Thursday, December 31, 2015

How Little Pyroraptor Saved the Season

An ancient night in long ago December
loomed across the forest like a fog,
and dinosaurs of every size and color
shivered under frozen leaf and log.

The winter sapped the animals of strength,
and each despaired of ever being warm;
but hope was struck by lightning in the distance
from a Late Cretaceous thunderstorm.

A flame was spotted in the eastern mountains,
pulsing with a lively orange glow,
yet none would dare approach the peaks, except
the fire thief, her feathers white as snow.

She told the prehistoric animals
that huddled in the icy forest trees,
“Prepare a pit to hold the distant fire;
I’ll bring it back to heat our homes with ease!”

As Pyroraptor journeyed through the woods
she left her footprints in the snow beneath,
and clutched a sturdy branch of verdant holly
tightly with her fierce, determined teeth.

She deftly climbed the distant mountain slopes
with claws for gripping, movements sure and quick,
while leaping up between the snow-capped rocks
in search of fire to light the holly stick.

The promised flames were near extinguished from
the mountain’s only westward facing slope,
but embers from a patch of withered branches
offered Pyroraptor’s greatest hope.

“Alas,” the little fire thief declared,
“I’ve climbed too far and traveled much too high:
although my legs may speed me to my friends,
the branch will be consumed if I should try.”

She set the verdant holly branch aside
and looked around the mountain in dismay,
when lucky chance revealed a hollowed trunk
which, with a push, might make a decent sleigh.

Of course our Pyroraptor knew the risk,
but just as well she had compelling reason;
and so determined that she had no choice,
except to do her best to save the season.

So Pyroraptor took her holly branch
to stick it swiftly in the glowing coals,
and when the branch was fully lit, she leaped
into the crude toboggan’s dugout holes.

Down and down the trunk was sliding soon,
with Pyroraptor riding in the front,
the flaming brand of holly held aloft
in triumph for this daring downhill stunt.

And in the woods, the fire pit was dug
by Iguanodons and other dinosaurs,
while tinder, sticks, and grass were fetched for fuel
by smaller mammals, birds, and pterosaurs.

The storm grew worse, and many animals
fell into deep depression and despair -
but gazing out toward the eastern mountains,
a watchful Martinavis took the air.

Afar he spied a speeding orange glow,
and burst into a loud and hopeful song:
“the fire thief is coming down the mountain,
the fire thief will shortly be along!”

And shortly, Pyroraptor’s makeshift sleigh
was sliding fast toward its destination,
weaving nimbly ‘tween the pines and firs
to bring the forest creatures their salvation.

The log slowed down, and Pyroraptor sprang
to bring on foot her precious holly torch,
and reached the forest clearing none too soon -
the feathers on her snout were being scorched!

“Hurry Pyroraptor!” cried the bird
that saw the sleigh approaching from the hills,
“the pit is dug, the pile of wood is ready,
so throw the torch and save us from these chills!”

The holly branch was up in roaring flame,
and Pyroraptor gave a mighty throw -
the logs and tinder soon were burning, while
the hero cooled her feathers in the snow.

Though all about the northern winds were fiercely
blowing ice and snow across the land,
the flame from Pyroraptor’s log of holly
warmed the forest creatures as she’d planned.

The Hadrosaurs made merry trumpet calls
while squads of Spinolestes jumped and danced,
And every creature hailed the fire thief
with jolly wreaths of green coniferous plants.

They wassailed through the dark and ancient night
for Pyroraptor and her glorious deed,
and woke a sleeping hive of Melittosphex,
begging honey for a brew of mead.

So Pyroraptor and her forest neighbors
passed the winter happy, safe, and warm;
the days grew long, another year began,
a spring devoid of prehistoric storms.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

WFJ Book Club #13: The Hobbit

The Lord of the Rings is, at least in my estimation, one of the most incredible novels of the last century.  It is a forcefully imaginative and undeniably influential instance of an author cutting against the grain to build a place in the popular culture for his own, somewhat unconventional, tastes.  And I could go on like that for a while, really, because I am a huge Tolkien nerd and I've internalized a lot of this kind of praise for the old man's most popular book(s). 

What I really want to talk about today, though, is The HobbitThe Hobbit is of course an enduringly popular novel and is often associated (to the point of complete identification) with The Lord of the Rings.  As a prequel (though to be more accurate, Rings is a sequel), it contributes to the epic events that follow, and the stories are both similar in their focus on the activities of Hobbits and on the Baggins family in particular.

The similarities between the two stories was such that Peter Jackson, following up his acclaimed work on a trilogy of Rings movies, felt justified in taking the same approach and creating a new Hobbit trilogy.  I of course watched and reviewed each of the three new movies when they came out, and while I appreciated the filmmaker's obvious love for the source material, with each passing year I became less confident that we fans were getting a Hobbit adaptation that was anywhere near as definitive as Jackson's The Lord of the Rings.

Flash forward to this holiday season, and I found myself actually rereading The Hobbit for the first time in years.  It was every bit as wonderful as I remembered, and I found myself effortlessly transported to the Middle Earth of my childhood, before its geography became synonymous with New Zealand.  But when I put it down again, my thoughts turned endlessly to darker themes.  Peter Jackson and I, thought I, needed to have a conversation.

The sad truth is that, barring a few real improvements (like the addition of Tauriel, and some of the background material on the One Ring), the movies did not do the original justice.  It's not a matter of which scenes were included and which scenes were not; it was a matter of missing the point.  This is supposed to be a book review and I've spent way too much time talking about movies, but I think it needs to be said that someone, in the future, is going to make a brilliant ninety minute Hobbit adaptation.  That is the work we fans deserve.

The truth is that as similar as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are, they have a very particular and symbiotic relationship for the reader.  To read them in their original order is to see Tolkien pull back the curtain on a world that, for him, already existed even before The Hobbit was composed (though he was himself still in the process of discovering it).  To go back and read The Hobbit after its sequel, then, is to be astonished at how effortlessly a tale so small, for lack of a better word, fits into a world so vast in potential.

The Hobbit stands apart for a tone of voice that is more friendly and personable than any of Tolkien's other Middle Earth writings.  It is less self-consciously literary, having been first conceived as a bedtime story for Tolkien's children, with no wider audience in mind.  The adventure of Bilbo Baggins never strains for mythic significance, as the hero takes a fairly straightforward path through increasingly greater dangers until finally reconciling his bold nature with his meek, domesticated habits.  But the story achieves significance anyway, because Tolkien (quite audaciously) had Bilbo breathing the same air as the heroes of the great myths he had already been writing for years.  Practically no one who read The Hobbit in 1937 had any idea about The Silmarillion, but that dense work echoes throughout The Hobbit without overwhelming what is still essentially a story for children. 

That continuous presence animates The Hobbit and gives Tolkien the opportunity to take his world's history as given, confident that readers would accept the introductions of elvish swords from Gondolin, without asking too many questions about just what or where "Gondolin" was.  Elements like the Necromancer or the Arkenstone hold obvious significance, but even though the initial audience knew nothing about the agents of Morgoth or of the Silmarils, the author was already practiced in exploring their associated themes.  The reader might know nothing of Middle Earth's history, but it is obvious to anyone that the narrator knows what he's talking about, and isn't merely making up silly names as he goes along.

So what is the magic of The Hobbit?  It is depth in the service of simplicity.  The function of that depth is to take a simple story about fantastic events and make them seem so weighted with history as to be nearly tangible.  It's fiction, but it isn't trifling; light, yet substantial.

Tolkien's Middle Earth was created as a way for for the author to express his fascination with the "authentic" myths that were his academic specialty, in a way that satisfied his own creative impulses.  For that reason The Hobbit also rings true for its reminiscence of the stories of Norse mythology, with Dwarves and Elves and the distinctly Odinic wanderer Gandalf.  Indeed, Tolkien's imaginative appropriation of these types had the effect of casting a distinctly "Nordic" quality over subsequent "high" fantasy fiction, a historically unfortunate result but one that works to great effect in giving The Hobbit the illusion of authenticity.

Another problematic element of the story is Tolkien's rather obvious and often cringe-worthy characterization of his Dwarves with stereotypes of Jewish people.  Though I am not Jewish and can't speak fully to the anti-Semitic effect, I will venture to say that the Dwarves of The Hobbit are not villains, and neither are they as single-mindedly obsessed with wealth as a true bigot likely would have had them.  In a roundabout way it seems that Tolkien really admires Thorin and his companions, while still carelessly stereotyping them.  Cultural misunderstanding is a recurring theme in all of Tolkien's works, often reflecting his own feelings about the clash between ancient and "modern" values; whether he could appreciate the conflict between modern people in the same way is unclear.

That problem illustrates the limitations of attempting to build a whole world from one's own imagination.  Real worlds are impossibly huge, rendered in imperceptible deal and visible from infinite perspectives.  Even the most fully-realized work of fiction is only as real as it can be generated within human minds, and the smallness of our minds gives us flawed worlds.  I think that is part of what makes The Hobbit so endearing in its original form: its satisfaction with being small, even as it sets out into the great wide open.  The "battle of the five armies" is a spectacular moment, but I think what most people remember best in the end are the small scale delights of the Shire and Bag End.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Poetries #4

I don't know quite how, but I have essentially exhausted that overly-comfortable buffer that once existed between the writing of my poems and their publication (if that is the right word) on this blog.  That's a little bit frightening, if only because I wonder what level of productivity is most fitting to this activity, and whether my work might benefit from more waiting and editing.  I am always putting too much pressure on myself.

Anyway, here's fifteen more of those things I do.  They are not, all things considered, bad.  Ironically, the title and tone of the first poem in this group asserts the opposite.  Maybe someday I can write in a self-aware style without being so relentlessly negative, hmm?  That's a challenge for next time, I suppose.

The time span of these poems is from October to December, 2015.  As usual, boring and unnecessary commentary can be found at the end.

Edit: An earlier version of this post included the poem Into the Hidden Garden, a poem which previously appeared in an earlier Poetries post.   The person responsible for this error has been flogged.


This is Not a Good Poem

I don't think you'll like this one,
it hasn't got the adjectives
you love so much,
or crushing turns of life 
and blood,
of bone and breath.

No one smokes a cigarette
or puts the ember out with their skin,
and no one dies
of cholera, consumption,
or purple death.

I haven't read the classic books
in Latin or in Ancient Greek;
I haven't read
any Burroughs, none
of Bukowski,
not even Pulp.

This is not a good poem - 
a poet always knows a failure,
and I have never 
known the rules: when 
to rhyme,
or when to stop.

Tender Loving Care

You thought of everything,
considered every angle,
approached the job with care - 
and happy birthday to me.

I opened my eyes to find
you'd given an ideal gift - 
something of the moment,
something of eternity.

Correct in every detail,
gentle as a mother tigress,
I could not deny
you have the taste for this.

And here's the stroke of brilliance - 
you know that to enjoy this grace
I have to be serene,
surrender to your loving care,

to trust your love,
to trust your instincts,
trust your teeth
with all their kind intentions.

Happy birthday to me,
I feel you humming, sweetly,
and again I close my eyes
in praise of this ideal gift.


Everyone is smaller
at the edge of things;

the divers and their never-
ending quest for treasures
from the mouths of clams;

the statues, weathered by
the whistling winds of age;

the fishermen, diminished
in the spray of winter
by the swell of whales;

the sailors learning how
to swim (the hard way);

the victims and survivors
of the seaside village
clinging to their boats;

the tiny people, gazing 
in the tight abyss

with buckets at the ready
and screaming for their lives.


The boy,
he ran around October
through the pumpkins,
making paper of
the leaves.

He caught
the girl between the forest
of October
and the frozen pond
at dusk.

They laughed,
exhilarated by the
chase, and spinning
in October's chill 

The girl
delighted in the blushing
of his cheeks, she
slipped her fingers in
his sleeves.

Her back
across October's papers,
red and orange,
making love, they hailed
the dark.

It took
another seven weeks, but
in the end, he
had to let October

Twenty First Century Man

They say that nineties kids can never forget,
but these are not the nineties anymore,
and I am just a twenty first century man,

and I was born in nineteen eighty seven,
but I really can't remember those days:
I wonder if the other children can.

To Boldly Go

Let me help,
she said;
it was the most beautiful
sound I'd ever heard,
like salt breezes
through a temple's pipes,
the sea-blown music
of relief.

Please help me,
I said;
it was the best that I could do
as far as harmony,
the one and only
fair submission,
humble counterpoint
from the stars.

If Her Love Was True

A silver sterling blade,
as precious as the flesh it cuts,
as warm as every drop of love it looses - 

it cuts in many ways, from front to
back and forth, to death
and through illusions dear to peaceful dreaming.

A slice, revealing plain that love is of the flesh,
and if her love was truly love
then love can die.

Clothes and Bones

I am secured against the underground
by concrete walls and a cloak of poly-plush,
yet through the night the frozen stones surround
me, and I know the Earth intends to crush
my chest, enclose me in their icy hush - 

Recalling lovers perilous and sweet,
ascending from this cellar makes me blush;
I fear my clothes are ages obsolete,
but up or down, my boots must grow to fit my feet.

Hasty Exit to a Scene

I never knew the art of rainy days,
the composition of the melting streets
and clouds of storm and wonder in your hair,
the rendezvous that never quite repeats
when the tears have dried, and the brush is cleansed with paint;

I never knew my way around the beats
we used to dance to, never knew the steps
between the raindrops, where the autumn meets
the magic, and I haven't learned them yet;

I never thought I'd make such quick retreats,
betray myself with such a slow embrace
and linger in the worst of those defeats.

The Fantastical Human Kite

If the Santa Ana winds would blow
me off my feet like a springtime kite,
to fall into the ocean,
would I drown?
I know
the wind is strong,
and I have arms like paper - 
fair enough to fly, perhaps,
but much too thin to bring me back to shore.

The Night Slicer

Every dream, a different scandal
is my shame.
A bullet, or a butcher knife,
in any case there's always blood
and it is not my own:
I am the blade that whistles.

I am very fortunate, indeed:
the only person who can blackmail me
is me.

A nightmare sits
on its victim's chest
like a greedy old ghoul,
but I'm the sitter
and I haunt the ghosts of my guilt.

The Local Crowd

Iridescent little weirdos,
buzzing through the fence poles
for their taste of plastic flowers;
they have given no account

of themselves or their intentions,
fair or foul.  Taken for granted,
taken for the local crowd,
speaking at fifty beats per second

in a low, distant murmur,
the taste of nectar on their tongues
and hunger boiling in their bellies,
they never stop, they never stop.

A Fever Dream

I am your sinister conspiracy,
the hidden source of every secret move,
the prize you stake your reputation on
because it makes your lips explode with taste;
sufficient cause to sneak behind their backs
for covert trysts in shaded corners, breathing
promises exchanged for wine and silk, 
intoxicants of tongue and tempted skin.
A life in shame is an exquisite risk
to hazard for a kiss, the danger of
exposure for the blissful thrill of sex;
but would it truly be a sin, to spill
your secrets out in a whispered conversation,
the pretense of your innocence betrayed?

A New Generation of Suckers

Today's American Fascist
needn't even bother
with red, white, or blue.
He smiles, confident
we've memorized the script,
and offers something true:

honesty with his
intentions, his contempt
for justice, for law, and for you - 
while happily, you and all
his fascist fans provide
the red, white, and blue. 

To Wind the Clock

A click,
but how many twists does it take 
to tick,
how many turns of the wrist
to tock?
A spring in the shape of a disc,
to tick
the seconds to task,
to tock, to tick:
to tighten,
to tock, to tick, to tock,
at last,
to tick, to tock, to tick, to tock...


In the event that This is Not a Good Poem is monumentally misguided, puerile, or embarrassing, my only defense is that I warned you in the title.  I was feeling a little frustrated when I wrote it; now I sort of regret that it leads off this group, but oh the things I do for chronological accuracy...

Just skip Tender Loving Care.  It's a fine poem, but if you pay any attention to it you'll know it to be scandalous and naughty.  If you don't skip it, you may also note the metrical oddity in stanza number five.  I have no crazy explanation for that, only that I liked it worded exactly as it was.

I am pretty sure Smaller was just idle practice at first, not particularly inspired.  I was on the fence about including it today, but I made a serious revision just now and decided I liked it well enough.  There's not much to it beyond the imagery, though.

October is another poem about a love affair, but a totally licit one, unlike A Fever Dream.  It's just young folks playing around in the woods, is all, having a good time.  I regret not fitting the word "October" into that one stanza, but it's not the end of the world I suppose.

Twenty First Century Man is about being old.  Just so damn old.  Twenty eight, man.  Whew.  Anyway, there's a little saying on the internet that "only nineties kids remember the nineties", which is nonsensical and inane and that special way that only happens when a generation attempts to describe itself.  I was never sure if, having been born in the eighties yet spending most of my childhood in the nineties, I actually qualified as a "nineties kid".  All I know is that I only remember those years in patches.  

To Boldly Go is, surprise surprise, about Star Trek, kind of.  The first line ("let me help") is a quote from Captain Kirk in the episode The City on the Edge of Forever.  He describes those words as the three most beautiful words in the universe, an idea I thought fitting for a poem.  The twist comes in the form of the other line, "please help me", which I read in an interview somewhere as an apparent mis-remembering of the line by someone praising the character of Kirk for his vulnerability.  The correct line is more about generosity of spirit than vulnerability per se, and yet I thought about how both reflected aspects of Kirk, and together made for an admirable worldview.  And also I am an enormous nerd.

If Her Love Was True is depressing and melodramatic, but also I think a sober reflection on the nature of love.  It is a cliche to say that true love is "eternal", and I think that perhaps it can be in a fashion.  But it is also true that you can truly love someone in one time, and later come not to love them anymore.  Thus the painful realization that things could have been just as good as you hoped they were, and it still wasn't enough for that storybook ending to take place.  

Naturally I wrote that poem with my ex-girlfriend in mind, and it happened that shortly thereafter I met her for lunch, our first face-to-face since the end of our relationship.  It was a friendly, warm encounter, but of course it stirred up a great many feelings once again.  The poetic result was Hasty Exit to a Scene, a nostalgic little thing I wrote to help settle myself down again.

Clothes and Bones seems dramatic, but its origin is really quite prosaic.  I was staying in a friend's basement in Portland for a week, and I had no warm clothes, and only a single warm blanket to huddle in.  Likewise, I was thinking about how I needed some new exercise shoes, and wondering how long my pair of boots would hold out, when the final line popped into my head.  As it took the form of what we poet types call an "Alexandrine", I thought it would be fun and clever to make what we call a Spenserian Stanza out of it.  Not a form I think I've ever used before, but nice to try out.

I wrote The Fantastical Human Kite during my recent two weeks in San Diego, where the Santa Ana winds blow air across the land with a truly remarkable dearth of moisture.  It was so dry, in fact, that I actually suffered a small nosebleed some time later, and since I am actually from San Diego and was formerly used to the weather, I was quite surprised.  But before all that, the dryness wasn't really on my mind: I was more thinking about drowning, as I was in a depressed mood.  

The Night Slicer is a disturbing poem, at least to me.  It reflects my recent pattern of dreaming about performing horrific acts, and then either accepting or evading responsibility for them before I wake up.  I don't know if this is a side effect of my depression or the drugs I'm taking for it, but suffice to say it's not fun to wake up and remember doing things you would never do.

The Local Crowd was written on Thanksgiving day (the U.S. one, naturally), and is about the hummingbirds that frequent my aunt and uncle's backyard, attracted by the truly exceptional number of feeders there.  It takes a few weird turns, but I mainly find it cute.

I wrote A Fever Dream to indulge some fantasies about covert seduction.  It's an unrhymed sonnet, which I'm not totally sure is a thing, but I made one so I guess it must be.  Note the emphasis on sibilants. 

A New Generation of Suckers is about Donald Trump, who is a fascist and would definitely be in jail if people got what they deserved in this life.  It is a saying, somewhat cliche, that fascism comes to America wrapped in patriotism and the American flag.  Trump certainly wraps himself up tight, but I was more annoyed at the time with the wrappings of his fans and acolytes; few they may be, but no matter what colors they wear they are still Brownshirts.  The "politician" bears the ultimate responsibility, of course, but I am still utterly contemptuous of any who choose to follow him.

On a lighter note, To Wind the Clock is a sound-based poem done in the spirit, if not necessarily the style, of the great Shel Silverstein.  I wrote it on the plane ride back to Oregon, and I was aiming for the sort of thing that would be fun to read aloud with a child, much like the poems in Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends.