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Monday, December 31, 2012

The Bitten Bullet and The Purple Dragon

If I happen to have any regular readers left out there and waiting for something new, don't get too excited; this is just an announcement.  As you know, I've been in law school for the past year and a half and hardly able simultaneously to keep up literary or "grammarly" commentary and my grades.  Obviously, I've sacrificed the blog.

Because I needed a project this winter break, and because I don't have the time or means to continue sending queries and making submissions (if, that is, they're not related to job applications), I bit the bullet and self-published.  As of today, I have made two sales.


The book, originally intended for a Mormon audience, is plenty suitable for a "general" readership, though it's lack of horned or polygamous characters may stump the stereotypes.  Instead, it's about a kid preparing to serve his Mormon missionary service.  The church--both the institution and its people--put a tremendous amount of pressure on its youth to serve.  I did.  It was one of the best experiences of my life.  The pressure on Eugene is greater than anything I experienced, however, as his family has been stigmatized by some ugly family history, and he and his sister--the last remaining and cogent of the Cross family--are desperate to bring the name back into good repute.

Mormon missionary service, however, requires a towering degree of "worthiness," which Eugene is hardly able to claim.  He is a kleptomaniac, and despite his self-justifications (including the stealing exclusively of books), is racked with the guilt of it.  He convinces himself that he tells the truth to the religious leaders who interview him and vouch for his readiness, and he makes the trip to the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah.  Eugene, despite his stealing and despite what he is certain the membership of his local congregation surely will think of him, is a good kid.  He brings himself home and begins the devastatingly painful repentance process, which necessarily includes the returning of the thousands of books and other items that he's stolen over the years to their owners, including his friends and family.

The book is cheap: just $.99 at Barnes and Noble and $2.99 at Amazon, though only available in digital format.  (BN only provides for the Nook platform, from what I understand, while Amazon makes their ebooks available for Apple and other products.)  If you pick it up and read it, I'd love to hear you thoughts!

Saturday, March 31, 2012

This Wretched Store Does not Carry My Favorite Pen in My Favorite Color


It's either
blue or red; or
the lesser or the better pen.

I chose by pen,
forewent the red, for
the better of the lesser bens.


Composed while walking back to the library from the university bookstore.

This pen represents the first I’ve bought for my personal use in over ten years that is not red.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Attempted Wordsmithery from Possible to Plausible, Devastatingly

The source of the issue is important, more or less, otherwise I’d be in no particular rush to get this out.

impossible -- impassable
Some of you will be familiar with the circumstances:

Professor Hill’s 1-L Civil Procedure class at Ohio Northern University was discussing two United States Supreme Court decisions this past Friday, Bell Atlantic v. Twombly and Ashcroft v. Iqbal (names are great, aren’t they?), which, broadly, together, awkwardly, redefine what a plaintiff must accomplish, and to what degree, in filing his complaint under requirement of Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.  I think.  The issue in the cases—you know, for context’s sake, for those of you not taking Hill’s CivPro course—and here also, though more narrowly, is the Court’s requirement that the facts alleged in a Plaintiff’s complaint, and in order to be capable of surviving a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss (duh, right?), be not merely possible, but plausible (judgment upon the veracity of the facts comes later).  How this surprisingly problematic distinction—possible v. plausible—plays out in the case went, temporarily, out the window, when Professor Hill abruptly wheeled and burst, “Joseph!”  (that’s my name) and pointed, “You prize yourself a wordsmith, correct?  A master of the English language?” (and you should hear the man, dripping with sarcasm).

Now, see, this is what I’m guessing happened—and which I ruefully foresaw the night before:  The reading assignment for class that day was massive.  I was slogging through the black morass (or the Serbonian bog) of the exhausting text, and, for some reason, beat down as I was, Justice Steven’s own wordsmithery in Iqbal (e.g. “facial plausibility” and the shattering idea that “general” is a flexible term) was rubbing me the wrong way, and I posted my opprobrium on Facebook.  Probably, that was a bad idea, being, as I am, "friends" with Hill.

Anyway, back in class, I denied Hill’s allegation, but he persisted and demanded of me a “devastating” examination of the differences between possible and plausible, and he threw in a couple of alleged synonyms, conceivable and probable.  Well, if I’m something less than a wordsmith now as I sit typing in the quiet of my kitchen, then I, upon my proverbial feet in a law school classroom and with the leering Hill staring me down, am smaller still.

Be that as it may, I don’t—or I try not to—let slip away a good lexical challenge.

Possible versus plausible versus (because the class added these for good measure) probable and conceivable is not so complicated or, despite the two versuses (versi?? (no, can’t be – the plural “i” is for Greek-derived “-us” nouns…) – sorry), so convoluted, and, believe it or not, it really doesn’t come down to some complicated etymological investigation.  What it comes down to is communication, which, last I checked, and no matter what the study of statute interpretation may indicate, is the whole effing point of Words in the first place.

Speaking of statute interpretation (rather than statutory interpretation, as statutes on the subject of interpretation are another matter entirely), and since we’re dealing with, generally, interpretation, we’ll do here what they do there: start with the face.

On Its Face

Superficially, the comparison is simple, and not even deceptively so, especially as a later court clarifies it so roundly and succinctly (Justices Posner, Wood, and Tinder's In Re. Text Messaging): “Probability runs the gamut from a zero likelihood to a certainty.  What is impossible has a zero likelihood of occurring and what is plausible has a moderately high likelihood of occurring.” 

Generally, if the face of the thing has got a nice complexion, well, then, that’s enough and we leave it alone.  But not here today!  And really, seriously, I think the court in Text Messaging was a bit deceived by its own skillful application of some decent, though technically inaccurate, understated cosmetics.

The problem is that—you’re going to hate this—the court, like all the rest of us, is using words; and, well, to adapt a Stevensian construction, a word after all is a general thing.  Any word can mean pretty much whatever we want it to, right?  I mean, c’mon, how many of us curse from time to time (or all the time)?  How flexible are those?  Short of getting into the definition (whatever a definition is, really) of “possible” and its etymology, or that of "plausible" or the other two, think for a second whether you, on one hand, consistently distinguish one from the others or, on the other hand, use them entirely interchangeably.  While the latter is not impossible (or even entirely incorrect) and the prior not particularly likely (so nerdy!), you, Reader, most likely land right alongside me somewhere along the vast stretch between the extremes.  More than just that, I would be willing to bet that Stevens and the other justices are guilty of as much fuzzy-word-use even within the texts of their own opinions, and that’s where we run into trouble:  How do you clearly distinguish two words in one context when those same words regularly mean the exact same thing elsewhere?

After the Cold Cream

It’s pretty clear what the honorable authors intended when they required an elevation from “possible” to “plausible,” or required that a plaintiff cross the threshold between them, from the first toward the second, that the facts alleged in the complaint are something more than merely possible.  Right?  Possible being sort of the broadest, the most all-inclusive, of the four?  But where we find that we have to go after a clear distinction between otherwise related—or commonly-understood-to-be—or at least comparable, words, as we indeed do, shouldn’t we assume that the authors intended the most precise definitions possible … er, plausible?  Conceivable??  (And does probable even fit there?  Hmm.  Probably not, really.)

Because here’s what the authors are doing by putting possible and plausible together, sequentially, as they have: they intend that one is hierarchically distinguishable from the other, plausible somehow superior to possible.  It’s the nature of that relationship that we’ve got to pin down, assuming the authors have a firm grasp on exactly what they want to say by using these two particular, and not at all improbable words, and that their efforts are rooted in good, sound English.

So on to etymology.  (Fear not, I’ll keep it tame—and not at all because you can’t handle it, but because who in their right mind (well, save me) would want to?)

Under Its Skin

By way of introduction, let me say a quick word about dictionaries (apart from admitting that they are some of my very best and oldest friends).  Actually, you know what, forget it.  Just read this here, if you're so inclined, and let’s move on with the important stuff.

Definitions first (and there’s that word again, definition):

Possible:              From Latin “that can be done,” which comes from a simpler word, ever Latin, for “be able,” as in potentem, for, you guessed it, power (as in omnipotent, impotent).  So when Oxford says, Possible (in its current, most general usage): “that may or can exist, be done, or happen,” there’s an implicit element, or facility, of power.  (Isn’t that cool?)

Plausible:            Oxford’s definitions here seem a little improbable at first, because certainly no common modern usage alludes to a connection with “applause” (yeah, as in a bunch of people clapping their hands), whose actual definition, via Latin, of course, is indeed exactly clapping, tied up directly with, believe it or not, “explode.”  Seriously.  That’s only mildly different from Google’s “define:” feature, which gives “1. (of an argument or statement) Seeming reasonable or probable; 2. (of a person) Skilled at producing persuasive arguments, esp. ones intended to deceive.”

Conceivable:      Take off the “able,” and what are you left with?  Conceive, right?  Which means that the word “conceivable” is somehow connected to what happened that infamous, very first, earliest iteration of your terrestrial existence when you were no more than two joined-up little gametes in your mother's womb.  Conceive = “to take in and hold,” which takes a more figurative approach when you pair it with, “that can be conceived, imagined, or thought of; imaginable, supposable.”

Probable:            Probable’s actual definition is the most straight-forward and, I think, the most fundamentally different from what its more typical usage is (again, by Google: “likely to be the case or to happen”), like what Posner said in Text Messaging.  Interestingly (for me, anyway), “probable” is directly related to “to prove,” and its long-standing definition is “1. Capable of bring proved; demonstrably provable (now rare); 2. Such as to approve or commend itself to the mind; worthy of acceptance or belief….”

Note:  A dictionary’s job is to accurately reflect the usage of words from a same-language population.  This creates, as you might imagine, an interesting relationship in description and proscription for dictionary-to-language users.  When it comes down to it—and, to wit, every dictionary has a panel of experts who determine which words get added to their tome each year—dictionaries are your servants, not your masters.  We the people decide by our speech and writing what goes into them and what gets ousted.  It’s the Oxford English Dictionary, and my personal nerdy favorite, whose goal it is to collect in one place (if you can call seventeen million volumes one place) all the usages of every word ever spoken or written by those who claim the English language as their own.

So how do we justify these surprisingly divergent definitions—or sources of definitions—with each other and the Justices’ “intent”?  I have no idea.  I think it comes most likely, and easily, down to this, and which should bring us full circle.  As in, yes, right back to where we started.  (Isn’t language great?  (Feels a bit like interpreting statutes.))

Deconstruction and Semiotic Shift

Sounds imposing, doesn’t it.  I'll say it again: Isn’t language great?

These two, well, things, are two of my very favorites as they apply to the general sphere of language and literature.  My intent, initially, was to get into this big thing about pulling stuff apart, even more than I already have, by referencing everyone from Eco to Derrida and quoting court cases and whatever else, but that would be even more self-serving than a blog—any blog, but this one probably more than most—is already.  So, like with the etymology, we’ll truncate:

I said earlier, and seemingly obtusely, the whole point of words is to communicate.  Bearing that in mind, follow me along this rhetorical progression:

·        A person has something to say—an idea emerges.
·        At this point of the thought’s inception, it is nonverbal; it is merely a newly-made, spatial connection between previously acquired, engendered, or obtained ideas.
·        With the intent to communicate that idea, the mind—sometimes subconsciously, sometimes consciously—assigns it a word or words that the person draws from his knowledge and experience—his schema.
·        The person speaks or writes the words.
·        The words travel across the distance between speaker and listener (or writer to reader).
·        The receiver, taking in those words and tapping into his own schema, translates (interprets? know the difference??) those words down to spatial, relativistic ideas for storage and application.

We all do this all the time.  We don’t think about it.  The point is that, as any two minds are never entirely alike, the idea received from the communication will never be identical to the idea conceived and sent out.  Sort of like it’s impossible for a person from one culture to ever fully understand a person from another culture, particularly if there’s a language barrier.

So we need some universal means of accurate interpretation, for efficiently getting ideas from one mind over to the next and with as little margin of error as possible.  (In rough application, this is a form of Eco’s metalanguage.)  Well, we’ve got one of those.  Any guesses?  Yep.  It’s called a dictionary: a standardized reference of both common and archaic usage of every word ever spoken or written in the English language.

Here’s what it all comes down to.  Whatever the heck it was that the Court was intending when it said that possible had to be elevated to plausible doesn’t really matter, because we know that they knew—because not only is it the nature of Supreme Court decisions, but because the writers think they're really that awesome—that their words would be highly scrutinized.  And how do we scrutinize words?  With a freaking dictionary!  If the Court didn’t know we would use dictionaries to ascertain the value and heft of their words, well, then they were on constructive notice that we would.  So with them knowing we would use a dictionary (and the very best one available, which, subjectively (and what else matters at this point), is without question the Oxford English Dictionary), and would use it to find the most basic, most rudimentary and essentially applicable, usage of the word, they knew—at least, yes, constructively—and they therefore must have also, equally, so intended, that “plausible” means exactly what the dictionary says it does: “with an appearance of truth or trustworthiness” such as to merit “applause,” which is certainly an elevation of possible, which has merely the power to become such.

Sheesh, almost like they knew what they were talking about….

What this also does is entirely eliminate any possible, at the least, but especially plausible, use of probable (Posner, Wood, and Tinder's short-sight).  To be probable, a thing must be provable, and if the thing is provable at the stage of the complaint filing, then what the heck is the freaking point of having a trial at all?

Oh, wait, isn’t that what Stevens tried to do with Iqbal?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sunday Poetry LII -- The Most Beautiful Lines in Poetry

Gustave Dore
I don't remember who said it.  I read the quotation somewhere along the line.  Someone important.  You know, like all quotations.  At least the ones we remember.

Anyway, whoever the important person was, he said that the lines from Canto 33 of L'Inferno in which Count Ugolino recounts his story, between chomps at the back of Ruggieri's head, are the most beautiful lines in poetry.  Or else, that's how I remember the quotation going.  

Whatever the quotation, though, and whoever said it, you are the only judge who counts.

From the Longfellow translation –

“Thou hast to know I was Count Ugolino,
  And this one was Ruggieri the Archbishop;
  Now I will tell thee why I am such a neighbour.

That, by effect of his malicious thoughts,
  Trusting in him I was made prisoner,
  And after put to death, I need not say;

 But ne'ertheless what thou canst not have heard,
  That is to say, how cruel was my death,
  Hear shalt thou, and shalt know if he has wronged me.

A narrow perforation in the mew,
  Which bears because of me the title of Famine,
  And in which others still must be locked up,

Had shown me through its opening many moons
  Already, when I dreamed the evil dream
  Which of the future rent for me the veil.

This one appeared to me as lord and master,
  Hunting the wolf and whelps upon the mountain
  For which the Pisans cannot Lucca see.

With sleuth-hounds gaunt, and eager, and well trained,
  Gualandi with Sismondi and Lanfianchi
  He had sent out before him to the front.

After brief course seemed unto me forespent
  The father and the sons, and with sharp tushes
  It seemed to me I saw their flanks ripped open.

When I before the morrow was awake,
  Moaning amid their sleep I heard my sons
  Who with me were, and asking after bread.

Cruel indeed art thou, if yet thou grieve not,
  Thinking of what my heart foreboded me,
  And weep'st thou not, what art thou wont to weep at?

They were awake now, and the hour drew nigh
  At which our food used to be brought to us,
  And through his dream was each one apprehensive;

And I heard locking up the under door
  Of the horrible tower; whereat without a word
  I gazed into the faces of my sons.

I wept not, I within so turned to stone;
  They wept; and darling little Anselm mine
  Said: 'Thou dost gaze so, father, what doth ail thee?'

Still not a tear I shed, nor answer made
  All of that day, nor yet the night thereafter,
  Until another sun rose on the world.

As now a little glimmer made its way
  Into the dolorous prison, and I saw
  Upon four faces my own very aspect,

Both of my hands in agony I bit;
  And, thinking that I did it from desire
  Of eating, on a sudden they uprose,

And said they: 'Father, much less pain 'twill give us
  If thou do eat of us; thyself didst clothe us
  With this poor flesh, and do thou strip it off.'

I calmed me then, not to make them more sad.
  That day we all were silent, and the next.
  Ah! obdurate earth, wherefore didst thou not open?

When we had come unto the fourth day, Gaddo
  Threw himself down outstretched before my feet,
  Saying, 'My father, why dost thou not help me?'

And there he died; and, as thou seest me,
  I saw the three fall, one by one, between
  The fifth day and the sixth; whence I betook me,

Already blind, to groping over each,
  And three days called them after they were dead;
  Then hunger did what sorrow could not do."

D Is for Dante

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sunday Poetry XLII -- Suicide and Langston Hughes

I am not an authority on anything.  Well, not yet.  Not really.

That said, I've been reading more Langston Hughes than I ever have.  Not that that's very hard.  My previous experience with this particular master was pretty much limited to "The Weary Blues" and maybe four or five others.

Now maybe I'm one of the few geeky enough to notice this, but, as much as I like textbooks, there are some serious shortcomings to them, because, often, instead of picking great works and teaching the works and the authors, so many of them have a particular objective in mind (rhythm, rhyme, plot development, symbolism, tone, etcetera) and dig through their memories or archives or old college notebooks to find some piece that demonstrates that particular objective.  While that is fine--and little more--and while it indeed introduces young or inexperienced readers to key pieces from some of the great contributors to literature, it also completely skips over so much of the truly great stuff--and maybe stuff that wouldn't otherwise show up, or couldn't, in a textbook, because it just doesn't perfectly match up with any of those objectives.

Back to my claim from above--or admission, really: you know, I am not an authority anything, and much less Langston Hughes, but, well, I never got the suicide theme out of his stuff (you know, those six poems) like I have lately.  Anyway, the theme makes sense, of course, considering his general subject matter, but my surprise and satisfaction are much less about his writing about suicide and that its subtle and graceful alignment  to his general subject or motif or whatever than it is about how absolutely brilliant his treatment of the theme is.

Here's the poem that really got me.  And I guess it "gets me" because it really nails to tumultuous confluence of emotions that must go through one's heart and soul when brought to this, well, place.

Life is Fine

I went down to the river,
I set down on the bank.
I tried to think but couldn't,
So I jumped in and sank.

I came up once and hollered!
I came up twice and cried!
If that water hadn't a-been so cold
I might've sunk and died.

     But it was
     Cold in that water!
     It was cold!

I took the elevator
Sixteen floors above the ground.
I though about my baby
And thought I would jump down.

I stood there and I hollered!
I stood there and cried!
If it hadn't a-been so high
I might've jumped and died.

     But it was
     High up there!
     It was high!

So since I'm still here livin',
I guess I will live on.
I couldn've died for love --
But for livin' I was born.

Though you may hear me holler,
And you may see me cry --
I'll be dogged, sweet baby,
If you gonna see me die.

     Life is fine!
     Fine as wine!
     Life is fine!

Monday, January 16, 2012


This is the first city characterized as "Cities and the Dead."  What do you make of it's placement?

I really don't have a lot to say about this one.  I could probably dig into it and find something more than what I've got, but I'm not going to do it this time.  It's not that it's too pretty (it's not, really), or that there's too much there to get into (maybe there is, but I don't think so).  I don't know.  Maybe I'm just lazy.  I'll limit it, instead, to just a simple application fitting it--squeezing it, it seems--into the spider theme we've had going this chapter:

If Melania might fit into the spider theme, it can only be that all these citizens who die and are replaced or renewed or replayed are the spiders.  While I'm not convinced this is what Calvino had in mind at all, it makes for an interesting shift from beginning of the chapter to end: that we started with the spider as the God--the emperor--and now end with the spiders as the citizens.  Thoughts?

The name, Melania, by the way, is Greek for black or dark.  Go figure.


Only because I've referenced him recently, 
here's Arthur Rackham's Puck, from
A Midsummer Night's Dream.
As is generally the case, I started with the name of the city: Leandra, and went to behindthename.com, my old standby.  This is what I found (not what I expected, considered the arachnoid theme of chapter 5 and that Leandra, the city, seems to match): 

From the Greek Λεανδρος (Leandros) which means "lion of a man" from Greek λεων (leon) "lion" and ανδρος (andros) "of a man". In Greek legend Leander was the lover of Hero. Every night he swam across the Hellespont to meet her, but on one occasion he was drowned when a storm arose. When Hero saw his dead body she threw herself into the waters and perished. 

Cool little story, huh?  But there are two more names as well, the species of the two gods that rule here:
  • Lares (I love this one -- all from Wikipedia, and perfectly appropriate to Polo's description (or Kublai's) of Leandra):  "Lares are sometimes categorised as household gods but some had much broader domains. Roadways, seaways, agriculture, livestock, towns, cities, the state and its military were all under the protection of their particular Lar or Lares."  (See the rest of it here.)
  • Penates (which seems to me a variation of the lares):  Penates "were among the dii familiares, or household deities, invoked most often in domestic rituals. When the family had a meal, they threw a bit into the fire on the hearth for the Penates.[1]They were thus associated with Vesta, the Lares, and the Genius of the paterfamilias in the "little universe" of the domus."  (See the rest here.)
(The opposite of a puck, maybe, despite the cross-cultural leap such a connection would require?)

Now, all that said, what do you make of the fitting of this chapter and the "gods" into the spider theme?  

(Living in a particularly old house as I do, which is infested with spiders in the summer and ladybugs in the winter, the connection seems obvious and, yeah, nerdy, gleeful.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sunday Poetry LI -- "An Arboreal Fairtytale," by UGn X

There are few pieces of writing—very few—that I’ve both produced myself and of which I’m particularly proud.  This is one of them, and I expect that no one will ever really get it.  And that’s just fine (and that’s no commentary on your certainly shrewd aptitude for poetry interpretation, but commentary on my own poetics).  There’s an awful lot of truth to the notion that poets (dare I qualify myself as one of them? —maybe “artist” is safer, less specific, right?) write as much for themselves as anyone else, if not entirely for themselves and no one else.  I can’t say that that’s entirely the case here, as this is one of many poems I wrote for a novel I’m featuring over on one of my other blogs (and, you may have already noticed, I’m leaving in place the attributive eponym for the “actual” angst-ridden composer, Eugene Cross (get it??)).  It’s also, like I said, one of my very favorite poems.  It was tremendously fun to write—to piece together, really—and, apart from acknowledging off some of my favorite artists and themes, plays to all the stuff I love best about my poetry—or, at least, about my favorite poems.  Is it successful?  Yeah.  Very.  After all, I wrote it for myself (well, and for Eugene Cross), and I love it!  Of course, that begs the question, then, Why am I bothering to put it here, particularly out of the context of its novel home?  Because I’ve got nothing else I want to share for Sunday Poetry today, and I’ve always wanted this one to be more out there than, well, you know, just being “out there.”

So here it is.  I welcome, as always, you thoughts, whatever they happen to be. 

An Arboreal Fairytale and Moral in Three and a Half Stanzas

On a Caravaggio plateau, under
               black and red skies: desolate and shadowed;
               naked, exposed, the stunted stem, naught but
               an arthritic claw, clutches dark feathers;

vibrant Rackham verdure—slight, sketchy, lush—
               unwittingly hosts the agonized stick:
               cowering ill-confidence, faithless and
               grasping, desperate in its green innocence;

Remedios Varo woods are sharp and
               thick and heavy under a sky swirling
               with physics.  Thin, difficult; stretch! just not
               sufficient in the great grand majestic;

               a Basho workbench
               supports the potted leaf tree:
for its crooks and folds.

—UGn X


Jupiter and Mercury in the house of Philemon and Baucis
We've spent the last two cities talking about spiderwebs and how the metaphor may or may not apply to the Khan's far-reaching, and perhaps tenuously maintained, empire.  It took me a few minutes (and certainly well after the first read nearly ten months ago now) to see what's going on in Baucis.  More than just the subject of the imagery is the scale of it all.  Before we get to punch line, then, let's look at the city's description in reverse:

The 3 hypotheses:
  • "that they hate the earth";
  • "that they respect it so much they avoid all contact"; and
  • "that they love it as it was before they existed and with spyglasses and telescopes aimed downward they never tire of examining it...."
The description:
  • A number of great stilts like flamingos' legs supporting the city, which, on a sunny day, casts and angular shadow;
  • and perhaps this one is stretching it, but check out how long it takes to get to the city: not seven days does it take, but only after seven days do you arrive there, and what, of course, comes after seven?  And then immediately the mention and description of the long slender stilts reaching up into the heavens?
A spider, right?  And not just any spider, but a spider so lofty as to dwell in the heavens, where only the gods and, perhaps, at least one of the greatest of emperors reside, right?

Interesting that the citizens of the city never descend, as they have everything they need with them, yet they leave ladders out for those who may desire an ascent a means of access.  

As far as the name is concerned, Baucis, I'll let you draw your own conclusions.

Friday, January 13, 2012


Ersilia and Romulus; from here
In Ersilia we have another web, though there's nothing necessarily spidery about it, as was the case in Octavia.  I don't know if Calvino meant it (I was more sure that he didn't mean a connection to Shelob, of course), but this chapter reminds me of something I read about in Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union.  In the book, the protagonist has a scuffle with the "Black Hats" -- a sect of a particularly strict observers of Judaism.  Now, I'm the first to admit that I know practically nothing about Judaism.  Really pretty much only what I've gotten from Chabon's books and a few read-throughs of the Old Testament.  It's been long enough since my last read of The YPU that I don't remember the details, but somewhere along the line, the protagonist has to speak to the guy who manages all the string.  Yeah.  Anyway, this guy is a master of all the boundaries put upon strict observers of Jewish law and marks them all on hundreds of maps and uses dozens of types and countless lengths of string to run throughout the town and demarcate the boundaries (how many steps one may take on the Sabbath, for example) for observers.  Anyway, the webs in Ersilia remind me of this, and I'm very interested in what you might make of it.

A few other things I find interesting, and about which I invite your thoughts:
  • that the strings remain when the inhabitants leave;
  • use of the word "refugee" and how it connects not only to the story of Ersilia itself, but also to the meta-story of the empire;
  • that the bones don't remain, victims of the rolling wind, and in the same sentence of the mention, finally, of a spider (as if the spider ate the bodies whose bones are gone);
  • lastly, Ersilia was the wife of Romulus -- you know, of Remus and Romulus, founders of Rome, another empire and also stretched particularly thin.


from here
It's been months since the last IC entry.  An unexpected impetus, however, struck, and I'm back.  No need to dwell on it; let's just jump back into it.

This chapter offers an obvious knee-jerk reminder--certainly and thankfully ridiculous--of a Spiderman villain, and perhaps less so, one from The Lord of the Rings.  Maybe if I hadn't taken a four-month hiatus, I wouldn't have had to reread the exposition at the head of chapter 5 to get what's going on.  We examined a little bit over the previous four chapters the subtle shifting--or, at least, the unlabeled shifting--of narrators.  I'm not sure who's dream is Octavia, or, for that matter, that of the next two chapters (though I expect the entire chapter, whoever's dream it is, is the same), but clearly it's commentary on the unchecked expansion of the empire.

  • Assuming that Octavia is analogous to all of the Kublai's expansive territories, what do you make of the closing sentence?
by John Howe; from here

Thursday, January 12, 2012

INVISIBLE CITIES XXXV -- Daydream and the Incidental Comics

I've been a follower of Grant Snider's Incidental Comics for some time now (about as long as I've been blogging, really), throughout which time his refreshingly ebullient style and intelligent design have made many a morning easier.  Today he posted the following cartoon, which he claims was inspired by Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities.  With Grant's permission, I share the cartoon and, with any luck, will find my own inspiration, renewed, to finally finish The Wall's treatment of Invisible Cities.


Sunday, January 8, 2012

Donald's Snowball Fight

We've lost all our snow, and our lack reminded me of this old Donald Duck short--one of my favorites.

Sunday Poetry L -- "193"

Emily Dickinson
According to rough chronological estimate, the following poem was Emily Dickinson’s 193rd poetical effort (of 1775 all together).

I’ve never spent a great deal of time—and certainly never for more than two or three little pieces at a time (you know, buzzing flies and death and whatnot) —with the bitty woman’s stuff, but a couple days ago I stumbled upon this one, which I’d never before read, and darn it if it hasn’t stuck with me.  I don’t have it “figured” yet, and maybe I won’t, but I sure like it (it has something to do—each separate from the other—with the quotation marks around Peter, and the mystery sitting somewhere between the poem and why of Dickinson's writing it).

I shall know why – when Time is over –
And I have ceased to wonder why –
Christ will explain each separate anguish
In the fair schoolroom of the sky –

He will tell me what “Peter” promised –
And I – for wonder at his woe –
I shall forget the drop of Anguish
That scalds me now – that scalds me now!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Sunday Poetry XLIX -- A Frosty New Year

Sometimes good stuff can come from bad things.  For example, I’ve been sick for four days now.  Pretty crappy.  While I don’t recommend it to anyone—being sick—it has afforded me significantly more time for reading for pleasure than I generally permit myself.  The past few days it’s been poetry, specifically a collection called Six American Poets, anthologized and edited by Joel Conarroe (who, among other things, chairs the National Book Foundation).  It’s this book that introduced me to my most recent favorite poet, Wallace Stevens, and which has introduced poems by its other five poets (Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, and Langston Hughes) that I was not previously familiar with.  I want to share two of these today.

Robert Frost, for me, is the kind of writer that I really don’t want to like—rather, I want to hate him—and the further I am from my most recent read of any of his stuff, the more successful I am (unfortunately, the opposite, as we shall soon see, is also true).  So late last night, or early-early this morning, as I sat uncomfortably and picked up the above-pictured book for distraction, I was annoyed when I stumbled upon some notes from Conarroe that lauded the old country boy.  The notes drew up my curiosity—and my unrighteous indignation—and I turned to Frost’s section of the collection.  (See, here’s the thing, the very reason I so badly want to hate Frost is the same reason that I just can’t: he is so good.  Almost too good, really.)  One of the following poems is my new favorite of his, the other, not so much, though it gave me some significant cause to think, especially about stuff, particularly the apparently bad stuff, that’s happened over the last year—well, year-and-a-half or so.  I say apparently bad, because … well … you’ll see.

For the first of the two, I need to go through a typical deconstruction; however, as Conarroe does an excellent job in his notes (to which I flip duly back), I’ll simply quote him at length.

Poem first:


I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth –
Assorted characters of  death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth –
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a frothm
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall? –
If design govern in a thing so small?

And Conarroe’s breakdown:

What a scary little dance of death this is!  It is, of course ostensibly nothing more significant than a couple of insects, yet in Frost’s artful handling we are exposed to a dramatic moment that suggests something ominous about the “design” of nature.  The poem is a sonnet, its first section setting up a situation and the final lines offering a comment on that situation.  (“A true sonnet,” Frost said, “goes eight lines and then takes a turn for the better or worse and goes six lines more.”)  The work itself is a “thing so small,” with its design revealed by the orderly meter and rhyme, as well as by the series of contrasts that gradually emerge—between whiteness and darkness, life and death, innocence and depravity, morning and night.  Al this in fourteen carefully plotted lines.

The situation could hardly be more ordinary: the speaker, walking along a country road, notices a spider on a flower holding a dead moth, a signed we’ve all seen.  From the beginning, though, this telling suggests that there is something more than usually unsettling about this.  For one thing, the spider is “dimpled,” “fat,” and “white,” words that taken together in this context somehow sound obscene.  The repetition of “white,” a word associated with purity, is clearly ironic, as is the reference to “satin cloth,” which suggests, among other things, a bridal gown.  Ironic too are the kite (a child’s harmless toy) and, of course, the incongruously named “heal-all,” which, usually blue, has inexplicably turned white.  There is cynicism in the phrase “mixed ready to begin the morning right,” which conjures up a homey breakfast of fresh coffee and orange juice and not a ghastly little daybreak repast.  “Froth,” suggesting foaming at the mouth, reinforces the unwholesome atmosphere.

The speaker is moved to speculate about this depraved scene—depraved, at least, in his morbid telling—asking, for example, why the usually blue “heal-all” is an albino, and hence “kindred” to the murderous spider, and what agency “steered” the moth to its seemingly predestined liaison.  The implication is that if some overriding natural design is responsible for so insignificant an event, what hope has any of us.  This fatalistic point of view may express the poet’s own sense of things during a period of personal despondency, but whether or not it does is less important than the fact that he makes us believe it does.

Whatever the possibly grim biographical implications, the poet could not resist engaging in wordplay—Frost like to make language dance to the “whack of his quip.”  I had read the poem many times before I realized that “appall” has as its root meaning the idea of “making pale.”  This related not only to the bleaching of the “blue and innocent heal-all,” which becomes implicated in the death, but also to all the other references to white (and blight) that make up the poem’s own design.  I also realized, again only after many readings, that “govern” has a secondary meaning of “steer,” which adds a final irony to the speaker’s expression of revulsion.  What, after all, has steered him to this grisly ballet? 

Pretty good, huh?  So, begrudgingly, I flipped through the Frosties for shorter pieces that I could dig into without too much commitment.  Naturally, as I’m left handed, and as I was flipping, rather than turning, the pages, I started with the very last poem of the section.  It’s fairly typical Frost: folksy, country-ish, and Yankee, and it included a piece of apparently (there’s that word again—told you we’d get back to it) random and brutal violence.

The Draft Horse

With a lantern that couldn’t burn
In too frail a buggy we drove
Behind too heavy a horse
Through a pitch-dark limitless grove.

And a man came out of the trees
And took our horse by the head
And reaching back to his ribs
Deliberately stabbed him dead.

The ponderous beast went down
With a crack of a broken shaft.
And the night drew through the trees
In one long invidious draft.

The most unquestioning pair
That ever accepted fate
And the least disposed to ascribe
Any more than we had to to hate,

We assumed that the man himself
Or someone he had to obey
Wanted us to get down
And walk the rest of the way.

I don’t want to beat home the point of this one.  Like I said before, it’s not my favorite, nor do I think in any way does it even compete with the best, of Frost’s stuff.  But it made me think.  And it’s still making me think.  Here’s the basics of it, I guess: a couple years ago I lost my job.  It felt a little bit like that great ponderous horse pulling along my family and me had been killed.  Well, we’ve done a lot of walking since the death of our beast, and I’m sure glad we’re where we are now, rather than where we were before its end.

Happy New Year – may you be granted some piece of perspective.
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