beat about the head

The binaries were boxing my ears again.


sturdy enough

Find a few facts you can stack and then stand upon without fear of collapse.


city planning

For so many cities, was it urban renewal or was it the urban ruined?


vain and vital

Vanity is a vital force. You know you’re getting old when you feel your vanity begin fade.


ancient ache

All the pain of history hurts us still.


all in

All in on the here and now, he’d spit out the spiritual long ago.


a fire too far

Always chasing after what was hot, and ending up with ashes in her eyelashes.


where the reward

The reward is in life itself: to live by kindness and with goodwill among other human beings inhabiting the planet.


no wall to write on

The handwriting of the galaxy was trying to find the wall of the cosmos.


charitable caricature

One sees oneself in the most charitable of caricatures possible


never unpacked

His suitcase was his bureau.


Monochords by Yannis Ritsos

Monochords by Yannis Ritsos
Translated by Paul Merchant, Tavern Books, 2017.

Monochords by Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990) is not a traditional collection of aphorisms. There are many statements conveying wisdom and insight, but this book is primarily a diverse collection of quick observations and fragmentary vignettes.

The short entries, some not even complete sentences, make more austere the thinking which tilts toward the stoic. Statues appear in several of the numbered entries—and they make me think of the ‘archaic smile’. Ritsos hardened by life and Greek politics, but not dulled or unfeeling. In these brief entries he remains rather amused and still hopeful. I can almost see the smile rising at the corners of the lips of a closed mouth, as he prepares to speak. He’s ready to be fanciful and light in face of a world that both worries and wearies us:
   With a bird for a pillow, I lie awake night after night.

A number of the fragments operate as though collapsed poems, leaving only a few nouns for imagery:
   The lamppost, the statue, the flagpole.

   Mountain, bell tower, cypresses, travelers.

Recalling “The Ninth Elegy” by Rilke,
‘Perhaps we are only here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window—
at most: column, tower…But to say them, you must understand,
oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves
ever dreamed of existing.’*

Then there are some glimpses of Greek daily life:
   When I have forgotten you, the garden will remind me.

   Mounted on hazardous scaffolding, we are cleaning our temples’ pediments.

Here the image stands as an arrested moment in time:
   Just when the swimmer jumped in. I missed it.

Or as Ritsos says in a later entry:
   How gently time collapses into poetry.

Twice in his life, Ritsos was a political prisoner of his country. He refers at times to his resistance:
   Later comes the strip search of the corpses.

   Now they’ve taken off his muzzle how can he speak?

There are some traditionally rendered aphorisms, that are both wry and knowing:
   He shouted loudly so we’d forget how for years he’d said nothing.

   From a long way down he assesses the height.

Being foremost a poet, Ritsos shares some elemental aspects of his ars poetica:
   Hard for the word to travel from blood to poem.

   The old woman came from Myli with a basket of tomatoes so she could enter my poem.

And in this one that recalls Mallarm√©’s admonishment to Degas, that ‘poems are made not of ideas but of words’:
   You capture a nightingale not idea by idea, but word by word.

The Greek is printed en face and those who know Greek may contradict me, but I feel that Paul Merchant’s translations wonderfully capture the mind and spirit of the man, and the poet, from what I know of Ritsos’ biography.

*Ahead of All Parting, Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell, Modern Library, 1995.


too late

Latecomers cast no shadows, they are the shadows.


is is

Existing is the only ‘is’.


degree of disk

You’ve seen old stooped workers; they prove one’s back can be broken by degrees, disk by disk.


one must be tested

You can’t be taught by a teacher who doesn’t test you.


huffing and puffing along

Her sighs acted as the propulsive force in her life.


no tongue left

He had bitten his tongue so many times, it was as if they’d cut out his tongue.


what don't you know

It’s truly grand what I don’t know, and equally grand is what I’m capable of understanding.


made beerable

I’ve found that drinking beer makes accordion music bearable.


bad rhyme

It scares me that soul rhymes with hole.


stats or standing

Loser players talk about their stats and not their team’s standing.


signal / noise

With history the story is signal while time amounts to noise.


like babies

Some liars can sleep well too.


less sense

We have so many laws because common sense is always in short supply.


long dash

Don’t you hate it when a name gets listed as “John Smith, 1955–”, like the terminal year can drop in right behind the dash any minute now. I want my dash to stretch out like a road that will end but not before a long ride ahead.


medal or metal

The officers wear the medals, the soldiers feel the shrapnel.


sky page

When we look at the sky we realize days are our pages.


past forward

The past is useful only so far as its lessons can inflect the present and the future.


almost immortal

The closest one can get to immortality is when they can’t find your body.


7 Aphorisms from Bob Perelman

7 Aphorisms from “Autobiography by Aphorism” by Bob Perelman, in Virtual Reality (Roof Books, 1993)

In my local Stop-n-Shop they have a book donation area. You are free to drop off books and to pick up what’s there. Of course there are many bestseller novels, class-assigned books, decade-old fad self-help books, etc., but among these, over the years, I’ve found a few good books.

Since the pandemic it’s been slimmer pickings. I’m generally looking for slim volumes (poetry books), and I found one of interest last week: Virtual Reality (Roof Books, 1993) by Bob Perelman. He’s known to be associated with the language poetry movement. A whole section of this book is printed upside down, you have to flip the book to read the text. At first I thought that this might be an intentional ‘dada’ move by the poet, but it’s clearly just a major screw-up by the printer.

Leafing through the book I came upon a section called “Autobiography by Aphorism.” Like haiku within haibun, there are seven aphorisms interspersed within blocks of prose. It’s hard to tell if Perelman takes these aphorisms seriously because they’re surrounded by wildly digressive prose that is not at all autobiography by any common notion. For example, here’s the last run of prose with its trailing aphorism:

She reaches behind her neck to undo her pearls and habit, willing the moment to sleep. Obedience dreams of pressed precise glyphs, groupings, curves, wakeup calls under sunny trees, a plunge to obsession in the mire, classes where the units strip right down to the White House. But that is all hearsay. Meaning slips into something less natural.    

—Nothing is more beautiful 

    than being able to set a bad example.        

Without the accompanying prose, here are the prior 6 aphorisms in order of appearance and preserving the original formatting:

             —Extremely happy and extremely unhappy

    men are exactly alike.


—The writer is the one

    who is always the author’s favorite.


—There is a great difference

    between praise and blame.


—Most of the world’s troubles come

   from making a mistake.


—Terrorism is essentially the rage

    of literati at a banquet.


—Nature never happens twice. 


different times

There but for the chance of time, go I.


moments and larger things

We live together in shared moments, while monuments and mountains stand behind each of us.


utter clutter

In cities we feel the weight of things, human clutter closes in on us.


money talks

Often I've found a large roll of fifties and hundreds to be more powerful than a fist.



No way to connect to the internet, no way to breathe underwater.


less said the better

At the time I was busy turning my life into a cautionary tale.


day to night

Your resolutions of each bright morning dissolve with the evening light.


fast or slow

You bought a sports car to drive fast on the highway. I found a path along the river where I can walk slowly.


shot through

One strives to be comprehensive, and then you look back at a sieve.