joseph duemer: reading & writing
. . . he's sure got a lot of gall / to be so useless & all / muttering small talk at the wall . . . [dylan]
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Friday, May 31, 2002
Surrounded by water: North across the road is my neighbor Ed's spring-fed pond, which in turn feeds the little creek that runs through our property; to the West, Ed's father Sam has a pond for his ducks; North-East is the outflow pond from the hydro damn & South is the river. Ed's pond seems full of peepers tonight & his dad's pond full of bullfrogs, by the sound of things. Because we had thunder storms all day, everything is soaked & green. Frogs & birds & water--one would hardly think the world stands on the edge of a nuclear exchange in South Asia.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:59 PM.

Congratulations to AKMA on being granted tenure. It does feel different, doesn't it? Something about the institution being willing to put up with one's practice. Same goes for when they promote you, though that is a less nerve-wracking experience. There is something to be said for--as well as, no doubt, against--having this form of formal professional approbation. Now AKMA, like me, has to begin guarding against becomming a stuffy old fart.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 9:12 AM.

Woke this morning just after dawn to a roaring downpour from the leading edge of a thunder storm. Carole is away this week & I just lay in bed listening, all the windows open. Went back to sleep, then woke again to thunder. Fed the dogs & waited for the storm to pass so Angel (the big dog) & I could head out for a walk. Went up toward Rock Haven & Angel flushed some deer out of a thicket, which made his morning. Came back home just as another line of storms was rolling through. All this rain has got to be good for the ferns & cetum (sp?) I transplanted yesterday. If it clears up later, I'm going to develop another bed for ferns on the north side of the house. I really like using wild plants from our own property or from the power company's right-of-way.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 7:21 AM.

Thursday, May 30, 2002
Lord Lord I'm getting up in years
Lordy Lordy Lordy I'm getting up in years
But mama ain't too old to shift her gears
[Ida Cox]

I will be 51 on May 31st, but that business about shifting gears goes for daddy too. (Thanks Madamjujujive for the Ida Cox lyric.) The azaleas on the north side of the house, under the big pines, always seem to bloom on my birthday. "Nice, nice, very nice."

Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:45 PM.

Wednesday, May 29, 2002
I respect Josh Marshall as an honest writer on politics, despite the fact that he's a MOR Democrat & I'm a screaming leftist. But today in Talking Points Memo: by Joshua Micah Marshall, Marshall elaborates on an article he recently published on Iraq & Saddam Hussein.

After reading his original piece in the Washington Monthly, I emailed him the following, beginning with a quotation from his article: '“On the other side are a few dozen neoconservative think tank scholars and defense policy intellectuals. Few of them have any serious knowledge of the Arab world, the Middle East, or Islam. Fewer still have served in the armed forces'. Your words. You’re a smart guy, but you are not old enough to remember the “defense intellectuals” who masterminded the Vietnam War. I suggest a rereading of Halberstam’s The Best & the Brightest and Sheehan’s A Bright, Shining Lie. The history & geography are different, but the mind-set & the politics are identical. You’re wrong on this one. Iraq is as peripheral to US interests in 2002 as Vietnam was in 1965. Containment will work just fine, so let’s not get ourselves all worked up into a lather. Richard Perle is the Prince of Darkness & if we care about our nation we will not listen to his evil promptings. Look, I’m not a pacifist & I believe that certain situations require the use of force, but this is just globally-politically idiotic. As yourself one question: What will the Middle East be like with a US client in Baghdad?

Basically, I was questioning Marshall's rejection of a containment policy. Behind this question is my own lack of solid evidence for what, exactly Saddam might be planning. I read the newspapers & the newsblogs & the political magazines & I still can't get a handle on this. Perhaps even more important to think about is whether a post-Saddam Iraq would leave the region--& US interests--better or worse off. I don't deny that Saddam is a bad guy & I'm not a pacifist, though I remain extremely skeptical about the use of American military power to extend American political values. I'm a child of the Vietnam War. In fact, I just got off the phone with a Vietnamese friend who a couple of years ago took me to her family's home village outside Saigon. "That's where the school I went to used to be," she said, pointing up into the air. "The bombs blew the hill away." In my experience, the use of American force leads to evil shit going down. Maybe if we lived by our own values it would be different.

Anyway, Marshall wasn't responding specifically to me, but today in his weblog he wrote, "So for me, when I looked at the containment policy it seemed like a running wound for the United States, one that was hurting us in ways we weren't completely willing to recognize, and one that would continue to hurt us over time. Perhaps it would be better, it seemed to me, to lance this boil rather than let the infection continue to fester." The metaphor is instructive. It is true that a boil can be uncomfortable & perhaps, if not watched, might lead to a general infection; but a boil is a disease of the skin, by definition superficial. Perhaps instead of lancing the boil we might administer antibiotics in the form of humanitarian aid & a serious attempt to reign in the belligerent Ariel Sharon. Perhaps we ought to think about treating the whole system. But perhaps the metaphor of Saddam as boil is misleading in the first place. Maybe Saddam is a center of gravity in the Middle East. One among many. In which case, the task of American foreign policy becomes a kind of balancing act. This is not as satisfying as "lancing the boil," but in the long run it might lead to a situation in which we do not unnecessarily release poison into the international body politic. That is, to be blunt, we do not precipitously try to use our democracy-mojo via military might to effect changes about which we cannot possibly predict the outcome. There is, certainly, a political uncertainty principle to which we ought to be paying attention. Given the evil genius of the Iraq hawks, I think we ought to resist their procedures. First, do no harm.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 3:43 PM.

We saw our first Baltimore Oriole yesterday, too. And the Yellow Bellied Sapsucker (not Hairy Woodpecker as I reported earlier) that was drumming on the tin roof of the shed every morning at 4:30 seems to have found a ladylove & settled down to a summer of domestic bliss.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:53 AM.

Tuesday, May 28, 2002
Parody is purgative . . . & maybe even effective.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:34 PM.

Lovely: It is finally summer here, too, after a cold spring. Spent yesterday morning clearing brush along our riverbank, then rebuilt a little flower bed beside the driveway, weeded & mulched with shredded cedar bark. Also began clearing a path back through the woods toward the old stone foundation I'm going to recylece into a retaining wall & walkway in the back yard. It's going to be hot again today. Finally. But then Thursday Carole is going to Trinidad for 10 days on art biz, so she'll be able to tell us all what really hot means when she returns. (These thoughts prompted by Kurt's weatherzen.)
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:11 AM.

Sunday, May 26, 2002
Peaceable Kingdom: Carole & I went over to our friends Angie & Andy's place for dinner last night. Grilled venison burgers, potato salad (my contribution) & rhubarb pie. It's been a chilly spring, so after dinner we built a bonfire in the firepit by the patio & sat listening to the evening birds as the sky darkened. "That's a Veery," Angie would say. "That's a Golden-winged Warbler." Both Angie & Andy are biologists--Andy is in grad school at Lavalle University in Quebec City, about five hours north of us, so Angie pretty often winds up at out house with Max the dog on Friday or Saturday nights for drinks & dinner & crashing on our couch. More background: Carole & Angie ride horses together; Angie is the Biology Department lab tech at my university; our new dog Angel came by way of Angie, who knew the people who had to give him up; Andy & I have attended, the last two years before this year, the same reading group. Our lives are deeply & pleasurably entangled. (Andy is here for the summer so we'll be seeing more of him now.) When we arrived Andy was working on something in the barn, so we were standing around in the late-afternoon sunshine with the dogs when suddenly, four juvenile Starlings, three-fourths fledged, came tumbling out of the barn door, upset, apparently, by the noise of Andy's hammer. At he stage of development where they could fly several feet, but then would collapse into the grass, the birds were in danger from the dogs' curiosity & big paws, so we set about rounding them up. We found the nest in a hole in the barn wall & stuck them back in. A bird in the hand is a live, sleek, pulsing strength. Then it was time to get going on dinner.

This particular dinner began with Angie finding good rhubarb & thinking of us. She knows we like tart flavors. So the pie became the center of gravity for our small weekend celebration. Peace in a time of war. The venison came from a deer shot by a neighbor last season on their 20 acres; we grilled a sweet onion & melted applewood smoked cheese from Canada over the burgers, ate them on onion rolls while the dogs chased each other down to the pond & around the barn, came back wet & their bellies covered with mud, then fell to wrestling on the grass. Max, a couple of neighbor dogs & Angel romping through the twilight. But what I really want to talk about is Angie's animals. Andy is a biologist, I think, because he loves to be outdoors. He thinks nothing of putting on his wetsuit & diving into the St. Lawrence River to sample the population of some aquatic species or other. Angie does this kind of survey work, too, but her real passion is the various beasts she keeps around her in her house. She is our Konrad Lorenz. There's Bun the rabbit munching dandelions; there's the two new kittens Squid & Mouse rescued from the horse barn; there's the aquarium with the four big toads & the aquarium with the Leopard Geckos. While Carole & Andy were washing up the dishes after dinner, Angie invited me to help her give the geckos their evening socialization. They will bear handling & even respond affectionately to human touch, but only if they are handled regularly. So there I was sitting on the couch in the living room, a couple of big dogs at my feet, with three beautiful lizards crawling over my hands & up my arms to perch on my collar. Translucent skin, accurate eyes. (In Vietnam, another species of gecko is ubiquitous, its chirping call considered a sign of good luck. They feed on mosquitos.) Well, what I have been wanting to come to is this: I felt & still feel blessed. Blessed by the lizards, by the new kittens, by the romping dogs, by eating with my friends.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 7:54 AM.

Friday, May 24, 2002
Earlier this month I was thinking about careers & by extension, the status of being a professional. AKMA's University of Blogaria & one response it has elicited have brought me round to reconsidering these notions. Though I am a paid academic, I have never pursued any job out of anything other than a combination of passion & a need to eat. A poet is always an amateur. Anyway, I hope that in the democratic institution that is U Blog, we poor real-life academics won't be held in disrepute just because this is the only way we have been able to figure out to earn our dinner & indulge our passions.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:53 AM.

Tuesday, May 21, 2002
I THINK it better that in times like these
A poet keep his mouth shut, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night. [Wm. Butler Yeats]

Many years ago, when I was a very young poet, my teacher David Wagoner wrote, in an end-of-term critique of my work, "Whenever you have the choice, you choose silence." He meant this as a mild rebuke. "You must have other voices booming within you," he wrote. But I took the comment as a badge of honor. Aesthetically & morally, I believe in restraint. My worst times have been those when I failed to be quiet, when I have acted from anger or unreflective belief. I've been trying to keep my mouth shut as Yeats advises, but I have been reading with increasing despair Mike Sanders' assertions that we must choose sides between Israel & Palestine. Okay, here it is, then: I am sick to death of the demands of callow ideologues like Norah Vincent that "there are only two sides." To assert that there are only two sides is in fact to claim that there is only one side, one's own. In Civilization & its Discontents, Freud writes, "It is possible to bind any number of people together in love so long as some remain outside against whom we can direct our aggression." [paraphrase from memory] Claims that some party or other possesses The Truth collapses the power of the human imagination to consider multiple worlds & ruins any chance for an actual peace. (Peace, in this context, indicates something far broader than cessation of hostilities.) Peace requires imagination.

This post has taken me weeks to write: And no doubt I should keep quiet, but Mike Sanders' recent posts about truth have been eating at me so persistently that they have pretty much taken over my thinking. Mike & I have exchanged notices on our weblogs & I have every reason to think of him as a stand-up guy, but I just can't let go of this. It has been clogging up my system, keeping me from posting on other topics. I grew up among dogmatists who insisted they knew what the truth was; yet, they caused me & others I know grievous pain & psychological disfigurement. Is it any wonder then that I am suspicious of dogmatism in all its forms, or that I have adopted, partly intuitively & partly through study what amounts to a philosophy of radical pluralism: essentially, that no single point of view is an adequate description of reality, including moral reality. The only descriptions that approach adequacy are plural, multiple. Which is why I insist that we cannot, in the current political debate, focus only on the pain of the Israelis, but must also learn to imagine the suffering of the Palestinians. In my own thinking about the middle east, I have been trying to imagine the lives, not just of the "good" Israelis & Palestinians who renounce violence, but also to imagine what it must be like to be a radical Jewish fundamentalist or a Palestinian suicide bomber. To imagine these lives is not to give them moral sanction; furthermore, unless we begin to imagine them, we will never have anything like moral clarity (a phrase, coming from an ideologue like Wm. Bennett, I think we need to be very careful of.)

Try a thought experiment: see if you can imagine your way into the mind of a member of a Pakistani Muslim, then into the mind of an Indian Hindu; maybe that will be a little easier than trying to imagine what it must be like to be an Israeli Jew at the present moment or a Palestinian Arab. But the truth is, if there is any truth, that the only way out of such intractable dilemmas is to imagine our way into the worst, most destructive minds & hearts of our enemies. If poetry has any value, it is this. Stories & poems feature bad characters, to to encourage readers to emulate them, but to offer ways of thinking about evil (another word in danger of being drained of meaning) so that we are not paralized when we confront it.

Mike Sanders says he believes in a search for truth, but the truth is always somebody's truth. Lenny Bruce said that the dirtiest word in the English language is should. When you say someone should believe something as the truth, you are essentially saying that he/she can only be correct by seeing the world from your perspective. This seems to me an impoverished view of reality. It also needs to be said that being opposed to the current Israeli government's policies is not tantamount to being anti-Semitic. One can abhor the violence & ideological blindness on both sides. One does not need to identify with the leftist students at SFSU to feel sympathy for the Palestinian cause. For me, this is a matter of philosophical orientation rather than political dogma; that is, my politics flows out of my philosophy & my philosophy is radically pluralist & pragmatic (in the classic American sense).

The other day my colleague Chris Robinson & I were pursuing the ethics implicit in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations; what he wrote in that regard strikes me not only as eloquent & cogent in its own context, but relevant to this discussion of politics & truth:

I'm glad you re-directed us toward the ethics of the Philosophical Investigations. Does Wittgenstein cast us into a hopelessly radical relativism? One thing is clear: Wittgenstein does not leave us with an image of the philosopher as the prescriber of ethical courses of action. He is not of the Platonic school, but of the Aristotelean. The more careful the description of reality, the more choices we have when facing an ethical dilemma. Our tendency is to reduce choice to an either/or. We reduce the menu and get ourselves locked into a room where we cannot find the door. The philosopher's role is to offer us a perspicacious re-presentation of the room that will leave us understanding that the door is behind us and we have to turn around. Ethical dilemmas are akin to this perceptual dogmatism. We are so sure the answer is straight ahead that we miss the range of options that would appear if we simply look around. // For Wittgenstein, it seems, radical relativism is not the condition this world of language-games. There are, rather, a lot of little truths. The truths we live by come from the constellation of language-games that we have traveled through and gained from which we have gained our individual identity. The "big" ethical problem, when we look at the world in this way, is how to lead a life of conviction while retaining an anti-dogmatism that enables us to get rid of bad ideas.

I'm sorry this is so incoherent. Read Steve Himmer's post today.

Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:11 PM.

Saturday, May 18, 2002
Dogs in motion. (click 14); Dogs at rest (click 16). [Jason Spaceman / Purephase]
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:35 AM.

Friday, May 17, 2002
The ethnography of war: When I was in my 20s & in graduate school, I went on a date with a fellow grad student to see the recently released Apocalypse Now. MK & I didn't know each other very well & I was in that testosterone-rich state of sexual high alert, which may prove to be an extenuating circumstance, as you shall see. I find the film, even now, after many viewings, utterly gripping--at least the first two-thirds of it. Flashback: I was draft-age in 1969 & emotionally opposed to the Vietnam War, if only vaguely aware of what it was about. Back to the date: About half an hour into the film, I think, comes the famous scene with Robert Duval as an Air Cav Colonel. ("I love the smell of napalm in the morning.") I'm sitting there in the dark theater holding MK's hand & thinking other thoughts when this pops into my mind: "I really missed out not going to Vietnam." The particular scene burning itself into my retinas at that moment has Francis Ford Coppola himself playing a news photographer who is photographing the war going on around him, directing the soldiers so that it will play more effectively on the evening news. (Think of Conrad's anonymous narrator's relationship to Marlow in Heart of Darkness.) Immediately upon uttering this desire to have gone to war, even silently, I retracted it. What, are you fucking crazy? I think it is part of the genius of Apocalypse Now that it invites the viewer into the excitement & romance of war, then pulls the rug out from under him. (Yes, him.) Like Steve Himmer, I have tried to understand the romantic attractions of combat. In fifth & sixth grade I must have read 200 identically bound books for boys from my school library that detailed battles from Ticonderoga to Iwo Jima, so my psyche was saturated early with romanticism. Vietnam was still in the future--the nation's & mine.

I don't usually put my poems here in the weblog, but these two, from my book Magical Thinking, seem apposite:

Afternoon: Radio Noise

Early summer: the long light of late afternoon breaks
across the fields—sparrows (who can sing) & starlings
(who can be taught to say words) dart across the live space
of the simmering road before me, each bird searing
a specific virtuoso motion on the air—long cursive
lines before my eyes as I drive into the setting sun, which

ignites the dust & pollen stuck to the truck’s cracked windshield:
action at a distance. I will never pass inspection.
A cattle pond in the field to the west burns—a foil
of sunlight—& the afternoon explodes across my field of vision,
relentless as prophecy, in which ordinary verbs break
under the pressure of light, separating into their constituent

particles whose properties must be described in terms of strangeness
& spin. The birds’ bodies sing like shrapnel—static fuzzes
the truck’s radio—sunspots or the local cops: the atmosphere
filled with blistering voices that ask me to imagine
boy soldiers in [obscured by static] The invention of lightweight arms
makes children good soldiers. “There is always a colonel to put

a rifle into the hands of a twelve-year-old,” a diplomat remarks
in the capital, his voice dry as salt. The soul of simplicity,
an AK﷓47 costs six dollars & can be field-stripped
& reassembled by a child of ten. The boys talk into
the microphone, voices disembodied & abstract as buzzing
flies round the eyes & anus of a corpse. This is a form of knowledge

with no music in it & it is criminal to invent lyrical dogs
to snuffle the blood of civil wars. God’s voice
from the whirlwind does not believe in History, only in power
& the shifting & terrifying opportunities of myth, which
emerge when the mind breaks open with grief. Oedipus
addresses the people of Thebes taking responsibility for

the broken world sweltering in the heat of late afternoon.
Outside the walls his sons are gathering for war—a boy’s voice
reports he joined the army when his mother & father were killed
he can’t remember by which side; he cannot name the parts
of his weapon but he has been taught how to fire it;
he has killed some men this morning who were creeping

through the grass at the edge of the camp. The effects of sunlight
in a low latitude—witless & without ironic dimension,
stupidly gorgeous (This poem is stupid with hatred.)
& like music it doesn’t say anything. It is the same as sunlight
in equatorial regions. There is some grace in sight though
I know that even looking at things the mind is prickly

with ideas, vision murderous. (Every crackpot ideologue
& revolutionary leader, every colonial overseer with a switch
in his hand has had a gleaming vision of the future & believes
unwaveringly in himself.) Item: I retract whatever earlier testament
I may have offered—There is no grace in sunlight. There is no
comfort in the light of things nothing like music. The body

is invisible lying in the grass until the muffled explosion of flies
disturbed by the tramping of soldiers’ feet rise from it.
Polyneices’ eyes have been drained by ants & his opened gut
glistens with maggots. There are only hunger & power
& the power of hunger & hunger for power; there is the king
being led away amid the incessant humming of flies; there is

alternating noise & silence. The dogs tremble with fear at this
army of slim ghosts bearing small arms employing deadly force
with perfect innocence. The body is invisible lying in the grass.
The mind is prickly with ideas, vision murderous. The problem
of tragedy is [shouting obscured by static] to sentiment.
The long light of late afternoon breaks across the fields.


The Dog in Daumier’s The Refugees

Phanopoeia: Throwing the object (fixed or moving)
on to the visual imagination.


The dog is nothing but a shadow
on the margin
of the file of fleeing refugees in Daumier’s
grim picture.

The men came
in the night / they came in the day.
They hacked up
her children into parts—limbs & heads—

with the long knives everywhere known
as machetes—
used for harvest & murder—

the pieces among the broken furniture—
the long knives
bequeathed by conquerors having learned
home truths.

(You have heard
this before but how do you construct
the right verb
for such actions?) Before her eyes—

the phrase
a seed as hard as the point of a nail—
a cliché
that collapses night & day. A knife.

How construe a syntax broken like
these chairs
in the photograph & the bones burned
down into

a gray mud
seeded with broken teeth & impressed
by footprints
of vermin? Before her eyes.

So was she murdered—clubbed to her
knees & hacked
fell—legs arms forehead ears breasts

but came back to life.
Stands in the sweltering court to tell
what was done.
Left for dead, she says & goes on

in the absolute tense of silence
her story
a transcript without commas but with
a grammar

as rigorous as fire.
Some music is not divided into measures.
The bodies
of my children were piled on top of me.

Like the dog in Daumier’s grim painting
she has an interest
in the human world but is detached from it
seeing through

the gray gauze
of her grief, each word a bucket of water
she must haul
up from the well into daylight to drink.

I wasn’t there.
I have no direct knowledge, only this
I heard her say she crawled away

from her house
& lay still in the weeds surrounded by
the distinctive
odor of corpses baking in the sun.

the killers / your neighbors fanning out
through the village
& imagine the equatorial sunlight that

falls straight down
so no blade of grass casts a shadow.
The dog
her children had cared for came to her

in the field
where she lay & licked the maggots from
her wounds
saving her from the death intended for her.

The dog drawn by its own need returned
to the woman
with hands too broken to dig
for the potatoes

where she lay in the field & who dug
with her teeth
until the dog came & pawed the dirt
so she could eat.

This is the man
she says looking at the figure in blue shirt
& shorts.
He appears very far away, a vanishing

at the far end of an unpopulated vista.
He stands in the universal posture
of prisoners

a man without a story because he was so
easily buggered
by the gaudy stories of others.
A man whose silence is different from

the silence
of the murdered & different from that of
the dogs
who have fallen silent all through that country.

[c. 2001 the Ohio State University Press & Joseph Duemer. May not be reproduced without this copyright notice.]

Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:51 PM.

Ape Lady, not in retirement: She welcomes the orphan chimps of Zambia. I was struck by the non-scientific naturalness of Sheila Siddle's approach to conservation. Not un-scientific. Motivated by human love & apparently without any expectation that the animals will or should lover her in return. [ from Anthropology in the News]

Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:28 AM.

Thursday, May 16, 2002
Restraint: I dreamed about my grandfather's old single shot Remington 22 rifle this morning, then woke to the woodpecker banging away on the shed roof. I wish I had that rifle--learned to shoot it when I was six--but I'd never use it on the bird. Jimmy Carter was wrong, at least about this: thinking / dreaming about something is not the same as doing it. Different ontologies. Is this an irreducible dualism? (Seems that now that I've declared war on dualism I keep finding irreducible dualisms.)
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 2:16 PM.

Good thing: The Dialogue Project Dialogues, which have two sides, work against binary constructions: linkages, crossings-over, occur in dialogues. And I'm not using the word metaphorically here.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 2:13 PM.

Wednesday, May 15, 2002
I wanted to look at literary apes because I've been thinking / reading my way into animal communication & inter-species communication. Chris Robinson gave me Vernor Vinge's new collected short stories in a splendid hardcover edition as a token of my recent promotion & the first story in the book--the first one V.V. ever published, when he was in high school!--features a very smart chimp. That story, "Bookworm, Run!" is philosophically, if not technologically, dated: the chimp, Norman Simmons, has electrical implants that connect him to a supercomputer; processing speed & virtually infinite information equal intelligence in this story, though with the interesting twist that Norman has to learn how to handle the eidetic rush of information pouring through his mind. What I like about the story is the way Vinge so casually gets the reader to accept the consciousness of his protagonist. (Actually, the most interesting thing about the story is V.V.'s depiction of the Security Zone.) From Vinge, I went on to T. Coraghessan Boyle's story "The Ape Lady in Retirement." Boyle's acidic wit devises a cautionary tale about anthropomorphism. Based loosely on Diane Fosse & Jane Goodall, Boyle's fiction demolishes the sentimental idea that chimpanzees & humans, despite their shared genetic raw material can "communicate." The problem, as I see it, is deciding just what we wish to designate by the word communication. The woodpecker on the shed this morning was communicating with other woodpeckers, but what is my position in this act?

Derek Bickerton's Language and Species, published in 1990, has been sitting half-read on my shelf for a dozen years. I'm not a linguist & as I recall, I found the going too tough & put the book down. I have returned to it this week with new resolve. Bickerton begins by emphasizing human difference from other species: we are, he says, the only species to have mastered nature. In the second paragraph of his introduction, He writes: "Yet if you consider our respective natures, you would never expect the gap between us and the apes to be as vast as it is. We share with the chimpanzee perhaps as much as 99 percent of our genetic material, and our common ancestor may be as little as five million years behind us. Yet if apes look around them, what can they see that their own species has made? At most, the beds of broken boughs that they built last night, already abandoned, soon indistinguishable from the surrounding forest. The contrast is no less striking if we look at how much of the world each species controls. The chimpanzee has a few patches of jungle, while we have the whole globe, from poles to equator, and are already dreaming of new worlds. Most species are locked into their own niches, ringed by unbreachable barriers of climate, vegetation, terrain. We alone seem magically exempt from such bounds." Now, before leaping to condemn Bickerton as a speciesist advocate of the command in Genesis to "go forth & subdue the earth," we must grant him his scientific stance. "We alone seem magically exempt . . ." We are dealing with a careful writer. Bickerton, like Boyle & unlike Vinge, wants us to contemplate the distance between ourselves & even our closest biological relatives.

The paradox, then, is that we are distant from our fellow-species on the earth. Because of language? (Certainly we grant consciousness to other species, some at any rate.) But we are also close: Our new dog Angel, a five-year-old Chocolate Lab / hound cross provides an example. Indoors he is shy & submissive, outdoors he is utterly himself. And being utterly himself, he wants nothing more than to please me. He will run off after a chipmunk or rabbit, but when I whistle he comes sprinting back. We've only had him with us a few weeks & while I don't want to cast aspersions on his previous family, this is a dog who has been hit: the other night I was sitting in my study chair reading, Angel at my feet. I reached up absently to scratch my ear & the dog, catching my gesture in his peripheral vision, started & cringed. "I will never hit you," I said. Call my raising my hand an unintended act of communication, a mistake, noise; but then I got down on the floor with the dog & wrapped him in my arms, stroking his head & ears. After a few minutes, he heaved a deep, full-body sigh. He had understood the sentence I had uttered earlier: I will never hit you. (You see, I am eager to please him, too.) How do I know he understood the sentence? Because I have heaved that exact same sigh, with other humans, but also with at least two other dogs comforting me. There is a phenomenological aspect to interspecies "communication" that cannot be ignored.

But do we have to draw a distinction between what we might call emotional communication & symbolic communication? Vicki Hearne, in her collection of essays, Animal Happiness, suggests that dogs have the ability to create symbols. I take this particularly seriously because Hearne is a dog trainer who absolutely refuses to sentimentalize her subjects. In the penultimate essay in this volume, though, titled "Why Dogs Bark at Mailmen: A Theory of Language," she suggests that her Airedale Drummer is capable of spontaneous symbolic action. (I suppose with that last phrase I am going to have to bring Kenneth Burke into this ramble, but not tonight.)
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 3:28 PM.

Damn woodpecker: Woke me up at 5:30 this morning, half an hour before we set Morning Edition to come on. I like that last half hour of sleep, good dreams then. A little extra coffee when I get to the office, though now that the students have cleared out I have to walk alll the way across campus to get a decent brew. Sorry, ladies, but the stuff the secretaries make in the department office is undrinkable. I lived for all those years in Seattle & became a terrible coffee snob. Okay, I'm off to google the phrase literary apes. More anon.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:48 AM.

Saturday, May 11, 2002
Within species: A male Hairy Woodpecker has staked out our yard as his territory this spring & has discovered that he can amplify his territorial hammering by hitting his beak against the edge of the shed's tin roof. Just this morning I realized that there is another one up the road who bangs on the transformer housing hanging on a power pole. Before human metalworkers came along, these guys would have had to be content with hollow trees; clearly, though, they look for structures that will amplify the sound they make. And at this time of year they spend a lot of time just making noise.

Last week a deer carcass washed up on the rover rocks near the trail where we walk the dogs--probably fell through the ice last winter--& within a day the vultures were at it; by yesterday it was mostly bones & a few scraps of fur; our friend Angie, who's a biologist, took the skull for further cleaning. (She'll use it in labs with her students.) The vultures are wonderful flyers, gliding & swooping & able to gain altitude without visible effort. And efficient.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:35 AM.

Friday, May 10, 2002
Restraint: Restraining oneself has a bad rap in the current cultural milieu, but it is the basis of morality, I think. Not to mention survival. My old pal Stan Hodson remarked years ago that the act of stopping was as profound as the act of starting. "Our hope as a species relies on restraint. We expect that those with ultimate destructive ability will refrain from using those skills, and yet we also trust that these same megaliths will refrain from creating enforced belief systems. This is a memetic aberration that we ignore at direst peril." [abuddhas memes]
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:58 PM.

Thursday, May 09, 2002
Across species: When I left for work this morning, Carole told me later, Angel whined at the door for a few minutes. For the last several days, now that the semester is over, I've been taking him with me when I go to the office / run errands & the bond that we felt for each other from the first hour we met has been getting stronger. But today I had to be in meetings most of the day & it just wasn't practical to bring him along; also, we want him to get used to staying home sometimes since in the fall he will have at least a few days each week when he can't ride shotgun with me. So what is the bond about? I can talk about it from my side: beautiful dog physically, sweet temperament, seems to anticipate what one wants him to do, emotionally demonstrative. But what is he getting? I hope he senses me as reliable & not manipulative. What I conclude from this is that inter-species communication has as a fundamental component an ethical understanding between two beings. Surely this must be the same for two beings of the same species.

It seems to me that the basic fact about human language is that it facilitates a number of different cultural & biological phenomena. This makes sense in terms of what we understand about the origins of language: that its emergence conferred certain selective advantages while at the same time demanding certain social obligations in order to maintain the structure of understanding; and this dynamic itself then seems to have propelled biological evolution along a certain vector.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:55 PM.

AKMA's Random Thoughts "Non-binary again: we can say (and hear) critical things about the church without saying, "The church is a dopey idea; I could dream up a better way of respecting The Sacred in a half hour or so," and we can say that our teachers among the saints formulated their doctrines, even their authoritatively binding doctrines, in ways that we need to restate in order to preserve the insights toward which our teachers were striving." [link]

Well, I ran screaming from the organized religion of my youth--a particularly shallow sort of fundamentalist Christian evangelical messianism--but I have had, late in my fourth decade & now into my fifth, an astonishing gift given to me: I learned to recognize the sacred, for which I had always, I think, had a "feel," on the streets & in the temples of Hanoi, Vietnam. I have no desire to return to church of any sort, but I have a continuing desire to return to Hanoi & worship the sacred there by walking. I take this seriously enough that I have gotten beyond the beginnings of learning Vietnamese, though I am far from fluent. Making the commitment of language.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:39 AM.

Wednesday, May 08, 2002
Animals: Snapping Turtles communicate with their jaws. This is no pretty little painted pond turtle, the snapper. I was driving to the transfer station today when I spotted something moving in the road ahead. Turned out to be a turtle. We have lots of cute little plant-eating turtles in these parts & I've rescued several of these from the road, which is what I thought I was doing this afternoon. I pulled the truck over, told Angel I would be right back, & went back to move the hapless reptile, who was not crossing the road, but going right down the middle. Turned out to be a big snapper maybe a foot across at the broadest part of its shell & it was clearly not accustomed to being told what to do. I tried shoving it from behind with the side of my foot, but it spun around & shot out its neck a good eight inches, hissing & lunging for my ankle. So I looked for a stick & found a fallen maple branch in the ditch, about two inches in diameter & three feet long. I used this to goad & flip the turtle toward safety. In the process it got its jaws on the stick & took a big triangular piece out of it--I could only think about what it would do to a hand. [NY State turtles] So, was this encounter an act of communication? I would argue that, yes, it was: cross-species communication, though, is an even more vexed problem than human communication, so I want to go very carefully here. Seems to me that the most common mistake in thinking about this is using language as a metaphor for communication. Humans use language for communication, but it is a mistake to believe that animals (which ones?) "have language." Dr. Dolittle embodies an age-old dream, but is not good science or philosophy. (What kind of doctor was he, anyway?)

And yet, acts of communication do happen across the barrier of species. Or something more than mere communication, which, when you think about it, can be accomplished with a maple branch. I communicated with my dog (& I have every reason to believe he understood me by saying, "I'll be right back.") I can think of two instances, though, in my own life when something more profound transpired: Twenty years ago I was walking with my dog Mingo along the dunes & mudflats of the San Diego River near where it opens into the Pacific. We came around a bend in the trail & there, quite close to us, maybe thirty feet away, was a great blue heron standing in tall grass. The dog & I both stopped in our tracks. The heron turned its head slowly & regarded us for a long time. I can't speak for Mingo, but something profound passed between that bird & me. More recently, about four years ago, my vet's wife called me up & asked, "You like terriers, don't you?" I said that I did. "There is a great little dog at the Potsdam shelter you should go take a look at," she said. The next day I went to the shelter & was introduced to a little stray who had been beaten up pretty badly by a larger dog. It was clear that she had been on her own for quite a while & had whelped a litter of pups (one of whom, at least, I found out later, survived & found a happy berth). Anyway, I took the little beast out for a walk & offered her a dog biscuit, but she didn't seem to know what it was. We tooled around the field behind the shelter for a while & then I had to take her back--the rules say the shelter has to wait a week to see if anyone claims a dog before they can arrange an adoption. As I was putting her back in her enclosure, she looked up at me & said--I heard the words perfectly in my mind--"My name is Penny." The minute she was eligible, I was down there to take her home.

If you look back through the last tow paragraphs, you might note that I have used the relative pronoun who when referring to animals. This runs counter to current English, even when referring to people: "He is the politician that ran on an environmental platform." My students routinely use that when referring to a person. What I have caught about my own practice is that I feel awkward using that even for a turtle & certainly for a dog. I tend to use who. I think what I am doing is recognizing that beings other than humans are persons. Well, all of this is preliminary to talking about animal communication. [To be continued]

Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:51 PM.

Tuesday, May 07, 2002
Himmer has also got me thinking about animal communication. For me, this is the ultimate subject--if understood, it might give us some clue what it means to be human.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:30 PM.

Steve Himmer has got me thinking about careers, mine & others'. I remember being surprised ten years ago visiting old college pals in Seattle, one said to me, "You always knew what you were going to be, a poet & a teacher. And that's what you are." It is unusual to know at 17 what you will do with your life, but I did know. I would say, though, that the way I looked at the world & what I knew about my own aptitudes suggested to me that if I was not going to be a preacher like my mother wanted, I was going to be a teacher. But even as an undergraduate, I would compose lectures about this or that poet or literary problem as I walked home from school. One of my high school teachers, meeting me in a bar during this undergrad period, told me--he'd had a couple--that he & his colleagues used to call me among themselves "The Great Explainer," that is, when they weren't calling me "Joe-the-rat-with-women."

And now I teach at a university filled with students who have the work ethic & have it bad. They are "career-oriented" & I sort of admire them, even while they frighten me. They seem so much more certain than I was--or is it fatalism? If I was certain I would be a poet & professor, it was because I could not imagine even being able to function in the world my parents came from; but my students can imagine many "career paths" & choose among them. No doubt they are more competent in more ways that I was or am--I've long had the sense that poets are actually less fluent with the language than ordinary folk, & so driven to make up for that lack of fluency by making poems, which, when they are good, are explanations of how things are. Anyway, I went ahead & majored in English & anthropology & then went on to get an MFA in poetry, of all things. A career counselor's worst nightmare. And when I got out of grad school I starved for a few months, then found a job as a journalist for a year & began applying for university teaching jobs. My first several jobs were part-time & barely paid the rent, but, man, I had a classroom full of students three days a week & I got to talk about books. Now I am a professor & have published books of my own work. I hope this does not come across as self-aggrandizing--my intention here is to register my own amazement.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:12 PM.

Friday, May 03, 2002
Dog story: Happy ending. I'm nuts about dogs. Now that spring has finally come to the north country, Carole & I will be transplanting one of the deciduous azaleas out front to Maude's grave near the river. I'm going to put some bulbs there in the fall, too. But there's other dog news: Angel. Angel is a five-year-old Chocolate Lab plus some kind of hound we think though there also seems to be bird dog in there somewhere who came to live with us when a colleague's three-year-old child developed skin allergies to him. Actually, our friend Angie--who attracts animals the way a black sweater attracts lint--had agreed to board him temporarily while the family tried to figure out what to do; when Angie & her husband Andy came over a couple of weeks ago for one of our blowout dinners, they brought their dog Max as usual, but also this nervous visitor. That meant five dogs in the house: our three, Max & Angel. This was new territory for Angel, who had never had much experience with other dogs; he was fine, but shy. At one point after dinner while everyone was sitting in the kitchen & the dogs were milling around, it occurred to me to go out to the living room & sit on the couch. Then I softly called Angel & he came out & lay down at my feet. It was love at first sight, really. About fifteen minutes later I asked Angie if the guy really needed a home & when she said yes I turned to Carole & asked, "What do you think?" She could tell I was smitten & didn't object even though she'd like to get another little terrier like Penny. Angel is an amazingly athletic dog who can jump our ten-foot creek in a single easy leap with only a little running start--Carole says he has thighs like Eric Heiden. Comes when you whistle, sits beside me in the truck. We hadn't thought we would get another dog for a while, but Angel had other ideas. Because his whiskers curl forward & because he loves to roust the rabbits in the woods, his nickname is Catfish Hunter.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:19 PM.

Wednesday, May 01, 2002
The loss of my Modernist virginity: It would have been 1969, sitting in Larry Frank's course on the Romantic poets at the University of Washington. We were talking about a little poem of Wordsworth's that had a butterfly landing on a flower. Was it sexual? Would Wordsworth have thought it so? It occurred to me quite suddenly that it didn't matter what Wordsworth thought--the poem was mine to play with. Of course, as with the loss of virginity generally, one seldom recognizes the importance of the act until much later. [Reading page 19 (final full paragraph) of AKMA's little book.] Henceforth, it shall be referred to as "the little book." At the same time, I recall a lecture by Umberto Eco that I heard in Chicago in 1985: he noted that every text has an "encyclopedia" that consists of all the other texts (broadly defined) to which the "author" had access as the text came into being. For Eco, this encyclopedia placed a limit on the range of interpretive play a reader could legitimately engage in. Stanley Fish, who was in the audience, stood up during the Q & A to give a counter-lecture on this point. Fish argued, "It's all relative, man," though he put it more elegantly & at (much) greater length.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:23 PM.

Blogger seems to be having a problem with permalinks. 8:30 EST: Permalinks seem to be fixed now. Bless you, Ev. Well, except for April. No archives yet for April, but it would be ungracious to revoke a blessing for the absence of a single month.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 3:13 PM.