Call Me Jules

A few weeks ago I finished my first reading of Jules Renard’s Nature Stories (Douglas Parmée, trans. New York: New York Review of Books, 2011). I read a few short chapters every night before bed. Now I am reading Moby Dick. The two works really do not bear comparison–except that that I am reading them in succession. Nature Stories is so happy, unguarded and fearless (in an innocent way) about its contradictions. (For Renard, caging a canary or a bullfinch is a senseless brutality, but there’s no better recreation than shooting hares and partridges.) Renard, like most good writers, is an excellent witness, but he is not a distant one. He simply enjoys stomping around the French countryside and acquainting himself with the local critters, domestic and wild. And yet, his affections are not the principle focus of what he writes; they are communicated incidentally, in passing, or by some magic of tone. For Renard, the countryside is a place of rest; there “nature” is, not without pain, but on the whole, benevolent.

Some of Renard’s sketches in this book are short enough to pass as haiku:

The Wasp

In the end, she’s bound to spoil her waistline.

Others are longer than this blog post and are truly essays–not quite travel writing, not quite memoirs, not quite expository–his jubilant account of his war against partridges (“Oh, they’re absolutely diabolical! How they’re making me run!”) fills five pages and is the longest piece in the book. Between these two examples, most selections are about the length of a short prose poem–a page or a page and a half. Perfect length for bedtime.

Here Renard observes how flies pester cattle and how rain eventually gives them some relief:

    But for the flies, they’d be very comfortable. … Whenever an ox moves its leather apron or stomps on the dry ground with its hooves, the cloud of flies buzzes off. You’d think they’re fermenting. … And over there, a first flash of lightning shoots across the sky; there’s no sound. A drop of rain falls.
The oxen see the warning, lift their heads, move to the edge of the oak, and breathe, patiently.
They know the good flies are going to chase away the bad ones.
At first gently, one by one, and then thick and fast, out of a sky torn by lightning, they swoop on the enemy which gives way, little by little, fewer and fewer, as they fly away.
Soon, with water streaming from their snub noses to their indefatigable tails, the oxen will be squirming with delight under the swarm of victorious water flies.

I suppose we have no idea what kind of relief cattle find in a rain storm, but were we to assume ourselves as cattle, this would be our narrative of ease–a gentle rain washing away the nuisances of life.

Melville’s Moby Dick is another matter–the rain is never gentle, the wind is always in the face of the protagonist and the world must be endured. I have only just begun, but it seems that Ishmael seeks more than a mere respite from the constraints and complications of civilization. He finds, instead, in his struggle against the environment a kind of brutal cleansing or, at least, a way to prove himself dead or alive. At the same time (although Renard has a few points of soft persuasion, made transparently) one can feel in Melville a great machine winding up, positioning and calculating to imprint its designs upon the reader.

I am a patient reader and Melville is worth every minute, but after long days, now and then, I feel a vacancy fit exactly for Renard’s winsome little sketches.

An Unfortunately Collected Poem by Ted Hughes

Mia Brownell, Still Life with Chicken Villin Headpiece (2006)

A writer that I will not name (because I’d rather not misrepresent or misremember him) once told me that both T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were anti-Semitic, but that Eliot’s poetry was strong when expressing racism, while Pound’s poetry, when it turned to his fascist ideology, was not. I do not know if this is true. Whenever I encounter in their poems something politically or morally objectionable I ask myself: but is this “good” poetry? I can think of at least a handful of poems by each of these poets that I want to remember, but I quickly lose interest in the poems that turn to clichéd stereotypes and strident propaganda. And so, thus far, I have failed to answer this question … while conceding to the more immediate and subjective standards of 1) “do I like it?” and 2) “do I want to read it?”

In my friend’s case, this might be a small gesture toward excusing Ezra Pound of his politics. One which is along the lines of: we don’t need to pay too much attention to Pound’s fascism, that part of his poetry isn’t very good, anyway. The approach seems difficult to defend, and yet there are so many great writers and artists who were or are, in one or more parts of their lives, inarguably monstrous. (The same might be said of most people. I do not think this is a unique feature of artistic personalities.) And so (displaying my friend’s influence, perhaps) I often read while making some assumed moral judgments about the value of the poetry. Poems may be categorized by:

1. Convincing works which advocate for or give voice to good things. (Christopher Smart’s “A Song to David.”)
2. Works created by people who did bad things. (Pretty much anything and everything we do.)
3. Unconvincing works which advocate for or give voice to good things. (Trite little moralisms and juvenile works about the wonderful qualities of one’s grandparents.)
4. Unconvincing works which advocate for or give voice to bad things. (Some of the Pound Cantos.)
5. Convincing works which advocate for or give voice to bad things. (Eliot’s images of Jews.)

While #1 and #2 are comorbid, and while #4 is perhaps the most unpleasant, #5 is most the dangerous. Finally, although I am certain #5 is more dangerous, I find it difficult to distinguish between morally damaged poetry that is unconvincing (#4) and that which is convincing (#5). Frequently, the evil expressed makes the expression itself seem less convincing. In other words, I struggle to separate the medium from the moral. Nonetheless, from time to time, I try. Recently, I decided to apply these judgments to a brief poem by Ted Hughes, “Exits”:

‘We believers shall get away to God
That much earlier if the bomb drops!’ rejoices
Our parson to the old women’s faces
That are cold and folded, like plucked dead hens’ arses.

In many a corner tonight
The rat chews off its paw
And dedicates the other three
To getting away out of it joyfully.

A sudden pinky-blue scowling glistener
The baby balloons out of its mother –
Splitting the tissue of all time, and the tarmac too
Like a mushroom, O genii of the atom.

Marly Youmans, in her expression of disgust, introduced me to the poem and, I fear, I have already given it more attention than she thinks it deserves. (The poem that follows “Exits” is without a doubt far, far more unsettling—plain misogyny, complete with a chorus on the word “bitch.”) But, now that I’m this far in, let’s measure it against the (above) five moral categories.

Is this a poem by a person who did bad things (#2)?

Absolutely, I do not need to read biographies of Ted Hughes, to know this is true.

Is this a poem that expresses bad things, but poorly (#3)?

Ah, now that’s complicated. First, does the poem express bad things? Maybe. Women are at two ends of a complex metaphor. In both cases he uses the bodies of women (“women” in general) as the image of that from which one might want an exit. It would be an understatement to say that these representations are “unflattering.” In the first stanza, Hughes compares the faces of old women to the “arses” of plucked hens. In the third, he uses the image of a baby’s head crowning at birth to show the arrival and detonation of a nuclear weapon. (Think of all the mushroom clouds one sees blooming in slow-mo film.) But are these representations “bad”? Do they help us build a better world? Maybe. Maybe, on the whole, one reads the poem and realizes that this world is not something we should be so eager to exit. Maybe one reads the third stanza and sees a birth that we should work with more diligence to avoid. Perhaps, one might say, Hughes should be excused of his misogyny because he has used it to show us the horror of a nuclear “exit”. Or, more accurately, Hughes has shown us the lifelessness of wanting to leave this world so much that we might wish upon ourselves a nuclear end. Having read of Youmans’ wrath, I am reluctant to say that this is so. Youmans’ disgust with the chicken image is an example of at least one case in which a very skilled reader found the image to be more hurtful than edifying. I will conclude, therefore, persuaded that the poem expresses bad things. But does it do it well?

Is this a poem that expresses bad things in a powerful way (#5)?

Yes, to the bad things; see above. And yes and no to things expressed with poetic power. The three images used in this poem are at once efficacious and cartoonish. (By some aesthetic standards, cartoonish representations are always inferior, mimesis by shorthand, but I’m not sure that I hold to that.) I think that the first two stanzas are difficult to take literally. The rat that escapes without its paw does not hobble away “joyfully”; rather, it limps away like a rat with three good legs and one raw one. Likewise, while the parson’s remark seems a bit ridiculous, and although I have heard equally silly remarks in many sermons, what would be the occasion for the comment? The women, however, are less believable. Most churches have at least a few women with wrinkled or even grouchy faces, but in this scene it seems that the entire congregation is comprised of elderly, “church ladies.” (One must assume that the poet is there too, or at least has reason to own the anecdote; after all, he writes of “our parson.”) In addition to these reasons, I am also inclined to say that the stanza does not work because it has misplaced its focus. It is the exit, the parson’s message, which is the true focus of the stanza, but Hughes diverts our attention to the women’s faces. He makes the problem worse by choosing a distasteful vehicle for his metaphor. In short, one spends far too much time trying to imagine “plucked dead hen’s arses” and not enough time registering the exact “exit” that is recounted in the stanza.

The final stanza, in which the crowning head of a baby is used as the vehicle for a vision of a nuclear explosion, holds more power. Cleverly, it doubles back on itself—an exit shown to us by an entrance—we are exited from the world as the baby exits its mother, as the bomb enters the “tarmac.” But what are we to make of this? Something misanthropic and dark if not disturbingly misogynistic? Let’s not forget that we have, for the most part, all entered this world by “ballooning” out of our mothers, by splitting that “tarmac”—surely Teddy’s mom would not have appreciated this vision. Nor, I hope, would the poet want us to think of his own birth in such terms.

Finally, although I appreciate the cleverness whereby the final stanza revisits the first, I also fail to see how the poem works as a whole. What are we expected to conclude? Silly parsons are suicidal? Rats will do anything to get out of a trap? Old women are not attractive? Babies are deadly? If it’s “nuclear war is bad,” I think Hughes failed to get us there. Rather, the poem confirms the parson’s message. This is a more fitting paraphrase: the poet is looking for an exit and would be willing to chew off a foot to get away; he’d rather have never been born into this awful world, if it weren’t for aging women, he wouldn’t have had to be. So, the poem seems to plead: go ahead and drop the bomb; see if I care.

Read in this way, the poem is a powerful expression of Hughes’ own ugly mood. Perhaps that’s why he left it “uncollected”. Perhaps he too could hear the shrill adolescent tone. Perhaps he feared he’d anger his mother. Most of us will never have an editor to pick through our “uncollected” poems; the cost of being worthy of one is on display here in the Collected poems (Paul Keegan, ed. New York: FSG, 2003).

Therefore, I put this poem somewhere between #4 and #5. If we read it as an anti-nuclear war poem, it’s a four. If we read it as the work of a depressed adolescent, it get’s a five—although it offends more than it hurts. The poem shows the author to be a shallow person, it does not motivate us to be likewise.

Weaponized Music

Fela oversees rehearsal (Photo by Janet Griffith)

1. I have been listening to Fela Kuti. His pidgin, his music. What little I know about him, I read on Wikipedia–which is to say: I know very little about Fela Kuti. I know very little about Africa. Less about Nigeria.

2. Photos and videos suggest that Fela did not care for pants–at the same time, he seemed to prefer pageantry. Fela was a rock star, a big voice and a bigger show. If people gathered at his concerts for the show, why did they join his commune? When is music a weapon? In Fela’s Nigeria, I suspect that persona was the weapon. Fela, the show, was too much for his opponents.

3. When is music a weapon? 1990: The U.S. military’s boom-box blockade of the Vatican embassy in Noriega’s Panama. Did Van Halen see any profits?

4. Fela’s offense, to compare soldiers to zombies. Fela would not take orders:

Zombie no go go, unless you tell am to go (Zombie)
Zombie no go stop, unless you tell am to stop (Zombie)
Zombie no go turn, unless you tell am to turn (Zombie)
Zombie no go think, unless you tell am to think (Zombie)
Africa 70, Zombie (1977)

5. In Babylon silence was a weapon, but the silence gave voice to the Psalm:

O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones. (Psalm 137:8-9, KJV)

6. Fela was an excess. He would have been a terrible head of state; he was a better, self-proclaimed “Chief Priest”. He preached a corrective, an antidote, prophecy. He might tear down, but could he build?

7. Daniel Auber’s La muette de Portici (1828) stirred the political passions of Belgium’s (French) revolution:

Amour sacré de la patrie,
Rends-nous l’audace et la fierté;
A mon pays je dois la vie;
Il me devra sa liberté.

8. Fela imported Black Power from America. When black America was busy looking for its royal African heritage, Fela gathered a harem of queens and adopted the role. Bold, tough and brazen: what white culture feared. Music became a weapon because it was a boast. Fela taunted Nigeria’s guns; they torched his place and killed his mother. Dead mothers are a weapon too.

9. When Milosevic silenced the news, Belgrade’s radio stations played a loop of N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police” and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”.

10. Cult of (doubtfully benevolent) personality. Fela returns to America as a story. Cultured, tamed, marketed. Che Guevara on a t-shirt; Fela Kuti on the soundtrack. His sons have inherited the show. Femi and Seun preach a similar message, but the beatings Fela won seem less likely to be given to his sons. Much could change, but has Nigeria imported “culture” from America. People are a weapon, better keep them entertained.

11. Pidgin brokin perfect, Abi?

12. “Strange Fruit” fed the outrage, but “We Shall Overcome” sustained the movement.

13. Music doesn’t kill people; people kill people.

14. I do not trust the song anymore than I trust the poem. Most times it would be better to tie a millstone to the tongue.

Animal Suicide Note

Why should the human animal be prone to suicide? The question itself reveals the kind of loneliness in which we find ourselves. We presume a unique otherness–cognitively engaged, self-aware, self-examined. By definition, it would seem, only the animal with a “self” can kill itself. Animals can be pressed to a kind of system failure, in which certain stresses (captivity, for example) lead to death. I once tried to feed an abandoned duckling, a mallard; in futility, it leaped in its cardboard box until it died. It would be hard to imagine, however, that its intentions (or “instincts”) were anything other than to escape. Cut off from the consciousnesses of other species, we cannot know if or when the deer has the urge to dash in front of the semi, or when the rat, in despair, takes its poison with purpose. For the most part, non-human, animal models for suicidality, are just that … non-human models. It is for this reason that researchers like Preti and Malkesman look for the traits in animal behavior that are known to be associated with human suicide risks, including: anxiety, impulsivity, and helplessness. Apparently, one can pester a mouse until it mostly gives up on life. Some switch eventually flips and the poor beast simply submits to predation. But the helpless mouse is helpless, not zelfmoord.

On the other hand, we are animals and there is no reason to suppose that our own system failures differ from those of other species. It is the reflection, this face in the mirror, our human narcissism which pushes us to assume that our creaturely break downs are in fact some kind of rational deliberation about the value of another minute of life. In contrast, philosophical suicidality is silly. Thinking about the more troubling questions of existence, even when the answers are dire, ranks among the pleasures of life. Even so, Socrates serves (on one side of the coin) as a fine case study of the suicidality of self-examination. After all, to examine one’s life is, ultimately, to weigh whether or not it’s worth living. For most of us, I suspect that a competing animal urge toward self-preservation (completely outside of any rational machinations), protects us from philosophical foolishness. But for others, a completely different noise burns through the mind. The pain itself (even if we might know its source and, therefore, its limits) rages and smolders in the brain stem. In as much as it is “natural” to jump off of a hot stove, likewise, a human, an animal, in pain will seek ways to escape. But when we humans leap or pull the trigger, even then something in us, that blasted narrator, observes: you’re about to jump; you’re about to do yourself in. The chatter itself is tiresome.

Having written this, having reworked it, once again, through my mind, and obviously with some motivation, I suppose knowing is itself a bit of a buffer. We survive, but, like any animal, among the wounded.


Malkesman O, Pine DS, Tragon T, Austin DR, Henter ID, Chen G, Manji HK. Animal models of suicide-trait-related behaviors. Trends Pharmacol Sci. 2009 Apr;30(4):165-73. PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2788815.

Preti A. Do animals commit suicide? Does it matter? Crisis. 2011 Jan 1;32(1):1-4. PubMed PMID: 21371964.

Daffadillies: Lycidas

And Daffadillies fill their cups with tears,
To strew the Laureat Herse where Lycid lies.

– John Milton, “Lycidas“. 150-151.

With the daffodil, one comes to the end of Milton’s catalog of flowers in Lycidas. The daffodil makes frequent appearances in poetry (Dickinson, Frost, Herrick, Jonson, Shakespeare, Spenser, Wordsworth). It nearly rivals the rose and often tumbles into cliched preciousness. Its abundance in verse will come as no surprise to gardeners–were I to start another spring bulb garden, I’d probably include the poet’s narcissus (Narcissus poeticus). Not for its name, but because it grows so well, multiplies easily, and blooms abundantly. (I also like the shape and color–green-throated, stout yellow tubes, rimmed with orange against a very white background.) However, if Milton had any narcissus at all in mind, it seems unlikely that he would have thought of the N. poeticus. If he did think of N. poeticus, he would not have known it as the “poet’s daffodil.”

Narcissus pseudonarcissus

Narcissus pseudo-narcissus, Redouté, Pierre Joseph, 1759-1840

In Milton’s century, botanists were frustrated with the common name “daffodil.” It seemed, to them, to be misplaced. Derivative of asphodel (“the affodil”), the name seemed a better fit for the genus Asphodelus. But common names are stubborn and Gerard uses “daffodil” throughout his descriptions of Narcissus. He also notes: “The yellow English Daffodil groweth almost everie where through England” (134). Thus, I would bet that Milton meant, if he meant any specific Narcissus, for readers to recall the common daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus). These were the flowers, as common as they were, to which botanists hoped that English speakers would limit there use of “daffodil.”

All the same, both the N. poeticus and the N. pseudonarcissus are mismatched to Milton’s somewhat mixed metaphor (part eyeball, part cup) in these lines. Not unlike the Narcissus myth, Milton gives the flower some human properties, specifically the ability to express grief. In the Narcissus story the flower bends its head over a stream to gaze at its own beauty, but in Lycidas the daffodil begins to weep and fills its cup with tears. I have no problem with the weeping, as saccharine as it is, but I see no way to fill its cup with liquid. Bent over, the common yellow daffodil cannot fill its cup with anything. In fact, it is probably bent over in this way to prevent it from flooding with rain water. Tears would merely spill to the ground. Although less bent, N. poeticus with its very short flute would serve similarly as a poor cup for sorrows.

Although not expressing incredulity, Sims is also underwhelmed by Milton’s daffodils:

The daffadillies with their cups full of tears seem to be deliberately anti-climactic to prepare for the sudden recognition of the unreality of all these flowers and of the “frail thoughts” of the poet about them. (89)

I agree with the unreality of the image, but I am less willing to make excuses for Milton. In many respects the poet was writing a faux-pastoral poem and at other times a genuinely pastoral poem. In both cases the young talent was showing us what he could do within and around the genre. He took risks and excelled (a lengthy flower catalog), but sometimes hit a false note (a teary-eyed daffodil).

Gerard, John, and Thomas Johnson. 1975. The herbal: or, General history of plants. New York: Dover Publications.
Sims, James H. “Perdita’s ‘Flowers O’ Th’ Spring’ and ‘Vernal Flowers’ in Lycidas,” Shakespeare Quarterly 22, no. 1 (Winter 1971): 87-90.

[Note: This is the twelfth post in a series. See also: The Flowers in Milton’s “Lycidas”, Primrose: Lycidas, Tufted Crow-toe: Lycidas, Pale Jasmine: Lycidas, White Pink: Lycidas, Not Your Freaking Pansy: Lycidas, The Glowing Violet: Lycidas, Musk-rose: Lycidas, Woodbine: Lycidas, Cowslips: Lycidas and Amaranthus: Lycidas.]

Nostalgia, Now and Then

Once, many years ago, on introducing myself to the Irish poet, John Montague, I mentioned that I was from Kentucky. Immediately, he asked for my favorite poems by Robert Penn Warren. I had to admit that I had not paid much attention to Warren’s poetry. Montague was visibly dismayed. I had probably read a few Warren poems and I know that I had read All the King’s Men, but I was more fond of Kentucky prose (Wendell Berry and Guy Davenport) at the time.

I am trying to remember why I had passed over Warren so quickly. Perhaps it was the association with “New Criticism” (which was politically incorrect in my graduate school), but I also recall a frustration with both the subjects and the pace of Warren’s verse. For example, on re-reading a few of the anthologized poems today, I am struck by his penchant for hyphenated nouns and the use of the spondee. On this account, see a few samples from his Coleridgean poem “Gold Glade“: wet-black, gorge-depth, leaf-lacing, leaf-fall, heart-hurt, grief-fall, Gold-massy, light-fall, gold-falling, tooth-stitch, gray-shagged. And these are merely the hyphenated words, add the spondees and one has a recipe for some slow chewing. But this is a recent revelation. I’m certain that I relied on my less self-conscious ear in the 90s. As for the subjects, I was (and perhaps I still am) afraid of the nostalgia of self-identifying Southerners. I could (or have been) one of these, a nostalgic “son of the South” … particularly when I tire of the well-intentioned contextual emptiness of the Midwest. (Southern nostalgia may be made from equal parts of molasses and rat poison.) To this day, I am wary of it.

On the other hand, I am reaching an age in which nostalgia fuels memory. Thus, I have been fascinated lately with Warren’s “American Portrait: Old Style” from the volume Now and then: poems 1976-1978. This very nostalgic poem relies on Warren’s narrative skills. The poem keeps some of the internal rhyming, alliteration and spondees which sometimes clot his verse, but these are masked (a bit) by the story line. I think of Coleridge, again (in so far as it recalls childhood as a privileged place for the imagination), but Warren’s Coleridgean bent is tempered by the focus on the relationship between the poet and his childhood friend. The ageing ex-pitcher and bird dog trainer, tends to humanize Warren in a way that his own thoughts (out of context) do not. While the poetry strives for a false immortality, the body does not. K, as he is named in the poem, ages Warren by giving us a reference point that is a bit more approachable and less authorial. And so, when the poet lies down in the ditch he once played in as a child, and watches the sky pass over, it’s easier to join him; it’s easier to love this life and this world that we share.

The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren stretches to an overwhelming 830 pages. I think I will begin, instead, with Now and then.


We moved this summer, a few miles north to an older house with a larger yard. The work of transporting six people and all their junk to a new location has been, not surprisingly, disruptive. My bicycle commute has tripled (happily for the miles spent in the wind, less so for the lost writing time). Grocery shopping seems, for the moment, more complicated. Everyone’s routine has shifted–showers, laundry, homework locations and personal turf. And, we moved right smack in the middle of the growing season. Thus, I “waited” until this week to plant our fall garden. Lettuces, radishes, spinach and greens are all sweeter in the cool months. So, after a blistering hot summer, I’m hoping for a sunny, but mild fall with a late frost. Given that a large ash tree shades most of the garden, we’ll probably need more than 45 days to have a full harvest. The ash tree will make gardening a challenge next year. I may have to grow sun hungry plants in containers or find a spot in a local community garden. On the other hand, I’ve discovered that shade extends the life of some garden plants. The basil, for example, which I moved in pots to our new location, is sweeter and greener than in past years. Without full exposure to the sun, it has not gone to seed … and so, we have spring-flavored basil in late August.

I have been reading Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” one stanza at a time before falling asleep. At this age, I am neither challenged nor amused by it. I read the second book of the Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series, The Tombs of Atuan, in half as much time. In my life, both worlds, Earthsea and the land of quiet Sunday mornings with coffee and elaborate rugs, seem equally distant. I may be due for another reading of Don Quixote soon, or maybe, after the frost, more Coleridge.