Saturday, October 3, 2009

Live in the moment - but what is a moment?

The Long Now Foundation wants to stretch our definition of 'now' beyond the taste of a madeleine, or even the span of a lifetime. They've designed a clock that should record time for 10,000 years. I can't find it now, but when I first visited their website, there was a discussion of the variety of ways to record the passage of time. The most interesting to me didn't involve gears or a clock face at all. The concept was simply materials decay. Design a monument with a predictable rate of decay, and create some sort of key. I suppose that idea was dropped because it wasn't practical. We can only guess when a column will fall or a rusted plate will open up to the passage of air. And there's a difference between recording time and recording history. You might be able to predict how stone and steel dissolve, but you can't predict the raiders who plunder the stone in an act of war, or the changes in the average temperature -- or the advanced preservation groups who, in the future, might decide to slow the act of time.

So face-and-gears is the way to go. But our trip to southern France made me appreciate the visible records of time.


We saw cave paintings from 14,000 years ago, alongside 17th century graffiti. We saw the church in Bezier where 7,000 Cathars were exterminated by Arnaud-Amaury, Abbot of Citeux in 1209, the stone still blackened from the fire. We saw smaller rural structures in various stages of decay.


Long time provides a different shade of humility than the Christian notion that one trades humility in this life for glory in another. It's the humility of smallness, where the narratives of our lives become meaningful in less grandiose ways. But it places more weight, more responsibility on our personal histories.


Friday, July 3, 2009


The memory of Neda and the memory
of Michael are sitting together on a cloud
of fog, of peppergas, unseen and unheard
on the streets of Tehran. Neda says

I can never forgive you. I’m sorry
Michael Jackson says.
I can never forgive you Neda says
for stealing from us the world’s fickle eyes.

I’m sorry, Michael Jackson says.
Shut up says Neda. Listen. Just shut up.
Michael Jackson shuts up.
They watch the Bajiis beat their drums,

breaking bones. The demonstrators run
from the clouds of fog, of pepper.
They bend at the waist, they raise their
heels, crouch, standing on their toes

until, worldly again, they hack and cough.
Neda’s scold floats across her cheeks:
Don’t you dare turn this into a dance,
she says, but it’s too late.

They are singing now Ahmadinejad
is not my leader. Mousavi is the one
What was once a duststorm is now
a swarm of bees dancing, backward,

peering ahead into the eyes of Bajjis
with their clubs and guns and motorcycles,
until the foglights and the peppergas fades.
Somewhere on Twitter a silly poet rubs

his fickle eyes.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Mountain Outhouse: 1996

(with apologies to Hayden Carruth)

Doing everything right
was easier on the first nights,
choosing the site least attractive
to bears, hanging the food

over a tree, digging a small latrine.
By the third night it wore on me,
sweating and aching, the younger,
more outdoorsy hikers passing me by,

their colors competing with the
mountain flowers. I camped close
to a state parks cabin, introduced
myself to the renters, asked if, at night,

in the rain, would they mind my using
the outhouse? They said don't. Might
frighten them to hear me out there.
And that was fine. I camped

where I camped, went where
I went. I’d been lonely
since that terrible day
Ronald Reagan got elected.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Acting Poetry

We sat on the floor of the college’s workshop theater. The acting instructor spoke about mannerisms, filling the room effortlessly with a soothingly quiet voice. He said muscle memories would lock pieces of our faces, our shoulders, our necks -- the way we reach to pick up a phone, a newspaper, a love letter -- into unconscious habits. Acting, he said, is a study of these mannerisms. Good acting starts with the ability to release one’s own mannerisms so the actor can embody the character.

I wish I had pursued that training 30 years ago. The stretching, the voice exercises, the tai chi and yoga over a long period – each practice a particle of the whole over time, each exercise accumulating in a basket full of skills so that a body can hobble across the stage as a defeated king one day and answer the phone as a nerdy teenager expecting a call the next. But the lessons of that class didn’t go to waste completely. So much of what I think about poetry, I learned in that class.

I don’t want to be limited by my own voice. I want to be open to as many voices as I can be open to. So, like an actor, I practice with different forms as a way to open myself to a variety of voices, different vocabularies, different rhythms and tones and movements. I have written a sestina that is just awful, but the very complicated puzzle of a form loosened up something in my language engine, a discovery that I gladly cannibalized for another poem. I’ve also revised poems into various forms, then combined them, grabbing bits from the sonnet sequence, other bits from a draft written on an obscure Welsh form – all because of the discoveries I made in those exercises. This one, however, came without those exercises.


The Actress

She is on her back, knees up,
feet on the floor, the house lights up,
behind a black steel grid ceiling,
and she is pretending to melt.

Start at brow. Feel the brow soften
like snow-thaw, a puddle forming
below, glistening above, now the eyes,
yes. Don’t forget to breathe. The jaw…

Her habits puddled on the floor, she
rolls onto her knees, her feet,

tale to the sky, head to the floor,
she rises slowly, vertebrae by vertebrae,
from the tail-bone to the neck.

Because she does this, day after day, year
after year, she will release the muscle
memory that makes her who she is,
the way her throat pinched in on itself,

when she squeaked “I’m a little busy now,”
or her fingers clenched, then stretched
to keep from clenching at her sister’s
wedding. All she was is gone now.

She is ready to answer the cell like you,
on the third “We will we will rock you.”
She is ready to roll her eyes and growl, low
and smoky: “You focking have a lotta’ nerve

you know that? A focking lotta’ nerve.”

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Best Practices for Throwing Stones....

Best Practices for Throwing Stones at Women Protesting
the Legalization of Marital Rape

1 Choosing the stone

Crouch in the sun. Close
your eyes and dream of frying bread.
Sweep the ground with your palm.
Gather dust.
Hold and caress the dust.


Whatever hardness meets your hand, grasp it.
Whatever softness meets your hand, taste it.
Spit it out.
Do this for 800 years,
until you know,
and the world also knows,
you are stone and dust.


2 Protecting the stone

No one sees the stone but you
and those who share your bread.

3 Teaching the stone

There are three words the stone should know:
Dog. Whore. Infidel.
The stone should know these words well.

4 Aiming the stone

Aim for the mouth.
Either she will choke and be silent,
or she will swallow the stone, vomit bread for you,
and be silent.

5 Throwing the stone

Think of blood, of bread,
of shadowy hatred.
Think of wind racing
over a field of poppies.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Necessary Artifice

First time she told the story,
how they sent the children
to harvest
too early
after the crop-
duster, she spoke
in the kitchen
to friends.
She said, this
is where
these freckles
came from, how
my skin peeled. This
is how my sister
almost died. The
surprised her
Her friends
signed up
for La Causa, and
her friends invited
five more friends
to their own kitchens,
each of whom invited
five more friends.

She knew the tears
would come
the second time,
and the third time.

By the time
she told the story
to the housewives in
Los Angeles
in their living rooms
over coffee
and union wine,
she wasn’t crying
any more
so she used
a pin
in her bandanna
and jabbed
the tears
from her eyes. Over
and over, time
and time
again, her sister
almost died:
the vomiting
and blood told
with pin-wet

A necessary artifice,
without which nothing
gets done.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Ellen’s Cat

The cat was last seen in the lot behind the duplex.
The cat was missing, could be dead.
Probably dead.
The lot behind the duplex: summer hot,
grass, sourweed, dandelions, broken bottles.

Somewhere else a moon ripples in the bay,
but the cat is not there, not even remembered there,
some time else..

No one ever found the cat.

Thirty years ago. Long decomposed now, the cat.
Long debriefed until the subject changed, the
moon covered with clouds and days. Ellen

who loved the cat as much because no one else did,
only remembers sometimes.

I only remember Ellen sometimes.

This is how memories decompose:

Worms and fleas and bugs wiggle through them,
for the nourish-me-now, and the bits wiggle inside
them, and the nourish-me-now creates gas

outside the worms,
inside the memory.
The memory swells

as if ready to float over the grass and sourweed.
Float now, not stalk, not slink.

Not hunting. Not hunted.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Tuning Fork

She holds the tuning fork with thumb and finger,
glass of wine, glass of silence, two tines and a stem,

lifts it with a flair, eyes the color in the gap,
cracks it sharp on the table,

holds it so lightly, a living, sleeping thing,
gently dares to touch it to the wood.

The haunted wood hums an overtone,
calls the room to prayer,

calls the air to prayer.

She plucks the string. I cringe:
Wire aspiring for the pitch.

He doesn’t notice
her shoulders,
or if he does, he doesn’t
how they hunch, rigid,
like her arms. He only shouts

Your’re choking the neck!”
She exchanges the tension in her wrist
for a former slackness in her jaw. “Better.

Now again.”

It is Bach, and he loves his Bach.
Is is his daughter.

You’ve heard this song before.
You know how it ends --
how the perfect note can’t be pure again --
but a tune has to close once it begins. If

I do not complete the tune you’ll gasp for air,
your mouth, open and shut, open and shut,

spitting: No! No! No! No! Like this! Like this!
Your fist will shatter the glass on the table.

As far as I know he never hit her.

The seawall

The child runs because
a child runs, (“Catch me, catch me
before I fall!”) because
running is what the child does.

The laws

of gravity cycle through--
and the laws of laughter.
The mother,
after the child, she runs

to catch him before
the seawall comes.
This is what the mother does
again and again
until she tires of the routine.

Then the mother lets the child to fall,
onto the mud near the waves,
near the crabs. What the child does:

runs and falls, runs and cries.

Blood on those grapes

I had a sign. He had a cleaver,

and it comes to me now, so large –
as big as a head, a big, sweating,

sculpted head screaming some
distorted sentence --

This immigrant butcher
could handle it like a scalpel.

He spoke
in Russian. I did not speak

in Russian.
My sign said “There’s blood

on those grapes,” His knife said
“I did not come here for this, for

the likes of you.” He was
only trying to live. We

were only trying to protect
the living.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Keep the purple boots dry

A woman walks her child to school
from the car,
takes a call on her mobile phone
The ice, desert islands
on the sidewalk sea. The boy
tries to walk on the islands,
keep his boots sidewalk-dry.

The boy is too slow. She talks
and gently tugs. The boy says
I am a god. I am Shiva. I will
keep the purple boots dry. The
mother says I am Kali and I will keep
my nine o’clock appointment,

or I will devour the son.
Everything is as it is. There is
hunger. There are efforts
to fight hunger. There is
struggle. And this is love.

-- David Cheezem

Monday, March 23, 2009

Meditations on ash

Mount Redoubt blew last night, after so many weeks of holding its breath, and now we wonder where the dry spit will land. So far, if I'm reading the radar right (and that's a big if) it's flowing up a channel to the west of Cook Inlet to Skwentna, where there are already reports of ash, and possibly to Talkeetna.

Ash is light and sharp, good for dulling paint on your truck or redecorating your lungs. It hardens when wet, but I've always thought that volcanic ash has some value, that it's part of what makes the soil rich for planting. I don't know this. I'm not a gardener. It's just what I've always thought.

The earth is alive today. It is belching and spitting it's sacred innards. It is a good thing that we study this. It is a good thing that we follow the paths and imagine the patterns of this, measuring and tracking the shaking earth. Let's learn what we can.

I hope Governor Jindal is listening.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sonnet 7

Youtube Video:America's Next Top Model Audition Riot

There is no single pitch, no single sound.
Everything we hear is atomic.
Sound as we know it is overtone.
Atoms playing pool in the inner ear.
All sound is like the sound of ocean waves.
All sound comes to us in concert.
I never understood how waves make sound --
the ocean mass, the rush of waves
across wind, the dull, loud multi-pitched
throb of the living ocean below,
screams torn from their throats,
trampling each other.
They were beautiful.
They were waiting in line for someone to say so.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Contagious Wellness

Christ got
too close

to God.
Christ caught a


He walked and

so his
feet pained

him, from

skin, to

He walked
through seas

of thronging

and the

clamor: please
touch me,

or if
you won’t

me, please

me get


Sunday, March 8, 2009


How we figured it out, I don’t know: leaves
gathered in a depression make a softer bed,
a better sleep, fur becomes a pelt,
and now I have a mattress and a quilt.
Someone scratches marks on a stone:
“These are my sheep.” Years pass, thousands, perhaps,
and those marks become an alphabet.
Now I tap this poem on a laptop.
And then there’s fire, not that we invented it,
but we learned to feed its hunger slowly. We said
you may have only the dry fuel I feed you --
these twigs now, later that branch, gathered safely away.
Everything we learn, a room in the brain,
and every room the possibility of another.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Balance Sheet

You own a home. You own the value
of your home. You own a page
representing particles in an account.
You own chairs, tables, furniture.

You have a memory in your muscles,
the way you know
where to touch her in the dark.

You own the fading taste of garlic and carrots,
chicken broth, chives. You own these.

You have debts. These also belong to you.

You owe a mortgage. You owe part-
icles to Wells Fargo for your home,
and particles to Bank of America
for your credit card, the classmate
you barely noticed 35 years ago.
She could come back to you.

Debt is the possession of fear.

This is what you own. This is what you owe.
This is also who you are:
hope, fear, and – oh, yes -- desire:
another kiss, another sip of broth.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Late Night Fast Food

No one cares, J.J., what you wrote, what you said
about chains and birth and freedom

Joe Hill says, then claws
two french fries into the catsup,
holds them to his mouth,
chews fast at first, then slow.

Jean Jacques rather likes the idea
of straws -- a plastic straw -- and a cup
of diet cola.

I feel so proud, but so
Jean Jacques says.

They bask in the cold fast-food lighting.

Jean Jacques doesn’t know guillotines.

Neither does Joe Hill, although
he knows firing squads, clubs,
some lynchings, quite.

Any word comes from anybody’s mouth
has a spit of truth in it
says Joe Hill. But
when a crowd of company goons
comes at you bats wooshing
you don’t have time to split true

from false.

Rousseau slurps

innocently from the bottom
of his cup. Then: a ridiculous and shame-
full belch. But for the midnight crew
and some drive-ups outside, they are alone.
Red chairs, yellow tables. How

can color be so bright, yet so unclean?

I wrote my life, says Jean Jacques. I
wrote my father, my mother, my mistress,
my dead children – and I was a great man.

I wrote my life says Joe Hill in hope,
in tenements and strikes, railway cars
and songs remembered and forgotten.

I wrote my song in blood,

and I never tried to be a great man.

Joe and Jacques could not hear the dog outside
in the distance: Woof. Silence. Then again twice:
Woof, Woof. Silence again, for the night.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Difficult Snow

I am walking in difficult snow,
my boots gnawing the white

ground, and everything I know
is here. The alders, shivering,

are here, and the memory of devil's
club stinging last summer

is here. I am alone,
but Joseph Stalin is talking to me.

He is saying, "Why sad?"
and I tell him: I am

trying to write a good poem
about terrible things,

and I can't seem to find
a place in the language.

And Joseph Stalin laughs,
wraps the wool-clad arm around

my shoulder, and says,
"Ahhh, David, why make things

so difficult. All I have to do is speak,
and twenty thousand people

become my imagination,
and I don't see them any more."

The alders shiver;
the trail disappears.

I am walking in difficult snow
and I am alone,

but everything I know is here.