Wednesday, December 28, 2005

A fable from La Fontaine

The other day I was looking at some translations of La Fontaine's Fables by Marianne Moore. I wasn't much impressed with her versions, but then even the originals can be draggy. (The Acknowledgements are either loopy or way over my head and either way worth a glance if you come across the book.)

One fable that caught my interest was "The Cat and The Two Swallows". (Clunkyish translation here - taken perhaps from the Gutenberg online text.) The fable describes a cat and a swallow raised together. The sparrow plays rough with its beak but the cat ("Maître Chat") never retaliates. Then one day a stranger-sparrow flys in and attacks the first. The cat springs to its companion's defense and eats the stranger, acquires a taste for sparrow, and then gobbles down the other. La Fontaine says he can't come up with a moral, but that the dedicatee, the boy Duke of Burgundy, will be able to.

The story is supposed to have been based on a fable ("The Dog and The Cat") by one Antoine Furetière. I know little or nothing about the politics of the time, but the fable strikes me as being political. The heraldic emblem of Burgundy was the "musion" or "catamount" (presumably something lynx-like), so I'd guess the cat represents the duchy. Then the first swallow might be a smaller, troublesome vassal fief, and the second swallow a neighboring fief, and La Fontaine might be counselling annexing the first because the second will need annexing anyway. Or the first swallow could be Burgundy and the cat France; then the second swallow might be a rival duchy that's going to get Burgundy annexed along with it. Perhaps the fable would lose its, well, bite if I knew the background, but I'm curious.

I'll put up a link to an elegant Richard Wilbur translation of La Fontaine if I manage to find one.


This is intense.

Via comments here.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

A failed joke

The other day I decided to buy a bottle of amontillado as a present for someone who likes sherry. I remarked to those present I might even purchase a cask, to general blank looks.

More or less the second google hit on the word. Definitely check out the originating incident.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Good on Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman, who the curmudgeonly-before-his-time John Cole calls "almost as cranky as me", has second thoughts on Tookie Williams.

His original post on the matter brought on an ill-humored comment from me (following on tense private correspondence).

While Mark's surely not responding to plankton-me, I did argue the innocence (or rather, the guilt-not-shown) case, e.g. here and here (where I ask someone to "calculate the justifiable rate of execution of innocents") - so thanks anyway.

Random thoughts on film and movie

Shopgirl, starring Claire Danes, Steve Martin, and somebody or other: one thumb up. It's beautifully framed and lit, full of excellent writing; it is a good excuse to watch Danes act, and the quiet score is lovely. It's a very wriiten movie, perhaps part of the reason Mrs R.'s thumb is down. I liked how the central relationship between a young woman and a much older, wealthier man is allowed to seem natural, creepy, and then just an occurrence in time. The film has a distancing effect and other characteristics in common with Lost in Translation, which is rather more successful, in part because Murray is better-cast and a better actor than Martin.

Harry Potter 4, starring the Royal Shakespeare Company and some meddling kids: one thumb up. Mrs R. liked it. I thought it was poorly streamlined from the bloated text except for the first few minutes. I found most of the characters to be poorly acted except Ron (Hermione being more or less written out of the movie). Unlike 3, which felt like an actual movie, this was a series of unfortunate scripted events dimly lit. Not even Voldemort was interesting. Partly no doubt the text's fault, describing as it does a humdrum world with some magical doodads pasted on. Why the movie chooses to focus on this by showing a character lighting a gas lamp with a taper instead of a snap is beyond me. (From an architectural point of view, the quiddich stadium and the dragon-jungle-gym of a castle were I thought exemplary.)

Narnia: The Lion etc.: as HP4. The little girl playing Lucy is extraordinary, and the snow was nice. And the bit where the gibbering orcs mock Aslan was excellent. Otherwise I was unimpressed. Whenever Lucy's off-screen the movie loses all internal reason for existing (Peter's face is especially blank.) Again, the text is a burden, and the text it is based on a ball-and-chain - the problem of making God's "sacrifice" of himself seem worthy of human sympathy struck me especially strongly when Liam Neeson wearing a CGI-enhanced lionskin is the sacrifice. Who then rises and eats the bad guy (the excellent-of-course Tilda Swinton in some very odd makeup having to read some clunky lines). And the whole religious problem with sexuality and women generally was a sore thumb here, both with Tilda Swinton as lion-chow and a flesh-and-blood Susan who's going to miss the train to heaven in Narnia:7 for being interested in men.

Mrs. R. notes that Eugene Levy is doing well lately. I haven't seen any of his work outside of American Pie ads, which brought him to my attention, as it were. I wonder if there are any instances of female actors coming to prominence at age 53. Anyway, he's in a new movie (well, a sequel) with Steve Martin in his wild-n-crazy disguise. He's not in the upcoming Sofia Coppola movie, thankfully, though some of the leads' names gave me pause.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

If I'm Gilbert, where's Sullivan?

It's easy to make Jackmormon laugh. See the comments for the title.

A remark about the verse: Mrs. R and I saw a production of The Mikado recently, and I've had the tit-willow meter in my head. I used pure amphibrachs (weak strong weak) with iambic closes to even lines (as Lewis Carroll did in "The Hunting of the Snark" and elsewhere). The 8th line however is irregular - "adjacent" is an amphibrach displaced by the leading "The", and "wall" is stressed against the meter - so hopefully the line comes across as almost all stressed syllables, the tone intended to be espressed being "I'm going to say this slowly and with a lot of emphasis so you catch my drift, ok?" Beyond that one tricksy bit the whole thing's in the setup.

Mrs. R just read Connie Willis's To Say Nothing About The Dog, and the Victorian era's apparently on my mind.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

At my standard glacial pace

In response to Katrina, Eszter Hargittai at Crooked Timber offered an incentive for disaster relief donations - this was enough to get me to send a few bucks to Mercy Corps. Having received the book (which is full of neat examples of symmetry), I've reacted at my standard glacial pace by sending them a few more bucks for Pakistan earthquake relief. All of which I note by way of encouraging people to give a little, esp. in view of the geopolitical situation.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Narwhal horns are sense organs

Too cool.

There was a long list of suggested uses of the horn (ok, tusk), and nobody was close. A lot of scientists out there are feeling exaltation covered in embarrassment.

No doubt many bad poems on the sensitive unicorn-inspiring horn are being set to paper as we speak.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Washington as a Surveyor

So I'm reading the 5 Dec New Yorker, la di da, Hersh on Bush, Munro on wickedness, all the same stuff, flippity flippity, "Washington as a Surveyor", when I get kicked in the left kidney - it's by Elizabeth Bishop. Well, she's been dead for over a quarter century, but occasionally one sees a new poem pop up, what's the story on this one? Flip back to the front - nothing on the Contributors page (later I discover that Mark Strand's poem doesn't get him mentioned either). As far the New Yorker's concerned, it's just a poem by Elizabeth Bishop - they've published her before, why stop now? Ok, so it's listed at Vassar under "Notes and notebooks of drafts, dreams, and other observations".

Washington as a Surveyor

Lord, I discovered when I discovered love
That day a continent within the mind,
Unstable on the sea, boundaries unlined
Which now I slowly take the measure of.
The coast's determined, the mountains do not move;
Natural harbors and clear springs I find,
Shade trees and fruit trees, everything of its kind--
Even for an empire more resources than enough.
My favorite flowers, besides, some of each,
Yes, and wild animals who stand and stare;
Rivers that run beyond my present reach
The other way, and clouds that glitter in the air.
Love's flag quickly I planted on the beach
While I explored, but the one I love is not there.

Stream-of-consciousness comments:

Ok, so it's obviously by Bishop - the frank repetition of "discovered", the concern with geography and love, the use of form, the interest in history a la "Trollope's Journal", maybe some Herbert influence.

So it's a Petrarchan sonnet, well and good for a poem about love. If there's a turn though I don't get it, which is kind of a big minus - it makes the choice a bit arbitrary and artificial. On the other hand the form forces some interesting lines so fine.

This would be George Washington, who worked as a surveyor from his mid teens. Some of that work was in wilderness and counts as exploring. So the measured tone is apropos, the devotional opening too, and the interest in empire - but I'm not sure knowing the speaker adds that much. Maybe there's some illuminating historical detail about Washington's life I'm missing.

Am I missing echoes of Milton or Herbert? E.g., "everything of its kind" sounds like an allusion, and the sense of an innocent land with the unfrightened animals.

Nice going from "Unstable on the sea" to "favorite flowers" as the exploration is described. "The other way" is a strong cold note prefiguring the ending. "Besides", "Yes" seem like filler to satisfy the meter. The lines are in large part longer than ten syllables, which slows things down a tad. "That day" gets some odd emphasis. Why "quickly I planted"? This seems to make "Love's flag" a spondee and I guess avoids the plain iambs of "Love's flag I quickly planted on the beach". Regardless, it contrasts nicely with "slowly" earlier. I like "more resources than enough" - it gives the sense that one might expect "enough" but one's getting more than merited.

It's a lonely poem - a full continent to be explored in the name of love, and nobody's there to be found. The rivers run away out of reach for now, and after that the clouds glitter.

Back to "Lord" - is this Bishop speaking to God? "Why have I been given this rich, beautiful continent but no helpmeet?" Does the poem refer to a moment ("that day") of personal realization?

Ok, so some nice writing, strong beginning and end, no full control of the material or theme, some laxity in the middle, a better poem for the author's other poems - if I'd written this, I'd tell myself something "You rock, but this didn't quite gel, I couldn't stuff everything I wanted into the form or make it fully resonant." A good early Elizabeth Bishop poem, but not up to her extreme standards, hence its absence from The Complete Poems - still much more pleasurable than most poems in the New Yorker.

Update: via the comments, Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box : Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments, coming out in March 2006.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Through the looking-glass

Over at Jackmormon's ObWi metablog, some verse that has to be read to be believed. It put me in mind of another queasy-making acrostic.

Envying song redux

I'm not a particular fan of The Pretenders, but they certainly have some intensely beautiful moments. The other day a seemingly banal phrase from "Talk of the Town" popped into my head:
You've changed
Your place in this world.
You've changed
Your place in this world.
The melody alters on the repeated lines, and the rhythm of the second and fourth lines differs subtly as a result of that and intonation. You can almost hear the singer thinking. (The opening and closing chords are magical, but that's entirely a question of guitar craft.)

Thinking about the ability of song to modulate and transform repeated lines, I remembered a fragment of T.S. Eliot that struck me very strongly when I first encountered it as a beginning poet:
Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to sateity
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live?
Ok, so the "and that which" is hackery, but the quote from God (via Ezekiel) shows poetry's ability to act as an amplifier.

p.s. Seamus Heaney on the above fragment.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Mistaking my wife for a hat

Those who've read Antoine de Saint Exupéry's The Little Prince will recall how he as a child drew what adults interpreted as a hat but which actually represented a monstrous snake which had eaten an elephant. He reproduces the drawing, his first, and also his second, which showed an interior view for the imaginationless old. Happily for me, unable to draw anything but the outsides of parrots, modern technology has made the following view of my beloved wife possible:

I hope to present an exterior view around the summer solstice.


Passing thoughts

This afternoon on Stanford campus I passed the Somebody Earthquake Engineering Building. There's a joke waiting to happen. Then I walked to a church where Mrs. R was about to sing in a choral concert, thinking this was also a joke waiting to happen. Surely the same applies to orphanages, though I can't recall ever having seen one. A cursory google for the Bay Area yields mostly links for a movie company and historical references. Maybe society's needs have altered somewhat in this age of better medicine (esp for childbirth), later childbearing, ferility problems, and safe abortions on the one hand and more virulent drugs and new societal pressures (and openness about them) on the other.

On the subject of morbid irony, here's a passage from a New Yorker article on the earthquake in Kashmir:
Half a mile up, a section of the gorge wall had collapsed. Small tombstones protruded at odd angles from a mound of dirt. A bloated corpse wrapped in a black shroud lay on top of the mound.
Apparently, the person had been killed by a falling graveyard.
ObQuibble, the rhythm of those lines seems a tad monotonous. Though perhaps that adds matter-of-factness for greater contrast.