December 9, 2017

with my



Blow out


December 1, 2017

Within my present
joy, my past joy,


November 22. 2017

Bear amid the birches,
hunched, shambling,
radiant black.


November 12, 2017

He wakes us in the 4:00 a.m. quiet, sits us down in our moonlit kitchen and, placing a cup of steaming water in front of us, to which he adds a single basil leaf, he talks to us of impossible beauty.


October 13, 2017

The floor beneath Thomas Jefferson’s feet bucks and sidles, and the heads of the seated passengers rock all in one motion. From the set of her shoulders and the grace with which she rides the heaving floor, he can see that Sally Hemings is more confident now, and more capable. “She has come into her own,” he thinks, and that fills him with a warm appreciation and a sorrow that he has missed so much of her life.


October 4, 2017

does it mean then, if, in our
separate cities, we walk
the same forest, night now, dark
with a dark that is like a blotting
out, yet still loud with leaf rustle,
owl cry, the whispery clicks
of lake water lapping rocks?
What does it mean if, nightly,
we follow the same glimpsed
bright gleams between the same
black trunks down to that edge
where air and water open out?
What if we are each again
on our slanting rock, looking
across that same expanse
of black—ever shifting, slippery
with light—at that same
cratered sphere, impossibly
clear and white?



Whispering collisions
of falling



Then the past commenced
its explosive renaissance.
No matter what you intended,
imminent was the only word.
That rumble beyond the horizon,
that copper beam shooting
under black clouds, laminating
the western walls with radiant
otherness—nothing was so real.
And so we celebrated the eternal
now with our kitchen radio
dances, our drunken embraces.
I touched you in that tiny spot
and unconsciousness rippled
across your forehead. Children
remained our bright angels
of insubordination, but
consequence inevitably followed



In this good country again,
eight years on:
blue sky, lake, warm breezes,
the pain is gone,
but the emptiness



Day after day the rain made a soft patter on their thatched roof. Day after day the green outside their windows grew greener, and there was a sweetness in the air from the carpet of fallen pine needles, but also something stronger: something halfway between the smells of peat moss and crumbled mushrooms. The rain never changed.

The idea was that they would read many books. The idea was that they would hike from lunch until dinnertime, and come home just as the ball of the sun touched the hilltop, and that they would share a bottle of wine in the garden while the sky filled with rose and gold. The idea was that they would make love, sometimes tenderly, sometimes wildly, and wake up with smiles on their faces, but maybe just a bit embarrassed to meet each other's gazes. But none of this happened. None of it turned out to be possible.



The dreams of the joyous man
always end
with a waking, variously sad,

the heart indifferent
to the possible.



For a while she runs after her shadow, which grows longer and longer as she gets farther from the porch light. But as the road grows darker, her shadow becomes ever harder to see, until finally she can’t see anything at all, and she is just a body moving in blackness, accompanied by the gentle ringing of crickets and peepers, the sound of air flowing past her ears, and of her own breaths, her heart and her running feet.



Another kind of emptiness is the gap between desire and object. Gina saw this emptiness as proof that we have no place on this earth. Desire assumes that its object is on the other side of the gap, whereas there is no other side. The object itself may exist, but the journey to the object does not, because the journey is endless, because nothing ever changes, because emptiness is where we start and where we end.



Our laughter makes
a sort of music, and we
are all drunk, dancing,
trading bright glances
and lingering embraces
—our love promiscuous,
both innocent and not.
Eventually our footsteps
echo along empty streets,
and in the morning
we wake to find ourselves
in our phones: cheeks
shining, eyebeams
askew, our lips warped
by unremembered jokes.



Black bird in black
night, sleepless,



Along this road:
so many abandoned

And further on:
the road
bearing your name.

Time no longer

a warehouse

with useless



The crowd disperses and the sky between the rooftops goes sodium-purple, cadmium-blue, then gray, then powder pink, and we make our way

across the deserted avenues and through the condom-strewn wilderness to a mud and blood

colored current, the Rio del Plata. And the air is filled with the dartings of strange birds, and their unfamiliar songs.

Except that they are not unfamiliar, because we are natives of this city—right?
And the songs evoke the mornings of our childhoods.

That’s true—isn’t it? I can’t believe that after thirty years I am still trying to figure this all out.



“I wanted ours to be a perfect union,” he tells us at the table in the back, candle out. “I wanted every desire to be balanced, exactly, by generosity. And stasis to be a form of flight. But I was yammering

in my sleep. I was driving with my headlights dark. And every word I told my love was a lie. So here I am, waist-deep

in cindered beliefs, and I can’t stop lighting them. And I can’t make this yearning leave. This yearning: my damnation. This yearning: my teaming city.

And I can’t stop my hope. I look at you and I am filled with hope, and I am filled yearning, and I am hollowed out entirely, and I cannot stop. I cannot stop. I cannot stop.”



It turns out we are not the lampshade, but the velvet night, not the rounded stone, but the water rushing

overhead in loud and silvery hallucination. We are ball lightening in a forest filled with blackbirds.

How could so much possibility be squandered on us? How could you have taken off your dress

and never noticed? And your flesh be such perfect iron and leather, and mine ivory? We do this all the time.

They call us liars, yet we are slick with purity. It is falling from the sky.



We hurry to the charred field,
and let loose our silver balloons,
only to come home and find
that mice have colonized
the library, that squirrels rule
the world between the rafters,
and spiders fog the corners
with complicated thought.



In fact, we have no choice but to live this unending surprise of who we are, and to suffer the joys of our relentless need to be.



...It was as if they had never
gone anywhere at all, as if
the fragrant jungle through
which they walked were being
dismantled, inconsistency
by inconsistency, until finally
they found themselves
sitting on wooden chairs,
beneath a buzzing fluorescent
light in that small, white,
windowless room they had
always known as the truth.



Oh wild room of my harping
insignificance, let me avian
this orifice one dance before
the factoid billows the info-
mercial at sun and star.

That just wish, that
evaporation of addiction
all-sundered and under-
numbed by pin moss,
give me yet
your dear love.



I stand
on melting
ice, ringed
by endless




Unrelenting: Bone.

Dark heart

Left by
the horizon: my small

Mute, mute, mute

Fire above the fire:
the broken

We are two.
I, alone,
am one.

Never again. Never.

The slap
and the silence

I remember: white
upon white.



Closed in: the lid

Once and

No. No. No.
I am not.




First blue, then rose,
dawn erases the street-
light’s changeless

orange, adds a set
of footsteps, a solitary
motor, an infant’s

emphatic syllable
to the city’s
unending roar.




later, near those
mountains and far
from home, I came

upon that church,
and found your name
in the guest book.

I was entirely
alone in that small
stone room.

I imagined you,
also alone, looking out
the windows

at the yellowing
grass, the road, that huge
sky. Once I asked you

what matters most
in your work.
It must be honest, you said.

Honest how? I asked.
Honest, you said.
Just honest.

--From "Time to Think"



May becomes June. Moths blizzard the porch light. Crickets jingle in the darkness amid a sparse galaxy of street and window lights. The hum of the world is sometimes intensified by the long, sad moan of a distant train, or the crunching whisper of rubber against asphalt as a car rumbles behind two advancing cones of illuminated roadway.



The hardest part of the dance is figuring out how much is art and how much life. Your ankle and foot doing that chop, chop, chop

between my knees. My thigh between your thighs. Okay: Here comes the passion part!

You are bent so far back you are practically lying on the cobblestones, and my face is so close to yours I can smell

the sweat on your upper lip. The crowds in San Telmo love this. Their silver overflows.



Have I seen you before?
Are you the woman whose
glance I caught last night
in that wanton moment
after the cheers when all
the glasses were refilled?



Have these wild beauties
come again
to my rescue?



Loose webs of fluid light
racing over coral convolutions.



Planes angle
off runways

beyond eight
lanes of traffic

and fling their
gigantic noise

against the hotel’s
glass flanks.



Gratitude. Always.



Those giant
suits into which
we insert our tiny
limbs, then totter
blank-faced into
our commercial



The sky is wild with snorts, the earth fragmenting with hoof falls. All the papers exclaim, in London

tube light, by lantern in Mumbai: The ringed noses are running again, their horn points blood-bright,

their wooly bellows billowing down our streets,
their red flags on our hillsides. We’ve reached another end, the papers claim.

The dolts are back at our tables, devouring our joints, fingering our entrails, taking their pleasures in our beds.

Every breast has been invaded, every eyeball cracked, every truth revealed as irony. “You thought you knew joy,”

they mutter inside our heads. “Now we will give you joy.”



Alone in the kitchen
my phone,

pigeon couple
on the window ledge,

bright dawn.



We have failed so many times, but we are back
in the ditch, with our picks and our generous expectations.

All of us: mud from eyeball
to hallucination. That’s just how we were born. You know that business

with the gold watch, the cake and candles, that ongoing collaborative delusion? We fall for it constantly, every one of us

convinced he can build a better life out of what spills off a truck: Bang, bang!
Pass me the pliers, you idiot!

We’re magicians
with smothered doves in our hats, monkey Rembrandts with fists

crammed in paint cans, beneficiaries of failure’s only grace: the ubiquitous proximity

of zero. You lose everything?
Big deal! It was all messed up anyway, and you can always

try again—which is the wafer of eternity that keeps us wanting, and that star there, that pink winker in the quitting-time sky.



I have no words of my own today, only these from Auden's beautiful, "September 1, 1939":

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.



Biking along the Hudson
this too hot November
afternoon, the low
sun browned by leaf
dust, time visibly
passing, yet every
instant endless.



So now I have my first
argument with hope.
It’s about money, of course,

though not in the sense
of vampire
parasitism, more like

the doorbell chimes
and nothing’s
on the stoop

but this person-
shaped hole in the middle
of everything,

by which I mean
no payoff, I’m suckered
again—and by

no one
but myself, for what
am I apart

from hope? A filament
of appetite, sorrow
and fear.



Here I am again, glassed,
gleaming amid vegetal
prolixity, a parallel
unity, a way of being
free in a way of being
indifferent. See me
here, this reflective
camber amidst blue
and green, this stillness
again, this warp of sky
and forest, untouched,
untouchable. Alight. Afloat.



The trees became the ragged
black frame of the sky—
and the sky so star-filled,
like daylight shattered
into brilliant motes.



These last
summer days
of autumn, I walk
in flip-flops under
yellowing trees,
that old yearning
that ache of joy
against sorrow,
that vision of
a better life—all
of life I have ever

Desire itself
is life, infusing
these mere facts
of sunlight, yellow
leaf and restless
air with beauty,
and this shambling
between all
I’ve lost and all
I can never have
with clarity
and grace.



Last night I dreamed
we actually were

at that prairie

Morning sun
on the breakfast table.

The two of us
just talking.




A cry
the night.


The dark
with teeth.

Fear and



From "Himalayan Diary"


I like the term “lose your soul” for the way it implies that one’s most essential being is both precious and something you yourself can destroy.

Of course, the truth is that, short of death, one can never “lose” one’s being but one can change it into something less or more precious.

My being—essential or otherwise—seems especially precious to me this clear, cold morning at this camp in the Himalayas near the borders of Kashmir and Tibet, after a day during which I believed myself close to death many, many times.

Eight hours driving along the edges of precipices with nothing but cement blocks, rusting oil drums or, often, only the crumbling edge of a one-and-a-half lane two-way road to preserve us from plummeting a thousand feet into a rushing river.

Down the gravel slopes I could see cars so devastated by their falls that they looked like shredded tin foil, and in one village I saw a van that had been transformed into a crater of metal junk by a falling boulder.

We often had to drive around boulders, some the size of armchairs, others as big as houses.

Yet Indian families traveled these roads as happily as American families might trundle off to Cape Cod.

I am prepared to admit that I am neurotic.

But still I was abjectly terrified for hours on end.

And so, at this moment, my life now and all the thoroughly ordinary things I have to look forward to seem a sort of blessing.

But is my “soul” this life of “ordinary things” that now seems so precious?

In the Christian tradition the most essential part of one’s life is almost always understood to be one’s moral being, or virtue.

Too lose one’s soul is to cease to be virtuous, profoundly, within the depths of one’s being.

What actually is precious about the soul-as-moral-being?

Or what exactly is it about leading a life in accordance with one’s morality that might be described as precious?


The sense that what you are inside is the same as what you are outside, that you actually are the being you wish to represent yourself as to the world.

There have been periods of my life when I have felt, despite all my limits, confusions and weaknesses, that I am, morally speaking, more or less the person I want to be.

And there were still other times when I wanted to be a person who did things I could not justify morally.

And I became that person.

Or I became divided into two people: who I seemed to be and who I actually was.

Mostly I am thinking of one particular time, during which I felt a great deal of pain, and caused a great deal of pain, and yet never felt more completely alive.

There is a joy that comes from being in harmony with one’s own beliefs, and a joy that comes from abandoning that harmony.

Though there are limits to how much disharmony—or discord—one can experience and still feel one is living a life one wants to recognize as one’s own.

A limit to the intersection of discord and joy.

Maybe what I’m talking about is the kind of joy one feels when a jazz soloist departs from the melody, or even from the idea of music as we generally understand it.

A joyful crossing over into chaos and noise.

The joy of human freedom.

Which may be the same thing as the joy of doing what is forbidden.

All my life, my first response on being forbidden to do something has been a fierce ache to do that very thing, and my first impulse on being required to do something has been a fierce desire to do the opposite.

Our spirits rise as a jazz musician goes into a solo, but at the same time we are always waiting for the solo to end.

For our return to the comfort of the melody, or for the quiet joy of the melody’s simply being there to return to.

Continuity. Reliability. Refuge. The known world.

Even as our transgressions feel as if they are life itself, we are always longing for a return to that harmony of one’s life (or soul) and one’s belief about what one’s life is or ought to be.

And sometimes our return to that harmony brings us more joy than our discordant sojourn did, but not always.

It is a mistake to think we have a single, internally (and eternally) harmonious self, just as it is a mistake to think there is harmony between all good things.

There have been times when the very traits I had once thought virtues came to seem weaknesses.

The virtue of loyalty, for example. Or tolerance. Or the capacity to love.

Sometimes there can be no return to harmony.

The improvisation is almost always smarter, more thrilling and less sentimental than the melody it is based upon.

And so sometimes the joy we feel is not merely at the exercise of freedom, but at the discovery of a better self.

Or a self that possesses virtues different from those of that self we have grown used to thinking of as our own, that self we present to the world, or that we—or the world—designate as “real.”

And so sometimes the desire to reestablish the harmony between the self one actually lives and the self one wants to present to the world yields far more pain than joy.

Pain that can last a lifetime.

Sometimes simplicity is precious and sometimes it is a lie.

Sometimes the life in harmony with what we believe is a betrayal of who we are.

Maybe what is most precious is simply the fact that I am breathing this clear, cold air, that I am in this valley beside this loud, racing, silt-paled river, watching bronze sunbeams tip over jagged, snow-laced peaks to light the mountainside just in front of me, and that this is all so extraordinarily vivid, vital and beautiful.

Maybe my simple being is the primary good and precious thing.

Maybe my moral being is only precious insofar as it enables me to be more completely in this world as it actually is.

Certainly one’s morality ought to be consistent with the world as it actually is—or the human part of the world, since morality concerns only the effects we have upon each other.

So does this mean that my soul—my “most essential being”—is actually the part of me that breathes, sees, hears, feels, loves, loathes, thinks, wants, fears and hopes?

Is that a “part” of me, or “the whole”?

But still, there is something precious about being in harmony with the people in one’s life—though such harmony is not necessarily the same as living in harmony with one’s morals.

How often in human history have people avoided recognizing an evil in their midst so that they might live in harmony with their neighbors?

Discord: Middle English: from Old French descord (noun), descorder (verb), from Latin discordare, from discors ‘discordant,’ from dis- (expressing negation, reversal) + cor, cord- ‘heart.’

Third Posting in My Much Neglected Blog

February 6, 2013

Tags: Writing, unconscious, Ziggurat, Hemings, Jefferson

I delivered the following talk about the role of the unconscious in my writing at Johns Hopkins on February 4, 2013. I began my presentation by reading parts of two works of fiction. The first was “Ziggurat,” a version of which was published in the New Yorker in 2009. Here is a link:
The second was an unpublished excerpt from my novel-in-progress, HUMAN EVENTS. Here is the first paragraph:

“A drizzle grays the air when Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings visit the Museum of Miscegenation. They approach the columned and domed marble edifice (which Thomas Jefferson cannot help but notice is in the Palladian style) along an avenue of plane trees, all-but-invisible droplets drifting between bare branches tipped with the tiny lettuces of just-bursting buds. The drizzle coats the square cobbles like breath upon a mirror, and Sally Hemings, wearing leather-soled shoes, finds the footing so slippery she has to cling to Thomas Jefferson’s arm until they are inside the museum.”



I am going to talk about the role of the unconscious in my writing, and in my writing career. But I should probably start by telling you two things.

The first is that I am the son of a psychoanalyst. People have often asked me if my father psychoanalyzed me when I was a kid—a possibility that would have horrified him, I suspect, as much as it does me. While I never lay on a couch and told my father my troubles, I did grow up in a house where it was a truism that people rarely said or did what they thought they were saying or doing, and that my real self—especially in regard to my fears and desires—was and would always be something of a mystery to me. I grew up thinking less that I was the captain of my self than a passenger, or even a stowaway. (more…)

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Selected Works

Conjunctions: 60, 2013; Best American Short Stories 2014
Conjunctions 55, 2010
From Various Journals
Teachers & Writers Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 2000
Selection from ORPHAN TRAINS: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed