Monday, February 28, 2011

Magpie 55

(To the tune of "Lemon Tree")
When I was just a lad of ten, my father said to me,
"Come here and take a lesson from the lovely lemon tree.
Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is cool.
But never use a lemon as a kind of killing tool.”

I learned that there were knives and guns and even strangling rope.
But lemon as a weapon? You’d have to be a dope.
Such killing would be messy and would leave a lot of blood.
Your new career as hit man would be nipped right in the bud.

With a huge and heavy grapefruit you’d have at least a chance.
But a “killer lemon”? Silly – it’s clear right at first glance.
“Take my advice,” said my old man, “and never join a mob.
Avoid all citrus slaughter – get a different kind of job!”

Monday, February 21, 2011

(Magpie 54, ABC Wednesday, Writer's Island, Sunday Scribblings)
I don’t talk much about my wartime heroism.
Perhaps because there was so little of it. :-)
But the truth is, as far as war is concerned I’ll have you know I was there, a few decades ago, right in the thick of it, as the saying goes, enduring bombings and strafings -- fire from the right, fire from the left.

As a result I wound up in a miserable jungle hospital in the middle of a miserable jungle.
They had carefully placed huge Red Crosses on the hospital tents, but the enemy saw fit to ignore them. They had perhaps heard that I was laid up in one of those tents and were out to get me. :-)
Anyway, I learned the routine. I was given a bunk in a huge tent that was filled with other bunks and each poor wounded warrior had an insect net. That jungle had the most god-awful insects nature has yet created.

The rules for the patients were clear, there was no way to improvise. Most of the time we were to stay in our bunks, with the net carefully tucked in all around to keep out the insects, but when the bombing started – and it happened any time, day or night – we were, those of us who were ambulant, supposed to get to a series of slit trenches just outside.
When the bombing let up, assuming we were still more or less alive, we were to stagger back inside the tent to the comfort of the bunk. Trouble was, what with the desperate need to get to the slit trench as fast as we could we were usually unable to carefully tuck in the insect net, so when we returned there was a horrific assemblage of insects – large, loathsome creatures -- lying in wait on the bed.

They all seemed to be chortling among themselves: We made it! We got inside! Now the fun begins! It was a tossup which was worse, the bombs or the insects.
They say there are no atheists in foxholes. I wouldn’t know.
During the time I spent in slit trenches – and a slit trench was just like a foxhole -- I was too busy trying to stay alive to think much about theology.
When my kids asked me about my experiences during the war, I was embarrassed to report that I hadn't done anything heroic; most of the time what I was experiencing was fear.

But the Magpie prompt of this week somehow captured one of those moments in the slit trench I’ll never forget, the moment when the bombardment was happening all around me – chunks of earth flying here and there.
Mother earth being chewed up, breaking into pieces like a jigsaw puzzle.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Leaving Home

(Magpie 53, "E" is for "Exodus." Writer's Island and Sunday Scribblings)
When your community has broken the sacred laws, who can foretell what fate has in store for it?
“I don’t want to have to tell you again. You’ve got to get your things together now so we can get out of here!”
“This is all so strange...”
“It’s more than strange; it’s dangerous. We’ve only got another half-hour or so before the whole place blows up. Where are the girls?”
“Well, they’re trying to get their things together too. It’s awful that we have to leave; they’ve been doing so well in school and of course they have their friends here. And I've got a week's food in the pantry."
“You just don’t get it! This is a life and death situation! We should have been on the road an hour ago.”
“How did you learn about this – this emergency? Nobody else seems to know about it.”
“I haven’t explained it because it would take too much time, and you probably wouldn’t believe it anyway. But did you see those two strange-looking men around here this morning?”
“They’re from out of town, aren’t they?”
“Yes.” (laughs) “You could certainly say that. From way out of town. They aren’t really men, you see; they’re angels.”
“Right. You know what’s been going on in this place, all the drinking and carousing and screwing around and God knows what else. Well, Yahweh sent these angels to see if there are a few righteous folks in our town.”
“Who sent them?”
“Yahweh – you know, God.”
“This is all very weird.”
“The idea was that if there were at least ten righteous men in this place it wouldn’t be destroyed. Well, these two fellows – er, angels – couldn’t find even ten, so the whole area is going to be blown sky high.”
“How will – er, you know, He – do the destruction?”
“Not sure. Something to do with fire and brimstone, I suppose.”
"I've never really understood just what brimstone is, actually."
"Well, let's not wait around to find out."
“Will it be all of Sodom?”
“Not just Sodom; Gomorrah too.”
“Oh, dear. I rather like Gomorrah.”
“Yeah. A real fun town – too much fun, as it turns out.”
“So where are we going?”
“I have been told that we can be safe if we get to Zoar; it’s outside Sodom’s city limits. Ah, here are the girls. Seriously, my dear, we've got to get started.”
“It’ll be sad to leave. In spite of its rather racy reputation, I’ve really enjoyed living here. There’s a hill on the road to Zoar. When we get to the top of that hill, I’m just going to have a good look back at our dear old town!”

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

For "Writer's Island" and "A Thousand Years"

The Epiphany of Maschmeyer the Ordinary.

Herman Melville, above, the “Moby Dick” author, went to sea as a young man, so I figured, why shouldn’t I?
So I did. For almost four years.
And the internet gives me a chance to write about it.
This was a few decades ago. Since there was a war going on – when hasn’t there been? – they desperately needed personnel for American ships, so I rose rapidly up the ranks.

Though I didn’t look much like the guy in the above picture, I nevertheless started as a lowly deckhand and developed into a “90-day wonder” – which was the sarcastic way they had of describing a simple seaman who rapidly, too rapidly, made it to the rank of officer. I ultimately became the Second Officer of the ship, incredible as that may seem.
One night we had quite an adventure: my ship ran smack into a coral reef. (Not as a result of my navigation, I assure you.)
We had run at full speed onto a coral reef in the South Pacific in the middle of the night and our ship was stuck there, dead, as the saying goes, in the water.

The thing about reefs is that they don’t play fair. A coral reef is like a huge rock sticking up out of the water, except it doesn’t stick up out of the water; it hides just beneath the surface, waiting to get you.
Science tells us that coral reefs developed through biotic processes through much of the Phanerozoic period.
Good to know.
But all that means to the seafarer is simply that for a thousand years coral reefs have been lying in wait for ships, and they still are.
And what this indicated, even to the slowest-witted member of our crew, was that we probably had a hole in the bow, and that would mean that water was probably pouring in.
What you don’t want, as the Second Officer aboard the “Titanic” could have told you, is a hole in the ship, with water pouring in.
(Later, much later, when we got back to port, a diver went down and checked it out. He said the hole in the bow was big enough to drive a jeep into.)
In today’s ships I suppose they’ve got a little computer up on the bridge that tells the officer of the watch if he’s got a hole in the bow. “Oh, I say,” the computer will opine, “there’s a whopper of a hole in the bow. Just thought I’d mention it.”
The officer, who presumably would be better trained than I was, would know what to do.
We had nothing like that. As to what kind of hole we had in the bow, and whether or not we were sinking, we had to fall back on logic, guessing and a certain amount of hoping.
For me it was an unforgettable moment, standing there in the dead of night on the bridge with the captain – who I strongly suspected had been a 90-day wonder himself – desperately trying to figure out if we were sinking.
What was needed at that moment was the ship’s carpenter. Even steel vessels, not just wooden ones, needed a ship’s carpenter. One of his duties was to regularly “sound” the bilge, the lowest part of the ship.
Here’s how you “sound.” There’s a sounding tube that leads from the ship’s bottom up to the main deck. The carpenter takes a rope that has a weight on the end and drops it down the tube. He then pulls it up and checks to see if there’s water on it and if so, how much. Not very high-tech – nothing was in those days – but it did the job.
However, at this rather tense moment, no one could find the carpenter. I now believe he slept through the whole collision with the reef, even though it had sounded like a bomb going off in the general direction of the bow when we hit.
But not to worry. We had an ordinary seaman who was a deckhand on board – “Maschmeyer the Ordinary,” as he was known – whose job it had been to accompany the carpenter as he did his soundings, so he knew how to do it. The skipper sent him up to the bow on the double to sound the deep tank and see if we were taking on water, and if so how much.
We waited nervously on the bridge as Maschmeyer, quite a distance away up on the bow, did his work.
No report came back. He said nothing. I learned later that he had been unable to believe what the sounding line told him, so he had to go through the process again.
“Well, what is it?” shouted the captain, who was irascible even in the best of times, “For God’s sake, how much water is there down there?!”
You understand, any ship might have a little water sloshing around down in the bilge; that’s normal. So if the sounding line indicates an inch or two that would be okay. More than that and you’re in trouble.
“Fifteen feet, Captain,” called back Maschmeyer, in a kind of apologetic tone.
Fifteen feet! That meant that the ship’s hull was full of water and we were sinking fast; we would have about five minutes to get the boats over the side and abandon ship.
However, someone had gotten the carpenter out of his bunk and he was now up on the bow. He shouted back to us to relax. It was then that Maschmeyer had his epiphany: he realized he had sounded the fresh water tank, the tank that held the water we used for our showers!

So – we had a huge hole in the bow, and the sea had poured in, but the watertight bulkhead, placed up there for that very purpose when they built the ship, had kept the water from filling the rest of the hull.
We limped back to shore and the ship was put up on drydock and we all got a nice three-week’s shore leave while the damage was repaired.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Magpie 52

That prompt, that house -- alone, silent, tucked away...
It reminded me of a visit I paid years ago to a house tucked away in a town in western Massachusetts.
Back in 1862 it had been the home of a fascinating 31-year-old woman, a recluse, shy, unknown to the world, but who was to become one of the great American poets. .
She wrote a great many poems, very few of which were published in her lifetime and none of which were published as she wrote them.
They were special.
Her poetry was too, well, different – strange, idiosyncratic, at times almost chaotic.
And the life she lived was almost as strange.

Her name, as you may well by now have guessed, was Emily Dickinson, and she spent years in that house without setting her foot outside her front door, and many more years during which her walks were strictly limited to her father's grounds.
In April 1862, a man named Thomas Higginson, a critic and editor, published an article in the Atlantic Monthly magazine in which he advised budding young writers. Dickinson sent a letter to him, enclosing four poems and asking, "Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?"
He was interested. His reply included gentle "surgery" (that is, criticism) of Dickinson's raw, odd verse, questions about her personal and literary background, and a request for more poems.
To the average reader, Dickinson’s work seemed then, and indeed to many seems today, to be merely the writing of an amateur, someone who has a lot to say but who doesn’t understand the rules of poetry.
She used dashes a lot, along with strange capitalization and bizarre subject matter. A famous example of her work:

“I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you -- Nobody -- Too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don't tell! they'd advertise -- you know!

“How dreary -- to be -- Somebody!
How public -- like a Frog --
To tell one's name -- the livelong June --
To an admiring Bog!”

In one of her early letters to Higginson, she wrote of herself: "I am small, like the wren, and my hair is bold, and my eyes like the sherry in the glass that the guest leaves."
“Eyes like the sherry in the glass that the guest leaves...” Higginson realized he was dealing with an authentic Poet.
Fact is, Emily Dickinson was simply indifferent to conventional poetic rules, but she had a rigorous literary standard of her own and often altered a word many times to suit her difficult, demanding ear.
Look at these well-known lines of hers:

"Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me
The Carriage held but just Ourselves
And Immortality.”

If you want to get technical, what she most often employs is the ballad stanza, a traditional form. She uses “tetrameter” for the first and third lines – four beats to the line – and “trimeter” for the second and fourth – three beats to the line.
In other words, she knew the rules of poetry, she just didn’t care all that much about them. She wanted to write in her own raw, idiosyncratic way and she wasn’t going to change.
It’s ironic that, after her death, many of her works – she left almost 2,000 poems – were published, and she would undoubtedly have been upset to see that they had all been “corrected” by editors, the syntax rearranged and everything rewritten in the conventional poetic style and approved grammar of that era.
It wasn’t till 1955 that one Thomas Johnson published Dickinson's poems for the first time in their original formats, thus displaying the creative genius and peculiarity of her poetry.
Emily Dickinson is now taught in college classes throughout the land as a powerful figure in American culture. Twentieth-century critic Harold Bloom placed her alongside Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost and T S Eliot as a major American poet.
Some familiar Dickinson lines:
"Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul - and sings the tunes without the words."
"A wounded deer leaps the highest."
"Fame is a fickle food upon a shifting plate."
"I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven."
"If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry."

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

For "Writer's Island" and "Story"

Surely there's a place this week for the story of one of the great writers -- poet, playwright -- in the history of our English literture: Ben Jonson.
To many scholars, he was the greatest dramatic genius of the Elizabethan theatre, after Shakespeare.
He is best known for his satirical plays and his lyric poems. He was a man of vast reading and a seemingly insatiable appetite for getting into trouble.

What makes him interesting is this: he started out as a bricklayer.
Like most bricklayers of 400 years ago he was unable to go to university, so he decided to educate himself. He became one of the best-educated men in the country.

Ultimately, Oxford, which previously wouldn’t have allowed him to so much as deliver a pizza to the back door, granted him an MA.
He was also contentious and very argumentative. His story consisted of a rap sheet that was almost unbelievable. He had killed a soldier in man-to-man combat in the Low Countries, and he killed another man in a duel. He was locked up in prison from time to time for “leude and mutynous” behavior, which seemed to sort of sum up his life.
It’s worth pointing out that the report of his heroic man-to-man combat experience while he was in the army came from him; no one else ever mentioned it.
As for the duel, that actually happened, and Ben J. was in trouble; he could have been hanged for such a killing. He managed to get off by using a legal ploy, something that says a lot about Elizabethan life. He got off by pleading “benefit of clergy.”
It worked, even though there were few who would have described Ben Jonson as clergy, or even having much to do with clergy.
However, there were so few educated people in England at that time that authorities decided it would be best not to execute a person if he could prove he could read and write. In that case he would be considered to be “clergy.” Ben did well in this test: he aced the exam by reciting a Bible verse in Latin. He got off lightly: he was just branded with the mark of a felon.
This tough guy was capable of magnificent writing; how many bricklayers do you know who could beguile the reader with a poem as light and lovely as “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes,” which he did.
As for the profession of playwrighting, it was at that time a dangerous business. Write the wrong words in a script and your punishment could be severe. In Ben Jonson’s play “Eastward Ho!” he committed the fox pass of appearing to suggest that King James the One had accepted payment for creating knighthoods. That was a mistake. He not only wound up in jail but endured torture. Will Shakespeare was careful throughout his career to keep his nasal passages clean; he stayed out of trouble. Ben sort of stayed in trouble.

As an example of what could happen, the playwright Thomas Nashe wrote a play titled “The Isle of Dogs,” which the Privy Council did not, to say the least, like very much. Aware of the possible impending imprisonment and torture – everyone was aware that the horrible rack, among other such devices, could be waiting for them – Nashe hurriedly left town and hid out in the country. The Privy Council threatened to tear down all the theatres. That would have brought the Golden Age of Theatre to a grinding halt, not to mention Will Shakespeare’s career along with it. Fortunately, the Council never got around to actually carrying out its threat.
If Ben Jonson were around today, my guess is he would be a writer of plays for off-off-Broadway, and he would usually be dressed, even for formal occasions, in worn-out jeans and a dirty T-shirt with an offensive motto printed on the front, and he would be sporting a huge bushy beard, with bits of whatever he had for breakfast embedded in it.

Ben Jonson was William Shakespeare’s friend/competitor/nag and general pain in the neck. He regarded with amusement his pal Will’s efforts to turn himself into a gentleman. It would seem he especially got a kick out of the Shakespeare coat of arms, with its “Not Without Right” motto. We know this because Jonson proceeded to write a play that features a character who has received a coat of arms (which he got through bribery); the character, by the way, is a clown.
His coat of arms has a picture of a boar, with a three-word motto beneath: “Not Without Mustard.”
Everyone who was in any way connected with the theatre in London at that time undoubtedly found that hysterically funny. It’s probable that Our Will wasn’t as amused.

As a totally irrelevant side comment, Pocahontas – yes that Pocahontas – was in England and was actually in the audience for one of Ben’s productions.
Ben Jonson died on Aug. 6, 1637. His story ends in this way: once he was safely dead, the country decided that he was the foremost man of letters of his age and he was buried with great ceremony in Westminster Abbey.
(He was one up on his friend Will; Shakespeare was not buried in Westminster Abbey.)

Ben was buried under a slab on which was carved the words, “O Rare Ben Jonson!”
He was rare; there were none rarer.
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