Boys Will Be Boys

March 30, 2009

Here’s a little fiction piece in honor of the Shrine Circus coming to town this Saturday (at which I might protest). Weird note: despite the claims, most money made by the circus does not go to the Shriner Hospitals, which are actually a good charity outfit. But both things were started by a Freemason group – the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine.

Boys Will Be Boys
I only went to the circus once, as an eight year-old glutted with popcorn and glee. Imagine my disappointment, my outrage, when I saw elephants and tigers bullied around (as I, a big round Polish boy, was bullied by kids smaller than me), made to move in unnatural ways. Even at that young age I could see the pain and anger in their faces, could hear the despair in their sounds. With disbelieving eyes, I watched men beat them and whip them when the elephant didn’t do a headstand quick enough, or when a tiger didn’t jump through a flaming hoop at the tamer’s sharp command. Not even on the playground, not even when my father was drunk, did I see such cruelty. Appetite gone, I set down my popcorn. Why would my mother bring me to this? She knew I cried whenever I saw an animal die in a movie…when we gave away our dog because it was too hyper…when I found the dead cat in-between the houses. It wasn’t her own amusement, because looking up, I saw her face painted with boredom, clownish hands clapping half-heartedly at the stupid show. The smells of sawdust, dirt, and animal began to nauseate me – somewhere in them I could sense the stink of shit and sickness and hunger and violence. I looked at the elephant, and he looked at me, and…something happened. I don’t know what. That small dark eye must have sucked me in like a black hole, because the next thing I know, I am huge, I am strong, and I am – being led back into a holding area, chained up, swiped at with a sharp hook when I resist. Open wounds on my back and legs burn, bubble with disease. I fight! I’m not going to be their slave! I’m going to be free! The little man with the hook goes flying when I slap him with my trunk. They’re shouting, No! They’re shouting, Stop! But I’m tired of listening when they say No and Stop, but when I say No and Stop, I’m ignored. I’m an elephant, and I’m pissed. I crash through a tent, while that pervert is twisting balloons and all the little ones are around him. They’re screaming, but I don’t care any more. One of them falls under me; I feel his bones crack like eggshells under my feet. Running fast and free, away from the acrobats and clowns, from the caged and the starved. I would let the others go, the cats and the chimps and everyone who is locked in this hell, but I don’t know how. All I know is away from here. I become grey thunder, a seismic roar that knocks aside bicycles, benches, garbage cans, whatever’s in my path. Then they come, the men in their boxes, and block my path. They surround me, shout at me, rope me in. Then I found myself back at home. I was facing the time-out corner, so I must have done something bad. Honestly, I was glad to be there; better the time-out corner as a little boy than beaten and chained as a big elephant. My mother came into the room and asked me if I was done being bad. I said, Yes. I didn’t know what I had done bad, but my face felt swollen and my knuckles were red and shredded. She said, All right, now go wash up and get into bed, no supper for you tonight. As I walked to the bathroom I heard my father, chugging down beers by the TV as always. Ain’t nothing, he said to my mother, boys will be boys. About time he fought back, anyway. But, my mother said, I don’t want him thinking violence is the answer. Besides, it wasn’t just that, he was mouthing off to me, and eating up everything in sight. Ever since we got back from the circus, he’s been acting crazy. Boys will be boys, my father said.

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What are these, so withered and so wild in their attire?

March 27, 2009

Last night, I got to take part in a little scene from Macbeth, when Macbeth and Banquo first encoutner the Three Witches. I got to play Banquo. While I did not have much time to rehearse or memorize lines, and I only had 2 speeches, it was a fun return for me to Shakespeare and acting. The ladies who played the witches were great. Angele got really creative without much time to prepare: she procured an ad hoc “pilot’s thumb” by cutting off the thumb of an oven mit.

I miss acting, even though I am a bit afraid to pursue it for several reasons. One of them is the difficulty of auditions…without having assigned lines to read beforehand, reading from a script can pose a problem for showing your acting skills when you have to look close to the page, and thus can’t interact with the other actors as easily (or show your best to the director).

I wish I could be a well-rounded Renaissance Man – not only writing, but making art, music, and acting. (Never had much interest in sculpting or dancing.)


Hymn for the Vernal Equinox

March 20, 2009

Since I am attending a gathering meant to be in celebration of the Vernal Equinox, I decided to write a poem in dedication to the spirit of the time (not that I need much of an excuse to write Pagan hymns, since I have already written several) – the first day of spring, when night and day are equal. Winter’s cold corpse is resurrected, giving way to green earth and flowing water. The Christian holiday of Easter may have its root in festivities that saw the equinox as a time to celebrate rebirth, though little is known about the goddess Eostre/Ostara the name is supposed to have come from. But scholars and Pagan practitioners speculate that the Anglo-Saxon Eostre had its root in the Dawn Goddess, known as Eos (Greek), Aurora (Roman), Ushas (Vedic/Hindu), and Zorya Utrennyaya (Slavic). This poem draws on all those figures, though of course Eos/Aurora is most well-known.

Hymn for the Vernal Equinox

Night’s corpse, winter’s bare trees, slain kings
wake from the nightmare of darkness, blind
eyes touched by dawn’s rosy fingers – sparks
scattered across the firmament’s black cloth.
She calls to us – rise!
Her tears have drenched the ground,
made the dew that sparkles the grass.
How long will we imprison ourselves in death-dreams?

Eostre, Ostara, Aurora, Eos, Ushas, Zorya Utrennyaya,
we worship you by opening our eyes,
by our rising blood that joins the fire
let loose from heaven when you open its gate.
Between midnight and noon, you are the exact moment
when the world springs to life;
you are the center of time, the peace
between the brutal reign of the sun and the moon.

Rosy-fingered Dawn, greet our day, our year, our life
with your friendly countenance, your kind eyes
as you map out the sweetest path for us travelers.
No one is greater or lesser to you – everyone equal
to the illumination you bring.

You wept with Memnon on your knees,
your son killed in the Trojan War –
just as Isis wept over Osiris, slain
by his brother, Set, and Mary wept
over Jesus, betrayed by his disciple, Judas.

You gave birth to the planets and stars,
to the Four Winds, and to the Morning Star –
Phosphorous, or Lucifer, the Light-Bearer,
the brightest star we see at sunrise and sunset
but who falls from heaven in the darker hours.
Did you mourn for him, too?

Or was he the betrayer, the angel of light
who tricked day into darkness?
Did he lure the green landscape with bright leaves
only to murder it with browns and grays?

Gather your saffron robes, open your white wings
so that the earth is covered with the flames
ignited by your breath, born by your hands;
let snow and ice and cold winds be as kindling
to the radiance of your presence.

Just as the day’s doorway lets loose
the chariots pulled by the Sun’s fiery steeds,
so my heart opens like a hinge
to embrace the balance and beginning you offer
when your stare right at the horizon,
demanding the Earth to rise, rise, rise
for water to run, for buds to bloom,
for every Phoenix, every Jesus
to ascend from their tombs.


The World of Odysseus

March 19, 2009

I’ve set myself some reading goals this year. One of them is to read James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. (I’ve already read Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.) But I’ve set my bar even higher: to understand those works, I’ve decided to read the Iliad and the Odyssey. And before I even read those, I’m reading M.I. Finley’s The World of Odysseus, which attempts to reconstruct both the world of Homer and the society reflected in those two epic poems – which he claims is the “Dark Ages” a few hundred years before Homer, roughly 1000 to 800 B.C.

There are a few surprising things that Finley claims:
– despite the discovery of the “Linear B” tablets that refer to what archeologists think is Troy, what they reveal shows no connection to the Homeric poems, bears no witness to any major war, and makes the city sound more like a small impoverished village rather than a mighty, opulent place
– though there are variants in the versions of the poems we have today, dating back to quotations in Plato and fragments from 300 B.C., the differences are largely insignificant, mostly of interest to linguists (this reminds me of arguments Christians make about how “accurate” various versions of biblical texts are)
– we know next to nothing for sure about who Homer was; it is likely that the Iliad and the Odyssey were not written by the same person; it is also likely that other poems attributed to the author/authors of those poems is not the same as the one(s) who wrote the so-called Homeric hymns
– there was no concept of “Greece” as a whole (or any synonym thereof such as Hellas) or unity between kingdoms in that region during ancient times
– it is unlikely that there is much historical truth in the narratives of either poem; both garble geographical references, conflict with other records of the time, or are unsupported by other records (and whose claims are unlikely due to what records exist); again, I am reminded of Christians who get all huffy when people attack the accuracy of the Bible, saying that other ancient texts are not afforded the same scrutiny and skepticism
– the Greeks believed in the authenticity of the poems in a literal sense, and saw them as integral to their lives, even to the point of saying they were good instructional guides for behavior; however, some important figures like Plato and Xenophanes deplored them for depicting the gods with all the worst qualities of mortals
– the authenticity of bards like Homer was based on the notion that they were “divinely inspired” – that they received visions of the events they described in dreams, or ecstatic states inspired directly by the gods (“Muse” wasn’t just a metaphorical concept then); one quotation even says their writing is “god-breathed” (again…suspiciously reminded of the Christian notion that scripture is God-breathed)

So what does this tell me? One, that ancient pagan/historical writings are not necessarily any more reliable than religious texts. Two, that there are many similarities between Christian claims of authenticity (and their errors of rational judgment) and pagan/secular ones. Three, that history seems almost empty, our heritage a vague blur. It sounds all good and clear-cut in the high school text books, but if we could really go back in a time machine and visit, say, 750 B.C. “Greece,” it would probably be like visiting the Eyrilians on the 5th planet from Alpha Centauri, even if we knew ancient Greek. It’s just too far from our knowledge and experience. Yet, somehow, literature allows us to transcend that…at least to a degree.


Writing Exercise #2: Simile

March 18, 2009

Similes are like cookies in the morning. Similes are as good as a holiday bonus during a recession, as steadfast as a fossil. Writing similes is like stripping naked with your lover and huddling under the blankets during a snowstorm….See, similes are fun! Miles and I took a prompt for finishing similes from “The Poets Companion” by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux. The idea is to say something unexpected with the simile, rather than have it make a predictable connection, as if you were connecting to synonyms. I’ve italicized my endings.

tired as a bee during winter
hot as a melting iceberg
waves unfurled like textbooks opened on the first day of school
after the shelling, the town looked as if the ground was growing human body parts
disgusting as ten tons of force-fed chocolate
the child trembled like an airplane with a dying engine
the airplane rose like a child waking from a nightmare
black as the sun at 3 a.m.
he entered the room like dirt falling from a shoe to the ground
their lovemaking was like turning the page of a book, seeing the same words and yet something new


Writing Exercise #1: Ordinary and Extraordinary

March 18, 2009

This is a writing exercise I did with Miles. We used a prompt from my “Fiction Writers Workshop” book that says to write about the ordinary as if it were extraordinary and vice versa. It’s not as easy as you might think. I started out thinking I’d describe various things I saw walking to the bus stop – for example, I’d describe dog crap as some richly complex mixture of varied ingredients, enigmatic conical structures. And then have some crazy thing happen, like a flying unicorn or dinosaur appear, but describe them in a mundane way. That’s not quite what happened – the writing took a definitely Kafkaesque feel that fit the exercise. Anyway, here it is:

Every morning, I walk for ten minutes to the bus stop. I don’t have time to admire everything on the way, but the splendor seeps into my mind. Because even long after, while I’m standing and smashed between two college students on the bus, I can see the grand cement geometry of the sidewalk below me. The rectangular blocks laid flat, once small stone and earth, then ground and turned to liquid, finally shaped and hardened into the vast expanse that maps every edge of the city. Somehow these stretches seem connected. Despite breaks here and there for a street or yard, they are so similar and ubiquitous that it’s hard not to think of them as a complex, omnipresent network of stone walkways. They are borders between the lethal passage of fire-powered metal boxes and the dull shapes that crowd our landscape – pencil-like skyscrapers; the triangles on top of squares we call churches (supposedly special with their colored windows); the stacks of bricks or slats of aluminum we call homes. The cut of a street merely serves as a resting place for the sidewalk; perhaps it regains its strength underground, and reemerges on the other side with renewed vigor. There are, of course, those places such as highways, rivers, and wooded areas where the sidewalk has no root. Yet, what power do such places hold? Highways lying there like unrolled tape measures. Rivers idly passing like a breeze. Forests sitting there like dead wood, unconnected to our urban empire.


Modern Aretology

March 18, 2009

I am the sharp beak of a bird,
cracking through a nut’s fibrous shell,
slicing the tender inside.
I am the cat who is worshiped –
curled in your lap, or
just as likely, not.
I might be killing mice
while you cry your guts out.
I am Mount Everest, or something like it.
Constantly conquered,
my might reduced to an overachiever’s badge.
But I get my revenge
on those climbers who don’t make it.
I am the skyscraper where billions are made
and even more hours earn
debt-laden huts in the suburbs.
I am the screen of all knowledge;
omniscient, or as close as our universe can come.
Every word, every image, every sound
flickers through me and onto you
like a snake’s eye on a mouse,
like a hawk’s claws on a snake,
like a gun’s bullet on a hawk.
I am the bullet, I am the gun.
I am the trigger, I am the hand.
I am the brain, I am the mind.
I am.