27 November 2012


When eczema flairs
red by your eyes
you look as though you
have been beaten.

17 November 2012


Yesterday, I finally saw the Rothko Room at Tate Modern in London. I won't bother you with the back story, but suffice to say, I've been waiting four years to see these paintings.

I expected to not be disappointed by them but I probably should have brought my expectations down. After all, I had big, big expectations. See god, these sorts of things. I wandered around looking for them, and finally came to the room they are tucked away in now.

I was not disappointed. More than not disappointed. I was shocked by how incredible they were. Much bigger and hazier than I expected them to be. I was surprised as you stare at them how you get the sense that you are trying to look past them. It's like looking into the void and being obstructed. You think as you would expect about death and eternity and Rothko killing himself. I left elated, in a depressed sort of way: a feeling similar to the one I had upon finishing War and Peace last year. A kind of intense satisfaction. An epiphany in the most appropriate sense. I walked back to London Bridge thinking about all the things London has given me, how just four years ago Yoko and I and Naomi had been on the other side of the Thames, and I had marvelled about how being there was a kind of a miracle. Last night, in the fog, the iconic fog, the bridges lit up... The things that have come my way have been inexplicably good--my life has been marked by serendipity in the most profound ways. Always another story, another path to, as a mentor once said to me, unfurl like a flag.

12 November 2012


I read this quote on The Dish yesterday:
"Poetry should be written the way adultery is committed: on the run, on the sly, during the time not accounted for. And then you come home, as if nothing ever happened," - Vera Pavlova.
Last night, before bed, I started writing: I will write a poem tonight, I said. And then four came, one for Yoko, one for Mei, one for Mia, and one for Naomi. I wrote and did not edit them until I was finished, which is what good writing requires in the first instance, the freedom to say what comes into your mind, without any filters on it. The raw data file of a digital image that you touch up later.

I have felt like a top wobbling in the waning moments before falling over: I have been eating and eating and eating for seven weeks. I can mark the day when it started. They talk about the Freshman 15; this is the thesis submitted 12 and a half. I'm fat and bloated and running around madly getting everything together. Selling, translating, sending, marking, teaching, riding the train. Four active academic e-mail addresses, 170 students writing and asking for help. Eat more, eat more, eat more. More coffee, 12 cups today, 15. I just want to get to the next day and the next and the next until there is no more paperwork to do--until I am safely in front of the wave and sitting in an air-conditioned office outside of Kuala Lumpur, March or April 2013, a nameplate and name card reading, 'Dr Stephen Pihlaja, Assistant Professor of Language and Literature'. That's less than four months to survive, to push the camel through the eye of the needle and come out on the other side stronger and more confident than ever before. I did this — all of it.

What I have wanted to write is all the things I never felt I could say. All the insecurity of what others think when they read what you say. The whole damn world is run by fear of embarrassment: don't write that they might judge you. But that thing you don't write is what makes your experience something worth talking about. There is nothing to be ashamed of: why are you hiding from me, god says, who told you you were naked.

My best writing has always been when I give in to my own proclivity and stop trying to normalise it. My best stories in college were these truncated ones from a simple, Evangelical voice, with the implicit meta-narrative encouraging the reader to judge the narrator harshly. So I let myself off the hook yesterday: write about Mei's face swollen by eczema, write about the longing that remains in marriage, write about complex feelings you have when your children disobey you. Let the top wobble and fall if it needs to.

My poems last night fixated on the word 'say' and what is and is not said. The inability to say anything new. The inability to say the truth. The inability to love with words, to say, 'I love you' in a way that conveys whatever love is. I felt the urge to avoid the word love and then went on using it. No one can tell me not to.

Writing is like riding a bike. Everything is like riding a bike. It comes back suddenly. Yes, I remember why I love it; yes, I remember why it is never successful.

11 November 2012


If you ever forget the Lord your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed. 
I have not forgotten you: it's just been a series of unfortunate events leading to me being absent. Copying passports. Ordering shipping boxes. Marking, giving feedback, marking. So much to do, so little time.

I signed my contract, and that was that. It was less troubling or difficult than I thought.

01 November 2012


In a Pihlaja family first (including yours truly), we went trick-or-treating. The children pretended they were some sort of hospital victim/ ghost. I pretended to be a guy not in dire need of a drink.