Boxing Coach

April 30, 2018

My poet friend, Burl Whitman (aka Craig Brandis), has been writing all month. I admire his dedication (I think his recent output has something to do with April being National Poetry month, but make no mistake, Burl’s his own man, he doesn’t fall for that Make America Rhyme Again! claptrap). Beyond admiration, I love getting to open my inbox and finding, amid the meeting reminders, ads, and work requests, an original poem. And not just any poem, but one with a distinctive voice and the courage to speak.

Write on, Burl! Write on!

Here’s a recent creation of Burl’s that floated like a butterfly and buzzed like a bee, before it came in close, hammered me in the gut with a quick one-two, and finished me off with featherlight tap under the chin that I never saw coming.

Poetry is dangerous. Stay low.

Boxing Coach

Drop your hips when you punch
and when you block. In close
don’t forget the upper cut

Be quick as a heart attack
but don’t show all at once
Like a deadman’s hill on a back road
you don’t see until you are right up on it

I bet Jesus had an uppercut
Way he threw them money changers out the temple
You need something to back that up
Remember, drop your hips



Pantoum for Willapa Bay

April 20, 2018

My poet friend, Burl Whitman (aka Craig Brandis), has returned to expand my literary horizons as he likes to do. This time he’s unearthing verse forms that I’ve never heard of — pantoum, ghazal, — and using them as frames for American scenery. I betray my limited knowledge here, but could haiku be next?

Here is Burl’s Pantoum for Willapa Bay. For those who don’t know the place, if you’re coming from Oregon, drive highway 30 alongside the Columbia river, cross the bridge into Washington just before the river meets the sea, and then head north. A 28-mile long sliver of sand called the Long Beach peninsula is all that separates shallow Willapa Bay from the Pacific. You’ll cross more than one bridge along the way and I leave it to you to figure out which one is in the poem.

Pantoum for Willapa Bay

Butter, oysters, pepper & salt
all it takes to make a soup
thick around the bight of heaven
with particles of swoop and fleck

Out along the farthest dock
butter, oysters, pepper and salt
indigent & phosphorescent
thick around the bight of heaven

A diesel engine thooms on and on
out beyond the farthest dock
loosening the rivets on the bridge
indigent & phosphorescent

Circles fighting other circles
a diesel engine thooms on and on
spicules waving long & slender
loosening the rivets on the bridge

Muscle & mold of a continent
butter, oysters, pepper and salt
by a covetous river called the Bone
thick around the bight of heaven

And while we’re talking pantoum, here’s another that I came across “She Put on Her Lipstick in the Dark” by Stuart Dischell (The Atlantic, Dec 2007).

Three years ago I wrote about The Opposite Field, a memoir by Jesse Katz, the son of former Portland mayor, Vera Katz. Vera passed away yesterday. She was 84, in poor health, much beloved (see this appreciation from The Oregonian), and certainly not forgotten (see this biography).

I have lived in Portland for over 28 years now, and during that time I only occasionally saw Mayor Katz around town, and I never got to shake her hand myself, or say “hi.” Correction: I never got to say “hi” in person. I know it seems like a fine point … but every spring when the weather warms up, I ride the Eastbank Esplanade, just one of Vera’s very good ideas, and as I ride the path along the east end of the Hawthorne Bridge I find myself riding under the watchful, friendly gaze of Her Honor, and saying “hello”. I like the idea that she sees all of us going by … riding, walking, skating, eating, on the phone, you name it.

Maybe next time I’ll sit down with her for a few moments. Chat about what we’ve seen. Tell her ‘thanks’. ❤


Update: Last Sunday (1/28/18) a large crowd gathered at the Portland Art Museum to celebrate the life of Vera Katz. The Oregonian covered the event (with photos).


July 27, 2017

Sometimes your friends strike gold again and again. Burl Whitman has done it with a second poem in as many days: Wallowa.

I don’t fish, but the imagery of sticks, mountain stream, uncaught fish, and sun overhead, all touch deep places. The clincher lies at the end. My sabbatical, most likely my last, started back in June. First project: a book on molecular modeling co-written with a long-time collaborator. Ideas, lots of them, float around, but so far I haven’t been able to write more than a couple of pages, all crap. I feel like that guy standing hip-deep in snow-frozen water, casting his line, only to see it snarl up in the brush behind him, and to watch helplessly as the bait drops from his hook. Lost.

The year is racing by… Write. Write!


A wallowa is a Native American fish trap
the Nez Perce built from sticks,
like wicker fences set crosswise in the river.
They used them to herd bull and rainbow trout
into the shallows where they clubbed and gaffed them.

I spent this morning on the Minam river
at one of their old fishing spots.
I teased the river for hours with my fly line.
All I got was bone cold feet
from the mountain runoff.

On the way back to camp
I startled a bull elk in the trees
exploding the stillness
in a thud of hooves
and cracking branches.
The sun walked down the mountain
faster than I could get back across
the valley for eggs and bacon,
home made bread, jam and coffee.

Later I sat in the hot sun
warming my feet and trying to write
but in the end I just sat there
staring at the morning
with its buzzing quiet ways.
Maybe I could build
a wallowa for herding ideas,
fragments, chum and by-catch
into the shallows where my
gaff is sharp and my club is ready.
But I know the majority of the poetry fish
will swim through as they should
as though there were
no sticks in the river at all.

A total eclipse of the Sun will pass through Oregon next month. What did our ancestors think when the Sun vanished and the darkness came? Was this the end of their world? The end of love? A poem, Running Deer, from Burl Whitman dedicated to his wife, who is part Native American …

Running Deer

a moon-dark sun
ringed in Indian light
peace pipe direct

wild huckleberries
chiaroscuro necklaces
made from the seeds of days
you thread together

to remind us
of where we and love
come from

Growing the Garden

June 24, 2017

The Portland Japanese Garden re-opened in April after completing a year-long major construction project that permanently altered the Garden’s entrance, facilities, and footprint on the West Hills overlooking downtown. I was in San Francisco at the time of the opening, but I have visited the garden several times since then.

There is a new look and feel, but what I treasured about the old entrance remains – the traditional gate, the flat stones underfoot, the carved ones by the path, and the shaded hillside ascent. The Garden at the top has been preserved intact. The only real challenge to my memories is a brief one at the top of the hill: the new approach to the main gate now appears like a wide, tree-lined avenue. It will grow on me.

Fortunately for all Garden lovers, the Oregonian has created a lengthy photo history of the Garden: The fascinating history of the Portland Japanese Garden (Oregonian, 2 Apr 2017). There is also a lovely C-SPAN video interview with current Garden director, Steve Bloom.

( Wm. Persons was the brother of my great grandmother. This poem includes excerpts from his letters home during the American Civil War. ) dear pa and ma i take my pen and bid you goodbye tomorrow i leave this camp and regiment forever and go aboard a gunboat for the Mississippi river so don’t […]

via The Old and New Letters of William Persons — The Little Planet Daily

Listen for the sounds … cheap pants ripping … the lid on Grandma’s cookie jar being lifted as the thief reaches for the bread money … the sounds of outrage … hammers on hot iron. The sounds are there for all of us to hear. We just needed someone to call them to our attention. Thanks.

Craig Brandis

When words lose their meaning
I listen for the sounds they make.
Some are like dirty water swirling in a can.
Some are like deflating a truck tire.
Some are like when a child dumps
her blocks on a tile floor.

When words become their opposites
their dignity is not diminished.

When the journalists who covered the protests
against the North Dakota oil pipeline
were arrested and charged with rioting,
their words sounded like hammers
annealing hot iron.

The words of the US president,
when he said he wanted
to restart construction on the pipeline,
using a company he owned part of,
sounded like cheap pants ripping
when someone has grown fat
stealing bread money
from his grandmother,
the one with tired eyes
who remembers what she paid
for every piece of clothing
she ever bought.

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Daughter Laughter

December 23, 2016

Note to self: I heard the title “daughter laughter” in my head before I typed it. Easy to say, but reading it with a straight face throws me for a loop. Daw-ter laff-ter? Why not daff-ter law-ter? My daughters do make me daft, but that’s another post.

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Portland’s Rosy Cheek

November 9, 2016

Autumn begins in early October in the Pacific NW. For some reason Portland and its surroundings have a history of horrific October windstorms and this year was no exception: a tornado blew through Manzanita a few weeks ago. It spent just a minute on the ground, but it created a path of destruction that stretched from the beach to the highway. Fortunately, our house, which was just a few hundred feet from the worst damage, escaped without a scratch.

But autumn’s wind and rain means more than storm damage. It also means leaves, leaves, and more leaves. I’ve spent the past 6 weeks raking at all hours of the day, piling them up before I go to work in the morning, and then returning to the street for another round of raking in the dark after dinner.

There is beauty in this task: raking gives me a “virtuous excuse” to go outside and admire nature’s bounty. I think of the Leaf Man in Harry Nilsson’s The Point and smile at the riches I’m piling up. I think of the zen koan in which a student sweeps up every leaf to create the ideal garden for his master’s guests only to watch the enlightened master reach up, shake a few leaves onto the just-swept garden, and say, “Perfect!” And I leave a few leaves behind even as I keep sweeping.

Autumn is also the best time for walking. My wife and I went to the Japanese Garden last Sunday to admire the Japanese maples, but we were too late. Almost all of them were naked. And yet, as we slowly made our way back to the car we discovered plenty of red-cheeked maples to admire in the hillside neighborhood. Another lesson about slowing down and letting life happen. A line from Thoreau on this subject:

“I am more interested in the rosy cheek than I am to know what particular diet the maiden fed on.”