Leavings from the feast of language

The moment when a life ended was as mysterious as when it began. A corpse not cold was like a child in the womb: a golem-thing, neither truly alive nor truly un-alive. The body, going through its after-death changes, continued to hold on to the soul, in whole or in part, for an unpredictable duration. In olden times the last rites had been meant as banishments to expel the spirit, less to assist the dead to heaven than to protect the living from any remnants of will and desire that might be stuck in the flesh and could thus remain, lost, half-sentient, and potentially troublesome. No one liked ghosts or walking corpses. But modern prayers weren’t worth much. They were hack jobs, leavings from the feast of language, the work of bad translators and worse poetasters. It was no wonder that the daily newspapers were full of ghost sightings. Shreds of the dead were surely lingering like unwashed clothes in corners and under beds.

from K. J. Bishop’s extraordinary debut novel The Etched City which I’ll review in due course.


Between scattered clumps of weed

Thom Gunn: Fennel

High fog, white sky
Above me on the bouldered hill
Where I
Stumble between head-high
And scattered clumps of weed
–Fennel, of which I once thought seed
Made you invisible.
Each forms a light green mist
–Feathery auras, though the look deceives
For looked at closely they consist
Of tiny leading into tinier leaves
In which each fork in sharply separate.
Yet tender, touched: I pinch a sprig and sniff,
And it reminds me of
The other times I have pinched fennel sprigs
For this fierce poignancy.
I stand here as if lost,
As if invisible on this broken cliff,
Invisible sky above.
And for a second I float free
Of personality, and die
Into my senses, into the unglossed
Sweet and transporting yet attaching smell
–The very agent that releases me
Holding me here as well.

Mark Twain on Spelling

From Twain’s recently published Autobiography that’s apparently selling really well.

As I have said before, I never had any large respect for good spelling. That is my feeling yet. Before the spelling book came with its arbitrary forms, men unconsciously revealed shades of their characters, and also added enlightening shades of expression to what they wrote by their spelling, and so it is possible that the spelling book has been a doubtful benevolence to us.

(quote stolen from Language Log)

On Elizabeth Bishop

Three short clips from the documentary Elizabeth Bishop: Voices and Visions. Judging from the clips it’s a bit odd in some places, but still. Wish I could get my hands on the film. I can’t manage to embed the clip from part one or two, so here’s the direct link to clip 1. Here is the direct link to the second clip. Finally, below, is clip 3.

Hiding the Pints

Been doing some reading/thinking on this poem lately. Any thoughts?

Elizabeth Bishop: The Prodigal

The brown enormous odor he lived by
was too close, with its breathing and thick hair,
for him to judge. The floor was rotten; the sty
was plastered halfway up with glass-smooth dung.
Light-lashed, self-righteous, above moving snouts,
the pigs’ eyes followed him, a cheerful stare–
even to the sow that always ate her young–
till, sickening, he leaned to scratch her head.
But sometimes mornings after drinking bouts
(he hid the pints behind the two-by-fours),
the sunrise glazed the barnyard mud with red
the burning puddles seemed to reassure.
And then he thought he almost might endure
his exile yet another year or more.

But evenings the first star came to warn.
The farmer whom he worked for came at dark
to shut the cows and horses in the barn
beneath their overhanging clouds of hay,
with pitchforks, faint forked lightnings, catching light,
safe and companionable as in the Ark.
The pigs stuck out their little feet and snored.
The lantern–like the sun, going away–
laid on the mud a pacing aureole.
Carrying a bucket along a slimy board,
he felt the bats’ uncertain staggering flight,
his shuddering insights, beyond his control,
touching him. But it took him a long time
finally to make up his mind to go home.

Of things invisible to mortal sight

Thus begins Book 3 of John Milton’s Paradise Lost which I am currently rereading for which seems like the millionth time. And it’s still amazing.

Hail holy light, ofspring of Heav’n first-born,
Or of th’ Eternal Coeternal beam
May I express thee unblam’d? since God is light,
And never but in unapproached light
Dwelt from Eternitie, dwelt then in thee,
Bright effluence of bright essence increate.
Or hear’st thou rather pure Ethereal stream,
Whose Fountain who shall tell? before the Sun,
Before the Heavens thou wert, and at the voice
Of God, as with a Mantle didst invest
The rising world of waters dark and deep,
Won from the void and formless infinite.
Thee I re-visit now with bolder wing,
Escap’t the Stygian Pool, though long detain’d
In that obscure sojourn, while in my flight
Through utter and through middle darkness borne
With other notes then to th’ Orphean Lyre
I sung of Chaos and Eternal Night,
Taught by the heav’nly Muse to venture down
The dark descent, and up to reascend,
Though hard and rare: thee I revisit safe,
And feel thy sovran vital Lamp; but thou
Revisit’st not these eyes, that rowle in vain
To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn;
So thick a drop serene hath quencht thir Orbs,
Or dim suffusion veild. Yet not the more
Cease I to wander where the Muses haunt
Cleer Spring, or shadie Grove, or Sunnie Hill,
Smit with the love of sacred Song; but chief
Thee Sion and the flowrie Brooks beneath
That wash thy hallowd feet, and warbling flow,
Nightly I visit: nor somtimes forget
Those other two equal’d with me in Fate,
So were I equal’d with them in renown,
Blind Thamyris and blind Mæonides,
And Tiresias and Phineus Prophets old.
Then feed on thoughts, that voluntarie move
Harmonious numbers; as the wakeful Bird
Sings darkling, and in shadiest Covert hid
Tunes her nocturnal Note. Thus with the Year
Seasons return, but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of Ev’n or Morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or Summers Rose,
Or flocks, or heards, or human face divine;
But cloud in stead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the chearful wayes of men
Cut off, and for the Book of knowledg fair
Presented with a Universal blanc
Of Nature’s works to mee expung’d and ras’d,
And wisdome at one entrance quite shut out.
So much the rather thou Celestial light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.

(Due to my laziness, I copied the text copied from this source, instead of typing it up. I do want to add however, that I strongly recommend reading the poem in the Longman Annotated version, edited by Alastair Fowler)