Dust and Madness

In time, we are an essence worn to dust,
A cloud that forms, and dissipates, in one;
Inchoate souls who settle, as we must,
Into a spot to stand, or track to run,

As thinking ourselves solid. yet we find
That something missing our true selves defines:
As phantoms in the desert, partly blind,
We edge along these ditches we call mines

For copper, gold, or silver – love or lust –
For fame or glory, comfort or repast;
We live on borrowed dreams and broken trust
Until the madness flees from us at last —

Yet, though this life be farce, insanity,
I’ll love the madness, if you’ll stay with me.

I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that writing is a form of madness. It can be very lucrative madness, if you are J.K. Rowling, but for most of the rest of us, it’s just madness.

Of course, much of what we do in life is kind of crazy. We chase ghosts and embrace phantoms; we ride memories like surfers while dreaming of futures made of glowing spun crystal.

Then we write about it.

Then other people read it, and, sometimes, the madness spreads. Little pockets of insanity, glowing in the ultraviolet, perhaps visible from space.

Or, maybe, like the photo above, we communicate more like shadowy figures moving about in the desert, making out at best each other’s outlines. After all, people are life’s great mystery.

Writers love mysteries, of course. Maybe that’s because the desire to write is so mysterious to us. All we really know is that we have it.

Writing is indeed madness, but madness has it’s advantages. In other areas of life, just making stuff up is generally considered bad. With writers, people marvel, and ask “where do your ideas come from?”

“Cleveland,” I always want to say. “An abandoned warehouse near Edgewater Pier.”

There aren’t a lot of advantages to being a professional writer, truth be told; expectations are high and pay is generally poor. However, given the relative amount of freedom most writers enjoy, there are possibly more advantages to being a writer than a teacher, and this country (the United States) has over 3 million teachers in public schools alone.

Which is madness, as well.

But those of us who love to write will continue to do so, because we have things we want to say, pictures to paint, worlds to create, minds to inspire.

So it’s a divine madness, at least.

Eagle and Phenix

history melts
beneath the heat
of moral

though we might be,
it seems past our

to understand,
to comprehend
the real within the
versions we

accept and eat
for breakfast as
the truth about
our history

The Eagle and Phenix Mill has predecessors going back prior to the Civil War; what’s left of it has been transformed, in the present day, into a series of high end condominiums and apartments. You can see for yourself, if you care to. There’s also a section on that website about the mill’s history.

I first saw the mill (and the city of Columbus, Georgia it sits in) back in the mid 1980’s when I went to see an Atlanta Hawks game with a friend of mine. He did not take the most direct route there and back from where we lived in northwest Florida, because that would have taken us through Auburn, Alabama, and he was a die-hard University of Alabama fan. So we went somewhat out of our way, through Columbus, GA, instead.

Just one of those weird memories.

I wasn’t to see the city again until I interviewed there almost 24 years ago for the company I work for to this day.

When I moved to Columbus in 1995, the mill lay empty; virtually all the mills did. Since then, a renaissance of sorts has happened downtown, with the restoration and renovation of the Eagle and Phenix as a part of it. I’ve known several people who lived there.

One of them was a former boss, who lived there while he was going through a divorce. He had found out that his wife had been having an affair for something like five years. He was a high-flying executive type whose job required frequent travel and their kids had reached the age where they didn’t need their stay-at-home-mom as much anymore. Both husband and wife were very young looking, attractive people.

Maybe you or I could have seen it coming, but he didn’t.

Prioritizing our identity versus our relationships is an issue everyone struggles with, because relationships involve sacrificing some of our own desires. In practice, it is either worth it, or it is not.

I’m not really in the judging business — I don’t look good in robes, for one thing — I’m more in the understanding business. And I do of course realize there are moral issues involved. But relationships are, as I’ve said elsewhere, voluntary: every single day, both people in a relationship choose whether or not to continue to have the relationship. And there isn’t one unless they both choose to have one. She made the choice she made. They are now divorced.

He kind of re-purposed himself, after his marriage ended, somewhat like the Eagle and Phenix building he lived in immediately after. Did some building, remodeled a few things. Found a new purpose, like another type of bird, rising from his own ashes.

Or like the old Eagle Mill did, after being burned to the ground.


A gallimaufry are my thoughts,
Chaotic, a melange —
A daily dose of junk consumed,
A type of mental paunch —

Of malady, and sassafras,
And creosotic sludge —
A gallimaufry are my thoughts,
But who am I to judge?

Sometimes I think of lines for poems that I can’t make work. Lines like:

responsibility sits
like bright colors on
the shoulders of
an eel

Which I may use yet. Or

She liked to kiss
The way that other people like
To spite

Which I may also find the right place for.

Oh, why not, let’s go for it now:

Sing me something with a scent:
Turgid and grandiloquent,
Bright and shiny, dull and gray,
Til the hours wile away —

Battle me and rattle me,
Make my dreams come true:
Just don’t ever go away,
That would never do.

Cacophany waits
Like shell trumpets
For those who hear,
But cannot feel.
And there, responsbility sits
Like bright colors
On the shoulders of
An eel.
Intensely purposeful and vague
Are things we need to handle,
But here beneath the ocean’s weight
You cannot light a candle.

I knew a girl who loved her rum,
She liked it chill and neat;
And she had a collection, but
It was not quite complete —

She took me once to add to it.
It was a off-beat night;
She liked to kiss
The way that other people like
To spite.

I spoke to her of ocean things,
And all my scented songs;
And then she threw me out the door
To right a thousand wrongs.

You wonder now, as well you might,
What all of this could mean —
It means that love is everything
And all else


Ok, so that’s done. But it makes me think of the subject of comic book art. So how about

That cover, with the trademark spotlight effect, contains the pencil work of Ernie Chan (credited sometimes as “Ernie Chua”) who was one of my favorites as a kid. Here are a few more of his:

Speaking of Batman, if Batman wrote poetry, I wonder what it would be like?

It would probably a lot like Rorschach’s journal. In fact, I think that was the idea of Rorschach’s journal. Eccch.

Comic book production is a technology I don’t really get. For years, it was the same with comic strips. Charles Schulz would draw something in his studio, and it would end up in a newspaper on our kitchen table, via some process.

Given what it took in those days just to copy a document — and if you’ve never had to use carbon paper in your life, count yourself blessed — I never was clear how drawn images got into newspapers. Or photographs, for that matter.

The good thing is, when you write about things you don’t understand, you never run out of things to write about.

Someone asked me, in response to a post the other day, if I’d really posted nearly 8,000 poems. Searching on the tag “poetry” it appears the correct number as of this writing is 7,782. As you can see, total posts are over 8,300, which include 426 that are just for me.

And I’m not even counting the 18 or so poems I’ve posted as a part of these Nano Poblano “Poetic Essays”, which you might not want to do either, after having read this essay.

But the word “essay” just means “attempt”, which I interpret to mean you don’t have to succeed to write an essay.

Which works out well.

a lost poem

in the keening wind, the palm tree blows,
but no one knows, for no one’s there —
with the coming chill of novembertime,
the truth is, i’m just half-aware

of the verse i lost, of the dream forgot,
of a vacant lot, and a vacant stare —
in the billowing wind, the palm stays tall,
but i don’t recall,
and i just

don’t care

I’m forever losing poems. You might think this odd coming from someone who has posted just under 8,000 of them in the last four years, but it is nonetheless true. I have poems worked out in my mind, but by the time I get to a keyboard, they are gone. Vanished.

Like many writers, I have concluded (naturally) that those would have been the best things I ever wrote, changing my life and that of my family, if only… if only… but, alas.

I figure I’m not really a writer if I can’t make my own life more dramatic than it really is.

Owen fidgeted at the lonely desk, watching a fly buzzing around the one bare light bulb above his head. Eyes aching from the whisky, he nonetheless poured the last of it into a glass and downed it in one. “If only I could remember,” he thought…

If only indeed, Owen. Or, you could just write another one. Which I typically do.

I’ve written elsewhere about why I write poetry; one additional reason I do it is that, paragraphs like the one above, where I can’t seem to remember whether I’m writing 2nd or 1st person, aren’t really a problem with poetry. I also can ignore things like keeping my tense consistent. Having to keep tense consistent makes me consistently tense.

Another group of poems that never get published comes under the category of “Dumb Ideas I Keep Coming Back To”. And no, I’m not going to tell you what any of them are, because they are truly dumb. The ideas these poems contain start out as insightful generalizations I think I’ve discovered, only to realize, upon reflection, they are (a) not insightful; and (b) untrue. In short, these ideas are dumb.

But I keep coming back to them. Another type of forgetting, I guess.

I know from back in my single days that you have to have a type of amnesia to continue to ask women to dance. You have to forget the number of women who’ve rejected you.

Which was fourteen, by the way. I haven’t forgotten that. I can probably tell you all of their names. I would write a poem about it, but I would no doubt forget it by the time I got to typing.

I never took rejection well, which is odd, because I got a lot of practice. I can almost always tell people who don’t have a lot of practice in this area. Even though they have heartaches and tragedies, like the rest of us, whatever self-doubt they have doesn’t involve a fundamental questioning of their own value. Which likely means, in scenarios of rejection, they were far more often the rejector rather than the rejectee.

Speaking of types of amnesia, my experience of people who do a lot of rejecting in the dating world is that they don’t remember it. This is largely because they felt the people they rejected weren’t worth remembering.

Which the rejectees know.

Romantic heartbreak, though, is just another forgotten poem; that thing that could have made us great and happy and well-known, but is just a type of fiction. Because everything not-done has no real being, at least, not in history.

But it’s all fair game in writing.


It’s strange how the appearance of things changes as times change. Not the actual appearance, although that may change, as well: the aspect of things, depending on our moods and situations.

We all experience this when a place is new versus when it is familiar. What looks strange or even ominous may become commonplace and friendly, once known. Many people have the experience of noticing how different the same things look depending on the weather. A street may look dirty and depressing on a muddy, rainy day that seems clean and cheerful on a bright, sunny one.

When I first came to Green Valley, Arizona in 2001, I was a newlywed, and my wife and I were carrying with us our three youngest children. We stayed for the week of Spring Break. For my two daughters who came, that trip was their favorite vacation they took as kids. We swam, played games in the pool, stayed up late, visited the Desert Museum, went and saw a copper mine. We also went to a place called the “Gaslight Theater”, which was brilliant and funny.

A view of the Santa Rita Mountains.

The town was brand new to me: my parents had been here something like 2 1/2 years at that time. The Santa Rita mountains lay on one side and mine tailings (that I mistook for hills, because they’re huge and stretch for miles) lay on the other. There was desert all around, but plenty of trees in the city, including the line of pecan trees around the river bed for which the place was named. The topography was like nothing I had ever seen.

Yes, those are mine tailings.

The next time I came back, it was just my son and me; my parents had come east to Georgia to visit us in the meantime. We went up into the mountains, saw a classical music concert, attended church, revisited the Gaslight Theater for a new show. It unseasonably rained the week we were there; my son and I played video games in the hotel, and made up words to the background music that we both still remember.

My parents came to visit us the next year, but my father wasn’t driving this time, for the first time in their lives.

The next year he died.

I returned alone for the funeral, meeting my brother and sister there, and the place had taken on a different aspect. I was glad I had two marvelous trips there to get to know the place. It was January, wintertime, and the place seemed so different than it had in the spring and fall. Still, to me, it was a place, a land, a topography that my father loved, and that’s how it looked. That’s what I noticed. I also thought a lot about the places he had been proudest to show us.

A year later, my mom told us she was selling their house, and moving into a retirement community called La Posada. It was a wonderful place, she said. When I came to visit her, first by myself, then again with my son, I had to agree.

It was, and is, a wonderful place.

When my mother first moved in, she was seventy-four, but she looked more like fifty-four. “You’re too young for this place,” she heard. A lot.

The place was beautiful, and sunny, and she had a wonderful apartment, large bedroom, living, room, her piano, room for books. It was on the second floor of an apartment building called “La Vista”. The dining room was full of friends. She was always on the go. Exercising, going places, doing things. She took us to a place where she and about thirty other women from her church made stuffed animals to give to underprivileged kids for Christmas. She tutored new Americans in English for free at a Community Center.

As I walked around the extensive grounds of La Posada, the place seemed marvelous, a community of people who hadn’t stopped living just because they’d gotten older. My mom had friends at church, and friends in town, and the place seemed full of possibilities.

I went to see her about every other year for awhile, she still took trips back to see us the other years, although, one ill-fated trip, she ended up in the hospital, and she never ventured east again.

For her eightieth birthday, my whole family came out to see her, along with one of my few remaining aunts. We made one last trip into Tucson to see some museums and go once more to the Gaslight Theater, which, my daughters were glad to see, was as funny as they remembered, and not just something little kids would like.

By that time, she was slowing down considerably, but still going.

Eventually, I would go once per year to see her, different times of year. The town was still beautiful, and had become very familiar to me. But certain aspects of it had changed. Her best friend in town moved to a facility in Tucson and they lost track of each other. I noticed that the people we would eat with when we ate at the dining facility kept changing. My mom also volunteered at the Memory Care center, and took me to visit a friend who was in the Assisted Living Facility. She also showed me the Nursing Home.

“Once people come here, they never come out again,” she told me.

Soon, her health problems had magnified. She had a heart condition for years; now she was diagnosed, more-or-less simultaneously, with Parkinson’s disease and diabetes. She had given up driving, which was one of the hardest things she’d ever done. Driving meant freedom. Even though the facility offered free rides to wherever, it just wasn’t the same. My trips out there usually had a large element of taking her to do various errands.

She let us know she had decided to move into the Assisted Living Facility around 2 1/2 years ago, because, she said, she “couldn’t keep up with her medicine”. My sister helped her move, I came a few weeks later, and noticed the much smaller room she now occupied. She was walking with a cane.

By the next time I saw her, she used a walker, which she was using earlier this year (April) when I came to visit.

She briefly made use of a wheelchair since then. Now she is bedridden, and cannot move unless someone moves her.

When I drove into town a little over a week ago, it was midnight, so I noticed little. But in the ensuing days, I realized: this place looks totally different to me now.

I don’t look at the mountains, so beloved by my father.

I don’t notice the mine tailings, so hard to believe unless you see them.

I don’t really register the friendly architecture, or the sunny patches where people play golf.

The life we see in a place
Is the life
We give a place

A land, once soul-filling, lies
Not empty, but
Emptied of meaning

Painted over with
The realization that

There are two kinds of people:

Those who know family is important, and

Those who know family is important too late

– November, 2018

winter wind

a swirling
bellowing flower

The year after I turned twenty, the university I attended put on a Shakespeare festival. Sitting in the audience was one of the formative artistic experiences of my life.

Sadly, these performances have disappeared from the university’s meticulously kept theatrical archives, possibly because they did The Taming of the Shrew as one of three plays, and are now ashamed to admit it. However, I really don’t know why. Their records go back decades before that; and that year looks suspiciously thin on listed performances.

Great theatrical performances change us in ways no other art form can. It’s similar to movies, but more intimate and tangible. Elements of virtually all of the other arts are present, as well.

Measure For Measure was one of the plays I saw as part of that festival, and its exploration of sexual harassment and double standards for people in power made a tremendous impression on me. Because it has a happy ending, it is classified as one of Shakespeare’s comedies; few of his tragedies, however, are more disturbing.

The main thing I noticed about The Taming Of The Shrew was how well the joking innuendo came across almost 500 years after being written. I didn’t take the plot terribly seriously, as this play is truly a comedy, in the modern sense.

As You Like It was magical in every way. The performance I saw combined music, dance, scenery, and costumes in a brilliant manner. That play has a lot of famous dialogue, which, placed in context, increased exponentially in meaning for me. When I heard a setting of Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind sung by my youngest daughter’s high school chorus, I was taken back in memory to seeing this play in college.

For those of you involved in producing art, of whatever kind: you never know how it will effect people, or for how long. When the winter wind of life blows, it is a very good thing to have the experience of great art to warm you.


a prairie ghost
that blows unseen,
a soul set free
but in-between,

a spirit on
the clouds that pass,
a shudder in
the rippled


A large part of romance is mystery. Who is this person? Where did they come from? What will they say or do next?

The same is true of the romance of traveling. What’s around this corner? Who lives there? What’s on the other side of those mountains?

I have been fortunate to travel all over the United States, and the variety of terrains is mind-boggling. Some of the individual locations are indescribably spectacular. Westerns, as a movie genre, derived much of whatever grandeur they had showing the rest of the world places like Monument Valley, Arizona.

A lot of westerns also use prairie scenery, notable for filling up the widest screens. To many people, prairie land is dull; to me, it’s full of mystery. It also has a timeless quality. In every direction one sees possibilities worth exploring.

The desire to explore is one of the handful we are born with. You are never really old so long as you still want to explore. It’s one of the things young adults do way better than older ones: get in a car and go, look for out of the way places, forget about the GPS for a bit and see what’s out there. Enjoy the mystery of discovery.

People who love to travel to see terrain are often faced with an attitude from others I call “the urban so what”. You know how it goes: you excitedly say you saw wild buffalo in a herd out on the prairie, and they say “so what?” Or you talk about being on the edge of the Grand Canyon, and they say, “sounds cold.”

You don’t get that if you tell them you went to Paris, because wanting to be where people are needs no explanation. The prairie is the ideal place to go if you want to go where the people aren’t, which I usually do.

Adulthood need not mean loss of wonder. The trade-off appears to be prioritizing exploration versus convenience. You have to get up and move, get out of your comfort zone, run some risk. These are typically not the virtues of age.

But our innate desire to do things the easiest way is conquerable. Maybe then, if we overcome this desire, we can see the land, rather than stay home and look at pictures of the land.

Much of what remains unseen is only that way because it lies unvisited.