Thursday, April 9, 2020

The ghost of life: Far-off events full of wonder

Pesach began at sundown yesterday. Pesach is the celebration of that time when the Angel of Death passed by Jewish households when it spread calamity across Egypt. It also marks the joyful but speedy exit of the Jews from their captivity; in too much of a hurry to let bread rise. Ergo matzoh.

Pesach is a time for huge family gatherings around the table, recounting the whole story, eating (but nothing leavened) and drinking, talking and singing. This year, though, so different; no extended gatherings. No latkes for 20. No kitchens piled up with the food and wine brought by family and friends. Just each immediate family social distancing and asking the four questions as best they can.

Elijah will find many empty seats to choose from.

So today my entry for National Poetry Month is a poem about this holiday by one of my all-time favorite writers, Primo Levi. The second line is highly appropriate.


Tell me: how is this night different, from all other nights?
How, tell me, is this Passover, different from other Passovers?
Light the lamp, open the door wide, so the pilgrim can come in,
Gentile or Jew; under the rags perhaps the prophet is concealed.
Let him enter and sit down with us; let him listen, drink, sing and celebrate Passover;
Let him consume the bread of affliction, the Paschal Lamb, sweet mortar and bitter herbs.
This is the night of differences, in which you lean your elbow on the table,
Since the forbidden becomes prescribed, evil is translated into good.
We will spend the night recounting, far-off events full of wonder,
And because of all the wine, the mountains will skip like rams.
Tonight they exchange questions: the wise, the godless, the simple-minded and the child.
And time reverses its course, today flowing back into yesterday,
Like a river enclosed at its mouth. Each of us has been a slave in Egypt,
Soaked straw and clay with sweat, and crossed the sea dry-footed.
You too, stranger. this year in fear and shame,
Next year in virtue and in justice.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The ghost of life: This world uncertain is

Thomas Nashe was a contemporary of Shakespeare; like Shakespeare, he was a poet and a playwright. Additionally, he wrote pamphlets, satires and defenses of the Church of England.

While technically, the Elizabethan era did not feature a pandemic, it was certainly beset by pestilences—typhoid, smallpox, cholera and probably even little outbreaks of bubonic plague. It’s said that Elizabeth herself took to heavy makeup to cover the scars of pox.

In 1592, Nashe wrote a play called Summer’s Last Will and Testament, in which the season flails about for a bit and then turns over the reins of time to its successor, Autumn. Today’s poem for National Poetry Month, “A Litany in Time of Plague”, comes from this play.

The form of prayer called the litany is a series of petitions, usually with a repeated response. Nashe’s poem takes that form. Summer starts out strong and rather stroppy. By the end, though…

“A Litany in Time of Plague”

Adieu, farewell earth’s bliss,
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life’s lustful joys,
Death proves them all but toys,
None from his darts can fly.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade,
All things to end are made.
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air,
Queens have died young and fair,
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Strength stoops unto the grave,
Worms feed on Hector brave,
Swords may not fight with fate.
Earth still holds ope her gate;
Come! come! the bells do cry.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord have mercy on us!

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The ghost of life: hi neighbor

There are all kinds of plagues, all kinds of pandemics. One constant, though, seems to be the need of many people to brand the victims as somehow deserving of their disease. Almost always that branding is framed around God—you contracted [bubonic, Ebola, influenza, whatever] because you are ungodly. You have offended God, and now you must pay.

We’re seeing that now as the right-wing evangelicals attribute the COVID19 pandemic to their Old Testament God being really, really pissed off at…well, everyone not a right-wing evangelical. They were out in force when the AIDS epidemic exploded on our horizon in the 1980s, so they’ve had decades of practice. AIDS was an obvious target of the holier-than-thou contingent, because its sufferers at first were almost exclusively gay men. Then intravenous drug users. This vector group made it easy for Ronald Reagan to ignore the public health crisis, which in turn helped spread the disease.

It took years and years—and recognition by the pharmaceutical industry that there was big money to be made in HIV/AIDS therapies—for treatments to be developed. HIV is no longer the death sentence it was at first, but many tens of thousands around the world died before we got to here.

Today for National Poetry Month, I’m giving you a couple of poems that encapsulate that arc. The first is from Tim Dlugos, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1990 at age 40. This was one of his final poems:

“My Death”

when I no longer
feel it breathing down
my neck it's just around
the corner (hi neighbor)

By contrast, Jericho Brown lives his diagnosis in the 21st Century.

“Psalm 150”

Some folks fool themselves into believing,
But I know what I know once, at the height
Of hopeless touching, my man and I hold
Our breaths, certain we can stop time or maybe

Eliminate it from our lives, which are shorter 
Since we learned to make love for each other 
Rather than doing it to each other. As for praise 
And worship, I prefer the latter. Only memory

Makes us kneel, silent and still. Hear me? 
Thunder scares. Lightning lets us see. Then, 
Heads covered, we wait for rain. Dear Lord, 
Let me watch for his arrival and hang my head

And shake it like a man who's lost and lived. 
Something keeps trying, but I'm not killed yet.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Gratitude Monday/The ghost of life: trying to fix up a human

Today I’m grateful for all the medical professionals who are literally putting their lives on the line to care for COVID19 patients—in addition to everyone else needing healthcare. These doctors, nurses, EMTs, physicians assistants, medical and nursing students, retirees and others are working grueling hours with little or no protection around the world—in rich countries and poor. I cannot imagine what hell they’re going through, but I send them all respect, admiration and gratitude for their caring and their courage.

So today’s National Poetry Month entry is by the Twentieth Century American poet, Anne Sexton. I don’t think it needs any introduction; it says everything.


They work with herbs
and penicillin
They work with gentleness
and the scalpel.
They dig out the cancer,
close an incision
and say a prayer
to the poverty of the skin.
They are not Gods
though they would like to be;
they are only a human
trying to fix up a human.
Many humans die.
They die like the tender,
palpitating berries
in November.
But all along the doctors remember:
First do no harm.
They would kiss if it would heal.
It would not heal.

If the doctors cure
then the sun sees it.
If the doctors kill
then the earth hides it.
The doctors should fear arrogance
more than cardiac arrest.
If they are too proud,
and some are,
then they leave home on horseback
but God returns them on foot.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

The ghost of life: Hosanna

Today is Palm Sunday, the day Christians in the West remember the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. Ordinarily churches would be handing out palm fronds for congregants to wave in emulation of the palms that were laid before the Christ. In Roman and Anglican Catholic parishes, they take the triumphal entry story all the way to the crucifixion, with the congregation acting the part of Jews screaming “Crucify him!”

(I think that these days, the order of service refers to the screamers as “the People”; the Roman Church only stopped calling Jews Christ-killers after Vatican II, and a lot of people are still begrudging that.)

It’s kind of weird to think of churches—except for the evangelical nutjobs across the former Confederacy—not enacting the procession, singing “All Glory, Laud and Honor”, weaving palm spikes into crosses and preparing for Holy Week. But here we are.

Well, anyway, today’s entry for National Poetry Month is from someone I’ve never heard of, Lloyd C. Taylor, Jr., a resident of North Carolina. I was trawling an archive of seasonal poems and stopped at this one, because we should all be asking its question. We should be asking it every year, but this one in particular.

Sadly—very few will.

“What Have We Learned?”

They shouted with praises, reaching the sky,
Pushing and shoving to see Jesus pass by.
Crying, 'Hosanna, hosanna, glory to the King!
He comes to us today, great joy He doth bring.'

They threw down palm leaves, covering the way,
Clearing the way for His entrance that day.
Raising joyful voices, as praises filled the air,
The day had come, God answered their prayer!

But, in a short time they changed their chant,
From joyful noise, to a mob's hate-filled rant.
From Hosanna, hosanna, as when He was praised;
To crucify Him! Crucify Him, as their anger blazed!

In disbelief we might question why they turned?
But maybe the question is, 'What have we learned? '

Saturday, April 4, 2020

The ghost of life: A surging tide of terrible disaster

We may never know the actual disease known as the Plague of Athens. It struck that city in the second year of the Peloponnesian War (430 BCE), and wiped out an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 of the people who had crowded within the walls for protection against the Spartan besiegers.

Symptoms were reported (by the historian Thucydides) to include fever, coughing, sore throats, sneezing, vomiting, diarrhea and extreme thirst. Which might be accounted for by typhus, smallpox, typhoid or some flavor of viral hemorrhagic fever. Or it could have been something that died out and is waiting under layers of dirt and rubble for someone to dig up and unleash on the modern world.

Whatever the cause, the plague devastated Athens. Thucydides and others describe the societal effects—deaths were so numerous that survivors couldn’t properly perform the rites, and dumped corpses on the funeral pyres of others. Or they just appropriated pyres to cremate their own dead. The hardest hit were those who cared for the afflicted, so people abandoned the ill and dying. And no amount of propitiation of the gods seemed to do any good, so people abandoned them as well.

The Roman poet Lucretius devotes a good chunk of Book VI of De rerum naturae (On the Nature of Things) to really graphic descriptions of the symptoms. You can read some of it here, if you really want to. I have a fairly strong stomach, but even I draw the line somewhere, and I’m going with Sophocles.

Though set in Thebes, the plague that sets off the plot of Oedipus Rex probably draws on the Athenian situation. The play opens with the people of Thebes, through their spokesman the Priest, beseeching the king to guide them through this calamity. He’d become king through answering the riddle of the monster Sphinx, and sitting on the throne of their murdered king Laius. So they reckon he’s just the man who can solve the problem of this monstrous disease that leaves both the fields and women of the city barren.

Here’s some of what the Priest says:

So now, Oedipus, our king, most powerful
in all men’s eyes, we’re here as suppliants,
all begging you to find some help for us,
either by listening to a heavenly voice,
or learning from some other human being.
For, in my view, men of experience
provide advice which gives the best results.
So now, you best of men, raise up our state.
Act to consolidate your fame, for now,
thanks to your eagerness in earlier days,
the city celebrates you as its saviour.
Don’t let our memory of your ruling here
declare that we were first set right again,
and later fell. No. Restore our city,
so that it stands secure. In those times past
you brought us joy—and with good omens, too.
Be that same man today. If you’re to rule
as you are doing now, it’s better to be king
in a land of men than in a desert.
An empty ship or city wall is nothing
if no men share your life together there.

Notice the appeal—“best of men”; “consolidate your fame”; you saved us once, but what have you done for us lately? Oedipus can’t refuse—under the assumption that the gods sent the plague in retribution for the unsolved murder of Laius, he sets out to bring the regicide(s) to justice.

Well—as we know, Oedipus himself is the plague, and the cause, having (unknowingly) killed Laius and subsequently begetting a whole family with his mother Jocasta. It is a Greek tragedy, after all, and the blame for the ills of the world is not divine or natural, it’s the hubris of man.

The play ends with Oedipus blinding himself in remorse (Jocasta has committed suicide in shame) and setting off into exile. It’s somewhat facile, but Sophocles was writing for a different time. However, the final word—from the Chorus—are still valid today:

You residents of Thebes, our native land,
look on this man, this Oedipus,
the one who understood that celebrated riddle.
He was the most powerful of men.
All citizens who witnessed this man’s wealth
were envious. Now what a surging tide
of terrible disaster sweeps around him.
So while we wait to see that final day,
we cannot call a mortal being happy
before he’s passed beyond life free from pain.

Friday, April 3, 2020

The ghost of life: The fading order

Right now I’m feeling like I need something to capture my rage at where the world and my country are. The novel coronavirus was not predestined to be cataclysmic; governments all across Earth basically screwed the pooch, and this administration and its Repug enablers basically told everyone else, “Hold my beer,” and had at it.

So my entry for National Poetry Month today is Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-changin’”. Because not only is it scathing, it gives me hope. Ain’t nothing going to be the same on the other side of this pandemic, just as nothing was the same after the bubonic plague of the Fourteenth Century. I have no way of knowing what the differences will be—but I can tell you that the Black Death broke the feudal system in Europe.

Are you listening, Capitalism? How about you, senators and congressmorons?

“The Times They Are A-changin’”

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

And since this is, after all, a song, here’s one of my favorite covers, by Tracy Chapman, from Bob Dylan’s Fiftieth Anniversary concert:

Thursday, April 2, 2020

The ghost of life: Nothing left but sighs

There have been many pandemics in human history; our current one will just be added to the list dating back to at least the Plague of Athens in Fifth Century BCE. Cholera, typhoid, bubonic plague, enteric fever, influenza, smallpox, polio—humanity has been dancing with death as long as it’s been around.

This doesn’t even count self-inflicted cataclysms like wars, which often turbo-charge diseases in their wakes.

Those caught up in the horrors often take time to examine life overall, and their lives in particular. And they write their way through the exploration. So in this month of poetry, in the pandemic that’s reminding all us first world poseurs who gets the last laugh, I’ll be featuring poetic expressions of earlier catastrophes.

Today’s poet is Francesco Petrarca, known to Anglophones as Petrarch. I was first introduced to Petrarch in a humanities class in college. The humanities core curriculum was my primary consideration in choosing my school, and the value of that choice has been validated again and again.

Petrarch, a Renaissance Italian poet and classical scholar, was a humanist, which of course makes him kind of critical to the, you know, humanities. In fact, he’s known in some circles as the Father of Humanism.  He followed on Dante, both chronologically and linguistically, and was a contemporary of Bocaccio.

His use of language was foundational to the building of modern Italian. And he developed the poetic form we know as the sonnet: two stanzas, an octave and a sestet. The Petrarchan sonnet poses a question, an observation or an argument in the octave, and then turns it around or answers it in the sestet.

Many of his poems revolve around his unrequited and idealized love for the woman he refers to as Laura. The story is that Petrarch first clapped eyes on Laura at Mass on 6 April (Good Friday) 1327 in a church in Avignon, France. A married woman, she spurned all his advances, so he channeled his passion into his poetry. Laura died of plague on 6 April, Good Friday, in 1348 and Petrarch of course wrote through his grief.

I’m giving you two of his sonnets on the subject, No. 186 and No. 294:

No. 186

Occhi miei, oscurato è 'l nostro sole;
anzi è salito al cielo, et ivi splende:
ivi il vedremo anchora, ivi n'attende,
et di nostro tardar forse li dole.

Orecchie mie, l'angeliche parole
sonano in parte ove è chi meglio intende.
Pie' miei, vostra ragion là non si stende
ov'è colei ch'esercitar vi sòle.

Dunque perché mi date questa guerra?
Già di perdere a voi cagion non fui
vederla, udirla et ritrovarla in terra:

Morte biasmate; anzi laudate Lui
che lega et scioglie, e 'n un punto apre et serra.
e dopo 'l pianto sa far lieto altrui.

My eyes, that sun of ours is darkened:
or rather climbed to heaven, and shines there:
there I'll see her again, there she waits,
and grieves perhaps that we're so late.

My ears, her angelic words resound there,
where there are those who understand them better.
My feet, your power does not extend there,
where she is who set you in motion.

Then why do you fight this war with me?
Already every reason's lost to you,
for seeing, hearing, walking the earth:

Blame Death: or rather give praise to Him
who binds and frees, opens and shuts again,
and, after the tears, makes known another joy

And one more, but I’ll stop here.

No. 294

Soleasi nel mio cor star bella et viva,
com'altra donna in loco humile et basso:
or son fatto io per l'ultimo suo passo
non pur mortal, ma morto, et ella è diva.

L'alma d'ogni suo ben spogliata et priva,
Amor de la sua luce ignudo et casso
devrian de la pietà romper un sasso,
ma non è chi lor duol riconti o scriva:

ché piangon dentro, ov'ogni orecchia è sorda,
se non la mia, cui tanta doglia ingombra,
ch'altro che sospirar nulla m'avanza.

Veramente siam noi polvere et ombra,
veramente la voglia cieca e 'ngorda,
veramente fallace è la speranza.

She used to be lovely and living in my heart,
like a noble lady in a humble, lowly place:
now by her ultimate passing I am
not only mortal, but dead, and she divine.

My soul despoiled, deprived of all its good,
Love stripped and denuded of her light,
are pitiful enough to shatter stone,
but there’s no one can tell or write the pain:

they weep inside, where all ears are deaf,
but mine, who so much grief encumbers,
that I have nothing left but sighs.

Truly we are ashes and a shadow,
truly the blind will’s full of greed,
truly all our hopes deceive us.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The ghost of life: an unmusical ploughboy

Well, well—here we are in April, so you know what’s coming. That’s right—30 days of poems for National Poetry Month.

This year, we’re in a strange place. Well, most of us are probably in familiar places, but we’re here under strange circumstances as we attempt to flatten the COVID19 curve by social distancing and staying the fuck home. Bandwidth is straining under multiple streaming applications, home ovens are turning out loaf after loaf of artisan bread, people are breaking out the silly hats for video conferences.

And that’s just my company.

To start us off this month, I’m giving you “April Dusk”, by Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh. It kind of sets the tone, I think. I don’t know whether the impending calamity he’s anticipating in Europe is World War I or World War II; I suspect the latter. Either way—as with our current situation—everything is uprooted and nothing will be the same again.

“April Dusk”

April dusk
It is tragic to be a poet now
And not a lover
Paradised under the mutest bough.

I look through my window and see
The ghost of life flitting bat-winged.
O I am as old as a sage can even be,
O I am as lonely as the first fool kinged.

The horse in his stall turns away
From the hay-filled manger, dreaming of grass
Soft and cool in hollows. Does he neigh
Jealousy-words for John MacGuigan's ass
That never was civilised in stall or trace.

An unmusical ploughboy whistles down the lane
Not worried at all about the fate of Europe.
While I sit here feeling the subtle pain
Of one whose Tree of God has been uprooted.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

First world problems

Well, this year March kind of gamboled in like a lamb, and is stalking out like an enraged lion with mange.

I’m not talking about the weather, which of course has been mucked about by climate change. I’m talking about life in a global pandemic, during which the US government has shown all the leadership of a banana republic run by a carnival barking clown.

Here in the Old Dominion, we are under stay-at-home orders until 10 June. Instead of sipping limoncello in Sorrento, I’m tapping a bottle of Costco prosecco. Yay.

Also, I’ve realized that all the olive bars in all the grocery stores have been shut down, and I don’t have enough pitted Kalamatas to see me through the next two-and-a-half months. I’ve already started rationing how many go onto my pizza bianca insalata and my Greek salads. Tough times ahead, man.

Still—I would give all the olives and all the limoncello to keep our healthcare workers and their patients safe, around the world and in my neighborhood. I'm not an empathy-deficient carnival barking clown.