Angels, drunk and muddled, stumbled from the bars

30 01 2008




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 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.

always engaged in revision

29 01 2008



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.



You can read another of Stephen Dobyns’ poems, Yellow Beak, here (recommended!):


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 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… 

Here’s the books in order of ‘smartness’:

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 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.

Her blog, which I only read occasionally, is here: 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 :

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.’

Dickens and Economics

25 01 2008

Finished today:
The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World

by Tim Harford

Bleak House

by Charles Dickens

talk with crowds and keep your virtue

25 01 2008

Say what you like about Rudyard Kipling — he doesn’t have the reputation in today’s world that I think he should — but his poems have a certain power. This poem on yellow paper, was framed and sitting on the floor in our hall closet when I was a kid — it defines a kind of manhood that I still aspire to. Occasionally, I almost measure up.




If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you

But make allowance for their doubting too,

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:


If you can dream–and not make dreams your master,

If you can think–and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:


If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breath a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”


If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with kings–nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;

If all men count with you, but none too much,

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And–which is more–you’ll be a Man, my son!

–Rudyard Kipling


24 01 2008


    Baudelaire, a French poet who lived and died in the 1800’s, is one who deserves his reputation for being a bad influence. Some of his poems are sensual, others are lusty, perverse, abusive or disgusting — many were suppressed during his life.  A selection of his first lines from the end of the wonderful little book of his poems I have here illustrates the range — to read them (and the poems themselves) is to feel a bit shaken (My wife is dead, so now I’m free) unclean (I spent the night with a gruesome Jewish whore), intrigued (My darling was naked, or nearly, for knowing my heart..), or desiring (Long let me inhale, deeply, the odor of your hair). Odor, scent, and the power of smell have force in his poetry, and I have at least one more poem to share from this book, but for now, I’ll just place this poem here, almost juvenile in its sexiness — one of the more innocent of his poems in this excellent translation, but an evocative poem for this evening.

    A few notes first:

    strophes – these are pairs of stanzas –

    Belleau – a poet of 1500’s, the French Renaissance. ” most known for his paradoxical poems of praise for simple things and his poems about precious stones.

    Patchouli is an essential ingredient in many perfumes, it has a strong heavy odor.




    Gaping tatters in each garment prove

    your calling is not only beggary

    but beauty as well,


    and to a poet equally ‘reduced,’

    the frail and freckled body you display

    makes its own appeal —


    queens in velvet buskins take the stage

    less regally than you wade through the mud

    on your wooden clogs.


    What if, instead of these indecent rags,

    the splendid train of a brocaded gown

    rustled at your heels,


    and rather than town stockings, just suppose

    curious glances sliding up your thigh

    met with a gold dirk!


    And then if, for our sins, those flimsy knots

    released two perfect little breasts that shine

    brighter than your eyes,


    and your own arms consented to reveal

    the rest, though archly feigning to fend off

    hands that go too far . . .


    Strands of pearls and strophes by Belleau

    arriving — imagine! — endless streams

    ‘from an admirer’;


    riffraff — talented and otherwise —

    offering tributes to the slippered feet

    glimpsed from below stairs;


    gentlemen sending flunkeys to find out

    who owns the carriage always told to ‘wait’

    at your smart address


    where in the boudoir, kisses count for more

    than quarterings, although the cast includes

    a Bourbon or two!


    — Meanwhile, here you are, begging scraps

    doled out by the local table d’hôte

    at the kitchen door


    and scavenging discarded finery

    worth forty sous, a price which (pardon me!)

    I cannot afford . . .


    Go, then, my Beauty, with nor ornament

    — patchouli or pearl chocker — but your own

    starveling nakedness!


    Charles Baudelaire

    Les Fleurs Du Mal

    translated by Richard Howard.

    Baudelaire: Poems (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets)