Saturday, July 22, 2017

Poems in their kind

Oct. 10, 1858. The simplest and most lumpish fungus has a peculiar interest for us, compared with a mere mass of earth, because it is so obviously organic and related to ourselves, however remote. It is the expression of an idea, growth according to a law, matter not dormant, not raw, but inspired, appropriated by spirit. If I take up a handful of earth, however separately interesting the particles may be, their relation to one another appears to be that of mere juxtaposition generally. I might have thrown them together thus. But the humblest fungus betrays a life akin to my own. It is a successful poem in its kind. There is suggested something superior to any particle of matter in the idea or mind which uses and arranges the particles.

— Henry David Thoreau, Journal

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Sibyl's Testament

Pausanias (Book X in Peter Levi's edition) mentions a sibyl named Herophile who prophesied at various sanctuaries, including those at Samos, Delphi, and the Alexandria near Troy (not to be confused with the more famous Egyptian one). In the last she was temple-keeper to Apollo Smintheus — the name means, or was interpreted to mean, Apollo of the Mice — and after her death the following epitaph was inscribed in stone above her remains. (Phoibos — Φοῖβος — is Apollo.)
I Sibylla, Phoibos's wise woman,
am hidden under a stone monument:
I was a speaking virgin but voiceless
in this manacle by the strength of fate.
I lie close to the Nymphs and to Hermes:
I have not lost my sovereignty.
An earlier and more pedestrian translation of the epitaph reads: "Here hidden by stone sepulchre I lie, Apollo's fate-pronouncing Sibyl I, a vocal maiden once but now for ever dumb, here placed by all-powerful fate, and I lie near the Nymphs and Hermes, in this part of Apollo's realm."

In one of his copious footnotes Peter Levi tells us that the Sanctuary of Apollo Smintheus was identified in 1853 and excavated in 1866. "The bronze votive mice associated with this sanctuary turn up from time to time."

Monday, July 17, 2017


Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of John Coltrane. Richard Williams has a brief appreciation at The Blue Moment. Below is a track from Giant Steps (1959).

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Liu Xiaobo

The Chinese critic and activist Liu Xiaobo has died. A related New York Times article by Chris Buckley reflects on the bleak prospects for democracy and free expression in China. With authoritarianism of various stripes firmly entrenched in Russia, Turkey, Hungary, the Philippines, and elsewhere, and the lack of interest in human rights issues shown by our own current administration, the optimistic days of 1989 now seem very distant. Never forget.

Here is the full text of Charter 08.

Also in today's obituaries is one for Irina Ratushinskaya, former Soviet-era political prisoner and author of a fine memoir, Grey Is the Color of Hope.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Pale arrivals

One of my favorite moments of the year — the emergence of Monotropa uniflora, familiarly known as Indian pipes. They've waited out the spring, and with the first days of summer they pop up in little clusters here and there among last year's fallen leaves, in decent abundance if it's a good year and you know where to look. True flowering plants, they don't photosynthesize but take their energy from an association with fungi concealed in the ground, often in the vicinity of beech trees. They rise and unfurl, and as summer wears on fade into inconspicuous brown stalks. But for now, standing there ghostly white or faintly pink, silent, inoffensive, they seem welcome and restorative.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Tracts (2): Jerry McAuley's Story

Me father was a counterfeiter, and ran away from justice before I can remember him. There was a lot of us, and they put me with me grandmother. She was old an' a devout Romanist, an' many's the time when she was tellin' her beads an' kissing the floor for penance I'd shy things at her just to hear her curse an' swear, an' then she'd back to her knees. I'd got well beyond her or anybody by the time I was thirteen. They let me run loose.
I've posted a bit at various times about New York City's Water Street Mission, founded by ex-convict Jerry McAuley. This little leaflet was published some years after his death in 1884 by the Free Tract Society of Los Angeles, which, like the Water Street Mission, apparently still exists. The Free Tract Society was founded in 1897, and this copy bears a handwritten date of 7-11-45.

The text of the tract loosely follows the narrative of McAuley's colorful story that was published in versions issued while he was still alive, but the wording and punctuation seem closer to the text published by Helen Campbell as "Light in Dark Places: Jerry McAuley's Water Street Mission" (Methodist Magazine 1893) and in a book entitled Darkness and Daylight. Campbell claimed to have received the narrative verbatim from McAuley, and it's quite possible that he could recite it from memory. Below, for comparison, is the corresponding passage from McAuley's own Transformed, Or, the History of a River Thief: Briefly Told, "published by himself" in 1876. This "original" version (below) doesn't play up McAuley's dialect, although it preserves the convert's anti-Catholicism.
I was born in Ireland. Our family was broken up by sin, for my father was a counterfeiter, and left home to escape the law, before I knew him. I was placed at a very early age in the family of my grandmother, who was a devout Romanist. My first recollections of her are of her counting her beads, and kissing the floor for penance. I would take the opportunity while she was prostrated upon her face, to throw things at her head, in my mischievous play, and when she rose from her knees, it was to curse and swear at me. At such times I can distinctly remember thinking, though I could not have formed the thought into words, "What sort of religion is this that requires such foolish worship, and allows such sinful ways?" I can trace my infidelity to Rome to just these incidents.

In the margins of the page above are a few printed lines of unattributed verse, noteworthy for a pungent rhyme of "illy clad" and "will he had." (From other sources I gather that the versifier responsible was one Francis S. Smith.)
Poisoned by alcohol, blear eyed and illy clad,
Cursing his fate as he shuffles along;
Crushed and bereft of the once earnest will he had,
Penniless, homeless, jeered by the throng.
Friends have assisted him, pastors have prayed o'er him,
He has been rescued and lost o'er and o'er;
Oh, do not give him up,
Pull from his lips the cup,
Tell him of Jesus and try him once more!

The margins between the last two pages bear this plea:
Don't let this tract die, pass it on.
All Tracts Free, as the Lord permits, as this work is
Conducted on the Free-Will Offering Plan
Free Tract Society (Inc.)
746 Crocker St., Los Angeles, Cal., U. S. A.

Previous Water Street Mission posts:

The Madonna of Cherry Hill
Death of a Salesman
A Manhattan Mission
Cassie Burns
The Water Street Mission, Revisited

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Poison of the Age

"Novel reading has been fearfully on the increase during the last fifteen or twenty years, and especially in the last ten years; and may we not say that the increase of suicides is due, in a considerable measure, to such reading? May we not also say that it has had a baneful effect, also, on the spirituality of many professing Christians? Will anyone deny that the practice of reading the cheap, sensational novels of the day does not naturally lessen one's taste and desire for frequent and devout reading of the Bible? — No. The truth is, no one can pursue the habit of reading the trashy novels of the day without having his moral taste and tone ruinously debilitated and damaged.

"Read what a discerning and judicious writer says on the subject: 'Novels are the poison of the age. The best of them tend to produce a baneful effeminacy of mind, and many of them are calculated to advance the base designs of the licentious and abandoned on the young and unsuspecting. But were they free from every other charge of evil, it is a most heavy one that they occasion a dreadful waste of that time which must be accounted for before the God of heaven. Let their deluded admirers plead the advantages of novel reading, if they will venture to plead the same, before the great Judge eternal. If you are a novel reader, think, the next time you take a novel into your hands, How shall I answer to my tremendous Judge for the time occupied by this? When he shall say to me: "I gave you so many years in yonder world to fit you for eternity; did you converse with your God in devotion? Did you study his word? Did you attend to the duties of life, and strive to improve, to some good end, even your leisure hours?" then shall I be willing to reply, "Lord, my time was otherwise employed! Novels and romances occupied the leisure of my days, when, alas! my Bible, my God, and my soul were neglected"?' O novel reader, think on these things!" — C. H. Wetherbee

(From Pacific Health Journal and Temperance Advocate, 1891.)

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Tracts (1): Satan's Propaganda Agency

This little leaflet is just one example of the countless inexpensive evangelical tracts that have been printed and distributed over the years by various churches and other religious organizations. This one was the work of one Rev. Harold Mongerson (1910-1988), who was associated with the Community Church of the Nazarene in Moline, Illinois, and includes testimony from several of the faithful, one of whom declares sagely that "It's true, there are some good programs, but as my husband says, 'There are just enough good things on T-V to send you to hell.'" The tract must date from no earlier than 1958 (and I suspect from not much later than that either), as it refers to a Saturday Evening Post article from that year. Below are scans of the first interior spread and the last page.

Sixty years on, it's easy to chuckle at the Rev. Mongerson's moral panic in the face of a new medium, but if one leaves Satan out of it (and ignore the conflation of film with video) the message on the cover isn't, arguably, entirely wrong:
The film is an extremely subtle instrument of propaganda. Read a book and you are likely to read it critically and carefully. Not so with a skillfully prepared audio-visual presentation. The careful marshalling of scenes, fortified by well-chosen background music, opens the mind unwittingly to seduction. When the presentation is finished, you are often quite unaware of the ideas which have slipped into your thinking.

The first requirement of good propaganda is that it be not easily recognized.

Saturday, June 17, 2017


During a recent morning jaunt around a lake in Acadia National Park we came across this snapping turtle hollowing out a nest on the edge of the trail. Staring straight ahead while using its back legs to excavate an impressively deep pit, it seemed little concerned by our presence — what, after all, does an adult snapper in a national park have to fear, except car tires? — nor by the gravel and maple seeds on its back, and went about its business with proverbial Chelonian slowness and sang-froid (they are cold-blooded, after all).

We watched the spectacle for fifteen minutes or so, then moved on. When we returned to the same spot a few hours later there was no sign of the turtle but the hole had been carefully covered over. Once we knew what to look for we found a number of other nests in the vicinity, some of which had been broken into by predators, leaving exposed scraps of eggshell and one more or less intact egg.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The start

Seaside stencil, June 2017. (I gather there's a Hunger Games reference involved, via Lorde.)

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Charles Simmons (1924-2017)

The novelist Charles Simmons has died. I have fond memories of two of his books (there were several others I never got around to): the fairly conventional coming-of-age novel Salt Water and a brilliant little tour-de-force entitled Wrinkles, which narrated the outlines of a man's life (someone presumably much like Simmons himself) through a series of brief thematic chapters, each of which began in the present tense with the man's childhood and gradually shifted to the present and finally the future tense with the man's final years. A few of its concerns now seem dated, but the book's approach and Simmons's assured prose have stuck with me. I'll read it again one of these days. The Neglected Books Page has an excerpt and an appreciation.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Open the Door, Homer

(I'm dusting off this old post in honor of Bob Dylan's just-released Nobel Lecture, which, among other things, cites the Odyssey. Michael Leddy has a related post.)

Until about a week ago [in 2007], the last time I read the Odyssey was, as far as I remember, more than thirty years ago, during my freshman year in college, when I devoured the whole thing in two marathon sessions over a weekend. (My classmates were presumably off doing other things that were perhaps, in their way, equally memorable.) It wasn't assigned reading; then as now I read it for the pure pleasure of the thing, in Robert Fitzgerald's translation which still strikes me as a miracle of naturalness and narrative ease.

More often than not, when I revisit the reading enthusiasms of my youth after a span of time has passed I find it a little hard to understand what I ever saw in them. Either my standards have been raised over the years or I've become jaded, I couldn't say which. But nothing like that happened when I picked up the Odyssey again. If anything I got more out of it this time, picking up on things that wouldn't have registered back then.

The curious episode of the Ancient of the Sea, for instance. To bring this worthy under their power, Meneláos and his companions must seize hold of him while he sleeps, then hold on tight as he passes through a rapid series of transformations, from lion to serpent to boar and so on. Thirty years ago I wouldn't have known that the capture of the Ancient is strikingly echoed in the British fairy ballad of “Tam Lin,” the earliest known version of which postdates the Odyssey by roughly two thousand years. While it's possible that the incident in the ballad is an independent invention, it seems more likely that the motif had been floating around in the European folk memory for all that time, waiting for an opportunity to emerge, along with much else that didn't find the surface and has been lost forever.

Nor had I really ever thought about how much the meeting with the assembled shades of the dead, a scene in which the poet pulls out all the stops, prefigures both the Inferno and Hamlet. And though I remembered the set piece of carnage in which Odysseus and and his son dispatch the suitors who had besieged Penélopê in his palace, I don't think I ever felt the full horror of the chilling sequel, in which the Telémakhos deals out summary justice to the twelve maids who had been sleeping with the enemy. The atrocities of our own time have a long pedigree:
He tied one end of a hawser to a pillar
and passed the other around the roundhouse top,
taking the slack up, so that no one's toes
could touch the ground. They would be hung like doves
or larks in springès triggered in a thicket,
where the birds think to rest — a cruel nesting.
So now in turn each woman thrust her head
Into a noose and swung, yanked high in air,
to perish there most piteously.
Their feet danced a little, but not long.
The creator of the Odyssey has been variously held to be, among other things, a blind man, a woman, and a committee. Since we have no reliable biographical information about him — or her — we are left to rely on internal evidence, which is beyond my ability to weigh and which is, in any case, apparently not sufficiently conclusive to tell us much that would make a difference. At least for the sake of convenience, then, it seems harmless to suppose that the poem was composed from start to finish by a single Homer, who may well not have been called Homer but who may as well be thought of as Homer as by any other name.

The epic that Homer concocted is a corker of an adventure, a book of marvels as inventive as anything that has been written since, but it's something else as well. Along with the Iliad, which may or may not be by the same hand and which I confess I have no immediate urge to reread [but did], it's the first real window into an interior life of a kind that is recognizable to us today, the oldest surviving record of people thinking, scheming, doubting, worrying, wondering, longing for home, in ways that we immediately and viscerally relate to. Before that there are outlines, flickers, fading traces of a consciousness we know must have been there if only anyone had possessed the language in which to record it, the language that Homer could perhaps be said to have invented, though he must of course have drawn from traditions now long lost.

That's one excuse for the title of this piece, which was lifted from a song that can be found on The Basement Tapes. Another is the following passage, in which Penélope, addressing a man whom she takes for a stranger though he is in fact her long-absent husband, speaks to him of the nature of dreams:
many and many a dream is mere confusion,
a cobweb of no consequence at all.
Two gates for ghostly dreams there are: one gateway
of honest horn, and one of ivory.
Issuing by the ivory gate are dreams
of glimmering illusion, fantasies,
but those that come through solid polished horn
may be borne out, if mortals only know them.
But we don't ever know them, do we? What's behind the door, the lady or the tiger? We're all addicts of illusion, of hopes and dreams that will never be borne out. The truth slips by, undetected. But that's part of what being conscious entails; the ability to see things as they are supposes a like ability to imagine things as they are not. We inhabit a fixed world of chemical bonds and gravitational forces, but we also live in the unsteady, ever changing country of the mind. Shut the door to illusion and the world goes dark.

Go on, Homer, open the door.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Other prisoners

Miscellaneous photos, all taken this spring within a mile of downtown, of some of our distant cousins in the Being business.

From top: unidentified snake, green frog, box turtle, melanistic gray squirrel, rose-breasted grosbeak, feral cat. Below: raven, barred owl.

Update: In posting and titling the above, I had temporarily forgotten this passage from Henry Beston (even though I had used it last year):
We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Billy (Dylan, Rawlings, Welch)

Well, they say Pat Garrett has got your number
So sleep with one eye open when you slumber
'Cause every little sound might be thunder
Thunder from the barrel of his gun.
This Bob Dylan song first surfaced on the soundtrack of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, a 1973 Western I've never seen (and in which Dylan has an acting role). The song has a number of verses, but this much later live cover by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings pares it down to four, in keeping with the starkness and simplicity of the performance (and the black-and-white cinematography). Rawlings's guitar work, in fact, is anything but simple, but he plays, as always, with such unassuming, seemingly effortless command of his instrument (a vintage Epiphone archtop) that it never jars or interferes.

Four verses, four plain-spoken lines each, scraps of a tattered tale about a long-dead gunslinger, it's almost enough to reconcile one with a world that is, more evidently than ever, far too much with us. Hopefully there's a quiet corner of the future where things like this still matter.

This version of "Billy" is available on a DVD entitled The Revelator Collection, which can be purchased from Gillian Welch's webstore.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017



Though I never really gave much thought to it at the time, I grew up in a region whose contours were profoundly shaped by the requirements of New York City's water supply, and by a series of remarkable engineering projects that created a system of interlocking reservoirs in an area that had previously been criss-crossed by a network of modest streams. Vast tracts of farmland were inundated, or seized by the city in order to protect the watershed, and in a few cases whole communities were flooded (or moved). Today you can drive along certain winding roads (as I like to do) and see miles of largely unbroken woodland, almost none of which existed a century ago.

All of this was accomplished well before I was born, and large-scale modification of the landscape is, at least in the Northeast and for understandable reasons, no longer in fashion, but I can't deny that the changes have had their aesthetic, as well as utilitarian, benefits, adding an element of grandeur to an area that, whatever its virtues, might otherwise have lacked drama.

The video above shows a portion of the spillway of the New Croton Dam, inaugurated in 1906, at about 6:30 on an April afternoon.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Reykjavík Blues, revisited (again)

I've just discovered that the complete contents of several KK & Magnús albums have recently appeared as playlists on YouTube. As I write this, there are no previous views for these files. Go for it!

The three albums, originally issued between 1996 and 2000, were combined into a three-disc set called þrefaldur that was released in 2011. Of the three, Lifað og leikið is a live album and a bit more blues-oriented than the other two.

Earlier posts:
Reykjavík Blues
Reykjavík Blues, revisited

Friday, March 31, 2017

Reykjavík Blues, revisited

KK (his full name is Kristján Kristjánsson, and his initials are pronounced "cow cow") is an Icelandic singer-songwriter whose music I first encountered entirely by chance during a boat trip in Reykjavík harbor a few years ago. I picked up some CDs while I was there and managed to obtain another after I got home, but his records aren't exactly easy to obtain in the US (though as it happens, he was born in Minnesota). The three songs below are from a 2008 album called Svona eru menn. I speak no Icelandic so don't ask me what any of the lyrics mean, but I really don't care; I could listen to this music all night (and I just may). One of these years I may even get my hands on a copy.

Update: Svona eru menn can be downloaded from The CD seems to be essentially impossible to locate.

Earlier post: Reykjavík Blues

Friday, March 24, 2017

Seamus Heaney: "What will be our trace"

From "Station Island," II. The narrator converses with the shade of William Carleton:
'The angry role was never my vocation,'
I said. 'I come from County Derry,
where the last marching bands of Ribbonmen

on Patrick's Day still played their "Hymn to Mary".
Obedient strains like theirs tuned me first
and not that harp of unforgiving iron

the Fenians strung. A lot of what you wrote
I heard and did: this Lough Derg station, flax-pullings, dances, fair-days, crossroads chat

and the shaky local voice of education.
All that. And always, Orange drums.
And neighbours on the roads at night with guns.'

'I know, I know, I know, I know,' he said,
'but you have to try to make sense of what comes.
Remember everything and keep your head.'

'The alders in the hedge,' I said, 'mushrooms,
dark-clumped grass where cows or horses dunged,
the cluck when pith-lined chestnut shells split open

in your hand, the melt of shells corrupting,
old jam pots in a drain clogged up with mud—'
But now Carleton was interrupting:

'All this is like a trout kept in a spring
or maggots sown in wounds—
another life that cleans our element.

We are earthworms of the earth, and all that
has gone through us is what will be our trace.'
He turned on his heel when he was saying this

and headed up the road at the same hard pace.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017


Walking a woodland trail the other day through an area with a number of dramatic rock outcroppings, I zeroed in on this particular boulder incised with what, to my eye at least, very much resembled the profile of a crow, a raven, or perhaps a buzzard, with a second, more ambiguous profile directly behind it. The resemblance — the protruding beak, the circular eye — became more convincing the longer I looked.

It's at least dimly possible that a human hand has been at work here, perhaps in adding detail to a stone that originally looked only vaguely avian, but I suspect it's entirely the chance work of nature. With different light, from a different angle, on a different afternoon, the "profile" might not be evident at all. But our psychological impulse to find facial figures even in inert matter must be very strong, and lies, I suspect, at the origin of many things — art, language, religion. The ability to recognize a pattern, to transform that pattern into an information-bearing symbol, is surely the first step down the road to reading. And yet the ability must long predate us; animals too know instinctively what a face is, and even if differences in vision and psychology make it unlikely that they would see anything at all in this particular boulder, they are alive to all kinds of signs — visual, aural, olfactory — whose interpretation is a key part of their mental world.

Below are two more woodland presences: a stone cat (with a bit of imagination), and a howling Ovidian wood-beast.

Update: Below: the Dog.