Hibiscus

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Hibiscus
Day 26 CV-19

The hibiscus lives downstairs. We bought it years and years ago. A tiny plant in the florist’s shop, we brought it home. When we placed it here, by the window, we were horrified to see it was covered with tiny spider mites. Gradually, in spite of all our efforts, it lost its flowers and then, one by one, its leaves. After Clare had magicked the spider mites away, she nourished that one last leaf. “If that goes, the plant goes,” she told me. “It cannot survive without leaves.” It took time and daily care and attention, true TLC, but a second leaf appeared, and then a third. Now, each winter, it puts out flowers and fills the room with joy and light.

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More important, in these dark times it fills us with hope and the knowledge that however bad things may appear to be, we can hang on, we can survive. We can be present in every second that we are given and that we can, and must, enjoy every moment to the full. Condemned to a certain death, our hibiscus survived to remind us of the miracle of life, for life is stronger than death, and hope is stronger than despair, and spring and summer are stronger than winter, even if it seems to be ‘our winter of discontent’.

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Deer

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Deer
CV-19 Day 24

I woke up this morning, looked out of the window at a grey, sunless day, and saw this deer at the foot of the garden, abut 50 feet away. I couldn’t believe it. Thirty years we have lived in this house, and I have never seen a deer sleeping in the yard before. Well, it wasn’t sleeping. It’s eyes were open, the head was turning, and the ears flickered with every step I took. What a way to start the day.

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Then I did a double-take and blinked. What I thought was a rock, to the first deer’s left, was another deer, also lying down. I realized it wasn’t a rock when it wiggled its ears. Behind the first deer and above it, scarcely visible among the trees is a third deer. You’ll have to look hard to see it, but it’s there. I apologize for the qualities of the photos, but grey day, early morning light, and shooting threw fly netting at a well camouflaged deer does not guarantee high artistic quality, as you will understand.

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Actually, the third deer is more clearly visible in this photo. It also shows a little bit more of the late-winter / early spring landscape. Then, when I got downstairs, lo and behold, a fourth deer underneath the fir tree. From a lower angle, I could only just sight it through the bars of the porch.

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Again, my apologies: but what a morning … four deer, ‘nesting’ in the garden, where I have never seen deer before, except wandering through.

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Day 23 CV-19

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Day 23 CV-19
Codes and Coding

“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 just yesterday [Day 22 CV-22]. The words are mine, but the idea belongs elsewhere. I have borrowed it and adopted it. I would willingly attribute it to a specific author, but I do not know who said it first. I offer my apologies to the to me unknown genius who first spoke these words.

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 pair. Check shirt, jacket, tie: all up to date. Inspect lucky customers … 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 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 are common knowledge available to all readers who are christian and whose first language is English.

But there are other codes. 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, Neo-Platonism, 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&b,  c. A, b. B, st. A b. B, w, W, b, lb, dec., rsp …

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.

Self-Isolation Day 22 / Ducks

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Self-Isolation Day 22
22 =Ducks, Patos in Spanish.

Ducks, because the 2 and the 2 seem to float together like a pair of ducks or a pair of Swans. How did Swansea get it’s name? Some say it was because handsome white swans used to swim on the salt waters of the bay: Swan+sea. Other’s say that  was on account of a battle where a man called Swain lost his eye: Swain’s Eye = Swansea. Oh dear, it’s so much easier in Welsh: Abertawe, the mouth of the river Tawe.

Speaking of Welsh, this is the 290th consecutive day that I have done my Welsh lessons. I guess the pandemic has helped over the last few weeks. Nowhere to go, nothing to do, and all those Welsh memories bringing a fresh light to enlighten the darkness that is Corona Virus aka Covidis-19.

Language Teaching: never easy. And I should know after 43 years of teaching Spanish in Canadian universities (1966-2009). Relevance and irrelevance: how do we teach meaningful things? Good question. Dw i eisiau prynu’r crwban ddu fach / I want to buy the little black tortoise. Very useful. I bet they use that phrase on the streets of Llanelli and Abertawe every day of the week. How about Mae’r ddraig coch yn callu smwddio bob wythnos / The red dragon is able to do the ironing every week. Well, well: I suppose I did remember these two wonderful phrases. I am sure I will use them the next time I go to Cardiff.

I much prefer the Welsh of St. David: Gwnewch y pethau bychain mewn bywyd / Do ye the little things in life or Byddwch lawen a chadwch eich ffyd a’ch credd / Be joyful and keep your faith and creed. These two quotes from the patron saint of Wales are full of meaning, especially at this oh-so-difficult juncture in all our lives. Funny really: I laugh at the first two, the dragon and the tortoise, but without them, I would probably never have arrived at the Original Welsh of St. David / Dewi Sant.

Languages: they say that to learn another language is to gain another soul and another set of eyes through which to view the world. We view the world through our languages. Limit the language and we limit the world. Reduce the language, any language, to its lowest common denominator, and we reduce and diminish the world around us. Sparrows, juncos, chickadees, Cedar Waxwings, robins, mourning doves, crows, hawks (Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-Shinned Hawk, Marsh Hawk) are all reduced to birds. Mountain Ash (Russian or European), Birch, Hackmatack, Tamarack, Spruce … all these are reduced to trees, nothing more and nothing less than trees.

Think about language. Savor language. Roll it round your mouth. Taste it on your tongue. Use the correct names for things. Expand your vocabulary. Do not be satisfied with Grade 9 English. Learn. Advance. Develop. Carry a dictionary (Y geiriadur Gymraeg newydd) and look up words, learn their meanings, learn how to spell them. Never give up. Do not be satisfied, ever, with the lowest level of existence. Flower, flourish, rise up and fight for your own self-education, for your own language, for your own destiny, for your own rights!

Self Isolation Day 21

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Self-Isolation Day 21
Bakhtin’s Chronotopos
Man’s dialog with his time and place

Chronos / time + Topos / space = chronotopos: the time and space within which we live.

Chronos: this morning, when I woke up, I moved back into my own time and space. But what is my time? It was 5:45 am when I awoke, so was that my time? I stayed in what the Spanish call the duermivela, that drowsing dream-world in which we all wander, half-conscious. I stayed there until I decided to get up at 7:45 am. Was that my time? Well, yes,  all of that is / was my time. But time extends further than that. Real time is static and only exists in this second as I type the s of second, but look how it has flowed or flown. So my time drifts backwards into a knowable and then an unknowable past. I knew my parents, and my grandparents. But I know nothing of their childhood, their war days (WWI and WWII), their courting, their marriages. Their time is time lost for me. Sure, I can invent it, renew it, recreate it … but it can never be mine. All I can possess is this Second when I preSS the S key, a Second that haS already flowed paSt me, flown and gone. The same with future time. It is there, stretching out before me, for how long, I do not know. It is not yet mine, and when I come to possess it I will only posses it, really possess for those precious Seconds when I inhale, or exhale, or press the S key. And now I have bewitched you, and your concept of time, and your keyboard will never be the same.

Topos / Place: so what is my place? When I awoke this morning, it was the kennel-cave of the bed in which I hibernate each night. Then it morphed into the bathroom where I dressed and prepared for the day. After that, I walked downstairs. Descending the stairs, a step at a time, feeling for the steps with my cane, as I do, I find that each step is my place. Luis de Góngora, one of my favorite Spanish poets, wrote, a long time ago that “Cada pie mal puesto es una caída, / cada caída es un precipicio”each footstep, badly placed, is a fall, / each fall is like tumbling down a precipice. Ipso facto, I must take care not to fall each time I place my foot on a stair, and each stair, therefore, is my concentrate of time, and this moment of time manufactures my space.

Then there is my breakfast place, my office place, my work place. Time spent in each of these spaces is a link backwards and forwards, past, present, and future all inexorably bound in each passing second that I live.

But there are other spaces, spaces in which time flows at a different rate in objective time (the thirty minutes you spend in the dentist’s chair) and subjective time (the hours and hours those thirty minutes take to pass as each second limps by, like a three legged tortoise with gout). hen there is creative time: and creative time, especially on the computer, leads us into a different space, a sort of hyper-space, in which we hover between this place (the place of the office and the house) and that place (the place in which we create our visions and dream our dreams). Lost in that creative hyper-space we drift in a timeless amniotic sea where all time is one and all places are one and we are the masters and mistresses of our own creative universe. Y aquí, as my good friend José Hierro once told me, el tiempo no tiene sentido / here time has no meaning.

Jane Tims wrote these words to me today. “The idea that some of our words will live on, on the page… I wonder where our WordPress and Facebook words will reside in 300 years? Will some antiquities student make the headlines having managed to upload the forgotten words of people who wrote about the days of the coronavirus?”

My reply: “These are very true words, Jane. It looks like you have gifted me with the topic of tomorrow’s blog! Thank you.”

Indeed, the online medium is so ephemeral and can be wiped out in seconds. Tweets can be erased, changed, and altered. Written words and written histories have also been erased and wiped out. In our brave new world, the truth changes from day to day with no vital record attached to it. Historians always say that the conquerors write history … and when they do so they usually destroy the writings of the conquered. I think of all those Mexican Codices, destroyed by the Spanish priests on their arrival in Mexico as the works of the Devil. We know so much from the surviving ones, for example the history of Ocho Venado, born in 1063 and sacrificed in 1113 in accordance with the fifty two year annual cycle. Only five Mixtec codices now survive, one, the Vindobonensis, still bears the scorch marks from when it was plucked from the flames that were meant to devour it. Man’s inhumanity to man. How much have we lost? How much are we losing? How much will we retain? And what is truth …?

As for us and our chances of survival, another good friend of mine, the poet and philosopher José María Valverde once wrote of nosotros, los pobres poetas de hoy, destinados a ser polvo seco de tesis doctoralwe poor poets of today, destined to become the dry dust of doctoral theses. In spite of all this, it is our fortune and our duty to exist within our time and our space, to live letter by letter, painfully tapped on the keyboard, and to engage in our dialog with our own time and space, for that my friends is all we have, the single instant of that one letter S.

Comment: The watch in the photo belonged to my father. I wind it up and wear it on his birthday every year. It now measures my time, as it once measured his, and its place, at least once a year is on my wrist. Its function is to tell me the time. One day, it will do the same for my daughter, and then my granddaughter and they too will have their dialog with their own time and place.

Self-Isolation Day 20

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Self-Isolation Day 20
Novels of Action

Yesterday I wrote that “Wolfgang Kayser suggested, a long time ago, that there were three types of novels: novels of action (the easiest to write, if you have that calling).” I hope nobody took the second half of that statement “the easiest to write” too seriously. No novel worth its salt is easy to write and not everybody can write the sort of adventure story, filled with action, that drags the reader on from page to page. Part of the difficult lies in tying the end of one chapter to the beginning of the next and this is most certainly not all that easy to do. In my own case, I tend to bring closure at the end of each chapter, and that really the worst thing I can do. Why continue reading if you already have closure?

Let us look at how a master thriller writer closes his chapters. Prologue: “I will return to my Athens as soon as this mess resolves itself.” What mess? Why Athens? Where is the character now? What is happening? Read on. Chapter One: “As a double precaution, the keyboard and the door know were wiped cleaner than Petrescu’s account” What on earth has happened now? Why wipe clean the keyboard and the door knob? Which account? Why? What will happen next? Read on. Chapter Two: “Behind them, Edward Yorke’s lifeless eyes stared without comprehension at the foreman’s room and the splintered railing above him.” What has happened? Where is it all going to end? Read on. Chapter Three: “He had to move. So deciding, he opened the man’s wallet and found an address not far away?” An address? What address? Who lives there? Why is he going there? What will happen next? Read on. Chapter Four: [Summary] A crack in the wall behind a refuse bin … time for a shower … throw the victim’s pants and shirt out of the window for some bum to find … Who? What? Where? When? Why? Read on. And now for the last words of Chapter Five, the chapter that explains everything. “That hook is baited.” And this is the key … each chapter ends with a neatly baited hook that leads the reader, willy-nilly, into the next chapter. You want to know what happens next, what is on the hook, what the hook is exactly, to do that, you will have to buy the book and read it for yourselves. Look up Chuck Bowie: Three Wrongs. Muse It Up Press.

Alas, I have not yet finished with Chuck. In June, 2017, he drove to St. Andrews to visit me one afternoon while I was at KIRA. We sat by the sea-shore there and chatted about his latest novel, Body on the Underwater Road. He was working out all the details and we struggled here, and wriggled there, as we computed the many possibilities. Such good fun. So, here I am, a poet telling a story about a master story-teller-seller. How silly I am. I’ll offer up a poem instead.

Underwater Road
Chuck Bowie

We met at St. Andrews, at low tide, on
the underwater road. In secret we
shared the closed, coded envelopes of thought,
running fresh ideas through open minds.

Our words, brief vapor trails, gathering for
a moment over Passamaquoddy,
then drifting silently away. Canvas
sails flapped white sea-gull wings across the bay.

All seven seas rose before our eyes, brought
in on a breeze’s wing. The flow of cold
waters over warm sand cocooned us in
a cloak-and-dagger mystery of mist.

We spun our spider-web dreams word by word,
decking them out with the silver dew drops
proximity brings. Characters’ voices,
unattached to real people, floated by.

Verbal ghosts, shape-shifting, emerging from
shadows, revealed new attitudes and twists,
spoke briefly, filled us with visions of book
lives, unforgettable, doomed, swift to fail.

Soft waves ascended rock, sand, mud, washed
away footprints, clues, all the sandcastle
dreams we had constructed that afternoon,
though a few still survive upon the page.

And that, as the lion said, is the end of the gnus.

Comment: Three Wrongs is part of the Donovan: Thief for Hire series. Adventure series follow similar patterns: the problem, the solver (shining hero), the complication (dark arts adversary), further complications, resolution: problem solved. The Arthurian Romances set the pattern for linked adventure series back in the 12th and 13th Centuries. They were followed by the literary knights of the novels of chivalry. Perhaps the most famous of these, Amadis de Gaula / Amadis of Gaul, was imitated and parodied by Cervantes in Don Quixote. The numerous books of Amadis were followed by Son of Amadis, Nephew of Amadis, Cousin of Amadis. Perhaps nothing breeds success better than success. Think of the Sharpe series from the Peninsula War or the Hornblower books, or, more recently, Master and Captain and the recent Royal Navy series from similar times. Look out for Son of Donovan … a series coming to your bookstore soon.

Self-Isolation Day 19

 

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Self-Isolation Day 19
Platero yo yo
Meniscus: Crossing the Churn

I am eking out my reading of Platero y yo much as I eke out the food supply: small portions, and a chapter at a time. In the same ay that I am enjoying my food so much more, savouring each mouthful, cutting down on the accompanying wine, tasting life to the full, so I am slowing down my reading. I am learning to enjoy the journey, the perusal of each word, each phrase, the long-drawn out aftertaste of every image, the lingering bouquet of each metaphor. Yes, Platero y yo is a fine wine drawn slowly over the palate to be tasted and tested, not swigged and swallowed.

Not for the first time in my life, I am jealous, jealous of this writer with his Nobel Prize for Literature and his wonderful way of choosing le mot juste, the exact word, with which to illustrate his tales. It is not the Nobel Prize of which I am jealous, but the talent, the skill, the patience, the taste of each word. I wish I could write like that. I wish I could take the world outside in my garden and imprison it on the page.  Imprison: that’s what I do. Juan Ramón Jiménez imprisons nothing. His birds and butterflies fly free. His donkey roams free. His village women, young and old, wander freely across the pages as do the gypsy children and the children of the poor, with their dreams of gold watches that will not tell the time, their shot-guns that will not kill hunger, their donkeys that will carry them to a pauper’s death. Reading at this level, I rediscover my inevitable inability to write the way I want, to capture what I see, to give life and liberty to my words, enchained all, and lavishing in their captivity.

There is, of course, an alternative, one of which I am also incapable: to create a new world. I know of few people who are capable of doing that. Tolkien, of course, created Middle-Earth, the Shire, Mordor, Gandalf, and the Lord of the Rings. Rowland created Hogwart’s and the world of magic that surrounds Harry Potter. Closer to home, Alexandra Tims created Meniscus, a planet that travels around twinned suns and is in turn circled by two moons. Here water effervesces and flows uphill or generates dramatic water-climbs and lake-like churns.Erosion occurs by wind-scour and frost-heave. It holds predators (slear-snakes and kotildi) and humans have been brought her, as slaves, from earth itself, to eke out a miserable existence amidst the dystopia created by Dock-winders, Gel-heads, Argenops, and the Slain.

What I love about this series includes the invented language, the flora and the fauna, the wonderful drawings and maps that occur regularly throughout the books. This is no Middle-Earth, a recognizable world inhabited by humans and figures of magic drawn from our own legends and mythologies. It is a flesh-and-blood creation of something new and startlingly different.

Wolfgang Kayser suggested, a long time ago, that there were three types of novels: novels of action (the easiest to write, if you have that calling), novels of character (the development of an individual or a series of individuals), and novels of place (where the world, or a small part of it, is captured in detail). Occasionally, a great novelist, and Miguel de Cervantes was one of those, manages to write a book (Don Quixote) that contains all three of these features. Mikhail Bakhtin talks about ‘man’s dialog with his time and place’. Well, Ms. Tims has created ‘a woman’s dialog with her created time and space’ and I, personally, am so very happy that she did so.

Comment: [added 27 March, 2020]
Meniscus: Crossing the Churn can be found at
Here are the other books in the series.
Book One – Meniscus: Crossing The Churn

Book 1.5 – Meniscus: Forty Missing Days
Book Two – Meniscus: South from Sinta
Book Three – Meniscus: Winter by the Water-climb
Book Four – Meniscus: The Village at Themble Hill
Book Five – Meniscus: Karst Topography
Book Six – Meniscus: Oral Traditions
Book Seven – Meniscus: Encounter with the Emenpod