Paulus Torchus

Month: August, 2013

Let’s All Write an Epithalamium!

Simply put, it is a wedding poem. It is an ancient tradition. It is thought that ancient poets would write them for the couple and serenade them with it on their wedding night!

Some common features are who the individuals are in the couple, how they looked on their wedding day, and the events of their wedding day. Some epithalamiums (especially the modern I should think) deal with the poet’s experience at the wedding. They often end up being quite long. The poem is sort of a wedding gift.

Although this is an established poetic form, there is no set form (as in meter, rhyme, etc.)

I had a problem. It’s been a very long time since I’ve been to a wedding. I could write one for a wedding I went to a long time ago, but that didn’t grab my imagination in any way. In fact, this form sat on the back burner for a while until I was listening to Grieg’s Norwegian Folksongs about a week ago and came across this:

Which got me thinking about goblin weddings and all things goblin. And I ended up writing something strange. It is an epithalamium for a goblin wedding.

Epithalamium for a Goblin Wedding

by Paul Mathers

Perfect circle of phosphorus fungi

seem to waltz on my midnight lawn

as I’m drawn out to my porch from fever dreams.

I shiver up a realization

of what I’ve stumbled into

and my subsequent state

of two obligate parasites

fixed to one another.

First came the procession

of goblin children rough and tumble

strewing behind them by hand

and overturned baskets

fighting and biting a carpet

of morning glory, azalea,

frangipani, poppy, nightshade,

fennel, foxglove, belladonna,

herb of grace of Sunday

Following were the goblin merchants

catering carts of breadfruit, melons,

crisp citrus and all bright color.

The horrid little men scampered

about the lawn giving fruit to

a racoon

(who tomorrow would walk dazed in the daylight),

a bat

(who would fly into a bakery predawn

and be hit by the baker’s broom),

and one scraggled man

came and offered me a pomegrante,

“Hungry? Thirsty? Long ceremony ahead!”

Here the brooding groom and swarm of groomsmen

all in grey and brown, hats with large brims,

muddied boots with suits.

He with the abyss in his eyes,

born before Sumeria,

he who gave every reality slip,

be they drunk or drug addled or deranged,

the blessed moment of cursed clarity,

he who would lift back the curtain

to show how all numbers make sense

or the meaning of history

or the plot against them by “they”

which they would remember happening on waking

but forget the revelatory matter.

At last the gnarled blackwood carriage

appeared from the circle

lead by a train of fifteen rats,

carved with spirals and shoots of thought,

dark as purpose in a human heart.

Within sat she, the grey lace clinging

to every enticing contour,

her hair curls twining waterfall

of merlot down to the small of her back.

The large eyes the pale of a lost thought.

She was the niggling whisper of erotic discontent.

Every moment when the sight of another woman

drains hearth and home and ‘stablished love

of hope for a moment of “what if with her”

I knew was spoken in the voice of this princess.

Then the guests filled their seats:

wraiths, kobolds, demons, sprites,

the vampiric and lycanthropic,

upwards sit honored Oberon and Titania,

and everything else we blame things on

The priest, a tree genius,

with elegiacs to the solo

and praise to the nascent union

pronounced the joined existences.

The couple embraced like fighting dogs.

The groom’s teeth drew first blood

which is considered fortuitous in goblin weddings.

They mounted the carriage to great howls of delight

and reedy music like sinus stings on an autumn morn.

And all of the shadow people flitted back into shade.

I sat famished, smashed the fruit against the porch planks,

and ate the crimson seeds:

A reason why I can pine my life away

and I knew my parting gift: an excuse.


The Voyage of the Beagle, by Charles Darwin

ImageI am, once again, behind on my posting as I am now far into the lectures of Michael Faraday The Science Guy.

Having already done my penance of writing apologies over Darwin, I shall simply write about the experience of reading this book as best my memory serves at this point so far removed from having finished it.

* What a lot of people may not realize is that Darwin was far more interested in geology while traveling on The Beagle. A great deal of the book is focused on the land and rocks. Another thing people may not realize is that Darwin spent as little time as possible on The Beagle. He is famous for suffering from extreme seasickness on the voyage, but what is less famous is that he, therefore, traveled by land as much as humanly possible.

*Darwin’s view of the less developed world was… I am tempted to say 19th century, but it’s not like I live in some golden age of First World views toward the Third World. On several occasions he remarks on how the difference between the difference between uncivilized man and civilized man is greater than the difference between domestic animals and undomesticated animals. On one occasion, he tells the story of an errant slave lady who throws herself off a cliff to avoid capture. He writes “In a Roman matron this would have been called the noble love of freedom: in a poor negress it is mere brutal obstinacy.”

So, yeah, not the most enlightened time.

* Darwin is also a bit of a poet. I found his fervent interest in the natural world to be contagious. Indeed, Whitman’s ‘Learned Astronomer’ argument aside, it is much richer to go about knowing the what and why of the trees, stars, clouds, flora, fauna, and physics of things.

*There were a few points of the voyage which were particularly memorable. I suspect that he devoted the greater part of the book to these events if I were to graph it. One of those events was the volcanic earthquake. This was, of course, long before an understanding of tectonic plates and so there is a great deal of talk about the lava flowing under the thin crust of earth (in this case applicable, but not so for a great deal of earthquakes as we now know). Darwin is sitting out in the wild when it happens. It devastates whole cities, which he sees later. Interesting read.

* Another major point is the Galapagos Islands, which I suppose is to be expected. I expected that Darwin would marvel at the odd animals, tell us details about the animals, wax poetic about the diversity and reveal seeds of his future theory at this point. All of which is basically true and is there in the text (as is his theory on how seeds travel), but what I did not expect was that the bulk of the section on the Galapagos Islands is about torturing the animals.

Granted, that is my value judgment, but Darwin writes about holding lizards together to make them fight, tying lizards to rocks and throwing them in the ocean to see if they drown, seeing if the tortoises can get up when they are turned on their backs, riding the tortoises, eating an awful lot of the tortoises, how easy it was to kill the trusting birds, and so forth.

* He also devotes a lot of time to praising Christianity’s influence on human civilization. Yeah, let that sink in, those of you who have read Dawkins’ three card monte games of rhetoric, while you chew on a quote from Charles Darwin. It’s a lengthy one, but worth it:

“From the varying accounts which I had read before reaching these islands, I was very anxious to form, from my own observation, a judgment of their moral state- although such judgment would necessarily be very imperfect. A first impression at all times very much depends on one’s previously-acquired ideas. My notions were drawn from Ellis’s Polynesian Researches– an admirable and most interesting work, but naturally looking at every thing under a favourable point of view; from Beechey’s Voyage; and from that of Kotzebue, which is strongly adverse to the whole missionary system. He who compares these three accounts, will, I think, form a tolerably accurate conception of the present state of Tahiti. One of my impressions, which I took from the two last authorities, was decidedly incorrect; viz., that the Tahitians had become a gloomy race, and lived in fear of the missionaries. Of the latter feeling I saw no trace, unless, indeed, fear and respect be confounded under one name. Instead of discontent being a common feeling, it would be difficult in Europe to pick out of a crowd half so many merry and happy faces. The prohibition of the flute and dancing is inveighed against as wrong and foolish; the more than presbyterian manner of keeping the sabbath, is looked at in a similar light. On these points I will not pretend to offer any opinion in opposition to men who have resided as many years as I was days on the island.

“On the whole it appears to me, that the morality and religion of the inhabitants is highly creditable. There are many who attack, even more acrimoniously than Kotzebue, both the missionaries, their system, and the effects produced by it. Such reasoners never compare the present state with that of the island only twenty years ago; nor even with that of Europe at this day; but they compare it with the high standard of Gospel perfection. They expect the missionaries to effect that, which the Apostles themselves failed to do. In as much as the condition of the people falls short of this high order, blame is attached to the missionary, instead of credit for that which he has effected. They forget, or will not remember, that human sacrifices, and the power of an idolatrous priesthood- a system of profligacy unparalleled in the world, and infanticide a consequence on that system- bloody wars, where the conquerors spared neither women nor children- that all these have been abolished; and that dishonesty, intemperance, and licentiousness have been greatly reduced by the introduction of Christianity.

Emphasis mine. And later:

“So excellent is the Christian faith, that the outward conduct even of the unbelievers is said to have been decidedly improved by the spread of its doctrines.”

And even later, reflecting on what he has seen:

“One Hand has surely worked throughout the universe.”

I am telling you, the dichotomy is false!

He also talks about rodents, St. Elmo’s Fire, Cape Horn, banana republic generals, Australia and New Zealand, emus, and lots and lots of blood and death.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone. It is a ripping good read and very well may change the way you look at the world.

On Bukowski’s Birthday 2013

“As I wipe the smear of dung from my bunghole,

the world waltzes to the music of the spheres”

is how he reads to me now

And I don’t read because he recalls

so many of my friends who bought what he and his peers sold

and ended up cadaverous,

his words like the Dead Letter Office of my youth,

Now in an age when the post office itself is near archaic.

In truth he was listening to the crumbling of Valhalla

in a transient hotel room,

deceptively heroic in the metropolis of angels

on the cusp of the breakdown of the millenium.

It is Bukowski’s birthday.

His tombstone reads,

“I stole the voice of a hundred thousand modern poets

and replaced it with my own, unshakable.”

I, on his birthday, go to low-pay work, come home, drink red wine, and write.

I repeat, “I am nothing like him”

over and over, just like he said,

“Do not romanticize me” with wicked bedroom eyes.

He told us we would never make it,

that no one ever makes it,

from his comfort of having made it,

and we thought he was us,

and we fell backwards into his corpse arms.

And really his tombstone is now blank.

People pass around the inscription like secret knowledge.

As if it wasn’t available in any major bookstore.

And, Finally, Essays.


I’ve finished the collections of essays! Callooh! Callay! It was a long slog which spanned the excellent to the plain awful. I found all of these final essays to be striking and so I suppose I should get to commenting on them.

On the Elevation of the Laboring Classes, by William Ellery Channing

I had complex feelings about this transcript of a lecture series. This is not, as a flitting glance at the title might suggest, some Marxist thing. Channing is speaking to laborers. He encourages them to seek to better themselves through education and broadening activities. He champions a society which gives ample opportunities for realizing higher aspirations to all individuals within the society regardless of class and standing. He asserts that having an educated lower class is far better for a civilization than having an uneducated lower class and that education improves the quality of life all around for everyone. Sounds great, right? Sounds like everything I would want from an essay on this topic and the sort of thing that I would trot out phrases like “heartily yes and amen” over, right?

Well, he didn’t stop there and, by golly, I wish he had.

I had two major problems with Channing’s message. He has the rosy, optimistic view of humankind that comes from the belief that “People are basically good.” I loathe this view of humankind because I believe it leads to a false hope and sets people up for nothing but disappointment and confusion. I’ve tried to believe that people are basically good. When I did that, nothing made sense.

But the second objection I had was to something I felt was much worse. He said things like (not exact quotes, but these were the key ideas) “Maybe you laborers would have more money if you didn’t drink so much or if you were more frugal.”

You just don’t say things like that to the working class! And you shouldn’t even think things like that! Generally speaking I am opposed to the mis-overapplication of the word “privilege” in our time, but this struck me as the perfect example of it. Perhaps because the people he was a addressing were of a similiar socio-economic milieu to my own. Perhaps I should check my reaction for outrage dictated purely by my own circumstances. Be that as it may, he lost his audience in me at that moment.

The Poetic Principle, by Edgar Allan Poe

Poe is one of my favorite authors and, I feel, one of the most important authors in literary history. His influence was immense. So I looked forward to this essay more than any other.

And it was just okay. I mean, it was well written and all. Poe unpacked some beautiful pieces of poetry. He focused on the metaphysical/otherworldly beauty quality, which he felt that, when executed well, was the hallmark of great poetry. It was an enjoyable read… but not terribly surprising given the source.

Walking, by Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau is one of my problem authors. Exceedingly long time readers of my blog will recall the wretched time I had reading Walden. The long and short of it is that I want to like Thoreau. I feel like we are in agreement on so much. I adore the wild and, out of necessity, have built a sense of the greatness of austerity. But he does two things that set my teeth on edge:

1) He expresses points of view in regards to civilization which would, in modern times, be decidedly Libertarian. Which I detest.

2) He isn’t content to merely champion his preferred way of life. He puts down the way of life of people who do not live like him.

He had moments of the latter in this essay, but he seemed to exercise some self-control. What remains is a sort of motivational speech. He encourages the reader to get out and walk, especially in undeveloped areas, to explore and forge roadless paths. The human body is made to walk. I agree with all of this and, in fact, live my life in this manner. It was one of my favorite pieces by Thoreau.

Abraham Lincoln and Democracy, by James Russell Lowell

Lowell’s two pieces are a bit of American apologetics. He waxes superlative and elegiac over Lincoln:

“We have seen Mr. Lincoln contemptuously compared to Sancho Panza by persons incapable of appreciating one of the deepest pieces of wisdom in the profoundest romance ever written; namely, that, while Don Quixote was incomparable in theoretic and ideal statesmanship, Sancho, with his stock of proverbs, the ready money of human experience, made the best possible practical governor.”

Lowell highlights Lincoln’s outside status and makes a remarkably prescient argument that those who seem fit to the office of the president of the United States are usually the ones who should never hold it. He mentions the famous Lincoln/Douglas debate. Douglas’ tendency to rile the basest emotions of the great crowd is contrasted with Lincoln’s clear reasoning. Lowell finds it remarkable that Lincoln won. I found it remarkable that contemporary American rhetoric is exclusively that of Douglas and, I can’t be the first to make this observation, a Lincoln would never be permitted today.

There is some discussion of state’s rights and it gets a little edgy at that point. Lowell is decidedly on the side of Lincoln and The Union, as am I of course. I am not comfortable enough to add a however at this point. I will just say that it was a little unnerving to read a pro-Washington domination argument while my own President was delivering a speech promising reforms to the rampant domestic spying programs (which, to me, brought to mind something I have said for years, “you’re not really sorry if you’re just sorry you got caught”). Lincoln was, it would be very easy to argue and very rare to meet with dissent, one of the greatest men to ever be President of the United States (to me, he and Theodore Roosevelt are the pinnacles).

For me, it brings to mind the Pharisees. When the Pharisees formed, it was a good thing with great intentions and for the purest of reasons. By the time of the Gospels, they had turned into bleak, oppressive legalism. The American Ideal might attribute this to the need for constant revolution or some such nonsense. More accurately, I would say it speaks to the heart of humankind, which is not basically good.

Likewise, it was interesting to read Lowell’s piece on democracy from the vantage point of post-democracy America.

“(Democracy) is supposed to reduce all mankind to a dead level of mediocrity in character and culture, to vulgarize men’s conceptions of life, and therefore their code of morals, manners, and conduct — to endanger the rights of property and possession. But I believe that the real gravamen of the charges lies in the habit it has of making itself generally disagreeable by asking the Powers that Be at the most inconvenient moment whether they are the powers that ought to be. If the powers that be are in a condition to give a satisfactory answer to this inevitable question, they need feel in no way discomfited by it.”

In my own time, we have “But I’m the decider, and I decide what is best” form of government. We have what Gore Vidal called a “militarized Republic” under a thin, transparent mask of democracy. 

I think this strikes at my deep feeling over both of the pieces by Lowell. They reminded me of the experience of watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or hearing Newton Minnow’s Television is a Vast Wasteland speech. Someone from the past is saying, “We must be vigilant or these terrible things might happen.” And, from my life in the future, I can look at what they are saying and see that it ended up at least as bad as they feared it could!

And so ends the volumes of essays. And so I get to move on to an author who I am much more comfortable around: Darwin!

The Day I Ceased Worrying


It started at 7am when my wife woke me up.

On her she had read about the religious harmonies.

7 am PST, all religions had spontaneously, simultaneously

realized that their doctrinal separations ought not infringe

in any way on the larger necessity of brotherhood universal.

Everyone, especially Israel, and including me, had a busy day ahead of them.

In the hour which followed, NPR, over my tea, informed me

that the consciousness shift had naturally precipitated

an agreement to distribute wealth to eliminate want.

I shrugged and went to work anyway.

At 10:45, I began to see 35 new colors. So did my co-workers.

So did everyone.

At lunch came the news of the perpetual motion machine

with would produce cold fusion which would power everything

free of charge.

At 2pm came the announcement of the reverse entropy machine.

At 2:23, I rocked forward on the balls of my feet and levitated.

I was the 1,246th person on Earth in that moment

to become aware of my new ability to fly.

At 3, evil was removed from the heart of humankind.

At 3, the enduring peace on earth began.

Around 4:15, I realized that worry

seemed to be banished from my thought patterns

like years of back pain abruptly cured.

Right before quitting time, people lost self-interest,

decided to delight in learning,

saw different cultures as an opportunity to learn and grow.

When I came home, my neighbors were in the streets in an impromptu block party.

The new desire to create excellent things to contribute to civilization

made champagne entirely affordable.

I had three slices of cheesecake.

Laurie and I waltzed around the middle of Park Avenue

to Strauss. Someone took our photo. It’s my new profile pic.

On Tuesday, I woke up at 7:30,

made tea, and went to work.