Can you recall a roller coaster called the Big Dipper? No? It was a long time ago and if you’re over 40 you may have forgotten it. We tend to forget little things, but after a while all those little things add up to a whole world. Marilyn Robertson knows about forgetting. Her poem is called “A Lost World.”
What is lost today stays lost.
One story after another floats down
the murky corridors of mind,
all the way back to zero.
The along comes the eraser.
Names, dates, who came with us
and who stayed home because they had chores
or their mothers said no — it’s a lost world.
It eats lunch with the dinosaurs.
You say: I can’t believe you don’t remember.
The four of us in the back seat of the convertible,
your father putting the top down…
the roller coaster…the handsome sailor.
I concentrate on the scene.
It’s as flat as a raft on a dead sea.
the sailor tries to climb aboard, but after
fifty years his arms are not so strong.
He slips back into the current and drifts away,
along with the convertible
and all the rickety cars on the Big Dipper,
slowly chugging their way to the top.
Marilyn Robertson, a singer and song writer living in California, writes poems, too, as readers of Critical Pages have come to know. This one is called “Piccolo Mare” and is as simple and as complex or self-referential as a face in a mirror, or a sound and its echo.
The man whose bald head reflects the light
is writing a letter to his mother,
telling her he’s arrived in a town called Piccolo Mare.
He’s met a poet there, himself, at a sidewalk cafe,
taking pleasure in the coffee, the feel of the pen
in his hand, and the word evanescent
he has just written at the top of the page.
A bell rings in the church tower.
Its chimes float out to sea, then curve back
toward the hill houses,
easing under eaves, through open windows.
He thinks of the clock in his childhood home,
a grandfather clock, whose deep sound
carried him safely into each night
and out the other side.
He knew what that country looked like,
what he could expect.
Those things did not arrive.
He made a life anyway.
Now a new chapter begins.
He watches his hand to see what will happen next.
Beware chaos. Humankind has devised prayers to keep chaos from erupting in our lives, and we have rituals — some public, some privateand personal — that might help. But what do we know about chaos that we hope it won’t arrive at our door? And if it did, what kind of car would it arrive in? Marilyn Robertson has wondered about these things in “What Would Chaos Drive?”
Sometimes I think neatness is the charm
to keep bad news away.
A pile of books aligned: no accidents.
Socks folded in a drawer: safe journey.
Afghan laid precisely on the couch:
no one I know will die.
Every straightened picture frame
could signal one less sorrow.
So the chaos I refuse appears in dreams.
“Hey!” it calls, piling its drunken friends
into an old Studebaker.
“There’s room in the back seat.”
Angora dice hang from the rearview mirror.
Comic books and Cheetos line the floor.
None of the windows close.
December has its merry and bright times — evergreen trees with sparkling lights and glittering ornaments, the festive foods, the plum pudding, spicy cakes, and eggnog. All along the roof the eves are hung with fairy lights pretending to be icicles, and there are candles in every window. But December is also the month with the shortest days and longest nights. The dark encroaches. Marilyn Robertson’s poem, “The Pink Cloud of Evening,” has something to say about that.
Sometimes I feel I could live forever —
Like right now, listening to a Norwegian choir on the radio
and watching the last pink cloud of evening
drift over the neighbor’s field.
My ancestors came from Norway.
But they’re long dead — and I’ll die one day, too,
no matter how many clouds and choirs there are.
I ought to quit calling death the Grim Reaper.
I ought to invite him, or her, over once in a while,
like I used to invite my friends.
Can Carol come over to play, Mrs. Townsend?
Can Dorothy spend the night?
What is it about time anyway—
Whizzing through every place I’ve ever lived
as if it’s doing the hundred-yard dash?
Children are born. And their children, grown.
The little triumphs. The winter rains.
The voices of other children on the hill.
Twilight deepens and I start to dance,
humming a little something from Cole Porter.
Perhaps I’ll live forever after all.
You might want to rethink that, says the dark,
coming in for its solo on the bass,
always so mellow, so sure of where it’s going.
Considering our life, would it have been better for us if we had never been born? Maybe you wondered about that. You weren’t alone, though it may have felt that way. The question is very old. In fact, it was debated almost two thousand years ago between the followers of two Jewish philosophers, the rabbis Hillel and Shammai. Both men were learned scholars and each established a schools of thought on Jewish law, but they differed greatly on certain points.
In general, Hillel was flexible and generous, liberal in his views. Shammai, on the other hand, took a strict, narrow view in deciding issues and was zealously conservative. Their followers, like the sage Hillel and Shammai, frequently differed with each other. For over two years these two opposing groups, the house of Hillel and the house of Shammai, debated the question: Would it have been better never to have been born? Surprisingly, these opponents agreed: It would have been better never to have been born.
Now that’s a desolating answer.
We aren’t rabbinic sages. Far from it. And if we were to choose a school of thought it might be the house of the skeptic Michael Montaigne. (We’ll sum up Montaigne for you: The human mind is limited and contradictory. Get used to it.) For solace, we’ll leave you with this stanza from William Butler Yeats’ poem, “Sailing to Byzantium.”
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Sometimes life makes sense and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes that matters, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you get the most unexpected surprise gifts for your birthday. Or maybe it’s not your birthday and you receive gifts anyway. Or maybe you simply receive surprises. The poet and songwriter Marilyn Robertson isn’t fazed by any such surprises, as she tells us in her poem “A Change of Scene.”
I was sitting in the comfortable chair —
the green one — and I remember
someone had come in from the kitchen
with a cake — chocolate with white frosting —
and a pinball machine w rapped in yellow paper.
It was the only thing I’d really wanted
for my birthday. That and the set of law books
an aunt wheeled in later on a trolley.
It was always a comfort to know there would be
plenty of small print nearby.
After that there was ice cream —
And after that I began to play.
My game had improved considerably in the last year.
Everyone called me the Pinball Queen.
But then, well, things started happening
and I stumbled in to another story.
This one has a mahogany sideboard
and four kinds of cheese.
Have you ever listened to radio programs that broadcast late at night, very late at night? At that hour your mind is open to all sorts of strange thoughts, and some pretty strange thoughts get broadcast in those small hours. Once, when Marilyn Robertson couldn’t get to sleep, she tuned in and heard an interesting story which she reports to us in her poem, “Alien”
Last night, a man on the radio was reminiscing
about the time he was touched by an alien.
He was sitting in his carport, shooting the breeze
with an ex-Marine buddy,
when a woman passed by the house.
She was making a kind of humming sound
and she stopped and asked him for a cigarette.
Well, he gave her one and when their fingers touched,
that’s when he felt the electric current in his stomach.
That’s how he knew.
She told him her name was Tomorrow.
Elsewhere on the dial, the usual mayhem:
hurricanes, robberies, runaway trucks, a warning
not to eat certain vegetables…but nothing more
about the humming woman from another galaxy,
bumming cigarettes along a country road.
Now that a hard November wind is whirling the leaves about, it’s time for Shelley and his Ode to the West Wind. Percy Bysshe Shelley had a brief life, but it was so vivid with poetry, so politically radical, so sexually unrestrained, so romantic and Romantic, that he still arouses controversy among readers who know even a little about him.
He was born in England on August 4, 1892 and drowned in a stormy sea off the coast of Italy on July 8, 1822, not having quite reached age 30. Shelley ran afoul of law and convention a number of times. He wrote some great poems, many political and social pamphlets, and a number of papers which advocated atheism. He also indulged in sexual shenanigans, inspired loyal friendships, and left a few ruined lives in his wake.
Technically, Ode to the West Wind is composed of five cantos in iambic pentameter and the overall rhyme scheme is terza rima – a beautiful method of linking three-line stanzas with aba, bcb, cdc, and so forth. Terza rima had been rarely used in English. It was most famously used by Dante in his Divine Comedy, that poem of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, where the number three recurs in a multitude of ways. Terza rima isn’t easy to work, and nobody has succeeded in doing a good job of translating Dante into English using his rhyme scheme. As for the meaning of Shelley’s Ode, that’s impossible to cram into a brief paragraph — yes, it’s about the weather, but much, much more as well. Don’t sweat it. You can read a bit now and come back to it later. OK, here’s the poem:
Ode to the West Wind
O WILD West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes! O thou 5
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow
Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill 10
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill;
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere; Continue reading »
Destroyer and preserver; hear, O hear!
Continue reading »
We can love a story without treating it as sacred text. One of Marilyn Robertson‘s favorites is Pride and Prejudice and, in fact, she was reminded of that novel while at the produce counter. (It can happen anytime and anyplace.) And so we have the poem “Pride and Bananas.”
Yesterday in the market, a man stood in front
of the bananas for the longest time,
brooding over one greenish bunch after another.
He looked like Mr. Darcy might have looked,
minus the ruffled shirt and top hat,
and I began to think about the real Darcy,
deftly slicing up a banana on his bowl
of cornflakes at Pemberley,
then gazing out one of its ninety-five windows
at the pleasantest prospect in England
and wondering what in the world
he was going to do all day —
while in the next county, Miss Elizabeth Bennet
strolled from one bright field to the next,
wondering what her chances were of running into someone
who had an extra banana
and happened to own a large estate as well.
As you probably know, Greece is close to defaulting on its debts, the Euro nations can’t agree on a coherent fiscal policy, the European banking system appears more fragile every morning, the Palestinians have reasons to ask the UN to recognize them as a nation, the Israelis have reasons to occupy ever more of the land the Palestinians regard as their nation, Egypt is having trouble being re-born as a democracy, the US stock market plunged 300 points the other day, unemployment remains high, the recession my repeat itself or, avoiding that calamity, this one may last for years, Congress remains deadlocked, and a recent study reveals that men who take care of their children suffer a decline in testosterone. But you know all that.
On the other hand, if you live in a city, you probably don’t know that this is the season when early morning mists blanket the landscape. You could say it’s the season of mists. In fact, John Keats wrote a poem about this season and it begins Season of mists… To put you in the mood, here’s a photo of a misty morning landscape provided by the writer Francesca Forrest.
Keats’s poem, “Ode to Autumn,” is a complex and linguistically rich poem. Today’s common reader may be put off by the dense, gorgeous language. But you’re not a common reader…
ow we must apologize for our mistake. One of our underpaid scribes, pictured at the left, copied the wrong version of a poem which we then posted a short while ago. We had asked the writer for permission, and we received permission. But our ink-stained wretch copied an early version instead of the final published text. The poem is “The Classics So Far” by Marilyn Robertson, and you can read the published version by clicking on the title.
We appreciate Great Novels, especially Great British Novels, but every now and then our attention flags. And this isn’t limited to Great British Novels; there are also Great Russian Novels in which we’ve found our attention wandering. There are even some Great American Novels — OK, let’s admit it, we’re thinking of Henry James — in which we’ve fallen asleep, even though we do admire Henry James. Mostly admire him, anyway. At least we feel obliged to say so whether we do or not. So we were delighted to come across the following poem by Marilyn Robertson.
The Classics So Far
The heroine is choosing the wrong man.
If she were not sitting next to him at the dinner party,
she could see him as we do —
a man in love with his own brains.
Yet the handsome baronet who has made her a gift
of a small yapping dog — is he any better?
Surely, somewhere in the next five hundred pages
there’s a third man: a maker of violins, say, or
the vicar’s second cousin once-removed, who, after
several misadventures of his own, is going to turn up
in that village and change everything.
But I may not last that long if these other two characters —
the fat one in the waistcoat and the churlish earl —
don’t stop debating the principles of land reform,
completely oblivious to how little patience
we have these days for eloquence.
You probably know about Sarah Palin’s novel misinterpretation of Paul Revere’s ride – the famous gallop he made through the countryside to warn the militias, the Minute Men, that the British were coming. According to Palen, Paul Revere rode through Boston warning the British that “they weren’t going to be taking away our arms.” In addition to giving comics another opportunity to skewer the irrepressible Sarah, her remarks have drawn attention to the ride and to Longfellow’s poem about it.
“The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” is a wonderful poem to memorize and to recite. It’s an exciting, colorful narrative and the lines go at a great gallop — yes, yes, we know it’s a romanticized rehearsal of the facts, but it’s still a great, rousing poem with many memorable passages. And what’s wrong with a burst of rousing rhymed patriotism? Let’s enjoy this.
The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,–
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.”
Then he said “Good-night!” and with muffled oar Continue reading »
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide.
Continue reading »
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Gene Mirabelli writes most of the posts here, so we're very pleased to announce that his recent novel, Renato, the Painter, has won a first prize for Literary Fiction in the 2013 Independent Publisher (IP or "IPPY") Book awards.
The Awards program was created to highlight the year’s most distinguished books from independent publishers. Award winners are chosen by librarians and booksellers who are on the front lines, working everyday with patrons and customers. Some 125 books competed for the literary fiction Gold Medal. These books are examples of independent publishing at its finest.
Publishers Weekly says "In prose as lusty and vigorous as Renato himself, Mirabelli captures the feeling of coming to terms - ready or not - with old age." For more about the writer and his book, turn to our contact page or to the author's web site.
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