Cnámh – Bone

And my second poem for St. Patrick’s Day, again from Nuala Ní Dhohmnaill’s Selected Poems: Rogha Dánta, ably translated by Michael Hartnett but with my poor translation below instead.


ba chnámh mé
ar an má
i measc na gcnámharlach eile.
Sa ghaineamhlach iargúlta
i lár na gcloch is na gcarraigeacha
bhíos lom, bán.

Tháinig an ghaoth,
puth d’anála,
shéid sé an t-anam
Dhein díom bean,
múnlaithe as ceann
d’easnacha Adhaimh.

Th´inig an gála,
shéid sé go láidir,
chuala do ghuth
ag glaoch orm sa toirneach.
Dhein díom Éabha,
máthair an chine.
Dhíolas m’oidhreachtthar ceann mo chlainne.
Mhalartaíos úll
ar an dúil ba shine.

is crámh mé.


I was a bone
on the plain
mixed with other skeletons.
In a lonely desert
among the rocks and stones
I was bare, white.

The wind came,
a puff of breath,
it blew the soul
into me.
I was made woman,
molded from
Adam’s rib.

The storm came,
blew forcefully,
I heard your voice
calling to me through the thunder.
I was made Even,
mother of the race.
I sold my birthright
for the sake of my children.
I traded an apple
for the most basic desire.

Yet still
I am a bone.

Sionnach – Fox

For St. Patrick’s Day, the first of two poems by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, with my poor translation.


A Mhaidrín rua,
rua rua rua rua,
nach breá nach bhfuil fhios agat
dá mhéid a ritheann leat,
sa deireadh
gurb é siopa an fhionnadóra
a bheid mar chríoch ort.

Nílimidne filí
pioc difriúl.
Deir John Berryman
go ndeir Gottfried Benn
go bhfuilimid ag úsáid ár gcraiceann
nuar pháipéar falla
is go mbhuafar orainn.

Ach fógra do na fionnadóirí;
bígí cúramach.
Ní haon giorria
í seo agaibh
ach sionnach rua
anuas ón gcnoc.
Bainim snap
as l´mh mo chothaithe.


O little red fox,
red, red, so red
how well you know not
that no matter how you run
that at last
in the furrier’s shop
you’ll meet your end.

With us poets
there’s not a jot of difference.
John Berryman says
that Gottfried Benn says
that we are using our skins
for wallpaper
and that we cannot win.

But a warning to furriers;
be careful.
It’s not a hare
you have there
but a cunning red fox
come down from the hills
I’ll snap
the hand that feeds me.

Some notes. This is from Selected Poems: Rogha Dánta, translated by Michael Hartnett. His translation is a little different from mine, and probably a lot better. I stole the second line from him; the “red red red red” of the original sounds better in Irish, the “red, red, so red” that Hartnett gives has almost a fairy tale feel.

The reference in the second stanza to John Berryman and Gottfriend Benn is to Berryman’s Dream Song #53. Benn was a German Expressionist poet who had initially supported the Nazis, then broke with them (but not very forcefully); immediately after the war, his work was banned by the Allies because of his earlier support of the Nazis, though he was rehabilitated in later years. He may not be a bad example at all of a poet who bit the hands that fed him.

Ní Dhomhnaill uses two words for “fox”–“sionnach” and “madra (diminutive maidrín) rua.” “Maidrín rua” is literally “little red dog,” whereas “sionnach” has a sense more of a fox’s craftiness than its smallness. We don’t have this distinction in English, one word apparently enough for the fox. That’s why I added “cunning” in the last stanza.

Hartnett uses the English idiom “bite/at the hand that feeds me,” which is certainly accurate to the tone of the poem. But I like that the English word “snap” makes its way into the poem (it’s also in my Irish dictionary, which made me suspect that it’s of Irish origins, but it appears to be a Germanic word that probably made its way into Irish from English). So I kept it, for its … well, snappiness.

Tam Lin by Fairport Convention

Today’s October tale is based on Child Ballad 39, “Tam Lin,” the story of a mortal knight captured by the fairy queen and doomed to be tithed to Hell on Halloween unless his true love can hold him through a series of fearsome transformations. Fairport Convention’s recording is the classic, of course, with Sandy Denny’s amazing voice spinning the story.

The Ravine by Ray Bradbury

The nights are getting longer, the trees barer, the wind chillier … for me, October is the kickoff to the season of spooky stories (which culminates, of course, with the tradition of Victorian ghost stories at Christmas time). And so this month, I’d like to share some of my favorite spooky tales.

Ray Bradbury’s “The Ravine” is a chapter in Dandelion Wine, and has also had a successful life on its own; I first ran into it in a wonderful Alfred Hitchcock collection, “Stories for Late at Night.” When I walk the dogs at night along the Mississippi River, up above the bluffs between Lake Street and Ford Parkway, I often think of this story, and it never fails to give me the chills.

This radio version captures the bravado and fear in just the right mix.

the moon on a leash

november 18

Cloudy, dark and windy.

Walking by flashlight
at six in the morning,
my circle of light on the gravel
swinging side to side,
coyote, raccoon, field mouse, sparrow,
each watching from darkness
this man with the moon on a leash.

It’s April, National Poetry Month (the sweetest or cruelest month, or maybe both, depending on one’s relationship to Chaucer and Eliot). And though poetry ought to be celebrated every month, calling out April to notice verse can’t be a bad thing.

I was reminded that it’s April by this NPR story about Maria Schneider and Dawn Upshaw collaborating on an album of settings of Ted Kooser’s Winter Morning Walks. The poem highlighted in the story, which turns a flashlight into the moon on a leash watched by wary crepuscular creatures, is just the sort of quiet magic spell that good poetry can accomplish. Later this month I’ll be camping and hiking with my Boy Scout troop, and I’m sure that this image of the moon on a leash will come back and make setting up tents in the dark a little less tedious and little more wonderful.

The Man in the High Castle

To have no historicity, and also no artistic, esthetic worth, and yet to partake of some ethereal value–that is a marvel. Just precisely because this is a miserable, small, worthless-looking blob; that, Robert, contributes to its possessing wu. For it is a fact that wu is customarily found in least imposing places, as in the Christian aphorism, ‘stones rejected by the builder.'”
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Why did no one make me read this book earlier? Or, considering that I have smart friends who certainly recommended this book to me over the years, why didn’t I listen and read this book a long time ago?

At the very least, I would have understood Mirage a lot better.

The Man in the High Castle is an alternate history–the Axis powers win World War II and divide the United States into Nazi and Japanese spheres of influence–but it’s much more than that. It’s a hall of mirrors, with an alternate history–“The Grasshopper Lies Low,” in which the Allies win the war–buried within the alternate history; it’s a political intrigue about the machinations of the fascist state, with its various overlapping branches and organizations attempting to thwart each other during a time of regime change; it’s a love story, a road story, an esoteric meditation in which the world is a book written by a book, the I Ching, that is randomly generated by the world.

It’s a subtle book–except for some jarring moments of violence (a Nazi operative is murdered, a skirmish in the Japanese consulate in San Francisco thwarts a Nazi kidnapping raid), there isn’t much action. But it’s a strangely unsettling book, packed with unstated ideas and unexamined consequences. As soon as you grasp what’s going on, something happens to throw it all out of place again.

Tenth of December

Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them? He’d been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping, and was still afraid of that, and yet, at the same time, now saw that there would still be many–many drops of goodness, is how it came to him–many drops of happy–of good fellowship–ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not–had never been–his to withheld.
Tenth of December by George Saunders

I’m not sure that I’d go quite so far as The New York Times in proclaiming that Tenth of December is the best book you’ll read this year; the year is young, and I read a lot of books. But it is probably the best book I’ve read so far this year, or at least a very close second, and it’s certainly the best book I’ve read this year that was published this year.

There are some things that have always irked me about George Saunders’ stories. His characters are a singularly inarticulate bunch, seemingly incapable of introspection and oblivious to their surroundings. While that may well be the point of stories like “Al Roosten” and “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the point once having been made could probably be dropped, or at least suppressed. When I read one of his stories in “The New Yorker,” I sometimes feel a little cheated, as if I’ve got an issue with two “Shouts and Murmurs” columns instead of one clever but forgettable bit of satire and one solid short story.

But then I’ll read a story like “Escape from Spiderhead,” which explodes the Milgram experiment with a devastating example of human compassion, or “Home,” which counters all the stupid horror of the last two decades with subtle grace, or “Tenth of December,” which is the simplest expression of loving kindness in contemporary fiction, and I completely forgive Saunders for the numbing sameness of his characters’ voices. The world he offers up–of free will subverted by all manner of carefully (or not-so-carefully) wrought chemicals, of tawdry fame, of devastating but unthinking cruelty–is certainly our own; but the solutions he offers, or that his characters stumble into, are from so simple and beautiful a place that they are wholly alien.

From a writer’s perspective, the other thing I value in Saunders’ stories is their complete disregard for realism. Though Saunders’ moral universe is quite close to Andre Dubus’, he gleefully launches into the middle of a logical universe closer to Douglas Adams’ without needing to build the scaffolding to get there. Things aren’t just slightly off-kilter in his world; they can be extremely off-kilter (psychological drug experiments on prisoners? employees given consciousness-altering drugs as a normal part of their duties? immigrants frozen into symbolic tableaux on status-conscious suburbanites’ front lawns?), but Saunders doesn’t try to explain how things got to this point. Instead, he trusts the goodwill of his readers to suspend their disbelief and come along for the ride; and the payoff for surrendering to the madness more than makes up for any narrative gaps.

Of course, Saunders earns that trust by delivering on his promises. His characters, as inarticulate and self-absorbed and naive as they are, deliver up the goods; even if they aren’t always shaken out of their complacency, we are, and are made to see ourselves, uncomfortably, mirrored in these stories.

What was the name of that love song you played?

This story about Michelle Shocked makes me sad. When her first album, “Short Sharp Shocked,” came out, it quickly became and remained one of my favorites. The mixture of the personal and the political, love songs and agit-pop, stories about childhood hijinks and police brutality and reconnecting with old friends and the military-industrial complex, all to a swinging, bluesy, rockabilly twang, was so refreshing after a decade of synth pop. Michelle Shocked was Billy Bragg mixed with Bonnie Raitt, an anarchist hillbilly with a wicked sense of humor.

I understand that people change, and not always for the best. That personal struggles lead us all down different paths. Michelle Shocked went from being a Mormon kid in Texas who never fit in, to a rock ‘n’ roll rebel, to a born-again Christian; it couldn’t have been an easy journey, and I can certainly respect the spiritual efforts that brought her to the West Angeles Church of God in Christ. It’s hard to square her music with her angry anti-gay tirade, the love the suffuses her early records with the hatred she spewed about “the downfall of civilization” that marriage equality threatens for her. It’s even harder to square her support for the Occupy movement with her bigotry.

People change, but I don’t think that has to mean that the music changes. Will I feel a little differently now when I hear “If Love Was a Train,” “Hello Hopeville,” or “Come a Long Way”? Probably. But are they still great songs? Definitely. I thought that the backlash against Cat Stevens’ stupidity at about the same time I was cranking the volume on Shocked’s “Captain Swing” was dumb; if “Peace Train” was a great song before, it surely remained a great song after. I’m not going to go out and buy any new Michelle Shocked albums for a while, but I’ll hold on to those great early albums in the hope that she’ll turn around.

And I have confidence that she will come around in time. It’s painfully ironic that Michelle Shocked has identified herself as a lesbian in the past (quite explicitly in this 1990 Dallas Voice interview):

I spent the first 18, 19 years of my life wondering why, in just depression, why I didn’t fit in. I’m so amazed when I talk to a lot of younger fans who are so clear about their sexual orientation as a lesbian. I’m like “how did they know?”

The personal tension in her heart, the conflict between equally valid parts of her soul, has got to be unbearable; and out of that pain, it’s not surprising that fear and anger spew forth. I hope that she finds a way to square things up, to find peace with herself and her world in a way that makes sense, and can let go of the fear.

Gleanings: February 2, 2013

Sophie In North Korea

  1. Go to North Korea if you can. It is very, very strange.
  2. If it is January, disregard the above. It is very, very cold.
  3. Nothing I’d read or heard beforehand really prepared me for what we saw.

Read the full story …

Tavis Smiley on Obama and MLK’s legacy — — Readability

Our future as a nation depends on how seriously we take the legacy of Dr. King: Justice for all, service to others, and a love that liberates people.

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A Casualty on the Battlefield of Amazon’s Partisan Book Reviews –

“Books used to die by being ignored, but now they can be killed — and perhaps unjustly killed,” said Trevor Pinch, a Cornell sociologist who has studied Amazon reviews. “In theory, a very good book could be killed by a group of people for malicious reasons.”

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Obama’s Startling Second Inaugural – James Fallows – The Atlantic

I was expecting an anodyne tone-poem about healing national wounds, surmounting partisanship, and so on. As has often been the case, Obama confounded expectations — mine, at least.

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Shamus Khan: The Flu and Why Paid Sick Days Matter |

While we typically look to doctors and medicines in a health crisis, we should recognize that guaranteeing paid sick days to workers could do as much, if not more, to help moderate the impact of influenza and other contagious diseases.

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A life lived is not about things | The View From Mrs. Sundberg’s Window | A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor, from American Public Media

Mindful then, that a life lived is not about things, but there are things in a lived life.

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How Much Can Restitution Help Victims of Child Pornography? –

The idea is to contain the harm: it happened then, and it’s not happening anymore. But how do you do that when these images are still out there? The past is still the present, which turns the hallmarks of treatment on their head.

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Exclusive: Boy Scouts close to ending ban on gay members, leaders – U.S. News

The Boy Scouts would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members or parents. Under this proposed policy, the BSA would not require any chartered organization to act in ways inconsistent with that organization’s mission, principles or religious beliefs,” he said.

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Love Story : Richard Panek

These books, like the papers and magazines on my desk, have been long untouched; they, too, have outlasted their urgency. But I can’t just jam them down the trash chute. I can’t just cast them out on the street. They’re books!


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What Gun Owners Really Want – Walter Kirn | New Republic

Firearms exist to manage situations where rationality has failed, so thinking rationally about them can be hard.


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After Ten Years: Enduring Lessons | Wayne Hale’s Blog

Better to ask a foolish question than to allow a mistake to be made. What is the worst that could happen to you? Lose your job? Lose the respect of your peers? Miss out on a promotion? Letting a mistake go unchallenged has other consequences: funerals, program shutdown, and life-long regret. Make your choice wisely – speak up rather than remain silent. If the organization can’t stand that, it’s the organization that needs to change.


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Attention ‘artisan authors’: digital self-publishing is harder than it looks – Alasdair Stuart

A podcast, a blog or digital publishing as a whole is simply a different road. It’s not a shortcut.

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Jared Diamond’s Guide to Reducing Life’s Risks –

This calculation illustrates the biggest single lesson that I’ve learned from 50 years of field work on the island of New Guinea: the importance of being attentive to hazards that carry a low risk each time but are encountered frequently.

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Gleanings: January 20, 2013

The Lives They Lived: Maurice Sendak –

Live your life, live your life, live your life.

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My So-Called Stalker: Negotiations with fear, obsession, and the D.C. police – Washington City Paper

I left the station dejected, but I consoled myself by rationalizing that I at least had a report on file to show my concern. I spent a distracted cocktail hour talking with my best friend, Rita, bewildered at how the laws were set up to protect Ron and not me.

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Satanic Panic Reading List

because once you start reading about this stuff, it can get a little obsessive

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The American Scholar: Demons Where Once There Were None – Jessica Love

What can people be persuaded, knowingly or not, to believe? Researchers once convinced four college students that as children they had probably witnessed demonic possession.

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What Makes Us Happy? – Joshua Wolf Shenk – The Atlantic

Maturation makes liars of us all.

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Murmuration. The poetry of the morning walk. : The Last Word On Nothing

If nature has ever produced a more perfect thing than the mesmerizing beauty of this starling swarm, I have yet to encounter it. No other phenomenon has ever stopped me in my tracks quite like this, made me forget everything else in the world except the brief moment of grace unfolding before me.

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The psychology of anthropomorphism, or why I felt empathy towards a piece of trash : The Last Word On Nothing

The bird had a right not to be thrown away, which made me want to rescue it. Its tiny size may have helped, Waytz adds, as we especially charge small animals or objects with emotion.

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Untangling the Mysteries of Alzheimer’s: Scientific American

One in eight Americans have Alzheimer’s disease.

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