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.

Advertisement

Table of Contents

Newest Posts:

For the Love of Prepositions (and affixes) Part 10b — Ob-

Propertius III.i

The Chancellor and the Songstress — Epilogue — The Baby Song and the Baobab Tree

Plurality in Question

The Chancellor and the Songstress Part 7 — The Lion Unloosed

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

Part 7 The Lion Unloosed

Epilogue— The Baby Song and the Baobab Tree

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

First Nemean Ode

Propertius

Elegies III.i

     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 10a -ob

Part 10b 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…

Plurality in Question

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

Chang’e

[I have long been fascinated by the figure of Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 astronaut, who steered the command module around the moon, while Armstrong and Aldrin stomped around on its surface, waiting, like a patient bus-driver, to pick them up from their giant leap forward for humankind.

Collins shares his name with the Irish Nationalist leader who was gunned down by more radical elements in the Irish liberation movement towards the end of the Irish Civil War.

In this poem, I imagine Collins the astronaut as a reincarnation of the Irish freedom fighter and reference the true story whereby a Cape Canaveral controller recounted the tragic story of the Chinese goddess of the moon (Chang’e), as Collins prepared to disappear around the dark side of our barren companion. Collins responded with a sexist and arguably racist remark about ‘bunny girls’.

Fifty years on, the Chinese have now for the first time landed an unmanned craft on the ‘dark’ side of the moon and chosen to name the project after this doomed goddess and her mythological rabbit companion.

My poem on this subject is guided in part by the late Tang dynasty Chinese poet Li Shangyin’s poem Chang’e. The bilingual pun barely requires comment: change with a blip or a glitch in it.

Out of respect, I first present a translation (not my own) of Li Shangyin’s delicate beautiful poem before launching into my more tumultuous, vulgar, rocket-fuelled version of it.]

 

Chang’e by Li Shangyin

Behind the mica screen, candles cast deep shadows.

The Great River slowly sinks, and dawn stars are drowned.

Chang-e must regret stealing the elixir—

over blue sea, in dark sky, thinking night after night

 

Chang’e by Paul Webb

Michael Collins nips round the backside of the moon

on his way back from death by gunfire on the way

to Cork. The man

is as far away from any other living creature

as any human being ever has been, he thinks.

Cape Canaveral tell him the story of Chang’e—

the immortality potion, the shock of eternal

disembodiment, the pining spouse, the jade rabbit—

to cheer him up.

“I’ll look out for that bunny girl,” MC quips,

as he drifts beyond radio communication

around the shiny dark side of the moon

to an audience of sparkling winking

once and future stars.

‘Life in the UK’

Should anyone, to left or right, be in any doubt as to how hostile the current UK government is towards potential immigrants, check out this online test of knowledge of ‘Life in the UK’ https://lifeintheuktests.co.uk/life-in-the-uk-test/ and try doing it yourself.

Quite apart from the blatant neo-imperialist and pro-monarchy bias that pervades the test, it is obviously designed primarily to ensure that most candidates fail or (better) to deter them from even trying.

I was born in the UK and lived there for thirty years and like to think that I am fairly knowledgeable regarding its history and culture. I scored 20 out of 24 on this test. The pass mark is 18. God help you huddled masses if don’t know your ‘crown dependencies’ from your ‘overseas territories’!

Seriously. This test is shamefully and shamelessly ideological and racist and fundamentally flawed and unfair.

Anyone who still harbors a soft spot for Theresa May and feels sympathy for her in the self-inflicted Brexit pickle she now finds herself in would do well to remember that, as Home Secretary, she oversaw and entrenched this harsh immigration policy for six years. And those of you on the hand-wringing left who still pine for the ‘third way’ of Tony Blair should remember that it was Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett who first proposed introducing such a barrier to immigration in the paranoid aftermath of 9/11. Shame on both sides.

Globalization, which is the only viable way forward, cannot work unless freedom of trade and the international flow of capital are matched by an equal freedom regarding the global flow of labor and movement of people. Either you embrace both sides of the globalization equation and push both forwards with equal zest or you reject both and retreat like troglodytes into your heavily-armed protectionist caves.

The lop-sided middle way has brought us only to the bitter impasse we are all living through today. It is time for politicians on the liberal left to stop fudging the issue and hedging their bets and to be brutally honest about where they and we really stand.

200 Section 9 Duet

[In this 9th Section of 200, Jessie—Jude’s psychotic girlfriend from Section 6—and Yu—one of the poisoning victims—cross paths coincidentally in the grounds of the hospital in which they are both interned. The scene, of course, is entirely fictional.]

Yu is well enough now to be wheeled out

of ICU into the woods out back, to get

some sun on her skin and try out her still

unsteady legs. She stumbles over the turf

and almost yanks out her drip. Jessie

is on her meds now and now allowed to wander

the grounds, fingering the dead bark

of trees and the strange fruit drooping from

their branches, looking up at the sky, picking

berries from the ground for the next

occupational therapy session. Jessie

is an avid reader of the morning newspapers,

highlighting parts with yellow marker pen,

cutting bits out and sticking them up on her wall.

She recognizes Yu instantly. “The Communists,”

she exclaims, rushing up toward her, pointing up

to the sky. “They ruined my life too.

With their Sputnik rays and the mind gas

they channel through our TV. They got my husband;

took him off to Pyongyang for reprogramming.

But the NHS saved my baby, took her off

to be cared for by Margaret Thatcher

and her offspring. She is in a good family now.

Now God makes these babies grow for me on trees,”

Jessie smiles and drops a fistful of catkins and berries and nuts

into Yu’s trembling hands. “You can keep them,”

she adds. “This is a free country. There’s plenty to go around.”

And skips off back into the woodland, whistling,

as a tear dribbles down Yu’s cheek and

she is wheeled back to the ward, nurse

reassuring her, rearranging her hair,

tossing the woodland fruit angrily away.

200 Section 11 Zhenya’s Song for the Opium Poppy

[Since I already have five new sections of 200 more or less ready for publication, I am going to try posting them in reverse order. Some, like this one (Section 11), are songs; others are more narrative in nature. Although the characters will be introduced in more depth later in the posting/earlier in the poem, some of these sections nevertheless serve as free-standing pieces of verse.]

Zhenya’s Song for the Opium Poppy

I crave the needled thread of joy

that tracks my veins

and sews my life into the history

of my country and the world

that flowered and flagged on Afghan plains

and falls in showers of florid blood

from overflying planes in England

on Remembrance Day. A Jihad bullet

pierced my father’s throat

and he is heard no more: reduced

to zip in body bag, thread sewn

in loving shroud and fresh red flowers

atop a grave site in St. Petersburg.

*

I, in a toilet somewhere, honor him

with drugs prescribed by docs

and decadence and despair. And

somehow in this misted ritual

of self-destruction and remembrance,

we two are one again.

200 Section 6 Jude

[Section 6 introduces another witness to the attempted murders. The character is loosely based on Jude in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure but could be anyone in modern Britain.]

You don’t get much unluckier than being named

for the traitor who betrayed your savior

after dinner with a kiss. Bullied for being Jewish

when you’re not, bullied for having learning

disabilities, back in the day, when that

wasn’t yet a thing. Bullied

for being weak. Bullied for trying to be strong,

when you stand up & snap & throw a brick back

across the playing field, narrowly missing some kid’s

head. Headmaster yanked you up to his office

and threatened you with a now-illegal thrashing.

Protest was useless. You just said ‘Yes, sir’

over and over again, as he battered platitudes

into your brain. Jude dropped out

of school after disappointing O level results

and got a job on a building site. Paddies ragged him

and he ragged them back, with uplifted middle-

finger, tending the concrete mixer.

Jude would trudge back to his DSS funded bedsit

and attempt to write verse;

hang out in bars; met a girl. Jessie

had dribble issues, owing to her high functional

spina bifida, and a serious problem with the booze.

Jude picked her up out of a pool of vomit outside the pub

and took her home. They fucked. Another child was born.

*

Jessie was not the stuff parents

are supposedly made of; nor Jude.

After birth, Jessie flipped; tried to drown the baby

in the baby bath; came after Jude,

cowering in the cupboard under the stairs,

with a kitchen-knife, calling Satan,

mouth frothing as she dug the blade deep

into the cheap chipboard of the cupboard door.

Police and NHS hospital staff struggled to stuff her

into a wailing waiting ambulance and whisk her away.

*

Jude had little in the way of regular income

and a somewhat wayward lifestyle,

as the family court magistrate finally put it.

And Baby Jess was thus duly carted off into care.

*

The scaffolding around the steeple looks Medieval. Some

privatized, some perilously propped up by priests and prayer,

collection plates and the national lottery. The church

totters out over Salisbury Plain, no more durable than

Coventry or Stonehenge come the end of days.

Jude looks down upon the tiny city below, and wishes

himself the will to drum up the courage

to throw himself off out

irrevocably down

into this suburban world.

*

Jude trudges past Yu and Da squirming

on the graveyard bench, hunched up

in his dark coat, and shrugs. “What the fuck!

Nothing to do with me.” Jude walks on homeward;

shoves a bag of prawn curry into his microwave

oven and settles down to watch

zombie movies on his DVD.

200 Section V Breakfast-Dinner-Tea

[Section 5 of 200 is comprises three short subsections entitled ‘Breakfast’, ‘Dinner’ and ‘Tea’, and a free-standing song entitled ‘Sad Yu’s Mirror Soliloquy’.]

  1. Breakfast

Yu’s day begins with a cold shower

and porridge, which is good for the mind.

She jogs through the early morning

fog, barked at by dogs and ogled

by creepy old men. Another cold shower.

What is good for body is also good for mind.

2 Dinner

“Hey, Yu”, someone high-fives her

over their pub carvery Sunday lunch,

gravy bleeding from rare cooked slices of roast beef

into the crevices of chunky amber cuts of boiled swede,

a little pyramid of Brussels sprouts piled up,

a dab of mustard on the side.

“Who was that?” Father snaps.

Yu dumps her cutlery down with a clash

and stomps off

to the partial refuge

of the restroom

in a rage.

Song #1 Sad Yu’s Mirror Soliloquy

They come into the bathroom here

in two by twos

to giggle about boys,

and put graffiti on the walls

and lipstick on their mouths.

They grimace in the mirror

and see themselves revealed.

I look deep in the misted glass

and see no self at all;

only the mirror’s depth and mine,

entwined in an amour.

I put a little razor cut

in an obtruding vein.

I wipe it up immediately

and wash it down the drain.

  1. Tea

‘A nice pot of tea, of course,

is what the British recommend for this time of day,’

Da lies back and intones, looking up and saluting the sun

declining leisurely in the bluish white afternoon sky

behind clouds, as if it were a fallen comrade in arms.

“You’re a Mad Hatter, you are Da,”

Yu quips back, dumping her ass down on the bench beside him

and squinting up through thick perspective-challenged eyeglasses

at the shining steeple piercing the sky. “You know that book

about the steeplejack?” she goes on, dribbling. “I never

liked it. Too grim, like. You know what I mean? Too fucking like…

You know… whatever… ‘a loser’ that’s what the guys from round here

would call that guy. You can get off on capitalism, you know, too

Da. It’s OK now. The world has changed.” Da

is slumped back on the bench barely breathing. “Da!”

Yu shrieks likes a whistle, before she is beset by a flock of demons

and wrestled to the ground by a cop, as she tries to shoo

them off like geese with wild waving wings of hands.

She wakes up three months later, bewildered,

in an NHS hospital, nurses offering her tea.

 

Sheep and Goats

Sheep and Goats—A Footnote to Testing Tests

A Chinese High School math exam question has recently gone viral on YouTube.

It goes something like this:

“A ship is carrying 74 goats and 35 sheep. How old is the Captain?”

As it turns out, there is nothing new about this question. It has often been used over the past forty years or so to test the ability of students to identify ‘fake’ questions, tolerate ambiguity or develop ‘critical thinking’.

The story in fact goes back even further. The French novelist, Gustave Flaubert, posed a similar question to his sister, who was beginning the study of mathematics in school, in a letter dated 1841.

This ultimate origin story is in fact the most interesting part of the puzzle.

In France in the 1840s, universal education was still in its infancy (literally) and many, left and right of the political spectrum, questioned its utility and the motives underlying the introduction of a nationwide school curriculum.

On the right, it was viewed as an attempt to uproot people from their local culture and encourage less privileged members of society to question their lowly status and the class system as a whole.

On the left, intellectuals such as Flaubert saw it as a recruitment drive aiming to produce a mechanized bourgeois society organized exclusively around industry and finance, at the expense of poetry, mystery and genuine human relations.

It is for this reason that Flaubert jokingly poses his sister this pseudo-problem, as she is about to embark on her academic studies.

The answer Flaubert was begging was presumably that an artist (and by extension a person) should be free of the constraints of science and finance and thereby at liberty to choose certain things.

Different from Flaubert, however, in whose communication, the ironic intent is gentle and apparent, recent versions of the question are applied en masse, perhaps with benign intent, but with the clandestine purpose of ‘tricking’ candidates into providing incorrect answers in the interest of ‘scientific’ research.

Online discussions of actual responses to this problem include some very revealing examples.

One Chinese candidate recently looked up the average weight of sheep and goats and the bureaucratic requirements regarding age and experience stipulated for a ship’s captain charged with carrying cargo of this bulk within the territorial waters of the People’s Republic. This candidate concluded that the captain must be aged 28 years or older.

Flaubert would have hated this eminently unpoetic solution. But it is the best, if we assume the question to be a fair one.

Other literal-minded question solvers have not been so resourceful. One hapless French student, confronted with the question in the late 1970s, argued desperately that the number of sheep plus the number of goats is too high to be the age of a person, while the number of sheep divided by the number of the goats is too low. Therefore, the correct answer must be the difference between the two values given.

Flaubert would have hated this candidate’s unctuous but desperate efforts to please his or her masters even more.

And yet, who can blame candidates for not taking such a question seriously in the context of the ordeal of a math exam and attempting to answer it in these terms? Just as experimental subjects consistently pumped up the electric shocks administered in the Milgram experiment.

The ‘sheep and goats’ question is not really about math education, but rather, like the Milgram experiment, about obedience to authority.

People come up with ridiculous answers to this question, not because they are foolish or uncreative, but because they are conditioned to do so by the constraints of an authoritarian educational system.

The experiment is actually self-defeating in its own terms. There are many genuine math problems that have no solution. This may be because no such solution has yet been found or because (more troublingly) it is impossible to find such a solution. Evidence suggests that cases of the latter are by far more numerous.

This means not only that we all know much less than we think but, more worryingly, that there are many things we can never know—not because of our own limitations as human beings or those of our technology, but because of the essential ambiguity and inscrutability of the things themselves.

Disturbing this may be, but we would all be better served, were this fundamental uncertainty included openly in our school curricula and political discourse, rather than used divisively to test the supposed degree of intelligence or stupidity of students and tests, or politicians and voters; sorting them, by way of some kind of authoritarian trickery, into groups of sheep and goats.

So far as math and other questions are concerned, ‘Duh’ is often the best answer. Gödel, Homer Simpson and the Zen masters told you so.

200 Sections 3 and 4

[I press ahead with posting this long dark poem 200 about (literal or metaphorical) poisoning. Here are Sections 3 and 4, which take a somewhat Gothic allegorical turn. Bear with me. I promise it will get more comical in later sections.]

200 Section 3 Newcomer

A flash of electricity in a retort

& I am born lethal from birth,

seep, weeping, from the distillation tube,

over the stained wood of a lab bench

made of felled trees. I spray my first

toxic inspiration of this foul world,

back out into the unmasked faces

of my progenitors. Adopted,

I fall into the arms of nurses

veiled by headscarves and masks:

a well-adapted happy psychopathic child.

200 Section 4 Alma Miasma

The ghost she gave up

is now the guest of her whitened face,

her breath smoke, her make-up

gas mask. Tubes of lips and nose

no longer connect her

to the perfumes and pollen

of the world. Morphine numbs her.

Her last expiration of methane-scented breath

clouds a mirror with germs,

sighing out fecundity, radiance

still in her glassy lifeless eyes.