Tag Archives: Shakespeare

“At Melville’s Tomb” by Hart Crane

Selected for Immortal Muse by Zireaux (read Zireaux’s comments on this poem)

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death’s bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides . . . High in the azure steeps
Monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.

Zireaux's diagram of "At Melville's Tomb" (click to expand). Special thanks to Lynda Farrington Wilson for her help with the drawing.

Zireaux’s diagram of “At Melville’s Tomb” (click to expand). Special thanks to Lynda Farrington Wilson for her help with the drawing.

Zireaux’s comments on this poem:
A risk, I know, to post this poem by Crane. I can already hear the twitter-twatter of distracted brains, like bird feet on a tin roof. The furrow of brows(ers). The clicks of the mice — back-button, window closed. What a strain this cranial Crane! Too hard, too dense!

But stay, my reader. Let us creep across the stars. A little voyage for us to make. A little ship for us to sink in.

It’s in our biology, programmed in our souls, to feel attraction to water. Crane, who found his dirty pleasure (dirty to him, that is) in sailors and their scepters, leapt off a steamship into the Gulf of Mexico. A suicide, apparently, after a male crew member responded violently to his physical advances.

“Harold Hart Crane 1899–1932 lost at sea,” reads the inscription on his father’s tombstone.

I’m no Cranophile, not by a longboat, and only recently — budded by Bloom (Harold) and carried by a Griffin (John) — has my interest come anywhere near the poet. But here’s Crane now, floating beside us, his debris on the page, in water writ, forever inscribed in “Melville’s Tomb.”

And it’s not every day a dead man speaks. Poets know death. They betroth themselves to death and learn how to “charm its lashings,” so to speak (see my notes on “Of Mere Being”). One measure of a great poet: The degree to which she mingles amongst the living and the dead.

In the history of great poetic voyages, Melville — who was foremost a poet (a fact I’ve stated before and which so often astonishes my readers, as if there was any question about it) — was death’s first mate and closest companion. Our Harold Crane, by comparison, was a mere able seaman, and his poem “At Melville’s Tomb” is a little wooden rower compared to Herman’s mighty Pequod. A single swipe of Moby’s tail would dash this poem into a 110 pieces.

But it holds water. It’s seaworthy. Can survive a humpback, maybe. Keep us from the sharks.

Observe my diagram. Most importantly, observe the position of the drowned Melville “beneath the waves” (he died and was buried on land, in fact, but Crane is speaking of his spirit here). Observe the living poet, standing on shore, beer bottle in hand, contemplating the ocean from his “ledge.” Ledge, of course, being a thing from which people, especially edgy, ledgy poets, often fall…or leap.

We start with the “embassy” — a Shakespearean locution for a message (see “Sonnet XLV,” Twelfth Night, King Henry V, etc) — which is “bequeathed” from sea to land, from washed-up bones to (dust-to) dusty sand. Speaking of messages, are those Crane’s fingerprints on chapter 104 of Moby Dick from where he stole the word “bequeath” — indeed stole the whole idea of messages coming from the mysterious underwater dead?

They are. The word “bequeath” appears once is that leviathan novel, in the chapter titled, suitably, “The Fossile Whale.” Ishmael describes how whales “bequeath [their] ancient bust” in limestone and marl. Messages from bones. And interestingly, in the very next sentence, Ishmael describes how whales also appeared in Egyptian hieroglyphics — writing, forsooth! — represented by the print of a whale’s fluke.

You can see, in my diagram, this cycle from bones to messages to chapters and hieroglyphs — and this is very important, because Crane is about to deliver his most astonishing and brilliant couplet:

Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.

Crane himself offered clues about these lines in a letter to the perplexed editor of Poetry magazine, Harriet Monroe, who initially rejected the poem. But Crane assumes — incorrectly — his readers can at least understand the basic layout of his vision.

I’ve read at least a dozen other commentators of these lines. Bloom, Buckingham, Franks, Irwin, Leibowitz, Lewis, Penn Warren, Quinn, Tate, Woods, others. Crane’s metaphors are so tightly packed (the calyx, for example, possesses both the whirlpool-like cavity created by a sinking ship and the flowers one puts on a grave) that none of these admirers seem to completely grasp the clear visual precision, the exactitude, which Crane has achieved.

Looking up from below: Hart Crane would have appreciated this camera angle in the movie Life of Pi.

Looking up from below: Hart Crane would have appreciated this camera angle in the movie Life of Pi.

Monroe couldn’t understand how eyes could “lift altars.” But in chapter 119 of Moby Dick, titled “The Candles,” Melville writes of the corpusants (also known as St. Elmos Fire) that ignite the Pequods masts: “Each of the three tall masts was silently burning in that sulphurous air, like three gigantic wax tapers before an altar.” The sky, the horizon in Moby Dick, is a kind of altar, the masts are like candles. To Crane’s drowning sailors then, their frosted eyes looking upward as they sink into the ocean depths, it really would appear as if the alter were being lifted.

And what about the answers creeping across the stars? “As soon as the water has closed over a ship,” Crane writes in his polite exegesis to Monroe, “this whirlpool sends up broken spars, wreckage, etc., which can be alluded to as livid hieroglyphs, making a scattered chapter…”

In other words, the “embassy,” or message, has gone out to the shore; its “answer” then — following the allure of the sea — has come back by ship, which (like Ahab’s Pequod) founders and sinks, leaving its wreckage, as scattered chapters, or livid (sea-smeared) hieroglyphs, to float across the ocean’s surface.

Observe again my diagram and see my point: From Melville’s perspective, from his position at the cruel bottom of the ocean looking upward from his tomb, the “answers,” the replies to the “embassy,” the scattered bits of wreckage, really would appear to silently creep across the stars.

The silence here is crucial, too. We can hear so little when we’re underwater. Especially at the bottom of the sea. Wrecks pass “without sound of bells” — the same bells which Crane borrows from chapter nine of Moby Dick: “The continual tolling of a bell in a ship that is foundering at sea in a fog”.

Similarly the floating wreckage above us is absolutely silent. This will hurt Crane-lovers, but Disney — a la Pirates of the Caribbean — has given this perspective an almost camp quality; camera looking up from below at the floating bodies and debris above. And, too, the dead silence.

So naturally the “monody” — the song of poets, of this poet, this poem, coming as it does above the boundaries of Melville’s tomb, “high in the azure steeps” (the word “steeps” packed not just with height and loftiness, but with eyes, jewels, stars) — is silent as well. With this understanding, with this sense of being deep underwater, amidst the absolute silence, the final line of the poem presents itself as — ironically, given Crane’s craving to leap from the ledge — a celebration of being alive.

Because to the sea-entombed Melville, to “the mariner” looking up from below, the water’s surface is the limit of his world. There are “no farther tides.” Life, music, poetry, beauty, the sheer power of Crane’s language, this fabulous world in which we live above the surface of the sea — it’s but a shadow to those who lie beneath.

Zireaux, who can’t help but break a word-limit for Herman and Hart, is the author of four novels, including
Kamal, which is currently being serialized on the web. His first novel, written in 1990s, will be available in paperback soon (with a free copy going to whoever solves this puzzle poem).

Please be sure to visit the poets over at Tuesday Poem. Surely there’s a Hart amongst them — Crane and Melville both sharing periods in their careers of extreme, debilitating under-appreciation. It’s a good reader’s responsibility, therefore, to locate and cherish the treasures in the tolling fog.

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“The Great Master Blaze”

Black Enterprise Magazine

Black Enterprise Magazine

In the previous episode (“The Limbo Bimbo”), Kamal awakes, undressed, in a strange bedroom with his rescuers — Loraine and her assistant, Chantelle. Loraine is busy with her morning exercise regimen, while Chantelle is naked in the bed and holding a video-phone (such were those devices called back then). Now the two ladies perform their recruitment routine, informing the impressionable Kamal about the great entrepreneurial guru and supreme leader, Lionel Blaze, to whom they’ve devoted their lives.

‘Or what about –’ the voice is now Loraine’s,
whose sparkling eyes look keen to ascertain
a singular fact: ‘Have you been introduced
to Sable Inc.? Or its Great Innovator
Lionel Blaze?’

                                                  Her words, she notes, produce
no clear reaction – a fact which quite elates her.
To see his face so blank – or rather, puce
and battered, but blank to its interrogator.
Such wicked joy’s not easy to contain.
My reader notes your smile, Loraine.

And with that smile comes a stereophonic
‘Really!’ and ‘Wow!’ – which might sound histrionic
to perceptive readers, who know when scenes
are well-rehearsed. But to Kamal, these cries
are neither falsely uttered nor routine
and cause his trustful mind to lionize
this Blaze (for surely such expressions mean
the man’s well-known).

                                                   ‘Perhaps you’d recognize
him if you saw his picture?’ says Chantelle,
who’s memorized her part so well.

She leans aside and from the nightstand’s pile
removes an issue – Black Enterprise; and while
she fakes a flipping search to find the page
(in truth, the magazine’s so often spread,
the page she wants abruptly takes its stage),
Loraine explains: ‘Serena Williams said
that Blaze released her from a mental cage
of negativity – and that’s what led
her to defeat her sister.’

looks confused.

                                            ‘You know, in Wimbledon.’

Serena Williams

‘Serena Williams said / that Blaze released her from a mental cage /
of negativity…’

‘Here it is!’ Chantelle exclaims. ‘Devoted
seven pages to his work and quoted
him extensively . . . just listen to this: “Success
is not out there. Each one of us is rich
with fame and fortune. We each possess
a treasure deep within ourselves – and itch
to open it! But never will unless
we halt our vain pursuits of pleasures which
belong to others. Just tell yourself: The key
to all my dreams is held in me

Kamal cannot contain his thoughts, and blurts, ‘He
must be wise! For Ramana Narayanamurthy,
greatest of sages, has told me many times
exactly this!’ He looks intently at
the glossy photograph, and there he finds
a broadly smiling man in cowboy hat
and jeans; and even his physique reminds
Kamal of Rick – the bulging chest, the flat
retreating abdomen shrink-wrapped within
a T-shirt’s muscle-mapping skin,

with hills and ridges, as you might expect,
but with that pure white surface architects
employ in landscape models to create
a sense of Greek-inspired elegance.
And just like Rick, he has that workman’s trait
of sitting half-astride on tables – hence
he sits side-saddle on a huge, ornate,
executive’s desk. Outdoors. Big sky. Immense
steroidal clouds above. The message being:

‘Blaze’s Path is Spirit-Freeing!’

‘And look at that ice!’ Loraine points at the hand
which Blaze wraps round a golf club. ‘Thirty grand,
including the watch. Pure diamonds round the dial.’

Newsweek called him this year’s most inspiring
entrepreneur,’ Chantelle announces while
the others view the photo – one admiring
Blaze’s beaming eyes, his radiant smile;
the other his bling. Indeed, each one desiring
different things; yet somehow, in that single
man, opposing dreams co-mingle.

‘Are you attached to him?’ Kamal now asks.
‘If so, please let me be as well! What tasks?
What gifts? What daily deeds or life-long toil
must I tender to his Highness Blaze?
He will not find a servant who’s more loyal.’


‘A real Tarzan’s habits, nursed / by apes, could never be reversed.’

Loraine is not accustomed to such praise.
And frankly, all this formal speech and royal
terms (his Highness?) equally amaze
your dutiful transcriber. We know Kamal
was raised in what Rousseau might call

a ‘savage state’ of fantasy; a child
fed at feral beauty’s breast. Those wild
boys and girls, abandoned orphans found
in forests, cages, hen-coops, kennels, attics,
suckled by bears or she-wolves, gagged and bound
in sheds – they all, when caught, reveal dramatic
symptoms of aphasia which astound
their doctors. Our brains, it seems, are most fanatic
when young. A real Tarzan’s habits, nursed
by apes, could never be reversed.

He’d never read. Nor speak. The slightest grin
could take him years to master; and had there been
a wedding, Jane would get, at most, a grunted
epithet. Kamal, however, uprooted
from his natural state of bliss, confronted
with the world beyond his unpolluted
realm, emerges not a kind of stunted,
mutant mute. He may well be unsuited
for this world, agreed. A true misfit.
But in a way that’s opposite.

He talks, of course, but in those flushed, rhapsodic
tones he learned when Imogene’s melodic
voice recited poetry; when on
his bed she’d softly serenade him, wake
him up to see the spill of saffron dawn,
the palms like starfish on the hills, opaque
and still. Romanticism’s paragons:
from Keats to Shelley, Coleridge, Byron, Blake.
She’d read them all, while he half-heard,
attentive more to sights than words.

Half-listened to the voice he so adored,
and which their father’s muffled music scored
from dim sepulchral depths – it was, for him,
a wondrous native state, as Mowgli’s forest
howled with monkeys in the tree-top limbs
which to that man-cub always seemed a chorus
made of sweetly singing seraphim.
Naturam expelles furca,’ says Horace,
tamen recurret.’ So, too, one’s native past
is like a spell one can’t uncast.

Romeo and Juliet Dicaprio and Danes

Leonardo Dicaprio and Claire Danes in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: ‘He talks like what’s-his-name – that Romeo,’ says Chantelle.

‘He talks like what’s-his-name – that Romeo,’
Chantelle will later tell her boss. ‘You know,
like back in Shakespeare’s time. It’s very sweet.
I like to listen to him speak.’

replies that dialogue should be concrete
and purposeful. ‘I’d rather hear the plain
and boring truth than rapturous deceit,’
she says, although she knows Kamal couldn’t feign
a single thought. How strange. It’s quite a rarity,
she thinks, to see such raw sincerity.

Not that she’s tempted to trust him, no. Devotion
is an act one plays to win promotion.
She has the wits to know success relies
on wits – her own. Unlike Chantelle, for whom
a faith in God puts blinkers on her eyes
and keeps her vision free of trailside gloom,
Loraine is skeptical and worldly-wise;
and if her master Blaze – as she presumes –
has conned his way to wealth, then why shouldn’t she?
A faithful cheat. What irony!


See the complete index of episodes from Kamal, Book One

Listen to Kamal read live!


Filed under Kamal, Book One, Poetry by Zireaux

“Sonnet of a Teenage Girl” — and a recap of Kamal before we proceed…

Our dVerse readers and poets are hankering for a sonnet. Very well. Given that the hero of our story — Kamal — is a teenager, let me offer something from a youth’s perspective, the sort of thing Kamal’s sister (and greatest love), Imogene, might compose, were she a teenager today.

Sonnet of a Teenage Girl


Simon Cowell

The very wise Simon Cowell

…and speaking of teenagers and wise men such as Simon Cowell: In the previous episode of Kamal, our hero solicited the advice of his mother’s guru and fitness freak (whose ego and physique have something of a Cowellesque cut).

But before we go further, a recap:

Our cast of characters so far

Kamal — The happy youthful hero of our story. Innocent Kamal! He loves his parents; he loves painting, chasing butterflies — but most of all, he loves his sister, Imogene.

Kamal’s father — Pianist, famous composer of movie scores. ‘Gentle, / wise, old and sentimental.’ Confined day and night to his piano chamber.

Kamal’s mother — A faded Hollywood movie star ‘whose age now stalks her / more than her fans.’ Bitter, cruel, but enchanting to Kamal.

Imogene — Kamal’s sister. A beautiful young bibliophile. ‘As happy with life as life with her.’ With honey tresses and creamy flesh; ‘as pretty as people perceived her, / spending a day reading books most pleased her.’

Ramana Narayanamurthy (a.k.a. Rick) — ‘…the chef cum chauffeur cum fitness trainer / cum handyman (he works like a pun!), / cum guru-shrink-masseuse all in one.’ What’s known in the business as a toyboy.

The scene:

Confused by the physical pleasures he enjoys with his own sister, Kamal has sought the sage advice of Ramana Narayanamurthy. Is it okay? Kamal wants to know. Of course it is, responds the Great Advisor, explaining how brothers and sisters have engaged in intimate relations throughout history — from Adam and Eve to Cleopatra to Lord Byron. ‘Thank god for Freedom’s most essential treasure’ he concludes, ‘The right to chase what gives us greatest pleasure.’

And now a scene as great as any known to art awaits us, reader! Kamal’s mother has climbed into the backseat of her Mercedes Benz for a shopping excursion to Rodeo Drive. Ramana is her driver. As the Benz pulls away, the door to the grand estate is open and we are ready to enter — to travel upstairs, to Imogene’s room, where she and Kamal are engaged in an act of illicit passion.

But first: Catch up with the story, good readers:

Episode 1 | (Thank you readers) | Episode 2 | Episode 3 | Episode 4

Inform your friends, a tweet or two;
or better yet, why don’t you brew
a twitterstorm! And
swarm around.
Without some ears, what good is sound?


Filed under Kamal, Book One, Poetry by Zireaux

O Fertile Land! O Swollen Gland! — Stanzas 150 to 155

Blues vs. The Crusaders: A match made in heaven.

Blues vs. Crusaders: A match made in heaven.

Res Publica, Book One, Canto the Third

Canto the Third: Amends to the Albatross

How our narrator convinces his business-minded wife to loan him some money so he can settle the island . . .


Land! Untrespassed land! Untrammeled
hope! Geographers appraised:

‘It was,’ they said, ‘quite recently raised.
Tectonic crusts can shift . . .’

                                                       They rambled
on and on, while I recalled
some months before a tremor had stalled
my wife’s soft typing a millisecond.

‘You feel that, dear?’ I called, unsure
I’d felt the quake myself. I beckoned
once more my lovely entrepreneur.

‘No’ – click-click, her thoughts well-railed
while mine of crumbling walls regaled
my fantasies with flight from prison
(not knowing, off shore, my freedom had risen).


Land! Unsettled land, untainted
life! Incoming ships were warned.
My isle as yet was unadorned.
No lights illumined, markers painted,
nor heights to see afar. By now,
attentive reader, you’ve noticed how
my stanza’s spinal column has lengthened,
with two more vertebrae imbursed;
and ligaments, once weak, have strengthened;
and while this posture might at first
appear too stately and precise
for such a man as me, suffice
to say, with Canto Three now started,
I’m more determined, less half-hearted.


Just as a bachelor’s young romantic
life, though steeped in ritual,
begins with moves quite casual:
Some wooing txt, an emailed antic.
Shorts and jandals;85 some coffee, a bar.
For special dates he cleans his car.
Excitedly he serenades her:

‘I think I’ve found my match at last . . .
the Blues are playing the Crusaders!’86

But once his eager seed is passed,
and offspring greet his newborn eyes,
his wardrobe floods with suits and ties!
For all such casualness is killed when
a man is met by newborn children.


Land! O fertile land! O swollen
gland! Let critics smugly laugh.

That day he saw the photograph,’
they’ll say, ‘he lost, or rather, had stolen
from him, his mother twice. His real
mother, yes, but truth would steal
his second mother, too. (A chuckle
here.) And thus, his own repressed
yet self-admitted urge to suckle
from that lost – or twice-lost – breast.
A classic case. What scholars term
the “Hero’s Chase” – with sterile sperm.
(guffaw!) A race all poets compete in:
to reproduce a long-lost Eden.’

'A barred, or debarred, Bard.'

'A barred, or debarred, Bard.'


Land! Unspoiled land, untrodden
dreams! I tried my credit card
– but found all funds of mine debarred.

(A memory from kindergarten:
A picture of a ‘homonym’.
Dear Shakespeare with a quill on him,
and shaggy, unkempt beard and mournful
eyes, is drawn within a jail:
‘A barred, or debarred, Bard’.)

                                                       O scornful
wife! Why couldn’t you let me sail
away and then contact our bank?
The boat I’d wanted was nothing swank.
A 14-footer, with half a cabin,
enough to haul some dribs and drabs in.


Land! Unblemished land! Uncheated
child! I begged:

                               ‘No time to lose!
Imagine all the revenues
we’d earn if half our plans succeeded!’

And though I use this dull past-tense
to show you clearly past events,
I want you there, my faithful reader –
some seven years ago – to see
my wife and me, and how I led her
toward my self-made destiny.
The way I lied and paltered so,
and wouldn’t accept a simple ‘no’.
(And if she balked at my proposal,
I had a gun at my disposal.)

85 A type of lightweight sandal, known as ‘flip-flops’ or ‘thongs’ in America.
86 Rugby teams from Auckland and Canterbury, respectively.



Read from the beginning of Res Publica | Listen to the audio version (read by Stuart Devenie) | Buy a signed copy of the book

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“Dippity Bix” and “Chimpanzee,” by Kath and Kim (Gina Riley and Jane Turner)

Selected for Immortal Muse by Zireaux (read Zireaux’s comments on these works)

Kath (Jane Turner) and Kim (Gina Riley) at the Fountain Gate Mall.

“Dippity Bix

Kim: You know what, mum. I’ve stopped my all-cabbage diet. I don’t think it’s healthy to eat just one thing.

Kath: Well Gwen Paltrow just had an Apple.

Kim: Huh?

Kath: Well that’s what she’s called her new baby. Apple. I think that must be all she’s eaten since she had her by the luhks. You’d be wise to take a leave-out of Gwen’s book, Kim.

Kim: So what are you saying? I should rename Epponnee-Rae [her baby daughter], Dippity Bix?

Kath: Yeah! Dippity Bix Cocoa Bomb Footy Frank.

Kim: Actually, Footy Frank is quite pretty.

Kath: Yeah, Footy Frank, it is, isn’t it?


Kim: Oh look mum. Another present I got for Epponnee: The Bath Book version of The Da Vinci Code. Look, It squeaks when you press the albino.

Kath: Who do I still need to buy for, Kim? I’ve got my health professionals: My Physio, my Ostio, my Chiro and my Gyno. They’re all getting bottles of Cock Fighter, so that’s done. Now my service providers: I’ve got my Posti, my Garbo, my Recycle’s Man, my Coles Online Guy — still need to get something for them.

Kim: I still gotta get something good for Bret. You know he’s really into labels now.

Kath: Oh really, what, stick-on or iron-on, cause we go down to Office Works for that.

Kim: No, mum. Clothes. Designer labels. You know, Dolci and Kabanna, Tony Hellfinger, Louise Futon.

Kath: Oh, gee. Who’s he dressing to impress? Actually, I got Bret’s present. It’s great. It’s the John Grisham newy, The Firm Client. Actually, that sounds a bit more like Kel [her husband], doesn’t it?

Kim: But Bret doesn’t read at the moment. Now he’s a workaholic.

Kath: Yeah, I’ve noticed, he’s very driven at the moment, isn’t he, Kim? I have to say, I think it suits him. He did look very spunky going off in his Yugo Boss this morning.

Kim: Yeah, he’s got his sites set on the top. You know, eventually, he wants to be owner-manager.

Kath: Oh, that’s really kudosses, Kim. Being a franchisee. Gee, one day I’d like to be a franchisee, Kim.

Kim: Well you look more like a Chimpanzee today.

The American version of Kath and Kim -- fascinating in its failure.

Zireaux’s comments on these works:
If Kath and Kim were ever told they spoke the language of poetry, they’d be the first to give earnest, impassioned readings at the Fountain Gate bookstore and pawn their own chapbooks at the gym. Playing fools in the name of beauty is what they do best.

Their Australian creators, meanwhile — Gina Riley and Jane Turner — are poets to the core.

They understand that when it comes to language — in this case, the vernacular of the suburban Melbourne shopping mall — sound and sense are the poetic equivalent of costume and character. “Kel says my hair is my clowning glory,” boasts Kath about her frizzy white poodle-fro. And there you have it, all four elements of the comedic art form expressed in a single line.

In so much of Riley/Turner’s work, their ear is near perfect. Metrically, for example, “Epponnee-Rae” and “Dippity Bix” would be called choriambs (stresses on the first and last sounds of a tetrasyllable), and their identical scansion is no accident. But the two baby names are also excellent examples of why common scansion alone — the dissection of feet into stressed/unstressed patterns, as scholars have been doing for centuries — is really a cheating of sound. Because sound itself divides into tones (or notes) and cadence (or rhythm), as I touched upon briefly in my post on Notorious B.I.G..

So although the scansion is the same, Swinburne’s “…senseless of passion,” or Coleridge’s “Down to the sunless…,” sound nothing at all like Shakespeare’s “flibbertigibbit” (which, in fact, more closely resembles the short rapid-fire air-bursts of “Dippity Bix”). After the swooping landing of Coleridge’s, “Down,” the mouth must stand up again and brush itself off before delivering, “to the sunless.” “Flibbertigibbet,” on the other hand, is a happy triple-flip of the tongue. “I should rename Epponnee-Rae, Raspberry Cream,” would have produced exactly the same scansion, but with a very different rhythm, a very different effect.

American TV attempted its own version of Kath and Kim, which was fascinating in its failure. Sense and sound (and rhythm), character and costume — the harmony of these elements were sacrificed in favor of the premise, or the idea: A grown-up married daughter coming home to live with her mother.

But I’ll say it again: Ideas are not what poetry is about. Poetry is spoken music (some might say written music, but I’m less convinced of this, unless we equate reading with hearing, which seems a stretch). The Australian Kath has no qualms showing off her fanny-fissure, or trying on — and spilling out of — a Burberry bikini, or putting on that perpetual vulgar teenage girl expression, the rolling eyes and exasperated flip of the hair, which looks even funnier on the grown-up Riley. Excessiveness, outrageousness — a realm that’s ripe for poetry.

The American version of “Kath and Kim,” however, was too concerned with meaning, too afraid to let sound and costume speak for themselves, too poetically restrained. It has, in fact, a very strong odor of the Lolita-Charlotte relationship — think Sue Lyon and Shelly Winters in the film, Lolita — a particularly American flavor of mother-daughter relationship which Nabokov netted in his novel; and from which Americans may never be able to escape.

“It squeaks when you press the albino” is a poetic phrase, in the manner of the anapestic limerick. And note the perfect rhyme with gyno in Kath’s subsequent line (with both characters stretching out the “aiye-no” sound). Poetic, too, is “kudosses, Kim.” But perhaps most lovely, and rich with poetic depth, is the coupling of the words “franchisee” with “chimpanzee.” They have an aural relationship; yet no common rhyme form. They’re not that rarest species of rhyme — the gimmal (see my definition and discussion of the gimmal); and yet the simian-coated Kath saying, “gee, one day I’d like to be a franchisee,” still takes us on a pleasure-journey across the broadest spectrum of metaphor, from vulgar job title to Christmas shopping ape-woman; a trip, or trope, which Nabokov himself would surely have admired.

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“Mad Maud’s Four Dreams,” by Melissa Green

Selected for Immortal Muse by Zireaux (read Zireaux’s comments on this poem)

Mad Maud’s Four Dreams
Melissa Green

Once seized by sleep I dreamt I was captived at Bridewell where all trulls
and gillots go    I knew the place for I’d picked hessian and oakum there

and taken flogging by a scourge of holly leaves    Roped at the wrists 
to one who walked ahead and one behind we came in from the fields and lay 

upon the grave-cold ground under iron grates    And in my dream I dreamt 
another   In high summer I saw momently a sparrow flit above a golden lea 

and fly into the brumous wood where there was only rustling and silence
‘Tis Maud     as swiftly gone as those wings crossing a yellow meadow  

I dreamt thrice  By a mizzling shore St. Cuthbert knelt on stones to pray   
Ice in his beard    frost rubefying his steepled hands     Two otters bounded

from the water and breathed upon his feet to warm them     rolling back
and forth upon him they tried with their fur to dry his blue besobled skin   

He had for solace     sorrow  longing  winter  want  cold  darkness  death   
Wind whistling across heath and moorlands     madefying marshlands 

and fens into tears      I dreamt a fourth      The wide blackening sky of Albion 
roared overhead    and I wept that neither sun nor youth nor hope nor love

would come again    I crawled into an hollow oak      pulled lichen over me
Maud shall have no church or coffin    song or blessing     priest or cross

In the mews of the dream in a bark-beetled sepulchre     Maud shall have 
a glimmergowk to hoot her elegy    shall nither there until the mawks 

liquefy her skin     boil at her heart with their white roilings     her body
unresurrected      her soul left to the earth and night and wintertide 

The Harlot in Bridewell, by William Hogarth, engraving, published   1732

The Harlot in Bridewell (beating hessian and oakum), by William Hogarth, engraving, published 1732

Zireaux’s comments on this poem:
“Poetry is a way of sharing feelings and ideas” — so explained a well-known public figure recently (not a poet herself) while promoting a book about her “woman’s journey” through a collection of works by Byron, Bishop, Yeats and many others.

“Poems,” she says, “are about experiences we all have.”

Why does such pabulum sting?

We needn’t look far; to wit, Melissa Green and her astonishing poem, “Mad Maud’s Four Dreams” (indeed, her whole “Mad Maud” series is brilliant). Nothing, absolutely nothing in literature has as much artistic potential as the well-measured mixture of madness and song. We abandon the earthly trail of life and follow instead, in perfect tip-toe, the swishing whiteness of the Goddess’s train; and in so doing achieve a certain lucidity, a hi-def crispness, a mirror-lens unfogged by feelings or ideas.

It’s not the experience that speaks — who has felt the flogging scourge of holly leaves, or done time in Bridewell prison picking hessian and oakum, or slept beneath a lichen blanket? — but rather it’s the language, the poet’s ability to versify the incredible, to make lyrical sense of the insensible. Poetry, I mean good poetry, I mean the best poetry, the only poetry worth reading, is, in fact, about experiences none of us have had.

Were Shakespeare someone who, like Edgar in King Lear, “eats cow-dung for sallets, swallows the old rat and the ditch-dog, drinks the green mantle of the standing pool;” and “is whipp’d from tithing to tithing, and stock-punish’d and imprison’d,” we wouldn’t have Lear. “My tears begin to take his part so much,” says Edgar, written by Shakespeare, pretending to be Edgar, pretending to be mad Tom O’Bedlam (Mad Maud’s mate) in the presence of a pretend mad former King, “they’ll mar my counterfeiting.”

Perceiving the counterfeit. Capturing the illusory. Though “roped at the wrists” like Maud, or wearing “brave bracelets” like Tom in Tom O’Bedlam’s Song (c. 1600, a favorite of Harold Bloom‘s) — or whipped, raped, caged — these made-up mad-minds are ecstatically free from the feelings and ideas that other people share. Free, refreshingly free, from “experiences we all have.”

Shackled yet dreaming, flying “into the brumous wood,” flitting across a yellow meadow, between visions of ice-bearded Saints and bounding otters and hooting glimmergowks of the night. In the hands of such a gifted poet as Melissa Green, who captures the period language so well, these mad characters — so unlike the clinically insane — can still communicate their unique experience through word-song.

And strike some truly beautiful, shivering, nithering chords. Notice the liquidity of madness, particularly when Maud refers to the mawks, or maggots, “liquifying her skin” as she lies in her “bark-beetled sepulchre,” thus comparing herself — in the mad, clear, insensitive third person (“Poor Tom’s acold!”) — to the marshlands and fens which she has described as “madefying [a perfect, madly liquefying word]…into tears.” The word “mawks” itself gives a shiver, rooted as it is in the name Maud, in maudlin, mawkishness, Magdalene, the fallen women in Bridewell, where “all trulls and gillots go;” and flies and beetles breed. Now that’s a “woman’s journey” worth writing about.

Mad Maud weeps, of course; and in so doing, steps out of her mizzling madness, gives herself a human form, creates an illusory linkage to our world. It’s this stepping in and out of madness (think of Lear’s lucidity, in the deepest throes of madness, when he’s still able to recognize Gloucester, or even Cordelia) that gives the poem its beauty, and which represents poetic mastery.

Crossing the divide. The ability to travel to the outer reaches of human experience, to travel through dreams within dreams, where none have gone before, and to find the undiscovered — even that is not enough. For you must also, with the fine-tuned lyre and an Odyssean strength of purpose demonstrated by Green, report the inexplicable back home, in the language it demands.


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“To Contradiction” (My India Tour Continued) by Zireaux

Indian Film Star, Sushmita Sen

Indian Film Star, Sushmita Sen

A distant homeland, far-off terra.
And when I spoke to little Clara
on Sheela’s cell-phone yesterday,
she asked me why I’ve kept away.

“My work,” I wept. “How’s your brother?”

“He’s fine,” she said.

                               My Clara’s smart.
I spoke of beauty, love and art,
then heard a voice:

                                “Who’s that?”

                                                      Her mother.

The line went dead and how it died
was obvious — a homicide.

Now ask my Clara what has happened!
Ask five-year-old, precocious Jake!
What gales of sense their minds will flap in,
what flights of fancy they will take!
Who knows what trumped-up sort of traitor
I am — a Voldermort or Vader?
Or just another man remiss,
a Crusoe to their Family Swiss?
Or maybe something better, Wells’s
adventurer, or even Swift’s?
On what soft wind or dreamy drift
of thought, or mum-propulsioned swell is
their absent father carried on?
What lands are dreamt? What maps are drawn?

O Contradiction! Neutral zealot!
You are the mirror dandies kiss.
You show the face and even sell it,
with lips impossible to miss…
then watch as puckered papules crash-in
to glassy, stone-cold, anti-passion!
Judicious tyrant, the clef, the thing
which holds the notes all Byrons sing.

"...these vain young men / who hangle from a crippled, wheezing / municipal bus..."

"...these vain young men / who hangle from a crippled, wheezing / municipal bus..."

No poetry can be constructed
without your mix of kings and slaves,
the sort of things your skill and luck did
for Shakespeare’s globe and Melville’s waves;
What monuments you’ve built, smart fellow!
Your Eiffel Proust, Chicago’s Bellow,
immense designs with concrete walls
and dainty streams and waterfalls;
and you, a tiny, scarred and ugly
philanderer with silver hair
and secret kids from two affairs;
and strong opinions brandished smugly
from dingy offices in which
you dig your quarry (and your ditch).

This world, reader! See it shiver
to life? The swallows skim across
the dusky brown and red-rust river
to leave a trail of silver floss.
No hearts will ever show more feeling,
or hold endearments more revealing,
that those which love Sushmita Sen
and throb inside these vain young men
who hangle from a crippled, wheezing
municipal bus (these men — poor dears! —
if they could tune their off-key ears,
perhaps they’d sing without eve-teasing.
And Sen might hear a deeper love
than any Bachchan’s1 spoken of;

and let’s not close this parenthetical
without an arrow shot up high
and tipped with fire most heretical,
and aimed directly toward Mumbai.
Toward you, great actors! And you, believers,
who worship them! We pay deceivers
to thrill us on the screen — and this
they do. But careful. Don’t dismiss
or over-praise -– they’ll turn their acting
to life, and start to star off-screen,
and make a living making scenes
they know will be most fan-attracting;
a puja, say, with feet unshod,
as if their role were cast by God).

Amitabh Bachchan performing his famous barefoot puja.

Actor Amitabh Bachchan performing his famous barefoot puja.

O how it gives the world dimension!
Or maybe it is something else;
and all examples of dissension
are really just strange parallels
of chance; a cosmic deck of cards might
confine (or circumscribe!) what bards write.
(And maybe Douglass Adams knew
the key to life is 52!).
But I trust you, dear Contradiction,
to be my muse (for now). I know
your strict neutrality can grow
fantastic realms without restriction,
and like this world of ours set free
an infinite plurality!

For those who say our world is shrinking
(there are pizza parlors in Chennai!)
are stricken by a lack of thinking.
Quot hominês, tot sententiae.2
For how the world expands with every
new birth and brain; each pod of reverie
a dynasty! A fresh campaign
of conquest! Fifteenth century Spain
repeated every .4 seconds
(or so the population clock
keeps time). This India could stock
another Spain, it’s reckoned,
in just one year! Despite such facts,
still people claim the world contracts.

And this, precisely this initial
assumption (worse than a cliché!)
is what transforms the superficial
— the Nike shoes, or Starbucks, say —
from bridges tempting mass migration
to Bering Straits of separation.
I side with Kipling here! The “twain”
may share a coffee, entertain
each other, come to understandings
— but like the stars and galaxies
which travel through the blackest seas
of space (that always are expanding)
their gravities can’t overcome
that first-force which they started from.

1Amitabh Bachchan, the most famous and prolific film star of all time.
2As many men, so many opinions.

Read more about my poetry tour of India…


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“On Fame” by John Keats

Selected for Immortal Muse by Zireaux (read Zireaux’s comments on this poem)

Portrait of John Keats by the English painter William Hilton

Portrait of John Keats by the English painter William Hilton

On Fame
by John Keats


Fame, like a wayward girl, will still be coy
To those who woo her with too slavish knees,
But makes surrender to some thoughtless boy,
And dotes the more upon a heart at ease;
She is a Gypsy,—will not speak to those
Who have not learnt to be content without her;
A Jilt, whose ear was never whispered close,
Who thinks they scandal her who talk about her;
A very Gypsy is she, Nilus-born,
Sister-in-law to jealous Potiphar;
Ye love-sick Bards! repay her scorn for scorn;
Ye Artists lovelorn! madmen that ye are!
Make your best bow to her and bid adieu,
Then, if she likes it, she will follow you.


“You cannot eat your cake and have it too.” -Proverb

How fevered is the man who cannot look
Upon his mortal days with temperate blood,
Who vexes all the leaves of his life’s book,
And robs his fair name of its maidenhood;
It is as if the rose should pluck herself,
Or the ripe plum finger its misty bloom,
As if a Naiad, like a meddling elf,
Should darken her pure grot with muddy gloom;
But the rose leaves herself upon the briar,
For winds to kiss and grateful bees to feed,
And the ripe plum still wears its dim attire;
The undisturbed lake has crystal space;
Why then should man, teasing the world for grace,
Spoil his salvation for a fierce miscreed?

Zireaux’s comments on this poem:

Tupac Shakur

Tupac Shakur, shot and killed at age 25

On our gypsy-jaunt across the genres of poetry, one must pause lengthily at the divine “crystal space” that is John Keats. There’s no more appropriate theme — amidst this medium of sex-tapes and 12,479 followers on Twitter — than the theme of fame. As Shakespeare showed us, and showed Keats, too (and as Darwin confirmed some 50 years later), fame and sex are two sides of the same genitalia.

You’ll remember — of course you’ll remember, my dedicated reader — our brief encounter with Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” on Tuesday, May 31 of this year, and how, when it comes to attracting immortality, an “excess of moderation” makes for an effective babe-magnet (I remember a car dealer once telling me, “This one’s a real babe-magnet”). As I pointed out, the word “temperate” in the second line of Shakespeare’s masterpiece (“Thou art more lovely and more temperate”) is the most important word of the poem.

Keats appears to have admired the word as well, for here it is again — “with temperate blood” — also in the second line of a Shakespearean sonnet. Keats was imitating and even attempting to one-up the Master, adhering to the great one’s rhyme scheme throughout “On Fame I,” and most of “On Fame II,” only to add a distinctive flourish when concluding the latter, with an awkward albeit distinctive FEGGF pattern all to his own.

We could, in fact, look at “Sonnet 18” as a serenade to Fame. Though Fame and Immortality are different ladies, they’re still women at heart; they can still succumb to true love – and even the Gypsy Jilt, the wayward girl, the coy coquette, can sometimes transform into a faithful widow; or, if not a woman of purity, then an eager necrophiliac.

Keats's tombstone

Keats's tombstone at the Protestant cemetery in Rome

For all its self-touching and onanistic muddying of the Naiad’s grot, there’s a line in “On Fame II” that forever remains with any artist who happens to read it and who knows of Keats’s fate: “The undisturbed lake has crystal space.” It’s here, with “crystal space,” that Keats breaks free of the Shakespearean rhyme scheme – a “G” where the “F” should be – and so himself becomes a crystal space in undisturbed water. “Here Lies One Whose Name was writ in Water, Feb 24, 1821” are the words etched into Keats’s tombstone. So with his death, his immortality crystallized.

Some relevant lines from my Kamal, Book One:

Each year, reader – each year the jaundiced stare
of beat-up Poe, of Shelley gasping for air,
of sad, consumptive Keats (beside whom cries
Bernini’s fountain), of Byron as he lies
in cold ague, of Plath, that over dramatic
half-baked spouse of Hughes, and poor rheumatic
Burns (mad, but unsoused), a stunned
and bleeding Pushkin, out-dueled, out-gunned,
and other lead-filled poets: Jam
Master Jay, Tupac and Biggie, a lamb
called Lennon, that self-shooter Cobain (his head
found with no brain) and all those left dead
in bathtubs or vomit, including one – how grim! —
by ‘soap under-toe slain’ – I mean, that Doorman, Jim —

each year, my reader, they’ve glared at me! Their eyes
increased in number and ridicule. ‘There lies
a living poet,’ they’d say, ‘older, more dead than us
His name is write in air! Our scattered dusts
a far more stable substance than this living
statue able yet to write!…”

Keats made his “best bow” and “bid adieu” at a very young age. Fame clearly liked it; Immortality, too.

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“White Linen Casual, No Shoes” by Stephen Colbert and Co.

Selected for Immortal Muse by Zireaux (read Zireaux’s comments on this selection)

The Oboe Player, oil on canvas, by Thomas Eakins, 1903

The Oboe Player, oil on canvas, by Thomas Eakins, 1903

“White Linen Casual, No Shoes,” by Stephen Colbert and Co.

Gay people are ruining our marriages. So we’ve got to ruin their marriages right back.

Here’s how we’ll stop the gays from marrying:

Step 1. I want all of my straight male viewers to start hanging around in gay bars. Make friends with a gay man. Now you’re going to be spending a lot of time together, so you’re gonna want to find one you really click with. It might seem like all the best ones are taken but don’t get depressed. He’s out there. You’ll know him when you meet him.

Step 2. Make him fall in love with you.

Step 3. Move to California. Get a cozy little cottage in Venice Beach, maybe open an upscale dog-grooming boutique. You’re good with business and Jonathan is amazing with animals. You meet his parents. He introduces you as his “roommate.” Tension. “Really, Jonathan, it’s been two years.” You have a fight. He apologizes, tells his parents (and they’re not surprised). They just want what’s best for the both of you.

Step 4. You’re wine tasting in Sonoma. You stop at this great little antique place. Hide a ring in the roll-top credenza he’s been eyeing for weeks. He opens it — bam! — you drop to a knee and ask him to make you the luckiest man on earth. He says, “Of course!” (Because you’re a catch).

Step 5. Stall. Do not, do not set a date. Say you just want to wait until you’re financially stable. Say you can’t honeymoon in Bali in the summer because it’s Monsoon season. Say anything. Just drag it out. Before you know it, six years have passed. You’re not getting any younger. He’s threatening to leave. You say, “Fine, fine Jonathan. November 2nd in Big Sur.”

The day is perfect. It’s on the beach. White linen casual, no shoes. Cupcakes instead of a cake. That’s fun. You let his cousin play the oboe (he’s not that good, but it means the world to him). And as the sun is setting over the Pacific and after you’ve recited your handwritten vows, the Rabbi asks if you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband. And you look into his eyes and say, “No way, f*g, I am not gay! Yeah. All that sex we had was straight sex.”

It will destroy him. He will forever be embittered against the idea of marriage. Then, your trap sprung, you turn on your heel, march right back up that aisle, past your loved ones, secure in the knowledge that he will never be married to anyone. Certainly not to you. And you can’t forget the look on his beautiful face when you told him. His eyes were like two dead birds. O God. There’s only one person who can comfort him right now and that’s you. But he will never talk to you again. And neither will his amazing mother Janet. On Valentines Day she sent him a bouquet of acorns. She loves him so much. What have I done?

Saved marriage, that’s what.

Zireaux’s comments on this selection:
We’ve explored the wild habitats of love poetry (Poe, Shakespeare, Nabokov); gazed on some effigies to beauty (Stevens, Millay); examined what I call “poetic depth” (Gardenne, Zireaux), paid homage to America’s supreme epic poet (Melville); and we’ve even petted the poetry of pets, with last Tuesday’s poem showing how a mediocre work by John Keats can humble the best of literature’s cat-lovers.

We now pay a visit to the poetry of fools — fools, I mean, in the Shakespearean sense, they being one of William’s most enduring legacies. For the Shakespeare scholar still seeking the Bard of Avon’s true identity, perhaps Stephen Colbert may offer a clue. Some of the best contemporary English writing comes from the wit-factories churning out comedy shows like The Colbert Report, or The Simpsons (creator Matt Groening being perhaps the closest we have to a modern Shakespeare).

Anton Chekhov at Melikhovo.

Anton Chekhov at Melikhovo.

If the art in Shakespeare’s plays appears to defy any individual’s talent — and it does, it surely does — we might look to Richard Burbage, William Kempe, Henry Condell and John Heminges, members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later the King’s Men, and anyone else who was standing around a dress rehearsal in Shakespeare’s presence. It would be incredible, it seems to me, if (a la Joseph Fiennes in the movie, Shakespeare in Love) history’s greatest English poet wrote without their constant contribution.

The modern wit-shops of America have become so advanced — and often formulaic, mechanized — that challenging them to a duel is a bit like playing chess against IBM’s Deep Blue. The lab-coated team of wordsmiths wins every time, calculating mots justes twenty moves ahead, computing etymologies down to the very genome. And yet, at the same time, the game lacks the beauty of a human match — the errors, the contradictions — and their quick victories deliver little more than pleasant satirical spankings or easy tickles.

The Colbert Report is often an exception; and every now and then some Ouija Board in their writing sessions will channel an authentic muse, as appears to have occurred during the composition of this inspired, indeed Chekhovian monologue which Colbert delivered last week. It’s not a poem, I know; but it’s the biology that’s of interest; and we find the same embryonic structures, the same genesis. As with Chekhov’s musical stories, the lyricism here — mostly in “Step 5” — combines a stylistic voice (in this case, a fool at the wheel) with my favorite of poetic qualities: depth (or miles per word); a combination that beats in the chest of every great poem.

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“Mrs. Reynold’s Cat” by John Keats

Selected for Immortal Muse by Zireaux (read Zireaux’s comments on this poem)

Mrs Reynold’s Cat, by John Keats

Cat! who hast passed thy grand climacteric,
  How many mice and rats hast in thy days
  Destroyed? How many tit-bits stolen? Gaze
With those bright languid segments green, and prick
Those velvet ears – but prithee do not stick
  Thy latent talons in me, and up-raise
  Thy gentle mew, and tell me all thy frays
Of fish and mice, and rats and tender chick.
Nay, look not down, nor lick thy dainty wrists –
  For all thy wheezy asthma, and for all
Thy tail’s tip is nicked off, and though the fists
  Of many a maid have given thee many a maul,
Still is that fur as soft as when the lists
  In youth thou enteredst on glass-bottled wall.

Zireaux’s comments on this poem:
What other poets have found themselves beguiled or heartbroken by cats (see last Tuesday’s poem, “Elegy to Joy“)? No shortage here. From Sir Walter Scott’s cat, Hinse of Hinsefeldt, to Tennyson’s feline clan of “Sweet-Arts,” to Henry Walpole’s emerald-eyed Selima, who drowned in Thomas Gray’s goldfish bowl (to rise again in Gray’s “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat”). W.B. Yeats’s black Minnaloushe, Byron’s brave Beppo, Poe‘s Cattarina, Amy Lowell’s Winky, Lear’s Foss, Eliot’s Jellylorum, Bly’s mysterious cat in the kitchen, Edward Hirsh’s Zooey, Marianne Moore’s Peter, Weldon Kees’s (appropriately named) Lonesome — poems from them all; plus Shelley, Dickinson, Swinburne, Swift, Wordsworth, Rosetti, Hughes, Updike and many others, with T.S. Eliot and Shakespeare disqualified: the former for writing what might be called “cattoons,” the latter for breaking the rules of eligibility (Forces of Nature not allowed).

Sir Walter Scott and his cat named Hinse (and the dog that may have killed Hinse

Sir Walter Scott with his cat named Hinse of Hinsefeldt (and the dog that may have killed Hinse), posthumous portrait by Sir John Watson Gordon, circa 1845

The best cat poem goes to Christopher Smart’s “My Cat Jeoffry,” but few readers today can tolerate his long mad litany of ailurophilia; so “Mrs. Reynold’s Cat” achieves selection here, because it’s written by John Keats, and even an average poem by Keats can out-strut just about any field of models, not to mention supermodels like Meowmi Campbell, Tiger Banks, Kit Moss (apologies, a private joke). “Cat!”

The “grand climacteric” refers to the 63rd year of a person’s life, in other words, a kind of meno-paws (too easy, the cat-pun). The final couplet brilliantly brings the fresh young cat over the protecting wall that — paved with glass shards — surrounds Mrs. Reynold’s property, and into the fighting arena (“lists”) of an unprotected world. A perfect example of what I call “poetic depth.” So much portrayed — about the cat, Mrs. Reynolds, the neighborhood — in just a few lines. Live on, dear thing, to prick thy velvet ears and lick thy dainty wrists forever!

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