Good Morning, Mr. and Mrs. Benevolence

Purgatory, from purge: “an abrupt or violent removal of a group of people from an organization or place.”

Purgatory, in Roman Catholic doctrine: “a place or state of suffering inhabited by the souls of sinners who are expiating their sins before going to heaven.”

“Well that’s it,” said Aunt Benevolence, “the good times are over. It’s time to send the lame and the halt straight back to the dirty boulevard.”

Uncle Benevolence wasn’t so sure. He scratched his purple wen. “I don’t believe, my dear, that there IS a dirty boulevard anymore. It’s been replaced by a heated, closed to traffic, “promenade” with decent shopping.”

“Well,” said Auntie, “we’re going to have to send them somewhere. Once there’s no Medicaid to speak of, and no health insurance for the knock kneed elders and the scoliatics, etc..”

“Well I hear North Dakota is empty,” Uncle said. “It’s mostly empty, anyway.”

“How will we get them there on the cheap?”

“Everyone knows boxcars are cheap.”

They sat for a time side by side in silence.

“It was easier on the old days to just take care of people,” Auntie said after a little while.

“Yes,” said Uncle, “but they’ve gone Pagan now. You know, Horace and shit. The best days are the first to go.”

“When did they forget Jesus?” Auntie asked.

“In America?” Uncle asked.

“Yeah,” Auntie said, “you know, Christian’s bundle, noblesse oblige, shit, even just a minimal sense of national regard for appearances…”

“It was never a Christian nation,” Uncle said. “And the Devil loves a vacuum.”

Literary Dog Games You Can Play at Home


Take a poem you love and substitute “dog” for it’s main conceit. “So much depends upon a red dog, glazed with rain water, beside the white chickens…” (A dog makes more sense than a wheelbarrow, yes?) “Because I could not stop for dog, he kindly stopped for me…” (Emily Dickinson on a bright day?) Auden: “Lay your sleeping head, my dog,/Doggish on my faithless arm…”

This is just a game I have to soften certain minutes. You know those minutes, the ones without sustaining warmth. I may have fewer of these minutes as I have a guide dog who goes with me everywhere. In a soul crushing meeting I can reach down and stroke her her, right there, under the table. This is always excellent. Then I silently add a canine “canto” or a question. What if John Keats had owned a dog? I think he’d have gotten on better with the nightingale. Paraphrasing Steve Martin’s comment on the banjo—“it’s hard to be depressed when you’re playing it”—it’s hard to meander and maunder over death when you have the company of a dog. I don’t mean to say you can’t do it. But it’s harder with a Labrador than a song bird.

Though Longfellow doesn’t say it, I like to think his Hiawatha taught people to draw their dogs.

(This is a variant game, poets who’d be better with canines.) Poor Ezra Pound: “When I carefully consider the curious habits of dogs/I am compelled to conclude/That man is the superior animal./When I consider the curious habits of man/I confess, my friend, I am puzzled.”

Ezra had acquaintances only. And was a poor judge of human character. A dog could have helped. Only beaten dogs liked Mussolini. But I digress.

Swinburne would have been better if he’d written of dogs.

From a Notebook, Early 1980’s, Helsinki


I wonder what Ronald Reagan’s hair does when he’s sleeping? Does it have a traveling life like Gogol’s “nose” and if so, does it revert to a natural gray? Does it turn up wagging at a strangers door?


Pentti Saarikoski:

“Kaikki minkä valveilla

näen on kuolemaa,

kaikki minkä nukkuessani, unta.”


Everything behind us

Is death I see,

Everything slept, dream.

—Cafe Strindberg, Helsinki, coffee steam on windows…


Eyes so wild he can’t flirt. But what if flirting is boring?


Now and then I have to whisper to myself as if a train station is a library.


Dear Mother:

Again I have failed. This time in the Punjab. Please send train tickets and a little tin of biscuits with the Queen’s face on the lid.


Reagan’s “Star Wars”—like selling toasters really. He learned everything at General Electric. At an embassy party last night I saw all the young Georgetown men yapping that it’s real. Smiling, glassy eyed schmucks.


Of Spinoza and a Spruce Tree

No one reads Spinoza in my neighborhood. The elderly woman with her old dog hasn’t heard of the devaluation of sense perception as a means of acquiring knowledge. She’s never thought of a pure, emerald nest of dendrites zizzing the accidents in her head and it’s not that she’s old, or feminine, she’s not wrong headed, she just happens to trust what she sees.

I sit on an old wooden chair under the spruce tree. The eyes are not necessary for perfection of mind. And the woman who hasn’t read Spinoza walks by with carpet slippers on her feet. A thunderstorm is coming though it’s early morning.

From a Notebook, or Morning Jog

If you don’t like the dream, change it. Turn your dial from hearse to horse. Don’t kid yourself: the carbon underworld takes any charge. My hearse, well, it shivers, stands, becomes a stallion, runs off. So what I’m flip with grief? The grim reaper has a tear in his underpants. They fly off, crow like. Ha ha! Naked reaper. Now he’s just another dead guy.


My uncle M drank. Preferred vodka. Sometimes he’d go into the old horse barn and strike discarded radiators with a hammer. He was musical that way.


In my poems, or, go ask Freud

Old lovers flit through the trees—

Ah but what kind of trees—

Birches with gold ringlets

By the lake


High in the branches

They look down on me

Just a boy really


For mushrooms


Go to meetings with college faculty. More and more they speak neoliberal platitudes. They can’t hear themselves, or choose not to. Focus group. Task force. Sustainability. So I think about the Kreutzer Sonata—not Tolstoy, Beethoven, the second movement. I’m lucky, can replay the whole thing in my head.


It’s been said British writers have an elegiac sensibility while American writing is more optimistic. I don’t think so. America is a ghastly place. Writers have to move fast. Running for your life only looks like optimism—no one should mistake desperation for belief. Even Whitman would agree.