High flown poetic stuff, volcanoes, etc.

Poetry has suddenly and mercilessly erupted into my life and consciousness, much like Irazú and Arenal, active Costa Rican volcanoes I once visited on a trip there. Lava bombs ravage the countryside of my soul, demolishing every ramshackle structure in sight, making way for new ones. I say suddenly, but long did the poem’s magma stream below my life’s surface, slow effusive eruptions in the form of songs and photographs while the pressure below the surface mounted, waiting for its moment to explode.

All this is to say that along with this drive to find poems comes the desire to improve the writing in terms of effectiveness and craftsmanship. To do that, I need to read poems more extensively and intensively, and supplement that reading with fresh experience and study of other subjects. I’ll look for instruction and feedback from better poets, more established poets.

When the work begins to succeed in invoking the intended emotions in the reader, I’ll seek publication. As it is I believe that I possess a certain linguistic dexterity, but my use of it feels out of proportion. It seems sometimes bit too effusive, at other times a bit too explosive, perhaps too volcanic overall. I need to write enough and get critiqued enough to get into the groove of an assured voice and methodology.

My entrance into the house of poetry has only just begun, but the upward path toward it has been long and slow and inexorable. My arrival at its door feels inevitable, like a homecoming.


My belief has always been that those with greater means and opportunity are obligated to do what they can to help those less well-endowed. Parents are obliged to feed, shelter, and instruct their children, for example.

Beyond this, each of us lives in and benefits from the society around us. Our legal systems, housing complexes, roads, fire departments, book clubs, temples, elected officials and so on are in place to protect us from the mercilessly impartial brutality of nature as well as to nurture our gregarious mammalian instinctual drives.

Since every one of us has a room in this great matchstick house, isn’t it up to each of us to occasionally throw a bucket of water to keep it from going up in flames?

There’s a lot of talk about polarization these days, but atomization is perhaps a more apt analogy. A polarized society might have clear lines drawn between a minimal number of antagonistic forces. But when the old clear affiliations (political right and left, for instance) are riven and striated by countless ancillary disputes, the result resembles nothing so much as disintegration.

Is even poetry in such a splintered state? In a recent Guardian article, a couple of prominent British writers denounced the state of poetry today, citing a perceived lack of craftsmanship amongst other alleged deficiencies. Robin Robertson says that “the world of poetry is small and currently polarised.”

While the rise of “Instagram poets” may fail to elevate the art and craft of poetry beyond the most maudlin greeting card cliches, we might ask the well-known and successful writers quoted in the linked article, “is such critique at all necessary?” Rather than support for those on the margins and with less means and opportunity, rather than a not-all-that-difficult attempt at unity within this facet of the broader culture, is further division what the world needs?

Even if answered affirmatively, it makes little difference. The role of a bard in society is to map the inner geography. The poet is the cartographer of the soul.

In the love relationship between poet and poetry, the former is the beloved, the one wanted, the quarry, while the latter is the lover, the huntress, an invisible force of nature made manifest through the human animal’s unique capacity for speech. Poetry will not be corralled or controlled by our wishes or expectations or standards. Its locomotion is as free as the kestrel’s.

Poetry is animal nature, it is biosphere, it is weather system. You don’t just walk up to poetry and introduce yourself. It envelops you. It surrounds you entirely and constricts you in its tentacles until your entire life consists of non-sequitur and mixed metaphor.

It ultimately doesn’t matter what anyone says about contemporary poets or their work because the force of its desire for incarnation is irrepressible. The sheer futility of any academic attempt to repress the voices of the oppressed renders moot the question of whether their savaging of contemporary poetic work is necessary.

Poetry reflects the condition of the human soul. It can’t always conform to iambs and rhyming couplets, and although such musicality provides much enjoyment, it’s not always necessary.

Lou Reed & John Cale's "Small Town"

I won’t ask if you’ve ever heard John Cougar Mellencamp’s 1985 hit “Small Town.” I won’t sing it for you either, as the particular brand of sadism required to inflict such pain upon another sentient being’s soul is outside of the scope of my most esoteric kink.

“Small Town” is a disease. Thankfully, there is an antidote. The identically named first track from Lou Reed and John Cale’s 1990 album Songs for Drella cures the sick nostalgia for American small town life that Mellencamp perversely celebrates. The album was written as a tribute to their friend and collaborator Andy Warhol, and depicts the archetypal locale as somewhere one seeks to escape rather than somewhere one would wish to entrench oneself.

When you're growing up in a small town
When you're growing up in a small town
When you're growing up in a small town
You say, "no one famous ever came from here"

When you're growing up in a small town
And you're having a nervous breakdown
And you think that you'll never escape it
Yourself or the place that you live

Where did Picasso come from?
There's no Michelangelo coming from Pittsburgh
If art is the tip of the iceberg
I'm the part sinking below

When you're growing up in a small town
Bad skin, bad eyes, gay and fatty
People look at you funny
When you're in a small town

My father worked in construction
It's not something for which I'm suited
Oh, what is something for which you are suited?
Getting out of here

I hate being odd in a small town
If they stare let them stare in New York City
At this pink eyed painting albino
How far can my fantasy go?

I'm no Dali coming from Pittsburgh
No adorable lisping Capote
My hero, oh, do you think I could meet him?
I'd camp out at his front door

There's only one good thing about small town
There's only one good use for a small town
There's only one good thing about small town
You know that you want to get out

When you're growing up in a small town
You know you'll grow down in a small town
There's only one good use for a small town

You hate it and you'll know you have to leave

Songwriters: John Davies Cale / Lou Reed

Smalltown lyrics © John Cale Music Inc, Sony ATV Music Pub LLC

Writing Lessons

Beatrice doesn’t like to write. Her reading comprehension and retention are high (my scientific assessment), and she is able to discuss what she has read, but actually putting pen to paper to set down her thoughts is a problem for her. She’s blocked, but my opinion is that once she gets over that brick wall the problem will become a thing of the past.

She had a biographical writing assignment to turn in this week, and chose Austrian wunderkind Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as her subject. My goal this weekend was to focus all of my attention on addressing her attitudinal difficulty with writing and helping her complete the project.

I delineated several objectives, such as acquiring a dedicated writing notebook for her, teaching her the Catholic concept of Imitatio Dei as a foundation for writing and connecting it with the first chapters of the Book of Genesis, and showing her how to write a simple imagist poem in order to make flesh her impressions on any given situation.

But fundamentally I wanted her to accept that the act of writing need not intimidate. My contention is that God spoke everything into existence, and human writings are a feeble attempt at imitation of that primal act of creation. From this perspective, everything we write, all our of imperfect, childish imitations, then, are sacred. Acknowledgement of that at the outset may guide us in our writings. Furthermore, such imitation in the form of art (e.g. drawing, a form she enjoys already, as well as writing and other forms) is quite pleasurable knowing that.

We still have a way to go with all of this, but here is where this expressive tributary in the river of Beatrice’s life begins.

Artist's Statement for Photography

I wrote the following artist’s statement for my photography, most of which features my children, Beatrice and Ambrose, and my brother Danny. The text is also found at the link below:

These photographs represent more or less one year in the life of the three people to whom I am closest: my children Beatrice and Ambrose and my brother Danny. My parents Larry and Rose Nichols are here too, as well as the kids' mama Lily Knights. 

Photography is a way of mapping emotional landscapes, a method of storytelling. It is geography and it is cartography. When selecting these pictures I looked for two things: a person or persons in motion and emotional content. The quiet internal drama of facial expression and body language becomes implied narrative. The moments I'm looking for are not the occasional crises, but the many moments surrounding them in all their emotional complexity. It’s not the flame I seek to capture, but the ember and the wind with which it’s stoked.

Childhood is a time of great mystery and wonder. It is a time of joyous peaks and deep sorrows, a time of exploration and discovery, and it is a time of gain and a time of loss. My daughter Beatrice is on the Autism spectrum, highly functioning. She and her brother Ambrose are close in age, 18 months apart. Their continued growth is fascinating to me.

In 1990 my older brother Danny was injured in a car accident that left him permanently and totally disabled. He suffered a traumatic brain injury which caused him numerous physical impairments, but somehow his character remained intact. His speech and mobility are affected, as well as his short-term memory, and yet his humor is as irreverent as ever. His demeanor is sociable, likable, exuberant. But as would be expected for someone in his condition, he also suffers deep loneliness. From January 2013 to December 2017 I was his full-time attendant caretaker. 

In the future I aim to broaden my subject matter to include other people and places, but for a time, at least, I'm going to stick to picturing the ones I love the most.


Let this be a prayer for mercy.

For though we do not deserve it, that mercy is only yours to give.

You visited us and left empty-handed again and again.

We ask that you stay away until you mean it.



The air was thick as donut glaze;
     It was about to rain.
The sky was nothing but a haze
     The grasses stood to gain.

Hot and dewy nights like these
     Are few and far between
Somewhere less friendly to fleas,
     Somewhere a bit less green.


The Man in White

The afternoon was mild and warm and the breeze was soothing. Florence had been downgraded to a tropical storm and the light rain that sprinkled our corner of the state had yet to begin and the children and I were downtown for no reason other than it was more interesting than being at home.

I’d decided that given the chance of rain, rather than a wilderness day (admittedly more nourishing for the soul) it would be a city day, with some pizza and pavement pounding. After some slices we sauntered over to the Plaza where the wind blew water all over the place from the horizontal concrete fountains and the kids quickly found a playmate in a little girl called Amelia.

It was a medium gray kind of day, neutral, not taking anyone’s side, nothing outstanding in the way of good or bad occurrences. As a day it was a blank slate upon which one could carve a picture of whatever one might choose. The kids enjoyed themselves and I enjoyed watching them as they played with little behavioral correction, exuberant and energetic but not boisterous. It was the kind of day you might say was routine, if you didn’t know better.

Joan of Arc engraving by Albert Lynch (1903)

Joan of Arc engraving by Albert Lynch (1903)

Observing passersby and observing myself observing them, two songs came to mind, one compassionate, the other condemnatory, both from Leonard Cohen’s 1971 album Songs of Love and Hate: “Joan of Arc” and “Diamonds in the Mine.”

“Joan of Arc” moves me. The thing about Leonard Cohen’s songwriting and delivery that resonates with me is a deep empathy he creates between character and listener. It’s a singular power in a songwriter, a man who seems to have possessed a rare ability to create harmony between souls. Perhaps Mr. Cohen was a more highly evolved soul than most of the rest of us.

My own dearth of compassion is a pernicious habit of mind that begs correction. Too often I see individuals through the eyes of someone like the narrator of “Diamonds in the Mine.”

The truth about oneself is often painful. But isn’t admitting that you have a problem the first step in solving it?

Diamonds in the Mine

The woman in blue, she's asking for revenge, 
the man in white -- that's you -- says he has no friends. 
The river is swollen up with rusty cans 
and the trees are burning in your promised land. 
And there are no letters in the mailbox, 
and there are no grapes upon the vine, 
and there are no chocolates in the boxes anymore, 
and there are no diamonds in the mine. 

Well, you tell me that your lover has a broken limb, 
you say you're kind of restless now and it's on account of him. 
Well, I saw the man in question, it was just the other night, 
he was eating up a lady where the lions and Christians fight. 
And there are no letters in the mailbox 
and there are no grapes upon the vine, 
and there are no chocolates in the boxes anymore, 
and there are no diamonds in the mine. 

Ah, there is no comfort in the covens of the witch, 
some very clever doctor went and sterilized the bitch, 
and the only man of energy, yes the revolution's pride, 
he trained a hundred women just to kill an unborn child. 
And there are no letters in the mailbox, 
oh no, there are no, no grapes upon your vine, 
and there are, there are no chocolates in your boxes anymore, 
and there are no diamonds in your mine. 
And there are no letters in the mailbox, 
and there are no grapes upon the vine, 
and there are no chocolates in your boxes anymore, 
and there are no diamonds in your mine.

By Leonard Cohen