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Tuesday 31 March 2009

Getaway Package


Young Woman Playing with a Dog: Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1765-72 (Fondation Cailleux, Paris)

The long vacation turns into a way of life
The nervous beauties of the seasons amble
Precisely past like flamingos or mannequins
Commissioned by the gods to keep the view
Ever various in its several lights
To edify just this one tender watcher
Who smiles at them as she adjusts the picture
Observe how seemingly radical the way
They’ve modified their old rude manners
The way in which when she inspires their mirth
It almost looks as if they’re falling over
Each other in an absurd effort to please her
As though whether or not it’s in her interest
They’d do anything to keep her here




The fading strains of the dying refrain
warbled by the teakettle to the timeless beauty
who spends her time in the mind that ocean
closed off from us
brought back to her through the shadows of the afternoon
a thought that might have interested us
had we but known it

Le bol de lait: Pierre Bonnard, c. 1919 (Tate Gallery).

Sunday 29 March 2009

"Like Musical Instruments..."


Like musical instruments
Abandoned in a field
The parts of your feelings

Are starting to know a quiet
The pure conversion of your
Life into art seems destined

Never to occur

You don’t mind
You feel spiritual and alert

As the air must feel
Turning into sky aloft and blue
You feel like

You’ll never feel like touching anything or anyone
And then you do

photos from Golden Gate: Richard Misrach, 2001


Wednesday 25 March 2009

Hazard Response


So She Moved into the Light: Eric Fischl, 1997

As in that grey exurban wasteland in Gatsby
When the white sky darkens over the city
Of ashes, far from the once happy valley,
This daze spreads across the blank faces
Of the inhabitants, suddenly deprived
Of the kingdom’s original promised gift.
Did I say kingdom when I meant place
Of worship? Original when I meant
Damaged in handling? Promised when
I meant stolen? Gift when I meant
Trick? Inhabitants when I meant slaves?
Slaves when I meant clowns
Who have wandered into test sites? Test
Sites when I meant contagious hospitals?
Contagious hospitals when I meant clouds
Of laughing gas? Laughing gas
When I meant tears? No, it’s true,
No one should be writing poetry
In times like these, Dear Reader,
I don’t have to tell you of all people why.
It’s as apparent as an attempted
Punch in the eye that actually
Catches only empty air — which is
The inside of your head, where
The green ritual sanction
Of the poem has been cancelled.

Tuesday 24 March 2009

Lullaby for Cuckoo


Did you suffer, or was it just the one who made you?
Little bird, deluded or self-deluded,
close your eyes, and let these chirps resound
mechanically. Was vision the clue you lacked,
when emerging from the works you sang sweetly
of midnight, though it was purple noon
and purple riot ran through you, while
the big hand batted and rocked around
the clock, and you alone had time for me?
Or was homo faber the missing link
who forged you in his workshop of stupid toys?
Either way, the little hand is catching up,
the door is opening; you aren’t coming out.


Pink Trees

for Z.

Pink Trees: Selden Connor Gile, 1919

The message erupts each springtime
What we do know we don't know till we know it
Has slipped away through the airy spring branches
To drift up in thin grains through the gray-white sky
And here on the blue clay earth below it
Down a yellow Spanish East Bay hillside flow
The pink trees.


Following Rivers into the Night


Edge of the Amargosa Desert: Maynard Dixon, 1927 (Nevada Museum of Art)

for Ed Dorn
I guess it’s because
the only things left in this West
I can have any real
respect for
are beauty of character
and beauty of nature

and you know the two
breed one another
in those long miles where
there is nothing to do
as the sun goes down
over the flat horizon
but watch it slowly gild
the surfaces of rivers
from the Belle Fourche
(or Foosh, as the locals say)
to the Cimarron
which will push on into
the darkness with its light
flickering over them like a skin.

Monday 23 March 2009

Paradox: the Diminishing Increase of an Author


A curious thing to consider is an author.

This is commonly the writer of a book, &c.; or the originator of an event, policy or state of affairs. The term derives from the Latin augeo, to increase or promote. There is thus a natural inflation built into an author.

From this extends authority, a power, or right, to enforce obedience. The root is auto -- from the Greek autos: self, own, of or by oneself. Related, then, in Greek is authentes: one who does something by himself. Thus our authentic: trustworthy, entitled to acceptance (of a statement); genuine, not forged (of documents, pictures, etc.).

Johnson, in his Dictionary, calls an author "the first beginner of a thing; the writer of a book, opposed to a compiler." And he gives the related terms:
authentick: genuine, original, provable.
authenticate: to establish.
authenticity: authority, genuineness.
authoritative: having authority.
authority: legal power, influence, role.
authorize: to give authority, to justify.

Your author, then, is someone who produces himself as an authority, by puffing himself up, or bigging up, as is sometimes now said.

What he produces would thus naturally be trustworthy, as it is he who has produced it.

There is perhaps something a bit circular in all this, one murmurs. And the author replies firmly: just trust me.

But a very few of the better authors (most of them are dead, of course) say it with a conspiratorial wink that for a moment takes you into the joke.

Johnson was an author and an authority. He was to be trusted. Yet one wonders. Alone, Johnson suffered terribly from strange guilts that seem to have caused him to do physical harm to himself. It may be thought the burden of his own authority was terrible for this great author. He is to be trusted, perhaps, because his example teaches us that the most solid exterior often conceals something that should not be completely trusted.

The poet Horace--a noted author--put the problem thus:

Nil fuit unquam
Sic impar sibi

or: Surely such a various creature -- as an author, Horace means -- never was known. That is: There never was known a creature less worth trusting.

The author lies to tell the truth and tells the truth to lie, flatters to deceive and deceives to flatter, yet is widely received as wise and thought good.

There is the letter Milton wrote to the learned stranger. The visitor had come from afar to meet Milton, the formidable author. In his letter Milton remarks on the fact that, though the visitor's expectations had been high, they had not in any way exceeded the reality that had been found: Milton in his actual person was at least as great as the learned stranger had imagined, perhaps indeed even greater, as Milton helpfully reminded him.

Nevertheless those brilliant and intriguing features the public habitually attributes to an author often evaporate upon contact with the atmosphere of planet Earth. Loving an author, one has pressed a ghost to one's bosom, it is too often found.

To write better than one lives is patently easy. Consider virtually any author up close and the truth of this will be observed.

Still authors run deep. The seas are smooth, the wind fair for the author, like one who, upon land, teaches the art of navigation.

Authors have secluded themselves in well-appointed towers and luxuriant caves, on remote islands and atop cloudy peaks, as well as in private offices, studios, and writing-dens. An authoritative pied-a-terre from which to launch one's author appearances, reading tours and book-signings is considered by some a virtual necessity for one of the authorial tribe. Any locus in which one remains essentially disengaged from the common cares of mankind, however, may prove sufficient for an author.

Were an author, in his works, to be suddenly thrust into the cold seas of actuality, where the first harsh wave that washes over him may be expected to bring panic and a swirling descent toward unconsciousness, the profession might attract fewer eager candidates than at present.

Théodore Duret: Edouard Vuillard, 1912 (National Gallery, Washington, D.C.)
Samuel Johnson: Sir Joshua Reynolds, c. 1772
John Milton: William Blake, c. 1800-1803


Saturday 21 March 2009


or the Lucid Ardors of Recreating the Past

Bronze head of Emperor Hadrian, found in the Thames, London (British Museum)

for Nora Sawyer

There came this comment on Vistas of Limbo from a younger classicist friend:

"This reminds me of the Emperor Hadrian's 'animula vagula blandula' (please
pardon my clumsy translation):

Pale little vagrant soul,
my body's guest and friend,
where are you off to now,
pale, cold, and naked,
bereft the jokes we used to share?

Though Charlotte Corday might be more likely to ask after her corpulus vagulus blandulus, from the sound of it."


What an honor! An accomplished classicist arriving in one's humble private Limbo.

Can it be the touchstone dying verse of Hadrian, who, deprived the sudden mercy of a Charlotte Corday and thus forced to endure a "natural death," so providing succeeding millennia of poets this moving challenge, has finally met its English match in your lovely effort?

For those who are interested in the original, preserved as a fragment mentioned by an author of Hadrian's time (and one of the few documentary evidences of his inner or "personal" life):



Till now I believe the version of 'animula vagula, blandula' I've found most affecting was a prose attempt, in French, that of Marguerite Yourcenar in the overwhelming final passage of her novel Memoirs of Hadrian. Here Hadrian, dying, has been brought to Baiae to be near the sea, where it is hoped his breathing will be improved; but the journey in the July heat has been an ordeal, and now the end is at hand. A small group of intimates surrounds him; gradually losing consciousness, he is however able to feel upon his fingers a friend's tender tears, reminding him through his pain that he "will have been loved in human wise." It is at this point in the magisterial fictional autobiography that M.Y. has Hadrian murmur, as if to himself, the bit that has become famous as 'animula vagula, blandula.' The English here is provided by M.Y. herself in collaboration with Grace Frick:

"Little soul, gentle and drifting, guest and companion of my body, now you will dwell below in pallid places, stark and bare; there you will abandon your play of yore. But one moment still, let us gaze together on these familiar shores, on these objects which doubtless we shall not see again... let us try, if we can, to enter death with open eyes."

Yourcenar was more than three decades at work on her Hadrian novel, beginning it as a young woman of twenty in 1924, destroying many early drafts as well as not a few later ones, abandoning it and returning and still returning as late as 1958 to add late reflections that are as much a part of the story of this very impersonal writer's work as Hadrian's lines are a part of his virtually unknown personal life--all we really have of it, in fact.

She notes, as of her first inklings that this Roman life might lead her into her own life as a writer, that "It did not take me very long to realize that I had embarked upon the life of a very great man. From that time on, still more respect for truth, closer attention, and, on my part, ever more silence."

In a wonderful essay called "Tone and Language in the Historical Novel," Yourcenar talks about the difficulty of fathoming intonations and inflections of speech across the darkness of lost centuries. Her remarks on building a "voice" for Hadrian are fascinating; they stress the enormous work--and risk--of invention and speculation that are every conscientious translator's burden. Documentary fragments remain to us, as she points out, but "Nothing, or virtually nothing, is left to us of those inflections, those quarter tones, those articulated half smiles which yet can change everything."

Therefore, she says, she chose, in her novel, "to make Hadrian use a dignified form of speech...[a] sustained style, half narrative, half meditative, but always essentially written..."

There have been many of the best English-speaking poets called to, and not a few probably also mysteriously chosen by, the Hadrian bit. The thing has a way of seeming to belong to everybody, young or old; we'll all be there one day.

John Donne, a compact version, 1611:

My little wandring sportful Soule,
Ghest, and companion of my body.

Henry Vaughan, 1652:

My soul, my pleasant soul and witty,
The ghest and consort of my body,
Into what place now all alone
Naked and sad wilt thou be gone?
No mirth, no wit, as heretofore,
Nor Jests wilt thou afford me more.

Matthew Prior, 1709:

My little, pretty, fluttering thing,
Must we no longer live together?
And dost thou prune thy trembling Wing,
To take thy Flight thou know'st not whither?

Thy humorous Vein, thy pleasing Folly
Lyes all neglected, all forgot;
And pensive, wav'ring, melancholy,
Thou dread'st and hop'st thou know not what.

Pope was talking about this little poem in public as early as the age of 23, in 1712, when he wrote a piece in The Spectator discussing "the famous Verses which the Emperor Adrian spoke on his death-bed," and offered a prose paraphrase. A year later he quoted the Hadrian lines in a letter to his friend Caryll, accompanied them with Prior's version, a translation of his own, and a "Christian" adaptation, and asked his friend which he thought the best. Not till eighteen years later did Pope publish the two poems he had done. Here is his translation:

Translated: Adriani morientis ad Animam, OR, The Heathen to His departing Soul.

Ah! Fleeting Spirit! wand'ring Fire,
That long hast warm'd my tender Breast,
Must thou no more this Frame inspire?
No more a pleasing, chearful Guest?

Whither, ah whither art thou flying!
To what dark, undiscover'd Shore?
Thou seem'st all trembling, shiv'ring, dying,
And Wit and Humour are no more!

And then: George Gordon, Lord Byron, 1806:

Ah! gentle, fleeting, wav'ring sprite,
Friend and associate of this clay!
To what unknown region borne,
Wilt thou, now, wing thy distant flight?
No more, with wonted humour gay,
But pallid, cheerless, and forlorn.

And finally--three hundred years after Donne, two hundred after Keats, and a hundred and five after Byron--Ezra Pound, at the Hotel Eden in Sirmione, on the Lago di Garda (a site of "the original world of the gods," where, as Pound was delighted to know, Catullus had written his poetry), adding a nonce-word ("TENULLA") to the title, 1911:


What hast thou, O my soul, with paradise?
Will we not rather, when our freedom's won,
Get us to some clear place where the sun
Lets drift in on us through the olive leaves
A liquid glory? If at Sirmio,
My soul, I meet thee, when this life's outrun...

And so on...rather hopefully on Pound's part of course, but that was still before the first Great War... down through the new Dark Ages to us, here and now. Where, Nora, it seems, from your marvelous version of Hadrian's poem, the breathing is better already.

And saying that, I am reminded of the brilliant compressed intensities a love of the classics like yours and Yourcenar's can kindle, warming the scene of the mind within the cold eternal night of the soul. Yourcenar left this astonishing account of her compositional attitude, during the writing of her novel -- which, she said, she completed in a state of "controlled delirium" that possessed her especially during a rail voyage across America:

"Closed inside my compartment as if in a cubicle of some Egyptian tomb, I worked late into the night between New York and Chicago; then all the next day, in the restaurant of a Chicago station where I awaited a train blocked by storms and snow; then again until dawn, alone in the observation car of a Santa Fe limited, surrounded by black spurs of the Colorado mountains, and by the eternal patterns of the stars. Thus were written at a single impulsion the passages on food, love, sleep, and the knowledge of men. I can hardly recall a day spent with more ardor, or more lucid nights."

The Bay of Baiae, with Apollo and Sibyl: Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1823 (Tate Gallery)

Friday 20 March 2009

Was He Spared Worse?


Had Charlotte Corday bungled the deed, Marat may be imagined to have lived on to suffer an even worse fate: old age.

It may be claimed that being oneself is bad enough. But being oneself, old, is worse. And being Marat, old... one shudders to think of it.

But he would not have been alone.

Had the murdered man remained in the living world, he would, no doubt, have grown increasingly himself. For this, whether one likes it or not, is what happens with age. He would have grown increasingly himself, that is, increasingly insufferable, as he grew older.

In this he would have resembled the Old everywhere, in every age, who, while living on well past their usefulness, nonetheless never outlive their capacity to annoy.

The tiresome preemptive superiority asserted by seniority has no better basis in logic than would an argument that the number 3 is superior to the number 7 merely because it preceded it.

The wish to convince others that by sheer length of existence one has somehow been made wise, translated into practice in the form of much lecturing and explaining to those who have come later into the world, makes great bores of the Old. Their sheer accumulation of years, they believe, renders them better able to understand things. Their successors upon the earth, by the logic of the Old, must needs be lesser beings.

The Old love to complain that the world is collapsing. Things are not as they were, therefore disaster shall befall. Bitter laments on this score are commonly heard among the Old, along with recitations of how much better things seemed to go along, in this or that former period. There was order then, and fairness, happiness, and clarity. Whereas following a long interim of befogged confusion, the Old believe, there seems to have ensued, at some point, a loss of balance, during which the world has begun careening out of control as along a winding mountain road at night, inevitably, in the end, hurtling over the cliff into chaos.

Of the several faults of the Old, it is the complaining that is perhaps the worst. In feeling themselves qualified to complain, as in much else, the Old take a great deal for granted. For, given life's full quotient of miseries in every sector, what person of any age does not feel equally qualified?

In supposing themselves to have special cause for complaint, do the Old forget that the general state of human life is such as to guarantee all living persons grounds for dissatisfaction? And if nature has chosen to shrink the brains and sap the muscles, cloud the vision and plug up the hearing of the Old, shall the rest of us take the blame for this, and accept the complaints of the Old, and evince sympathy and compassion, as though we were the cause of these dwindlings and diminutions? Should not the Old be advised to lay the blame for their decrepitude not to those younger but to nature, which is its actual cause?

Had the Old conducted themselves in such a way as to earn the respect of those younger, it is certain they would have received it. Instead, in appearing merely helpless, useless, and in the way, the Old continually defeat their own best efforts to inflate their authority. The sound of air escaping from a sofa which has been abruptly sat upon would approximate the impression given by any observation of the pitiable self-assertions of the puffed-up Old, with the inevitable consequent whoosh of self-defeat. Winks of quiet mockery and even giggles of contempt at these spectacles of exhausted venerability can hardly be said to be out of order at such moments.

Whatever it was like to be the person Marat before the moment of Charlotte Corday's striking of the blade into his breast, one thing may be certain: by failing to grow one minute older, he was spared worse.

Charlotte Corday: Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry, 1860
La Mort de Marat: Jacques-Louis David, 1793


Monday 16 March 2009

Vistas of Limbo


Franz Albert Bischoff: Laguna Seascape

Physical science has helpfully informed us that not only are bodies scattered so few and far between through the universe--the most meagre bits being lost in a thin indiscriminate gruel-like stuff one might liken to a nineteenth-century workhouse child's dinner--as to amount to mere brief accidents of matter struggling unsuccessfully to exist more than a moment or two within the dense, necessary, prevailing and ever-increasing immaterium; but even the most apparently gross, tangible or corporeal of these same accidental bodies, should all its matter be crowded by force down into a perfect solidity, might be contained in a small, hard chunk no larger than an ice cube. In much the same sense, when one ponders the subject but a little, it might well appear that if all the truly productive employment of a lifetime were suddenly compressed, for the sake of experiment, into the time the mind actually took to devise it, then the maximum period required to contain it all would perhaps be days, more likely hours, even seconds or fractions of seconds.

The mind has been largely idle then; yet no one has ever been able to stop it from thinking, even for a little while. And of course this is dangerous. If one doesn't regulate one's thoughts they can easily be yanked by the ear and tugged off in practically any direction; particularly if there's any wishing involved. Maybe it's with this in mind that some thoughtless judges have thought it a crime to think, and declared it so. The nature of the thinking animal however being as it is, it will think anyway, and no matter what punishment be contrived for it in consequence. Vide the French Revolution, and the head of Charlotte Corday, which as those present remarked, retained a thoughtful expression even as it lay before the public, disconnected from its body.

Everybody understands that the business of everyday life calls for very little actual brainwork. So poorly matched are our physical to our mental capacities that one may quite easily come up in mere seconds with full-blown conceptions that may then take years or even longer to carry into action. Fresh thinking is very seldom needed. We're limited in prospect by the narrow routines of our bodies, our surroundings, our lives. We go along in a kind of continuous holding pattern. Changes are rare. Nothing's ever truly new. Yet though all this time one never actually needed to think, in fact one was never not thinking. The truth is that for a good part of our lives the only thing we can do is think. Our hands and feet may venture on as they will without our conscious consent, with the mind standing by a mere spectator unable to affect the execution it knows to be coming, if not already underway.


Dover Beach (or the Futility of Thought)


The sea is calm to-night,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the Straits; -- on the French
Toast, the light
Syrup gleams but a moment,
And is gone
Down the hatch; for it is the light of France.
The cliffs of England stand
Made all of cardboard; a hand
Claps by itself. It gives itself a standing ovation.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind
A state of crashing ignorance.


Sunday 15 March 2009

From the Deep Keats Scrolls: Negative Capability

The Deep Keats Scrolls (eight of the full set of twenty-nine are exhibited here) were composed over a period of some twenty years (1987-2007) for the benefit of students in lectures on Keats given in one's home, where they were displayed on a large easel. The inscriptions cover the verso sides of recycled 48" x 36" sheets of architectural drawing paper. (Given Keats's early calling to the medical profession, it's perhaps appropriate--or ironic?--that the unseen front sides of the sheets contain plans for the construction of a major urban hospital.)


(if you click on the image you'll get a larger view)

From The Deep Keats Scrolls: On First Looking into Chapman's Homer



From the Deep Keats Scrolls: Want of an Object



From The Deep Keats Scrolls: Byron on Keats



From The Deep Keats Scrolls: Isabella



From The Deep Keats Scrolls: The Eve of St Agnes



From The Deep Keats Scrolls: Ode on Melancholy



From The Deep Keats Scrolls: Ode on a Grecian Urn



Friday 13 March 2009

Like Real People


The cry of a lost soul clowning yet meaning it
Shatters the silence of the planetarium
But the sky isn't falling. No wolf's at the door.
Still there's that echoing voice. Watchman, what of the night?
It's spherical, inky and as big as Kansas.
The moon is not quite round. Several stars come out
Of the backdrop and simulate topology,
Boring as old photos are yet absorbing as
They also are -- potentially embarrassing
Like real people, who, when they confront themselves
With the dolorous anthems of that humdrum
Self awareness tolling in the middle distance,
Dismiss its alarums as mere background noise,
The cry of a lost soul clowning yet meaning it.



Wednesday 11 March 2009

Caspar David Friedrich and the Interior Dictation of Landscape


The Riesengebirge (Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin)


He avoided Goethe's invitations to come to Weimar and work together on a collaboration
He was too busy collaborating with certain beings
inside him
whose commands he found so much more compelling
they came alive
during his solitary strolls into the countryside at dawn or just after moonrise
his favorite time
during which he often paused to sketch
a group of trees a cloud a boulder a row of dunes or a tuft of grass
at their urging
Every true work of art (he wrote) is conceived in a sacred hour
and born
from an inner impulse of the heart

As he grew older depression distanced him more
and more
from the world of men
I have to be
on my own
and I have to know I am on my own
so that I can give myself up to what is around me
he wrote
in declining an invitation to tour the Alps
with a Russian poet
who admired his paintings
I have to unite with my clouds and rocks
I have to unite with everything around me
in order to be what I am

When the mineral world dissolves into the cosmic flux
the animal and vegetable worlds will have been long gone
but the beings who existed inside Friedrich and dictated his landscapes
will still be carving vast silences out of elemental gulfs

He had a special interest in the moon
He used to say
that if after death men were transported to another place
then he would prefer one less terrestrial than lunar
in order to allow the beings inside him to feel at home

Moonrise on an empty shore (National Gallery, Washington D.C.)

Monday 9 March 2009

Bach's Booty



Three barrels of beer was Bach's pay. Still now
A dim shadow falls across the bright festal tone
As we follow the figured bass part down
Memory lane, where the art form's short term losses,
Simulating his disputes with authority,
Preclude the purple laurels victory brings.
Don't blow your wig, scholar. Let the beer fiddlers play
"The Warrior Minstrel of the Forlorn Hope."
Life remains long, but now and then as the silver
Chords gather and are sprinkled above the planet
Like sparks pinned to a blue velvet canopy
We get these inklings, self regard drifts away
From boreal night's cold lucid frame
Into postromantic darkness, and real stars come out.


Sunday 8 March 2009

Problems of Thought


Often has it been remarked that no one ever did something and regretted it later without also having to admit there had been a point of return, perceptible had only one been paying attention. Responsive as a small dog loyal to any passing whimsical attraction, however, one was too busy to take any notice. One could have stopped. Thought could have been summoned. Rescue could have been effected. But such are the powers of distraction in this world that though one might easily have turned back in time to save oneself from disaster, this never happened. Thus things came to be as they stand at present.

The last of the crew needs especial remark,
Though he looked an incredible dunce:
He had just one idea -- but, that one being "Snark,"
The good Bellman engaged him at once.

He came as a BUTCHER: but gravely declared,
When the ship had been sailing a week,
He could only kill beavers. The Bellman looked scared,
And was almost too frightened to speak:

But at length he explained, in a tremulous tone,
There was only one beaver on board;
And that was a tame one he had of his own,
Whose death would be deeply deplored.

The beaver, who happened to hear the remark,
Protested, with tears in its eyes,
That not even the rapture of hunting the Snark
Could atone for that dismal surprise!

It strongly advised that the BUTCHER should be
Conveyed in a separate ship:
But the Bellman declared that would never agree
With the plans he had made for the trip:

Navigation was always a difficult art,
Though with only one ship and one bell:
And he feared he must really decline, for his part,
Undertaking another as well.

The beaver's best course was, no doubt, to procure
A second-hand dagger-proof coat --
So the Baker advised it -- and next, to insure
Its life in some Office of note:

This the Banker suggested, and offered for hire
(On moderate terms), or for sale,
Two excellent Policies, one Against Fire,
And one Against Damage From Hail.

Yet still, ever after that sorrowful day,
Whenever the BUTCHER was by,
The beaver kept looking the opposite way,
And appeared unaccountably shy.

(Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark; illustration
by Henry Holiday)


Monday 2 March 2009

The Apparitional Canoe

Captain James Cook and Chief Maquina, Nootka Sound, 1778

The Apparitional Canoe

Before contact
peace in every upstream inlet

in early summer
the sea is glassy calm

fog banks form the margin of
the japan current

and roll in morning
after morning

sea otters swim
in pods among kelp

the sea is glassy calm

until one morning
the evil star dawns

with the white
sail on the horizon


The first incoming
apparitional canoe

a singing
wind rushed

through cedars -- a
silver moonlit

beached whale gleamed
out on the Sound

wave washed otters slept
on kelp beds



They're easy together
inside the pod
when there's no hunting
the yelp of the little
ones is not heard
on good days
when the weather is mild they move
like the vowels in the word
off shore to browse
among sea
urchin and mussel
encrusted submerged reefs
or in drifting patches of
floating kelp


Capt. James Cook -- His Report: on the Sea Otter

The fur of these animals, as mentioned in the Russian accounts, is certainly softer and finer than any others we know of and, therefore, the discovery of this part of the continent of North America where so valuable an article of commerce may be met with, cannot be a matter of indifference. There is not the least doubt, that a very beneficial fur trade may be carried on with the inhabitants of this vast coast. But unless a northern passage be found practicable, it seems rather too remote from Great Britain to receive any emolument from it.

Infestation of the Merchandise

"One could say that in taking on a cargo of furs one takes on also a cargo of lice"-- Marchand, 1790

Particularly in the early years when
to get their hands on a few novel articles
of trade the chiefs were willing
to strip the sea otter cloaks
from their own backs and as Cook
says thereby reduce themselves
to a state of nudity

many if not most of the skins exchanged
were -- Cook again --"very lousy"

Brass (Cook at Nootka)

metal was especially demanded
particularly brass with such eagerness
before we left hardly a bit
of brass was to be found in the ships
even officers' jackets without buttons



Cook and Maquina at Nootka

Maquina Greeting Cook at Friendly Cove
(Nootka Sound, 1778)

A canoe remarkable for a
singular head which

had a bird's eye and a bill
of an enormous size

painted on it
a person who was in the bow

seemed to be a chief
many feathers hanging from his head

his face painted in extraordinary manner

The Bird Ceremonial Greeting for Cook

From the biggest and last in line
of the Nootkan dugouts

the chief
stood up strewing handfuls of

feathers over the water
towards us on the ship

as some of his fellow
Indians threw red dust

or powder likewise --
and made a long harangue

holding in his hand a carved bird
of wood

as large as a pigeon
which he rattled and was

no less vociferous in his harangue
two or three natives likewise

had their hair quite skewed over
with small feathers

others with large ones stuck
into different parts of their heads

The Canoe Song

While this ceremony continued
the others sat in their canoes

a little distance from the ship
and one sang

a very agreeable air
with a degree of softness and melody

which we could not have expected
the word haela friend

being often repeated
as the burden of the song

The Ship Boston

The Indians rifled
the ship Boston

dressed up in women's clothing
and sacks

pulled high stocking caps
over their heads

with powder horns
and bags of shot

came from all around
to party four days

till two Boston ships
the Juno and the Mary

came into the Sound to trade
the Indians

scared them off with great
whooping and shooting

of guns
signalling no trade