Three Conversation Poems




I mean, I knew I knew what it was but

the melody’s recognizable but the tempo’s

sped up. Speeded. Some are, yeah, but

some are slowed way down. When I first

heard it I thought it was Bach. He makes

everything sound like Bach but it wasn’t.

Yeah, but the melodies, it’s like he’s

seeing the score three-dimensionally. It’s

like one of those exploded diagrams where

you see it taken apart, a carburetor or

whatever, to see how it goes back together.

But you were saying about the blessing,

the one on sukkot. You shake the lulav,

bound palm branches, fronds, like a broom, 

once in each direction, north, south, east,

up, down I mean, I mean, you know, you

recite the bracha, the prayer, but broken up.

You have to break the rhythm of the waving

motion away from the words so you don’t

shake it when you say God’s name. But you’re

not even supposed to say it and you just said it. 

That’s only the name of the name. Not the

same. Anyway, you were saying you say

the bracha on a sort of legato as you bring

the lulav to the next position. Like the invocation

Santeros say to open the gates to Elegguá. Or

no, to ask him to open them for you. You mean

for you. He guards doorways and crossroads,

where possibility begins. Legba in Vodou.

Protects children too. But aren’t you a Jew?

You look familiar. Like we’ve met somewhere

before. Between each compass point or tone’s

another one and so on.  It’s where time started or

starts all the time. I don’t follow.  It’s like you’re

trying to halve it both ways. I think you mean have.

Whatev. I think you know exactly what I mean.




Yeah so anyway she pulls me back inside and pulls this Dolce & Gabbana,

she reaches down into this pile and pulls out this little Dolce & Gabbana top

from way down inside the middle of this, this pile. Like up to the ceiling, OK?

And it fit me perfectly. I mean, I go it’s not going to fit me, and she goes it’s going to fit               you perfectly.

I told her I’m too big up here, believe me, I know, but she did, I mean it did,

it fit me fucking perfectly. You have to realize it was like a warehouse in there

but like after a tornado or something, and we were still on the street

and she goes, oh, I have a little Dolce & Gabbana top it’s going to fit you perfectly,

and then we get up there and she just reaches into this pile like she knows exactly where

            the fuck it is.

She did know. What?  She knew exactly where it was. Yeah, and it fit me perfectly.

Like that was why she kept it all those years. Like somehow she knew. 

It’s like this letter I can’t get rid of. That’s not the same thing. I know but

I can’t get rid of this letter a friend of mine wrote me like ten years ago. 

It fell out of a book he gave me. Actually more than ten. I don’t even care

about the book but he gave it to me so I have to keep the letter with it. 

You think you have to. Yeah, I mean feel like I do. Like it’s part of your

friendship with him.  Or maybe what’s in it. What?



in the letter, whatever’s in it, you have to take all of it

into you before you can let go of it, into your whole

being, your whole being, you know. Like integrate it, I mean.

But you have to, to already know, yeah, or to go, to just go, yeah,

this is part of me, but not just saying it, right?  It’s like I brought my mother’s things

back this summer. I never do things like that. Stuff is just stuff, come on, man.

But I brought her stuff back. It’s the same thing. Well, but it’s

the same thing. And they’re all in our house here now,

my mother’s and my father’s stuff. But what do I do with it all now,

what do I do with them now, with the things, now that I have them here?

They’re like another life. It’s like having another life inside my life here now. 




Bengalese finch singing from

its song-isolation box in our

Bay Area lab.  But from would

mean to, and this isn’t that. What

matters to us is production and learning.

Colleagues in the birdsong field likewise

wait for zebra finch song crystallization

a continent away. Needless

to say we more easily see

in the head-fixed sleeping bird

than in the freely behaving bird

how sleep bursts of basal ganglia

activity resemble song bursts of

same; the bird brain’s in rehearsal.

           The high vocal center or HVC,

           formerly the so-called song center,

           suggests we still rely on

           a music-box-like conception

           of the underlying neural mechanism

           of the structure of song. We’re talking

           eight thousand nerve cells

           sending signals downstream to

seven or eight muscles making up

the vocal mechanism responsible for

the tweets and chirps and warbles

and trills and, well, all in all,

song, which we distinguish from

everything else, mere calls.

           So we insert a device

           adapted from a device

           you plug into your car’s

           cigarette lighter to keep

           a Coca-Cola on a

           long drive cold

           into the air sacs inside

           the zebra finch skull.

           Bilateral cooling causes

           uniform slowing of song.

           Having localized the dynamics

           we note distinct neural substrates

           for sequence and pitch. So

from highly variable babble

through the intermediate plastic song

and on to stereotippy repeatability

the juvenile eventually matches its output

via basal ganglia feedback to what

we take to be a stored template to

clock-like patterns of adult songbird

sound. Listen and learn:

           the template holds a stable

           sensory representation

           of what the bird has heard

           in its tutor’s song, which is

           what its own production

           is based on. A recovery process

           for error correction increases

           accuracy of matches, as in this don’t

           sound right: adjust accordingly.

Basal ganglia reward circuits guide vocal

play toward recognizable sequence of sound,

highly structured sequences of sound. Meanwhile

the cortical loop allows each species-specific

characteristical song to unfold until it’s complete.

Social context for variability awaits further study.


                        –from talks by Michael Fee of MIT

                        and Michael Brainard of UC;

                        mistakes are my responsibility.