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.

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



breathhelix (1)


breathhelix (1)


across the windsward of a grey-black city,

no rivers hang their stars tonight.

only autumn in the alleygarden, yet ice

distils its darker moments

in transilient shadows.

branches, swept bare and bleak,

quaver abovewhere weeds lunge coldly

near earthquiet roots.


within a lighted window, a boy

scrapes white wax from candlesticks

while his mother’s fingers dip

into sky for purple stones. elsewhere,

on metallic stairs, anxious shoes

climb toward lovers, their hands

burning in yellow flowers,

and below, in darkling rooms, lips

embalm young eyes, innocent spheres

no less wet for their closing.


above the frozen silence, the walker looks up.

night sends him its crystal picture:

“thaw-into-slowness,” the image says.


how long forgotten, he wonders, simplicity

that settles our hearts, this quiet

caesura, ceasing us, the bright hiatus that

pauses our cities, restoring life

by slow lapse into empty calmness?


then, to his ears, a new voice: an aria,

tinnient on the glassdeep air,

a voice that echoes the simple birthsleepsigh

of our most peaceful stars.


— J.C.S.

Writing Art-like? An aesthetic wish


Many of us want our writing to be beautiful in form as much as in content. That’s probably why we, if we’re poets and novelists, go through experimental phases, scratching shapes of words across the page in strange formations. Embellishing the content with unusual patterns and syntax as the words tumble up and down and across and askew as though a sketchwork.

When we think of the “art of writing,” how many of us are thinking about the actual shape of writing (as a picture seen) and not the content (as a voice heard)? Poets and novelists are concerned with visual presentation. But how beautiful as artworks are most of these efforts? Even in poetry, content is what provides most of what passes for the “beautiful” in language. May I lament this, finding in it not as much justification for writing as I would wish?

Language gets along fine without writing. Writing seems to me to be an excess, a luxury, something inessential to language itself. The essential is orality, not literacy. Language only needs writing if it wishes to become visible. To go beyond the audible. Writing en-visions language. That’s basic. By instantiating language in visual material, writing participates in that ancient artistic obsession with making language appear to the eyes.

Yet if the visible is such a writerly emphasis, why are so many works less than beautiful visually? It’s a wonder given our age of image-worship.

Hieroglyphs and ideograms are beautiful because their language is essentially pictographic. Egyptian script, Mayan glyphs, Chinese characters. These approach artistic status in a way that typography cannot. They are graphic, pictorial, painterly. I can see why someone would find writing in this way a form of art, a calligraphy. Beyond content, it feeds the desire for creating visual beauty.

Visually, then, typography seems destined to need the addition of illustrations to make the page aesthetically stimulating and appealing to the eyes. The Book of Kells. Or take Blake. Poetry embellished on the outside by pictures that aren’t the language itself, purfled and deckled around the actual writing. Exterior adornments associated with the writing, but by no means interior and essential to the writing. Meant to create an artistic impression, but superfluous. If you took Blake’s illustrations away, his writing’s value would be left untouched and unscathed. It would remain a visual disappointment, but that’s the fault of the writing itself. Adding pictures is attractive, but not essential.

So if the essential form of writing does not create the visually stunning artwork that could stand alone without content, what is it doing aesthetically?

For our visually unsatisfying language as I said, we tend to switch our focus to its content in order to justify writing’s existence. It’s the content, we say, that’s beautiful, not necessarily the form. As though orality can’t quite supply ample content for linguistic creation? As though the verbal needs visual content to satisfy the deep play of the imaginative? As though envisionment makes language more sacred and durable, even if it lacks pulchritude? Okay. So writing is about content, not appearance. I’m still not that impressed with this line of thinking.

I would say that if we need writing, if we have any inherent justification for doing it, it should be as a contributor to artistic form, not just to content. I feel disappointed that language, even when the content works, is often visually banal.

All this leads me to suggest that writing and our relation to it today is at heart a case of visual obsession that never goes far enough. Of the fascination with the visual that has been with us throughout history, but that we are not doing enough to advance by making the shapes and patterns of writing be themselves artworks. Our writing doesn’t achieve the height of artistry because it lacks the pictography it would need if it were to be much more pleasing to the eyes. More art-like.

Can we invent an English pictography? Can we translate English language into hieroglyphs or ideograms that would make for a beautiful calligraphy?

— J.C.S.

“The Last Gold of Expired Stars”: A Note on Trakl

Why would we read poetry such as Trakl’s that seems so distant from us? Our world is not his world, after all. If one is afraid of the melancholic or of making the bucolic something beautifully sinister, one would surely not wish for exposure to the lines of this wonder of language. For to a large extent, Trakl achieves Rimbaud’s desire for poetry, viz., the derangement of the senses. Maybe as Gadamer might have it, we read Trakl as any older artwork: to experience a fusion of horizons, part-present part-past, that somehow (mysteriously) expands our sense of life. We irrigate ourselves by un-situating from sterile, habitualized comforts and by comforting ourselves in more despondent situations through that empathic affinity with suffering that we may find tapped in Trakl’s poetry. Certainly, if we appreciate sadness subtilized and alienation beautified, we have our guy here, no matter the historical distance. Take lines from “Whispered in the Afternoon”:

The forehead dreams God’s colors,
Feels the gentle wings of insanity.
Shadows revolve on the hill
Fringed blackly by rot.

Dusk full of rest and wine;
Sad guitars flow.
And as if in a dream
You turn to the calm lamp within.

(trans. by Doss & Schmitt)

This poet is not a rutilant genius like Baczynski or Hart Crane. His gifted descriptions rarely strike our hearts like suddenly unleashed levin. Nor should we expect a Stevensesque metaphysicality. Rather we get lots of colors that spread out through his eyes to tinge nature and village. We walk with him through a bleak and crepuscular world populated with nuns, shepherds, maidens, scythe-swinging harvesters, lepers, and the brackish forms of trees. We smell the fetor of rat-infested alleys even as we hear the bombilations of insects over the fields. Trakl offers us a sepulchral montage that captures a mournful, decaying, and lonely time in the dusk of old Austrian countryside. His language touches us deeply with his own sensibility that is by no means idealized, unless sickness and sadness are your ideals.

What I’m more interested in are the places of surprising images that erupt in the midst of his dark topoi. The truly creative depth of his subtle yet flying imagination. Take lines from “De profundis” as example:

I am a shadow far from sinister villages.
I drank God’s silence
From the fountain in the grove.

Upon my forehead cold metal steps.
Spiders seek my heart.
It is a light that extinguishes in my mouth.

To me, lines such as this take any poetry beyond mere description. Even were Trakl’s descriptions and portraits not brilliant as such, were only a unique perspective we’re privileged to share with him, Trakl’s poetry would be excellent. But those flashing insights of fresh images once in a while take his verses into an ineffable depth that I crave beyond description.


In Struggle, What?

In struggle, we win our spirits and our freedom. Why would we expect an absence of suffering or the presence of caring? Perhaps the innocence of childhood carried into adulthood belies the truth. For without suffering and in the midst of caring, we would not have our singular road that is self-faith, nor our motive that is self-creation. Isn’t that part of what we want: the opportunity to create our own world in a spirit of freedom and self-determination? Perhaps nothing could be achieved without that adversity that meets us with the uncaring gaze of a blank, insensitive social world or a voice whose power prohibits our steps forward. We won’t faint at this. Sometimes, if we must, we can retreat into the Eden of fantasy or stir up the longings for naievete. Mostly we face head-on the odyssey with its perils and frustrations to overcome, transgressing barriers if we must when they are not in our best interest. Remember the Argonauts? Remember the Twins’ descent into Xibalba? The creative life is a committed quest that encounters dangers. Through creativity we out-trick the trials, temptations, detours. Creativity is the answer. It can be envisioned as a quilt as much as a road. A quilt-quest, a discovery-patchwork of endeavors, each with its own transient history that joins continuously with the next square and the previous square.

Pessoa and Lispector, for example, were fulfillments of the smart dreamer type. They had no theories, for that also bored them, but their stories are thought-dreams combining aesthetics with intelligence. Their reclusive response to life made them artistic saints. They acted like spiritual hermits, but were creative dreamers, lonely and intelligent monastics of imagination. Hildegard of Bingen. Kazantzakis. Nietzsche. Rilke. Jabes. Cioran, maybe.

Writing is a way of living. Writing is not all of living, and living is not all of writing. Some of us love and write out of a way of living love.

Many charms exist to help us through. We have each to possess our own charm and live it out in the world.

It’s important that we join together to uphold the forms of creative struggle that we are.

Just a quick morning thought. – J. Celan Smith