Table of Contents

Newest Posts:

The Chancellor and the Songstress Part 6 — Interlude — Dumbo in Cuckooland

Birth Year Words Poems

The Devil in the em-dash: a reading of Emily Dickinson

POETRY, POLITICS, AND LANGUAGE

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Original Poetry

Series

The Chancellor and the Songstress (2020-2021)

                    Prologue

                    Part 1 The Tale of Lily-White Riotess

                    Part 2 Hymn to the Flora of the World

                    Part 3 The Balloonists

                    Part 4 The Little Drummer Boy

                    Part 5 The Toppling of the Chairman of the Board

Part 6 Interlude — Dumbo in Cuckooland

17 (2017-2018)

Section 1 – Prologue – Selva Oscura

Sections 2 and 3 – Picnic and Gas

Section 4 — Bangers Section 5 – Fall

Section 6 – She Section 7 – Park

Section 8 – Dogs             Section 9 – Siren

Section 10 – Dot Section 11 – Dorothy Agonistes

Section 12 – Mower

Sections 13 and 14 – Mike and Michael Angel

Section 15 – Psychopomp

Sections 16 and 17 – Purgatorio and Epilogue

64 (1991-2016)

Section 1 – Part 1 Prologue

Section 2 – Epithalamium—Parts 2 – 3 

Section 3 – Ekphrasis Parts 4 – 8

Section 3 – Ekphrasis – Parts 9 and 10

Section 4 – Katabasis – Parts 11-17

Section 4 – Katabasis – Parts 18-23

Section 5 – Honeymoon – Parts 24-26

Section 5 – Honeymoon – Parts 27-29 

Epilogue Parts 30-35  

            Sonnets on Autism (2003)

# 6, # 7, # 8

# 9

# 18, # 19, # 20, # 21, # 22

              200 (2018-2020)

Section 1 – Prologue – Part 1

Section 1 – Prologue – Part 2 – Mental Arithmetic

Section 1 – Prologue – Part 3

Section 2 – Witness

Sections 3 and 4 – Newcomer – Miasma

Section 5 – Breakfast, Dinner, Tea

Section 6 – Jude

Section 7 – Kseniya and Zhenya                                             

Section 8 – Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dee

Section 9 – Duet

Section 10 – Hymn to Liberty

Section 11 – Song for the Opium Poppy

Sections 12, 13 and Intermission

Section 14 – Checkmate – Kseniya and Zhenya do the CIA

Section 15 – When Tweedle Dumb met Tweedle Dee

Section 16 – Hymn to Ammunition

Section 17 Porton Down

Section 18 Yu Home

Section 19 – Jessie Down

Section 20 – Magic Act – Kseniya and Zhenya do Las Vegas

Section 21 – Potpourri

Section 22 – Bella

Section 23 – Bell at Seven Part 1

Section 23 – Bell at Seven Part 2

Section 24 Part 1 – Kseniya and Zhenya do Sunset Boulevard

Section 24 Part 2 – Zhenya Arrested

Section 25 – The Chancellor and the Fox

Section 26 – Meeting

Section 27 – Zhenya does Yellowstone

Section 28 — Epilogue Parts 1-3

          Unholy Sonnets (2001)

                          # 1, # 17, # 19

Collections

I Things Drawn from the Earth (1989-1992)

Young Carrots

The Desk Lamp

Your Freckles

II Held in the Air (1993-1997)

  Descent

 Nostalgia

III A Mind of Winter (1998-1999)

IV Inferno in a Teaspoon (2000-2001)

     Brides

     The Butterfly

Expurosis

      Honey

       New Moon

       Sunday Evening

VI Elegy for a Punk Nightingale (2003)

        Hymn to Sleep

         Ode to Oedipus

Propertius Elegies III.iv

         Propertius Elegies III.v

        Propertius Elegies III.vi

VII The Filth in the Machine (2005)

          Family Night Out

          Hallowe’en

           Hymn to Home

             Hymn to Neptune

            Propertius Elegies III.xxi

VIII Fragments of Affairs (2006-2011)

Dona Cecília Wants an iPhone

Pastoral

Stuff Picked up at the Supermarket

Young Women in a Coffee Shop

X Seeing through Fog (2015)

                              Amores I.ix

                              Burning Questions

                              Candle

                              The Caterpillar

                              Couldn’t

Daylight Hours

                               Expo 1851

                                Epic

                                First Crush

                                Expo 1893

The Little Auto

                                 A Little Metaphysical Haiku

                                 The Lizard

                                  Lucy

                                  Mangoes Growing

                                  Moment

Hymn to the Moon

Morning Rain

Paraklausithyron

Pollution

Renaissance

                                  The River Biss

                                  The Rope

                                  School through Fog

                                  Stack

                                  Stuff Stuffed in a Drawer

                                   Sugar

                                   Ode to Thread

                          Throwing the Postman out of the Pram

                                    Wake

                                    Wind Eye

                                    Urban Haikus

 X Fun and Suffering (2016-2019)

                                     April

Care

                                     Chang’e

                                     Conspiracies

                                     Cycle

                                     Luzia in Flame

                                     May Day

                                     Outpatients

                                     Parkland Requiem Chorus

                                     Prince Henry Does the Cape

                                     Red Cross on White

                                     Ron Doe

                                     Saltire

                                     Satellite

Stars

The Street

Other Translations

     João Cabral de Melo Neto

                                     A Blade With No Handle

              Manuel Bandeira

                                      The Caterpillar

              Rainer Maria Rilke

                                       Duino Elegy # 4

               Pindar

     Experimental Poetry

                               Habeas Corpus

Birth Year Words Poems

Prose

Short Stories

                                           The Street

     Essays

                                            Second Post First

Fifty Years On

History and Psychology

Ten Differences Between Britain and Brazil

A Tragedy in Brazil

Black Friday

The Point of Killing

Decisions, Decisions

Angiogram

Five Types of Taxi Driver

Tattoo

     Novel

                                               Sally in the Woods Chapter 1

Literary Criticism

The Ghost of Philip Larkin

The Lizard and the Caterpillar

Encavernment in Beckett, Musil, and Kafka

William Carlos Williams in the American Grain

Amateur and Professional Poetry

Why Poetry Didn’t Go Dada

John Berryman and the Male Gaze

Mower Poems

Dogme in Poetry and Film Part I

Dogme in Poetry and Film Part II

Why I Write

The Space of Writing

Creative Idleness

Sylvia Plath’s Full Stops

What Makes Literature Good

Why Poetry Didn’t Go Indie

Moonset in Walt Whitman

Advice to Young Poets

The Devil in the em-dash: a reading of Emily Dickinson

Language

Series

                 For the Love of Prepositions (and Affixes)

Part 1 At

Part 2 By

Part 3 The F-words: ‘of’ and ‘off’

Part 4 Back and Forth

Part 5 To be or not to be…

Part 6 On ‘on’…

Part 7 And…

Part 8 …but

Part 9a Games with ge-, y- and a-

Part 9b Playing the Language Game

Part 10.1 Ob

Part 11 Till Death Us Do Part

Part 12 Coronavirus

     The Truth about English Verbs

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4a

         Modal Verbs

Modal Verbs over Time

Modal Verbs in the News

Managing Capacity – Modal Verbs in the Real World

             Miscellaneous Grammar

Governor Brewer’s Present Perfect

De-escalation and the Nature of the English Language

Grammar Lessons from Antonin Scalia

(Our) Words of the Year

Fluidity of Person

The Genuine Article

Ergativity in Trump White House Discourse                       

A Number of Issues Regarding Number

If he wins…

Vocabulary

What Spelling Tells Us

Food for Thought

Lists      

Hope and Speed

                Pronunciation

The Politics of Stress

                Punctuation

                               Between Quotes

Teaching and Tests

Testing Tests

Creative Idleness

Poorsplaining and True Education

Sheep and Goats

Life in the UK

Politics

     General

 Democracy as Alternation in Britain, France, the US, and Brazil

Laudable Pus

International

Learning from Ukraine

China, Russia, and the United States

Greece in Europe

Syriza and the SNP

The Sweet Inception of War

Catalonia, Scotland, and Kurdistan

UK Politics

The British Labour Party and Scottish Independence

The Voter’s Dilemma

Victory in Defeat

How not to Miselect a Government

       US Politics

  Piers Morgan’s Guns

Honey and Bile: The Rhetoric of Sarah Palin

Ergativity in Trump White House Discourse

The Politics of Stress

If he wins…

        Brazilian Politics

A Democratic Coup

What is going on in Brazil

Throwing the Bloody Book at Them

Other Topics

                Math and Science

                               Markov Chains

TV and Film

                Death of a Clown

Genre Shift in Film and TV

Dogme in Poetry and Film Part I

                Popular Music

                               Billy Bragg, the Smiths, and Eminem

Voice and Song – Part 1

Lucifer Falls over Lancashire

Nemean One

[Bar the odd josh, this a fairly straight translation of Pindar’s First Nemean Ode]

Famed Syracuse islet offshoot, rest-stop revered

where Alpheus stopped off to catch his breath, birth-bed

of Artemis & Apollo, source of the gush

of our mellifluous song that heaps laudation

on the hurricane-hoofed horses blessed by Etna’s

Zeus.  

*

    Victorious Chromius’s chariot

and these Nemean Games impel the composition

of an encomium, befitting such glorious

feats, to the uneartly talents of this man

on whom the gods have smiled so generously.

The pinnacle of glory is fixed in the foundation

of good fortune; and so the muse forever will

recollect the victors of such athletic games.

Sow now, O muse, some splendor on this blessed isle

that the Olympian strongman gifted Persephone. 

His long locks granting blessing to budding Sicily,

best of our earthly fruits, to bristle with cities

decked with the trophies of their economic wealth.

On whom son of Old Father Time bestowed a race

of bronze-clad battle-wooers and riders of steeds

synonymous with the golden olive garlands

of Olympians.

*

Often I rise to such occasions;

no falsehood sullies my lips. I cross the threshold

singing sincere praises to a man whose heart and hearth

are warmth itself and always open to all.

Lavish the feast laid on for me within these walls,

which are no stranger to strangers.  

                                   *

Fortune has blessed

my host with a great band of loyal peers to counter

his detractors, like water tossed on smoldering fire.

So each man, gifted with his ability, must

keep to the righteous path, follow his natural bent

towards accomplishment. For strength must prove itself

in acts, and wisdom, in those gifted with foresight,

bear the fruit of guidance passed down to other men. 

                                   *

Son of Hagesidamus, the life you’ve led

has earned you a life of pleasure. I have no yen

to stash treasure aplenty secretly away,

only to own enough for my own comfort and to help

out friends. Such is the hope of all hard-working men.

And, so, I’m happy to stick to Heracles

& dust off once again one of the age-old stories

of his glittering deeds.

*

No sooner had this son

of a god sprung with his sibling twin out from his mother’s

womb into the wondrous light of day, fleeing

the pangs of birth, and been laid in his crib in saffron

swaddling clothes, than he was spied by Hera—queen

of the goddesses, seated atop her gilded

throne, and she, galled by that sight, her heart

churning with hate, did swiftly dispatch two snakes

to do him harm. The door to the spacious inner

sanctum eased open for the asps to slither in,

eager to sink their lethal fangs into the fair

flesh of the babes. Herc sat bolt upright ready

for his first taste of combat; grabbed each serpent’s neck

with his strong infant hands and squeezed with all his might

until the beasts fell lifeless in his grip for want

of breath. The midwives caring for pale Alcmene

at her bedside froze with fear, as mum herself leapt

unclothed to her feet to fend the murderous onslaught

of the monsters off. En masse, the bronze-clad Cadmian

chiefs rushed to the rescue; flushed with adrenalin,

Amphitryon unsheathed his sword. Heartbreak’s a thing

alike for all who suffer sorrow of their own;

recovery swift for those whose hearts bleed only for

their fellow-men. Stepdad thus stood transfixed by wonder

and amazement mixed with the joy of sweet relief,

seeing the marvelous fortitude and sheer strength

of his son—ill-tidings brought by baleful messengers

belied by the luck richly bestowed upon him

by immortal gods. He calls out to his neighbor,

the illustrious prophet of almighty Zeus, 

truthful Teiresias, who foretells for the king

and his attendant throng how many souls the boy

will slaughter on dry land, how many misbegotten

monsters he will lay to rest at sea; and tells

of one especially execrable character

who struts this earth full of contempt for other

mortal men, whom too good Heracles will go on

to consign to the doom the brute is due. He tells

how also upon the Plain of Phlegra in Thrace,

gods shall do battle with giants and, under a hail

of arrows from our hero’s bow, the latter shall

be felled; their lacquered locks strewn in the dirt, clotted

with brains and gore. While, he, our hero, shall enjoy

uninterrupted and perpetual peace and repose

in recompense for his great labors, hostelled

among the dwellings of the blessed; and shall eventually

take Hebe, handmaid of the gods, fresh in the bloom

of youth, to wife, and celebrate the marriage

with a lavish wedding feast, toasting the sacred

laws before the son of Chronos—god almighty

Zeus.

The Chancellor and the Songstress Part 6 — Interlude

Dumbo in Cuckooland

The Chancellor’s cloudy thought-bubble

begins to rise, squeezes its way

out of his rotund body,

& pushes off past stretchered patients

and their rushing docs that throng

the corridor. It slips into

a lift and tiptoes up the stairs

onto the hospital roof,

has a quick fag, and jumps. Leaving

naught but an Oxford comma behind.

*

The chancellor looks out glumly

from his levitating bubble

at passing jumbo jets defying

the travel ban to bring us books

& toys by post from Amazon,

past flocks of birds, their collective

compasses confused by pesticides

& telephones. He has a little

 scuffle in the lobby with

one of the bouncers of Our Lord

but sets off doddering bibulously

on up the heady ladder of

epistemology that leads

to the realm of forms. The yellow

bricks that pave the winding route

reference, he notes, the monetary

prudence of a predecessor.

Arriving angels rush to inject

 the chancellor’s arteries with ichor

and greet his ghost. Jean-Jacques’s assigned

his case. Let them eat cake. Jezza

the Judge disarms the Chancellor

with twinkling yet piercing eye,

set in formaldehyde in his

panopticon, flanked by a bench

of grim-faced qadis and ephors

chosen to hear the Chancellor’s

opinions put to a jury

 of peers, which finds, after brief

conclave and deliberation,

in favor of the people ‘gainst

the Chancellor. The Chancellor’s counsel

instantly lodges appeal.

The Chancellor is out on bail

bumbling around again. Almighty

is mighty pissed to have to open

the appellant court again—first

time since Adam and Job, egged on

by Satan, and that Jobs, trundled

their misery guts before the court.

Milord peers condescendingly

at the plaintiff over the half-moon

specs he needs to read his notes these days.

Orders him to his chambers for a chat.

The chancellor pits his intellect

against the Lord, who’s now long passed his prime,

now atheistic clerics throng

the ranks of heaven’s angels

& spread fake news pertaining to

his ontic status and gender,

call Him a Her or They and such.

Mind drifting, the Almighty lets

the Chancellor drone on and on,  

till with an oratorical

flourish of dramatic triumph

 worthy of a Demosthenes,

he swishes the veil away. Whiz;

Schlumpf. Gzump. Shbang … The wizard’s

got no clothes.

*

The Chancellor jerks wide-eyed

and naked back to life under

the spark of the defibrillator.

 “Wow. Thought we’d lost you there, dear boy,”

the songstress merrily chortles

through mouthfuls of hospital lunch.

“Sit up chuck. Now. Look sharpish.

Time for our swan song to be sung.

Time for our audience of visitors to come.”

Birth Year Words Poems

It is not as often as I would like that I am inspired to return to my ongoing interest in experimental poetry. Despite its obvious shortcomings, I am drawn to this genre because of its potential for a uniquely inclusive DIY approach to creative writing. I have, for instance, used the technique, as loosely outlined by Tristan Tzara in How to Write a Dadaist Poem, with young people in low-income communities. This latest application involves an even simpler recipe.

  1. Access Merriam-Webster’s time-traveler app at https://www.merriam-webster.com/time-traveler This provides a list of words appearing for the first time in print for each year going back to the early 16th century.
  2. Find the list of words for the year of your birth (or any other year significant to you)
  3. Read the words and pick out ones that strike you as interesting or amusing
  4. Arrange the selected words in alphabetical (or some other) order. Add line breaks and punctuation marks according to taste.

The result is a kind of troubling horoscope.

Here is mine for the year 1964. Happy New Year to all my readers!

1964 Birth Year Words Poem

Barf bag, BASIC, black hole, choke hold,

condo, crash cart, deep structure,

dolly bird, drink-driving endangered,

fentanyl, folkie, function key, fuzzy set,

garage sale, gender identity, glossophobia,

golden handcuffs, grandparenting, graphic novel,

grotty gun control,

high technology, holography, homophobia,

identity theft, Indy car, in-joke,

intrauterine device, minicam, miracle fruit,

mitochondrial DNA

multi-user new math, ninja no-kill, nonproliferation,

off-the-rack pants suit, paradoxical sleep,

petrichor,

precooked, programmed cell death,

pseudo, quark, quasar, quasi-stellar object,

remaster reverse discrimination,

semipornographic ska skinny-dip,

slow-wave sleep snowmobiling soundscape,

streaking, sucker punch, surface structure,

table sugar, talking head, time frame,

transformationalist triple jump triumphalism,

uncomputerized, underprepared,

worst-case X-ray star zip-code.

The Devil in the Em Dash: a reading of Emily Dickinson #1010

Crumbling is not an instant’s Act
A fundamental pause
Dilapidation’s processes
Are organized Decays —

‘Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul
A Cuticle of Dust
A Borer in the Axis
An Elemental Rust —

Ruin is formal — Devil’s work
Consecutive and slow —
Fail in an instant, no man did
Slipping — is Crashe’s law —

Emily Dickinson is famous for her unfathomable punctuation. And nowhere is this more mysterious than in her heterodox use of the em dash. This versatile yet ponderous punctuation mark can appear in any position in her work—at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of sentences, or even at the end of the poem as a whole.

If we exclude the special kind of pause provided by the line break and enjambment, Poem 1010 contains only six marks of punctuation—all of them em dashes. It is worth examining these in the broader context of this extraordinary doom-laden poem.

Dickinson begins with an odd line that could be a single stand-alone sentence. ‘Crumbling’ it is asserted, ‘is not an instant’s Act’. The use of the possessive apostrophe ‘s’ after instant is unusual, but does not contravene the conventions regarding situations where this ending can be used, which include time—although not usually like this. The effect is to personify the instant to some extent, although this is offset by the use of a lower case initial letter.

The sense however is clear to the point of being banal: the process of crumbling is not something that occurs all of a sudden. The second line reaffirms this. Crumbling is no ‘fundamental pause’. The oddness of this phrase—as is often the case in Dickinson’s poetry—is slow in coming and strikes one only after a certain delay. The Unheimlichkeit thus produced does not itself produce any abrupt descent into lasting or absolute oblivion or drastic switch from order to disarray. Crumbling is clearly not akin to this.

The second distich of the first stanza sketches in this initially negative definition. ‘Crumbling’ is further defined as ‘processes’ (plural) of dilapidation, again personified—and is now presented as the seeming oxymoron of a sequence of ‘organized decays’.

Note the vocabulary here. The etymology of Latinate ‘dilapidation’ shows and tells us exactly what ‘crumbling’ means. Words themselves crumble and reveal themselves under the poet’s subtle scrutiny. Like saxifrage—as a later poet will put it.

Here comes the silent drum roll of the first em dash.

In the second stanza, the poem takes a more sternly moral turn. The shift from literal to figurative is mediated by the image of a cobweb—a structure spun by a sinister predator to entrap her prey but also an object synonymous with neglect—the first indication of a decline into disrepair.

Cuticle here presumably means a thin skin-like covering and does not have the more specialized meaning it has nowadays… Likewise ‘axis’ is closer to modern ‘axle’ and borer a kind of woodworm that eats away at the chassis of a carriage. The image is of some small unseen flaw ultimately causing a catastrophic collapse. ‘Elemental’ in the last line of this quatrain picks up ‘fundamental’ in line 2 and suggests the somewhat counterintuitive notion that rust —the initial /r/ harking back to ‘ruin’ and ‘borer’—is more primordial than the solid iron it feeds upon. Cobwebs, dust, woodworm, rust are all domestic manifestations of the original sin.

An em dash effects a second death knell.

The poem now enters its third and final quatrain with a slogan-like statement to the effect that ‘ruin is formal’. Oxymoron once again is the order of the day. The forces of darkness, going back to Ancient Egypt, have routinely been associated with chaos, not order, with formlessness and void. Here, however, the opposite is averred. Evil, far from being a vacuous destroyer, is a shaper of souls.

And here—heralded, of course, by a third em dash—the Enemy himself appears. Devil’s work surely alludes to kind of work that will be found, as the old adage has it, for idle hands. A work that Dickinson, further driving home the point, is not hasty, rash or impulsive, but steady and calculated ‘consecutive and slow’, the /k/ sounds in consecutive knitting the poem neatly together by referring back to ‘cuticle’, ‘cobweb’, ‘decays’ and ‘crumbling’, the ineluctability of damnation emphasized by portentously marking off the adjectives with a fourth em dash.

The poem now comes to a close with a couplet in which the ominous archaic syntax of ‘Fail in an instant no man did’ first combines a sudden flurry of ‘n’ sounds—as if illustrating the sheer numbers of fallen souls that throng this world—with the hissing inner sibilant of ‘instant’ picking up on the first line, and then concludes by equating ‘slipping’—its very slipperiness indicated mimetically by the penultimate em dash—with the mock physics of ‘Crashe’s Law,’ in serendipitous foreboding of the atrocities chronicled in the writings of J. G. Ballard.

It is worth dwelling on the verb ‘slip’ a little. Literally, it refers to temporary involuntary movement resulting from losing grip on a surface. However, the word has long been endowed with clear moral connotations. Standards and moral values are said to slip or slide. A lapse is the first step of a fallen woman. The Freudian slip is well placed somewhere between the two.

Dickinson plays on this double entendre. The path of the reprobate is not one of sudden headlong descent but the culmination of an accumulation of small moral lapses over time. Each almost accidental slip-up takes the sinner one step further down the path towards her doom.

And so with a crash of cymbals and the final flourish of an unpronounceable em dash, the poem pauses thoughtfully to reflect on its and our grim end.

As a final note on this magnificently crafted work of poetry, it is worth remarking how difficult it is in fact to read phonetically. A click-clopping sound of not quite touching consonants creates a kind of rickety clockwork apt to crumble in the mouth.

The savage stabs of occasional /v/’s are picked up by less vicious but no less deleterious /f/’s and /w/’s, as Satan manifests himself in the formal work of curation of our failings, leading us along the seemingly unprecipitous sequence of steps that punctuate our predestined descent into damnation.

200 — Section 28 — Epilogue Parts 1 -3

[Here, finally, is the concluding section of 200. Maybe I can start writing something nice now this is over…]

Epilogue Part 1

Hymn to Apathy

We march along a catwalk,

attired in outfits nobody would wear,

into the arms of men who touch us up

and sign our checks and whistle us away.

We are the Jihad brides of billionaires,

cold pretty thin and tall. Nobody really cares

for us. Why should we care at all?

Epilogue Part 2

Tweedle Dumb’s Mirror Soliloquy

Dumb steps up to the full-length body mirror;

scans himself back and front, sideways, from head to toe;

peers in and touches up a wisp of hair; is pleased

with what he sees. “Battle,” he utters

to his inner self, ‘begins again today.’

Dumb strides out under the make-up melting

spotlights to grimace to the unmasked crowds and launch

his last blast of obliteration in his bruising, bone-crunching last campaign.

“When I use words, they mean

just what I choose them to,’ Dumb puffs

‘The glory lies not in the paltry truth

to which purportedly they point

but in the use I put them to…’ Dee

hisses like a little demon in his ear.

‘I am the master of this twittering universe, Dumb huffs,

‘of slogans, memes, rumors and slurs,

diktats by proxy brought as gifts by friends’,

the president avers. “I am the Lord almighty,

handing down edicts etched in words of stone to

Moses and the Hebrews hopping around a cow of gold.’

*

‘This is only the end of my beginning’, fist

waving in air, ‘not the beginning of my end’.

The end. Roll credits. Stirring muzak. Thunder claps

in the clouds and lightning jaggedly dissects the sky,

as Dumb’s croaking inanities soar blasphemously to heaven

unamplified from flailing vocal cords.

The Dum, Dum, Dum beat of the drums

salutes him to the door.

The mirror’s cracked from side to side,

the echo chamber now a broken bell

tolling the death of death drive, wish-

think and self-reference; rebirth:

a real bird chirping in a tree through

clean blue air: the coming of the new.

Epilogue Part 3

Final Girl

The image of the distressed female most likely to linger in memory is the image of the one who did not die: the survivor, or Final Girl…. The Final Girl is also watchful to the point of paranoia; small signs of danger that her friends ignore, she registers… The Final Girl is boyish… Her smartness, gravity, competence in mechanical and other practical matters, and sexual reluctance set her apart from the other girls ad ally her, ironically, with the very boys she fears or rejects…

Yu springs up from the sofa and the soap opera

to promptly attend the tinkling doorbell. The guy

from the nerd2nerd online dating site drags himself awkwardly in.

Yu sits him down

before her antique chess board and picks up

the red queen. “Here is the deal, my dear,” the Russian

doll begins. “We play chess; I beat you; we fuck. I’m

not that bothered which order we do them in.”

Her face, smiling coquettishly, cocked to one side.

“You choose.”

*

The full moon rises once again

over the fake suburban chimney stacks as Da

coughs blood and dribble into the bathroom sink. Yu

lays him down in bed so he can see her and

the silver orb through rolling eyes until they gently disappear

downstairs and under the black horizon.

*

“Moon,” she exclaims. “Oh! How I long to feel your lifeless

dust, gray under my boldly going boots.

Oh, how I yearn to share your weightlessness; to hop

over your fruitless dunes. Oh How I dream to be

the first girl on the moon. Oh, How I thirst for that

desert men will risk their breath to plumb. Oh, How I

hanker after the desire of the unloved; oh, how I crave

the paradox of that infinite, sweet sea of deep

tranquility…”

If he wins…

Using mixed conditionals to hedge your bets

Turmoil prevails regarding the use of modal verbs in Present-Day English. We can posit any number of deep underlying reasons for this. Modern life, for instance, remains stubbornly uncertain, despite (or perhaps indeed because of) the extent to which industrial society attempts to control the future. Likewise, growing belief in a world of technology programmed by computers in binary code, in accordance with strict scientific rules of cause and effect, contrasts sharply with a residual tendency still to think and act more in accordance with hunches, animal spirits, instincts, feelings, and faith.

Nowhere is this confusion more apparent than in the discourse of those modern-day oracles called elections and the pundits charged with forecasting their outcome.

Newspapers are currently filled with speculation as to what a different US president might do in the near future. In this context, it is not at all unusual to see the rules of grammar as they are taught in course books regularly breached … and, most often, for the very good reason that no such rules in fact exist.

A case in point is the use of the conditional.

 Conventional grammar books trot out the usual typology that divides conditional sentences up into three (or four) types.

The categories are as misleading as they are exquisitely neat; complete with (pseudo-) scientific-sounding coding system. Furthermore, (hurrah) the rules can easily be jotted down on the back of an envelope.

The Zero conditional refers to effects that follow logically or automatically from a condition (the computer code type of ‘if…then’ statement).  If x2 equals 4 and x is non-negative, then x equals 2. [If + Present Simple, Present Simple]

The First Conditional refers to a future event with a fairly high degree of likelihood.

If it rains, we will hold the event indoors. [If + Present Simple, will + Infinitive]

The Second Conditional refers to future events that are unlikely or counterfactuals (i.e. things that are patently not true).

If the sun disappeared tomorrow, the earth would freeze.

I wouldn’t do that, if I were you.

[If + Past Simple, would + Infinitive]

Some grammar books also include a fourth Past Conditional to refer to events that did not occur (counterfactuals) in the past.

If Napoleon had conquered Russia, people in Vladivostock would have had to learn French.

[If + Past Perfect, would (have) + Past Participle]

 Inclusion of the Past Conditional in fact upsets the whole neat and tidy system. It should be covered by the Second Conditional, but, if we do include it in that category, we will have to admit that the form of the verb in the main clause can be something different from would + Infinitive.

If we let in one exception, why not permit many? Come to think of it, why should we not allow any exception whatsoever?

This in fact is what real-life language users do all the time.

An article on Joe Biden in today’s Guardian newspaper bears the headline If he wins, what would the first 100 days of his presidency look like?   https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/oct/28/joe-biden-presidency-first-100-days

Here a First Conditional-type ‘if-clause’ is combined with a Second Conditional-type main clause. Far from being anomalous, in everyday life, such mixing of different types of conditional is quite common and is used to enable expression to a subtler range of degrees doubt and certainty and our attitudes towards them than it is possible to covere with a simple logical schema.

In real life, flux and ambiguity are the rule.

In this headline, for example, the mixed conditional serves two not entirely compatible purposes. First, more explicitly, the use of Present Simple in the if-clause suggests that a Biden victory is likely, while the use of ‘would’ in the main clause indicates that what he might do thereafter is much less predictable.

In fact, this reflects a broader rule that we can use any modal verb to convey a degree of probability or uncertainty with regard to past, present or future and the article that follows is thus duly peppered with ‘might’s and ‘could’s and ‘may’s and so forth, in reference to a Biden presidency.

More implicitly, however, this headline also suggests that the degree of likelihood of Biden being elected president in fact lies somewhere between the two levels of probability that the First and Second Conditionals alone would convey. It is probable, but not as likely as one might wish… Best hedge one’s bets…

As one analytically-minded philosopher has put it: simple predictions about the future can be tested and proved true or false when the future comes to pass; statements about probability, absent access to multiple universes, cannot. We will know some day who wins the election next Tuesday. Who might have won, however, will remain forever in doubt.

The Politics of Stress

[In the final week’s runup to the US presidential elections, I publish two posts on language related to this event. This is the first of them.]

The Politics of Stress

The prosody of Present-Day English is dominated by stress. This means that certain syllables in a word are given greater or lesser degrees of emphasis. A stressed syllable is usually louder than an unstressed one and may also differ in pitch.

Words of two syllables in English are usually stressed on the first (DUM-di), as in ‘MOther’ and ‘LANGuage’. Sometimes, however, the stress falls on the last syllable. This can be used, in some instances, to distinguish nouns from verbs. Note, for example, how the difference in stress in the word pairs ‘REbel’ : ‘reBEL,’ ‘UPset’ : ‘upSET’ distinguishes the noun (the first of the pair) from the verb (the second), even though these are indistinguishable in spelling.     

The most common stress pattern for a three-syllable noun in English is DUM-di-di. In this, English follows the practice of its Germanic neighbors and forerunners.

Deviations from this norm, therefore, frequently indicate a word of foreign non-Germanic origin.

A stress on the final syllable, for example, often occurs in the names of exotic animals, such as kangaroos, or exotic dishes such as vindaloo. Likewise, a stress on the penultimate syllable marks a word or name as foreign in origin: potatoes, tomatoes, and volcanoes are not native to English soil.

Given names tend to follow the same general pattern. The stress falls on the antepenultimate syllable in traditional English or invented names, but can fall elsewhere in names of foreign origin or names on which the giver intends to confer an exotic feel. The latter, for some reason, tend to be more common among women and girls.

Thus, more traditional, anglicized or obviously Germanic girls’ names tend to be stressed on the first syllable in three-syllable names: Márgaret, Ísabel, Cátherine, Álison, Híllary, Émily, Hárriet, Stéphanie, Béthany, Mádison and so forth all obey the rule. [Stressed syllable marked artificially by an acute accent] The same applies to names of more than three syllables, such as Elízabeth and Victória. Invented names such as Pámela, Jénnifer and Jéssica, irrevocably fall into step with the usual pattern.

Names that diverge from this tend to have a deliberately foreign or classical sounding feel to them. Historically, such names have often been preferred by aristocratic elites—as Diána and Camílla both attest, but also among post-Civil Rights Movement African Americans keen to disassociate themselves from names given them by white slave owners. In recent years, this fashion has spread more widely to all sectors of society.

There is therefore good evidence to suggest that modern English has a strong preference for a stress on the antepenultimate syllable of polysyllabic words (including names) and that stress placed elsewhere is associated with loan words or foreign names.

As a corollary of this, English speakers will tend to mispronounce unfamiliar foreign words by moving the stress from penultimate to antepenultimate position, especially if the penultimate syllable is followed by a single consonant. When this ‘error’ becomes the norm, it suggests that the name, concept or word borrowed from abroad have been fully assimilated into the host language. Márgaret is fully Anglicized; there is no hint that the original French name was stressed on the last syllable Marguerite. No-one would call Margaret Thatcher, Marguerite Thatcher, unless they were making some heavy-handed point about the un-Englishness of her ways.

Speakers, may also, however, do the opposite and hypercorrect, placing the stressed syllable on the penult in foreign words even when it is incorrect to do so, in order to make them sound more foreign. This may, as in the recent case of mispronunciation of US vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris’s first name by Republican senators and the current US President, be done deliberately. In this case, the error clearly serves the explicitly racist purpose of making the individual seem more alien than she in fact is. In this context, such behavior is a form of linguistic exclusion or shunning.

Kamala is a name derived from the Ancient Indian language, Sanskrit. It means ‘lotus flower’. The name is stressed on the first syllable in the original Sanskrit and thus follows exactly the same stress pattern as that of the vast majority of two-syllable English words. Furthermore, in view of Ms. Harris’s status, the correct pronunciation of her first name is well known in political circles. There is, therefore, no reason other than racism to pronounce the senator’s name otherwise.

The Chancellor and The Songstress Part 5

The Third Song of the Songstress

The Toppling of the Chairman of the Board

The songstress yawns, her lips forming a sleepy smile,

feeling much fresher today. The chancellor comatose

beside her, his body shuddering dubiously

with each troubled breath. She ne’ertheless wishes

him well, not in his vile project, but in life,

recalling the diazepam-fuelled dream she had

the night before.

*

“The cobbled footwear of the chairman clatters across

the sturdy quayside stones; a single silver buckle

adorns each shoe. His cane taps at his merchandise

approvingly and points admiringly at tall sails

ready to journey abroad. The Indies beckon

with their sugar, spices, and snuff. Tea is all the rage.

The chairman is the center of a little global

village, lord of this country manor writ large

in blood and gold and blessed in the Palladian

style by his almighty Lord. The Hierarchy

from uncreated God through Angels, Governments,

and Squires down to the unwashed plebs and beasts and worse

is sure as granite rock, safe as a stable precious

metal currency amidst a paper market storm,

stern as a patriarch’s staff against the bodies

of his cowering servants and sons. Corseted daughters

good only for dancing and marriages, dowries

and duets on the piano forte, their fineries

afforded by the labor whipped from the backs

of slaves. Daddy is a philanthropist…”

The songstress

pauses in reminiscence a while remembering

her own father, the tatters of Ancient Kakania,

the fading graces of its Empire still littering

her parental home. Perhaps in yesteryear their paths

had crossed, her mum and dad, the jolly chairman and

the chancellor’s avuncular ancestors,

together in a flashing waltz of swords, they’d heard

the pop and swish of corks exploding  and champagne

gushing out and sipped from sleek slipper-shaped glasses,

lapped at alike by hypocrite infidel with decadent

western tastes, swanning around the courts of Europe

kissing ladies’ gloved hands. A culture as stagnant

and decayed as dry wild flowers propped in a miry

pool of  brownish green liquid in a vase, for whose

grim decoration the little drummers flocked to serve

in war. Back in the age of innocence before

Wagner and Freud, before movies and rock ‘n’ roll

filled up the dance halls with their chicks and yobs. The car

that Eddie drove into the ditch and wrecked en route

to Chippenham. The parties, drugs, policemen and members

of the tabloid press trashing young lives. The ashtrays

for the fag-end youth of plutocrats and landed

heirs of fortunes gathered long forgotten years ago.

*

“They toss a noose over the Chairman’s iron neck

and drag him down. His steely body first totters

like a toddler or a geriatric trying

to walk without a Zimmer frame; then collapses

into a mess of broken metal on the ground,

one leg snapping clean off, scooting away across

the cobblestones. The chairman’s brittle dismembered body

is then drawn by the cheering crowd on ropes

and dunked with curiously unceremonious ceremony

into the waters of the dock that wait to reclaim their son.”

*

The Chancellor lets out a sudden gruff grunt in sleep,

as if annoyed by some unwelcome interruption of his repose.

A punctured vein provides the brief bliss of relief and he falls back

into the calming arms of nothingness from whence his ever-living

soul once issued forth at the beginning of all time.

The Chancellor and the Songstress Part 4

The Chancellor’s Second Song

The Little Drummer Boy

The Chancellor coughs and clears his throat, his glare piercing

the nebulized haze of air that hovers unstirred

over intensive care. “An anarchist is always

waiting unknown around the corner,” hoarsely

he declares, as a phlebotomist in makeup

vampire-pale withdraws his blood, before viffing away

to deal with other care-related chores. “Hooded

with Balaklava, wielding a brick of Semtex,

suspect device, tossing a cocktail Molotoff,

or cowering far off behind a screen of muffled  

sniper fire, the lurking dissident unleashes

a hail of terror on the convertible

the chauffeur is wrestling to put into reverse

en route to visit victims in the Sarajevo

hospital.

                  The nihilist was ‘one of our own’

this time, clutching a cluster bomb and pistol in

his grimy hands. Prince takes archduke. Promoted pawns

advance upon Tsar and Kaiser till the final

zugzwang brings battle to a halt with clang

of armistice bells and plaintive horn lamenting

the muddy dead and mass of living corpses propped

on invalid sticks, minds addled by the bullets

and ideology in the calm of silenced guns.

*

Stick tucked in crook of arm of well-creased khaki coat   

to look the part, the little drummer boy set out

from homely farm in rolling fields of green to fight

the Bulgar, Turk and Hun in foreign land. Out of

compassion and conviction vis a vis the status quo,

a pragmatism whose eyes were not occluded

by stars. No unicorns or rainbows ever graced

his sturdy vision of a just conservative world.

Enamored not of Russia, France or surly Serb,

no milksop sobbing over violated rights

on Belgian soil, he doggedly did his bit.

*

Smyrna and trench foot now gladly forgot,

his lawn bestrewn with daisies and children’s toys,

gourds gaining fertile girth on his allotted site,

he thrives in a tied cottage, thatched the old-fashioned

way, saluting king, flag, country, and soldiers

on parade. This is his duty and his station,

price of his creature comforts, calmer-down of souls.

And for remembrance, there is a hunk of metal

in every park and city square; and to this end

also in every corner of this world, there is

a little patch of dug up dirt that is forever

England’s.”

                        The chancellor, figuratively speaking,

lays down his waving flag and turns over to sleep.

The songstress, long since a-slumber, snores away. The beeps

of EKGs and gasps of ventilation pumps furnish

the doleful nightshift punctuation of the ward.