The history of my stupidity


In a week when I injured my leg jumping from a wall and went on to get my car clamped I have to celebrate my own humanity, the flaws in myself, my own stupidity.  I present a portrait of both myself and my car sporting immobility boots.

So I can have not better companion than Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish Nobel Laureate who was born on this day in 1911.  Born in what is today Lithuania in what was then the Russian Empire, but speaking Polish, Milosz has that quality common amongst writers who struggle between their national and linguistic identities.  You will see it in Irish, Indian and African writers who write in English.  The disassociation between language and race promotes a focus on the weight of words, how words can shape meaning and identity.

Milosz was happy to resolve his identity by a refusal to identify.  To the ire of various activists he refused to be either Polish or Lithuanian.

Milosz went on to become a citizen of Nazi Poland.  He refused to become a supporter of the short lived Warsaw uprising, holding to his determination of what he was not.

Then he was a comrade of Stalinist Russian Poland and eventually became the polar opposite; a citizen of the United States of America.

As to my own stupidity….volumes could not cover it.  I could fill a library.

The history of my stupidity; by Czeslaw Milosz

The history of my stupidity would fill many volumes.

Some would be devoted to acting against consciousness,
like the flight of a moth which, had it known,
would have tended nevertheless toward the candle’s flame.

Others would deal with ways to silence anxiety,
the little whisper which, though it is a warning, is ignored.

I would deal separately with satisfaction and pride,
the time when I was among their adherents
who strut victoriously, unsuspecting.

But all of them would have one subject, desire,
if only my own — but no, not at all; alas,
I was driven because I wanted to be like others.
I was afraid of what was wild and indecent in me.

The history of my stupidity will not be written.
For one thing, it’s late. And the truth is laborious.

Happy Birthday Paul Laurence Dunbar


A prolific writer during his too short 33 years Dunbar was born June 27th, 1872.  He was a child of the hope that characterised the reconstruction period in the US following the Civil War.  He was an intellectual and suspicious of the “negro dialect” writing that was so popular in his day.  He preferred to express himself in proper English rather than in Uncle Tom pickaninny cant.

His influence was enormous and he inspired some of the greatest writers of the Harlem Renaissance.  More recently Maya Angelou acknowledged his influence in the title of her poem “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” from a line in Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy”.

We Wear the Mask: by Paul Laurence Dunbar

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
it hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
this debt we pay to human guile;
with torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
and mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be overwise,
in counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
we wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
to thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
beneath our feet, and long the mile;
but let the world dream otherwise,
we wear the mask!

Happy birthday Vikram Seth


On a day when US policy comes to the fore for stripping refugee children from their parents this poem seems appropriate.  Any country that makes a business of incarceration is on a wrong path.  Nobody should ever profit from locking someone away.

In the past, in Ireland, we paid the Church to lock away our fallen women, to take their children and to sell them into adoption.  The Church made sure we shamed generations of pregnant girls into a life of slavery.  We paid the Church to lock away our insane, and they found more insane here than in any other country.  We paid the Church to lock up rowdy boys who got in a bit of trouble with the law.  Those boys were abused both physically and sexually.

Locking people away should be a costly and painful exercise.  It should not be easy.  It should never be a norm.  Prisons create crime as much as crime fills prisons.


All you who sleep tonight: by Vikram Seth

All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hand to left or right
And emptiness above –

Know that you aren’t alone
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one,
And some for all their years.

Do you accept cookies?


Ruth Graves Wakefield was born on this day in 1903.  She was a chef and in 1930 she and her husband bought an old coaching house in between Boston and New Bedford in Massachusetts.  It was called the “Toll House Inn”.  Around 1938 she experimented with using smashed up Nestlé bars to make a new type of cookie.  She called it the Toll House Cookie.

During WW2 the soldiers from Massachusetts received Toll House cookies in their care packages from home and shared them with other troops.  Those troops wrote home and asked their mothers to bake the cookies.  The Toll House was inundated with requests for the recipe.

Nestlé saw such a spike in their chocolate sales that they did a deal with the Wakefields.  They printed the recipe on their products and in exchange gave the Wakefields a lifetimes supply of Nestlé chocolate crunch bars.

Today most people know the Toll House Cookie as Chocolate Chip Cookies.

Some people believe they come from a small village in the south of France called Nestlé Toulouse.

Nestley Toulhouse




What are you about, Food or Money?


Born this day in 1938 the multi award winning novelist and short story writer also pens sharply insightful poetry.  Her stereotype view of men and women below is all the funnier for her surname.

Women Whose Lives are Food, Men Whose Lives are Money; by Joyce Carol Oates

Mid-morning Monday she is staring
peaceful as the rain in that shallow back yard
she wears flannel bedroom slippers
she is sipping coffee
she is thinking—
—gazing at the weedy bumpy yard
at the faces beginning to take shape
in the wavy mud
in the linoleum
where floorboards assert themselves

Women whose lives are food
breaking eggs with care
scraping garbage from the plates
unpacking groceries hand over hand

Wednesday evening: he takes the cans out front
tough plastic with detachable lids
Thursday morning: the garbage truck whining at 7
Friday the shopping mall open till 9
bags of groceries unpacked
hand over certain hand

Men whose lives are money
time-and-a-half Saturdays
the lunchbag folded with care and brought back home
unfolded Monday morning

Women whose lives are food
because they are not punch-carded
because they are unclocked
sighing glad to be alone
staring into the yard, mid-morning
by mid-afternoon everything is forgotten

There are long evenings
panel discussions on abortions, fashions, meaningful work
there are love scenes where people mouth passions
sprightly, handsome, silly, manic
in close-ups revealed ageless
the women whose lives are food
the men whose lives are money
fidget as these strangers embrace and weep and mis-
understand and forgive and die and weep and embrace
and the viewers stare and fidget and sigh and
begin yawning around 10:30
never made it past midnight, even on Saturdays,
watching their braven selves perform

Where are the promised revelations?
Why have they been shown so many times?
Long-limbed children a thousand miles to the west
hitch-hiking in spring, burnt bronze in summer
thumbs nagging
eyes pleading
Give us a ride, huh? Give us a ride?

and when they return nothing is changed
the linoleum looks older
the Hawaiian Chicken is new
the girls wash their hair more often
the boys skip over the puddles
in the GM parking lot
no one eyes them with envy

their mothers stoop
the oven doors settle with a thump
the dishes are rinsed and stacked and
by mid-morning the house is quiet
it is raining out back
or not raining
the relief of emptiness rains
simple, terrible, routine
at peace


Happy Birthday W.B. Yeats


The Winding Stair; by William Butler Yeats

My Soul. I summon to the winding ancient stair;
set all your mind upon the steep ascent,
upon the broken, crumbling battlement,
upon the breathless starlit air,
upon the star that marks the hidden pole;
fix every wandering thought upon
that quarter where all thought is done:
Who can distinguish darkness from the soul

my Self. The consecretes blade upon my knees
is Sato’s ancient blade, still as it was,
still razor-keen, still like a looking-glass
unspotted by the centuries;
that flowering, silken, old embroidery, torn
from some court-lady’s dress and round
the wodden scabbard bound and wound
can, tattered, still protect, faded adorn

my Soul. Why should the imagination of a man
long past his prime remember things that are
emblematical of love and war?
Think of ancestral night that can,
if but imagination scorn the earth
and intellect is wandering
to this and that and t’other thing,
deliver from the crime of death and birth.

my Self. Montashigi, third of his family, fashioned it
five hundred years ago, about it lie
flowers from I know not what embroidery –
heart’s purple – and all these I set
for emblems of the day against the tower
emblematical of the night,
and claim as by a soldier’s right
a charter to commit the crime once more.

my Soul. Such fullness in that quarter overflows
and falls into the basin of the mind
that man is stricken deaf and dumb and blind,
for intellect no longer knows
is from the Ought, or knower from the Known –
that is to say, ascends to Heaven;
only the dead can be forgiven;
but when I think of that my tongue’s a stone.


My Self. A living man is blind and drinks his drop.
What matter if the ditches are impure?
What matter if I live it all once more?
Endure that toil of growing up;
the ignominy of boyhood; the distress
of boyhood changing into man;
the unfinished man and his pain
brought face to face with his own clumsiness;

the finished man among his enemies?
How in the name of Heaven can he escape
that defiling and disfigured shape
the mirror of malicious eyes
casts upon his eyes until at last
he thinks that shape must be his shape?
And what’s the good of an escape
if honour find him in the wintry blast?

I am content to live it all again
and yet again, if it be life to pitch
into the frog-spawn of a blind man’s ditch,
a blind man battering blind men;
or into that most fecund ditch of all,
the folly that man does
or must suffer, if he woos
a proud woman not kindred of his soul.

I am content to follow to its source
every event in action or in thought;
measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
so great a sweetness flows into the breast
we must laugh and we must sing,
we are blest by everything,
everything we look upon is blest.

Maurice Sendak: 90 today.

Wild Things

The wild things cried “Oh please don’t go – We’ll eat you up – we love you so.”

Personally I always felt that Sendak had a poor grasp of seamanship.  He draws a boat with a bowsprit and with three forward stays, but the flying jib stay should be stayed much further out on the bowsprit.

And don’t get me started on the mainsail.  It appears to have no boom and the mainsheet is hanked from the transom to the clew.  That is just not going to work.

The luff of the mainsail is only fastened to the mast at top and bottom.  That is never going to give you a laminar flow across the sail.

Not a running rope or a pulley block to be seen and what is this arrangement of shrouds and some type of ladder to climb the mast?  Preposterous.


And yet such a yar craft, sprightly and trim.  Firm in the chop, a good solid looking hull.  Clearly has a well designed self-steering rig since Max can sit up waving in the prow as the boat beats into a headwind leaving the island.

Sendak did not illustrate a boat.  He captured the idea of a sailboat, the magic of sailing, without fussing over the mechanics.  As such his drawing is capturing the emotion of sailing rather than the physics, he is drawing a poem instead of a novel.


Deppy Birthday Johnny


Today is the birthday of Johnny Depp and he was born the same year as me.  Johnny claims that Shane McGowan is one of the most important poets of the 20th Century.  On this point I am happy to agree.  Shane McGowan is a hero of mine too and I see song lyrics as the mainstream poetry since the back half of the 20th century.

When you see McGowan with his broken veins and missing teeth you might find it a stretch to associate him with the genius behind “Fairytale of New York”.  More incredible is when he puts his voice up against Sinead O’Connor in “Haunted” and he makes her shine.  Here are some of his finest lyrics.


“A Rainy Night In Soho” (The Pogues)

I’ve been loving you a long time
Down all the years, down all the days
And I’ve cried for all your troubles
Smiled at your funny little ways
We watched our friends grow up together
And we saw them as they fell
Some of them fell into Heaven
Some of them fell into Hell

I took shelter from a shower
And I stepped into your arms
On a rainy night in Soho
The wind was whistling all its charms
I sang you all my sorrows
You told me all your joys
Whatever happened to that old song
To all those little girls and boys

Sometimes I wake up in the morning
The ginger lady by my bed
Covered in a cloak of silence
I hear you talking in my head
I’m not singing for the future
I’m not dreaming of the past
I’m not talking of the first time
I never think about the last

Now the song is nearly over
We may never find out what it means
Still there’s a light I hold before me
You’re the measure of my dreams
The measure of my dreams

What could go wrong?


Sometimes you look at ideas that people tried and wonder “what were they on?”

On this day in 1959 the US Postal Service and the US Navy cooperated in the one and only launch of “Missile Mail”.  The Submarine USS Barbero launched a Regulus cruise missile towards the Naval Auxiliary Air Station in Florida.

US postmaster general Arthur Summerfield said “before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”

Sadly the idea never took off (boom boom) much to the relief of the modern day Israeli Postal service.  Today mail travels from New York to California in the blink of an eye.  Email is faster than a rocket, safer than a rocket, not as exciting as a rocket.

Time of the Missile; by George Oppen

I remember a square of New York’s Hudson River glinting between warehouses.
Difficult to approach the water below the pier
swirling, covered with oil the ship at the pier
a steel wall: tons in the water,

the hand for holding,
legs for walking,
the eye sees! It floods in on us from here to Jersey tangled in the grey bright air!

Become the realm of nations.

My love, my love,
we are endangered
totally at last. Look
anywhere to the sight’s limit: space
which is viviparous:

Place of the mind
and eye. Which can destroy us,
re-arrange itself, assert
its own stone chain reaction.


Behind the illusion.


Today is the birthday of Louise Erdrich, one of the leading lights of the second wave of  first nation American literature.  One quarter Chippewa Ojibwe and a member of the Turtle Mountain band.  Here is a poignant pen portrait of a life in things, a life in transit, a damaged life.  Not at all like the photo most of the men have in their memory.


Francine’s Room; by Louise Erdrich


This is Tarsus, one place like anyplace else.

And this is my circuit, the rodeo, fair.

The farmboys blow through here in pickups, wild

as horses in their oat sacks.

The women wear spurs.

In the trailers the cattle are pounding for air.


My room is the same as last year. They always give me

end of the corridor, left, the top floor.

Privacy. Why not. I’ve been through here before.

I’m the town’s best

customer. A minor attraction.

I buy from their stores. Remember this bureau—


battered wood, the fake drawer and split mirror?

And even the glass marks, ring within ring

of spilled drinks. When I sit here

the widest warped links have a center.

Strung out they’re a year’s worth of slack, a tether

that swings around the spine’s dark pole


and swings back. Each time I return

something’s different,

although there’s a few I can always expect.

The cracks in the mirror: always more, never less.

The stains in the bedspread have spread.

And the rip in the window shade lets through more light,


strange light, since I come here to be in the dark.

Should be taped. A few things can be saved anyhow.

But I don’t want to get into that.


I set up my pictures. Mother and Father,

stiffer, more blurred every year.

I turn them to the walls when there’s customers, that

is the least I can do. What mending there is

occurs in small acts,

and after the fact of the damage,

when nothing is ever enough.

There is always the scar to remind me

that things were once perfect, at least


they were new. I first came here when I was a girl.

It surprised me, the things that two people could do

left alone in a room. Not long and I learned.

I learned what the selves are a man can disown

till he lets them to life in a room.


It’s the region’s hard winters, snowed in with the snow

half the year. I’d expect them to think up a few.

But nothing surprises me, not anymore.

The plumbing can only get worse with the cold.

It’s true, even summers the water is foul

and flows slowly, a thin brown trickle by noon.


Heat pours in the west, freak waves of dry lightning

soak the whole town in a feverish light.

Beneath me, the tables of water have dropped

to unheard-of levels. It’s been a long drought.

I bend my whole arm to the handle, the valve

yawns open but nothing comes out. What else should I

expect. Wrung cloth. The body washing in dust.