Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition, Quatrain LV

This quatrain is thematically linked with the previous quatrain and several of the following quatrains with its recommendation that wine is the best solution to the quandaries presented by our existence here.


Oh, plagued no more with Human or Divine,
To-morrow's tangle to itself resign,
    And lose your fingers in the tresses of
The Cypress-slender Minister of Wine. 


Perplext no more with Human or Divine,
To-morrow's tangle to the winds resign,
    And lose your fingers in the tresses of
The Cypress-slender Minister of Wine.

One of the changes made between the Second and the Fifth Editions occurs early in the first line where "Oh, plagued" becomes "Perplext," where, instead of being bothered by the "Human of Divine," one is now confused by it.  The second change takes place in the second line where the "To-morrow's tangle" is left to itself in the Second Edition and in the Fifth it is left to the winds.  Since the winds will simply blow it away, that suggests the problem is insolvable whereas if it's left to itself, that hints that it may resolve itself.

In both quatrains the poet advises to leave the tangle be, although with differing consequences, and instead to become enamored of wine, the ultimate solution to all tangles, be they human or divine.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Favorite novels read in 2015

The following is a list of the novels that I had read in 2015 that impressed me the most among all the others I had read. 


Anthony Powell:        A Dance to the Music of Time  (twelve novels)

Sarah Orne Jewett:    The Country of Pointed Firs and Other Stories

Harper Lee:                 Go Set a Watchman

Tsao Hsueh-chin:        Dream of the Red Chamber (aka The Story of the Stone)


Dostoyevsky:              The Gambler, The Double,  Notes from Underground

Jane Austen:               Pride and Prejudice

Balzac:                         The Black Sheep

Mikhail Bulgakov:      Heart of a Dog

It doesn't appear to be a long list, but Anthony Powell's series consists of twelve novels.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Favorite SF novels read in 2015

The following is a list of those SF/F works that I read in 2015 and that stood out among the many other works that I had read.  These will be read again, sometime in the future. 


First time readings

Robert Silverberg           Downward to the Earth

Liu Cixin                        The Three-Body Problem

Emily St. John Mandel   Station Eleven

Andy Weir                       The Martian

China Mieville                 Railsea
Ben Winters                     The Last Policeman


Hal Clement                Mission of Gravity

Alfred Bester               The Stars My Destination

Arthur C. Clarke          Rendezvous with Rama

Gene Wolfe                 Nightside the Long Sun 

David Brin                  The Uplift War


First Readings

Sofia Samatar                 A Stranger in Olondria

Russell Hoban                Linger Awhile, Angelica Lost and Found, Soonchild

It's been a good year for SF/F as there are five new authors on the list.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Robert Frost: "Dust of Snow"

This is a short poem by Robert Frost, but it speaks of something important--the way small or seemingly inconsequential events can affect us even though the event itself has really nothing in common with its effect.  Why does this affect the narrator the way it does?

Dust of Snow

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.  

I think Frost's genius is in his ability to see the little things that are of real consequence though few of us see them at the time.  His poetry isolates those moments, those events, and shows us what we have missed.   

Perhaps next time we may be more observant.  

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Emily Dickinson: a winter poem

Like Brooms of Steel
The Snow and Wind
Had swept the Winter Street--
The House was hooked
The Sun sent out
Faint Deputies of Heat--
Where rode the Bird
The Silence tied
His ample-plodding Steed
The Apple in the Cellar sang
Was all the one that played.
 -- Emily Dickinson --
Poem No. 1252
from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
Edited by Thomas H. Johnson

Lean and spare, as are all of Emily Dickinson's poems.  Having lived in Chicago, I know what those "Brooms of Steel" are like.  The winds cut through anything one can wear, and only four walls can keep them out, mostly.  And, even on a sunny, windless day, the sun's heat is barely noticeable.  And the silence .  .  .

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: 2nd Edition, Quatrain LIV

This is another of the quatrains that FitzGerald introduced in the Second Edition of his version of the Rubaiyat.


But if in vain, down on the stubborn floor
Of Earth, and up to Heav'n's  unopening door,
  You gaze To-Day, while You are You--how then 
To-morrow, You when shall be You no more?


But if in vain, down on the stubborn floor
Of Earth, and up to Heav'n's  unopening door
  You gaze To-Day, while You are You--how then 
To-morrow, You when shall be You no more? 

The only difference I can see between the two editions is the missing comma at the end of the second line in the Fifth Edition.  Aside from that, the two versions are identical. 

This quatrain seems to link the previous quatrains to several following quatrains. The previous series were of the Master who created the puppet show we are trapped in and hides from us, giving us at best only an occasional glimpse.   We are asked here about the consequences of this situation--our ignorance

It's our ignorance regarding our fate and the refusal? inability? of both heaven and earth to answer our question.  We search now, but tomorrow?  What then, when we are no more.  We get no answers while we are here and certainly no answers when we are no more.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

A Passage and a Poem: David Abram and Wallace Stevens

I've mentioned this before, but I'll bring it up again because this is the basis for this particular post.  I would be reading something, and a passage would immediately bring another book or passage or poem to mind.  Sometimes the link would be obvious, while in others it would be remote or even invisible.  This is the passage I was reading when the poem popped up, distracting me to the point I had to stop reading and muse on it for awhile.  

Each thing organizes the space around it, rebuffing or sidling up against other things;  each thing calls, gestures, beckons to other beings or battles them for our attentions; things expose themselves  to the sun or retreat among the shadows, shouting with their loud colors or whispering with their seeds; rocks snag lichen spores from the air and shelter spiders under their flanks; clouds converse with the fathomless blue and metamorphose into one another; they spill rain upon the land, which gathers in rivulets and  carves out canyons; skyscrapers slice the winds and argue with one another over the tops of townhouses; backhoes and songbirds are coaxed into duets by the percussive rhythm of the subway beneath the street.  Things "catch our eye" and sometimes refuse to let go; they"grab our focus" and "capture our attention," and finally release us from their grasp only to dissolve back into the overabundant world.  Whether ecstatic or morose, exuberant or exhausted, everything swerves and trembles; anguish, equanimity, and pleasure are not first internal moods but passions granted to us by the capricious terrain.
-- David Abram --
from Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology


This is the poem that immediately came to mind when I began the passage above.
 Anecdote of the Jar

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

-- Wallace Stevens --

Well, anybody see the link here?  Did you think of something else when you read the passage?  If so, let me know.  I would be interested in learning what memory that passage brought to mind.

One other question:  what does the following sentence fragment suggest to you?
--anguish, equanimity, and pleasure are not first internal moods but passions granted to us by the capricious terrain.

 Who is David Abram?
"David Abram is an American philosopher, cultural ecologist, and performance artist, best known for his work bridging the philosophical tradition of phenomenology with environmental and ecological issues. Wikipedia

What is his book, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, about?
"'This is a book about becoming a two-legged animal, entirely a part of the animate world whose life swells within and unfolds all around us. It seeks a new way of speaking, one that enacts our interbeing with the earth rather than blinding us to it. A language that stirs a new humility in relation to other earthborn beings, whether spiders or obsidian outcrops or spruce limbs bent low by the clumped snow. A style of speech that opens our senses to the sensuous in all its multiform strangeness,' writes David Abram, a cultural ecologist and environmental philosopher."

For a little more about the book, go here:

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Gregory Benford: two short stories from the Galactic Center Universe

The Galactic Center series consists of six novels, ranging in time from the late 1990s to 30,000+ years in the future, and from Earth to the center of our galaxy.   To be brief, it is the story of the war between the Mech civilization, ruled by almost godlike AIs, and all organic life forms, especially the sentient species, including humanity.  In the 30,000+ years, humanity has managed, in spite of the conflict, to spread throughout the galaxy, including locations close to the black hole at the galaxy's center.
Gregory Benford to this point actually has written three short stories set in the Galactic Center universe. One, "Hunger for the Infinite," published in Far Horizons, edited by Robert Silverberg, explores the Mantis' obsession with the inexplicable human propensity for art.  I have posted a very brief commentary which can be found at this address:

The other two stories, "Aspects" and "At the Double Solstice," are set on Snowglade, the setting for the third novel in the series, Great Sky River.  While the stories do not have dates, internal evidence in the stories indicate that "Aspects" takes place a decade or more after the end of events in Great Sky River, while "At the Double Solstice" is set many decades later.

The third novel in the series, Great Sky River, is the story of the Bishop clan's struggle to survive after the destruction of their civilization on the planet Snowglade.  (For more detailed information, see my post at  The two stories are set after the conclusion to the novel Great Sky River and follows those members of the Bishop clan who did not follow Killeen Bishop.

Both stories open with a battle with several mechs, in which one or more humans are killed.  Eventually the mech (possibly a lancer or a marauder or worse, a mantis type) is also destroyed.  However, the cost to the humans is far greater in that they have now lost irreplaceable knowledge and experience, while the mech factories can simply turn out one or two or more marauders.  This battle  is followed by the discovery of a mech production facility which the Bishops attack.  They grab what nutrients and equipment that can be easily carried and leave before more mechs arrive.

While the pattern here is similar, the third element demonstrates that a change has taken place in the thinking of the Bishop clan.  In both stories, the humans come across a human artifact, a large structure whose purpose has long since been forgotten.  In "Aspects,"  the humans are happy to find such a place:  "We built it," a younger said. "We made something...beautiful."  They rest there and discover that it's a cache, a storehouse of information from the past which will help them survive in their struggle with the mechs.  Some of them were old enough to have lived in their great cities and consider it a Golden Age.  They would go back, instantly, if they had the opportunity.

In "At the double solstice," decades? later, however, the reaction to the structure  is quite different.  The Bishops have difficulty in believing humans could ever have built such a mechlike thing.  Only the mechs created things that were rigid, with corners and straight lines. Natural things were very different, far superior, and their way was the best way.

"If humanity had been mechlike in the far past, even to the point of making things of stone that trapped feeling. . .Agaden curled his lip.  If that was true, then he felt no reverence for those benighted ancestors.  He was suddenly glad to live in a holier and wiser time.  Humanity today knew the true division between the sweet passing beauties of things human, and the cruel hard mech ways."

What began as a necessity for survival has now been transformed into the best way for humanity.  The Bishops have adopted the nomadic way, not as a bitter choice for survival, but now as the best way, the holiest course for humans.  They now have the disdain that all true nomads have for fixed, artificial structures and a settled way of life. 

Truth in whateveritis: I have received free digital copies of both short stories.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Jack Finney: About Time (short stories)

Jack Finney
About Time

About Time is a collection of short stories, many of which, unsurprisingly, focus on time.  It is a quiet, relaxing collection of tales, some tragic, some arguing that this really is a just universe, and others with a more cheerful resolution, but all entertaining.

"The Third Level"
This may be his most well-known short story or at least it's the one I  most often remember reading in various anthologies.

      The presidents of the New York Central and the New York, New Haven and Hartford railroads will swear on a stack of timetables that there are only two.  But I say there are three, because I've been on the third level at Grand Central Station."

I think you can extrapolate from these opening lines the nature of the tale.  It's something many, including me, have indulged in, what the psychiatrist later in the tale tells him is a "waking-dream wish fulfillment."  It's a very enjoyable tale, which I never skip whenever I encounter it, unlike so many other tales, even though I know the twist at the end.


"I Love Galesburg in the Springtime"
Something strange is happening in Galesburg, Illinois.  A business man from Chicago came to town to build a factory, which would have meant tearing down some very old buildings and increasing traffic along some quiet residential streets. He had the town council's promise to make the necessary zoning changes and was ready to build.  Then, one night, he goes for a walk down a quiet street and almost gets run down by a streetcar, or so he says. The problem is that there are no longer any streetcar tracks because the streetcars disappeared years ago. Was he drunk?  Hallucinating?  In any case, the deal is off.  No factory will be built, by him anyway.

And, what about the old, old mansion that didn't burn down because the fire was put out by someone, only no one will claim credit for it.  However, a neighbor who was obviously dreaming at the time tells a story that the fire was put out by the fire department which used horse-drawn fire engines.  Of course, those engines had been retired years ago.  It's unfortunate that the place didn't burn down, says local developer, because if it had, he would buy the property and get it rezoned for an apartment building.  But, now, it would cost too much to tear it down, almost as much as to restore it, in fact.

And, those fine old elms on Cedar Street won't be cut down after all, or at least not for some time, because the man who had the power saw and had planned to cut them down is in the hospital with a broken leg.  He was run down by a car that hadn't been made for many decades.  It's appearance is so striking, the police are sure they will find the car involved in the hit-and-run accident very soon.   

Perhaps.  .  .


"Such Interesting Neighbors"
This is one of the classic themes in time travel stories.  Anyone who has read a number of  time travel stories will figure this one out within the first couple of paragraphs.  New neighbors appear:  they seem to lack knowledge of the simplest things, they have a strange accent, and they are vague about where they came from.  They also have some interesting ideas about what the future will be like.
Enuf said?


"The Coin Collector"
Ever wonder what would have happened if you had made a different decision, such as not going to college or going to college, or married someone else. "The Coin Collector" suggests one way of handling the problem--find an alternative universe.  Finney later expanded this into a novel titled The Woodrow Wilson Dime.

Al's marriage is suffering a bit--loss of interest on his part--and his wife is getting upset at the way he seemingly pays her little or no attention.  An ad about the fun and profit that can result from coin collecting intrigues him for a time. After making a routine purchase of a paper at the newsstand, he finds himself in a slightly different universe.  It was the coin that triggered the transfer--well, the coin and his recognition of it as being different somehow.

Fortunately, habit guides him to his home which is in a different location.  There he discovers that something else is different--his wife.  She is someone he never met in the other world, and she is gorgeous. His interest in her reawakens her interest in him--same problem as in his other world.  His gradual lack of interest (the honeymoon is over, he told his first wife) caused her to react the same way his first wife did.

 However, after a brief period, his interest begins to wane and .  .  . and then .  .  .


"Of Missing Persons"
What happened to Judge Crater and Ambrose Bierce?   Charlie Ewell thinks he found out.  What seems fascinating and possible after a couple of beers and late in the evening seems quite different in the bright light of the next day.  But, Charlie is curious, so he decides to visit the Acme Travel Bureau anyway.  If they decide he's the "right type,"  they will bring out a folder from beneath the counter, a folder they just made up as a joke.  It's about a trip, one-way, to a planet called Verna.  Why go to Verna?

Life is simple there,  and it's serene.  In someways, the good ways, it's like the early pioneering communities here in your country, but without the drudgery that kill people young.  There is electricity.  There are washing machines, vacuum cleaners, plumbing, modern bathrooms, and modern medicine, very modern.  but there are no radios, television, telephones or automobiles.  Distances are small. and people live and work in small communities.  They raise or make most of the things they use.  Every man builds his own house, with all the help he needs from his neighbors.  Their recreation is their own, and there is a great deal of it,  but there is no recreation for sale, nothing you buy a ticket to.  They have dances, card parties, wedding, christenings, birthday celebrations harvest parties.  There are swimming and sports of all kinds.  There is conversation, a lot of it, plenty of  joking and laughter.  There is a great deal of visiting and sharing of meals and each day is well filled and well spent.  There are no pressures, economic or social, and life holds few threats.  Every man, woman,and child is a happy person.

It almost sounds too good to be true, and that's what bothers Charlie. 


"Lunch-Hour Magic"
Ted likes to go prowling around the various little shops in the vicinity during his lunch hour.  Then, one day, he discovers a little store he hadn't seen before--The Magic Shop.  Inside, he finds the usual merchandise expected in a "magic shop,".  .  . except for a pair of magic glasses. These glasses allow one to see through one layer of cloth.  With them he can see people outside walking around in their underwear.  Naturally he asks if there are stronger glasses, one that could see through two or three layers of clothing.  The store owner says that he gets a lot of requests for those glasses, and he will ask the salesman the next time he comes in.

On subsequent trips Ted discovers other "helpful" items, and he tries them out on his fellow employees, who are helpless against the power of those talismans.  All goes well, until Ted discovers that Frieda, a fellow employee, is also a lunchtime prowler and has discovered The Magic Shop.


"Where the Cluetts Are"
Harry is an architect, who has some strange ideas about houses--they have souls--and he doesn't work with clients who really aren't interested in working with him in designing their home. The Cluetts are rich and have decided there are no limits on the cost of building their new home.

The problem is that the Cluetts are not interested that much in building a home, but in building a showpiece for their yacht-building business.  They will live mostly in New York City and only spend time in the house, throwing grand parties for the rich and influential.   In this way, they hope to make an impression on the rich and influential so that when they are interested in getting a yacht, they will remember the Cluetts. 

Harry has just about decided that he's not going to take them on as clients when Ellie Cluett discovers a set of blueprints for a Victorian era house designed by Harry's grandfather.  Sam and Ellie fall in love with the house instantly and tell Harry to build it, regardless of the cost.

All goes well and the house is built, but then.  .  .

I think the title is wrong.


"The Face in the Photo"
Inspector Ihren is a very determined and persistent police officer.  So, when a number of petty crooks, suspects in various crimes, can't be found, he gets upset.  What upsets him most is that they seem to have completely disappeared and for a long period of time.  Inspector Ihren knows that they have hiding places and can stay hidden for a while, but for many months?  Not a clue, whisper, rumor, gossip?  Something is wrong.

Then, one day, he discovers an old photograph with a familiar face and acting on a hunch, he begins viewing old films about sporting events and discovers another face. But this suggests something that is inconceivable.   However, the projectionist makes an offhand comment about someone else who just viewed that film--a Professor Weygand from the university.  A bit of nosing around and the Inspector discovers the good professor gave a paper recently about some aspects of time, and while he didn't understand most of the paper, the inspector got the idea that the professor thought time travel might be possible.

Perhaps it was time to talk to the professor.

"I'm Scared"

Unlike Charles Fort who collected information about strange and inexplicable happenings that seemed unconnected and that had no apparent effect on the world, the anonymous narrator in this story finds that his collection of odd and anomalous events may point to something far more serious.  It almost seems as though people and events sometimes come loose from their appointed place in time and appear elsewhen, sometimes with tragic results.  And, they are happening more often lately.   

"Home Alone"
Charley is home alone as his wife and daughter are off somewhere.  On the sixth day he glances upwards and sees a hawk in the sky, motionless as it lays on the updraft from the warm concrete below.  Suddenly Charley wants to do just that: not fly in a powered plane but just hang there quietly and see what's below.  And, the only way to do that is with a balloon.  So, Charley begins to study up on balloons and then decides to make one.

Sometimes one's dreams do come true . .  .

"Second Chance"
The anonymous narrator is a young man who is obsessed with a classic automobile:  the Jordan Playboy.  He finds one, battered and beaten, and spends most of his time (left over from school, chores, and part-time job) restoring it.  Finished, he takes it out for a drive along a deserted stretch of an old two-lane road that's been bypassed by the new four lane highway.  And, then some strange things begin to happen.  But, the strangest doesn't happen until months later, long after his first (and ultimately last) jaunt in the restored Jordan Playboy.

It's too bad the universe isn't really like this.


"Hey, Look At Me!"

Peter Marks may have discovered why some people come back as ghosts. 

This is not a book to be raced through and then put aside.  It is best taken in small doses and savored before moving on to the next tale, a few days or weeks later.  It has a long shelf life and won't spoil if ignored for a day or two or three.  Read each story and then let your mind play with it for a while.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Robert Grudin: Time and the Art of Living


"One need only to try to remember the dishes one ate for dinner on each night of the week past to realize that the things we desire as future and enjoy as present are not necessarily the things we value for all time.  In this sense memory sits like an incorruptible judge, oblivious to the minor pains and pleasures of the past even as we unreasonably overvalue identical pains and pleasures in the present and future."

Remember dinners for the past week?  I have problems remembering one dinner from the past week, or even a few days ago.  It is sobering, though, when I think of the times I have gone out, looking forward to a special meal at a restaurant, and now look back and try to remember when I went to that restaurant and what I had there.

Grudin also calls memory "an incorruptible judge" and seems to imply that it judges what's really important and what isn't.  That would mean that I remember only those things that are important and forget only those that aren't.  Yet when I do remember something that I haven't thought of in years, I am frequently perplexed as to why that has remained in my memory as it seems so inconsequential, so unimportant.  

I think it was Pascal who said "  "The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of."   Well, maybe memory has its reasons also. 

The things you remember--are they always the important things?

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Second Edition, Quatrain LIII

This is another of the quatrains that first appeared in the Second Edition.

Second Edition:  Quatrain LIII

A moment guess'd--then back behind the Fold
Immerst of Darkness round the Drama roll'd
    Which, for the Pastime of Eternity,
He does Himself contrive, enact, and behold.

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain LII
A moment guess'd--then back behind the Fold
Immerst of Darkness round the Drama roll'd
    Which, for the Pastime of Eternity,
He doth Himself contrive, enact, and behold.

As far as I can tell, there's only one minor difference between the Second and Fifth Editions:  "does" in the Second becomes "doth" in the Fifth Edition.  Why?  Perhaps he prefers the more Biblical or at least archaic sounding "doth" to the more contemporary "does."

This is the fourth in a series of linked quatrains that began with Quatrain L. It's "The Master"  who takes all shapes throughout Creation and then retreats back into the "Darkness."   The Master is the Dramatist who creates, enacts, and then watches the drama unfold.

It's a bleak answer to the perennial questions that have plagued humanity from the beginning:  why are we here?  where did we come from, and where are we going?  Is there a design or is it all chance? 

We are mere puppets, created to entertain The Master, to ease the boredom of eternity or the loneliness of being a solitary being.  This certainly relieves the burden placed upon us by some who insist that this immense, incredible universe was created solely as a testing ground for us, a means of determining whether we shall spend eternity in divine bliss or cursed by divine displeasure.  If we are just puppets, created for entertainment, then eating, drinking, and making merry seems a reasonable course of action.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Jorge Luis Borges: "Ars Poetica"

Ars Poetica: Jorge Luis Borges 

To gaze at the river made of time and water
And recall that time itself is another river,
To know we cease to be, just like the river,
And that our faces pass away, just like the water.

To feel that waking is another sleep
That dreams it does not sleep and that death,
Which our flesh dreads, is that very death
Of every night, which we call sleep.

To see in the day or in the year a symbol
Of mankind’s days and of his years,
To transform the outrage of the years
Into a music, a rumor and a symbol,

To see in death a sleep, and in the sunset
A sad gold, of such is Poetry
Immortal and a pauper. For Poetry
Returns like the dawn and the sunset.

At times in the afternoons a face
Looks at us from the depths of a mirror;
Art must be like that mirror
That reveals to us this face of ours.

They tell how Ulysses, glutted with wonders,
Wept with love to descry his Ithaca
Humble and green. Art is that Ithaca
Of green eternity, not of wonders.

It is also like an endless river
That passes and remains, a mirror for one same
Inconstant Heraclitus, who is the same
And another, like an endless river.
-- Jorge Luis Borges --
From Dreamtigers,  translated by Harold Morland

What does art do?  Is it just a way of dealing with death or is there more to it than that?  If we were immortal, would there be art?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Carl Sandburg: "From the Shore"

Here's one from Carl Sandburg that caught my eye as I was browsing through a collection of his poetry.

From the Shore

A lone grey bird,
Dim-dipping, far-flying,
Alone in the shadows and grandeurs and tumults
Of night and the sea
And the stars and storms.

Out over the darkness it wavers and hovers,
Out into the gloom it swings and batters,
Out into the wind and the rain and the vast,
Out into the pit of a great black world,
Where fogs are at battle, sky-driven, sea-blown,
Love of mist and rapture of flight,
Glories of chance and hazards of death
On its eager and palpitant wings.

Out into the deep of the great dark world,
Beyond the long borders where foam and drift
Of the sundering waves are lost and gone
On the tides that plunge and rear and  crumble.
-- Carl Sandburg --
The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg

I have always envied birds for they live in three dimensions while I'm trapped in two.  Yes, I know about airplanes, but I am a fearful-flyer, a control problem, I suspect.  But I never really considered very deeply just what it means to be able to fly and just what it is like, especially during those times when there are no soft winds and a blue sky and a safe landing below--at least, that is, until I read Sandburg's poem. 

The use of alliteration and the hyphenated adjectives reminds me of some Old English poems that I have read, Beowulf being one and others--"The Seafarer" for example.  This is a brief quotation and one appropriate I think:

All I ever heard along the ice-way
was sounding sea, the gannet's shanty
whooper and curlew calls and mewling gull
were all my gaming, mead and mirth
At tempest-tested granite crags
the ice-winged tern would taunt
spray-feathered ospreys overhead
would soar and scream.  .  .
 -- Anon  --
Online translation of "The Seafarer" by Charles Harrison-Wallace.

And, of course, there's always a haiku that strikes a similar note.

Grey marsh, black cloud.  .  .
Flapping away in autumn
Last old slow heron
-- Anon --
A Little Treasury of Haiku
Trans. Peter Beilenson

I read somewhere (wish I could remember who said this) that a poem should make you see something new or see something old in a new way.  I think Sandburg has succeeded here.

Has he succeeded with you?   

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Baltasar Gracian: contradictory people

No. 135

"Do not carry a spirit of contradiction, for it is to be freighted with stupidity, and with peevishness, and your intelligence should plot against it; though it may well be the mark of mental genius to see objection, a wrangler about everything cannot escape being marked the fool, for he makes guerrilla warfare of quiet conversation, and so becomes more of an enemy to his intimates, than to those with whom he will have nothing to do;  it is in the most savory morsel that the spine which gets caught hurts most, and so it is with contradiction in moments of happy converse; such a man is a fool, offensive, who adds to the untamed within himself, the beastly."

-- Baltasar Gracian --
The Art of Worldly Wisdom

 As usual, this is not a simple "never do this" rule, for Gracian is far too sophisticated to suggest this.  I think the most significant qualifier is "a wrangler about everything."  In other words, pick the time and place carefully, and be sparing of contradicting others.  With all the distractions brought about by the ringing of the ever present mobile phone, it is difficult enough to have a quiet, uninterrupted conversation with one or more people without having to deal with the one who deems it necessary to correct numerous statements.

There are times and places when pointing out errors will be necessary, but those probably, in reality, are rare.  And, there should be a statute of limitations as to bringing up comments or statements made in the past.  How significant is it if one has to go back a decade or more to dig up a racial slur or a sexual innuendo?
The circumstances in which the statement was made are no longer clear, even if not distorted by time, and the individual who made the statement may no longer think the same way. 

If Gracian were alive today, after being made aware of the various recording devices and means of storing conversations, he would probably suggest that one should now think three or four times rather than only twice before saying something.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Robert Silverberg: Downward to the Earth

Robert Silverberg
Downward to the Earth, Second Edition

Published in 1970, this one somehow escaped me at that time. It's one of his best.  It's the tale of a man, Edmund Gunderson,  who returns to the planet where he was a colonial supervisor when the earth government decided the local species was intelligent. Therefore, the Company (always an evil company here) had to leave the planet.

Gunderson has several reasons for his return. One is that he feels guilty for his mistreatment of the nildoror, the sentient indigenous inhabitants who look a lot like elephants, and there's more to them than their size. Another is his interest in the rumors that the nildoror undergo a rebirth at some time during their life span, and he wishes to find out more about that.  In addition, he also plans on searching for friends of his, one of whom is Seena, whom Gunderson had been in love with.  Another is Kurtz, who also stayed behind.

In order to accomplish these tasks, he must travel alongside a river deep into the heart of the continent where few Earth people have gone, and perhaps into areas where no Earth people have ever gone.  Readers familiar with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness will recognize a number of elements here.

One of these elements, of course, is the long journey into a jungle that is dark, dangerous, mysterious, and brooding.  A second is that one of the goals is to find Kurtz, which is the major reason for the journey in Heart of Darkness.  A third element involves the mistreatment of the indigenous population by a large corporation.  Another is the depiction of the nildoror which is far more sympathetic than the portrayal of the Earth people.  Yet one more is a scene in Chapter Two which faintly echoes an early scene from Heart of Darkness, and in both, the people have just left the ship (sea and space types) and are heading for the village.

The path widened to become a clearing.  Up ahead, one of the tourist women pointed into the bush; her husband shrugged and shook his head.  When Gunderson reached that place he saw what was bothering them.  Black shapes crouched beneath the trees, and dark figures were moving slowly to and fro.  They were barely visible in the shadows.

Those, we learn, are the Sulidoror.  Just who they are and what they are and what their relationship to the nildoror is remains another mystery Gunderson hopes to solve.

I also see some elements here that remind me of Dante's Divine Comedy, but it may be another example of my penchant for over-reading.  Most others in the discussion group didn't see it, so either it isn't there, or I did an inadequate job of pointing out what I saw.  

Gunderson's trip upriver, although he follows the river, but seldom travels on it, can be broken into three parts.  The first is hell, a hot, steaming jungle, populated by various dangerous beasts--death is everywhere.  I find this to be an echo of Dante's Inferno.

Once Gunderson escapes the jungle, he moves into the highlands which are much safer and the climate is more temperate. It is cooler, misty, with sparse vegetation.  There is little danger there, and it becomes a time for reflection and enlightenment, as he moves closer to the rumored land of rebirth. This suggests Dante's Purgatorio to me.  Gunderson has avoided death in the jungle and now is on his way to his ultimate goal.

The place of rebirth is the peak, the goal of Gunderson's journey, just as Paradiso, or heaven was Dante's goal, as it is for all Christians.  And, just as there is in the Christian tradition, there is the judgement which Gunderson must undergo at the time of rebirth. What one becomes is determined by the life one has led.

This is only a brief summary of the work, and I haven't mentioned anything about Gunderson's meeting with Kurtz nor about Gunderson's lost love who stayed behind with Kurtz.  

 It's a fascinating work, with an interesting introduction by Silverberg and with some very interesting aliens.  Those seeking this book should be careful and get the second edition.  The first edition does not include Silverberg's introduction nor the map of Gunderson's journey.

I definitely need to do a reread on this one.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Rubaiyat: Second Edition, Quatrain LII

This is the third in a series of four linked quatrains, from Quatrain L to LIII.

Second Edition:  Quatrain LII

Whose secret Presence, through Creation's veins
Running, Quicksilver-like eludes your pains;
    Taking all shapes from Mah to Mahi; and
They change and perish all--but He remains. 

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain LI 

Whose secret Presence, through Creation's veins
Running Quicksilver-like eludes your pains;
    Taking all shapes from Mah to Mahi; and
They change and perish all--but He remains. 
-- Edward FitzGerald --
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

There are no significant differences between the Second and Fifth editions.  The only change I can see is the removal of the comma following "Running" in the second line, which makes for a more direct statement of the way the "secret Presence" moves and "eludes" us.

The first line of this stanza tells us something about "the Master" who was mentioned in the last line of the previous stanza.  The Master is present throughout all creation, taking all shapes, and even though they change and die, "He remains."  In other words, the Creator does not just create and abandon His creations or allow them an existence free of his presence but inhabits them throughout their lives.  In Hinduism we find a similar belief.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna tells Arjuna

My true being is unborn and changeless
I am the Lord who dwells in every creature.

Bhagavad Gita, Chapter Four
Eknath Easwaran, trans. and editor

In both cases, the Supreme Deity or the Master is present in all creation.  Though they die, He remains "unborn and changeless.  .  . in every creature."  Moreover, his "Presence" though running through creation's veins is secret and like quicksilver, which is impossible to grasp or hold.  This is echoed in John 7:34, "Ye shall seek me, and shall not find me: and where I am, thither ye cannot come."

Consequently, in  many religious traditions, God, the Master, the Lord, Allah, is  characterized as ineffable, unknowable, unfathomable.  His motives are beyond us and mysterious.  Yet,  a few minutes later we are told about God's likes and dislikes, what He wants us to do and what we are to avoid doing, what pleases Him and what saddens Him, what we can eat and what is forbidden.  There are all sorts of behaviors that must be performed, that may be performed, and that must not be performed.  God doesn't seem that unknowable to these people, or so it seems to me.

It all appears to be a bit contradictory to me.  


"Mah is also the Persian language name of a species of fish, which gives rise to the Persian language expression, az mah ta mahi, "from the moon to the mah-fish", to mean 'everything'."
Wikipedia entry on "Mah"

"Krishna is recognized as the eighth avatar of the god Vishnu or as the Supreme God in other traditions. Krishna is one of the most widely revered and most popular of all Hindu deities."
Widipedia entry on Sri Krishna

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Felix Gilman: The Half-made World

Felix Gilman:  The Half-made World

This is the first book I've read by Gilman, and it's a great advertisement for joining book discussion groups.  I probably never would have read this except that it was a selection by an SF book group that I belong to.  I was sufficiently impressed to look for the second book set in this universe which apparently focuses on a character mentioned only briefly in The Half-made World.

The characters are mostly humans, with a few demons around (or so they are referred to in the novel) and a sentient race that is now in decline as a result of human interference, either inadvertent or deliberate or both.   Little is told of either the demons or the Hill People so far, but that may change in later novels.

There are three narrative threads.  One follows the adventures of Liv Aylverhuysen, a psychologist who specializes in working with victims of brain trauma.  She has volunteered to leave her hospital for a remote clinic, the House Dolorous, which is in a neutral zone between two warring factions:  The Line and The Gun.  She is a neutral in the war, and, therefore, she feels she will not become involved in the war.  She is wrong, of course.

The second narrative thread follows Lowry, an employee of The Line, one of the two contending forces on this world, which is probably best described as corporate capitalism as seen by its enemies.  Its primary symbol is the train, which is inhabited by a controlling demon that is in contact with thirty or more other trains, also controlled by demons. Decisions are made through group consultation involving all of the engines/demons.  The scenes describing the areas controlled by the Line are horrific and seem to be based on the worst portrayals of late 19th and early 20th century workshops, sweatshops, and factories.

Lowry is searching for a general of the Republic who was mindwiped in a battle years ago.  He is looking for him because of rumors that the general had known of a weapon that could defeat the Line.  The Line, by the way, is slowly winning the war.  Lowry's task is to determine if there is such a weapon and to prevent any others, especially the agents of the Gun, from discovering the nature of the weapon.  Killing the general is considered the optimal solution.

The Line's enemy is the Gun, and just what they are is hard to characterize, except that they are opposed to the Line.  Perhaps they are a symbol of individual freedom, perhaps even of anarchy, and their symbol is the Gun which is carried by each of the agents of the Gun.  The Gun, like the train, is also inhabited by a demon, and like The Line, the Gun is seen through the eyes of its enemies, the Line.  This novel will never reach the NRA top ten favorites list, for here Guns do kill people.  And, to a considerable extent they control their agents, through pain if necessary.  However, they do make the agent faster, stronger, and more agile than normal, and the demons have miraculous healing powers that make it extremely difficult, but not impossible, to kill an agent.

John Creedmoor is an agent of the Gun, and his half-hearted adherence to the Gun is his only saving grace.  He has been sent to abduct the general and learn the secret of the weapon.  If he can't learn the secret or if the Line gets the general first, he is to kill the general.  Creedmoor is marginally more human than Lowry, but his reluctance to really make the effort to break free keeps him under the control of the Gun.  Where he is a reluctant and obstinate agent of the Gun, Lowry is an enthusiastic supporter of the Line.

The Gun, like the Line, has little concern for collateral damage and will kill bystanders and non-combatants if necessary.  There really is little to choose between them, although I must admit a slight preference for the Gun, if I had to make a choice.  

As you can see, the three narrative threads will meet and meld at the House Dolorous. 

I mentioned the Republic briefly above.  The Republic was destroyed by the Line, I gather, though I'm not certain about that.  If the Line and the Gun are the bad guys, then the Republic was the good guy.  It appeared to be a much freer society and less harmful to its citizens than the Line and provided a rational rule of law in opposition to rule of  the Gun. 

But, there is more to this novel than what I have mentioned above.  The Prologue is titled "How the General Died  - 1878 - "   That I presume is a year, and, while the planet doesn't seem to be Earth, Gilman has borrowed several elements from Earth history, more specifically US history, and transmuted them into this tale--perhaps an allegory.

To begin, "1878" is during that period US historians frequently call "The Closing of the Frontier" or "The Settling of the West."  The transcontinental railroad, begun during the American Civil War, was finally completed in 1869, nine years earlier, just as the Line's railway is expanding during its war with the Gun.  Also in 1878, the Lincoln County (New Mexico territory) war took place, featuring the West's most famous gunfighter, Billy the Kid.  In addition, the railroad finally linked the territory of New Mexico to the rest of the country in 1878.

In the novel, the Line is expanding its territory through the use of the train.  While the coming of the railroad was hailed by many as the link to civilization  and increased freedom of movement and communication on our planet, Gilman has transformed the arrival of the railroad to a scene of horror as the railroad employees subjugate the townspeople and force them into slave labor and a life of  grey drudgery.  As a side note, it should be mentioned that employees of the Line wear grey suits. 

The Republic, briefly mentioned above, might be the US during the late 19th and 20th century as it struggled and failed at the end to free its citizens from both corporate slavery and the horrors of the lawless faction. 

Also reminiscent of the Old West are the indigenous people known as the Hill People, a humanoid race that was decimated, mostly by the Line or forces of "civilization,"  as the Line sees itself.

The Line is winning at this time, mainly propelled by its numerical superiority.  The sign of the Line moving into a new territory is the arrival of a huge engine, which sounds suspiciously a lot like the arrival of a train as a symbol of civilization.

The nature of the demons has not yet been revealed, and a third type? of demon seems to have adopted the House Dolorous and helps in some ways to protect the House from attack, especially by the Line.  It also has some healing function. 

The Half-made World is an excellent SF novel, functioning on two levels:  the upper level being an action-oriented novel of combat between two opposing forces, The Line (corporate capitalism as seen by its enemies) and The Gun (corporate capitalism's enemies as seen by corporate capitalism).  Underneath that is a satiric view of both sides which is set in 1878 and involves the Closing of the West as civilization moves westward, heralded by the arrival of the train, which is a potent and horrific symbol of The Line's domination of people.

There is a sequel, The Rise of Ransom City,  and the brief mention of it doesn't give me any clues as to where Gilman is going next.  I'm just going to have to read the novel to find out.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Octoavio Paz: Piedra nativa or Native Stone

As I mentioned in earlier posts about Joseph Wood Krutch's Baja California, along with Eliot Porter's photos and Joseph Wood Krutch's text, I found fragments of poetry by Octavio Paz.  This was my introduction to his poetry and on the back cover of the book was a marvelous photograph of an old door, a wall, and a chair, and the last stanza of this poem by Paz.

For some reason it has fascinated me over the decades, so I finally went searching and found a small collection of Paz's poetry translated by Muriel Rukeyser which included this poem, and best of all, both the Spanish poem and her translation. I actually prefer the sound of the Spanish version to the English, although her English translation resonates strongly with me also.

Piedra nativa

La luz devasta las alturas
Manadas de imperios en derrota 
El ojo retrocede cercado de reflejos
Paises vastos como el insomnio
Pedregales de hueso

Otono sin confines
Alza la sed sus invisibles surtidores
Un ultimo piru predica en el desierto

Cierro los ojos y oye cantar las luz:
El mediodia anida en tu timpano

Cierra los ojos y abrelos:
No hay nadie ni siquiera tu mismo
Lo que no es piedra es luz

Native Stone
Light is laying waste the heavens
Droves of dominions in stampede
The eye retreats surrounded by mirrors

Landscapes as enormous as insomnia
Stony ground of bone

Limitless autumn
Thirst lifts its invisible fountains
One last peppertree preaches in the desert

Close your eyes and hear the song of the light:
Noon takes shelter in your inner ear

Close your eyes and open them:
There is nobody not even yourself
Whatever is not stone is light

Octavio Paz
Selected Poems of  Octavio Paz
trans.  Muriel Rukeyser

These are the lines on the back cover of the book with a marvelous photograph of a stone? wall with a door flush in the wall and a chair beside it.  The brightness hurts the eyes.  After reading this brief concluding stanza, I had to search out Paz's poems, if only to read the complete poem.  

Cierra los ojos y abrelos:
No hay nadie ni siquiera tu mismo
Lo que no es piedra es luz

Close your eyes and open them:
There is nobody not even yourself
Whatever is not stone is light

What confuses me is that the title refers to stone, and while stone appears in the second and fifth stanzas, to me anyway, it seems as though the poem is mostly  about light.

Perhaps it is best just to read and not try to intellectualize here. Maybe Archibald MacLeish's plea "A poem should not mean/ But be" is most appropriate.

Is this a coherent unified poem, or several haiku-like poems?  A number of Paz's poems can be seen as haiku, and he has read haiku by Basho.  See the link to a commentary about Paz and a poem he wrote, "An Basho."

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Eric Hoffer: conservatives and radicals

Another quotation or aphorism from Eric Hoffer's The Passionate State of Mind.

No. 21

"There is radicalism in all getting, and conservatism in all keeping.  Lovemaking is radical, while marriage is conservative.  So, too, get-rich-quick capitalism is radical, while a capitalism intent solely on keeping what it already has is conservative.  Radicalism itself ceases to be radical when absorbed mainly in preserving its control over a society or an economy."
-- Eric Hoffer --
The Passionate State of Mind

conservative: believing in the value of established and traditional practices in politics and society: not liking or accepting changes or new ideas.

radical: very new and different from what is traditional or ordinary: having extreme political or social views that are not shared by most people
Merriam Webster Dictionary  

What do you think?  Is Hoffer being simplistic here?  Is there more to being conservative or radical?  Or, is this one of those cases where being simple is best?

Are "getting" and "keeping" the signficant differences between them?

Corporations then would obviously be conservative as their focus is mainly on survival, and all else comes second (or last).  Restaurants or cafes are common in this country, if not world-wide.  Would opening a new restaurant or cafe be conservative or radical?  If that would be a conservative act, what would be necessary to make opening a new restaurant a radical act?

Cat cafes or lounges are very popular now in Japan.  Something similar has just opened up in San Francisco (I think).  A customer can walk in, order a cup of tea or coffee, and relax.  The place has many cats wandering around, and eventually one will come up to investigate and be petted.  It is supposed to be very relaxing and peaceful, just right for harried 9-5ers and shoppers.

Would opening up one of these lounges be a radical act?  In Japan?  Here?

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Second Edition, Quatrain LI

This is another of the quatrains that first appeared in the Second Edition of the Rubaiyat published by Edward FitzGerald.

Second Edition:  Quatrain LI

A Hair, they say, divides the False and the True;
Yes;  and a single Alif were the clue--
     Could you but find it, to the Treasure-house,
And peradventure to the The Master too;

Fifth Edition:  Quatrain L
A Hair perhaps divides the False and the True;
Yes;  and a single Alif were the clue--
     Could you but find it--to the Treasure-house,
And peradventure to the The Master too;

The two versions are quite close with only two changes made from the Second to the Fifth editions.  The first occurs in the first line where FitzGerald changes the ubiquitous and vague "they say" with perhaps, which suggests some doubt in the Poet/Narrator's mind about the claim.  The second change was made to make it more clear that the phrase "Could you but find it" is an interjection by changing the comma after "it" to a dash to balance it off with the first dash just before "Could."  The dash makes for a stronger break or pause after "it" so that the reader understands the flow of the sentence to be--

"Yes;  and a single Alif were the clue/ to the Treasure-house,/ And peradventure to the The Master too;"

This quatrain is actually the second in a series of four linked quatrains which begins with Quatrain L and ends with Quatrain LIII in the Second Edition.  The link with Quatrain L is provided by the following line from L: "A Hair, they say, divides the False and the True"  which becomes the first line in Quatrain LI.

That hair dividing the true and false is now compared to a single letter (Alif--first letter of the alphabet--A)  that could be a clue to a treasure house and to the Master.  The nature of the treasure house and the identity of the  Master is not revealed in this quatrain and the reader must wait for the next for a possible answer.  This is suggested clearly as Quatrain LI does not end with a period but with a semi-colon, which indicates a link to the next quatrain.  

The two quatrains focus on the small which can be extremely important, in spite of their unimpressive size: true and false are so close that only a hair separates them, while only a single letter might provide a clue to the location of a treasure and the identity of the Master.  It points out how easily we can mistake the false for the true or go off in the wrong direction in our search because we misread the clue.  Quatrain L also pointed out that our life spans are brief and wondered if we should spend our time in activities that so easily could lead us nowhere.

We must wait for Quatrains LII and LIII to see if the Poet/Narrator can provide us with enlightenment here.