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The Importance of Shoes — Stanzas 130-137

In this portrait of Captain Cook, his footwear, apparently,  was not worth painting. ‘And Cook’s big-buckled  Cromwell boots / – until their print down-under was put  / it seems Australis knew no foot.’

In this portrait of Captain Cook, his footwear, apparently, was not worth painting. ‘And Cook’s big-buckled Cromwell boots / – until their print down-under was put / it seems Australis knew no foot.’

Res Publica, Book One, Canto the Second

How the narrator’s island is found and claimed; more mysterious knocking at the door; and a welcome guest arrives. . .

130.

So down we went – or rather plunged
and hurled, then hovered a moment, then jerked
and dipped – and yet the clouds still lurked
around us, formed a shroud, expunged
the light, while neither land nor sea
broke through the nebulosity.
Still further we dropped, our flashing ship
in thrashing hail, yet still couldn’t rip
through all that thick and turbid gauze;
again we fell, then seemed to pause,
then I saw waves were swelling round
like hackles on a mud-caked hound.

131.

There was a roar. I felt some spray.
I checked the door. No, not the sea’s
encroaching froth – ’twas Megan’s sneeze.

‘Where is it!’ she shouted; and quick to obey,
I seized a tissue from her leg.

‘Not that! Your island! There’s too much drag
down here! If I don’t land this thing,
then it – and us – are vanishing.’

Around that heaving sea I scouted;
and for a moment, reader, I doubted
myself. Had I been dreaming that night?
Had Mr. Pigeon Chest been right?

132.

Had I encountered a barge of debris?
Barnacled trees and mangled metals
on which that spangled starlight settled?
My craving for discovery
– or rather for a special place
where I’d at last escape the race
and find my Avalon, my plot
of sacred soil, my resting spot,
a realm where all despair would cease –
this craving for an early release,
had it inspired me to see
some solid ground in fantasy?

133.

And would I now, as Megan said,
be ‘vanishing’ for real? If so,
it served me right to die! Although –
I’d rather only I were dead.
I could not look at innocent Meg.
I felt my backpack – my stake, my flag.
How wicked my Fate! Born, yet birthless,
successful in youth – yet all of it worthless!
And now to take poor Megan down
with me – for what? So I could crown
some secret dream? So I could own
a land which no one else had known?

134.

A land where neither human feet
nor vision were stamped? A private ground
untouched before? Such spots are found
by children and lovers and other discreet
explorers of secret places daily!
The earth, like skin, impermanent, scaly,
replaces wounds with scars, erases
others. Imagine the infinite cases
of ownership, were deeds dispersed
for all things traversed or sighted first!
Boundless kingdoms in every city,
and each with millions of subcommittees.

Christopher Columbus and his shoes.  'Great shoes find land un-found before.'

Christopher Columbus and his shoes. 'Great shoes find land un-found before.'

135.

Then why? A fetish for feet which fall
where others haven’t? To sake an ache
for exploration? But then just take
a handful’s prize – why own it all?
Besides, that first foot-fall, its shape
and style which print the fresh landscape,
will one day lack seniority.
How quickly all authority
in moccasins was squashed by Spanish
borcequies,78 those handsome, mannish
high-laced boots Columbus wore.
(Great shoes find land ‘unfound’ before.)

136.

And Cook’s big-buckled Cromwell boots
– until their print down-under was put
it seems Australis knew no foot.
Its terra was peopled, yet all its fruits
unknown, its land un-owned by those
who walked on bare or flax-bound toes,
their soles too soft to certify
an ownership – though later they’d try.
(God bless our clever cannibals,
who knew the hidden valuables
inside a shoe. For once unlaced,
those feet left only aftertaste!)

137.

And British clerks, their brugals with spats
– they stamped all over Asian soil
while making all the natives toil
as stamp-dependent bureaucrats;
and even when that shoeless warrior,
Gandhi, proved he was a lawyer
and walked where others would have fought
his toes couldn’t claim the land he sought.
And on it goes; and still we’ve kept
this treadful tradition. One small step
begets another’s leap – just like we
see in China (with shoes by Nike).


78 The word, according to Dr. Wendy Llyn-Zaza, a Spanish scholar, is
borceguí (sing.) and borceguíes (plural), divided into syllables as follows: bor-ce-gui-es, with the main stress falling on –gui-; the -c- is similar to the English -th; the vowels are pure.

__________

Zireaux’s comments on these stanzas
Diary note: During tour of Australian outback — fine sand, unflinching sun — the aboriginal guide sings heartfelt songs about his ancient ancestors (40,000-year-old remains in this case), neglecting to notice a rare butterfly specimen which nearly alights upon his shoulder.

For more information about the importance of shoes in great works of art, see my comments on “Euclid Alone” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. “Beauty bare,” writes Millay, is a “massive sandal set on stone.”

 

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Naked Nymphs in Arbors Divine — Stanza 84

A View of Cape Stephens in Cook's Straits New Zealand with Waterspout, by William Hodges (1776)

A View of Cape Stephens in Cook's Straits New Zealand with Waterspout, by William Hodges (1776)

Res Publica, Book One, Canto the Second

84.

We searched out every nautical caution
reported since Captain Cook first saw
our shores and Hodges47 sought to draw
their harbors and hills in all their awesome
innocence (as well as to glimpse
the sweet outlines of naked nymphs
in lyrical meadows and arbors divine).
But nothing was there! No words nor sign
of warning. No reef nor rocky strand
as that great curvature of land
I’d seen – and touched – in vacant sea!
And this both thrilled and worried me.


47 William Hodges (1744–1797), English painter who accompanied Captain Cook on his voyage around New Zealand.

 

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Greenish Gluttons — Stanza 31

Dusky Bay by William Hodges, 1775.

'...a pre-Cook Eden' -- Dusky Bay by William Hodges, 1775.

Res Publica, Book One, Canto the First

31.

And if it can’t be owned, to build
as close as possible and let
whatever sand remains be wet
all day, or better yet, be filled
with dirt and grass – or sewage spilled.
O! But lest this song be drilled
for politics, believe me, there’s greed in
those who seek a pre-Cook22 Eden;
and few show such rigidity
as Greenish gluttons.23 But let it be.
My point is this: No one lives
demand-less. Not friends. Not relatives.

22 Captain James Cook (1728–1779), English explorer, navigator and cartographer, was the first European to circumnavigate – and crudely map – New Zealand.

23 We can assume, according to my Kiwi scholar friend, that because ‘Greenish’ is capitalized it most likely refers to New Zealand’s Green party.

__________
Zireaux’s comments on this stanza
Let me dedicate this stanza to several of my neighbors in Takapuna — including one whose house I used as model for the Spanish Mission style home Arcady shares with his wife. Last year, where there was once a charming four meter wide grassy area for children to kick soccer balls and families to sit on blankets, the voracious homeowner at the beach-end of a nearby avenue happily extended his wall and swallowed that grass.

Buffeted by the spray and splash of rising sea-levels on one side, and the piggish appetite of property owners on the other, the popular sea-side walk between my neighborhood and Milford has begun to resemble one of those TV obstacle courses, or Japanese batsu game shows. Intrepid ninja-walkers must balance on concrete walls, press themselves up against bulwarks, traverse precarious rocks, time their sprints between the overreaching waves.

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Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom, Riverhead Books, 1999, 745 pages

Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom

Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom

The further one ventures out of this world and into the Shakespearean universe, the more one feels the inadequacy of certain cerebral equipage.  Your most insulated jackets, your thickest snow boots won’t shield you from the icy temperatures of Macbeth.  No sunscreen, of even the highest SPF, can block the searing sun of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.  There’s no oxygen in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or maybe there’s too much oxygen— and what’s that strange gas everyone seems to be breathing in Twelfth Night?  Gravity exists, of course, a severe and fundamental gravity in King Lear and Hamlet, but it torques and twists and transmutes the world like nothing we’re accustomed to.

One requires, alas, no less than the literary equivalent of NASA to design a proper suit, one which can hold up in the watery, or windy, or sometimes fiery — but always extreme, always shifting and temporally unusual  – conditions one finds in a work by William Shakespeare.

If anyone would know how such a suit should be designed it’s Harold Bloom, one of the most accomplished and important literary scientists of all time (right up there with his cross-epochal lover and soul-mate, Dr. Johnson). But in his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Bloom approaches the greatest of all writers – “greatest” being a superlative which one can safely and liberally employ (as Bloom does, exuberantly, in a variety of ways) when writing about Shakespeare — from a different, or rather reverse and astonishing angle.

Each of us, Bloom insists, or at least anyone who can engage in a discussion of Shakespeare, is a creation of Shakespeare.  That is, our very sense of self and nature, the way we reason and behave, is nothing less than our evolutionary adaptation to Shakespeare’s art.  We’ve been living and breathing and surviving in the strange and alien-seeming substance of Shakespeare from the moment of our self-awareness.  “I do not know if God created Shakespeare,” writes Bloom, “but I know that Shakespeare created us, to an altogether startling degree.”

This heady argument – and yes, for Bloom it’s an “argument” – appears to arise more out of distress than pleasure.  Bloom has a bone, a skull you might say, to pick with Marxists, multiculturalists, feminists, nouveau historicists (“the usual suspects,” he quips) who misinterpret and travesty Shakespeare’s plays and ultimately produce what Bloom, quite wonderfully, calls “ideological jamborees.”  One can’t help cheering Bloom on here, although sometimes we see Bloom as a courageous David, other times as Ali the boxing champion, other times it’s Bloom the pit-bull in a dogfight, a crowd of academics carousing around the bloody spectacle.

Bloom acknowledges early in his book that critics of Shakespeare, writing what they see in Shakespeare’s mirror, tell us more about themselves than about Shakespeare’s work.  Bloom, we quickly learn, is a “devout Falstaffian.”  Shakespeare, he writes, invented Harold Bloom as a parody of Falstaff.  There is, indeed, a Falstaffian fleshiness to Bloom’s book, the inflated theatricality, the bombast and self-indulgence, the stylistic rotundity – folds of repetitive flabbiness hanging over his belt – and (perhaps most of all) a sense of youthfulness in old age not unlike Falstaff’s.  And yet Falstaff would never write a book like this one.

Bloom understands the Shakespearean illusion.  We think we see in Hamlet what everyone else sees, but it’s the reflection of our inner selves we’re witnessing.  And Bloom also knows, brilliantly, that the image of himself which he sees reflected in Shakespeare’s mirror is not what we see in Bloom.  Falstaff and Hamlet are Bloom’s favourite characters because they display a passionate charisma mixed with what he calls “inwardness” (a type of self-consciousness, self-reflection, self-revisionism).  On Bloom’s stage, where the main players include Nietzsche, Dr. Johnson, Montaigne, Chaucer, Cervantes, Beckett and a kind of Shylockian Freud , with minor parts given to Hegel, Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, Wilde, Spinoza, Anthony Burgess, Eliot, Hart Crane and countless others, Bloom is his own favourite character.

Bloom, too, displays charisma and inwardness; and he knows that what he writes is both insightful and fleeting, precise and prolix, enthusiastic, laborious, accurate and yet never quite right.  At times it’s difficult to take anything Bloom says seriously, such a believer is Bloom in revisionism. A Whitehouse Secretary, a Scott McClellan type of literary scholarship. And much of what Blooms says — especially about how poets operate — is simply wrong, but being wrong, in Bloom’s production, is a temporary affair.  Give it time.  Wrongs will right themselves eventually.

Bloom as Falstaff?  But also Cleopatra, it seems to me, with her “longing for a lost sublime,” and I hate to say it (this will hurt Bloom terribly), Henry V, because Bloom finds his strongest inspiration when fighting an enemy. Hamlet was an expert swordsman, easily defeating Laertes in their duel, but his most powerful weapon, like Falstaff’s, was his wit, coupled with his air of indifference (or “disinterestedness,” to use Bloom’s term).  Bloom is massive and lovable, sensitive, beautiful, brave and thrilling, profoundly alive, a miracle of nature, soaring loftily, jubilantly in the raging slipstream of Shakespearean studies; but he isn’t witty.

Wit is the interpretation of words “out of frame” (to use Hamlet’s metaphor).  It is to literature what a trick of light, or a piece of camouflage, or a reflection in a window, is to a painting.  The word is not what we first think; the little shadow reveals itself to be a blackbird; the woman’s silky-seeming veil is made of alabaster; and the woman is really a man.  Anne Salmond, in her wonderful book on Captain Cook, informs us that some of the island men mistook a few members of Cook’s crew for ladies and excitedly pursued them into the foliage for coupling, only to find themselves the butts, so to speak, of a Shakespearean charade, a wonderful play of cultural wit.

Hamlet was a cannibal (Gloucester his supper); and he was Captain Cook, too.  The Maori, who always paddled their canoes while sitting forward, believed the approaching British sailors, who paddled toward shore in a backward manner, were a convoy of faceless goblins.  Hamlet-the-Maori traded feathers for a mirror and admired his clear reflection in the smooth device.  Hamlet-the-ship’s captain awarded human dignity to the natives who ate his friends.  Hamlet was a conquistador and a slave, a native and a foreigner, a feminist, a Marxist, a multiculturalist and, at the same time, he was Bloom the “Brontosaurus Bardolator” (as Bloom urbanely, unpoetically calls himself).  He is a member of the human species, but from another country, an undiscovered country – or rather, a country discovered and observed, but beyond our comprehension, beyond our control.

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The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas, by Anne Salmond, Penguin Press, 2003, 506 pages

The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas, by Anne Salmond

The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas, by Anne Salmond

Whether Anne Salmond’s history can be turned into a screenplay directly, or whether it requires a fictional treatment first, the subject matter cries out for (or blows a Maori conch shell for) Peter Jackson’s talents.  Mel Gibson, with his Apocalypto, gave us a mysterious jungle society — a new skin over familiar feelings – but could never shake free of the contemporary, or make us feel as though we’ve left a recognizable humanity behind, as does, say, the 1992 Mexican movie, Cabeza De Vaco, set in a similar time and place.

Jackson, however, could pull it off – not with 16th-century South America and the Conquistadores, but in the 18th-century conquests of the South Pacific with the peerless Captain Cook.  The primordial island scenery, the volcanoes and breadfruit, the fleets of canoes, the war dances, shootings, spearings, lashings, kidnappings, beheadings, human sacrifices, half-eaten body parts, cannon balls that skip across the surface of the sea, fireworks and water-rockets, icebergs and storms and illnesses, “lusty” naked (and sometimes pugilistic) nymphs, the greed for the power of guns and red feathers and sex and nails and mana, the pull and anguish of discovery, the families and rivalries and aristocracies that energize cultures as far apart as Tonga and London – Jackson could capture it all without allowing us to ever feel quite comfortable amongst the tribes we meet and the discoveries we make.  This, of course, is the thrill of all great adventures and all great art.

Salmond catalogues a tremendous amount of voyaging and I suspect she wearied at times of writing phrases like “shot a musket ball through the bow of the canoe” or “traded yams and a pig for a nail and a cloak.”  But we grow used to it, like waves at sea, and the lull of repetition, of waiting, recording, measuring, sounding, charting, bartering, of anchoring in quiet harbours, of floating on pinnaces, canoes and tall ships and hardly ever standing on solid ground, makes the encounters with the abrupt, abrasive substance of people so much more fascinating. Like the sailors at sea, we grow to crave and relish the human touch.

Captain Cook himself stands as aloof, dogged and unintelligible as any of history’s greatest figures. An early ethnographer and man of many mistakes, he found three weeks of a secure, well-paid country life in England — after many years at sea — more than he could tolerate and quickly returned to his South Sea adventures, not for the laurels (which he’d already received), or the lithesome lasses (for whom Joseph Banks so yearned), but for the sweeter flesh of scientific pleasure.  That such a man, the son of a farmer, was chosen by committee — as opposed to some freak of fate — to pilot the Endeavor and lay down his weapons, undress and bow before alien chiefs (or, contrarily, to plunder an entire Mo’orean village in revenge for a stolen goat), inspires us not just to appreciate Cook’s role in history, but to acknowledge the astonishing range of consideration of which a society is capable.

Salmond’s Cook is boyish, fastidious, passionate and detached, creative and sterile and reminds one of Abraham Lincoln in his inability to turn off the sub-woofer bass of his higher-calling which reverberates in his every word and action.  In Tahiti a group of importuning beauties jeered at his refusal to sleep with them – impotent old man! – but their mistake was simple: Captain Cook was not a man.  And he wasn’t really a captain, either; and when, while in New Zealand, he’s mistaken for a slave (taurekareka) – because he didn’t avenge the killing, and eating, of ten of his companions – the Maoris are perhaps more correct in their presumption than history credits them.  Cook was slave to his convictions.

Salmond does as best she can to present both sides of these cultural encounters (though she generally rides, like most her sources, inside the officers’ cabins of Cook’s ship), and amongst the islanders we find, in a kind of looking glass world, the mirror images of Cook and Banks and Webber and many other of the European big-wigs.  The islanders, too, have their own philosophers and philanders, their thieves and theists, crooks and kings, artists and adventurers – some of whose journeys, epics in themselves, Salmond allows us to closely follow; and their performance of taio, or name-exchanging, with Cook and his crew provides an apt anchorage that holds these repellent symmetries, however briefly, together.

O how great our enchantment when nothing is as it seems!  What differentiates a boat from an island?  On viewing Cook’s ship, the Hawai’ians gaily clambered aboard and started tearing off the iron bits, just as Cook’s men feasted on their island fruits and felled their trees.  And some of the island men even mistook a few members of Cook’s crew for ladies and jauntily pursued them to a secret place for coupling only to emerge bewildered yet wiser and more careful in formulating assumptions next time – like all great scientists and historians, amongst whom Anne Salmond sails with the same sense of endeavour and endurance, skill and passion for knowledge as Cook himself.

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