Ephemeris by Norm Sibum

Nikas. The one o’clock hour, the luncheon crowd down to a few stragglers. The radio’s girlie voices. Alexandra the waitress’s heavy mood. If it is not exactly cheery, it is not exactly a funereal pall. It does go hard, however, against solid objects in the immediate vicinity: the toaster, the crockery, the cook’s psyche, mine too. Chicken and egg argument: do girlie voices create fashion or is it incessant marketing that accords self-expressive sirens such latitude for pillage and rapine in the first instance, one House of Cards to be replaced by another? Is there something in the diet that accounts for the asininity? Climate change experts might call it a self-reinforcing loop. (Just to clarify, Patti Smith, for an instance, is not a girlie voice nor is Laura Marling.) Alexandra the waitress loves the voices to which I allude; she might say they keep her young and uncompromised, which would be fine were it not for the fact that they keep her under thumb and her brain in a numbed-down mode—I have been reading a book someone carelessly enough foisted on me. “Read this. It’s awesome.” But I have failed so far to see the awesomeness. And the book does not do much for keeping me young. Even so, I was trundling along in my reading, and, as a WWI battle front was presented in the writing, I came across the word ‘trench coat’. Of course, the famous trench coat that private dicks wear in old school genre fiction would have had its origins in the cordite-reeking, corpse-littered, lice-infested trenches of the war in question. Peculiar eureka moment ensued. As when one is unexpectedly supplied with the obvious and yet, one had been going through life without having made the obvious connection between ‘trench’ and ‘coat’. I do not know that I possess adequate spiritual resources with which to negotiate my way around ‘trench mouth’. Enough, then, on that score. For all that, I had had some insight or other in respect to the Tower of Babel and unhinged speech (as per the story in Genesis). Trouble is, it has slipped my mind – this insight. Just that London Lunar, having occasion to be in Kemptville (which it is in Ontar-I-O), one recent evening, while drinking with an old friend in a bar, a fuzzy sort of silence descended on the venue, a silence not devoid of audibles. One heard, as if it were the crackling of distant gunfire, little f-words popping off all around. Or perhaps the sound was more analogous to the popping of champagne corks. Perhaps the baring of incisors was a scene out of The Silence of the Lambs. In any case, it was what was left of discourse, a rage partaking of equal portions of existential dread and boredom and suburban-bred f-you’s and everything’s so screwed up, what’s the point of stringing more than three polite words together? Which brings me to the following: All poetic endeavour has its origin in one idea: it is rooted in the Fall and our husbandry with that forbidden tree, whose blossom and fruit still inform our existence. All song proclaims a celebration of the orchard in whose cradle we were rocked for that sweet, short single day of our gestation – but from which we have since been in exile. But to sing of Paradise is also to lament our exclusion from that infant dream. And so all poetry is double in character. We can know nothing but glimpses of that inaccessible pardes – Hebrew from the Persian ‘orchard’ – and our singing issues from our exile to a world in which we are not welcome wholly—Shall we be consoling ourselves with quatrains on a theme of Fukushima? The above emanates from a book entitled From Culbane Wood IN XANADU, notebooks and fantasias. Tom Lowenstein, Shearsman Books. Now I have been leery of poetics for a long time, in consideration of the fact that I have seen poetics ruin a great many poets as well as plenty of innocent bystanders. (I make an exception for the poetics or rather the critical thinking of Christopher Middleton on the nature of poesy, but for the moment that is neither here nor there—)  Caroline Clark has sent me a number of passages from her translation of Olga Sedakova’s musings on poetry for underground samizdat publication, to wit:  It is wrong to think that poetry concentrates, encapsulates or heightens meaning that already exists without it, in “reality.” It operates from the other side:

‘And over the raging sea / It pours a soothing balm.’

Meaning such as this does not exist in the world, but there is a need for it in the world: precisely because it is not there, because there is nothing to find in one’s bosom and offer up. The world is given; meaning is bestowed. Poetry does not take its balm from the raging sea as if it were the “essence” of this sea, but offers its balm to the sea: like something that is present there only for the want of it, as an object of longing, a plea. What is the sea longing and raging for? However absurd and pretentious it might sound – for absolute existence. For the sting of non-existence to be plucked out – together with the pain of movement and indeed everything, everything that seeks to devour and displace everything else. It longs for that which is not given, but can only be bestowed. And, further on: The minimum talent required of a poet lies in memory. A particular kind, of course. A memory that allows the poet to not miss the array of likenesses, repetitions and contrasts that enter his own experience (“the image of the poet”); while looking at one object, to connect it to others that are alike (“metaphor,” “simile”); to let not one tone of sound or development of line escape him (“tonal harmony”); to not see things bare, unclad in their centuries’ old interpretations (poetic language, unlike prose, is less able to exist without “culture,” “tradition,” even if it only stands in opposition to what has gone before); to not hear words stripped of their roots and notional, aural and stylistic contexts (“the singularity of poetic semantics”)—There had been the suggestion that the writing of poetry requires less talent than, say, fooling around on a guitar and yet, there is a thing or two that poets must have in their quiver of tricks or there will be no poetry of which to speak. So, is the writing of poetry as easy as all that? What is it about poetics that makes it seem as if Derrida and Rilke and your local stand-up comic were each trying to inhabit the same body in a scene from Invasion of the Body Snatchers? I am superstitious. My silliness consists of a fear that the more we prate on about the nature of poetry, the more likely the soul of poetry will flee the room or the salon or the auditorium. And yet, granted, sometimes it is necessary to scrape the barnacles off one’s little ship of First Principles, take a breather, take stock and re-plot a course—In order to reopen communications with a man I have not had words with since the 60s I was advised to get myself a Facebook page. Which I did. I was then advised never to use it, as I would disappear forever into a morass of narcissism and inanity and God Only Knows What Else. The page acquired, I then saw that this was indeed a distinct possibility. Discombobulated by endless snaps of cuddlesome kittens and pups and C-league socialites, he turned his eyes to a non-virtual sun, sighed and expired. As it turned out Facebook was of no help to me, but I have managed to have words with the friend in question anyway.  Whereupon, picking up where he left off 45 years ago, he dismissed a few fancy-schmancy theories from my head regarding the geist to the south of here. “It’s the money, man. It’s what the money has done to the ordinary processes of politics as we have been used to knowing them. Joe Schmo and Plain Jane have fewer and fewer avenues of redress in a political sense, the standard political parties less and less relevant—” These were not his exact words, but the drift is spot on. I had mentioned something about the relentless conformism of the hour, and the man suggested that at least the desire to conform is not as passive as all that; someone has to put some energy into something in order to achieve the much-prized dress decorum and team protocols. What robs him of sleep at nights is the recognition that no one wants to be anything. And the ways by which humankind distracts itself from anything that threatens import have damn near attained absolute levels. For Samuel L Jackson quoting Ezekiel in Pulp Fiction may well constitute the intellectual acme of the last few generations. To be sure, in the course of an evening at his place, McGravitas regaled us by a reading of the opening passages from Autumn Journal (1938), a quite lengthy poem by Louis MacNeice. After a straw poll was conducted on the matter, it was decided that MacNeice was to be preferred to Auden. Someone opined that Auden had been hot-dogging it all along—There is always someone to be found in the annals of all our history – from Sumerian days to the present moment – who has always had the bobble head concession and gotten filthy riches and political clout. Rob Ford the Toronto mayor comes to mind, as does Don Calogero Sedára, mayor of a small Sicilian town once upon a time before there were spaghetti westerns. One encounters the latter mayor’s charms in Lampedusa’s The Leopard (1958, Italy). This parvenu of qualities is what Garibaldi was fighting for: the supplanting of the likes of the aristocrat the Prince of Salinas. However, the Prince’s nephew Prince Tancredi Falconieri will ask for the hand of Sedára’s beautiful daughter, who is not going to marry just any blue blood twit. Clever fellow, it is Tancredi’s way of instructing his uncle that one must change so that things can stay the same. Ain’t politics grand? Turning corners – doesn’t it though help maintain us somewhat more expeditiously than treading water and ingesting drugs? Mr Ford is more the populist in a Huey Long vein than he is a factotum of the provinces playing the beauty of his daughter like a poker chip. Well, I would bet that Mr Ford does not care a fig for anyone or anything and yet, he probably means it when he refers to himself as a man of the people. Even so, I read something this morning, a bit of writing by a left of centre scribe who was all tough love and then some. He declared the ‘people’ to be a myth: there is no such thing as the people. I suppose what this means is as follows: those leaders who forever betray the masses can no longer wrap themselves in that particular flag of ‘we the people’. Otherwise, I can think of any number of bars, including bars in Kemptville, Ontar-I-O, that the writer ought to stay clear of—Yes, P.M. Carpenter, Distinguished Political Commentator to the south of here, has been going on about the collapse of liberalism. Or rather his competitors in the field of op-ed monumentalizing have been going on about it, and Mr Carpenter has been taking issue with the notion. When did it collapse? Under LBJ’s tutelage? Reagan’s? GWB’s? Does it matter when it collapsed? Is it arguable that it has not? What evils does the collapse permit besides execrable, self-congratulatory versifying and lifestyles devoted to opulent sleaze and pimply pop? New Neighbour has been by with the worst he could tell me in respect to Fukushima and Current PM. Likewise Literary Thug #1. I despise Q Tarantino but I suppose there are worse movies than Pulp Fiction. If he would only make of Moby Dick a cartoon strip, Mr Jackson might make one hell of an Ahab though. Mr Hedges, Pulitzer-prize winning journo over at Truthdig, has not only been calling for a revolution, he is convinced its opening salvos have been fired. He cites the recent court case of a computer hacker at whom the court threw quite the little draconian sentence, the judge in question ruling in behalf of her husband’s business interests. So much for the concept of recusing oneself from a court proceeding due to a conflict between what boots it and what, in theory, serves the public. Certain PEN authors are reportedly busy with self-censorship in all their writings electronic and otherwise, seeing as they expect to be inconvenienced by way of arrest or other corporate-state forms of intimidation, be it in-house or sourced out. I do not know whether these authors are flattering themselves or whether they have good reason for their newly-found scruples.

“And at this hour of the day it is no good saying

‘Take away this cup’;

Having helped to fill it ourselves it is only logic

That now we should drink it up.”


 ― Louis MacNeice, Autumn Journal