Friday, December 22, 2006

"Charge of The Light Brigade"

(Guest blogged by Giant Sotong)

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
"Charge for the guns!" he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

"Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre stroke
Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson


A slip of the keyboard gave away my fondness for narrative poems, which included Robert Browning's Pied Piper of Hamelin, and Tennyson's Charge of The Light Brigade.

Charge was a bit more memorable because it commemorates an event that took place in one of the many battles fought during the Crimean War. From the moment I learned to read, I found fact more fascinating than fiction. This was evident in the number of encyclopaedias at home, one of which mentioned the infamous charge ("...the 600-odd riders charged towards the wrong guns!").

I first Tennyson's "account" of the charge during secondary school; the poem was part of a comprehension exercise. I vaguely remember flipping through all my English books looking for poetry and excerpts from books, more out of boredom than anything else; it was the only subject I excelled in without having to study. But I digress.

So, what was the Charge?

In the 19th century, an alliance of British, French and Turkish soldiers faced off the Russians in the Crimean War. The battle which saw Tennyson's Charge was to prevent the port of Balaclava, the British supply base, from falling into Russian hands. At one point during the battle, Russian soldiers managed to overrun a position manned by some Turks and made off with a small cache of British cannons. The Light Brigade, a detachment of lightly armed cavalry, was sent to retrieve the hardware.

However, the army commander who gave the order forgot to take the terrain into account. While he could follow the thieving Russians from his vantage point high above the battlefield, that path was not visible to the Light Brigade. They ended up charging into a narrow valley bristling with a live battery of guns manned by the Russian Don Cossacks. The army commander could only watch as the cavalry rode towards their doom.

Fortunately for the Light Brigade, all wasn't lost. The Don Cossacks, caught off-guard by the cavalry's reckless manoeuvre, didn't score as many kills as they should have. Unable to retrieve the stolen guns, the Light Brigade had to make do with the Don Cossacks.

While the Charge completely freaked out the Russians, it was less well-received at home. The usual finger-pointing and drama took place over who was to blame. It's all depressing when you realise all this hasn't changed much after two centuries. Nobody chose to fault the soldiers, who were eulogised by press and poet alike.

Warfare has since evolved, but the factors that made the Charge possible still haunts today's armies. When it eventually ends, who will pay homage to the US' Noble Three Thousand (and Counting)?

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

"Death of a Village"

intimations of death
heavy in the air
there is the stench
of decay and despair

The river
strangled by
of industrialisation
is dying….
and nobody cares

The fish
in the river
poisoned by
progress’s vomit
are dying….
and nobody cares

The birds
that feed on the fish
in the river
poisoned by
progress’s excrement
are dying….
and nobody cares

And so
a once-proud village
for centuries
by the richness
of this river
And nobody cares

To that mammon
our high priests
our customs
our culture
our traditions
and environment
and nobody cares

We blind mice
We blind mice
see what we’ve done
see what we’ve done
We all ran after
Progress’s wife
she cut off our heads
with Development’s knife
have you ever seen
such fools in your life
as we blind mice?

By Cecil Rajendra


Before discussing the poem itself, let me first begin by introducing the poet, Cecil Rajendra – one of the few Malaysian poets writing in the English language today, hence the reason why he is also the first Malaysian featured on this blog so far. Personally I have not read much of his poetry and would also confess to not being a particular fan of his poetry, but I have a deep respect for how his poetry gives voice to the socially marginalised and act as a conscience for the environment. Not as widely read in Malaysia, Cecil Rajendra’s poetry has travelled far and wide, cited by WWF, UNICEF, UNESCO, National Geographic and Amnesty International.

Bluntly (or sharply) direct, this poem is probably one that discomforts us, sitting uneasily with some of our sensibilities. We would agree that the environment should be protected, but is development wrong? Can progress be bad? Well, whether we agree or not, I think this poem still has some important things to ‘say’.

The first stanza confronts and assails our senses with rotting smells of dead and decaying matter. The word “hang” plays not only with how the air reeks, but how it is a kind of death by ‘hanging’, choking out the clean air we need to breath. How has this come about? We need not look further than the following stanzas to know that it comes from the excesses and wastes produced from industrial development that have not been properly cleaned and disposed of.

In a repetitious cycle, the stanzas of the poem take us along the ecological trail of destruction, from the polluted river to the dead and rotting fish, to the dying birds that eat the poisoned fish, to the slow death of the village which depends on the river for water and livelihood. Yes, not everybody live in villages, but the point made by the poem is that we are still bound to the environment; and regardless whether we like it or not, whatever we do will ultimately have an effect on the balance of the whole ecological system with us in it as well.

As much as the poem seems to denounce urban and technological modernity in causing the death of the village, I would suggest we take the village less in its literal sense, and see it metaphorically instead as a reference to developing nations that are moving from a self-sufficient agrarian economy to an industrial one involved in the global production of goods. These developing nations have often gone on a headlong drive towards rapid development, losing sight on the need for environmental management and protection, hence resulting in environmental degradation that come back to haunt later.

One need not think far then to recall how a mercuric sludge discharged from a factory in China last year cause widespread panic for people living along that river. Closer to home, Malaysia has seen its own share of environmental problems recently such as how the poor management of a waste dump caused severe health problems for residents living in the area and the landslides caused by indiscriminate and ill conceived housing development on hilly slopes.

Such blind pursuit of ‘progress’ is indicted as a form of false worship, where everything is sacrificed in the name of mammon, the false god of greed and money. The ‘progress’ sought after leaves behind its metaphorical “vomit” and “excrement” that spills over into the supposedly better lives improved through development. The sharp satirical tone here powerfully undercuts and questions what we believe is ‘development’, forcing us to rethink and reassess the manner in which such development are being carried out.

At the end, the final stanza, in keeping with the tenor of the poem, parodies the well-known nursery rhyme “Three blind mice” into “We blind mice” - we who in our blindness have become fools. Instead of innocence, the ‘nursery rhyme’ becomes a bitter satire, recalling the angry and resigned refrain “and nobody cares”. How sad this is.

Indeed, we need to care, though sometimes it is not that nobody cares, but rather nobodies care, who are also not able to care.

On a short note: During his early days as a lawyer, Cecil Rajendra set up a free legal aid service for rural communities. In this light, the village mentioned in the poem could also be a reference to rural and/or indigenous communities whose lives are threatened when corrupt greed allows unfettered and unmonitored development.
This poem may well be timely with this, Loggers and Penan Blockade, and this Forest Resources Depleting

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Wilderness by Patti Smith

Do animals make a human cry
when their loved one staggers
fowled dragged down
the blue veined river

Does the female wail
miming the wolf of suffering
do lilies trumpet the pup
plucked for skin and skein

Do animals cry like humans
as I having lost you
yowled flagged
curled in a ball

This is how
we beat the icy field
shoeless and empty handed
hardly human at all

Negotiating a wilderness
we have yet to know
this is where time stops
and we have none to go

Wilderness is quite germane to some situation I’m in at the moment. I came across this particular poem as the Saturday poem of the first week of December, in The Guardian Books section. Then, it was about a couple of weeks since I gave up my two cats, and, now, a few weeks back, another two more. Lately I have been having panic attacks thinking about their future. I’m assured of the good placements of the earlier pair, one of them a kitten only a few months old. He is having a great life, I know, because his new owner carries him around everywhere she goes. And his big brother loves to wander around the housing estate, coming back only late at night, preferring to sleep outside the house, in a cat carrier. The other two still worry me as I have no idea how they are getting on, and one of them is the mother to all the other three Toms.

So, Do animals make a human cry, when their loved one staggers/ … Does the female wail/ miming the wolf of suffering ?

You would notice that the lines in the first three stanzas are instinctively read out as questions, even though there are no question marks to indicate them as such. Actually, overall, there is not a single punctuation, of any kind: no commas to help you to pause or to demarcate syntactical groupings, no full stops to signal a sentence pause. You are only aware of the start of a new sentence by the capitalization on the first line of every stanza.

Of the absence of the question marks, the poet is telling the reader that the questions may also be assertions or statements. Yes, she could aver, animals do sometimes make cries that sound human when their young and mates are injured. In the second stanza it is not so obvious if the female here is referring to someone human. But I bet it could well be, when the next, or third, stanza, has for the first line a variation of that of the first stanza. In the third stanza the animal and human elements in pain and loss are brought together, and, closer still, those of the person of the poet or narrator.

We now know the reason she is asking (or stating) those questions. She herself has lost someone, and her pain is so very graphic in the lines with yowled flagged/curled in a ball. These lines have poignance when each verb is read out with such emphasis, without even needing any commas to separate them to slow the pace. The three words utilize the “l” sounds to draw out the reading, much like some ululation; also “ed” helps to put some virtual pauses between the words. You should note that yowled flagged echoes fowled dragged in assonance in the first stanza, also in a third line. These two groups link the pain and loss felt by animals to similar emotions in humans, particularly the poet’s personally.

In the penultimate stanza, even if we can beat the icy field (standing for pain, perhaps) by being shoeless and empty handed (like animals), the poets tells us this is not human in nature. Of mother nature, she instills some human traits, into the river with “blue veins”, and into flowers, with lilies crying out.

In the last stanza nature is invoked again, for the last time, as a wilderness, where we are still not aware of time stopping here. The way the line breaks after wilderness, without a comma we can mistake the next groupings to be describing this wilderness. But, really, reading past “know” onto the next line, we realize those groupings are not qualifying “wilderness”.

The last line, with “none”, can be taken as and there is no more to move into. Or and we have nothing to go to. However, as the preposition to is missing at the end, those interpretations are very shaky. “None” can also be a Roman Catholic service used to be read or chanted at 3pm or before. This is the ninth canonical hour beginning from sunrise. So, we can read this as this is where time stops, when we chant the none.

Again, I could be wrong, as there are no religious motifs to imply none as religious, and the main motifs are all of Nature and rather pagan.

And this is also where the poet appropriately ends her lines and does not pen more.

Note on poet: Patti Smith is famous as a punk rocker in the 70's, with her debut album "Horses". Her latest book of poems "Auguries of Innocence" is out this year from Virago of UK.

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Monday, December 04, 2006

"Prayer Before Birth"

I am not yet born; O hear me.
Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the
club-footed ghoul come near me.

I am not yet born, console me.
I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me,
with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,
on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.

I am not yet born; provide me
With water to dandle me, grass to grow for me, trees to talk
to me, sky to sing to me, birds and a white light
in the back of my mind to guide me.

I am not yet born; forgive me
For the sins that in me the world shall commit, my words
when they speak me, my thoughts when they think me,
my treason engendered by traitors beyond me,
my life when they murder by means of my
hands, my death when they live me.

I am not yet born; rehearse me
In the parts I must play and the cues I must take when
old men lecture me, bureaucrats hector me, mountains
frown at me, lovers laugh at me, the white
waves call me to folly and the desert calls
me to doom and the beggar refuses
my gift and my children curse me.

I am not yet born; O hear me,
Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God
come near me.

I am not yet born; O fill me
With strength against those who would freeze my
humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton,
would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with
one face, a thing, and against all those
who would dissipate my entirety, would
blow me like thistledown hither and
thither or hither and thither
like water held in the
hands would spill me.

Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me.
Otherwise kill me.
by Louis MacNeice


Another poem that has lived in my head for years, and I came back to it thinking that it probably fitted my over-simple adolescent way of looking at the world, but would seem a little preachy now. But the poem re-encountered turned out to be every bit as powerful as I remembered it, and such a joy to read aloud for its music.

Louis MacNeice wrote Prayer Before Birth in 1944, during the bombing of London, but the words would be as relevant in any age, the prayer a universal one.

It's a dramatic monologue giving voice to a child in the womb, as yet unspoiled by the ways of the world he is about to enter, and a clean slate on which the world will write his fate.

The poem flows from stanza to stanza in a rapid incantation of all the possible dangers the child may face beginning with the creatures of fable and nightmare, and moving on rapidly to include the horrors created by humanity.

The repetition of words and sounds - rhyme and alliteration (the repetition of initial sounds) is particularly striking:
... tall walls wall me,/
with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,/
on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.
There's a change in tone in the third stanza, which is a plea for all the things the child prays life will offer him: Not just a pure physical environment to grow up in, but also clear moral guidelines. Surely such things are the right of any child?

The pace of the poem builds rapidly as a whole catalogue of evils is compiled. The child asks for forgiveness for sins not his own, but rather the sins the world will commit through him (including even murder) as his individuality is hijacked by a morally corrupt regime.

One of the most frightening facts about war surely is this. That when the killers and perpetrators of atrocities are later unmasked, they turn out to be so utterly ordinary, so much like ourselves. While:
... the man who is beast or who thinks he is God
is probably a reference to Hitler.

MacNiece controls the pace so beautifully through punctutation, especially at the end of the poem. The penultimate stanza is one long breathless sentence and the repetition of words and sounds show the agitation of the speaker. We've had the catalogue of possible evils given to us - and now the child prays to be taught how to cope with the worst that the world may throw at him or he will end up a man totally undone, completely lost. The images (thistledown, spilled water) are of total disintegration.

The pace slows right down in the last two stanza with its two stark statements. He prays not to become "a stone" having lost all humanity, or to be destroyed.

The last sentence shocks. As it should.

(You can hear the poet reading this piece here).

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Anagrams After OuLiPo by Kevin McFadden

Here is another one of those “is this poetry?!” posts. *grin*

Today I will share two poems by Kevin McFadden which first appeared in an online poetry journal, Archipelago (Volume 6, No. 1). There are a great many things to say about these poems, and especially to comment on what the poet says about them in an interview in the following issue of the journal. Then, there is the connection with OuLiPo, which I will leave for the reader to explore—there were many other interesting poems at Archipelago but it was the reference to OuLiPo which intrigued me and led me to these poems; they are a fascinating group that have produced some very interesting work, and I was thrilled to find these:
“Variations Against The Credo Of Raving Saviours”
(In the manner of the OuLiPo) by Kevin McFadden

To be great is to be misunderstood.
I bet it’s true, Emerson. Too bad. God’s
too big to estimate, dress unrobed.
Greatness is to dote, bob, dim out, re-
store, ebb, a too-odd gesture in mist,
to grab onto tidbits (seed, ore, muse)
and gibber. O tides, O meteors, totus
orbis, mein Gott, déesse
, art, O doubt,
Tao, dross, bromides, bite tongue! Et
tu, Emerson? So it’s great to be odd, bi-
odegrade into ribs, testtubes. Moo
to be tiger misunderstood, O beast,
O song mistreated. So be it. But doer,
deed are one big orbit. Toss utmost
reason out, it’d better be good. (Miss
most, but so?) A desire to be God inert,
to be soirée absurd, totems doting
in sedate bedroom grottoes. But is
it great to be so misunderstood, be
moot? outside sense? to brag dirt? Be
modest bores? to diatribe tongues
tied? Dog mottoes, rabbit neuroses:
sit, be obedient, taste good. Rumors
run aside doom, boost getters, bite
gottens. Bid me adieu. Boots resort
to ties, bodies but to Emerson. Drag
mud in. Obsess. Edit rot. To be great
is not “odd I,” “obstruse me.” To be great
is to resent to be misread, but good.
“The credo of raving saviours” is, of course, “to be great is to be misunderstood” and what Kevin McFadden did was—masterfully; it's not as easy at it sounds—to construct a poem from anagrams (“variations”) of that line.

His anagram-poems were published in Archipelago (Vol.6, No. 1) and in the next issue of the online journal, there is an interview where he describes the process:
Usually I take a line of this monolithic dimension, something we’ve heard so often it’s recognizable. Something we know so well or, if it is contemporary, something I think we will one day know so well it is taken as a kind of proverb. Then, I begin taking it apart at its letters, seeing what arises, and let it rebuild itself into a new form. Each line has to have the same combination of letters, exactly, as any other line. It is my hope that when a poem begins “There’s nothing new under the sun” and ends “There in the unsung, wonder’s then” that we’ve tried to move a monument. Or at least graffiti on the monument’s other side. There are other times I choose a line I love and continue to riff on it. Usually by the end of an anagram poem you can tell whether, like some classical sonnets, the introductory arguments have been challenged or incorporated. Other times I withhold the seminal line until the end, or introduce it in the middle. Each has different effects.
So that's how McFadden rearranged the oft-quoted phrase from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “to be great is to be misunderstood” into “ I bet it’s true, Emerson. Too bad. God’s...” and then to continue with variation after variation, in a playful dialogue with the line itself, working and reworking the original meaning of the line through it's variations. The result is line after line, each in an innate and intricate conversation which each other.

Pretty slick, isn't it?

Sure, the poem sounds nonsensical. In fact, it's a bit like tapping into the stream of consciousness of an inmate at a mental asylum—or, as Kevin McFadden might put it, in a dyslexic state-of-mind—but it reminds me of Lewis Carrol's famous “Jabberwocky”,
'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Like many others who have fallen in love with the poem, when I first read “Jabberwocky” I had this weird feeling that although who knows what 'borogoves' are and what it means to be 'mimsy', I could still understand that there was a story. Every time I read “Jabberwocky” I am transported into the mind of a three-year old boy being told a bedtime story, but who does not yet understand fully everything that he hears.

And this is what it was like reading Kevin McFadden's anagram poems. Immediately they take me into a dreamlike state, making cascades of free-associations, letting the words take me wherever they want. In another poem, “Variations On Having Done It Again”, for example, I found a nice surprise at the end:
I like drama eaten in.
Lake air. I need a mint.
I like a dinner, a tame
Ariel diet, a.k.a., in men.

I like a dent, a marine
mania. I drink eel tea,
mandarin tea, i.e., like
karate, a lime, dine-in

linen. I take Madeira.
Make it adrenaline. I,
real Medea, I, anti-kin:
alienate me. I drink a

martini. A keen Delia
(I mean Ideal). Ink tear
in a tinker. A made-lie
in a limeade. In a trek,

a dreamlike tie-in, an
entree. I’m Kali. Naiad
(I mean Diana) reel kit.
Like in Ariadne. Mate

like a tread-in (I mean
meat) inner Aïda, like
a like. (I mean trade-in.)
I like a maiden rent, a

Lear kinda matinee. (I
mean real kinda.) I tie
inner kite, I, dame a la

Iliad. Tie an arm, knee.
Tie ankle. I marinade
And I eat men like air.
...Or maybe not such a nice surprise (“And I eat men like air”, italicized, is the original phrase.)

The poems, whimsical as they are, seem magical in the way they slip between sense and non-sense, and they are important (to me, at least) in the way that they reveal and explore the possibilities that a seemingly innocous phrase can offer in meaning. I have tried making one myself, and failed miserably ("I am the madcap machinist:Ha ha! dim semantic impact"), making me appreciate all the more the difficulty in mastering the craft of poetry, particu larly if one were to write 'something new, something you'—to borrow McFadden's phrase: like moving a monument. The poems seem to function outside of the rules of ordinary language, all in a peculiar logic of their own, and we are taken along for the ride. This has led me to believe that this is not just poetry— this is art (whatever you may call that!)

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