Strange Arts & Visual Delights
On February 15, 2015, terrorists decapitated on camera twenty Coptic Christians working in Libya, as well as worker from Ghana. The beheadings were rehearsed many times and filmed. One cannot remember every act of terror in our world—there are too many. I remember this one as a symbol of them all.
The Forgotten: A Memorial Service (1)
mouths dripping with the saliva of terror
—Czeslaw Milosz, “From the Chronicles of the Town of Pornic”
From afar I bear timid witness.
February 2015 – February 2024
Nine years have passed, nine winters
whose lies and self-deceptions
have not effaced the horror
Today I remember
Hani Abdel Messihah
one of twenty-one beheaded
on a cold beach just after
the day we give to Valentine--
a saint who, before we prettied him up,
was himself beheaded.
His color is red.
The surf on the beach
in Libya was bloody.
Join me in mourning.
MAGDA, HANI'S WIFE (2)
I felt he was an angel.
was in every word he said.
adapted from a Coptic hymn (3)
I am the mourning mother. Who now will comfort me?
Let the death of your Son be life to those who lose it.
The Mother of Jesus wept and then the watchers wept.
Let the death of your Son be life to those who lack it.
The dove sighed for the scattering of her family.
Let the death of your Son be life to those who seek it.
The daughters of Jerusalem cry for their lost sons.
Let the death of your Son be life to those who want it.
Come to Mary His mother to weep and comfort her.
Let the death of your Son be life to those who love Him.
I could not sleep--
in the street
another lonesome dog.
THE SWORD OF ISIS
I am a thirsty mouth--
your bodies were
my drinking cup.
THE ORANGE JUMPSUITS
In me you looked alike
and easier to kill.
I prayed death would not call
till I had named all I love
and loved all I name.
a gift from God
we would like to give back.
slips below the horizon.
So many have fallen, without my inspiration
how can anyone remember them?
But now I recall for you the twenty-one
for whom between the shoulder and the mouth
a holy chasm opened. They will be named
on this little wall of poem:
Abanub who fell by Milad,
waiting his turn by Maged,
for they were patient men
in line with Kirollos,
Ezzat and Tawadros,
Bishoy, and Samuel
for they were orderly men
wishing they could say
to Malak, Mina, and Hani,
God bless you, farewell,
and to two named Girgis,
another Malak and Samuel,
and to Youssef “who lived
according to the Book”
for they were faithful men.
They were weeping for Loqa,
for Munir and Esam,
for Sameh and themselves,
for they were kind-hearted men.
These poor Egyptians wept
for Matthew of Ghana
who had joined them to work
in the oil-rich country
of kidnappings and killings
for they were brave men
and send money home. He worked
with them and died with them,
and like them said, “Yes, we need
to flee—but not yet,”
for they were sometimes foolish men.
In each of them a world
lost its husband, father, son;
creation lost men who loved
the cooing of the doves in the tall dovecotes,
the songs that wail from the speakers
in the souk, the smells
of pounded sesame and honey,
the mud of the Nile drying on the feet.
Weep for the sand they stood on, big as a sea.
Weep for the sea they looked out on, big as the sky.
Weep for the sky they looked up to, bigger than everything.
Hear their prayer as they died with Jesus on the tongue:
We thank You for everything,
concerning everything, and in everything
for You have covered us, helped us, guarded us,
accepted us to Yourself,
You have spared us, supported us, brought us to this hour
in which we have been unguarded, unhelped, and uncovered,
our flesh neither spared nor supported,
but for which ascending on high we thank You in everything,
concerning everything, for everything.4
THE POET (5)
Seventy times seven times each one died.
At the first rehearsal the twenty-one cried.
Then, numbed, drugged, frightened into compliance,
only their murmured prayers disturbed the silence.
Then the performance: heads fell by their sides.
Their souls, to Jesus’ love securely tied,
rose on the fledgling wings they’d never tried
but trusted. Forgiveness is the holy science:
seventy times seven times
it flew them higher, still higher, into the side
wounded by a spear, where they abide.
In what hope can we place a sure reliance
when evil flourishes in arrogance?
Let us be of this mind—God will provide
seventy times seven times.
(1) Unless otherwise noted, information on the martyrs is from Martin Mosebach, The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs. Translated by Alta L. Price. Plough Publishing House, 2020.
(2) Sophia Jones, “ISIS Boasted of These Christians’ Deaths. Here Are the Lives They Lived. Huffington Post, 18 February 2015 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/02/18/isis-christians-killed-_n_6703278.html). An excellent photo-essay.
(3) Ana Al-om Al-hazeina, http://tasbeha.org/hymn_library/view/1694?mid=7401.
(4) The final three stanzas of this section are based on a Coptic prayer of Thanksgiving (http://tasbeha.org/hymn_library/view/1833).
(5) The beheadings were repeatedly rehearsed to make the final on camera “performance” perfect.
Source: Union Republican, Winston-Salem, NC (15 Sept 1898, 4).
This post is part of an ongoing series to understand the situation in 1895 when several hundred people, mostly African American men, guarded the Forsyth County Jail in Winston (now Winston-Salem), North Carolina, to protect a young African American man from lynching. My main goal is to understand the background and, to the extent possible, the motivation of the almost fifty men known by name to have participated in the action to protect Arthur Tuttle.
In this part of the series, I am reviewing two anonymous letters published in the Winston Union Republican during the electoral campaign of 1898. Although these letters were written three years after the incident in question, they provide a contemporary view of the political situation, albeit from a white perspective. The writer is blind to the the failure of the Republicans to treat African Americans fairly, a failure that contributed to the 1898 electoral and moral debacle. To quote from a previous post (“An Introduction to the Background: Suicide Wrapped in an Illusion”; see below for the link), “To some extent, white Republicans were willing to grant a degree of political equality to blacks, but they resisted social equality, particularly in any setting that brought black men into relations with white women or placed blacks in authority over whites. Only a courageous genius could have navigated those stormy straits. But white Republicans—reluctant to appoint their African American allies to lucrative patronage positions or elect them to higher office—were not courageous or generous, and were all too were eager to find an excuse to abandon the backbone of the party.”
Why then print the letters? The writer may be blind to the faults of his own side, but he is acutely aware of the manipulative and racist bloody-mindedness of his Democratic opponents.
The posts that have brought us to this point are:
• "'Pluck Enough': The Story So Far”
• "'Pluck Enough': An Introduction to the Background: Suicide Wrapped in an Illusion"
• "'Pluck Enough': A Note on Methodology”
• “The Ruffin Letter #1—A Survey of Political History in NC, 1865-1898”
The second letter is longer than the first and reflects recent speeches and action by Democrats reported in the press. I have divided it into two parts. The purpose of the letter is to describe the “arguments” with which the Democrats will conduct the 1898 campaign. It labels as arguments the following means of persuasion and intimidation—the Democratic party handbook, cartoons (presumably editorial cartoons), the rally, demagogic speeches, and the threat of violence.
In the second part of the letter, the writer will discuss the Democrats’ abuse of language and their use of a false analogy between the period of Reconstruction after the war and the period of Republican-Populist rule after the elections of 1894 and 1896.
Throughout, the writer fails to acknowledge the weakness of the coalition (the Fusion) of Republicans and Populists opposing the Democrats. After their successful campaigns in 1894 and especially 1896, the coalition had achieved many of the legislative goals they agreed on, for example, capping interest rates, moving control of local government from the legislature to local voters, and reforming the election machinery to ensure an accurate count of the vote. But they disagreed on the way forward. All they offered in the 1898 election was opposition to the Democrats.
The position of this State’s Democracy being grounded in hatred and hypocritical pretense, it follows logically that the plan of campaign shall harmonise [sic] with the position. That it does so, it will be the burden of this article to show by noticing their chief arguments in the order of their importance. On what means then does Democracy base its expectations of a return to power? If Democratic press reports are to be credited, the hand-book is to play an important role. It has been long in preparation by a committee of experts and past grand masters in the art of deceiving and missleading [sic] the people. Too little is known of it yet to review it here, but it is heralded as a terrible engine of destruction. I would simply caution Republicans and Populists not to be swept off their feet by this book which may have to be withdrawn for repairs before the campaign is over. On the other hand if they have succeeded in getting out a hand-book that will stand the vicissitudes of a heat [sic] campaign, let them have fun with it, as it would be cruelty to require them to make two campaigns without a hand-book to go by. This may be termed the hand-book argument.
The next is the cartoon argument. The people have some experience with this argument, so they are somewhat prepared to estimate it at its true value. They once saw pictures of Vice-President Morton closing out this State under mortgage, but they remember that he was elected and the sale never really came off. The cartoon is not likely to cut much figure except as a boomerang.
[para break inserted] The next, while not entirely new, presents some novelty in that it is intended to influence the judgment by way of the stomach, and may be denominated argument through the stomach. This is an old racket worked over and more formidable to meet. What then, is there is the much heralded politico-social pic-nic, the grand rally, with farfamed bands of music, the presence of the beauty and chivalry, barbecued meats, and Democratic oratory galore? Ostensibly, here is an altogether praise-worthy affair, a day off with much good things to eat, good fellowship, and just a little politics thrown in for variety and diversion. Give me your attention while I unmasque this humbug, for here, as in everything touched by Democracy, is hypocritical pretense and deception
[para break inserted] The object of the grand rally is not for pleasure and entertainment, but to get votes, to accomplish by circumlocution what is unattainable in the open. The underlying purpose is to influence a class of voters for whom inwardly, the Democracy entertains the most hearty contempt, the common laborer, the presumption being that he will sell his vote for a mess of meat. Lured to the grounds by flaming hand-bills, after seeing the crowd and listening to the music, the physical appetite after awhile [sic] begins to assert itself. He sees the fat of the land which a liberal campaign fund has provided spread out before him, with the very first society in waiting, with most bewitching smiles, inviting him to eat, drink, and make himself welcome. If he yields, he compromises his self-respect, and from the stand-point of the campaign committee enters into a tacit agreement to deliver his vote in November. What! eat Democratic meat, and then vote against the party? Will a campaign committee invest three to five hundred dollars in a big spread merely in the interest of good fellowship? Is there anyone so unsophisticated as not see in a grand rally a very serious and shrewd form of business politics?
It must be granted for this argument that it bears the stamp of antiquity, for away back in the dawn of history did not the wily Jacob put up a job on his brother Esau by which the latter forfeited his birthright? As to the origin of this argument, we get a further glimpse from the latter incident in which the Saviour, after the forty days fast, was approached by Satan with the proposition: “If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.”
Another point to this argument is its appeal to another weakness of human nature—the disposition to float with the current, to go with the multitude, irrespective of the merits of the question at issue. The grand rally to the voter without entitled convictions is expected to produce the impression, by the force of numbers, that there is only one side, the Democratic. For effect in other parts of the State the number actually present is exaggerated till the proverbial fish-liar has become a back number and not to be compared to the Democratic liar who counts the number present at a grand rally.
[para break added] The Democracy having lost the election machinery of the State, and with it the power to count in its ticket, it is driven in this year of grace to rest its case wholly on its ability to deceive a majority of the voters, so this brings me next to consider the strongest card, at least, from the Democratic standpoint, the inflammatory shriek of the demagogue. He is to be much in evidence at the grand rally, and is expected to get in his work on a full stomach. Let it be understood that he has the unqualified endorsement of an unscrupulous State press, both the gold bug and free silver wings flapping together in substantial harmony. Masquerading in the uniform of a patriot, arrogating to himself the guardianship of the State’s honor, he assumes to represent the virtue and intelligence of the State, and to be engaged in waging an altogether unselfish warfare against official corruption and incompetency, and in the interest of good government and the peaceful reign of law and order, all unconscious that the means and methods to make good his claims are an insult to the intelligence and law abiding sentiment which he feigns to represent. The devil is never so dangerous as when he assumes the form of an angel of light.
Let’s pull aside the lion’s skin that the ass’s ears may come into view. Let’s strip the cloak of virtue off hypocrisy. Vainglorious old Democratic humbug! Inglorious old fraud! Your cheek is colossal, your effrontery is mountain high. You have not had an issue since the war. You have only had a cry, a wail, a shriek—white man! n***r get you! Nor have you an issue now. Tariff reform? Free silver? Merely different forms of soothing balm for the consciences of those who shrink from more drastic measures. Listen to ex-American tourist to Europe, Bellamy on tariff reforms and free silver: “These are our tenets, but they are to some extent secondary in this campaign,” and half a minutes [sic] time is all he takes to enumerate these profound doctrines and his position thereon! [Bellamy was from a prominent family in Wilmington and a Democratic candidate for Congress. He was a key figure in the Red Shirt movement and the Wilmington coup, both intended to suppress the Black vote in anticipation of constitutional changes to disenfranchise African Americans and many poor whites. At this time he was crisscrossing the state giving inflammatory speeches.] I charge the State Democracy that just now, while it is posing as the self-appointed guardian of the State’s honor, and the gratuitous champion of “law and order” that through its campaign shriekers and State press, it is dragging the good name of the State in the mire, is by false accusation, casting suspicion on its credit, is by mean insinuation stabbing one of its most sacred institutions; and by incendiary appeal, is fomenting sedition, anarchy and bloodshed. The highwayman accosts the traveler with the alternative, your money or your life!
Email comments and questions to email@example.com
One of my birthday presents this year was this collection of haiku, a multilingual volume beautifully bound (in the Chinese style) and illustrated. The translator is Hart Larrabee.
I’ve been impressed with several of the 2023 readings lists I’ve seen on Facebook, so I’ve come up with my own list. I’m a sloppy reader—sometimes reading just parts of books, rereading books in whole or part, unsystematically taking notes. I’d like to think my reading habits are like the bee described by Jonathan Swift, that “visit[s] all the Flowers and Blossoms of the Field and Garden, but whatever I collect from thence, enriches my self, without the least Injury to their Beauty, their Smell, or their Taste.”
Below are some of the books I visited this year, with quotations from some. In the spirit of Swift’s bee, they are presented as I think of them.
Send comments, questions, critiques to firstname.lastname@example.org
“History means thinking into other people’s minds,” according to N. T. Wright (Paul: A Biography, 8-9). This is one reason I value histories that use, as primary sources, poems and other literary works contemporaneous with the events being described, as well as diaries and letters. It’s true that the poet’s mind comes to us filtered by poetic technique and literary convention (this is also true of other forms of writing); but we always encounter the minds of historical figures in written works that necessarily reflect their culture’s intellectual and expressive conventions. We are no different: even the avant-garde has its own rhetorical conventions and toolkit of transgressive (unmannerly) manners.
In this little essay I’ll discuss briefly two works: (1) Paul Stephenson’s New Rome: The Empire in the East (Belknap Harvard, 2021), a book chosen by the Times of London as one of the best history books of 2022, and (2) Martin Gilbert’s The First World War: A Complete History (Holt, 1994), a book I first read when I was preparing to teach the literature of World War 1 at Southern Virginia University in 2016.
I have not yet begun to read Stephenson’s work—I received it for Christmas—but, wondering if he drew on the Greek Anthology as a source, I checked the index. The anthology is a rich collection of Greek poems, mostly epigrams, from the earliest poets through the Byzantine era. According to Wikipedia, “the Greek tradition of epigrams began as poems inscribed on votive offerings at sanctuaries – including statues of athletes – and on funerary monuments.” Often epigrams that were written only to be shared on paper made a pretense of being epigrams—poetic inscriptions—in the original sense. To my delight, Stephenson does make use of the anthology and other Greek poems.
Among the sources used by Stephenson are inscriptions to charioteers who raced in the hippodrome. The Greek Anthology has fifty-four such epigrams, “each copied down from a charioteer’s statue base in the hippodrome” (73). Poems are sometimes a key source for an emperor’s reign; in the case of Justin II, key sources are a long narrative poem by Corippus and a cycle of epigrams written by Agathias and included in the Greek Anthology. In some cases (for example, the reign of Theodosius), scant poetry remains, though the emperor’s court at the time was renowned for the outpouring of literary works.
Another poet that Stephenson mentions by name is Paul the Silentiary, a friend of Agathias. Silentiaries were “court officials of privileged backgrounds,” according to Wikipedia, “whose first duty was maintaining order and silence in the Great Palace of Constantinople.” I’ve always found this somewhat amusing, but I suppose we would describe the 30 silentiaries as Secret Service agents or security staff, distinctively less amusing. It was a prestigious post; the officers were assigned “important commissions, especially in church matters,” and belonged to the highest social rank in the empire. An indication of Paul’s importance was the speech he was invited to give at the rededication of the Hagia Sophia (215), a speech characterized by its “complex imagery” (350).
Stephenson cites lines from Paul’s description of an imperial villa: “The sea washes the abode of the earth, and the navigable expanse of the dry land blooms with marine groves. How skilled was he who mingled the deep with the land, the seaweed with gardens, the floods of the Nereids with the streams of the Naiads” (118).
This brief summary hardly exhausts Stephenson’s use of poetry to depict the events, monuments, rulers, and ideologies of Byzantium, but it indicates how poems can be used in historical works to conjure a sense of the past and to enter at least partway into the minds of those who lived then.
Perhaps a more accessible use of poems to enliven and instruct the study of history is Martin Gilbert’s one-volume history for the First World War. Gilbert's use of poems is not surprising. A bibliography compiled by Catherine Reilly lists "2,225 British writers who experienced the war and published poems about it” (The Winter of the World; see below). More than thirty anthologies were published in Great Britain during the war years, most of the poems by forgotten writers. But many are well known in Great Britain and elsewhere. A contemporary anthology that I highly recommend is The Winter of the World: Poems of the Great War (Little, Brown, 2007), edited by Dominic Hibberd and John Onions.
Gilbert places the poems in two contexts—the campaigns and battles that evoked them and the experiences of the poets who wrote them. The history and the poems illuminate each other. The poems have many styles and points of view, but the best known arguably belong to the late Romantic era and seem to speak directly to the common reader, however skillfully crafted they may be, however consciously embedded in the poetic tradition. For readers 2000 years from now, if there be any, the conventions will loom as artificial barriers between them and the experiences that animated the poets. Some readers already feel that way.
As in the Greek Anthology, a number of the poems are inscriptions on monuments, but most are standalone poems, sometimes the soldier’s only surviving poem. Gilbert’s account of the death of Wilfred Owen is perhaps representative of his approach:
“In the British assault on the Sambre Canal on November 4 [just a week before the Armistice], an attempt by engineers to throw a temporary bridge over the canal was prevented by heavy German artillery and machine-gun fire. Almost all the engineers were wounded, and the canal was unbridged. The poet Wilfred Owen was seen encouraging his men to try to get across on rafts. 'Well done!' and 'You are doing well, my boy,' an officer in his company recalled him saying. The rafts proved unsuccessful, however, so planks and duckboards were put together. At the water's edge, helping his men in this task, Owen was hit and killed. ... At the place where Owen was killed, near the village of Ors, the canal remained unbridged. His battalion eventually crossed on an existing bridge a few miles lower down. On his tombstone in the village of Ors are inscribed the words of one of his poems:
Shall life renew
Of a truth
All death will he annul.
In the original poem, the second sentence also ended with a question mark.” (492)
As to why Gilbert uses poetry so often, perhaps his concluding lines explain: “All wars end up being reduced to statistics, strategies, debates about their origins and results. These debates about war are important, but not more important than the human story of those who fought in them.” (Kindle edition, 543)
A bowl of sycamore wood
Mouth Work was my third book of poetry. Winner of the Lena Shull Award from the North Carolina Poetry Society, it was published by St Andrews University Press in 2016. The book is dedicated to three young men, brothers, that my wife and I befriended when they arrived in North Carolina from the refugee camp in Rwanda where they grew up. Recently we flew to Rwanda to attend the wedding of the youngest brother, a wonderful trip that set me to thinking again about one of my favorite poems in Mouth Work, or anywhere else, titled simply “A Song.” It’s a poem where the young men play a brief but key role.
Famous poets have no need to explicate their own work—others will do it for them—but an audience exists if they care to do so. As to us who are unknown, no one will do it for us: if there is no audience for the poem, there is certainly none for the explication. For the poet to do it is a vain endeavor in both senses of the word vain, and yet for this poem it seems, to me, worthwhile to do, if only to revisit the poem and breathe again its clear air.
It's quite likely that my understanding of the poem is now shaped by my recent reading in Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary. The world we live in is increasingly virtual, he writes, that is, it is increasingly “mechanistic, fragmented, [and] decontextualized.” It is a “self-reflexive … world,” a “hall of mirrors” with the exits blocked.
A poem for the sycamore,
a sycamore for the snake
that swims in the shallows
sheltered by its roots, roots
for the land, to hold it in place,
land for the sycamore, on whose
long thick limb we’ve lain
cantilevered over the river
in shade, shade as blue as a jay’s
feathers and free to all comers.
* * *
A poem for board feet standing
in a mane of leaves fluttered by air
of their own making, air
for poet and spouse,
poet and spouse for each other
and land and snake
and river and sycamore,
sycamore for the leaves,
leaves for the air, air for the song
of marriage we are singing.
* * *
Those who venture off trail--
booted against snakes,
whistling Colonel Bogey’s March,
surveyor’s maps rolled underarm--
see dimity patterns
the roots make on ground
checkered with shadow and light,
and with every step are wary:
clutters of leaves may strike,
the stepped-on stick bite back.
* * *
Those tongues flicker
to find us out, warm-blooded
calculators who fell
and bark, slab and mill
through knot and burl
till the tree of knowledge
is pollarded and bare,
a lacquered coat rack
where perch the birds
* * *
This sycamore rising dog-legged--
or is it a god’s leg, or that
of a god’s horse straining
the wooden musculature
to rear against the bit?--
is hard to fix in words
that do not hobble the power,
but when saw and dozer
cut their buck and wing,
easy to reckon the board feet.
* * *
By this border of blooming
surveyor’s flags in weeks
we’ll step arm in arm
then do-si-do over hardwood;
on a bed as wide as a pond
glimpse in our dreams
afternoons that stretched
a heron’s wing over the river
in woods whose high crowns
for us have been lopped and pulped
* * *
and made into this paper
on whose void the words
elusive as a swarm of gnats
reeling and spinning
bless our reading chair,
our table where a boy
not long from Africa
types the home row letters:
lads fall; all sad lads;
half sad half glad: all fall;
* * *
bless the safe place we have made,
the wooden bowl on the table,
the fruit that fills it, the gnats
eating the ripe fruit, the fruit
of prayer and meditation;
and bless the headboard in whose
shadow we dream the tree
whose fruit we are—logger,
surveyor, poet and spouse,
lads: same tree, same fruit.
I began the poem many years ago, in the first class I took from Ann Garbett’s continuing education poetry class at Duke University. The first finished version was rather moralistic, and as such was strongly criticized by a group member. So it went back into the slush pile, was pulled out from time to time, revised, then thrown back as still unsatisfactory.
At some point I hit on the device of anadiplosis to enact verbally the interchanges and trade-offs in life that constitute the theme of the poem. In anadiplosis, the words at the end of a phrase or clause are repeated at the beginning of the next: “A poem for the sycamore, / a sycamore for the snake.”
“A Song” has 16 five-line stanzas, divided into eight two-stanza sections. Anadiplosis figures most in the first two sections: “sycamore for the leaves / leaves for the air, air for the song / of marriage….” The device is used to emphasize the interplay of energies and gifts: “roots / for the land, to hold it in place, // land for the sycamore.” The roots of the sycamore hold the riverbank in place, and earth is what the sycamore needs to put down roots.
One thematic thread begins in the 1st section, with a water snake swimming in the shallow pool created by the sycamore’s roots; later, snakes are concealed in the woods amid the roots running along the ground, and further hidden by fallen leaves and the checkered light filtered through the foliage. The reader may be reminded of Moses’s staff that turned to a snake in the court of the Pharoah (3rd section). In the next section, the camouflaged snakes size up the booted surveyors wandering with their maps into the snakes’ mysterious, dangerous domain. The abstracting, calculating, geometric science of the surveyors turns the tree of knowledge in Genesis into a “pollarded and bare /… coat rack,” an abstraction of a tree shorn of leaves and unable to generate the air we breathe (4th section).
This theme is repeated in the next section with different imagery—the muscled trunk of the sycamore suggests a god’s or at least a horse’s powerful leg, a presence of the living tree that one can only evoke but not explain; it is far easier to articulate the commodity value of trees considered as board feet. Back in the 2nd section, the mysterious, unifying interchanges among leaves, air, land, snake, and tree evoke the mystery of the married couple singing a song they did not know until that moment.
In the next section, a couple “step arm in arm” past the surveyor’s flags into their home, onto their bed “as wide as a pond.” And what do they dream about? The woods before they were cleared for their homesite.
In the original version, which was far different in many ways, it was at about this point, then almost at the end of the poem, that the member of the critique protested. I believe the gist of his critique is that people must live somewhere; a poem that does not understand that is empty moralizing. I have since tried hard to avoid the simplicities of ideological judgments.
After rumination of several years, and after becoming happily involved with the young men from Africa, I understood that a way of life has costs, but it has also benefits. The trees that are “lopped and pulped” at the end of the 6th section become paper in the next; and on this paper a young man from Africa prints words he has typed on a computer as he masters his keyboarding skills (he was using Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing). The lesson begins with the plaintive messages he can find on the home row, the letters ASDF and JKL where the typist’s fingers rest, plus the letters G and H.
The fallen trees give the table the young man works at, the wooden bowl and the apples that fill it, the married couple’s headboard. They dream about the tree of life to which we all belong.
Comments or suggestions? Email me at email@example.com
"Gloucester Old Spot," John Miles (active 1811-1842. Photo credit: Gloucester Museum Service Art Collection
Not my best poem, perhaps, but one of my favorites, as it invokes love of language, plants and animals (especially the pig, of course), and my wife. And it teaches a thing or two about thank-you notes, too. It's included in my book Mouth Work, available directly from me (send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org) or from Amazon.
How to Write a Thank You Note
Every gift, however trifling, should be acknowledged.
—Lillian Eichler Watson, Standard Book of Letter Writing (1948, 1958)
Beginning my song of thanks as big as the world: alleluia!
For these I am thankful: for cara-rayada and mirikina,
for schmalschnauzige and potto and cuchumbi, and for all
milky plants, dandelion, milkweed, and sow-thistle: shushuk! bhulan!
For names that make me laugh—chickwittles and pig-sty daisy--
I praise God in brief and simple words: safi! umununi!
For plants that grow on roadsides and beautify dumpsters
and for those called common—mallow, chickweed, mullein
(for I too am common)—I give thanks, as I do for the victuals
the wild swine eat—oak mast, prickly pear fruit, and leopard frog.
I am grateful for the devourers, boar and barrow, gilt and sow.
For piglet and shoat I sing this hymn of thanksgiving and instruction:
O feral hog of Arkansas, O mulefoot from the Mississippi,
write the letter quickly, while the glow is still with you!
O snuffle-snout and nose-plow, the words will come of their own accord!
You bacon- and chitterling-maker, it’s more gracious to mention the gifts,
the sowbread, grub and fawn, for which you give thanks.
For khuk and budur, for the moon in her cirrus boa
whose silvery snout roots up the truffles of the stars,
who sweet-cures the dreams she sends to my beloved,
I will always give thanks. Scham-scham! Zizel and susel! Hallelujah!
from Mouth Work
St. Andrews University Press (2016)
Now we are in a position to understand the Ruffin letters published by the Union Republican on the 8th and 15th of September. The previous posts that have brought us to this point are:
• "'Pluck Enough': The Story So Far
• "'Pluck Enough': An Introduction to the Background: Suicide Wrapped in an Illusion"
• "'Pluck Enough': A Note on Methodology
The letters are important, I think, because they end up predicting an event very like the Wilmington coup that happened just three months later. They also betray a blindness to the weaknesses in the Republican-Populist fusion, and an even greater blindness to the dissatisfaction among many African Americans, the most important Republican voting bloc.
The anonymous writer assumes that the reader has a working knowledge of political history in the state since the end of the Civil War, and often alludes to events rather than specifying them; in my notes [inserted in boldface and set off by brackets], I try to help the current reader understand his allusions.
I have added paragraph breaks to divide long stretches of text.
By your indulgence, I wish to set before Republican and Populist readers an analysis of the Democratic plan of campaign in this State. As in physics, the amount of resistance to be overcome will gauge the effort and suggest the means to the end, so in politics. To appreciate the effort and means to be resorted to by Democrats to regain power in this State, it is only necessary to reflect that the position of the party is the most desperate that it has been for twenty years.
During the long years of Republican rule in the nation, the Democrats felicitated themselves on the fact that they “held Robinson” [sic] and “saved the State.” With their advent to power under Cleveland [1st term began in March 1885] and the State still “safe,” their cup of joy ran over. With appetites whetted for official pie under two national administrations, and the long lease of power in the State, they were intoxicated with the belief that their joy could never end. [“Held Robinson [sic] and saved the state”—In 1875, a special election was held to elect delegates to the state’s constitutional convention. The balance of power in the convention came down to the vote in Robeson County. The phrase, “hold Robeson [County] and save the state,” was part of a telegram sent by the NC Democratic chairman to officials in Robeson County. It became proverbial for Democratic efforts to win elections at all costs. The Democrats ended up with a one-vote advantage in the convention, and they used it to pass a constitution that enabled them to dominate elections for 20 years. For example, it enabled “the undemocratic County Government Act of 1877 [that allowed] Democrats [to] maintain power over local governments. The law allowed the legislature to appoint local justices [previously elected at the local level], and permitted these appointed judges to choose county commissioners [who before had been elected in the county].” In other words, a majority of white Democratic legislators could prevent jurisdictions with majority Republican and Black voters from electing the most important local officials. “The law helped maintain Democratic control of ‘purse strings’ and prevent blacks or Republicans from gaining local power” Ronnie W. Faulkner, "Fusion Politics" (https://northcarolinahistory.org/encyclopedia/fusion-politics/).]
With this sense of security and independence, there was fostered the already existing spirit of intolerance and bigotry that would brook no interference with opinions or policies eminating [sic] [from] this self-constituted oligarchy.
This was the position of the bossesses [sic] and so-called leaders. The position of their constituency[:] Having had their fears, prejudices, and resentments appealed to, and played upon, for twenty years [the 20 years that preceded Cleveland’s term, i.e., since the end of the Civil War], they had been reduced to a condition of political starvation. I apprehend that if the average Populist were interviewed as to his reasons for leaving the Democratic party, he would reply that he was interested in certain reforms which his party spurned, and therefore was driven to go into a new party. In my opinion, this is merely a surface reason, the fundamental cause being that he was suffering the pangs of a slow form of political degeneration. Having been fed for so long, on the husks of hate, a change of diet was absolutely necessary to his political existence. Hence, a formidable revolt within the Democratic party of its most conservative element—the great middle class. Let it be understood that the essence of the Democratic position for all these years was, and is now, based on hatred and false pretenses. [para break added]
The essence of the revolt within its ranks was based on a demand for a cessation of the campaign of hate, and a return to the discussion of principles and policies in the interest of the public good, and in this sense, patriotic. The means resorted to suppress this revolt are too fresh in the public mind to require elaborate statement. Suffice to say that the weapons of denunciation, proscription and ostracism wielded with such disastrous effect against Republicans were turned against their own late allies, and stuck fast in extreme cases, with ancient and malodorous eggs. [The weapon turned “against their own allies” was the Democratic legislature’s repeal of the charter of the North Carolina Farmers’ Alliance after the election of 1892. Rather than acceding to some of the populists’ demands, the Democratic legislature repealed the charter to punish populists for denying an absolute majority of votes for the Democratic candidate for governor (see Faulkner, “Fusion Politics”).] [para break added]
This reform element, the great middle class, the bone and sinew of the Democratic party had not proceeded far in the advocacy of their principles before they saw the necessity for the organization of a new party, which assumed the name Populist. They had not proceeded far as a party before they realized that certain foundation work was necessary in order to give them even a fighting chance for final triumph; and while differing radically from Republicans in many particulars they found themselves in line on certain fundamentals to both parties, and hence, resulted in an alliance of both for the purpose of securing local self-government, a free ballot and fair count [i.e., to secure the electoral reforms passed by the fusion legislature after the election of 1894]. The people for once refused to heed the incendiary appeals to the worst part of their natures, and the result was overwhelming and disastrous defeat for the Democracy, the heroic self-sacrifice of Josephus Daniels [editor of the Raleigh News and Observer] to “save the State” to the contrary notwithstanding. While the bosses were stunned by the blow, and what was left of the rank and file were demoralized, they were not without consolation—they still had the presidency [Cleveland’s second term] and a goodly number of fat federal offices as well as the State government for two years. During the interim preceding the presidential and State campaign, Democratic parties fairly bristled with denunciations of the late Fred Douglas [sic] legislature, and a Democratic campaign hand-book was promulgated roasting the aforesaid legislature, when lo! the exigences of the campaign required a change of tactics. Free silver had become the national slogan, and Democratic-Populist fusion was in the air. Even Marion Butler, the arch conspirator in the frustration of Democratic machination was not such a bad man after all, in fact to the contrary he was a very nice gentleman. So from vinegar and red pepper there was a change to molasses and soft soap. Firery [sic] denunciations of the Populists was changed into cajolery. [para break added]
While this change of tactics proved a death blow to the Democratic literature in that it required the suppression of the campaign hand-book, ventilating so-called Republican-Populist incompetency and misrule, and chock full of much other useful knowledge, the leaders, as usual, rose to the emergency, and henceforth that valuable book had to depend for circulation on the uncertain medium of Republican speakers. With a ccompaign [sic] of compromise not even the witchery of free silver and the disaffection of prominent Republicans and Populists within the ranks of their respective parties could “save the State.” This [i.e., the election of 1896] was defeat number two, humiliating and exasperating, embracing not only loss of the State government, but the presidency [Republican William McKinley succeeded Cleveland], wholesale loss of Congressmen, and nearly all the district and county governments with consequent loss of both federal and State patronage. [In the 54th Congress, NC was represented by 6 Republicans and Populists, and 3 Democrats; in the previous Congress, the Democrats had held 7 of the 9 seats. Similarly, in the General Assembly, the fusion of Republicans and Populists held 94 of the 120 seats, and in the Senate 43 of the 50 seats; in the previous General Assembly, the Democrats had held 93 of the 120 seats in the House, and 47 of 50 seats in the Senate.] [para break added]
To perceive the straits of the Democratic party at this juncture, it is necessary to realize that it had been stricken in its most vital parts. The right to hold all the offices, or at least all the best, had come to recognized as among the inalienable rights, not that they loved office above other men, for as nature abhors a vacuum, so the average Democrat abhors office; but that in the lofty spirit of self-sacrifice, they simply hold the offices and received [sic] the perquisites in order to dignify the office, and keep them out of the profane hands of the so-called lower classes. So when the people lay their sacrilegious hands on affairs, and turned these gentry out to graze[,] their refined sensibilities were shocked. Stunned by defeat, their Spanish pride mortally wounded [an allusion to the Spanish-American war, then under way], they are now out in the wilderness of want and hunger, their appetites tantilized [sic] by the sight of others feeding from the green and luxuriating pastures from which they have been driven thirsting for revenge; and with “the end justifies the means” as a working principle, what will they not do to get it back?
The history of the past supplies the answer. The leaders bewildered by two successive defeats having returned to partial consciousness without regaining the ability to think logically; and thinking vaguely that there must have been some connection between their former cry of negro domination or white supremacy, and their long lease of power in the State have resurrected that corpse to do duty in this campaign. Having lost on the field of legitimate discussion they return to the epithet as a weapon, and herein is that true proverb illustrated: “The dog is turned to his vomit again, and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.”
The Democratic party of this State not having now a victory since the war except through appeals to passion and prejudice, neither learning nor forgetting, and incapable of addressing itself to the progress of events, will make the effort to regain power on the hypothesis that it can deceive the people by methods which they [the people] have repudiated with their eyes wide open.
Having taken so much space to elucidate the present position and purpose of the Democracy, I shall have to defer to another issue the discussion of the plans for carrying their purpose into execution.
Ruffin, N.C., Sept 2, 1898.
A few days before Halloween, a coworker brought her eight-year-old daughter to my wife’s workplace dressed as a gardener. In a reverse trick-or-treating, the girl walked through the office handing out flowers. Patti brought three home and placed them in a vase in the sunroom. A couple of days ago, a stray beam of afternoon sunlight worked its way through the trees in the park behind our house and lit up one of the blossoms. For once, I was quick enough with the camera phone to capture the moment.
I’ve had more trouble getting a picture of the goose among the ducks; maybe this one will do. Perhaps because I was busy in my yard, this year I didn’t encounter at our pond the gangs of ill-tempered geese protecting their goslings. Their season came and went without my notice, and now they’re gone, except for this lone goose which has been paddling with the mallards.
Look closely on the surface of the water and you’ll see a flotilla of pine needles. The pines have been shedding like a long-haired cat in July. Yesterday they were covering our cars, the parking pad, and the flower gardens, but not many seem to have fallen overnight.
Corrected 6 Nov 2023. Please send comments to email@example.com
Recently I exchanged books with Ethan Unklesbay, a poet I’ve not met in the flesh but whom I’ve encountered in a Facebook group. He runs a Substack site, (Almost) Daily Mormon Poetry, where he just published a brief appreciation of my chapbook, Night Weather.
Our projects are similar in some respects. Both are self-published and both are tied to online projects. In his case, many of the poems in Dust have been or will be published on his Substack; in my case, the poems came from my early, happy days on Twitter, beginning in December 2008. (For those who are curious, I left it years before Elon Musk took over.)
The comments below are expanded slightly from comments I sent to Ethan. Please direct comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Pluck"—This poem is an imaginative take on a New Testament injunction, to pluck out the offending eye, and on the healing offered by Christ. The poem is amusing—the plucked out eye, let loose on the world, “Rolled under open skirts—and gritty: “He climbed into my eye socket, / Got down on his hands and knees, / And scrubbed.” It ends with the warmth of healing love.
"The death of a scientist"—The poem is amusing and imaginative; it reminds me a bit of C. S. Lewis. I like the phrase "malleable light"—a fine way of evoking the differentness of reality for the dead. The scientist has a severe case of déformation professionnelle (a phrase I was taught by student at the University of Poitiers early in my mission) that keeps him from understanding the grand possibilities of being dead: “He was in the middle of testing his fifth / Spirit World Hypothesis.” The poem reminds me, in a good way, of Scott Hales’ book,. Hemingway in Paradise.
"I'm sorry I didn't know...."—The dominant metaphor—a brain aneurysm is likened to a gunshot wound to the head—is startling and effective. After that, the three concluding lines stranded on the following page seem anticlimactic, but do provide a needed ending.
"Carmody Sagers"—I like how Ethan handles the syllabic lines—the three line stanzas have four syllables in the first line, six in the second, and two in the last line. The poem handles the near-cliches of Christian imagery in a fresh, understated, emotionally genuine way.
Ethan is offering his chapbook for $5, including postage. The best way to get in touch with him is through his email, email@example.com. The quickest way to access his poems is to follow him at ethanunklesbay.substack.com.
Detail of a Late Archaic kylix (drinking cup), about 510-500 BC. Period: Archaic Greek. An octopus hiding from a fisherman. Source: https://twitter.com/archaeologyart/status/1464215491879260167/photo/1
One my harmless pastimes as a poet is to render prose translations of poems from the Greek Anthology into English verse. I worry more about creating a poem that pleases me than trying to recreate in English verse the formal properties of the original.
Julianus the Egyptian is thought to have served as Prefect of Egypt during the reign of Justinian, emperor of Byzantium, in the 6th century AD. He has seventy-one poems in the Greek Anthology. His work is considered derivative of earlier epigrammatists. The works in the anthology span the classical, Hellenistic, and Byzantine eras, more than 1200 years of literary. Settings, stock characters, themes, and images are frequently recycled by many of the epigrammatists.
The Old Fisherman
by Julianus, Prefect of Egypt (Greek Anthology, VI, 26)
Cinyras dedicates to the nymphs this net;
he can’t endure the labor of casting it.
Little fishes, now you can swim at ease:
the old man has given you back the seas.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.