Sunday, May 30, 2010

What Becomes of the Heart of a Hollow Tree?

Long ago, I found a book in my father’s bookshelves that was set up as a series of questions and answers on different topics, scientific, historical, and etymological. Factoids, they would be called today. One I remembered was “What is petrified lightning?" The answer in short is that it is the common name for what happens when lightning strikes a sandy beach, and the resultant configuration. The geological term is fulgurite. I wrote a poem based on that description:


They say when lightning strikes the shore, the path

it takes is like a quick nerve burrowing

beneath the beach. And in the aftermath

of fused sand, a branch of glass. A little

like thought made deed, the blast of energy

cools off in formation and turns brittle,

grounded in its own design. The storms subside.

Whether it stays buried or is exposed

and shattered will be determined by the tide.

I lost track of the book and even its title after my father died and have been looking for it since, thinking there were other opportunities to prompt poems.

One question that stayed with me was “What becomes of the heart of a hollow tree?” The peculiarity of the question was quirky enough to strike me as almost profound, the rhythm of the question was compelling and it forecast the song title “What becomes of the brokenhearted?" by decades. Surely, I could turn it into something.

When after many Google searches I finally found the book and checked it out of the library, I was disappointed. The answer to the question was unremarkable and obvious: the heart of a hollow tree decays. The other questions and answers in the book were unremarkable too. Perhaps in 1946 when the book was published, or even in 1986, it made for good reading, providing answers for questions the reader didn’t even know he had. But for some reason now it seemed trite and small, a compilation of newspaper column filler. It is a common reaction, I suppose, where things we have lost grow in importance because in memory and yearning, they assume a greater importance than they ever had at the time. So when they are finally found, a favorite toy, a photo, a missing book, the shock of recognition is a shock of the mundane. Better to have kept it lost.

The title was A Book About a Thousand Things by a newspaper man named George Stimpson. It can be had from for $1.75.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Potential Mood

from English Grammar in Familiar Lectures by Samuel Kirkham (1835)

When I was a boy, the town I lived in would have a big Fourth of July celebration, beginning with the mail arrival by Pony Express in the morning, progressing to softball games, followed by a parade, a community picnic, and fireworks at the football stadium. Before the fireworks, while we waited for the July evening to get dark, we would all go to the free movie, sponsored by the local college. One time it was the 1959 film, "The Jayhawkers." In one scene, Fess Parker tries to help a young boy with his grammar lesson:
Parker: I ain't a-fixin' to; you ain't a-fixin' to; he, she, or it ain't a-fixin' to.
Boy: Ain't nobody a-fixin' to?

In that spirit, given the grammar lesson above, I would venture that (grammatically speaking) everybody may, can, or must love.

Any questions? Do I see a hand in the back?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


from Fourteen Weeks in Natural Philosophy by J. Dorman Steele, A. M., Ph.D. , 1872.

This passage is from a book I bought in an antique store in Marietta, Ohio, called FOUND. The proprietor of the store is an old college friend of mine, Chuck Swaney. I hadn't seen or talked to Chuck in more than thirty years but we located each other on Facebook and realized we lived just fifty or so miles apart. In visiting with each other, it seemed the years had fallen away, but we were, of course, talking to each other over that great distance as much as our memories were rekindled.

I don't know what metaphor the intricate description of the malleability of gold serves. When I came across it I thought maybe it stood in for art, or life, or maybe the passage of time, or the past itself. Maybe no metaphor at all. A vehicle with no tenor. Simply an apt expression of malleability.

I like the way it ends, though, with the gold leaf being placed between the pages of "little books"—as leaves, in fact, often are.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Stuck on the Elephant

6. Man undertakes nothing in which he is not more or less

puzzled; and must try numberless experiments before he can bring

his undertakings to anything like perfection; even the simplest

operations of domestic life are not well performed without some

experience; and the term of man's life is half wasted before he has

done with his mistakes and begins to profit by his lessons.

—McGuffey's Fifth Reader, page 289 (Man and the Inferior Animals)

Here’s the riddle:

How do you get down from an elephant?

I don’t know. How do you get down from an elephant?

You don’t get down from an elephant. You get down from a duck.

Once, many years ago, in a supermarket in Fayetteville, Arkansas, I was standing behind a woman at the checkout counter who was apparently friends with the checker and she said: “ I got a good one for you: how do you get off an elephant?”

(I remembered from my youth in northern Ohio the sensation I felt as the car would swerve trying to go up the icy hills, as I listened, anticipating, how this was going to go terribly wrong. . .)

“ I don’t know. How do you get off an elephant?”

(Here it comes, wait for it. . . )

“You don’t get off an elephant. You get off a duck.”

(I peeked to see if there was any serious injury. . . )

All of a sudden, on cue, both women erupted in laughter.

Sometimes I feel like I’m a visitor to your planet. That was one of those times.