Monthly Archives: April 2008

Bird sighting today

Bird sighting today — two mourning doves, having returned to the porch rail after a winter away. They are a kind of unsettled peace — they, who are not mourning and I who will not part with grief. The are, in this season, all bustle and preen and light with the air. Here in the city, where do they make their nest? It must be nearby and I — I am so far from home. (April 27, 2008)


Of Lime Trees, Eels, and Lord Randal

K. Silem Mohammad at {LIME TREE} has initiated an ambitious blogging project — to comment on all one hundred of poems included in the 100 Best-Loved Poems, a Dover paperback edited by Philip Smith. While I admire and envy the ambition, I’m afraid that I will not (though plenty tempted) join this journey. I have never read an anthology of poems in which, for good and bad reasons, at least a handful of the included poems left me absolutely unimpressed. Or speechless … I’ll let the reader put a positive spin on that, if they so chose. That will not stop me, however, from chiming in now and then.

For example, let’s look at the first entry, which both introduces the project and comments on the ballad “Lord Randal”. Mohammad does an excellent job of showing the students enrolled in a creative writing class (presumably some of the readers of {LIME TREE}) how to enjoy a poem that may have been written, originally, as a song to be sung. The professor also does the students a favor by indicating that the poor sap Lord Randal was poisoned by something he ate — many students miss this fact. Mohammad, however, suggests that the eels are to blame: “the prospect of eating anything called “eels boil’d in broo'” ought to raise a red flag vis-à-vis poisoning”.

Is this true? Undoubtedly the thought of eating eels makes many contemporary, American stomachs turn, but did the author of “Lord Randal” regard the fish with similar suspicion? I don’t think so. Although less common these days, eel is still eaten and digested by English speaking pallets. In fact, in London, jellied eels are today part rite-of-passage and part delicacy. I doubt that Lord Randal’s mom was too worried that he had eaten eel — she probably served eels boiled in broth several times every year … or, at least, whenever he happened to bring them home.

So, what is it, in the Dover edition of the poem, which suggests that Lord Randal was poisoned by his “true-love”? Surely not the eels … it could have been rabbit boiled in broth or potatoes boiled in broth … and still, I believe, the suggestion that his dish had done him in would remain. Why? Because his mother doubts his report and repeats the question: “Where gat ye your dinner … my son?” Of course, there’s the dead dogs too.

Having said that, I should note two things: first (in my favor), other versions of the poem include stanzas which elaborate on the nature of his meal. These suggest that he has eaten what he thought was an eel, but what his mother would have told him was a newt or some kind of poisonous salamander or snake; second (in Mohammad’s favor) eel blood does contain a toxin. A powerful toxin (ichthyotoxin) which, when injected directly in the blood stream, as was demonstrated with dogs, proved to be deadly in even minuscule amounts. (That’s one of an endless list of examples of beneficial, but ghastly research. In this case the ethically suspect experimentation contributed to Charles Richet’s Nobel prize for his work on anaphylaxis — work that has saved many human lives.) This toxin, however, would have been destroyed when “boil’d in broo”. At any rate, this toxin was discovered centuries after the poem was written and, although it may contribute to our contemporary worries about eating the strange, snake-like fish, it wouldn’t have been know to Lord Randal, to Lord Randal’s “true-love”, to his mother, or to the first “beefy bards” that sang his sad song. (April 22, 2008)

The Night Journey

Reading The Koran at a snail’s pace, in English, and for the first time can be overwhelming. It is easy to get lost in what seems repetitive – repetitive, perhaps, because the text appears to be arranged by the page and the page by the expectation or need for recitation. The repetitiveness is also fed by the urge to communicate the essentials of the message in every section of the text. When reading one section in isolation (or listening to it) one would not notice the repeated sentiments. At the same time the narratives are few, scattered and sparse – one must piece them together as if building a story while reading a correspondence between several people who already know and assume their readers know well the narrative at stake. These qualities, however, serve to intensify the experience of the concrete, the poetic, the mysterious and the anecdotal. In today’s reading from “The Night Journey”, a book most famous for the interpretative dispute over the first few lines, lines which seem to suggest that the prophet was transported in a single night from Mecca to Jerusalem (I have to admit that, were it not for N.J. Dawood’s footnote, I would have missed entirely the “interpretation” that the prophet traveled the distance in a single night – this is the first instance in which I’ve wondered if I shouldn’t be reading multiple translations), Muhammad (and Gabriel) become noticeably frustrated with the demands of the non-believer.

We have set forth for men in the Koran all manner of arguments, yet most of them persist in unbelief. They say: ‘We will not believe in you until you make a spring gush from the earth before our very eyes, or cause rivers to flow in a grove of palms and vines; until you cause the sky to fall upon us in pieces, as you have threatened to do, or bring down God and the angels in our midst; until you build a house of gold, or ascend to heaven; nor will we believe you in your ascent until you have sent down for us a book which we can read.’ (pg 290 in my edition; 17:90 ff)

Muhammad is instructed to reply: “Glory be to my Lord! Am I not an emissary, made of flesh and blood?”

Ecce homo! Far more memorable, by my taste, than the one-night trip to Jerusalem. The prophet speaks of the frustration that all persons of faith (or persuasion) must have at one time or another. When people seem incapable of listening, when the bargain includes a moving target … am I not an emissary, made of flesh and blood! At the same time, I love the irony and perhaps derision of “until you have sent down for us a book which we can read”. In the current context, my context (of course), this is a haunting note to a non-believing reader, who sits in his arm chair reading (with the anachronism intact) this very book!

But, then, I doubt I’d make such demands; honestly, these are bargains made by the disobedient and the unwilling, not bargains made by disciples. Muhammad (anachronism still intact), we would have much to discuss or we would sit together in silence, but there will be no price to haggle. (April 13, 2008)

Prose on the Brain, Poetry on the Tongue

By chance, I was reading Francisco Aragón’s post at Letras Latinas, the blog for the literary program of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame. In passing to more important matters, Junot Diaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Aragón makes this confession:

I don’t read many novels. If anything, I’m more drawn to short fiction (I’m currently working, relishing through William Trevor at clip of a story a week). Or I read nonfiction of all types. And of course poems.

A confession which, apart from reading William Trevor and apart from the genial tone, I might have written for myself. But why? What do poets read?

In my own case, I am a tortuously slow reader – I want to read poetry and so, with what little time I have and with what uninspiring skills, I have consciously decided to read the poetry first and the fiction later. A decision that has resulted in not reading too many novels over the years. At the same time, I think I have lost my taste for flaccid, descriptive prose and the endless mouthfuls of mash potatoes that one must mull through to finish what was hoping to be a movie. Excuses, no doubt, for neglect.

But I’ve always wondered if prose readers are better at reading in the brain (an eye to cortex pathway – a fairly speedy highway) while the poets are left to trudge along, passing each word over the eyes and (if silently) across the vocal chords to the ear. If only I could land an NIH/NEA combo-grant for such a study … finding, however, a bunch of poetry readers willing to submit to the medical research, might be a problem. (April 9, 2008)

Reading the Koran

I have been reading The Koran–an exercise which is at times dull and at others fascinating, but on the whole well worth the experience. To be a person of the book (which I am) and to read the Koran is to be part-way included in semi-familiar circle of faith. Lately, I have noticed a degree of defensiveness about the text. In Hud, for example, doubters are challenged:

“If they say: ‘He [the Prophet] has invented it [The Koran] himself’ say to them: ‘Produce ten invented chapters like it.'”

Well … writers do like challenges, but would anyone (excluding Joseph Smith) be brave enough to take it on? What distinguishes The Koran and the Book of Mormon from mere attempts to imitate scripture is: that what is written is done so by a person who truly believes that they convey God’s message. Even more so, that they (the prophets) are God’s scribes. Mere writers can not fake this, at least not for long. (April 6, 2008)

Worse than misdirection

Worse than misdirection. The notion that, once traveled before, the long road bends by minute degrees back upon itself. In the haze one both knows this for a fact and curses the inevitability, but will not change. Finally, the whole party stops in loose gravel at the backside of familiar landmarks. Silos, power stacks, the loading docks, the logistic end of the rural city. What is there now to do, but to turn and drive the long arc back to town? (April 1, 2008)