A face that launched 1000 ships

Atwood

 

Today is the birthday of Margaret Atwood, born 1939 and still going strong.  If you read my blog regularly you will know I love her poetry and she features regularly on these pages.  Atwood is more than a poet, she is a wordsmith, a crafter of meaning through the manipulation of letter signs.  He poems are finely wrought pieces of jewelry.  They shine in the darkness of ignorance and light up our small lives like beacons of hope and beauty. Guides to a better life.

 

Helen Of Troy Does Countertop Dancing: by Margaret Atwood

The world is full of women
who’d tell me I should be ashamed of myself
if they had the chance. Quit dancing.
Get some self-respect
and a day job.
Right. And minimum wage,
and varicose veins, just standing
in one place for eight hours
behind a glass counter
bundled up to the neck, instead of
naked as a meat sandwich.
Selling gloves, or something.
Instead of what I do sell.
You have to have talent
to peddle a thing so nebulous
and without material form.
Exploited, they’d say. Yes, any way
you cut it, but I’ve a choice
of how, and I’ll take the money.

I do give value.
Like preachers, I sell vision,
like perfume ads, desire
or its facsimile. Like jokes
or war, it’s all in the timing.
I sell men back their worse suspicions:
that everything’s for sale,
and piecemeal. They gaze at me and see
a chain-saw murder just before it happens,
when thigh, ass, inkblot, crevice, tit, and nipple
are still connected.
Such hatred leaps in them,
my beery worshippers! That, or a bleary
hopeless love. Seeing the rows of heads
and upturned eyes, imploring
but ready to snap at my ankles,
I understand floods and earthquakes, and the urge
to step on ants. I keep the beat,
and dance for them because
they can’t. The music smells like foxes,
crisp as heated metal
searing the nostrils
or humid as August, hazy and languorous
as a looted city the day after,
when all the rape’s been done
already, and the killing,
and the survivors wander around
looking for garbage
to eat, and there’s only a bleak exhaustion.
Speaking of which, it’s the smiling
tires me out the most.
This, and the pretence
that I can’t hear them.
And I can’t, because I’m after all
a foreigner to them.
The speech here is all warty gutturals,
obvious as a slab of ham,
but I come from the province of the gods
where meanings are lilting and oblique.
I don’t let on to everyone,
but lean close, and I’ll whisper:
My mother was raped by a holy swan.
You believe that? You can take me out to dinner.
That’s what we tell all the husbands.
There sure are a lot of dangerous birds around.

Not that anyone here
but you would understand.
The rest of them would like to watch me
and feel nothing. Reduce me to components
as in a clock factory or abattoir.
Crush out the mystery.
Wall me up alive
in my own body.
They’d like to see through me,
but nothing is more opaque
than absolute transparency.
Look–my feet don’t hit the marble!
Like breath or a balloon, I’m rising,
I hover six inches in the air
in my blazing swan-egg of light.
You think I’m not a goddess?
Try me.
This is a torch song.
Touch me and you’ll burn.

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Plump, plumb, plum.

HayamiGyoshu

Tea Bowl & Fruits by Hayami Gyoshu

Plump comes from a dutch word meaning blunt, not sharp, rounded.  It now means full with fruits or overweight with people.  It has become something of an insult, equating with being fat.  You can plump up cushions or pillows to make them fuller and more rounded.

Plum, the fruit, may be plump, but the origin of their name is not dutch.   It seems that the ancient Greek proumnon (prune) evolved into Plum by the time it reached here as Old English.

A plumb may be shaped like a plum, but the word derives from the latin for lead; plumbum.  A plumb is a lead weight attached to a line used in building to measure if a vertical is true.   It is also used in sailing to measure the depth of water beneath a vessel.

 

This Is Just To Say: by William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

300 men and 3

Oath

In the Irish song “A nation once again” is a reference to 300 men and 3 men, two legendary acts of bravery.  The 300 are the Spartans at Thermopylae who gave their lives to slow the Persian advance into Greece.

The 3 are less famous, Publius Horatius Cocles, Spurius Lartius and Titus Herminius Aquillnus, the three Romans who held the Tibur bridge against the army of Clusium in 509BC, giving the Roman Army time to demolish the crossing and save the city.

XXVII

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the gate:
‘To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods,

There is a lot of debate, and has been since ancient times, about the verity of the tale.  Historical records suggest that the King of Clusium defeated Rome in the battle.  The heroic defence of the bridge may have been a PR exercise to whitewash a defeat.

LXX

When the goodman mends his armour,
And trims his helmet’s plume;
When the goodwife’s shuttle merrily
Goes flashing through the loom;
With weeping and with laughter
Still is the story told,
How well Horatius kept the bridge
In the brave days of old.

The Heroic tale of Horatius regained popularity in the Lays of Ancient Rome by Thomas Babington, Lord Macauley, published in 1842.  Today happens to be the birthday of Macauley!

Two years after publication Horatius was reflected in “A Nation Once Again” written by Thomas Davis.

Winston Churchill wrote that that while he stagnated in the lowest form at Harrow  he gained a prize open to the whole school by reciting the whole twelve hundred lines of the Macauley poem.  It is long, so I am not pasting in in here, but if you want to read it here is a link:  http://www.englishverse.com/poems/horatius  

Poor Death

ingmar-bergman-film-seventh-seal-analysis-meaning

 

 

 

Death be not proud : by John Donne

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
for, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
and soonest our best men with thee do go,
rest of their bones, and souls delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
and dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
and poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
and better then thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
and death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

 

Come,let us pity not the dead:  by Drummond Allison

Come, let us pity not the dead but Death
for He can only come when we are leaving,
He cannot stay for tea or share our sherry.
He makes the old man vomit on the hearthrug
but never knew his heart before it failed him.
He shoves the shopgirl under the curt lorry
but could not watch her body undivided.
Swerving the cannon-shell to smash the airman
He had no time to hear my brother laughing.
He sees us when, a boring day bent double,
we take the breaking-point for new beginning
prepared for dreamless sleep or dreams or waking
for breakfast but now sleep past denying.
He has no life, no exercise but cutting;
While we can hope a houri, fear a phantom.
Look forward to No Thoughts. For Him no dying
nor any jolt to colour His drab action,
only the plop of heads into the basket,
only the bags of breath, the dried-up bleeding.
We, who can build and change our clothes and moulder,
come, let us pity Death but not the dead.

Crowded field

29th.png

A very auspicious day today, very popular with the celebrity birthdays.  It is a crowded field, but for me it will always be Pompey day.  Not only was he born today but he also got leave from the senate to celebrate his third triumph today in 61 BC.  The Senate celebrated Pompey for his war against the pirates, which made him fantastically rich.  He was already rich when he started, but this was the icing on the cake.

He also slipped in at the end of Lucullus’ war against Mithridates VI in the East and claimed the win for himself.  Cheeky!

This was undoubtedly the high water mark of Pompey’s career.  In 59 BC Pompey harnessed his significant senatorial weight to the wealth of Crassus and the populism of Caesar to form the first triumvirate.  From this point the trajectories in the careers of Caesar and Pompey were a reflection of each other as the Elder statesman declined and the young pretender rose in prominence.

 

 

Happy Birthday William Empson

One of the foremost literary critics and perhaps the top critic of the 20th century Empson is most famous for his 1930 “Seven Types of Ambiguity” written when he was just 22 years of age.  He appeared bound for academic life when he won a scholarship to Magdalene College Cambridge in 1925.  He studied Mathematics and English and focused on English when he won a Fellowship.

Then disaster.  A servant found condoms in his possession and claimed to have caught Empson with a Woman!  Horror.  That kind of thing was simply unacceptable in Cambridge.  I mean it was all very well to be a homosexual in Cambridge in the 1920’s , but to be in the company of a WOMAN?  He lost his fellowship and moved to the Orient to teach.

Here is a poem from the master.  It is an Aubade, which is a poem set at or celebrating the dawn or the early morning.  This one sounds awfully like he was still cavorting with women.

Aubade; by William Empson

Hours before dawn we were woken by the quake.
My house was on a cliff. The thing could take
Bookloads off shelves, break bottles in a row.
Then the long pause and then the bigger shake.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

And far too large for my feet to step by.
I hoped that various buildings were brought low.
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

It seemed quite safe till she got up and dressed.
The guarded tourist makes the guide the test.
Then I said The Garden? Laughing she said No.
Taxi for her and for me healthy rest.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

The language problem but you have to try.
Some solid ground for lying could she show?
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

None of these deaths were her point at all.
The thing was that being woken he would bawl
And finding her not in earshot he would know.
I tried saying half an hour to pay this call.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

I slept, and blank as that I would yet lie.
Till you have seen what a threat holds below,
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

Tell me again about Europe and her pains,
Who’s tortured by the drought, who by the rains.
Glut me with floods where only the swine can row
Who cuts his throat and let him count his gains.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

A bedshift flight to Far Eastern sky.
Only the same war on a stronger toe.
The heart of standing is you cannot fly.

Tell me more quickly what I lost by this,
Or tell me with less drama what they miss
Who call no die a god for a good throw,
Who say after two aliens and one kiss
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.

But as to risings, I can tell you why.
It is on contradiction that they grow.
It seemed the best thing to be up and go.
Up was the heartening and strong reply.
The heart of standing is we cannot fly.

Lefort disaster

Lefort wreck

Wreck of the Lefort by Ivan Alvazovsky

On this day in 1857 the Russian ship of the line Lefort was lost in a squall en route from Tallinn to St Petersburg. She went down with 756 crew, 53 wives and 17 children.  Press reported that there was 1 survivor.

Rated for 84 guns she carried 95 which would make her top heavy.  The board of enquiry noted that her cargo was not balanced properly so she did not have enough ballast low down in the hull to help the ship right herself.  When the squall struck she leaned hard over.  There was speculation that the gun ports were open to provide ventilation, in which case they would have allowed the water to flood in as she heeled.  This is exactly how the Mary Rose is thought to have floundered.

A shipping disaster in a far away sea a long time ago comes sharply into focus when your own son is travelling on a ferry on the very anniversary en route from Helsinki to Tallinn, through the same waters, with a storm warning in place.

Excerpt from “The Loss Of The Eurydice”; by Gerard Manley Hopkins

9

Too proud, too proud, what a press she bore!
Royal, and all her royals wore.
Sharp with her, shorten sail!
Too late; lost; gone with the gale.

10

This was that fell capsize,
As half she had righted and hoped to rise
Death teeming in by her portholes
Raced down decks, round messes of mortals.

11

Then a lurch forward, frigate and men;
‘All hands for themselves’ the cry ran then;
But she who had housed them thither
Was around them, bound them or wound them with her.