Paulus Torchus

Month: February, 2014

Let’s All Write a Lyric Poem!

A Lyric Poem is, simply, a poem which sounds like it might be sung. So says Ron Padgett. In days of yore, it is thought, these poems were sung, but we do not have the music. Think of the Psalms.

The word comes from the “lyre.” A lot of poetry is composed to be sung and a great deal of poetry that seems to have been composed for that purpose exists without any indication of what the original music may have been. William Blake is said to have sung his poems and we have no musical notation. Allen Ginsberg put out a remarkably awful album of how he thought Blake’s poems may have been sung. Indeed, one could put these poems to music.

This was a tricky form for me. I don’t think I’ve ever written a poem intended to be a lyric piece in my life, save for that one time I started writing an opera libretto (which is another item on my bucket list by the way). I found myself writing in a sort of “patter” which reminded me of Gilbert and Sullivan or, oddly enough, hip-hop. I learned that this specific form of simplicity is not my strong suit.

Any attempt by anyone out there to put this to music is highly encouraged. I picture verse 2 as a chorus, I suppose.

 

 

Late February Song

by Paul Mathers

 

February, when the coats are on the rack in readiness.

Vapo-rub and lavender in all of their headiness.

Earliest mosquitos tap the window to my room

and the bare, first twinges of what is soon to bloom.

 

And all the hemisphere begins to reboot.

The dead get buried, the vine spits out new shoots.

And I’m laying speculating the next verse to my song

If I should live so long.

 

Blindly fumbling through the path of life, we so often lose our way

with no compass, map, or blind man’s staff we weave our parquetry,

Anything that’s keeping falling sparrows calculating

is a force complex enough to keep my blood pump palpitating.

 

It’s all vanity: your panicky attempts to speak some pathos

when your only navigation’s acceleration through the chaos.

So I pull on my pants, each foot I put a shoe in,

drag myself into the kitchen and get the coffee brewing.

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Ulysses, by James Joyce: Conclusion

We get the Good Samaritan comparison out of the way right off the bat.

Bloom and Stephen walk through Dublin late at night, reflecting on the violence of the town and how the police are only there to protect the affluent, to a cabman shelter (seems to be a bit like an all-night diner). Stephen is still a bit delirious. In the course of things, we and Bloom come to find out that he has not eaten in almost 48 hours. As is increasingly the case and as is so often the case in the wee hours of the night, their reflections take on a larger scope: God, existence, order. That latter is a strong point for Bloom and a point of almost complete ambivalence for Stephen, illustrating one common gap between young adulthood and middle age. Bloom tries to get Stephen to eat. Bloom believes that prostitutes ought to be monitored by the government and medical professionals. Bloom has opinions on the police and local government. Bloom has economic views, and views on gainful employment, which promote individual responsibility in the “each according to his ability” camp. Stephen only engages when the topics drift from the earthly.

There is a scene with a sailor boasting of his exploits at sea. Bloom seems to doubt the veracity of the mariner’s claims. As we get towards the end (not to get ahead of myself) I believe that there is a morality, or at least a metric of judgment, being promoted by Joyce. We are being led to feel certain ways about certain people, although there is a modern sensibility of the “gray” about many of the characters. This was most evident earlier in the citizen. Bloom’s motivations become a bit mixed in the scene that follows Skin-The-Goat as he speculates on the potential financial gains to be had on the quality of Stephen’s tenor voice. Therefore we no longer see Bloom as the purely compassionate surrogate father figure, but with a twinge of self-interest muddying the waters. Bloom adores Stephen regardless of Bloom’s now slightly soiled image, but this is so true of so much of human altruism. People are inclined to rewrite or apologize in retrospect, but there is so little purity in human behavior. More on this in a moment when we get to what I think is the closest passage to moralism: Molly Bloom.

We also see this in the next section as Bloom considers the concept of the perfectibility of humankind on its own steam. He internally concedes a list of factors that would prevent humans from ever achieving perfection and the list, humorously, is long. Also, in the next section, as Bloom’s reflections grow increasingly universal, the void of the infinite suggests to him that, even if there was life at other points in space, the nature of mortal existence is that of vanity. The allusion to Ecclesiastes reminds us of Buck Mulligan’s early Nietzschean worldview. Indeed, this is one of the points in which Existentialism and Judeo-Christianity harmonize. A little later, biographical information colors in our view of Bloom as a man who rejected the faith of his father and embraces the progressive ideas of his time, fancying himself a man of science. We will see by the end that faith and faithfulness seems to be a major point of the novel, albeit perhaps not viewed through a traditional lens.

I was reminded of the newspaper report about Paddy Dignam’s funeral which misrepresents who was in attendance (at least two who were not actually there and one whose identity remains a mystery). Bloom is denied the posterity of his name being accurately recorded among the mourners. His irritation is also vanity.

Joyce plays with this veiled vestigial recognition of the twinges of truth of Catholicism by making the next section narrated in the form of catechism. A question is: who is talking here? Who is showing us these things? Who is asking and answering these questions? One online friend of mine believed that it is Joyce himself inserted into the book “behind the curtain” as it were. I am inclined to agree, but I still believe that Stephen is Joyce. I also feel that there is a bit of trickery in the title in that Stephen is the true protagonist of the book. Bloom is not our hero. Stephen = Hero.

Bloom wants Stephen to stay as he does not see where Stephen could go at this hour and on this side of town. He begins to fantasize about a sort of “rent payed in tutoring” situation, having an live-in intellectual force. Stephen, the character who seems to have self- confidence and a form of self-control not dictated by the expectations of common civilization, declines. We have a wonderfully symbolic transition as Bloom’s mind turns to the moon, water, flowers, and women, all of which are external forces that Bloom seems to be at the mercy of. Before we move on, some of these judgments on the buffoonery of humankind are driven home as, in the face of reflection on the sublime, Bloom knocks his head against a beam in his house.

Bloom also toys with the idea of running away from his life, disappearing in favor of a life of wandering. He rejects this fancy due to the lateness of the hour, the attractiveness of his bed, and the attractiveness of a statue of Narcissus on the dining room table (puts a fine point on it, I’d say). Bloom also thinks back on his day as the story of scripture (specifically the Old Testament, but with himself as a messianic figure at the end in his act of trying to help Stephen). Certain points do correspond, but we readers know that Bloom has the wrong book of antiquity in mind.

And now we come to Molly. Before I dive in here, I have to say that I feel as if having read so many other authors who are in debt to or derivative of Joyce (Vonnegut, Burroughs, R.A. Wilson, etc.) possibly prepared me to read this book by searing the nerve endings over the more scatological material. This book was tried for obscenity in my country, in which we are supposed to enjoy free speech and press, and this book was burned at one point by the United States government (as were many other books in this too too sullied nation’s history). I was a little surprised to learn that the passage specifically offending the censors was the highly cloaked passage describing Bloom’s self-abuse. I wonder if the censors of the 1920s didn’t make it far enough to Molly’s not-ready-for-prime-time language.

Molly’s lack of education, earlier hinted at by comments dropped by Bloom, is highlighted in her stream of consciousness. We’ve just had 700+ pages that couldn’t go a half dozen paragraphs without dropping a line of Shakespeare, an allusion to scripture, a poetic turn of phrase, the deep dark reaches of philosophy, or the otherwise collected wisdom of humankind. Molly thinks nearly exclusively about people and how she judges them. Her only cultural touchpoints seem to be lyrics of popular song. She thinks of her affair (with one of the more despicable characters in the book) and has the usual justification of the adulterous (if Bloom had only been a better husband). She considers seducing Stephen. She also thinks often of bodily functions and her language is decidedly “of the people.”

This tells us a few things about Bloom as well, some of which we may have suspected by now:

1) he married for looks and is inclined towards objectifying other people.

2) he lacks wisdom. We doubt he’ll ever have is dream garden estate as he’s broken even on the money of the day.

But what keeps these two together? In spite of her connubial dissatisfaction, she is defensive of Bloom at times and her episode culminates is a fond reminiscence of love. I think their common uniting factor is that they are two faithless or unfaithful people. Their totem of Narcissus in the other room as they lay foot to head, a yin to a yang, represents their worship of the body with their own on the throne. Stephen, by contrast, and although the familiar words of the father figure Polonius is one of the only bits of Hamlet not quoted in the book, is to his own self true. When Stephen left the narrative some 50 pages ago, we, like Bloom, have no idea where he’s going to go for the rest of the night. Is he going to be alright? Is he going to sleep or eat? Stephen is as one who considers the lilies of the field.

I’ve said it loud and often elsewhere, but for the sake of my own vain posterity I’ll say it here: I believe this to be one of the most perfect books in the English language. I feel a little sad that I will never again have the opportunity to read it for the first time. I was on the phone with my wife at lunch the other day as I walked the bike trail by Little Chico Creek and I was talking about this book. June 16th, 1904 did not seem, on some levels, to be a particularly momentous day in the lives of these characters. While some remarkable and memorable events occurred, the day might well blur into the haze of personal history. I was talking about Bloom’s super-objective of filling the son-shaped hole in his life with Stephen in these latter scenes and remarked on my uncertainty over Stephen’s super-objectives. Then I remarked on how, in the course of a common day, super-objectives are not always clear. The super-objective of the average day often seems to be “to get through it.” Alexander Woollcott once said,

“There is no such thing in anyone’s life as an unimportant day.”

The quotidian adds up. What we do in our daily lives ends up the sum of our lives. Bloom, Molly, and Stephen’s actions in the day are informed by their values, where they put their faith, if you will. Ours is not to place our faith in imagined future paradises, but rather to bring who we are to the present feast of human history.

Thank you for reading.

Ulysses, by James Joyce: Part 6

I was incorrect in the next 50 pages being Bloom’s stream of consciousness. Rather, Bloom wallows a bit in self-cultivational guilt before drifting into other thought tributaries as he continues his odyssey, unclean until evening, as time and distraction so often numb guilt (the wages of sin is death?). Bloom winds up in a pub where Stephen, Mulligan, and several other established characters are carrying on typical pub talk/activities save for two unusual elements. One is that someone is having a baby seemingly within earshot. The other is that the language of the narrative turns into a sort of Thomas Malory style. At first I felt as if this might suggest that, for all intents and purposes, humankind has not evolved much past the medieval and that childbirth is a fine example of this. While I don’t think this interpretation was invalid, as the scene progresses, the narrative language style progresses through the history of the written English language.

Why this and why here? I do feel that universality of the human experience, regardless of the fixed temporal point, is intentional. The discussion of the nature of time and language recur frequently throughout the book. One of the theses of the Modernist is a rejection of the linear, pat, orderly arrangement of time and language as demanded in the fictional narrative of the previous century. Time is not experienced like a parade; perception is infinitely more complex. Language is not a fixed star, but a wandering comet (Melmoth? Ahasver perhaps?).

Nothing like a barroom full of men talking about childbirth, what? And, as usual, it gets a bit brutal and, again, the topic of the cuckold returns (I suddenly am reminded of the earlier proclamation, in the library, that Falstaff is Shakespeare’s greatest creation. Certainly what’s about to come brings to mind the knight in horns tormented by the fae. Also Stephen’s Oedipal/daddy issues. More on that very soon). Man’s inhumanity to man is a necessary theme in any great urban modern piece I think. Again, Bloom is denigrated by his peers. Loneliness in a teeming metropolis is also a necessary theme and Bloom embodies this fairly well.

At the end of this section, I simply wrote in the margin “I have no idea.” Likely another bit of modern commentary, when the language evolves to the current, it is incomprehensible. Stephen and, indeed, Joyce may very well be sounding the lament of the Classicist.

We then enter the Circe section. I knew this without looking it up because people (including Bloom) keep turning into swine and they seem to be in the presence of bewitching women. What is actually going on is obscure for, oh about 100 pages I would say, which sounds dense but this section is all written in stage dialogue and, therefore, reads remarkably quickly. In another illustration of the unreliability of time, the reader goes from halfway through the book to about 150 pages from the end in a single afternoon.

I imagine someone somewhere has written a thesis on “Women in Joyce’s Ulysses.” I also imagine someone somewhere has written a thesis on “Men’s Bodily Functions in Joyce’s Ulysses.”

I was reminded, as we move out of the hallucinogenic haze, of a long ago conversation with a friend of mine who was a creative writing professor at CUNY. He was talking about the two film interpretations (to that date) of Hunter Thompson: Where the Buffalo Roam and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He said that the latter was the successful of the two because it showed what was going on inside the head of Thompson whereas the former showed how he looked in consensus reality. I was reminded of this because Bloom seeing a parade of women he has lusted after, turning into the Jewish Messiah of Ireland at first adored and then tried (seeds of Kafka!) and lynched, turning into a female and then to a pig is far more compelling than, “Bloom, Lynch, and Stephen sat in the lobby of a brothel drinking absinthe and staring off into space.” The hanging motif reminded me that both William Burroughs and Samuel Beckett undoubtedly read Joyce. Again, so many owe so much to this work. I would add that this is why it’s good to always go to the source, the classics, the early material. You can then discern from whence later figures are deriving (or paying homage or, in some cases, plagiarizing.)

In spite of these harrowing apparitions surrounding Bloom, the most fearsome is the final spectre: Stephen’s dead mother. She says “Beware! God’s Hand!” Which the dead mother seems to be saying to Stephen/Joyce/all of us. The guilt and terror grip Stephen, as does his resolve to his chosen path. Stephen is deeply shaken, but entirely unrepentant. The message of the story demands the triumph of his will just as much as it demands the utter personal devastation in the face of that resolve against the cold universe, against God, against the fragmented couple that gave him life, against nations, against humankind. Bloom, Lynch, and Stephen spill out into the street where British soldiers take exception to an oath of Stephen’s regarding the King (and the brutishness of nationalism rears its ugly head once again. It seems that Joyce’s villains are either nationalistic or canine).

A curious thing: the morally ambiguous Bloom steps into an actual savior role (the next section takes great care to immediately get the Good Samaritan comparison out of the way). He assumes a surrogate father role, which seems like it is an inevitability for both of the characters. Bloom has the keen ache of the loss of a son and Stephen the loss of both of his parents in their own way. When Bloom cares for the beaten Stephen, it is one of the most beautiful moments in the book in my opinion. Perhaps I am putting too much of myself into this interpretation, but it is a small moment that resolves some major existential angst for the type of person likely to have made it this far in reading this book: the longing for salvation by/frustration over the failings of compiled human civilization that came before us. No less true for a turn of the century Dubliner looking at his parent’s generation than it is for a turn of the following century man looking at the destruction that the Baby Boomers have left in their wake.

But, again, maybe that’s just me.

Weighty stuff in the street outside of a Dublin brothel.

More soon. Possibly a conclusion soon!

Ulysses, by James Joyce: Part 5

I’ve just finished two important parts (chapters?) of the book.

The citizen is, while an extremely well written character, likely the most despicable character in the novel so far. In fact, I made a chart ranking my opinion of some of the major characters I’ve encountered so far, ranking them from  how despicable I find them to how likeable I find them:

ImageA couple of notes on this: Buck Mulligan is the character I find most likeable, but the sections about Stephen Dedalus are my favorite. Simon is unpleasant, but his tragedy does a lot to temper that. Bloom seems to land right in the middle, but certainly not in a neutral way. He seems to be a bit of both. However, the reasons the other characters dislike him are by no means the things about him that we dislike!

And this section is the perfect example. The citizen is a monstrous man and this section is a monstrous section. Almost everything out of the mouth of everyone in the pub, except for Bloom, is brutal, ethnocentric, and mean, but the citizen is the worst. He is nationalistic, he hates foreigners, he has a vile dog (I looked up James Joyce and dogs. Apparently Joyce had a severe fear of dogs, so this, for him, was a shorthand to evil). I couldn’t help but think “‘Twas ever thus.” The citizen reminds me of people I have known: older, xenophobic, with a sort of petulantly rigid and narrow form of patriotism. Like the mistreated dog, Freud might suggest that such people are actually built nearly entirely upon fear and cowardice.

The section with the citizen is peppered with interruptions by humorous vignettes. When the citizen talks about the foreigners clear-cutting the woodlands of Ireland we are treated to a wedding announcement of people with tree related names. I was struck, again, by this book’s influence on comedy. So many owe so much to Joyce. This gives a sense that, while the citizen and his court are entirely lugubrious, we don’t take them too seriously and they do, in fact, prove impotent. Near the beginning there is one while these brute meditate on the death of Dignam which takes us through the higher levels of enlightenment by way of a variety of other religions than Catholicism.

Bloom is trying to educate this bunch on the topics that arise, but learning is lost on this bunch. Bloom is constantly disrespected by his peers and, in spite of his shortcomings, you really want to stand up for him. But in this case, it culminates in rampant anti-semitism. The citizen, if I understand the heresy correctly, seems to suggest that he is a British Israelist. He certainly hates actual Jews and sojourners. Bloom finally “stabs him in the eye” at the end of the scene by reminding him that Christ was a Jew and by introducing the word that these men cannot abide: love. As we progress through the scene, I noticed an increasing “sight” motif. This puts us in mind of the cyclops, of Homer, and, indeed and probably unintentionally, of Joyce’s own later blindness. I’m tempted to try to shoehorn Milton in there somehow, but I should probably leave well enough alone.

For all of the citizen’s brutality, he seems to be “Mr. Ireland.” I wonder how this is meant to reflect on Joyce’s view of Ireland, but I suppose I might be inclined to go in a similar direction if called upon to describe Mr. America.

As an aside, the Hamlet references continue to gallop apace. I begin to feel as if Hamlet was to Joyce what Beethoven’s symphonies were to Brahms. I want to say to them “The things you are going to create will be just as magnificent in their own way.” Where the comparison breaks down, I don’t think Joyce is crippled by his awe over Hamlet.

We then shift to one of the first real immersion in female characters. Gerty is a dreamer, a romantic young woman. She shifts seamlessly between sweet innocence and holiness to hating children and desiring the love of a mysterious stranger, the caprice of youth. When she sees the man, looking so sad and intense, she imagines a heroine-complex narrative around him. Her companions are two women with children (rather spoiled children, I thought). There is a cute aside about one of the women’s madcap character exemplified in her once donning men’s clothing and walking down the street smoking a cigarette. Scandalous!

The stranger is, of course, Bloom and the intensity of detail committed to Gerty’s appearance, the fireworks, his hands in his pockets, and rising pitch seem to suggest a return to the motif of Onan. Placed next to the sound of the church service, this seems to suggest a blending of the sacred and profane. Indeed, both parties, Bloom and Gerty, leave with their internal fantasies intact (albiet Bloom slides immediately into guilt).

What follows is another 50ish pages of stream of consciouness, which I am still reading so we’ll pause here for now.

More soon.

Let’s All Write a Lune!

The Lune is a form concocted in the 1960s by poet Robert Kelly. He was upset over the Western version of the haiku, feeling that the rigid syllabic adherence detracted from the original flow of the form. Japanese, he said, uses more syllables than English. So, he devised a form of 5/3/5 syllables, a sort of English haiku form. He called it a Lune because the right side of the poems sort of resemble a crescent moon.

But then came a wonderful variation on the form. Poet Jack Collom was teaching poetic forms to schoolchildren. He misremembered the Lune as being 5/3/5 WORDS instead of syllables. Realizing his mistake, he looked at the poems that the children had written and found that the removal of the even slightly stricter rule of syllables freed them up to experiment with greater ease.

I tried both and found that the best ones came sitting in my front room, simply observing what was going on in the room. They do sort of have an English haiku feel to them I think. First, the syllabic form:

 

Black dog lies on side

hard wood floor

wheezing, paws twitching.

 

Black cat curled by dog

both sleeping

one paw on dog’s leg.

 

Day’s rain on pavement

pools in cracks

grass saturated.

 

And then I wrote some of the word variety.

 

He yawns, stares at her,

turns his head,

licks lips, looks at me.

 

Her socks are coffee cream

sweater and sweats

hair failed pulled from face.

 

Pickle snaps when teeth bite

vinegar numbs tongue

bottom soaks through paper towel.

Ulysses by James Joyce, Part 4

Preparations for my wife’s birthday party and a subsequent chest cold have dramatically slowed my progress. I expected this to be a thing I read in January but it looks like it’s going to be a thing I read for 2/12ths of 2014.

This next section, again, put me in mind of Whitman. Sort of an “I Hear Dublin Singing” section. The priest makes his way through town and we are treated to a number of vignettes of the Dublin denizens. We like the priest because the priest likes the people. He likes “cheerful decorum,” a lovely reflection of the belief in a God of grace and order. The priest runs across a constable, each nod at the other on their lonely beats. We see the Dedalus kids scouting out food, a one-legged mad sailor beggar who I couldn’t help but cast in my head as Tom Waits, men watching women, bitter foreigners, barflys. I think my favorite, or at least one of Joyce’s wonderful language plays was the gentleman who has caught a cold and periodically punctuates his conversation with “Chow!” Around the second or third time it hits you that Joyce is recording the sound of the sneeze, much like he describes how the pigeons “roocoocooed.”

One image that recurs in this section had me thinking of Gatsby (that other “greatest novel in the English language”) and how keenly aware these two 1920s books were of billboard advertising. At once modern and archaic, these men were on the cusp of that one thing that we are now entirely soaked in. And they had the good sense to make it a symbol of their time.

Bloom makes only a passing appearance in this section. We see that his sensuality also extends to his literary taste. Again, do we choose to see this as a man dazzled by the deep headiness of all things lusty, or just kind of a creepy lech?

The high point of this section was, for me, Buck Mulligan. He is full of life and I want to be more like him. He and Haines are talking about a number of things including Stephen’s recent brilliant Shakespeare rant (to which Haines replies “Shakespeare is the happy hunting ground of all minds that have lost their balance.” I might do well to make that a plaque to post over my front door), and Mulligan’s theory on why the Irish have no concept of Hell.

A procession of titled nobles seems to pass in a section that reads like what I always thought this whole book would read like:

“Warbling. Ah, lure! Alluring.

Martha! Come!

Clapclop. Clipclap. Clappyclap.

Goodgod henev erheard inall.

Deaf bald Pat brought pad knife took up.

A moonlight nightcall: far: far.”

This goes on for about a page or two and then we are in a barroom scene with Simon Dedalus, Poldy Bloom, et al. They flirt with the women. They sing beautifully (and I was reminded of the Sirens). We reenter the stream of Bloom’s consciousness and he thinks on what he is experiencing, returning often to the concept of death, no doubt due to the manner in which he started his day.

I peeked ahead and, in the section to come, I would be surprised of someone doesn’t get a spear jammed into their eye.

More soon.