Happy Birthday Housman

Housman

An encouragement here to the self-published author.  A.E Housman wrote his book of 63 poems entitled “A Shropshire Lad” but could not find a publisher to print them.  So he took matters into his own hands and part funded the publication.

Housman was born March 26th 1859.  Apart from being a very popular poet he was also a classical scholar, and possibly the most respected classicist in his day.  He shares his birthday with none less than Robert Frost.  Two such titans of Poetry deserve separate birthday posts, so Frost must wait another year.

From a slow start in 1896 the popularity of the book snowballed and it has remained in print ever since.  The poems have appeared in song lyrics and later in film.  There is a funeral oration scene from “Out of Africa” where Meryl Streep reads “To an athlete dying young” , George Emerson carries a copy of “A Shropshire Lad” in “Room With A View”  and this short couple of verses makes an appearance at the very end of the movie “Walkabout”.

XL. Into my heart on air that kills: by A.E. Housman
(from A Shropshire Lad)

Into my heart on air that kills
from yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
what spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

Commission Number 1

Irish_Stamp_John_Barry

Born on this day in 1745 in Tacumshane, County Wexford, Ireland.  John Barry was the son of a poor tenant farmer.  He was raised on stories of the butchery of the Irish by the English under Cromwell.   Evicted by their English landlord they went to live in Rosslare with an uncle who owned a fishing skiff.  Barry carried a hatred of the British with him for the rest of his life.

Barry signed up as a cabin boy and worked his way up through the ranks and across the Atlantic to the American Colonies.  He was a successful merchant captain sailing between Philadelphia and the Caribbean.  He commanded many ships including the Barbados, the Patty and Polly, the Industry, the Page and the Black Prince.

He lost his brother Patrick “lost at sea on a French frigate the limey’s sunk.”  His hatred of the British deepened further.

In 1776, prior to the declaration of Independence, he was awarded a commission in the Continental Navy by John Hancock.  He went on to command the Delaware, the Lexington, the Raleigh and the Alliance.

So successful was Barry that the British offered him the huge sum of £100,000 and command of any Royal Navy Frigate if he would defect.  Captain Barry responded that not all the money in the British treasury or command of its entire fleet could tempt him to desert his adopted country

After the war, in 1797 Barry was issued Commission No.1 in the US Navy by George Washington and became thereafter “Commodore Barry” and “Father of the American Navy”.

In placing Barry at the head of the Navy I have special trust and confidence in [his] patriotism, valor, fidelity and abilities” President George Washington

 

 

Living with Dementia

100-Year-Old-Man-Who-Climbed-Out-A-Window-Robert-Gustaffson-skinheads

100 year old man who climbed out a window and disappeared

For anyone who has been through the rounds of dementia or alzheimer’s with a parent the poem by Louise Cole below will strike a chord.

The internet is full of warm cuddly fluff such as “Do Not Ask Me To Remember” by Owen Darnell.  That may help us feel all compassionate for five minutes, until you get a bang on your arm from your mammy’s crutch.

There are moments of comedy and pathos in those visits but they are few and far between.  For the most part you are faced with a parent who is a shadow of the person they used to be.  This is all the more cruel because parents are larger in our lives than other mere mortal adults.

You see them deteriorate both physically and mentally.  The first day you realise they don’t know who you are is a hard one.  My mother was a brilliant actress so she fooled many of the family for years that she knew who they were, but the signs are there if you really want to see them.  Imagine the confusion if you woke up and recognised nobody in your life?  However hard it is for you it is ten times harder on them.

If they remember your kids they remember how they were ten years ago as 7 year olds.  This hulking great 17 year old teenager is a total stranger, and very scary.

You see the weight fall off them until they look like skeletons covered in parchment.  They look small and frail and weak, and we want our parents to loom large and strong for us, to be the foundations for our lives, pillars of strength and wisdom.

The days when you arrive at a nursing home to find your mother sitting in her own shit, because the “cleaning crew” have not gotten around yet, those are hard days.  Because today you know you are here, but tomorrow you will be in work when she is sitting in her shit and piss.

Dress your parents well, in good clothes.  Buy new clothes.  Make sure their hair is styled, the men are shaved regularly, their fingernails are manicured.   This may seem a pointless extravagance if they spend all their day in a nursing home.  But know this; well dressed people are treated better than dirty, unkempt or untidy people.  People speak to them more politely, treat them with more respect, and are more likely to shake their hand, give them a hug or do them a small favour.  All those little moments add up.

People who care for the old are heroes.  Anyone can care for babies because they are so cute.  But changing the nappy on a crabby old man who is trying to bash you on the head, that takes the soul of an angel.  Go out of your way to honour the staff who care for your parents, they deserve every ounce of your respect.

As an aside:  the phrase “Fur Coat and No Knickers” is a common Irish phrase used to describe people who are all flash with no substance.  The kind of person who spends money on a fancy car in the driveway to impress the neighbours, instead of fixing the heating boiler and buying new shoes for the children.

 

Fur Coat and No Knickers; by Louise G. Cole

Drawing breath between tales of dead
little brothers and elderly neighbours
moved away, my mother looks inside
a lifetime that’s 92 and counting,
claims no-one’s visited for months,
thinks I’m her cousin Betty
with designs on her fur coat and hopes
of borrowing a fiver.

I try not to mind the care home smell
and wonder what else to talk about when
the devil himself taps my shoulder
suggests I unburden, reveal secrets
never before shared, so I offer a revelation:
I lost my virginity four times
before I was married. She’s never yet listened to me
so it is no surprise she doesn’t hear,
continues with a rattle about imagined walks
in the park yesterday, shopping
trips she’ll make next week.

A carer comes to tuck her in,
brings weak tea and egg sandwiches,
asks if I’d like some,
is relieved when I decline.
I get up to leave and the frail old cripple
who used to be my mother
spills her tea and demands
to know when cousin Betty intends returning
the fur coat, says quietly: ‘I always knew
what a little whore you were’.

 

 

Chapter & Verse

Catholics don’t quote scripture.

I was watching Designated Survivor Series 2 Episode 10, Line of Fire.  Emily Rhodes (Italia Ricci) is in hospital with the mother of a baby who is undergoing an operation but her church does not permit blood transfusions.  The mother spits out the beginning of a bible quote and Rhodes completes it.  She then goes on to tell the mother that she went to Catholic school.

Carrie: Are you devout?
Emily: No. Nine years of Catholic School and I never saw God there.
Carrie: I’m sorry.
Emily: Don’t be. I see it other places, like in a Mother’s love.

Immediately all my alarm bells went off.  The writer got this scene so wrong.  Catholics don’t quote scripture.  Chapter and Verse is a mark of the protestant religion.  It is just not a Catholic thing.

The foundation stone of the Protestant religions is the vernacular bible.  When Martin Luther published his 95 theses in 1517 he was challenging the elements of church dogma that departed from the teachings of the bible.  The Catholic church was perfectly happy to continue with Latin mass and have the faithful rattle out their pater nosters and ave marias in ignorance of the meaning of their words.

It was not until the 1960’s following Vatican II that the Catholic church moved to mass in vernacular languages.  Even today Catholic children do not read the bible in lessons.  They learn prayers and catechism. Many Catholic families do not even own a bible.

At the core of the Protestant religions is the need for the faithful to read the word of God directly, without the clouding effect of interpretation through filters imposed by men such as the Pope, Bishops and Priests.

It is no accident that the timing of the Protestant reformation followed the invention of the moveable type printing press.  In order to become a Protestant you had to have access to a bible, and you had to be able to read it.  The vernacular bible was born.

It then became the mark of a good Protestant to reference the Bible on any point of faith.  If you could back up an action with a quote directly from the Bible that supported the validity of the action.  If you could place your quote precisely in the Bible, by quoting the relevant Chapter & Verse that made the point even more forcefully.

This focus on the word of God bleeds into all aspects of church design.  Catholic churches are gloriously decorated architectural wonders filled with images of saints, Holy Mary, angels, martyrs, votive candles, icons, side chapels, expensive ornamentation.  They are designed to be palaces fit to house the Lord.  You don’t speak directly to God though, you work through intermediaries.  You pray to saints to intercede on your behalf.  You then pay a priest to put in a good word for you too.  The economy of the Catholic church is founded upon the concept that you buy influence.

The most fundamental protestant churches are the plainest.  The focus is on the word.  The only object you need to commune with God is the Word of God and that is in the Bible.

In this regard the most fundamentalist Protestant religions share a great deal of common ground with the most fundamentalist Islamic sects.  Islam also focuses on the word, albeit in the Koran.  Islamic art avoids images of people in case they be interpreted as the image of God, a graven image and an object of idolatrous worship.

Below is the Sancaklar Mosque outside Istanbul.  It is a modernist Islamic space.  The design emulates the cave in which the Prophet Mohammed received the Koran from God.  The only decoration in this Mosque is a piece of calligraphy, the Word of God.  This is a space that would work well for any hard line Presbyterian.  It is a long distance away from the splendorous excess of the Vatican.

Sancaklar.jpg

Happy Birthday Gary Whitehead

Chickens

These hens are mostly Blackrocks, a first generation cross between Plymouth Rock Barred and Rhode Island Reds, so they half come from the same state as Gary Whitehead.  When you spend time with chickens you can see what a good poet Whitehead is.  He captures them well.

 

A Glossary of Chickens; by Gary Whitehead

There should be a word for the way
they look with just one eye, neck bent,
for beetle or worm or strewn grain.
“Gleaning,” maybe, between “gizzard”
and “grit.” And for the way they run
toward someone they trust, their skirts
hiked, their plump bodies wobbling:
“bobbling,” let’s call it, inserted
after “blowout” and before “bloom.”
There should be terms, too, for things
they do not do—like urinate or chew—
but perhaps there already are.
I’d want a word for the way they drink,
head thrown back, throat wriggling,
like an old woman swallowing
a pill; a word beginning with “S,”
coming after “sex feather” and before “shank.”
And one for the sweetness of hens
but not roosters. We think
that by naming we can understand,
as if the tongue were more than muscle.

Leaving Cert Poetry in a poem

BillyCollins

Look at that smile, those eyes, you just know he is all about trouble.  But in a good way.  Billy Collins, happy birthday today, born in 1941, is a poet, a professor of poetry and former Poet Laureate of the USA.

We Irish can claim a stake in him through his father’s people.  He is that rarest of creatures, a well loved, and well read poet.  In 1997 he recorded 34 of his poems on “The Best Cigarette” and it became a best seller.  In 2005 it was released into public domain, so you can listen for free.

I love this poem below.  For me it sums up generation after generation of secondary school and university students who are introduced to poetry as a form of verbal torture.  Sadly there are many of them who leave poems tied to the chair and never get the pleasure of waterskiing over one.

 

Introduction to Poetry; by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Calendar Wars III

Nizar

Nizar Qabbani : Syrian Poet

Last night was the spring, or vernal equinox.  In astrological terms that makes today the first day of the new astrological year.  The first month of the Zodiac calendar is Aries, the Ram.  We all love to make fun of horoscopes and the notion that you can predict your future from the rotation of the planet and the precession of the stars.

At the same time the human brain is pre-programmed to seek patterns in nature.  Random chance is a frightening threat, so we seek solace in order and causality.  Reading horoscopes is simply a manifestation of the real human need to make sense of our world.

Today is also the first day of the new year in the Bahá’í calendar, a religion from Iran.  Year 1 of this calendar begins in 1844 CE making this year 175BE.  Though it originates in Iran it is most heavily persecuted there.  It is sad that Islam, which was once renowned for its tolerance of other faiths, has become so prohibitive of other peoples beliefs.

So to poetry and today I have a poem from one of the most famous and best loved Syrian poets.  Nizar Qabbani was born on March 21st 1923 in Damascus which he described in his will as “the womb that taught me poetry, taught me creativity and granted me the alphabet of Jasmine“.

The suicide of his older sister when he was aged 15 had a profound influence on the young Qabbani.  She made the ultimate refusal to an arranged marriage.  All his life he advocated feminism and an examination of the relationship between men and women in Arabic society.

The defeat of Syria and the Arab allies in the 6 day war by Israel also had a profound effect on his work and shifted his focus from the poetry of love to the poetry of politics.

A lesson in Drawing; by Nizar Qabbani

My son places his paint box in front of me
and asks me to draw a bird for him.
Into the color gray I dip the brush
and draw a square with locks and bars.
Astonishment fills his eyes:
‘… But this is a prison, Father,
Don’t you know, how to draw a bird?’
And I tell him: ‘Son, forgive me.
I’ve forgotten the shapes of birds.’

My son puts the drawing book in front of me
and asks me to draw a wheatstalk.
I hold the pen
and draw a gun.
My son mocks my ignorance,
demanding,
‘Don’t you know, Father, the difference between a
wheatstalk and a gun?’
I tell him, ‘Son,
once I used to know the shapes of wheatstalks
the shape of the loaf
the shape of the rose
But in this hardened time
the trees of the forest have joined
the militia men
and the rose wears dull fatigues
In this time of armed wheatstalks
armed birds
armed culture
and armed religion
you can’t buy a loaf
without finding a gun inside
you can’t pluck a rose in the field
without its raising its thorns in your face
you can’t buy a book
that doesn’t explode between your fingers.’

My son sits at the edge of my bed
and asks me to recite a poem,
A tear falls from my eyes onto the pillow.
My son licks it up, astonished, saying:
‘But this is a tear, father, not a poem!’
And I tell him:
‘When you grow up, my son,
and read the diwan of Arabic poetry
you’ll discover that the word and the tear are twins
and the Arabic poem
is no more than a tear wept by writing fingers.’

My son lays down his pens, his crayon box in
front of me
and asks me to draw a homeland for him.
The brush trembles in my hands
and I sink, weeping.