A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

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:

ORDINARY THUNDERSTORMS
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.