Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection

When the lockdown hit, it was like musical chairs after the music stopped. Whatever books from the library you already had in your possession, that was it. I feel extremely lucky to have already had this book of poems on hand, loaned from the Stanislaus County Library. They brought necessary warmth and comfort during dark, uncertain times.

An earlier version of me, my younger self, proclaimed a hatred of anthologies, including those of poems, but I have corrected that opinion, seeing the value. The editors say it best in the preface, anthologies are “an efficient means for finding beautiful and moving poems. The wrecks and fender-benders in nearly every individual poet’s books have been pushed off onto the shoulder, leaving only the poems still capable of taking us somewhere… Every anthology, too, is an argument for something, an act of persuasion, and this one is no exception.” My only beef is that it’s arranged alphabetical by author last name; so predictable, so boring, why not attempt something new with zetabetical ordering?

The collection came to my attention when I was searching for more poems by Danusha Laméris after appreciating her “Small Kindnesses”:

Small Kindnesses

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”

Lucinda Williams’s dad, Miller Williams, gives good advice:

Compassion

Have compassion for everyone you meet
even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit,
bad manners or cynicism is always a sign
of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
down there where the spirit meets the bone.

This by Rob Jacques:

Inukshuk

Note: On frozen trails of the far north, Inuit people placed five stones in rough human form as a testament of endurance and as warm encouragement from those who had gone before to those who were coming after.

We were here. We saw sorrow.
Across our hearts, emptiness and cold
pulled hard, as they do in you now,
and we pressed on as you will do.
We did all that possibility will allow
and expect nothing less of you.
We stand guard over accomplishment
and a strong journey through all this.

See in gray desolation how we made
this five-piece thing and left it here,
a stone creation to bring you certainty
in this drear, frozen waste, showing
you and we are keepers of the flame
melting chaos. You and we proclaim.

This by Thomas R. Smith:

Trust

It’s like so many other things in life
to which you must say no or yes.
So you take your car to the new mechanic.
Sometimes the best thing to do is trust.

The package left with the disreputable-looking
clerk, the check gulped by the night deposit,
the envelope passed by dozens of strangers—
all show up at their intended destinations.

The theft that could have happened doesn’t.
Wind finally gets where it was going
through the snowy trees, and the river, even
when frozen, arrives at the right place.

And sometimes you sense how faithfully your life
is delivered, even though you can’t read the address.

This by Sue Ellen Thompson:

Sewing

The night before my older sister’s wedding,
my mother and I sat up late
hand-stitching a little cloud of netting
to the brim of each bridesmaid’s hat.

To be alone with her was so rare
I couldn’t think of what I had to say.
We worked in silence beneath the chandelier
until it was almost daybreak.

Soon I’d have a room of my own
and she would only be cooking for six.
We drifted among the wreaths we had sewn,
nursing quietly on our fingertips.

That she still had me was a comfort,
I think. And I still had her.

This by Barbara Crooker:

Listen,

I want to tell you something. This morning
is bright after all the steady rain, and every iris,
peony, rose, opens its mouth, rejoicing. I want to say,
wake up, open your eyes, there’s a snow-covered road
ahead, a field of blankness, a sheet of paper, an empty screen.
Even the smallest insects are singing, vibrating their entire bodies,
tiny violins of longing and desire. We were made for song.
I can’t tell you what prayer is, but I can take the breath
of the meadow into my mouth, and I can release it for the leaves’
green need. I want to tell you your life is a blue coal, a slice
of orange in the mouth, cut hay in the nostrils. The cardinals’
red song dances in your blood. Look, every month the moon
blossoms into a peony, then shrinks to a sliver of garlic.
And then it blooms again.

Reading Virginia Woolf during the pandemic

An ongoing collection of relevant quotes from VW as I read my way through her oeuvre. Updated daily.

I never felt anything like the general insecurity.

Aug 12, 1914; Letter to Ka Cox

Well—I wonder what we shall do. I’d give a lot to turn over 30 pages or so, & find written down what happens to us…. At this moment, I feel as if the human race had no character at all—sought for nothing, believed in nothing, & fought only from a dreary sense of duty.

Jan 15, 1915; Diary

The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be.

Jan 18, 1915; Diary

I saw a beautiful woman in the Bus; who could hardly contain her laughter because a great military gentleman was thrown on to her lap, like a sack of coals, which seemed to tickle her greatly, & the more she laughed, the nicer I thought her. About one person in a fortnight seems to me nice—most are nothing at all.

Jan 28, 1915; Diary

keep well, and dont think that life is a thing to be thrown up into the air like a ball, which I’m sure is your present frame of mind.

Feb 12, 1916; Letter to Ka Cox

It is wonderful how entirely detached from sanity the aristocracy are; one feels like a fly on the ceiling when one talks to them.

March 26, 1916; letter to Duncan Grant.

we want to do so many things. Why can’t one be turned back and live everything over again, perhaps rather more slowly?

March 27, 1916; letter to Margaret Llewelyn Davies

I saw Lytton yesterday, who told me he had heard that you and Duncan and possibly others had all got influenza at Wissett. I should be very grateful if anyone who hasn’t go it would send a line to say how you are. I hear Clive had it, and Adrian too, and Nellie went for a holiday and was in bed with it all the time; and Ott’s got it… I saw Ka, who seems rather feeble still. I do hope you are all right. Please dont start a move with the germs still in you.

Oct 9, 1916; letter to Vanessa

If Shakespeare were to awake now! The thought of what he would see in the sky and on the earth is at once appalling and fascinating.

December 21, 1916; review in the TLS

The spring season is full of disease; and a small break in your life might keep you healthy for a year.

March 23, 1917 letter to Vanessa

But oh dear, how little one believes what anyone says now. I feel we’ve sunk lower than ever before this summer.

September 9, 1917 letter to Margaret Llewelyn Davis

The K. Shuttleworths advertise the birth of a [posthumous son] with the statement “His Perfect Gift” a good title for an Academy picture, or a Mrs Ward novel, & rather a terrible testimony to the limelight now desired by the rich upon their sacrifices.

October 9, 1917; Diary

The moon grows full, & the evening trains are packed with people leaving London. We saw the hole in Piccadilly this afternoon. Traffic has been stopped, & the public slowly tramps past the place, which workmen are mending, though they look small in comparison with it… “business goes on as usual” so they say.

October 22, 1917; diary

I suppose to Philip [Leonard’s war-wounded brother] these days pass in a dream from which he finds himself detached. I can imagine that he is puzzled why he doesn’t feel more.

December 12, 1917; diary

The streets remind me of Cambridge streets. People walk down the middle. This is partly because of the queues waiting to buy at Liptons. One has some difficulty in keeping on the pavement, & the motor buses are always grazing people’s sides.

December 15, 1917; diary

“A very interesting state of things—”
“And what’s going to happen?”
“No human being can foretell that.”

January 3, 1918; diary noting Leonard’s response to reading the latest news from Russia

Everything is skimped now. Most of the butchers shops are shut; the only open shop was besieged. You can’t buy chocolates, or toffee; flowers cost so much that I have to pick leaves, instead. We have cards for most foods… Suddenly one has come to notice the war everywhere.

January 5, 1918; diary

There are food riots & strikes at Woolwich, & the guards have notice to march there at any moment, & fire on the people, which their own Woolwich regiments would refuse to do.

January 21, 1918; diary

How are you? Influenza, [Dr] Craig told me, poisons the nervous system, and nourishment is the only way to get rid of it. Do take milk and ovaltine. I have 2 glasses a day.

January 29, 1918; letter to Vanessa

But when a crisis happens, scarcely anyone meets it naturally; either they’re too composed & prosaic, or the other extreme.

April 6, 1918; Diary

… the extra-ordinary number of coffins one sees about. Coffins at luncheon, coffins as I come back from London; and the gentleman next door is dead of the influenza.

July 15, 1918; Letter to Vanessa

Butleriana

I rescued this gorgeous 1932 book (copy # 257 out of the 800 printed) from the library before it shuttered for the next few weeks. The craftsmanship makes your heart swell, perfect font, crisp photographs, handmade paper. It’s another collection of ad hoc writing from Samuel Butler, the one place where his entire Pauli explanation is given without editing; why, for the love of god, was he carving out £200-£300 a year out of his dwindling capital to give to Pauli, a man who he had no real friendship with, for dozens of years?

I think he says it best here: “Pauli impressed me as especially strong precisely in those respects wherein I felt most deficient… The main desire of my life was to conceal how severely I had been wounded [by his father and upbringing], and to get beyond reach of those arrows that from time to time still reached me. When, therefore, Pauli seemed attracted towards me and held out the right hand of fellowship, I caught at it not only because I liked him, but because I believed that the mere fact of being his friend would buoy me up in passing through waters that to me were still deep and troubled, but which to him I felt sure were shallow and smooth as glass.”

And once he was giving it, he was simply too much in the habit to keep giving Pauli his allowance each year. He broached the subject every year at Christmas but Pauli moaned and said (untruly) that he’d be ruined without the money. Butler seems to have recognized it as an obligation that he was required to keep performing until Pauli’s death, when he found Pauli had been earning a considerable amount at the bar and had other wealthy benefactors who knew nothing of Butler and vice versa.

Here also is the anecdote in full about Pauli’s handsomeness: “I remember how the late Captain Buckley, V.C., told me that when he and Pauli were at San Francisco together in 1860 or 1861 they went into the bar of the hotel where they were staying, and the barman asked Pauli to have a drink with him. Pauli tried to get out of it, but the barman said: ‘Oh, but you must; you are the handsomest man God ever sent into San Francisco, so help me God you are!’, with a strong emphasis on the ‘are.'”

Of other interest, Butler mentions that he’s only written two short reviews of books, one of Leslie Stephen’s Essays on Freethinking and Plain-speaking, the other on the philosophy of Rosmini.

Olive, Again

Excellent followup to Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, we pick up almost exactly where the first Olive leaves off. She marries Jack and feels like he’s her “real” husband (not dead Henry), although at the end of the book when she’s in assisted living, she ends up hiding Jack’s smaller portrait and leaving Henry’s up. That’s actually a sweet ending, where she bounces lonely around the old folks until she meets a new inmate who she gets along with. They exchange keys and check in on each other twice a day, in addition to having meals together, but the simple 8am opening the door, waving, not saying anything, and the same at 8pm is so sweet.  Possibly my favorite section was Exiles, about a couple visiting his brother and their sister-in-law, Helen gets wasted on white wine and falls down the stairs after she gets flustered when the sister-in-law declares that hearing about other people’s grandchildren gets tiresome.

The Complete Essays of Montaigne: Book One

My morning routine has been mindfulness, meditation, and Montaigne for the past several weeks as I finally picked up Europe’s “great bedside book” to begin the journey. The chapters are groupings of several ‘assays’ as Montaigne tries to stick a pin in his soul so that he may examine it more clearly. He wrote and distilled his thoughts from his retirement (1571, aged 38) up until his death in 1592.

Going on a Montaigne journey makes you laugh and wonder and be amazed; you have this simply eloquent bridge between pagan and Christian antiquity and our own time. He was raised speaking Latin as his first language, learning French later, and thus finds comfort in the ancient tomes he rips quotes from liberally. In a nod to his preference for quotes (he also had dozens of quotations carved or painted on the beams of his library ceiling), I pull out my own favorites of his:

“An abundance of children is a blessing for the greater, saner, part of mankind: I and a few others find blessings in a lack of them. When Thales was asked why he did not get married, he replied that he did not want to leave any descendants.” (1:14)

On punishing cowards: ‘Suffundere malis hominis sanguinem quam effundere.’ [Make the blood of a bad man blush not gush.] (1:16)

“Always bring those with whom I am talking back to the subjects they know the best.” (1:17)

“I want Death to find me planting my cabbages, neither worrying about it nor the unfinished gardening.” (1:20)

“I am the sworn enemy of binding obligations, continuous toil and perseverance.” (1:21)

“When the Cretans wished to curse someone, they prayed the gods to make him catch a bad habit.” (1:23)

(What Plato taught about education:) “Spewing up food exactly as you have swallowed it is evidence of a failure to digest and assimilate it; the stomach has not done its job if, during concoction, it fails to change the substance and form of what it is given.” (1:26)

Horace: “It is reason and wisdom which take away cares, not places affording wide views over the sea.” (1:39)

“I always write my letters at the gallop, with so headlong a dash that I prefer to write them by hand than to dictate them (despite my appalling writing) since I can never find anyone who can keep up with me… as soon as I flag, that is a sign that my heart is not in it. I prefer to begin without a plan, the first phrase leading on to the next.” (1:40)

Ancient customs he gives details about (in 1:49): the ancients watered their wine, took a gulp of breath when they drank, ate between meals, used snow to cool their wine, wiped their arses with a sponge on a stick, kept jars on the street corners to piss into.

Explaining his process of writing the essays: (1:50) “Everything has a hundred parts and a hundred faces: I take one of them and sometimes just touch it with the tip of my tongue or with my fingertips, and sometimes I pinch it to the bone. I jab into it, not as wide but as deep as I can; and I often prefer to catch it from some unusual angle. I might even have ventured to make a fundamental study if I did not know myself better. Scattering broadcast a word here, a word there, examples ripped from their contexts, unusual ones, with no plan and no promises, I am under no obligation to make a good job of it nor even to stick to the subject myself without varying it should it so please me;  I can surrender to doubt and uncertainty and to my master-form, which is ignorance.”

 

 

Soundscapes and Cognition in Post-Conquest Granada

Up on the hill, squirreled away in a room on Lone Mountain campus of USF, I heard Professor Jarbel Rodriguez (Associate Professor of Medieval Studies, San Francisco State University) muse about how the soundscape of Granada changed after 1492 when it transitioned from Muslim-domination to being under Christian control.

Fascinating stuff, how the Castillians used sound as a weapon as well as guns, carrying bells with artillery in the army. To the Muslim faithful, bells were a tool of the devil, plus the cacophony added to the distress of the defending troops.

The conquest for Granada had taken 10 years, from 1482 through 1492, and Prof Rodriguez wants to determine what impact the change in soundscape had on the inhabitants of the city, going from muezzin’s call for the Muslim faithful to bells and chants.

The aural landscape acts as a marker (like DNA) of a group, you can ID a group by sound. For the Granadan conquest, the queen and her daughter helped create the sonic spectacle with bugles, hornpipes, sackbuts (medieval trombone), timbals, and drums. In response was the silence of the Moors. However, they encoded the right to have their call to prayer in the actual surrender treaty, so those sounds continued.

Instead of a unified acoustic community, there were 2 overlapping communities trying to drown each other out. Bells gave shape to the day: calling people to wake up, have lunch, dinner, go to evening service, then go to sleep.

Christian know-how around bell-making actually gave them a leg up on being able to produce cannons, the same type of heavy thick metal required.

Prof Rodriguez was trying out some “experimental” thoughts on how this change in soundscape caused the Moors to lose their memories; more to come on this.

References: The Soundscape by Schafer, Rosenfeld’s On Being Heard, The soundscape of modernity : architectural acoustics and the culture of listening in America, 1900-1933 by Emily Thompson (which I’ve tried reading but abandoned), Garrioch’s Sounds of the city: the soundscape of early modern European towns; The Extended Mind by Clark & Chalmers

An audience member mentioned Peter Cole’s translations of poetry of that era as something else in the soundscape: The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492

Rat Bohemia

I much prefer Sarah Schulman’s nonfiction work, like Gentrification of the Mind, but this was mentioned in a recent Jeremiah Moss article so I acquired a copy. I think the main problem is in switching up the narrator—each section whiplashes you into a different person’s viewpoint, which was jarring. It’s based in NYC in the 80s and 90s, and the characters watch each other die off from AIDS, helpless, while watching rats swarm.

Still, there were good bits worth quoting: “In the fifties, the Beats, those guys were so all-American. They could sit around and ponder aesthetic questions but a cup of coffee cost a nickel. Nowadays, with the economy the way it is, you can’t drop out or you’ll be homeless. You gotta function to be a boho. You have to meet the system head-on at least once in a while and that meeting is very brutal. Nowadays you have to pay a very high price to become a bohemian.”

And this is a hilarious description of San Francisco (from the David character—seemingly based on Wojnarowicz? He’s a writer who dies of AIDS and is in ACT UP):

“San Francisco… It’s so different. You walk out the door and there are three different kinds of trees, each with flowers of a different color. Yellow, red, white. Then there’s another tree with little hanging plants that look like a string of bells. But, actually, they’re petals. No rats, drug dealers or urine-soaked sidewalks in every neighborhood. It’s all confined to a few, so just by walking you can actually get away from it and have time to have feelings and other emotions. You know, Rita, living daily in very hostile circumstances isn’t good for us.”

Further Extracts from the Note-Books of Samuel Butler

When Butler died, he left his precious notebooks to be ravaged by his literary executors. This edition came out in 1934 and is still quite sanitized. I hope to get more of the real Butler from another source winging its way toward me.

Still, there are some worthwhile or funny bits.

Canadian Jokes: “When I was there I found their jokes like their roads—very long and not very good, leading to a little tin point of a spire which has been remorselessly obvious for miles without seeming to get any nearer.”

Pure snark: “I don’t like Plato, but I suppose I prefer him to Carlyle.”

On tourists: “On one of our Sunday walks Jones and my Cousin and I were at Gad’s Hill. An American tourist came up and asked if that was Charles Dickens’s house, pointing to it. I looked grave and said, ‘Yes, I am afraid it was,’ and left him.”

The miracles of Jesus Christ: “He should have gone about killing the rich old people who would not die.” (This from a man who almost became a priest, at a point where he’s waiting for his dad to kick the bucket so he can inherit).

Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress

Fanny Burney’s second novel was published in 1782 in five volumes, coming to a whopping 919 pages. It’s evident that Burney has writing talent but, my god! oh for an editor to show her a trick or two about pacing!

Cecilia has just lost her beloved uncle and is now in the hands of her three London guardians which are very reminiscent of Goldilocks and the Three Bears— one spends way too much money, one is parsimonious beyond belief, and the last is a perfect blend of gentility and tact and manners. She has a large fortune but one of the stipulations in her uncle’s will is that whoever she marries keep her name, which turns away her beloved, Mortimer Delvile, until he suggests that they privately elope. It’s a massive whirlwind, and I refer you to the Wikipedia page if you need all the particulars of the story. My biggest takeaway is that all the chaos was caused by a lack of frank discussion. People would insinuate and demur to say things due to propriety, and that caused endless series of plot lines to pour forth.

I enjoyed early in the story where she’s settling into a horrid living situation with her first guardian, so she goes on a book buying spree: “Her next solicitude was to furnish herself with a well-chosen collection of books; and this employment, which to a lover of literature, young and ardent in its pursuit, is perhaps the mind’s first luxury, proved a source of entertainment so fertile and delightful that it left her nothing to wish. “