Tuesday, January 13, 2015

                                            REDWOOD TREE, BIG SUR

                                                    for Robert Stone

A tree is a needle
The rest is bark and age
It is the most immaterial of objects
Nothing but aspiration
A bridge of sighs
Yet it has benefits, it does for others
Heedlessly, without knowing,
Without plotting
Sheltering for example our sunburned heads
Granting the hunter cover
The lover too
Hauling up all our toxins to the gods
So they can be burned and returned as
Free vitality
Too great to take in, this monstrous web
Of benefits
That it ignores
Because that is not the job

It is a needle
All it does is pierce
The sky, the earth, the ones who are not there


Thursday, November 28, 2013


They're making a study
of what works on television.
What faces doing what, what bodies
looking how.
In the big beachfront houses on Malibu Road
those few who stay up late anymore
are working out algorithms
of a dream.
Next year you may live in their product
in their guesses
thinking you're being yourself
whatever that is
thinking the sex you're having is
your own.
You'll be eating a meal that you can't imagine now
made up of dishes you'll think are your idea.
They won't be. Nothing is really
your idea.
A study is being made. Go live
your lives.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Womb Wars: The Women Finally Strike Back (At One Another, Mostly) -- Bible Study, Night Ten

How Eve persuaded Adam to eat the fruit is not recorded -- he simply, gullibly, ate it -- but how Rebekah convinced her husband, Isaac, to order their son, Jacob, to avoid the despised 'daughters of Heth' and marry one of her nieces (actually, two of them) is made novelistically explicit. She tries a brand new negotiating tactic, one that will come to define her gender's fighting style in domestic dramas to this day. Rebekah warns Isaac that if she doesn't prevail in the selection of Jacob's bride or brides, her life won't be worth living.

She threatens suicide.

With this great event -- the invention of the guilt trip -- begins the ascent of women in the Bible, who thus far (since Eve) haven't had a vivid presence, let alone independent, substantial selves. Rebekah, though, lights a fire inside her gender and Jacob, the mainstay male for many chapters now, becomes a rather wan figure by comparison, his power confined to tending flocks and such while his wives and their handmaidens have at it. Once married to Rachel and her sister Leah (and, by extension, their female helpers) Jacob can do little but pump his seed into a succession of warring wombs who treat motherhood as a way of keeping score, not an end in itself, in a battle over...what? For the Genesis men, it's God's favor that's the prize, but the women's grand objective is more obscure. Indeed, as their battle continues, one starts to sense that they have no goal, no goal at all. They seem to fight chiefly in order to go on fighting, exulting in their vitality, not their piety.

In this tit-for-tit contest for ill-defined advantage, it's mean girl and big sister Leah who draws first blood by giving Jacob four consecutive sons. This feat causes barren Rachel to ape her aunt and vow to kill herself if she doesn't conceive soon. Jacob, unlike his namby-pamby father, calls his wife out for manipulating him, forcing her to bring in Bilhah, a surrogate, who promptly gets pregnant with Jacob's fifth straight son, gives birth to him, rests a little, then bears his sixth. These new heirs allow Rachel to claim a win at last, but jealous Leah, her reproductive organs temporarily numb from overuse, summons her own stand-in, Zilpah, for yet another round of combat-by-conception. Team Leah scores two sons in no time and pulls ahead, then pulls ahead further when Rachel makes a deal to let Leah lay with Jacob for a night in return for a dose of a fertility drug that Rachel hopes will activate her ovaries. This isn't a good deal for Rachel, not initially. Using her free pass to full advantage, ambitious Leah gets herself knocked up not once, not twice, but three times in a row. That the third child comes up female dampens her triumph but, statistics being what they are, such a flip of the coin had to happen sooner or later.

How Jacob has fared throughout this musky tournament (which isn't over yet by any means) can only be inferred from his decision to ask his father-in-law's (and uncle's) permission to let him go home, back to his boyhood haunts, far from this land of gyno-cratic serfdom. Starting with fourteen years of service to Laban, which was the price of Rachel and Leah's hands, Jacob hasn't known freedom in ages, see. (Nor, the reader gathers, much peace and quiet). Laban, though, is unmoved by Jacob's plea. Thanks to his sister Rebekah's original power play, Laban has, via his daughters, been the owner of a complicated sort of sex slave, and one that he sees no good reason to relinquish just because the fellow feels overwhelmed. Can Jacob escape this trap?

Can any man?

The Bible's claims to everlasting relevance are growing stronger by the verse.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Occupy Isaac: The Old Testament's First White Collar Crime -- Bible Study, Night Nine

Esau has the birthright. Jacob wants it. He sees his chance when Esau stumbles home one day, famished, exhausted, and half-delirious, from a deer hunting trip intended to supply the brothers' blind old father, Isaac, with his favorite game meat.  Exploiting his brother's hunger in the manner of a heroin dealer coercing sex from a trembling female junkie (or a banker pushing a teaser-rate mortgage on a shift-worker with a child on the way) Jacob demands that Esau sign over the birthright in return for a bowl of lukewarm gruel. And it works! Not only is the swindle a success in base, material terms, it's a hit with many of the critics. To this day, the scholars and divines charged with interpreting this smelly deal heap endless censure on hungry Esau's weakness while carefully theologizing away well-fed Jacob's sleaziness.

Enter their mother, manipulative Rebekah. Having always favored Jacob the Smooth (a mild, managerial "dweller in tents") over Esau the Hairy (who brings home the venison), she takes such delight in her clever darling's coup that she cries out for an encore, urging him to impersonate his brother and extract a blessing meant for Esau from their sightless, sentimental father.  Jacob would rather quit while he's ahead, but Rebekah nags and pleads and wheedles until he agrees to run the con. Esau catches him, rats him out to Isaac, and insists on receiving what is his, but Isaac, now drained of patriarchal mojo, can muster up only a wimpy mini-blessing. "Behold, thy dwelling shall be the fatness of the earth and of the dew of heaven from above."

Dew and fatness? Say you're kidding, Dad. So what did you promise my scummy little brother?

"Let people serve thee and nations bow down to thee; be lord over thy brethren, and let thy mother's sons bow down to thee: cursed be everyone that curseth thee, and blessed be he that blesseth thee.

There it stands, and because it's in the Bible, there it will go on standing: our civilization's first white-collar crime. Its placement halfway through Genesis seems no accident, as it speaks to the book's core concern, its ruling idea. No, not sin. Not obedience. Not faith. Those are certainly important issues in this account of the struggles of a new race to organize and elevate itself, but they are luxury themes compared to this:

Property law.

From a functional, practical perspective, the work of a great, great many early Bible stories is to articulate, investigate, and, in some fashion, adjudicate a variety of title claims to a great array of holdings and assets, some physical, some social, some spiritual. We may feel as we turn the pages of the scripture like seminarians in a lovely library, but really we're law students in a drafty lecture hall. And what we're doing is analyzing precedent, from the case of the Soup Bowl and the Birthright (a right which some contend Esau essentially forfeited the moment he contemplated parting with it, especially for such a lousy price, meaning that little brother Jacob inherited it before he paid for it, meaning he could have petitioned to have the soup returned) back to Adam and Eve's Eviction Without Notice (since they'd trusted God and never demanded a lease, and since He'd trusted them and never asked for one, and also because no rent was paid or charged, leaving no financial paper trail for the serpent to conjure into an oral contract, their position or status in Eden was roughly that of two grown-up children camping out indefinitely in a parent's yard).

It's all about getting, giving, keeping, appraising, losing, regaining, and dividing. If there were a motto carved into God's Throne, it might well read: "The buck starts here." As does the hectare, the olive grove, the ingot, all the cattle and the chattel, the birthright, the pearl, the breastplate, and the grape. And the lordships, of course, which aren't just titles and costumes, but large sealed crates of prerogatives and licenses lashed to the backs of camels led by slaves.

Genesis is a treatise in story form on the paramount economic questions that civilized societies must answer, credibly, consistently, and durably, if they're not to backslide into piracy or erupt in orgiastic grabbing. Why do certain people have more than others? And what authority or history legitimizes their holdings and their powers? The Bible's answer is circular but perfect: our belongings belong to us because they're linked to a lengthy chain of title securely held at its far end by He who originally owned them unencumbered, absolutely free and clear,  by virtue of having made them out of nothing, without assistance, without outside investment, such that no lien nor levy can ever hurt them.

In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth, but in doing so, in the very act of acting, He created the deed. And all the deeds deriving from it, too, which He knew would be worthless as legal instruments unless they were properly recorded and filed. That's when his clerks got down to work, affirming the standing of the first Creation by verbally constructing another one under it, the great Book of Owning and Claiming we call The Bible.

Which moves me -- in a way I wasn't prepared for, and in a way I'm wary to indulge, lest personal digressions and reflections become a distracting habit in these posts -- to close with some words about the the Bible I own. It's right here on my laptop on my desk, a fat, loose, heavily footnoted edition thats my mother reread every year or so but suddenly stopped rereading about four months ago, when a strep infection from her right sinus crossed a fragile layer in her skull and landed her unconscious, in a coma, in the Critical Care ward of Iowa Methodist Hospital. She was seventy. She was healthy. I loved her terribly. After leaving her body in Des Moines, where she'd gone two weeks before she died so she and her boyfriend, John, who lived there,  could pass a few days having fun at the State Fair, I drove back up to her house in Minnesota and spent a week or so among her things. It didn't help, though. Her things brought no relief. They didn't feel like hers at all, but like objects on loan on from Macy's, Pottery Barn, and a number of her favorite antique stores, where some of the items might well be sold again soon.

Except for one thing, which wasn't like the other junk and now belongs to me, her eldest son, because the law is clear on certain matters, even if it's not actually the law now, even if it's just my notion of the law, or perhaps my idea of what the law should be.

By taking my mother's Bible, I claimed my birthright. By reading it and writing about it, I hope to discover what it's worth to me. At the moment, with the wind down and the sun up and stainless blue skies in all my office windows,  I wouldn't trade it for anything on earth, but tonight, later on, when I come in from the weather after hours running errands,  I'm not so sure. A bowl of warm soup might sound awfully good then, especially if I can eat it in the kitchen and pretend or imagine or actually day dream  (it's a trick I'm getting good at) that it's from her.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The First and The Furriest -- Bible Study, Night Nine

As decreed by the laws and customs of the times, the 'birthright' that  and elevated social status,     one of male fraternal twins that been delivered just moments  apart from Rebekah, 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Bird's Eye View of God -- Bible Study, Night Eight

Halfway through the first book of the Old Testament, on the verge of the Jacob vs. Esau intrigue in which the right man, or so we're told, prevails for the wrong reasons (can anyone explain to me how impersonating one's older brother by wearing a deceptive sleeve of hair in order to steal his blessing from a blind father who has to grope people to know who they are is an exemplary act of any kind?), it's time to lean back, lift my eyes from the minutiae, and consider the nature and scope of what I've read. The Bible is a big story made up of little ones, many with no useful message for humanity other than Be Very, Very Afraid and Don't Forget to Bring a Gift,  but a big story about what, exactly? Goodness? You attended too much Sunday School. The emergence of ethical consciousness? See Jacob. The origins, destiny, and character of the early Jewish people? Sort of. Even closer to the mark, though, would be to characterize the saga as a fat Mafia novel about loyalty, terrible luck, the pursuit of wealth and influence, marriage, internecine rivalry, and ritual bowing before a somber Don.

But it's more than a teeming desert noir, this book. That's just too cute, even for me. There is genuine grandeur and mystery contained here, an impression of mad, pre-rational majesty. Since God banged the gong of Creation in the first verse, a vast wave of energy has been pushing forward, tossing around men and objects as it moves and seeking out reliable human vessels -- sturdy conduits of blood and seed -- through which to pump its proud and punishing will. The process doesn't run smoothly. It's ferocious, proceeding bestially, surprisingly, with wicked ironies and contradictions that those who neatly allegorize the story, viewing it as a veiled prophecy of Christ, fail to honestly account for. Nor does it behave like a conventional myth the way that, say, the Star Wars movies do, with their symmetrically pitted heroes and villains and series of laddered trials and temptations. No, the Bible is nothing if not realistic, mixing the arbitrary with the pre-destined and telegraphing little of what's next to readers who don't already know what's coming. There's a sense of the Logos concentrated and weaponized, firing its beam at edifices, cities, and men on the ground who scramble to evade it. And somewhere, away from this land of herds and flocks, of exquisitely formalized social codes and customs, there is an ocean, a rolling bath of darkness into which every lifetime, every drama, perfectly and totally dissolves.

The Bible feels scary, a cautionary bedtime tale starring the greatest ghost in western literature, who created the world with a wave of His white hand but had to learn by doing how to run the place, and particularly who to confide in and deputize. Ultimately, He places more faith in Abraham than Abraham does in Him. Despite God's large promises to his semen bearers and the compliant wombs attached to them, the patriarch and his sons have worries, concerns, especially about their women, from whom they keep trying to the deflect the evil eye whenever they camp in or pass through a new kingdom. Also, there's always something burning somewhere, something that was just recently alive, sometimes in close-up on a rustic altar, sometimes way out there on the red horizon.

It can't be read quickly, that seems to be the main thing.

And once it unfolds some, it starts reading you.