Cassini

You sent me to

greet new moons

I found oceans

saltier than your tears

I danced with rings

like at a wedding

Burned away gazing

at the white sphere

I saw jets of water

burst from ice

All of us are suspended

between stars

I am Earth kissing Saturn

I am Saturn

Advertisements

Word of the day as poem – Raudive, n.

It has been a long time since I posted. But I have a new little project underway, and I thought I should be blogging it. I follow the OED on twitter, and I was sitting in an airport and saw the word of the day – raudive. What a cool word, I thought. So I did some googling about it, and thought of writing a little poem in (loose) dictionary form based on my short internet journey starting at the word and mixing in some quotes already in my book from the subtitles from a soviet science fiction film. I have done another couple, and I’ll start posting them up here. I even performed this poem at a poetry slam with musical accompaniment – bells and a tiny cymbal.

Photo credit: Adam Thomas

Photo: Adam Thomas 2016

Ghost box/Frank’s box

Raudive, n. A supposed phenomenon in which
voices appear on audio recordings made in
silent places

  1. The sound of grains of sound rubbing together
    on the floor of the ocean or river bed.
  2. Radio transmissions from distant stars;
    from distant times.
  3. We are so many parsecs from home” (L21-E22).

Pareidolia, n. Misperception involving
an obscure stimulus (image or sound)
which is perceived as something
clear and distinct

  1. Subjective validation effect.
  2. Voices from beyond via telephone (Oscar d’Argonell).
  3. “There’s nothing supernatural out here” (M20-L21).

Borgoras, Waldemer

  1. “I set up my equipment so I could record without light” (1901).
  2. The shaman’s ceaseless drum beats can be heard all along.
  3. The shaman’s ceaseless drum beats can be heard all along.
  4. The shaman’s ceaseless drum beats can be heard all along.
  5. […]

Canberra stream of consciousness

I was cycling home last night, after a few beers, through the streets of Canberra. I cycled up Moore St, and was remembering when two friends lived in a house on that street. I would ride past on my way home from university and stop by, and we would sit in the kitchen smoking cigarettes. While in general those years maybe wasn’t always the best time for any of us, those afternoons or evenings sitting, talking were so great. Just that feeling of dropping by on your friends, those long hours devoted to nothing but being in each other’s company.

I cycled through Haig Park, which for those who don’t know it is more of a windbreak than a park, with long rows of trees in straightish lines and patchy grass. I used to live across the park, and often I would sit under a tree in the middle of the day, or at night, and do nothing. Stare at the grass, or rest my face against the tree bark and breath. Often I was sad, sometimes drunk wandering my way home.

Further up I passed by the location of the first share house I lived in, now apartment blocks, the routes of night walks I used to take alone or with a friend along suburban streets that are so quiet and empty in the evenings, with all the life happening inside the lighted rooms, while the walkers outside see only a window.

Once a friend from Adelaide said Canberra had no soul. If there was such a thing as a soul no city could have it. Just people moving and interacting and remembering.

Cycling home I can only see my own layers of remembering. I think that the most important moments often go unnoticed. This spring has been laden with such moments. The white blossoms so heavy with impossible poems, gradually replaced by the green of the leaves, or the pink and red of the plum trees. The sun in the middle of the day after a morning in the dark office.

We cannot save this or hoard it until later. More not less of this. Who measures success by how well you lived one moment? The night was warm and I was moving.

A car drove past me beeping and some piece of trash flew out the window at me.

This is not the best we can do.

The Left Hand of Darkness: Fear of difference

I recently re-read probably one of my all time favourite science fiction books – The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Leguin. I read this first when I was a teenager because my mum had it in the house – she was teaching it, I think, to her literature class. The cover below is the one I remember.

The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness is probably LeGuin’s second most famous book (after The Dispossessed) and famously deals with a planet, Gethen or Winter, where the people are ‘ambisexual’, asexual for the majority of the time and coming into ‘kemmer’ once a month as either sex in a partnering. It is also extremely cold.

The book was published in 1969. It is told through the eyes of its main character, a male ‘envoy’ from the Ekumen, an intergalatic coalition of planets settled in the distant past by humans from Earth. Genly Ai’s mission is to get Gethen to join the Ekumen.

The core of the plot is the playing out of Genly’s mission through his political dealings with two of the nations on Gethen – the first a monarchy (Karhide) and the second a sort of centralised capitalist state (Orgota). The core of the novel, though, is the relationship between Genly and Estraven, at the beginning a politician serving Karhide’s ruler.

The fascinating thing for me rereading the novel is that while the exploration of gender roles is certainly a central thematic concern of the novel, it also has much light to shed on what drives rulers of all kinds to make the decisions that they do.

The book is interesting because LeGuin attempts to explore what aspects of society might look different without a gender divide, most notably the organisation of the home and the attitude towards sex, and what problems might remain even in such a society. On Gethen, for example, in Orgota we see a wealthy ruling political class and a significant working class. In Karhide a monarchy with a mad king but relative freedom in what are kind of family/fedual estates. There has never been a major war on Gethen, but LeGuin seems to suggest that this is more a possible consequence of the harsh climate and the balance of power between nations than anything else.

But this is not just a book about gender roles. It is more complex than that. It is not a thought experiment but a book about politics, friendship and what it takes to reach beyond our present time and our current place.

What really struck me when I was reading it was the portrayal of the role of fear in politics, and how this can be disguised in talking about national pride.

He wanted his hearers to be frightened and angry. His themes were not pride and love at all, though he used the words perpetually; as he used them they meant self-praise and hate. He talked a good deal about truth, also, for he was, he said, ‘cutting down beneath the veneer of civilization’.

I think that idea about pride and love meaning something totally different is so incisive. How readily could we apply that to our world. Also, the idea about speaking the truth when we speak about, for example, our natural selfishness or savageness beneath the veneer of civilization. It isn’t a truth, but a lie which so often serves the liar’s purpose.

It is a durable, ubiquitous, specious metaphor, that one about veneer … It can conceal a dozen fallacies at once. One of the most dangerous is the implication that civilization, being artificial, is unnatural, that it is the opposite of primitiveness …

Another wonderful thing about the book is contained in the character of Estraven, who is the person who is able to see the offer Genly is making in more than just the terms of what it means for her [the book uses his usually as the personal pronoun because Genly is the main narrator and he thinks in those terms, I am just havin’ a play here] planet. Estraven does think in those terms, but also sees the wonder of what this relationship with other worlds could mean. Her commitment in a pragmatic and courageous way to this is really beautiful.

There is so much in this book. It is quite short, but the world-building is amazing. She weaves in a few short stories and legends which build not only a picture of Gethen, but hints at things about the world and the characters which most writers would feel the need to spell out in hundreds of pages of tedious expository back story. I hate so much novels that have to explain everything to you and describe every single detail. This world has lived richly in my imagination for fifteen years, on the basis of well-written, economical prose which shows something but not everything.

Everyone should read this book.

Poem written on a bus

The rubbing of nails on a blackboard is as nothing
To the grinding of my teeth and the tapping of my heart against my ribs

The bus grinds and it is winter now or so the lake tells me
I struggle with the corpse of an abbreviated autumn

Lights float in the darkness and I cannot see why
We cannot just steer into space to seek unknown planets orbiting just out of sight

image

There is a law of the universe that says no poet dies alone

I often wish that I could be funnier. This is possibly the funniest poem I’ve ever written. I’m not sure what that says about me.

There is a law of the universe that says no poet dies alone

When I die I want to be attended by the kind ghosts of this summer evening—

what lover or friend could have a breath so cruel and gentle,

a voice so tender and unkind. The sky is red with glory and despair and

the trees breathe a rhythm timeless and mad.

I love all these claustrophobic cars passing by blind, these

houses with their windows lighted and dark that

freeze me with their warmth or seduce me with their blank eyes.

There is a poodle on the footpath and she looks at me and

tells me I will die alone and old with a terrible haircut,

attended by a blind cat and a spectre in the damp patch on the dirty wall.

Voltaire’s Candide, Or The Perils of the Philosophical Novel

Candide is not a very good novel. This is not to say that it is not entertaining book, funny in parts, diverting. It is just not a very good novel. That’s okay. It was written when the novel was in its early days as a form. Really it’s a satire on various types of Enlightenment thinking, particularly the ‘optimistic’ philosophy of Leibniz, and its probably a bit unfair of me to pick on it for not being a good novel.

The point I want to make in this blog is that I think this kind of book is not a great way to explore ideas about life and how we should live it. The use of caricature in this context glosses over more than it reveals, and fails to be much more than a clever person showing off his wit. At its best the novel can explore ideas about life in a complex way which thrives of apparent contradictions and struggles to resolve them.  Voltaire does not engage with the struggle.

I am no philosopher, but my understanding of how Voltaire represents the “Leibnizian” ideas is that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and everything that happens is for the good, because God’s creation cannot be evil or imperfect. I am not going to consider here whether Voltaire is accurate in his representation of Leibniz or similar philosophers, but rather whether the way in which he chooses to engage with those ideas is valuable and interesting.

The other strain in the book is a variety of characters, Martin, the old woman, who basically just think that humans are terrible and the world is a hard place. They have a fair bit of evidence for this position.

Candide shoots these monkeys, who sadly turn out to be the womens' lovers. The world is a crazy place.

Candide shoots these monkeys, who sadly turn out to be the women’s lovers. The world is a crazy place.

The book charts the adventures of Candide, a young man who believes in the best of things, to whom a series of truly terrible things happen. Even worse things happen to people he knows, or observes – burning, body parts cut off, sexual slavery etc. He gets money, then loses money, eventually gets his love but only after she has become ugly and nasty.

So by the concluding chapter Candide is living with his family and associates, strangely discontent with the world. Why is there so much evil? Why has he wound up poor with an ugly wife? He is stuck on his little property, doing nothing. Is man, as Martin claims, born to either disquiet or idleness?

After visiting a rather unhelpful dervish, who in response to their inquiries as to the meaning of evil, the why of human life, responds:

What signifies it whether there is evil or good? When His Highness sends a shop to Egypt does he trouble his head whether the rates in the vessel are at their ease or not?

Which seems to amount to, don’t worry your little heads about the why of it all, we are part of a bigger enterprise.

Then they run into a man lounging under some orange trees. When asked about recent political events, the man replies

…I never inquire what is doing in Constantinople; I am contended with sending thither the produce of my garden, which I cultivate with my own hands.

So Candide decides to work in his garden. The various members of the household focus on their “different talents”.

So can this be posited as a sort of way out of the impasse of optimism and pessimism? This was a recent discussion I had with a friend. I argue that in the form presented in the book, the answer is no, partially because of that formal presentation.

Voltaire sets up his parody of optimism by putting his characters through a series of pretty ridiculous adventures. Voltaire is playing a kind of game of hypotheticals – would you still believe this was the best of all possible worlds if you lost your nose, your ears, were tortured. Yet then at the end, he seems to want to suggest that if you work hard, apply yourself, and ignore the goings on of kings, you can avoid idleness, vice and want- the ‘three great evils’.

But this involves Candide turning away from the evils of the world and focusing, quite literally, on his own backyard.

Given the broad nature of the instruction to work in your garden, it is arguable that Voltaire’s message is directed more towards working to make you own part of the world better, not to succumb to idleness in response to the world’s problems, but nor to pretend that they do not exist. But the structure of the book suggests that this is reading too much into the story.

Most of the book is devoted to showing the evils of the world. And yet we are meant to accept that simply by working hard and accepting his lot Candide can avoid the capricious whims of fate. Merely by being unconcerned with the world of kings, Candide can avoid having anything to do with them. But throughout the earlier parts of the book people are frequently subjected to the whims of the rulers. In fact, the perils of relying on the sense of justice of the aristocracy seems to be another theme of the book.

I'm sure that some of the residents of Lisbon were working in their gardens when this happened.

I’m sure that some of the residents of Lisbon were working in their gardens when this happened.

In order to cut down the optimists, Voltaire has painted a picture of an evil and unjust world, and then seems to want, at the end, to bracket that world to the side when presenting his own philosophy of life.

And this is why this is not a very good novel. One of the values of the novel form as a way of exploring ideas is that through the representation of the lives of characters, ideas can be debated and tested. For example, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is ultimately a novel which supports turning from nihilism back to the Russian Orthodox religion, but in contains one of the greatest anti-religious tracts of all time – “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter. So famous is this chapter and so well does Dostoevsky argue a point he doesn’t agree with is that most people think Dostoevsky is actually a nihilist.

What Voltaire does is subject other people’s ideas to the criticism of the “reality” of the world, but not his own ideas. And his representation of other people’s ideas is in the form of a caricature, particularly the optimist Pangloss. His representation of the world is also a caricature. How easy would it be for someone to point to the book and say that Voltaire has misrepresented their ideas, and the nature of the world?

And while one can interpret working in your garden in a number of ways, in the book itself this is represented as retreating into your family unit, selling what you produce to a city you don’t concern yourself with, and an unconvincing assertion that if you don’t strive to dine with kings they’ll leave you alone.

Voltaire at a number of points seems to deride the notion of philosophising as an activity (Pangloss’s philosophising while Candide is trapped under the rubble of a quake, the dervish saying why bother, Candide’s ultimate rejection of trying to debate about or reflect on the world), and as a result asks the reader to accept a fairly bare bones injunction to work hard and not think too much. But this is a philosophy too, and could equally be subject to criticism in the face of a world which takes even from people or work hard, where the affairs of kings affect even those who try to be unconcerned.

Candide is a witty demolition of the ridiculous extreme of certain philosophies. But it is neither good philosophy nor a good novel. This is the true danger of the philosophical novel.

 

Second person

It has been a long time since I blogged. I am trying to restart things with this poem, which I wrote a couple of months ago to perform, and keep failing to get on the performance bill. It is partially based on a sort of echo of a poem which I used to read when I was studying speech and drama.

That poem started – “His name was never mentioned in the dispatches, nor was he the hero of a desperate stand/His death obscured no headlines….” It ended with the line “But one there was for whom his life held meaning, and with his passing, grief walled up the sun.” I’m not sure who wrote the poem, or if I have it right.

Anyway, this poem is not a sentimental war poem, but there is something in it of that idea of the death of somebody unnoticed, unexceptional. I guess the contrasting line, which I also love, and which this poem also refers to obliquely, is the quote from Shakepeare’s Julius Caeser. “When beggars die, there are no comets to be seen. The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.” Which circles around to the excellent Nick Cave song, Are You the One I’ve Been Waiting For? – “We will know, won’t we?/The stars will explode in the sky/But they don’t, do they?/Stars have their moment then they die.”

Hmmmm, literature as a conversation over time and space and different forms, not just lonely works of genius staring, like Ozymandias, at the sand.

Second person

You were the kind of person whose name people forgot –

Even your face was the same as

A number of other faces, but

Only to the extent that it was unmemorable and

Could be passed by on the street without comment.

As a child, no one ever came to your birthday parties and

You stopped having them after a while.

For a while you felt an affinity with uranium

Until you discovered that half life was a measure of time

Not quality.

You travelled, took photos, even took

Lovers, who forgot your name and the

Curve of your shoulder and the touch of your hand

so quickly you felt yourself

virginal even lying in a sticky post-coital embrace.

Nobody every regretted your absence

In a melancholy moment years to come,

Reflecting on lost youth and the quick passion

That passes between strangers.

As an adult, you lived with others and then

Alone. In effect it was much the same –

The world ignoring you was just placed at

A different distance from the body

Even you doubted was really there.

Did you long to draw those others close

In comradely chats around an open fire or

Watching the slow passage of days

On a tired couch stained with tears and tea?

Certainly no one ever thought to

Offer you such comforts, grant you

Friendships forged in the slow fire of

Poverty and boredom.

At work people seemed to think that

The things you did just happened.

Your presence or absence largely went

Unremarked. You passed slow years

Leaving the world unaltered by your labour.

You failed also in your attempts to describe

the unmoved face of the world, forever

gazing beyond, beside, through your uncertain form

Your poems dissipated into the air

Even as you spoke them;

Stage lights left you in shadow.

In sum, your life was long, and full of

Events which largely passed you by.

But you watched them passing and

Noted every detail. You remembered

Every lover and loved each one.

And in history of all time and space

You are largely indistinguishable

From Caesar, from a worm, from a tree;

None will cast shadows on the face of stars.

You were the kind of person whose name people forgot.

You lived a terror greater than death, greater than being forgotten –

The indifference of eternity and the unseeing eye of time;