Poem: Sarah Speaks, 1957

Sarah Speaks, 1957

by Roy White

You do not love cookies,
you love people, and don’t always be
talling them, either!
What did the girl imagine I would say,
with her I looove your cookies, great-grandma,
thrusting her bare enjoyment out at me
like a challenge?
These are Knut’s girls—Magnus’s Knut, I mean—
not evil, no, but so loose, so exposed,
as though they had no Enemy, as though
discipline and restraint were not our armorr.

Oh, it’s not just the children; one of Olaf’s
sons has married a woman, I dare not say
a lady, who wears her hair loose like a heathen.
I told her, but what good is telling?
never saw father, brother, sister laid
beneath one stone, Ma marrying the worthless
hired man. They never stayed behind
to raise the kids alone when a husband
followed his dreams and schemes to the capital,
scrimping and toiling while he had a handout
for every Indian and wastrel with
a sad story.

Keep your eye on your work, and if a wave
of sweetness overtakes you, don’t let on.
What the Adversary doesn’t know you love
he may not think to steal.

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She’s Not That Into You


A young woman I know works in the produce department of a grocery store, so when she told me she had become interested in poetry, I naturally thought of Pablo Neruda’s Elemental Odes. These include poems in praise of the onion, the artichoke, the watermelon, and, in addition to the fruits and vegetables, at least one nut. Here is his “Ode to a Chestnut on the Ground” in English:


I once copied out the first part of this poem as a note attached to some flowers for a girlfriend who was a compatriot of Neruda’s:

Del follaje erizado caíste completa, de madera pulida, de lúcida caoba, lista como un violín que acaba de nacer en la altura, y cae ofreciendo sus dones encerrados, su escondida dulzura, terminada en secreto entre pájaros y hojas, escuela de la forma, linaje de la leña y de la harina, instrumento ovalado que guarda en su estructura delicia intacta y rosa comestible.
The flowers were part of an attempt to be a proper boyfriend; once upon a time I had scorned as humbug the accessories of romance, buying dinner, sending flowers….the asymmetry had seemed to me disturbing, as though the guy were attempting to purchase the woman’s favors. My attitude had softened, though, as I stopped trying to deny that a beautiful woman who gives you her time is doing you an honor, so you might as well show your appreciation. So the flowers were a new thing for me.

But of course poems are much more personal, and I had more invested in the note than the bouquet. It was, therefore, disappointing that the flowers had arrived with no note—the flower-lady was rather ditzy. But never fear, I had memorized the text, so when my gf said the note hadn’t arrived, I recited it for her (in Spanish). I admit that I was giving myself points for this, and looking back, I still feel that it was a very respectable effort. The ode still strikes me as pretty sexy, not the sort of thing you’d send to someone you don’t know well,, but something one might reasonably expect a girl to enjoy if she thought you were sincere…and if she fancied you.

So I was prepared for thanks and (yes) praise, but instead she seemed to lose interest before I had reached “rosa comestible,” and just changed the subject. At this point, I should have realized that I didn’t have what it took to please this woman–actually, I should have figured it out when she invited me to come to the Holidazzle parade with her church group, but I was trying to be open-minded.

Anyway, it took her a few more weeks to reach the same conclusion and give me the boot, and it took a few weeks after that for me to be grateful that she had, making me available to recognize my true love.

PS: Back in his Euro hipster surrealist days, Neruda had written a volume of love poetry that he later considered pretentious and obscure.  At a reading in his later years, a fan came up to him and asked him to autograph that book for his girlfriend.  Neruda obliged, adding the inscription “No lo lead”  (Don’t read it).

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You Can Call Me Queen Bee

When I saw Nicola Griffith’s Hild pop up on the BGL catalog, I wondered if it was that Hild, mover and shaker in the Northumbria of the 600s, abbess of the double monastery of Whitby (double meaning it contained both monks and nuns), patron of the cowherd-poet CAedmon and host of the epochal synod of 664 or thereabouts, where the Roman monks, with their bald-spot tonsure, downed the Irish with their receding-hairline tonsure in the biggest ecclesiastical rumble of the age.

Yes, it is indeed that Hild; the book is a historical novel, though it does not cover her whole life, in fact doesn’t cover any of the things I remembered about her from my long-ago reading of the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People—it seems there is a sequel in the works. My previous acquaintance with Griffith was as a science-fiction writer, but really it’s not such a big stretch from SF to historical fiction, since both take an alien skeleton supplied by academic research and fill it out into a world using whatever the author feels are the exportable qualities of human nature. Hild actually has a lot in common with Griffith’s recent SF novel Slow River: both feature an aristocratic young woman with extraordinary gifts who also does menial work, both heroines find themselves fairly permanent outsiders and both have creepy moms, both novels explore an arcane subject in intense detail (waste disposal in SR, textile manufacture in H).

What I experienced in reading hild is probably similar to what other people experience when flipping through an old high-school yearbook, as I encountered familiar faces and places from long-ago grad-school days. Hey, isn’t that the Sutton Hoo ship-burial site? Rmember how Wulfstan used to take Godgifu to make out behind the prow? There’s the photo of the geoguth troop—the Boars had the best shield-wall in the state that year. That was some assembly where we had the big argument over Christianity and that one guy talked about the sparrow flying in at one end of the hall and out at the other, and whether the new religion could tell us what happened to it.

I think that, in the real world, these are pretty obscure references—I would guess that most educated Americans know a lot more about Westeros and the Free Cities than early-medieval Northumbria. My own knowledge of Anglo-Saxon culture is pretty weak on the domestic arts, and I found myself at first intrigued by the lore of weaving and dairy-farming and folk medicine, then, after 400 pages or so, increasingly weary of it. I suspect I may not be alone.

Hild’s mother trains her in the arts of a wise-woman: the virtues of plants, how to make predictions from nature, how to manipulate powerful men. Hild’s name means ‘battle,’ and, like so many other young women of fantasy, from GRR Martin to Ellen Kushner, she spends a hell of a lot of time practicing martial arts. Combined with her giantess’s stature and habit of suppressing all emotion, this kickassitude causes her to seem somewhat un-ladylike to most people. I can see how that would be, but I was surprised not to find much reference to the tradition of uncanny bettle-women in Anglo-Saxon and related cultures These valkyries or shield-maidens or whatever could be called upon as adis or arbiters in battle (the word valkyrie means ‘chooser of corpses’), and I imagine that they might be a way for people to assimilate a butch warrior-lady like Hild. Perhaps this is implicit in the book, since she does acquire a little troop of followers who regard her as a combined leader and good-luck charm.

My favorite instance of the battle-woman idea in Old English comes not in any epic but in a domestic charm, to keep bees from swarming. You are supposed to throw some gravel over them (is this really a good idea??) and say:


Sitte ge, sīgewīf,

sīgað tō eorðan,

næfre ge wilde

tō wuda fleogan,

beō ge swā gemindige

mīnes gōdes,

swā bið manna gehwilc,

metes and ēðeles

Sit down, victory-women,        sink to earth;

Never fly off         wild to the woods.

Be as mindful of my good

as any person is    of food and home.


Presumably it is their sting that makes the bees seem armed, but anyway you can’t help liking a culture that thinks of bees as victory-women.



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Devilish Pleasures of a Duke

I’ve noticed, scanning the new releases on the Blind Guy Library catalog, how many romance novels involve a lust for aristocrats. The favorite title seems to be Duke, though there are some Earls and even a Viscount or two. I guess lots of people have fantasies about possessing wealth and power, but what strikes me particularly about these is that they are usually more focused on ensnaring a duke and then giving him pleasure than on being a duchess or experiencing pleasure oneself.

I have a hard time getting my mind around the fact that these utterly shameless and grasping wish-fulfillment stories are so other-directed: How to Dazzle a Duke, At the Duke’s Pleasure, Desperately Seeking a Duke, Devilish Pleasures of a Duke…the scene that keeps coming to mind is from The West Wing, where someone has been promoted to Chamberlain or Lord of the Stool or whatever, and the inner circle guys one by one repeat the creepy mantra “I serve at the pleasure of the President of the United States.”   It’s all rather kinky, and I have tried to bring that out in a little poem:


Did You Know the President Is Super Sexy?


At the Duke’s Pleasure

The music tumesces as the aides intone in turn,

I serve at the pleasure

of the President of the United States.

Their reflected pleasure is an ecstasy of dark appointments,

leather and silk and the plush texture of gravelly voices.

Manly yes,

but I like it too.


Devilish Pleasures of a Duke

More tedious than wicked, the President,

but their quivering desire is laid at his feet.

The very pointlessness of his whims,

making you stand while he natters,

making you dress up in silly outfits,

gives them their erotic charge.

They call it Big Boy School.


A Duke’s Temptation: The Bridal Pleasures Series

They serve at his pleasure, yes,

but their pleasures are bridal,

not the tingling of mere skin

but the marks of rank’s ritual,

the driver, the access, the clearance.


The Wicked Duke Takes a Wife

She knows his most desperate secret,

but the tragic passion of the aides

is not for her, not

for her the urgent, panting

“Yeah” of the underling.

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In Coal Blood

Reading the following story, I couldn’t help thinking of the Turkish government’s “Hey, shit happens, what’s all the fuss about?” response to the death of several hundred humans in the recent mine disaster:

In 1767, the Newcastle Journal announced that the owners of coal mines had asked them to stop reporting the news of fatal mine accidents:


As we have been requested to take no particular notice of these things, which in fact, could have very little good tendency, we drop the further mentioning of it.


Besides cave-ins and floods, miners were commonly killed by three kinds of gas:

-Choke-damp was carbon dioxide, which is colorless and odorless but, of course, unbreathable. The way you recognized a pocket of choke-gas was that a person or several people would walk into it and drop dead. Occasionally, someone was rescued alive, but might not be right in the head afterward.

-White-damp was carbon monoxide. It was noted that small animals were even more susceptible to carbon monoxide poisoning than humans, so people started carrying them into the mines as alarms. At first they used mice, but then it was realized that a canary falling off its perch was easier to detect than a mouse looking poorly.

-Fire-damp was basically methane, which would accumulate at the top of the chamber until a candle got too near, and then explode. To disarm the fire-damp pockets before they could reach lethal size, mining companies used what they called fire-men. A guy in a wet suit (not a wetsuit, of course) would crawl along the mine floor with a long stick, at the end of which was a candle. When he encountered a suspected pocket, he would hold up the candle on the stick and duck.

These fun facts are taken from Barbara Freese, Coal: A Human History


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Well, I have been devoting myself to non-blog writing recently, but I have read some good books, and thought I would at least share excerpts so that you can get a taste and see whether you’d like them. Here goes…


Nick Hornby, Juliet, Naked. Affectionate satire, which is not something you find every day.



Also Slam, in which a teenager who has intimate conversations with his Tony Hawke poster discovers that his girlfriend is pregnant. The Hawke poster responds to Tony’s problems with quotes from his autobiography, which are only intermittently helpful.


John Lanchester, Capital. I would ordinarily be suspicious of a novel that attempts to give a panoramic account of modern London, told from the perspectives of characters ranging from a posh City trader to a traffic warden from Zimbabwe to a Polish carpenter and a native conceptual artist. But Lanchester’s book is much better than it has any right to be:


Also Fragrant Harbor, a similarly panoramic story about Hong Kong.


QuestLove, Mo Meta Blues. The best hip-hop memoir I’ve ever read. OK, it’s the only hip-hop memoir I’ve ever read, but he’s a phenomenal drummer and it’s an extremely interesting and engaging autobiography even if you don’t know any more about rep than I do.



David Kirby, The Biscuit Joint.   Fun poems.



Barbara Tedlock, The Beautiful and the Dangerous. An artist gets to know Zuni people before and after becoming an anthropologist. The excerpt here is actually not one of the most interesting bits in the book, but still worth reading.




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No Fair! He Started It!

Reading Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, about the origins of World War I, has reminded me how depressingly slow we are to re-assess our opinions in the light of new information.   As a kid, I viewed World War I essentially as the less-cool prequel to World War II, with roughly the same teams and outcome but nerve gas instead of nuclear weapons and wooden toys instead of real airplanes.

Later, of course, I learned about the astonishing stubbornness and stupidity with which the war was executed, how the generals sent hundreds and hundreds of thousands of defenseless infantrymen up against dug-in machine-gun and artillery installations. The good guys seemed a lot less good, though at least the Germans and their little Austrian buddies were still the bad guys, right? As for the particular incident that triggered the war, I never totally understood that, but a lot of books indicated that it wasn’t very important, just a pretext for a war that was going to happen anyway.

At some point, as I learned more about the history of colonialism I should have asked myself if the Germans, with their supposed scheme for world domination, were any worse than the British, French and Russians, who had pretty much achieved world domination, or the Americans, who were fast catching up. Had the Germans or Austrians done anything, in the early years of the century, as nasty as the Americans in the Philippines, the British in South Africa, the Italians in Libya, the Russians and Japanese and god knows who-all else in China and Korea? I’m sure the Germans were very militaristic, but none of these countries maintained their empires by dropping leaflets.   Intellectually, I knew all this, but it didn’t make me abandon my rooting interest in the Allies, just as you can find out that many of the players on your favorite NFL team are horrible criminals and still be a fan of the team.

And the Balkan wars of the ‘90s should have caused me to look again at the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, which set the whole thing in motion. I always knew that the assassin, Gavrilo Prinzip, was trying in his misguided way to liberate Bosnia from Imperial rule. In fact, he was a Bosnian Serb ultra-nationalist, hoping to join Bosnia to the Greater Serbia which had recently eaten Macedonia and Kosovo and carried out an early version of ethnic cleansing. Those names are a lot more familiar now than they were in my youth, and Prinzip’s ends start to look as dicey as his means. It’s hard not to think that most Bosnians were better off with King Log in Vienna than King Stork in Belgrade.

We’ve also gotten more familiar with the concept of state-sponsored terrorism. This was the issue between Austria and Serbia, that the Austrians believed the Serbian government had encouraged extremist groups in Bosnia and had done nothing to curb their operations in Serbia. Indeed, it seems that Prinzip and his fellow assassins (no fewer than seven were waiting in Sarajevo for the Archduke) were educated and trained in Belgrade, given guns and bombs from Serbian government arsenals, smuggled across the border by Serbian officials, all according to a plan ultimately supervised by the head of Serbian military intelligence. The organization involved, the so-called Black Hand, was not identical to the Serbian government, and the Prime Minister was careful to maintain deniability, though equally careful not to interfere with the Black Hand’s work.

Given all that, it’s not surprising that the Austrians were royally pissed, and expected some more redress than the smirking they got from Belgrade. Russia’s gallant defense of its beleaguered “little brothers” looks either cynical or deluded, and France’s decision to pile on looks rather opportunistic. Clearly Austria bungled its response to the situation, and Germany was terribly short-sighted, especially in its invasion of Belgium, but the point is that Austria was just like everybody else in thinking that they were acting in self-defense.

Clark is not primarily interested in blame, but in the dynamics of a situation where every player considered himself (the big players were all men) backed into a corner by circumstance, where everyone was able to shift the responsibility to someone else for decisions that led to an outcome which nobody really enjoyed. People in positions of power managed to convince themselves simultaneously that war was inevitable, so one might as well fight it at an advantageous time (before your Russian enemies got too powerful (!), before your Russian allies lost interest) and that someone else was sure to back down at the last minute, so you could win by standing firm. I guess the moral is that men in positions of great power did not get where they are today by being rational.

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