Archive for the ‘General post’ Category

Tuesday poem: Ballad of the bread man

Tuesday, December 24th, 2013

Ballad of the Breadman
by Charles Causley

Mary stood in the kitchen
Baking a loaf of bread.
An angel flew in the window
‘We’ve a job for you,’ he said.

‘God in his big gold heaven
Sitting in his big blue chair,
Wanted a mother for his little son.
Suddenly saw you there.’

Mary shook and trembled,
‘It isn’t true what you say.’
‘Don’t say that,’ said the angel.
‘The baby’s on its way.’

Joseph was in the workshop
Planing a piece of wood.
‘The old man’s past it,’ the neighbours said.
‘That girl’s been up to no good.’

‘And who was that elegant fellow,’
They said, ‘in the shiny gear?’
The things they said about Gabriel
Were hardly fit to hear.

Mary never answered,
Mary never replied.
She kept the information,
Like the baby, safe inside.

It was the election winter.
They went to vote in the town.
When Mary found her time had come
The hotels let her down.

The baby was born in an annexe
Next to the local pub.
At midnight, a delegation
Turned up from the Farmers’ club.

They talked about an explosion
That made a hole on the sky,
Said they’d been sent to the Lamb and Flag
To see God come down from on high.

A few days later a bishop
And a five-star general were seen
With the head of an African country
In a bullet-proof limousine.

‘We’ve come,’ they said ‘with tokens
For the little boy to choose.’
Told the tale about war and peace
In the television news.

After them came the soldiers
With rifle and bombs and gun,
Looking for enemies of the state.
The family had packed up and gone.

When they got back to the village
The neighbours said, to a man,
‘That boy will never be one of us,
Though he does what he blessed well can.’

He went round to all the people
A paper crown on his head.
Here is some bread from my father.
Take, eat, he said.

Nobody seemed very hungry.
Nobody seemed to care.
Nobody saw the God in himself
Quietly standing there.

He finished up in the papers.
He came to a very bad end.
He was charged with bringing the living to life.
No man was that prisoner’s friend.

There’s only one kind of punishment
To fit that kind of crime.
They rigged a trial and shot him dead.
They were only just in time.

They lifted the young man by the leg,
They lifted him by the arm,
They locked him in a cathedral
In case he came to harm.

They stored him safe as water
Under seven rocks.
One Sunday morning he burst out
Like a jack-in-the-box.

Through the town he went walking.
He showed them the holes in his head.
Now do you want any loaves? he cried.
‘Not today,’ they said.

(Used by permission of David Higham Associates)

I have used a reproduction of one of Stanley Spencer’s paintings of Christ in the wilderness because I love that sequence, and because this one – the ‘foxes have holes … but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head’ one – seems to chime well with Causley’s amazing poem.

For more Tuesday poems go to the main hub site, where a different poem is posted each week. Further poems can be found on the blogs of the Tuesday poet members in the sidebar.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Anzac Biscuits: an analysis of substance

Monday, December 9th, 2013

Some weeks ago I decided to make Anzac biscuits, inspired by a kind neighbour and friend who’d brought me a batch of them in aid of my recovery. Glen isn’t an Australian or a New Zealander, but her Anzac biscuits are nevertheless truly excellent. They are slightly resistant to the bite, but not too resistant, and not too crisp. Not exactly crunchy, either: crunchy is wrong for an Anzac. Not too much dessicated coconut (I don’t really like the taste of that but you can’t leave it out, it’s part of the Great Tradition). A little bit chewy, but not too chewy – more lively than chewy, actually. And that authentic deep background flavour of buttery golden syrup. Altogether excellent: thank you Glen!

(And here for a moment I digress, in case you don’t know about Anzac biscuits. Their origin is yet another historical food disagreement between New Zealand and Australia, like Pavlova, which both countries claim as their own invention. The invented Anzac biscuit history which both countries share is that the biscuits were sent to soldiers in the First World War, ‘ANZAC’ being an acronym for the ‘Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’ who fought at Gallipoli. But it seems that those original and brave men had to make do with rock hard ships’ biscuits, and never got any Anzac biscuits at all. Read all about it here.) Maybe the Anzac biscuit already existed, and then had the name of the ANZACs attached to it. Digression ends.)

So, inspired by their deliciousness, I got out my Edmonds Classics recipe book. (Another digression is now required. The Edmunds recipe book is the biggest selling book ever published in New Zealand: over four million copies have been sold since the first edition of 1908. The book I have, though, is a relatively recent publication: my elder sister has possession of our mother’s edition of the original Edmunds book from the 1950s.)

Then I assembled the ingredients. I had to fight for the last tin of golden syrup in the supermarket aisle, too, grabbing it just ahead of a young man. “Flapjacks!” he offered as his excuse; “Anzacs,” I replied firmly, and he gave way. So then, as the triumphant owner of a tin of golden syrup as well as all the other ingredients, I made the biscuits. And blow me down, if the Anzacs from the Edmonds recipe weren’t classics at all: not in my view. They’re good, I don’t pretend they weren’t, but they did not – could not – match my idea of proper Anzacs.

Too plump.

Too soft.

Too close to the whole look and feel of an American oatmeal cookie.

How confusing is that?

We ate them, of course, and I even made a second batch and gave those away to two Australian friends, who loved them. (Maybe a soft, plump Anzac is an Australian speciality?)  And then I gave in, and asked Glen for her recipe. But when I read it – well, blow me down all over again, Glen’s recipe doesn’t have any bicarb in it!

No bicarb at all? In an Anzac biscuit true to the Great Tradition? Surely that’s not possible?

By this stage of the saga I’d put out a more general call for recipes, and now – for pity’s sake – I have four recipes, all subtly yet significantly different, one from another.

  1. One without bicarb, which I know tastes delicious even though it surely couldn’t be called a true Anzac.
  2. One that produced a soft, cookie-like result. Close– very close – but no cigar.
  3. One that was alluringly close to my memory of a true Anzac, but which veered just a tad too close to an over-crisp result for complete authenticity.
  4. One that had the relative balance of oatmeal and coconut wrong.

So I plan to spend at least some of the holidays testing batches of Anzacs. If I discover perfection (and the true Anzac) along that delicious path, I’ll let you know. And if not? Well, I’ll just start all over again with date loaf recipes, say I smugly, secure in the secret knowledge that I already have the perfect date loaf recipe… Oh, OK, secret no longer, huh? But still perfect.

The “today isn’t Tuesday but this is still a poem, poem”. Aimless love.

Thursday, November 28th, 2013


by Billy Collins

This morning as I walked along the lakeshore,
I fell in love with a wren
and later in the day with a mouse
the cat had dropped under the dining room table.

In the shadows of an autumn evening,
I fell for a seamstress
still at her machine in the tailor’s window,
and later for a bowl of broth,
steam rising like smoke from a naval battle.

This is the best kind of love, I thought,
without recompense, without gifts,
or unkind words, without suspicion,
or silence on the telephone.

The love of the chestnut,
the jazz cap and one hand on the wheel.

No lust, no slam of the door –
the love of the miniature orange tree,
the clean white shirt, the hot evening shower,
the highway that cuts across Florida.

No waiting, no huffiness, or rancor –
just a twinge every now and then

for the wren who had built her nest
on a low branch overhanging the water
and for the dead mouse,
still dressed in its light brown suit.

But my heart is always propped up
in a field on its tripod,
ready for the next arrow.

After I carried the mouse by the tail
to a pile of leaves in the woods,
I found myself standing at the bathroom sink
gazing down affectionately at the soap,

so patient and soluble,
so at home in its pale green soap dish.
I could feel myself falling again
as I felt its turning in my wet hands
and caught the scent of lavender and stone.

I love Billy Collins’ poetry – its intimacy and apparent simplicity so often strike to the heart of his chosen subjects as well as of his readers. This one is especially immediate, and it’s also particularly resonant for me because I so often feel a burst of happiness – of love or connection: call it what you will – for unexpected objects. And Collins’ affection for soap, which he expresses in the last stanza, is something with which I found an instant happy connection – I’ve developed a love affair with the soap supplied at the peerless Crown & Castle hotel in Orford, and buy it in extravagant quantities whenever I’m there.

So, I hear you, Billy Collins. And thank you.

If you’d like to read more poems go to the main hub site, where a different poem is posted each week. Further poems can be found on the blogs of the Tuesday poet members in the sidebar.

Tuesday Poem: Fall Back

Monday, October 21st, 2013

Fall Back, by T. Clear

It’s returned, that hour lost last April,
slipped in at 2am while a half-moon gleamed
in the pine. Hovered while I slept,

unclaimed angel, tick-tock.
But I don’t desire to use it yet —
I want to be selfish, I want to hoard.

I want to tear it into ten-minute bits,
fold one into my wallet for the late appointment,
one in the vegetable bin when lolla rosa

need last until supper. Under my pillow
to extend the dream, in the oven to slow
Quick Yellow Cake. I’ll give one to my son

to get out of jail free. And one
I’ll bury in the garden in eternal plastic,
mark an X with apples. Maybe

I’ll forget it’s there. And just maybe,
in the next century someone will unearth
a ten-minute treasure, spend it lavishly.

© 2010 T. Clear

Therese posted this poem last October and I loved it as soon as I read it – it made me laugh out loud, for one thing, and on further reading I appreciated the imagery and extended metaphors that she’d used in such a light-handed fashion. And it’s such a good idea to hoard that extra hour we get when the clocks change back from Summer Time.

I remember that once, years ago, an American friend and I set off into London to go to a high Anglican mass (don’t ask) and discovered too late that the clocks had changed and we were an hour early for the service. The priest fixed us with what felt like a stern and challenging eye: “And what,” he asked, “will you do with this extra hour that God has given you?” Apart from the fact that it hadn’t been God’s idea to fiddle with the clocks George and I couldn’t answer the question, and we made our mumbled excuses, shuffling off out the door before the priest could make some worthy suggestions.

Well, thanks to Therese, now I know an excellent answer. And this coming Sunday, when our clocks go back again, I intend to lie in bed and invent my own version of her 10-minute sections.

If you’d like to browse through more Tuesday poems you can go to the main hub site, where a main poem is posted each week. Further poems can be found on the blogs of the Tuesday poet members in the sidebar.

Checking occlusion downstream, or don’t wait for the bleep!

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

Brace yourselves, I have news for you all: being in hospital’s not like it is on the telly. I fondly remember those early episodes of E.R. when George Clooney was in it, and he spent a lot of time running down hospital corridors, often holding a cute yet vulnerable baby, and calling out things like “Have you got the central line in yet?” (I scorn modern hospital dramas, which seem more about the back love stories of doctors and nurses than about the techie medical stuff that made E.R. fascinating. Well, that and gorgeous George: an unbeatable combo.)

Well now. I recently spent more than five weeks in hospital, much of it in Intensive Care or High Dependency units. I had two significant operations, three general anaesthetics, and (for that matter) three sequential central lines inserted and removed. (You have to sort of hang upside down for part of that procedure: seriously weird.)  I was on IV drips for absolutely everything: food, drugs, antibiotics, blood transfusions: ‘Nil By Mouth’ carried to extremes. It is probably the most extraordinary experience of my life so far, and one I’m still trying to understand.

What remains most powerfully is gratitude: I’ve never before encountered such a winning combination of single-minded kindness and professional expertise. The entire staff, from the kitchens to the surgical consultants, were a professional as well as a personal delight.  I’d no idea how high-tech modern medicine is (those bleeping machines! those scientific solutions!) until I encountered it all. And I think the other most lasting pleasure was discovering that almost all the staff (from the kitchens to the surgical consultants) were the children of immigrants. There were several Irish nurses, and some from Australia and New Zealand, but in general the nursing staff’s families were from South East Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, and the Philippines. So let’s raise a cheer for the children of those much-maligned economic migrants, without whom none of our hospitals would function.

I suspect I’m now left with fading memories: only the highlights (and probably some of the lowlights) will remain. (In some ways the whole thing was like an uncut version of E.R., with only an occasional speeded-up moment of horror.) A friend of mine recently had a heart attack at an airport (excellent choice of venue, Richard, the paramedics are right there) and is still in recovery. He says this, and I think it’s true:

“One of the better things about our consciousness is that, in my experience at least, ordeals wither and become fuzzy, indistinct memories. I don’t think that time heals but I do think that it makes space for experiences to shape-shift; they don’t morph into fiction exactly but what remains is the salience of the unexpected and often trivial and the relative absence of the ghastly stuff. Shrinks worry about repression but I think that it’s a blessing.”

Me too, Richard. Me too.

And for the world of Clooney fans out there, here’s a memorable clip:

A strange interlude of meta-language

Sunday, June 16th, 2013

Today I give you three of the greats to whom, this week, I am bowing especially low: Eugene O’Neill, Carol Ann Duffy, and Leonard Cohen. And when I pause to wonder if they would also admire each other I think yes, I believe they would, although we can’t ask Eugene O’Neill any more. But I bet if he’d survived to encounter their work he’d have loved it.

I’m collecting these three artists in one post because I saw O’Neill’s play ‘Strange Interlude’ yesterday (a brilliant production at London’s National Theatre, catch it if you possibly can) and read a terrific article in the programme about the author. (And I heard Carol Ann Duffy on the radio by chance today. And Leonard Cohen? He’s a constant for me.)

(Digression begins. One of the very good things about the programmes at the National Theatre is that they always contain background articles that are worth reading. I remember arriving early for a performance of Tom Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia’ about 20 years ago, and was thus able to study the programme ahead of the performance. This good fortune enabled me to take the intellectual high ground at the interval and explain chaos theory to my companions, all because of an extremely helpful programme article which they hadn’t had time to read. Digression ends.)

The article in the ‘Strange Interlude’ programme is by Hilton Als, and its excellence will be no surprise to anyone who, like me, reads Hilton Als in the New Yorker. His comments on O’Neill’s use of language in dialogue are gloriously illuminating, and Als sets his theories against the background of his first encounter with the O’Neill biographies by Louis Sheaffer, and his own journey to Atlanta years ago to visit his mother. And it was when Als entered “the theatre of [his own] family” that he recognised O’Neill’s play as a “a world of meta-language in the form of soliloquies that contrasted with the ‘real,’ and banal language we used to presumably communicate with others as we talked about everything and nothing at all. Language is a mask….”

At the end of the article Als imagines himself unmasking his own response to ‘Strange Interlude’ in thought-dialogue (meta-language, in other words) to Nina [the play’s main character]. He says: “Nina, I have loved you for a very long time, all the way back in Atlanta when I was still a boy visiting my mother, wondering where love had gone and would it ever come again, and here it was again in O’Neill’s plays which glistened in my mind in the dark night …and you, Nina, splitting the night with your talk and O’Neill’s language, each expressing something about the artist, and his muse, and their respective, family-haunted hearts.”

And what you might be thinking by now, if you grew up inside any family at all, might be something like – well, yes of course. That’s families for you, no question. So?

Well, the “so” for me is that I now understand that this kind of meta-language – the language of hidden truths, of the human heart’s masked memories and desires, the language of love and loss and anguish and delight – that’s the language of poetry and music and song. The language that dissolves masks. And it’s something that both Carol Ann Duffy and Leonard Cohen do, as well as O’Neill.

Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry always seems to me to live without masks, especially in the poem I heard her read today on Radio 3, in a repeat of last year’s ‘Private Passions’ programme. The poem is called ‘Music’. I can’t reproduce it all because I haven’t applied for the relevant copyright permission, and I can’t find the poem on the internet so I can’t provide a link to it, either. (The link to the BBC’s website for the ‘Private Passions proramme, however, is this, which includes the poem as well as a glorious collection of music, and you can listen to it all there for 7 more days.) But here’s an excerpt from her poem, to be going on with.

When the light’s gone,
it’s what the dying choose,
the music we use at funerals –
psalms listed in roman numerals;
solo soprano singing to a grave;
sometimes the pipes, a harp.
Do you think music hath charms?
Do you think it hears and heals our hearts?

And Leonard Cohen? Well, he trades in meta-physical as well as meta-language spades, in almost every song he has written, especially in recent years. Especially this one.


Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love.

Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone
Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon
Show me slowly what I only know the limits of
Dance me to the end of love.

Dance me to the wedding now, dance me on and on
Dance me very tenderly and dance me very long
We’re both of us beneath our love, we’re both of us above
Dance me to the end of love.

Dance me to the children who are asking to be born
Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn
Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn
Dance me to the end of love.

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in
Touch me with your naked hand or touch me with your glove
Dance me to the end of love.

And for your further pleasure, here he is singing it.

At an angle to the universe

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

I have stolen the title of this blog post from Paul Bailey, who used it in his wonderful review of a new edition of Cavafy’s complete poems in last Saturday’s Guardian. (You can read the review here.) It is, in turn, a quote from EM Forster, who knew Cavafy in Alexandria during World War I and apparently said of him that he stood “absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe”. And that metaphor seems absolutely perfect, for Cavafy in particular as well as for some other writers and artists: Rothko for instance, and perhaps Seamus Heaney. (Trying to think of creative artists to whom it applies reminds me of Alex Danchev’s wonderfully telling way of dividing visual artists between those whose paintings are saying, Look at this! and those whose paintings are saying, Look at me!)

But back to Paul Bailey’s review. I particularly like learning new things about Cavafy, for whom I have a deep and extravagant admiration, and Paul Bailey has given me the pleasure of another image; that of Cavafy setting down a few lines of a new poem on a sheet of paper and putting that in an envelope for later inspection, revision and expansion. It seems that he stored a mass of such envelopes in his apartment, and only opened them again “when he felt capable of bringing the half-poems they contained to a satisfactory end.” So contained, so controlled, so precisely laboured, those apparently spontaneous creations. I love to imagine that lonely and particular process.

The new book that Paul Bailey reviews is C.V. Cavafy: The Complete Poems, translated by the present keeper of the Cavafy flame, Daniel Mendelsohn. (I have his earlier compilation of the Collected Poems.) Bailey’s review commends the detail and scope of his scholarship but also points out some interesting infelicities in his translations, and contrasts one example with a translation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. That makes me feel relaxed about my own (far less scholarly and knowledgeable) reservations that relate to several poems within the earlier Mendelsohn collection. The thing is, I’ve loved Cavafy’s poetry, and especially “Ithaka”, since I first read a translation of that in a Penguin book called Four Greek Poets, published in 1966. Much later I discovered that those translations were by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, and later still I encountered Daniel Mendelsohn’s version and have never been able to like it as much as the original (well, what I think of as the original) translation.

See what you think. I’ve posted ”Ithaka” before and I will probably find good reasons to post it again several times before it’s read – as I hope it will be – at my funeral.

So here is the Daniel Mendelsohn version:-

ITHACA by C.V. Cavafy
translated by Daniel Mendelsohn

As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with understanding.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them,
you’ll never come across them on your way
as long as your mind stays aloft, and a choice
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
savage Poseidon; you’ll not encounter them
unless you carry them within your soul,
unless your soul sets them up before you.

Hope that the road is a long one.
Many may the summer mornings be
when—with what pleasure, with what joy—
you first put in to harbors new to your eyes;
may you stop at Phoenician trading posts
and there acquire fine goods:
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and heady perfumes of every kind:
as many heady perfumes as you can.
To many Egyptian cities may you go
so you may learn, and go on learning, from their sages.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind;
to reach her is your destiny.
But do not rush your journey in the least.
Better that it last for many years;
that you drop anchor at the island an old man,
rich with all you’ve gotten on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey;
without her you’d not have set upon the road.
But she has nothing left to give you any more.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you.
As wise as you’ll have become, with so much experience,
you’ll have understood, by then, what these Ithacas mean.

And here is my preferred version:

ITHAKA by C.P. Cavafy
translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

When you set out for Ithaka
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – do not fear them:
such as these you will never find
as long as your thought is lofty, as long as a rare
emotion touch your spirit and your body.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – you will not meet them
unless you carry them in your soul,
unless your soul raise them up before you.

Ask that your way be long.
At many a summer dawn to enter
-with what gratitude, what joy -
ports seen for the first time;
to stop at Phoenician trading centres,
and to buy good merchandise, mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes of every kind,
sensuous perfumes as lavishly as you can;
to visit many Egyptian cities,
to gather stores of knowledge from the learned.

Have Ithaka always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don’t in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.

Ithaka gave you the splendid journey,
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn’t anything else to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka hasn’t deceived you.
So wise have you become, of such experience,
that already you’ll have understood what these Ithakas mean.

Tuesday poem: The lesson of the moth

Monday, March 4th, 2013

Posting a piece last week about the palmetto bugs here in Key West sparked a memory of Don Marquis’s poems about Archy the cockroach and Mehitabel the cat. If you haven’t yet encountered these I recommend tracking them down: they were first published in the 1930s.  Archy is a cockroach with the soul of a poet, and  his friend Mehitabel is an alley cat with a celebrated past who claims she was Cleopatra in a previous life.

“expression is the need of my soul,” declares Archy, who labored as a free-verse poet in an earlier incarnation. At night, alone, he dives furiously on the keys of Don Marquis’ typewriter to describe a cockroach’s view of the world, rich with cynicism and humor. It’s difficult enough to operate the typewriter’s return bar to get a fresh line of paper; all of Archy’s dispatches are written lowercase, and without punctuation, because he is unable simultaneously to hit both shift and a letter key to produce a capital letter. These days of course he’d have a lot less trouble with a computer keyboard, always supposing he could turn on the computer in the first place …

Anyway, here’s one of Archy’s poems: enjoy.

the lesson of the moth

i was talking to a moth
the other evening
he was trying to break into
an electric light bulb
and fry himself on the wires

why do you fellows
pull this stunt i asked him
because it is the conventional
thing for moths or why
if that had been an uncovered
candle instead of an electric
light bulb you would
now be a small unsightly cinder
have you no sense

plenty of it he answered
but at times we get tired
of using it
we get bored with the routine
and crave beauty
and excitement
fire is beautiful
and we know that if we get
too close it will kill us
but what does that matter
it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
than to live a long time
and be bored all the while
so we wad all our life up
into one little roll
and then we shoot the roll
that is what life is for
it is better to be a part of beauty
for one instant and then cease to
exist than to exist forever
and never be a part of beauty
our attitude toward life
is come easy go easy
we are like human beings
used to be before they became
too civilized to enjoy themselves

and before i could argue him
out of his philosophy
he went and immolated himself
on a patent cigar lighter
i do not agree with him
myself i would rather have
half the happiness and twice
the longevity

but at the same time i wish
there was something i wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself


For more Tuesday poems you can go to the main hub site, where there is a poem posted each week. Further poems can be found on the blogs of the Tuesday poet members in the sidebar.

Of ants and palmetto bugs

Saturday, February 23rd, 2013

The other morning here in Key West I saw a dead palmetto bug on our deck. You might think that palmetto bugs are just cockroaches and that ‘palmetto bug’ is simply a nicer name for them, but it ain’t that simple. Some say that’s the case; others argue they are not true members of the cockroach family at all. Some say that palmetto bugs are actually American cockroaches (rather than one of the many other varieties throughout the world); others dismiss that idea with disdain. What I know for sure (at least I think I do) is that the proper name for palmetto bugs is Eurycotis floridana and if that doesn’t make them cockroaches, I don’t know what would.

The real problem, as I see it, is not what their true name is or is not. The real problem is twofold: (a) palmetto bugs are rather large, and (b) – oh horrors – they can fly. The first time I ever came to Key West (which must be more than 30 years ago) two palmetto bugs buzz-bombed my head when we were sitting outside on this very same deck, eating dinner. One of them got entangled in my hair for a few nightmare minutes. I’m still having therapy.

In the intervening years between then and now, palmetto bugs have become a lot less numerous here. You seldom see them indoors any more (except maybe one or two lying dead behind the fridge if you happen to clean there) and you never see scorpions, or snakes, or raccoons, all of which were interestingly numerous in the old days. I suspect they’ve all retreated up the Florida Keys to less human-populated areas. So I was slightly surprised to see one on the deck, and glad – glad, I tell you! – that it was thoroughly dead.

I had it in mind to get a dustpan and sweep it into the trash, but in the tropics you tend to delay any brisk activity for another hour, another day or indeed even for an entirely different year, so I didn’t hurry. And the next time I looked, the palmetto bug’s body was surrounded by about 60 ants, grouping themselves busily for action.
The ants in question are tiny ones (there are many different kinds here) so moving a large object like a palmetto bug is a major enterprise for them, and I was fascinated to watch them. And once they got started they moved the body with surprising speed and ease: it looked as if they’d got it on rollers. (It actually reminded me of that ship scene at the beginning of Les Mis The Movie: the scale was about the same.)

But the thing I didn’t understand was why the ants kept circling, instead of marching steadily forwards. Could it have been miscommunication amongst the team? It reminded me of a poem that my father used to recite, about a Roman called Horatius holding a bridge against the enemy.

Was none who would be foremost

To lead such dire attack:

But those behind cried ‘Forward!’

And those before cried ‘Back!’

And backward now and forward

Wavers the deep array;

And on the tossing sea of steel,

To and fro the standards reel;

And the victorious trumpet-peal

Dies fitfully away.

Were the ants undecided, or maybe un-agreed, about where to go? Was it the fault of the leaders with the feelers? Or were they trying to position the body so as to insert it down between the slats of wood?

“You’ll never manage to do that,” I called to them. “There’s not enough space.” But on and on they went, twirling the body this way and that. I was, as you might imagine, tempted to intervene but I managed to stop myself from “helping”. I told myself they knew what they were doing and I did not. I thought they must have a master plan of their own, and I left them to it.

When I came back they’d apparently altered their ideas as well as their direction, and were heading for the garden at the side of the desk. Then they dragged the body under the side fence and – I suppose – into a nest.

Game over.

But if there are any naturalists reading this, could you tell me what was with the twirling?

I took some video of the activities on my iPhone but WordPress tells me the file is too big to upload. If I find out how to make it smaller, I’ll add it later. But meantime here is a photo of a palmetto bug: avert your eyes now if you’re feeling squeamish. It’s dead. You don’t have to worry.

Poetry in the Tower of Song

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

“No comparison can be drawn between Leonard Cohen and any other phenomenon.”

I’ve been thinking about writing a post about Leonard Cohen ever since I saw him in performance in Paris last September. I was completely spellbound by the experience. I haven’t recovered from the spell. I accept that I may never recover, and will probably be the better, and the happier, for that.

But I am still finding it hard to discover the right way to say what I want; maybe I’ve become infected by Leonard Cohen’s well-documented song-writing difficulties. It took him five years to write “Hallelujah” and there are several extant versions of that plus many alternate verses and modifications, and now also a whole published book just about that one song. (The biography of a song, complete with an ISBN? How cool is that?)

Anyway, writing about Leonard Cohen turns out to be, for me, as tricky as herding cats. I get one satisfactory phrase lined up in my mind and the others immediately melt away, or reveal their stubborn inadequacy for the task in hand. Whatever the cause, I just don’t seem to have the words to organise this task – but on the other hand, I certainly know someone who does. One heck of a guy, with a speciality in smoke and mirrors.

The concert in Paris made me re-think the whole idea of good fortune. Leonard Cohen has been part of the soundtrack of my life since the late 1960s, which must be the case for many of my generation and tastes. But I didn’t, back then, put him at the very top of my favourites – I admired him, yes, but it’s only since he started touring again in 2008 that my appreciation deepened into something close to amazed awe. And for me – as for many others – the experience of a live concert changed it all over again. I knew I was in the presence of an extraordinary talent: one I’d not fully recognised before.

Of course, his work has changed over time, as have I. His recent songs seem freighted with layers of meaning and complex emotions that move me deeply. His miraculous creative revival offers truly profound and deeply serious ideas, while his themes of freedom, loss and redemption are universally uplifting and challenging.

My current favourite  is “Alexandra Leaving”, on which Cohen and Sharon Robinson (his long-time writing partner) started work in 1985, and didn’t release until 2001. I first heard it at the Paris concert but it wasn’t until a friend (and fellow Cohen groupie) pointed it out that I realised the song was inspired by a wonderful poem by Constantine Cavafy, “The God Abandons Antony”. The Cavafy poem I love the most is “Ithaka”, which I have long planned to have read at my funeral (friends please take note, though as far as I know there’s no need to start rehearsing just yet), but I did already know and love this poem too; I just hadn’t made the connection. Too mesmerised by the song, I expect. I am now addicted to “Alexandra Leaving” and no day feels complete unless I listen to it at least once. (A really good day is one where I can put it on repeat play for a while. Today is one of those. Yesterday was, too. I’m clearly on a roll.)

In Constantine Cavafy’s poem, the Antony of the title is Marcus Antonius, Cleopatra’s lover. The poem refers to Plutarch’s story that, when Anthony was besieged in Alexandria by Octavian, the night before the city fell into enemy hands, he heard the sounds of instruments and voices making their way through the city and realised that the god Bacchus (Dionysus), his longtime protector, was deserting him. You could also understand it as a poem about facing any other great loss, with Alexandria a symbol for any beloved city or woman or past glory or fading powers, but, above all else, I believe, a symbol for life.

In Leonard Cohen’s song, Alexandria has become a woman – Alexandra – and the lyrics are focused on honouring and regretting the moment when her love has been lost. It captures and develops Cavafy’s poem in moving and memorable detail, and seems to me to make perfect harmony with the original.

See what you think. Here’s Constantine Cavafy’s poem, written in 1911:

The God Abandons Antony

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

Here’s the song written by Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson in 1999:

Alexandra Leaving

Suddenly the night has grown colder.
Some deity preparing to depart.
Alexandra hoisted on his shoulder,
they slip between the sentries of your heart.

Upheld by the simplicities of pleasure,
they gain the light, they formlessly entwine;
and radiant beyond your widest measure
they fall among the voices and the wine.

lt’s not a trick, your senses all deceiving,
a fitful dream the morning will exhaust—
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving,
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

Even though she sleeps upon your satin.
Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
Do not say the moment was imagined,
Do not stoop to strategies like this.

As someone long prepared for this to happen,
Go firmly to the window. Drink it in.
Exquisite music, Alexandra laughing.
Your first commitments tangible again.

You who had the honor of her evening,
And by that honor had your own restored—
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Alexandra leaving with her lord.

Even though she sleeps upon your satin.
Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
Do not say the moment was imagined,
Do not stoop to strategies like this.

As someone long prepared for the occasion;
In full command of every plan you wrecked—
Do not choose a coward’s explanation
that hides behind the cause and the effect,

And you who were bewildered by a meaning,
Whose code was broken, crucifix uncrossed—
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

And here is the incomparable Sharon Robinson singing it – the video clip begins with Leonard Cohen reciting some of the words.

And for further indulgence, Leonard Cohen apparently in Henri Cartier Bresson mode.

And here’s a screen shot of the Paris concert, and I swear, I can see myself (and my friend Dee) in the audience. Over on the right, eleventh row back. Yay.