Wednesday, December 31, 2008

"The Loaves and Fishes"

is a bar outside of Bethlehem,
PA, where once your gin glass is filled,
it stays filled, like the clear, inexhaustible stuff
of the cosmos, and every swig begins
another big bang. Even the vermouth
grows from a single dewdrop and swirls
into another solar system, matter
never being destroyed, only . . . etcetera, etcetera.
So many universes down the smoky bar,
each held by its own little drunken deity,
who quaffs and holds forth on the meaning
of things, hoping the prophets
of the new olive-green planets
are taking all of this down.

William Greenway,
from Everywhere at Once.

Christmas is over, and the new year 2009 beckons. I didn't post this poem earlier, since it may be deemed as disrespectful to Christians, since it is secular, even though Christian references are made. In a way, too, I guess, posting this poem now adds perhaps a sobering dimension to the new year celebrations tonight, amidst the looming world economic crisis and events round the world that we might pause to think about, even as we celebrate.

PS. Apologies. My mistake in reading the poem, I read the location of Bethlehem, PA as a completely different place, as will be evident below. Perhaps my mind was dwelling very sadly on the other Bethlehem, not the one in Pennsylvania. PA, I mistook, off course, for the where the Bethlehem is. Anyways, most bits here I wrote are still, to a degree, relevant. It makes for more playful piece than I granted below.

The poem is set at a bar near Bethlehem, the birthplace for Jesus the Son of God for Christians, or as Muslims know him, the Prophet Isa. The name of the bar is Loaves and Fishes, a reference to one of the miracles Jesus performed, when taking five loaves of bread and two fish fed the thousands of people who gathered to listen to him preach. The food multiplied in the hands of people, as it was passed around, and everyone had their full. Jesus' feeding of the people satisfied their physical need for food, but in preaching to them, satisfied and nourished their spiritual hunger. In this poem, however, as Loaves and Fishes become the name of the bar, it secularly refers to the seeking of comfort or satisfaction in drinking.

Like Jesus' miracle, the drinks at the bar do not run out, but keep flowing, as the glasses stay filled (and refilled by presumably the bartenders there). Each drink is bottomless, and “each swig” “a big bang” - an explosion of the senses heightened and intensified. A perfect metaphor drawn from the secular and scientific theory of the formation of the universe, as opposed to God's creative powers. The swirling of vermouth in the glass becomes like the whirling of stardust from which the planets spring forth. As the drink goes down the throat, down into the body, it is as in physics, matter (or elements) that is not destroyed, but goes through the transference of energy, which in this case, bodily reactions and assimilation. The line “matter/ never being destroyed, only . . . etcetera, etcetera” not only captures this endless chain of energy or chemical changes, but how in drinking heavily, one drifts off and rambles on... One can see the wonderful aptness of the metaphors chosen and employed here in this poem, and how they are brought together (seeming) so effortlessly.

The “many universes down the smoky bar” points then to the patrons of the bar who in their solitary drinking are each in his own world (universe), each person a “little drunken deity” - a comically ironic phrase. The choice of the word “deity” instead of the word God is clearly a reference to Greek gods. So, like those gods, each sit lofty on 'Mount Olympus' drinking, frolicking and “holds forth” discourse on the “meaning/ of things”. Perhaps, “holds forth” is also a reference to the Greek philosophers like Socrates and Plato who held discourse on philosophical questions of things and their meaning. This again is ironic, for the men in their drunken state, but the use of enjambment where the line breaks from “meaning” “of things” puts on a strong emphasis on the word “meaning”. The pausing of reading makes us stop to rethink and reconsider why these men (perhaps, women too) are drunk, and why would they in such a state be talking about “meaning” and not other things else. There is now, maybe, a slight tinge of sadness here.

The word in the next line is “hoping” which suggests the need for something more which the drinking cannot quench or satisfy. They each hope, as 'gods' of their respective universe, that the prophets of a planet of people would listen to what they have to tell.and instruct. This is a desolate image of individuals whose hopes of being listened to, whose untold personal (sad) stories are left unheard. The “olive-green planets” mentioned adds yet another dimension, as is not just a reference to our green planet, as the word “olive” references the olive twig that the dove that Noah (for Christians) or Nuh (for Muslims) sent out after forty days of flood across the earth returned with. It was a symbol of hope, that the floodwaters was receding, and that earth is replenishing itself, returning to life. But, hope in this poem is a forlorn one.

My hope then is that among the ordinary people, there will be inner comfort and peace amidst everything else. Have a good 2009!

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Blogger Leon Wing said...

It looks like you're coming round to the kind of poems I like: spare but somehow pithy from the pregnant images and rhythms.

This poem is full of hope that leaders of peace-loving nations (" prophets of the new olive-green planets") will heed the words of these drinkers ("the meaning of things").

The hope here is of peace and goodwill to all men and abundance of food, i.e no hunger or starvation, for everyone.

Yes, peace and love to everyone!

9:39 AM, January 04, 2009  
Blogger Madcap Machinist said...

I like this poem, although I didn't feel the urge to delve into it that deeply... even at first reading it was very amusing.

Maybe because of the reference to Bethlehem, PA, which I read as Pennsylvania twigged me to the satirical nature of the poem and so I wouldn't take it too seriously.

Also, given that I am known to discover universes in whiffs of whiskey myself, I'm imagining the poet to be a rather playful sort. :-) It'll be interesting to know if this is an actual bar he's been to.

These lines are especially smart:
"So many universes down the smoky bar, / each held by its own little drunken deity,"

Reminds me of Anais Nin: "Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born."

Having said that, your exposition casts the poem in within a relevant discourse. I don't see why we should avoid political comments here.

4:31 AM, January 05, 2009  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Oh dear... what a big mistake I made, my mind was the land where the other Bethlehem is. I was aware that there's a Bethlehem in the States, but I didn't check, and read PA as off course, the other land. But, yes, I am much grieved by what is happening now.

Thanks Machinist for pointing it out to me. Anyway, am I to you a friend with whom a new universe is born? :)

11:31 PM, January 05, 2009  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

Greenway has an agenda, I feel, in not spelling out PA as Pennsylvania. He might be aware that not everybody is au fait on cities in the US that take on the names of the original cities, like Athens, Paris, and of course Bethlehem.

So, he has created here in his poem an alternative Bethlehem, where life is good, where things stay filled to the brim.

Note the mention of 'big bang', a hint about creating a new and better universe, a better world, an alternative world to the one in the Middle East where strife and war persist through the ages, never ending.

Here in alter-Bethlehem, God - in caps, as with He, Him and Father: see how Greenway hints this with "PA", the big daddy-O of gods, the PApa of deities - the cosmos and "another solar system" exist.

Things don't get blown away here ("never being destroyed")as in the real Bethlehem. In the wake of the prophets we know of, Jesus "etcetera, etcetera", this alter-cosmos has new "prophets of the new olive-green planets".

3:01 PM, January 06, 2009  
Anonymous Aish said...

hey...can u tell me what you think about this poem? it is published one, by my friend.
A Love Letter

Life is so turbulent,
Each of our moves unprecedent,
And in this bizzare journey so tough,
There are very few who give one love.

Love is one relationship so mystical,
It exploits all definitions scientifical;
Love is something so eternal,
It makes everything else seem infernal.

Changes happen but life goes on-
And so does love;
Difficulties come yet life goes on-
And so does love.

And to someone like you who has given love in a fashion so impeccable,
To give it back in the same manner seems so
All I am capable of is an invocation
To Him, and that I will do with great concentration.

- Padma Kannan

10:24 AM, January 13, 2009  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Unfortunately, it's not exactly our usual policy to comment on poems sent in here, unless it's relevant to the poem discussed in the post. My apologies.

3:34 PM, January 13, 2009  
Blogger Madcap Machinist said...

Aish, like DI says, it'll be very difficult for us if we start to comment on every poem sent in here.

But in the interest of being constructive, I'll just point out the main difference between the poem above and the poems that we are reading here.

The poem above is sweet, but it is what something I would describe as "petty verse" -- sometimes "pretty verse" -- in the sense that it is written in verse, it rhymes, (dare I say it) it's cute. (Actually the word "scientifical" above makes it cute) It is the kind of verse you find in songs and pop literature.

I am not saying we are exclusively choosing great and high poetry to read here; there are some characteristics to poetry we each personally enjoy and therefore elevate: a story, drama and tension in the rhythm of the lines, in an unexpected rhyme, similes and metaphors that swim in our eyes, and words that make our skulls hum with their sounds, and sometimes a spark of humanity-- a Truth-- that makes us see the poet and poem as unique. A poem should immerse us in its depth.

Congratulations to your friend for the poem, and best of luck. There are very few who would give one love, fewer still who would love one in return.

8:02 PM, January 13, 2009  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...


I want to encourage your friend to continue to write... Guessing from the poem that both you and your friend are young, I do not want to discourage by pointing to a few weaknesses in the poem. But, it's a good start, so press on and write, but very importantly to read the work of others, and to revise one's own (That's what all good writers and poets do, before they arrive at where they are). Cheers!

9:12 PM, January 13, 2009  

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