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 caus├Ęd 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.)