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Don’t the second two raise questions about the first one?

My mom and I

My mom and I
Flew through the sky
Towards the sun
On wings of why

We circled high
And in her eye
Some kindness answered
To my cry

Three Short Poems About Winter

Winter Mornings in Transylvania
Mrs Dracula loved to hear
Mr (while he was enjoying his bowl
of fiber) Dracula hum
lullabies to their dear
vambini. Who then slept the whole
day in their hibernaculum.

The Ghost of New Year’s Eve Past
For winter, it was damn hot
in the middle of the shemozzle. Dead
it was most certainly not—
the crowd was loud, and totally sozzled.

Diana’s Rum Coffee
A better drink in winter you will not find:
along with fresh coffee, she gives you rum,
sugar, cinnamon, cloves, an orange rind,
and more sugar … ends in a tasty residuum.

Four Brief Poems on Four Different Ways to Show You Really Love Language

Stone Tablets, Codices, or E-Books
Whichever you prefer, but we still all agree
that what we want is more philology.

A Proper Denunciation
Pronouncing French
makes my mouth clench,
and words in German
are difficult to determine,
while so rapid is Spanish
that it seems to vanish.
Words sound like mush in
in my mouth, if Russian,
and it’s best there aren’t so
many to hear my Esperanto.
My mistakes in Italian
could form a battalion
and just hearing Chinese
makes my brain freeze—
all this is why I am a fan
of ASL (or “Ameslan”)

Preservation and Compassion
Is it a good idea to curb a guide
who keeps committing verbicide?

How to Succeed at Poetry
after Henry Carey
All you poets of this new age,
witty types who strut the stage,
introverts who won’t get out,
extroverts who show no doubt—
Let your guide be an ambivert
such as Namby Pamby—blurt
out your vices and lines no more,
polish them up, but don’t bore!

Two Very Short Poems about Favorite Fictional Characters of Mine

007 Escapes Again
As Bond jumped from the plane, some were stunned
to see a parachute fly out of his cumberbund.

Kinsey Millhone Moonlights as a Madame
She started a service (somewhat impolitic)
for very private investigations: “Call a Dick”.

Three Very Short Poems in which Something is Missing

The Dragon at Peace
From any point of view upon the xyst,
one rock or another will be missed.

The Cares of an Egyptologist
“Yes and No”, he said with a cough. “Ka
outlives life—an immortal scofflaw.”

Presence & Abscess
Instead of white there,
there was just a square,
black space—odontoid.
Empty. So gone. Void.

Two Short Poems about Toenail Fungus

My Onychomycosis
It takes a lot of chutzpa
to walk into a foot spa.

After His Toenails Were Trimmed
He had terrible athlete’s foot
and (whenever he ran) asthma. Boric
acid helped heal his hoof,
but made jogging phantasmagoric.

Two Short Poems about German History

Industrial Strength Jadra
For access to the Baltic Sea,
Germany had to transfigure
Gdansk into Danzig. Schwer:
Poles inhabit the entire city.

Shifting Borders Among German Speaking Peoples from Archaic Times to the Present
Hops the men grew for beer the men pissed
were reason enough for any irredentist.

Stalin and Urine

In his new novel, The Festival of Ignorance, Milan Kundera has a character named Charles tell a story about one of Stalin’s closest comrades, Mikhail Kalinin, whose name was later bequeathed to the Prussian city of Königsberg (famous for the Bridge Problem devised by Immanuel Kant, who lived there in what were surely happier times).

“To this day all of Russia recalls a great ceremony to inaugurate an opera house in some city in Ukraine, during which Kalinin was giving a long, solemn speech. He had to break off every two minutes and, each time, as he left the rostrum, the orchestra would strike up some folk music, and lovely blond Ukrainian ballerinas would leap onto the stage and begin dancing. Each time he returned to the dais Kalinin was greeted with great applause; when he left again, the applause was still louder, to greet the advent of the blond ballerinas——and as his goings and comings grew more frequent, the applause grew longer and stronger, more heartfelt, so that the official celebration s=was transformed into a joyful mad orgiastic riot whose like the Soviet state had never seen or known.

“But alas, between times when Kalinin was back in the little group of his comrades, no one was interested in applauding his urine. Stalin would recite his anecdotes, and Kalinin was too disciplined to gather the courage to annoy him by his goings and comings from the toilet. The more so since, as he talked, Stalin would fix his gaze on Kalinin’s face growing paler and paler and tensing into a grimace. That would incite Stalin to slow his storytelling further, to insert new descriptions and digressions, and to drag out the climax till suddenly the contorted face before him would relax, the grimace vanished, the expression grew calm, and the head was wreathed in an aureole of peace; only then, knowing that Kalinin had once again lost his great struggle, Stalin would move swiftly to the denouement, rise from the table and, with a bright, friendly smile, bring the meeting to an end. All the other men would stand too, and stare cruelly at their comrade, who positioned himself behind the table, or behind a chair, to hide his wet trousers.”

from The Festival of Ignorance by Milan Kundera, pp 26-27

I was taken by Kundera’s descriptions of Stalin, here and throughout the novel, that I checked a new biography of the dictator by Oleg V. Khlevniuk to find out if this or any of the other anecdotes Kundera offers are true. I didn’t find the answer to that particular question (although Khlevniuk’s book is excellent—I was riveted for three or four days), but I did come across this story about some of Stalin’s final hours:

The bodyguard entered Stalin’s apartments with the packet of mail and started looking for him. After walking through several rooms, he finally found the vozhd [Вождь; Russian for “Leader”] in the small dining room. The sight must have been extremely disturbing. Stalin was lying helpless on the floor, which was wet beneath him. This last point is important not for reasons of schadenfreude or as an evocative detail but because it affected subsequent events. It appeared to the bodyguard that Stalin was unable to speak, but he did make a small hand gesture, beckoning him to approach. The bodyguard summoned his colleagues, who helped him lift Stalin onto the couch. They then rushed to telephone their immediate superior, State Security Minister Semen Ignatiev. According to the bodyguards’ later accounts, Ignatiev refused to make any decisions and told them to call members of the top leadership: Beria and Malenkov.

Perhaps out of fear, or perhaps out of unspoken ambivalence toward his recovery, Stalin’s comrades rejected the idea that they were facing a medical emergency. After Malenkov and Beria checked on the vozhd and found him sleeping, they proceeded to dismiss what the bodyguards had told them about his symptoms. Had he really had some sort of fit? The bodyguards were not doctors. Their imaginations could have been playing tricks on them. His colleagues probably also remembered that Stalin had recently accused his own doctors of being murderers. Who would take responsibility for call a doctor (or summoning a murderer, as the vozhd might see it) unless he were absolutely sure one was needed? A simple need for emergency medical care was transformed into a multidimensional political problem.

Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator, by Oleg V Khlevniuk

from Territorial Rights by Muriel Spark

Territorial Rights isn’t Spark at the top of her game, but even Spark at half power is more inspired than most writers at their best. It takes place in Venice, where a handful of English acquaintances improbably, ridiculously, end up at the same pensione. One is a young man, Robert, who has recently walked out on Curran, his chicken queen, in Paris in order to chase Lina, a young Bulgarian art student who may or may not be under surveillance by Bulgarian spies (the novel was published in 1979 and takes place not long before then).

Robert disappears, perhaps at the hands of those same Bulgarian spies, and Lina befriends Curran, who in turn gets her a job doing sociology research for his friend Violet, yet another English expatriate who does research abroad for a private detective agency. Leo, who is traveling with Grace, who is in Venice to find out about her former lover, Robert’s father (also in Venice, with yet another adulterous companion) on behalf of Robert’s mother (back in England).

Lina moves into the attic apartment of Violet and soon after begins sleeping with Leo (Robert, remember, has gone missing).

Another scream, a bang, a man’s voice protesting, trying to placate. Violet precipitated herself out to the landing, in time to see the little lift descending and, through its glass windows, Lina with her head thrown back dramatically and, her hands clutching her head, giving out frightful animalistic noises.

The lift passed the upper floor of Violet’s apartment and reached the ground floor of the building. Violet, followed by Curran, had run down the flight of stairs to meet the descending lift, while Grace, outside Violet’s landing joined the banister audience.

Lina flew out of the lift, still yelling wildly, barefoot, dressed in a huge yellow flannel nightdress and throwing her arms around in a way which was quite alarming to watch. Violet caught old of her, and Curran, too, tried to hold her, both joining the exclaiming chorus of people above in the tall echoing palazzo. ‘What’s the matter? … Lina, whatever is the matter? You’ll catch your death … Stop … Wait! ….’

But Lina had struggled free in a flash and had opened the front door. She ran out on to the landing-stage. She turned with her back t the water for just a moment in order to cry out ‘Leo is the son of a Jew — I have slept with a Jew — God, oh God! — I must cleanse myself! I die for shame!’ And with a further shriek the girl half-turned and dropped into the canal.

That would be a canal in Venice.

You’re Welcome!

Novelist as Barefoot Trinitarian

It was Miguel de Cervantes’ dying wish to be buried inside the walls of Madrid’s Convento de las Trinitarias Descalzas — the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians — where a dozen cloistered nuns still live today, nearly 400 years later.

As a young man in his early 20s, he fled Spain for Rome, after wounding a nobleman in a duel. By 1570, he returned home and enlisted in the Spanish navy. He went to war to defend the pope — and got shot in twice in the ribs, and once in the shoulder — an injury that left his left arm paralyzed.

And it was only then that he got kidnapped by Algerian pirates …

How’s that for a cliffhanger? Read the rest of the story at NPR, here.

Is the question mark the journalist’s greatest asset?

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Two Very Short Poems About the Scottish Englightenment

David Hume Recalls Charles Boyle
I speired him thareanent heiven, for a wee
bairn I was, dumfoondered at his orrery.

Moral Sentiments, Imaginary Beings
Adam Smith learned from François Quesnay
that if laissez faire et laissez passer,
le monde va de lui meme!
An Invisible Hand to favor
industry and more productive labor,
with an Impartial Spectator to fairly examine
our pursuit of even more mammon.

Two More Short Poems About Animals

Don’t Stir Up the Dust!
On the savannah, a spindly-legged,
galloping camelopard
dwarfed a nearby zebra, who begged
her not to trammel so hard.

So Not Happening at the Zoo
You’ll have to forgive the elephant,
if his manner seems a bit brusque:
imagine a runny nose in that trunk,
let alone a toothache in his tusk!

Two Short Poems about Medieval England, Historical and Mythical

On Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum
In the 600s AD, the English
(Anglo-Saxons) had to cede
authority to Italian and Irish
missionaries—so says Bede.

Doo After the Good and Leve the Evyl
Chivalry itself is more than fable,
even if modeled on knights in Le Morte
d’Arthur
, and how they comport
themselves away from the round table.

Four Short Poems About 19th Century American History

Lewis & Clark, November 3, 1805
Not very many have canoed
through such a vastitude.

On the Applegate Trail, April 10, 1845
When the Native Americans set fire
to the settlers’ covered wagon,
Zachariah tried to play flapdragon
with his own funeral pyre.

Cape Fear, Delaware, January 15, 1865: Confederate Lieutenant Colonel Ezekiel Abernathy Confronts General Robert Hoke During the Second Battle of Fort Fisher
“Snatch your saddle or pick your paddle,
but either way we’s got to skedaddle!”

The Battle of Little Big Horn, June 26, 1876
With every warrior he could muster,
Sitting Bull slaughtered General Custer.

Found scrawled in the margin of a library book I recently checked out

I am madly
In love with
Ashley Bradley
And that’s no myth.
I even bought
Her a Valentine’s Day
Kumquat
To say
I love you
My wife
Because of you
My life
Is complete
And sweet.

Elie Revisits Rushdie

A fine long piece by Paul Elie on the 25th anniversary of The Satanic Verses came out in Vanity Fair last April, but it strikes a more timely chord now in the wake of Charlie Hebdo.

A Fundamental Fight

It was published in London on September 26, 1988, with a dust jacket describing it as a “great wheel of a book.” Penguin took out an ad (“Wonderful stories and flights of the imagination surround the conflict between good and evil”) and threw a launch party for its list of autumn titles, at which Rushdie met Elmore Leonard and Robertson Davies. Rushdie had a high-spirited dinner with his editors. Lacey, the book’s U.K. editor, recalls the relative naïveté of that evening: “Salman, my paperback colleague Tim Binding, and I vying over who could recite the most Bob Dylan lyrics.”

“I tried to write against stereotypes,” Rushdie wrote, but “the zealot protests serve to confirm, in the Western mind, all the worst stereotypes of the Muslim world.”

London’s Reform Club, on the Pall Mall, has had many illustrious authors as members: Henry James, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, E. M. Forster—and Graham Greene, who, one winter’s day in 1989, lunched at the club with international writers living in London.

“Rushdie!” he called out. “Come and sit here and tell me how you managed to make so much trouble! I never made nearly as much trouble as that!”

“This was oddly comforting,” Rushdie recalled. England’s most famous living author was making light of the fix he was in.

From hiding, Rushdie issued a statement of regret for “the distress that publication has occasioned to sincere followers of Islam. Living as we do in a world of many faiths this experience has served to remind us that we must all be conscious of the sensibilities of others.” From Tehran, Khomeini doubled down: “Even if Salman Rushdie repents and becomes the most pious man of all time, it is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything he has got, his life and his wealth, to send him to hell.”

The British establishment set itself against the book and its author: from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie (who invoked England’s blasphemy laws), to the foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe (who deemed the novel “extremely critical [and] rude” about Britain). Even Jimmy Carter—he whose presidency had been quashed by Khomeini—weighed in against the “insult to the sacred beliefs of our Moslem friends.”

“I had an argument with Prince Charles at a small dinner party,” Martin Amis recollects. “He said—very typically, it seems to me—‘I’m sorry, but if someone insults someone else’s deepest convictions, well then,’ blah blah blah . . . And I said that a novel doesn’t set out to insult anyone. ‘It sets out to give pleasure to its readers,’ I told him. ‘A novel is an essentially playful undertaking, and this is an exceedingly playful novel.’

“The Prince took it on board, but I’d suppose the next night at a different party he would have said the same thing.”

The idea for the gathering came from Gerald Marzorati, who had carved out an excerpt of the book that ran in the December Harper’s, and then wrote a Rushdie profile for The New York Times Magazine. Why not a public reading of Rushdie’s novel, to be coordinated by PEN and Harper’s publisher John “Rick” MacArthur? “I was given the task of choosing excerpts because very few people in New York had actually read the book,” Marzorati says, pointing out that the roster of participants was very broad—from Abbie Hoffman on the left to Midge Decter on the right. Edward Said was there; so was Leon Wieseltier. Robert Caro was there; so was Tom Wolfe. Joan Didion was there; so was Larry McMurtry.

The Columns held 500 people, and as the writers entered, cries could be heard from the demonstrators outside. “Death to Rushdie! Death to Rushdie!”

The first author stood up to read, and his opening remark was a kind of answer. “My name is Robert Stone,” he said, “but today we are all Salman Rushdie.”

They read and spoke into the evening. Mailer said of the fatwa, “This must be the largest hit contract in history.” Talese recited the Lord’s Prayer. Wieseltier declared that “one day the Muslim world may recall with admiration its late-20th-century Anglo-Indian Voltaire.” Rushdie’s close friend Christopher Hitchens transformed a single sentence from the novel into a brilliant defense of the whole: “To turn insults into strengths, whigs, tories, Blacks all chose to wear with pride the names they were given in scorn; likewise our mountain-climbing, prophet-motivated solitary is to be—Mahound.”

“It was inspiring and electrifying,” recalls Gerald Howard, a former Viking editor who was there. “It broke the fever of fear the literary world was living in.”

Bombs exploded in Cody’s bookstore, on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, and half a dozen bookshops in the U.K. The novel’s Japanese translator was shot and killed, its Italian translator stabbed, its Turkish translator attacked. Its Norwegian publisher was shot and left for dead. (He survived.) Two clerics who spoke out against the fatwa—one Saudi, one Tunisian—were shot and killed in Brussels.

Rushdie embraced Islam; then, just as suddenly, he turned away. Many in England’s Old Guard rounded on him, having figured out that he was a popular cause but not a popular person. Sir Stephen Spender coolly explained that “it is mass immigration that has got him into the trouble in which he now finds himself.” Former prime minister Edward Heath lamented that Rushdie’s “wretched book” had cost Great Britain “masses of trade.” Auberon Waugh asked “just how much we should exert ourselves, as deeply stained white imperialists, to protect him from his own people.” Hugh Trevor-Roper trumpeted that he “would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring [Rushdie’s] manners, were to waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them.”

“The fact of being alive compensated for what life did to one,” Rushdie wrote in The Satanic Verses, and he has asserted the fact of his aliveness. In the quarter-century since the fatwa, he has published a dozen books and given scores of public readings and addresses. In 2007 departing prime minister Tony Blair successfully recommended him for knighthood. He has fulfilled a lifelong dream of adapting Midnight’s Children into a feature film. And he has seen The Satanic Verses become, remarkably, just another great book on history’s shelf, regarded less as a forbidden book (talk of the fatwa has diminished with the years) than as a classic of contemporary English-language literature.