Wednesday, October 28, 2009

word of the day: reredos

context: During the gold rush in Brazil “there was a proliferation of handsome churches built and decorated in the baroque style characteristic of the region. Minas Gerais attracted the best artisans of the time. Outwardly the churches looked sober and austere, but the interiors, symbolizing the divine soul, glistened with pure gold on their altars, reredoses, pillars, and bas-relief panels.”

Microsoft Word dictionary: reredos - “an artistic decoration behind the altar in a church, for example, a wood or stone screen or a wall-hanging”

source: Open Veins of Latin America: five centuries of the pillage of a continent by Eduardo Galeano

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

an attack of poetry

“A clapperless blue bell hung overhead,immense, flawless, infinitely clear. Stapled to it like the nub end of a rivet flared a white-yellow sun, naked and small. … On some hillocks, at a distance measured in exhausting hours, like a bag of spilled coffee beans on sparse carpet, herds of stoop-shouldered yaks gnawed at the touch, crew-cut grass.”

Edward Gargan has traveled to Tibet to the headwaters of the Mekong River, his plan to trace the river’s progress from Tibet down to the sea, passing through Burma, Laos, Camobia, and Vietnam in the process. Gargan’s prose otherwise rarely strays from the plain, descriptive prose of the journalist. The quoted paragraph is a spasm of metaphor that had me blinking. I like the bell-like sky. The coffee bean yaks? Less convinced.

source: The River’s Tale: a year on the Mekong by Edward A. Gargan

Saturday, October 24, 2009

“… something round the next bend …”

Gottfried Hohmann, a researcher, on trying to make scientific observations of bonobos in the dense rainforests of the Congo:

“’People think it’s entertaining, but it’s not. … It’s so slow. So hard. … You always think there’s going to be something round the next bend, but there never is.”

source: “Swingers” by Ian Parker, The New Yorker, July 30, 2007

Friday, October 23, 2009

“Librarians appreciate quiet refrigerators.”

Says Rachel Levitsky in “Definining,” a poem in her collection Neighbor.

Monday, October 12, 2009

pile of reading

Dark Banquet: blood and the curious lives of blood-feeding creatures, by Bill Schutt
Did you know that there are three kinds of vampire bat? One feeds on chickens. It crawls up to a hen and nuzzles at the breast. Apparently this is sufficiently chick-like behavior that the hen feels reassured, even comforted and settles down over the bat while it sups at her breast.

Neighbor, poetry by Rachel Levitsky
I don’t remember where I got this exactly – the Friends of the Library book sale shelf at the library? I can’t recall having heard of Levitsky before but I like to read a totally random poet of whom I know nothing, once in awhile. Plus I was curious about what sort of stuff Ugly Duckling Presse publishes. “You can use most of this / though none of it is necessary”

The Mooring of Starting Out: the first five books of poetry, by John Ashbery
I bought this a few years ago and read most of it then stalled. Lately I came across it again and am pressing forward. As with Emily Dickinson I set myself the goal of reading two pages, just enough to get past the pages that are open in front of me. “They told this throughout all time, in all cities. The shape-filled foreground: what distractions for the imagination, incitements to the copyist, yet nobody had the leisure to examine it closely.”

My Vocabulary Did This to Me: the collected poetry of Jack Spicer, edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian
Jack Spicer seems to have a towering reputation, especially surprising considering he died early and his work was published only by tiny presses. I was curious about him. “Deep in the mind there is an ocean / I would fall within it, find my sources in it. Yield to tide / And find my sources in it.”

Angkor: the hidden glories, by Michael Freeman and Roger Warner
I tried to think what would be an exotic locale, where would I want to go that I never thought I’d ever really be able to get to? Angkor! Angkor is in Cambodia. Poor Cambodia seems to be doing okay these days. The era of the Killing Fields is over. I haven’t started reading the book yet. I’ve just looked at the pictures. The book looks like it will help me imagine myself there. When I can imagine myself somewhere it seems easier to get myself there.

Cahokia: ancient America’s great city on the Mississippi, by Timothy R. Pauketat
Another old ruin I would like to visit. Much less well preserved than Angkor – much of Cahokia has been leveled for modern city and superhighway.

Monkey Food: the complete “I was Seven in ‘75” collection, by Ellen Forney
I read another collection by Forney so when I saw this for a dollar at Half Price Books I picked it up. It just entered the reading pile. So far all I’ve done is flip through it.

Mindwalking: New and Selected Poems, 1937-2007, by Edward Mycue
Edward Mycue is an SF poet who I’ve known casually for years. He handed me a copy of his newest book at the last Poetry & Pizza. “what we experience we are / much passes through us / we leave nothing behind” Ed has a chapbook available for online reading at

Tristes Tropiques, by Claude Levi-Strauss
I’ve been reading this one off & on for ages.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

doctor says, bleed

So there really are diseases that can be treated through bleeding? Yes, says Bill Schutt in Dark Banquet: blood and the curious lives of blood-feeding creatures, and he goes through a few – porphyria, for instance. “Porphyria (from the Greek word for ‘purple’) is a disease of the blood that results from the faulty production of hemoglobin, which leads to the accumulations of red and purple pigments called porphyrins.” Decrease the level of porphyrins via some draining and things improve. Things like “sudden onset of bizarre behavior and strange outbursts.” Sounds like just the sort of behavior that would suggest bleeding, don’t you think?

Anyway, other diseases mitigated by bloodletting include a form of diabetes, hepatitis C (interferon treatment is more effective when you’ve got less blood, it seems), hemochromatosis, and polycythemia.

Not that a few rare diseases explain the notion that bleeding was considered an appropriate treatment for just about everything.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

no wonder I hated the barber’s chair

The barber pole: “the red stripes signif[ied] blood, blue stripes … veins, and white stripes represented the gauze bandages [barber-surgeons] used to stem the bleeding. The pole itself was a symbol of the stick that patients would grip tightly as they were being bled and the ball atop the pole signified the blood collection basin (and the container they used to hold the leeches).”

During George Washington’s final illess he was bled – as a curiative by his doctors (& this method was standard practice at the time) – of “approximately 40 percent of [his] blood volume within a thirteen-hour period … For comparative purposes, the American Red Cross generally requires an eight-week period between blood donations of one-tenth the volume drained from the former president on what was to be his last day alive.”

So what was with all the bleeding? Illness, the prevailing orthodoxy had it, was caused (or, at least, worsened) by an excess of blood, blood being one of the humors that had to be kept in balance to maintain health. Illness was a result of an imbalance between the humors. For some reason blood was a prime suspect in imbalances – maybe because there was just so much of it and because its release can be so dramatic. Plus, you can get a little high from a bleeding, a temporary feeling of well-being.

source: Dark Banquet: blood and the curious lives of blood-feeding creatures by Bill Schutt

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

“the weekend bottles of milk that no baby will consume”

Claude Levi-Strauss’ description of Fire Island, circa 1950:

“Fire Island … is a narrow strip of sand, devoid of vegetation, off the coast of Long Island [New York]. It is literally a strip, eight kilometres long, but only two or three hundred metres wide. On the Atlantic side, the open sea is too rough for bathing. On the landward side, the sea is always calm but the water is too shallow for swimming. The oly pastime is catching non-edible fish; at regular intervals along the beaches, there are notices stating that the fish should not be left to rot but should be at once buried in the sand. The dunes on Fire Island are so shifting, and their hold on the sea so precarious, that further notices warn the public to keep off in case they should collapse into the water below. The place is like an inverted Venice, since it is the land that is fluid and the canals solid: in Cherry Grove, the village occupying the central part of the island, the inhabitants must obligatorily use a network of wooden footbridges forming a road system on stilts.

“To complete the picture, I must add that Cherry Grove is chiefly inhabited by male couples, attracted no doubt by the general pattern of inversion. Since nothing grows in the sand, apart from the broad patches of poisonous ivy, provisions are collected once a day from the one and only shop, at the end of the landing-stage. In the tiny streets, on higher ground more stable than the dunes, the sterile couples can be seen returning to their chalets pushing prams (the only vehicles suitable for the narrow paths) containing little but the weekend bottles of milk that no baby will consume.

“Fire Island gives an impression of gay farcicality …”

Hm. Should one take offense at this? Probably. But it’s an interesting picture of a gay island retreat from the standard hostility of the time.

source: Tristes Tropiques, by Claude Levi-Strauss

Monday, October 05, 2009

the guest bed at a small farm in Parana, Brazil

“[I]n the paiol, a kind of porch intended to protect the maize harvest from rain [we slept]. Surprising as it may seem, a heap of dry corn cobs with the leaves still on them makes a comfortable bed; the oblong shapes slide one against another and the mass adapts itself to the sleeper’s body. The delicate, sweet, grassy scent of dried maize is wonderfully soporific.”

source: Tristes Tropiques, by Claude Levi-Strauss

Sunday, October 04, 2009

“Any law that degrades human personality is unjust”

“[T]here are two types of laws: There are just laws and there are unjust laws. … One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that ‘An unjust law is no law at all.’

“… Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”

No wonder so many conservatives loathed and feared Martin Luther King, Jr.

source: “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” (1963), The American Reader, edited by Diane Ravitch

Saturday, October 03, 2009

“the question flies entirely outside the domain of reason”

“In the United States … we need no longer argue woman’s intellectual, moral and physical qualification for the ballot with the intelligent. The Reason of the best of our citizens has been convinced. The justice of the argument has been admitted … When a great church official exclaims petulantly, that if women are no more modest in their demands men may be obliged to take to drowning female infants again; when a renowned United States Senator declares no human being can find an answer to the argument for woman suffrage, but with all the force of his position and influence he will oppose it; when a popular woman novelist speaks of the advocates of the movement as the ‘shrieking sisterhood’; when a prominent politician says ‘to argue against woman suffrage is to repudiate the Declaration of Independence,’ yet he hopes it may never come, the question flies entirely outside the domain of reason, and retreats within the realm of sex-prejudice, where neither logic nor common sense can dislodge it …”

Another installment of Things Never Change? Yeah, okay, women got the vote – eighteen years after this speech by Carrie Chapman Catt was given in 1902. Eighteen years? Eighteen years after the argument was no longer “with the intelligent” and “Reason [had] been convinced”?

The rhetoric is about the same; ‘same sex marriage’, for example, could be switched out for ‘woman suffrage’ and readers would assume the writing was contemporary. Not that there aren’t plenty even now who wish women didn’t have the vote.

source: The American Reader, edited by Diane Ravitch

Friday, October 02, 2009

“the emblem of sacrilege”

Back in May 1902 George Frisbie Hoar, the Republican Senator from Massachusetts, delivered a speech in the Senate denouncing the U.S. invasion of the Philippines. Some of it sounds awfully contemporary. Hoar addresses himself to “my imperialistic friends”:

“You have devastated provinces. You have slain uncounted thousands of the people you desire to benefit. You have established concentration camps. Your generals are coming home from their harvest, bringing their sheaves with them, in the shape of thousands of sick and wounded and insane to drag out their miserable lives, wrecked in body and mind. You make the American flag in the eyes of numerous people the emblem of sacrilege … and of the horror of water torture … Your practical statesmanship has succeeded in converting a people who three years ago were ready to kiss the hem of the garment of the American and to welcome him as a liberator, who thronged after your men when they landed … with benediction and gratitude, into sullen and irreconcilable enemies, possessed of a hatred which centuries cannot eradicate …”

source: The American Reader, edited by Diane Ravitch

Thursday, October 01, 2009

“of no earthly account in this world”

I remember crying when my mother tried to coach me in reciting the times tables. You know, 8 times 8 is 64, 6 times 7 is … uh … 42? 42, the answer to the question, Life, the Universe and Everything. That number keeps popping up. It is the right one, isn’t it? I barely know. The times tables just seemed a torture device to me, utterly without meaning. I wasn’t any good at them. Maybe if someone had invented a song, like the Schoolhouse Rock “Three is a Magic Number.” I loved the chanting of the 3-6-9, 12-15-18, etc. But I still couldn’t get down the times table part of the song, “Three times eight is …” That would be 24? See, I gotta think about it. I’ve never memorized it.

Last week I got the latest issue of the International Wizard of Oz Club’s magazine, The Baum Bugle. In it there’s an article comparing two books that appeared around the turn of the twentieth century, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and the long-assumed total knock-off, Zauberlinda, the Wise Witch. In both books a little American prairie girl, an only child, goes on an adventure in fairy land. The illustrations and the book design for Zauberlinda are clearly pastiche of The Wizard of Oz, as Annie sometimes looks like a virtual clone of W. W. Denslow’s version of Dorothy.

I had never heard of Zauberlinda when I first joined the Oz club but (to my confusion) it kept showing up at the Oz convention auction and selling for more than I cared to pay for some actual Oz books. I’ve flipped through it but never felt much urge to own it. Or read it, frankly. But I was intrigued by Phyllis Ann Karr’s compare/contrast essay and the notes to the article indicate the availability of Zauberlinda via Google Books. So I bopped on over to Google Books and called her up. And started reading.

As Phyllis Ann Karr puts it: “[P]erhaps the first difference we notice [between the texts of Zauberlinda, the Wise Witch and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz] is that, whereas Baum plunges his heroine into her adventures within the first few pages and finishes off with a three-paragraph homecoming, [Zauberlinda’s author, Eva Katharine] Gibson devotes the first eighty of her two hundred fifty-five pages to Annie’s home life …”

Indeed. I wouldn’t have liked it as a kid. In fact, I came upon a scene that would have given me the shivers. Annie’s aunt writes from the big city. “The grandmother would read these letters to Annie. … Aunt Molly used to write of what Lizzie May, Annie’s six-year-old cousin, was learning at kindergarten … Nearly always after reading one of these letters, Annie’s grandmother would push her spectacles back upon her forehead, smooth down her apron, and, looking very solemn, call the little girl to her. … The grandmother would say, ‘Annie, it is high time you were learning something. Now tell me, child, how much six times four is.’” When Annie didn’t give the right number, “if her father was sitting by, he would laugh at her and grandmother would say, ‘Oh, Annie, can’t you answer such a simple question as that?’ And Annie, in her mind, would repeat over nearly all the numbers in that old multiplication table, but somehow always seem to hit upon just the wrong answer … Then grandmother would sigh, shake her head sadly and say, ‘It’s no use, John, that child’ll never know anything until she is sent to school …’ Annie would step softly out of the room, feeling very crushed and foolish, and just of no earthly account in this world.”