Sunday, November 27, 2011

On Dreams...

I do not always remember my dreams. Or my past, for that matter. Sometimes, I awake from troubled dreams, and I do remember. This has been the case, of late. Some weeks ago, I dreamed of my homeland, and my father. We were desperate to finish something, something that remained, in the logic of dreams, undefined. We were opposed in the dream by a dark figure, someone I do not actually know, but have heard stories of. Ultimately, my father and I failed in the dream, although I awoke before it felt finished. Perhaps we would have won the next round of the struggle. A battle does not make a war.

Last night, too, I dreamed. A. claims I spoke in my sleep, but in the dream I was screaming. I was the last honest man in that dream, defending the memory, and the corpse, of an even more honest man who had come before me, and shown me the way. In this, I was opposed on all sides. It was a strange dream. But in it, too, I feel like I had failed.

by A.E. Stallings

You humble in. It's just as you remember:
The sallow walls, formica counter top,

The circular argument of time beneath
Fluorescent flickering - —doubt, faith, and doubt.

She knows you've been to see the gilded girl
Who's always promising and walking out

With someone else. She knew that you'd return,
With nothing in your pockets but your fists.

Why do you resist? When will you learn
That this is what your weary dreams are of—

Succumbing to Her unconditional love?

I do not know why I dream so often these days of failure. Are my weary dreams about something else? Are my weary dreams about her unconditional love? Or could it be, Gentle Reader, simply that I am for the moment trapped in the circular argument of time? Doubt, faith and doubt.  I'm pretty sure that Time has other arguments, though.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

“Trouble and distress have come upon me"

I've considered the rhythms of academic life before in these hallowed spaces. I'm pretty certain I did so in the context of Christmas, but rhythms are rhythms, major holidays aside.

Gentle Reader, trouble and distress have come upon me, verily. But it is not really so bad as all that. The world remains a pretty wonderful place. I once wrote to someone that I had recently enjoyed a return to wonder, and that it was, truly, a pretty nice place. And it is full of tigers. And, I suppose, maybe goblins. But tigers are better.


Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpeck’d cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheek’d peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries;—
All ripe together
In summer weather,—
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy:
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try:
Currants and gooseberries,
Bright-fire-like barberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye;
Come buy, come buy.”

Evening by evening
Among the brookside rushes,
Laura bow’d her head to hear,
Lizzie veil’d her blushes:
Crouching close together
In the cooling weather,
With clasping arms and cautioning lips,
With tingling cheeks and finger tips.
“Lie close,” Laura said,
Pricking up her golden head:
“We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?”
“Come buy,” call the goblins
Hobbling down the glen.

“Oh,” cried Lizzie, “Laura, Laura,
You should not peep at goblin men.”
Lizzie cover’d up her eyes,
Cover’d close lest they should look;
Laura rear’d her glossy head,
And whisper’d like the restless brook:
“Look, Lizzie, look, Lizzie,
Down the glen tramp little men.
One hauls a basket,
One bears a plate,
One lugs a golden dish
Of many pounds weight.
How fair the vine must grow
Whose grapes are so luscious;
How warm the wind must blow
Through those fruit bushes.”
“No,” said Lizzie, “No, no, no;
Their offers should not charm us,
Their evil gifts would harm us.”
She thrust a dimpled finger
In each ear, shut eyes and ran:
Curious Laura chose to linger
Wondering at each merchant man.
One had a cat’s face,
One whisk’d a tail,
One tramp’d at a rat’s pace,
One crawl’d like a snail,
One like a wombat prowl’d obtuse and furry,
One like a ratel tumbled hurry skurry.
She heard a voice like voice of doves
Cooing all together:
They sounded kind and full of loves
In the pleasant weather.

Laura stretch’d her gleaming neck
Like a rush-imbedded swan,
Like a lily from the beck,
Like a moonlit poplar branch,
Like a vessel at the launch
When its last restraint is gone.

Backwards up the mossy glen
Turn’d and troop’d the goblin men,
With their shrill repeated cry,
“Come buy, come buy.”
When they reach’d where Laura was
They stood stock still upon the moss,
Leering at each other,
Brother with queer brother;
Signalling each other,
Brother with sly brother.
One set his basket down,
One rear’d his plate;
One began to weave a crown
Of tendrils, leaves, and rough nuts brown
(Men sell not such in any town);
One heav’d the golden weight
Of dish and fruit to offer her:
“Come buy, come buy,” was still their cry.
Laura stared but did not stir,
Long’d but had no money:
The whisk-tail’d merchant bade her taste
In tones as smooth as honey,
The cat-faced purr’d,
The rat-faced spoke a word
Of welcome, and the snail-paced even was heard;
One parrot-voiced and jolly
Cried “Pretty Goblin” still for “Pretty Polly;”—
One whistled like a bird.

But sweet-tooth Laura spoke in haste:
“Good folk, I have no coin;
To take were to purloin:
I have no copper in my purse,
I have no silver either,
And all my gold is on the furze
That shakes in windy weather
Above the rusty heather.”
“You have much gold upon your head,”
They answer’d all together:
“Buy from us with a golden curl.”
She clipp’d a precious golden lock,
She dropp’d a tear more rare than pearl,
Then suck’d their fruit globes fair or red:
Sweeter than honey from the rock,
Stronger than man-rejoicing wine,
Clearer than water flow’d that juice;
She never tasted such before,
How should it cloy with length of use?
She suck’d and suck’d and suck’d the more
Fruits which that unknown orchard bore;
She suck’d until her lips were sore;
Then flung the emptied rinds away
But gather’d up one kernel stone,
And knew not was it night or day
As she turn’d home alone.

Lizzie met her at the gate
Full of wise upbraidings:
“Dear, you should not stay so late,
Twilight is not good for maidens;
Should not loiter in the glen
In the haunts of goblin men.
Do you not remember Jeanie,
How she met them in the moonlight,
Took their gifts both choice and many,
Ate their fruits and wore their flowers
Pluck’d from bowers
Where summer ripens at all hours?
But ever in the noonlight
She pined and pined away;
Sought them by night and day,
Found them no more, but dwindled and grew grey;
Then fell with the first snow,
While to this day no grass will grow
Where she lies low:
I planted daisies there a year ago
That never blow.
You should not loiter so.”
“Nay, hush,” said Laura:
“Nay, hush, my sister:
I ate and ate my fill,
Yet my mouth waters still;
To-morrow night I will
Buy more;” and kiss’d her:
“Have done with sorrow;
I’ll bring you plums to-morrow
Fresh on their mother twigs,
Cherries worth getting;
You cannot think what figs
My teeth have met in,
What melons icy-cold
Piled on a dish of gold
Too huge for me to hold,
What peaches with a velvet nap,
Pellucid grapes without one seed:
Odorous indeed must be the mead
Whereon they grow, and pure the wave they drink
With lilies at the brink,
And sugar-sweet their sap.”

Golden head by golden head,
Like two pigeons in one nest
Folded in each other’s wings,
They lay down in their curtain’d bed:
Like two blossoms on one stem,
Like two flakes of new-fall’n snow,
Like two wands of ivory
Tipp’d with gold for awful kings.
Moon and stars gaz’d in at them,
Wind sang to them lullaby,
Lumbering owls forbore to fly,
Not a bat flapp’d to and fro
Round their rest:
Cheek to cheek and breast to breast
Lock’d together in one nest.

Early in the morning
When the first cock crow’d his warning,
Neat like bees, as sweet and busy,
Laura rose with Lizzie:
Fetch’d in honey, milk’d the cows,
Air’d and set to rights the house,
Kneaded cakes of whitest wheat,
Cakes for dainty mouths to eat,
Next churn’d butter, whipp’d up cream,
Fed their poultry, sat and sew’d;
Talk’d as modest maidens should:
Lizzie with an open heart,
Laura in an absent dream,
One content, one sick in part;
One warbling for the mere bright day’s delight,
One longing for the night.

At length slow evening came:
They went with pitchers to the reedy brook;
Lizzie most placid in her look,
Laura most like a leaping flame.
They drew the gurgling water from its deep;
Lizzie pluck’d purple and rich golden flags,
Then turning homeward said: “The sunset flushes
Those furthest loftiest crags;
Come, Laura, not another maiden lags.
No wilful squirrel wags,
The beasts and birds are fast asleep.”
But Laura loiter’d still among the rushes
And said the bank was steep.

And said the hour was early still
The dew not fall’n, the wind not chill;
Listening ever, but not catching
The customary cry,
“Come buy, come buy,”
With its iterated jingle
Of sugar-baited words:
Not for all her watching
Once discerning even one goblin
Racing, whisking, tumbling, hobbling;
Let alone the herds
That used to tramp along the glen,
In groups or single,
Of brisk fruit-merchant men.

Till Lizzie urged, “O Laura, come;
I hear the fruit-call but I dare not look:
You should not loiter longer at this brook:
Come with me home.
The stars rise, the moon bends her arc,
Each glowworm winks her spark,
Let us get home before the night grows dark:
For clouds may gather
Though this is summer weather,
Put out the lights and drench us through;
Then if we lost our way what should we do?”

Laura turn’d cold as stone
To find her sister heard that cry alone,
That goblin cry,
“Come buy our fruits, come buy.”
Must she then buy no more such dainty fruit?
Must she no more such succous pasture find,
Gone deaf and blind?
Her tree of life droop’d from the root:
She said not one word in her heart’s sore ache;
But peering thro’ the dimness, nought discerning,
Trudg’d home, her pitcher dripping all the way;
So crept to bed, and lay
Silent till Lizzie slept;
Then sat up in a passionate yearning,
And gnash’d her teeth for baulk’d desire, and wept
As if her heart would break.

Day after day, night after night,
Laura kept watch in vain
In sullen silence of exceeding pain.
She never caught again the goblin cry:
“Come buy, come buy;”—
She never spied the goblin men
Hawking their fruits along the glen:
But when the noon wax’d bright
Her hair grew thin and grey;
She dwindled, as the fair full moon doth turn
To swift decay and burn
Her fire away.

One day remembering her kernel-stone
She set it by a wall that faced the south;
Dew’d it with tears, hoped for a root,
Watch’d for a waxing shoot,
But there came none;
It never saw the sun,
It never felt the trickling moisture run:
While with sunk eyes and faded mouth
She dream’d of melons, as a traveller sees
False waves in desert drouth
With shade of leaf-crown’d trees,
And burns the thirstier in the sandful breeze.

She no more swept the house,
Tended the fowls or cows,
Fetch’d honey, kneaded cakes of wheat,
Brought water from the brook:
But sat down listless in the chimney-nook
And would not eat.

Tender Lizzie could not bear
To watch her sister’s cankerous care
Yet not to share.
She night and morning
Caught the goblins’ cry:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy;”—
Beside the brook, along the glen,
She heard the tramp of goblin men,
The yoke and stir
Poor Laura could not hear;
Long’d to buy fruit to comfort her,
But fear’d to pay too dear.
She thought of Jeanie in her grave,
Who should have been a bride;
But who for joys brides hope to have
Fell sick and died
In her gay prime,
In earliest winter time
With the first glazing rime,
With the first snow-fall of crisp winter time.

Till Laura dwindling
Seem’d knocking at Death’s door:
Then Lizzie weigh’d no more
Better and worse;
But put a silver penny in her purse,
Kiss’d Laura, cross’d the heath with clumps of furze
At twilight, halted by the brook:
And for the first time in her life
Began to listen and look.

Laugh’d every goblin
When they spied her peeping:
Came towards her hobbling,
Flying, running, leaping,
Puffing and blowing,
Chuckling, clapping, crowing,
Clucking and gobbling,
Mopping and mowing,
Full of airs and graces,
Pulling wry faces,
Demure grimaces,
Cat-like and rat-like,
Ratel- and wombat-like,
Snail-paced in a hurry,
Parrot-voiced and whistler,
Helter skelter, hurry skurry,
Chattering like magpies,
Fluttering like pigeons,
Gliding like fishes,—
Hugg’d her and kiss’d her:
Squeez’d and caress’d her:
Stretch’d up their dishes,
Panniers, and plates:
“Look at our apples
Russet and dun,
Bob at our cherries,
Bite at our peaches,
Citrons and dates,
Grapes for the asking,
Pears red with basking
Out in the sun,
Plums on their twigs;
Pluck them and suck them,
Pomegranates, figs.”—

“Good folk,” said Lizzie,
Mindful of Jeanie:
“Give me much and many: —
Held out her apron,
Toss’d them her penny.
“Nay, take a seat with us,
Honour and eat with us,”
They answer’d grinning:
“Our feast is but beginning.
Night yet is early,
Warm and dew-pearly,
Wakeful and starry:
Such fruits as these
No man can carry:
Half their bloom would fly,
Half their dew would dry,
Half their flavour would pass by.
Sit down and feast with us,
Be welcome guest with us,
Cheer you and rest with us.”—
“Thank you,” said Lizzie: “But one waits
At home alone for me:
So without further parleying,
If you will not sell me any
Of your fruits though much and many,
Give me back my silver penny
I toss’d you for a fee.”—
They began to scratch their pates,
No longer wagging, purring,
But visibly demurring,
Grunting and snarling.
One call’d her proud,
Cross-grain’d, uncivil;
Their tones wax’d loud,
Their looks were evil.
Lashing their tails
They trod and hustled her,
Elbow’d and jostled her,
Claw’d with their nails,
Barking, mewing, hissing, mocking,
Tore her gown and soil’d her stocking,
Twitch’d her hair out by the roots,
Stamp’d upon her tender feet,
Held her hands and squeez’d their fruits
Against her mouth to make her eat.

White and golden Lizzie stood,
Like a lily in a flood,—
Like a rock of blue-vein’d stone
Lash’d by tides obstreperously,—
Like a beacon left alone
In a hoary roaring sea,
Sending up a golden fire,—
Like a fruit-crown’d orange-tree
White with blossoms honey-sweet
Sore beset by wasp and bee,—
Like a royal virgin town
Topp’d with gilded dome and spire
Close beleaguer’d by a fleet
Mad to tug her standard down.

One may lead a horse to water,
Twenty cannot make him drink.
Though the goblins cuff’d and caught her,
Coax’d and fought her,
Bullied and besought her,
Scratch’d her, pinch’d her black as ink,
Kick’d and knock’d her,
Maul’d and mock’d her,
Lizzie utter’d not a word;
Would not open lip from lip
Lest they should cram a mouthful in:
But laugh’d in heart to feel the drip
Of juice that syrupp’d all her face,
And lodg’d in dimples of her chin,
And streak’d her neck which quaked like curd.
At last the evil people,
Worn out by her resistance,
Flung back her penny, kick’d their fruit
Along whichever road they took,
Not leaving root or stone or shoot;
Some writh’d into the ground,
Some div’d into the brook
With ring and ripple,
Some scudded on the gale without a sound,
Some vanish’d in the distance.

In a smart, ache, tingle,
Lizzie went her way;
Knew not was it night or day;
Sprang up the bank, tore thro’ the furze,
Threaded copse and dingle,
And heard her penny jingle
Bouncing in her purse,—
Its bounce was music to her ear.
She ran and ran
As if she fear’d some goblin man
Dogg’d her with gibe or curse
Or something worse:
But not one goblin scurried after,
Nor was she prick’d by fear;
The kind heart made her windy-paced
That urged her home quite out of breath with haste
And inward laughter.

She cried, “Laura,” up the garden,
“Did you miss me?
Come and kiss me.
Never mind my bruises,
Hug me, kiss me, suck my juices
Squeez’d from goblin fruits for you,
Goblin pulp and goblin dew.
Eat me, drink me, love me;
Laura, make much of me;
For your sake I have braved the glen
And had to do with goblin merchant men.”

Laura started from her chair,
Flung her arms up in the air,
Clutch’d her hair:
“Lizzie, Lizzie, have you tasted
For my sake the fruit forbidden?
Must your light like mine be hidden,
Your young life like mine be wasted,
Undone in mine undoing,
And ruin’d in my ruin,
Thirsty, canker’d, goblin-ridden?”—
She clung about her sister,
Kiss’d and kiss’d and kiss’d her:
Tears once again
Refresh’d her shrunken eyes,
Dropping like rain
After long sultry drouth;
Shaking with aguish fear, and pain,
She kiss’d and kiss’d her with a hungry mouth.

Her lips began to scorch,
That juice was wormwood to her tongue,
She loath’d the feast:
Writhing as one possess’d she leap’d and sung,
Rent all her robe, and wrung
Her hands in lamentable haste,
And beat her breast.
Her locks stream’d like the torch
Borne by a racer at full speed,
Or like the mane of horses in their flight,
Or like an eagle when she stems the light
Straight toward the sun,
Or like a caged thing freed,
Or like a flying flag when armies run.

Swift fire spread through her veins, knock’d at her heart,
Met the fire smouldering there
And overbore its lesser flame;
She gorged on bitterness without a name:
Ah! fool, to choose such part
Of soul-consuming care!
Sense fail’d in the mortal strife:
Like the watch-tower of a town
Which an earthquake shatters down,
Like a lightning-stricken mast,
Like a wind-uprooted tree
Spun about,
Like a foam-topp’d waterspout
Cast down headlong in the sea,
She fell at last;
Pleasure past and anguish past,
Is it death or is it life?

Life out of death.
That night long Lizzie watch’d by her,
Counted her pulse’s flagging stir,
Felt for her breath,
Held water to her lips, and cool’d her face
With tears and fanning leaves:
But when the first birds chirp’d about their eaves,
And early reapers plodded to the place
Of golden sheaves,
And dew-wet grass
Bow’d in the morning winds so brisk to pass,
And new buds with new day
Open’d of cup-like lilies on the stream,
Laura awoke as from a dream,
Laugh’d in the innocent old way,
Hugg’d Lizzie but not twice or thrice;
Her gleaming locks show’d not one thread of grey,
Her breath was sweet as May
And light danced in her eyes.

Days, weeks, months, years
Afterwards, when both were wives
With children of their own;
Their mother-hearts beset with fears,
Their lives bound up in tender lives;
Laura would call the little ones
And tell them of her early prime,
Those pleasant days long gone
Of not-returning time:
Would talk about the haunted glen,
The wicked, quaint fruit-merchant men,
Their fruits like honey to the throat
But poison in the blood;
(Men sell not such in any town):
Would tell them how her sister stood
In deadly peril to do her good,
And win the fiery antidote:
Then joining hands to little hands
Would bid them cling together,
“For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.”

Saturday, November 12, 2011

On Memory, Again...

My Muse, beautiful creature that she is, has a funny way of reminding me about things that have slipped my mind. Sometimes, these things come unbidden, like flashes of insight, only later discovered to be memory, sometimes they seem more deliberate, hints, here, there, until the memory swims lethargically from the dark depths, some long forgotten lake monster, surfacing to terrorize the locals.

I was reminded of this the other day:

By William Blake

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright 
In the forests of the night, 
What immortal hand or eye 
Could frame thy fearful symmetry? 

In what distant deeps or skies 
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire? 

What the hand dare sieze the fire? 

And what shoulder, & what art. 

Could twist the sinews of thy heart? 

And when thy heart began to beat, 

What dread hand? & what dread feet? 

What the hammer? what the chain? 

In what furnace was thy brain? 

What the anvil? what dread grasp 

Dare its deadly terrors clasp? 

When the stars threw down their spears, 

And watered heaven with their tears, 

Did he smile his work to see? 

Did he who made the Lamb make thee? 

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright 

In the forests of the night, 

What immortal hand or eye 
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Gentle Reader, did he who made the Lamb make thee? Did he make me, as well? Is it not alright, under such a plan, that we be different, perhaps as different as the tiger and the lamb (although I'd be happier, perhaps, comparing the tiger to a wolf, maybe)?

Did he smile his work to see, Gentle Reader?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Bartleby Revisited

I am, gentler reader, at a word, exhausted. Not tired. Not weary (although this word has shades of meaning that apply, to be sure).

ex·haust·ed /igˈzôstid/

1. Drained of one's physical or mental resources; very tired.
2. (of resources or reserves) Completely used up.


wea·ry  \ˈwir-ē\

1. Exhausted in strength, endurance, vigor, or freshness

Nevertheless, things need be done. I cheat, perhaps, by using the words of others. In doing so, true, I surely am only doing what others have done before me. I have, by times, created, perhaps I can now simply borrow. And of course, by times, someone simply expresses something better than oneself is currently capable of. I rest, then, on the shoulders of giants.

Read, then, Gentle Reader, and consider:

She goes out to hang the windchime
in her nightie and her work boots.
It’s six-thirty in the morning
and she’s standing on the plastic ice chest
tiptoe to reach the crossbeam of the porch,

windchime in her left hand,
hammer in her right, the nail
gripped tight between her teeth
but nothing happens next because
she’s trying to figure out
how to switch #1 with #3.

She must have been standing in the kitchen,
coffee in her hand, asleep,
when she heard it—the wind blowing
through the sound the windchime
wasn’t making
because it wasn’t there.

No one, including me, especially anymore believes
till death do us part,
but I can see what I would miss in leaving—
the way her ankles go into the work boots
as she stands upon the ice chest;
the problem scrunched into her forehead;
the little kissable mouth
with the nail in it.

I see the problem, Gentle Reader, scrunched into your forehead, or perhaps mine. I can hear it, the sound that isn't there. No one, including me, especially believes that this post, or this poem, constitues an answer. It is not, for instance, Andrew Marvell, although some of that one rings true to me as well. We do not, it may be, have worlds enough, or time. We might, if we are lucky, or good, have till death. 

And I too can see what I would miss. Allow me, therefore, to stretch, tip-toed on the ice chest, and reach.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

On Forgetting...

Some things, gentle reader, are easier to remember than others. Memory, like poetry, is a tricky thing indeed. We don't remember pain, not real pain. We know it happened, but we don't actually remember it. Oddly, we still remember bad things more than good. Maybe we think the good is ours by right, and remember the slight of the bad, or maybe the good is to engrossing in the moment for us to cement memories.


love is more thicker than forget
more thinner than recall
more seldom than a wave is wet
more frequent than to fail

it is more mad and moonly
and less it shall unbe
than all the sea which only
is deeper than the sea

love is less always than to win
less never than alive
less bigger than the least begin
less littler than forgive

it is most sane and sunly
and more it cannot die
than all the sky which only
is higher than the sky

I don't always get cummings. I'm a big fan of the double negative to express a positive, don't get me wrong, but cummings has me beat for sure. But maybe he's right about love. Maybe it is thicker than forget. Do we remember love, Gentle Reader? Is it thinner than recall? Maybe we don't remember it as much as we remember the bad, the hurt, the shadow of the pain. Love is grand, boys. It is big, it is bold, and if you are lucky, hang on to it. It's a grand thing for sure. 
Careful, though. Love is not the all and end all. cummings might be right in making love less bigger, less littler, less always, less never. cummings might be wrong about forgive, though.
Love is...Less littler than forgive.
I'd bet forgiveness is bigger than cummings allows for. It's often harder than love, is forgiveness. While I occasionally support the use of clichés, Forgive and forget is one of the ones I'm least fond of. Too trite. Too smug.
We don't remember pain. But we remember the cause of it, the context of it, the why of it. And we learn. Forgiveness is harder than most might suspect. And maybe it should be.
Forgive me, Gentle Reader?

Saturday, August 6, 2011

On Nature...

Not long ago, I posted a poem, ostensibly a nature poem, here. Poems are tricky things, At first glance, I wouldn't have called that one a nature poem, but the internet tells me it might be.
Eh bien. I am not overly concerned. Nevertheless, I has led me to thing about nature poems a bit.


No one grumbles among the oyster clans,
And lobsters play their bone guitars all summer.
Only we, with our opposable thumbs, want
Heaven to be, and God to come, again.
There is no end to our grumbling; we want
Comfortable earth and sumptuous Heaven.
But the heron standing on one leg in the bog
Drinks his dark rum all day, and is content.

I'm not convinced this one is a nature poem, either. Poems are slippery things, as I said. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

On the Future...

Idiosyncrate is a strange beast, to be sure. Lately, it's been rubbing me the wrong way, and, like that proverbial cat everyone seems to talk about, I do not particularly enjoy it.
Bit of a dry spell, lately, on the writing front. Here, there, everywhere. I've made these complains before, true, but they remain relevant. So much about what I read as advice to academics is about how to keep writing. I am not, it would seem, alone in this.
I told myself, "Self, you need to update Idiosyncrate more". And so, I tried. And the posts were not always good (Even the ones that weren't forced were not always good, it is true. Still...)
In any case, what was a nice thing in my life, a space where I could express something, explore the written word, let slip the wild images conjured in my head by the magic of my Muse, became something of a chore.
I have other chores, other writing schedules, and other places to write of the profane, if need be. I forgot, somewhere along the way, the essence of what Idiosyncrate had become.
Woe is me.
No more, Gentle Reader. It is just you, me and my Muse, now. No schedules, no pressure, no formula, no format. A few rules, perhaps, unspoken. Tacit agreements for propriety's sake.
What is that you ask? Is it that I have lacked inspiration? No. Too easy. Lots of inspiration out there. Here's the secret, Gentle Reader: I wasn't paying attention.
Horror! It is true. Things got good, and I got happy, and I just wanted to be there, not here. Cuz, baby, words can be hard sometimes, if you let them get to you, but cake is easy.
A good while back, one of the many fine websites, blogs, or feeds I happily skim every day presented a fine little story about Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator. It was not long after I had watched, for the first time, Where the Wild Things Are, in what can only be described as pleasant circumstances. Context is everything. Great film.
The story quotes Sendak as saying that, "We've lost the knack of living in the world with the sensation of safety."Maybe we have. And maybe I felt too safe. Cake will do that to you. But the cake, it very well might be a lie.
In any case, I'm back, and thing are looking up, up, and out. I'm still happy. Let's not jump to conclusions. The happy is not gone.
But I've opened my eyes again, pushed myself away from the table, thrown down the dessert fork and napkin.
But how do we live, if not with this sensation of safety? What, Gentle Reader, are we to do? Well, Sendak maybe our saviour here too, among others. The author of the aforementioned fine little story introduces Sendak as,"The man who imagined escapes as romps that ended with warm suppers". Sendak was right. Escapes, romps, dancing russe before the mirror, or running naked in the woods may not be strictly safe. But they can, and often do, end in warm suppers. And even if they don't, we have not really lost much in the romping, I don't suppose.
So long as there is not too much cake.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

On Being Good...

Quite sometime ago, A. directed me to a poem. She did not remember where she had seen it (or so it seems to me now), but she remembered the line "You do not have to be good" (admittedly, a solid opening line). The internet is many things, one of which is a really powerful search tool.
Maybe this is how I found the poem. Maybe A. found it some other way. I'm not sure it matters. It was read, and remembered, and found again, in any case.

-Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes, 
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, 
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting  
over and over announcing your place 
in the family of things.

I'm reading, currently (academically, of course; my recreational reading is ever so much more exciting) about ascetics, monks and assorted other holy peoples. People who most assuredly did walk on their knees in the desert, repenting. They felt they did need to be good. And for our sake, at that (well, for others sakes, anyway; perhaps not ours). They did not let the soft animals of their bodies love what it loved.
Willpower, they say, is a finite thing in a person. When one uses it all up in doing the one thing, there is none left for doing the next. This is why diets fails so spectacularly. One can only be so good for so long, before something gives.
Perhaps I do not need to be good, or to cross the desert on my knees. Maybe I should let the world offer itself to me, and love what I love. Sounds nice, actually. But sometimes I do need to be good. Maybe not desert repenting level good, but good all the same.
Sometimes, I think I'll also love what I love, though. That sounds pleasant enough as well.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

"I'll be a ghost for you"

Last weekend, I returned home, that is, to the home of my ancestors. Such trips, as often as I might make them, are never routine, always in their own way momentous. A small, quite momentous, often. Yet still. Going home, is, and always has been, for me, important.
It was a cold rainy weekend, cold even for Metis. Even the unseasonably cold weather on the Island could not compare. Temperatures hovered closer to freezing than to comfortable. The rain didn't help.
But the landscape down home works with the rain, quite well really. The rocky outcroppings, the steel grey water of Le Fleuve, the grey beach and greyer sky. Muted greens and blues. It all hangs together in the mist and the rain. A rainy Metis has its own stately beauty.
There is a Gothic element about the place, in the mist and in the rain. It is always there, really. It is more readily apparent in inclement weather. I am reminded both of the writing of Flannery O'Connor, Joy's wooden leg, and of Annie Proulx's Newfoundland. Canadian Gothic. There is a magic in Metis, under the surface, there.
Oddly, few seem to recognize it. I wracked my brain yesterday, trying to remember one story, just one story, that might be described as a fairy tale, concerning my ancestral home. But I could not. No trolls, or spooks, hobgoblins, changelings, or anything. Sometimes, rarely, there is talk of dreams, and some forecasting of weather with the old ways.  Rarely. Maybe the dour Scots Presbyterians who settled there in the 1800's would brook no such thing, no magic, driving it from the wilderness. Maybe the boom and bust of the hotel years distracted the locals, plunged them headlong into the 20th century, where there is little place for such things. Who knows.
There is magic there, though, and I wouldn't be surprised if it isn't just waiting for the right stories to be told, the right words to be spoken.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

On Writing...

One of the primary purposes of this space is for me to be able to write. I do a fearful amount of writing in  the pursuit of my PhD, and I've begun to do writing on the side as well, some business, some pleasure.
The most recent iteration of this space was really a place to work out the varied inspirations given me by my Muse, a capricious creature, to be sure, playful, but on the whole respectful of my creative soul. Mostly.
In any case, someone pointed me in the direction of these rules for beginning writers, which I saved on instapaper, and so forget the original source. Sorry. Yell at me in the comments, if you (whoever you are) think it was you I've forgotten. I'd hazard a guess at boingboing, but I could be wrong.

From India Uncut:

V.S. Naipaul’s Rules for Beginners

1. Do not write long sentences. A sentence should not have more than ten or twelve words.
2. Each sentence should make a clear statement. It should add to the statement that went before. A good paragraph is a series of clear, linked statements.
3. Do not use big words. If your computer tells you that your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong. The use of small words compels you to think about what you are writing. Even difficult ideas can be broken down into small words.
4. Never use words whose meaning you are not sure of. If you break this rule you should look for other work.
5. The beginner should avoid using adjectives, except those of colour, size and number. Use as few adverbs as possible.
6. Avoid the abstract. Always go for the concrete.
7. Every day, for six months at least, practice writing in this way. Small words; short, clear, concrete sentences. It may be awkward, but it’s training you in the use of language. It may even be getting rid of the bad language habits you picked up at the university. You may go beyond these rules after you have thoroughly understood and mastered them.

Naipaul seems to have been after a certain type of writing here, to be sure. As an academic, I sometimes write long sentences, and long words. I likely often run over his 12 word and 5 letter limits. Still.
The original post that pointed me to these rules pointed out the especial usefulness of #4, and since I've read it, I've noticed the very dangerous habit of doing so in my own writing, and, worse yet, in my conversations. Since then, I have, I am proud to say, not broken rule #4 once. And it makes me feel much better.  In my own experience, #7 is particularly useful as well. Training in writing is dreadfully important. My easiest writing, the stuff that really flows, that comes out clean, the stuff I actually have fun with, always happens when I've been writing on a daily basis.
Oddly, it doesn't matter what I've been writing, either, I just need to be writing.
I suppose that means I should be nice to my Muse, doesn't it, gentle reader?

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

On Spring, again...

It is hot on the island tonight. The first really hot night of the year, I think. It feels less like spring now than it does like summer, and the internet tells me that the American Memorial Day is the unofficial start of that season anyway. Maybe May 24 is our unofficial summer start. Or maybe it should be.
In any case, I am not yet ready to relinquish the first season of the year. I want spring, and its green conflagration to remain awhile. Summer will be long and hot enough, and fall, like spring, will be regrettably short.
For spring, for that brief, lovely spring, I offer you another poem on that subject, with a decidedly different take. Lilacs were an important part of my spring last year, and are shaping up to be again. My neighbourhood has several trees of them, and my walks often take me by them; their scent is everywhere this time of year, the smell of them is a powerful signifier of spring.  Maybe, gentle reader, the hours will carry you, as well, into June...


Fill yourself up with the forsythias
and when the lilacs flower, stir them in too
with your blood and happiness and wretchedness,
the dark ground that seems to come with you.

Sluggish days. All obstacles overcome.
And if you say: ending or beginning, who knows,
then maybe—just maybe—the hours will carry you
into June, when the roses blow.

Summer days have their charm as well, I suppose, depending on what, or whom, one compares them to...

Friday, May 27, 2011

On Small Truths...

Another poem, as these are a feature in my life these days, and a welcome one at that. By coincidence, this poem appeared twice in my life in rapid sequence, which I personally take to be an auspicious occurrence. That's just me, though.

By Langston Hughes

The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you---
Then, it will be true.
I wonder if it's that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:
It's not easy to know what is true for you or me 
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I'm what 
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you: 
hear you, hear me---we two---you, me, talk on this page. 
(I hear New York too.) Me---who? 
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love. 
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life. 
I like a pipe for a Christmas present, 
or records---Bessie, bop, or Bach. 
I guess being colored doesn't make me NOT like 
the same things other folks like who are other races. 
So will my page be colored that I write? 
Being me, it will not be white. 
But it will be 
a part of you, instructor. 
You are white--- 
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you. 
That's American. 
Sometimes perhaps you don't want to be a part of me. 
Nor do I often want to be a part of you. 
But we are, that's true! 
As I learn from you,
 I guess you learn from me--- 
although you're older---and white--- 
and somewhat more free.
This is my page for English B.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On Spring...

Ah, Spring. When a young man's thoughts turn to love.
Spring comes to Montreal quickly. When I saw this poem the other day, its imagery of the green flame, the conflagration of life, of spring, reminded me of the sudden burst of spring on the Island:


This spring as it comes bursts up in bonfires green,
Wild puffing of emerald trees, and flame-filled bushes,
Thorn-blossom lifting in wreaths of smoke between
Where the wood fumes up, and the flickering, watery rushes.

I am amazed at this spring, this conflagration
Of green fires lit on the soil of the earth, this blaze
Of growing, these sparks that puff in wild gyration,
Faces of people streaming across my gaze.

And I, what fountain of fire am I among
This leaping combustion of spring? My spirit is tossed
About like a shadow buffeted in the throng
Of flames, a shadow that's gone astray, and is lost.

Spring comes to Montreal Quickly. But spring also comes to Montreal like the proverbial double edged sword. It lifts the grinding, grey weight of the last days of winter, true. But it come so very, very quickly. One week, snow, and all the cumbersome accoutrements, all the boots and scarves, gloves and heavy coats. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, hot sun and green grass, flowers and budding trees, shoes with no socks and t-shirts. Even the sweaters, those perfect symbol of spring layering, gone.
Spring was particularly elusive for me this year, to add to the turmoil. A few well timed trips broke up the habitual coming of spring on the Island for me. A return to my ancestral home thrust me back into the cruel maw of winter, a few brief days after the first glimmer of spring appeared on the fair Isle. An epic roadtrip to Syracuse (University conference; work) and then a flight to Vancouver (family vacation; play) further added to the confusion. Syracuse was far enough south to be in full bloom, and Vancouver's climate ensured the cherry trees were pink to greet my coming.
But the Vancouver spring is not the spring of my Island home. It is much more the spring of my ancestral home, cool, and damp, gray. The sun comes more rarely, but is the more welcome for it, perhaps. Fog and rain and mist, with views of the English Bay reminded my of my love of the shore, surely bred in the bone, if forgotten from time to time. Every boy dreams of boats, and pirates, lagoons lost and found, maybe.
Vancouver is a beautiful city, to be sure.
My return to the Island further upset the rhythm of spring. For my Island had turned back the clock, and a week of warm sunny weather (the week, of course, that I was on the West Coast) was displaced by rain, and temperatures easily counted on both hands, and sometimes on one alone.
But yesterday... Ah, yesterday. A true spring day. Sun, but not to hot. Cool in the shade, and breezes. A long walk with someone special, and a barbecue with good friends. Pilfered lilacs (the lilac have bloomed, gentle reader, and my heart is glad for it) as a gift, and naps in the cool evening air.
A very fine day indeed, gentle reader. A very fine spring day indeed.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

"Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction"

I received an email, sometime last week, exhorting me to return a book I had borrowed from the library of an institution of higher learning other than my own. It took me a moment or two to remember why I had even taken that book out. It was not the type I usually check out of academic libraries. It was Catch as Catch Can: The Collected Stories and Other Writings, a collection by Joseph Heller.
I had checked it out with the intention of finding in it a line I remembered reading as a child, in a publication I probably shouldn't have been reading. I had mentioned the line to a friend in the context of
discussion I probably shouldn't have been having. The line had something to do with an old man, in a hospital bed, fingering the lacy edge of the nurse's slip, because that was as much as she would allow him. I wanted to find the quote for my friend, the context, the original language, knowing I had not done it justice.
It's funny, the things we remember. I looked, with some urgency, in the collection for the story I knew held the sought-after line. There were two potential stories, where there should have been one. it was a story, I knew, that served as a sequel of sorts to Catch-22, Heller's masterwork. In any case, I can read quickly, and so two stories were no real impediment, save the fact that I was under unrelated deadlines.
But my line, my hem-fingering hero, was nowhere to be found. I had, Gentle Reader, remembered it all wrong.
There was another set of stories that ran in the aforementioned publication I oughtn't to have been reading. Involving an assassin, a gun for hire, a knight-errant. Perhaps he was the aged man in the hospital bed, perhaps he is the one I was looking for.
I'll try to find him, Gentle Reader, now that I know my mistake.

Monday, April 18, 2011

On War...

War. War never changes.
I read an article in today's paper wherein one of the columnists mused on the prevalence of war metaphors in recent election coverage.
It reminded me of my undergraduate, when my friend and I would compare our progress during the semester with language borrowed from Vietnam War movies, with Platoon being the most notable.
I have, lately, been tempted to return to war metaphor in an effort to describe my life.
Yesterday, I noted to a colleague that despite being in the Humanities (or social sciences; we never seem to know which), my life had become governed by the cold hard facts of mathematics. I can read 20 pages/hr. There are 24 hrs in a day. I have 500 pages to read in 7 days (light stuff too. Feminist philosophy).
Math, Gentle Reader, is not my friend. I do not like its logic, its cold relentless march toward an essential truth.
No, I prefer the hazards and vagaries of war. Valor, chance, and might. God on our side. Or someone's side, anyway. Me vs. the books. Once more unto the breach, dear friends.
Shakespeare (Henry V - Act III, Scene I):

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call'd fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'

I do, on occasion, and more so recently, enjoy a good quote from Shakespeare. I have not, truth be told, read all that much of him. No more really, than your average lit major, and in some cases, much less. Nevertheless, the Bard is eminently quotable, and I enjoy doing just that.
There are a few things about this particular speech that really thrill me. Firstly, the breach. With the possible exception of "Cry 'Havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war" (also the bard, Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene I), no line so encompasses for me the sentiment of girding oneself for strife (or horrendous amounts of reading). In addition, it describes a war face, including instructions. Big fan of the war face.
War, Gentle Reader. War.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

"Then I'd lie in my bed once again"

It is no secret, at least not to we few, we proud, we band of readers, those of us who regularly read those words written here (Hello, Denmark!), that poetry has become significantly more present in my life now than some times previous.
In part, this lies in the rediscovery of poetry read aloud, preferably to me by someone else (and pretty girls seem to work best), but, in a pinch, by me to me. I suppose I always, somehow, knew this to be the best means of receiving verse, but, as with all things, time occasionally robs us of knowledge and memory. I forgot, Gentle Reader, as I grew older, that one aught to read poems aloud, forgot that one should read them at all.
God! What a horror show. I am so glad that I have come back to my senses. A poem:

If when my wife is sleeping

and the baby and Kathleen

are sleeping

and the sun is a flame-white disc

in silken mists

above shining trees,--

if I in my north room

dance naked, grotesquely

before my mirror

waving my shirt round my head

and singing softly to myself:

"I am lonely, lonely.

I was born to be lonely,

I am best so!"

If I admire my arms, my face,

my shoulders, flanks, buttocks

against the yellow drawn shades,--

Who shall say I am not

the happy genius of my household?

William Carlos Williams

This poem, read to me not once, but twice this weekend, sparked a discussion (and rumination) on the nature or rebellion (mostly of the youthful kind), and also as to the nature of Kathleen. Over all, it reminded me of a story I once heard (and have since told) about a boy who enjoyed sneaking out of his house at night, and running naked in the woods of the back lot. Would that boy grow up to be the happy genius? If he did, Gentle Reader, I hope in my heart that he would not forget the beauty of poetry, the childish wonder of the meter and the rhyme (sometimes the rhyme, anyway). Too many people see poems as elitist stuff, complicated or esoteric. Not so, not so. Think of songs, for instance. It was an revelation to remember the beauty of verse, as an adult, to rediscover the simple joys of poetry, and to remember the story of the boy running naked through the woods, night wind and moon light on pale skin. Don't forget, boy. Don't forget those feelings, don't forget the childish pleasure, or the ease of joy.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Edna St. Vincent Millay

I have recently been introduced to the work of one Edna St. Vincent Millay. While this poem did not fit well into ny other post on her poems, I nevertheless was taken by it. It, like so many things I seem to see these days, contains in it some small truths.

Sonnet V: If I should learn

If I should learn, in some quite casual way,
That you were gone, not to return again--
Read from the back-page of a paper, say,
Held by a neighbor in a subway train,
How at the corner of this avenue
And such a street (so are the papers filled)
A hurrying man--who happened to be you--
At noon to-day had happened to be killed,
I should not cry aloud--I could not cry
Aloud, or wring my hands in such a place--
I should but watch the station lights rush by
With a more careful interest on my face,
Or raise my eyes and read with greater care
Where to store furs and how to treat the hair.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Monday, March 28, 2011

"Had we but world enough, and time"

I met a man yesterday who once loved someone I know, a long time ago. Who he or she is is unimportant. I had never met him before, the love was functionally before my time. By luck, by chance, we met, however, and talked, and he told me some of the story of how he had loved someone I knew. There may have been the word heartbreak used in the telling.
And I could see it in his eyes, some 20 odd years later.
I wonder, now, what it must be like, to be reminded, some 20 odd years later, of a lost love by a chance meeting. What happens, in the mind, for the rest of that day? The rest of that week?
I recounted this story to someone this evening, and the response was to read me a series of poem that touched on the theme of time, and love lost.
I present for you here, Gentle Reader, those poems, both by Edna St. Vincent Millay:


TIME, that renews the tissues of this frame,
That built the child and hardened the soft bone,
Taught him to wail, to blink, to walk alone,
Stare, question, wonder, give the world a name,
Forget the watery darkness whence he came,
Attends no less the boy to manhood grown,
Brings him new raiment, strips him of his own;
All skins are shed at length, remorse, even shame.

Such hope is mine, if this indeed be true,
I dread no more the first white in my hair,
Or even age itself, the easy shoe,
The cane, the wrinkled hands, the special chair:
Time, doing this to me, may alter too
My sorrow, into something I can bear.

Sonnet 02: Time Does Not Bring Relief; You All Have Lied

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year's leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year's bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide

There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,—so with his memory they brim
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, "There is no memory of him here!"
And so stand stricken, so remembering him!

And so, having been presented with both these poems by my interlocutor, I wonder, of my meeting yesterday, how does he respond to the memory of his lost love? Does time heal, of have we been lied to?

Of course, I presume, in my romantic haze, that he will think on love lost for the rest of the day, or week. Perhaps he is not the type to do so. Maybe his heart was not a badly broken as I imagine. Perhaps the look in his eyes while relating me the bare bones of the story was "a fragment of an underdone potato" or some such.

Perhaps, Gentle Reader. Perhaps. But I am now richer by two poems, read to me in a voice I long to hear always, a gift. A voice, incidentally, that, in 20 some odd years from now, if absence, will likely inspire my telling the sort of story I heard yesterday.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"Been a long time comin' and I'll be a long time gone"

I suppose, at the heart of things, we are the sum of our experiences. Perhaps not all of our experiences, as I certainly do not remember them all, and I suspect you do not either. But we are products of our pasts, marked by what has come before as surely as paper is marked by pen.
We learn. We adapt, change, adjust. We forget, but sometimes we remember.
Small things come up from the depth of our minds. snatches of conversation. A moment in a particular place, in the sun, perhaps. A line, in a book, in a story. In a magazine you may not have been supposed to read. The lingering scent of someone who stole an afternoon nap in your bed.
Memory is a tricky thing, but sometimes it serves its purpose. We dredge up some half formed sense of what was, and it becomes real again, an maybe important once more.
A poem, Gentle Reader, before I wrap this up:

Lie back daughter, let your head 
be tipped back in the cup of my hand. 
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread 
your arms wide, lie out on the stream 
and look high at the gulls. A dead- 
man's float is face down. You will dive 
and swim soon enough where this tidewater 
ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe 
me, when you tire on the long thrash 
to your island, lie up, and survive. 
As you float now, where I held you 
and let go, remember when fear 
cramps your heart what I told you: 
lie gently and wide to the light-year 
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

-Philip Booth

Very well. Why? Allow me to explain. I was sent this poem not long ago by a friend. This friend had read it in high school, some many, many years ago, and never forgot the last line. It reminded this friend of the ocean, a safe place, a warm embrace. My own ocean is cold, but I understand the sentiment.
Upon rediscovering the poem, my friend shared it with me, an act I much appreciate. Now, perhaps, some many years from now, I too can remember some line from it as well, be reminded perhaps of some small truth.
Memory. It is a crazy, wild, powerful thing. It would be well for us all to bear that in mind. And for the reminder, I thank you, friend.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

"Quote yourself word for word"

There is a blog I like, called Letters of Note. Subtitled "Correspondance deserving of a wider audience", it posts letters, notes, postcards and varied forms of messages that the author presumably finds to hold some small truths. Largely, I tend to agree with him, and have on occasion reposted some of the letters here.
Recently, a letter posted there by Chuck Jones got me thinking about reading. Jones writes: "Knowing how to read and not reading books is like owning skiis and not skiing, owning a board and never riding a wave, or, well, having your favorite sandwich in your hand and not eating it."
I have never quite understood people who do not read. Or rather, who never seem to read simply for the enjoyment, the sheer, simple pleasure I so clearly feel when I read. Presuming, of course that I am not reading post-structuralism.
I have known some of these people, and they scare me a bit. There is a chance that I am being elitist, and I suppose I'll run that risk, but I wonder at what these people do with their imagination. In his letter, Chuck say that reading "opens up the universe of humour, of adventure, of romance, of climbing the highest mountain, of diving in the deepest sea." And it does.
I grew up reading, the lucky accident of having a school teacher for a mother and an older sister, herself a voracious reader, who left behind her children's and young adult literature. Luckily, her tastes were not too overtly gendered, and I had both Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. I still read, for pleasure, despite my studies, which have me reading (less for pleasure, although some academic writing is still pleasant to read) 10, maybe 12 hours some days.
Even so, I read for fun. Readers will know that lately I've been reading children's lit, but vintage Sci-Fi has figured big. Someday soon, I look forward to finishing Treasure Island.
More importantly, I have found people to share my love of reading with, something I think I had lost for a while. I have a friend who hands me his detective fiction, and another with whom I share a newly rediscovered love of poetry, and possibly Neil Gaiman. Maybe this person was behind the whole Peter Pan thing, earlier, as well. Quite inspirational, that one.
I want to be able to say that I can top Mr. Jones, and his letter on reading. I don't think I can. Small truths can be hard to find, and harder then to express. With any luck, and with the help my Muse, God willing I'll manage a few. In the interim, Gentle Reader, perhaps I'll leave you with Chuck's closing words:
"I dare you all, test your strength: Open a book."
I trust that you will.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

On Trains

My mother recently commented on the allure of trains. She may not have meant much by it, but it started me thinking. This is a common problem, it would seem, in my life. Even seemingly throwaway comments set me off on long tangents of thought, where, on occasion, I get lost.
On occasion this is fun. Sometimes, it is problematic.
Nevertheless, trains. I began to think about why, exactly, I like trains.
There are, I think, several reasons. Firstly, there is a very real, very visceral experience when one is close to a train. I presume the new, super high speed trains are different, but the old-school freight and passenger trains I am used to are very big, very loud. You can feel the earth move when the pass by, even slowly, and the noise is deafening. Should they be up to speed, the full effect is overwhelming. This translates surprisingly well to the inside of a passenger train, where both the vibration and noise (both muted) can be quite relaxing.
Beyond the physical experience, however, trains have an important cultural element that still holds much currency, despite the explosion of the automobile culture in post-war North America. In Europe (through the eyes of a North American boy, in any case), the trains moved Sherlock Holmes from London to the moors, to hunt the ghostly hound. They carried one to the east, the Orient Express, heading to the outer fringes of the comfortable, known world. They were a symbol of the Industrial Revolution, with the great boilers pouring black smoke into the sky as they steamed ahead into the future.
In America, the train was something else. It was also the future, but the promise was of the fulfilment of the Manifest Destiny, the American push for the west. The train, in all those westerns, was the link between the old East and the new frontier. The track, laid down over so many barren miles, broke the last barrier of a whole and united country, at least geographically. And the same is true in Canada, where the Prairies and the Rockies made formidable barriers, breached finally by the trains.
On a more personal note, trains for me often represented the link to the outside world. It can be a long trip to my ancestral home, and one of the most comfortable ways to manage it was always the train. It was more spacious than the bus, and not all of us had access to cars. 20 hours on the train was always better than a similar amount of time on the bus. And a lot of people knew it. So if you took the train home, say, the 23rd of December, you'd be on the train with friends, and neighbours, and family, some of whom you may not have seen in quite some time. Trains had social areas, and kitchens, bars, and, if you had the money, beds. The train was how you got home. Also how you left it for the big city.
This is cultural weight, Gentle Reader. This is why, when I hear the train whistle, or feel the deep rumble  close to the track, I invariably pause, in awe. And I dream.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

On Beauty...

I had occasion last night to consider at some length the notion of beauty. Inspired by my Muse to seek entertainment beyond the scope of my usual divertissements, I attended a sung mass, in the medieval style. While I was unsure of the entire endeavour, I counted on my poor tastes in both music and religion to get me through. They did, and I rather enjoyed the entire affair.
I do not understand Latin (in which the mass was sung) and I know virtually nothing of music. I was, for all intents and purposes, a blank slate.
The mass was beautiful.
There is a scene, in The Shawshank Redemption, the movie, not the story (though it might very well be in the story as well. I refer here to the movie), in which Andy Dufresne plays a vinyl of an opera over the prison PA system. The narrator, also a prisoner at Shawshank, Red, says:
"I have no idea to this day what them two Italian ladies were singin' about. Truth is, I don't want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singin' about something so beautiful it can't be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared. Higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away...and for the briefest of moments -- every last man at Shawshank felt free."
This how I felt about the mass. The singer's voices seemed to come from nowhere, to fill the church, to soar like songbirds, to reach into deep places. It was beautiful.
Beauty is, of course, not a essential thing to be be described, or delineated. Beauty is culturally constructed, each of us socialized to respond to the same cues, the same stimuli. And the middle ages are a long time gone. Music has changed dramatically since, as was explained to me in some detail by a companion that night. Notions of beauty have changed considerably as well.
But, somewhere, in the morass that is the back of my Western mind, that Latin mass touched something. Transcending history, reaching past time. It touched something that recognized in it a beauty that cannot be expressed in words, that made my heart ache because of it. I felt free.