Archive for September, 2013

Two Rough Poems

The Eumenides’ Revolt

© 2011 by Bob Litton

 After being pursued for years by the Erinyes
 and suffering pangs of guilt for having killed
 his mother, Clytemnestra, Orestes sought
 forgiveness from Athena. The goddess
 forgave him and persuaded the Erinyes
 to do the same. Their act of mercy changed
 the frightful aspect of the haunters so that
 they became the Eumenides, protectors of
 suppliants.

               — adapted from Edith Hamilton’s
                    Mythology: Timeless Tales of
                    Gods and Heroes

            

We, the Eumenides, have grown weary
of coddling this massy slew of men —
and women, too — who blame Heaven
and Earth for follies they should own.
Now help change us back, wise Athena,
to the Erinyes we used to be,
all snaky hair and bloody eyes,
with a stinging shrill in our voices.

There, there, O Poseidon, keep still in your deep!
You have wreaked well with hurricanes.
Let the people now feel the pain of their lack*;
let your seas stink with islands of human offal;
let the fishes disappear and boats dry rot;
let sailor girls gurgle beneath their yachts.

You also, Demeter and Bacchus, forget
your healthy scales; just lure blind fools
to your cornucopia of sweets and booze.
Let their bellies bulge over their belts,
and then their brains will shrink to microns.
Perhaps they’ll adapt and learn to roll
to shady spots under leaves left brown,
which the seasons have forgot.

O Plutus!  How could we neglect you?
Dress the naked bankers anew in pinstripes;
reshoe their feet in tasseled innocence
(or what seems it).  Let the minor clerks
thirty floors below recharge their bosses’ wealth
with bundlings of mortgages, thinly writ
by lawyers bandying lies well-told.

Ah!  Dear Aphrodite!  Welcome to the caucus!
You’ve proven, in troth, how untrue
is the politician’s troth in zippable pants.
You’ve covered the comic books with porn
and sent little boys as presents to priests.
The magazines are filled with your recipes
for delight and lessons easy to learn…
and easy to forget.  Keep the good work up!

Alas, Athena!  Where is your polar today?
She whose services we wish to applaud,
for the Spirit of Stupidity is rolling
like a tsunami across the land.
Ah, such a lovely sight! If only the surge
can last till every citizen avoids his vote;
and long division overwhelms
each child enduring the umpteenth test;
and shoppers are hooked by nineteen ninety-nine.

Thank you all, you gods and goddesses,
for now we’re back on track to see
with what dismal days and sleepless nights
we can burden those who run away
from the sense and courage to do what’s right.  

*While tropical storms and  hurricanes can cause horrific damage to coastal communities, they also bring much needed rain to inland areas.

OF POEMS ABOUT DEATH

© 1995 By Bob Litton

            We’ve written enough of dying and grief,
            Of what’s in store the other side of pain;
            Once our teary dirges had dried, we were bound
            To find compiled redundancy setting in.
            A kind of shame,—we feel this blush at words
            As when we heard our maiden aunts retell
            Their easy, prideful spurns of lovesick men.

            Yet, every generation demands its lines
            Inimitable, its fresher look at Life,
            In terms of its own device and rhythms of the day.
            So much do old words die as the views they paint,
            And a new mystique of Death will cling like Hope,
            Essential, to the umbilicus of Birth.

Finis

Seeking the Beginning

By Bob Litton

Too often I have been tempted to try the impossible, always chiding myself for the bother as I did try.

One of my failed attempts was to describe a baby’s sensations as it exited the womb. The perspectives I thought available were, one, that of the omniscient narrator describing the babe’s perceptions in a concrete but imagistic language; and, two, that of the child expressing itself in the most abstract terms verbally about what are actually only visual and physical sensations. I ended up combining the two modes in a not very successful poem, as follows:

Of Poems About Birth

©1995 by Bob Litton

How intimidating is beginning!
The painter’s empty canvas!  The poet’s blank page!
The babbling babe’s unschematized tomorrow!
Only the infant artist cannot correct
or even say for certain he’ll recognize
what’s awry, so glib is his unknowing
poem, the itch to mark his tabula rasa.

It really is conceit then, to attempt
to see, much less describe, that primordial void
whereat the babe’s most simple yet most abstract.
But we’ll go one step further and liken him
to Tao: Primal, exempt from needing notions
what It is, Tao pulsates—and things come to be.

As the educated reader can see, the poem is one line shy of being a “sonnet”, loosely defined. There is some abstract terminology, but the poet is way too far removed from the new-born to evoke any sense of the child’s feelings. He is speaking about poems, not the babe’s sensations. Perhaps Wallace Stevens could have pulled it off, as he seems to me to have done with “The Snowman”, an excellent poem. But my temperament is too hampered by concretist perception to achieve that end with birth.

Still, in my sunset years, I have these frequent brief flashbacks to what I felt when I was a toddler…or even younger. The flashbacks are much too brief for me to grasp any communicable memory from them; they are like a cross between a déjà vu and an esophageal reflux episode. They are usually not recurrences of happy moments, but rather of fearful moments. And when I try to imagine what specifically makes them fearful, I fail.

But that is understandable, isn’t it? I mean, as I perceive it, our subconscious life is dedicated to repressing unpleasant moments from the past. We would go mad without such repression; and yet an intolerable level of repressed memories demands some evacuating. That, I believe, is the ordinary task of counselors.

I don’t think these first impressions are readily discovered by counseling, though, because they are too ephemeral and lacking in the articulate definition that comes with language development. We are left, basically, with inchoate memories and guesswork about them. Observation of infants of the present time can help some. Never having been a parent myself, I’m lacking the advantage of the constant flow of parental attention. However, I do look at infants closely when they are in my presence. In their more endearing moments, they look calm, curious and maybe even indifferent — like cats. Are they trying to figure out not just who but what I am?  Are they wondering if they will ever be brought to a static situation, one where they will not have to be constantly gauging the dimensions and contents of their environment? Are they wondering what they must do, besides the strenuous exertion of an indecipherable scream, to get what they want?

In my own case, the brief memories often seem to be about the threatening heights of everything; even now I have a phobia about heights, which precludes my ever working as a roofer, a lumberjack or even a house painter. Then there were the nauseating smells, such as of some plants that were gathered in too great a quantity in the summer; or the clinics where, during that era, a particular chemical was used to sanitize everything. But there were very pleasing smells, too, such as the inside of my father’s black 1941 Ford sedan. That has to be one of the most pleasant memories of my lifetime: It was due, I have recently concluded, to the cotton seat covering and the vanilla-colored, plastic dashboard containing a soft yellow glow where the radio gleamed, the total effect of which is impossible for me to describe: It was just olfactorily and visually delicious!

But look! I’ve done it again; I’m talking not about birthing but about toddlers and even slightly older children. Ah, how frustrating it is not to have that imaginative writing ability superior enough to intrude into the still emerging body, mind and soul of a new-born!

Finis

Pocahontas’ Legacy: A Serendipitous Anecdote

By Bob Litton

File:Sedgeford portrait.jpg

Painting believed to show Pocahontas and her son Thomas Rolfe
Date: 1600s
Artist: Unknown
Source: http://www.williamsburgprivatetours.com

Recently, having become weary of the poorly written and depressing books I had been reading and of all the exploding cars and automatic weapon fights that redundantly fill our modern TV shows, I decided to try a little excursion back to my childhood’s TV fare: The Lone Ranger. There, on Hulu.com, I was able to catch the very first episodes of the adventures of the masked man and his faithful Indian companion Tonto. I had missed those first episodes as a child and, as an adult, had never watched the reruns. Do not worry, dear reader, I’m not going to besiege you with a lot of Lone Ranger lore. It’s a secondary character that attracted my attention: the outlaw Butch Cavendish, or rather the actor who portrayed him, Glenn Strange.

I recognized Strange as a character actor I had seen numerous times in B Western films. My slim recollection told me that he usually played one of the heavies. And I have always been interested in the guys in the black hats. Strange did occasionally portray more virtuous types, particularly the popular bartender Sam Noonan on CBS’s Gunsmoke.

Another frequent villain in B Westerns I am curious about was a short, stocky fellow with a bushy mustache whom I had nicknamed, in my childhood, “Walrus Face”. I haven’t identified him yet, but with the resources available through the Internet there is still the possibility of doing so.*

But, I’m straying. Back to Glenn Strange. I looked him up on Wikipedia and discovered some interesting facts: He not only played Western bad guys, he also played Frankenstein’s monster in three movies, including Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein; and, through his mother, Sarah Eliza Byrd, he was an eighth generation great-grandson of Pocahontas! That last fact really intrigued me, so I looked up Pocahontas (ca. 1595 – March 1617).

In Wikipedia again, I discovered that “Pocahontas” was really one of several names the Algonquin maiden had been given; it was, reportedly, just a nickname translatable as “little wanton” and indicated her frolicsome nature. Her more formal names were “Matoaka” and “Amonute”, the meanings of which are indeterminable. (The Virginia tribes had a custom of bestowing several, separate names on individuals, some of them secret, according to the Wikipedia article.) After Pocahontas converted to Christianity, she was baptized with the name “Rebecca” — a symbolic allusion to the biblical “mother of two nations”. How prophetic!

There are several curious and even mysterious aspects to the Pocahontas legend and legacy. And her story, even discarding the supposedly mythical elements, attains major legendary status. The familiar tale of her saving Captain John Smith’s life I will not delve into, except to point out that its probability is still a matter of debate among historians. But, forgoing that colorful incident, a strange atmosphere still surrounds her acknowledged closeness to Captain Smith, especially when one reads Smith’s intriguing account of his conversation with her at a social gathering in London. Pocahontas, after first avoiding Smith for a couple of hours because he had disappeared and the other English settlers had told her he was dead, confronted him ‘with a well set countenance’, embarrassed him by calling him ‘father’, and said:

Were you not afraid to come into my father’s country and caused fear in him and all his people (but me) and here you fear I should call you ‘father’? I tell you then I will, and you shall call me ‘child’, and so I will be for ever and ever your countryman. (I transposed Smith’s antique construction “fear you here” to “here you fear” for clarity’s sake. – BL)

So, it appears to me that Pocahontas held a paternal affection for Smith rather than a romantic one. Smith had returned to England for medical treatment after being injured in a gunpowder accident. Why the English had lied to the Algonquins is not explained. Pocahontas concluded her chastisement of Smith by informing him that her father had told a tribal holy man, who accompanied Pocahontas on her voyage, to seek Smith “because your countrymen (i.e., the English) will lie much.”

After Smith had disappeared, Pocahontas married another Jamestown settler, John Rolfe. They had a son, Thomas, before sailing for England at the behest of the Virginia Company. The company saw the voyage as a diplomatic mission to show the British that Native Americans were quite capable of being assimilated into Anglo culture. Although Pocahontas was not considered a princess among her own people, she was viewed as one by the English settlers. And the English court did in fact treat Pocahontas as royalty and her entourage of about a dozen Algonquins, especially the holy man, as dignitaries. She met King James I at an entertainment at Whitehall Palace and was feted at several other social events in London during her ten-months’ stay.

When Pocahontas — or Rebecca — and John Rolfe embarked for their return to America in 1617, however, she became fatally ill. The cause was not determined, although there have been several suppositions. She was buried at St. George’s Church in Gravesend on the Thames River, which was as far as the ship had reached when she died. Her age at death, assuming she was born in 1595, was twenty-two. I think that is very, very young for a woman who during her lifetime and through her bloodline has had such a distinguished impact on American history.

Her descendants include Woodrow Wilson’s wife, Edith Bolling Galt; Ronald Reagan’s wife Nancy Davis, nee Anne Francis Robbins; Confederate General George Wythe Randolph; Admiral Richard Byrd; Virginia Governor Harry F. Byrd; fashion-designer and socialite Pauline de Rothschild; astronomer and mathematician Percival Lowell; and actor George Glenn Strange. According to Robert S. Tilton, author of Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative, Pocahontas’ “blood” was introduced into the Randolph family of Virginia via the marriage of her great-great-granddaughter, Jane Bolling, to Richard Randolph.

Nearly all of the above is but a paraphrasing of the Wikipedia articles on Pocahontas and Glenn Strange. From here on I will try to stick to my own observations.

Firstly, I marveled at the courage of this young Native American girl. Even discounting the saving of John Smith story, she performed heroically on at least two other occasions. I left out mention of her abduction by the English, who held her captive to be exchanged for some Englishmen and some stolen weapons and tools held by her chieftain father Powhatan. When Powhatan’s emissaries presented only some of the weapons and tools, Pocahontas reportedly rebuked her absent father for valuing her “less than old swords, pieces, or axes” and said she preferred to live with the English. Then there is that incident in London related above where she shamed John Smith for his ingratitude toward her and her people after all they had done for him.

Secondly, she was one of the most adaptable persons I have ever read about. She visited the Jamestown settlement frequently while still in her early teens. She adopted Christianity as her religion. She reportedly behaved regally in London society. Hers was the first interracial marriage in America. Her last words were an acceptance of death, recognizing that her posterity resided in her son.

Concerning the painting at the top of this essay, I love it. Pocahontas’ eyes are looking upward as though she is both attentive to her son and watchful of the painter. She looks very human — in every sense of the term. However, her dress looks more like that usually worn by Native Americans of the Southwest, not Virginia. Also, her son Thomas appears to be at least three years old, yet historical accounts indicate he had just passed his second birthday when his mother died. Nonetheless, I still like the painting.

What is pleasingly remarkable to me is that two of the most outstanding, brave and colorful figures in early American history are Native American women: Pocahontas and Sacagawea, the Lemhi-Shoshone woman who led Lewis and Clark’s expedition over the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Pocahontas’ marriage to John Rolfe insured several years of peace between the Algonquins and the English settlers; and the very presence of a woman, Sacagawea, in the expeditionary company insured peaceful encounters with various tribes along the explorers’ trail.

As for Glenn “Sam Noonan” Strange, I envy him his ancestry. I wish his eighth great-grandmother could have watched him on Gunsmoke.

Finis

* Soon after publishing this post I did look up actors from B-Western movies in a search engine and came upon the site “oldcorral@comcast.net” where all the old time baddies are written about.  There I located “Walrus Face”, whose actual name was Charlie King.  I recommend Old Corral to anyone interested in the history of those early oaters.

Two Meditative Poems

©1995 By Bob Litton

THE COST OF LIVING

Beware the dog!  Fierce white beast with golden collar!
Each evening it roams from one tree-crowned corner
To a yellow hydrant on another.

Convince yourself: This is really a shortcut,
To follow a road you had never seen,
One that winds with no true compass, northerly
Among high, leaf-haunched mansions
Where you must knock at the back door.
Gaze at a stack of firewood–absurd yet neat–
At the garage with one car missing.

Or turn from the sight, self-righteous revolutionary!
Look at the sky, whose economy you reckoned socialist,
With an equal distribution of colors among the clouds–
But near the western horizon
A bastard-blue outflanks the red.

Stand for a while and mumble modern incantations
As you ponder a little girl’s chalk marks on the warm walk.
Consider the curious treachery done to someone’s self-image,
Which surely was not so primitive, so grotesque.
But your romantic heart falters this evening:
You can’t conjure or decipher
The illegible syllables below.
Step over the artist’s work that taunts your analysis.
Convince yourself: There was nothing
real there.

You may find a little park if you have good eyes
And a red-stone bridge
From whence you can watch the creek blacken.
You can smell flirtatious flowers in heavy gardens;
Laugh at the proud grasses with their purest greens;
Sigh when you glimpse the love-making of a pair of   trees,
Tall, with feathery arms;
Make sweet compositions with the limes and lemons
That softly support the sky.
You can philosophize about spiraling branches…
Or you can watch out for dogs.

 

BLUE PHOENIX

“Doleful the cries of a dying bird;
Good the last words of a dying man.”
—Philosopher Shang,
Confucian Analects, II:8

                        * * * * * *

 I was a stranger to beaches then.
That was the first wet sand between my toes.
It was cool. And nearby was the din
of rollers burying reluctant shadows.

I was too eager for evening’s drape,
too young to know, one dream is eternal;
resting on a driftwood’s swollen shape,
I watched the sun die till my eyes grew dull.

It might have been a dream then, or fancy,
that blue speck, like a moth about a light,
seeking refuge from the virescent sea,
circling in great, uneven arcs of fright.

The speck dropped now with the rising tide,
and diminished height revealed a greater size
a huge bird with wings an arm-span wide,
turquoise, stately, ancient but still not wise.

His golden beak was silent and tight,
his talons locked in despairing frenzy

for the globe of fire was out of sight
and the bird flew over a dead-blood sea.

And like the sun the fowl was forced down
to just above the ocean’s bursting spray.
He struggled mightily round by round
to avoid the ague of this judgment day.

Long hours he fought, till the dew glistened
on the blades of beach grass. The moon beguiled
him into synthetic life and christened
with cosmic mystery a wondering child.

Never had I seen more painful life,
so that I asked, “Is it fear of Dying or of Death
makes you continue this fruitless strife?”
No answer came from him nor any breath.

He plummeted into the round waves,
and with the vertigo was gone the bird,
to rest this first time away from naves
in the clouds and ethereal sounds unheard.

I had forgotten that bird till now,
when dim memories flood a fevered eye,
not as a being who had learned how
to live, but as someone afraid to die.

Finis

 

%d bloggers like this: