Just squeezing in my last November poem before December is upon us, I’m starting from a paraphrase of the opening sentences of Edward Said’s On Late Style, which I’m reading for the Book Group. Here’s how Said’s posthumously finished book begins:
The relationship between bodily condition and aesthetic style seems at first to be a subject so irrelevant and perhaps even trivial by comparison with the momentousness of life, morality, medical science, and health, as to be quickly dismissed.
That gives you a taste. The New York Times website gives the whole first chapter, here, if you’re interested to read on. My little verse deals only with the first paragraph, and isn’t exactly a paraphrase of that.
November verse 14: Why the relationship between bodily condition and aesthetic style is not a trivial subject You say: 'So trivial a subject, the body and aesthetic style's relationship! Why not reflect on what's important in your files, like life, and health, and science and morals or medicine or the death of corals?' I say: Of all of us it's true because we're conscious, me and you, we're constantly involved in making something of our little lives, and this self-making builds archives, a base of the great undertaking, history, which sages tell, at heart is made by human toil.
I don’t know yet where Said’s argument goes from there, and I apologise in advance for not trying to produce a verse version of the whole book.
Is it possible to make verse from the To-Be-Read pile? Let’s see.
November verse 13: To be read I've counted ninety-six and growing, lined neat on shelf and heaped by bed, gifts, impulse buys, gateways to knowing, some I lust for, some I dread. War, genocide, intrigue, corruption, love, fantasy, delight, disruption: you never know until you look inside the covers of a book. But if I read two hundred pages (including pages filled with pics) daily till I'm ninety-six, obsessed but not, I hope, contagious these unread piles would hardly shrink. Oh well, it costs much less than drink.
This one uses the rhyme words from David Malouf ‘s ‘La Belle Hélène’, which I wrote about yesterday. It’s not the Onegin stanza rhyme scheme – sorry!
November verse 12: It's been a while since we've seen midnight or, naked-eyed, pushed thread through needle, decades since you've been a girl or I a boy. No half-sane poet would write of us as bête and belle, yet here we are, alive, awake, no cancer, heart attack or stroke to force the point we're not immortal. Though, always seeming as innocuous as phoenix embers in the hearth, these fleeting memories of youth – when I had painless knees, and you no back complaining when you rose – hint darkly at what looms tomorrow.
OK, I’m committed to a stanza a day for the rest of the month. Yesterday I built on end-rhymes from a stanza n Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate. Today, back to the source of the Onegin stanza: Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, as translated by James E Falen. The arbitrarily chosen stanza that supplied the rhymes is in Chapter Two.
November verse 11: On fair dinkum politics The dream of being ruled by sages is defunct. There on the crest of Parliament Hill a wildfire rages. No charm can soothe that savage breast whose fuse is blown by power surges, trust’s betrayed by carnal urges. Far too many old white men talk only to themselves and then they watch Sky News. Is there a swelling cloud to quench that toxic flame, to make that coal-fired monster lame and save our sweet blue planet-dwelling? You want a hero? Save your breath! It’s all together now – or death!
I’m running against the calendar if I’m to meet my goal of 14 14-line stanzas this November. Moving home does get in the way of meeting deadlines.
Rather than offering yet another glimpse into my mundane life, I started out with the rhyme words and went wherever they took me, which turned out in the first line to be a paraphrase of G K Chesterton’s aphorism, ‘If a things’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly,’ closely followed by Fred Brooks’s advice to software systems developers, ‘Plan to throw one away – you will anyway.’
The rhyme words are from stanza 5.10 of Vikram Seth’s verse novel The Golden Gate, the book that provoked my fascination with these Onegin stanzas.
November verse 10: Advice to myself
If it’s worth doing, do it badly
then make it good, or throw it away
and start again – not grimly, sadly:
ludic as a toddler, play
and laugh at failure. Hire a jester,
can the scripts that carp and pester.
Challenges aren’t meant for woe,
they’re the way we get to know
new skills. Scrupulous evasion
is no virtue. Be unclear,
but form rough words and plans, then steer
them on to clarity. Persuasion,
not coercion’s, how we’ve learned
to fan a dream until it burned.
November verse 9: In Newtown
Noon, Saturday. As I went walking
King Street South I met a flow,
a gaggle, not a troupe, of talking
mimes – youths dressed à la Marceau:
white face, striped shirt, a red carnation.
Cheerful, noisy desecration.
If mimes aren’t silent, what’s the point?
The times are clearly out of joint.
Then at the bus stop, here’s a scammer:
‘Hi,’ she says, ‘Long time no see!’ …
Then, ‘Would you like to come with me?’
She made no headway with her glamour.
‘Five dollars, then?’ I shook my head.
All when I went to buy some bread.
Verse 8: Moving out, moving in
Sugar-soaping, mopping, sweeping,
drilling, screwing, bashing nails,
flattening used boxes, heaping
rubbish near the balcony rail,
fix the toilet seat (if able)
buy a longer TV cable,
screw in half a dozen hooks,
unpack and shelve a thousand books
(give some away), fix vacuum cleaner,
phone about the internet,
the Council pickup, don’t forget
the neighbours’ names (Regina, Tina?).
Too much to fit so little time,
too much to squeeze into a rhyme.
Verse 7: Removal day
We rise at six. Van’s due at seven.
All 34 is boxed and stacked.
We’re bushy-tailed, all systems revving.
8.30, no van. Panic attack.
Six phone calls get the tragic story:
driver’s wife and something gory.
By 2 we’ve found another mob
from near Kashmir to do the job.
And so eight years accumulated
tables, books, beds, fridge, TV,
become backbreaking work for these
young men. By six, not quite elated
we’re sitting in our home-to-be,
all boxed and stacked at 43.
Getting 14 stanzas done this November is going to be hard: moving house gets in the way of rhyme, and we’ve been very busy getting ready for the big move, which happens tomorrow. In the meantime, though, the corner of my brain that still can scan (almost) and rhyme (just) has managed this:
November verse 6:
My Twitter feed was full of Bunnings’
sausage sizzle safety scare,
of mock alarm and gleeful punning.
I’ve never bought a sausage there
or been assaulted by fried onions.
Bunnings is the place that summons
me when I need pipes or screws,
drill bits, mulch or kangaroos’
paws. Temple of the DIYers,
initiates there wear high viz
or paint-streaked shorts. The glad fact is
I don’t go there for silk-clad choirs
or poetry, or barbied snags,
Who asked Ikea for hot dogs?
Verse 5: To be done
Moving home’s no roller-coaster,
no painful climb up, screaming down,
just daily questions like ‘New toaster?’
(answered ‘Yes’, though with a frown)
and wrap the artwork up in bubbles,
smash failed ceramics into rubbles,
organise a picture rail,
fix a redirect for mail,
fill a box with medications,
give away our potted lime,
dump the clock that’s lost its chime,
breathe slow when there’s palpitations
and so nothing will be missed
sit and write a to-do list.
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