Monday, December 5, 2016

The Tale of Dan De Lion - Part the Second

[This is the second part of a blog about Tom Disch's poem The Tale of Dan De Lion.]

Is this propaganda? You bet your life it is. Is it "saved" from being propaganda, framed as "innocent" clever rhymes? Not at all. 

We don't really need to be reminded that juvenile literature contains as much violence, jeopardy, sadness, hatred and remorse as grown-up literature, do we? Most juvenile literature falls flat (and there's mountains and mountains of the stuff) because it fails to engage with and confront life's fiercest challenges and difficulties and contradictions. When it becomes an escape from reality--a "magic world" into which the self retreats--instead of returning us to the truths of actual life, it becomes ultimately irrelevant. 

The personification of good and evil, expressed in horticultural terms, becomes a short-hand for a larger point about nature versus civilization, environmental husbandry and ethics.  

Dan's descent into the symbolic underworld "where death gets all confused with birth," takes us into the philosophical arena, where important questions about mortality, rejuvenation, and endurance are worked out. 

In the poem's cosmology, earth becomes a source of refuge, renewal and life. 

Is Butterworth the evil witch she seems to be in this story? Should we regard her merely as a sophisticated hybrid of the kind who clubs up in ladies' and garden groups, striving to out-flower each other with superior specimens?

So if it's revolution you want, then cheer for the upstart weeds, whose determination and pluck have overcome attempts to wipe them out!

Even Thwaite, the slave to Belinda's selfish aims, deserts her. 

And so endeth the lesson. 

Copyright page

Tom Disch [older]

The Tale of Dan De Lion - Part the First

Tom Disch [1940-2008] was a gifted poet, critic and science fiction writer. In a fit of depression, he shot himself in the head. 68 isn't young, but you'd have to believe he could have gone on to write more novels and poems if he'd lived longer. For a complete account, visit his Wiki page here. He began as a poet, but his sci-fi novels were his his most popular work. Disch didn't write the kind of poetry that I find satisfying, but he was clever and could make delightful metaphors and narratives. 

Though I've never been a big fan of juvenile literature, occasionally I can be diverted by a book that seems to transcend the gulf we ordinarily associate with the separation between childhood and adulthood. Disch's book The Tale of Dan De Lion is one such.  

Typically, I'm not a big fan of "cute" when it comes to poetry, but I've read a fair amount of light verse in my time. Specialists--like Ogden Nash or Phyllis McGinley--manage to sound witty while they're being inventive. Light verse is one of the mainstays of juvenile literature--a fact that sometimes dismays me, since I believe that it prejudices young minds towards the frivolous aspect of poetry, and forever taints their understanding and appreciation of more serious work. (The other side of that coin is so-called religious poetry, a steady diet of which tends to inculcate readers with the idea that poetry is nothing more than a vehicle for devout thinking.)    

What's the excuse for light verse, aside from ease of apprehension, and the mild, negligent attitude towards existence it implies? Poems as jokes, poems as innocent fun--poems as a kind of parlor-game of rhyme and rhythm, no more edifying than square-dancing, cartoons, pantomime quizzes, or cross-word puzzles. 

But occasionally, someone comes up with a valid pretext for a nonchalant indulgence in silly verse. 

Traditionally, juvenile or light verse works well in tetrameter, or lines with a four-beat measure. Think of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky"--

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves 
   Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
   And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son 
   The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun 
   The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand; 
   Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree, 
   And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood, 
   The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood, 
   And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through 
   The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head 
   He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock? 
   Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” 
   He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves 
   Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves, 
   And the mome raths outgrabe. 

(Which is not to say, of course, that serious poems can't written in this measure.)

The Tale of Dan De Lion was published by Coffee House Press in 1986. Coffee House Press was started in Minneapolis, by my old (late) friend Allan Kornblum, after he closed down his letterpress operation Toothpaste Press outside of Iowa City. When I knew Allan, we both lived in Iowa City--during the early 1970's. Allan had a good eye for charming alternative literature, though I wouldn't have known it then. 

The Tale of Dan De Lion is the sort of contrary dystopian fable that appeals to smart children, and may be as attractive and intriguing to adults as well. 

I've reproduced the whole book here, rather than just refer to it obliquely. It's out of print now, so I doubt that anyone will be offended by my appropriation. 

Dan De Lion is a subversive little story about the competition between wild and domesticated plants--in this case between dandelions and domestic cultivated roses.  

The story imagines the garden as a scene of conflict, in which the natural flora, ignored and despised by sophisticated (and well-heeled) gardeners, compete for space and air and water and nutrients, with the pampered flowers of Miss Belinda Butterworth.   

Dan De Lion is a weed, a despised outlaw and invader of the tended bed, an enemy of Butterworth and her prized rose plants. 

The obvious political and social implications of this relationship feel not in the least obtrusive, presented in these terms, with clever stylish cartoon illustrations. 


Monday, November 21, 2016

The End of the Rainbow

Over the weekend, we had a lovely experience. 

We live in the East Bay Hills, facing the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge to the West. 

At sunrise, I awoke and looked out the bedroom window, and to my amazement saw a vertical rainbow touching down on the Bay, directly behind Brooks Island, a narrow body of land sitting just south of Richmond/Marina Bay. I rushed downstairs to get our old digital camera, and caught just the tail end of the display before it faded into the dawn light.    

Rainbows are unusual enough here, but catching one from a point of view that allows a useful photo is rare indeed. 

There may not be a pot of gold along the Tiburon shoreline, but it was inspiring to see nature's accidental fireworks from our own backyard. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The 2016 Presidential election is coming to an end, and it's clear that Donald Trump, while not winning the actual popular vote, has been elected to the office.

The prognosticators have been telling us all along that Trump's campaign strategy, which has been consistent from the beginning, was appealing to what Nixon supporters used to understand as the "silent majority"--the part of America often referred to as the ideological Middle.

Political sentiment has always been as much about emotion and irrational projections as it is about facts and realities. Politicians who can tap into resentment and frustration can often overcome better candidates who base their campaigns on valid points. 

While some of Trump's talking points were superficially valid--stemming illegal immigration, restoring jobs--there never was any reason to believe he had any concrete solutions.

Trump has behaved as a demagogue, strutting and blustering and wise-cracking. He is a man without political experience, or public speaking skill, and with little knowledge about domestic or world affairs and issues. 

When America elected George W. Bush, I felt deep embarrassment for my country. How could a naive, smarmy little truant rich boy ascend to the highest office? It became clear, eventually, that Dubya was nothing but a puppet, that the real President was Dick Cheney, who guided our country into dead-end foreign wars, while using the patriotic fervor generated by those conflicts to engineer a traditional conservative domestic agenda (tax breaks for the rich). 

I've always said that Americans are dumb, and that who we elect to political office is the clearest proof of that. Trump's election is further evidence.

For three generations, America has been losing jobs, and its standard of living has declined in real terms. Meanwhile, corporate America has flourished. The political parties' answer to this has been to champion minorities and immigrants, "free trade," tax breaks for rich and corporations, etc. 

Rather than addressing the root causes for the widespread frustration which these trends have created, the Democrats have talked about "inclusion" and "cooperation" and brotherhood. Code words aimed at minorities, whom it was widely believed represented the new "swing" vote strategy. 

Again, the fact that Trump might never be able to "deliver" on any of his vaunted promises (building a wall, bringing jobs home, increasing domestic security), had nothing to do with his appeal. 

Because casting votes is more about gesture and sending a message, than it is about seeking real solutions. In this current election, supporters identified with Trump's adolescent posturing and resentment at outsiders. 

Politics is indeed dirty business, and Trump's strategy has been to play it as dirty as possible. It wasn't that his supporters were duped, as much as that they got the message they were looking for.

We live in a democracy, which means that no one side can win all the time, or at least that's what the rules say. Yesterday, Americans spoke. You can like it or despise it, but they expressed their sentiment, directly. 

They're fed up with how things have been going. Will we listen to them? Or are they just the great unwashed benighted fools we've been thinking they were all along? The unemployed auto and steel and glass and textile and rubber and plastics industries workers have been hurting, and they feel betrayed by a government which puts their priorities at the bottom. They haven't enjoyed being told that the needs of Mexicans and Syrians and Indians come first, while they must learn to be more "tolerant" and transform themselves into service drones. 

Now, with majorities in both houses of Congress, and a "can do" guy in the White House, whatever Lola wants, Lola will get

It's likely that Trump's administration will be "business as usual" for the rich and privileged. The American Middle Class will continue to crumble.

Plus ├ža change . . . . 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The End of the World

John Martin [1789-1854] was an English Romantic painter. Very popular in his day, he specialized in apocalyptic scenes such as these (below), which showed an Old Testament feeling about mankind, God, the universe, and the vicissitudes of existence. 

Most of Martin's big turbulent canvases I've looked at feature a familiar theme--a great fiery cauldron into which earth and mankind are either being swallowed up or threatened with impending incineration. This is represented either as "God's wrath" or the work of a pitiless infernal influence, the inevitable consequence of humanity's sinfulness--visions of mass destruction and the end of the world. 

The 19th Century was dominated by what are now described as "Scriptural Geologists"--scientists or theorists who tried to reconcile the universal concepts of Christianity with the new science of geology. They hadn't yet begun to understand vulcanism and plate tectonics, so they were basically free to imagine that the devastating eruption from Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD was a phenomenon generated by a supreme deity. Pompeii was guilty of decadent and conspicuous indulgence, and ripe for punishment. 

Religion has often used fear and loathing to scare its adherents into obedience and conformity. And the Victorian Era trembled under the apprehension of an angry deity.       

In Martin's colorful vision The Great Day of His Wrath, we see humanity and cities and whole sections of the earth's crust blasted up and tilting into the crucible of melting matter. 

We now know that vulcanism is a clear expression of the instability of the planet, where molten elements periodically leak upward through the earth's crust, through cracks in the seams of the huge tectonic plates, which migrate slowly, in geologic time, round the unstable surface. We know these eruptions occur naturally, through the process of continuous formation and deformation of the hot matter beneath. But Victorians--who had no real understanding of larger geological forces, or of the vast spectrum of time involved-- were free to speculate about imaginary causes and meanings.

The popularity of Martin's holocaust-like pictures is a testament to the fascination people had with frightening nightmares of their own jeopardy. It was fun to look at pictures like this. Today, people still have intense curiosity about large, terrifying events, such as hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tornados, though we no longer see them as manifestations of destiny or the will of the gods. There's no one to blame for these things, so we have to treat them for the periodic and inevitable occurrences they really are.       

John Martin The Great Day of His Wrath 1851-3
(To see these images better, drag them onto your desktop, and expand them onto the screen.)

The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum [1822]

John Martin [1839]

Today, however, we've come to the realization that our affect on the earth's weather has become nearly catastrophic. As global warming progresses, the seas rise, and drought covers vast areas of the land masses of continents and islands, we'll be faced with the consequences of our own mischief in offending the chemical balances of the atmosphere, resulting in catastrophic changes in weather, the seas, and the ice-caps. As if garden-variety pollution hadn't done enough damage, now we're looking at a compromised planet, much less hospitable to all life, than we had come to imagine it just a century or so ago.

In a very real sense, the moral imprecations of the 19th Century are being revisited upon humanity today, though we have only ourselves to blame, not an angry god. It isn't, after all, our profane indulgence in sex or crime or persecution which is the fault, but our presumptions and negligence about the natural world at large. The earth, which once seemed so large and unconquerable and inexhaustible in extent and largesse, we now know is vulnerable in its fragility and finite limit(s). We've offended Mother Nature, and she's unlikely to take the offense lightly. 

Written not long after the end of World War I, Archibald MacLeish's famous poem The End of the World presents a piquant, ironic and surreal take on the fatalistic crisis of consciousness familiar to poets and novelists of the time (1920's).      

           The End of the World

Quite unexpectedly, as Vasserot
The armless ambidextrian was lighting
A match between his great and second toe,
And Ralph the lion was engaged in biting
The neck of Madame Sossman while the drum
Pointed, and Teeny was about to cough
In waltz-time swinging Jocko by the thumb
Quite unexpectedly to top blew off:

And there, there overhead, there, there hung over
Those thousands of white faces, those dazed eyes,
There in the starless dark, the poise, the hover,
There with vast wings across the cancelled skies,
There in the sudden blackness the black pall
Of nothing, nothing, nothing -- nothing at all. 

Just in case you were wondering, Vasserot is probably a made-up name, though Ferdinand Vasserot was a French bicyclist who competed in the 1900 Summer Olympics. The poem seems to describe a circus, inside a big circus tent, in which various figures are performing feats and tricks. Vasserot the armless ambidextrian, Ralph the Lion, Madame Sossman, Teeny, Jocko are figures in a madcap troupe and the "thousands of white faces" are the audience. Quite unexpectedly, the top of the tent blows off--something that might actually happen--revealing the big dark night sky overhead. The "vast wings" might be less literal. The "sudden blackness" might be said to represent the "nothingness" of the universe, or the meaninglessness of existence, the larger context of infinite space, beyond mankind's imaginative powers. 

MacLeish responds to the new cynicism of the Lost Generation with a half-serious comic salvo. Though he is usually included with Eliot and Pound among the high modernists, his career took him away from aesthetic disengagement. He had a career in law, which he gave up to write. Returning to America,  he worked as a journalist for Fortune magazine. Later, he served as the first de-facto American poet laureate (called then the Head Librarian of Congress), and still later inside the precursor of the CIA during WWII. He also became a successful playwright. 

MacLeish presents the case of a figure torn between tendencies. Sympathetic to Communism during the 1930's, he worked as a propagandist during the Second WW to promote the cause of victory. Stylistically, he's now regarded as an imitator--particularly of Eliot--and his poetry has not stood the test of time. He may have thought of himself as an innovator, but that seems less and less so today. 

His poem is notable for its fragmented phrases, and the sense of coy surprise, but the repetitions seem more hackneyed ("there, there overhead, there, there" "blackness . . . the black pall" "nothing, nothing, nothing -- nothing at all") than inspired. It's almost like nursery rhyme. It's a novelty, which perhaps suits the clever cunning of its method. Read for the first time, it leaves an indelible impression, which palls with each successive reading. This is a quality which he shares with E.E. Cummings, of a specious playful inventiveness that is short on conviction. It usually comes off as gesture. 

The poem is sufficient unto itself, and demands nothing more of us but mild amusement, though it purports to carry a much larger message. In the context of his whole work, it often happens that an inferior poem or composition comes to occupy a much larger place than it deserves, and overshadows more ambitious and laudable efforts. Novelty pieces like this can actually hurt a writer's reputation.           

Archibald MacLeish [1892-1982]

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Prow of the Viking

Who knows whether one of my distant ancestors, originating in Norway, ever sailed in one of these boats--to England, Greenland, Russia, or perhaps even the Northeast corner of the North American continent in the days before Columbus? Who knows whether they drank some kind of home-brew? Akvavit or aquavit has been produced there since the 15th Century, but I'd bet they were tossing back something equally strong long before that. One of the marks of civilization is the invention of alcoholic beverages, which are believed to have existed as early as six thousand years ago.  Various fermented mixes of grape, grain, herbs and honey have been consumed in various parts of the world for a very long time. 

This concoction, which features aquavit, reminds me a little of the North Sea, bracing with sea air and a slight chill, though this may just be my vagrant imagination at work. By itself, aquavit may have a slightly sour/nutty taste, which is moderated by the gin, in this case a specific kind, produced locally by the St. George firm--a bit dryer, and spicier than usual. Lime juice tightens it up further, and the odd combination of violet flower, peach and cherry may resemble the kind of flavor combination favored by some of the ancients. Since they couldn't have had a way of measuring the alcoholic content, except by judging its effects on their bodies, approximating its actual strength wouldn't have been possible. For my purposes, weighing and measuring the flavor factors is much easier than it would have been for them.  


2 parts St. George "Terroir" gin
2 part aquavit
1 part fresh lime juice
1/2 part peach liqueur
1/2 part creme de violette
1/2 part maraschino liqueur

This combination makes two cocktails, shaken and served up in frosted glasses. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Giants went 57-33 before the All Star break. They've gone 23-39 since. 

It's consternating to realize that if they'd only managed to play .500 ball, or 31-31 in the 62 games since the break, they'd be two games ahead of the Dodgers today, at 88-69. Instead, they're six games back at 80-72, with 10 games to play. They don't have a prayer of catching the Dodgers.

How did this happen? Were the injuries to Hunter Pence, Matt Duffy, Joe Panik, Sergio Romo, Matt Cain and Gregor Blanco the reason? Actually, no. Statistically, they played better without these key figures, than they have WITH them! 

Was it the pitching that fell apart? Or was it their anemic hitting? Can a team that hits fewer than 140 home runs, and drives in fewer than 675 runs, win a pennant? This year, the Cubs, who have run away with their division (they're currently 97-55), have 189 homers and 718 RBI's, and could finish with over 200 homers and 760 runs by the end of the year. 

The Giants' strategy of fielding good pitching and weak hitting offenses may have caught up with them this year. 

The team has shown problems in all key areas. Relief pitching, power hitting, situational defense, even managing. Bochy's notion of showing faith in players who are underperforming, or in long slumps, has backfired repeatedly. 

Trading Duffy for Moore was probably not a bad idea, though Moore is not a top-flight starter, despite his one near no-hitter in Los Angeles on August 26th, and he might end up elsewhere in 2017. 

Casilla's days as the closer here are almost certainly numbered. With nine blown saves--enough to sink any contending team's chances--he's thoroughly demoralized a team desperately in need of relief support in close games. 

For my money, the season's over. Even if the Giants were to qualify as a wild card, their chances of competing against the Cubs, or the Nationals, appear nil. 

It's been a wild ride this year. First half champions, second half dismal. Which is the real Giants? Has any single player reached his potential this year?

Maybe Johnny Cueto, who is 17-5, but may get only one more start this year. 

Otherwise, not a single player is having a "career year" or even close. The Giants don't have a single player this year who could qualify as a true star. Posey and Crawford and Cueto are having good, not great seasons.  

Imagine what this would have looked like had Posey and Belt and Panik and Crawford and Pagan and Span and Nunez and Samardjiza and Casilla had really good years. We would likely have run away with the prizes, even without decent power. 

For next season, some things will change. Pagan and Nunez are probably gone. Ditto with Cain, Peavy. Casilla too. Panik and Hunter Strickland don't look secure. 

We'll still have a solid starting rotation. But we need a reliable closer, someone who can come in and shut the door for one inning. Someone who can get 40 saves, with an ERA of 2.20 or less, who relishes the challenge.

Bye-bye 2016. The even-numbered year wasn't a charm this time around.

Wait until next year. 

You heard it here.