Poetry puts language in a state of emergence, in which life becomes manifest through its vivacity. These linguistic impulses, which stand out from the ordinary rank of pragmatic language, are miniatures of the vital impulse.” ― Gaston Bachelard

As I have mentioned before, in science, emergence is the process/concept that/whereby a thing has characteristics that are not shared by its component parts. Hydrogen and oxygen do not necessarily glitter, gurgle or slake thirst by themselves, though when put together as water, they do. Mind is an emergent property of the physical brain and its chemicals and electrical impulses. Like that.

So words, which written in the dictionary and unread, do not have the power they have when we put them together, read them and speak them. Nothing about each word separately—and still less each letter separately—moves people to go to war, make peace, marry each other or even laugh when laughter seems impossible. All of this comes from the emergent nature of language. To take language a step further, we can talk about poetry.

(And I should make clear that we could just as easily talk about science writing, since it is kind of amazing that we can communicate the incredible microcosms and macrocosm of our universe, brain to brain, through language filtered through the scientific process. This is only different from poetry in that the beauty of the content is foregrounded; the beauty of the carrier of the content—language—is usually pretty dry, although I have heard lots of arguments for the aesthetic appeal of the math. Sorry, that bit is lost on me. But I believe these people because when they say it, they get all starry-eyed.)

I am not sure that Bachelard is using this particular definition of emergence in his statement above. I think he is saying something more, perhaps that while language shares in the magic of emergence, poetry puts language on steroids, and the emergence that is made possible through poetry is something more like the Big Bang, not just a universe but a universe full of universes may come into being, like Sir Terry Pratchett’s Multiverse. Similarly, poetry makes possible not simply beautiful images and ideas but the possibility of Beauty itself. Not to get Platonic here, but there is nothing inherent in a massive explosion of matter or words that should create sentience or souls or song.

It shouldn’t. But it does.

Mental Models

So yesterday I worked with an MIT engineer on his thesis about the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant that suffered a severe compound accident from the tsunami that hit eastern Japan on March 11, 2011. One of the theories of thinking and reasoning that underlies some of his research is the idea of mental models, “that the mind constructs ‘small-scale models’ of reality that it uses to anticipate events. Mental models can be constructed from perception, imagination, or the comprehension of discourse” (Johnson-Laird and Byrne). I used this idea when I was writing my theology thesis about environmental survival, and it often comes up in cases where survival is at stake: people have to make crucial decisions at high speed in real time and they rely on their picture of reality, which is itself a) a form of perception, b) usually an oversimplification (occasionally the reverse), and c) affected by language, custom, and other symbolic attributes in addition to our lived experience.

That perception reality is shown in part by research that shows how inaccurate eyewitness testimony can be in court. “Many people believe that human memory works like a video recorder: the mind records events and then, on cue, plays back an exact replica of them. On the contrary, psychologists have found that memories are reconstructed rather than played back each time we recall them. The act of remembering, says eminent memory researcher and psychologist Elizabeth F. Loftus of the University of California, Irvine, is ‘more akin to putting puzzle pieces together than retrieving a video recording’” Akowitz and Lilienfeld).

It is true public safety officers are trained to observe more accurately than the rest of us, and there are ways of retrieving testimony that are less likely to color the witness’s recall. However, for my purposes here, that is less useful simply because in an emergency situation—a nuclear accident, 9/11—what an individual will be doing is not recalling What Happened Then but rather What Could Possibly Be Happening Now. The former is based on a single instant of reality and the latter is based on All the Reality I Have Experienced Up To Now, taken together, sifted, and drawn on the blueprint in the person’s head.

Think of the house you grew up in. Then think of all the houses you have ever seen from the inside or the outside. Then tell me what a house is. If you grew up in the suburbs, a three-story house or a Roman villa won’t be part of your picture. If you are M.C. Escher, this might be the house you draw for me.


With an overcomplicated mental model, you might withdraw from action—why try to get down 80 flights of stairs? I will never make it. Social problems, which are indeed multiply constructed, frequently face human inaction for this reason.

If you are a child, this might be the house you draw for me.


The trees out side the house will have brown bark rather than grey and green grass rather than winter yellow, even if you just ran across the yellow grass and climbed up into the grey-barked tree just yesterday.

I am not sure why I am even writing about this although I expect it has to do with Valentine’s Day. I have written before about the problems of love poetry for a writer who wants to be taken seriously, although I don’t think I specifically addressed the problem that poetry causes for us in our expectations about love. But I have a feeling that this is a thing.


Arkowitz, Hal, and Scott O. Lilienfeld. “Why Science Tells Us Not to Rely on Eyewitness Accounts.” Scientific American. 1 Jan. 2010. Web. 11 Feb. 2016.

“Child’s Painting Land.” MediaWiki. Web. 11 Feb. 2016.

Escher, M.C. “House of Stairs.”

Johnson-Laird, Phil, and Ruth Byrne. “Mental Models: A Gentle Introduction.” Mental Models Blog. July 2012. Web. 11 Feb. 2016.

Maybe I Need an Art Buddy. Maybe I Just Need Backup.


Well, here I am back in the Writer’s Block, which kind of sounds like something you would find in a Communist prison. Yes, they really used to confiscate writers’ typewriters in the USSR and Poland. It was cost-effective. You don’t need to feed typewriters and they don’t bleed when you beat them up.

Here in the more or less democratic US of A, where we have Freedom of Font and also a whole lot more options for putting our ideas down and spreading them around, the problem tends not to be so much Tyranny that is rearing its ugly head as it is Woeful Lack of Imagination.

Part of this, I suspect, is because a blog is not exactly a Project in the same sense that a novel or, for want of a better example, a few hundred pages of poetry about a 1990s TV show are. There isn’t the compulsive pull of a few well-chosen characters whose voices need to be explored. There isn’t the narrative tension of a plot to resolve or of subplots to weave in artfully. On the flipside, there are more opportunities to use pictures of cats to make my points.

Sometimes, when procrastination takes the form of Radically Empty Brain Syndrome (REBS), I stare at the wall, vainly hoping for something to show up. But remember that “radical” comes from the Latin, radix, meaning “root.” If there is nothing at the root of the brain, there won’t be much to grow out of it. So maybe the solution is to find another brain to work with.

If I were an Igor in a Terry Pratchett Discworld novel, I suppose I would mean that literally: find a brain, go up to the top of a tall MIT building and wait for lightning to strike. Then do an evil maniacal laugh, etc. Problem solved.


Failing that, I suppose I need to find another brain the less old-fashioned way, by actually finding a writing buddy, a collaborator, or possibly some badass with a big gun or maybe a Frisbee. Some writing buddies each write their own work separately and then read each other’s work. This is different from collaborators who work on the same project. Personally, I was thinking more along the lines of someone to come to my rescue with a whole lotta firepower, or possibly an Iron Frisbee of Doom.

Then maybe I’ll get writing again.

All I Want for Christmas, or Mrs. Claus Has Her Work Cut Out for Her This Year


My two front teeth. Check. 1978

Somebody to lean on. Check. 1985

Just a little more time. Check. 1992


The abolition of imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy.

A self-cleaning litter box.

A hard-boiled egg.

And a cup of coffee.


Process: Notes on Competing Priorities


Okay, so yesterday I wrote a poem for which I am using the working title Odyssey, because it ended up being about Odysseus and Penelope. Let me unpack my process.

Inspiration: Something my yoga teacher said, because, duh, Erica Magro Cahill. “The intimacy of a beating heart inside your beautiful skin…”

Part 1. The image of my heart peeking out from behind my sternum on an x-ray of my esophagus and larynx.

Problem: The point I want to make is about the heart but suddenly my larynx is involved.

Solution: When we sing, we don’t think about the bits of our body we are singing with, we think about the heart and what it does and wants. This leads to the idea of singing comfort to a “fearful, feral/cornered self within another body contained in skin, the reverse of Siren song.”

Part 2. The image of the skin as a map, marked by scars, wrinkles and ink. Using the concept I got from two separate students last semester that it helps when you suffer from depression to tattoo a message or symbol on your body to remind you that life is doable. This allowed me to use the line that Sir Terry Pratchett quotes in his recent nonfiction book, A Blink of the Screen, which he attributes to G.K. Chesterton, “Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist, for they already know dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.” But of course, this is wordy and I already have the map, so:

Application: “Even tied to the mast, straining against our good sense,/We remember: Here be dragons. Reading our skin,/We recall, relieved: Dragons may be slain.”

Part 3. I need to get from Odysseus tied to the mast back to Penelope waiting on Ithaca, fending off suitors with her ten-year-long craft project. I start with the sail as a reminder of our fate as it is woven by the maiden, matron and crone: “We weave what they give us/Into something of use…” I transition to Penelope’s weaving. In the original, she tells the suitors that she cannot marry anyone until she finishes weaving her father-in-law’s shroud.

Feminist Revisionist Mythmaking: (Okay, here is the fun part!) I turn the shroud instead into a 1) tapestry of 2) Penelope herself as the matron Fate weaving and unweaving a tapestry of 3) Odysseus’s ship. “She turns its prow repeatedly/Back toward Ithaca. With each reweaving,/She brings the hero that much sooner home.” With this I take the power of the Fates and the Gods who are pissed off at Odysseus and give it to Penelope, making her thwart all of them and get her husband back sooner. Very meta.

Part 4. Now the first three parts have had relatively even stanza sizes: 1) 3 stanzas of 6 lines, 2) 4 stanzas of 4 lines, and 3) 4 stanzas of 5 lines. That is just the way that it worked out. When I started Part 4 I had a big long stanza that I did not know how to break. I had two ideas when I started the section: that all of us are all of the things I have discussed: “ship, map, compass, sail;/…the perilous waters and the sweet,/ Populous shores of home… ” But I also wanted to talk about fate and choices and somehow get some closure back to the x-ray. Further, although I did not hew the line, I was pulled in the first three sections toward blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter, I suspect because the topic is Classical Antiquity and Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” (the Latin name for Odysseus) is in blank verse. But when I broke that first stanza of this section in half, I found that both of them started with a middle length line, followed by lines that got longer, followed by lines that got shorter: kind of like waves going in and out of shore! Nice… Then I noticed that the first was six lines and the second fifth: kind of like my verses were ebbing….

Solution: ALWAYS FOLLOW ARTISTIC SERENDIPITY. (Repeat after me: I meant to do that!) All I needed then were two more stanzas with a similar tidal/ebbing structure, so I ended with:

“How hardy this tremulous heart

Peeking around the mast, not deaf to these

Lyric-less singers, the waves assembling,

Disassembling, dissembling…

How impotent the gods

Who made us like themselves: willful,

Changeable, immortal.”


Waterhouse, John. Ulysses and the Sirens, 1891. Penelope and the Suitors, 1912.

Beware the Ides of March


The death of the amazing author Terry Pratchett this week got me thinking about poetry that is used to say farewell. Eulogies remember the good in people who have died. Elegies lament sad things like death and war. But valedictions, as seen in high school valedictorian speeches, say farewell to good times and good people. So I thought I would remind us of John Donne’s classic poem that reminds us of how connected we are.


A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning


As virtuous men pass mildly away,

And whisper to their souls to go,

Whilst some of their sad friends do say

The breath goes now, and some say, No:

So let us melt, and make no noise,

No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;

‘Twere profanation of our joys

To tell the laity our love.

Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears,

Men reckon what it did, and meant;

But trepidation of the spheres,

Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers’ love

(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit

Absence, because it doth remove

Those things which elemented it.

But we by a love so much refined,

That our selves know not what it is,

Inter-assured of the mind,

Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.


Our two souls therefore, which are one,

Though I must go, endure not yet

A breach, but an expansion,

Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so

As stiff twin compasses are two;

Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show

To move, but doth, if the other do.

And though it in the center sit,

Yet when the other far doth roam,

It leans and hearkens after it,

And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,

Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;

Thy firmness makes my circle just,

And makes me end where I begun.


This is a better poem for Prachett than Death, Be Not Proud, since that one foretells the death of Death, and anyone who has read the Discworld novels has a soft spot for this character.