The Beach: A Sonnet

The rolling sea did call to me so sweet
Where crashing surf meets yielding sand, two worlds
Colliding, foes locked in combative feats,
The sea, the stronger, strikes the land all furled.

The shore, deceptive refuge from sea’s ire,
Does grant a place to view Neptune’s domain,
The deep that beckons to the soul’s great fire,
A watery grave where silence does reign.

Enter the surf and taste primaeval fear
Between two clashing giants, sea and sand.
The savage surf did roll and cast me here.
Upon the shore again I take my stand.

I left the beach then for I hate the weather.
I have sand in my shorts that chafes my nethers.

This poem was written as part of the monthly Symposium at the Soaring Twenties Social Club (https://soaringtwenties.substack.com/). The topic for the October issue is “The Beach”.

Out of the Fog (audio)

I was reminded recently, by what, I couldn’t say, of something that I knew in the past, namely that reading poetry silently in one’s head is like experiencing a song by reading sheet music and lyrics. It’s missing a crucial component. So here’s a bit of an experiment that I hope to replicate going forward with me doing my best to just read the poem based on its sense and meter while not gilding the lily with any theatrics.


Out of the fog that blankets morning cold,
A land of grass in mist enveloped whole,
A sea of cloud traversed by tree-top sails,
A figure lies so dark, disturbed yet still.
Its hooves splayed out, the deer’s slender neck bends
Unnaturally, horns touching its back.
Its lifeless eyes keep silent watch unblinking,
A canvas filled with one’s own self-censure and
Reproach as if one’s failed salvation is
Akin to striking death’s most fatal blow.

Out of the Fog

Out of the fog that blankets morning cold,
A land of grass in mist enveloped whole, 
A sea of cloud traversed by tree-top sails,
A figure lies so dark, disturbed yet still.
Its hooves splayed out, the deer’s slender neck bends
Unnaturally, horns touching its back.
Its lifeless eyes keep silent watch unblinking,
A canvas filled with one’s own self-censure and
Reproach as if one’s failed salvation is
Akin to striking death’s most fatal blow.

Infinite

I travel ways among the blackened stars,
Galactic deserts are as home to me,
A restless trav’ler wand’ring all unscathed
By novae. I am incandescent fire
And flying faster through the vacuum cold
I burn up nebulae to feed on plasma.
Stars shift course, fearing resolute advance.
Born in a crucible of gas and heat,
Timeless I neither end nor age nor die,
Somewhere an end in space but not in time.
What am I? You will not see me but you
Will know my presence, light and heat and flame. 

Sonnet 3

She came to me in restful sleep, a dark
Crowned maiden, softly treading star-lit trails
All clothed in silver samite without mark,
And umber eyes did flash in form so pale.

My voice was choked, an arid-bedded flow.
Uncertain mind perplexed by scene inverse,
To see th’ impossible but not to know
That dreamer’s blessing is the dreamer’s curse.

Said I, “Who are you, maiden fair, and whence
Came you? Your name? For I know you, though I
remember not.” “Why ask what you can sense?”
She laughed, “Come see, for this is not good-bye.”

At her command I woke at last to see.
I found that which I sought and it was she.

The Carver

The carver’s father was a carver and
From him he learned his trade spending his youth
In careful constant study of the craft.
And when his mother died his father carved
Her likeness, delicate, precise in beech,
His last creation, for the father followed
Succumbed at last, the same cruel plague beset
His aged body. So the son then carved
His sire in solid oak to stand beside
His mother, ever watchful household guards.
Soon after he did marry and was not
Unhappy for a time. But their first child
Was born as still as night before the dawn
And so he carved another figure far
Before its time, one he had hoped not ever
To carve. The tiny babe thus joined his dear
Departed ancestors. The years did pass.
Two more had died as infants, illness sent
Them down below. A son, so hale and hardy,
Both Sleep and Death in war did seize one day.
The next their daughter; childbirth sealed her fate.
Beech, oak, ash, walnut, alder, elm, and birch.
Thus seven stood together, constant needless
Reminders of the certain toll of life
In condign payment for Death’s temp’ral loan.
The carver and his wife did know each other’s
Pain, and so well, unspoken it remained.
Each was the other’s tether, tying each
To life. The wife was stronger and endured
But in the dark of night the figures seemed
To call to him and promise peace at last.
But when she died, he carved her true to life
For forty days and night rememb’ring their
Now forty years together. He would work
Now frantic, sending shavings like fall leaves
Upon the floor, now still and cutting not
But merely looking for his wife within
The wood. The day of labor’s final blow,
Marauding soldiers, hair in mats, eyes sunk,
Did drag the carver from his hovel and
Demand due payment for his life. Said he:
“I have no coin nor wealth, nothing to give
And not one thing save for my trade
And home.” And so his house they burned in sport
And broke his hand. The carver sat there mute
As greedy flames consumed the final piece
Of house and home. There ev’ry moment sweet
And bitter. Grim but smiling he did draw
To him his mother, father, children, wife
In one final embrace, and purged the hope
Of seeing them again here or hereafter.
He carved a figure crude and bent with age
And cares and, placed upon the smold’ring pile,
He walked away into the forest deep.

Creation

Cassie, head rested against the seat in front of her, cursed her stupidity, her lack of focus, desire for perfection. The others on the bus chattered like so many fatuous birds in spring whirling on a current of air, happy to be alive and too dumb to know they must die unknown and unremembered. They were fools who were too stupid to know that their work was trash and were utterly uncaring anyway. In this moment she hated them, even her friends who tried to comfort her.

“It’s just a five-minute presentation, Cassie,” said Jake sitting next to her. “No one cares. You’ve got time. Just make something up at lunch.”

Cassie rolled her head side to side against the seat. “Just make something up?” she said. Her voice was shrill, almost hysterical. 

Jake shrugged. “Nelson  likes you. He won’t even notice. Isn’t that what creative writing is anyway, just making things up?”

Cassie groaned and slammed her forehead back down. The heat from the early morning sun coming through the window made her feel ill. Mr. Nelson’s words gnawed at her mind: “You’re good, but not good enough. To create something true. That’s the challenge. You have talent but you haven’t cultivated it. You haven’t put the work in. And if you don’t, if you don’t give it somewhere to go, it will drive you crazy.”

Cassie didn’t think she was crazy, yet. There were times she felt pressurized, like there was a hatch cover somewhere waiting to blow open and vent her mind into the vacuum of space in a violent, uncontrolled burst of creative power. In the past she had been able to write to release the pressure, to buy herself some time and avert calamity. This time, nothing had come, or at any rate, she hadn’t been able to write. The swirl of incandescent matter in her mind, the fodder of a thousand stories, had failed to coalesce.

She jumped when the bus doors clanged open and she almost retched at the hot smell of exhaust from the line of buses idling in front of Thomas Jefferson High School. The wave of nausea passed, though it was not helped by the heat radiating from the asphalt.

The morning passed in a blur, a malaise of shame and dread. During lunch period she couldn’t eat. Jake sat across from her eating his lunch then helping himself to hers.

“How about I throw out some ideas and you just pick one and we’ll do it together,” Jake said.

“You think I don’t have ideas?” Cassie said, derision clear in her voice. “I’ve got a thousand ideas, they just won’t come out.”

Jake grinned. “You’re constipated.”

“Fuck off. I’m serious.”

Jake slid a few papers across the table. “Here. Read mine.”

Cassie scanned the pages. “A story about your dog dying? I’m sorry, but it’s shit.”

Jake recoiled. “What the fuck is your problem today?”

Cassie took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I loved Lily and I’m sorry she’s gone. But this,” she held up the papers, “this is sentimental crap. It’s easy.”

“Then why don’t you grow a pair and write something if it’s so easy?”

“Because. I don’t want to write something. I want to create the right thing; something true.”

“What’s the point of creating the right thing if you never actually do it?” Jake said, snatching his story out of Cassie’s hands. He waved it in her face. “Maybe it’s not great, maybe it’s shit, but it’s mine.”

“It certainly is.”

Jake stood up. “I would like to still be your friend so I’m going to forget this conversation ever happened. See you in English.” 

“Cassie.”
Mr. Nelson’s eyes met Cassie’s. She looked away.
Everyone else had already presented. Jake had read his story about his dog and was now attempting to give Cassie a reassuring look on his way back to his seat.
Cassie walked to the front of the class, eyes darting around looking for something. What that thing was, Cassie didn’t even know.
She faced the class. Her leg trembled. She shifted her weight. 

“Memorized it, did you Cassie?” Mr. Nelson said.
“Um. No, not quite.” She answered without looking at him.

“Let’s have it then. Whatever it is.”

Cassie winced. Jake had a pained look on his face. She found the ceiling suddenly interesting. A wave of vertigo overcame her.

Something true. Something true. There is nothing, nothing. What’s the point of creating the right thing if you never actually do it? she thought. 

Somewhere inside her she felt the hatch explode open, but instead of her mind spreading out into the infinite of space, the vast pressure of the ocean crashed in on her.

Cassie opened her mouth and sang. She sang in a rhythmic chant. She started low, quiet, barely above a whisper. She sang the beginning and the first, chaos and creation. Her pitch rose as did her volume, her voice growing stronger and she, without needing to think, turned a page and found a new wellspring, a font within that glowed without light. She sang transformation and adaptation, the coalescence of the cosmic swirl into a single atom. She sang growth and life and love. Louder still, she sang rivalry, jealousy, war, fate. 

One part of her watched tears stream down her face. Another part felt them.
She sang now at the top of her voice and beyond in registers unregistered by her audience. She sang death and with death, the barest hope. But hope nonetheless. Hope triumphant. 

The song stopped. Cassie opened her eyes. 

Her classmates were dazed. Some were weeping. Others were swaying to music that she couldn’t hear. Jake’s face showed long claw marks down his cheeks. One student was crumpled on the floor, blood trickling from a cut on his head. Two others were kissing.

Mr. Nelson had a faint smile beneath a vague, rapturous expression.

Afterward, she asked her classmates and Mr. Nelson, but no one could tell her even a single word she had sung. Soon, they forgot the incident altogether. 

Cassie tried to remember the song to write it down, but found it hard to recall even the feelings it had evoked. She tried to find the place within her that had opened. It was locked or gone. All that was left was a vague sense of sublimity, a tremendous feeling of loss, but the certainty that she had created something true. 

It was her last creation.


This story was written as part of the monthly Symposium at the Soaring Twenties Social Club (https://soaringtwenties.substack.com/). You can find the August 2022 issue on Procrastination here: https://soaringtwenties.substack.com/p/on-procrastination

The Nest

The girl did look so wistful at the nest,
Still dead and bare among new leaves and green,
And hoped that soon some bird would come to rest,
A home to make where tender chicks might preen.
Eschewing old for new a robin came
Bearing mere bits of grass and twig and cord
And jumbled them together as a frame
Til warp and weft at last came to accord.
The girl the bird then watched so steadfast, still,
As days did pass to bring two eggs so blue.
On silent watch never the bird did trill,
To keep a vigil and guard life so new.
Now she is gone; the nest empty save hoar.
She spreads her wings and hopes not, evermore.

The Pain of Returning Home

Nostalgia is a characteristically human disease, a motivated remembering of an irrecoverable past that never really existed. Or so I define it. As a recovering philologist, I feel a compulsion to define terms before discussing them. In grad school, whenever we had a talk or a visiting speaker, one of my professors would always ask questions about the terms the speaker was using. “Let’s start by considering,” he would muse while looking at the ceiling, “what we mean by amicus.” Some would roll their eyes, I would chuckle at his well-known obsession with definitions while appreciating the demand for precision.

But even now I far too often fail to look up English words in the dictionary when it always was the first step when studying Latin or Greek. In Greek, nostos is ‘a return home’ while algos is ‘pain, grief, or distress of body or mind’. Merriam-Webster defines nostalgia as ‘a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition’. ‘Wistful’ is key, as it implies, per the dictionary once again, melancholy, tapping into the ‘irrecoverable’ nature of the past.

But the temporal past is not universally the concept that nostalgia conjured in human minds across cultures and time. Nostalgia forms the backbone of one of the earliest works of world literature. Homer’s Odyssey happens to be the most famous story about the Nostoi, the homecomings, of the Greek heroes from Troy, but it was merely one among many. Others include Agamemnon’s ill-fated homecoming and Menelaus’ homeward journey to Greece by way of Egypt. Even in the Iliad the Greek characters are consumed with a desire to return home. For them, their nostalgia was a desire to return to their physical homes and a past that was recoverable if not guaranteed to be recovered.

In English we generally differentiate nostalgia and homesickness, the former defined as above, the latter defined as ‘longing for home and family while absent from them’, though homesickness is practically deemed a synonym for nostalgia by English dictionaries. The ancient Greeks’ expressions of nostalgia in the Iliad and the Odyssey were manifestations of homesickness. But in English and in modern Western culture broadly (though I only have truly firsthand knowledge of American culture) nostalgia as it inflicts large swaths of the population, myself included, involves significant self-deception and motivated remembering (or misremembering or forgetting), which, similar to motivated reasoning, is the emotionally-biased selective recall of memories based on their desirability. (Imagine my ego’s disappointment when I discovered that I hadn’t coined the term ‘motivated remembering’.)

In short, we actively forget the bad times, or even mediocre times, and want to relive the good times as if the bad times never happened in the hopes that reliving the past will finally make us happy. As if the past, our childhoods, high school years, the time before we got married, before we had kids, as if each of these periods is better than the last the farther we go back. Even yearning for times when we never lived—the decade of our parents’ childhoods, the decades of our grandparents’ youth—as if things allegedly being ‘simpler’ then meant they were inherently better.

I often nostalgically think back to my high school days and remember the friends and sports and free-time and the lack of responsibilities and so on. And yet what I choose to forget until the memories inexorably bubble to the surface are the 18-hour days getting up at 5:15am for swimming practice at 5:45am followed by a full day of school and drudgery merely punctuated by moments when I would pass a friend in the hall or exchange pleasantries upon entering a classroom. And then swimming practice again after school until 5:30pm and a mountain of homework that kept me up past 10 or 11 most nights. All that was more important than sleep of course. I never saw the sun during the winter swimming season and while that may sound rather dramatic, it’s true and I thought about it every day. One of the small pleasures of my day was my study hall period, which I was able to substitute for PE class because I was doing a varsity sport, during which I was able to catch a few blissful minutes of sleep.

And so, I forget the days upon days of this drudgery in favor of the flashes of fun and joy and friendship that made up one percent of my life at the time.

And I am willing to bet that I am not unique.

This mindset, this disease infects us in our private lives and in our public discourse. Always the desire for the impossible return to some better time that never existed. 

Nostalgically-motivated remembering functions as a kind of procrastination, a way to avoid the challenges of the present in favor of a hallucinated past because the future is unknown and unknowable. The past is thus recreated and relived in one’s mind rather than dealing with the challenge of the future. Remembering the past is important, essential even. But misremembering the past is an exercise in self-deception and wanting to, or trying to, relive that hallucinatory past can be disastrous.

Yet the fact remains that all those times we reach back to were once the present. The good times we reach for were present along with the bad so that in a sense, despite the delusion that magnifies the negative and minimizes the positive, even this present moment will one day be a time that we reach back for nostalgically such that all we really have to do is realize that the present is all we have and we can, in a sense, enjoy the present as if we were nostalgic for it because what we will be nostalgic for exists right now. All we have to do is realize this fact. To take the whole present for all that it is and savor what we will feel nostalgic for while attempting to find pleasure in what we will seek to forget.

As the poet once said:

Despite what we have lost there still remains
now, now is all we have, the sum total,
the only remedy is living now,
the recognition of the present time.
Though we are always, ever losing now,
there always is another now, once more,
and we need not lose now ever again.

(Spoilers: it was me. And I fail at it every day)

This essay was written as part of the monthly Symposium at the Soaring Twenties Social Club (https://soaringtwenties.substack.com/). You can find the July 2022 issue on Nostalgia here: https://soaringtwenties.substack.com/p/on-nostalgia

Time

O Time, the constant drumbeat, seconds, hours,
Despised abandoner, slipping away,
Who takes from us all, wastes and devours,
Eater of worlds and men, of that which may
Be, was, and is, who brings companion Death,
The end of Nature’s course. But why so hated
And feared, O Time? Alone with bated breath
They wait, the fearful, static, ever fated
To die while watching sands run. But a friend
To all dynamic, active, drinking deep
The good that Time does bring and not pretend
To have or want eternity to reap.
Eternity degrades life, Death inspires.
Only abandoned is he that Time fires.