Been & Going

[LefthandedJeff] Packrat’s Prayer

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I wrote this poem years ago as a sort of incantation to break through a psychic log jam that had kept me from clearing out a major case of clutter. It worked. Can you relate? Ever been a packrat? Ever fear that if you didn’t arrest a particular out-of-hand mess that you’d end up on TV as a hoarder? Of course, messes can be internal and psychological as well–a tangled rat’s nest of troubled feelings or nagging thoughts. Feel free to use this poem if you ever think it might help. Otherwise, just enjoy:

Packrat’s Prayer

Of all my clutter of things
Burn away

From stored heat
Of my hoarding

Off sputtering spark
Of my kicking you from my path
And then crying for you

On kindling
Of my touching you, with attention
Once more for memory

In licking, spitting flame
Of my angry final tossing you away.

May your ashes bed my flowers and living offshoots
Marrow my earth, and pack me more integral

May your smoke drift me less heavy, wrap me more loosely
Blend me into white sky and mesh me with the rain

Blend me into white sky and mesh me with the rain



[LefthandedJeff] Kittens and I Get the Shakes (Earthquake Flashback)

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Twenty years ago today I rode out the Northridge earthquake in an old brick apartment building in Hollywood with my new little gray tabby kittens, Shadow and Shade, and then wrote this poem about it:

Kittens and I Get the Shakes

Earthquake train roars, apartment shack shakes me martini, dice.
I naked in doorjamb prop up three floors like Atlas. Tiny grey
Puffball urchin faces, eyes wide marbles, peek from under futon.

Turned out to also be the first night that my now-wife Elise ever spent in Los Angeles, just about a mile away, near Beechwood Canyon and also in Hollywood. We wouldn’t meet until some weeks later, on St. Patrick’s Day. Fate gave us a shared experience, but did not yet bring us together.

As the poem indicates, I’d been sleeping naked when the quake hit early in the morning. I jumped up. The power went out. I always thought standing in a doorway was a dumb idea. I always figured they just told us that so they’d know where to find the bodies in the rubble. So I ran to the front door of my apartment, still naked, and threw it open, to the sound of dozens of other residents running down the hallway toward the back door.

I thought, this is life or death, I shouldn’t care if I run out there naked. But it turns out I did care. So I went and stood in an inside doorway, feeling ridiculous and stupid all the way around.

After the quaking stopped, it took me a long time to find the kittens, peeking out at me from under the futon in my office, with a quizzical and hurt look on their faces, as if they were saying, “What did we do? Why did you make the house shake like that? Whatever it is, we’re sorry and we’ll never do it again!” Which lets you know how traumatized they were, because cats rarely if ever make such a promise.



[LefthandedJeff] The Forever Farewell in Folk Songs

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For the hundreds of years through which our folk songs developed, farewells could well mean forever. You can hear that melancholy, that longing, the fatalism of that almost certain grief, in folk song after folk song. I’ve thought about this a lot while listening to the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack over and over.

If I had wings like Noah’s dove
I’d fly the river to the one I love.
Fare thee well, my honey
Fare thee well.

For hundreds of years, long journeys meant horseback, or wagon, or ship, through wild lands or over rough seas. Relatively recently, it could mean a train. That lonesome whistle haunts many a blues.

Long journeys meant days and weeks and months of danger and uncertainty. They meant permanent change. Not just a change of landscape, climate and home, but the changes that come from traumatic parting and long separation, and falling in with strangers, and the struggles, compulsions and compromises of survival far from home and family.

You leave to find adventure or blaze a trail to a new home and you might not bargain for how your soul meets the journey and the journey bends your soul. To leave for that long and travel that far meant to never return the same person, if you could ever return at all.

If you miss the train I’m on, you will know that I am gone
You can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles…
Lord I’m one, lord I’m two, lord I’m three, lord I’m four,
Lord I’m five hundred miles away from home…
Not a shirt on my back, not a penny to my name,
Lord I can’t go back home this a-way.

There’s a mournful song that Marcus Mumford sings in Another Day, Another Time, the concert featuring many of the players from Llewyn Davis. He’s all alone on stage. The singer has been gone from his home for years. He’s ashamed that he’s never written to his family. He gets word that his father has died and his sisters have gone wrong. But he’s afraid he can’t go home as he is. We don’t know what he’s done while he’s been gone, but we know he’s seen and done some serious things, and he’s forever changed. The man who left can never return because he no longer exists. When he said goodbye he may not have known it, but it was the Forever Farewell.

I’m going away to leave you, love
I’m going away for awhile
But I’ll return to you sometime
If I go ten thousand miles

Think about it. Really put yourself back there. No email, no cell phones. No text messages to make an instant connection, convey an everyday casual or urgent thought. No Facebook for Check-ins and Status Updates and to share the images of your journey. No Skype. Perhaps if you weren’t separated by an ocean or a frontier, you could write letters; perhaps they might even ultimately make it to their destination. But you might truly never ever see the ones you loved alive again ever on Earth.

It’s fare thee well my own true lover,
I never expect to see you again.
For I’m bound to ride that northern railroad,
Perhaps I’ll die upon this train.

You can see what a consoling thought it would be that one day you’d be reunited with your loved ones after death.

Maybe your friends think I’m just a stranger,
My face you’ll never see no more.
But there is one promise that is given,
I’ll meet you on God’s golden shore.

There are many themes in old folk songs, and the Forever Farewell is just one of them. But it’s certainly a frequent one. And the long journey is really our foundational American myth—from the Pilgrims in the Mayflower to the wagon trains west. Our great, grand central story is the story of the road. With the journey, with the road, comes the toll on the heart that it takes.

So you can also see how revelatory the book and the journeys depicted in On the Road were, in the mid 50s. By then we had cars fast enough and hardy enough to take us all the way out to the Western horizon and then back again, and the roads to carry us. We could zoom from the sunrise to the sunset and bounce right off of it back into the arms of the sunrise. The story was no longer about the Toll of the Heart from migration. It was the ecstasy of the journey and return, journey and return. A whole new American rhythm, fast and triumphant. You got the adventure, and yes, a journey still meant inner change. But without the same grief. Without the cost of the Forever Farewell. So it became a celebratory and revelatory journey. The foundational American road myth had its celestial catharsis.

It winds from Chicago to LA
More than two thousand miles all the way
Get your kicks on route sixty-six.

So to bring this meditation on the Forever Farewell in Folk Songs back around, think about how the 50s freedom from the Toll of the Heart that was the Forever Farewell eased into the 60s folk song revival. In the 60s, it was now safe, even cozy, to look back with a melancholy nostalgia to the costs of the journeys sung about in those songs. The middle-aged buyers of Peter, Paul & Mary and Kingston Trio records; and the young folk singers like Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan, all partook of that shared cultural reflection for the time that already seemed distant and receding like the train whistle a hundred miles, two hundred miles, five hundred years away.

[Songs quoted, in order: Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song), Five Hundred Miles, The Storms are on the Ocean, Man of Constant Sorrow, Route 66. Image credit: Found the photo at]

[LefthandedJeff] Take This Badge

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Always wanted
To be a seasoned, well-traveled soul.

Knew I had to earn
The badge of a broken heart.

Never reckoned
With how much that sucker would hurt.

[LefthandedJeff] With a Flick of a Question Mark

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Just a Thought:

How often do you feel like other people oversimplify you in their minds? They don’t understand how complicated your feelings are, your thoughts, your reasons for doing what you do?

Yet how often do we sum up someone else’s actions with a kind of simplistic emotional algebra like, “Oh, he just did x because of y”—where x is something we didn’t like and y is some dastardly but simple and direct motivation or character defect? How often do we dismiss someone with some sweeping mental gesture like “Oh, she’s really just a controlling bitch.”

If we want others to grant us our complexity, shouldn’t we grant them theirs?

Isn’t that kind of a corollary to the golden rule? Think upon others as we would have them think upon us?

“It’s hard to be a human,” my mom used to say. So if we want to be allowed to be fully human, with all our mixed motivations, conflicted feelings and halting thoughts, shouldn’t we let the other flawed and tangled people be fully human too?

Band Name Ideas:*

  • Red Phone (with apologies to Justin Romain and Redswitch)
  • The Nuclear Footballs

*Band name ideas posted here at LefthandedJeff are fair game. I will probably never start a band. If you like any of the band names I post, help yourself to them. My only request is that you drop me a line at or and let me know which one you used, and give me a nod in the liner notes on your first CD. Just for the fun of it, just as a courtesy.

Flick of a Question Mark

Before our very eyes, with just a flick of a question mark,
Our sledgehammer pens and piledriver keyboards
Turn to feathered quills and take wing.


Image credit: I found the image above at


[LefthandedJeff] Why LefthandedJeff? (A Sort of Lefthanded Manifesto)

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Why LefthandedJeff?

1. I like the sound of it. And I like the suggestions I find in it. So the assonance and the associations, you might say. But would I care to be a little more specific? By all means. So glad you asked.

2. I like the repetition of the “ef” sound from left to jeff. That’s a fine piece of assonance right there. And it’s something of a soft sound. Challenged by the repetition of the hard “d” in “handed.” I like that soft/hard thing, the yin/yang of it. And to my ear the “j” sound even offers a slight, subtle echo of the “f.”

Then the syllable “ef” carries other echoes and associations. It reminds me of one of my favorite salty words, for which it’s even the well-known stand-in: “fuck”—“the ‘ef’ word.” Again, the mix of soft and hard there. Both in sound and in the coming together of hard and soft that the word denotes.

More personally, though, that favorite syllable “ef” also points me toward the ineffable. Ultimate Mystery. Those things about which we say, “For lack of a better word.” What’s the first couplet of the Tao Te Ching? The Tao that can be named/Is not the eternal Tao? That.

The referenced, painted page of William Blake's Proverbs of Hell, from his book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

The referenced, painted page of William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell, from his book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

And one of the things I often feel I’m trying to do in my writing, particularly my poetry, is what I like to call, “effing the ineffable”—trying to capture in words that which can perhaps never be captured in words. A fool’s errand on the face of it. But “If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise,” said old  Bill Blake, and I can only hang my fool’s cap on that one.

3. There are some common associations with left-handedness that I like, and some which I’d like to “reclaim” in the best outsider tradition of taking something considered negative and turning it into a source of pride. Left-handers are often thought to be creative, artistic, romantic; of above-average intelligence, even genius. I like all that, that’s fun.

There are also all kinds of linguistic roots that associate being left-handed with being diabolical, of the devil. Sinister. Haven’t tracked this down, but I seem to remember hearing that left-handers in certain medieval times and places were thought to be witches, and were tortured out of it or even burned at the stake. My memory may have exaggerated here. Pardon me if I’m being left-handedly creative/romantic with such conjurations.

4. So there’s a notion of contrarian, outsider status that comes with being left-handed. But it’s subtle. Handedness is much less apparent than race, or even national origin—apparent from language and accents whenever someone speaks. We speak of gay-dar, but not hand-dar. People often don’t notice I’m left handed unless I tell them. Yet we lefties are only about 10% of the population, and as every left-hander knows, the world is set up largely by right-handed people for right-handed people, to the extent that left-handers statistically have a shorter life span, because the right-handedness of the world keeps us that little bit more vulnerable, makes us just a little more susceptible to accidents.

Not only by virtue of my handedness, but in other ways, I have often felt like just a bit of an outsider. On my little idyllic dead-end lane, Junedale Drive, growing up in Kalamazoo, MI, I was the youngest kid on the street—including the youngest of three Jeffs; and the sole only child among large families. My friends were mostly working class and all went to one church or another, while my parents both had advanced academic degrees and were atheist/agnostic. When I was about seven in around 1970, I was the first kid in my 2nd grade class whose parents got a divorce. Later, in middle and high school, I was a bit of a nerd, but not irredeemably so. I always managed a little crossover. So. A consistent outsider, but not way, far outside. Enough to feel internally branded. Not enough for it to always show on the outside.

5. Then there are the political associations of left wing. While I have no firm allegiance to any political party, when it comes to our human political problems my analysis could generally be considered left wing, and the solutions I favor tend toward the left wing as well. I tend to favor solutions based on cooperation over competition, solidarity over division. That tends to shake out as democratic solutions over republican ones.

No doubt I’m influenced by the fact that my mom, Margaret B. Holman, was an anthropologist, in my belief that we humans are innately tribal, by predisposition of some chord of genes that gets strummed on the strings of our genome. Just as wolves travel in packs, but coyotes don’t; and lions hang in prides, but leopards don’t. Further, I believe that two of our most basic human instincts are those for cooperation and competition. Yes, our human contradictions are that built-in.

The book: The Archaeology of Mobility: Old World and New World Nomadism, edited by Hans Barnard and Willeke Wendrich. The article: The Social and Environmental Constraints on Mobility in the Late Prehistoric Upper Great Lakes Region, by Margaret B. Holman and William A. Lovis

The book: The Archaeology of Mobility: Old World and New World Nomadism, edited by Hans Barnard and Willeke Wendrich. The article: The Social and Environmental Constraints on Mobility in the Late Prehistoric Upper Great Lakes Region, by Margaret B. Holman and William A. Lovis

In an article of my mom’s about nomadic northern Michigan Native-American tribes, I was struck by the fact that each tribe, the Potawatomi, the Chippewa and the Ottawa, had its territory, through which it moved over the course of the four seasons, finding food and other resources according to its ecosystem and its food specialty. At the borders of its territory, each tribe had contact with other tribes, generally cooperative—trading fish for game, meeting and mingling and swapping young men and women for mates. The territory was bounteous and the population small, so the interactions were civil.

It seems that only when we perceive our resources to be too scarce for our numbers that we become competitive to the point of war, killing, rape and plunder. I feel like if we humans could only perceive that we’re all really one vastly extended tribe; that our commonness is more essential than our differentness; that our planet is still bountiful, resplendent; then we could come up with cooperative solutions to every one of the problems facing us which seem so severe, even lethal: food, water, energy scarcities & disparities, and climate change.

That’s where I’m optimistic: it’s possible. It’s conceivable. Where I’m pessimistic: It doesn’t seem likely that enough of us will make that imaginative leap in time. More probable, it seems, is that the savior of the human genome from its more self-destructive tendencies is likely to be the well-overdue pandemic that may soon come along and wipe out a solid majority of extant humans. It’s been said that the plague helped create the Renaissance. Such a pandemic could turn this place from an increasingly tapped-out, ever-growing garbage heap back into a rich, abundant paradise for whoever’s lucky enough to hang on.

6. Seems like a lot to pack into such a harmless, silly, singsong little phrase like “Lefthanded Jeff,” eh? Exactly right. But. The beauty of it is, you don’t have to know any of that. Hopefully it’s got a bit of a ring to it, a nice rhythm. A bit mnemonic while not too moronic. Fun to say, one hopes.

And on that note, I will leave you to it. At least for now.


Image from:

[LefthandedJeff] Poet Alive in the Alley of Dreams

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C. Natale Peditto has gone to find a new home, living in the alley of dreams. They say we make our own hell. If that’s so then it stands to reason that we make our heaven as well. I believe that Chris Peditto not only created his own heaven, but earned his place there, when he wrote his poem “Finale in the Alley: Backstreet Song for Etheridge Knight in Philadelphia.” I’ll justify that claim when I give you the whole poem in a minute here…

“I’m moved to write of the dead,” Chris once wrote, “as they are alive and walk among us. Not as memories, but as spirits…” Further on: “It is always for the living to seek meaning. And as artists–that is to say, anyone who goes where the imagination reaches–we are the makers of meaning.”

Chris made a lot of meaning in his day. He was poet, professor, publisher, raconteur and sharp dresser. A scholar of diverse interests: the specific and obscure histories of bohemian enclaves from Greenwich Village to New Orleans, Philadelphia to Mexico City; the Greeks and the Beats; rhetoric and the oral tradition; Catholic saints and the Catholic Worker movement. He was a glorious talker, a monologist not out of ego so much as the sheer sweep of his interests and insistence of his enthusiasms.

I loved nothing more than to maneuver him into his study (not generally that hard to do) during one of the frequent parties hosted by he and his wife the blind painter Barbara Romain. Once there, it wouldn’t take much then to set him off, just an idle question about a book picked off his shelves perhaps, a Loeb Classical Library edition of Ovid maybe, or a slim volume of Corso, or Mornings in Mexico by D.H. Lawrence. I’d sit back and let him hold forth, effortlessly, for hours, and never a boring word. He was a veteran performer as well, and like a jazzman he’d rock back, spread his arms out, and sway with the rhythm and melody of his own conversational riffs. He died just about a week ago, on Friday, November 8, and if you can’t tell, I loved the man dearly and I already miss hell out of him.

He made his mark on the poetry scene in Philadelphia, and the poetry and theater scenes in LA. He was an appreciator of people, especially creative types, poets, artists, musicians, and just characters, everyday adventurers, those who go where their imaginations reach. Through his love, his enthusiasm, his charisma, he fostered unique and diverse communities everywhere he made his home. In Philadelphia he co-created the Open Mouth weekly poetry reading series, which cycled through a rotation of venues and lasted several years, and which he wrote about for a Philadelphia newspaper years later.

Here in Los Angeles, he founded the performance group Gray Pony in 1989, (which I’ve previously written about here) on the brilliant intellectual leap linking the ancient Greeks to the Beat Generation to various ethno poetics as exemplars of the oral tradition—living poetry meant to be rendered by the human voice. Gray Pony performed poetry as a chorus, scored for multiple voices and self-accompanied on simple wind and percussion instruments. It began as his Master’s thesis project at Northridge, The Poet Alive (poetry of the San Francisco Beat poet Bob Kaufman) but moved out of the stage of the university theater into the performance spaces of the 90s LA coffeehouse scene, places like The Espresso Bar, Onyx Sequel and Highland Grounds. Later it climbed back onto the stages of small theaters around town, like the Igloo on Santa Monica Blvd. and the Oddity on Pico, with full-scale theatrical productions, including Festival Dionysus, the unexpected hit Salome and the lightning-rod controversial Nigger Lovers.

He also founded Heat Press, the Open Mouth Poetry Series, specifically to publish first books of poets rooted in orality, poets not likely to find a home on the printed page unless he created it for them. They included Eric Priestley, one of the founders of the Watts Writers Workshop in the sixties, who if I recall correctly the LA Weekly named poet laureate of South LA shortly after Chris published his book Abracadabra; also Charles Bivins, a kind of hippie Falstaff and a natural bard (Music in Silence); and Elliott Levin (does it swing?), also an avant garde saxophonist who’s played with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra, among others.

I promised you a poem. I hope you stuck around for it—or even skipped ahead to read it. Allow me to briefly set the scene. We’re in an alley behind a club, probably Bacchanal in Philly, between sets, or after the last show. Musicians and poets, including Etheridge Knight, who learned to write poetry in prison and was championed by Gwendolyn Brooks, are congregating, imbibing, riffing happily in words and idly on handy instruments. It’s easy to think it’s a kind of rarefied, universal, transcendent moment. Chris was never a prolific poet, but he was a true poet, and I love this one. Rhythmic, melodic, low-down and mythic, it swings, it sings and it soars. And I think there’s no better epitaph, no more sacred spot in heaven for him than this one that he built with his unique experiences, his characteristic sensibility and his muse-tickled pen:

(Backstreet Song for Etheridge Knight in Philadelphia)

Wine drunk poets & old root doctors diggin in the alley of dreams
Tryin’ t’ find a cure for the world’s long troubles searchin in the alley of dreams

See backstreet dancers & rawhide drummers jammin in the alley of dreams
Hear hum-bone-rattle & rattle-bone-hum dancing in the alley of dreams

We whiff some herb & sip some brew tippin in the alley of dreams
Now you know me & i know you smilin in the alley of dreams

So far from home & on the roam children in the alley of dreams
Go do-whop-diddle & diddle-whop-dee riffin in the alley of dreams

Cold star heaven shines in our hearts lonely in the alley of dreams
Man’s own family gone to find a new home livin in the alley of dreams

–C. Natale Peditto


Photo credits: www.Poetry.LA (performance photo), Elise Rodriguez