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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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