Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Thoughts on “A Question of Degree” by Bill Mayer

A Question of Degree

In Oz no one dies,
which makes for complications
in the stories, all 32
of which I have just reread.
Baum seems not to have been
quite clear; after all, Dorothy’s house
kills the Witch of the East
as the bucket of water later
melts the Witch of the West.
There are endless contradictions
because, finally,
it is impossible to imagine
immortality, no matter
that we all want it,
and some believe it
and the ego denies it.
A flash of light
between two eternities
some say, but that flash
is always going somewhere,
not like a match which goes out.
In Oz, you can stay as young or old
as you wish, be a baby
forever, or a wise old man
or woman. Which would
you choose? Through which door
would you wish to pass?

Bill Mayer


Ooh. A poet writing about Oz! I like it. I’ve tried. An old Ozzy, I’ve tried. Bill Mayer deploys a light touch on the details, assumes any reader knows about Oz, he needn’t load up the poem with exposition. You know who Dorothy is, you know about the witches. Mayer doesn’t bother to bring up Tin Woodman or Scarecrow or Cowardly Lion. Considering that he’d just finished reading almost three dozen books Mayer’s restraint is amazing. I mean, by that time my head is all a-clutter.

For the sake of the poem the poet hones it down to one topic: immortality, something Oz people are blessed with. Except when, somehow, they die. As Mayer says, “There are endless contradictions” in Baum’s rules for Oz. I remember well! Even the rules for magical implements change. In one book the Magic Belt is easily operated; you just point and say Shoot! and your finger goes BANG! In another book you have to go through some rigamarole every time you want the Magic Belt to grant a wish. Why? No explanation, really.

Considering the weighty nature of immortality, Bill Mayer gets in and gets out rather neatly. Too neatly? Could it be otherwise?

“In Oz, you can stay as young or old / as you wish, be a baby / forever, or a wise old man / or woman,” Bill Mayer says. That’s pretty much quoting L. Frank Baum. “Which would / you choose?”

Who would want to remain an infant for eternity? Especially if one never attains control of one’s bowels or achieves the coordination necessary to speak or walk. If you did, would you still be a baby? Wise is nice, but old means physical decline. Age doesn’t necessarily bring wisdom. On the other hand experience is a good teacher and If you were immortal (albeit in a seemingly young body) wouldn’t you accrue the experience wisdom requires?

I have to say I am a little confused by Bill Mayer’s own ideas about immorality. “[I]t is impossible to imagine / immortality, no matter / that we all want it, / and some believe it / and the ego denies it,” Bill Mayer says. I don’t know about that. For the ego isn’t it death that is “impossible to imagine”? Can the ego truly imagine its utter annihilation? The ego is presented with plenty of real world examples of death, it’s true, whereas there is no real world example of an immortal. Still, the ego balks at death and will cling to belief in a life beyond it.

Life is a light, Mayer tells us, but not a light like a match flame. “[A] match … goes out,” Mayer says, whereas the light of a human life “is always going somewhere.” Oh? Where is it the light of a human life is headed? Mayer doesn’t tell us. Not that he makes any explicitly religious argument. He refers to no creed. No mention of Heaven, no Judgment.

Still, I like “that flash” that “some say” lights up the gap “between two eternities.” As Mayer himself notes, it’s not an original thought. But there’s magic to it.

L. Frank Baum would say in the Oz books that fairyland isn’t the only place that has magic in it. As a kid I got impatient with his occasional awe over the natural world. But these days I find life itself pretty darn amazing and the inventions of fantasy fiction too often banal.
Each time I read Bill Mayer’s poem it touches me, as an old Ozzy, but as a mortal too.

I’ve saved the most esoteric bit for last:

Bill Mayer mentions 32 Oz stories. Where’d that number come from? L. Frank Baum wrote 13 full length sequels to The Wizard of Oz (plus a collection of short stories). After Baum’s death his publisher contracted with Ruth Plumly Thompson to write a new Oz book every year. Thompson kept up that schedule for 19 years. Other writers published Oz books with Reilly & Lee after Thompson, including John R. Neill, the man who’d provided the illustrations for all the Oz stories up to then (bar Wizard). The last book in the Reilly & Lee series was number forty. If we take the 14 of Baum and the 19 of Thompson (and ignore subsequent authors), we get 33. Bill Mayer, however, does not mention Thompson. Odd. Maybe the 32 Oz books were the ones he owned as a kid, still had, and was able to reread? That was his Oz.

source: A Truce with Fantasy by Bill Mayer
2015. Kelsay Books / Aldrich Press

Saturday, August 04, 2018

In Kenya or in Oz?

Adharanand Finn is a Scottish journalist and runner. He goes to Kenya to learn from some of the greatest runners in the world. Who knew he would find himself mentally in the land of Oz?

I head out past the edge of town and into the countryside. Mist hangs blue in the dips, thick and magical. Pointy-roofed huts and neatly sown fields rise up here and there, the red track stretching out before me. I run on, like Dorothy, through a strange, Technicolor world. And who is that I see now, running toward me, his bright yellow jacket glowing in the first rays of sunlight? The scarecrow? It’s Japhet, grinning to see me. He turns and runs beside me, back the way he came.

We run together, easy, passing bigger groups, people running hard, the sweat beading on their anxious foreheads, pushing themselves on in search of the elusive Oz, sure that someday, if they just keep running, they will get there.

[This post is dedicated to the friends attending the Oz Convention next weekend.]

source: Running with the Kenyans: passion, adventures, and the secret of the fastest people on Earth by Adharanand Finn
2012. Ballantine Books, New York