Thursday, November 30, 2006

By heart

Over at the Guardian Unlimited Arts Blog, Nick Seddon has this post about committing poems to heart, and asks readers for what poems they would pick.

So here, in no particular order, are the 12 poems that I find running through my head most often. Understand, these are not my 'favourite' poems (whatever that means) they are simply the poems I find most useful, poems that have become an integral part of how I think.

1. Robert Browning 'A Toccata of Galuppi's'

Well, and it was graceful of them--they'd break talk off and afford
--She, to bite her mask's black velvet--he, to finger on his sword,
While you sat and played Toccatas, stately at the clavichord?

What? Those lesser thirds so plaintive, sixths diminished, sigh on sigh,
Told them something? Those suspensions, those solutions--"Must we die?"
Those commiserating sevenths--"Life might last! we can but try!

"Were you happy?"--"Yes."--"And are you still as happy?"--"Yes. And you?"
--"Then, more kisses!"--"Did I stop them, when a million seemed so few?"
Hark, the dominant's persistence till it must be answered to!
2. Gerard Manley Hopkins 'No worst there is none'

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
3. Pablo Neruda 'Poetry'

I don't know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don't know how or when,
no, they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.

4. W. H. Auden 'In Memory of W.B. Yeats'

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

5. Percy Byshe Shelley 'Ode to the West Wind'

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O, wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
6. Robert Frost 'Desert Places'

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
7. John Donne 'A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning'

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th' other foot, obliquely run ;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
8. W.B. Yeats 'When you are old'

How many loved your moments of glad grace
And loved your beauty with love false or true
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.
9. T.S. Eliot 'Portrait of a Lady'

And I must borrow every changing shape
To find expression ... dance, dance
Like a dancing bear,
Cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape.
10. W.H. Auden 'Lay your sleeping head my love'

But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

11. Emily Dickinson 'I cannot live with you'

I cannot live with you,
It would be life
And life is over there
Behind the shelf

12. Agha Shahid Ali, 'Beyond the Ash Rains'

I had still not learned the style of nomads:

to walk between the rain drops to keep dry.

Okay, okay, go ahead. Tell me what I've missed.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

It's nice, but is it German?

Remember the post about enjoying poetry in languages you don't understand?

It turns out I have company, and fairly distinguished company at that

I believe my favourite country's German.

I wander in a calm folk-colored daze; the infant
Looks down upon me from his mother's arms
And says - oh, God knows what he says!
It's baby-talk? he's sick? or is it German?
That Nachtigallenchor: does it sing German?
Yoh, yoh: here mice, rats, tables, chairs,
Grossmutter, Kinder, der Herrgott im Himmel,
All, all but I -
all, all but I -
speak German.

Have you too sometimes, by the fire, at evening,
Wished that you were - whatever you once were?
It is ignorance alone that is enchanting.
Dearer to me than all the treasures of the earth
Is something living, said old Rumpelstiltskin
And hopped home. Charcoal-burners heard him singing
And spoiled it all....And all because -
If only he hadn't known his name!

In German I don't know my name.
I am the log
The fairies left one morning in my place.
- In German I believe in them, in everything:
The world is everything that is the case.
How clever people are! I look on open-mouthed
As Kant reels down the road im Morgenrot
Humming Mir ist so bang, so bang, mein Schatz -
All the nixies set their watches by him
Two hours too fast....
I think, My calendar's
Two centuries too fast, and give a sigh
Of trust. I reach out for the world and ask
The price; it answers, One touch of your finger.

In all my Germany there's no Gesellschaft
But one between eine Katze and ein Maus.
What's business? what's a teaspoon? what's a sidewalk?
Schweig stille, meine Seele! Such things are not for thee.
It is by Trust, and Love, and reading Rilke
Without ein Worterbuch, that man learns German.
The Word rains in upon his blessed head
As glistening from the hand of God
And means - what does it mean? Ah well, it's German.
Glaube, mein Herz! A Feeling in the Dark
Brings worlds, brings words that hard-eyed Industry
And all the schools' dark Learning never knew.

And yet it's hard sometimes, I won't deny it.
Take for example my own favorite daemon,
Dear good great Goethe: ach, what German!
Very idiomatic, very noble; very like a sibyl.
My favourite style is Leopold von Lerchenau's.
I've memorised his da und da und da und da
And whisper it when Life is dark and Death is dark.
There was someone who knew how to speak
To us poor Kinder here im Fremde.
And Heine! At the ninety-sixth mir traumte
I sigh as a poet, but dimple as ein Schuler.
And yet - if it's easy is it German?
And yet, that wunderschone Lindenbaum
Im Mondenscheine! What if it is in Schilda?
It's moonlight, isn't it? Mund, Mond, Herz and Schmerz
Sing round my head, in Zeit and Ewigkeit,
And my heart lightens at each Sorge, each Angst:
I know them well. And Schicksal! Ach, you Norns,
As I read I hear your - what's the word for scissors?
And Katzen have Tatzen - why can't I call someone Kind?
What a speech for Poetry (especially Folk-)!

And yet when, in my dreams, eine schwartzbraune Hexe
(Who mows on the Neckar, reaps upon the Rhine)
Riffles my yellow ringlets through her fingers,
She only asks me questions: What is soap?
I don't know. A suitcase? I don't know. A visit?
I laugh with joy, and try to say like Lehmann:
"Quin-quin, es ist ein Besuch!"
Ah, German!
Till the day I die I'll be in love with German
- If only I don't learn German....I can hear my broken
Voice murmuring to der Arzt: "Ich - sterber?"
He answers sympathetically: "Nein - sterbe."

If God gave me the choice - but I stole this from Lessing -
Of German and learning German, I'd say: Keep your German!

The thought of knowing German terrifies me.
- But surely, this way, no one could learn German?
And yet....
It's difficult; it is impossible?
I'm hopeful that it is, but I can't say
For certain: I don't know enough German.

- Randall Jarrell 'Deutsch Durch Freud'

Meanwhile, right on cue, the New York Review of Books has a Rilke poem:

Komm du, du letzter, den ich anerkenne,
heilloser Schmerz im leiblichen Geweb:
wie ich im Geiste brannte, sieh, ich brenne
in dir; das Holz hat lange widerstrebt,
der Flamme, die du loderst, zuzustimmen,
nun aber nähr' ich dich und brenn in dir.
Mein hiesig Mildsein wird in deinem Grimmen
ein Grimm der Hölle nicht von hier.
Ganz rein, ganz planlos frei von Zukunft stieg
ich auf des Leidens wirren Scheiterhaufen,
so sicher nirgend Künftiges zu kaufen
um dieses Herz, darin der Vorrat schwieg.
Bin ich es noch, der da unkenntlich brennt?
Erinnerungen reiß ich nicht herein.
O Leben, Leben: Draußensein.
Und ich in Lohe. Niemand der mich kennt.

- Rainer Maria Rilke [1]
Actually, it seems to be the season for dead poets. Over at Blackbird, there's a newly discovered Plath poem. Ach, du.


[1] Translation:

Come, then, my last and latest acceptation,
pain in this fleshly web beyond all cure:
as once in mind, see now my conflagration
in you; the wood no longer can abjure
agreement with that flame which you're outthrowing:
I feed you now and burn in you as well.
My earth-born mildness in your fury's growing
a fury not of earth but hell.
So pure, so planless-free from all to-come,
I climbed this dizzy faggot-pile of pain,
so sure I'd nowhere sacrifice, to gain
a future, all this heart's uncounted sum.
Am I still that, unrecognisably
consumed? I snatch no memories inside.
O living, living: being outside.
And I in flame. And no one knowing me.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Second Coming

December. Armoured cars can’t enter the valley now, and patrols are few. The guerillas hide the child in a manger, not expecting trouble.

Half a kilometer away, a concealed radio beacon beams its message to the stars. Satellites whirl, the location is pinpointed. Somewhere in the night, three jets turn screaming, missiles ready to fire.

(55 words)

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Good cop, bad cop-out

A week ago, over at the Ploughshares blog, Jay Baron Nicorvo wrote a post predicting that Michiko Kakutani's scathing review of Pynchon's new novel Against the Day (she described it as "a humongous, bloated jigsaw puzzle of a story, pretentious without being provocative, elliptical without being illuminating, complicated without being rewardingly complex") would be followed by a second "kissing-up" review in the Sunday Book Review.

And sure enough, here it is. Liesl Schillinger describes Against the Day as Pynchon's "funniest and arguably...most accessible novel" [1] and goes on to wax eloquent about it for four whole screens.

Now personally, I don't care, because any time a new Pynchon novel comes out I'm going to read it, no matter what the critics say (yes, all 1085 pages of it. Sigh. I so need to marry an heiress), but it would be nice if we could somehow get Ms. Kakutani and Ms. Schillinger to battle it out between them and give us a consensus opinion. I imagine a duel at dawn where the two reviewers both stand with their backs to each other, identical copies of the book in hand, then, on the referees signal, walk ten paces then turn and shoot bon mots at each other until one of them is fatally wounded. It would be like something out of a Pynchon novel.

[1] Of course, given that this is Pynchon, calling his work accessible is probably a terrible insult.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Chorale Fallacy

Note to self: NEVER, ever go see something Manohla Dargis recommends. In fact, if she says good things about a movie, avoid it like the plague.

This is not a new resolution, it's one I've made many times before (most notably after watching that three hour yawn fest that Ms. Dargis described as Spielberg's best film ever) - yet every once in a while I'll read a review that intrigues me and not pay attention to who it's written by, resulting in the waste of good money and precious time.

My latest such penance was this thing called Copying Beethoven. When I first heard about the film, I was in two minds about watching it - on the one hand, it was Beethoven. On the other hand, it had Ed Harris playing the great composer [1]. Then I read the review in the NY Times that said good things about the film and decided I would go see it after all.

BIG mistake.

As it turns out, Ed Harris is about the only good thing about the movie. He turns in a fairly creditable performance, all things considered - his Beethoven is a caricature, but it's a caricature with soul. Nothing else in the movie comes close [2]. The real criminals are the scriptwriters who produce a ludicrous rag of a story whose only conceivable virtue is its fidelity to every cliche known to period films about genius. Someone, it would seem, told Stephen Rivele when he was a child that "music is the voice of God" and the idea struck him as so original and so 'poetic' that he insists on sharing it with us some two dozen times in the film, as if it hadn't already occured to practically anyone who'd heard Beethoven and wasn't tone deaf. And as for Diane Kruger, watching her mince woodenly about is enough to turn you into a misogynist if you aren't one already. Ms. Kruger's only talent, it would seem, is for simulating orgasm, and she does this at regular intervals, under the guise of 'thrilling to the music' spending the rest of her time on screen delivering a performance that seems like something out of Keira Knightley's skits in junior high.

To be fair, the film warns you what you're in for pretty much from the first scene. This features Ms. Kruger sitting in a carriage being transported (literally and figuratively) through the (presumably) Austrian countryside to the strains of Beethoven's Gross Fugue. Staring out of the window, Ms. Kruger's character, Anna Holtz, finally 'gets' the fugue - a revelation she demonstrates by beating her palms against the window in a frenzy of excitement that leaves her co-passengers surprisingly unalarmed. One frame later, our heroine is running up a flight of stairs to where the Maestro lies dying, and proceeds to tell him tearfully that she finally understood the fugue whereupon he says he's glad, points to the storm raging outside and says "The storm, it's come for me" (no, I'm not kidding!) and proceeds to die, after which Ms. Kruger, with a devotion that would put any 70's hindi film heroine to shame proceeds to fall upon his chest weeping 'Maestro! Maestro!'

From here on things get steadily worse. The central plot of the film centres around the conceit that Beethoven, in his last years, needed a copyist to work with him, and (according to the powers that be in Hollywood) naturally chose a lissome and dainty young woman to be his workmate. This strange pairing becomes the basis for a number of 'insights' into the genius that was Beethoven. We discover, for instance, that Beethoven was not, in fact, the tortured genius we thought him to be, but a somewhat rowdy but overall rather affable old man, a sort of gruff teddy bear, who spent most of his time thinking about God, and (naturally) how his music was God's voice. We learn that it wasn't actually Beethoven who conducted the first performance of his own Ninth Symphony, it was actually Miss Holtz, standing in the orchestra, and Beethoven simply mimed her. We find out that Beethoven, master musician though he might have been, had a sense of humour that came straight out of the frat house, and was fond of 'mooning' his associates (we also discover that 'mooning' as a practise, was fairly well known in early 19th century Vienna). Finally, we are offered the astonishing revelation that Beethoven, the greatest egoist of them all, was, by the end of his life so desperately short-handed for help in copying his notes (the ability to copy music more than the ability to write it, being a rare talent) that he would burst into a nunnery and go down on his knees to a 23 year old girl begging her to come back and work for him. Now that's what I call good HR policy. One wonders if, according to the scriptwriters, Beethoven also wrote Cecilia.

But the movie isn't all about Beethoven, of course. Oh, no, it's also (how could it not be?) about the process of Miss Holtz growing up and 'finding herself' which means that she now scribbles musical notations with a sterner expression and has finally figured out that her boyfriend is no good (a fact made evident to the rest of us in the very first scene by the length of his sideburns) because, after all, what woman would want a spry young engineer when she can have a grouchy, fat old composer? Miss Holtz is also something of a feminist, a strong-willed, independent woman, who is a 'copyist', not the nurse / maid / prostitute others mistake her for. The fact that her secratarial duties 'naturally' include cleaning Beethoven's apartment, emptying his chamber pots and, in one particularly cringe-worthy scene, sponging his hairy chest with a wet cloth, does not, we are to assume, take away from her strong-willed independence.

Ms. Dargis, in her review, makes much of the scene where the Ninth Symphony is performed - calling that 'reason enough' to go see the film. Personally, I thought it encapsulated very well everything that is wrong with the movie. The fidgety camera work (culminating in a series of jerky camera movements to convey, no doubt, the earth-shaking quality of the music - as though the Ninth couldn't speak for itself), the abrupt cutting from one movement to the other, the terrible hokum of Beethoven saying "Now music changes forever" just before he begins to conduct, the nauseating sentimentality of a script that shows everyone magically transfigured by the music, including Beethoven's wayward nephew Karl who stands weeping at the door. That scene, in its contrivedness, is everything Beethoven is not.

The only thing that redeems this movie is, obviously, the music. If I managed to sit through the movie at all, it was because every time I made up my mind to get up and leave (pushing my way past the two elderly couples between me and the aisle) the soundtrack would burst into yet another well remembered melody, and everything would be forgiven. If this movie does nothing else for you, it will make you lust for Beethoven's music, if only for the joy of hearing it pure and unadulterated by all the idiotic dialogue the characters on screen keep spouting [3]. The ghost of Beethoven is not hard to conjure - it is there in every note the man ever wrote, the music soaked in his personality - and it is that spectre, more than anything else, that keeps this movie going. The point about Beethoven is that he, and his music, represents everything that we can aspire to, the absolute zenith of human glory, of mortal power. Beethoven, more than anything else, is the yardstick we measure our lesser greatnesses against, and it is both the exhilaration and the sadness of knowing that we can never measure up to so titanic an energy that makes those nine symphonies so special.

The other ghost that hangs over this production, much less successfully, is that of Milos Forman. It is more or less, impossible, I suspect, to make a movie about a composer without ending up referencing Amadeus at least slightly, but the contrast between the two films only serves to heighten the failures of Copying Beethoven. Everything that was deft and breathless about Forman's work is clumsy and jejune here. The chemistry between Ms. Kruger and Mr. Harris is non-existent, and scene after scene of the film has an artificial and self-conscious quality that suggests the work of someone yet (and unlikely) to graduate film school. Overall, Copying Beethoven is a copious waste of time - you're much better off sitting at home and putting your favourite recording of the Ninth on your stereo.


[1] Apparently the role was originally written for Anthony Hopkins, but he (wisely) declined. How the casting director made the leap from Hopkins to Harris, however, is beyond me.

[2] The fact that Harris is the only one who can actually act here adds an unintentional authenticity to the movie. You sit through the movie with the distinct sense that only Beethoven is real and everyone else is a sock-puppet.

[3] Second note to self: Listening to Symphony Seven and Eight back to back while 'air-conducting' and head-banging along can leave you very, very sore.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Or else

Blame it on Zigzackly. This post reminded me of how long it's been since I've posted one of my World's Worst lists, so here goes:

World's Worst Threats / Vee haff vays of making you laff (*evil talk*)

1. Talk. Or else your ex-wife gets it. (What's that you said? Ali- who?)

2. See this oven timer? If you haven't told me what I want by the time that display gets to 20, your lasagna will burn. It will char! It will die a horrible, meaningless death! You wouldn't do that to your lasagna would you? (What's that? Odie knows? Why didn't you say so before? We'll soon loosen his tongue)

3. See these little white pills I'm holding in my hand. Three of these and you won't be able to operate heavy machinery for the rest of the day. (What's that? You're phenylketonuric? Oh, all right, I'll bring out the thumb screws)

4. I'm now going to ask you a few questions. Every time I don't get an answer, I'm going to trim one of your toe-nails. If I still haven't heard what I want to hear by the time I get to my 10th question, I might be forced to give you a pedicure. (Don't make me bring out those little cotton balls!)

5. You see what this is Larry? It's the Google website. If you won't tell me what I want to know I'm just going to have to use this. Do you want me to do that Larry? Do you want me to Google it? (Are you feeling lucky, Larry?)

6. Dear Sir. We have blocked all mails coming to you from If you ever want to hear from your favourite online pharmacy again, place one million dollars in unmarked bills in a brown manila envelope and...(P.S. We enclose the first line of their latest mail as proof that we mean business)

7. Think about it Mr. Bond. Either you let me carry on with my plans to rule the world (using a particularly addictive brand of potato chips), or I'll have Morris here machine wash this suit and make you wear it unironed. (Every woman who looks at you will be shaken, not stirred).

8. Tough guy, huh? Listen a**hole, if you don't tell me what I want right now I'm going to have to start re-arranging you CD collection. (See, threatening them with the 'rack' always works[1])

9. Lalitaji, either you talk now, or I'm going to wash all your white saris with this nameless yellow detergent. (See, I knew you would come clean)

10. Ha! Now shall you feel the Wrath of Rabah, the Fiscally Profligate. Men! Take him away and throw him into the pit full of tax accountants. And don't let him come out until they've disallowed at least half of his deductions. (Xana-duh: The Land of No Returns)

[1] This is because no one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving thoughts

The First Thanksgiving / Who's your turkey now?

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king
Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

- Edward Winslow, Mourt's Relation (courtesy: Wikipedia)

How touching. Over the next two hundred years, we will butcher your people, kill all your buffalo, decimate the natural environment that you've lived in harmony with for centuries and eventually restrict what's left of your tribes to a few scattered pieces of land, but meanwhile, have some more stuffing.


Is it just me, or do other people think that celebrating harvest festivals is a little redundant now? "We thank thee lord for this bountiful supermarket cart and for the 5% discount that thy Grace and the possession of a Fresh Grocer card have brought us".

Personally, I think we should move Thanksgiving to the close of the financial year, where every company should celebrate another year of meeting earnings estimates with sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie and an analyst roasted in gravy.

Monday, November 20, 2006

At the Zoo

Walking through the zoo
it occurs to me
that lions must prefer prose -

you can tell by the way they yawn,
the growl in their voice,
their fondness for manes.

It is the panthers, sleek and self-contained
in their arboreal hideaways
who are our true poets.

the monkeys chatter out
their reviews,

and the professors lie basking in the sun
like crocodiles
or so much dead wood.

Of all the versions of all the tunes in all the world

You know how sometimes a song or a tune gets stuck in your head and you can't get it out and instead you end up listening to the darn thing over and over again and each time only whets your appetite further?

My tune of the day / week / month (god, I hope not!) is As Time Goes By, performed by Stephane Grappelli, Live in Tokyo.

Go on, Sam. You know what to do.


(which is, of course, just a sigh)

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Bottle

Tell me a bed time story.

A what?

A bed time story. A proper one. The kind that starts 'Once upon a time' and is full of mystic places and magical things.

You want me to tell you a bed time story? Now?

Yes. And after that I want you to hold me in your arms while I sleep. Is that too much to ask?

Well then.

Once upon a time there was a bottle. It wasn't much to look at - just an ordinary glass bottle - plump waisted, green tinged, with a sour old cork blocking its mouth. You couldn't tell that it was a special bottle, though it was, of course. A special, magic bottle. What made it so special was that inside it was the most exquisite emptiness that anyone had ever seen. An emptiness made out of sunbeams and glimpses from the corners of lonely eyes, handcrafted and shrunk to miniature. A vision of emptiness, preserved perfectly under glass.

No one was sure how the emptiness had got in there in the first place. It was clearly too big to have fit through the bottle's narrow mouth. Some people claimed it was a trick - that there was this thing you could do with vinegar and a match that would make the mouth expand. Others said the bottle had been built around the emptiness, just wide enough to hold it. Still others said that there was no emptiness, that it was all an illusion, that someone had just painted the image of the emptiness on the inside of the glass (though that of course led to the question of how one could paint inside a bottle). At any rate, there the emptiness was, and everyone who saw it either admired it or felt sorry for it, depending on whether they imagined themselves outside the bottle or inside.

They had a name for the emptiness. They called it Thirst.

One day a young man was wandering through the bazaar in a little Eastern town, when he came upon the bottle. There were many other things at the stall, amulets of emerald and tiger-blood, quills of ostrich feather and unicorn bone, a pair of dice made from the Prophet's teeth, but it was the bottle that the young man fell in love with, buying it from the stall-keeper without even bargaining for it, carrying it home wrapped in a towel he borrowed from his hotel, convincing the security guard at the airport that it didn't matter, that it wasn't dangerous at all, because it was empty.

Once home, he would spend hours staring at the bottle. He would hold it up in front of his eyes and turn it very slowly, watching the light reflect off its surface like a secret morse. He would leave the bottle on the window-sill, watch as it changed with the changing light of the day. He dreamt of opening the bottle someday, of pressing that precious emptiness to his mouth, tasting the bitterness of it on his lips. Meanwhile he spent more and more time with the bottle, even leaving his school work (he was a student at the University) so as to be with it.


Are you awake?

I'm listening. What happened then?

One day the student finally plucked up his courage and uncorked the bottle. With trembling hands, he tilted the neck of it earthward, watching the emptiness pour out of it, puddling around his shoes at first, then starting to flow towards the door. It seemed to fill everything. His bedroom, the apartment, the building, the city. Everywhere he looked people were wading through it, trying not to let it soak into their clothes. And yet the amazing thing was that when he stopped pouring from the bottle and put the cork back in, there it was again, the emptiness, as delicate and beautiful as it had always been. He had drowned the world with it, but the bottle was still full! The thought of the power the bottle contained staggered him, and he hid it away at the bottom of his cupboard, vowing never to open it again.

In a few days the emptiness evaporated, though, taking his fear with it. What remained was the floodmark of his curiosity that left its stain on everything. How could so much oblivion fit within a single object, he wondered. And it began to occur to him that his bottle was not alone in this. Every door had an infinity of absences locked behind it, every clock was a trapped eternity. Every bottle of ink contained a sea of ideas. He experienced this realisation as a kind of vertigo and it made him understand how destructive and melancholy a weapon he had in the bottle, and yet the temptation to uncork it again grew stronger and stronger, until despairing and tormented he pulled it out from its hiding place, admired its smooth symmetry for one last time, and then, closing his eyes to keep the splinters of glass from blinding him, smashed his magic bottle against the wall.

Afterwards he never found an emptiness so complete, so absolute, again. Though sometimes, standing on the beach and staring out to the horizon he would imagine that he saw it vanishing in the distance, like a great ship sailing just out of his reach. He donated the shards of the bottle to the local museum, which confused them with the Pharoah's jewels and put them on display in the Egyptian section. For a while he went around putting notices all over his neighbourhood, asking if anyone had seen Nothing, but if someone had they never came forth. Eventually, the memory of those brilliant days spent staring at the bottle buried themselves away in his heart, like pieces of brilliant glass under the sand of a tide-washed shore.

Did he never find solitude again?

Not solitude, but emptiness. See, I knew you weren't listening. No, he never did. Though after he died the pallbearers who carried his coffin would swear that he carried the weight of that emptiness to the grave with him. But it could have been just his heart.

What a sad story.

You never said it had to be a happy one.

But bed time stories are always happy!

No. Bed time stories are always about the things we have and others don't. Safety, innocence, lack of courage. They are the storm that howls outside the wall so that we can snuggle into our blankets and feel safe.

All right, all right. Have it your way. I think I need a drink.

Friday, November 17, 2006

A Monetarist God

As you almost certainly know by now, Milton Friedman is dead.

The thing about Friedman was, he wasn't just an economist, he was the Economist. Friedman managed the incredible balancing trick that every academic / social scientist secretly dreams of - a formidable contribution to theory matched with an important influence over real world policy. The point about Friedman wasn't whether he was right or wrong, it was that he mattered, in a way that few of us ever will.

Meanwhile, if there is a heaven, Friedman is probably up there right now, convincing God that the best thing he can do for the rest of us is to leave us alone.

P.S. Amit Varma has a whole bunch of links to obituaries and articles about Friedman over at India Uncut. Go read.

Currently reading...

While others waged war
or sued for peace, or lay
in narrow beds in hospitals
or camps, for days on end

he practiced Beethoven's sonatas,
and slim fingers, like a miser's,
touched great treasures
that weren't his.

- Adam Zagajewski, 'Death of Pianist' (trans. by Clare Cavanagh)

Another word for father is worry.

Worry boils the water
for tea in the middle of the night.

Worry trimmed the child's nails before
singing him to sleep.

Another word for son is delight,
another word, hidden.

And another is One-Who-Goes-Away.
Yet another, One-Who-Returns.

So many words for son:
His -Play-Vouchsafes-Our-Winter-Share.

But only one word for father.
And sometimes a man is both.
Which is to say sometimes a ma
manifests mysteries beyond
his own understanding.

For instance, being the one and the many,
and the loneliness of either. Or

the living light we see by, we never see. Or

the sole word weighs
heavy as a various name.

And sleepless worry folds the laundry for tomorrow.
Tired worry wakes the child for school.

Orphan worry writes the note he hides
in the child's lunch bag.
It begins, Dear Firefly...
- Li-Young Lee, 'Words for Worry' (italics in the original. Very annoying though).

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The shirt

She left his clothes in the closet.

There was nowhere else to put them, and she wasn’t ready to throw them away.

Every day she took a fresh shirt from its hanger, washed it, hung it out to dry. Watching the empty shape of him billow in her back yard.

Wondering if the neighbours knew.

P.S. What better way to mark my 555th post than with a 55 word story?

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Leaf Robbers

They arrive before sunrise. Three strangers in identical raincoats, driving a battered pick-up truck.

They have come to steal the leaves from under my tree.

They move like clockwork, leaping out of the vehicle with practised ease, each man knowing his part. They are professionals, they have done this before.

I feel like I should be sounding some kind of alarm, calling out to someone for help. They feel it too. You can see it in the way they glance guiltily about, by how afraid they seem that the sun might come up and catch them.

One man holds the black plastic bag open. The other two shovel hasty armloads of leaves into its mouth. When they feel they have got enough they knot the top of the bag, throw it into the rear of the truck, drive off.

By the time I think to take down the number on the license plate it is too late.

There are still some leaves left though. The ones they didn't get away with. The ones they missed.

I pick one up in my hand, uncrease it between my fingers. Wondering what, in the currency of fall, its denomination would be.

And I imagine the leaf robbers, the haul they got away with. I imagine them sitting in a dark warehouse somewhere, counting these golden leaves one by one, seperating them into three equal piles.

I imagine one of the thieves arriving back at his house and pouring his share out on the bed, then throwing himself down on top of it, laughing like a maniac to hear the crisp, illicit crackle of our ransacked summer.

Buddha in Love

Do you ever have one of those moments when you see a headline (and I use the term loosely) that just sounds so inane that you have to click through to the article?

Take, for instance, this article on Yahoo! which asks the all-important question - How would the Buddha date? Aside from being a visionary, philosopher and spiritual leader, the Buddha, it turns out, is also hot stuff on the dating circuit. The author of the piece argues that this is because the Buddha recognises the fundamental interconnectedness of all beings (and no, he's not talking about Orkut) and uses every relationship as a vehicle for meaningful spiritual connection (presumably while getting hot and heavy on the back seat). Personally, I think it has more to do with the fact that he apparently has four arms. At any rate, it seems that there is actually a point to attaining enlightenment. Never mind the possibility of eternal nirvana, it means that women can't get enough of you.

But wait, does this mean you have to run away from home and sit under trees until a lightbulb goes off in your head? Not at all. After a lot of spirituo-twaddle about maitri and karuna, the author finally cuts to the chase, telling us that:

"The essence of Buddhist relationship is to cultivate the cling-free relationship, enriched with caring and equanimity. It is helpful in intimate relationships to communicate honestly, stay present, tell the truth of your experience using I-statements rather than accusations and judgments, and honor the other enough to show up with an open heart and mind and really listen."

Ah, cling-free relationships. Yes, of course. To go with your perma-press heart, no doubt. And who knew that in order to have an intimate relationship you actually had to stay present? No wonder my attempts at multi-tasking aren't working. Never mind the larger detachment from the world, all you need to do to get it on like Siddhartha is "Make yourself the "perfect" mate, without being too perfectionistic about it". What could be easier?

If you do actually succeed in wading through the dense jungle of cliches, you realise that the essence of the whole argument is that you need to have really, really low standards. As long as you're willing to go out with practically anyone, and still manage to see their positive side, you're never going to be strapped for dates. Of course, the laws of selection mean that you're going to end up dating the most outrageous losers, but hopefully you're too busy being a goody two-shoes to actually notice.

Personally, the whole thing sounds way too milk-sop for me. I don't want passion changed to compassion - I'd like to be able to tell the difference between my lover and my social worker. And I'd hate to be in bed with someone who "recognizes every moment in life as a possibility of awakening" (was it good for you, or did you just achieve enlightenment?). The most important thing in a relationship may be the tenderness of a good heart, but I'd like mine done rare, thank you. Take away excess baggage, anxiety and neurosis and what you have isn't a relationship, it's catatonia. Just ask that other great spiritual leader of our time - Woody Allen.

On the other hand, if detachment is the hallmark of a good relationship, then I'm getting SO much action.

Next up in the series: How would the Buddha do his taxes? How would the Buddha program his VCR? Does the Buddha kiss on first dates?

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Scian Contest

The results of the Scian short story contest are out. The first prize goes to Aditya Sudarshan's Asylum at Bergen, a short story that made me think wistfully of my (inherited) collection of the Pan Books of Horror Stories. And while Selva's put up the top 9 stories of the contest, all of which are worth a read (well, almost), let me put in a plug for Chetan Rao's Cell Death, which didn't really work for me as a story, but is a fascinating read otherwise (if you haven't figured this out already, I'm a sucker for graphs).

As one of the judges for the contest, I had fun reading through the 29 stories we received. It's interesting to see what people are influenced by - generous dollops of Asimov with dabs of Douglas Adams, sprinklings of the Da Vinci Code (or what I imagine was the Da Vinci Code, not having read it) and a light garnish of the Blade Runner. Enchanting stuff, though extremely raw for the most part.

I have to say, though, that there was a point around story number 14 when a liberal shot of vodka would have helped. I'm the last person to have the right to complain about pessimistic visions of the future, but it's fascinating how story after story imagines the future as dystopic and dark, a world where the forces of nature have been subverted and plot their revenge, where computers and machines have diminished the meaning of being human. What I missed, reading these stories, was that Verne-ian sense of wonder, the palpable excitement of exploration, the now almost subversive idea that science can help us discover, not just more about the world around us, but, more interestingly, more about who we are; how science can help us be more intensely ourselves [1]. At the heart of the scientific enterprise is the joy of discovery, of pushing the envelope of what is known, of boldly going where no man has gone before. Technology may destroy the soul, but it may also amplify it.

Don't misunderstand me. This is not a criticism of the authors who entered the contest. I suspect our increasing pessimism about the future science can create for us is the inevitable consequence of living in a nuclear world, and a telling comment on what science has come to mean to the popular imagination [2]. I can't help wondering, though, what someone like Hart Crane would have made of the world we now live in. This was a man whose masterwork is an ode to something as (relatively) stolid as the Brooklyn Bridge. What excesses of lyric poetry would he have found in the Internet, in the structure of DNA?


[1] I'm speaking here of the general trend, of course - there are certainly some notable exceptions among the 29 stories I read, some of which, for precisely that reason, are included in the top 9.

[2] The man vs. science divide may also reflect, I suspect, the humanities vs. science divide, so deeply ingrained in our education system, but that's a whole other post.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Lonesome Death of Jessica Lall

"But you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face.
Now ain't the time for your tears."

- Bob Dylan, 'The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll'
Reading the posts about Ram Jethmalani's defense strategy in the Jessica Lall murder trial that are sprouting all over the blogosphere (see here, here and here), I can't help being reminded of 'The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll', Dylan's timeless song about how power and wealth can help you get away with murder. Literally.

The point that Dylan makes there is that the real outrage is not when the rich try to buy their way out of their crimes, but when they succeed. That Jethmalani is choosing to defend his client with a combination of irrelevant character assassination [1] and outright fiction [2] may be somewhat distasteful, but it's hardly surprising. Short of making the argument that his client is an evil son of a bitch whom hanging would be to good for, it's hard to see what other defense he could make. The real outrage will be if he succeeds. Let's hope that that doesn't happen.

Meanwhile, speaking of lowlifes, it seems a familiar menace is rearing its pony-tailed head. Deepak Shenoy over at the Unknown Indian blogs about attempts to turn the IIPM wikipedia into yet another litany of half-truths and lies, and asks for help in keeping the orcs at bay. Go read (link via Mohit).


[1] So if someone refuses to have sex with me I get to shoot them in the head? Because they challenged my (ha! ha!) 'manhood' ? Really? Wow! Does this apply to men as well, or is only heterosexual sex covered?

[2] Methinks Jethmalani has been watching too many re-runs of JFK. This second shooter theory seems to come straight out of Dallas.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Orange Crush

"Now that U2 has become America's spokesband for human dignity, it's difficult to remember that R.E.M., the quiet Georgians with the elliptical lyrics, once competed with U2 for the title of world's best rock band. With U2 triumphant and R.E.M. fading into near-obscurity, And I Feel Fine reminds listeners that R.E.M., not U2, made the most memorable music of the 1980s."
Over at Slate, Dan Kois compares U2 and R.E.M. and comes down firmly on the side of the latter. I couldn't agree more. I'm vaguely fond of Bono & Co. but R.E.M. is a whole other level. On sheer number of songs on my i-Pod (which I finally maxed out three days ago, btw) alone, R.E.M. beats U2 by a factor of 5 to 1. And some of the U2 songs I don't even like that much.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


And speaking of imaginary travel, few itineraries can match the sightseeing trip of Europe organised by the Philadelphia Orchestra this evening.

We begin in Spain, with the flamboyant Albeniz as our guide, tripping our way lightly through Castille, before arriving in the rarified and melancholy air of Granada, our passage punctuated by the peal of bells. Seville comes next, a Sunday in summer, great crowds of suave men and women gathering in the city centre to watch the music unfold as graceful as flamenco dancer. Then on to that pulse-quickening rhythm of Asturias, that familiar yet insistent beat that demands and demands and demands, like a heart running out of control, until at last Spain bids us farewell, its adieu a last hurrah of a dance, castanets clacking.

Leaving Iberia behind, we enter France, and are immediately lost in the misty, dreamlike landscapes of Debussy. Breathless tonalities of music that vanish like smoke, streaks of sound dabbed exquisitely onto on a bass canvas, impressionist shapes of tunes that linger just out of our reach. We are overtaken by a vague sense of dread, a sense of invisible clouds gathering on the horizon, but our fears are soon dispelled as a glorious festival plants its song in our heart. We feel we are dancing in and out of shadows now, the music coming to rest on a cello's stillness, before breaking out into a clarion call of trumpets. We could drown in these melodies forever, but the time is not far when we must sail away from this place, our departure marked by the wordless songs of women bidding us goodbye.

As the songs of these sirens fade into the distance, we find ourselves arriving in Rome, our host none other than Ottorino Respighi. Here the music tinkles gently through the fields, skipping along like a clear spring, before vanishing underground, and progressing through a network of harmonies of ever increasing pressure to where the great pipes of an organ and the resounding brass of the trumpets propel it skyward in a great swoosh, the fountain spurting into the air with the crash of three cymbals, and then the slow trickling down as the notes fall back to earth and the gushing momentum of the sound dies away in ripples. We are reluctant to leave - we keep turning around to look back - like characters in some old black and white movie, watching some familiar village scene grow fainter and fainter.

But our voyage is not over yet. Far from it. The greatest adventure of all is yet to come. The faintest thrumming of the bass tells us that we are headed North, sweeping through the great snow-covered plains of Russia, to where the inexorable dynamics of Stravinsky erect themselves into a forbidding castle, and the Firebird waits to erupt like a great Pheonix, its wings blocking out the sky. A lone maiden sings her plainitive song from the battlements, then the evil tyrant arrives, his every heartbeat like the crack of doom, and the battle is joined. Baleful powers rise shrieking into the air, the sound soars, spirals and then, with one final explosion, dies; and the voices that remain grope together in confusion, slowly turning to each for warmth, for solace, joined in a final unity so compelling, it lifts us almost spontaneously into applause.

And I emerge from the Kimmel Centre wondering what I'm doing back in Philadelphia, wondering how I could have returned here already, when just a few minutes back I was both half way across the globe and in a different world.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

48 hours in the Waste Land

Veena has a new blog. It's ostensibly a travel blog, describing potential itineraries to places in 48 hour sized bites. Except that Veena isn't fettered by such technicalities as whether a place actually exists, with the result that I'm happy to play Eddie Murphy to her Nick Nolte and true to my bookworm self, provide descriptions of travel to fictional places. The first of which, a weekend trip to T.S. Eliot's Waste Land, is now up. Go read.

Warning: If you're not into poetry and / or haven't read The Waste Land be prepared for some serious head scratching.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Intelligent design

Imagine that there is an afterlife, that there is a heaven and a hell.

Imagine these are not the Ultimate Fate of Good and Evil but merely two treatment groups in a centuries old lab experiment that the Almighty is running.

Imagine that each one of the seven circles is a different level of the manipulation.

Imagine that people are assigned to these conditions at random.

Imagine that purgatory is a control group.

Imagine that when the Day of Judgement comes along, God will come with his RAs and hand out surveys for us to fill.

Imagine that afterwards we'll get paid ten dollars for our millennia of suffering and return to being undergraduates for all of eternity.

What would be the purpose of Life in such a Universe?

To generate variance, of course.

What would be the implication of the analysis? Who would the findings be generalisable to?

I don't know. I only hope His results turn out significant.

I doubt it, though. If the Universe is anything to go by, God doesn't have a thesis.


Friday, November 03, 2006

Top Ten Time Travel Destinations # 4

"Balanced there, suicides sometimes meet,
raging at the fruit, a pumped-up moon,
leaving the bread they mistook for a kiss,

leaving the page of the book carelessly open,
something unsaid, the phone off the hook
and the love, whatever it was, an infection."

- Anne Sexton, 'Wanting to Die' [1]
Boston University, Spring 1959. Robert Lowell is teaching poetry. In his class are Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. Nervous Breakdown hovers outside like an anxious nanny. The gods of confessional poetry rain down suicides.

Can you imagine having to mark participation for that class?

If I sound like a gawking fanboy, the blame belongs to David Trinidad, whose article about the relationship between Plath and Sexton in the latest issue of the American Poetry Review (not available online unfortunately) is an exercise in breathless and contagious hero-worship. A sample line reads:

"On February 1 she [Anne Sexton] writes Snodgrass: "Lowell is really helping me...he likes the look of my 'book', with some critical reservations, and has shown it to Stanley Kunitz...who...agree[s] with his total he likes my work a lot...." Enough to also share it with Randall Jarrell, among others."
That's a serious amount of name dropping for a half paragraph, but you can't help being at least a little caught up in Trinidad's enthusiasm - you can almost feel the poetry sloshing about in the air. And to his credit Trinidad does eventually get to the poetry Plath and Sexton wrote, after he's spent some three pages salivating over the vision of them drinking martinis together in a Boston bar.

Besides, who are we kidding? Our admiration for poetry is not a sterile thing, chaste and intellectual. Our love for poetry is a form of worship, every bit as headlong and visceral and starstruck as the gossip columnist's devotion or the groupie's offered surrender. These are not simply names off our bookshelves, they are the spirits we conjure with, the voices we keep at our command to summon the darkness when we need it.

Lowell writes:

"sixty thousand American infants a year,
U.I.D., Unexplained Infant Deaths,
born physically whole and hearty, refuse to live,
Sylvia...the expanding torrent of your attack."

- Robert Lowell 'Sylvia Plath'

[1] One of my all time favourite poems about suicide, by Sexton or anyone else.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Is it still laziness when... wake up an hour earlier than you need to every day because you can't be bothered to set your alarm one hour back to adjust for daylight saving?

Sigh. some chores just seem so much more critical early in the morning than they do late at night.