Tuesday, August 19, 2014

I'm Back And Listing A Little, Now That I'm Nine

All of you will be glad to know that Maryland--home of Patriotic Gore That Flecked The Streets Of Baltimore--is still alive and well and right where it belongs. I just returned from yet another Extended Jaunt, during which I luxuriated and slothed and spent more time surrounded by Leanne's fabric hoard while I drank wine and Cosmopolitans and conferred Sainthood upon her long-suffering husband, Jim.

Did any of the rest of you know that there are gloves just for quilting? I'd like to know how the Hetsler sisters, my grandmother Ethel and her siblings Bertha and Grace, managed such an impressive output without them. Who knows what they'd have accomplished had they been suitably gauntleted.

But I digress.

Now that I am back, we can celebrate the Ninth Anniversary of the Dept. of Nance. Nine years ago this month, I staked my claim on this little spot of the cyberverse and began my blog. Who knew that I had such stick-to-it-iveness?

Normally, I choose a Numerical Theme and go from there, but Nine is not a favourite number of mine, so let's just, as the rappers do, "freestyle." (I'm so G.) Do your own Hoodrat Stuff in Comments!

9 Random Material Things That Make Me Happy

1. My GPS
2. My Bench Scraper
3. Effen Cucumber Vodka
4. Words With Friends
5. My Window Bird Feeder
6. Butter
7. Daisies
8. The Internet
9. Pasta

Could I get along without any of those? Maybe. But I would rather not. Are there other things that should be on that list? Oh, sure! But things like books, wine, avocados--those are becoming cliche with me. Besides, I'm freestylin', remember? Off we go.

9 Random Other Things That Make Me Happy

1. My grocery store guy who sings with the Muzak
2. Getting pictures of my granddog via text message
3. Forgetting what day it is
4. Laughing with St. Patsy
5. Reading long, long, long emails from friends
6. Wine on the porch or patio with Rick
7. Dinner with the boys
8. A clean house
9. Travel

I love my grocery store, which is full of genuinely nice and helpful staff. One guy who works there sings along with almost all of the songs on the Muzak, whether it is Cher's "Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves" (which it was yesterday) or Five Man Electrical Band's "Signs" (which seems to play every Tuesday that I shop). He sings enthusiastically and accurately as he stocks shelves, replaces signage, and tidies areas. He only stops to inquire of everyone in his sphere whether or not he can help them. He's wonderful.

And who wouldn't love getting pictures like this?
photo by Kaitlin C., my daughter

So I'm celebrating Being 9! Nine Years is a long time to be an Internet Sensation Personality ...Presence. Sigh.

But I owe you all a huge Thank You for reading me. So many of you have been my Steadfast Readers, my Dearest Readers and Friends throughout. And some of you have jumped in at different points along the way, getting to know The Me of that moment on. It is the Conversations with all of You that I so enjoy. Thank You.

Now, won't you have some dessert while I rustle up the champagne? And do share a List Of Your Own Nines (or whatever) in Comments.

desserts image
candle image

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Redbud Tree: Chapter Three of Watching And Thinking Of Blueberries

Rick had stepped across the street to talk to the yard man, now stowing the mower into the back of the small black pickup parked in the Cashes' driveway. It rankled me to see him using Tish and Barrington's driveway even though it made sense. That house had been vacant for years, so why clog up Sue Ellen's driveway unnecessarily? But increasingly, people had begun disrespecting the property; at least I thought so. Because there is no parking on the street, Tish's driveway had become a sort of neighborhood parking lot for anyone who had a bridge club, holiday party, barbecue, or needed a place to stow his or her car for a quick getaway when workmen were going to be at their house all day. Her curb lawn became the repository for a few people to place their tree limbs and brush until the city came around to pick it up. Aghast, I watched as the woman next door took her dog out and led it into Tish's front yard to do its business. I stood on my own front porch, impotently furious. Had she glanced over and seen me, I doubt she'd have cared.

At least Sue Ellen had stopped hooking up her hose to Tish's outdoor faucet to do her watering. That had ended years ago, and it probably was because Tish's water was turned off, I'm guessing. There's nothing at Tish's to even pretend to water. Her chubby pots of yellow marigolds and mums have been gone for so long, I almost forget what they looked like. The only thing blooming there now is the huge clutch of brilliant orange tiger lilies surrounding her black locust tree in the back yard. A family of little brown bunnies lives in it again this year, in defiance of the urban hawks and one stray cat that has managed to survive.

Ever since Tish left, the redbud tree in her curb lawn has been slowly dying. It rallied one year, about two years after she disappeared from across the way, but then its decline was steady and inexorable. This spring, it barely showed any pink blossoms at all, just a few on a couple of branches. One limb is entirely dead, and the rest are sparse with leaves that have already begun to yellow, and brown ones litter the ground below. Last week, a green card from the city appeared on Tish's front door. Her redbud tree is going to be removed soon. It's too far gone.

For the past several months, every now and then, I would see a car or truck at Tish's. Once, several lovely pieces of fine furniture--an armoire or china cabinet, a table, and something else--were piled into the back of a pickup truck and it drove away. Another time, a young couple in a bright red jeep went to the house for a while. Recently, three elderly men were there for a while and came out talking. I was watering my plants on the front porch, and it was impossible not to hear them, talking loudly in that Old Man Way. "...And this way, he doesn't have to sell the house," one of them said. "Right!" the other one agreed heartily. Before they left, one stooped low, painfully, and fixed the blue rug on Tish's front porch. I almost burst into tears. I've fixed that rug dozens of times. At least now I'm not the only one.

"That guy wants twenty bucks a week, just to cut and edge our little old front yard!" Rick said when he came back later. "That's ridiculous. I told him I'd get back to him, but obviously I won't. Oh, and he told me that on Saturday, he's doing all the trimming and mowing at Cashes'. The house is either sold or rented. I asked him when he was finally going to shape up Tish's bushes and cut out that tree from the middle of that one that's been bothering you all summer."

I felt a little breathless for a minute. But Rick continued.

"Nance, Tish has Alzheimer's."

What I said next is unimportant. My impression will forever be The yardman knew. The yardman knew. Which I guess is reasonable. As I've said before in my previous posts about Tish,we were merely cordial neighbors. We waved and said hello. She was kind to us and my children. She led her life and we led ours. Why, oh why, am I so invested in her life now? Why am I heartbroken for her? Why am I raging at the unfairness of it all? She is not me; our lives are not parallel.

I will be happy, truly, to see Tish's house come alive again. When the crew arrives to take away the dying redbud tree, I will probably cry just a little. But when the new neighbors arrive, I'll bake a tray of fresh blueberry muffins and step across the street to welcome them.


Monday, July 28, 2014

In Which I Discuss Drinks And Invite You To Join Me Whilst CAUWFing

Bless your heart, there you are! Thanks for coming back and giving me another read. It's a bit of a Mixed Bag today, so get yourself something pleasant to sip and/or snack on, settle into a comfy spot, and let's see what we have here, shall we? Off we go!

~*~Language Police. Is there a single person among you who has ever spoken--in conversation, ever--the word "wriggle"? I've discovered that I have a deep-seated antipathy for this word. I find it not only ugly to look at, but equally ugly to say. And again, who says it? I have read it plenty of times, mostly in old British novels, and I was unpleasantly surprised to come across it today in a comic strip. When I was much younger, I used to think that it was just the British spelling of the word "wiggle" since that word fit just fine contextually. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that no, wriggle was a word all its own. I'll continue my One-Woman Campaign to Avoid Using Wriggle Forever (CAUWF, pronounced "cough"), and you're welcome to join me. Or not.

~*~Name Brand. So, even though I've been travelling quite a bit, I still remain oblivious to so many things. I was completely confused by (and therefore immune to the allure of) Coca Cola's latest marketing ploy called "Share A Coke." Jared and I were at a Walgreen's when I saw a cooler full of Cokes, all labelled with first names like Jeremy, Amy, Nick, and Jenn. He took great pains to explain it to me, and to his credit, agreed with me that the whole thing was, in a word, stupid. The chances of most Coke drinkers finding their name is remote. Instead, the person is left feeling like a doofus drinking someone else's coke. Or, vaguely odd drinking a Coke with a name, like "Hi, er...Holly Coke. I'm Benito Fernandez. I'm thirsty, so...thanks in advance." And what happens when you reach into the cooler in the 7Eleven at the same time as another person, go to grab a Coke, and the other guy says, "Hey! That's my coke. My name's Steve! See, it's right there on the bottle!"?  Or, finally, last one--you're drinking a Coke with some name on the bottle, and someone assumes it's your name. "Hi, Kelly!" people keep saying to you. But your name isn't Kelly. It's Sarah. Or Anisha. Or Rainbow. Or Vladimir. Just saying. I'm really glad I don't drink Coke.

~*~Bloody Mary Lunch. I've written before about my Bloody Mary lunches and the astonishing iterations that simple drink can take. Today, after a quick meeting to go over some documents I worked on for a free-lance job, I met a friend for an impromptu lunch at a nearby restaurant. Yes, it was only 11:30, and yes, I ordered my Bloody Mary immediately upon being seated and with great alacrity, but there was absolutely no excuse for the garnish that was lolling all over the top of my glass. Once I heaved it off and onto a plate, I had to take a picture. Here it is, in all its glory. Remember, this was on top of a drink:

No, that is not lunch.  That is, in order from left to right on the skewer, my drink garnish: a strip of bacon, a slice of provolone cheese, a third of a stalk of celery, a lemon wedge, a lime wedge, a bleu cheese stuffed olive. Lying on an appetizer plate.  And I am not kidding.

That Bloody Mary cost me ten bucks.  An appetizer of hummus, tzatziki, and tapenade with warm pita and some cucumber slices cost only nine bucks. And Sue and I split that. I'm not even sure what my point is, other than the fact that A) that is just a completely ridiculous garnish, and B) ten dollars is obscene for a Bloody Mary, and maybe C) I could have paid way less for the drink if they would have cut out all that crap in the garnish.  But D) I enjoyed the Bloody Mary and my visit with Sue.

How is it that August is imminent?  Summer is speeding away.  Let me catch up with you in Comments.  

Friday, July 18, 2014

Can You Hear Me Now?

My life is ever Seinfeldian.  Let me prove it to you, and for those of you who have never watched an episode of Seinfeld, ever, I think you may still enjoy the following:

ACT I.  The Speed-Dial. Scene opens with Nance answering her cell phone.  On the other end is her mother, St. Patsy, who is visiting her sister Shirley in Gettysburg.

Nance:  Hi, Mom.  I hear you're ready to come home already.
St.  Patsy:  Hi, Nance.  You're number four on my speed-dial.
Nance:  What?  Okay, but what, now? Number four?  How am I all the way down at number four?
St. Patsy:  Well, Voicemail is number one.  Then Bobby (my brother, with whom she lives) is number two. Coley (Bobby's daughter; Coley is a nickname--don't ask.) is number three, and you're number four.
Nance:  What the heck!  How is Coley ahead of me?  When the heck do you ever call her?  For anything? How does she rate the number three spot?  I don't get this at all.
St. Patsy:  Well, you're ahead of Patti. She's number five, and Susan at number six.  So, it's Bobby, Coley, Nance, Patti, Susan.  Maybe it's alphabetical order.  I don't know.  But you're number four.
Nance:  Oh, brother.  Well, maybe the next time you need a ride to the doctor or to Gettysburg, you should call Good Old Number Three, then.  See if Coley can haul your ass all over the place.  How about that? Why did you call in the first place?  Just to taunt me with your Speed Dial Hierarchy?
St. Patsy:  No.  I wanted to tell you that Shirley and Dick are bringing me home, so you don't have to drive to Gettysburg after all.  Isn't that nice?
Nance:  Yes.  For Coley.


ACT II. The Squirrel. Scene opens with Nance walking outside to take out the trash and recyclables.  She notices a baby squirrel barely moving on her deck.  Upon closer inspection, she sees it is badly wounded, bloody, and intermittently covered in flies.

Nance:  Oh no!  You poor baby!  Damn it.  Those damn hawks.  First my fish and now you.  I don't know what I can do for you.  Damn it. Damn.  Let me go look and see what I can find to help you.

(Leaves to go and look up a wildlife or metroparks rescue number...or something.  Shortly after, Rick comes home.)

Nance:  (greets Rick in garage)  Oh, Rick.  It's terrible.  I need your help with something.
Rick:  What happened?  What's wrong?
Nance:  Rick, it's this poor baby squirrel.  Something got it and it's all chewed up and mangled.  We have to help it. I feel so bad.
Rick:  Nance.  What are you talking about? Like, take it to the vet? I don't want to be on the hook for a huge vet bill and then have to bring home some wild squirrel.  I just got home. Where is it?

(Nance shows him the squirrel, who is now barely breathing.  Its eyes are glazed, and its body is covered in flies.)

Rick:  Nance.  This thing is dead.  Or practically.  There's nothing anyone can do.  Look at it.  I feel bad, too, but it won't even survive a car ride to a vet.  Or anyplace.  You have to let it go.
Nance:  I called the metropark office number and got a machine.  I left a message.  There's no place else to call.  I feel sick.  Rick, you have to do something. We can't let it suffer. (taps out a message to her friend in Maryland, Leanne, who relays it to her husband, Jim; pause)  Jim says to use a flat-edge shovel and break its neck.  Ugh.  That will behead this poor baby!  Rick.  Do something.  I'm not able to.
Rick:  Nance, what would you like me to do?  I don't want to kill it, either!  We just have to let Nature take its course.  It's sad, but there it is.

(An hour later, Nance goes out and finds the squirrel dead.)

Scene 2.  The next morning, Nance's cell phone rings.

Nance:  Hello?
Caller:  (brightly) Hi, Nance? This is Amy from the county metroparks returning your call.  How is the squirrel?
Nance:  Dead.



Summer has been busy.  I promise to get back to posting more often as soon as I can.  And I owe so many people so many emails and blog comments.  Where is my time going?  Fun places mostly.  Be back soon, and I will try to get back on track!


Tuesday, July 08, 2014

“Long Is The Night To Him Who Is Awake; Long Is A Mile To Him Who Is Tired; Long Is Life To The Foolish..."--Gautama Buddha

I'm back from an Idyllic jaunt to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, where perfect weather and lovely people and a Secret Winery all converged in a Holiday Vortex that left me repeating, "This is so wonderful" overmuch. Our Vacation Friends from New York were staying at the inn; we had a convivial evening in the garden house with the innkeepers and some very good organic wine; we splurged and sat down to a winery chef's dinner of five courses (with wine pairings) where, astonishingly, I enjoyed a raw oyster sprinkled with flying fish roe. Enjoyed! It was a revelation.

With no television in our balcony room, I was blissfully unaware of the World around me. Vacations there are also a vacation from The News and, especially, The Politics. Tim, our innkeeper, keeps a table of newspapers in the breakfast room, but I assiduously avoid them. And I'm not the only one. Most of the American guests do, I've noticed, and the few Canadian guests do a cursory skim of the front pages of each section, then turn their attentions to the excellent homemade bread, yoghurt, or daily sweet, especially if Sharon has made her tempting cranberry coffeecake or lemon poundcake.

(This changes markedly if a Presidential election is News in the United States. Everyone, no matter his or her passport, wants to talk about that at breakfast. We are spared, at least for a bit.)

Still enrobed in my Zen--somewhat--I caught up on The News a little, and I reviewed some of the articles I have been saving. Quite a bit of The News and The Politics is frosting my cupcakes lately. Perhaps, I thought, if I try to address all of it at once and all of it while I am still a bit Warm And Fuzzy, things won't Get Out Of Hand.

Oh, let's do try. Shall we? On, then.

1. Hillary and President Clinton and Who Is "Dead Broke". My admiration and deep love for President Clinton is a Given. My vote for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Presidential Primaries was, too. But someone has to wrench these people and all politicians out of their extraterrestrial elitist circles and show them how the Real World lives. And, if necessary, show them Some Math. As in, a family has an income of $46K, and the average price of gasoline is $3.50 a gallon, and a loaf of bread is $2.00, and a pound of ground chuck is $3.59, and the average mortgage payment in, say, the Cleveland, Ohio, metro area is $800 monthly, and yada yada yada, do you get my drift? And that is for the people fortunate enough to be employed fully and gainfully. In the United States of America, %15 of our fellow citizens live below the poverty line. Now who is Dead Broke? Consider telling a family of four making ends meet on less than $24,5K a year that you, a former First Lady who spends more on haircuts and wine in a year than they do on...oh...living, are Dead Broke. These D.C. people need to get out and get The Questions. "Do you know how much a gallon of gasoline is in your district, or anyplace?" "How much is a steak at the grocery store?" "How much is a gallon of milk?" And no, it's not "wrong to focus on these small things in light of larger legislation" (paraphrasing here). Why? Because WE LIVE THE SMALL THINGS. I care a hell of a lot about the bullshit that the Supreme Court just shoved down my throat and up my skirt. But some people need to Get Real, too. Why do you think the Supreme Court handed down such tripe? Because they are Out Of Touch with the day to day realities of real people. Look at the vote. Duh. (And that's Real People. Not corporation people. Or people corporations. Or whatever the hell the 5/9 Supreme Beings want to call them/think they are.)

2. Ugly Americans and The New Gladiator Sport. I live, I guess, technically in a border state, but no Canadians come sneaking in across Lake Erie in milk jug barges or packed under fake-bottomed boats. I understand only from reading and watching news reports the concerns and issues that a burgeoning illegal immigrant population brings with it to a true border state community, its economy, and the government's resources. It has to be incredibly stressful in myriad ways. But what happened in Murrieta, California, made me so profoundly sick and ashamed. Three buses loaded with Central American women and children--all illegal immigrants--were met and turned away by protesters there. Over 100 angry, sign-carrying United States citizens swarmed the buses and shouted, among other things, "USA! USA! USA!" As I watched this on television, right before I left for my trip out of the USA, I had a churning mix of emotions. I knew the children inside those buses were already afraid, tired, and probably hungry and thirsty, too. This was not their fault, and it was not fair, as things often never are for children. I was shocked that such anger and hatred could be focused on women and children, and that it could turn so wildly afield: some posters were about Obama, some protesters interviewed rambled on about other political agendas. Finally, I was angry and ashamed. That chant, that cheer! I remembered it being so deafening during the USA/USSR hockey game at Lake Placid. It is supposed to be a cheer of pride, a cheer of support and national spirit. I felt such outrage that it had been co-opted for something so threatening, so ugly, so primitive. All I could think of was Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery." I honestly felt sick. How dare they? They do have a right to assemble, to speak freely. But they tarnish us all.

3. Guns, Guns, and More Guns. Unlike the paid politicians in Washington, D.C., who I am loathe now to call Our Representatives, my feelings never stop being wounded by news reports of shootings, bursts of gun violence such as Chicago's bloody Independence Day Weekend, and here in the Cleveland area, the sight of mothers so bowed down by profound grief that they literally cannot walk behind their child's casket. After Newtown failed to move these morons, I got very wide-eyed with the knowledge that those in government saw The American People as disposable or trivial, whereas their own Ideologies and Bank Balances were not. It has been difficult to live with the idea that, and this is not to be immodest or overly simplistic, Stupid and Sometimes Evil Idiots are in charge, and I cannot expect anything from them, ever. Something is terribly wrong when a heap of dead (American) elementary children and their teachers are an insufficient catalyst for change. Show me an unarmed nation, a gun-controlled nation with a high rate of gun violence akin to ours. Show me the graves of their dead schoolchildren. Show me their "good guys with guns." They're like Starbucks, the NRA. Everywhere, yet never enough.

Speaking of Starbucks, they've even infiltrated Niagara-on-the-Lake. So irritating. Can't a nice, independent coffee place open up there? No, apparently not. At least this Starbucks is in a completely closed building, though. No windows at all, and the door is always shut, although as we walk nearby, it opens about eleventy thousand times per half hour. Sigh. People. Many, many times, they get what they ask for, I suppose.

Rick just sent me a text message. Tough re-entry day back at work, he said. Isn't it terrible how Real Life ruins any Vacation, whether it's physical, mental, or spiritual? As I try to maintain my Zen--Post-Canadian Holiday Type--I think I'll ignore The Ugly today. And do my level best not to contribute to it.


Monday, June 30, 2014

Do Me--And Edgar--A Favour With This Poem, Won't You?

June, my Golden Month of Summer, burns out at midnight tonight. When I was teaching, June was my True Summer month, for it seemed that once July blazed in, time began running much faster, the days sizzled so much hotter, and soon, my countdown of the days back to school would start in earnest.

This year, however, June proved to be my July. Over almost before it started, June made me feel as if I never stopped driving, doing, and squeezing things in. And now, Poetry Month is over with this post. Perhaps I shall beg your indulgence and discuss poems every now and then regardless of the month. As St. Patsy, whose birthday is in June (hence her middle name!), would say, "We'll see."

My final poem must be one of my favourites, and it must be by one of my favourite authors. All of my Loyal and Longtime Readers know that I have long felt a strange sense of responsibility toward defending the memory of Edgar Allan Poe. Vilified by a rival who wrote a scathing obituary, Poe's legacy was left to wallow in a mire of jealous inaccuracies and sad half-truths. The blanks were filled in by ignorant analyses of his macabre stories and poems, which, because they have first-person narrators, were mistakenly seen as autobiographical and psychological unburdenings.

As if the facts of his poor life, both childhood and adult, aren't pitiful enough.

This poem is sad, but I want to look at something else about it. First, of course, you need to read it. It is the incredibly beautiful

Annabel Lee.

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of ANNABEL LEE;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea;
But we loved with a love that was more than love-
I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsman came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me-
Yes!- that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we-
Of many far wiser than we-
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.

For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling- my darling- my life and my bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Edgar Allan Poe was a careful, meticulous, downright picky craftsman when it came to his poetry. Nothing--and I truly mean nothing--was by chance in his poems. Every single word, line, stanza, set of parentheses, and exclamation point had been sweated over. He was a bit of the egomaniac; he held most other contemporaries in disdain, so he had to be perfect by comparison.

This poem, like so many of Poe's works, has a first person speaker. He starts out very rhythmically, very calmly as he recalls for his listener the love of his life. But by the time you get to the third stanza, and the speaker is recounting a more emotionally taxing part of his love story, the meter/rhythm begins to unravel. Your reading is a bit choppier; it's as if you are perhaps fighting those sobs, that you are breathing a bit heavily, becoming upset. The fourth stanza is the emotional peak of the poem. You can really see the heavy punctuation, the frequent stops for breath. And the speaker stops using euphemisms for his dear Annabel Lee's fate: in the last line, he says "killing my Annabel Lee." Notice, however, that after this catharsis, the speaker begins to reassure himself, and the poem's sound reflects it. In the fifth stanza, he calms and regains the rhythm of the poem, and the language becomes beautiful again; it is about love and how romantic love is enduring. In the final stanza, the language is at its most beautiful in sound and imagery. The moonbeams bring him dreams of his love, and the stars are Annabel Lee's shining eyes. He will be by her side always as long as he is near the sea. The final stroke of Poe's mastery is that the rhythmic sound of this poem, especially the last stanza, is that of the ocean's waves. He uses repetition and internal rhyme to do it (beams/dreams; rise/eyes and "Of the beautiful Annabel Lee", among other things).

A great many of Poe's poems were meant to be read aloud precisely because of his attention to sound. There would be days when I could not get through this one, and eventually, I stopped teaching it. My threshold for beauty was ever inexplicable to many of my sophomores.

Bring joy to yourself and to Edgar and read this poem aloud if you can.  Do it proudly and with great expression.  I know you will be glad that you did.  And so, somewhere, will he.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Percy Bysshe Shelley Meets Alanis Morissette Meets The Iraq Mess: Plenty To Look Upon And Despair

Every year in Creative Writing II (CW2), which we also called All Poetry All The Time, I assigned the
English Sonnet. To deafening groans and much wailing and gnashing of teeth. It was positively Biblical. We even developed together a Sonnet Map, which was a helpful worksheet showing the metric pattern, the rhyme scheme, the quatrain numerals, and blanks for each syllable so that students could write their poem on it with these reminders in place. Eventually, with peer and teacher conferences, my writers created sonnets that were read aloud and critiqued, and they survived it all. Many times, their sonnets were wonderful: some were traditional, some were funny, some were romantic, and others retold stories from literature, film, or even current events.

I love the form of the Sonnet, and the Elizabethan, or Shakespearean Sonnet in particular. Fourteen lines of iambic pentameter arranged in three quatrains (four-line sets). Each quatrain has a rhyme scheme. The final two lines, or couplet, rhyme with each other.

Some people don't realize that there is actually a pattern of development for the Sonnet as well. The first quatrain presents the problem; the second quatrain is supposed to develop or complicate the problem; the final quatrain restates or summarizes the initial problem with more intensity; finally, the couplet reaches a conclusion or solution. The Sonnet offers a chance for a poet to work Creatively Within Limits. For me, I find this liberating. For many others, it is a prison sentence.

Of course, a lot of Sonnets aren't perfect, and a lot are not the classic Shakespearean. I like all kinds, generally. One of my favourites is by Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was a pretty reprehensible individual in a great many ways. Like several of the Romantic Poets, he was a selfish jerk (I'm looking at you, Byron) whose conduct of his personal life was not as beautiful as his poetry.

This particular poem has been on my mind lately, thanks to the mess in Iraq.


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear --
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'

If you read this poem with a sing-songy voice, making sure to start on an unstressed syllable, you can sustain it throughout. That's the iambic metric pattern. You'll have to force it on "boundless" and "Nothing," words for which the natural stress pattern is reversed. (Alanis Morissette does this all the time in her hit song "Uninvited"; it's okay.)

But, in spite of having to Follow Some Poetry Rules, Shelley has crafted a wonderful poem of imagery and wordsmithing. I don't like the device of the poem being the recitation of some unnamed tourist, and I often wonder, "Which antique land has native people who speak so gorgeously? I want to go there!" But beyond that, there is an awful lot to like about this poem.

It has that startling irony there in the last three lines, and that's where the tone of the poem changes, too. The traveler's story is a bit bitter, and his cadence is staccato and abrupt as he describes Ozymandias. Of course, when you read the inscription, you have to read it with that pomposity it demands, and it's the best part of the poem, really, "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" Then it drops dead with quietude, and you can almost hear the sighing of the winds over the desert, "boundless and bare." Ozymandias' kingdom is wrecked and gone, and we know that his hubris was the cause.

I'm not going to go into why "Ozymandias" comes to mind lately due to Current Events, or talk now about how heartbreaking (and frightening) it is to hear words like Mosul and Shiite and Tikrit again with some frequency.  Or even mention whose "shattered visage" it is that I see when I look at the face "half sunk" in the sands.



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