Category Archives: verse and worse

the student

A Victorian house on a stately street,
Formal, ornate. The bell breaks the silence.
Would a gift have been wise--something to eat? 
When to shift from pleasantries to science?
A ticking clock, long rows of serious books,
China, polished wood, a distant dog barks.
Pay attention, this might have some value.
It's rude to seek help without taking advice.
Now say what you've really come for, shall you?
Then: time to go? Did our talking suffice?
Not for years now have I been the visitor.
This is my parlor and I am the grey one,
The host, the ear, the kindly inquisitor.
How can it be that it's my turn to play one?

See also: Midlife.

Horace against the Stoics

Horace wrote his first book of Satires (meaning “medley” rather than “satire” in the modern English sense) no later than 33 BCE. In a passage in the Third Satire, he criticizes the Stoic doctrine that justice has its basis in nature. He suggests that rules are conventions that allow us to prevent conflict with minimal cruelty.

Nothing about his position is unique, but his language is luxuriant: “cum prorepserunt primis animalia terris / mutum et turpe pecus, glandem atque cubilia propter / unguibus et pugnis …” In my version …

When the animals crawled from the new* earth,
That mute and ugly herd fought for a nut 
Or a place to rest--with nail and fist, 
Then with clubs, then with tools they’d designed for war,
Until they came upon words to mark out sounds 
And sense, and names. From then on, war waned. 
They walled towns and wrote laws so that no one
Should be a thief, a thug, or an adulterer.
For even before Helen, sex** was a vile 
Cause of conflict, but those are forgotten 
Who died chasing it, like the bull in the herd, 
Cut down by someone more fit than he is.
You have to admit, if you really search the files,
That laws were contrived in fear of injustice, 
For nature can’t distinguish just from unjust
As she makes some things safe and others best to shun,
Nor can reason convince us it is just as bad--
And bad in the same way--to step on someone’s 
Garden plant as to steal a holy relic 
By cover of night.*** Let there be a standard 
To tell the right penalty, so the cruel lash 
Isn’t used when a regular beating would suffice.

Horace, Satires. 1.3.99-119, my translation

*Literally, “first earth.” **Actually a vulgar, sexist word. *** I’m surprised he doesn’t say: reason can’t convince us it is worse to steal the sacred object.

See also some thoughts on natural law; “The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis“; pragmatism and the problem of evil

let’s go for a walk

A human is a spidery thing: digits,
Appendages for sensing the currents,
Good for catching, clutching, striking, stroking;
An upright anemone, an antenna.

A dog is a nose-delivery system,
Built for forward motion with detours:
A face on propulsive feet, a torpedo
(Until sacked-out, done for now, recharging).

Joined by the filament of a leash that
Ties me to him as much as him to me,
We loop through a net of scents, sounds, memories,
Tugged back to the door that keeps us both safe.

Midlife

The young speak to say something, to make a name.
The old repeat to hold themselves the same.
Midlife is for any age, a state of mind.
It’s saying what you think you’d better say,
Like it or not, because the words, not you,
Might budge some dense thing in someone’s way
(Although by speaking you are using time,
That dwindling light, that sinking sun).
Your words are not true, not original,
Not worth repeating, especially by you;
They have their purpose, they take their turn.
Midlife is the breadwinner, the driver,
The gentle nudge and the picture-taker.
Tender to those who speak to speak, and those
Who sing one more time what they fear to lose.

See also: youth, midlife & old-age as states of mind; echoes.

for Irina

Little Irina Antonovna, six,
Took it upon herself to write to her aunt,
Laboriously addressing it to:
"Region of Petrograd, Max Heltz factory."

Why did she write this letter? Well, her father:
Ten years in the camps for being a scholar,
Dead by now. Her mother: dead. Neighborhood:
Wall fragments, smoke, equipment shards, Nazi bombs.
Grandfather: died of rickets while walking
Irina to safety. Grandmother: same.

The letter worked; Irina lived. Married
Dmitri, who never asked her opinions,
But did write Number Nine for her and maybe
Heard her when he wrote the gentle cello drone
That supports the opening. Or the polka--
Why couldn't that frenzied part be Irina?
Why assume she was always soft, helpful?

A young, diverse American quartet
Exhumes Dmitri and Irina for us,
His black notes crisp on their iPads, their bows
Vibrating like cicadas, their eyes flashing
Recognition, assent: one to the other.

They are pillowed in layers of safety.
A clean, bright stage, a tidy concert hall,
An audience that has heard it before
And knows just when to leap up for applause:
White-haired burghers of this college and town.

Irina's professor father would have fit
Right in, if he hadn't been starved or shot.
Little Irina would have liked to hide
Beneath that concert grand, so solidly framed.
A campus cop waits, unworried, outside.

This place is not real. What's real is in the notes.
They know starvation, midnight knocks on doors,
Cities murdered from the sky, orphans' fears,
They know, too, the terrors of the audience,
Shrunken in their seats, nervous to drive home.

Phones still ring with sad news; death sentences
Come in biopsy results. And beyond this room
A billion new Irinas plead to be spared.

See Stephen Harris, “Quartet Number Nine,” “Interview of Irina Shostakovich by Alexandre Brussilovsky,” and also “voices,” and “a poem should.”