The Yield

It is no secret that I love a good Christmas poem. Last year I shared my pagan-titled “Mother Night,” and in 2012 I wrote about some of my favorite Thomas Hardy Christmas poems.

The seventh-century British poet Robert Herrick is one of the guiding spirits of my new book, Druthers, so I thought this year to share his wonderfully weird “Christmasse-Eve, another Ceremonie”:

Come guard this night the Christmas-Pie,

That the Thiefe, though ne’r so slie,

With his Flesh-hooks, don’t come nie,

To catch it

From him, who all alone sits there,

Having his eyes still in his eare,

And a deal of nightly feare

To watch it.

When I first read this poem, I felt a shudder of astonishment at the term “Flesh-hooks,” which I thought a Herrickian metaphor for hands. The joining of cold hard metal to soft warm flesh turned Hardy’s thief into a clever cyborg. But “fleshhook” is actually a Biblical term: “And the priests’ custom with the people was, that, when any man offered sacrifice, the priest’s servant came, while the flesh was in seething, with a fleshhook of three teeth in his hand; And he struck it into the pan, or kettle or caldron, or pot; all that the fleshhook brought up the priest took for himself (Samuel 2:13-14 KJV). Is Herrick, vicar of Dean Prior in Devon, author of His Noble Numbers, implying that, if not carefully watched, the priest will take the Christmas-Pie for himself? Will he pull the meat out of the mince?

Attentive to this worry the guard in Herrick’s poem has “his eyes still in his eare.” What a wonderful description of the auditory nature of a midnight vigil. The instinct up, our ears as eyes, we drink to the dregs our “deal of nightly feare.” And indeed, how many of us as kids listened more intently on Christmas night than any other night of the year! For hoofs, for bells, for the wanted intruder and the rustle of paper . . .

As a childless adult it can be a challenge to recapture that magic. In my poem of Christmas, “The Yield,” (from my 2009 book Clampdown) my seasonal disaffection is disrupted by a Hardy-esque experience: the sight of a small industrious mouse preparing to weather an oncoming storm.

 

 

The Yield

Cold to the Christmas bluster,

which I believed “all bloated commerce,”

I morning-gazed not half-awake

out the low distorting window panes

scarcely secured in the rotting casements

of this old Sears catalog bungalow.

I was careless of the scene I watched.

It spoke, I thought, a dreary death,

aloft, monotonous cottony white,

below, twig-littered lifeless brown—

before the impending pinch,

a snow-portentous silent stillness

in a maddeningly quiescent landscape.

A thumb of silvery fur ensnared

my visual stupor, it was a mouse

scooting across the perilous ground

that lay between the rustic lean-tos

of brittle nut-brown maple leaves.

Image-gripped, but how to name it,

this will to live in little things?

Upon such monumental nerve

we build and break our wage.

Wholly unaware of me with cup

of tepid tea, well-fed antagonist

needled toward wonderment

by the pertinacious gathering

of this tiny attic resident, who,

apropos my fancy, went about

his fretful setting up of store

while seeming to mutter under

his breath “a big storm’s coming!”

He was right. Come midnight

and the ribboned pine-wreaths

hung upon the wooden doors,

this artless morning theater

was dressed foot-high in drifts

of blue-tinged starlit snow.

Today as I harbor in that same bungalow, bracing for several more “weather events” many of those “rotting casements” have been replaced by efficient vinyl windows, and many of our “attic residents” have been exiled as a result of new insulation. What hasn’t changed is the power of snow to enchant the dreary theatre of winter. Born and raised in Southern California, I don’t think I’ll ever stop being seduced by the beauty of Maine’s snowy vistas.

 

 

 

Diabolical Mimicry, Plagiarism by Anticipation, and a Simply Divine Convergence

 

On our last trip to New York, to see L’Amour de loin, Steve and I made our customary visit to The Strand. Fantastic things can happen in this stiflingly over-heated survivor from the golden age of bookstores. This visit was no different. Adjacent poetry we ran into New York School scholar Andrew Epstein and his family, visiting from Florida, only seconds after Steve had bumped into Alan Gilbert, an old acquaintance from the 1990s poetry world, back when arguments over the value of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, or whether you studied at Brown or Buffalo, seemed tantamount to the mid-century literary brawls of Manhattan’s mandarin set. It’s amazing how a big city can become quite small when you edit yourself into a rarefied field of interest. Social serendipities discharged, Steve and I carted our armloads of books to the check out, paid, and left them to be shipped home, already anticipating that gorgeous moment when, having nearly forgotten our excesses, a big box arrives on our Maine doorstep. Included in this recent parcel was The Collected Verse of Noel Coward. Not Coward’s song lyrics (I already own that volume), but his poems. Yes, apparently all throughout his long life Mr. Coward “derived a considerable amount of private pleasure from writing verse.” I shelved the bright red hardcover and didn’t give it another thought.

Until last week. An epic home renovation coming to an end, we had the opportunity to move some books. Always a pleasure. I took Mr. Coward’s verse off the shelf and began dipping in. Though he is decidedly a much better lyricist than poet, I did find pleasures in his mostly light verse thanks to the usual tonic of his strong, arch, and “irretrievably ‘period’’’[1] style, the same that comes through much of his writing, but especially through his memoirs, Present Indicative (1934) and Future Indefinite (1954). Many years ago these books saved me from some rather baroque prose habits I had fallen into while writing my memoir, The Middle Room. Stuck around chapter ten, my sentences becoming longer and longer, I found I had lost the ability to ignore any detail or event, no matter how trivial. A compulsive read-through of Coward’s memoirs schooled me in just how delightful it might be for a reader, bogged down in the minutiae of my narcissistic reveries, to come upon a sentence as simple as: “The days and weeks went by.” And thus Noel Coward, already a lifestyle icon, become an icon of literary finesse.

You can imagine my delight, therefore, when deep into my reading of Coward’s verses, my eye fell upon a poem titled “Convalescence” which just happened to bear an uncanny resemblance to my own poem, written decades afterwards, “Dividend of the Social Opt Out.” In shape, structure, and sentiment, the two poems share an identity, down even, in some cases, to word choice! Knowing that I had never before set eyes on Coward’s “Convalescence,” I had no other recourse but to label this simply divine convergence as an exemplary case of “Plagiarism by Anticipation.”

A term playfully embraced by Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), “Plagiarism by Anticipation” is the idea that a writer from the past can anticipate, and therefore plagiarize, the literary works of the future. As Jacques Roubaud put it, “authors that predate the founding of the Oulipo who, drawing on Oulipian matter, reveal themselves to be copiers of the Oulipo.” So, for example, when ancient Greek writers wrote lipograms (avoiding certain letters), these writers were said to have plagiarized the popular Oulipoean constraint by anticipation.

Yet this formula of the past copying the future actually predates Oulipo. It refers to a theory certain early Christian apologists supposedly used to better explain the many overlaps between paganism and the gospels. The overlaps (baptism, virgin birth, resurrection, etc.) were explained as “tricks” demons played to test our faith, thus “Plagiarism by Anticipation” was also referred to by the more dashing term of “diabolical mimicry.” These terms were used in the nineteenth century by Theosophists Madame Blavatsky and G. R. S. Mead in support of their creation of a syncretic Gnosticism. However, a quick web search of “plagiarism by anticipation” or “diabolical mimicry” will lead you instead to The Jesus Mysteries, a popular 1999 book in which the writers confer upon the “desperate claim” that “the devil” plagiarized Jesus the distinction of being “one of the most absurd arguments ever advanced.”

I disagree. I think “diabolical mimicry” is an ingenious and charming claim, that is if you take it lightly. And there is little evidence that it was ever advanced in the way the gleeful “debunkers” would have us believe. None of the early apologists cited—Irenaeus, Tertullian, Justin Martyr—ever used the terms “plagiarism by anticipation” or “diabolical mimicry.”[2] Their ideas were more in keeping with the Testament of Orpheus. I refer here not to the wonderful Cocteau film of the same name, but to a third century document in which the first poet bears witness to “the single and eternal pattern of the universe.” The Testament supports a popular Hellenistic legend that when a young man Orpheus traveled to Egypt to study with Moses, after which he rejected polytheism in favor of a single god: “He is the one” Orpheus writes, “self-begotten, and all things are brought to pass by Him.”[3] This chapter proved far less enduring in the poet’s mythic biography than his infamous backward glance.

From Christian apologists to Noël Coward. An unusual journey indeed. And yet, in another divine convergence, during the writing of these musing I have been felled by a very nasty cold. Thus it is from my bed, in a quiet, empty house, cat beside me, that I seek my “hyperlinks” and final turn of phrase. This ghastly illness has, as Coward put it, given me “time / to invent a little rhyme.” I post “Convalescence” below, with a link to my “Dividend of the Social Opt Out.” Judge for yourself whether Noël devilishly hid his poem in the archives that the future may discredit the “virgin birth” of my little homage to the secret pleasures of the introvert.

Convalescence

To have been a little ill
To relax
To have Glucose and Bemax

To be still.

To feel definitely weak
On a diet
To be ordered to be quiet

Not to speak.

To skim through the morning news,
To have leisure,
The ineffable, warm pleasure

Of a snooze.

To have cooling things to drink,
Fresh Spring Flowers,
To have hours and hours and hours

Just to think.

To have been a little ill
To have time
To invent a little rhyme

To be still.

To have no one that you miss

This is bliss!

—Noël Coward

[1] In After Babel George Steiner, using Private Lives as his example, makes a very compelling case for what he calls the “irretrievably ‘period’’’ style of Coward’s dialogue. Thus I chalk up my attraction to Coward as one of my long list of nostalgic passions, a term I use throughout The Middle Room.

[2] For a helpful and measured look at this issue, click here.

[3] Friedman, John Block. Orpheus in the Middle Ages. Harvard UP, 1970. 13-15.

Stephen Rodefer, November 20, 1940 — August 22, 2015

In our Providence apartment, 1992
In our Providence apartment, 1992

I feel a mix of nostalgia and melancholy today, occasioned by the news that my old teacher and sometime friend, poet Stephen Rodefer, has died in Paris. He played a significant role in my chronicle of what I jokingly called l’école de San Diego—The Middle Roomand a significant role in my poetic formation. But he was not a mentor. That word, originating from the name of the sage advisor in The Odyssey, doesn’t fit Rodefer. He was more like Odysseus, many minded, wiley, attractive, a “resort darling.”* In The Middle Room I compared him to a god: “his air was aristocratic, and when he walked he surveyed the landscape before him like a man who is certain that he has, like Apollo, left in the wake of his golden form a comet’s tail of glowing light . . .” And later, “He was dedicated to the old-fashioned image of the poet whose only master is truth and only mistress beauty . . . .” Many today might find the way he played the poet role old fashioned, but when I was young I found the romance he brought to it both silly and intoxicating. Anyone who spent any time in his company has an anecdote to tell.

During the years Steve and I lived in Providence (1989—1998) he visited often. An especially memorable time was in May of ’94, right after I had graduated from Brown. Following a stint in Cambridge, England he showed up carrying a battered leather suitcase that had supposedly belonged to I. A. Richards (it was monogrammed). Inside was one of the largest bottles of Vodka I’d ever seen. Taking all the new poetry anthologies that had appeared during his time abroad, he proceeded to set up camp in our backyard, drinking and leafing through volumes, out of which he composed a poem.

He had a fondness for feminine things. Two tableaux: Rodefer in a skimpy silk robe sitting at our Providence kitchen table polishing his toes with my nail polish. Rodefer at my vanity table in Maine, in front of the lighted mirror, putting on mascara before being filmed.

Rodefer_BooksConsensus among poets tends to be that though a complicated, self-destructive, and often infuriating person, Rodefer was a great poet. His tastes shaped mine: O’Hara, Villon, Williams, to name a few. He had only to mention a writer for me to seek that writer out, in part because he spoke his aesthetic opinions as though they were obvious and irrefutable. Consensus also holds that his book Four Lectures is his masterpiece. But personally, I’ve always had a fondness for his O’Hara influenced volumes, The Bell Clerk’s Tears Keep Flowing, and One or Two Love Poems from the White World.

 

Rodefer_Relics_2015Rodefer_dedication_dictionarySteve and I have two Rodefer relics, now deepened by the pathos things take on when their former owners die: The first is a monogrammed edition of his battered old Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, with a touching dedication to me. The second is a flowery scarf he lost after a particularly wild party at our home in Orono (the festivities went until 4AM). Though he surrendered the dictionary willingly, Rodefer was very upset about the loss of the scarf. We searched the house high and low, but couldn’t find it. After he left town, Steve and I were walking through the village center when we espied the missing scarf tied to a lamppost. How it got there is a mystery to this day. Rest in peace, poet.

Rodefers_Websters

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Jack Gilbert, “The Plundering of Circe”

Planet X

Steve, prompted by the cool images of Pluto being sent back to Earth by NASA’s New Horizon’s spacecraft, casually says, “don’t you have a poem about this?”

Well, not yet. I decide he must be thinking of “The Waver in the Orbit of Uranus Becomes Unexplainable.” This poem, from Imagination Verses, takes its title and governing metaphor from the 200 year quest of astronomers to explain irregularities in the orbit of Uranus by hunting for a celestial body (known as “Planet X”) beyond the seventh planet. This quest led to the discovery of Neptune in 1846, and, more significantly for today’s post, of Pluto in 1930. Here’s a more informative source. I must have read about Planet X in the 1990s—when sky gazers put paid to this theory by recalibrating the mass of Neptune.

Here’s the poem:

The Waver in the Orbit of Uranus Becomes Unexplainable

I ask you, is it fitting to undo me by leaving
now that we know there is nothing out there
beyond what we can see?
I admit I’ve suffered from a “parallax of heart,”
born of a skewing jealousy and seen most evenings
in field-weary gazing upon your sleeping body.
From that angle all other worlds look bleak.
Though I will not call on heaven if you leave,
for I’m certain that the spirit is a one-eyed
pretender to the throne of painfree living
who has stolen all my daydreams for a shot at the beyond.

I suspect the water’s edge is enamored of the water,
a quiver on the surface tells me not the wind
but the wish to drift will devastate the sand.
It is the future’s focal infection, this insistence on death,
like when my mother and father cradled me
as the answer to each other’s desperate tread towards union.
For this is a universe where things are not apparent
in their cruelty, but continual, and the sweetness of order
is increasingly evanescent. If I could hide this day forever
from the pleasure of renewal and banish all contingency
from happening I would, but I have never seen planet X
or the wooden ships on the Eastern horizon.
Up until now my life has faced West, sequestered
reason reaching for an injudicious kiss.

And here’s the planet:

Pluto 2015
Pluto 2015