Wednesday, December 31, 2008

pile of reading

Free Lunch #40, a poetry magazine

Watchword #10, a magazine of poetry & prose, published in Berkeley

Bat City Review #4, a magazine of poetry, art & prose, published out of the University of Texas at Austin

Berkeley Poetry Review #39, a publication put together at UC Berkeley

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs – I find myself gradually getting more into the Beats

Growing Up Absurd by Paul Goodman – the sexism is dated but his critique of the meaninglessness of American consumer culture is not

New European Poets edited by Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer – still hoping to find a poet in this anthology to really love

Tristes Tropiques by Claude Levi-Strauss – stalled in this and lately put it back into the active reading pile

The Complete Poems by Anne Sexton – she’s good

The New Yorker, April 16, 2007 – working my way through a batch of 2007 issues that I fished from the donations box at work

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Left Behind – it’s a good thing!

Garry Wills takes a look at the biblical sources of the Rapture. Remember the Left Behind series, the batch of novels that dramatizes the Fundamentalists’ End Times? The Rapture stuff was ginned up by a man named John Nelson Darby in the 19th century (although the Darbyites greatest influence took the form of a “reference Bible” authored by Cyrus Scofield – “the book is dry, pedantic, and certain – a kind of printed papacy, where an infallible meaning is given for any verse in the Bible” – a book which sold in the millions). Darby’s (& Scofield’s) reading of the Bible updated prophecy – those biblical authors weren’t writing about their own ages but ours.

The phrase “left behind” (wherein the nonChristians are left behind by the saved who rapture up to Heaven) has its source, says Wills, in “Matthew 24.40-41: ‘Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left.’” Yet the context of the passage reveals another meaning. “Describing all the people who refused to hear Noah and join him on the ark, [Matthew] says, ‘And [they] knew not until the flood came and and took them all away.’ The section speaks of destruction, not deliverance. To be taken away is to be destroyed. Being left behind, like Noah and his family, is the desirable thing.”

source: Head and Heart: American Christianities by Garry Wills

Friday, December 19, 2008

hypocrites, loudly

With all the supposed faith in the Bible as inerrant, especially these days in regards homosexuality and abortion, it is hard to see people who profess such as anything but hypocrites for their selective readings. Most ridiculously there’s the resort to the Old Testament laws that forbade as abomination men lying with men as with women, while willful silence is maintained over the old book’s equally adamant dietary prohibitions. Shellfish, anyone?

Somehow over time slavery has become unacceptable – contravening traditional Biblical morality! In reference to early America Garry Wills illustrates how obviously:

“Much had been staked on following the Bible literally where morality was concerned. The Bible, after all, was the Puritans’ warrant for executing witches (Exodus 22.18) and for many other details of their penal system. One reason that so many godly people owned slaves, even in New England, was that slavery was permitted in both the Jewish and the Christian Scriptures. … How could you attack slavery when God allowed it, even commanded it in the case of conquered women (Deuteronomy 20.14; Numbers 31.18)? Fellow Jews should be enslaved for only six years (Exodus 21.2). Jewish law let a man sell himself into slavery (Leviticus 25.39) or sell his daughter as a slave, but only to a fellow Jew (Exodus 21.7). Jews are forbidden to covet another man’s slaves or envy him because of them (Exodus 20.17; Deuteronomy 5.21). One might well be tempted to envy Abaraham, who had at one point 318 slaves (Genesis 14.14).

“The New Testament is no better on slavery. Jesus nowhere criticizes the holding of slaves. In fact, slavery is accepted as a normal part of life in Jesus’ parables (Matthew 13.27; Luke 17.7-10; and many other places). Paul tells slaves to be content with their lot (I Corinthians 7.21-21). I Peter 2.18 tells slaves, ‘Obey your masters.’ The pseudo-Pauline letters say the same thing (Colossians 3.22; Ephesians 6.5-8; I Timothy 6.1-2; Titus 2.9-10). Paul requests (not commands) special treatment for one slave who helped him in prison (Philemon 16), but this is clearly a special case, not a general judgment on slavery.”

source: Head and Heart: American Christianities by Garry Wills

Thursday, December 18, 2008

the only nonpersecuting Christians

In discussions of early versions of Christianity in the United States Garry Wills makes this striking statement about Quakers:

“They were, said Jefferson, the only nonpersecuting Christians …”

source: Head and Heart: American Christianities by Garry Wills

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

word of the day: chiliasms


context: “Miller preached the less popular and pessimistic premillenial idea that the world as currently constituted was irredeemable except by God’s punishing intervention – an idea that would become powerful in the twentieth century, but which went against the triumphal chiliasms of the early Republic.”

Looking for a definition in the MS Word dictionary I find: “see millenarianism”

Under millenarianism are three definitions, the first of which seems to match the doctrine Garry Wills has Miller preaching: “1. belief in Jesus Christ’s Second Coming, a final conflict between good and evil, the end of the world, or similar doctrines, especially based on the book of Revelation”

But from the context I’d guess Wills has this second definition in mind:
“2. belief in a future utopian age, especially one created through revolution”

source: Head and Heart: American Christianities by Garry Wills

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

tradmar v. sasemar

left as a response to Newsweek cover story about the positives of gay marriage:

I've been reading Garry Wills' discussion in American Christianities of James Madison's "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments", in which Madison argues against the role of the state in enforcing religious policies. One bit that's always struck me, and that Madison addresses, is the idea promulgated by the evangelical anti-gay activists that if the state doesn't step in and "protect" us from that which they abhor, we will all go to hell. Is what they advocate so fragile that it can only be sustained by intervention of the state and all that implies -- courts and police force and mandated school curricula? Madison contended that if religion was so weak that it required the intervention of the state to sustain itself then it is best rejected rather than made more suspect via state dictate. Surely, says Madison, the right religion's "innate excellence and the patronage of its Author [God]" is adequate to sustain it. If it needs the state then this need serves only "to foster in those who still reject it a suspicion that its friends are too conscious of its fallacies to trust it to its own merits."

Is "traditional marriage" itself not strong enough to withstand sharing the world with "same sex marriage"?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Little Emily wading barefoot after a Cardinal flower

In February I compared two poems Emily Dickinson wrote about the Abyss. In one she worries about the fate of her shoe:

Is Bliss then, such Abyss,
I must not put my foot amiss
For fear I spoil my shoe?

After her mother’s death Emily wrote: “Two things I have lost with Childhood, the rapture of losing my shoe in the mud and going home barefoot, [after?] wading for Cardinal flowers and the mother[‘]s reproof which was more for my sake than her weary own for she frowned with a smile.”

The muddy feet of the little girl certainly give a homey backstory to a contemplation of the Abyss (or was that Bliss?).

source: My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: the Life of Emily Dickinson by Alfred Habegger

Sunday, December 14, 2008

“bell” by Valerie Worth

After praising a poem by Abhilash Munnangi that proved to be plagiarized from a book by Valerie Worth I thought I ought to read Valerie Worth. After all, if I liked her poem when I thought it was written by a 7-year-old I ought to like her poems anyway.

When I saw one cross the desk at the library I picked it up. Worth writes an imagistic, skinny poem. She capitalizes the first letter of every line, which, when the line consists of a single word, can be an insistent visual choice. Oddly, the titles are never capitalized (the book designer’s choice?). Her books are marketed to children. The poems can be sophisticated; the poems can be simplistic. “Bell” is one of my favorites.


By flat tink
Of tin, or thin
Copper tong,
Brass clang,
Bronze bong,

The bell gives
Metal a tongue –
To sing
In one sound
Its whole song.


Sometimes the first stanza with its bell-sounds strikes me as so frontloaded it’s overbearing; other times I think, well, it sounds like bells, don’t it? It really does sound like bells.

The second stanza makes a metaphorical statement. The bell’s song is limited, but it sings with the commitment of its whole body and every word in its vocabulary. The bell sings its heart out.

source: All the Small Poems by Valerie Worth

Saturday, December 13, 2008

relaxing her rule

Larry McMurtry says Buffalo Bill Cody “was all for suffrage” for women “and argued with” Annie Oakley “about it. … Annie … thought she might be for suffrage if only the good women would vote. But she was never particularly indulgent about her sex and worried about what might happen if too many bad women voted.”

Never particularly indulgent about her sex? But she was about the other? If women don’t vote, only men vote. How many bad men voting is too many? How many good women voting is too few?

“Part of [Annie Oakley’s] objection to feminism seemed to be an aesthetic objection to bloomers. She hated them and, so far as is known, never wore them. In her day all real ladies wore skirts, and that was that.”

“On the other hand she was adamant in her belief that women deserved to be, and should be, armed. … She thought that every school ought to have a rifle range and that both boys and girls should receive adequate instruction about how to use a firearm. When World War I broke out Annie even toyed with the idea of organizing and leading a women’s regiment, even though it might mean relaxing her rule on pants for women.”

What an odd mix of ideas we are.

source: The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America by Larry McMurtry

Friday, December 12, 2008

millions might not have lost their lives

Buffalo Bill Cody took his Wild West show through Europe more than once. “The 1891 tour through northern Europe involved ten stops in Germany alone, with only occasional mishaps or alarums. One occurred while Annie Oakley was giving shooting lessons to a Bavarian prince – a horse broke loose and came charging their way, forcing Annie to wrestle the startled prince to the ground.

“Kaiser Wilhelm saw her shoot a cigarette out of her husband’s mouth and demanded that she try it with him, which she did, though she didn’t like the Kaiser and later remarked that he was just the sort of man who would start a war.”

“When World War I broke out … Annie remembered how much she had disliked the Kaiser – after all, millions might not have lost their lives if she had just shot the Kaiser rather than his cigarette.”

source: The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America by Larry McMurtry

Thursday, December 11, 2008


When I attended Geof Huth’s San Francisco reading three months ago I bought two of his books, Ampersand Squared: an anthology of pwoermds, and Texistence which is a collaboration with mIEKAL aND.

The most famous pwoermd (poem/word) in the anthology is probably Aram Saroyan’s:


That one had the distinction of being denounced on the floor of the Senate as an example of the sort of degenerate art taxpayers were being forced to subsidize through the National Endowment for the Arts.

Huth also includes a poem by Marlene Mountain that I mentioned myself in my 2005 LuvSet post on pwoermds. That poem:

sn wfl k s

The other book, Texistence, is a collection of pwoermds Huth & mIEKAL aND created. Huth said one would write a few letters down then hand it to the other who would mess with it and vice versa until they were satisfied or tired of it. There are 300 pwoermds in the book. It’s a collection of contextless words, one to a page, none defined. You can make up definitions for them yourself, if you’re so inclined. Or you can just contemplate them. I marked several for rereading. Curiously, there are only four placemarks in the book now. Did I do a cull? The one I remember as my favorite is not marked. … Oh. There’s the explanation. As I removed the marks I wrote out favorites on a slip of paper in the back. A few:








That last one. Favorite!

Huth, by the way, has recently uploaded video of the reading on his dbqp blog.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Yesterday I mentioned Imre Galambos’ website. He has a page featuring subtitles he saw on DVDs he bought in Beijing. These subtitles, supposedly in English, are of what the actors are saying -- in English. Of these, he says, “by far the best was this:

Subtitle: ’Simone has the voice of young clone flouter, the body of safalaring, the grace of well grace Kelly, and the face of Artyphapen combined with in angle.’

Actual voice: ’Simone has the voice of the young Jane Fonda, the body of Sophia Lauren, the grace of, well, Grace Kelly, and the face of Audrey Hepburn combined with an angel.’

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

“Chinese Alphabet Now!”

While doing some research for Oracle Bones Peter Hessler came across Imre Galambos, a polyglot he found so interesting Hessler decided to profile him in a sort of parenthetical to the main text (Hessler calls such chapters “artifacts).

Galambos has his own website. The site he created featured short essays on the origins of Chinese and Greek writing, a history of Russia, and a blog about living in Budapest. But what seemed to bring most visitors were searches people made for “the Chinese Alphabet.” Even after coming upon his essay on the matter, visitors weren’t quite getting the difference between Chinese characters and an alphabet. Not that they wanted to know. All they really wanted was a cool-looking way of writing, “Jesus.” (He would even get resentful emails calling him to task for misleading the search engines: “Your sight SUCKS! Iwant the Chinese Alphabet Now!”.) So, bowing to the needs of the market, Galambos set up an order form. You can buy the Chinese character(s) for what you want to say. He calls the page, “Chinese symbols for tattoos.”

As of the interview (Oracle Bones was published in 2006) Galambos was making $2000 a month. He said, “’The most popular ones are “love,” “faith,” “fate,” “friend,” “brother,” “elder brother,” “younger brother,” “sisters” – this sort of thing. Sometimes “God” and “Jesus.” I had the Holy Ghost up, but nobody bought it so I took it down.'”

Some Chinese themselves “’are starting to do the same business on the Internet. But the Chinese cannot sell the characters by themselves. They have to put the character on a cup, or a pen, or a T-shirt, or whatever. They cannot seem to grasp the idea – people don’t need the cup or the T-shirt; they just need the fucking character. It doesn’t make sense to the Chinese. It’s like you selling the letter B to Mongolians.’”

source: Oracle Bones: a journey between China’s past and present by Peter Hessler

Monday, December 08, 2008

American Country Music

Peter Hessler introduces one of his former students, a Chinese woman, to a Chinese-American friend. He gets a letter from the former student:

“We chatted about a lot of things, including ‘Country Music,’ which I found quite different from what I had imagined. I had literally taken it for granted that Country Music was about flowers, grass, brooks, sunshine, country people and their plain love, and everything beautiful and happy.”

The cheatin’, drinkin’, and shootin’ surprised her?

source: Oracle Bones: a journey between China’s past and present by Peter Hessler

Sunday, December 07, 2008

a common United States tactic

I was reading Peter Hessler’s book when the Russians invaded the Republic of Georgia. Senator John McCain, trying to show what a tough guy he was up against the Russians, demanded they withdraw or the U.S. would invade … or something. In coverage I saw the Georgians seemed to have overestimated the amount of support they’d be receiving from America.

Apparently in the mid 90s Jesse Helms pushed for a Uighur language broadcast from Voice of America. “A scholar of Central Asian studies told me,” says Hessler, “that the RFA Uighur broadcasts were far more radical than anything on the Mandarin or Tibetan services … He was … concerned that the Uighurs overestimated the support of leaders like Senator Helms. In Central Asia that was an old story: A common United States tactic had been to encourage ethnic or religious groups that resisted bigger powers like the Russians or the Chinese. Once the geopolitics shifted, the support ended, and the resistance groups were forgotten.” Forgotten, defunded, at the mercy of the stronger power the U.S. had been hoping to antagonize.

source: Oracle Bones: a journey between China’s past and present by Peter Hessler

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Wok N Roll

Visiting with a Uighur friend who has emigrated to the U.S. author Peter Hessler steps into the Chinatown of the District of Columbia. Being bilingual Hessler can read both the English and the Chinese versions of the restaurant names on their street signs. “The jokey racism of the English names vanished in translation: in Chinese, the China Doll Restaurant blossomed into ‘Beautiful Chinese Garden,’ and the China Boy Delicatessen gained a measure of dignity (as well as an entirely different product line) with ‘Chinese Child’s Fresh Noodles.’ The Wok N Roll Restaurant transformed itself into ‘Hall of Precious Flavor.’”

But the most radical difference between English and Chinese is on “Chinatown Gifts.” The Chinese: “Service Center for Personnel Leaving the Country.”

Observes Hessler’s Uighur friend, “’On that sign, when they say “country,” they mean China. Why would anybody need any help getting out of America?’”

The Uighur are an ethnic minority in China and look more Middle Eastern or Turk than Han. Hessler even meets one blond enough to be used to impersonate a bad guy American in Chinese action pictures.

Friday, December 05, 2008


China is a big country. Though we bandy about the word “Chinese” for its language, Chinese is actually many languages, oftentimes not mutually intelligible. The longer a people sits in one place, the greater their language diverges from the people sitting in the next valley over which diverges from the people on the mountain which diverges from the people across the gorge. Thus, even in supposedly ethnically homogeneous China when travelling from point A to point L one crosses language zones wherein the languages gradually become less and less like each other.

Author Peter Hessler was a peace corps English teacher in China. He has kept up with some of his former students. Used to be people pretty much stayed where they were in China but these days people more readily pick up stakes and move. Sometimes when you go where the jobs are you find yourself moving to a place where the locals speak a language you don’t understand, one that might be as different from your own as German from English.

“Mandarin is the native tongue for people in Beijing and other parts of northern China, and it’s the official language for schools, government bureaus, and most television and radio stations. But hundreds of millions of Chinese grow up speaking something entirely different. The Chinese call these tongues fangyan: often the word is translated as ‘dialect,’ although literally it means ‘speech of a place.’ In fact fangyan are often different spoken languages. … Among the Chinese, Wenzhou is notorious for having some of the most difficult fangyan. Within the city, different regions have distinct sub-fangyan, and none of these tongues is similar to Mandarin. Even somebody like [Hessler’s former student] Shirley – a young woman naturally gifted with languages – could only pick up the basics.”

In a letter to Hessler Shirley recounts cultural differences between herself and her new neighbors, some of which she emphasizes as much as the language problems: “’[After] many months … I can understand some of the simple sentences the natives say. I can basically deal with the trouble happened when I went to the food market.’” The “trouble” seems to include the natives’ weird tastes. “’I don’t like food from the sea although it has high nutrition. I taste it strange.’”

source: Oracle Bones: a journey between China’s past and present by Peter Hessler

Thursday, December 04, 2008

the voice of the turtle

“Oracle bones” is the name given to the artifacts that preserve the earliest known samples of Chinese writing. The writing was inscribed on “cattle scapula and turtle plastrons. These objects were probably used because they provide a flat surface for writing (the plastron is the undershell that protects the turtle’s belly).” The bones were then purposely cracked with heated brands in order to get divine responses to what had been written. “In subsequent ages, this kind of scapulimancy was sometimes described as ‘the voice of the turtle.’” Nobody knows exactly how the cracks on the recovered bones were interpreted in their time but many of the messages have been deciphered, for instance:

The king goes hunting in the field; the whole day he will not encounter great wind.

One might suspect confirmation was hoped for. Reassurance, perhaps.

This one, a common theme apparently, is my favorite:

Tonight there will be no disasters.

source: Oracle Bones: a journey between China’s past and present by Peter Hessler

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Shakespeare in translation?

I learned a Shakespearean word twenty years ago or so, one that’s stuck with me. I was watching The MacNeill/Lehrer News Hour and Jim Lehrer introduced a gray-haired academic who had gingerly produced a slightly modernized version of Shakespeare. He had switched out some words that we just don’t use anymore with words that one might find familiar. Naturally this sacrilege called up storms of protest. In general I’m not a one for the bowdlerized or condensed or abridged version. Give me what the author wrote. I trust the author. So I was suspicious of the academic. On the other hand, I was no fan of Shakespeare at the time and the fardel of forcing myself down the Shake’s page was not one I looked forward to bearing. Which is maybe the reason that’s the word I remember: fardel. It means burden or trouble. The academic had switched out fardels for troubles, and that, it seemed to me, was not a bad deal. Still, once in awhile, just to be cheeky, when it comes time to say troubles, I use fardels instead.

I found a translation on the web of the famous bit in MacBeth where the old boy imagines a bloody dagger. Here is the original, authentic, uncorrupted, pure Shake:

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Thou marshall'st me the way that I was going;
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o' the other senses,
Or else worth all the rest; I see thee still,
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before. There's no such thing:
It is the bloody business which informs
Thus to mine eyes. Now o'er the one halfworld
Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse
The curtain'd sleep; witchcraft celebrates
Pale Hecate's offerings, and wither'd murder,
Alarum'd by his sentinel, the wolf,
Whose howl's his watch, thus with his stealthy pace.
With Tarquin's ravishing strides, towards his design
Moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm-set earth,
Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear
Thy very stones prate of my whereabout,
And take the present horror from the time,
Which now suits with it. Whiles I threat, he lives:
Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.

Got that? Now here is Kent Richmond’s version:

Is this a dagger that I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Here, let me clutch you.
I do not have you, yet I see you still.
Are you not, fatal vision, evident
To touch as well as sight? Or are you but
A dagger in my mind, a false illusion,
Emerging from an overheated brain?
And yet this form looks just as tangible
this one I now draw. [draws his dagger]
You guide me down the path that I was going
And are the instrument I was to use.
My eyes are either fools or worth more than
My other senses. I can see you still,
And on the blade and hilt are clots of blood,
Which were not there before.—There’s no such thing.
It is this bloody business which has done
This to my eyes. Across the world’s dark half,
Nature seems dead, encased in sleep, deceived
By wicked dreams. The sorcerer’s goddess Hecate
Receives the witches’ offering, and gaunt Murder,
Alerted by his sentinel, the wolf,
Its howl his timepiece, at a stealthy pace,
Moves ghostlike, with a rapist’s wary stride,
In on his prey. O, firm and stable earth,
Don’t hear my steps, or how they walk, for fear
These stones of yours will leak my whereabouts
And break the ghastly silence of this hour,
Which suits this deed. While I make threats, he lives.
Cold wind to cool hot deeds is all talk gives.

I don’t know about you but that middle bit in the superShake original where he goes on about “halfworld” and “Pale Hecate” and “wither’d murder” and “whose howl’s his watch” was a pretty puzzle that I’d as soon leave asparkle on someone else’s wrist. Richmond’s version gets some suspense going, moves the story forward. And, much as I like me a difficult poem, I don’t have to like it.

Frankly, whenever I hear how it is that Modern Poetry has forsaken its audience to toddle off into obscurity, how accessibility is so important if we’re going to bring the masses back to the poem (or, you know, sell a book or two), I’m put in mind of the difficulty of Shakespeare. Shakespeare the Divine. I can grok Modern Poetry but not turn of 17th Century English? Maybe so. (‘Course, I’m baffled, too, by the utterly conventional, stick-in-the-muds who proudly list Emily Dickinson among their favorites – Dickinson, one of the most mystifying of American poets.)

I read a lot of poetry in translation and I like the opportunity to read more than one translator’s take on the same poem. (One can read Sappho’s oeuvre via three or four different translators in just an evening.) It wouldn’t hurt to have three or four Shakespeares in contemporary translation. But maybe there are already. It’s not like I’ve been paying attention.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

I don’t like Shakespeare because he doesn’t write in English?

William Shakespeare was writing in “the late 1500s” – closer in time to the age of Beowulf than to us. Beowulf is written “in Old English [which] is a different language to us.” It may be a version of English but the English of Beowulf is not our language. Language change has continued apace, slowed by literacy, it’s likely, but refusing to remain static or “pure”. Says linguist John McWhorter, “At what point do we concede that substantial comprehension across the centuries has become too much of a challenge to expect of anyone but specialists? … The common feeling that Shakespeare is simply a matter of ‘adjustment’ is understandable – so much closer to us in time than Beowulf, with so many of the same words and sentence structures, much of the foreignness of the language is subtle but profound, rather like the differences between standard English and Jamaican patois.”

McWhorter gives examples: wherefore used to mean why, thus Juliet’s famous “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” meant “Why are you Romeo?”, not “Where are you, Romeo?” Or, rather, “Why did I have to fall in love with one of my family’s sworn enemies, dammit! Why couldn’t it have been some nice Jew, say, or a dyke from Zanzibar?” Context does help with the wherefore, but line by line word after word appears that just isn’t used anymore the way Shakespeare had it. We are required to translate constantly, but often don’t know it because the word Shakespeare uses is one still in use – only now we use that word to mean something a bit different. Wit, for instance, didn’t mean humorousness in Shakie’s day, it meant smarts – knowledge or intelligence.

“Yes, some might say, but the ‘knowledge’ meaning of wit isn’t completely lost to us today. Not only does it survive in the frozen expression to wit, but also in the old expression mother wit, which refers to innate common sense … Even dictionaries still include the ‘knowledge’ meaning. But today, this is clearly a peripheral meaning …”

McWhorter gives a bunch of examples. I’m not going to copy them out. But I get his point. Maybe it’s not that Shakespeare isn’t the great writer that everybody says. Maybe it’s not that he’s howlingly overrated. Maybe it’s that I’ve been led to believe he’s writing in English – and he just ain’t. And maybe that’s what messes with me. I don’t get him cuz I need a translation.

source: Word on the Street: debunking the myth of a ‘pure’ standard English by John McWhorter

Monday, December 01, 2008

I don’t like Shakespeare

I’ve never been a Shakie fan. How can one help but feel defensive saying that when we all know Shakespeare is the reason we are lucky to speak English? The language in which Shakespeare wrote! Shakespeare, the bard, the literary giant more looked up to than Jesus. (OK, Jesus got out some tart parables but he’s pretty much left out of lit class.) “We all esteem Shakespeare,” says linguist John McWhorter. Anything less and “one’s refinement [is] put … into question. … [A]s an avid theater fan [I] can say that while I have enjoyed the occasional Shakespeare performance and film, most of them have been among the dreariest, most exhausting evenings of my life …”

So what’s with me and McWhorter? Are we philistines? Merely honest? Iconoclasts? Insufficiently educated?

“Shakespeare’s comedies are in general somewhat less of a chore than the tragedies,” McWhorter continues. “This, however, is in spite of the language, not because of it. Because comedy lends itself to boffo physical pratfalls, outrageous costumes, funny voices and stock situations, an evening of Twelfth Night or The Comedy of Errors is usually easier on the derriere than one at Julius Ceasar or Henry V. However, … even the comedies would be infinitely richer experiences if we had more than a vague understanding of what the characters were actually saying …”

Though Shakespeare’s plays were often performed in early America it wasn’t until “the late 1800s [that] the development of a ‘high culture’ intended for the ‘refined’ segment of society rather than the ‘masses,’ [required] the ‘sacralization’ of Shakespeare.” Up to then Shakespeare’s texts were considered suggestions or treasure chests to be looted for the shiniest bits – the language that had since Shakie’s time become incomprehensible was ignored (as were the unhappy endings). But for culture’s sake Shakespeare had to be unfunned – had to be pure, original, authentic, educational. “Shakespeare presents us with the extra processing load of unfamiliar vocabulary and sentence structure.” Isn’t that good for us? Makes the brain work, don’t it?

“No, the problem with Shakespeare for modern audiences is not that the language is simply highbrow. … English since Shakespeare’s time has changed not only in terms of a few exotic vocabulary items, but also in the very meaning of thousands of basic words and in scores of fundamental sentence structures. For this reason, we are faced with a language that, while clearly recognizable as the English we speak, is different to an extent that makes partial comprehension a challenge, and anything approaching full comprehension utterly impossible even for the educated theatergoer who doesn’t happen to be a trained expert in Shakespearean language.”

source: Word on the Street: debunking the myth of a ‘pure’ standard English by John McWhorter

Saturday, November 29, 2008

make like a banana and split!

Yesterday I got us started on laying the blame for our linguistic insecurity. It was those 18th century grammarians, Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray! They worshipped Greek and Latin and figured the best language would be the language most like those great old Classics. Thus they twisted standard English around the make it seem more Classic. No wonder we make so many grammatical mistakes – our English isn’t sufficiently twisted!

Linguist John McWhorter takes a look at “the odd little idea that we are not supposed to place words between to and a verb, the famous ‘split infinitive.’ This renders sentences like I wanted to carefully explain to her why the decision was made ‘less desirable’ than I wanted to explain to her carefully why the decision was made.” In some constructions prying the adverb from within that ‘infinitive’ leaves the adverb without an unambiguous office in the sentence. “In Latin, infinitives were never split for the simple reason that they were one word, as in most languages.”

How did English’s infinitive come to be two words anyway? “In Old English … an infinitive verb was simply one word, with an ending -an: He began to sing was He ongon singan. To only came to be used with infinitives in Middle English, as endings like -an were shed.” If there’s an explanation for how the word to came to take the place of a word ending, McWhorter doesn’t give it. In fact he seems rather puzzled by the transformation.

source: Word on the Street: debunking the myth of a ‘pure’ standard English by John McWhorter

Friday, November 28, 2008

where to put the preposition

Linguist John McWhorter has noticed that English-speakers are insecure about the correctness of their English. Speakers of other languages, he says, aren’t so self-conscious. Why do English-speakers have the sense that what they say “is somehow full of errors”?

McWhorter traces the source of our insecurity to 18th century grammarians, particularly Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray. McWhorter calls Murray’s “more influential” prescriptive grammar a “knock-off of Lowth’s.”

“[N]either of these men were exactly experts in language … at the time nobody was. Linguistics science as we know it did not exist. … Lowth and Murray labored under the common illusions that a language ought to be a static, unchanging system; that language change can only be decay …” These basic misunderstandings about language make the Lowth and Murray grammars “historical curio[s], rather like an ancient map with blobby, approximate renderings of the continents and sea serpents bobbing in the oceans. …”

“Lowth’s and Murray’s books were founded on the idea that Latin and Ancient Greek had been inherently ideal languages, that the ‘best’ English should follow their grammar, and that to the extent that it did not, it was ‘straying’ from a somehow divinely anointed template. …”

“The problem here is that English is not Latin and did not even develop from Latin; as a Germanic language, its ancestor was a now-lost language similar to Gothic.” Lowth & Murray “are the source of two of the most famous grammar ‘rules.’ The first is that we should not end sentences with a preposition, i.e., that I don’t know what to do it with is linguistic slumming, and that the ‘real, ‘best’ way of putting it would be I don’t know with what to do it.

McWhorter’s example is a little difficult to parse. I don’t know what to do it with?

I’d like you to sweep the porch, Mother says to Child.

There are a broom, a mop, and a shovel leaning against the wall.

I don’t know what to do it with, says the perplexed Child.

OK. I guess that works.

Anway, to get back to McWhorter: “Latin did not place prepositions at the end of its sentences. … In a supreme irony, Lowth himself breaks the rule in explaining it, complaining, ‘This is an idiom, which our language is strongly inclined to’! The fact that English-speakers are so ‘inclined to’ putting prepositions at the end of a sentence is because, quite simply, it is an English rule. … The very naming of little words of position and relationship prepositions is based on Latin structure.”

Tomorrow, the second “of the most famous grammar ‘rules’”: the split infinitive!

source: Word on the Street: debunking the myth of a ‘pure’ standard English by John McWhorter

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

word of the day: fractionation

context: In a description of the towers at an oil refinery, the author says, “[Some] are fractionating towers, in which crude oil is heated from the bottom to distill it. The various hydrocarbons in crude, ranging from tar to gasoline to natural gas, have different boiling points; as they’re heated, they separate, arranging themselves in the column with the lightest ones on top. … Looming overhead are 20 fractionation towers and 20 more exhaust stacks.”

source: The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman

Friday, October 10, 2008

ground ground nuts

In her book 84, Charing Cross Road Helene Hanff responds to a friend who is visiting England:

“I fail to see why you did not understand the groceryman, he did not call it ‘ground ground nuts,’ he called it ‘ground ground-nuts’ which is the only really SENSible thing to call it. Peanuts grow in the GROUND and are therefore GROUNDnuts, and after you take them out of the ground you grind them up and you have ground ground-nuts, which is a much more accurate name than peanut butter, you just don’t understand English.”

84, Charing Cross Road is a surprisingly affecting collection of correspondence between Hanff and an English bookseller, Frank Doel, and a few others. The correspondence got its start in 1949 when the British government was still imposing rationing, a legacy of the war. Besides sending a little money to buy books, Helene makes friends by shipping tinned goods, like ham and tongue. The back and forth between the effusive New Yorker and the reserved Londoner provides contrast yet Doel seems to get Hanff’s sometimes sarcastic wit.

The paragraph I quote above is outside the main thread of the book but fun anyway.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

the relative powers of elegance and aesthetics

“In refusing to run to catch trains, I have felt the true value of elegance and aesthetics in behavior, a sense of being in control of my time, my schedule, and my life. Missing a train is only painful if you run after it!

source: The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I don’t run to catch trains.

Except in those instances when not running to catch a train upsets the person with whom I am traveling. Elegance and aesthetics get wiped away pretty quick when you’re sitting next to somebody seething.

Monday, October 06, 2008

don’t fear contradicting yourself

“If you know that the stock market can crash, as it did in 1987, then such an event is not a Black Swan.”

This contradicts other things Taleb has said. But Taleb doesn’t seem to fear contradicting himself.

A Black Swan in Taleb’s metaphor is an event (or thing) that cannot be predicted from the existing data set. It is an “unknown unknown” (apparently former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld isn’t the only one who likes this phrase). Europeans had only ever seen white swans. “White” was one of the definitions of “swan.” Then black swans turned up in Australia. Nobody could have predicted!

An unanticipated market crash then would be more a “gray swan”? “A gray swan concerns modelable extreme events.” You don’t know when it’s going to happen but, as it’s happened in the past, it’s within the realm of possibility and you can take steps to protect yourself (or take advantage).

source: The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Sunday, October 05, 2008

dwarf the Himalayas

“Our planet looks smooth to an observer from space, but this is because it is too small. If it were a bigger planet, then it would have mountains that would dwarf the Himalayas, and it would require observation from a greater distance to look smooth.”

source: The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Taleb makes this observation in a discussion of fractals. He follows to its logical conclusion the idea that organization is the same from the tiny to the gigantic. The rock is the mountain, more or less. But in following his logic Taleb makes one of those mistakes he often warns about – reality is not a logic game. Presumably a mountain on a Jupiter-sized planet would dwarf the largest mountain on earth the way Jupiter dwarfs earth, if not for gravity. Gravity is pulling at the Himalayas themselves.

Is a Jupiter-sized rocky planet even possible? If it did exist it would probably be quite smooth, as the planet’s gravity would be so great that the smallest nub would be squeezed down to nothingness.

The largest mountains are not on the largest planets. Olympus Mons is supposed to be the tallest mountain in the solar system (three times the height or Everest?), and it grew up on Mars, a planet much smaller than Earth. Venus, which has 90% of Earth’s gravity, also boasts mountains taller than any on Earth.

Friday, October 03, 2008

a poetry book that sold 7,000 copies would be a Black Swan

“If I told you that two authors sold a total of a million copies of their books, the most likely combination is 993,000 copies sold for one and 7,000 for the other. This is far more likely than that the books each sold 500,000 copies.”

source: The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The quote is from a discussion of averaging. Few books sell well, let alone in the seven figures (or the six or even the five). The bestselling authors are easy to see and easy to name. Their great shadows hide the many thousands who’ve written perfectly decent books who struggle to get a book published and out to their relative handful of fans. The bestseller is a Black Swan. By looking at the mass of evidence it could not be predicted. We know the occasional outlandish success will appear because we have seen it before. But predictors, Taleb asserts, are usually wrong about where that success will come.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

it’s lonely being right

“It has been more profitable for us to bind together in the wrong direction than to be alone in the right one.”

source: The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Curious, that. If the “wrong direction” is “more profitable”, what makes “the right one” right?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Christmas dinner

“The same past data can confirm a theory and also its exact opposite[.] If you survive until tomorrow, it could mean that either a) you are more likely to be immortal or b) you are closer to death.”

source: The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Taleb notes the quite-reasonable assumptions of a turkey being fattened for Christmas dinner. Every day presents another tasty handout. Things are going great. Turkey’s got shelter from predators, plenty of food, company of other turkeys - what a deal! The optimist would say tomorrow will be just like today, just as yesterday was and the day before that. Let’s say the pessimistic turkey has a rather darker view of tomorrow. What should his strategy be? Escape to hunger and the chase?

Be that as it may, who knows whose future includes Christmas dinner?

Saturday, September 27, 2008


“[A]nchoring … lower[s] your anxiety about uncertainty by producing a number, then you ‘anchor’ on it, like an object to hold on to in the middle of a vacuum [or a storm]. [An] anchoring mechanism was discovered by the fathers of the psychology of uncertainty, Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky … [They] had [test] subjects spin a wheel of fortune. The subjects first looked at the number on the wheel, which they knew was random, then they were asked to estimate the number of African countries in the United Nations [the true quantity being one of which they were completely ignorant, presumably]. Those who had a low number on the wheel estimated a low number of African nations; those with a high number produced a higher estimate.”

If you want a bargain start with a ridiculously low number? This “reference point in [the] head [will] start building beliefs around [it]. … The discussion will be determined by that initial level.”

source: The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

It rings true to me that the mind in a state of uncertainty is happy to cling to an idea, or gasp with relief at a suggestion, or huddle in the inadequate shade of the merest of hints, whether or not idea, suggestion or hint has a real world source. These mental landmarks feel real, thus provide comfort before the threatening panic of being lost and helpless.

Friday, September 26, 2008

How comics are like Hitler

In his Ten-Cent Plague David Hajdu reviews various campaigns against comic books. In 1944 (while we were actively at war with Germany) a Catholic group decried comics for their “vigilante spirit … Fictitious ‘junior commando’ groups bear a strong resemblance to the bands of child militarists in Nazi Germany.”

About ten years later in a new campaign against comics the psychologist Fredric Wertham testified before Congress. “’I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic-book industry. … They get the children much younger. They teach them race hatred at the age of four, before they can read.’”

So comics, like Hitler, foment race hatred. And comics, like fascists, suggest children band together to enforce … something … community standards, maybe? Naturally Hadju’s book is rife with book burnings and community groups banding together to drive out the Other, with comics representing the Other.

But we know comics are bad because, you know, they are like Hitler. No need to say more, really.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

a perishable brand

“The Phoenician invention of the alphabet [supposedly] served the purpose of commercial record keeping rather than the more noble purpose of literary production. (I remember finding on the shelves of a country house I once rented a mildewed history book by Will and Ariel Durant describing the Phoenicians as the ‘merchant race.’ I was tempted to throw it in the fireplace.) Well, it now seems that the Phoenicians wrote [literature], but using a perishable brand of papyrus that did not stand the biodegradative assaults of time.”

source: The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Taleb uses the example to argue that we can’t use lack of evidence for something as evidence that it didn’t exist. We don’t find Phoenician poems? They must not have had them! Or maybe they wrote their poems on scrolls that were handier to carry around, relegating financial records to clay tablets because nobody needed to whisper that sort of thing by moonlight beside a bower while the brook tinkled over stones?

I’m amused by the dig at the Durants. They are responsible for The Story of Civilization, a Euro-centric series of hefty histories that purport to survey human time. The tatty volumes on the shelf at Claremont were deleted last week. Some volumes hadn’t been checked out in more than ten years. We didn’t have them all anyway. (The Central branch still has copies!) The anonymous author at Wikipedia is more forgiving than Taleb: “Given the massive undertaking in creating these 11 volumes over 50 years, errors and incompleteness have occurred; yet for an attempt as large in breadth of time and scope as this, there are no similar works to compare.” The series weighs in at more than two million words and nearly 10,000 pages.

Monday, September 22, 2008


“People do not fall in love with works of art only for their own sake, but also in order to feel that they belong to a community.”

source: The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

This is one of those insights so profound as to be banal.

And the sun rises in the East?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

considering the fuzziness

“Categorizing is necessary for humans, but it becomes pathological when the category is seen as definitive, preventing people from considering the fuzziness of boundaries, let alone revising their categories.”

source: The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

This is why racism (or sexism or heterosexism …) becomes a problem. It’s not that sorting people into broad categories according to obvious characteristics is inherently bad, it’s the clinging to the category as though the general were more important than the specific even when you are dealing directly with the specific. When you are speaking about people you can broadly generalize and be right, frequently right. Individuals, however, will surprise you. The racist denies the reality of the individual, refusing to see a difference between the general and the specific, using, in fact, the general as a weapon against the specific. (Oddly, people seem to be able to see the specific and be blind to its implications – “You’re one of the good ones.”)

Saturday, September 20, 2008


“People don’t walk around with anti-resumes telling you what they have not studied or experienced.”

source: The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The problem comes in when you are presented with the resume showing what the person has studied and experienced.

One of the contestants on America’s Next Top Model, for instance, said she’d majored in American Lit at Harvard, but when show host Tyra Banks fired a series of famous American authors at her the contestant looked bewildered, as though she had never read any Jack London or Herman Melville, had barely even heard of them. It could just have been stage fright, of course. But it could have been something else. What did “American Lit” consist of for her?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Zombie Language, part 4

Can a dying language be revived? John McWhorter mentions “Hebrew, which by the late 1800s had essentially been used only in writing and for liturgical purposes for more than two thousand years … The movement to make it the official language of Israel was so successful that today it is spoken natively by a nation of six million people.” That happy story of reviving the undead has given heart to speakers (& wannabe speakers) of many other dwindling languages. There are serious efforts to bring back to dinner table chitchat such languages as Irish Gaelic, Breton, Occitan, Maori, Hawaiian, and (noted previously) Pomo.

When you’re talking about “a language”, however, you are actually talking about a cluster of dialects, more and less intelligible to each other. When there are so few speakers that this diversity is no longer sustainable the language that is being revived is a language that never really existed. What is taught as the language is a compromise among dialects, an invented standard. Invented languages don’t feel real. You can produce the words for school but when relaxing around the dinnertable they don’t just pop out. Is a language you don’t live in truly alive even if it retains a decipherable existence?

“Because it is harder for adults to learn new languages well than it is for children,” McWhorter continues, “when adults are forced to learn a new language quickly, the result is often various forms of pidginization, utilizing just the bare bones of a language. This becomes a problem in revival efforts because, even when adults of a given nationality desire strongly to have their ethnic language restored to them, the mundane realities of a busy life can make it difficult to get beyond pidgin-level competence in the language.”

Minority languages are some of the most complex on the planet. English is relatively simple. You can say English is in a constant state of pidginization - because learning it is important to non-native speakers English does not have opportunity to become isolated (and thus gather what McWhorter calls “baubles”). “[L]iving languages are developed far beyond the the strict necessities of communication and … incomplete learning guarantees that some of these baubles will be stripped away.” Even children, if the language learning is school-based, “typically speak a rather simplified variety”, particularly if it is a minority language and the language most used outside class is entirely other. Elder native speakers may disdain the improper language of the young, “sometimes putting a damper on enthusiasm for the revival itself.”

source: The Power of Babel: a natural history of language, by John McWhorter

see also Zombie Language part I, part II, and part III.

Monday, September 08, 2008

“observation of mind”

Leslie Scalapino: “One’s observation of mind is like an experiment to see what you are going to come up with. There is not going to be any objective observation of something. There is only going to be more mind stuff …”

source: Primary Trouble: an anthology of contemporary poetry, edited by Leonard Schwartz, Joseph Donahue, and Edward Foster

Sunday, September 07, 2008

notes toward an autobiography by others, part 8

“I had horrible fever dreams about math and trying to figure out the same confusing situations over and over and over. Every time I figured anything out, I would wake up and write down the solution. But it was all in the dream. Then I would actually wake up, with nothing written down, and no solution.” – Aaron Cometbus

Besides the aches & sleep disturbance this is one of the major annoyances of a fever for me. In seemingly endless connected dreams I race to find the solution to some problem – usually not involving math but a problem for which there is a solution, my fevered mind is convinced, a solution that I will figure out, it’s just out of reach, no, I’ve got it in hand – but no matter how tight the fist the solution leaks out between my fingers.

source of quote: Signs of Life: channel-surfing through 90s culture, edited by Jennifer Joseph and Lisa Taplin (1994) Manic D Press, San Francisco.

Friday, September 05, 2008

beautiful bitterness

Sam Kashner, reviewing his decision to give up poetry (by now many years old), says:

“Poetry was turning out to be a mug’s game after all. Whoever said that – I think it was T.S. Eliot, the most successful poet of the century – was right. You wait around for your SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) to come back, your poems rejected from The New Yorker in your own handwriting. You see the fiction writers getting all the attention.”

There is something about that SASE, fat with rejection, looking up at you in your own handwriting …

There’s something about that that requires the ellipsis.

source: When I Was Cool: my life at the Jack Kerouac School by Sam Kashner. HarperCollins, New York. 2004.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

“The most sensitive poets seemed capable of cruelty.”

Talking about a poet whose name has long been familiar to me (and one I often see coupled with big praise) Sam Kashner, a memoirist who claims he has given up poetry, drops in this aside:

He is “a well-known poet, for what that’s worth in America, which means he still must feel pretty lonely.”

Then Kashner goes on (apropos the Trinidad I’ve been quoting): “[P]oets can be a pretty resentful bunch, possessors of bad attitudes. ‘Heap Big Jackasses,’ Billy [Burroughs] Jr had said about the poets who came and went through the Jack Kerouac School. The most sensitive poets seemed capable of cruelty. Just like anybody else.”

source: When I Was Cool: my life at the Jack Kerouac School by Sam Kashner. HarperCollins, New York. 2004.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

“I hate feeling stupid”

Sam Kashner was the first student of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. He studied with Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, William Burroughs, and Gregory Corso, among others. In his recent memoir of that time (mid-70s) he writes about Ginsberg’s difficulty with a non-Beat poet:

Allen Ginsberg “took out Rivers and Mountains by John Ashbery. He turned to a longish poem called ‘The Skaters.’

“’Now tell me,’ Allen asked, almost pleading at his desk. ‘What does this mean? I can’t understand it. I want to know what it means, what is happening in this poem. Why does he have to be so mysterious about everything?’”

Added Ginsberg, “’I hate feeling stupid, I hate not getting the idea.’”

At this point Kashner was not only the first but the only student of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. (Not long after Ginsberg fussed about not getting Ashbery, Anne Waldman recommended ‘The Skaters’ to Kashner; a great poem, she said.)

source: When I Was Cool: my life at the Jack Kerouac School by Sam Kashner. HarperCollins, New York. 2004.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

“I thought you were conceited.”

more lines from “A Poem Under the Influence” by David Trinidad

… The things I’ve missed / in life, lost in my own head. I don’t know how many times I’ve learned (after the fact) / that people have felt I slighted them, when in actuality I simply wasn’t present, fully, / but absorbed in my own (usually grim) imaginings. “I thought you were conceited.” / “No, just cripplingly shy.” Once, when a certain individual (a publisher of gay and / lesbian poetry) treated me rudely, I asked a mutual friend why he disliked me. / Friend later reported: “He says you snubbed him at an AA meeting five years ago.”

source: The Late Show by David Trinidad. Turtle Point Press, New York. 2007.

Friday, August 29, 2008

“So many poets”

lines from “A Poem Under the Influence” by David Trinidad:

So many poets, so few kind ones …

Once, when Ira and I arrived at an Upper West Side party for Wayne Koestenbaum, / the hostess (a Knopf poet with whom I’d been anthologized) barreled past us to greet an / obviously more important guest. She slammed into my shoulder, then gave me an angry look, / as if her foyer were a rush-hour subway. I still cringe whenever I happen upon her name.

source: The Late Show (2007) David Trinidad. Turtle Point Press, New York.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

gasps, thrills, fleshes

from the diary, 12/9/88: “In one of the textbooks this semester a poem is introduced and the editor gasps when he compares the poem to the version of the incident as it is recorded in the poet’s journal. The editor thrills at the way the poet actually remembers more than he wrote in his journal, fleshes the incident out in full detail [as compared to] a sketchy report in the diary.

“Hmf. Are there actually people this stupid? I have never been able to record an incident in full detail in one of my journals and sometimes I wonder why I bother keeping it because it is so inadequate, so often dull. I don’t have time, for one thing, to say everything; another is that when something has just happened I don’t have much perspective on it.”

Friday, August 22, 2008

She escaped the flood only to be …

In an interview in the new “Music” issue of The Believer, Irma “The Soul Queen of New Orleans” Thomas answers the following question: “How’d you learn that you were ‘missing’ after [Hurricane] Katrina?”

Irma Thomas first explains she was performing that night in Texas. They woke and turned on the news to find that “the levees had breeched, and there was water in the city. So later that day we’re checking CNN, and they’re saying, ‘We’re concerned where two of New Orleans’ legends are located, we haven’t been able to find them – Fats Domino and Irma Thomas.’ And I said, ‘I know where I am!’”

She wasn’t able to get through to anybody for awhile. Eventually she heard from her record company. “As soon as they caught up with me, the interviews started up. I was inundated.”

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

the diary, 10/10/88 – 12/9/88

I last wrote about my diaries in September. Since it’s been almost a year I don’t expect DIR readers to remember where I left off. It was my semester in London. I’ve already worked through the diary for the books mentioned in it, and I copied out some anecdotes. This post goes back through the diary to check out my comments on movies, music and live theatre.

I made an effort to get conversant with the London’s small club music scene. Others could afford to do big concerts, not me.

Also searched for small theater (especially gay theater).

I tried to take advantage of the big city amenities – art galleries, ethnic restaurants, foreign cinema.

Beginning of November I started a volunteer DJ gig at the Imperial College radio station.


Pathfinder, “the first motion picture made entirely in the Lap language and filmed amidst the snow & rocks of Lapland”

Drowning By Numbers, It was my birthday “so I dragged Chris to Drowning By Numbers -- even paid for it as the poor dear has spent away all her money. … Afterward Chris teased me about moaning, ‘Oh, no. Oh, no,’ during the movie. OK, I got into it. Good flicker. Great for Halloween. Lovely weird little black comedy.”

Law of Desire, “Good movie! … very poignant and the gayness of the characters is not a theme but rather themes are duplicity and love and unrequited love and obsession and passion and so on.”

Alice, a stop-motion animation version of Alice in Wonderland, “unusual, weird, rather more slowmoving than I’d have wished, fairly faithful to the book. I wouldn’t give it a wild recommendation but if you’re in the mood—“

The Fruit Machine, “okay, if somewhat muddled”

The Curse of the Cat People, watched it on TV

Yeelen, an African movie, “very well made, a lot of lovely scenery and interesting faces in closeup; although I could follow the motion of the plot, could make out its bone structure, yet the details were not always clear. Couldn’t catch all the symbolism. Left me feeling oddly depressed.”

music (these were 7” singles I bought in used record stores):

“Running All Over the World” by Staus Quo – “the theme song for Sport Aid … Chris tells me she read in the news that Sport Aid went bankrupt”

“No Clause 28” by Boy George – a political protest song! Clause 28 was Maggie Thatcher’s no-teachee-the-gay legislation to swat school teachers.

Pop Will Eat Itself – “sorta like The Ramones, only not as good”
Living Colour – “hard rock – blecch”
Cocteau Twins – “good”

from one live show in Camden Town:

Law of Fives (live) – “bearable … they got irritable after awhile over the audience’s lukewarm reception.”

The Horseflies (live) – “from America … rockified traditional American fiddle & banjo music”

Rodney Allen (live) – “Cute little teenager … pleasant rock … in the mode of Bryan Adams”

The Jack Rubies (live) – “very good … I have two of their songs on records I bought at the used record shop”

The Blue Aeroplanes (live) – “[they] construct a wall of sound and push it over on you”

my Imperial College radio show:

“Glad to Be Gay” by Tom Robinson – a song on the Imperial College playlist that I included in my first show

“Changes” by David Bowie and “The First Atheist Tabernacle Choir” by the British satiric puppet theater Spitting Image – another student DJ was in the booth talking to me and “I couldn’t keep track of my songs and came into David Bowie’s ‘Changes’ midvoice. Very annoying.”

“Boom Boom Boom (Come Back to My Room)” by Paul Lekakis, a request I played for Dana, a girl who’d barged into the booth with the 7” demanding I play it right away. I put it on after a song by the Cocteau Twins. I found “Boom Boom Boom” appalling: “Boom boom boom / Let's go back to my room / So we can do it all night / And you can make me feel right” … Ugh. A female singer came out with an answer song: “Bam Bam Bam (I Think I’ll Stay Where I Am)”. The search I just ran didn’t produce any hits for the song, unfortunately, so I don’t know who she was.

live theater:

Venetian Heat, “Italy, WWII, farmer & wife hide 2 army deserters after the Italian army disintegrates. One [soldier] falls in love with the wife, one with the husband. The nazis (one, anyway) show up and make things nasty. The wife’s lover gets shot, dies. The other soldier [escapes] to join the partisans. Wife & husband under arrest.”

The Public, by Federico Garcia Lorca, “very strange, yet exciting, lyrical play. Filled with odd and wonderful imagery – the set design nearly matching the words. And, when the words made no sense, certainly surpassing them. I loved the horses – men with big horse heads, dressed in leotards, carrying trumpets, Juliet with a false bare chest pushing apart her negligee, a naked man hanging from a cross who is attended by a male nurse, a man dressed in bells, another in grape leaves. Rain falling between audience and stage. A huge painted eye. A giant leaf. A soft-sculpture moon. It was not really long. An hour and a half, yet so full it seemed much longer, and confusing so that the minutes stretched out as we tried to peer into them.” This was supposedly the play’s first British production.

The Bacchae “okay, but I didn’t find myself caring much about what happened to the characters except at the very end when [SPOILER ALERT] the mother of the king of Thebes discovers she has been carrying around her son’s head – felt for her, poor dear. The women of the chorus did a number of gross things to themselves during the course of the play – splashing themselves with water, painting themselves with lipstick & eyebrow pencil, wallowing in red wine and oatmeal. Simulated pagan rituals, I suppose.”

Look Back in Anger “I should call it Look At in Anger … The play was written back in the 50s and rather shows it … I thought all the characters were big dips …” I found the abusive main character a real downer, and the women who loved him were total masochists.


Jack the Ripper Walking Tour – “fun but long”

“I went with Julie, Janet, Chris, Tanya, and Shawn to the BBC studios to see a radio show being recorded -- The Law Game. ‘A light-hearted look at points of law. Amusing, yet informative, with Shaw Taylor in charge of the legal quibbles, squabbles, and giggles. With special celebrity guests Alan Titch Marsh, Susan Rae, and Denise Coffey.’ Of course, we’d never heard of the celebrity guests … It was kinda fun.”

Monday, August 18, 2008


“Cartoonist Gary Larson once drew a Far Side cartoon showing a bunch of cavemen being warned about the danger of stegosaurs, and he called their tail weapon a ‘thagomizer’. Denver paleontologist Ken Carpenter thought that ‘thagomizer’ was a good name, so he used it in his 1993 scientific presentation of the most complete Stegosaurus ever found. That name stuck, and now it is accepted scientific nomenclature to say that stegosaurs are characterized by having a thagomizer.”

source: Dinosaurs, by Thomas Holtz

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Stegosaurus v. Tyrannosaurus?

photo: Disney’s Fantasia

Stegosaurus lived about 150 million years ago, in the Late Jurassic, while Tyrannosaurus lived only 65.5 million years ago, at the end of the Late Cretaceous. In fact, if you do the math, you see that Tyrannosaurus lived closer in time to us humans than it did to Stegosaurus. So in terms of geologic time, a picture showing Tyrannosaurus running down the street where you live is actually more realistic than one showing Tyrannosaurus fighting Stegosaurus!”

If it makes you feel better, you should know that Stegosaurus, though free from the hassle of Tyrannosaurus, did have ol’ Allosaurus to contend with.

source: Dinosaurs, by Thomas Holtz

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Did dinosaurs have brains in their butts?

No, says Thomas Holtz in his new book, Dinosaurs. There’s a “space inside the hip vertebrae of Stegosaurus (and some other dinosaurs) where the spinal cord was contained [that] was very big. Some paleontologists … sugggested that this large space held an extra-large bundle of nerves. All vertebrates – including us – have these bundles, called ganglia, which help control the reflexes of the limbs and workings of the organs.

“In the 1990s, American paleontologist Emily Buchholtz examined the hips of living relatives of Stegosaurus (birds and crocodilians) and found that they also have an enlarged space in their vertebrae. But these animals don’t have an extra-large ganglion there. Instead, that space is filled with fatty tissue.”

Even if the extra-large ganglia had been there, Holtz says, it wouldn’t have been a brain equivalent.

Although perhaps the fatty tissue could be considered a brain equivalent in some.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Is there a dinosaur called Chungkingosaurus?

Yes, it’s a kind of Stegosaur.

source: Dinosaurs, by Thomas Holtz

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

I was lonely

“I was lonely, but that was fine. It seems now that back then I was intent on gathering together all the forms of loneliness that I could.”

-- Haruki Murakami
translated from the Japanese by Ted Goossen

source: an appreciation of Thelonious Monk, The Believer, v.6, n.5, July/August 2008

Thursday, August 07, 2008

gay marriage in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden

At the beginning of Chapter 10 the brothers Charles & Adam Trask are trying to make a go of the farm. Father and mother are now dead and it’s the brothers’ legacy.

The boys have been at odds since they were children. Once Charles tried to kill Adam with an axe. So it’s not like cooperating comes naturally to them. Yet Steinbeck frames the project this way: “When two men live together they usually maintain a kind of shabby neatness out of incipient rage at each other. Two men alone are constantly on the verge of fighting, and they know it.”

“When two men live together …” A generalization, as though this were the way two men would be, nevermind their history, that they’re related, for instance, or that they both grew up full of buried rage because of an abusive father and mother who played favorites. “Two men alone are constantly on the verge of fighting …” Alone? Meaning, without the mediation of a woman?

I’m seeing Steinbeck put this down as the base, the “usual” thing, the natural thing. This is what one would expect of two men living together.

Fast forward fifteen or twenty years. Adam has moved to California and married, but his wife abandoned him and their two sons. A Chinese servant, Lee, essentially has become mother to the boys, or rather, both mother and father since Adam goes through a long period nursing his broken heart and neglecting every other human relationship. When Adam at last surfaces from the depths of his self-absorption (with the help of a thumping from a Salinas Valley neighbor) he realizes he’s got a real gem in Lee – not just a servant, but an intellectual peer, a man Friday … a wife?

In this scene Adam is soliciting advice from the grown son of the helpful neighbor. Will is a successful businessman, a banker. And he warns Adam away from a risky scheme. Changing the subject “Adam turned slowly to Lee. ‘Have we got any more of that lemon pie we had for supper?’ he asked.

“’I don’t think so,’ said Lee. ‘I thought I heard some mice in the kitchen. I’m afraid there will be white of egg on the boys’ pillows. You’ve got half a quart of whisky.’”

How domestic. Cozy. It doesn’t sound at all like they are “constantly on the verge of fighting.” Is it because Lee is feminized? Doing the cooking, the cleaning, tending the children?

Steinbeck makes this pretty literal when a visitor looks over the house: “flowered chintz, lace curtains, white drawn-work table cover, cushions on the couch covered in a bright and impudent print. It was a feminine room in a house where only men lived. [The visitor] thought of his own sitting room. [His wife] had chosen, bought, cleaned, every single thing in it except a pipestand. Come to think of it, she had bought the pipestand for him. There was a woman’s room too. But this was a fake. It was too feminine – a woman’s room designed by a man – and overdone, too feminine. That would be Lee.”

The sitting room is a room in drag!

The father-son anger thing is plenty evident in Adam’s house just as it was when Adam was the boy. Adam’s son, Cal, is torn. He is a young man when he and Lee finally talk about long hidden family history. Cal confesses, his “shoulders … shaking a little, like a muscle too long held under a strain”:

“’I love him,’ Cal said.” He means Adam, his father. He loves his father.

“’I love him too,’ said Lee. ‘I guess I couldn’t have stayed around so long if I hadn’t. He is not smart in a worldly sense but he’s a good man. Maybe the best man I have ever known.’”

It’s a marriage, all right. A loving marriage. Sure, Lee gets a wage but only sort of notionally. It all goes into the family pot.

Is it a “gay marriage”? That is, do Adam and Lee have sex? Considering that there’s many a sexless (even loveless) two-sex marriage, does a lack of sex disqualify? Maybe it’s a same-sex marriage, but not a gay one. Anyway, just cuz Steinbeck doesn’t put them in bed together -- well, remember that helpful neighbor?, he and his wife have lots of kids, but not once does Steinbeck describe their sex life.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008


word of the day: nouriture

context: “The Ballad of a Lost House”, a poem by Leonora Speyer, appearing in Prize Poems, 1913-1929, an anthology edited by Charles A. Warner.

The poet is addressing her “Hungry Heart”, telling it to get out of the house –

“… weep not, get you gone –
Better the stones to rest upon,

The wind and rain for a roof secure,
Hyssop and tares for your nouriture!”

definition: nurture – as Spenser spelled it.

Hyssop and tares are wild plants.

Among other things in this poem the poet’s veins turn to ice, she listens to an “ancient ardent melody”, wonders “when a smile will strike”, addresses the morning as “O anguished morn”, is “loved with a hundred hates”, observes “a wraith content that contented goes”, and diagnoses “a house that has lost its soul.” Heady stuff.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008


word of the day: princox

context: “Banal Sojourn”, a poem by Wallace Stevens, appearing in Prize Poems, 1913-1929, an anthology edited by Charles A. Warner.

“… who can care at the wigs despoiling the Satan ear?
And who does not seek the sky unfuzzed, soaring to the princox?”

definition: a self-confident young fellow

This would be one of the reasons I don’t rush to a dictionary when coming upon unfamiliar words in poems such as Stevens’. What does it add to know that a “princox” is a “self-confident young fellow”? Not much. In fact, it’s rather a disappointment.

Monday, August 04, 2008


word of the day: pardie

context: “Banal Sojourn”, a poem by Wallace Stevens, appearing in Prize Poems, 1913-1929, an anthology edited by Charles A. Warner.

“Moisture and heat have swollen the garden into a slum of bloom.
Pardie! Summer is like a fat beast, sleepy in mildew …”

definition: pardi (also pardie, pardy, perdie) – adverb, interjection, Archaic.
verily; indeed.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

carcharodontosaurids, rebbachisaurids, saltasaurids

I’m reading Dinosaurs, a new overview by Thomas Holtz. It’s pitched to younger readers but it incorporates lots of recent research. I skim some of the more familiar stuff – like the plate tectonics discussion. The book incorporates dynamic new illustrations by Luis Rey. Sometimes, however, I come upon paragraphs thick with dinosaur names and reel a little. I don’t always bother to sound them out, but I often do, just to see if I can. It makes me feel like a kid again – uncertain, insecure, like I’m learning a magic incantation. Check out this paragraph as example:

Making the point that the carcharodontosaurids (that’s one of the hardest words right there) preyed upon those big brontosaurapatosaur-like long-necked plant-eaters Holtz says, “Big carcharodontosaurids are … typically found with some of the biggest of all sauropods: Acrocanthosaurus with the brachiosaurid Sauroposeidon; Carcharodontosaurus with the titanosaur Paralititan; Giganotosaurus with the rebbachisaurid Limaysaurus and the titanosaur Argentinosaurus and an unnamed rebbachisaurid; and an unnamed Argentine carcharodontosaurid with the saltasaurids Antarctosaurus, Neuquensaurus, and Saltasaurus. It seems likely that these giant carnosaurs were specialists in eating the largest of all herbivores.”

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The French in Tropic of Cancer

I read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer last year. The book is set in France, mostly Paris. And, unsurprisingly, the text is frequently punctuated with French words, phrases, or more. I’ve never studied French. I’ve been exposed to it, yes, as here. But there’s plenty I don’t know, even basics. My usual strategy is to get what I can from context and what similarities to English exist. (Somewhat less helpful is trying to relate French to the Spanish & Portuguese I have studied.) Anyway, remembering that the web now has made simple translation available, I flipped back through Tropic of Cancer and typed up all the French I could find. I typed up some German too, I think, and maybe a thing or two else, who knows. Here’s the list:

les voies urinaires
avec des choses inouies
Comme un oeuf dansant sur un jet d’eau
comme d’habitude
Amer Picon
sans vin
dejeuner intime
Es war’ so shon gewesen
Zut alors!
Par ici, Madame. N’oubliez pas que les places numerotees sont reservees aux mutiles de la guerre.
vin de choix
voila quelque chose de beau
Tres lesbienne ici
idee fixe
Un acte gratuit pour vous, cher monsieur si bien coupe en tranches!
la belle boulangere
Le bel aujourd’hui!
Charmant poeme d’amour
Chez nous, c’est pour les chiens, les Quaker Oats. Ici pour le gentleman. Ca va.
le petit frere
femme de chambre
C’est moi … c’est moi, madame!
Il est mechant, celui-la.
Non, il n’est pas mechant, il est tres gentil.
Je le connais bien, ce type.
Tout compris.
Comme ca tout est regle …
Il ne faut jamais desesperer.
Defendez-vous contre la syphilis!
Ca y est maintenant! Ausgespielt!
Ecoute, cheri … sois raisonnable!
quand il n’y aura plus de temps
Vite, cheri! Oh, c’est bon!
Mais faites comme chez vous, cheri. Je reviens tout de suite.
Tout Va Bien
J’ai vu des arbres que ne retrouverait aucun botaniste, des animaux que Cuvier n’a jamais soupconnes et des hommes que vous seul avez pu creer.
Fay ce que vouldras! … fay ce que vouldras!
Salut au monde!
les surveillants
a partir de jeudi je ne parlerai plus de femmes
veilleur de nuit
Faites comme chez vous, cheri.
Mon Dieu, ne dites pas ca! Ne dites pas ca!
bal musette
Faut faire des economies!

I entered all that in Google Translate and got back this:

the urinary tract
with things unheard
As an egg dancing on a jet of water
as usual
Amer Picon
without wine
LUNCH intimate
Es war 'so shon gewesen
Zut alors!
Here, Madam. Remember that numbered seats are reserved maimed by the war.
wine of choice
voila something beautiful
Tres lesbian here
idee fixes
An act free for you, dear sir so cut into slices!
the beautiful baking
The beautiful today!
Charming love poem
For us, this is for dogs, Quaker Oats. Here for the gentleman. Ca va.
the little brother
That's me… c'est moi, madame!
It is wicked, one.
No, it is not bad, it is very nice.
I know well, this kind.
All inclusive.
So everything is rule…
We must never despair.
Defendez you against syphilis!
That's it now! Ausgespielt!
Look, cheri… be reasonable!
when there will be more time
Quick, Cheri! Oh, it's good!
But make yourself at home, cheri. I come back right away.
Any Va Bien
I saw that trees not found any botanist, animals that Cuvier never suspected and men that you only have been created.
Fay what vouldras! … Fay what vouldras!
Hi the World!
From Thursday I will speak more women
night watchman
Make yourself at home, cheri.
My God, do not say ca! Do not say ca!
bal musette
Should make savings!


I haven’t much faith in computer translation. Note the many words Google Translate just ignored. But what was almost opaque becomes a cracked window through which I can get a bit more of the scene.

I separated out one song Miller quotes:

L’autre soir l’idee m’est venue
Cre nom de Zeus d’enculer un pendu;
Le vent se leve sur la potence,
Voila mon pendu qui se balance,
J’ai du l’enculer en sautant,
Cre nom de Zeus, on est jamais content.

Baiser dans un con trop petit,
Cre nom de Zeus, on s’ecorche le vit;
Baiser dans un con trop large,
On ne sait pas ou l’on decharge;
Se branler etant bien emmerdant,
Cre nom de Zeus, on est jamais content.

Unfortunately the results are a mess:

The other night I got the idea
Cre name of Zeus enculer a hanged;
The wind gets up on the gallows,
This is my balance to be hanged,
I have the enculer jumping,
Cre name of Zeus, one is never content.

Kiss in a con too small,
Cre name of Zeus, the s'ecorche lives;
Kiss in a con too large,
It is not known or being unloaded;
With branler being well emmerdant,
Cre name of Zeus, one is never content.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Congressional Medal of Honor

In every naturalist’s book, after pages of beautiful pictures and chapters full of incident in which animals show off their fascinating personalities, the chapter comes, usually the final chapter, in which the naturalist, in ominous, regretful or worried tones, tells the reader that the natural world about which they have read so much, empathized with, thrilled to, is being destroyed. It won’t last the decade, the century, maybe not the month. And it’s because of People Like You, Dear Reader – Humans are bringing the world to the brink. Soon our impoverished, crippled, human-crowded world will wobble its lonesome big brain around a star indifferent to the cesspool its third planet has become. And then we, too, will destroy ourselves.

I always read that dang last chapter. I should just skip it.

In pop science books there’s typically a point at which the author declares Only Man Is Capable Of … you know, Only Man Can Cry, Only Man Can Sympathize, Only Man Can Laugh, Only Man Makes Tools, Only Man Prays to God, etc, & so on.

In an essay in In Search of Nature E.O. Wilson offers up one of the most qualified Only Man statements that I’ve seen:

“I doubt if any higher animal, such as a hawk or a baboon, has ever deserved a Congressional Medal of Honor according to the ennobling criteria used in our society.”

The Congressional Medal of Honor bit refers to the suicidal altruism of, say, the men who “threw themselves on top of grenades to shield comrades.” Now, it doesn’t seem likely that a baboon has ever thrown itself on a grenade for the benefit of anybody else, does it?

Considering how few people have thrown themselves on grenades for any reason – benefit of others, lark, loss of balance – one might suspect that the typical observer of human behavior wouldn’t be witness to that event either. Sure, we read about this sort of heroism in our newspapers (suicide bombers are not so dissimilar or that guy who throws himself into frigid water to save a drowning kid), but have you ever actually seen it?

Wilson’s assertion depends on generalizing from the observations of baboons (& hawks) we’ve been privileged to make ourselves (or read about). But observers, even trained ones, don’t always understand what they are seeing, so what they note may not be what’s really happening. And they leave shit out – there’s ample evidence for homosexual behavior (& other nonprocreative sex) among nonhuman animals but until recently you left it out of your paper, otherwise you threatened your career (only gays saw gay sex in the wild and gays didn’t get tenure).

But reading Wilson’s statement immediately brought to mind an instance of Congressional Medal of Honor worthy behavior by a baboon. Robert Sapolsky writes about it in his A Primate’s Memoir. Sapolsky was a naturalist who watched baboons in Africa. One day he saw something thrilling – it was, he emphasized, very unbaboonlike behavior. A lion caught the baboon troop with its guard down. Everybody bolted – every baboon for itself. Mamas, of course, grabbed their babies, but that was about it in the altruism department. Or that would be what Sapolsky usually saw. This time two youngsters too young to climb on their own were trapped at the foot of a tree while the lion closed in. All the adult baboons screamed from their perches. Then one adult male baboon, who, so far as Sapolsky knew, was not closely related to either of the babies, leapt in front of the lion, roaring, puffing himself up, throwing up dust, making himself as big and fierce-looking as he could. No match for a grown lion, but it did give the lion pause. Maybe, after all, the lion wasn’t that hungry. A nice snack of baboon baby, sure, but … something worth fighting over?

Everybody survived that encounter. But it’s probably not something you’re going to see again. Not because it will never happen again. But because nobody’s going to be watching.

Or because we’ll have wiped out all the baboons, I suppose. And the lions. Not to mention the hawks.

By the way, in the essay E.O. Wilson goes on to describe frequently observed suicidal altruism in colony insects (ants, bees). Maybe we’re more like ants than like baboons, anyway.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


word of the day: joss

context: Our narrator is visiting “friend Chang [in] San Francisco …

He lit a joss-stick long and black.
Then the proud gray joss in the corner stirred …

The great gray joss on the rustic shelf,
Rakish and shrewd, with his collar awry,
Sang impolitely, as though by himself …
‘Back through a hundred, hundred years
Hear the waves as they climb the piers,
Hear the howl of the silver seas,
Hear the thunder!
Hear the gongs of holy China …’”

definitions: “an image or statue representing a Chinese deity” – MS Word dictionary

“In the European view of Chinese mythology, Joss is a household deity and his cult image, which the Portuguese and other Europeans called an ‘idol’. Joss is not Chinese, but originates from the Portuguese word deos ‘god’.” -- Wikipedia

joss stick “incense in the form of a stick of dried paste” – MS Word dictionary

source: Vachel Lindsay’s “The Chinese Nightingale”, Prize Poems, 1913-1929 (1930) edited by Charles A. Wagner; Bonibooks

Monday, July 21, 2008

“AFTERNOON”, by Emma Rossi


Once an imaginary friend lied to me.
We were drinking tea with skim milk.
I don’t know.
The opal fog, a harp.
I was trying to tell imaginary right
from imaginary wrong.
It took more than a quote on a keepsake pillow.
I’m really opening up here.
She said she didn’t care.
The sun deceived me too,
gave me a throbbing headache
and a funny idea.
I lay down for a nap
knowing it would last until morning.
Way to go.

-- Emma Rossi

I discovered this one in the new issue of 6X6. Why do I like it so much? I like drinking tea in poems. And headaches. So it’s got that going for it. I like the odd proposition: “Once an imaginary friend lied to me.” The poem’s images are almost all domestic – tea, keepsake pillow, nap. Even “opal fog, a harp” have a flipped-open-book-on-coffee-table feel about them, the book next to the tea tray maybe. There’s that faux naif feel to the poem. Unlike the poem(s) by children I’ve lately quoted the speaker offers up her propositions without authority. “I don’t know” … “The sun deceived me too, / gave me … a funny idea.” “I was trying to …” The speaker sounds oppressed, weary, but plonks down a phrase from a pep talk (“Way to go”; “I’m really opening up here”) as though to ward off the fixer, the advice-giver, the one who would poke a nose in with an unwelcome: “Snap out of it!” No, says the poem. Talk to the pillow.

source: 6X6, issue 15, Spring 2008

Friday, July 18, 2008

gay machete sex

“For the single male traveler, homosexual come-ons are, like delays at JFK and overpriced hotel food, a part of the process to which one grows accustomed. I’ve been pick-up quarry in the United States, Japan, Palau, and several other ports of call. In Lecois, Brazil, a chatty American tourist sitting next to me at a hotel bar broached the subject by saying, ‘Well, I guess you know why I’ve taken such an interest in talking with you.’ I told him I didn’t, he explained, I said there had been some sort of misunderstanding, he apologized, bought me a beer, and we ended up talking for another hour.”

Chuck Thompson gives us this paragraph after a few pages recounting an experience he had in the Philippines. He is riding in a bus deep into the countryside. Night. The bus stops. The busdriver says, You have to get off here. You transfer to another bus. Chuck squints out at the unlit roadside. Reluctantly he steps out into the middle of nowhere and watches the bus disappear down the highway.

Standing there, not sure where he is or when or if another bus will come, Chuck hears a rustling in the roadside bushes. Young men emerge, a couple of them carrying machetes. Machetes, Chuck assures us, are standard equipment for Filipino farmers. But, not similarly equipped and with no option but to wait and find out what happens next, Chuck is, needless to say, a mite nervous.

They surround him. “’You shouldn’t travel alone at night,’ [the one Thompson calls] Rivera told me. ‘Foreigners are often kidnapped in these mountains.’”

Not the sort of statement that would put one at ease, Chuck thinks.

Rivera invites Chuck back to his place. “’I don’t think the bus will be come soon.’ Rivera brushed my forearm with his fingertips.”

Indeed, the bus seems in no hurry to get there.

“’Chuck, tell me something,’ he said. ‘Have you ever had sex with a gay man?’”

Oh. That’s what it is. This is an atmosphere charged with eros, not … uh … fear.

Chuck handles his brush with “gay machete sex” about as well as can be expected, I guess. Not interested! Thanks anyway! Great country you got here! That bus will be along any minute! Any minute, yessir!

Chuck Thompson’s perspective reminds me of that of the single female traveler. The come-on is “part of the process.” The single male’s experience as “pick-up quarry” for men is going to be a tenth that of a single female’s, yet, though he doesn’t explicitly compare the two perspectives, Thompson seems to have picked up a skill essential to the single female traveler: how to say no. Gracefully even?

source: Smile When You’re Lying: confessions of a rogue travel writer, by Chuck Thompson

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

“CRAB”, by Abilash Munnangi


The dead crab lies still
limp on the dry sand All
strength to crawl Gone
from his hard shell
But he keeps a shape
of old anger
Curved along his claws

-- Abilash Munnangi

Abilash Munnangi was in third grade, Parkmont Elementary, Alameda County when the poem was written.

It’s a fine piece of work. I even like the idiosyncratic capitals. The description is plain but precise. And that ending! “old anger / Curved along his claws” … Though the poem is ostensibly about a crab, it’s really about us, our old angers, the ones that become hardened into shell. Hollow inside? Empty of what originally made them grow? What old angers outlive us?

source: My Song Is the Light: California Poets in the Schools Statewide Anthology 2007, edited by Mary Lee Gowland

UPDATE: Figuring “Abilash Munnangi” would not return many hits I ran the name in Google. “Abilash Munnangi” returned precisely one hit. Dare I Read. But Google asks, “Do you mean Abhilash Munnangi”? I doublechecked the spelling in the CPITS anthology and the way I wrote it is the way it is written in the anthology, but seeing if I really meant “Abhilash Munnangi” I let Google tell me that there is an Abhilash who is a student at Parkmont Elementary. He placed in the California Classic Scholastic Championships: K-3.

Somewhat disturbingly -- to me at least – I ran the search again just now and found that Dare I Read does not appear among the search results. Is DIR suddenly invisible to Google? That would be too bad.

… Uh-oh. I just found something new to disturb me. Curious how invisible DIR is to Google I ran a search for lines from “Crab.” Again DIR does not appear. However, the poem does. Follow that link to Miss Maggie's and you'll find "Crab" attributed to Valerie Worth. Apparently it was published in Worth's All the Small Poems and Fourteen More. How unfortunate for the young master Munnangi. A plagiarist?

This is the poem as it appears at Miss Maggie’s:


The dead crab
Lies still,
limp on the dry sand,

All strength to crawl
Gone from his
Hard shell-

But he keeps a shape
Of old anger
Curved along his claws.


So much for the “idiosyncratic capitals”, eh? Should I tell someone? Or just let it go? It’s not like Abhilash got any money out of it. Still, it grinds me that he got a place in the statewide anthology that could have gone to someone who actually wrote her own poem.

I like Valerie Worth’s original, though it loses a bit of its na├»ve charm when I know it was written by an adult. I see through a bit of research that Worth died in 1994.

Well. Hm.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

“Deep Eyes”, by Darlyn Avina

Deep Eyes

Eyes are like a hole,
a hole with a sparkle that shines.
Once you’re cursed with it in your life
there is no way out of that curse of a hole.
It feels so bad that you think your eyes
are falling into the moisture in your head.
Once that hole shines again it’s made into a shape.
Its background is white with a color in the middle.
Remember that curse you will see with for the rest of your life.
But after all that pain you will see everything.

-- Darlyn Avina

Last month at Poetry & Pizza we had a crew of poet teachers from California Poets in the Schools. I got from them last year’s CPITS anthology and started reading it on the BART ride home.

Children’s poetry. You know, I find I can like it as well as poetry by grown-ups.

Darlyn Avina was in second grade (Millview Elementary School, Madera County) when “Deep Eyes” was written.

The poem reminds me of certain translations; I’m thinking of ones I’ve read from Eastern Europe, or early French surrealists or dadaists. Also some primitive poetry – shaman songs. When I say the poem seems translated, I mean that it seems to carry over a strangeness from another language, a way of speaking that is taken for granted in that other language but which in English seems nonnative. I suspect English is Alvina’s native tongue.

The poem proposes things you probably hadn’t considered – your eyes are a curse? – but which, once suggested, seem peculiarly reasonable. Well, yeah, the eyes can be a curse sometimes. Eyes are holes? Holes. Windows is the usual metaphor, but, you know, I can grok holes. The poet speaks with authority, no hesitation about it, no I think maybe.

“But after all that pain you will see everything.” And that’s … a good thing?

source: My Song Is the Light: California Poets in the Schools Statewide Anthology 2007, edited by Mary Lee Gowland