Recursion Twenty-One: who gives a dam?

“If one is lucky, a solitary fantasy can totally transform a million realities.”
~ Maya Angelou, African-American biographer and poet

I don’t agree with Eliot that April is the cruelest month, exactly, but it certainly is one of the most frustrating. This morning I took a look at the Waste Land for the first time in a while; I haven’t deeply read/analyzed it since senior year English. Probably this has been said to death, but the “cruelty” seems to me to be the we are forced to transition between two opposites that we love for different reasons (winter for its paradoxically warm, “forgetful” “Memory”, and summer that surprises, and is full of conversation). In between, we miss what we had, and what we’ll then admire hasn’t yet arrived; so we’re stuck in this limbo of back-and-forth heat/cold, hibernation/exultation. The cruelty is only one of dashed expectations in relation to other things. So today, when it’s freezing cold, except when you specifically walk in the sunlight, where it’s blistering hot, and there’s this delicious stink of gingko fruit in the constant wind, it’s easy to feel buffeted and just at a loss. (I love it.)

Of course, Eliot probably had ten different specific moments of mythology in mind when he wrote that handful of lines at the start of the poem, and I can’t claim that my more mundane angle was one of his interpretations; it just makes it work for me. (And better that than to quote it without any background.) So as we go rushing into the final full week of April, I want to combine a few different aspects as well, bringing the veins of what I hope has been inspiring water together into one great vena cava heading towards the end. (My medical terminology might be off; damn this mixing of metaphors!) As the title suggests, I want to get a bit hydroelectric today. It intrigues me that water flowing through a dam courses over turbines to generate mechanical force, representing earth to me, converting it into electricity. That kind of transmutation is what we’re after; and after today’s prompt, I hope that we can stick with one truly refined thread of inspiration to carry us through to (almost) the end (you’ll see why almost).

This is a three-parter. First, as with the previous waterwheel prompt, construct some kind of purely mechanical contraption to shape the flow a bit: you may want a particular form to use, or a certain kind of sound scheme, or even just a directive to yourself about how to set up the structure (short lines only/long lines only, couplets, have a refrain line, etc.) But be attentive to rhythm and sound regardless! No faults in the turbines if possible. The second thing you’ll want to do is, as before, gather up all the recent flotsam you’ve written the last day, two, or five. Ideally, it will be a mix of three different lines of thought, containing three sets of images/thoughts that may overlap (but are all of which are regarded in different ways), within which particular connected items are related in particular ways. You might have orange peels and paternal admiration, mixed with longing for a place you’ve never been which branches Corfu, the love of a woman, and reasons for homosexuality, and then from that little dash of pollutants we added, you might have wasps dying inside of figs and the horror at our own nature. My hope is that you have rich and colorful waters to draw from.

Then, once you get as much of this turning through the lines of the form you’ve chosen as you can, what kind of energy do you hope to generate? Pretend you’re writing a chapbook, and need some central axis around which the poems will revolve: this is what the prompts will focus on for the next several days. Pull all those images and themes into a rotating column whose gravity will draw in runoff from the river’s lowermost course. (The ones above, I might coalesce into something like biological process in the world, or something, which has a high inner density.) Your real challenge, beyond the gathering and the forming, is to determine how the structure of the poem itself — with enjambment, with a careful arrangement of the phrases, with particular sounds and rhythms — will suggest the beginnings of that center. As the river roars out the other side of the dam and begins its final, furious rush for the sea, it has more power than it did upstream, when it meandered along pulling in streams. Now we are interested in the force of that concentrated whole, which refuses to sacrifice anything else. With that in the forefront of your mind, write: then if the spirit moves you, come back and hook up to the power grid. (And like any good power grid, draw from each other! The inspiration of others can be inspiration to you, too.)

The Man from Porlock

Been pretty quiet the last few days thanks to the flu. I woke up on Tuesday morning feeling completely abysmal, and after several half-starts at work (and being sent home; my boss didn’t want to get sick), I am finally back at my parents’ on official vacation. Feeling mostly better at this point, though still a bit gross. The fever has broken and subsided into a chest cold; much easier to deal with, I think.

Last night there was a howling gale outside (which was a blizzard further north, I’m told) that kept me awake for a good hour around 4 AM. As often happens when I’m really sick — perhaps this is some kind of fever-dream effect? — I had a series of pretty fantastic lucid dreams that, in my mind’s eye, I was taking notes on to write the stories later. But I got to this half-awake point where two of the dreams were only piecemeal, and I had a definite sense of them being cleared away as rubbish to make room for other things. In honor of Coleridge, I’m personifying that memory reboot as the man from Porlock; and I am getting back at him by writing a poem about him. (There are still two stories relatively intact that I woke with this morning; I made special lucid-dream efforts to hang on to them.) The end of the world frenzy made a nice endnote to the sense of those fantasies being lost. (And the solstice, longest night bit too, I think.)

I must go food shopping for the Victorian Christmas dinner on Sunday, and check my work email (my penance for skipping out sick three days in a row, when I’d already planned my vacation), but otherwise it will be a pretty easy day at home. I anticipate much writing! But probably I’ll just end up watching QI clips on YouTube again…

The Man from Porlock

rides in upon the howling wind and
snowflakes melted in midair like broken
promises; and with a mumbled apology

he begins collecting the fabric squares
lying on the table that didn’t find
a place in any dream, while his other hand

unwraps a migraine from its tissue
paper and presses it to your head; and
your protests fall on deaf ears

while he scoops up those kelly green
glimmers of setting and those viscous
beetles of plot, until there is nothing

but the bare kneading surface; he is
very small, the man from Porlock, as he
straddles his wet vehicle again, ready

to rise into the longest night; this
night when the world is supposed to end,
he reminds you that all that will end are

these unsewn stories set on secret planets,
wiped clean so there will be a mirror
for the grey and featureless morning


Craziest week ever at work so far. But I just have to make it through to the 20th, and then I can escape the city and go home for twelve glorious days. Can. Not. Wait.

This is half-for a prompt at Poetry Mix Tape. The idea is to use the weather to reflect something you’ll never forget, but the weather has been nothing much lately except for cold and somewhat gloomy. (My kingdom for some snow!) Rather than isolate a specific memory, this one is kind of meta, I guess. Will try to write another once the work stops flying at my head like a series of beanballs.


I don’t need the constellations
to remind me of my own mythology,
how I — and you, and everyone — have been
created, day after day.

Instead, my holy book will be
the city in winter, on a bare evening
when its bones jut and show through
dust-brown skin.

Two half-lit skyscrapers kiss
like the memory of every kiss.
Cars shatter through freezing puddles
and slip away like loved ones.

And the carolers under brittle trees,
the men and women in overcoats:
we’ve been all of them. We all ring
recognition on our faces.

Tonight is the first night
grass cracks beneath squirrel feet:
in my own time, I too have searched for
so many scraps, to stay alive.

Daughter of Levi

The prompt at Poetic Asides today is ekphrastic in nature, which is an exercise I don’t take on enough. I love painting-inspired poems (and pieces of music, too, but I’m no composer), even though they feel a bit derivative to write. Out of the four that were offered, I chose the one I hadn’t seen before, Frida Kahlo’s “Moses”:

That is some damn painting, yeah? There is so much going on in this that it’s hard to look at anything but its central figure (which I guess was the point). Images that span the gamut of world historical and religious figures; all kinds of symbolism (third eyes, milk/rain, the Masonic eye-pyramid thing) and dichotomies (male/female, old/new, mono/polytheism); and of course, Kahlo’s usual complement of just interesting images (cell division casually tossed in there) and quirky interpretations (rays of sunlight as hands, the copulating shells). And presenting an anatomically-correct Moses fetus at the center of it all. So with all that confluence of history and culture and religion, what was the first thing I thought to do?

De-contextualize it and change character focus. Womp womp!

Daughter of Levi
(after Frida Kahlo’s “Moses”)

Like an arachnid of fire, the sun dangles from the sky
reaching open palms to press against her belly: the baby
kicks. Standing on the bank, knee-deep, fingers
moving through the tickling bulrushes,
she feels it. Might as well have been her own leg,
flexing and unflexing. What is a child, she thinks,

but an organ that is swollen out of ourselves,
broken off, a mitotic soap bubble whistled into the world?
One with a name and a voice, though
she hasn’t picked one out yet. She feels the current
curl around her shins. History is a river and a sea
that we float upon for a while until someone

sweeps us up: we are all bobbing in the same
turbulence of gathered rain, each descendant a cataract
squeezing the narrative close, and then apart.
Braided stream, dendritic, infinite in length:
that is what she sees, looking into the middle distance,
heat haze like a jewel on her brow. She wonders,

does a child know its inheritance, its future,
pairs of Old World and New World faces marching by?
How many hands reach out to touch any given person
nestled in its womb? It could be so many: like a wall
of water on the left, the right. The baby kicks.
It echoes in her like the sea in a swooping shell.

Antonym for “Hatch”

Slow day at work today, as the week between Christmas and New Year’s tends to be. (Also, I’m just being kind of lazy.) Donna Vorreyer’s last Poetry Tow Truck prompt is up, and it’s a very appropriate one: “changes”. The whole concept of a “new year” bothers me, because I’d rather be changing and growing all the time; one of my most fascinated activities is to think back to exactly where I was a year ago, and realize how different things are. (I was down for the count with walking pneumonia, for one thing, but also despairing ever getting approval on my thesis research, and whether I’d be able to find a job after graduation.) I can’t wait to see what Donna’s talent for prompts and developing ideas will metamorphose into, and it’s a point of metamorphosis for myself that I’m going to try to start offering ones of my own. For no good reason, this is where my mind went during this particular moment (while my boss is out to lunch, in the literal way) regarding change… what an omelet of a world we live in.

Antonym for “Hatch”

I don’t know whether
every cherry stone and every alp
boiled out of the yolk
of some cosmic egg

whose shell shattered into stars
whose white made raging rivers

but I suspect
there was blood involved,
as it often is;
gone stale, we could use
a new book of creation, re-wind
the clocks of a shared
geography, only

if we can put back together the giant
with those mountainous shoulders

and somehow convince it
to climb back in, nestle in this
half-curved bed that’s been
sewn together
not quite so well
as we imagine.

Power Out

Finally getting around to Donna Vorreyer‘s prompt late in the day, as a sudden storm sweeps over the city. That actually got me thinking about power going out and what would happen if we just forsook all things electric/electronic. For starters, I wouldn’t be able to communicate with you fine people. Oy!

But that fit into the prompt of what the world would be like without technology. And this is, of course, a totally vague and romanticized version (what about no medicine?), born out of the little Luddite seed in my brain that craves some kind of re-connection to the earth, and handmade industry, and the power of words. I was listening to Renaissance music all day. I get all caught up in this until I remember, I’m very fond of plumbing and denitstry.

Power Out

First, we found light nesting in the eaves,
behind stop signs and under puddles of ungathered water,
in the corners of each other’s eyes.

There was music, next. It crumbled out of the walls
and the holy percussion of footsteps,
wind crooning between the ranks of storefronts
gone dark. We learned to speak again: we re-invented
hearing with our bodies. We forbade wires.

(we whispered to begin with. until there was a long

Nothing opened anymore, and nothing
hummed, or turned, or slid into place. So
sculpture became saintly; we hallowed creation.
Never had hands seemed so beautiful.

Next there was heat, and there was cold.
The gutters filled with empty pillboxes and plastic bags.
Paper rotted in the street. But there were still voices
bloomed out of helium and caught
in the spaces of our arms, joined into long chains of
going back, and back, and back:

into discovery, and solid matter that didn’t lie, and
the terrifying thrill of whatever has yet to come.