Ultimate Concerns

Ultimate Concerns
January 6, 2018

It continues to frustrate me how, when faced with something that is clearly impressive, inspiring, innovative, far-reaching, thought-provoking, etc., the tendency on the part of many is: 1) to deliberately not understand it, its perspective, the goal toward which it strives and how this goal catalyzes all the elements in the construction; and then 2) with a willed myopia, to divert our attention away from any novel elements (the goal and desire behind the construction, the unthought it hides, its capacity for development, etc.) toward those elements which can already be understood within already-given coordinates and meanings and thus readily dismissed. The diversion works to tamp down the fire of novelty which risks consuming us in the unprecedented, focuses ‘critical’ attention on some generalized objection, sifts through for minor mistakes, or worse, makes it all personal and launches a character attack. Once enough of this goes on, it’s no surprise that the novel element can no longer be seen; it is covered over by petty worries, pink slips, nit-picks, ‘gotcha’ moments.

The negative consequences of this tendency are multiple and I can only name a few. It functions in effect like the police and has all the features of accusation, tribunal, defense, verdict and punishment. Also similar to the legal system, it slows everything to a blindingly boring pace. Instead of running fast ahead with the novel element, thought grinds to a halt in evidentiary hearings and grand juries. This is elevated as criticism or deconstruction, but in the end it waves the banner of non-creativity and resentment. In another way, it tries to cast a spell of doubt and aspersion over whoever was behind the novel creation: to paint them as a charlatan, a deceiver, a fake, derivative. My suspicion is that this obsession with the other’s strategy always contains something perverse. Why is so much critical effort exerted to pass judgments on others? Often these judgments are flung out into the void in a pathetic fashion, almost like pleas for help. And to anyone who has dealt with the novel elements, or at least understood in a fairer way where they’re coming from, such judgments are simply wrong and cannot but appear vindictive or jealous.

But what is most frustrating is how much time and energy it wastes. We all have a singular voice, a singular thought to think, just as we have a singular life to live. We would agree that a life spent thinking constantly about the mistakes or virtues of others would be a wasted life. But then why attend to such thoughts at all? Why do we not choose, instead, to do what we can with what we encounter, ‘take it or leave it’ according to the measure that it can be incorporated into the truth-procedure we are undergoing with our lives? Granted, this makes our output less ‘matchable’ to the current given coordinates of situations. And it opens us to the risk of being misunderstood and judged poorly. But what of that? At the end of the day, it is we who must render accounts for our thoughts, words and deeds; we might as well save ourselves the burden of obsessing with evaluations of the thoughts, words and deeds of others. The intentions of the other remain impenetrable to us anyhow. No one has a magic ball through which the other’s life’s worth of emotions, desires, hopes and dreams could be seen transparently and judged―and what hubris to think we could.

One could easy accuse me of not doing enough to evaluate the ‘claims’ that people make, not paying close enough attention to the ins-and-outs of argumentation, not doing enough to interpret and so on. I do not deny these activities―obviously not, since this is a part of thinking. But the ‘truth’ by which I measure my own thought ultimately is not dependent upon the truth claims others make. Truth is much too intimate of an endeavor to let anyone else invade its ordeal with some concern that is not of ultimate concern. Years and decades can be spent dealing with smaller points that are of some concern, general concern, critical concern, and so on. But behind each of those moments, I fear, an ultimate concern was ignored. If we could see the scales more clearly, perhaps we would be terrified at how much time we squandered needlessly on secondary concerns. A similar terror is at stake in Nietzsche’s thought experiment about the eternal return: if you had to live every single moment of your life over again and again, in exactly the same way, for all of eternity, would this terrify you or bring you joy? In other words, did you honor, in each moment, your ultimate concern?

The “impressive, inspiring, innovative, far-reaching, thought-provoking” things I brought up at the beginning can only themselves be by-products of a subject’s ultimate concern. Ideally, when I engage something I should always exert myself to discern just this, the ultimate concern at stake. That element is undeconstructible; it cannot be criticized or judged. Why? Because it remains a secret in some fashion, like the truth of a soul. At the same time, I know I probably have most in common with the undeconstructible or indestructible element I find there, to which I am exposed to through my engagement. What I should look for is the ultimate concern I share, making no compromise and recognizing it at stake in everything I engage. Then I will be sure to never overlook or usurp the novel element, for I will know that I myself am implicated in its existence, its coming-to-be. I am called upon for it to exist. For who on earth could ever guarantee me that someone else had also seen what was of ultimate concern? I may find encouraging signs, people with whom I can share important matters, but in the end even that does not save me from one bit of my own responsibility or the solitude of the task.

I can never know for certain if what is of ultimate concern will matter―unless I make it matter, put it in play in every judgment I make. That is what is my concern, which for better or worse is unknowable to anyone else, and often even quite secret to me.

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Silent Consonants of the Named

[The following was written in preparation for the “Literature Argues?” conference held at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, on October 2017. I offer here my very warm thanks to Karl Pollin, Victor Udwin, and Huiwen Zhang for the invitation to participate and for the great hospitality and friendship they showed me then. Taking up again my research from 2011 (see In Light of U-topia), this paper is an attempt to explicate in greater detail Paul Celan’s poetics, as he articulates them in his ‘Meridian speech’ and in the draft materials for that speech. The study is supplemented with a reading of his poem ‘Schliere’ and various meditations on the relation between literature and silence.]

Silent Consonants of the Named

A word of refusal, but also of absolute commitment, forging its bonds of silence in the unfathomable silence of the bond. —Edmund Jabès

To write poems so that they remain attuned, if not to our talking, then to our silence, to our keeping-silent-with-the-named; so that we only silence ourselves before a most-foreign You as consonants [Mitlaute]—and give it a chance. —Paul Celan

The following reflections will explore the idea that literature “argues” for or from silence. Or, to put it more modestly, that literature issues from silence and has the power to restore us to it: a silence to which the work responds, defending and transforming it. Let us offer a working hypothesis: literary works suspend normal modes of discourse, seeking a language uniquely their own. They construct their own imaginative context or discursive space “subtracted” from everyday speech, forming an exception to it. Although this subtraction can be undertaken in different ways, literary works—both at their point of origin and of reception and in order to accomplish their exceptionality—impose silence upon the general noise of the world. They induce us to draw back, to reappraise the world and our immersion in it. This withdrawal inevitably involves a silencing, albeit for the sake of contacting a power of language that is perhaps neither known nor practiced elsewhere.

Let us characterize the problem as follows: everyday speech and discourse is “noisy” because it occupies itself with representing and communicating what there is in the world, the hubbub of objects, whereas literary works seek to express that there is a world—whether it be real or possible, dream or future. In its deployment, if not in its content, the work does not busy itself with merely discussing what is “the case.” This is one aspect of its refusal: it is never satisfied with established significations, with known judgments about things, with the norms of the situation, calculations of immediate value, and so on. The labor and hope of the work is more profoundly to express the inexpressible that there is of a world, that we are, or to make this ontological affirmation possible. This is its absolute commitment: to say what cannot be spoken in the language of consensus, and to say it once each time, with a singular speech isolated from the world. And yet, this speech is capable of forging human bonds where formerly only the general noise prevailed—bonds of silence that are perhaps stronger than any bond that could be spoken (or represented politically, for example).

To paraphrase Wittgenstein, the presence of a world—that which in the present is irreducible to reality—is that about which one cannot speak, that whereof one must be silent. Literature does not betray this silence so much as it betrays this limitation. It refuses to ratify the category of the “unsayable” or to put its faith in the repetitions of the mystical. Rather, it makes of this silence an imperative for its own speech, for its fabulation of that whereof propositional logic must remain silent: objectless presence.[1] For propositional logic deals in objects, our knowledge of them and how we can string knowledges together to form arguments about objects. Seeing what poetry could conjure without this mediation, Plato deemed it just to expel the poets from the city. Why? Because by operating a complete “dis-objectification” and proffering a thought that goes “straight to presence,” the poem ruins dianoia, discursiveness, the foundation of reason and dialogue. As Alain Badiou writes, “The poem is the exemplary instance of a thought obtained in the retreat and subtraction from everything that sustains the faculty of knowledge.”[2] According to him, the poem either gives us nothing (subtraction: the lack of any object) or the excessive equivalence of objects (dissemination: the object dissolved in pure multiplicity). Poetry is thus most readily opposed to journalism, which naively believes it responsible to “get the story straight” and communicate the current state of things objectively. Poetry is instead a conversation with the power of language at the point where it is no longer an instrument for the babble about objects, nor the negotiator of meanings, but delivers a thought of the presence of a world, of a “we” that nothing discursive could guarantee. Badiou characterizes the operation of the poem thus:

Folded and reserved, the modern poem harbors a central silence. This pure silence interrupts the ambient cacophony. The poem injects silence into the texture of language. And, from there, it moves towards an unprecedented affirmation. This silence is an operation… The poem is a halting point. It makes language halt within itself. Against the obscenity of ‘all seeing’ and ‘all saying’ – of showing, sounding out and commenting everything – the poem is the guardian of the decency of speech.[3]

On this account, poetry, explicitly arguing “for” nothing (no being), implicitly makes of this very “nothing” (of Being) an argument—a nothing destined to foil what is. In this sense, Blanchot is right to say that, “silence and nothingness are the essence of literature.”[4] The same sentiment is registered by Borges when he avows, somewhat disconcertingly, “I do know that literature is an art that can foresee the time when it will be silenced, an art that can become inflamed with its own virtue, fall in love with its own decline, and court its own demise.”[5] Whoever has spent time with literature, especially with the difficult act of writing it, knows what silences are required for even the least line to flow, and the extent to which creative work takes place on the edge of the void (or, as Blanchot might say, on the edge of death). As Sylvie Germain tells us, “To write is to descend into the grave of the prompter to learn to listen to language respire there where it silences itself, between the words, around words, sometimes at the heart of words.”[6] That said, it would be abusive to talk about all of literature in this way. Were we to accept these characterizations, we should concede that there are varying degrees of “purity” here. Some works are more “talkative” than others, if talkative means being busy with what is the case, as opposed to the enigmatic that there is or that we are. If we uphold, on the one hand, that all literary works in one way or another issue from silence, or require silence for their composition, on the other hand, in the work itself the degree of subtraction from the general noise and its interests lies on a spectrum. (To be clear, this is less a matter of content than of inclination; Shakespeare’s works are more than occupied with worldly happenings, but it is how he conveys them toward the infinite power of language, by holding them close to their ironic or tragic point of collapse (“all the world’s a stage”), that makes them literature.)

To investigate and deepen all these remarks, I will turn now to the poetry of Paul Celan, who certainly lies far to one end of the spectrum. His work exerts an extreme suspension not only of language as a means of argument and communication, but also of language as a means of lyrical expression and historical narration. The main goal in what follows is to illustrate the reasons why, as he tells us in his Meridian speech, “the poem today… has a strong tendency to falling silent” [eine starke Neigung zum Verstummen].[7] But before embarking upon a reading of one of his poems, it is important to clarify specifically what we mean and do not mean by silence. Continue reading

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The Lord
will make of us all
never let us miss
the right exit.

This mysterious thing
forcing plans for the inevitable
abortion of all plans.

This ruinous thing
a total illusion
when taken in light of
the gift bestowed.

Relation scurries ahead of
relata, out-comparing them.
Corpses rise glorious,
fulfilling the times.

The one’s distinction
carries into other’s openness
where the unseen
an eye over
so that Lord is
in tread of our burial.

What else could we do?

We learned our lesson,
learned it on the other side
where mirrors echo,
our wretched gestures
rectified in the soft divine
radiant message
channeled in particulars
now duly magnified.

A grace inescapable
abides: that we glide
across that threshold
every day.


In thinking through what it means to be a ‘person’, theology does not begin from what we commonly understand to be personhood, but from the persons of the Trinity, working backward to understand what human personality truly is. Unlike the individual, the person is not a division or a part divided off from a species. Rather, the person contains within it the fullness of the nature, without any loss or fragmentation. As one instance, it is absolute, and this does not contradict the existence of other absolute instances. From there it is a manner of conceiving the human person, not as an individual member of a species or a cultural group, but in its radical distinctiveness, uncategorizability, incomparability, etc. (From there, it is easy to see why the essence of the commandments is to love your neighbor as yourself: one absolute instance as another.) The ‘person’ is not equal to the body made of flesh, but signifies something more like a phenomenon of ‘between’, a between-being. This is not its ‘identity’ per se, but the uniqueness of its dance in and between all others, affecting all others in the web of humanity and, more broadly, of creation. As Sloterdijk summarizes, “Perichoresis means that the milieu of the persons is entirely the relationship itself.”

So, the person is not equal to the biological individual but, according to this dogma at least, a participant in the Spirit from and for eternity. Hard as it is to grasp, theology locates our ‘person’ not in the world but in the coinherent structure of the entire body of humanity, as a structure which is only made consistent through love and loving memory. By grace (and analogously, by the gift of memory and language), we are in the Spirit of love more than we appear to be as earthly, mortal, consigned to decay. We live on in each other, primarily by the bonds of love; we can be eternal presences for each other. This is the Lord who makes us ‘overbearers’ (or ‘translators’) of ourselves; the Lord who stands in for us, instead of our burial, and gives the body to rise “glorious” in and for the other; and whereby our errors and wretchedness are transformed, by forgiveness and time, into one soft divine message which, amazingly, magnifies us for just who we were/are — or rather, for who our “particular” person is in the common, transtemporal Spirit.

The claim is then that the person both includes and exceeds what it ‘is’, for it is always expanded or enlarged by crossing to the other’s side. And there is no end to such crossing, this bearing-over, which we do not accomplish ourselves (since the root metaphor is our living on in the other after our death, which is obviously not a biological capacity or tied to our powers of intention). Death may reach the physical body of the individual, but we qua personhood, we as participating ‘in the Spirit’ or we as made in the likeness of God — as self-giving love — are something ‘more’, something ‘uncreated’, endowed with an imperishable or eternal life — although, in a certain sense, we have no direct access to it and can only take it on faith.

Perhaps this makes the ‘exit’ – the ruinous thing death, an illusion in light of the gift of existence, restored in every instant – more legible, legible as ‘right’. The poem acknowledges the difficulty of believing this, confessing that it is only learned on the other side, in the other for whom we still ‘live’ and are still persons, still thinking and acting, sharing and loving, against all odds and against the evidence of transience. The grace of going across the threshold of death/the exit – into the heart of the other where we will never not be persons – that is what, it seems to me, human coinherence or perichoresis might teach us everyday, amidst all our numberless departures.

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Sparing Language

To continue writing poetry, one would have to believe in the universal human value of expressions of singularity. Not in ‘big’ singularities (poets supposedly), but in small ones that coincided with their expression (delimited, circumscribed, contoured in the poem). But expressions too of a generic potentiality for thinking―for speaking the truth―faced with the empty page. Along poetry’s route, this necessitates the sparing of language, which can be described in multiple registers.

Language is spared whenever it is not enchained and constrained to a sharp finality (e.g., the instrumental purposes of capital, but also the brandishing of identities, the definition of objects); whenever language is played with, to open a world, to expose the miracle of one, or in one way or another to exhibit its capacity for conceiving wholeness, totality, the indivisibly singular―the thatness of whatever is such, the it-is-ness that poetry deems refractable through images. Such language does not have a finality, except to refract a universe in its passages.

Language is spared when it is not lost to oblivion. Here the performative and vocative dimension of poetry imposes itself. Words on a page, no matter how poetic, are only potential phenomena (traces, ghostmatter). The poem spares language―and some might say it thereby spares being―from forgetting, yet only to the extent that it is “voiced” again; that the singularity it puts in play is put in play again. Such is why it impresses upon us, with the help of jolting images and caesuras between them―the one uttering something, the other on the verge of the unutterable―, the event of language, language as an instance of genesis.

The poem is an event of a world, a coming-into-being facilitated by the contact of the souls exscribed in its words and images. For we can easily see that, even in this instance of voicing, itself marking an event of language, we have been lifted off the page, suspended between reading and originating. This signifies that we are now in thought’s activity; it includes or fuses a repetition of past expression alongside or inside a new one, one which collapses the interval and allows two times to coincide or rest in each other. The archived text is thus “lifted,” torn or stolen from its context in order to approach its origin―not, of course, an origin in the past, but now, in its present pertinence for thought and expression in their evental singularity. In the poem, a soul’s being unfolds.

Language is then spared from being “merely” propositional, for now it implies something equal parts chemical and spiritual, a transformation of essence from corporeal to literal, the risk this entails and the burden. It is language come alive in a life―and with it history and the idea of language as an eternal utopia.

For the poem’s being-present-again is not explainable as a linguistic phenomena. More than conveying meaning, symbols, ideas, the poem is the transmission of the affections of a soul. It is even the sharing of a common soul, through the hope-orienting structure of the open phrase (transhistorical), of a singular expression of language qua generic thought, an epiphenomenon of the blank expanse which drives the fall-out of the “I” into the real. This is why, without ever becoming the voice of a people, the poem remains hospitable to all and so universally translatable, without ever sacrificing its singularity, the unique configuration that it is. To do justice to it is to be drawn toward our own singularity therefore. The event of langauge is always anarchic, lifted. Its horizon hearkens the transcendence of yours.

The poem calls from its nowhere to draw the here toward it. The here, to “voice” it, welcomes it like the nowhere of utopia: past and present contract or cancel into pivot-point, which poem manifests, diverting life from its formal-historical axis, the concept from its objects, and letting arise a sort of third space, measured and not merely diachronic. An emergent extra-temporal property of souls communes materially, through the poems, in their hopes―among others, the hope that our language (as shape, direction, voice) not be lost to the flattening effect of discourse, the neutral apparatus of chronological time, and the practical arrangement of reified, temporal, merely ‘external’ objects (since in that case, the image would undoubtedly lack totality and singularity).

We are struggling here to articulate a going-together of humans accomplished through their own efforts at “subtraction”―their own attempts to remember the soul in its action. A poem is just such an expression, sparing language from being submerged in facts and explanations about the given world. It spares language from too much understanding, and so gives it back to life. Perhaps this is why poetry could never place judgment and punishment at its center, except perhaps to raise an objection to those uses of language that punish it (and through its misuse abuse humans, animals, objects, the whole universe of being). Poetry’s subtraction from such uses (counting, reckoning, calculating, determining, etc.), preparing it for a future communion, implies a gesture of forgiveness. It opens a space for histories to be rewritten, against the fantasy of closed worlds and the retributive finalities that come with them. The poem makes, instead, for the open field, the light that refracts the invisible.

But the poem’s openness corresponds in turn to its strictures, to the exigencies of its singular expression, which is clearly never a pure free reign. The control of the poet, the art, is exerted on the excess of language in its servility, stupidity, and superfluity. A poet may write many things, but nothing ever minimizes the sparing use of language the poem must make if it is to avoid the insipid bellowing and blaring language is normally used for. Its “infinitely small vocabulary” turns it into a channel for exact expressions and thoughts, inimitable and inexchangeable. It is this restraint exerted upon language that allows the poem to bear a silence in itself, to be the pregnant pause of its own eventality, to sign its singularity and suchness with a seal that can’t be forged – nor forgotten.

And so the poem hovers forever between empty speechlessness and its voicing, bearing witness to a (im)potentiality to speak that is never exhausted in speaking, ever on the threshold of its own becoming-event. The poem knows that the latter requires special conditions, namely, that the parameters of the poem be “scanned.” But scansion is not limited to analyses of the poem’s composition (breaks, feet, rhymes, etc.). Scansion can only be thought as a dwelling-in, or as an exposure-to, the threshold that the poem itself is. The eyes run up and down the lines, revisiting turns endlessly, each time in preparation for the advancement of the encounter, each time listening in for what thought is granted. This act amounts to a gradual absorption of the poem’s unique chemical (vocalization is also an injestion) and spirit (contemplation implies concepts and so participates in the general movement of human thinking). But the complex molecule that is the poem does not only have to search the body for receptors; it also has to turn our soul into one. This becoming-receptor of the soul mirrors the dynamic at play in the poem’s own strictures, the counter-violence it must do to itself to uphold its silence, the strain exerted against its own discourse.

In the poem, then, delimitations are made for the sake of the unlimited, for it to shine or refract through. The conditions it sets for being voiced are to welcome the unconditional. It is thus a desperate conversation, for the imagination must go where no finite imagination can go: to the limit of totality, of singularly undivided and whole. The poem overcomes this gap only where it remains in thought or in action, in the voice that, resurrecting it, gives it breath. Yet to be worthy of being carried thus, the poem must leave something to spare: a reserve of life’s present which has not been spent or disappointed, or of hope’s universality as it inscribes itself in the monuments of souls and unifies its energy in so many total gifts of speech.

Poetry’s sparing language, then, is meant to leave language to spare: the insufficiency of an expression caught in its own glare, sighting itself out to be sought, in thought’s groaning prayer. A lack of finality duly noted: on the one side, the poem which is lifted into voice (genesis), on the other, we who are given and share voice, one whose vocation is only in lifting (force). We who read it are led by it to ascend. And so we respond to the call and assume our vocation in the parade of souls, being who we are, exhibiting our idea.

An escalation of human being into sparing language: this is a gift of presence, understood here as a sort of universal value of openness beyond finalities―like the poem in its cosmic state, or which the cosmos in a poem refracts. But poetry the art form is not the gift’s necessary condition, even if the poem dedicates all its resources to remembering it, for it is in presence that human potentiality in general gets its grip and world-trajectories are altered. This is a presence whose matter is personal―as personal as the reading of a poem. If poem and presence seem here to coincide, perhaps it is not accidental. For isn’t presence itself sparing? Is it not what spares itself, like an origin or an empty page, from the ravages of discourse?

Shall we then say: the poem preserves the presence of a soul? Or of a thought of presence as voiced/speechless, surrendered to the unknown of the universal? Perhaps along such roads, singular as they are absurd, we will continue to discern the value of poetry.

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Touch, a sensitivity of touch, too fragile to think: waves of seduction emanate from the center tug, every sound gives its word to the impossible, you craft pleasure stationary, freedom happens to you (the sensual bloom of a powerlessness transforms awkwardness into light waves, an illusoriness that gives grace back to all of your uncanny fidget).

You wait, you look again: more shapes and shadows, curves and curls. The unseen eye-contact of spirits raises feeling to beauty: you perceive, reckless with caution, the threshold of an unknown future, in which nothing needs to happen and you do not need to breathe. (This slow-drip red infinity is your dream, the name of a light angle yet to star. I blackhole into my own and starve; such is its receptivity to ours.)

Took another step, wound around everything: euphoria on the backburner, the end our destiny. Sensitivity to touch also deadly: doesn’t it see it draining, helplessly, doesn’t it know deception is its most convincing intimacy, no-hope its favorite fall? The evil of chance, a step out of bounds―isn’t that where you found your great infinity? Isn’t that where you, coffin-cozy, breathe fur? Isn’t that what the gods called poetry?

Impossibles: shoulder skin, language, color. You are the heart of its offering; so how could I have lost your signal? Telepathically, you answer everything, translate, toast to our great loss. Wasn’t that, that face, the great visitation? ―A blankness that stayed, wondrously, as you looked away: wasn’t that all along the sunset we prayed, the step by step we paved? Wasn’t that believing?

(The temperature rises, heats into phantom friendliness: a request for what no one could say or give.)

(You say it, you give it, and that’s the end: heartbeats, sinking under, to trust touch and to leave in the feel of it.)


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Hard to credit any notion of “reflection” that doesn’t undertake to break the mirror, and fast, faster than light, before the image even reaches the reflecting surface (call it the world or more broadly the ‘interface’).

Trick is that as thinking beings we presume ourselves seen in the mirror of our own thinking first. Thus defenses of selves and their demands at the expense of love’s clarity. Not an accident that Descartes was stared into fire and wax: immanent meltables. With transcendental thinker comes transcendental world–is it an error? Obviously there’s no skipping over this detour. But believing in it like fact? Admit it, that’s avoidable, in fact, all you do is avoid it, especially when you open your mouth to a stranger or dance alone in the street to some sublime tune that taps you into the euphoria of nascence…

We have to obliterate the time in which we write ourselves. Rewrite the history we’ll be without succumbing to it. Without-time is the real time of our occurrence, our “eventness” beyond all the precedents of being, however one chooses to inscribe or map it out. (Did I mention it’s possible for the crushed mirror to love you? Shards of restart, embarking for the purposeless…)

But there’s a cacophony of knowledge in the mirror that impedes the desire to let it be crushed. Call it a circle of nightmares that catch us in dreams of alienation and sadness. And yet we know by death the dispersal is total, there is nothing to retain. How simple it could be to embrace that, and erase.

As for the smudges and smears, cherish. This is an act of construction in thought, this is an intervention on the mirror. It accesses no visible face. The contours of your scars and worries are retained in the unseen that escapes them.

Do I love the mirror or you? Obvious answer: escalating the possibility of near, the dawning body comes to be. Perhaps then the mirror does remember something of your truth. “I escape me…”

(Forgive them transparent ones, for they know not who they pursue… Did I mention the mirror could love you…?)

―Sept 8, 2016

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[The following non-fiction piece was written October 2008 and tells the story of how I first came to write poetry.]


And it was at that age… Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
      —Pablo Neruda

After basketball practice, one of my teammates had been coughing, and I remember standing there watching him, not thinking much of it as our sophomore coach made some final remarks.

After driving home through the cold winter night, my body felt terribly weak, and more than usual. I knew because I was on an off-week: I was on a two-month chemotherapy rotation, such that the first two weeks were daily pills with the rest of the rotation spent on a bi-weekly schedule of drug injections. I was in the middle of one of the two-weeks without pills—free, accept for the daily lozenges (to prevent mouth sores) and vitamins and CoQ10 pills (to minimize damage to my heart) my father had me taking. All of the treatment came with anti-nausea pills, but I never took them. It was my dad who had said to me one of the first times I vomited in the hospital, “It’s good to get as much of that out as you can,” and the doctor had agreed with him. After the first few injections, I even started refusing the intravenous kind and just let it happen. Vomiting was all that saved an already-ruined day: instead of spending the rest of it with my hands wrapped around my stomach and rolling on the couch, I could spend it barely-conscious on the couch, catching some television in my toxic stupor—and without that rest, there was no way I’d make it to school the next day, and I especially couldn’t have played basketball. I could also have a good meal, and taste it, if I got that rest the first 18 hours after a treatment.

But tonight, I could not stomach dinner. I felt hot and laid on the couch and went to bed early, around 10:00. As my father tucked me into bed, pulling the comforter up tight to my chin—I was shivering despite the swelter in my chest. He stuck a thermometer in my mouth.

“One-hundred and one point two,” he said to me, looking at the small machine in disgust, kneeled up to my bed. We both knew what that mark meant. A month or so ago when I first started my treatment, the doctors had to educate me about the chemotherapy and how it weighted heavily on my white blood cell count and how I therefore had to be especially careful about getting sick or catching an infection. They’d told us that if I ever had a temperature over 101 for over an hour’s time, I had to get myself to the hospitals at Iowa City immediately. It meant a mandatory three-day stay.

“I’ll come back and check in an hour,” he said, getting up to leave. He shut the door to my old room behind him and left the hall-way light on, which casted a thin sliver of yellow light in my direction. An hour later when he returned to take my temperature, after he’d looked at the little machine again, he said, “Well… we should probably go.”

“Okay,” I said, achingly removing the comforter and walking out of the cold room.


My fever had greatly subsided by the time I got to the hospital. The first nurse to take my temperature registered a 99.8 and it was under 99 by the end of the night. Unfortunately, there was no changing the protocol for a child with lymphoma, even though my sixteen-year-old body, already at my mature height and weight, seemed a different case from their usual patients, who were mostly much younger than me. Most of them were children. My father vehemently regretted having brought me down from Cedar Rapids to the hospital, and saw absolutely no reason for them to detain me for such a long time when I had plainly recovered and could be adequately tended to in the comfort of his house. He sat around with me for an hour or so, until I told him that he might as well go home, and he did.

I wasn’t sure what to make of my arrival at the hospital. Just hours ago I had been hardly aware of anything, each of my limbs numb and immovable; now I was in a strange, very large hospital room by myself, with three mandatory days off from school, and feeling fine. I wandered down the halls, attached to an IV and toting it around with me. The floors of the hall were a dark aqua green with small little burgundy buds interspersed. The curtains that surround the bed areas were closed for most of the other patients on the wing, though the TVs were buzzing, and I guessed they were all young children, probably sleeping, tired and confused from all that the medical institution was doing to them. I hoped they were doing it for them, and not in spite of them. Once the body was viewed as just relationships between organs, or series of tissues, or interacting biological structures, or a chemical quest for molecular equilibrium—once the body was just a body and not also the person inside, doctors could regard themselves as upper-echelon mechanics with no heed to humanity. They did not have to take in to account any of the psychological or emotional or spiritual concerns once these biological relationships had been established and correctly assessed; these were long-ago determined to be secondary, time-consuming problems and went unconsidered when the patient’s mortality was at stake. Tweak the right nozzle, add the right kinds and amounts of fluids, suspend certain parts in certain places, and pound until it shapes right and everything will continue on course indefinitely. You’ll never make the junkyard then—or so they acted. And the poor parents, they give up their children to this place as if the whole building were a sacred healing ground and the men in white coats were shamans wielding the power of some modern, scalpel-bearing, IV-stabbing, vitals-counting spirit of technociety. I guess I just wondered how many of these kids had no chance of surviving a normal life. How many of them were they keeping locked up in here, connected to pumps and machines and drips and leg-compressors and feeding tubes and artificial lungs, when they had no real chance at life? What were we doing to these children? Did the parents know what was happening?

I thought it would be beautiful if I could take just one of them out into the snow to let him touch it and see the moon once more before his organs failed under the fluorescence of the whole sterile thing. The white on the walls was fake. What about these kids who were going to die whether they were in the hospital or not? I hoped someone was asking them if they wanted to be here, because if not, they should be leaving. But, At least we tried everything, the parents will say sobbing. To the doctors, it will be a failure, and they’ll try to learn from it, wondering, How do we stop future children from dying? I could hardly comprehend the whole thing—why do we think we can stop every kid from dying? I wanted to hold all of their small little hands and lead them back to their neighborhoods. Maybe they could spend some time on the swing before they died. Maybe they could play basketball a few more times with their dads. It was winter: there was snow outside!

I got a Sprite from the refrigerator in the kitchen area at the end of the hall, and I warmed up a small cup of Chef Boyardee Ravioli in the microwave. I found myself back in my mechanical hospital bed with the back steeped up at a sixty degree angle, watching Sportscenter. After a while a woman came in my room with a crate of toys: small red tractors, many stuffed animals (including a large green dinosaur I found especially pleasing amidst the electronic Elmos), blocks (for letters and shapes and construction site equipment), puzzle toys and puzzles, wind-up cars, a rainbowed assortment of plastic rings, and balls of every sort. She told me that they had Scrabble and other games but said it might be hard for me to play them since I was all alone in this room. She seemed pretty confused as to why I was there (I’d told her all about my fever and the rules), and kept offering things to occupy my time there. She told me there was a play room with a pool table and a TV-VCR combo player but that the pool table was kid-sized and very small and that the only VHS tapes they had were kids movies. I kept telling her I would be fine, but she wasn’t having it. Finally she said, “Oh, I know—do you want a computer? I’m going to go get you a computer.”


She came back with the internet. I’m not sure where or how long I surfed, or how I ever landed on this specific site, but I was soon on a forum, the first one I’d ever seen, that was devoted to rapping—not discussing rap or hip-hop beats or talking about the latest artists or the old classics, but to rhyming and verse. I was enthralled by the complexity of it all, and the number of seemingly random (and probably ordinary) people who were dedicating time to such an activity. There were threads that contained solo works, some long, some with choruses, but all of them with rhyme, which I noticed was the only prerequisite. There were threads of ‘cyphers’ where people would just improvise small posts building on previously improvised small posts, or they would set a topic with certain linguistic rules: each line must be 8 words long or each stanza can only be four lines long; or they would set topical rules: write about love, write about your mother, diss your teacher, fuck the government, or just “Spit Your Best Sh!t in 10 Linez or More!” Set a limit and try seemed to be the practice. But most of the activity on the forum was dedicated to battling.

There was a thread titled “1v1” and “2v2” where a person could post a request to battle and anyone else could match up with them. Of course there were special areas where long-established teams would duel it out in a sort of on-going, virtual freestyle battle, but most of it was just stranger-on-stranger. In the thread, the battlers would decide rules on a contest, most commonly verse length parameters and time limits for postings. Once both people had posted their battle rap, it would be up to everyone else on the site to enter those pages and vote for who won the battle, but most people offered as much constructive criticism as possible. Some even gave number scales according to factors like: “punches” (number of attacks), “flow” (rhythm and line smoothness), “creativity” (uniqueness of the content or style), “structure” (rhyming schemes and stanzas), “multis” (multiple rhymes within one line, or strings of punches), and “personals” (can you hear this rapper’s voice?)—and of course an overall score. The winner of the battle was decided in this way.

I posted something the first night I was there. Within an hour, someone else on the site got a hold of me on AOL Instant Messenger to tell me how he felt about my post—that my approach to it was unique and the rhymes felt more mature than most of the others. He was a graduate student at Brown University, a black man studying to be a neurosurgeon who spent some of his free time writing raps and performing around Providence. Evidently, he’d been on the website for a few months and had a reputation as a fierce competitor; his online avatar was “IvIedic,” which was a play on the phrase “1v1.” We ended up winning our first 2v2 battle later in night, though I admit to having some trouble ragging on people I knew nothing about—but you had to use their avatar and information against them as best you could. If you got to drop your verse second, after reading your opponent’s, it was a double edged sword: you had more to work with, but more pressure was on, and you knew you’d be judged harder.

And it’s not as if I’d never heard worms rhymed that way—it had something to do with the permission to let them squirm, to say what I had to say. How else do you convey the slow wilting of a parent, or the toxicity of a train-wreck, or the isolation of the diseased? How else do you say anything, other than this way? Your way. That is what the site was about, at its most generative core: say it your way. Make it rhyme; let it pop and draw attention. It’s not what you say but how you say it. Practice. There’s a beat in your head. Look!—there’s every sort of pad, every sort of pen. Put it wherever it goes since you’re the only one that knows where it goes. Yeah, you’ll think, I’ve been here before. How many different ways can a sentence animate the soul’s moving through an unknowable landscape? Throw them all away; you’ll have them then, but you won’t use them. Careers fall through even if you never planned to have one. At least any one of us can take the lyric’s medicine when we need it. That will see us through. A lyric can see you through, I learned that evening, alone on a hospital bed, experimenting with rhyme.


That was the only time I had to stay at the hospital for one of those three-night stays. I spent the following weeks finding other battling websites, but stayed loyal to IvIedic and the other people I was meeting through him. It was less than 12 months later and the site had closed down: the oldies who had made it good stopped logging on: there were too many young kids who didn’t take it seriously. The “attacks” turned from creative and witty to played-out and downright offensive, which drove many away and drained the site of its passion. I’d detected this streak from the get-go, but had played along and took my own approach, as everyone did. With a dilution of characters there was a dilution of talent. In time, IvIedic got busy with school (presumably) and I got to spend my time at the top of the hierarchy of the site, until I too became a disgruntled user and logged off. I remember trying to visit the site again a few months after ceasing activity, but it was “Under Construction.” A short time later it was gone for good. But by then, I had long since been rhyming outside the umbrella of any rap website, having now taken up poetry for good.

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