Friday, January 10, 2014

Work notes...White Cloud

It occurred to me that in order to get any writing done while also holding down a full time job I should keep a notebook in my car or even in my apron, so as to scribble down profound thoughts (well, you know what I mean) or striking images and character sketches when they occur. That way, I would at least still be contributing to my own Collected Works even though the phraseology of any one day may be less than wondrous, or its progression of inner logic a hash.

I don't have my car notebook yet -- so difficult to write coherently at stoplights anyway, before you know it the light is green and you must go -- but I do have my Sunday mornings. Perhaps I ought to call this new theme "Sunday morning hash." And look! I mentioned food.

So here goes.

I've been reading Sappho, pretentious though that sounds. I regret I can't find anything in her poetry about food or wine. And to "read" her means to read the approximations, in English, of the images that were in her mind when she wrote in Aeolic Greek some 2,600 years ago. Only fragments of her poetry survive, partly because -- after, granted, a thousand years, a thousand years of copying and reverent study, from about 600 B.C. to about 400 A.D. -- even the ancients found Aeolic Greek too abstruse to bother with. Disintegrating scrolls and burned libraries in conquered cities, century upon century, did the rest. Very modern scholars who publish her take scrupulous care nowadays to actually translate just the fragments. So you might read a new translation of something of hers that goes "By the sea .... yet your cloak ...  [to the? possibly an error for delight ...]."

Rough sledding. In 1907 someone named Bliss Carman made the sledding a bit easier. He translated (or approximated) and published Sappho's poems, in a kind of entirety, in Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics. You can find it at Project Gutenberg. Living just before our own era of absolutely scrupulous scholarliness left him free to guess what she was thinking. If you consult him and his "indefinable flavour of translation accompanied by the fluidity of original work" (I read the preface), you will find that the images in the poetess' mind were apparently most lovely. Perhaps too lovely, and that was all? But for a thousand years everyone adored her.

Sleep thou in the bosom 
of the tender comrade,
While the living water 
Whispers in the well-run, 
 And the oleanders 
Glimmer in the moonlight. 

Soon, ah, soon the shy birds 
Will be at their fluting, 
And the morning planet 
Rise above the garden; 
For there is a measure 
Set to all things mortal.

Legend has it that Sappho spent a part of her life in exile in Sicily, apparently because 2,600 years ago nothing about government had changed. It was still full of people telling you what to do based on your thoughts.

For the heart of man must seek and wander, 
Ask and question and discover knowledge;
Yet above all goodly things is wisdom, 
And love greater than all understanding. 

So, a mariner, I long for land-fall, -- 
When a darker purple on the sea-rim, 
O'er the prow uplifted, shall be Lesbos
And the gleaming towers of Mitylene.

Ah, government. So in our own day they're spying on us all day, are they? I am reminded of another poem, although this will sound pretentious too -- you would think I read poetry all day. (But even if I did, why should that be pretentious? Anyway.) John Donne opened the three verses of The Sun Rising with this: 

Busy old fool, unruly Sun, 
Why dost thou this, 
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us? 
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run? 

He went on, chiding the sun for waking him and his mistress when they and their love, their busy-ness (ahem), and their rest were more important than anything the sun could shine upon in all the twenty- four hours of his trek about the world. "She's all states, and all princes I; Nothing else is ....

Government dossier-collecting is not nearly so innocent or pleasing an image as the sun shining unwanted into John Donne's bedroom circa 1600 A.D. But there is an element of childlike comedy to it, not least because we in the modern age are free, aren't we, from real threats. Exile for example. In past ages people who enjoyed controlling their fellows liked not only to send them away on ships, but to kill them. They still do, elsewhere. Because our little day and our little corner of the planet eschews very savage penalties for wrong thinking, we can still afford as it were to smile maturely at the sun. We could ask the president, the heads of the bureaucracies and the security administrations and the justice departments, "Really? you need all this -- do you think you'll live forever? Do you think this level of power will prevent time from passing for you personally?" 

Then again, if they get all our money through taxes and live on it while vainly attempting to evade "the measure set to all things mortal," I suppose they'll consider it a pretty good bargain.

'Who was Atthis?' men shall ask, 
When the world is old, and time
Has accomplished without haste 
The strange destiny of men. 

Haply in that far-off age 
One shall find these silver songs, 
With their human freight, and guess
What a lover Sappho was.

Then there's this. I was fooling with the "scan" button on my car radio one day when it stopped in time for me to hear an interview with a just-published scholar about the battle of Gettysburg. You don't hear that every day, so I pushed a button and kept that station programmed among what is scanned. Turned out it was 90.1 FM, the radio home of Chicago's Moody Bible Institute.

Although "Moody radio" gets heavy-handed for my tastes, it does do one thing: it reminds secular people that there is another avenue of understanding in this world apart from what the human mind thinks up. There is also revelation. And if there is that, then there is some kind of refuge from mere total human authority -- from government -- no?

Great Pan came to thy cradle,
With calm of the deepest hills, 
And smiled, 'They have forgotten
The veriest power of life.

'To kindle her shapely beauty, 
And illumine her mind withal, 
I give to the little person
The glowing and craving soul.'  

Sometimes when things get quite too serious, when you have had enough of poetry and politics and of even the most delicately oyster-gray late evening skies in summer, and the robins caroling and twittering for the last time to a purpose in the silhouetted black trees (they raise three broods per spring, the bird books claim) and the other specks of more distant birds slowly winging away below the crescent moon, -- sometimes you just want to read P.G. Wodehouse. Here he is, in one of the most wonderful English sentences I have ever read, saying that a certain character in Right Ho, Jeeves is such a "goop" no normal woman would think of marrying him.  

I have no doubt that you could have flung bricks by the hour in England's most densely populated districts without endangering the safety of a single girl capable of becoming Mrs. Augustus Fink-Nottle without an anaesthetic.
Sappho would have roared. Now dear things, you have been patient with my work notes, my Sunday morning hash. Here is a cocktail as a reward. You will enjoy it later in the day of course.

White Cloud 
3/4 ounce (half a jigger) cream 
3/4 ounce (ditto) white creme de cacao
1 and 1/2 ounce (a jigger) vodka
2 ounces (a little more than a jigger) pineapple juice
Shake all ingredients well with ice cubes in a shaker, then strain into a highball glass filled with crushed ice.

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