Feebleness

feebleness

I don’t start radiation treatments until Monday 21, but already I’m exhausted.

What? You think I’m full of self-pity? Listen: I’ve had five teeth pulled, and a feeding tube stuck into my belly, not to mention the mental back-and-forth I’ve been going through.

The idea of cancer doesn’t bother me as much as it did a month ago. It’s just a fact of life – my life, anyway. I just need to get through the treatments (which should be done by early December, not really so long from now).

But the early procedures have made me tired, and the anticipation of my radiation and chemotherapy treatments makes me tired too.

I’ve been napping on weekends, which I never really did before. I think of myself as active and alert, but I find myself logy and weary now.

From my “Comprehensive Cancer” notebook, given to me by my doctors and nurses: “Think of your cancer treatment as a time to get well and focus only on yourself.”

 

 

This is very tempting advice for a lazy selfish person like me. To hell with other people!

But something else inside me just wants to go to bed with a book and a crossword puzzle.

From Stevie Smith:

Oh would that I were a reliable spirit careering around

Congenially employed and no longer by feebleness bound

Oh who would not leave the flesh to become a reliable spirit

Possibly traveling far and acquiring merit.


 

The cormorant and the mayflower

cormorant and mayflower

I was walking across the Point Street Bridge recently, here in Providence. There’s an ancient wooden piling / dock beneath the bridge, which is now terribly rickety and unsafe.

But the birds love it. There are always gulls and ducks there, and sometimes egrets and swans. And almost always there are cormorants: lithe delicate birds with slender curving necks and broad wings, which fly low over the water’s surface and dive quickly to snap up fish with their sharp little beaks.

The cormorants were resting that day. It was warm and humid, but there was a pleasant quiet breeze blowing off the land toward the ocean; I could feel it up on the bridge, and the birds on the piling could feel it too.

One cormorant was facing into the breeze, its winds outstretched as if it were flying. It stood and rocked gently in the cool breeze.  I took some pictures, but I’m not very good with my phone’s camera, so you can barely see it:

cormorant flying

“He was pretending to fly in the breeze,” I said to my friend Cathleen later, showing her the photo. “He looked so serene and happy.”

“He was drying his wings,” she said soberly. “It’s just instinct.”

Maybe Cathleen is right. But I prefer to think that the cormorant was dreaming about flying.

It does my heart good to see things like this. Not very many things make me truly happy, now that I’m a sour old codger. Partner makes me happy, and once in a while Apollonia or Cathleen says something that makes me laugh.

But seeing that bird in imaginary flight made me happy. Sometimes small things – a flower, a tree, a bird – take us out of ourselves; they make us realize that life isn’t as difficult as it might be, and that sometimes there are moments of pure unconsidered joy.

Which brings me to Elinor Wylie.

Elinor’s poetry is mostly forgotten nowadays. She was active in the 1910s and 1920s, and died in 1929. She’s a minor poet, but (I think) an important one. I have bits and pieces of her verse rattling around in my head all the time.

This is the last stanza of her poem “As I Went Down by Havre de Grace”:

As I went out by Prettymarsh

I saw the mayflower under the leaves:

Life (I said) is rough and harsh

And fretted by a hundred griefs:

Yet were it more than I could face,

Who have faced out a hundred dooms,

Had I been born in any place

Where this small flower never blooms.


For National Poetry Month: “Some Trees,” by John Ashbery

poem in your pocket


April is National Poetry Month. And today – April 18 – is “Poem In Your Pocket” day. Today’s the day to carry your favorite poem with you, and give it to people, and let people know.

 

 

I don’t have a single favorite poem. It depends on my mood, which is sometimes a little somber. But it’s April, so let’s have a brighter one today – a very early one by John Ashbery:

 

 

 

Some Trees

These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges

A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.


Unenchanted April

unenchanted april


Poets used to love springtime. Remember Chaucer?:

 

 

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote

The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour,

Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth

Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne

Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,

And smale fowles maken melodye,

That slepen al the night with open ye . . .

 

 

 

Or how about some Shakespeare?

 

 

It was a lover and his lass,

With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,

That o’er the green corn-field did pass,

In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,

When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;

Sweet lovers love the spring.

 

 

Eh.

 

 

 

I myself do not much like the spring. It can be very pretty, granted, and I do think crocuses and daffodils are very nice. But there’s something a little – I don’t know – relentless about it. And I notice that, over the past hundred years, a few poets seem to be agreeing with me.

How about that ol’ T. S. Eliot?:

 

 

 

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

 

 

 

But my personal favorite is New England’s own Edna St. Vincent Millay:

 

 

 

To what purpose, April, do you return again?

Beauty is not enough.

You can no longer quiet me with the redness

Of little leaves opening stickily.

I know what I know.

The sun is hot on my neck as I observe

The spikes of the crocus.

The smell of the earth is good.

It is apparent that there is no death.

But what does that signify?

Not only under ground are the brains of men

Eaten by maggots.

Life in itself

Is nothing,

An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.

It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,

April

Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

 

 

 

I love those last few lines.

Happy springtime, everyone!

 


 

For Sunday: Edward Abbey’s recipe for Hardcase Survival Pinto Bean Sludge

abbey


I have not posted a recipe for yonks.  This is because I haven’t found or cooked anything really new or interesting.

This recipe (which is from the fabulous website Letters of Note) is a little exceptional. It answers the question: What does a penniless curmudgeon loner poet cook for himself while living in the American Southwest?

I’ve never prepared this recipe. It sort of fascinates me, however, and I think I may someday make a scaled-down version of it, minus the tennis shoes and saddle blankets.

1. Take one fifty-pound sack Colorado pinto beans. Remove stones, cockleburs, horseshit, ants, lizards, etc. Wash in clear cold crick water. Soak for twenty-four hours in iron kettle or earthenware cooking pot. (DO NOT USE TEFLON, ALUMINUM OR PYREX CONTAINER. THIS WARNING CANNOT BE OVERSTRESSED.)

 

2. Place kettle or pot with entire fifty lbs. of pinto beans on low fire and simmer for twenty-four hours. (DO NOT POUR OFF WATER IN WHICH BEANS HAVE BEEN IMMERSED. THIS IS IMPORTANT.) Fire must be of juniper, pinyon pine, mesquite or ironwood; other fuels tend to modify the subtle flavor and delicate aroma of Pinto Bean Sludge.

 

3. DO NOT BOIL.

 

4. STIR VIGOROUSLY FROM TIME TO TIME WITH WOODEN SPOON OR IRON LADLE. (Do not disregard these instructions.)

 

5. After simmering on low fire for twenty-four hours, add one gallon green chile peppers. Stir vigorously. Add one quart natural (non-iodized) pure sea salt. Add black pepper. Stir some more and throw in additional flavoring materials, as desired, such as old bacon rinds, corncobs, salt pork, hog jowls, kidney stones, ham hocks, sowbelly, saddle blankets, jungle boots, worn-out tennis shoes, cinch straps, whatnot, use your own judgment. Simmer an additional twenty-four hours.

 

6. Now ladle as many servings as desired from pot but do not remove pot from fire. Allow to simmer continuously for hours, days or weeks if necessary, until all contents have been thoroughly consumed. Continue to stir vigorously, whenever in vicinity or whenever you think of it.

 

7. Serve Pinto Bean Sludge on large flat stones or on any convenient fairly level surface. Garnish liberally with parsley flakes. Slather generously with raw ketchup. Sprinkle with endive, anchovy crumbs and boiled cruets and eat hearty.

 

8. One potful Pinto Bean Sludge, as above specified, will feed one poet for two full weeks at a cost of about $11.45 at current prices. Annual costs less than $300.

 

9. The philosopher Pythagoras found flatulence incompatible with meditation and therefore urged his followers not to eat beans. I have found, however, that custom and thorough cooking will alleviate this problem.


Sweetness and cruelty; or, the Christian religion

lawrence

________________________________________
I recently picked up a translation of a sixteenth-century Catholic treatise on “Christian tortures,” mostly concerning the various ways in which the martyrs died. There’s a modern (illustrated) appendix explaining how crucifixion works. A Protestant version of the same book – the famous “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs,” narrating the tortures and deaths of the early Lutherans and Calvinists at the hands of the Papists – was very popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Before you say “Ugh!” and turn away, ask yourself: why were these books so popular? And why do we continue to be so morbidly fascinated with pain and torture and death?

Let’s look at it more closely. Saint Lawrence (my name saint!) died on a barbecue grille, and is often depicted holding the instrument of his death (see the above image). Barbara was thrown from a high tower by her own father. Catherine was broken on a wheel. Many early martyrs were thrown to wild animals, or torn apart. The Protestant martyrs were mostly burnt or hanged, but often suffered horrible tortures beforehand.

Again: why do we read about these things, over and over again?

Maybe it’s the same reason we enjoy picking at a scab: it’s a mild agony, a remote pain. It reminds us that we’re alive.

Also we seem to like gruesome stories, up to a point.

However: religion – and in particular the Christian religion – seems to like to tell us that pain and suffering and death are a positive experience. We will get there sooner and more smoothly, we’re told, if we accept and even welcome suffering into our lives.

(A co-worker spoke to me once, with great feeling, about her experience in Catholic school back in the 1950s and 1960s. She was taught about Maria Goretti, the twelve-year-old who’d been raped and murdered, and later made a saint (mostly through the agency of her very aggressive mother). She was, therefore, for some perverse reason, presented as a model of Catholic girlhood: suffer, and you’ll go to Heaven.

(My friend said that, even as a child, she was horrified by this.

(I don’t blame her one tiny bit.)

We need to remind ourselves – we, who are comfortable in our lives – that human suffering is very real. But we should not revel in it, or reassure ourselves that it’s the summit of the human condition. And we should not in any way make it a religious trial, as if suffering were a prerequisite for happiness.

This is a poem by Stevie Smith. I’ve quoted it before. It’s her response to the doctrine of Eternal Hell. It’s the most eloquent rejection of suffering in the name of religion that I’ve ever read.

Is it not interesting to see
How the Christians continually
Try to separate themselves in vain
From the doctrine of eternal pain

They cannot do it,
They are committed to it,
Their Lord said it,
They must believe it.

So the vulnerable body is stretched without pity
On flames forever. Is this not pretty?

The religion of Christianity
Is mixed of sweetness and cruelty
Reject this Sweetness, for she wears
A smoky dress out of Hell fires.

Who makes a God? Who shows him thus?
It is the Christian religion does.
Oh, oh, have none of it,
Blow it away, have done with it,

This god the Christians show
Out with him, out with him, let him go.

Becoming a writer

becoming a writer


Sometimes I ask myself: What do I want to be when I grow up? And the answer is always: I want to be a writer.

Writers are great. They lounge around in smoking jackets and smoke and drink, and somehow – magically – they produce poetry and prose and dramas. And then they smoke and drink some more.

Who doesn’t want that kind of life?

When I was younger, I wrote and wrote. I wrote bad short stories and abortive novels and really atrocious poetry. Worse: I got a few things published in small (very small) publications when I was in my twenties, which convinced me that it was only a matter of time. Smoking jacket, here I come!

But then I discovered that writing is hard work. Also, a little talent doesn’t hurt, and I began to wonder if I had any talent at all.

I have a friend who is a real writer, with several books (real books!) to his credit. He does not generally wear a smoking jacket. He works at a regular job, and has a family. He writes when he can: late at night, during odd moments in the day. But he never really stops.

Aha! I thought. I can do that, at least! I may not have any talent, but I have a huge amount of stubborn perseverance!

So I began this blog in 2010: one page a day. I have never missed a day yet. I’m a writer at last! Who needs a publisher? I can publish myself! I can edit myself! I can write about any damn thing I please, no matter how silly or irrelevant!

And here we are. I’m still producing the blog, a page a day, silent and grim as death.

I must be a writer by now, right?

Right?

Here’s Frank O’Hara’s “Autobiographia Literaria”:

 

 

When I was a child
I played by myself in a
corner of the schoolyard
all alone.


I hated dolls and I
hated games, animals were
not friendly and birds
flew away.


If anyone was looking
for me I hid behind a
tree and cried out “I am
an orphan.”


And here I am, the
center of all beauty!
writing these poems!
Imagine!


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