R  A  L  P  H

  The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities  

Volume Thirty

Late Mid-Summer 2007


Pier-Luigi
Zucchini

Lorenzo de
Monteclaro

(The Pepperoni Institute)
Among the many exciting finds in the revival of old music, none is more noteworthy than the rediscovery of the great Pier-Luigi Zucchini.

Although widely acclaimed in his own time, Zucchini fell into disrepute during the late seventeenth-century reaction against green vegetables, and remained virtually unknown throughout the late Baroque, or Pre-Cambrian period. Fortunately for music-lovers of our time, however, he was rediscovered lurking in the RALPH computer center several months ago.

Zucchini had a large green head and spiked fingers, which earned him the sobriquet of "The Green Priest" in contemporary literature. Valdéz, for example, in his massive monograph Seventeenth Century Venice and the Pickle Barrel, refers to Zucchini as "a head above all others in the field --- and far tastier. Fry with butter, olive oil, and a little chives."

Pederast the Elder however, much respected for his tome on the Late Renaissance, refers to Zucchini as "a little withered number, with roots too deep in the mucky-muck of Venetian Court life for comfort." Be that as it may, Zucchini quickly established himself as the leading exponent of the al diente style, and his compositions were performed everywhere with relish on the side.

After leaving Venice for the court of Abalone, the Green Priest disappeared from view for several years, leading his biographers to suspect hanky-panky or worse. We next encounter him leading a string band (or possibly a string bean --- contemporary accounts differ) at the Duchy of Antipasto. About this time, Zucchini began experimenting with the large scale works which were to earn him his subsequent obscurity.

His "Pastrami SonatŠ," a series of seventeen thousand Cantatas for each feast day, were published between 1647 and the morning after. Many of these works have been lost, by sheer good fortune, but the fragments that remain mark Zucchini as a consummate master of the picayune. Scored for large forces (double choir, fat soloists, and military band obligato) each work lasts no more than eleven seconds but seems much longer. The "SonatŠ" received several public performances, as a result of which Zucchini was deported.

In his later years, Zucchini turned his attention to the more intimate forms of the chamber ensemble. A striking series of quartets for transverse flute, viola da gamba, oregano and chili pepper flowed from his pen, sometimes dripping off the desk and staining his cuffs. During this period, Zucchini also wrote his monumental treatise on edible counterpoint, which eventually came out in paper but was snubbed by The New York Review of Books.

Furious at this affront, Zucchini called the editor a "saltimbocca" to his face and left in a Huff. Reaching Bologna the next day, he traded his Huff in on a Pierce-Arrow and continued his pilgrimage onto the Holy Roman Empire, into the pages of history, and out of our lives. There he rests fitfully to this day.

--- L. W. Milam
Dr. Phage


[Poem]
Tradition
My mother says      women were made to bleed
and the whole thing      takes twenty minutes.
She says afterwards      they'll wrap me up like a butterfly
for forty nights      and I'll drink only camel's milk.
My mother says      tomorrow
I'll be a little bride      hands red with henna.
I'll be shining in white      and get to wear as much gold
as I want. She says afterwards      something will get killed
and the whole clan      will come to eat
only they won't      sit down
until I've been washed      in the Nile.
My mother says tomorrow      the blacksmith's wife
will cut away a part of me      I don't need. She says
it might hurt      if the blacksmith's wife
uses scissors instead of a knife.      My sister says at her khefad
the blacksmith's wife used glass      and then tied her shut
with acacia thorns      and horsehair and Mother
had to remind her to put      a match head in the wound
so the whole thing      wouldn't heal closed
and my sister      could still pee.

My aunt says up north      they use something called cautery
which means they make that place      burn like the sun.
My mother says I have nothing      to fear
because women like us      were made to bleed.
My mother says someday      I'll meet a man
who'll want me smooth and small.      She says we'll marry
and he'll take a dagger      and slit me open
like a letter addressed      just to him.
My mother says tomorrow I'll     be a little bride. She says
the whole thing takes     twenty minutes
and after forty days     I'll come out just like her
smooth and small     lips sealed.

--- Quan Berry
From American Poetry Now
Pitt Poetry Series Anthology

Ed Ochester, Editor
©2007 University of Pittsburgh Press


Dada East
The Romanians of
Cabaret Voltaire

Tom Sandqvist
(MIT)
We've always been fond of Dada. Not only are the Dada-ists silly, they don't seem intent on inflicting any harm, on anyone (other than each other), for any reason whatsoever. They are inordinately fond of putting out noisy manifestos, which make no sense at all, and which are immediately superseded by another manifesto, and then another, by yet another anarchist collective. Our favorite lines in what was reputed to be the Original Manifesto were these:

HAS DADA EVER SPOKEN TO YOU:
about Italy
about accordions
about women's pants
about the fatherland
about sardines
about Fiume
about Art (you exaggerate my friend)
about gentleness
about D'Annunzio
what a horror
about heroism
about mustaches
about lewdness
about sleeping with Verlaine
about the ideal (it's nice)
about Massachusetts
about the past
about odors
about salads
about genius, about genius, about genius
about the eight-hour day
about the Parma violets

This manifesto was signed in Paris on January 12, 1921 by such luminaries as Edgar VarŔse, Man Ray, Francis Picabia, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, André Breton, Louis Aragon and Tristan Tzara --- but at least for the last named, it was a repeat performance. According to Sandqvist, Tzara was one of the originals from Romania who started the whole Dada mess in Zurich in February of 1916. He and the brothers Janco --- along with Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings --- "opened the literary cabaret that they named Cabaret Voltaire at the restaurant Meierei on Spiegelgasse in Zurich."

And, according to the author, it didn't even begin there. He tells us that back in Romania, at the turn of the century, there was a Jewish tradition of dance and country parades that included masks, weird costumes, outlandish speech, and assorted nonsense. As far back as 1912, Tristan Tzara --- nee Samuel Rosenstock --- was writing raucous anti-war poems and walk-in-the-country love poetry like,

    My soul's bricklayer coming home from work
    Memory with clean drugstore smell
    Tell me, old servant, about once upon a time
    And you cousin let me know when the cuckoo sings

and chaotic love poetry with certain jarring symbols:

    Scattered wall
    Today I asked
    Myself why
    She didn't hang herself

    Lia, blond Lia
    She would have swung
    From a rope at night
    Like a ripe pear

    And dogs in the street
    Would have barked
    And people gathered
    To gape

    And they'd have yelled
    "Take care she doesn't fall."
    I would have nailed
    The lock to the door

    I'd have set a ladder
    And taken her down
    Like a ripe pear
    Like a dead girl
    And put her in a nice bed.

A good patriot would ask what these Dadaists were doing in neutral Switzerland while their peers (or pears) were getting hung up in the trenches in WWI. The answer is, they were doing just that: along with Romain Rolland, Franz Werfel, James Joyce, Thomas Mann and Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov --- better known as Lenin --- they were hiding out from the war, cooking up trouble (most especially the latter) for the rest of the world. Lenin it was said, was not too enamored of the Cabaret Voltaire, claiming it was of little or no help for "the Communist cause."

Understandable. In one of their first performances, "four strange figures" appeared on the stage in "horrible, ghastly grotesque" masks, giving out with "dreadful cries," "chins painted with red crosses like dripping blood." One ripped open his jacket, showing "black suspenders ... holding stockings recalling the cancan dancers of Paris. Another one tore apart his coat, revealing a cuckoo clock on his chest."

Tristan Tzara appeared on the stage dressed in tails and white spats (complete with pince-nez) and "began to read French verses without meaning ... The grotesque oratorio went on until the audience finally fell into the refrain, thus producing a noise the Russian revolutionary living just on the other side of the alley ... could not have been untouched by."

    The noisy performance ended with Tzara picking up a roll of paper on which the indecent word "merde" was written.
This is an exquisite volume from MIT Press. There are dozens of photographs, including sixteen in color. The text is a bit Dada itself, circling around the main point several times --- that critics have neglected the origins of the movement that came from "the East." But the poems and pictures and the narrative make one long for a time when the world could accept such complete nonsense in good spirit, a time where even the staid Swiss would accept the playful carryings-on without a blink.

--- Max Kunkel


[Gray-Beard Pornographia]

To: carlosamantea@yahoo.com

Subject: I want to be a porn star

I am a young guy from Ghana and i have always dreamt of becoming a porn star. I have been looking for someone to help me make my dream a reality. I got all the qualities that you might need.

I could also send you some pictures of naked babes so that you can use them for your magazines. But please help me achieve my aim

--- Fiifi Sey
pepsin9@yahoo.com


Hi, Fifi:

The thought of you or our editors (or anyone for that matter) offering pictures of what you so gamely call "naked babes" in RALPH does have us spinning --- if not in our graves, then certainly in our rocking chairs.

Thanks for the offer, though. It did quite make us feel sixty again.

By the way: guard these "qualities." Easy come easy go, and all that sort of thing.

And, needless to say, we wish you luck on what you call "your aim." Let us hope it never wavers nor declines.

--- Lolita Lark, Ed


The Volcano
Adventure Guide

Rosaly Lopes
(Cambridge University)
Unlike most of us, there are those who actually seek out volcanoes. We would put this in the same category as people who collect cobras or black widow spiders, or who compete in hot-dog eating contests, or who go on a Gray Line bus tour of Tulsa OK. The only thing that we have every found remotely attractive about volcanoes are the associated words.

For instance, strómboli sounds like Italian succotash but it is a volcano island that grew up out of the Mediterranean all on its own. By all appearances, it is a very Italian volcano. It spurts forth with a "scoppi" and then settles down to nap ... until it burps again, twenty minutes later. Sometimes it goes on vacation. Once it waited seven years between eructations. Visitors to the island can visit Strómboli itself or any of its smelly fumaroles.

Another volcanic word suitable for your Sunday crossword is "aa" which is a common basaltic flow, forming blocks with razor-sharp edges. According to people in Hawaii --- and they ought to know because they collect volcanoes --- anyone walking on these cooled flows will be saying "aa" because it hurts. Hawaii also gives us crossword puzzle people "pahoehoe" which is a lava that flows through tubes like toothpaste; "Pu'u Pua'i," an outlook over the Kilauea caldera (the big hole at the top of the volcano); and Kilauea's vent, "Pu'u O'o" --- another one of those Hawaii words staggering about under too many vowels. It means "hill bird."

Besides blasting off the sides of whole mountains, volcanoes have been cited by the EPA for smoking too much and for emitting hydrogen sulfide. Which stinks. Bad.

Volcanoes have thus been prohibited in the United States east of Mount Rainier and south of Lassen Peak. Mexico, naturally --- being Mexico --- regularly violates these restrictions with unlicensed eruptions, pyroclastic flows, and smoking calderas. Mexico also collects volcanoes --- sixty-seven in all --- with names impossible to remember, much less pronounce or write: IztacchÝuatl, Chichinautzin, Cuexcomate, and Popocatépetl. Some people insist on calling this last "Popo," but, because of its meaning in Spanish, it is best not to bring it up in polite company.

For some strange reason, volcanology is considered to be an exciting career choice, but several of this number have died in the line of duty, including three at Unzen in Japan in 1991 and two at Galeras in Columbia in 1993. There are probably 1500 volcanoes in the world, including current blowhards, along with those which are extinct, at rest, on vacation or just playing dead. If you have a longing to see a volcano, Lopes recommends a trip to Iceland because (1) It is a nice country to visit and get frostbite and (2) the big volcano Krafla is accessible and beautiful. The problem is that the people in Iceland speak Icelandic, which is equivalent to languages spoken in Finland, Northern Spain and the Bronx in indecipherability.

The Volcano Adventure Guide is filled with practical hints. If you are visiting, say, Vesuvius and the ground begins to shake and bombs shoot up (rocks being thrown in the air by eruptions are known as "bombs") and lava overflows the caldera ... you should leave. The author also tells us that if you are walking over lava and smell burning rubber it might be your shoes.

If you want to visit one of the many volcanoes in Costa Rica, she advises renting a car or a helicopter because "buses tend to go to towns rather than to volcanoes." I once went to visit a volcano in Costa Rica --- I think it was Irazú --- but when I finally got up there, I felt pretty dumb. There was just a big hole in the ground with a dirty green little lake at the bottom and no end of ugly black lava, dust and rocks on the hillside. A big wind came up and damn near blinded me and then a sudden fog moved in and we could hardly find our way back to the nearest cantina. "God knows," I found myself thinking, "I might have had more fun if I had gone on a Gray Line cruise through Tulsa."

--- Gretchen Ryder, MA

[Great Reviews of the Past]
Serve It Forth
Mary F. K. Fisher
(North Point Press)
Those of us who were raised in the depression had lots to be depressed about: bad economy, bad world situation, and worst of all --- fried steak.

There were vegetables boiled to a mush, Chef-Boy-Ar-Dee spaghettis, salads made with marshmallow and pink jelly. The only wine available was a smelly brew called "Three Sisters."

For lunch, all we could expect was bologna and mayonnaise or ham on white. And, as Ms. Fisher says, "In the same way water or drippings may be designated as the basis of English cuisine," America's was "the flavor from innumerable tin cans."

Ms. Fisher was sent from food-heaven to deliver us from this scandal in the kitchen, and Serve It Forth, first published in 1939, was the bible. In it she traced the history of the kitchen, the use or abuse of food, and the coming of good taste and classic cuisine. These history lessons alternated with memories of her time in France, where she learned to love such exotics as truffles, good wine, testy chefs, and snails. One of my all time favorites is this, as quoted from "Le Menagier de Paris:"

    Snails, which are called escargots, should be caught in the morning. Take the young small snails, those that have black shells, from the vines or elder trees; then wash them in so much water that they throw up no more scum; then wash them once in salt and vinegar, and set them to stew in water. Then you must pick these snails out of the shell at the point of a needle or a pin; and then you must take off their tail, which is black, for that is their turd; and then wash them and put them to stew and boil them in water; and then take them out and put them in a dish to be eaten with bread. And also some say that they are better fried in oil and onion or some other liquid, after they have been cooked as above said; and they are eaten with spice and are for rich people.

"Le Menagier de Paris" was first published in 1394.

The joy of cooking à la Fisher is the very rendering of her words --- words cooked in butter, garnished with parsley and chives and a bit of white wine. "Do you remember how Claudine used to crouch by the fire," she will write --- even though you and I don't know Claudine from Harvey Mudd --- "turning a hairpin just fast enough to keep the toasting nubbin of chocolate from dripping off?"

Or in mid-winter, eating a tangerine heated on the radiator, the maid in the background who "mutters of seduction and French bicyclists who ride more than wheels, tear delicately from the soft pile of sections every velvet string."

    You know those white pulpy strings that hold tangerines into their skins? Tear them off. Be careful.

Her words are as magic as her taste in foods --- even to the point of describing the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, where they ate "scrambled rats and potted poodledog meat."

Her chapter on "Eating Alone" should assuage those of us who have often feared to be seen in a restaurant in such a solo act. She quotes Lucullus --- who told his majordomo: "It is precisely when I am alone," he said, "that you are required to pay special attention to the dinner."

    At such times, you must remember, Lucullus dines with Lucullus.

I once wrote Fisher a fan-letter, extolling her way with words. She wrote me back, a letter typed not by some anonymous secretary but by the good lady herself, on an old Royal, no doubt, in which she spoke gently of the love for another person, intermixed --- love being what it is --- most wonderfully with the love for good food.

--- Lindley Watkins


Time Leap:
Relativity and
Alzheimer's
RALPH:

I read somewhere India has only one time zone everywhere. Includes several normal time zones. Time is stuck. Midnight time and dark, remain midnight time and noon for thousands of miles of India. Terribly confusing. I would not like to deal with Indian sidereal time. You're in Allappuza and you might as well be in Guwahati, or, worse, Thiruvananthapuram --- with all the cows and goats and dogs and ghats.

Causality is another Time Leap problem. Some science savant asked, "Can a result precede a cause?" Perhaps time is circular? Savant speculated that there was a feedback loop complexity.... Instantaneous feedback loops gone nuts or something.... Maybe a möbius?

I went to buy my poor dog a bone and experienced The Full Year Time Backleap. Everyone at the town Ag Supply Store turned around sharply. I had looked up from writing a check.... "Is this O Five," I asked, "or O six? "

Shock and horror by clerks and customers. Gasps. Alzheimer's manifest and materialized? Right here in River City, Mon! "Just funning." I said loudly. "Time is a metaphysical issue, and relative to me! Did you know what year it is? Just then. Julian Calendar?" "How do you know it is O Six back in Ann Arbor, or Detroit? Right now.

Just testing ... I'm a full professor you know. With tenure. We can ask dumb questions that you know are dumb. They are. But it's a living. No stooping and lifting. No working outside in winter!"

Everyone turned away and began examining walls and ceiling. It was, I then remembered, O Six. "I know it's O Six," I remarked loudly. I was just testing you and I'm a little shocked. Shocked!"

--- Paul Nickel


What Do I Say
Talking with Patients
About Spirituality

Elizabeth Johnston Taylor
(Templeton Foundation)
You, a "professional," are faced with a patient with stage IV breast cancer, who says to you, the moment you come into the hospital room, "I've prayed so hard to be healed. I've been sick for six years. I was diagnosed on my birthday, can you believe it? And I prayed every day to God that He would take this sickness away. The Bible says he will heal all of our diseases, you know. Maybe I'm praying in the wrong way."

The author's suggested response is:

    You've been fervently petitioning God to cure you, and now, perhaps, you're wondering if you're doing it in the right way.

Then, says Ms. Taylor:

Tips for restating.
How do you create a restatement?
"Assume you do not understand anything about the patient."

Not bad advice. Other than giving her a quick run-down on Dostoevsky, Camus, Nietzsche, and basic Existentialism: "Assume that you do not understand anything about the patient." Nor the meaning of pain, sickness, woe.

Here's another:

    You enter the hospital room of a woman whom you've never met before. You know she has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. You knock and hear her voice, muffled, a bit slow, and sounding irritated. You find her curled up in a ball, eyes shut, covers pulled up to her ears. The lights are off and the shade is partially drawn. How would you apply the above information about establishing rapport?

Just below there are four long, blank lines. In the middle of the page. Waiting for you or me or some anonymous "helper" to fill in an answer.

As if there were an answer.

We have here a lady who is in physical pain, emotional pain, and the ultimate pain. And you have to make talk with her. The implied directives here are:

  1. You and I are helpers and here is a woman who needs help.
  2. We can help her by saying something, or asking a question.
  3. That's why the hospital (or social services, or the church) pays us.

But the set-up may well be skewed. Like the very concept of "helpers," and the belief that you and I can solve things with words.

Taylor does not point out that words help helpers to stay as far away as possible from another's misery. Any dummy will tell you that what is needed is not a speech, certainly not some dumbassed question, but the simple presence of another human, someone with enough soul to let this poor befuddled lady know that we are in it together, that life is a bitch, that it can be famously unjust, and there is not a goddamn thing we can do with by and for it.

The author's suggested solution, "Answers for Exercises" --- found later in the book, on page 132 --- tells us that the professional should declare,

    "I'm ______, and I'm so sorry to hear about the diagnosis." Then, allow long pause for her to respond, if she does not, "What are you thinking?"

The woman is in pain, dying, alone with all the shades all the shades drawn and here comes this busybody asking, "What are you thinking?"

Me? Forget this social working business. I suspect the best we can do is to come in, sit down, sigh ... and burst into tears.

Or even better --- climb right up on the bed, grab hold the poor anguished soul, grab her tight ... and then burst into tears.

--- Marianne Elliott, M.A.


The Search
For Unpolluted
Drinking Water
The search for unpolluted drinking water is as old as civilization itself. As soon as there were mass human settlements, waterborne diseases like dysentery became a crucial population bottleneck. For much of human history, the solution to this chronic public-health issue was not purifying the water supply. The solution was to drink alcohol. In a community lacking pure-water supplies, the closest thing to "pure" fluid was alcohol. Whatever health risks were posed by beer (and later wine) in the early days of agrarian settlements were more than offset by alcohol's antibacterial properties. Dying of cirrhosis of the liver in your forties was better than dying of dysentery in your twenties.

Many genetically minded historians believe that the confluence of urban living and the discovery of alcohol created a massive selection pressure on the genes of all humans who abandoned the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Alcohol, after all, is a deadly poison and notoriously addictive. To digest large quantities of it, you need to be able to boost production of enzymes called alcohol dehydrogenases, a trait regulated by a set of genes on chromosome four in human DNA. Many early agrarians lacked that trait, and thus were genetically incapable of "holding their liquor." Consequently, many of them died childless at an early age, either from alcohol abuse or from waterborne diseases.

Over generations, the gene pool of the first farmers became increasingly dominated by individuals who could drink beer on a regular basis. Most of the world's population today is made up of descendants of those early beer drinkers, and we have largely inherited their genetic tolerance for alcohol. (The same is true of lactose tolerance, which went from a rare genetic trait to the mainstream among the descendants of the herders, thanks to the domestication of livestock.)

The descendants of hunter- gatherers --- like many Native Americans or Australian Aborigines --- were never forced through this genetic bottleneck, and so today they show disproportionate rates of alcoholism. The chronic drinking problem in Native American populations has been blamed on everything from the weak "Indian constitution" to the humiliating abuses of the U.S. reservation system. But their alcohol intolerance mostly likely has another explanation: their ancestors didn't live in towns.

Ironically, the antibacterial properties of beer --- and all fermented spirits --- originate in the labor of other microbes, thanks to the ancient metabolic strategy of fermentation. Fermenting organisms, like the unicellular yeast fungus used in brewing beer, survive by converting sugars and carbohydrates into ATP, the energy currency of all life. But the process is not entirely clean. In breaking down the molecules, the yeast cells discharge two waste products --- carbon dioxide and ethanol. One provides the fizz, the other the buzz. And so in battling the health crisis posed by faulty waste-recycling in human settlements, the proto-farmers unknowingly stumbled across the strategy of consuming the microscopic waste products generated by the fermenters. They drank the waste discharged by yeasts so that they could drink their own waste without dying in mass numbers.

They weren't aware of it, of course, but in effect they had domesticated one microbial life-form in order to counter the threat posed by other microbes. The strategy persisted for millennia, as the world's civilizations discovered beer, then wine, then spirits --- until tea and coffee arrived to offer comparable protection against disease without employing the services of fermenting microbes.

--- From The Ghost Map
Steven Johnson
©2006 Riverhead Books
Our review of this book can be found at
http://www.ralphmag.org/EP/ghost-map.html


The Bloomsday Dead
Adrian McKinty
Gerard Doyle, Reader

(Blackstone Audio)
"Detective stories" was what we used to call them, thinking of Chandler or the Continental Op. They are strange amalgams of adventure, brutality, and occasional gruff tenderness. We know that our hard-bitten detectives are going to survive massive assaults from fists or firearms, so how does an author even build tension?

I suspect it is more than mere suspension-of-disbelief. For, even with all evidence against it, we cannot be too sure that this "eejit" is going, for example, to get out from under the three thugs sitting atop him at the back of the IRA sedan, the three having just been ordered by a man improbably named Body O'Neill to suffocate him with a heavy plastic bag. Later, we wonder how Forsythe could possibly, with all his cuts and bruises, make it up the stairs of a scabrous dog-fight pub after he spots an aluminum baseball bat coming his way ("they don't play baseball in Belfast?")

Or, at the back of the "Witch's Cave" where Bridget Callaghan --- the "wean's" mother --- is to make her $10,000,000 drop, Forsythe announces his presence to the man who's been trying, for the last two days, to have him done in, his old friend Scotchy Finn --- how in hell is he going to make it past him and his five or so thugs? Forsythe is in trouble --- hell, he's always in trouble --- and since the reader has, by chapter three, gotten quite fond of him, we don't want him to be topped.

We have to give credit to the author's astonishing ability to shape words and action and dialogue and, at the same time. move a story along at a furious pace. Bloomsday Dead takes us through twenty-four hours of a thousand-kilovolt pandemic. He does it with timing and wit, if not a certain mordant view of the world ... the world known as Ireland: "From St. Patrick to the Vikings, Ireland had five centuries of peace," we are told.

    Never before or after. And ever since we've had the creature with us. Our shadow, our watcher, our tormentor, our instigator. It sleeps. It dreams. But it's still here. Coiled. Hungry.

§     §     §

McKinty is fond of literary games. A young lady that Forsythe forces to drive him to Belfast reveals that she is studying French literature, even quotes for her kidnapper the famous line from Montaigne, Je veux ... que la mort me trouve plantant mes choux, me nonchalant d'elle, et encore plus de mon jardin imparfait... [I want death to find me planting my cabbages, but caring little for dying, and much more for my imperfect garden].

Several critics have pointed out the ties of the present novel to Ulysses. "Bloomsday" is the now ritual 16 June pilgrimage through Dublin by Joyce fans from all over, retracing the journey of Leopold Bloom. On the plane from New York to Ireland, a school marm sitting next to Forsythe, asks if he is going to join in the festivities, and he naughtily wonders aloud if --- since the word is "bloom" --- it has to do with flowers. Bloomsday Dead even ends with Molly's mythic "Yes," uttered now by Bridget Callahan ... echoing the final surrender on the last pages of Ulysses.

The first words, "State LY Plum P Buck Mulligan" (a coded message sent to Forsythe) takes us directly to the first words in Joyce's work. McKinty even drops in chapter titles that reflect the folly of one Stuart Gilbert. (Gilbert was a dim-witted critic who bothered Joyce excessively for clues about his cryptic works. It was his belief that Ulysses was directly linked to the sequences in Odyssey. During a drunken spree, Joyce agreed, merely to twit a persistent literary groupie who would not leave him alone.)

Bloomsday may use Joyce to give added piquancy to those of us who were English Lit majors during the halcyon days of Joycean clue-hunting --- his massive tome was our first real detective novel --- but even without this garnish, Bloomsday is a tremendous ride through Lima, Dublin and Belfast. The recorded version we have here is by Gerard Doyle. The narrator is as gifted as you could ask: his brogue, his change of voice for the various characters, his pauses --- all are gold.

We don't hand out much in the way of stars in RALPH (a single one for a worthy book will be listed in our "Table of Contents.") But if we were in the star business, we would give to the book

*****

and another

*****

to reader Doyle.


Ham and the Moon
Sit down
and I'll feed you.
Ladle up a bowl of lentil soup,
a little ocean
full of sun and warmth.
Add a salad made of peppers
hot as fallen stars,
avocados, olives,
just a touch of lemon juice
and garlic.

I am not a world class cook
but for you, my friend,
I'll stay up all night
sweating in my kitchen
to bring the cuisine
of eleven nations
to your plate by morning.
You are sick
and you will die,
the doctors say,
but I refuse to let it be
from starvation.

So here, straight from the South,
green beans cooked all day
and my finest crabcakes,
each fork, each taste
a reason to keep living.
For dessert, cherries
so ripe they whisper
carpe diem
or would if cherries
knew much Latin.
After such a dinner,
we can wipe our mouths
clean of crumbs
and of regret.

Because I do not kid myself.
I know the future,
that iron door,
will be there waiting
no matter what
I have baking in the oven.
But in the meantime,
there are ears of sweet corn
and a mother lode of mussels
it is clear God made
especially for steaming.
Take a seat at my table,
I'll cook them up for you.

--- "Ham and the Moon"
Jesse Lee Kercheval
From 75 Poems On Retirement
Robin Champan, Judith Strasser, Editors
©2007 University of Iowa Press
[See our review of
On Retirement
below]


Cold Skin
Albert Sánchez Piñol
Cheryl Leah Morgan,
Translator

(Canongate)
If you and I were to be set loose on an island with enough water and food, would we go on being genteel literate civilized human beings, Robinson Crusoes teaching civilized values to our man Friday, or would we gradually come to find the more bestial elements taking over?

On Piñol's island, the setting is not too far north of Antarctica. Each year they bring in a new meteorologist to join the rather strange lighthouse keeper and beasts known as the "Sitauca," shark-like creatures with sleek skins, otherworldly features, blue blood, and an unquenchable appetite for human flesh.

No sooner does our narrator/scientist arrive than he is attacked by the monsters. Quickly he comes to an uneasy truce with the loutish Austrian who mans the lighthouse. Their main occupation is surviving the nightly attacks of what they come to call "the toads." These guys are a riot, or, at least, that's what they do when the sun goes down. They bang against the door, crawl on each others' backs to penetrate the defenses of the lighthouse, and seem to be indefatigable in their number.

This turns out to be a very strange, scary novel that has much to say about the loves and wars between man and man and between man and beast. The first line in the book, our introduction to Piñol's world, is "We are never very far from those we hate."

§     §     §

The Sitauca are not only endless in numbers, they have the ability to unhinge any humans on their island. Gradually, the Austrian Grunera and the unnamed narrator go dotty under the continuing nighttime assaults on their fortress, with declining supplies of gin and bullets and firepower. The assault turns somewhat more strange when we discover that the Grunera is consorting, daily, in the sack, with one of the blue-blooded toads.

The narrator is intrigued, gives it a try, and goes into ecstasy. He says one might think it would be like making love to "a cadaver, freshly dead" ... but then he reveals that it is "beyond ecstasy," an "extreme passion."

    I had foreseen a brief copulation, sullied and brusque. Instead, I entered within an oasis. At first, the coldness of her skin sent me a-shivering. But our temperatures calibrated themselves to some unheard-of degree in which such concepts as hot and cold become meaningless. Her body was a living sponge spilling forth opium. My humanity was annulled.

§     §     §

The Lord of the Flies, as I recall, quickly sweeps into the island world of decaying values and an animal-like savagery blooming in the young innocents set loose on the island. The language was simple, direct, reportorial ... but the logic was irrefutable. Cold Skin carries the same power. It is the oldest story of them all: how, given the chance, the right time, and the right place, our "civilized" values can be turned upside-down. Despite our veil of religious and social civility, given the chance, the beast that lies nested in all of us will uncoil, undermining the fruits of an uncertain evolution. One is reminded of the thoughts on life and death from Huxley's idealistic Island,

Soles occidere et redire possunt;
nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.

Suns may set and rise again.
For us, when the short light has once set,
remains to be slept the sleep of one unbroken night.

Cold Skin is a hideous, wonderful book. Evidently it is Piñol's first. God save us all from the next onslaught.

--- Leslie Blanchard


The Somme
The Coward

A. D. Gristwood
(South Carolina)
A. D. Gristwood was a poor accountant who was sent into the killing fields of Flanders in late 1915. He served honorably for two years, and wrote of his experiences in the trenches ten years after the fact. In two brief books --- The Somme, The Coward --- he tells, with honesty, and no little artistry, the truth of the life of the trenches and the bunkers. It's the story of the daily pounding, the agony of living under the gun and the bomb and gas attacks, a twenty-four hour seven-days-a-week thirty-days-a-month job of being a muck soldier, fearing moment by moment the "whizz-bangs," mustard gas, machine gun, shrapnel, rifle-fire, tanks, and, most hideously, (as one recent critic has noted) being wounded by body parts of nearby comrades blown up by shell-fire.

There are few other accounts that I have run across --- fiction, reportage, history --- that give such an accurate picture of trench life: what it does to the body, what it does to the mind and the soul. This should be required reading for those who compete to be scholars of 20th Century history, for this is the unvarnished truth of what life was like for the young men, the flower of Western Civilization (the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, high Victorian Romance) who got trapped in the rote machine known as "modern warfare."

Two millennia of western culture, and what do we get: "These woodlands of the Somme represented the apotheosis of Mars. There lay the miscellaneous débris of war --- men living, dying and dead, friend and foe broken and shattered beyond imagination, rifle, clothing, cartridges, fragments of men, photographs of Amy and Gretchen, letters, rations, and the last parcel from home."

    Shells hurling more trees upon the general ruin, the dazing concussion of their explosion, the sickly sweet smell of 'gas,' the acrid fumes of 'H.E.,' hot sunshine and mingling with spouts of flying earth and smoke, the grim portent of bodies buried a week ago and now suffering untimely resurrection, the chatter of machine-guns, and the shouts and groans of men.

"And the final sweet trespass of nature invading the barren stretch of war: Such were the woods of the Somme, where once primroses bloomed and wild rabbits scampered through the bushes."

This is a report on trench and bunker life, but there is something more out of a chamber of horrors, worse than the plague years, the Black Hole of Calcutta, Vlad the Impaler. The core of the two novels involves care and feeding of the millions of wounded that poured from the trenches. In The Somme, Everitt, shot at Combles, is moved back through a series of dressing stations to the General Hospital at Rouen. The hero (or antihero) in The Coward wounds himself at Bois de Coucy, and his journey back to the hospital at Rouen is impelled by the fact that if it is discovered any place along the way that the wound was self-inflicted (he shot himself in the hand) he will be court-martialled and immediately hung.

§     §     §

Gristwood came to know H. G. Wells after the war, and his style is remarkably like his mentor's. One thinks of the opposing worlds of "The Time Machine," the Morlocks, white and bestial, living underground, feeding on the flesh of the Eloi, the flower-children living above, singing and dancing in the dales. "Behind us lay the Abomination of Desolation," writes Gristwood in The Coward: "a land of scorched and cratered meadows of shattered riven hedgerows, and homes abandoned and made desolate. The smoke and reek of War hung over it; the fair face of the earth was warped and cankered in a long-drawn agony." At the same time,

    Here the sun shone blithely from a sky of forget-me-not blue, the trees and fields were whole and airy, the noise of the guns lay behind us like a dying storm. For the first time for four long days and nights we could rest, and linger by the way, and watch the shadow of the clouds upon the meadows ... Our way wound through woods full of the fragrance of damp leaves by narrow paths of mingled shade and sunshine. Fragile nodding anemones and the yellow stars of Wordsworth's celadines smiled bravely at the sun. The "lambs' tails" hung in clusters from the hazel-bushes, and the honey-scented flowers of the palm were packed in mustard-yellow clusters upon tough leafless branches. Larks sang high above the tree-tops.

§     §     §

There is a rather opaque introduction to these two novelettes from one Hugh Cecil, presumably drafted by the University of South Carolina Press to frame the setting of the novels with a brief biography of Gristwood.

Unfortunately, Cecil doesn't seem to much care for the writing, nor does he address its virtues and power. He cites the author's "disparaging account of the army," a "lack of balance in his low estimate of human nature," and an absence of "an essential element of tragedy." Historian Cecil, obviously a gung-ho militarist, takes two of the most gripping tales out of WWI ... and doesn't get it. He wants, perhaps, a tale of bravery in the line of fire, of man's noblest spirit rising up at time of crisis, a crown in the diadem of Empire and Humanity. Perhaps he has never seen war; he certainly has never participated in the nerve-jangling, heart-wrenching, soul-frying never-ending terror of mayhem that was life in the trenches of WWI. His view of the worth of these two books is not only flawed, the introduction he cooked up is damnably otiose. For in the midst of unbearable horror, Gristwood has found a beauty which, so brief, so painful , can only bring to mind the words of Camus,

    Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time.

--- George Ball


[Essay]
My Brilliant Career
T. E. Lawrence wrote:

    Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.

Unaccountably, T. E. did not include my own category, those who sleep at night, and then go to work by day and get plenty of sleep there as well. I find that taking cat-naps four or five times a day helps to keep me in the pink, and the ivy-covered halls of academe, with their windy faculty meetings and frequent seminars, have long provided an ideal venue for this practice.

I first understood that I was well suited to the academic life back in college when I attended my first academic seminar. It was a veritable epiphany: the room was warm, a speaker at the front was doing the equivalent of counting sheep for me, and then the lights went out for the first slide; I settled back comfortably in my chair, and knew no more until the lights came back on after the last slide. I realized then that I had discovered a true calling, like Paul on the road to Damascus.

My career of sleeping through seminars continued in graduate school. One time, I was seated next to the Associate Director of our institute, a tough-talking biochemist who was reputed to have mob connections. Everyone referred to him as Big Al.

Realizing that I was seated in a sensitive location, I fought to retain consciousness as the speaker droned on and on, and actually made it to the third slide before I retired to never-never land, slumping sideways at the same time so as to use Big Al for a pillow. When the seminar ended I awoke, refreshed as always, and looked blinkingly around. Turning to my left, I made eye contact with Big Al, who was fixing me in a stare that would freeze helium. "Ya feel bedduh now?" he growled.

Fortunately, Big Al was not on my Ph.D. thesis committee, and in due course I earned that key of entry into the academic world. It has been a long and rewarding career since then. Several years ago, I underwent a medical procedure on one eye. I was told I must sleep sitting up for ten days or so. No problem. I had already had thirty-five years of practice.

Beginning grad students regularly marvel at the ability of us veterans to spend an entire seminar, qualifying exam, or thesis defense in the arms of Morpheus, and then rouse at the end to ask a seemingly relevant question. Little do they suspect that this ability is the secret, the kernel, the very Zen of the professorial vocation. I have practiced this form of Zen, which is also known as Cheyne-Stokes breathing, at innumerable seminars and conferences all over the civilized world. My long career, which might appear arduous from a superficial viewpoint, has actually been extraordinarily restful.

§     §     §

Reviewing this career, I cannot help but be reminded of that old New Yorker cartoon in the form of a recruiting poster: "Join the Cat Navy and get to sleep in ports all over the world." Could this be the reason for my lifelong feeling of kinship with the feline community?

As things have worked out, I no longer enjoy the services of a full-time cat at my home. However, I do have two visiting cats who come to work part-time. Sarge, whose official residence is a couple of blocks away, is an orange tabby with polydactyly of his forepaws and a winning manner. We have a special cat entrance for him at a back window, loosely covered by a cloth flap. Sarge can be relied upon to come in this way several times each day, and immediately ask to be let out at the front door.

In addition to providing this service, he also does a complete inspection tour of the house, at least if he is not let out too soon. There is no warm nook or soft spot in the house too obscure for him to overlook; in fact, he spends more time testing these spots in my house for their sleep-worthiness than he spends at his official home. Occasionally, Sarge's owner telephones to leave a message for him.

As a back-up, I employ Dusty, a fluffy, grey-blue Russian who patrols the front porch most of the day. His official headquarters is across the street, and unlike Sarge, he never sleeps, but always keeps watch. Perhaps the Russian Blue breed has some kinship with the NKVD, or the earlier Okhrana, the Tsar's secret police. In any case, Dusty always moves with the stealthy air of a secret agent, perpetually looking around for enemy operatives. He accepts being petted or offered some food on the front porch with elaborate wariness, always poised for flight.

Dusty occasionally sneaks into my domicile to photograph classified documents, incidentally filching a little of the food left for Sarge. His stealth is such that I have never caught him in the act of slipping into the house. But I have discovered him already inside on a few occasions, at which times he escaped with the speed and agility of a four-legged Agent 007. All I have ever seen of his departure is a blue blur heading toward and through any exit available. Sometimes it is not at all clear how the blue blur exits the house [is it able to pass through walls?] but out it gets, after which Dusty no doubt assumes another identity for a time.

As a result of communing with these creatures, I have arrived at a theory to explain why cats are so appealing. They are soft, furry, cuddly, and the right size to pick up: exactly like the stuffed animals we all played with as children. They are, in short, animated stuffed animals, stuffed with themselves. But then, the question arises of why stuffed animals were so appealing to us when we were children. The answer must be that they are like real animals, such as, for example, cats. But cats, we just concluded, are appealing precisely because they are like stuffed animals. We seem to be caught in a loop.

I see that continuing on this line of thought could be dangerous for my diminished supply of grey cells. Perhaps what I need is a cat-nap. I have been taking even more cat-naps of late, since I came down with an academic condition called Emeritis. Now that I am Emeritus, I no longer have to ask all those seemingly relevant questions at the ends of seminars. All I need to do nowadays is to stretch, blink, look around, and discover that everybody else has already left, sometimes an hour or two earlier. When not enjoying these restful seminars, I can generally be found in my University office these days, handling the weighty academic responsibilities that remain to us Emeritii.

First, of course, there is the academic mail: I take up one University notice after another, and painstakingly fold each one into an Origami bird-shape. This is a demanding project, not to be undertaken lightly. Next comes processing the day's e-mail, which calls for the careful judgment in deciding among the tons of spam for elimination. On some days, after these projects are complete, there is still a little time for a bit of web-surfing before my mid-morning pre-nap nap. In short, Emeritusness is rather like the earlier stages of my brilliant career, or life in the cat community, only more so.

--- Dr. Phage


Neither/Nor
[And W. H. Fowler]
RALPH:

Can I use "neither/nor" with three items in a list?

For example, NEITHER John NOR Lisa NOR Mary are coming with us.

--- Andy Piantanida
andyp@portmed.org

§     §     §

Dear Andy:

Let your guide be the rich, opinionated, eccentric, and always heartfelt A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H. W. Fowler. Avoid later editions ... after, say, 1955. They've been tampered with. My faded, worn and much abused volume is from the Oxford University Press dated 1944.

Under NEITHER, 2 Fowler says, "The proper sense of the pronoun (or the adjective) is "not the one nor the other of the two." Of the two.

This restriction does not hold [he continues] for the adverb (Neither fish nor flesh nor fowl). One can sense here a reverence --- as most of us have had or should have --- for the rhythm, spaciousness and measure of the King James Version of The Bible.

He tells us in a later paragraph that our job is to communicate with the reader. Change a sentence that would lead us to contradict the rules ... and lose clarity:

    If both subjects are singular & in the third person, the only need is to remember that the verb must be singular & not plural. This is often forgotten...

He goes on to show examples where both Johnson and Ruskin erred, and then offers this: "Complications occur when, owing to a difference in number or person between the subject of the neither member & that of the nor member, the same verbform or pronoun or possessive adjective does not fit both."

In writing, "the wise man," he concludes,

    evades these problems by rejecting all the alternatives --- any of which may set up friction between him & his reader --- & putting the thing in some other shape. In speaking [he goes on], which does not allow time for paraphrase, he takes risks with equanimity & says what instinct dictates.

But, he concludes, "as instinct is directed largely by habit, it is well to eschew habitually the clearly wrong forms."

Thus, we would suppose, Fowler would advise you to eschew the troublesome "Neither John nor Lisa nor Mary are coming with us;" & instead phrase it, "John, Lisa, and Mary are not coming with us."


Our proofreader added the following comments:

"Neither fish nor flesh nor fowl" ... (these are not adverbs; they're nouns, just like the inquiry). The letterwriter's original example should be "Neither John nor Lisa nor Mary is coming with us."

You're right that a string of nors seems awkward, although in this day of "informal" (read illiterate) writing few would object. I think "either ... or" and "neither ... nor" being strictly for choices between two alternatives is a holdover from a more classical, rational, black-and-white universe. Boolean algebra has liberated us!

Your example is grammatically correct: "John, Lisa and Mary are not coming with us." The question then remains: Does this sentence eliminate the possibility that although the group is not going, one member (or two) might go? It seems to me that only "neither ... nor" checks off each one of the group. FWIW.)

--- Ed


On Retirement
75 Poems
Robin Chapman,
Judith Strasser, Editors

(University of Iowa)
When Betty McDonald was in the TB hospital, they brought in dinner trays at six in the evening and each one included a "Thought for the Day," the equivalent of a Happy Face. With her pork-chops and mashed potatoes, she'd get

    Ideas are like children; there are none so wonderful as your own

or

    If you want the rainbow, you must to put up with the rain.

She'd find herself thinking, "I wonder what knucklehead thought that one up?"

So it was for us with the title, On Retirement. "We can certainly do better than that," we thought. Gold watches, letters of appreciation, a small, embarrassing luncheon. And once out the door, the old graybeard forgotten forever. That's what the title reminded us of.

But, surprise: The poems avoid, mostly, that moist sentiment that we get when people start talking about the Send-Off. Ishmael Reed tells of the closing of a bank branch in his neighborhood and having, instead, to go to the place in town with "latte cafes" and "art cinemas," and the bank "will make phone calls to / See whether I am who I say..."

Grace Paley writes, "Here I am in the garden laughing / an old woman white heavy breasts / and a nicely mapped face." The "old guy" in Wesley McNair's poem is "stunned by the failure of his heart." "Spy with me," writes Klipschutz, "on this train going nowhere,"

    no wonder
    I keep losing
    my desk.

"I know the future, / that iron door, / will be there waiting / no matter what / I have baking in the oven."

§     §     §

It gets harder for us to drive from here to there. All those fuzzy dials: we can either see the road or we can see how fast we are going, but not both. That's all right. It's the Heisenberg uncertainty principle --- you can know where you are, or you can know how quickly you are getting about ... but you can't know both.

I'm a little uncertain myself about my driving, but I don't want to scare the clients (the children and the grandchildren and soon-to-be-gone friends); I see that they put on their seatbelts with an alacrity they didn't have a couple of years ago. We just don't have the power we once had; it dribbles away so easily, so silently.

The young: they get sick, get well, fall, break an arm, but it all comes back together in an amazingly short time. Carolyn Kizer writes about them:

    Eyes closed to news we've chosen to ignore,
    We'd rather excavate old memories,
    Disdaining age, ignoring pain, avoiding mirrors,
    Why do they never listen to our stories?

Susan Elbe says "In the too-bright bathroom light
I splay my starfish hands"

    the rambling veins now
    less like fine-penned blueprints
    and more like bare-branched trees.

And for Stephanie Cohen,

    Our children turn into adult strangers
    holding babies, who wave goodbye.

This is a brave and good and funny compilation. It won't mitigate our fears, but at the very least it will convince us that we are not alone.

--- Rebecca Watson


[Lurid Movies]

"Pornographic movies are full of people who climb into cars and drive for miles and miles, couples who waste incredible amounts of time signing in at hotel desks, gentlemen who spend many minutes in elevators before reaching their rooms, girls who sip various drinks and who fiddle interminably with laces and blouses before confessing to each other that they prefer Sappho to Don Juan. To put it simply, crudely, in porn movies, before you can see a healthy screw you have to put up with a documentary that could be sponsored by the Traffic Bureau."

--- Umberto Eco
"How to Recognize a Porn Movie"
From How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays
William Weaver, Translator
©1995 Minerva Press


Fasting
Spiritual Freedom
Beyond Our Appetites

Lynne M. Baab
(Formatio)
In the Bible, Ms. Baab tells us, there are seventy-five references to fasting, often coupled with mourning --- sackcloth and ashes --- or "repentance," where we give up something and acknowledge our sins. She also advises that fasting may be a means for divine guidance, or as a lesson we can use for others, as in Mother telling us "That's all right. You children go ahead and eat. I'll just wait here until you're done."

Baab tells us that it is possible for us to thus avoid our daily dose of TV, going here or there in the car, shopping, or watching the daily news, reading novels, playing with the computer, doing e-mail. Fasting can be genre-specific: A vacation from "chips" or "sugar" or butter-nut creme-baked honey-flavored vanilla-rich fudge oh yum. It could even be a day driving around without the car radio tuned to Big Dog Daddy, Icky Thump or The Pimples.

Fasting, she advises, gives us time to "pray more." She tells the story of a friend who has invented a new form of child-abuse: he sits bolt upright at the table as his children are munching on salami-and-cheese pizzas, downing malted double chocolate milkshakes. He does nothing more than sip water, praying all the while. Saints preserve us.

Ms. Baab has thus a rather expansive if not disconcerting view of what it means to fast. Where you or I may want to take a day or two off from our meals of fatback chicken pie or an evening of fried popcorn and beer, she is willing to ban everything possible that makes our lives bearable.

It could be playing the piano, or wearing makeup, or singing. She tells us of friends of hers who "turbocharge" their prayers by fasting. A fast can also involve taking time off from something she calls a "praise band."

There are a mountain of options. We can do a "Juice Fast" where we stay away from all solid food. There is an "Eastern Orthodox Fast" --- what our friends call "VEE-gan" --- avoiding "meat, fish, dairy, eggs, oil and alcohol." There too is a Daniel Fast ("eating only vegetables") and a Fast Fast --- no fast food at all. Baab does not suggest that we try a Howard Fast, nor FAST: the Farpoint Asteroid Search Team ... the asteroid search team located at Farpoint Observatory.

Where Ms. Baab turns shy is in the area of The Big Fast, the one that some may find the most onerous of them all. It gets but three paragraphs two-thirds of the way through the book, and is mostly given over to that big priss, Apostle Paul.

As some of us may recall from our early Bible training, in 1 Corinthians Paul railed against lust: "It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you," he thundered to the flock. Unlike Jesus, Paul was always getting het up about matters of the flesh (Jesus had better sense; he thought that boosting love was more important than banning lust.)

According to Baab, Corinthians specifically states that couples can "refrain from sexual intimacy" "for a set time, to devote yourself to prayer." Some of our previous noodlings, the author offers,

    may have been healthy and life-giving, like sexual intimacy in marriage, but now for some reason they have grabbed ahold of us.

§     §     §

Near the beginning of Fasting, Ms. Baab opined that we might want to give up "journaling," a word not to be found in my sixteen volume OED. Now she wants us to be wary of things that can "grab ahold" of us, a transitive phrase also missing from my favorite dictionary. Perhaps it is time for all of us to embark on a fast from reading, if not writing, bad grammar.

--- Mary Fischer, MA


I Golfed
Across Mongolia

How an Improbable Adventure
Helped Me Rediscover
The Spirit of Golf (And Life)

André Tolmé
(Thunder's Mouth Press)
When this turned up on our desk, we thought, sure: Some creep seeking to escape his personal mid-life crises by taking a bag of golf clubs and trekking across that blank place in the map between China and Russia, then writing a book about it.

Were we wrong. André Tolmé is one of us. Sure he hacks his way with a three-iron across a 200,000,000 yard golf course in Central Asia, losing 510 balls, getting excruciating blisters on his feet and hands, screwing up his knee, walking (or wading) through the tall ground-cover, up to his ass in mosquitoes, wind-storms, maddened yaks, Mongolian cuisine (fat and horse-milk tea), and, of all things, depression.

    That I could break a leg, or get attacked and robbed. Then at least I'd have a reason to quit. I'd have a real, physical, tangible reason to put an end to this idiotic mission. I wouldn't have to anguish over the issue any more, debating whether or not to continue. I'd have clarity.

At last, a goofus embarking on a truly stupid adventure telling us that it is a truly stupid adventure, that he should be shot (or he wishes he could be shot), regretting the moment when he came up with all this foolishness. Our heart is with him.

Even more, we come to love this nut. And Mongolia. The country is big, and wild; the food is awful, and the culture is ... well, different, so to speak.

But this is not just the tale of a guy living with the consequences of his decision to do something dotty. It is also an excellent guide book to any of us who may be thinking of visiting Mongolia (with or without golf club). It is also extremely funny, one of the best belly-laughs I've run into in some time. Imagine golfing --- golfing --- through a country where you don't know the language, explaining to people who have never seen you, much less the paraphernalia of golf, that you are on foot, hitting this white thing every 150 yards or so as you go along. He overhears a bus-driver explaining to his passengers, "This crazy bastard actually walked here all the way from Choibalsan, hitting a little white ball."

After he crosses Khentii Province, he finds a "guanz" where he can get a meal, probably mutton stew, complete with fat, mutton fat, and some more fat. "Sitting at another of the tables are two well-dressed men with empty bowls in front of them. They look in my direction, and one of them addresses me in English.

"'Hello' he says. 'How are you doing?'"

    This is the first time I've heard English in ten days, and I respond eagerly. "I'm fine. It's not too hot today. They only have black soup on the menu, but they've got bottles of water and juice for sale," I ramble. There's so much that I want to say that I just don't know where to begin. I'm sure I must sound like a raving idiot to these guys, but they were the ones who started the conversation, so I can't help it.

"'I've been walking for nine days straight, well, golfing actually. I'm hitting a ball across the country. I started in Choibalsan but I'm coming from Öndörkhaan now. It's taken nine days to get here from Öndörkhaan.'"

"'Oh, that sounds interesting,' he replies with an enthusiasm that shows some effort. 'We're from Japan and we're here on business. We're going to Khentii province now.' The second man lifts his head to speak. 'Did you say that you were ... golfing?'"

§     §     §

After the thirteenth hole, Tolmé decides to throw in the towel. Not because of the wind and the cold and the blisters and the mosquitoes and the rain. No, it's the putting greens. The grass is just too tall. He keeps losing his golf-balls.

At least that is the reason given, but we suspect that after "exactly half the expedition," the toil if not the toll had gotten to be just too much. It isn't the end. In nine months, in 2004, he will come back to Bayanhongor to finish his odyssey. But by this time, the book has run out of steam. The words don't come as easily; his philosophizing about what he had gained from 12,000 tee-offs gets weighty; the political history of Mongolia unnecessary, if not confounding.

But if you are willing to buy a book in which only the first two-thirds is gold, I Golfed Across Mongolia is it. And whatever Tolmé's next shot --- whether it be billiards across Nebraska, hop-scotching over the glaciers of the Antarctic or mumble-de-pegging through Tasmania --- it will be worth waiting for.

There are some of us who don't much care for golfing in any form. But in Tolmé's volume there are moments when his feeling for the game rubs off on even those of us who are decidedly golfaphobic: "The golf ball rockets off the club face toward a cloudless blue sky. A perfect white orb, reflecting the morning sun against a rich blue canvas as it spins furiously in the air and hangs for a moment before succumbing to gravity and dropping gently back to earth."

    The perfect golf shot brings a feeling of satisfaction that those who have never played the game are unlikely to understand. It's incredible how far a golf ball can travel when perfectly hit --- defying one's intuitive assumptions of our physical world as it flies beyond the limits of our visual accuracy.

Finally, I have to confess that I scarcely expected to find in a silly book on golfing in Mongolia one of the best short descriptions extant about going bananas ... and Tolmé felt himself going over the edge more than once. Once in the Tov province, he hears "bizarre high-pitched noises." He decides it is aliens bent on abducting him. If it happens he wonders who he could tell about it. No one would believe him, or they would think him bonkers. "I'd be forced to keep this incredible experience to myself for fear that people would think I was crazy. Ironically, keeping it to myself probably would drive me crazy. It's a classic no-win situation, and after some time I began hoping that the strange noises would just stop and that no aliens would visit my tent."

    This is the part that worried me. How does one know if he's going crazy, if there's no one else around to hear him? There's no objective opinion. His own mind is the suspect, but it's also the judge and jury. And, quite frankly, who in their right mind would pronounce their right mind wrong? And how could they tell the difference if they weren't in their right mind?

So he concludes, somewhat wistfully, "This is a depressing subject for me to be dwelling on alone, so I tell myself (silently) that I should stop talking to myself. I don't want to take any chances."

Naturally, he doesn't.


[Letter]
To: lolitalark@yahoo.com

Subject: Ralph Mag Reviews

Ms Lark,

I have received more than a few e-mails from readers of my books about comments posted on your website regarding your review of My Bloody Life so I decided to write you myself.

Maybe your loyal base would like to know that the kid in the picture posted on

http://www.ralphmag.org/DX/letters3.html

is not me --- at any age. I have attached a picture of me that you can post if you wish.

I enjoyed the review -- keep up the good work.

--- Reymundo Sanchez
reymundosanchez@nogangs.com
www.nogangs.com
Learn to Survive Outside The Hood!

[The review that inspired this letter can be found at
www.ralphmag.org/AC/bloody-life.html]


Medieval Obscenities
Nicola McDonald, Editor
(University of York)
Well, we knew there were some sizzling passages in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and we suspected there might be some rustic by-play in Dante's Divine Comedy, but even our best teachers didn't tell us about the suspected rape in the Roman de la Rose, and we certainly never heard of "Sir Stiffy" (En Montan) in songs of the troubadors.

Michelin's Guide Rouge to Leon didn't suggest we look at the choir stall at the cathedral where there is a bespectacled bare bottom, According to Michael Camille, "when the stall was occupied, this face was squeezed up against a canon's big rear end." Michelin's guide to the Loire Valley also did little to advise us to look for the "bottom with acanthus," bare bum hanging out, literally, on the cathedral at Bourges.

But here they are. As the late art historian Camille tells us, there was no such word as "obscene" in medieval French. The bum, he says, was literally the "site of power."

    As anyone who had ever been constipated knows, there is nothing wrong with shitting and most medieval sculptural representations concern inducing rather than stopping it.

The bare bum "was not shocking to its medieval audience, precisely because it did not represent the defiling or penetrating of the vulnerable and highly sexualized male body." But, he continues,

    I think it is too easy to sentimentalize medieval obscenity whether it be in Chaucer or these sculptures, to make them part of a 'weren't they open-minded then' sort of view.

"The theatre of the anus was always open for performance, both inside and outside the Church, and it was a serious business even when it was meant to make us laugh."

§     §     §

There are ten contributors to Medieval Obscenities, and they are a respectable bunch, coming to us from such places as St. John's College, Oxford, University of Chicago, University of York, and the National Museum of Ireland. It is our own conditioning, as further enhanced by television and movies, that makes us think that professors have to be stuffy and dull. Forget it. What they write here is a lot of fun.

There are, as Eamonn Kelly reports, "sheela-na-gigs" of Ireland: "grotesque sculptures of naked females," stone carvings on churches and on doorways, as well as ivory and copper pipe tampers. Emma Dillon gives us the low-down on "rude noises" trumpeting through the Divine Comedy.

Glenn Davis writes on erotic riddles in Beowulf, the Life of Saint Mary and the Old English Penitential. Jeremy Goldberg examines records of church courts for a chapter on "Voyeurism and 'Pornography,' in Late Medieval England," and Simon Gaunt convinces us that some troubadour lyrics might be seen as the progenitors of rap; viz., this lyric from Guilhem IX:

    I'm well aware of the difference
    between sense and folly, and know
    shame and honour, and feel boldness
    and fear; and if you propose a game of
    love to me, I'm not so simple-minded as
    not to know how to choose the better
    from the bad ones.

§     §     §

The editor, Nicola McDonald, observes that the language used in this volume would not have been condoned "until relatively recently." However,

    A three-centimetre tall, crowned and mounted caricature of a vulva, armed with whip and crossbow, from the last fourteenth or early fifteenth century and designed to be worn, defies modern interpretation ... As soon as we give it a name --- "Vulva on Horseback," "Pussy Goes A Hunting" or simply "Louise," [quoting from a catalogue of "Billy and Charlie's Pewter Goods" of Malvern, Pennsylvania] we initiate the discursive process (as I have already done in this introduction), [and] immediately betray, and are in turn limited by, our own interpretation and our own agenda.

As Barry Goldwater "so memorably (and impossibly) put it:" As a father and a grandfather I know, by golly, what is obscene and what isn't. "Obscenity," McDonald concludes, "is culturally and temporally specific."

--- Lolita Lark

[Reading]
The Beating
Of the Heart
Eleven times the muscle of my heart contracted while I was writing the four words of the preceding sentence. Perhaps six hundred times since I began to write this little chapter. Seven hundred thirty-two million, one hundred thirty-six thousand, three hundred twenty times, since I moved into the hotel. And no less than one billion, sixty-seven million, six hundred thirty-six thousand, one hundred sixty times has my heart beat since a day in 1919, at Fort George G. Meade, when an army doctor, Captain John Frisbee, informed me, during the course of my predischarge physical examination, that each soft beat my sick heart beat might be my sick heart's last.

Having poured my drink, I may not live to taste it, or that it may pass a live man's tongue to burn a dead man's belly; that having slumbered, I may never wake, or having waked, may never living sleep. Having heard tick, will I hear tock? Having served, will I volley? Having sugared will I cream? Having eithered, will I or? Itching, will I scratch? Hemming, will I haw?

--- From The Floating Opera
John Barth
©1956 Bantam Books


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