Friday, August 29, 2008

America - a Poetry Friday post

Today, I'm particularly proud to be an American. Watching Senator Barack Obama accept the Democratic party's nomination to be their candidate for President of the United States was a moving, historic moment. His speech was pitch-perfect, in my opinion. One of the 29 items (if Keith Oberman is to be believed) that he set forth was "equal pay for equal work" because "I want my daughters to have the same opportunities as your sons." The emphasis on personal responsibility and mutual responsibility, on rebuilding the United States' image and reclaiming its integrity at home and abroad, was truly inspiring, even as it was bolstered with practical and pragmatic expectations. I hope he succeeds in making this into a meaningful election, and not "a big election about small things." (Quotes here are from memory, having listened to the speech last night and again this morning, and may not be verbatim.)

This morning, Senator John McCain, presumptive nominee for the Republican party, selected Alaska's governor, Sarah Palin, as his vice-presidential nominee. She is not the first woman to be selected as a potential vice-president. Walter Mondale had Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, after all. But come November, this country is going to see a major first regardless of which party wins the election.

I selected today's poem out of a renewed sense of patriotism, and hope that our country will eventually be truly a "centre of equal daughters, equal sons".

by Walt Whitman

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear'd, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair'd in the adamant of Time.

You can listen to what is believed to be Walt Whitman's voice reading the first four lines of this poem at the Academy of American Poets.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

PIRATES - a book review

Today, I'm talking about pirates. Not talking like a pirate, although those of you who are so inclined will want to mark your calendars now because annual "Talk Like a Pirate" day is coming soon: it's September 19th, just like every other year. But I digress.

Pirates by David L. Harrison, illustrated by Dan Burr, is an interesting and pretty wonderful sort of poetry collection, and a really fabulous book to look at and hold. First off, the book is square (okay, it's within .4 inches of being square, which is close enough for me), which somehow makes this book feel far more "right" than it would have been as a rectangle (in either direction). The back cover of the book jacket features a skull and crossbones, the front features the lovely art you see here (which looks almost photographic, and very glamorously pirate-y), and the flaps include images of coins (pieces of eight, perhaps?) and pearls. The one thing missing from the front of this book and flap copy is any mention of this being a poetry collection, which I have to assume was a deliberate choice. (The flap copy at one point says "this collection", but it doesn't say it's a collection of poems. Even the "short title page" only reads "Pirates". The long title page says "Poems by David L. Harrison". I think the publishers were/are hoping to sell the book based on the subject and excellent package. I think that they were worried that if they said it was poems about pirates up front, folks might not open the book and be seduced by the artwork and actual poems, is what I think.)

Take a second to go to Dan Burr's website and look at some of the pirate art that's in the book. There are four spreads you can see by hovering over thumbnails, although I should note that the third one (with the title info) appears differently in the book. First, it lacks the author and illustrator info., and second, it's on a yellow background, and third, the font and coloring of the word "Pirates" is different. Here, however, is the artwork for the first poem in the book, "Pirate Nest". The Text is in white lettering over the smoke to the left on the painting.

The poem, "Pirate Nest" is in free verse, in four stanzas. Here are the first and last stanzas, so you get a feel for the tone of the book:

Times were hard for some men.
They slept in place
roaches would snub,
ate when they were able,
drank what they could.

  .   .   .

Men like that nursed
their bruises with their beer,
brooded, plotted revenge on life,
decided that dying as a pirate
was better than living

The poems begin and end on land. proceeding from "Pirate Nest" through "Signing on a Crew" and "Making Ready" to setting sail and everyday ship life with "Ship's Rules", "Another Day at Sea", "Table Talk" (bemoaning the lack of a cook), "Cat-O'-Nine-Tails" (with a chorus of "Unh!") to the actual act of pirating with "Sail in Sight!", "Through the Glass", "Coming for Your Gold", "Fog Attack". Then the book includes a poem about a particularly famous (and infamous) pirate, which kind of breaks the narrative arc that the poem flow had set up because it's about Blackbeard. The poem, "Blackbeard", works well as a poem, but up until now, you could have been following one particular pirate ship, and it seems odd to wait until you're 12 poems in to mention that he was the captain of the ship. Plus, Blackbeard isn't in any of the other poems or pictures in the book. So in a way, having "Blackbeard" the poem in the middle of the book kind of took me momentarily out of the "story" of the collection (what it was like to be a pirate or to be in the company of pirates) to focus on a particular individual (who Blackbeard was). And yet, if you were going to include a poem about Blackbeard (or any other pirate chief) in the book, this was the logical place to do so.

With the next poem, we're back to what pirates did with a rhyming poem in four stanzas entitled "What'll the King Say, Cap'n?" It's a poem in which a pirate addresses the captain of captured ship. Here are the first and third stanzas, so you get an idea of the poem (and how much fun it would be to read aloud in a menacing, taunting tone):

Excerpt from "What'll the King Say, Cap'n?"
by David L. Harrison

Nice and easy, Cap'n.
Do nothing ye'll regret.
We're helping ourselves to all your gold
and we're not finisihed yet.

  .   .   .

What'll the king say, Cap'n?
Seems ye lost his loot!
Seems ye lost your pistol, sir,
your knife and rings to boot.

Having claimed their loot, the pirates set ashore for a bit. The first thumbnail over at Dan Burr's page will show you the illustration that accompanies the next poem, "Trouble". I particularly like the farmer's pirate's tan on the guy in the foreground with the limes, who is wondering where the guys in the distance are off to with that chest. "Trouble" is followed by "Gentlemen on the Beach", in which a squabble has broken out. The art looks a bit like this, only with a completely different setting (trees instead of sky, flat horizon instead of the cool mountains):

If I'm completely honest, I like the image on Dan Burr's site better than the one in the book, because I like that vivid blue sky and the rocky islands or mountains in the backdrop, and I like that the guy on the left has his shirt untucked and that the captain has a pale vest. In the book, the guy on the left has a red sash around his waist and the captain's vest is red, too, plus it's a bit less photorealistic, if that's a word. But hey, I am certain the editors and book designers had their reasons for wanting the change. Moving on.

The next few poems include "Marooned" (a single man left alone), "On the Run" and "Last Battle" (about chase and battle with a British Navy ship), "Captured", and "Farewell" (one pirate's last words).

The book includes a prefatory page entitled "Warning! Pirates Ahead!" that clearly establishes that pirates were bad guys: "Real pirates robbed people. They looted and burned waterfront cities. They plundered ships, and people often died. Many books, movies, and plays make pirates seem like heroes. Real pirates were never heroes." The book also has a two-page spread following the final poem ("Farewell") entitled "Here's How it Was", written in first person plural and addressed to the reader. It provides additional information about pirate life and about the "glory days of pirates", which ended in the early 1700s, and about particular pirates, including Mary Read and Anne Bonny, Captain Kidd, Bartholomew Roberts and Captain Henry Every (the only major pirate captain to retire with his wealth and disappear).

The book includes a bibliography which consists entirely of adult titles, several of which are from university presses (including Harvard, Cambridge and Yale), which shows how seriously David Harrison took his research. It also has "A Note on the Making of the Book", which came about in a rather unusual manner. Dan Burr had long wanted to illustrate a book on pirates, and so it came to pass that the editor at Wordsong made the introduction and a collaboration began. Some poems started with a sketch from Dan, others with a poem by David in a back-and-forth exchange of ideas.

I was quite excited to see this title in the latest Boyds Mills Press catalogue when it arrived, particularly because I spotted it just after returning from the Real Pirates! exhibit at the Franklin Institute, which includes a lot of stuff salvaged from an actual pirate ship wreck. Based on what I learned at the museum, this book got most everything right (although the exhibit led me to believe that pirate fights over booty were not particularly common, even though it makes a great poem and spread for the book). And after receiving a copy of the book from BMP and reading it, I am more excited still because it is good. The poems are solid, the illustrations are phenomenal, the entire "package" looks and feels wonderful in one's hands. In fact, apart from my nitpicky comment about the fact that the good poem about Blackbeard kind of jolted me out of the overarching "life as a pirate" arc (which is, I admit, quite a nitpicky comment!), I've got nothing at all negative to say about this title.

Who needs this book:
1. Anyone interested in pirates, naturally.
2. Anyone who wants a poetry collection that will appeal to boys.
3. Libraries interested in nonfiction books about piracy, rather than more Captain Jack Sparrow books for the fiction shelves. And yeah, it's a poetry collection, so it probably gets an 811 number in most libraries, but its contents could just as easily go in 972 with the other books on pirates if it weren't a poetry book.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Human Seasons - a Poetry Friday post

Here in New Jersey, where I live, it is still summer. But lately, in the evenings or the early mornings, I can catch a whiff of Autumn in the air. Nights have been cooler lately, and the trees have been filling with their various fruits - maple helicopters and seed pods, crabapples and apples, ripening nuts. I got to thinking about the change of seasons, and how my preferences have changed. It used to be that Spring was my favorite, but for the past decade or so, it's been Autumn - I think it's for the "certain slant of light" that comes with the fall (with a nod to Miss Emily Dickinson for use of her term).

One of my favorite poems about Autumn is "To Autumn" by Keats (I am tempted to quote Hugh Grant's character from Bridget Jones's Diary, but I am resisting - only barely), but I shared it last October, so rather than repeating it, I took a look at some more of Keats's poems and decided to share "The Human Seasons", a Shakespearian sonnet which, I believe, hearkens directly to Shakespeare, and in particular to Jaques soliloquy in As You Like It, which I shared two weeks ago. Not that I can prove that Keats was writing his own version of the stages of life because he'd read Shakespeare, but the man definitely knew his plays (as evidenced by his sonnet, "On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again).

The Human Seasons
by John Keats

Four Seasons fill the measure of the year;
  There are four seasons in the mind of man:
He has his lusty Spring, when fancy clear
  Takes in all beauty with an easy span:
He has his Summer, when luxuriously
  Spring's honey'd cud of youthful thought he loves
To ruminate, and by such dreaming high
  Is nearest unto heaven: quiet coves
His soul has in its Autumn, when his wings
  He furleth close; contented so to look
On mists in idleness—to let fair things
  Pass by unheeded as a threshold brook.
He has his Winter too of pale misfeature,
Or else he would forego his mortal nature.

So, as it turns out, it's more about man and less about nature, and yet I find that suits my mood. This time of year always makes me more mindful of the connectedness between the two. Maybe it's because of the harvests coming in, or the way nature draws attention to itself as it prepares to change its clothes. Or maybe it's because the coming of the new school year (which does not arrive here until September) reminds me of the passage of time. Who can say?

Friday, August 15, 2008

The pantoum - a Poetry Friday post

Today, I want to talk about a particular form of poetry called the pantoum. The pantoum is an evocative form that originates in Malaysia. It involves a lot of repetition, since each line will repeat once in the poem. A pantoum can have as many stanzas as one likes. Each stanza holds four lines. Lines two and four of stanza one become lines one and three of stanza two, lines two and four of stanza two become lines one and three of stanza three, and so on, until the final stanza, in which line three of the first stanza of the poem is line two of that final stanza, and line one of the poem is the fourth line, and therefore the final line of the poem.

It can sound a bit complicated, but it's exceedingly simple when seen in practice. And today, I'm bringing you a marvelous pantoum by a poet named Peter Oresick (pronounced o-RES-ick), who kindly granted me permission to share his poem with you. The poem comes from a collection by Oresick published earlier this month by Carnegie Mellon University Press called Warhol-o-rama.

Andy Warhol for Familiar Quotations

by Peter Oresick

Andy Warhol said, Always leave them wanting less.
Being born, Warhol said, is like being kidnapped.
Everyone will be famous, Andy said, for 15 minutes.
I thought everyone was just kidding,
said Andy.

Being born, Andy Warhol said, is like being kidnapped.
Think rich,
said Warhol, look poor.
I thought everyone was just kidding,
said Andy.
Dying, Andy said, is the most embarrassing thing.

Think rich,
said Andy Warhol, look poor.
I am a deeply superficial man,
said Warhol.
Dying, Andy said, is the most embarrassing thing.
Andy said, I'd like my tombstone to be blank.

I am a deeply superficial man,
said Andy Warhol.
Fashions fade, Warhol said, but style is eternal.
Andy said, I'd like my tombstone to be blank.
Isn't life,
said Andy, a series of images that repeat?

Fashions fade,
Andy Warhol said, but style is eternal.
Everyone will be famous,
Warhol said, for 15 minutes.
Isn't life,
said Andy, a series of images that repeat?
Andy said, Always leave them wanting less.

Isn't life,
said Andy, a series of images that repeat?
Isn't life,
said Andy, a series of images that repeat?

Now, those last two lines don't actually fall within the pantoum, but are there for closure and effect. But if you look at all the four-line stanzas, you'll see how the form works, and, I think be amused and prompted to think along the way. Oresick did a brilliant job of assembling some of Warhol's quotes in a way that not only showcases them, but also forms a sort of narrative. I was impressed when I read this one in the August 6th "issue" of The Writer's Almanac, and the more I read it, the more I love it.

I myself have written a killer pantoum (in that it is both good and involves vampires), but I'm afraid I'm not ready to share it with you still. Hope springs eternal that I will eventually find a market and sell it. In the meantime, you'll have to take my word for it.

Those of you looking for a new form to try might want to give the pantoum a go. It works well for meditative sorts of poems and, like the villanelle, it also works well for obsessive topics.

The Round Up is over at Kelly H's place, Big A little a.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Mystery of the Fool & the Vanisher

One of the perks of this here blog is that sometimes, publishers send me advance copies of books. And today, I'm talking about one of them there ARCs that you simply must see and read to believe. And when I say that "you simply must see and read" it, I don't mean that you'd only believe it if you read it. I mean GO READ THE BOOK.

But really, first I ought to tell you why, and before telling you why, I should probably tell you a bit of the what. Also, I have to divulge my particular bias, which is in favor of the notion of fairies/pixies living in the barrows on the English Downs (a la Tolkien and Pratchett).

The what

The Mystery of the Fool & the Vanisher is a graphic novel, in which the graphics are composed of photographs by David Ellwand (some of people, some of objects, some of sketches). These aren't just any photographs. Some of them are from highly modern equipment, but a number of them are from very old processes involving glass. Some are even daguerrotypes, positive images made using silver and mercury. The front matter, located in the back of the book, bears this notation about the photos: "The photographs were created with magic and necromancy." Having seen the book, I believe it.

On the inner title page, the book bears this subtitle/legend: "Being an investigation into the life and disappearance of Isaac Wilde, artist and fairy seeker". The written text is split into three parts: the first is from "David Ellwand's personal journal with additional notes from his photographic notebook"; Part Two bears this subtitle -- "Being a complete transcript of the phonograph recordings of Isaac Wilde documented here alongside photographs of the contents of the wooden box"; and Part Three is the remainder of David Ellwand's personal journal.

Image of two-page spread from part I of the book

David Ellwand spins a story about a mysterious happening on the Downs of England, a land of flint and chalk and barrows, referenced by J.R.R. Tolkien as the Barrow Downs, and spoken of with humor and affection by Terry Pratchett in The Wee Free Men and its two sequels. While walking one day, Ellwand found a "devil's eye", a round piece of flint with a hole worn in the center, through which (as anyone who has read The Spiderwick Chronicles or seen the movie can attest) one can see fairies. Come to think of it, Gaiman borrowed that device in Coraline, but I digress. Returning to the area, Ellwand eventually found himself drawn to an old house, eventually finding a heavy wooden box, once the property of Isaac Wilde.

Ellwand documents the contents of the box, which include old wax phonograph recordings. With help, the phonograph recordings were salvaged and recorded to CD, then transcribed for inclusion in the book. Because of the use of photographic evidence and journalistic reporting techniques in the first part of the book, it is easy to allow oneself to believe that the contents of the book are true, which makes it particularly intriguing, in my opinion. The middle part of the book is a transcript of the recordings, accompanied by materials which are alleged to have been the finds and creations of the fictional Isaac Wilde, a photographer hired by a fictional Victorian-era archaeologist named Gibson Gayle to document an archaeological dig on the Downs. Wilde includes stories learned from some of the locals, who believe that pixies inhabit the mounds on the Downs (as the Nac Mac Feegle do in the Pratchett books). The pixies photographed by Wilde, however, dress more like Victorian gentlemen and less like the Celtic warriors in Pratchett's books.

It turns out the Gayle is a ne'er-do-well who belittles Wilde, and Wilde is a good guy who, through the use of his own devil's eyes, has seen the fairies inside the dig, and tries to get Gayle to leave the place (and the fae) alone. Rumor has it it's a bad idea to piss off the fairies. You'll have to read the book to see what can happen if one does.

Two-page spread from Part Two, with text and photographs by "Wilde"

The Why

The photographs in this book are genius, pure and simple. Not just the photos, but their carefully crafted subject matter as well. Want to see a photograph of a 7-inch suit of armor made of mussel and oyster shells? A splinter-sized sword made of fossils? A helmet made of a snail shell and some bird feet? How about a wooden mask with real teeth and devil's eyes? And I can't tell you what the final photograph in the body of the book is, but underneath the flap is something magical. You know you want to see it.

Plus, the history/mystery that is the core of the book is built up cleverly, with credibility carefully crafted from the nested narrative and the photographs. This one sucks you in, and doesn't let go. (It also doesn't take particularly long to read, if I'm being truthful, but that's neither here nor there, and it will take your average ten year old about an hour or so (I'm guessing) to get through it the first time. Whereupon I predict that your average ten year old will go back to an earlier point in the book for a second look and/or read.) References to ten-year olds are based on the publisher's recommendation on the back of the ARC. It's really designed for middle schoolers, although I'm pretty sure that some savvy younger-aged folks will be all over this one. (Jo Knowles's son, E, comes to mind.)

The Mystery of the Fool & the Vanisher will be on bookstores later this month, or in September at the latest. I hope you won't let it sit there for long.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

All the World's a Stage - a Poetry Friday post

The other day, I watched a movie version of As You Like It by the Bard, which was set in Japan (based on the architecture and costume), but seemed to lack any Asian actors, really. Nevertheless, I was much struck by the performance of Kevin Kline as Jaques, the melancholy advisor to the kind Duke in exile. Here is Jaques' monologue from Act II, scene 7:

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard*,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

*pard: a leopard or other big cat

The monologue, written in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter), traces seven stages of life, sometimes called the seven ages of man. This lovely monologue, melancholy though it may be, was summarized in a mere five lines by Robert Conquest, who put it in limerick form. Warning: the limerick includes some crude language. Best not to share it with small kids.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Liebesfruhling by Friedrich Ruckert

Longtime readers know that I generally share something that's on my mind. And like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get.

Today, I'm sharing with you a poem by German poet Friedrich Rückert, which I first learned as a lied, a poem set to music. The version I was just singing in the shower was set by Robert Schumann in a piece called Widmung ("Dedication"), which was the first of a set of songs using poems by Rückert,Goethe, Byron, Burns and more. The name of the complete song cycle (Opus 25) was Myrthen, meaning "Myrtle", and the songs were a wedding present for Schumann's wife, Clara Wieck.

First, the original German, for them that care to read it:

Today's poem was originally an unnamed poem from a collection of poems called Liebesfrühling ("Dawn of Love") by Friedrich Rückert

Du meine Seele, du mein Herz,
Du meine Wonn, o du mein Schmerz,
Du meine Welt, in der ich lebe,
Mein Himmel du, darein ich schwebe,
O du mein Grab, in das hinab
Ich ewig meinen Kummer gab.
Du bist die Ruh, du bist der Frieden,
Du bist der Himmel mir beschieden.
Daß du mich liebst, macht mich mir wert,
Dein Blick hat mich vor mir verklärt,
Du hebst mich liebend über mich,
Mein guter Geist, mein bessres Ich!

And now, my attempt at a translation, based on what I remember translating back in the day (when I was a voice major in college). It may not be as poetical as some translations, but I think it's pretty darn close to the original wording/meaning auf Deutsch:

You my soul, you my heart,
you my rapture, o you my pain,
you my world in which I live,
my heaven you, in which I float,
o you my grave, into which
I always put all my grief.
You are rest, you are peace,
you are sent to me from heaven.
That you love me makes me more worthy,
Your glance has transfigured me,
you have me loving beyond myself,
my good spirit, my better self!

And here, for those interested, is a link to the incomparable Jessye Norman singing this lovely poem. I don't understand why there are jellyfish behind her, but I can assure you that she sings it gloriously.