A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Poem of the Day: Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Snowstorm 

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky, 
Arrives the snow, and, driving o'er the fields, 
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air 
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven, 
And veils the farmhouse at the garden's end. 
The sled and traveler stopped, the courier's feet 
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit 
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed 
In a tumultuous privacy of storm. 

    Come see the north wind's masonry. 
Out of an unseen quarry evermore 
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer 
Curves his white bastions with projected roof 
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door. 
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work 
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he 
For number or proportion. Mockingly, 
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths; 
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn; 
Fills up the farmer's lane from wall to wall, 
Maugre the farmer's sighs; and, at the gate, 
A tapering turret overtops the work. 
And when his hours are numbered, and the world 
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not, 
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art 
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone, 
Built in an age, the mad wind's night-work, 
The frolic architecture of the snow. 
--Ralph Waldo Emerson 

I have to admit that I like Emerson's poetry a lot more than his prose.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Poem of the Day: Archibald MacLeish

You, Andrew Marvell 

And here face down beneath the sun
And here upon earth's noonward height
To feel the always coming on
The always rising of the night:

To feel creep up the curving east
The earthy chill of dusk and slow
Upon those under lands the vast
And ever climbing shadow grow

And strange at Ecbatan the trees
Take leaf by leaf the evening strange
The flooding dark about their knees
The mountains over Persia change

And now at Kermanshah the gate
Dark empty and the withered grass
And through the twilight now the late
Few travelers in the westward pass

And Baghdad darken and the bridge
Across the silent rier gone
And through Arabia the edge
Of evening widen and steal on

And deepen on Palmyra's street
The wheel rut in the ruined stone
And Lebanon fade out and Crete
High through the clouds and overblown

And over Sicily the air
Still flashing with the landward gulls
And loom and slowly disappear
The sails above the shadowy hulls

And Spain go under and the shore
Of Africa the gilded sand
And evening vanish and no more
The low pale light across that land

Nor now the long light on the sea:

And here face downward in the sun
To feel how swift how secretly
The shadow of the night comes on...
--Archibald MacLeish

Say this about MacLeish: He had chutzpah. Not only did he recast the book of Job into a now-forgotten play, J.B., which won him a Pulitzer Prize, but in this poem he invokes one of the greatest poems in the language. "You, Andrew Marvell" is skillfully done, but it's a bit of a travelogue, lacking the wit and passion of the poem it alludes to. Otherwise, MacLeish is most famous for the couplet that ends his poem "Ars Poetica":
A poem should not mean
But be.
Some of of us think a poem should do both.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Poem of the Day: John Keats

Ode to a Nightingale 

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains 
     My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, 
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains 
     One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk: 
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot, 
     But being too happy in thine happiness -- 
          That thou, light-wingéd Dryad of the trees, 
               In some melodious plot
     Of beechen green, and shadows numberless, 
          Singest of summer in full-throated ease. 

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been 
     Cooled a long age in the deep-delvéd earth, 
Tasting of Flora and the country green, 
     Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South, 
    Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene, 
          With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, 
               And purple-stainéd mouth; 
     That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, 
          And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget 
    What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
     Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
     Where youth grows pale, and specter-thin, and dies, 
          Where but to think is to be full of sorrow 
                And leaden-eyed despairs, 
      Where Beauty cannot keep  her lustrous eyes, 
          Or new Love pine at them beyond tomorrow. 

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
     Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy, 
     Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
     And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
          Clustered around by all her starry Fays; 
               But here there is no light,
     Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown 
          Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet, 
     Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs, 
But, in embalméd darkness, guess each sweet 
     Wherewith the seasonable month endows 
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit tree wild;
     White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;  
          Fast fading violets covered up in leaves;
               And mid-May's eldest child, 
     The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
          The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves. 

Darkling I listen; and for many a time 
     I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Called him soft names in many a muséd rhyme,
     To take upon the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
     To cease upon the midnight with no pain, 
           While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
               In such an ecstasy!
     Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain -- 
          To thy high requiem become a sod.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
     No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard 
     In ancient days by emperor and clown;
Perhaps the selfsame song that found a path 
     Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
          She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
               The same that ofttimes hath 
     Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
          Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.          

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
     To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well 
     As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades 
     Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
          Up the hill side; and now 'tis buried deep 
               In the next valley-glades: 
     Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
          Fled is that music: --Do I wake or sleep?
--John Keats 

I think that if it comes to defending civilization against the barbarian hordes, this poem will be one of the works I'll squirrel away in a lockbox along with Bach's cello suites, Mozart's operas, a few Vermeers, Jane Austen's novels and the films of Preston Sturges.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Poem of the Day: Edna St. Vincent Millay

Dirge Without Music

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground. 
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned 
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned. 

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust. 
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew, 
A formula, a phrase remains, -- but the best is lost. 

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love, --
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled 
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve. 
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world. 

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave 
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind; 
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave. 
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
--Edna St. Vincent Millay

I suppose the only Millay poem that anyone knows anymore is this one:
First Fig

My candle burns at both ends; 
     It will not last the night; 
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends -- 
     It gives a lovely light! 
And maybe that's as it should be. Millay was not a great poet, being more given to attitude than to originality of thought and expression. About today's poem, you want to tell her that nobody's asking her to approve. The tone is that of a Vassar grad living in Greenwich Village, which she was. And yet, as an expression of a particular era, the 1920s, it's an almost perfect poem. Not for all time, but of an age, to reverse the formula. And the more valuable for being that.    

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Poem of the Day: Percy Bysshe Shelley

To a Skylark

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! 
     Bird thou never wert, 
That from Heaven, or near it, 
     Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art. 

Higher still and higher 
     From the earth thou springest 
Like a cloud of fire; 
     The deep blue thou wingest, 
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest. 

In the golden lightning 
     Of the setting sun, 
O'er which clouds are bright'ning, 
     Thou dost float and run; 
Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun. 

The pale purple even 
     Melts around thy flight; 
Like a star of Heaven, 
     In the broad daylight 
Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight, 

Keen as are the arrows 
     Of that silver sphere, 
Whose intense lamp narrows 
     In the white dawn clear 
Until we hardly see -- we feel that it s there. 

All the earth and air 
     With thy voice is loud, 
As, when night is bare, 
     From one lonely cloud 
The moon rains out her beams, and Heaven is overflowed. 

What thou art we know not; 
     What is most like thee? 
From rainbow clouds there flow not 
     Drops so bright to see 
As from thy presence showers a rain of melody. 

Like a Poet hidden 
     In the light of thought, 
Singing hymns unbidden, 
     Till the world is wrought 
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not: 

Like a high born maiden 
     In a palace tower, 
Soothing her love-laden
     Soul in secret hour 
With music sweet as love, which overflows her bower: 

Like a glowworm golden 
     In a dell of dew, 
Scattering unbeholden 
     Its aërial hue 
Among the flowers and grass, which screen it from the view!

Like a rose embowered 
     In its own green leaves, 
By warm winds deflowered, 
     Till the scent it gives 
Makes faint with too much sweet those heavy-wingéd thieves:

Sound of vernal showers 
   On the twinkling grass, 
Rain-awakened flowers, 
     All that ever was 
Joyous, and clear, and fresh, thy music doth surpass: 

Teach us, Sprite or Bird, 
     What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard 
     Praise of love or wine 
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.

Chorus Hymeneal, 
     Or triumphal chant, 
Matched with thine would be all
     But an empty vaunt, 
A thing wherein we feel there is some hidden want. 

What objects are the fountains 
     Of thy happy strain? 
What fields, or waves, or mountains? 
     What shapes of sky or plain? 
What love of thine own kind? what ignorance of pain? 

With thy clear keen joyance 
     Languor cannot be: 
Shadow of annoyance 
     Never came near thee: 
Thou lovest -- but ne'er knew love's sad satiety.

Waking or asleep, 
     Thou of death must deem 
Things more true and deep 
     Than we mortals deamm, 
Or how could thy notes flow in such a crystal stream?

We look before and after,
     And pine for what is not: 
Our sincerest laughter 
     With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought. 

Yet if we could scorn 
     Hate, and pride, and fear; 
If we were things born
     Not to shed a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near. 

Better than all measures 
     Of delightful sound, 
Better than all treasures 
     That in books are found,
Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!

Teach me half the gladness 
     That thy brain must know, 
Such harmonious madness 
     From my lips would flow 
The world should listen then -- as I am listening now.
--Percy Bysshe Shelley

I don't know whether to prefer the Shelley version or the Johnny Mercer-Hoagy Carmichael version. But then I don't really have to choose, do I?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Poem of the Day: Claude McKay


Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger's tooth, 
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess 
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood, 
Giving me strength erect against her hate. 
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood, 
Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state, 
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer. 
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there, 
Beneath the touch of Time's unerring hand, 
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.
--Claude McKay

The sonnet concentrates the imagination wonderfully. For a form originally associated with love poetry, it has mutated into one for all occasions. Donne and Hopkins wrote them about God; Milton wrote them about going blind and turning 23 years old; and Wordsworth even wrote sonnets about writing sonnets. But I don't think anyone ever used the sheer concentrated power of the 14-line poem as effectively as McKay did to express his anger about racial injustice in America, here and in "If We Must Die" and "The White City". Brave and bitter poetry.    

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Poem of the Day: George Gordon, Lord Byron

Written After Swimming From Sestos to Abydos 

If, in the month of dark December, 
     Leander, who was nightly wont 
(What maid will not the tale remember?) 
     To cross thy stream, broad Hellespont!
If, when the wintry tempest roared, 
     He sped to Hero, nothing loath, 
And thus of old thy current poured, 
     Fair Venus! how I pity both!

For me, degenerate modern wretch, 
     Though in the genial month of May, 
My dripping limbs I faintly stretch, 
     And think I've done a feat today.

But since he crossed the rapid tide, 
     According to the doubtful story, 
To woo -- and -- Lord knows what beside, 
     And swam for Love, as I for Glory; 

'Twere hard to say who fared the best:
     Sad mortals! thus the gods still plague you!
He lost his labor, I my jest; 
     For he was drowned, and I've the ague.
--George Gordon, Lord Byron

Byron may have been the first postmodern poet: the first to achieve self-glorification through ironic self-deprecation.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Poem of the Day: Conrad Aiken


Absolute zero: the locust sings: 
summer's caught in eternity's rings: 
the rock explodes, the planet dies, 
we shovel up our verities. 

The razor rasps across the face 
and in the glass our fleeting race 
lit by infinity's lightning wink 
under the thunder tries to think. 

In this frail gourd the granite pours 
the timeless howls like all outdoors 
the sensuous moment builds a wall 
open as wind, no wall at all: 

while still obedient to valves and knobs 
the vascular jukebox throbs and sobs 
expounding hope propounding yearning 
proposing love, but never learning 

or only learning at zero's gate 
like summer's locust the final hate 
formless ice on a formless plain 
that was and is and comes again.
--Conrad Aiken

When he was at Harvard (at the same time as T.S. Eliot), Aiken trained himself to write verse by attempting a different form every day, "all the way from free verse, Walt Whitman, to the most elaborate of villanelles and ballad forms," he told the Paris Review interviewer. "I didn't give a damn about the meaning, I just wanted to master the form." "Summer" is the simplest of forms -- aabb stanzas -- but the meaning is a hard knot to unpick. That it was written in the postwar '40s gives us a clue -- it has that atomic era tension to it, the sense of the ephemeral about the once-solidest things: "the rock explodes, the planet dies." He also claimed, in the same interview, "I'm not in the least Southern; I'm entirely New England." This despite being born and buried in that most gothic of Southern cities, Savannah. But I see what he means. There's a note of flinty despair in his verse that's at odd with the ironic resignation of most Southern poets.     

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Poem of the Day: Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Kubla Khan 

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree: 
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran 
Through caverns measureless to man 
     Down to a sunless sea. 
So twice five miles of fertile ground 
With walls and towers were girdled round: 
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills, 
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree; 
And here were forests ancient as the hills, 
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted 
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover! 
A savage place! as holy and enchanted 
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted 
By woman wailing for her demon lover! 
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething, 
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing, 
A mighty fountain momently was forced: 
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst 
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail, 
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail: 
And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever 
It flung up momently the sacred river. 
Five miles meandering with a mazy motion 
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran, 
Then reached the caverns measureless to man, 
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean: 
And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far 
Ancestral voices prophesying war! 

     The shadow of the dome of pleasure 
     Floated midway on the waves;
     Where was heard the mingled measure 
     From the fountain and the caves. 
It was a miracle of rare device, 
A sunny pleasure dome with caves of ice! 

     A damsel with a dulcimer 
     In a vision once I saw: 
     It was an Abyssinian maid, 
     And on her dulcimer she played, 
     Singing of Mount Abora. 
     Could I revive within me 
     Her symphony and song, 
     To such a deep delight 'twould win me, 
That with music loud and long, 
I would build that dome in air, 
That sunny dome! those caves of ice! 
And all who heard should see them there, 
And all should cry, Beware! Beware! 
His flashing eyes, his floating hair! 
Weave a circle round him thrice, 
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed, 
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
--Samuel Taylor Coleridge

You probably know the story that Coleridge told about this poem: That he was in ill health and an "anodyne" (read: opium) had been prescribed for him, and that he fell asleep while reading about Kubla's palace in Purchas's Pilgrimage and dreamed the poem. But while writing it down, he was "unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock." And when he got back to the dream-poem, he had forgotten the rest. It's a wonderful story, and it's sheer balderdash.

Remember our five-act structure
I. Exposition 
II. Conflict 
III. Crisis 
IV. Struggle 
V. Resolution 
We've got it here. Exposition: Kubla builds a pleasure dome. Conflict: There's a chasm, a natural -- as opposed to man-made -- place nearby. Crisis: Nature teaches us that all man-made things are impermanent. Struggle: To preserve that fragile pleasure dome. Resolution: To re-create the pleasure dome through imaginative creation, "symphony and song." 

"Fragment" my foot! If ever there was a complete poem in English, it's this one.  

Monday, March 22, 2010

Poem of the Day: John Crowe Ransom

Here Lies a Lady

Here lies a lady of beauty and high degree,
Of chills and fever she died, of fever and chills,
The delight of her husband, an aunt, an infant of three
And medicos marveling sweetly on her ills. 

First she was hot, and her brightest eyes would blaze
And the speed of her flying fingers shook their heads. 
What was she making? God knows; she sat in those days 
With her newest gowns all torn, or snipt into shreds. 

But that would pass, and the fire of her cheeks decline 
Till she lay dishonored and wan like a rose overblown, 
And would not open her eyes, to kisses, to wine; 
The sixth of which states was final. The cold came down. 

Fair ladies, long may you bloom, and sweetly may thole!
She was part lucky. With flowers and lace and mourning,
With love and bravado, we bade God rest her soul 
After six quick turns of quaking, six of burning.
--John Crowe Ransom

Ransom belonged to a group of literati that gathered at Vanderbilt University in the 1920s and called themselves "the Fugitives." It was a pretty distinguished bunch, but also a provincial one, doing its thing far from the literary center of the country, and some of its members, such as Donald Davidson, were so reactionary that they fell out with the more progressive ones, like Robert Penn Warren, during the Civil Rights era. Ransom's voice is that of the Southern gentleman, a type not much honored these days, and his archaisms ("snipt," "thole") strike some people as precious (in the bad sense). But maybe it's my Mississippi roots showing, for I feel soothed and delighted when I read him.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Poem of the Day: William Blake

Mock on, Mock on Voltaire, Rousseau; 
Mock on, Mock on, 'tis all in vain. 
You throw the sand against the wind, 
And the wind blows it back again. 

And every sand becomes a Gem 
Reflected in the beams divine; 
Blown back, they blind the mocking Eye, 
But still in Israel's paths they shine. 

The Atoms of Democritus 
And Newton's Particles of light 
Are sands upon the Red sea shore, 
Where Israel's tents do shine so bright.
--William Blake 

For some reason, I can never read this poem without thinking of A Hard Day's Night: 
Reporter: Are you a mod or a rocker?
Ringo: Um, no. I'm a mocker.
Being somewhat of Voltaire's and Ringo's disposition, I take a little offense at Blake's mockery of mockers. Yes, what he's getting at is the sterility of Enlightenment materialism and, more in Rousseau's case than in Voltaire's, the negativism of revolutionaries. But in Candide Voltaire turned his mockery on Leibnizian rationalism, and Rousseau's valorizing of the natural seems right in line with Blake's own way of thinking. Still, when you get into prophetic mode the way Blake did, it's hard to maintain nuance. As for Democritus's atoms and Newton's particles, I have a feeling that Blake would have been gratified by the advent of quantum physics, in which things turn out to be both particles and waves.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Poem of the Day: Edwin Muir

The Horses

Barely a twelvemonth after 
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses came. 
By then we had made our covenant with silence, 
But in the first few days it was so still 
We listened to our breathing and were afraid. 
On the second day 
The radios failed; we turned the knobs; no answer. 
On the third day a warship passed us, heading north, 
Dead bodies piled on the deck. On the sixth day 
A plane plunged over us into the sea. Thereafter 
Nothing. The radios dumb; 
And still they stand in corners of our kitchens, 
And stand, perhaps, turned on, in a million rooms 
All over the world. But now if they should speak, 
If on a sudden they should speak again, 
If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak, 
We would not listen, we would not let it bring 
That old bad world that swallowed its children quick 
At one great gulp. We would not have it again. 
Sometimes we think of the nations lying asleep, 
Curled blindly in impenetrable sorrow, 
And then the thought confounds us with its strangeness. 
The tractors lie about our fields; at evening 
They look like dank sea-monsters couched and waiting. 
We leave them where they are and let them rust: 
"They'll moulder away and be like other loam." 
We make our oxen drag our rusty ploughs, 
Long laid aside. We have gone back 
Far past our fathers' land.   
                                            And then, that evening 
Late in the summer the strange horses came. 
We heard a distant tapping on the road, 
A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again 
And at the corner changed to hollow thunder. 
We saw the heads 
Like a wild wave charging and were afraid. 
We had sold our horses in our fathers' time 
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us 
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield 
Or illustrations in a book of knights. 
We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited, 
Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent 
By an old command to find our whereabouts 
And that long-lost archaic companionship. 
In the first moment we had never a thought 
That they were creatures to be owned and sued. 
Among them were some half-a-dozen colts 
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world, 
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden. 
Since then they have pulled our ploughs and borne our loads, 
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts. 
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning. 
--Edwin Muir 

Muir lived through two World Wars, so it's no wonder that the threat of yet another should have stirred him to verse. And to a poem, written during the Cold War, that predicts a cataclysmic "seven days war" eliminating the industrial civilization of radios and tractors for a return to a horse-powered "Eden."

Friday, March 19, 2010

Poem of the Day: Christopher Smart

From Jubilate Agno

For I will consider my cat Jeoffry. 
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him. 
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way. 
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness. 
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer. 
For he rolls upon prank to work it in. 
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself. 
For this he performs in ten degrees. 
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean. 
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there. 
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended. 
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood. 
For fifthly he washes himself.. 
For sixthly he rolls upon wash. 
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat. 
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post. 
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions. 
For tenthly he goes in quest of food. 
For having considered God and himself he will consider his neighbor. 
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness. 
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance. 
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying. 
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins. 
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary. 
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes. 
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life. 
For in is morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him. 
For he is of the tribe of Tiger. 
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger. 
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses. 
For he will not do destruction if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation. 
For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he's a good Cat. 
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon. 
For every house is incomplete without him, and a blessing is lacking in the spirit. 
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt. 
For every family had one cat at least in the bag. 
For the English Cats are the best in Europe. 
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped. 
For the dexterity of his defense is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly. 
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature. 
For he is tenacious of his point. 
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery. 
For he knows that God is his Saviour. 
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest. 
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion. 
For he is of the Lord's poor, and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually -- Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat. 
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better. 
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat. 
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music. 
For he is docile and can learn certain things. 
For he can sit up with gravity, which is patience upon approbation. 
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment. 
For he can jump over a stick, which is patience upon proof positive. 
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command. 
For he can jump from an eminence into his master's bosom. 
For he can catch the cork and toss it again. 
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser. 
For the former is afraid of detection. 
For the latter refuses the charge. 
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business. 
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly. 
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services. 
For he killed the Ichneumon rat, very pernicious by land. 
For his ears are so acute that they sting again. 
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention. 
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity. 
For I perceived God's light about him both wax and fire. 
For the electrical fire is the spiritual substance which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast. 
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements. 
For, though he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer. 
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped. 
For he can tread to all the measures upon upon the music. 
For he can swim for life. 
For he can creep. 
--Christopher Smart

Even if you didn't know it, you might guess that Smart is one of the oddest English writers from an age that saw quite a few oddities (e.g., Samuel Johnson, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, James Boswell). His idiosyncratic verse is not what one expects from the eighteenth century. Jubilate Agno was not published until 1939, when readers were more likely to be tolerant of its eccentricities, and less likely to dismiss it as the scribblings of a madman. 

From having met and associated with quite a few cats in my day, I can attest that Smart got at the essentials of felinity better than any other poet. (Certainly better than Old Possum's twee verses.) All of my household's cats have been mixtures of gravity and waggery, and I'm sure most of them could spraggle upon waggle, although none at command.     

Adam and Evil

This review appeared today in the San Francisco Chronicle:

By William Boyd
Harper, 416 pp., $26.99

We are all Adam's kindred, and in Adam's fall we sinned all. The protagonist of this novel is named Adam Kindred, which is a pretty good indication that William Boyd wants us to think of him as an Everyman.

That's a shrewd move for a thriller writer, which is what Boyd, a versatile novelist to say the least, has become for this book. We all want characters who resemble us in some way, especially when they're put in situations as discomfiting as the one Adam Kindred finds himself in: without a job or a place to live, without the accouterments of everyday life such as credit cards and cell phone, without a family or even an identity, and on the run from both the police and the man who wants to kill him. He becomes a contemporary version of Shakespeare's “unaccommodated man,” not naked on a heath but holed up in the shrubbery on the banks of the Thames in London, drinking river water and eating a snared seagull.

Like the original Adam, Boyd's Adam is a sinner, a man whose moral fittings are not as snug and tight as they might be. And as he meditates on what he did to deserve his suffering, he makes explicit his connection to his ancestral namesake: “One stupid mistake – one lapse, one near-unconscious answering of an atavistic sexual instinct – that was all it took to put a perfectly secure life, a fairly happy and prosperous life, in free fall. Tell Adam and Eve about it, he thought, with some bitterness, some self-reproach.”

How he got this way is, as much as how he gets out of it, is something for the reader of this well-plotted novel to discover, and not for the reviewer to disclose. But plot isn't the only attraction of the novel. It's also rich in setting and characterization. We explore the circumstances of Adam's fall not only from his point of view but also from a variety of others, including an assassin, a policewoman, a drug company CEO, and a prostitute. They all bring with themselves back-stories as intriguing and complex as Adam's, and each presents the reader with a mystery to solve. Why, for example, is the prostitute named “Mhouse”?

And the novel teems with secondary characters, even with what you might call walk-on characters, each of whom is strikingly individualized; they pop into the imagination the way Dickens's minor characters do. Which is as it should be: One of the inspirations for the novel that Boyd has cited is Dickens's “Our Mutual Friend,” which begins with a body being dragged from the Thames. And Boyd makes a Dickens-like use of the city itself, the modern, polyglot, multiracial city that fringes the Thames, its neighborhoods strung out in a panorama ranging from the most affluent to the most sordid.

Also like Dickens, Boyd uses the novel for commentary on the times in which he lives, including the role of the military-industrial complex. The assassin, a veteran of every war since the Falklands, works for a Blackwater-like “security consultancy” firm called the Risk Averse Group. The CEO heads Calenture-Deutz, a pharmaceuticals company that is about to announce a breakthrough cure for asthma and is therefore the object of a takeover by another Big Pharma company. But since truth is not only stranger but also more mutable than fiction, Boyd takes pains not to make his fiction too topical, too bound to a particular year. To add a just-a-bit-in-the-future color to the novel, he invents his own street slang -- “monkey” for crack cocaine, for example, or “green, green peas” as a small boy's expression of delight – which he leaves to the reader to decipher.

As noted, Boyd is a versatile writer. “Ordinary Thunderstorms” is a very different kind of novel from his previous one, the spy thriller “Restless,” or from “Any Human Heart,” his exploration of 20th century history, or from his 1981 debut novel, “A Good Man in Africa,” which earned him comparisons to Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis. It may be that this versatility, this bit of the literary chameleon, has deprived Boyd of the kind of fame that comes to the more easily pigeonholed. But all of his books have a very smart author in common. The only problem with “Ordinary Thunderstorms” is that some readers may be so swept along by the thrill of the chase that they may not stop long enough to admire how smart it is.