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The Pink Cloud of Evening

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.

—Marilyn Robertson

Would It Have Been Better Not To Have Been Born?

Sun in an Empty Room by Edward Hopper 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.

A Change of Scene

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.

—Marilyn Robertson

Intergalactic Alien

Intergalactic vehicle

Read Intergalactic Vehicle Fake Photo

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.

 —Marilyn Robertson

 

Shelley and Late Autumn Weather

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.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley

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;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, O hear!     (more…)

Pride and Bananas

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.

(more…)

Take a Break, Read Some Keats

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.Misty morning landscape

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…

(more…)

Scribal Error

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.

“The Classics So Far”

Illustration for Jane Austen novel by Hugh ThomsonWe 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.

“The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”

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.

Paul Revere's Ride

Paul Revere's Ride

“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
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. (more…)

More Notes


Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.