Halloween offering: “Colloque sentimental,” by Paul Verlaine


Today, a poem.  Those of you who are purely Anglophone can skip to the translation below, by A. S. Kline.  It’s not perfect, but it’s far better than anything I could manage on the spur of the moment, and it rhymes, and it will give you an idea of the very lovely and sad and Halloweeny original. 



(One thing in the last couplet: “avoines folles” are “wild oats,” which I am sure you know by sight at least, and which I have given you in the above image.  They are a far more atmospheric background for our two ghosts than “wild herbs,” but Kline used “herbs” to rhyme with “words,” and I understand and sympathize and am glad I can read French, and that’s why translation is a crazy bitch.)




Dans le vieux parc solitaire et glacé
Deux formes ont tout à l’heure passé.

Leurs yeux sont morts et leurs lèvres sont molles,
Et l’on entend à peine leurs paroles.

Dans le vieux parc solitaire et glacé
Deux spectres ont évoqué le passé.

–Te souvient-il de notre extase ancienne ?
–Pourquoi voulez-vous donc qu’il m’en souvienne ?

–Ton coeur bat-il toujours à mon seul nom ?
Toujours vois tu mon âme en rêve? –Non.

–Ah! les beaux jours de bonheur indicible
Où nous joignions nos bouches! –C’est possible.

Qu’il était bleu, le ciel, et grand l’espoir !
–L’espoir a fui, vaincu, vers le ciel noir.

Tels ils marchaient dans les avoines folles,
Et la nuit seule entendit leurs paroles.



In the lonely old park’s frozen glass

Two dark shadows lately passed.


Their lips were slack, eyes were blurred,

The words they spoke scarcely heard.


In the lonely old park’s frozen glass

Two spectral forms invoked the past.


‘Do you recall our former ecstasies?’

‘Why would you have me rake up memories?’


‘Does your heart still beat at my name alone?’

‘Is it always my soul you see in dream?’ – ‘Ah, no’.


‘Oh the lovely days of unspeakable mystery,

When our mouths met!’ – ‘Ah yes, maybe.’


‘How blue it was, the sky, how high our hopes!’

‘Hope fled, conquered, along the dark slopes.’


So they walked there, among the wild herbs,

And the night alone listened to their words.



Sunday blog: A humanity test


In “Dune” (both the book and the David Lynch movie), there’s a scene in which the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam tests young Paul Atreides to see if he’s a human being.  She makes him put his hand in a black box.  “What’s in the box?” Paul asks.  “Pain,” the Reverend Mother replies.



Paul passes the test.



Here is a test for you.  Go to the following link.  If you do not feel something very powerful tugging at your heart, then you are not very human, and you should stuff yourself in a dumpster immediately, or volunteer for medical experiments.






Science and economics: getting there is half the fun


I have been inundated with science magazines lately.  I think I must be signing up for subscriptions in my sleep. 



In any case, I am learning a lot. 



For one thing, according to an article in a recent issue of Science, population growth turns out to be not a problem; people adapt to it, as technology continues to improve



Aren’t you delighted to hear this?



This study was based on a location in Kenya where, in the early twentieth century, overfarming and overgrazing looked as if they might overwhelm a whole area.  Experts were gloomy.  But!  Technology rescued everyone!  (After a while.)  Nowadays, it’s a thriving area!



Everything about this story is wonderful, except that middle term: “after a while.”  There was considerable human suffering and stress for perhaps ten, twenty, thirty years. 



That middle term worries me.



Macroeconomics has the same middle-term blind spot. Allow me to oversimplify: “Markets shift.  There are busts, and booms.  If you can just hang on long enough, recessions and depressions will ease, and the market will shift to an upward trend.”



Ah yes.  If you can hang on long enough.



And getting there is half the fun.



Re the Kenya story: how many people suffered / starved / died before the present optimal state was achieved?  Re the macroeconomics theory (let’s take the 1930s in the USA for an example): how many people suffered / starved / died before the economy recovered?



One does not have the numbers at one’s fingertips, but one seems to recall that, during the 1930s here in the USA for example, the human-suffering level was significant.



So: problem leads to solution.  The laws of nature, and demographics, and economics, take their course.



But getting there is half the fun.



And you had better dearly hope that you are not one of the (statistically insignificant) people who suffer, or starve, or die in the middle of the equation, during the time in which the situation is correcting itself from negative to positive . . .


Ah me.



Hang on.  It’s going to be a bumpy ol’ ride.



Literary tattoos


I don’t have any tattoos, but I like seeing them on other people. Especially men. Most especially attractive men.



The health club is a good place for this, but there’s too much flesh in motion out on the fitness floor; you can’t get a focus on the most of the time. There’s one lean muscular guy who has something – what? An eagle? A military insignia? A cartoon character? – on his left arm. I cannot make it out for the life of me, and I have not (so far) gotten close enough to him to make out the detail. I think I will have to come up with something like an epileptic fit, so that I can collapse into his arms and get a good look at it.



Sometimes, however, they walk right up to you.



The other evening in the locker room, I was alone with a sort-of-cute younger guy – lean/muscular, beard, a little hairy. He had his back to me as he undressed. I glanced (?) up, and I saw a lovely tattoo, in beautifully-executed calligraphy, on his left shoulder-blade. “ . . . Paradise,” I read in my quick glance.



Oh, surely not!



But I took another look (I was cautious, because you never know if they’ll take offense at being examined). And I saw “And drunk the milk . . .”, and it was enough.



I got up to leave, just as he was wrapping his towel around his lean little waist to go into the showers, and I couldn’t resist. I turned back, as we were parting ways – and my goodness, he was a little more muscular than I’d thought! – and I said: “I really like your tattoo.”



To my delight, he lit up. “Really? You recognize the poem?”



“But naturally,” I said. “’A damsel with a dulcimer in a vision once I saw . . .’”



He laughed and thanked me.



How often does that happen?



And what inspired him to get those particular lines of poetry tattooed on his shoulder?



No matter. He was adorable, and giggly, and pleased that I’d recognized the poem.



(Which I will not identify here, because it is a Classic of English Literature, and you should have recognized it by now, and if you don’t recognize it from the clues I’ve dropped so far, you should be ashamed of yourself.)



(One more clue: “Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair!”)




Popol Vuh


I love old religious texts.



I know, I’m a nonbeliever.  So go sit on it.  I love the color and invention that all of earth’s cultures have thrown into the business of figuring the world out, on (admittedly) limited information.



I have read the Shinto stories about Izanami and Izanagi dancing around the pillar together. And doing it wrong.  And having children that don’t turn out quite right, and putting them in a boat to get rid of them.


Epic of Gilgamesh!  Classic.  Lots of running around.  Gilgamesh has a big Incredible-Hulk best friend named Enkidu (they pound on each other for a long time, then decide they like each other), and they go off to defeat the Huwawa.



I used to own Prichard’s edition of “Ancient Near Eastern Texts relating to the Old Testament.)  Both volumes!  Delicious stuff.  (I had to get up just now to make sure I don’t still have them; I can’t believe I was such a fool as to get rid of them.)  I have a dim pleasant memory of a Sumerian text called the Ludlul Bel Nemeqi – “I will praise the lord of wisdom.”  It is a sad gentle psalm to the gods, from someone who’s suffering.  Some things never change, do they?



The Egyptians had lots of early stories, lots of mythologies.  Too much to put together!  The Osiris-Isis- Horus-Set one is probably the best-represented.  But there’s the Ra story (which I think Isis sort of preempts later), and the Ptah story (not sure why this one didn’t get more play).  Also the wonderful folktales.  “I shall enchant my heart, and shall place in on top of the flower of the cedar . . .”



But my real favorite is the Popol Vul.



It is, to translate, “The Book of the Council Mat.”  It is a document written down sometime (perhaps) in the 1600s by a member of the Quiche Maya people of Mexico and Guatemala, detailing many of their origin stories and root myths.



I wish I knew enough Quiche to read it in the original.  Even in English it’s fascinating.  It has characters with names like Xpiyacoq and Xbalanque and Xmucane and Ixquiq.  People are always playing ball games, and eating other people’s hearts, and getting pregnant by eating special gourds, and sleeping in the House of Knives. 



And then, strangely, even after all of the fighting and chopping up bodies, the main characters rise into the sky, and become the sun and moon and the evening star.



Now that’s creative.



Maryhill Museum



If you drive eastward along the Washington side of the Columbia River from Portland, you will encounter dramatic shifts of scenery.  The forested hills of Clark and Skamania county turn craggy as you pass through the Cascades, and the cliffs grow higher on either side of the river; then you see an odd shimmer in front of you – it never fails – and suddenly you pass from the damp greenery of Western Washington into the deserty hills of Eastern Washington. 



The cliffs in the gorge are spectacular.  One of the most spectacular places is Wishram Heights, which overlooks (more or less) a stretch on the Columbia which used to be a tumbling rapids called Celilo Falls.  The damming of the Columbia filled the waterfall, and it’s a lake now.  (Don’t be sad.  Someday the dams will fall, and Celilo Falls will still be there.)



A wealthy railroad man named Sam Hill loved this stretch of the riverside.  He built two things here: a replica of Stonehenge, and a huge rambling house, which he named after his wife Mary.  It is a windy lonely place now, and it must have been twenty times as lonely when Sam and Mary lived here.



The Stonehenge replica is no mere reproduction; it is a depiction of the original Stonehenge, with all of the stones in place.  Klickitat County, Washington (Partner calls it “Clicketyclack,” just to peeve me) made it their World War I memorial; my great-uncle Dewey Bromley is commemorated on one of the upright stones.  (Dewey died on a ship, either en route to the war or returning from it.)



The big house is now a museum, with a huge beautiful garden, and a state park attached.  Sam Hill knew Queen Marie of Romania quite well, and ended up (not quite sure how all this worked) with a whole bunch of Marie’s stuff – her memorabilia, her traveling throne, her portrait collection, gifts from her grandmother, Queen Victoria. 



Oh, and Sam knew Loie Fuller too.  And ended up with quite a few of her things. 



Have I mentioned that all of this Byzantine treasure is on display in a drafty old house in a remote corner of Washington state, visited by few? 



I think a lot of people drive along that highway, above those really amazing Columbia Gorge bluffs, and suddenly catch sight of that big house and that bizarre circle of standing stones, and think: Did I really just see that?



But once you’ve caught sight of it and had time to wonder about it , it’s gone.  You’re in the wilderness again.



This must be a metaphor for something.  Let me think.



Chicken skin and beef marrow


I have written before about guts, and how delicious they are.



Well, here’s something new: an New York Times article revealing that lovers of chicken skin have finally come out of the closet.



I don’t know if you love chicken skin as much as I do.  I peel it off and eat it in long strips.  It’s full of fat and flavor.  And now chefs are using it as a flavoring ingredient.  (Actually it’s nothing new: I just saw the recipe for Shepard’s chicken croquettes, from a long-defunct restaurant in downtown Providence, and one of the ingredients is ground-up chicken skin!)



Which leads us, of course, to beef marrow.



As a kid, I had red meat nearly every night at dinner.  We used to raise and slaughter our own beef cattle; a family friend would cut and wrap the meat, which was sometimes cut rather haphazardly; the bones in the steaks were cut open so that they were perfect little cups, full of a jellylike whitish material that was wonderfully savory. 



Primates love marrow; it’s full of protein and fat. 



I suppose you might find that disgusting. 



But it’s so good!



Now: are you going to eat that chicken skin?  Because I’ll eat it if you don’t.



Three o’clock in the morning music


I used to subscribe to Stereo Review in the early 1970s, and I read their articles – especially their record and music reviews – very religiously; they were a huge part of my musical education. (Oh my god, was it really forty years ago?) Anyway, one of the reviewers, when discussing one of the Schubert piano sonatas, described it as “three o’clock in the morning music.” And I knew what he meant: dry intimate personal quiet music. I think each of us must have his own type.



I don’t want to sound like a snob, but my three-in-the-morning music is the Beethoven quartets (especially the late ones) and the Scriabin piano music.



Why? It’s like listening to the musical equivalent of Morse code. There’s rhythm and harmony there, and sometimes even (especially in Beethoven, but in Scriabin too) something like melody, but the reasoning – the logic that leads from note to note, passage to passage – goes beyond words.



I’ve been listening to the Razumovsky quartets every evening now for about two weeks. I turn on the CD around 10:00 pm. I don’t really listen – not intently – but then again, yes I do. I know it by heart, and it throbs in my head. It’s quiet, and intense, and gentle. It’s playing right this moment as I write this.



There’s a famous moment in Aldous Huxley’s “Point Counter Point” in which a character listens to the third movement of the Beethoven A minor quartet, having arranged his own death and while waiting for his killers to arrive. For him, the music is perfect – so much so that everyday life, in comparison, become worthless.



I get quite the opposite message from this music. Beethoven called it his “Heiliger Dankgesang,” his Holy Song of Praise. It is quiet and lovely and passionate. I hear nature, and humanity, and simple earthy gestures, and simple tunes that weave together to make a grand perfect structure.



What’s that line from Auden? “Nothing is better than life.”



I agree.



And I think Beethoven (and even poor crazy Scriabin) agree also.



Even at three o’clock in the morning.



Sunday blog: “Low Rider,” by War


 Hey!  Another old video!




Hey! It’s got a nice backup, and a nice rhythm.  And, according to Wikipedia, this song has been featured in at least thirteen movies, including “Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke.”




So there!






The Arbor Day Foundation


 I have pretty much given up on charitable giving.  This is ironic, since I work for the fundraising division of a not-for-profit enterprise.  Oh, I still give away a few bucks here and there.  I give to my employer, of course, just to be nice.  I don’t give much; I figure I’ve given the last quarter-century of my working life to them, which should count for something.




I used to give to every charity that sent me a note: illnesses, injuries, religious groups.  Some of them fill their appeal envelopes with the most ridiculous chotchkes.  Partner gets stuff from an organization callled Saint Joseph’s School, a religious school for Native Americans, and they’re always sending him dreamcatchers and such.  A few years ago, however, they stupidly sent their yearly financial statement, which revealed that they were spending an unconscionable amount of money on, you guessed it, overhead like fundraising and administration.  All those little gifts from sympathetic people around the country weren’t going to the children after all; they were going to purchase Chinese-manufactured dreamcatchers, to send to people all over the country and make them feel guilty.



Even some of my favorites have gone by the wayside.  I have given up the Smithsonian, and the Planetary Fund.  I still give my alma mater Gonzaga University a few bucks a year, because I was a scholarship student there – back when tuition was less than five thou a year – and I can only imagine what modern students (and parents) are paying now.



But I still renew my yearly membership in the Arbor Day Foundation.




believe in trees. I believe in growth, and renewal.  I believe that, no matter what happens to the human race, there will still be trees around to witness what happens next.



Take a look at their website, please.  And remember what trees do for you.  And give some small money to them.




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