Snowmaggedon, Part Four: free associating while shoveling

February 10, 2010 at 8:59 pm (Anglophilia, Film and television, Poetry, Remembrance)

Caves of ice, caves of ice…where did that come from? Oh yes – “Kubla Khan,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!” Nothing sunny about this day, alas, although rumor has it that we might see that Blessed Orb tomorrow.

The story goes that while Coleridge was in the midst of writing this poem, he was interrupted by a man who had come from Porlock on some pedestrian errand. When Coleridge had rid himself of this intruder, he found himself unable to continue work on this poem. Thus “Kubla Khan” is usually referred to as a fragment – but what a glorious fragment it is, with its hallucinatory visions and glimpses of a mysterious unseen world.

Then I was reminded of a scene from the Inspector Morse film Twilight of the Gods. Morse, played by John Thaw, has almost completed a crossword puzzle when Lewis (Kevin Whately) interrupts him. Irritated, Morse tells Lewis that he’s “the person from Porlock.” Lewis, whose literalness was always one of his most endearing traits, replies “No, Sir, Newcastle.”

Here’s the final scene from that film. It serves as a vivid reminder of what we lost with the passing of  John Thaw:

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Of poems, poets – and the Age of Victoria

December 1, 2009 at 3:18 am (Anglophilia, books, History, Poetry)

I like this Ode by Horace; it is translated by John Dryden:

Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He who can call today his own:
He who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.
Be fair or foul or rain or shine
The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
Not Heaven itself upon the past has power,
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.

(Odes, Book 3, Verse 29)

Here is the original Latin:

ille potens sui
laetusque deget, cui licet in diem
dixisse “vixi:  cras vel atra
nube polum Pater occupato

vel sole puro;  non tamen irritum,
quodcumque retro est, efficiet neque
diffinget infectumque reddet,
quod fugiens semel hora vexit.


As I make my (mesmerized)  way through Hilary Mantel’s historical novel Wolf Hall, I have encountered, among the throng of characters peopling this fast-paced, harrowing narrative, Sir Thomas Wyatt. Wyatt wrote one of my favorite sonnets:


Whoso list to hunt ? I know where is an
hind !
But as for me, alas !  I may no more,
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore ;
I am of them that furthest come behind.
Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer ; but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow ; I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt
As well as I, may spend his time in vain !
And graven with diamonds in letters plain,
There is written her fair neck round about ;
‘ Noli me tangere ; for Cæsar’s I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.’

I love the concluding couplet. How powerfully it conveys the extreme danger of the poet’s quest! In Wolf Hall, the reader discovers the identity of the object of this anguished expression of subjugated longing.


In the process of composing this post, I stumbled upon Luminarium. I could spend days – nay, weeks or months exploring this content!


Up until I began reading Wolf Hall, I was deeply engrossed in the Victorians. This preoccupation came about as a result of listening to Patrick Allitt lecturing on the subject (The Teaching Company: Victorian Britain). In Part One of this series, Professor Allitt begins by discoursing on what he terms “the Victorian paradox.”  From there, he moves on to the life and character of Queen Victoria. Next comes fascinating lectures on the industrial revolution and parliamentary reform. These are followed by several even more fascinating lectures on women in the Victorian era. Professor Allitt then moves on to the religious life – and strife – of the Victorians.

Finally, he comes to the subject of poverty and the working conditions in mines, mills, and factories and the diseases endemic to those who toiled there, including children. This section was a veritable catalog of horrors. Although I was listening alone in the  car, I nevertheless  could not refrain from exclaiming aloud, viz. “What – how atrocious! How could they!”

Photo from the archives of the Shaftsebury-Grooms Society

At that point, I though I had “supped full with horrors” – and then the Professor described the ghastly treatment of the chimney sweeps. (See “Ideas of Childhood in Victorian Children’s Fiction” from the incredibly rich site Victorian Web; and “Pity the Poor Chimney Sweeps” from Suite 101. )

So now I am silently begging, no more, no more…and we come to the potato famine in Ireland.

At one point in this appalling litany, Professor Allitt comments to the effect that Victorian Britain was obviously “not all Masterpiece Theatre.” This would be one of the major understatements I have ever heard in my entire life!


Each of the Teaching Company’s Great Courses comes with a booklet containing, among other resources, an excellent bibliography compiled by the lecturer. As per Professor Allitt’s suggestion, I have so far obtained (though not yet read): . Henry Mayhew was a journalist whose descriptions of, and interviews with, the poor of London deeply impressed his contemporaries, among them Charles Dickens. In this poignant excerpt, he describes the life of a young girl who sells watercress on the city’s streets.

Heaven’s Command is the first in a trilogy about the British Empire. I wasn’t really interested in that aspect of nineteenth century  Britain – I wanted to read about conditions within the country itself. But reading the first few pages I found Jan Morris’s writing so beautiful that I may have to rethink my reading plan. Morris has just come out with a new book, Contact!: A Book of Encounters, due out here in April of 2010.  She is now 83 years old!


As I was listening spellbound to Victorian Britain, the phrase “the dark Satanic mills” was constantly floating to my mind’s surface. It comes from this poem by William Blake, written in 1808 or thereabouts:

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold:
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.

This poem was set to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916 and orchestrated by Sir Edward Elgar in 1922. (Wikipedia has an interesting account of how and why this sequence of events came about.)

I saw an exhibit of Blake’s art work at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York earlier this month.

William Blake: artist, poet, visionary

Here is the Hymn, “Jerusalem”:

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Greek vases

November 22, 2009 at 2:58 am (Art, History, Poetry)

In a post on my recent sojourn to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I mentioned being stunned by  the Greek vases in the Greek and Roman Art galleries. Since this past May, when I journeyed to Naples, a city first colonized by the Greeks in the 700’s BC, I’ve become newly fascinated by the literature of the classical period. Now I was face to face with the art produced, in some cases, in the same period. I had not anticipated the effect these works would have on me.

My first thought – when I was able to think again – was of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: specifically, the words, ‘O attic shape, fair attitude.’

Here is the entire poem:

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thou express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunt about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these?  What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit?  What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels?  What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter: therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

O Attic shape!  Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

These astonishing works of art, which in earlier visits to the Met I have always sailed right past, cheerfully distracted and oblivious, now seem to me the most miraculous of objects, and for just the reasons that Keats cites in his poem: their timelessness, their freezing of a moment in time, their promise of eternal youth, of an eternity of bucolic joy in a setting devoid of any hint of ugliness.

I have just purchased this book: and have ordered this glorious tome from the Met: . I shall enjoy learning more about these Attic shapes…

The section of the Met’s collection database that deals with these works is entitled: “Athenian Vase Painting: Black- and Red-Figure Techniques.”

When I told my New York friend Helene about my new-found fascination with Greek vases, she, who has tutored me in love of the arts almost my entire life, smiled and said, “Keats knew something, huh?” Oh yes, he did – with his tenuous hold on life, Keats knew.

John Keats 1795 - 1821

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In case anyone is interested…

April 14, 2009 at 1:58 am (Art, books, Music, Poetry)

Yesterday’s Washington Post Style & Arts section featured a piece on artist Stanley Mouse, who, along with the late Alton Kelley, designed the posters that advertised concerts by the Grateful Dead. Mouse’s work is currently being exhibited at the Govinda Gallery in Washington DC.

Mouse provides this explanation of how the duo’s most iconic poster came about:

“Kelley and I had a job doing posters for the Avalon, and the promoter said: ‘Do a poster for the Grateful Dead.’ So we went to the library in San Francisco, just searching through old books. We came across “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,”  and in it was an old illustration that had the skull-and-roses character on it. We went: ‘Whoa, look at that! That has Grateful Dead written all over it.’ So we used it on that poster, which became the famous icon.

Here is the poster:


The article does not provide the original “old illustration,” but I can:


After many years of searching, I found the Rubaiyat I wanted at Books With a Past in Western Howard County. The artist who created the  haunting images in this edition of the poem is Edmund J. Sullivan. The book itself contains no copyright date; my guess is that it was published around 1935.

My quest had  nothing to do with the Grateful Dead; this edition of the Rubaiyat was at one time one of my mother’s prized possessions. Growing up, I read and re-read it often. Both the poetry and the illustrations made a lasting impression on me. Somewhere along the long path of my life, it was lost. I am very pleased to possess it now, a small piece of the past recaptured, as it were.

For additional information, see the post Lunching with Intellectuals.

Oddly enough, the same Grateful Dead poster is also on the front page of the Arts and Leisure section in yesterday’s New York Times; it  accompanies the article “Bring Out Your Dead.”

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Feeling Scottish…

March 9, 2009 at 7:21 pm (Art, Book clubs, books, Music, Poetry, Scotland)

Because I’m listening to M.C Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth mysteries and being mesmerised by Graeme Malcolm’s beautiful, subtly inflected reading and by the author’s loving evocation of the Highlands, and

Because Friday night, I led a discussion of Alexander McCall Smith’s The Careful Use of Compliments. Re-reading this novel, I was enraptured all over again.


Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith

I love Isabel Dalhousie, ethicist and intellectual. I love the mixture of elements in her: brainy one minute (and not averse to showing it off), passionate the next; possessed of an insatiably curious nature and yet at times preferring solitude, and the possessor of a heightened aesthetic sense that makes her exquisitely responsive to poetry, music, and art.

I was especially taken this time around by the by the poetry quoted and alluded to in this novel. W.H Auden is a great favorite – Isabel calls him her poet.  While she and Jamie are bathing little Charlie, she finds herself reflecting on one of Auden’s best known poems:

Musee des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

(I was ready to identify the artist as Pieter Breugel the Elder; however, a Wikipedia entry claims that this attribution is now considered to be  highly doubtful. I tried in vain to find additional information about this controversy. The work resides in The Royal Museums of Fine Art in Brussels – aka, ‘Musee des Beaux Arts.’)

As she and Jamie exclaim over Charlie’s perfect little body, the poignant  “Naming of Parts” comes to Isabel’s mind:

by Henry Reed

To Alan Michell

Vixi duellis nuper idoneus
Et militavi non sine gloria


To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For to-day we have naming of parts.

Later in the novel, when Jamie exclaims that he is falling in love with Jura, their vacation destination, Isabel quotes the following, again from Auden:

Love requires an Object,
But this varies so much,
Almost, I imagine,
Anything will do:
When I was a child, I
Loved a pumping-engine,
Thought it every bit as
Beautiful as you.

Click here to read the poem, “Heavy Date,” in its entirety.

I had trouble finding the full text of “Heavy Date.” Tracking  down the other poetry referred to in the novel turned out to be even more of a challenge. I was so determined to locate Hugh MacDiarmid’s “Island Funeral” that I am now the pleased owner of this book:


In this edition of MacDiarmid’s works, “Island Funeral” is eight pages in length. Here’s an excerpt:

“They are weather-beaten people with eyes grown clear,
Like the eyes of travellers and seamen,
From always watching far horizons.
but there is another legend written on these faces,
A shadow–or a light–of spiritual vision
That will seldom find full play
On the features of country folk
Or men of strenuous action.
Among these mourners are believers and unbelievers,
And many of them steer a middle course,
Being now priest-ridden by convention,
But not one of them betrays a sign
Of facile and self-lulling piety,
Nor can noe seee on any face
‘A sure and certain hope
Of the Resurrection to eternal life.’
This burial is just an act of nature,
A reassertion of the islanders’ inborn certainty
That ‘in the midst of life we are in death.’

The poem concludes with these lines:

“The cornet solo of our Gaelic islands
Will sound out every now and again
Through all eternity.

I have heard it and am content for ever.

I have not had the chance to read the other poetry, but “Island Funeral” was powerful and moving and well worth the cost of the entire volume.

When the scheming yet superficially congenial Christopher Dove comes up to Edinburgh to confer with Isabel concerning his upcoming assumption of the post of editor of The Review of Applied Ethics, a post cherished and heretofore admirably filled by Isabel herself, she must struggle to be civil to the man.  He mentions that he’ll be returning to London on the sleeper train, an experience he has previously enjoyed. “‘Norman MacCaig didn’t,” she responds, and goes on to quote the following: “‘I do not like this being carried sideways through the night.'” I love that line, especially the rhythm of it, imitating as it does the actually rhythms of riding on a train. Research revealed that the poem is entitled “Sleeping Compartment.” I have not yet obtained the full text.

During the bath scene, the Auden work puts Isabel in mind of yet another poem:

“‘There’s a poet called Alvarez who wrote a lovely poem about angels appearing overhead. The angels suddenly appear in the sky and are unnoticed by a man cutting wood with a buzz saw. But [she adds] then it was in Tuscany, where one might expect to see angels at any time.’

Oh, dear, off to the chase yet again! I’m thinking that the Alvarez in question is A. Alvarez. Years ago, I read a powerful book by this author, a meditation on suicide entitled The Savage God. I have not been able to find the poem alluded to above. The final puzzler is a poem by an Irish poet “which suggested that we could all be saved by keeping our eye on the hill at the end of the road.” No title is given or author named.

I’ve concluded that this novel should come with a concordance!


Near the novel’s end, Isabel attends a concert in which Jamie, a professional musician and music teacher, is playing the bassoon. The second half of the program is to consist of the works of contemporary composers: Peter Maxwell Davies, Stephen Deazley, and Max Richter. There’s a piece by Peter Maxwell Davies that I really like, though I haven’t heard it for quite some time. It’s called Orkney Wedding with Sunrise, and there are bagpipes at the end, which is probably why I’ve never forgotten it.

The Requiem by Gabriel Faure comprises the first part of the program. These are Isabel’s reflections on it:

“It was not complex music, with its cautiously developed melody and its utter resolution; it was a lullaby really, and that, she thought, was what a requiem really was. If one were to be taken up to heaven, then it would be Faure who might accompany one….Grant them rest, rest everlasting; they were such kind words, even in their finality, and the music that accompanied them, as in this requiem, should be gentle.

Not a believer herself, she nonetheless concedes that “this was music which might, for a few sublime moments, nudge one towards belief…” – belief, she means, in some kind of afterlife.

The following are excerpts from the Requiem:

Sanctus, performed by the King’s College Choir, Cambridge


The concluding movement, In Paradisum, performed by the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Carl Marie Giulini.

I first encountered this music when I sang it with the Chorus of my alma mater, Goucher College. From it I have received both exaltation and consolation all my life, and yes, Isabel, I hope it sees me off into the next!


Now art, of course, is the springboard for the plot of The Careful Use of Compliments. Alas,the group felt that  the intrigue, such as it is, surrounding the fate of painter Andrew McInnes is the least interesting aspect of the novel. I couldn’t help but agree with them. Far more compelling are Isabel’s efforts, which seem at times almost desperate, to keep the dominant elements of her life in some kind of harmony. There’s her much younger lover and all the insecurities entailed in that relationship, despite the fact of their having a child together. The intensity of feeling is stronger on her side, and she knows it. To further complicate matters, she is also far more financially secure than Jamie.

Then there’s her niece Cat. Each is the other’s only near relation in Edinburgh – in all of Scotland, for that matter. But Cat is a mercurial, rather shallow young woman who is capable of spiteful and injurious behavior toward Isabel, despite the latter’s kindness .

Finally there is Isabel’s position as editor of The Review of Applied Ethics. Isabel does not have a “day job; her inherited wealth relieves her of the necessity of shouldering that particular burden. But her work for the Review is a labor of love, one that keeps her connected with her chosen field of study and with colleagues from all over the world. When that position is threatened – by the oily Christopher Dove no less! – her first instinct is to acquiesce with as much grace as she can muster. But then another instinct arises within her: the instinct to fight.

Isabel decides to use her vast resources in order to save her position and the Review itself from further interference by potential adversaries. But she has qualms about doing this. Is she using her money in an arrogant, unscrupulous manner? Eventually she overcomes these reservations, and once she has made her move, does not look back.

The group did not have a problem with Isabel’s actions in this case, but in some of the book’s ticklish social situations, we felt she could have acted with more tact. Showing up at Cat’s flat with Charlie in tow seems a particularly egregious act, especially considering that young woman’s prickly nature and extreme sensitivity regarding Isabel’s relationship with Jamie, her own former lover.

Although the mystery surrounding the painter Andrew McInnes does nor engage the reader as it might have, it does nonetheless provide motivation for the journey Isabel and Jamie make to Jura in the inner Hebrides. McCall Smith’s description of this windswept island make you want to go  there immediately. Approximately 170 persons currently live on Jura, while the population of red deer is about 5,500.


The Paps of Jura

The Paps of Jura

(I was delighted to read about the Paps of Jura, as they immediately reminded of the Grand Tetons. This, then, is the second time I’ve encountered mountains named after that portion of the female anatomy!)

Included in this portion of the book is fascinating (and factual) background on George Orwell, who stayed at Barnhill, a house on Jura, while he wrote 1984. And here’s news for all you intrepid vacationers: you can now stay at Barnhill yourself! But you’ll need a Land Rover to get there…


My reading of the Dalhousiee novels has awakened me to the rich heritage of Scottish art. I acquired this fine book:

Cover painting: Poets' Pub by Alexander Moffat (1980)

Cover painting: Poets’ Pub by Alexander Moffat (1980)

In its opening pages, I discovered an object which I loved (and wanted to hold) instantly: the mysterious Towie Ball.



Here are some portraits by Scottish artists:

Margaret Lindsay, by Allan Ramsay (1713-1784)

Margaret Lindsay, by Allan Ramsay (1713-1784)

Niel Gow, by Henry Raeburn (1756-1823)

Niel Gow, by Henry Raeburn (1756-1823)

Sir John and Lady Clerk of Penicuik, by Henry Raeburn

Sir John and Lady Clerk of Penicuik, by Henry Raeburn

Isabella McLeod, Mrs. James Gregory, by Henry Raeburn

Isabella McLeod, Mrs. James Gregory, by Henry Raeburn

And here, a cityscape I find immensely appealing:

The Tay Bridge from my Studio Window, by James McIntosh Patrick (1948)

The Tay Bridge from my Studio Window, by James McIntosh Patrick (1948)


With one exception, I had the feeling that group members were not quite as enthusiastic about The Careful Use of Compliments as I was. For one thing, they had not read previous titles in the series, and I think that proved a disadvantage. In particular, they lacked the back story of Isabel’s ongoing and rather tortured relationship with Cat. Even so, I think we all agreed that the conclusion was pure poetry.

Just before drifting off to sleep, Isabel and Jamie are sharing a few intimate thoughts. Then:

” Isabel closed her eyes. There is a sea of love, she thought. And we are in it.”

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Lunching with intellectuals

November 22, 2008 at 3:48 pm (books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Poetry)

Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed piece, “Obama and the War on Brains” appeared in the November 9 edition of New York Times. I like Kristof’s definition of an intellectual:

“An intellectual is a person interested in ideas and comfortable with complexity. Intellectuals read the classics, even when no one is looking, because they appreciate the lessons of Sophocles and Shakespeare that the world abounds in uncertainties and contradictions, and …that leaders self-destruct when they become too rigid and too intoxicated with the fumes of moral clarity.”

Tuesday I had the great pleasure of having lunch with three women who cheerfully embrace the world of ideas. Angie, Paula, Beth and I discussed health (as little as possible, but when you’re this age, unavoidable), politics  (bracing and exciting at the moment), finance (depressing and enraging at the moment), and  finally, and inevitably (and with a certain relief), books.

Angie belongs to a philosophy book club (as well as a science fiction discussion group); she had this nugget to pass along to us: measuring approximately what is important is itself more important than measuring precisely what is NOT. (I hope I got that right!)

consiliencebk edward-o-wilson1 I invariably leave these get-togethers with yet more titles of books I want to read. Angie recommended Consilience by Edward O. Wilson.  I later realized that I knew this author, an eminent biologist and tireless crusader for the cause of biodiversity, and had read some of his shorter pieces.

ishi Then there was Ishi, Last of His Tribe, by Theodora Kroeber. This is Amazon’s blurb:

“In the early 1900s a small band of California Indians in the Yahi tribe lived in concealment, resisting the fate that had all but wiped out their people — violent death by the invading gold seekers and settlers. In time, members of the small group died, until there remained a single survivor — the man who became known as Ishi. This book tells the haunting, heroic story of Ishi — the boy, the man, the lone survivor of his tribe.

This is the currently in-print version of this work:


The Kroebers were the parents of author Ursula K. LeGuin.

Beth mentioned that she is happily making her way through the Lake District mysteries of Martin Edwards. Along with Ann Cleeves, Edwards was recently inducted into Britain’s Detection Club. It is a signal honor for writers of crime fiction to be granted membership in this organization, which counts Dorothy L. Sayers among its founders.

Before lunch, Angie and I had met at Books with a Past for an hour of delicious browsing, followed, for me at least, by delicious acquiring.We also had the not-to-be-missed opportunity of chatting with Marvin Schaefer, who along with his wife Mary Alice is the proprietor of Books With a Past. A portly gentleman with a flowing, seasonally-appropriate beard, Schaefer expounded on a wide variety of topics. He is a man of definite opinions ( I know; the pot calling the kettle, it takes one to know one, etc.) and impressive erudition. In addition, he possesses a finely honed crap detector and a great sense of humor.

Among my trove of purchases was The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated and with an introduction by Edward Fitzgerald. I’ve long had my eye out for a particular edition of this famous poem, although on this occasion I was not searching for it – was not even thinking of it. But serendipitous encounters like this are one of the joys of shopping in second hand bookshops.

This Rubaiyat is plain and unprepossessing on the outside, but open it and in addition to the timeless verses of Khayyam/Fitzgerald, you will find striking illustrations. What you will not find is a date of publication – or even the name of the illustrator!

There is virtually no cataloguing-in-publication data. Only this: “De Luxe Editions Club / Garden City, New York.” The artist,  Edmund J. Sullivan,  inscribed his name, inconspicuously, at the bottom of some of his  drawings. See below, the one that accompanies quatrain LI: “The Moving Finger writes…” (Click to enlarge.)

I estimate the date of publication to be around 1935.

This is the book that was part of our home library when I was a child. I recognized it at once:


Oh, come with old Khayyám, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies ;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.




Into this Universe, and why not knowing,
Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.




Up from Earth’s Centre through the Seventh Gate
I rose, and on the Throne of Saturn sate,
And many Knots unravel’d by the Road;
But not the Knot of Human Death and Fate.




The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.


I seem to have known that last verse by heart all my life, and that drawing has likewise always been with me.


There are times when one feels that a deceased loved one has reached out from the next world to this one, and placed a gift in one’s hands. This was one of those times.

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“Not Waving But Drowning” – a poem by Stevie Smith

October 30, 2008 at 1:50 am (Bouchercon 2008, Poetry)

One of the many gifts I took away from Bouchercon was a work by British poet Stevie Smith. It happened on Friday Oct. 10 during one of our favorite sessions, “Come and Talk To Me: Three goddesses talking.” This was more of a spontaneous bull session than a panel discussion. The authors sat informally in front of the tables; the format worked wonderfully.

Rhys Bowen, Deborah Crombie, and Louise Penny

Left to right: Rhys Bowen, Deborah Crombie, and Louise Penny

The “goddesses” in question were Rhys Bowen, Deborah Crombie, and Louise Penny, wonderful writers all and terrifically entertaining to boot.

At one point in the midst of a spirited exchange, Louise paid homage to the power of poetry by quoting some lines from “Not Waving But Drowning.”  If memory serves, these were the lines: “I was much further out than you thought / And not waving  but drowning.”

There was a collective gasp from the audience. The image was so immediate; the words so terse and full of anguish, we were temporarily stunned into silence.

Here, in its entirety, is “Not Waving But Drowning” by Stevie Smith:

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

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An occasion for celebrating books, with a poignant aftermath

April 29, 2008 at 10:52 pm (books, Mystery fiction, Poetry)

You expect to be haunted by the ghosts of departed family members and close friends. You don’t expect to be haunted by the memory of someone you barely knew. Or at least, I didn’t expect it.

In June of last year, when I still worked part time at the library, I was asked to present a program of book talks for employees at a facility for the frail elderly. The request had come from a board member who worked there. I’ll call her Jill. I had never met her, but she was warm and enthusiastic on the phone, and I looked forward to meeting her and doing the book talks for her staff.

Jill proved as warm and welcoming as I had expected her to be. She was tall and slender, with blonde hair that framed a lovely face. We chatted for a while. When the staff members had arrived, she introduced me, and I launched into my spiel, enjoying myself hugely as I always do when I talk about books.

Here, with some emendations and illustrations thrown in, is the list I handed out that day:

The Many Faces of Crime Fiction, or a selective serving of murder and mayhem!

Variety of locales – some exotic, some not so exotic:

India during the British Raj: The Last Kashmiri Rose, by Barbara Cleverly

Botswana: The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith

Sweden: One Step Behind, by Henning Mankell;The Laughing Policeman, by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo [The Laughing Policeman, written in 1968 and published here in 1970, is one of my alll time favorite mysteries!]

Italy: Death at La Fenice, by Donna Leon

Canada: Still Life, by Louise Penny

[Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall. They got the idea for their Martin Beck procedurals while translating Ed McBain’s books into Swedish.]

In the U.S, some of the “hottest” places are the coldest places!

Steve Hamilton (Michigan’s Upper Peninsula)

William Krueger (Minnesota)

Archer Mayor (Vermont)

Florida and California are still popular settings for crime fiction:

Florida (Edna Buchanan, Carl Hiaasen)

California (Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, T. Jefferson Parker, Sue Grafton)

And of course, there’s Baltimore own Laura Lippman

Historical mysteries:

Middle Ages very popular right now. Started with Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael mysteries

Victorian era: Cater Street Hangman and The Face of a Stranger by Anne Perry

The England of Henry VIII: Dissolution, Dark Fire, and Sovereign, by C.J. Sansom

Ancient Rome: Roman Blood and Arms of Nemesis by Steven Saylor

British Inspectors (books commonly known as police procedurals)


Robert BarnardDeath by Sheer Torture

P.D. James (Commander Adam Dalgliesh)

Ruth Rendell (Inspector Reginald Wexford)

Reginald Hill (Andy Dalziel & Peter Pascoe)

Colin Dexter (Inspector Morse)

Martha Grimes (Richard Jury)

Peter Robinson (Alan Banks)

Caroline Graham (Barnaby & Troy)

Ellis Peters – Death and the Joyful Woman* (Inspector Felse)

Dick Francis’s protagonists are primarily jockeys rather than policemen. He has used the character Sid Halley in several of his novels, the latest being Under Orders. [Actually, there’s now a new title, Dead Heat,* which Dick Francis and his son Felix wrote together. This is not a Sid Halley novel; it features a new protagonist, chef and restaurateur Max Morton.]


Ian Rankin (John Rebus);

A Scottish setting, though not a police procedural: The Right Attitude to Rain* by Alexander McCall Smith (Isabel Dalhousie series)

International Intrigue

Restless by William Boyd
The Warlord’s Son by Dan Fesperman

Psychological Suspense

Puccini’s Ghost by Morag Joss
The Minotaur by Barbara Vine
Seven Lies by James Lasdun

Legal Suspense

Scott Turow
King of Lies by John Hart


Historical fiction:

The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd
Arthur & George by Julian Barnes
An Imperfect Lens by Anne Roiphe*
Voyageurs by Margaret Elphinstone
The March – E.L. Doctorow
Pompeii and Imperium by Robert Harris
Alice in Exile by Piers Paul Read*

Great reading for folks who just plain love fiction:

Intuition by Allegra Goodman
The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson
The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers*
The Photograph by Penelope Lively
Second Honeymoon* and A Spanish Lover* by Joanna Trollope
The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud
Digging To America by Anne Tyler
Atonement, Saturday, and On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon*
The Whole World Over by Julia Glass*




The Mayflower and In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose

Nonfiction that reads like fiction!

City of Falling Angels by John Berendt
The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr
Archie and Amelie by Donna Lucey*
England’s Mistress by Kate Williams*
May and Amy by Josceline Dimbleby

Nonfiction in a class by itself:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler


A pleasure to listen to:

Imperium by Robert Harris, read by Simon Jones

Judge Dee mysteries by Robert VanGulik, read by Frank Muller [Do yourself a favor and get your hands on these – either the audio versions or the books. They are just great! And Robert van Gulik himself had an amazing life.]

Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels, read by Ian Carmichael.

[ Ian Carmichael, perfectly cast as Lord Peter Wimsey]

Digging To America by Anne Tyler, read by Blair Brown

The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency* series by Alexander McCall Smith, read by Lisette Lecat

Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who mysteries and Tony Hillerman’s Navajo mysteries, read by George Guidall

*love story alert!


Useful websites for readers:

Mystery and Romance

Stop! You’re Killing Me

On this site you will find information on the geographical location of a mystery series, type of protagonist, e.g. policeman, lawyer, academic, firefighter, etc., and ethnicity of protagonist, as well as the order of books in a series.

Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine

This great little “fanzine” is one of the first places I turn to for reliable recommendations.

A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection

This exceptionally literate site is maintained by “guru” Michael E. Grost.

The Romance Reader

On this site, you’ll find reviews, recommendations, and author interviews.

General, including book clubs


This site pulls together starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Booklist.

Reading Group Guides

Find a discussion guide for the book your group is reading.

Available on your library’s website, this terrific resource has book lists galore, plus exceptionally thoughtful reading group guides.


(Jill had mentioned during our phone conversations that several members of my prospective audience were devotees of the love story. Although I don’t ordinarily read books specifically labelled as romance, I nonetheless often encounter love stories in my reading. Several of the books on the list qualify, I informed her. This is how the “love story alert” came about.)

As it happened, nonfiction titles got relatively short shrift. Jill made note of that fact, and I responded that I hadn’t really thought about it; the list had just turned out that way. After a pause, she commented, “I used to read a lot of fiction, but I don’t any more. Now, I want to read for knowledge.” She glanced sideways at me and smiled, an enigmatic half smile like Mona Lisa.

When I left, Jill presented me with a gift bag containing, among other things, a ceramic mug with the name of the facility embossed upon it.

Five months later, after I had retired, I opened the local paper and saw Jill’s face staring out at me. She really was beautiful. I recognized the smile at once.

It was the obituary page.

The mug is dark blue; the lettering is gold. I fill it with tea or coffee and think of Jill. And in recent months, I have come to favor nonfiction over fiction (with an exception made for my beloved mysteries). I retain a vivid recollection of Jill stating, in simple terms, her own preference. I too now read primarily for knowledge – though whether the knowledge I need most urgently will come to me as a result, I cannot say.

Meanwhile, as we pursue happiness and dwell in pleasant gardens, like the one depicted in the post just below this one, we cannot entirely escape the ancient reminder, Et in Arcadio Ego. Or, as a poet in our own age has rather mordantly put it: “Most things may never happen: this one will.” The line is from “Aubade,” by Philip Larkin:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
— The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused — nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear — no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

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“A green thought in a green shade” – and two of my favorites from the animal kingdom

April 27, 2008 at 1:16 pm (Animals, Nature, Poetry)

On this overcast morning, the entire out of doors seems suffused with the most intense green. You only see this in the early Spring. It made me think of the above line of verse, from Andrew Marvell’s poem:

The Garden, by Andrew Marvell

How vainly men themselves amaze
To win the palm, the oak, or bays ;
And their uncessant labors see
Crowned from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow-vergèd shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid ;
While all the flowers and trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose.

Fair Quiet, have I found thee here,
And Innocence, thy sister dear!
Mistaken long, I sought you then
In busy companies of men :
Your sacred plants, if here below,
Only among the plants will grow ;
Society is all but rude,
To this delicious solitude.

No white nor red was ever seen
So amorous as this lovely green ;
Fond lovers, cruel as their flame,
Cut in these trees their mistress’ name.
Little, alas, they know or heed,
How far these beauties hers exceed!
Fair trees! wheresoe’er your barks I wound
No name shall but your own be found.

When we have run our passion’s heat,
Love hither makes his best retreat :
The gods who mortal beauty chase,
Still in a tree did end their race.
Apollo hunted Daphne so,
Only that she might laurel grow,
And Pan did after Syrinx speed,
Not as a nymph, but for a reed.

What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head ;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine ;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach ;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Insnared with flowers, I fall on grass.

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness :
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find ;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas ;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

Here at the fountain’s sliding foot,
Or at some fruit-tree’s mossy root,
Casting the body’s vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide :
There like a bird it sits and sings,
Then whets and combs its silver wings ;
And, till prepared for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.

Such was that happy garden-state,
While man there walked without a mate :
After a place so pure and sweet,
What other help could yet be meet!
But ’twas beyond a mortal’s share
To wander solitary there :
Two paradises ’twere in one
To live in Paradise alone.

How well the skillful gard’ner drew
Of flowers and herbs this dial new ;
Where from above the milder sun
Does through a fragrant zodiac run ;
And, as it works, th’ industrious bee
Computes its time as well as we.
How could such sweet and wholesome hours
Be reckoned but with herbs and flowers!

[Photos above of Stourhead Gardens, Wiltshire, England]


Highland cattle – I love them!

Poitou donkey with Annie Pollock, a retired veterinarian who has worked tirelessly on her Hampshire farm to save the breed from extinction.

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Gotham Diary: the otherworldly beauty of the Kirov Ballet

April 23, 2008 at 12:09 pm (New York City, Performing arts, Poetry, Russophilia)

Thursday night April 10, I took my friend Helene, a balletomane like myself, to New York City Center to see the Kirov work its magic. The program consisted of scenes from four different ballets: Le Corsaire, Diana and Acteon, Don Quixote, and La Bayadere.

How was it? Superlatives fail me. I don’t have the words, but the poets do. I keeping thinking of two passages in particular:: Romeo’s astonished declaration that “I ne’er saw true beauty till this night;” and the final lines of one of my favorite poems, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn:” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — That is all / Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.” Here’s the entire poem:

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter, therefore, ye soft pipes, play on,
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never, canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal — yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping song for ever new,
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea-shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul, to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

O Attic shape! fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity. Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’


As a meditation on the age-old desire to stop cruel time in its tracks, this work, for me, has no equal. I wished very powerfully that the performance we saw that night could be frozen in time, like “the marble men and maidens overwrought” on Keats’s vase. But I will cherish the memory. And there are pictures…

The corps de ballet in the exquisite La Bayadere.

Soloists in La Bayadere

Leonid Sarafanov, whose spectacular leaps and light-as-a-feather landings repeatedly thrilled the audience.* (Here’s a “head shot” of the astounding Sarafanov taken last year. Doesn’t he look as though he’s all of fourteen years old?!)

This photo of Diana Vishneva, taken by Andrea Mohin, appeared in the New York Times on Sunday April 13:


The music, by turns robust and delicate, was played beautifully by the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre; most of the choreography was done by the great Marius Petipa. Helene and I gazed at the program in awe – such storied names…

Here is the Mariinsky Theatre’s official site. It is very oriented to the here and now – not much in the way of history, except for the acknowledgement, in tiny print, that this is there 225th season. For some interesting background, and great photos of the theater itself, see the Wikipedia entry.


For a fascinating cultural hisory of Russia, see Natasha’s Dance by Orlando Figes. (I won’t claim to have read through this massive tome; I’ve been using it primarily as a reference work since I purchased it several years ago.)

*For more terrific portraits of ballet dancers, see Gene Schiavone’s site.

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