"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words. " ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Friday, December 28, 2012

Moons of Wintertime and Beyond

ACCUSTOMED, CEREMONIOUS
My Indian Maiden, with Rosemary Wreath

'Twas in the moon of winter-time
aka The Huron Carol
[click to hear sung by Chanticleer]

'Twas in the moon of winter-time
When all the birds had fled,
That mighty Gitchi Manitou
Sent angel choirs instead;
Before their light the stars grew dim,
And wondering hunters heard the hymn:
"Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria."

Within a lodge of broken bark
The tender Babe was found,
A ragged robe of rabbit skin
Enwrapp'd His beauty round;
But as the hunter braves drew nigh,
The angel song rang loud and high:
"Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria."

The earliest moon of wintertime
Is not so round and fair
As was the ring of glory on
the helpless infant there.
The chiefs from far before him knelt
With gifts of fox and beaver pelt.
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria.

O children of the forest free,
O sons of Manitou,
The Holy Child of earth and heaven
Is born today for you.
Come kneel before the radiant boy
Who brings you beauty, peace and joy.
"Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria."


1926 English translation
by Canadian poet, Jesse Edgar Middleton
based on the 1643 original by Jean de Brebeuf

Tonight is the Full Cold Moon of December, also called the Long Nights Moon when it is the full moon closest to the Winter Solstice, as it is this year. Unfortunately, the sky above my little spot on earth has been overcast every night this week, so I have not had any sightings of what is supposed to be an exceptionally bright full moon, the last and thirteenth (because August had two) full moon of 2012.

All I can do is keep checking the winter sky for a photo op. In the meantime, without boasting, please allow me share these extremely kind words from my friend Burnetta, regarding last month's moon:

Sometimes called, among other things,
The White Moon, The Dark Moon, or The Tree Moon

"The light in Indiana is a little different than the light here in Arkansas.

Kitti’s moons shimmer in bright light, vibrate in the colder northern air,
illuminating the landscape, with other worldly luminosity.

Her tree limbs reach out, touching the people who walk beneath the branches, attempting to alert them: watch out, walk softly, take your time.

Holidays glisten with still life arranged to celebrate the daily beauty.

Vegetables, fruits, flowers, garden implements, goblins, the little things that are taken for granted, until a day when rationality and identification demand that we look on our daily lives as parts of a puzzle, a desire to make sense of senseless life.

What is in a photo that gives us comfort and peace?
The moon, the trees, the things we use and throw away,
The light that is never quite the same."


~~ Thanks Burnetta! ~~

*******************

My Upcoming Full Moon Calendar for 2013

January (this photo by Ben McCartney)

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

click to see
Full Moons for 2014 ~ "Never Quite the Same"
&
Full Moons for 2015 ~ "Time for a Moondance"


SEE YOU IN TWO WEEKS FOR MY
Next Fortnightly Post
Monday, January 14th

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT
my shorter, almost daily blog posts
www.dailykitticarriker.blogspot.com

Looking for a good book? Try
KITTI'S LIST
my running list of recent reading
www.kittislist.blogspot.com

Friday, December 14, 2012

Day of Light

ACCUSTOMED, CEREMONIOUS
Wall Tile for Lucia Day
by
Erkers Marie Persson

As with so many of the December customs, St. Lucia's Feast Day on the 13th is a celebration of light, vision, and enlightenment. Lucia, Lucy, Lux, Lucis -- all refer to Light. St. Lucia is a bringer of light -- in the form of candles, and breakfast in bed, early in the morning. And, as one who was violently deprived of her own eyesight, she has also become the patron saint of the blind.

Yesterday, Gerry and I brainstormed for a couple of songs in keeping with the day and came up with these; neither Christmas songs nor St. Lucy songs -- but a couple of our favorites on the theme of Light:

Blinded by the Light
"Mama always told me not to look into the eye's of the sun
But mama, that's where the fun is . . .
I tripped the merry-go-round
With this very unpleasin', sneezin' and wheezin,
the calliope crashed to the ground . . . "

by
Bruce Springsteen
as performed by
Manfred Mann's Earth Band

and

I Saw the Light
"It was late last night
I was feeling something wasn't right
There was not another soul in sight
Only you, only you . . .
Then you gazed up at me and the answer was plain to see
'Cause I saw the light in your eyes . . . "

by
Todd Rundgren

*******************************

ADDITIONAL LUCIA DAY TREASURES

1.

a Christmas song of "luminous light," perfect for the occasion:

Star of Bethlehem
lyrics by Leslie Bricusse
music by John Williams
from the Home Alone Soundtrack

Star of Bethlehem shining bright,
bathing the world in heav'nly light.
Let the glow of your distant glory
fill us with hope this Christmas night.

Star of innocence, star of goodness.
Gazing down since time began.
You who've lived through endless ages,
view with love the age of man.

Star of beauty hear our plea,
whisper your wisdom tenderly.
Star of Bethlehem set us free,
make us a world we long to see.

Star of Bethlehem, star on high,
miracle of the midnight sky.
Let your luminous light from heaven
enter our hearts and make us fly.

Star of happiness, star of wonder.
You see everything from afar.
Cast your eye upon the future,
make us wiser than we are.

Star of gentleness hear our plea,
whisper your wisdom tenderly.
Star of Bethlehem set us free
make us a world we long to see.


*******************************

2.
Thanks to my friend Cate
for these darling little Lucia Day Stickers

*******************************

3.
The most famous poem for this day,
John Donne's "Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day"
written back when the Winter Solstice occurred earlier in the month,
is featured in its entirety on an interesting blog: Gates of Vienna

It opens . . .

Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world's whole sap is sunk . . .


And closes . . .

Since she enjoys her long night's festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year's, and the day's deep midnight is."


Click to hear it read aloud.

*******************************

4.
See also my post from last year: "Santa Lucia"

Betsy McCall Celebrates Lucia Day

*******************************

5.
And take a look at this 2007 post,
direct from Sweden,
by Tiffany!


SEE YOU IN TWO WEEKS FOR MY
Next Fortnightly Post
Friday, December 28th

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT ~ "Day of Light"
my shorter, almost daily blog posts
www.dailykitticarriker.blogspot.com

Looking for a good book? Try
KITTI'S LIST
my running list of recent reading
www.kittislist.blogspot.com

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Like an Ant

ACCUSTOMED, CEREMONIOUS
The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon
by Sir Edward John Poynter (1836 - 1919)

"Learn how to live
a joyful and constructive life in this world,
like ants. . . . The secret of a meaningful life
is not in the long-gone throne of Solomon and the like."

Sa'eb Tabrizi (1601 - 77)

Sa'eb's reference to Solomon's "long-gone throne" reminds me of the statue of Ozymandias:
" . . . Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies . . .
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my words ye Mighty and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 - 1822)

The kingdoms of Solomon and Ozymandias did not endure, their vast achievements dwarfed by an ant and a grain of sand. Padgett Powell, author of The Interrogative Mood presents a series of existential questions concerning this same dilemma of time, size and perspective. His inquiries suggest that we may have placed ourselves too high above the ant, especially when it comes to grasping the secrets of the universe:

"Is the human individual more important
than the individual ant, and if so by a factor,
what would you say, of what?" (10)

"Will you sing with me now: Oh let us be heroes,
let us have emotions pure or not pure be men
or not men, let us buzz and rumble the hill and
dale of daily insignificance just as confidently,
just as threateningly, just as humbly in its
cute red velour as does the velvet ant?" (34)

"Is it really tenable that a person has a a soul,
whether he has a cell phone or not,
and a grasshopper does not?" (160)


[See my book blog for more insightful questions from
The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell (b 1952)]

I like the way the lines of this painting by Leonard Orr
can be seen to resemble the elaborate architecture
of an underground ant colony!

Plaster cast reconstruction of an ant nest,
as illustrated in Wikipedia

I turned to Orr's paintings, confident that I would find something to illustrate ant - ness (as in, ant colony, ant hill, ant nest, ant industriousness, and so forth). Len generously responded: "If my painting manages to convey antness (the quidditas of ant, as Stephen Dedalus perhaps said), I am pleased."
"Although not immediately obvious,
there are quite a few people hiding here it seems."
~ facebook comment to Leonard Orr from Andrea Livingston ~

I decided on this painting, in part because of the accompanying commentary. Livingston's remark fits right in with the question of how different, really, are humans from ants. When I mentioned that I also wanted to include the passage about termites from Samuel Beckett's novel Watt, Len was one step ahead of me:
"For the only way one can speak of nothing
is to speak of it as though it were something,
just as the only way one can speak of God is to
speak of him as though he were a man,
which to be sure he was, in a sense, for a time,
and as the only way one can speak of man,
even our anthropologists have realized that,
is to speak of him as though he were a termite."
(77)

Samuel Beckett (1906 - 89)

In the following poems, it is the family dog whose superior comprehension of the meaning of life edges out any knowledge that we mere humans might possess:

from Her Grave
Does the hummingbird think he himself invented his crimson throat?
He is wiser than that, I think. . . .

Do the cranes crying out in the high clouds
think it is all their own music?

A dog come to you and lives with you in your own house, but you
do not therefore own her as yo do not own the rain, or the
trees, or the laws which pertain to them.

Does the bear wandering in the autumn up the side of the hill
think all by herself she has imagined the refuge and the refreshment
of her long slumber?

A dog can never tell you what she knows from the
smells of the world, but you know, watching her, that you know
almost nothing.


Mary Oliver (b 1935)
from New and Selected Poems (14 - 16)


Trickle Up?
Does human evolution have a future?
Even our dog is troubled by the limited
significance of our presence. He whines
at the door wanting to get out.


Ernest Sandeen (1908 - 1997)
from the Collected Poems (278)

Does the bear wandering in the autumn up the side of the hill
think all by herself she has imagined the refuge and the refreshment
of her long slumber?
~ Mary Oliver ~
Beautiful watercolor evocation
of autumn and bear - ness

SEE YOU IN TWO WEEKS FOR MY
Next Fortnightly Post
Friday, December 14th

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT
my shorter, almost daily blog posts
www.dailykitticarriker.blogspot.com

Looking for a good book? Try
KITTI'S LIST
my running list of recent reading
www.kittislist.blogspot.com

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

There on the Edge of Autumn

ACCUSTOMED, CEREMONIOUS
"I am a leaf!"

All of today's connections are drawn from the writing and photography of my friend Jan Donley. References to her work have appeared several times on this blog (and The Quotidian Kit) right from the very beginning.* It was Jan who said, "September always smelled different from August. It just did." Likewise, October smells different from September; and November from October. As my son Sam said earlier today, "It smells good out here; it smells cold!" Yes -- it smells like November!

Excerpts from Jan's Journal

Gray / 21 November 2010

The bare trees covered the hillside, and from a distance, it looked as if the hill was covered in fur. Funny that way—how hard branches soften. . . .

The sun shone down from the western sky and pieces of light through the branches made stripes along the shaded ground.

[Out for a walk with her dog Gray] She could see her breath and Gray’s too as he panted along. They stopped at the edge of a drop, too steep to walk down. The sun disappeared behind a cloud, and the air turned colder. She grabbed Gray up into her arms and took in the warmth of his coat against her bare face. He squirmed to be set free. So she put him back down and squatted next to him—there on the edge of autumn looking out toward winter.



Alone / 21 October 2010

Opal looked out the window. A gray overcast filled the sky. Leaves hung on trees—orange, yellow, red. She watched one fall. It twirled and almost seemed to shine against the dark day.

She put on her red jacket and her brown shoes.

“I’m going outside!” she called, knowing that Aunt Frances may or may not hear her. Aunt Frances had her own worries, and sometimes Opal felt alone.

She opened the front door and ventured down the stoop steps and onto the grass, covered with leaves that rattled under her feet.

She made her way onto the sidewalk—also leaf-covered. She shuffled through the leaves and watched as their colors tumbled over her shoes. They crackled and popped. The sound made Opal laugh.

Some leaves fell from limbs and other swirled up from the ground.

It was just a fall day. Opal knew that. Days come and go, Opal thought.

But something in the swirling and the falling made her stop.

She twirled herself one, two, three times.

“I am a leaf,” she called to the sky, to the trees, to the day.

She ran along the sidewalk, her red coat glimmering on that gray day.

She chanted, “I am a leaf” down the block and across the wide street to the park with the pond and the ducks and the caw cawing crows.

It was enough for the moment, to be one of many swirling through the day.


(Look closely! See the bench?)

And now some excerpts from Jan's short story "Blind"
Not necessarily an autumnal story,
but a back - to - school story,
so it must be Fall!

Sometimes you look up at the sun and you get blinded. You put your hand up as a shield, and you have sight again, but it’s kind of awkward to keep your hand there like that. And sometimes, you meet someone who blinds you, and even when you try to really see that person, it’s awkward. So you put your head down or look the other way. That’s how it was with Caroline.

She blinded me. . . .


The narrator here is Franny, trying to understand the complicated feelings she has for her classmate Caroline. One of my favorite elements of the story is their homework session:

“You really get these poems, don’t you?” And the truth was, I did. I could read a poem and figure out the puzzle of it faster than my mom could do the Daily Jumble in the Gazette.

For homework, we had to read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot. Mr. Zellner, our English teacher, got all teary-eyed when he talked to us about it. He carried the book around the classroom and read parts aloud:

“For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.”

I looked around and most everyone, including Caroline, was yawning or staring out the window. Me, I was listening.

Mr. Zellner asked, “What do you think Eliot is trying to convey when he writes the line, ‘It is impossible to say just what I mean?’”

I raised my hand. . . .

“Well.” I looked down at the words in the poem. “He has all these memories bottled up. He wants them to mean something, but he’s not sure they mean anything at all.”
“You got all of that out of one line?” Caroline asked.

“It’s poetry,” Mr. Zellner said, as if that answered everything. He read some more of the poem:


“I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.”

"Mermaids . . . .” Caroline stared at the page, and then she looked up at me. “Why mermaids?”

“It’s a metaphor,” I said.

Mr. Zellner smiled really big. “Yes! Yes! That’s right. Did everyone hear Frances?”

I wished he would call me Franny; but for some reason, teachers liked to use full names.

Mr. Zellner continued, “Our poet, Mr. Eliot, is using the mermaid’s song as a metaphor for missed opportunities, for loss, for—” Mr. Zellner stopped. He looked around the room— “what we wish we had done. Haven’t you all had moments when you wished you had done something different? The poem is about regret.”

“Yeah,” Caroline said. “I think I get it. Thanks to Franny.”


*****************

I love the way Jan has incorporated literary analysis right into the body of the story. Everything she says here about "Prufrock" is exactly what I've tried to tell my students in the past and what I told Ben & Sam when (luckily!) they were each assigned to read this poem in high school. [Click to hear T. S. Eliot himself recite.]

I also like the way that when it comes to poetry, Franny just knows. I earned a similar credential when discussing Jane Hamilton's novel A Map of the World in one of my long ago book groups. There is a sad, sad scene in the book when Alice's family kind of accidentally (not maliciously but simply because they don't understand what it is or how important) throw away her map of the world. When I asked my fellow readers if they had reached that scene yet, they weren't sure, so I pointed it out to them, since to me it was such a crucial turning point, not to mention that it totally illuminates the title of the book. Upon a second reading, I had to admit that no where is it specifically stated: "No! Wait! Stop! The family is throwing her map away!" Yet, when the group asked me, how I knew -- well, I just know!

Playing on the theme of "Blind," Jan writes that even Mr. Zellner "squinted a little" not to mention that he gets "all teary-eyed" when reading "Prufrock!" Franny at first averts her eyes out of shyness but later "nodded into the bright sun" of Caroline; and Caroline takes a moment just to look at the sky, nothing more, nothing less. The story concludes with the two young women sitting on a park bench in the late afternoon autumn sun, discussing the difficulty of making direct eye contact, the varying degrees of vegetarianism, and their upcoming Emily Dickinson assignment. Then, as Emily would surely have it:

"We stayed on the bench till the sun dropped.

In the dark it was so much easier to see."

View from the Bench

A few more Connections:

1. Jan enjoyed it awhile back when I told her that Franny's literary expertise reminded me -- in a good way of course! -- of Velma in Scooby-Doo. You know, that episode in which Daphne asks her, "Velma, do you have a book for every occasion?" And Velma replies, "Actually, yes." Which, in turn, brings to mind the question I was asked in college when I worked on the literary magazine: "Do you have a poem for every poem?" And, like Velma, I just had to say, "Actually, yes." Jan wrote back to me: "I am especially happy about your Scooby-Doo Reference. Diane loves her Scooby-Doo, and it's so much fun to have that allusion in the midst of Eliot and Hamilton, etc."

Scooby and the Gang

2. In other popular culture, Jan's description of Franny and Caroline sitting at the park reminds me of the leafy, sunny scene in the movie Harriet the Spy when the best friends all roll down the hill in the park:

Harriet and Friends

3. Franny puzzles over a comment that Caroline makes about various boys in their class -- "He wants me" -- and asks her to explain, “What does that feel like?”
“What does what feel like?” Caroline asked.
“Being wanted. What does it feel like to be wanted?”
“You’re kidding me, right?” . . .
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m kidding.” But I wasn’t.


This exchange made me think of a "fun fact" about the casting of The Graduate: Robert Redford was considered for the role of Benjamin before Dustin Hoffman. But Redford disqualified himself when the directors told him that the character had to portray a sense of defeat -- like being turned down for a date on a Friday night. And Redford said something like, "Huh? What do you mean?"

Similarly in the musical Jersey Boys the three macho Seasons don't want to sing the song "Walk Like a Man," written by the fourth, more "emo" Season (Bob Gaudio, in real life). The three dudes are complaining that it makes no sense -- "What do you mean, like a man instead of a woman? Walk like a girl?" Gaudio says, "No, like a man instead of boy. It's about growing up, standing up for yourself, not being twisted around someone else's little finger." The others just gawk at him uncomprehending. What? Apparently they're just not the type to ever have been twisted around anyone's little finger. What does that feel like?

4. Additional Favorite Journal Entries that I would recommend:
House
Washington Street (see text below, in "Comments")
The rain fell on yellow leaves


* 5. Previous Jan Donley Posts on my blogs:
Lucky Rock
Lost & Found
9 / 11 Retrospective [also on Quotidian Kit]
Dagmar's Birthday [also on Quotidian Kit]
Everyone Loves Stories

Scales
Sleight of Hand
The Little Door
Savor September!
Happy Birthday Coyote!

6. A bit more "Prufrock"

SEE YOU IN TWO WEEKS FOR MY
Next Fortnightly Post
Wednesday, November 28th

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT
my shorter, almost daily blog posts
www.dailykitticarriker.blogspot.com

Looking for a good book? Try
KITTI'S LIST
my running list of recent reading
www.kittislist.blogspot.com

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Lot's Wife, Who Gave Her Life
For a Single Glance

ACCUSTOMED, CEREMONIOUS . . . EXCEPT THAT . . .
"The Sodom and Gomorrah motif
from the Nuremberg Chronicle by Hartmann Schedel, 1493.
Note Lot's wife, already transformed into a salt pillar, in the center."

A couple of connections to my two most recent previous posts:

1. Together with my Penelope poems, I have a collection of poems about a few more long - suffering legendary heroines, the nameless wife and daughters of the infamous Lot, Abraham's nephew, who ushers his small family away from the Biblical destruction of Sodom. His wife is often portrayed as shallow or heedless, with her priorities all mixed up, but these poems show otherwise.

2. One of my favorites is "Ms Lot" by Muriel Rukeyser, who also wrote "Waiting for Icarus" (click or scroll down). The voice of Lot's daughter is similar to that of Icarus's girlfriend, particularly the combination of lament and outrage. She is humiliated by her father's treatment of her, his inability to treat her or her mother with respect. How can he accord them so little dignity? Would he really have done away with his own daughters so easily? She does not question her mother's priorities, but she questions her father's:

Ms Lot
Well if he treats me like a young girl still,
That father of mine, and here’s my sister
And we’re still traveling into the hills—
But everyone on the road knows he offered us
To the Strangers, when all they wanted was men
And the cloud of smoke still over the twin cities
And mother a salt lick the animals come to—
Who’s going to want me now?
Mother did not even know
She was not to turn around and look.
God spoke to Lot, my father.
She was hard of hearing. He knew that.
I don't believe he told her, anyway.
What kind of father is that, or husband?
He offered us to those men. They didn't want women.
Mother always used to say:
Some normal man will come along and need you.


by Muriel Rukeyser, 1913 - 1980

Avant - gard band, Charming Hostess has set Rukeyser's lyrics to music: click to listen and analyze.

Lot Fleeing With His Daughters From Sodom
by Albrecht Durer
, 1471 - 1528

Another long - time favorite, from which I take my title today is the lyric poem "Lot's Wife" by Soviet modernist Anna Akhmatova, who wrote from personal experience about flight, exile, and staying put. During the 1920s and 30s, she saw many friends and fellow writers leave St. Petersburg, but she herself declined the option to flee. In the poem "When in Suicidal Anguish," she writes:

I heard a voice. It called consolingly,
It said, “Come here to me,
and leave your backward, sinful land,
abandon Russia for all time. . . .

But indifferently and calmly
I covered up my ears
so this dishonorable speech
could not defile my grieving spirit."


These stanzas suggest that Akhmatova understood very well the dilemma of Lot's wife. Thirty years ago, I typed up Akhmatova's poem, neglecting to include the name of the translator. Google has revealed a number of translations, though none precisely like this version from my personal archive:

Lot's Wife
And the just man walked behind the one sent by God
Enormous and bright along the black mountain
But alarm spoke loudly to the wife
"It's not too late; you can still take a look

At the red towers of your native Sodom
At the square where you sang, at the courtyard where you spun
At the empty window of the tall house
Where you bore children for your dear husband."

She glanced -- and riveted by a deadly pain
Her eyes were no longer able to look
And her body became transparent salt
And her quick feet grew to the earth.

Who will mourn for this woman?
Does she seem any the less for her losses?
Only my heart will never forget
She who gave her life for a single glance.


by Anna Akhmatova, 1889 - 1966
[Very similar to a translation by Judith Hemschemeyer ]

Scholar and translator Clare Cavanagh mentions Akmatova's poem briefly in contrast to a longer poem on the topic, also entitled "Lot's Wife" (click to read) by recently deceased Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, 1923 - 2012 (excerpt):
They say I looked back out of curiosity.
But I could have had other reasons. . . .
I felt age within me. Distance.
The futility of wandering. Torpor. . . .
I looked back involuntarily. . . .
I crept, I flew upward
until darkness fell from the heavens
and with it scorching gravel and dead birds.
I couldn't breathe and spun around and around.
Anyone who saw me must have thought I was dancing.


Lot's Wife
by British artist John Bulloch Souter, 1890 - 1972

A few more recent poetical discoveries:

1. "Lot's Wife
by Katha Pollitt

2. "What Lot's Wife Would Have Said (If She Wasn't a Pillar of Salt)
by Karen Finneyfrock:

3. "Mrs. Lot"
by Vassar Miller

And, to conclude, one last favorite from my old notebook. It would have been nice if four of the seven poets mentioned here had not picked identical titles for their poems. We will, however, just have to work around the repetition. I'm sure that I can think of a subtitle for each. Akhmatova, obviously: "Lot's Wife: A Single Glance." For Szymborska, I'm thinking: "Lot's Wife: Involuntarily Dancing." And for Pollitt: "Lot's Wife: What Did She Expect?" Finally, I think "Lot's Wife: Drawn to Earth" captures the essence of Batey's message:

Lot's Wife
While Lot, the conscience of a nation,
struggles with the Lord,
she struggles with the housework.
The City of Sin is where
she raises the children.
Ba'al or Adonai--
Whoever is God--
the bread must still be made
and the doorsill swept.
The Lord may kill the children tomorrow,
but today they must be bathed and fed.
Well and good to condemn your neighbors' religion,
but weren't they there
when the baby was born,
and when the well collapsed?
While her husband communes with God,
she tucks the children into bed.
In the morning, when he tells her of the judgment,
[that is, God's decision to destroy the city]
she puts down the lamp she is cleaning
and calmly begins to pack.
In between bundling up the children
and deciding what will go,
she runs for a moment
to say goodbye to the herd,
gently patting each soft head
with tears in her eyes for the animals that will not understand.
She smiles blindly to the woman
who held her hand at childbed.
It is easy for eyes that have always turned to heaven
not to look back;
those who have been--by necessity--drawn to earth
cannot forget that life is lived from day to day.
Good, to a God, and good in human terms
are two different things.
On the breast of the hill, she chooses to be human,
and turns, in farewell--
and never regrets
the sacrifice.


by Kristine Batey, b. 1951

Lot's Wife Looking Back at the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah
by Toussaint Dubreuil, 1561 - 1602

Previous References to Muriel Rukeyser
on my daily blog The Quotidian Kit
All the Little Animals
Another Good Poem by Muriel Rukeyser
The Wrong Answer

SEE YOU IN TWO WEEKS FOR MY
Next Fortnightly Post
Wednesday, November 14th

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT
my shorter, almost daily blog posts
www.dailykitticarriker.blogspot.com

Looking for a good book? Try
KITTI'S LIST
my running list of recent reading
www.kittislist.blogspot.com


And check out
Prodigal: Poems by Francine Marie Tolf

which includes this poem:

One Family's Story
Genesis 19

Her body shook from the explosions,
hot wind and horror sang in her ears.
She looked back at what had been home,
not prudent like her husband
who did not waste a glance on her cinder.
An expedient man. Quick to choose,
years earlier, the greenest pastureland
when he and his herdsman brother parted ways,
but ingratiating when it served--
offering, in those days before catastrophe,
his own daughters to drunken thugs,
rather than risk insult to guests
who could help him escape.
He made forgetting an art,
but could never erase his wife's last soft cry,
or the moans of his two girls,
pressed against him on the cave's floor
that evening the sheets of fire
finally stopped raining,
and the three of them drank a calfskin of wine
to celebrate their deliverance.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Icarus, Who Really Fell

ACCUSTOMED, CEREMONIOUS
Landscape With the Fall of Icarus, 1588
by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1525(?) - 1569


In this book, Gabriel Deblander creates a narrative
to accompany story told by the painting:
Currently out of print, but used copies available.

For today's post, I thought I would continue with the theme of Greek mythology -- last time it was patient Penelope, wife of adventurous Odysseus; this time the impatient Icarus, son of the inventor and designer of the Labyrinth, Daedalus, in which they are subsequently imprisoned. In the ancient myth, Daedalus devises an ingenious plan for himself and his son: they will build wings and fly to freedom. [How do they obtain supplies and materials in prison? You'll just have to suspend your disbelief on that one]. When the wings are ready, Daedalus forewarns Icarus of the need to fly well below the sun. The escape, as the story goes, is successful, but Icarus, exulting in his newly found power of flight, pays no heed to his father's advice. Despite the repeated cries of Daedalus, Icarus flies too near the sun, his wings melt, and he falls to his death in the sea.

Many artists have illustrated the glory and fate of heroic, foolhardy Icarus, but none so memorably as Bruegel the Elder. Particularly in his insignificant placement of the title character, his finely detailed "Landscape" is like no other. A close look at the lower right - hand corner reveals the ill - fated, despairing Icarus, his flailing legs slipping away forever beneath the surface of the sea.

Two modern poets, Williams Carlos Williams and W. H. Auden, have approached the painting very differently in their ekphrastic poems (click for examples, including Bruegel / Auden / Williams). In contrast to the intricate beauty of Bruegel's painting, Williams provides five sparse sentences:

Landscape With The Fall of Icarus
According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
near

the edge of the sea
concerned
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning


by William Carlos Williams

Williams' poems is incredibly straight forward. After showing my students the connections between this poem and the painting, I always thought it was fun to diagram and punctuate the sentences. Auden's poem is dense, requiring perhaps some art history and additional work by Bruegel to truly comprehend.

Winter Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap

Musee des Beaux Arts
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.


W. H. Auden

It's fairly easy to find essays comparing these well - known poems by Auden and Williams. However, I like to read them along with a couple of other, less well - known Icarus poems by two writers who look at the mythological story from an amazingly unique perspectives: "Where You Go When She Sleeps" by T. R. Hummer; and "Waiting for Icarus" by Muriel Rukeyser.

In "Waiting for Icarus," Muriel Rukeyser embellishes the already existing myth, writing from the perspective of a character of her own invention, the girlfriend of Icarus. Alluding to Daedalus and Icarus, and their attempt to escape the Labyrinth by flying to freedom, Rukeyser alters the circumstances somewhat, and her adjustments serve the poem well. In the original myth, there is no mention of a girlfriend for Icarus; and if there were, her last contact with him would have been before his imprisonment in the Labyrinth, making it impossible for her to know of his attempted escape. But this narrator knows all about the wings and the wax. As she waits, she tells of her past with Icarus and hints at the conflict that must have existed between him and his father. She reminisces of the better days, reluctant to admit that Icarus may really be gone or dead, and not coming back.

She loses track of time, and even as she waits, the doubts planted by others sift through her thoughts. She reveals uncertainty, despair and, near the end, another sentiment as well -- the frustration of waiting impotently at home, maintaining the status quo, like Penelope; while Icarus, like brave Ulysses seeks out action, adventure, experience.

Waiting for Icarus
He said he would be back and we'd drink wine together
He said that everything would be better than before
He said we were on the edge of a new relation
He said he would never again cringe before his father
He said that he was going to invent full-time
He said he loved me that going into me
He said was going into the world and the sky
He said all the buckles were very firm
He said the wax was the best wax
He said Wait for me here on the beach
He said Just don't cry

I remember the gulls and the waves
I remember the islands going dark on the sea
I remember the girls laughing
I remember they said he only wanted to get away from me
I remember mother saying : Inventors are like poets,
a trashy lot
I remember she told me those who try out inventions are worse
I remember she added : Women who love such are the
Worst of all
I have been waiting all day, or perhaps longer.
I would have liked to try those wings myself.
It would have been better than this.

Muriel Rukeyser
from The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser.

In the nearly mystical "Where You Go When She Sleeps," T. R. Hummer starts by comparing a woman's hair to the color of golden grain. Mesmerized by her hair, he next compares himself to the farmer's son who fell to his death when gazing over the edge of a silo mesmerized by the swirls of oats. Then he imagines the thin - armed boy as Icarus with his fabled wings. Both boys forget their fathers' words of caution, both feel the sun hot on their backs as they grow dizzy and fall, one into the ocean, one into the sea of grain.

An agricultural safety brochure depicts the danger

I can't help but notice the similarity between the silo victim and
Matisse's paper cutout of Icarus:

Where You Go When She Sleeps
What is it when a woman sleeps, her head bright
In your lap, in your hands, her breath easy now as though it had never been
Anything else, and you know she is dreaming, her eyelids
Jerk, but she is not troubled, it is a dream
That does not include you, but you are not troubled either,
It is too good to hold her while she sleeps, her hair falling
Richly on your hands, shining like metal, a color
That when you think of it you cannot name, as though it has just
Come into existence, dragging you into the world in the wake
Of its creation, out of whatever vacuum you were in before,
And you are like the boy you heard of once who fell
Into a silo full of oats, the silo emptying from below, oats
At the top swirling in a gold whirlpool, a bright eddy of grain, the boy
You imagine, leaning over the edge to see it, the noon sun breaking
Into the center of the circle he watches, hot on his back, burning
And he forgets his father’s warning, stands on the edge, looks down,
The grain spinning, dizzy, and when he falls his arms go out, too thin
For wings, and he hears his father’s cry somewhere, but is gone
Already, down in a gold sea, spun deep in the heart of the silo,
And when they find him, he lies still, not seeing the world
Through his body but through the deep rush of grain
Where he has gone and can never come back, though they drag him
Out, his father’s tears bright on both their faces, the farmhands
Standing by blank and amazed - you touch that unnamable
Color in her hair and you are gone into what is not fear or joy
But a whirling of sunlight and water and air full of shining dust
That takes you, a dream that is not of you but will let you
Into itself if you love enough, and will not, will never let you go.


~ T. R. Hummer
from The Angelic Orders

Another version of The Fall of Icarus
by Henri Matisse

SEE YOU IN TWO WEEKS FOR MY
Next Fortnightly Post
Sunday, October 28th

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT
my shorter, almost daily blog posts
www.dailykitticarriker.blogspot.com

Looking for a good book? Try
KITTI'S LIST
my running list of recent reading
www.kittislist.blogspot.com

Friday, September 28, 2012

Penelope, Who Really Cried

ACCUSTOMED, CEREMONIOUS
Penelope Unravelling Her Work At Night, 1886
by fabric artist Dora Wheeler, 1856 - 1940
(daughter of Candace Wheeler)
for Associated Artists (New York City, 1883–1907)

There are many beautiful depictions of Penelope, loyal wife of the wandering Ulysses, who weaves by day and unravels by night, buying time until her husband reappears. I've chosen the above rendering because, as a silk weaving sadly becoming undone with time, it seems so appropriate; but, in truth, I've picked it primarily because I cannot find the picture that I really want.

What I'm looking for is the "Study for The Nights of Penelope," that once hung in the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame. I admired it many times during the 1980s and often required my students to view it, as did others, according to archived course outlines. Had I looked more carefully, I might have seen that it was on loan from somewhere in Ohio, but the thought that it was not part of the permanent collection never crossed my mind . . . until I visited recently in hopes of seeing it once again.

Not only was it not on view in the Snite, but it has thus far eluded me on the web as well, aside from this former catalog entry, confirming its existence --

STUDY FOR "THE NIGHTS OF PENELOPE," 1865
Pierre-Paul Leon Glaize (French, 1842 - 1932)
oil on canvas
On loan from Mr. and Mrs. Noah L. Butkin
L1980.059.017

-- and a passing reference in a late 19th - century guide to artists and artworks, vaguely establishing the whereabouts of the final version somewhere in Brussels.

Two other intricate interior paintings by Pierre-Paul Leon Glaize, are similar in setting and detail to what I recall of the small "Study for The Nights of Penelope," though both of these appear more light - hearted in tone than the subject of long - suffering Penelope, weary and vigilant.

The Sandal Makers

and

The Bird Charmer

Also by Pierre-Paul Leon Glaize
La Femme de Soldat

This heroine, determined in stance yet subdued in hue also brings to mind the nocturnal vigil that Leon Glaize captures in his "Nights of Penelope" . . . if only I could see it once again!

To accompany the numerous paintings of Penelope, there are also many poems. My favorite, as so often happens to be the case, is by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her poem is about Penelope waiting for Ulysses to come home -- but also, in my interpretation, about any of us whose arms are getting tired and whose necks are getting tight from waiting for that better world to come. It can wear a body out. In this almost - sonnet, she describes the "ancient gesture" of wiping the corner of your eye with the corner of your apron; it could just as likely be a handkerchief perhaps or a Kleenex, but the apron places Penelope in the heart of the home, the oikos. Not that she does a lot of cooking -- mostly, it's weaving. As subtly as Leon Glaize, Millay implies a constellation of gestures: hands busy at the loom; arms stretched for relief above one's head; rubbing a stiff neck with one hand while clinching a tired back with the other; bursting all at once into tears; and finally the silent weeping, discreetly wiping the tears away.

"An Ancient Gesture"
by Edna St. Vincent Millay


I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
Penelope did this too.
And more than once: you can't keep weaving all day
And undoing it all through the night;
Your arms get tired, and the back of your neck gets tight;
And along towards morning, when you think it will never be light,
And your husband has been gone, and you don't know where, for years.
Suddenly you burst into tears;
There is simply nothing else to do.

And I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
This is an ancient gesture, authentic, antique,
In the very best tradition, classic, Greek;
Ulysses did this too.
But only as a gesture,— a gesture which implied
To the assembled throng that he was much too moved to speak.
He learned it from Penelope...
Penelope, who really cried.
(ellipses in original)

In this next brief poem, Parker's message is similar -- Penelope really cries; Ulysses steals the show. Penelope waits courageously; Ulysses gets the kudos.

"Penelope"
by Dorothy Parker


In the pathway of the sun,
In the footsteps of the breeze,
Where the world and sky are one,
He shall ride the silver seas,
He shall cut the glittering wave.
I shall sit at home, and rock;
Rise, to heed a neighbor's knock;
Brew my tea, and snip my thread;
Bleach the linen for my bed.
They will call him brave.

Another favorite of mine is the self - composed Penelope envisioned by Wallace Stevens. As I mentioned last month on my daily blog ("Blue Moon, Blue Heart"), this contemplative Penelope wants nothing that Ulysses "could not bring her by coming alone." No diamond rings, no fancy pearls, no souvenirs from afar or treasures from the deep. Her essential exercise is meditation.

"The World As Meditation"
by Wallace Stevens


J’ai passé trop de temps à travailler mon violon, à voyager. Mais l’exercice essentiel du compositeur — la méditation — rien ne l’a jamais suspendu en moi … Je vis un rêve permanent, qui ne s’arrête ni nuit ni jour.
~ Georges Enesco

It is Ulysses that approaches from the east,
The interminable adventurer? The trees are mended.
That winter is washed away. Someone is moving

On the horizon and lifting himself up above it.
A form of fire approaches the cretonnes [curtains] of Penelope,
Whose mere savage presence awakens the world in which she dwells.

She has composed, so long, a self with which to welcome him,
Companion to his self for her, which she imagined,
Two in a deep-founded sheltering, friend and dear friend.

The trees had been mended, as an essential exercise
In an inhuman meditation, larger than her own.
No winds like dogs watched over her at night.

She wanted nothing he could not bring her by coming alone.
She wanted no fetchings. His arms would be her necklace
And her belt, the final fortune of their desire.

But was it Ulysses? Or was it only the warmth of the sun
On her pillow? The thought kept beating in her like her heart.
The two kept beating together. It was only day.

It was Ulysses and it was not. Yet they had met,
Friend and dear friend and a planet's encouragement.
The barbarous strength within her would never fail.

She would talk a little to herself as she combed her hair,
Repeating his name with its patient syllables,
Never forgetting him that kept coming constantly so near.

A few more to look at:

"Penelope"
by Carol Ann Duffy


A poem in which Penelope, "self-contained, absorbed, content, / most certainly not waiting," stitches the story of her own life into the tapestry and, somewhat shockingly, licks her "scarlet thread /and aim[s] it surely at the middle of the needle’s eye once more."

"Penelope's Song"
by Louise Gluck


In Gluck's "song," Penelope sends her "little soul" to the top of the spruce tree to watch our for Ulysses -- with a warning: " . . . shake the boughs of the tree . . . carefully, carefully, lest / His beautiful face be marred / By too many falling needles." Pine needles, yes; but also an allusion to Penelope's handiwork? How interesting that both Duffy and Gluck portray or suggest that Penelope is sewing with a needle rather than weaving . . . and those needles can be dangerous!

"Ulysses"
by Robert Graves


The prolific Robert Graves is always worth noting, especially when it comes to Classical Mythology. Here he catalogs the complicated romantic liasons of the "much - tossed . . . love - tossed" Ulysses.

"Calypso's Island"
by Archibald MacLeish


A beautiful love song from Ulysses to Penelope. His words are addressed to the immortal nymph Calypso, who offers him the possibility "To hold forever what forever passes, / To hide from what will pass, forever." But he chooses his mortal wife, "a woman with that fault / Of change that will be death in her at last!" He leaves Calypso's charmed paradise for the isle of Ithaca where Penelope "wears the sunlight for awhile."

"Penelope for her Ulisses sake"
by Edmund Spenser


For Spenser, the tapestry represents his quest for romance. He is the weaver, like Penelope, but also a suitor. Unlike the opportunists who pursue Penelope, his love is pure; yet even so, it is unreturned. His beloved unweaves his suit with a single word, a mere look.

"Ulysses"
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson


And lastly, Tennyson's tour de force, filled with so many memorable and oft - quoted lines. In this poem, despite his advanced age, the ever - restless Ulysses charts out yet another adventure. No matter that he is only recently reunited with Penelope after twenty long years; he does not intend to stay put.

Lines 1 - 7: "It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an agèd wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees.

Line 12: . . . always roaming with a hungry heart

Lines 18 - 23: I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!

Lines 31 - 32: To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

Lines 50 - 53: Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

Lines 56 - 70: Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world
. . . my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die. . .
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."


************************
Penelope, 1849
by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (1829 - 1908)
Penelope, like Ulysses:
"Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."


************************

P.S. One more that I must add in full . . .
with grateful thanks to my friend and professor Jim Barnes
(and to Maureen E. Doalles for this blog post).

Ithaka 2001

Hope all your Ithakas are good ones.
-Cavafy

Seems ages on the hill above the rocky point
I have kept my eyes on the horizon where sky
drops to sea. No sign of any ship I do not
recognize, just the ragtag worn-out fishing fleet
about to sink. No single sail grabbing the wind
and fifty men at oars to tell us you are back.
This is no Ithaka now you would own up to,
your old wife mad, your queer son gone, your dog
years dead. The old men gathered here like the food
and wine, but do not give a hoot about the place.
You might as well have gone down in the fishy sea:

this is no Ithaka you would want to rule. Still we
hope for your long return, the foolish old friends of
the foolish king who went away to war for fear
of losing what we have lost anyway, although
you, somewhere landbound or adrift on the deep, still
may dream of coming back to stony Ithaka,
to a faithful wife and infant son. Wherever
you are, I send you these heavy words on a wind
that has treated us all badly: there is little
use for you to come back home old and mortified.
Ithaka is not the Ithaka it was. For god's

sake, be strong. We have grown even older hoping.
Perhaps you have found another Ithaka elsewhere
in the wide world, a soft and welcome country that
nourishes you in a way we never can again.
I wish you well, but I must keep on hoping that
you will come back again. You could teach us a way
at least to cope with the thing that has befallen
us. The tourist's shops and the garish touring boats
prosper, but they are in the hands of foreigners.
The breeding cattle prized by Philoitius bankers
in Pylos hold for the debts Penelope incurred.

The suitors had no staying power when the booze
ran out. No one manned the presses nor tended vines.
Pirates from Samos got the last of goats and sheep
when we tried to take the herds across to Argive
lands. Hardly any of us are left who give a damn
about the state. I am here every day, though hope
runs thin. I know you will return sometime. It is
no Ithaka to brag about. Hope you will bring
our salvation in some form. Yellow gold would help
and medicine that would somehow cure all the pain
of mind and body. We are ill in Ithaka.

By Jim Barnes
Published in The North American Review
and also in Visiting Picasso, 2007

Friday, September 14, 2012

Back to School:
A Scent of Knowledge

ACCUSTOMED, CEREMONIOUS? LOOK CLOSELY!
Thanks to my husband Gerry McCartney for this slide,
which he uses in his presentations to illustrate the challenges
of classroom instruction -- chatters, sleepers, daydreamers!
It was ever thus!
Henricus de Alemannia Lecturing his Students
from Laurentius de Voltolina, 1350s

Back to School! Always such a heady time of year! That could be a pun, as in Oliver Goldsmith's 18th century characterization of the "Village Schoolmaster": "and still the wonder grew, / That one small head could carry all he knew." But, seriously, it's an energizing, optimistic time, a new season, especially with the weather changing from summer to fall. Breathe deep!

British novelist Andrea Levy captures the exhilaration of a new school year in a sensory passage I recently quoted on my book blog: "My favourite task was to hand out the books at the beginning of term. Those children all had new books, whose turning pages wafted a fragrance of sun on sweet wood; a scent of knowledge" (emphasis added). I remember that scent -- and everything that went with it! Notebooks, pencils, index cards and graph paper; chalkboards, lockers, desks, the library, and best of all -- a cigar box! All those promising, familiar smells that go with education! All that back - to - school shopping; or as Ben and Sam -- raised in the age of Harry Potter -- called it, our annual trip to Diagon Alley. No matter where you get them, there's just something about those school supplies that signifies knowledge itself. Even for college kids.

Contemporary American poet Barry Spacks offers a collegiate version of the first day of school in his poem about Freshman Composition as a rite of passage. I have always loved Spacks' image of the English Composition teacher as a "thought-salesman" with a sample case; and I began to love it even more a couple of years ago when a friend, in reference to my enthusiastic endorsement of a few recent works of new fiction, referred to me as a salesperson -- not a teacher in search of an audience, but a salesperson! Come to think of it, perhaps the two roles go hand in hand, as Spacks suggests:

Freshmen
My freshmen
settle in. Achilles
sulks; Pascal consults
his watch; and true
Cordelia -- with her just - washed hair,

Stern - hearted princess, ready to defend
the meticulous garden of truths in her highschool notebook--
uncaps her ball point pen.
And the corridors drum:
give us a flourish,
flourescence of light, for the teachers come,

green and seasoned, bearers
of the Word, who differ
like its letters; there are some
so wise their eyes
are birdbites; one

a mad grinning gent with a golden tooth, God knows
he might be Pan, or the sub-
custodian; another
is a walking podium, dense
with his mystery -- high

priests and attaches
of the ministry; kindly
old women, like unfashionable watering places;
and the assuming young, rolled tight as a City
umbrella;

thought-salesmen with samples cases,
and saints upon whom
merely to gaze is like Sunday --
their rapt, bright,
cat-licked faces!

And the freshmen wait;
wait bristling, acned, glowing like a brand,
or easy, chatting, munching, muscles lax,
each in his chosen corner, and in each
a chosen corner.

Full of certainties and reasons,
or uncertainties and reasons,
full of reasons as a conch contains the sea,
they wait; for the term's first bell;
for another mismatched wrestle through the year;

for a teacher who's religious in his art,
a wizard of a sort, to call the role
and from mere names
cause people
to appear.

The best look like the swinging door
to the Opera just before
the Marx Brothers break through.
The worst -- debased,
on the back row,

as far as one can go
from speech --
are walls where childish scribbling's been erased;
are stones
to teach.

And I am paid to ask them questions:
Dare man proceed by need alone?
Did Esau like
his pottage?
Is any heart in order after Belsen?

And when one stops to think, I'll catch his heel,
put scissors to him, excavate his chest!
Watch, freshmen, for my words about the past
can make you turn your back. I wait to throw,
most foul, most foul, the future in your face.


by American Poet Barry Spacks (b. 1931)

What a cast of characters! I recognize them all, from both sides of desk. As a student (back in the day before all the smart kids were shown how to test out of Freshman Comp), I was one of those fair Cordelias, my heart an open book. A few years later, there I was, a beginning instructor, rolled tight as a city umbrella, religious in my art, requiring answers to the soul - searching questions: Is carelessness as bad as dishonesty? Worse than? Can Gatsby change the past? What comes after dark vapours have oppress'd our plains? How can a verb be infinite?

Office Hours: In my cubicle awaiting the Freshman

In the following short poem, Ernest Sandeen's recollection of undergraduate days is similar to that of Spacks, who points out that the Freshman Comp instructors are "paid to ask" students troubling existential questions. In turn, Sandeen's poem is a brief speculation of where all that moral questioning has led:

College Yearbook, 1931
How can we forget how eager
these professors were to disturb
our young, unexamined lives
with their own ardent doubts and beliefs?

And now here they lie as if
snugly tucked into their graves.
Did they find no further place
to go than here into our mortal memories?


from the Collected Poems
of Ernest Sandeen (1908 - 1997)
Notre Dame Professor and Poet

I like the way these two poems are connected. Spacks sees the freshmen as "Full of certainties and reasons, / or uncertainties and reasons." Sandeen notices that not only the students but also the professors are filled "with their own ardent doubts and beliefs." Plenty of doubt and uncertainty to go around! Sandeen can't forget how determined, how eager his professors were to disturb the youthful freshmen. Spacks remembers the tightly wound, earnest "assuming young" professors, equally keen to upset the students by throwing "most foul" the future in their faces. As I recall, not only was the future thrown in our face, so was the past, so was the present. Sometimes that scent of knowledge can take your breath away. Other times you have to swallow hard, without breathing.

The Good Old Days?

To conclude with a bit of fun, how about the whimsical college curriculum described by Robert Benchley in his hilarious essay, "What College Did to Me." I am never able to read his course list without laughing out loud, in part because it sounds rather similar to a few of the classes that I really took -- no joke!

The History of Flowers and Their Meanings
The Social Life of the Minor Sixteenth-Century Poets
History and Appreciation of the Clavichord
Early Minnesingers: Their Songs and Times
Doric Columns: Their Uses, History, and Various Heights
French 1C: Exceptions to the verb etre

The History of Lacemaking
Russian taxation systems before Catherine the Great
North American Glacial Deposits
Early Renaissance Etchers
Early English Tradewinds

Benchley
says "This gave me a general idea of the progress of civilization and a certain practical knowledge which has stood me in good stead in a thousand ways since graduation."

Still, knowing that his degree program might sound on the frivolous side to some, he appends a disclaimer, which, as you'll soon see, he then turns right around and retracts:

"The foregoing outline of my education
is true enough in its way and is what people
like to think about a college course.
It has become quite the cynical thing to admit
laughingly that college did one no good. . . .
I had to write something like that to satisfy the editors.
As a matter of fact, I learned a great deal in college
and have those four years to thank for whatever I know today.
(This note was written to satisfy those of my instructors and
financial backers who may read this.
As a matter of fact, the original outline is true . . . .)"

Haha! ~ Thanks Robert Benchley & Ned Stuckey - French!

SEE YOU IN TWO WEEKS FOR MY
Next Fortnightly Post
Friday, September 28th

Between now and then, read
THE QUOTIDIAN KIT
my shorter, almost daily blog posts
www.dailykitticarriker.blogspot.com

Looking for a good book? Try
KITTI'S LIST
my running list of recent reading
www.kittislist.blogspot.com