Days of tired gold and bitter blue

Don’t miss the comments to August at the cassandra pages. Beth solicited readers’ recollections of summer vacations from their childhoods, and the responses have been quite varied and interesting.

This time of year often seems to prompt a look back or inward. Here for example are some lines I just discovered by Charles Wright (1):

Aprí¨s-dog days, dead end of August,
Summer a holding pattern,

heat, haze, humidity
The mantra we still chant, the bell-tick our tongues all toll.
Whatever rises becomes a light —
Firefly and a new moon,
Sun and star and star chart

unscrolled across the heavens
Like radioactive dump sites bulb-lit on a map.
Whatever goes back goes dark–
The landscape and all its accoutrements, my instinct, my hands,
My late, untouchable hands.

Summer’s crepuscular, rot and wrack,
Rain-ravaged, root-ruined.
Each August the nightscape inserts itself
another inch in my heart …

I can never get through this season without reciting at least once these favorite lines from Robinson Jeffers (2):

Come storm, kind storm.
Summer and the days of tired gold
And bitter blue are more ruinous.
The leprous grass, the sick forest,
The sea like a whore’s eyes,
And the noise of the sun,
The yellow dog barking in a blue pasture,
Snapping sidewise.

Here’s the last stanza of a poem by Indiana poet Todd Davis, who has recently relocated to Central Pennsylvania. He’s talking about beavers at the bottom of a pasture (3):

Towards the end of August, when we first noticed
the days growing short, Canadian air dipping south,
we came at dusk to watch them swim with the ease
of falling locust leaves, and just after sunset,
as the moon began its slow ascent, they moved
from the water, began their work, accepting
the miracle of night’s black weight — soft light
gathered to their bodies, coats dark and glistening,
gliding under a blanket of stars.

And then of course there’s Emily Dickinson (4):

As imperceptibly as Grief
The Summer lapsed away —
Too imperceptible at last
To seem like Perfidy —
A quietness distilled
As twilight long begun,
Or Nature spending with herself
Sequestered Afternoon —
The Dusk drew earlier in —
The Morning foreign shone —
A courteous, yet harrowing Grace,
As Guest, that would be gone …


(1) From “Meditation on Summer and Shapelessness,” Black Zodiac. Please note that line indents and stanza breaks in the original cannot be reproduced within blockquotes in this blog template.

(2) From “Prelude,” The Women at Point Sur (see Wikipedia article for a brief description of the book).

(3) From “Night’s Black Weight,” Ripe.

(4) From # 935, R.W. Franklin (Belknap) edition.

After forever


I’m awoken at 2:30 by something crawling on my back. I turn on the light, and there beside me in the bed is a big, black cricket. I scoop it up and pad downstairs, open the front door and toss it out into the darkness.

Five and a half hours later, my dad and I are rummaging around in the basement of my parents’ house, looking for the big can of miscellaneous nuts and bolts. I’ve just been given an old stereo — my first in fifteen years — but one of the speakers is missing a nut where the wires attach. The nut can isn’t in its usual place on the shelf. We look high and low without success, and we’re on our way back up the cellar stairs when I spot a can on top of the shelf where the nails are kept. Eureka!

The stereo only came with one, thin speaker wire, but I find a couple coils of thicker stuff in one of my dad’s boxes of electrical supplies. Now let’s see if I can put it all together. It’s an overcast morning, with rain in the forecast — perfect weather for puttering around indoors.

The stereo components appear to date from the late 60s or early 70s. There’s a Sherwood receiver, AR speakers, a Pioneer tape deck and a Benjamin Miracord turntable. It would be cool if the tape deck works — I have a lot of cassettes — but I already have a boom box if it doesn’t. I’m mainly hoping that the record player works, so I can bring down some of my classical records from my parents’ house and listen to music in the evenings, which is generally when I would prefer to listen to music, I think.

The previous owner had kept all the manuals, which is good, because unlike more modern equipment that I’ve owned in the past, the connections aren’t color-coded; everything is explained in terms of ohms. After a great deal of fussing and muttering, I get it all hooked up and plugged in, but now I can’t find the “on” button. I turn up the “Loudness” knob and get a rain of static — the radio works! In a burst of inspiration, I connect the old, thin speaker wire to the screws where an FM antenna is supposed to attach and run it up to the ceiling, and suddenly I’m listening to NPR’s Scott Simon oozing fake empathy. Huzzah!

One of the speakers has a distinct, rattling buzz. I get a screwdriver and pry off the cover, and as I suspected, only a small piece of foam still connects the woofer’s black paper cone to its frame; the rest has disintegrated. I gather from the web that speakers in this condition can be repaired, though I’m not sure I’m up to the task. What’s surprising is that the other speaker still sounds fine. If the turntable works, I’ll count myself lucky.

First, though, I test the tape deck. It makes a faint grinding noise when I turn it on — that’s all. I recall that my dad’s brother gave us an old tape deck a few years back thinking we might be able to use it, though we never did. I go fetch it from my parents’ attic, and it sort of half works: sound comes out of the left channel loud and clear, but nothing from the right. That’s O.K., I guess, since I only have one good speaker. Fortunately, the receiver has a monaural setting.

My classical records are up in my parents’ collection, as I mentioned, and years ago I sold off my blues records in a fit of madness, so all I have down here right now are a couple dozen old metal and punk records. For testing purposes, Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality should do. Besides, I don’t have it on cassette — I haven’t heard these songs in a very long time.

The needle looks O.K. I drop it in the groove between the first and second tracks and “After Forever” comes on. Damn — it sounds good, even with the one fuzzy speaker! The great, stoned, bass-heavy riffs instantly take me back twenty years, but the lyrics sound relevant as ever:

I think it is true it was people like you who crucified Christ
I think it is sad the opinion you had was the only one voiced

I listen to the rest of the record with one ear while I type. Then it’s over, and the phonograph arm returns to its cradle with a quiet whir and click — a sound that provokes a nostalgia all its own.

In the aftermath, I find myself focusing on the crickets. There’s a loud one calling right outside the front door.

record player

UPDATE: I replaced the buzzy speaker with the one that still sounded good from an old pair of Polk speakers in my parents’ attic. So I now have a working stereo.

Throwing away the mirror

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This is my final entry in the self-portrait marathon, which ends this week. I snapped it on Saturday, from almost the exact same position where the photo I have been using in each of the other portraits in this series was snapped. In this one, of course, the angle is different, though I expect you’ll recognize the yellow wall. You can also see the legs of the tripod I used for the original shot poking out from behind the coat on my coat rack. I had been drinking mugwort ale and was, shall we say, in a rather elevated mood when, on my way toward the kitchen, I noticed these shadows cast by the setting sun, sat down in my swivel chair, and took four pictures. This was the fourth. I was dimly aware that it might be an important shot, but did not realize that it contained my own likeness until days later, when I uploaded the pictures to my computer.

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Here’s a close-up with the contrast increased, in case you’re having trouble seeing the portrait. It’s a pretty good likeness, I think, though the mouth is canted a little strangely, as if I were laughing at some private joke. One thing you’ll notice about self-portraits is that the subjects are almost never smiling. If they were, I suppose we might worry a bit about the author’s mental health.

This morning I was re-reading a not terribly good translation of the tenth-century Japanese fictional diary Tosa nikki, by Ki no Tsurayuki. Since I had alluded to it in yesterday’s poem, I thought it might be interesting to see if I still liked it, two decades after my first encounter with it. I was blown away.

It occurred to me as I read it that it functions on one level as a kind of ironic self-portrait. And since women were considered more vulnerable than men, by inventing a female protagonist to narrate in his stead, its author, the reigning poet and literary critic of his day, could explore in depth what it meant to be an artist or poet, with one’s heart-mind (kokoro) continually open to everything around it.

In the diary, amid all the high drama and low comedy of the ex-governor’s (i.e., Tsurayuki’s) slow progress by boat along the coast of Shikoku and Honshu en route to Kyoto, the narrator keeps returning to her deep sorrow for a young son who died a short time before. Her precise relationship to the ex-governor is never spelled out — one of several omissions designed to pique the reader’s interest. In line with Tsurayuki’s theory — articulated in his preface to the great imperial anthology of poetry, the Kokinshu, which he helped edit — poems arise spontaneously from the narrator’s heart in response to her strong emotions on seeing various things deemed poetic, usually natural phenomena.* But of course in reality Tsurayuki must have composed them himself, seemingly undercutting his own theory. Her poems are much the best of those included in the diary, but she chooses not to share them with anyone, whispering them to herself and consigning them to a diary which, she says at the end, “I really ought to tear up and be done with.”

As was normal in the aristocratic culture of the time, the people in the diary are constantly composing and exchanging poems. Despite our narrator’s superficial resemblance to Emily Dickinson, poems in her age were generally not the products of a unique and private vision, but a kind of social currency used to establish and maintain relationships of all kinds.

With one exception, the worst poems recorded in the Tosa Diary are all by the ex-governor. But because of his high position, no one has the courage to tell him how bad they are. That’s partly why this work strikes me as an ironic self-portrait by a poet in the twilight of his career. By contrast, several precocious children manage to come up with poems that are deemed very good, and even the illiterate captain, quite by accident, at one point shouts commands to his crew in what the astonished narrator declares is a perfect tanka!

The captain is also at the center of the most dramatic and possibly the most telling incident in the diary. Throughout the voyage, they are plagued by high seas, adverse winds and the threat of attack by pirates. Near the end, a gale blows up while they’re offshore at a place called Sumiyoshi, which is celebrated in Japanese verse for the abundance of a grass called wasuregusa — “grass of forgetfulness,” or maybe “oblivion grass.” The narrator has just composed a sad poem about her desire to forget, if only for a moment, her sorrow at the death of her child. The sudden high seas threaten to capsize the boat, and the captain tries the standard offering of sacred shredded cloth to try and pacify the local spirit of the place, without effect. At last he hauls out a mirror — at the time, a rare and valuable object — and quotes a proverb: “We have two good eyes, but one thing more precious.” A footnote in my edition explains that this is usually a reference to one’s children, not to a mirror. The captain casts the mirror into the sea, and almost immediately the storm begins to ebb. The narrator concludes,

The [poetic] things associated with this place — the calm sea of Sumiyoshi, the grasses of forgetfulness of care, and the elephant princess-pines of the shore — the god resembles none of them. It was plain to see that the god’s desire was reflected in that mirror and that the mind of the captain understood that of the god. (Earl Miner, tr., in Japanese Poetic Diaries, University of California Press, 1969)

In his poetic manifesto, written years earlier, Tsurayuki had maintained that poetry possesses the non-coercive power to “move heaven and earth” and “wake the feelings of the unseen gods and spirits” (see footnote). Now, in the Tosa nikki, he seems less certain of this. Perhaps, like many aging aristocrats in 10th-century Japan, he was coming increasingly under the influence of Buddhist notions of no-self and emptiness. If the heart or mind of the artist is, as the ancient Japanese thought, a mirror held up to nature, what do we do about this foolish being, this creature of inexplicable emotions, who keeps appearing in it every time we try to see what it really holds?


* Here’s the first paragraph of the preface, as translated by Burton Watson in From the Country of Eight Islands: An Anthology of Japanese Poetry, Anchor/Doubleday, 1981.

Japanese poetry has its seeds in the human heart, and takes form in the countless leaves that are words. So much happens to us while we live in this world that we must voice the thoughts that are in our hearts, conveying them through the things we see and the things we hear. We hear the bush warbler singing in the flowers or the voice of the frogs that live in the water and know that among all living creatures there is not one that does not have its song. It is poetry that, without exerting force, can move heaven and earth, wake the feelings of the unseen gods and spirits, soften the relations between man and woman, and soothe the heart of the fierce warrior.

Old hat, new rabbits

On Saturday night, I picked up seven books at a well-stocked Half Price Books in the strip mall outside Pittsburgh that I wrote about yesterday. Two were books I’d already read, but the rest are new and full of tantalizing passages.

My typical approach with newly acquired books is to open them at random and read a few pages until I find something thought-provoking. If it’s poetry, I’ll often continue reading in a haphazard fashion until I’ve read about two-thirds of the book, then go to the beginning and read straight through, skipping those poems I’ve already read. With nonfiction, I do feel an obligation to read books from beginning to end, but since I realize I might not get to them for a while — if ever — I also often begin with extensive random samplings. In fact, I think one reason why I favor poetry and nonfiction over fiction is that it lends itself so well to this kind of disorganized reading. Let me show you what I mean with a quote or two from each of the books I just bought.

1. A Scattering of Jades: Stories, Poems, and Prayers of the Aztecs, ed. by T.J. Knab, tr. by Thelma D. Sullivan. Simon & Schuster, 1994.

This is in my estimation the best English-language anthology of Aztec literature, so I was very happy to get it. On reacquainting myself with it on Sunday morning, I found this wonderful factoid on page 83:

The word for storyteller is tlaquetzqui, he who holds something back.

2. Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians, by Pierre Clastres (Paul Aster, tr.). Faber and Faber, 1998.

This is the other book I’ve read before, an ethnography most notable for its penetrating and sympathetic portrayal of endo-cannibalism — that is, the eating of the members of one’s own tribe after their death. However, it has plenty of other fascinating tidbits as well, including a portrait of a berdache (Clastres calls him a homosexual), or this description of how the Guayaki language can be adapted to whistling:

As I listened to this surprising dialogue (which unfortunately I did not have a chance to record), what I heard was mainly whistling sounds such as tss, dzz, djj — explosions interrupted by abrupt glottal stops and followed by long vocalized expirations ending in a simple expulsion of air. Naturally, I could not decipher any of this. And yet this was ordinary Guayaki — a language I could understand to some extent — but reduced to that part of its consonantal structure that could be whistled and to breathed vowels. Basically it was the language as anyone could have whispered it, reduced to its simplest perceptible expression. The small range of sounds produced did not seem to affect the liveliness of the discussion that Jyvukugi and his wife were carrying on at a great rate; they even seemed to be having a very good time, and sometimes their faces would shake with repressed laughter. I also noticed that from time to time I would hear nothing and only their lips would be moving: instead of listening to the sound of the whistling, they were reading each other’s lips. … Why had the Guayaki created this strange way of communicating? I can only guess at the reason, but I do have a hypothesis. The main quality of this method of manipulating the language by deforming it was really its quasi-silence, which situated it halfway between sound and gesture. And I imagine that, out of fear for their safety, the Atchei had determined to minimize the chances of being overheard by their enemies: the ghosts of the dead, or, more plausibly, the Machitara and Beeru. But perhaps, in the end, this supposition is too pragmatic, and we should instead look for an explanation in the mythological character of Jakarendy, the master of honey, who did not speak but whistled in order to attract human beings and shoot his fern arrows at them.

In any case, I am almost sure that that day Jyvukugi and his wife were “whistling” instead of talking in a normal way so that I would not understand what they were saying to each other. And they were completely successful in doing that.

3. A’aisa’s Gifts: A Study in Magic and the Self, by Michele Stephen. University of California Press, 1995.

Clastres was remarkably lucky in uncovering so much about the people he was living with in just one year — but who knows whether further residence might have caused him to completely rethink his initial conclusions. Another book from my latest haul discusses the difficulty of interpreting societies in which “epistemology and cultural logic posits many layers of things concealed, and according to this cultural logic, one layer contains the opposite of another.” Thus, says the author in her brief introduction to this study of the Mekeo people of Papua New Guinea,

[O]nce one gains access to esoteric knowledge and to the private worlds of individuals (which itself is no easy matter), the public symbolism and public descriptions given of the cosmological order seem to be overthrown. … The discrepancies were such that I might easily have concluded I was initially mistaken on many points; during my second extended fieldwork, when I learned the language well enough to converse without interpreters and was at last given access to esoteric knowledge, I was able to get the “real” picture.

Skipping ahead to the middle of the book, one discovers an example of what the author is talking about. I wonder whether it might also be the case for many other, imperfectly studied cultures that

The myth is the vehicle for transmission of secret knowledge. Which is why, of course, only abbreviated versions are told in public. What I assumed were merely simple explanatory folktales, such as “How the Dog Became the Enemy of Other Animals” or “The Origin of the Fishing Trap” … now emerged in their esoteric form as the explanations of important rituals — major rites for hunting in the former, fish-calling rituals in the latter. … Much more than just a social charter, Mekeo myths constitute a basic framework for the system of esoteric knowledge.

4. Insight and Artistry in African Divination, ed. by John Pemberton III. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.

I couldn’t resist jumping straight to Chapter 11, “Where the Mouse is Omniscient: The Mouse Oracle among the Guro,” by Lorenz Homburger. Yes, the Guro and their close neighbors in central Ivory Coast use live field mice as oracles, keeping them in large, specially designed pots. The Guro are animists whose highest god, Bale, dwells in the earth rather than the sky.

The mouse oracle pot, usually made from one piece of wood, sometimes of clay, is covered with the skin or fur of the red duiker. The belly of the pot is divided into two levels joined by a hole allowing the mouse to climb up and down. Two tortoise shells … are used in conjunction with the pot. The diviner places and removes them alternately, one of them … for divination in the morning and the other … for the evening. To the insides of the shells are fitted ten chicken bones — in certain cases, bat bones are used instead — one end of which is attached to the shell. A cowrie shell is sewed to the loose ends. After sprinkling some rice chaff over the cowries, the diviner places one of the tortoise shells with the bones arranged parallel to each other into the pot, which is then closed with a lid. According to Guro belief, once the client has explained the problem, the mouse climbs up and listens to what is being said. Then the mouse descends and questions the earth through a little hole in the bottom. Boti ba Tra described the messenger function of the mice: “mice can hear and understand all sounds of the earth, indeed they live in the earth, and we in turn populate it.” Finally, the mouse climbs up again to “place the cowrie shells.” After less than a minute, the client is told to lift the lid off the pot. It is rare to catch a glimpse of the mouse, as the animal lives in the dark, is scared by daylight, and therefore rushes back down to the lower half of the pot. The client carefully places the shell before the diviner. The configuration of the bones now discloses the answer to his previous questions. The position of the bones can be read and interpreted. The process is repeated until all of the problems of the person seeking advice are determined and solutions found.

5. History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, by Jean de Léry (Janet Whatley, tr.). University of California Press, 1990.

Léry was a French Protestant missionary in 1556, whose description of the Tupinamba Indians was remarkably sympathetic for his era. I like how he concluded “The Bodily Description of the Brazilians”:

Before closing this chapter … I must respond both to those who have written and to those who think that the frequenting of these naked savages, and especially of the women, arouses wanton desire and lust. Here, briefly, is what I have to say on this point. While there is ample cause to judge that, beyond the immodesty of it, seeing these women naked would serve as a predictable enticement to concupiscence; yet, to report what was commonly perceived at the time, this crude nakedness in such a woman is much less alluring than one might expect. And I maintain that the elaborate attire, paint, wigs, curled hair, great ruffs, farthingales, robes upon robes, and all the infinity of trifles with which the women and girls over here disguise themselves and of which they never have enough, are beyond comparison the cause of more ills than the ordinary nakedness of the savage women — whose natural beauty is by no means inferior to that of the others. If decorum allowed me to say more, I make bold to say that I could resolve all the objections to the contrary, and I would give reasons so evident that no one could deny them.

Léry also defends manioc beer made by spitting the chewed up root into a pot. How is this any more disgusting than crushing wine grapes with the bare feet? he asks. Yet he admits that he and the other missionaries were generally able to brew rum for their own consumption.

6. Different Hours, by Stephen Dunn. Norton, 2000.

I can’t decide whether my tastes have changed, or whether my first impression is correct — that the poems in this book aren’t as inspired as some of Dunn’s other efforts. So far I’ve read about a third of the book, and the only thing that really grabbed me was a quote used as an epigraph:

John & Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.
–from a freshman’s short story

The poem that follows — “John & Mary” — falls short as a response to this text, I thought. Like another poem in the book, which takes off from a student’s typo (“The town was in the mists of chaos”), it seems to have fallen victim to the author’s need to ingratiate himself with his academic colleagues by indulging in a display of wit at the expense of a hapless student. The poem focuses on John & Mary rather than, for example, on hummingbirds, which might have produced a more interesting poem.

7. Not Such a Bad Place to Be, by William Kloefkorn. Copper Canyon Press, 1980.

Two years ago, when they announced Ted Kooser’s selection as U.S. Poet Laureate, I thought that the Librarian of Congress had picked the wrong Nebraska poet. It’s not as if William Kloefkorn doesn’t know how to adapt the poet’s art to the unique needs of our nation and its public servants. “In 1978,” the bio states, “he won the Nebraska Championship for hog-calling.”

What I’ve read from this book so far confirms my impression that Kloefkorn’s poetry is second to none, with all the unsentimental detail, grotesque violence and absurdism proper to a contemporary North American poet of place. Here’s a poem that might serve as a fitting conclusion for this otherwise completely miscellaneous post.


We must never empty ourselves
of that last surprise.
We must grow longer arms,
reach deeper and deeper into the dark hat
to bring forth the rabbit.
We must not decline its pernicious bite,
must not rule out the alley behind the eye
where our shadows run naked as jaybirds,
rending their hair,
foaming at their mouths,
snapping at the glances of birds and dogs
and mothers and small children.
We must balance our equilibrium
on the tips of noses
that we must have been willing to paint
a bulbous blue.
We must stare into the mirror
and marry the second woman to the right,
must honor her all the days of our life.
We must not be reluctant to correct her,
or to chop off a finger,
or if the going gets tough
to bury her eight paces south of the henhouse.
We must never fail to keep in mind
where we might or could or should have done
better, or perhaps worse,
slapping the children on their bare hind quarters
as they trot off to dress themselves
and to tighten their teeth.
We must not assume that those clouds
in the far southwest are not out to submerge us,
or that, if they do, we do not have something
small and hard, like a key, say,
up the slack of our sleeve with which to unlock
the torrential trunk.
We must never empty ourselves
of that last surprise.
We must have the dark hat always
in the position of ready,
our sleight of hand equal even
to the most improbable depth.

Hot off the presses

Two bloggers I read have new books out. Rachel Barenblat of Velveteen Rabbi has published a 24-page chapbook of her chaplain poems, chaplainbook, under the new Laupe House imprint. And Fred First of Fragments from Floyd has published Slow Road Home: A Blue Ridge Book of Days with his Goose Creek Press imprint. Congratulations to both authors! I take inspiration not only from their well-crafted words, but also from their example. Self-published, cooperatively published and print-on-demand books seem like a natural extension of the blogging ethos.


Speaking of natural extensions, I’ve just adapted Smorgasblog to fit my sidebar – scroll down past the Archives. The sidebar template had no problem with the HTML; it was a simple copy-and-paste job, sparing me the trouble of actually learning the language the blog template is written in (PHP), at least for now.

Links added since my last Smorgasblog update include: Numenius of Feathers of Hope on Vandana Shiva; Dick Jones on friendships between bloggers; Rachel Barenblatt on coming to terms with Jewish concepts of “purity” and “impurity”; Jarrett Walker on Jane Jacobs; a Nigerian commenter at the cassandra pages on Wole Soyinka; Patry Francis on equanimity; and Rexroth’s Daughter on being crabby. Check it out!

Listening to the thrasher

Dawn. The third-quarter moon is setting through the branches of the flowering cherry by the side of my front porch. I’m up a little later than usual, and the brown thrasher has proceeded me, improvising rhyming couplets since first light.

If you’ve never heard a thrasher in full throat, you may think I’m exaggerating, but it’s true. Researchers have documented the thrasher’s ability to improvise over two thousand unique phrases in one session – and I mean unique to a human ear, not (as with so many songbirds) only discernible through a sonograph. The thrasher is a close relative of the gray catbird and the mockingbird, so if you’ve ever heard either of those birds, you have a pretty good idea of the tone quality and range of sounds available to a thrasher. But as I said, the thrasher tends to sing in rhyming couplets – in other words, to repeat almost every phrase once before going on to the next.

This pattern not only assures identification, but produces a very pleasing effect. The lines are all approximately the same length – very short – but the variation in pitch and melody between couplets, and the bird’s habit of mixing things up with occasional three-line and one-line phrases, sustains my interest as a listener almost indefinitely. Since the thrasher is also a bit of a satirist, it’s fun to listen for echoes of other birds’ songs or calls; this morning, I was surprised by a brief snatch of whip-poor-will.

The Spanish poet Miguel Hernandez once declared that “The lemon tree in my garden is a bigger influence on my work than all the poets together.” I’m tempted to make a similar statement about songbirds such as the wood thrush and brown thrasher. While the former models lyric concision and allegiance to a single, elegiac mood, the latter makes me hunger for virtuoso displays of craft and wit.


Speaking of virtuoso displays of craft and wit, I’ve just finished an excellent book-length poem that I picked up at the used bookstore last week: Song of Lawino, by Okot p’Bitek. I hadn’t heard of the work or the author before, but it looked good, and I’m a bit of a collector when it comes to poetry. I didn’t have anything from Uganda yet, and this looked like a good place to start.

Turns out that Song of Lawino is one of the most famous works of postcolonial East African literature. What really turned me on, though, is that the whole thing – over 200 pages in the author’s English translation – is in one of my favorite poetic forms, dramatic monologue. Lawino is a very tradition-minded woman from the Acholi society, a Luo-speaking, Nilotic people of northern Uganda. Her song – which, according to the Wikipedia, was based solidly on traditional Acholi verse forms – is a satirical lament for her husband’s abandonment of traditional values and customs in favor of what she sees as a shallow aping of European practices. Though translated into free verse, apparently the original does consist of metrical, rhyming couplets. The author was educated in Britain as an ethnographer, and published scholarly works on religion and collections of proverbs as well as the several book-length poems which – if Song of Lawino is any indication – showcase his insider/outsider knowledge of his native culture very well.

The poem veers from sincere-sounding lament to scatology and denunciation, all employing the praise-proverb mode familiar to any fan of traditional African poetry. Like Don Quixote, or Jaroslav Hasek’s Schweik, Lawino herself remains something of a cipher. Is she really as clueless as she maintains, for example, when she declares, “I am ignorant of the Good Word in the Clean Book”? But as with Schweik, the pretence of ignorance provides an excellent cover for the author’s sly critques. I was particularly struck by the sense of how the Protestant and Catholic missionaries’ teachings might have sounded to a traditional Acholi.

We sang the Faith of the Messengers
Like parrots,
I did not understand it at all!
I thought about it
In my own head
But I could get nowhere,
And there was nobody
To turn to.
The Padre and the Nun are the same,
They only quarrel
They are angry with me
As if it was I
Who prevented them marrying.
To them
The good children
Are those
Who ask no questions, who accept everything
Like the tomb
Which does not reject
Even a dead leper!
Who accept everything
Like the rubbish pit,
Like the pit-latrine
Which does not reject
Even dysentery.
[ . . . ]
We recited
The Faith of the Messengers
Like the yellow birds
In the lajanawara grass
The teacher shouted
As if half-mad
And we shouted back:
I accept the Hunchback
The Padre who is very strong
Moulder of Skyland and Earth…

“Hunchback,” incidentally, is how Lawino understands the focus of the missionaries’ petitions because, as a footnote in a section on traditional versus modern medicine informs us, “The name of the Christian God in Lwo is Rubanga. This is also the name of the ghost that causes tuberculosis of the spine.”

Song of Lawino is not an epic or narrative poem; the arrangement is thematic, though almost every section does contain stories. Lawino’s complaints seem believable in the sense that it is very easy to believe in her as a character – a proud, all-but-discarded first wife of an ambitious man who is embarrassed by her. One does sense that her complaints are frequently hyperbolic, as in her description of the utter foulness of the public restrooms for a modern dance hall, which might make even Rabelais blush.

The stench from the urinal is thick!
It hits your nose
Like a blow,
Like the horn of a bull rhino!
You choke,
Your throat pains sharply
You get out quick
And shout a curse!
You meet a big woman
She staggers toward you
And leans on the wall
And before she unties her dress
She is already pissing;
She forces out the urine
As if she has syphilis.
The stench from the latrine
Knocks you down from afar!
It is as if you have entered
Into a lion’s mouth.
The smell of Jeyes
And the smell of dung
Rise to the roof
The entire floor
Is covered with human dung
All the tribes of human dung!
Dry dungs and dysentery
Old dungs and fresh dungs
Young ones that are still steaming,
Short thick dungs
Sitting like hills,
Snake-like dungs
Coiled up like pythons.
Little ones just squatting there,
Big ones lying on their sides
Like tree trunks.
Some dungs are red like ocher
Others are yellow
Like the ripe mango,
Like inside a ripe pawpaw.
Others are black like soil,
Like the soil we use for smearing the floor.
Some dungs are of mixed colors!
Vomit and urine flow by
And on the walls
They clean their anus.
And there are writings
On the walls
With knives.

Another one of my favorite sections contrasts Western and Acholi conceptions of time. Lawino’s husband has bought a clock, which Lawino admits “Is a great source of pride / And beautiful to see,” but the idea of adapting life’s daily rhythms to its metronome strikes her as absurd.

Time has become
My husband’s master
It is my husband’s husband.
My husband rushes from place to place
Like a small boy,
He rushes without dignity.
And when visitors have arrived
My husband’s face darkens,
He never asks you in,
And for greeting
He says
“What can I do for you?”


I do not know
How to keep the white man’s time.
My mother taught me
The way of the Acoli
And nobody should
Shout at me
Because I know
The customs of our people!
When the baby cries
Let him suck milk
From the breast.
There is no fixed time
For breast feeding.

Lawino was a success both in Uganda, in the Luo version, and internationally when the English version was published in 1966. According to the Wikipedia, it was even translated a second time into English, as The Defence of Lawino, by the Ugandan writer Taban Lo Liyong. I was delighted by the serendipity that brought it, and p’Bitek, to my attention.


Speaking of serendipity, just as I started Song of Lawino, I chanced on an article in the Christian Science Monitor that made me wonder if Ugandans might not possess a particular genius for inspired misreadings of Western cultural artifacts. As with Song of Lawino, some popular movies might have alternate translations from dueling “veejays.” These improvisational, voice-over translators/commentators are apparently creating a whole new oral art form in Uganda. Some have already become local superstars, and their fame is beginning to spread beyond the country’s borders as they experiment with taped, Swahili versions of their interpretations.

“Veejaying” is now a central form of local entertainment. But the art involves much more than translation. Part sports announcer, part street preacher, part comedian, a veejay must fill in cultural gaps and keep the audience engaged, which – for many veejays – often means taking considerable creative license.

The video jockey is an offshoot of the distinctly home-grown phenomenon of the video hall. Makeshift shacks commonly made of plywood and tin sheeting, they function as the main form of cinema for the Ugandan masses, most of whom cannot afford theater tickets or rentals of pirated DVDs.

Video halls mushroomed around the country in the mid-1980s, when a measure of relative peace and prosperity made copies of foreign movies more accessible. But since most of their patrons did not speak English well, owners brought in translators, who usually sat near the TV set, ideally with a microphone.

Well-known names include VJ Ron, who is known for his intricate translations of detective thrillers, and the Love Doctor, who specializes in romantic dramas and comedies.

Jingo, as his public knows him, is most noted for his cheeky renditions of American action films in Luganda, the local tongue. Hand grenades might become passion fruits in a Jingo translation; characters played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis evoke proverbs about crocodiles and chickens.

One of the most effective things about Song of Lawino is the dramatic situation itself: the narrator begins by describing her husband’s frequent, harsh denunciations of her – “My husband’s tongue is fierce like the arrow of the scorpion” – before launching into her fierce counter-attack. Apparently, Ugandan veejays also fight against strong cross-currents of criticism. Echoing Lawino’s cultural conservatism, “Some church groups and other conservative outfits here complain that the video halls and veejays are polluting the minds of Africans with the sex and violence of American mass culture.” And according to an accompanying article for the “Reporters on the Job” column, the main veejay interviewed for the story expects criticism from Westerners for the liberties he takes with the films.

“In Kampala, everyone knows [VeeJay] Jingo. At first, he didn’t understand why I would be interested to know about the changes to the plot, and the local references that were peppered throughout each movie,” says Rachel [Scheier]. “Eventually, he told me about working in at least half-a-dozen references to a Ugandan opposition leader, who had just lost the presidential election, into a banal thriller about an airline pilot. He was reluctant because he figured I would criticize his changes.”

Later, Rachel went to Jingo’s trading center to see him veejay live. “I took along an interpreter to translate his interpretation back to me in English. It took a while, but I finally got it. Veejaying isn’t really about translation; it’s about making something completely new, something uniquely Ugandan.”

“The ways of your ancestors / Are good,” Lawino tells her husband, presumably echoing p’Bitek’s own views. “They are not thin, not easily breakable.” I can’t help thinking p’Bitek would be pleased by this new evidence that Ugandan wordsmiths will not only resist but actively transform the tidal waves of cultural influences from abroad. I wish them great success in exporting this model. In time, even a hidebound poet in the benighted North may learn how to become a more active and creative listener.

What is music, and how do we hear it?

I’ve spent much of the day annotating my Links page (see top bar – and please let me know via email if you feel I’ve slighted your blog in any way). So in lieu of an original post, let me just put up a couple of quotes that between them encapsulate my own thoughts about music.

I first wrote about Stephen Dunn’s book of prose poems, Riffs and Reciprocities, back in December, 2003. Paired with “Noise,” here’s Dunn’s definition of “Music”:

Something overheard from the dissonant street – a screech, a bang – taken in and arranged. A subjective correlative. Sequences, resolutions, deliberate unfulfillments. The sublimity of large and small moments surrendering to the whole. What feeling feels like over time. An attempt to screw up what feeling feels like over time. Heartbreak and a high C. The twang the nervous system wants when it’s in revolt. The often welcome melodic lie. Ululation and a stomp of heels, scat-sense, voice and ear living together in brilliant sin. The soul’s undersong. The orchestration of randomness, a flirtation with the boundaries of silence and space. When Bun-Ching played last night – a reminder that the self wants to disappear, be taken away from itself and returned.

And here’s a description of the concert hall experience from a contemporary philosopher, Alphonso Lingis, in his book The Imperative (Indiana University Press, 1998).

We enter the concert hall, locate our seat; we look at the musicians picking up their bows and sticks and reverberating the violin strings and the taut skins of the drums. Our eyes move from one instrument to another in the orchestra pit. Then the music begins, and the tones now disengage from the surfaces upon which they were vibrating and weave into the space between us and the instruments. Our hearing begins another movement, from one tone to the next in a lyrical space that dilates and condenses, expands over a vast horizon, approaches from distances nowise limited by this renaissance salon whose ornate mirrors present on each of its walls only the other walls. This space is complete unto itself and the musical forces, more than tones, do not evoke or depict visible and tangible things, but materialize emergences, events, and destinies inexhaustible in themselves. At the end of the concerto, we look about as though awakening from the caverns of a trance and relocate ourselves in the hall with friends and with refreshments outside.

Last year around this time I posted a short story (well, a fictional vignette, at any rate) set in a concert hall, but I can’t find it right now.

You know, all this writing and thinking about music almost makes me wish I had a stereo of my own. It’s too damn quiet around here! If you’ve ever exclaimed, “I can’t hear myself think!” let me tell you: it’s not always a pleasant music that the brain makes. When my mind draws a blank, it’s not because it’s empty, but because it’s full to overflowing with white noise. Better the “melodic lie” or the surprise of dissonance than this unquiet peace, sometimes.

Living in dissonance: a very selective guide to 20th-century classical music

The way classical music fans ignore or shy away from the great works of the 20th century is a source of continual frustration for me. I grew up on this music. Here are some highly personal responses to some of my favorite works. Most of these riffs bear little or no relationship to programmatic content or the composer’s own view of the work. Please note also that this list does not pretend to be either representative or exhaustive, so don’t leave comments chiding me for neglecting this or that “important” work or composer. But please do feel free to tell me about your own favorites!

Krzysztof Penderecki – Dies Irae

The most appalling of centuries loses nothing in this translation into the dead languages that once launched the Punic and Pelopponesian Wars. Between Cassandra and Medusa there might have been a secret sisterhood of horror. Those who would be prey must first turn to stone.

Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki – Symphony #3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs)

A Polish girl imprisoned by the Nazis writes an invocation to the Blessed Virgin on the wall with a slow shard, re-tracing the letters again and again to make them straight and deep.

Leos Janacek – Glagolitic Mass

How could such soaring syllables belong to the language of slaves? How, wondered JanáÄ?ek, might the God of Nature be shrunk into something small enough to inhabit a church or concert hall?

Howard Hanson – Lament for Beowulf

English, not Hebrew, might be the most fitting tongue for those fated to remain strangers in the earth. Its words are cast in base metals, better for the clash than the clasp. Ah, but the hoard is mute, amassed by monstrous prodigies of the old gods and used to stuff the artificially enhanced hill where the king retires for his last, rapacious sleep.

Igor Stravinsky – Symphony of Psalms

The composer who scandalized bourgeois audiences in 1913 with the Rite of Spring in 1930 explored what is most scandalous about the Bible: the way its best verses erase the line between blessing and curse. David dances before the Ark of the Covenant like a prizefighter, taunting his lover: Destroyer, Motherfucker, I’ll finish what Jacob started. Don’t tempt me! It all sounds glorious.

Francis Poulenc – Stabat Mater

How much longer will the Mother stand for this, one wonders? The Mothers of the Disappeared circle the square until the dictator is forced to flee or face the music. This Stabat Mater (and there are, of course, many others) continues long past the final note.

Bela Bartók – Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste

I once heard a gypsy fiddler on the radio playing an ironic tribute to the late communist dictator of Romania, Nicolae Ceaucescu. In the middle of the song, he set his bow aside and used his fingernails to rake the strings for the length of a verse. Bartók would’ve loved that. His Music is much more life-affirming, but as with almost everything he wrote, it insists upon freedom with every jagged and joyous turn of phrase.

Fernando Lopes-Graca – História Trágico-Marí­tima

This isn’t that sea that Debussy saw, but the other, the still-unexplored ocean. She knows nothing about the romantic storms and shipwrecks that her would-be knights-errant bear like pox-ridden scraps of cloth to foreign shores.

Alban Berg – Violin Concerto

The soul in the guise of a violin always yearns for transcendence, like the girl in the old story made to lie night after night upon the king’s wrinkled and impotent body in a hopeless effort to stave off the chill of death. But what if an orchestra answered your prayers with questions of its own? The ear must get beyond its patriarchal desire to be ravished.

Akira Miyoshi – Cello Concerto

If the wood of a fallen, thousand-year zelkova tree from some Shinto shrine were cut and polished like an agate, the grain could be interpreted as a musical score – or so this work has led me to believe.

Carl Nielsen – Clarinet Concerto

True story: Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto was the wordless and slightly warmed-over theme song for my first major romantic fling. She had played percussion once in a performance with a former lover, who soloed on clarinet. Could we have picked a worse omen, I wonder, than this tribute to bipolarity with its drunken lyricism, its self-mockery, its pungent soups of despair?

Manuel de Falla – Harpsichord Concerto

Another true story: Right about the same time, a composer offered to teach me harpsichord in return for helping his daughter with English. I declined, having already decided to devote myself to Noh. Twenty years later, I remember a couple of chants, but my body has long forgotten how to unfold a landscape in one sweep of the arm. How much luckier in love might I have been had my fingers learned all the intricate steps of modern gypsies on a horizontal staircase?

I-sang Yun – Muak

The other day, I heard an auto mechanic describe what happens with a vacuum leak: It isn’t that the vacuum is leaking out, he said; the air is leaking in! In a similar manner, just a breath of an air from the steppes – less than a whole melody – is enough to turn the pure, unchanging tones of Confucian music into sonic turmoil.

Charles Ives – Three Places in New England

Whenever I hear the phrase, “bedrock American values,” I think of literal granite in New England – what geologists call the Canadian Shield. I first fell in love with it as a child in Maine. Though the tourist comes to New England for a dose of lyrical maples and churches, a resident might come to prefer the stark look of granite and everything it hides.

Virgil Thomson – film score to The Plow that Broke the Plains

What once was carried off by the wind now washes into the Gulf of Mexico. One way or another, we’ll get back to those bedrock values! But just because the plow is smiling doesn’t mean it likes its work. And just because the tunes sound happy doesn’t mean we really know how to have fun.

Roger Sessions – The Black Maskers Suite

Sometimes tenderness is all in one direction, you know? Sometimes a falconer captures a hawk and keeps it for just one season, solicitous for that roll call of distances in its hooded gaze.

Bela Bartók – Miraculous Mandarin Suite

The exotic dancer’s genius is in what she withholds. Imagine falling in love with that still center of a wheel, despair growing like a ship’s captain becalmed in the age of sail.

John Antill – Corroboree Suite

Clowning was once a scared vocation. Any real or mythic figure, any inhabitant of air, land or water could ripple through the clown’s malleable form with the flicker of a shadow from the fire. His laughter was sometimes as frightening as a difficult birth.

Alberto Ginastera – Panambi Suite

A man from the pampas wanders into a forest for the first time, gets enthralled – or maybe spooked. A clearing just wide enough to support a blade of grass looks like a revelation. Beaten by the incessant rain, he dreams of fountains, roofed courtyards, an inner sanctum as resonant as a drum.

Ali Rahbari – Persian Mysticism in G

Once, a holy man loved his donkey almost as much as he loved God. When the donkey died on the road, he raised a grave mound over him, wept, and went on his way. In time, the local residents built a shrine and spread a legend about a dead saint, and pilgrims began to come. Many hearts were blown open by the encounter. This all happened in the key of G.

Alan Hovhaness – Symphony #2, Mysterious Mountain

The exile dreams of a mountain at the center of the world, having heard that, in an expanding universe, the definition of “position” is something like “an apparent center away from which everything flees.” He nurtures his growing solitude, and writes the symphony again – sixty-seven times in all.

Arnold Schoenberg – Moses und Aron

Though a brilliant librettist and composer, Schoenberg was unable to complete his only opera; his version ends with Moses despairing of his own inarticulateness in the face of the inexpressible. According to the Wikipedia, the famed discoverer of the twelve-tone technique “suffered from triskaidekaphobia (fear of the number thirteen).”

[I]t is said that the reason his late opera is called Moses and Aron, rather than Moses and Aaron […] is because the latter spelling has thirteen letters in it. He was born […] on the thirteenth of the month, and thought of this as a portent. He once refused to rent a house because it had the number 13, and feared turning 76, because its digits add up to thirteen. In an interesting story […] he feared Friday, July 13, 1951, as it was the first Friday the 13th of his 76th year. He reportedly stayed in bed that day preparing for what he thought as his death day. After begging her husband to wake up and “quit his nonsense,” his skeptical wife was shocked when her husband simply uttered the word “harmony” and died.

We live in dissonance – remember that.

Listening post

Five a.m. A low cloud ceiling and the scent of rain. Moments after I come outside and sit down with my coffee on the dark porch, I hear the scattered, flute-like calls of tundra swans off to the east. A couple minutes later, more swans, a little closer and in the other direction, also headed north. Then a flock passes right over the house. I’m a little surprised they’re still migrating; I’ve been hearing (and sometimes seeing) tundra swans off and on for about a month, now.

It’s noisy this morning. But the highway sounds are coming up the hollow rather than over the ridge from the west, and mingle with the sounds of freight trains going through the gap. Odd that these two, major sources of anthropogenic noise here should strike my ear so differently – I love the rumble and whistles of trains almost as much as I hate the soulless whine of traffic. At any rate, I’m sure it’s partly this sonic blur of mechanical noise that makes the swans’ music seem so scattered: only the loudest notes are making it through.

About a hundred and fifty feet away along the woods’ edge, something is moving about in the dry leaves and ripping at the bark of logs or trees. It sounds too loud to be a porcupine. Maybe a bear? They could be out of hibernation by now.

From up behind the house, a dry, feline cough. We do get bobcats coming through now and then, and there are occasional sightings of cougars in Pennsylvania, but I’m betting that this is Felis domesticus – specifically, the black and white female who we think just gave birth to a litter of kittens in the basement of the barn, her major annual contribution to the local food chain. She’s probably working over the fresh chicken bones in the stone-lined compost pile we call Fort Garbage.

Light slowly seeps through the cloud cover. Whatever has been making so much noise at the edge of the woods is coming out onto the driveway. To my disappointment, its silhouette is much too small for a bear; it’s round and waddley – a porcupine. It crosses the big grate at the bend of the driveway, then goes down into the stream and comes up on the lawn near the dog statue. It noses around in the yard for the next ten to fifteen minutes.

But now something else is coming from the direction where I’d heard all the bear-like noises earlier. Another basketball-sized shadow waddles across the springhouse lawn, crosses the driveway, and heads straight under the front porch and on into its burrow under the dining room. Well, that explains it: two porcupines!

I’ve been listening for the peent of woodcocks – we’ve had two of them calling almost every night since the second week of March – but the highway noise drowns them out. At about 5:35, though, I hear the telltale whistle of wings, followed by the loud chirps emitted by a woodcock at the apex of its aerial display. And no sooner does the first one finish then the second one launches into flight.

About five minutes later, the dawn chorus begins: first the song sparrow, as if testing the waters, followed quickly by Carolina wren, phoebe, field sparrow and cardinal. A robin starts up its motor: puttputt, putt, putt. The cat pads down the driveway, rounds the bend at the big grate, and continues off down the hollow. The porcupine in the front yard stops doing whatever it had been doing, turns around and waddles down the road after the cat. What could they be up to? Should I be worried?

Just as I’m about to go inside, at 5:46, I hear the deer beginning to stir up in the woods. They’ve presumably spent much of the night bedded down in the laurel. It’s light enough now that I can just make out the shape of the lead animal as she crosses a clearing, and the next in line a few seconds later. I stand and stretch, and two white flags appear dimly among the trees. A hoof stamps once, twice, three times. As I turn toward the door, there’s a commotion of hooves on dry leaves, as if a large deck of cards were being shuffled.

I am reading Gregory of Nyssa: But how can that which is invisible reveal itself in the night?

The song sparrow’s song

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As I headed out on a walk this morning, I snapped a picture of this male song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) in full throat. Song sparrows hold forth virtually year-round, but in my family, for some reason, we tend to typecast them as prophets of eternal spring. For example, in her book Appalachian Spring (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991), my mother noted under March 13:

Song sparrows are almost always with us, but March brings them in to pack their breeding territory as tightly and as early as possible. Despite the weather, which today was hazy and cold, they all proclaimed, “Hip-hip-hurrah, boys! Spring is here!”

Mom claims she got this mnemonic from an old National Geographic record. I’m here to tell you it’s not widely attested in the popular literature. But someone named Tomm Lorenzin has compiled a helpful BirdSong Mnemonics page that includes our family’s favored onomatopoeia (albeit with an extra hip) alongside two others: Maids-maids-maids-put-on-your-tea-kettle-ettle-ettle (the mnemonic Thoreau preferred), and Madge, Madge, Madge pick beetles off, the water’s hot.

As Dave Berry would say, I swear I’m not making this up.

I try to avoid reading music criticism as a general rule. The following passage from the Birds of North America Song Sparrow monograph (No. 704, Peter Arcese et. al., Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Academy of Natural Sciences, 2002) wouldn’t seem out of place in the liner notes for some old Eliott Carter record:

Song a varied series of 2-6 phrases; 3 or 4 phrases common. Introductory phrases usually with 1-20 pure notes or complexes, but [Citations omitted.]

One nifty thing about song sparrows is that, unlike with many songbirds, the human ear can easily distinguish between the songs of individual birds. Considering the abundant variations within a single bird’s repertoire, and the variations between the many regional dialects, there’s no wonder birders can’t agree on a single onomatopoeic interpretation. But the “spring is here” business may not be pure fancy. I think Frank Chapman (Bird-Life: A Guide to the Study of Our Common Birds, D. Appleton and Company, 1910) captured the essence of it in his description of what was then known as Melospiza fasciata:

His modest chant always suggests good cheer and contentment, but heard in silent February it seems the divinest bird to which mortal ever listened. The magic of his voice bridges the cold months of early spring; as we listen to him the brown fields seem green, flowers bloom, and the bare branches become clad with softly rustling leaves.

So hip-hip-hurrah, boys and girls – and Happy Equinox!