Thursday, October 27, 2011

Swimming and glasses

From Alan Hollinghurst's novel The Folding Star:
Part of the misery of swimming was that you couldn't do it in glasses; the surrender to cold water followed immediately on the surrender to a world of vague distances and confused identities, and as I stood squinting down the lanes in the dim hope of picking out Matt's dark head I had a moment's foretaste of the fears of the old, as you see them smiling anxiously against imagined threats and half-heard ridicule. [...] The showers were functional and fierce, a yellow-tiled room with six fixed nozzles and high up in one wall a narrow strip of meshed window that could be tugged open by a chain. I was amazed to pick up, through the crash of the water and the suck and wheeze of the drain, the putter of a boat's engine and a brief reek of burnt fuel. A canal must lie just outside, perhaps lapping against the very walls of the bath.

The first part of this resonated very strongly with me; I've been very nearsighted as long as I can remember, and (being messy and clumsy and lazy besides) have never been comfortable with the idea of contacts.

(Blogging has been v. light lately; I've been too preoccupied with job-seeking for my own good, but have finally managed to distract myself to some extent with work...)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The poem as zombie, the zombie as poet

Christopher Ricks on Philip Larkin, in Dylan's Visions of Sin:
This sentence [paraphrase of a Larkin poem] exercises a summary injustice. It is not much more than perfunctory gossip, whereas Larkin's three sentences are a poem. The poet makes these dry bones live -- or rather, since he is not a witch-doctor and the poem is not a zombie, he makes us care that these bones lived. 
(A phrase I remember hearing a lot in workshoppy college classes was "this sonnet comes to life in l. 10"; for some reason no one felt compelled to add that it staggers through the next five lines grunting and attempting to devour the reader's brain.)

Colson Whitehead on his zombie book:

For me, the terror of the zombie is that at any moment, your friend, your family, you neighbor, your teacher, the guy at the bodega down the street, can be revealed as the monster they've always been.

(Which, come to think of it, is apt if applied to Larkin, "the sewer under the national monument" etc.)

This bit from Elif Batuman's uncharacteristically boring NY'er article (gated; the outtakes on her blog are good though) caught my eye:
the endangered white-headed duck [...] has one of the highest penis-to-body ratios of all vertebrates. Its pliant, corkscrew-shaped penis is longer than its body, with a spiny base and brush-like tip. The first time Cagan observed one of these outgrowths, he thought the duck had been disemboweled. 

Puerile to pick this bit out, I know, but the piece is at its best in these sections.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

"He is na dog, he is a lam"

1. A house made entirely of vintage books (appropriately I got this from Random House's twitter feed):

2. From Sally Mapstone's LRB review of an edition of William Dunbar's poems:
Scots were not popular in late medieval Oxford. Two fellows of Merton came up before the college authorities in 1497 after a fracas in which one had accused the other of being a Scot. The perpetrator, William Ireland, was warned not to issue such an infamy against anyone else.

This stereotype was new to me:
The first of a pair of punning poems on James Dog, an officer in the Queen’s wardrobe, persistently declares, ‘Madame, ye heff a dangerous dog,’ and the second then just as assiduously corrects that statement: ‘He is na dog, he is a lam.’ [...] Unravelling the nature of Dunbar’s relationship with the Queen is even trickier because of Margaret’s appalling posthumous reputation among Scottish historians, in which the familiar stereotypes of the unstable, sexually malleable, meddling English female have played far too straightforward a part.

(The reviewed edition -- which I had checked out for much of college -- is notable partly for ordering the poems alphabetically by first line. This is actually what led me to the review: I was reminded by the abstract of Jenny Davidson's ABCs of the novel event (which I would definitely attend if I were in NYC) of alphabetical order as one obvious alternative to chronological order...)

3. Courtesy of Calista, a magnificent bit of scatological verse (John Oldham, "Upon the author of a play call'd Sodom"):
Vile Sot! who clapt with Poetry art sick,
And void'st Corruption, like a Shanker'd Prick.
Like Ulcers, thy impostum'd Addle Brains,
Drop out in Matter, which thy Paper stains:
Whence nauseous Rhymes, by filthy Births proceed,
As Maggots, in some T---rd, ingendring breed.
Thy Muse has got the Flow'rs, and they ascend,
As in some Green-sick Girl, at upper end.
Sure Nature made, or meant at least t'have don't,
Thy Tongue a Clytoris, thy Mouth a C---t:
How well a Dildoe, wou'd that place become,
To gag it up, and make't for ever dumb? 
Or (if I may ordain a Fate more fit)
For such foul, nasty, Excrements of Wit,
May they condemn'd to th'publick Jakes, be lent,
For me I'd fear the Piles, in vengeance sent
Shou'd I with them prophane my Fundament)
There bugger wiping Porters, when they shite,
And so thy Book it self, turn Sodomite.
See also: Language Log on excrement as metaphor; it is only a minor stretch to read LL's name in a scatological sense.

Monday, October 10, 2011

"Unjoynt that bittern!" Etc.

A link-dump:

1. James Wood reviews the new Hollinghurst novel in the NY'er, with more irritation than liking (nevertheless it sounds very much worth reading); here is his takedown of the Henry James pastiche:
In Hollinghurst’s new novel, “The Stranger’s Child” (Knopf; $27.95), the Jamesian cadences come in peristaltic waves: “This large claim seemed rather to evaporate in its later clauses.” “This was exactly Dudley’s version too, though the cool nerve of ‘improving’ made Daphne laugh.” [...] Sex itself—specifically, gay sex—is feared by one character as “the unimagined and yet vaguely dreaded thing.” It does a writer as talented as Hollinghurst few favors to be fossicking in fustian in this way; I spent too much time, while reading this often beautiful novel, itching to write a parody of Hollinghurst’s Jamesianism. (“Ralph’s cock was small but sincere; in the afternoon’s fading light, thinned by winter’s quick transit, it seemed to Hugh almost shyly noble. The two men could hear Lady Soames’s little lacquered laugh, somewhere downstairs. . . .” And so on.)

2. Teju Cole reviews Andre Aciman's Essays on Elsewhere (Aciman is v. much a personality in my imagination thanks to Lydia Davis's story "The Walk"). Here is Aciman on the kinds of lavender:
There were light, ethereal lavenders; some were mild and timid; others lush and overbearing; some tart, as if picked from the field and left to parch in large vats of vinegar; others were overwhelmingly sweet. Some lavenders ended up smelling like an herb garden; others, with hints of so many spices, were blended beyond recognition.

3. Jeff Gordinier (who?) ends up in the Hebridean island of Luing thanks to a Don Paterson poem:
What I found tantalizing about “our unsung innermost isle,” as Mr. Paterson put it, was the very obscurity of the place. It was obscure not because it was theatrically desolate and raw, but because it was the opposite of that. It was an island that just sat there and gazed out at all the more famous islands.
I didn't know the poem -- I ought to know Paterson's work much better than I do -- and wasn't bowled over by it (the ending, I think, is off-key) but I thought this bit was rhythmically very nice:
Kilda's antithesis,
yet still with its own tiny stubborn anthem,
its yellow milkwort and its stunted kye.

4. A wonderful list of nonce words from the 17th cent. for carving specific kinds of meat. Birds, for some reason, have many of the best ones (virtually all of these have potential euphemistic uses btw):
Rear that Goose.
Lift that Swan.
Spoil that Hen.
Frust that Chicken.
Unbrace that Duck or Mallard.
Dismember that Hern.
Display that Crane.
Disfigure that Peacock.
Unjoynt that Bittern.
Allay that Pheasant.
Mince that Plover.

I also liked "tame that crab" and "splat that pike" though.

5. Two strange news stories, about sharks invading a golf course in Brisbane and about a supposed Saddam Hussein lookalike being pursued by a supposed porn gang.


In other news, work is in a heightened degree of disarray because our automatic spam filter has gone rogue, marking (e.g.) correspondence with journals as spam! I can't figure out how to turn the filtering off...

Calista reminded me yesterday of an intriguingly nasty Rochester poem that I had blogged a long time ago (scroll 2/3 of the way down) as a bridge between Herrick and Pope. (It is a post that is quite needlessly tl;dr and badly organized, I don't remember what I was thinking at the time.)

Thursday, October 6, 2011


Robin Robertson, whose translation of the Transtromer book The Deleted World I will have to buy when it appears (being favorably disposed to both translator and translatee), records a delightfully untranslatable Swedish word:
the plosive musicality of Swedish words like “domkyrkoklocklang” lose all their aural resonance when they become a “peal of cathedral bells.”
[Cf. hottentottententententoonstelling] I take it the way the word parses is "clock-clang in the doom-church" (i.e., the church of judgments and decisions, the cathedral); nevertheless I am struck by the aural similarity to "ku klux klan" -- itself of apparently onomatopoeic origins -- as well as the perhaps more obvious similarity to Donkey Kong.

Related: the Guardian's selection of poems by Forward-Prize-winning poets is worth looking at.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Not what Berkeley meant at all

I have a weakness for well-put-together poems with Bishop Berkeley in them:

The Fountain

Feathers up fast, and steeples; then in clods
Thuds into its first basin; thence as surf
Smokes up and hangs; irregularly slops
Into its second, tattered like a shawl;
There, chill as rain, stipples a danker green,
Where urgent tritons lob their heavy jets.

For Berkeley this was human thought, that mounts
From bland assumptions to inquiring skies,
There glints with wit, fumes into fancies, plays
With its negations, and at last descends,
As by a law of nature to its bowl
Of thus enlightened but still common sense.

We who have no such confidence must gaze
With all the more affection on these forms,
These spires, these plumes, these calm reflections, these
Similitudes of surf and turf and shawl,
Graceful returns upon acceptances.
We ask of fountains only that they play,
Though that was not what Berkeley meant at all.

The phrase "graceful returns upon acceptances" in particular is worth keeping in mind.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

"To rise in froth or white fcum"

Wikipedia article on ataraxia:
Ataraxia (Ἀταραξία "tranquility") is a Greek term used by Pyrrho and Epicurus for a lucid state, characterized by freedom from worry or any other preoccupation. [...] For the Pyrrhonians, owing to one's inability to say which sense impressions are true and which ones are false, it is the quietude that arises from suspending judgment on dogmatic beliefs or anything non-evident and continuing to inquire. The experience was said to have fallen on the painter Apelles who was trying to paint the foamy saliva of a horse. He was so unsuccessful that, in a rage, he gave up and threw the sponge he was cleaning his brushes with at the medium, thus producing the effect of the horse's foam.[1]
This sent me off looking for a passage I seemed to remember from somewhere about the spittle of horses (actually cows) threading the wind, which led serendipitously to a good definition of "foam(v.)" in Dyche's New General English Dictionary, Peculiarly Calculated for the USE and IMPROVEMENT of such as are unacquainted with the LEARNED LANGUAGES:
FOAM (v.) to be vastly enraged, angry, or mad, so that the spittle is as it were dried up, and comes out of the mouth involuntarily, like a wild boar that is closely hunted, and wounded; also to rise in froth or white scum, like a turbulent or disturbed sea.