Happy Birthday Claudia Emerson

PianoFire

Claudia Emerson, Poet Laureate of Virginia and Pulitzer prize winner, born 1957.  In a cruel trick of fate she died at 57, in 2014, of Colon Cancer.

 

Piano Fire : by Claudia Emerson

How she must have dreaded us and our sweaty coins, more
than we hated practice, the lessons, scales, the winter-hot parlor,

her arthritic hands, the metronome’s awful tick. She lectured
to us about the history of the piano: baby and concert grand,

spinet and player had come across oceans in the holds of ships,
across continents in mule-drawn wagons, heavier than all the dead

left behind. On her face we could see the worry: all the struggle had come
to this, the tacky black upright she had once loved haunting the room

it could never leave. And her piano was now part of a mute,
discordant population doomed to oldfolks homes, bars, church basements,

poolhalls, funeral parlors—or more mercifully abandoned
on back porches where at least chickens could nest, or the cat have kittens.

So when she could no longer play well enough even to teach us,
she hired some of the men to haul out and burn the piano

in the field behind the house. We watched the keys going furious and all at once,
heard in the fire a music-like relief when the several tons of tension

let go, heat becoming wind on our faces. We learned that when true ivory burns
the flame is playful, quick and green. And in the ash, last lessons: the brass,

clawed feet we had never before noticed, the harp’s confusion
of wire, the pedals worn thin, shaped like quenched-hard tongues—loud, soft,

sustain. We waited with her until they were cool enough to touch.

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Talking Turkey

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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 Aztec’s.  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.

The Old Ship Inn

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Brighouse in Yorkshire is about as far from the Sea as you can get in Northern England.  It is a town lying on the spine between Yorkshire and Lancashire.  So if you ever travel there you may be amused to find a pub called the Old Ship Inn, far far from the sea.

The history of the Pub will surprise you even more, and will take you round the world and to the US Civil War.

The Old Ship Inn is so called because in 1926, named the Prince of Wales,  it was renovated from the timbers of the broken up Royal Navy 101 Gun HMS Donegal.  In 2007 the Prince of Wales was renamed the Old Ship inn.

HMS Donegal herself was a first rate ship when launched in 1858.  She was a screw driven sail rigged battleship at the very end of the age of sail.  She, along with every other wooden battleship, became obsolete on the day the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor clashed in the US Civil War in the 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads, the first clash of ironclads.

It was the US Civil War that made the HMS Donegal famous.  Six months after the capitulation of the South the last combatants of the war arrived in Liverpool.  The CSS Shenandoah was raiding Union Commerce Shipping in the Pacific when she learned of the surrender.  Rather than return to the USA and risk imprisonment the crew sailed to Britain.

Shenandoah was the only Confederate Ship to circumnavigate the globe.  In her one year campaign the CSS Shenandoah captured or sank 38 ships.  Her crew were the last combatants of the war.   In Liverpool the captain of the Shenandoah surrendered his flag to the HMS Donegal.  6th November, 1865, on this day.

Sic semper tyrannis

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So said Brutus as he drove his blade into the body of Julius Caesar.  “Thus to all tyrants”.

Brutus was hailed as the noblest of the assassins of Caesar, who was motivated by the good of the state and not by personal desires.  Still, was he exactly happy that his mother was mistress to the great JC?

Ultimately Brutus paid dearly for his defense of the Republic.  He was defeated in the final battle of the wars of the second triumvirate, losing to combined forces of Anthony and Octavian.  When he lost Second Philippi Brutus took his own life.

Brutus had two of his men brace his sword while he ran himself on to it.  His final words were “By all means must we fly; not with our feet, however, but with our hands”.  And then he called out “Zeus!  Judge the authors of these crimes.”

Oct 23rd, 42BC.

I saw 3 ships

I saw 3 ships come sailing in?  Not quite.  On this day in 1606 three ships left England and supposedly “began the British Empire”.  They were the Susan Constant, the Discovery and the Godspeed and they founded the first successful English colony in Jamestown Virginia.

It is hard today to understand what these men (they were all men) faced, but let me try to put it in context.  The English had tried and failed to establish colonies in Ireland.  The plantation of King’s and Queen’s Counties of 1556, an Ulster Plantation in the 1570s and the Munster plantation of 1586 were all failures.  The “wild” local tribes rose up and drove out the settlers.  Not enough new settlers could be found to “undertake” the plantation contracts.

In 1606 the potential colonist had two immediate options.  The lands of O’Neill and O’Donnell in Ulster were open for plantation, and the Virginia Colony was open for business. Neither was very attractive.  Cross 60 miles of sea to Ireland and set up in a country that has driven out all previous attempts to colonise it, or sail thousands of miles across the Atlantic and set up in a land of savages.  Previous English colonies in the new world had fared no better than those in Ireland.  Colonists disappeared such as those at Roanoke.

To board one of these three ships and sail for Virginia must have been the equivalent of joining an expedition to Mars today, except we know a lot more about Mars than the English knew about Virginia.

I have no doubt that we will colonise some of the planets or moons of our solar system, and that mankind will gradually push out into the great unknown.  It is what we do!

A Christmas Childhood; by Patrick Kavanagh

One side of the potato-pits was white with frost –
How wonderful that was, how wonderful!
And when we put our ears to the paling-post
The music that came out was magical.

The light between the ricks of hay and straw
Was a hole in Heaven’s gable. An apple tree
With its December-glinting fruit we saw –
O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me.

To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
And death the germ within it! Now and then
I can remember something of the gay
Garden that was childhood’s. Again.

The tracks of cattle to a drinking-place,
A green stone lying sideways in a ditch,
Or any common sight, the transfigured face
Of a beauty that the world did not touch.

My father played the melodion
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.

Across the wild bogs his melodion called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.

Outside in the cow-house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable-lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.

A water-hen screeched in the bog,
Mass-going feet
Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes,
Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.

My child poet picked out the letters
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.

Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon — the Three Wise Kings.

And old man passing said:
‘Can’t he make it talk –
The melodion.’ I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.

I nicked six nicks on the door-post
With my penknife’s big blade –
there was a little one for cutting tobacco.
And I was six Christmases of age.

My father played the melodion,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.

Virginia State Commemorative Quarter

Dumb diversions.

Everyday is a schoolday.  Today I learned about a Bull.  That’s Bull with a capital B, as issued by the Pope.  It is called a Bull because the latin for the seal, which authenticates its origin, is a “bulla”.

The Bull I learned about today was issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1452.  It was called Dum Diversas.  This Bull supplied the authority of the church for Catholics to engage in the slave trade.  “We grant you [Kings of Spain and Portugal] by these present documents, with our Apostolic Authority, full and free permission to invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be, as well as their kingdoms, duchies, counties, principalities, and other property and to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery.”

It was a bid to  incite a new crusade, to save Constantinople from the Turks and to sweep the last of the Iberian muslim kingdoms into the sea.  No great crusade emerged and Constantinople fell the the Ottomans the following year.  Their most Catholic Majesties of Spain soldiered away until they reconquered Al-Andalus in 1492.

Subsequently great empires were built on the backs of the slave trade.  First the Spanish in the Canary Islands, then the Portugese in West Africa.  They were followed by the Dutch, the French, the British and the Belgians.  Fortunes were made, colonies created, new lands were brought to the plough.  Out went a river of blood and back came the fruits of their labour, Coffee, Tea, Tobacco, Sugar, Molasses, Rum, Cotton, Rubber, Spices, Silk and the dangerous fruits of the mining industries, Gold, Silver, Lead, Copper, Tin, Diamonds.

Yup, those Popes knew a thing or two when it came to economics.  And look at all the souls that were saved.  Why practically all those slaves went on to become good Christians.

The Quadroon Girl;  by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The Slaver in the broad lagoon
Lay moored with idle sail;
He waited for the rising moon,
And for the evening gale.

Under the shore his boat was tied,
And all her listless crew
Watched the gray alligator slide
Into the still bayou.

Odors of orange-flowers, and spice,
Reached them from time to time,
Like airs that breathe from Paradise
Upon a world of crime.

The Planter, under his roof of thatch,
Smoked thoughtfully and slow;
The Slaver’s thumb was on the latch,
He seemed in haste to go.

He said, “My ship at anchor rides
In yonder broad lagoon;
I only wait the evening tides,
And the rising of the moon.”

Before them, with her face upraised,
In timid attitude,
Like one half curious, half amazed,
A Quadroon maiden stood.

Her eyes were large, and full of light,
Her arms and neck were bare;
No garment she wore save a kirtle bright,
And her own long, raven hair.

And on her lips there played a smile
As holy, meek, and faint,
As lights in some cathedral aisle
The features of a saint.

“The soil is barren,–the farm is old,”
The thoughtful planter said;
Then looked upon the Slaver’s gold,
And then upon the maid.

His heart within him was at strife
With such accurséd gains:
For he knew whose passions gave her life,
Whose blood ran in her veins.

But the voice of nature was too weak;
He took the glittering gold!
Then pale as death grew the maiden’s cheek,
Her hands as icy cold.

The Slaver led her from the door,
He led her by the hand,
To be his slave and paramour
In a strange and distant land!