Testy Delirium, Starring Robert Penn Warren and Great Granddaddy Moore

 

Robert Penn Warren

I’ve been trying to slow down, to be a better Buddhist, which means paying more attention, e.g., to things like the sway of sunlight and shadow on the bookcase to my right, what my friend Leopold Bloom would call “a phenomena.”

 

 

The fellow in the daguerreotype is one of my late wife Judy’s ancestors. In those days, posing for a photo was serious business. You had to be very still. Very few people sit still nowadays. I don’t know his name, but I can see a resemblance between him and Judy’s sister Becky around their eyes. Judy knew who he was, I think.

 

No one thinks about this man anymore, except for me, and now, for a second, you.

* * *

Thirty something years ago, a newlywed living in Rantowles, I ran across a poem by Robert Penn Warren, still alive at the time, a poem about old age in which he mused that when he would die so would all living memory of his grandfather.

I sat in the same room with Robert Penn Warren once in the early ‘70s when he met with about 20 or so students to answer our questions. David, the TA who taught me fiction writing, asked Mr. Warren the first question, if he thought a formal education would have “ruined”[1] Ernest Hemingway.

“How in the hell should I know,” was Warren’s rude answer, barked loudly, in a tone bordering on exasperation.

* * *

Although I was only five or so, I remember when my great grandfather Luther Moore died. There was an article about him in the paper because he had been some minor elected official and ridden a bicycle all over Bishopville in his 90s. I met him once at my other great grandfather’s house in North Charleston.

When he arrived, Grandfather Luther, shouted, “I’m blind and deaf so there’s no need for any of you to come and try to talk to me.”

After their opening salvos, I didn’t engage with either Robert Penn Warren, a fellow redhead, or Grandfather Luther, who may have had a thick head of white hair or been as bald as an emu egg – I don’t remember and there’s no one alive to ask. Both old men were scary, angry about something, maybe simply about about being old.

* * *

What shall I do with this absurdity—

O heart, O troubled heart—this caricature,

Decrepit age that has been tied to me

As to a dog’s tail?

If Yeats had been a better Buddhist, he wouldn’t have written these lines. We would be more impoverished but he more content.

Which is ultimately more important? Does it matter?

But then, here’s how the poem ends:

Now shall I make my soul,

Compelling it to study

In a learned school

Till the wreck of body,

Slow decay of blood,

Testy delirium

Or dull decrepitude,

Or what worse evil come—

The death of friends, or death

Of every brilliant eye

That made a catch in the breath—

Seem but the clouds of the sky

When the horizon fades,

Or a bird’s sleepy cry

Among the deepening shades.

Oh. Yes. Om. Amen.


[1] He pronounced it “rue-int.”

 

Lethargy

Marle, Edward; Lotus Eaters

 

Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore 

Than labour in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar; 

O, rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more. 

Tennyson “The Lotus Eaters”

 

In 1957, when I was five, I came down with rheumatic fever and was bed bound for two months or maybe even longer. (I can’t remember, and there’s no one left living to ask). I do know it was long enough for me to have forgotten how to ride a bike.

During the period of my incapacity, my mother borrowed a piece of furniture designed especially for the bedridden called a secretary. With me propped up on pillows, my legs stretched out underneath, the secretary provided a platform for coloring, putting together puzzles, and playing board games (which adults allowed me to win out-of-pity). It also provided me a stage to perform plays with my Zorro hand puppet (complete with mask and cape). I can’t remember if there was another puppet or not. It seems as if Zorro monologues delivered by a lisping five-year-old affecting a Mexican accent might get pretty boring.

On the non-Humanities side, my uncle Jerry bought me an erector set, which was about as appropriate a gift as presenting Donald Trump with a copy of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. I recall lots of screws dropped, uncomfortably discovered when I rolled over, but I don’t remember a project ever being completed, which brings to mind graduate school and that phantom thesis on Auden’s poetry in relation to painting.

no fun ahoy

 

Anyway, I wonder if spending such a long period in bed with only 60 months-of -being to my name negatively affected my personality or character, if I can point a finger at my fifth year and blame rheumatic fever for my sloth.

This Sunday, for example, I felt like not getting out of bed (as opposed to not feeling like getting out of bed), like lying there the entire day, like maybe calling Bert’s Market to deliver some camphor-soaked handkerchiefs. I had essays galore to grade, sheets to wash, groceries to buy, a garage in desperate need of sweeping . . .

Got the lotus-eater’s blues,

Too lazy to put on my shoes . . .

[Not to be continued].

le temps perdu dans le temps 1 (acrylique)
artist: Paul Vigne Pavi

 

A Paean To Ireland, Sort Of

View from A Rented Cottage in County Clare, photograph by Wesley Moore III

Although I’m certain I have a drop or two of Irish blood, I’m not of the Catholic immigrant variety with distant cousins in Kerry or Donegal. Nevertheless, ever since I saw at the age of seven Darby O’Gill and the Little People, I have loved that “little green place” and its soulful inhabitants, its poetry, music, fairies and leprechauns, its abundance of foxgloves, and those mountains in the distance so vaporous it looks as if you could puncture them with your forefinger.

And, oh my god, that rainbow I encountered in 1978 outside of Limerick!

Judy Birdsong Preparing Supper in County Cork, photograph by Wesley Moore

Ireland was the first place I went abroad at twenty-five, and I have been twice again since. In the previous century, Judy, our boys, and I rented cottages, burned peat, shopped at the butchers, drank and listened to music in the pubs, climbed Ben Bulben’s back, and crawled our way up Croagh Patrick.

Ned Moore descending Croagh Patrick, photograph by Judy Birdsong

We got to know our neighbors, so hospitable. Here below are the boys helping John Joe O’Shea shear a sheep near Bantry Bay on the Berea Peninsula in County Cork.

Ned and Harrison Moore and John Joe O’Shea shearing sheep

What truly astounds me about Ireland, though, is how an island the size of South Carolina could produce so many literary masters– Swift, Goldsmith, Yeats, Shaw, Wilde, Joyce, Beckett, and Heaney, to name the ones who come immediately to mind.

Despite his kooky mysticism and rightist politics, Yeats is my hero, and despite his arrogance and sometime meanness, Joyce is my hero.

Joyce, of course, had his issues with his native land. For example, Dubliners isn’t exactly what you would call a flattering portrait of that city. I’m currently on Disc 30 of the Donal Donnnelly/Miriam Healy-Louie recording of Ulysses, “Episode 16,” the so-called Eumaeus episode when Bloom and Stephen seek refuge in a cabman’s shelter after Stephen has been punched out by an English soldier.

An old tar, DB Murphy comes into the shelter and asks Stephen if he knows Simon Dedalus, Stephen’s father, and Stephen says, “I’ve heard of him.” The seaman answers, “He’s Irish [. . .] All Irish.” Stephen “rejoins” (to use Joyce’s dialogue prompt) “All too Irish.” As a Southerner, I can certainly identify with Stephen’s love/hate relationship with his native land.

Anyway, listening to Donnelly read Joyce’s rich broth of Anglo-Saxon and French-derived words, I have gotten the cadences stuck in my head, and to purge them, I’ve composed this negative ditty, trying to stick with only Anglo-Saxon, through which I mean not to stereotype my Irish brethren but merely to make music out of misery.

 

Manic Irish Reeling

Slop flung from a window above

Splatters on stone in globby plops.

 

Curses, fists, flung and shook,

Shuffling brogans, baleful looks.

 

“With a high ro and a randy ro and my galloping tearing tandy O!”

 

After toil a stop at the pub,

Reeking redbearded guzzling swabs

Fritter away their coppery coins

Picking scabs by swapping tales.

 

“With a high ro and a randy ro and my galloping tearing tandy O!”

 

Baggy-eyed mothers fret

Greedy sucklings at their breasts,

Keening toddlers at their feet,

Their stillborns gone, but not forgotten,

Their overripe love on the road to rotten.

 

With a high ro and a randy ro and my galloping tearing tandy O!”

 

Out in the street across the way

Waifs and strays banding about.

Rail thin curs and scrawny cats.

Yelping and mewling till the sun comes up.

 

“With a high ro and a randy ro –

 

Hit it!

 

“With a high ro and a randy ro and my galloping tearing tandy O!”

 

Poetry Versus Verse

thechangeling

Whenever I begin a unit on poetry, I remark on the virtual impossibility of defining it.  For example, compare this sentence:

Just be tender, just be true,

Just be glad the whole day through,

Just be merciful, just be mild,

Just to be trustful as a child,

Just to be gentle and kind and sweet,

Just to be helpful with willing feet,

Just to be cheery when things go wrong,

Just to drive sadness away with a song,

Whether the hour is dark or bright,

Just to be loyal to God and right,

Just to believe that God knows best,

Just in his promises ever to rest –

Just to let love be our daily key,

That is God’s will for you and me.

With this sentence:

The aged sisters draw us into life: we wail, batten, sport, clip, clasp, sunder, dwindle, die; over us dead they bend.

Even though the first sentence is written in rhymed couplets that fall into repetitive metrical patterns, it should not be mistaken for poetry.

After all,

A poem should be palpable and mute

As a globed fruit,

 

Dumb

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone

Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

 

A poem should be wordless

As the flight of birds.

In other words, a poem shouldn’t be a series of non-compressed sing-songy platitudes, nor, I would argue, can it be.  Imagine, answering that Nigerian email’s promise of riches “trustful as a child” or approaching a bereaved spouse after a funeral with the advice “just be cheery when things go wrong.”  Although jauntily rendered and upbeat in message, the first sentence is life-cheapening because it is false and hollow. What we have is verse, not poetry.

The second example is, literally speaking, prose, a sentence from Joyce’s novel Ulysses when Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom visit a maternity ward where Mina Purefoy has been in labor for three days struggling to give birth to her son. The “aged sisters” are midwives, sisters of mercy, ushering us onto the stage for our hour of joy and sorrow.

Joyce reduces Shakespeare’s “seven ages of man” to eight verbs: wail, batten, sport, clip, cleave, sunder, dwindle, die.  And there they are again, a different set of aged sisters, nurses, ushering us out.[1]

Pure poetry, truth compressed, ringing like a bell.

I quoted Joyce’s sentence to two of my colleagues sitting next to each other this morning, one who had lost her aunt last weekend and the other who is about to give birth in a month or so.

“Sorry about your loss,” I said to Megan. “Happy about your gain” I said to Jen.  Then I quoted Joyce’s sentence.  They both smiled.

I didn’t add, “Just be tender, just be true,/ Just be happy the whole day through.”


[1] In Ireland, perhaps nuns.

OxenOfTheSun

Goodbye for Good

On the train you get smaller, as you get farther away.
The roar covers everything you wanted to say.
Was that a raindrop or a tear in the corner of your eye?
Were you drying your nails or waving goodbye?

 Tom Waits, “2:19”


In “Madame George,” the second song of Side Two of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, I love it when Madame George says to the narrator, “Hey love, you forgot your gloves.”

And then the narrator, (rather than Madame George, I think) says

The gloves to love, to love the gloves

The gloves to love, to love the gloves

The gloves to love, to love the gloves

The gloves to love, to love the gloves

To say goodbye to Madame George

Dry your eye for Madame George

Wonder why for Madame George.”

 

 

Wonder why about what?

In the last stanza, it’s as if the narrator has to self-hypnotize himself leave, as if he has to verbally will his very locomotion:

Get on the train
Get on the train, the train, the train
This is the train, this is the train
Whoa, say goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye
Get on the train, get on the train.

 

Glove equals love, liltingly. Gloves sometimes wave goodbye.

Goodbye for good?

I don’t pretend to know what’s happening here, but it’s something very, very sad; we’re in a world of woe, outré, impressionistic, hypnotic.

You can feel the inarticulate hurt, and it’s bad to feel so good to know you’re not the only one hurting.

We’ve all felt this. This is the train. Get on the train. Dry your eyes. This is the bed. Get out of the bed. Put Visine in your eyes.

Your eyes, your eyes, your eyes.

Miles Davis, John Coltrane, So What?

Miles Davis at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, 1986

Miles Davis at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, 1986

If it weren’t for his furtive, occasionally darting eyes, Mile’s Davis’s 1959 performance of “So What?” (see below) might serve as an ideal video embodiment of the word nonchalance.[1]

I.e., the projecting an aura of a relaxed, confident detachment.[2]

It seems as if no one’s all that into it, maybe not all that interested.

For example, at 2:41, notice Coltrane looking impassive in the background during Miles’s solo, eventually, however, nodding his head in half-assed admiration.

When Coltrane begins his solo, Miles splits for backstage. At 4:28, check out the two white fellows behind Coltrane actually conversing, seemingly deaf to gorgeous notes streaming from the tenor saxophone five feet in front of them.

At 4:40-ish there’s Miles himself in the background smoking a cigarette, detached.

At 5:03, though still offstage, he’s back into the flow of the music, swaying.

Throughout the entire performance, you see people who should be behind the scenes casually milling around, talking.

The obliviousness to momentousness of the music reminds me of that Auden poem describing an “untidy spot” on the canvas of an Old Master’s painting depicting an unnamed martyrdom where “dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse scratches its innocent behind on a tree.”

Anyway, when the camera’s on Miles in profile, his body appropriately takes the shape of a question mark.

It’s like Miles is cool cubed, which being too too too cool, threatens to heat up into violence.

There’s tension, calculation in those eyes looking backwards into their skull. They’re not looking at what’s ever opposite of them in that studio.

But it’s the music that really matters. Check it out for yourself. The trumpet saying so what, so what, so what.

Do it, Miles.


[1] I’m imagining an on-line dictionary that provides multiple multimedia examples so that you really get a feel for the word

[2] My definition.

 

Where Have You Gone, Mary Shelly, a Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes to You?

Boris Karloff in the 1935 film The Bride of Frankenstein, directed by James Whale.

Frankenstein: Universal Studios; Trump: Matt Rourke/AP

I have divorced myself from politics, not out of despair, but with the clear-eyed recognition that the number of my days has dwindled into a quantity imminently recognizable as finite.  Of course, my days have always been numbered, but with 80% or more of those rotations having disappeared in the rearview mirror, why squander precious unlabored respiration lamenting what you can’t control when you could be watching a Marx Brothers movie or listening to Rashaan Roland Kirk or holding hands while exchanging anecdotes?

boogie

“Boogie boogie boogie!”

That said, I do glance at headlines in the Times, often proclamations from a pathologically insecure man incapable of self-deprecation, a man who extolls self-proclaimed virtues like his “genius” or “sanity.” He boasts of his “top tier education” or his takes credit for the fact that under his watch no one has died in a commercial air crash.  Recently, he has become aweary, aweary of the First Amendment of the Constitution of a republic he would rather rule than govern.  To say that he is an egregious ass is to understate his odium.

Yet a third of the country approves of him and more than that voted for him despite his garish, cartoonish appearance, despite the bankruptcies, despite his impoverished vocabulary, despite his taking pride in grabbing the genitalia of women he has just met.  Evangelical Christians are particularly devoted to him for reasons that defy rational explanation.

Of course, there is no easy explanation how a promoter of professional wrestling has come into the possession of the nuclear codes.  Pundits posit emotions like “resentment” or suggest nativist xenophobia as possible factors.  Then there’s that whipping girl Hillary Clinton whom many people simply abhor.  Recently I’ve read (in passing) that no one, including Trump, thought he could win (which, along with sloth, would explain why there was no transition plan).  So why not throw away your vote on Jill Stein or write in “Oprah Winfrey” since there is no way that Donald Trump could win?

Anyway, I’m contradicting myself by going on like this when I need to be rereading Frankenstein, which is due next Tuesday, the day after we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’ll let Mary Shelley have the last word.

 [I]f no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquility of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved, Caesar would have spared his country, America would have been discovered more gradually, and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed.

Mary Shelly, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.