Where’s Home? (4)

What is he thinking?

Codes and Coding
Where’s Home? (4)
A continuing open letter to Jan Hull.

“Languages: they say that to learn another language is to gain another soul and another set of eyes through which to view the world.” I wrote these words on March 23, 2020, on the 22nd day of our Covid-19 lockdown. Why recall this article now? Because Jan Hull talks about Nova Scotian conversational language codes in her book Where’s Home? and her ideas rang a bell and tugged at my memories. CFA, for example, and CBC, and my own invention WAH. Then there are her coffee shop codes of Tim Horton’s and her Burger codes of MacDonald’s, and I mustn’t forget her other small town talking codes of former times and newly named places, must of which are bewildering to the outsider, aka CFA.

Why codes and coding? A rhetorical question, of course. But codes and coding are the basic elements through which language transfers thought, our thoughts. What is a code? Well, we know all about Morse Code and the elaborate codes through which spies from all countries communicate their needs. A code is a way of converting language, changing it, making it available to those initiated in the code and unavailable to those who have not received such initiation. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

When I was travelling regularly to Spain for research in Spanish libraries, my first port of call was always the local barber shop. I did this for several reasons. In the first place, my Canadian haircut gave me away as a foreigner. This is the hairdresser’s code. The barber’s shop was always the centre of local gossip. Here, buzz words changed hands, politicians were discussed, all the local news was immediately available. Each of these items was a code, a code that made an insider (acceptable) versus an outsider (not to be spoken to). I remember, one summer in Madrid, not getting served in any bar or restaurant. Check haircut: okay. Check shoes: bought new Spanish pair. Check shirt, jacket, tie: all up to date. Inspect lucky customers who are being served … ah … they are all wearing a shiny brass pin showing the symbol of Madrid: El Oso y el Madroño, the bear and the strawberry tree, as seen in La Puerta del Sol.

The next bar I entered saw me sporting El Oso y el Madroño in my lapel. Qué quiere el señor? Immediate service and with a smile. These are social codes, the codes that include the winks and nudges of the upper class, the secret handshakes and foot positions, the names dropped so gently and quietly that they never shatter when they hit the floor. There are also language codes. Northrop Frye wrote The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, a study of the mythology and structure of the Bible, and it was published in 1982. In this wonderful study, Frye showed how themes and language from the bible have influenced the structure of Western Literature, particularly that written in English. Within this code, names, themes, miracles, parables, psalms form a body of common knowledge available to all readers who are christian and whose first language is English.

But there are other codes. Think Courtly Love. Think Petracharism. Petrarch’s poetry, originally written in Italian, was widely imitated throughout Europe. Italian literature, Spanish, French, English, all dip into that code, as does Shakespeare among so many others. Think the Great Chain of Being. Shakespeare is incomprehensible in places unless you unlock this particular code. Think Platonism, NeoPlatonism, Stoicism, Existentialism … okay, so all this is academic, and I do not want to lose you in a sea of academia. So think NFL, think NBA, think NHL, think baseball, think cricket, think rugby, think darts, think all of the things we manipulate on a daily basis in our lives and think how they include some people (those who know and share our codes) and exclude others (those who are unaware of them). LBW, c&bc. A, b. B, st. A b. B, w, W, b, lb, lbw, dec., RSP … and think of the hand gestures that accompany them! You would have to be an ardent follower of the mysterious game of cricket, as I am, to immediately understand all those letters and signs.

This is a wonderful line of discussion. It follows along the lines of micro-language and macro-language. Macro-language is accessible to all who happen to speak that language. Micro-language in its multidinous forms incarnadine belongs ONLY to those who share the micro community, be it family, household, village, town, county, region … all that is closest and dearest to our micro-hearts.

When I was in Moncton (2015), at the Auberge Msgr. Henri Cormier, I spoke French on a daily basis. Being an academic and a linguist, I was fascinated by the levels of French that were spoken in that small community. Here are the levels I identified: (1) LFI, Le francais international, the central French language that I spoke and everyone understood. (2) Acadian, a beautiful language with regional variations, a different accent and rhythm, and some very different words and phrases. (3) Chiac, the mixed English-French used by the citizens of Moncton, whose wonderful poets are trying to get it established as a literary language. (4) Community French, five families from Paquetville were there and when they spoke among themselves about their home town, references, history, culture were all barriers to those who did not come from Paquetville. (5) Family Groups, and this is easy to understand, for all families have their in-jokes, their coded speech, their conversations that keep the outsider outside of the family group.

It is a fascinating study, that of coded languages, and I thank you, Jan, for re- opening it and reminding me of it.

My Grandfather’s Chair

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My Grandfather’s Chair
For Margie Goldsmith

“Write about that chair,” Margie said,
and I wondered what was in her head.
How can I write about that chair
when those who sat in it are not there.

Before the coal fire my grandfather sat,
snoring away, on his lap slept the cat.
At three years old, I climbed that chair,
and blew on the bald spot in his hair.

So many things we no longer know:
my grandpa did the same thing, years ago,
and years before that, his own grandad
did just the same to make his old man mad.

Now I, in my turn, when I drink deep,
like to sit in that chair for a little sleep,
and my grand daughter, there’s no grandson,
climbs up that chair, as others have done,

and sees the bald spot in my hair
and blows and blows as I snooze there.
The years roll back and I see the smiles
of generations woken by a young child’s wiles.

Comment: Talking the other day, I mentioned my grandfather’s chair, the only piece of furniture rescued from my parents’ house, and Margie said I had to write a poem about it. So, last night I did. The result is something very different from what I normally write. This is what in Spanish is called an occasional poem and it celebrates a specific occasion, a specific set of circumstances. Thus, it is written under different rules, rhyme, rhythm, stanzas. It is always an adventure to write something suggested by someone else. Poems like this cross the boundary between poetry of play (which this is) and occasionally enter the realm of poetry that expresses the authenticity of being which, to a certain extent is present in this poem too. The above photo, from our local newspaper, The Daily Gleaner, is the only one I have of the chair which resides in the basement where I keep my books. The article is an old one (2017), but the photo is nice!

Plein Air

 

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Plein Air
(for Ruby Allan)

Plein air,”
she said, and I imagined her
sitting before the blank spread of a canvas,
a ship’s sail waiting for a sea-side breeze
to fill that empty space with color and mood.

What routes will her paintbrush take
as it wanders over the new world
lying before her?

Plein air, al fresco,
in garden and street,
before the shops and then
on headland and shore,
alone or accompanied,

with sea birds wading
and the gull’s cry echoing its sea of sound
as the sun sets in its bonfire of brightness
and throws light and shadow,
chiaro-oscuro,
all around.

Comment: The lead photo of Ruby Allan in her studio was taken in her KIRA studio in June, 2017, by my friend and fellow artist, the Peruvian pan-piper and flautist / flutist, Carlos Carty. The poem comes from my book, One Small Corner (2017), written in KIRA during my residency. It can be found on page 94 in the section entitled Artists.

In this poem I have tried to capture the idea of Ruby painting in the fresh air (plein air / al fresco) in St. Andrews-by-the-sea. Clearly, as you can see from the above photo, the sea is so important to this town, as are harbors and boats and the men that man and sail them. The light is important too as it changes throughout the day or with wind and weather. As you can see, Ruby’s paintings are filled with light and she catches those magic moments when the world seems to freeze and stand still. I try to imitate visual art when I write, and I try to fill my poetry with those magic moments as I create verbal pictures that seize the seconds and  hold them, even if it be for just a little while.

 

Ego

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Ego

I am not worthy
to be called her sun,
and yet her world
revolves around me.

She spins in my space
and short-circuits
her own life to make
mine more livable.

I’d like to say ‘joyous,’
but tears are in all things
(sunt lacrimae rerum)
and
death touches mortal minds
( et
mentem mortalia tangunt
).

The best I can offer:
a salt water world,
filled with inadequacies,
drowning us in tears.

Comment: Several things of note in this poem and the voice recording. Should we mix languages in a poem? Why ever not, so long as we explain them. This Latin tag goes back over 2,000 years and links my poem (Intertextuality, remember?) into a long Western tradition. Am I worthy of that tradition? Is my poem? Well, that is a totally different question. However, I am linked in, as you might phrase it. A second question: does my reading of the poem affect your understanding of the poem? If so, how and in what way? Does the phonic word play sun / son affect your understanding of the poem? If so, how? And how does the double meaning of ego work on your mind? Does the Freudian Ego / Id stand out? Or does the schoolboy “Quiz?” “Ego!” spring to mind. Or do you immediately think of the first person singular (Latin) ego as in ego sum lux, via veritas? More important: are you aware of any of this or does the poem disappear into a desert landscape of nothingness with no apparent strings attached? Good questions all: I invite you to think about them all. Blessings and best wishes. Keep safe.

The Journey

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The Journey

I sense the rust in her mind’s clockwork
clogging her brain, slowing down thought.

I watch her search for words, stumbling through
sentences.  “Wind up the flowers,” she says
handing me the key for the grandfather clock.

When she says “water the clock” I receive
the plastic watering-can meant for the flowers.

Fellow travelers, we journey side by side on life’s
train. I watch her as she looks out of the window
at the passing countryside with its tiny stations.

She frets as she clasps her weak hand in her strong
one and I realize she’s worried because she no longer
knows when, where, or how the journey will end.

Comment: I wrote this originally in memory of my grandmother. However, as I have been involved in the rediscovering / revision / rewriting of older poems, I have come to realize that, as our visions change,  our poems become more accessible to a wider audience. In other words, given what is happening right now with the pandemic, none of us know when, where, or how the journey will end. This leads directly into the twin themes of the fragility of life and the nature of memory. What do we remember? Why do we remember a particular incident? Did it happen just as we remember it or have we already doctored our memories, re-creating them, so to speak.

I have a clear memory of seeing Sir Frank Worral batting at St. Helen’s in Swansea, when I was about 11 years old. A close friend of mine, an outstanding cricketing historian, checked the details in Wisden and told me that Frank Worral wasn’t playing in that match, so I couldn’t have seen him batting. And then there was Sir Everton de Courcy Weekes: I swear a saw him score a century at Bristol, yet, again according to my friend who checked the records, he only got fifty in that game! Games: what mind games the mind plays with us as we age. So, do I go with the fantasy land of my memories in which much has been (re)-invented? Or do I go with the world of truth and checkable reality? As an academic, I lived in the latter world: research, check, double check, avoid expressing personal opinions, facts, facts, facts, and exact dates. As an ageing poet, I would much rather live in that former world where truth and reality march hand in hand with fairy-tale and fiction, a little bit of one and a smattering of both.

How far is from fairy-tale and fiction to the dream world we inhabit at night? Just a short step, I reckon. Sometimes I remember my dreams and write them down when I wake up. Sometimes they vanish and I can only recall some vague feelings of joy and anguish. And what is life, that fragile, dream-like reality? Is it really a dream, as Segismundo tells us in Calderón’s La Vida es Sueño? Or is it a real world? And if it is real, do we create that reality or do we dream it? And if we dream it, do we sleep walk, sleep talk, sweet talk our way through it? Or do we portray it just like it really is, with no creativity, just a factual repeat of reality as we know it?

¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí.
¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión,
una sombra, una ficción,
y el mayor bien es pequeño,
porque toda la vida es un sueño,
y los sueños, sueños son.

What is life? A frenzy.
What is life? An illusion,
a shadow, a fiction,
and the greatest good is small,
because life is a dream,
and dreams are nothing
but dreams, after all.

 

Empty

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Empty

Empty now the house, clean the floors where she
spattered food and scattered her toys, polished

the tables, grubby no more, where small hands
clattered fork and spoon, her breakfast not wanted.

Empty the bathroom, the tub where she bathed.
Dry the towels, full the toothpaste tubes she

emptied in ecstasy. Where now her foot
-prints, her laughter and tears, the secret

language she spoke that we never understood?
Empty too my heart where, a wild bird, she

nested for the briefest time, then flew, yet
I possess her still, within my empty hands.

Commentary: The lead painting is the one Finley painted for me. I received it as a Christmas present, a couple of years back when she was 3 or 4. When asked if she wanted to add some more to the painting as the canvas wasn’t full, she replied: “No, it’s finished. That’s just how I want it.” Picasso once said that he spent the first half of his life learning to paint and the second half learning to see again as children see. Sometimes we complicate our art so much that we kill our inspiration and our vision. Some poets necessitate a dictionary in order for a reader to understand their words, yet when the meaning emerges, we find that the poem is convoluted, stilted, almost meaningless and even emptier than it was before.

Question: why do we try to gild the lily? Why do we lead to the slaughter the gift of the goose who lays the golden eggs? Are we writers or assassins? Are we not capable of putting meaning on paper with the directness and simplicity of a child? Good questions all. Sometimes I think that poets are like the existentialists of Albert Camus’s novels: they are the assassins of language and the murderers of direct and clear writing. And who are the victims? The words, images, metaphors, feelings that are strangled in the cradle or forced into captivity behind prison bars of jumbled lines and scattered thought.

Original ideas? No, not at all. This is the basic argument that Francisco de Quevedo (conceptismo) had with Luis de Góngora (culteranismo) in the Spanish literary salons of Madrid between 1613and 1627. The literary insults they wrote to each other are still a scandalous joy to read. These two seemingly separate styles of writing, which are actually very similar on many levels, eventually blended together and led to a total renewal of the Spanish literary language.  This in turn was bastardized by second-class imitators who did not have the skills of the original ‘super’ artists. And thus the pendulum swings: innovation > standardization > parody and satire of a worn out language > fresh inspiration and innovation.

As for me: how I would love to regain the clarity of vision and the joy of words that I experienced when I was a child. Back then, the world was a magic place, the pen and pencil were magic wands, and the empty page was a blank canvas to be filled with wonder. Alas: then I was sent to school. Rules were set. Bars were installed. Blinkers were inserted. Doors and windows were locked. Creativity ended. I will say no more.

KIRA Creative Quarantine

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KIRA Creative Quarantine

The Kingsbrae International Residencies for Artists (KIRA) requested its alumni to consider creating a ten minute video of themselves offering an instructional lesson based  on themselves working in their specialist areas. You can click on the above link to see all the creative videos currently available. Note that two more are added each week. Here is a link to my own video on Writing a Poem. It is designed for people of any age and I hope that anyone who sees the video will enjoy it and be inspired to start putting together their own poems.

The photo above was taken by Geoff Slater, the Artistic Director at KIRA. He placed a selection of my books on the beach at Holt’s Point and Bingo: instant art from a master artist. My book Fundy Lines now sunbathes on a beach that has ready access to the beautiful Bay of Fundy.

Downsizing

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Downsizing
Francisco de Quevedo

I chose each book, held it in my hands for
one last time, then placed it peacefully in
its cardboard coffin. Old friends, they were
but I broke that friendship and set them
free to fulfill their promised after-me-life
on another person’s shelves. I used to love
to listen to their lilting speech, to hear sage
thoughts with open eyes and mind. I replied
to their wisdom: words penned on each page.

Mind to mind, though they had lived five
hundred years ago, I strove to engage them
in a lively conversation, Bakhtinian dialogues
within our shared time and space, and
that space my basement library with its books.

One day, a man from the university drove up
in a hearse and bore them all away. Released
to a wider world beyond my walls, they will
nourish younger minds than mine. I hope their
new owners will bless them, welcome them,
cherish them, as I have done throughout my life.
Blind now, with tears, my eyes that devoured
their words. Deaf now, these ears of mine that
heard dead men’s words, for I can listen no more.

Comment: “Escucho con mis ojos a los Muertos / I listen with my eyes to the words of the dead.” Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645). It was a hard thing to do, that disemboweling of my library, but it had to be done. I am grateful to the Harriet Irving Library at the University of New Brunswick for taking pity on my plight and redeeming my books. Hopefully they will have all gone on to a better life. It was sad to walk past them, to watch them slowly gathering dust, like a book on a shelf, as Elvis used to sing. It was even sadder to know that I would ever be able to peruse them all again, let alone read them from from cover to cover, certainly not in this life time.

And is that my own fate, to be reduced to words on a page, to become a dusty book lying forgotten on a shelf? Pobre poetas de hoy,  wrote my friend and fellow academic poet, José María Valverde, destinados a ser polvo seco de tesis doctoral / Poor poets of today, destined to become the dry dust of doctoral theses. So: my thought for today … rise up and resist. Take an old friend off the shelf. Dust him or her off. Open the pages. Settle down for a moment or two. Breathe deep. Begin your conversation with your long lost friend. We may not be close in the flesh, distanced as we are by lock downs and separation, but we can become closer in our minds. Pick up one of my books. Dust me down. Read me. Begin that conversation. Now. Before we too are gone, swept down stream by time’s river and lost in the mists that curtain the sea.

And, just in case you thought that last line was very good and very unique and original, here’s the conversation it came from: Nuestras vidas son los ríos / que van a dar en la mar, /  que es el morir / our lives are the rivers that will flow down to the sea, which is death (Jorge Manrique, 1440-1479). I had that conversation with Jorge Manrique in Santander in the summer of 1963. His Coplas was on the pre-university reading list at Bristol University, placed there, I believe by Salvador Bacarisse who was related to a long line of Spanish musicians and poets. If memory serves me well, our first essay, in our first week, in our first year of Spanish, entailed writing a commentary on the Coplas and how to read and understand them.

Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait / If youth knew how, if old age was able to (Voltaire). I wish I knew then what I know now. And I wish I could do now, some of the things I could do back then. Meanwhile, do not despair: pick up one of my books or browse my blog for a poem, and have a short and hopefully profitable conversation with me as you listen to my failing voice with your younger eyes.

Word without end

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Word Without End
Antonio Machado

Tree: rowan, mountain ash, larch, tamarack,
hackmatack, spruce, birch, maple, passerines
flying from branch to branch. Birds: more words,

woodpeckers, downy, hairy, pileated, cardinals,
finches, purple, house, golden, rain-rusted robins,
crows, aerial magicians, wondrous in flight.

Spring: fresh branch tips, tiny fox gloves, leaf buds,
folded fiddleheads soon to open their spring magic.
Open: hearts worn on sleeves, open to the world,

wounds, eyes, everything open to beauteous
sun-warmth, snow’s slow disappearance, rising river,
freshet flow freshening this Renaissance,

every day a rebirth, a new beginning,
fresh starts, the world reborn beneath a rising sun,
its yellow disc growing, the new day glowing.

The word as it was in the beginning, head in hands,
heart in mouth, words without meaning, words whirling
golden autumn leaves, words caught in a whirligig,
words all powerful in a word-world without end.

Comment: “La palabra: una palptiación honda del espíritu / The word: a deep palpitation of the spirit.” Antonio Machado (1875-1939). In The Meaning of Meaning, Bertrand Russell discusses what words mean and how they construct, with their endless associative fields, a net of emotions that take us beyond logic into new realms of meaning. As poets and creative artists, we are conscious of the emotions we attach to each word we use. If the poetry is good, then that network of emotional associations reaches out to a wider audience and draws them into our own world view. If we are less skillful, then the emotions are trapped in our own claustrophobic words and fail to reach out, to lift up from the page, to achieve take-off. As we develop as poets and writers, we become more and more aware of the ways in which the microcosm, our own world in miniature, reaches out to the macrocosm, that wider world outside. When we achieve a blend between those two worlds, even if it be in nothing more than a metaphor, nothing more than a felicitous phrase or a delicately timed rhyme, then we reach a new level, a level that we strive to retain and attain anew every time we create.

For me, many of the secrets of poetry can be found hidden in the rhythm of words, the music of their joining, the harmonies they create when they play off each other, old and older meanings reflecting off the newer meanings we give them as we shuffle them anew and put them through their paces.

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Yesterday, my beloved placed seeds on the back porch, and a chipmunk, her pet chipmunk, came and sat on her foot as he chomped the seeds. Today, this first chipmunk was followed by a second chipmunk. Patience my friends. Keep writing. Keep striving. Keep experimenting. Keep your faith and your creed. Your words will one day reach out, like seeds to chipmunks, and will sow themselves in the mind’s of your readers. And those readers will beget other readers, much as one chipmunk plus one chipmunk will eventually equal many more than two chipmunks. Oh the joy of words, the loving search for le mot juste and the meaning of meaning. In the words of the immortal Cervantes: Paciencia, y barajar / patience, and shuffle your words. The results will creep upon you one morning, unaware and, like the chipmunks, they will catch you by surprise.

Duende

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Duende
Federico García Lorca

It starts in the soles of your feet, moves up
to your stomach, sends butterflies stamping
through your guts. Heart trapped by chattering teeth,
you stand there, silent, wondering … can I?
will I?what if I can’t? … then a voice breaks
the silence, but it’s no longer your voice.

The Duende holds you in its grip as you
hold the room, eyes wide, possessed,
taken over like you by earth’s dark powers
volcanic within you, spewing forth their
lava of living words. The room is alive
with soul magic, with this dark, glorious
spark that devours the audience, heart
by heart. Magic ends. The maelstrom calms.

Abandoned, you stand empty, a hollow shell.
The Duende has left you. God is dead, deep
your soul’s black starless night. Exhausted,
you sink to deepest depths searching for that
one last drop at the bottom of the bottle to save
your soul and permit you a temporary peace.

Comment: “Todo lo que tiene sonidos oscuros tiene duende / All that has dark sounds has duende.” Federico García Lorca (1898-1936). García Lorca, an inspired and inspirational vocal performer, well understood those dark artistic powers that rise from a combination of earth, air, and fire to possess artists as they weave their magic, be it musical or verbal or a combination of both. Those who possess it know that they never really possess it, for it comes and goes with a will of its own and possesses them, body and soul, taking them over. Deus est in nobisit is the god within us, wrote the Romans with their understanding of the power of performance. And they are right. Those who possess it are changed by it, no longer know themselves, turn into something other than what they are and becoming something special. “Ah would some power the giftie gie us, to see ourselves as others see us” (Robert Burns). But what happens to us when the wondrous gift is taken away, when drab reality takes over from the glory of the stage, the spotlight, the performance of the play? That indeed is the question. And the answer varies with each of us.  I look with dismay on the comedians who, for one reason or another, when deprived of their audiences, have chosen the darkest of exits. The hollow shells of the performers who have given their all are sad things to behold. The existential emptiness that is left when the powers drain away is difficult to live with. That is why so many, faced with this darkness, akin to St. John of the Cross’ Noche Oscura del Alma / Dark Night of the Soul, chose not to live. That is not a choice that I will ever make. And I encourage all my friends to wait, to wait in patience and hope for the light, the glorious light and fire of the Duende, the Spirit that will return, will pluck us from the depths, and will raise us to the heights again.