Essay / Lance Larsen

Aphorisms for a Lonely Planet: On the Art of Making

  1. At the Pompidou she rhapsodized about the Braque, so I stepped back to see what it was she saw. Never mind, she said. Without your shadow playing across it, it’s just another Cubist nude. 
  2. Blank Scrabble tiles are never blank in precisely the same way.
  3. Be of two minds, not two faces. 
  4. In front of London’s Imperial War Museum stands a piece of the Berlin Wall, three-and-a-half feet wide, twelve feet tall. Impressive, sure, but lacking lexical oomph. So the directors commissioned a local graffiti artist to have his way with history. CHANGE YOUR LIFE, he finally settled on, giant white letters bubbling from a grotesque red mouth, quoting I suppose, Jesus, Thoreau, Gandhi, Martha Stewart, Hitler maybe, and ten thousand future bloggers who right now lie in cribs in Peoria and Des Moines sucking their thumbs. 
  5. Mind: more charnel house than garden. Heart: more swamp than spring. 
  6. What makes us human? Metaphor, the opposable thumb of thought. 
  7. A successful play possesses four essential qualities: a world out of whack, formal complexity, characters in conflict with themselves, and a pigtailed girl riding a bicycle across the stage, preferably whistling, preferably with a flowered basket in front. 
  8. Simplify your grand idea til a fifth-grader grasps it. Then ask his second-grade sister to tweet it for you. 
  9. Truth is a patient locksmith. 
  10. Writing poems is like duck hunting at age thirteen. You sit in the wet cold for hours waiting for something to fly over. When it doesn’t, you blast away anyway and hope something beautiful will fall from the sky. 
  11. An antiques dealer showed me his offerings in ancient Egyptian amulets, seven or eight of them, none longer than a finger—and one of them a fake. On its own the fake one looks fantastic, he said, but when you have them all side by side, it starts looking tawdry. This was a case of what’s phony selling what’s real. People who buy are buying a story, in this case a story about their own discriminating taste. 
  12. Battered wind chimes, that’s what poets are. Making our broken melodies on the back porch where only a discerning few will hear us. 
  13. Said Sappho, said Milton, said Simone de Beauvoir, said Harry Houdini. I love doing research. I love to corral quirky minds into one paragraph until they coalesce. It’s like throwing a dinner party for the ages, and all the genius misfits gather around the same chipped punch bowl, and they’re a little pissed. 
  14. The novice writer wants to tie weather balloons to a lawn chair and float like God miles above distant disasters. The seasoned writer squats in an alley, watching ants dismantle a moth. 
  15. Let us praise the ancient Roman arena, with seating for all free men—how egalitarian, how forward-thinking. Arena, from the Latin arena, “place of combat,” originally “sand,” which cleanup crews sprinkled democratically over the field after each battle—to sop up spilled blood. 
  16. Most brain surgeons cannot draw a tree. 
  17. Irony bleeds out its victims before they know they’ve been cut. 
  18. The beginning ventriloquist talks in his sleep, the seasoned ventriloquist in everyone else’s. 
  19. In the subway, I descend into the underworld like bedraggled Orpheus, only to rise some twenty-five minutes later somewhere new, almost perky, beep, beep, like Roadrunner. Even in my myths, I’m mongrel. 
  20. Cliché: linguistic pyrite. 
  21. Muzak: rhythmic bric-a-brac. 
  22. What is wisdom but a truth erased from the blackboard and buried in the heart? 
  23. Some countries are never themselves, but always a metaphor for some interior state. The El Salvador of my guerrilla intentions, the Nepal of my grim ascent, the icebound Greenland of my middle age… 
  24. Wear your smarts as lightly as spots on an Appaloosa. 
  25. Privation, what you can do without. Zen, what you can do within. 
  26. Should I read Descartes or listen to Motown? Depends whether I want to interrogate my doubts or slap them on my feet and dance them under the table. 
  27. Aphorisms—rather bloodless things, more like smelling salts than food, more like grit between your toes than shoes. 
  28. Most of us possess the morality of a village well: saving parched travelers by day, drowning stray pups by night. 
  29. Pet a cat backwards—that’s when you get sparks. 
  30. Sometimes the world turns metaphysical on you and you can’t explain why. Maybe you’re flying over Bermuda, maybe you’ve been reading Foucault again. Everything feels different when you’re seven miles up. Is some taunting God responsible, or just this flight attendant mincing backwards, with an open bag? Trash, trash, any trash? she says. As in, Time to clean up. As in, Have you looked in the mirror of late? As in, This is the rest of your life—do something with it.

Lance Larsen photo

Lance Larsen has published five poetry collections, most recently What the Body Knows (Tampa 2018). His awards include a Pushcart Prize, an NEA fellowship, and the 2021 Sewanee Review Prize. He teaches at BYU. In 2017, he completed a five-year appointment as poet laureate of Utah. He likes to run the Bonneville Shoreline Trail near his home and sometimes he juggles.