Archives for May 2012

Canticle: A Lamentation of Lamentations

for Jonathan Potter

Telling it ruins it.- Walker Percy

If time’s axes could be measured by x’s and y’s,
Weightlessness would hit the moon and comes up short
As typical astronauts would goof on graffiti
That beats them to the punch – “Clapton is God,”
The lunar lithograph exclaims. The pretensions
Are less than literary and more than time allows.
This message from the stars came back as reverb,
A name renamed, distortion, a bending of chords….
The same for seeing Israel dimly touching goatskin
On a TV talk show – “That’s Esau, or my name’s not Ishack!”
He touches his nose and suddenly all of Egypt knows
The shivering of naked bodies, all twisted by weird news –
Assemble on a hardwood bench before a swimming pool,
Olympic-sized, its water cold with catharsis. A sauna
Awaits an answer, scalding hot with cleansing steam.
The swimming instructor presumes to know their ἕποι
Let’s count them off – a madwoman who bent herself
Into a chimney and another into a ventilation shaft:
Both waited to die, discovering what we’ll never find out
Unless we interpret their deaths as more akin to life;
A man who chewed away at the face of another man,
Strong with the urge to prove that human flesh must eat,
Faceless, drug out from shadows, out into light,
Miami’s hot sun, in plain view, faceless, nothing new….
A boy who burnt his parish church down to see Christ
The night He was born. His innocent match lights the hay,
The statues, altar, body, blood, soul and divinity.
Still another boy who greeted mother as a corpse
Every day for seven weeks after school, alone, together,
And not knowing death, only sleep and love;
He took direction from her ghost until the matrix
Decided enough was enough; then there was the last,
So lost in numbers among forceps and lawful blood,
The airlock of bickering rhetoric, a silent scream,
This one, he or she, counts, observable, if only for Rachel.
Remember Rachel? “Who is Rachel? What is she?”

My guitar gently weeps.

“So Much for Vicars and Churches…”

Or, the discovery of the moral universe, done way better than I ever did it.  Longtime Friend of the Kollektiv Santigao Ramos tears it up:

“So much for vicars and churches,” because even when they’re not present, life is still a problem and a question. Even when the marriage plot dissolves, the human drama remains. It resurfaces in a different context.  As far as literature is concerned, the problem is not that liberalism has eroded the materials a writer makes use of. The problem is that no writer has lived up to the challenge of facing his own time, of being a “novelist at the end of the world.” To paraphrase the common piece of advice that conservatives give to radicals: The problem is not the system, man. The problem is you.

And it is not even true that no writer has lived up to the challenge. Modernism was, if nothing else, an attempt to live up to this challenge. I am struck by the confident way that T. S. Eliot uses that very word, “you.” “My words echo/ Thus, in your mind,” in “Burnt Norton,” and “You cannot say, or guess, for you know only/ A heap of broken images…” in “The Waste Land.” In fact, even though it is not a novel, “The Waste Land” is perhaps the quintessential example of the type of work we need today: a work that accepts the ambiguities and fragmentation of its time, and still finds the human heart beating within it. He knows who you are.




Because we are more hip than Santiago had thought.

Don’t look now, but First Son makes electronica.

Artist’s notes: “It’s late, I’m tired, and this track sucks. [Aw, he takes after his old man.] I started out mixing a good kick, which I think I did pretty well, but the rest of the track eventually went to hell, mainly because I used too much reverb on everything. Well, I forced myself to finish it and post it for completion’s sake. It’s kind of Trance-y, which is what I was going for (my favorite subgenre of Electronica), with a signature Super Saw Lead and pulsating bass line. Again, I THINK this is Trance; to me, it sounds like Trance. If any expert wishes to refute that, then, be my guest.”

BONUS TRACK: Apparently, the kids these days like this thing called Dubstep…

Artist’s notes: “So, yeah, This isn’t that great a track. I’m still an amateur. But it is one of my better ones, and I thought, ‘Hell, this is good enough to at least put on youtube.’ I THINK it’s dubstep, according to the original definition of the genre, but I don’t pretend to be an expert. Criticism and hatin’ are all okay and encouraged. At least it’s feedback, and that’s kind of the only way I’m gonna get better. As for the name of the track, well, No lyrics, so I could title it anything and it would sound kind of stupid.”

Whispers of the River Ghost

More here

Bob gets a medal.

Going Pro

Why yes, I did actually get paid to play the Director of the British Museum on a radio drama that is basically the Creationist version of Johnny Quest.  Why do you ask?  More importantly, do you need someone to do voice work?

Giger Redux

Yes, I know I’ve already sounded the bell on Giger and the Horror of Babies, but I can’t help linking to this silliness over at Ye Other Blogge.

Happy Birthday Dr. Percy

Walker Percy
Toasts to mercy
And he drinks
To Kate and Binx.

From The Writer’s Almanac:

It’s the birthday of Southern writer Walker Percy (books by this author), born in Birmingham, Alabama (1916). Percy’s early life was marked by tragedy: his grandfather and father both committed suicide with shotguns, and his mother drowned when her car ran off the road into a stream. When his uncle in Greenville, Mississippi, adopted Percy and his little brothers, things took a turn for the better; it was there that he met his lifelong best friend, the neighbor boy Shelby Foote. As teenagers they took a trip to Oxford to meet their hero, William Faulkner — Percy was so overwhelmed that he stayed in the car as Foote and Faulkner talked on the porch.

Percy went off to college in Chapel Hill, and later to New York for medical school. He contracted tuberculosis and spent the next two years at a sanitarium. It was, he later said, “the best thing that ever happened to me because it gave me a chance to quit medicine. I had a respectable excuse.”

Instead, Percy decided to be a full-time writer. He finished two novels—one was based on his experience at the sanitarium—neither of which he could not get published. [sic] But he kept at it, and his novel The Moviegoer (1961) came out when he was 45. A year later it won the National Book Award. Percy published five more novels and many essays.

In 1976 Percy was a professor at Loyola University in New Orleans when a woman called him, asking him to read her son’s manuscript. He felt guilty turning her down—the woman’s son had committed suicide in part because of his despair over not being able to find a publisher for his novel—so Percy agreed, and was so impressed that he conspired to get it published. The Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole, went on to win a Pulitzer.

Prometheus, aka the prequel to Alien, is Coming Soon!

Look, the Reader needs the traffic, so you’ll have to go here to watch the amazing H.R. Giger double feature that I’m referencing in this post.  The first part is an autobiographical bit, and the second is about the making of the original Alien costume and set.  The latter bit is the more entertaining, but the former is more…illuminating.  I pulled a few fun excerpts, because while I still think that E. Michael Jones overreaches when he claims that Alien is all about contraception, there’s no doubt that it’s in the mix, starting with the man who made the monster…

“What led me to paint these repulsive children’s heads which frighten all women? What scares me most is overpopulation, with all its horrifying side effects such as epidemics, mass hysteria, famine, and total environment destruction. For me, the greatest criminals against mankind are those who, with the help of religion, or false ethics, forbid the pill, prevent abortions, and hinder old people from dying.”

But apparently, they don’t frighten all women – certainly not this mommy, who bought the painting…

“We bought this picture because it fascinated us, and not, as so many people claim, in order to provoke them.  This picture expresses everything for me which a woman can feel for a child.  Birth, contraception, overpopulation, infection, and plague…In any event, one can do something against the abscesses and blood of the children in Mr. Giger’s paintings.”

She makes a good point there at the end.  Giger himself takes pains to note that he loves nature, and color – you know, the beautiful world.  He paints the things he does not because they delight him, but because they horrify him.  They are protest paintings.  You know, like this one:

That’s why, as this guy notes, the hippies love Giger – he’s wise to the technological horror show.

“When one has many opportunities to visit country communes in which young people are trying to develop a new lifestyle, one is struck by how often Giger’s posters are to be seen on the walls.  These people don’t even know who the poster is by.  The only explanation is that these images express something which is in us all today.  Something archetypical and primal that we long for or are frightened of.”

Some hint of Giger’s experience of that technological horror show slips out when his dad chats up the camera:

“Where does he get this fantasy?  From the mother, of course…Of course this fantasy is connected with an overdose of hormones at the time of nursing, in infancy.  When they started testing these products, it didn’t come from mother’s milk alone.”  What hormones?  Testing what products, exactly?  Yeep!

Giger addresses the strapped-in, restrained character of his figures – in particular the children, but maybe also some of the ladies? – by a reference to his childhood:

“Sometimes, when I look at my paintings, I ask myself, what led me to such things?  For example, these strapped in children who have to play Indians.  Children often have to play roles, probably because their parents wanted it that way.  Duress of this kind in youth follows you into old age.  I still remember very well how my mother packed me up in a kind of overall, which closed with a lot of buttons or a zipper at the back.  This caused difficulties when I had to go to the toilet.  I despaired when I realized that I could not piss and shit at the same time, because the construction of my suit only allowed one of these activities at a time.  So I had to squeeze both of them in and wait until evening when I was freed of my straitjacket.”

Childhood also contributed to the prevalence of (frequently invasive) tubes in his work  Surprise, they’re not penises – they’re worms!  (Well, okay, sometimes they’re penises.)

“Among the elements which repeatedly appear in my paintings, it is above all the worms and the snakes which horrify me most, and I think to find a worm in excrement or vomit is the most horrifying thing I can imagine.  In my pictures, worms take the form of technical elements, such as tubes and hoses, and that reminds me of this.  Once at Easter, I had to look after my grandmother’s grave together with my mother.  When turning over the earth, a thick worm crawled out and I thought, ‘My God, that’s part of my grandmother.  I let the spade fall and ran out of the graveyard.’”  Death, baby.  Death.

As I said, illuminating.  But the Alien stuff is the fun stuff, of course.  Love this bit on the eggs:

“The original idea for the eggs’ opening was a kind of mobile elastic slit, but the production felt that this was too directly reminiscent of female sex organs and worried about possible censoring in Catholic countries.  So we settled on a similar but crosswise shape, which satisfied both the Catholic countries and my own sense of forms.”  Who knew Catholic countries had such clout?

But the best bit?  The really fun bit?  “In another studio, Carlo DiMarchi (sp?) is working on the facial musculature of the monster.  Because the creature is able to perform real movements, these have to correspond optically to the facial muscles.  For this work, we’re using contraceptives.”  That’s right, they cut up condoms to make the Alien’s mouth.

The amazing awfulness of the translucent skin pulling back from those teeth?  That’s a prophylactic in action:



Included among the over one hundred poets represented here are Wendell Berry, Mark Jarman, Jeanne Murray Walker, Dana Gioia, Jonathan Potter, Martha Serpas, Luci Shaw, and Robert Siegel.

Happy Birthday Bob Dylan!

The first item is something I hadn’t heard before. Dylan sings “North Counry Blues”. A young man, trying to sound older and more gruff than he really is. It’s a little slow, probably of interest to fans only, but give it a try.

Item N° 2 is from Nat Hentoff’s 1966 interview with Dylan, soon after the folk singer went electric. It’s my favorite Dylan interview; just classic:

PLAYBOY: Mistake or not, what made you decide to go the rock-‘n’-roll route?

DYLAN: Carelessness. I lost my one true love. I started drinking. The first thing I know, I’m in a card game. Then I’m in a crap game. I wake up in a pool hall. Then this big Mexican lady drags me off the table, takes me to Philadelphia. She leaves me alone in her house, and it burns down. I wind up in Phoenix. I get a job as a Chinaman. I start working in a dime store, and move in with a 13-year-old girl. Then this big Mexican lady from Philadelphia comes in and burns the house down. I go down to Dallas. I get a job as a “before” in a Charles Atlas “before and after” ad. I move in with a delivery boy who can cook fantastic chili and hot dogs. Then this 13-year-old girl from Phoenix comes and burns the house down. The delivery boy – he ain’t so mild: He gives her the knife, and the next thing I know I’m in Omaha. It’s so cold there, by this time I’m robbing my own bicycles and frying my own fish. I stumble onto some luck and get a job as a carburetor out at the hot-rod races every Thursday night. I move in with a high school teacher who also does a little plumbing on the side, who ain’t much to look at, but who’s built a special kind of refrigerator that can turn newspaper into lettuce. Everything’s going good until that delivery boy shows up and tries to knife me. Needless to say, he burned the house down, and I hit the road. The first guy that picked me up asked me if I wanted to be a star. What could I say?

PLAYBOY: And that’s how you became a rock-‘n’-roll singer?

DYLAN: No, that’s how I got tuberculosis.

Read the whole thing here, if you like.

Last, another clip I’d never seen before: Dylan’s appearance on Dharma and Greg a few years ago. An aging but obliging gent, for whom age is nothing and obliging others is everything.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Dylan, and Thanks for everything.

The River and the 50 Hour Slam

So there was this make-a-six-minute-film-in-fifty-hours contest thing …

and there were secret ingredients that had to be incorporated into the films …

and one of the secret ingredients assigned to some of the teams was my poem “The River”

and now you get to vote.

(P.S. My favorite is The Birthday, but I’m rather fond of River Ghosts and Not a Cartoon Moose as well.)

Review of House of Words

John Liem

Review of House of Words by Jonathan Potter

Spokane: Korrektiv Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1439258033. 94 pages.

[Reprinted with permission from the 2012 edition of Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature]


“These pages turn / to Ash, with love,” says, in full, the dedication of Jonathan Potter’s debut collection (vii) — a pun with purpose. This tiny sample accurately represents the whole: ardent, eloquent, the work of a poet with an ear for multiple meanings and an eye for an elegant (and often loaded) line-break. House of Words contains, by my count, seventy-one poems, encompassing sonnets, sestinas, and free verse, heights of joy and depths of guilt and the false equilibrium of everydayness, to name only a few of the book’s many modes. But the seven simple, though multivalent, words of its dedication introduce the two linked themes that, singly or together, touch every one of its poems: language and love. A poorer poet might make such common themes look barren and banal. Potter shows instead how perennial they are, by collecting poems that all, somehow or other, deal with a few specific aspects of language or love that concern him especially. And since the poems are all highly personal (in an inviting way, not self-absorbed), and since they were written over many years of the fortysomething poet’s lifetime, the book has a subtle narrative flow. House of Words is not only a poetry collection, but a decades-spanning montage memoir of Potter’s relationships with two beloveds: a woman named Ashley (the “Ash” to whom the book is dedicated) in the here-and-now; and God Himself, always just beyond grasp.

Many poems in House of Words allude to the Bible — sometimes with a wink (“Adam donned a hard hat // while Eve snuck off … / … for repeat / bargain matinee viewings of / the Bergman film in black & white– / that famous chess game with death.” “Death,” 53), sometimes with absolute earnestness (“The willows are our years now numbered nine. / Our love has roots that drink from Cana’s wine.” “The Willows,” 92). The Bible provides the links between Potter’s themes of language and love, and between these themes and Potter’s use of language to express his love for Ashley and for God: If John the Evangelist taught the truth, then God is both Word and Love, Logos and Agape, all-comprehending Intelligence and all-benevolent Will. And if the Book of Genesis is right, God made man in His image: God gave man the task of assigning human words to the creations of the Divine Word; and directed humans to love, in imitation of the Divine Love, by creating the species as male and female. Lofty doctrines, supremely beautiful and ennobling, consoling and satisfying — if true. But the possibility that it is not true has always haunted believers, Potter included. And in recent centuries, certain assumptions of modernity have made Christian doctrines appear, if not less credible, then less comprehensible in the first place. That the world is fallen, Judaism and Christianity have taught for millennia. But lately, the very vocabulary with which they would diagnose the problem and prescribe a treatment has become debased.  Potter sketches his own impression of this predicament in “The End of the Twentieth Century” (45). But two historical figures appear briefly in this collection, indicating the nature of Potter’s project: Søren Kierkegaard and Walker Percy, the 19th-century Protestant philosopher and the 20th-century Catholic novelist he inspired. Both men tried to describe and correct the problems of their times. (Indeed, this book’s publisher, Korrektiv Press, which Potter co-founded, takes its name from a work of Kierkegaard — see One of the epigraphs, from Percy’s The Moviegoer, describes a boy whose “monotonous speech gives him … the same advantage foreigners have: his words are not worn out. It is like a code tapped through a wall” (3). Another, from Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, reconciles the belief that “God is love” with seemingly contradictory evidence: “[I]n the temporal world God and I cannot talk together, we have no language in common” (57). Through gentle puns (as in the dedication), Potter points out that our mother tongue is a code, a system of signs — and signs signify things. Potter also frequently alludes to the names God has given us, which we can hope to recover: “[Y]ou’ll find the well,” the poet tells his Godson after the baptism, “and when you get there you’ll dive down / and come back up with the secret prize / the golden egg with your true name inscribed” (“Note to My Godson,” 20). (For a deeper look at the themes of language and love in House of Words, see Joseph O’Brien’s review in the Mary, Queen of Angels 2010 edition of Dappled Things.)

Potter’s poetry is refreshingly clear — which is not to say that it yields up all its meaning and emotion on a first reading. It does not. But its recurring images are accessible, especially (though not exclusively) to a reader familiar with the Bible. To get inside this poet’s thoughts and experiences, we do not need to hunt him through the labyrinth of his imagination. The symbols to which he returns again and again are primal, or practically so, though charged with additional meaning by the Old and New Testaments: house, sky, fire, plant life, the turning of seasons, and — especially — water. This last occurs as a spring and a well, an ocean, and, most dramatically, a river.  In addition to repeating and recombining his main symbols to show off their different facets, Potter has a knack for noticing man-made things. He sees when they exist in or alongside the natural world and treats them indiscriminately, parts of a whole: The sky that the poet hungers to look at — “the blue and the gray of it, the white and the black” — contains “clouds that shroud / the birds and wires and jet airplanes… // … sundogs and moondogs and stars and satellites at night” (“The Sky,” 27). The interaction of natural forces and technology provides some memorable, fresh images for the action of grace: In “November Reverie,” the poet sits in the winter afternoon and wishes “for a word / that might function / like a solar panel, storing up the last of the light / for later use” (81). In “The River,” a deeply personal expression of the same thirst for God that Psalm 42 likens to a hart’s longing for streams, the poet confesses, “I need the power of the river / to flow through my soul, / to turn the turbines of my mind” (28).

God speaks, if at all, in the still small voice of little incidents, and the poet must himself be still to know Him. The poem that provides the collection’s title sets its tone:

Build me a house of words,
A house of how and why,
And I will live in it with you
Under the silent sky,
For we will tell each other
Things we would deny
And believe them by and by. (Untitled, 1)

The word “silent” occurs four more times in that poem’s brief remaining length. There is gentleness and music, but very little noise, in either the sound or the sense of any of the poems here. (Potter is, incidentally, a university librarian!) The stillness sometimes hints of agnosticism. Mostly, though, it refreshes the reader, sensitizing him to subtle epiphanies occasioned by such little things as “a dollar in the pocket / of a winter coat in summer” (“You and I,” 10), and heightening the impact of the occasional violent image or incident.

Potter saves his strongest language to describe his longing for the good things of creation, for Ashley, and for the supreme Goodness and Beauty of God: “Burn the lids off my eyes / with seeing,” he prays (“Psalm,” 6). Potter — like his hero Walker Percy, and the heroes Percy wrote — craves. Craving the color-changing beauty of the sky, the warmth of the last winter sun, the power and abundance of a flowing river (whether of water or of coffee), he wants to enjoy the goodness the created world can offer. Yet he knows creation cannot satisfy him, and so craves the Creator it signifies.

Absorbed in the earthly contentment of throwing baseballs at a basement target and ricocheting them off the walls — “fingering the seams, / eyeing the zone, winding up, unwinding, releasing” — the poet concludes, “Take me out to the ball game, that’s my prayer” (“Under Chub’s,” 68). In addition to this longing, Potter recreates grief, guilt, joy, recklessness, wistfulness, intellectual abstraction, and more, with originality. They all contribute to the grand design, since they all find their origin, their resolution, or both, in God. (Also contributing to the grand design are many delightful bits of puckish wit, seeded throughout the book, which shall remain unnamed so as not to spoil the jokes.) But craving — the desire for satisfaction in the present and longing for eternity — is the keynote and cornerstone of this House. It is a strong debut, a gentle corrective, an extended love letter, and a nicely wrought document of life at the beginning of the third millennium as an observant Christian.

Pot of Gold

It was by far the strangest and most wondrous rainbow experience I’ve ever had. Driving east on I-90 near Vantage, WA, this rainbow appeared, a full rainbow spanning the freeway like some sort of theme park gimmick. Soon after I took this picture, I drove right into it. The rainbow’s end literally hovered just above the dented hood of my crappy car for a long moment and then it was behind me.


Lord help me, I never could stand this show.  But The Wife loved it.  Anyway, now it’s over.  Still, there will never be a finale as awful as Lost‘s.  I’m looking at you, Potter.

On Fire!

Eventually, I will just start accosting people in the street, handing them a series of questions about Alphonse to ask me, and forcing them to conduct interviews.  Until then, the good people at Father Barron’s  Word on Fire will have to do.

Seriously, though, I’m very grateful.

Judas Priest

I do believe I am having a moment.

What’s the matter with Kansas?


Of course, Percy would say, “Absolutely nothing.”

“Why is a man apt to feel bad in a good environment, say suburban Short Hills, New Jersey, on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon? Why is the same man apt to feel good in a very bad environment, say an old hotel on Key Largo during a hurricane?” Or in a wheat field haunted by a tornado outside Harper Co., Kansas.