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Before that, I cooked, briefly drove an
18-wheel truck, did the work Zen monks do.
When I’m home, though, writing is the first
thing I want to do. I make a cup of coffee,
turn inward and listen. I can see Mount Tam
from my bedroom window. When I began
writing in the morning — I haven’t always
— the mountain entered a lot of my poems.
Here’s a short one, from After, a book of
mine that came out in 2006. The title is the
capital of Lithuania, “Vilnius.”
For a long time
I keep the guidebooks out on the table.
In the morning, drinking coffee, I see the spines:
St. Petersburg, Vilnius, Vienna.
Choices pondered but not finally taken.
Behind them — sometimes behind thick fog —
If you lived higher up on the mountain,
I find myself thinking, what you would see is
more of everything else, but not the mountain.
Let’s imagine we’re at a reading where some-
one says they’re unsure of the meaning of
those last four lines. How would you respond?
First, I’d explain where I live in relation to
Mount Tam: on its hem. Then I’d ask them to
think about those lines in literal terms: I can
only see Mount Tam because I don’t live on
it, I live below it. If I lived on Mount Tam, I’d
see the bay. That’s all those lines are saying.
Pretty simple. Yet when I offer this at a poetry
reading, people always laugh.
Why is that? They recognize that it’s talking
about the human condition, our fallibility.
The poem shows that we’re always looking
from some limited perspective, that whatever
we see, there’s always something we can’t,
because it’s behind our head, or we’re looking
in the wrong place. That’s something human
beings like to be reminded of. We like being
kept a bit humble, if it’s done gently. The poem
punctures sureness and pride. It also says
something obvious you’d never think about
unless it’s put in front of you — how blind we
are to most things most of the time. Jokes and
poems both often work like that. They let you
see what you already know but always forget.
That somehow delights us, the way playing
peek-a-boo delights a toddler.