Sunday, November 7, 2010

Keziah's Geometry Lessons

from the world of H.P. Lovecraft's "Dreams in the Witch House"

“Something’s not right
about Keziah.”
So spoke the tutor
old Mason,
the defrocked minister
hired for his
only daughter’s lessons
in Latin and Greek,
geometry and music.

The old man sighed.
Five tutors had fled
at the sight of his hideous daughter.
This one had stayed
three months —- the record.
She labored him, not her, her,
in Latin; her Greek,
the tutor felt,
was somehow pre-Homeric,
littered with words not in
his Hellenic lexicon.

“Is it the Greek again?
She’s stubborn.”

The tutor — his name was William —-
waved his thin hand,
which seemed thinner
if that was possible,
than when he arrived.
(He had been eating
noticeably less at table
since moving his lodgings
to the upper garret).

“No, the geometry.
The things she says,
although she knows her Euclid,
are troubling me. She draws,
first squares, then cubes,
then hints at something
unrepresentable —-
a cube cubed
or transcended,
each of its six facets
exploded
to fifty-four invisible forms —-
yet only visible, she says
by standing outside
and seeing from above
.

‘The cube I draw,’
she tells me
‘is but a mouse-hole
to the higher space.
Can ye not see there?’ ”

“Is she mad,
do you think,
or a kind of genius?”
the father muses.

“She lacks constraint,”
the tutor speculates.
“It’s not the way
a young woman thinks.”
He pauses.
“Or a Christian.”

“Indulge her,”
old Mason tells him,
“for neither cross
nor catechism
can come near her.
She will not leave this house
till I can marry her
to some doddering scholar
or ship captain derelict,
someone who will find her
amusing, her dowry
adequate, so long
as he expects no peace,
or children.”

The tutor gleans
at last, some sense
of Mason’s burden, the why
of his abandonment
of Bible and congregants.
Keziah was God’s
affliction for his own
pride of intellect,
a strident mind
in a hunch-dwarf body,
his penance
to be her keeper.

The tutor withdrew,
prepared for bed,
washed himself everywhere,
lay naked
the better to attract
his guilty pleasure,
his imaginary lover
by whose graces
he no longer need commit
the sin of self-pollution,

to await its coming,
to please its inquisitive,
pulsating and thrusting
machinery,
when it arrived,
not through the door
or window,
but from the crazed-angle corner
he filled with plaster
to unsquare it
and through whose polyhedrous
mouse hole
it came
a congeries of bubble-forms
to a geometer
as fair as Helen
before even Menelaus
took her, let alone
Trojan Paris,

with whom he flew
rhapsode ecstatic,
feeding and fed upon,
sung to and singing,
his Bible too,
unopened for weeks now,
turned down in the corner;

April’s end his own end
as she witch-waltzes
him to a Greek Walpurgis
he neither expects
nor wishes to survive.

His climax-death
will span eons and galaxies,
feelers and tentacles a-quiver,
hydrofluoric neurons
in orgasmic tremor,
worlds colliding, orbits
asunder, seismic,
ichthyc, arachnid,
reptilian pleasuring.
Keziah likes him.
And whom Keziah loves,
she shares with her gods.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Walter Scott's Translation of Goethe's Erl-King

O who rides by night thro' the woodland so wild?
It is the fond father embracing his child;
And close the boy nestles within his loved arm,
To hold himself fast, and to keep himself warm.

“O father, see yonder! see yonder!” he says;
“My boy, upon what dost thou fearfully gaze?”
“O, ’tis the Erl-King with his crown and his shroud.”
“No, my son, it is but a dark wreath of the cloud.”

The Erl-King Speaks:
“O come and go with me, thou loveliest child;
By many a gay sport shall thy time be beguiled;
My mother keeps for thee many a fair toy,
And many a fine flower shall she pluck for my boy.”

“O father, my father, and did you not hear
The Erl-King whisper so low in my ear?”
“Be still, my heart's darling -- my child, be at ease;
It was but the wild blast as it sung thro' the trees.”

Erl-King:
“O wilt thou go with me, thou loveliest boy?
My daughter shall tend thee with care and with joy;
She shall bear thee so lightly thro’ wet and thro’ wild,
And press thee, and kiss thee, and sing to my child.”

“O father, my father, and saw you not plain
The Erl-King's pale daughter glide past thro’ the rain?”
“Oh yes, my loved treasure, I knew it full soon;
It was the grey willow that danced to the moon.”

Erl-King:
“O come and go with me, no longer delay,
Or else, silly child, I will drag thee away.”
“O father! O father! now, now, keep your hold,
The Erl-King has seized me -- his grasp is so cold!”

Sore trembled the father; he spurr’d thro’ the wild,
Clasping close to his bosom his shuddering child;
He reaches his dwelling in doubt and in dread,
But, clasp’d to his bosom, the infant was dead.

Featured in the new anthology, "Tales of Wonder," written and compiled by Matthew Gregory Lewis (1801) and edited and annotated by Brett Rutherford

Order from Amazon

A New H.P. Lovecraft-Related Poem

KEZIAH MASON

After H.P. Lovecraft’s “Dreams in the Witch House” (1932)

“Something’s not right
about Keziah,”
the midwife tells
the scholar father,
Pastor Mason,
the Salem Divine.

The doting mother
won’t hear of it.
“Bad auspices,” the father nods.
“I told you so.”

The mother cradles it
as midwife scurries off
with rags and the bloody
umbilical,
an accusing serpent.
“Baby Keziah,” the mother croons,
“my perfect child.”

“Not right, bad auspices,
bad numerology,
too many vowels,
bad luck to have alpha
follow zed that way.”

She waves him away.
Anxious, he follows
the weary midwife,
Old Goodie Brown.
Their eyes meet.
“Tell me, “ he asks.
“Why didn’t you say
if I have a son or daughter?”

“Neither,” she says.
“Who knows,” she shrugs,
“what it will grow to?”

“Deformed?” he guesses.

She shakes her head.

“Hermaphrodite?”

Her eyes avoid him.

“The ancients write
of such creatures.”

The midwife hesitates,
taking the small purse
he discreetly offers.
“I’ve seen odd things,
good Pastor Mason,
but never this:
not male, not female.
What’s there,
I’d call machinery,
and what use God
or the Devil intends for it
I’ll not be thinking on.”

She hurries out
into the snowstorm,
the bloodied rag
held tight,
not one but two
umbilicals,
a black-furred thing
whose razor teeth
gnaw and consume
the after-birth.

“There, there,” she coos,
petting its fur,
as a tiny facsimile
of the Pastor’s face
stares up at her.
“Old Goodie Brown
will look out
for her little Jenkin,
my perfect child.”

Then the thing cleared
its tiny throat
and after a dry
and preliminary chittering
it thanked her
in fourteen languages.

Review of D H Melhem's New Book

ART AND POLITICS, POLITICS AND ART. D.H. Melhem. Syracuse University Press.
High explosives warning: this slender new volume of poems is poetical and political dynamite. Manhattan poet Melhem thought she would set out with a very classical purpose, to present poems that were inspired by, or narrate the stories of, works of visual art — an urge that arose from her own childhood engagement with painting, drawing, and sculpture. But her own life as a child of Lebanese immigrants, and the war-torn half century we have passed through, dictated otherwise. Although many of the poems here center around works of art, Melhem's poems hone in on the life-and-death issues that confront us as citizens and as a nation. This is not so far from the classical model, it turns out, since the model of ekphrasis, in The Iliad, is a description of the shield of Achilles. The shadow of war hangs over art, visual or poetic.

Every Manhattanite acquires the survival skill of being a keen observer. In "Naked Woman Walks Down the Street," Melhem throws the spotlight on a naked madwoman, noticed and arrested within minutes, while the homeless — the army she leads in the poetic fantasy that ensues — remain invisible. Like Ovid, Melhem petrifies them, warns of "their malice, their might" if they are too long ignored.

At The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the poet contrasts three disparate exhibits of Coco Chanel, Dianne Arbus, and Duccio. Like most of us, she lingers over the latter artist's Madonna and child, searching for some secret message. Why, she seems to ask, is future violence prefigured in domestic bliss, "tiny Jesus about to grow/ into his inheritance, future already/ worn into his face,/ and his mother's."

"Lincoln's Summer Home" is a masterpiece. Risky as it is to write of Lincoln in the shadow of Vachel Lindsay, Melhem succeeds in terse lines to tell us how Lincoln did not, and could not, evade reminders of his war in progress. The President did not play golf in some gated compound: his house overlooked Rock Creek National Cemetery, and from his windows he saw the daily interment of dead soldiers. She ends her poem eye to eye with Lincoln's portrait, "the monumental grief carved into it." If only Congressmen and Senators were obliged to watch the coffins of the military dead pass through their chambers.

"Poem for Elizabeth Cady Stanton" celebrates a great American heroine of the struggle for women's rights, and was occasioned by the renaming of her own Upper West Side apartment building as "The Stanton" in 2007, a belated act of architectural tribute in an age when every other hydrant is named "Trump."

"Hannibal Crossing the Alps" has its political lessons on imperial follies, but it is also an effective ekphrasis of paintings by Turner and Poussin.

In other poems more overtly social and political, Melhem displays the keen eye for the hidden powerplays of urban life that characterized Notes on 94th Street (her first book which I had the honor of publishing many years ago). She imagines a city flooded by global warming in which "submerged real estate and soggy towers/ address of sharks and whales and bloated bears." She sees prostitutes at their stations as "stone-eyed/ caryatids of their littered turf," and she throws the hard light of judgment, almost Olympian, at their pimp: "entrepreneur, landlord without land/ sultan of slumbodies/ you parade their gargoyle emblem/ for a pair of new shoes/... boss, now/ selling your sister."

"April 2004" reminds us that moments of heart-stopping beauty — a sudden bloom of cheery trees — comes to us in war-time as well as in peace-time, but these blessings of nature are not the same during a time of hurled bombs and deadly drones.

In her post-9/11"New York Epic," Melhem is Whitmanesque, becoming the sidewalk, the street, the neighborhood itself. This is urban transcendentalism, bracing and brave, self-as-personification taken to its limit, leaping to:

Impulse of rain vaults across waters
pelts me with world-horror
triggers chaos around me
wild with Baghdad and Fallujah
the bomb craters of Kabul
my gutters weep khaki and body parts
wail with prayers from mosques and temples
market air perfumed with sweet breath of dying children
and sparked with random light of exploding eyeballs
drowning in oil ripped from the earth
set afire in the land an on waters
burning me burning this street
burning its heart out
until no one
comes home to me
whole

I am you — your lives run through me within me
I am you and whatever you are intending
stained by indelible ashes blown five miles uptown
in an inconsolable shroud of acrid taste
and trembling trembling trembling
with continuing off sense
of a distant folly



Ekphrasis takes an urgent tone elsewhere in the book, when the work being explicated is an atrocity photo, in "These Policemen Are Sleeping," an indictment of Israeli-Palestinian violence, a war so unrelenting that all-consuming that it "spares lives as lottery prizes." A string of powerful poems on the Gulf War and other wars ensues, each pointed and poignant. Melhem returns to the literary classics, in "Hecuba to Hector," accusing the men's business of war, as the soldier's mother protests:

"War is men's business,"
you say. What then is women's? To tend
the funeral pyres and whitened bones? To pluck
the lyres of lamentation? I should have
rent my breasts before they suckled you
or any of my sons. Do not, I pray,
go out to meet Achilles.


There are many more wonders passed over in this brief review: all 33 poems in this collection are worthy of this fine poet, working at the peak of her powers. Order the book from your local bookstore or from Amazon.com.

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