New Cat, Mew Cat

New CatHave you seen the new cat?
How could I miss?

Big cat.
And fast.

The new cat changes a lot.
Big house, zero lot.

So comes here.
Our lives will never be the same.

They never were the same.
What were we doing?

Waiting.
Waiting for what?

It’s what we do.
How does the new cat change that?

The new cat does not appear to wait.
What are we doing if not waiting?

Wait not, want not.
Want not, think not.

Think not, wake not.
Wake not, watch not.

Watch not, pine not.
Pine not, itch not.

Itch not, cat not.
Cat not, can’t not.

I am a cat.
That I know.

The new cat changes
not that cat.

New Cat Happy Cat

Samuel Beckett’s “Molloy” p. 161

  1. I

  2. I

  3. I
                                                 I
                   I
my
       us      I          I    
I      I     
                             I              my
       I                          my                  me
                                    my                me
                    I                               I
                              I

               I
                                   I
                                          me
             my                          
                                              my
                      I 
             my
me                                 me
           I
   I                           my      my

   myself
                                                I
                                       I
      I                                          my
              me         my

                                                          I
                  I

     I
                                     I
                                                         my
                                         me
   me
   me

The above, expunged page is from Three Novels by Samuel Beckett: Molly, Malone Dies, The Unnamable (First Evergreen Black Cat Edition, 1965, Seventh Printing). Page 161 was selected not quite at random (I liked that it begins with the numbers), though any page might work, to illustrate, in concrete poetry style, the proliferation of personal pronouns throughout Beckett’s text. The excised page, each pronoun appearing in its place from the original page, the surrounding words cut, makes for an effective and lovely concrete poem expressing one of Beckett’s themes, the individual immersed in white space, floating. Although an equally provocative reading might suggest that each pronoun is a separate individual, each reaching out for another. Try reading the concrete poem aloud, pausing between words just for the time it takes for your eye to locate the next one.
Three Novels by Samuel Beckett

page 161

Four Dubliners and a Scholar’s Mirror

When Richard Ellmann wrote his Library of Congress lectures in the early 1980s on four Irish writers (Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett), later issued in book form under the title Four Dubliners, Beckett was still living (barely; he died 18 months after the book’s publication). Most of Beckett’s work comes after WWII, work that often seems remote from time, if not out of time, and his coming to the tee last in the foursome is more than chronologically significant. Is he the oddest in an odd foursome?

Ellmann acknowledges in his brief preface the tenuous argument of linking the four together as peas in a pod: “These four, it may be granted, make a strange consortium.” Ellmann sews the group into a singularity with thematic threads from their works and their lives: “They posit and challenge their own assumptions, they circle from art to anti-art, from delight to horror, from acceptance to renunciation. That they should all come from the same city does not explain them, but they share with their island a tense struggle for autonomy, a disdain for occupation by outside authorities, and a good deal of inner division.”

One of the life-threads linking Joyce to Beckett was the trouble with occupation, how to earn a living while the world was busy ignoring what they considered to be their real work. They both tried but were disappointed with teaching. Joyce, who could have easily obtained a scholarly position at a university, instead occupied himself for a time with an alternative form of teaching – tutoring English language lessons. Beckett, who did secure a credible post, declined it almost immediately: “His teaching post at Trinity he quit abruptly because he discovered, and would later remark, that he could not teach others what he did not himself understand, a handicap that most of us endure without bridling” (92). That end break in scholarly text is not Ellmann’s only one in a short book full of gems and surprises.

One of the surprises that emerges might be both Joyce’s and Beckett’s humility and self-doubt as they stumble up to the world’s literary stage. One of the gems is found in a story Joyce once told to a friend, Louis Gillet:

“It was about an old Blasket Islander who had lived on his island from birth and knew nothing about the mainland or its ways. But on one occasion he did venture over and in a bazaar found a small mirror, something he had never seen in his life. He bought it, fondled it, gazed at it, and as he rowed back to the Blaskets he took it out of his pocket, stared at it some more, and murmured, ‘Oh Papa! Papa!’ He jealously guarded the precious object from his wife’s eye, but she observed that he was hiding something and became suspicious. One hot day, when both were at work in the fields, he hung his jacket on a hedge. She saw her chance, rushed to it, and extracted from a pocket the object her husband had kept so secret. But when she looked in the mirror, she cried, ‘Ach, it’s nothing but an old woman!’ and angrily threw it down so that it broke against a stone.”

“Authors, he [Beckett] has said, are never interesting” (93). And Wilde: “There is something vulgar about all success. The greatest men fail, or seem to have failed.” And Becket: “To be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail…” (109). Ellmann the scholar was able to thread remarks like these together to form an interesting view of four writers who “were chary of acknowledging their connections” (Preface). If authors are never interesting, what can scholars, their mirrors so quickly obscured, hope for? Let alone the common blogger, whose posts continually fall like awetomb sheaves down the electronic chute.

Ellmann, Richard. Four Dubliners: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett. New York: George Braziller, July 1988. 122 pages.

Related Post: Breakfast at Beckett’s

Walden: From “The Pond in Winter” to “Spring”

In Samuel Beckett’s chapter of Our Exagmination Round His Factification For Incamination of Work in Progress, twelve essays looking at Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (reissued New Directions Paperbook 331, 1972), titled “Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce,” Beckett says, “Words have their progressions as well as social phases. ‘Forest-cabin-village-city-academy’ is one rough progression…And every word expands with psychological inevitability.” Thus the Latin word “Lex,” originally, Beckett says, “Crop of acorns,” progresses to “Lles = Tree that produces acorns,” to “Legere = To gather,” to “Aquilex = He that gathers waters,” to “Lex” = Gathering together of peoples, public assembly,” to “Lex = Law,” to “Legere = To gather together letters into a word, to read” (10-11).

“It is the child’s mind over again,” Beckett says. “The child extends the names of the first familiar objects to other strange objects in which he is conscious of some analogy.” It is this idea of analogy that helps inform a reading of Thoreau’s Walden.

Walden seems to move quickly toward the end when Thoreau takes us from “The Pond in Winter” chapter directly into the “Spring” chapter. But this sense of quickness evaporates in his detail of observation, for we glimpse both the speed of change, as one day he wakes up and suddenly it’s spring, and the slowness of the process revealed in the close reading he gives nature.

This close reading is found, for example, in his etymological study of leaf, which progresses in the same way of Beckett’s Lex, but with Thoreau is added an extended analogy in which man is found in and of nature, finding his voice, his language, words he needs to describe his predicament:

“The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype. Internally, whether in the globe or animal body, it is a moist thick lobe, a word especially applicable to the liver and lungs and the leaves of fat (γεἱβω, labor, lapsus, to flow or slip downward, a lapsing; λοβὁς, globus, lobe, globe; also lap, flap, and many other words); externally a dry thin leaf, even as the f and v are a pressed and dried b. The radicals of lobe are lb, the soft mass of the b (single lobed, or B, double lobed), with the liquid l behind it pressing it forward. In globe, glb, the guttural g adds to the meaning the capacity of the throat. The feathers and wings of birds are still drier and thinner leaves. Thus, also, you pass from the lumpish grub in the earth to the airy and fluttering butterfly. The very globe continually transcends and translates itself, and becomes winged in its orbit. Even ice begins with delicate crystal leaves, as if it had flowed into moulds which the fronds of waterplants have impressed on the watery mirror. The whole tree itself is but one leaf, and rivers are still vaster leaves whose pulp is intervening earth, and towns and cities are the ova of insects in their axils” (286-287).

One feels the ice melting in Thoreau’s “Spring” as an analogy for the learning of language, human language, but also the language of nature, from a frozen state of the tongue, where speech is all body language, to the cacophony of the awakened spring day, the naturalist writing it all down. Beckett says, “In its first dumb form, language was gesture. If a man wanted to say ‘sea,’ he pointed to the sea…The root of any word whatsoever can be traced back to some pre-lingual symbol” (10-11). Thus Thoreau, wanting to say spring, or nature, points to Walden.

The reading reveals much of Thoreau’s general method of explicating nature, through metaphor, analogy, personification, pun: “Is not the hand [of man] a spreading palm leaf with its lobes and veins?” (287). And the function of Thoreau’s method, its purpose, is to show interconnections, not man removed from nature, but not even man in nature, but man of nature, which allows for the view that “our human life but dies down to its root, and still puts forth its green blade to eternity” (291). This is why “There is nothing inorganic” (288), and why “We can never have enough of Nature” (297). Thoreau can trace everything back to nature because everything is nature, everything comes from nature: “The root of any word….” Recall McKibben’s questions in his introduction: “How much is enough? And How do I know what I want?” (xi). The ambiguity, if any remains, is nature’s, not Thoreau’s.

Related:

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].

Didi and Gogo Feted with Lifetime Achievement Award

A country road. A tree. Against the tree a bicycle. Quick! Gogo!
What the hey? I was sleeping! Why can’t you let me sleep, Didi?
The need for your heinie’s beauty sleep notwithstanding,
Surely you’ve not forgotten we are to be feted, you hopeless hobo.
I could use a new pair of shoes, though I shall dance no doubt solo.
What about Godot?

Just this once, we won’t wait for Godot.
Both on the wind and off, eh, Gogo?
I’m bound to remind you I can go this solo.
Oh, please, love, don’t leave us waiting all alone, Didi.
I want to practice my standing.
I don’t want to fall on the stage like some common hobo.

Where’s your bicycle, Gogo, the one you acquired from that hobo
With the funny hat and tight shoes? Claimed he saw Godot
In Hermosa in the 70’s at the Biltmore, notwithstanding
That grand hotel already razed. Those were the days we were on the go.
Yes, yes, enough said, but was it Godot’s? And did he
Not leave us in the end after so many promises solo?

Yes, before your onions and bunions soliloquy.
Oh! The feet and breath of this at once great and humble hobo.
How do we get in, do you suppose, Didi?
I had just found a new pair of shoes in which to address Godot.
New Year’s Eve 1969, we saw Johnny Rivers at the Whiskey a Go Go!
Oh, you poor thing, remembrances of time past notwithstanding.

The elements, the rain and snow, a bit of sun notwithstanding.
Remember the night of the marauders? We prayed for our soul.
Yes, the soul we’ve shared and with which we now go,
Not heaven nor hell, to each his own, a worked over pair of hoboes
Who worked hard waiting faithfully for their Godot,
Who never ever came, our hour upon the stage, did he?

For perhaps we missed him, looked away, did he,
Our good intentions notwithstanding,
Pass by this place, this road, this tree, our Godot,
And seeing us distracted with an onion or a bunion pass, solo,
Ignoring his ignominious hoboes?
Let’s go, let’s go, it’s time, let’s leave this place, let’s go!

Didi! No matter what happens, don’t leave me solo,
A lonely hobo, a bicycle with no kickstand,
Waiting to go, wanting to go, unable to go, nowhere to go.

Grading Etiquette

Joseph Williams’s “The Phenomenology of Error” isn’t about grading so much as it is about finding error. It’s by now a history piece, but should be revisited. The idea is that readers, graders, teachers are predisposed to look for certain things they can and do call errors and to ignore or miss other issues that might be and are called errors by others. There appears to be no universal scorecard, no biblical rubric. The etiquette of golf is more rigorous and precise than the rules of writing and reading. And with regard to the etiquette of reading, marking, and scoring papers, as Beckett said, you’ve only to listen to any conversation for five minutes to note inherent chaos.

That’s not to say there have not been efforts to tidy up the mess. Picked at random, the University of Maryland’s grading guidelines seem reasonable. But note the general rubric for an “A” paper:  “It not only fulfills the assignment but does so in a fresh and mature way. The paper is exciting to read; it accommodates itself well to its intended audience.” The intended audience of course is no doubt an adjunct instructor sitting over a laptop, drinking coffee at the boisterous Bipartisan Cafe. But how can a paper be “exciting to read”? Excitement is something that registers in the reader’s mind, and what excites one reader may put another into a coma. But perhaps the mystery is solved by the semicolon; for if a paper does “accommodate itself well to its intended audience,” it may, by definition, be exciting? But even if we resolve what is or is not exciting, how are we to determine if something is “fresh and mature”? Isn’t this oxymoronic? Fresh suggests something the reader has never seen before, yet mature suggests it’s nevertheless something the reader recognizes. Perhaps there is some sense to that. But fresh and mature excitement, wrapping snugly around its audience, is not the only requisite of the “A” paper at the U of M: the paper must also reference “citations [that] are used effectively where appropriate and are formatted correctly.” Ah, formatting! But what is incorrect formatting? Incorrect formatting is like the microphone that descends like an unsightly strap slipping from the shoulder of the top of the screen, distracting the audience from the verisimilitude and pretension strutting across the stage. But let’s move on. Also in the “A” paper, we find “paragraphs that are fully developed,” like firm, ripe tomatoes. Now that’s exciting. Yet the “A” paper requires that the prose be only “occasionally memorable.” And note that this disallows the reader justifying a failing mark because he can not remember the paper, yet his remembering it might be because he’s seen it before.

We may also learn from the “F” paper rubric at the U of M. The “F” paper “is off the assignment. The thesis is unclear; the paper moves confusedly in several directions. It may even fall seriously short of minimum length requirements.” But wait, doesn’t this sound fresh and exciting, if not mature? Were we in a math class, seriously might be defined as, perhaps, 60% of minimum – just a guess. Whatever serious is, “there is virtually no evidence, or the attribution of evidence is problematic or has been neglected.” Now that sounds serious, but perhaps the audience is the same as that for television news shows? Yeah, but “the organization seems to a significant degree haphazard or arbitrary.” That’s bad, like the front page of today’s newspaper. And not only that, but “some sentences are incomprehensible.” Imagine, but do they mean incomprehensible, or inconceivable?

Moral of the story? Etiquette is prescription where nature is found wanting.

Winter is icummen in, Lhude sing Line 15

“Winter is icummen in, / Lhude sing Goddamn,” sang the irascible Ezra Pound, and while, as far as I know, he never had to ride local Tri-Met’s Line 15, he seems to have had some experience with public transportation, for he continues, in his poem “Ancient Music”: “Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us, / An ague hath my ham. / Freezeth river, turneth liver, / Damn you, sing: Goddamm.”

The bus in winter when full is still a hungry beast galumphing to the curb at every stop to pick up riders in galoshes. The riders squeeze aboard like polyps into the beast’s belly, back-packed and wool-hatted, jacketed wet and sinewy, noses running out of the cold and into the heat, leaky faucets leaking pus, umbrellas furling and unfurling, colorful flags popping the beast’s flatulence as it pulls up to the curb and politely lowers its door.

I climb aboard and peristaltic pressure pushes me all the way to the back of the bus where I stick to the back wall, a fresh polyp, and through the wall I hear the engine moaning in its uneasy sleep. The bus dreams it could be an 18 wheeler, no passengers, a single driver in a penthouse cab, rolling smoothly but solidly through serene mountain passes. I could sleep too, in the warmth of the beast’s belly, but I have to make a transfer, so I ring the bell and work my way up to the back door.

I get off the bus at Southeast 12th and Morrison. Winter seems worse here, and I unfurl my umbrella and wait at the intersection to cross, the wind and cold rain lapping at my legs. Off the bus though I’m feeling better about winter. I get on my next bus for the short ride up 12th to Benson High School. I hop off amid students breaking for lunch, a few with cell phones on hold as they hail the bus to wait, others crisscrossing the lawn at random like snowflakes. I cross NE Irving, once again longing for the old Sweet Tibbie Dunbar’s, where the juicy prime rib with roasted potatoes, soup, and a Christmas ale surely cured whatever ailed as winter might have been coming in.

“Use your head, can’t you, use your head, you’re on earth, there’s no cure for that!” Beckett’s Hamm says in “Endgame.” Ah, yes, but there is a cure, ancient music, but go not as Pound “’gainst the winter’s balm,” but let the cold wind up your legs, around your waist, and wrap your soul in cold, for it’s then you’ll feel liveliest.