the Voice

June 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever consigned to existlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?

  Thus I; faltering forward,
  Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward
  And the woman calling.

– Thomas Hardy

The line “consigned to existlessness” was later changed to “dissolved to wan wistlessness”. I’ve chosen the earlier version because I like it better. The woman was probably Emma, Hardy’s first wife, whose death haunted the poet. The sussurrant S’s in the third stanza provide an appropriate soundtrack to the woman’s soft fading, as does the echoed “call to me, call to me” like words screamed into the wind. In the final stanza, the meter breaks down alongside the narrator’s mindset (accompanied by those ghostly indents).


June 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

We were very tired, we were very merry —
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable —
But we looked into fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry —
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and the pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

– Edna St. Vincent Millay

The repeated lines are the immoveable objects (the blunt narrative arc) of memory around which all other details swirl. There were apples. There were pears. A newspaper landed on a hand but fluttered away. Insignificant things, and Millay recounts them in such a deadpan manner that we wonder if they even matter. But of course they do. It’s always the details that anchor memories, that mean so much in so little.


June 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Is love
so evil?
Is Eve? Lo,
love vies,
evolves. I
lose selves,
sylphs of
loose Levi’s,
sieve oil of
vile sloe.
Love sighs,
slives. O
veils of
voile, so
sly, so suave.
O lives,
soil sleeves,
I love so
I solve.

– A. E. Stallings

There is a children’s game where Kid A mouths the words “olive juice” to Kid B who immediately misreads the lip movements as “I love you”. Hilarity ensues.

Summer Haiku

June 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

  P o o l
P e o p l
  e   p l o p!
  C o o l.

– Edwin Morgan

Summer strikes. People plash. Basho nods. (Someone pees in pool.)

Adam’s Task

June 20, 2012 § 1 Comment

“And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field” – GEN. 2:20

Thou, paw-paw-paw; thou, glurd; thou, spotted
  Glurd; thou, whitestap, lurching through
The high-grown brush; thou, pliant-footed,
  Implex; thou, awagabu.

Every burrower, each flier
  Came for the name he had to give:
Gay, first work, ever to be prior,
  Not yet sunk to primitive.

Thou, verdie; thou, McFleery’s pomma;
  Thou; thou; thou — three types of grawl;
Thou, flisket, thou, kabasch; thou, comma-
  Eared mashawok; thou, all; thou, all.

Were, in a fire of becoming,
  Laboring to be burned away,
Then work, half-measuring, half-humming,
  Would be as serious as play.

Thou, pambler; thou, rivarn; thou, greater
  Wherret, and thou, lesser one;
Thou, sproal; thou, zant; thou, lily-eater.
  Naming’s over. Day is done.

– John Hollander

There are four types of names at play here: the onomatopoetic (paw-paw-paw), the eponymic (McFleery’s pomma), the seemingly exotic (awagabu, mashawok), and names that describe the creature (lily-eater, whitestap). Curiously, McFleery’s pomma suggests that there is another man besides Adam walking around Eden. Ferdinand de Saussure might delight in witnessing how the animal’s names came about; they are arbitrary insofar as they spawn from Adam’s whim, but I’d like to think there are reasons behind each name. Paw-paw-paw must be a mammal, rivarn perhaps a stripy antelope-like thing, whitestap a nervous bird, and the glurd either an oafish ungulate or a big stupid fish.

the Ballad of Persse O’Reilly

June 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Have you heard of one Humpty Dumpty
How he fell with a roll and a rumble
And curled up like Lord Olofa Crumple
By the butt of the Magazine Wall,

  Of the Magazine Wall,
  Hump, helmet and all?

He was one time our King of the Castle
Now he’s kicked about like a rotten old parsnip.
And from Green street he’ll be sent by order of His Worship
To the penal jail of Mountjoy

  To the jail of Mountjoy!
  Jail him and joy.

He was fafafather of all schemes for to bother us
Slow coaches and immaculate contraceptives for the populace,
Mare’s milk for the sick, seven dry Sundays a week,
Openair love and religion’s reform,

  And religious reform,
  Hideous in form.

Arrah, why, says you, couldn’t he manage it?
I’ll go bail, my fine dairyman darling,
Like the bumping bull of the Cassidys
All your butter is in your horns.

  His butter is in his horns.
  Butter his horns!

Hurrah there, Hosty, frosty Hosty, change that shirt on ye,
Rhyme the rann, the king of all ranns!

  Balbaccio, balbuccio!

We had chaw chaw chops, chairs, chewing gum, the chicken-pox and china
Universally provided by this soffsoaping salesman.
Small wonder He’ll Cheat E’erawan our local lads nicknamed him.
When Chimpden first took the floor

  With his bucketshop store
  Down Bargainweg, Lower.

So snug he was in his hotel premises sumptuous
But soon we’ll bonfire all his trash, tricks and trumpery
And ’tis short till sheriff Clancy’ll be winding up his unlimited company
With the bailiff’s bom at the door,

  Bimbam at the door.
  Then he’ll bum no more.

Sweet bad luck on the waves washed to our island
The hooker of that hammerfast viking
And Gall’s curse on the day when Eblana bay
Saw his black and tan man-o’-war.

  Saw his man-o’-war
  On the harbour bar.

Where from? roars Poolbeg. Cookingha’pence, he bawls
  Donnez-moi scampitle, wick an wipin’fampiny
Fingal Mac Oscar Onesine Bargearse Boniface
Thok’s min gammelhole Norveegickers moniker
Og as ay are at gammelhore Norveegickers cod.

  A Norwegian camel old cod.
  He is, begod.

Lift it, Hosty, lift it, ye devil, ye! up with the rann, the rhyming rann!

It was during some fresh water garden pumping
Or, according to the Nursing Mirror, while admiring the monkeys
That our heavyweight heathen Humpharey
Made bold a maid to woo

  Woohoo, what’ll she doo!
  The general lost her maidenloo!

He ought to blush for himself, the old hayheaded philosopher,
For to go and shove himself that way on top of her.
Begob, he’s the crux of the catalogue
Of our antediluvial zoo,

  Messrs Billing and Coo.
  Noah’s larks, good as noo.

He was joulting by Wellinton’s monument
Our rotorious hippopopotamuns
When some bugger let down the backtrap of the omnibus
And he caught his death of fusiliers,

  With his rent in his rears.
  Give him six years.

‘Tis sore pity for his innocent poor children
But look out for his missus legitimate!
When that frew gets a grip of old Earwicker
Won’t there be earwigs on the green?

  Big earwigs on the green,
  The largest ever you seen.

  Suffoclose! Shikespower! Seudodanto! Anonymoses!

Then we’ll have a free trade Gael’s band and mass meeting
For to sod him the brave son of Scandiknavery.
And we’ll bury him down in Oxmanstown
Along with the devil and the Danes,

  With the deaf and dumb Danes,
  And all their remains.

And not all the king’s men nor his horses
Will resurrect his corpus
For there’s no true spell in Connacht or hell
That’s able to raise a Cain.

– James Joyce

For Bloomsday, let us bypass the most famous day in literature and focus on its most famous night, Finnegans Wake, that endless onion of paronomasia and elusive allusions. “The Ballad of Persse O’Reilly” floats somewhere near the beginning of Joyce’s dream stream, and comes to us as Humpty Dumpty’s tale horribly water-warped.

Verses to Exhaust My Stock of Four-Letter Words

June 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

From the ocean floors, where the necrovores
  Of the zoöoögenous mud
Fight for their share, to the Andes where
  Bullllamas thunder and thud,

And even thence to the heavens, whence
  Archchurchmen appear to receive
The shortwave stations of rival nations
  Of angels: “Believe! Believe!”

They battle, they battle — poor put-upon cattle,
  Each waging, reluctantly,
That punitive war on the disagreeor
  Which falls to the disagreeee.

– George Starbuck

No four-letter words, but Roy Blunt Jr. in Alphabet Juice gives plenty of three-and-four-dot words. A scholar who studies the victims of Vesuvius? Pompeiiicist. The town where Dr. Livingston was found, presumably? Ujiji. My own entries are more whimsical. A frolic in Natural Artesian Water? Fijiing. That one is a Newton’s cradle of dots. There is also Wiiitis, muscle aches that occur when one plays too much Wii, which, before its I’s are dotted and its T’s are crossed, would look something like Wɪɪɪɪɪs, a trump to Starbuck’s four four-letter words — but not mine. Soporific ostentation? Pizzazzzzz.


June 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

The world of dew
is the world of dew
and yet and yet–

– Kobayashi Issa

E. E. Cummings would later write that death is no parentheses. We wait, however, for what lies beyond life’s ellipses.

Burnt Norton

June 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
                                     But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
                                     Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.
There they were, dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,
And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at.
There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.
Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the bedded axle-tree.
The thrilling wire in the blood
Sings below inveterate scars
Appeasing long forgotten wars.
The dance along the artery
The circulation of the lymph
Are figured in the drift of stars
Ascend to summer in the tree
We move above the moving tree
In light upon the figured leaf
And hear upon the sodden floor
Below, the boarhound and the boar
Pursue their pattern as before
But reconciled among the stars.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,
Erhebung without motion, concentration
Without elimination, both a new world
And the old made explicit, understood
In the completion of its partial ecstasy,
The resolution of its partial horror.
Yet the enchainment of past and future
Woven in the weakness of the changing body,
Protects mankind from heaven and damnation
Which flesh cannot endure.
                                                 Time past and time future
Allow but a little consciousness.
To be conscious is not to be in time
But only in time can the moment in the rose-garden,
The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,
The moment in the draughty church at smokefall
Be remembered; involved with past and future.
Only through time time is conquered.

Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
Wtih slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.
Neither plentitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.

      Descend lower, descend only
Into the world of perpetual solitude,
World not world, but that which is not world,
Internal darkness, deprivation
And destitution of all property,
Dessication of the world of sense,
Evacuation of the world of fancy,
Inoperancy of the world of spirit;
This is the one way, and the other
Is the same, not in movement
But abstention from movememnt; while the world moves
In appetency, on its metalled ways
Of time past and time future.

Time and the bell have buried the day,
the black cloud carries the sun away.
Will the sunflower turn to us, will the clematis
Stray down, bend to us; tendril and spray
Clutch and cling?
Fingers of yew be curled
Down on us? After the kingfisher’s wing
Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still
At the still point of the turning world.

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the co-existence,
Or say that the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now. Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them. The Word in the desert
Is most attacked by voices of temptation,
The crying shadow in the funeral dance,
The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.

      The detail of the pattern is movement,
As in the figure of the ten stairs.
Desire itself is movement
Not in itself desirable;
Love is itself unmoving,
Only the cause and end of movement,
Timeless, and undesiring
Except in the aspect of time
Caught in the form of limitation
Between un-being and being.
Sudden in a shaft of sunlight
Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick now, here, now, always-
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.

– T. S. Eliot

Eliot won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948 due, in no small part, to Four Quartets, a series of four poems that show him at his peak. As Helen Vendler writes in TIME for the magazine’s “100 People of the Century” feature, after Four Quartets “[Eliot] could no longer summon the intense concentration of heart, mind and imagination necessary to produce significant poetry, and he subsided into the versifier of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.” The quartets were the last legs of his powers and “Burnt Norton”, the first quartet, is his zenith’s zenith.

Immediately, one realizes that “Burnt Norton” contains none of the cryptic warnings of “the Waste Land” or the stream-of-conscious patter of “Prufrock”. Here, Eliot is poet-philosopher meditating on time’s cyclical structure. He is clear and rhythmic and calm. Lewis Carroll’s rose garden appears briefly in the first section, but this is probably the least allusive of Eliot’s major works. Two of his most well known lines (semi-lines, really) nest here: “at the still point of the turning world” and “human kind/ Cannot bear very much reality”. The whole thing is a gorgeous swirl of mysticism and spirituality.

Old Possum, by the way, is wildly uneven, but contains two of his best poems — “the Naming of Cats” and “Macavity”.

the Waste Land: Five Limericks

June 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

In April one seldom feels cheerful;
Dry stones, sun and dust make me fearful;
Clairvoyantes distress me,
Commuters depress me–
Met Stetson and gave him an earful.

She sat on a mighty fine chair,
Sparks flew as she tidied her hair;
She asks many question,
I make few suggestions–
Bad as Albert and Lil–what a pair!

The Thames runs, bones rattle, rats creep;
Tiresias fancies a peep–
A typist is laid,
A record is played–
Wei la la. After this it gets deep.

A Phoenician named Phlebas forgot
About birds and his business–the lot,
Which is no surprise,
Since he’d met his demise
And been left in the ocean to rot.

No water. Dry rocks and dry throats,
Then thunder, a shower of quotes
From the Sanskrit and Dante.
Da. Damyata. Shantih.
I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.

– Wendy Cope

Would I go so far as to say I think this is better than Eliot’s original? I would. For all its cultural significance and foreboding presence in the canon, “The Waste Land” is an overly cryptic, bloated slab of high modernism. Eliot wrote better poems before and after. Cope’s genius takes serious art and condenses it into the most unserious of forms — the limerick. Her version is pithy and hilarious, and both mocks and salutes the original.

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