Angels, drunk and muddled, stumbled from the bars

30 01 2008

 

THE DAY THE SAUCERS CAME

 

That day, the saucers landed. Hundreds of them, golden,

Silent, coming down from the sky like great snowflakes,

And the people of Earth stood and

stared as they descended,

Waiting, dry-mouthed, to find what waited inside for us

And none of us knowing if we would be here tomorrow

But you didn’t notice it because

 

That day, the day the saucers came, by some coincidence,

Was the day that the graves gave up their dead

And the zombies pushed up through soft earth

or erupted, shambling and dull-eyed, unstoppable,

Came towards us, the living, and we screamed and ran,

But you did not notice this because

 

On the saucer day, which was the zombie day, it was

Ragnarok also, and the television screens showed us

A ship built of dead-men’s nails, a serpent, a wolf,

All bigger than the mind could hold,

and the cameraman could

Not get far enough away, and then the Gods came out

But you did not see them coming because

 

On the saucer-zombie-battling-gods

day the floodgates broke

And each of us was engulfed by genies and sprites

Offering us wishes and wonders and eternities

And charm and cleverness and true

brave hearts and pots of gold

While giants feefofummed across

The land, and killer bees,

But you had no idea of any of this because

 

That day, the saucer day the zombie day

The Ragnarok and fairies day, the

day the great winds came

And snows, and the cities turned to crystal, the day

All plants died, plastics dissolved, the day the

Computers turned, the screens telling

us we would obey, the day

Angels, drunk and muddled, stumbled from the bars,

And all the bells of London were sounded, the day

Animals spoke to us in Assyrian, the Yeti day,

The fluttering capes and arrival of

the Time Machine day,

You didn’t notice any of this because

you were sitting in your room, not doing anything

not even reading, not really, just

looking at your telephone,

wondering if I was going to call.

 

  • NEIL GAIMAN

 

Neil Gaiman is a well known fantasy author, this is from his book of poetry and short stories, fragile things. While I found these stories worth reading, I enjoyed them less than I should. I would probably have quite enjoyed them when I was younger and would have enjoyed more the transgressive macabre tone and have been more surprised by the inevitable twist (the fantasy short story has never left O. Henry behind,  only rarely following in the path of the modern short story laid down by Chekhov.) I found the twist in this poem quite satisfactory, however. And sometimes, even when the twist was obvious from the first few pages, the concept was good enough to carry it anyway, as in the short stories  Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire, or in Sunbird. But each of these stories is about one twist, and I guess I want just a bit more to be completely satisfied.

 

I did find his romp through the strange world of American fantasy — both immigrant and native, mind you — as realized in Anansi Boys and American Gods, quite enjoyable. They deserve the obvious (when you read them) comparison to Douglas Adams and the Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul. They don’t, of course, measure up to that high standard, but that’s OK.

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always engaged in revision

29 01 2008

[HIS LIFE WAS THE PRACTICE]

 

His   life   was    the    practice   of   forming   a   single

sentence  which,  as   he  grew    older,  he   tried   to

simplify,   reduce  its  compound-complex  structure

into one statement ruled by the  separate, inviolate

pronoun within which he attempted  to live,  always

engaged in revision and the act of becoming;  as the

distilled   statement   gradually   became  a   fleeting

inquiry, a mild interrogative, which he repeated and

refined,   making  it  increasingly  concise, almost, at

his  conclusion,  producing no  more  than  a  distinct

sound,  not  quite a word, less than a  cry,  which his

death  erased  leaving  the question mark hanging in

the   air,   like  a  broken  halo,  emblem  of  his  birth,

evolution and release: a full life.

STEPHEN DOBYNS

 

You can read another of Stephen Dobyns’ poems, Yellow Beak, here (recommended!): http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16845

 

He is a poet and an author, including the detective stories featuring Charlie Bradshaw, each title of which has Saratoga as the first word.

 

Here’s 2 somethings from The Porcupine’s Kisses:

 

Look at this dark night: no stars, no moon. Look at this crowd of

people. Do you know one better than the other?

 

It isn’t yours until you can stand to see it break.

 

The Porcupine’s Kisses (Poets, Penguin)

 

His book of essays on poetry, Best Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry, looks like a good way to pull myself further into this new world of the poem that I have started to enter. Here’s a bit more about Dobyns, from the Amazon.com review:

 

Dobyns, the author of eight volumes of poetry (and 17 novels), believes, like Baudelaire, that “each poem … has an optimum number of words [and] an optimum number of pieces of information … and to go over or under even by one word weakens the whole.” Poetry, he says, belongs to the reader, not the writer, and as readers, “at the close of the poem, we must not only feel that our expectations have been met but that our lives have been increased, if only to a small degree.” And, if that’s not challenge enough for the writer, add to it “that the conclusion of a given piece must appear both inevitable and surprising.”

Best Words, Best Order, 2nd Edition: Essays on Poetry

 

I’d add that a good story always seems that way — inevitable and surprising, just like a good life. Surprising at the time, but in hindsight, how could it have gone any other way?





“Books that make you dumb”

28 01 2008

Ok, that’s what they call it… I guess that’s a more provocative than “the top 100 books on Facebook and their correlation with the selectivity of the user’s college or university.” But that would be a better description. There’s some statistical strangeness – they only took the top 10 books at each college, then only the top 100 overall. But there’s plenty of neat stuff here, also, although there is definitely an attempt to be provocative, from the title, to highlighting the low rank of those listing “The Holy Bible” (as opposed to “The Bible”) as their favorite book. Lots of required reading on this list – I notice the “books that make you smart” lean more toward recently popular books (still reading == better at it) – I think that list is more interesting. Of particular interest is the “I don’t read” selection…. Of course, none of these books make you dumb or smart, in case anyone thinks I’m not… 

http://booksthatmakeyoudumb.virgil.gr/ 

Here’s the books in order of ‘smartness’: http://booksthatmakeyoudumb.virgil.gr/books.php?sortby=rating&order=desc





Surfing the century

28 01 2008

It’s 1901. Queen Victoria will die on January 22. Winston Churchill, returned from the Boer War a celebrity due to his bravery, his newspaper dispatches, and his escape from a Boer prison, is sitting in his first term in Parliament. On April 10, W. E. B. Du Bois will refuse Booker T. Washington’s  offer of a position at Tuskegee. The grandson of Emperor Meiji, given the name Hirohito, will be born 29 April, and sent away from his parents to be raised “unselfish, perservering in the face of dificulties, respectful of the views of others, and immune from fear.” On September 14, Theodore Roosevelt will become president.  Tolstoy will be excommunicated this year, protesting against the theft of civil liberties in Russia. Socialism seems on the rise around the world as 140,000 steel workers strike against the United States Steel Corporation. In Stockholm, the first Nobel Prizes will be awarded.

 

And I’m just getting started in my next reading project — to surf through the 20th century in these fine books, one chapter at a time, keeping them all fairly even in time.

Surfing the Century

W. E. B. Du Bois, 1868-1919: Biography of a Race (Owl Books)

Churchill: A Life

History of the Twentieth Century, A, Vol I: Volume One: 1900 – 1933

Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan

Theodore Rex

 

I didn’t buy them with this in mind — they are just books that I happened to be planning to read. But the idea has appeal, and I’ll see how it goes. Unfortunately, Du Bois is starting out behind — I’m up to 1900 in Churchill, and the others all start at 1900 or 1901, but he’s back in 1868, with 238 pages to get even with the others — nearly half the volume.

 

The only one I’ve read much of is this excellent biography of Churchill that my son Robin got me for Christmas this year — it happens to be written by Martin Gilbert, the author of the 3-volume history of the twentieth century (one volume pictured above) that I’ve had for most of this century, so I thought I’d get some historical context by reading the two together, then inspiration struck this afternoon — I’d read these other biographies from my shelf of future reading at the same time!

 

I’ll let you know how it goes — and, please, feel free to suggest other biographies that I can pick up along the way so I can make it all the way to 2000 in one big Cowabunga!





The mind is brushed by sparrow winds

26 01 2008

Bravo — this is the kind of poetry entry I aspire to.

Hart Crane « The Lumber Room

The Lumber Room is now added to the blogroll on the basis of this evocative introduction to a lesser-known poet.

Also, when reading about him in my copy of Lives of the Poets, by Micheal Schmidt, it leads to a new word for me: rebarbative, the subject of an upcoming post. (I have nothing to add to the summary of Hart Crane’s life in the link above).





Blogroll: TED and the Dictionary Evangelist

26 01 2008

TED claims to have “ideas worth sharing” and is the best TV alternative on the internet. Some of the worlds most effective and impressive people show up to give short talks. The attendees are as much an attraction as the speakers — and the speakers are none too shabby — this year the talks will be “based on the theme “The Big Questions” and feature Al Gore, Craig Venter, Amy Tan, Karen Armstrong, Yves Behar, Robert Ballard, Bob Geldof, Walter Isaacson, Isaac Mizrahi, Ben Zander and 40 more of the world’s most insightful and inspiring speakers.” Given that, is it any big surprise that a main hall pass is being auctioned off on e-bay going for $33,535?

Anyone who has ever thought that numbers were hard to make interesting should watch these 2 talks by Hans Rosling – or if you just want to understand more about how the world is going — are things slithering down a sewer or getting better? And how are they ending up the way they are?

 Hans Rosling shows the best stats you’ve ever seen

 Hans Rosling reveals new insights on poverty

If numbers (even incredibly vibrant and important ones) aren’t your thing, just go to http://www.ted.com and pick any of the amazing videos — short talks by people who are actually solving and understanding the real problems of the world. Watch enough and you’ll realize that they are all true, even when contradictory. Watch them all and you won’t be the same person.

 One video that I watched, by Erin McKean, about dictionaries, is described thusly:

Is the beloved paper dictionary doomed to extinction? When does a made-up word become real? And could you use “synecdochical” in a sentence, please? In this infectiously exuberant talk, leading lexicographer Erin McKeanlooks at the many ways in which today’s print dictionary is poised for transformation in this internet era.  http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/161

Her blog, which I only read occasionally, is here: http://www.dictionaryevangelist.com/ Here’s an excerpt from a recent posting, to give you the flavor:

My take (and yes, I know it’s self-serving, in that I make dictionaries) is that, in belletristic writing, when presented with an otherwise-equal choice between a fun, unusual word, and a boring, commonplace word, you should always choose the unusual one. Why deny your readers the “aha!” moment of finding a perfectly apt, elegantly descriptive word?

(Of course, I also think “when in doubt, wear orange,” so you perhaps should take this with a grain of salt.)

Literary writing is a way to introduce readers not just to facts and ideas and emotions but to beautiful words: imagine writing a guidebook to a place that left out the best restaurants because they weren’t on the subway line … if something is worthwhile, people will find a way to get there. If a word is perfect, people will figure it out.

I am NOT suggesting that technical or workaday writing should be full of fifty-cent words; “This way to the egress” is a scam, not an invitation to learning. (Or, at least, not an invitation to learning that is received gratefully!) But literature, long-form journalism, and essay writing allow for more lexical scope, and you should take advantage of it, to the best of your ability. Why not?





Hillel & Jesus

26 01 2008

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?

From JewishAnswers.com :

This statement was made by Hillel the Elder (in Pirkei Avot Chapter 1:14), the leader of the Jewish Supreme Court in the Land of Israel in the early part of the 1st Century

every person struggles on a daily basis with the balance between what one does for oneself and what one expects from others. Hillel is saying that the bottom line is that one’s life is in one’s own hands – don’t expect anyone to make your life for you because they can’t and won’t. On the other hand, if one’s focus is only on oneself to the exclusion of others, then what value does the person have? To be completely selfish is to lose touch with the rest of the world, to lose touch with life.The connection between the first and last part of the teaching is not obvious. The last part is saying that since we don’t know what each hour will bring, we must respond to each moment as if it is a once in a lifetime opportunity – ‘if not now’, when are you going to have another chance. On a deeper level, it could be saying that each moment in our lives is unique – even though it may seem that the opportunity to do something returns the next day, the context is never the same.

How about the teachings of another Jew of around the same time:

‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’