Happy birthday Vikram Seth

Vikram_Seth,_in_Oxfordshire

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.

Sinko Da Majo

Mexican

Today many people in the USA celebrate Mexican Independence Day.  This is a source of amusement for most Mexicans who celebrate their Independence on Sept 16th.  But if you own a Mexican restaurant are you going to argue with hungry customers?

Cinco de Mayo is in fact the celebration of a victory over the French rather than independence from the Spanish.  The French lent money to Mexico and the Mexicans defaulted on the loan.  The French invaded Mexico to reclaim the money or to seize goods equal to the value of the debt.  The Mexicans thwarted them.  So the 5th May celebration is really more in the nature of a celebration of beating the repo man.

I think that is a celebration that might resonate with Mexico’s most famous poet, Octavio Paz.  A committed socialist he founded a school to educate poor kids in Yucatán.  He fought with the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.  He later advised that Mexico should steer its own path free of Communist and Capitalist influences.  He was appointed Mexican ambassador to India in the 1960’s but resigned his post in protest against Government treatment of student demonstrators.  A winner of the Nobel prize for literature in 1990.

The Street; by Octavio Paz

Here is a long and silent street.
I walk in blackness and I stumble and fall
and rise, and I walk blind, my feet
trampling the silent stones and the dry leaves.
Someone behind me also tramples, stones, leaves:
if I slow down, he slows;
if I run, he runs I turn : nobody.
Everything dark and doorless,
only my steps aware of me,
I turning and turning among these corners
which lead forever to the street
where nobody waits for, nobody follows me,
where I pursue a man who stumbles
and rises and says when he sees me : nobody.

Talking Turkey

turkey-cock-walking-farm-31935806

Since today is USA Thanksgiving it is a good time to talk about Turkeys, their origin, their names and their use in language.

The Turkey had a strange introduction to the English language.   The Mexican turkey was domesticated by the Aztecs.  When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the New World they found a new type of domestic fowl.

To them it looked something like a peacock, so they gave it the Spanish word for the same:  Pavo.  The Peacock is now called the Pavo Real in Spanish, or the Royal Fowl.

When the Spanish brought the Turkey back from Mexico it spread rapidly across North Africa to the Ottoman Empire.  The Turks named the bird a “Hindi” or an Indian Fowl, because they then believed the New World was part of the Indian sub-continent. Hence we call the islands of the Caribbean the West Indies.

The French who purchased the bird from the Turks adapted the name “Hindi” to French.  They called it Volaille d’Inde (The Indian Fowl) which was shortened over time to Dindon.

The English called traders with the Ottoman Empire “Turkey Traders”.  When this new bird arrived they called it the Cock or Hen of Turkey.  So we get the name Turkey as a bird.

When English colonists set off to Virginia Colony and New England they included domesticated Turkeys in their compliment of farm birds.  When they arrived in the New World they were surprised to see a wild bird species remarkably similar to the fowl they believed came from Turkey.

The North American wild turkey ( Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) has not been domesticated, and is a different sub-species to the Aztec domestic turkey.

To ‘Talk Turkey’ is a synonym for talking real business.  It appears to originate in a joke where a white man suggests to a red indian that they share the spoils of their hunting as follows: ‘I can take the Turkey and you can take the crow, or you can take the crow and I can take the Turkey’ to which the Indian replies ‘you no talk turkey to me”.

To go “Cold Turkey” means to give up a habit or an addiction completely.  The phrase comes from the fact that drug or alcohol addicts to completely cease using can get cold clammy sweats and goosebumps on their skin, so their flesh looks like refrigerated Turkey.

A Turkey Shoot is a situation where a person or group has an unfair advantage over others.  In business it is a situation where unexpected demand creates an environment for supernormal profits and frequently arises in disaster situations or in times of war.  If you have the product the consumers will pay through the nose for it.  In military situations a classic case of a turkey shoot was the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, when union soldiers ran into the crater created by the detonation of a huge mine.  The sides were too steep for them to exit the hole and the Confederate troops were able to shoot down on them with ease from the rim of the crater.

The origin of the term ‘turkey shoot’ is uncertain.  Many rifle clubs in the USA hold pre-thanksgiving turkey shoots where the prizes are frozen turkeys.  What characterizes these competitions is that skill is replaced by luck.  Most of them involve blasting a target at short range with a shotgun.  Older versions involved shooting rifles at staked live turkeys, requiring slightly more, but not a huge amount of skill.

Cinco de Mayo

Mexico.jpg

Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican celebration of the unlikely victory of the Mexican army over the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862.  The whole affair was a fuss over an unpaid bill.  The French would have done better to await repayment of their debt.  Wars are expensive.  Wars against already bankrupt nations are the height of foolishness.

For the day that’s in it here is a poem from my favourite Spanish poet  (not a Mexican though).  Make music, not war!

Las Seis Cuerdas:  Federico García Lorca

La guitarra,
hace llorar a los sueños.
El sollozo de las almas
perdidas,
se escapa por su boca
redonda.
Y como la tarántula
teje una gran estrella
para cazar suspiros,
que flotan en su negro
aljibe de madera.

My attempt at translation:

Guitar,
you make dreams cry out.
The sobbing of lost souls
escapes from your round mouth.
And like the tarantula
you weave a great net
to capure the sighs,
which float in your dark
wooden coffer.

 

Barefoot Boy

bikila1

Abebe Bikela of Ethiopia became the first sub-Saharan African to win Olympic Gold on Sept 10th 1960 in Rome.  He ran the Marathon in his bare feet.

In 1964 he won the Tokyo marathon only 40 days after an operation to remove his appendix.

In 1968 he broke a bone in his foot while training barefoot in the days leading up to the race.  At 17km he was in too much pain to continue.  The race was won by his countryman Mamo Wolde.  Wolde later said that Bikela would have won the race had he not been injured.

In 1969 during civil unrest in Ethiopia he was involved in a car crash which left him quadriplegic.  He died in 1973 at the age of 41.

Men of success meet with tragedy. It was the will of God that I won the Olympics, and it was the will of God that I met with my accident. I accepted those victories as I accept this tragedy. I have to accept both circumstances as facts of life and live happily.”…………Abebe Bikela

The Barefoot Boy; by John Greenleaf Whittier

Blessings on thee, little man,
Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan!
With thy turned-up pantaloons,
And thy merry whistled tunes;
With thy red lip, redder still
Kissed by strawberries on the hill;
With the sunshine on thy face,
Through thy torn brim’s jaunty grace;
From my heart I give thee joy,—
I was once a barefoot boy!
Prince thou art,—the grown-up man
Only is republican.
Let the million-dollared ride!
Barefoot, trudging at his side,
Thou hast more than he can buy
In the reach of ear and eye,—
Outward sunshine, inward joy:
Blessings on thee, barefoot boy!

Oh for boyhood’s painless play,
Sleep that wakes in laughing day,
Health that mocks the doctor’s rules,
Knowledge never learned of schools,
Of the wild bee’s morning chase,
Of the wild-flower’s time and place,
Flight of fowl and habitude
Of the tenants of the wood;
How the tortoise bears his shell,
How the woodchuck digs his cell,
And the ground-mole sinks his well;
How the robin feeds her young,
How the oriole’s nest is hung;
Where the whitest lilies blow,
Where the freshest berries grow,
Where the ground-nut trails its vine,
Where the wood-grape’s clusters shine;
Of the black wasp’s cunning way,
Mason of his walls of clay,
And the architectural plans
Of gray hornet artisans!
For, eschewing books and tasks,
Nature answers all he asks;
Hand in hand with her he walks,
Face to face with her he talks,
Part and parcel of her joy,—
Blessings on the barefoot boy!

Oh for boyhood’s time of June,
Crowding years in one brief moon,
When all things I heard or saw,
Me, their master, waited for.
I was rich in flowers and trees,
Humming-birds and honey-bees;
For my sport the squirrel played,
Plied the snouted mole his spade;
For my taste the blackberry cone
Purpled over hedge and stone;
Laughed the brook for my delight
Through the day and through the night,
Whispering at the garden wall,
Talked with me from fall to fall;
Mine the sand-rimmed pickerel pond,
Mine the walnut slopes beyond,
Mine, on bending orchard trees,
Apples of Hesperides!
Still as my horizon grew,
Larger grew my riches too;
All the world I saw or knew
Seemed a complex Chinese toy,
Fashioned for a barefoot boy!

Oh for festal dainties spread,
Like my bowl of milk and bread;
Pewter spoon and bowl of wood,
On the door-stone, gray and rude!
O’er me, like a regal tent,
Cloudy-ribbed, the sunset bent,
Purple-curtained, fringed with gold,
Looped in many a wind-swung fold;
While for music came the play
Of the pied frogs’ orchestra;
And, to light the noisy choir,
Lit the fly his lamp of fire.
I was monarch: pomp and joy
Waited on the barefoot boy!

Cheerily, then, my little man,
Live and laugh, as boyhood can!
Though the flinty slopes be hard,
Stubble-speared the new-mown sward,
Every morn shall lead thee through
Fresh baptisms of the dew;
Every evening from thy feet
Shall the cool wind kiss the heat:
All too soon these feet must hide
In the prison cells of pride,
Lose the freedom of the sod,
Like a colt’s for work be shod,
Made to tread the mills of toil,
Up and down in ceaseless moil:
Happy if their track be found
Never on forbidden ground;
Happy if they sink not in
Quick and treacherous sands of sin.
Ah! that thou couldst know thy joy,
Ere it passes, barefoot boy!

Jour Camerone

Legionnaires

Today in Aubagne la Légion étrangère, the French Foreign Legion, celebrates its most important anniversary, the battle of Camerone.

Camerone was the action that defined the spirit of the French Foreign Legion.  A company of only 62 men and three officers fought an army of 3,000 Mexicans to a standstill in a battle lasting ten hours.

When he realised that they were surrounded the French commander, Captain Jean Danjou, asked his men to swear an oath to fight to the death.  They swore their oath on the wooden prosthetic arm of the Captain.  This wooden hand is now the most prized possession of the Legion in Aubagne.  The greatest honour for a legionnaire is to carry the arm in parade.

The legionnaires fought action after action in the course of the day.  Three times the Mexicans begged them to surrender and save their lives.  Three times they refused.  When at last the final five ran out of ammunition, instead of surrendering they mounted a bayonet charge.

Thus was born the legend of the French Foreign Legion.

-o0o-

Ils furent ici moins de soixante

Opposés a toute une armée

Sa masse les écrasa

La vie plutot que le courage

Abandonna ces soldats Français

Le 30 Avril 1863

A leur memoire la patrie eleva ce monument

-o0o-

Here it was that less than sixty

Opposed an entire army

Its numbers crushed them

Life rather than courage

Abandoned these soldiers of France

April 30, 1863

In their memory the homerland raised this monument

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I have a rendezvous with Death ; by Alan Seeger (American & Legionnaire)

I have a rendezvous with Death

At some disputed barricade,

When Spring comes back with rustling shade

And apple-blossoms fill the air—

I have a rendezvous with Death

When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

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It may be he shall take my hand

And lead me into his dark land

And close my eyes and quench my breath—

It may be I shall pass him still.

I have a rendezvous with Death

On some scarred slope of battered hill,

When Spring comes round again this year

And the first meadow-flowers appear.

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God knows ’twere better to be deep

Pillowed in silk and scented down,

Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,

Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,

Where hushed awakenings are dear…

But I’ve a rendezvous with Death

At midnight in some flaming town,

When Spring trips north again this year,

And I to my pledged word am true,

I shall not fail that rendezvous.