Saturday, December 5, 2009

Event retraction

This is a continuation of my post about bad movie Latin.

I think that the auto-blinded captain of the Event Horizon may have seen better than I what he was trying to convey with his movie Latin. If you google his words, you'll find that most people write them as:
libera tutemet ex inferis
And that's wrong, as I explained in the previous post. But it will work if we just adopt a different word division:
libera tu temet ex inferis.
Hey you, free yourself from hell.
Google turns up just 4 hits for the correctly divided phrase.

So I change my verdict: the creators of Event Horizon probably did consult a competent Latinist, and this Latinist probably intended the sentence in the second form written above. (It was never very likely, I guess, that libera tutemet was an incompetent mistake that just happened to reproduce an archaic form of the second-person pronoun...)

My version--libera temet ex inferis--is still nicer, because it's more plausible that you'd mishear it as liberate me. Call me when you need Latin for the sequel.

* * *

I'm less motivated to continue this blog lately.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Saving the World

I have a brilliant idea that just might save the world from impending doom.

On the one hand you have the death-planet Nibiru, hurtling towards Earth and on target to collide with it in 2012. On the other, the Large Hadron Collider is once again operational and will be producing a planet-gobbling black hole any day now.

Do I need to spell it out? Use the black hole to intercept Nibiru! Use Nibiru to plug up the black hole! This kills two disasters with one stone, literally. Two great apocalypses that go great together. Really I don't understand why I'm the first person to suggest this.

Fig.1: Diagram of my plan to save the Earth!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bad Movie Latin

It isn't difficult to find bad movie Latin, but the examples in the film Event Horizon are special.

The Event Horizon is a spaceship that vanished for seven years and then reappeared in 2047 transmitting a spooky distress message. No one on Earth could decipher it, until another ship travels out to Neptune to see what happened, the crew listens to the message again, and a cute, earnest guy (who is later violently eviscerated) says "Oh wait, that's Latin."
Liberate me
"It means, 'Save me,'" he says. Actually it means "Free me." You know, like "liberty" and such. (By the way, Latin doesn't have silent vowels, so that's leeb-er-AH-tay, four syllables.)

But the best part is later, when it turns out that he misheard the message and therefore mistranslated. The real message was:
Libera tutemet ex inferis.
This is supposed to mean "save yourself from hell." *sigh* If you're going to make a plot point in your horror film turn on Latin textual criticism–which I heartily approve of–why not ask a Classicist to come up with something clever for you? Or at least correct? tutemet isn't right, reader: it can't be a direct object.

And it's so easy to make it work, simply by removing a syllable. Here is what the captain of the Event Horizon actually said after getting sucked into the hell dimension and tearing his own eyes out:
Libera temet ex inferis.
Free yourself from hell.
This has the advantage of being grammatically correct. Also, now that the tu- is gone, it's more straightforward to get the initial, truncated version liberate me from the full version.

You could argue, I suppose, that getting pulled into the realm of ultimate chaos and evil might cause you to make elementary mistakes in your Latin. But that's a possibility too horrible to contemplate.

Infinite space. Infinite error.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Capering Catoblepas

In high school I'd sometimes frequent the chatrooms on AOL (it was the dawn of the internet, there was nowhere else to go), particularly chatrooms devoted to literary topics. People didn't so much chat in these rooms as try to one-up each other with bits of trivia and pithy one-liners. I'm not good at either of these, and after I made a particularly strained attempt at a joke someone wrote to me:
Your wit walks like a catoblepas.
Huh? I guessed it wasn't a compliment, and I was right. The catoblepas is a mythological animal, like a buffalo but with a skull so heavy that it has to stare downward and drag its head over the ground when it moves.

Fig. 1: Cranky catoblepas

The catoblepas may be plodding and heavy, but don't think you can take it lightly. Some Roman soldiers on an expedition in North Africa made that mistake: the animal was slow and had a mane of hair covering its eyes, but when they approached it, the mane bristled, its eyes were revealed, and it raised its head.

Fig.2: Curiously cuddly catoblepas

Turns out its gaze acts as a fiery death ray that kills anyone it looks at. Take that, Roman soldiers. Also it likes to eat poisonous plants, and when it opens its mouth noxious fumes come out that kill any birds flying overhead. (I am not making any of this up; it's all in ancient sources.)

The word catoblepas survives as the name of the genus that includes the gnu. There is even a Catoblepas gorgon, the brindled gnu or blue wildebeest; this is fun because the Greeks and Romans also associated the catoblepas with the gorgon (another animal that kills with a look).

Fig. 3: Catoblepas gorgon
(I think that's scrubby turf on the right rather than steak with parsley, which, however tasty, would be tasteless in this context.)

Friday, October 30, 2009


I set up a profile on OkCupid, then aborted it a day later. This is becoming a pattern.

We all know what OkCupid is, right? Good. I liked the slightly edgy, slightly risqué interface, even if all the breezy hipsterism sometimes comes off as belabored. The questions and quizzes seemed harmless and fun, as most things like that are, so I took the Dating Persona Test. And here's my result:

The Last Man on Earth
Shit, rejected again. You are The Last Man on Earth.

Sorry, but most men would rather see the human species wither to an end--
and therefore deny the most fundamental instinct that living creatures have--
than sleep with you.

Follow the link for the rest of the description. Once the test slaps you with this "persona," it's stuck to your profile. You can't remove it.

I suppose the hip thing to do would be to laugh it off. Or rather, the hip thing is to laugh at the people who get this result. I'm sure that's what the creator of the test (also one of the creators of the site), Chris Coyne, was thinking when he wrote it. He's a former Harvard undergraduate, so you know he's a bad person; I was a Harvard undergraduate at the same time, and I remember him. He had more hair back then, whereas now he seems to think he can hide the incipient baldness by subjecting the blond wisps he still possesses to a violent tousling:
Or is he just in a strong wind?

I deleted my account because I didn't want to let Chris Coyne brand me with the electronic equivalent of an L on my forehead. I might seem overly sensitive, but it's because I've already had a lot of experience being singled out for ridicule by cool kids like Chris. This reminds me of the great line from Heathers where Winona Ryder asks Christian Slater "You know what I want? Cool guys like you out of my life." And then she shoots him.

Some of Chris's dating profiles are clever, sure, but he didn't even do a decent job of adapting "The Last Man on Earth" description for gay men. Originally it was "most women would rather see the human species wither to an end--and therefore deny the most fundamental instinct that living creatures have--than sleep with you"; with "men" it doesn't work, because gay sex does not actually help to propagate the species. And is Chris suggesting that gays lack an instinct fundamental to living creatures? That homosexuality is therefore unnatural?

Maybe we should all boycott his site. Cheers, Chris!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Weil ich so loser bin

I would like "loser" to be an adjective, in German. And then I would like for there to be a German poem (or perhaps a pop song--no need to be elitist) whose refrain was
Weil ich so loser bin.
Because I am so loser.
And then I would like for people to mumble this line when they feel frustrated with themselves. (Disclosure: I already do.)

But German is not going to cooperate with me, nor will any poet or pop singer. And the world is not beating a path to my blog's door to pick up its next trendy phrase. Why not? You know the answer.

Today my therapist suggested distinguishing between shame and guilt. You feel shame about yourself, the kind of person you are, what your actions say about you; you feel guilt over the way your actions affect others. You feel ashamed of your acne scars, but you probably wouldn't say you feel guilty about them. Shame is more capacious because you can feel shame about most anything you can feel guilty over (it all reflects on who you are).

My therapist tells me I need less shame, more guilt. Less mumbling about how loser I am, more focus on how I'm not doing what people are paying me for. How's that for a prescription?

* * *

"Do blogs have doors?" Oh, shut up.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Interpretation and Wrestlers

I've used my sister as foil several times. It's because she's smart and interesting. And when she goes to interpret a story or a song, she wants to know what the author intended it to mean, because that's the right meaning.

I've tried to disabuse her of this notion and convince her that the author is dead and all, not to much avail. My own view is that texts and music and what have you exhibit patterns that you respond to as you try to understand them. You don't need an author's intentions for this to happen, and at any rate those intentions would be just one element in the pattern, not some sort of "right answer."

I remember a high school English class where the beleaguered teacher was trying to demonstrate something about diction. The poem before us used words like "regal" and "royal" and "kingly," and the point was to notice that together they suggested "kingship" as a theme.

"But how do you know?" asked one of the students. A wrestler, thick-necked and -headed, not actually handsome but with the bulk and symmetrical sneer that passed for good looks in the fallen world of high-school aesthetics. He determined that the teacher didn't have, say, a signed affidavit from the author establishing the interpretation she'd suggested, and he sat back, satisfied with himself. Because she didn't really know what the text meant. The author had never told her.

What a fucking tool. Even now I get irritated, and my sister would have been too. I can imagine him now, his features coarsened, his bulk expanded, leading a comfortable, stultifying existence in the small town that it never occurred to him to leave.

Friday, October 16, 2009


Topper is an adverb in Latin. It doesn't look like a Latin word, which is probably why my nasty ex-boyfriend insisted upon looking it up when I mentioned it to him, rather than just admitting that I knew a Latin word he didn't.

It didn't look very much like Latin to the Romans, either. It's used in bits and pieces of really old (i.e., older than usual) Latin poetry that happen to survive only because an ancient lexicographer named Verrius Flaccus quoted them. Verrius Flaccus is an important guy, and there's even a street named after him in Palestrina:

Fig. 1: This way to fun-filled Latin lexicography!

Flaccus cited many different meanings for topper. Later writers abridged him, until eventually Paulus Diaconus in the 8th century CE winnowed the definition to a single word: "fast."

I have a friend (not the ex-boyfriend, ugh) whose last name is "Topper." And here is a limerick I wrote for that friend, whom I will call "John":
There's an entry in Paulus' epitome
Where of all topper's meanings, that litany,
One sense, that of "fast,"
Completely surpassed
All the rest. But John just says, "What's it to me?"
Come on, reader: you know the rhymes in lines 1, 2 and 5 are brilliant.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

To Catch a Cricket

There was a chirping cricket in my room a few nights ago. You may associate crickets with warm summer nights, bucolic surroundings, and Pinocchio, but one in your room is not a good thing. It's annoyingly loud. If the sound comes too close, you worry it will jump on you. Crickets are not cute; they are largeish and buggy:

Fig.1: Not cute if it's coming to get you

At first I couldn't even tell where the sound was coming from, but after some fruitless tapping on gratings and air ducts, I realized it was in my closet lurking behind a pipe. There was no good way of reaching it there, so I creatively used the means at my disposal and began squirting it with 409. I don't like the smell of that stuff and I figured Mr. Cricket would like it even less.

He was cowed for a bit, but soon the chirping started up even more loudly. I had roused him from his hiding place! It was then that we had our first face-to-face encounter, he bigger than I had expected, I more merciful than he (presumably) had expected. Because I decided to trap him under a glass and shoo him outside instead of smooshing him. Rather than go along with my magnanimous gesture, however, he scurried into the unfathomable recesses of my Murphy Bed while I was ducking into the kitchen.

Beyond my reach? Only if he'd stayed put. Once I turned the lights out he went on the move again and cleverly "hid" in the middle of my carpet. I was going to kill him, but then he chirped and the sight of his little quivering hindquarters as I shone the flashlight on him made me relent. Except that, when I tried to clomp the glass on top of him, he moved and I caught his back leg. Which ripped off and convulsed once, forlornly, before staying forever still.

I thought I might need to do a mercy-killing, but in fact he could still move damn quickly, and after the glass was on top of him the chink-chink of his exoskeleton insistently bonking against its surface kind of freaked me out. Once he was outside, we could both rest in peace.

Wikipedia tells me that crickets bite, carry "a large number of diseases," and can produce "painful sores." Good thing for Mr. Cricket that I didn't know this. I also learned, by the way, that only male crickets sing, and that they have several songs, including a loud one that attracts mates and repels rivals, and a "copulatory song."

I'm pretty sure I wasn't getting the copulatory song. But was I rival or mate? Was Mr. Cricket gay? We will never know. (By the way, crickets can regenerate their legs, so whatever his orientation, Mr. Cricket is not doomed to a life of bachelorhood just because he was my inadvertent amputee.)

Monday, October 12, 2009

Mondegreens, 3

Could it be that, for once in my life, I've happened upon something trendy before the entire rest of the world did? Because ApSci is a cool group, and this video is awesome, and the album it's from just came out, and the group doesn't have all that many followers on Twitter.

Before I figured out that the lyrics to "Crazy Crazy Insane" were in the info box to the right of the YouTube video, I had a misheard lyric that's not particularly funny or outrageous, but is distinguished by its seeming coherence. Because there's a man and woman in the video, and it sounded like he said:
It's something that I've raised her for
Creepy! The actual words are a lot of fun:
6 syllables, 2 words, fill 'em in,
Rhymes with Snakes on a Plane.
It's something that I reserve for
Those disturbed but won't own up to it.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


Sleep begets sleep, and exhaustion exhausts:
The more I sleep the more tired I get.
Snuggling with comfy blanket carries costs
Of excess dreams and hypersomnic fret.
I wrote the first two lines as prose and then realized that they more or less scanned, so I decided to round them off as a quatrain. I sleep too much and have endless, anxiety-laced dreams as I slip in and out of consciousness while hitting the snooze button at regular intervals. Finally I awake disoriented by the waking world. Is this healthy? No.
Why can't we sleep forever?
I just want to start this over.
("Sober," Tool)
These are mutually exclusive wishes, but it doesn't matter because the speaker is mainly interested in getting out of his current situation. I remember being very affected by that video (the one attached to the link) when I first saw it.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


Are you special?

Oh, go on, give yourself some credit! Have you checked for lions in the back of your wardrobe lately? Maybe your acceptance letter to Hogwarts just hasn't arrived yet.

Yes, that does seem a bit old for Hogwarts. But any day now the Fairy Prince may arrive to tell you that upon your XXth birthday it'll be time for you to inherit the Fairy Kingdom and his fairy hand in marriage. Or a tall, dark, pale stranger will sweep you off your feet into a world of undead adventure and intrigue.

Hmm...I didn't like to mention that myself. You might try altering your diet, or going to the gym. Could be that you don't have the build or the blood-type to be anyone's immortal beloved.

There there, all is not lost. Nuclear war could break out tomorrow, and it could be up to you to save humanity! Heck, you might even be humanity at that point. Or maybe there'll be a plague, and you'll be one of the few with natural immunity. Keep your fingers crossed.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Emending Sheryl Crow (Mondegreens, 2)

God I feel like hell tonight,
Tears of rage I cannot ----.
("Strong enough," Sheryl Crow)
What's that last word? My sister though it was "bite," but you don't bite tears. I told her it must be "fight," because that makes perfect sense. And it's what all the lyrics sites have.

Now I think they're wrong, and I want to emend them all. Ok, if the word were something as common and colorless as "fight," why would it cause anyone any trouble? My sister was on to something, and "bite" is clearly the lectio difficilior. Or should that be audio difficilior(*)?

I can get to the answer in one move. The lyric is "bide," as in "to tolerate, endure, put up with," a meaning noted by the OED and not marked there as archaic, though I don't find it in my computer's dictionary. I'm listening to the song right now, and I just don't hear the hiss of air that should accompany an f. It's an initial b, and then the word has to be "bide."

Well, "tears of rage I cannot bide" comes up twice on Google, as opposed to 119,000 hits for the version with "fight." The "fight" version even gets a citation in Google Scholar! But I am completely undeterred, because I am right, and I cannot bide this widely-repeated, scyptic violence to Sheryl Crow's poetic diction. (Actually, I'm not that confident any more: could all 119,000+ people be wrong? But my lyric is more fun.)

By the way, I am not strong enough to be Sheryl Crow's man. I might not even be strong enough to be Tom Lenk's man, though perhaps I could take him in a fight...

* - I know this isn't correct Latin, though I am capable of it. Don't be so captious.

Monday, September 28, 2009


I created a Twitter account. And in four days I deleted it. Twittercide. RIP Twitterme!

Day 1: The optimism of youth. It's like I can follow Tom Lenk around! And there are so many people tweeting all the time!

Day 2: Ambition. Maybe Tom Lenk will reply to my tweet if it's clever. There's a cute flutist who also likes Tom Lenk! I asked him about the piece he was practicing; now I want him to write to me.

Day 3: Disillusionment. If no one's following me, I'm basically talking to myself. Ok, it's not surprising that Tom Lenk didn't reply. The flutist has a lot of Twitterfriends.

Day 4: Clarity. So I suppose Tom Lenk and I are not going to strike up an unlikely but lively Twitterbanter and then have a meet-cute in Times Square. And I don't even play the flute anymore. This is kind of like subjecting myself to a party where there's no one to talk to. Why am I here again?

Bonus misreading: One person tweeted to an under-the-weather Tom Lenk, "Oh my god, get better!" Took me a bit to realize she wasn't commenting on the quality of his performances.

Bonus pun: Name for a Tom Lenk social network: Lenked In. Follow that link (lenk?)--I've made it into a new blog.

Bonus vow: I'm moving on. The show he's in doesn't really interest me, and it's kind of pathetic of me to hang out on Twitter.

Friday, September 25, 2009

My Twilight Fan Fiction: Its Title and Epigraph

(See the earlier post on my Twilight fan fiction here.)

Stephenie Meyer names her books after celestial phenomena (Twilight, New Moon, etc., etc.), and I will do the same. Eric Yorkie's narrative is entitled Sunspot, a "spot or patch appearing from time to time on the sun's surface, appearing dark by contrast with its surroundings." The title is also a mean allusion to Eric's acne.

I've been saving up similar terms for the chapters, the more recherché the better: parhelion, iridule, alchochoden, fogbow. It's only fair to admit that I got that last one from playing Free Rice, but "alchochoden" I encountered in situ in John Gardner's Jason and Medeia.

Meyer starts each novel with an epigraph, biblical or Shakespearian. I have mine ready:
For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. (Matthew 25:29)
It's the end of the Parable of the Talents: Before going on a trip, a master entrusts each of his servants with some money; two of them use their shares to make more money, but the third buries his share in the ground; when the master returns, he scolds the third servant, takes his money, enunciates the enduring truth quoted above. And in the next verse that third servant gets cast "into the outer darkness: in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

"The outer darkness." What a great phrase.

Niftily enough, "talent" is a Greek word and properly denotes a unit of weight or value, "two talents of gold" or some such. The more familiar sense of the word comes precisely from an allegorical reading of the passage from Matthew, because the talents of money that the servants ought to make good use of are like the aptitudes and abilities bestowed upon us, metaphorically our "talents." Biblical exegesis embodied in a deceptively plain and simple vocab item!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


It isn't just other people. As a friend has hellpfully (ahem) informed me, it's also a place you can visit. In Michigan.

Fear of hell and eternal damnation is pretty much the only thing that moves me toward religion; otherwise I barely even think of god, much less believe in him. Maybe this is what Charles Simic was getting at when he wrote:
God's refuted but the devil's not.
("The Scarecrow," The Book of Gods and Devils)
Oh look, the entire poem is quoted here by someone who uses phrases like "portentously self-indulgent" to characterize Simic's work and cites this poem as an example of the poet's faux profundity. So that once again I've chosen the wrong poem to like. Fuck the universe. And don't send me to hell.

Chartres, south facade

Friday, September 18, 2009

Tom Lenk

Tom Lenk, ca. 2008

Aho rūpam! (="oh beauty!" in Sanskrit)

Oh how we love you. We have loved you ever since we saw you on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (you turned us on to that series because we were turned on by you). We love you so much that we need to refer to ourselves in the plural when discussing you. We love you so much that we love you even more than we love Doogie Howser.

You are just a few days older than we are. You look younger than we do. You are almost the same height as we are. You are openly gay. (We cannot decide whether to be amused or resentful that the article attached to that last link says you are "average-looking.")

After Buffy finished, we worried about you because pictures like this one suggested you were letting yourself go a bit. It surprises us that you are susceptible to gaining weight. More recent pictures like the one above reassure us that you are back to your archly winsome self.

We are not sure if we want to meet you or see you perform live. We prefer to talk about you in blog posts and append the haiku that you inspired us to write:
Tom Lenk's not a wuss,
But he plays one on TV.
Delectable boy!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Grecian Variants: The Counterattack and the Counter-counterattack

(This will make sense only if you've read this post.)

1. It's suspicious that both my syllabic -eds occur in participles that end in -ied. Maybe that was the only spelling available for this sort of participle: I mean, it would look strange to write "unweari'd" or "empti'd." I still think we need "unwearied" with four syllables, but maybe -ied could represent both a monosyllabic and a disyllabic pronunciation. Then we can have disyllabic "emptied" and no need for emendation.

2. Besides, if an interpolator added a syllable to the "emptied" line to fix it, why didn't he do the same thing to the "unwearied" line?

3. And does it really make a difference to the meaning whether we have "this folk" or "its folk" or just "folk"?

1. Plug just "unweari'd" and "empti'd" into Google! You'll find that poets did use such spellings, and the implication is obviously that there'd be an extra syllable if the e were included.

2. Interpolation is a haphazard business. Maybe the metrical "problem" wasn't as noticeable with "unwearied" at the end of its line. And maybe there are variants for this line too: we'd have to check a critical edition.
[Here's my own badly interpolated variant, just for fun: "And, happy melodist, unwearied and." Notice how I "repaired" the meter by repeating a word already in the line, just as in the case of the "this folk, this pious morn" variant.]

3. Oh come on. It's worth establishing what Keats actually wrote, and it's kind of surprising that so famous a poem has an unstable text. The variants would be relevant to someone studying Keats's versification (hmm, do English lit people even care about things like that anymore?).

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Lexical Letdown

Well, you may remember that a few weeks back I got all worked up over a mystery word I'd discovered while reading H.P. Lovecraft. In the best of all possible worlds, "scyptic" would have turned out to be some bizarre Lovecraftian neologism complete with its own pseudo-etymology. But this is not a perfect world, reader.

I turned to the relevant passage in Joshi's carefully prepared edition and found that the word "cryptic" had displaced my rare butterfly. Just a misprint after all, and not even concealing something particularly interesting.

Rather than take my letdown lying down, I propose to define "scyptic" myself:
scyptic ('skiptik) adj. proceeding from or produced by an unknown source
The misprint that gave birth to the word is itself scyptic, for Joshi offers no note to explain how it came about or persisted for so long.

[The saga continues here.]

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Grecian Variants

I've stumbled on something strange in the fourth stanza of Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn. Here's the text:
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.
An 1884 edition of Keats's poems by one F.T. Palgrave has a note that offers a variant reading in the seventh line: "Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn?" This alternative ("its" instead of "this"), he says, "has less improbability than the great majority of the alterations which the ordinary editions present."

So here's the funny thing. "this folk, this pious morn" returns 5480 hits in Google; "its folk, this pious morn" returns 4610. I can't find anyone who discusses the difference. In Google Books (now we're dealing with published material), "this folk,"&c. gets 628 hits, "its folk,"&c. 612. "This folk" seems to turn up more often in modern work on Keats, though I can find "its folk" in a book from 1998. If you search for a book that has both phrases together, you get no hits. [Now you get one.]

Bear with me, for I'm about to make an unconscionable proposal! The 1884 edition writes most of the poem's past participles with the e elided: "unravish'd" rather than "unravished" in the first line, for example. I suppose this is to make sure we don't pronounce the -ed as an extra syllable. A glance at the earliest manuscript of the poem (of which I can find only the first page) shows that this practice corresponds to the original orthography.

The poem has just two participles with the -ed written in full. One is in our line; the other is in the third line of the third stanza. Here are the first four lines of that stanza:
Ah, happy, happy boughs! That cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
and, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
Aha! This is iambic pentameter, but the third line will be missing a beat if "unwearied" has only three syllables. It needs to be four, "un-wear-i-ed," with that -ed distinctly pronounced. (All the other lines can be scanned as ten syllables, as required by the meter.) So -ed, when written out, is meant to be spoken.

Back to the line we started with. My argument suggests that "emptied," the other participle with its -ed intact, should be three syllables (emp-ti-ed). But then the line is one syllable too long! The solution is:
  1. to note that something screwy is going on with "this" versus "its";
  2. to realize that someone who didn't understand about trisyllabic "emptied" might have stuck in an extra word to heal the meter;
  3. to remember that such intrusions often give themselves away because they vary from version to version (different people stuck in different words); and finally
  4. to knock out the word entirely as being not what Keats wrote! Huzzah!
So my indecent proposal is to read (pronouncing "emptied" as a trisyllable):
Is emptièd of folk, this pious morn
That version of the line turns up a grand total of one hit apiece in Google and Google Books: the former is obviously just someone who's misquoting the standard version; the latter seems a genuine attestation, but Google doesn't give access to the full text.

I suppose most people would think my version sounds unnatural. I'll just say that even if that manuscript I mentioned above has "this" or "its" in the fourth stanza, my case is not disproved: Keats's autograph manuscript is lost; the earliest one is a transcription by his brother (who, according to my theory, is perhaps the poem's first interpolator).

(PS: I think it's bad that modern editions alter Keats's spellings without telling you.)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

My Twilight Fan Fiction

I know a teacher who asks her students in each class to formulate a thesis for a term paper, do the research, draw up an outline...and then not write the paper itself. They turn in the preliminary work instead.

I'm going to take my cue from this humane and generous impulse to avoid the production of material that no one wants to write or read. I will not write a piece of fan fiction based on the Twilight series, but I am going to write about my ideas for one. There's quite a bit to talk about.

My concept is to retell the story of the first novel from a minor character's point of view. This is a pretty standard way of taking a well-known story and writing into it perspectives and identities that may have been occluded or denied in the original. Here's my narrator: Eric Yorkie, "a gangly boy with skin problems and hair black as an oil slick....He looked like the overly helpful, chess club type" (Twilight, ch.1).

Our heroine Bella dismisses him out of hand just after he introduces himself, and so does the narrative. He barely turns up again, this awkward, unattractive boy skulking in the margins of a story where everyone who matters is muscled and beautiful. What would it be like to tell the story in the voice of the character who is dispensable, who isn't really part of the story, of any story?

Meyer's books would provide the settings, characters and events, the storyworld's reality. I'd have a lot of freedom to invent details about Eric's external and internal life, since none of these gets filled in. The only constraint is that I must not contradict anything Meyer writes in the novels (that last modifier is crucial--more on that later).

Eric as narrator is going to sound rather different from Bella, but I do want him to obey the same narrative rules. For instance: Bella uses the first person, so Eric will use the first person. In preparation for this fan fiction, then, I need to establish a narrative grammar for the series, the set of rules that will allow Eric to speak in a way that fully respects the literary conventions of the Twilight universe. Only in this way can Eric subvert that universe from within.

More to come...

Monday, September 7, 2009

Nabokov Hate Catalogue, 2

(Picking up from last time)
My credit card denied when I had made
Certain they knew that I'd be on a trip;
The faulty drainage in the sink; the lip
Of fat over my waistband when I lean
Forward; the dishes I don't want to clean;
Closets too small for clothing to be hung;
The effortlessly beautiful and young
("In youth is beauty and in beauty youth,"
Is not what Keats said, but it is the truth.);

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


You may remember that a few days back I became very excited at the prospect of purchasing XXS (extra extra small)-sized clothing from American Apparel. The clothing has arrived, and oh good lord it's better than I could ever have hoped.

Plot my previous clothing purchases on a graph with Time as one axis and Tightness (of clothing, ahem) as the other, and you will see that the points form a curve drawing ever closer to the Asymptote of Tightness, that theoretically extant but practically unrealizable limit at which the outfit converges with your skin. Here is what the graph would look like:

Graph: Time vs. Tight

And just remember that this clothing will shrink after the first washing! A singularity may well be achieved.

There's a question as to whether I can wear these new garments anywhere outside of the bar. Or whether they will cut off circulation to my extremities. In the latter case, I could console myself with the thought that all the admirers I'm undoubtedly now going to attract will hold my hand at the hospital while I'm being treated for necrosis. Provided my hand is still attached.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Anne my love

As he said vanity, so vain say I,
Oh! vanity, O vain all under sky;
("The Vanity of All Worldly Things," Anne Bradstreet)
Oh I love that so much, how we get the poem's first line, and then it's as if the speaker is overwhelmed with passion and can do nothing but shout--while conforming to the meter, of course.

Here's an opportunity for a bit of research. "He" is obviously Jesus, but when did Jesus shout "vanity"? Is this when he was kicking the moneychangers out of the temple? Let me check...

Whoa, that's what happens when you don't know the Bible very well! The lines allude to Ecclesiastes 1:2, so "he" is that book's traditional author, King Solomon. I guess I'm not a very good reader of Bradstreet, but at least now I know.

Here's another passage I like, stanza 6 from Bradstreet's "Contemplations." Things I like about it include: the slight hiccup in the syntax of the first four lines (the initial list of nouns doesn't have an explicit grammatical connection with the main sentence); the amazing phrase "feeling knowledge"; the way the extra beat in the last line rounds off the stanza; I recite the last line to myself when I see someone particularly pretty at the bar:
Thy swift annual and diurnal course,
Thy daily straight and yearly oblique path,
Thy pleasing fervor and thy scorching force,
All mortals here the feeling knowledge hath.
Thy presence makes it day, thy absence night,
Quaternal seasons causèd by thy might:
Hail creature, full of sweetness, beauty, and delight.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Telephone Text Adventure

I lost my cell phone. Or maybe (gasp!), my phone was stolen. Regardless, a day after the phone left my possession someone started using it to access a bunch of stuff online and place a few calls. So I purchased a new phone that has the same number; now the old phone no longer works, and anyone who tries to call it will reach me.

Tonight I receive the following text:
Ivan call me.
Ha! Here's what I replied:
Ivan must be the guy who has been using the phone i lost. Thanks for his name.
But I could have said:
Ivan stole my phone. He can go suck a fuck(*).
(* - this phrase courtesy of Donnie Darko)
Here is my hypothetical confrontation with Ivan at the restaurant where I think he works, written in the form of an Infocom text adventure:
Outside of Restaurant
A place with pretensions of hipness on a street with pretensions of being a neighborhood.

The restaurant is open.
From here you can see pretty much all the establishment has to offer: a bar, a few tables, and a larger, crowded area to the north where some sort of party is going on.

A hostess eyes you listlessly from behind her podium.
You are currently holding:
your new cell phone
a primer of Sanskrit grammar

The hostess sighs. "Can I help you?"
The revelers all look remarkably similar, blonde hair for the girls, backwards baseball caps for the guys... With a shudder, you realize that the students are back from summer break.

The hostess twirls a loose strand of hair.
"Ivan? Yeah, he's new. Says he's trying to save money to go to grad school in linguistics or something: what a weirdo! Lately all he does is play with his new phone."
"Somewhere around here, I guess. He might be helping with the party."

A slender young man with dark hair and darker eyes emerges from the party area. He's dressed as a server and is pecking at the cell phone in his hands.

The hostess yawns. "That's him over there. Hey Ivan, this guy was looking for you." Ivan glances up expectantly from the phone. The light from its display throws into relief his cheekbones.
A cloud of worry passes over his handsome features. "What about it?"
But you aren't holding the Ivan new phone!
Ivan looks at your phone, and at the text message being displayed on it that's clearly addressed to him. The worry deepens to a becoming blush as he leans toward you and whispers, "I'm so sorry, it's just that I'm strapped for cash, and when I found this phone and saw I could use it to download Sanskrit verbal paradigms..."

The limpid pools of his eyes, apprehensive, hover before yours.
Whose eyes? Your own, the hostess's, or Ivan's?
In Ivan's eyes you see:
sincere contrition
an abiding interest in proto-Indo European verbal morphology
a need to be taken under the wing of someone older and wiser
He looks confused but turns to follow, when the hostess suddenly interposes herself between both of you and the exit.

"Hey, he has to stay until his shift is over!"
Perplexed by your invocation of mystical closure, the hostess steps aside. Ivan smiles as he takes your hand, and the two of you walk out into the night's welcoming embrace.

***You have achieved nirvana.***

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Nabokov Hate Catalogue, 1

Now I shall speak of evil as none has
Spoken before. I loathe such things as jazz;
The white-hosed moron torturing a black
Bull, rayed with red; abstractist bric-a-brac;
Primitivist folk-masks; progressive schools;
Music in supermarkets; swimming pools;
Brutes, bores, class-conscious Philistines, Freud, Marx,
Fake thinkers, puffed-up poets, frauds and sharks.
(V. Nabokov, Pale Fire 923-930)
It's a versified list of things that Nabokov's poet persona John Shade doesn't like. Some people might not think it's very good poetry. In fact I've had a professional poet stare in wide-eyed astonishment when I told him the poem was one of my favorites. I suppose he thinks the whole thing is just Nabokov's joke, an elaborate imposture that you're not supposed to appreciate as poetry...but why? Because it uses words like "supermarket"? Because sometimes it's funny?

(Nabokov said that the poem in Pale Fire was the hardest stuff he ever had to compose--did he work that hard to make it bad?)

Anyway, putting lists into verse has an ancient pedigree: there's the Catalogue of Ships from Iliad book 2, which lists the Greek heroes and the number of ships each has in tow. Literary critics even write learned monographs about "catalogue poetry."

So I'm in good company. The beauty of the poetic catalogue, and of Nabokov's hate catalogue in particular, is that you can just keep adding to it. All you need is an ability to rhyme and count syllables--as well as a sufficient number of things that you hate.

I'll leave the first two lines intact and go from there. Maybe I don't really hate jazz, but I'm sick of its being everyone's default choice for background music at swank parties. Here goes:
Now I shall speak of evil as none has
Spoken before. I loathe such things as jazz;
That flaccid poetaster who just sings
Of butterflies, dead relatives, and things;
All students whining for a better grade;
My credit card denied when I had made
Certain they knew that I'd be on a trip;

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


The Protestant Cemetery, Rome

When I visited Keats's grave with my sister, I remember her reading the inscription above and remarking that she didn't like acrostics very much. There was a time when I would have said the same thing: they're too artificial, too frivolous, too not-the-sort-of-thing-a-real-poet-should-be-thinking-about. Real poetry should be direct and spontaneous and talk about emotions. Or maybe nature.

I feel very differently now. I prefer poetry that wears its artifice on its sleeve, because that just seems more honest--it's all artificial, after all (otherwise it would be prose).

Though I can appreciate all types of poems (really!), I especially like meters and rhyme schemes and wordplay and, yes, acrostics. (Confessional, blank-verse stuff sometimes annoys me.) And I enjoy writing verses whose only justification, if they can be justified all, is that I manage to write them while obeying a certain set of formal constraints. Such as here, in my acrostic for the sadly defunct television show Starting Over:
OVER and over I urge you to start
Viewing the only show that makes my heart
Expand with joy--for my authentic self
Regained (through life-coaching) its mental health.

Monday, August 24, 2009



Astilbe is a flower (the final e is not silent, pronounce it like the e in "evil," ah-STILL-bee). The name's derived from stilbos, Greek adjective meaning "glittering" or "gleaming," and a-, a prefix meaning "not." So astilbe is "not gleaming"--"because the individual flowers are small and inconspicuous," says my computer's dictionary.

If I were astilbe, I'd be pissed off that no one bothered to name me after a quality I did have, rather than one I didn't. I mean, it's like calling the poor plant So-so Wort or Flowering Kindasucks.

At one point I had it in mind to compose a sonnet cycle in which astilbe complained about its name and various other things. At the end it would break down in tears and, of course, die (because of the salt water). I will not write this cycle, but I did envision it ending with astilbe's epitaph, and this I have written. Here it is:
In death you will find peace. Be still, astilbe!
Nor fear you won't be loved: for now, you will be.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Extra extra small

Ah, bliss. American Apparel makes clothes in size XXS. They even claim (somewhere--I can't find it now) that some of their stuff shrinks a size when you wash it. XXXS!

I'm trying to achieve the youthful, tapered, slightly top-heavy look of all those 20-somethings whose t-shirts hug their shoulders and then scoop spontaneously into their wasp-waists. Those aren't tailored garments they're wearing, and I've always wondered how they get them to look just right. Is it simply a matter of having a buff physique? If so, I'm going to need something very tight indeed before my little, little muscles will appear to burgeon.

I might be mistaken in my quest to find clothing ever smaller and more form-fitting. The kind of clothes that'll look best on you--sometimes it's counterintuitive. On clothing advice shows, for example, people try to hide the body parts they don't like under looser garments, and they need to be taught that something closer-fitting will actually look better. Unfortunately my transsexual fashion guide doesn't quite address the issue of how small is ideal.

So I'm off to American Apparel. Any day now you will see me at the bar in a teeny tiny shirt, trying to pass as some winsome moppet. If you want to please me, you'll ask if I'm old enough to be in there.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Mysterious Words

From the last paragraph of Cormac McCarthy's The Road:
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional.
This is beautiful, but I did wonder about "wimple" after reading it. Only wimple I know is a woman's headdress (fig.1).

Fig.1: Weary woman wearing wimple

My computer's dictionary is no help, since this is the only definition it gives. But no feat of metaphorical imagination or lateral thinking is going to let me transform Mother Superior's outfit up there into something a trout can do.

OED to the rescue! A wimple is also a "fold" or "wrinkle," hence a "turn" or "winding." As a verb (chiefly Scottish), it signifies the twist, turn and ripple of a brook. (OED isn't sure this sense of the word is actually connected to the preceding one; maybe there are two "wimples," homophones.)

Anyway, what McCarthy has done is transfer the water's movement to the fish within it, in a sensuous passage that's gorgeous to read out loud.

The next passage, not quite so sensuous, is from my friend H.P. Lovecraft (The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath). A man is clinging to a mountain at sunset and staring at a giant face that had been carved there by a god:
He clung overawed in that lofty and perilous eyrie, even though it was this which he had expected and come to find; for there is in a god's face more of marvel than prediction can tell, and when that face is vaster than a great temple and seen looking downward at sunset in the scyptic silences of that upper world from whose dark lava it was divinely hewn of old, the marvel is so strong that none may escape it.
Phew. What's "scyptic"? Not in the OED; not a misspelling of "sceptic." It looks Greek, but there's no actual Greek word it could have come from. You sometimes find "scyptic" online in medical contexts, but there it's a mistake for "styptic," referring to substances that staunch bloodflow. This can't be what HPL meant.

Otherwise, googling "scyptic" just takes you to this very passage (and one or two random people who seem to be using it in the sense of "cryptic"--I don't trust them).

Is it misspelled? Should it be a fancy synonym for "lofty," or is it a bizarre misprint for "cryptic" after all? What could HPL have thought it meant? I'm stumped. Only solution I can think of is to look it up in the edition with notes of this story by S.T. Joshi. Joshi cares about Lovecraft's vocabulary and would not leave this unexplained. I'll write a sequel to this post when I get my hands on the book. [The sequel is here.]

Until then let's relish an entirely mysterious word.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Dog Growl, 3

This is a response to an imaginary critic, with a lewd double entendre in the last couplet:
I say my poems are good; you disagree.
Whom should the reader trust more, you or me?
I cultivate the Muse; you try to waste her.
You have no taste; I am a poet-taster.
My talent's length and girth strikes others dumb,
and with this poem you too can't but succumb.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Dog Growl, 2

Late getting up and late lying down
Makes me feel grumpy, look frumpy and frown.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Mondegreens, 1

We were merely flesh then.
That's an intriguing line. Unfortunately, The Verve Pipe (really? "The Verve Pipe"?) sang nothing of the sort. The reality, as often, is much more banal:
We were merely freshmen.
("The Freshmen," The Verve Pipe)
I don't care that you were freshmen. My version is better. My version is better even if I don't know exactly what it means.

But sometimes it's my version that produces the banalization. Here's what I thought Michael Stipes sang:
Every streetlight reveals a picture and a verse
He's driving down the street at night, and every streetlight presents him with some new tableau that inspires a poetic reflection. How lovely..., how twee and inept. It's silly to imagine Stipes producing a verse to go with each streetlight (there's a bush, there's the speed limit...). And anyway the song is not a series of descriptions of roadside scenes. Here are the actual lyrics:
Nightswimming deserves a quiet night
The photograph on the dashboard, taken years ago,
Turned around backwards so the windshield shows
Every streetlight reveals the picture in reverse
("Nightswimming," REM)
This is evocative because it's so precisely imagined. The reversed reflection of the old photograph fades in and out as the car passes each streetlight, like memory itself, which is also both vivid and elusive.

Shame on me: for a while I thought that my version must be correct and that all the lyrics sites had it wrong. Now I know better.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Velvet Arithmetic

Stephanie says that she wants to know
Why she's given half her life to people she hates now
("Stephanie Says," The Velvet Underground)
How many years of her life did Stephanie give to people she hates now, approximately? Let X be the number of years. Because X is half her life, she is now 2X years old.

Let A be the number of years she lived before she began giving her life to those people, and B the number of years she has lived since she stopped. (B might be zero if the break with the hateful people is very recent.) Then we have:
A + X + B = Stephanie's life span so far = 2X
and by subtraction:
A + B = X
I don't think you can begin giving your life to anyone before the age of consent, so A is at least 16 (lowest age of consent in the US); B could be as low as zero. Lou Reed was 26 when he recorded the song, and he wouldn't write a song about a woman who's a lot older. Stephanie shouldn't be older than 44, so A + B (half her life span) is less than 22. Substituting X for A + B:
X is greater than 16 and less than 22. QED
Oof, such a long time--what an icy feeling! It's so cold in Alaska!

Monday, August 10, 2009

The well-dressed transsexual

I can understand why television shows like What Not To Wear exist. Because how do you figure out how you ought to dress yourself if you don't already know?

Maybe fashion-sense in humans is like birdsong for birds: there's a temporal window during which you're able to acquire it (high school? college?), otherwise you're sunk. Or is it another of these abilities you have to be born to? (And, to pick up the previous post, is there a vampire out there whose talent is super fashionableness?)

I found a helpful site telling me how to dress if I am small (I am), and where to shop. It was only later I discovered that the site was written mainly with female-to-male transsexuals in mind.

I'm not transsexual, but I feel just as out-of-the-loop when it comes to male fashion. Thank you, Hudson's FTM Resource Guide!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Vampiric Superpowers

In Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, sexy-but-abstinent teen vampire Edward explains to horny-and-hapless Bella that some vampires have fancy superpowers. Edward reads minds. Fellow vampire Alice can see the future. Edward goes on to discuss the abilities that his vampire family's other members bring to their condition (ch. 14):
Carlisle brought his compassion. Esme brought her ability to love passionately. Emmett brought his strength, Rosalie her...tenacity.
...Jasper is very interesting....[H]e is able to manipulate the emotions of those around him..."

Come on, Edward! Are you being polite, or just obtuse? Mind-reading, precognition, direct control over others' feelings--those are superpowers. "Compassion" is an emotion, "tenacity" a character trait. "Passionate love," well...does that mean Esme is preternaturally good in bed?

Though Edward won't say it, it's obvious that some vampires get superpowers, and others get shit. How much would it suck to suffer through the three days of gut-wrenching pain that it takes to be a vampire and then to have a scene like the following play out:
Deinolithos (me): Ouch! Wow, now I'm a vampire.
Carlisle: How do you feel?
DL: Really, really insecure.
C: Aha, a neurosis of superhuman intensity! Your vampiric power!
DL: This is lame.
C: ---
DL: No response?
C: I'm directing my super-compassion at you.
I'm getting sick of fantasy worlds in which everyone attains their abilities by birth and/or happy accident.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Word Golf

In Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, the narrator/commentator Charles Kinbote talks about playing "word golf" with John Shade (ad 819):
My illustrious friend showed a childish predilection for all sorts of word games and especially for so-called word golf....Some of my records are: hate-love in three, lass-male in four, and live-dead in five (with "lend" in the middle).
The index shows us what he's up to (s.v. "Word golf"): Lass, Mass, Mars, Mare, Male. So you change the letters one by one to hit the target, and each change must spell a word. How did the other games go?

Hate-love in 3 isn't much of an accomplishment: Hate, Have, Lave, Love; Hate, Have, Hove, Love; Hate, Late, Lave, Love. It's noteworthy that all three solutions involve a literary or otherwise unusual word (lave or hove).

(The Oxford English Dictionary will give you "hote" and "lote" (both archaic/obsolete), which make the target impossible not to hit because you can reach it through any sequence of letter changes.)

Let's try Live-Dead in 5. We need Live, ----, ----, Lend, ----, Dead. Move 4 must be Lead. Three possibilities for moves 1 and 2 (marking obsolete words with an asterisk): Line, *Lind; Line, *Lene; *Leve, *Lene. That last one, "Leve, Lene," is an absurdly obscure sequence even for Kinbote. So move 1 was Line.

Did Kinbote use Lind or Lene for move 2? "Lind" is the linden tree, but "often used for a tree of any kind" in Middle English poetry (says OED); in phonetics, "lene" denotes a certain type of consonant. Shade and Kinbote can be expected to appreciate early English poetry and therefore might know "lind"; Shade uses "surd," another phonetic term, in line 554 of his poem, so perhaps he and Kinbote would have heard the obsolete "lene." If I had to choose, I suppose it's a bit more likely Kinbote would show off a knowledge of Middle English, giving us:
Live, Line, Lind, Lend, Lead, Dead

All three word golfs are thematically significant: e.g., Lass-Male wittily alludes to the narrator's homosexuality. For readers who work them out, the solutions to Hate-Love and Live-Dead are another bit of characterization: the pompous, pedantic Kinbote is yet again showing off his expertise, whether literary (lind, lave, hove) or linguistic (lene).

Google bonus: Plug each of my Live-Dead solutions into a search engine, and you'll see that other people have gotten them. But I'm the only one who lists both!

(Teen vampires are coming in the next post!)

Friday, August 7, 2009

Literary J. Crew

I like J. Crew models. I feel that they are carefully chosen to flatter me (I too am attractive, I think to myself, and still fairly young) without alienating me (well, I'm not as young as that).

This blog post has pictures of my three favorite J. Crew models, though not one is shown to his best advantage (Mr. Bespectacled looks spectacularly winsome when he has a trendier outfit).

The model featured in the latest men's catalogue is posed as a writer: pens, papers, typewriter (a laptop wouldn't look literary enough); he holds "vintage" books and stares at them soulfully. He is appropriately high-browed--and getting higher (the hairline has retreated noticeably since the last catalogue in which he was featured). I wonder what his name is? I'll have to find out before he, his hair, and his career recede from view.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Last Ember

There's a novel coming out today that's a bit like The Da Vinci Code (yuck), but using Jewish and ancient Roman history as the driving forces behind its adventures. The Last Ember by Daniel Levin.

Hopefully the writing will be better than Dan Brown's (it could hardly be worse). I have high hopes. I'm fairly certain that the historical data will be more accurate than Brown's evil haze of misinformation and misunderstanding.

The novel's gotten good reviews (click the link above to read them on Amazon) as well as endorsements from, among others, Elie Wiesel and Alan Dershowitz. Impressive.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Dog Growl, 1

Isn't it awful when no one recognizes your creative brilliance?
Here, for instance, is my first attempt at Latin versification, and then a translation into rhyming couplets:

non deest spina rosis, ovibusque minacia crescunt
cornua lanigeris: teneris sunt omnibus arma.
pulchrior ecce rosis adulescens, mollior agno,
formae me stimulis pungit, lentusque relinquit.

All roses have their thorn, each woolly sheep
His threat'ning horns, such arms as ever keep
Away all those desirous to enjoy
Some tenderness. Behold, the tender boy,
Much lovelier than rose, than lamb more soft,
Withdraws his bloom, my longing touch casts off,
And leaves me all alone to feel the pain:
His beauty's sting, the goads of his disdain.

Where are my laurels?

(Subsequent posts will involve teen vampires and poems with lewd double entendres.)