Crocodile Tears

SD 16

 

Crocodile Tears

         The crocodile lives in the wind-up gramophone. The gramophone lives in the top room of the house. The boy winds up the gramophone with a long brass handle, round and round, till the spring is tight. The tight spring frightens the crocodile and he sits quietly in his cage. But as the record goes round, the spring loosens up and the crocodile roars and demands to be freed. He’s the Jack that wants to jump out of the box. His long-term dream is to eat up the witch who looks out of the window and watches the boy as he plays in the yard.

         Last week the boy decided to dig. He picked up a spade and dug a deep hole that went all the way down to his cousin in Australia. The little dog laughed and joined in the fun, scraping with his front paws and throwing earth out between his back legs like happy dogs do. The witch in the window cackled with laughter and the rooks in the rookery rose up in a cloud and cawed in reply. Only the boy can see the witch and he only sees her when she sits in the window. But he knows she wanders through the house, and the air goes cold when she enters and exits the rooms, especially when she brushes past the boy and sweeps his skin with her long, black gown.

         When the boy gets tired of digging, he drives the spade into the ground and leaves it standing by the hole. When his father comes home after work, it’s dark and he doesn’t see the hole but he does see the spade. So he doesn’t fall in to the shaft of the coal-mine that goes all the way down to Australia. No free trip to the Antipodes for that lucky dad. He beats the boy for that, for digging that hole. Then he beats him again for lying: the hole doesn’t go to Australia. Australia is too far away and the angle is all wrong. The boy laughs when he sees that his dad doesn’t know where Australia is.

         “Ha-ha,” he laughs and his dad beats him again, this time for laughing.

         Sometimes at night the boy can hear rats running through his bedroom walls. They scuttle and scuffle as they hunt through the guttering. The crocodile growls from time to time in that upstairs room. The witch cackles with laughter. The boy puts his head under the blankets and cries himself to sleep. Sometimes he wishes the crocodile would come and eat up his dad. But he loves his dad like the dog loves his dad even though his dad beats both the boy and the dog. Sudden beatings, they are, beatings that arrive without warning: hail and thunder from a sunny summer sky.

         “Well, you’re not laughing now,” his father announces.     When the father beats the boy, the dog cowers beneath a chair. The boy hears the crocodile growl and smiles through the tears as he wipes salt water from his eyes.

         “Are you laughing at me? I’ll make you laugh on the other side of your face,” the father taunts the son and beats him again.

         The crocodile growls. The old witch cackles. The rooks in the rookery rise up in the air and the father’s hair stands up on end like it does when lightning lights up the sky, and thunder rolls its drums, and the sky rattles like an old farmer’s cart whose iron-rimmed wheels have not been greased. The veins stand out in his father’s cheeks as the old man raises his hand to the boy.

         The old man tells the same old jokes again and again. The boy must always remember to laugh at them as if he had never heard them before. If he doesn’t laugh, his father gets angry. Some of the jokes are good, and the boy likes the one about the Catholic who goes into the bar in Belfast and asks the barkeep if they serve Protestants. Or is it the one in which the Protestant goes into the bar and ask the barkeep if they serve Catholics … anyway … one night, the boy has a dream and it goes like this. The crocodile escapes from the gramophone. The witch hands the boy a leash and a collar and between them they restrain the crocodile.

         “Walkies?” says the boy.

         The crocodile nods his head and croc and boy walk down the street to the Kiddy’s Soda Fountain on the corner.  When the boy walks in with the croc, the waitress raises her eyebrows and opens her mouth.

         “Do you serve grownups in here?” the little boy asks her.

         “Of course we do,” says the waitress.

         “Good. I’ll have a glass of Dandelion & Burdock for myself and a grown-up for the crocodile. Please.”

         The witch says grace, the boy sips his Dandelion & Burdock, and they all shed crocodile tears as the boy’s pet crocodile chomps on the fast disappearing body of the boy’s dad.

Friends

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Friends

Strange things, friends. What are they exactly? And how do we make them?  In fact, do we make friends, or do we just grow together, like gardens or trees? Birds of a feather, they say, but our feathered friends are flighty and the snow-birds leave in the hard times only to return when the sun comes back. Fair-weather friends, then, and I have known a lot of those.

I turned to Wikipedia, the source of all knowledge, but all I could find under FRIENDS was a series of articles on TV shows, every episode, every actor, every friendship, every situation, but no discussion of what friendship actually meant. FRIENDSHIP: I looked that word up and the results were much more satisfying. The article ranged from a definition: ‘a mutual attraction among people’ to a series of academic studies about friendship in childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and older adults. As we age, so our notions of friendship change. In addition, as we move from place to place, job to job, so our circles of friendship grow old, renew themselves, and gradually fade away. One study shows that in adulthood we rarely have more than two good, true friends. Our acquaintances are many, but our friends are few. Old age brings a different set of equations to bear and loneliness and isolation with the consequent absence of friends, all bring their own problems, including sickness and ill-health.

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Here are some of my closest friends. Rosie is named after Rosie the Elephant in Bristol Zoo. Teddy is the Koala. Basil is the small one on the left with the pink ribbon. Chimney is the little one on the right with the orange skirt. Her name’s Chimney, but I call her Sweep. Don’t ask, I won’t tell. These friends summarize all the needs of friendship: they don’t beat me up, they listen when I talk, they don’t interrupt me, they nod silent agreement to my opinions, and they soak up my tears when I cry. They also keep me warm in bed at night. Well, Rosie and Teddy do anyway. These are not their real names, incidentally. Teddies, like cats, have secret names, and you cannot really call a teddy bear your friend until he or she has revealed that name to you. It may take years for that to happen. The speed or the slowness of the true name’s arrival has nothing to do with the success of the friendship.

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This is Princess Squiffy aka Vomit. She threw up beside my chair again yesterday and I am just not sure if that is a sign of friendship or not. At least she didn’t throw up in my chair, which is what she did last time my beloved was away visiting our daughter in Ottawa. So, how do your friends show their friendship? By sitting in silence and listening? By keeping you warm in bed at night? By throwing up in your chair? By presenting you with hairballs, so carefully formed and all gift-wrapped? I am not sure. I guess I’ll have to go back to Wikipedia and check it all out. In the meantime: here’s a picture of man’s best friend.

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I bet you weren’t expecting that!

Early Bird

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This is the first painting I ever did on canvas. Kingsbrae held their painting session for children in June 2017, and I joined in with the five and six year olds. It was such wonderful fun. They slapped the paint onto the canvas with unbounded joy. It was hard not to be joyful with them. Many of them expressed curiosity about my painting: “What is it?” then later “What are they saying to each other?” The conversation between bird and worm (or whatever it is) was of incredible importance to them. I thought of it as my “Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet” moment. Now that’s confidence for you.

My strange accent, slowly developing as mid-Atlantic Welsh, with a touch of West Country English and a dab of Upper Canadian and a touch of New Brunswick also fascinated them. “Where are you from?” “Fredericton.” “No. Where are you really from?” “Island View, New Brunswick.” “No. Where were you from before that?” The questions continued until they had ascertained that indeed, I was not a Canadian, a real Canadian, even though I was in Toronto in 1967 to see the Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup. 1967: that’s 51 years ago, and I still support the Maple Leafs and I still have my strange overseas accent. “You’re weird,” they told me. “I’ve been in Canada a lot longer than you,” I told them. “Where did you grow up?” They asked. I silenced them with my answer: “I don’t think I have yet.”

Happy paint-splashers, we dabbed on and on in alternating mirth and silence. Some left the table and walked away. Geoff collected our paintings and left them to dry. Later that day, we hung this painting on the wall in the KIRA dining room. It sat there for several days and nobody noticed it. Alas, a hawk-eyed young lady finally spotted it the first night she came over for dinner and “What is that?” she asked, pointing at my painting. Bold and italics combined cannot reproduce the scorn and disdain rolled up in the single word: that. I remember the butler in a country house in Somerset removing with a pair of tongs the Communist newspaper The Daily Worker from the weekend newspapers left on the doorstep. He, too, was very disdainful.

I also remember the tone of an Old Etonian, well he said he was an Old Etonian and had a rasping, high-pitched nasality that made him sound the part. This jolly goof fellow summed me up at a dinner party one night in Toronto when I first came to Canada: “Oh, you’re Welsh.” The grate of his voice was the scrape of a stick removing a dog turd from a shoe. “No,” I said. “Irish, actually.” I used my broadest Welsh accent. “My family is Irish Catholic not Capel Cymraig / Welsh Chapel. Moore is an Irish name. Llewellyn ad Jones are Welsh names. I am not called Llewellyn or Jones.”

And this reminds me of my father, standing in the elevator in a posh hotel in Bordeaux, when three Irishmen walked in. They scanned him for a moment, and then one said, in the broadest of Southern Irish brogues: “T’is the map of Ireland written all over your face.” “Yes,” says my father in his thick, Welsh accent, “I am Irish. But I was born in England.” And that brings me back to my painting. Is it the early bird that catches the worm or the late worm that gets caught by the bird? And which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Ah, the beauty of children. They accept, often without judgement and often without speculation and I love their readiness to befriend the growing child within the old man as he ages. They may not hold doctorates in philosophy, but by golly they are true philosophers in their finest moments. And then of course, they go to school to learn how to behave … and may the good Lord have mercy on them.

Surrealism

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Surrealism
KIRA Retreat Day 4

Only one of the Kingsbrae alpacas could understand and illustrate what we did today. This one showed us so many things. Luckily we smuggled him into the writing classes and the art classes and nobody was any the wiser. In fact he taught one class himself, and one participant served as translator, moving from Spanish to English with almost as much ease as he taught.

He began this morning with a reading that linked Symbolism to Surrealism to Magical Realism. It was a fascinating piece that nobody in the room, myself included, had ever heard before. So, we began with a concrete, literary example, then moved to a theoretical session. The alpaca began by explaining the difference between a lama, an alpaca, and a vicuña. This was extremely interesting, and something we hadn’t considered before. Luckily, these three creatures, two of them mythical (but which two?), do not have-isms attached to them and were therefore much easier to understand.

The lama began the theoretical session by offering some meditation exercises, very peace-giving.  Then he moved into the nitty-gritty of automatic writing. He followed this with some examples of how, rather than copying the automatic writing, we could select prime elements from it. This selection process allows the writer to mine the subconscious while avoiding some of the repetitious nature of the automated pen on the suppliant page.

In all cases, all participants read from their work and the sharing of subconscious inanities was a great way to break any ice that came with the overnight change in the weather.

After lunch, we had a second writing exercise that stretched into two exercises. These were courtesy of a second lama and entailed describing unknown and known objects. One of the participants was very uncooperative and instead of writing words drew pictures in his notebook. This drew comments of ‘Naughty, naughty,” from the lama and that student was given a time out on the golf cart driven round the lawn by the KIRA equivalent of Mad Max.

In our final session, the art lama appeared. He had carefully plucked all the flowers in Kingsbrae and then eaten them. However, in an incredible act of bravery, the ladies present stole some from his hoard and placed them in water cups. The participants then scattered random dots of paint upon a canvas and agreed that, seen from a distance and in the dark, they looked like flowers on a tarmac road under storm clouds on a thundery night when nothing could be seen.

By now, the lama who had been tied to the fishing weir, oh, I forgot to tell you about that, sorry, had been rescued when the Old Sow let the water out of the Passamaquoddy bath tub (aka low tide). Luckily no harm was done and a delicious, fossilized piece of Turkish Delight was shared by the participants all of whom agreed that nothing like this had ever happened to them before, and I believe them.

Mad Max took everyone for a ride on the Golf Cart and we all chased deer round the Kingsbrae Gardens while singing “I’ve been working on the chain gang” and “For it’s a jolly good yellow.”

Bistro

Bistro Cover

Bistro

Thank you, Allan Hudson, for your kind words about my book of short stories entitled Bistro. Allan has also set out a brief introduction to five other novelists, several of them close friends and admired acquaintances.

Bistro was one of three finalists in the New Brunswick Book Awards (2016-17). I think it was the only self-published book to make the finals. So, all of you struggling self-publishers, it can be done and we can get recognized, as we know from the results of one of this year’s major French book awards, awarded to another self-published author, much to the chagrin of all the French publishers who had already turned his book down. The message to everyone is simple: “Don’t get off the bus. Keep believing. Finish the journey.” And remember, you’ll never finish the journey if you get off the bus / train / boat / plane / tram / trolley / whatever … before you reach your final destination.

The cover photo, incidentally, is one of my cartoons that has appeared on these pages before. It shows a bird-man, beak open in astonishment, watching three ships approach his belly-button, as he sits there, naval-gazing, or should that be navel-gazing? “I saw three ships come sailing by …”

You can link to Allan’s Blog, the South Branch Scribbler, by clicking on the link. Bistro, incidentally, is available for purchase on Amazon and Kindle.

Thursday Thoughts: Divorce

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Thursday Thoughts
19 July 2018
DDD
[Divorce, Division, Dissent)

Sometimes you wake up in the morning and you realize that you can do no more. So what is it about family split-ups, the pain and ugliness of a disputed divorce, the glue coming unstuck in an already unstable marriage,  a financial settlement that satisfies nobody and splits and impoverishes both sides of a divide? And how do you bridge that divide when you are friends with father, mother, children and the wounds are so deep that everyone of them wants out, whatever the costs and whatever it takes? And what is it about the deliberate wounding of each by the others, the permanent scars that will never heal over, never be stitched over, no matter how hard a third party tries? And what right does a third party (fourth party, fifth party, sixth party) have to step in and try to force issues? And what is it about lawyers, when too many guests gather around the Thanksgiving turkey and the knives are out for everyone to take the choicest cuts and what’s left now but a skeletal carcass, no flesh on the bones, and the guests all hungry still and their empty bellies rumbling for more, more, more … and this isn’t Oliver Twist, “Please sir, may I have some more?” though everyone is heading for the poor house and the beadles are also gathering by bedlam’s door with their handcarts and dogs and the full enforcement of a blue-serge law made to twist and torment, though I have never understood the law, especially when it is left in the hands of lawyers, for “the law, dear sir, is an ass”, a striped ass at that, black and white like a zebra, though grey and costly in the areas that matter most. And what is there to do but rant away about the injustice of it all, the size of the checks and now you must check-out the food banks, the soup kitchens, the meals on wheels, the charity eating and boarding houses, because there’s no more roof over the head and the house is sold and the incomes are split and the children are more-or-less cared for, though rather less than more, and the dog is turfed from his dog house and the pussy cat booted from her feathered bed. Rant, I say, rant and rage away, rage, rage against the dying of friendship and the death of love, because that’s all you can do in this blood sport where even the spectators are spattered with the refined frenzy of friends turned into fiends and foes, and this is a protest, a rant against love that doesn’t stand the course of time, against families that break up, against a society that breaks them up, drives wedges and scissors between people once bound by the puppet strings of love, against relationships that can no longer continue, against the rattling of dead white bones in empty cupboards where the skeletons dance their way into legal daylight and the spectators call for more, more, more, more blood, more money, more blood money, and the engagement diamond is a blood diamond now, a tarnished garnet, and where is the Little Old Lady of Threadneedle Street, that spire inspired needle that will stitch their world back together, and stitch you back together when you have been shocked out of your own ruby-sweet rose-tinted world and torn into little bits in their oh-so-bitter one, the biters bitten and those bitten biting back in return, a new world this world of snapping turtles, turtles standing on the back of turtles, and turtle after turtle all the way down until this carnival world wears its dead clown mask and turns turtle in its turn …

I dreamed all of this last night and woke up this morning and realized … I can do no more.

Wednesday Workshop: The Poem Itself

Books

Wednesday Workshop
02 May 2018
The Poem Itself

One of the joys of downsizing one’s library is rediscovering old books, genuine treasures, that one wishes to read again. On my basement bookshelf I found an old copy of Stanley Burnshaw’s The Poem Itself (New York: Crowell, 1976). I thumbed quickly through it and found my old marginal notes on poems by Miguel de Unamuno and Antonio Machado. Reading the annotations to the poems I came across such literary and philosophical gems as these.

  • “Poetry gave (Unamuno) permanence to the temporary forms of the self” (p. 167).
  • “Unamuno’s God needs men to be sure of his own existence” (p. 171).
  • “The poetic element (for Machado) was not the word for its phonic value, nor color, nor line, nor a complex of sensations, but a deep palpitation of the spirit” (p. 172).
  • “In the life of every sensitive person there is much spiritual experience which cannot be given a name or a title” (p. 173).

These brief insights into the nature of poetry sent me back to the book’s first pages and I read with much joy and pleasure the opening essay entitled The Three Revolutions of Modern Poetry (pp. xvii-xliv).

The first revolution is that of Syntax (p. xxiii). Word order is changed substantially and words and thoughts are inverted. Sixteen lines of Mallarmé (p. xxiv) are composed of one sentence with five commas and a colon. There is no logical sequence of beginning, middle, and end as one thing runs into another and thoughts shape-shift and move. The structure becomes that of presences and dreams as Mallarmé writes to his new theory: “to paint, not the thing, but the emotion it produces” (p. xxv). Other analyses of syntactical distortion and fragmentation follow and Emily Dickinson’s Further in summer than the birds— leads into Cummings’ my father moved through dooms of love / through names of am through haves of give. When I link this most modern movement to Francisco de Quevedo’s ‘soy un fue, y un será, y un es cansado’ / I am a “was” and a “will be” and a  tired “is” … I realize yet again that all is not new in this modern world of ours. After all, Quevedo lived from 1580-1645, a modern poet indeed.

The second revolution is that of Prosody (p. xxvii). Rimbaud’s first poem in vers libre / free verse was written (probably in 1873) and published in 1886. Today, we are no longer shocked by the breaking down of the tyranny of verse. In fact, we are probably more shocked by people who use rhyming, metric poetry than by the many innovations in line length and word arrangement with which we are so steadily bombarded. That said, I still find some of Cumming’s innovations, Grasshopper / PPEGORHRASS for example (p.xxi) to be quite stunning and not always readily intelligible.

The third revolution is that of Referents, “the upheaval in poetic communication as a whole and specifically its referents” (p. xxxi). This is basically the writers of poetry turning to their private, interior worlds for inspiration. While poetry has always contained references to the self, modern poetry may be full of meaning for the writer, but that meaning doesn’t always extend to the reader. This is particularly true of automatic writing, surrealism, and the metaphoric poetry that floats, sometimes without factual substance, in the mind of reader and writer alike. Burnshaw isolates three moments in the development of this obscurity.

  • “a deliberate attempt to enrich the communicative content of language by expunging the unessential words” (p. xxxiii).
  • “to compress years of anguish, dreams, and projects into a sentence, a word” (p. xxxvii).
  • “the use of personal symbols and hence the creation of a private cosmology” (p. xxxviii).

These three elements contribute to the privacy and hermetic obscurity prevalent in certain poets. Le jeu ne vaut pas la chandelle / the game isn’t worth the candle … alas, while some difficult poems and poets are very worthwhile, some poetry is definitely not worth the valuable time wasted in trying to decipher it. That is my conclusion: nobody else’s.

This re-adventure back into modern poetry contributed to a delightful voyage through the verse of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Nerval, Verlaine, Machado, and Unamuno (among others).  It is a voyage that I have started, but not yet finished. It is also a voyage that is generating new thoughts, fresh understanding, and a renewed desire to write. What more can a reader / writer desire than to be among friends, also sharing loneliness and despair and also held at bay by the living words of dead men, their voices and wisdom heard through ageing eyes that can still scan the printed page … vivo en conversación con los difuntos / y escucho con mis ojos a los Muertos // I live in conversation with the deceased / and listen with my eyes to the dead (in my friend Elias River’s translation) of Quevedo’s poem Retirado en la paz de estos desiertos.