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Ephemeris  December 2010

 

 

December 29, 2010: By way of casual causals—Or that, this morning, I was reading Christopher Middleton's Rilke's Feet, a poem in 12 parts; a poem whose sense I will not even pretend to grasp, only that it is written at some ultra-high frequency for specialty ears; but that I accept it as genuine, not as faux hermeneutics; and that I like the lines: Can I speak to you now Rilke / As we sleep / A little for our lives—I was reminded that my mother claimed to have read Rilke as a schoolgirl in the 30s, Berlin, and it was no big deal. I had my own engagement with the poet in the 70s as a university dropout soaking wet behind the years; that the engagement or the enthusiasm was mixed - Duino Elegies, yes; Sonnets to Orpheus, not so much; the letters, yes; the other prose and verses yes and no. I eventually defected from Rilke to Yeats, and not without somewhat of a guilty conscience. My reasoning, however flawed, was that Yeats's cold eye was closer to the bone, to truth, so to speak; that once Yeats outgrew his Celtic twilight he stayed outgrown, as it were, and did not try to seduce with an excess of intangibles. Now I have come back around almost full circle, not back to Rilke necessarily, but perhaps to Shakespeare's whimsies rhetorical and otherwise. There has to be room for this sort of thing in life and poetry or else it is all a dreary catalogue of daily orders and disagreeable persons minding your business for you. And here I take issue with P M Carpenter, Prominent Political Commentator who, in a recent post of his, declared that vast swathes of 19th century British verse is given over to 'naturalistic sentimentality.' Yes, Wordsworth, for instance, drives me mad with the stuff. But I take issue with Mr Carpenter in particular respect to Keats who is, even for me, often unreadable - I find myself reduced to noting the rhymes and counting off the beat, a not entirely sterile or pleasureless exercise - just that I would submit that Keats, rather than inhabiting sentimentality, is giving voice to his quite genuine love of nature, especially as nature manifests to the senses. This love, so to speak, is a far different order of sentience than tinctures of belittling prettiness. How all this applies to Mr Obama and his re-election chances I am unable to determine; and I remain of several minds, at least, in respect to those chances. One mind suggests that it matters immensely. The other mind sweeps all other plausible minds before it and considers that it is beside the point, things past salvaging, that is, if the 'republic' retains any traction at all as a notion.

 

December 28, 2010: To say that everything we touch we corrupt requires a sensibility and cast of mind I do not have, but it is close. No doubt the odd person here and there will find themselves much relieved that the requisite sensibility and cast of mind are missing in this post, but do not commence celebrating yet. For all the bad press Augustine has gotten in recent decades, perhaps due to his attitudes about women, even so, I prefer his pessimism in respect to human character to the banking ads that tell you you are the beautifullest thing on the planet, bank here and voila, you are empowered. Those who critique religion for the false promises religion extends might as well complete the trifecta and bash in turn all the charlatans of the secular world. It is target-rich. I have not read Augustine in years, but when I did, it was a deep reading; and he became a large part of my imaginative life at the time, much more so than the other church fathers whom I was reading on account of my fascination with the psychology of the early Christians. With the exception perhaps of Jerome, I came to find those fathers boorish. Augustine is on my mind because, at the moment, a friend is recommending Sartre to me, and Sartre is not one of my gods. Augustine is on my mind on account of the academese I hear spoken even now that still shows no sign of sodding off, that has been eating up young minds since I can remember, since the 80s at least, academia a shell game akin to Wall Street that generates profits but no wealth. And I suppose Sartre is not the monster I have made him out to be in that region of my mind prone to snap judgments and throw-away lines, but I would wager that Augustine understood his grossly flawed self and his inclinations to a much greater degree than Sartre did in respect to himself, what with all his showboating and toney nausea. There it is then - I am coming at it rather high. In any case, I have finished with Graham Greene's The Honorary Consul, and the concluding pages disappoint. That they seem to flail about in search of an ending that perhaps cannot exist, tired and melodramatic pages. And yet here, I will defend the tired and the melodramatic; it is to be preferred to the smiley-faced positivisms of the hour: "Our technologies will, in fact, render you more beautiful and noble. Do you care to be rendered? You may wish to overlook a few embarrassing side effects of the panacea such as drone warfare and surveillance states." A few tired quotes then from a few tired pages follow here. They stuck in my mind for whatever reason you may care to name.

'—Because the evolution of God depends on our evolution—'
'—Caring is the only dangerous thing, Fortnum.'
—To be free, he discovered, was a very lonely thing—

Again, there is prose that states that everything we touch we corrupt. There is prose that either does not state it or does not think to state it or does not wish to state it, it being bothersome to do so, but that, even so, everything we touch we corrupt. Conversely, there is prose that has not heard of the corruptibility of mind and matter, or that corruption is nothing more than so many crooked politicians having their innings - it does not amount to a metaphysical condition; and besides, change the system, and, willynilly, you've got your solution. I am told that, via the example of St Paul, there is a revivalist sense of revolution in the air. Whether it is true or not I am unable to say as I am unaware of such impulses in the near vicinity. But though I could never reduce St Paul to the ignominious status of a CIA operative as some thinkers have done, I have never been able to warm up to him either, be he in the New Testament or in critical works devoted to his life and teaching. So, in a sense, that leaves me with the likes of a Graham Greene, with his 'anti-truths' that are meant to be registered or muttered as truths, just that life, being what it is, is so effing uncooperative and unfair. Otherwise the best version of Mackie Messer or Mack the Knife that I have heard in a great long time is Jimmie Dale Gilmore's.

 

December 26, 2010: At some point in grade school when the girls had not yet sworn off pigtails and the boys were still yanking on them (we are talking the 50s here), it was remarked in class that geography is the key to everything. It was not perhaps a monumental observation, and I cannot identify by way of memory who the pedagogue was - a Mrs Snyder or a Mrs Brown or a Mr Niermann or none of the above; just that, for the life of me, I cannot recall having the like impressed on me again, not even in university before I dropped out in favour of all-night cafés and impromptu sessions with various mentors, with anyone hungry to discuss and chew over anything. Then, Rome, 2004, and I came across Braudel's The Mediterranean in the Ancient World, and geography mattered again in a compelling fashion. Now this morning I read in a cheesy on-line tabloid, and it is cheesy to the point of off-puttingness, but that yes, we like our trash; in any case I read that geography dictates conditions and how collectivities deal with those conditions dictates what geography means. For instance, Egypt had its Nile but Rome had its sea, or the Mediterranean, and the mastery of it which made moving a great deal of goods and other traffic around possible; ergo, geography meant empire. What has come over everyone, homely geography a come-backer? Otherwise an octogenarian poet of whom I know wore red socks for Christmas, so I hear, and one can only speculate as to the reasons why. The band-aid of a secularism exacerbating the differences between those who fail to adjust to history and a rationality incapable of telling the time of day in a universe in which Einstein set the clocks? Well, ain't that the truth! But ye gods, what a mouthful, the above! Or is the aforementioned just another way of saying that reason will not avail one in all situations? Ho ho ho! There is yet another poet to whom I am currently addressing verses (are poets reduced to writing to and for one another? But of course!), and it would seem that his prime minister is a lying bastard, and, opening line, and I remark on it; and it would only be gentlemanly of me to reciprocate in kind with my own prime minister; to reflect on his moral qualities, as it were, even if the major portion of such interest on my part is concentrated on the Head of State to the south, who is routinely characterized by high-blown plaudits and low-blow trash talk. For all that, so far as I can ascertain, few people make mention of what strikes me as his savior-complex, which may portend absolutely nothing for the world at large, but then, then again—And so far, in the address to which I allude, I have not yet managed a follow-up line, unwilling to stoop to gratuitous insults; that they must be earned even if I will maintain that the PM in question carries a glass jaw about, but that it remains unaccountably intact, the fact of which attests to the sorry state of the opposition and how it whiffs air when it would throw a punch. The Ides of March scene in the HBO series Rome mesmerized me, last evening. I have seen any number of such scenes in the movies, but this one is likely to remain unsurpassed. It is a few moment's worth of viciousness and the psychologies of the various assailants; it is Caesar's shock and consequent rage; it is the way he draws his robe over his wounds to his face (modesty?); it is the full import of the act beginning to dawn on Brutus who, nonetheless, is obliged to deliver the coup de grâce if he would maintain his honour and his standing among his peers; it is the emotionally complex response of Mark Antony whose relations to Caesar were heretofore complicated enough already, disgust and perhaps affection briefly simplifying things; and it is the question of what the success of that scene as art and history mean for us, if anything at all. I probably have wasted years on Tacitus and the others - Sallust and Livy, for instance, at the expense of my contemporaries and all their data banks, but then, then again—There is the fact of the newly-released autobiography of Mark Twain and how technology permits his writerly intentions that were otherwise impractical to realize in print. But can one drink grappa by mistake, I ask you? No, really, I put it to you—

 

December 24, 2010: Yet another French movie. It has been something of a mini-festival around here. The movie is called Séraphine, and it is based on the life of the painter Séraphine de Senlis. She was forced to clean houses to make ends meet, one of her employers, at least, dismissive of her pretension to art. She was deeply religious, her paintings influenced, in part, by the stained glass windows of the church. She had no formal art training. She ended her days in an asylum, 1942. The art-spirit in its trials. I do not know if there is such a thing - the art spirit, and if there is, it is probably best not to talk it up too much. The soul shrivels with arid talk. Harman, a painter, tells me that she has come across an artist or two who account for their work by claiming direct inspiration from God. The rationally-minded may dispute or gainsay the claim and flatter themselves on their powers of reason. The rationally-minded may even paint, and paint well. It is a complex world, this world we inhabit; and who knows from under what rock some art with all its fine reasons might greet the light of day. Even so, a novelist complains to me: if TV is too slow, is but a reservation for those who are doddering past their middle age, and if gadgets are everything, then what hope for books? A chubby cherub of my acquaintance has to my face told me she does not bother to read because reading is 'too slow' - it just does not happen fast enough, like in a trice - so that she blinks her eyes once or twice in her quest for understanding, and presto! instant epiphany. Apparently, there are little gods and goddesses among us. What to say for the arguments roiling  around us in regards to the virtues of the printed page as opposed to those of the electronic tome? All that can happen in such arguments is that one will occupy silly season turf or crawl out on a limb and find oneself tumbling down. There is more to reading a book than the reading, my other umpteen senses involved above and beyond the sense of sight. But that market forces, as they stand, would succeed yet in making me a snob, elitist, hold-out, some ponce of an aesthete, when I am, in point of fact, a barbarian; just that I like the feel of a book in my hands just as I like the feel of a living body in my embrace, not some facsimile thereof. But back to the movie—Yes, the French in their movie-making will acquaint one with every bodily function. De rigueur. Paint will be observed to dry as the mind of the protagonist hurtles toward either its glory or its insanity, the mind of the hapless painter, in this instance, she who had intentions of inviting heaven's angels to her exhibition, the one that would make her famous. Well, why not? Perhaps some bubbly would suffice to slake their earthly thirst. And Bob's your uncle, and something's gaining; and Keats knew a thing or two about the awt-spirit that I have rarely seen known in these our times, his Psyche the inevitable victim of perpetual date rape, irrespective of the gender of the offending party.

 

December 23, 2010: How odd to say of a movie that at least the sex convinces. I write in regards to a 2006 French production of the film Lady Chatterley. It is based on one of the versions of DH Lawrence's novel, none of which I have read, though in my 20s I read most of the man's other novels, the non-fiction work and the poetry. So that I may be in serious error when I say that it seemed to me that in the movie milady and her gameskeeper did not strike me as very Lawrence or even particularly English; that is, not until they began to desport themselves naked in the rain and bedeck one another's private parts with flowers. Then I figured I would have to check the credits for the presence of John Keats or perhaps Browning in one of his more pastoral moods. Very French however was the plethora of detail obsessively dwelled upon and teased to the hilt. Which brought to mind, as I watched the film, Robert Melancon's characterization of Victor Hugo's madness; or that, in one of his works, should a man set out to the store to buy cigarettes, one can in complete security of mind skip the next 50 pages as nothing much will have happened. I do not mean to be unkind to either Hugo or the movie, and I believe Melancon was speaking of Hugo with affection. In fact, I liked the movie, and it soon enough hit me that, despite the novel's intellectual underpinnings - class struggle, man-woman, mind-body duality, the intellectual as a walking-talking wasteland - and despite the movie's slow pace, it is free of useless, pointy-headed chatter. Man and woman meet, like one another, get on with it; life gets complicated (love often is); the principals must find some way of dealing with the complications. Pessimist that I am (that not much in the end gets solved, in any case) I have no problem with the outlook that states that the life-force tends to muddle through. Now while I was watching Lady Chatterley, a London acquaintance of mine was apparently at the opera, taking in Tannhäuser. This friend considers me effing illiterate when it comes to music, but I have been known to hum along with the opera in question, however much I lean more to Puccini's side of things than Wagner's. My friend does observe that Wagner as a human being was rather vile; and even Puccini had his pompous machismo to indulge, popping off all those ducks for his relaxation and his sport. Perhaps nice guys do finish last in the sense that the art they make can be feeble stuff. Where is this going? I have no idea, it being a day shy of Christmas Eve, and Mr Obama, against the odds, seems to have pulled a legislative wabbit or two from his magic hat; and who knows, perhaps that damned elusive pimpernel of a centre-ground may hold, after all, though I doubt it.

 

December 19th, 2010: In Graham Greene's The Honorary Consul, the novelist puts in the mouth of one of his characters the notions that 1, there is no such thing as a simple man; that 2, there are no straightforward answers to why people do what they do; so that 3, say three Our Fathers, three Hail Marys, and go in peace. The thing is, I know plenty of people who quite believe the opposite, people in the business world, people in the ologies dedicated to social engineering, people in politics, people who allegedly write poetry. Perhaps it is because they cannot allow the Church to have the last word—It has been many years since I have read fiction in any sustained way, as I gave up on novels and kept strictly to history writing; but O'Brian and Merezhovsky and Graves (who I have been reading lately, along with Greene, and there is a Roth that, try as I might, I just cannot warm up to) were in the business of writing historical fiction, so that perhaps their works do not count as fiction as such. Mr Greene? It seems, as I read him, that I am dipping into the Old Testament, much as I might feel were I to return to reading Proust and Lampedusa, my two most favourite novelists. Now and then, in dreams, I sit in Proust's cork-lined room. No conversation takes place between us; I simply sample the quality of the room's light, the writer indifferent to my presence. I could not find any hint of Lampedusa when I was in Palermo, but I did run across a khaki-wearing American expatriate in a bank who, years later, in combination with someone else I knew, became the model of a character in the novel I wrote - against my better judgment, the effing thing still unpublished, perhaps mercifully so. Otherwise, I follow with deep interest the commentaries of P M Carpenter (see the links page on this site), not because I think he has the last word on the political scene south of here; but because he repeatedly calls attention to the fact that there are those who have gone from seeing Mr Obama as the Saviour to the Anti-Christ; and there are those who believe the man is beside the point, as things have gotten that bad; and there are those who saw him as the Anti-Christ from the get-go; and while Mr Carpenter would attempt to sell to his left of centre readers the virtues of political pragmatism and would wean them of their nihilism and despair and what he would call their self-indulgent disillusion, I wonder how many people there are like myself who sense some Greek tragedy lurking around the corner. Well, I suppose Greek tragedy does not root well in American soil, let alone the American psyche; and Canadian soil is much too Calvinist for anything like a complex reading of human nature, and the climate does not permit such a reading, in any case; so then I am probably all at sea, bringing the matter up in the first place. Just that, setting the operations of chance and the probabilities aside, there must be some more compelling reason why I am having at Greene again, reading about rebels who make a hash of everything; about men and women who grab at the thinnest straw of all, or love. If one thinks that Greene's time has long since past, that it was another world then, even in the 50s, then why does it all seem so familiar, what he writes; and everything else, or what I have seen of the contemporary stuff, seems so exotic and yet uptight, like it is unsure of the ground on which it trods, uncertain as to its welcome, and it just cannot say when the hostilities will break out? No? No compelling reasons? There generally aren't any, however much we see things in the light of the picturesque.

 

December 14, 2010: Last night, with a grim look in her eyes, a friend returned my play to me, the first I ever wrote, against all better judgment; as I wrote it for a lark, not having a clue as to how to bring such things off. She had had it for two months and more, a testament to her consuming interest in it, or so it has seemed to me. In other words, she could have read it in an hour, if she was truly interested, it being but a two-acter. There in my local (staff was having an early Christmas fete: wine, lamb and oysters) she grinned and said, "But hey, it's not so bad as all that." Well, and apparently not. Come to think of it, act the second, yes, she could see it on the stage; it fairly hummed along. In any case, her report accords with a sniff I received from the local thespian group; that the play has got, would you believe it, potential. (I am considering characterizing the local thespian group as a sex club in play the 4th.) Whatever the truth of the matter, be my shot at dramaturgy viable or hopeless, I find it richly whimsical to be writing the odd play, as I can have no realistic expectation of ever seeing one staged. It is a pleasant feeling, really, semi-conspiratorial, scratching this particular itch, I loath to join a workshop so as to learn some trade craft, as it might ruin the pleasure I derive from my ignorance of how to succeed. Persons have told me, "Yes but, you're a professional", referring, perhaps, to poetry of mine that has been unaccountably published. That word professional is cause for some discomfort; as the day one begins to take for granted that one's poems will always see the light of day is the day one begins to die as a poet.

 

December 4, 2010: I was in  Toronto for a few days in pursuit of a guilty pleasure or a certain book by a certain author; and I was told by a used book dealer how the used bookstore in a city of some two and a half million is approaching extinction levels. In the meantime, someone other than myself took leave of their senses and addressed a poem to me, in a spirit of fun, apparently, which I transcribe below, make of it what you will:

The Last Dream by Michael Glover

Norm, you’re still hectoring, raging at will
Over the coffee mug in your favourite local,
Musing and scribbling, half-eyeing the street,
Waiting for the Great Satan from down South to show.

And I sit listening, scrub-nailed satirist in blanched jacket,
Soft critiquer of art’s wonders, listening to your moon-struck ravings:
How the horsemen of the apocalypse will come running
With gun-runner Heston leading, trailing Bush’s head in a basket,

And the crowd will be jeering, and the crowd will be cheering,
And the poets, stripped to the buff, will be flinging their verses,
And we’ll hang by the heels, Il Duce and Clara,
Waving upside down at the few who still listen,

And the buildings will burn, and the banks will go tumbling
And when it’s all over, and all’s burned to cinders,
We’ll sip at the beer in the Eastern Townships
Amidst the beauteous, heart-stopping tranquillity
   of poetry’s winter.

 

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