Thursday, April 30, 2009


"You can't just walk away from this!"

"Why not? I'm not involved."


"Not publicly involved."

"Not yet. But I could expose you."

"You could try."

"Someone would believe me."

"Most people wouldn't. Besides, what would be the point? I lose everything and you get nothing."

"I get nothing anyway."

"Not true. If you don't expose me I could help you."

"Ya, right. Like I'm going to rely on your promise."

"It wasn't a promise. It was merely an observation."

"So you won't help me."

"I might."

"You bastard!"

"I'm only thinking of what's best for us."

"What's best for you, you mean."

"No, best for us. Better for me, but that's just coincidence."

"Sure. I suppose you think this whole thing is just coincidence."

"No, I think it's a mistake. There's a difference."

"Maybe I don't care what's best for me. Maybe I just want to see you suffer."

"Maybe you do. Actually, I'm sure you do. Now. But you'll regret it afterwards."

"I don't think so."

"Are you willing to take the risk?"

"What risk? I've got nothing to lose, remember."

"Oh, but you do."

"Like what?"


"Oh, come on."

"All right then. The possibility of revenge. It's the same thing."

"You think you're going to get away with this, don't you?"

"And you think I'm not. That's why we're so perfect for each other."

"I'll make you pay for this."

"Sure. But you need to make sure that when you do I can still afford it."

"This doesn't end here."

"Oh, I think it does."

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Twilight Zone

Every room you enter is empty. All around you the cards collapse.

You give a stranger your hand and find you have no fate left, or not enough to light a match.

You play chords on the guitar but there is no song, only the notes fingering each other, too shy to fall in love.

Words break and scatter, like whispers, or leaves in the wind. Language stands by the window, a barren tree, reaching for the sky.

Somewhere between blue and gray, the feeling turns from color to light.

You take in the evening like a skirt. Stick pins in the wall to map the day's retreat.

Time passes like ripples in a glass.

If what you feel is a feeling, then it's one without a name.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


We are half way across the Pacific when day rushes us. The sea gleams like dull armor. Light curves like a bow.

We are arrows shot from night's grim hand. Tips of bright steel on smoke-feathered shafts.

Our flights surpass both latitude and longitude, their blue trajectories falling away beneath us.

We aim true. We know where the heart is and we call it home.

(From missed marks the trails run endless, fresh droppings of islands, blood spoor of cloud).

We are sped and suspended, floating and fleet.

The horizon quivers to rest behind us. The sun lays its swords at our feet.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


A creature that believed itself to be all-knowing would have no curiosity and no reason to listen to anything it was told.

This wouldn't be so bad if the creature were, in fact, all-knowing.

But it were ignorant, and omnipotent as well in the bargain, the result would be infinite megalomania, eternal tyranny without the possibility of appeal.

Of course, if the creature were omnipotent then all other reality would be sacrificed to its delusion, so that the creature would, in fact, become all-knowing, not because it knew all that existed, but because only what it knew would be allowed to exist.

Better a God who knows it's all imagined, than one who imagines it's all known.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Alea Iacta Est

There are six sides to this story, and they all add up the same.

All come down to the seventh day, when God rested, and played dice, and saw it was good.

Since then, every belief is a gamble. All religion a crap game.

The truth is a blank dice. The minute you put your mark on it - give it a name, a face - it becomes God.

But to give equally to opposing sides you must resort to half measures, and that God cannot do. That is why probability is needed, to restore the balance, be the enemy of faith.

To desire symmetry is human. To deny it divine.

Einstein knew this, or thought he did.

No matter how lucky you are, the universe is loaded against you.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Two versions of heaven


It's a book
full of ghost children,

safely dead,

where dead means

or wanting
or not wanting

to be known


Heaven is symmetric
with respect to rotation.

It's beautiful
when one thing changes

while another thing
remains the same


Fading redundancies.

Feathery runs.

Alternate wisps.


sprung striations

"Imaginary" meaning
"seen by humans"

- Rae Armantrout, 'Heaven' from Versed

(Have I mentioned how much I envy Armantrout? I mean, the woman just published a new collection, Next Life, in 2007 for FSM's sake, she's not supposed to be turning out another collection in 2009. That's 120 pages of finely tuned poetry in under two years. Aargh!)


Minds that can only function
with sense data as their point of departure
have dreamed up a zoomorphic heaven
without a structure of its own
a simple transposition of earthly fauna
to a place where angels and cherubim run around
as if they were barnyard fowl
no matter how you look at it it's unacceptable
I suspect that heaven resembles
a treatise on symbolic logic
more than an animal fair.

- Nicanor Parra, from 'The Sermons and Preachings of the Christ of Elqui' (translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman)

and, as a bonus:

Rest in Peace

sure - rest in peace
but what about the damp?
and the moss?
and the weight of the tombstone?
and the drunken gravediggers?
and the people who steal the flowerpots?
and the rats gnawing at the coffin?
and the damned worms
crawling in everywhere
they make death impossible for us
or do you really think
we don't know what's going on...

fine for you to say rest in peace
when you know damn well that's impossible
you just like running off at the mouth

well for your information
we know what's going on
the spiders scurrying up our legs
make damn sure of that

let's cut the crap
when you stand at a wide open grave
it's time to call a spade a spade:
you can drown your sorrows at the wake
we're stuck at the bottom of the pit.

- Nicanor Parra (translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman)

Saturday, April 18, 2009


Before you draw a circle around it, make sure the point is firmly fixed.

Like everyone else

Elle avait eu, comme une autre, son histoire d'amour.

- Gustave Flaubert, Un Coeur Simple

Friday, April 17, 2009

A Star is Born

Just got back from a truly sublime performance of Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto by Sergey Khachatryan (along with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Kurt Masur). Khachatryan looks a lot younger than his 24 years (on stage tonight he looked more like a callow teenager than anything else) but he plays like a true virtuoso. By the time he was done with that glorious third movement I had tears streaming down my face. And I wasn't the only one either - I swear at least a third of the orchestra was crying.

Something tells me this is one violinist I'm going to be hearing a lot more of.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Silence

The silence has fluorescent lights and a bare floor.

Our prayers are worn at the knees, but there is no answer.

Only the possibility of doors behind us, and a wall where a portrait once hung.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

What doesn't kill you

doesn't make you strong.

It doesn't kill you because you already are strong and always have been. Though it only takes a moment of weakness to destroy a lifetime of strength.

What doesn't kill you makes you brave, yes, but bravery will kill you, unless you're very strong, or very lucky.

What doesn't kill you makes you lucky.

What does kill you makes us weak.


I don't want to be someone else. I want to be myself differently.

Like a basin of clear water, waiting for the light to be born.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Too many

He is not looking for answers. Or friends.

He is content with the wind up his sleeve, with his small piece of sky.

He has seen too many die to turn away from death.

He envies the mountains their vulnerability and the white doves their sleep.

He walks the roads to set them free.

He does not care what he is called.

Monday, April 13, 2009


The act of crossing the threshold, groping for the switch. The doorway your own personal dusk.

Like standing in the dock waiting for the light to pass sentence. The room's innocence a relief.

Also, a disappointment.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

An artist's reconstruction of the portrait's youth

What did the picture see in Dorian?

Something very like childhood, perhaps, something to protect and indulge, a cruel innocence, or a pretense of innocence to mask cruelty?

In any case, a conspiracy of equals.

They say we weigh children down with the weight of our aspirations. But aspirations are always weightless; it is their emptiness that makes them oppressive. What we bequeath children is not our disappointment, but the ugliness of our triumph.

What did the picture feel about Dorian, watching itself grow old in his eyes, the light in them contemptuous and fearful, the lack of recognition, the turning away?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Don't hold your breath

Seriously, don't.

It's not good for you, this constant anxiety, this experience of hope as a kind of altitude sickness, the air getting thinner the higher you climb.

You have to let it go, relax, breathe.

Let your breath hold you.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Our Lady of Paris

Just a quick note to say that I've been reading Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. It's a strong first collection, though some parts of it get a little repetitive, but the story I really loved was 'Our Lady of Paris' (an earlier version of which can be found online here). It made me think of Henry James, and that, coming from me, is a serious compliment.

Go read.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

In vino veritas

You're right, of course. It was stupid to think the whiskey would keep me honest. But it was either that or a relationship, and I've never been good at love.

For a while I had a rule about not drinking alone. Then I realized I was spending my evenings with people I didn't like, people I didn't even know enough to dislike, just so I could get a drink.

There are nights now when I don't even need a drink, when it's enough going to bed with a bottle in my arms, cradling it like a baby, feeling the glow of its promise against my chest.

I'm sorry, I know this is not making any sense. You should come back in the morning. It's easier to pretend when I'm sober.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Ghalib 20

Okay, so after Sunday's post and equivocal's response, I thought I may as well try a translation of my own. It's just a first draft really, just a few hours work, but well:

It was not my fate

It was not my fate that my love be returned.
If I'd lived longer I would still be waiting.

If I lived by your vows my life would be a lie.
I would gladly die if I could only believe.

Your weakness taught me that our bond was weak.
Could you have broken it if it had been strong?

Question my heart about your half-hearted arrow:
Would it hurt this much if the shaft had gone through?

What friends are these, who tell me what to do?
Will no one heal me, no one share my pain?

If this thing I call my sorrow had even a spark
The stones would drip blood, would open their veins.

Pain spends our lives away - why save the heart?
If it isn't spent on love, it's spent in making do.

To whom shall I complain that the night is dark?
Death wouldn't be so bad, if it only happened once.

Better a swift drowning, than death's endless disgrace.
No procession of mourners, no grave to return to.

All these riddles, Ghalib, this testimony of yours -
We'd think you a prophet, if you weren't always drunk.

- Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib

The original here and other recent translations here.

P.S. Going over the Seshadri translation again, the one phrase from it I really love (and envy) is "this grave anyone can visit". I'm not sure that's what Ghalib meant, but it's a brilliant line anyway.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Poetry gripes

Is it just me, or does anyone else think that Vijay Seshadri's translation of Ghalib's Yeh Na Thi Hamari Qismat (the original here) in this month's Poetry is really terrible? I'm vaguely fond of Seshadri, and quite enjoyed his last book, but this translation of his doesn't so much miss the boat as not even make it to the harbor. The first time I read the translation I didn't even recognize the original (which I know large chunks of by heart - as who doesn't?) in it, and even now I have trouble reconciling the translation with Ghalib's ghazal. I mean, seriously, who renders

Koi mere dil se pooche tere teer-e neem-kash ko
Yeh khalish kahan se hoti jo jigar ke paar hota


You are a laconic marksman. You leave me
not dead but perpetually dying.

That is so far from the original (roughly: "Someone should ask my heart about your half-hearted arrow / Would it have hurt this much if the shaft had passed through?") that it's practically a different poem. Not only does it not stay true to the tone and sensibility of the original (always a difficult thing to do) it completely mangles the sense of the verse, obscures Ghalib's wit, and ends up 'telling' rather than 'showing' the final line. And that's one of the better verses of Seshadri's translation. Gah!


Meanwhile, Jim Holt, writing in the NY Times informs me that Robert Browning is "not quite a first-rate poet". I'm sorry, what?! I have no idea what Mr. Holt has been inhaling lately, but if Browning is not a first-rate poet I'd like to know who is. Personally, I consider Browning the greatest poet of his era (admittedly, this is an era that consists of Arnold, Swinburne and Tennyson - not English poetry's finest hour) and would gladly lose several minor appendages if I could turn out one poem that has half the flow and precision of My Last Duchess.


And finally, to calm my indignant nerves, Lawrence Raab's 'The Poem that Can't Be Written' from last week's New Yorker.


He checks the papers the next morning but there's nothing, not even in the locals. He goes over them twice just to be sure. He figures this is good news, it probably means that the boy survived. Surely if he'd died there would have been some mention of it in the paper. Wouldn't there?

Maybe he should have stayed, should have waited around to see what happened. Though it probably wouldn't have helped. And besides, he didn't want to be one of them, the crowd, all those people with their ghoulish curiosity, gathered around the accident site like a flock of vultures. No, not vultures, exactly, more like crows, waiting to snatch some tidbit to take home to their families. A murder of crows. The very thought of it makes him sick. And to be mistaken for one of them! For that is how they would have seen him, wouldn't they - the medics, the police - shouting move along people nothing more to see here. The very idea was intolerable. If only there were some way to signal the purity of his intentions, the sincerity of his concern, of his sympathy. But it was impossible.

So, better to have come away then, throwing barely a glance at the boy lying in the middle of the road, his bicycle crushed beside him, a puddle of blood spreading under his head. But what if someone saw him, thought him callous, unfeeling? No, of course not. Everyone would have been focusing on the accident. No one would have been paying attention to him.

Except he himself. Isn't that why he wants to find out what happened to the boy? To appease his own conscience, prove to himself that he did care? Or is he just like the others, driven by a morbid desire to observe the suffering of others? No, it's not that. He really felt for that boy, for his parents. When he got back home he almost felt like crying.

If only he could find out what happened to the boy, whether he made it or not. Maybe if he searches on the Internet. There must be something about the accident somewhere. Someone must have covered it. What do they all do, anyway, these reporters? Sit around writing stupid opinion pieces or gabbing about the first lady's clothes. A boy is injured, maybe even killed, and they don't even report it? Maybe he should do a little investigative journalism of his own. They must have taken the boy to a hospital nearby. He could try calling the hospitals, ask if a little boy was brought in yesterday - a hit and run - and what happened to him. If someone asks who's calling he can always claim to be a reporter for some newspaper.

No, better not. They may be able to trace the call back to him. He could get into trouble. They may even think he was involved in some way, maybe he was driving the car or something. Better let it go. It's none of his business. Besides, the kid's probably okay. And maybe the accident just happened too late in the day to make the papers. Maybe there'll be something about it in the papers tomorrow. He should just wait and see.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

A violin, a cello and a piano

...walk up to a bar.


The perfect piano would be too delicate to touch.


New cellos are no good. The perfect cello must be aged for years in cask of pure silence, until all its high-strung bitterness had turned to mellow grief.


There's really nothing like discovering a new piece of great music, is there? This week's find for me [1] was Beethoven's Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano in C, Op. 56. It's an incredible piece of music, combining energy and song as only Beethoven can, and to hear a version of it performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Karajan with soloists Oistrakh, Rostropovich and Richter is an experience so exhilarating it ought to be illegal without a prescription.

You can find a version of the piece (with the same soloists, but a different orchestra) on YouTube: here, here, here and here.

[1] Strauss's Symphonia domestica, which I heard performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn yesterday, comes in a close second.


Choices are made. Decisions are merely taken.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Half Glass

At some point in life you start buying glasses. Round and tall, squat and long-stemmed, wine glasses, cocktail glasses, glasses for everyday use. Pretty soon you have a whole shelf full of them, in all shapes and sizes - a small menagerie of glassware all sitting there unused because you live alone and drink straight from the bottle mostly, or just use the one glass that's always out.

Opening the cupboard tonight, trying to decide which glass to serve you water in, I am aware of an obscure pride in my kitchen, as though its clean, well-lit surfaces were proof of an achievement I cannot name.

How did we end up this way, you and I, so polite, so middle-aged, drinking tap-water, making conversation? And is it foolish of me to think that there is an intimacy to this: the glass naked, transparent, passed from one hand to the other, the fingers not touching but joined, for a moment, in a shared compact, the gift speechless, filled with light?

I have not filled the glass to the brim. I was afraid of spilling it, afraid it would be too much. I watch you sip the water and wonder, but will not ask, how long you'll stay this time. When you put the glass down I ask if you want some more, though I can see the glass is half full. You say no, it's fine. I say are you sure, it's no trouble. You say I know. After that we sit in silence.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

April 1st

He views everything with suspicion today. The news in the paper, the ads on TV. Was the government really going to buy up bad assets? Would the new detergent really make his clothes whiter? Everything he hears seems a potential hoax. Everywhere he looks he senses an undercurrent of laughter, waiting to burst out.

And it isn't just the media, either. Everyone is implicated - his co-workers, his friends, his family - anyone and everyone could be lying to him, leading him on. His boss's praise, the baby pictures the girl in accounting shows him, the e-mail from his parents - how can he be sure that any of this is true? No, he must doubt everything. Only then will he escape being fooled.

But what if these things are true? What if he expects a retraction and it never comes? Would he be fooling himself then?

And if these things can be doubted then why only today? Why not some other day? Why not everyday? Has he been gullible all year? Or is he just being paranoid?

Back in his apartment, sitting down to a drink at the end of the day, he allows himself to relax. He has done it, he has escaped being tricked. Tomorrow he can go back to life as usual, unafraid to believe what he is told.

But what if no one had been out to get him anyway? What if no one had considered him worth playing a prank on? What if they thought him too boring, too staid, to be worth making a fool? Wouldn't that be the worst joke of all?