Slowing Down in Thunder Alley

Ask yourself: where is my slowness?

The where of our slowness helps tell us who we are. Yes, strangely.

It points to our principal place of real being. My being real. My true existence. The space where I am most alive and most conscious.

My moral space.

The where of our slowness indicates what brings us peace and contentment, for slowness is like mercury in a thermometer. It gives a reading of our soul’s temperature. Like it or not, we are measured beings. I measure myself, if I am aware and listening.

My answer to the where of my slowness: Thunder Alley.

Of course, it’s not mine. It’s ours. Public, social.

But I live in a city where houses have wreaked havoc on natural habitats. Where yards with buildings and housing units have substituted for sustainable natural abodes. Where humans have created dominion at the expense of the plants and animals that had been there for much longer than our lungs.

The crickets and butterflies are already gone. The opossums are threatened. The flies are untouched because they feed on human garbage. The ubiquitous grey squirrels are there since they are ingenious.

But other animals, more susceptible to disruption and interference, have fled. Without a real choice, they’ve simply vanished. Probably forever. They’ve left a void that cannot be filled. Like many of the non-human species that need large swathes of untouched land and water for their survival.

My alley still holds out hope. For me and for my non-human comrades. Which is why it remains my place of slowness.

My slowness involves communing with “nature.” Nature for me is just another way of saying the non-human. My slowness feels like drips of latex from a rubber tree, swirling down a helix.

If you live in a city, perhaps your alley can teach you something. Not just about yourself. About what is not human in the world.

But in order for the alley to teach you, I can guess that your slowness must reside there. It is not a teaching that can be learned in front of an unnatural screen.

I live in Portland, Oregon, where I’m a prep cook and dishwasher. Wondrous, right? In the “untouched” Pacific Northwest. Liberal and open. Environmentally aware. Swarming with protectors of nature and preservers of the non-human. Home of the Xerces Society and the Hoyt Arboretum. With a “cool vibe,” a laid-backness, a cold rasta/punk undertone to every interaction. Ideal. You can get over the passive-aggressiveness that comes with angst-ridden rebelliousness. That’s part of the charm.

As for nature in my city, my word! The riches! It’s an urban space with broad swathes of riverfront parks. A place with the largest public park in the U.S.A. (Forest Park). Two rivers and a dozen close tributaries that feed the “fresh” water. An atmosphere of outdoorspersonship. Hiking. Skiing. Rafting. Climbing. You name it, we got it, all within an hour.

And if you’re bougie, take in the Willamette Valley and its fruit and nut orchards, wine country and foxes in thickets out near McMinnville, the mansions in the west hills where there’s sure to be art-speak and martinis overlooking the rose gardens, and the Columbia River Gorge with its sweeping vistas, a wind for all winds for the sailors and surfers, and spectacles like the Peregrine Falcon diving 180 miles an hour to spear a sparrow.

It is still just a city.

So in it, where do I find solace, besides these close but inaccessible places?

Inaccessible because of traffic congestion. Because everyone and their dog is moving here. Because housing developments are eating up habitats the endangered species, like the Fender’s Blue butterflies, need to continue surviving. Where do I find solace as someone who cares about human habits in the face of the greatest mass extinction of species the earth has ever known, thanks to the capitalistic anthropocene? Where can I go to soothe my soul?

My alley on 32nd and Emerson is called “Thunder Alley.” It’s not one of those archetypal dark downtown alleys, full of drugs and murder, that get a bad rap for good reason. There are no garbage bins behind the backside of a tall, brick building. Concrete is foreign. The alley is part dirt, part crumbly gravel. Along its sides are the fences of human habitations, as well as a couple of unused garages. The “weeds” grow freely, thank goodness. The fly-catchers, blue jays, sap suckers and squirrels compete with the crows for dominance along its narrow stretch from Alberta to Killingsworth Street.

This alley is unkempt, safe, a wild place, abandoned and deserted and forgotten. A place for safe wildness.

I wander the network of alleys here in the Alberta Arts district until I run into impassable brambles of Himalayan blackberries.

Thunder Alley’s principal claim to fame is nothing, but I know, because I live and wander and sit here frequently, that in its landscape, as roof, is one of the most magnificent trees I’ve ever seen: an American Chestnut. Huge leaved beauty, quite tall (60 feet?), grey limbs in winter like an inosculation of neurons. A cognitive image.

This chesnut tree defies the diseased extinction of its species. For, if we were aware, we would know that the chestnut is in grave danger.

Yet none of this is exactly my point. I’m not trying to say that cities are bad. I’m not trying to declare that Portland is changing for the negative. Gentrification is making sure that the city is sparkling clean for tourist and newcomers alike. Rid of its seedy history, its racism, and its violent old western heyday vibe which strangely grafted with the fruits of hippy and grunge explosions. None of this is my point.

I sit here and stare at the sun. The sun makes me think of permanence. There is change in the world. Things–like creatures and plants–are eradicated. Humans themselves are displaced and replaced.

The sun makes me hope as it warms half of my face against the cold draft of wind that has first passed through the Doug firs and crow feathers to reach my ears. I hear nothing of speed this early at dawn as the faint brush of pink illuminates the cirrus and the fingernail moon still clings to the bright planet beside her. What I hear, sadly in some ways, is my own wish for slowness.

We underestimate the value of just being in contemplation. We overestimate the value of action and accomplishment.

I’m all for shoveling snow. I’m all for chopping winter’s wood with an axe and not a chainsaw. That actually makes me more of a human. More muscular. More authentic. And then I’ll go read a book by Pessoa, by Celan, by Sloterdijk, Plath or Valente. Poetry and philosophy live with me here, in Thunder Alley. All alongside the blue jay, the strange beetle, the moth.

Wherever you live, find your “alley.” Find a place of wildness you can walk down. Discover the overgrown and unkempt. Get away from concrete. To let your feet sink into mud after a lovely spring rain. To watch the vanilla grow next to violets and the passionflowers your neighbors planted which flop over the fence and run close to the ground until they are able to bloom. Find a strip of natural peace near your house and go there, leaving the screens and the valuables of domestic, technological life. Electric screens are meaningless to raccoons. The insulated electric wires stringing among houses are just rope bridges for squirrels. Why should electronics be meaningful to you on the nights when you are supposed slowly to be yourself?

You are part of a larger whole. The “alley” is yours to discover. Walk. Listen. Observe. Breathe living depth in your own alley of slowness.

Poem for Trakl: after carrying the word sanft through my dreams



Gentle pagination
easy with the image
as it unstows in ink,

never forced, often hanging
or hinged on a word:
like sanft,
that when coupled with another
becomes sanftes,
and its softness looses
and settles,
sinking into the breast
as easily as rain
vanishing in the forest.

Trakl rises from the page
with all the pain-tethers drawn taut,
until a reader pulls them free,
fine dendrites of gold and crimson
emancipated from the thin pulp
flood the world with their pollen,
oh, a galaxy of fire
here on earth
streams from a single wayward soul
that cries come back,
return and nest in me
with all your snowpure sufferings.

A lone walker catches sight
of what can only be described
as an angel,
wreathed in the source of blue, of purple,
whose lurid robes conceal a suit of armor
made from newly risen stars—


S. Grube

Finding my way


It might seem odd to many that for me, entering into this virtual platform feels rather like a great plunge–a plunge that is rounded about with not a little anxiety and misgiving.  I have to ask myself many different questions if I am to embark on “putting myself out there” on such a vast scale as the information highway allows.

Who exactly am I to address?  It might be best to simply transcribe my letters or correspondence with you, Jonathan, and so give the outsider a vantage from which to scrutinize or perhaps gain insight into our unique exchange, reaping from this whatever knowledge or entertainment might me a valuable addition to the possibly unknown recipient’s life.  It may very well be that this is the best course to take.  My other option would be to write in a more general manner that would be speaking to whomever might be directed to, or have stumbled upon, this site.  In this case I must ask myself what would be so alluring as to draw someone’s undivided attention, and withal their precious time, to the reading of an online avowal.  I also know that any notion of what has come to be known as blogging will never be part of my life such that it would detract from either tangible acts of discovery in actual bound books with covers and real pen and paper, or warm-blooded correspondence where the other’s face and body are present.  It may be in the very writing of this post that I will begin to discover what the future holds for a virtual Many Arrows.

So where does one start?  And yes, I am always including you my friend in any question or consideration written here.

I’ve been reading the copy of Pascal’s Pensées that you sent to me not that long ago.  I needn’t tell you how brilliant it is. I was drawn to it because of several films I happened to watch from the French director Eric Rohmer.  He is quite obsessed with Pascal and uses the wager in at least two of his films (My Night at Maud’s and A Winter’s Tale).  I have been wondering about Pascal’s notion of “custom being our nature”, and how this applies to the iconoclast within society–namely the artist–and if one can ever escape the customary influence completely.

Let me give you an example.  I was driving the kids to school yesterday morning, and in a rare moment of inspiration, decided to put on some music for the trip.  I chose The Decemberist’s Crane Wife, beginning with part one and going forward in chronological order.  As we motored down the valley I paused the song now and again to embellish and explain the songwriter’s interpretation of the Japanese cautionary tale, and it didn’t take long until I was moved to tears by the beauty of the song.  Of course I attempted to mitigate my emotion by widening my eyes to create a larger space to hold in the brimming tears (for I didn’t want the kids to see their stalwart father crumbling under a musician’s influence), and I did that strange cough when I was explaining things, coupled with long pauses, to get a hold of myself and hide my being so moved.  When I was pulling into the circus ring of my son’s school, the line “and all I ever meant to do, was to keep you….my crane wife” whelmed the tears so that they streaked down my cheeks and I had to turn my head down and to the left and wipe the hot salt trail with my sleeve.

So I ask you Jonathan, or anyone, is this customary?  Is such a reaction to beauty and authenticity commonplace in our culture?  Is reading Hugo von Hofmannsthal on his birthday and feeling an overwhelming connection to a dead Austrian poet normal?  And Trakl, my God, how is one to reconcile such an astonishingly felicitous obsession with death to a biopolitical environment that sees this as pathological?  And biopolitics have become the custom.  Were we born with hearts too large for this technologically foreshortened world?  You said in your last letter that you would lay down your life to save a final pair of moths.  I am thrilled when  you relate such sentiments, and I believe that the more our care grows for what are seemingly insignificant creatures to most, the more our capacity for love burgeons.  Perhaps our ire looms in proportion in order to protect the fragility that is our compassion.  You ended by saying “And I will always criticize myself to understand how to love and empathize more with all.  That’s my meaning.  It even includes the good humans.”  One would find it difficult to improve on such a statement.


On Trying (to Word)

but transient, not eternal,
and intangible?

wishing for something deeper
almost always, an intimacy
with the coldest body

maybe language . . .

as if speech could ever bend
its back
far enough over to pluck
what is fathoms away

in between
and until the end

skins eyes tongues, we have

forever the unsayable
except where clouds
use me as fingers would
to dabble in

or perhaps, finally, the mute
are more essential
to the puzzle floating the rorid waves
of ocean’s windows

only at the end of us,
the real cannot be spoken



Tintamarre (a vocab-necdote)

Tintamarre   (n.):   hideous, confused noise; clangor

            Midnight. She’s struggling, dead in the midst of writing a pivotal scene. She desperately needs focus. She’s losing sleep-time, waxing on into the silent night. Her mind’s fighting to stay sharp and attentive. Suddenly, a din erupts outside her window and clangs across the urban concrete. A form of resonant horror that shouldn’t occur this late or this loudly. The startling noise immediately accelerates her bloodflow. Her second thought after “what the fuck?” flashes to “who the fuck?” This ain’t some corner on Boubon Street or some Christmas caroling bullshit. This is boring Portland on a school night.

            Impulsive, she rockets off her chair and strides angrily to the front door, wincing and squeezing her ears. She’s gonna let ’em have it. Boldly, she flings the door open to confront the inconsiderate culprits. The revellers she sees on the otherwise empty street are swaying like they’ve just come out of a pub at the gender-bending vaudeville convention. Men in feathers, tight leather, mascara in the cold, wan moonlight, all gyrating ecstatically. Inexplicable. Each of them is banging obnoxiously on an improvised drum of metal. Not a recognizable song, just a loud, confused cacophony. More hideous than hot cats crying. Why’d they stop right in front of her house? It’s a mystery. Under different conditions, say if she didn’t have to work late, she might have joined the banging orgy of noise.

            Any poise she had evaporates wickedly as she screams at their backs over the din, “Hey assholes, it’s way too fucking late for this tintamarre!”


Stillicidous (a vocabnecdote)

Stillicidous (adj.): falling in drops

In the night, she stumbled barefoot and half-conscious into the bathroom. She was so out of it from the exhausting trip, she tried to flip the light switch but missed. As she took the five steps in darkness to flop down on the toilet, she felt as though she was squelching through a lamina of fresh glue. Her toes made an unusual sucking sound whenever they pulled away from the floor. The god-awful reek emanating upward ambushed her nose as well. It was obvious that her lousy, drunk-ass husband hadn’t sponged the room the whole time she’d been gone. What annoyed her almost as much was his lack of enthusiasm to see her when she’d dazed through the door just minutes earlier. As she sat there peeing and discontented, she had a sudden urge to lift her foot from the mephitic tile. Her foot barely peeled off, pulling some sticky residue with it. Disgust rolled over her. “Damn it, Jimmy,” she yelled toward the open door a second later, “could you at least clean up after spraying your stillicidous fluids all over the bathroom floor!”

— J. Celan Smith