Jnana's Red Barn

A Space for Work and Reflection

Category: What’s New


People typically listen with their heads, attentive to logic and thought, or with their hearts, to feeling and insinuation. But there’s also a frequently untapped ability to listen with one’s hands, as I recognized at a Susan Stark concert in Brunswick, Maine. There, two Quaker pastors from Kenya (themselves excellent, forceful singers) sat with arms flexed out before them, as if each held an invisible beach ball squeezed slowly. They were appraising the vibration of the room, the presence of Holy Spirit moving. This time, the current was plentiful and active. Try it, in public – at a governmental hearing, a poetry reading, a concert or play, a sporting event – and you, too, may observe how the sense of each occasion may differ. Watch a master carpenter or a first-rate baker, as well, to see how hands ponder a task, running ahead of mental comprehension. A musician often seems to hear music through the fingers, as if playing, even when no instrument is present. Perhaps a surgeon does the same with medicine.

The impression shapes the central section of Foreign Exchange, my newest collection of poems. Please feel them for yourself. These poems celebrate  movement perceived through a Third Ear, between the hands. The tactile response.


For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.



Many of my years as a newspaper editor included handling the business section. The daily markets tables included not just stock prices but other items, some with exotic titles. “Bright Sweet Crude,” for instance, is a grade of petroleum in the futures trading. Well, why not transform it to the renewable energies of the Animal Kingdom, as I have in a collection of poems by that name?

Foreign Exchange is another, based on the floating rates of currency transactions. This time, as my newest collection of poems, “foreign” can be anything we encounter outside of ourselves, and the “exchange” can be the experience of discovery.

Just wait till you see what I do with Composites Update, Rough Rice, or Chicago Eggs a year down the pike.

For now, consider a brief flash. Something that sparkles or shimmers. A half-seen motion, perhaps recollected later. Illumination. A beacon. A guide. A break in the night. Sometimes, this is something even the blind perceive. A word of truth. Prophecy or healing. A vision of eternal mysteries. A star or hint of coming dawn. And then, as James Nayler instructed: “And as thou followest the light out of the world, thou wilt come to see the seed, which to the world’s wisdom and glory is crucified” (Journal, 349). Everything is transformed and made new. Mind the Light.

And then touch it, a Foreign Exchange, indeed.


Foreign Exchange

Foreign Exchange

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.


Belying its penchant for right-wing political rhetoric, the American Far West subsists largely on federal government services and facilities. Many of these necessitate large tracts – spaces reserved for logging, prospecting, and mining; hunting and trapping; open livestock grazing; the collection, storage, and distribution of water for agricultural irrigation and for varied metropolitan usage; hydroelectric production; military field operations; Native American enclaves; recreation and tourism. A largely unpopulated Interstate highway system links far distances, again with federal subsidy.

The innate tension between collective action and freewheeling – even reckless – impulsiveness animates this collection. Just as spectacular panoramas more than intricate particulars dominate a Far West vision in my poems, contemporary actions are cast against a vaster background of ancient understanding. An uneasy interplay permits the game herds to thrive within modern society while also celebrating timeless hunting rituals and practices. Traditional Native American and science-based thought systems stand in sharp contrast as they probe conflicts of sexuality, family, and age. Patronizing bureaucratic language addresses urban side-effects arising as visitors swarm over public lands. Like trendy restaurants, national parks post “Reservations Required” notices. Even so, as other pieces attest, a resourceful person can still hazard boundless mountains, rivers and lakes, free range, and clouds looming in solitude and release. Just watch out for the prospector’s stake. He’s likely to shoot before asking questions.


For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.


The attraction to powerful animals is universal, a response to the mystery of who we are, as humans, as well. To perceive and honor their presence – in the wild, especially – places us within an ecological harmony and health.

But what characteristics essentially define animal life, as distinct from plants? The reliance on oxygen, rather than carbon dioxide, for one, and self-locomotion, for another. At our core existence, each of us may proclaim: “I breathe; therefore, I am.” Thought and emotion come only later. To inhale, moreover, sparks an associative leap – from air to spirit, with its dimensions of inspiration, literally, “breathing in.” Or God, breathing into the muddy nostrils of the first human in Eden.

In general, the animals in these poems move through places where I’ve lived or visited repeatedly – sometimes surfacing through Native stories, sometimes as chance encounters, sometimes by evidence they’ve left behind. (Once, while handling what I thought was a large, striated rock on a friend’s fireplace mantel, I was told it was a mastodon tooth he’d found on a mountain many years earlier.) Who will regard these creatures intently and not marvel at their distinct intelligence and grace? (Let me confess some others, not included here, defy any admiration I can muster; who has heard wondrous tales of garden slugs, for instance?)

Bears and whales – giants of the forest and ocean – appear early in this sequence, along with the sense of awe they instill. In her book, Fishcamp: Life on an Alaskan Shore, Nancy Lord argues, based on her own neighbors, “The bear is like us yet is not us. Perhaps the bear is our connection back to something lost and still treasured, another way of knowing. The bear is nature and culture, together.” The whale, on the other hand, reminds us of deep mysteries we may never penetrate and places we cannot venture unassisted.

We cross over from a commonplace understanding of animal – “pertaining to the physical rather than the spiritual nature of man; carnal; sensual; animal appetites” – and move instead into meetings in which the other creatures sometimes enlighten humans. Here, then, nature fits both the heart and fundamental qualities of each sentient mobile organism. Observe their movement closely, and periods of play and even unrestrained exuberance, as well as caring, become evident. The word nature itself arises in the concept of “giving birth” or “being born,” and easily extends to the working of natural law as well.

We will recognize that animal nature is always complex, and always holds more to discover – around and within us.


Bright Sweet Crude

Bright Sweet Crude

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.


Universally, people look to the larger animals – in some cases, not just as a food source but with recognition of greatness as well. Even the names of professional sports franchises reflect this reality. I believe the myths and tales of ancient peoples arise in this other way of knowing and soon lead us into an awareness of the abundant activity found in any healthy environment. In these poems are flashes from Amerindian, Biblical, and Buddhist voices – and hints that reach beyond my own observations in the American Midwest, Pacific Northwest, and Eastern Seaboard, to touch Africa and Asia as well. Soon, even the smallest creatures we can see have a story, as do imaginary monsters, with their fabrication from living animals.

Sometimes we are affirmed and comforted by other creatures; at other times, vexed, as happens with household invaders. Some remind us of liberty and potential. Others produce essential food, hides, fabric, and more. Because each species requires specific and unique qualities for its environment, there’s no escaping an awareness of place, either. Particularities of water, air currents, soil and rock come into play, as do plants and fellow species.

In this alternative way of knowing, the dialogue turns from being simply about animals to our own interaction in their universe. Obviously, we have much to discover there, about ourselves as well as about them.

The brute – even the bestial human – may ultimately learn table manners that allow sharing in the feast of life.

Join in the circle of Bright Sweet Crude, my newest collection of poems.


For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.


We humans are remarkable animals, aware of our own existence and individual mortality as well as a corresponding, abiding loss. In the Garden of Eden’s articulation of this condition, freedom to act and personal knowledge impose a profound separation from others. Our relationships with each other and our social dealings are complex and often troubling, indeed – paralleling, it seems, our connections to other animals and the planet itself. Too often in practice, humans translate the subdue of Genesis 1:28 – “replenish the earth, and subdue it” – in a modern domination-based concept of “vanquish” or “conquer,” rather than in its ancient comprehension as “taming,” “softening,” and “bringing culture” (“enlightenment” as well as “learning”) to the land and all that dwell in it.

The poems in my Bright Sweet Crude collection explore encounters that cross over from a common understanding of animal – “pertaining to the physical rather than the spiritual nature of man; carnal; sensual; animal appetites” – and move instead into meetings that at times even allow non-human creatures to enlighten people. Here, then, nature fits both the heart and essential quality of each sentient living organism. The brute – even the bestial human – ultimately learns table manners to share the feast.

People commonly are affirmed and comforted by the presence of other creatures, as well as vexed, as happens with a range of household invaders. From the sighting of daily turtles to sporadic deer and elk and American bald eagles  to nearly microscopic red mites, my poems have celebrated an attentive range. American aborigine perspectives surface, starting with an annual cycle of sojourning for food before moving into mythopoeic rootstock. In this balance, large mammals have a special place – whales and bears, especially. Even animal humor arises in this kinship.

In human/non-human marriage this concept of kinship is most fully expressed. A variation of the story behind “After the Fact,” by the way, takes shape as a voluntary marriage in Gary Snyder’s “This Poem Is for Bear,” while Nancy Lord (Fishcamp: Life on an Alaskan Shore) presents another rendering and then comments: “Cultural interpretations of this story point out the significance of its beginning – the slipping [on bear scat] and swearing. The bear took the woman from her people because she insulted him. She showed disrespect for a fellow creature – in this case a particularly powerful one – and for this it was her fate to be parted from her people. … In the end, when so many have been killed, the story again emphasizes the consequences of breaking taboo and the fragility of relationships between people and animals. It’s … fearsome and cautionary.” Sometimes it’s a matter of which taboo or which relationship one wishes to emphasize.

Or, as I once remarked, “Each summer bears sit on blueberry bushes as they pluck meals beside Contention Pond. Days later, the flattened shrubs tell me who’s been visiting with the Quakers.”

Here, then, Bright Sweet Crude celebrates moments when the intimacy resumes, one way or another.


Bright Sweet Crude

Bright Sweet Crude

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.


Once, after a public reading of pieces from my In a Heartbeat chapbook, I was left sputtering in reaction to a question, “What made you write poems about animals?” The reasons, I thought, should have been obvious, especially to someone who’s embraced Buddhist teaching. I didn’t know where to start. How could I even discuss an incredible weeklong conference I’d once attended, the Power of Animals, hosted by Copper Canyon Press at Fort Warden in Port Townsend, Washington, with Gary Snyder, Barry Lopez, Howard Norman, and David Lee among its luminaries?

I’d had a similar reaction to a quarterly editor who dismissed five of my elk poems as “disgusting” paeans to hunting in her rejection. I still think she missed the point, as you can determine for yourself in Elk Matter, the opening section of my new collection, Bright Sweet Crude.

Nearly eradicated from the wilderness of the Cascade Range, elk have returned in force, an emblem of a restored ecological balance in which hunters, as conservationists, did indeed play a crucial role. The ones I knew, for the record, were anything but gun-toting fanatics.

Typically, when you first enter a forest, you see very few animals. Maybe a squirrel or two in the shadows, and then flitting birds. It’s mosquitoes or other insects, mostly. You might as well be looking for fish. Even in a desert, where the range is wide open, this happens. Pay attention, though, and they appear, albeit largely second-hand – a snap or cracking branch, the cry of a blue jay or crow, the high-pitched exuberance of peepers in spring, the work of beavers, a feather on the trail, a tuft of fur caught in a snag, the small tunnel opening of a den, a pile of bone, a curl of snakeskin. Tracks and scats, especially. To say nothing of roadkill, along the highway.

Thus it was in my initial forays into the high country west of Yakima, where I was puzzled by deer-like pellets and tracks everywhere in the undergrowth. In time, I learned how widespread elk had become again, after being decimated a century earlier – and how crucial hunting and fishing organizations were to the conservation efforts. Although I neither hunt nor fish, I came to respect those who do so with a sense of humility and admiration. At the office, especially, Jim Gosney and Wayne Klingle told of intimate encounters in the field, while others, speaking of the occasions when they’d eaten the meat, could have been describing a sacramental meal. Heard their derision and disgust, too, regarding others who come only for slaughter. Heard, too, that the best places to observe elk were at the back of the Rez, south of town – an area off-limits to all but tribal members and their guests.

That understanding was only a small step from timeless Amerindian lore, the insights and practices arising where survival or death hung in the balance. Even before my move west, I had begun running across these stories, however haphazardly; by now, the Native American myths directly touched me in ways I found more compelling than the Greek, Roman, and Norse mythologies that fill so much of our literature. More pressing, in fact, than the Hindu and Buddhist stories I’d devoured before heading west. My poems “If a Man Goes Wild” and “True Practice” both draw on this trove, even if some poetic license is applied; besides, the stories themselves no doubt become varied as they pass from one locality and time to another. Here, though, the animals are no longer inferior creatures but can speak and interact in equality with humans.

From this perspective, whether we’re considering elk, moose, or bear, the reappearance of large wildlife expresses not only a healthy forest or range, but a healthy society as well. I cannot think of elk without also thinking of what’s been lost and is being lost from the North American continent. Recently, returning to my native Ohio in winter, I looked across the shorn corn and soybean fields and realized how impossible it is to imagine the endless forest my ancestors entered, when elk and wolves and Indians were still present – nor the ecological catastrophes that followed in their first years after.

For me, elk are an emblem of what I learned living in the foothills of central Washington state. Here, then, are moments when the intimacy resumes, one way or another. Elk matter, indeed.


For these poems and more, click here


As humans, each of us assumes a cluster of identities – some of them chosen and changeable, others immutable. My grandfather, for example, proclaimed himself Dayton’s Leading Republican Plumber, invoking a host of other identities as well: Mason, Protestant, Middle Class, Married. I don’t think “grandfather” was high up in his awareness. Being male or female or teenage or elderly, on the other hand, are simply givens. And the history of what we’ve done or failed to do cannot be altered, except in our own perceptions and retelling.

The range of identities is astounding. They include but are not limited to race, religion, nationality and locality, occupation, family (household and near kin to genealogy itself), education and educational institutions, athletics, hobbies and interests, actions and emotions, even other individuals we admire, from actors and authors to athletes, politicians, and historic figures. They soon extend to the people we associate with – family, friends, coworkers, neighbors. And, pointedly, our phobias and possessions.

Curiously, it becomes easier to say what we are not than what we are specifically. That is, set out to define yourself in the positive and you’ll find the list rapidly dwindling, while an inexplicable core remains untouched. Turn to the oppositions, however, and the list becomes endless. I am not, for instance, a monkey. Sometimes, moreover, a specified negative becomes truly revealing: “I am not a crook,” for instance, as the classic revelation.

Listen carefully – especially when others talk of their romantic problems or other troubles – and another portion of a mosaic appears. This collection of poems builds on such moments, constructing a cross-section of community like a web of each one of its members. Sometimes, a place appears; sometimes, a contradiction; sometimes, a flavor or sound or color. Even so, in this crossfire, then, we may be more alike than any of us wishes to admit. We may be more like the part we deny, as well. Our defenses wither. Our commonality and our essential loneliness are both revealed.


For my Village of Gargoyles poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.


Behind the masks of public life – our occupations, religious affiliations, social status, economic positions, family connections, educational accomplishments, and so on – each of us engages in another struggle, an attempt to find inner balance and direction for our own life. As we do so, we soon face a plethora of interior and exterior forces that must be reconciled. We get glimmers into this struggle – both within ourselves and within others – in statements that begin “I am” and “I am not,” as well as “I have been,” which recognizes the history and habits we accumulate and carry with us. There are also the voices – “he remembers” or “she insists” – that also recur in our lives, defining and redefining ourselves both within, as conscience or the angel or devil on our shoulders, and without, as any of a host of authority figures and friends or family members.


Village of Gargoyles

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.


Somewhere in writing poetry I turned to the concept of “working in series.” Quite simply, this meant investigating a subject repeatedly, often in a similar form. The process allowed multiple takes from different angles and in different lighting, as it were. In music, it could be seen as a theme and variations.

As I recall, the practice for me originated with Braided Double-Cross, itself inspired by The Sonnets by Ted Berrigan, and quickly led to Blue Rock and Long Stemmed Roses in a Shattered Mirror, each with its unique structure and inspiration. (Anne Waldman, for the former; Diane Wakoski, the latter.)

Village of Gargoyles is the latest, often with a specific structure for each of the 10 sections. Some forms run longer than others, which introduces variety. And within each, I’m free to play and tinker.

Admittedly, the 200 poems of my Village fall short of John Berryman’s colossal Dream Songs, but it’s still a prolific output.


For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.