The mysterious Yacón, footsteps on the roof

My neighbor and I have gotten to be friends, bonding over our love of chickens. George is an avid gardener and I have been trading him eggs for various plants. The most recent is this Peruvian tuber, called a Yacón (or Yacun). 

As you can see (using the spoon for scale), the tubers grow very large. When you peel and slice a piece, it’s like a sweeter, juicier jicama.  It’s great in fruit salads, taking on the flavor of the fruit, in regular salads, or in stews. I like it so much I got some rhizomes from George to plant my own.

George said gophers were extraordinarily fond of the tubers, so I dug a bed and lined it with chicken wire before I planted them. Continue reading “The mysterious Yacón, footsteps on the roof”

In praise of Berryman

I perfect my metres
until no mosquito can get through…

Beryman, Dreamsong 297

In the vagaries of poets’ reputations, Berryman is now up, while Lowell is down. This is a reversal of thirty years ago. Who can say why? I fell in love with Berryman’s Dreamsongs in my early twenties. They have two ongoing personae: Henry, a stand in for Berryman himself, and Mr. Bones, a wisecracking minstrel who sees through Henry. In my innocence and arrogance I wrote a Henry poem, in imitation and homage, and sent it to Berryman. He responded with a wonderfully kind letter.  This wasn’t long before his suicide in 1972. Continue reading “In praise of Berryman”

Automation in the chicken coop

I love my chickens, but I also love to travel.  I have already set up automated feed and watering systems and thanks to a friend who came to visit, I now have an automated chicken door that opens at dawn and closes at dusk.  This amazing invention is from Wells Poultry in the UK, and came to me airmail.  I couldn’t quite believe it would work, but it does.  I set it up at the back of the covered area where the chickens are closed in at night as opposed to on their house itself.  It’s very shady by the house, and I was afraid “dusk” there would be too early.  We had to make a little ramp going down from the door, as the chicken yard is steep, and they were a little reluctant at first.  Several hens went out, then the rooster.

The rooster and about four of the hens went down to the area where I feed them.  But three of the hens weren’t eager to try the new door. The rooster came back up and encouraged them, and soon all were out. Continue reading “Automation in the chicken coop”

The problem with Lowell

I woke from dreams of not getting where I needed to be in a foreign country of endless lines and confusing roads. Somewhere there was a cafe, somewhere a bay. But I couldn’t find them. And for some reason, I took out the brick of Robert Lowell’s collected poems for my morning reading.

Why has Lowell, once so well-known that he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, dropped so out of favor? Was he unlucky to be adorably handsome, from a fine old Boston family, and talented? Perhaps the volume of his work is overwhelming. Coming to him cold, one would be daunted long before finding the handful of marvelous poems that still vibrate with the pain of the human condition. Every poem seems to tackle the big problems, and as with most (all?) poets, most of them fail.

Still, Life Studies, published in the late 1950’s had a huge influence on poetry. I remember reading it, stunned by its intimacy–it was like nothing that came before.  The personal, confessional tone from an academically acclaimed poet legitimized the personal as a subject for poetry. Sylvia Plath was his student, and took the next step.

Despite true madness, excess drinking, smoking, and three marriages, Lowell lived 60 years, and wrote and wrote and wrote.  Rhyme and meter were the water he swam in–they seemed natural to him, not forced or added. He could write a sonnet in his sleep.  Here’s one of my favorites, written late in his life. He nicknamed his third wife “dolphin,” and the first four lines seem addressed to her. The rest of the poem contemplates life as a poet. I always think they are about Berryman, who famously arrived drunk for readings, but they could be about Lowell himself, or many others I guess.  Regardless, I especially love the final four lines:


Any clear thing that blinds us with surprise,
your wandering silences and bright trouvailles,
dolphin let loose to catch the flashing fish. . . .
saying too little, then too much.
Poets die adolescents, their beat embalms them,
The archetypal voices sing offkey;
the old actor cannot read his friends,
and nevertheless he reads himself aloud,
genius hums the auditorium dead.
The line must terminate.
Yet my heart rises, I know I’ve gladdened a lifetime
knotting, undoing a fishnet of tarred rope;
the net will hang on the wall when the fish are eaten,
nailed like illegible bronze on the futureless future.

Lowell is not an easy poet, but he’s one who whose stature will rise again, when others have faded.


Callista, Zeeko, and Burma Shave

I keep politics off these pages, but this morning over the Sunday Times, Larry said:

“I don’t usually read the Style section, but I have to find out what Callista’s hair style means.” Apparently, it means that she is more interested in control than beauty. I was intrigued, because I can’t remember Larry’s ever opening the Style section before. He’s not alone. Search for Callista Gingrich hair if you doubt me.  This was from The Stir, via Robin Givhan of The Daily Beast:

“Already, media estimates have put Mrs. Gingrich’s hair-care time at anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes a day.”

And that doesn’t include the time everyone spends thinking about her hair.

Callista’s process and hairspray are the subject of many articles, no need to link them here.

As for Larry’s hair, he has it cut by the Ukrainian barber, Zeeko, who finishes the process by turning Larry to the mirror and saying, “Now you are movie star again.”

Continue reading “Callista, Zeeko, and Burma Shave”

Cluck and Glück

I didn’t know that Louise Gluck pronounced her name to rhyme with “click,” but that’s how it is. She read on Thursday night at Moe’s (yes, we still have a few bookstores in Berkeley!). It was a pleasure to listen to her read though she announced at the start that she doesn’t like to read. I had to strain to hear, but it was worth it. She read from her new book, A Village Life.

The NY Times review mentions “her signature desolation,” and there is certainly a generous measure of pain in her work. I don’t find this off-putting.

My favorite of the poems she read was “The Crossroads.” You can hear her read it–the poem starts about one minute in if you want to skip the pretentious intro. She’ll be reading again as part of the Lunch Poems series at UC on March 1.

Earlier that day (here is the cluck part) my wonderful friend and expert builder, Jeannie, finished creating a set of plant protection boxes for my garden. Now that it’s planting season, I’d like to let the chickens out to weed and fertilize, but you may remember what they do to anything that grows.

So we created a set of 2′ x 4′ boxes with bird cloth stapled around the sides to put around various areas where things are growing. They are lightweight and transportable. We painted them with camouflage paint so that they blend into the landscape (Jeannie’s idea).

Now the plants can thrive, and the chickens can do their work:

The exemplary sentence, take 2

I recently finished Night Train to Lisbon, by the Swiss author, Pascal Mercier, translated by Barbara Harshav.  This is another book about a quest. In most ways, Henderson and Gregorius could not be more opposite: Henderson a flamboyant, wandering millionaire seeking the meaning of life, and Gregorius a scholar of Greek and Latin, nicknamed Papyrus because of his dry, papery ways. Gregorius is of working class origins. He has lived his whole adult life as a high school teacher in Bern. And yet, as Night Train to Lisbon opens, a strange encounter is a catalyst for Gregorius to drop precipitously out of his former life and start on a quest for the Portuguese author of an obscure, privately published book A Goldsmith of Words, a book that purports to explore the fragmented, buried, kaleidoscopic experiences that make up a life.

The passion to learn about this mysterious author, the conceit of a book within a book, and the appealing figure of Gregorius all captured my imagination and sustained me through the 438 pages of this novel.  This book is almost too full of intriguing sentences, most attributed to the mysterious Portuguese author, Amadeu de Almeida Prado. Here are a few: Continue reading “The exemplary sentence, take 2”

The exemplary sentence

I saw this idea on Mark Doty’s blog and immediately adopted it. I’ve been saving sentences for decades, and just now am rereading Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. This is the only one of Bellow’s books I’ve ever liked, but I really love it and it holds up wonderfully since I first read it maybe 30 years ago.

I say rereading, but this time I am listening to it as read by Joe Barrett, who manages to embody the voice of Henderson as well as the soft accents of various African characters. It’s wonderful to me how such a reading can enhance a book. But this one is so packed with exemplary sentences, it’s hard to choose, and I often need to rewind–not as easy on CD as formerly on cassette–to capture their complete sense.  Here is one (not even the whole sentence, but enough):

“Even civilized women  are not keen on geography, preferring a world of their own.”

Continue reading “The exemplary sentence”

The paw of time

My friend Simone sent me a link to an unusual online art exhibit.  There is a certain charm to these simple watercolors, “made anonymously in India (especially in Rajasthan) by practitioners of Tantrism.”

After looking through them, I was moved especially by The Paw of Time. It seemed so intuitively accurate to me.

I wrote about it, and sent my friend the poem. After some back and forth and her excellent edits, here it is.

The Paw of Time

when I finally discerned
the crude paw shape,
heavy and inhuman,
its smooth edges without malice
its force irresistible
I recognized it
right away


Simone herself is an amazing artist whose work I’ve been enjoying for decades. She regularly posts her photographs on Facebook.  Maybe she’ll comment with her Facebook ID, so you can friend her and see them.




Slug fest

It was a misty, moisty morning, a perfect day for slugs (if not for banana fish).  I walked the labyrinth several times, to pick them off the greens. Each time I gathered a handful, which the chickens got to enjoy right away:












I like the way the rooster stands aside and lets his hens have first bite. He always does this–such a gentleman.

And happily, my computer is repaired!