Baseball Poetry: “The Pitcher” by Robert Francis

Satchel Paige--a true poet

Satchel Paige–a true poet

I gave my students a poem today and asked them to wriggle around inside it and tell me everything they found in there.  The poem I gave them was “The Pitcher” by Robert Francis.  I was hoping there were some baseball players in the class, but none of them had played much past little league. But many of them were fans.  And I believe they achieved a pretty good literal reading–how a pitcher in baseball depends greatly on being misunderstood, at aiming at something he didn’t seem to be aiming at, at avoiding the obvious and varying the avoidance.  We went through it line by line, describing what aspect of a pitcher’s performance was being described. One student thought that maybe it might even be, in his words, “about a pitcher and maybe about a non-conformist.” That was interesting. He knew what he meant but was having trouble working himself through it. And then one student, somewhat self-doubting, said that he too saw the poem dealing with a baseball player and something else. But for him, that something else was “a poet.” He went on to say that a poet’s deception was that instead of saying something was brown, he would say something was like the “leaves of autumn.” Much like a pitcher’s throw looks like its coming one way but then intentionally breaks another. A part of him believed that he was really off-the-mark but, to his credit, he forged on. And he was pretty good. In fact, in the past, after a class has seen this poem, I ask them–as they are leaving–to think again about “The Pitcher” when they get home, but this time to think in terms of a poet and the poet’s craft, to think about the similarities between what some pitchers and some poets attempt to do. And the next days’ discussions are often quite good. But today’s student was the first ever to go there without my prompting.  And that’s a pretty cool thing.

The Pitcher by Robert Francis

His art is eccentricity, his aim

How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at,

His passion how to avoid the obvious,

His technique how to vary the avoidance.

The others throw to be comprehended. He

Throws to be a moment misunderstood.

Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild,

But every seeming aberration willed.

Not to, yet still, still to communicate

Making the batter understand too late.


Book Review: Eyes, Stones by Elana Bell

Eyes, Stones–Elana Bell’s first collection of poetry and the winner of the 2011 Walt Whitman Award–is an extraordinary feat of poetry and clear-mindedness.  Each of these 40 small poems are dense explosions of beauty and clarity, encased in language that is both modern and antique, beautiful and brutal–much like the countries that she writes about.

In her poetry, Bell attempts to look and understand the worlds that are Palestine and Israel. She moves from biblical stories to modern events and much in between. Her topics range from the ancient relationship of Abraham and God, Sarah and Hagar, Ishmael and Hagar to the modern Holocaust, the Zionist movement, the 1968 Egypt-Israeli War, and the most recent Intifada.

But what is remarkable about these poems is that they don’t stink of politics, of nationalism, of self-righteousness.  They are simple poems that lay bare the simplicity of man’s pain, the artlessness of his troubles, the wonder of his existence. Often, in these poems one is unsure which side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Bell sits, her treatment is so even-handed.

Take for instance her poem “Naming the Day,” which is a composite both of those Jewish villages in Eastern Europe destroyed or made “Jew free” AND those Palestinian villages destroyed or evacuated during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

In “On a Hilltop at the Nassar Farm,” the speaker admires the Palestinian woman Amal:

Amal laughs with all her teeth and her feet
tickle the soil when she walks. She moves
through her land like an animal. She knows it
in the dark. She feeds stalks to the newborn
colt and collects its droppings like coins
to fertilize the field. Amal loves this land
and when I say land I mean this
exact dirt and the fruit of it.

Amal’s rough existence she compares with her own existence in the settlement that surrounds Amal’s land:

All around her land the settlements sprout like weeds.
They block out the sun and suck precious water
through taps and pipes while Amal digs wells
to collect the rain. I am writing this poem
though I have never drunk rain
collected from a well dug by my own hands,
never pulled a colt through
the narrow opening covered in birth fluid
and watched its mother lick it clean,
or eaten a meal made entirely of things
I got down on my knees to plant.

Yet Bell’s work does not rise from the guilt of the occupier.  It comes from a genuine love of the people–both Arab and Israeli–and a horror of the world that has evolved around them.  A particularly poignant poem, “In Another Country It Could Have Been Love,”  laments what could be between the two:

The next time I saw her, a rifle
strapped her shoulder. The tip
of it fingered my ribs, my hips
the inside of my thighs.
Cold metal instead of her hands,
her eyes.

Elana Bell herself is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, and as such, her examination of Jewish and Arab relationships is strikingly honest. She maintains an embracing love of the land through its many incarnations: biblical landscape and Zionist dream, modern nation and occupied territory.

In the end of the collection, she returns to Brooklyn where she lives. There she will “watch the Super Bowl…eat organic greens and make love on Saturday afternoon…[She will] listen to jazz in tight-packed clubs…and sleep on clean cotton sheets.” It is during this sleep, however, that the Mid-East comes to haunt her, to remove her from her comfort, and to tie her to the lands of her heritage.

Eyes, Stones won the 2011 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets.  Five of her poems (along with her bio) are published on the Academy’s website. Check it out. She is a remarkable woman and a fine poet.

Northern California and Ireland, sea lions and selkies, and a powerful poem

I am not the first to make the comparison between the Pacific Coast Highway in Northern California and Ireland. But that doesn’t make it any less true. It is a magnificent landscape, full of crashing surf and rock-strewn fields, dramatic cliffs and rolling mountains. The hills are more “golden” than green, and the roadways have much fewer sheep and doubledecker tour buses, but yes, it very much reminds me of the west coast of Ireland. Every turn in the corkscrewing highway offers another extraordinary vista.

But it is Goat Beach which is perhaps the most memorable. Goat Beach sits where the Russian River meets the Pacific Ocean. In July the river flow is feeble, but it is then–between March and July–that the area is a breeding ground for sea lions.

By July the sea lions have already pupped and the adult ones seemed quite tired. At first, it is a bit jolting to see twenty to thirty adult sea lions asleep by the rivers edge. It looks as if they have all been slaughtered. But then a fin rises to slap a companion or another waddles to find a more comfortable position. They are just resting–and continue to do so for the rest of the morning.

But the seal pups are another story. Frisky and active, they plunge into the crashing surf of the Pacific or slide into the muddy waters of the Russian River. There is something fascinating about these creatures: their sleekness, their eyes, their movement.

A stamp from the Faroe Islands featuring a selkie emerging from her skin.

Seals and sea lions have long played a part in Norse and Celtic myth.  The legend of the selkie is perhaps one of the most famous and there are a wide variety of stories about them.  These creatures are seals when in the water but humans when they go upon land and emerge from their sealskin. And while there are numerous variants on the stories, there are basically two version of the selkie myth: one female, one male.  The female selkie is often a beautiful woman who is  “captured” by the man who finds her, unable to return to the water because the man has taken possession of her discarded skin.  The male selkie is also renowned  for its beauty and charm when it comes upon land and sheds its skin, and he is often noted for his ability to satisfy the unhappy and dissatisfied women of the area.  Fairly often, these women bear his children, usually children with some sort of “deformity” or oddity about them. These women too are in possession of the creature’s skin.

I can immediately think of two wonderful movies that deal with this myth.  One, is a 2009 film, Ondine, featuring Colin Farrell (and my personal favorite actress Dervla Kirwan from Ballykissangel)  and the other is an older film from 1994 called The Secret of Roan Inish.  Both are well worth finding, however you find your movies these days. And both deal with the female version of the story.

Anyway, so I am reading The Guardian online this winter and I come a cross a video of the Scottish poet Robin Robertson reading his poem “At Roane Head.” It is a powerful poem, and perhaps the most powerful reading I have ever witnessed. In it a woman cares for her four children. Her drunken husband has disowned them–for they have seal-like characteristics as well as human. At the tragic end, the woman returns the seal skin to her lover.

Here is the video.  Give it a view–I find it very powerful.


“Love Poem” by John Frederick Nims…all the toys of the world would break.

Love Poem
(by John Frederick Nims)

John Frederick Nims (1913-1999)

My clumsiest dear, whose hands shipwreck vases,
At whose quick touch all glasses chip and ring,
Whose palms are bulls in china, burs in linen,
And have no cunning with any soft thing

Except all ill-at-ease fidgeting people:
The refugee uncertain at the door
You make at home; deftly you steady
The drunk clambering on his undulant floor.

Unpredictable dear, the taxi drivers’ terror,
Shrinking from far headlights pale as a dime
Yet leaping before apopleptic streetcars—
Misfit in any space. And never on time.

A wrench in clocks and the solar system. Only
With words and people and love you move at ease;
In traffic of wit expertly maneuver
And keep us, all devotion, at your knees.

Forgetting your coffee spreading on our flannel,
Your lipstick grinning on our coat,
So gaily in love’s unbreakable heaven
Our souls on glory of spilt bourbon float.

Be with me, darling, early and late. Smash glasses—
I will study wry music for your sake.
For should your hands drop white and empty
All the toys of the world would break.

I once read this poem in public to a group of twenty to twenty-five people. Afterwards, a woman came up to me and said that I had brought her to tears.  Although it was a nice compliment, I knew surely that it wasn’t I that did it.  For who could hear those final lines “For should your hands drop white and empty/All the toys of the world would break” and not get a catch in their throat?

I love this poem because it is an anti-ideal love poem.

Shakespeare did the same thing 400 years ago with his Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.)

My favorite portrait of Shakespeare

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Here too, the poet celebrates the flaws and the humanness of his beloved. In embracing her reality–and announcing that he has no need to “belie her with false compare” as so many other poets did–he claims a superior, purer love… “a love as rare” in Shakespeare’s words.

Both men, separated by four centuries, are similarly battling against a constructed “ideal.”  Whether it was the “ideal woman” presented by the Renaissance sonneteers or the “ideal woman” fashioned by Hollywood and Madison Avenue, it was a false image.  And both men knew it.  Their love, they claim, is special because it is grounded in the real world, not in an imaginary, air-brushed, wish-fulfillment world.  Their love exists in the everyday, “everyman/everywoman” world that most of us mortals inhabit.

We know little of Shakespeare’s beloved except for what she looks like: dark hair, pale-lipped and dun-skinned, bad-breathed, clunky-walking and shrilly-voiced. Nims, on the other hand, gives us more information about the object of his love.  She deftly handles those who are ill-at-ease, exiled or drunk; she moves easily with words and people and wit and love. Certainly, she has her frenetic failings–and Nims recounts them with affection– but that is not what makes her unique; that makes her human.  She is much more than that.  She is unique in the welcoming warmth of her love, in her compassion for and embrace of life.

Nims truly appreciates and loves her for what she is. And isn’t that what all of us is looking for?

A footnote on The Sugar Frosted Nutsack by Mark Leyner

Despite my misgivings, I plowed ahead and finished The Sugar Frosted Nutsack by Mark Leyner.  My original appraisal was unchanged. I felt it was infantile, too enamored with its own cleverness, and pointless. It wasn’t a pleasant read–the effort in no way equaled the payoff.

However, I did notice something that I hadn’t before.  I was proofreading what I had written last week about the novel on a different platform. The tablet had shrunk the margins so that the text ran narrow like a newspaper column.  I had originally quoted this text:

“What subculture is evinced by Ike‘s clothes and his shtick, by the non-Semitic contours of his nose and his dick, by the feral fatalism of all his looney tics–like the petit-mal fluttering of his long-lashed lids and the Mussolini torticollis of his Schick-nicked neck, and the staring and the glaring and the daring and the hectoring, and the tapping on the table with his aluminum wedding ring, as he hums those tunes from his childhood albums and, after a spasm of Keith Moon air-drums, returns to his lewd mandala of Italian breadcrumbs?

But in the “newspaper column” format the passage ran quite poetically like this:

“What subculture is evinced by Ike‘s clothes and his shtick,
by the non-Semitic contours of his nose and his dick,
by the feral fatalism of all his looney tics–
like the petit-mal fluttering of his long-lashed lids
and the Mussolini torticollis of his Schick-nicked neck,
and the staring and the glaring and the daring
and the hectoring, and the tapping on the table
with his aluminum wedding ring, as he hums
those tunes from his childhood albums
and, after a spasm of Keith Moon air-drums,
returns to his lewd mandala of Italian breadcrumbs?

There is a rhyme scheme to the passage, a rhythm that I had missed when reading the prose. I went through the novel for similar riffs and they are a few but they are there for no intrinsic reason–they seem to occur only when Leyner is in a rhythm himself, apart from the needs or function of the novel.

It was fun to discover but it didn’t change my opinion.


Poetry on TV: The Song of Lunch by Christopher Reid

Farewell to long lunches
and other boozy pursuits!
Hail to the new age
of the desk potato, …

Sometimes, though, a man needs
to go out on the rampage,
throw conscientious time-keeping
to the winds,
kill a few bottles
and bugger the consequences.

Ah, I too miss those boozy lunches. I worked for more than a decade in an in-house advertising agency, and some of our Friday lunches were both epic and legendary.  But I ultimately left advertising for the more sedate, sober world of academia–or at least the more sedate, sober lunches of academia.

The man who is lamenting the lost tradition of long lunches above is the rather bitter and sarcastic subject of Christopher Reid’s The Song of Lunch. Yet on this particular day he sticks a note on his computer screen saying that he is headed out to lunch and that indeed it is going to be a long one.

Probably, unwisely, he has arranged to meet an ex-lover for lunch at one of their old haunts. He, a copy-editor at a famous publishing house; she, the wife of an extremely successful novelist, living in Paris. The novelist is also the man she left the narrator for.

He isn’t sure what he expects from this rendezvous but little of it goes the way he hopes.

Lunch has never been more poetic, or sexier, or frustrating.  The dance of tension and attraction between the two begins immediately.

There! she says, and smiles
Lips, eyes, eyebrows
and the new lines in her forehead
fill out the harmony.

Here! he replies.

She has just entered with “There” and he counters with “Here.”

He bemoans the fact that “their” restaurant has changed so much in the fifteen year interim: the menu features:

pizzas by the yard.
More pizzas than there should be.
And too much designer pizazz.

He turns it over:
choose the right wine
and have it ready breathing
for when she arrives.

There’s a mid-price Chianti,
which won’t come plump
in tight straw swaddling,

byt will do for auld lang syne.

In fact, it is for the “auld lang syne” that he is here, crumpled by the present, dashed in his literary hopes, and obsessed with a long-gone love.  This lunch is very much not the best idea of his.

But she on the other hand is charming.  Personable, open, interested, determined to enjoy the day.  But he cannot. When she asks about his life he goes on a rant about modern publishing:

Confessions of  Copy Editor ,
chapter 93.
It;s an ordinary day
in a publishing house
of ill repute.

Another moronic manuscript
comes crashing down the chute
to be turned into art.
This morning it was Wayne Wanker’s
latest dog’s dinner
of sex, teenage philosophy,
and writing-course prose.

In contrast, she is accepting and pleased with her life as:

Me? Oh, the good wife,
and loving mother.
That keeps me occupied.
I’ve no complaints.
And Paris is a fabulous city.
You really should visit.

(He has by the way, visited. Stalked her a while back but lost the nerve to ring the bell when he was at her door.)

Throughout the lunch, he observes her every move. He watches her daub her mouth with a napkin,  slice into her ravioli, ask the waiter for advice. And all of these observations are described in a rich language filled with a keen ache, for he remembers every whorl of her knuckles, every dilation of her pupil, every crinkle of her lips.

To deal with his ache, his confusion, his lust, he drinks.  Far too much.  Much more than she.

She had arrived at the lunch full of good will and charm, but his sarcastic, bitter demeanor pushes her away.

But, it is a narrative poem–it tells a story–so I won’t spoil the ending.

Now, in 2010, the BBC did something extraordinary.  Rather than digging in the vaults of the classics (there is an endless list of Dickens and Austen productions) or dramatizing the latest Scandinavian thriller or Scottish mystery, they decided to do something quite different.  They decided to dramatize a contemporary work of poetry.  And they did it well.

The BBC2’s production of The Song of Lunch–made to celebrate National Poetry Day in Britain– was genius simply in the choice of the actors.  Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson.  For who can better play a put-upon man, dour and drunken, and rising with lust and regrets better.  I cannot think of anyone else.  And Emma Thompson, literally shines in the role–literally that is. In one scene where Rickman is looking at her through his half empty wine glass she is glimmering.  There is a fresh aura of rightness about her that works in perfect contrast to the curmudgeonly Rickman.

The Song of Lunch is a strange one for me, for I saw the film production before I read the book.  In fact, it was BECAUSE of the dramatization that I got the book. “Making words come alive” is such a cliche, yet in this case it is very much true.  The tiny narrative of Reid’s is served quite well when animated by Rickman and Thompson.

I’ve read the poem several times now, finding something new to enjoy each time.  I You-tubed the BBC production and watched a few scenes, but the BBC came in and took certain “chapters” off, so one loses the continuum.

I do remember those long boozy lunches.  Though I wish at the time I was as observant as Christopher Reid.  His The Song of Lunch is as rich as the carpaccio and pumpkin ravioli that were ordered for appetizers and as heady as the grappa that finished the meal.

“Before the World was Made”

“The Yale philosopher Shelly Kagan … manages to raise some interesting and subtle concerns about …notions relating to the question of what’s really bad about death, including this one: Why do we regard no longer existing (post-mortem nonexistence) as worse than not having existed before our births (prenatal nonexistence)? And are we wrong to do so?” 

“The Opinionator,” New York Times, May 16, 2012.

I love this question.  I have thought of it before, and it gives me comfort. For it makes perfect sense to me.  I wonder if Mr. Kagan is aware of the Yeats’ poem, “Before the World was Made.”  I would imagine he is. I know I thought of it right away when I read the article.

    Before the World was Made

If I make the lashes dark
And the eyes more bright
And the lips more scarlet,
Or ask if all be right
From mirror after mirror,
No vanity’s displayed:
I’m looking for the face I had
Before the world was made.

What if I look upon a man
As though on my beloved,
And my blood be cold the while
And my heart unmoved?
Why should he think me cruel
Or that he is betrayed?
I’d have him love the thing that was
Before the world was made.

For here, Yeats too is looking at what Kagan calls “prenatal nonexistence”–though Yeats prefers to think of it as “prenatal existence.”

Now Yeats is working in a spiritual cosmology quite different from that which the Yale philosopher is dealing with.  Yeats was always susceptible to spirituality and spiritualism…mysticism and the occult.  (Adrienne Rich famously called him a “table-rattling fascist.” Click here for Evan Boland’s essays on literary antagonisms.) Nevertheless, he was very much interested in concepts of a soul. He believed–through a complicated mythology of his own making, explicated in his book The Vision–in an individual, social, and civilization-wide reincarnation or continuance of the soul.  And so through this series of Yeatsian cycles we have it: a “pre-natal” AND “post-mortem” existence, as the philosopher says.

Maude Gonne

And yet, there is also something else going on in the poem that is not as deep, not as cosmic, not as “philosophical.” This is not a cosmic dance taking place in front of the mirror.  It is that old familiar dance of seduction and romance.  For who is the speaker sitting in front of her vanity? Has Yeats returned to musings on his old beloved Maude Gonne? Is he thinking of her daughter–to whom he once proposed having been rejected for the umpteenth time by Gonne? The poem was published in 1933 when Yeats was 68 years old.  The following year Yeats had the Steinach operation performed–a procedure of inserting animal glands into the body in order to increase testosterone production. Good old Yeats–he was now 68–was not giving up on this existence…and at this time was carrying on several romantic affairs with much younger women.

The poem itself appeared in the collection, The Winding Stair, and was one of twelve poems included in a section called “A Woman Young and Old.”  If the speaker is a woman where does she fit in that continuum?  Is this a young woman relatively new at the game?  Or a more experienced woman, who could look on any man “as though on my beloved”?

And what is it she would have him love?  What existed “before the world was made”?  For the philosopher Kagan, the answer is nothing.  For Yeats it is something large, something essential.

As an aside, I knew that Van Morrison had recorded a song version of the poem.  I also knew that Mike Scott and the Waterboys had just put out an album, An Appointment with Mr. Yeats, on which the poem appeard. But I just learned that Carla Bruni–the former first lady of France–had also recorded the song.  I don’t know why, but I find that amusing.  Anyway,  here’s Van the Man’s performance of Yeats’ “Before the World Was Made.”

Hugh MacDiarmid, Robert Burns and My Father

Hugh MacDiarmid

Hugh MacDiarmid times 4

No’ wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote
But misapplied is a’body’s property
And gin there was his like alive the day
They’d be the last a kennin’ haund to gi’e–

Croose London Scotties wi’ their braw shirt fronts
And a’ their fancy freen’s, rejoicin’
That Simlah gatherings in Timbuctoo,
Bagdad — and Hell, nae doot–are voicin’

Burns’ sentiments o’ universal love,
In pidgin English or in wild-fowl Scots,
And toastin’ ane wha’s nocht to them but an
Excuse for faitherin’ Genius wi’ their thochts.

A’ they’ve to say was aften said afore
A lad was born in Kyle to blaw aboot.
What unco fate mak’s him the dumpin’-grun’
For a’ the sloppy rubbish they jaw oot?

Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name
Than in ony’s barrin’ liberty and Christ.
If this keeps spreedin’ as the drink declines,
Syne turns to tea, wae’s me for the Zeitgeist!

Rabbie, wad’st thou wert here–the warld hath need,
And Scotland mair sae, o’ the like o’ thee!
The whisky that aince moved your lyre’s become
A laxative for a loquacity.

from “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle” (lines 41-64)
Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978)

I got involved with this poem yesterday–a poem that I had long forgotten and had once loved dearly.  A student of a friend of mine got in a bit of trouble with it and an art project he was doing. Just a few bad decisions.

Anyway, he was also out of his depth. The poem is nearly a hundred pages long, close to 3000 lines long, and written in the Scots dialect. In it MacDiarmid is bemoaning the present state of the world ( (“Rabbie, wad’st thou wert here–the warld hath need”) and calling for a certain national identity through a link to the past. And of course, as a early-twentieth century Scots poet, for Hugh MacDiarmid that link is Robert Burns.

I have always had an affinity for Burns.  We share the same birthday and hit some of life’s milestones at the same time. But my introduction to him was from my father. My father was not a academic man; he had finished high-school and then out to work. But he had always been a wide-ranging and voracious reader.  And he had a extraordinary memory for the poems he had read in school. Even in old age, he could recite poems that he had learned as a youth.  The one I remember most was Robert Burns’ “To A Louse.”  I remember it because it was his way of teaching humility, of teaching his children not to become too full of themselves.  As a child, I loved the poem because it dealt with the humorous situation of spying a louse crawling in the wig of the elegant lady in front of him at church.  Her social airs and superciliousness are punctured by the creature burrowing through her hair, unknown to her but visible to those in the pew behind.

But making fun of the rich lady was not the point.  The lesson my father was offering was directed to us.  Burns ends the poem with a prayer:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

How perfect.  How humbling. What an antidote to hubris!

I grew older, life went by, and I began reading seriously on my own. Suddenly, many of the pieces that my dad had recited came back into my life.  And I took to Burns. (Even, his most anthologized–”To A Mouse, on Turning up her Nest with a Plough”–is a plea for empathy and understanding among all creatures, not only between humans, although that too certainly is implied. And it was there that I first recognized my father’s oft recited quote about the frequent ruinations of the “best laid plans.”)

In the section of Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem above, the speaker laments the caricature that has been made of Robert Burns over the years. The Burns’ suppers held around the world, the saccharine versions of “Auld Lang Syne” that punctuate each passing year (and that omit most poignant verses), the iconic being that he has been puffed up as, emptied of all the genius, vitality, politics and love that made him what he was.

Instead, MacDiarmid yearns for that great lover of liberty,  the lover of life, the lover of Scotland. For instance, here is Burns simply singing the praises of his love–and stating that even death would not sever its bond:

Fair and lovely as thou art,
Thou hast stown my very heart;
I can die–but canna part,
My bonie dearie.
(“Ca’ the Yowes,”  lines 20-24)

Here in 1792–70 years before the American Emancipation Proclamation–Burns writes about the anguish of a Senegalese leaving his home on a slave ship for the shores of Virginia.  It is not the politics that are most important here (although they are important) it is the humanizing of a black man in 1792, the compassion and empathy for the slave’s lot. One can feel the slave’s weariness. One can feel his “bitter tear.”

The Slave’s Lament

It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral,
For the lands of Virginia,-ginia, O:
Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more;
And alas! I am weary, weary O:
Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more;
And alas! I am weary, weary O.

All on that charming coast is no bitter snow and frost,
Like the lands of Virginia,-ginia, O:
There streams for ever flow, and there flowers for ever blow,
And alas! I am weary, weary O:
There streams for ever flow, and there flowers for ever blow,
And alas! I am weary, weary O:

The burden I must bear, while the cruel scourge I fear,
In the lands of Virginia,-ginia, O;
And I think on friends most dear, with the bitter, bitter tear,
And alas! I am weary, weary O:
And I think on friends most dear, with the bitter, bitter tear,
And alas! I am weary, weary O:

But for me, it is the love poems that stand out. While some here in the 21st century might bash his promiscuity,  I see it as his inordinate zeal and love of life. I believe the truth of his love poems–they are not simply lines to bed a willing lass–and I see them as some of the tenderest poems ever written. Here is one in which he has been played false…and his heart is breaking:

Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon

Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon,
How can ye bloom sae fair!
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
And I sae fu’ o’ care!

Thou’ll break my heart, thou bonnie bird
That sings upon the bough;
Thou minds me o’ the happy days
When my fause Luve was true.

Thou’ll break my heart, thou bonnie bird
That sings beside thy mate;
For sae I sat, and sae I sang,
And wist na o’ my fate.

Aft hae I roved by bonnie Doon
To see the woodbine twine,
And ilka bird sang o’ its love;
And sae did I o’ mine.

Wi’ lightsome heart I pu’d a rose
Frae aff its thorny tree;
And my fause luver staw the rose,
But left the thorn wi’ me.

From a boy in trouble in a friend’s school, to a poem by Hugh MacDiarmid, to Robert Burns, to my dad.  The mind shifts easily from one thing to another. This is not a scholarly piece–my dad would find no worth in that–but a post about things I love and loved.

My father outside a pub in Dublin

Sunday Music: Leonard Cohen Old Ideas

His voice is unmistakeable, his lyrics are second to none. And I’m not talking Dylan here. For nearly as long as Dylan has, Leonard Cohen has been creating incomparable songs–songs that deal with pain, sexuality, religion, the miscarriages of history, the ravages of love, and finality. And now at 77 years old, Cohen seems even more focused on the finality.

For instance, “Going Home,” the first song on his new album Old Ideas, is a description of a  “lazy bastard living in a suit” named Leonard. In the realization that he is “going home,” the fictional Leonard is wishing he had had a user’s manual for living, for living in defeat.

(If you know little about Leonard Cohen, you might be unaware that his manager did a “Bernie Madoff” on him and left him completely broke which is why he is touring the world and putting out new stuff at this stage in his life.  Unfortunately, he has to. Fortunately, it is still very good stuff.)

The music, like so much of Cohen’s work, is often just an understated support to Cohen’s enigmatic lyrics. Simple piano or guitar set up against the words.  At other times, the production  has beautiful, choir-like  singers (the Webb Sisters), whose voices are often in bright opposition to the darkness of his ideas. His work has frequently had the tenor of southern spirituals (cf. “Hallelujah”) and on this record, “Amen,”  “Show Me the Place” and “Come Healing” follow suit, while “Crazy to Love You” recalls the acoustic guitar work of Cohen’s early days.

But the music is ALWAYS secondary to the words.  How heartbreaking is a love song that begs “I know you have to hate me/But could you hate me less?” It is this heart-wrenching sadness, the jaded philosophy that makes Cohen so beguiling. And I find that in his old age, this jaded attitude is even more compelling–for underneath it all, there is something hopeful, poetically hopeful in the continuance of things. In a odd way, Cohen’s complaining about the world and its injustice implies that he wants to see it better, that it can be better, that it will be better.

Having Leonard Cohen’s voice in the world, having his striking words propped up by the most simple instrumentation, makes my world better. Hallelujah!

A goddess’s eyes, a museum’s treasures, and the fall of civilizations

The old man laughed indulgently, holding in check a deeper, more explosive delight. “Rome was destroyed, Greece was destroyed, Persia was destroyed, Spain was destroyed. All great countries are destroyed.  Why not yours. How much longer do you think your own country will last? Forever? Keep in mind that the earth itself is destined to be destroyed by the sun in twenty-five million years or so.”  Catch-22, Joseph Heller

I spent the day yesterday in The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.  Part of a photographic-mural, the woman above looks over you as you enter the Mid-Eastern galleries; her almond eyes seem those of a goddess, knowing, far-seeing, beautiful.  And then one wonders, what might she have actually seen in her life. What is her life like?  Is she still alive? Still in her native land?

Afterwards, when I was thinking about the various galleries in the museum that  I had lingered in, I was struck by this: I had visited Persia, Greece, Rome, Mexico, Egypt–high-points of human civilization and, in 2012,  flashpoints of suffering and discontent, violence, confusion and uncertainty.

The poets are helpful here–though not necessarily hopeful–and the photos I took seemed to have their own poetic soundtrack in my mind.  Here is Yeats:

THE SECOND COMING                                                                                              

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere                         
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

And then here’s Shelley on the same tack although not as apocalyptic:


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

“If the world sees all these pictures, what are they going to say about Iran? I’ll let you know tomorrow.”

“Where did the good old days go? Are they in the story books or just gone from here.”

“A new sorrow has been added to my sorrow. The thought of darkness and this destruction.”

“My love has gone underground. The taste of night is nothing but awareness.”

“God, if you’re there and you hear us, come now. God, we need you now. God, give us an answer.”

The Persians have long been known for their poetry. Lush, emotional, spiritual and clear. The poems to the left were tweets sent during the contested elections in Iran in June 2009.  It is evidence of my theory that poetry–in fact all written expression– is an innate desire, beaten out of children by well-meaning but misinformed teachers. While the immediate world seems to be spinning out of control (see Yeats’ spiral above), these young Iranians find the need to put their thoughts on paper–or onto some kind of device in 140 characters or less.

GREECE — Poor Greece, so beautiful, so lovely, and so fragile to economic decisions that seem far removed from the people themselves.

Headless Statue by  Kyriakos Haralambdis
(translated by Kimon Friar). Hellenic Quarterly, Summer, 2000.

I have heard that your head
has been sent as a sacred skull to Constantinople.
Byzantine emperors manfully
placed you in red and gold.
The star of God’s Holy Wisdom
studies you and covers you.
And you, a woman, in a late hour
open your closed eyelashes.
You look fruitlessly, for we have gone away on a journey,
and you call out to us “come to my guest room.”
But we, artful head, seek your whole body,
in a city that resembles you. If we succeed,
we shall call this bone our own.

Poor city, ten years in bed,
without the lamp stead at our head,
as headless and cold as lead.

I don’t want to be distressed by seeing you, my bird.
I know you are absent, all has been heard.
Your skill in a huge box
embellished with small serpents and small stars
all made of paper, seed of manliness
travelled around the world to be placed
in houses of ill repute and cabarets
in the sky of the city where it reigned.

You who hear me, do not misunderstand me.
Such things serve the natural remembrance of mortals,
others the cleansing of memory.

MEXICO— one murder is always too many. Poor Mexico is  far beyond too many, far beyond human understanding, far beyond humanity.

“And every time they opened, it was night and the moon, while they climbed the great terraced steps, his head hanging down backward now, and up at the top were the bonfires, red columns of perfumed smoke, and suddenly he saw the red stone, shiny with the blood dripping off it, and the spinning arcs cut by the feet of the victim whom they pulled off to throw him rolling down the north steps. With a last hope he shut his lids tightly, moaning to wake up. For a second he thought he had gotten there, because once more he was immobile in the bed, except that his head was hanging down off it, swinging. But he smelled death, and when he opened his eyes he saw the blood-soaked fig­ure of the executioner-priest coming toward him with the stone knife in his hand. He managed to close his eyelids again, although he knew now he was not going to wake up, that he was awake, that the marvelous dream had been the other, absurd as all dreams are-a dream in which he was going through the strange avenues of an astonishing city, with green and red lights that burned without fire or smoke, on an enormous metal insect that whirred away between his legs. In the infinite he of the dream, they had also picked him up off the ground, some­one had approached him also with a knife in his hand, approached him who was lying face up, face up with his eyes closed between the bonfires on the steps.”  from “The Night Face-Up” by Julio Cortazar

ROME–And on a happier note, this from Catallus:


Let’s you and me live it up, my Lesbia,

and make some love, and let old cranks

go cheap talk their fool heads off.

Maybe suns can set and come back up again,

but once the brief light goes out on us

the night’s one long sleep forever.

First give me a kiss, a thousand kisses,

then a hundred, and then a thousand more,

then another hundred, and another thousand,

and keep kissing and kissing me so many times

we get all mixed up and can’t count anymore,

that way nobody can give us the evil eye

trying to figure how many kisses we’ve got.

I spent the majority of my visit in the Greco-Roman-Estruscan galleries, though I took a guided tour through the Meso-American gallery and the Southwest American gallery.  These dealt with the ancient peoples of the Yucatan peninsula and the southwest corner of what is now the United States.  Current theories claim that these wide reaching people actually traded and influenced one another over the centuries: the Incans, the Mayans, the Hopi, the Pueblo.  Yet they too–the Mayan cities seem so much more advanced than the Athens, Roman, Cairo counterparts–all were subsumed by human violence and  human greed.

It is an impressive museum, The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.  But it left me feeling a bit desperate…a little hopeless…a little sad.  Sad, except for the women in the photographic mural whose eyes are so beguiling. Perhaps the poets are right all along, and it is beauty and love that will carry us through.