage
five times a day for prayer
and if I were a Muslim I would pray
but instead I use the time
writing poems in the dust with a stick
where my friend finds them
and writes them on cigarette papers
that are easily concealed
and after they have served their purpose
can be filled with tobacco and smoked.
You living in America can have no idea
of how much people smoke around here,
wherever that is. They roll their own
but prefer American cigarettes
when they can get them. I don't doubt
that I could buy my freedom for as little
as two cartons of Marlboros
but did not think to bring any with me
as I was being kidnapped. I am not,
I must assure you, an MFA candidate,
nor a professor of creative writing,
not a careerist full of ambition, no.
My only ambition is to survive
and someday, inshallah, see a copy
of your journal containing even one
of the poems before you now,
and I cannot rule out the possibility
that if my poems appear in your journal,
it will focus attention on my captivity
that might save my life. I hope
you like the poems.
David Weinstock
Somewhere hot and dusty

To get from Aardvark to Army, you must go through Alabama and Alaric

I promised to write more about collecting, and the urge to "Collect the Whole Set!" which is an idea that animates and energizes a surprisingly large segment of the economy, as I learned during the two years I accidentally spent in the world of investment-grade rare coins. But actually, I already knew it from an earlier experience.

Remember how supermarkets would sell encyclopedias, with a new volume available every week? The first volume was priced very low to get shopper and child hooked. My mother bought me Volume 1 (Aardvark-Army) of the Golden Book Encyclopedia for 49 cents, and proceeded faithfully to buy the rest of the set until I had all 16, and I pretty much read them all, skipping only the long articles about each state, always accompanied by a map dotted with little symbols of whatever that state grew or dug or manufactured. I did not care, I still do not care, what they grow or dig or build in Alabama. (I am however very interested in how Alabama is going to grow, dig or make anything when it starts to enforce its lunatic new immigration laws.)

And then there was Alaric, king of the Visigoths. Every supermarket encyclopedia since Gutenberg includes an article on Alaric, a fact which was not lost on a man named Alaric whom I met in Cambridge in the late 1970s.. When I told him I knew his name from my encyclopedia, he revealed that he had purchased dozens of Volume Ones from many different sets, at great introductory prices, just to have the Alaric articles. From him I learned that not everybody needs or wants to "Collect the Whole Set." This discovery has influenced my own collecting life, on which I will say more soon.

Friday, October 14, 2011



You should have a bag already packed
with what you’ll need if the worst should happen.

Keep it in your car. Never leave without it.
It is your only chance to make it through.

Clothing for all conditions: think layers.
Think hot, cold, camouflage, and funerals.

First aid, medications, comforting books,
weapons, a flashlight, and means of escape,

and food, food enough, for how many days?
I cannot answer that. The rest of your life.

Imagine that much food fitting in one bag.
You could not carry that bag very far.

When the bag is empty, fold it up.
Discard it safely where no one can find.

Undress. Disarm. Stay where you are right now.
The worst has already happened

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Science should be popularized

by Martin Gardner  (1962)
Writers who "popularize" science for the rest of us--Lucretius, George Gamow, Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Steven Pinker, Oliver Sacks, Gina Kolata, Rebecca Skloot--are sometimes looked down upon, but I look up to them all. Science is way too important to be left to the scientists. If more writers were explaining climate change and global warming right now, there might be fewer politicians talking nonsense about it.

In 1962, when it was still being said that only a dozen people in the world understood Einstein's theory of relativity, Martin Gardner (1914-2010) brought out a book, Relativity for the Million, that a 10-year-old could read, so I did. My favorite part was about how the Michelson-Morley experiment disproved the existence of the ether wind. 

I also devoured Gardner's books of mathematical games and puzzles, drawn from his Scientific American columns, and The Annotated Alice edition of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, which contains hundreds of what may be the most enjoyable footnotes ever written.*

I've been thinking about other books I read as a child. I had absolute permission from my parents to read any book I found, as if they could have stopped me. I seem to have opened up every book in the house, although if it was boring or too far over my head I would put it back down after a few pages. In adult life since I have often started a book and instantly realized that I'd already read the first couple of pages decades before.**

But here's the thing I really wanted to say. Martin Gardner was one of my favorite writers, and he was quite prolific, with dozens of books to his credit. Why have I read only a few? Why haven't I collected them all?

Some readers and many book collectors just "Gotta catch 'em all." Gardner's list would be both achievable and affordable, especially if I opted for "reading copies" instead of first editions in mint condition. I know of a collector who did that for Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, finding every possible edition and translations in every language from 1776 onward.

But that's not how I read or buy. I find a book I like and read it again and again. I have read the entire oeuvre of very few writers I care about, and only if their corpus is relatively small and important. James Joyce? I've read all five books. JK Rowling? All seven. Isaac Asimov? If anybody in the entire world has read every one of his more than 500 books, I'd like to meet him.*** Or her.**** 

Next time, more about those who, as the cereal boxes used to say, "Collect the whole set!" and what's the difference between fastidious collecting and obsessive-compulsive disorder.


* I have decided that all footnotes ought to be extremely entertaining. Sorry about this one..
** There is some dispute about whether there is any such thing as a photographic memory. I read that somewhere. 
***  If you are that person, I will buy you lunch and hear your explanation for this bizarre act of fandom.
**** You also get lunch, but will have even more to explain.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Why I Don't Own an iPad 4, or, Libidinal Confessions of a Late Adopter

A CARBURETOR. Cars don't have
carbs anymore, but  lawnmowers do.
Not until carburetors have become
completely obsolete will I love them.
Whoa! Did seeing "iPad 4" in the title make you leap up and grab the car keys? Simmer down. There is no iPad 4, not yet. And you, Sir or Madam (but most probably Sir because it's a guy thing), are officially an Early Adopter. 

Me, I'm a Late Adopter. You won't find me camped outside the Apple store the night before a release date. On the spectrum between early adopters, who are always the first to snap up new technology, and Luddites who would rather smash it than buy it, I am somewhere in between. You can have tomorrow's technology, I want yesterday's. Or better yet, yesteryear's.

I got my 1945 Leica IIIc camera in 1965, my 1946 Hallicrafters SX-25 shortwave receiver in 1966, and my 1956 Buick Super in 1970. All three were gifts from my father, but I continued in the same vein, with Ann's kind encouragement, culminating with a 1913 Chandler & Price 10 x 15 printing press, acquired in 1984. We also harbor an Ivers & Pond upright piano built in the late 19th century and fully restored for the 21st.*

One reason to be a late adopter is that it's cheaper, anywhere from 25% during the clearance sale down to half price on eBay. Or even better, a prematurely jaded early adopter gives you a superseded model for free because it is so last week and he wouldn't be caught dead.  

True, a few categories of old things become more expensive rather than cheaper with age, and in a future post I will tell all I know about the charms of rare books, the darker side of rare coins, and other variations of tulip bulb madness. But old technology usually holds little allure for collectors. Bulky, heavy, inconvenient objects like printing presses and parlor pianos typically change hands on the basis of "Get this damn thing out of my garage and it's yours."

Another reason to prefer older tech to new is that, at least until recently, older equipment can be repaired. Its parts are discrete and visible. Before the extreme miniaturization into silicon chips of even the most complex gadgets. it was possible to take things apart, discover what had failed, and replace it. Parts may be hard to find, but the satisfaction is great when it works. 

The repairability of old machines, however, is not guaranteed, and there can be a great deal of self-delusion about it, verging on compulsive hoarding disorder, which has recently become the subject of not one but two popular and horrifying reality shows.  Ham radio hobbyists notoriously keep "junk boxes" because you never know when some tube or capacitor might be just what you need to fix something else. But junk boxes all too easily can became junk basements, junk garages and junk barns, and well, a junked-up life.

Why do we do it? "It is the libidinization of stuff," Cambridge psychologist Lucia Stone told me, adding that it is far more common in men, and she ought to have known. Her husband, Fred Stone, was a magnificent acquisitor of nearly everything, including wood and lead printing type, vintage glass bottles, old buttons, and World War II airplane parts. Fred was the kind of guy who gave materialism a good name. The type that overflowed the basement was stored in a makeshift shed Fred lovingly built in his backyard from military surplus magnesium aircraft frames. 

I wish I had been there, standing slightly upwind from the plume of fragrant and poisonous fumes, the day that shed caught on fire.

But I digress, yes I do, digression upon digression, and I intend to continue. Stay tuned.

*The piano was restored by Emily and Ed Hilbert of New Haven, Vermont. We schlepped it to California, where a piano tuner tried to buy it from us, and then hauled it back to Middlebury where it may be viewed by appointment.

**Fred Stone's collection of 19th and early 20th century wood type ("Take it all! Just take it!") went from his basement in Cambridge to mine in Somerville, then to our next basement in Waterville, Maine, and finally to the Art Department at Smith College, where we hope to visit it someday soon.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


My friend Charlie, a martyr but no saint, collected relics, principally by stealing them. To his credit, he always chose objects far too small to be missed.  Once, in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, pre-renovation, he reached up and pinched off a tiny scrappet of rubber gasketing from the fuselage of the Hiroshima bomber Enola Gay. 

Another time, he found a little deposit of paper bits in Emily Dickinson's writing desk at Harvard's Houghton Library. They were broken-off corners and edges of her writing paper, maybe her poems. It was sacred confetti. Charlie swept it into a plastic bag and kept it for years.

Soon after I married Ann, Charlie presented her with an orange smidge of broken brick, the size and color of an unripe cranberry. He told us it came from the rubble of Cambridge's ancient jail, where Ann's ancestor, the witch Martha Carrier, was held before her execution by hanging in 1692.

Charlie had so little and wanted so much that I naturally wished to contribute to his collection of micro-relics. One day, on a walk, I picked him up a pair of sea pebbles from one of his holy places, Nauset Beach, by Marconi Station in the Cape Cod National Seashore.

Charlie was from Cape Cod. He was estranged from his family, and wasn't keen on human beings generally. But he honored this particular place for being uninhabited, bleak, and windy. He would have lived there if he could, tenting in the lee of a dune, free at last from the tyranny of landlord and roommate.

Marconi chose Nauset for his radio experiments for similar reasons. It was barren table land overlooking the sea, with an unobstructed path to England, and it was vast. 

Marconi's signals, his radio waves, were big and floppy. By wingspan, if you think of today's compact little frequencies as sandpipers, Marconi's emissions were wandering albatrosses. Coming in for a landing, Marconi's trans-Atlantic flocks of di-di-dit could not be expected to perch comfortably on much less than a quarter mile length of aerial wire. His frequencies were so low, in fact, and their wavelengths so long, that for decades afterward, any useful frequency shorter than a football field would be known as "short-wave."

In Charlie's pantheon of higher beings, Marconi was in fact what Charlie himself wished to be, a truly important self-educated tinkerer. No higher calling could exist, unless it were friend or parent. Charlie would rather have invented a new ice-ax than find a cure for cancer, or war, especially not war, which intrigued him as the human activity calling tinkerers to their most heroic feats of ingenuity.

In his mind if not in fact, Charlie could field-strip and reassemble a Panzer tank. If you left him alone in your basement, he would find a tool you had thought was lost, and take it apart for cleaning and polishing. He would never tell you he was about to do this, or that he had done it, but he did usually attach a note. Years later I am still finding posthumous notes from Charlie, tied with sturdy tent-repair thread to the handle of a wire stripper, or tucked inside the leather case of a voltmeter.

One day, exploring the Houghton Library treasure
room, he found a pair of dueling pistols that had belonged to George Washington. They were not, in his opinion, being properly cared for. He did not steal them--they did not fit his collecting strategy. 

But he did immediately appoint himself as their rightful curator and conservationist. (This would have shocked the trusting library director who had hired him as a part-time security guard and issued him the key.) Charlie unpacked the pistols, cleaned them as thoroughly as if he were seconding a duel at daybreak, and left them shimmering with preserving oil.

Back from the Cape, I ran into Charlie on the street, and pulled the two stones out of my backpack. They were flat, round, surf-polished cookies of dove-gray basalt. He took one in each hand, and squeezed them for a long time, with his eyes closed. 

"Uploading," he said. "Uploading."


In memory of Charles A. Reynolds, 1945-1997

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

My first and last language

One April, for National Poetry Month, I invited a respected poet to visit my poetry workshop as a guest speaker. She is a distinguished teacher/scholar and and no shrinking violet, but she suddenly expressed a lack of confidence in her public speaking skills. "David," she explained, "English is my fifth language!" 

She did eventually accept, and on the day of her talk she held forth in flawless though Chinese-accented English for an hour.  At one point she actually used the word "instantiation," which I had to look up, and English is my first language. Unfortunately, I fear, it will also be my last.

That's not for lack of trying. I have formally studied four languages, Hebrew, German, Spanish and Russian, and cannot speak any of them. I am tongue-tied in four tongues all at once, if you can picture that.

Hebrew school, of course, was never actually intended to make me chatter like an Israeli. The aim instead was teaching me to pray in a language God could understand. After four years, six hours a week, I know dozens of blessings and prayers and psalms and songs, although not necessarily what they mean or how they mean it. Some of what I memorized, I discovered much later, wasn't Hebrew at all but Aramaic, which come to think of it is another language God understands, see Matthew 27:46. Shows how little Hebrew I grasped, if I couldn't detect when we switched into Aramaic.

Three years of high school Spanish really ought to have given me some ability to converse, with all those dialogs and drills and language labs. But although I could play back a dialog--"Where is the library?"-- I couldn't carry on an actual conversation. It only took five minutes in Barcelona to make it clear that I was a natural-born monoglot. I could barely order almuerzo.*

Next I took a reading course in German because I wanted to understand Rilke, and that worked out as well as you'd expect--who understands Rilke? I absolutely love German but definitely can't speak it. When occasionally I attempt a word of German out loud to a native speaker, I get only verst√§ndnislose Blicke.**

Mind you, my disability in Spanish and German is about speaking; in both languages I can usefully read ordinary text, if not mystical poetry. But Russian was different. After two semesters plus a summer at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow and Leningrad. I couldn't really read or talk. I understood barely half of what was said to me, and the Russians caught even less of what I said, which invariably caused them to switch to English, which is what they had wanted to do in the first place. Everyone in the Soviet Union was mad for English and Western culture and  consumer goods. "Peenk Floyd?" they would ask, fishing for forbidden music, and "Troozya?" 

Troozya? Troozya, I eventually deduced,  meant trousers, which at that delicate moment in US-Soviet relations meant that they would pay many rubles for my blue jeans.  Would I sell them my blue jeans? "Da!"***

It doesn't add up. In English, I am handy with words and have lived by my pen. I possess a good ear, an easy style, and a vocabulary twice as large as anyone needs, even to play Scrabble. I can give a speech to a large audience without looking at my notes. Why can't I talk foreign? 

I blame a lifelong aversion to going through that painful but necessary phase of language learning when one makes mistakes and more mistakes, commits howlers in public, and gets frustrated and flustered and laughed at for sounding like an idiot. Even as a toddler, I'm told, I hated to babble. "You never talked baby talk," says my mother, a longtime elementary school teacher. "You weren't going to talk until you were good and ready. Then one day, full sentences!"

At age two, I could have it both ways: dignified and fluent. Ever since, apparently not. But I keep thinking how interesting it would be to learn Arabic. Inshallah!****

** Uncomprehending stares
*** Yes.
****God willing.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

They are your houses

All week long I've been getting into arguments with friends and strangers about the Occupy Wall Street protests. I'm not sure why I'm so bothered about it but I can't seem to shut up. 
Partly it is the incessant whining about "media blackouts" that seemed not to notice the literally thousands of news stories about the events. 
Partly it is the group's evident lack of ideological or programmatic focus. Not that they're not trying. Even as the protests were in full swing, the Coup Media website was polling supporters (and anyone else who happened onto the site) to find out what their demands should be. 
The list of candidate positions weirdly includes  not only perfectly understandable wishes like free college education for all and nationalized health care but also the repeal of the 16th Amendment (which allowed the federal income tax) and re-opening the investigation of the 9/11 attacks. (Here is the full list: )
But mostly I suppose I'm comparing Occupy Wall Street to another ongoing protest, the one against the Tar Sands Pipeline. I love their well-rehearsed discipline, their laser focus on a specific issue, and their orderly and methodical way of getting themselves arrested, one after another, by the hundreds, outside the White House. It made me proud of leaders like Bill McKibben and Chris Shaw for knowing what they are talking about and getting the world to listen.

And finally, I am remembering a poem by Richard Wilbur, who would later be my teacher, written in spring of 1970 for the Wesleyan Strike News. There's a sentence I can't forget, as I think of the houses bought with the mortgages that spawned the current Wall Street crisis. "They are your houses."

Go talk with those who are rumored to be unlike you
and whom, it is said, you are so unlike.
Stand on the stoops of their houses and tell them why
You are out on strike.

It is not time for the rock, the bullet, the blunt
Slogan that fuddles the mind toward force.
Let the new sound of our streets be the patient sound
Of our discourse. 

Doors will be shut in your faces, I do not doubt.
Yet here and there, it may be, there will start,
Much as the lights blink on in a block at evening,
Changes of heart.

They are your houses; the people are not unlike you;
Talk with them then and let it be done
Even for the grey wife of your nightmare sheriff
And the guardsman's son.