Monday, August 24, 2009

Imperial Triptych: Emperor Of Thorns

poem 7 from The Ancient Elm

I am the Emperor of Thorns,
my reign a score of years.
Hobbled by majesty,
armored and enthroned
in a Castle of Illusion
built by my own hand.

‘Neath tapestries
of cobweb tatters:
assassins, magnates, fools
posture and plot
in endless intrigues;
drink blood to tap the Untamed Wood;
scribes and clerics
twist my saga into dogma:
“…Wand to Sword to Scepter
Wand to Sword to Scepter
Wand to Sword to Scepter…”
a canticle of nostalgia
clutching like chains
in my majestical dungeon.

This is the poem that forms the third and final part of the triptych and is a direct opposite to The Court Of The Sun. I mimicked the structure and form but, instead of the speaker being filled with power, he is now a prisoner of the illusions he has built and accepted for himself. Every line in this poem matches up to one in The Court Of The Sun in order to really contrast between the beginning of the this persons 'reign' and where they find themselves twenty years later. In this position, it is hard to find a way out even when if possess all the power because you have become so out of touch with who and what you are that you can't tell the difference between the Court of the Sun and being an Emperor of Thorns. The next poem moves the cycle onwards.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Previous Halloween Costumes

Yes, I really shaved my head to get a Mohawk for the punk costume, and I liked it! I actually think the look kinda works for me! Well, maybe if I were younger...and punk...LOL!

I Love Halloween

As long as I'm on the subject of autumn, I may as well prepare anyone reading this who doesn't know me (if anyone reading doesn't know me!) that I am crazy about Halloween! I love dressing up, decorating the house, decorating the front stoop, carving pumpkins, and I even can enjoy giving out candy (though it gets in the way of watching horror movies). By the way, I watch a gazillion horror movies in the weeks leading up to Halloween, which drives Jim crazy. I also listen to black metal when I drive, read Poe and Gothic horror novels from the 1800s while playing creepy music, and going to the Halloween supply stores to see all the crazy-expensive animatronics that Jim would kill me if I ever bought. I'm 100% bonkers about this holiday!

For a couple of years, I tried to have Halloween parties. My first one was a huge success, but I quickly found that most people are just completely uptight about Halloween. I'd mention I was thinking about throwing another party, and the first thing out of everyone's mouth would be: "Do I have to dress up?" WTF? That's like asking do you have to get gifts at Christmas time, or do you have to eat turkey on Thanksgiving. Except it's worse. How can a Halloween party possibly be fun when that's the first thing out of people's mouths? To everyone's immense relief, I gave up years ago.

Luckily, there is a very active Halloween party atmosphere where I work, and it hasn't been ruined by any bible-banging douchebags crying how it's against their religion (probably because we are very respectful not to press anyone to participate if they say 'no'). One year, we decorated our row with bedsheets to make the cubes look like padded cells. Then we all made ourselves up to be diseased in some way related to our clients' products. Another year, we all came in as dead celebrities. This year, our team has settled on a heavy metal costume theme. Should be very fun!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Autumn Started Thursday

I took this past Friday off from work, and so Thursday ended up being a very relaxing evening for me. I had the house to myself, there were storms, strange sunlight because of the clouds, and cool winds blowing through the house. And then it happened...

I have always had a weird reaction to autumn. And not the autumn that the weather man tells you about, meaning that on such and such a day the season begins. For me, autumn begins when there is a certain look to the sunlight, when you breathe and the air feels more aloof than summer air, when I feel a restlessness in me...just all sorts of sensory stuff like that. Part of it is a very wild, creative urge that shoots through me almost like a drug. There have been times when it's positively spooky the way the floodgates open, and I just start writing or drawing or playing and it's as if I can't keep up with the ideas coming out of me! It's a wonderful feeling...though it always has a sort of odd darkness to it, too.

I haven't really felt it as strongly over the last couple years (although the beginning of autumn is what ultimately what got the whole Ancient Elm cycle going), but it happened this past Thursday. I knew it was autumn, and I let the house get dark as the sun set and just let myself feel it. I know I probably sound like a complete crackpot, but it is what it is.

Anyway, the next morning I was just sitting and eating breakfast when all of a sudden images started popping through my mind and strong feelings were associated with them and, before I knew it, I was writing stanzas on a napkin. One after another, in no order (though I instantly knew what order they would go in later). I even thought stuff like: "This will go before the part about me lying in the hosta leaves" (before I'd written anything about lying in the hosta leaves...just had the image flash in my head). When I went upstairs to make sense of it, I had a poem in a few of minutes. A good poem; one that says something really important (to me). It just came out of me!

Some of the stuff that comes in autumn is born complete: it bursts in my head, I write it down, and it's done. This poem is a little more complex, so I have to work with it. I thought about posting the draft version, but I'm afraid that if I do it'll kill the urge to complete it. I have found that sometimes sharing something incomplete makes finishing it unnecessary in some odd way. So I'll hold off.

So funny that the other day I wrote on here that I was resigned to not being creative right now, and then BANG! Maybe I'm not as dried up as I thought!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Herman Melville - White-Jacket (1850)

It's often said that, in Huckleberry Finn, "life is a river". White-Jacket, Herman Melville's fifth novel, may be his take on this: "the world is a ship". In fact, the subtitle of White-Jacket is The World in a Man-of-War. This is an interesting idea for an allegory and, in many ways, Melville succeeds. Using the events on the man-of-war Neversink, Melville draws many parallels to society in general and human justice in particular. Further, in the final chapter, Melville provides a moral to tie his allegory together.

However, despite these successes, White-Jacket pretty much fails as a novel. The main problem is that Melville exercises no control over his allegory. White-Jacket contains far too much content that doesn't add to the allegory, and some of it clearly is not even meant to. While every word and chapter does not necessarily have to drive an allegory (unless you're Dante and writing something genius like The Divine Comedy), the narrative that does not propel the allegory should have some point. Unfortunately, that is not the case here and it makes White-Jacket pretty tedious.

The excess material is especially frustrating because White-Jacket quite simply tells no story. There is no plot, no character development, no conflict, nothing other than the allegory. So if a chapter doesn't fit in with the allegory, it really serves no purpose whatsoever! Although I did find many of the vignettes interesting, it just wasn't enough. And, quite frankly, if Melville had honed his allegory the way he should have, his final chapter - which is terribly prosaic - would not have been required.

Oddly, it seems to me that in writing his fourth, fifth, and sixth novels, Melville repeats the path he took with Typee, Omoo, and Mardi (his first three). His fourth book (Redburn) was like Typee, even though Typee was more romantic and Redburn darker. Both are quite successful works, tell a great story, and have clear themes communicated by those stories. Omoo suffered from a directionless narrative that never came together as a story, very much like what we have with White-Jacket. In his third book, Melville made an ambitious attempt at something deeper and, since his sixth book is Moby-Dick, the parallel seems to hold.

I also found myself thinking of Redburn and White-Jacket as two halves of the whole that would become Moby-Dick. Redburn focuses on the story, and White-Jacket focuses on an all-encompassing theme. In Moby-Dick, Melville would attempt both in a single novel. In addition, Moby-Dick's theme of the microcosm echoes the 'world in a man-of-war' theme in White-Jacket.

Okay, all that aside, is this a book worth reading? The answer is 'no', unless you're interested in delving into Melville's development as a writer or have an urge to learn in great detail what it was like to serve on a man-of-war in the 1800s. Bottom-line, in White-Jacket, Melville was overtly trying to write another 'tale of the sea' to earn money and regain the attention of his readers, while creating a deeper work 'under the radar'. However, the lack of plot means the book fails dismally as the former and the lack of control by Melville undermines the latter. White-Jacket could have been much better, but Melville clearly needed more time, effort, and craft on this novel to realize this potential.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Imperial Triptych: The Twisted Myth

poem 6 from The Ancient Elm

One day,
while hunting for sport,
a strange leaf
catches in my cloak
and a mythmaker cries:
“Beware, my Lord!
The Elm is a dangerous tree!”

But I am of the Ancient Elm!
Turned into the Oak Emperor
by strange hands twisting
the tapestry of my myth.

Back behind my Castle walls,
deep in my Imperial Chambers,
I unlock my chest and release:
withered elm leaves,
a tattered wizard robe,
runes of secrets
in language I’ve long forgotten.

But I cannot go outside!
My Castle is all;
the gild and glamour of my Court
dazzle me.

Ah, for my young questing days!
Where, I ask, is my Untamed Wood?
Where my Ancient Elm?
“They are gone,” say the mythmakers,
“paved under the Imperial Road
which leads to your Castle…”

…and ends.

The problem with not being in touch with your true self is that it allows others to control you. When you act from illusion, you are more easily manipulated. So the myth of the speaker in the poem is twisted, and he becomes an Oak Emperor fearing the Elm which was the actual reason he came to power. I also chose this, because it is so often true that the energy or creativity which allows someone to rise to power is hijacked by those around it and it becomes an act people pay lip service to rather than an actuality.

The speaker of the poem tries to relocate what he's lost but finds himself disconnected from it because he has spent twenty years (see The Court of the Sun) in illusion. Worse, he realizes that he cannot 'go outside' because the Castle, the Court, the entire establishment that he seeks to escape comes from himself and is controlled by himself. And yet, because he has handed over control to 'the Mythmakers' he can do nothing about it.

I think sometimes achieving something you've longed for can create a sort of dead end. There's a stagnation because the things you've been after for so long are in your grasp, and this brings you other things that you hadn't anticipated. So there's a sense of 'What now?' People can miss the striving that comes with not having what you longed for and just accept that the rough trail you fought to create is now an Imperial Road anyone can walk and that it leads to your destination and ends. There's something of a crisis when this happens, especially if some parts of that destination are not truly of your own making and just accepted by you. For example, when someone does well in their career and let's continued upward movement become their goal rather than the self-actualization that drove them initially. Realizing that you've somehoe gone off track is a very scary thing when you're on the 'throne'.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Creative vs. The Physical

For most of my life, I've been creative in at least one area. Whether it was writing, painting, drawing, music, or whatever, I've always been actively creating something. For the last several years, though, it seems like I have completely changed focus. I've been almost entirely about physical stuff...almost jock-like...and been really interested in active pursuits. I've learned how to horseback ride (a little), I've been lifting a lot, and now martial arts again, plus biking.

For quite some time, this change has really been bugging me. It's so different than the way I've lived most of my life that I assumed it was some kind of failing in myself. However, I think I've realized that I need to let myself off the hook. I'm not sure why this change has taken place, but it doesn't seem like I have much say about it. It's not that I don't "have time" for being creative or that I don't have ideas. I just seem to consistently choose to do other things than the creative stuff.

On some level, I wonder if part of it is that I have been a lot more dedicated to my job than I have ever been in previous places I've worked. Not sure I like that much at all, especially as a reason for a change in my personal life. But there it is.

The bottom line is that I am very happy so, as long as that is the case, I suppose I should accept this change and see where it takes me. It's just very strange, after over thirty years, to accept living life without some creative pursuits burning a hole in my mind. Of course, all that time spent in those areas has added to me in ways that will never go away. Later in life, if I find myself returning to the creative side of myself, I'm sure it will all be waiting for me like an old blanket to wrap myself in.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Jet Li's Fearless - My Favorite Movie

My favorite movie is a martial arts movie. It's the Director's Cut of 'Fearless' staring Jet Li.
Briefly, 'Fearless' is based on the life of Huo Yuan Jia, the man who founded the Jin Wu Martial Arts Federation (a school of Kung Fu). Huo (played by Jet Li) is the son of a martial arts master and becomes a famous master himself. However, Huo is a shallow man and his interest in martial arts is based solely on arrogance. This leads to his downfall just as he achieves the pinnacle of success.

Once his success and position are destroyed, Huo is just an empty shell of a person. He wanders aimlessly, homeless, and almost dies until he slowly discovers the spirit that is supposed to go along with martial arts. At this point, Huo starts to rebuild himself.

Thankfully, there are none of the pat 'moment of truth' scenes you'd find in most movies with a fall and redemption theme. As Huo finds a real sense of self and purpose, he returns home to reclaim his life and make amends. As an extension of his own healing, he seeks to unify different schools of martial arts.
'Fearless' has lots of great fight scenes, yet it also tells a very deep and moving story with awesome cinematography. Ronny Yu makes the film so epic and yet it is so simple, almost like an ancient parable you'd read about some Zen master. Much of the reason the movie is so powerful is that the script allows the story to unfold rather than using dialogue to tell us what to think. Also, Li does a fantastic job conveying the various stages of Huo's journey in his expressions, delivery, and body language. You can really tell the difference in the character from the beginning of the movie to the end. As far as I'm concerned, that's what great acting is all about.
As is usually the case, the Director's Cut makes this a long movie. However, I never felt at any time that 'Fearless' had unnecessary scenes or dragged in pace. If anything, I think the shorter versions of the film must be lacking key scenes or subplots whose absence would lessen this very rich movie. As a result, I have no interest at all in the shorter versions.
'Fearless' speaks to me in so many different ways: the importance of friendship, the importance of wisdom versus knowledge, what real success is all about, and what it is to be a man. For these reasons, as well as the sheer beauty of the film, the great story, and the terrific fight scenes, this is my favorite movie of all time. It's also the movie that inspired me to get back into martial arts.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


Hapkido is going well, and I'm stoked after every session. Today, the Master himself applauded (literally) my throws! I'm continuing to practice for the rank testing that is coming up though; I want to NAIL it!

My biggest issue is that I do not breathe properly. Back when I took Karate, I learned how to breathe deep and from the belly to oxygenate the blood and all that. I've completely forgotten to do that though. Every time I work on something new, I focus on it really hard and I think I just forget to breathe. Within minutes, I'm completely winded. Then I have to ask for a break, and that makes me feel like an abject wimp. One of the red belts told not to worry about it, pointing out I'm not the first person to get winded in a work-out. That made me feel better.

One of the instructors spent some time with me to help me get the hang of breathing again, and I have improved. Bottom line, I think I just need to relax! I want to get everything right and I focus too much on being good rather than just listening and practicing. After all, it's not like anyone expects me to be (or that I could be) perfect after such a short amount of time. The Master still corrects even the black belts on some stuff, so for me as a white belt to expect to get things right is just dumb. Plus, if I just chilled out, I'd probably end up performing better and enjoying class even more.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Imperial Triptych: The Court Of The Sun

poem 5 from The Ancient Elm

I am the Oak Emperor,
my reign a score of years.
Majestical in dress armor,
my diamond throne
illumes my court:
the Court of the Sun.

‘Neath my tapestries
of lions, eagles, roses:
my knights, lords, acrobats
amuse and revel
in jousts, feasts, pageantry;
my prophets
cast fair fortunes;
my poets and mythmakers
embroider my myth –
wand to sword to scepter –
into an epic saga
for my bards
to sing across the realms
I rule
from my mighty Castle.

The power the speaker in the poem gathers to himself becomes something that sends him into orbit, as far as success goes. The poem is littered with images based on 'The Great Chain of Being' which assigned a highest example of all sorts of categories of objects: oak, diamond, lions, eagles, and the Sun. The Oak Emperor is a symbol for this kind of power and authority. He rules, enjoys his power, and attracts all sorts of people to him, while poets and mythmakers write the tale of his struggle and success - embroidering it to fit their own purposes and interests - and spread it around his kingdom. This poem would be the left side of the artistic triptych and it represents a man at the apotheosis and zenith of his potential. It's a heady place to be.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Maxwell - BLACKsummers' night (2009)

Anyone who loves soul and R&B needs to thank Maxwell for coming back in such fine form. I bought his first CD back in 1996, when he had this R&B/soul/acid-jazz vibe that was really sweet. His 1998 follow-up (Embrya) was also very inventive, although it leaned a little too heavily on his rep as a 'slow jam stud'. His largely forgettable 2001 album (Now) continued this trend and seemed formulaic, despite some solid material ('Lifetime') and a left field cover of Kate Bush's 'This Woman's Work'.

On BLACKsummers' night Maxwell sounds reenergized, and this is easily the funkiest album of his career. There's so much about this album that is refreshing. First of all, Maxwell can sing. There's no auto-tune here or studio wizardry on the voice. At the same time, Maxwell doesn't constantly PROVE he can sing by screaming high notes all the way through a song (do you hear me, Mariah and Christina?). Instead, Maxwell lets the emotion bleed out of his voice. The effect is far stronger.

The overall sound of the album is outstanding. Like I said, there's no auto-tuning so his vocals actually sound like a human voice. There's also no pro-tools or compression as far as I can hear. As a result, the album sounds very 'live' and there is a depth in the sound that is just absent in 99% of what is produced in the US today. Instruments simmer in the background, then surge to the forefront. His vocals rise and fall and breath. Percussion and drums interplay and mimic the kind of hip-hop beats that lace most modern R&B, but here the crisp sound makes the rhythm cook in a way very few current soul or R&B tracks ever manage.

The songwriting is also quite varied. For example, there's the balladry of 'Pretty Wings', the searing crescendo of 'Love You', and the horn-infused 'Cold'. None of the tracks are radio-ready singles, and Maxwell must have purposefully avoided verse/chorus structure on this album. Instead he favors a more organic flow to each song. Very interesting approach, and the songs tend to keep growing on you with repeated listens.

The album is not perfect. 'Phoenix Rise' is a throwaway instrumental that has so much potential you have to ding Maxwell for not taking this track further. Still it's fun to listen to even in its current form. Even when BLACKsummers' night doesn't soar, though, it's still interesting to listen to. It never fails in any way.

The fact that Rolling Stone magazine panned this album just proves what a fossil that magazine is. This album and the fact that it debuted at #1 is a beautiful example of what R&B and soul (and by extension the entire American music industry) needs to do. Get away from the emphasis on producers and manufactured 'stars' and get back to talented artists with unique vision who can sing, write, and surround themselves with musicians that make great music. The results speak for themselves.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Imperial Triptych

poems 5, 6, & 7 from The Ancient Elm

In The Ancient Elm cycle, the next poem is actually a group of three interrelated poems called 'Imperial Triptych'. This was a really tough part of the cycle to write. In 'Siegecraft', the speaker finds that the internal power he has gained over himself leads to external success, as well. More success, actually, that anything he anticipated. What I wanted to explore was the idea that this success can become a bit of a trap. At bottom, it's illusion. However, it can slowly come to be thought of as the source of that peace and power, which is actually only gained and maintained through inner truth via Zen.

The idea of a triptych came to me because getting all this across was leading to a really long and convoluted poem, so I needed some kind of structure that would allow me to get all of this across through images rather than resorting to a lot of preaching. I was paging through a book of painting by Hieronymus Bosch and came across several works of his that were done in the triptych form (click on the image to make it larger and see an example).

I immediately realized that a poetic version of a triptych was exactly what I was looking for. After that, it became very easy to break up the ideas I was trying to communicate into different poems and get this part done. The first and third poems are meant to mirror one another and yet present polar opposite situations. The second (or middle poem) offers a transition between the other two and provides insight into why they are different.

I'll start posting them one at a time, but it's pretty important to get the idea of how the parts of a triptych interact. If I ever published this in print, I wonder what would have to be done to lay out the three poems in order to replicate the idea of a triptych!