Wednesday, February 5, 2014


The change of light 
that flickers your shining eyes from amber 
to ink black
as you alter your gaze 
as you notice me staring,
thinking I've caught you in prolonged consideration,
and instead find that you are longing for the harbour
over my shoulder,
or aching for a moment of the waiter's time
to ask for the bill,
has travelled through urgent eons to arrive here and meet you, 
before discretely catching my attention
to describe something that has long ago been decided,
something anyone could see.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year

By most metrics, it was a good year. 

Globally, the number of children under five who died this year was down by half from its 1990 level, as were the number of maternal deaths and deaths due to TB. Measles was down 71 percent, and HIV by 24 percent. The WHO has determined that we as a species are healthier and will live longer lives than at any point in recorded history. 

Despite the seeming ubiquity of war, the trend in battle deaths in 2013 continued to trend downwards. Fewer people are killed in armed conflict and fewer lives are lived in its midst than have since before the Second World War. War is less deadly and less common than it has since we began keeping records.

Violent crime is in a global decline, and the world continues to trend incrementally towards becoming a safer place for women, minorities, and other victims of systemic discrimination, though much work remains to be done. 

All in all, it was a good year. Maybe one of the best ever years to be a human being. Maybe the very best. Every year, we get better at being people.

So here's to the casualties. Here's to everyone whose loss and tragedy falls to the far side of the bell curve. Here's to everyone rolled into the crush, everyone left behind, everyone at the end of the mean, and everyone to whom our unthinkable debt is owed.

Here's to those who left us, here's to Mikhael Kalashnikov and Nelson Mandela - long lives and longer legacies. Here's to water on Mars, so long gone but now not forgotten. Here's to our growing human complexity, and here's to the natural environment we've yet to build.

So, once again: to all those who yearn, and all those who struggle, and above all else, to all those who fail, happy new year.

Monday, November 11, 2013

On Remembrance Day

It was the Canadians who saved the day. They were in the most desperate situation of all, for the collapse of the French lines meant that they now had four miles of absolutely nothing on their left. Not being able to use their infantry in the dark, the Germans switched their tactics to heavy shelling. All night the bombardment continued but somehow, in spite of it, the Canadians managed to deploy to the left to cover the gap, somehow they managed to mount a counter-attack, somehow the casualties were evacuated, somehow reserves were brought up and spread in pitifully small numbers along the gap to try to establish a new line. They had little chance of succeeding.

The Germans rushed in no less than forty-two fresh battalions, and against them, devastated by heavy bombardment, the effort of twelve Canadian and six weak British battalions was unavailing.

The sensible thing to do would have been to withdraw from the salient, abandoning Ypres, and to establish a stronger line in the rear beyond the canal bank, a tactical possibility that had indeed been earlier considered. But emotion was riding high, at least in Britain, where flags waved and the drums beat and newspapers trumpeted forth glory in every edition. Public opinion, like Queen Victoria during the Crimean War, was not interested in the possibility of defeat. Public opinion, however, was not trying to hold the salient. Public opinion was not manning a line of trenches bombarded by six times as many German guns as there were guns to retaliate. Public opinion was not required, for want of gas-masks, to urinate on its sock and clap it over its nose as more noxious gas-clouds rolled inexorably towards it.

The appalling casualty-lists were read with horror, but in the spirit of the times they only served to stiffen the resolve of a nation in mourning. For these were not casualties of the regular army of professional risk-takers which, in any event, now hardly existed. They were the volunteers, 'Our Boys' who such a few short months ago had marched off, wreathed in beams of enthusiasm, to do their bit, and 'Our Boys' must not be said to have done their bit in vain. If they had died to protect Ypres, then Ypres must not be given up.

…at the end of May 1915, five weeks after the first gas attack, the withdrawal took place. In those five weeks 60,000 men had been killed, wounded, or were missing. The grim and dreadful salient was consolidated. One day people would call it immortal.

-Lyn MacDonald, "They Called It Passchendaele".

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

wave shoaling

Two years ago, I watched The Tsunami crush Japan
live from an Al-Jazeera helicopter.

Until that moment,
So few people had seen a Tsunami
and lived to describe it
that we had forgotten why we call them tidal waves.

It wasn't a wall of water,
No sudden surge in amplitude
as the wave entered the shallows.

Just a tide that wouldn't ebb
rising faster than
they could run,
or drive.

Those few survivors from history
were right:
smaller than we cared to imagine
-- but relentless,
smashing a delicate coastline,
pushing a boundary ever inwards,
synthezising everything into
one burning wave.

Friday, April 12, 2013

In Focus

“You’re wonderful,” you said to me
once, resting your head
against a tabled book after I said something
or other that made your bright thunderhead
eyes crinkle

And I recalled a child's astronomy lesson:
That once, we were one flame
- a brilliant stellar roil -
now collapsed into these countless discrete forms:

The book, and
the things in it that troubled you.
The scarf that
you folded and slipped under
my cheek as I slept in
the library.
The current that coursed through
the filament that illuminated
you and me.

Though I only smiled dumbly,
forgetting how to speak.

These passing familiar fragments
somehow converging here
again. Meeting, as if never separated
by this long trajectory.
An eternity to spend drifting apart
interrupted, for only a moment,
by your head tilted in passing recognition.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013


Some days, the blankness of my sheets of paper 
(their texture and sound as they slide across one another their sharpness 
and smoothnees under my fingertips) is so striking that I feel 
as if all I can do is



a pop
snaps the too-fine graphite tip against a

how did that happen?

So much idle energy
So little to show for it
So much time
Spent shuddering
blurring my perimeter


I feel it ebb and flow, rattling back and forth
desperate to escape in ways my body fails to correctly interpret

Somewhere there must be a solution
a transform to describe this seasick oscillation
a phase
an amplitude
a frequency

all in flux
desperate to match
desperate to couple to the wave of some activity, some task, some path, some 
place where it can be still in motion

Monday, April 1, 2013

Tomorrow, in a Year (Part whatever)

Earlier I said that Tomorrow, in a Year isn’t really about Darwin and Evolution, and is instead about grief and time and brilliance and change, and it’s fair to ask why, exactly, I think that.  It’s time to get some close reading done, and that means examining what, exactly, is being sung.  Strictly speaking, the words “time”, “sea”, and “age” occur frequently, though “time” refers both to a duration and an incidence, and thanks solely to “Mountains” the most frequently used word in the libretto is “white”.   This isn’t terribly helpful.

I mentioned earlier that Tomorrow, in a Year is both about and not about Darwin and Evolution – you can tell because neither word is ever spoken (this is, admittedly, a cop-out, since “Charles” is mentioned twice, but when the time comes, I’ll argue that there’s an important distinction between the use of a given name and surname.)  Also conspicuously absent: God, nature, creation, and all the other words a North American audience would expect from a work dealing with Evolution, since that word is still an issue over here. 

So what we can establish is that if Tomorrow, in a Year wanted to be about Evolution and Darwin in a proximate sense, it may have done well to actually mention either of those things, but it actually seems to go out of its way not to.  What it chooses to talk about instead is time, from it’s title on down, and much of the time it doesn’t speak about anything explicitly.  So what are we talking about when we talk about time?  We examine fossils and strata of rock: “layer on layer, life embedded in stone” is the line used elsewhere.  What we’re looking at, then, is the way living things change over time, and not the growth exhibited by a single organism, but the glacial, relentless change shown over generations and eons.

“Letter to Henslow” and “Shoal Swarm Orchestra” are instrumental pieces, depending on how you define an instrument.  “Letter to Henslow” is a fantastic mashup of human voices mimicking bird songs and bullfrog roars. In the artists’ roundtable discussion, they mention how much fun this track was to make. There are probably entirely convincing ways to imitate animal noises, if you really need to, so let’s assume that the artifice is part of the art.

There’s a rhetorical path we could tread down here that would invoke the simulacrum, but since I’m really tired can we just agree that a simulacrum is an imitation of something that didn’t really exist to begin with?  Our formulation of nature operates almost exclusively in this mode.  

“Shoal Swarm Orchestra” evokes a storm, and the story behind it involves Olaf Dreier spending some time in the Amazon rainforest with a tape recorder.  It’s a lush digestion of an environment’s sound, and if you wanted to you could probably argue that this may have been something that Darwin heard while travelling to wherever it was that he went, but that may be a hard rhetorical row to hoe because it sure as shit wasn’t the Amazon.

 Since this work is all about growth and development, “Shoal swarm orchestra” doesn’t remain static. Something like a distorted string instrument picks up recurring tones and hunts for a melody.  Maybe “hunts” isn’t the right verb, maybe it is; anyways, a storm obliterates it before it manages anything too sophisticated.  Other synthetic noises emerge from the storm but before long they too vanish, and that’s about the time when I realize that this is exactly the same trick that “intro” played, only with a more sophisticated seed. 

So what we have then, are two songs: the first is are human voices mimicking bird calls and bullfrog roars, and the second is a digesting (present tense, ongoing) recording of an exotic wilderness – in the industry we call this a dialogue, and the order is really, really important, because this is where that order changes.